Yoga with Alan Watts

Apologies Shifters for not posting very much these last few weeks.

3 weeks ago we had a surprise snowstorm of 10cm and now we’re having +27 °C  (81 degrees for the Americans), weather and constant sunshine comparable to July’s weather. Montrealers are outside everyday in force, myself included. It was a long, hard, cold winter and this balmy spring leaves little inclination to stay indoors and write very much.

The riverfront bikepath a stone's throw away from my neighborhood.

The riverfront bikepath a stone’s throw away from my neighborhood.

I’m very lucky in that I live in an amazing neighborhood of Montreal which is literally steps away from the riverside. This affords me to see ducks, Canada geese, beavers, foxes, muskrats, turtles and snakes while I either walk or jog along the river banks among the weeping willows and tall grasses.

Path along the riverside

Because of the insane weather we’ve been having, I’ve started to do my yoga practice outside in the morning as the sun rises.

No, that's not me, but you get the idea.

No, that’s not me, and that’s not my park but you get the idea.

...but more like here. (photo from Walking Turcot Yards)

…but more like here. (photo from Walking Turcot Yards)

Normally I do my practice in silence. I’m not one for flashy props and special effects which is why I don’t get the whole acro-yoga, trance-dance yoga and aerial yoga craze which I see everywhere these days. I’m sure they have their benefits… but it seems more like gymnastics and acrobatics than yoga per se.

Is this really yoga? I dunno...

Is this really yoga? I dunno…

Anyway, I’ve started doing my practice outdoors and have started to do them while listening to the talks of the late, great Zen master and teacher Alan Watts and the combination of the two just seems to click for me. It may not for others, but I just found my equivalent of wild strawberries and fresh cream.

wildstrawberries and cream

Watts, for those of you who have never heard of him or know very little about him, was a weird and wonderful spiritual teacher who made Zen Buddhism accessible to all.

Alan Watts

Alan Watts

Friends with the likes of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, Watts did much of his teaching in the San Francisco area back in the 1950’s,60’s and early 70’s and spent much time with alternative thinkers especially at his Sausalito houseboat and cabin home in the delightfully named Druid Heights near Mount Tamalpais, over on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.

Give a listen to any of Watts talks on YouTube (they number in the hundreds now) and you’ll quickly realize that Zen wasn’t the only thing which Watts tackled. His talks weave religious history, concepts from Hinduism and Taoism, philosophy, the nature of consciousness and humor effortlessly. Watts died quite young in middle age, unfortunately his womanizing and hard-drinking finally caught up to him.

What I think stands out about Watts, like Joseph Campbell, is that he’s a real teacher. They’ll never tell you what to do in your life. In fact, they’re against that sort of thing on principle, unlike way too many “gurus” and “spiritual seers” I’ve either met or read about in the whole New Age/spirituality racket who are only too eager to exert control or show off their influence. Rather, they’ll help you remember what you’re really all about and leave the trail of cosmic breadcrumbs so that you can guide yourself out of the woods on your own. That’s the way it should be.

Here’s a fun piece of Watts work, interpreted by the creators of “South Park”.
You don’t need to do yoga to get Watts either.

Categories: Ch-ch-ch-changes, Raise your EQ, Yoga | Tags: , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “Yoga with Alan Watts

  1. Linda-Sama

    I got blacklisted from doing workshops at my local studio because the owner did not like what I said about acro yoga. really. so thanks!

    • Really? Wow. I don’t know, this whole acro-yoga thing, it looks like fun and I know a lot of people who love it, but it’s almost getting to the point where they’re slapping everything with the word “yoga” in order to make it more popular. Why don’t they just call acro-yoga “partner-acrobatics” because that’s what it really is.

      • Linda-Sama

        I’ve written about that before. we need a semantical change with calling this shit or that “yoga.”

  2. If Americans are going to change yoga so drastically, can’t they make up a more appropriate American name for what they teach and leave yoga out of it? God what an annoying country!

    I liked Alan Watts and he was my first introduction to Zen Buddhism, but personally, I think he, too, put too much of an American spin on it. I saw him give a talk at Bookshop Santa Cruz. He was entertaining, but his chain smoking and drinking, not to mention the pretty companion who sat demurely behind him, were not exactly in keeping with traditional Buddhism. I’m no longer quite the prude I was then, but if you’re calling something by its traditional name, I still think it’s better to stick with traditional practices/ethics, etc and then present your personal take on it, if you have one.

    This gives me the opportunity to bag Holosync’s Bill Harris. In a talk he gave at a retreat, he said, “I don’t see how anyone who smokes can be enlightened” in one breath and in the next referred to “the great Alan Watts.”

