Bhakti Yoga

Some of you may have read a post I wrote last year in which I describe various types of yoga. 

If you missed it, you can read it here. If you just want the gist of it, I outline several yogic paths all of which have the same goal: that of creating a practice which aims to achieve enlightenment through yoga. One of those paths is the yoga of devotion or bhakti yoga. Bhakti yogis might not ever do an asana in their entire lives. Theirs is the yoga of worship. They pray, they chant, they devote all that they do to their higher power. In the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 12 outlines the practice of bhakti yoga. It begins with a question posed by Arjuna to Krishna who says,

"One man loves you with pure devotion; another man loves the Unmanifest. Which of these two understands yoga more deeply?"

To which Krishna replies,

"Those who love and revere me with unwavering faith, always centering their minds on me--they are the most perfect in yoga." (Stephen Mitchell translation, page 144)

One form of bhakti yoga which has become popularized among Western yogis is kirtanKirtan is actually an Indian song-form in which there is a leader or a caller and a group of responders. In other words, it's call and response style chanting. Typically, the chants are chants to gurus (teachers), deities, or they are mantras. The chants themselves are highly repetitive and can last for just a few minutes or for hours. They are accompanied by instruments like harmonium or tablas, or are sometimes a capella.

My favorite bhakti yogi is Bhagavan Das and he plays an ektara which is a single-stringed plucked instrument.

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This practice can be so sweet and devotional. Essentially, you give yourself over to the chant or to the music. You don't have to think about what to do or what to say since the chants say the same thing over and over. You can just feel the music and be surrounded by the vibratory quality and do the damn thing.

This past Friday night, my little sangha (community) held a kirtan. I have dabbled in kirtans in my day and chant devotionally in my own practice, but this time, I had the opportunity to lead some chants. It was incredibly inspirational and deeply moving to feel so connected both musically and spiritually. 

I recorded myself singing a chant. Here is a clip of me on the harmonium in my bedroom. High quality, you can imagine.

The words are "cit ananda rupa, shivo ham, shivo ham" 
A devotional chant to Shiva. In Shiva, I am bliss.

Yoga in Action: Giving Thanks

Here comes the trite holiday post.

Actually, I quite like holidays. You get to eat as much as you want. Drink as much as you want. Hang out with your family (luckily, mine happens to be awesome, though I know that's not always the case), play cards, have awkward conversations and probably go see a really good movie.

What I don't like about holidays is that they try to force you to feel something. Now, I can easily border on the cynical side of things when it comes to "crap that is mass-marketed to the American people." I don't like that we have a day to tell someone how much we love them, or a day to be really nice to our mom, or even a day to celebrate our freedom. Shouldn't we be doing those things every day?

I think it's easy to get caught up in middle-class white kid problems. At least for me, as a middle-class white kid. We are easily led to feel that the world is crashing down around us if we have to wait in line for 10 minutes, get into a minor car accident, don't have a boyfriend/girlfriend, our computer crashes, etc. With little regard for the way a lot of people live (in poverty, in slums, hungry, oppressed) we can get completely caught up in our overly dramatic tales of woe.

Through a regular practice of yoga, we can begin to develop an appreciation for life and the things that we take for granted. I talked about this a lot in my last post. You can read it here:

Everyday Yoga

In my opinion, we should be thankful for our blessings every single day of the year. One way to put this into action is to list 5 things that you're grateful for as you are falling asleep. It's pretty easy. They don't have to be profound. They don't even have to be big things.

Here's 5 off the top of my head: running water, organic vegetables, family, 3-legged cats, Austin, TX.

 3-legged cat!

3-legged cat!

And as I think of the things on my list for which I am grateful, I try to feel, just for a moment, how I connect with those things in my day-to-day life. And maybe how my life would be different without them. A teeny tiny practice which can bring you back to the bounty of life.

Everyday Yoga

You know when you go to class and your teacher says things like, "yoga is a way of life" or "your practice does not end after class" etc.? Here are some of my ideas about that.

The practice of yoga asana is totally like a gateway drug. You get hooked on the performance of physical postures, the deep expansion/contraction of the breath you feel in class, and the incredible sense of clarity and serenity that you feel when you're done. Right?

So you keep going back. And you get stronger and more flexible and your body feels better, which frees up some space for your mind to feel better. And pretty soon all you can think about is yoga poses and how to "improve your yoga game" and maybe even entertain the idea of doing a teacher training, cause it feels so good.

This is a beautiful process—one that I myself went through many years ago, and continue to go through each time I go to class.

But here is the best part.

Yoga does start to extend past class. It starts to work it's way into your daily life. Maybe you begin to feel compelled to spend more time quietly. Or to go outside and romp around more often.

 Wild rosemary in the sun. Looking good

Wild rosemary in the sun. Looking good

You might start to notice life more intensely. Small surprises like a flower blooming or the sight of a colorful bird may bring you joy. Laughing and talking with loved ones suddenly feels precious in a way that it never had before. You may even take less things for granted; you may even begin to appreciate all of your opportunities and gifts in a new way.

