Tag Archives: tantra

“Stripping the Sacred” – Brenda Feuerstein

patanjali2
Patanjali

“Teach people, not poses.” — Gary Kraftsow (paraphrased)

“Yoga contains asana, pranayama, meditation.
Anything else is acrobatics.”
(TKV Desikachar, from a long ago intensive in India)

Many of you know Brenda Feuerstein.  She was married to eminent Yoga scholar, Georg Feuerstein (1947-2012) and they collaborated on a wealth of books and trainings in traditional Yoga.   Brenda carries on their work in Traditional Yoga Studies where she does distance learning courses and has a Philosophy/History Training Manual for teaching that segment of 200- to 500-hour Yoga teacher training programs.  It can be purchased here.

Recently on her Facebook page she posted this note that generated many comments.  I believe her words should reach a larger audience beyond Facebook so Brenda gave me permission to post it here.

Of course I agree wholeheartedly.  One of my students who has studied with me for 7+ years is moving out of state and she said:  “This is a great post, I love it and it is so true. I am sure this is exactly what I will be facing once I move and attempt to find a studio/teacher that provide real yoga as it was intended.”

Talk amongst yourselves.

Stripping the Sacred
*Warning – you might not want to hear this*

I started learning Yoga when I was very small from a book my Mom had purchased. Richard Hittleman was the author and I suspect there was no other book on Yoga at the pharmacy where my Mom would have been shopping at the time. She was probably intrigued having read something in Reader’s Digest or possibly heard the word on one of the two TV channels that were available to us.

A little later a TV show started featuring German born Yoga teacher Kareen H. Zebroff. My Mom and I would “do” Yoga with her once a week. We had no sticky Yoga mat, no meditation cushion, no clothing that set us apart from anyone else, and no studio to support our practice after the show. We sat on the cold farmhouse floor and didn’t wonder if we should look into stickier mats and travel mats. My Mom and I just practiced and I felt a “specialness” that I wouldn’t fully understand until years later.

In my teens, I ended up in a small town where I saw a hand written poster of a Yoga class being held at the school gym. Nothing was said about getting my cakras cleared, my core muscles being strengthened, and no mention of the Yoga Alliance. It was straightforward just like her class. There was no music, no props, nothing to sit on but the floor, and most people didn’t even have an exercise mat. People wore sweat pants and t-shirts and a sweatshirt if it was a cold evening. She introduced herself as having studied at the Sivananada ashram and most people had no idea what that meant but most recognized the feeling of “specialness” in her heart. It was quiet and no one was showing how they could do a headstand before class. The class was straight forward. When she spoke it wasn’t in hard-to-understand anatomical terms, but she did use Sanskrit throughout the class. I suspect that is the way she was taught. She spoke gently and sweetly about her teacher and I’d often see her in tears which I knew meant something very “special”. Her class was challenging but not necessarily in a physical way. She taught us Yoga philosophy saying we needed to learn it well otherwise we were just doing calisthenics and we should go elsewhere if that’s what we wanted. She was strong and courageous and filled with love for her teacher and the path of Yoga.

Jump forward to 2015. I was invited to live in a city after living in a rural area for several years and I decided that experience would be helpful in better understanding the current state of Yoga (generally speaking). I was taken to studios daily until I suffered a severe injury. The injury was the result of two Yoga teachers believing they could fix my life-long physical condition from a C3,4,5 fracture that had healed well enough for me to lead a strong and very active life. Even though I told both teachers prior to the class that it was best to not adjust me under any circumstance because I’d worked one-on-one with therapists for years and knew my body very well, my adho mukha śvānāsana, utthita trikonasana, and śavāsana didn’t look “right” to them so I got surprise adjustments and was unable to function normally for months and even today I’m still suffering from the well-meaning teachers who thought they could cure me with their 200-500 hour YA training. Now I understand that modern postural Yoga has helped many people with physical injuries, but the fact remains these teachers felt they could “heal” me with Yoga when in fact I ended up being severally injured. I don’t know of a Yoga anatomy module in any teacher training that would address “fixing” or “healing” neck fractures.

What I learned through all of it was that the “specialness” – the sacred – appears to have been stripped away from Yoga. How is it that we went from a class or two a week offering to a gym/studio setting with 20-30 or more classes a week? How can anything feel sacred when there is so much of it and students become numbers on ledger for the accountant? True, for a tantric it could be, but really? I suspect that many people who say they’re tantrics have no idea what they mean and when asked come up with something they’ve memorized from the internet or some book written by someone who heard tantra sells.

