Dharma & Moksha: A Yogi's Path To Happiness
Cover Image From www.learningmeditation.com
By Shy Sayar
With the risk of sounding like a character from Eat, Pray, Love, I will begin with a confession: since selling my Yoga One studios in California back in 2015, the town of Ubud in Bali has become a bit of a home away from home for me. Liz Gilbert’s account of the droves of western men (and women) who escape to the comforting lull of doing nearly nothing in stupefying luxury (at a ridiculously low cost) in this town of equal measures spiritual devotion and sensory pleasure has been a cautionary tale for me, lest I too wake up twenty years later and ask where all the time has gone. And, to be fair, I don’t fit the criteria anyway. For one, I have never stayed there for longer than a month, instead stopping to rest in its comforting bosom between courses and trainings in Asia and Australia. Second, I’ve always worked hard there, this last visit co-teaching a 200 hour training at gorgeous Dragonfly Village all day every day. And third, I’m not strictly speaking “western” – I’m from Israel...
Of course, you don’t meet many Israelis in Ubud – what with the governments of Israel and Indonesia having no formal relations. So I was both very grateful for the possibilities opened up by my American passport, and a bit surprised to meet Noga Weiss, an incredible Israeli yoga teacher living and working in Ubud. I attended some of Noga’s classes and was deeply moved by her profound skill and knowledge, married with a sincere heart for yoga and a great talent for teaching. We became close, shared meals and special times with her (heartbreakingly stunning) half-Indo kids, and practiced some great yoga together. Then Noga added another surprise to the already novelty- rich mix. “I’ve decided to move back to Israel,” she told me casually one day.
This is where I should pause and note that I left Israel as a teenager, in search of my calling (which will soon become a central theme in this story) in the tempting shores of California, and have never since considered moving back. And yet, like every Israeli, I understand the pull of home, the warmest people and the best food on the planet. “What about your work, though?” I asked Noga. Her response, along with some classical Indian teachings referenced in the title, has been the source of inspiration for this article..
You see, one of Noga’s main specialties is Yin Yoga, and in her most recent visit to Israel last year she found that, while Yin is still quite rare in Israel, there is great interest, even hunger for it among Israeli yogis. “Can you imagine how hard it is,” she asked me, “and how sorely needed, for Israelis to practice the fundamental principle of Yin Yoga – yielding?” It made so much sense. Us? Yield? Oh, no. That’s a luxury for the Swiss and the Kiwi. We must be hard and prickly. I mean, think about the basic story of virtually every Jewish holiday: “they tried to kill us, they failed – let’s eat.”
One Israeli I met while teaching in Thailand told me how popular yoga had become since I left in the mid nineties, when I literally knew only one yoga practitioner other to myself, and did the vast majority of my studies with books and personal practice. “It’s huge. Everybody and their mom does yoga in Israel” he said, “literally, their mom – everybody’s mom is suddenly a yoga teacher”. I was thrilled to hear, but he also added: “yet, most of it is nothing like your yoga style. I mean, your classes are very physically demanding, sure, but there is a constant emphasis on softness. Back there, hakol beko’akh,” meaning that everybody is pushing hard – literally “everything with force”.
Of course, it was just one man’s experience, and I took it with a grain of salt – even before discovering the amazing yoga scene of Israel for myself more recently, I was sure that there must be many gentle, conscientious teachers and practitioners, and indeed there are. Yet I could also fathom the kernel of truth in the stereotype he was sharing – the understandable reluctance in Israeli culture to yielding and surrendering, all things considered. If you’ve ever had to negotiate driving a car on Israeli roads and highways, you’ll know what I mean.
