Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Using Breath in Every-Day Situations

Here is a good story. Years ago when my son was in pre-school, he had a little run-in with another kid on the playground that I believe involved a sandbox shovel. The mother of this other child, in all fairness, was chronically stressed out by the fact that her son did not handle everyday finagles very well. In retrospect, I believe she wanted her son's social issues to have a simple solution and therefore sought one at every opportunity. On this particular day, she accosted me in the middle of the playground, accusing my son of being some sort of tyrant who was bullying her son by stealing his shovel. She was very angry. Now, this sounds almost comical, and in hindsight it really was. But at the time, I perceived her as a threat. I am not a confrontational person by nature and I could feel my heart starting to race. Had I been confronted with this level of hostility just a few years earlier, before children, this could have developed into a fist-fight. But this was a children's playground! I was a mother, an adult. What to do?? As I stood there with my heart racing, my inner voice said, "just breathe". I consciously slowed and deepened my breath while hearing this woman out. I never took my eyes off of her face. I just stood there, breathing and listening to what she was saying. My heart slowed down, I felt a bit calmer. And then this is what happened: she lowered her voice a bit. Then she removed the hostile tone from it. Then she began to think out loud about what actually happened. She ended up talking herself into a full circle from hostile and accusative to gentle and compassionate, even concluding that her son was most likely to blame for the altercation! How did that happen?? It turned out that remaining calm, quiet and focused allowed this other woman to really hear her tone and her words. She realized she needed to tone it down a bit. The more I listened to her the more she gave up the fight. After all, what she was really looking for was empathy, not a fight. By my withholding a defensive stance, she was able to let go of the hostility and return to a rational state. And it all started with a focus on the breath!
This was a tremendous learning experience for me and I have used it since in other situations with hostile individuals. While it may seem "passive" to allow someone to finish their tirade as you just stand there and breathe, it is actually a very powerful stance in that you are able to remain in a rational state of mind. Anger is irrational - we lose sense of the bigger picture when we become angry. It is also contagious, in that when confronted by an angry individual we ourselves can become angry and defensive. This is how fights break out and usually need to be settled by other people who can distance themselves from the emotional material. To remain calm and rational is infinitely more powerful than even the most violent rage. It is also rather shocking to the enraged one, who is expecting a good fight. It forces your "opponent" to tone it down a notch if he wants to continue the debate. You, as the "breather", have the power to return the dialogue to one of civility, and no matter the outcome, you win because you exercised control over the hostility.

Pranayama 201

This is my favorite pranayama practice. It is nice and easy and can be practiced just about anywhere. Once we've learned to relax the belly, we move on to bring the focus, finally, to the breath. Tune in to your breath. Notice how it feels: slow, fast, smooth, ragged, even, uneven? Just notice its quality for a few minutes without trying to change it. It is important to know that the quality of your breath changes from day to day, hour to hour. There is no one "correct" breath. Don't judge yourself, just notice. When you begin to settle in, feeling relaxed, begin to consciously change your breath. Slow it down a bit, or lengthen it, as I like to tell my students. Draw the breath in a little deeper and exhale a little longer. Try to keep the breath quiet and comfortable, so don't try to fill your lungs to maximum capacity - this will cause anxiety. When all those pesky little thoughts begin to bombard your mind, and they will over and over again, just return to focusing on your breath. Study the quality of this breath you have set for yourself. Is it comfortable enough to continue for several more minutes? If not, change it, soften it or make it a bit shallower. Try to establish a breath you can stick with for a good five minutes. Come back to it again and again each time you are interrupted by thoughts.
If you are able to practice this at least a couple of times per week, you will find that you sink into a nice quiet rhythm pretty quickly and you finish feeling relaxed and refreshed. You may discover that your breath becomes deeper and even develops an aspirant sound to it. That is good. However, I don't recommend that you try to make any sound at the beginning. Trying too hard to make the sound of ujjayi breathing can lead to tension and anxiety and defeat your efforts. Pranayama takes a lot of time and practice, and the best way to be successful is to begin with a focus on relaxation. The breath will unfold from there, becoming deeper and aspirant on its own. Only then are you truly ready to begin the more advanced practices.
Is this meditation? Well, yes, in a way. It is very elementary practice for meditation which comes much later down the road. It is the beginning of pratyahara, or turning inward, as well as gentle conditioning for more advanced pranayama practices.
I use this practice frequently to turn inward and settle my mind. I also use it while lying in bed if I'm having trouble falling asleep. It quiets my mind and allows me to relax enough to let sleep unfold. Most of all, it puts you in touch with your breath, developing an the intuitive sense of when you are anxious or tense, or relaxed and peaceful. This becomes a very useful skill to have throughout life!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pranayama 101

