Bhakti as a practice, or using yoga’s texts as a “prop” during down times

Since I got back from my assessment in November, I have to admit my personal asana practice has been on the decline. Holidays, family, my brother and his wife having a baby, caregiving, and work have all contributed, but ultimately it comes down to my lack of discipline and motivation. My mentoring teachers have been patient with me and are encouraging to “get me back on the horse” in preparing for my retake.

One thing that has been keeping me going is reading the texts. Some days I will study the sutra-s, other days I will read an Upanishad and reflect on its deepness. I have been reading the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita as well.  The sutra-s speak at length about practice and many methods to attain “yoga” with a capital Y.

I.23 Īśvara-praṇidhānād vā, Or [samadhi is attained] by devotion with total dedication to God [Isvara], is a sutra that always comes back to me. Iyengar, from my studies, puts a lot of emphasis on how the last three niyama-s: Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana correlate to Karma yoga, Jnana yoga, and Bhakti yoga respectively. From what I have been reading and have experienced it seems like Bhakti is the highest practice.

I don’t think there is a good word in English for Bhakti. It is commonly defined as “love and devotion,” but I don’t think those terms give it the right context. I feel there is a strange tugging a sincere practitioner experiences towards an Ishta Devata, and then giving that Devata one’s attention. Take Ganesh for example. One learns that he is the first Ishta Devata to honor and that he clears obstacles in your path. One starts to utter the mantra “Om Gam Ganapataye Namah” first causally. Then one notices one’s life start to change. Then the mantra is uttered more often and with more conviction. More good stuff happens. Then it becomes a daily ritual. When one is ready, more Istha Devata-s start to come into your life.

Hanuman brings joy. In the Ramayana, he appears to Rama when his wife was kidnapped by Ravana. Hanuman shows how devotion works by using all of his siddhi-s (powers) to help Rama first locate his wife, then battle to rescue her. He also appears to Sita when she is downcast and gives her hope. In dark times in one’s life, one can utter “Om Hum Hum Hanumate Phat”, or listen to the Hanuman Chalisa, and joy comes the practitioner the way that it was brought to Rama in his time of desperation, and Sita in her time of distress.

I am pulling myself up by the bootstraps. I am in less-than-optimal physical shape, but am moving more toward what I need to do to pass my upcoming assessment this fall. But in many ways I feel my practice is stronger than ever in terms of Bhakti. I am coming to realize that Bhakti transcends the body and mind and keeps one pointed in the direction of yoga. I will keep you all updated.

Many blessings!



Karma yoga, grandpa style

While searching for some good cooking videos on Youtube, my wife came across this channel. It has a simple premise: an elderly Indian gentleman cooks a lot of food and gives it to orphans and underprivileged people. His recipes are simple. In some cases he just makes french fries or ramen noodles. What I like about these videos is that he cooks outdoors using simple pots and pans over an open fire which he lights himself. He has a small knife (which seems a bit dull) and painstakingly cuts massive amounts of vegetables.

Arumugam is “Grandpa” who lives in Coimbatore in western Tamil Nadu, India. His son Gopinath created the Youtube channel filming his dad cooking traditionally, packing up the food, and delivering it to orphanages.

Each video is like a meditation. Watching Arumugam slows you down. Watching him wash the vegetables out in a field with water from a jug, prepping the food, lighting the fire, then cooking is a delight for the senses. For those who like to cook fast, watching this man’s knife skills will drive you nuts. But slow and steadily, he will dice up a whole sack of onions sitting in a malasana-type posture. Any yoga teacher can’t help to notice how good his posture is and how easily he sits for what appears to be hours at at time.

My favorite videos are the ones where he cooks simple dishes like ramen or french fries. That’s all he makes. He puts a lot of love into these dishes. With his french fries he mixes them with some type of paprika seasoning which looks delicious. The reason why I like the simple food ones is because it shows that you don’t need to be elaborate when you help people, and any thing you can do for others yields large rewards. The smiles on the kids’ faces when they are eating are priceless.

To see Arumugam’s repertoire of dishes is astounding. He even has a dish he makes out of a stingray. There are a lot of traditional Indian preparations including and a variety of Biryani recipes. Much like a post I did a few years ago on Chef Pasquale, these are not so much “how to videos” as much as they show someone cooking soulful food from their culture. In this case demonstrating karma yoga in an unmistakably clear way.

Reflecting on Mandukya Upanisad in a seemingly transient world

In light of this weekend’s false alarm of eminent nuclear attack, it makes one contemplate our brief existence in this embodiment and in this time. For serious yoga practitioners, the purusha, one’s soul is seen as permanent. Everything else is prakriti, or transient nature. The lila and maya, our dance with this illusion plays itself out every day.

I saw a funny meme on Facebook the other day. It said “maybe actually plants are farming us, giving us oxygen until we eventually decompose and they can consume us.” I am finding it funny that people differentiate between vegetarian and meat eaters. With my brief experience in gardening, I am realizing that plants are perhaps the most voracious meat eaters around. Browse any garden section and you see “bone meal” “fish meal” “chicken manure” etc. used as fertilizers. All fertilizers have three numbers that correspond to the percentage of nitogren, phosphorous, and potassium. There are also specialized fertilizers with trace minerals and other elements.

