Category Archives: Essays on Practice

My New Year’s Resolution? No goals

Early January is an interesting time of year. My brother posted on his Facebook page that the week after the New Year is like Black Friday for the gym. As he is a triathlete who trains through the holidays while everyone is Ho Ho Ho-ing, I can empathize with his annoyance of now having to share the stationary bike with someone who will use the gym every day for two weeks, then never again until next January. Resolutions don’t seem to last long.

After teaching yoga class one of my students was chatting with me and asked me what I did all day aside from teach yoga. I proceeded to tell her my “second job” where I go into psychiatric facilities, and substance abuse rehab centers and assess people. After the assessment, I work to get them the help they need in the community. Then after work I told her about my duties as a caregiver taking care of my mother-in-law who is in a wheelchair. She seemed floored.”That sounds exhausting,” she said. I told her I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

I had plenty of goals going into 2016. I even thought toward the end of 2016, I’d better start working on my 2017 goals, but got an unsettling feeling when I started to think about what I wanted this year. After reading Masanobu Fukuoka’s book One Straw Revolution, I reflected on what he considers the fallacy of thinking in terms of “progress.”

The more people do, the more society develops, the more problems arise. The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity’s trying to accomplish something. Originally there was no reason to progress, and nothing that had to be done. We have come to the point at which there is no other way than to bring about a “movement” not to bring anything about. -Fukuoka pg. 201

2016 turned out to be a personally difficult year where just managing was difficult enough. So this year I am chucking my goals. Perhaps it is because I feel I am at a place of Santosa (contentment) that I am on the right path. Perhaps it is because I am too lazy to stop what I am already doing. Or perhaps I have developed enough confidence in myself that I can “manifest” what I need if I need it. Author Carlos Castaneda is famous for saying “all paths lead to nowhere, so choose a path with heart.”

Right now I am on a path with heart. I enjoy my jobs. I enjoy caregiving. I enjoy teaching, doing, and studying yoga. I enjoy gardening. I enjoy writing about all of it. Although I could do well with fewer of the hardships I face, all of the above provide well for me financially, spiritually, socially, and healthfully. Who needs goals when you have all that?

 

 

 

 

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Several approaches to the eight limbs of Yoga

Patanjali35

When one first reads the eight limbs in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, there are many questions that arise. Are the eight limbs practiced sequentially, like rungs in a ladder, or are they practiced all together? That really depends upon your point of view and also which tradition you follow. This post assumes one has read the eight limbs. If not here is a link to review them. I will provide a few points of view from my training and personal practice on following the eight limbs.

Say like you are a sincere practitioner and want to follow the eight limbs sequentially like a staircase–not proceeding to the next limb until you have “mastered” the previous. Then you meet a formidable challenge like the Yamas. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-harming). On your way to your practice, you accidentally step on a bug, injuring it. Can you proceed to the next limb? What about telling the truth (satya), not stealing (asteya), staying sexually continent (brahmacharya), and not being greedy (aparigraha)? Then what about the Niyamas of saucha (internal and external cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (ardor for practice), svadhyaya (self study), and Ishvara pranidhana (complete surrender to God)? If you had to master one limb before proceeding to the next, it would most likely take several lifetimes to qualify for Asana!

We have to keep in mind that the aim of Yoga is to still the citta. So living in observance of these ethical guidelines is highly conducive for stilling the mind. Imagine doing the exact opposite. What if you harmed others, lied, steal from others, had multiple sex partners, and were stingy and greedy. Your mind would be all over the place.

My point of view is that the first four limbs of Yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama are things one can do externally to still the citta. The next two limbs: pratyahara and dharana are things one can do internally to still the citta. The last two limbs: Dhyana and Samadhi are what Yoga does to the practitioner who correctly and steadfastly practices these concepts.

The first four limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, are called the bahiranga (the pursuit of external purity), pratyahara (detachment form the senses), and dharana (concentration) are called the antaranga (the pursuit of internal purity), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (illumination) are called the antaratama (the pursuit of the Soul).

In the West we like “goals.” Rather than viewing the eight limbs as a goal with Samadhi being the prize, I like to view the eight limbs as a toolbox one can use to get the mind to quieten. If there are any sincere “goals” of yoga, they would be to practice daily, and not be attached to things of with the ego identifies itself (abhyasa and vairagyam).

