When Chocolate and Chakras Collide – NY Times

Last month The New York Times published When Chocolate and Chakras Collide by Julia Moskin in its Wednesday Food section.  The  responses and comments on its website were incredibly varied, but the editorials in the following week’s Wednesday Food section were lacking in multiple perspectives.  The editorials selected favored those opinions which supported the ideas of yoga and practice as advertised in the article.

Published here is an editorial by Ann Iwashita  which is an actual response to the NY Times article.

““Chocolate and Chakras” highlights the myriad opinions of a community that enjoys asana, the third limb of an eight-limb practical, spiritual system. Most problematic is not the diversity of thoughts on what one should eat, but the conveyance of yoga as a pleasure-seeking practice.

As humans in this media-centric world that overloads the gross senses, we make habit of gratification. Asana was not meant as a way to “bring on the yoga high,” but rather to refine the subtle senses. If Mr. Romanelli and his followers enjoy using asana as a gateway to sensual bliss, far be it from anyone to say it is wrong. However, to call it “yoga” is confusing, a misnomer that capitalizes on the esoteric nature of the science and a misunderstanding of its aims.

Hunger, in the form of resolve, would serve one well. Ultimately the student decides, on form, and teacher.”

I invite readers to post their own comments, thoughts and ideas about the article or editorial here.

Maha Mrtyunjaya Mantra ~ Moksha Mantra

Om tryambakam yajamahe / sugandhim pushti-vardhanam / urvarukam iva bandhanan / mrtyor mukshiya mamrtat swaha *

We worship the supreme light, the Absolute Shiva, who has three eyes, who is fragrant and nourishes all beings.  This light is the expression and communication of our life, and it is our physical, mental and spiritual radiation and prosperity.  Kindly release us from all calamities, bondage and suffering, just as the cucumber is released from its stalk, without any injury. May our minds be absorbed into Shiva, amrtam (nectar), the ocean of tranquility.
(Shukla-Yajur Veda, translation by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati)

Often called the Moksha Mantra, the Maha Mrtyunjaya Mantra is considered the yogi “birthday” song, a powerful healing mantra, and representing the development of freedom that is the path of yoga.  With its reference to Shiva, cucumbers, and nectar of the gods, the translation and commentary of this chant can seem unclear, obscure, or even worse, irrelevant.

Focusing on the last two lines, we can uncover a clear, direct message on how to work towards freedom (moksha) both on and off the mat.

The metaphor of the cucumber (urvarukam) addresses the manner in which a yogi moves towards freedom or enlightenment.  The cucumber’s path toward ripeness is one of action and work, filled with influences from the natural world and the variety of forces and people around and within it, just as is necessary for our own growth. There comes a point, however, where grace takes over, and there is an effortless falling away. When a cucumber is ripe, it will drop from the vine.  After this natural falling away, it will appear completely whole, without any sign of separation on either end – no stem mark or scar.  The cucumber does not still yearn for the vine.  It is as if there never even was a vine. It is whole, complete, just as it is. Just as we are, and through effort and grace, we experience it.

One of my early teachers used to tell us “there is no force in yoga” when the class had gotten particularly carried away with trying to “do” yoga, or achieve a certain outward form of a pose.  She guided us back from the tendency to push, to effort, into yoga. This is, in effect, what the Moksha Mantra is doing.

So how do we realistically work with the balance of effort and grace? How to we emulate the cucumber?

I like to think of the idea of life as the Self arraying itself.  The timeless, formless, free of suffering innate Self within us is in the constant play of dressing itSelf in the clothes of the self.  We dress ourselves in enough layers to survive Arctic winters.  We are dressed in our names, our preferences, our identities, our emotions, our habits, our speech patterns, method of commuting, career, yoga style, outward appearances, neighborhoods, and anything else that describes us. Each of these is another tank-top, pair of jeans, socks, long-sleeved shirt that we, most of the time, identify as our nature, who we are.

Our work, our effort, is to experience our identity as layers that we wrap around our Self. To sit with eyes closed, to walk down the street eyes wide open, to fall asleep, to converse with others feeling the nakedness of the Self under all the layers we operate under. And we do this as many times, as often as we can. Every choice we make is either a movement towards reinforcing the self or moving towards the Self.  Even the way we practice asana. It is not enough to show up. Make choices that uncover. Yoga is the process and development of this uncovering.  Yogis are given multiple tools (when in doubt, come back to the breath – be aware of a full inhale, a full exhale, repeat). Use them, constantly, continuously, for a long time.

