As we here in Portland , the US and the World continue to respond to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic shut down and the space that remains where what seemed a possible future is shunted or galvanized by powers outside of our control, my thoughts continually turn to what is yoga now that our present self and our future self are relegated to the same domaine, in the same moment. In this I mean to ask, when the lofted goal of anticipating a state of developed enlightenment or even happiness has had the wheels removed, or the rug pulled out from underneath, what do we have left? I believe we have the means to be witness to the temple within, if we are present, even with the state of chaos that engulfs us currently.
Back in 1995 or 96 I was getting my first taste of the discipline of yoga. I would follow a teacher to the various classes she taught around Portland. I had been goaded into going by a friend who thought it was funny that I could run a 1/2 marathon and do 25 pull-ups but could not touch my toes. Once in the realm of the language and the effort of yoga, I was hooked as a seeker of the path. I began collecting yoga texts and eventually sought pilgrimage to Mysore India to learn the self-motivated style we call Ashtanga Yoga.
In the age of branding and marketing, Ashtanga Yoga is a relatively new word that, for many in the yoga world, stands for a set of movements supported by a breathing technique, done in a frequent and sequential manner. This “method” was very attractive and also the only means made available in those days to accomplish, by appearances anyway, what I had hoped to be authentic yoga. By 1999 I was on a plane to India and took my first steps toward pilgrimage that have continued to this day.
So much has changed since that first trip; the guru fell hard, new styles emerged, India became enamored with the west, as we have come to love India. For different reasons, for better or for worse (better for both I think, once the merger becomes fulfilled) what I was seeking on my journey was not an exotic new flavor of humanity to occupy, colonize or otherwise appropriate but a host for my personal ambitions to outgrow the toxic nature that can accompany the seeking of materialism for its own sake. That said, to pursue a career in yoga has survival at its core but with the caveat that to survive is to be accompanied by authenticity. this might include being poor.
In my case, I became a subsistence yoga teacher in order to support my desire to remain close to the teachings and grow into a practitioner of substance and service. I needed this more than anything else. Maybe you can relate if you are rich in dharma but poor in dollars and can appreciate holding a dharma space for its own sake.
How I got inspired to hold a space ,for a long while now, was a product of the way I think about expressing my beliefs and values and then how I act this out. This ‘way” of mine has locked into some endeavors that were not always to my benefit but in a way revealed a teaching I needed. For the community I support, to carry on, it was always about my commitment to myself that brought me to my mat etc. The community was perk and also a means with which to learn and grow. Putting our practice first is in my opinion the most important aspect of an authentic yoga practice. Serving from his place come in a very close second. Being served follows in the same flow.
As it went on my first trip to Mysore (Mysuru) , my companion and I would, in the evenings walk the 5 or so miles from where our residence was, in the suburb of Laxmipuram, near to the yoga school, to the Lalith Mahal Palace on the then outskirts of town, near Chamundi Hill. We would have chai and eat french fries for dinner in the restaurant there.
Nowadays this road is a 4 lane main thoroughfare out of the city but then traffic was sparse and it was rare to be passed by a car bus or even lory. Usually it was just a few others walking or biking. Between this road road and Chamundi Hill is a horse track and golf course held over from the colonial era, the emptiness of land adding to the quiet that pervaded our long walk. Those days are gone and I am grateful I was able to experience them.
To have easy access to this veritable countryside near the city, we would have to cross “Double Road”, a treacherous stretch of accelerated gridlock that required jumping a cast iron waist-high fence, down its center. This freeway in current times was eventually connected to the tranquil road out to the palace, pulling a large swath of traffic across Mysore and out of town to Bangalore (Bengaluru).
Before the end, where we could make a quick journey past the hospital and then side along the funeral/charnel grounds, through a short run of forest, and some railroad tracks, there was the beginning of Double Road, a large roundabout bringing in traffic from many feeder roads. In the chaos of this raging and deadly road, there lay directly in the middle, a small temple, about 20 feet square, making the four lanes of the road bubble out and around and create a need to compete with alms givers coming from all directions, to be blessed by the wave of a few smiling priests, sound of the ringing bell and drum and the strong scent of burning incense.
I was amazed that this little tiny temple had over time, held so much power that it was capable of bending this insane road around it.
I have thought many times over the years of this little temple as a metaphor for the heart of a yogi, holding the inner space while the forces around it simply must allow themselves to be bent to fit the shape in occupies. I saw it in myself as I headed home after three months of being in a place that fully supported the spiritual seeker without commercial intrusion. In the US I know that “temples” that were not fully sanctioned but the community were subject to desecration. I felt a great deal protective energy well up in me related to my yoga practice and teaching which eventually became a resource from which I derived the means to rise each morning for many years and protect a space from the ravages of a world that sees yoga, at worst the pursuit of fitness and even worse, a heresy to an insane fundamentalism that leads to violence when pressed or confronted.
To me the body-temple of the yogi themselves was at risk from the ignorance of a world on its way to oblivion, lacking an understanding of the sensitivity of others who will take the time to look within rather than seek only to occupy a place of dominion over others to the degree that they either cause their pain to be held by others who are like them or inflict it on those who are different. The yogi is direct confrontation to this way of thinking and threatens the status quo where violence reigns by being a stable call to do what it right, just and good.
In the times we live, the 4-lane road of oblivion seems to be crashing around us, there are obstacles in its crossing, but the inner forces that drive us in building the temple at all, keeping it open and stable, knowing how to stand up and be counted as a force and to not be run over but driven around, this comes from the heart of yoga which stems from an inspiration of truth from the Divine source. We continue to hold a place of silent power that comes from this inner domain and it will outlast what seeks to overwhelm it.
…. recently I was reminiscing about this temple and wanted to know more about it. As it goes the place is actually an annex to the Chamundeshwari Temple on the top of Chamundi Hill. A place where devotees can pray without having to go all the way out of town and up a 700 step hill. This reveal itself was inspiring but for now I will save that story for another day. For now I will just say I was happy to know I served to hold a space inspired by a warrior hag who brought prosperity to a land that had been ravaged by a toxic male archetype by being clever and resourceful.
Don’t let your temple be run down. If it feels it has, stand-up, just build again. You are not alone.