Rox Does Yoga

Musings on Everything Yoga

books: The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. Le Guin June 19, 2012

Filed under: books,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 2:04 pm
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The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. Le GuinWait a minute, you may be thinking. You come to this blog for yoga, and here is a book with a picture of a dragon on the cover. Now, many of you may not know this, dear readers, but I have loved fantasy novels for far longer than I’ve loved yoga. Being so far along in my pregnancy, I haven’t felt up for reading much nonfiction or anything that feels like a “serious” book – I wanted fun, light reading. It seemed like a good time to revisit some of my favorite fantasy novels. And when something in a fantasy novel jives with my yoga, I can’t help getting all bubbly about it.

The Farthest Shore is the third novel in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. It was first published in 1972, and it’s about (roughly) a wizard and a young man taking a journey to figure out what’s going wrong with magic, what darkness is coming across people’s hearts. There are sorcerers and dragons and at least one sword fight, but the thing about Ursula Le Guin is that she doesn’t just write about sorcerers and dragons (or about rocket ships and aliens in her science fiction novels) – she uses these concepts to look at what’s going on in the world, what it means to be a human being. The Earthsea books in particular are ostensibly about wizards and magic but really deal with deeper ideas about life and death that are very powerful.

I’ve read The Farthest Shore before and so I knew it had these life/death themes, but on this read I found even more to love. What struck me most is that our hero, the wizard Ged, is totally a karma yogi! On several occasions, he talks to his companion Arren about what it means to be a man of action, and how the best path is to take no action at all. In particular, their conversation after Ged rescues Arren from slave traders is interesting: Ged talks about maintaining balance, acting with responsibility. He says, “It is much easier for men to act than to refrain from acting…. do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way” (67). This could have come right out of the Bhagavad Gita! I wonder if that’s what LeGuin was reading in the early 1970s? And Ged backs up his statements about action in the way he lives. He goes on this journey only because he must; none of the other wizards will acknowledge the problem or understand what’s needed to solve it. His action is needful to preserve balance in the world. In this and in other books in the series, he only uses magic when it’s necessary, and magic is shown over and over again to have serious consequences when its use is out of balance. I loved finding Ged to be even wiser than I’d remembered him, and I loved finding karma and dragons in the same book.

 

books: The Wisdom of Yoga, by Stephen Cope June 18, 2012

Filed under: books — R. H. Ward @ 1:22 pm
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The Wisdom of Yoga, by Stephen CopeI found Cope’s approach to this book pretty fascinating. He began writing the book with the intention of writing a traditional commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and he completed exhaustive research into yoga philosophy and Sanskrit with this in mind; however, the focus of the project morphed and shifted as he wrote. The final book includes three intertwining components: commentary and explanation of the yoga sutras, explication of the sutras from a modern psychological perspective based on Cope’s experience as a psychotherapist, and a semi-fictionalized/loosely memoirish account of the yoga explorations of Cope and five of his friends during the years Cope was working on the book.

The book benefits immensely from Cope’s philosophical and spiritual research without becoming too esoteric for the beginner. Cope discusses key concepts from Patanjali, such as the steps of the eightfold path, in an accessible way; he also relates some of Patanjali’s teachings on meditation and the mind to similar teachings in Buddhism, which I was really intrigued by and hadn’t seen elsewhere.

Cope’s perspective as a psychotherapist helps to elucidate for the modern reader why this yoga stuff actually works and what it does to our minds. I personally found the psychological verbiage to be a little heavy and technical for my taste, so I didn’t spend a lot of time dissecting and digesting it, but I still found those passages to be interesting and informative even at a casual reading pace and level.

What really kept me moving through the text were the stories of Cope and his friends. Cope would describe one person’s particular struggle – overeating, a lying habit, a lifelong conflict with a family member – then use that almost as a case study to discuss what, yogically and psychologically, was going on for that person, and show how yoga and meditation could help. Cope includes conversations among the friends as well, as they help one another work through their various issues. Each character makes progress on a spiritual path throughout the book, each in his or her own way, including the character of Cope himself as he struggles with the book he’s writing.

