Sunday, January 10, 2016


A moment observing your breath provides a window to the way life works.  We expand, then contract.  The breath is both expansion and contraction, inhale and exhale.  It is clear one cannot be without the other.  The same is true of the beat of all beating hearts, the changing of all seasons, night and day, birth and death.

The window we observe anything from is the level of magnification through which we perceive.  Sitting beside a grieving friend, we feel some of their anguish.  Hearing that a thousand strangers have died horribly on another continent may not produce the same emotional resonance.  We can’t focus our eyes on close detail and distant landscape at the same time.  It is not within the capacity of our vision to do so, no matter how much we practice.  Our cognitive and emotional lives seem to follow the same principle.

Seeking happiness, or an enlightened state, we assume that in the finding of it there will be a steady permanence.  Like no other natural process, we imagine upon arrival an end to the ups and downs - or rather, happiness would include only the up - forgetting down is necessary to experience up.

Accelerating in a car from 30kph to 100kph, you feel the thrill of being pushed back into your seat.  Now you are really going somewhere.  When you arrive at 100kph and cruise at that speed, the quality of acceleration is absent, the same way it is absent in a jet plane traveling at several hundred kph.  Several hours at the same speed, no matter how fast, feels less than thrilling.  The only way to experience acceleration once you’ve reached top speed is to put on the brakes and accelerate again.  You can choose to put on the brakes, you can run out of gas, or you can crash.

After the crash, or the walk to the gas station with gas can in hand, our perception is tuned not to the macroscopic but to the small.  A friendly wave from a stranger or a smile from a grocery clerk is significant in a way it would not have been had we been in the process of steep and thrilling acceleration.  It is not so much the event, it is the contrast between the event and the content of perception surrounding it.  The mountains are steeper when standing in the valley beside them.

There is a grace to the pause between the inhale and exhale.  There is a sense of peace and reflection that appears to rely on the contrast to immersion in strong experience.  To some degree, we get to make up our own minds what is of value to us.  To me, the evidence of an underlying vibratory quality to all features of the universe is strong, and can be illustrated both by the rigor of scientific inquiry and by common experience.  Assuming an ultimate and unchanging state exists seems more like wishful thinking not thought through.

Keen human minds focused on the verifiable, and willing to be proven wrong, consistently agree the universe has been changing for billions of  years.  Expansion, differentiation, evolution.  Our shared and reproducible experiments so far indicate we are mammals born from all of this, not visitors, witnesses or spiritual beings having a temporary physical experience.  This distancing language of transcendence may be the very thing that prohibits the appreciation of what actually is.  The seat in the jet plane is not more comfortable than the ride to the airport, and if we are honest we’d admit we wouldn’t want either of those experiences to last forever.  What I really want, and what I sometimes get for a period of time, is a sense of appreciation of what is.  This feeling does not stick around.  It has to fade, so that when it comes back its presence is of consequence.  Just like the beat of my heart or the flow of my breath.

The aim of this article is not to solve a problem.  I’m not offering any help, or suggesting a form of self-help.  Notice the feeling when the new diet, or the new cleanse, or the new teacher, book, practice, meditation, exercise machine, cosmology, philosophy, location or intimate... moves from the “new” category to the category where all the others are found.  When it moves from the lobby to the attic.  Notice the compartmentalization and lack of intellectual honesty when a friend asks how that new thing you were so excited about is going.  It is possible to allow the sense of deceleration to be there, and to say “It’s not going”.  And I’d suggest that is a very good thing.  There is a word for “no longer going to a new destination”.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Act as if it's rigged in your favour

I love this quote from one of Rumi's poems - paraphrased - "Act as if it's all rigged in your favour".

This to me is a very clever sentence, and an affirmation that is real and actionable.  When one acts "as if" things are rigged in their favour, then every event is cast in a different light.  The seemingly unfortunate events can be appreciated, for this too is part of the "rigging".  For instance, ageing and death are life's way of rigging in your favour.  Imagine not dying and having the world so full of people we'd be like sardines in a can - death is rigged in your favour.  Imagine not ageing.  Not having the opportunity to let go of youthful narcissism - not losing the "war" on getting wrinkly.  Things are rigged in your favour.

Acting "as if" is playing.  It is not imagining or believing there is a supernatural power that is bestowing miracles and curses.  In that model, prayer and surrender are the tools.  Acting "as if" is acting, and it is taking action.  It is playing with the idea that everything is rigged in your favour.  It does not suggest things are actually rigged.  For if they were really rigged in your favour, that implies someone else's life is rigged against them.  If a playing field is tipped in a fortunate direction for you, it means it is tipped in an unfortunate position for the other team.  If god is on your side he's not on the other side.  The way we usually feel successful is by "winning" something - in other words, comparing ourselves in some way to others, or to former versions of ourselves.  Winning and losing mutually arise, like up and down.

