Monday, December 19, 2011

The Yoga Sutras: Threads pulled from the fabric of the Upanisads

The Yoga Sῡtras of Patañjali are commonly thought to be the authoritative text on yoga (Singleton, 27) and are often believed to be the very first exposition of yoga. I will argue in this paper that they are not the first and certainly not the only, by showing that extremely similar and often identical ideas, lists, terms and descriptions, existed in previous texts. Upon studying the principal and yoga Upaniṣads, it becomes clear that the Yoga Sῡtras are merely a bringing together of previously offered philosophies and instructions pertaining to yoga, from the formerly written Upaniṣads. 

Patañjali is said to have authored the Yoga Sῡtras somewhere around the third century A.D. Or did he? Common sense might suggest that he may not have even existed at all. Although a Sanskrit grammarian under that name did live near that time, most tales tell that Patañjali came to earth as an incarnation of Viṣnu in the form of a tiny snake that landed in his mother’s hands, only to develop the body of a man from the waist up and thenceforth became of master of yoga and authored the Yoga Sῡtras. This unlikely legend, albeit mythologically divine and typically Indian, suggests unfortunately somewhat deficient credibility, at least in an accurate historical sense.
Whether Patañjali actually lived and produced the Yoga Sῡtras or not, it still stands that the treatise was not the first to record, describe or present yoga in the way that it does. There were very preliminary mentions of yoga in the Ṛg Veda (yoking the mind to the highest truth, yuj being the word meaning to yoke, which the word yoga comes from) and in the Atharvaveda which talks about the eight mystic circles or wheels, which seems to be the start of the idea of chakras or the energy system within the body which yoga seeks to manipulate. Later though, in many, nay most of the Upaniṣads, the theory of yoga is outlined and formulated in full. In fact, the Upaniṣads offer yogic philosophy and instruction in more comprehensiveness than does the Yoga Sῡtras.

To demonstrate this point, I will explicate some of the central aphorisms from the Yoga Sῡtras and show where they existed previously in the Upaniṣads. The main points include the definition of yoga, the five afflictions of the mind, the centrality, meaning and proper usage of the syllable OM, the mandate of devotion to the lord and the description of ‘lord’, the eight limbs of yoga and the components of each and also the powers which are said to arise from the practice of yoga.

Patañjali’s Yoga Sῡtras (I will continue to refer to them as his!) define yoga as yogas citta vritti nirodha, or “yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” This description is given multiple times in the Upaniṣads. The Katha Upaniṣad tells that yoga is considered to be the steady fixing of the senses and reining in of the mind  and when this happens that is the highest state (6.10) and also that a wise man should curb his speech and his mind (3.13). The Taittirīya describes how sages should and could control their senses (2.4.1) and in the later Sandilyopaniṣad it is said that the ‘throbbing of the mind is suspended’ via yoga, which sounds even closer to Patanjali’s definition.

The fluctuations in the mind, Patañjali states, are caused by five kleśas, or causes of affliction.  These five are ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and the will to live. The Mandala-Brahmanopaniṣad also talks about five inherent defects characteristic of humans (chapter 2) which is likely alluding to the same idea. But if we look more closely at each of the five outlined in the Yoga Sῡtras we will see how each of these appeared as an affliction and something to be overcome, in the Upaniṣads.

Avidya, or ignorance, is explained as the root of all of the other hindrances to spiritual growth. This lack of knowledge is seen as a head-shattering predicament that all must seek to conquer, both in the Yoga Sῡtras and in very many Upaniṣads. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad says that knowledge burns away karma and is transformative (5.24). The Taittirīya Upaniṣad invokes “May both of us obtain the lustre of sacred knowledge!” (1.3). In the Aitareya Upaniṣad it is said that “Knowledge is the eye of the world, and knowledge, the foundation. Brahman is knowing… with this self consisting of knowledge… became immortal.” (3.4) In the Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad we are warned that one who arrives at death without complete knowledge, will drown (in the mythological lake Ara). (1.4a) And in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad it is said that “ignorance is the imperishable and knowledge is the immortal” (5.1).

Asmita, or ego, sometimes translated as I-am-ness, has to do with a wrongly established identity and sense of individuation. All throughout the Upaniṣads the argument is made that the self (Atman) is not separate from Brahman. It is shown in … that there is no ‘me’ to differentiate from everything else. We are told in the Tejo-Bindῡpaniṣad that we must curb egoism (among other things) to know the Brahman. It also teaches that egoism is false and that the mantra “I am Brahman” destroys the knowledge of the Atman and the misery of the knowledge of duality (ch3).

Raga, or attachment and sometimes lust, for material things is said to always lead to sorrow in the Yoga Sῡtras and is demonstrated as such in the Upaniṣads. In the Katha Upaniṣad the importance of non-thirsting for material things is made explicit in the lines “fools pursue outward desires” (4.2) and in the dialogue between Naciketas and Death, where the former says to the latter “With wealth you cannot make man content; will we get to keep wealth, when we have seen you (death)?”(1.27) The Tejo-Bindῡpaniṣad says that we must give up all attachments and all grasping tendencies. (ch. 1) In the Yoga Kundaly Upaniṣad it says that “a man longs for an object through passion” (2.3) but “he should abandon everything else that he thinks is favourable to himself.” (2.4)

Dveṣa, or aversion, is the repulsion to entities which provide unpleasant experiences. The Yoga Sῡtras teach that to overcome these aversion and also attachments, one must practice dispassion for pleasant and unpleasant sensations. The Tejo-Bindῡpaniṣad also suggests that one “must subjugate passions kindled by the senses” in order to perceive Brahman (ch 1). In the Nada-Bindu it is revealed that by continual practice one is freed from all states, does not feel heat or cold, and therefore neither joy (creates attachment) nor sorrow (creates aversion), and will then attain his true state (41-55).

Abhinivesa, is the will to live and likewise the fear of death, and the Yoga Sῡtras instruct that it must be overcome by meditative absorption to become free from sorrow yet to come. One of the main themes throughout the Upaniṣads is the dedication towards realizing Brahman, in which case one sheds off his karmic bondage and is thereby released from samsara into moka and finally out of the wheel of continual rebirth. If one is pursuing this purpose, then it must be a pre-requisite that one must let go of the fear of death and the will to live, since in essence he is trying to escape both of those altogether. The very common talk in the Upaniṣads of becoming immortal is not to be interpreted as trying to stay alive forever and never die, but rather, to never be born again, and in that sense, to essentially ‘not live’.