Wanting to know what happened next for the characters kept me moving through the spiritual and philosophical material, some of which was very familiar to me, and the more technical psychological stuff, so I found the framework to be a useful and interesting way of organizing the book. Overall I really enjoyed the book’s unique approach and would recommend it, particularly to those who want to explore the ancient philosophy of yoga and the mind from a modern perspective.

 

books: Soloing, by Harriet Rubin April 20, 2012

Filed under: books — R. H. Ward @ 1:15 pm
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book cover for Soloing: Realizing Your Life's Ambition, by Harriet RubinI read Soloing: Realizing Your Life’s Ambition with the hope that it would help me plan out how to transition from an unsatisfying full-time job to a freelance career. After all, most yoga teachers are freelancers, or “soloists” in Rubin’s terms. While Rubin has some good advice about following your passion, it ultimately wasn’t useful in answering the questions I had, and because the book was published in 1999, some of the information came across as a bit dated.

Rubin spends much of the book discussing how to reinvent yourself and your identity outside of the corporate model, how to discover the work that truly inspires you, and how to generate the courage to pursue that work. While there’s some great content here, it’s not as useful to someone like me – I know my passions (writing, editing, teaching yoga and teaching writing), I just need to figure out how, financially, to build those passions into a viable career. In this area Rubin is lacking. The cover blurb notes that Rubin, a high-powered publishing executive for many years, now works with “leading CEOs” in her solo career, and this comes through in the content. Although Rubin strives to interview a wide variety of professionals in researching this book (including a master bonsai gardener and a corporate guy turned race car driver), her target audience is the dissatisfied exec looking to build a consulting career (and with a lot more cash in the bank than I have). For example, Rubin states that, when leaving your corporate job, you should be able to negotiate a retainer, exit package, or continued Cobra health insurance, which just sounds laughable to any average cubicle jockey. In general, employees in the lower echelons of the corporate world just don’t have that kind of bargaining power, and Rubin doesn’t seem to know it.

Rubin states repeatedly that a soloist can make far more on her own than her previous corporate salary, and with only a few clients, but Rubin never addresses the practical concerns of how to identify and market yourself to your client base and find those lucrative clients. As a yoga teacher, I guess “clients” in this case would mean starting my own yoga studio and identifying private clients, but that’s not as feasible for a brand-new teacher just starting out when there are plenty of more experienced yoga teachers around. Making ends meet as a yoga teacher just doesn’t seem possible at first, letting alone turning a profit, and how do you get through the months or years of financial struggle to get to the point where the ends meet? I did appreciate some of the practical information Rubin provides – how to calculate expected business expenses and the income needed to pay the bills, what legal advice and insurance you should invest in. I also liked Rubin’s discussion of proposals, which will be directly useful to me as a writer/editor and possibly also as a yoga teacher (proposals could be useful if I do want to start my own studio, if I want to propose a special workshop or class, if I want to sell myself to a corporate client that wants to offer yoga to its employees, as a few examples). But overall I wanted more on the practical side of things.

Rubin spends a long chapter discussing how to set up and structure a website and what sort of content to post there, and here’s where we see how far technology has come in the past 10+ years. No longer must you pay a web design firm to create a site for you (again, an expense the little folks can’t really afford) now that there are plenty of websites that help you easily design a professional-looking personal site and blog for free. It’s also cheap and easy to buy, register, and use your own personalized domain name. Rubin details the conversations she had with her web designer about how her site should be structured, and while it’s interesting, most of this just isn’t applicable anymore.

Overall, Rubin gives some great advice to the soloist, and the book is still valuable and worth reading. However, it didn’t have everything I was hoping for, and I never really felt like I was the target audience.

