Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Books: The Art of Happiness, by H.H. the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler May 27, 2014

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for LivingThe Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living is based on conversations that Howard C. Cutler, MD, a psychiatrist, had with the Dalai Lama over several years. The author’s introductory note states that the purpose of the book was to collaborate “on a project that would present the Dalai Lama’s views on leading a happier life, augmented by [Cutler’s] own observations and commentary from the perspective of a Western psychiatrist” (ix).

Cutler chose to organize the book’s content thematically. The topics include the following:

  • Part I: The Purpose of Life (hint: it has to do with happiness)
  • Part II: Human Warmth and Compassion
  • Part III: Transforming Suffering
  • Part IV: Overcoming Obstacles
  • Part V: Closing Reflections on Living a Spiritual Life

Each part except for Part V is comprised of three or four chapters discussing related topics. Cutler will often introduce a topic by giving a brief overview of the Dalai Lama’s thoughts, then will delve into the psychology behind the issue before returning to H.H.’s viewpoint and suggestions for dealing with the issue. Overall I feel like Cutler succeeds in meshing the sometimes very different viewpoints of Tibetan Buddhism and Western psychiatry, and I enjoyed the stories that both of them had to offer, but there were times when Cutler just didn’t seem to get what the Dalai Lama was saying and vice versa. In those instances, I was more interested in hearing the Dalai Lama’s viewpoint and just wanted Cutler to stop harping on whatever it was already, but overall this was pretty rare; I tended to enjoy both viewpoints.

One thing that I found interesting was how the Dalai Lama talks about eliminating negative states of mind. Just as in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Dalai Lama agrees that one of the best ways to eliminate these states of mind is to think of positive ones instead. For example,

“When talking about eliminating negative states of mind, there is one point that should be born in mind. Within Buddhist practice, the cultivation of certain specific positive mental qualities such as patience, tolerance, kindness, and so on can act as specific antidotes to negative states of mind such as anger, hatred, and attachment. Applying antidotes such as love and compassion can significantly reduce the degree or influence of the mental and emotional afflictions” (239).

This passage comes in Part IV, Overcoming Obstacles, in Chapter 12, Bringing About Change. This view fits in so well, to me, with Patanjali’s words in Sutra II.33: “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of.” I was really impressed and excited that Buddhist thought on this topic meshes so nicely with the yoga sutras.

The Dalai Lama’s wisdom is practical and straightforward; you can tell that he himself practices the same techniques he recommends. The book also includes instructions for several meditation practices (like this one), written in the Dalai Lama’s own words from transcripts of his talks. These are scattered throughout the book, as this isn’t intended as a meditation manual, but it’s nice that they’re included in places that make sense thematically.

Overall, I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the Dalai Lama, one of the holiest and most revered people alive today, and to understand his perspective, his kindness, and his compassion.

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On Cultural Appropriation, Part 2 July 25, 2013

Filed under: reflections,yoga,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 12:44 pm
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Last week, I posted my initial response to s.e. smith’s article “Like it or Not, Western Yoga is a Textbook Example of Cultural Appropriation“. I limited my initial response to a discussion of my own practice of yoga for physical and spiritual health; in attacking the appropriation of yoga by Western culture, smith’s article felt like a personal attack as well, whether it was intended that way or not, since my yoga practice is such a big part of my life and is woven into many different areas of my life. In processing what smith had to say, I had to think through how it affected me personally first. Today, I’d like to consider the larger issues that smith brings up.

