The Missing Dharma of Modern Yoga
As a person identified with artists and their path, the spark which led to founding my own yoga academy ignited from my frustration of watching too many friends jettison their artistic goals to become yoga teachers, only to later become despondent when their hand to mouth existence hustling as a teacher left them exhausted and wondering what their lives be might like if they hadn't switched hats.
Granted, the pressure to jump ship and get a real job seems to come from the outside, as well. Ironically, it's difficult to be an artist in a culture addicted to constant entertainment, worshipping entertainers, and remaining sufficiently amnesic to aggrandizing actors and rock stars, and ridiculing those on the opposite side of the social spectrum.
My own involvement with musicianship wasn't a choice. One day, I couldn't care less; the next, I picked my guitar and just understood. I glimpsed infinite possibilities and that was my first samadhi, like getting hit by lightning. In the euphoric aftermath of that sudden flash, I saw that this philosophy would be a life long path.
Teaching yoga often scratches the performer's itch to be onstage at the center of attention. To lead a group of trusting souls through a sequence of postures and meditative instructions is a massive creative outlet! The challenge of clearly communicating to the students what the immediate and ultimate goals of the practice are through poetic metaphors, humor and charismatic fearlessness is a sweet space that teachers abide in. It's just as satisfying as an audience's applause. I love it.
Sometimes, people appear nervous when hearing the word yoga, though they are clearly masters of entering into states of transcendence. For example, last year, at a Christmas party, I met a champion skier who was nursing her right knee back to health -- it was sixty percent there -- and she was still outperforming everyone else on the mountain. Later, I found out she's a world-renowned rock climber. We started talking about her adventures when my friend butted in and shared that I taught yoga classes and dharma in the city. A wall went up, and after a brief awkward moment, she said that she knew nothing about it. I quickly assessed my options for interpreting her response: at face value, it sounded like she thought yoga meant "Indian calisthenics" and had no desire to set foot on a rectangular piece of plastic to put her foot behind her head. Contrarily, was she actually a master of yoga who was reminding me that knowledge was not the same as wisdom?
We quickly came to the agreement that, regardless of their expression, when a practitioner spends years honing their discipline to pushing themselves beyond the edge, they share a profound high, and the rush of a transcendent state pours through them.
This could be called a yogic state, and has many other names: athletes enter the zone, musicians play in the pocket, poets and painters wait for the muse, drug enthusiasts trip out, meditators call it samadhi, Christians enter the grace of God, warriors become impeccable, and businessmen and women seek peak performance.
As a child, my introduction to dharma was first given through my father. I was around ten years old -- around the same time I fell in love with the guitar -- and was full of adolescent anxiety and anger. My dad noticed how I was blocking myself from this state of being at ease and offered a flexible strategy to hit the moving target of continual transcendence. He was like that.
I distinctly remember standing at the top of the stairs of our new house when he shared with me the truth of my lack of "I-ness" by pointing out that I was an idea associated with my name, but in reality, did not exist. I was actually a legion of sub personas fighting for control of Michael like one hundred actors on a stage fighting for a single microphone. As a swarm of birds moving like one super-organism, I also dissolved into something alien to my first impression.
Even though his advice was way over my head, it was far more thought provoking than just being told to "be myself," and I accredit it to planting the seed for my attraction to the spiritual path.
Shortly after our conversation, I began devouring books on the work of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff -- whose work my father was an avid practitioner of -- as well as books on witchcraft and astral projection. I remember practicing dissolution as I fell asleep, visualizing my insides emptying out into a hollow shell and passing an outer ring of sparks slowly from my feet to the top of my head and back again. A visceral state of the fullness of the void came over me. Then, the lucid dreaming started. My usual stress induced nightmares of plummeting into a cave-like abyss, shocking me into an awareness of subtle dream bodies that, if I became present with them, would allow me to float down to earth, or even fly.
At that time, I had no words to frame experiences of non-dual absorption and only received shrugs from my parents when I asked them what was happening.
Sudden discovery depends on gradual development, and as children, when we lack confidence in new situations, adults are, either intentionally or not, short to respond. Yoga teachers breathily advise students to just be present in all moments, and I don't think they realize what a high stage that is, one that requires a consistent, reliable method to reach.
In the past seven years, I have met teachers who could not only confirm the validity of this experience within Tibetan Buddhist and Indian yogic scriptures, but have also taught me how to stabilize it and use it as a path to liberation. Since all moments are potential windows for entering this pure being state of transcending I chose the sanskrit word Sarva for my own academy because its means "all, entire, whole and complete." Sarva is a synonym for astanga, which is Master Patanjali's eight-step recipe for all-day yoga. They prescribe avoiding harming others, making the best use of your time and resources, physical disciplines, pranic regulation/redirection, sensory withdrawal, and increasingly effortless levels of mental focus/absorption. It demands you get your act together first before trying to teach others anything.
As well, we integrate the Gurdjieffian work, the Fourth way, because it incorporates the three ancient methods of physical mastery, emotional devotion, and intellectual evolution into a practice within life where the personality is transcended and entire solutions are revealed in a single instant.
On his last breath, Lord Buddha said, "Be a light unto yourself" as a warning against having blind faith in what he testified was true about the nature of reality and the cessation of suffering. He knew that parroting his instructions would not yield authentic realizations in his students -- and worse, that impersonating him would destroy his good works in this world. Yet the irony is that we must bind ourselves to a teacher's lineage to become free, and we must carefully vet the ones with whom we intend to entrust our dharmic mind. Agnostic, skeptical, open-minded, earnest and hard-working are ideal qualities in a student looking to receive teachings from a pure lineage, and they must make it come alive and validated by testing it against their life experience, just as they would kick the tires and scope the mileage before buying a used car!