Very simple, straight-forward pranayama exercise that can be done just about anywhere: Sit with your back straight and make sure you are comfortable. If you are a practicing yogi and can sit cross-legged on the floor without support, this is the sitting position you should begin with. If you cannot sit upright without support, find a comfortable chair for this exercise. You should be upright in pranayama practices for two reasons: you are moving subtle energy through the chakra system which corresponds to your spinal column, and you don't want to fall asleep! Spend the first few minutes making sure you are comfortable - I mean really comfortable, because if you are not you will be defeated! Make sure your hips are relaxed. If you are cross-legged on the floor you may need a cushion or rolled blanket under your sit-bones. This will aid the pelvis in tilting forward and take the tension out of the hip-flexors. If you are seated in a chair, you may need a cushion, low stool or big book under your feet if you have short legs! Take the time to get your sitting position correct from the get-go.
Once you feel you are upright but relaxed, close your eyes and let your chin drop slightly toward your chest. Bring your focus to your belly. Consciously relax your belly - just let it go. We all tend to suck our bellies in most of the day, so now we are practicing letting them go. It's harder than you think! I don't recommend tight t-shirts for this exercise - big and baggy is better! Let your breath guide you in relaxing the belly. With each inhalation let the belly rise - not the chest, but the belly. With each exhalation, let the belly collapse. The breath is soft and quiet, not at all forced. You may notice that you are beginning to elongate the breath a little and that is okay, but keep your focus on the belly. If you are brand-new to pranayama, this will be your practice: learning to sit upright but relaxed and focusing on letting go of all that tension in the belly. Practice it for 5 minutes each day until you get really good at it. You will notice at first that you keep sucking in the belly and have to remind yourself to let it go. That is okay- that is the practice. You will know you are ready to move on when you realize you no longer need to remind yourself to relax the belly. It may be two days or two months. It doesn't matter. What you are doing is tuning in to your body and using your breath to to release tension and truly relax. This is Pranayama 101.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Prana means life force or vital energy. Ayama is the opposite of yama. Ayama is extention or lengthening, as Yama means restraint or restriction. Pranayama is often translated as breathing exercises while what it really refers to is both the expansion and control of prana. Initially one is introduced to pranayama through "breathing practices" in yoga class which we discover have a remarkable calming effect on the mind. Why is this? We are concentrating our minds, and therefore our energy, on the breath. Slowing down our busy minds relaxes us and allows us to focus our energy better without getting scattered. My teacher has a habit of repeating, "where the breath goes, prana follows". In other words, bring your attention to your breath and get your energy under control!
There are a great many pranayama practices, each one more sophisticated than the previous, designed to take our minds and our energy to an ever increasing state of refinement. "What we want to do is to feel the finer motions that are going on in the body. Our minds have become externalized and have lost sight of the fine motions inside. If we can begin to feel them we can also begin to control them". That is how Swami Vivekananda exlains what we are trying to do with pranayama in Raja Yoga. It is how he summarized the more complex explanation he gives on psychic prana, explaining the ida and pingala currents which carry prana from the base of our spines up to the brain. "according to the Yogis, there are two nerve currents in the spinal column called the Pingala and the Ida, and a hollow canal called the Sushumna, running through the spinal cord. At the lower end of the spinal cord is what the Yogis called the lotus of the Kudalini. When the Kundalini awakes, it tries to force a passage through this hollow canal;and as it tries step by step, layer after layer of the mind opens up and many different visions and wonderful powers come to the Yogi." (Vivekananda, p.50).
This gets to be exciting stuff. What does Feuerstein, the great scholar of yoga, have to say? "In Yoga practice, breath control equals mental control. This formula is as fundamental as Einstein's E=mc² and as far reaching in its practical implications. It is through the proper regulation of the life force that the yogin can not only influence the nervous system and bodily functioning in general but also gain access to the subtle dimensions of existence by transcending the brain-dependent activities of the mind" (Georg Feuerstein, Shambhala Guide to Yoga, pp. 69-71).
Now, I don't know about you, but this just makes me want to sit right down and breathe! Don't worry about reaching enlightenment, just focus on your breath. Lengthen it. Deepen it. Listen to the sound it makes. Try to make your inhalations and your exhalation equal in length. That's all. Try that for five minutes a day and you will be off to a great start. Your chattery mind will settle right down. Any anxiety will be eased. Your blood pressure may drop. You will be experiencing the subtle control over your body's life force that you are capable of when you stop letting your mind be scattered by all the outside influences.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Posture. In the Yoga Sutra, the only reference to asana is this: "Posture should be steady and comfortable. It should be accompanied by the loosening of tension (prayatna) and by coinciding with the infinite space of consciousness" II:45-46 (translation by Georg Feuerstein in Yoga). So how did this elaborate tradition of hundreds of asanas come about?! Patanjali is clearly referring to a posture in which you sit to meditate. So where did Downward Dog and Triangle Pose come from? Asana, or the practice of posture, comes from Hatha Yoga, the school of yoga that prepares the body and mind for the eventual practice of Raja Yoga, the journey to Samadhi (enlightenment). Remember that to reach enlightenment, we must be of sound body and mind. Asana begins the work of cleansing the body and healing the body, while also training the mind to stay focused. My teacher, Beryl Bender Birch, has one of the best ways of explaining yogic concepts in plain English, and really says it best in her latest book, Boomer Yoga,"this particular system of asana practice is what in yoga is called a form of tapas, or detoxification. The word tapas literally means 'to burn'. The idea is that you use the work to start an internal fire, which then in turn burns impurities and clears toxins from the body, through squeezing, sweating, and breathing" (P. 31). That is what the practice of asana is really all about. While Patanjali is essentially saying, "make it steady and comfortable", that is a lot easier said than done! Try sitting cross-legged on the floor for half an hour in meditation. If you have poor postural muscles and weak blood flow, this will be nearly impossible, and quite possibly a form of torture that really should be banned internationally. You must be conditioned, that is, cleansed and healed both inside and out, and of strong mind and body, to sit for lengthy periods in meditation. It is when we sit and relax, turning inward, that we are able to have the insights that advance us on our spiritual paths, and eventually lead to a state of bliss.
Asana is the form of yoga that most Americans are familiar with. It is usually the jumping-off point for us all on our yogic quests. Why is this? My experience of teaching asana for the past eleven years is that the practice itself gets people to do three things: pay attention to their breath, pay attention to their bodies, and quiet down all the chatter in their minds. I don't know of any other form of exercise that does this so effectively. This is what I call "turning inward 101". It is what Beryl call "kindergarten". By that we mean, you are beginning to turn inward, slow your mind's chatter and get connected with you body, without necessarily knowing it at first! Most people love the way they feel after yoga class: relaxed, de-stressed, calm. Only from that point can we begin to expand our awareness, in whatever direction we choose. Whether people like it or not, yoga class, or asana, turns them inward and calms them, at the same time that it works out the kinks, stimulates the kidneys and cleanses the liver!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ishvara Pranidhana