My own opinion is that as long as we have large studios pumping out teachers and building their client base we will never fully regain the sacredness in Yoga. It will continue to be a marketplace where one teacher is trying to outdo the next one and where the words disrespect, lack of teacher and lineage recognition, and plagiarism means getting ahead in business.

We’ve used and abused a tradition with a sacred foundation and the outcome has been devastating on so many levels. People email me asking about book recommendations stating they’re confused with everything that’s out there. People email me and say they have to take a break from their Yoga practice because they’re injured, and I respond with, “what an incredible opportunity you have to go into the foundation of traditional Yoga by studying philosophy!” People email and say, “I feel bullied…do I have to certify with YA?” People email and say, “I don’t want to learn Sanskrit in a Yoga training.” I respond, “Please go talk to your Grade 1 teacher and ask them if learning the English language (that being their first language) was important for your Reading class.” and the list goes on and on…

There are people trying their best to keep the sacred in this beautiful tradition of Yoga, and possibly like me, they feel exhausted and frustrated at times. How many Yoga magazines do we need to buy? How many books on asanas do we really need? How many ways do we need to explain the yamas which were so clearly stated? How many ways do we need to do things before we finally see that the sacredness of Yoga is hanging on by a thread? How many times does this need to happen before we wake up?

final words on a yoga scandal

I received more than a few messages of support and appreciation for my writing about the Kausthub mess.   People know that I have a bit different perspective about it considering how long I’ve studied at KYM.  Thanks for your support!

But I received one message that interested me very much and that I thought was important enough to share.  The person I received this from used to write a blog on spirituality, one I thought was a cut above the usual, one that was much deeper than the new agey blah blah that’s out there.   He is someone I know who has “done the work.”  He said that he did not want to comment publicly but thought I would find some value in his thoughts.  I did, so I asked his permission (which he gave me) to publish his words.  He said he followed (but not closely) the Anusara story and did not know much about Desikachar, either the person or the tradition.

Any serious practitioner knows that yoga is about energy.  Prana is of course one of the first words we learn about in yoga.   Shiva/Shakti energy is discussed in some yoga circles.  And yet, what does all that really mean?  Do we really understand the implications of that concept coming out of a 200 hour teacher training?

Some people are fascinated by Tantra.  They think it’s all sexy and mysterious and the secrecy about it draws them in.   Hell, even Oprah talked about it or at least one aspect of it — sex.  Who doesn’t want in on some sexy, mysterious yoga voo-doo that may confer power over mere yoga mortals?  I recall that John Friend was all up into it, to his own demise.  One becomes fascinated with something that is called the Left Handed Path and they think they can become a yoga sorcerer.

What this reader refers to in his comment below is rarely talked about in modern yoga training, at least in the West.  We’re all into the asana, perfecting that handstand or chilling at the yoga fests.  But there is a whole other deeper aspect of yoga that is often not even mentioned, merely hinted at.

To put it bluntly, without mature guidance, yoga can fuck with your head.  As Paul Grilley said in a training I did with him, yoga is slow medicine but even good medicine can kill you if taken injudiciously.  That’s why it is so important to have the guidance of a seasoned, competent teacher who has done the work and can honestly answer your questions.  However, ultimately, the path is walked alone.

Yoga can work some heavy changes, both positive and negative.   Real yoga is about dealing with that Shadow Self.  Yoga is not all about love and lite manifesting 108 sun salutations that might save the world from itself.  That’s why I believe and have always said that “yoga cooks us” especially if you’re doing the important work.   Kausthub certainly knows how transformative yoga is as evidenced by his lecture to us this year.

As the reader told me about his comments, you can take them or leave them.

It’s all food for thought, not just about the latest scandal, but for all of us.

**********   

My comments are more general in nature and may not apply to these specific situations, but in all likelihood, they have some merit.  They are based on some observations I have made along my own journey regarding the way energy tends to flow in the realm of human interaction.  They are also based at least in part on my observations of my own responses to various situations as a proxy for all human (especially male) energy.

These yoga practices can very often and easily drive up combinations of energetic imbalance that predictably result in such situations. I used to wonder why so many of these yoga gurus would end up in scandals, if they are supposed to be models of “enlightenment”, but now I can see that it is not at all surprising.

Because yoga is primarily a “fire path” (with practices designed to move shakti upward through the spinal and central channels and out the crown), males in particular are susceptible to these problems.  Most men are already somewhat imbalanced toward this “fire” direction, as opposed to most females, whose “water” (cool) energy tends to flow downward more easily and are thus more naturally grounded when practicing yoga.

