This text has been edited from the Focus of the Month, January 2011 on Alchemy, graciously offered by Sharon Gannon.
These steps can be applied to asana practice as in life, to help find the magic in the ordinary. Key aspects include the focus on concentration and follow through of tasks, savoring each moment of the process to experience the extra-ordinary in the ordinary.
1. Follow the teacher’s instructions and don’t do complicated variations that are not called out or invited
2. Unconscious action: Don’t allow your mind to become distracted or unfocused on your what you are doing-be aware of your breath and your intention.
3. Opt for simple yoga clothes/mats/props over fancy designer ones, etc.
4. Don’t push yourself too far in asanas for performance/ego reasons
1. Teach with passion, not by rote as if teaching were just going through the motions
2. Don’t enter the classroom as if it were just a job-acknowledge that in this moment enlightenment could dawn for your or your students
3. Don’t become distracted, don’t multi-task while teaching a class
4. Don’t become disconnected with reality-pay attention to what is right in front of you: connect to the students who are in the room; connect to the music and how it relates to the class; enable students to do what you’ve told them to do rather than talking over them and distracting them from your instruction
5. Don’t strive to develop the most complicated sequences, stick with the basics just as you would to nourish a plant or animal to help keep it alive
These steps can be related to asana in the literal sense-staying focused on what you are doing, but also in a more universal application: your relationship with your life, the basics-what you eat, where you live, the other living things around you. Are you relating in a way that is enhancing or not? Are you getting so far-out that you are forgetting to go far in and pay attention to what is actually happening? As John Lennon discovered when he became a “house-husband” and spent his days cooking, cleaning and caring for his baby, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (from the Lennon song Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy))
Many times spiritual aspirants can think that they are becoming so focused on spiritual things that they not only neglect but become estranged from physical things. When this happens it actually pulls the person further away from their goal of spiritual enlightenment-the realization of the oneness of being. It also draws one back into the negative viewpoint of our culture, which has conditioned us to think of the physical as mundane and stupid and the intellectual as superior. We give the jobs of cleaning and cooking and farming to lower-class people, mostly women, and leave the jobs that are considered more important for professionals. Often times the practice of asana can also be relegated to menial labor-something you do to get in shape, as if that was less then any other activity a practitioner might do. So a teacher should use this focus to investigate the subtle aspects-areas that might get overlooked in a yoga practice that is based on the end goal instead of the process.
The message is to do whatever it is you are doing whole-heartedly, with complete involvement. Don’t stop doing your spiritual work in order to take a break to do your “other work”; to the yogi, everything is part of the spiritual work. I remember seeing how my teacher would wash dishes. Each dish he handled like he was giving a bath to a newborn baby. When he would scrub the floor he would get down on his hands and knees with a cloth to wash the floor by hand (I still find that this is the best way to clean floors). He would comment that it enabled him to fully be present in the task and that it then became a ritual which resulted in not just a cleansing of the dirt from the floor but also a purification of the subtle atmosphere of the room. I’m sure he was reciting prayers or mantras to himself as he scrubbed the floor; for him housework was a spiritual practice-a form of purification. When he was cleaning, sweeping or scrubbing floors he was concentrated on what he was doing; he was careful not to distract himself by also listening to the radio or a tape recorder through headphones. When he was cooking he was fully engaged. There would be no small talk in the kitchen; all of his focus was on the meal. It was, after all, an alchemical experiment, and he didn’t want to miss one moment. He never lived in a mess. His clothes were always folded and placed carefully, and he didn’t keep extra clothes that he never wore. He kept his possessions to a minimum-“more time to meditate!” he would say. He never did anything that he didn’t want to do; for instance he never took a job just for the money-“how could I, this is my life!” he would say. Often, due to financial demands he did take dishwashing jobs in restaurants, but he never perceived the job as mundane; he was somehow able to elevate it in his own mind. He was certainly the most dignified dishwasher I had ever seen!
When I started to stay at my students’ homes when I was traveling, I discovered that for the most part the students were very lacking in basic skills-they couldn’t for example cook a nutritious tasty meal for themselves, me or their dog or cat, their office areas were disorganized messes and in many situations I saw plants dried up, their leaves covered in dust dying in the same room that all of this so-called important spiritual work was being done! When I would bring it up, they usually answered something like, “I’m so busy doing yoga and teaching and running a center.” Because of that experience I recalled the “3 steps” that my alchemist teacher had taught me and felt it could have relevance to these people who had become students of mine.
Three steps to master before attaining enlightenment, which are by the way, basic to alchemy: 1. Cooking-You have to learn how to become a good cook 2. Cleaning-You have to learn how to keep the place where you live clean and organized 3. Gardening-You have to know how to grow, nurture and care for plants.”
Some thoughts on step 3: Gardening: Many teachers, as well as students, may express the fact that they live in apartments in dense cities where gardening is just not possible.
The concept of gardening can be stretched to included taking care of anything or anybody-feeling joy in contributing to nourishing another and seeing them blossom-becoming happy and healthy. It doesn’t have to be that you have a plot of land in your back yard and grow lots of vegetables. You could have one rosemary plant in a small pot on your kitchen windowsill, or there may be a cat or a dog whom you take the time to feed well and provide for, thus improving their lives. That cat or dog may not even live with you, but perhaps with a neighbor, or perhaps the dog or cat is homeless and lives at the local shelter and you go and visit them once a week, volunteering to take the dog for a walk or bring them some special food.
When I lived with my Alchemy teacher, I also had a cat. Her name was Eva. I did not know enough at that time to feed her well. Basically I would buy the cheapest box of dried kibbles and sprinkle them in a bowl a couple of times a day. My teacher Randy would say to me, “She is your cat, she is totally dependent upon you, you say you love her, why not at least provide her with the best food possible?” I pooh-poohed him, as I felt I was doing my best. I wasn’t conscious enough to see his wisdom, but nonetheless he took it upon himself to cook for her. I laughed at him the first time I saw him kindly present her with a home-cooked meal that she graciously and enthusiastically accepted. But within a few weeks I saw her change and become much more beautiful, healthy, happy and vivacious.
The idea of gardening could also be extended to taking care of wild animals. You could feed the wild birds and/or squirrels that might live near your apartment, home or workplace-hanging a bird feeder out your window. Maybe your building doesn’t allow that, so instead you could feed the birds who live on the city streets, always remembering as you leave your apartment to bring a bag of organic seeds and nuts with you and distribute that food generously to the hungry birds and squirrels who are trying to stay alive in the midst of a city dominated by human beings.
The point is, gardening is about taking care of something or someone, deriving pleasure by contributing to their well-being and happiness.
– adapted from the text of Sharon Gannon, Focus of the Month 2011