Trauma, Relationship, Guru

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Richard assisting me in laghu vajrasana in 2011. Photo by Chris Croft

“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only in the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In her renewed connections with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic capacities for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy. Just as these capabilities are originally formed in relationships with other people, they must be reformed in such relationships.” — Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery 

The importance of the therapeutic relationship in psychotherapy has long been recognized.  It has been purported to be the single biggest factor (or even the only necessary and sufficient factor) contributing to positive treatment outcomes for a variety of problems and disorders.  How many of us feel a bit disempowered and disconnected from others?  This is often why we turn to therapy or to yoga.  We could all benefit from profound and selfless relationship, which is not so easy to come by in this world.

Such relationships seem to be growing more and more scarce in the yoga world as it becomes less and less “cool” to accept a guru or make any commitment to study with somebody who is truly qualified to teach.  In its popularized form yoga is seen as yet another fitness and fashion craze, and its ultimate goal (Self-realization and rediscovery of interconnectedness, the very opposite of disempowerment and disconnection) is forgotten.  Considerable disillusionment comes from having watched so many apparently advanced teachers succumb to the basest scandals.  However, instead of jumping on board and behaving abhorrently or losing faith altogether, teachers and students might deeply ponder the gravity of the role and do their best to uphold the highest standards.

It is well-established that memories are stored somatically, so when we work with the body in yoga, we have the potential, to a greater or lesser extent, to re-awaken traumatic experiences and relive them to some degree.  Even if we consider ourselves to be in the fortunate minority of people who have experienced no dramatic or excruciating trauma, we still carry with us whatever we have encountered throughout our development during at least one lifetime!  The choice of who will share this very intimate practice space with us while we undergo these processes is quite a sacred one.

When you fold into that hip-opener and associations with your X or difficult family members bubble up (explicitly or not), it would be ideal if the teacher would not reenact those old pathological scenarios and behavior patterns, reinforcing them in your system!  How terrible (and re-traumatizing) is it to feel unsafe, abandoned or subject to compounded injury and negativity in times of vulnerability…?!  How incredible would it be to share with somebody who supports you and sees your highest potential and reminds you of it in that moment?  A present being can often help us to face difficult feelings with more mindfulness than we can alone.  What a gift, to progressively work out ticks and misconceptions that we have adopted strategically in order to survive, but which build up those very barriers that alienate us from what we truly desire!  Sharing even one instant in true relationship with a genuinely compassionate being can reconfigure how we respond in analogous cases (or overall) for the rest of our lives (and perhaps beyond)!  Then, we learn how to be there for ourselves and others in that same nurturing way.

The necessity and therapeutic-transformative potential of the student-teacher relationship is stressed again and again in the shastras.  Through relationship we either drive ourselves further back into our shells or melt away resistances to states of fullness that we generally feel are too nice and therefore not possible for us.  I would like to beseech everybody to reconsider what is possible in relationship, whether in the shala or on the street (and hopefully here on this blog)!  We can practice this all the time…

My Page on Ashtanga Yoga

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Discussing shoulder mechanics with Richard during a Mysore class at the advanced teacher’s intensive at Upaya Zen Center in 2013. Photo by Laura Yasuda

Several months ago I removed my page on Ashtanga Yoga  due to what I have come to learn about the sexual and spiritual abuse history associated with K. Pattabhi Jois, which I denounce.  2/1/19 I discovered that the page still existed via a link though I had removed it from the menu.  I apologize for the oversight and any harm this may have caused the victims or anybody else given that I no longer find the use of honorifics like “Sri” or “Guruji” appropriate in light of his behavior.

Fall Fun Posing in Nature!

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Richard Freeman on Why We Practice Yoga

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IMG_2764“We may come to the practice to relax, or because our back is out of alignment, we feel frustrated, our knee hurts, or we just want a distraction.  As we continue, however, our reasons for returning to yoga begin to change.  We find that the practice solves our initial problems…  but then deeper problems… begin to reveal themselves…  until we finally realize that although we use our body to experience the yoga, the purpose of the practice is not to cure our ills or to meet our desires, nor is it about relaxation or stimulation…  Yoga is a path to undo the root of all types of misery through the direct experience of deep, clear, open awareness.  Ultimately we find that it is an attraction to the joy of this liberating experience that underlies all our other desires…”  — Richard Freeman in The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind

Richard Freeman on Ashtanga Yoga

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IMG_2764“Ashtanga yoga, though familiar to some as strictly a series of postures accompanied by specific patterns of breathing and gazing, is actually the broad system of yoga that forms the context for posture and breathing practices. Ashtanga means eight limbs, implying that there are many different interrelated approaches within this school that are used to develop a laser-like focus of the mind. This focus is utilized to explore any and all physical and mental phenomena that arise in order to reveal that they are composites of their backgrounds and not anything separate or eternal. This revelation or insight leads the ashtanga practitioner on and on to deeper states of insight into the nature of the mind and the world, and eventually to liberation from conditioned existence.”  —  Richard Freeman in The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind

Om gam ganapataye namah!

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sri nerd ganesh

Greetings, everyone!  Thank you for visiting my blog.  I hope it will contribute in some way to true happiness and freedom for all beings.

Ganesha is here to get us off to an auspicious start.  He blesses beginnings and is often said to be the remover of obstacles.  Our material on this blog will address many issues that tend to be seen as hindrances:  sickness, physical limitations, modern worldly commitments, relationship complexities, change and loss, character flaws, habits or addictions that appear to get in the way of our practice or ability to live fully…  They say the trick is to regard the “problem” as Ganesh himself, giving us the chance to behold it with greater respect and allowing for the possibility of learning and growing from it with humility and gratitude.

In this photo Ganesh is looking quite studious, and in fact he is said to be Intelligence itself.  We could all use more of that!  Or perhaps I should just speak for myself…  Well, even in his case, this lesson was hard-won as is illustrated by the following story, a version of which is often told by my teacher:

Shiva (Ganesha’s father) was needing to go out to perform some godly duties and didn’t want to leave his wife, Parvati (Ganesha’s mother) unattended.  He asked Ganesh to guard the door and be sure not to let anybody in.  As a test, he came disguised a few different ways and was very pleased to find Ganesh unrelenting in this task.  Shiva then felt reassured that everything was taken care of and was gone for quite a while.  Upon arriving back home excited to see his wife, he found that Ganesh refused to let him in!  No matter what he tried (entreaties, subterfuge, force…), he could not gain entry.  In a fit of frustrated fury, he sliced the boy’s (human) head off.  Needless to say, this did not go over well with Parvati and the homecoming festivities were further delayed.  Eventually they found an elephant, and Ganesh was outfitted with a new head.  After that he learned to get to the heart of the matter and not take things so literally (or seriously).

It’s astonishing to see how easy it is to develop fundamentalist attitudes and adhere to them even when they don’t apply.  We see this happening in the yoga world all the time when we hear a certain instruction meant for a particular person in a specific situation and we turn it into a universal rule and try to impose it on everybody.  Without understanding that the external posture is there to serve internal processes that can lead to open awareness and end all suffering, we try to cram our bodies into forms fabricated from fantasy and inflict more suffering on ourselves and others.  We then waffle to the opposite extreme, telling our entire social media network that this style of asana is injurious, nonsensical and definitely not meant for me…  We are forgetting its (and our) ultimate purpose (and potential).  Even the best technique will fall short unless we take it in, digest and assimilate it in a way that is appropriate for us.  It is far more challenging to look at our individual circumstances critically and use our own capacities to respond creatively and adaptively to them…

This brings me to Ganesha’s ears, which are quite large for divine listening.  Listening (with any of our senses) brings us into the present moment and our unique reality.  Rehashing the past, dreading or hankering after imagined scenarios in the future, and tugging at our experience right now wishing for it to be other than it is (or as other people tell us it ought to be) are all recipes for distraction and dissatisfaction.  When we listen (be it to our bodies, other beings or our environment), we can act in skillful or even enlightened ways that ultimately benefit us all.

We all want to be happy and discover the real cause of happiness.  The more I study various long-standing and apparently legitimate practice/wisdom traditions and interact with those who have truly immersed themselves in them, the more convinced I become that this goal is realizable and not some New Age magical thinking.  When we inquire deeply and sincerely, guidance comes, whether we see it as such or not.  May we explore together and find our own ways.  May we perceive bumps in the road as little jabs from the tusk of Ganesh and continue on the path with a more open heart and better sense of humor!