 

Books: Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard March 15, 2012

As a book on meditation, Mathieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is the best of both worlds, presenting both a spiritual and a scientific perspective. Ricard left a promising career in biology and genetics to become a Buddhist monk, so he uniquely understands both perspectives and is fascinated by the scientific study of the brain and how meditation affects, on a biological level, the way we think. Happiness is at once a guide to how meditation can improve our lives and help us to become happier and a thorough description of why it works, written in language accessible to any reader.

In the first few chapters, Ricard opens the book with discussion of happiness in general: is happiness the purpose of life? What does it mean to be happy, and how do we recognize happiness when we have it? Can we actively cultivate happiness in our lives? Concluding that happiness is possible and that cultivating it is worthwhile, Ricard then considers the problem of suffering. How can we be happy when we suffer; further, how can compassionate beings be truly happy when faced with the suffering of others? Ricard tackles this question, presenting stories of those who have suffered true hardship and examining the root causes of suffering. While we cannot control the events that happen to us, we can always control our responses to those events, and here is the real key to being happy under any circumstance. Over several chapters, Ricard discusses how we can use meditation in order to overcome ego, negative thoughts, and disturbing emotions, the obstacles within ourselves that prevent us from being happy no matter what occurs.

Ricard speaks from his own and his teachers’ experience that when we can lessen the influence of the ego and negative thoughts and emotions, we feel more freedom and happiness in our lives. He then goes on to discuss happiness from the perspective of sociology, psychology, and psychiatry, citing laboratory studies of experienced meditators whose brains have been shown to function differently than ordinary people’s brains. Meditation over long periods literally changes brain chemistry, leading to great benefits in quality of life. Ricard as both a scientist and a talented writer, in these chapters and throughout the book, is able to describe a variety of scientific studies and their results in terms a layman can understand and appreciate.

In the later chapters, Ricard examines positive attributes like altruism, humility, and optimism, and describes how cultivating these attitudes can help us to be happier. He cites evidence that those who are kind, humble, and optimistic tend to be happier than those who are not. By modifying our behavior to act more altruistically in daily life, or by being aware of pessimistic thought patterns as they arise, we can begin to make progress toward increasing happiness.

In the book’s final chapters, Ricard addresses several difficult issues: appreciating versus wasting time, ethics and the dichotomy of good and evil, and how to be happy in the presence of death. Ricard’s wisdom truly shines in these chapters; his advice is inspirational, practical and uplifting. The concluding chapter rounds out the book by describing the challenges and great rewards of following a spiritual path. Ricard promises that with regular practice and dedication, we can each not only live happier lives but become kinder, wiser, and more compassionate. Developing these qualities can lead us, as it led Ricard, to a life of great meaning, freedom, and joy.

 

books: The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche December 20, 2011

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness is an excellent and informative book and a good practical manual for meditation. A wide variety of meditation techniques are discussed, in language that makes them accessible to even the most un-Buddhist of readers. Mingyur (Rinpoche is an honorific given to respected teachers) is a kind and encouraging teacher; his writing style is very natural and conversational, helping you feel as if he’s right there beside you to help along the way.

The book is divided into three main sections. Part One: The Ground begins by describing Mingyur’s early life and training in meditation and his journey toward overcoming anxiety. He’s an engaging storyteller, and it’s comforting to hear that even a monk who grew up meditating from childhood can still struggle with his mind. This section also discusses the connection between the ancient Buddhist practices of meditation and modern advances in neuroscience, physics, and biology. Raised in isolated monasteries, Mingyur is fascinated with Western science and has worked with many scientists to learn about the brain’s workings and the structure of the universe and compare them with the Buddhist understanding of the mind and reality. While interesting, this area was not as strong as other sections – these discussions could have benefited from a scientist coauthor to help refine and make specific Mingyur’s comparisons. However, Mingyur does make a good case for meditation as valuable and needed in the West, and his ideas here are well worth reading.

