Book Club: Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi by Brian Leaf

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Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi Home Image

As I sat in the deck chair in the garden in my Birkenstocks, my 4 month old baby in a mei-tai, I knew I would enjoy this book. The subtitle ‘cloth diapers, cosleeping and my (sometimes sucessful) quest for conscious parenting’ appeals to my (not-so) inner hippie.

I loved Brian’s first book, so when I discovered he was writing one combining yoga with gentle parenting, my ears pricked up. This is a memoir of his parenting journey from pre-conception to starting school. Brian is lucky to live in Northampton, Massachusetts, which sounds like a pretty cool place to live. I must remember to look it up if I ever make it to the States (incidentally, I have some good friends who live in Longmeadow…). Northampton sounds like a hippie-enclave and right up my street. Anyway, I digress.

Brian’s parenting ethos is ‘conscious parenting’, which encompasses attachment / gentle / playful / simplicity parenting. Conscious parenting is responding to your child’s needs in that particular moment, and not being a slave to your own childhood experience or acting out of habit / unconscious motives. There are no star charts, naughty steps or babies left to cry it out here. One of the reasons that this book is so great is that is a memoir and is written by a man. There are lots of ‘parenting advice’ books written by men, but not of the personal-experience variety. Brian is totally ok with saying he worries about his kids / parenting skills / hairy penis (see p.135), which is rather refreshing in today’s often macho competitive world.

For anyone on the path of conscious parenting, or even who is a tiny bit curious, Brian’s book is a great overview of many other books. Dip your toe here to see if it’s for you, then go and read all of the other stuff he mentions – Unconditional Parenting, Playful Parenting, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen…

The book ends with a very brief guide to Ayurveda and how it might influence your parenting. I loved this section in Brian’s first book, and went out and bought various oils with which to embalm myself. I must read more about Ayurveda as it’s so fascinating.

Brian has written a light-hearted, from-the-heart book about alternative parenting, which is laugh-out-loud funny at times. You should read it too. My only criticism? The chapters shoul dbe longer!

Yoga sutras of Patanjali 1.17

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Practice and detachment develop four types of samadhi: self-analysis,  synthesis, bliss and the experience of pure being.

Other translations:

The deep absorption of attention on an object is of four kinds, 1) gross (vitarka), 2) subtle (vichara), 3) bliss accompanied (ananda), and 4) with I-ness (asmita), and is called samprajnata samadhi.

Deep concentration on an object consists of 4 types:  1. Gross thought (vitarka)  2. Subtle thought (vichara)  3. Bliss (ananda)  4. I-am-ness (asmita) and is called samprajnatah samadhi (unity with object and Divine)

This sutra is actually about the final stage of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga – samadhi, or the seer becoming one with what is seen (Iyengar describes this as ‘awareness’).

Incidentally, I think that in a book, my mind would prefer to work up to samadhi, beginning with the more achievable limbs of yoga, rather than jumping straight in with the ultimate goal. I wonder why Patanjali did it this way? I suppose if you start with the ‘prize’ / goal, then the purpose of the lower stages is more obvious. Perhaps by doing this, he is saying that this whole book is about samadhi or meditation / awareness, and that the other 7 limbs are steps you must follow to achieve this.

This translation / interpretation of the yoga sutras says it helps to think of this sutra (on the nature of samadhi) as being about attention or concentration, or meditation. This particular sutra is on samprajnata samadhi – unity, cognitive non-duality or lower samadhi (compared with the next sutra, which is on asamprajnata samadhi, meditation without content).

The sutra states that there are four types of meditation or attention:

1. Iyengar calls the first type ‘self-analysis’, but the other translations refer to it as ‘gross thought’ or ‘gross concentration’. This means meditation upon physical objects, mantras, breath, etc.

2. Subtle thought – after the gross thoughts have been left behind, the subtle nature of things

3. Bliss – freedom from the gross and subtle thoughts,

4. I-am-ness or the experience of pure being – consciousness of being with oneself.

It appears that these are just listed as the four types of ‘meditation with content’, not that they are supposed to be done in a particular order or that one is superior to any other. I notice that this appears to be in quite stark contrast to Zen Buddhism, but perhaps not to other forms of Buddhism. In the Zen practice of zazen, or shikantanza (sitting meditation), one jumps straight in with formless meditation – just sitting, and noticing what occurs, with no particular focus on the breath or anything else. I suppose that the 4 types of meditation here would still occur if one only practiced zazen. By just sitting, you would still gain the awaresness of the gross and the subtle, of the bliss (if it happened to occur), and the I-am-ness.

I suspect that Zen Buddhists would take issue with the ‘bliss’ aspect here – Suzuki in ‘Zen Mind, Beginners Mind’ implies that you may or may not find meditation enjoyable / blissful / peaceful. If you did, then great, but that is not the point. The point is that you noticed it.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.16

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The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul.

As an atheist, I struggle with this idea of “the soul”, but can find meaning if I substitute “the self” or “ultimate reality”, but perhaps this is straying too far from what Patanjali intended. Other interpretations use “supreme consciousness” or self.

Iyengar lists five stages of detachment:
1. Disengaging the senses from action
2. Keeping away from desire
3. Stilling the mind
4. Mastery of desire
5. Supreme detachment

The qualities referred to here are the gunas: sattva (luminosity or serenity), rajas (vibrance) and tamas (inertia or dormancy). Hopefully we will return to these gunas again, as I feel I do not understand them completely at present.

