First, I thank you from the fullness of my heart for reading this memoir. It is not exactly light reading. It does require stick-to-it-ness just like the practice of traditional Yoga. Twelve years is the traditional number of years recommended in Classical Yoga for mastering any of the practices. There is a Zen story about being mentored by a teacher for 12 years before presuming to teach. Now, there are one week and even one-weekend teacher trainings! The twelve-year model is probably not too appealing to the ego’s need for instant gratification.
This memoir began with a conversation I was having with Richard Freeman about the Yoga Sutras as well as studying and practicing Yoga primarily in isolation. He once said, “Usually there’s about a three-month love affair with yoga. ‘I feel so good.’ After about two months of practice, people think they are practically enlightened. Then usually around the third month, something happens and the yoga actually starts to work. And the first thing the ego structure does is to look for an escape route. People start heading for the door just at-the-moment when they should stay.”
This is an important point. The ego wants to look for an escape route. Why? It feels threatened. It likes what is familiar to control the outcomes. Yoga and I hope by now you understand that when I say Yoga, I mean non-postural practices like Self-Inquiry, meditation, and pranayama as well as postures. These practices have the potential of exposing habitual ways (Samskaras-mental impression, recollection, psychological imprint and Vasanas-latent tendencies stored in the sub-conscious) of thinking, feeling and acting that either support awareness or keep us boxed in familiar patterns. These patterns can promote growth or limitations.
Traditional Yoga can be a way to work on our growth edges and coax us out of our comfort zone. I have had students who were not ready for this process and could barely wait to leave. They were expecting a postural yoga version of exercise. Meanwhile, I am inviting them to explore the “scripts” underlying the sensations they are feeling while holding wide angle forward fold or Upavishtaasana for five minutes. The samskara of impatience and restlessness might be triggered. Is that a familiar pattern? If so, what is the source of it? Speed postural yoga avoids these potentially transformative moments.
Pranayama can require the patience of Job. It is not a popular practice. Though the benefits are numerous, the practices require one point attention for twenty to sixty minutes to begin to feel the effects. Some studios don’t even offer it. It doesn’t necessarily give the instant gratification of a quick workout. However, to be fair, the more challenging asanas like headstand, upward raised bow or firefly took me many months of patience and perseverance to accomplish. They motivated me to overcome some insecurities. Meditating on potentially uncomfortable memories and thoughts for 30 to 60 minutes every day is not particularly appealing. Yet, that is the work. Peter Gabriel called it Digging in the Dirt.
As we root out our negative samskaras by focusing on positive ones, we can become free from what might bind us. Think of the negative samskaras as boxes enclosing our capacity to be naturally love, joy and peace. The boxes are all the past mental conditioning we have received from our family of origin, culture, and society. “I am this way and I am that way” statements are constructs, stories, and scripts that can box us in.
It might be just too much so we run for the doors! Yoga teachers can have the daunting task of managing the converging histories of multiple samskaras. There have been days I wanted to run to the exit! I can understand why a teacher might be drawn to the generic and well-rehearsed flow sequence. It can minimize addressing individual experiences except in a generalized way.
I hope I have become more compassionate in adapting yoga to the natural complexities of being human. For me, it begins with acceptance of myself and others. It might be safe to say; Yoga begins with acceptance. We accept our minds and bodies without negative judgment and begin the process of understanding ourselves better. Acceptance creates the inner environment for change. Negative judgment can block the potential for change and growth. I know it’s a cliché but what we resist can persist.
Acceptance can come from being curious about other world views and perceptions. Another cliché is the common saying, “well that’s your perception.” I’ll try to dig a bit deeper. Yes, everyone has perceptions which can form their world view. But what is the perception based on? Is it based on a belief or creed? And where did that come from? Is it a belief swallowed whole as a child and not digested with critical inquiry? Everyone can have an opinion based on perceptions rooted in past beliefs but what is the educational and experiential background of the perceiver? If I am looking for edible mushrooms, I will trust a Ph.D. biologist specializing in mycology over a self-taught mycologist. Otherwise, I could die. In India, pranayama is revered with so much respect that they call it taming the tiger. If you do not know what you are doing, you could be killed! I learned pranayama from Yoga Masters who had decades of experience and then my practices have revealed new insights. Books could only take me so far.
The world is how you see it is the main theme in the 32,000 Sanskrit verses of the Yoga Vasishta and many other Advaita Vedanta(non-dualism) texts like the Drg-Drsya Viveka and the Viveka Chudamani. It is the core teaching of my favorite Advaita or Jnana Yoga teacher Ramana Maharshi. The first verse of the Drg-Drsya states: “The form is perceived and the eye is its perceiver. The eyes are perceived and the mind is its perceiver. The mind with its modifications is perceived and the Witness (the Self) is verily the perceiver. But the Witness is not perceived by any other.”
Drg means seer and Drsya means seen. This text is an inquiry into this relationship. When I am caught up in what the other thinks (the ego), I am in the place of the seen. When I am trapped in the mental tape loops of my past caused by others I am the seen. When I take the seat of the observer and witness the mind and connect with the witness or pure consciousness in others and feel the oneness of That then I am the Seer. The feeling tone for me is lightness, playfulness, joy, and love. It is a place of acceptance and not a negative judgment. The direct and immediate knowledge of the Self is the means to the attainment of Liberation. The understanding of the meaning of the Vedic statement “That thou art” manifests the traditional Yogic goal of life which is freedom from the ego.
