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.

Advertisements
 

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

Filed under: books — R. H. Ward @ 1:22 pm
Tags: , ,

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: The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras, by Nischala Joy Devi September 7, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 4:13 pm
Tags: ,

The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman's Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga SutrasNischala Joy Devi’s interpretation of the yoga sutras offers a different take from most traditional translations. Devi set out to write a book that explicates the yoga sutras from a heart-centered, more “feminine” perspective. She realized that most of the existing translations of the sutras were written by men, and she noticed many of her female students commenting that the sutras didn’t seem to relate to them. Devi set out to complete a more accessible text for women. She sought for her book to embrace both thoughts and feelings (rather than separating thoughts from feelings, which is often done in Western culture). She generally uses the terms “consciousness” and “heart” where the customary translation would read “mind” and “thoughts”.

Overall, I think Devi’s technique was effective.The first time I read the sutras was in this translation, and it was difficult for me; I’m not sure how I would have fared with a more traditional translation. At least with Devi’s version I felt as if the book was intended for ME.  For the most part, Devi uses real life examples that made sense in relation to how to practice the sutras in a real woman’s busy life.

On this reread, I was also simultaneously reading Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation of the sutras; Satchidananda was Devi’s spiritual teacher, so it was very interesting to see where the two of them interpret the sutras differently and where they have a similar approach. In many instances, Satchidananda and Devi say much the same thing, but Devi couches her language in ways that feel more familiar and welcoming for a modern woman. Part of me wants to call this “the sutras – lite”, but it’s not light at all, it’s just a different take that… well, doesn’t feel quite so difficult, even though it’s the same material.

One thing I would have really liked in this book is a glossary; Devi naturally uses a lot of Sanskrit terms. The first time I read the book, it took me several months to complete it, and reading it over such a long period of time, I definitely got my dharmas and dharanas and dhyanas crossed. There is an index, which is helpful, but rather than looking up where the word first appeared and then going there to refresh myself about the definition, it might have been more effective just to have a glossary. (Satchidananda’s translation does include a glossary.)

Overall, I recommend this book for women who are looking to deepen the spiritual side of their yoga practice or meditation. I also recommend it for men who, like me, don’t connect so much with the mind/thoughts rhetoric in spiritual books.

 

Books: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, trans. and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda September 2, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:23 pm
Tags: ,

The Yoga Sutras of PatanjaliThe Yoga Sutras, the key text in the study of yoga, is an ancient text dating back at least 2000 years. The sutras were compiled by the sage Patanjali (pah-TAN-ja-lee). Patanjali didn’t invent the concept of yoga, but he made a system of it by bringing together all the existing teachings and traditions and giving them a structure for students to follow. The word “sutra” means “thread” – the text is a collection of almost 200 brief “threads” of wisdom. Patanjali used as few words as possible in each sutra with the idea that students would be learning from an established teacher, who would expound upon each sutra in turn. Sri Swami Satchidananda takes on that role in this translation of the sutras and the accompanying commentary.

The sutras are traditionally grouped into four books: Book One, Contemplation; Book Two, Practice; Book Three, Accomplishments; and Book Four, Absoluteness. For most students, just reading Books One and Two is sufficient – the last two books contain the more esoteric teachings. For my teacher training we actually started by jumping right in with Book Two, the practical teachings, and this certainly isn’t a bad idea. For Patanjali, the physical practice of yoga is simply a means of calming the mind, and the vast majority of the sutras are about the mind; it can be a little easier for the modern student to begin with the practical sutras in Book Two before working on the contemplative sutras in Book One.

This version of the sutras follows a helpful format: for each sutra, the original Sanskrit is given, along with the Sanskrit transliteration, the literal translation, and finally a translation set in readable English prose. This structure could appeal both to the serious Sanskrit student as well as to the beginning student (who can just skip right to the English). After each sutra follows commentary from Swami Satchidananda. At first I found the commentary to be rather dry, but after journeying through the whole book I came to enjoy his tone and appreciate his stories. Satchidananda’s translations of the sutras are very straightforward, and his commentary really elucidates each sutra and gets to the heart of what Patanjali is saying.

Overall, this is a good translation of the Yoga Sutras for beginning students, and for those who have studied the sutras before, Satchidananda’s commentary is a worthwhile reason to choose this edition for a re-read.

 

The Parakarmas, part 2: celebrating the good, staying impartial to the bad September 1, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:19 pm
Tags: , ,

The parakarmas, discussed in Sutra I.33, are four attitudes that, if we practice them, will help us in our relationships with other people. Swami Satchidananda says that if you’re going to remember just one of the yoga sutras, it should be this one, for the power it has to help us keep a serene mind.

