Archive for July, 2013

Samskaras, Habits, and Traditions

My theme for the yoga classes I led last week was the concept of samskaras, or mental impressions. These often show up in our lives as thought patterns, habits, or tendencies. In meditation the other day the thought occurred to me, “Tradition is just another word for habit.” Now before I upset someone for dissing their favorite tradition, let me explain a little more. As Socrates teaches Dan in “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” any unconscious ritual or habit is a problem. The actions themselves are both good and bad, each having a price and a pleasure associated with them. And not every action has the same consequences for each individual. A glass of wine could be healthy for someone with a heart condition, it could be devastating for an alcoholic, or it could be neutral for someone else. In the yoga philosophy we learn that ultimately we must release all samskaras, even the ones we consider positive. There is no good or bad, only perspective makes things so. There is no right or wrong, only things that we do that help us improve ourselves, and things that don’t improve us. So then the question becomes not, “Is this a good or bad habit?”  but instead, “Is this a habit?” and then, “Is this specific activity helping me to evolve as a person?” Then we can decide whether to do something or not, being aware of the benefits and the consequences. The word “tradition” is so often used as a reason in and of itself for an activity to continue. Maybe some traditions are positive, like a family gathering for a certain holiday. But even in this case the pressure to adhere to a tradition can cause problems. For instance, some family members don’t attend and others are angry or resentful. Some traditions are not healthy from the start but because so many people agree to and participate in them, then they become difficult to change, like slavery was in this country. The samskara becomes a deep rut in the collective consciousness. Instead of stepping back and gaining perspective on the real issue, we cling to the fact that it is a tradition and so it cannot be changed or challenged. Our ego has tricked us into making an investment in the tradition, thereby causing us to perpetuate it. The ego fights against change that could lead to spiritual evolution. We blindly embrace something that we may be ready to outgrow, either as an individual, a community, a nation, or a world.

When I first adopted a mainly plant based diet, I noticed an interesting phenomenon that I hadn’t expected. Even when I simply mentioned that I didn’t eat meat, some people immediately got hostile and angry. I was always careful not to preach my opinion or push it on anyone, and often I only mentioned it when necessary or when asked. I didn’t understand why people got mad just because of my personal dietary preference. Now I see that simply by stepping outside of the “traditional” diet, I was committing an act of rebellion in their eyes. In this case the authority figure against which I was rebelling was the collective samskara, the tradition. Even if I was polite and emphasized that this was my personal choice and didn’t affect them, I was still bucking the system. Tradition, like samskara, relies on compliance and repetition to survive. We take our own power and hand it over to a concept. When the habit, or tradition, is the authority and not the individual, then it dictates our actions instead of us having the freedom to make our own choices.

I see a similar phenomenon in some people’s support of traditional marriage and traditional gender roles. When a homosexual or a gender non-conforming person asserts their personal rights to be who they are, some see it as an attack on the entire framework on which they have based their lives. They don’t know how to negotiate a world without clear guidelines for who does what and to whom. Or they themselves don’t like the role that tradition has given them, but they accept it out of fear and in turn fear and resent those who don’t accept their roles as well. If a “traditional” marriage between a man and a woman who choose to separate tasks based on “traditional” gender roles works for those two individuals then that is wonderful. However, not every person fits in those parameters, and why should we expect them to? There is so much variety among all the people of the world, and that is what makes it such an interesting and fascinating place to live.

Like so many other things (maybe even everything), this issue boils down to whether we are operating from love or from fear. Without the framework of tradition, life can be scary. We are afraid to make the wrong choice without the guidelines of our habits and traditions. Tradition tells us what to do and how to be; there are no unknowns, no questions, but there is also no growth. When we move away from tradition, we have to look within to decide what is right for us, which again can be scary. But deep down we each have an inner guide, which is made of pure love. Tradition can be good, it is comforting and familiar. We all need a little comfort from time to time. Ultimately though, the only constant is change. Instead of blindly following tradition, we can instead live consciously and intentionally, taking life moment by moment, making choices based on love and not fear or habit. By embracing the new and exploring the different, we might find that we are ready to shed some old traditions and embrace new ones, or even take a leap into the unknown, without the safety net of tradition.


Entitlement vs. Selfless Service

Bhagavad Gita Ch 2 Vs 47: The human right is for activity only, never for the resultant fruit of actions. Do not consider thyself the creator of the fruits of thy activities; neither allow thyself attachment to inactivity.

I recently began teaching a class for a non-profit yoga group. The unfortunate truth is that yoga is quite expensive, which prevents a lot of people from trying it. Yoga was meant to be shared freely, as a service to others, and as a way to achieve enlightenment. Of course, for those of us who choose to make a career of it, then we do have to make some money to pay our bills. I believe it is possible to balance the need to make enough money with the greed to make more money. I took on the aforementioned class mainly as karma yoga. I do get a small portion of the proceeds from teaching. But for the most part I am teaching this class to bring more yoga to those who can’t afford it, who are often the ones who need it the most. The class is held at a community rec center. Students pay at most $8 per class, less if they buy a package, and the group has an unwritten policy not to turn down anyone who cannot pay. It is definitely a group that embraces karma yoga.