What if you were not able to practice Asana? Your practice would be to follow the Yamas and Niyamas to create stillness in the mind. What if your mind was too busy to focus on Pranayama?  Your practice would be Asana. These are examples of slotting in and slotting out limbs like gathering tools from a toolbox to quiet the mind.

Can you practice several limbs at once? Of course! When doing a sincere pranayama practice, you are already following the Yamas and Niyamas easily. You are in supported Savasana or a seated position and are therefore practicing Asana. B.K.S. Iyengar used Asana as a focus point to amplify the other limbs, just as Gandhi used the Yamas of ahimsa and satya to liberate India from the West.

The take home message here is whenever the mind is not quiet, Patanjali says you have access to many tools to make it quiet. Then you can see your true self and all your splendorous radiance.

Have a great weekend!

Appreciating Yoga’s relationship to Hinduism (instead of fearing it)

hanuman

People seem deathly afraid of Hinduism cropping up in the West for some strange reason. Just this week, two state legislators in Idaho protested when a Hindu prayer was said before the start of a session. One of the big debates of late is whether Yoga is a Hindu practice. There seems to even be legal rulings on whether or not Yoga should be considered a religion or a workout. In the same vein, why are we not afraid that Sufism is rooted in Islam, or that Qabbala is rooted in Judaism?

Many of the texts and concepts in Yoga are shared with people who practice Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) being a good example. It the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna on a battlefield where Arjuna is in the middle. On one side are his teachers, and the other side are his family members. Arjuna is in an awful dilemma. Krishna advises him to use Yoga to conquer the dilemma and to do his dharma as a warrior.

Other Hindu elements crop of in the names of Yoga Asanas. Bharadvaja, Vashistha, Marchi, and Hanuman just to name a few were figures in the Mahabharata. Of course in Western Yoga classes, these poses are renamed based on their body movements like “the splits” and “twists.”

My view may not be a popular one, but instead of watering down the names and concepts of Yoga that come from Hinduism, why not embrace them? I am not asking you to drop your faith and become Hindu. But I am asking that Yoga practitioners in the West more deeply explore the relationship between Yoga and Hinduism, rather than just using the parts that are convenient for them to present to a judge who will rule and decide if Yoga is considered a religion or a workout.

When you study the Yoga Sutras and read about Siddhis  (superpowers that come from Yoga practice), it is helpful to read about Hanuman who displays his mastery of all the Siddhis in his efforts to reunite Sita and Rama. These stories show how powers cultivated in Yoga can be used properly and for the good of mankind. Not to say that anyone actually will attain Siddhis in their practice, but If you woke up one day and were able to float on air, wouldn’t it be nice to have a guideline on how to use this power?

Being a New Mexico native, then moving to Hawai’i, I have seen the recurrent theme of having a rich culture be exploited by people who first try to make money off the unique attributes of the culture, then completely water it down until there is no culture left to market. They just built a Target store in my hometown of Kailua, transforming a charming beach community into Anywhere Else, USA full of traffic. I see the same thing happening in Yoga. Look no further than the Wanderlust Facebook page to see what I mean.

So my challenge to practitioners of Yoga in the West is to read some of these texts like The Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. Try to understand the concepts of reincarnation even though  that may not be your belief system. And minimally, use the Sanskrit terms of the Asana names instead of just calling them things like “updog.” As a deeper practice, go 30 days without buying things from those who commercialize and exploit Yoga, like the Lululemon store. Your Yoga practice will only get richer as a result.

 

On the art of straightening the leg in Iyengar yoga

 

It is said much recently that a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is its refinement on inversions. After years of practice, I will have to say another hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is the quality of the straight legs in Iyengar practitioners.

Straight legs are not something that happens overnight. Very much like that tear jerking scene in Forrest Gump when the young Forrest is bound by a confining leg brace, and then chased by bad kids, he finds his “real” legs and off he goes into an almost superhuman ability to run fast.

The same struggle, then liberation can be said of the years of practice it takes to truly straighten the legs in Iyengar Yoga. How many of you who have been to a bona fide Iyengar class for the first time heard “straighten your leg!” only to look down to your version of straight legs and wonder if the teacher is talking to someone else? That was my first 10 years of practice (with occasional relapses if I let my strong tamasic nature take over).

