Forms of Freedom: Yoga Shanti Focus Of The Month by Keely Rakushin Garfield

A while ago, I went to the zendo where I regularly practice meditation and, donning my robes and grabbing a cushion, headed into the meditation hall to sit. Instead of being greeted by the familiar neat rows of cushions and fellow practitioners sitting quietly, everything and everyone was all over the place. Ignoring my puzzled expression, my teacher abruptly instructed me to “Just sit anywhere.” I found an open space and carefully arranged myself on my pillow, settling in. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I was determined to focus and embrace silence and stillness.

As soon as I had found my first few breaths, my peace of mind was interrupted. Instead of the usual melodious bells that indicated it was time for the sangha to rise and join in kinhin—walking meditation—there was a solitary loud wooden “clack.” We all stumbled to our feet, blinking into the fluorescent lights that had not yet been dimmed to set the mood. Still hopeful that order might be restored, I placed my hands in gassho in front of my fragmented heart.

“Just walk anywhere,” my teacher said, and began traipsing around casually. The mindful ballet we perform with each other in perfect lines was at once transformed into a crazy jig. It was like trying to navigate a clear path through Grand Central Station at rush hour with the cacophony of voices in your head providing irritated accompaniment: “Get out of my way, stupid!”

When my teacher said, “OK, you can sit down,” I was not near my spot, and so I had to sit on someone else’s cushion, which was too high, too firm, and too near the fan! I wondered if somehow I was in an episode of Stranger Things, and had slipped into the Upside Down. Then my teacher’s gentle tone resumed: “OK, that’s enough of that. Let’s reset the temple!”

We talked, then, about forms and ritual and their roles and importance in cultivating concentration and transforming practice. Form creates a container inside of which you can let go of anything that is not relevant to practice. The practice itself is illuminated as distractions take a back seat. The distractions are still present—they are all still my teachers—but they potentially lose some definition as the bigger picture comes into view.

Today, when I came into the yoga studio to teach, my students were dutifully lined up in rows, yoga mats cheek by jowl, blankets and blocks neatly stacked alongside. Unceremoniously, I asked everyone to get up and go put their yoga mats somewhere else—maybe behind the column or on top of someone else’s mat or facing the “wrong” way. I said, “Put your props out of reach.”

You know where I’m going, but they didn’t. Some looked confused, some annoyed, some excited.

“OK, sirsanasana,” I said, “or maybe hanumanasana.” Some looked like they might cry. Before anyone could move, I said, “OK, let’s reset the temple!” Svaha!

Krama is a Sanskrit word that denotes a thoughtful sequence of events, or step-by-step process by which we approach each asana, gradually developing knowledge and intimacy with the poses. This approach ultimately leads us to encounter ourselves as whole and connected—we experience the interrelated and evolving nature of the asanas and recognize that we, too, are interrelated and evolving. Paradoxically, it’s our observance of order, of sequence, of ritual, of form, that serves to bring us face-to-face with the formless—with pure possibility. Desikachar describes this awareness as having “no form, no gender, no qualities, no features.” Perhaps this is what moksha, or real freedom, is.

Back on track in class, the students moved through a series of poses preparing for hanumanasana. Now that they did not have to worry about where their mat or props were, or if they could trust their teacher to guide them safely and soundly through the practice, they were able to concentrate and relax: sthirum sukham asanamum! Each one was now held in the secure arms of the structure and sequence, and consequently able to add their own divine flair. One student said afterwards that they better understood how all the parts of yoga related to each other. That it felt good to be organized, and that it helped them pay attention to their practice. I think it also made everyone more sensitive to each other.

As a teacher, I now notice more and more a kind of resistance among many students to what I shall call the way of yoga—the form. It’s all very loosey-goosey, downward-doggy, or whatever flight-of-fancy pose they like, regardless of the teacher’s careful directions. Blocks mostly get used as mini-altars for iPhones, or trays for coffee and green juice.

It used to be a point of pride to fold your blanket nicely at the end of class and store it neatly for the sangha sister or brother who might use it next. It used to be a thing to sit up when the teacher entered the room, and to do the little bow at the conclusion of the practice together. “Namaste,” we’d say, “the light within me honors the light in you.” I wonder, have the lights gone out?

