The Path To Bodhichitta

You start where you are, the practice will meet you there.

My Photo
Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Sunday, October 29, 2006

When The Truth Hurts

I have been practicing the niyama satya (truthfulness) for the past month. It hasn’t been easy. Lying (which includes white lies, omissions and exaggerations) is such a huge part of human nature, that we often do it unconsciously and unintentionally. At first, the truth stuck like a gob of peanut butter in my throat. I had to make a conscious effort to admit that I was just leaving my home and not ‘on the way’, that I would be 15 minutes and not ‘just a couple of minutes’ late and say ‘no’ instead of ‘maybe’ when I knew for sure I didn’t want an extra class. Over time, it got easier and I noticed people’s surprise and appreciation for the unexpected honesty. Then just when I thought I was getting the hang of it, life threw me a double whammy. I was faced with a situation that required me to practice both satya and ahimsa (non-violence).

Now, practicing satya and ahimsa individually is challenging enough. The prospect of practicing them simultaneously was overwhelming. How does one tell the truth when the truth will hurt another? I agonized over this. It wasn’t enough to chalk it down to intention. As Scottish author J.M. Barrie said, we tend to judge others based on their behaviour and ourselves based on our intent. It’s too easy to excuse our hurtful actions by saying we never intended to cause any hurt. Similarly, it’s also easy to use ahimsa as an excuse to be dishonest. But sometimes, we must speak out even when we dread the consequences. How do we recognise such circumstances? By asking ourselves if the truth is kind and if it is necessary.

Kindness is not always immediately apparent in most truths. For instance, you wonder where the kindness is in telling your partner that you’re not in love with him/her any longer. The kindness lies in the way you tell him/her. However, even if kindness is present, you still have to ask yourself if it is necessary for that truth to be told. In the above case, it is. In other cases, it may not. For instance, if you are privy to a secret relationship and others ask you if the rumours are true.

A friend, who has also dealt with similar situations, said, “Be honest, be fair and leave the other person with his/her dignity. I have always played by those rules and I have never gone wrong.”

So I did. I told the truth in the kindest way possible. Yes, I was apprehensive and yes, the result was what I had feared; nonetheless I went to bed that night with a clear conscience because I believed I had done the right thing. In the truth-telling process, we make decisions based on the best criteria we have. The consequences, whether intended or not, are not always in our hands.

Last night, as I sat outside drinking in the twilight beauty, I realised something else. I had been so anxious about being honest and non-violent to others that I had forgotten to check if I was practicing those same values on myself. Looking back, I concluded with relief that I had. Knowing this settled me into a deeper sense of peace and bliss.

What I learnt is that honesty isn’t always the best policy, but when it is, the truth will set you free.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Not For The Softhearted

In last Thursday's class, I decided to focus on backbends; in particular, dhanurasana (bow) and salabhasana (locust). Rather than lead the students straight into the poses, I put together a sequence of prepatory poses which focused on lengthening the spine, engaging the uppper thigh muscles, opening the shoulders, breathing into the thoracic region and focusing on expanding the chest rather than compressing the lower back. Each preparatory pose was supposed to create more awareness of the body so that when the students finally moved into the two backbends, they wouldn't mindlessly swing their legs up and send the lumbar spine into shock.

After the class, one student casually commented, "That was a rather soft class, wasn't it?"

I explained the reason behind the sequence, but he didn't look convinced. So I assured him that the following week's class wouldn't be so 'soft' and he walked away satisfied. This student's comment was ironic, for two reasons. First, because this class was in fact more difficult than my other classes. In this class, I wanted the students to pay complete attention to their body, instead of merely arranging their limbs in each asana. I wanted them to understand the impact each asana had on their spine and various muscles. And that's no easy feat!

The second reason for the irony was that this particular student was struggling to perform some of the 'soft' asanas. Hearing him complain about the class being too easy left me stumped.

