Stewarding Shakti: An antidote to blissed-out yoga

With the recent news of the Anusara community (regarding John Friend), I am moved to write an article that has been stewing inside me for some time.  Basically, the bliss-monster of Anusara has erupted into a big mess of sorts.

I think it is mainly ethical issues on the part of John Friend and certain others within that community.  Some reports of sexual misconduct mainly…some financial misconduct and some other points that have been made in the hot-linked article above.

I have always had one foot in and one foot out in the Anusara community when I lived in San Francisco.  I mostly only knew of Anusara because my main teacher, Katchie Ananda, eventually started teaching Anusara principles in class.

I had followed Katchie from the well-known Yoga Tree to a cooperatively run, newly organized yoga studio called Yoga Sangha.  I started to practice there and loved the collaborative energy.  Around the time that I started to teach yoga in that studio, it was purchased by Yoga Kula (an Anusara studio in Berkeley).  The funky, self-sufficient vibe of Yoga Sangha definitely started to change.  However, I still remained a participant…although peripherally.

I was starting to get stars in my eyes with the Anusara community.  I could feel it…  And, this freaked me out.  I couldn’t understand how community could cost so much.  And, I was asking myself…is this what the spiritual path is like?  Can I just buy my way through it?

A heavy rock began to grow in my belly.  And, around the time that I began teaching…a relationship with a boyfriend had ended that was simply grueling.  Many elements were coalescing in my life asking me to go inward and ask deeper questions of myself, my path…and what I considered or understood to be ‘spiritual.’

Even though my apprenticeship with my main teacher was a life-line for me during this time (providing adjustments during her classes, monthly calls, deepening my inquiries into the nature of the practice)…I discovered that my personal practice was way more enriching (although much more challenging!) than any studio classes.  And, this has been the case for the past 2 1/2 years…

I have been asking myself — why do I do this.  What is this?  What is a yoga asana practice?  What is real and what is performance?  What is exercise and what is coming home to live in my body?

So far, my authentic expression of being in my body and in my practice…is…when no one is looking (and, it’s when it is the hardest…to meet myself over and over again and listen to what I really need).

Concerning the Anusara community, I think this excerpt from a recent blog sums it up well (click here for the full article, a good read):

“The actual process of spiritual evolution is not very marketable. It is not quick. It is not sexy. It is a blood-and-guts process of trial and error. Trial and error isn’t very packagable. But it is wonderful and it’s fruit is so beautiful. Sadhana is true, the path of healing and freedom is true. And it must be true, and it must be thorough. We were the ones who put the infant sensations of the day in their positions. Now we “in the kula” get to learn from this and walk forward.”

I sense that as far as communities go in America, we have really lost the ritual, sweetness, and resiliency of what it means to be in community with each other; we have lost a sense of trust.  Spiritual communities and groups of like interest are simply examples of how we try over and over again — to create a connection with each other…in the context of a country that has a huge power imbalance and a brutal, and exploitative history (both environmentally and culturally).

Therefore, there are many aspects of ourselves and each other that need to be acknowledged and confronted in such an intimate process as community-making.  Yoga is obviously not an exception to this pattern of boom-bust communities…

I would like to rehash some basics of yoga over the next several paragraphs to outline why I think an ethical starting point in anyone’s practice is necessary.  So, please amuse me by reading through things methodically if you can.

Technically, we are always in a yogic process…  Yoga is about creating union or yoking — yoking our material self with the spiritual self.  You can also call this — creating union between Shiva and Shakti (the masculine and feminine aspects of ourselves).  I feel that we are doing this all the time.  And, there are a number of practices to help us find balance (asana or postures, pranayama or breath-work, mudras or hand gestures, mantras or chants, and devotional singing).

If you think about it, most of these tools we learn one way or the other throughout our lives.  I remember many friends saying that they learned something ‘yogic’ with a track coach who taught him breath-work to run long distances…  A music teacher can teach devotional songs or something that brings out inspiration.  A powerful hand gesture or movement can take place while a modern dancer plans her performance.  And, just sitting in a natural setting with mindfulness can bring about deep clarity.

No one needs to teach you these things.  Sometimes you arrive at them.  However, getting affirmation from a teacher sometimes helps.

So then, what’s the big deal with yoga?  I have no idea, really.

