How Much Do You Believe in Yoga?

The following video was shared with me by a dear yoga student today. As I watched, my own practice as well as my teaching, grew truly inspired. And yet, there was a tiny nagging voice that asked, Do you really believe? Even after all of these years of practicing, studying, classes, teaching, I questioned my own belief in the transformational power of yoga.

How large is my capacity to change? How strong can I grow? How large is my faith? Can I move forward without becoming burdened and worn down by feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, and self-recrimination?

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the ancient sage advises us to study and concentrate upon the qualities of an elephant  to gain strength (Sutra III.24). In the video, we watch the transformation of a human being, from burdened and weak to fast, and strong with a much wider capacity to live a bigger life, to express his own life force. How important it is to the development of faith to see examples of transformation in living beings!

May you also be inspired. Would love to hear your story!


Yoga sutra 1.1, NOW is the time for yoga study

Prescott AZ Clouds (barefoot photos)

I LOVE the energy of a new year.

So many possibilities.

Such delicious energy to savor and digest.

In the studio, we opened the intentions we compiled last January. At least one of us (me!) felt a shiver of excitement up and down my spine as I realized how well each one of my six intentions had played out during the year.

Here’s my list:

1. Lose weight (I dropped 25 pounds)

2. Publish my poetry collection….well, I DID submit it for publication.

3. Develop a stronger support system. (I worked with a writing coach during the fall to develop the yoga book, and began working with a new meditation teacher)

4. Get artsy (I created a couple of collages ~ one was called The Perfect Yogini~ all of them I gathered without gluing the pictures and placed them, like grains of sand brushed off a mandala, into a folder) AND I finally broke open the paints and have created a couple of pieces I’m rather happy with)

5. Work on organizing the house (With Rebecca’s help, I embarked upon some serious cleaning/organizing jobs)

I’m psyched to create my 2011 list. Deepening my commitment to yoga and to studying the yoga sutras is on my list for the  year. Figured I may as well begin meditating, chanting, and writing about the very first one wherein Patanjali informs us that THIS is IT….HERE they are…perhaps in modern parlance, he’d say JUST DO IT.

The Sanskrit verse, atha yoga anusasanam is variously translated as:

With humility (an open heart and mind), we embrace the sacred study of yoga. (Nischala Joy Devi)

With prayers for Divine blessings, now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga. (BKS Iyengar)

Now concentration is explained. (Swami Vivekananda)

Now is set forth authoritative teaching on yoga. (Bernard Bouanchaud)

Now, the exposition of yoga. ( Rev. Jaganath Carrera)

Some questions to assist your meditation on Sutra 1.1:

If you are new to yoga, are you ready to commit to practice and study?

If you already are a practicing yogin, are your heart, body, and mind open and receptive for receiving the teachings?

Are you open to the transformation that will take place as you travel deeper into the heart of yoga?

What space is necessary in your life to make room for yoga? Do you need to shift anything, or get rid of anything in order to delve deeper into the study and practice of yoga?

yoga sutra 2.23, witness consciousness

Seeds Ready For Flight (barefoot photos)

The Yoga Sutras, the ancient text of yogic principles recorded by the sage, Patanjali, reveal the path for a yogin’s practice.  In the second Pada thread 23, he says:

sva-svami-saktyoh sva-rupa-upalabdhi-hetuh samyogah

Bernard Bouanchaud offers a translation in The Essence of Yoga: The union of that which is perceived and the perceiving entity permits understanding of their respective faculties.

Can I get out of the way of my self while perceiving?

Can I see and feel things as they are—without judgment?

Can I divorce what I know of the past or expect in the future from what I am actually experiencing NOW?

Stephen Cope rightly says in The Wisdom of Yoga that there is no yoga without the witness.

If I am not watching, I am not yoga-ing!

B.K.S. Iyengar, in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali comments upon this sutra:

“If the master maintains constant watchful awareness of his consciousness, associates with nature without attachment and remains a witness, nature (prakrti) leads its owner, the soul, to freedom, moksa.”