I think smith is largely objecting to the commodification of yoga in Western culture, and there I think smith has a point. However, if you look at the history of yoga in the US, it was brought here not by people who wanted to sell it, but by people who believed in it and wanted to share its message. Religions, and religious practices, have a tendency to grow beyond the people who originate them. When Christianity started spreading to the Greek and Roman population a few decades after Jesus’s death, the original Jewish Christians really had to think about the meaning of their faith, but considering that Jesus said “spread the good news,” the spread of Christianity was unavoidable, and considering how he made an example of himself by having all kinds of people over to dinner, you can assume he would have wanted all those converts to be welcomed. Buddhism spread from its roots in India eastward into China, and while I’m not well informed on the subject, I’m sure Indian Buddhists, Chinese Buddhists, and zen Buddhists in Japan  all have some different religious practices within the same religious tradition. And it’s not as though Hinduism has tried to stay separate and apart. For example, in the late 1800s, Swami Vivekanda traveled the world and preached his message, making a huge impression at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 and really bringing Hinduism onto the scene as a major world religion (which it already was, of course, but his work brought recognition and interest from outside India). After Vivekananda, a number of teachers and yogis strove to promote yoga in the US, most of whom set out to do the work from an altruistic perspective. It could be argued that the spread of yoga as a practice beyond its Hindu roots was perfectly natural given that that’s what religions do, and given that Hindu yogis and swamis either traveled to deliver the message themselves or were happy to participate by preaching to those who wanted to bring it.

Over time, however, yoga has become a product to be sold. The majority of those in the yoga community would agree with smith that that’s not a positive thing. Yoga was never meant to be big business by those who wanted to share it in the first place; there’s a difference between people using the popularity of yoga to make a quick buck and people who’ve made yoga their life’s work. In India, the ancient yogis or wandering sages (sadhus) depended on charity for their livelihood: common people knew that if you didn’t provide for the sages, then they couldn’t live the lives of study and meditation that they were being called to live – they couldn’t search for wisdom, and therefore wouldn’t be able to share and teach that wisdom. It was understood that charity and hospitality towards the holy men was required. In modern times, yoga and spiritual guidance don’t require wandering the countryside barefoot, but they don’t pay for themselves either. People like my teachers N and J at EEY aren’t making tons of money on their business; I’m sure they’re happy to be paying their bills, but they didn’t get into yoga with dollar signs in their eyes. They teach yoga because they feel called to do it.

smith looks at the commercialization of yoga from one large-scale perspective, without taking into account all the individuals that make up the whole. So many books and products and classes exist for the yoga market, so many people wanting to make money, but there are also so many well-meaning people genuinely trying to do good work, who believe in the power of yoga to help others, even if just for the physical benefits. I don’t think you can talk about one without the other. But even recognizing the fact that yoga didn’t originate in the US for commercial gain and isn’t being used that way by many who “sell” it, what we need to address is what should be done about it. smith makes us all feel guilty about buying a new mat or getting a class pass at our favorite studio, but what alternative does smith offer?

I can understand why smith, after some soul searching, decided to abandon a personal yoga practice. But I don’t think it’s viable to give up every good thing that comes from a non-European heritage, or to assume that the presence of those things in Western culture must be classified as “cultural appropriation” in a negative way. After all, the USA is a melting pot: people from many cultures came here in the hopes of building a better life, bringing all their history and traditions with them. If Indian Americans are practicing yoga traditions here, then they are American traditions, and if we say they are not American traditions then I think we’re devaluing those people and their experiences. They, like all other Americans, are part of this country.

In some of the comments on smith’s article, people were making statements to the effect of, “Oh no, yoga is a form of cultural appropriation? Do I have to give up Chinese food too?” Which is ridiculous: sweet ‘n’ sour chicken does not equal a spiritual practice. But those commenters do have a point. Yoga, like Chinese food, is here to stay in Western culture. It’s not everything it could or should be, but it’s here. You can give it up, like smith did, the same way you’d give up wearing fur or eating factory-farmed beef: as a form of protest. Personally, though, I don’t think it’s in the same category. If you attend a yoga class, even a really Westernized aerobic power yoga class, you’re not participating in violence being done to a living creature in the same way you would by eating a steak or wearing a fur coat. The comparison just isn’t the same.

