About Shame, How Yoga Helps.

I suffer from the embrace of shame. I feel ashamed of my needs, desires, personality, physicality, and intellect.

“Through the long lonely years of my childhood, when my fathers palace seemed to tighten it’s grip around me until I could not breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story.” Chitta Banerjee Divakaruni writes as she takes us on a journey with a heroine of remarkable character in her book, Palace of Illusions.


Draupadi, also known by the name Panchali, is a female character in the Indian epic poem, The Mahabharata. Her story of rising beyond shame is brought to life in A Palace of Illusions. This book elevates Panchali as an enlightening character who lived in a world of literature where the potency of mortal women is rarely articulated.

Panchali is a deep and complicated person. She is married to 5 men, the Pandava brothers. This is a daring circumstance even in our modern world. Her plight and life’s work is often credited as the inspiration behind the great battle, the Kurukshetra, described in The Bhagavad Gita.

At one point in Palace of Illusions, Panchali, after refusing to sweep the kings floor, is taken before a court to be punished for her insolence. Panchali’s sari is forcefully removed as a means of inflicting shame. The exposure is considered a serious degradation in old India. The shame of her nakedness is so grand that society would have expected Panchali to commit suicide after such an assault.


I often feel shamefully imperfect. A few years ago, a friend referred me to Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You Are Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are.

“Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.

Her Guidance helps me to know my shame, recognize it when it arises, and gives me tools to set myself free to live a radically alive life.

Brown, a researcher, author, and professor, tells of an “ah-ha” moment in her work on shame. There was a moment when she noticed there are some individuals who do not suffer from the infliction of shame. She calls these people the whole-hearted.

She studied the group and compiled a list of their shared do’s and don’ts: 

“The do column was brimming with words like: worthiness, rest, play, trust, faith, intuition, hope, authenticity, love, belonging, joy, gratitude, and creativity. The don’t column was dripping with words like: perfection, numbing, certainty, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool, fitting in, judgment, and scarcity.”

Brown says, “Whole hearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think no matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.”

Panchali as imagined by Divakaruni, in the midst of her affront begins contemplation. Her concentration is so powerful that the sari being unwrapped becomes limitless in length. The endless unwrapping simultaneously illustrates Panchali’s strength of focus and the results of her single mindedness. The object of her meditation is the face of her friend, Krishna, who also happens to be the god of love.

Panchali’s concentration is so strong that she sees Krishna’s expression with impeccable clarity. This vision sets our heroine free. She sees the smile that sometimes appears on his face. She feels him carry her off into a garden that is filled with swans and blue flowers falling from a canopy of trees. The fragrance of sandalwood fills her body with pleasure and tastes sweet in her mouth.

Over the years, I have added some of Brown’s do's into my daily thinking. Love, gratitude, and authenticity fill my yoga practice and teaching each day. But too often, when life takes me by surprise, I can fall back into a feeling of not belonging. I will sacrifice my persistent creative drive to try and fit in, be perfect, and have value. Somehow I attach these ideas with my very survival.  If I am not perfect I will end up alone and ultimately I will die, abandoned and miserable.

Brown continues, “Our imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re are in this together, imperfectly but together.”

She says shame is different from guilt; whole-hearted individuals have a certain amount of both. It makes us human. The differentiation between shame and guilt is illuminating.

Guilt = I did something bad

Shame = I am bad.

“Panchali no one can shame you, unless you allow it.” The Palace of Illusions, Chitta Banerjee Divakaruni

Brene Brown speaks about three tools she considers essential on the journey to Wholeheartedness: Courage, Compassion and Connection.

In the story of Panchali’s shame we can see that she overcomes her predicament and survives whole-heartedly by employing the very same tools Brown suggests.


“Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves  the experience of vulnerability...we are all made of strength and struggle." The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Panchali did not choose to marry 5 brothers. She loved Arjun, one of the brothers, and thought she was joining the family to marry him alone. Tradition required Panchali to submit to her mother in-law's wish that she marry all five sons. Can you imagine the courage that took? Panchali also shows courage in the Mahabharata as she faces the difficulties and judgment aimed at a woman with 5 husbands. This same courage is present as she defies the king and faces the shaming. Panchali also shows her courage after the shaming, when she refuses to wash the blood and dirt in her soiled hair until the king is revenged.


“Compassion is not the relationship between the healer and the wounded, it is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness can we be present with the darkness of others” The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

In the yogic tradition, compassion is one of the three classic means of accessing energy. Along with merging and boundaries, the practice of compassion facilitates awareness of the happiness and inevitable suffering everyone experiences. Brown describes the practice of compassion as: I understand, I’ve been there.

Panchali’s compassion, like many mythical liberators, does not imply a sweet sticky Hallmark abbreviation of the fierce experience. It insists on a whole-hearted comprehension and presence with what is. What is in another and in our self.

“Compassion is daring.” Pema Chodron


“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship...we are both those who offer help and those who receive it.” The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Krishna, Panchali’s long time friend and god incarnate, provides the opportunity for connection. Panchali’s ability to put her mind on the face of her friend offers comfort. Everyone needs connection to be healthy. We know that babies need touch or they perish. According to Brown, the ability to make and receive connection is required to be whole-hearted. For Panchali, without the ability to connect, she would have died.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerability is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging, and joy.” The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Brown says that story, in our case the story of Panchali, is about worthiness and embracing the imperfections that bring us courage, compassion, and connection.

“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

I bring Panchali’s story to you, not to condone the actions of the King and his court, but to help us remember that although we have had extremely difficult events in our life, we can use the tools of our yoga practice to cultivate a steady mind. This focus transforms our suffering into a garden. In this garden we can be free of our shame and lose ourselves to love.

Women, by Adrienne Rich

My three sisters are sitting

on rocks of black obsidian.

For the first time, in this light, I can see who they are.

My first sister is sewing her costume for the procession.

She is going as the Transparent Lady

and all her nerves will be visible.

My second sister is also sewing,

at the seam over her heart which has never healed


At last, she hopes, this tightness in her chest will ease.

My third sister is gazing

at the dark red crust spreading westward far out on the


Her stockings are torn but she is beautiful.

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How Can I Help? From Rye to Raphael and how a generous donation changed the face of a collection.

Tao Te Ching

That which shrinks

Must first expand

That which is weakened

Must first be strong.

That which is abolished

Must first cherished.

Before receiving there must be giving. 

This is called the perception of the nature of things.

Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.


William and Henry Walters, the art they acquired, and the donation of their collection to the city are Baltimore treasures. 200 artworks from the Walters Museum and the story of Charm City’s important family are on view in “From Rye to Raphael”. The exhibition illustrates the evolution of the family, the collection, and it’s complicated context.

