Archive for the ‘Appreciating Our Teachers’ Category
“Balance does not mean merely balancing the body. Balance in the body is the foundation for balance in life. In whatever position one is in , or in whatever condition in life one is placed, one must find balance. Balance is the state of present–the here and now. If you balance in the present, you are living in eternity.”
As many of you know B.K.S Iyengar passed away 3:15 am Wednesday morning in Pune, India. Iyengar was instrumental to bringing the practice of Yoga to the West. Instruction at Karuna is done in the Iyengar style of Yoga and our teacher Eileen Muir and all of the yoga teachers who have taught workshops at the center have studied in Pune, India with the Iyengars. On Thursday night many gathered to honor him. Bringing excerpts from his extensive writings and anecdotes of the ways his life and advice has helped us to grow as individuals, the room was full of enormous gratitude, grief, and love.
When we remark on death as a passing we acknowledge that life ends only in the body, a body which we will all someday pass through. Instead of focusing on the end of life in the body we can adjust our gaze to see that life is an eternal and infinite light. Iyengar’s death has brought his life into intense focus, and in this focus we can rejoice in the beauty and love of his teachings. In this moment, as each of us contemplate this one man’s life and his impact on ours, we can see the light he shared as infinite. It glows within our hearts now, as we practice, as we chant om..
.“Live happily and die majestically”
Each year the Karuna community gets to watch as the students enrolled in the 200hr Teacher Training Program embark on a life changing journey. Every year their presence starts to define the tone of the studio, with their eagerness to learn and their willingness to share support for the whole community. We were so lucky this year to witness the transformation of so many amazing teachers who shared a love of yoga and of each other that was truly illustrative of inner light. Congratulations everyone!
The following is an extended exerpt from a documentary on B.K.S. Iyengar that is now in post-production. Currently the producers of the film are raising funds in order to release the full 90 minute documentary. Donations can be made at this website: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/sadhaka-the-yoga-of-b-k-s-iyengar
My definition of ‘teacher’ has changed throughout my life. Instead of only finding my teachers in front of classrooms, I have found a teacher in almost everyone that I know. Sometimes people teach us because they have bold and remarkable skills. Other times it is with their simple and beautiful approaches to life. And still, in other instances, they teach us through both skill and inspiration. They exemplify the limitless bounds of the human experience and, at times, they defy the norm and are celebrated for it rather than feared.
St. Hildegard Von Bingen was, among other things, a Christian abbess in the 12th century Germany. I was raised without religion and throughout my life the people around me have often been critical of organized religion.While my upbringing did not encourage me to look for teachers within the Catholic faith I have recently started to look at faith itself as a teacher. In this respect I can find teachings echoing through every expression of religion that help me shape, broaden and embrace my own practices of faith. I have mostly come to believe that faith is love, yet saying only this risks being vague or abstract. Rather than explain what I think love means, or what faith means, I will try to share why a sainted German Catholic nun has become a source of inspiration to me and how I have come to see St. Hildegard as one of my teachers.
At first blush Hildegard is an inspiration because she had so many talents. She was a composer of devotional chants and musical plays, a writer, an herbalist and a healer, a visionary and a mystic. In recent times the New Age movement has heralded her for her holistic views on healing. She is celebrated for having incorporated faith, spirituality and the healing properties of objects in the natural world in her beliefs about health. She has also been analyzed by academics and feminists for her role as a woman with the status of visionary and mystic and for her work as a writer and philosopher in a time when females where seldom allowed to act as voices of authority on anything much less on religion. She is sometimes criticized by feminists for having referred to herself as ‘of the lower species’, claiming to be an unlearned woman. It is hard for me to fathom that she saw herself as such since a woman of her aptitude and skill would be valued as a highly intelligent individual today.
I suppose a feminist perspective fuels the first layer of my interest in Hildegard. I don’t want to get entangled in an analysis of gender and power within Germanic religious culture in the 12th century. I mostly find it resonant that she was able to exist in the manner that she did with the odds stacked against her as they where. I have always been interested in social justice and equality. At first I assumed she must have been subversive in the manner I am used to seeing, fighting against the status quo with both voice and action. But her perception of herself as a woman appeared to fall in line with the common ideas of the day.
Recently I have found I desire a new model for effectively creating social change than one that is always mired in fighting against something. This is where I have really come to find Hildegard as an inspiration. Her subversion was an act of love. Her self-perception, or at least the one she was said to have expressed, may have allowed her more freedom that someone in my shoes can relate to. In order to express her thoughts and ideas and to not have her visions diminished to hallucinations, she asserted that she was merely a voice, a conduit and a devotee that had been put to the task of sharing the beauty revealed to her by God. It wasn’t a product of her invention or intelligence but one of God’s. Her actions that went against the status quo where not divisive, they were devotional.
Because of my upbringing and education I am typically critical of religion, and in particular Christianity. I am wary of expressions of faith that are wrapped up in abiding by social hierarchies and conformity. Hildegard retained a true passion for her faith without diminishing her experience of it in order to follow the social rules. In doing so she has left us a beautiful legacy through her writings and compositions.
