Today is an auspicioius day: Patanjali Jayanti

Patanjali

Today is Patanjali Jayanti where the teachings of sage Patanjali are celebrated. Patanjali codified yoga into 196 terse aphorisms. He took the vast teachings of yoga and condensed them so they can be recited as an oral tradition and passed on from teacher to student generation to generation. To study and live the Sutras will allow your practice to have a sense of direction and give you guidance on dealing with all life circumstances.

I saw that there will be a special class at RIMYI where the entire Yoga Sutras will be recited along with 108 names of Patanjali. It sounds like it will be a very special event.

This is one of my favorite versions of the invocations by Neel Kulkarni. His chanting is comforting and emotional. Just beautiful. See the words below to follow along. Happy Patanjali Jayanti!

Invocation to Patanjali

Yogena cittasya padena vacam

malam  sarirasya ca vaidyakena

yopakarottam  pravaram muninam

patanjalim  pranajaliranato’smi

abahu purusakaram  

sankha cakrasi dharinam

sahasra sirasam  svetam pranamami patanjalim.

 

Pratyahara, the forgotten limb of Yoga

sanmukhi mudra

Pratyahara, detachment from the senses, is the necessary condition for the inner work of Yoga. I reflect often on the fifth limb of Yoga and even try to cultivate it whenever possible. However, I feel this limb takes a beating in the West. Through advertising, music, and technological gadgetry, Western culture is fixated on maxing out our senses instead of withdrawing from them. This is even true for Yoga classes of modern times.

I am in no position to comment on other practices as I am still quite a novice of my own. That being said, there is a mass fixation on the “playlist” for yoga teachers in modern yoga classes. It is even taught in some teacher trainings how to compose a mix of songs to motivate students. I have never read in the Sutras that in order for one to teach, one needs to be a DJ.

I have to admit that in the beginning, music is fun with Asana. I have had many home sessions listening to John Coltrane and found myself more deeply absorbed in certain parts of A Love Supreme than I would have if I were casually listening to it in my car. And that’s exactly the problem with music and Asana: you are doing music, not Yoga.

Pratyahara is detachment from the senses (the repeating of the phrase here is deliberate). This is what separates Yoga from Crossfit. This is what makes Yoga the internal practice that used to attract people. Now people are attracted to the practice because of the physical benefits. In fact so many people are attracted to Yoga because of the physical benefits, it’s hard to convince them that there are other parts. Even Pranayama (without Asana) would be barely tolerable at the corner Lululemon free Sunday class. A teacher who taught that would have students walking out in droves and wouldn’t be invited back to teach the next week to make room for the Power Turbo X2000-Yoga Workfit™ guy.

The world is changing rapidly. We are bombarded with horrendous images on our TV and computer screens from events around the world. We are bombarded with stimuli on our cell phones. In traffic, we are bombarded with stimuli from our car stereo and from billboards. At the traffic light people text. While driving people still text. Then we get to Yoga class. Playlist.

When I was in teacher training, the trainees all had an interesting discussion at lunch about what we say to our students while they are in Savasana. Some of the teachers said they talked about the breath. Some talked about linking the practice to the mind. All are acceptable. I got laughed out of the discussion when I said I don’t say a word. I make the adjustments that need to be made, and then shut my trap for ten minutes. As unpopular as it may seem, I am allowing my students ten minutes to at least get a glimpse of Pratyahara.

Yoga is subversive to Western culture. It is not about feeding the consciousness more noise. It is about learning to be deeply with oneself for extended periods of time until the practitioner connects with the true self. I wrote about a study that shows people would rather receive an electric shock than to be alone for 15 minutes with no cellphone or magazines. By blasting people with music in Yoga class, we are just reinforcing this low grade ADHD that permeates our culture.

Music has it’s place, don’t get me wrong. It is quite sacred for me. I collect vinyl records and spent a good mint on a new Benz cartridge. I often spend hours in the record store flipping through LPs like I did when I was a kid. Now I just keep music sacred and separate from my other sacred activity: Yoga.

 

The Yoga of not doing Yoga

 

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It has been a rough few weeks. My father-in-law has not been able to eat food without throwing it back up. At first we tried a doctor visit. “You have acid reflux, try Priolsec.” A few days  later we were on our way to the ER at 2 am (I had to teach yoga class at 8 that morning.) He was admitted. Tests were done. He had IVs and tubes. I thought this was the end. I struggled to teach the morning class, but got through it.

As it turned out he had a rare esophageal disorder called achalasia where the sphincter muscle of the esophagus is so tight that food cannot go through. He lost about 15 pounds in the past month. He was discharged with a feeding tube until the hospital could schedule surgery a week or so out.