We then take it one step further. We imagine all those layers dropping, falling away, sliding down to the floor.  We stand, sit, lay there naked of the arrayment of the Self, and exist as the Self.  That falling away occurs with grace, as a direct result of the repeated work of understanding the nature of the Self/self.  As the clothes drop to the floor, we fall off the stalk, fully ripe, bearing no mark from our attachment to those layers of self.  There is no force in this final act. We can not strip ourselves of our identity and layers. There is only a natural falling away.

The chant ends with swaha, which simply means “let go” or “I offer it up”.  It lies at all points on the path; to confront/sit with what arises and let go. To get a sense of this, rest in child’s pose with your palms face up.  Bring to mind that thing that happened earlier today, and imagine it flowing out through the palms of your hands, swaha.  Then bring to mind that disappointment from last week, that worry of tomorrow, that recent success, that reason you smiled today, each one, let go. Offer it up through your hands, swaha. Empty out. As you empty out, notice how you do not feel empty. This is your Self, your true nakedness.  As you become established in this, take swaha with you when you go shopping and your favorite food is not in stock. Take it with you to yoga class when you finally balance in an inversion in the center of the room, swaha.  Even the desire for enlightenment, swaha.

In the end, this is Siva’s chant, the first yogi.  Starting with him, yogis have always been the wild ones.  Be wild. Be brazen. Be naked.

*To hear this chanted, I recommend listening to Manorama’s version on her album “Awaken Fire”.

*Refer to tao te ching #48, for another look at this idea

Leave Wanting at the Door

Asana can either reinforce our convictions, habits, thought patterns, or be an opportunity to evolve.  The next time you practice, read the following excerpt from a conversation between Michael Stone and Chip Hartranft:

“Let’s say I’ve come to a yoga studio and class is starting. Have I checked all my wanting and not wanting at the door? No, I’m still the same old self, fearing pain and hoping for gratification. Now when I get the euphoric endorphin rushes that come with practice, I’m going to mistake them for the goal, and each time I do yoga I’m going to unconsciously strive to recreate that pleasure. So Patanjali is saying that the relationship to the body must be very carefully cultivated. The body is the biggest part of the world that we know. And the world of the body is immense. The body is an enormous universe in and of itself.” – C.H.

In the moments you are sitting on your mat, before class begins, mentally re-enter and check wanting at the door. Spend a class getting to know your body within the space this creates.  Allow the typical asana checklist you employ to stay at the door as well, and consider, instead, the question “What does it feel like inside Virabhadrasana II? What does is feel like inside paschimottanasana?”

Repetition is the format that our brains and body respond to, and is the way that new neural, emotion, and physical pathways are formed. Evolve, by continually re-entering and checking your wants. Continually asking what it feels like inside the pose.  Ask, also, what is inside the pose with you right now that you could check at the door.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.21-22 “For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, realization is near. How near depends on whether the practice is mild, moderate, or intense.”

States of Consciousness & AUM

There are either 4 main states of consciousness, or 3 main states of consciousness and one of superconsciousness, depending on how one decides to draw the line*.  These states correspond to the physical symbol of AUM, as well as the vibrational chanted AUM.

Jagrat (the “3” part  the symbol) (the A part of the chant)

This is our waking state.  The state where time and space prevail and we identify with our sense of “I” (ahamkara).  This is an outwardly directed state, based around an external world. This is the state where we are entrenched in the illusion of maya.

Often in yogic philosophy and commentary this state is referred to as the “mundane” “gross” or “bodily” level.  There is a tendency to write-off this level, negate its importance or validity as a state in favor of “higher” states of transcendence.  I prefer Michael Stone’s concept of “horizontal” transcendence which does not create a hierarchy, but instead urges the yogi to encompass multiple states simultaneously, and bring that awareness to our relationships in the Jagrat state.  It’s an expansion to include, as opposed to a moving up to cast off.

Swapna (the “handle” part of the symbol) (the U part of the chant) (waning citta)

This is our dream state, or REM state.  Time and space also prevail here, but often in a warped sense not possible in the waking state. This is an inwardly directed state, but also based around impressions from the external world experienced during Jagrat.