Maybe over time you become a little less interested in yoga asana. Perhaps time you once devoted to handstand and lotus becomes time you devote to sitting quietly and following the breath. Maybe a walk in the woods or along the beach is your new yoga practice. Possibly you practice by mindfully preparing a meal, listening to your favorite music, or riding your bicycle.

Or maybe you aren't there yet and the joy of working through postures and going to class is still one of progress for you. And so you continue.

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And perhaps over time you begin to notice a different kind of practice emerging and unfolding. And if it does, your new challenge is to embrace the present moment of your life.

***It somehow didn't occur to me until several hours later, but I must have subconsciously taken this title from Charlotte Joko Beck's book "Everyday Zen." Just want to give props where props are due. 

Asana Tutorial: Astavakrasana

 Astavakrasana

Astavakrasana

Oh arm balances. How I love thee.

Arm balances require the combination of core engagement (including uddiyana and mula bandhas, arches of the feet and inner thighs), open hips and a bit of arm strength. It's very rare that I am unable to get into an arm balance because my arms aren't strong enough. This work comes from deep inside.

When I approach an arm balancing sequence, I plan accordingly. In an arm balance class, we would do abdominal strengthening and finding the core, mula bandha work, and a lot of hip opening. The additional work necessary for astavakrasana is twisting. Your torso ends up rotated almost 90 degrees in the final posture.

Here are some sequencing ideas for how to make your way to this lovely arm balance. 

1. Simple twist

Sit on a block (or two if your quads are tight) with your feet hugging in toward your hips. Check that all ten of your toes are pointing straight behind you.

Inhale to lengthen your spine and exhale to begin twisting. Use your opposite arm crossing the midline as leverage to help you twist deeply. Wait for the breath and only twist as your spine will allow. As you exhale, pull the low belly back toward the spine and notice if you have more twisting capability.

2. Vadrasana with Garudasana arms

Come back to center and re-lengthen out through the spine. Wrap your right elbow over your left and try to wrap your wrists and palms together. Isometrically press your palms and arms together to engage the arms and open the shoulders. Take 5-10 breaths on both sides.

3. Balasana with twist

Begin here in child's pose. Let the hips settle back toward the heels. Inhale to lengthen out through the spine and exhale to twist the torso to the right. Plant your left elbow to the mat and stack your palms. Use the connection of your elbow and shins on the mat to twist. Take 5-10 breaths and switch sides. Take several breaths in the center and note the difference between the two sides.

 4. Malasana

From child's pose, plant your hands under your shoulders and start to walk your hips back and your heels down. Try to keep the big toes touching. Your heels may not touch the ground which is fine. Hug your knees in toward your outer armpits and soften and ground through the hips. Press your palms together and extend your arms forward. Try to send the arms forward equally to the hips lowering. This will help your balance. Find the breath.

5. Plank variation

Walk your hands forward and place your elbows under your shoulders. Lengthen out through the legs and come on to your tip-toes. Curl your pubic bone toward your face and lower your hips. You should be one straight line from crown of the head to the heels. Fire up your thighs and draw the belly back toward the spine. Release any tension in the neck/shoulders. Breath?

You can release your knees to the mat if legs up is too difficult.

6. Tadasana with strap and block

If you don't have a strap available, a block will suffice. Bring the block up between the thighs as high as possible. Wrap your strap around the block and tighten. Ground through the feet and lift your arches. Draw muscle energy from the inner edge of the feet all the way up to the inner groin. Continue to draw up though the pelvic floor and low belly. Make the legs really strong and bring the head in line with the spine.

7. Standing Twist

Shift weight into your standing leg. Again, lift muscle energy up through the leg by lifting the arch of the foot and following the line upward. When you are balanced, lift your other leg to a 90 degree angle. Flex that foot and bring your opposite hand to the outer knee. Use the hand at the knee as leverage, lift out through the torso with an inhale and exhale to twist. The extended arm is the final step and is pretty useful for balance. Take several breaths and do the second side. Pause in tadasana in the center and breathe.

8. Anjaneyasana with Twist

From downward dog or table step your right leg forward. Tuck your back toes under and send your back foot another several inches behind you. Lower your left leg to the mat and untuck your toes. Bring your head in line with your spine and soften and ground in the hips. Lengthen out through the spine. Feel the breath as the belly moves into the thigh. 

When you are ready, move your left hand to your inner right foot and begin to twist to the right. I like to use my right hand to press my right knee in toward the midline at first and then extend the arm.

9. High Lunge with Twist

You can transition directly into this high lunge from your low lunge, or step back and rest in a neutral position. Make sure that your ankle is directly below your knee. Lift the arch of your front foot and draw muscle energy up through the inner leg. Make your back leg really strong and lengthen out through the spine. Place your hand to the floor or a block at your inner front foot and begin to twist toward your front knee. The knee will want to pop out to the side—keep drawing it in toward the midline.