The beloved yoga teacher, TKV Desikachar, tells us that: as yoga teachers our primary task is to serve the seeker. We cultivate the yearning to help others and work tirelessly crafting offerings to meet individual needs. He reminds us that teaching is not about me, not about making me a popular instructor, not about this style or that studio; teaching yoga is designing and modifying the practice to serve the student.

 The Walters Museum, now admission free, a feature that increased attendance by 40%, is a palazzo style building in the heart of Mount Vernon. The building was erected by Henry Walters and was bequeathed along with the artwork to our city, a gracious gift.

 But what does Desikachar's statement mean to anyone who desires to help? How do we know what is actually required? Ram Dass, in his classic book, How Can I Help, speaks of service as an endless series of questions. The questions are actually the map.


I took the elevator to the 4th floor and walked into a hall filled with paintings, furniture, sculpture and objects gathered by William Walters for the purpose of enjoyment, for his home. William and his son Henry were interested in and collected Maryland artists. To my left is a bust of Henry Walters by Hans Schuler. The Schuler School along with names like Maryland Institute of Art and Rinehart School of Sculpture were supported by this turn of the century family and are today, premiere institutions of art education. 

Ram Dass says that in helping, we meet our own limitations; we can see how our intolerance for difficulty can lead us to avoid suffering, and in the end leave us helpless. In our helping profession we might experience a feeling likened to an open heart. Reaction can cause us to close down when we feel such a vulnerable state. Feelings of overwhelm, helplessness, and burnout can sabotage our ability to help. Ram Dass says awareness of our reaction is the first step to a sustained ability to lend a hand.

Then I see the whiskey. A bottle and two glasses sit in a vitrine. The glasses are fine crystal and I realized the magnitude of wealth required to purchase this much art. The fortune, which begins with the production of Rye and increases with profits resulting from investments in railroad built a ton of money for the Walters family.

I couldn’t help thinking back to Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Her historical novel tells a story of clear cutting in America. The industry provided immense wealth for a few determined families. This wealth was multiplied with the arrival of the railroad and the expanded opportunity rapid transportation would provide. In early America much of the labor for endeavors like railroad and timber was garnered from slaves, indentured servants, prisoners and those who were victims of extreme poverty.

Does this mean we always have to help? Ram Dass asks: Do we always have to give to the person asking for money? Must we always invite the person who is obviously late to have our space in line? He suggests we are conditioned to rationalize and formalize our helping. Conditioned to give in a church setting or to specific non-profits that we have researched and approve of. We are trained to withhold from someone who might be spending our spare change on alcohol. Awareness of our conditional approach can help us to see the limits of our rational mind and our giving obstacles. So while giving may not always be the answer, we can develop a capacity to feel empowered and energized to give in our personal and professional life

 “Awareness of conditionality toward true service is not resistance to overcome but a pathway to deeper understanding.” Ram Dass, How can I Help?

 We can access energy. The three methods.

1. Merging – the ability to identify a quality you admire in another. You can find increased energy when you bring these qualities into your body. If you can perceive it, you can find a felt sense of what it is like to own it. If I embrace someone’s happiness, I feel happy.

2. Boundaries - the ability to recognize when another embodies qualities you do not want to live. Put a boundary around those qualities and simply say no. I can perceive your anger but if I do not want to get caught up in the cycle of anger. I recognize the feeling as yours and not necessarily mine.

3. Compassion - the ability to recognize that whoever stands before you has experienced true success and joy in their life. Compassion is also the ability to recognize that this very same person has endured great suffering and loss. From this experience blooms the flower of deep understanding.

 As I walk around the first corner, I meet another bust, his back to the door. He sits on a wall directly behind the Schuler portrait of Henry Walters. I look at the title, Bust of Dr. Dio Lewis. The subject was an abolitionist. The work, made by Edmonia Lewis, the first African American artist to achieve international fame, is a beautiful form. Next, I see Sylvia and Eddie Brown added the Bust of Dr. Dio Lewis to the Walters collection.

Can we experience Boundlessness? Make a list of who you are. Brainstorm for a full minute, even if you are repeating yourself. I am a yoga teacher, I am an artist, I am a wife, I am a daughter, I am a friend, I am an enemy, I am a spiritual person, I am a business person, I am a person of nature, I am a city dweller, I am a loving person, I am a frightened person. Don’t stop… you will find that at the end of a minute there is still more that you are. You will find that even if you write all day long you could not capture everything that you are. This is boundlessness.

 The Browns must have met the discomfort of inequality when they first looked at the Walters collection. It is remarkable that their response to the discomfort was to lend a helping hand. They reached into their pockets and gave generously. They gave to rectify a vision that was only half true. Standing back to back: Henry Walters and Dio Lewis. One facing the door, greeting visitors, the other like a shadow; present but only visible if one looks. Both works made by accomplished artists: one white, one black. Both sculptures are included in the show due to generosity and the desire to help.

In the same section of the exhibition I noticed the porcelain from Sevres, France: a toothbrush and a sponge holder, delicately built with fine glaze, the toilet seat was not on display. I thought about the toothpaste that would be gross in the holder and how servants would be necessary to keep the porcelain clean. I couldn’t imagine Henry Walters cleaning out such delicate china.

Can we be with Suffering? There is much suffering in the yoga room, physical, mental and emotional pain. Often, as teachers we do a lot to avoid the experience of suffering in our classroom. We might employ a fast sequence, or an easy sequence; we might blast loud music or insist on quiet. The plan is relative and may be a reflection of our professional tactics to avoid suffering.

 Ram Dass suggests that to be with suffering is to be able to help. Our tactics can be addressed; they can be brought into the light so we can increase our capacity to be with difficulty. I know this may seem uncomfortable but Patanjali, author or the Yoga Sutras, tells us there is a way out of suffering, and the path eradicates it’s return.

 “With suffering, our capacity to be still with intense sensation equals our capacity to give. We do not have to help; we are help itself.” Ram Dass, How can I help?

It is challenging to imagine the details of daily life in the 19th century. What and who were required to support the lifestyle of the Walters family? At the same time, the collection is magnificent and Henry Walters, unlike John Pierpont Morgan or other turn of the century collectors, always intended his artwork to be a gift donated for the benefit of the public.

The French painting room included Delacroix and Ingres. I was struck that these masterpieces are right here in Baltimore. I feel proud to know that many pieces in this collection are included in art history lectures. They are considered significant examples of their genre.

But many of the paintings in the French room are also stereotypical. The role of blacks as slaves, the portrayal of Muslims as dangerously exotic, and women as objects, are ubiquitous. These paintings, selected by father and son, increase our sense of otherness. They re-enforce prejudicial beliefs. In this room there are no minorities making paintings of minorities and as a result, there is no lived experience in the works.

