Wednesday 18 November 2015

Yoga, Tantra-Yoga

The Diwali lights are still on the houses amongst the rice paddy fields even though the festival is over and winter is coming to South India with a bit of a chill in the morning air and daytime temperatures only like a good English summer!

            I have just finished two weeks of tantra-yoga at an ashram ( ) run by a tantra-yoga practitioner. This is rare as in India tantra is associated with black magic and bad deeds so most tantriks are very well hidden.  He is a Kaula and Trika practitioner; profound tantric systems with Trika better known as Kashmir Shavism.  For beginners like me, the first few weeks are nearly all yoga with a few talks on tantra, yoga, Ayurveda  and mantra and one puja. I have done about five hours a day of yoga asanas and some pranayamas (breathing exercises).

So what makes this tantra-yoga different to the yoga found in most gyms, village halls and adult education centres up and down the country? Recent scholarship shows that all  yoga comes from tantra and there are pictures several hundred years old of tantriks doing asanas and sun salutations. The yoga we have today in the West; often called Modern Postural Yoga and systems like hot yoga, power yoga, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram Yoga are recent inventions and locate it as part of the health and fitness industry designed to improve us. The Indians who came to the West; like Swami Vivekananda at the end of the nineteenth century wanted to impress the West with their worthiness and downplayed their tantric roots (he was initiated by Ramakrishna a tantric Kali practitioner). They were keen to present yoga as self-improvement for the body. As a narcissistic society we are very keen on this. But tantra says that at the deepest level you are perfect as you are and striving to improve focuses us on an ideal and a future not on being here radically accepting as we are.

            Yoga videos usually show beautiful young bodies in designer yoga clothes against a backdrop of an exotic beach. Yoga leaflets often show bodies knotted up like pretzels into improbable postures. Perhaps with enough effort we can be like them. I imagine that there are yoga studios like dance studios with mirrors around the walls so we can check how we look and if our asana looks right as the teacher or the video shows it should be done.
             As many yoga teachers know, asanas are only a small part of yoga and Patajali’s yoga sutras contain almost nothing on postures. It simple states that the purpose of asanas is to prepare the body (asana means “seat”) for meditation. The first yoga book with pictures and lists of asanas was published in 1938 and yoga in the West really took off with Jane Fonda in the 70’s.

            The problem is that everything in the modern world is externally-focussed and we are also fragmented so that we try and fix the different parts of us so that at least we will look OK.  The tantra-yoga approach is to see yoga asanas as meditations for and through the body. They are not to stretch or tone muscles or ligaments but to open the meridians and nadis of the body. They are best done in a state of meditation; very relaxed, eyes closed and returning frequently to the basic posture which is Shavasana or the corpse pose where deep relaxation can occur. You are encouraged to find your bliss in each asana and to love yourself deeply in the practice. There is no right way to do the asana and your body will gradually adjust to your best version of it. You are encouraged not to compete, even with yourself. The focus as in any meditation, is internal not external. As nadis and meridians are opened deep relaxation is cultured along with a steady flow of energy. It is this energised and relaxed meditative state which is the basic state for the practice of tantra

Wednesday 6 May 2015

An Auction of Bribes

The general election is nearly upon us and like all elections for a generation now it has felt like an auction of bribes to vote for the party which promises you the most money or services rather than a discussion over values or principles. It makes it all rather depressing. There are now voters in their 30’s who will have no lived experience of a time when political debate involved values; there was even one word. The “s” word; socialism that was all about values and principles. Unfortunately Mrs Thatcher and the rise of New Labour did away with that and we all fell in to implicit belief that there was an abstraction called “the economy” which had to be strong and experts knew how it worked and if the economy was strong that would be good for all of us. This is the “trickle down” theory that if the rich get even richer then it will benefit us all. It is of course nonsense and long discredited by reality; which is simply that the wider the gap between rich and poor the more violent society becomes. If any candidates' communication contains numbers; its not really about politics but about economic management.

Growing this fantasy called the economy is also based on the mad idea that the planet is infinite and that everything can grow forever. The economy is a fantasy in the terms it is talked about and we are asked to make sacrifices for it (just like in another era ordinary people were asked to make sacrifices for “the Fatherland”). If I exchange some vegetables I have grown with you in return for some childcare then the economy is no better off. But if I sell you the vegetables and then pay you for childcare that has grown the economy and we are all very pleased. It is an abstraction. You have never seen the economy but you are asked to make a sacrifice for it or wait for it to grow. In reality this abstraction is so complex that no-one understands it or really controls it and those that come closest, use their partial knowledge to make money. Complexity itself is anti-democratic. How can people really understand what caused the banking crisis or what a hedge fund does or what money really is? The banking crisis and scandals like Enron show that well-paid educated people in suits can behave with greed and stupidity.

Another crazy idea is that creating jobs is good. The Nazis created jobs by putting out contracts to build gas chambers. It is what activities people are doing that create real fulfilment and value, that matter in making society flourish.  Gross National Product needs to be replaced by gross national fulfilment and gross national happiness. Connected with this fantasy of the economy is the strange idea that trade is good. If you have to bring something from a long way away then it means that you are not able to make or grow it  yourself locally. It also means that fuel has to be burnt to transport it with consequences for ecological well-being. Increasing the skills and resources and diversity of each local community is the foundation for a sane society.

The election as an auction of bribes has gone on now for thirty years but more recently we have had politics as a sort of talent show so with TV debates there comes the question of who won. This is a very odd notion as we do not have a presidential system. In Britain we vote in a Parliament and then the majority party will form a government and appoint a prime minister. It is, in my opinion very dangerous if the best politician is to be the best looking or most skilled at making a cutting retort in a TV debate or has learnt best from their media advisers and spin doctors.

The most important thing in my view is to have people making decisions who are supporting the whole society to evolve towards a higher level of consciousness in Ken Wilber’s model. This can never be done by appealing to greed through bribes but by discussion on values and encouraging global thinking and feeling and a longer timescale; like the next hundred years at least. From this perspective there is one overriding issue; climate change caused by consumerism, rapid industrialisation and population pressures. If there are future generations then they will be astonished at how little this is mentioned in this election. The rich are not particularly bothered by rising sea levels; it gives them more space to sail their yachts. It is the poor who are drowned and this is already happening in places like Bangladesh. In terms of economic management; all borrowing is theft from future generations and we have been stealing from our children and grandchildren for a long time now. Government borrowing is now £60,000 for each family in Britain.  

In terms of an issue. It is morally indefensible to exterminate millions of people at the press of a button so there can never be any use for Trident or any other nuclear weapons. The whole of the military needs to be recreated as a disaster relief and peacekeeping service. Britain needs to become more de-centralised rather than power all going to Westminster. We need to protect and cherish childhood as a time of creativity for fragile and impressionable beings. So school should not start till 7 at the earliest and then be based on supporting creativity and the valuing of each child; not on tests and league tables. Manual work needs to be encouraged rather than trying to get children to universities and then society having no plumbers or carpenters. Real apprenticeships should be encouraged to support the transition to the world of work and adulthood.   

Anyway; I am not standing for election and in reality whichever candidate gets elected they will feel relatively powerless in the "boys boarding school" atmosphere of the Palace of Westminster. The world is largely run by an implicit collusion of transnational corporations, shadowy security and financial agencies and powerful groups of the rich. We still have to do what we can.

Do vote; as cynicism creates more feelings of powerlessness.