Monthly Archives: September 2014

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 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently led the UN and the world in the first 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.

Yama and Niyama in Asana

I have been on a Yama/Niyama theme lately. That is because Yama/Niyama are the true foundation of Yoga. As Iyengar says in Light on Yoga, “Practise of asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” In the West, we have fetishized asana as “yoga” without giving the other limbs their due.

There is a popular misconception that the eight limbs are to be done sequentially. However, Iyengar taught that the limbs can be done concurrently. Based on concepts from Prashant Iyengar’s The Alpha & Omega of Utthita Trikonasana, I will present examples on using Yama/Niyama with Asana. Here is BKS Iyengar in Utthita Trikonasna:

iyengar triangle

This is Iyengar’s pose in his prime. His arms are perfectly straight, his legs are perfectly straight, and there are three distinct triangles within his pose. In his pose, he is practicing Ahimsa (non-harming) by doing the correct actions and not injuring himself. He is practicing Satya (truthfulness) by having proper form. He is practicing Asteya (non-stealing) by not allowing one side of his body to do the work that should be done by the other side of the body. He is practicing Brahmacarya (continence) by presenting the asana in a pure manner. He is practicing Aparigraha (non-greediness) by sharing his practice with the world.

Meanwhile, he is practicing Saucha (Cleanliness) by presenting himself as with good hygiene. He is practicing Santosa (Contentment) by the placid look on his face and he calmness of his asana. He is practicing Tapas (Intensive spiritual effort) by his dedication to the pose and getting his hand to the floor without distorting any other part of the asana. He is practicing Svadhyaya (Self Study) by examining his pose and redoing what needs to be corrected. And lastly he is practicing Isvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God) by “sealing” the pose and transforming into three triangles right before your eyes.

Isvara Pranidhana is what I aspire to in all of my poses. It is the true giving of myself to the practice in Asana. Iyengar often said “My body is my temple and asanas are my prayers.” He was referring to Isvara Pranidhana.

In modern yoga, people seem to be fixated on yoga as some sort of “workout.” While asanas do tone and strengthen the muscles and bring health, doing asana without the other limbs is much like carrying around a wheel and thinking it’s a car.

People are afraid to say that yoga is a spiritual practice because of their own religious views. But yoga transcends religion. It is what religion wants to be, but is yoga is not bound by politics. Yoga leaves the “religion” to the individual self to decide.

When asana is done for the ego, you can tell in the face that Isvara Pranidhana is absent. There is strain when we push the body where it is not ready to go.

yoga strain

When asana is practiced with all of the yamas and niyamas, this is what the face looks like.

eka pada sirsasana

In your asana practice this week, try to see if you are practicing all the Yamas and Niyamas in the poses. That in itself can be a lifelong practice.

Yama and Niyama and the Ten Commandments

10 commandments

When I was getting my masters in psychology years ago, I wrote a great deal of my papers about yoga. I took a class called “Spiritual Dimensions of Counseling” and remember writing a paper comparing and contrasting the Yama and Niyama to the Ten Commandments of Judeo Christianity. I can remember the power of seeing the two side by side and seeing how both are more alike than different. So you can see for yourself:

yoga sutras

Yama (Restraints)

  • Ahimsa (non-harming)
  • Satya (truthfulness)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (chastity)
  • Aparigraha (non-greediness)

Niyama (Observances)

  • Saucha (Cleanliness)
  • Santosha (Contentment)
  • Tapas (Intensive spiritual effort)
  • Svadhyaya (Study of the self and scriptures)
  • Ishvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God)

The Ten Commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

As you can see, there are striking similarities particularly in basic ethical conduct of not stealing and not harming. It is also an interesting choice of wording of “You shall have no other gods before Me” opposed to “Complete surrender to God.” I am not here to make any assumptions or commentary aside from just presenting the two side by side.

On a historical note, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras in 400 CE, but used what had been practiced for centuries and simply condensed and refined it. Yama and Niyama are in the second book of the Yoga Sutras. The Ten Commandments were written around 1500 BCE which makes them older than the yoga sutras. The Bhagavad Gita, which had many concepts that were adapted to the yoga sutras was written at the same time as the Ten Commandments around 1500 BCE. Again, this is not a contest of which is older. Without judgement or preconceived notions, it is just interesting to see the timeline of these two very similar psycho/spiritual/ethical codes.