Devotion to God, or a Power greater than oneself. This is the crowning glory of the Niyamas. After all, this is a spiritual path, so it is only right that at some point the mention of God, or a Higher Power, enters the discussion. For many people, this is not a problem. For others, this is where they shout, "Stop the train, I want to get off!" It is important to remember that the paternal God of the Judeo-Christian traditions is totally foreign to the Hindu practitioner. God is not a person, but a power, a form of energy that pervades everything in the world and the universe. Hinduism has many gods and goddesses, all of whom possess different human attributes and yet are only a small part of the Divine Energy. Hindu practitioners choose their own god or goddess, depending upon which human attributes they wish to cultivate. That is a system which is in line with Yoga, one of the six schools of orthodox Hinduism. On the yogic path, we are choosing what to pay attention to and what to work on: greedlessness, non-violence, truth, etc. You can practice yoga and be a devout Catholic at the same time. You can be a Hindu who chooses Jesus as your personal god. This is not sacrilegious but rather a mindful choice of spiritual practice based on paying attention: our personal needs are different from our neighbors, and only we ourselves can determine them with any accuracy. We can seek help and guidance from our spiritual leaders and mentors, but in the end it is we as individuals who are responsible for choosing our spiritual path.
If you are an atheist, how do you practice Ishvara Pranidhana? Keep in mind that in this ancient tradition, there is no GOD but rather Divine Energy. Rather than a father figure who watches over us and keeps score, deciding who lives and who dies in any given year, divine energy is what the world was created from: it is a power greater than ourselves. I think we can all agree that the universe and all its mysteries is definitely a power greater than ourselves! The ultimate goal of a yoga practice is to experience first-hand this divine energy in ourselves and our interconnectedness through divine energy to every other form, animate and inanimate, on earth. If you have dabbled in quantum physics, you will begin to understand that it is the modern-day physicists who are the closest to understanding this concept. This Divine Energy can be proven scientifically. You don't need a messiah or a miracle to prove it, just a really good physicist who can explain some tricky concepts to you. Good luck! : )