In Part Two: The Path and Part Three: The Fruit, Mingyur is at his best, carefully walking the reader through the basics of meditation. He provides a firm foundation for beginners, with examples from his own history as guidance. Beyond the basics, he details a variety of different meditation techniques that will appeal to new and experienced students alike. He asserts that it is the intention to meditate that is most important, not the actual time spent on it or whether your mind wanders off in the middle. Mingyur strives to make meditation available to everyone.

I began reading this book back in February 2011 and just finished it this month, but the long reading time is due to my own crazy schedule this year, not any failing of Mingyur’s. I’ve actually posted about this book on several other occasions because as I read I found his words so encouraging and insightful. I highly recommend this book to anyone hoping to begin or deepen a meditation practice.

 

Books: Karma-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda December 8, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:15 pm
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Swami Vivekananda lived from 1863 to 1902 and is best known for his address at the Parliament of Religions in 1893, which helped to bring Hinduism to the modern world as a major religion. Vivekananda wrote a number of books, some of which are based on his lectures, and Karma-Yoga is one of these. Karma-Yoga has been reprinted many times over the past hundred years; the copy that I read,  borrowed from a college library, is a tiny little book, maybe 4″ x 5″, and only 143 pages. Because the book was published so long ago, you can read the whole thing online, so feel free to check it out! If you’re interested in the topic, this book is well worth the time.

In this book, Vivekananda expands on the concept of Karma yoga as set out in the Bhagavad Gita. Vivekananda covers a variety of topics related to karma, including work, action, character, motivation, morality, duty, and non-attachment. While Vivekananda’s explication of Karma yoga really moved me and helped me to understand how the path of Karma yoga can work in my life, I’ll try to keep this post focused on what Vivekananda writes, and I’ll follow up with another post on my personal response to the text.

Vivekananda begins by providing an introduction to the concept of Karma and work. For Vivekananda, a person’s character reflects that person’s will, which is shown through their work. He states,

Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness, but he alone is the really great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he be (5).

Karma, or work/action, is the means by which we each build our character. Our actions, our work, build us into who we become: doing good works reinforces good character, and constantly doing evil work builds a bad character. Therefore it’s possible for someone to change his character through his actions.

Vivekananda also discusses the motive for work: one shouldn’t work for money or fame or even the results of our work, but simply for the work’s sake. Removing selfish motives from our work builds self-control and character. He describes how the ideal person can find balance between a quiet, solitary spiritual practice and life in the world. Such a person can be in the middle of the densest city traffic and his mind will be as if he’s in a cave by himself; whether in a city or a cave, he’s intensely working at all times.

Vivekananda describes how the concept of morality and duty varies greatly depending on the country or culture: what’s considered right and moral in one country can be thought wrong and evil in another. Vivekananda argues that for this reason there can’t be a universal morality or sense of duty, but that each person must act according to what is deemed right and good in his or her own culture. Vivekananda recommends that we try to view each person’s actions through their own eyes rather than judging that person by our own standards of duty, especially when meeting people from another culture. If we view them by our standards, we may think they are acting wrongly or strangely, but if we try to understand their actions in the context of that person’s culture, we may see that the person’s actions are right and good to him. Every person should work to accomplish his own ideal, according to his own skills and abilities; if you take up someone else’s ideals, you can never hope to make progress. He then explains that one person’s duty isn’t higher or lower than another person’s; even working at hard physical labor can count towards spiritual progress if it’s approached with the right attitude.

Vivekananda also discusses the idea of non-attachment. Each person must constantly work, because it’s in our nature as human beings, but the only way to truly make our work count is to be unattached to the results of the work. Vivekananda compellingly describes how attachments affect the mind as well as how non-attachment relates to love, self-sacrifice, and charity, and how all of these come together: being able to love perfectly, without attachment, we are able to give freely of ourselves to others without worrying about how it will affect us. Vivekananda uses the powerful image of the grumbling worker: if you’re grumbling and complaining about your work, that means you’re attached to it; all your duties will seem distasteful and you’ll never be satisfied. However, if you’re able to do the work for the work’s sake, without attachment, you’ll find satisfaction and freedom.