 

Grand champions of the Yama/Niyama competition

I have gotten an unusually large response for my Yama/Niyama contest. I made up this competition in response to the ubiquitous #30daychallenges I see every day on WordPress. It is also a spin off on all the Asana competitions out there. To follow Yama/Niyama is what separates those who practice yoga from those who are just merely flexible and athletic. To illustrate how difficult this challenge is, I will list some past champions.

gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi. Extolled Satya (truthfulness), and Ishvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God). He crippled the occupying British to rubble with Ahimsa (non-violence) alone. Martin Luther King, Jr. would later adopt his tactics to springboard the US Civil Rights Movement.

iyengar sage

B.K.S. Iyengar. Used supremely intensified Tapas and took yoga from obscurity to a worldwide practice during his lifetime. If you practice yoga today, you have this man to thank. He refined and used asanas to cure ailments that medical science had given up on. Iyengar lived deeply in all limbs of yoga.

Ramana Maharsi

Ramana Maharshi. Practiced painstaking Svadhyaya with self inquiry. He asked one powerful question: Who Am I?

patanjali

Sage Patanjali. Codified yoga into 196 terse aphorisms. Also mastered grammar and medicine in addition to yoga. Originally wrote down the Yama and Niyamas.

The NFL, FIFA, NBA, and NHL have it’s superstars, I have mine. Good luck in your competition!

30 day Yama/Niyama challenge

 

adisesa

Every day I come across some type of 30 day “yoga” challenge. Either they are a challenge to practice asana each day, or accomplish a pose in that time frame. One lady even wanted to try to do the splits (Hanumanasana) in 30 days. After about day 15 she stopped posting altogether. I wonder if her hamstrings gave out. People even have asana competitions where they are judged on their postures. I felt I wanted to propose a harder challenge–a yama/niyama competition!

Here are the rules:

1) Can you go 30 days without causing physical or mental harm to anyone?

2) Can you go 30 days by telling the complete truth no matter what?

3) Can you go 30 days without stealing anything?

4) Can you go 30 days of regarding others as human beings instead of male/female bodies?

5) Can you go 30 days free from greed?

6) Can you go 30 days being clean, not only physically but mentally?

7) Can you go 30 days being content with what you have, and not buying anything new outside of what you need?

8) Can you go 30 days of fervid adherence to these principles?

9) Can you go 30 days studying ancient yoga texts and then seeing how your practice fits into these texts?

10) Can you go 30 days of completely surrendering yourself to this practice no matter what the outcomes?

Which ones are easy and which ones bring up issues for you? In classical yoga, the above is what is asked of you for your whole lifespan. It is very challenging even for a day. I am not saying I am anywhere near close to achieving these on any given day. But to aspire to do these for 30 days will bring about profound positive change in your life much more than trying to do Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. It will be much more difficult than Eka Pada Rajakapotasna too.

ICP

 

Have fun!

 

 

A sequence for raw beginners

During Iyengar’s trip to China a few years ago, he layed out a sequence for those who are fresh to yoga. He explains that all the actions in these asanas are the building blocks for furthering one’s practice. If you have never done yoga before, these are the poses from which to start. Here is the sequence, click on links for how to do each pose:

Tadasana

tadasana

Utthita Trikonasana

iyengar triangle

Utthita Parsvakonasana

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.34.44 PM

Prasarita Padottanasana

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.26.40 PM

Parsvottanasna

parsvottanasana (2)

End with Savasana

savasana

 

This sequence appeared in an article by Senior Teacher Manouso Manos in the Fall 2012 Yoga Samachar. He says that  “It brilliantly links actions throughout the class and challenges practitioners to carry some actions from pose to pose and to change others–because it teaches straight leg and bent leg actions; it teaches twisting principles as well as stability; and it connects practitioners to their feet and composes the entire body into a cohesive unit.”

If you are brand new to yoga, I would try this sequence daily for a month. It can take between 15 to 30 minutes depending on your availability to practice. Try to devote at least 5 minutes to Savasana and gradually build up to 10. Never omit Savasana, it is the most powerful asana to link to the higher states of the eight limbs.