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Self-study, self- analysis; also, studying sacred scripture. These are two different definitions for Svadhyaya. Initially, you might think, Huh? which is it - self analysis or study of sacred scripture? But further examination shows that these two definitions are meant to be together. Just recently I read the best explanation for this, and unfortunately I cannot remember who wrote it, but I do remember the explanation quite clearly as it made a whole lot of sense to me. We need to work on studying ourselves first, and for a long time, before we begin to study sacred scripture. This is because we need a good acquaintance with our inner-most selves, our strengths and our weaknesses, an acknowledgment of ego and knowing the difference between ego and true self, before we dive into scripture. Only then can we really choose the sacred scripture that is right for us as individuals. It is considered a waste of time to study lots of different sacred scriptures, dabbling a little with this or that religion or philosophy, if we have not yet done the work of getting to know ourselves. We get side-tracked, pulled this way and that way, and only really end up more confused than enlightened, if we spread ourselves too thin. So the concept of Svadhyaya is to study every aspect of ourselves (the Yamas help us get started!), practicing Satya (Truth) in everything we do, think, and say. Then, after many years of such practice, we will know intuitively which sacred scriptures will be most enlightening for us.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Self-Discipline. This can be defined many ways and the beautiful thing about the yogic path is that we get to define things for ourselves, according to our needs and where we are at any particular point in our lives. For instance, the self-discipline that I need to work on may be quite different from whatever it is that you need to work on. Tapas can be anything from getting out of bed a little earlier each morning, to giving up smoking, to sitting for longer in meditation. Asana, or the postures work we do on the mat in a typical yoga class, is a form of tapas. We are disciplining the body by correcting muscle imbalance and cleansing internal organs, eliminating toxins from our tissues as we sweat. You can choose one form of tapas or many. For me, asana is no problem, I do it every day. Getting enough exercise and eating healthy food is easy for me as well. For others, not so. For you, getting to the gym three times per week may be your tapas right now. For me, reducing my chocolate consumption is going to take a lot of hard work and determination. For instance, I walked into the grocery store just yesterday, and lo and behold, there was a lady standing just inside the door to greet all customers with a lovely display of Green & Blacks' Organic Chocolate in all different percentages and varieties. Now, not too long ago, I was able to to say to myself: "Well, would you look at that! God really does want me to eat more chocolate! After all, Theobroma (as in theobroma cacao) does mean food of the gods, so who would really ever want to deprive themselves of such a heavenly food!?" With a little creative imagination and a great deal of delusion we are often quite capable of talking ourselves right back into the habits we want to give up or cut back. This is where Satya comes back in. Being Truthful. Without it, our attempts at tapas are bound to fail. I did walk away from the chocolate lady, but in all honesty I still had the bar of Equal Exchange chocolate that I had bought the day before. So, tiny steps. Tiny steps are always okay, as long as they are heading in the direction we wish to travel.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Contentment. Practicing contentment can be more difficult than it would seem. We live in a fast-paced, success-oriented, consumerist society which seems to be sending the same message over and over again: you are not yet complete without the latest (fill in the blank). At what point, then, are we complete? When we've maxed out our last credit card?? I think a great many people have already tried that and guess what? It doesn't work! Practicing santosha means practicing regular reflection on what we have, not what we don't have. We do tend to do this from time to time: saying grace before dinner, saying blessings for our family, etc. But most of the time we get caught up in the rat race of status and consumption. Santosha is more than saying grace. It is remembering all day long what we are grateful for. Not obsessing about the car we want to have but rather reminding ourselves of how lucky we are to have a car that gets us where we want to go. Santosha means celebrating the healthy body you have rather than despising our legs that don't look good in skinny jeans. Get the gist? It is simply a matter of turning around the negative thoughts: they are only one side of the coin. Focus on the other side instead. It saves a lot of energy and helps you develop a far more satisfying life.
