Lecture on  raw yoga at Cancer and Yoga Therapy Workshop

unearthing the inner yogi 

On Jan 10, 2009, I lectured on yoga at an all day workshop on Cancer and Yoga Therapy: a cross-disciplinary workshop bringing together yoga instructors and health professionals to exchange information about cancer treatment and learn new ways to help support survivors through alternative treatments such as yoga.

The other two speakers are pioneers in the field of alternative treatments to traditional cancer treatments. Anand Dhruva, M.D is a cancer specialist at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion. He provides integrative medicine consultations for cancer patients with specialized knowledge in both standard and non-traditional approaches to treatments and supportive care. Kelly McGonigal, PhD is a leading expert on the mind-body relationship and the psychology of yoga. She teaches yoga, meditation, and psychology at Stanford University, and is a passionate editor and freelance writer in the areas of mind-body psychology and integrative health care.

The text of my lecture follows:

 26 short discourses on yoga, life, and joyful healing.
--Abhay Ghiara
(The lecture will form a Gestalt, a meditation that will set the stage for insight)

Lecture delivered at the Yoga Therapy for Cancer Recovery workshop, Pacific Medical Center, San Francisco, Jan 10,2009.

Akasha is Sanskrit for the boundless sky. The Ancients believed that every thought and action leaves an imprint, a memory. This is known as the Akashik record.

In accordance with this notion, a trace of the trajectory of movement, breath, and energy generated during our yoga practice is vibrationally imprinted onto the great sky above.

The nature of the in-breath is very different from that of the out-breath. The in-breath should never be forced. The deepening of the breath in yoga is achieved solely by focusing on gaining conscious control of the out-breath.

The Ancients knew that we can not force the breath in. It is as futile as trying to get a cat to do something she does not want to do. What we can do, however, is create the conditions for the in-breath to deepen on its own. Allowing the air to completely empty out of the torso creates an inviting space for a powerful in-breath to flow into.

The Sanskrit word for breath, prana, also means life-force. In our yoga practice we create a space for life-force to enter into us. That is what breath is all about.

Our sense of connection to the land has been eroding. With it has emerged the difficulty of connecting with others.

What is important to remember about connecting is this: You must first of all develop a deep and lasting connection with your self. If you can not love your self, pamper your self, nourish your self, how can you connect with another?

Connection is all about the flow of energy. Allow your yoga practice to reinvigorate the flow of energy in your body. However, the practice of yoga is not just the performing of some postures. Yoga can be and should be sitting in the sun, caressing a flower, playing with your pet or children, laughing!

Our everyday lives involve choices. That is so obvious! Or is it? Seen under the light of yoga, these seemingly real, valid, and important choices fall away, like leaves off a tree in fall.

The set up of life as a series of choices, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, violence vs. nonviolence, is what the Ancients called maya, or illusion. As the great mystic philosopher Krishnamurti said in his last Bombay talk, Much violence has been done by the idea of nonviolence.

Dualities are unreal. By paying attention to anything we increase it. By focusing on disease we create more disease. By attempting to fight illness we create more illness.

Yoga provides an alternative to duality. It is not for or against. Yoga means to join. When duals merge they become one.

Years ago when I was a student at Bombay University I would stay up late at night reading George Leonard's articles on mastery published in Esquire magazine. I was fascinated by George's ideas! Even though George was a 5th degree black-belt in Aikido rather than a yogi, his thoughts on the process of learning leading to mastery resonated with my own. His central idea is that learning proceeds in small spurts followed by long plateaus. Learning is taking place as much in the plateaus as in the spurts! Most of us expect a linear, upward sloping learning curve and when we reach our first plateau, we give up. Instead we should be celebrating the plateau!

A common friend arranged a meeting with George last week. It was lovely to see him in person after admiring his work from afar for over 20 years. T played the cello and then E played the piano and George and I talked about yoga and mastery. He is 85 years old, has written 12 books, is the President of Esalen but is humble about his accomplishments.

As we leave he scribbles something in a copy of his masterpiece and pushes the book in my hand as he hugs me tightly.

Later I look inside the book. George has written in his elegant scrawl, "Abhay, love the plateau- George"

A student once asked a yogi how she could improve her balance poses particularly the Tree pose. I keep falling over, she said. The yogi asked, when you are in Vrksasana, what kind of tree are you? What are your branches like, your leaves? Do you provide shade for a weary pilgrim or a cow? How exactly do you sway when the monsoon winds pregnant with water droplets appear from the south? Get to know your tree like a good friend and over time its roots will take hold.

Get to know your yoga postures with acceptance, understanding, and humor. Your breath and your imagination are your allies in this endeavor. There is no way to fail in yoga. Remember this!

Gandhiji did not follow the written word. He preferred personal experience to dogma. His autobiography is entitled, My Experiments With Truth, and he was constantly experimenting to discover new truths.

As Gandhiji started experimenting with natural medicines at Tolstoy Farm, he asked everyone he met for information on the use of natural approaches to healing. He was not interested in what someone had learned from a book but the smallest personal experience with healing was of great interest to him.