The understanding of syllable OM is also in accordance in the Upaniṣads and the in Yoga Sῡtras. Patanjali offers the aphorisms that the lord’s symbol is OM and that if you recite OM and contemplate its meaning then your obstacles will be removed. These concepts exist in many of the Upaniṣads. Discussion of and reverence towards OM is a major part of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad. OM and the breath don’t only lead to Brahman, but this Upaniṣad teaches that they ARE Brahman, and are the essence of all. In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad it is stated that “A man who utters this syllable with that knowledge enters this very syllable, the sound that is immortal and free from fear. As the Gods became immortal, so will he.” (1.4.5) This sounds like the exact same idea, only in different words. To further demonstrate this equivalence, the Maitri Upaniṣad also teaches that meditation on the syllable OM creates awareness of Samadhi. The Katha Upaniṣad promises that when one knows this syllable he obtains his every wish (2.16). In the Yoga Cῡḍāmaṇi Upaniṣad it is stated that “Brahman is OM” (1.72) and “Because Om is the ethereal light, it has to be pronounced by words, practiced by the body and meditated upon by the mind.” (1.87)

Another of Patañjali’s precepts is that the lord (which he interprets ultimately as the truest form of the Self) is untouched by afflictions, and also that action and karma do not have consequence for this quintessential Atman/Iśvara. He says that Karma is neither black nor white for the Yogi (who has realized this true essence), whereas for others it is threefold. This means that while other have either good karma (white), bad karma (black), or a mix (grey), an accomplished Yogi, who has merged with the lord (gone inside to this deepest layer of his being) is beyond those three conditions. This very same concept exists as far back as in the first chronological Upaniṣad, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka. It states that “this immense unborn self, there in the space of the heart he lies, controller of all… He does not become more by good actions or in any way less by bad actions.” (4.4.22)

“The term Aṣtanga was first used by the sage Patanjali, the writer of a treatise on yoga sῡtras, over two thousand years ago.”(Sweeney) This common assumption is wholly incorrect. The term and the theory occurs many times throughout the Upaniṣads. Ata means eight and anga means limb or branch, signifying that there are eight essential components to Yoga. Patañjali’s eight limbs are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Each one of these concepts is proposed as a principal part of yoga in the Upaniṣads, and also this very same set of eight, together as a whole and sometimes in this exact order, exists in multiple Upaniṣads. The Yoga-Tattvopaniṣad give the same eight limbs, in the same order (24-27) as the Yoga Sῡtras. The same version of Aṣtanga Yoga is also outlined in the Tri-śikhi-Brāhmaṇopaniṣad (1.28-32). In the Darśanopaniṣad gives the same elements in the same order, however, has ten yamas and ten niyamas (1.4-5), compared to Patañjali’s five only of each. The Darśana also give much more detail of each of the limbs, than does Patanjali. The mention of eight subdivisions also exists in the Varāhopaniṣad (11-12) and in the Sandilyopaniṣad (Khanda 1).

Patañjali details that the ten ethical precepts which a yogi must follow include five yamas (restraints), five niyamas (observance). The yamas, which are explained in the Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad as “detachment in relation to the body and the organs of sense” (28-32) are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (celibacy) and aparigraha (non-grasping). The five niyamas are saucha (cleanliness), santoa (contentment), tapas (heat or practice), svadhyaya (self-study) and Iśvara pranidhana (surrender to the lord). Each concept is presented in the Upaniṣads, prior to Patañjali’s inclusion of them in the Yoga Sῡtras. 

The concept of ahimsa or non-harming is promoted in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad whereby it is said that “he who refrains from killing any creature except a worthy person, does not return again” (8.15). By a worthy person, I interpret this to mean someone who rightfully brings harm upon himself in the form of self-defence or any situation comparable, and by saying one will not return again, it is meant that refraining from violence ensures that no bad karma is created which would bond one to life. This is a desirable effect since the goal of existence at that time and in this context was to shrug off the connection to the wheel of birth and death. The Darsanopaniṣad goes further to say one must practice “non-indulgence in violence by body, mind or word.” (1) Ahimsa is also one of the yamas as outlined in the Tri-śikhi-Upaniṣad (32) and in others as well.

Satya means truth and is expounded as a supreme virtue in nearly all of the Upaniṣads. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad states that “what prevents one from being burnt – truth, that is the self. That is how you are.” (6.15.3). This is asserting that truth is not just something you do or say, then, but something much more profound. It is something that you are and you must pursue the realization of that reality. This is a core idea in the Upaniṣad, that truth is Brahman. Since Atman is Brahman then it follows that ‘you are that’ (truth). Truth is also listed under the yamas of the Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad (32). The Darsanopaniṣad states that only what is ‘seen, heard, smelt’ by the sense organs ought to be expressed as the truth (9). 

Asteya means non-stealing and is also listed as one of the ten yamas in the Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad. The Darsanopaniṣad promotes this value as follows, “the total abstinence of the mind from the straw,
gem, gold and even the pearl belonging to others, wise men know that to be Abstinence from stealth.” (11-12)

Brahmacarya can be translated and defined in a great many ways, but most often as celibacy or chastity for the purpose of conserving sexual energy in order to increase vitality. In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad it is expressed that what people normally call sacrifice (formally and outward) is in reality the life of a celibate student (inward sacrifice by way of giving up sexual pleasures). It is also said there that “by way of living the life of a celibate student des not perish”. (8.5.1) Later in the same text it is described how one ought to be like his teacher, which is another possible interpretation of brahmacarya. If he lives that way, he attains Brahman. (8.15)

Aparigraha literally means non-grasping and refers to not being greedy or taking more than you need. In that Darsanopaniṣad this idea is present in one of the ten yamas, by way of temperance in food, which refers to only taking and eating as much as you need to survive, rather than all that you may want. (19) The renunciation of the desire for possessions is endorsed in the chat with Naciketas and Death in the Katha Upaniṣad, whereby Naciketas chooses not to make any of his three wishes for physical objects, but rather for knowledge, teaching that grasping at material things serves no purpose. (1.27)

The first or Patanjali’s niyamas is saucha which means cleanliness or purity, and in the Yoga Sῡtras both internal and external cleanliness is necessary. In the Darsanopaniṣad the same distinction is made between cleanliness of the mind and of the body. (1.20-23) The Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad requires mental cleanliness in its rendering of pride. It declares that if you do not succumb to pride, then you are worthy of teachings and the truth (1.1).

Santoa means contentment, or more precisely that one should be satisfied with whatever his fortune is, or isn’t, in life this time around.  The Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad again lists this same value as one of its ten niyamas. The Sandilyopaniṣad explains it as “satisfaction at whatever chance brings in is what is termed as continence.” (khanda 2)

Tapas literally means heat or fire but is also interpreted as austerity, work, practice, burning intensity, mental fervour, dedication, self-application, sacrifice. Patañjali means this in the sense of perfecting the body and sense organs by way of burning off impurities through various different methods. B.K.S. Iyengar interprets this to mean that one must have an unflagging hardness towards oneself in order to have compassion and forgiveness towards others, as in the case of Gandhi. (light on YS 156) It is a theme in the early Upaniṣads that formerly external sacrifice to achieve gains by means of fire offerings, killing animals and other rituals come to be replaced by internal sacrifices (Tapir) such as brahmacarya, giving up society to become an ascetic, and other practices which rein in the senses and train the mind and body in order to attain Brahman.

The Chāndogya Upaniṣad says just that, “What people normally call a sacrifice (yajna) is in reality, the life of a celibate student” 8.5). Similarly, the Aitareya Upaniṣad also talks about how external sacrifice becomes internal sacrifice, “fire became speech”(1.2.4). In the Taittirīya Upaniṣad we are told straightforwardly to “practice austerities to perceive Brahman” (3.3), and in the Muṇḍaka it says that the true self can be known by tapas, svadhyaya and brahmacarya (3.1.5). The closing of the Kena Upaniṣad details that austerity (tapas), self-control and rites are the foundation of understanding Brahman (3.8).

Svadhyaya is self-study and refers to recitation, silent and aloud, and also meditation upon sacred Hindu texts. Patañjali supposes that penetration of these scriptures, mantras and readings mainly from the Vedas, will impart significant powers and insight. In the Taittirīya Upaniṣad there is a whole section about the importance of Vedic recitation. It is said there that, “Austerity, self-control, rites… (all) yes, but also the public and private recitation of the Vedas” (1.9), and, “do not neglect your private recitation of the Vedas” (1.11).  

