In Norman Cousins' 1979 bestseller, Anatomy of an Illness, the noted editor and writer described how, flat on his back in bed, he was able to belly laugh himself well by watching Marx Brothers movies and reading books of humor. Every ten minutes of genuine laughter, he said, "had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep."
The Book of Proverbs tells how "a merry heart doeth good as medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones." So, in face of evidence old and new, just in time for the new millennium, "Laughter Clubs" are spreading communicable giggles across the globe.
"YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD WITH LAUGHTER! PROMOTE HEALTH AND WORLD PEACE!" Yes, world peace. I can hear you now: "Ha!" you're saying. See? Made you laugh. In order to examine what method may lay behind this mirthness, I signed up for the training session to become a Laugh Leader. Okay, so the truth is I couldn't afford to "Track the Path of Rumi" through Turkey in ten days for $3500. Or to do Dr. Virtue's Angel Therapy either, available at a much lower price in Van Nuys. And because my two sisters, Jill and Nancy, live in San Diego, accommodations for the WLT (World Laughter Tour) would be sweet.
Invented in India by a Dr. Madan Kataria, more than 200 laughter clubs have now been established, meeting before work for twenty minutes of fun and gains. Now, thanks to Steve Wilson, an Ohio "joyologist," Dr. Kataria's smile assemblies have headed west. We need lightness after all, in these days of rolling blackouts, military blunders, and Bush. As clown/poet/avatar Wavy Gravy once told me, "You know, Zippy"-my clown name at the time-"if you lose your sense of humor, it just isn't funny anymore." Luckily, here's the good news! Former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop said recently that evidence shows "laughter protects the heart." I take these findings very seriously. I happen to do freelance work as a semi-professional fool (though I prefer the term "humorist"). Yes, I go from town to town, hovel to hovel, singing in my wackiest postmodern Willy Loman voice, "Jokes for sale! Who will buy this wonderful funny?"
But sadly, humor now tastes like burgers; it's just another watered-down to the bottom line quick fix fed 24/7 to an entertainment-nation full of junk junkies. I expect the laughter to do more, so much more. The comedy should "reveal the grace of the sufferer," in the words of John Hawks. I want the laughter that gives us power over politicians, that is our defiance and our victory, as Martin Buber said. Why? Because "they say truth comes into this world with two faces: sad suffering and laughs. But it is the same face" (the Talmud). Because "it is the duty of the humor of any given nation to attack the catastrophe that faces it so the people who laugh at it do not die before they are killed." (Hallelujah, Lord Buckley!)
I've had that transcendent vision of laughter, as it lifts up, teaches and serves. But can it really heal, and still get a few nyuk-nyuks on the way? My motivation for trying this WLT is so I can be part of that new wave where, as Mark Twain wrote, "against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand."
"Angels are the laugh of the universe." -Alan Watts
So here we are, thirty people in a room: nurses, doctors, counselors and dairy farmers, ages 30 to 70. Plus, a nice man with a jolly white goatee, joyologist Steve Wilson, who's president of the Laughter Clubs of America. Right now he's blowing a wooden train whistle to get our attention. He's full of little goofy tricks like this. He first developed this class at Columbus State Community College and teaches with the ebullience of the two great Yogis: Bear and Berra.
Did you know only 5% of people can tell a joke well? Steve cites such statistics. No wonder the U.S. spends $9.2 billion a year on various "stress reduction" sessions held daily in offices-at-risk-of too much seriousness-across the continent.
"Our method is non-threatening," Steve assures us. "Nobody has to be a comedian because it doesn't rely on telling jokes or making comedy." Some call his method "self-induced laughter," laughter for the joy of laughing, based around a systematic structure that encourages people to get involved.
"In today's world, most people don't find much to laugh at," he continues. "They don't have time to laugh. Or they know they don't laugh enough. They want the bigger car, the faster modem. This takes the joy out of life."
Steve has trained over fifty leaders so far. "And you don't have to have a sense of humor at all," he grins secretively. "You can still come week to week and receive great benefits." His co-facilitators today resemble that remark, as neither seems very funny at all. (Perhaps, like Lord Byron, they "laugh to keep from weeping.") The joyologist submits findings for our approval, just published in the March issue of Nature Neuroscience: "A new study, which investigated how the human brain processes jokes, identified a particular area of the brain that appears to be involved in your sense of humor. Lead author Dr. Vinod Goel said that this area is known as the medial ventral prefrontal cortex."
A believer in "right livelihood" and Buddhist loving-kindness, Dr. Kataria's original technique is being used in prisons and nursing homes. We watch laughter club footage from Sweden and Denmark, not known as funny countries. (Well, Denmark. Maybe.) We see a video of Steve's cousin Kenny laughing for fifteen seconds. Then we're up and standing in a circle repeating the following WLT mantra: "Ho-Ho! Ha-Ha-Ha!" while slapping our thighs and clapping in unison.
Huh? Half a minute of breathing and then we move into what he calls the "Vowel Movements," where we lean over and lift up again reciting "A" or "E" or the others, while faking a laugh. "Fake it 'til you make it" goes a watchword of WLT faith. "Simulation leads to Stimulation" is another. We make some funny faces at each other for awhile. This must be the "yoga" part of the practice I saw advertised. Suffice it to say, the eight limbs of yoga are not at risk.
After twenty minutes of this, Suzy, a comedic performer from New York-and my ride back to LA-tells me she wants to leave the conference early. She is, in fact, rather depressed by the whole program.
Steve notices and sends a shout-out. "Even if there's no stimulus, you can find humorous!"
"Look," he suggests. "Babies laugh in the crib. We don't say, 'Gee, that kid's got a great sense of humor.' It is something very innate and primal we're doing."
Karyn Buxam and Jacki Kwan, his co-facilitators, explain that these fake laughs are good at getting rid of toxins too. That any outward breath is good.
