Tag Archives: Kundalini Yoga

It’s All About Switching Gears

My Project
I just finished the main portion of an advanced supplement to my training as a Kundalini Yoga teacher. This module focused on Vitality and Stress and is one of five voluntary courses we can take at the level two classification. What I call the main portion was the time spent in the company of our Sat Sanghat (community) and teachers: three weekends during the last month, which began at 7AM on Saturday and ended at 5PM on Sunday. We basically just went home to sleep on Saturday night. In that way, they were like meditation retreats. But also because, although there was a copious amount of information exchanged, the emphasis was on our experience. So, the days were transformative and intense, with our teachers taking us through the numerous Kriyas and meditations related to the topic of the course. Our continued work is to be done on our own, and consists of reading, journaling, follow-up meetings, an exam, and a 90 day sadhana (personal meditation) to be done every day for 31 minutes.

I have decided to make two of the journal entries public, by way of this blog. The first of these follows, below. It has to be done in a very specific way—we explore any situation from the perspective of what we call, in Kundalini Yoga, the negative mind, the positive mind and the neutral mind, followed by a short commentary arrived at from the state of shuniya—non-attachment. Because this module focused on Vitality and Stress, the situation should be one which was potentially stress-provoking. And it is supposed to be done in an unedited, free-flowing manner.

The perspectives I will present may or not be mine. They may be fabricated, or derivative of those reactions I have witnessed in others around me. Because this is public, I’ll preface the actual journal with an introduction, focusing on the role of the three minds.

Introduction: On The Three Minds
Life without conflict exists in a coffin. ~Yogi Bhajan

So, how do we get through our conflicts with grace? How do we come out clean? The problem comes into focus when you consider that for the majority of the population, the negative mind—which serves the legitimate purpose of alerting us to possible danger—serves as the go-to mode. They get paralyzed by an incessant flow of self-doubt, suspicion, anger, fear and hatred. And they live there. The worst is that in order to feel better, they drink, smoke, party, shop, gamble and take drugs. All of it is for the purpose of silencing the negative mind, of escaping. Our power lies in our ability to switch gears: to go from the negative mind to the positive mind, and finally to the ideal vantage point of the neutral mind, which, like a mirror, reflects reality as it is, without bias or preference.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a Sikh or a Moslem, or a Hindu or a rabbi or a Christian or Jew…if you are a millionaire or a pauper, or if you are beautiful or ugly.” None of it matters if you don’t know how to switch those three gears, says our teacher, Yogi Bhajan.

He says it would be like driving a car and getting stuck in fourth gear. An accident waiting to happen. But all the everyday meltdowns are due to exactly this—getting stuck, like that car. Getting stuck in the negative mind. Although the negative mind is of utmost importance, we don’t want to live there. But we do.

The Situation
My son tells me his ex-girlfriend is pregnant. He tells me she is set on having the baby. They do not intend to get married. He acknowledges it is his. Now his comments as of late make sense: “I think it would be cool to be a young Dad…I’d teach him/her how to play guitar and surf.” I ask all the usual questions, the whole routine that parents do, about what his responsibilities will entail and the changes that may arise in his relationship with his ex. But I am calm.

The Negative Mind
The poor child—growing up in the midst of likely turmoil and perpetual disagreement and disharmony. And this will derail my son from his goals. How will he afford child support at his age? I wouldn’t be able to take on full-time infant care at this point in my life! The disputes between them will inevitably cause her stress, which will create a toxic environment for the developing baby. They’re too young to hold it together for the sake of the child. They’re going to fall apart. How will they ever iron out a mutually satisfactory arrangement when they do? And how will they maintain a peaceful correspondence? 

The Positive Mind
The only thing that makes anything difficult is lack of motivation, and nothing motivates like becoming a parent! Nothing makes a man out of you faster than becoming a father. And I already see positive changes in him—he’s glad he didn’t buy a motorcycle. Hallelujah to that. And he’s talking again about finishing his tests in aviation. This was a timely kick-in-the-pants. Funny how the universe works! No body’s asking you to take on full-time infant care! I’m actually looking forward to holding a little child-spirit in my arms. A little mini-my-son! I’d love to take it around and teach him or her all I can. We’re going to completely spoil it. And I can water-paint while it sleeps. And push the stroller while I walk Marcel at the same time. I’ll be one enthusiastic, young-ish Grandma!