I think not. Krishnamacharya, the father of vinyasa yoga, literally met his students at the gate, and after guiding them through practice, accompanied them back to the gate. It was more than a formality. Like Krishnamacharya, I want to travel with my students barefoot along the path of liberation. I want to be a braver and more compassionate teacher. It is not enough to simply link the poses together. It is also my responsibility to demonstrate the connection between folding my blankets, and offering a blanket to someone who needs it. The way of yoga extends beyond the boundary of the yoga studio’s doors.

On the train home, I witnessed an old man with a cane stand and give his seat to a young girl with a heavy package. He insisted. She smiled and sat down. The ceremony of offering and accepting a seat had a certain formality to it, but seeing this made me feel as free as a bird.

Savasana: Yoga Shanti Focus of the Month by Keely Rakushin Garfield

Once upon a time, I went to a party. There were a lot of other yogis in attendance, and after a good amount of apple cider and vegan carrot cake, merriment was at a high point. Someone asked, "What’s the hardest pose?," and the challenge was on: One by one, the yogis proceeded to demonstrate their definitive answers, showing off really hard stuff — visvamitrasana, vatayasana, and mukta hasta sirsanana. (Look, Ma! No hands!)

Biding my time, I waited until the shenanigans had peaked, and then made my move. Ceremoniously, I lay down, feet a little apart, arms a few inches from my sides with my palms upturned, chin gently regarding my chest, ears equidistant to each other. Within me, I beheld my breath, and let my muscles fall away from my bones. As a finale, I disappeared completely. Well, so to speak. Recognizing a slam-dunk, the enlightened company at once exclaimed, "Savasana! Of course! The hardest pose of them all!" I rest my case.

As I write this, I am in England with my family. Too soon to coin it “recently,” my father passed away on October 11th. Safe to say, he has reached his final rest.

Today I wandered out on the Downs and lay in the grass. I arranged myself as comfortably as I could, including all of the asymmetry in my body, my mind, and my heart. I scanned from head to toe, looking for something other than the natural lop-sidedness of things. I was searching for a sense of evenness, or sama — a Sanskrit word that essentially means “same,” or “equal.” Since everything is marked by impermanence, and moment-to-moment the world spins, what is it that remains the same?

Savasana offers us a glimpse of an unperturbed place — in Rumi’s words, “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing” — where we may subtly perceive the deep mystery of our being. We realize the miracle of our existence — a state of grace, actually. Lying on the earth under the sky, nothing added, nothing taken away. There is no more practice, no one to practice. You have arrived. You are the practice.

Still lying in savasana, I opened my eyes. Just above, a swarm of late-fall fruit flies circled my head, vying with each other for my attention. I pursed my lips and blew a long, reluctant exhale toward them. My breath, becoming one with the wind, dispersed the flies. I had a vision of being dead, and coming back to life. Savasana, or mrtasana (mrt meaning “death”), also known as “corpse pose,” ultimately presents us with a chance to rehearse for our last curtain call, only without the drama. I think of words by the poet Shi Te, “Not going, not coming, rooted, deep and still.”  This equanimity is savasana.

So savasana has everything to do with preparing us for death, yet it’s equally a powerful prescription for life. The pose promotes relaxation for mind and body, helps to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress, and cultivates peace and calm, or, at the very least, acceptance. While the pose can help reduce fatigue and insomnia, it has nothing to do with taking a nap or zoning out after an exhilarating asana practice. If you do fall asleep, no need to berate yourself, just try to have an early night. But so you don’t miss the whole show, resolve to roll your mat out again in the morning.

Savasana occurs in that gap between coming and going. Richard Freeman says this gap is where “observed content is released and dropped.” In Buddhist terms, it’s shunyata — the awareness that all things are intrinsically empty. It’s reached when one is not attending to any themes. The paradox is that savasana, for many, is anything but empty; instead it’s filled with a sense of what B.K.S. Iyengar described as “illuminated emancipation, freedom, unalloyed and untainted bliss.” There’s room for it all in savasana.