If we try to practice ahimsa, or nonviolence, then we abhor not just physical violence but all violence, so we have to ask whether we are engaging in some sort of violence by appropriating the spiritual practice of another cultural group when we attend that yoga class. Does my practice of yoga represent a form of violence if no member of the injured group knows about it, or would care or feel injured if they did know? Here’s another question: does the act of two men getting married somehow injure my heterosexual marriage? Or, more to the point, does my engaging in heterosexual marriage, or choosing not to do so, have any effect whatsoever on homosexual people who aren’t permitted to marry? smith strikes me as the sort of person who would abstain from a desired legal heterosexual marriage in protest until all gay people can get married too, but in the end, that protest would only help the movement for the 30 seconds it was a headline, or not at all. Ultimately that sort of protest would only hurt the protester.

In my opinion, since yoga is here to stay in the US and isn’t going anywhere, it would make a more powerful statement to practice yoga in the way you would like to see it practiced. Teach yoga in the way it should be taught. Show people what yoga really means by your example, and continue to seek, learn, and expand your knowledge about the history and true meaning of not just the physical asanas but the deeper spiritual practice. Instead of opting out of something wonderful just based on principle, be a part of the community and a voice for change.

 

On Cultural Appropriation, Part 1 July 18, 2013

Filed under: reflections,yoga,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:32 pm
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So here’s something that’s been bothering me for a while. I read this article by s.e. smith: “Like it or Not, Western Yoga is a Textbook Example of Cultural Appropriation“. Coincidentally, the open letter “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race” also showed up in my news feed last week. Reading these two pieces in close proximity really got me thinking about something I don’t think about very often (and definitely not as often as I should): my identity as a white person and how it affects my perceptions.

The cultural appropriation article bothered me very much, because I love yoga and genuinely hadn’t considered this issue before. I looked up the term “cultural appropriation” and found that Wikipedia has a very nice and detailed article with lots of examples. My initial sense was that smith’s article is pretty biased and doesn’t tell the whole story; smith’s bio on xojane describes smith as an “agitator” and someone who likes to “rile people up while also informing them about ongoing issues in the world around them”, so I’m going to assume that was intentional. I certainly feel riled – and although it’s not a pleasant feeling, I have to grudgingly agree with smith that getting riled isn’t a bad thing and often is a good and necessary thing. Being riled made me ponder this issue a lot this week, which can only be good for myself and my yoga practice, but I wanted to spend some time thinking over the perspective that smith is putting forth, because I do think smith’s perspective is biased.

The first issue I wanted to investigate with myself was whether my own yoga practice is culturally appropriative (is that a term? it is now). Am I personally offending Hindus everywhere every time I roll out my mat? After thinking about the issue from a variety of angles, I decided for myself that no, my yoga practice in itself isn’t offensive. My asana practice isn’t only a part of my physical fitness routine, it’s a part of my spiritual practice, and I approach that spiritual practice as respectfully as I can. I completed my yoga teacher training at a studio where meditation, spirituality, and the ancient Hindu roots of yoga are emphasized; I’ve read several of the sacred books that discuss yoga and I plan to read more. I may not be as informed or educated about Hinduism as someone born to the faith, but I’m working on it.

Spirituality isn’t (or shouldn’t be) limited by the color of one’s skin or one’s country of origin. The religion I was raised in never really resonated for me, so I needed to reach farther to find the path that did. Should I be limited to only Christian spiritual practices because I have white skin? Are my spiritual practices fake or empty in some way because I wasn’t born to them? That seems unnecessarily restrictive. The Wikipedia article on cultural appropriation notes that elements borrowed from other cultures “can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held”, and cites Native American traditional spiritual practice, among others, as an example. For myself, I do my homework and try to learn what yoga really means. That was part of why I undertook a yoga teacher training in the first place: to learn more about the spirituality underlying the physical practice, and to do so in a structured way. For smith to discount “everybody and their mother” for undertaking yoga teacher training is to discount a lot of honest, and earnest, searching, and a lot of people who genuinely want to learn the history and deeper meaning of their yoga practice.