Suzy says she hasn't had a real laugh the whole weekend. "Coughing is good," I try encouraging her. I'm not about to leave. Soon we'll have a break, and speech pathologist Pam Wilson, Steve's wife and road manager/marketing guru, will serve up ice cream sundaes.
Eventually, refilling my bowl with nothing but syrup, I corner Suzy: "If you laugh you can change the world," I pitch her. I believe this too. Dr. Meatloaf, a friend of mine, is a clown in the Big Apple Circus hospital clown care unit. He once told me that if he made his mom and dad laugh before they hit him, they couldn't hit him. Dr. Meatloaf had a whole theory behind it. "Levity is the opposite of gravity," he would say, quoting Monty Python. Big Apple sends their CCU - s into 15 cities now.
I beg Suzy to at least try to appreciate Steve's leadership training. Although I must agree with her: "Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha" is a bit lame-o. Do these unfunny facilitators need us to laugh at them so they feel funny? Or do they know they aren't and so make us pay for it? Never make light of the great market out there for misery. Factories manufacture unhappiness in every province.
I am too cynical. I need to try and turn this paranoia into pro-noia, a meditation technique I learned from a San Francisco anarchist bicyclist named Tet. Pro-noia is the belief that the world is out to help us. I tell Suzy, "Coughing is good!"
"If You Laugh And Believe It Is Good For You…You Are Right!" says one of the joyologist's bumper stickers. Which makes sense. "Honk, Honk, if you Love to Laugh" is one of his stickers that doesn't make much sense to Suzy.
"Laughter isn't funny, it is a reaction to funny things, and is tied to subconscious feelings about defensiveness and social correctness, among other things." -Avner the Eccentric
Each workshop member gets two solo minutes. Steve asks us to please "listen with soft eyes." No judgment. Nice. And the people in here are the greatest, especially the nurses. All Praise All Nurses! Mary Dixon from Santa Rosa started her own hospital humor program and does clowning and pain management. Arlene Vine's passion is working with elders. "What I give to them I get back tenfold. And with my Alzheimer's patients, I make new friends every day!"
Her insight reminds the joyologist of one definition of Jewish humor: "Laughter with sadness in the eye."
Janice Griffin, an RN from Monterey, tells me about a "Journal of Nursing Jocularity" that used to publish her jokes. Chekesha Showers is a 22-year veteran of the Los Angeles School District whose name means "bringer of laughter" in Swahili. There is an optometrist-clown from New Jersey and an educator named Arya Pathria who suggests we "make the person in the mirror laugh every morning." (How impossibly difficult!) Joanne VanGorder, 70, has a TV show in Prescott, AZ called "Senior Focus." She calls herself "a global warmer."
Here's one thing I learned: Did you know women laugh more than men? "Yep, we're amazed and amused at their stupidity," says one unnamed Canadian lady clown.
"And you make such great straight men," a nurse-humorist concurs.
During my turn to speak, I'm a bit nervous, but gosh if these unfunny co-facilitators don't soon force me into doing the old Hokey-Pokey dance. But not the way I remember it as a kid. "You put your Ha-Ha in, you put your Ho-Ho out!" shouts Jacki Kwan. "You do the Hokey-Pokey and you turn yourself around, that's what it's all about!"
"When something is really bad, you laugh, and when something is really good, you laugh." -Rwandan saying
"Human beings are the only creatures that can laugh," Steve tells the class. "No contribution that enhances the mirth of the world is too small."
I ask how tough will it be to be a laughter leader in a cruel cruel world? Steve remains grinstruck. "Remember," he says, "there is no setback, no obstacles. There is only amazed and amused." Then why can't I just let go, or let God get me giggling, after all my years of Guided Imagery, Thought Field Therapy, Biblical Kabbalah, Tennis without Partners?
These days you pick your own potion/poison, as John Lennon sang, "Whatever gets you through the night." Like my friend Suzy. She is using "Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha" after all. On stage. And you know what? She gets plenty of laughs teaching it to the audience. Because she's damn funny.
Everyone's heard of tough love. I guess I'm a tough laugh. For there is nothing innately funny in doing a weak Hokey-Pokey with 32 strangers and no alcohol. It's like doing the hora with Mormons, but without any sense of danger. However, this embarrassing experience did make me recall a line I heard from Pete Breitmeyer, an actor from Dudley Riggs comedic theater in Minneapolis: "What if the Hokey-Pokey IS what it's all about?"
"You don't have to teach people to be funny. You only have to give them permission." -Dr. Harvey Mindess
Dr. Mindess was at the American Association for Therapeutic Humor conference the same weekend I attended the WLT. The AATH helps people develop and improve their sense of humor as a way of creating wellness.
Robin Shlein, a comedy producer with credits dating back to the early years of "Saturday Night Live," studied with Dr. Mindess. Now she leads "Humor Heals" workshops for the Wellness Community, a cancer support center in Santa Monica. "You have to give them permission to laugh at what might be taboo," Shlein explains. "Things like death and dying. And permission to allow themselves to look for humor, irony and absurdity in the most painful circumstances."
So this is perhaps a truer path to health than the "Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha" technique. It was Stan Laurel, no mere ha-ha-ha he, who said it best: "You have to learn what people will laugh at, and then proceed accordingly."
When Suzy drags me out of the San Diego hotel conference room, my classmates gather to give us what our leader Steve Wilson calls, "The Farewell Laugh." I'm immediately thinking how maudlin this is. I mean, how can you ever have the last laugh, unless you then die? But like the "Night of the Laughing Dead," thirty people in WLT tee shirts come at me. I dash from the room, involuntarily emitting a sickening screech.
I'm awarded a certificate in which I am designated a "Certified Laughter Leader." I am now authorized to organize USA Laughter Clubs and present therapeutic laughter programs; I may "acknowledge my affiliation to World Laughter Tour, Inc., and use the Laughter Club logo in print material."
