Category Archives: Alternative Health & Yoga

How to find a good yoga teacher?

I’ve met many people during my travels in Canada and abroad who sincerely want to learn yoga. They ask me what kind of yoga they should look for? They ask this question not because there is a lack of yoga classes around, but because even without any experience in yoga, they can see thru the gimmicks and they know that the twenty-year-old-yoga-girl-yoga is not what they are looking for, even if the instructor happens to be in her thirties.

So how is a person supposed to find a good yoga teacher? Luck, I suppose is the easiest way. I usually advise finding someone older than yourself, someone you can relate to on some level. I tell people to avoid Bikram and hot yoga unless they just want a really good work out and even then I think there are much better practices for fitness. Iyengar provides this, as well as a rigidity not unlike the military. Hot yoga is just punishment, a kind of self flagellation that I suppose if continued with dedication it would qualify as tapas. There are so many different names for different kinds of yoga these days that you can never tell what you’re gonna get when you show up to a class. I have no idea what sattvic yoga is, or pure yoga, or lotus yoga, or shadow yoga, flow yoga, naked yoga, moksha yoga, glow-in-the-dark yoga…. but I suspect they are all just gimmicks; gimmicks should be avoided.

I have quite a similar view of one month teacher trainings. These courses provide the very basics of yoga; they are introductions to yoga at best. Calling these programs teacher trainings is just a gimmick that has opened yoga up for business, and very good business is being done flogging these certifications. The Yoga Alliance which as has paved the way for the entrance of yoga into the business world is supposed to help us separate the wheat from the chaff, but really all they’ve done is make more chaff. Now all the useless teachers have certificates stating otherwise, which makes it even more difficult to find a good yoga teacher.

A good teachers focus should be on teaching you so that you can go home and do it for yourself. Yoga and meditation are best done this way. If your teacher is changing the class everyday, they are not interested in teaching yoga, they are interested in getting you in everyday to pay your fifteen bucks. If your teacher is using gimmicks such as paddle boards or glow in the dark, they are interested in making money, not in teaching you yoga. Exotic location yoga is the same sort of gimmick for profit. I’ve fallen for these things, I enjoyed them, they were certainly nice, but if you want to learn yoga you should do it where you are all the time. If you want to experience peace and beauty bali I’m sure is an excellent location, but they yoga there is likely unnecessary.

I suppose, just like anything else, if there is some quality in yourself that you would like to develop, then you must find people who embody that quality or those qualities, and learn from them. Some of the qualities I look for in yoga teachers are humility, selflessness, sincerity. If you really want to learn yoga you have to be ready to open up a part of your life for yoga and find the self-motivation to continue it mostly on your own once you are set on your path. Try not to allow yourself to be too daunted by all the gimmicks. As I wrote earlier: 45% of yoga teachers are merchants, they are easy to spot, avoid them. Another 45% are jocks, they can show you a good physical practice, which can be useful. But it’s the minority of good true yoga teachers who are incredibly difficult to find. Good luck!

The Yoga Critic

As many of you know, when it comes time for me to make some money I turn to construction work. Philosophy, holistics and yoga just don’t pull in the big bucks like the brochures promised. I’m good at construction. They hire me to lead a couple or a couple dozen guys thru jobs that are worth anywhere for a million to ten million dollars. It’s an intense production orientated job that doesn’t care much for people. But like I said, it’s something I’m good at: my bosses know this and my workers know this. When I’m on the construction site and I see someone doing something stupid, I have no fear of asking them, in the most lighthearted manner ever, “what the fuck are you doing?” But my criticism is not without it’s constructive qualities and after I show someone what they should be doing, we’re all friends again and there’s actually a lot of laughter and commradery on my crews.

But in the yoga world I tend to bite my tongue and not say anything when I see people doing or saying asinine things; and there are a lot of such things coming from the west when it comes to yoga.

