Last week, I was lucky enough to sit down with Matt Branstetter, our meditation and philosophy teacher. Here are some of his thoughts on yoga, and the peace of the present moment.
CS: Thinking about a teacher you enjoy taking classes with–yoga, or otherwise–what is their teaching like, and how does that inform your personal practice?
Matt: So, my main practice these days is taiji (tai chi), so I study with a master of the chen style of taiji, and I study with him 3 times a week. The thing that draws me to Master Ding is his joy in what he does. He moves with freedom and with joy, and that is infectious. It creates this kind of energy in class, where you’re driven to do that yourself. You’re driven to find that freedom and that joy of movement, without restrictions or inhibitions.
CS: It’s contagious joy.
Matt: Contagious joy, yes! Enthusiasm, and a pursuit of excellence…with joy. Not with stress. Excellence through joy rather than through have to or need to or must, but you have the opportunity to bring out what is best in you, and it is pleasant to do that. So here is one avenue for you to do that. So, I would say that he is a great inspiration to keep going deeper into the practice.
CS: And do you find yourself seeking out that joyfulness in your own practice, or does it arise naturally?
Matt: I find that it’s there. I find that when the body is in its natural state, joy is just kind of the essence of who we are.
CS: Thank goodness! And how does that then translate from your relationship with your teacher as a student, into your practice, and then from there for yourself as a teacher. Where do you find that joy?
Matt: Well, in all of the above. You know, when I have the time, I’m practicing. I love to do it. I love to explore. I love to do the same thing over and over and over again. For some reason I get great satisfaction out of that. And I feel like I’m pursuing something. You know, I’m pursuing a kind of wholeness. And that’s very appealing to me because it seems like if we’re living with less than whole, then it’s not time spent as fully as it could be otherwise. So the pursuit of that wholeness is also the pursuit of something true about life, and something true about living. So in my teaching, that’s it. The idea of the emotional quality and the feeling aspect of learning about qigong and taiji, it’s just so central to what it is. The felt quality of practice is the essence of it. I couldn’t conceive of movement or technique independent of the feeling that gives it life. They really are one. It’s a transmission of that joy of living.
CS: That direct experience.
Matt: That’s right, that direct experience. It’s an invitation not to mimic techniques, but to find yourself.
CS: Your focus and practice is taiji and qigong, but obviously you’re very steeped in the yogic tradition as well. How would you define yoga?
Matt: There are different levels that we can talk about. And I don’t want it to sound like the advanced levels exclude the more beginner’s level because you’re a beginner all the way through. Definitely I think there’s something about finding peace in this body; making a home in this body; finding comfort in this body, which is essential to every level of yoga. Dealing with our own discomfort; dealing with pain… It’s only by inhabiting this body that we really inhabit the present moment. So it’s kind of there, either as a barrier or as a means to being present in our lives.
That being said, I think when we start to make a home in the present moment, there’s a kind of spiritual map that’s there also, and that’s for me the essence of the yoga philosophy. It’s not concepts, it’s not the presentation of a world view, but it’s giving language to a process that happens as we go deeper into the present moment, and as we get more still, as we get more comfortable with being. So yoga would be…the art of being.
CS: Is that something that you found in your initial experience of yoga? That spiritual map?
Matt: For me, and I don’t think this is necessarily the normal pathway for people, but for me, philosophy came first. So I was a student of philosophy, Western philosophy, and then eventually Eastern philosophy. And then it became clear to me that to understand what these people were talking about, you had to be in the same or similar mental state to where they were when they were saying what they were saying. So the idea of meditation, that made sense to me. In order to understand what these philosophers were talking about, you need to meditate. So I found a meditation teacher who also ended up being a martial arts teacher. It was a quest for philosophical truth, for knowledge. And I think for a lot of philosophers, and this was definitely the case for me, it was looking for something stable. Because my early life as a child was unstable, so there was some quest for stability. Does the center hold? Is there something that abides through the changes in life? And the answers from the East were always couched in a mastery of meditation. So the answer was yes, but not one that’s going to be immediately accessible to you. In order to find this abiding place, you’re going to have to strip away various layers, and you’re going to have to make this inward journey. And that seemed fair. It seemed fair that if you were going to find something like that, you would have to make a journey to get there.