10. Supta Gomukasana

Lie on your back and cross one knee over the other. Reach for your opposite feet. Curl the outer edge of the feet toward each other and make them very strong. Pull the feet toward your face. Notice if you create any tension in the neck and shoulders and try to release. Take several breaths here and do the second side.

11. Reclining Twist

Lie on your back, bend your knees and plant your feet. Lift your hips up a couple inches and move your entire pelvis 3 inches or so to the left. Extend your right leg on the mat, draw your left knee in to your chest and across the midline. You can work with a bent left knee or a straight left leg. Either way, place it on the block and soften your left shoulder down toward the mat. Feel your belly pressing into your thigh as you breath. Do both sides.

12. Hip opening into Astavakrasana

Sit with your legs long. Draw your right shin in toward your chest and place one hand to your knee and the other to your foot. Rock your shin back and forth, opening your hip. When you're ready, reach for the outer edge of your right foot and try to pull your knee toward the mat behind you. Keep the knee hugging into the midline. The next step is to hook the knee to the top of the shoulder.

Plant your hands firmly and start to lift your hips off the mat. Hook your left ankle over your right ankle. This should help you get some lift. Flex the feet a lot and squeeze the inner thighs toward your shoulder and arm. Keep pressing and engaging through the core as you start to tip forward.

And you're in!

End with savasana with the knee propped up on something (a blanket roll-up or bolster). Feel the breath and release.

Yoga in Action: Love in Your Heart

I am living with someone who has a very different life perspective than me. He's a super sweet guy—generous, friendly and interested. He also happened to end a very serious relationship recently. I thought he and I could commiserate in a similar way. Turns out it's not so easy.

Through my steady practice and work on the meditation cushion, I am able to see my breakup as something that happened. Not something that happened to me but as something that occurs when two people are no longer together. We had an amazing relationship. And I still love him because I loved him for 5 years, so why would that suddenly change?

Contrarily, this person is deeply full of hate. He feels extremely angry, bitter, resentful toward his ex-girlfriend and eager to move on. He goes on dates. He tries to make his ex jealous.

Now, I am aware enough to recognize that his actions are a result of suffering. A pretty typical human response to your own suffering is to try and make others suffer so that you'll feel better. The sanskrit word for suffering is dukkha. The pain and anguish of dukkha are the result of the first of the 5 kleshas (hindrances), avidya (ignorance). Suffering is caused by not having all of the information. By thinking that what you perceive as your reality is the reality.

There are many ways to combat the suffering that is the human experience. Practicing yoga allows you to understand your true nature. It brings to light that everything and everyone is interconnected. That suffering does not begin and end with you, and that when you feel deep painful emotions that there is a way out.

Through practicing yoga, we can begin to bring love into our hearts. Even if bad things have happened to us, even if we feel nothing but pain and sorrow, yoga offers us the possibility to lift dukkha and replace it gradually with sukkha (ease). That yoga offers us the possibility that we may move through the world on a foundation of love and ease is enough for me to get on my mat day after day.

Breaking the Karmic Cycle

The ancient yogis believe that through our lifetime(s) we play out a continuous cycle of action and the deep impressions that come from that action. In this way we relive similar scenarios of our lives over and over again. These actions (karmas) and impressions (samskaras) are so deeply rooted in our heart/mind center of consciousness (citta) that they come with us even as we reincarnate. The only way to break the cycle from continuing in the same way in thousands of different scenarios is to recognize that the patterns exist. And then to do a bunch of work by meditating and changing the flow of your energy (prana) so that you may form a healthier approach to the pattern.

This is heady stuff. And know that the above paragraph is very much "pop" yogic philosophy. But it's just a tiny introduction to get you familiar with the idea of:

We act (karma)→ an impression is formed (samskara)→we act again (karma)

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With the second round of our action, we have the choice to act even more from a point of a deeply rooted pattern or to recognize our tendencies and change the course of our action.

Here is a real life example:

I am someone who moves quite frequently. Every couple of years, I pack up all my stuff and forge a new life. Each time I move, I become more independent of my old self, develop new ideas from meeting new people and having new experiences, and discover more and more that I am the only person who can make myself happy. Okay, all well and good.

So, every couple of years, before I move, I come back to my hometown and re-assess. Or, the point would be to re-assess, but what plays out instead is a classic karma/samskara loop. It doesn't matter one bit how much work I've done on myself in my last city, how clear it was becoming to me that I am the center of my own happiness, how healthy I have been eating, none of it matters.

I get home and I start the loop. Go out too often, drink too much, butt-heads with my mom, put off visiting my grandmas, have the impression that someone else is going to be the thing that makes me happy. Over and over. It's like an embarrassing broken record.

And why?

These patterns are down in there deep. The first step to breaking from the norm of your karmic cycle is to recognize that it exists. You have to begin to notice yourself playing out the same situations in a variety of settings.

Examples could be

  1. Your emotional reactions to certain stimuli (are they always the same rise to anger or instant sadness or extreme joy?)
  2. Avoidance of, or head on confrontation to conflict (do you react the same way every time you have a head-to-head?)
  3. Your habits whether they be bad or good (why do you continuously bite your nails or insist on an orderly household or take the same route to work every day?)

