Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bhakti, The Path of Devotion

There are many styles of yoga, although the different types known to most people in the west are all variations of Hatha yoga, concerned largely with asanas, or postures. The asanas are practiced to bring the body to a place where the mind can enter into meditation.

Georg Feuerstein likens the diversity of yoga styles to spokes on a wheel, each spoke a different form of yoga, all leading to the same hub, the ecstatic experience wherein the yoga practitioner transcends their own limited consciousness to experience transcendent Reality itself.

One of the spokes on the wheel of yoga is known as Bhakti yoga, the path of devotion. Bhakti practice can include listening to the many names of the Divine, chanting these names, with or without music, ceremonial worship, or other forms of devotion to God. The essential feature of Bhakti practice is that self-transcendence occurs when the heart opens in love.

About fifteen years ago, long before I had ever heard of Bhakti yoga, I went to an academic conference entitled "Teaching from Within." In one of the workshop sessions, the leader showed us how to get "within" by repeating a mantra. I had never done anything like that before, but the mantra stuck in my mind, like a catchy jingle on the radio. I got up the next morning and wrote the poem that I've copied below.

Even though I didn't understand much about the power of chant at the time I learned that first mantra, the chant taught me everything I needed to know. As Krishna Das, a master Bhakti teacher explains, you really don't need to understand chant to get the benefits. All you really need to do is chant.

The Sufi poet taught us to pray.
Chant, he said.
Chant this: All I want from you
Is forever to remember me as loving you.

So, I chanted: All I want from You
Is forever to remember me as loving You.
And again: All I want from You
Is forever to remember me as loving You.

I rise,
Climb out the window,
Hold tight to the rope.
It is important I hold fast
Since none will catch me if I fall.
        All I want from You…

I rise,
Write my pages,
Hold tight to the lines.
It is important I write
Since none will know me if I stop.
        All I want from You…

I rise,
Practice yoga,
Hold tight to the pose.
It is important I move
Since none will know I’m alive unless I do.

Round and round, the mantra of devotion revolves
I hold tight to the song
Tight to the line, the pose, the rope.
I hold tight. And after a hundred chants
A thousand chants
A million
We switched places, the chant and I.

And now the chant is singing me.

Each morning I rise
And sing the song,
Hold tight to the mantra.
It is important I chant
So that I will remember: I am the beloved
And you—You—are the Song.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Beautiful Life

“I am happy when I begin the new year with a few empty file drawers and space on a shelf or two. You need to clear a space for the future.”
          Alexandra Stoddard, Living a Beautiful Life

One of my favorite books is by Alexandra Stoddard, and I got it many years ago when my husband and I bought our first house. Entitled “Living a Beautiful Life,” it is ostensibly about interior decorating, but the reason I have read and re-read this book so many times, is that it is really about creating a space that reflects the beauty of the life we are actually living.

I can trace many of my favorite habits back to this book: my mania for colored paper clips, much preferred over the plain metallic ones; my habit of placing one fresh flower in a tiny vase beside my computer at the beginning of each week; my periodic cleaning and reorganizing binges that keep me sane in my space, usually dominated by piles of papers, books and whatever I had in my hand that I didn’t want to deal with at the moment.

I am currently caught up in one of those reorganization binges, initiated when I realized I needed to clear space for the future. I needed psychological space, for certain, but I also needed physical space—for my yoga mat and props, the yoga books I have started buying for the upcoming training, and for my daily practice. Until this past week, my yoga space was carved out of my home office space, dominated by books, printer paper, ink cartridges, copies of my current work-in-progress and several previous works-in-progress that aren’t quite finished yet.

Since much of my focus in recent years has been on integrating my life, bringing the disparate pieces of it together, weaving the threads of work, spiritual practice, friends and family and home, into one finished piece, it seemed good and right for my yoga practice to take place in among my writing. It seemed to provide visual evidence that my life was fully integrated, of a single whole, even though I’d occasionally knock over a stack of paper with my foot as I swung it through from down dog into lunge.

I realized, though, that another message I could derive from this happy chaos was that I didn’t value my yoga practice enough to give it room. It was actually the new books that started to arrive in the mail that finally tipped the balance. I had no more space on my shelves, and had begun stacking them on the floor, eating even more into my practice space. Something had to give.

And then I remembered Alexandra Stoddard’s wise advice: “You need to clear a space for the future.” I looked around my home office, located upstairs near the bedroom, and wondered: what can I clear out to make room for my future? My desk was actually in the hallway, a nice place for a writing nook, but the hall closet was filled with clothes.

Work clothes. Or former work clothes, actually, since that closet contained mostly jackets, suits and other business wear that I had collected over the thirty years of my previous life as a professor and government scientist. Good clothes, perfectly fine for another woman who might be embarking on a new career in the business world.

So, I’ve now donated those clothes, cleared out the closet—even painted it—and have begun to fill it with shelves for my writing supplies. I’ve tackled those piles and space is gradually beginning to clear in what will become my “yoga room.” It’s a good feeling to see that space open up. Space for the future.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Language of the Soul

The rain started falling the moment I stepped out the door early this Sunday morning, on my way to retrieve the newspaper. It felt like spring, although I know it's not, and I welcomed the promise of a new day.

It also doesn't feel like Sunday today, since I spent the morning yesterday at church, at a funeral for a dear friend. Cynthia was in her 80s when she died this past week, and she was my friend--fellow writer, fellow alto in the choir, and the first woman to be elected to the vestry, back in 1957, decades before I met her.

It was interesting to be back in church, since I have not attended regularly for almost a year. The liturgy came back easily, however, and I found I didn't have to open the prayer book to know what words to say. I had been a member of that church for so long, the language has become embedded in my soul. In my body.

This morning, Sunday, I am on my way to yoga class. I will take an umbrella and walk in the rain, enjoying a relatively gentle summer storm, and think about the words the priest recited yesterday as we laid Cynthia to rest:

I am the Resurrection and I am Life...
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives...
After my awaking, he will raise me up...
And in my body I shall see God.

I have heard those lines, from the service in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for "The Burial of the Dead, Rite Two," many, many times (too many in recent years), but had never listened to them with ears attuned to yoga practice: In my body I shall see God.

Although these words express the Christian belief in life everlasting, life even after the physical death of our body, I believe the words also hold a message for us in this life: continue your practice, say your prayers, and after your awakening, you will be raised up. And, in your body, you will see God.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Eternal Beginning

Every moment is a new beginning, allowing us to move from the past into the future, but this moment is more of a beginning than most. Today I begin my journey into yoga. Or, more precisely, my journey into yoga teaching, since I have been practicing yoga for a very long time--although always as a student.

And I expect to always remain a student, since no yogi or yogini ever achieves a state of complete mastery of yoga. There is always more to learn, another day of practice to enjoy, another layer to peel back as we delve into our center.

In about a month, I will begin the yoga teacher training program at Sun and Moon Yoga Studio in northern Virginia. I chose this training program partly because Sun and Moon has become my home studio in the last three years, but also because the program will involve a variety of different teachers. On the schedule for this fall are Doug Keller, Tias Little and Barbara Benagh.

Join me on this exciting phase of my journey into yoga, as I deepen my practice and increase my understanding of this ancient spiritual practice. I will be sharing my thoughts on the readings, philosophy discussions and workshop experiences. It'll be fun, so follow along!

Peace and blessings,