How do we hold these two truths? How do we embrace the painting, the pursuit, and the execution of art in the 1800’s while recognizing the homonymous of this collection?  Eddie and Sylvia Brown, instead of rejecting the collection, offered their money as a helping hand. In 2002, a challenge grant, consisting of $500,000 matched by the museum built a 1 million dollar fund dedicated toward adding African American art to the Walters permanent collection.

The gesture blew me away.

Do we have the ability to listen? If our mind is everywhere it is impossible to be where we are. If we are trying to listen to another but are worrying about the future or the past we cannot be present. This internal drama is a real drain and a hindrance in our effectiveness to help. Richard Freeman says that yoga always begins with listening. That listening allows space for the present to unfold. Siddhartha, in Herman Hess’s novel, famously said that the river taught him to listen with a still heart, with a waiting open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions.

 Nobody is perfect and I don’t want to project that expectation on William or Henry Walters. When I was a teenager and entered this museum for the first time, these very same works sparked my interest in art. I remember trying to paint like Ingres. The craft, the beauty, and the creativity cannot be undervalued. These artworks are a very generous gift, perhaps priceless. What I am wondering is, what does it mean to give? What does one have to do to be a real help in the world?

What might make us feel trapped in our roles as helpers? Expectations, personal agendas, attachment to the outcome are all things cast us into the prison of helper. The idea of know-how versus how can I help, may also put a lot of pressure on the giver.  Ram Dass implies, as we continue our training, that more certificates can make us prescriptive in our inquiry around teaching. We can begin to see each other in categories: good teacher, bad teacher, students who work effectively, students who don’t. These judgments can result in labeling ourselves and isolating ourselves in the role of helper, perhaps even fostering an environment where we cannot ask for help.



The collection includes a beautiful Turner painting, a few famous impressionist works (Henry Walters was not very fond of the genre) including a Sisley, Monet and some Pissaros.  There is a room set up like the Walters home gallery with an absolutely perfect Fortuny (my favorite piece in the show). The collection includes, Madonna of the Candelabra, one of the most sought after Reuben’s in the world and an exquisite Faberge egg. There is a Tiffany brooch with more sapphires than stars in the sky.

I see how early America provided opportunity for amassing great wealth, such immense wealth that one could collect the most desired art in the world. But I wonder, how do we embrace this work and these gifts when we know that the wealth was garnered on the back of slaves, indentured servants, and workers sentenced to a life of poverty until death?

Eddie and Sylvia Brown found a way.

Is Social Action Helpful? Many times as yoga teachers we come face to face with the idea of social action. Should we be vegetarian, should we be sponsored by corporations, should we teach with content relevant to big problems facing our culture like global warming, politics, and conservation? How much time can we dedicate to making these changes? We may find ourselves in a place where we need to change minds: do we use tactics like fear, anger, anxiety, or dread? Is this helpful?  

 “ There is a way to oppose without opposing.” Ram Dass, How can I Help?

 Eddie and Sylvia Brown reached out with the challenge grant. They opposed without opposing by adding the art that Henry and William Walters missed. The additional works create diversity in the collection. My favorite challenge grant work is titled River Scene. Painted by Robert Seldon Duncanson, it’s subject matter includes African Americans boating and relaxing on the banks of the Ohio River.

Will I Burnout? The seeds of burnout are often visible in how we approach our helping deed.  When we identify our desires: to be important, liked, needed, responsible, worthy, we can begin to see how we might manipulate the helping deed.

By choosing to serve the kinds of students who fulfill our needs and by denying those who don’t we multiply the habits of aversion and attachment leading inevitably to our own suffering.

Awareness and equanimity are the method to happiness. Ram Dass says we can dispassionately identify our personal needs and take the risk of releasing our doership who requires result.

 Name three ways you approach the helping deed conditionally?

The Brown’s deed creates an environment that does not erase the past. It does not reject the work of white artists, but gives a very peaceful voice to the unheard. It is present with their suffering and helps simply by being there. In this case the unheard voice is that of African American artists at the turn of the century. For me, the additional works also give voice to those who washed the Walters' toothbrush holders, and poured their coffee into the tiny porcelain cups. For me, these works offered an opportunity to reflect on how to help, even in the face of suffering. The works of Robert Seldon Duncanson, Edmonia Lewis, and others allowed me to ponder the generosity of William and Henry Walters, the Walters Museum, and that of Eddie and Sylvia Brown.

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Every experience has value. Spanish art, Valmiki’s grief and making space for what really is.

“Tapping into our discomfort is the most available resource for personal transformation.” Pema Chodron

On our last day in Madrid I went to a very complex and moving art exhibition at the Reina Sophia Museum. The exhibition was called Campo Cerrado. With the intricacies of US politics and the difficulties of inequality pervading our daily life, the show felt timely to me.

Campo Cerrado, which translates to Closed Country, originally comes from the title of a book written by Spanish author Max Aub. He writes of unrest in Spain during its conservative rein and about the liberal resistance specifically in Barcelona.  But the story is a tragedy because both offenders and resisters metaphorically suffer from Homonymous. Homonymous is a physical condition that divides the field of vision, right down the center, either the inner or the outer side is blind. You can only see half of what is in your line of sight

In Sanskrit, krouncha translates to heron.  Two herons are often inspiration for traditional Indian poetry, most notably the epic poem the Ramayana. The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu (the sustainer), Sita (his wife) and their battle to triumph over evil

“Equal to Vishnu in valor; grateful to the sight as the full moon: in patience still as the earth; in generosity like Kuvera; in truthfulness the personification of virtue. Such are his great qualities – Rama.” Valmiki, The Ramayana

Campo Cerrado looks to fill in some of the missing vision surrounding art during the Spanish civil war. It’s hope is to show expression and creation that results when a country is faced with a dictator and his regime. Although the show consists of artworks that date from 1938, the painting, sculpture, and films feel extremely pertinent. How does one find right action in the face of an autocrat while at the same time grieving the ravages of conflict?

The exhibition kept reminding me, through the thoughtful arrangement of works, that perfection and the quest for perfection can be a manipulative action, especially if it is imposed. It is not inclusive. One man's idea of perfection leaves swaths of people, their beliefs, and their ideals out of the picture. To demand one ideology through artwork or anything else is to create a separation and a sense of otherness.

One day the sage and poet Valmiki was walking through the woods and saw two herons engaged in love play. The vision of the birds was beauty beyond description. Then, out of nowhere, a hunter arrives, lifts his bow and shoots the male bird with an arrow. The heron falls to the ground and lay dying in a pool of blood. The female bird let out a cry that was potent and illustrative of her agony.

“Valmiki the poet held all the moving world inside a water drop in his hand. “ Valmiki, The Ramayana

And how easy it is to succumb to propaganda. For example, in 1938 Spain entered idealized art into the Venice biennial. The work was not representative of a modern sensibility much of the country embodied. Many of the paintings and sculptures were completed before the war began and Spain’s contribution turned out to be an attempt to restore academic art. There are films showing the exhibition and the ideal it promotes. The work all looks “perfect” and everyone depicted in the works look “perfect”. But this idealized exhibition suffers from homonymous.

