esther m palmer

preface to a movement

Next week begins a new beginner's yoga series that I'm teaching in town, which of course raises the issue for me of how best to introduce yoga --as a "thing" and as a practice and as what I intend to teach folks. Yoga in our world today is not just one thing (is anything?) and the word will carry different meanings to different people, so I want to share with my class what meanings I'm bringing with me so that they can understand my perspective and choose when to share in them and when to let them be. It may be helpful to know that I'm in no way a scholar of yoga or Indic philosophy, and my knowledge is grounded in a Western perspective through the trainings and teaching I've done in the United States.

what is yoga?

I like to introduce yoga as a practice --in particular, a movement practice. And this movement practice that we'll be exploring in the beginner's series as well as in my online classes is connected with a worldview (darshan, which might also be translated as "a philosophy") that uses observations and practices of the human mind and body to understand or know self in relation to whole (or universe).

The norms and practices of this approach to self-realization have evolved over time and the system of yoga invites and allows for this. The movement component grew up out of a period when the body was denied as relevant --or suspected to be getting in the way of self-realization. That didn't work out so well! Today, we have more and more evidence that we treat the mind and body separately at great cost to our well-being and self awareness. And so, movement practices have in one way or another become part of the exploration of self (and being).

I teach movement in this form we refer to as yoga (i.e., a stylized system of movement practices) as a means to both increase self awareness and regulate or contribute to well-being. For me, that means using the practice to build or hone our ability to notice our individual needs and preferences and the autonomy to make choices within the system. One of the ways I like to enter this process is through anatomy with insights into how breathing and muscles and joints work, using the forms and movements of yoga as examples.

This is just my take on yoga --and just a tiny introduction to it at that. I hope it's useful to you and that you will find your own take on yoga over time!

Be moving, be true, be you,

photo credit parco chan, found on unsplash

Last month I was reminded of the importance of and the inherent trouble with "believing." A friend and I were chatting and it came up that he subscribes (somewhat) to the validity of astrology, a system I view as essentially made up and coincidental. I, on the other hand, take similar guidance in how we relate to our environment from Ayurveda, a system that he seemed uncomfortable having come up in conversation (perhaps just as I had seemed when he asked me my astrological sign). It seems to me that Ayurveda carries a little bit more credibility in the scientific community, just judging from the two wikipedia entries, but at the level of use value to each of us, the validity of either comes down to what each of us believes about the world and how we can understand ourselves in it.

I do, generally, believe what science has to tell us. As a diligent student who has often looked up to teachers as embodiers of truth itself, most "facts" I learned in school have long been just that. And most of them still are, but some have since been disproven, replaced with new facts uncovered by science. (Of course, in some cases, it wasn't the availability of facts that was missing, just the sharing of the whole story, but I'll save you my diatribe on our broken education system.) This new information, for someone like me, is unsettling. If everything is black and white and fixed, great. I can just learn the facts and put them to use. But if some things are certain and some things aren't€¦? Well, then, how am I sure which "facts" to believe? Which then raises for me the question of what it means to believe or believe in something -anything.

In the yoga sutras, the practice of yoga is defined as requiring the exercise of three things: tapas, ishvara pranidhana, and svadhyaya.

Tapas translates as "heat," that which burns out impurities, or basically the effort + persistence you need to contribute to find balance.

Ishvara pranidhana translates as surrender to the "universal intelligence" or simply to the idea that you can't control everything and need to allow what will happen to happen.

And svadhyaya translates to self study, meaning the essential or "big" self, that which is universal in each of us.

Now, just as often (as in the Satchidananda translation/commentary that I am using), you'll see ishvara pranidhana translated as "surrender to god" and svadhyaya as the "study of spiritual books" (implied is that in these books the truth of the Self is documented), but those concepts don't have any use value for me, so I've put the original Sanskrit concepts into language that does (translations are never perfect, after all!), with many thanks to my teachers at ISHTA (in this instance I am thinking of Peter FerkoKristin Leal, Mona Anand, and Alan Finger) who've given me the broader understanding of yoga within which to do so.

That said, the "spiritual books" bit really bugs me; if there is nothing to assure me that they got it right, why should I trust that my study of them will bring me closer to understanding all that is?

In my continued effort to make some sense of this (still within the context of the sutras), I went back to sutra 1.7 (the sources of right knowledge are direct perception, inference, and scriptural testimony), from which I take away that we can build useful knowledge through a synthesis of our own experiences, established knowledge, and our conclusions drawn from both experience and established knowledge.

What is established knowledge? Well, it's probably become clear that I rely on the knowledge that science and observation (history, philosophy, art, etc) have made available to us, understanding that what we "know" is only as certain as it is current. But I also allow that it can be different for each of us, depending on one's beliefs in what constitutes fact/reality/what can be known + explored. I believe that knowledge is liberating, that through objective understanding, one can find harmony with one's subjective experience.

