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.

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