Ok……………………I have some ideas.  Yoga is obviously hitting a strong nerve with the Western world.  Yoga is teaching us tools about breath, connection, and presence.  Yeah. We could use some of that here in the modern world.

Personally, I think it has become another bliss amusement ride for folks.  As friend and author, Ramesh Bjonnes recently wrote in an article, “There is a tendency among blissed-out yogis to deny or escape our own distress, sorrow, pain, dissatisfaction, our innate Avidya Shakti.”  Avidya Shakti has to do with the difficulties of our lower chakras — the lower energy centers that deal with our tribal affiliation, sense of worth, our sexuality, the senses, matters within our families, deeps-seated fears, anger, and other difficult areas to traverse.

Frank Jude Boccio speaks of this bliss high as well with his practice in a recent blog entry (and I can relate):

“When I first read about the Buddha’s dissatisfaction with the failure of his practice to fundamentally change his experience of daily life, I instantly recognized the similarity to my own experience — how wonderfully calm and peaceful I felt after yoga practice, and yet how all too soon I fell back into the suffering of craving and aversion. And when I became a yoga teacher, I saw how many students seemed to have similar experiences. They would leave class blissed out, but as soon as they got “caught up in the world of their senses” they found themselves back amid their anxious lives — from blissed out to stressed out.”

I remember my teacher for many years, Katchie Ananda, cautioning us many times in class.  She said that many people get into a spiritual path because of the chance for bliss or enlightenment.  However, she says, more of the work we have to do is in our lower chakras where things are mucky, confronting, and sticky (yet, deeply transforming!) — this where Mara resides (things of the material world that can either set you free or delude you).

I feel that Katchie is right…  With the example of John Friend and the Anusara community — it is proven yet again…that we must learn to consult the shadow side of any interest, activity, or spiritual path and know it well before walking on it (or, consistently bringing these aspects into awareness along the path).  Of course, we need to shed this light onto our own shadows, as well.

And, believe me…it’s not just the Anusara community.  It has been many others over time — the Zen community of San Francisco, the Catholic Church, various proclaimed communities within Christianity, and numerous other examples across all kinds of faiths, hobbies, sports, governments, empires, and other things of great interest and magnetism.   What is the theme?  Power…  Abuse of power…

This is where ‘stewarding shakti’ comes in…  What is Shakti?  Shakti is the primordial power of creation; the cycle of creation and destruction — birth and death.  What is Shiva?  Shiva is the absolute — the unchanging and the ever-present abiding inside us all and around us all.  In yoga, they say that Shakti wishes to unite with Shiva…ending the cycle of death and birth as one dissolves into absolute consciousness.  (For a more detailed and quite good explanation of the energies of Shiva and Shakti, please read this article — highly recommended!)

There is a natural desire for these two forces of masculine and feminine to be with each other…they tend to dance around each other a lot.   To me, no matter what — if they unite or not…if they find eternal bliss together or not…  It is simply a good thing to steward your Shakti as she journeys through your being.  I will get into how to do this later in the article.

They say that Shakti resides coiled at the base of your spine and that Shiva resides in the top of your skull.  Unfortunate, isn’t it?  They really are so far apart…  They also say that Shakti travels up (and then down, and up again, and down again) the spine at times (through yogic practice, by chance, or in a methodical, steady progression).  On her way up the central energy channel she encounters obstructions (or places that need to be paid attention to; places of challenge that require personal insight).  Sometimes we can experience these things without knowing — and this is a brutal experience because we do not know what is happening.  Sometimes this happens in a setting with a good guide — someone trained in helping someone clear such obstructions.

Why does one go through something like this?  Who the hell knows!  However, yoga teaches you…that if you sense that there is such a thing as karma …in summary — the principle of cause and effect…it would be a good thing to learn how to be in right relationship with yourself and the world.  Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, karma teaches us about relationships…and how to make choices that support the cultivation of wholesome karma.  By working with the difficulties of our lower chakras (that Shakti illuminates), we use the principle of karma to show us how to be in balance with ourselves and the world.  (Next, I will   explain the ethics of Yamas and Niyamas…however, without understanding the law of karma…one would find it difficult and irrelevant to contemplate the ethics of the Yamas and Niyamas).