Over the rest of his life, bit by bit, through personal experiences and experiments, Gandhiji developed a system of natural healing.

Today his system teaches us not so much what but how.

How we do things is more important than what we do. Our approach to anything we do is a reflection of our inner selves, our inner structure. It is helpful to notice how we walk, how we talk, how we do the many everyday things that makes up our lives.

Don’t try to change anything. Just notice, how.

The new student of yoga is pleasantly surprised to find that the yoga postures are named after animals, plants, and objects: Cat, pigeon, tree, plough. But sometimes it is hard for a student to see how the name of the posture relates to the posture itself.

What we must remember is that the names are not supposed to be taken literally. Instead they are metaphors, rich in multi-dimensional meaning.

Deep in her practice, if a yogini will hold the name of the posture in her mind's eye, the fullness of the posture will reveal itself quietly.

Move away from the literal. Embrace the metaphor. The Ancients thought that was a good guide to a life of wonderment.

Yoga is a complete system of physical and mental attunement that was developed in Ancient India. The word yoga in Sanskrit means to join. Yoga joins the mind and body, breath and movement, resulting in an enhanced physical ability to experience the world while remaining spiritually centered. In other words, it helps us experience more joy in our lives.

Our practice of yoga aims at developing kripa, or grace, in body and mind. The idea of grace was very important to the Ancients and is the foundation of spiritual yoga even today.

The Ancients preferred the natural undulating curves of the belly, gently rounded shoulders, lengthened muscle fibers. Modern day preoccupations with body fat content and the development of unnaturally shortened muscles (such as the six-pack) go against the vision of the great yogis.

What is it about yoga that makes it so different from western exercise? The yoga asanas, or postures, are designed to lengthen the muscle fibers while at the same time working on the glandular level to create harmony and balance. The major joints, glands, and organs are stimulated and recover their innate abilities to function flawlessly. Western exercise, on the other hand, simply tightens and shortens muscle fibers in an attempt to reduce bulk in some places and add bulk in others. This purely mechanical view of the body can only lead to a machine-like body.

Yoga sees the body as an organic whole and the practice of yoga is the practice of kripa or grace.

What exactly is love? Is it a feeling or state of being? Some mystical thinkers have described the development of the human being in terms of the development of love. When you can love everything, right and wrong, good and evil, you have reached nirvana, the state of oneness with All-That-Is.

Yoga teaches us a different kind of love. A love of every aspect of our bodies. Consider the wonder that is your body that allows you to experience the beauty of each passing breath, the gentle breeze, the magic of a moonlit night. Why not take the time to appreciate each part of your body, to call each part beautiful: toes, ankles, calves, shins, knees, thighs, buttocks, anus, vagina, penis, belly, internal organs, chest, breasts, back, shoulders, upper arms, fore arms, elbows, wrists, palms, fingers, neck, face, scalp.

Our yoga practice is a love-fest of sorts. The point, according to the Ancients, is not to exercise each part, but rather to pay homage to each and every part of your body.

Mumbai means mother Mumba, the great goddess of the fisherfolk of the region. The land is seen as the mother, source of nourishment. She has seen attacks before. As a child I remember looking up at a sky glowing red and being fascinated by the 'lolli-pops' hanging in the sky. We survived that war.

Back then we called our city Bombay, beautiful bay in Portuguese. We would stuff hankies in our mouths and duck under our desks in school when the air raid sirens would go off.

We are all survivors. And we have mother Mumba watching over us.

I love to talk about yoga. The yoga with no rules. The yoga with no copyrights. The yoga with no trademarks. Will it take a revolution to recognize the radical nature of yoga?

Friends, yoga is free. All you have to do is breathe and you can feel that. Yoga is free, you are free, and in that freedom and only in that freedom is discovery possible.

The letter O is a circle. In western culture we are taught to "think straight," and guard against "circular reasoning." The western approach works well when your goal is to build something inorganic and inanimate, a modern skyscraper for instance. However, it does not work very well when you are dealing with something organic and animate like your body.

The Ancients believed that yoga practice moves energy along the 7 energy centers in the body that we call chakras. Chakra, in Sanskrit, also means circle.

The padma, or lotus, is a tropical water plant that grows in ponds all over India. The lotus motif runs through much of yoga reminding us that our bodies, contrary to appearances, are composed almost entirely of water. Yoga literally means to join. Our practice of yoga joins us with our water nature and the lotus motif symbolizes this reunion.

We sit in lotus. We invert in lotus. That is not all though. We keep the lotus motif as a guiding principle that informs our form throughout our practice. In yoga, our mind-bodies develop the tenacity of the lotus stem. It is a form of undiluted amusement for rural folk in India to watch a city boy or girl filled with an inexplicable longing for a lotus flower plunge hands into a pond and pull, and pull, and pull to no effect whatsoever. The lotus stem is almost impossible to break!

The lotus motif connects us to that ephemeral tenacity that Gandhiji called Satyagraha or Soul Force.