Ultimately, unlike smith, I’ve decided that my personal use of yoga to improve my physical and emotional health and as a key part of my spiritual practice may be “cultural appropriation”, in the technical sense that I have appropriated these practices from another culture, but it isn’t cultural appropriation in the negative sense that smith means. I have never pretended to have all the answers, or to call myself a Hindu or an expert in Hinduism. When I have to call myself something, I call myself a Unitarian Universalist and I acknowledge my strong interest in Eastern religious practice. I think that’s an honest assessment and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I read, I research, I constantly try to improve my understanding. I learned what karma yoga means and I try to practice it. I’m doing my best.

However, yoga as it’s used and practiced in Western culture is not the same as yoga as it’s used and practiced by me personally, and I do agree with smith on a few points, which I’m going to have to discuss further in a separate post. Check back next week for more.

Side note: I fully recognize that this post itself may reinforce the depth of my cultural appropriation and entitlement to some readers. I read about a cultural issue and immediately looked at it from my own, privileged perspective, not the perspective of the minority; I did not consult with any actual live Hindus in the writing of this post; I am self-centered and I use the word “I” a lot. To which my response is: it’s a blog, it’s supposed to be self-centered; and smith didn’t mention consulting any actual Hindus in that article either. We are two white people writing about how white people feel about other cultures! I can’t go too far down this track or I want to punch myself, but I have to conclude that I am trying in good faith to explore and to understand, and that has to be good enough for now. Actual Hindus reading this, please know your opinion would be welcomed.

 

Gayatri Mantra April 30, 2013

Filed under: meditation,music — R. H. Ward @ 1:51 pm
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I really enjoyed listening to this version of the Gayatri Mantra during savasana at the end of last night’s yoga class, so I thought I’d share it with you:

Here’s a transliteration of the Hindu text, which is drawn from the Rig Veda:

Om bhur bhuvah svah
tat-savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah pracodayat

I looked around for a few different translations. Wikipedia has several nice ones, but they’re all male-centric, referring to the creator deity as a “he”. Here’s a non-gendered one I’ve read before:

Embracing Earth, Heaven and Beyond
The sacred source is revealed
Evoking the resplendent flame
The all-pervading light venerates us all.
(From The Secret Power of Yoga by Nischala Joy Devi, page 108.)

Devi actually connects the mantra to Gayatri as a female creator and the mother of the Vedas (see pages 107-116). Devi writes, “From Divine Light, she creates all life.” I like thinking of the mantra in that spirit (especially since I used it for savasana during a prenatal yoga class!).

And another, simpler, translation that I quite like:

Let us meditate on the light of the sun which represents God, and may our thoughts be inspired by that divine light.
(From Sanskrit.org.)

 

Profound Wisdom from Bob Ross April 18, 2013

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 2:29 pm
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In a week in which some really horrible violence happened in Boston, and in which a large portion of the US Senate voted to support violence, I think it’s a good idea to revisit the words of someone with a gentle spirit: Bob Ross.

Not long ago, I posted about a great inspirational Bob Ross video. Yesterday I saw this collection of 20 Essential Life Lessons from Bob, complete with quotes and images, and I knew I had to share. I hope it makes you smile and think peaceful thoughts about happy trees and beautiful safe places.

 

 

Books: Caretaking a New Soul, edited by Anne Carson March 28, 2013

Filed under: books,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 8:24 am
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Caretaking a New SoulCaretaking a New Soul, edited by Anne Carson, is an anthology of short essays about spirituality, education, and young children, aimed at families who don’t follow a traditional Christian path. Most people in the US are Christian; of adults who no longer practice, or practice a different faith, many were raised in a Christian household, chose a different path later, and are now searching for meaningful rituals and traditions to share with their children. Caretaking a New Soul fills that need, exploring a variety of faith perspectives, from Buddhist to pagan to the “buffet style” spiritual practitioner who likes a little bit of everything.