Can I open myself enough to do this?

It takes practice.  It takes mental muscle.

And it takes faith that with continued practice my facility to see through illusions will increase.

I will awaken into freedom.

sutra 1.39, choosing meditation

Apricot Petals (barefoot photos)

1:39 Patanjali: yathabhimatadhyanadva

Bouanchaud:Choosing meditation according to one’s affinities also brings mental stability.

Iyengar:Or, by meditating on any desired object conducive to steadiness of consciousness.

Fuerstein:  Or restriction is achieved through meditation (dhyana) as desired.

Desikachar:  Any inquiry of interest can calm the mind. Sometimes the most simple objects of inquiry, such as the first cry of an infant, can help relieve mental disturbances.  Sometimes complex inquiries, such as into mathematical hypothesis, will help.  But such inquiries should not replace the main goal, which remains to change our state of mind gradually from distraction to direction.

GRADY: Do we accept our own spiritual practice as a valid means to enlightenment just as we accept others’ paths?

Do we rely solely on the asanas for development of mental stability or Do we choose meditation as a means for mental stability?

Do we continuously strive to eliminate distraction and develop direction in our lives?

Niyama 5, Spirituality, Ishvara pranidhana

Sutra 2.45: samadhi siddih isvara pranidhanat

Samadhi: contemplation. Siddih: power, accomplishment, realization. Isvarapranidhanat: through devotion to the Lord, positive behavior and the ritual act of devotion.

Contemplation and its powers are attained through worship of God. (trans. Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga)

QUINCE BLOSSOM, Fredonia NY (Barefoot Photos)

A final Niyama or lifestyle guideline, focuses upon one’s relationship with the Divine.

Many undertake yoga class as a means of physical fitness or mental relaxation. And that it is. In time, however, yoga’s effects reach deep into our sense of self.

Though yoga itself does not espouse a particular religion, and though most practitioners would not consider themselves the least bit spiritual when they undertake yoga, hopefully, they will find seeds of a higher power or at least an inner life developing as they continue yoga asana and meditation.

Moment by moment, practice by practice, breath by breath, we learn to relinquish our boundaries and all that limits us in this world.

As we “grow” our awareness in asana or pranayama, and with what is happening in our body in space, we also start watching what our minds and hearts are up to! The energy of the others in the room feels almost physical. Slowly, we understand how our energy is interacting with the other folks’. How did we miss all this before? With new found certainty, we understand that we are more than the group of isolated individuals we once thought we were.

After class we stroll outside and notice the grounded energy of the trees and the vibrant, vibrating colors of the flowers along the path. There is a creek nearby that flows, imbued with an unseen force that is not exactly alive, nor dead.

If we are Christian, we begin to see grace everywhere.

We can feel the creek, the trees, the flowers as a sense of kinship develops. A little unsettling at first, this humming inside grows gently blissful. The heart center blossoms open and limitless.

We ARE yoga now.

Niyama 4, Swadyaya, self-study

Yoga Sutra 2.44: svadhyayat ista devata samprayogah

Polish door (RKG photo)

Svadyayat: through reading and chanting sacred texts. Ista: desired, chosen. Devata: divinity. Samprayogah: union, fusion.

Union with the chosen divinity comes from the study of self through the sacred texts. (trans. Bernard Bouanchaud)

B.K.S Iyengar tells us in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that “Traditionally, svadyaya has been explained as the study of the sacred scriptures and recitation of mantra, preceded by the syllable AUM (see 1.27-28), through which the sadhaka gains a vision of his tutelary or chosen deity, who fulfills all his desires.”

Barbara Stoler Miller in her Yoga, Discipline of Freedom, elucidates the function of mantra: “Through the repetition of and meditation on specific mantras, the yogi can commune with a chosen deity, who can then aid his spiritual practice.”


Swadyaya—self-study—Sometimes an unwelcome task/sometimes an obsession.  If only I would learn everything I need to learn with each experience, but I never do and so I keep on repeating the lessons.