Later I ask Steve Wilson by phone how he really plans to achieve world peace. "By changing attitudes," he says quickly. "Anger, hatred, fear and strife come out of people because that's what inside of them. Squeeze an orange, you get orange juice. If we can get more humor, more tolerance, if we can get more of the spirit of laughter inside of people, that's what's gonna come out." He predicts a laughter club at the United Nations, laughter contests among leaders of different lands. "Although comedians occasionally bomb, it would be better if countries traded comedians instead of bombs," he laughs.
Don't I know it. Happy is the weapon I wear in the war of all against all. I stole that line from the playwright Mac Wellman, who took it from the philosopher John Locke. Here's what Groucho Marx said: "Reverence and irreverence are really the same thing." Which is something Norman Cousins understood, I think. The genuine laughter that John Hobbes called a "passion of sudden glory," Cousins truly felt as "jogging for the innards."
So is this WLT all about the laughs, the kicks, the money? Steve had urged us to buy the book Laughing for No Reason. Sixty per cent of sales go to India for their clubs. Isn't it true that the best laughs often come for free? Dr. Kataria himself said, "Laughter is free. You can't charge anybody anything." (Although then he said he has started charging because, "It is eating into my time and my family is not eating.")
Hank Rosenfeld is a humorist who has recently started an online healing/consulting service, co-facilitated by the entertainer Anne Randolph, star of solo shows "Loveland" and "Squeezebox." Sign up at
Ho-Ho! Ha-Ha-Ha!: On the World Laughter Tour, Hank Rosenfeld, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.
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By Will Johnson While tension and imbalance manifest as discursiveness, argues Wil Johnson, a truly balanced body generates an ease and relaxation that naturally supports the awakened mind.
For the most part, Buddhism has not made a big deal about the body. The great majority of Buddhist schools continue to focus on mind as the arena of maximum reward and accord body a much more diminished status as an avenue worthy of exploration.
The inherent problem with this attitude is that it is the experience of the body that provides the feeling ballast for the mind. If that is forfeited, the mind can all too easily float off into rarefied realms that, lofty as they might be, are but a shadow of the consciousness that meditation practices are designed to reveal. Mind ultimately wants to ground itself in the feeling presence of the body, not escape from it. If you want a mind that is balanced, then you need to create a balanced body to support it.
Alignment, Relaxation and Resilience
If the body is out of balance, it must create constant tension to offset the downward pull of gravity. This tension will manifest as discursiveness at the level of the mind. True balance of body, on the other hand, generates an ease and relaxation that naturally and spontaneously supports the awakened mind. In the words of Sasaki Roshi, "Buddha is the center of gravity."
To find the center of gravity within oneself means to balance the energy field of the body with the gravitational field of the earth. This balance appears through the conscious embodiment of three basic principles: alignment, relaxation and resilience.
Alignment: Ordinarily, we think of gravity as a force we need to brace ourselves against in order to stand erect. But gravity actually functions as a source of support for structures that are properly aligned around a predominantly vertical axis.
Relaxation: A human body that becomes aligned in this way can then begin to relax. It doesn't have to tense its musculature to offset the downward pull of gravity, because its aligned structure provides it with all the support it needs. Through the relaxation of its tensions, it can literally drop its weight and its mind, surrendering to the pull of gravity, and it doesn't topple over. Resilience: To maintain its relaxed uprightness, a balanced body then begins to make spontaneous movements and adjustments, ever so slightly, ever so resiliently. If the body resists this natural urge to move and holds itself rigidly, it creates tension and forfeits its relaxation.
Of these three principles, resilience can be the most challenging for Buddhist practitioners, who have been taught to sit very still in order for the mind to become still. Stillness, however, implies quiescence, not rigidity, and so the Zen poet Ikkyu reminds us: "To harden into a Buddha is wrong." If you hold your body rigidly, your mind will become very active and agitated. If you allow subtle resilient movement to pass through your body, however, the mind naturally becomes calmer, and you remain relaxed and alert. The whole purpose of playing with balance is that it lifts the curtain of muscular tension that ordinarily conceals the body's sensations. In the words of the Buddha, "Everything that arises in the mind starts flowing with a sensation in the body." If we remain unconscious of these sensations because of imbalance and constant muscular tension, we remain unconscious of the full depth of the mind and we forfeit our access to the wholesome states of mind of which the Buddha speaks. But when body is vibrantly present, mind is naturally clear and deep. Attempting to manifest clear mind without attending to the experience of your body is like trying to drive away in your car without first turning the key in the ignition.
While the principles of alignment, relaxation, and resilience can guide you as you explore your body's relationship with gravity, balance can't be superimposed from without but must be felt within. This discovery of feeling is the practice. Balance never appears as a static end state or an attained goal. It is something to play with constantly, a dance and practice that never ends.
An Exercise in Balance
Stand for a moment barefoot on the floor with your feet touching. Envision the major segments of your body-your feet, lower and upper legs, pelvis, abdomen, chest, neck and head-as building blocks a child has stacked one on top of the other. If these blocks are stacked up carefully, one directly on top of another, the pile will remain standing. But if they're not, the column will probably come crashing to the ground.
With the least amount of effort possible, feel the major segments of your body lining up, one on top of the next, just like the child's building blocks. Alignment has a distinct feeling of ease and effortlessness associated with it, so be careful not to bring tension into your body as you coax your bodily segments into a more vertical relationship with one another.
Then with your feet firmly planted on the floor, begin to sway the body slowly as a unit-to the right and to the left, to the front and to the back. At first, make your movements quite extreme, almost to the point of toppling over. Feel what it's like to be out of alignment, and then contrast that with the feeling as the body regains its verticality. When the body veers away from alignment, you can feel tension and holding; when the body moves back into a more aligned structure, the tension and holding fall away.
Keep bobbing and swaying randomly, gradually making your movements smaller and smaller. Eventually, you will come to a place where the body does not sway much at all. While this place may feel unfamiliar to you, it will also have a feeling of rightness. The body just stands, supported by gravity. This is your place of alignment.