But what if you aren’t one of the lucky ones who just plop themselves down in savasana and feel instantly at home? Trust me, I know where you’re coming from: I witnessed the catastrophic events of 9/11 firsthand while standing in the WTC Plaza with my infant daughter in a stroller. I was shaken and stirred to my core. But I continued to get on my mat — continued to lean in and take a closer look. For an entire year post-9/11, I practiced savasana with my eyes open. Sometimes I had to just sit up. An unexamined life, it is said, is not worth living.  Sometimes that examination takes place with gritted teeth and blurred vision. Rumi, again: “When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”

Anyway, you begin to see why savasana might be the hardest pose, don’t you? I mean, who in their right mind is going to voluntarily lie down on the ground, belly-up, heart exposed, eyes closed, in a room full of strangers, and hang out with absolutely everything and nothing? The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual challenge of savasana is immense. As a yoga teacher, watching my students in savasana is humbling. It’s an honor to witness the human condition — vulnerability and valor side-by-side.  

Savasana is generally suitable for everyone, though one size doesn’t fit all. Practice according to time, place, and circumstance. Try to position your body so that it feels balanced, neutral. Let the earth hold your weight, and simply notice that you’re breathing. No need to reach for anything, or push anything aside. Let the tongue rest on the bottom of your mouth, as though it, too, were in savasana. Relinquish the desire to speak, to see, to hear. Let your hands serve the sky, and your feet serve the earth. Relinquish the energy of your arms and legs. (You can place a bolster on the tops of your thighs to help with this, or under your knees, if you experience any discomfort in your back.) If you’re pregnant, elevate your head and torso. If you’re sad, keep your eyes open and your gaze gentle. If you’re scared, make sure you’re covered with a blanket, or near a wall.  

Whatever you do, remember to practice for all sentient beings. Don’t be afraid to let anything that’s holding you back from truly living, die. Realize that (in Rumi’s words) “ideas, language, even the phrase each other, doesn’t make any sense.”

MIT Media Lab/Breathe Hackathon

Breathe Respiration Hackathon + Global Respiration Initiative

 With Rodney Yee, clearly inhaling before we enter MIT Media Lab

With Rodney Yee, clearly inhaling before we enter MIT Media Lab

A convening of researchers, technicians, designers, clinicians, innovators, scholars, patients and others to incubate ideas and define ways to drastically improve the life of people living with COPD. The Hackathon simultaneously happened in Cambridge, MA, London, England, and Haifa, Israel.  

The MIT Media Lab website had this to say concerning my role in this truly optimistic event -  

"To help the teams ideate and provide some breaks from the intensive hacking we are facilitating breakout sessions. Some will be determined during the event, un-conference style, and some are already scheduled, including sessions with Rodney Yee, Linda Stone, Neema Moraveji, Keely Garfield and others.

At hackathons, the sustained high level of creativity and technical innovation takes a toll mentally and physically. With the help of Keely Garfield we have set up restorative stations to help rejuvenate the participants during the day. Keely is an E-RYT 500 Yoga Instructor, Urban Zen Integrative Therapist (UZIT), Reiki Master, Zen Meditation teacher, and hospice caregiver."

So much to report!  Everybody moving around the graceful, futuristic yet homey space of the Media Lab with total commitment to making LIFE AS WE KNOW IT BETTER!  One young researcher runs up to me panting, "So what is it I need to KNOW about the nature of inhalation?"  "Not that", I  tell her, "Think about the exhalation.  How can you facilitate the completion of the breath out?  The air that cleanses and detoxifies, and that naturally lends itself to a fuller experience of breathing...in."  Her eyes are lit with Prana.  She knows what to do.

So that there, that is a picture of Peterson who I met on one of my trips to Haiti, leading a UZIT team.  We raised money to purchase, and then deliver him a portable oxygen machine.  This made it possible for him to finally leave the confines of his hospital room and the enormous tank that he was shackled to for life, literally, and see and breathe in, the garden.  That is the snapshot right there...a young boy simply experiencing freedom.  I think of you with every breath I take... 

 Peterson out and about for the first time in a long while...

Peterson out and about for the first time in a long while...