Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Family That Marches Together...

The Family That Marches Together…

Most Sunday mornings find me attending church at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, but on September 21st I was in New York City for the People’s Climate March. My family and I joined many thousands of other Vermonters who made this trip to the Big Apple to be a part of this historic event. The night before the demonstration, we were having Vietnamese food in Brooklyn with my two aunts and my youngest cousin, Lola. Lola is the same age as my daughter Wren, and neither of them was particularly excited about joining the march.

I am carrying on a time honored tradition of dragging my child to numerous protests and demonstrations, so that she will grow up to understand that our freedom of speech is like a muscle that must be stretched and strengthened so it doesn’t atrophy. My mother did it to me, and I am doing it to her. Someday, hopefully, she will know the joy of convincing her own recalcitrant child that there could be no more important way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

My beloved aunt Terri, mother of the aforementioned Lola, was not planning on forcing her daughter to attend the march. Lola has recently turned 13, and her roller derby name is Sherlock Homicide. I wouldn’t mess with her either. This gave Wren some ammunition for her campaign. “I have a lot of homework I need to do. How come Lola doesn’t have to go, but I do?”

I replied, “Wren, I don’t want you to be 18 years old, and learning about this historic day, and wishing you had been there. It’s just too important. We are going to help turn the tide, take the world away from fossil fuels and toward a just and sustainable economy that values all of life. Plus we came all the way from Vermont. You can do your homework later.”

At this point in our dinner conversation a small miracle occurred. “OK,” Lola said, “I’ll come to the march.” We adults smiled into our Pho (this is a delicious Vietnamese soup that unfortunately is not available in Middlebury).

The next day we applied sunscreen, filled our water bottles, and took the subway into Manhattan. My aunt Wendy, who had come from Massachusetts for the demonstration, and who was probably the first person to RSVP to this climate rescue party, was having fun deciding which people on our train were also on their way to the march. As our train neared Columbus Circle, she decided that pretty much the entire subway car was heading to the demonstration.

Wendy and Terri are my mom’s two sisters. When I was in high school, I got to participate in another march with my aunt Wendy, also in New York City. That one was a march for nuclear disarmament, in 1982. Wendy’s daughter, my cousin Clara, was only one year old, so she rode in a stroller. The only thing I remember about this march is that we sang, “All we are saying… is give peace a chance” as we walked through the city streets. When I Googled this demonstration just now I found out that Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen both sang at the rally in Central Park, where the march ended. This means I have been to a Bruce Springsteen concert and I don’t even remember it. How is that even possible?

Win and I pushed our own stroller in Vermont’s first climate rescue walk, from Ripton to Burlington. Wren was three years old, and thus too young to voice any objections. Organized by Bill McKibben, John Elder, and a handful of Middlebury College students, this walk was the seedling that grew to become the global climate movement. A year later, my aunt Wendy, Wren (still in the stroller), and I took part in a ten day walk across the state of Massachusetts. Wren and I missed the kick off event, due to a serious snowstorm, but met up with Wendy along the route. This walk was organized by a coalition of churches and faith leaders from many different religions. We slept on the floor at a different church each night. I think there were around thirty people walking, college students, ministers, grandparents, and one yoga teacher. But when we got into Boston, on the last day of the walk, we were joined by hundreds of others, drumming and chanting as we headed up Commonwealth Avenue.

I am so glad that I’ve been brought up to speak out against injustice in the world. I’m proud that I come from a family of rabble rousers. My parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins are precious to me, and one of the things I love most about them is their love for the whole human family. When I walk arm in arm with my family, I think about all the other families in the world, and their right to have a future free from the perils of climate disaster. May we all walk and work together, for a future to be possible.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Guruji

If you read The New York Times, or listen to NPR, you may have heard the name B.K.S. Iyengar, the legendary yoga master who passed away on August 20. Mr. Iyengar's students called him Guruji, which means beloved teacher. I have been practicing the form of yoga that bears his name since I met my first teacher during a California earthquake in 1989.

Although I never had the blessing of meeting Mr. Iyengar in person, most of my teachers have studied directly with the Iyengar family, some for decades. All of my teachers have stories about Guruji's incredibly demanding teaching style, his fierce demeanor, his sense of humor, and his burning zeal for the practice of yoga.

The eleventh of thirteen children, born to a poor South Indian family, Iyengar suffered from numerous tropical diseases and was not expected to survive childhood. As a weak and sickly teenager, he was sent to live with his sister and her new husband, yoga master Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was a strict teacher, but Iyengar credits him with introducing him to the yoga that would ultimately improve his health and set him on the path to teach others. At this time in India, the practice of yoga was going through enormous changes. While it is true that some yoga postures can be found carved into stone in ancient temples, a surprising number of yoga poses are relatively modern transplants from disciplines as diverse as Indian wrestling, British army calisthenics, and even Scandinavian gymnastics!

This global melting pot of practices was simmering on the burner of the Indian Independence movement when B.K.S. Iyengar was striking out on his own to teach. Mr. Iyengar was one of the first Indian teachers to instruct large groups of people. Because his students came from all walks of life, and didn't all speak Hindi, classes were given in English. Teaching in a language he was not fluent in forced him to develop a highly specific way of communicating the actions he wanted his students to perform. It is these directive, specific instructions for each posture that make this form of yoga unique. This is why becoming an Iyengar yoga teacher means a lifetime of study and practice.