It’s easy to spot when this happens – the result is usually short temper, arrogance, magnetic power, etc. This imbalance tends to seek out its opposite polarity to create harmony.  Thus, in the case of men, they seek out female energy.  It often results in sexual activity because of the unconscious nature of its manifestation. When you’re not grounded at all and you’ve bypassed your lower chakras to shoot out the crown, those lower centers tend to act on their own.  And it can also result in various forms of male/female domination, abuse, and control. The women in these situations are in many cases imbalanced as well (in the opposite direction, which tends toward sadness, depression, etc.), and when they meet this charismatic male energy there can be an explosive response. Needless to say, typically none of the parties involved are well equipped to deal with the consequences of their engagement.

Let’s face it – we’re all playing with fire here when it comes to spiritual cultivation, no matter what the path. It’s a challenging situation, and (temporary) imbalance is inevitable.   It helps a lot if you can anticipate it and understand what some of the antidotes are (or if you have good teachers you can trust to watch over you). Unfortunately, as I’ve witnessed many times and am now coming to understand more clearly, virtually all “systems” of cultivation are pretty much only half-baked and often tend to ignore these imbalances when they occur. Many of these systems actually predictably create imbalances, or at least ignore large parts of what it means to be a “complete” human.  I don’t want to comment specifically regarding any particular tradition, but I will say that even when they do have balanced practices available, many practitioners (especially the ones that tend toward imbalance) will ignore them and do too much pranayama, etc., in order to develop more power.

Personally, I’ve found that it’s possible to combine the best of multiple approaches, although this is also a perilous path and requires much wisdom, diligence and vigilance.  Even then, you can never really know how it’s going to turn out, as everyone is different and what works for one, may not turn out so well for another. When it comes to organizations, I’ve mostly tried to avoid them, as they come with a lot of baggage and tend to crystallize their belief systems.  However, I’ve also found that they can be very useful if one doesn’t get too caught up in their dogma or feel too desperate to belong to something. …

Evolution is a painful and difficult process, and anyone who thinks it isn’t or shouldn’t be that way is simply naive.  The Earth itself is currently undergoing some radical shifts in its own energy/consciousness, and it’s inevitable that in the process there is going to be much resistance and upheaval.   It really explains the polarization of American society as embodied in politics and the “liberal/conservative” axis.  There is no difference between the micro- and the macro-, they dance with each other in unison.

These “scandals”, both the individual parties who sparked the controversies, as well as the reactions of the populace, are all evidence of this evolutionary process.  We cannot separate our individual selves from them, nor should we.   Rather, we can embrace the whole of who we are at both the micro- and macro- scale, and continue to work on ourselves to find the balance and harmony that we so naturally seek.

what is tantra?

“Tantra” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in yoga circles. It’s a word that many American yogis have become familiar with via Sting who claims that he can get it on for hours because of tantric sex (see the comments that follow in YogaDork’s post.)

I don’t think there is anyone who has done as great a disservice to tantric yoga as Sting because of his comments. The whole sex thang is about 1% of what tantric yoga is about. Once Sting and tantra were on Oprah you knew it was going to be all downhill after that. IMO, if this culture’s attitude about sex wasn’t so f*cked up in the first place (pun intended), there wouldn’t be all the giggle-snorts with the mere mention of the word “tantra.” (“Oh yeah, you mean THE SEX!!” slobber, slobber…)

Then there is John Friend who is sometimes referred to as “Tantra Lite.” In the NY Times article about him that is burning up the yoga blogosphere it states:

“Friend’s “dharma talks” — short sermons — are based largely on simplified tantric principles (not, he stresses, the ones relating to tantric sex): students learn that they are divine beings, that goodness always lies within, that by opening to God’s will — opening to grace, Friend calls it — ‘you actually become vastly more powerful than the limited person that you usually identify with.'”

What I don’t understand is when people talk about Anusara yoga’s concepts such as “opening to grace”, etc.. I have heard more than a few yoga teachers say that they never heard those concepts before in their trainings and I really have to question that.

Isn’t all yoga about “opening to grace”? Isn’t all yoga about moving beyond our limitations? Isn’t all yoga about opening the heart, surrendering, giving it up to something greater outside ourselves? At least for me it is and always has been. John Friend isn’t the first teacher to talk about such things, he did not invent these concepts, he merely repackaged them for mass consumption.

When I hear a yoga teacher say that they’ve never heard such things before it makes me even more thankful for my non-Anusara inspired teachers and how they taught and what they taught me. I’ve been blessed to have the teachers I’ve had.

Mark Whitwell says, “asana is hatha yoga, the non dual tantra of direct intimacy with Reality that is nothing but nurturing.”