The mind is naturally frolicsome. Think of your mind as many little kittens. They want to jump and bite and run around in circles even late into the night. Especially late into the night.

Meditation, which is an essential part of yoga, is simply quieting the mind. Seeing the mind as a handful of kittens tells us just how easy that is going to be! Nevertheless, it is important to try. Let us try it right now for a minute.

At the base of the spine resides the power, known as kundalini, the coiled-up cobra. This is our root, where we draw sustenance from. The Ancients described this as the first of seven major energy points along the spine which they called chakras, or circles.

The root chakra is the first and most important energy point. We can visualize it as a rotating disc in the perinium, between the anal sphincter and the reproductive organs.

The magnificence of the beautiful redwood tree depends upon strong and stable roots. Keeping our attention upon our root allows our yoga practice to bear leaves, flowers, and fruit.

There is a central energy point in your body. It is not a static point, located in one place, as many seem to think. Instead, it is fluid and can move to every part of your body. That takes practice. And time.

In the meantime, there's yoga. During yoga energy diffuses from the central point to the rest of the body. I remember my seventh grade science teacher (who was also a famous sitar player) in Bombay demonstrate paper diffusion. A drop of ink is added to a blotting paper. Then as drops of water are added, the ink moves all the way to the edges.

That is precisely what yoga does. Call it soul diffusion.

The word yoga means a joining, a connection. The Energy System of the body is connected as though by a thread. Imagine a web of energy strings joining the various energy hubs together. That in a nutshell is your energy body.

Now if you think about the connections in your energy body as thread you will realize this simple idea: You can pull on thread but you can not push on it! Furthermore, if you pull too hard or too quickly, the thread will break.

The practice of yoga is enhanced by this simple understanding. We may say that the only rule to keep in mind in yoga is to pull, never push, and to pull gently.

A block is a temporary energy knot. It is good to see it as energy. Then you know it is simply a matter of untangling some wires and the current can flow again.

I was visiting my mother in Mumbai recently. She had renovated her home and while I was there a fancy Italian light fixture simply blew up, the bulb shattering. Having grown up in old Bombay, this was not particularly alarming to either of us. A calm investigation showed a blockage, a set of tightly mangled wires. In a few minutes the wires were untangled. Energy flowed into the fresh naked light bulb.

Untangle. Let the energy flow. You don't need fixtures, a naked body will do.

Very little effort
I would like to emphasize a yogic principle that I like to call the principle of very little effort! I know that for many, it seems like a contradiction to talk about a yoga practice and effortlessness in the same sentence.

If this idea is new to you, all I ask is that you try it. Undertake all actions, movements, and holds with the very minimum effort required.

Waken the serpent
One of the primary goals of Yoga is to waken the sleeping serpent that the Ancients called Kundalini and imagined as a tightly coiled queen cobra. This slumbering queen was said to reside at the very base of the spine. The rhythmic contraction and relaxation of the area known as the mooladhara or root chakra results in the gradual awakening of this mighty power. A warmth moves up the spine, a tingling perhaps, indicating the release of this energy. Our yoga practice then harnesses this energy, moving it upwards.

Through our yoga practice we then learn to stimulate, harness, and finally modulate this fine feminine energy that can move worlds. Some choose to experience this energy through intimate bonding with a lover. Others like Mahatma Gandhi direct this energy towards the creation of a just world and moving people to own their lives and destinies. Whether experienced as intimacy or emancipation the power of the release is real, powerful, and earth-shattering.

X is the symbol of the cross.

For me the cross brings back memories of being four. My mother would have us play a game. It involved crossing the legs and then crossing the arms behind the back to reach for the toes. Starting with the big toe on each side all the way down to the little toes. We would wiggle our little toes as soon as we were done.

I did not know then that the games we played were yoga. Perhaps that is why I still think of yoga as play!

You are the most important person in the world. Focus on your self, on your needs. Love your self. You have only as much to offer to others as you offer to your self. Put your self first. This is very important!

Life is good! This simple idea is at the heart of  a yoga practice. The Ancients captured this idea perfectly by calling life Zindagi, an Urdu word that captures not only the literal meaning of life as a physical experience but also the more powerful sense of the word: Life is a game of births and rebirths. We have all been here on earth many, many lifetimes. In some lifetimes we were good and in others bad. Successful in some and utter failures in others.

So why are we here? The first reason is simply that we want to be here. Face it, we like our earthly existence. So we come back to experience more.

Secondly, we all want to learn and integrate the lessons of our learning in each fresh lifetime. This is not a linear process however. It is messy and complex but we do grow as a result of these experiences.

Lastly, we come back to planet earth to try and achieve a connection with All-That-Is, the divine. Anyone can do it, at any age, with any background. Yoga was created to facilitate that connection and eventually to release us from Zindagi, the game of life!



 Abhay Ghiara is a life-long yoga practitioner who studied yoga and yoga philosophy at the Aurobindo Ashram and Bombay University. He now lives in Berkeley, California and teaches yoga to a wide range of students. 

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