Another part of the exhibition showed works made during the rein of the dictator, Franco. There are cultural propaganda works that illustrate the joys of a simple life, but the people were oppressed. There are also works illustrating the sadness pervading the city of Madrid, often referred to as the city of a million dead. And somewhere in between are artists who are working in a covert subversive manner, hinting at discontent in a language that can slip below the radar of censorship.

Upon hearing the sound of the birds grief, Valmiki was pierced in the center of his heart. He too was overcome by grief and let out a sophisticated curse aimed at the hunter.

“ You cannot count on the proximity of someone you love, all the time. A seed that sprouts at the foot of it’s parents tree remains stunted until it is transplanted.” Valmiki, Ramayana

The exhibition included idealized architecture and housing imposed by the dictator. Old dwellings torn down and futuristic projects were built just outside of Madrid. The projects are illusion and photos showing the key ceremony are set against a backdrop of unfinished homes. These projects were executed throughout Madrid and thousands of political prisoners were responsible for the labor. Spain’s political prisoners were people who wanted to make abstract art, wanted to teach liberal ideas or practice liberal politic. They were prisoners because of who they wanted to love, who they wanted to worship, or whom they wanted to vote for. And yet the resistance continued.

Listening to the sound and the force of his own voice, Valmiki realized he was speaking in verse, 16 syllables per line and 32 per couplet.

“They reached the holy ganges, beloved of the sages. On beholding the lovely river rendered beautiful by swans and cranes. Rama was filled with delight.” Valmiki, the Ramayana

The show also included the work of artists, who during this period were forced into exile: Picasso, Miro, and Dali were just a few. They travelled to places like France and Buenos Aires where they found other exiled artists and made potent work. Many of the pieces from artist-exiles in this show are reflections of grief and loss: loss of country, loss of friends. Lorca, a dedicated Spaniard, poet and playwright, was shot outside his home in Granada when he was still a very young man. Picasso’s police record was on exhibition, it was five pages long and had a terrific mug shot!

Stunned by his impulse to curse another person, Valmiki immediately sits down in meditation. Brahma the creator soon arrives. He tells Valmiki that because the curse arose out of deep grief its form and feeling should become the epic poem, the Ramayana.

“ Be gracious Rama, and allow the worlds to rest from trouble.” Valmiki, the Ramayana

The artists that remained, were either willing to make work that fit into the ideal, some of them subversively, and at great risk. They walked the line of respectability with great risk to their career and their lives.

A big part of the exhibition was the work that came just after the civil war, work imbued with grief and the expression of grief through telling the truth. War and ethnic cleansing ravaged Madrid; the post war painting of artists like Goya was dark and foreboding. Others sought to offer consolation and some humor as a relief from reality. There were artists who were trying to create visual movements and those resisting the pull of it all. The artists of Spain wanted to express their version of modernism. They wanted to be part of modernism that was sweeping the world outside of Spain. Eusebio Sempere and Julio Gonzales were two such artists.

In India, the Ramayana is considered one of the first and foremost of all poems.  It contains 24,000 verses. It’s purpose is to awaken the reader spiritually and send them along the path toward liberation. Moksha.

“ Great gifts are not easily given, I waited years before I had you.” Ramesh Menon,  The Ramayana, a modern retelling.

Campo Cerrado concludes with the official embrace of the modern in post-war Spain. The art included architectural renovation and healthy, robust figuration vs. abstraction debates.

Every society should have healthy disagreements, different points of view. Diversity is what allows creative fertility to flourish. I feel so lucky to have been taught that the best of yoga happened between the schools. It occurred in the alleys where those who could see the best in individual perspectives gathered and discussed ideas. This is how Buddhism and Vedic thought came together. This is how the hybrid of vinyasa yoga has emerged and evolved today. Ideas and perspectives keep changing; we must continue to let our vision expand, refuse the Homonymous, and see as much as we can see.

As we practice it is important to make space for whatever is, in your body, in your mind, in your spirit. Only when we illuminate "what is" can we begin the process of transformation. Suppose you have a pile of old stuff in your closet. You know you need to sort through it, give some of it away, throw some of it out, and finally fold some of it for use next season. What will happen to that stuff if you never open the closet door and turn the light on?….Nothing, in fact if you leave the pile there eventually dust will gather, maybe even little bugs or rodents will make their home in that pile, have their children there and oh the eco system begins…. what was a pile of clothes now becomes an entire universe, a mountain of detritus, a problem. 

My advice: open the closet and turn on the light. Adrienne Rich's potent poem, Our Whole Life, about our imperfect entirety illustrates beautifully the pain that results from the compromises we make. It is seeing the whole that inspires poetry and if you are in Spain, Campo Cerrado is very inspiring.


Our Whole Life

By Adrienne Rich

Our whole life is a translation

 Of the permissible fibs

and now a knot of lies

Eating at itself to get undone

Words bitten thru words


meanings burnt-off like paint

under the blowtorch

All those dead letters

rendered into the oppressor’s language

Trying to tell the doctor where it hurts

Like the Algerian

who walked from his village, burning

his whole body a cloud of pain

and there are no words for this

except himself.





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Would you like to win? I'm raffling a drawing from Spain.

Today is a good day to begin again.

Today is a good day to begin again.

This week, to celebrate our time together and my return to the U.S., I am giving you a chance to win a favorite Spanish summer collage!

Seth Godin in one of his daily emails said:

“The opposite of the freeloader problem is the free-giver advantage. Freeloaders, of course, are people who take more than they give, drains on the system. But the opposite, the opposite is magical. These are the people who feed the community first, who give before taking, who figure out how to always give a little more than they take. What happens to a community filled with free-givers? Ironically, every member of that community comes out ahead.”

When I read Seth’s blog, I thought about It’s a Beautiful Practice and my insistence on giving the content away for free. I want the website's content to be part of the free-giver movement. I am also excited to give you a chance to donate to the endeavor and enter our raffle.

To enter the raffle, all you have to do is donate $1.00 to It’s a Beautiful Practice. Each dollar you donate gets you a chance to win.

$1 = 1 chance; $30 = 30 chances. On Friday, September 30th I will draw a name and announce the winner in Sunday's newsletter. My hope is that this raffle adds value to the site by offering what you want. Someone will win this drawing, why not you?

The title of the work, Today Is a Good Day to Begin Again, speaks to the regenerative nature of our ever-changing lives. The work is a 12” x 12” collage I made while here in Spain. The paper is 100% cotton and the elements of the image come from three sources: a catalogue from the Alicante Museum of Contemporary Art, a Spanish fiesta program from my home village of Lliber, and a devotional poster I brought back from Mysore, India. I gathered these elements on my travels. The collage, through the act of mixing the materials, helps to integrate experiences from different parts of the world. 