How is this sutra related to the practice of Tapas?

How important is it to work with a teacher or mentor? Will another person help me find clarity and guide me from possible self-destructive or egoistic tendencies swadyaya may induce?


How do I define the canon of “sacred texts”? Is it static, ancient, or dynamic, evolving?

Donna Farhi, in Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit says that “Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered swadhyaya.”


How does knowledge of myself lead me to Divine knowledge and vice-versa, How does Divine knowledge lead me to understand myself? Is the Self a mirror? If so, what does it reflect?


Bernard Bouanchaud asks us to ponder the implications of this sutra in the Modern Age: The Yoga Sutras were written in a time and culture that emphasized the sacred. Contemporary Western culture is secular and sacredness that does not conform to accepted religion is often rejected. In such a context, what word can replace “divinity” (devata) in this aphorism?

Door detail (RKG photo)


Through meticulous attention on the sounds of the mantra, consciousness grows inward and focuses sharply. Further meditation on a chosen deity can provide a vehicle for insightful experience.This Niyama gives the yogin another powerful tool for transformation.


Nischala Joy Devi in The Secret Power of Yoga suggests that this niyama challenges us to examine our beliefs and our attachment to our beliefs.She encourages us to allow our view of reality to grow and change as our hearts soften in practice.

There’s a parallel in zen meditation: I am not my thoughts. I am not my emotions. I am not my body.

Sutra 2.44 suggests that mantra and deity visualization can help us cut through long held beliefs.

Niyama 3, Tapas, Heart Fire

Yoga sutra 2.43: kayendriyasiddhirasuddhiksayattaapasah

Kaya; the body. Indriya: the eleven sense organs, including thought. Siddih: power, perfection. Asuddhi: impurity. Ksayat: by the destruction, elimination. Tapasah: discipline, asceticism, austerity.

By eliminating impurity, a disciplined life brings perfection and mastery to the body and the eleven sense organs. (trans. Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga)

White Starburst (carolyn grady photo)

Tapas, the third yogic niyama, or code for living well, is another means for personal evolution. We don’t embark upon these practices for the sake of austerity or novelty or egoic gratification. T.K.V. Desikachar (The Heart of Yoga) stresses that Tapas must not cause suffering, “everything about tapas must help you move forward.”

Tapas is the inner fire or discipline which keeps the yogin practicing. Lethargy would be its opposite. One of the definitions of the word YOGA is “discipline,” so it’s easy to see how  Tapas is related to daily practice.

What is it that draws me to my mat day after day, year after year? It’s the fire that burns in my heart center, awakening a sense of embodiment that yearns for asana to express itself.

Yoga Scholar, Bernard Bouanchaud, asks us to consider the relationship between contentment, santosha which implies acceptance and Tapas, the fire that burns impurities. I’d ask, how then does Shauca, or purity itself affect or deepen the Tapasic experience?

A tidbit of trivia I learned from Wikipedia: One who undertakes tapas is a Tapasvin.

A primary purpose of yoga is to become aware of, to channel, and to utilize energy. Yoga can be considered a form of Tapas. Certainly it is integral to the yogin’s life. In Yoga Mind Body & Spirit, the popular teacher and New Zealand yogini, Donna Farhi says that, “Far from being a kind of medicinal punishment, tapas allows us to direct our energy toward a fulfilled life of meaning and one that is exciting and pleasurable.”

The other elements of the ashtanga yoga are inter-related practices. Pranayama and Asana help to stoke the fire. Pratyahara assists the Tapasvin in focusing the energy. Brahmacharya, the moderation of one’s vital energy, is a natural extension of Tapas. Its practice helps keep the heart fire bright and pure.

Pink Explosion (carolyn grady photo)

Farhi quotes Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron,  “What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality.”

It’s Tapas that helps me put some ooomph into a daily pranayama, so the practice does not become dull and listless. Tapas propels me and holds me on my dietary regiment. I pray for Tapas to light the flame of my teaching, service, and for inspiration for this blog!