As I mulled over this, I suddenly understood where he - and probably a few of the other students - were coming from. To them, yoga meant a total body workout that left their bodies slick with sweat, their heart racing and their muscles screaming in pain. Their ideal yoga class would include unfamiliar poses they weren't able to execute rather than basic poses that were easy to do. I also knew that their previous teacher was fond of leading such classes. No wonder then that they found my class 'not yoga-like enough'. And thus sprung the dilemma - should I cater to the students needs or stick to my own style.

When I posed this question to Sakun, she very wisely said, "Stick to your own style. There are many other teachers offering the workout-style of yoga. The student who want that style will find that teacher andthe students who like your style will stick with you. You can't be a teacher to everyone."

I have always believed that yoga is a process of discovering how the body works rather than how to push it beyond its limits. That a student should walk out of class feeling relaxed and connected with his/her body rather than exhausted and sore. I still believe it, which means I'll have to 'disappoint' some of my students again this week.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Your Student, Your Teacher

A few weeks ago, one of my students approached me after class and blurted, "Why is yoga so hard for me? Everyone else is able to do the poses, why can't I? What's wrong with me?"

I recognised her type immediately. A passionate, attentive and diligent student, whose physical ability doesn't measure up to her mental ambitions. A student who takes yoga more seriously than her peers but who has to work doubly hard to achieve even half of what they have achieved. A student whose frustration could lead her to either throw in the towel or throw herself more deeply into her practice. She stood there, despair shining in her eyes, and my heart went out to her.

Taking her aside, I gently reminded her that awareness and intention mattered more than results. I told her that yoga isn't only about excuting perfect asanas and assured her that the asanas would come with time. As I emphasised that ambition doesn't belong in a yoga practice, I felt an odd sense of deja vu. Suddenly, I recognised her again. This time on a different level.

She was me.

Students appear as teachers in many forms. Some are potholes, who threaten to derail you from your spiritual path. Some are diagnosis, deepening your knowledge as you search for a prescription. Some are roadmaps, who show you another route to the same destination. Some are budding flowers, who remind you why you love teaching. And some are mirrors, who reflect what you otherwise wouldn't see.

Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, renowned author and yogi, says you always attract that which you need to learn from. So true! In my five months of teaching, I've seen myself in three of my students. It's a startling, humbling and invaluable experience. Since then, I've learnt to look beyond my obvious feelings towards a particular student. Why does she inspire me? Why am I provoked by her? Why do I find her challenging? Each answer teaches me a little more about myself. It's a wonderful learning curve but it can be tricky.

I have to remind myself that although my student mirrors some of my qualities, he/she isn't me. Which means I cannot assume that he/she feels the same way and would benefit from the same solution. I cannot be as hard on him/her as I am on myself. If that quality is one of my character weaknesses, I cannot feel annoyed towards him/her for also possessing it. Most importantly, I cannot cross the invisible teacher-student boundary and embrace him/her as a bosom buddy. What I can do is embrace the lesson he/she has unwittingly taught me and use it to groom the both of us. Which is what I did with this particular student.

As I extolled the virtues of practicing without expectations, I realised how difficult it has been for me to practice what I preach. My student, who now looked at me gratefully, showed me what I needed to do. The next day, my personal practice began with the simplest asana - savasana (Corpse).

Friday, October 13, 2006

When Everything Is Finished

There will be a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.
Louis L' Amour

When I read this, I wasn't sure if the shiver running down my spine was one of cold fear or delicious anticipation.

Monday, October 09, 2006

S Is For Surrender

Surrendering is probably one of the most difficult things to do. Especially when you're already feeling helpless.

Two months ago, my chiropractor told me my scoliosis could never be cured. So I stopped seeing him. I refused to believe his prediction. Especially after reading Elise Miller's article in Yoga Journal about how she straightened her very crooked spine through yoga. Perfect, I thought, I will do the same.

