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 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!

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.

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.