One realizes that we are made of the same elements of all that which surrounds us. Yoga philosophy gives us the panchamahabhutas (five gross elements) of Earth, water, fire, air, and space. As simplistic as that sounds for the scientific mind, the ancient texts state that the same elements in us are the same elements throughout the cosmos. Not so simple after all, but rather complex and mind expanding.

The main idea I have taken from the Mandukya Upanisad, is that OM is the Alpha and the Omega of the Universe. It is all pervasive and timeless. Since the Upanisad is so short, I will share it here. In 12 terse verses, The Mandukya Upanishad defines the Pranava, or sacred syllable OM:

1. OM! This Imperishable Word is the whole of this visible universe. Its explanation is as follows: What has become, what is becoming, what will become – verily, all of this is OM. And what is beyond these three states of the world of time – that too, verily, is OM.

2. All this, verily, is Brahman. The Self is Brahman. This Self has four quarters.

3. The first quarter is Vaiśvānara. Its field is the waking state. Its consciousness is outward-turned. It is seven- limbed and nineteen-mouthed. It enjoys gross objects.

4. The second quarter is taijasa. Its field is the dream state. Its consciousness is inward-turned. It is seven-limbed and nineteen-mouthed. It enjoys subtle objects.

5. The third quarter is prājña, where one asleep neither desires anything nor beholds any dream: that is deep sleep. In this field of dreamless sleep, one becomes undivided, an undifferentiated mass of consciousness, consisting of bliss and feeding on bliss. His mouth is consciousness.

6. This is the Lord of All; the Omniscient; the Indwelling Controller; the Source of All. This is the beginning and end of all beings.

7. That is known as the fourth quarter: neither inward- turned nor outward-turned consciousness, nor the two together; not an indifferentiated mass of consciousness; neither knowing, nor unknowing; invisible, ineffable, intangible, devoid of characteristics, inconceivable, indefinable, its sole essence being the consciousness of its own Self; the coming to rest of all relative existence; utterly quiet; peaceful; blissful: without a second: this is the Ātman, the Self; this is to be realised.

8. This identical Ātman, or Self, in the realm of sound is the syllable OM, the above described four quarters of the Self being identical with the components of the syllable, and the components of the syllable being identical with the four quarters of the Self. The components of the Syllable are A, U, M.

9. Vaiśvānara, whose field is the waking state, is the first sound, A, because this encompasses all, and because it is the first. He who knows thus, encompasses all desirable objects; he becomes the first.

10. Taijasa, whose field is the dream state, is the second sound, U, because this is an excellence, and contains the qualities of the other two. He who knows thus, exalts the flow of knowledge and becomes equalised; in his family there will be born no one ignorant of Brahman.

11. Prājña, whose field is deep sleep, is the third sound, M, because this is the measure, and that into which all enters. He who knows thus, measures all and becomes all.

12. The fourth is soundless: unutterable, a quieting down of all relative manifestations, blissful, peaceful, non-dual. Thus, OM is the Ātman, verily. He who knows thus, merges his self in the Self – yea, he who knows thus.

Om śantih; śantih; śantih



Teaching yoga while the world goes nuts


I teach an ongoing Saturday morning class from 8 to 9 am at the base of Diamond Head in Honolulu. I tend to keep a pretty strict no cell phone policy, and my long time students adhere and enforce it to newcomers. Today, Hawai’i residents had the horror of receiving this alert just shortly after 8 am:


Growing up in the 80s, I can remember a good part of my teenaged years were spent wondering if they were going to drop the bomb at the height of the Cold War between the then Soviet Union and US. I haven’t really had this feeling since the Berlin Wall came down that nuclear annihilation was a possibility. This gave me chills.

Fortunately, it was an error. More fortunately, I did not get the alert during class, nor did my students because of the said phone policy. My class actually went well today for my seven attendees. I could see all my student’s faces in Savasana being very peaceful. How could we have known that the outside would be still be in absolute panic as the word that it was a false alarm did not come until about 45 minutes after the alert?

Others were not as fortunate. Video came in of a man trying to get his young daughter to go into a manhole in the street as she cried that she did not want to go in to it and wondered why. Also, University of Hawai’i students were running around campus in a panic like a cheesy 50s armageddon sci-fi movie. It was bedlam for many.

Today I had to have a conversation with my wife about what we would do if we were at our job sites during the week if this happened. Basically, call to say “I love you” and get to shelter, hoping for the best. If we were at home? Fill up the bathtubs with fresh water and get my mother in law on her wheelchair and go to the middle of the house where impact many not be as devastating? Not to mince words, a scary fucking conversation I wish to never have to have again.

In this age of heightened tension, I feel we as yoga practitioners have a duty to work for peace. That can come in many different forms. I am grateful that my class spared my students an hour of unnecessary panic from a stupid bureaucratic mistake. I feel we need to have higher standards for our elected officials who have seemed to get us into this mess on both a local and national level. As 2018 is an election year, I feel we can make a difference if we feel things are not running as well in this country as it could. So perhaps another way to work for peace is to make you way to the voting booth in November…if we can make it until then.