It's all about discovering why it is that we do the things we do.

And then maybe you can sit back and watch as, like clockwork, you get back on the same old horse and do it all over again. And perhaps, after you do that fifty or a hundred times, it may become clear that a change is necessary. Changing a habit pattern or a pattern of action is step two. A pretty simple way to approach this step is to try giving up a habit pattern that you know is not in your best interest. And when you find yourself doing it, take a moment of contemplation and try to understand why your habit pattern is getting the best of you. And then maybe you can decide whether or not the habit pattern should continue.

The point is that we have the capability to make changes. But we have to recognize that the process of uncovering our patterns and changing them effectively takes a fair amount of work. And I personally believe that it's worth it.

Next time I go back to my hometown, I can assess all over again.

Practice is the Salve

Thanks to my lovely friend, teacher, and general yoga inspiration Theresa Murphy, I have a title for today's post. My phrasing was "thank goodness for practice" but she took it to the next level. Deep bow for that.

So, those of you who know me probably know that I'm currently in a transitional phase (to put it kindly). My relationship of over five years ended rather suddenly and I was left a bit grasping for how to go on in my life. Being an adventure seeker combined with a big-time family gal, I opted to move several thousand miles away from my current home to live near my sister. So within the span of just two months I have experienced some heartbreak, the challenge of relocating and a whole lot of packing.

You should even practice when you go to India!

The main thing that I have been consistently grateful for throughout this period is my daily time on the mat and the cushion. My practice never even skipped a beat. Through all this personal turmoil I had the ability to find an hour or two of sweetness and stillness every day.

A month ago I went on vacation and saw a good friend of mine. She asked what it is that I'm doing for myself to get through this difficult time. I was at a loss for words, temporarily lost in the thought that perhaps I wasn't doing anything for myself when she interrupted my thoughts to remind me of my practice. It was at that point that I realized how reliant I am on my personal mat time and how much a part of me and my life it truly is. I feel blessed to have a disciplined skill set during this time.

In the future when I look back on this time in my life, I'll be able to do so with integrity and grace because I kept it real for myself. Practice is the salve for me.

Yoga in Action: Finding Joy in the Process

We are so "finished pose" oriented in this country. Nobody wants to be the schmuck who doesn't look like B.K.S. Iyengar in their one-handed handstand, right? It's pretty common to see an intense amount of strain from a student who just isn't ready to go deeper.
I always try to give a few options of steps along the way to a peak pose--something like, "your first option is to work pigeon pose, when you're ready, you can add pigeon with the thigh stretch and for those of you who are quite open in your shoulders, you might try eka pada raja kapotasana."

Inevitably these initial suggestions go unexplored. Everyone jumps directly into what they perceive to be the "final posture." They cram their legs and arms into extreme angles, forgetting entirely to breathe, or to be present or to find any joy in this process of yoga. And this is how injuries happen and this is how people come to the conclusion that they "aren't good at yoga." 

The process of joy in this one took some work.
When I went to India to study with the Mohan's (see a post on that here) I was struggling between an orientation that was largely based in asana (posture) and one that was more interested in the movement of prana (life force/energy). I had just come off a week-long tantra intensive that was very um, intense in the pranic realm. I had ruffled my accrued lifetime of yucky stuff (karma) and wasn't really sure of how to best proceed.

The man himself, Krishnamacharya
The Mohan's are like the most pragmatic yogis that you've ever met. They teach Yoga Therapy as developed by Krishnamacharya. You know that guy? The one who taught all the modern day masters?

Ganesh, the son of the Mohan's, is trained as a medical doctor and an ayurvedic doctor. So yeah, he's pretty into wellness. And he happens to be one of the best teachers I've ever had. This is why--he's incredibly thorough and every single thing that he instructs is based on breath. The reason that you would go to a yoga therapist and not a physical therapist is because yoga connects to the breath and it creates an energy (prana) in the body that you don't get from doing exercises alone.
Breathe! Be present! Find joy in the process!

That's the rub, people. The reason that yoga works isn't because people with flexible hamstrings have more fun (bumper sticker?). It's because yogis who practice regularly just automatically start to slow down and experience more of life. When you base your practice on your natural cycle of breath, and you really really pay attention, you can't help but be more aware. And when you become more aware, it's easier to realize to all of the beautiful things that exist in a day, or in a moment!
And in my experience it becomes easier to appreciate small things at first and then larger things like being alive, and having friends and family and the fascinating world.

The process of yoga is a process of tracking down joy--true inner joy that can only come from you. The next time you're in class and your teacher gives you options, maybe try the first, fully connected to your breath and fully connected to a sense of joy before moving on to step two.

Breaking from Daily Practice

Every time I go on vacation, I suddenly become someone who doesn't meditate. And every single time I feel annoyed with myself and lazy. And I feel less good in my brain and my emotional realm than normal. And I spend all day thinking, "I'll just do this one thing, and then I'll meditate."

