Insights, Tips, and Just Cool Information
The 8th Full Moon of each year is a special two-day holiday throughout the country. Many of the local Thai People I asked did not know exactly why it is special, just that it is special and things like alcohol are not sold, all bars are closed, and many monks and lay people will take this day to start a 3 month no alcohol detox. A quick Google search reveals that this is the day when the Buddha gave his first sermon after discovering his epiphany.
In practice, there are 4 Buddha days a month when Thai people go to temple and offer gifts to receive blessings. These days are: black moon (New Moon), bright moon (Full Moon), and the two mid-month days when the Moon is Half Full.
Buddhists believe the Moon plays a role in the energy of our soul basically, and the Buddha is but a reflection of the possibility in this life to discover what we seek. Not for nothing, the poet Rumi wrote: “all day I think about it and at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I suppose to be doing here?” This is a universal question. Rumi is so honest he continues: “I have no idea! My soul is from elsewhere. I am sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”
Our soul is from elsewhere and deep down we know it. We see it on the face of our lover, the eyes of our children, and the joy in our laughter. Yet we love getting stuck in this “tavern,” this “bar” that feeds our distractions.
Rumi says that the drunkenness away from knowledge began in some other tavern and this place is our own prison. I like to think that this is the tavern where we get wasted, rather than drunk, wasted in the sense that we shed the veils of illusion.
Granted this would take away from the words in the same poem: “who looks with my eyes? What is the soul? I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out of this prison for drunks.”
As the Thai culture refrains from alcohol on this Asanha Bucha Full Moon, many Westerners, who are starting their summer vacation, are here to get as drunk as they can in any Full Moon Party they can find, to escape the misery of their lives at home, under the veil of quick vacation.
The Buddha was not a god, not a saint, and when asked what he was, he quickly answered “I am awake.” Rumi too, was awake. Awake to the experience of this human existence and how easily we seek to avoid it. We want to read about it, we want to analyze it. In a different poem Rumi points out: “every morning we wake up empty and confused. Wondering where we came from and what we are supposed to be doing here? Don’t go into the library and pick up a book, take a musical instrument. Let the beauty you love be what you do.” When you read, you analyze, when you analyze, you separate, you create distance, a void which you try and fill. It was the great Indian mystic, Osho, who phrased it so well: “when you analyze you judge, you think, and through thinking you separate yourself from the experience of who you really are.”
When you play a musical instrument, you experience the instrument. You have to pay attention to what you are doing; you have to be in the moment. In his first sermon, which is celebrated this 8th of July Full Moon, the Buddha simply shared 4 Noble Truths. The most prevailing one was that we are the cause of our own suffering. The way out of suffering is being in the moment. Being aware of what is
happening in the here and now.
The Buddha left the comfort of his palace to study with the Yogis, who were practicing the steps laid down by the great Patanjali. Steps that lead you to the answers of the questions Rumi so eloquently expresses in his poetry. Patanjali, the great scientist of his time, noticed that the Vedic teachings failed to truly awaken the minds and hearts of people, and rather than continue with reverence and sacrificial offerings to divine forms, Patanjali extracted the essence of these rituals and put them into a simple and accessible 196 Sutras treatise, which are called “Patanjali’s Sutras.” In this treatise, he also explains why we are blind to our experience, and offers various solutions to wake up (recall the Buddha simply said I am awake).
The most popular solution Patanjali lays out is the Eight Step Path, where he defines clearly, and easily what one can practice on a daily level, to reach this experience of awakening. In Sanskrit, this Eight Step Path is called, Ashtanga. The controversial practice of Ashtanga Yoga is the physical expression this path.
Controversial in the sense that many associate the practice with hardship, challenge, and rigidness.
Controversial because many teachers present this practice in so many different ways that confuse practitioners, resulting in a plethora of ideas on what Ashtanga Practice is about. My teacher, Tim Miller, who was the first to teach Ashtanga Yoga in the West, says it beautifully on his blog: “My goal as a teacher is to inspire a passion for practice. The practice itself, done consistently and accurately, is the real teacher.” What does he mean by accurately, you might ask?
Well, Ashtanga Yoga is technically an energetic practice. It is a breath-based practice. When I studied with David Williams, the first Westerner to complete the practice, he honestly pointed out that he could do all the poses in the syllabus he saw hanging at Guruji (the late Sri. K Pattabhi Jois who was given the task of sharing this ancient practice by his teacher Trimuali Krishnamacharya), but he continued coming to his teacher, back to Mysore, India where Guruji taught, to learn the VinYasa, the breathing method of getting in and out of the poses he could do already. The practice of Ashtanga Yoga is like playing a musical instrument. It has a beat, has a rhythm, and that rhythm is the rhythm of the breath.
Often, practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga are mostly concerned with the pose. They fail to notice that they have to wait for their breath to catch up before they go into the next posture. They believe themselves to be breathing, which they are, but in reality they are not flowing with the actual rhythm of practice; the rhythym of one breath per movement, 5 breaths in the pose.