The Neutral Mind
In Indian spirituality, they didn’t choose to have this baby; the baby chose them. It is beautiful. Because it’s life. It’s natural. Everyday, babies are born in as many diverse situations as your imagination allows. No one is ever ready to have a baby. And when you scratch beneath the surface, even the ones who meet society’s expectations and appearances are a mess. Appearance is never a guarantee of anything. The most important thing is a mother’s loving arms and she has shown herself to be equal to the task. I was just like her when I had my son. I was her. And nearly the same age. And equally determined. Fiercely protective from the first moment. It grounded me and brought such joy into my life. The things I thought mattered didn’t matter at all. It was just the two of us for over two years and those years were so cozy and sweet. I would just stare at my baby’s beautiful face. I shall tell her this. Life will present us with one challenge and seeming crisis, one after another, for ever. That’s what we’re here for. The only question is, how will we present ourselves?. With love and acceptance? Or with fear and insecurity? From expansiveness? Or limitation? After all, we can either accept it now, or accept it later. My task is to show up as a source of upliftment, positive energy, love and support. I can do that. Their challenge is to rise to the occasion. I get to watch my son grow up now. I choose to reside in faith. We don’t really get to control much, anyway.

Final Comment
As my teacher Gurudhan said, “our task is to open ourselves up to what is in front of us.” God…the universe…infinity…life…will put situations in front of us. Are you receptive? It’s all about change, he explained. “And how we face that change is part of the adventure of going into different realms of consciousness.”

When you are not bound by the negative force or the positive force…Then YOU are the force. ~Yogi Bhajan

~

PS. Stay tuned for the second journal entry!

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The Long, Swollen Pause

The idea that pauses in conversation are bad has been indelibly etched into our belief system. We even have an expression for this unwanted interval: The awkward silence. Because in our minds, conversation should be a lively flowing exchange. The good conversationalist, we are told, should know how to keep the dialogue moving.

But even in the context of what we would call “small talk,” a well-timed pause is of great benefit; it not only allows for a moment of reflection, but gives a greater sense of intention to what will eventually be said.

In a potentially heated conversation, a befitting pause is not only beneficial, but vital. A deliberate pause can totally prevent fall out. In Kundalini Yoga, we talk a lot about the neutral mind. The simple act of waiting before speaking—for as long as you need to—can bring us there. Yet, as simple as it is, we forget to do it.

The neutral mind is the mind of the sage. It is the mind that stays cool, come what may. So called because it neutralizes our reactive tendency. Staying neutral is easier said than done. Yet we all know someone who is just naturally that way—unaffected by the things that throw most people into melt-down mode. The neutral mind allows you to step back rather than getting sucked into the drama.

This reservoir of calm, called the neutral mind, opens us up to our own intuition—that deep-rooted confidence and conviction that is quite outside of the senses. When our intuition is working, it is like a good radio antenna, which makes us more attuned to information that we don’t pick up through the noise of sense data.

The long, swollen pause is like Lao Tzu’s empty cup—it is that space which the universe can fill. The neutral mind is nonjudgmental. It listens without classifying or condemning. It has to, so that it can receive, rather than impose. And when it does, it’s like a trouble maker getting out of the way. That’s when a connection is made. That’s when the station is tuned in. That’s the state of no separation. That’s when we see through, to the other side of the words—the words that are so baffling: How could he say that??? That’s where we see the cry for help, attention, or  understanding—the true intention behind what is actually uttered (because, remember, people don’t always know how to say what they really want to say).

Finally, it is the neutral mind that is the bridge to reality itself, unfiltered by our triggers and reflexes, and all the story lines that give rise to them. It is pure and unspoiled by our criticism and preferences, and free of all the static that gets in the way of effective response and judgment. In short, it debars the reactive tendency.

As one of my teachers puts it, it is the neutral mind that allows us to see it and then un-see it. The pause is the way. But it takes courage because it means busting through what others expect of us, as well as our own old habits. But the rewards are well worth it because it is the key to effective communication.

An Asian Boy’s First Yoga Class

I am making my way through a huge stack of end-of-semester project books. Some are incredibly thoughtful and well-presented and many are truly heartwarming. This one not only warmed my heart but made me laugh at the same time. It contains a raw mix of innocence, honesty and shaky English, which together, produce something unintentionally charming. Here is one boy’s extra credit write-up—left unedited—that is both sweet and comical in its unadorned bluntness. In it he describes his first Yoga class—with me. 

