Left Body, Right Mind

I spent a lot of time playing my flute over Easter weekend, and when I left work on Monday evening I unbent my elbows and caught my breath as the muscle that connects to my thumb screamed in discomfort. Laying down on my back that night, the pain radiated down to my hand and up to my shoulder. As a software developer, I immediately worried that I was coming down with a repetitive stress disorder.

What was worse was yoga on Wednesday night. The Bikram practice has poses that require pulling with bent elbows, and I just couldn’t execute them. By the time we reached tree pose, my right arm was dangling uselessly at my side. Worse, lying down for spine strengthening series with arms straight brought pain all the way from the hand up to my shoulder.

Obviously this was more than one muscle, and as I laid in bed trying to diagnose the phenomenon, I realized that it was a side-effect of the work I have been doing trying to pull my shoulders back. After two months, I’ve finally stretched my left pectoral enough that I can get that shoulder back behind my breastbone. When lying prone, then, my upper arms no longer descend from the shoulder to a bend where the forearms lie against the ground. My arm is perfectly flat, and the muscles in my arm are having to stretch to accommodate the new position. That I sit with my arms bent almost all day long doesn’t help any. Furthermore, with my shoulders back, I no longer use the muscles of the upper back to raise my arms laterally – the shoulders now do the work. This explains the pain there – I am asking for work from muscles that have been freeloading for most of my life.

As might be obvious from this analysis, my yoga is an intensely left-brain activity. Yes, it’s mind-body integration, but in any instructor-led activity, I am constantly comparing my activity to the ideal, and correlating defects with the underlying body structures as revealed by sensation.

This prevalence was first brought home to me when I attended a shamanic healing in Santa Monica ten years ago. The healer went around to take a look at all of us, and when he reached me, simply touched the right side of my head and pulled his hand away. I felt my mind expanding to fill the space he had created. It was an interested experience, but at that time I didn’t stop to consider why I had this imbalance in my mind. I assumed that it was a legacy of my intellectual discipline – that my left brain was stronger than my right brain, not that my right brain was weak.

Recently, Jeff Nash’s Awakening Process has forced me to reexamine this weakness. Jeff encourages us simply to feel, and to expand the depth of our sensation by surrendering into our exhales. With nothing in particular to think about, again and again I have found the right side of my mind turning on.

I assume that this is due in part to the work that I have done in Yoga balancing out my left and right musculature. This is still an intensely left-brain process. This week I am focusing (as I am able) on stacking the bones in my left leg, even when walking, ensuring that I am not using soft tissue to absorb stress. And I am still strengthening the muscles around the left shoulder blade and in the left side of my abdomen.

This morning, though, an unexpected side-effect came to light. My lady and I have been facing some blow-back, with her complaining (as others have in the past) that she just wanted to be a woman and here I am making her into a goddess. That left me exposed last night, and I woke up to sexual energy originating from another source. Noticing that this seemed to enter through the right side of my mind, I expanded my awareness back into the occupied part of my personality.

And found myself listening to women talking about me for the rest of the night.

Oh, well, I guess that I’ve been too much of a gentleman, trying to save space for a woman all my life. But it looks like if I want something done “right,” I’m going to have to do it myself.

“Judeo-Christian” is an Oxymoron

As Eastern mysticism enters Western culture, its practitioners have adopted Western marketing techniques. Starting from the proposition that Western seekers of enlightenment have been failed by their institutions, the Daoist or Buddhist teacher seeks a rationale for the failure that will entice victims of “Judeo-Christian” spirituality to sample their methods. The central tenet of the narrative is that Judeo-Christianity imposes a view of human nature as fallen into sin that disempowers its followers. In contrast, the Eastern tenets and practices of “mindfulness” open a doorway to self-knowledge and self-control that leads into joyful exploration of life’s possibilities.

Having respect for Eastern methods, I’m not going to dispute the beneficial consequences of its practices. Rather, I want to emphasize that it’s not an “either-or” proposition.

In the Bible, the confusion arises right at the start, in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. As I explain in The Soul Comes First, this is a parable for a community living in direct relation with the spirit of unconditional love. In Vedantic terms, this is to interact with an occupant of the higher astral realms. The problem was not that Adam and Eve partook of the “Tree of Knowledge”, for they were given great knowledge of the world in that era, as necessary to assuming stewardship of the Earth. Rather, it was because they chose to partake of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” They chose to exercise independent moral judgment. They chose to make mistakes that would cause suffering in others, rather than disciplining themselves to the dictates of love.