In the practice of Yoga it is sometimes hard to grasp egoless-ness (anatman). It is also at times hard to understand how to change things while adhering to ahimsa, non-violence. It is challenging to approach our adversaries with compassion (Karuna) or equanimity (Upeksha). How do we create change without judgment? How do we express love to those who don’t know how to love us? I am finding clearer answers in the examples I have seen of devotion and faith and the people that are now my teachers, like Hildegard, are showing me how, in both unmistakably bold and subtly gentle ways.
This is a recording of one of Hildegard’s compositions, performed by the Academic Choir of Copenhagen
“Love must be incarnated in the smallest pore of the skin, the smallest cell of the body, to make them intelligent so they can collaborate with all the other ones in the big republic of the body. This love must radiate from you to others.” -BKS Iyengar
I guess the thing about Mother Teresa is that her life is a testament to that truth that’s important to understand in doing this work: that there’s no separation between knowing (Jnana), loving (Bhakti), and doing (Karma). She’s known for her deeds of service, so much so that her name is almost synonymous with her service work. But when you read her words, it’s all, all about love. She’s so in love with Jesus. Her works are an expression of her love, the lowest common denominator, into which everything fits, by which everything is encompassed. And cyclically, in her loving urge to draw nearer, she’s come to know the teachings of her faith intimately…The knowing and the doing are loving acts. It all starts with Bhakti and ends with Bhakti. We learn this through the teachings of yoga: that Bhakti gets you there the fastest. What also comes to mind is the capacity to know when something is true when it is accompanied by an open heart. But Love is more: Love is all. I guess it’s the way that Mother Theresa’s teachings are so steeped in it. And in such a simple way. A basic way. She teaches that each action we make is (or has the potential to be) an act of Love for God. That when she ministers to the poor, she’s ministering to God because God is there. And how close she must feel to God to be tending to the Divine continuously in this way. How much would you have to know before your knowing was enough to feel yourself in contact with the Divine? How much would you have to do before your actions bring you to God? What is it about Love that touches so, to the quick? That it only has one direction: outwardly flowing? Like hot liquid honey, spreading to engulf whatever it meets, sweetening all? Claiming all?
Knowing claims ownership of the known.
Acting is an expression of “I”.
And what is Love? How can Love stand alone so? Love is the entire dissolution of the self. And what is dissolved can merge with the substance that holds it… And we are held by God. And anything that is not Love is the containment of the self. And so, the more we practice Love, the real Love, the humbling, the opening, the outwardly flowing, the seeing in real recognition, the dissolving Love, well, you see, right? It’s all in there. It takes all. Carries all. Borderless. Open and raw. Give yourself up. What do you need to know, what can you possibly do to be willing to surrender in this way? Love kills fear. Love burns off everything but itself (ask Adyashanti). Love gets you there, dissolved into the Divine, where we all came from, where we’re all headed…
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has taught me the tremendous power and value of ordinary kindness. Her example showed me what kindness really is, how easily it can be misunderstood and overlooked, and how influential it can be in the creation of happy lives and relationships. By her work and practice, Sharon lit the way for me to cultivate my own kind heart.
In the tradition of meditation Sharon teaches and practices, which arose out of the Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia, there’s is a type of concentration practice called metta (in Sanskrit maitri), which means loving-kindness or friendliness. The method is to repeat phrases that invoke kindness, methodically deepening one’s concentration in the experience of friendliness and interconnectedness. Usually there are three or four phrases, for example, “May you be safe and protected. May you be peaceful and happy. May you live with ease of heart in all circumstances.”
Generally, students are instructed to begin by offering these phrases either to oneself or to a benefactor, someone toward whom it seems easy to feel kindness. As strength of heart grows, the meditator slowly includes more challenging categories of people (or beings, since we can work with animals too). Eventually, we develop the capacity to include even our most difficult enemies in the field of kindness. Along the way, there’s a chance to offer phrases of kindness to everyone, including dear friends and people we feel neutral about.
Even if you are unfamiliar with the practice, you can perhaps imagine that the effort to cultivate this evenhanded friendliness tends to bring the student face to face with many other emotions – dislike, judgment, anger and envy are just a few of the mental demons that rear their heads as we practice this meditation. Perhaps because the journey to an open and loving heart involves facing our inner demons, the metta practice often includes silent retreats of a week or a month or even three months, where we have time and space to allow this profound meditative process to affect our hearts fully.
On one such retreat, a month-long, I chose Sharon as my benefactor. At the time, Sharon and I spent a fair amount of time together, because part of my work at the Insight Meditation Society was to act as her assistant. Through that work, I witnessed Sharon interacting with many people in a while variety of circumstances. I saw her in many roles – as a teacher, a customer in convenience stores, a non-profit board member, a friend, a leader of a spiritual community. Sometimes it’s suggested that one should choose a benefactor you don’t know too well, so that thoughts about their weaknesses or difficulties in the relationship will be less likely to intrude on the cultivation of kindness toward them. Sharon and I knew each other pretty well, but I felt drawn to working with her as my benefactor because she had helped me a lot, and decided to go with my gut. Because of our familiarity, I expected to face a few inner demons in my meditations on kindness toward her. I thought I might feel judgmental of Sharon’s behavior in various situations, or see her natural human flaws come to the foreground of my mind.