Niyama 2, Samtosha, Contentment

I write so much about longing and the un-contented parts of my life that it’s hard sometimes to acknowledge those areas of my existence that are perfectly or imperfectly just fine.  I often feel a sense of contentment after writing, especially in free writing in a journal—as if I’ve purged the “vritti” out of my system.  There is however, a sense of contentment that comes with acknowledgment of longing as a perennial aspect of the human condition. And a deeper contentment is possible through recognition of the longing as an expression of the Divine.

orchid (ckg photo)

II.42 samtosad anuttamah sukha-labhah

Samtosat:through or by contentment   Anuttamah:the strongest  Sukha: of happiness   Labhah: obtaining, gain

Contentment brings supreme happiness. (B.Bouanchaud)

The result of contentment is total happiness. (Desikachar)

From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness (BKS Iyengar)

When at peace and content with oneself and others (Santosha), supreme joy is celebrated. (Nischala Joy Devi)

This sutra can be linked with Sutra 1.13 : tatra sthitau yatno’bhyasah

Persevering practice is the effort to attain and maintain the state of mental peace.

In an earlier post, I wrote about practicing through emotions. Linking these two sutras, Patanjali says that the way to mental peace is through persevering practice and by practicing contentment, or mental peace, we’ll achieve happiness.

Santosha, or the practice of content-ment, is the ability to feel satisfied within the container of one’s immediate experience. (Donna Farhi)

Family gatherings often are times when I see sides of myself that I don’t like (a Living Mirror). They can be occasions of great dis-contentment for me. They are also the times of my greatest happiness. Trying to navigate them and remain centered is a worthwhile goal for anyone. Amy Weintraub in Yoga for Depression ties Santosha  with a quotation from Swami Kripalvanandji “My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.” She says that “both self-love and self-acceptance grow with practice.”

Is contentment the aim of yoga practice?

Is all suffering alleviated through contentment or do we look at the sufferings in our own lives in a contented fashion?

Does happiness imply a different vision of suffering?  Or can the two emotions exist simultaneously?

Is total happiness only possible through a practice of contentment?

If all life is suffering as the Buddha tells us, why should we bother trying to attain happiness?

Does contentment imply a turning away from the difficulties of life, an acceptance of poverty, cruelty, and violence in the world?

Won’t we be missing out on much of our human emotional range if we practice contentment?  Won’t we become zombies? Can one’s passions be ignited while one is content?

Are there any other effects or side effects of contentment?

Is it possible for contentment to exist on a greater scale, say in a community or in a nation?  Would this be the same as peace?

What is the relationship between contentment and peace?

Is there a relationship between contentment and the practice of svadhyaya (self-study)?

What is the relationship of asana practice and contentment?

The sutra tells us there is a direct relationship between contentment and personal happiness.  With contentment, one’s emotions are brought under an even keel, and the fluctuations of the mind are stilled.  Isn’t this the purpose of yoga?  I search for sukha in each pose, to feel joy while my body works on the edge of pain.  This has incredible implications for those suffering from emotional lability.  Can I learn to accept where I am at at any given moment? This is contentment and the sages say that by working on this, I will attain the supreme gift of happiness.

Patanjali tells us something profound, yet really simple: be content and you will be happy.  Want what you have and don’t want what you don’t have.

Yoga Sutra 1.13, an emotional life

Yoga Sutra 1.13 : tatra sthitau yatno’bhyasah

Bernard Bouanchaud’s translation: Persevering practice is the effort to attain and maintain the state of mental peace.

Patanjali tells us here that practice IS the effort to maintain inner peace. I’ve often wondered how I could maintain anything when I am twirling off into anger, or joy, or sadness, or confusion, or any of the other myriad emotions that flit through my being from one moment to the next. Then I re-read this sutra. There is nothing here about annihilating emotions. The practice is the work of maintaining equilibrium of the Self.

