Blood Memories book

"Thank you so much for the beautiful reading. I have listened to the recording a number of times, and each time I do, I hear something different, or something else drops a level in my understanding. I was so inspired by your knowledge and clarity that I have signed up to study with you on your philosophy course.” - Fiona C

Get my newsletter... Click here!

The Eye of the Storm on Christmas 2019

The season of magic has commenced! And story has the power to transport. Which one is captivating you? I hope something, because when we lose the ability to journey into extraordinary realms, we lose the essence of our human potential. While Santa and his reindeer prepare for their midnight flight, a pregnant virgin riding a donkey soon will give birth to the great avatar of the West. Divine Light (dazzling like the thousand suns of Lord Krishna) becomes a tiny infant. The heavens align, and a brilliant star brings wise astrologers of the East to that point of epiphany in a faraway manger. You can travel there too. A magic carpet lies rolled up in your attic cupboard. But maybe you’re too busy with the commercial madness of Christmas to open it? Or maybe you can’t find the key? 

This Christmas, I’m re-reading the Autobiography of a Yogi, even though I’ve read it numerous times over the last fifty years. I’m revisiting that extraordinary reality as an antidote to my recent foray into the contemporary yoga scene—at a place where trends are set and the future lives. I spent most of November and early December in San Francisco, where I attended a number of public yoga classes at random, taking the pulse of what was happening. Obviously, my experience is anecdotal, and I certainly could have missed a lot. But various threads of thought coalesced during those weeks into a conclusion that I want to share with you. I wonder what you think too. 

This insight crystallised for me: The same forces that have made yoga so phenomenally popular around the world have made it ever more difficult to practise authentically. 

The internet, social media, and the related fashion industry have turned “yoga” into a commodity that everyone on the planet with a digital device has heard of. Most people, when asked, would say that yoga is a special kind of exercise that relieves stress and comes in lots of quirky varieties. (Goat yoga, anyone?) And it’s no wonder, because that’s what yoga classes are delivering. 

Just like everything else for sale on the world market, “yoga” plays on ordinary desires and promises the realisation of common dreams. Clever marketing understands its customers and provides what they crave. “Yoga” found a niche in the commercial market, and from there it exploded into the mainstream. Digital technology has exacerbated and reinforced the phenomenon, distorting into a purchasable object a discipline that by definition aims to transcend materiality. The billion-dollar yoga industry sells what sells, and lots of yoga teachers play along with it—necessarily—because yoga today is business. It has become something totally other from what Paramahamsa Yogananda experienced in the caves of the Himalayas. For authentic yoga strives to surmount the world of illusion, realising a dissolution beyond the capacity of ordinary mind to envisage. It can never be marketed. It could never have popular appeal. Lord Krishna says as much in the Gita. 

I have no criticism of the individual teachers themselves, mostly lovely young women with caring hearts, nor of the quality of “vinyasa flow” asana sequences they had designed for their classes, mostly creative adaptations of classical poses, presented in a fluid style and free of any potential liabilities, like headstands or extreme hip-openers— although I did find their steady chatter of anatomical instructions rather off-putting. Clearly, the teacher-training courses of today are churning out individuals so well prepared anatomically that if they can’t make it as yoga teachers they might consider the operating theatre. 

I’ve nothing against exercise either! Having spent the better part of the first half of my life in a dance studio, I love movement much more than most people. Stress-reduction, weight loss, toning and strengthening, mood-enhancement—all these goals have their place in the world. But they’re not the aim of yoga! As an Indian yogi said to me once, “Why don’t they just call it ‘Indian stretching exercises’? Just don’t call it Yoga.  But that’ll never happen, my friend. The word yoga has already been debased. Words mean what people think they mean. Yoga in popular culture means exercise. And that’s a fact we can’t deny. 

Yet Yoga is ultimately about the mind, not the body. It’s not about de-stressing the mind either. Authentic yoga is about deconstructing the mind’s most defining quality, namely its tightly-held belief in an autonomous self. It’s about deconstructing the very mind itself. So clearly, real yoga has no place in a gym. It’s natural setting is a forest or cave, where solitude and the power of nature make awareness of transcendent spirit more immediate. Actually, the church hall of thirty years ago was a more appropriate venue for a yoga class (despite the draft!). At least it had some link to the sacred. 