A radical example of practicing santosha is that of a friend of mine in the yoga community whose house burned down a few years ago. She lost all of her possessions. This is everyone's nightmare. But what she walked away with was her life and her daughter's life. Neither was injured. Within one week she began to experience a feeling of great freedom and contentment. She no longer had all the clutter of everyday life, just the things that mattered, her daughter and herself. This is not such an unusual story. Many people have reported that same sense of freedom once they finally lost all their "stuff". We tend to cling to our belongings and fear losing them as we've identified with them as an integral part of ourselves. But once they are gone, we realize we are so much more than the sum of our belongings! Aparigraha, or non-hoarding, is practiced for this very reason.
Every day we need to re-evaluate our contentment. Sometimes we are not healthy or we do not have a car. And sometimes we need to just kvetch and get it out of our system. But Satya, or truth, is a major component here. If we are truthful with ourselves about what is, we are more likely to cultivate contentment than if we simply sulk about what is not and long for something that no longer is or was never meant to be.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Cleanliness; purity of mind and body. Sanskrit is a fascinating ancient language in that one little word rarely has one little definition. Shaucha refers not only to keeping our body clean from the outside, but also from the inside. It also refers to a "cleanliness" or purity of mental energy as well as spiritual energy. From the simplest perspective, taking a bath, brushing our teeth, avoiding junk food, staying away from internet porn and going to church regularly would seem to cover the basics. But as we dive a bit deeper into ancient tradition, we discover an amazing array of cleansing techniques, from fasting to special diets, to purging and the use of enemas, to breathing exercises, chanting mantras and beginning meditation techniques. So Shaucha can encompass a wide array of cleansing possibilites! For most of us, unless you are into colonics, the idea of fasting, purging, or using enemas is hardly enticing. So back to basics: keep your body clean, every day. Floss and brush. Empty your bowels. Then take a good, honest look (Satya!) at your diet. How does it effect your energy? Your digestion? What can be eliminated or added to improve your nutrition? Is our diet generally life-enhancing, or is it harmful to our health (Ahimsa!) Are we not feeding ourselves enough (Asteya!) out of concern for body image, or are we gorging mindlessly (Aparigraha!). These are all considerations we must make when attending to our inner cleanliness, or purity. You can now see how the concepts of Non-Violence, Truth, Non-Stealing and Non-Hoarding come into play as we begin to consider our overall sense of inner and outer purity. Yama and Niyama are inherently connected. Do not let that confuse or discourage you. You don't even need to notice it initially. But as you practice, you will begin to see the interconnectedness clearly. I think of each limb along this path as not only preparing us for the next limb, but reinforcing the last one.
The same considerations apply to purity of mind and spirit as well: what are we reading, watching on TV, listening to on our ipods? How is our mental energy affected when we go to work listening to heavy metal or to a Mozart concerto. What kind of people are we hanging around these days? Are they negative, angry, stuck-in-the-mud people, or are they contented, productive people? How does the company you keep effect your state of mind? Your state of mind will have either a positive or negative affect on your spiritual path: if your mental energy is negative, you won't be advancing spiritually anytime soon, I guarantee it! That doesn't mean we should plaster on a smiley face and pretend all is well, it simply means pay attention! Only with attention can we make the changes we need to improve our lot.

