Many Yoga teachers will give a Dharma talk at the beginning of class, hoping to enrich your practice by providing some insight into the history and philosophy behind the Yoga tradition, and how this can relate to your day-to-day life. The posts in my blog aim to do a similar thing. Just remember that a Dharma talk is not meant to be insight in and of itself. It is a means of presenting insight, using words and concepts. After a dharma talk we should feel lighter, not heavier. Don’t try to dissect all the words and notions that are presented to you, but simply let the concepts wash over you and see what feelings and thoughts awaken. The Buddha said many times, “My teaching is like a finger pointing to the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.”
We are often told in Yoga that it is important to be mindful, especially if we are learning to meditate, but what is mindfulness? Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book “The Miracle of Mindfulness”, explains it best with a simple anecdote about washing the dishes. He says that there are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to get clean dishes. The second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. This is mindfulness. Profound? Maybe. But, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, if the whole time we are washing the dishes we are thinking about the cup of tea that we’re going to have when we finish the dishes, we are not really present or alive during the time that we are washing the dishes. And, if we can’t really “wash the dishes” then we probably won’t be able to really drink or enjoy our cup of tea because we’ll be thinking about the next thing that we’re going to do after that. Without mindfulness this cycle of always looking forward to the future makes us incapable of really living or enjoying any moment of our life. Practicing mindfulness brings us back to the present, and allows us to really experience each moment. So, the next time you find yourself at the sink, practice some mindfulness and try to really “wash the dishes to wash the dishes”.
The word “Yoga” can be translated as union or connection, and Patanjali’s 8-Limbed Path is the way to achieve this union. The union may be seen as union with the Divine, or maybe even union of mind, body and spirit. I like to think that it is called a path of limbs because it is not a linear path but rather a puzzle shaped like a tree – when you have put each of the eight limbs into place, the puzzle will be complete and you will achieve Yoga. So, what are the eight limbs? If you already have a Yoga practice then you can be sure that some of the pieces of the puzzle are already in place. The first of the eight are the Yamas, which are basically our rules for dealing with others. The second limb is the Niyamas, which are the rules for our relationship to ourselves. You can read about the Yamas and the Niyamas in some of my other posts. The third limb is asana postures and mudras, which I’m sure you’re already practicing. Number four is pranayama, or breath work. The fifth, sixth and seventh are Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana, which are all related to meditation and which we’ll discuss in future posts. The eighth, and fittingly the final limb, is reaching Samadhi – absorption in the spirit, enlightenment and liberation. How many of the eight puzzle pieces do YOU already have in place?
You may sometimes hear your teacher refer to crescent lunge pose as Anjaneyasana, and to enable you to fully embrace the spirit of this pose you need to understand the story of Anjaneya. Anjaneya’s mother, Anjana, was a supernatural woman and his father, Kesari, was the king of the Monkeys. Anjaneya also had a very powerful guardian spirit in the form of his godfather, Vayu the Wind-God. On top of all this he was believed to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva, so it was only natural that he had inherited some magical powers. One day when Anjaneya was staring at the sun and thinking that it was some sort of delicious fruit, he decided that he wanted to taste it. As a divine child, reaching for the sun was not such a tough task and he simply made a giant leap to try and catch what he thought to be some delicious ripe, glowing, fruit in the sky. Suryadeva, the Sun-God, was glowing peacefully in the sky when he suddenly saw what appeared to be a giant monkey coming towards him. The terribly hot rays, which would have made it impossible for any mortal to come near the sun, had no effect on Anjaneya. After continually demanding for the monkey to stop, Suryadeva called on Indra, the king of all the Gods in heaven, to help him. When naughty Anjaneya refused to stop he was struck down by Indra’s thunderbolt hitting his cheek. Vayu, Anjaneya’s Wind-God godfather, heard the sound of Anjaneya crashing to the ground and when he realized what had happened he was so angry that he decided to leave and go to the world below the earth. When Vayu left the earth, there was no air in the world. People, animals and trees struggled to breathe and started to die. The Sun-God was shocked at the turn of the events and he ran to Brahma to tell him what had happened and to ask for help. Brahma admonished Indra for causing such suffering on earth and took him and the other Gods to see Vayu and beg him to come back to earth. Vayu said that he wouldn’t go anywhere without Anjaneya and so Brahma magically cured Anjaneya’s wounds. Brahma also declared that no weapon would ever again have an effect on Anjaneya. To please Vayu even further, Indra told the boy that he would make him immortal and because he had struck him on his hanu (the Sanskrit for cheek) he would now be known as Hanuman. The adventures of Hanuman are a whole other story, which we won’t go in to here. So, when we practice Anjaneyasana we are really taking on the form of an awestruck and naughty divine child gazing up at what he thinks to be a glowing piece of fruit in the sky. Hopefully with this knowledge you will now be able to put the Anjaneya into Anjaneyasana.
At this time of year there seems to be a proliferation of birds and other animals sharing our daily space, and Yoga can help us to feel a connection with these beings. The fact that alot of our Yoga poses represent animals is not merely a coincidence. Supposedly, the ancient Rishis believed that naming a number of our asanas for the animals with which we share the world, would allow us to establish a connection with those beings. There is a parallel story in the King Arthur legends in which Merlin decided that, when Arthur was to become King, he would turn him into a mouse, and subsequently each of the other beings in his soon to be kingdom. This would allow him to experience what it was like to “be” each of the beings, and therefore show more compassion toward them as their King. So, the next time your asana practice takes you into an animal pose, such as pigeon, locust, peacock, dolphin, lizard or frog, try and imagine what it is really like to “be” this particular animal. Try and feel a connection and compassion for each of the animals with which we share the world – even if it is just for a moment.
I’m often asked by students “How do I find my guru?”. This is a great question and, as I mentioned in a previous post, the common belief is that your guru will actually find you. But, I believe there are steps that you can take to encourage a “meeting” with your guru or spiritual guide. Yoga philosophy (particularly the yamas and niyamas) will provide you with the tools to work on purifying your body and mind. The more that you do this, your mindfulness increases, and you will become aware that you are being guided through life. A small number of people actually meet their guru in a physical form, but I think they are in the minority. It’s not necessary to actually find or meet them in their physical form to be able to receive their guidance. I believe that this guidance is akin to the feeling that we get when we are directed toward a particular path, and we’re not always sure why. So, even if you don’t physically meet your guru in this lifetime, you may still be able to sense that they are there guiding you, and maybe that is enough. Most importantly – whether you follow their advice or not, just remember to open your mind and listen.
In Sanskrit the fourth chakra, or heart chakra, is called the Anahata chakra. Anahata translates as “unstruck” and sometimes “unhurt” and I’ve been wondering for some time why it was named this. I’ve found a couple of interesting explanations. The first is that somewhere beneath each of our individual stories, which often include some sort of pain and hurt to our heart, there is a wholeness comprised of unconditional love and compassion which is “unhurt” and just buried waiting to be found. The second explanation is that the Anahata chakra is positioned at the place in our body which is responsible for producing the sound of our own vibrations. This sound is produced without anything being struck. And the sound, of course, is the sound of our beating heart.