Living On The Edge

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Yoga Nidra Training

I’ve been practicing all my life. Since childhood I’ve practiced everything from music to magic, baseball to baking. So when I started practicing yoga and meditation it just felt natural to begin a new practice. One day when I was a kid, I was practicing the saxophone and I realized something essential about the notion of practice: practice is the end, not the means to the end. Sure, I get better at playing the sax by practicing it, but the point is to be playing. Practice is being at the edge, at the frontier of experience. Also, sometime in the last 20 years of practicing and teaching yoga, it dawned on me that there’s never a yoga performance, no yoga recital. It’s always only a practice.

Today I want to talk about the practice of living at the frontier. I’d like to invite you to reconsider the purpose of practice. Consider that maybe the goal of any practice isn’t to improve, it’s simply to be present at the frontier. I know, I know, I know, why do we practice if it’s not to grow? The thing is that you do grow when you practice but maybe growth is just the byproduct, not the purpose. Being at the frontier means regularly leaving the comfort of what we know, abandoning what’s automatic and easy, and stepping onto unsure ground to truly learn to know ourselves. Therefore, it’s our life’s practice to simply be at the frontier.

Frontier=Presence=Self-Knowledge

To my mind, the word “frontier” conjures images of gritty people working with the land and wrestling with the unknown as they learn and grow. Our frontier could be our edge in a yoga posture, our edge in our awareness in meditation, or perhaps simply the edge of entering a new stage in life. Being at the frontier isn't always easy but isn’t that the point? While it’s not always easy, it is always real. Our frontier is a place we’ve never been before and being there helps us to truly come alive because it quickens our minds, makes our senses come alive, and forces us into radical presence. There is no coasting or autopilot at the frontier.

For me, traveling has been a practice of being at the frontier. More than geographical frontiers, traveling regularly takes me to cultural, philosophical, and humanitarian frontiers I would have never known had I lived out my days in Smalltown, Utah where I was born. But more important than learning about another place, traveling always involves a healthy dose of getting knowing myself—there’s usually a steep learning curve to making your way somewhere else, one that unavoidably makes you look inside. More than learning about someone else, traveling puts you at the rugged frontier of knowing whoever the hell YOU are, a frontier that is invariably west of wild.

While our goal in practice may not necessarily be to grow, it happens regardless and you can’t grow without challenges. I once heard someone say, “If you ever find yourself coasting in life it probably means you’re going downhill.” In yoga philosophy, this heat necessary for growth is called Tapas and is the driver toward self-knowledge. Experiencing Tapas, being a little on edge or confronted with challenges, is an essential part of our awakening because in a very real way it wakes us up from the anesthesia of easy, and puts us into a place of fierce presence, and presence is the secret that whispers to us our true, universal identity. Presence teaches you who you are.

Flowing At Your Edge

Sometimes breaking out of the stupor of easy to be present means doing something big, something drastic. I can tell you from experience that nothing wakes you up like a psychedelic trip with a shaman in the jungle or jogging around the conservative state capital wearing nothing but your best set of briefs, running shoes, and your hands-free device. But a regular practice of being at your frontier doesn’t mean regularly stepping to the edge of stupidity. For example, it’s hard to be present to the full grandeur of the Grand Canyon when your toes are dangling over its edge. Instead, you’ll grow far more from your every-day practice if you allow it to be a comfortable step away from both boredom and your absolute edge.

Steven Kotler is a NYT Bestselling author who studies and writes about how uber-performers thrive at their edge by achieving a state of flow, an optimal state of consciousness where people can both feel their best and perform their best. One of the ways he’s discovered that people can get into flow is by regularly stepping up to their comfortable edge. Steven Kotler has learned how to write while in a state of flow and through his words how to put his readers into the same state. In December of 2018, right on the frontier of embarking on my journey to live and work in France, I attended Steven Kotler’s Flow for Writers Workshop in San Francisco. For three days, our intimate group of writers holed up in a chic San Francisco loft as Steven revealed to us some of the secrets of good writing where he taught quite succinctly: write from your edge and readers will read from theirs.

And while performance maybe isn’t the point of practice, being at your comfortable edge is the secret sauce to great performance. Whether it’s writing or rock climbing, being at your edge and in flow stimulates your brain into a deeper awareness that illuminates the microscopic but essential details that would otherwise fly under the radar. Being at your edge and in flow releases all the feel-good chemicals in your brain. Chemicals that catalyzes your performance around the subject by focusing your mind on its subtleties and nuances, by illuminating long-chain connections to otherwise disparate ideas, and by unlocking your boundless creativity. In yoga class, I encourage my students to negotiate their edge of each pose by finding the version that is just north of comfortable, what I call the “comfortably-intense” version of every pose. Also, I often ask if they could become just 10% more relaxed.Flow simply can’t happen when you’re either bored or panicked to tears.