Fine print: The artwork is unframed. That’s it.

Another Seth Godin post that helped me decide to work on this blog goes like this:

“Make something great. Not because it will sell. Not because it's on the test. Not because it's your job. Merely because you can. The alternative (waiting for the world to align in a way that permits you to make something great) is hardly worth pursuing, right?”

You can sign up for Seth’s emails here. Donate for a chance to win here. And send me an email with questions or comments at kimmanfredi@mac.com. As always, thanks for reading.





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Good space, bad space and how the wheel of a bicycle informs our practice.

Marcel Duchamp & his Bicycle Wheel

Marcel Duchamp & his Bicycle Wheel

Thirty spokes share the wheels hub;

it is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel;

it is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut the doors and windows for a room;

it is the holes which make them useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

 and usefulness from what is not. 

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu

Today, Chris and I are heading out to watch a bicycle race. Not just any race but La Vuelta.  Also known as Vuelta a Espana, this race is Spain’s Tour de France.  It's mammoth proportion includes a three-week ride consisting of thousands of kilometers and a variety of terrain which includes an annual climb up the Pyrenees. Now, I don’t claim to know a lot about bicycle racing; it actually appears to be a pretty complicated sport. The characteristic time trials and team efforts can mystify a casual observer. That being said, having a leg, the last leg of La Vuelta in our valley is pretty exciting.

Like Vuelta a Espana, a many chaptered race, The Literary Cyclist by James E. Starrs is a collection of writings in poem and prose referring to the bicycle. It illustrates the beauties, thrills, insights, and transformations that come along with the sport. Reading the book created a “good space” in my heart. All the quotes in this post come from Literary Cyclist but their original source is cited where applicable.

Speaking of space, in Yogic Philosophy there are 2 terms Sukha and Dukha which refer to "good" and "bad" space.  Often translated as "pleasure" and "pain", when we look at Sukha and Dukha in terms of space, we can relate to our performance of posture as a skill to be enacted with precision and functional awareness. The etymology of the word Dukha, Wikipedia tells us, is of an Aryan origin. Dukha is derived from terminology referring to the axle hole.

“ The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” Red and Green, Iris Murdoch


Chris and I have been cycling all summer. Every other day we hit our beautiful valley to climb and run; its a pretty mountainous region. We are not pro’s, our longest ride is around 65 kilometers and takes a couple of hours, but oh the joy it brings. A lot like the yoga practice, cycling brings the body, breath and mind together. Bliss is easily found.

Our region of Spain, as it turns out has some of the best biking in the world. The mountains, continents pushed together by some magnificent geological force, allows for challenging uphill and soaring downhill release.

"A wheel is not a wheel without the space for the axle; it cannot function. Neither can we.” Leslie Kaminoff

Our portion of Vuelta a Espana is moving from a city south of us, Benidorm, at sea level, up over our mountain pass, Coll de Rates, into the next couple of valleys, (Orba and Pego) and ends some 200 kilometers from the start. Remember our leg begins 25 days after the tour begins.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of a country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” Ernest Hemingway

Dukha specifically refers to an axle hole that is made off kilter, causing a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride. It’s important when riding a bike that the wheel rolls true. This requires perfect shape in the center of the wheel and perfect support around the 360-degree circle that is my wheel.

I also like to think about the axle hole in relation to creating space in the center of the body during asana practice. Lifting up is called Prana Vayu. And pressing down is called Apana Vayu. Balancing these two efforts leaves space in the center of the body, which allows one to roll true, so to speak.

From this historical reference we can look at an expansion of the idea put forth by Leslie Kaminoff: 

 If: Du =bad Ka=space

Then: Su=good Ka= space

“The bicycle is mechanical perfection. When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And unlike subsequent inventions for mans convenience, the more he used it the fitter his body became…Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.” Hovel in the Hills, Elizabeth West

Chris and I have met quite a few bikers on our rides, and we've ridden to many different places. We have certainly been passed by a few experts and one thing I can tell you is many of the Spanish riders are tiny.

The pros are slim and muscular with the tiniest behinds you have ever seen. We know because we are always behind and the view is small.

Our first task in watching the race was to find a place from which to view the event. We looked at the map, we scouted for days, and we asked friends. “Where is the best spot?”

Finally, we decided that to climb up the mountain on our bikes and find a place where we could see the cyclists coming down would be fun. Our spot promised that after the riders flew by we would be able to continue to see the road and the racers soar back and forth through the steep pass and into the valley below.

Sukha, which can imply sweetness and lasting pleasure, also implies a perfection that is the good space of a round axle hole, correct in form and function.

Dukha, which implies suffering, discomfort, unease, sadness or any of a number of negative feelings, reminds us how important it is for our support and inner space to be true.

We were not alone, hoards of bikers started out early in the morning to find the perfect spot. We left home around 11 and found a hairpin turn halfway up the mountain by noon and began to wait. We were expecting the riders around one but there was plenty of excitement on the road. The race had began in Benidorm an hour earlier so helicopters, the civil guard, and lots of circus type cars filled with girls and signs and horns, drove by doing security, inciting celebration, and filming for TV.

Chris and I spent time looking for the best angle to take a photo; we had no idea what to expect. The sun kept going in and out and we were surprised that bikers and cars continued to climb the mountain in a steady stream, looking for perfect viewing; the competitors were less than 30 minutes away.

“You can’t despair for the human race when you see someone riding a bicycle.” Spokesong, Stewart Parker

In the yoga sutras, one of Patanjali’s few teachings on posture uses the word sukha to describe correct execution of asana. If we think about sukha as good space, then the idea of axle hole becomes primary in our explorations during the posture practice.

Whether I am riding a bike or practicing asana the shape of my body, the condition of my mat, and the contents of my mind must be sweet. The practice or the posture may not begin out feeling sukha but the process of practice resets the space in my center: balancing lift and grounding. Sukha arrives.

Then they came, don’t ask me who or in what order, it was very fast. There was one or two leading the way, a clump soon followed. Then to my surprise, cars and vans filled with people and loaded with spare bikes squealed by. They struggled on the mountain road to keep up with the leaders….