Niyama - Personal Observances

The second limb of the eight-limbed path is Niyama, or personal observances. Like Yama, there are five subsets of Niyama:
1. Shaucha: cleanliness; purity of mind and body
2. Santosha: contentment
3. Tapas: vigorous self-discipline
4. Svadhyaya: self-analysis; study of spiritual scriptures
5. Ishvara Pranidhana: Devotion to God, or to a Power greater than oneself

While Yama is focusing our attention on how we conduct ourselves in the outside world and working to develop a bit more discipline morally, Niyama is how we take care of our inner-selves and continuing to develop our self-discipline with regard to our physical, mental and spiritual health. Yama and Niyama are rarely ever separated, and it is difficult to focus on only the first limb without making detours through the second limb. This will become apparent with all the limbs, as the eight-limbed path is rarely linear. As I take you through each subset of Niyama, I will attempt to make a connection to some aspect of Yama so that you can see how interwoven these principals are.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Non-Greed, or Non-hoarding. This fifth Yama violates the basic tenets of the American National Religion: Capitalism. That does not mean you need to become a dreaded Socialist or, God-Forbid, Communist, but this Yama does force us to take a good, hard look at our consumption habits. Tread easy with this one - it can be painful. Let's face it, Ladies: just how many pairs of shoes do we really need? I'm sure you can see where I am going with this. Practicing aparigraha requires a good foundation in satya (truth) or we won't be making any progress. How much do we eat, sleep, shop or otherwise indulge in both material and sensual pleasures? This is the question we want to keep at the back of our minds and explore over a period of time. The more awareness we bring to our consumption habits the better able we are to make some better decisions, perhaps spend a little less, or at least only indulge in the best quality we can afford (see Chocolate of the Week box to your right). We should aim to make our lives less cluttered, not more so. It is easier said than done, and this topic will come up again when we take a good look at Pratyahara. In the meantime, think about the dread you feel when your parents or in-laws try to unload thirty years worth of junk from their attic into the back of your car. If you have not reached that point in your life yet, believe me you will soon enough and you might want to get your parents started on aparigraha right away! My husband is a master of aparigraha and I have a long way to go to catch up. For some of us, this yama may be easy and for others, it may take many years of patient practice to learn to take a little less and give a lot more. Good luck!

Monday, November 9, 2009


Continence: exercising sexual self-restraint. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this Yama was initially a call to sexual abstinence, as it is believed that a man's semen can be reabsorbed as spiritual energy, and that spilling it needlessly leads to a backward slide on the spiritual path. This is something I may explore a little more and post on at a later date. Maybe. No promises. For the meantime, let's examine Bramacharya from the Average-Joe perspective, rather than the ascetic view. Sexual energy is intense and emotional. It does rob us of some energy. However, denying sexual gratification tends to lead to more problems than it solves. It is up to each individual then to restrain sexual activity to a level that allows gratification and release yet does not become an obsession. Excessive sexual activity can lead to addiction, and like all addictions, will contribute to the spiritual back-slide. Bramacharya is essentially a moral imperative: take what you need but don't be sleazy.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Asteya- Non-Stealing. How do we steal things? Let us count the ways: we steal people's time when we demand too much of their attention, we steal people's energy when we burden them with too many of our problems. We steal extra packets of sugar and napkins from the diner, more than we intend to use at the moment, believing we have the right to do so since we just bought a cup of coffee. We steal food from the world when we pack our plates with more food than we can actually eat at the buffet. We steal water when we leave the faucet running, and energy when we leave the lights on. We steal more than our fair share of oil when we crank the heat on a cold day without putting on a sweater first. We steal fresh air from others when we leave our cars running to jump out for a quick errand. None of these examples are going to hold up in a court of law, as they are not even considered misdemeanors, never mind felonies. What they really are are examples of mindlessness. When we are not paying attention, we are apt to "steal" in some way, to show lack of consideration or even demonstrate a sense of entitlement that is not really ours for the taking. We are all guilty of this from time to time.
Have you ever been to a dinner party where one person did all the talking all evening? It grows tiresome. It robs the host of the opportunity to talk to each guest . It robs the guests of the pleasure of conversing with one another. And it robs us all of our energy as we struggle to stay focused on a talker we have all grown quite tired of.
My latest offense was taking my cousin's dog for a walk at a local park and discovering a dispenser for free doggy poop bags. I thought, "what a great idea!" and got so excited I took five of them to keep in my truck, just in case I need them on future outings! Poop Bags! I stole poop bags to take with me wherever I go with this dog, even though they were provided by the kind, tax-paying residents of my town to keep that particular park clean. Not some other park, somewhere else, some other time! Will I be hung on the town green for this offense? Probably not. But the point is, if everyone helped themselves to as many poop bags as they wanted whenever they chose, there would be none left for that big, giant pile left behind by someone's beloved canine. And we all know what that means: someone is going to step in it!
So if you are still stealing bubble gum and lollipops from the corner store, stop already and move up to the next level. Pay attention.