As they say, you can take the Israeli out of Israel, but you can’t take Israel out of the Israeli. Indeed, and though I have been able to find it in my physical yoga practice, as an Israeli man surrender is still the hardest spiritual principle for me to master in my everyday life. The classical Indian masters have taught that a good life is founded on four pillars: Dharma, Artha, Kama & Moksha. Dharma can mean many things, but in this context may be understood as vocation – one’s calling, purpose in life, reason for being here – and above all, in the service of others; Artha here refers to abundance, wealth and resources; Kama is pleasure, delight, enjoyment; and while most people think of Moksha as enlightenment (indeed not without some justification), it literally means letting go, becoming free of grasping through surrender. So let’s call it Service, Abundance, Pleasure & Surrender.
In that most recent teacher training in Ubud that I mentioned earlier, one of my co-teachers (the brilliant Kimmana Nichols) shared that it is enough and indeed best for us to focus on Service and Surrender. Abundance and Pleasure follow naturally, he suggested, when we focus on fulfilling our duties and our calling with our unique talents and skills, as well as mastering the art of letting go. This simple teaching has touched me deeply and stayed with me since.
As I also mentioned earlier, I left Israel in search of my own calling. While my love of science, especially physics and mathematics (which I still spend a lot of time studying, and which still inform and enliven my teaching of yoga), led me to study computer science and engineering in high school, my love for music, art and philosophy was stronger by orders of magnitude. Many young people all around me were continuing to computer programming and other studies in college and in the army, but while some of them sincerely loved it, many of them admitted to me that they had other motives for following a path that did not inspire them. “It’s the only way to make money in this country,” I was told countless times.
Thinking myself wise (as many foolish youngsters do), I figured out a way to have Artha and Dharma: I could have wealth and abundance even as an artist and philosopher – as long as I move to America. Of course, many such immigrant dreams have been shattered, but my lot happened by chance to be most fortunate; living in the USA indeed brought me great comfort even as I pursued my love of the arts and philosophy, teaching in academia and eventually (however unlikely even in the States) making an even better living as a yoga teacher.
Pleasure in life became easy to come by, living in my own home in California’s beautiful wine country with a beautiful woman, soaking in the sun in summer and in our garden hot tub on winter nights and mornings, surfing in the Pacific and snowboarding in the Sierras – sometimes on the very same day. And yet, like the story of the life of the young prince Siddhartha who became dissatisfied with his world of pleasure despite his parents’ best efforts to spare the child even any knowledge of suffering, suffering lurked in my heart. Beginning to teach yoga trainings in Thailand, I started developing irresistible wanderlust, and eventually left everything and embarked on a journey around the world. At first it was all fun, but eventually it became arduous and draining, and left me hungry for home – or in the words of Israeli poet Natan Alterman:
And your hands are empty, and your hometown is far
And more than once did you prostrate yourself in prayer
for a green meadow, and a woman’s laughter...
“Why did I do this to myself?” I wondered in so many of the hardest moments, “why couldn’t I just enjoy the pleasures of my abundance? Why did I throw it all away for these wanderings?” Answer Kimmana and the Indian sages: to learn Moksha. Yes, following my Dharma to become a teacher has given me great abundance, but I became too attached to it all, and was in many ways holding on to my wealth and resources so tightly that I lost pleasure in it, and eventually threw the baby out with the bath water. The missing ingredient was Moksha – surrender, letting go, not holding so tightly to everything we have, so that when things change and end as all things do, we are not left in misery. Then, with Kimmana’s words on Moksha still echoing in my mind, I get to meet Noga and learn her love for Yin Yoga and yielding, as well as her insights on our special need for Moksha as Israelis.
Surrender, I am learning, is endlessly multifaceted, and I am still wrapping my mind around all that it engulfs. It ranges from the smallest things, like accepting that the parking spot I wanted was just snagged by another driver (try actually being happy for them - now that's pretty enlightened), to the ultimate surrender: sincerely acknowledging, embracing, and living in constant mindfulness of our own mortality. Remember how I said that I thought I would never move back to Israel? Well, I'm learning to surrender even that idea. Noga actually inspired me to teach in Israel for the first time this April. I just bought my tickets – even though it was nowhere near the route of my original travel plans for the year. Maybe I too will hear the calling back home. Maybe not.
Either way, I surrender.