All yoga is nurturing. No one specific brand, no trademarks, just do YOUR YOGA.

So what is tantra? In his book Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses, David Frawley writes that “Tantra can best be defined as an energetic approach to the spiritual path, using various techniques including mantra, ritual, pranayama, and meditation. It contains a devotional approach emphasizing the worship of the Goddess and her Lord, Shiva. It contains a way of knowledge, directing us to Self-realization and the realization of the Absolute. As such it is a complex yet integral system for the development of consciousness which has something for all those who are seeking the truth.”

In my training “tantra” was never separate from hatha yoga. The word is a combination of “tanoti” and “trayati”. Tanoti means “to expand, to stretch, to extend” and trayati means “to liberate or free”. Therefore tantra (tan+tra) means to expand one’s experience and awareness of everything, to extend the frontiers of apprehension beyond the material, thereby attaining spiritual knowledge and liberation.

Isn’t that YOGA, no matter what brand name it is?

I learned that “tantra” means “to weave.” Through weaving in certain breath and meditation techniques, we train up our system to become more sensitive to the subtle forces of prana or the vital life force. Through learning to control the prana in yoga you learn to control the mind.

Isn’t that YOGA, no matter who trademarked it?

Taking a deep breath….SO……

What inspired this post was a Facebook discussion that followed the above photo. It is a photo I took at the Kumbh Mela of a baba whose arm has atrophied from his austerity, his extreme tapas. My caption to the photo was “no Tantra Lite at the Mela!” because the sadhus I met at the Mela were the real deal, the down and dirty tantric yogis.

Taking part in the Facebook discussion are Carol, blisschick, and Baba Rampuri, who’s about as real of a yogi deal as you can get.

Talk amongst yourselves and leave a comment if you are inspired…..

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“blisschick: and the point of that would be…[i.e., the frozen arm]

Carol: Would actually really like it if someone could explain to me: What is this form of Tantra about, and what if any relationship does it have to anything that we call Tantra in this country?

L-S: these sadhus are devotees of Shiva and the upraised arm is a form of mortification or austerity, it’s tapas. it’s a way of showing extreme detachment from the body, transcending the body. other sadhus might stand day and night,… even while sleeping, or they sit in one place and stay sitting there, till they die.

Baba Rampuri: Wonderful photo! It is Naga Baba Amar Bharti Ji in this photo, he is a Naga Sannyasi, and a very close friend for many years. He is an “Urdhvabahu” meaning “raised arm”, but this is a description not a sect. One of the main things distinguishing traditional yoga from American yoga is austerities, “tapas.” It is a powerful means of obtaining knowledge and power. In one way, it’s an extreme form of focusing will power, almost like saying, “Nothing is going to stop me in my quest! Not pain, not discomfort, not the attraction of the world, not even death! I don’t need food, water, nor even air!” When I make disciples, and some of you know that we have 5 gurus, I always choose Amar Bharti Ji to join me as one of the five.

L-S: Carol, what is tantra in this country? In America, hasn’t the phrase been mutilated, people taking a sensationalist approach encompassing only thinking about “sacred sexuality,” with little reference to its true practice as a path to enlightenment? for me, hatha yoga IS tantra yoga because there is philosophy, meditation, and mantra and other practices. don’t forget there is also Buddhist tantra in the Mahayana tradition.

of course American yogis aren’t going to perform austerities like the Urdhabahu baba (who blessed me with his other hand!), or cover their bodies with ash and sit in cremation grounds to try to transcend their worldly attachment to life.

Baba Rampuri: Carol, these days Tantra means anything you want it to. In the West, it’s normally a marketing tag for something to do with new age sexuality, or at best, new age psychology. In India, at it’s worst, it is thought of as black magic. Yoga, as practiced in the West, has nothing whatsoever to do with Tantra as it is practiced in its high and low forms in India. At it’s best, Tantra is the teaching that Shiva gives to Parvati regarding knowledge and immortality. The practice of this involves the connection of Sacred Speech with Knowledge and the corresponding withdrawal from the illusory perception of the world.

Carol: thank you so much, Linda-Sama & Baba Rampuri! I feel so fortunate to wake up & find so many answers to my question. If you are interested, here is a link to a Yoga Journal article that I think captures how I commonly hear Tantra described in the American yoga community: http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/2240.

blisschick: It seems very much to me like a denial of the GIFT of this life. If transcending the body were meant to be a spiritual goal, why are we given bodies at all to begin with? (I know these statements will simply be perceived as me not getting it but I find this bothersome. I choose YES and this seems like a giant NO.)