Spiritual Revolutionaries

According to my Master Teacher, Beryl Bender Birch of the Hard & The Soft Institute, we (her students) are the Spiritual Revolutionaries. To Beryl, asana is just kindergarten. She demands a bit more of her students, and that is to live yoga every day and bring it into the community in any way we can. This, of course, requires more than just familiarity with our toes, and challenges us to live the eight limbs in every creative form we can muster. We can sit in full-lotus pose and turn ourselves upside-down on to our heads. But if we aren't paying attention, we are not practicing yoga. That will be one of the first lessons you will learn from Beryl if you choose to study and practice with her. Poses are just poses until you begin to bring all of your attention to what you are doing. Only then are you just beginning to get an idea of what yoga really is. Beryl's Spiritual Revolutionaries are out in the world, teaching yoga to the elderly, to kids, to prisoners, to Marines. They are working in soup kitchens and building shelters. Practicing yoga means doing the work of identifying, and then shedding the ego to get out of ourselves and into the world, making the world a little bit better every day. This is not a one-time deal that you do to make yourself feel better during charity-week. This is everyday, for the rest of your life. Yoga is a life-long practice.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Satya - Truth

This is a good one. Satya is the second Yama. Just how truthful are we in our daily lives? Now if you know yourself to be someone who never lies, then congratulations, you have passed level one in truthfulness. Now you are going to have to look a little deeper to do the level 2 work. A good example comes from yesterday's post about Ahimsa, where I had to determine whether one more interval would be violent to my body or helpful to my fitness. I was tired. I wanted to quit after just four. But I made myself do one more. That is because I dealt with the truth of the situation -- I wasn't at all on the verge of injury, I was just wimping out. Whether I did the extra interval or not hardly mattered: what mattered was that I was at least truthful to myself about why I did or did not do it.
That is an example of both ahimsa and satya at work together. I love when this happens! The Yamas are always reinforcing each other.
Here is another example: two adult sisters are expecting a visit from their elderly parents. One sister is jealous that the parents have chosen to stay at the other sister's house during their visit. The jealous sister says, "why do they always stay with you when they visit?". The other sister replies, "Because I invite them!" So what is going on here? This is a classic example of feeling sorry for ourselves because it seems someone else always has the luck. Dig a little deeper and we realize that what appears as luck on the surface is really just a consequence of a particular action (Ah, Karma!). Had Jealous Sister extended an invitation, the parents might actually have stayed at her house during their visit. This is really a tough one. It is much easier to believe that others have all the luck than to try to figure out what we may have done or not done to deserve our lot in life. Now this is really Yoga - if we want to improve our lot, we are going to have to do the work (sort of like running the intervals!) to figure out which actions we can take, or eliminate, in order to change an outcome. That requires Truth. Satya.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ahimsa: Non-Violence

Non-Violence. At first this seems like a no-brainer. After all, we all know we shouldn't run around hitting people and murdering our neighbors. But when we explore this topic a bit further we become aware of the endless subtelties in which violence can creep into our lives. For instance, what were you thinking this morning, when you were running late for work, about that little old lady driving 15 mph in front of you for three miles? I am willing to bet it was not a pleasant thought, possibly even violent, depending on whether or not you had had your morning coffee. Our disgust and impatience with others is a form of violence. Even if we keep it to ourselves, we are disturbing our own peace of mind and setting ourselves up for a doozy of a day. So do we squelch our impatience, try to ignore it, will it away? No, we explore. What is really going on here? Well, I slept an extra fifteen minutes, then spent too much time harvesting my artichokes on Farmville, now I'm late, and this lovely lady is not to blame. She's retired and is in no hurry. Lucky her. Tomorrow I better get up earlier.
If you are not buying that one, here is another one: Today was an interval running day for me at the gym. This means 1.5 minutes running as fast as I can while keeping good form, then one minute walking recovery, then another 1.5 minutes all-out. This goes on and on until you think you're ready to drop. Violent? Uh, yeah. Here is the dilemma: Do I quit while I'm ahead, saying, "Oh, this is really not good for my precious body", or do I get one or two more in. The reason for this exercise, after all, is to improve my cardio-respiratory capacity. You have to do the work to get the results. If I am on the verge of injury or illness, I must stop and protect the sanctity of my body. If I am just a wimp, then I am not doing myself any favors. Do you see where I am going with this? Honing our awareness means questioning our resolve from time to time, a little self-analysis, and a great deal of honesty.
Feel free to share your ahimsa stories - the more the merrier!