The transformation from suffering (dukha) to sweetness (sukha) is certainly a goal, if not a by-product of any mindful asana session

“Bicycling…is the nearest approximation I know to the flight of the birds. The airplane simply carries a man on it’s back like an obedient Pegasus; it gives him no wings of his own. There are movements on a bicycle corresponding to almost all the variations in the flight of the larger birds. Plunging free downhill is like a hawk stooping. On the level stretches you may pedal with a steady rhythm like a heron flapping; or you may be like an acciptrine hawk, alternate rapid pedaling with gliding. If you want to test the force and direction of the wind, there is no better way than to circle, banked inward, like a turkey vulture. When you have the wind against you, yawing and wavering, like a crow flying upwind best make headway. I have climbed a steep hill by circling or spiraling, rising each time on the upturn with the momentum of the downturn, like any songbird. I have shot in and out through traffic like a goshawk through the woods. The best way to ride, especially downhill, is with both hands in your pockets and leaning backwards. This is not so hard as it looks: like a bird, you control your direction perfectly by unconscious shifts in your balance. Especially on the long down-slopes, this is to know the freedom of the wind. The air rushing past your ear reminds you that the birds must be partially deafened by their own speed.” Spring in Washington, Louise J. Halle, Jr.

Sukha should be differentiated from fleeting impermanent pleasure. Sanskrit terms referring to the fleeting pleasures might use words like: bhoga and preya. We are referring to the sweetness that inevitably arises with attention.

Posture, like riding a bicycle, requires good architecture, balance and strength. There is a good space in the body and the mind when effort places these characteristics into any given moment. Iyengar, in his commentary on the yoga sutras, says that any asana is a symbol that implies the highest quality of attention to perfection in the space of the body.

The morning of the race there was lots of talk in the bike shop about who would win. Who had the psychological advantage and who possessed pure physical ability? Then after the initial leaders of this leg, which are not necessarily the leaders of the race, came another big clump of riders called the peloton. The leaders are nestled in this group. Cycling is a team sport and there is a lot of support cycling, pacers, and guys who are not out to win the entire race but a leg here or there. I couldn’t tell one rider from the other but after a couple of minutes all the racers, cars, ambulances, spare bikes and security guards had passed and it was over…. for us. The bikers were one hour into a 4-hour leg, 25 days into the race.

“More than any other emotion, melancholy is incompatible with bicycling. A bicycle ride is a flight from sadness. It is a release from despair and a resurgence of hope.” The Literary Cyclist, James E. Starrs

When Patanjali instructs that the posture should be sukha and sthira, it is helpful to apply "good space" to the translation. Applying good space frees us from the misunderstanding that the posture is easy, natural, or even pretty to look at. The good space is functional and supports the many spokes of the wheel of our bodies.

Chris and I got on our bikes and flew down the mountain feeling like pros and getting cheered along the way. The town, Parcent, at the bottom of the hill was full of festivities and as usual we were passed and passed again by the big dogs, with little bottoms but we smiled all the way home. It was really great.

“Sartre much preferred riding a bicycle to walking. The monotony of walking bored him, while the intensity of effort and the rhythm of a bicycle journey varied constantly. He would amuse himself by sprinting on hills. I would become winded and fall behind him…. Both of us loved the freedom of downhill runs. The scenery flew by much more quickly than when we are on foot.” La Force de l’ age, Simone de Beauvoir

Iyengar in his commentary of the Yoga Sutras clarifies this understanding of sukha. The term though implicated earlier in the sutras as a sensation that can lead to attachment and craving, is describes by Iyengar's specifically implying good space:  “A pure state of joy is felt in the cells and the mind…all opposites dissolve.” (As in a wheel.)

Sukha and sthira then point to a very well crafted and high quality experience which requires a concentrated mind and a trained body. Yoga.

The good axle hole is a good space at the center of a wheel. It is not just any space; it is the space at the center of something that enables it to function. To be a wheel, a disk must have the space in the center. People are like wheels; we need space in our center. The space allows us to connect. We connect our form to function and we connect the outside world to the inner experience. Imagine your body as a wheel, with an axle and spokes of support. See what this does to your practice, to your life, to your ride.

I came home after the race and got a nap and a swim. Chris tried to pay attention to the results of La Vuelta online but it’s 7pm and we can’t really understand what happened. We think the Spanish guy won but maybe it was the Italian... we are not too sure. For more on release from suffering read the story of The Spade Sage.

“The Bicycle, surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets. How pleasant if one could prove that the decline in literary delicacy followed the disappearance of the bike from American roads.” The Romany Stain, Christopher Morley



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How to See the World: Brahman's Allegory, The Alchemist and a Pilgrimage to Spain.

Pilgrimage in Spain

Pilgrimage in Spain

Each year I take a journey of spiritual significance, a pilgrimage. The effort allows me to see things as if for the first time. It takes a lot to pry me from my life. I have it pretty good with students I love and a beautiful place to live. I enjoy fun friends, neighbors and parents who also live in my hometown. But still I have to go.

Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, said in a rare public interview with Krista Tippet, (On Being): 

“If I knew what my life was going to be each day: what would happen, how I would feel, and how things would turn out, I would be bored. The best part of life is the mystery of the unknown.  The fact that I don’t know what will happen and how life will be is good. It keeps me alive and awake.”


 Pilgrimage in Spain

 Pilgrimage in Spain

My pilgrimage for this year is coming to an end. The journey to Spain has helped me see life like never before. I have spent time learning to bike in mountainous terrain, working out this blog, and preparing new material for teacher trainings. I have spent substantial time this summer loving my husband, enjoying a simple life and simply being kind. It has been a very yogic journey.

One of my favorite projects has been working on philosophy lectures related to these writings. I am preparing a talk on a few of the Upanishads. The Upanishads are seminal writings expounding the Vedas, mostly in terms of practice. The Vedas are ancient teachings that codify the tenants of Vedic religion. They lay much of the groundwork for classical Hinduism and inform a lot of yogic philosophy.

In the Kena Upanishad, which is an inquiry into life, there is an allegory that teaches us the importance of seeing things as if for the first time. Sometimes I must travel to see with a fresh eye, sometimes I can simply wake up, but according to yogic interpretation this freshness is the way things really are - free from the distortions of my opinionated mind:

The story begins like this:

Once upon a time the gods were victorious and they were celebrating: drinking soma (like beer but more colorful) and feeling very proud! Brahman (the whole of the whole, the set of all sets) was victorious but Indra (the god of natural phenomenon, i.e. lightening bolts, thunder, hurricane), Agni (the god of fire), and Vayu (the god of wind) thought it was their effort alone that made the success.

From the perspective of Brahman, the idea that we accomplish anything without the support of the whole is a misguided notion. And Brahman wants nothing more than for the gods (and us) to see this clearly.

Sometimes, to illustrate this kind of misunderstanding, I use the example of turning on the lights. If I were to go to the wall switch, flip it and say, “I turned on the lights!” The statement would be true only from a very limited perspective.

In yoga we are always trying to see things from a larger vantage point. In the lights example, I may have flipped the switch but what about the electrician who put the switch and the wiring in the wall? What about all the people who work at the power company who delivered the electricity to me? And then we have the power itself. What about those who dug the coal, or created the technology to make utilities possible? What about all those people? Who really turned on the lights?