Now begin to relax. Relaxation is nothing more or less than the surrender of the weight of the body to gravity. Because your body is aligned, you can do this without toppling over. Starting with your head, feel the tension in your body literally dropping away. As long as the tension drops directly through the building block underneath, you will stay standing easily. Can you drop your mind as well? Spiritual teachers tell us to drop the mind-can you feel what it might be to take that instruction literally?
Quite likely this new place of balance will feel willowy and insecure. Wonderful! True balance is never stable and still. A body in balance is constantly, resiliently moving. Feel how natural it is to allow these subtle, spontaneous movements to occur. Keep surrendering and letting go. Play with your alignment. Relax your tensions. Go with whatever movements need to occur for you to stay upright and relaxed.
Keep monitoring the feelings and sensations in the body. They are the guide that helps you maintain your effortless balance. These sensations and feeling tones will constantly change. You can't hold on to any of them; you just have to keep letting go, moment by moment. What is your mind doing? See how when you become lost in thought your body immediately forfeits its balance. Let go of the tension again, allow the body to move like a prayer flag in a gentle breeze, and watch the thoughts disappear effortlessly.
Let's look at one of Buddhism's favorite objects of contemplation, the passage of the breath. In most schools, breath is presented as an object for the mind to observe and concentrate upon. We count it. We watch it move in and out of our nostrils. We observe how it causes our belly to rise and fall.
While all this is very helpful in concentrating the mind, the Buddha never wanted us just to observe the breath, as though we were watching a parade from a safe distance. He wanted us to dive right into the thick of it, to so merge our awareness of self with the action of the breath that we would become breathing, and in this way, experience how breath, body and being are inextricably one. When you breathe in, do it with your whole body, the Buddha tells us in the Satipatthana Sutra. And then, when you have to breathe out, make sure the entire body participates in that act as well. To breathe with your whole body, you need to feel the whole thing, every little cell and sensation, vibrantly and palpably alive. You can't just retreat to the cool observatory of your mind, watching passively as the breath moves in and out, and expect to feel this fundamental union of breath and body.
Let your whole body become the organ of respiration. The action of the breath doesn't have to be confined to just the mouth, the windpipe, the lungs, the ribs and the diaphragm. It can be felt to move through the whole body, just like a wave that moves through water, causing subtle movements at every joint. The movement of such a breath will massage the entire body and stimulate even more sensations to appear.
Such an unrestricted pattern of breath, however, is only truly available when the body is balanced. The holding and tension that are necessary to keep an imbalanced body erect will function as blocks to the free movement of the breath, and breathing will remain shallow, sensations dim. Bring the body to balance, however, and the breath can become an extraordinary event that blows away the inner cobwebs of cloudy mind and dull sensation. Surrender to your next inhalation, let the breath breathe you, and simultaneously relax the body as much as possible. Feel all its energies, all its sensations, head to foot, leaving none out. Go deep inside to a place in which you can feel the whole body all at once as a relaxed, unified field of sensations. Find this place and then surrender to the full power of the breath-in and out, in and out, over and over again.
Don't force the breath, but don't coddle yourself and hold back on it either. Just surrender to its innate power. It will come open on its own, organically and naturally, sometimes gently, sometimes explosively. If you can surrender to the breath in this way, it will take you on a journey deeper and deeper into the uncharted regions of your body, where withheld and unfelt sensations are just waiting to be nudged from their slumber. Over time, as the breath succeeds in melting and healing the restrictions to its freest expression, it will cleanse you from head to toe.
This Very Body
Remember the Zen master Hakuin's declaration, "This very body is the Buddha." When consciousness and the felt presence of body come together as a single, merged phenomenon, awakening occurs naturally. Consider the following instructions from one of the most famous texts of vajrayana Buddhism, Tilopa's "Song of Mahamudra":
Do nothing with the body but relax. Let the mind rest in its natural, unformed state. Become like a hollow bamboo.
The only thing you ever need to do with your body is to relax. But once again, this can only occur if you play with balance. Without aligning the body, you can't fully relax, and without surrendering to the spontaneous, resilient movements that naturally want to occur through the body, relaxation cannot continue over time.
The ultimate purpose of balance is that it lets the current of the life force, felt as an unending flow of sensations, pass freely and continually through the entire conduit of the body, just like wind passing through the empty center of a hollow piece of bamboo. U Ba Khin, the twentieth-century Burmese meditation master and proponent of one of the few body-oriented approaches to Buddhist practice, called this bodily force nibbana dhatu, literally, the force that generates the enlightened mind.
Once this force is activated, it functions like a grass fire that burns away old debris and brush, preparing the ground for new growth. When nibbana dhatu becomes operational, it rages through the body and mind and burns away the residues and accretions that keep the enlightened mind hidden and contained. Because any blockage to the free flow of energy in the body will hamper the passage of this force, only if your body becomes like a hollow bamboo will you be able to experience and benefit from its purificatory action.
If you play with balance, whether doing formal sitting practice or moving about in your life, the condition of mind that you long to give birth to will gradually appear as a natural consequence. But never think that there is a perfected end to balance, that you are going to arrive at some kind of ultimate balanced state. Such a condition doesn't exist, and would become a great bondage if it did. Breath by breath, sensation by sensation, everything moves and shifts. Balance is constantly adjusting itself. Just keep staying open to this movement, this ongoing dance of balance.
Will Johnson has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1972 and a certified rolfer since 1976. He is author of The Posture of Meditation and Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness.
The Balanced Body and the Middle Way, Will Johnson, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.
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It came without warning right at the beginning of the day trip down the river. I really don't like water and I am a weak, underconfident swimmer at best. But people I trusted said it was fun and not scary at all. If you did fall out, you would land on a little rock and immediately be picked up in the next boat.