A student empowers their teacher to teach them just as much as they have the power to deny them. We become like our teacher because the desire to "grow up and evolve" is molded by their guidance and presence. Not everyone sees your teacher as you do: simple proof that your teacher is a reflection of the very best aspects of yourself. With enough time spent under a teacher, they will shift and become more and more mirror-like. This relationship is living, dynamic and depends upon the student to keep it functioning! The danger lies in pedastilizing a teacher or path, and then clinging to it as the only valid way.
Rather than celebrating the universality of this magnificently blissful and spacious experience tragically, humans have repeatedly persecuted and killed each to uphold that their path as "the true one," and that they alone are chosen to ascend. This is the sin of making a graven image. Sin means to miss the mark, like an archer with glaucoma. A graven image is a fixed mental image -- a story carved into the neural pathways -- or what Joseph Campbell referred to as eating the menu. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche calls it presenting your credentials. Our personality "I" so badly wants to take credit for what happened in the brilliance of that mind blowing experience that it makes up a story to tell itself so that it can be relived. But, that story isn't what happened! It's a subjective blurring that cordons off the holiness of that precious moment into a memory which will most likely be cast like a pearl before the denizens of the next dinner party or worse, one sees themselves as superior to everyone else who just doesn't get it. The unconscious bait and switch of communing with Reality, beyond all words to describe, for one person's narrative, becomes a habit engraved into the synaptic patterns of a soon to be disappointed, nostalgic and fundamentalist sucker. It's as ignorant as thinking your reflection is actually in the mirror.
The yoga I'm interested in teaching students is to perceive this mirror-like or, stainless nature to all objects. Yoga/union means profound equilibrium has set in; equilibrium that makes struggle untenable. Call it interdependence. Like a dreamer who has awakened inside a dream still sees people and places but knows beyond all doubt that its all made of their mind. With dedicated training in unerring wisdom, one may begin to stop being fooled by their instincts telling them to struggle/dominate their environment and finally perceive the appearances of the sensual world as a mirror/echo. First through logic, then non-conceptual glimpses, leading to uncontrived and sustained direct perception. Accordingly, this process reveals why compassion, reverence and love are the only sane attitudes towards others.
I also like to remind students of the reason their window of relief from tension will close in the most stealthy and insidious way shortly after the ordeal of asana practice is over. Even the smallest movement of mind will block this holy communion with ultimate reality, and when this view is lost, our physical bodies age because our mind is constantly making a profound albeit subtle mistake regarding its relationship to the world.
Is it worth going to asana classes again and again if you never see the mistakes your mind is constantly making? Is it sane to be an hour and a half older, and $20 poorer, only to become addicted to a practice never intended to be "the end?"
I've seen it countless times in students in yoga classes and succumbed to it many times myself. Ignorance. Desire. Aversion. You swear that you've been becoming high on breakthroughs, and yet you tear a hamstring. What happened? It was going so well... I was breathing my exhales all the way out and everything!
We are no different than a drug addict who rushes back to the pipe for another epic escape and slips into an overdose. A wise person starts asking penetrating questions at this point. In Buddhist terms, this is renunciation moment. A window of shock has momentarily opened to let go of the exaggerated, self-existent views, which cause us to feel, as Alan Watts says, "alone and afraid in a world we never made."
So how do we avoid palliatively switching professions, alienating ourselves from others, and become firmly established in a life of awestruck transcendence? This brings me to the reason for opening Sarva Yoga Academy: the authentic lineage instructions I've received are so clear, effective and applicable to this daily life, I could no longer stand by and not share it with the students who'd been coming to study with me in yoga classes for the past fifteen years. I felt like I was teasing people, trying to squeeze a complete picture into fifteen-minute dharma talks. Frankly, I see a greater speed in saving the world from the ignorance of humans by educating those students who have no interest in becoming yoga instructors, yet long to integrate the deeper teachings of yoga to their personal and professional lives. We're like sleeper cells; carriers of a holy virus, who, heart by heart, spread seeds of sanity, abundance and love throughout this world. I also want to educate and support yoga teachers who can and will actually teach yoga, which is far beyond teaching postures.
Sarva Yoga Academy completed its first seven-month term this past May, and graduated fourteen "Sarvies," as they like to call themselves. We will begin a second term on October 7th and are accepting last-minute applications for 2011-2012 term, which will be held in Manhattan.
Q: What is the Fourth Way?
A: 'The Fourth Way, or 'the Work' is a spiritual tradition. It's a way of life. It's a spiritual practice that seems to be the foundation of all the major religions. In other words you can find parallel teachings in each of the major religions that are already formulated in the Fourth Way as groundwork. However the Fourth Way as we know if today, was not formulated until G.I. Gurdjieff brought the Work to the west in 1914. Prior to that, the Work/Fourth Way was kept very secret and taught only in esoteric schools and monasteries. So basically it is practice that enables certain people who are in the possession of what is called the magnetic center or, ability to attract teachings to practice a spiritual life while staying in their regular, ordinary circumstances of life. There is no need for them to go into seclusion there is no need for them to renounce the world as they know it, to renounce their families, their jobs...they can practice while staying in life. That's why its called the Fourth Way.
The first traditional three ways of practice are the way of the fakir: the way of the physical body, overcoming physical body and its desires. The second way is the way of the monk, or overcoming the way of the emotions, mastering one's emotions. The third way is the way of the yogi, the way of mastering the mind. And the fourth way is the way in which all these three components are taken together and practiced in unison at the same time. Hence the Fourth Way yields fast results and it can be compared to the Buddhist tantric practice in that way.'
Image by flyskyfrp, courtesy of Creative Commons license.