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.

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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

 

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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.

The Practice of Flight


Ashtanga has this gravity defying reputation. All over social media there’s a plethora of photos and videos of ashtanga practitioners displaying incredible aerodynamic feats, floating/levitating in and out of postures. All around there are workshops that focus on these technical aspects, of jumping forward and back, of engaging bandha to the point of slowing down time, of achieving this lightness of the body that mimics flight. And why not, it’s fun and looks amazing, and moreover it builds a particular awareness in the body.

I remember in my earlier years of practice, I loved it, I loved the feeling of height, and flight, that moment of suspension as I moved my body forward on the mat, before landing. I remember a fellow student once compared me to a grasshopper. And, if I remember correctly, I rather liked the comparison.

I’m not much of a “flyer” anymore. I’d probably still enjoy it, but over the years of studying with Sharath Jois in Mysore, India, that among other bits and pieces have dropped off the program.

I think for some strong practitioners this comes quite naturally. What I realized, however, for me, it did not. A lot of extra energy went into that one particular inhale, the effort was disproportionate, and practice is about an evenness of breath and effort. And extra effort in jumps, meant extra work for shoulders and arms which then resulted in tighter albeit stronger muscles.

Letting go of it, and for sure attachment was there, was just as much a part of me growing as a practitioner as it might be for someone else who chooses to develop these abilities.

Over recent years, practice has been more about streamlining, taking out the extra flourishes, those dramatic flares, which– when they are effectations–are simply distractions from the meditative flow of sadhana. It’s been about efficient use of mind and body (at 40, I am more concerned with being able to have a healthy and sustainable practice).

With a practice like ashtanga yoga, I think there is more than one way to fly. There’s the kind of flight that’s physical and really stunning to see. Then there’s another kind, and this is the one I find myself more and more impressed with, the practice that glides with such ease it barely registers. These belong to the super heroes in disguise practicing quietly beside you in the shala, so subtle until that one sliver of a moment you note with much surprise that they are doing something quite extraordinary. Likelihood is that there are even more practically invisible yogis who are totally going unnoticed, soaring above us all.

Whatever our mode of flight (I think different ways suit different people), ashtanga simply inspires us to take off to greater heights–and to greater heights we must go, no matter what that looks like.

Inner Dance in Osaka

Ashtanga is usually the force that moves me around to different places, I sometimes forget that I’ve shared inner dance as well in most places I’ve been to. And that this little known healing modality from the Philippines has made its own impression along the way. So I was happily surprised to be asked if I had any plans for it again here in Osaka. Why not, I figured, even on the fly, 2-3 folks would make for a good morning. 

I remember feeling uncertain when I first offered ID in Japan; the culture here can be reserved, I wasn’t sure if trance dance states would translate. 

Truth is it’s incredibly easy to facilitate the healing modality here, there isn’t much resistance, surrender comes naturally to many participants. 

I think it says a lot about the the heart and soul of the Japanese. Structure and form is important to this culture, we mistake this for left-brain pragmatism, which it also is. But if we look at the shrines, the old temple grounds, the intricate gardens, cuisine–all designed to touch essence. I think that’s what makes inner dance accessible here, there is a door, it is already open. 

Inner dance is a moving meditation, healing modality, way of personal inquiry–or none of these things. Sometimes, I think I don’t really know anything about it other than it works. There will be one more inner dance in November, if you’re in Osaka and are interested to join, message me at kaz.castillo@gmail.com. 

The Light Is On, Mysore Room KL

 

In the mornings that I was teaching there, turning on the lights at Mysore Room in Kuala Lumpur was a bright reminder of what my teacher Sharath Jois calls the 4 D’s of Ashtanga Yoga. “Devotion,” “dedication,” “discipline,” and “determination” would light up the room, which was still dim before sunrise. These four attributes make a good ashtanga student, to be sure. The kind of student who gets up 6-days out of the week to meet their physical/mental/emotional edge sometimes before the crack of dawn, and then get on with the rest of their day. Truth is most students don’t come with these D’s built in.

Practice itself cultivates these characteristics over time. When I started practicing ashtanga yoga, I had no idea what it meant to be devoted to a spiritual method, I certainly didn’t know what it meant to dedicate myself to any one particular thing, nor did I have the discipline or determination to do so. My relationship with ashtanga started with one class, which eventually turned into three to four classes a week, and usually in the evenings after work. I would even take up other yoga styles, once in a while, for fun. Eventually, I was practicing in the morning daily. Over time, I was practicing more and more with devotion, dedication, discipline and determination. They came naturally with practice–sometimes with ease, sometimes with difficulty, but always quite naturally.

So if you’re feeling lacking in the 4 D’s, not to worry, everything comes with practice.