So I went and on the very first bend in the river, I slid out. There was no warning and no big inhale before plunging into icy cold, wildly churning water. And then there I was, trapped under a rubber boat in the whitewater rapids of the Pacuare River in Costa Rica.
No breath in my lungs and nobody can see where I am. I thought, "Wow, this is how it happens," and I visualized a small obit in The New York Times: "Yoga Teacher Drowns Leading Retreat in Costa Rica." My mind raced and my lungs tightened, but somehow I didn't panic.
I never fully realized it before, but the yoga, breathing and meditation practices I had been doing for years had prepared me for this very moment. Practicing awareness, manipulation and retention of the breath allowed me to know intuitively that I could go without breathing for way longer than was comfortable. My daily twisting and inverting enabled me know what was up and down and to maintain a highly fluid sense of balance. Meditation had trained me to stay focused on the task at hand even while thoughts of my own death ran rampant through my head. I groped my way along the bottom of the boat and popped up into the rapids.
A very long minute later, a body-builder/yoga student of mine grabbed me by the collar and plopped me into his boat. My Buddhist teacher, Gelek Rinpoche, had taught me that to meet the dharma in your lifetime is as fortunate and rare as a tortoise's head popping up into an inner tube in the middle of the ocean. In that moment I felt just like that tortoise. Sitting in the haven of boat #2, my heart hammering, my adrenaline rushing, my lungs gasping, I was as scared as I've ever been. But when I was under the boat I had not been scared. I was wide awake, balanced and steady. Mindfulness meditation, yoga asanas and pranayama are each powerful practices that can affect our lives deeply. But there is no doubt in my mind that in this life-threatening moment, it was the combination of the three that saved my life.
As a yoga teacher, I am passionate about yoga and have been fortunate to share this passion with many students over the past 20 years. I have been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for more than 10 years and it has been a natural evolution for the two lineages to merge in my teaching. Yoga and Buddhism offer insights and experiences that complement each other and together complete a basic homework assignment for human beings: What do I do with this body and this mind?
Back in 1972 I started taking yoga classes for an easy P.E. credit in college. The feeling of being cleansed-like taking a shower from the inside out-was unmatched any other kind of exercise I had experienced. My teachers were inspiring and I was highly motivated. It didn't take long for me to be able to hold my breath for over a minute or to stand on my head for five minutes. I was hooked.
I got left behind, though, when it came to the "spiritual" part. I just didn't get it when my teachers quoted Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra, who wrote, "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind." They closed their eyes and somehow seemed plugged into a big bliss cloud of happiness. I tried to feel blissful, but then the class was over. Walking down the street, my body was strong, clean, juicy and open, but I felt inadequate and cranky.
It turns out that my experience wasn't that unusual. While most people do walk out of yoga class in better physical shape than when they walked in, personal awakening may still elude them. Yoga is an unparalleled method of strengthening muscles, enhancing breathing, cleansing toxins and soothing the nervous system, but the sense of harmonious rejuvenation that arises by the end of the class may dissipate once our feet hit the pavement in front of the yoga studio door. A person's body may change but their mind will still be jumping, their heart still buried under layers of tension and fear.
As a teacher I have seen again and again that if you are a Type A personality, you will do your yoga practice with the same aggression and competitiveness that shapes the rest of your life. If you are sloppy, your posture will reflect that. If you are easily frustrated, the challenges of yoga may magnify that tendency. It has been my experience that the physical practice of hatha yoga alone is not strong enough medicine to alter those patterns-particularly in the maelstrom of today's world.
My dissatisfaction with yoga left me with a longing for something more, a sad empty feeling. Remembering that my dad's prescription for loneliness or depression was always to do something helpful for someone else, I began to search for a way to take the focus off myself and still be myself. I read about maitri, the loving-kindness aspect of Buddhism, and was drawn to explore that. So when a friend of mine invited me to attend teachings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I signed on for two weeks worth of teachings.
The first week was slow going, what with translators explaining to us Westerners the teachings of these great lamas. Some of the teachers wore business suits, some wore elaborate robes and exotic hair-dos. I didn't have a clue who they were or what they were saying, but I liked being there. The second week His Holiness explained what it meant to be a bodhisattva, and without hesitation I signed on with a bodhisattva vow.
Through a friend I met the Tibetan teacher Gelek Rinpoche. For at least the first year I studied with him I struggled to follow the teachings, and even to stay awake during his all-day talks. But although I didn't exactly know what he was talking about, I always felt that he was talking right to me. It seemed like he always knew exactly what was problematic in my life and would frame his talks just to help me. I noticed that I was becoming more grounded, more patient and more conscious of others, and over time, inspired by the kindness of my teacher, I began to share what I learned from him with my yoga students. The teachings and techniques were a natural fit with yoga asana practice.
As my Buddhist practice developed I learned to watch my thoughts come and go like watching birds playing in the sky. This mindfulness training began to seep into my yoga practice. Rather than looking for bliss by dropping out, I dropped in, taking notice of my physical sensations and the thoughts that arose in connection to them. I realized I had the same thought every time the teacher said, "Let's do backbending." I thought I didn't like backbends, but my relationship to backbends changed when I recognized that thinking pattern.
Applying Buddhist meditation instruction to how I did yoga postures slowed me down enough to feel my breath, my heart and my mind. My sense organs softened and opened, allowing me to experience each individual new backbend. I discovered that my backbends were different all the time and that was interesting to me. In fact, meditation gave me license to just let that happen, instead of trying to stifle my thoughts and become something different than who I am.
My Buddhist teachers said mindfulness meditation was "synchronizing body and mind" and I understood that conceptually. But after sitting on the cushion for a whole weekend I thought, "What body?" Didn't the Buddha ever walk, stand or climb stairs? History tells us that he did engage in extreme yogic practices and ultimately found them unsatisfactory. Finally, after sitting still under the Bodhi tree he became enlightened, and then got up and began to move through the world again.