Baba Rampuri: Christine, you are right, if it is his purpose to transcend his body, which it is not. He is pushing the envelope. He is using an extreme practice to get quick results. He is using his body in a way to acquire knowledge.

L-S: thanks for the clarification….I used the wrong word in “transcending”…yes, we have these bodies to use as vehicles for enlightenment (as the Buddha also taught about the “fathom-long body”), but these austerities (to me) show a non-attachment to the body, i.e., “non-attachment” being different from “transcending.”

Carol, I scanned the YJ article and will read it more deeply later…but as for tantra in the US…I have heard people say that they never heard of the tantric concepts or even the word tantra before they studied with John Friend.

I find that a bit hard to believe. I don’t know about anyone else, but I became familiar with tantric concepts from India from my teachers early in my yoga training. so I agree with Baba when he says that it seems that “tantra” can mean almost anything in American yoga. I also think many of the concepts have to be distilled in a different way for westerners. I mean, I’ve been to studios where the mere picture of Durga or Shiva on the wall makes people uncomfortable…how are they going to handle tantric ideas if a teacher talks about them?

blisschick, to me, tantric yoga is about “sacred body-fearless mind”. Buddha taught that the path to enlightenment is in this body, watching body/breath, watching the feelings/felt senses, watching those mind objects that are our thoughts, and embodying the dharma, the ultimate truth of reality which is impermanence. those are the four foundations of mindfulness, and that is how we can use our body, use the physical asana practice to realize deep truths.”

 

living tantra

I discovered a nice site called Living Tantra and I’ve linked it in the Cyberpals and Whatnot sidebar.

Some Western yogis mistakenly believe that tantra yoga only has to do with tantric sex. A long time ago I saw Sting and his wife talking about their relationship on Oprah (probably around the same time that she gave yoga its requisite 15 minutes of attention), so if it’s on Oprah you KNOW that tantra just HAS to be something we all MUST incorporate into our lives (insert rolling eyes and sarcastic smirk smiley here)…along with finding the right bra and those jeans that fit PERFECTLY! Anyway….

In his book Living Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide for Daily Life, Georg Feuerstein writes that “tantra yoga is the path of ritual…and sexual rituals form only a small part of this yogic orientation. Tantra yoga is about realizing that our personal creativity is rooted in, or derives from, cosmic creative potential itself. From the tantric perspective, creativity is a manifestation of the feminine principle of the universe, the Goddess, called shakti

Feuerstein also writes in his book Tantra: The Path of Ectasy that tantra emphasizes the cultivation of shakti as a path to infinite bliss. His says that tantric teachings are geared toward the attainment of enlightenment as well as spiritual power and are present not only in Hinduism but also in Vajrayana Buddhism.

In my my yoga training I learned that the word tantra in Sanskrit literally means “weave” thereby denoting that our yoga practices — and not just the physical aspect of yoga — are woven (or should be woven) into our daily lives as a beautiful mandala. Therefore, if we are living in a truly tantric manner, we are fully incorporating our yoga into our lives as a daily ritual, consciously taking it off the mat and into our lives.

The following ayurvedic practice/ritual is an excerpt from the Living Tantra website:

DINACHARYA: Daily Conduct

This is a short version of the practice of dinacharya. If you wish to fine tune this for your constitution (vatta, pitta, kapha), read more about the practice in one of the resources listed in the “Ayurveda” sidebar of Living Tantra.

VIEW

Dinacharya” means daily conduct. Appropriate patterning or ritual conduct is the foundation of a healthy life. Dinacharya is balancing for all of the doshas: vatta, pitta, and kapha. It promotes healthy organization of the energy channels and the seating of the pranas, or internal winds.

METHOD

Wake up by 6 a.m. Pitta and kapha types can wake up earlier. If you can’t manage this at first, work your way into it. You can train yourself to wake up at this time naturally. It helps to sleep in a room that is not totally dark—one that allows some natural light to enter.

1. Before opening your eyes or getting out of bed, sense the energy of the day. Spend a few moments connecting with the larger cosmos. Breath through the top of your head directly into your heart space (the center of your chest, not the physical heart). You can visualize a golden, luminous stream of compassion and love coming to you from all of your spiritual teachers, past, present, and future, and from all realized beings. Feel a sense of grace expanding throughout the body, and radiate this stream of light from the heart space back to your teachers and all beings….

Also courtesy of the Living Tantra website is Indian Music for Global Yogis. You will see a widget in the sidebar where you can search and download everything from South Indian carnatic music to Krishna Das to vedic chants.

om namah shivaya!

shanti