THE ROOM is quiet, a picture of concentrated engagement. The group of around forty sweaty participants are lying on their bellies, hands clasped behind their backs, legs lifted behind them, feet alive, hearts lifted up off the floor, breath deep and slow. I gradually roll up the volume and the urban tribal groove begins to bubble though the surround-sound speakers as I speak the instructions for the next few minutes of practice:
Keep the spine long and graceful, the breath slow and deep, the chest big and bright, the legs long and strong. Ask the intuitive mind what you are breathing in, what you are breathing out tonight - what the internal poetry is all about tonight. Go with the images, sensations, or emotions - trust the energy and see what happens. Breathe! Take something in, and let something go.
When the volume reaches its peak I stop talking and allow space for the process to unfold. This is not your mama’s yoga. This is a hybrid of yoga sequences, free form movement, postmodern urban tribal rhythms and sacred poetry. My work is woven through not only with mythology and poetry, yogic and Buddhist techniques, but also with body-based psychology and a science-based exploration of the nervous system and brain, all culminating in heightened states of consciousness in which fascinating sequences of initiatory experience arise.
Speculative spiritual beliefs and faith-based consolation are not really my cup of tea. The way I see it, spiritual practice is about accessing altered states of consciousness – heightened levels of awareness in which our sense of who and what we are becomes just that little bit more fluid. In these states insights arise, healing occurs, the body learns, or remembers, how to “unwind” deeply held layers of stress, tension and trauma, and our capacity to maintain meditative presence, or mindfulness – a mind open and full of the depth and richness of our present experience, is enhanced and exercised.
Through breath, movement, sound, rhythm, and mental focus we shift the sacred biochemistry, develop and strengthen new neural pathways, and plumb the possibilities of mind-body integration.
THE ROOM is focused but expressive. Several loud sighs rise above the sound of the music, a few people are humming or singing long single tones, one person has dissolved into a heap of tears, a couple others have left the pose and are trembling a little, undulating slightly as they rest and the energy pulsates through their bodies. I roll the volume back down to silence and click one track forward to an evocative ambient ethereal drone before bringing it back up a little.
When you are ready, rest. Close your eyes. Do that two-part breath now - the Tantric breath through your mouth, three times. Relax and drop in deeply. Sensing from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes, from your heart to the palms of your hands, from your seat to your scalp. How is the energy now? Something is feeling good - drink it in. Let the armor soften, the shields come down, the mask slip from your face. Something is asking for your love, your patience, include that in your practice – it’s where you are growing, healing, learning.
At it’s best, spiritual practice can initiate us into a visceral awareness of energy and how to work with it – it’s a skill like anything else. It can also help us to become more aware of the emotions we have been trained to ignore or deny and thus become more compassionate towards ourselves and towards others. Engaged in a communal setting, the sense of tribal participation and support is palpable. It’s like we are creating a new context for what it means to be human - embodied, emotionally connected, mentally engaged, energetically alive human beings with an interest in continuing to grow and develop.
I am more interested in sharing the ecstatic thematic connections between Persian poet Rumi and German poet Hildegard (both from the 12th century), 14th century Indian poet Kabir, 18th century English poet William Blake, and 19th century American poet Walt Whitman than I am in teaching my students the “correct” and laborious Sanskrit nomenclature for their yoga postures. I am more interested in working with what modern neuroscience is revealing about the meditating brain and what somatic psychology is understanding about the nervous system than I am in faux-wisely intoning the ancient sutras of Patanjali, more interested in the possibilities of a vital, organic, living tradition that speaks to our current human condition than I am in romanticizing the past and paying lip-service to another faith-based pseudo-religion.
While it is a popular and pleasing idea that all religions are at their core essentially the same, I find that closer examination reveals a host of different beliefs about everything from the world’s beginning, to it’s purpose, to the nature of God or gods, or goddesses, to heaven, hell, life after death, reincarnation, sin, redemption, evil, the rights of women, slaves, non-believers, and how the world shall end. However, what all creations of humanity, including religion, actually have in common is their genesis in the human mind and body – and what all practice-based spiritual approaches have in common is an interest in affecting the experience one is having of that mind and body.
IN SHORT , for me, what is of the essence spiritually is an experiential practice. All of the magic and mythic literalist beliefs can be left at the door as we enter a space of experiential practice. No need to romanticize the past, or idealize any superhuman savior figure, no need to believe in some overarching metaphysical cosmology or supernatural agency. In fact, ironically, that is often exactly what is in the way of owning your spiritual development in all of it’s messy and beautiful glory.
Just breathe. Feel your body. Focus your mind. Bring your heart into the room. If there is such a thing as spirituality it will be revealed through your experience, if there is such a thing as the sacred, let’s explore it here and now. The great mystic poets use metaphor to invite us into an experience. Likewise mythology, like a collective dream, emerges from those same layers of contemplative experience. These symbols, metaphors, archetypes have been artificially disconnected from their origins and sold to us over time as articles of faith lacking in the depth or meaning that practice can reveal. They have also been heavily translated through cultural and temporal lenses that may not speak to us any more and may in fact be distorting or diluting their meaning.
Spiritual practice is an existential coming home to oneself. All of us are born, all will die, all are alive right now. All of us want to live, love and be free, all of us can grow to be more present, more compassionate, responsive, ecstatic, integrated, at peace.
But that sense of peace need not be at the expense of honesty, courage, a willingness to think about difficult questions, face life’s challenges and feel deeply the reality of suffering. So not only can a contemporary spirituality be integrated with science, but also with a psychologically authentic emotional awareness that doesn’t seek to candy-coat, deny or metaphysical-ize away the facts of life. This is all too often the misunderstanding – that we are seeking to become aware only of “the light” and evolving into superhuman creatures who fit a Hollywood standard of beauty, fitness, wealth and “positivity.” This popular misconception limits and blocks our access to the very gifts that spiritual practice has to offer. Spiritual practice should help us develop resources like compassion, courage and an honesty that enables us to sit in an open relationship to reality as it is.
THE MORE spiritual practice scaffolds this growth that allows us to own our real lives as our spiritual journey and our inner worlds as the final reference point for mythic symbol and poetic metaphor, the less we need to use spirituality as a hiding place, fantasy distraction or way of denying life’s challenges – because we feel both more compassionately humbled and authentically empowered.
When the rigorous and sweaty physical practice is over. The group rests in deep relaxation. I use music created to stimulate a very particular meditative brain state, it has the soothing sound of rain and bells, but is also programmed with sub-audible tones that synchronize brain waves. I came up with a breath-based mantra in my own meditation that I have been using in class. Once we have gone through a sequence of consciously relaxing the body, I offer it up:
Now breathing in slow and deep, I receive love into my chest, breathing out I surrender control from deep in my belly, pausing for a moment, gently holding out the breath, I am at peace. Breathing in I take that peace into every cell of my body, breathing out I offer forgiveness, pausing to gently hold out the breath, I rest in the arms of love – thinking of whomever loves me in that way. Breathing in I receive that love…
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