Vivekananda states that no action can ever be completely good or completely bad: even the most kindly meant action can have negative consequences, and even the foulest evil act can result in some good. Because Karma results from every action, there’s no way to attain perfection simply by doing good works, because each good work will also have some negative effect. This is where non-attachment comes in: you continue to work and strive to do good, but free yourself from attachment to the results of the action. You set yourself aside, removing all selfish wish for praise or reward, and do your duty because it’s right to do your duty.

At the end of the book, Swami Vivekananda sums up his views on Karma yoga:

Karma-Yoga, therefore, is a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness and by good works. The Karma-Yogi need not believe in any doctrine whatever. He may not believe even in God…. He has got his own special aim of realising selflessness; and he has to work it out himself. Every moment of his life must be realisation, because he has to solve by mere work, without the help of doctrine or theory, the very same problem to which the Jnani applies his reason and inspiration and the Bhakta his love (131-2).

 

Books: The Upanishads, translated by Eknath Easwaran December 1, 2011

Filed under: books,upanishads,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:30 pm
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The Upanishads, translated by Eknath EaswaranThe Upanishads are a group of ancient wisdom texts. Each individual upanishad is named for the sage who delivered its teaching, long ago; each one describes in flashes of insight how to explore your own consciousness, how to come closer to the Divine. Some of the upanishads take the form of a story: a student (or a wife, or even a king) implores a great sage (or even Death itself) to share holy secrets. Most of the upanishads rely on classic natural images – birds, trees, water – that make the metaphors timeless and appealing even thousands of years after they were written.

It’s impossible to write an unbiased book review of a cherished spiritual text  – how could I possibly critique the writing style or the structure of a book like this? So this review will be a little more personal. I loved The Upanishads. They called out to me in a way other spiritual books, including the Bible, just haven’t. I expect to keep The Upanishads by my bed, read them again and again, consult different translations, flip through seeking guidance. It can be a difficult book, and I don’t ever expect to understand it fully, but I loved it.

While the text itself is beyond critique, the translation and the version I can comment on. I really like Eknath Easwaran’s translations (I also read his version of the Bhagavad Gita). Easwaran is well-versed in Sanskrit and in Hindu spirituality, and before becoming a spiritual teacher was an English professor, so he has all the tools to create both a beautiful and accurate rendition. Easwaran also writes the introduction, which I found helpful for putting The Upanishads in their historical context and setting the stage for the sort of text I was about to read (since when I started I really had no idea what I was getting into). This volume also includes a brief 2-3 page introduction before each upanishad, written by Michael Nagler. These I also found informative, and it was helpful to look as I read for the points that Nagler had called out as being important, but I think I would have preferred to read the upanishad first and then read Nagler’s summary of it. Nagler also writes a lengthy afterword, which I did not find very useful. The end matter includes a glossary and a section of notes, which I didn’t realize were there as I was reading the upanishads, and I think I’m glad I didn’t know they were there – I’m the sort of person who will flip back and forth consulting the notes, and I’m glad I was able simply to experience the upanishads on this first read rather than analyzing them academically. There will be plenty of time to look at the notes and read other translations. The glossary might have been helpful a few times, though, and I imagine it would be very useful to someone who hasn’t spent the past ten months up to her ears in yoga philosophy.

Overall, I would say that if you’re new to Hindu spirituality, I wouldn’t recommend starting with The Upanishads – the Bhagavad Gita is a much more accessible book for most people. For me, though, The Upanishads was more inviting, more enthralling than the Gita, and more accessible too. The first time I read the Gita I walked away thinking that it was nice and all but nothing great, and I needed the lectures and discussion of my yoga teacher training course to put the Gita’s systems in context and help me understand what I was reading. With The Upanishads, I felt like I could really hear the sages speaking directly to me: faraway, murky, blurred voices, sure, but I could hear it. I look forward to listening again and again.

 

 
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