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 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 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 1.12, nonattachment & practice

Sutra.1.12 (Sanskrit:abhyasa-vairagyabhyam tad-nirodhah) says”Control over the mind’s fluctuations comes from persevering practice and nonattachment”

carolyn hanging in backbend

According to Bernard Bouanchaud, a French translator of Patanjali’s sutras, quoted here, nonattachment is inextricably linked to persevering practice if one wishes to control those pesky mental fluctuations.

Whew. Do I need to work on both of these.

Persevering practice is my weak link during long days of work that feed me on a real and intellectual level, but also drain me.  I need the practice to keep me on an even keel, refreshed and with an evenness of energy available.  This doesn’t happen inevitably.  It doesn’t happen at all in fact, if I don’t put some energy into my practice.

And guess how that happens?  I have to begin my nonattachment practice.  The things of this world are ephemeral: work will always be there, but another day without practice will keep me from living fully in the moment, enjoying sthira, stability, and sukha, bliss.

The mat is calling; do I have the courage to heed its message?

Sutra 1.36, solace in my time of grief

Great Blue Heron at Croatan National Forest
Great Blue Heron at Croatan National Forest (ckg photo)

Today Mom moved into an assisted living facility. For several reasons, she couldn’t manage to live on her own anymore. Watching the family locus reshuffle has been a sad event.

Even though my brain knows it was necessary and inevitable, my heart grieves for what has past and will no longer be.

I’ve been spending time practicing, opening to the full panoply of emotions in an effort to create space for the light to shine through.

Yoga Sutra 1.36 says it so well:

1:36 Patanjali: visoka va jyotismati

Bouanchaud: Mental stability also stems from serenity linked to luminous lucidity.

Iyengar:Or, inner stability is gained by contemplating a luminous, sorrowless, effulgent light.

Feuerstein: Or restriction is achieved by mental activities that are sorrowless and illuminating.

Desikachar: One of the great mysteries of life is life itself. When we inquire into what life is and what keeps us alive, we may find some solace for our mental distractions. Consideration of things greater than our individual selves helps us put ourselves in perspective.

LaughingYogini: Do I allow the light of the universe to penetrate my life?  What do I do that blinds me from this light? Can I participate in a full and engaged life with  the same serenity this Blue Heron seems to embody?

Do I truly believe that there is a light in this universe? What do I learn from contemplating this light?  Can this light help me grow in a positive manner?

Do I see the light in others? In myself?  How can I cultivate this vision?

I’d love to hear your perspective.

Home or Homeless? Yoga sutra 1.33

Royal Bonica rosebud
Royal Bonica Rosebud (carolyn photo)

Grieving with friends and family of someone who has passed blesses us with stories we may not have ever known otherwise.

While in Houston, E.’s father shared an inspiring account of a homeless man living beneath a highway overpass near their home. Over time, they recognized and began to speak with him. Eventually, whenever father or daughter saw him there, they began leaving plates of food and some clothing. Because of their generosity, I was moved to make a donation to a homeless shelter in Houston. It’s true that generosity inspires generosity!

Patanjali tells us that compassion is one of the tools we can use to calm the mind: Yoga sutra 1.33: maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam

The projection of friendliness, compassion, gladness, and equanimity towards objects – [be they] joyful, sorrowful, meritorious, or demeritorious-[bring about] the pacification of consciousness. (trans. Feuerstein)

Though I’m focusing on compassion today, the practices of friendliness, gladness, or equanimity would bestow similar benefits that I’d like to discuss in future posts.

This aphorism, or sutra, reminds me of Simon and Garfinkle’s ode to loneliness, “I am a Rock.” The following video is from the unofficial Paul Simon Page, located on 2dannyc89’s Channel.

This is the path I get stuck on …stuck in grief, alienation, and self-absorption….when I don’t practice the outward-looking virtues.

The ideals expressed in yoga sutra # 1.33 have been used to transform human relationships and better society since ancient times.  Barbara Stoler Miller in Yoga, Discipline of Freedom, says they echo early Buddhist monks practices even as they are relevant and useful to us in the 21st century because:

These practices work to demolish the boundaries between oneself and others, and to break through the barriers that lock people into egoism….bring about a transmutation of personal emotions into immeasurable virtues.

We are reminded in B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on the Sutras of Patanjali to not limit our social work with these four virtues, but to include practice of the five virtues named in the yamas mentioned in sutra 2.30: nonharming, honesty, non-stealing, moderation, non-grasping.

We call these social virtues because they benefit not only ourselves, they also bring society into a state of health. Can we live in a health-ful rather than a dys-functional society? If we take these aphorisms to heart and into our lives, it certainly seems possible!

A friend on FaceBook posted a thought-provoking video that cuts to the heart of this sutra. I hope it will benefit you today just as the story E.’s father shared, inspired me.

Mankind Is No Island from on Vimeo.

MEDITATION: Georg Feuerstein, in The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, says that there is a meditation wherein the four virtues: friendliness, compassion, gladness, and equanimity are radiated from the practitioner into the universe. This sounds very similar to metta or lovingkindness meditation that I have mentioned before. Beginning with oneself, and eventually including all sentient beings, the meditator offers the following phrases (or others that resonate more deeply):

May I be free from danger.

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I live with ease and abundance.


YOGA Ethics 2, Satya, Honesty

Yoga Sutra 2:36: For one established in truth, the result fits the action.

Yoga Sutra 2:37: All the jewels appear for one who is firmly set in honesty.

Asteya includes intention behind all actions, speech and thought—not just truthfulness.

Most of the time I exist, unaware of my intentions. Yoga, however reinforces just how powerful intentions can be. Practice on the mat becomes a strong lesson in mindfulness that has begun to weave into my life off the mat. To become aware, truthfully aware of intentions is one of the most difficult lessons of my life. This means I have to deal with my blasted ego identity—yuk! who wants to deconstruct? Who wants to really admit that even when I think I’m being altruistic, I am simply feeding my ego!

TRUTHFULNESS: It’s a matter of communication — to myself and to others. It’s a way of looking at life from the perspective of “the real me” unadulterated by a lifetime accumulation of others’ voices, pressures, and agendas.

Am I truthful in my self-talk?

How can I change what I say to myself?

Do I honestly believe that what I say to myself will effect change in my perspective or actions?

What would help me speak more honestly in group situations?

What would give me courage to speak up about perceived injustice?

How often have I been silently dishonest?

Whose truth am I reflecting when I speak to myself or when I chat with my friends and coworkers?

How much does pride or previous damage inflicted shape my present speech?

Are there habits I’ve acquired which keep me in a state of dishonesty with myself or with others?

Have I noticed a deepening of a self-inquiry regarding the embodiment of satya?

Where and how do I support this practice?

Other than nonviolence to myself or others, is there anything more important for me to devote my life to at this very moment? How does dishonesty affect the eightfold path? What ties Satya to Astheya (generosity), Brahmacharya (energy moderation), or Aparigraha (abundance)?