My first yoga class with prof. Quesada is unforgettable, because it’s my first yoga class in my lifetime. To be honest I came to this class for my extra credit. I arrived at Yoga West at at 11:45 am then met my classmate Peng. He came here for same reason as me. I have never been interested in yoga because we Asian boys don’t like this kind exercise, we are more interested in playing computer games. Before the class, I try the yoga tea which is taste like ginger soup. Then my first yoga class is begun. I’m looking around the yoga room, there are only a few man that came to this class. But there are some beautiful ladies attending. Their appearance seems very interested in yoga. I’m very interested in this yoga room. It’s the same look as our Chinese temple, it’s kind of dark in this room, because there are only a few lights around prof. Quesada. Some of the yoga movements are so hard for me, I think it’s because I seldom exercise. So, this class is kind of hard for me. Time goes by fast; my first yoga class is over. I thought when I got home I would be very tired; on the contrary, I feel the body is easier and lighter. After a few days, I even bought a book called 26 day yoga plan. All my friends ask me why I bought this book; I think my first yoga class made a good impression on me. So that’s why I am going to my second class with prof. Quesada on Friday. If I have opportunity after, I will take part in more yoga.

Yes, Yoga Is Wise!

I recently had lunch with a few old friends. While sharing our current goings-on, the fact that I teach Yoga was met with general interest: I would love to take Yoga…It seems so wise, one woman said.

Well, that’s an understatement, I thought! It is wise—but how? What does it mean to be wise? Something that is described as wise, conveys the suggestion that by practicing it, you’ll become privy to a better way of living.

Yoga is defined as a technology and set of practices that are employed to enable human beings to achieve Self-Realization. Will this Self-Realization lead one to a better way of living?

Firstly, what is Self-Realization?

It is a state in which one is profoundly aware of his/her true nature. And if that is vague it is because it has to be, for it is a state that must be experienced. According to Yogic traditions, it is a process by which one ceases to identify with the ego-self, and the sense of separateness that characterizes this ego-based, state of illusion, known to Yogis as maya.

And so, as for the first question, how this awakening may improve the quality of life, we must remember that this condition of maya is plagued by a roster of negative emotions, like fear, suspicion, envy and anger. Accordingly, a practice meant to bring us back to a realization of wholeness, and away from this false sense of separateness, would restore a feeling of inner peace, while removing the adverse emotions. If we can speak in terms of goals, we might say the ultimate goal is increasing the joy in our lives.

Of course, like any noble and worthy goal, true practice takes work, but as my dear teacher Gurudhan is wont to say, life without Yoga takes even more work.

This worthy goal involves the pacification of our thoughts, emotions and habituated reactions—nothing short of the management of the mind—that unruly, rebellious thing, that does not want to be managed. Yoga offers us various tools to help us do that. And the many diverse Yogic traditions emphasize different tools. Like trails that lead to the summit, all will lead you there. In my own practice of Kundalini Yoga, we make copious use of kriya, mudra, eye-focus, powerful breath work and mantra meditation, all of which are often enhanced by sound modalities.

In the language of Yoga, the process of awakening is just that—a process, meaning that on a subtle level, you start to approach life in a different way, relate to people through new perspectives, see through open eyes, perceive with a clearer, less reactive mind. Problems may not be interpreted as problems any longer, and when they are, you have the clarity and presence with which to approach them more skillfully. All of this results in a higher quality of life.

Yes, Yoga is wise!

What is Spiritual Surrender?

One of my Kundalini Yoga teachers, Gurudhan, often plays a song during our deep relaxation, called “Never Surrender.” Some of the main lyrics resound in my mind:

Don’t lose faith and don’t lose heart.
Don’t lose faith and never surrender. 
Don’t lose faith and don’t lose heart.
Don’t lose faith and never surrender. 

Never surrender to your tears,
though you’ve been crying them for years.
You know the pain is just a part
of what is opening your heart.

The message is to never surrender. Yet, ironically, the importance of being able to surrender is at the heart of all the great spiritual teachings. In Taoism, it is taught that you will live with greater ease through the art of surrendering to the rhythms and natural cycles of the universe—The Tao. In Buddhism, you lessen the suffering of yourself and everyone around you by applying the wisdom to accept life’s inevitable changes, regardless of whether or not they correspond to your preferences.

And in Kundalini Yoga, surrender has its place, as well. It is the way to personal evolution and ultimately, joy. It means, surrendering to the lessons presented to us, in order to benefit from the perspective they permit and thus, to grow from them. It is the courage to use those stumbling blocks as springboards to our own higher consciousness.