Most people credit the violinist Yehudi Menuhin with bringing the teachings of Iyengar to the west. A devoted student of yoga, Menuhin wrote the foreword to Iyengar's 1966 book, Light on Yoga. Menuhin credited his yoga practice with helping improve his violin playing, and even gifted Guruji with a wristwatch inscribed with the words, "To my best violin teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar."

Menuhin arranged for Iyengar to travel to Switzerland and Belgium, where he taught the 80 year old Queen Elisabeth how to do a headstand! Iyengar began to travel regularly to the U.K. and then to the U.S. These international travels eventually resulted in Iyengar's teachings spreading all over the planet. There are hundreds of Iyengar Yoga schools around the world.

Mr. Iyengar said “You do not need to seek freedom in a different land, for it exists with your own body, heart, mind, and soul.” It is this freedom that we taste when we practice with enthusiasm, attention, and devotion. This is the reason so many of us get "hooked" on yoga.  Yehudi Menuhin, who was the first Jewish musician to perform in Germany after the nightmare of the Holocaust, surely felt this freedom inside himself. If we don't take responsibility for the tension that we carry, and find ways to transform it, we can be cruel and hurtful. Menuhin described this as "the tragic spectacle of people working out their own imbalance and frustration on others." Don't we see this in our world today, in Gaza, in Ferguson, in Syria?

The other night, our yoga community took part in a nationwide commemoration of Guruji's life. From Hawaii to Maine, teachers and students gathered in yoga studios, churches, living rooms, or wherever they happened to be. Across all of these time zones, we were practicing the same simple sequence of postures while holding our beloved teacher in our hearts. A friend of mine, a yoga teacher in NYC, performed the sequence while stranded at the Newark airport! I prepared our studio by building an altar and stringing flower garlands. The room filled with students, some beginners, some with decades of yoga experience. We all brought our hands together in gratitude for a practice that has transformed us. As we sat and breathed together, I was filled with the sense that Iyengar's legacy lives on in all of us. Only his body has died. His teachings live on, in each posture performed with concentration and devotion. In each quiet breath.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Super Powers of Patanjali

Every Monday, my friend and fellow yoga teacher Jen and I meet early in the morning to carpool to Burlington for our yoga philosophy study group. A small group of students meets each week to wrestle with the essential yoga text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We chant a few sutras, and then discuss their meaning. The sutras are concise teachings that lay out the nature of the human mind, and describe how we can use the ancient practice of yoga to transform ourselves.

These 196 sutras are divided into four chapters, called Padas. Our study group has made it through the first two Padas, and is now at work on the third. This chapter, called the Vibhutti Pada, describes the effects of yoga and the special powers that can be attained by devoted practitioners. I have always thought of it as "The Chapter on Super Powers!" Some of the accomplishments that Patanjali describes are indeed paranormal, and difficult for western, rational minds to embrace. For example, Sutra III.24 states that by concentrating on strengths, the yogi attains the strength of an elephant. Then there is Sutra III.16, which says that when we concentrate on the three transformations (of characteristics, state, and condition), knowledge of the past and future ensues. Other powers mentioned by Patanjali include knowledge of our previous births, knowledge of the moment of our death, knowledge of others' minds, knowledge of the solar system, and even the ability to travel through the sky!

As for my own knowledge attainments, after twenty plus years of yoga practice, I admit that I sometimes have trouble helping my daughter with her sixth grade math homework. I am able to travel through the sky, but only with the aid of the airline industry. I am fairly strong, but I would certainly not pit myself against any elephant, even a baby one.

So given that I do not expect to develop any of these yogic superpowers in my lifetime, what use is it to ponder these ideas? This gets to the heart of mystical teachings, and what, if anything they have to offer us. Can something be true, without being literally, factually true? To use an example from Christian mythology, can we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus without accepting the Virgin Birth as fact? Throughout the ages, there are many tales of heroes born from a virgin mother. This exceptional origin story can point us toward recognizing a special being, one who can guide and teach us.

In Buddhism and Islam, there are also amazing tales of supernatural beings and events. If we cannot accept these stories as factually true, does that really mean we must reject them out of hand? Does our inability to believe in a literal Garden of Eden, complete with devious serpent, mean that this story has nothing to teach us? If we have trouble accepting that the baby Buddha walked at three days old, and left lotus flowers blooming in each footstep, can we not recognize that a deeper teaching may be waiting for us in this story?

Yoga is a practice of wholeness. When we are practicing with sincerity, devotion, intelligence and compassion, we understand how our thinking mind is NOT separate from our physical embodiment, and our spiritual unfolding touches every aspect of who we are. There is no need to cleave the rational, thinking mind from the spacious Self. If we deprive ourselves of the deep truths that mythology contains, we will be like a thirsty person sitting by a clear spring and refusing to take a drink. The spiritual aspect of who we are needs to be nourished with sacred stories and practices just like our physical aspect needs fresh water and good food. May everyone who reads this, and all other beings, be well fed, on every level!