I sometimes teach poetry at schools with this organization called Wordplay, that helps bring a more positive understanding of reading and writing poetry to young kids. One of the ones I did recently was at a private girls school, and we asked them what they were studying right then. "My Last Duchess," they told us, by Robert Browning (c. 1842). My partner, Barbara, asked: "Does anyone know a duchess here? Anyone have a best friend who happens to be a duchess? No?" Of course they laughed, but she was making a really important point: WHY are we studying this? Poetry has always been a sounding board for society, and one of the most interesting things about studying it is that you learn something about the culture that created that poem. There are, of course, lots of reasons to study Browning, but what a lot of people need to understand is that contemporary works of art can teach us more about ourselves.
So when I am in a yoga class, and the teacher starts spouting off something from the traditional texts or something she learned from her 'teacher,' who by virtue of being from India must understand something better or higher than we ever can, it sort of makes me angry. I wonder what that person knows, personally, about what she is saying. Does she actually believe it or is it just someone else's words coming out of her mouth?
I don't have a problem with ancient texts or teachers per se, it's just as it happens i live here, and now. In Canada. In the 21st century. And I want to make my life better. That's why we do yoga, isn't it, most of us? To have a better life right now, not 200 years ago in India. It's just not where we live.
That being said, one of the basic lessons of yoga is that every lesson must be experienced to be understood. The Buddha is another one who said over and over, don't listen to me! Go learn it for yourself. Avidya--non-knowledge--can often come disguised as what someone else has told you.
One of my major teachers is also my business partner and one of my closest friends: Coco Finaldi, and in a course she is teaching right now at our studio, East Side, she writes:
There is a wealth of knowledge available to the yoga practitioner; asana,
pranayama, kriyas, scriptures... It is important to understand that the in-
formation itself doesn’t hold all the answers to self realization or to the
state of Yoga. Yoga is comparable to music in that music needs to be read
and played in order to be heard and experienced. The mystical writings of
Yoga need to be read and played, practiced and experienced.
And as I am indeed learning, she is RIGHT. The Sutras are these ancient (think 300 BC) writings by a guy or possibly a group of guys named Patanjali about the practice of yoga. I never thought I would be finding something from 300 BC make sense in my life right now, but here I am, with Sutra 3:
Tada drashtuh svarupe vastanam: When the thought waves are controlled, the seer is established in his own true nature.
This didn't make any intuitive sense to me until about 11 days ago, when I started a 40 day challenge to meditate, for at least 11 minutes, every day. Here's what usually happens:
I sit down. Assume the position (chin mudra). Sit quietly. My mind begins to yell at me. Thoughts from the day, plans for later, worries about the studio--oh yeah. Focus. Focus on your root chakra. Root chakra, root chakra...am I subbing a class tomorrow? When is that, how will I get there....no, focus. Don't attach to your thoughts. Focus on your third eye. Third eye, third eye....that was a weird dream last night. I wonder what it meant...stop! focus.." and I go on like this for another 9 minutes. I can't tell you how challenging it is to stop the thoughts. I have had 'successful' sits in meditation, where my mind yells at me less, but part of what I want to do here is let my thoughts run. Everything in my life has changed so dramatically over the past year and a bit, and everything has happened so quickly that I haven't had a chance to process it. There are more effective meditations I know are available to me, but I kind of WANT my thoughts to run wild, so they can say their piece and then leave me alone.
Anyway, though the meditations themselves sort of feel like failures, the rest of my day feels totally different. I can tell that some of the garbage (you are not good enough. That was a bad class. Should I be doing more of this pose or that pose in classes? Why don't I write poetry anymore? Why can't I jump back from crow to chatuanga? I wonder what my boyfriend meant when he said...) starts to quietly filter out, and I am left with the real things in my brain that either need work or are actual real life truths for me. I feel like I am sitting in my true nature a lot more of the time (though I wouldn't say I have control over my mind!). I care a little less what other people think of me. I am more sure of where I am going and why I teach the way I do. I am more patient with myself and more compassionate when I can't do everything I want to do. I am letting my relationship be. I am learning that I am good on the inside, somewhere, not just a mess of insecure thoughts (though yes, sometimes it feels that way).
So what did I do to express my newfound freedom and self-trust? I marched down to East Vanity Parlour and got half my hair shaved off. Even though everyone told me not to. And it looks freaking sweet. And I have a feeling Patanjali would approve.