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Spirituality and Psychosis

20 Jun

Karmageddon, the spiritual documentary by Jeff Brown about his relationship with the ever controversial Bhagavan Das, is now available for download. It’s a timely film that deals head-on with the issues of spiritual power and accountability, seekers’ responsibility and whether the disillusioned should “throw out the holy man with the bath water.”

The movie was filmed in part at the now defunct Jivamukti Yoga studio in Toronto, and many friends, past and present, walk through its frames. Seeing the studio I helped to build in this light raised some interesting questions for me about what we as yoga teachers and studio owners choose to put before our students.

A question I posed to Bhagavan Das over dinner one night made it into the film: “what is the relationship between spirituality and psychosis?” Bhagavan Das replied without a moment’s hesitation, “it’s a fine line between madness and illumination.”  My teacher Sharon Gannon often jokes that yogis are not “normal people.” Do you agree that attaining higher states of consciousness implies a rejection of social norms? If so, to what degree?

Breathing Easy

20 Apr

The owners of a yoga studio I work at recently circulated a memo to their teachers about the disruptive breathing issue. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s the wheezing, sighing, moaning, groaning, gasping, panting and sputtering that comes up from time-to-time in every yoga studio environment. It’s the commotion that makes other students roll their eyes and wonder why they didn’t stay at home with a good yoga DVD. Now, I like to hear a steady flow of breath in the room when I practice (it’s one of the things that makes group practice so sweet) but I agree it shouldn’t sound like the Dark Lord has taken up residence on the mat next door. Here are my two cents on the issue for both students and teachers.

I feel the breath is very much the sacred heart of our practice. Attention to the breath and the subtleties of the energetic body is what transforms what we do from calisthenics into something so much more.

Yogic breath typically flows in and out through the nose. Why? Because when you breathe through the nose, the air is warmed, moistened and filtered. That’s a good thing. Also, mouth breathing tends to be a less conscious way of sucking oxygen. When we are overly exerted, we automatically hunch over, open our mouths, and come into something called clavicular breathing (also known as panic breath). You regularly encounter this kind of breathing on the basketball court and at the ends of races. When we breathe consciously, on the other hand, we shift the control of the breath from the brain stem and the autonomic nervous system up to the frontal lobes, which are responsible for higher level reasoning.

Ujjayi breath is a special technique used during certain yoga asana practices. The basic technique involves bringing a slight engagement to the glottis so the air current is regulated as it flows through the throat. It’s an effective way to work with the breath’s duration and texture, and it makes the breath both a fluid guide for movement and an object of meditation. As beginners, we turn the volume up on the breath so we don’t forget it’s there, but as advanced practitioners, we breathe a more subtle and refined kind of ujjayi.

Some students groan and vocalize as they breathe due to simple inattention. In these cases, teachers can remind the whole room to “keep the voice out of the breath.” It’s a quick and easy instruction that everyone can benefit from.

Other students seem to go out of their way to make the breath noisy due to a misunderstanding of what a yogic breath should sound like. A little talk on making the ujjayi sound more subtle and sophisticated may do the trick. And if students don’t respond to the idea that a refined ujjayi is actually more advanced than a thunderous one, teachers can underscore the fact that excessive contraction of the glottis in a forced ujjayi breath can cause harm to the structures of the throat and strain the voice in the long-term.

Last but not least, the sound of the breath in the room is an important guide for us teachers. If the whole room is doing lamaze breathing, it might be a sign that we’re pushing the group too hard and fast under the circumstances. The temperature in the room, the day of the week, the time of the day, the barometric pressure, the level of studentship and a myriad of other factors determine what is appropriate for a given class. As teachers who aspire to be sensitive and responsive we need to remain open what comes up in the room. Sometimes the correct action is to depart from the game plan and slow things down rather than asking students to keep it quiet.

The Reluctant Migration

7 Mar

I’ve been noticing more and more migratory birds hanging around the frozen shores of our lake these past winters. It’s early March now and a number Canada Geese and Mallard Ducks, both species well-known for their v-formation flights down south, just didn’t get off the ground this year.

I can’t say I blame them. It’s been an unusually mild winter up here and I understand the journey is not an easy one. I suspect strong winds, hydro wires and predators are guaranteed while reliable nourishment is not. At the same time, I feel funny about the shift in ancient patterns. I wonder how much of this new behaviour is attributable to us, either directly (due to well-meaning humans putting out bird seed) or indirectly (due to our role in the climate crisis) and I wonder about the long-term implications for our feathered friends.