    • I think Watts in some way belongs to the school of “Crazy Wisdom” which Tibetan Buddhism also has, with teachers like Chongyam Trungpa Rinpoche, another teacher known for his drinking, sexual relations with students, cocaine use but unlike Rinpoche, I don’t think Watts ever forced anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do. Rinpoche on the other hand, was known to be a facistic despot at times and a bully to some of his students.
      Apparently Watts experienced Samadhi/Satori several times in his life, maybe he saw something we didn’t? Maybe that might have contributed to his hedonistic lifestyle. I don’t know, but his talks remain, and the lucidity, humor and even some wisdom come across clearly. I’ll take the juice and leave the pulp behind.

      • There was certainly something likeable about Alan Watts and no, he didn’t come across as having any desire to dominate others. I don’t like to speculate about samadhi/satori. It’s not verifiable and leads to all sorts of deception: “My guru is enlightened, therefore he can do what he wants” or “my guru is enlightened so I’ll do whatever he tells me to do.” Fortunate that Watts never used satori to further an agenda. That in itself made him stand out from the crowd. Even then the gurus were pouring in to America to cash in. I saw half a dozen of them at the retreat where I taught yoga. Some, like Muktananda, I liked. Others were a bit slick for my taste. I have no idea whether any were enlightened, though. BTW – 2 yogis verified that I experienced a form of samadhi in meditation. I promise you, I’m not enlightened, though, and am not an example to follow.

    • chris s

      Watts always confessed he was a hoax.. he appeared the way he was that’s all he could do.

      • ed

        The full picture of Alan Watts is much clearer now that the USA has seen a wide variety of teachers from the East. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche enjoyed many lovers, smoked, took drugs and drank.
        Many, including me regard his written works as the expression of Realization. Some allege that he drank himself to death too. Revelations allege that many major figures such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Muktananda, Krishnamurti and many Zen Roshi enjoyed women. The image of the sex-less, sober, almost emotion-less enlightened person is a false one promoted for reasons best ignored. All of us have one thing in common, we don’t know how these persons perceived the world and how they were or were not affected by their actions. I happen to agree with the arguments posited by Watte regarding “aching legs Buddhism”. Some Zen types consider sitting still to be some type of Spiritual achievement and culturing a certain “Zen” behavior as an expression of awakening. This is just stuff and nonsense. People will always play the my-guru-is-better-than you-guru game so long as they believe there is something to achieve in awakening. There is something to be said for the person that devotes time to seeing clearly and then just disappears. After all, the sound of rain needs no explanation.

  3. Pingback: Spiritual trendiness | The Shift Has Hit The Fan

  4. ed

    I still enjoy Alan Watts after my first encounter with “This Is It” back in 1974.
    His ability to simplify Eastern topics so that anyone can have a taste maintains his popularity with the common people while causing the professional Roshi’s, Rinpoche’s and Swami’s to question what he is and what he stands for. He stands for nothing in particular and this is the key. Alan is not the product of a particular lineage, has claimed no special & unique awakening. He married three times, had a boatload of personal problems and really enjoyed sex, tobacco and liquor – I can easily identify with this guy. His opinion about Zen being aching-legs Buddhism is not the knock on practice most take it to be. Regardless, Alan will endure in the minds of all that investigate and ponder the ideas about Liberation & Enlightenment. To some, he will continue to be the poster child for someone that has not embraced proper study, practice with the the ever important confirmation of awakening. To most, this is precisely why he will be popular and truly loved. I have NO idea what he thought of himself outside of the words he left on paper or his recorded lectures. I do want to be just like him in this sense: I want to be fully and completely ME.

    • Hi Ed,
      I agree that Watts, even as gifted a speaker as he was and flawed husband/father etc. that he was, was honest with himself and really didn’t pretend to be anything that he wasn’t. I think it’s that personal authenticity which comes through in his talks and writings and would also explain his enduring popularity. I think all any of us can do is find that true self, whatever form that may take or be.

      • ed

        Since the 70’s, the list of Zen Centers, Yoga Centers and a variety of Teachers has expanded significantly to raise questions whether Awakening, Enlightenment or Mukti erases human weakness and the tendency to hurt others whether acting as an individual or in a group. Alan Watts did not pretend to be anything except a philosophical entertainers. To that end, he was a major success and continues to inspire.

    • I’ve been revisiting Alan Watts since this was posted and appreciate him more now than I did when I was younger and had more “highfalutin” beliefs about spirituality. As you say, ed, we can only guess at what he really thought of himself, but he didn’t try to hide who he was in order to put on a spiritual front. When I think back to the lecture I attended, I was consciously put off by the cigarettes he smoked and the pretty girl he came with, but on another level was impressed by his relaxed presence and genuinely warm smile. I was really lucky. It was a small group at a bookstore, so it felt more like a friendly gathering than a lecture.

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