But actually, contrary to what most everyone thinks, a yoga class is NOT for practising yoga anyway. “You go to a yoga class to learn,” an Indian teacher said to me once, “but you practise yoga alone.” (Or I’d add for today’s yoga scene . . . in a self-practice class that honours the aloneness of everyone’s practice.) It goes without saying that authentic yoga involves so much more than asana, which is why the extreme body emphasis of contemporary classes misrepresents so profoundly the ancient tradition. Yoga is sacred. Yoga transcends the body. Yoga is an opening to grace. Yoga deconstructs time and space. Practising yoga reveals piercing insights into a reality that defies the most basic assumptions of ordinary mind.    

Classical teachings attempt to name that unnamable reality . . . Brahman-Atman, Shiva-Shakti, Sat-Chid-Ananda, Purusha, Shunyata (a Buddhist concept that means emptiness). Consider how when speaking of the Absolute, emptiness and fullness are both—simultaneously—viable concepts. They’re pointers to the truth, metaphors, never the truth itself. Metaphoric language speaks of still ocean waters, of a vast cloudless sky, of Pure Awareness not aware of any “thing” but itself. Consider that koan, and its role in shattering the confines of ordinary mind. 

I woke up this morning with “the eye of the storm” flashing before me. And it was only with that clear image that I felt I had a handle to write this long-overdue blog article. My mat lies in the corner of my hotel room here in Rome, where I’m staying for four days. My mat is a magic carpet upon which I travel, bracing the hurricane winds of daily life, which never cease to toss me this way and that. Sometimes it carries me to that serene centre where storm winds cease. In the eye of a hurricane, a small refuge of perfect stillness, of perfect peace remains hidden. A magic carpet can transport you there. I take my mat with me everywhere, so every day I can attempt that journey. Practice is everything. 

Last night I went to the opera. Italian opera has been one of my lifelong passions. The heart-rending lyricism of the arias, the miracle of the human voice, the rawness of emotion the music both conveys and evokes—desire, jealousy, betrayal, treachery, despair, death, . . . and love in all its forms. It’s life lived with an intensity magnified to the stratosphere, hurricane winds of a velocity unknown to ordinary experience. Then as the drama reaches its climax—carried by the most sublime music—it reveals something extraordinary, and it’s always love that does it. The human heart made bare reveals itself, and what appears is the eye of the storm, a moment of transcendent peace emerging from a heart stretched beyond its ordinary human capacity, expanded by the force of love and tragedy beyond anything known to this mundane world. 

As the curtain closed for the first interval and the rapture transmitted from the stage still resonated, I noticed something so bizarre, so totally absurd. Gazing around the audience, I saw that almost everyone had taken out their phones and was scrolling away, eyes fixed downwards on their digital devices, on their personal window into the new cyber space reality that has changed how our brains function today. And I’ll admit it to you here . . . I was actually reaching to check my phone too!!! In San Francisco during the 1970’s and 1980’s, I used to go to the opera all the time, when obviously checking phones was not an option. The distracted mind could not interface literally with absolutely everything in the world from inside the walls of a theatre (although it certainly could find something close at hand to distract it). Things are different now. The speed and diversity with which the world bombards us is something entirely new, a life-transforming development with some potentially pernicious consequences. The digital forces working on all of us—checking our phones incessantly being just one example of their power—have been working on yoga too. 

I’m not proposing a return to 1975.  I probably use digital technology more than most others my age. But we do need to attend to what’s happening to our minds, and to how that might be making authentic yoga more elusive than ever. When I realised what my hand was doing, fumbling away for the little purse in my handbag where I keep that beloved device, I put my bag down, closed my eyes, settled my hands into a mudra, and turned my awareness to my old mantra, the one I’ve had since the age of sixteen. It was an experiment in doing something different. 

Perhaps that meditative interlude during the interval precipitated the thought I woke up with this morning, “the eye of the storm”. The digital storm of today’s world shows every sign of getting worse and worse. It’s impacted modern yoga profoundly, with the internet and social media popularising a superficial understanding of yoga, commercialising it, commodifying it, and generating a range of auxiliary industries promoting yoga clothes, yoga gear, “yoga lifestyle”.  Even industries that have nothing to do with yoga use asanas to advertise their products. I’ve seen them selling mattresses. In California I saw a shop window mannequin featured in a headstand, all the better to show-off the strap detail on the back of her “yoga” vest. 

The yoga classes I attended in San Francisco I booked online, paying upfront with my credit card. It was so convenient and easy.  But what I experienced at the venue was anonymity. No one was asking me to commit to anything. Because anyone at random could attend these classes, the teacher could never know who was coming and plan how to teach those individuals. Actually, none of the teachers I encountered (with one notable exception) were really teaching. Rather, they were providing an experience, and all of it physical. Take it or leave it. Understand it or not. People can drop into the experience as they like (and the more the better), receive a “yoga buzz”, then carry on with their day-to-day routine a bit more chilled-out, similar to the way you might pop into a petrol station to refuel your car.  