The final of Patañjali’s niyamas is Iśvara pranidhana which means complete devotion to, or surrender to the lord. The entirety of the short Isa Upaniṣad is an exposition of this very contention, that all is made by, moved by, belongs to and is inhabited by the lord and that we must give ourselves over to Iśvara because of that. In the last line of this Upaniṣad it exclaims “O God, lead us to riches, along an easy path” (18) which presupposes giving up restraint and allowing oneself to be led (by God). Patanjali defines the lord Iśvara as the eternal, unchanging purua (primeval self) who is the constant, is the knower of all and is controller of the mind, totally free from afflictions. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad explains the lord in a strikingly similar way as, “this immense unborn self, there in the space of the heart he lies, controller of all… he does not become more by good actions or in any way less by bad actions.”(4.4.22)

After the yamas and the niyamas in the Yoga Sῡtras comes asana. The same order of angas is present in the Tri-Śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad, whereby one must at first, gain control of themselves via the yamas and niyamas and only then can they move properly on to the practice of asana and pranāyama. Asana means seat, and refers to physical postures or poses. Patañjali states that by perfecting asana, making them comfortable, steady and effortless, then one overcomes pairs-or-opposites (heat-cold, pleasure-pain, etc). There is not much else said about the postures, as in which ones, how to perform them, for how long, or in which order, whereby many of the Upaniṣads give specifics about asana.

The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad states that “when he keeps his body straight with the three parts erect and draws the senses together with the mind into his heart a wise man shall cross the fruitful rivers”(2.8). This may be the first notions of posture relating to yoga. The Sandilyopaniṣad gives details of eight particular postures and how exactly they should be practiced: the svastika, the gomuka, the Padma, the vira, the siipha, the bhadra, the mukta and the mayura (khanda 3.3) , while the Darsanopaniṣad lists nine (1.2) along with exact mantras to perform during asana to increase concentration (3.3). The Varāhopaniṣad gives descriptions of ten postures and adds that asana practice leads to bodily strength and robustness 37). The Dhyana Bindῡpaniṣad gives not list but says there are as many postures as there are living creatures (42).

Relating to yogasana are various elements not mentioned at all in the Yoga Sῡtras that are certainly vital components of a complete understanding of what yoga is. Patañjali omitted any information about or insight into bandhas, chakras and nadis, which are included in the theory and practice of almost all forms of modern yoga.

Bandhas are physical and energetic locks within the body, performed during asana and pranayama. The Tejo Bindῡpaniṣad gives a detailed description of mula bandha (the root lock) (27), while the Yoga Kuṇḍaly Upaniṣad outlines the three which are now practiced in the ever popular atanga vinyasa system stemming from Kriṣnamacarya and Pattabhi Jois: mula, uddiyana (the abdominal lock) and jalandara (the chin lock). (42-53) In the Sandilyopaniṣad we are told of the great necessity of performing the three bandhas for yoga (khanda 2, 11-12).

Cakras are wheels, or centers of spinning energy within the body and nadis are channels (literally rivers) through which that energy flows through and to various parts the body. The goal or most yoga is to move that energy upwards, away from the muladhara (root) chakra up the suṣumna nadi which is the central channel towards the sahasrara (crown) cakra. The Mandala-Brāhmaṇopaniṣad details nine different chakras, but he Yoga Cῡḍāmaṇi Upaniṣad explains them (3.5), including that the muladhara chakra has great radiance and exists at the seat of the genitals (6-11). The Katha Upaniṣad refers to the nadis and this yogic energy system when it offers the insight ‘one hundred and one veins to the heart. One of them runs up to the crown of the head. Going up by it he reaches the immortal. The rest, in their ascent, spread out in all directions (6.16). The Maitri Upaniṣad refers to the suumna nadi and the sahasrara cakra as well, describing it as the central channel or the subtle body where energy moves upward with the breath to form a union in the head (6.21).

Pranayama is the extension (ayama) of breath or life-force (prana) and is Patañjali’s fourth limb. The Yoga Sῡtras again give little definition or instruction of breath extension, except that it is regulated by place, time and number, and that it transcends the internal and external space. With pranayama, Patañjali says that the internal light is uncovered. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka this idea is one of the central teachings. The breath is shown to be the superior among the bodily functions, “He (the central breath) is clearly the best among us (the vital functions)”(1.5.21). This idea continues in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad where the breath is shown to be so important that it is “the best and the greatest” of the senses (5.1). The Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad teaches that “a man who knows that breath is superior becomes immortal” (2.13).  The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad gives more detail than the others in that “by compressing his breaths and curbing his movements a man should exhale through one nostril when his breath is exhausted” (2.9). The Mandala-Brahmanopaniṣad teaches that pranayama is the dispeller of diseases yet should be brought under control slowly, because in the way a tiger may be gradually tamed, so too may the breath be, but if either is attempted to quickly it can kill the individual (116-119). This identical narrative exists in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which is a central text by which modern yoga practice is informed.

Next is pratyahara and it is the practice of obtaining supreme obedience of the sense organs, also known as sense-withdrawal. Patañjali states that this practice prepares the mind for concentration. The Katha Upaniṣad purports the same knowledge as it says that one ought to rein in his mind like wild horses, and that when his senses obey him his mind is controlled and then he can be mindful and pure and reach the final step. The Darsanopaniṣad also explains that the forcible bringing back of the senses equates to perfect control of the mind. (7.1-2)

The final three components of atanga yoga are in another section of the Yoga Sῡtras than the first five, as they relate now to the inner quest and together lead to tranquility and changes in the consciousness. Dharana means concentration and Patañjali describes it as binding consciousness to a single spot. The Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad refers to this as a steady abstraction of the mind (133-134), while the Sandilyopaniṣad calls it a stabilizing of the mind (khanda IX, 1). The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad warns that “a wise man should keep his mind vigilantly under control.” (2,9)

Dhyana is meditation. Patañjali articulates that meditation is a steady flow of attention directed towards one point or region. A method for this meditation is provided in the Sandilyopaniṣad where it is told that meditation may be on a deity or on atman alone, where all else is denied (khanda X, 1). The Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad states that “all functioning of the mind of that meditating Yogin perishes,—of (the Yogin) who is engaged only in meditation” (152-153), and that “the liberation of that Yogin is on the palm of his hand,—(of him) who meditates on the imperishable lustre of consciousness seated in the middle of the lotus of the heart” (156-157). The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad dictates that those who follow the discipline of meditation know God (1,3) which correlates with the point Patañjali makes: that dhyana leads to samadhi.

Samadhi is Patañjali’s final limb of yoga and occurs when meditation absorbs the meditator and all self-awareness disappears, leading to a union of subject and object and a resultant state of supreme joy. The Yoga Kuṇḍaly Upaniṣad iterates this in the following way, “This state (of having pierced through the phenomenal world of differences and reached the form of the Brahma-vidya) alone should be known as the transcendent state of Videha-mukti and this alone is the cause of the manifestation of Supreme Bliss.—Thus.” (ch 1, 82-87) The Sandilyopaniṣad says that samadhi is a state of union between jivatman (small, individual self/soul) and paramatman (great, universal, true self) which creates a form of exquisite bliss (khanda X1, 1).

