During my 20 plus years of Yoga study, I have had the joy and challenge of practicing under a great variety of circumstances. I used to practice religiously outside in Chautauqua Park, Boulder Colorado in the icy winter, pre dawn darkness wearing full winter clothes including hat and mittens. On the other hand in Mysore, I had my ‘spot’ in the back right corner of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’s original shala, the spot where I showed up every day for an entire year to learn the 3rd series. And more recently I had magical, centering experiences practicing in temples in Southern India while shooting my primary series DVD. In this week’s post I want to tell you about the unlikely, ghetto style spot where I currently do my daily Yoga practice and how I’ve come to so highly value that unsavory spot.
I live in a slumlord managed, falling apart Philadelphia brownstone row home. I have three house mates, two cats and our two main living rooms are crammed full of recording and musical gear. My living situation lacks space. In fact there isn’t a consistent spot in any of the rooms to lay down my mat for practice. However if I time it right, there is one spot in the entry to the house just inside the front door, the thin carpeted floor is far from clean, there is precisely enough space for my mat between the door, two crumbling walls immediately on either side and a vent on the floor in front. I have to practice in the very early morning hours before dawn– enforced Brahma Muhurta practice time!- ( between 3 and 6am –the most auspicious time of day to take practice)!! At that time everyone else is asleep and the chances of traffic needing to tramp across my yoga mat is reduced.
When I do seated postures in this cosmically designated, exclusive spot, my gaze naturally falls along the back wall of a vintage piece of recording gear that sits there. Down near the base of this large wooden box is an old bumper sticker that reads: When All We Ever Wanted Was To Learn, Love, and Grow. My attention has been rather forced on this little sticker, and my mind has begun to ponder it, to puzzle through it, and chew on it with zen ‘koan’ like curiosity. I see it as I would a dream, a coded message from my inner depths to my ego, the small self who frequently likes to go ‘negative’ in response to all manner of experience.
Scores of unknown brilliant people with talent and creativity have succumbed to some form of negativity within themselves only to turn away from or misdirect their inner gifts, to give up or quit. Jack Kerouac had this to say in his legendary novel The Dharma Bums: “I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection. Since then I’ve become a little hypocritical about my lip service and a little tired and cynical. Because now I am grown so old and neutral…..But then I really believed in the reality of charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquility and wisdom and ecstasy, and I believed that I was an old time bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world…”.
This is a sad and tragic statement, a statement that could be coming from any of us. We can become tired, ‘grown so old and neutral’ and lethally cynical. There is so much about our lives that can bring us down, give us reason to become bitter, to give up and stop trying to create and grow and transform, to say a fundamental NO to cosmic Goodness, to Wisdom, to ecstasy, to the symbolic life within us where the Sacred is created and brought to the light of consciousness.
Like Kerouac I remember a younger more innocent time in my life. A time when being positive came more naturally, I had more youthful exuberance, more joie de vivre, and more unquestioning optimism about my spiritual quest. It was before a jaded, at times surly voice entered the stage of my mind, a negative voice that can zap my resolve to respond with care and love to my experience. This tired attitude can cause me to complain and whine about people or things and give way to anger, apathy, judgement, envy, self doubt, pessimism or isolation.
This turning away from spirit, affirmation, and meaning can lead to perpetual negativity, to suicide, drug abuse, obesity, consumerism, apathy or paralyzing cynicism. Many of us are spiritually hiding either too jaded or afraid to seek depth and meaning within ourselves with enough passion to ‘break through’ and learn to share our visions with others. How many of us are working at things with our whole heart, working on creating and being part of something greater that we could all share and benefit from?
There are many people with their eyes open whose hearts are shut.
And what do they see?
This line from a Rumi poem points out that in order to open my heart I have to see beyond ‘matter’, beyond the rational, beyond the seeable and be able to translate my experience of matter into something personally meaningful to me. My outer experience must become symbolic to me, giving me signs and messages that point me to inner direction, spiritual direction. I practice Yoga to be able to continue to believe in those qualities Kerouac felt he had lost, qualities of ‘charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquility and wisdom and ecstasy’.
Each day’s practice holds the key, gives me the renewed possibility for my full expression of ‘living, loving and growing’. Practice is essential because often when challenging circumstances arise, even though I’m not directly conscious of it, all I see is ‘matter’, my heart closes and I’m not able to access it. That is why I need to be involved in ‘sadhana’ (spiritual practice) to open my other eyes and really see the heart and Spirit of things beyond matter. From the same poem a few lines later Rumi says:
If you are not one of those light filled lovers
(ie if you see only matter)
restrain your desire-body’s intensity.
Put limits on how much you eat
and how long you lie down.
(ie do Yoga)
Presently my practice space sucks, it’s cold, unkempt, cramped and it’s available for only a limited time each day. But I love that spot; I cherish it when I’m alone and silent at 4am and able to practice. My effort, sweat, concentration, and surrender are the qualities that prevent me from giving in to negativity, to cynicism, doubt, lethargy and worse. I am reminded that it doesn’t matter where I lay down my mat, it can be anywhere. Almost all variables are nullified when I make my start in Surya A. It doesn’t matter that the floor is dirty or the walls are peeling or that I’ll be interrupted by inner gremlins that have an aversion to concentration and breath.
Practicing Yoga causes me to continue to say YES to my real life, the life within, its inner meaning and how that meaning finds expression in outer forms, even when my habit patterns continue to tell me to say NO to my inner life. Yoga gives me the power to respond with more openness and love when I’m feeling like closing my heart.
When we’ve practiced Yoga for a significant period of time, time enough to be transformed from the inside out, there is a force that develops in us, a strength that causes us to want to keep making the effort to heal and transform ourselves, our relationships, and our world– no matter what inner or outer circumstances we find ourselves in.
“The following qualities are found in the bodies of every Yogi: great courage, mighty enthusiasm, and full strength.”—The Siva Samhita