To add a few layers on, surrendering, in this case, is to let go of the stories we tell ourselves—the stories we use as defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms keep us stuck. And so, to get unstuck and to live in grace, means accepting, with all our heart, our own purpose in this life, while rising above that we think will consume us. And that is both empowering and fulfilling. But more, it is knowing that we have the capacity for this fulfillment and that state of knowing leaves no room for despair.

We only need courage and commitment. And so, “to surrender” is, in this context, to fully accept that commitment to live in grace. But, as the song reminds us, and as Buddha’s example of resisting the temptations of Mara, reminds us, we must not give in to the demons and destructive patterns that only hold us back.

Sensitivity; The Good Kind and the Bad Kind.

We all know someone who’s too easily hurt. It’s the kind of person who’s oversensitive and easily offended. Paramahansa Yogananda described this kind of person as “touchy.” When feeling offended, he or she tends to either bite back or sulk. Although the tendency stems from an inferiority complex, it ultimately lay rooted in an uncontrolled ego. Oversensitive people make themselves and everyone around them suffer needlessly.

So, then, why do Yogis constantly tell us we need to become “more sensitive?”

Because, you might say, there’s the good kind and the bad kind.

The bad kind, as found in the problem of touchiness, comes in the cargo bag of an untamed ego. Anything untamed is naturally lacking many refinements. In this case, sensitivity presents itself as an egoic perception. And perception is just that: perception. In this case, it is perception that is entirely lacking in the wisdom to see other people’s pain, as well as the many possible reasons behind their seemingly offensive behavior or words.

The good kind has to do with with what we refer to in Yoga as intuition. It is associated with the sixth energy center, appropriately called “the third eye,” since when open, it engenders a more pervasive view into the subtler aspects of existence. Downgraded in the Age of Enlightenment, through its dualistic opposition with reason—that most prized of human attributes—it was relegated to the sidelines and has been little understood in the west.

But, symbolized by the tilak markings and the bindi dots on the foreheads of the wandering holy seekers in India, it is looked upon there, as the seat of heightened awareness. Associated with the pituitary gland, it is the master control tower of the brain itself.  Rather than sitting in dualistic opposition to left-brained, rational function, it supersedes duality altogether. In its containment of all, it is the awakening of this eye that awakens the ability to see the unseen. It is what all the spiritual teachers mean when they assure you that you’ll know what to do. You can call it intuition, but you can also call it the “good kind of sensitive.”

One Year Ago: The First Teacher-Training Diary

It was this time last year that I made the decision to deepen my practice as a Yoga teacher. It was a long time coming–I heeded the calling of my heart to study directly under my beloved masters of Kundalini Yoga at Yogi Bhajan’s first and only studio, Yoga West.

It had taken six years, and at least two weeks of waffling, to finally commit. I remember the night I called to say Yes; I took my walk as usual, only the pink-stained evening sky was pinker than usual, the drooping golden sun was twice as gold as usual, and the crisp autumn breeze that chilled my just-washed face was the most delightful breeze there ever was.

I knew I would want to chronicle this life-changing journey, and I did. Here is the first of several teacher-training diaries I wrote, that were originally published on Spirit Voyage.

I walked briskly down the street in the rain, carrying an open plate of assorted curries and rice. Zigzagging around two Jewish families, out for Saturday services, I sought a moment of refuge in my car, to absorb the somewhat magical events that had transpired that day.

Still flush from the long group chant, I watched as the raindrops coalesced on my windshield. My voice had melted away into the warm sea of long “Ek Ong Kars.” I had lost the sense of where my own voice ended and the others began. The vibrational frequencies of 58 voices fused into a lush whole and time itself evaporated like dew. It was as if we all dissolved into some invisible swell that had gently washed over us. I took a bite of the creamy raita on the side of my plate and watched one single raindrop trickle down the window, leaving behind a long, clear squiggle for peeking through to the glassy, rain soaked street.

As all the genuine spiritual traditions remind us, it is through the dignity of letting go that wisdom is attained. In subtle paradox, it is by losing that we gain. In chanting, it was not merely our voices that we offered up to the infinite, but our very sense of self. In exalting the sacred mantra through chant, the tangible and the intangible disappeared into unison. At another moment, a white head wrap and an outstretched leg extended in front of my own, while mine lay, in turn, behind another. Together, we all carried on, and for the duration of the kriya, our bellies pumped air as one rhythmic body, like some multifaceted breathing apparatus. We were a woven cloth. For a time, personal space melted away, along with the intangible sense of separateness that keeps us from our own divinity.

