World of Magical Transport


It is a world of bright vermillion, emboldened by the afternoon sun, slits of light and forest green flicker through from above and from the sides like an old moving picture. Wooden torii gates of all sizes mark the paths up and down the mountain. And to walk underneath them is discovering an older Japan, a land full of holy places, gods and spirits.

After the main entrance of the shrine, the smaller wooden torii gates are thin, low and narrow, closely bundled together. To walk through them, is like being pulled gently through a tunnel; the transportation into another world begins. This is the rabbit hole in which dear Alice falls and falls and falls, dropping down into a reality in which perspective is suddenly different. The experience here, however, is much gentler, much more wonder-full, without the slightest feeling of struggle. I become small or the gates grow bigger (depending on the perspective) further up the mountain. They vary in size, but never again so small or tightly knit as that first level.
Walking up Fushimi Inari shrine, built in 711AD, in Kyoto, Japan is an experience. It feels magical and out of time. Even with throngs of tourists bustling past or falling behind, the journey up and down the mountain lends itself to quiet isolation.

It becomes more quiet the higher up the mountain–at least late in the afternoon–people are more sparse, simply dropping away, both literally and figuratively, as many turn back, feeling daunted by the seemingly unending torii. I, on the other hand, feel challenged, I want to know where it goes, I want to complete it. (This rationale gotten me to scale some pretty interesting heights).

I have been looking forward to returning here. Some places you can see once and that’s enough. We tourists are always looking for something new to titalize the senses. But Fushimi Inari, the memory of it–I knew I wanted to go up it again.

Torii gates are symbols of the passage between one reality to another, between the everyday to the spiritual world. For me, walking beneath these red-orange gates is a ritual that actualizes a spiritual journey, in a way that the ashtanga practice, aptly “sadhana,” similarly does, as well.

Breathing, moving through the postures, holding a posture those full five breaths–each posture, each breath is a gate, through which our body must move and from which the body emerges more subtle, purified by action, and more fortified too. The physical practice softens the body, and with it the mind. Slowly, these movements in space help move us up and down that deep internal mountain with its sometimes sweepingly gentle curves, other times steep ascents and descents, sharp turns, and, on occasion, fairly flat ground.

Our practice, which starts with surya namaskar, recalls rituals of old, morning prostrations that connect us to nature, the nature that is all around us, but the one within too, all of it connected to the Absolute. By getting on the mat, we engage in a ritual of sublime regularity, it is a transportation device that brings us closer to our spiritual world.

Fushimi Inari, the Ashtanga yoga practice, and other rituals of spiritual transport serve the purpose of softening the boundaries of reality, allowing us an experience of a world beyond the veil, a realm of spirit or magic or God, what have you.

Three years ago, I didn’t make it up to the very top of Mount Inari, turning back to make an appointment in the city proper. This time I was determined to make it to the highest point on the mountain. The odd thing was that I almost didn’t realize that I made it. I stopped to look at the trail map, only to notice a small sign, only slightly bigger than a post card: “Top of the Mountain.” I looked around. I was, in fact, at the top, there wasn’t any more mountain to scale, just more torii gates going down.

The top was barely noteworthy, except for the funny feeling that I nearly missed it. And then, like that, I was simply back on track, on with the trail, more torii gates as I descended the mountain.

Of course, how fitting! What better example of it’s-not-about-the-destination-rather-about-the-journey.

The magic of Fushimi Inari isn’t getting anywhere, there’s no venerable God-like figure waiting up the top of the mountain waiting to give you a certificate of completion and a pat on the back. There’s an old man selling refreshments and snacks from his shop, and, of course, more shrines, more offerings. No one even attends to them, there are no priests of facilitators between you and your Highest. Nor does the path end at the top, the torii gates go on quite a bit, though they become quite sparse towards the bottom, where there are more open spaces between them, more forest, as if the mountain is gently loosening its grasp, helping one exit from its otherworldliness. And we see out beyond the red: trees, nature, the world. Eventually the torii gates peter out completely, without ceremony or fanfare, into shrines interspersed by houses, before you know it, you’re just in the local the community, a short distance from the entrance of the shrine compound.

I realize my own mistake, there is no end, only more journeying, but one that must now be continued in real time, in real life, in the flesh, bone and blood world that we live in.