I suppose migration’s been on my mind today because, after months of dragging my heels, I’ve finally made the move to a new platform for my blog and podcast. I cringe a little as I write this because my old software had to die an ignominious death and my web hosting service had to go the way of the Dodo before I took the necessary steps forward. Change is rarely easy, it seems.

Ain’t That a Kick in the Head

8 Jun

Getting kicked in the head is one of the occupational hazards that come along with teaching yoga. Yup, it happens all the time. Just ask anyone who instructs headstand, handstand or forearm stand on a regular basis and they’ll tell you. Although I exercise a reasonable degree of caution when assisting students in topsy turvy poses, I’ve certainly had my share of knocks to the noggin.

Turn the human body upside down when it’s not accustomed to being there and the usual response is fear, panic and flailing legs. Master Patanjali calls this knee-jerk reaction abhinivesha, or fear of death, and he states that this brand of fear is one of the five main obstacles to our practice of living lives that are happy and free (see Yoga Sutra II.3).

Because it can trigger abhinivesha, the yoga asana practice is one way we can bring our deeply seated patterns to light. As my teachers like to say, it shows us where we are tight and where we are uptight. And so we deliberately work on the mat with poses that push our buttons to reveal the hidden contours of our suffering.

The amazing thing about getting kicked in the head during a yoga class is that, while it can stun and smart, it doesn’t trigger an emotional response the way the same action would in another context. Many times, in fact, the incident barely registers at all and I have to remind myself of what happened when my husband asks about the shiner.

I wonder if this is what Master Patanjali means when he says, “the practitioner will cease to encounter hostility from others by practicing kindness and non-harming (Yoga Sutra II.35). Sure, a hoof to the head is still a hoof to the head but the key is that it’s not perceived as hostile. It’s nothing more than an accident and it’s the very same thing I did to my teachers who repaid me by holding me extra tight and turning the other cheek.

By the way, you can purchase the vegan shoes shown above at MooShoes.com

Samskaras and the Road Less Travelled

21 Oct

This time last year I was on an extended road trip that took me through four time zones, eight cities, three national parks and countless truck stops. Truck stops are fascinating places, worlds unto themselves, really. They’re populated by road warriors who congregate there to refuel, eat, wash-up, and relax between long stints behind the wheel. The interesting thing is if you look carefully, you will see at most truck stops a video game room, and in that room you will see racing games, and at those games you will see glassy-eyed drivers seeking to alleviate the pressures of the road by getting behind a toy wheel and swearing a blue streak as they burn virtual rubber.

Strange as that may seem, I know I’ve repeatedly done the same sort of thing in my own life. Years ago when I was a junior lawyer, for example, I would relax after a tough day in court with takeout in front of the TV, and my shows of choice were, you guessed it, Ally McBeal and Law & Order. More recently, I’ve had days where I’ve practiced yoga before heading out to teach yoga and then, at the end of the day, responded to the question, “what do you want to do tonight?” with the word “yoga!” And what about this one: have you ever caught yourself taking a break from that document on your computer screen by clicking over to Facebook or pulling out your iPhone? Yeah, me too.

So what’s up with this compulsive, repetitive behavior? According to yogic philosophy we create subtle impressions, called samskaras, with each thought, word and action. These samskaras are not unlike the grooves our feet make on the earth when we walk the same path over and over again. Habitual behaviors continually reinforce our samskaras until the ruts becomes so deep and well-worn that we forget what it’s like not to be in them. The result is we become totally conditioned to continue along the same trajectory we’ve always traveled, even when the path is self-destructive or a waste of our time.

Each time we step onto the mat, we bring with us all of our samskaras, good and bad, liberating and binding. Some of us bring our perfectionist tendencies along for the ride and scrutinize each breath and movement under the microscope of self-criticism. Others push themselves to the extreme, striving to go faster, harder, better as they seek to conquer the next spectacular inversion, hand balance or backbend. Others yet hang back in their avoidance of all discomfort and physical exertion, convinced their cool disengagement is safer than actually putting themselves out there and risking failure.

Now, because our samskaras are etched into our bodies and minds, we can approach our time on the mat as an opportunity to see and work with the deeply ingrained habits and patterns of our lives— patterns that are often hidden in plain sight. This is good news for those of us who are willing to trade comfort and complacency for happiness and freedom.

In my experience, good yoga teachers do more than call poses, count breaths and give alignment cues: good yoga teachers also teach us in ways that alert us to our samskaras. They are willing to ask us to go against the grain. They might ask one student to ease up while asking another to get the lead out. Consequently, the best yoga teachers tend not to coddle their students and they may not win any popularity contests either. As my teachers like to say, the yoga practice shows us where we are tight and also where we are being uptight. This means the resistance that shows itself within the microcosm of our mats is not something to be suppressed or negated. I dare say it’s the very point of our practice.

