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Monday, October 13, 2008

The Glamour and the Real

We live in a society that glamourizes youth, and women as well as men face pressure to mask signs of aging. Whatever form of falseness you choose to invest in--botox, breast implants, liposuction, hair dye and more--it is all available at market rates. But if you paid me ten million dollars, I would not want to live my youth over again. For me the time I shook hands with my own power began after thirty, when I met a retired nurse from Arizona named Rose and began a journey that is awakening me to my soul's purpose and the reason I was born.

I would never claim to be awake, like some enlightened beings, self realized masters of various spiritual lineages who have completely actualized their human potential through their practice--Jesus, for example, or Buddha, or Sri Aurobindo, or Swami Sivananda--to name only a few great avatars who have appeared at times of humanity's great need to teach, to serve, to heal.

But before I met Rose and practiced yoga for the first time, I was in the wilderness in my life, alone in darkness and unconnected with a great ideal to serve. In all the material abundance of my Canadian upbringing and surroundings of the 60's, 70's and 80's, I was in despair beneath a patina of social cheerfulness, for my life felt purposeless and empty. I had dreams of darkness, yet more than dreams, for when I woke up the darkness was still there, imbuing my life, distancing me from everyone with apathy and exhaustion, although on the surface I seemed to be doing all the right things--running laps, running Marathons, winning prizes, graduating from university, working. I dreamed of falling into dark pits, unable to climb out, of watching my own face being eaten alive by ants, of drowning, snagged on underwater trees, of being shot through closed doors and watching my own blood spatter the blue kitchen wall behind me. Each night as I prepared to sleep I prayed I would not have those dreams, but the other ones that sometimes came, the dreams of liberation, of flying over colourful carpets of autumn forest, over blue water lapping white towns, my body immediately responsive to my thoughts to float up cliffs effortlessly, and to hover and dart at will.

Rose by no means rescued me, but taught me a practice that I felt ignite within me and open deep channels that have been purifying and healing me ever since. Every morning at the meditation retreat I had joined, she led us in a yoga class, and in these ancient postures, the twists, the inversions, the forward bends and back bends, and the corpse position of perfect stillness, I experienced a quality within me I have never known in any other life experience I have since encountered. I knew this was my practice. I knew this was my way home. Without doubt, fear or question I felt yoga resonate within me and I knew this was the most priceless of pearls, this was what I had come into the great bazaar of life to find, to remember, to embody.

I have had moments of transcendence in life, like on the cliffside in northern Scotland above Achiltibuie overlooking the Summer Isles and Ullapool, when the mist swirled beneath my feet, the sheep bleated above me on the mountainside while the sea petrels cried below me as they soared on the wind and sought fish to dive for. In the stillness after days of near-fasting and silent meditation, I felt my energy open near the base of my belly and suddenly I expanded. For some timeless period I was the wind, I was the mountain, I was the light of the gleaming sea and the blackness of the Summer Isles silhouetted on the shining path of the sun. I was huge, eternal, and Real.

For me yoga is a discipline which offers a path to what is real. In the face of life's vicissitudes and all the suffering each human life encompasses, yoga gives a way to stay connected with the hugeness of all that is. Of course it is not really a path back, for in fact we have never been separated--only our minds and the barriers of our own ego make us believe we are separate, that we are our bodies, our names, our social personality, our job or role in life, our money, our vacations, our hair colour, our physical youth or beauty. But yoga teaches us that what is real is not any of these things. These things of time and change, of beginnings and ends are "asat," unreal, and only the things that were never born and never began and will never end are real--the stuff of spirit, or "brahman" in the vocabulary of advaita philosophy which yoga comes from.

As my practice matures and deepens, once impossible postures become easy, my focus shifts to cultivating the inner qualities of yoga, and I begin to understand that the more I learn about this infinite practice, the more I know nothing. Along the way I have become a teacher and to my amazement students look to me as if I have something to teach them. Compassion, discrimination, non-attachment, non-violence, recognizing one Self in all that is, these are the real lessons yoga offers humanity. Our teachers are all around us--not only on the yoga mat, but off, in our fears, our perceived threats, in the angry bosses, the bad news bankers, the crying children, the enraged drivers who cut us off in traffic.

Shaking hands with our own power is something that we can only do for ourselves, for the only power there is, lies within us. It is not in money or fame or beauty or any form of empire we may choose to establish. As I stand now on the final side of menopause and feel the liberation that brings, I remember old dreams of flying and know I am living them now. I watch my daughter move into the circle of life as I step back from it; I see the generations pass. I share this now in the wish that every daughter in the world, and every son too, might find the way to experience this for themselves. The best part of yoga for me is the feeling of joy it has brought to my life, the deep sense of purpose and knowing that even if I die tomorrow, it won't matter, that I will have done my part to keep the teachings alive for humanity, and that others will continue to carry on the work.