Another central part of the Yoga Sῡtras is the acknowledgement that through yoga one acquires siddhis, or supernatural powers and also that one should be careful not mistake these powers as the goal of his quest and in fact, renounce all powers that are attained. He states that one can attain knowledge of previous births, knowledge of other’s minds, knowledge of death, invisibility, power comparable to an elephant, and many more. The promise of powers is also stated in the Yoga Kuṇḍaly Upaniṣad simply with the statement that “Through this yoga, siddhi is mastered.” (2, 18) The Sandilyopaniṣad agrees that yoga leads to the acquisition of various psychic powers (VII, 45). The Yoga-Tattvopaniṣad says not only that such powers are possible, but adds that the power of moving through ethereal space is a potential. (72-81) The Yoga Tattvopaniṣad also says that great powers such as levitation are achievable but, like Patañjali’s warning, that one must not disclose these powers to others.

There are numerous other points in the Yoga Sῡtras, 194 aphorisms to be precise, than the ones I have described here. In order to demonstrate the claim I am making however, that the main ideas in the yoga text attributed to Patañjali were not original at the time of composition, nor are they the sole source informing yoga practice as we know it, the analysis of the specific aforementioned core philosophies ought to suffice. Although the Yoga Sῡtras are extensively studied, valued and respected, rightfully so, perhaps the text does not deserve quite as high a reputation as it presently does possess.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Body not stiff, Mind stiff

"Body not stiff, Mind stiff" is a great quote from Guruji, or Sri K Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. This so often exemplifies the case with Yogis today in our society. Everyone is working so hard on opening the body (or making it feel and look a certain way) but forgetting that the point of that is really to open and clear the mind. The Yoga Sutras tell us that "yogas citta vritti nirodha", or 'Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind'. What fluctuations? How about mood swings, desires, habits, expectations, boredom, uncertainty, fear to name a few. Things that are not strangers to most of us.

I see so many students going to the ends of the earth to come to every class, to perfect their chatturanga, to breathe more slowly and with more 'ocean sound' than anyone else around them or get their to chin to their shin NO MATTER WHAT. But then those same people who seem so focused on being ardent yoga practitioners, have a breakdown when one little detail about the room, the class, the music or the teacher changes. *Alert! Alert! Stiff mind!!!*

As Yogis, aren't we supposed to be receptive to change? To strive for and allow for change? Since the only constant in this life, after all, is change? I think so. I purposely, as a student and a teacher, do things differently every now and then. I realize the importance of getting out of my comfort zone, of trying something new, allowing for a new experience that I may or may not enjoy, but that I will certainly always learn from.

A few weeks back, I saw on the online studio schedule, that the usual teacher of my favourite weekly class was away and that there was a sub. Honest first instinct? I'm not going. Moment of pause... Ok let's look into this other teacher. I did a bit of stalking (hehe) to check her out, her training, background, website, photos, and she looked excellent. Inspiring even. But still I wasn't sure if her class would be anything like his. I decided I would go and be open to whatever she had to offer. The usual 30-40 students was more like 8-10 that day. I felt a little bit bad for her since the energy of the big full class would be missing, but worse for the people that didn't pause and reflect on their own closed minds and as a result were missing out on this class this week.

She was quite different. Different poses, different pace, different wording, way different music. He plays none while she played random not-yoga music! I really liked her, which wasn't the point, but in the end I did. The class was challenging and I heard some of the usual poses and transitions described in different ways which I always enjoy.

Her class also sparked in me the idea to try something new that I know is trendy in some studios right now- playing crazy playlists during class. I am a bit of a traditionalist, seeing as how my own practice is Ashtanga, no music, chanting, etc. But for a creative, high energy Vinyasa class, why not throw in a little Macy Gray, Radiohead and Lenny Kravitz?! So me and my iTunes went to work.

I approached my class at the beginning to say today we were going to have some FUN and do a little experiment, just to see how it felt. I told them to focus on the music for energy, not to sing along to the lyrics, and to use it as a chance to practice concentration. I found it odd to think and count and correct over the beats and words, but all in all it was a good class. The feedback was great, they loved it, so energizing, fun to mix it up, etc. OH! I was surprised. They asked for it again the next week. So, I obliged for another go, and made another playlist.

This time they liked it, and I started to get used to it, but at the bottom of the attendance sheet that day in big ol' letters was "PLS PLAY YOGA MUSIC". Hmm. Yoga music? What exactly is that? (In your opinion!?) Of course I felt a twinge of guilt having let someone down. But at the same time... REALLY? This student has a stiff mind. You desire a specific style of music do you? Well I don't have to tell you that we can't always have what we want. You are used to something particular, I suppose, and you are relying on what you expect to happen in order to have a happy or meaningful experience. I'm sorry that you may have not felt as "relaxed" as my past music has made you feel, but maybe today's practice wasn't about relaxing. Perhaps it was about being open to something new. Something LOUD! Something FUN! Something UNUSUAL! I always suggest going with the flow and permitting things to come and go and to be as they are without judgment. I invite this person, myself, and all of you, in instances where a class or any experience might not be going exactly how we had "hoped", to focus instead on the breath, on the raw sensations in the body, and on the intention that our minds will open along with our bodies, so that we may ultimately experience peace in any situation.

I will go back to leading a class without music this week and for a while thereafter. Not for that person's satisfaction, but because I believe it is good and it suits my style of teaching. But maybe in the future, maybe once in every few moons, I'll throw something else at you. Will you be open to it?

Thursday, June 23, 2011


The number 108 has great significance in the Yogic tradition. Malas (strings of beads), which aid Yoga and meditation practitioners in counting breath-work and mantra repetitions, are most often made of 108 beads, strung together as a necklace with one additional Guru bead. At the change of a season, many Yogis perform 108 Sun Salutations. I recently lead two groups of Yogis through this profoundly spiritual practice and decided to research the number 108 even further in order to properly explain to them the meaning of what we were doing and why. Here is what I discovered.

Ancient Yogis and Hindu Sages drew from a variety of sources and reasons to conclude that the number 108 is sacred. Indians are known for admiring structure and concord. Vedic mathematicians (The Vedas are early Hindu texts) looked to the stars to consider planetary relationships and worked out that the average distance of the Sun and the Moon from the Earth is 108 times their own particular diameters. It is also the case the water, when frozen, expands to 108 percent of its original volume. The numerological significance of the number 108 may also be the result of this precise mathematical operation: (1 power 1 x 2 power 2 x 3 power 3 = 108).

Medieval Vedic texts such as the Pranatosani Tantra state that there are 108 Pithas in India, which are Sacred Sites for Indian pilgrims to visit. The Matsya Purana, another Vedic text, states that there are 108 different names for the three main Hindu deities (a selection of these names are shown written in Sanskrit in the accompanying photo). There are also 108 Upanishads which are early Hindu philosophical texts originally passed down only orally to students, but were later also written. On top of this, the Indian science of life and health, Ayurveda, states that there are 108 marma points (pressure points) on the human body.
Another explanation of the importance of the number 108 lies in considering the Sanskrit alphabet. There are exaclty 54 letters, each having a feminine and a masculine form (Shakti and Shiva), and 54 x 2 = 108, once again.

Hindu numerologists also consider each number within the number 108 in and for itself. “One” stands for oneness with God and the Higher Truth. “Zero” represents emptiness, non-attachment and therefore completeness of spiritual practice. “Eight” is symbolic of infinity or a never-ending wheel of life. All together these three concepts contain the wholeness of existence.

108 is also significant in Buddhism, martial arts, various international literature, Chinese culture, and has been drawn upon in many modern instances as well, including the TV show “Lost”. I knew before that the number 108 was special, but I’ll admit that before all of this research, I wasn’t entirely clear why. It seems to me now that much thought and deep traditional meaning lies in the authenticity of this theory.