Don’t forget that “the path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.” (John Dewey)

Photo by Alex Lin

A Well-Rounded 90 minute Practice

1 Oct

Spritz Fritz

Let me tell you a true story about egoism, disgrace, and a bottle of perfume. It was the late 1990s, I was fresh out of law school and I had just spent the longest year of my life working as an articling student at a downtown law firm. It was a good year in some ways: the money was outstanding, I learned lots, and my parents were brimming over with pride. The experience was also pivotal because it confirmed a growing suspicion that the legal profession was not for me. Call it negative research, if you will. And so I walked away from the firm’s job offer, applied for unemployment insurance and broke my parents’ hearts.

The thing is, while I had some clarity on what I didn’t want, I still hadn’t figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t unlike that feeling you get when you’ve left Mr. or Mrs. Wrong but you don’t have much faith that Mr. or Mrs. Right will come along. It was a groundless and edgy time. In the meantime, my rent was due and I started to have anxiety-filled dreams about the mountain of student debt I incurred to become a lawyer.

Around this time, a friend’s mother took pity on my situation and offered me a job to tide me over while I plotted the next step on my career path. She was an upper level manager at a swanky department store and the job she offered me was almost too good to be true; it would’ve paid more money for less work than my legal job, but there was a major catch: the department store was located in the same commercial complex as my former law firm and the job would have had me standing in a conspicuous location holding a bottle of perfume while my former colleagues walked by. I could just imagine their pitying looks. “Poor thing,” they would say to each other as soon as they were out of earshot, “she couldn’t cut it as a lawyer. Just look at her now.”

The perceived tumble from lawyer to perfume spritz girl was too much for me to handle. My poor, fragile ego couldn’t deal with the shame, the disgrace, the loss of face, and so I turned down the job. What happened next? Well, pride goeth before the fall, as they say. I don’t mind admitting that I spent another six months or so broke and in a minor funk. I lost touch with my yoga practice, sat in front of the TV for days at a time, and had nothing to show for the time off but a pile of bills and a few extra pounds. In the end, I took another lawyering job out of necessity and spent another five or six years figuring out what I already knew—that I wanted more from my life than financial security and an impressive title.

In hindsight, the perfume spritz incident was a stark lesson in something Master Patanjali calls egoism (asmita). In book II, sutra 3 of the Yoga Sutras, he says egoism is one of the five major obstacles to true happiness and freedom. The others are ignorance of who we really are (avidya), excessive craving (raga), excessive aversion (dvesha), and fear of death (abhinivesah). He implies in this list that our ignorance of who we really are causes us to over-identify with our ego selves and that misidentification causes us to chase our selfish, petty desires, on the one hand, and cower from anything that challenges our ego identities on the other hand, especially the death of the body.

One of my teachers says we spend the first part of our lives acquiring our ego identities and the remainder of our lives defending them at any cost—even when it hurts us and the people we love. Does this mean we should abandon our egos and adopt an egoless existence? Good luck—that’s like asking the mind to stop thinking—it’s next to impossible. As yogis, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate beautiful, graceful egos, in the same way we build strong, flexible bodies and elevated minds. Let’s make our egos our allies, rather than our enemies, and use them to assist our movement towards greater happiness and freedom. And don’t forget that when push comes to shove, you are not your mind, you are not your body and you are so, so much more than your job.

High on Yoga?

11 Sep

Did you see the story on Ganja Yoga in the Globe and Mail this week? This interesting and controversial article describes a “cannabis-enhanced yoga” class taught by Toronto yoga teacher Dee Dussault. The monthly bring-your-own-ganja event is open to the public for $15—less than the cost of an average class in the city. Proponents of the practice say it makes them less competitive and inhibited, and more mindful and aware, while critics voice the concern that it may open the door to injury or even pollute body and soul.

Like it or not, the fact remains that the practice of yoga asana has been linked to the consumption of cannabis for as long as India has had sādhus (mystics, ascetics, and wandering monks and yogis). If ganja fueled yoga is a fad, then it’s a fad that dates back thousands of years and has its roots in the very birth place of yoga. It’s also one that is very much alive today for certain sects of yogis.

How do you feel about the use of cannabis in conjunction with yoga and meditation practices? How about alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, Asprin, ginko, flower remedies or any other “legal” plant-based substance? Should cannabis should be legalized for spiritual purposes? I’d love to hear your thoughts.