Patanjali is credited with writing the Yoga Sutra about 150 years later. Although yoga is often associated with Hinduism, it is most closely aligned with Sankhya, one of the six classical Indian darsanas, or "ways to see." Sankhya is an attempt to explain the nature of all existence by dividing it into purusha, that which is unchanging, and prakrti, or matter. It tells us that the separation of these two states is the cause of our suffering and that the path to liberation is through repression of our thoughts, withdrawal of our senses, and denial of our body in order to reconnect with our true Self. This re-union is the state of yoga, from the verb yuj; to yoke or bind.
The practices of introverted concentration associated with this state are described in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali as an eight-limbed path: yamas (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). The limbs begin by refining our behavior in the outer world and then lead us more and more inward until we reach samadhi. Most people doing yoga today are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of immobility.
Buddhism begins with the premise that life is suffering but ultimately leads us outward, rather than only inward. We start the Buddhist path by sitting still and stabilizing our mind. From the spaciousness that arises during this practice of calm abiding, we naturally begin to feel our heart. Combining the practice of non-grasping wakefulness with exercises that generate compassion gives us a recipe for how to interact intelligently, soulfully and spontaneously with ourselves, each other, our family and the world.
These teachings invite us to open up to who we already are, rather than look elsewhere for connection, because the seed of awakened heart is within all of us already. It's our heritage as human beings. It's just that we can't always feel our beautiful lotus heart blooming because we get stuck on ideas of fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, greed.
But Buddhist meditation techniques reveal that none of these emotions are solid and with practice we learn how to watch them arise and fade away and still stay steady on our seat or on our feet. We learn how to remain in the immediacy of everything, for example, backbending, rather than what we are thinking about backbending. Then loving-kindness invites us to approach our backbends with at least an inner smile and a little less crabbiness. At OM Yoga Center in New York we practice a form of yoga called vinyasa, which is a series of flowing movement sequences coordinated with rhythmic breathing. We approach the vinyasa style with great attention to detail, especially regarding alignment, to ensure that students do not get injured and get the most benefit from their practice.
The other element of OM yoga is meditation in action, which invites the yogi to observe and become familiar with mental and physical habits, to relax the grip of thought activity, and kindly abide in the asana. All this is done while maintaining a sense of vipassana, or clear seeing, which opens the yogi to the world around them and creates a healthy balance to the refined inner vision of yoga practice. The flow, precision and mindfulness of our yoga practice are all supported by Buddhist principles.
The flowing form is the physical manifestation of path without a goal: each pose is connected by a transitional movement that has as much value as the pose itself. This approach relates to equanimity, not knowing when our actions will bear fruit, and helps us break through the goal-oriented mentality we know so well and which is so prevalent in our relationship to our bodies.
This shows up a lot in forward bending. Many people have a desire to be able to bend forward and touch their toes. But guess what-I can do it and can definitely tell you that touching your toes does not make you happier. I do enjoy the lengthened feeling in the back of my legs and the openness in my spine-most of the time. But just like everything else that is transitory and conditional; sometimes it feels stressful or boring. So in our yoga practice we pay attention to how we get into the pose, what happens in our body, mind and breathing while there, and how it is to move out of the pose and on to the next thing.
You can try this without even bending over. The next time you decide to go from the couch to the refrigerator, feel yourself moving through space. You can go slow or at an ordinary pace, but feel the floor beneath your feet, look and really see everything along the way, feel the swinging of your arms and what your breathing is like today, right now. If you are going to the kitchen because you are hungry, feel that. If you are going because you're thirsty, feel that. How many times have you opened the refrigerator door and realized you forgot what you went for? This time feel the coolness when you open the door, and feel the softness of the sofa cushion as you sit back down. We take lots of little journeys like this every day, driving in our car or rolling over in bed. Try to actively participate as you travel through your world, rather than making only about your end point.
Precision is a way to develop clarity of mind at the same time that we develop accuracy in our physical placement. Applying specificity to where you put your hands and feet creates a wakeful mental attitude. You simply can't think clearly if your alignment is sloppy. For example, what is your posture right now as you are reading this? Try changing your position, or even walking around and see if you feel sleepy or clear.
It is also difficult to feel openhearted or uplifted if your chest is sunk and your spine is sagging. Not only are your cardiovascular functions diminished, but your body is a cage. This curling in creates dukha, suffering, which is the opposite of sukha, joy, and can relate to the physical and emotional space created through good posture. Hatha yoga aligns skin, muscles and bones so that each can support each other with more ease than effort. Proper alignment opens energetic blockages which can be caused by diet, stress, illness and emotions, or even tight belts, wristwatches and fabrics wrapped around our bodies. Physical precision extends to your clothing, environment and personal hygiene. We are also attentive to how we arrange our practice space. Each person at OM Yoga has a mat and organizes their yoga props-blankets, blocks, straps-in a neat and orderly fashion, because a jumbled heap of stuff in your line of sight creates an obstacle as well. Everybody who has a messy desk knows this to be true. The spacious discipline of precision gives the yogi a sense of open heart, open mind and open agenda. We apply meditation instruction to our yoga practice by using the breath as a reference point for resting the mind. But in yoga we also manipulate the breath in various ways that soothe our nervous system, cleanse our sinuses and oxygenate our entire body. Prana, which means "to bring forth mystical vibration," exists in sunlight, water, earth and all beings. For human beings, the most direct way to feel this universal life force is through the wave-like nature of our breathing, which reminds us that even though everything is changing all the time we can still feel peaceful as long as we keep in rhythm. Whenever you feel out of sync, take a moment to lengthen and equalize your inhale and exhale, and right away you will feel more balanced.
