Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Copyright Lance Kinseth, A Prayer Of Trees, 36”x36, 2003
IN YOGA, a sense of the practice of yoga as offering more than physical attributes, such as flexibility and strength, is evoked at some point. Increasingly, internationally popular yoga for fitness is giving way toward a quest to make this “something more” more explicit. Often, the first step involves a return of sorts to draw upon the rich religious traditions of the Asian subcontinent. Chants, vows, etc. become aspects of practices, but these alone can be somewhat superficial and artificial in that they may imitate rather than touch the deep intent of such practices. One may pay homage to Hindu deities but not take religious vows, and even when taking vows, a person will both not understand the myriad cultural subtleties underlying spiritual perceptions as well as not value aspects because they might be uncomfortable due to the influence of a person’s original culture or simply absent. Not having lived one’s whole life hearing about and awaiting the Hindu Kumbh Meta festival and knowing intimately all of the details of the rituals and the cities where it is held or, in the Sun Salutation, not worshipping Surya, “ a god with golden arms and hair who races across the dawn sky in a chariot pulled by seven horses, representing the seven colors of the rainbow” [Diane Ackerman, Dawn Light, NY: W. W. Norton, 2009, pp. 58 and 97 respectively] creates a cultural gap. In North America, among the Cherokee, feeding the hearts of mockingbirds to infants to optimize their ability to acquire language [Diane Ackerman, Dawn Light, p.68] or, among a Northwest Pacific Coast culture, offering an infant’s placenta to ravens to encourage the ravens to give their gifts to the infant, or not having been taught the Mesquaki meaning of the a raccoon’s stripes represent “obscure” [to a person raised in another culture] cultural nuances that will be missed and that mix with myriad other nuances to profoundly color overall spiritual perception. And in North America, borrowing aspects of Native American spiritual practices may be seen as not only superficial and facile, but also as a form of cultural robbery.
In every culture and in every era, there is an inherent, enduring, universal/transcultural ground that the body-mind practice of yoga (as well as other body-mind practices) authentically touches. In these practices, the movement of the body in congruence with mental presence evokes a variety of attributes that are extremely eloquent. And it is the taste of these attributes that draws people back to these practices across the long run.
The fast fitness pace of popular yoga may only offer glints of this “something more.”
In restorative yoga, the calmness and slow flow open a pathway of more than glints of something more. With time spent in breath and asana, the “landscape” of each restorative breath and each supported pose outspreads from the breath and pose themselves to their interrelatedness with gravity, temperature, sound, the presence of others and to the timelessness of past and present.
Time spent with breath opens a deep intuitive sense of the complexity of each breath: how it is absorbed, and the manner in which the breath is released back into the atmosphere, and the complex balance of atmospheric components, and…on and on it reaches. In intentional calmness and quiet, there is an opportunity to see each breath as something more than a physiological response. Beyond specific dogma, this “something more” involves a variety of characteristics or attributes of spiritual persons that are recognized by anyone and cherished. These characteristics are not typically a sense of exclusiveness or righteousness or piety. Rather, they might involve a sense of compassion and even humor. These characteristics are many, and include calmness and patience, sensitivity with no expectation, deep appreciation, non-striving, and joy. A characteristic such as compassion is provoked by direct experiences of events as inseparable and, therefore, many all events important.
One eloquent attribute of any event is its inherent grace. It is apparent in the body shape and in movement across species, from the insect to the hummingbird to the falcon. It is present in everything, but our lives often don’t seem to have much room and time in them to let us open to this grace. It is in everything, even in our breath. Each breath is overflowing with grace.
There is an opportunity for a deeper appreciation, wherein the breath itself might amplify grace, transforming to a prayer.
In Yoga Beyond Belief [Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2007], Ganga White writes in a poem entitled “What If…”
What if our religion was each other
If our practice was our life
If prayer, our words
What if the temple was the earth
If forests were our church
If holy water—the rivers, lakes, and oceans...
[Excerpt, p. vii]
Such a “What if” is optimized when we calm. Then in each moment, we are presented with an opportunity to be fully present in the grace that we discover in ourselves and in others and in everything that is fundamentally inseparable from ourselves and, authentically, is the longer reach of ourselves.
Every cultural product that we see or touch, from a glass of milk to autos, is overflowing with the grace of millions of people who have contributed to that specific glass of milk or to the myriad components of that automobile. No matter how secular and ordinary something may seem to be to us, there is the sacred presence of remarkable effort, design, trail and error to bring it to this moment.
When we calm and quiet, our bodies open to grace. We tend to disprize our body as it is in this moment, often not seeing just what a miracle it is and what a gift from billions of life forms and even from the stars that it is. The simplest movement and the seemingly near still flow of blood and respiration and digestion and even the way that our death is a gift to the Earth, by allowing human life to leave ourselves behind to become more, as our ancestry did to become you and I.
So when we begin our practice, and sit down, this is the heart of the First Excellence of Yoga into which we sit. This place and our body and others when we practice together and the place of practice are already overflowing with grace. By calming and quieting, by coming to a still point, a “something more” of joy, compassion, deep appreciation, grace, and on and on, is opened.
And then, in each pose, we can allow ourselves to physically experience the grace of our bodies. In each pose there is this point where we can release to the pose, to experience grace as it is in that moment.