Yes, But, How Do You Know?

How do we know that we're doing what we're supposed to do? How do we know the right course of action, the right step to take? How do we KNOW that we're on the right path?

I recently had a conversation with a friend in which he asked me how I knew that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Well. I kinda just know. I feel it deep in my bones, deep in my gut. I feel continuously pulled toward yoga practice, teaching, studying, understanding. And I've felt it from the very beginning. It only took me one yoga class to know that I wanted to do this. All. The. Time.

So, that's a pretty good indication to me.

Yes! I'm on the path!

Yes! I'm on the path!

But, there's more. In the past month or so, I've realized that in addition to my own gut feeling about the course of my life, there have been 3 outside influences, specific instances, that gave me the clarity and the motivation to continue along my path. Especially when it was challenging. I'll tell you about them.

It's not super often that we can understand why things are happening when they're happening. Especially! if they're difficult or uncomfortable things. Then we feel especially indignant about understanding them. I think it actually makes us feel better to throw our hands up at the universe and ask "WHY ME?" rather than face the possibility that it's just a step along our path.

When things are going well, it's a little easier to feel that the steps make sense, but even still it can be hard to see clearly.

In my opinion, this is one of the many reasons to note our reactions to the events of our lives. It's also another reason to practice regularly. If you come to the meditation cushion/yoga mat every day, you'll continue to do so even when shit is hitting the fan, even when all the good things are happening, even when you don't feel like it. If you are aware of the typical way in which your mind reacts to "good" events and "bad" events, you can begin to work with your own perspective and letting go of outcomes and offering your work up to something greater than you. But, that's another post entirely.

I am currently co-leading a teacher training program at One Tree Yoga in Omaha. It's been incredibly enriching so far and I am so grateful for the opportunity to pass on the tradition. Our program is very well developed and goes pretty deep compared to many teacher training programs. So, these newbie teachers are just inundated with new information and hopefully a new way of thinking about themselves and how they relate to the world.

This brings me to the first of my 3 experiences which spurred me along on my path. Through this co-leading experience, I'm very aware of how much I've learned in my own yoga path. Like a lot. And when I had just finished my own TT I knew very little. But regardless of my new teacher status, my teacher Theresa Murphy gave me a bunch of her classes to sub, immediately following my graduation. She just handed them off to me and fully trusted me to do a good job and conduct a good class and hold my shit together.

Now, this might not seem like a big deal to some of you, but having seen the state of teachers just coming off a training, I am blown away by her level of trust. And her willingness to give me such a big responsibility with her complete confidence. I absolutely didn't understand the scope of this at the time, but looking back today, I see it as a major stepping stone to where I am today. Major gratitude, T-Love!

The second of my major motivators came from one of my teachers in MPLS. His name is Ben Vincent and if you follow this blog, you've heard me talk about him several times before. His greatest strength, in my mind, is his intellect. He and I teach entirely different styles of yoga asana and so my biggest takeaway from our work together has been in the realm of philosophy. I had the pleasure of taking two courses with him, one on the Bhagavad Gita and the other on the Yoga Sutras. The Bhagavad Gita course was our first encounter. It was a big group, at least 25 people and we would get together once a week to practice meditation and discuss the book. Ben and I, to this point, had almost no personal interaction. Which is why I was incredibly surprised and pleased to receive an email from him one day in which he stated "It is apparent that you are fully ready to receive the Dharma." Done and done. And yes, he talks like that. 

These simple words came at a time when I absolutely needed them. I was working a job that was highly dissatisfying and trying with all my might to be a yoga teacher on the side. I really believe that this motivation from Ben kept me going, feeling like I was on the right path. 

The third actually doubles as a major cue that I was on the right path and the biggest compliment of my entire life. Some of you know this story, but the way that I came back to Omaha was through this compliment. Tias Little of Prajna Yoga in Santa Fe has always been in the periphery of my yoga awareness, but it wasn't until May of 2013 that I really understood his greatness in full when I came back to Omaha to take a weeklong workshop with him. It was swell. Since I knew the owner and the studio manager, I was invited to hang with them throughout the week and had the opportunity to get to actually know Tias and have some conversations with him. Apparently we hit it off.

Next thing I knew, I was back in Austin with a call from Jamie Rye suggesting I come back to Omaha and an email from Tias suggesting I continue study with him. Apparently he orchestrated the push to get me back to Omaha, to my home studio of One Tree Yoga where I am today.

These two knew. My grandparents wed in the 1940's.  They super loved each other a lot.

These two knew. My grandparents wed in the 1940's. 
They super loved each other a lot.