In 2006, after 6 months in Mysore, India, I spent two weeks with Anthony ‘Prem’ Carlisi in Sri Lanka, where he pointed out my love of the pose, in relation to the breath. I was practicing the second series, and the deep back bend poses in the beginning of the series can take a toll on the breath. Prem noticed that I was needing to pause between the three backbends done on the knees, Camel (Ushtrasana), Little Hero (Laghu Vajrasana) and Pigeon (Kapotasana). He also pointed out that I was struggling some to keep my breath calm and even. A subtle note, because my breath was still pretty good, yet, those extra two breaths before going from one back bend pose to the next, were nonetheless breaking the flow. Prem helped remind me that I was pursuing the pose, rather than the rhythm of breath. It forced me to look at my own ego, and the reason I was doing this practice to begin with.
Ashtanga Yoga introduces the concept of VinYasa and Asana (poses) like music, where sounds go together, poses have a VinYasa, and the breath guides the entry and exit of the body from pose to pose. Many “mysore” teachers fail to stress this aspect of practice, and often see “flexible” people and rush them through postures which allows students to feel like they are “advanced” which keeps them in their egocentric, “drunken state of unawareness.”
It is in this regard Ashtanga Yoga is about Energy, and not about the Physical. It is about the Subtle Body, thru the Gross Body. Subtle Body being the body we are all familiar with. The body we have in our dreams, our imagination. It is still an actual body, and it gets affected different than the Gross, or Physical Body. The immediate connection to this energy is through the breath. With consistent practice, the breath stays even from beginning to end, and practitioners learn how to enter and exit poses through an accurate movement of this breath.
In that first sermon that the Buddha offered, and is being revered all across Thailand July 8th Weekend, he taught a very simple practice, not just ideas about the 4 Noble Truths. The practice was so simple; the practice was to take 10 breaths. If you can take 10 breaths without your mind interfering with your concentration, you will awaken. Just count each breath…sounds simple. It is simple. Yet the trick is that when you notice that your mind wandered, you have to restart the count back at 1. If you decide to practice Ashtanga Yoga regularly, you will ask yourself the question “why is there no practice on Saturday, New or Full Moon?”
Tim Miller offers the clearest answer as to Why there is no practice on New or Full Moon. In summary, we are bodies made of water, and the planet that closely affects the body is the Moon. It affects the Water Energy in the body, as much as it affects the Water Energy on this planet of Earth that we live in. When the Moon is New, Energy is low, and when the Moon if Full Energy is high. Tim writes on his website, “observing moon days is one way to recognize and honor the rhythms of nature so we can live in greater harmony with it.”
When you seek to have greater harmony, you will come across Jyotish, the Vedic Astrology. In Jyotish each day of the week is governed and thus affects Earth, human bodies, plants, and animals, by a different planet. This awareness points to a much larger world than the one we call home, here on Earth, and inspires an awareness to the beauty of why we live in this body. It also provides a glimpse to the question asked by Rumi “where do I come from and what am I suppose to be doing here?”
This daily connection to the planets helps us understand why Ashtanga Yoga is not practiced on Saturdays. Saturday is governed by the plant Saturn. Saturn is the slowest moving planet in the Vedic Zodiac. Spending 108 years in each house before it moves on. In comparison to the Sun, which spends only 1 day in each house. Due to this slow moving planet, Saturday is a day to pause and become aware of the larger world we live in. While the actual practice of Ashtanga Yoga connects the four inner limbs of Patanjali’s system, Asana (poses) with Pranayama (Energy control), through Pratyahara (drawing the senses inward) and Dharana (concentration), regular practice awakens the other extra limbs – Yamas (personal obervences), NiYama (social observences), Dhayna (Meditation) and Samadhi (Neautral Vision, or enlightment, or Awakening).
Technically, all yoga practiced with the body in the form of Asana are considered Hatha Yoga, and all Hatha Yoga owes it’s tribute to the Sutras of patanjali, which combines focus on Asana (poses) and Pranayama (Breath awareness) as a way to focus the mind experience who we are. But only Ashtanga Yoga connects the planets and practice. Only Ashtanga Yoga offers a glimpse at understanding the beauty of Buddha Days in Thailand. And only Ashtanga Yoga offers practitioners with questions to be answered off the Mat. Ashtanga Yoga is the same practice that the Buddha taught in his first sermon. All the Buddha did was strip away the added confusion that happens when we fall in love with the results of our ego.
Confusion occurs when students worry more about getting to second, third and fourth series.
Confusion occurs when we compare our bodies to those we see on Instagram and Facebook.
Confusion occurs when teachers choose to switch the day off from Saturday to Sunday.
Confusion occurs when teachers fail to instill in practitioners the accurate fashion that Ashtanga Yoga is practiced.
The practice itself is to remember to focus on the breath…the same practice the Buddha taught in his first sermon.
Not surprising that July 8th, 2017 Full Moon is also Guru Purina Full Moon, the day where Yoga practitioners honor their teacher.
The greatest teacher lives within, yet, Patanjali influenced the Buddha, Krishnamacharya teaches Guruji, and Tim Miller, along with Prem, Williams, and a select few others have inspired the teachings I share.