It’s the that before Diwali, the moon is very weak. Perhaps this is suppressing my sensitive side because it’s time to have my say. Mars is also strong in my chart and sitting in a strong position for me these days. Mars is also known as ‘the cutter.’ So let me start high and work my way down.

Jai Kai seems to be quite a yoga guru, at least western Canada. I recently read a blog post he wrote on meditation and levitation. Yes really: levitation. First off, anyone who is interested in levitation ought to forget about yoga and join the circus. I’m sure such a thing is possible, but Jai Kai can neither perform this feat, nor has he ever witnessed it. So why the hell is he writing about it? Because it’s a gimmick and he has yoga and ayurveda certificates to sell. I’m sure Jai is very knowledgeable and of good intention, but whenever someone starts waving gimmicks in from of you you have to start asking questions. This is one of the simplest means of detecting what I call a bullshit baba in India. They’re generally more concerned with their own welfare than with anyone else’s.

It might be true that yoga is a sacred art, but it’s also practical. It must be practical. If you exercise there’s a very good chance you’ll become more fit. If you meditate you’ll likely become more peaceful. If you practice trataka your concentration is bound to improve. Pranayama is certainly going to have benefits for your breathing. This is such common sense that it can hardly be considered scientific, though I’m sure scientist would give each practice a passing grade at its own specialty. Yoga is practical stuff. Yoga and Ayurveda are practical arts where form and function can come together with beautiful symmetry and really elevate your quality of life and clarity of mind. Yes, the good books also mention levitation and several other siddhis, but even the good books say that these things should be of the least concern. I’m pretty sure they are only mentioned so that if you happen to begin levitating someday, you have some idea why.

I found Jai’s article in a Facebook group I belong to from Edmonton, Canada. Bali is of course the place to be if you’re a yoga person; Edmonton is not so much. Bikram yoga has become a million (likely a billion) dollar business in North America by cranking up the heat to better mimic the atmosphere in India; but if they were really interested in mimicking India’s atmosphere they would have to spread shit and garbage around the room. These sorts of atmospheric changes don’t seem to have caught on in the west yet. But I wanted to talk about Bali blogging.

In this post, Becca, who I’m sure is a very nice person and good yogini, writes about her amazing time in Bali. She wants us all to know that we are beautiful on the inside. My problem with this is not the message, because we all are beautiful on the inside, but with her way of presenting it thru the lens of the beautiful paradise yoga Island of Bali. She writes so much about the physical beauty of the island that I have to ask if she has seen her own inner beauty or if she merely finds inspiration from outer beauty.

And last but not least is a yogini I met in Kamloops when I was there in the spring. Another nice girl. She was telling me about the yoga studios in town when she mentioned the Tantric studio which was the main competition for the orthodox practice she offered out of her studio. She complained that people were going to the Tantra studio because tantra allowed them to do what they want. What she offered was pure yoga. We talked about these things while she got drunk and feasted on meat. She must save her purity for the studio. But then I recently noticed that one of the popular yoga teachers from Edmonton is also in the business of selling alcohol as a representative.

But this is what yoga has become in the west. At least 50% of western yogis are merely merchants who will only teach you the art of merchandising, another 40% are into health and fitness and you can learn these things well from them, but only a very optimistic 10% are yoga teachers who can actually teach you something about yoga. Many people tell me that yoga is no longer even about fitness in the west, that it has sunk even lower and is now merely expected in many social circles in order to maintain ones standing and take part in the after yoga organic coffee house gathering.

When I talk to my Indian yoga friends about these things we all have a good laugh together. It’s madness what western people are doing with this sacred art. I hope you can recognise the beauty inherent in the madness and laugh as well. Much that is called yoga should not be taken very seriously.

Om Namah Shivaya

Letter on yoga

Dear Woman of the Woods,

I’ve been wondering about what I could say about yoga to someone who tells me they know nothing about yoga.