As these events were occurring there was no way that I could see them for the major stepping stones that they were. In the moment, we can't ever really know how the events of our life will play out, form patterns and shape our existence. But damn if it isn't nice to look back and know that we're doin' alright.

I feel so grateful for the tradition of yoga, the teachers who have and continue to inspire me and the ease of my surety about my path. I know how it feels to not know if you're doing the right thing, which makes it even sweeter when you find your place in the grand scheme of the universe. And it may be fleeting! So you best enjoy it while it's good. Trust your instincts and do what feels right.

Happy practice!

Yoga in Action: Repect for the Earth

gabriellehopp_turtle.jpg

Happy Earth Day!

Part of our practice as a modern yogis is practicing compassion and a mindful approach to living. This is a constant challenge in a world of fast-paced technology, instant gratification and the constant desire for bigger, better and more. It is a major challenge too, to offer the same practices to the earth as we would to say, another person.

At times, I feel like my mind belongs to someone else with the way it grasps at material things. I mean, really? After all this work of non-attachment and I still haul an entire u-haul around every time I move?

But, it's all just practice in the end. And in my opinion, yogis should be at the forefront of practice when it comes to respect for the earth. Treading lightly on this planet comes naturally to those who practice such deep respect for their own bodies and minds.

gabriellehopp_veggies.jpg

Here are some of the simple things that we can do to balance modern life with a yogic life:

  • Garden your own veggies.
    This is typically super simple and very rewarding, giving you the chance to nurture your future food as you would nurture your yoga practice. Also gives you the chance to be outside and connect with life. For an extra earth-friendly approach, collect rainwater to use on the garden, rather than relying on the hose.

  • Get an eco-friendly yoga mat.
    They are a little more expensive, but typically last longer. The eco yoga mat that I am currently using is from Yogasana. It's made of cotton and woven in India. They have great bright colors and a strong texture to help you connect to your hands and feet.

  • Buy secondhand yoga clothes.
    For those of you who know me, you know that I buy pretty much everything secondhand. I find SO many yoga clothes this way. Expensive brands that people have donated after just a couple of wears. 

  • Stop buying bottled drinks.
    Get a filter for your water. Make your own kombucha (I do this and it's super simple). Make a huge pot of ginger tea, bottle it and keep it in the fridge for when you crave a sweet drink.

  • Buy local/organic food.
    I know this one seems like a no-brainer. But it can be a hard leap to take when the expense is considered. Once you dive in, you'll never go back. Organic food is better for you and better for the earth. You can get a CSA box from a local farm on the cheap. Usually they are organic and have lots of interesting new things for to try. Also, it's just about farmer's market time for most places. This makes it easy to do local eggs and meat as well.

  • Turn off lights, use the heat/air conditioning within reason
    Duh, right? Not so. Our idea of comfort is way out of wack in my opinion. If it were up to me, we'd turn on the air-conditioning two weeks out of the year in July/August when it's unbearable.

  • Bike/walk/run/skip/scoot/ride the bus
    Cars are bad news. I drive a car. Often. But in a perfect world, I would not. I would walk and ride my bike. This is one for my own personal work.

  • Bring your own tupperware for leftovers
    As a server, I see so much waste go out the door in the form of to-go containers. This one is particularly easy. Just keep a couple in your car and grab em before you go in to eat.

Got any other ideas? Tell me what they are, and I'll include them!

  • Use a Mooncup/Gladrags for your moon cycle, ladies. 
    Thanks to my friend Lacey for reminding me about this one. Rather than create extra waste from tampons or pads, I use a Mooncup. It saves money, lasts for 10 years and isn't putting any harmful chemicals into my body. 

Yoga in Action: Being True to Yourself

So, I've been teaching for 3 years now. Not too much time, admittedly, but enough time to have a decent grasp of my own style and what works well for students and what works less well. As someone who has to promote myself as a small business, as well as continue a personal practice, I am constantly looking for ways to improve myself as a teacher and student and bring in more people.

To expand my skill-set and business acumen, I tend to look to yoga studios/teachers who are successful. What do they offer that brings so many people in? What is it that yoga practitioners are looking for in a teacher, studio, class format, etc.?

And I have to say that it's impossible to collect this type of information and not allow it to inform your own personal methods. When you take someone's class, it's only natural that you learn something new and begin to transmit that information in your own way.