Not so easy. The feeding tube became immediately clogged when my wife tried to feed his medication through it. The medication would not pulverize in a mortar and pestle fine enough to fit through the tube. We were soon on our way back to the ER. The feeding tube was removed, and he was given the okay to eat a liquid diet (jell-o, broth, water).

All was calm for the moment. My wife took FMLA to watch him until the surgery and I worked my two jobs. I was going to go to my Wednesday night class with my mentoring teacher Ray, then I got a phone call. My father-in-law was en route to the hospital again. My wife was driving him and was at her wits end. She also was taking care of her mother who is a stroke survivor. At that point I went to meet them at the hospital. I sent her back home for respite and to better take care of her mother.

I sat with my father-in-law for a few hours while he was in the ER. I was able to help him better communicate with the doctor (he is hard of hearing and just yells at people) and was able to have my wife involved in the discussion via cell phone. In between tests, we talked about his life. He is an interesting man. Former Green Beret, retired labor and delivery nurse, married a Japanese woman, moved to Hawai’i and bought a boat.

That few hours drew my father-in-law closer. He was able to tell me how he wanted my wife and I to take care her mother if he passes. It was by not doing Yoga that night that allowed me to truly help my father-in-law. It was by doing Yoga all these years that helped me stay calm and supportive for him in this serious time of need. The Bhagavad Gita talks about finding liberation by doing one’s duty. My duty, my Yoga, was not to be in asana class, it was to be sitting at my father-in-law’s bedside that night.

When all was said and done, doctors did a procedure where they botox-ed his esophagus to loosen the muscle. A few days later he ate his first meal in a long time that he did not have to vomit up. He has gained a pound or two. My wife finally went back to work. And now I can continue my Yoga practice.

Reflections a year after becoming Iyengar certified

post assessment face

The face above is one that had just come out of the last portion of the rigorous two day Introductory II assessment for Iyengar yoga certification. Exhausted, hopeful, anxious and relieved, I could barely walk out of the venue site in Lemont, PA. I would find out the next day that I passed. That was a year ago.

It is also a face that represents four grueling years of teacher training. When I started the teacher training program, there were 17 of us. Only three finished the program with certification (one moved away and got certified through another instructor). Our program included five and a half hours of weekly classroom time and one weekend a month teacher training classes on both Saturday and Sunday. In the month before our assessment we met every weekend and would practice on our own outside the studio at a student’s home.

We trainees had to stand in the back of the room and observe. When we were competent enough, we could assist. Our teachers would allow us to teach one pose to the class we were observing. We would always get a lesson after the class: How do you teach this to someone with a knee injury? How do you teach this to someone with a back injury? What if they are too weak to do it this way? What is an alternate pose if someone has high blood pressure? Those and many more questions are ones we had to work through and show mastery in before our teachers would allow us to apply for certification.

I am grateful for my teachers Ray and Shelley for being so hard on us. Without them, I would not have had the toughness to get through the rigors of the assessment process. I have to say that there were many times that I questioned their methods. I often thought they were too strict. But I stuck with it until the end.

In the year that followed, I have reacquainted myself to my devoted wife and have made more time for her. There have been many changes in the Iyengar community. Earlier this year, Guruji received the Padma Vibhushan award in India. For me that validated his dedication to Yoga and its spread throughout the world. He was also in a good position to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Then, on an August afternoon, I heard the news that Guruji had passed. I immediately called my teacher Ray who confirmed it. It was a very sad time.

Luckily, there was a workshop taught by Laurie Blakeney at the time. She is a very long time student of Guruji. Her teaching respected the heaviness of the time, but made it light and healing for the O’ahu Iyengar community. Despite hearing of Guruji’s passing when she got off the plane in Honolulu, she was still able to provide a first class workshop.

Blakeney’s toughness to teach jet lagged in the midst of bad news comes from the same toughness that was taught in our four year apprenticeship. It is now dawning on me the value of going through such a difficult process. Like the pressure that makes a diamond out of coal, this process brought out the inner luminosity that was dormant in us.

Blessings to my wife, Guruji, my teachers, and the Iyengar community for this experience.

Why do we use Sanskrit when teaching Yoga?

sanskrit

As Iyengar instructors, the very first thing we teach students about the pose is its name in Sanskrit. If the word is complicated like say Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana*, we break it down piece by piece. Why in the world do we do this? Are we yoga snobs? Why not just say an approximation of the pose in English leave out the Sanskrit, and be happy with that?

