This summer as steady rains fell in the desert that steeped the sunbaked earth in moisture, I too softened and surrendered. I’ve experienced a renovation in my delight for the simple vessels of practice. I deeply enjoy a roll-around stretchy time in the soft grass and have rekindled respect for slow steady walks. It has been refreshing to move more gently inside my own ideas of what it is to practice yoga. I think it is easy to take things, especially our spiritual studies, way too seriously and I know that I have been guilty of this many a time in my decades as a yoga practitioner. This piece is an investigation into the difference between formal and informal practice. Formal yoga includes things like asana, meditation, mantra, study of scripture and pranayama. Informal yoga is more like finding inspiration in peeling garlic as a form of expressing love. This totally potent idea beautifully demonstrates the power of informal study in the everyday and comes direct from Samin Nosrat, the brilliant creatrix of gustatory inquiry and author of Salt Fat Acid Heat.
For some time, I shied away from sharing inspirational quotes in the yoga classes I led and looked to more “traditional” sources to provoke thought and give meaning to the work on the mat. I think there was a piece of resistance to the formality of saying that because a person’s words were impactful, they were also important. Our recent deconstruction of relating people to their art is the perfect example of how dangerous it can be to so ceremoniously direct attention toward a particular individual. It felt safe to me to share ideas I heard directly from teachers I had learned to trust in classes and workshops but even this proved to be unsteady ground, as many of those teachers turned out to be – big surprise – human too: messy and in process, just like the rest of us.
We have collectively moved away from a direct transmission style of teaching – one guru to one aspirant in deep and longstanding relationship – and are thus further and further away from knowing the sources of our information. It’s quite a paradox. We are be able to find an inspirational quote about the change of the seasons in less than half a second through an interwebs search and around the equinox, we can regurgitate the words and name of the person who may or may not have said it first without knowing a hoot about who they are. Wikipedia bios don’t count.
I simply steered clear, banking on the nameless and sourceless scriptures of classical yogic study for inspiration. If the stories have been passed down through thousands of years and can’t be attributed to one person, I needn’t worry about if they were a good, or terrible human who happened to say inspiring things. Right? I practiced mantra japa, in Sanskrit, even though I was learning to craft the sounds of this vibrational language as I went. Scholar of Hinduism, Sanskrit, and Tantra, Douglas Brooks once said to me, mispronunciation of the mantras is like using baby scissors; it still works, just less efficiently. For inspiration in yoga classes, I referred to the Yoga Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, and references to Hindu mythology, and tried very hard to sharpen my scissors.
Lately, I’ve returned to a great love for inspirational quotes, even from living, breathing white people. I reread them often and share these collections of words in class. As an act of honoring where the yoga came from, it is inappropriate to say that an internally repeated phrase like “all shall be well”, or “I am enough”, or – and this one always rather gets my goat, but I think it’s worth acknowledging and airing out – “I welcome abundance into my life”, are mantras. Words carry weight and story, as they are attached to human-minded meaning and history. The above ideas are different from mantra and more akin to modern, informal systems of positive affirmation. Both are great, and worth exploring.
Mantra is an ancient spiritual system where the seeker (that’s all of us) repeats a sacred syllable in order to connect with something bigger than the individual self. Mantra, as I understand, is a blend of two Sanskrit syllables – man (from the concept of mind) and tra (to traverse, cross, or connect through a tool, or a bridge). I have heard mantra referred to as a process of connecting (tra) the mind (man) through the gate of the throat in sound and vibration to the heart, representative of big Spirit. Mantras are often repeated a certain number of times (108, 1008, etc…) and because the sounds are not necessarily linked to meaning in the sense of the word as we know and use language today, the practice awakens parts of the neurological system that are unconcerned with story and more integrated with feeling, being, and sensing. Think pre-word, pre-verbal, and so, pre-ego-bound-sound.
The new kids’ (that’s also all of us who enjoy yoga and have bents to study ancient metaphysical things in 2019 on planet earth) style of yoga has developed over thousands of years in response to an ever-changing climate and population. Yoga has always been a system to connect the ONE with the individual self and is also more distinct and different from its roots than ever before. Like any melting pot process, as yoga has grown up and kept up with the times, some things have been transformed, others have been highlighted, others still have simply disappeared. I believe that the most respectful way we can approach yoga now is to honor all of it, know what we are doing and why, give respect to our teachers and guides where it is due, and continue the study, both formally and informally, every day.
Whether to do formal or informal practice is a decision up to the individual and the circumstances. In the grocery line, it is much more appropriate to be informal, quietly turning attention inward and measuring breath cycles rather than busting out in the deep, guttural vibrational expression of mantra – I forgot to say that singing these seed sounds, though lovely and recently popularized, also isn’t mantra, it’s a hybrid and mystically influenced music. In the words of Nancy Bardacke, CNM and Mindfulness guide, “The world is a little bit more peaceful because I am a little bit more peaceful.” I’ve been repeating these words a bunch lately and they have really been filling my cup.
In the right space and at the right time, formal practice has great power and potential to invite deep transformation. In the rest of our time and space, informal practice is more apropos. Hold a positive thought in the back of the mind as traffic whizzes by. Notice sensations in the body during an activating conversation. Refer to the things that light us up, no matter what language they were first spoken in, and if we’re sharing them with others, speak up about where they came from and so, who our teachers are.
This month, Marc Holzman is coming through Taos to lead a weekend of formal practice that inspires ways to take the yoga into the world through consistent, steady, informal practice off the mat. We’ll use the formal disciplines of asana and Ayurveda to inform bread and butter ways to keep us as practitioners connected to the yoga right in the middle of everything. For more information about the Walk Softly weekend with Marc, read on through the news or reach out with any questions. It’s weird times in here, people. Don’t psyche out about what is and what isn’t good yoga. Just be honest and acknowledge the simple truths, like if we all do our part to be a little more peaceful, we are participating in making the whole world a more peaceful place. Powerful. Done.
Love and big respect,