Yoga is commonly translated as ‘union;’ the yoking of two things. The yoga sutra says that yoga is the cessation of modifications of the mind. The Tantraloka says that, “that which manifests itself in two forms is ignorance.” Ignorance is defined not as the absence of knowledge, but “knowledge which is not manifested fully in knowable principles. “

In plain language, yoga is the absence of thought. When the mind rests in oneness there is nowhere else for it to go. There is no this-or-that because the truth is that this-is-that. Of course it’s not so easy to stop thinking. Thinking is something most westerners take for granted: Descartes’ famous philosophy of, “I think, therefore, I am” highlights the importance of thinking in the western world. If Descrates is to be believed, we will cease to exist if we stop thinking. But who will cease to exist? If the body is still here and still alive and fully functional but there is no thought, who then is this body? And to whom does this thoughtless body belong?

Union and oneness are the goals of yoga but of course the beginning of yoga is duality: there is you and me, this and that, peace and agitation, god and humanity. All of these things must be brought together not just in an intellectual manner, but in our hearts; in an internalized way so that it is understood beyond thought. But of course the big question is: How do we do that?

Many would say we need to come to understand god better. Others would say that god is within so we need to understand ourselves better. Yet others would say it’s the world around us we need to understand since all is a manifestation of god. All are correct in their own way. Duality implies relationships and it’s these relationships we must understand. By understanding how everything relates with everything else we can begin to see the indivisibility of everything.

This is also the point at which Tantrics begin to talk about desire. Only those things that we desire will we do the work to attain. A person must cultivate a strong desire for union or at least the side effects of union (such as peace).

Speaking as the supreme God head, Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita says that four kinds of people desire oneness: 1. Those in distress, 2. Those who seek power, 3. Those who seek knowledge, and 4. The wise.

I came to yoga out of distress as I think many westerns do. It was distress of chronic dissatisfaction. The kind of suffering that creeps into our days thru petty fears and thinking that separates things rather than bringing them together. Mine was the distress of living rather than being alive. I am fortunate in that I have always had a desire for knowledge as well. In my younger days I had no prejudices against any kind of knowledge; now, I seek only that knowledge which illuminates.

I suppose the important question concerning the aspiration of a yoga student is: What do you want? How strong is your desire for what you want?

People come to yoga for many reasons. Health and fitness is a prime motivator for many westerners. The suffering that led me to yoga was also related chronic back pain and sciatica. But as we all know, there kinds of pains are never so bad until they begin to interfere with the things we want in life. Because of my back pain I was unable to sit to read or write or even to meditate. Some yogis have even told me that the only purpose behind the physical practice of yoga is to get into (or stay in) shape so that you can sit in meditation for long periods. This is perhaps a good yogic standard for fitness, but the postures can be much more than mere exercise.

One of the main points of yoga concerns breath and breath awareness. Breath is the main source of Prana (or chi, or energy, or whatever you want to call it). But you don’t have to be a yogi to recognize breath as a source of life, but any yoga practice will encourage breath awareness.

For a new student of yoga it can be a struggle to just sit for five minutes and maintain awareness of their breathing. The sitting is hard on their knees, hips, ankles and backs and the mind will wander so much that before five minutes is over they might find that their body has begun to wander as well. It takes incredible concentration to focus on something as mundane as breathing. But hopefully you will soon begin to become aware of your breathing. Are your breaths short and shallow or long and deep? Is your abdomen relaxed when you inhale to allow greater movement of your diaphragm, or is it tense allowing only your chest to expand during inhalation?

In many ways, the postures allow us to explore our breath as well as our bodies. Self-awareness and breath-awareness go hand in hand. The greater our awareness, the greater our understanding, the greater our understanding, the greater our knowledge, this knowledge will lead to peace.

I remember when I was studying Kung Fu years ago and the master telling me that the first series of movements they taught us were the most advanced even though they felt more like going thru a dance than doing Kung Fu. If you begin now, he told me, perhaps when you become a black belt you will have some understanding of the depth of these movements. Breathing awareness is the same, begin now and perhaps after years of learning different techniques and postures, you will come to understand the true essence of your breath.