The Wisdom Traditions that come from the World’s Religions have their methods to attain this state. Whether it is every minute Zen mind or ceaseless prayer, there seems to be a universal interest in becoming free from suffering. The intensity, turmoil, and chaos of my upbringing motivated me to seek a way out of my own suffering. I looked outside of myself for solace and did not find it. Once I began to develop an interior life, I began to see glimpses of the Seer looking at my seeking! Even a moment has been liberating for me. Who is the breather? Who is the perceiver of the breather? Who is the knower? The monist says the ultimate perception is the perception that includes all perceptions.
The witness has been my best friend for decades. It gives me a detached perspective with my “crazy thinking”. It allows an inner space of non-reactive awareness so I can make choices from an accepting and compassionate place. In my experience, Yoga does begin with acceptance and blossoms with awareness.
It is not easy being a Yoga teacher. If we want to offer the full spectrum of practices, we are wearing many hats. We are sometimes an exercise physiologist, a psychologist, a spiritual director, a coach and hopefully always a supportive friend. I enjoy the challenge of these roles. And these roles are stimulated by the converging histories of the group that has gathered for each class. It keeps each class still interesting for me after all these years. Sometimes I have no idea what I am going to teach until I begin to “feel” and intuit the group energy. I love when this happens. I feel I am connecting on a deeper level with who is there then sticking to an agenda.
I have so many positive memories from the past 40 years and have shared some of them. There is much more. Here’s one. It was the late 1990’s and I had been writing for Hinduism Today on music and culture. In 1998, Swami Bua won the Hindu Renaissance Award as “Hindu of the Year”. He was a legend of sorts including being a stern yoga teacher and over a-100-years old! Allison and I went to NYC for some holiday fun in 1999 and for me to teach a workshop at the Integral Yoga Institute in the Village. The staff there knew his address and schedule near Columbus Circle. We took the sub and arrived with great anticipation. We knocked on the door and heard a strong, “come in”. He was sitting lotus style on the wood chair reading the New York Times. The smell of a delicious masala wafted from the kitchen. He told us to get some carpet remnants from his closet and put away our yoga mats. A floor heater sat on the wooden floor. Windows overlooked Central Park. One other person, a regular student joined us. There were only the three of us with Swami Buaji.
He began to teach projecting a strong and thick Indian accented English at us that was difficult to understand. If we looked at the man who apparently knew what to do, he would bark at us, “don’t you understand English”. I am thinking, well sir, I don’t understand your English. Have you tried practicing postures on a wood floor with carpet remnants? I used muscles I did not know I had! His sequence was challenging – a combination of advanced Sivananda and Viniyoga. There were lots of twists including shoulder stand and headstand with twists. We did the best we could but he yelled at us a lot. I discovered that being the Witness protected me from his shaming tone and I viewed the class as if I was watching a bizarre absurdist foreign movie like Black Moon by Louis Malle. My inner smile was big. Allison was having a different experience and was feeling angry which I understood.
After the postures, he yelled at us to lie down. He turned off the lights stood over us and with a force inspired by Zeus in my mind, proclaimed the great Vedanta dictum: You are not the Body; You are not the Mind; You are the Immortal Self! Then sweet silence for 15 minutes. I felt his Shakti and was literally vibrating. Then I became very calm. The sound of the clomping of horses pulling carts filled with tourists left my awareness as I settled into a deep peace. A loud Om aroused us and the lights returned. He said, sit up. Class is over. He was in his chair holding the paper. He asked us for $20 each and said go. As we walked to the subway station, Allison began to process how angry she was. I shared it helped me to let go of my attachments to being a “good” yoga student and instead witness my reactions or I would have been upset too. He reminded me how not to teach. The curious thing though is that for the next few weeks Allison felt a burden of some of her samskaras be lifted. She attributed the release to his class. Grace works in mysterious ways, indeed.
Swami Bua left his body on July 22, 2010, at the age of 120. To learn more about his fascinating life, go to
There are more stories that I may share in another blog entry. I am very grateful to have learned of the glorious teachings of Classical Yoga and other Wisdom Traditions like Zen. They have supported me in moving me toward a lessening of the influence of my samskaras. Some of my emotional wounds have been healed and I have been free of my addictive nature for ten years. Despite my challenges, I remain hopeful. The timeless and transformative techniques of Yoga fertilize this hope every day. People closest to me have said I have changed in the past 20 years. That I am more patient, grounded, accepting and kind. If that is true, it’s the yoga making a difference and spurned by my relentless pursuit of waking up.
Some students have told me I have made a difference in their lives. They say their classes have replaced going to church or seeing their physical and psychotherapists. I know it’s not me but the yoga. I just try to get my ego out the way and allow the magic to happen. Others do not disclose, but they have been continuing regularly for more than 10 years so I figure something is working. I am very grateful for the amazing teachers, mentors, friends and students I have met along the way. I feel very fortunate to do what I love and I have not had to compromise the original teachings of yoga for financial security.
I look forward to future projects like offering a weekend workshop at Yogaville in the fall and teaching master classes at the Lovelight Yoga and Art Festival this summer. For details go to www.plashayoga.com.
How long will I continue to teach? I think when I feel I cannot be useful in serving others, it will be time. Maybe I’ll continue into my hundreds too! And maybe I’ll sit in a chair reading the NY Times and bark at my students!
Again, thank you for reading this memoir. I hope it has been helpful and perhaps has started a conversation we can continue at some time. As you know, I am an open book and this narrative is just the beginning. I look forward to your comments after any of the chapters.
Until next time…Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti – peace, peace, peace.
Om Tat Sat: Om, that is Truth, Om, it is Reality, Om it is good
It’s been an inspiring and highly informative read, one that many of us – we are all your students in one way or another! – are likely to return to from time to time. And of course the journey is far from over.