I have been moving around the world for the past 5 or so years. I have studied with some incredible teachers all around the world. Here are some of my biggest influences over the past years:

Theresa Murphy, Omaha, NE

Lucie Konikova in Prague, Czech Republic

Ben Vincent in MPLS

Laurel Van Matre in MPLS

Rod Stryker of Para Yoga in Boulder, CO

Ganesh Mohan of Svastha Yoga in Chennai, India

This is an eclectic bunch of individuals with many different styles and approaches. I love being open to all different types of styles and being able to incorporate them into my own teaching. Theresa Murphy, my biggest yoga influence calls herself a "cross-pollinator" implying that she gets her information from multiple sources. I can't help but be the same way. When there are so many traditions and methods out there, why would you not experience as many of them as possible?

It is very challenging for me not to get mired down in the yoga pop culture muck. And the notion that one particular way/method is the only way is very prevalent in Western yoga culture. If you want people to buy your brand, you have to promote it as the brand.

What I have recently realized is that through my knowledge-seeking, I have strayed from teaching in my own very personal way. I have lost track of teaching in a way that is completely true to me. Not that I have not been teaching well or am disappointed with myself, but I have been learning so much really new material and trying to rectify it with my own personal style. And, I came to realize that it isn't really working. Part of the challenge of being a good teacher is transmitting the knowledge you obtain in a way that is clear and meaningful for your students. And you can't really do that if you're teaching in another teacher's style/way. For me, the most important thing is to be completely true to myself.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be open to the vast expanse of knowledge that is out there. And I wouldn't trade my experience/studies for anything else.  But it became clear to me that I've been trying to share information without first making it my own.Armed with this revelatory knowledge, not to mention yogic information, I forge on.

This is me.   

This is me.

 

There is so much to learn on this path.

Yoga in Action: Your Inner Light of Awareness

Over the course of my recent study, I keep coming across a "buzz-phrase" that really pleases me. It is: your inner light of awareness. It refers to the you who you really are. At your core. Not your job or your life experience or how anyone else perceives you. It is simply and basically you. The you who you are now and have always been. Not who you strive to be, or who you have been.

It's beautiful, right? 

Your inner light of awareness.

like this, but on the inside!

like this, but on the inside!

Another way of thinking about this is as your dharma. My main sanskrit guy Nicholai Bachman defines dharma as "the underlying substance that does not fundamentally change but simply appears differently over time." (The Yoga Sutras Workbook, pg 56) In Indian culture, dharma is like the law or the fundamentals of the way things are. If you think of this in terms of yourself, your dharma is the fundamental structure of you that does not change.

I was pretty caught up in trying to understand dharma for awhile, because I was confusing it with dharmic purpose. This is a concept that my father hammered into our brains all throughout our childhoods/college/continuing today. Your dharmic purpose is the thing that you were put on this earth to do. The thing that you can provide to humankind that no one else can. Your dharma is more like your essence. It's what makes you, well, you!

For a couple of years recently, I was desperate to figure out what it was that I was put here to do. I thought it was something that if I meditated on it and thought about enough, that it would come to me in a big shocking epiphany!

I discussed it with my teachers, my friends and my partner. I thought about it in the car and on the cushion. I need answers, damnit!

I've given up the quest for a solid answer to the "what is my dharmic purpose" question. It's not that I don't want to know. I really really want to know. I still think about it a lot. It's just that I don't really think I need to know now.

 If I really needed to know now, wouldn't I know?

Over time, I have been able to loosen the hold that it has on me. Letting go of the thinking that "if I can just discover my dharmic purpose, then everything will fall into place!" My focus now is cultivating santosha (contentment) with what currently is.

Santosha with my very own inner light of awareness. To be content is something we could all strive for a little more. To be content with who we are, at our very essence.

Can you connect with your inner light of awareness? 

Finding Contentment in the Chaos

India can be an extremely frustrating place. It's hot. It's really chaotic. Indians swarm you to offer you rides in their rickshaw, necklaces, directional advice, etc. It's loud as can be—horns, music, traffic. It's dirty.

Last year, everything about being in India was novel for me. I drank it all in. I enjoyed every experience, even those that were loud, chaotic and dirty. I was just so happy to be here that I even found joy in the painful and frustrating times. This year, things feel different. I feel annoyed by Indians and chaos. I can't help it. I don't want to be annoyed. I want to live in the present and appreciate the fact that I'm in INDIA for crying out loud!! But something keeps rising up in me. And it doesn't feel like joy. It feels like suffering.

gabriellehopp-india1.jpg

It feels a lot like when I was a teenager. I don't know what you were like when you were teen-aged, but I was angry. All the time. Anything and everything could upset me. And did. And not only was I angry, I was anxious to be out of whatever situation I was currently in. I believe I could characterize it as a constant state of non-contentment. Unless something was a completely novel situation, I was instantly bored and looking to move on.