The immediate response of the personality described as God is to establish a safe distance. A repeated theme of the Old Testament is the pain caused by the Chosen people to its God, and in the New Testament that culminates in human experience. To love is to give power, and when that power is misused, it causes pain. What is amazing about the devotion of the God of Abraham is the investment made in human maturation in the face of that pain. But to remain in immediate and direct contact with humanity as it went through that process would have been disastrous. Love is an amplifier. It empowers whatever it touches. It needs to keep evil out, lest that destructive force run amok everywhere.

But the devotion to our maturation is clearly visible in the Bible, and follows a logical progression. The story of Abraham and his descendants ends with Joseph, the first man in the book with the strength to be steadfast in danger and to resist his primitive sexual drive. It progresses with Moses, who introduces that Law of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus to instill the discipline of logic in the Chosen people. In modern psychological terms, God was trying to create a people who were capable of using their cortexes to control the survival instincts of the brain stem and aggressive emotions of the limbic system.

Unfortunately, any fixed system of rules is inevitably corrupted by those responsible for its administration, who find it all too easy to manipulate it to deny rights and even life to those that they wish to control. It was against the corruption of the Judaic system of Law that Jesus set himself, eventually confronting both the Sadducees and Pharisees with this great truth [NIV Matt. 22:34-40]:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In effect, what he is saying to these experts of legal interpretation is “The Law has taught you to think. Now think about love.”

This is evident throughout Acts in the teachings of the Apostles, foremost among them Paul, but not exclusively. The message is that there is nothing that we can do to attain salvation from this corrupt existence except to call love into our presence. Having been born into corruption, which is to say in a spiritual context of Darwinian competition that requires the theft of resources from other living creatures, the fastest way to healing is to call upon love – which is to say “God.”

Judaism and Christianity are therefore two distinct spiritual practices. Because humanity is composed of individuals, both practices have value to individuals struggling with maturity. For those in thrall to aggression, lust and fear, the discipline of a system of rules still gives strength to the cortex. For those that shine hope into that struggle, love grants not only peace and joy, by a powerful transformative capability that is best exemplified by the devotion still awarded to Jesus, the man who died on the cross to prove that death has no sway over those that surrender to love.

So when looking at Eastern methods, what I see is a way to spiritual maturity without wading through the dangerous waters of Law. I see the possibility of “Veda-Christianity” that guides the seeker far more reliably into the healing spring of love.

Healing Time

I’ve been working my way into the LA Full Contact Improv community since last November. The experience is markedly different from LA Ecstatic Dance, which is guided by facilitators and DJs. The Improv Jam is introduced by Jeffrey, the organizer, and occasionally accompanied by the astral strains of the resident guitarist, but the goal and tenor of the experience is open-ended. People glide, skip, spin and roll around the dance floor until they feel a connection. Between friends, that may advance immediately into an embrace, unfolding through a lift or tumble with bodies entwined. For those yet to be awarded that intimacy, there’s a slow inward spiraling that concludes with a gentle touch. For me, that induces a sudden stillness while muscles feel their poise, broken by a release into a caress or the playful exploration of flexibility and strength.

With another recent newcomer, I explained that the challenge I often face in managing this engagement is getting people to let it feel good. Rolling over one another can be like a mutual full-body massage. Having gotten into that space with another dancer, I stilled suddenly as I felt a tension release from deep within him, and I muttered into his ear, “There can be healing here.”

So when Jeffrey announced at last week’s closing circle that he would be offering a facilitated healing experience every Friday night at 8:30 and prior to the Jam on Sundays at 4, I was prepped to jump right in.

It turned out to be really rewarding.

For the last fifteen years, I’ve been interpreting my spiritual experience through a model of physics that leads me to the conclusion that we have three kinds of experience available to us:

  • an experience of “life” that binds spirit to body, allowing us to wrestle with selfishness,
  • existence in pure spirit that frees us from the constraints of space and time, but limits our capacity for growth, and
  • release into a realm of unconditional love that seeks only to facilitate and safe-guard our relation.

So imagine my reaction when Jeffrey explained last night that we live in a material reality in which we struggle with our “me”-ness, navigate slowly into an astral realm of pure knowledge, and finally surrender the pursuit of goals to experience godhead.

This wisdom, offered in what seemed to be a Vedantic framework, came with a set of practices. They are unusually constrained: rather than engaging the deeply rooted powers of the Chakras, we began by opening the meridian gateways at our fingers and toes. Jeff then asked the group to offer whatever insights arose. We listened in witness as we “time traveled” with the speaker, offering our shared energy as support. Jeff asked whether the speaker could see that the emotion of the experience was itself the gateway to healing.