This brings me back to stewarding Shakti.  It is a big deal that Shakti is moving within us and illuminating all kinds of difficult stuff  like fear, anger, lust, jealousy, etc etc.  And, we need good guides for this.  That is why I would like to make a heralding cry out to the yoga community for the importance of emphasizing the first two limbs of the 8 limbs of yoga (the yamas and niyamas; ethics of yoga).  It is no mistake that these two are the first two of the 8 limbs.  To me, it signifies their importance.  To me, the yamas and niyamas teach us ‘right relationship’ with ourselves and others (isn’t this what all great traditions teach us?).  Once someone has a decent handle of these two limbs and are given the ethical tools so that they can refer back to them during their spiritual journey, they are ready to learn the other limbs.  For example, here are the first Yamas (Universal Morality):

1. Ahimsa – Compassion for all living things
The word ahimsa literally mean not to injure or show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way whatsoever. Ahimsa is, however, more than just lack of violence as adapted in yoga. It means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. It also has to do with our duties and responsibilities too. Ahimsa implies that in every situation we should adopt a considerate attitude and do no harm.

2. Satya – Commitment to Truthfulness 
Satya means “to speak the truth,” yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth on all occasions, for it could harm someone unnecessarily. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, then it is better to say nothing. Satya should never come into conflict with our efforts to behave with ahimsa. This precept is based on the understanding that honest communication and action form the bedrock of any healthy relationship, community, or government, and that deliberate deception, exaggerations, and mistruths harm others.

Why are the yamas and niyamas important?  Well, things like asana (postures) and pranayama (breath-work) amplify the energy and movement of Shakti.  When Shakti’s energy is built up and unleashed…and if you are not skilled with the right tools — she’ll knock you down (and other people, creatures and places, too).   To me, it is wise to sharpen your tools before you dive into the forest of your past lives and your karmic tendencies.  Believe me, I speak from experience.

To me, Shakti is like a precious and wild flower opening…  There is really no need to rush her or provoke her.  She will do what she needs to do when she is ready to.  All we can do is practice our ethics, water her, nourish her, and protect her preciousness.

Another way to support Shakti is through sadhana…  Yogic elder, Maya Tawari describes sadhana:

“…wholesome activities practiced in accordance with the cyclical rhythms of nature; sacred practices that honor Mother Consciousness; healthful, joyous response to life…”

In her book, “Women’s Power to Heal,” she lays out various forms of sadhana such as observing the lunar cycle, preparing fresh food and grinding your own spices, drinking herbal teas, and lighting a candle on your altar in the morning to greet the day.  There are traditional sadhanas (that Tawari describes in her book) and untraditional sadhanas like taking a walk to clear the mind, taking a swim in a river, doing light stretches in the morning or evening, using natural products to clean parts of hour house, etc.  All of these things steward Shakti and steward the preciousness of life.  In such wholesome conditions, Shakti only blooms at a rate that we can handle her (well, the best as we can)…

This is not easy for people to understand in modern times.  The norm is brutal, aggressive, rushed, full of haste, and impatient.  I know this, because these things surface in me as well.  I feel that when we are caught by these things — Shakti and the preciousness of life are simply run over.  And, all this does is make Shakti want to lash back — and she will.  Sometimes we are the victim of our own haste and narrow-mindedness…  Many times, we fall victim to other’s haste and narrow-mindedness.  It is still the same substance.  And, how we decide to face this kind of energy really lays the ground for future situations.  We can fall into a chain of reactionary living…or we can sharpen our tools…nourish the ground that we walk on…

How do we do this?  We gather our heart and find our center through slowing down…  Breathing in and out…  Taking our time…  Cultivating a life that is rich in sadhana.

To me, the world of blissed out yoga exercise classes can be harmful as much as it is helpful.  Is yoga simply a place we can act out our areas of unskillfulness?  Or, is it a practice that helps us live a richer and more wholesome life?  Is it simply a fine line that we walk between these two?

The answer…is for each of us to decide.  What we feed inside ourselves, of course, will dominate our mind and being.  I personally would like to create and live in a world with less unnecessary suffering.  This is a foundational aspect of my spiritual practice.  I also practice to cultivate nourishment and protection of the preciousness of life.

