Monday, November 9, 2015

teaching Bodhiyoga, taking my place in the lineage of the Buddha

In teaching Bodhiyoga, I am both taking my place in a lineage and becoming a pioneer. I draw on the yoga lineage, alive from the time of the Buddha and long before, of investigating and transforming the energy of the body and mind. More specifically, I draw on the modern yoga tradition; most of our familiar asanas (postures and movements) have only been practised since the early 20th Century. I also am part of the lineage of the Buddha and his explicit teachings of how to work with the mind. To bring these two traditions together, to keep the emphasis on spiritual enquiry, and to allow the practice to constantly change and flow is the work of a pioneer.

The Buddha taught that the Dharma (the path of truth he discovered) is ehi pahsiko: come and see for yourself. Bodhiyoga also encourages this experiential approach, both in my training as a teacher and in passing on teachings to my students. Bodhiyoga is not a style of yoga; our founders Sadhita and Sudaka do not claim to have created what they have taught us, nor have they copyrighted any movements or sequences. Instead, they’ve drawn on their substantial experience of yoga asana and their Buddhist practice to develop an approach to yoga. Bodhiyoga is founded on basic Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and principles of safety to encourage exploration. Often in training I would ask, ‘Am I doing this right?’ After ensuring I wasn’t in any danger of harming my body, they would respond with questions: ‘what is your purpose in the pose?’ or ‘what sensations are you experiencing?’ The emphasis on self-enquiry and on a critical exploration are hallmarks of their approach.

The three main concepts that infuse my teaching of Bodhiyoga are sati (mindfulness), metta (lovingkindness) and receptivity. We can hear a lot about ‘being mindful’, but often I think: what are we being mindful of? Again, the benefit from the Buddha’s clarity: he taught the satipatthana, the four foundations of mindfulness, which I often describe as ‘spheres of awareness’. First, we are mindful of kaya (the body): where are we placing our foot, our hip, our shoulder, our arm? Then, we are mindful of vedana (sensations in the body): is there pain, do we need to move? Is there discomfort to breathe through? Is there openness and groundedness? Next, we are mindful of citta, emotions and mood: are we contented, energised, critical, vulnerable, expansive? Finally, we are mindful of dhammas (thoughts): can we turn our distraction of what we’re doing later, when we’ll eat, who we’ll see to reflection on the impermanence of life? These reflections inform our asana and give clear instructions of how to investigate our felt experience, beyond an outward shape or posture.

The most transformative of the Buddha’s teachings is metta, lovingkindness. I often translate this term as appropriateness: becoming aware of and respecting the limits of our body on any given day. Quite simply, we practice metta when we don’t push ourselves and injure our body. But it goes deeper than the body, contacting each of the satipatthanas; metta infuses our being so that we can breathe through our sensations with gentleness, hold our emotions with kindness to ease critical voices, and observe our thoughts with curiosity bereft of judgement. So when we come into a difficult pose, we take care of the bend in our knee and the curve of the spine, breathe through the tense knot in our shoulder, acknowledge our frustration at being stiff whilst noticing our joy of balancing on one foot, and observe the thought of ‘am I doing this right?’ before letting it drop away.

Finally, receptivity allows us to open up to what our body and mind have to teach us, rather than telling them what we want them to do. Often we start with ideas of a posture or views of what we want it to look like, and we need these instructions to begin. But as our practice develops, we can open up to our experience and reverse the trajectory. We can allow the posture to affect the body and mind, and cultivate curiosity and openness as we investigate those effects.

Teaching Bodhiyoga synthesises the two lineages of the Buddha’s teachings and modern yoga asana. I teach at the Norwich Buddhist Centre, which allows a cohesiveness of approach, and I enjoy watching my students develop interest in meditation and Buddhism. Those who sign up for courses or attend drop-in meditation classes return to yoga with deeper understanding of their minds, which suffuses their posture practice with awareness and kindness. We finish each of my classes with a recitation, a dedication of our practice, and I’m humbled and happy to see students taking it to heart as they bring their yoga practice into the world: ‘May our mindfulness and our actions, both on and off the mat and cushion, benefit ourselves and all beings. May our actions be imbued with metta. May we meet our challenges with strength. May we all be well and happy.’