So why in the hell can't I bring myself to do it? At home I am exceedingly disciplined, bordering on rigid, making time for meditation no matter what. Which brings the obvious point to mind--it's part of my routine and my day wouldn't be normal or complete without it. But if it makes me feel so sane and so joyful why not just do it?

Me, on vacation, meditating!
Yesterday I returned to my routine from a ten day hiatus, having traveled with my family and friends in Colorado. I did find sporadic opportunities to meditate while there, and some days were as good as any day on my cushion at home. But yesterday I got to sit on my cushion, with my mala, and read the Yoga Sutras and do my chanting, and do the whole routine, free from the eyes and ears of all.
Oh my. I spent the entire time with a giant smile on my face.

But I wouldn't have had quite the same experience, had I not taken a few days break. This break gave me the opportunity to reflect on how much I appreciate my practice and how good it feels as a part of my day. I think taking breaks from any constant thing that we do is a key to enjoyment of that thing. Now this observation may seem like a cop-out from someone who can't bring themselves to meditate while on vacation, however! the point for me is that I did come back to my cushion and will continue to do so regardless of missing days. And when I did come back, it felt like coming home.

Breaking from asana practice is also useful. It can be hard to recognize progress without stepping back to reflect and enjoy your effort. Every week I take at least one or two days to enjoy my morning without practice. Sometimes it's hard to step away, it can make me feel lazy or make my body feel stiff. But most of the time I am grateful to have a break and to enjoy the fruits of my labor with a morning to myself.

This is part of a larger practice of letting go. Accepting what is as it comes and learning to live joyfully regardless. Surrendering to the flow of life when necessary, and coming back to your cushion with regularity and devotion.

Slowing Down with the Breath


 

In the previous post (which you can find here: breath) I talked about several different approaches to thinking about the breath. For the next few posts, I will explore practical applications of some different breathing techniques and styles.

This post is specifically about ways to use the breath for calming, restorative, relaxing effects. If you tend to be someone who has trouble sleeping or relaxing, these techniques are ideal for you.

In slow, low to the ground practices of yoga, the simplest way to establish a calming and ground breath is to elongate the exhale. So if you count the beats of your breath and establish an even ratio, you would then lengthen out the exhale breath. Make sure to keep it sustainable--you don't want to end up with a 12 count exhale so that you're begging for the next inhale breath. I typically work with a 4 beat inhale to a 6 or 8 beat exhale in my personal practice.
Additionally, you can direct the exhale breaths downward, as though you're going to breath out of your pelvic floor. This type of breath corresponds with apana vayu which is a way to move energy toward elimination and grounding. So, in this type of breath, I inhale in and down from my nostrils to the pit of the belly and exhale from the belly out of the pelvic floor. Ten of these breaths will have you grounded in no time.
This breath work is most effective in slower styles, so it's perfect for these styles:

Yin Yoga (super long holds of five to ten minutes with passive stretching; intended to lengthen the connective tissue and to increase the flow of prana in the body)
Restorative (passive, relaxed long-held poses designed to "restore" the body)
Slow Flows (vinyasa styles with slower movement, longer exhales help to stay present and calm)
Meditation (deepening the breath can be effective in remaining present with your meditation)

Breathing this way is also ideal for the start of your savasana. It's a great way to get you tapped in to some grounding slowing energy before you drop in.
It's also perfect for falling asleep or falling back to sleep in the middle of the night. I find that just counting the pulses of my breath is automatically relaxing. Try this: roll on to your right side--this will encourage the flow of breath through the left nostril which is the yin calming side. Focus the breath on the left nostril, so try and breath solely in and out of the left and then use the technique above to lengthen the breath. I personally don't last long at all when I do this style of breath in the middle of the night.

One more thing to mention is a yoga style which combines slower breath with visualization.  
Yoga Nidra is yogic sleep which leaves the body and mind totally refreshed and renewed. It's fantastic. Here's a link to some practices on YouTube: yoga nidra

Happy Practice!

Breath of Life: Pranayama

Breathing like a MoFo
Isn't it kind of awesome that breathing counts as doing yoga? Well...let me be specific. Awareness of your breath and breathing in a purposeful way counts as doing yoga. Hurray!

There are so many components to breath that it can be hard to choose a main focus.

Am I concerned with the anatomical and physiological aspects of the breath?
In that case, I could talk about the movement of the diaphragm, the muscular support from the thoracic cavity, the role of the spine, potential positions of the tongue and throat, oxygenation of the blood and cells, etc.

If I want to focus on breathing in meditation, then I would be concerned with breath as a tool for concentration, controlling the breath to be even and equal, breath retention, lengthening inhales or exhales for achieving certain outcomes; again potential for lengthy and heady dialogue.

I think one of the loveliest things about the breath worth discussing here is its magnificent simplicity coupled with its enormous complexity. Ah yoga, you slay me with your dualities. In its simplest form, breath is just one inhale followed by one exhale. This pattern repeated over and over thousands upon thousands of times is our life-sustaining mechanism. No breath, no life. At its most complex, breathing performs so many functions for the body that it's overwhelming to consider them all.