Again, the first ethic of the first limb (which are the Yamas) of the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga is ahimsa — do no harm.  Also, this is the only rule of White Witchcraft — do no harm.  One of the main teachings of Jesus Christ is to do no harm.  To me, this tenant is one of the most basic tenants we can all live by.  If we take this tenant on in our personal life, we learn to be in constant dialogue with it.  We peel back layers as the years go by…seeing how we have deceived ourselves and others, how we have caused harm to ourselves and others…and we realize that we are all connected; that anything I do relates to you and other beings.

This is the path with heart.  This is the courage to live.

I write this article because of my appreciation for yoga and what it has done for me. A friend introduced me to yoga in 2002, roughly.  Yoga provided me with a means to get out of a cycle of panic attacks and anxiety that was just debilitating.

Yoga has helped me work through my own personal apocalypse and dark night of the soul…so I am grateful.  Meditation has also been key for dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions.  These things along with sadhanas relating to seasonal awareness, proper diet, and a practice of gratitude have developed from my inquiry into yoga and into stewarding my own Shakti energy.

So there is something to yoga.  There is something about finding a way to be in our bodies that is deeply restoring.

I’ll close with this…if a yoga space or teacher helps you become more at home in yourself…keep walking that path.  If they take you out of your center or harm you in any way…walk the other way…

“We are all healed.  We heal in life.  We heal in death.  We heal in rebirth.  And ultimately, we heal into consciousness.”  ~ Maya Tawari

4 thoughts on “Stewarding Shakti: An antidote to blissed-out yoga

  1. Lindsay, you’ve written a wonderful essay here.

    I just wanted to comment that while my blog piece you link to was posted on Feb 5th, it was not at all a response to the ethical “scandal” rocking the Anusara kula! In fact, I was responding to a very specific comment from Elena Brower’s blog about a theme I have been concerned about for many years: the apparent denial or avoidance of the reality of duhkha that I see as permeating contemporary yoga in general, though for sure to what I saw as a psychopathological extent in the Anusara kula.

    I studied with John from the mid-90s through the early part of last decade, and by the time my book came out in 2004, I was already concerned that John — and the Anusara ‘culture’ he was creating — was turning a blind eye to a very important aspect of life. My whole blog is an extended essay in complete sympathy with the quote you include above from Ramesh.

    I’m commenting because the timing of my piece with the revelation of John’s ethical breech may lead others to believe my piece is in response to that and thus they may overlook what I think is a much more relevant and important thesis.

    If we want our yoga practice to be truly liberating, we must have the virya to confront the shadow — not to destroy it but to learn ways to integrate it and, as Stephen Batchelor has written, learn how to live with the devil.

    In the mythic story of the buddha, upon awakening he defeats Mara not by destroying him, but just by recognizing him! For 40 years after his awakening, the Buddha was often visited by Mara, and his response was always the same: “I know you, Mara.” With awakened awareness, our lives are not ruled and determined by Mara. But first, we must admit to his existence!

    Thanks again!
    in metta
    poep sa frank jude

    • Thanks for the explanation, Frank… I think your article fits in well with this blog… I will find a better place to link to your article in the narrative above… And I agree, admitting to the existence of Mara is key to spiritual growth… I found Anusara through Katchie Ananda… I always liked how she helped us work through our shadows…forgiveness practices…Tong-len (spelling?)…and such… She always led us through the mud with such elegance…it was hard for me to find this in any other class or spiritual setting at the time…where it didn’t feel forced, but quite natural actually. And, this is what I brought into my life as well…facing the darkness one day at a time.

  2. Oh yes…I just realized that I put Maya instead of Mara in the text… Mara is what I meant…thanks for clarifying in such a subtle way.

  3. Beautifully written, Lindsay. I think it is important that we choose our teachers carefully and that we remember that ultimately we are our own teachers. GURU… Gee, you are You.
    We must remember also that the ability to perform “advanced asana” or to recite words and prayers in sanskrit and take on a leader role do not mean a person is spiritually advanced.
    Self practice and turning in is The Direction. Whether through gardening, mothering, mantra or asana. There are many paths within.

    I love the words of Anandamyee Ma. “In whatever state He keeps anyone at any time it is all for the good, for verily everything is ordained by Him, is of Him.”

    Perhaps we can keep this in mind when we are quick to judge the actions of others.


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