Even a mere twenty-five years ago, things were different. You had to seek out a yoga teacher in person and commit to a course of classes. You could actually learn how to do a headstand because the teacher knew you, understood your capabilities and limitations, and could prepare you for advanced poses with structured preliminaries over time. You came to class wearing any old loose-fitting clothes and paid in cash. Most of the time, you learned something of the deeper dimension of yoga too, because pranayama and chanting and meditation were always included. 

Though classes like that still exist in some places, the corporate model is powerful. It has taken over the mainstream. In one sense, I say, so what! It is what it is. And authentic yoga still is what it is too. The eye of the storm has no commercial potential. It can’t be depicted on social media. And that is a good thing!!! Authentic yoga has real power, transformative power. Those who find themselves discovering it—through whatever means—will know what I’m talking about. 

Who said it best was Ramana Maharshi, the greatest Indian sage of the twentieth century (and one of the greatest sages of all times). He taught first through silence, and for those who could not understand, through speech. He left the physical body in 1952 and wrote no books, though certain disciples have transcribed, translated, and edited his discourses. His wisdom cuts right to the essence of yoga. These days more than ever, we need to heed his words. 

A question was posed to him once: “In what asana is Bhagavan (Ramana) usually seated?”  

You need to know the etymology of the word “asana” to appreciate his reply. Originally, asana referred to a platform, the actual place where the yogi sat. It then referred to the yogi’s “seat”, or the entire composure of the yogi, not just the posture of the physical body, but the sheaths of the subtle body too. In a yogic state, the nature of that entire body was stillness. Asana referred to this motionless state, with the thought waves of the mind settling unto a point. It referred as well to the physical posture conducive to that state, which are what we know as meditation poses, like padmasana and siddhasana. Later it included all the asanas we practise today, which prepare the body to remain comfortably in a meditation posture for a long time. Ramana’s reply addresses asana as that state of perfect yogic harmony.   

Ramana Maharshi answered the query about asana like this: 

“In what asana? In the asana of the Heart. Wherever it is pleasant, there is my asana. That is called sukhasana, the asana of happiness. That asana of the Heart is peaceful, and gives happiness. There is no need for any other asana, for those who are seated in that one.” 

Again, you need to know what Ramana meant by the word “Heart”. In his teaching, he used “Heart” interchangeably with other words like The One, The Self, Pure Consciousness, God, Awareness and Shiva to refer to that Eternal Undifferentiated Reality beyond name and form. That is why he believed his greatest teaching came through silence, from where that reality can best be accessed. But for those who still questioned, he would use language, progressively more detailed, theoretical, philosophical and prescriptive the more people could not understand. The essence of his teaching was both utterly simple and utterly profound—at the same time. 

Pure-land Buddhism teaches something similar through a beautiful metaphor, the image of flowers in the sky. Sky represents shunyata, it is emptiness, a vast nothingness out of which miraculous flowers bloom. “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” say the Buddhists. Flowers bring forth a radiance of colour and perfume. Look and see their exquisite forms taking shape in the sky. They are raining down too, dropping onto the ground where you can collect them. You and I can gather them up and share them with others. Flowers from the sky are what bloom from the perfect asana where Bhagavan sits. They are epiphanies grown from silence. Our human hearts cannot fathom the profundity of shunyata sky. But flowers bloom from that sky, and our senses can delight in them. Silence speaks through Ramana. Bhagavan is real, the flowers are real, and the grace of yoga flows out of an empty sky. 

Where is it finding you now? Time unfolding has brought you to that point, but in what happens next, your expanded awareness will participate. For me, I’ve been in and out of the eye of the storm these past few months. But in this precise moment, the outside world is pressing upon me. My laptop is almost out of charge, daylight is waning, I’ve a big meeting I need to prepare for tomorrow, Christmas shopping to do for my granddaughters, and Rome—the Eternal City—beckons.   

Soon I’ll be back in Ireland and Christmas will begin for me. Crazy as that season can be, it too offers a vehicle to the still centre of the Heart, though the magic carpet capable of withstanding the hurricane winds of the Christmas season often gets forgotten in an obscure attic corner. Storm winds are blowing everywhere. The shopping, the consumption, the vulgar commercialisation, the crowds and traffic, the parties and gatherings, the stress of it all, the eating and drinking, the bills that follow into the bleak days of January. 