The ancient yogis were aware of the energetic potential of breath and devised exercises to use it for the purposes of enlightenment. These complex ways to move breath are out of the scope of this current post but the fact that breath has such a capability is certainly worth noting. Using breath in this way--controlling, moving energy, containing--is what is known as pranayama which is the fifth limb of raja yoga.

The breath is one bodily function over which we have control. Think about it, you can't control your heartbeat or your digestion, but you can direct your breath to an area of the body, lengthen or shorten it, be a belly breather or a chest breather, and practice any number of types of pranayama. Isn't that completely fascinating and moves you to get out there and get your breath on?

In the coming posts, I intend to explore some specific ways to breathe so that you may have a more aware, more present and more healthful existence.
See you then.


Momentum

Have you ever noticed that when you consistently come to your mat or your cushion on a daily basis that it gets easier and easier to continue to do so? My teacher Theresa Murphy suggests that you come to your mat everyday, even if it's just for ten minutes.
This past week, I found myself low on the inspiration and drive totem pole. This happens to me often after I have an especially inspired practice or class. I'm not sure what it is....some little part of me feels that I've made an accomplishment and now I can retire.
Perhaps I will retire to India?
So, this past week I felt a bit like I was dragging myself to the mat. And then essentially rolling around on the mat because I couldn't muster up the impetus to practice any sequencing. Each day I'd come up with a list of things that I had to do before practicing (checking my email, drinking tea, folding my laundry, rechecking my email) but each day, even though it felt like a drag, I ended up on my mat and then my meditation cushion.
I do believe that this sort of slow down happens to everyone. It's pretty impossible to be "on" all the time and can actually be quite useful as a time for reflection to not quite "turn off" but at least turn down. Roll around on your mat (actually I was doing a lot of sensory awareness training also known as somatics), keep it low key and appreciate the times when I do feel the urge to do a badass practice with meticulous sequencing.
Being on the backside of last week, I feel grateful for making my way matward, even if only for a few moments. by doing so, I retained my sense of forward momentum and trust fully that inspiration will head my way before too long.

Yoga in Action: Compassion

I read recently that one of the marks of spiritual progress is an increasing sense of compassion toward other beings. I think it's absolutely true. As I become keenly aware of my own Self and inner light, I become increasingly sensitive to the fact that everyone has the same inner light and potential for living as their full Self.

MT bringing compassion to the table 24-7

Simply put, everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to suffer. But we do suffer, as it is the nature of life. Being alive means that inevitably we will have to experience pain. The intensity to which we experience suffering is based on our past karmas (actions) and samskaras (patterns), yet to some degree we all know what it is to suffer.

This is why it is so important to act with compassion. When I get angry with someone, or perceive some offense, I go out of my way to see things from that person's perspective. Maybe they're having a shitty day, maybe their cat died, maybe their relationship ended, etc. Maybe they are acting like an asshole because they are suffering. With this approach toward other beings, I am able to practice deep compassion, maybe even kindness when someone offends me or they act on some pain they are experiencing.

This guy is pretty solid at compassion.


How can you put this in action? Well, the next time someone offends you, take a second to step away from the situation and assess it objectively. Or the next time you notice someone else acting without compassion, notice how it makes you feel. What would you do differently?

The Ravi Ravindra translation of the Yoga Sutras offer this suggestion in chapter 1, verse 33

maitri-karuna-mudita-upeksanam sukha-duhkha-punya-apunya-visayanam bhavanatas-citta-prasadanam

A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous, and impartiality toward wrong-doers.

So there you have it, folks. Straight from the pen of Patanjail, we should practice compassion toward those who suffer. You can practice this on your cushion too. Here's a link to a step-by-step guide to a metta meditation, which can directly enhance your sense of compassion: Metta Meditation

As you can see, the metta style of meditation begins first and foremost with you, yourself. In order to compassionately view the world, you must first be able to treat yourself with the kindness you'd offer to others. You gotta love you first.

Expectations

We are disappointed. Often.
I think we can narrow the cause of our disappointment down to two things:

1. Things change. People die, money goes away, new loud neighbors move in. We don't like things to change, because we really like the way things are. Even if we're miserable, we'd rather maintain the status quo than have things change.

2. We have a lot of expectations for how we want things to turn out. And then, on top of our fantasy idea about the way things should be, we are attached to the outcomes we created in our minds. How silly is that?

Think of the last time that you had an expectation about something and it didn't turn out the way you had hoped or...expected.
Mine was today. I planned to take an amazing bike ride (my first of the season) 7 miles to teach yoga in 80 degree heat. I expected that it would be awesome, like a Coca-Cola commercial. Me all sexy and tan with a big smile and some awesome song in the background. Truth is, I got my ass handed to me. Which was just another way that things could turn out, and did turn out.

Think about the last time you didn't have expectations. What happened?

For me it was going to India. I had no idea what I should expect. I had some relative notions about possible experiences (lots of beggars, lots of trash, foreign language, big cities) but no clear fantasy projection about what I wanted to gain. I didn't know if my program would be any good, if Indians would be nice, if I would be afraid while I was there. And it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

I wasn't afraid the whole time.