So my very first yoga class was after a martial arts training session. One of our students became interested in yoga, and started teaching yoga to the rest of us. It was the deepest relaxation I had ever felt. Ever. I was used to doing things with my body, but to really go in and relax everything, and to let things let go at their own pace. I can remember just driving home in a state of bliss. And relaxation. It was just like OH MAN. This is GREAT. We can just go in and chill ourselves out. And that was it. Ever since it has just become part of my life and part of my practice. And that initial hit, that initial hit of philosophy, the initial hit of insight into what these guys were talking about, and the initial experience of that yoga class, they continue to live. Those initial glimpses continue to live in my practice today and inform and inspire it.
CS: So for most people, we would probably agree they get to yoga through the asana, through the body, and you came at it from the other side of things. Do you find that that is something that sets you apart from other teachers?
Matt: Maybe…I’ve taught philosophy in college, in the classroom, and I realize with these philosophies it’s about a lived experience. That’s what it’s about. And I really have that sense ingrained in my being at this point. I would say my teaching, when it’s effective, is a really open invitation to meet each other at a certain level of being. You know? And then the concepts that we use will make sense, because we’re kind of in the state that the people were when they started saying, “Hey, how can we talk about what we’re experiencing right now? Let’s put some words on this.” And so they put certain words on that, and as we get close to where they were when they had that idea, we can more easily assimilate the words because it’s not some foreign concept to us anymore. It’s a way of getting to the essence of what we’re experiencing in the moment of experience. So satsang is a shared experience of truth, where we are somehow kind of resonating with it together, and I recognize it in you and you recognize it in me. So when it’s explained that way it has very little to do with concepts, and I think the yogic philosophy, in the final analysis, has very little to do with concepts. It has to do with being. With a capital B.
CS: What role does yoga play in your life?
Matt: The practice of asana is still pretty central to what I do. Between movement, mindful movement (which is what I believe the internal martial arts are based on), and the practice of asana, the practice of breathing and the practice of meditation, I would say my practice these days is to try to get a sense of a continuum between all those. Even when you’re sitting in meditation, you’re breathing…most of the time. So the body is moving, the diaphragm is moving, the ribcage is expanding. So there’s always a sense of movement. There’s always a sense of meditative awareness, and there’s always a sense that sensation is never still. There’s something about the way our nervous system is arranged, so that in order for us to feel anything, that nerve has to fire, and fire again, and if it doesn’t fire, we’re not going to feel anything. So the fact that when we feel, it means that things are moving, things are changing, things are shifting, so that is the awareness that I think is common to all those practices. The awareness itself is quiet, still, but everything else is moving, changing, flowing. So being comfortable with that change, relaxing into that change, surrendering to that change, and even learning how to surf that change is how I would define yoga, and say how it’s playing a role in all these different practices right now.
CS: What would you say is the “essence of yoga”?
Matt: I like “peace”. There’s a lot of directions I could go with that question, but I like this idea of shanti. May there be peace in the world, may there be peace in our households, in our surroundings, and may there be peace in our own bodies and minds. I think that’s a very worthy goal. It’s definitely true in our time, but it’s been true of every time. It’s not an easy goal to achieve, but I think it’s a really meaningful one. I think we should continue to inspire ourselves and one another to continue to pursue this goal of peace. Let it go. Let it be, at least for this moment.
CS: What drew you to the practice of taiji, qigong and East/West philosophy?
Matt: When I was studying philosophy as a student, I really started with ancient Greek philosophy. I had been waiting for people to talk like this since I was born! That was my sensation, and I really wasn’t finding people, you know, my mom, my family, they were not using that kind of language. So just the fact that people were asking these fundamental questions. All of a sudden a light went on in me, and I very quickly learned that vocabulary of asking those questions and seeking the answers. It was a great awakening for me, but it was also kind of systematic. You know, I started with the Greeks, and then I got into European philosophy and after stewing in that, and the questions they were concerned with for a while, Eastern philosophy came. In a survey course, you usually get a smattering of traditions, so the Hindu tradition and their philosophy, the Daoist, so ancient Chinese, and Buddhist, and Zen. These all kind of hit me at the same time in this survey course, and they’ve all been constant companions throughout the whole process. And qigong is really just the yoga of China. Just as in India, there’s breathing techniques, there’s physical techniques of the body, there’s philosophical techniques, and they’re all intertwined with one another. In China it’s the exact same scenario, you have all these subtle techniques for the body and the breath, and they inform a certain way of looking at life and a certain way of experiencing life. And fundamental to the practice of yoga in India is the idea of Prana, or life force, and fundamental to the practice of taiji is Qi or life force. That is something that we kind of are always tasting. We’re always feeling that at some level, but I think the moment we really become conscious that, hey, I’m alive. Not because my doctor tells me, or because my fitbit say that I am. I’m alive because I feel alive. Because I feel these life processes happening inside of me, and I am somehow one with those life processes. I think when people get that initial sense of that, you naturally want more of that; you naturally want to explore that deeper; you naturally think, this has something to do, not just with a fleeting experience, but the meaning of what it is to be alive. And so this is the force that’s underneath all of that. This is the force that’s making that happen. And it’s more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. It’s closer to us than our own thoughts.