I have performed 108 Sun Salutations as part of a group for charity in the past, but I was newly excited and pleased to lead so many eager Yogis through 108 Sun Salutations as a result of my new understanding. We gathered to celebrate the 2011 summer solstice with this tradition, and dedicated our actions to our gratitude and love for the sun, for summer, to our loved ones, to bettering great causes in the world and to other individual ideas that made the practice even more meaningful to each practitioner. It was a challenging yet energizing accomplishment that everybody enjoyed and is looking forward to doing again in the future. To be part of such a sacred tradition is an honour. We are all connected and revolving, like beads on a mala: across the world, and also throughout time.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Setting Intentions

Often at the beginning of a yoga class, the teacher encourages the students to set an intention for their practice. I find this to be a very helpful tool for directing my energy and for creating purpose and meaning in my asana practice. What exactly is an intention in the context of yoga and how does one go about setting one?

Certainly this might have different meanings and applications for different people and in different styles of yoga, but for the most part when you are standing on your yoga mat setting an intention for your practice you are deciding how you want to be. Unlike setting a goal, you are not looking towards the future deciding something you want to achieve later, but rather committing to do something right now. Intentions are concerned with the present moment and often involve summoning a quality within yourself.

Setting a goal might be something like “I want to be able to do a handstand without the help of a wall”, while an intention might include “I will be patient with myself during my yoga practice”. At some point, the handstand will hopefully happen. The patience, however, begins the moment you set that intention and continues through the class and potentially through the rest of the day, week, month… Practicing intentions on the yoga mat can help us to set and follow intentions in other areas of our lives.

One helpful way to decide what your intention should be, is to think about why you are on the mat in the first place. Why did you decide to practice yoga today? What do you need? What matters to you the most right now? The answers are infinite…

Patience, strength, physical, mental or emotional healing, deep breathing, perseverance, humility, gratitude, grace, staying in the present moment, balancing power with ease, letting go of control, dedicating your energy to someone who needs it, offering up your practice to an important cause, etc.

By setting an intention you are choosing to give your external actions meaning and purpose by uniting them with your deepest inner values. You should keep reminding yourself of your intention throughout your practice and after you leave your mat as well. By doing this, your yoga practice can become a very different experience. Your practice will gain positive energy and a significance that will keep you coming back for more.

Personally, as a practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, my intention is set as I start with the opening chant. By performing this chant, I am showing my gratitude for, and faith in, the tradition and the lineage of the practice and committing to honour that through each pose, each breath and each vinyasa. When I am tired or want to give up, remembering this intention keeps me going with renewed appreciation and resolve. When I finish my practice with the closing Ashtanga chant I am promising to carry on the hard work that I have done on my mat out into the world where I can continue to do good and help others find peace and happiness as well. 


Sunday, April 24, 2011

What Ayurvedic type are you?

Ayurveda is the Indian equivalent to natural or holistic medicine as we know it in the west and it is the sister science to Yoga. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word meaning the science of life. It is a traditional Indian health and lifestyle practice over 5000 years old, but is now appreciated all over the world. Ayurveda is strongly rooted in the idea that everything is composed of a combination of five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. Human beings are included in this model and from that comes three types, or doshas, which each person is classified under. Dependant on your dosha, Ayurveda tells you what and when to eat, what kind of yoga to practice or activity to undertake, when and how much to sleep, among many other things, in order to keep your elements in balance, and your health and happiness in an optimal state.

People with dominant earth and fire elements are pitta, earth and water are kapha, air and ether are vata. Most people are not strictly one, but a combination of two, or even all three. Although an Ayurvedic doctor goes through an extensive testing and interview process to determine your dosha, there are a few general rules that can give you an idea of which you fall under. Please don’t use the following to “diagnose” yourself!

Pitta dominant people tend to be very active, energetic, ambitious and fiery in temperament. They have strong metabolism and large appetites, are very perceptive, aggressive and intelligent and are prone to feel anger, hatred, irritation and jealousy. Their bodies are of moderate build; their skin is soft and warm but prone to rashes and acne. Pitta people make good leaders and appreciate luxury.

Kapha people are generally stable and grounded and find themselves easily attached. Their bodies produce a lot of oil and their digestion is slow, often resulting in extra weight being carried. They are tolerant and forgiving in nature and they are able to easily acquire and accumulate what they need in life, but also tend to be possessive and even greedy. Kapha dominant people tend to be strong, happy and peaceful.

Vata governed people usually have light, underdeveloped bodies prone to impulsive, flighty movement and have fast respiration and heart rates. Their digestion and hunger are variable and they tend not to be or feel grounded, having restless minds, short memories and common forgetfulness. They often experience anxiety, fear and emptiness. Vata people earn money with ease, but also spend it with ease. They talk and walk quickly, but are easily fatigued.

As far as food goes, Pitta dominant people should avoid heating or spicy foods (salt, oil, alcohol, tomatoes, garlic, refined flour and sugar, corn, egg yolk, vinegar, nuts). Kapha people should eat less cooling foods (cold drinks, dairy, oils, nuts, ice cream, yogurt, cheese, cooked oats, rice, wheat, sweet and juicy veggies). One with too much Vata should try to avoid dry and high protein foods (dry fruit, raw veggies, potatoes, barley, dry oats, pork). Not following these guidelines (they are much more extensive than these few examples!) will result in an aggravated dosha, an imbalanced bodily make up and ultimately poor health.

Along with these eating and health guidelines, Ayurveda tells each person, depending on their dosha, when to sleep and on which side of the body, what kind of personal and mental hygiene to focus on, what sort of daily routine to follow and for all types, to practice yoga. Ayurveda holds that yogic exercises cleanse the body, mind and consciousness in order to remove toxins and disease causing energy. There is a very lengthy chart of recommendations for each dosha of which asanas and breathing techniques are best, but here are some of the main ones.

Pitta people should practice yoga with deep, even breathing. The best poses are shoulder stand, fish, locust, bow, boat, and headstand for not more than one minute. Kapha Yogis should practice headstand, forward and backward bends, plough, lion’s breath and breath of fire (Bhastrika) and cobra. The best asanas for Vata are child’s pose, corpse pose, lotus, tree, yoga mudra, half wheel and knees-to-chest, all with deep, quiet breathing.

What I have blogged about here is just the most basic of introductions. As mentioned before, we are all a combination of all doshas, not strictly one or two. Our basic constitution or nature (prakrti) does not change, but can fluctuate throughout the lifetime. The key is keeping the three doshas in balance. Following the food, daily routine, yoga and lifestyle guidelines can help you stay in balance and in optimal health, giving you increased vitality and longevity. For more information or a proper determination of your constitution, contact an Ayurvedic practitioner or to learn more, pick up one of many books on Ayurveda.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Teachers of teachers.

As a yoga teacher, I will be the first to admit that I do not know everything. FAR from it. There is always so much more to learn. Considering that, I found it amusing when I told one of my students I would be away for two weeks because I was going to take a yoga course and she was completely dumbfounded over that idea. She asked me what could a yoga teacher possibly learn from another yoga teacher, as if, I couldn't possibly have anything else to learn. Flattering, I suppose, that she thought I knew everything about yoga, but couldn't be farther from the truth. She asked me if the other teacher was more flexible than me? I chuckled, and said, well, Yes, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. She opened her eyes bigger and asked me what I meant and what I would learn while away.

I am going to take a workshop for two weeks in Encinitas with Sharath Rangaswamy Jois, grandson of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga as we know it in the west. How could I possibly explain to someone what he could offer to me. I felt like I would never have enough time or words to fully explain what I believe I can learn from Sharath.