Iyengar describes the practice of yoga (in the wider sense, rather than just asana) as the impetus for climbing the ladder to enlightenment or samadhi. By practising detachment we can pull the ladder up behind us.

For iyengar, practising yoga can help us to free ourselves from the trappings of consciousness. I might go even further and add that we would also seek to be free from the unconscious. In psychoanalytic theory, the unconscious mind is the cause of much suffering, whether from childhood trauma or just past experience. The goal of psychoanalysis is to bring the unconscious to the fore, to see what is there, thereby freeing the mind of those forces which cause suffering. Another way of doing this is through meditation – noticing those “negative automatic thoughts” (in CBT lingo) and just letting then be, observing our reaction to them without judgement. So the yoga sutras predict the whole Western psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic tradition!

A return

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Well, it’s been a while hasn’t it? Since I last posted here I’ve got married, moved house, had a baby and not done a whole lot of yoga (had really bad hip pain for the whole pregnancy). So now my Little Man is 3 months old, I’m looking to resume my yoga practice. Time is a bit pushed, as he loves to nap in the sling rather than the cot.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois recommended resuming ashtanga practice not before three months post-partum. I started with David Swenson’s 30min short form today. It felt good to be back on the mat, but a little frustrating at how far back I’ve slipped. I guess this is part of the practice – accepting where we are currently, and taking it slow and steady. Not my fortes, so it’ll be interesting to see how this sits.

Now all I need to do is find my copy of the yoga sutras and we’ll be back. ..

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.16

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The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul.

Indifference to the subtlest elements, constituent principles, or qualities themselves, achieved through a knowledge of the nature of pure consciousness, is called supreme non-attachment

That highest non-interest occurs when there is
freedom from desire for the features of material nature and thorough awareness of the spiritual person

This sutra is saying that the ultimate detachment comes from indifference to the gunas, or qualities of nature. There are three gunassattvas (creation), rajas (preservation), and  tamas (destruction)I take this to mean that once we are aware of the constant flux of life and nature, and learn to be indifferent towards it, then we achieve detachment and can see things as they really are.

However, this sutra does not give any guidance on how to obtain this detachment, it does not give us any practical help yet on how to do this. Surely the answer is through meditation though?

The creation, preservation and destruction elements are quite powerful, and all-encompassing. This sutra is guiding us to be indifferent to new life, and also to death. This is certainly not easy. If I have a baby, how can I possibly be indifferent towards it? Or if a relative or friend dies? Perhaps using the word ‘indifference’ implies not caring, but I don’t think that this is the case. If I have a good meditation session, I am pleased about that, but as Suzuki said we should retain a ‘nothing special’ attitude – it’s ok to be pleased about it, but don’t expect to be pleased every time, or sit on the cushion in order to be pleased. This is harder to apply when we come to our relationships with other people. Suppose I have a new baby, I feel love towards it, which is a form of attachment. The indifference does not mean not caring for that baby or feeling nothing towards it, but rather not expecting to gain pleasure from the relationship, and not having that pleasure as the goal of spending time with the child.

I must admit, I do struggle with this yogic / Zen concept of indifference. Patanjali does not explicitly state here in this sutra that the gunas refer to our relationships with others, but it seems to me that they must apply to all aspects of life. We must remain indifferent to the impermanence of life in order to see things as they really are. Impermanence is a huge concept in Buddhism, and we must recognise it to avoid the suffering it causes in us. This impermanence applies to human life in the aging process, the cycle of birth and death, and in any experience of loss.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.15

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Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires

Being detached from one’s desires is seen as a sort of freedom, rather than some sort of hardship. Iyengar says that the only way to achieve this is through willpower.

The goal is indifference, and i suppose that means also indifference to the practice itself. This reminds me of Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind stating that meditation practice should be “nothing special”. It is easy to practice when it goes well, when we achieve that asana or our mind is still during meditation. But it is easy to get discouraged when we are stiff or our mind is noisy. Being indifferent doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy things. It’s Ok to enjoy the practice, notice that enjoyment, but do not expect it every time, or make that enjoyment the goal of practice. Similarly, it’s Ok to enjoy spending time with your children, but the enjoyment should not be the goal of that interaction, nor should we expect it every time. I find this quite a liberating concept.

The sutra does not explore from what things we should detach ourselves. I suspect it is detachment from everything that we should aspire to, even the practice itself. This is not easy, but perhaps the first step is to notice when we feel attachment to something. Try this in the course of your day – next time you want a chocolate or your child to be better behaved or to have a ‘good’ meditation session (whatever that is) just step back and think “attachment is here”. Surely the first step to detachment is awareness of attachment.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.14

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Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations

Iyengar states that it is important to remain humble on this journey, not to have too much ego when things are going well.

As a busy working mother, I often struggle to have any sort of uninterrupted practice; sometimes life just gets in the way. I suppose the thing to do is not to beat ourselves up when we stray from the path, but to dust ourselves off and practice whenever we can. There was a recent news report which said that the average adult in the UK watches 4hrs of TV every single day. Imagine if they all cut that down by even half and devoted it to more spiritual pursuits…