I'm not saying this is always the case, but setting yourself up for each and every situation with a grand expectation is a great way to disappoint yourself. Often.
Instead of constantly comparing the way things are to the way you would like things to be, can you instead appreciate things for what they are?


Here's a meditation to help with releasing your attachments and expectations.
Bring your awareness to the crown of your head. Rest attentively there keeping your body relaxed and your breath steady. With each breath, increase your point of awareness at the crown of the head and increase the vibrancy of that feeling. (2 minutes)
Now begin to draw your breath from the crown of your head through the middle of your brain to your heart center on an inhale. Exhale stay present in the heart center. Inhale back up from your heart center, through the middle of the brain to the crown of the head. Exhale up and out of the crown of the head. With each continuing breath, increase the awareness and vibrancy of the points at the crown center and the heart center. (3-4 minutes)
Now, maintaining that same pattern of breath, begin to draw in your goals and desires from the universe from the crown through the middle of your brain to your heart. Exhale let your desires rest in the heart. Inhale moving from the heart to the crown, drawing upward your expectations and any attachment you have to the outcome of your goals and desires. Exhale release them into the universe through the crown of your head. (3-4 minutes)

Try it out. But...try not to have any expectations around it. Let it unfold naturally and be open to the possibilities that it presents.

Niyamas: Isvarapranidhana

Yoga Sutra 2.45 states:
samadhi-siddhir-isvara-pranidhanat

Perfection in samadhi arises from dedication to Ishvara (Ravi Ravindra)
or
Samadhi is experienced from surrendering the results of action to and deeply respecting the inner, universal light of knowledge (Nicolai Bachman)

Okay, it's time for me to get real. When I did my first teacher training and we (I hesitate to say studied) learned about the yamas and niyamas I pretty much had no idea what was going on. My head was so far in the asana clouds that I couldn't see much that had to do with yogic philosophy. But! I was always interested. Just more from a distance. I wanted to know about yoga philosophy, but I didn't necessarily want to live it. As time has progressed, I am pleased to say that my perspective has shifted to allow space for a life based in yoga.

When isvarapranidhana was first explained to me, it was described as "devotion to god." It's a pretty good start, but there is so much more to it. For one thing, isvarapranidhana is part of a three-step process to weaken the kleshas and work toward samadhi. The other two parts are tapas and svadhyaya or the fire created from regular practice and self inquiry; both which are up to you, the practitioner. They are very much something that you have control of, whereas isvarapranidhana is about giving it up to something higher than yourself.

Indians have no problem with this step. They are all about devotion. Where else in the world could you find businesses called "Sri Hanuman Used Tires" or a clothing boutique called "Jaya Laxshmi"? You can't walk a block in India without coming across a statue, burning incense or flowers laid down as puja. It's as though they were put on earth to devote themselves to something greater.

So, that's what Indians do. But it's not necessarily what we as westerners have to do. We are often cynical and jaded about things religious or devotional. I get it! I was raised in a tradition that I no longer practice and have certain angry feelings toward said tradition. Five years ago, I would have been the last person on earth capable of writing a blog post about "devotion to god."

Alright. Here's where it's up for interpretation. Ishvara is not necessarily "god" in the traditional sense. It can also be understood as "the universal teacher" or the light within you capable of connecting to the light present in someone else. Or maybe for you it's the "inner teacher"  or personal sense of something more than you. In other words, you can be a practicing atheist and still identify in some regards with ishvara. It certainly won't be in the traditional sense intended, but likely more of a "giving it up to my inner teacher" idea.

Robot Ganesh
It can be hard to have faith. Or to give away the control to something outside (or deep inside) of ourselves. But it feels so good! So go out there and get your isvarapranidhana on!

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.....

India Part 4 or No Choice but the Present

You know how when you start practicing quieting your mind and suddenly you notice that you are very very rarely quieting your mind? You should maybe try moving to India.
The level of noise and stimulation necessitates an extreme level of attention to the present moment.

Thinking that I might sit and enjoying a few quiet moment on the bus the other day, I proceeded to soften my breath and begin to turn inward and !! honk! mere seconds (moments?) later I am awoken from my reverie. Joke's on me though. I can't be mad or annoyed about the noise. I was supposed to be meditating and quiet my mind, but it was a distraction that brought me back to the present.

The scene of the blog.


Thank you India for this humbling reminder. The present is now and I am fully here.

India Part 3 or Adventureland

Everything is India is an adventure. Truly everything. You are like "okay, now I'm going to walk across the street" so then you think, "alright, so, I have to avoid these cars, and they are definitely driving on different sides of the road then I'm used to, and oh wait! look out for those bikes, and where is that honking coming from and did I just step in shit?" and then somehow with some seriously deep breathing and incredible eye on the present situation you make it across the street. And then a new adventure starts.

