The Spring Practice Period at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, led by Eijun Linda Cutts and Furyu Nancy Schroeder, ended April 8, after a ceremony marking a culmination of training for the head student (shuso), Shokuchi Deirdre Carrigan. Read more
For Purusha Hickson, there is no divide between yoga practice and spiritual practice once you begin to connect to your body through yogic movement, you naturally begin to unite with the spirit that is alive within that body. As he says, “When people show up for yoga class it is a real, conscious choice.””
Purusha’s perception of our bodies as amazing tools for our own liberation is reinforcing, even infectious. In his upcoming retreat “Messages from Our Bodies, Messages from Our Life” you will meet Purusha’s warmth, clarity and good humor as he guides us towards listening to our bodies as one with ourselves.
Could you describe the way you approach teaching yoga?
Basically I try to get folks to tune into their body, to listen to their body in a new way not do too little and not do too much, but to find that in-between place. That’s where transformation happens.
Part of the beauty of the group class is the collective energy you have these wonderful people together with this energy in the room. At the same time it can be a little bit seductive. You may have a tendency to look around and compare yourself and your abilities to others. Instead, I emphasize listening to your own body and letting it guide you to find that middle path.If you have an injury or you have something going on in your life in terms of your health, you can actually make real transformation there. Or, if you just want to get stronger and more flexible or you want yoga to serve as a preparation for your sitting meditation practice, then it is that middle section where transformation happens. That is where my classes are geared, and it really is an individual journey.
What does this transformation look like?
Well, we are all on the path. When people show up to yoga class it’s a real, conscious choice.
Some people have a physical challenge, an illness or injury, and they are looking to heal the injury or the illness. And, yoga really does that. It’s an amazing healing practice.
Then there are people who come because they are stressed out. Like life is crazy. Just getting on the freeway can stress you out. Have you ever been to LA and gotten on the 405 freeway? They call it the “4 or 5” because it can take four or five hours to get anywhere! (laughter) Life can stress us out at times. We all understand that. For some people that stress has reached a certain intensity. They come to yoga looking to tap into something that will de-stress them and give them some peace of mind.
And then, there are people who are at another place in their journey and they are looking for spiritual awakening. They may call it enlightenment, samadhi, nirvana, satori, the kingdom of heaven, etc. It doesnâ€™t matter what we call it. These individuals are looking for a deeper meaning in life, and they are looking to yoga to help them in that. For all three of these groups, yoga is a real aid in moving us towards our next evolutionary step.
You describe a connection between spiritual and physical transformation. How does moving the body or focusing on the body lead to a spiritual opening up?
To begin with, it will help you sit. If sitting meditation is something you are putting energy towards, yoga postures are a powerful tool. When your body becomes more flexible, supple and strong, then your body can serve as a real aid to your sitting meditation practice. But instead, if your body is ill, weak or stiff, that can be one of the hindrances in your practice. And this principle applies whether we are doing sitting meditation practice or active service.
Our body is one of our most amazing tools. And what this yoga practice does is start with the external and then work its way to the internal. First of all, yoga strengthens and allows the muscles to become more flexible, which results in greater range of motion. It aligns the bones. And then it goes deeper. It actually affects the visceral organs or what are called the soft organs, the internal organs; it tones them, and helps them to function more efficiently.
A yoga practice controls and positively affects our chemical body, in terms of the hormones we secrete whether we are producing more cortisol, which is a stress-related hormone that, in time, will break down the body, or whether we are producing more serotonin and endorphins that give us this sense of lightness and ease. And finally, the nervous system itself becomes calmer and clearer, and is now more receptive to divine inspiration, to divine creativity, to divine purpose.
For that journey from gross to subtle, there is nothing like yoga. And when we consciously add the breath, our practice becomes even subtler. The yogis say that the breath is the bridge between body, mind and spirit. This is something that you feel and experience as opposed to understanding intellectually or academically.
You have studied yoga extensively and in particular you have practiced with yogis in India. What was it like to study in India, and do you consider the Indian yogis to be spiritual teachers or yoga teachers or both?
Going to India was wonderful. My primary teacher was here in the United States and she took me on my first trip to India to practice. It’s an amazing place and a land of extremes. There I found an authenticity and a depth that’s hard to describe;I felt it in the earth and in the air. There was also plenty of madness, in terms of over-crowding, poverty, and not having comforts that we may be used to. But, if you are after the depths you can find it in the midst of the craziness.
Speaking from my experience, there is no separation between physical practice and spiritual practice. The two are deeply intertwined. I feel very fortunate that I felt that thread of connection from the teachings that were given to me from my teacher, and grateful for the attention my teacher brought to this way of practice. I find many of my students feel and appreciate this as well.
When you are at Tassajara, do you sit zazen?
I love the energy at Tassajara and I love going to the zendo to sit. I also sit vipassana. The practice of sitting meditation is integral to the path I am on. It is a daily practice. I just so enjoy the wonderful beings up there and the energy there.
Purusha Hickson will be leading Messages from Our Bodies, Messages from Our Life from June 2 -5 at Tassajara. He will be giving a free yoga workshop on Saturday, April 12, in Los Angeles.
A Story in Photographs by Shundo David Haye
For the fifty or so monks who have been living at Tassajara for this ango, or practice period, the Shuso Ceremony marks the culmination of three months of intense training together. For the dozen or so former shusos who make the drive down from San Francisco or Green Gulch, it is a chance to revisit the beloved monastery, and to see how the practice has been manifesting there.
The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. —John Berger
Photographs by Shundo David Haye
Can our openness allow us a fresh regard for what is right in front of us? This is the essential question asked by poet and former SFZC Artist-in-Residence Genine Lentine, and photographer and Zen teacher Shundo David Haye, as they present The Attending Eye: A Photography and Poetry Workshop at City Center. Read more
I study the whole person in the posture, examining their needs and their response to those needs, from the ground up. —Victoria Austin
Interview by Jay Pennington
Over her forty-plus years at Zen Center, Shosan Victoria Austin has developed something of a reputation in the community as an expert in many different, specialized areas—from the esoteric details of dharma transmission ceremonies to the everyday issues of sitting posture. Read more