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Drinking Saltwater: Hatha Yoga kriyas and the path of acceptance

I feel the wind on my face skin and imagine myself staying still in a hug. Imagine myself in joy. I fill my water bottle and hear the hollow sound of the piling-in. I stay seated with my eyes closed until everyone else leaves for breakfast and then, alone in the big maroon-floored room, I cry. It hurts my rib but what choice do I have, I’m overdue for this cleansing. I need no one to hold me I hold myself.

Speaking of cleansing.

Me practicing sutra neti, a Hatha Yoga kriya for cleansing the sinuses. With the expert guidance of my teachers and some deep breaths, I slid the rubber cord through one nostril and reached in to grab it from the back of my throat. It actually felt incredible! I've never breathed so clearly.

Saturdays are our days off, rest from a six day sprint of asana practice and Vedic philosophy. This is the third Saturday of the course so far, and I kicked it off by sticking a rubber catheter in my nose and pulling it out of my mouth. Then I drank 14 glasses of saltwater and strutted around like a giraffe, crouched like a crow, twisted my guts with the love it takes to get things moving.

These practices are part of what Hatha Yoga calls kriyas, a Sanskrit word that translates directly to something like "to complete an action." They're cleansing techniques originating in Hatha Yoga. Our teachers led us through them on the porch of a river-facing cabin, answering our questions and talking us through the tough parts.

Kriyas are about more than getting the physical junk out of us. They're about discipline, and facilitate an energetic shift too, a shift in what it’s like to be in a body. My teacher mentioned receptivity this morning as some of us gagged and others slipped the rubber cord in with ease. “It’s the relax, no? It’s the willingness to accept, no?”

The very impact of the practice, it seems, is not exactly about the salt water or the rubber string, but about the capacity of the practitioner to be present with and open to it. How much can I relax while I move this red cord into my sinuses, while I do this thing that feels very unnatural to my false ideas of what’s ever “natural” to my body in this world?

The view from the bridge I walked to this afternoon while I processed all the philosophy we're learning.

And further: why, I’ve wondered, does this stuff seem so strange to us Western kids? Strange, at least, until it’s made palatable in form, made acceptable by the word of Western doctors and bloggers, presented as if new and freshly thought-up. (E.g. Coconut oil is all the rage! Turmeric will cure cancer! Indians have known what’s up for a while, y’all.) I’ve read up on and even practiced salt water cleansing before, but this feels, and is…different.

While my whole face felt cleaner and brighter when I’d finished, what was more notable was my sense of connection to my body. That I am often most afraid of what’s inside me, more out of touch with what I’m daily carrying around in my skin than with anything in the world outside, is coming up often for me here.

Our resident monk, teaching us daily about Vedic philosophy and Hindu mythology, has been talking about this, too--this simultaneous estrangement from and fixation on the body. The most fundamental confusion that leads to suffering, he says, paraphrasing the Bhagavad Gita, is the belief that we are our body and its experiences. That we are the (constantly morphing) pieces of our physical and conceptual identity.

Swamiji getting ready to lead us through opening chants.

He gets deep sometimes, spouting off in Sanskrit what are likely proofs of the theories he’s teaching. “Let’s not worry about it,” he loves to say before moving on. I listen intently and pick up the pieces I can manage to scramble for, the pieces that seem most instantly to fit in the puzzle of me, the puzzle of my searching mind.

One bit that keeps coming up circled dark in my notes is that we cannot be happy until we stop blaming ourselves. Always self-shaming for who we imagine we are, for what we believe we’ve done, for what we have yet to do, we build our own miseries and live in them.

Meanwhile, self-blame is the name of the game in the West—it feels inescapable, woven by the Original Sin of religions into the fabric of our societies. This, maybe most fundamentally, is what yoga has done for me from that first class in 2011; it has given me space to let everything about me be ok.

The Vedas say that suffering is believing we’re not enough, believing that fulfillment will come when we reach the impossible end of a striving to be better or more or less of who we are right now. Happiness, then, is letting ourselves be instead of striving to become. It is found in the silence before and after the breath, the thought, the action. It is found in believing that there is nothing, not a single thing bad about me. Once this is true, it follows that it becomes true about everyone else. Judgement slips away into the water of, I don’t know, existence?

Swami's also got a way of reminding us it's not so serious. Yesterday his phone rang while we were repeating his Sanskrit song of the Bhagavad Gita. He stopped mid-line: "Sorry! Gotta take this! Hellooo?"

It is difficult to articulate why I am spending my day off doing what likely sounds like torture to some—drinking salt water till it comes out the other end, and flossing my face. I think it’d be dishonest not to acknowledge my initial interest in the glowing skin and lean physique the practices promise. What I’ve come to over these three weeks, though, is a new love for this body, a desire to tend to it instead of abuse it into submission.

I know I am waxing yoga-talk philosophical. It’s a side effect, no doubt, of three weeks away in a peaceful little jungle ashram with nothing but yoga, curries, palm trees, bucket showers, and the knots of the many inner struggles it’s all bringing up. Even for me this idea of how we might come into true happiness feels only slightly less abstract than it is when Swamiji chants it at us in Sanskrit in a tone that says “It’s so! Simple!” But the sentiment is sinking in.

At least insofar as I feel best in the split seconds when, having climbed into bed, the crickets chirping, I want for nothing and begin to fall asleep.

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