Children know how to act "as if".  They can slip into imaginative roles easily, maintaining the perspective that it is all in fun.  The game is not ultimately serious.  But you can for a time act "as if" it is.  When you act "as if", your innate intuition, playfulness and joy are available, potentially allowing more skill in action.  Acting "as if" actually works, because it recognizes and works with what is actually happening.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Northern Japan yoga students, and Chinese amusement parks.

We just got back from the island of Hokkaido from a week-end workshop for yoga teachers - "teachers tune-up".

Prior to coming, we asked the Sapporo students to give us a question each about what they most wanted to learn over the weekend.  I'd planned to narrow the focus to just one pose - side angle, or parsvakonasana, using that postural geography to explore simple and more complex muscular actions that create beneficial results, encouraging relaxed observation and clear cueing.

Many of the student questions centered on how to teach beginners.  Through talking with them (translated by Kumi, of course) I realized that they, like most yoga teachers, had been exposed to a great number of touring teachers.  Though these teachers each offered something valuable, there was little or no through-line to the education.  Postural focus was different teacher to teacher, sequencing guidelines
changed, and sometimes conflicting postural alignment philosophy.

Our host put it well.  She said she felt as if she were teaching yoga like a Chinese amusement park, and through the week-end with us she began to feel that she could teach yoga like a small cabin in the woods, furnished simply.

This was really my goal for the week-end and the reason I narrowed the focus so much.  I wanted to offer not another technique or flashy pose, but to develop critical reasoning faculties in each student so they'd be able to prune their teaching and offer good, simple and effective instruction to their students while relaxing into competency in teaching postural yoga.

Essentially my point was this:  Let's remove the less essential from the teaching and increase the essential.  Find the "niche" in yoga where the student really is, and can benefit.

Hatha Yoga is the process of understanding and performing balanced muscular action over a  pose duration long enough to create a beneficial re-patterning within the tissues of the body.  I left everything else off the table this week-end, and I'm happy with the results.

We yoga teachers have a responsibility, I feel, to not export more confusion.  We have an opportunity to empower people both physically and mentally to take responsibility for their health via a practice they can do on their own if they like, and to think through their decisions and beliefs.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Cranes, Planes and failing.

The linear mind thinks one thing after another.  Our eyes, when relaxed, allow all things to appear in vision.  A crane waits with a soft gaze until a yang element of water movement appears and then the crane acts spontaneously, catching the surfacing fish.  If the crane strained to see, one after another, each place where a fish might appear and then think how to catch it, the crane would starve to death.  Only when relaxed and allowing an involuntary reaction does the crane thrive.  The crane is in a state of Zen.

We’ve been straining to use the linear mind to solve a non-linear problem.  How to save the environment.  We’ve defined our outer body (the world) as something separate from us by agreeing to use the word “environment” - that which surrounds.  Then we run with a mistaken idea and don’t feel ourselves as a feature of a larger pattern of life.  We strain our gaze on one thing after another in an attempt to solve non-linear problems with a linear approach.

I wonder what might happen if we gave up.  If each of us at some point just dropped trying to save the world, ourselves, or anything.  If we didn’t get on a plane or in a car to attend a rally on how to reduce carbon emissions.

I think at first there would be an overwhelming sense that we have utterly failed.  There’s no point in trying to achieve anything then, if in our trying we lose the ability to see the big picture - to only focus on a tiny patch water where there is no fish.  This depression might last for a while, and then we’d get fidgety.  We’d want to do something.  But when there is no point in writing a blog or updating a social media page to tell other people what they should be doing or feeling, our hands would drop to our laps.  We’d be sitting with nothing to do and no motivation to try to do it.  Our gaze would then soften, and with no-where to go, we’d rest, perhaps allow spontaneity to move us.  Like the crane, we would become again a feature of life, and being entirely ourselves, as pleasant to be around as the other animals.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Is your yoga teacher your friend?

This question has been asked a bunch recently.  I teach yoga and my answer is that this is the wrong question.  It is wrong in the same way this question is misleading:

  • Is your carpenter your friend?