The beginning was good. I focused on gentle asanas that stretched the back, lengthened the muscles and gave me some form of pain release. Alas, that gentle yoga sequence lasted all of a week. In week two, I developed temporary amnesia about my condition and was throwing myself back into the sirsasana (headstand), vrischikasana (scorpion), pincha mayurasana (feathered peacock) and deep backbends. The same way you scratch an itch raw even though it stings like hell later, the same way I used certain asanas to temporarily relieve my pain even though the pain returned with a vengence later. Asanas like adho mukhasvanasana (downward dog), ardha matsyendrasana (spinal twist) and halasana (plough) felt utterly delicious, but I could never resist going deeper than I should. Barely 15 minutes after my practice and my muscles would be on fire. This carried on for a month, until one evening when I was deep in pranayama (believe it or not) and my muscles seized. From then on, I couldn't sit for more than five minutes without wriggling in pain and discomfort. Even as I'm writing this, my spine is doing a jiggy to loosen up the muscles.

So I went on to Plan B: Reread all my scoliosis notes. That's when I realised that the symptoms may have somehow worsened. Not only am I in continuous discomfort, I may now also have decreased lung capacity. I can't take in deep yogic breaths without my muscles contracting angrily. Seeing as I had single-handedly gotten myself into this mess, it was now my responsibility to straighten things out. No pun intended.

Early this week, I made a tough call. For now, I had to surrender to the fact that my body is in no position to emulate a pretzel. Which means I have to drop many asanas from my personal practice. Which means I have to design my own special scoliosis sequence. Which means I have to stop Parveen's class for a while...ok, for a long while.

I did a bit more scouring in cyberspace and found two books that come higly recommended for those with scoliosis. The first is Basic Back Care: A Doctor's Gentle Yoga Programme For Back and Neck Pain Relief by Mary Pullig Schatz M.D. and Structural Yoga Therapy: Adopting To The Individual by Mukunda Stiles. I managed to find the second and am still looking for the first. Borders has a copy, but it's in bad condition.

This time I'm going to stick to the sequence and find humilty, surrender and peace in simple poses like bidalasana (cat), supta padangusthasana (reclining big toe) viparita karani (legs up the wall), trikonasana (triangle), salabhasana (locust), janu sirsasana (leg to knee) and lots of gentle reclining poses. I'm going to surrender the high my ego gets from inversions and deep backbends, surrender my desire to go as far as I can as fast as I can, surrender to my body's own pace of healing and surrender to a true process of self-discovery.

Wish me luck!

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Power Of Touch

Streaks of grey clouds across an midnight blue sky carried the first hints of a storm. The sky itself was slowly turning a rusty shade of red and faint growls of thunder were barely audible in the distance. Napkins, clothes and hair stirred gently in the wind. The rain was coming, but not for a while, and until then, it was a perfect night to sip hot cups of masala tea in Sri Neela's and exhange notes on our yoga classes.

Sakun and I are new teachers with a long road ahead of us and a deep passion for the journey we're on. We have great students, who teach us as much as we teach them. And because of our different teaching styles, we have each other as teachers too.

Sakun is an intuitive teacher. She senses her class' energy and modifies her sequence to energise, ground or relax her students. I am a practical teacher. I sense my class' physical abilites and modify my sequence to build strength, flexibility and stability. However, both of us share the same yoga philosophy - that the joy of yoga goes beyond a perfect headstand. We have learnt a lot from each other over the past months, but what she said just before the fat drops of rain fell, stuck in my mind like a jammed doorknob.

I wondered aloud whether I was connecting with my students. She rested her chin on her palm and studied me thoughtfully.

"Do you touch all your students?" she asked.

"When I need to adjust them, yes," I replied.

"But do you touch all of them?" she persisted. "Even those who don't really need adjusting."

"What do you mean?"

"When you adjust a student, it shows that you have noticed them. That you care. It doesn't matter whether they're doing the pose perfectly or not. And it doesn't matter what the adjustment is. As long as you touch them, you're connecting with them."

It was true, I realised. I have always loved being adjusted in class. Even if Parveen just lifted my chin up an inch, that would be enough. Listening to Sakun, I understood that I was happy not only for his guidance, but also for the simple fact that he saw me and acknowledged my presence in his class.

Last week, I made sure I touched each student as least once in all my three classes. There were no lightening bolts of connection, but I could feel their bodies softening under my hand and I daresay they looked just a little more relaxed when they walked out of class.