This is my cursory understanding of the basics of yoga. Nothing that comes from India is clear-cut. The head wobble (half way between a yes and a no) that they are famous for is a good illustration of this. Everything is like this and like that; absolutely contradictory but perfectly acceptable.

Please share your comments and questions.

Blessings from Shiva city.

Om Namah Shivaya

Acupuncture: Spiritual or Scientific?

What is acupuncture?

Most people know that acupuncture is a practice where very thin needles are inserted into the body to balance or open the channels of Qi (pronounced ‘chee’). Qi is basically life force or energy that brings all things into being; the equivalent of Prana in the East Indian tradition. Many people in western countries associate acupuncture with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Acupuncture is indeed a branch of TCM, but TCM these days relies more heavily on herbalism than it does on acupuncture. Also, the style of acupuncture practiced in TCM is but one of many styles of acupuncture, though it’s the only style that is currently accepted in most western countries.

So what are some of the other styles of acupuncture and how do they differ?

Each style of acupuncture has many similarities. The basis of each style can be found in the history of acupuncture in Asia. Where they differ is mostly in perception and emphasis, although there are some slight differences is diagnosis and needling technique as well.

What we know of as Tradition Chinese Medicine today differs from most other styles in the fact that there is very little tradition left in the theory and in the practice. Where most other styles emphasis the ‘five elements’ approach, TCM emphasizes the ‘eight principles.’ Also it should be noted that much of what is traditional in acupuncture was left behind (and even banned) during the communist revolution in China. So Traditional Chinese Medicine is not, in fact, as traditional as some of the other styles. The most traditional acupuncture practice is probably in Japan where some Shinto monks still practice a style of acupuncture that emphasizes the spiritual connection to the cosmos.

Acupuncture, after all, was likely started by the early shamans of the nomadic tribes that at that time dominated the pre-agriculture world. All through the history of acupuncture there is a great deal of emphasis placed on the spiritual connection and purity of the practitioner: ethics, morals, self-discipline, wisdom and knowledge. Most courses of acupuncture today emphasis knowledge alone, although most people who take the route of acupuncture

The reason Traditional Chinese Medicine is accepted by the west is that it’s been made to fit with western medical empiricism in theory and practice. No one still really knows how it works, only that it does work. Even the online “Skeptic’s Dictionary” has admitted that acupuncture works, which is saying a lot coming from a skeptic. The contention of the skeptics is that acupuncture works by way of placebo, but studies have also shown that most drugs prescribed in the west and even surgeries for that matter are no more effective than placebo. But placebo healing is another topic of it’s own that I will get to shortly.

The term traditional here is a misnomer at best, a term of Communist propaganda and mass marketing at worst.

TCM is the style of acupuncture, which has found acceptance with the modern medical community. This form of medicine relies most heavily on herbal treatments with acupuncture playing a rather minor role in the treatment of disease. Much of what is actually traditional in Chinese Medicine was banned with the arrival of the communist revolution in China.

Chinese medicine was traditionally practiced by shaman and later by spiritual philosophers. Spirituality and shamanism have both been banned in modern China. In Japan there is still a form of acupuncture backed up by the Shinto tradition and I have heard that Taiwan and Korea still have spiritual masters practicing acupuncture.

You may be wondering what the difference is between the pseudo-scientific acupuncture that is coming out of modern China and that which is has found acceptance in the West (TCM), and the spiritual forms of acupuncture practiced elsewhere and more traditionally in China.

Like everything, it’s largely a difference of perspective that has far reaching consequences. TCM see you as a physical body, your disease a physical manifestation of mostly external stimulus. It treats physical symptoms.

Spiritual acupuncture, on the other hand, sees you as a spiritual being with your disease arising mostly because of mental spiritual imbalance. When we loose our connection with the spirit imbalance arises. The function of acupuncture than is to help us reconnect with the heavens. Each point has some relation with the heavens and has a subtle or profound effect on the way we see the universe and our place within it. By bringing more or less power to a point, acupuncture causes a shift in our perspective. By shifting our perspective our lives take subtle or profound shifts in direction. Since the disease manifested because of erroneous direction in our lives, these shifts serve to cure our problems at their root.

