Dear Friends and fellow members of the International Centered Yoga Association.
Before I present the following lecture given more than seventy years ago I would like to ask: ‘What is Centered Yoga?’
Probably to each one of us the answer is different.
In agreement with the following lecture I have always felt that being ‘centered’ is to have the courage, or the ‘intelligence’, or the ‘genes’ to stand on one’s own feet, to look at the world and then use one’s discernment to decide what is the ‘truth’ and what is not. To have the courage to have one’s own thoughts and opinions without fear of being ‘outcast’.
Wait a minute, I think that Epo-Na would disagree with me there, but we will come to that later.
As yoga practitioners, and also in all other walks of life, due to laziness or fear or presumptuousness or sheer ignorance, we like to pretend that things ‘out there’ do not concern us, that it is up to others to solve the problems that we see all around us. Unconsciously we do not feel that we are part of the world at large, or that our actions and thoughts have an impact on that world out there, on the wild and woolly world, in cowboy slang.
We are so caught up in our yoga practice, in keeping the yoga school running, in generating new students, in paying our taxes, maybe even in making a name for ourselves, that we don’t have time or desire to look further than our yoga mat, that new IPhone, that new guru, that new fashion.
The world is galloping towards an unknown and possibly disastrous future, and what each one of us does and thinks is of vital importance. Each one of us is a small magnetic field in the bigger field which is the world, and whether we know it or not, we do influence the world with whatever we do or don’t do. And what we don’t do is sometimes more damaging than what we do do.
Let us listen to the words of a woman who was for four years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the second world war, and who refused to agree with the other inmates on their politics of ‘good and bad’ in the war. Who was not afraid to stand out alone, and to challenge what she heard and saw.
This to me is being ‘centered’: to be alone in the midst of the multitude, not to be easily bought with words or propaganda, not to believe what we are being told, but to use one’s own intelligence to see what goes on in the world, whether the yoga world or the wild and woolly world out there. To not follow blindly someone else, either out of fear, or laziness, or a personal daddy or mummy syndrome need, but to joyfully and confidently trace one’s own path in a mature way, come rain come sun.
MEDIA was written in 1945, in the middle of the second world war, by Anna Maria Bernardina Holleman Haije, age 45.
It could easily have been written in these days, and is now, in our time, as modern and up to date as it was then, and as urgent a message as seventy years ago.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen!
I am tonight in a rather awkward predicament because I have never read an English newspaper, nor was I ever in any way connected with the production of one. That I still dared to accept the offer to talk to you tonight in favour of this motion is because I don’t think there is fundamentally much difference between the contents of the English newspapers and that of the papers from the many other countries I have been living in. It is in the contents and in their influence on man’s mind and sentiments that we are interested tonight.
Now the word “intelligence” that is mentioned in our motion has been used in such a diversity of meanings, that it is better to define it before we all start discussing the motion. I looked it up in the Encyclopaedia and found as the most satisfactory definition that it is “the power of conception” – the mental function of apprehending connections between things – be they material objects or abstract ideas. Is that intelligence while reading a newspaper quickened, stimulated to function or is it kept dormant?
At this point I want to quote a sentence from the Encyclopaedia: “Nobody would be said to understand an historical period if he had merely committed to memory a string of facts without any insight into the causes which produced them.” The question thus put becomes: do the modern newspapers give their readers only the facts, or do they deal with or suggest the connections that exist between them and do they refer to the root and cause of the obvious happenings and that in a truthful and unbiased manner? I hope that the majority of you will agree with me when I answer this question with an emphatic “NO“.
Before we go any further let us realize that the newspapers are owned by big financial trusts and are run on a purely business basis. The sole interest of the men behind these trusts is to keep up their dividends. In order to do so, they must obviously please their readers otherwise those readers would chuck the paper and sales would drop. It is as everywhere else in the market an interaction between seller and buyer, in this special case between the newspaper and the customers. Just as well as one might say that the papers create their readers mind, can one maintain that they have to obey their reader’s demands.