As with all yogis, I know that I have endless progress to look forward to on this path of yoga. The simple part to explain is the physical progress. There are always more challenging postures, breathing techniques, better alignment, increased strength and endurance to be gained. And there is always someone more experience to help you find the proper ways to attain those. I believe that I have many years ahead of me where I will still become more flexible, strong, light, balanced and healthy as I continue to practice Ashtanga yoga. Eventually, of course, that progress will halt and my body will slowly (and hopefully gracefully!) move in the opposite direction.

Despite this inevitability, the progress never has to stop. With practice, one can always become more mentally advanced. Wisdom and understanding does not ever need to decline, as the body does. And this is where great teachers come in. To share with us their wisdom, impart to us their knowledge of yoga, anatomy, history, the vedas/sutras, sanskrit, etc. Yoga is both a science and an art, and the theory seems nearly endless. Personally, I can't absorb enough wisdom. I love hearing other teachers speak, interpret, share and inspire. Kino Macgregor is one of my favourites to listen to.

More than the physical and the mental progress though, what I look forward to the most, is the spiritual progress I will continue making. And for this, I most certainly could use guidance. I was never a religious person, and maybe even rolled my eyes at religious ideas for many years. So I am less inclined to talk about this side of yoga, for fear of the same reaction from others. However, spirituality is not the same as religion, and I find it much easier to swallow, as probably most others do as well. I believe that the yoga teachers who yoga teachers go to and look up to, are admired because they are clearly closer to the divine. They are more practiced at understanding the connection of one to all. They are farther down the path of arriving at the ultimate truth. These advanced teachers, or gurus, can inspire, instruct and guide us less experienced teachers and yogis closer towards that as well.

I know I will always need time with great teachers to help me better serve my own self, the universe, and my students, even if they believe I already know everything (haha!). As challenging as I find it to pass on the spiritual element of my practice to my students, perhaps it need not always be spoken. Maybe the spiritual teachings are in part, passed on through the physical and mental work they do with my guidance. Maybe on an energetic level, I am showing them their own divinity as a product of regular yoga practice. I must have faith that if I continue to do all of my own work, practice with wonderful teachers and guide them through what I have learned along the way, that they will get what they need. For myself and for them, all is coming.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Teaching Yoga: What it's all about for me.

Today I had an AHA moment, about what teaching yoga is all about for me. I found myself fighting back tears at the grocery store checkout, and then letting them flow freely as I drove home in the rain (maybe not the safest choice as far as road safety goes). I often wonder, when I think about the yoga I teach, what my students want and need and if I am, in fact, offering that to them.  

Well, walking through the grocery store today, I bumped into one of my regular students and we said “Hello”, and had a laugh over the fact that we were holding the same item. We then started chatting (blocking the whole aisle, of course) about a sore issue going on in her life that was less than ideal. I knew a bit of the background, but she shared with me a little more about what was causing her some distress and pain. I was happy she was willing to share her story with me and I was glad to be able to listen and offer my support and a few thoughts. I was genuinely upset that she was upset, and I hope my understanding and compassion was a small comfort to her as we stood there holding cheese.

At the end of our chat she said, “I just wanted to let you know how healing your yoga class is.” I got choked up. She told me that she didn’t want to say it in class, but that it has helped her so much, to work out so many things. YES, this is what it’s all about for me! I told her that I was so glad that practicing yoga meant this to her and that is why I teach it, because it is exactly that for me too. Yoga has helped me and healed me, and my hope as a teacher is that I can inspire others to help and heal themselves through yoga as well. If my arms weren’t so full of organic produce and naan bread I would have hugged her!

We parted and I headed for the checkout. I felt emotional; sad and happy at the same time. I felt sad because someone was experiencing pain, but happy that I may have some small part in lessening that pain and helping her to deal with it and move forward. I was also happy to know that something I take as such an important job (teaching yoga) was having an actual impact on at least one person, and hopefully more.

Leaving the store, her story started striking a chord with me even more. I had been healed by yoga too, and am still being healed. Naturally I started thinking about what I was healing and how it was similar or different from her. I had all kinds of pain in my life when I started to take yoga seriously. Physical pain, from fibromyalgia, back pain from fracturing 3 vertebrae, wrist pain from breaking both wrists (at the same time), pelvis and bladder pain from acquiring IC (interstitial cystitis), a painful hip from a surfing accident which I was told I might need surgery on. Among other physical problems, but those were just the small pains.

The big pain my life was depression from being a sad child, a lonely only child, moved away from her family and friends at age eight. This bred an angry teenager. Angry at my mother for an endless myriad of typical teenaged blamings (who I am now best friends with), angry at my father for not being there and for not being the father I thought I wanted (who I now see as a good father who I wouldn’t trade for the world, as he was doing the best he could at the time), angry at the kids at my school for forming cliques that I didn’t feel part of, and mostly angry at myself for not being the fastest on the swim team, for not being the best dancer in ballet class and for not being as perfect or cool or rich or pretty as I thought I should be. Later in life, the anger turned towards failed relationships and thwarted expectations all around. 

That’s a lot of stuff to deal with! Or rather, not to deal with. As I grew more connected to my yoga practice and actually started taking in what my teachers were telling me to do, breathing deeply, allowing feelings to come and go, relaxing my body fully, opening and being aware of energy channels, I often found myself, at the end of class, silently crying. Which I thought was curious but kind of fascinating and actually felt really, really good to just let it out. I would hide my face and slink out of class so not to be embarrassed, not showing the teacher that they brought me to tears. Thinking back, I should have shown my teachers the affect they had on me, and thanked them. I hereby thank them all now!!

My physical ailments started to lessen as my body became stronger, lighter and more flexible. My organs became clean and healthy and started to function better (hello awesome digestive system!) My aches and pains slowly evaporated (no longer needed hip surgery) and as Bikram tells us, yoga helped me to cure what I could not endure and learn to endure what I could not cure.

The most remarkable change though, was this all-encompassing feeling of happiness that moved right on into my life. I had always felt moments of happiness here and there, but now, I feel it there with me all the time. Through ups and downs, successes and failures, I always feel happy underneath it all. I'm happy when it's raining out, but I also feel great when it rains. I know that when something happens and I do feel sad, I am not a sad person, but a happy person experiencing sad feelings. I have become so much more stable and unreactive to whatever presents itself to me. I have come to feel that life is like boat pose. Even if it starts to get hard, or feel painful, you can always persevere for a few more breaths, staying calm until it’s over.  Because everything comes to an end. For that same reason I have also learned through yoga not to become attached to the highs in life, the great moments. I breathe them in, bask in the momentary enjoyment, and then let them go.

All I ever wanted from teaching yoga was to offer this possibility up to others, this chance to practice yoga in order to heal deeply. Yoga eventually shows us the truth about ourselves, mind, body and soul. This knowledge helps us and allows us to listen to, to fix, to nourish and to love ourselves completely. And today in the grocery store I realized that my question, about whether or not what I was trying to share was actually getting through, had been answered. What I have been giving has been received. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

YIOM #1 - Thoughts on the moon

I love astrology but I often get googly eyed looks when I bring it up. Is it so strange to believe that the sun, the moon and the stars affect humans? I think not and yoga philosophy supports that theory. As a yogi, I understand that everything, EVERYTHING, is interconnected. Mind, body, breath, myself and other people, intentions and actions, celestial bodies and human bodies.

