Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why yoga may have happened

Imagine yourself 10,000 years ago.

You awake to the smell of the earth as the sun warms and begins to evaporate the dew.  Your simple portable dwelling provides some shelter from the elements.  Your tribe all rises at dawn, children scamper around playing.  You know everyone in your tribe, and they all know you.  When later that day game is brought back from the hunt to be cooked, it is shared by all.  When the sun sets, a fire is made and you observe the wood turning into heat, light and ash.  The smoke rises into the sky where the stars are so clear due to the lack of any ambient light that you can recognize constellations like old friends.  When it is time to sleep, sleep comes easily to a body in tune with the rest of nature.  When the tribe moves on, you look behind and all that is left of your presence there are the folded grasses where your shelters were, and a fire-pit.  In a few weeks even this will become invisible.

The idea of “having relationships” with others in your tribe is not a concept anyone understands.  You’ve known these people all your life.  Some you like more than others, but there is no getting into and out of the relationship you have with them.  They literally are your relations, just as the animals and plants are.  The children around you are everyone’s responsibility, and they learn different skills from others in your tribe as they move freely around.

This is a gift economy.  Currency does not exist, and the natural response to the abundance of life on the earth is one of gratitude.  No-one has the idea that human life should try to be prolonged, or that youth is better than maturity.  The spirits of humans and animals are on the earth.

The scenario above may sound utopian.  That is largely because through projection  and some quite unscientific studies by 19th century Europeans, we’ve been led to believe that life for our ancestors was “brutish and short”.  This was not the case.  Nor was it the case that our ancestors were less healthy than we are.  Eating a varied “organic” diet, sugar in any form being quite hard to come by, and walking miles daily, our predecessors were generally fit, healthy and competent at a variety of skills. 

Our nomadic ancestors deep integration with the natural world made recognizing the continuity of all things their first nature.  Only when we began to coerce nature to supply us with more than we could readily consume through the advent of agriculture did we remove the idea of spirit from nature, for a gift can never be demanded, and once demanded, it is not longer a gift.

Leaving behind a state of recognition of the sacred nature of all things, a hierarchy of spirit began.  Once removed from the earth, sprit was moved to the mountains - the domain of ancient gods - and then the heavens.  Up is better that here, down is even worse.  To ascend toward is good, to descend into is bad.  This “verticalism” also diminishes our horizontal connection with one another.  When you look at the history of organized religion, the  representative of god is “higher up” - on a platform, a throne, or if you are walking about, a very tall hat.

The muddy, fecund ground of everyday life was now not sacred, and along with a vertical model of sprit came another model - purity.  White, translucent, unstained.  Our instinctual, carnal human nature became less than spiritual and finally sin, then an abstract idea of Heaven pursued. Man’s purpose in life was now not only to restrain outward nature - cultivation of land and domestication of animals - but to restrain his inward nature.  To become cultivated.  

The creation myth of Adam and Eve flung out of the garden of Eden has been inverted.  A garden is the natural world become cultivated by man.  Adam and Eve were flung into a garden, where they had to till the soil by the sweat of the brow.  

The origins of yoga are somewhat mysterious, the tradition being largely oral in nature.  Carvings found in the Indus river valley civilizations of Harrapan and Mohenjo-daro depicting a figure seated in what may be a yoga pose are dated at 2500 BCE.  

The origins of agriculture begin approximately 5,000 years before this.  The practice of yoga arises after the agricultural revolution.  Most, but not all hunter-gatherers became farmers cultivating the land.  Farmers must protect their crops, build fences, store excess food and be able to trade that excess.  So agriculture precipitates ideas such as ownership, control, currency, policing and law.  Stratification of society ensues.  Farmers eat a mono - diet of planted crops and domesticated animals as opposed to the varied diet found in season by hunters and gatherers.  The negative effect on health and lifespan in many cultures was enormous.  The practice of yoga may have arose as a cure for this new lifestyle.  A way of reconnecting with natural forces and rhythms that were becoming forgotten.

The tools of yoga are the ones we already have - body, breath and mind.  Some of the later yoga’s view of the body is much different than the idea of the self divided from spirit that has become embedded deep in our culture, attitudes and behavior.

The word yoga can mean “union”, or an application of means, in this case the means to re-connect something.  Let’s remember that something is already here.  There is no separation of spirit and nature except in our mind.  Any dedicated outward searching will ultimately lead us back to a remembrance of this ground of being.  The ideas of the mind drop into the heart and body, and like any thing rooted to the earth, the flowering of our awareness is related to how much nectar is drawn up from our connection to the primal elements we grew from. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I am sitting down near my Swedish wood stove and thinking about this word Upanishad.  The word means “To sit down near”.   The Upanishads are a collection of wisdom from the yoga tradition, in the form of stories and poems originally transmitted orally.  To sit down near something, you must make an effort to get close.  When you go into a college lecture hall, often as students come in they will sit at the back of the auditorium.  How close you decide to get to your teacher and the teaching is an indicator of how much you want to hear, and how much you want to engage.

But I digress.  Back to my wood stove.  It is burning well now, at about 400 degrees.  It is turning mass into energy, unlocking the potential heat and light within each piece of wood.  Some of the wood is very dry and ignites easily.  The transmission of heat from the coals to a newly introduced piece of wood is immediate, and even a big piece of wood will ignite when laid upon a hot bed of coals.

To get the fire started in the morning I use very dry kindling and a match.  The match simply needs to be struck to ignite the phosphorous in it, and this “striking” is really an introduction of friction.  The phosphorous is responding to this “itch”.  It is its nature to ignite easily and burn quickly.  I light the kindling using a piece of paper (a form of wood) and if the platform of kindling I made in the stove has space for air, the fire starts easily.

I bring in wood as I need it from outside, and some of it is damp.  The damp wood will not ignite easily, so I place the wet wood close to the stove.  The heat of the stove will dry the wood so that it too will ignite when in the stove, changing state from density to light and heat.  The closer to the stove’s heat the wet wood is, the more heat it absorbs, the quicker it dries.  It is not an intellectual process, it is a physical process.  The wet wood is not ready to ignite, and cannot yet be moved into the center of ignition which is inside the stove. When it is ready, it will be.  This is Upanishad.