The Enveloping Approach

Virginia Woolf’s narration is cyclical, looping between past and present, in and out of the minds of various characters. It is feminine in its enveloping nature.

Reject nothing. This Tantric maxim comes alive for me in this way. Perhaps in Tantra the worship of the goddess, the Divine Feminine, of the Mother, exists to honour that ability to channel everything and anything into the quest for wholeness. A masculine approach may be more focussed, direct and intense, but launches toward a perceived goal, and later falters when the trickiness of ‘no path, no goal’ dawns. The archetypal feminine is more at home in multiplicity, with perceived incoherence, and can get beyond the duality of light and dark that axes off so much of our lived experience.

The path is not progressive, a knight’s tale of triumph over evil. It is a soothing expansion in all directions, that claims everything as its very own.

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Yoga is Like a Good Masala

You can also see this post on Elephant Journal at:–chetana-panwar/
I woke up this morning thinking of yoga as masala. Cinammon gives sweetness to masala, nutmeg and cloves an earthy savory, ginger a bit of spice. Together they are a nurturing, balancing blend of various tastes. When we reduce yoga to asana, it falls flat. The various aspects of yoga provide balance to one another, and also spice things up: mantra, visualization, relaxation, asana, pranayama, savouring through the senses, mindful nature walks, walking meditation, seated meditation et cetera. There is a veritable cornucopia of ways to practice yoga in the sense of active practice.

Then there is the aspect of yoga that is based in contemplation or mindfulness. Mindfulness is something that is ‘practiced’ throughout the regular day, as it is. In other words, we don’t have to stop our lives to practice yoga – rather, yogic mindfulness is a part of our lives as they are. It is a way of encouraging being-ness.

[a moment ago, I just typed mind-fun-ness by mistake. This is actually something I want to say – yoga and mindfulness is fun! Bearing witness to our lives and communities through being more mindful of each moment, each interaction, makes these interactions more meaningful, and therefore more pleasurable no matter what they are.]

In the past, I moved away of some of my other creative pursuits and hobbies to have more time to practice yoga and meditation. I think this is part of an organic process. As I surrendered to where the yogic process was taking me, I noticed over the years, that I had come back to many of my creative pursuits: creative writing, cooking, reading fiction, exploring dance, going to the theatre, et cetera. I realized that I did not need to reduce or suppress these parts of my life; now I experience creativity, nature appreciation, and relationship as yoga.

With the masala analogy in mind, we could say that even to look at yoga as something that we stop our lives to practice, is reductionist. When we bring all of the spices, all of the practices together, they create also a whole. That whole has another existence – not as the combination of parts, but as the blended whole. In yoga, I would call this blended, unselfconscious whole, simple being-ness.

We see this type of discussion in Tanta, which is non-dualist. We don’t need to escape the body to become the spirit. Spirit and body (purusha and prakriti) are one. The mundane is the sacred, and the sacred is the mundane. There is nothing to become, we simply drop into (surrender into) witnessing what is.

Preserving that wholeness of practice, life and self is the masala of yoga!

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New York Times described Sri Vivekananda’s wide appeal

Today’s New York Times published a review of the influence of Sri Vivekananda on Western writers, philosophers and celebrities after his lecture at the Parliament of World Religions as part of the Chicago World Fair on Sept. 11, 1893. It is wonderful to have such meaningful reviews on yoga that remind us of the influence of Indian thought on late 19th and early 20th century thought. You can view the brief article here:

The article is entitled “How Yoga Won the West”. There is no doubt that Vivekananda’s influence was vast. And yet, for me this title seems to negate the very profound influence of ,for example, the translation of the Bhagavad Gita in about 1850 on beloved American writers like Thoreau and the Boston Transcendentalist. For this is when yogic thought began to percolate in the American consciousness in that century. Of course, Indian philosophy has always been a part of Western thought since the Sermon on the Mount, since the time of Buddha. But this is another post…

The writer draws a link between Vivekananda coming to America to teach Vedanta philosophy and contemplative practice with the now popular asana classes, as if it were a pre-cursor to the incredible popularity of Hatha Yoga in the West. I disagree with this perspective, especially in that Vivekananda was not a practitioner or promoter of asana and certainly not as a primary aspect of yoga as a whole. Vedantist tend to see excessive focus on the body and mental identity as a barrier to recognizing the Supreme oneness of all things.