Taking the train in India is the mother of all adventures. The equivalent of this adventure in the context of yoga would be something like...the teacher comes in and says, "okay, today we are going to start with one- handed handstand, and from there we'll be doing drop backs, then tick-tocks, and then we are going to do kapalabhati breath for 25 minutes in headstand and then everyone is going to stand as close together as possibly and we'll turn the heat up to 150 degrees and meditate on the word Om.

Yep.

So, we took the train from Madurai to Kanyakumari and it was the most incredible adventure.

For one, we are unfathomably interesting to Indians. So, we're sitting in the train station minding our own business and the next thing you know 50 Indians are talking to us in Tamil and telling us everything they know about the US (John F. Kennedy, Niagara Falls) and inviting us to their house for dinner. Then when the train comes, (we had already decided to ride in the ladies carriage) all the ladies run full speed to the door and start handing their bags in through the windows. There are no such things as lines in India, you just cram into a huddle and try to push your way to the front. And damn if those 14 year old Indians girls aren't strong as hell.
So then once you finally cram yourself on, and I mean cram, and you have to do so really fast or the train will most likely leave, you find yourself next to the bathroom (um) and again in a situation with a lot of cramming. And all the Indians are looking at you and still talking to you in Tamil and Indian grandmas are yelling at you because your bag came close to their face and Veronika's 3/4 length pants show her knees when she sits on the floor, which is utterly unthinkable.


In the middle of this complete pandemonium I had to step back and take a look. It was so wonderful. Here was this complete chaos, a big sweaty mess of ladies and babies all speaking (shouting) at once but everyone was smiling at us. And we were smiling at them. And several got up and insisted upon giving their seats to us. And we took pictures of the babies and watched to Indian countryside whizz by.
I was so pleased. It would have been a breeze for us to book a nice cool bus with a seat and a smooth ride, but we took the adventuresome path. And it turned out to be the most culturally relevant thing that we'd done so far. I have always been pretty good at "taking the leap" and trying adventurous things, but this was one of the best in my life.
With an open mind and heart I move bravely through the Indian lands.

India Part 2 or Yoga Therapy

I have just completed the first two modules of the Svastha Yoga Therapy program. It's directed by Dr. Ganesh Mohan in conjunction with a German orthopedic surgeon and yoga instructor. Ganesh is a trained medical and ayurvedic doctor. His parents Indra and Dr. AG started teaching yoga in the 1970s when AG was a student of Krishnamacharya. You know, that guy? Kind of a famous dude. So, anyway, they are legit.

Both modules were focused on the musculoskeletal system--the first mainly on the lower spine with some emphasis on the lower limbs and the second on the upper spine, neck and shoulders. It was completely awesome.

And about two days in, I realized....this could be a career! Not a "I'm a yoga teacher but I have to have 4 other jobs to pay my bills" but a seriosly real job. And then I remembered! Holy shit. I have a degree in music therapy and I could have a "degree" in yoga therapy. Only five more modules to go.

So that's the plan. Become a yoga therapist. Become a music therapist (via the yoga tradition with a harmonium and all). Help people get better. Sounds like a plan to me.

India Part 1 or Holy Mother (of chaos)

Um. India.
Let's start by saying that I'm currently in the "Detroit" of India. So whatever images that conjures up for you are probably pretty damn similar to reality. People, buses, bicycles, motorbikes, and of course no Indian road would be complete without tons and tons of rickshaws. Which are the focus of this post...

Yesterday we took a rickshaw or "tuktuk" as they're lovingly called from Injambakkam where we are staying, to Chennai. The drive is pretty far because we're living about 30 kilometers south. Yes, I said kilometers...no, I don't totally know how that translates into miles-something like two k's per mile?
The point being that it was far and heavily trafficked and we were riding in an oversized covered trike. Next to buses. And cars. I think that our driver was the most adventuresome tuktuk master in all the land literally weaving in and out of impossibly small spaces for over an hour. I am sure this is what everyone says...in fact, I know this is what everyone says. "My driver was the craziest, etc, etc. But seriously.
This guy.


Me, I was utterly panicked for the first, oh hour or so. I was gripping the seat, I was gripping Veronika, I was gripping for dear life. But finally (after a seriously tense hour) two things occurred to me.
The first was that I probably wasn't going to die (most importantly) and the second was the utter sense of peace with which this guy managed the incredible stimulus around him. The whole situation reminded me of when you first start yoga and you're pretty sure that you might die and there are so many things going on and you're just gripping all of your muscles for dear life, but pretty soon (most likely in savasana) you recognize the incredible possibility for peace which arises out of your practice.


In the tuktuk, after I remembered that I have breath, and then remembered that I have breath awareness, I began to be able to ease up on the intensity of my gripping. And bit by bit I opened up this breath awareness to a greater awareness of what was actually happening. Better said I opened up to a different possible reality.
And then finally I allowed our driver's sense if peace to eventually become my own sense of peace, things got a lot more enjoyable. So that's my lesson from Chennai; finding serenity amid the beautiful commotion. Accepting this new flow of life to which I am being exposed and learning to find the underlying possibility of peace.