My favorite pieces in the collection are those from the Buddhist perspective, as that’s the faith closes to my own ideals.Raised Catholic myself, I appreciated the advice on how to teach meditation to a child in two essays: “The Education of the Buddhist Child,” by Rev. Jiyu Kennett, and “Call It Something Else,” by Karey Solomon. In “The Education of the Buddhist Child,” I really appreciated the perspective shift in discussing the differences in raising a Buddhist versus a Christian child. In “Call It Something Else,” Solomon talks about one specific method for teaching meditation to preschoolers. I’m looking forward to helping YB learn how to “make her star shine bright.” I’ve made copies of both articles for future reference.

The book was first published in 1989, with only a new preface added for the second edition in 1999, and this shows a bit in the content. I didn’t see any essays from a Hindu perspective, which would have been a welcome addition to me, or a Muslim perspective, which would have been great to include, but the second edition was published before Muslim spirituality came onto the scene in such a negative way with 9/11. Understandably, the need to demystify Muslim spiritual practice and childrearing wasn’t yet a major issue. There’s also very little discussion of alternative families. This issue doesn’t necessarily affect spiritual practice, but there are a lot of mentions of mothers and fathers that just wouldn’t be applicable for many modern families. And there are many “new age” sorts of references, and the pagan perspectives felt a bit dated to me. Overall the book still has a lot of excellent content for parents as spiritual seekers and teachers, but the reader has to be aware of the time lapse.

Interestingly for me, the pagan pieces made me think about my own bias: even in essays where I agreed with every substantive thing the author had to say, I still rolled my eyes at terms like “Goddess” and “Magick”. Why? As my husband F pointed out, a child is more likely to comprehend the idea of saying a magic spell over terminology like “the power of positive thinking” and “self-actualization”. Who cares what you call it, if it works? And reverence for the earth and the environment is important to my own spirituality, even if I don’t talk about the Earth Mother, and it’s definitely something I want to share with my daughter. Regardless of the words used, respecting the spiritual practices of others is important to me, and I will always want YB to be respectful, so I definitely have to examine my attitudes before I pass negative perspectives down to her.

In one section, Carson talks about how parents want more for their children. For many of us, our parents wanted us to have more than they did, largely in the sense of material goods and status: a good education, college, and fancy house and car. Carson, writing in the 1980s, notes that she wants her daughter to have more in the emotional and spiritual sense: more freedom from violence and prejudice, more self-confidence, more strength. That statement struck me hard, because those are the exact things that I want my daughter to have that I didn’t (and doing the math and realizing the Carson’s daughter is probably just a few years younger than I am makes me a bit sad, but also glad for the steps forward that have been made just in my lifetime). Thinking critically about spiritual issues and education is one of the main ways we can begin to build that future for our children.

 

Bob Ross as Guru August 3, 2012

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 10:16 am
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Today I wanted to share this video, which actually made me tear up a little: Bob Ross Remixed.

I grew up watching Bob Ross paint on TV. I even took a Bob Ross method painting class when I was 12 (my oil painting still hangs over the mantel in my parents’ house). I’ve always loved Bob’s calmness and gentleness, how every element he adds to a painting just makes it a happier place. I never met Bob, but watching him on TV, I always had the sense that he genuinely cared about me, that he believed I could create something beautiful. I think he did feel that way about his viewers and that’s why he appealed to so many people and is still so beloved years after his death.

Watching this video, it struck me that one could do worse for a spiritual guide than Bob Ross. He encouraged people to use their own creativity, to create joy and good thoughts. He said there are no mistakes, just happy accidents. At least in his television persona, he feels like the human embodiment of ahimsa, or nonviolence. We could all do a lot worse than to emulate Bob’s kindness and apply his words of wisdom about painting not just in our creative projects but throughout our lives.