Try this. Stand with your feet firmly planted on the floor with your arms down by your sides. Close your eyes. Don't do anything. Just stand there. You will soon begin to notice quite a lot of movement within the stillness of simply standing. You will feel the movement of your body, expanding and contracting as you breathe; you will feel the pulse of your own heartbeat; you will feel your entire body swaying slightly in order to stay balanced on this big round ball we live on. In fact, if you were truly static, the earth's movement would eventually tip you over. Can you relax and let your body, breath and heart do this dance of balance?
All of these exercises sit on a bed called ahimsa , non-violence, in yoga, or compassion in Buddhism. What's the good of being awake if you can't let your heart be like your lungs, giving and receiving with every pulse? Mindfulness helps us recognize when we have habits that are harsh, and creates a gap between an impulse and the action that usually follows. It creates a space for us to dip into our hearts and come back up with a pearl of kindness.
Since for most of us a major part of our self-identity is tied to the appearance and health of our physicality, our body is an excellent reflective surface for getting to know our habits and applying ahimsa to what comes up. In the wordless conversation between our body and our mind, everything that happens in all our relationships-frustration, aggression, love, tenderness, boredom-will arise while doing downward facing dog. Yoga and meditation help us recognize our form of effort, whether it is too tight or too loose. Either way, effort is related to goals. So instead, with sensitivity, we apply exactly the right amount of action. Right action is a balance of body, breath and mind using the ingredients of rhythm, movement, direction, energy and intention, but never aggression.
When you apply this mind/heart training to the process of doing yoga asanas it becomes a way to understand the whole world in the form of you. It provides the means for working with all of those relationships right there on the yoga mat while you become fit at the same time. And for us busy people who are both meditators and yogis it is helpful to be able to combine practices.
Yoga helps Buddhists embody their meditation. As the meditator's body becomes more mobile, strong and functional, it becomes a support for meditation practice rather than the more familiar and painful distraction of creaking knees and whining spines. Similarly, the specific focus of Buddhist mindfulness and compassion helps the yogi's mind become unbiased, wakeful and connected in whatever physical shape they assume and demonstrates the transient nature of all things, including mastery over body. Sitting cross-legged at the end of yoga class, I feel elemental. My breath is the wind and my mind is a raft floating on the oceanic tide of prana. The fire in my belly radiates out and makes the sweat on my skin feel like rain and earth mixed together. My heart rests in a big, big space.
Then I get up off the mat and go back to running the yoga center. Hopefully, today I won't have a life-threatening experience but still I'm grateful for my practices. Life might not be a bliss cloud, but through the wisdom and compassion of yoga and Buddhism, it has become supremely workable.
The Complete Package: Meditation and Yoga, Cyndi Lee, Shambhala Sun, July 2001. To order this copy of the Shambhala Sun, click here.
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The Miracle of Downward Dog: A Buddhist Discovers Hatha Yoga
The Miracle of Downward Dog: A Buddhist Discovers Hatha Yoga
By Mark Epstein, M.D. Buddhist practitioner Mark Epstein discovers the joys of hatha yoga.
Yoga came to me as if out of a commercial, or maybe a series of commercials. Advertising companies know that a person has to hear about a new product from something like five different directions before desire for that product is kindled. It was like that for me with yoga. All of a sudden, a number of years ago, I began to hear about it wherever I turned, and, although I resisted (thinking that meditation was enough for me), after a while I could ignore it no longer.
First, an exercise instructor I knew started talking about his friend's newly opened East Village yoga studio, called Jivamukti. My wife went to check it out, but I was not ready to alter my routines. Then my meditation instructors, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, began to make reference to their nascent yoga practices. I took notice because of how much I trust them. Then a yoga teacher named John Friend came to New York and, at Sharon's suggestion, I signed up for his workshop. He poked good-natured fun at me for being a Buddhist but I liked the extra attention he gave me and felt encouraged. Finally, the dance studio across the street from my office began offering lunchtime yoga classes perfectly timed for my schedule. When my next door neighbor told me how good the classes were, I knew my asana time had arrived.
Yoga came along at the right time for me, or perhaps it was a little bit late. My body had begun to stiffen up after many years of sedentary work as a therapist. I began to be afflicted by strange aches and pains, and meditation did not protect me. But the morning after one of my first yoga classes, I remember walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and marveling at how light and pain-free my body suddenly felt. This downward dog stuff is a miracle, I thought to myself as the East River coursed beneath me.
Years of involvement with Buddhist meditation had inculcated in me a tremendous faith in the wisdom of the East. I was delighted to find that the physical challenges of yoga resonated with me as much as the mental ones of meditation. I liked the sense of working against my own limitations, of benefiting even when I could only barely approximate a given posture. I found that the balance required between effort and surrender in yoga was similar to that in meditation, and this was a balance that intrigued and satisfied me. Yet it turned out I was better protected from myself in meditation than I was in yoga.
There is a saying in Buddhism that emptiness, the key insight of meditation practice, should be regarded as like a snake, because if you do not learn how to hold it properly it will reach up and bite you. Emptiness is the relinquishment of views, said Nagarjuna, but those who do not relinquish the view of emptiness are incurable. Nobody warned me that in yoga a similar caution is necessary. Supremely unaware of this, I reveled in my new-found dexterity. On a recent visit to my in-laws' house in Florida, for example, I took the first opportunity to stretch by their pool. After one or two downward dogs, I had a vision of my last yoga class where we successfully worked on our handstands against the wall-adho mukha vrksasana, the face-down tree pose.
"Begin in a downward dog," I remembered. "Straighten the elbows and stretch the arms, open the chest, walk in, exhale and kick one leg up, following it quickly with the other." I had discovered that I could kick up without fear, and I loved the feeling of flying up against the wall into a handstand. That would feel nice right now, I thought, and before I knew what was happening, I kicked myself up onto my hands. For a very brief moment, I balanced like a true yogi, but I knew in the next split-second that the snake was about to bite.