But within the hidden centre of the hubbub is the eye of the storm, the real Christmas. Though it’s always and everywhere present, it reveals itself especially on Christmas Eve—for a few blessed hours intensified by the hush of expectation, anticipation and longing. In the silence of that long dark night, it glows from the flame of a single candle, speaking of miracles that are true for those who see clearly. It is the wonder of the Christ-child. The tiny baby who is God Incarnate and Eternal, radiating divine light and divine love even to distant galaxies. It tells us to slow down and pay attention. Divine reality shines through small things. Marvel at those tiny fingers, the perfume of its newborn form, the miracle of being, like those flowers blooming from the sky. The Christ child is a flower who falls from infinite sky, luminescent with compassion and hope, kindling our hearts with boundless love and the peace that passeth understanding. 

So my friend, fly on your magic carpet this Christmas. It will appear as soon as you believe in it, just like the ruby slippers that carried Dorothy home from the Land of Oz. This is the secret I want to share with you this Christmas: Believe in the magic of it all!  

Suspend your disbelief and allow the experience to intoxicate you. For true faith belongs not to the intellect but the heart, not to logic but lived experience. It’s the same Heart Ramana Maharshi spoke of when people couldn’t understand his silence. Allow the power of metaphor, the beauty of the magical stories, to transport you to a place of ecstasy . . .  until what might have seemed implausible to you before is as real as Babaji was—the timeless Himalayan saint—when he appeared to Paramahamsa Yogananda, revealing to him the secrets of beyond the Beyond. There are so many miraculous stories. Let your rational mind unravel with whichever one inspires your heart to soar. It’s the ultimate gift of Christmas. 

And please know, my dear friend in yoga, that I’m thinking of you with so much love this Christmas, holding the memory of the time we shared in my heart. I look forward to whenever we may meet again, if such a thing belongs to the Will of the Cosmos unfolding! 

May the Magic of Christmas fill your heart with Peace and Joy this Blessed Season!
May the Grace of Yoga bless your life with Miracles throughout the New Year!
Happy Christmas to all!

With love and blessings,
Om shanti ❤️

 

P.S. I love feedback on my blog!! Please put any comments or questions you have in the comments section below and not in an email to me. That way a dialogue can form that can be interesting to everyone. After a week though, the section closes, because I always receive an avalanche of spam (mostly in Russian 🙄) that takes so much time to clear!

16 thoughts on “The Eye of the Storm on Christmas 2019”

  1. I love this blog post! Every word! It‘s like it comes out of my own heart but in much better, much more skilful words. Thank you! And have a wonderful Christmas time!

    1. Thank you, Sandra. Our hearts are aligning! These blog posts always come from my heart. When I haven’t written one in awhile, I can start to feel almost unwell. Something starts niggling at my heart, and the agitation only gets worse until I can get it out onto the page. The writing process is cathartic for me. Now I feel peace for Christmas. Wishing the same for you!

  2. Welcome home Marianne and thanks for the read. Love it. Especially: “Clearly, the teacher-training courses of today are churning out individuals so well prepared anatomically that if they can’t make it as yoga teachers they might consider the operating theatre.” 😀 xxx

    1. I thought you’d like that one, Rionach. Thankfully, there are also teacher-training courses like yours, which understand the rightful (subordinate!) place of anatomy. The body might be where our yoga journey starts, but we don’t need to dissect it. The body belongs to our magic carpet; we use it to fly!

  3. I too enjoy the way you weave words and thoughts into meaningful wholes Marianne. I look forward to reading your blogs. Like you and Rionach, I too am sometimes dismayed by the sequence of “Indian stretching exercises” that come under the guise of “Vinyasa Flow”, but am usually able to block out the chatter of the instructor and return to my mantra and my breath. Your reminder of what yoga was like in the US in the 70’s was spot on – in my very first yoga class in 1973 I was introduced to chanting as we focused on a burning candle in the middle of our circle of teens. The emphasis was on the space within – how to feel, nurture, and manipulate it into meaning. Happy Christmas

    1. Yes, Conan, we both remember 1973! (Dates us 😂 ) Though I don’t really want to go back there (even if we could), the yoga scene then had a certain purity about it just because it was hidden from the mainstream. You understand how to turn to your mantra and breath. Sadly, too many young people today are not as fortunate as you.

  4. Hi Marianne, I rarely get involved in this e-mail and blog stuff but that was fantastic ! Breath,Bandha,Dristhi-no PhD required ! A simple touch or adjustment is worth a thousand words. Really enjoyed reading this especially your comments on the internal practice of yoga. Thank you.
    P.S.
    No goats were harmed in the posting of this comment.

