I visited Mt Athos, (a peninsula in northern Greece, and a 1100 year old centre of Orthodox Monasticism, with 20 monasteries and countless smaller cloisters), for 10 days a couple of years ago, and lived at the monasteries. I attended both the 5 hour long afternoon and 2:30a.m. liturgies, ate with the monks, breakfast even included a little home made wine, and met a monk who grew up in Australia but was now 32 years there. We talked for an hour and he told me he took it as a confession and that I can take communion, which I did.
It was in a small chapel, beside the huge church of Iveron and built they say in 996 a.d. in front of an icon of Mother Mary with child almost as old as the chapel. There were pilgrims crammed into the tight space, some on their knees sobbing before the image.
This experience along with the daily routine and Byzantine chanting (that reminded me of a Bhuddhist Sangha) left me emotional, and empty at the same time. The beauty of Orthodoxy for me is in the ‘mystery’ which again ties in with the Buddhist belief that we cannot know God. This is what I took away. It’s a lifelong journey that’s never fulfilled. Maybe at death…
I was deeply disappointed when in a jovial and earnest conversation with a long time resident monk, he asked me what I did.,. I knew what was coming and I felt apprehensive. But I went ahead and told him. He got up got his stuff together, looked at me slightly disgusted and said, we don’t recognise that.
I feel deeply disappointed because there’s so much Yoga can do to help the Greek church get some youth back. Like what’s happening in the rest of the western world. It will take some time, but the young Greek yogis have to remember that they’re baptised Greek Orthodox probably and that this religion is just as rich and deep as the Hindu belief system.
Mr Iyengar has a quote that inspires me, my practice, and my life. Because it brings me closer to understanding the mystery of this life. The human condition. If you like, the mystery of God…
“My Body is my Temple and Asana (postures) my Prayers”
All faiths, religions, systems of spirituality have some form of prayer, meditation, reflection, visualisation. My first experience of this was at 19 when I joined a TM transcendental meditation group. Inspired by a confused childhood and the Beatles :). I attended an introduction at a practitioners home, and learnt the system. repeating a sound out loud whilst seated, as a daily routine, and with time making the sound quieter and quieter until you can do it without distraction, still and quiet. Then you simply think the sound, hear it in your mind and again, quieter and quieter as you follow it to the depths of your being. And then there’s this vast space…
Asana (yoga postures) is like this. Feeling the balls of your feet and heels in Tadasana Asana Mountain pose, activates the legs, which you bring into the standing poses. Then you work with adjustments and precision in the legs and this changes the feet and makes the grounding different so you start again, and again. Repeating and refining.
Sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes it’s right. You know it’s right because the result is freedom in the body somewhere, or a release, an unknotting a quieting. A transition, transcendence.
Then, there you are, one day absorbed suspended completely involved in the pose. The moment. A vast spaciousness is felt. Complete freedom.
We are honing, sharpening, strengthening our awareness and concentration. Consciousness. Why? Just like sitting for prayer or Sunday at church strengthening our faith. Wholesome action and cultivating a good life.
I just listened to Leo Tolstoy’s audio book, Father Sergei, narrated by a friend of mine as I practice my advanced Greek. I wouldn’t of read it otherwise. But I’m glad I did… The story of a resourceful strong man who becomes an ascetic when life lets him down, as he has no other choice. His success in his ascetic life, as in everything he did previously made him stand out amongst the rest. But, he was still tortured by the passions of the flesh. And only by immersing himself in the service to others could he find…. peace?
Only artists and ascetics have come close to expressing the true experience of the human condition. And usually not in words. Like the silent meditations of Ramana Mahashi witnessed by many.
Just like the first ascetic, the first monastic saint, Saint Antonios. He fought for decades against the demonds of lustful feelings. Hidden in a cave.
No one knows what’s going on. Especially now. And for most of us hiding in a cave isn’t an option. Without knowing it most of us are aiming at fulfilling a life set by our culture. Morals and virtues a thing of some romantic past. Without questioning or enquiring we strive for a model of success that was set by our media our environment and education system. Along with our thinking process…
Suffering and Bliss in varying balance…
Yoga gives me this balance. Illness, injustice, suffering all sround. But great beauty also. I don’t really like yoga. Honestly! It’s a chore and tedious most days when I think of getting on the matt. I think yoga likes me! mind you, yoga is not just exercises or postures like on social media practiced by attractive flexible people. This is Hatha. Just sitting everyday or serving your community wholeheartedly is yoga. And I’m sincerely blessed to of had some experiences and teachers that gave me the knowledge to see people and offer them a taste of this inner spaciousness that offers peace and hope, meaning and purpose.