The Only Way To Get There Is To Be Here

After developing a regular practice of being present at our edge and bravely taking those essential, small steps forward, one day we’ll look back to see that we’ve covered a lot of ground. When you look back, it will feel like you’ve spanned a damn-near impossible distance. But here’s the deal with forward movement, whatever your next horizon—be it it be becoming more flexible, more focused, or more financially sound—the only way to get there is to be here. Be exactly here at the frontier that presents itself to you at this moment. But the thing about here is that it’s always changing. No sooner do you get comfortable with the grass at your feet than do you naturally grow toward your next horizon.

When you take ambition out of the practice, you give yourself the perspective of working with your actual edge rather than the edge you hope to be at one day. It’s being present at your actual frontier that gives you the firm ground to step forward into that next step, and the next, and the next… For example, I can’t learn to play Coltrane until I first experience the frontier of learning to play the sax, how to read music and the rudiments of jazz, etc. It’s not until I’m present at those frontiers that new frontiers will open up until one day I’ll find Coltrane’s masterpiece, Giant Steps, dancing out of the bell of my horn while wondering, “How the hell did I ever do that?”

It’s presence that promotes growth because it’s the only thing that’s real. Sure, find your star that guides you forward in your endeavors but the practice itself keeps you grounded in the frontier of the moment. Isn’t that what life is, being present at our frontier of experience while watching our own inevitable evolution? Growth will naturally happen as you’re present with your frontier and making the essential trek of 1 inch, the spot directly in front of your toes.

Finally, the paradox of the frontier is that you’ve already arrived and arrival means never stopping. We must find home by being comfortable in our discomfort. This home is our birthright and the eternal and joyful journey toward our highest self. We have arrived the moment we put ourselves at the frontier and open our vision to simply witness ourselves grow.

Conclusion

Several years ago, I experienced a great revelation about the importance of regularly visiting my frontier through practice. I was leading myself through a Yoga Nidra practice and wanted to hear the wisdom of my own heart to hear whatever it might tell me. I visualized the wisest person I could think of in order to tap into my own inner wisdom. A vision of my favorite prof from college popped into my mind with stark clarity. All my senses were popping: I was sitting in his office and could smell the oiled wood of his desk, see it’s tight-knit, tawny grain, and could hear the buzz of the lights and the squeak of his chair as he leaned back, pondering at the ceiling. There was a moment of generous silence between us as he stroked his beard. Then he looked at me out the corner of his eye. And with a sly, paternal, and loving air said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Whatever you believe in . . . practice it every day.” This event never happened except for in my mind but the truth of it became more real that if it actually had. This was my wise inner-self reminding me to always be at my frontier through practice.


If you’re interested, click here to listen to that same Yoga Nidra practice where I lead you hear the wise person inside of you.

I invite you to consider reevaluating your relationship to practice from being something you do in order to improve to something you do in order to regularly be at your frontier. I invite you to forget about the ambition of practice and simply be present at that frontier and watch how growth naturally happens. And I invite you celebrate the many frontiers you find yourself at in this moment of your life.

Whatever you practice, do it regularly. I hope to practice with you soon

PS

Yoga Nidra

I used to drive around town with a sticker on the back of my truck that read 1,” a nod to a poem that speaks to the greatest frontier I ever hope to arrive at.

“A Spiritual Journey” by Wendell Berry

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,

no matter how long,

but only by a spiritual journey,

a journey of one inch,

very arduous and humbling and joyful,

by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,

and learn to be at home.





The Gayatri Mantra: A Love Supreme

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The Gayatri Mantra

Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ

tát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ

bhárgo devásya dhīmahi

dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt

Watch a short video about understanding the Gayatri Mantra by looking at John Coltrane’s masterpiece, ALove Supreme.

Translation:

Everything on the Earth and in the sky and in between is arising from one effulgent source. If my thoughts, words, and deeds reflected a complete understanding of this, I would be the peace I am seeking in this moment.


The Gayatri Mantra: A Love Supreme

I've been working on understanding the The Gayatri Mantra for several years. It's one of the oldest mantras in existence, more than 12 thousand years old, and comes from the Rigveda, an ancient Sanskrit text containing hymns and mantras that are mythological and poetic accounts of the origin of the world.

I struggle to understand it because it suggests that when I’m feeling freaked out by something, I already have peace or am the peace that I feel I lack. Likewise, this mantra suggests that somehow through one Source, we are everything else. And to any mind that is caught up in limited a conception of Self, this is hard to understand at best and ridiculous at worst.