This approach to life has (luckily) abated with time. I think part of it is maturing and recognizing that not every situation has to be completely enriching and fabulous. And (I would like to think) that most of my new life approach is due to my work on the mat/cushion. I've slowed down. I've learned to appreciate small details and things that we generally perceive as "mundane." 

So much sweetness in the simplicity

So much sweetness in the simplicity

I think a lot of this appreciation has developed out of my asana practice. Coming to the mat daily and doing the same poses hundreds and then thousands of times can really put into perspective one's ability to find something new in a repeat situation. And no matter how many times I do trikonasana, I can still find some new sensation and some amount of joy to just "be in it." This is how I should approach every repeat situation. What about this can I find to appreciate? Even if my brain/body is telling me not to feel content?

So, this second trip to India has been one of lesson learning for me. It's fascinating to watch myself move through this incredible country for a second time. To see my reaction to India when it's no longer novel for me. It's amusing to be present with my anger, however silly it seems. It's great for me to have the insight to even realize that I'm experiencing non-contentment and then see what I can do about it.

There is nothing like taking yourself out of your comfort zone to put your work to the test. Looks like I better keep on getting back on the mat/cushion upon my return.

India Part 5 or Today I Met a Rishi

It's funny, when I'm at home and studying or talking philosophy with my students I am totally on board with the ideas of kundalini energy, siddhis (magical powers), the mysticism of tantra, and the idea that meditating in a cave for 15 years would lead to something important. But suddenly when I get to India and have the opportunity to meet a holy man (a real life holy man!) who is involved in all of those thing, I get all skeptical and wonder if he's messing with me.
Huh?

I met a rishi. He meditated in a holy cave for 15 years to raise his kundalini energy. Now he lives in the hills in Central Kerala in India and meditates except for when he's accepting visitors for whom he prophesies and answers pertinent questions they might have about their dharma. He was slight and short and had a giant (giant!) dreadlock which he wrapped around his head like a turban. His home was about 10 X 10 feet, completely full of murtis and photos of Shiva and Parvati, and filled with thick, pungent incense.

When we came in he greeted us warmly and we were invited to sit next to him. Our guide told him a couple of things about us and then he lit a stick of incense and began to meditate.
When he began to speak, he addressed Veronika first. He told her that she has a business mind, that she already has some power in her third eye and that if she starts her own business, it will take a couple of years, but she'll be very successful.
Veronika has been taking about opening up her own tea house for about 6 months now. No joke. What he told her was succinct and to the point. The whole thing took a couple of moments. Then he came to me.

He was told that I am a yoga teacher in the USA.
This is what the rishi told me:

What you are doing now is perfect. (as in, you have found your dharma, stay put) Continue to teach classes and teach your students philosophy and meditation. You were born with a philosophical mind. You are a very calm person and when you talk to people you have the ability to transmit that calm to them.

The rishi asked if I was married. I said no.
He meditated for a few more moments....I started to get nervous.
Next he said:

If you choose not to get married and practice brahmacarya you could be known to the world.
(admittedly this made me nervous, so I asked him if I could get married.)
Yes, you can get married, but if you want to have followers and become someone who is known, you should choose not to get married.

To increase your philosophical abilities, there are several practices that you can do.
In front of you, place two oil lamps or candles, a glass of water and some fruit. For fifteen minutes meditate on Om Namah Shivaya. Drink the water and eat the fruit.
Before you go to bed each night, hold a glass of water in your hands. Meditate on Om for five minutes, drink the water and go to sleep.

You can speak to your soul. Sit eight feet away from a mirror and make a point on the mirror between your eyebrows. Stare into that spot for fifteen to twenty minutes and you will soon be able to talk with your own soul.

Then the rishi asked if I owned my own business. I responded 'no' and he meditated a bit more. Then:

In a year you will have the opportunity to own your own small business in yoga. If you choose to do so, you can be successful.

We were then allowed to ask a few questions and were ushered out. We were allowed to take a photo.


And that is what happened when I met a rishi.....