The sutra reads as follows:

By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind retains its undisturbed calmness. (page 54)

Nischala Devi translates it just a little differently, with a little less judgment on the “wicked”:

To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes: kindness to those who are happy, compassion for those who are less fortunate, honor for those who embody noble qualities, and equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values. (page 77)

Yesterday we discussed the first two parakarmas (friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy). The last two are a little trickier.

  • Delight in the virtuous / honor for the noble

This attitude can be summed up as “celebrating the good in others”. I have a friend who goes to Nicaragua every year to volunteer in an orphanage for disabled children. I know a woman who overcame great personal hardship to raise her son, her daughter who has a serious heart condition, and her youngest child, a small boy who also has a serious health problems whom she adopted from China. I know a perfectly ordinary guy with a job and a kid who feels so passionately about cancer research that he organizes a huge fundraiser every year as a volunteer, putting in hours of his time and energy to help others. Everybody knows someone like this, and we all wonder how on earth such people exist: come on, can they really be that nice? But we’re just looking at the whole picture, without the benefit of the context of the little moments that brought that person here. In each individual moment, that person was just trying to make the best choice she could, the same way that we all do. The sum of those choices may be a larger-than-life story that doesn’t seem real, but at the center is a regular, fallible person doing their best. Don’t envy that person (because you don’t know what he had to go through to become who he is), and don’t gossip or try to pull that person down. Instead, admire him, or use her as an example for your own conduct. Such people deserve our respect for all the love and goodwill and service they put into the world, and they deserve to be celebrated – we need more of them!

  • Disregard toward the wicked / equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values

Devi’s translation is a little more politically correct than Satchidananda’s, but it comes to the same thing: don’t let it upset you. (Don’t let the bastards get you down!) There will always be people who seem wicked or wrong, people who have values different from our own. Some people are just like that; maybe you or I used to be like that too. Maybe it’s something as simple as someone driving like a jerk on the highway – we don’t know what made that person act that way, so all we can do is hope he’ll do better tomorrow. Or maybe it’s someone you must interact with (a distant relative, a coworker) whose views are just totally different from yours: these are the most difficult people, because what do you say? Nothing you can do will convince this person to change his mind. If you want to preserve your own serenity, the best course of action is just to let it go: don’t get angry, don’t argue, and don’t let it upset you. Be as polite as possible, and when the situation has passed, put that person out of your mind. Don’t spend the next two days arguing about it in your head – that’s not going to change the other person, but it does change you. Why choose to get upset and keep rehashing angry words? Let it go.

N & J described this attitude as “remaining impartial to the faults and imperfections of others”. I like this rephrasing a lot because it reminds us to keep this attitude not just with nasty Uncle Larry or with Susan in marketing, but also with the people closest to us. I’m not perfect and I’m never going to be, but it’s easy to forget that my friends and loved ones aren’t perfect either. I may have high expectations for them – and we often expect the best from the people we love, don’t we? – but they have faults and imperfections too, and they make mistakes. If we can remain impartial when those mistakes happen, we’ll be able to be kinder to the person in that moment, and we’ll be better able to preserve our own calmness of mind without getting angry or disappointed.

 

The Parakarmas, part 1: friendliness and compassion August 31, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:19 pm
Tags: , , ,

The parakarmas, discussed in Sutra I.33, are four attitudes that, if we practice them, will help us in our relationships with other people. Swami Satchidananda says that if you’re going to remember just one of the yoga sutras, it should be this one, for the power it has to help us keep a serene mind.

The sutra reads as follows:

By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind retains its undisturbed calmness. (page 54)

Nischala Devi translates it just a little differently, with a little less judgment on the “wicked”:

To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes: kindness to those who are happy, compassion for those who are less fortunate, honor for those who embody noble qualities, and equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values. (page 77)

Let’s take a look at each attitude in turn.

  • Friendliness/kindness toward the happy

Why wouldn’t we be happy to see other people being happy? Maybe the other person has something we don’t have and we’re jealous, or maybe we’ve just had a bad day and the happy person’s good spirits get on our nerves. But feeling jealous or annoyed won’t do anything to the other person – all it does it disturb you. You can’t have a calm mind or a peaceful heart when you’re full of jealousy. For your own sake, then, when you see a happy person, cultivate a feeling of friendliness towards him or her. Even if you’re having a bad day, don’t get annoyed; think to yourself, “I’ve been happy like that before, and I will be again.”

  • Compassion for the unhappy/those who are less fortunate

I don’t like to talk about politics, but I feel like this is a very hot topic in the USA right now. Many, many people in our country are suffering under a poor economy, have lost their jobs, can’t find work, can’t afford their homes, can’t support their families, can’t afford medical care. And yet with so many suffering, our political leaders talk about how not enough Americans are paying income tax and how we should raise taxes on those people while preserving tax cuts for the very rich. This is more than wrong-headed thinking; it’s not compassionate. I found Warren Buffett’s recent article in the New York Times to be a really interesting example of compassion.