Over the weeks of retreat, I was surprised and touched to discover that, as memories and images of Sharon filtered through my practice, they provided great support for the growth of kindness in my heart. In repeating phrases of loving-kindness toward Sharon, I learned on experiential level what it means to have a benefactor, what a benefactor is. I began to understand why the teachings suggest we work with a benefactor early on in our practice, as offering phrases of kindness to Sharon helped me touch and then develop a warmth of heart I had never known before.
A slow acknowledgement occurred of how often Sharon extends herself on behalf of others (including me!) or puts her own wishes aside in favor of those of the group. Memory after memory struck me with the recognition that although she is often candid, Sharon generally does not speak in ways that might hurt others. Another aspect of her kindness that came clear was that she doesn’t tend to shy away from difficulty. I remember once telling her about some challenges in my work at IMS. Sharon listened to the whole story, and then just said something like, “That does sound hard.”
Over the month of retreat, as thoughts and memories faded, what was left in the phrases as I held Sharon in mind was an enduring sense of our humanness, our interconnectedness, and our potential to love each other right in the midst of all the ordinary complexities and disagreements life brings. Not only did concentration on the quality of kindness develop, but insight into what it means to be kind deepened and matured.
In many ways it was a wonderful retreat, but the full impact of it has taken years to come to fruit. Initially, I was struck by the simple appreciation that someone I knew to be fully human was also capable of such wisdom and strength. Sharon isn’t some mythical figure from the distant past, capable of great yogic feats. As far as I know she doesn’t fly, except in airplanes, or bi-locate, unless you count skype. She’s living here and now in New York City! Sharon has an Iphone and a laptop and a complex worldwide teaching schedule to manage. In the midst of all that, she manages to treat people beautifully, to be a beacon of kindness. Through her practice and teachings she has been largely responsible for the spread of loving-kindness practice in the western world. Through her example, I discovered that I didn’t need to change anything specific about my life to develop boundless compassion. Kindness really can be practiced moment by moment in ordinary situations. Thanks to the time I spent working with Sharon as my benefactor on retreat, I realized that I too can in fact be a strong force for something I value deeply – basic human goodness and care. This has changed my life.
But it was only later that I started to recognize another aspect of the wisdom and vision that underpins Sharon’s kindness. Perhaps it’s best conveyed in Sharon’s own words: “As I go through all kinds of feelings and experiences in my journey through life — delight, surprise, chagrin, dismay — I hold this question as a guiding light: ‘What do I really need right now to be happy?’ What I come to over and over again is that only qualities as vast and deep as love, connection and kindness will really make me happy in any sort of enduring way.” What I’m slowly coming to know is that, in practice, in our experience of them, kindness and love are not only helpful to the recipient, they are of great benefit to the giver as well. Kindness, it turns out, is place to rest your heart. If you want to learn more about Sharon’s teachings, visit www.sharonsalzberg.com.
Eowyn Ahlstrom, Karuna Yoga teacher. middlepath-healingarts.com
Just behind the sign-in table at Karuna there are a few framed photographs. You may have glanced at them once or twice. The beautiful juxtaposition of B.K.S. Iyengar in Natarajasana and Eku Pada Urdhva Danurasana may have inspired you to open your chest just a little more. Or the fiery look in Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s eyes may have inspired tapas in your practice. You may have noticed the gentle expression of Ramana Maharshi and felt a bit more peaceful as you start to settle in to class. If you know anything about Ramana Maharshi, this picture may signal quietude for you, or remind you of the great power of silence. If you aren’t familiar with his life and practice you may see something else when you glance at his photograph: compassion. There is something powerful in this man’s face. There is acceptance, willingness, clarity, and love. Next time you come to class take a moment longer to look at his photograph. Lift up your eyes and you chin and let your chest open and you shoulders gently release down your back and remember the kindness in this mans face as you journey onto your mat.
Susan teaches the Wise Yoga, a class specially designed for practitioners age 50 and up on Mondays from 4-5pm at Karuna. Recently she filled in for one of Eileen’s classes and many students got to experience her teaching for the first time. Chris Hamil, a fellow teacher at Karuna was moved to write this response to her teaching
Class with Susan was absolutely therapeutic. She was deliberate, gentle, caring, and most of all honest. Her sequence brought me into a passive ease that was filled with clarity and aliveness. I felt like the work we were doing was both accessible and deep. What really stuck with me was how Susan brought her whole being into her teaching, so that not only did I know where she was coming from and how much integrity she had, but also I felt profoundly resonant. She is a fantastic teacher who can only grow from the seeds she plants.
Thank you Susan!