Thursday, April 2, 2015

not a paperback kind of girl

I rarely buy hardcovers. I can count on one hand how many I've purchased in my life (I can still feel the weight of Grisham's The Runaway Jury on my belly as I read late into the late 1990s night). Certainly lately, as a Buddhist trying to move away from covetousness and all-out greed, steering clear of paying over £15 for a book suits my attempt at living a simplified life. Borrowing books is good, from friends or the library (although then I can't mark them up or make notes in the margins). Finding a used copy on the internet saves resources (although I get into dodgy ethical territory when I sign onto tax-dodging Buying a paperback is cheaper, allowing me to (allegedly) direct more of my income towards donations to charities and Big Issue purchases.

But there's another side to this argument, and it has to do with loving reading, and it has to do with the sensuality of books, and it has to do with supporting local bookshops. And a little to do with delighting in Lena Dunham. Dunham is my hero, a woman almost six years my junior whose prose and person delight me and lighten the load of my self-loathing. She's written a book, and it came out in September 2014, and it still hasn't been released in paperback. After being on a two-week retreat during which a slew of suppressed early-adulthood-martini-drenched memories surfaced, I knew I couldn't wait any longer to read it.

When I decide it's time to buy a brand new book, I go to The Book Hive. Norwich's independent bookstore, they have everything you want (including a Wes Anderson photobook I now have my eye on), and if they don't, they'll get it delivered by the next day. They give you a stamp on a loyalty card when you spend over £10. When I buy a book there, I'm doing three things:

1. I'm patronising the place itself, saying yes I want you to exist, I want to be able to walk in here and find piles of books with beautiful covers, climb up a curving staircase, sit down or kneel or squat to reach a shelf and find something to flip through, to remember a bit what it's like to be in Shakespeare and Company or Topping and Company.

2. I'm supporting the staff, saying yes I want you to be paid to be here, to share your knowledge of reading and writing and words, your banter and your slightly-intimidating eyewear.

3. I'm keeping my money in Norwich, not flitting off to an off-shore tax-free account or out of the country.

How much did all this cost me? Well, anywhere from £5.10 to £7.53. Dunham's book cost £11.89 direct from Amazon, or £9.46 if I had it shipped brand new from the US. I could have spent the rest of the afternoon dreaming of the coffee and cake I could have had for £5.10, or thinking about how £7.53 is almost the cost of a movie at Cinema City. But instead I think of it as a separate purchase, a mini-investment on its own, one that I decided to make in conjunction with the book. The Book Hive gets some of it, and also the publishers, editors, office staff, typesetters, and Dunham herself. My partner reminds me, "We tend to make our decisions as consumers, not as workers. We only work in one context, but we consume in all kinds of contexts; we want our work to be valued, but we don't consider the workers who create what we want to consume." I do value the craft required to build a book, to design the cover, to find the words and put them in the right order and choose the paper on which they're printed. I value those who pack the books and bring them to this lovely shop on London Street; I value the space and the solace; and I value the workers who wait there for us to come and patronise.

Which led me to wonder: how much of all of this infrastructure is dependent on hardback revenue? What would have happened if I'd waited for the book to come out in paperback?  Much cheaper for me, of course, but then who takes the hit when the price comes down? I vaguely understood that the mark-up on a hardback was more than a paperback, but percentages and figures alluded me. The chap at The Book Hive explained that further print runs are determined in part by how well the book sells as a hardback. So again, I'm supporting my dear Ms Dunham by purchasing now rather than later. I also found this helpful article from sci-fi author Brandon Sanderson that articulates how royalties to the author are generally higher for hardbacks, both percentage-wise and dollar/pound-wise. So all the above arguments hold, but with double the money for all those involved. Rather than scraping by on paperback royalties, perhaps I can accord the authors the income they're due by choosing to buy more hardcovers.

I've got my eye on Amy Poehler's Yes, Please. Miranda July's The First Bad Man. The Wes Anderson Collection. And perhaps I can read them sooner rather than later, not because it's indulgent, lavish and cowing to craving, but because the money supports the work of people I aspire to emulate, places I want to exist in the world, and provides a tangible and comforting weight on my belly in bed at night.