The day after I taught my first class, I received an email from another student of mine who comes to a class at another location. Her sister, who I will call “Patty,” had recently finished an addiction recovery program and is now working and trying to get her life in order. My student asked me if I knew of any affordable yoga in the area because she felt that Patty could really benefit from it. I love when I see the Universe at work, and I instantly knew that this was one reason I had been called to teach the class at the rec center. So I passed on the information and Patty came to my class the next week. And the next, and this time she brought her roommate too, who is also in recovery. On this particular day, I was tired and did not really feel like teaching that evening. But I had made a commitment and I knew that I was needed for some purpose, so I meditated in the park prior to class and went in with an open mind and full heart. I set my intention to serve others and not think about what I would get in return.

The class went by smoothly. I had only four students so I was able to give lots of individual attention. Patty requested that I repeat a guided meditation that I had read to the class the week prior, so we did some chakra clearing work during savasana. I always close my classes by chanting one “OM” and I invite the students to either listen or join in. I am not a great singer or chanter, but I do my best. On this day, I don’t know where the sound came from for that OM, but it did not feel like it came out of me. I truly became the silent observer, the witness to the power of Source energy. The noise came from my mouth but I felt I had no control over it. This was not a bad feeling, it felt like the sensation of someone that I trust taking care of something for me. I could feel the vibration of love resonate through my entire body. I became peaceful, calm, and happy in an instant. It was a beautiful and amazing experience. I have taught several classes since then at other studios and gyms, and I always close with an OM. However the experience has not been as moving as it was that day.

The irony of acting out of selfless service is that when you do so with pure intention, the Universe finds a way to reward you. It may not be money or fame or anything else that we typically consider as a “reward.” The reward often comes as a feeling of accomplishment, of happiness for someone else, a peace that washes over you, or in my case the best OM I will ever chant. I look forward to having more moments like that as I move forward as a teacher and as a human being, trying to always guide my actions with the intention of service to others. And I trust that the Universe will take care of me along the way.

Freedom vs Liberation

Bhagavad Gita Ch 2 Vs 48: “O Dhananjaya (Arjuna), remaining immersed in yoga, perform all actions, forsaking attachment (to their fruits), being indifferent to success and failure. This mental evenness is termed yoga.”

In this verse of the Gita we see Krishna advising Arjuna to remain “immersed in yoga” in all actions and not to attach to their outcomes. By cultivating this combination of divine unity and detachment, you are able to remain calm and even of mind no matter what happens. If we can figure out how to only engage in actions coming from a place of love, and then learn to release the results of those actions, then we can create ultimate peace for ourselves. Finding equanimity in all circumstances is true liberation because you are free to do anything without suffering. Having the freedom to do anything you want is different because it does not guarantee that doing those things will not make you suffer. You feel in control because you have no rules or restrictions placed on you. However your inability to make a conscious, better choice creates an invisible prison around you.

The scene in the movie “Peaceful Warrior” in which Socrates takes Dan to a bar summarizes the difference between freedom and liberation. In the months prior to this event, Soc had placed many restrictions on Dan about what he could have, do, eat, and drink. Dan wasn’t yet able to determine the best options for himself, so as his teacher Soc did it for him. When Dan is almost ready to do it on his own, Soc decides to give him a test to see if he is really ready. As they sit at the bar drinking, smoking cigars, and talking, Dan is absolutely incredulous that Soc is partaking and letting him partake as well. Soc teaches him that there are no such things as bad habits. He says it isn’t what you’re doing, but how. “Habit is the problem. All you need to do is be conscious about your choices and be responsible for your actions.” Dan takes this as an open invitation to drink up!

Soc knows that the only bad thing about a habit is that it isn’t a conscious choice. It isn’t living in the now. Instead, you are letting your past dictate what you must do in this moment. Once you are liberated and truly in control of your life, you realize that there are only choices and consequences, as in the theory of karma. There isn’t good or bad, there is only intention and consequences. One philosopher said that “there are things I do and I know they’ll evolve me” and “there are other things that will not evolve me.” And my choice is only to evolve or not. It isn’t good or bad. Soc is truly liberated. He has control because he can evaluate his actions and their consequences and is not helpless to engage in an action just because it is “habit.” And then he can let go of the results of this chosen action and not let an unfavorable outcome cause him to suffer.

Dan however hasn’t learned his lesson yet, as we see in the next scene when he is miserable vomiting from all the liquor and smoke, clearly suffering from the consequences of his choice.  Soc tells him, “Every action has its price and its pleasure. Recognizing both sides a warrior becomes realistic and responsible for his actions.” Dan thought he had freedom, and he did have the choice to do whatever he wanted. Liberation is knowing the options and knowing how best to choose. Sometimes, in order to help a student reach liberation, a teacher must place temporary restrictions on the student. The guru takes away some freedom so you can learn the lessons that will get you true liberation. For instance, children need a safe structure within which to be creative. When you feel physically safe, supported, and protected, your mind is free to wander. By placing some fences around a student, the teacher allows them to feel the freedom to move within the restricted area. The student is liberated when he realizes, there are no fences.

Erin Marie Yoga



Helping people who are ready for better