Swami Satchidananda points out that there’s often an impulse to blame the suffering person: he must have done something to deserve this. If you’re homeless, just get a job! That girl shouldn’t have been having sex, so of course she’s in trouble now that she has a baby. But if we are truly practicing yoga, we must live in the present moment. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past; this person is suffering now and deserves our compassion. As yogis, we must also strive to understand others, to truly put ourselves in their shoes. There may be all kind of circumstances that prevent someone from finding a job (including a bad economy!), and without knowing that specific person’s story, we can’t judge. Imagine how you yourself would feel in that situation and how you would want to be treated. All we can do is to treat people compassionately, with mercy, and work to help and serve as best we can.

Swami Satchidananda also reminds us that the purpose of these attitudes, these parakarmas, is to preserve your own serenity. Being cruel to others hurts you too! But if you know that you were compassionate, that you tried to help, your own mind is set at ease. If nothing else, living with compassion eases your own heart.

Tomorrow: the other two parakarmas!

 

Kleshas July 7, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 9:29 pm
Tags: , , ,

In the yoga sutras, Patanjali identifies five “kleshas” or obstacles to achieving enlightenment. These kleshas are ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred, and fear of death. Each of us has these five obstacles rooted in our minds, but by following the teachings in the yoga sutras, we can learn how to push the kleshas down so they have less power over us.

Ignorance is the first and most important of the kleshas. By “ignorance” Patanjali doesn’t mean simply not knowing something; if I held up a banana but you’d never seen one before, you won’t know what it is or that it’s good to eat. Patanjali isn’t talking about that sort of normal ignorance, he’s talking about ignorance on the spiritual level. Our world, our posessions, even our bodies are changing all the time, but we keep on trying to view these things as permanent, trying to make them be permanent. We blind ourselves to the fact that things change. The only thing that doesn’t change is our true Self, the innermost Self that doesn’t age or get sick. We say, “I’m tired” or “I’m sad”, even though it is the body that gets tired and the mind that feels sad, not really “I”, our true unchanging Self. When we remain ignorant about our true nature, this prevents us from making progress on our spiritual path. Ignorance is the most important of the kleshas because once you remove it, all the other kleshas fall away too.

Egoism is the second klesha. We fall victim to egoism when we confuse our true Divine Self with the individual self. We all have a tendency to get caught up in our egos. We insist on looking at the world from our own limited perspective, not thinking about how others feel or what we can do to help. To remove egoism, we practice humility.

The third and fourth kleshas, attachment and hatred, go hand in hand. We tend to focus on our likes and dislikes, disregarding what’s truly healthy for the body and for the spirit in order to pursue pleasure or avoid discomfort, but pleasure and discomfort are both momentary. Of course we want to enjoy pleasant experiences to the fullest, but it’s important to keep an awareness that they only last a short time. When unpleasant situations come up, we should face them head-on, knowing that the challenge will make us stronger.

The final klesha is fear of death or clinging to life. Because of our egos and our attachments, we’re afraid to leave this world. It’s hard to get around this one – I for one really like my life and don’t want to give it up any time soon. But what I think Patanjali is getting at here is that everyone someday must die and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so why suffer needlessly with worry? Patanjali thinks we should practice acceptance: love our lives while we’re here, but go forth unafraid when the time comes.

These five kleshas hold us back, keeping us focused on the material world and preventing us from achieving enlightenment. So how do we combat them? Practicing the yamas and niyamas seems like a good plan. Patanjali specifically recommends three of the niyamas: tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (spiritual study), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender, faith, devotion). This makes sense: spiritual study is an obvious way to combat ignorance, and practicing surrender would certainly help the fear-of-death thing. (And tapas, of course, is good for everything.) There’s also a lot in the yamas that can help. Practicing satya, or truthfulness, can be a reminder that everything changes except our true Self. Asteya, or non-stealing, and aparigraha, non-greed, remind us not to cling so tightly to material possessions, and ahimsa, of course, reminds us to put others first and be kind to all. When I first read the yoga sutras about the kleshas, I felt down – here’s yet another thing to worry about – but putting it in the context of the yamas and niyamas, which I already understand, helped to make this complex spiritual concept feel more manageable. I’m already working on this!

For more on the kleshas, and how you can use backbending yoga poses to work with the kleshas in your life, check out the great article “Fear No Backbend” by Hillari Dowdle in the June 2011 issue of Yoga Journal (84-91, 114).