When Padma ( this is how we affectionately call our guru Sharon Gannon) enters a room, she likes to greet everyone by making eye-contact and bowing gently, her face lit with a smile. This can take a while (like during this Jivamukti tribe gathering where hundreds of yogis come to learn from her). All the chitter-chatter stops and silence fills up the room. The atmosphere clears up. It is magical to be part of that.
Every year, at their home in the Wild Woodstock Forrest sanctuary, Sharon Gannon and David Life teach daily classes in August. It is my favorite time of the year.
Last year, on August 18th, she was just about to greet us her natural way and stopped. And gave us a short teaching instead:
« You know things happen in life and you adjust accordingly…It’s a good thing. It’s like rivers. Rivers are master adjusters, adapters. They are steady and flow. When they have to go around something, they go around something.
Sometimes, they get very intent on reaching their goal, they just push everything…. So there’s it that.
Isn’t it annoying when the teacher speaks cryptically? » [laughter] ~ Sharon Gannon
This world is a better place because of this gentle and mighty river!
Please join me in showering my guruma with love and abundant blessings to celebrate her birthday
Restraint, Observance, Seat, Breath Control, Sense Withdrawal, Concentration, Mediation and Ecstasy are the eight limbs of Yoga.
In the practice of pratyahara, one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, we draw the senses inward to bring attention to the inner world instead of expending energy exclusively on the outer world. What we perceive in the outer world is just one part of our whole consciousness. Pratyahara provides a bridge from the outer practices of yama, niyama, asana and pranayama (from the gross) to the inner practices of dharana, dhyana and samadhi (to the subtle). The energy freed from focusing outward, freed of the desire to act and to collect information can be wisely channeled instead to the realization of who we really are, which is pure consciousness.
Where do we put our energy most of the time? We give our precious attention to the outside world, invariably, through identification with sensory inputs as well as identification with conditioned personality. For example, take our self-image, how we want to present ourselves to the world. How do I look? How do people see me? How do I want to be perceived? This kind of behavior exhausts a lot of our energy throughout the day. Pratyahara, as a practice, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves or that we shouldn’t embrace beauty. It means to be aware of how much attention we give the outer image and to reduce the energy wasted in creating it. Satsang is a potent and helpful yoga practice in this regard. To be surrounded by people who are interested in yoga and self-realization instead of sticking to a carefully crafted outer image supports us to liberate ourselves from false identification.
To be able to turn the focus inward we need to minimize outer disturbances to the extent possible. What do we feed our minds all day? Information from news media, television, emails, social media, magazines and advertising, all of which trigger our emotions and tell us what we need next. What is our strategy to deal with all this information? Some may turn to alcohol, drugs and gossip. We talk and think more in an effort to digest all that input. Unfortunately, it only makes things worse. We should rather make an effort to calm our mind! We have to be able to digest what happens to us and everything that we say and think and do. Choose that which gives you less new things to deal with. As a practice, write down what distracted you during the asana or mediation. What made concentration difficult? By putting it into words you can realize what you are chewing on while you wanted to focus on something higher than your daily distractions. Then you start getting a sense of what is really important to you and what kind of external sensory input you would like to minimize.
To understand what is happening during the process of pratyahara, for me the philosophy of Samkhya is very helpful. We get an exact breakdown of how the human being functions, what has an influence on our behavior and how we perceive the world. We all know our five senses, referred to in Sanskrit as buddhendriyas. There are also the karmendriyas or “senses of action” (talking, grasping, moving, eliminating and procreating). These are almost always immediate, unconsciousness, automatic, spontaneous, and learned reactions to the sensations. I see something I like, for example, a brownie. For others, it would be a cigarette, a steak, a sexy person or a new pair of shoes. I see the brownie, I want to have the brownie and my hand grasps the brownie. To understand why we act like we do, we need to observe the connection between sensation, mind and action. Then we have the chance to change something. Being aware of what drives us to action makes it easier to let it go and calms down our lives. Conscious behavior reduces distraction and increases the ability to concentrate. Focusing inward we discover the three parts of our mental activity. The dominant parts are the thinking part, the mind (manas) and the part having an opinion, our ego (ahamkara). The pure observing component (buddhi) is slightly hidden, but always present. Through training the mind we can interfere and stop our prompt action. We then have time to reflect and act consciously. Do I need the brownie? Am I hungry? Do I need more sweets? What did I eat all day? What are the ingredients? What are the consequences for me and for others? Does my action lead to more suffering of others? What are my ethical and moral beliefs? How do I want to act, instead of just react? Addressing these questions will lead to different behaviors, which are based on a freely made decision, with hopefully less ego involved. Selfless and nonviolent behavior reduces the dominance of the ego and brings more peace to the world and to the mind.