Join me for an unforgettable yoga retreat along the Amalfi Coast Italy May 26-June 2 2018

One experience I had that helped me to understand this mantra a little better happened several years ago while I was on an early-morning run in Hawaii. Because my body was used to a different time zone, I was up and running early while most of everybody else was sleeping. On that beautiful morning, I ran along a paved trail that contours the ocean and stretched for miles.


All the elements were harmonized to make a perfect storm of physical, mental, and spiritual bliss. My mind was clear, the weather, temperature, altitude and humidity were all perfect. As I ran, my mind opened up to incredible clarity. In this clarity, I began processing some of the jazz improve theory that my sax teacher had been teaching me, specifically regarding works by John Coltrane. My feet tapped along the trail and my lungs bellowed the humid ocean-air while my mind thought about scales, intervals, harmonics, chords, and all of the underlying structure of jazz.

My sax teacher tells me that if I want to find those notes coming out of my horn, I have to not only feel them in my soul, but I also gotta know what is possible to feel and that takes a little head work. With all this mental clarity some fairly complex music theory simply started to make sense to me. Deeper musical ideas began to percolate to my mental surface causing new lights to go on. I was figuring it out and it was happening without any teacher or even the reference of my sax or even music paper.

I was amazed to realize that somehow, a lot of this understanding was already in there. Astounded by these musical revelations, an immense thought dawned upon me: even if it’s waaaay down there, there is a John Coltrane in me somewhere.

The perfect run with all the harmony of elements connected me in some way to Source which led me somehow to understand Coltrane a little better. If I truly understood the connection of all things, if I were truly tapped into Source like the Gayatri Mantra suggests, I’d be able to access that same power, soul, and knowledge that John Coltrane did. Me! John Coltrane! Ultimately, I'd see that I'm no different than John Coltrane.

Coltrane was connected to Source. He demonstrates this plainly in his most spiritual work, some say the most spiritual of all of jazz, his album called A Love Supreme. In it he makes circles both in the arc of the sound in music as well as in its form; this chord and this phrase makes a logical, mathematical, and aurally pleasing transition to the next, and the next until the formula causes it to arrive back to where it started.

Just as you might hear Brahman priests chanting the Gayatri Mantra from the Rigveda, in this recording you hear these priests of jazz chant, “A Love Supreme” repeatedly in the background evoking Source.

In certain disciplines initiates get a new name. In yoga your name might become Yogananda, or Ram Das. Jazz is no different. It might be Trane or Bird or Fathead. I believe that another name for God, like God's own moniker, could be, A Love Supreme. I think God uses it as a social handle, or something.

In part, Coltrane’s message was that everything is inscribed within A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme is The Effulgent Source mentioned in the Gayatri Mantra and to fully comprehend this Source means to understand everything, including peace, including jazz, including yourself. This is enlightenment and whether your path there incorporated practicing either poses or jazz theory or anything else, you still end up at the same place.

Alice Coltrane, J.C.’s wife at the time, said that one day Trane locked himself in the attic and didn’t come down for three days. He spent the entire time meditating (understand that Coltrane meditated with his horn in his mouth) and when he came down, I imagine that it was like Moses coming down from the mountain after talking to God, he looked at his wife and said, “I’ve got it!” A few days later he was in the studio with a few hand-picked musicians to record A Love Supreme, which quickly became one of the greatest pieces of music ever conceived.

We are still chanting the Gayatri Mantra 12 thousand years later. I hope people are chanting A Love Supreme, or at lease spinning the record, 12 thousand years from now.

Understanding, even theoretically, that knowing Source means to know everything, doesn’t discount the hours, weeks, years, and lifetimes of work and practice necessary to get there, but still the idea is provocative that our work isn’t to build or gain anything new, rather to dismantle that which prevents us from seeing what’s already there.

What we practice in yoga is paying attention and we use breath, poses, and mediation to open our eyes and to take off the bandages to reveal what’s underneath.

Another reference to understanding this universal Source comes from the story about the day Zen came to be. It is said that long ago an assembly gathered to hear the Buddha’s Dharma talk. Instead of a discourse, The Buddha simply held up a flower saying nothing. He stayed like that for a long time much to the confusion of most everyone.

Only the sage Mahakashyapa understood, and noted it with a wry smile. With his flower, the Buddha was saying that which could not be spoken by words. He was showing the assembly that Being or Reality had no boundaries and was found in everything, including a flower, and to even try to define Being or Reality by words would create a boundary for something that had none. Anything defined would have been a contradiction yet at the same time he was revealing that which was everywhere, if your understanding would allow you to see.

“If my thoughts words and deeds reflected a complete understanding of this unity,” . . . I would realize that I’m no different than this flower, or my sax, my music, or you, and I would understand that peace is already within me. And yet to understand this, like myriad myths throughout history also suggest, it might take me traveling the entire world to realize that what I was searching for was at home all along, locked within the vault of my heart.