It was a pleasure to cover for my friends Yan Ong and Manuel Ferreira in their school Mysore Room in Kuala Lumpur. These two have created a very special place of learning ashtanga yoga in the heart of the city. Once traveling teachers, their move home to set up shop in Malaysia is so inspiring for me. For information on their classes, see www.mysoreroom.com.

 

The ashtanga lineage: Patanjali, Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois watching over Mysore Room.

 

āsana and the yoga of cairo

It’s been a spell since leaving Cairo, but this piece inspired by the old city and its people has long been stewing. People often ask me why I keep coming back to Cairo. There are many reasons but one of the big ones is this: it inspires a level of sadhana that is well beyond the body. It’s a place that reminds me to live my yoga practice.

There’s this chair in a room. It’s a small receiving room in an old apartment in Downtown Cairo. The square room is painted red, and despite its tiny floor size, it stretches up and up with high ceilings. The chair is the only real furniture in the room. There’s a desk lamp, that sits on the ground and the three walls of the room are filled with artworks of varying sizes that reaches up the wall.

The seat, a wooden antique reclining chair with white cushions, feels lonely to me, partially lit by the lamp. Framed against the bits of modern art crawling up the red, it feels stoic, but solitary.

Later, my friend, to whom this space belongs, tells me about his life in Cairo. The struggles of ordinary life filled with victory and loss; he speaks of caring for a parent dying of cancer; of the failed revolution; of life in Tahir Square; of the many crazy things he witnessed during that crazy time; he shares the oddness and disparity between the different social stratas which he straddles, because Cairo, the world he lives in, constantly vacillates between extremes.

In yoga, “āsana” is often referred to as the postures we take while we practice. It is the “seat” of yoga.

These days, we mistake āsana as taking shapes in space. There is a proliferation of this on the internet with photos and videos of beautifully performed handstands and human pretzels… The day I started writing this article, a funny spoof on the yoga video phenomenon went viral among my yoga circles. The following day, a number of the same people who shared it online were once again liking yogāsana snap shots on social media. There’s nothing wrong with that, we can, of course, appreciate all sides. But it had me thinking, once again, what it means to be sitting in yoga.

It is truly something awesome to see a human being defy the limits and gravity with his/her body. They definitely inspire. But I wonder, are they accurate representations of āsana?

I do not offer any photos for this post, though originally I wanted to share one of the chair itself. My friend asked that I refrain from doing even that, such things are, after all, private and the delicate practice of our lives is sacred.

My friend and his chair (neither pictured here) move me in a way that I do not feel when seeing some popular representations of yoga. My friend and his chair, his seat, remind me that the essence of yoga cannot fully be captured in a polished physical posture, however amazing, however artistically articulated.

My friend, he’s no expert at Cairo life, certainly not at yoga. He’s simply doing his best to just sit in all the crazy, all the joy and all the disappointment, striving to find peace with all of it. And that feels like yoga practice to me.

When we practice, we are practicing our ability to sit in yoga, to find equanimity in the body, mind, heart. The greater practice is life itself, the challenge of which is to find equanimity in the body, mind and heart amidst the chaos of an ever changing world.

I think one of the reasons I continue to be drawn to Cairo is that the city’s version of the ebb and flow of life is on some serious kind of overdrive: it is a vortex of living, of varying energies, sweet and terrible (political, economic, cultural, social, individual) all swirling rapidly together in this thick soup of a city, layered with modern and ancient civilizations, and with them their countless innovations, numerous mistakes and unfathomable mysteries.

To sit in it, to stand, to walk, to move, to work, to be there, to be well–let alone, thrive there–takes a special kind of practice.

That’s not to say that everyone in Cairo is sitting in yoga, with every challenge there’s a good amount of avoidance or numbing–but the opportunity to practice yoga exists at every turn, every interaction, every bit of gridlock and difficulty. It is easy to see this in the lives of many of the city’s inhabitants, most of whom don’t know what the inside of a yoga studio looks like. Practice is alive in the struggle. It’s inhabitants must simply do what they can, working to find some stillness in all this whirlpool of energy; Cairo is their yoga.

The search for softness or grace or space or peace in the whirlpool of life is both challenging and sublime. I suppose it’s like this everywhere, though the extreme energies of a place like Cairo accentuates the experience. It is the same experience in a mysore room, where practice is alive and well, gritty and difficult, at the edge of some seemingly insurmountable odds, which we learn to overcome little by little.

Ultimately, the āsana of Cairo is that of everyplace, it is the practice of every man. It is about how we sit, stand, move, interact with our environment, with the people we meet, it’s how we rise up to our challenges and it’s how we live up to our victories.