Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Yoga as Digestive Aid

Years ago I celebrated New Years with some friends in Calcutta. It was an interesting experience in so many ways, not the least of which was the opportunity to view the contents of our cultures from the inside out. After finishing another delicious meal, my host, Mr. Shivcharan Babu, offered me a digestive aid. It seemed curious to think of the contents of the gilded, silver box as anything besides tasty mints, but the choice of words was obviously deliberate.

In the West, we tend to view food’s health-giving potential in terms of its nutritional content. We strive to choose the foods packing the biggest nutritional wallop (superfoods), and go to great lengths to ensure their freshness.

I find many of my Indian friends, on the other hand, have little interest in fresh vegetables, and find discussing the relative nutritional merits of food quite puzzling. Why focus on what’s in the food (the external) when you can focus on our body’s capacity to extract the available nutrients from whatever it is we eat (the inner)? We find this worldview presents itself with regards to food, as well as the other layers of our being.

This focus on the outer is particularly apparent in our uniquely American approach to yogic teachings. We tend to focus on their nutritional content (magnetism of the teacher, popularity of the teachings, etc.) rather than the importance of healthy digestion. Digestion, however, is imperative in both food and learning. We can eat the most nutritious foods, from the finest local, organic source. But unless our digestion is hearty & healthy, most of the nutrition passes through our GI tract without nourishing our cells. In learning yoga, unless we take the time to digest the teachings, we’re only penetrating the outer shell of this most magnificent tradition.

What do I mean by digesting? To a certain extent, a healthy degree of skepticism. Our responsibility as learners is not to soak up the teachings like thirsty sponges, but to take in the teachings, chew on them for awhile, and then make the most important discernment: What part of this teaching will I swallow, and what part will I pass through? We tend to focus on the former, but the latter is of primary importance if we’re going to truly comprehend the yogic path.

One of India’s modern saints, Morari Bapu, emphasized this discernment in his recent teachings in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bapu enjoys the most unique role as spiritual advisor to millions of people across India and the world. At his Ram Katha (spiritual services) you find thousands of people hanging on his every word, eager to follow his capable spiritual leadership. Bapu’s response? Reminding us of the latent ignorance within this approach. "Think for yourself," he reminds us. That’s not our task, but our duty – to be involved learners, and not simply parrots.

What does this have to do with your yoga practice? Having taught yoga workshops across the US, I find poor digestion not only present in the body, but also in the mind. To repeat the exhortations of your teachers without proper digestion spreads all their ideas, both good and bad. It's easy to take refuge in the belief that your teacher's ideas are all good - though with rare exception, that's wishful thinking. We find a handful of magnetic, charismatic teachers have risen to great prominence in the past decades, and their ideas have spread like wildfire. Have you taken the time and energy to digest these teachings, or taken them on without discernment? These teachers may offer a commanding presence, and they often tell us exactly the right way to do things. This can provide us the sheltered comfort we perhaps missed in our childhood, but it’s not far removed from religious fundamentalism. Unless we digest the teachings we’re presented, we can easily fall into the rut fundamentalism, so easy to recognize in others but not in ourselves.

My suggestion? Whether it’s my teachings or anybody else’s, listen carefully. Try the ideas for awhile – even if you don’t like them. Having given these new ideas a good run (weeks, not days) you have a fork in the road. Do you assimilate these ideas into your personal experience, or let them pass through into compost? Like in the planet's ecosystems, there’s no waste here. What we compost becomes food for new plants, and letting go of teachings doesn’t imply they’re bad. They’re just not your teachings.

Go well, go lightly, and don’t forget to smell the flowers.
-Gary Snyder


Jeff said...

Very nutritious food for thought here, Scott. And very timely, having just returned from a 10 day feast of ideas at the Himalayan Institute (following close on the 5 excellent days with you). Truly yoga is the science of self and everything must be questioned within those individual confines.

I'm new to the blog format, but it seems very promising. Your essays are very nicely done and useful.


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