I invite you to practice understanding the Gayatri Mantra better and practice unraveling anything within yourself that would prevent the world from seeing your own manifestation of the Effulgent Source, your True Nature, your Love Supreme.

And since it is said that Visvamitra was the one who gave us the Gayatri Mantra, we’ll work on exploring Reality through Visvamitrasana. Speaking of “getting Real,” once I start working on my inflexible hamstrings, something necessary for that pose, things get real, really fast.

Might I suggest listening to A Love Supreme this week.

 

Mastery

In order to gain mastery, you must dismantle as much as you build.
— ~Master Sinon. The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak.

What is mastery?

Scott Moore Yoga

Author and poet David Whyte illustrates mastery with a great story about an old welsh sheepdog named Kumro. According to David Whyte, Kumro was “the Joe Montana of the canine cosmos,” despite the fact that he was ancient in dog years, limped on a gimpy leg, and was missing key visual and hearing functions.

David Whyte describes seeing the younger, spry dogs trying fruitlessly to direct the sheep by spending enormous amounts of energy all the while Kumro stood back and simply watched (with his good eye).

Finally, Kumro decided something needed to be done. He took merely two or three steps in one direction, slightly turned his body a few degrees in the direction of the sheep, and almost like magic the entire flock funneled obediently into the narrow opening in the wall where he had wanted them to go.

Kumro’s edge, his mastery, was his radical simplicity—minimal effort for maximum benefit.

Richard Simmons.jpg

In decades past, the mantra for mastery was “Mind Over Matter.” As I’m writing this, I’m conjuring visions of high-waisted leotards, leg warmers, and headbands. It was conquer and conquest of body and nature. But to mistake body and nature as our foes unfortunately results in broken and bodies and annihilated environments.

Today we live in the Information Age. By applying correct information, we can achieve and practice mastery by doing less to get exponentially more and without the high cost of conquering ourselves. Instead of “Mind Over Matter,” the new mantra is “Mindfulness With Matter.” The information we gain for mastery doesn’t come from the internet, a course, or a book (remember those, or did they go out with the leg-warmers?). The profound and life-changing information I’m talking about comes only by learning to listen to the master within, like your own personal Yoda, the quiet and wise whispering of body, mind, and spirit. While a teacher can help, they can never substitute for that inner master. Mastery, therefore, involves learning to listen to the wisdom already inside of you.

John Coltrane had mastery. He had teachers, yes, but who taught Coltrane to be Coltrane? Coltrane did.

Learn to listen. Listen to learn.

Of course, this applies directly to our yoga practice. In my mind, there is no “achievement” by putting your foot behind your head. That mentality is so “Mind Over Matter.” In class I like joke that if there is a pose I can’t do, that pose is overrated. Sure, I’ll keep practicing it because of what I can learn in the listening, but I have no delusions that by putting my foot behind my head will make me more spiritual, more valuable, or a better person.

Instead, the achievement is all internal and mind-bogglingly more expansive than flexible hamstrings. It’s the invisible flexibility of my constant growth into Awareness, a mastery which is facilitated by the tools of my body, mind, and breath but which fundamentally isn’t body, mind, and breath. And this expansiveness can only come from a mastery of what is most subtle.


Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)
le petit prince.jpg
One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.
— Bruce Lee
Mastery

So, if mastery is minimalism, what do we need to cut in order to practice it? Start by cutting everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Start by radically cutting everything but the breath.

Try this experiment:

Sit. Close your eyes. Breathe slowly in and out. Listen and feel. Visualize your breath as a color or texture and localize your breath to any place on your body you choose. You’ll soon feel a tingle, a heaviness, a lightness, or something else. If you chose a hand, it might feel as if that hand is larger or lighter than the other. This kind of attention and focus on the breath will localize Prana, the yogic term meaning life-force energy. You can feel Prana. Also, this focus brings Awareness. Now what if you could breathe this Prana, this life-force energy and Awareness in into your mind, your emotions, or hell, your finances or love life? That’s mastery.

“Dude, how did you finally let go of all of your anxiety?”

“I found my breath.”

I invite you to practice and cultivate mastery by cutting everything but the essentials. Practice breathing and meditation. Practice styles of yoga like yin, restore, and pranayama that celebrate getting much more by doing much less. There’s nothing wrong with vigorous yoga. And as you approach whatever poses or life situation, try simplifying down to the essence. Learn to breathe life into whatever you are experiencing at the moment.

Next week I’ll continue on this theme of mastery with even more practical ways of using our breath, and Prana to develop mastery in our yoga and meditation practice, our love life, and our work.


Virtual Yoga Nidra Series October 8-November 12