What is the principal demand of the modern reader? It is to economize time. Here I quote another sentence from the Encyclopaedia: “the modern reader likes his news in a brief, handy form so that he can see at a glance the main facts, without the task of reading through lengthy articles.”
This demand on the reader’s part was the origin of the Headlines. But now the boomerang returns on the head of the reader who hurled it. “You don’t want to read lengthy articles or discussions.” say the Big Brains behind the newspapers “All right, we shall give you your Headlines and we shall cram down your throat any piece of news we want you to have under the appropriate Headline.”
Now the cunning juggling starts, for you can do wonders with Headlines.
You make your readers believe that the fattest Headline covers the most important item of news. You make your readers believe a thing to be true when you repeat it day after day under constantly varying Headlines. You can make your Headlines alliterations or slogans that stick as leeches to your reader’s minds or cover the issues at hand with a thick fog.
There is great propagandistic value in the suggestive quality of a Headline. Look how in every fighting country in these days the own victories and projects are placed under staring Headlines in the Front-page, suggesting that they are far more important and far reaching than the enemy’s victories and the own losses which are mentioned inconspicuously somewhere on the last pages.
Moreover, truths and lies about war events are so cleverly mixed up, that it is even for a reader who tries to use his intelligence impossible to get an insight into the real trend of events. No wonder that the average reader accepts the suggestion offered to him, especially as it is the one he wants to believe. And so everybody is content!
As I said before, newspapers and newspaper propaganda are one of the strings on the bow of Big Finance, the power that rules the world, as politics is another. And the two have to coordinate. The papers have to propagate and stress the policy decided upon. It is easy to hoodwink the reader about things and countries outside his realm of knowledge.
The only conclusion he can come to, after having read papers for years and comparing their contents with any chance item of real information that comes his way from other sources, is, that he is deliberately led astray. That he is given causes for events that are not the real causes. That his indignation is roused and his other feelings cleverly played upon for purposes which suit the powers behind the scenes. And look at the subtlety with which they prepare our minds to an acceptance, an immunity of what is going to happen, like a doctor, who increases day by day the doses of his patient’s medicine. Long before the war they started feeding us armaments, gas war, bombardments by teaspoons full and now we swallow buckets full every day and don’t think or feel much while doing it, for our intelligence has long ago given up the whole show as a bad job and left us at it. Why do they resort to these methods? Why aren’t we given the plain facts, and the truthful ones at that? Why is it not left to our own intelligence to conceive the connections, to draw its own conclusions and find its own attitude towards the world’s problems? It is because they cannot afford to have our intelligence at work, for fear that we might end in refusing to do what they want us to do. No general can accomplish anything when every soldier in his army has his own strategic plan and is apt to criticize him. That is the reason why in peacetime a democratic state works so much slower and less efficient than a dictatorial one and why in wartime even the democracies have to adopt autocratic methods to get the masses to move.
On the other hand why are we, the readers, content with this state of affairs? When we don’t revolt against this deliberate misleading and befogging by the newspapers it must be that we voluntarily put our own intelligence aside. And why don’t we let it function properly as it was meant to do, as is our birthright to do? Don’t forget that real intelligence – the coordination of mind and heart in a harmonic conception of the universe – is one of the greatest gifts in life. As far as I can see it, the reason for this extra-ordinary state of affairs is mental laziness and fear, perhaps mainly fear. For using our intelligence means leaving the well-trodden paths of humanity for an unknown wilderness and who knows what we may find in the heart of it? Not everybody is strong enough to climb the rocky paths of the lonely mountain, even though he knows that the panorama from the summit must be superb. So we prefer to adhere, to stay on the level of the muddled mass thoughts. After all we feel safer when belonging to a community, a nation, even if we have to accept the national idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies in the bargain. And it is this fear, this trend of human character, which the newspapers make happily use of.