In our own yoga practice with its clear beginning and end, the spiritual communion seems clear. But those who have been practicing long enough also know that the long arms of our sadhana is not content to stay bound on our rubber mat, that the juiciest bits of transformation happen in our lives, our work, our relationships.

These tools however exist for a purpose, they remind us that there’s more, that there’s more magic, more blessings, more world to love and experience.

Advertisements

Fall-ing: Change with the Seasons

 

 

I love autumn, despite how unfortunately little I’ve experienced it, growing up in tropical Philippines and one-season wonder Los Angeles. I love the crispness in the cool air. I love seeing the leaves changing color. And then there’s this stirring, seeing the world before you change, how nature simply knows that soon it will be time to shed its old self, it accepts and celebrates this in a quiet show of subtle but tremendous beauty.

When I’ve been lucky enough to catch fall over these years of travel, I just fall in love with it (sorry, I could not help the pun!).  I was in Arashiyama, Kyoto last weekend with a girlfriend and we both found ourselves jumping excitedly as we saw the bold reds, oranges and yellows of the mountainside, which had been, not that long ago, a pretty uniform green.

Autumn arrives here in Japan during a difficult week for both of my home countries. New regimes are stepping in to the highest seats of power and with them rhetoric and promises (some might call: threats) that is difficult to stomach and dangerous towards minorities. I have feel sad as a woman and as a first-generation immigrant, I worry for the safety and well-being of friends and family, particularly in post-election America.

The changing trees, however, remind me that transformation is always at work. There will always be shifts. Summer is not forever, winter will most definitely come, and, when all seems lost, spring will soon follow. Everything in its good time.

I don’t know how the world will change–though, I don’t plan on sitting idly and watching it all just happen.

But when I see the autumn leaves, I’m excited by it because it reminds me of something essential about myself. There will always be this time, this time of letting go, and that somehow this way I move forward. This is when I regroup, I look at my stores, knowing that energy is precious and limited and that its my duty to find where it is best served.

Our yoga practice likewise has its own seasons. Sometimes not quite in the same order, but sometimes very similar. The autumnal flow of practice is a pretty dramatic time, change is visible and tangible with the inescapable the feeling that we are at the end of something. We celebrate. Or mourn. There’s a great show before we huddle in for our deep internal winters, emerging when it’s time for spring.

As I process the changing world around me, I return to the lessons on the mat, looking for equilibrium by standing on my own two feet, by breathing deeply through the feelings of separation and fear, by examining my expectations for a world that appears to be going in a different direction. I am asking myself how do I balance a need for calm and collected thoughfulness while acknowledging that my participation is needed in the world I want to live in. I don’t exactly know how, but I do feel that I’m equipped with a way to do it.

One thing is for sure–and has always been a certainty–the world is changing and, like it or not, we will change with it.

Bookish Beware: Less Reading, More Experience

 

img_0171

A world of books. A rare little independent Japanese book seller in Nakatsu, Osaka.

I’ve always identified myself as being a literary person. I studied English literature in university and even majored in creative writing. I love books, the actual physical touch of them, the weight of them in my hands, the smell of paper. As a youth, books were my escape from an awkward adolescence. My first experiences of love, obsession, heartache were from the novels I read, even the experience of reading them was very real to me, from forming attachments to the characters to feeling sadness when our time together would inevitably end in the last pages of a story. I still enjoy getting engrossed in a good novel, but I don’t seek them out as much as I used to.

My last bookish phase came with the beginning of my yoga practice. I collected as many books on yoga, I wanted to understand it, to use the same love for words to experience this new way of living. I don’t think I read through a third of these books that take a whole shelf on my bookcase in Manila. The ultimate teacher is always life itself, every book, lecture, teacher is a supplement to the greater lesson-maker which is life.

No one and nothing can show you the experience of anything. One might help facilitate or guide or share. Ultimately the job of experiencing anything is our own. We must, simply, experience it. To learn yoga, we must must practice. To live life, we must live.

Sometimes, I miss my books. I miss the old me totally absorbed in the pages of another world. But I also know that my lack of enthusiasm for a world of paper, stories and information is due to a greater engagement with the world that I live in–that these days, I favor activities that dissolve the stories and words that have previously defined me and my life. And perhaps, in the future, I will enjoy reading again with the same voracity as before, but for now, I am content in enjoying the moment before me, the unfolding story of life in real time.