Yoga’s penchant for interesting dualities and paradoxes can be found in looking at Jagrat and Swapna.  We are asked to see these not as separate states, but much the same as likes & dislikes, attachment & aversion, as opposing perspectives of the same reality.  Accordingly, our faculty of awareness that we cultivate so assiduously in our waking life, would well serve the dreaming state as well.  This is not to say yoga philosophy is an advocate of lucid dreaming (although shamanic beliefs are not incongruous).

I was given a simple yet powerful sadhana during my teacher training.  We were instructed to be very aware of the last thought we had before sleeping, in order to encourage this thought in our other states, as well as to be very aware and write down our first thought upon waking.  In lieu of describing my personal experience, I encourage yogis to try this themselves.  Every night and day for a month.  Yoga is based on shraddha (faith) built on personal experience.  This exercise is a simple way of building shraddha in relation to these states of consciousness.

Sushupti (the “swoosh” part of the symbol) (the M part of the chant)

This is the deep sleep state.  There is no time or space.  We are unconscious, and can only be aware of having been in this state by the results afterward of feeling refreshed and nourished.  Accessing this state is essential for physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

In describing this state, the Mandukya Upanishad says, “there is no separateness, but the sleeper is not conscious of this. Let him become conscious in this state and it will open the door to that state of abiding joy.”

Turiya (the dot part of the symbol) (the silent beat after the vibrational chant has ended, but before taking an inhale)

This is the superconscious state.  There is no time or space.  We identify with the oneness of being (hence the singular dot).  This state lacks the duality of either wakefulness or sleeping, conscious or unconscious, inward or outward, aware or unaware, and is all of it and none of it at the same time.  Oneness of being.

In the Mandukya Upanishad this state is represented as the entire mantra of AUM, or thinking of it another way, as all of the previous 3 states combined.  Without this combination of awareness and unconsciousness, Turiya is not possible, or rather, this is what defines Turiya.

“We enter this state regularly, if only we could be aware of it: every night we are ‘like someone unknowingly walking back and forth over a buried treasure’” – Michael Nagler (commentator on Eknath Easwaran’s The Upanishad’s)

The key then, is to discover the treasure.  Every asana class affords the opportunity to do just that with savasana.  If you think back to the beginning of your practice and your first savasanas, you might recall either feeling very sleepy, or experiencing very “deep” savasanas, where you slipped into another space completely.  It is interesting to contrast those memories with the savasana experiences you have now, which might involve more of a struggle to access such relaxed deep states.  This is actually a good sign.  It shows progress. Initially it was easy to slip away because savasana sets us up to experience Turiya, however, without the skills of awareness that come with consistent yoga practice, Shushupti is what happened.  As we gain greater awareness on multiple levels, our savasana begins to incorporate that awareness, and thus begin the shift to a state of Turiya.  Instead of looking at savasana as a chance to relax after a physical practice, allow it to be a place to slip into deeper states of consciousness, while maintaining a light touch of Jagrat awareness around it.

This is also a practice than can be done in meditation.  During meditation, we either choose to actively “work” on a certain practice (such as a meta meditation) or part of ourselves (staying with our arising conditions), or we approach it like savasana, a place that is designed to allow us access to Turiya, if we are able to bring that special combination of awareness and unconsciousness.

Understanding these states of consciousness, and their correspondence to AUM, infuses our opening and closing chant with a fullness and potential that enhances the meaning of the experience for us.  Understanding these states also gives us encouragement.  All of this already lies with us, we touch on it every night, and every class.

“So the Upanishad first gives us an inspiring picture of “that which is”, reassuring us that reality is not limited to the world of changing phenomena, and then hints at an everyday, doable way to reascend the orders of being and regain our spiritual home in the changeless” Michael N. Nagler


Sharon Ganon & David Life ~ Teacher Training 2007

Mandukya Upanishad ~ This is the briefest of the Upanishad’s.  If you were to study only one of the Upanishads, Shankara recommends it be this one.  Rama (incarnation of Vishnu in the Ramayama) offers similar advice to one of his students. ~Eknath Easwaran’s translation

*Sharon & David teach the latter, and the Mandukya Upanishad the former.  I have used the terminology for the states as taught by Sharon & David.  The Mandukya states are termed as follows: Vaishvanara, Taijasa, Prajna, and Turiya.  Iyengar looks at the states in a slightly different way, viewing them as movements of the mind (citta), and names them udaya citta (rising), santa citta (calm), ksaya citta (waning) and turya.  It is interesting that in all three naming systems the fourth state is Turiya (which literally means ‘the fourth’).