Spiritual master all over the world have been decrying the erroneous direction the world is taking in destroying the earth. This great loss and pollution of natural ecosystems is widely viewed as a disease that must be cured. The nature of the disease is greed, selfishness, short-sightedness. The root of the disease is the loss of spiritual consciousness. And although modern democracies claim to support religious and spiritual freedom, this is only the case for those following accepted orthodoxy. Shamanism and any practices that view the world through an esoteric lens are still widely banned, or at least suspect. Basically anything that goes against science, consumerism, and power politics must be kept in the closet. Those practices that are not outright prohibited by law are prohibited by custom and popular opinion.

And what is popular opinion? How is popular opinion formed? In this day and age, popular opinion is shaped by the media, by those with power and money. Shamanistic practices and spirituality and any kind of deeper connection with the heavens, the earth and/or ourselves would undermine their power and wealth.

Slowly the message coming out of the mass media, Hollywood mostly is beginning to change, but if the medium is the message, then any change in the programing coming out of Hollywood isn’t really much change at all.

Which brings me back to the fundamental difference between spiritual acupuncture and ‘scientific acupuncture. If the medium is the message, this places a great deal of responsibility on the acupuncturist him or herself. The practitioner is as much the medium of healing as are the needles. If the practitioner is not pure and connected to the three planes (the heavens, the earth, and him or herself) then what good can come from the needles. From the spiritual perspective, the practitioner is merely an instrument of the gods channeling the energy of the universe thru his needles.

Bibliography

In the footsteps of the Yellow Emperor: Tracing the History of Traditional Acupuncture, by Peter Eckman MD

Yoga as self study

I don’t normally post the words of others in my blog, but these words seem somehow important to me these days. The following is an excerpt from Shyam Ranganathan’s commentary on Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

“To study the self is to be introspective. It is an effort to discriminate between the true self and the contingencies of one’s mind and body. To study the self, thus,is to take a critical stance towards one’s mental life. This is the only way to understand the study of the self, for Patanjali regards the mind as a potentially confounding aspect of our embodiment that can cause confusion in our self-conception. The criticism of one’s mental life is an intrinsic feature of self-study, for in Patanjali’s view, the mind is the mirror by which the self can know itself and also the means by which the self can confuse itself. When the mind has been stilled and made morally perfect, it acts as a mirror, reflecting the essential nature of the self back on the self, whereby the self, or the person, can abide in it’s own true nature. When the mind is disturbed and not constrained, the self continues to understand itself through the mind, but thereby identifies itself with extraneous, disturbing factors.

“Some who practice yoga, particularly in the west, come at yoga from a seemingly new age perspective, according to which everything under the sun is ok, fine, good and without need of criticism. ‘I’m ok, you are ok’ has been revived by many practitioners of yoga. For such practitioners, yoga is an escape from self-criticism, stress and difficulty. This is not Patanjali’s view of yoga…. To be a yogi is to hold oneself up to a very high standard. It’s not to disassociate the self from the mind and bod, and to take no responsibility for one’s thoughts, desires and actions. To practice yoga, according to Patanjali, is to practice rigors of the body and mind. There is no room for rest or relaxation for the yogi.

“How then are we to make sense of the peculiar phenomenon of fashion yoga: yogic practice that people take on for the clothes that one can buy from expensive yoga clothing boutiques, or yoga undertaken so that one can secure the body of one’s dreams or as a substitute to some other type of physical exercise that leads to a positive body image?

“Patanjali is committed to the notion that tapas helps in the practice of yoga, because it purifies the body and thereby purifies the mind. He must thus be committed to the notion that it better for people to practice fashion yoga than not to practice any type of tapas at all However success in yoga cannot be had by the mere practice of austerities or a weak subscription to watered-down ‘spirituality’ that attempts to infuse divinity in all things (including one’s own decisions and thoughts) in order to avoid the difficult project of self-criticism….” (p. 132 – 133)

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Translated and commented upon by Shyam Ranganathan. Penguin Books India. 2008

How is yoga a complete system?