Happy New Year! Startin’ with the garden

As many of my readers are probably having to wear a heavy coat now, I’d like to start the new year right, with a few pictures of warmth from my garden. It is year two of my Fukuoka-style of gardening. An unusually wet Hawai’i December has yielded wonderful results.


Chilly? How about Chile? This pepper plant barely survived last year’s summer. Now it is producing long delicious capsaicin-rich Cayennes. I think these are the kind that Chef Pasquale uses and calls “Oh yeah babys.”


The tall grass is a natural trellis for these snap peas. Once they reach the “roof” of this table-like trellis my wife and I put up last year they start going wild. Can you spot the camouflaged gecko on the bamboo? Those guys help me control the unwanted pests in the garden.


This patch of bush beans produced so many green beans I was able to make a dish for Christmas dinner with family visitors.


Across the yard our Meyer lemon tree is staring to produce its first bounty. These in time will swell up to full sized lemons. Enough to give away to family and friends.

I don’t want to bore you with the rest of the produce, but there is also a pumpkin, eggplant, bitter melon, saluyot, and daikon sprouting in this space.

The only work I did in the garden was throw seeds and trim the grass with a hand sickle. Nature has taken care of the rest of the labor. Stay tuned and happy new year!


Post holiday reflections

It’s a nice rainy day after Christmas in Hawai’i. Probably the closest we’ll ever get to a White Christmas. A good day to reflect, sip tea, and write. According to my jyotish calendar, I am right smack in the middle of Sade Sati, or a seven-and-a-half year period of intense personal challenges. Given the way things have gone in the past two years, I’d say that I am starting to have more belief in my chart. That being said, Sade Sati is supposed to conquer one’s ego and strengthen one’s resolve.

There are certain remedies for Sade Sati, namely an intense yoga practice, mantra-s and songs for Shani who represents Saturn (the astrological placement during Sade Sati) and Hanuman who represents intense devotion and resolve. Also doing good deeds for the less fortunate also decreases the malefic effects of the current planetary placements.

In this morning’s early class I had one student show. She braved the rain and post holiday hustle and bustle to make to class. Small classes are a gift for teachers as they allow you to explain things in greater detail, use more props if needed, and even discuss more philosophical aspects of yoga.

I was able to help her with her pronunciation during the seated invocation to Patanjali and give more of an overview on why we chant this before class. I taught this student how to use a wall rope for adho mukha svanasana for spine traction, and also hang in rope sirsasana. We did supported sarvangasana with a chair and cross bolster setu-bandha. It was a supported, inverted sequence to take the edge off the frenetic holidays.

Now that the pressure is temporarily off for assessment, I feel I can teach with a bit more freedom and go back to poses that I have neglected teaching for a while–the basic salt and pepper poses that season a good practice. There will be plenty of time this year for the more exotically spiced asanas.

My good friend Sonia emailed me an audio recording she took on her phone of Geetaji’s inspiring speech during Guruji’s 99th birthday celebration last week. Geetaji pointed out that Mr. Iyengar never had to get a certificate, he just had devotion to his teacher and his teachings. He just had his practice which spoke for itself. Geeta said that one day Krishnamarcharya’s granddaughter asked Iyengar whom he considered his best student. She said Iyengar replied “Sundararaja.” Sundararaja was his best student. Now if I can only find this “Michael” guy and teach him a thing or two…

Happy belated birthday to Geeta and Mr. Iyengar! Thank you for all that you teach us.

Back to work

Hi all! It’s been a while since I posted and it’s been one whirlwind of a month. I returned recently from my trip to New Mexico via Los Angeles where I took my Junior Intermediate 1 assessment. Unfortunately, I did not pass the whole assessment. The good news is that I aced the written test with a 92.5 and passed the demonstrated practice which I was most concerned about. However, the next day I did not make the grade on the teaching portion.

The nice thing is that if you don’t pass you get to schedule a phone meeting with the lead assessor. I won’t share who just because I don’t want to have to ask permission and it is a personal thing to boot. However, I called this person who gave me wonderful feedback. It felt like a nice hour long chat with a friend who has a lot of knowledge and experience in Iyengar yoga.

The feedback I got is similar to what my mentoring teachers tell me I need to work on. In fact I really thought I had this stuff down, it just didn’t come out right on the day of the assessment. The Iyengar system is no cakewalk. You can’t just write a poem or essay about how great yoga is and expect to pass. You have to give it your all an then some. Even then, as was my case, is still not enough to advance.

The good news is that I am still a certified Iyengar teacher and if I choose, I can try again next year and only have to do the teaching portion (40 minutes to teach 6 poses from your syllabus with 10-12 students). I also have another year to get these poses down even better.

On an even brighter note, this past week my younger brother and his new wife gave birth to a healthy newborn boy. I look forward to being an uncle and maybe teaching my nephew yoga as he gets older.

The featured image is the New Mexico sky in Rio Rancho at sunset.