CS: This question is a little bit off the beaten path, but why do you think it is that the Western world created or imagined such a fragmentation, such a divide between the body and mind, while the East has these systems that are so mind-bogglingly simple and complex at the same time, and that work so beautifully?
Matt: That’s right…well, I think the ancient traditions of the West, you don’t see that quite as much. In the indigenous traditions of the West, you don’t see that as much. It’s a whole process, but I think you hit one of the key factors, and that is the separation between the mind and the body, which is just not the case in the East. It doesn’t tend to be the case in the East, it tends to be that these are obviously part of a single process. So beginning with Descartes and some of those European thinkers and the Enlightenment; and the separation of material pursuits from spiritual pursuits, so the material people kind of have their realm, and the spiritual people kind of have their realm; the process of beginning to see nature as a resource, rather than something that was living and valuable in its own right; the shift from “being” to “having” in all kinds of ways. All of that plays a role, and then science really seeming, in those early stages to create a world that could exist independently of our experience of it. It was solid, it was real, it was out there. So that’s one of the fascinating things about more contemporary science. The belief that the world is solid real and out there has crumbled from every direction that we’ve approached it. It’s crumbled from the neurological perspective, it’s crumbled from the perspective of physics, and this is an ancient concept, the idea of maya. Which is not that the world is a trick, it’s just not ultimately and totally real. I mean, a rainbow is real. We can see it! There it is! We can experience its beautiful colors. But the closer you get to it, the more it seems to recede, and that’s the same thing we could say with biology, chemistry–they’re real, from a certain level, but the closer we get to them, the more powerful our microscopes, the more they seem to dissolve and disappear. And I think that’s the fundamental idea of maya–don’t seek the eternal or the abiding in terms of these material processes, because they’re neither. In fact, they come from and are rooted in a more profound reality that you can’t own, you can’t store up, you can’t have it, like you can have material things, but ultimately, that’s what’s going to be fulfilling to you. That’s what’s going to give you a meaningful human life, and one that aligns you with the way things are.
CS: Is there anything that you would like your future students to know about you? Or about the world? Or about the practice of yoga?
Matt: I would say this is a common thing, because I approach things, in a way, backwards. Because the philosophical way of speaking is so second nature to me, that I feel like that can be intimidating to some students. I guess the primary thing is don’t be intimidated. The kind of knowledge that I’m interested in is really just an invitation for us to be together, which means both–we’re being and we’re together. So both of those have to be there. Because we can be together, but not be being. Or we can be being, but we are either on our own cushion, doing our own thing, or we’re out on a mountaintop somewhere, and this is neither. This kind of philosophy is about being together. And one of the things that humans do when we’re together is we speak to one another. And this is not to say the ancient yogis had the best vocabulary for our day, but they did really go deeply into the questions. So the essence of what they were saying I think will remain the same, but the words that we put it in? I think those have to evolve. Because traditions just get created around particular words. And it’s very easy in that scenario…you can master the whole system, but not know what the hell it was really about, and that’s our goal. Our goal is not to be the master of some ancient vocabulary, our goal is to try to tap into the essence of what they were talking about…why they felt compelled to bring forth these words in the first place. And I think people will find that that it’s very pleasant to feel like you’re sharing with somebody at a deep, fundamental and essential level. And I think that’s what satsang was all about. You know, having people talking and meditating at the same time. We’re being and speaking and interacting at the same time. Somehow when those things become separate from one another, we have the scenario you were just talking about with the Western world. We end up with fragmentation. Ultimately, I don’t want to know anything that you can’t also participate in at the moment I know it. The knowledge I’m interested in is where we meet together…in peace.
CS: In peace–the essence of yoga.
Post by Cara Sparkman