The More You Know

I am just coming off a 5 day intensive with ParaYoga teacher Rod Stryker.
See more about him here: Rod Stryker Bio

This was an in-depth study about the teachings of Tantra Yoga which is an incredibly ancient tradition based on the flow of energy in the body and how it can be manipulated to create "awakening" to the inherent beauty and bliss in the world. Another very popular system Anusara Yoga is based on Tantra as well, though there are so many schools of thought within Tantra that I wouldn't know for one iota if they're in the same school.
We spent 5 days doing asana (posture), pranayama (breathwork), kriya (cleansing techniques), mantra (chanting) and meditation with the express purpose of moving prana or life force throughout the body. Incredibly transformational stuff. I am currently overwhelmed with information and the urge to incorporate it all into my personal practice. If only there were more hours in the day....

When I look back to just a few months ago, before I started studying privately with Ben Vincent, before I did a weekend with Bhagavan Das, or when I look back to my newly teaching self 2 years ago, or my teacher trainer self in 2009 or even my "I am only doing this for fitness" yoga self from all the years prior to that, I am amazed by two things. The first is the incredibly vast amount of information available for anyone seeking a yogic path and the second is how exponentially my practice has grown in a short amount of time. And how each time I take a class, do a training or even talk to another yogi, the possibility for growth and understanding presents itself.
While I am pleased with progress, I constantly have the sense that the more I learn, the more questions open up and the more I don't know. At times this is truly disheartening, and other times, profoundly inspirational--that the path upon which I tread will never run out of potential for new techniques and new understanding.

That being said, I feel even further away from understanding my own role in this game of yoga. So many divergent paths all promising the same (or similar) outcomes, how is one to decide? Each time I learn a new method or explore a new path, I feel drawn to pick and choose the things that work for me and discard those that don't. Can I piece together the meditation and pranayama of Tantra with the sangha (community) of Anusara, the long holds of YinYoga, the brilliance of Theresa Murphy and Yinyasa, the alignment of Iyegnar, the dharma talks of Tias Little, the kirtan of Bhagavan Das and my own yearning to forge a new path all of my own?

It all remains to be seen, my friends.
I'll be in India starting next week for 5 weeks. I have every intention of sharing some while I'm away, but sankalpas (intentions) don't always align with actuality.

Perseverance

This is an apt title for someone who hasn't written on their blog in a month.

Well, I am happy to report that despite my lack of perseverance in composition, I've been steadily humming along in my daily practice. And this week for the first time, I am experiencing a profoundly deeper serenity in my meditation practice than ever before.
This process of "enjoying" my meditation has taken two and a half years of diligent daily practice. In addition, I have read countless books and studied with multiple teachers to come to this minute achievement.
The point here is not to toot my own horn about progress but rather to illustrate the need for seriously dedicated perseverance to the yogic path. My teacher Theresa Murphy used to always say that achievement in yoga asana will not come quickly or easily. And 8 years later, I recognize that she's absolutely correct. Things get easier and more accessible, but there are still days when I have trouble balancing in Tree pose or I don't feel like coming to my mat to practice.
Progress in a meditation has been even more laborious in my experience. We are hardwired through our humanness and societal conditioning to attach ourselves to our ego and cling to our thoughts or emotional states. When we can begin to break down these barriers by practicing, we can actually begin to experience the peace of mind about which the ancient yogis were writing.
Through regular (and I mean daily) practice, we begin to develop tapas or the "fire" or "heat" that eggs our practice onward. The more you show up, the more you get out of it and in turn the more you want to continue to show up. See a whole post on tapas here: Tapas
Usually when we experience difficulty and pain in our lives, we tend toward a "woe is me" sort of attitude. This is naturally human of course, but certainly not productive. When we can change our perspective to reflect the need for daily practice, then we always have somewhere to turn when the going gets rough. When shit hits the fan, you make your way to your mat or your cushion as you would on any other day and spend some time presently, persevering on the path.

John Friend and Anusara

So, I just got back from the first day of a John Friend weekend here in the Twin Cities.
I just want to say that John Friend might seriously be the nicest and funniest famous yogi in the whole world. I have been to so many workshops where the guru-type is obviously sporting a super huge ego and acts all aloof and distant from the people who paid a lot of money and want to ask him/her questions.
By contrast, John Friend was talking to everyone, smiling every time I looked at him and clearly full of joy and love.
Bravo, John Friend! I am truly impressed.

Tamping Down Reactivity

Through the practice of yoga in its many forms, we begin to acquire the skills to view each situation as an outside observer. We can begin to take a slight stance away from whatever is happening at any given time and observe it rationally without instantly reacting emotionally.  Rather than feeling that everything is happening to me, we can start to just recognize that things are happening, and assess them without too much involvement.
This type of ability doesn't occur immediately. And I do think much of this ability comes from a meditation practice, more than an asana practice. Though, yoga on the mat does teach us to slow down, watch our minds and explore our reactivity to poses and sequences.