I’ve been working a lot with my emotions lately, wondering how do they fit into an awakened life? When am I processing an emotion and when is an emotion taking over? How do the stories I spin in my mind, in reaction to events in my life (shenpa), stir up emotions and feed them? How much leeway can I or do I afford any given emotion on any given day? For years, I’ve sat with the meditation:

I am not my thoughts.

I am not my emotions.

I am not my body.

Though I sat and repeated these phrases, I knew that on many levels I really DID identify myself as any or all of these aspects of my Self and I had no clue HOW one could do otherwise. Really, I know that my body continually changes, ages, and grows tired, but isn’t that big hulking tired person my Self? It’s hard enough to IMAGINE my self with a different body, much less to de-identify with having a body at all!

Thank you meditation.

Thank you savasana.

Thank you restorative yoga.

When I do these practices, I am often able to disengage from identity, whether intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual (yes, I get caught identifying myself in those trips too!). I can breathe into the larger Self, the connection of us all. It is a spacious place. It is a place of joy. Compassion. Expansion. Beauty. Rest. Stillness. Energy. Awareness. It is nowhere. And everywhere.I am no one. And every one.

In this TED video (yes,I’m becoming a TED junkie :-) Eve Ensler speaks eloquently about the importance of maintaining an emotional life. And true to form, I was crying halfway through. Thank you Eve, for reminding us of our wholeness in this age of fracture.

Niyama 1, Clean Up Your Act with Shauca

Yoga Sutra 2.40: saucat svanga jugupsa parairh asamsargah

Purity protects one’s body and brings nonphysical relationships with others. (trans. B. Bouanchaud)

Yoga Sutra 2.41: sattva suddhi saumanasya ekagrya inddriyajaya atma darsana yogyatvani ca

Then, purity, clarity, and well-being of the spirit come to flower, as well as concentration, mastery of the eleven sense organs, and perception of the inner being. (trans. B. Bouanchaud)

Is cleanliness next to Godliness? Before I began studying the Yoga Niyamas I would have been scoffing in cynicism, eyebrows raised in disbelief at the *ancient* saying. That was something our mothers said that was soooo not relevant to the twenty-first century.

The yoga sutras push the whole cleanliness concept a whole lot further than, say keeping your room picked up. Patanjali links purity of body with purity of mind. No surprise there for anyone who has practiced yoga for even a month or two.

I am reminded of my Catholic school education. When preparing for the sacrament of First Confession, or Penance as it is called now we learned many ways that we can break our relationship with God. It is not only the body that can sin, but the mind as well, Sister Mary Grace would tell us. Though at times I have pooh-poohed this teaching as one that carried a truckload of guilt in its big flat bed, I now understand from my practice that pretty much EVERYTHING I do starts in my cantankerous MIND. Clearing my mind with a hard physical practice, or focused pranayama, or chanting a mantra can have amazing results with removing toxic thoughts and feelings. My body glows when my mind shines! This is shauca, or existing in a state of purity.

And no sense getting all bogged down in guilt either; shit happens as they say, and life is all about accumulating stress. A definition of life might just be that which acquires STRESS. Our job as yogins is to reduce and cleanse our systems so that pure energy can flow and energize us.

Taking another approach: everything starts with the BODY. If I clean and honor my body, my thoughts begin to flow purely and positively. Mike and I are turning our diets to the vegan side (ahh, it’s harder than I thought it would be, but more about that later). Only a couple of weeks in though, and we both notice a growing mental clarity and wakefulness. My insides feel cleaner than ever! My thoughts grow more gentle.

Amy Weintraub writes, in Yoga for Depression, that the Yamas and Niyamas (yogic ethics and observances) constitute a program for positive mental health. She suggests mantra for attaining a state of mental purity. Tat tvam asi, or You are that, a mantra from the Advaita vedanta tradition she uses, repeating the words, You are with me. Recognizing the nondual notion that there is no difference between You and That, the practitioner can settle into a state of equilibrium, if not ecstatic bliss.

Can you take one step today toward cleaning up your life? Making a committment to do it is the first step.