Let me shortly touch on the last part of our motion before I run out of time. To what extent do the newspapers “corrupt the sentiments of the public”? There are two ways in which mass sentiment works. You undergo the direct influence when you are in a crowd, whether it be looking at a good match or at the royal coach passing by, and are swept away by the surging emotion around you to a display of stamping and shouting yourself. But the indirect way of creating mass sentiment is by the word, whether spoken or written, and here is where the newspapers come in.
Day after day, month after month they prescribe you in heated wordings what you ought to feel, how to love and hate, and whom, what to adore, what to despise. It is they who create these days abstractions like “patriotism”, “retaliation”, “heroism”. There is no space left to think about the purely human side of affairs, the agonies and suffering of the individual. The biblical virtues are thrown aside if not despised. And woe unto you if you refuse to accept this mass suggestion which as a veritable dragon saps your resistance and with tongues of fire licks away your defences. You will be an outcast, and as man fears nothing so much as the necessity to fall back on his own self he will give in and proclaim hatred a virtue and killing a duty. In old days the saints and sages conquered the world with their voice of truth out of the silence and serenity of their solitude. Nowadays the newspapers have conquered man’s minds and hearts by benumbing them with a deafening roar…………..””
Anna Bernardina Maria Holleman-Haije
Nothing has changed in these seventy years– everything is the same.
I have lived in the yoga world for more than fifty years. As without, so within. Yoga ‘groups’ are no different from countries. They all propagate their own theory, their own guru, their own fear of the ‘other’. They all advocate adhesion with the hidden threat that if you do not adhere you will be an outcast.
Can we be ‘centered’ in such a way that we do not believe blindly what is being dished up as the ‘truth’, but that we look at the facts in a more whol-istic way.
As Elisabeth Bennet ironically says in Pride and Prejudice: ‘One can only teach that which is useless.’
Real teaching is not by words and propaganda, but by example.
As yoga practitioners and teachers let us be examples of independence, integrity, courage and intelligence to stand on one’s own and yet be intensely part of the whole.
Let us be centered in the middle of the chaos of the modern world.
We may need it.
Let us see what Epo-Na has to say about all this:
“”I was remembering a conversation I had had with Epo-Na a couple of days ago. We had been spending a leisurely afternoon, when suddenly, out of the blue, she had asked: ‘Do you own your head?’
‘Do you own your head?’, she repeated impatiently.
‘Of course I do, what kind of a question is that?’
‘No, you don’t. I told you once, human animals do not have one thought that has not been put there by something or someone else.’
‘You do not own your head. It is owned by your world.’
‘So I am a second hand human animal,’ I asked. It was disturbing.
Here I was, at the bar having my morning coffee, remembering this conversation, and I was trying to think. In fact, I was trying to think one thought, even one thought only, that I had not thought before, that had not been put there by my ‘world’.
Nothing. Each time I tried, I bumped into an old one, or a combination of old ones.
There was not one new, original, thought in my head.
With a shock I knew that Epo-Na was right: I am a second-hand human animal, programmed from birth on, like a live robot.
I held my breath: that is me, thinking that I am unique and alone.
I am as unique and alone as seven billion other human animals that think that they are unique and alone without realizing that they have been programmed from birth on to think what seven billion other little robots are taught to think – seven billion live little robots……..””
(From the Discussions with Epo-Na volume two)
Yes, we cannot think ‘original’ thoughts, but we can carefully sift through the mass of words that we are bombarded with each day and make up our own mind to decide which one to believe, but this choice must be authentic and not based on fear, laziness, or a refusal to use our own intelligence, and least of all on the ‘ostrich-syndrome’, or comfortable sticking our heads under the yoga blanket, thinking that what we don’t see does not exist.
Soiano del Lago, 2012
The Yoga of Not-Doing
by Kate Rabinowitz
The Second Vital Principle of Dona’s Eight Vital principles of yoga is “Empty Mind or Undoing the Mind”. Dona writes we have to “sweep ourselves of the past” in order to realize the present. “The mind too, like the body, needs to ‘undo’ itself”. (From Dancing the Body of Light, and Dancing the Flame of Light”) Asana can help to relax the body, and then the mind must also let go. From this space something new can happen!