This practice of settling our reactive state is about slowing down and it's also about our sense of self. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali outlines 5 kleshas or "aversions" which prevent us from true liberation.
Asmita is the sense of the self as separate from everything and everyone. It is the ego. Verse 2.6 is

drg-darśana-śaktyor-eka-ātmatā-iva-asmitā

In literal translation, it says asmita is the misidentification of the power of seeing with what is seen. And asmita itself literally means "I am this" or I am that." (The Yoga Sutras by Ravi Ravindra pg. 61-62)
Asmita is clinging to the identification of "us" and not "them." Through this attachment to our sense of self, we are able as a human race to do really terrible things to each other. And it means that tend to feel that things are "happening to us" rather than just happening. We identify with our bodies and our minds as ourselves and do anything to protect them from being damaged.

When we step back from situations, even just for a brief second of assessment or contemplation, we can see that almost everyone is acting out of their reactive state of asmita. So the next time someone is cutting in line at the post office or putting their yoga mat really close to yours, can you separate from your sense of self and from that standpoint determine the level of reactivity necessary? In all likelihood, through just a few seconds of thoughtful consideration, you will act more kindly and rationally; a simple step to making the world a better place.

Niyamas: Santosha

The second niyama or individual conduct is also the namesake of this blog--Santosha.
If you're curious as to why I chose this as its name, check out the very first post. If you're curious what a niyama could possibly be, check out the first posting on Yamas. Good? Good.

Okay, here we go.
Santosha can be summed up in a single word--contentment. Not happiness or joy, mind you. But straightforward contentment--not happy, not sad.
In my interpretation of santosha, when we practice the second niyama, we are striving for a sense of peace of mind in each moment. It is absolutely impossible to be happy and joyous at each moment in our lives--we are bound to experience pain and suffering on some level at some time. But through regular practice--daily asana, meditation and whatever other yogic practices move you, we begin to develop the tools to face each challenge of life and remain content in those moments.
This sense of contentment will not come easily. Through years and years of practice, you will begin to see the world with a discerning eye, enough to realize that to experience a moment fully, any moment, you must experience all the joy and pain available in it. And then to take the next step, you can have peace of mind within that moment.

Allow me to offer a daily life example.
Many people dislike their jobs, correct?  But also consider that the daily grind of going to work is a necessary evil to pay the bills, afford a family, etc.
I think that within this negative feeling toward your job, that there is the possibility for contentment, despite the suffering. There is the possibility to slightly shift your perspective to recognize that even though you have aspirations of being something bigger and better in your life, that this present moment experience of your job is a natural stepping stone. Can you try to find some sense of santosha there? Can you try to see the peace available through moment to moment awareness?

How do we practice santosha on the mat/meditation cushion?
I think we have to be content within each practice that we showed up to do the work. Not every asana practice will produce amazing results. At times you will be able to stay in headstand for 5 minutes and at other times, you will fall out on to your back. Sometimes in your meditation, you will easily find single-pointed awareness and sometimes your mind will be a gaggle of monkeys. Can you simultaneously practice non-attachment to the moments that are "good" and contentment with each experience no matter the outcome? This is the beginning of your santosha work.

Niyamas: Saucha

The second limb on the Raja yoga path is Niyamas. In Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi, she refers to niyamas as "inner observances" which act as a code for living soulfully. (p. 31)
They can also be considered "individual conduct" as the yamas (the first limb on the 8-limbed path) were defined as "social conduct."

The niyamas in order are:
1. saucha: cleanliness/purity
2. santosha: contentment
3. tapas: austerity/discipline
4. swadhyaya: study
5. isvarapranidhana: surrender to the divine

Practicing the niyamas means it's time to turn inward.  Each yama is best begun by looking inward, but with each niyama, the entire practice is about you. It's time here to do some examination of us before we proceed further along the path.

The first niyama, which can be translated as cleanliness and/or purity, is saucha.
These directives, the "to do lists" of the niyamas are truly of an individual nature--no one else can decide for you what it means to live with purity. While there is a hygienic component (a slovenly yogini is certainly not practicing purely) this niyama is about being the best person that you can.
How? I think it's up to us individually to decide.

We have so many choices to make--daily small choices and larger life choices. The options are overwhelming at times--to be a vegetarian or not? To have children or not? To buy organic or not? Why? To drive or take the bus? Etc, etc, ad nauseum.
I think a good practice for ourselves is to daily ask ourselves why we do something a certain way, or why it is that we think a certain thing. This sort of self-questioning is a good way to determine whether or not we are choosing a lifestyle which is to our best benefit. It's also a good way for us to question our own sense of reality. Assuming that everything is real is one of the four flawed perceptions. Can you expand your notion of reality?