In the shadowy world of separateness and duality, bad habits loom. Fear looms. The hum of adversity is often dispatched from the depths of the psyche, still on automatic, like a broken old alarm that sounds for no reason. There was a moment when mine hollered out – victim to the old triggers. But one of the Yogis inspirited my heart and knocked all sense out of me. I thanked him. And with a gentle word he sent me off to sharpen my tools. We are empowering ourselves to glide above those old patterns, to fly, wholly powered by spirit.

We have been gifted with invaluable tools of Kundalini Yoga, and we are learning how to use them. Through the timeless wisdom and functionality of these kriyas, we are learning how to scrap the unconscious negative reflexes and oust the heavy blocks that prevent the wholeness of mind and radiance we seek. Yogi Bhajan was forthright about the efficacy of what he called “the Yoga of awareness,” revealing that by practicing its techniques correctly, “we fry this subconscious mind; we make toast out of it and eat it.” Seeing us falter during a particularly intense kriya, Gurudhan reminded us to “become the nervous system.” “Keep going,” the yogi called out, as we disappeared into the kriya, as we became the kriya. We were mastering our energy rather than the other way around.

In some ways, this process reminds me a bit like getting thrown into the washing machine and then spat out again. And I’m hopeful it’ll be a cleaner, softer, more appealing me than what originally went in. I knew the intense, nine month period wasn’t an arbitrary figure. It’s as Guru Singh explained that first night: Like a birthing, after nine months, we’ll come out of the birth canal pure and new. “First you’re like eager babes,” he mused, as he surveyed the room full of the novice’s enthusiasm. “Then, as you begin to feel comfortable and more at home, you’ll start to relax and you’ll be draping your bodies all over, like you own the place.” But he continued on, explaining that by the end of the training period, we will have come full circle, only not exactly in the same starting place. When we get ready to emerge, as Aquarian teachers of 2011, we will be like eager young babes again. But in a different way.

I still have the teacher training pamphlet from 2005 in my Yoga files. Although it was because of Guru Singh, that I took that flyer five years ago, and because of him, that I finally committed this year, the boon is that through this intense training program, I will also have the benefit of learning from other masters, that I am quickly growing to love. Soon I will look upon them all as my teachers. And I will officially count myself among the third-generation disciples of Yogi Bhajan, himself.

It is a blessing for which I am eternally grateful, but also a tremendous responsibility, for these timeless teachings will be reflected in my own conduct and in the way I bring them forth to others as a teacher. But, it was a calling of the heart. And this is a brave heart that can only become more brave through practice.

Teaching Kundalini Yoga

I have been grading papers this week. Earlier I came upon a passage written by a student who has also taken my Yoga class. My heart swelled with gladness as I read the description of this girl’s first experience in a Kundalini Yoga class. It touched my heart to know that the class had so touched hers. Here is a portion of the endearing note:

On July 8th, I attended Professor Quesada’s Yoga class at Machatz Self Defense Studio. I am not a morning person, especially when it is not a school day. Thus, I entered the studio rather grumpy. However, the lights were out, so that was a plus. I sat on the mat and we were told to sit with our legs crossed, a diamond-like pose. The tuning-in mantra was “Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo,” meaning, I call on divine consciousness. It calmed me down…We began some deep breathing and gradually sped up the pace…we flexed our bodies…I couldn’t have begun my day better…Professor Quesada had us lie on our backs while she played the gong. This was my first time having this experience. It felt as if my heart was beating along with the sound. As I closed my eyes I felt as if I was in a whole different world, a world of emptiness, a world free of strain and frustration. To conclude the Yoga, we all began to sing Long Time Sun, which I found on Youtube that night and played on my laptop. It just puts a smile on my face, and the fact that we all sang along made it so much more beautiful…

Are Zen and Kundalini Yoga Compatible?


I shared some of my favorite Kundalini mantra music with a Buddhist friend the other day. He loved it, but then gingerly asked whether I “consider it to be compatible with Buddhism.” He asked about the music, but he was really asking about the paths, in general. “Maybe I should just forget about all that and just enjoy it for what it is,” he then mused. And did I have any thoughts?