My enthusiasm had carried me away. There was no wall to support me and I had lifted off with such energy that I was over and beyond the ability of my arms and shoulders to support me. I had the choice of falling onto the gravel in a somersault or collapsing one shoulder and rolling onto my side. Choosing the latter, I felt my shoulder girdle go into spasm as I fell. Three months later, as I write this, the muscles are still healing. What is the lesson in all this? For me, it has something to do with letting meditation and yoga help each other. I was so excited to have the help of yoga to my meditation that I forgot to use what I had learned from Buddhism to help me with my yoga. I would never let my excitement over emptiness throw me off balance the way I had let my handstand get out of control. In my enthusiasm for the posture, I had lost-or misplaced-the humility that protected me as I felt my way into yoga in the first place.
The lesson was a familiar one-a lesson that links yoga and meditation at their hearts. The successful practice of yoga, like meditation, requires nothing more, or less, than a beginner's mind. Mark Epstein, M.D., is author of Thoughts Without a Thinker, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart and Going on Being (Broadway).
The Miracle of Downward Dog: A Buddhist Discovers Hatha Yoga, Mark Epstein, M.D., Shambhala Sun, July 2001.
By Margaret Wheatley What becomes available to us when we greet one another as fully human? This, says Margaret Wheatley, is an important question as we struggle through this dark time.
We need to remember the fact of human goodness.
Of course, human goodness seems like an outrageous "fact," since every day we are confronted by evidence of the great harm we so easily do to one another. We are numbed by the genocide, ethnic hatred and individual violence committed daily in the world. Of the 240 or so nations in the world, nearly a quarter are currently at war.
In our daily life, we encounter people who are angry and deceitful, intent only on satisfying their own needs. There is so much anger, distrust, greed and pettiness that we are losing our capacity to work well together, and many of us are more withdrawn and distrustful than ever. Yet this incessant display of what is worst in us makes it essential that we believe in human goodness. Without that belief, there really is no hope.
There is nothing equal to human creativity, caring and will. We can be incredibly generous, imaginative and open-hearted. We can do the impossible, learn and change quickly, and extend instant compassion to those in distress. And these are not behaviors we keep hidden. We exhibit them daily.
How often during a day do you figure out an answer to a problem, invent a slightly better way of doing something, or extend yourself to someone in need? Then look around at your colleagues and neighbors, and you'll see others acting just like you—people trying to make a contribution and help others.
In these times of turmoil, we have forgotten who we can be and we have let our worst natures prevail. Some of these bad behaviors we create because we treat people in non-human ways. We've organized work around destructive motivations-greed, self-interest and competition-and taken the very things that make us human—our emotions, imagination and need for meaning-and dismissed them as unimportant. We've found it more convenient to treat humans as replaceable parts in the machinery of production.
After years of being bossed around, of being told they're inferior, of power plays that destroy lives, most people are cynical and focused only on self-protection. Who wouldn't be? This negativity and demoralizatoin is created by the organizing and governance methods in use. People cannot be discounted or used only for someone else's benefit. If obedience and compliance are the primary values, these destroy creativity, commitment and generosity. Whole cultures and generations have been deadened by such coercion.
But people's reaction to coercion tells us a great deal about the goodness of the human spirit. The horrors of the twentieth century show us the worst of human nature and the very best. How do you feel when you hear stories of those who wouldn't give in, who remained generous and offered compassion to others in the midst of personal horror? The human spirit is nearly impossible to extinguish. Few of us can listen to these stories and remain cynical. We are hungry for these tales-they remind us of what it means to be fully human. We always want to hear more.
To examine our beliefs about human goodness is not merely a philosophical inquiry. These beliefs are critical to what we do in the world; they lead us either to action or retreat. Courageous acts aren't done by people who believe in human badness. Why risk anything if we don't believe in each other? Why stand up for anyone if we don't believe they're worth saving? Who you think I am will determine what you are willing to do on my behalf. You won't even notice me if you believe that I am less than you are.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught about the relationship between our beliefs about each other and our willingness to act courageously. He defined our present historic time as a dark age, because we are poisoned by self-doubt and thus have become cowards. In his teachings and work, as Pema Chödrön describes them, he aspired to bring about an era of courage in which people could experience their goodness and extend themselves to others.
Oppression never occurs between equals. Tyranny always arises from the belief that some people are more human than others. There is no other way to justify inhumane treatment, except to assume that the pain experienced by the oppressed is not the same as ours.
I saw this clearly in post-apartheid South Africa. In hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, white South Africans listened to black mothers grieving over the loss of their children to violence, to wives weeping for their tortured husbands, to black maids crying for the children they left behind when they went to work for white families. As the grief of these women and men became public, many white South Africans for the first time saw black South Africans as equally human. In the years of apartheid, they had justified their mistreatment of blacks by assuming that the suffering of blacks was not equal to theirs; they had assumed that blacks were not fully human.
What becomes available to us when we greet one another as fully human? This is an important question as we struggle through this dark time.
In my own organization, we've been experimenting with two values that keep us focused on what is best about us humans. The first value is, "We rely on human goodness." In conversations, even with strangers, we assume that they want from their life what we want from ours: a chance to help others, to learn, to be recognized, to find meaning. We have not been disappointed.
Our second value is, "We assume good intent." We try to stop from developing any storyline about another's motivation. We assume there must be a good reason why they did something that may be hurtful or foolish. It takes mindfulness to stop the stream of judgments that pour from our lips, but when we can stop them, we have been well rewarded. People's motives usually are good, even when they look hurtful or stupid. And if we pause long enough to ask them what they intended, there is another benefit-we develop a better relationship with them. Working together becomes easier.
I encourage you to try simple practices like these. For the dark times to end, we need to rely as never before on our fundamental and precious human goodness.
Margaret Wheatley, Ed.D., writes, teaches and speaks about radically new practices and ideas for organizing in chaotic times. She is president of The Berkana Institute and author of Leadership and the New Science, and A Simpler Way, co-authored with Myron Kellner-Rogers.
Working with Human Goodness, Margaret Wheatley, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.
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