After thirty-five years of exploring yoga, I find myself beginning anew, not with doing yoga, but with the not-doing of yoga. Yoga as I understood it included a lot of effort. The advanced postures of course, and leading a disciplined lifestyle to go to bed early and to study books and to wake up and do a good practice, to include pranayama and meditation, to eat well, to have good friends and a good job and family relations. The yamas and niyamas are all wonderful virtues, but they can be a constriction if it is all effort and no being.
When my students are in Savasana I say, “Now the yoga begins. With surrender and openness, give up effort and allow yourself to be receptive.”
Dona said it so beautifully about working with students, not to impose ourselves upon them but to let the postures emerge from them. As with truly playing music, as Vanda Scaravalli said, one lets the music come out of the piano without imposing pressure on the keys, just lifting the sound and energy out of them. The piano will bring the music to you.
This is non-doing, the Taoist wu wei, the art of getting results without apparent effort. In Tai Chi it is pushing hands through space, feeling the exchange of giving and receiving in every touch, finding the space in between the forms. This is the yoga of not-doing on all the physical, mental and visual levels of our being.
I met Dona Holleman when I was twenty-three. I had been on the yoga journey with many teachers since I was fifteen. She was teaching at the Friends School gymnasium in Cambridge. Two hundred people and I felt like the only one. We had a direct connection. I knew I had to find her again, and I followed her to Italy to her retreats and teacher trainings over the next twenty-five years. There was something I needed to explore and resolve and deepen that is my particular karma with her.
Training with Dona to be a teacher, I found she was training us as true practitioners, free-thinking, free-moving practitioners in our own right. Each of us had to find our individual voice and understanding of yoga. Dona doesn’t like mimics. We do best to use her as an example of a strong individual to find our own inner source.
I learned from her way of life while staying in Italy. Besides Dona’s intense asana and pranayama classes, Italy’s beauty was everywhere, in stone farmhouses and converted stables, vegetables from the market, walking to the village church on Christmas eve. It wasn’t all work. We went to rodeos in the hills, line dancing with the locals, singing as we practiced, watching Douglas Fairbanks movies from head-balance in the afternoons.
Huddled by the fire reading in her library, we conversed about the meaning of life. The yoga room was just part of her teaching. We learned to affirm every aspect of life as a practice, how we get up in the morning, what we say to each other and to ourselves, what we do and what we don’t do. From the trees and birds and sky, from people and circumstances and challenges, we learned to allow stillness to turn into wisdom.
I came to realize there are as many kinds of yoga as there are practitioners. The varieties of yoga have come from many mentors, some who bring real genius to how they teach and practice. Ultimately I must find my own voice, my own way and my own practice. Adhering to yoga tradition is like learning the music scales, or how to play an instrument. Later I might write my own music and lyrics from what I hear inside.
Over the years I have trained and been certified in many forms: Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinayoga, Ayurveda, Shiatsu, Macrobiotics, hand- on-healing, art education. Even if I could master of all of them, I would still be limited because I’ve learned them from someone else. In learning from another one can forget one’s own genius, the connection to one’s inner being. My friend Karin Stephan says, “Seek not to walk in the path of men and women of old, but seek what they sought.”
Not being raised in a formal religious tradition, I looked for inspiration to Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, mystical Christianity, the Quakers. Each one had a depth and direction, each one its own referential structures. Formal religious structures are for people who want structure. When I get too much instruction on how to connect to spirit or the body or ideas, I stop thinking for myself. I cede my power to someone else’s goals or system or power needs. Yoga never needs to be limited!
This is a time for me to access the source myself and stop expecting anyone to do it for me. The Centered Yoga Community is a place to share this journey but not for any one person to guide it.