Of course, I did! And he already knew the answer—”you said it,” I told him. “You should absolutely enjoy it because only the dualistic mind sees a difference. “All paths are one and truth is truth.”

I have another Buddhist friend—a musician—who grew up with gospel. To my best knowledge, he would never consider shunning this inspirational music that he loves so much, just because it’s Christian. What an idea! So, why wouldn’t it be fine to listen to Kundalini mantra music, as a Buddhist?

One thing is certain; gospel is Americana. It’s part of our cultural heritage and we look upon it with nostalgia. On a wider note, Buddhists, like any one else, listen to a variety of music, much of which has no spiritual association at all. So, I would propose that if music with no spiritual connotation is fine, that music with some spiritual connotation would be even better—even when that tradition differs from one’s own—because uplifting vibes are, well…nice.

The question of compatibility between two spiritual traditions smacks of the guilt many people still carry around from their childhoods, when their intimidating family religions forbade even a cursory glance at some other religion’s holy book.

But, both Buddhism and the Yogas are “inclusive,” rather than “exclusive,” which means one may practice alongside any other religious practice without conflict. And many do. Consider the many Buddhist meditation teachers who still consider themselves Jews (there is even a name for them: “Jubus”)—Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg are but a few. And everyone knows about Leonard Cohen, Steven Seagal, Robert Downy Jr., Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn. And with regard to Yoga, a better question would be: Who hasn’t tried at least some form of it?

Buddhism, and Zen in particular, is not predicated on any beliefs and if there’s no belief, there’s nothing to contradict. Thus, Zen complements any practice, spiritual or otherwise, like basketball—which is why Phil Jackson used Zen-style meditation as part of his training methods with The Lakers. Zen is, in the most basic sense, just meditation. It is the practice of waking up to the present moment; it is to “eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired.” So, it’s not surprising that training in such a discipline would improve performance in anything.

Perhaps my friend’s concern had more to do with the power of Kundalini mantra music. Known as Naad Yoga, it is spiritually potent. It is held that the human body is designed for transformation through its proper practice, but even if you don’t happen to believe that, it certainly won’t hurt you if you go ahead and chant anyway! (And less so, if you’re just listening.) It is understood, in all forms of Yoga, that we have a central energy channel, known as the sushmuna, by which prana flows. This energy is our life force, it is consciousness itself, and to awaken its flow is to awaken to our own infinite potential as humans. In Kundalini parlance, it is to awaken to the divine within. At the heart of this practice is mantra meditation, in which we vibrate that central channel as well as every cell in our body, as long as we are chanting from the heart and with the belly. It is understood that everything is vibration—even our state of mind, so we can either choose sounds that elevate, or not. Naad Yoga is the technology of doing just that.

And so, if it’s potent: all the better! 

Even though Zen is not oriented around vibrational technology, it does have another point in common with Kundalini Yoga Practice: mindful meditation. One of my teachers, Guru Singh, talks endlessly about the importance of staying in the “what is,” rather than in the “should be,” which is his way of reminding us to keep our heads out of the “picking and choosing mind.”

Sounds a lot like Zen talk to me!

Our outlook toward spiritual practice doesn’t have to be polemic. It’s not Zen versus Kundalini Yoga, any more than it’s Zen versus Judaism; they’re only separate in the divisive mind! One of the things I always liked about the Zendo was that there were Christians practicing next to Jews—at this level, none of that matters anymore. While one path is not necessarily better than another, one may be more appropriate for an individual, at a certain time, than another—that’s the idea behind the various Yogas, or spiritual paths, in India. The great sages recognized that no one path is “one size fits all.” We each have different temperaments and innumerable karmic circumstances that make up our lives. And it’s all in flux. Funny enough, if we weren’t allowed to grow and evolve, there’d be no Buddhism at all! Buddha himself, born a Hindu, wouldn’t be pigeonholed. He embraced his truth, and left the rest behind, settling himself somewhere in the middle of it all.

If acclimation and adaptation are necessary for a religion’s survival as a whole, how much more so for an individual in his own evolving, personal practice? Sometimes that means strands of different traditions get intermingled, the way Taoism and Buddhism did, in the hearts of the mystics in old China, creating the birth of Ch’an (Zen).

In this light, the whole idea of a “forever home” is questionable. But even so, only the seeker gets to choose. And with the right to proceed along the sequence that is right for her. The well-known American spiritual teachers, Ram Dass and Bhagavan Dass, both traveled along paths that were ever-expanding, each having received initiation from Buddhist and Yogic teachers—and the former started off Jewish. In Zen, as well, it’s not uncommon to venture into different forms of meditation, as found in the various schools of Zen, as well as in other Buddhist traditions, such as vipassana.