Rather, I believe that pieces of yoga were brought over and popularized separately by different teachers from diverse lineages of practice. This is fairly natural given the incredible diversity in the yoga tradition. As such, yoga continues to be quite fragmented today. There have been holistic or integral yoga traditions and schools, but it seems that the separated parts also took off as such. Just as Vivekananda spoke primarily about advaita vedanta, the Iyengar teachers in America taught asana, Sri Prabhupad inspired many followers in the 1960s to chant the Maha Mantra, and of course there have been many meditation teachers both Buddhist and Yogic. Holistic teachers (of a blend of asana, pranayama, mantra, meditation and philosophy) from the late 1950s/early 60s include Swami Sivananda Radha, Swami Satchitananda and Swami Vishnu Devananda of the Sivananda lineage; Yogi Bhajan; Swami Kripalu and Amrit Desai, Baba Hari Das, Ram Das, etc.

But most astounding to me has been the incredibly informative recent book, The Great Oom, about an American, Dr. Bernard, and his Indian guru, who taught very diverse aspects of yogic cleansing, meditation, asana and philosophy starting in the 1890s through the 1920s when they had yoga studios in Manhattan, through the 20s and 30s at a Yoga Country Club in Nayak, NY, that had long term residents in the Vanderbilt family, and visitors like teenage Pete Seeger. It is an amazing story of a teacher who captivated many, and whose students were the earliest teachers of Hatha Yoga across America. The book came out last year and was also reviewed in the New York Times, but I have not heard much comment about it in the yoga community. And yet, it is such an American tale of a young, un-formally-educated boy, meeting a mystical teacher and dedicating his life to learning from him and teaching, reinventing himself and his credentials for the high society of a number of cities from coast to coast. Why do we not seem as interested or nearly as informed about such very early 20th century home-grown teachers? Why do we not more often make the connection between Thoreau and the Boston Transcendentalists and the yoga tradition?

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A photographic glimpse into family history

In my last post, I wrote about a 1905 photograph that moved me. Seeing a young girl sitting on a rock in the Thousand Islands, along a path I have often trod, I felt the continuity of the human experience, and the power of images to convey our cultural, spiritual and social heritage.

Interestingly, I recently happened to open a box containing a few photographic mementoes of one of my great aunts. There were pictures of family homes in Boston and Halifax, pictures of a cousin in Manchester in the 1920s wearing pleated pants and round glasses. Half way through the three dozen photos, I found a familiar image of an Indian man in long flowing robes standing next to an American woman; it is Rabindranath Tagore! Immediately I set about trying to discover why my great aunt held in her possession a personal photograph of the mystical poet and Nobel Laureate. So far, I have discovered that the woman in the photograph is Mary Woolley, long time President of Mount Holyoke College, the oldest women-only university in the United States. It turns out that Tagore gave a poetry reading there in 1930, when my great aunt would have been a student.

It is difficult to explain in few words why this discovery was both astonishing and yet not implausible; why it is a symbol for me of my family’s tortuous spiritual history.

I grew up as a third generation agnostic. Not only my parents, but both sets of their parents were so-called non-believers. It was not until my twenties that I discovered I had two great aunts on my father’s maternal side who were both extremely active ‘karma yogis’, one deeply involved in the Service wing of the Quakers for over sixty years. It was about then also that my intellectual agnosticism and my poetic sense of the mystical, which had co-existed in me untroubled for about ten years as parallel pieces of myself, collided. I embarked on the path of meditation, and it was as natural as taking a deep breath, reading an ecstatic poem, looking at a still lake at dusk.

Seeing this photograph brought together two worlds – those of spirituality and poetry. I realized my parents and grandparents did not necessarily abandon their inner faith, only Christian theology. They had simply shifted their search for meaning away from the Church and towards literature, and the expression of mystical experience in literature. My father’s aunt on the paternal side having attended a poetry reading with an Indian mystic brought sides of the family together, and re-forged for me a very palpable connection between ecstatic poetry and explicit spiritual practice, whether it be faith-fueled service, the adoration of nature or the sublime.

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