On Dona’s 70th birthday in February, 2012 students and friends gathered in Soiano to celebrate her life of teaching, practice and profound inspiration. Dona has been a fire of creativity for a long time. It is amazing to witness how passionately she still questions and how intensely she pursues her dreams.
One day at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, there was a strong asana class and then viloma pranayama for about an hour. In the relaxation at the end I went into a deep space. When I opened my eyes I looked up at the crystal chandelier in the middle of the ceiling and I felt like I was in the center of the universe, part of everything and everything part of me. It was a timeless moment, the most meaningful moment of months at the Institute. All my effort culminated in opening into this moment of no-effort. Nothing I had done created it, I had no expectation anything like it would happen.
All the effort I put into being a good Kate, doing my yoga, having a job and being a good person, it all melted away and all that mattered was in the moment. In that moment everything was OK. And I didn’t do anything.
The first time I dropped over into a backbend I was at a friend’s house. There were beautiful windows and sky all around. I lifted my arms and looked up, bent backwards, and kept going and going. I forgot that I couldn’t do it and I allowed a different world to reveal itself to me, in this case one that was upside down.
I learned many postures with Dona because of that not-doing, not trying. She suggested I see the luminious body, that it is already done and then lift the posture out of that vision. In backbends, or Bakasana, which was so difficult for me, became both fun and effortless. We visualized balancing the weight and flying like a bird. Imagining air in my bones allowed the density of my body to lift off.
Not-doing makes room to listen and learn. When I don’t impose myself on students, when I don’t have an opinion about the way it should be done, when I allow silence and space in between things, that is when healing happens. If I get my mind out of the way the class just happens. If I can hear what the class needs it’s like music drawn out of the instrument.
Stretching, if there is a place I can’t feel it is usually the unknown place that will guide me in a new direction, to a new dimension, open a new possibility. If I can’t balance in handstand, most likely there is a place I haven’t gone yet in the body, opening the upper back and shoulders to carry the weight, or contracting the front body to support the backward direction that allows balance.
Dona helps me venture into those unknown places. Like Carlos Castaneda, she says the places we fear most are where we need to go to evolve and grow. As Dona moves her practice to horses and music, learning comes from the animals and the art as much as yoga scriptures. She breaks tradition out of its box, takes the spirituality out of the institution into life. The trees are a church, the fields are a place to dance, the world is to explore, the body a temple for devotion.
The last article I read in this journal was about aging. It made me think about my aging process, about everything I haven’t yet explored in myself and that I need to balance. Perhaps it will include music, or athletics, or spending hours in one asana instead of doing a series. Perhaps I’ll meet new kinds of people, or be alone. I hope I can allow myself to be as I am and not have to do something to be OK. A friend reminded me “Don’t try to get somewhere else. You’re already somewhere; you’re here.” I am exactly where I need to be to evolve.
One day, Dona asked “What is the perfect pose?” My mind wanted to say, “Well, in trikonasana when all my alignment is perfect with classical instructions…” But no, the perfect pose is when I am in the pose, connected, not trying to be anywhere else. Then there is a certain state of peace, an undoing of the mind. This is the life and wisdom of a pose, when body, mind and heart come together. That pose is a vessel for great wisdom.
For me yoga is out of the box now. I honor all the traditions I’ve learned from and I express them in a way that is true to myself in this moment. I move the body where it needs to go, the mind moves in honest directions, the spirit moves where it will.
Not-doing allows our true being to shine through with acceptance and love. I love and honor my teachers, those who are close and those more distant. I celebrate their genius, I take their energy and commitment into my own life. As Dona hands over the baton to her students, she expands beyond her old role of yoga teacher, she has become friend and guide, inspiration and love.
Thank you, Dona, for everything. May your Centered Yoga that includes everything become the Tao of yoga, the yoga of un-doing. May it undo injuries to our bodies, minds and hearts imposed by rules or preconceptions. Yoga is union, in that unity lies freedom.