A practical aspect of the training of the mind is to observe things consciously like a witness. Practice observing without judgments, without words, just watching. For example, watch thoughts arising during the Yoga Practice. We don’t have to stick with the thoughts, we don’t have to describe them and we even don’t have to think about where they come from. We can realize this is the mind thinking a thought, and let go of the thought. This will bring us closer to the buddhi, our intelligence, which allows realizing the higher Self, which is pure consciousness.
The practice of pratyahara shows us, how much influence the culture has, the outer circumstances, our experiences, our personal behaviors and characteristics and, of course, our preferences and antipathies. Going inward reveals a sophisticated vision of our entire consciousness. The ego — or better the “maker of our small self” — can be identified and eliminated, revealing the buddhi, a clear and free perception. As Sharon Gannon and David Life say in Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul, “Through pratyahara we can journey from the outer fixation to inward revelation.”
BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD
yad-yad ācarati śreṣṭhas / tad-tadevetaro janaḥ / sa yat pramāṇaḿ kurute / lokas-tad-anuvartate
A great person leads by example, setting standards that are followed by others all over the world.
The streets of Calcutta were dangerous and dirty. Thousands were infected with leprosy, cholera, and other contagious diseases. At overcrowded hospitals, nurses were forced to turn away dying patients onto the cockroach-infested streets. A group of activists, led by Mother Teresa, risked their own health to treat the sick and poor, even though most could not be saved. Why would Mother Teresa dedicate her life to working in the most unsettling conditions for people who did not have anything to give in return? She responded by saying, “I see the divine in every human being. When I wash a leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?”
The great leaders of the world – Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai – all share certain characteristics. They are clear communicators as well as great listeners. They have a firm and steady grounding that reflects an unwavering commitment to their cause. They inspire and empower. They are also confident, honest, and discerning. There is another quality each great leader has, that perhaps outshines all the others – humility.
Business philosopher Jim Rohn says, “Humility is almost a God-like word. A sense of awe. A sense of wonder. An awareness of the human soul and spirit. Humility is the grasp of the distance between us and the stars, yet having the feeling that we are part of the stars.” In other words, humility is seeing yourself in others; it is seeing all life as holy.
The word humility is derived from the Latin humilis, which is translated as “grounded” or “from the Earth.” The Chandogya Upanishad teaches tat twam asi or “you are that.” This mahavakya, or great saying, relates to the idea that everything is Brahman, that the supreme Self and the individual self are one and the same. If you are Brahman, and the tree is Brahman, then you and the tree are one. The yogi has the humility to understand they are the same as all that exists on Earth. Its natural resources support life, so it is our responsibility to support the Earth just as much.
According to Vedic scripture, we are currently living in the Kali Yuga – an era of conflict and struggle – and great leaders are especially needed. If we want to see peace and happiness in the world, then we must live the kind of life we want to see. There was a point in time when humanity lived in harmony with nature. We only took from the Earth what was necessary to survive. Now, each year, humans kill billions of animals and destroy millions of acres of land. We are fighting wars over natural resources and the Earth can no longer sustain us. The business of taking all the earthly resources we want was once thought of as progress. We have instead regressed, causing billions of humans, animals, and plants unhappiness.
