"Spirituality doesn't have to be rigid."
I'm halfway through the second module of my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training program and continue to love learning from great master teachers of all sorts. Yesterday, we spent time with Nischala Joy Devi, who is the first woman ever to interpret the Yoga Sutras through her book, The Secret Power of Yoga. White-haired with fading purple highlights and always dressed in brilliance, Nischela is a spirit to behold.
Her personal story is extensive, having served as a swami for 18 years in an ashram and studying medical science for many years prior to that. But her teachings even surpass the wonderful stories she shares, which all come from the heart, the place she encourages each of us to live.
I loved that she interpreted the sutras in a way where we can go back to the Sanskrit meaning before the west's "puritanical perspectives" were used to interpret these ancient learnings. It was fascinating to learn about the same ideas from Tim Miller the day before, one of the leading figures in Ashtanga Yoga, in a male perspective and then to have it balanced with the yin point of view immediately afterward.
Nischala brought a softness to everything, a reminder that we should all practice allowing the extraordinary to happen, to dance with it and whirl with it the ways that Rumi once did with the art of living. She taught us that, "You must allow the extraordinary to happen!" and that spirituality doesn't have to be rigid. "Find what makes you sing, what makes your heart go aflame," Nischala encouraged, because this is how you will learn to touch the Divine.
What, in the end, makes you feel that through your action, intention, and purpose, you became a more loving person? What can you share with others?
"Be reasonable!" she exuded, where you decide what you want to be each day and approach yourself with compassion and a full heart. There are so many things in our lives that we don't need to force to change, but instead, all we need to do is to change our hearts. I also loved learning that when it comes to flying into space, you first gain altitude and when you come home, there is a point at which you can no longer see the moon. This is called the "attitude." So much of what we are experiencing, if we could simply change the attitude, then all would be different in many beneficial ways.
In Zen, we learn of the beginner's mind, to approach all with the curiosity of a child ("Go find a three year-old guru," was another tidbit Nischala shared) and in her view, the sutras are a way to develop a beginner's heart, where in every moment and relationship, we remember what brought us together in the first place, that initial attraction that spoke to the deepest parts of ourselves.
Nischala clarified that ideas like vairagya are not non-attachment, a dangerous idea because we tend to misinterpret that to be a spiritual being means that we need to keep someone at arm's length, the way that we have been taught in monastic orders. Rather, separation causes us to be cut-off from the other lights in the world. Instead, we approach ourselves as a crystal, a clear entity that simply reflects the colors around us, so that we can always remember the self in all conditions — happy, sad, depressed, and the list goes on. If we can remember who you are without taking on the "varna" (colors of the mind), then we can always be at peace.
One sweet idea is to spread out the joy as much as the pain, to remember that we are all indeed one sharing every experience, so it's not just on our shoulders or weighing on our souls, but that we can each help one another carry the load — especially in the midst of another's joy, to prevent jealousy. When another is happy, because we're all one and interconnected, then we are happy, too.
A friend of Nischala's once told her that there are three vital words in the English language: "No," "Yes," and "Wow!" She followed with,"If you always choose 'no,' you will find yourself restricted. If you always choose 'yes,' your life will never be dull. But if you always choose 'wow,' then your life will always be filled with wonder!"
Her explanation of the eight limbs of yoga, were not that they were limbs after all, but different facets of a diamond, because that connotes a complete interrelatedness that makes the diamond shine. And, what truly makes a diamond come alive is not simply the light surrounding it, but the light that comes within it.
And, for all of us students who feel that our poses should look like something we've seen in magazines, her encouragement is that we keep the integrity of the pose, even if it looks different. What we're doing is practicing truth, and truth follows where we go. The more we can open to being our own brilliance and living from our divinity, then everything manifests.
Her teachings of levity, of how all masters have a lightness to their being, because they have remembered the truth in everything and everyone. We are heavy in our lives, because we've forgotten. And yoga, meditation, being in nature, any number of ways accessible to each and every one of us can help us to find that happiness again and again.
Asana, mentioned so infrequently in the sutras, is there to help us find the natural comfort and joy of our being when the body becomes steady. As our bodies yield to all efforts and holdings, we let go and the infinite within is revealed. We're free from the fluctuations of the gunas and find our way to bliss.
There was a moment, while spending time with a soul like Nischala, where I suddenly became clear about why the word "God" has been so difficult for me to grasp for so many reasons, and even after my journey towards deeper spiritual understandings, though I understand the ideas of the higher powers around and within us, this idea of a masculine force was still never quite the best fit. It finally occurred to me, during a subtle moment in our workshop, that I've always been drawn to the goddess, to the energies of Kwan Yin and the devas, to my grandmother. Through Nischala's subtle and vibrant teachings, I felt I was both given permission and encouraged to explore the feminine, the mother, the sacred that exists within the yin.