We pay homage to these important forces in yoga by practicing surya namaskara, or sun salutations, at the start of each day. We also observe "moon days", where we take rest from practicing asana. In Ashtanga, this is a very important tradition, where no yogis practice on the new moon or on the full moon.This is because the moon has a strong pull, or effect, on bodies of water. The moon affects the ocean, the tides, and since we are 70% water, humans as well.

A full moon has an uprooting effect, causing lightness and heightened frenetic energy. On a full moon we often feel emotional and maybe even unpredictable. Hospital emergency rooms experience more visits during full moons and animals tend to get antsy and howly. It is believed that on a full moon, we are more prone to injury if we practice asana, and more apt to push to far, too fast, be out of balance etc. Therefore it is best to take rest on this day. The farmers almanac even suggests transplanting plants on a full moon, since grounding forces are lessened.

Conversely, a new moon has a very grounding effect. So much so that we tend to feel heavy, lethargic and not energetic at all. Practicing asana on a new moon would cause extra fatigue on the mind and body, so again, it's best to rest on this day. Farmers are advised to plant seed on the new moon, because of this grounding force, securing the seed into the earth.

I love the following metaphor: A full moon is like the top of an inhale, where we are airy, at our maximum energy level, full of light and ecstatic. A new moon is much like the point at the end of an exhale, when we are feeling grounded, empty with lower energy and calmness. Each month, the celestial universe takes a deep breath in and then a deep breath out, deep and slow, about 4 weeks per cycle, pushing and pulling us humans along with it. As our own yoga practice progresses we become more and more aware of how these forces are part of our own cycle and that the sun, moon and stars most certainly do affect us.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


As discussed in my earlier blogs, it is important to understand that yoga is much more than asana (physical postures). Being a Yogi or Yogini is an all-encompassing lifestyle choice, and not just something that you do a few times a week on a sticky mat. As outlined in the eight limbs of yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, prior to, or at least in conjunction with, the practice of asana and pranayama (breath work), the practice of the Yamas and Niyamas (restraints and observances) should exist.
The Yamas consist of five ethical directives that, when adhered to, bring the practitioner into harmony with the surrounding world and with his or her community. For one cannot practice yoga in a mindset or environment full of conflict. The Niyamas are five observances to ensure that the mind and body of the practitioner are not polluted.. These ten practices are similar to the moral codes set out by most world religions and are a must, for any practitioner who wishes to progress along the spiritual path of yoga.
The Yamas consist of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha.
Ahimsa means non-violence or non-harming. This applies to the obvious imperative of not harming other humans, but it also includes not harming the earth, animals, or yourself. This is why Yogis should be vegetarians. It also refers to more than physical violence; one must not intend harm in thought, word or deed. In yoga class, do you push too hard to compete with others or to fulfill your own expectations? If so, then you may be harming your own body and disobeying the very first Yama.
Satya is truthfulness or honesty. This means that you must be honest with others and even more importantly with yourself, which is certainly a challenge but feels so brilliant when accomplished. Again honesty must occur in thought, word, and deed. Honesty must not be used harm others, and may be withheld if it causes more harm, overall, than good.
Asteya refers to non-stealing or non-hoarding. Obviously we are not supposed to take something from another that doesn’t belong to us, but this also includes envy and begrudging others for having what we want. Asteya tells us not to acquire things under false pretences or by cheating—including taking credit.
Brahmacharya is interpreted in different ways in accordance with our evolving society, but originally it meant sexual abstinence. Now it usually refers to sharing intimacy with only your lawful partner, since most modern Yogis have families and careers, and are not cave dwellers or monks! The idea is that unnecessary indulgence in the sense organs, especially the powerful sex organs, weakens the mind and causes a person to lose vitality. More modern practices of brahamacharya include simply staying away from vulgar people and places.
The last of the Yamas is Aparigraha, which is non-greed or non-selfishness. What is essential is detachment from and non-desire for things, results, and expectations. For instance, one should not try to acquire material wealth to become happy, or only practice yoga to achieve a pleasing body shape. Also, one should only eat as much as is necessary to sustain life.
The five Niyamas are Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadyaya and Ishvarapranidhana.
The first is Saucha, which translates as purity or cleanliness. This refers to the internal and external self. Internally one becomes clean by eating natural healthy foods, avoiding intoxication, and by abstaining from unclean thoughts such as hatred and jealousy. Externally one must keep the body clean from dirt and sweat, and keep a tidy home and lifestyle. It is also advised to avoid contamination from others.
Santosha means contentment. It can also be understood as simplicity or peacefulness. The idea is that you should be content with whatever conditions you find yourself in, whether poor, rich, tall, short, married, single, etc. Desiring to have more or be different than you already are causes pain and disappointment. Only through acceptance of exactly who you are right now, can you find true joy. No matter what does or doesn’t happen in life or on the yoga mat, never feel dejection or regret. Simply be happy with whatever is.
Tapas is translated literally as creating heat but refers in this case to austerity or discipline. Such practices as fasting or a regular asana and pranayama routine, which discipline the body and sense organs, should be maintained with conviction, even when the going gets tough. The temporary effects of such practices can be unpleasant (have you ever wanted to skip your yoga practice for just one day because you felt tired or sore?) but tapas requires that you not give up under hardship.
Svadyaya is self-study. This doesn’t mean psychoanalysis, but rather calm introspection towards the spiritual self, in settings such as meditation. Practices like chanting OM, reciting mantras or vedic verses, being grateful and praying to the supreme being of your choice will allow you to develop a connection to that deity. This also helps you get to know your own mind better and watch out for it’s deceitful tricks.
Isvarapranidhana means giving yourself over completely to the belief in a higher power. A Yogi must believe in the existence of a supreme being and hand their life over to that god, whoever and whatever that means to him or her (Buddha, Brahma, Christian God, Mother Goddess, etc). One wishing to achieve oneness via the yogic path, must devote all the fruits of his or her life, including yoga practice, to a god.
All of these moral principles and actions require effort on the part of the practitioner and may not come naturally until practiced regularly. Eventually these intentions and thoughts become deeds and habits, and will ultimately determine your destiny.  Getting on the mat and twisting yourself into a pretzel is not enough. Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas, along with the other six limbs of yoga, prepares the mind and body for freedom, which is what we are moving towards as Yoga practitioners.
“What defines you as a person is what you do when no one else is looking.”

YIOM - Yoga Inspiring Oneness Month

April 2011 is YIOM.
Yogis inspiring oneness month.
Along with all of my friends and yoga peers on twitter and beyond, I'll be posting one blog per day (is it possible?!) in order to share what I know & believe about yoga. With you.
Who's excited?!
I am!

Shareen xo

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Most of us would agree that it is easy to focus on the position of our limbs when in a yoga pose. Being aware of the posture of the mind and more subtle Pranic energies during your yoga practice however, is not quite as simple. One way of becoming more involved in these other aspects during your practice is to include the use of Mudras.

Mudra is a Sanskrit word that means seal. It refers to a physical gesture, performed with the hands, fingers or the entire body. Some mudras are practiced in a dynamic manner although most are done in a static state.  Mudras can enhance your asana practice by focusing your mind and thoughts into a state of Dharana (concentration) and helping you carry forward a specific idea or intention into each pose.

It is also possible for mudras to guide your Prana, or life force energy, to flow through your body and mind in a controlled manner. The multitude of nerve endings in the fingertips are believed to be the pathways for channeling that energy to specific organs and glands in a way that is able to affect bodily functions. Mudras have even been shown to stimulate the same parts of the brain as language.

