Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eddie Stern on the goal of spiritual practice

I joked once to Tim Miller that my most flexible muscle is my brain. I'm sure it must have come after he directed another shake of the head toward me and followed it with a "still stiff" in the Indian accent he puts on when he's about to hurt your feelings, but wants to do so gently.

When you see me at the Confluence, you'll know what I, and he, mean.

But my joke isn't entirely facetious. I'm pretty sure my brain is my most flexible muscle; sadly, Ashtanga only is 1% theory, but it is a 1% I try to give at least 4% of my time to as part of my practice.

And it is why I'm as excited by the afternoon talks at the Confluence as I am the morning practice sessions.

Initially, I'll admit to being most excited about hearing Richard Freeman. I read his latest book, "The Mirror of Yoga," earlier this year, and I found much in it to absorb and contemplate. (Ala Bobbie's review of "The Ramayana," I'll do something more complete on it at some point.) I have a suspicion I might really take to his perspective on the practice and on yoga in America.

But since the Confluence announcement, I've also being paying more attention to Eddie Stern, who may represent the great unknown for me when it comes to the five teachers.

What did I know about him? Well, the usual "rumors": he's super strict and super traditional, in that New York way. And before any New Yorkers/East Coasters jump on me, you know you think we're all laid back and too free with things out here in California. I also know he's embraced Hindu practices. But, really, that's about it. (In the past few weeks, I've gotten more information from a local source, who I'll keep anonymous. But it sounds like Eddie is a great teacher, which is no surprise.)

His blog at the Ashtanga Yoga New York site is great, and it is certainly making me more interested in hearing what he has to say about the 1% theory of Ashtanga. His latest, built around a puja for Guruji's birthday, includes these wonderful words:

The goal of spiritual practice is to awaken inner happiness, happiness that is not caused by the fleeting, changing objects of the world, but is the uncaused happiness of the Self. Purnima refers to the full moon, when the moon is complete and reflects the full light of the sun. In the Hindu tradition the moon is the mind, and the sun is the heart – so when our mind completely reflects the inner happiness of the heart, it is said to be full. The yoga master Krishan Verma spoke this past Friday on this idea, remarking that the Guru is said to be the one to awaken this fullness, hence the special name Guru Purnima – what is fullness, he asked? Happiness. Where does this happiness come from? Devotion to the Guru. The Guru can be a person, but in essence is a principle, called Guru Tattva. The principle of the Guru is the light of knowledge – a light like the sun – which is shining in the heart of each and everyone of us. We can access that principle, and have our own experience of it. But while it is true that the Guru is within us, the need for an outer guide should never be discounted, one who can point us in the right direction – and especially in the cases where this principle shines forth brilliantly, and the vessel has become the embodiment of the principle.

Now, I'll readily admit to being one of those not-so-rare Westerners who are reluctant to "surrender" to a Guru or, really, any authority figure. My embrace of Hanuman is mostly about tapping into his devotion to another.

And I'll also admit to having hesitation to what I'll broadly, and reductively, call "the new age spirituality" of yoga. I don't mean to turn anyone off by that phrase, and don't mean it pejoratively; it is more a reflection on me than yoga or Ashtanga or anyone practicing it. It places me in that grand continuum of American males, I think, who have some sort of ingrained skepticism or even hostility to anything "hippy dippy." On one end is, I don't know, Rick Santorum, maybe? On the other is probably Ram Dass.

As my practice has deepened, I've definitely moved toward Ram Dass. I'm trying to access what Tim Miller has referred to as my "gooey inside." It's not an easy task. But it is part of the practice, and it seems like it is an inescapable one after a certain point. There comes that moment when Ashtanga is either going to stay a really good workout or become something more.

That's something we've all experienced, right? It is something I'm still trying to put into words. (One of the goals of this blog.)

I'm looking forward to the Confluence, in large part, to help push me further down that path toward "something more." And I'm very interested to hear Eddie, and Richard, and find out if anything they say gives me a firm shove.

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