A great yogi offers strength to others so that they too can learn to be steady and joyful. Humility allows the yogi to be the change they want to see in the world. We can consider progressing in a different way, one that would help us rediscover our higher consciousness and realize that we are the same as the stars and shine just as bright. We can also lead by example, setting standards that are followed by others all over the world.
nimittam aprayojakaṁ prakṛtīnāṁ varaṇa-bhedas tu tataḥ kṣetrikavat
Causes do not put nature, Prakrti, into motion. They only remove the obstacles and coverings, like a farmer breaking down the barriers to let water flow in the field. The hindrances removed by the causes, Nature impenetrates by herself.
Many people think a yoga practice is about acquiring something, a certain skill or the ability to do an asana. What you are really doing is eliminating the obstacle that prevents you from getting there. You’re stripping away all the excess. It is the restrictive thought, the narrowing of possibilities that disallows the flow of energy or prana. We want these doorways to be open. Yogis are very practical, so to do that, we must investigate how they became closed.
Most often, an asana practice is associated with the physical body. That body is called Anamaya kosha or the food body. Kosha means sheath or covering. But what is moving the physical body? You may think, well, I am. But what actually moves your body is your vitality. Pranamaya kosha is the vital body where prana flows through energy channels called nadis. Now, you can’t dissect a human body and find the nadis. They aren’t visible, but they exist and you can feel them. You can tell when you have abundant energy or when energy is lacking. The koshas are sheaths that cover who we really are. That is whatever you want to call it – spirit, a creation of the Divine, a magical appearance, free, happy, unlimited. That’s your true nature.
You have five koshas or bodies. They may not be visible either, but they all interact with each other. In an asana practice, you could have emotional things going on, you could have intellectual things going on, you could have blissful things going on, and you certainly have physical things going on. But, in the end, what we’re trying to affect is our vitality, the flow of energy. We want to remove barriers that prevent the energy from moving a beneficial way.
Ksetrika is the Sanskrit word for farmer. In India, rice is farmed in paddies. The way it works is the farmer builds a little earth mound around the rice paddy to protect it from a nearby source of flowing water. An expert farmer knows exactly when to take the mound away so the paddy gets flooded at just the right time. The farmer must know how long to leave the field flooded before replacing the mound and stopping the flow. Just because someone has good soil, good seeds and available water, that doesn’t mean they are going to have a good rice crop. It takes a special intelligence to understand what the rice needs to grow. It takes a special wisdom to know the right time of the season, and so forth. All those elements work together to support growth. That is what Patanjali describes in the yoga sutra.
What you do acquire in a yoga practice is that excellent wisdom, that special intellect that allows you to open the gate and let prana flow to places that have become closed off. You gain it by feeling the restrictions in how you can articulate the physical body with your energy. You may want to do an asana, but somehow you can’t get the energy flowing into the back of your leg. The knee is shaky and the foot is bumbling. But, through practice and diligence, you gradually learn to allow the energy to flow freely into the leg. You know how to open and close the gates, like the good farmer.
More than the physical position, your task is to be free while you’re there. Study body language and you can see arrogance, defensiveness or fear in subtle expressions of the body. Are you mainly worried about yourself and your asana? Did you forget why you are doing it? Low self-esteem shows in the physical body’s inability to move with freedom, openness and joy. It is a result of thoughts toward yourself and others. It’s a result of selfish actions taken in the past. This is what closes doors and disallows the flow of prana that would promote growth. If unkind actions close doorways in our lives, then what we’re looking for are kind and virtuous actions.
You are not losing anything by giving away your kindness to others. In fact, you are filled with more vitality. You’ve experienced this at times when you are low on energy, and just really don’t have anything left, but then someone close to you needs your understanding. They need your compassion and support, and you really love them. You love them so much that your own fatigue goes on the back burner. You’re there for them out of a sense of identification with them, out of a love for them. We want that complete freedom, so that wherever you go, you are fully alive and have the ability to surprise everyone with your openness.
~ David Life