    1. It took me awhile too, Ger, to get used to this public forum via cyber space, but it’s a way to get the message out. You are spot on about the simple adjustment. Teaching by touch works powerfully precisely because it bypasses the thinking mind (which processes words). When adjusting, I would always try to synchronise my breath with the student’s before touching them. It’s a way of giving guidance with the least possible disturbance to their inner process. Thanks for joining in here! It’s great to hear from you.

  5. Welcome home Marianne.enjoyed your blog.especially Ramana’s explanation of asana as the “seat” /asana of the heart.which through self- practice can be nourished.really quiet simple!.too much complication/confusion /chatter in yoga today.”Yoga” ,the word, meaning and practice is in danger of being misused.happy Christmas Marianne.x

    1. Thank you, Grace. Ramana Maharshi’s teaching is indeed the highest of the high. The asana of the heart says it all. Truly no need for anything else. All the other practices are only means that possibly can take us there. Priorities can get very confused indeed these days. Happy Christmas to you too!

  6. Hey Marianne, Love your words, they just carry me to the end!.. Please keep writing more.. What really connected with me was ” yoga class is NOT for practising yoga anyway, but rather to learn – and we practice yoga ALONG.. this is big one for me as a yoga teacher I am always pushing to get people to practice on there mats themselves daily. So many people only go to Yoga classes and no HOME PRACTICE. Home practice is where the real magic happens. Thinking about you and wishing you lots of time of your magic carpet.

    1. Absolutely, Suzanne, home practice is where the real magic happens! It’s when the yoga itself becomes the teacher. Yoga classes obviously serve a purpose. But following a teacher’s instruction keeps the thinking mind active, and that sets up a barrier to the real yoga, which needs to go deeper than the thinking mind. It’s so important as a teacher to stress home practice but also to teach people how to practise independently. That’s an important step, because students often don’t know what to do when practising alone. Once they get the confidence and freedom, the magic starts working and they never turn back. It can take awhile for some people, so patience and persistence on your part. It gladdens me to hear you’re getting that message out. Lovely to hear from you!

  7. Dear Marianne, thank you once again for shining a light on the essence of yoga in a world that is obsessed with commerce. On the one hand, the world is unfolding as it is meant to and, on the other, it is in this unfolding that your message is more important than ever. Wishing you and your family a very happy Christmas, love Orla xx

    1. Thank you Orla for saying that. It’s such an important insight that many people miss. Yes, the world is unfolding as it’s meant to, but whatever our hearts are urging us to do, we can and should do those things! For our action too, no matter its outcome, belongs to the unfolding. Acceptance does not mean resignation or complacency. Understood rightly, it actually enhances courage. Because I’m by nature a private person, it took me awhile to put my thoughts out in such a public way through this blog. But as I said in my comment above to Sandra, if I don’t, I can feel quite agitated. So my message gets sent, and whatever it does or does not do belongs to the mysterious ways of the Cosmos. We are in good hands! Peace and joy to you this Christmas!

  8. Beautiful Marianne thank you. I sometimes feel like there is something ‘wrong’ with me because I see the materiality of Christmas and the way it is marketed to me and yet I always end up getting swallowed up by it and never feeling like I have bought enough. It makes me want to withdraw and your insightful words have really struck a cord with me, this year I have taken time to read for hours, walk in nature, and meet friends who really ‘get’ me (where the conversation is not who got what for Christmas!) it has been truly magical x. And for anyone reading this considering the jyotish course for 2020 go for it, it is the biggest gift you could ever give yourself, it is truly transformational x

    1. I’m so glad that still centre of peace opened up for you this Christmas, 
Aoife! No matter the materiality surrounding this season, spiritual peace is always there, a bottomless pool that only needs uncovering. Also, as much as the tradition of giving at Christmas continues to be defined according to commerce and consumption, true giving remains a beautiful practice. That is precisely what you did this Christmas. Gifts of time, gifts of the heart are precious. Giving to others, to nature, to spiritual practice . . . these are all ways of emptying ourselves. Grace like water flows to empty vessels. “It is in the giving that we receive,” said St. Francis . . . words of profound wisdom. Unburdening the vessel of self by giving it all away makes space for divine spirit. Thank you for your comment, Aoife, and for your kind words about my Jyotish and Yoga course. Having you and the other amazing yogis on the course this year inspires me so much! What a journey of discovery we’re on!!!

Comments are closed.