A young man last night, struggling with his conditioning, led us into an analysis of self-actualization and karma. Jeff shared his past frustration in trying to create outcomes through his practice (which allowed us to time travel with him – that was nice!), before realizing that he was forcing his experience to conform to his ideas, rather than the other way around. Subtle wisdom, and it didn’t sink in immediately, so I offered:

The reason that we suffer with each other in this life is because we are missing parts. Trapped here in our bodies, we can’t reach the source, so we try to steal them from each other. When we surrender our self-concern and focus on healing another, we are able to serve as a conduit for missing parts. True power and freedom arrives as we become accepted as a trustworthy provider of parts.

My intimates all complain that my writing is too abstract. I complain that they won’t open their hearts to me. I think that I’ve finally found a method for bridging the gap.

And even better, I left with ears full of the testimony of others that have found comfort and strength there. Come one, come all!

Yoga Limits

The constraints of my professional life have driven me to yoga twice. Both times, I was suffering from back pain that constrained my ability to sustain my focus while sitting at my desk. I recognized that the problem was tight hamstrings and a weak core, but I channeled my need for exercise into jogging, which didn’t address either condition.

The first practice was held in the meeting room of a spirituality bookstore. The instructor was an Indian lady, and I was the only man that showed up consistently. As I got stronger in the practice, I eventually found myself with thirteen women hitched to my wagon. At the time, I didn’t have the energy to manage the load, so I quit.

I was able to stay away for a few years, and then I discovered the Bikram yoga studio in Agoura Hills. I have to admit that it’s been a struggle for the owners as much as it has been for me. I am a tall string bean with a large chest.

The relative narrowness of my frame results in transmission of stress into the stabilizing muscles in the hips and lower back that are supported by bones that provide limited leverage. This means that muscle balance is absolutely essential not only to achieve postures, but to avoid overuse injuries. As I strive for that balance, I’ve been developing muscle groups that had always taken a free ride in the past, which means that I become exhausted doing postures that are often placed in the “warm up” or “recovery” category.

After four years I’m finally able reliably to stay in the 105 degree room for the full ninety minutes. While the owners were often frustrated by my bailing out in the middle of class, some of the instructors are impressed by my persistence. Several have observed that the practice is not designed for my body type.

The attraction to me is a feature that many find intolerable – the dreary repetition of the practice. The Bikram formula is a series of twenty-six postures that the instructors describe with a rote dialog. Fortunately, the more difficult postures are progressive. This means that we aren’t expected to achieve full expression, and so I have the latitude to focus on trying to figure out how to get my muscles to work together. It’s a process that has caused my to look in the mirror on occasion and burst out in laughter in the middle of class.

This opportunity to focus on my physical self has been critical to my peace of mind over the last four years. While not typical, I have dreams in which people show up seeking help to keep societies and ecosystems glued together. There’s not much I can do except to offer them the sanctuary of my heart as a place of restoration. It’s frustrating and grievous to me.

So I should have intervened early today when the instructor continued reading his story during the srivasanas that punctuate the exercises of the floor series. Although I realized that it was interfering with my ability to focus on aerobic recovery, I was fascinated by the enthusiasm that filled the room, . The diversion provided some relief from the normal thoughts – people struggling with the urge to escape the room.

The story contrasted the experience of two caterpillars. The humble yellow caterpillar (which I’ll call ‘she’) encounters a grey caterpillar spinning a cocoon. While uncertain about the possibility of becoming a butterfly, the yellow caterpillar finally chooses to try, and discovers comfort in the realization that spinning a cocoon is a natural skill.

The second, striped caterpillar (which I’ll call ‘he’) has chosen to climb a pillar of caterpillars, symbolizing the struggle for social success. As he nears the top, stepping on those below, he is finally unable to penetrate the clinging mass, and becomes trapped. He looks out and sees a field littered with caterpillar pillars, and realizes that his struggle is meaningless – with so many pillars, attaining the pinnacle of one signifies nothing.

As he weighs his options, the yellow butterfly arrives to rescue him. She attempts to pull him out of the pillar, but he draws back, and sees this terrible sorrow in her eyes.

It was at that point that I walked out, the class laughing at my explanation. I laid down on the couch in the lobby, crying “Oh, God!”

I live this every day, and it’s not that simple. They don’t just refuse assistance.

They pull off your wings and drive nails through your hands and feet.

One of the students told me, as I was passing him after class on the way out the door, that “I had missed a good story.” Really? I don’t come to yoga for a spiritual fill-up, or for entertainment. That’s supposed to happen at church or the movies. I come to focus on keeping my body strong enough to bear the burdens that I carry. If I can’t focus on that, then I’m going to have to quit again.