 So in order to teach the gods about their arrogance, Brahman appeared in the form of a YAKSHA (a sprite or a little being that you might think is a hallucination, especially if you are drinking soma)

Yaksha was interesting (new) and the gods were bored by everything, so they were intrigued. The sprite says, “Who are you?” This question can be very irritating, especially if you are a god.

The gods in Hindu mythology are imperfect; they get into loads of trouble so we can learn from their foibles. This question, “Who are you” often comes up on a spiritual journey. Before writing The Alchemist, Paul Coelho, an advocate of pilgrimage, took a 500-mile walk in the North of Spain in 1988. On the famous Camino del Santiago he saw things from a new perspective and asked who am I? In this way, he found his true calling; he calls it his personal legend.



So Agni goes first. “I am Agni… I burn things.”

“Oh yeah?” said the sprite, “Well then, burn this!” And he holds up a single piece of grass for the great god to set a blaze.

 Agni tries to burn grass. The blowtorch of his body could not even singe the edges.

When I travel, I am completely removed from the familiar; even my pillow is odd. On this trip I’ve been thinking about Coelho’s alchemical term, “personal legend”. I’ve been thinking about the chapters in my life.  About the many times I have had to leave one thing in order to experience the next. The book, The Alchemist, gives voice to the idea that life is only free when we allow the omens to move us, here and there and there again.

“The wind increased in intensity. Here I am between my flock and my treasure, the boy thought. He had to choose between something he had been accustomed to and something he wanted to have.” The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Coelho, as he takes the first steps of his pilgrimage, realizes that his initial reaction to the journey is “When is this going to be over?” I understand the apprehension that comes with something new. While learning to bike this summer, I see changes in my legs that may not be conducive to tight binds in the practice. As I write more, I see the determination that is required to get words on paper; it can be uncomfortable. I think it is natural to want to return to the familiar when we are faced with the unknown. But there is no going back.

 Coelho says there are four obstacles to living our dream:

1. We have been told since we are children that everything we want is impossible.

2. We are afraid of hurting those who we love by abandoning what is in pursuit of a dream.

3. Fear of defeat.

4. We look around at those who have not gotten what they want and are riddled by feelings of shame going after what we love.

In a nutshell, my yoga teacher Richard Freeman would say, we are the biggest obstacle.



And so the story continues….

Next Vayu approaches the sprite. Yaksha asks the windy deity, “Who are you?” Equally insulted, Vayu huffs and puffs and yet cannot blow the grass out of the sprites hand.

When Coelho reached the end of his pilgrimage, instead of feeling the happiness that is predicted when one arrives at the end of the epic walk; he felt sadness. The sadness came because he knew he had lost his old life, that things would never be the same.

This discomfort is true of any journey and can keep us from leaving the familiarity of what we know. It can prevent us from “seeing” the world.

 “He was learning a lot of new things. Some of them were things that he had already experienced, and weren’t really new, but that he had never perceived before. And he had not perceived them because he had become accustomed to them. He realized: If I can learn to understand the language without words, I can learn to understand the world.”  The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho


Finally, Indra strides up to the sprite, he prepares to put a thunderbolt through the grass that all the other gods failed to destroy and.. this is where it gets exciting…the grass simply disappears!

Suddenly there is nothing, the mind has not organized what is. There is an ah-ha moment. The ah-ha moment helped Indra to pay attention. Uninterrupted attention is Samadhi, clear vision and the goal of yoga.

 In the allegory, the goddess Uma appears where the grass once was.  Uma is the archetype of beauty but not just aesthetic beauty; Uma is the whole of nature, the elevation of the senses. It is through the eyes of the entirety Indra asks, “Who is this spirit?”

Coelho, expounding upon the sadness he felt ending his walk:

“What I didn’t know then was that I was at the beginning of my real pilgrimage. I had completed the physical journey and the inner trip was about to begin. It was time to make a choice. I had to fulfill my dream or I had to forget my dream forever.” He followed his dream, at age 40, to be a writer.

The allegory ends with the Sanskrit term, Sa Brahma. This is Brahman. Indra recognizes the whole and becomes enlightened.

 Coelho says nature is never at peace; there is a kind of restlessness in the natural world. He believes that to live in accord with nature, the ceaseless, sometimes brutal change must be acknowledged and embraced. As I pay attention in Spain I see the birds catch the unsuspecting lizards, ouch. The fiery sun is relentless on the heads of the thirsty plants, too hot. The same sun drops down over the mountains and a cold night arrives, with bats, moons and stars, brrrr.

“If I don’t find it, I can always go home.” Santiago says, “I finally have enough money and all the time I need. Why not?” He suddenly felt tremendously happy. He could always go back to being a shepherd. He could always become a crystal salesman again. But maybe the world had other hidden treasures…” The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

The Brahman allegory reveals how from organized points of view or perspectives on knowledge a very limited way of seeing arises. The Alchemists insistence on moving toward that which calls us forces me to expand my view. I am enmeshed in a vast environment that is multidimensional and when something appears it is only part of an entirety. If I am going to flip the switch that turns on the lights, it is foolish to say I turned on the lights.

“One could open a book to any page, or look at a person’s hand; one could turn a card. Or watch the flight of the birds…whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience of the moment. Actually, it wasn’t those things, in themselves, that revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetrating the Soul of the World.” (Coelho’s word for Brahman) The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
Pilgrimage in Spain

Pilgrimage in Spain

As I conclude my pilgrimage my eyes are soaked in the questioning mind. Deeper yoga is not achieved mechanically. I watch for my habitual seeing. My mind makes rules that limit my life.  I shouldn’t bike so far because the riding makes my hips tights for postures, but what about the rigidity in my mind? 

“Magic is a bridge that helps one to cross from the visible world to the invisible world.” The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

You can read my writing but behind my writing is an emotion; maybe you can sense it? This is the magic of the world; go find your truth.  

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Julio Gonzales: Spain’s generous sculptor at The Valencia Institute of Modern Art. Also, crooked in eight places, the teachings and myth behind the pose.

Like a birth, I take a breath upon entering the exhibition. I look around and it feels new and fresh although all of the sculptures were made before 1939.  The Valencia Institute of Modern Art, commonly known as IVAM, is a collection of galleries nestled on 3 floors and each gallery promises to be as otherworldly as the one before it.  The configuration mimics a beehive with its tightly organized spiral structure. This month there were several shows including a fascinating American Photography exhibit but my favorite is the Julio Gonzales Collection.

IVAM houses the largest number of Julio Gonzales works in the world: 120 sculpture, 20 paintings, and 70 drawings. Julio Gonzales, born in Barcelona, has given Spain a modern artist who played with light and the mind. He messes with our understanding of form. He brings me, the viewer, into a fresh experience of being in my body.