 

Yoga is beyond body issues

 ganesha-coloringpage

There is a great deal of talk about body issues in Western yoga. This discussion is by fed an industry called LOHAS (Lifestyle Of Health and Sustainability) which is making millions off of yoga fashion and dietary products. The latest issue of Yoga Journal has a woman who is considered “full figured” on the cover and a full article about body issues. There is another article that talks about diet. We are fed these ideas that all a practitioner needs to do is get a xyz brand yoga mat, do xyz style of yoga, eat an xyz type of diet, and viola! you fit into xyz brand of sized 5 yoga clothing, or shouldn’t worry about being sized five because you read Yoga Journal that tells you it’s okay to be full figured and practice yoga.

But yoga, when done classically, instructs you right from the beginning that your own body is not who you truly are. That may sound strange. “Of course my body is who I am…” (then ego kicks in with lengthy explanation). In classical yoga there are the concepts of Purusha and Prakrti. Prakrti means “nature” in a loose translation. Like weather, it is ever-changing and never constant. Purusha is that part of you that cannot be changed and is your “true” self. That is the part of you that witnesses all the madness your physical body puts you through. Your physical body is Prakrti. It changes every day, cells die and new cells form. Hair gets grey. Muscles get firm, then they atrophy. We age, then die.

The true aim of yoga is to cut through all the Prakrti to find the diamond that is residing inside of you. Yoga Sutra 1.4, vrtti sarupyam itaratra, means that sometimes the aspirant identifies more with the ego than the reality of his/her true splendor. By focusing on your body perception, you are caught up in the delusion of something that is ever-changing like a wild river.

In my work in the mental health field, I have encountered many clients with eating disorders and body dysmorphic issues. It is a tough mountain to overcome. In unpacking a lot of the problems these people face, it usually stems from not accepting that part of themselves that does not change. That is when they compensate by limiting their dietary intake to “fit” into what they feel should be their right size. The problem is that size is never good enough. And that perception is reinforced by the LOHAS industry.

Sometimes to get perspective, we have to look at the great masters. Ramana Maharsi. His later years were spent in a cave and he became ill and unable to ambulate. He developed tumors in his arms and refused medical treatment. His followers urged him to get medical attention to which he replied “Why are you so attached to this body? Let it go.” This is not to say one should do the same, it just show that Maharsi was not concerned about his body as it did not have much bearing on his soul.

Sri_Ramana_Maharshi_-_Portrait_-_G._G_Welling_-_1948

We should practice yoga no matter what. If you are feeling that your local studio is judging you by how you look or what you wear, chances are your local studio does not practice yoga, they practice avidya (ignorance). If this is the case, I encourage you to study the yoga texts to find out how to liberate yourself. You cannot attain liberation in a yoga class, it has to be done individually.

 

Listening to your wrists

texting

We text, type, scroll and sign our name more than any time in human history. Our wrists and hands are paying the price. Before it would be rare to have someone with carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms in yoga class, now it’s rare that you don’t find someone with those symptoms. Clutching cell phones for hours wreaks havoc on the tiny wrist joint.

During the recent Laurie Blakeney workshop, she did a few poses with a nice wrist emphasis to counteract these symptoms. I cannot recreate the sequence, but I have adapted a few of her techniques to my home practice I would like to share.

Basic wrist action in Adho Mukha Svanasana prep on hands and knees. Notice angled blocks at the wall to decrease the angle and strain on wrists.

Wrist 1

 

Move shoulders and torso forward to decrease the angle if wrists are too intensified.

 

Wrist 2

Utthita Trikonasna with hand facing backwards. Make sure the whole surface of the hand is on the block.

Wrist 3

 

Parivritta Trikonasana with hand backwards.

Wrist 4

 

Padahastasana. This puts weight onto the whole hand. You can do with bent knees if you cannot reach this far.

Padahastasana

Bharadvajasana I with wrist emphasis. My back hand is on my hip.

 

Wrist 5

Paschima Namaskar

paschima namaskar

After Paschima Namaskar the wrists feel tight, DO NOT shake your hands! Blakeney warned that the tiny bones in the hands can loosen from a violent shake after maintaining it in a fixed position. Do padahastasana instead.

As a side benefit, the shoulders also feel enlivened after trying these poses because of the amplified rotation caused by the hand position. This should help with your wrist-sues!