Yoga is life. Dharma is the path of our life. Indifferent Atman is being carried along this path thru maya by the body. Know what maya is! Know what Atman is! Know your dharma. Know yourself! Know God!

The Eight limbs. Practically speaking. 1. How we treat ourselves. 2. How we treat others. 3. our posture throughout the day. 4. Breahing. 5. Control of our senses. 6. Concentration. 7. Awareness of true reality. 8. and it doesn’t feel right for me to even speak of this eighth limb.

Be aware of yourself and what your relationship with the other truly is. Master your body and your breath by becoming more and more aware. Control your senses knowing the source of all your desires. Be aware, be totally totally aware of all states of being. Know the root of all perception and act as witness rather than as actor or re-actor. Complete acceptance of all of life (truth consciousness contentment).

So yoga teaches you to know yourself thru all states of your being, all states of consciousness, and all states of mind. It gives lessons on how to act, how to work, how to teach to give to receive to live… it does this while still leaving the doors open to anything. Yoga accepts ever action, every behaviour, every bit of thing or happening that comes and goes from existence. Yoga accepts that everything comes and goes. Everything that arises, passes away. It also teaches that whatever changes cannot be real because truth does not change. We’ll maybe get into this another time.

In the mean time we have to take care of these ever changing (and thus very “unreal) bodies. We have to act with some degree of care, use our body (our muscles, our lungs, our organs, our heart and our brains) correctly. Yoga teaches all of this. Yoga teaches us to learn from ourselves the finer features of our bodies, our minds, and our emotions and our deeper motivations.

The practice of yoga includes a much wider variety of activities than is normally thought. asanas, meditation, chanting, singing, mantra, concentration, dancing, breathing, living with awareness…. it’s scientific, energetic, spiritual, practical, humanitarian, devotional, and, surprisingly after all I’ve said, very simple. It encompasses all aspects of life. No matter what your personality type or natural inclination, there’s a place in yoga for everyone.

Why yoga?

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Yoga is a complete system. I’m sure it’s not the only complete system, but in it’s ability to integrate other systems it really is a complete system. What more do I need? Every aspect of myself can be made healthier thru yoga: physical emotional, mental, respiratory, pranic body, spiritual…..

Yoga is also very inexpensive. I’m certainly not talking about the $15/class variety of yoga at your local studio. I’m talking about the living and breathing yoga we do in our own bedrooms and living rooms and everyday life. Become a witness. Take a few minutes every day to practice being a witness so that you make it a habit to do always. A few classes to get yourself started is good, some good book can be helpful. The classics like Patanjali’s sutra or the Bhagavad Gita are good. They will both be likely to change your idea of what yoga really is. I was certainly confused at first, but now it all makes perfect sense; these books describe what yoga really is and how to get there. You’ll notice that neither of them suggest going to your local yoga studio three times a week. What they do say is to meditate, meditate, meditate.

Yes, meditation is yoga. What the Buddha teaches is is yoga! What Christ teaches is yoga! What pain and suffering and sympathy teach you is yoga! Tantra, chanting, prostration, pranayama, prayer, and awareness will all bring you to yoga.

Yoga has become another outlet for fitness junkies. Most yoga classes are rajas at best. It’s unsettling to see so many tamasic teachers, but they’re there promising short cuts and leading the masses. The peace and relaxation and utter tranquility of yoga just isn’t there in the cities anymore.

But yoga, my yoga is still sublime. This is why yoga! I’ve made it my own. I love following my own rhythm, sometimes disciplining myself while at other times letting it all slid. I do what I want, I get what I need. Sometimes focusing on pasture, other times focusing on breath. And it costs me nothing. I need nothing. Just the will to do yoga; the will to learn about myself; witness the good with the bad.