As a fun and hopefully useful analogy, look upon Zen as a wonderful broth—the foundation of every soup that ever was. Like broth, Zen is simple (which doesn’t mean easy) and unembellished. But, when you add potatoes, celery, spices and salt, you’ve got something different. Some will dig it, some won’t. To play with analogies further, Zen may be seen as an essential strand in the fabric of a rich spiritual life, as a concomitant part of a whole. And further still, think of it as a no-frills wooden boat, which, like any other boat, will carry you just fine to the other shore. Some boats are fancy, some are not, some go fast, some don’t and some rock more than others. How wonderful the differences are!

Through these analogies and commentary on my friend’s innocent question, I hope to have shown the beauty of each tradition, but most of all, that there’s no conflict between them—or with any other path.

On the Notion of a Perfect Teacher

   I watched a documentary about the American spiritual teacher, Ram Dass. His Be Here Now, has long been one of the staples on my book shelf. Now 80 years old, he talks candidly about the struggles he’s faced after his stroke. He confessed the moment when, on the verge of death, he failed to orient himself toward God. That’s the ultimate test, he explained, and according to him, he flunked it. “I still have a lot of work to do,” he says.

His honesty touched me. It is often assumed that those on a spiritual path don’t slip and fall. But as my Zen teacher has said, it’s not whether you fall or not, it’s how quickly you can get back up. In Yoga, we look at growth as it manifests in degrees and stages, the real measurement of which is entirely internal, and rarely consistent. Progress in anything, including life itself, is never a straight line. But what we do have, as seekers, is an ever keener insight into the difference between what our minds have concocted and reality itself; the tools needed to snap out of our delusion; a willingness to laugh about our own folly, and with time, perhaps, the courage to make things right.

As teachers, we can be hard on ourselves when we do find ourselves splashing around in the dark waters of old habits. At our final Yoga teacher-training weekend, Joey told us he had had an altercation with someone just before arriving. I was listening. I had just exchanged words with a demanding student.

We had both been rocked off center and we shared our feelings with the group. We were disappointed in ourselves. We were about to graduate as teachers of Kundalini Yoga. We both share a feeling of responsibility for maintaining the dignity and excellence of this tradition and part of how we do that is through our own conduct.

What happens, Joey asked, when this sort of thing happens and we’ve got to teach a class? Do you cancel? Of course not—what an idea! You go and you teach, our teacher said. And in this tradition, what that means, is that first, we “tune in.” You never know who will be there and what they will take away from the class. There might be someone in your class that day who will decide to become a teacher herself, or who will be so moved as to make some positive life-change. And chances are, you too, will forget all about whatever it was you left outside the door before you took your place on the teacher’s bench. And you did leave it outside the door!

Tuning in means going beyond ourselves to align with the greater wisdom we deliver as teachers. In this way, the teacher is more like a messenger than an originator. The teachings come through us, rather than from us, and have nothing to do with our individual personality or quirks. They go beyond the words that are spoken and are communicated subtly through our own presence.

The conventional, or western, or academic, notion of a teacher is of one that dispenses information and data. From our perspective as Yoga teachers, this reduces teaching to nothing more than a “professional trade.” As our own founding teacher, Yogi Bhajan, quipped, if we look upon teaching in such a shallow way, as merely a profession, “we will train many preachers, but no teachers.”

Our focus should be on getting out of our own way and on uplifting and guiding others, rather than on our own success or failure. Our obsession on perfection is just another ego trip. And that doesn’t mean we stop striving toward excellence—our very ability to develop excellence is directly proportional to our ability to stop striving. At least where that striving is tied up with our ideas and notions of who we should be. We had better simply let go of ourselves.

When we begin to do this, we begin to manifest a certain grace when we teach. Ironically, the very shift in the way we understand our duty as teachers, from one in which we recite information, to one in which we serve, is the first step toward inner transformation. But it takes faith and trust to relax into this role as a conduit of truth. To be entrusted with the task of serving, of being a source of light, makes it, most surely, a noble profession. As such, “to be a teacher is the ultimate human end,” Yogi Bhajan concludes.

Anyone who teaches to be a teacher rather than to serve, will fall. ~Yogi Bhajan