Reflection: Yoga Beyond Asana

It’s coming up on the end of my fourth year of practice in the Bikram Yoga school in Agoura Hills. Obviously the primary impact has been physiological. When I was out at the Skeptics Conference in Pasadena in May, a number of people commented that I had excellent posture. As I am painfully aware right now, that process is ongoing – I realized just recently that when standing, my right hip is shifted about an inch to the left. The pain derives from a shortened band of muscles in the right side of my lower back. Every class, I stretch them out, and every evening they crawl back to the length they have had for the last thirty years.

I didn’t realize how great the changes in the rest of my body had been until I met again with Balwan Singh yesterday. Balwan works at Bikram headquarters organizing teacher trainings. He is very Indian, struggling still at times with his English, but humble and joyful to the core. He had taught in Agoura Hills on Saturdays while the studio was establishing itself, often coming by with his lady-love Sharon (who is now expecting). The first words out of his mouth were “You look really good.” Sitting on the floor in the second session, I looked in the mirror and finally saw what people have been talking about. My body has filled in, and it responds gracefully to direction.

Most teachers in the Bikram method hew tightly to the established environmental constraints – primarily to keep the room near 105 degrees and the students in posture. The conditions were established while Bikram was developing his practice in Japan, and as a 6’6″ physically active American, they are really brutal on me. Most of the advanced practitioners in the studio are actually proportioned like the Japanese.

Balwan always catered to my challenges, and yesterday was no exception. I set my mat up in the back in the path of the air through the door. It came open early, and the oxygen that came with the air made it a very different practice. When the owner Rachel, who was set up just to my right, indicated that she wished it closed, Balwan remarked that advanced practitioners created heat internally, and the environmental controls weren’t as important as for beginners.

Rachel is a really beautiful lady, both inside and out, and I’ve been trying to facilitate her union with some angels that have been floating around in my orbit. Balwan got us to focus on breathing from the get-go, and I surrendered the tension in my chest to let the air really fill my lungs. I got into this rhythm with Rachel, each of us just looking into the other to see where the energy was getting stuck. For me, the most surprising impact of that collaboration came during head-to-knee posture. For the first time I really got up into the second stage, balanced on one leg with the other held out parallel to the floor in front of my hip.

When the practice was over, we were offered a lecture by Arvind Chittamulla, organizer of MokshaFest here in LA. As anyone who has studied the Vedic practices knows, there is far more to Yoga than the physical training, or Asanas. The ultimate goal of Yoga is to allow the purifying energy from the divine source to flow into the world through us.

As Arvind explained, here in the West yoga has spread as a physical practice. As I see it, that reflects the forces that Western society organizes to channel our behaviors to the purpose of creating wealth for those that employ us. They are reinforced by media images that impose air-brushed standards of beauty. We lack both consciousness of the psychic costs of internalizing these forces, and methods for purging them. Yoga asanas allows us, to a certain degree, to at least regain control of our physical manifestation.

But there is much more to yoga than that. Meditation is essential to management of our minds, and breath-work grounds us in the world. Asana, meditation and breath-work are connected: if we don’t have control of our mind, the corrupt thoughts that we entertain during asana practice will infect our bodies. For this reason, Arvind sees that the narrow focus of yoga in the West actually hurts many practitioners.

Arvind walked us through the other seven limbs of the tradition. In Indian studios, orientation to the first two, involving morality and life action, are often prerequisites to practice of the asanas. The remaining five manage the inward journey that opens into relationship with the divine.

The lecture was directed towards the teachers in the room, and Arvind’s ultimate goal is to broaden instructor certification to include, at a minimum, meditation and breath work. As a business proposition, he believes that the idle hours at many studios could be filled with sessions that offered students those tools.

I know that I have benefited from the coupling of my physical practice to my spiritual development. As I explained to Arvind, the difficulty of the conditions during a Bikram class forced me to completely surrender my ego – I had to accept that I had a lot of work to do before I could achieve the postures even in their initial expression. Given that surrender, the consistency of the sequence ensures that I am able to enter a meditative frame, letting my muscles do the work until something doesn’t work, and then focusing only on that. I have learned to ignore the other students in the room while still sharing the energy that arises between people committed to a common goal.

So I must wish Arvind success in his efforts, although I think that he might find more acceptance if he packaged them as advanced certifications.

The interaction with Arvind came with some tensions. I was glad to be with Balwan at the end of the evening. He was talking with one of the other attendees, and I circled around behind to put my hand on top of his head and share a hug, wishing him all the deepest joys of fatherhood. He sent me off with a heart-felt “Thank-you, Brian. Thank-you so much.”