Elaborate systems of hand symbols existed long before verbal language was created and there are hundreds of them stemming from the Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
You can choose from the following most common mudras to add focus, meaning and inspiration to your yoga practice. While some types of yoga use Mudras more than others, Kundalini Yoga for example, you will likely recognize some of them from your own yoga practice, whatever the style. Once you understand the significance of each Mudra, pick one that matches your intention or augments the purpose of the pose that you are performing and then consciously cultivate that quality in yourself.  

 Anjali Mudra is sometimes called Namaste. Pressing the hands together is symbolic of the union being sought through yoga practice, the connection between body, mind, heart and soul, and also the union between the self and the universe. It is also a reminder that yoga is a physical form of prayer, an offering from yourself to yourself and to all that you believe in.

-Palms pressed together with flat hands and fingers pointing up, held at heart center.

 Abhaya Mudra is a gesture of friendliness, welcome and peace, showing fearlessness to those approaching.

-Right hand held flat and open, palm facing outwards held up at shoulder height. Left arm usually relaxed by side.

 Karana Mudra removes obstacles and negative thought patterns.

-Index and Pinky fingers held straight up while thumb meets middle and ring fingers.

 Darmachakra Mudra is the Mudra of teachers and leaders, representative of offering truth and selflessly serving others.

-Thumb meets index finger while last three fingers spread out straight. Do this with both hands, touch together intersection of both thumbs and index fingers, left palm faces up and right palm faces down.

 Dhyana Mudra is the meditation Mudra. It enhances inner and outer balance and concentration.

-Hands resting on lap, open palms, right resting on left, tips of thumbs touch.

 Ganesha Mudra refers to Ganesha, the Elephant deity who is able to overcome all obstacles. This Mudra generates courage, relieves tension and strengthens the heart.

-Right palm facing towards body, left palm facing out, curl all fingers and hook together like a letter “S”, lock and tug.

 Chin Mudra invokes and attitude of clear consciousness, calmness and allows for a free flow of energy through the body. It is used often for meditation, while sitting in padmasana (lotus posture).

-Palms facing up while tip of thumb meets tip of index finger. Other fingers straight and together.

 Lotus Mudra is a symbol of loving kindness, purity and openness of the heart. It also reminds us that from the darkness can emerge brilliance, as the beautiful lotus flower grows up out of the swamp.

-Press heels of hands together while thumbs touch and pinkies touch. Open all outstretched fingers.

Shuni Mudra helps the practitioner settle into the present moment and acquire patience. Alleviates problems relating to the ears.

-Tip of thumb touches tip of middle finger.

 Prana Mudra draws energy and life force into the body and promotes inner strength. The nervous system is refreshed and fatigue is eliminated.

-Palm faces up while thumb meets ring & pinkie finger, index and middle fingers outstretched.

 Uttarabodhi Mudra represents the supreme wisdom that all is one and nothing is separate. Fingers interlock to show that strength arises out of unity.

-Interlock last three fingers while index fingers press together and thumbs cross. Usually pointing up above head, sometimes in front of heart.

 Yoga Mudra is performed with the entire body. All loose ends are joined together so energy can continually circulate through the body. Prana is recycled in this circuit and is not transferred out to the earth. Used in the finishing sequence of Ashtanga Yoga.

-Sitting in lotus position with legs and feet, cross left arm behind back and hook left big toe with first two fingers then cross right arm behind back and hook right big toe with index and middle fingers. Lean forward with chin or forehead to ground.

applying yoga to everyday life

Take a moment to imagine how you feel in savasana at the end of a Yoga class… Personally, I feel blissful, relaxed, peaceful, non-reactive and at one with myself and the world. Now imagine 30 minutes later after you have left the class and headed off into the rest of your day. That feeling is almost completely gone, isn’t it?! If you agree that it would be nice to be able to retain the feelings and mindset found during your yoga practice then read on.

Part of the reason we feel so calm and composed throughout yoga practice is our regimen of breath control, or pranayama. If you can consciously breathe more slowly and deeply as you move through your day, especially during stressful situations, you will be able to hang on more easily to that sense of calm. If you feel yourself getting agitated, tense, or breathing shallowly in the upper chest, give yourself a moment to breathe. Step away from what you were doing, or close your eyes, and count slowly to five while you inhale, and again five counts to exhale. Try to make the intensity and length of the inhale and exhale similar without forcing air in or out. Repeat this eight to ten times and return to what you were doing. This will send a message to your nervous system that you are not in danger and your fight or flight reflexes can shut off, allowing your body and mind to be more relaxed.

Another reason we feel great at the end of a yoga class is that we are aligning our body in ways that allow energy, blood and oxygen to flow freely. As soon as you hunch forward and drop your chin to send a text message your neck and shoulders will tighten up, or if you sit in a chair for a long period of time your hip flexors will become tense putting strain on your low back. These kinds of physical discomforts will likely translate into general irritation and short temperedness. To counter this, be aware of your posture as you walk, drive, sit, text, etc. Cue yourself to pull your shoulders back and down, chin slightly in and spine tall. If you have to sit for long periods of time, give yourself breaks to walk, stretch, or get a drink of water. Keeping your body upright, properly aligned and comfortable will help you maintain a sunnier disposition throughout your day.

And then there is the issue of driving! This applies to bikers, walkers and train riders alike. How often do I get in my car after a beautiful yoga session only to get cut off by another driver, or hit every red light on my way home, and within minutes I start to feel enraged! It’s true, and it happens to all of us. To make driving a calmer ordeal, make your car a haven of peacefulness. Keep your favourite relaxing music on hand, or use your Ipod if walking or riding transit. Scents are powerful tools that send specific messages to the mind, so leave an air freshener in your car, like relaxing lavender or soothing eucalyptus. Give yourself extra time to get where you are going. Nothing is more stressful for most of us than the thought of being late. Schedule your appointments a few minutes farther apart so you’re not in a rush. If you always leave an extra few minutes then you will have no worries if traffic or other disruptions in your normal route arise.

You can also make a habit of enjoying red lights. Decide that each red light you arrive at is an opportunity to engage in deep breathing, proper posture and a chance to have a little stretch. Instead of internally cursing when you hit a red light, smile and take a mini meditation. The issue of other drivers being careless or dangerous may not be as easy to deal with. All you can do is be alert, physically reactive in the sense of being ready to get out of the way or brake if necessary, but remaining mentally and emotionally nonreactive. For instance, instead of getting angry I have started chuckling or shrugging when someone on the road does something selfish or unsafe, because there is nothing I can do to change the way they drive.

As a matter of fact, this applies to any situation in life. When you encounter a situation that threatens to rile you up you can choose not to react. Imagine yourself in yoga class, holding navasana (boat pose), shaking like a leaf, abdominals screaming for rest, but you simply stay there and breathe. This is a great lesson to take into everyday life. When you find yourself in an uncomfortable place you can similarly decide not to react and choose to just breathe. Your mind will remain calm and clear and you can select a course of action that is reasonable and you can avoid getting into conflicts or acting impulsively which often ends in feelings of regret.

Although we can’t practice yoga or meditation every second hour of the day, it is possible to sustain that yogic feeling throughout daily life. Remember to breathe, align your body properly and move around often, and try to be nonreactive in those less than ideal situations that will likely never cease to exist. Make your car or travel routine a pleasant experience and nurture your peaceful qualities so they will be more prominent. Yoga is not a practice that only exists on a two-by-six sticky mat. The practice on your mat is exactly that, just practice. Take the lessons you learn in a yoga class such as patience, humility, resolve and composure and apply them to your life. This will allow you to feel tranquil, be more receptive to others, and experience that post savasana bliss whenever you wish.