We may even want to examine which yoga practice is best for us. For some of us, the practice of yoga asana is not the best way forward. Especially for those of us who have intense injuries or are entering this practice later in our lives--we may want to consider other options--perhaps bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion or jnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom are better suited to our individual needs.

Start practicing saucha by asking some questions. They don't have to be big, but this daily practice may provide you with the insight you need to live with a pure heart and mind. Choose pathways that will best allow you to actualize your potential for pure consciousness.

Yamas: Brahmacarya

Everything in moderation is the universal truth that accurately describes the goal behind the fourth yama Brahmacarya. I have heard specifics about to what specifically one should be applying the principles of moderation, but I don't personally find them individually important.
The key to this broad understanding of the fourth yama is as easy as it sounds.
In everything in your life—work, food, exercise, meditation, talking, shopping—practice moderation.

It's so simple right? We all know what is an appropriate amount of food for dinner, versus the heaping plate of pasta which so tempts us. That one's a no-brainer, because when we overdo it, we immediately feel the effects in the form of an upset stomach. When we over-indulge in exercise, our body becomes physically taxed. Et cetera. In Meditations From the Mat Rolf Gates describes this phenomenon well in his chapter on yamas. He says:

"There is the middle of the road and while on it we experience "knowledge, vigor, valor, and energy." If we indulge in immoderation, though, even for a moment, we immediately embark on another set of experiences-- namely, guilt, remorse, obsessive worry, inertia. It is really that simple." (p. 56)

I do consider this understanding of brahmacarya to be totally valid and not only that, completely comprehensible to everyone. But, I think there is more. I think that there are several layers of depth to the true brahmacarya.

I have heard another simple description of this yama, which explains it essentially as "conservation of one's individual essence."  Which is like moderation from a different angle.

How to describe it?

  • It is not giving too much of the self away, and equally not taking too much from others.
  • It is understanding one's mind and the nature of the mind, and then acting accordingly.
  • It is determining one's dharma, the overriding purpose of why we are here, and then pursuing it.
  • It is practicing everything, and I mean everything from a place of love in one's heart.


How to practice it in everyday life?

Practice yoga! The true meaning behind the practice of yoga is self-realization. It all starts and ends with the self. Maybe the first years are mired in physically practice (asana) only, but that's okay! The important piece is that you are here on your mat, not running on the treadmill, and that there's a reason that you're consistently drawn back to the practice on the mat.

Furthermore, live out your days—your time at work, eating, sleeping, reading—practicing yoga. Practice the yamas and niyamas (I'll get there someday, I swear!) in all that you do. Set aside some time to meditate--even if it's just a few moments a month, begin to cultivate the notion of quieting your mind. 

How to practice brahmacarya on the mat?

Practice with love. While we all want to have rockin' bods, there is no need to overdo your asana practice. Trust me, I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I love to push myself physically and am as competitive as the next guy. But we are not here practicing yoga in order to be bootylicious. We practice as part of a comprehensive plan to understand fully the Self.

And as with anything in life, your heart will tell you when you are practicing brahmacarya accurately. And when your essence is fully in balance you will know because you will shine.

Yamas: Ahimsa

I've decided to include you all in my own little self-study of the 8-limbed Raja path of yoga. The idea of the Ashtanga (eight-limbs) method is that through devoted practice to the eight steps, the yogi will progress toward the final limb, samadhi, understood as "self-revelation." But of course, there is much work to be done along the way.

The limbs, in order, are:
1. Yamas: Social Conduct
2. Niyamas: Individual Conduct
3. Asana: Posture
4. Pranayama: Breathing
5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the Senses (beginning stages of meditation)
6. Dharana: Concentration (also in relation to meditation)
7. Dhyana: True Meditation
8. Samadhi: Self-Revelation

There are five Yamas which begin the 8-limbs. They are basically five ways to act in the presence of others. To me, they represent a way to sort of set ones' intentions in a clear and pure direction. They are the "if you can accept these, then you can move on to the next stage" step.