That's what I get from svadhyaya, tapas, and ishvara pranidhana. But even in my take away, belief and trust are part of negotiating how to use the information I'm taking in. It's nice to have evidence that is impersonal and not specific to me, but I still have to believe that it holds true for it to really do me any good. Or do I? Is that the reality I'm looking for, the one I don't have to believe in?

In a response to the question of why we use Sanskrit mantras (sounds) in meditation, Alan (Finger) writes that you can use any word that is simple and is something you truly believe, but that the mantras are "better" to use because their vibrations correspond to nadis (energy lines) in the body. I think he's saying that believing is critical, but that the mantras have an effect on the subtle body irrespective of belief. This makes sense to me, but I am not yet sure that I believe it is true, because I don't have enough knowledge or experience of this to take Alan (or even ancient texts) at his word (even though I really want to).

But I do have an experience of and read studies that claim that we have this amazing (or not so amazing, depending on how you view it) thing we can do, which is to affect the physical reality in our bodies and energy simply with our thoughts, with our belief. We can't make matter exist by believing it to be so, but we can make ourselves happy (and many other states) by believing we are so.

Where does the difference in those two roles of belief lie? I'm not sure, but for now, I'm going to do my best to keep thinking happy thoughts.

Om shanti, om tat sat.

I love stories. I love well-crafted stories. I love well-told stories. But really, who doesn't? The story is a basic, ubiquitous form for organizing information for communication. It helps us comprehend, process, and learn. Stories are a fundamental part of our collective (social) existence.

My yoga story is deeply rooted in the physical body (it may even be that it just is the/my physical body). I don't even really know how to translate it into words. It's not my idea of a cake walk to bother with the translation, either. But then I'd never be able to share this experience with anyone new. I wouldn't be a teacher. I wouldn't be a student. I suppose then I would just be, which some say is the goal, but that wouldn't get me very far -it would be socially isolating, if cosmically connected. Oooh! I have a little story about that.

I am a dancer. I've been attracted to dancing since I was very little. The movement of it, not the discipline, is what caught my eye (to six-year-old me, ballet class was BORING), and my dancing journey lacked structure and goals. (This was generally fine with me, I was still dancing; it just felt different from what all the other dancers seemed to be doing.) Perhaps because I do not like being told how to be, I've never been so very fond of filling a role in a choreographer's work (unless that role was me), and started as a young teenager to make up my own dances. And more importantly, I started dancing for myself, by myself.

I've known few moments in life when I was as connected and whole as when I was dancing, alone in the studio, without agenda. And that experience, well, I've never felt compelled to share with others because it hasn't wanted to be shared. That is, it isn't important to me that anyone know for themselves what the experience is like for me. Now, I've also spent much of my teen and adult life in the community of dance, making work, performing, attending shows, joining the dialogue and keeping it a part of my identity, education, and contribution to society. This has always been a challenge of sorts --it requires discipline, commitment, perseverance, passion-- but my experiences of something I never had words for remind me that it's important and worth it.

The yogis, they created words for that experience (at its most essential) and a system of tools to bring anyone into it. Which is why so many of us can find a resonance with ourselves in the practice of yoga. (And the more I look around, the more I see similar avenues abound in human experience. Which is to say that, happily, yoga isn't the purview of just yogis.) It also means that the philosophies of yoga are just stories that bring the singular experience of self into dialogue with daily living.

This is important for me to remember, because I haven't yet found much of a connection with the classic yoga texts I've read (yoga sutrashatha yoga pradipika), I think because of the prevalence of hierarchical language and talk of spirituality. I haven't yet figured out what spirituality is supposed to mean, the word certainly doesn't mean anything to me, and it doesn't describe my experience of yoga. Perhaps the translation from the Sanskrit, the language developed to describe yoga and its philosophies, is at fault. But sometimes I suspect it might have to do with the translation of experience into words of any language (there is always something lost in translation, which is why no one needs to know what Bill Murray whispers in Scarlett Johansson's ear).

My inclination is to leave the texts be, not bother with defining spirituality, find my philosophy elsewhere. Then I remember that those texts, imperfect as they might be, participate in encouraging the widespread practice of yoga, which I think is awesome, spiritual or not. And I remember that the teaching (and learning how to practice) of yoga is found in the process of attempting the translation from experience to something we can use and share in our everyday living, like language. It's not easy. It requires discipline, commitment, perseverance, passion. And it's worth it.

More of that attempt next week. Until then, have a good one!

Om shanti


A space to move, heal from daily stresses, and be true to yourself. 
Want a personal introduction? You can schedule a time below.
copyright © 2024 esther m palmer