Decentering Practice

Dear Sarah,

For a long time, and especially in this current political climate that invites us to call into question so many of the social systems in place, the reconciliation of spiritual practice and social participation has been a persistent theme for me.  For many people, spiritual practice can become a form of escape from the burden, pain, and struggle of life.  Trance-inducing methods and substances may be seen as paths to spiritual evolution, but is this really evolution if those states of trance aren’t beneficial in shaking us out of the trance of "ordinary consciousness" that maintains separation and fear as acceptable social norms?  

The escapist approach to spiritual practice cultivates fragmentation between a special “spiritual zone” we create for ourselves and our external, everyday lives, as well as more separation between personal growth and responsibility to the health of our communities.  When we go deeper into our practice, with a seriousness derived from more than the desire to escape suffering - but to face, learn, and grow from it - the work of practice can create an undercurrent of truth in our daily experience.  

From the viewpoint of sound, we can apply the concepts of harmony and resonance to help us discern and reconcile our relationships to ourselves, others, and our environment.  Harmony is the nature of the relationship between two frequencies and the resulting effect/s of that relationship, which are often categorized as either consonant (pleasant) or dissonant (unpleasant).  Instead of resisting or avoiding dissonance with parts of ourselves or people/aspects of our lives, we can practice acceptance and learn from those types of relationships.  This involves continuous recalibration of how we define dissonance -- as our own “frequency” shifts and our relationship to dissonance transforms -- ultimately and hopefully leading to the disappearance of the dissonance/consonance paradigm, leaving a vast spectrum of harmonic experience.

Akin to harmony, but with a bit more dimensionality, resonance is how vibration fills, is held by, and moves in a space -- including in relationship to other vibrations in that space.  This concept invites us to identify the qualities of different spaces and evaluate the relative nature of entities within the space.  For example, the resonance of people in a crowded subway train car can shift completely if a funny thing occurs.  The funny thing connects people in a shared understanding/experience, allowing them to not feel so different/separate, and the whole space of the crowded car feels different.  In practicing with the principle of resonance, we become more clear about the nature of the spaces around us and how we can relate to them to cultivate less separation.

How do you approach reconciling and transcending separation in your teaching?  How can we extrapolate the personal process of our practice to serve the greater needs of society?  As we plunge deeper into a practice that can so easily lean towards centering self, how can we reorient our awareness to de-center self to act to honor and serve others?

in Thanks & Peace,


Dear Stephanie,

So many deep topics here. This makes me think of a quote from poet Gary Snyder that I heard recently: “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, pick up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick, don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from more serious pursuits.” I feel like one of the questions you bring up here is how do we know we are really building awareness, and not just self obsession? Working from a mind that typically wants to compartmentalize, label, and separate, how can we redirect practice away from this paradigm? Is it the honest experience of suffering versus acquiring of sensual happiness that signifies that our practice has the ability to extend beyond ourselves to our greater community, or is there somewhere else to be looking?  

Firstly for me, practice goes beyond self when it is grounded in exploration of the ethical principles, which is another way to say grounded in how our actions show up in our lives. The path of hatha yoga is arguably presented as an order of practices with the ethical principles, or yamas, coming very first before the tools most people associate with yoga (the postures, breathing practices, etc). Principles such as nonviolence, honesty, and non-greed, however, are not a pair of good natured yoga pants we put on; they are ways of seeing or, as my teacher Michael Stone refers to them, they are your eyelashes. They are entry points for curiosity, not justifications for the kinds of actions that feel good to you anyway (i.e. I tell it like it is, deal with it. Eating meat is evil, period. Other people steal, but not me.) The curiosity an exploration of the yamas encourages reveals how practice can show up in our lives, but it also exposes to us the many ways we disconnect and create suffering in our lives and others. In this way, a study of ethics can actually shine a light on what might have instinctively brought us to practice in the first place.

There is a natural separation that happens when we are looking outward to avoid suffering. Acquiring happiness, peace, meaning, satisfaction, confidence, personality - these are all reasons people come to practice. When spiritual practice becomes another form of consumption, another opportunity to get what I want and think I need, a transaction occurs that invariably puts some things in my life in the position of provider and some things in the position of being in the way of what I need. When I consume practice to get what I want, it makes me the center of it all, and I separate. What if practice wasn’t so sacred and special, as Snyder describes; what if it was quite normal? I think looking to what drives our practice in the first place is a helpful place to inquire. I find keeping practice in my pedestrian life requires much more inner quiet and recognition of connection than I am sometimes willing to give. It feels easier to keep it separate.

I love what you say about sound, seeing harmony as what connects us and resonance as the ripple effect our actions have on others. It feels true to me that we need both. We need practices, a place to go to, a mode of action, a way inward that helps us connect to our bodies, our breath, our mind, and how they inter-relate in the moment at hand. But those practices should also cue us into how that work resonates in our greater life and then not only will the benefits of our practice not be cordoned off to the tools of practice, but the discoveries that happen in formal practice can be applied to more than just ourselves. Other people have bodies and breath too, it seems. When the focus moves away from getting what we want out of practice, or to avoiding what we don’t want through it, we find that what is valuable is not just what we are connecting to, it is the resonance that internal experience has when it manifests in the world.

This blog is a conversation between Sarah Capua and Stephanie Rooker. Sarah Capua is a therapeutic yoga teacher, meditation teacher, and caregiver in NYC and the Hudson Valley. Stephanie Rooker is a vocalist, voice teacher, sound healing facilitator, and founder of Voice Journey Sound Center in Brooklyn, NY.