The yamas, in order, are:
1. Ahimsa: non-violence/non-harming
2. Satya: truthfulness
3. Asteya: non-stealing
4. Brachmacharya: moderation
5. Aparigraha: non-attachment

Today, I want to do a little exploration around Ahimsa or non-harming. Whenever I think of the first Yama I think of the lesson told to me by my teacher, Theresa Murphy. She is brilliant when it comes to putting knowledge of the 8-limbed path into practice on the mat. Although the Yamas are in reference to social conduct, certainly, you must be able to apply them to yourself first. In Theresa's lesson, one needs to consider acting with non-violence not only toward others, but toward oneself, especially when it comes to yoga asana.  In the class setting, we often try to push ourselves further than our bodies want to go or are prepared to go. Maybe we are trying to impress our teacher or others or maybe we feel a sense of peer-pressure to look as good as our neighbor does in their pose. In practicing ahimsa on the mat, you respect your limits and abilities by avoiding harmful behaviors which could lead to injury.

In the social context of ahimsa how do we act non-violently, or non-harmfully toward others? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Treat others with kindness, compassion, and love.
Easy to say. Not always so easy to fulfill. It is common to become annoyed or angry with others due to the wide-range of personalities out there and the regularity with which we interact with people. Even those who we choose to spend our time with can anger or annoy us, leading us to act in a harmful way.
What steps can we take to prepare ourselves to act regularly in a non-harmful way?

I like Donna Farhi's perspective on the first yama. In Bringing Yoga to Life on page 30, she says,

"When we feel connected to others, we find that we are naturally compassionate, ahimsa, and that the first yama, "not-harming" is not something we strive to be but something that we are. We see the essence of ourselves in the other and realize that the tenderness and forgiveness we so wish to have extended toward us is something that all humans long for."

Okay. So maybe the first step of the first yama is (again) beginning with our own selves, actually recognizing our own humanity. Recognizing our own desire to be treated non-harmfully and without violence. Calls to mind the old adage to treat others the way you'd like to be treated. Understanding that we ourselves should prefer love, compassion, and kindness over hate, misunderstanding and meanness is a great way to prepare ourselves to act accordingly when we go out into the world.

Now the hard part. Acting with ahimsa toward those whom we love. They are (almost) always the recipients of our anger because we spend more time with them and we know that they will love us even when we are cruel to them. How do we avoid funneling our harmful thoughts and actions toward them? I can think of a few ways, but surely they are boundless:

1. Thinking before you speak. My mother used to suggest this to me all the time. And I finally just decided that she's right. Before something unproductive and harmful comes out of your mouth, taking a moment to reflect on its possible damaging effects. And then stopping yourself if it's bound to do more harm than good.
2. Consider how you would feel if the roles were reversed. Putting yourself in the others situation and trying to understand their perspective and reason for action before acting hurtfully yourself.
3. Breathe. Sometimes when we are going to say something negative or hurtful, the best way to avoid it is to breathe deeply and count to ten. Perhaps by the time you get to ten, you will have thought about what you were going to say before you say it and you may also have considered the reversal of roles.

So, maybe as you move through your week, thinking about ahimsa and how to put the philosophy into action. Perhaps each time before you are about to act in a harmful way (be it towards yourself or another) you can stop yourself and consider the possibility of acting more kindly. And with each time you do so, making it more habitual and more likely that you will live with love in your heart.

Dualities

Given our humanness, we are prone to making judgments on things. Well, everything actually.

Good vs. bad, hot vs. cold, right vs. wrong, etc.

These judgment calls are almost always based on past experience--our past actions/feelings/understandings are naturally going to shape the way we view the world today, and thus, the way we feel about everything.

But these dichotomies of right and wrong are made up in the mind. Things are not one way or another, they just are. And no matter how you view anything, there is always going to be someone who views it exactly the opposite as you. For example, Nebraska summers--brutally hot, right? so easy to complain about because of the discomfort they cause. However, talk to a Nebraska farmer and he/she will tell you the necessity of the heat to grow corn. For them, the heat is a good thing.

Through a yoga practice, we can start to cultivate the awareness of things just simply as they are. Try spending an hour without judging anything. It's nearly impossible. And the nature of our labeling is often a misunderstanding of the true essence of that thing. In the 1978 translation by Sri Swami Satchinananda, Verse 1.8 of the Yoga Sutras states

Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based upon its true form.


How do we start to change? Part of the practice of fully understanding something is often a matter of a shift in perspective--a regularly occurring theme of this blog! For instance, moderate suffering can be a reminder of the things we have to be grateful for. Another example, if a new teacher shows up to teach your yoga class you may be dismayed because of your attachment to your teacher, or you could consider that you may learn a new pose or hear something cued in a way that resonates with you.
In other words, get the full story. And try to keep in mind that no matter how you label anything, there is always another way. And that way isn't necessarily wrong. It just is.