Ghosts of Christmas – A yogi’s look

In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts – from his past, present, and future. Each brings a glimpse into the truth of that time, as well as a warning to change his behavior.  From a yogic perspective, there are overtones of the three kinds of karma, the kleshas (avidya – not seeing things as they are, raga & dvesa – attachment & aversion, asmita – ego, abhinivesa – fear of death), and even the 8-limbs (yamas & niyamas).  Not that I believe it was Charles Dickens’ intention to speak to these yogic concepts, or that everything must resonate with yogic teachings. However, it did provide the impetus for an addendum to the end of the year meditation I usually do.

Once you have taken your meditation seat for the session, and focused the mind through the technique you are currently working with, move through the following concepts. Notice urges to shift or move, especially in uncomfortable thought moments, and allow them to subside before continuing. Avoid getting caught in any stories, and reliving them for the whole meditation.

1)    Ghost of Christmas Past – We spend a great deal of energy either continually rehashing past unpleasant experiences, or completely ignoring them. Break both of these thought patterns. Bring to mind an action (thought, word, or deed) you chose to take in the past that was harmful to another person in some way.  This can be quite challenging, since as yogis we are misled into believing we should be non-harming and compassionate all the time. While this is certainly something we are striving for, it is not expected that the moment you become a yogi or learn what the yamas are, you instantly embody them.

The yamas are not meant to induce guilt or suppression, instead they are meant to be tools of self-analysis. To admit to ourselves that we have within us these unflattering tendencies, to be open, and honest about them, and then to work on them, is the true path of a yogi.  To “act yogically” is not to act like some sort of flexible angel, but to be brutally truthful and present with what really is. No matter how ugly. So bring to mind, as honestly as possible, a harmful act of the past – without going into the story of why it happened, or what happened after – just the act itself. Resist the urge to feel guilty or think “why did I do that” “I can’t believe I did that”, etc.  Instead, consider how you would act differently if a similar situation presented itself in the future.  Acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as it may seem, you did the best you could at that moment. Then let it go on your next exhale. If it feels particularly sticky, sense where it is stuck in your body. See it as a black cloud, and with each exhale release some of it out through the nose. Continue until it has completely emptied out. Take a few moments with slow steady clean breaths.

2)    Ghost of Christmas Present –  The Ghost of Christmas Present can be even more elusive than the Ghost of Christmas Past – our unconscious patterns and actions.  Being unconscious, they can be very tricky to see.  A large part of the work we do in yoga classes is to bring unconscious habits (whether in our bodies or in our lives) to light.  From there, we have the ability to act with full awareness, and prevent wear and tear on our bodies or lives that unconscious habits create. In this stage of the reflection, bring to mind the way in which you move through your entire day. Try to identify moments when you are moving unconsciously – common points are eating, commuting, etc. Try to dig a little deeper, or take a step back and look broader. This is can be a powerful wakeup call.  Observing how often we move unconsciously, and in which moments we do so, can lead to subtle or momentous shifts. If it’s challenging to do this right now, notice this tomorrow, throughout the day check in and see how often and when you are moving unconsciously. Then take one of those moments, and commit to seeing things clearly and being fully present from then on. Create  plan that will help you, or even talk to someone close to you that can help remind you.

3)    Ghost of Christmas Future – In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer is swayed to change his ways due in large part to his fear of death.  In yogic philosophy, a fear of death is actually a hindrance to the practice.  A yogi works to cultivate living with death without fearing it.  There are a variety of practices to choose from, which were the subjects of a previous post, so I won’t go over it again here.  Please refer to that post and end this session with one of these practices. By cultivating a new relationship with death, we can let go of that fear and what keeps us from residing in the present moment.

At the close of 2010, I just want to thank you for your continued support of my teachings, and for your interest and dedication to yogic study. I look with great joy to deepening the practice with you in 2011.

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.”