 For me, the Astavakra Gita, like Gonzales sculpture, is also a teaching about being in a body. The book is a beloved poem in the yoga tradition that reminds us, through a plethora of metaphors, about the ever-changing nature of the figure. As most yoga texts do, the Gita tells of the permanent spirit that dwells within our impermanent body. Astavakra, the main character, has an unusually shaped form. This circumstance offers him an opportunity to overcome ridicule and rise into the realm of wisdom.

Verse 1.2 Astavakra Gita

To be free,

shun the experiences of the senses

like poison.

Turn your attention to

forgiveness, sincerity, kindness, simplicity, truth.

Julio Gonzales was raised under the tutelage of his father, Concordio, who was one of Spain’s premiere goldsmiths. This inheritance infuses Julio’s understanding of objects, their shape and structure. The sculptures are formal, balanced, and refined in their craft. His work, like Eusebio Sempere’s art in the Alicante Museum of Contemporary Art, is presented in a darkened room. But unlike Eusebio's work, Gonzales sculptures are lit with precisely aimed bright illumination. This light adds a 4th dimension to the form: shadow. Shadow cast on the pedestal, shadow cast on the wall, my own shadow in relation to the piece.

Astavakra’s life begins with a curse. His father cast misfortune on his son even before the boy was born. The story goes like this: Astavakra loved the words of God but was disturbed by his father mispronunciations of the sacred prayers. The careless chanting made him twist and squirm inside his mother until he could no longer stand it. Finally he chastised his father…. from inside the womb. Astavakra’s father was outraged at his child’s insolence and cursed him with severe deformity. The boy came into the world crooked in eight places.
Astavakra’s early awareness of his father’s mispronounced prayers gives us a hint about the sage’s life’s work. It suggests that his calling will have something to do with hearing the truth and responding honestly, no matter what the cost.

When I first saw Gonzales work I was struck by the strength of the forms. Mostly metal, the pieces are stacked tall like towers but imply body parts or everyday objects: arm, head, cactus, leg, or hairbrush. Like an Indonesian puppet show the play of light and shadow on the shape invites me, the viewer, to tumble into the realm of the imagination.

Astavakra’s deformities did not deter him in life. He was very devout and learned the scriptures well. One day he decided to make a long journey and listen to the royal teachings. The king, Janaka and his group of scholars gathered each week to discuss philosophical riddles. Astavakra was excited to go because the talks were renown but he was also worried because the long journey would be difficult for his troubled body.

The walls of the exhibition are painted dark olive green. They are highlighted by a bright patch of white directly behind the sculpture, creating a screen for the play of light. The sculpture’s shapes are abbreviated. The illustration reduced to essentialities. They are not complete images of the artists understanding but act as indicators.  The artist indicates what he wants me to see. The rest I fill in with my mind.

Verse 2.25 Astavakra Gita

And how wonderful it is!

In the limitless ocean of Myself,

waves of beings

arise, collide, and play for a time,

then disappear—as is their nature.

Astavakra needed the aid of a walking stick but prevails in making the arduous journey to the king’s palace. He is simply exhausted when he arrives. His clothes are dirty and he feels very tired and thirsty. Despite his discomfort, Astavakra settles in and listens to the debates. Then he hears laughter.

Gonzales abstraction is unique. Much of abstraction, as a genre, reduces form to the point of mystery but this artist leaves enough of a figure for us to see his process. Gonzales approach gives us a beginning from which to look. He also uses negative space and light to invite us to walk around the sculpture. This walk is like a movie, transforming the story at every angle.

Verse 4.1 Astavakra Gita

Truly the yogi feels no elation

though he abides in the exalted state

yearned for by Indra and all

the discontented gods

The laughter Astavakra hears is coming from the debaters and to his surprise he notices the whole court is looking in his direction. They were all laughing at him. “What is someone like you doing in our court, listening to our teachings? Crooked, dirty, walking with a stick, what could you possibly understand about our deep philosophical inquiries?”
Astavakra, exhausted from his efforts started to cry.

So looking at Gonzales work takes time, breath and stillness. One must allow the spaces to be filled and the darkness of the material to be illuminated. The eye needs time to take in all there is to see. The surface, welds, transitions, the shadow on the wall and the blinding white that creates reflections, illusions and illumination.

Verse 5.3 Astavakra Gita

Like an imagined snake in a rope

The universe appears to exist

in the immaculate self

but does not…

Some of the sculptures are studies. Images Gonzales made without the formal use of abstraction. There are hands, masks, and portraits. These pieces give us a clue into the artist’s visual language. We see from his rendered hand how to look at his abstracted one. And once we can see the hand within the abstraction we can infer feeling, emotion and the intent of the artist. The understanding of Gonzales visual language is like knowing a code, it conveys me into the invisible, or as we say in yoga, the subtle realm.

But the crying was not crying at all…Astavakra was laughing hysterically, so loudly that the king took notice and walked up to the haggard looking man.

 Verse 7.5 Astavakra Gita

I am Awareness alone.

The world is passing show.

How can thoughts arise

Of acceptance or rejection?

And where?

With abstraction a single figure can imply place, as in cactus man, or age as in mask of an adolescent. A barrel and triangle can point to lovers, geometrically connected in iron, making them somehow more permanent, maybe even eternal?

How dare you laugh at our industry, who are you to come here and insult us. Astavakra took a deep breath and in a strong and booming voice replied to the king, “you all are nothing but jokes. I traveled a longtime because I heard there were wise men participating in thoughtful debates but now I see there is nothing here but clowns.”
He continued, “You and your teachers obviously know nothing about the Truth. You have illustrated this by judging my clothes and my body as indicators of who I am. You know nothing of permanence and reality.”

Verse 9.4 Astavakra Gita

Was there an age or time

men existed without opposites?

Leave the opposites behind.

Be content with what comes.


The subject matter of a woman and a mirror is very classical in nature but Gonzales abstraction makes it modern. His reduction of detail allows me to fill in the details of the form, offered in angles, shadows, surfaces, profiles and hollows. I love this quality in Gonzales sculpture and specifically the show at IVAM; I am free to see and to feel. I can ponder the time the artist was working and the circumstance of the world he lived in. I can relate these ponderings to my own situation drawing conclusions about the universality of the human experience but more importantly leaving me with questions, questions, and more questions.

The king heard the truth in Astavakra’s words. Immediately he dismissed his court, sending them all to the monastery for contemplation and reform. The king, Janaka, became Astavakra's private pupil for the rest of his life. The Astavakra Gita is the teaching exchanges between the two.

Verse 10.3 Astavakra Gita

Where there is desire, there is the world.

Be firm in non-attachment

Be free of Desire

Be Happy

You can download a free PDF version of Astavakra Gita translated by Bart Marshall here. I love Alana Kaivala's interpretations of the hindu myths. I also love how she connects those myths to the yoga poses and their meaning. 




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