First let’s understand what I mean by friend.  A friend is someone who you like to be around, and they like to be around you.  There is no other reason for this hanging out with one another other than you like it.  You don’t spend time together because you are always “learning” from them, or you think they can be depended upon if your car breaks down and you need a ride.  Friends offer rides, but that isn’t the reason you have them as a friend.  If it were, you’d make sure your “friends” all had dependable cars.  They’d see through that, they’d see that you were using them as a resource.  That is not friendship, in the same way becoming friendly with someone at work who might be able to help promote you is not friendship.  

Your carpenter might end up being your friend, but not because she is a good carpenter or a bad carpenter.  You might be friends because you her.  There is no “reason” someone becomes your friend - it is not for some perceived benefit.  There is a mutual respect and love, without any power differential, and a fair degree of honesty.  You can say to your friend “Quit being an ass!”  Your friend might be offended, they might laugh, but they’ll still be your friend.

So the question “Is your yoga teacher your friend” or “Can or should your yoga teacher become your friend” can be answered in the same way as “Should your carpenter become your friend”? 

The answer is: you don’t decide that.  Friendship happens to you, in the same way your eyes dilate when you walk into a dark room, in the same way you enjoy certain kinds of food, in the same way you find particular things funny and others not.

So your yoga teacher might become your friend, or might not.  It depends on a lot of things you don’t control.  If you want your yoga teacher to be your friend because you’d like to be illuminated by the reflected light of their celebrity, then you are not really their friend.

However, the question “Should they be your friend” implies there is some ethical issue here that needs dealing with.  

There has been an enormous amount of predatory behaviour from yoga gurus directed towards their students.  This is pretty well documented and I won’t go into it here.  These gurus were not friends with their students - a friend would not take advantage of a friend in this way, to my way of thinking.  In other words, this predatory behaviour was possible at least in part because of a perceived power differential between the guru and the student.  Because of a lack of friendship.

The next argument that comes up in favour of maintaining a distance between teacher and student is the issue of discipline.  How can a teacher maintain discipline in a classroom where the students are their friends?  Again - good friends don’t require discipline in order to listen to what you have to say, if it is valuable.  They like you and they want to hear you.  If one thinks that student/friends will brush off what they have to say while teaching a class, that may be because the teacher’s current friends brush off what they have to say.  The students don’t need more discipline in this case, the teacher needs nicer friends, and maybe needs to be a nicer friend...or say things that people want to listen to.

Finally (as far as this post goes) the issue of the teaching of yoga as different than something like carpentry.  Hatha yoga is a wonderful practice that has the ability to encourage overall health, flexibility, calmness of mind (at least temporarily) and has many other benefits.  Technique helps, and if hatha yoga is taught well, the student is empowered to learn in a way that creates independence in practice.  But implying that the yoga teacher is in possession of some kind of mystical knowledge or awareness that can be, in some entirely unmeasurable and unaccountable way be transmitted to the student, is hucksterism.  Friends don’t bullshit their friends.  One can learn a great deal from watching anyone, be they a yoga teacher, a carpenter, or an older gentleman feeding the birds every morning.  If any of these folks have words of wisdom, we can learn from them.  And that is done well when we respect them, love them, and are able to tell them when they are out of line.  When they are our friends.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Santa Claus - a myth we understand inside one we don't

Why do we tell our children the gifts we give them for Christmas come from a man with a beard in the sky?  For two reasons.  One, the myth of Santa Claus creates mystery around the gifts, like another layer of wrapping paper.  Not only is the gift concealed, it comes from someone the child has never met - someone with strange powers of transportation and intuition into choosing (and making) the right gift.

Inevitably, the child finds out Santa Claus does not exist.  Are we just being cruel - delighting in the disillusionment of childhood?  I don't think so.  We recognize on a deeper level that finding out a man in the sky with a beard who does nice things for us (or gives us coal if we are bad) does not actually exist is a good thing -  to discover that the gifts we receive are generated from the raw materials around us, and given to us by people who know us and love us.

But we have to remember one more thing as adults.  Santa Claus is a facsimile of another myth - a larger man in the sky who dispenses blessings or can curse us.  And like a child, the discovery that this is just a story both dispels an illusion and is empowering.  We grow up again.

The larger myth of the man in the sky was told and retold for similar reasons we tell a child Santa Claus exists.  It helps to create a reward/punishment model to keep us in line, and creates a sense of wonder.  However, the sense of wonder at the gifts dispensed from above has had some rather negative side effects.  Primarily, we don't recognize the gifts actually come from the raw materials and people around us.

The raw materials that the gifts are made from  We too are resources for others, gifts for others.  And when we dissolve, we dissolve back into the elements the gifts of nature are composed of.  We don't go back to the north pole on a flying sled.  This is the bigger reveal that the myth of Santa Claus is meant to prepare us for.