First of all, Yoga originated in India at a time when Sanskrit was widely used. It is the original language of all the major yoga texts including the Bhagavad Gita and the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Just like French is the language of fine cuisine, Sanskrit is the language of Yoga. That may not matter to someone who just takes Yoga at the boutique studio down the street, but if you travel around the world you will be grateful to hear the familiar Sanskrit words that you have learned from your Iyengar instructor.

Yoga has had quite a journey from its origins. When B.K.S. Iyengar first started teaching Yoga, he said he had very few students. Yoga was viewed at the time like something one’s eccentric grandfather did many years ago in adhering to antiquated traditions. That is when Iyengar decided to take his Yoga teachings to the West which was hungry and ripe for his teachings. While spreading Yoga in the West, Iyengar stayed rooted in India to recharge Yoga as a cultural treasure for its country of origin. Just months before his passing, Iyengar was recognized by the President of India for his work in Yoga. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently proposed an International Yoga Day.

Instructors who take the extra pains to learn the Sanskrit words present themselves as more serious about the subject. When I hear what some people are calling Asana-s, I feel a twinge in my belly. Wild Thing, Happy Baby, and Chair Pose have no basis in Sanskrit, they are words that come from the fitness-yoga craze that is the majority of yoga we see now in the West. I got berated one time when I corrected a person who was calling Utkatasana “Chair pose.” I pointed out that it is translated as “awkward or fierce pose.” It surprised me how strong of a reaction people had about saying something incorrectly.

pranava

As Western practitioners, we must respect Yoga’s origin and language. Sanskrit is beautiful and easily lends itself to chanting and devotion. Sanskrit has a vibrational quality that transcends merely speaking a language to communicate. Yoga Sutra 1.27 states that the Pranava, or the sound “OM” is the source of all sounds of the universe and Yoga Sutra 1.29 states that deep meditation on this sound will lead to one’s realization. What English word does all that?

*Triangamukaikapada Paschimottanasana is translated as three parts facing one leg intense stretch of the West side (posterior) part of the body pose. It looks like this in stage I.

triangmukhaikapada paschimottonasana

 

 

How many times does it take to do an Asana before mastery is gained?

paripurna matseyandrasana

Early in my yoga practice, I was in my late 20s and fairly fit. I had picked up a copy of Light On Yoga and rushed toward the poses at the back of the book. Many disasters were had. Because I was youthful and full of ego, I went full on to trying to master the book.

Now it seems the more I do yoga, the more I go toward the front of the book to re-learn many principles that were glossed over 15 years ago. Then I realize those principles I had issues in the beginning have recurred tenfold into my later years of practice, very much like in fractal geometry where one simple pattern blows up into a chaotic and overwhelming shape.

fractal geometry

My original Yoga teacher was named Daws. He was in his late 60s at the time and did yoga at Kapiolani Park in Honolulu. He still teaches there. He would often talk at length while we were in our asanas. One of the things he said has always stuck with me regarding how often we should practice Yoga:

Once a week…is not enough

Twice a week…is not enough

Three times a week…is not enough

Four times a week…is not enough

Five times a week…is not enough

Six times a week…is not enough

Seven times a week…is not enough

It’s never enough. It’s never enough.

This is a good way to look at each asana. Every day our body changes. Every day there is something going on in our life that creates our body to move a little differently. Our asanas keep evolving too. I remember a time when I could not get my hand to the floor in Utthita Parsvakonasana. Now it is normal for me. However, there are days when I need a block or even a chair.

Gaining mastery in asana does not mean just attaining it. You see all the yoga selfies out there. If you are young and flexible, asanas are a piece of cake. It is the yearly continued practice that peel off layers and layers that make for asana mastery in the truest sense.

In the Iyengar yoga system we are taught there are three parts of the asanic journey: the Bahiranga, the Antaranga, and the Antaratma.

Bahiranga is just the superficial journey of attaining the shape of the pose, knowing the Sanskrit name, learning how to get in and out of the pose safely. This is the yoga you see in selfies no matter how “advanced” the pose looks.

Antaranga is when the asana becomes internalized. Yoga Sutra 2.46 says “prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam” or the asana attainment is reached when there is effortless effort with contemplations. This occurs when the asana is practiced so much, that the self begins to dissipate and the form of the asana starts to become the aspirant.

Antaratma is the part of the journey where the Atma, or soul is doing the yoga, and the ego is completely eradicated. This is what we should aspire to in asana.

So to address the question of how many times one must do an asana before it is mastered, the short answer is it’s never enough. It’s never enough.