Yama-The First Limb

In 2007, one of my beloved yoga instructors gave me the assignment of spending a month thinking about the Yamas and keeping a journal to record my observations.  It did not matter whether I spent the whole month observing only one or two, or all five.  What mattered was cultivating awareness.  Yoga, after all, is the practice of expanding our awareness to enable our spiritual growth.  While I believed at the time that I had a pretty good handle on the Yamas, this exercise resulted in a deeper understanding of the endless variety of ways we can continue to practice, really practice, our yoga both on and off the mat.  As in all things yogic, awareness was once again expanded.

Yama translates as Restraint and refers to the moral restraints that we observe toward others.  Yama is the first limb of the Eightfold Path, or Eight Limbed Path (Asht'Anga) to spiritual enlightenment.  The Yamas are categorized accordingly:

Ahimsa -Non-Violence, or restraining from violence in both word and deed.

Satya - Truth; being truthful to ourselves as well as others

Asteya - Non- Stealing; refraining from taking what is not ours

Aparigraha - Non-Hoarding; eliminating greed

Bramacarya - This is a tough one for the western mind to grasp.  The true translation is abstinence from sexual activity.  Kinder, gentler yogis of modern times have tweaked the translation a bit to something like: avoid promiscuity.  The real reason for this particular yama is less about the immorality of promiscuity (a western concept), and more about the belief that spiritual energy is drained from men through ejaculation.  Make of it what you will.


The Eight Limbs of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra - Asht'Anga, is what this blog aims to explore; not Patthabi Jois' primary series, folks!  Although asana will come up.  The eight limbs toward spiritual enlightenment are:
Yama: Moral observances
  1. ahimsa: non-violence in thought and deed
  2. satya: Truth
  3. asteya: Non stealing
  4. bramacharya: continence; mindful engagement, conserving energy
  5. aparigraha: greedlessness, non-hoarding

Niyama: Personal observances or discipline
  1. Shaucha: cleanliness, purity of mind and body
  2. Santosha: contentment
  3. Tapas: vigorous self-discipline (asana is a form of tapas)
  4. Svadhyaya: self-study; study of sacred scriptures
  5. Ishvara Pranidhana: devotion to God or a Power greater than ourselves

Asana: Posture; asanas purify the body and mind and have therapeutic effects

Pranayama: Control and expansion of the breath; prolongation of breath and restraint
“When the breath is irregular, the mind wavers; when the breath is steady, so is the mind” –Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses; bringing the senses under control; turning energy inward

Dharana: Concentration; prolonged concentration leads the mind toward a state of meditation

Dhyana: Meditation; Focusing on one point is concentration.  Concentrating on all points at the same time is meditation.

Samadhi: Bliss
In samadhi one loses consciousness of the body, breath mind, intelligence and ego.  He lives in infinite peace.  In this state, his wisdom and purity combined with simplicity and humility, shine forth.  Not only is he enlightened, but he illumines all those who come to him in search of truth.  –B. K.S. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama

 These limbs do not necessarily need to be followed in chronological order although the layout is a brilliant design to help us refine our awareness of ourselves, our bodies, behaviors and minds, from the foundation up, so to speak.  A lot of us in the west jump on this path in yoga class, or asana class, where we first learn to get acquainted with our toes - really get acquainted with those toes!  So if lots of asana is what it takes to get us to pay attention, then so be it.  If on the other hand, you have been meditating for years without any formal recognition of your toes, then you now have a new objective.  This is the beauty of a yoga practice - something for everyone.  So jump on the path and join me as I begin this project of exploring the practice of the eight limbs in modern, American life.  All experiences are valid.  There is no right or wrong.  It is just what is.