Savasana ~ corpse pose

Pattabhi Jois is quoted by Michael Stone in “The Inner Tradition of Yoga”, as saying that savasana is the one pose you should do, if you can’t do any others.  This might surprise some yogis who have heard that sirsasana (headstand) is the king of all poses. The ONE to do, not only if short on time, but also as a palliative. October seemed a fitting month to explore the pose and the concept of death in its yogic context.

Besides respecting the words of Pattabhi Jois, why else should we study death?  First, consider that no matter what lineage, what style, what teacher, what location, what day time or other variable, every yoga class will include savasana.  We study intently, over long periods of time, our alignment in trikonasana (triangle pose), the depth of our exhale, our meditative seat, the correct prop to modify a pose, along with multiple other aspects of the practice.  In the same way, savasana, and therefore death, deserve the same treatment.

Second, it is not only what we are inevitably born to do, but it is what we currently are.  In the Buddhist tradition, impermanence is one of the three basic characteristics of existence.  To study death is not only a study of the future, but of the present moment.

Third, it cultivates a respect for the present moment from which blooms gratefulness. Also from that cultivation arises a reminder to savor and live each moment fully.

How, then, do we work with becoming intimate with impermanence, with death?

1)      Become intimate with the breath. The breath is a precious and vital yogic tool which aids the yogi in multiple ways. With the repetitive birth-death cycle (inhales & exhales) of the breath as guide, certain insights may arise about the nature of birth and death on a larger scale.

2)      Become intimate with all the “tiny deaths” that surround our daily life, such as the cycle of a day, the life cycle of clothing, the cycles found in the food you eat, the balance of your bank account, the ink levels in your printer, the pens you use to write, the technology that surrounds you, the blink of your eye, teachers and teachings.  All of these express impermanence.  It is a yogi’s challenge to refute Yuddisthira’s observation* in the Bhagavad Gita, by remaining aware of these little deaths, and, just as with working with the breath, begin to allow the seeds of insight to dig in your awareness.

3)      Death meditation. There are various ways to practice a death meditation.  Locations can range from your living room to a cemetery to a loved one’s hospital bedside.  Methods can include visualizations, reading literature on the stages of death (scientific, or in such philosophical texts as “The Tibet Book of Living and Dying”), contemplating the world you have created around you without you in it, or any of several other techniques.  The basic work in this kind of meditation to fully confront your (specifically and uncomfortably) death.

4)      Let Go meditation.  Set aside a time that will allow you to wander through each room of your living area completely.  As you move, contemplate each belonging. Stay with that belonging, keep it in your gaze, until you become comfortable with it no longer being in your life.  Do this with everything from the new computer you bought, to the hand-me-down couch that needs to be donated, to the ring your grandmother passed to you, to your collection of music, to your photos, to whatever you have on you at that time.

5)      Contemplate during asana, meditation, or quiet reflection the Yoga Sutras, Tao Te Ching, or other texts’ passages on death. For example: Tao 50 “…He holds nothing back from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work.” This passage speaks to how practicing savasana after asana is a practice for dying after life, bring this to your next practice, both the asana and savasana portions.

6)      Pull from your own experience. As with all yoga practices, make it relevant to you and your life.

Allow these practices to be uncomfortable, disconcerting, frustrating, upsetting, uplifting, freeing, joyous, exhilarating, or boring.  Recall the “This too shall pass” popular yoga story:

A student was struggling in his meditation practice. His body constantly called him away through pain or other distractions. His mind wandered. He saw himself as foolish for wasting time sitting around. Frustration and anger resulted from every session. He considered quitting. He went to his teacher and told him this.

His teacher considered and replied, “It will pass.”

The student returned to his practice. Time went by.  His body began to settle and fall away from his mind’s eye when he sat. His awareness was steady. Soon he began to feel subtle shifts in his perception. Elated, he returned to his teacher to share the good news.

His teacher considered and replied, “This too shall pass.”

Inspirations for this post include:

Michael Stone (especially his chant “Life and death are of supreme importance…”)

Tao Te Ching

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Jack Gilbert “Tear it Down”

Tias Little‘s dharma talk at the Shala, NYC, 10/11/2009

*When asked, “Of all things in life, what is most astounding?” Yuddisthira replied, “That a person, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.”