Let me show you a comparison of  “straight legs”  vs. “Iyengar straight legs” in a Padangusthasana (big toe pose), a forward bend.

uttanasana bent

This woman is flexible enough to touch her toes. But look at the angle behind the knee joint. It may appear to the untrained eye that her legs are straight, but her legs are not a straight as they can be.

pandangusthasana iyengar

This may not be a fair comparison, but look at Guruji’s pose during his prime. Very little angle behind the knee and the front of his legs are “poker straight” as he often described them.

So how does the aspirant get the legs of Iyengar? In addition to daily uninterrupted practice, there are ways in which you can start to address the tamasic nature of the strong and lazy legs.

For my basic students, I often have them do Pasrvottanasana (intense stretch of the side body pose) with one heel against the wall and with a chair.

parsvottanasna with chair

 

If there is a mantra in Iyengar Yoga, it would be that “contact is intelligence.” The contact with the back heel pressing hard on the wall cultures the leg to work properly as a “straight’ leg. Many are shocked at how difficult it is do this even though they are lithe and flexible.

Another exercise to straighten the leg is Supta Padangusthasana I with belt around the big toe mound.

sp mere mortal

 

Now the leg is in the air and doesn’t have the earth to press down on. The belt acts as a gauge to which degree you can press against. I like to use the metaphor of using a gas pedal where you slowly accelerate like you are trying to maintain a constant but slow speed like you are driving in a school zone. By pressing the big toe mound into the strap, one notices the effect on the knee and how the more your press, the more the kneecap recedes into the socket. Don’t completely plantar flex the foot like a ballerina. You have to temper that by extending up from the back of the ankle toward the ceiling. The proper foot in an inversion is partially dorsi flexed and partially plantar flexed.

Straight legs are a necessary element for inversions. Without the firmness in the legs the weight sinks on the the neck and head in Salamba Sirsasana. Notice the quality of the legs in Guruji’s Salamba Sirsasana and notice the corresponding lift in his shoulders.

sirsasana iyengar

 

The contraindication for this exercise is for those who hyperextend their knees. The instruction would be for those practitioners to learn where they are pushing too hard in the back of their knee and decrease the effort to preserve the joint over years of practice. For more on that, see this blog post.

To come full circle, inversions are an a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga. But you cannot have proper inversions until you have straight legs. Now “straighten your legs!!!”

The Solar System

earth

People come to Yoga for various reasons. The overwhelming majority come to the practice to address health concerns, followed by a few who come to the practice to address mental concerns. All paths which lead the practitioner to Yoga are valid.

Today I was thinking about the Solar system and how it relates to this concept. Imagine the Sun represents the merging of Purusha (the True Self) with Ishvara (God). Each planet represents our motivation to come to Yoga practice and how far away we are from the “Sun.”

Pluto is the farthest planet from the Sun. It is so small that there is a debate among astronomers whether it should even be classified as a planet. This can be representative of the student who is motivated to do Yoga because it is a means of making quick money.

The next closest to the sun is Neptune. It is a large planet, but still far away from the Sun. This can be represented of the student who is motivated to do Yoga because it is the latest fitness trend.

This is followed by Uranus. The next closest planet to the Sun. This represents the student who comes to the practice because of health concerns and that there are no other means of bring relief to his/her ailment aside from Yoga.

Then comes Saturn. Mighty planet with large rings made from ice. This represents the physically healthy student who comes to Yoga to develop refinement in his/her physicality.

Next is Jupiter, the largest planet of the solar system. This can represent the student who realizes that Yoga can address mental stress in addition to it’s physical benefits.

Then comes Mars, the red planet. This can represent the student who comes to Yoga because he/she is curious about the philosophical aspects of Yoga.

Our planet Earth is next. This can represent the student who comes to Yoga for its traditional aspects.

The next plant is Venus. This can represent the student who comes to Yoga to gain wisdom.

The last planet closest to the sun is Mercury. This is for the student who comes to the practice to be be closer to God.

Lastly, the Sun. This represents attainment in Yoga and realization of the practitioner.

Our Universe is much larger than we originally thought. There are an estimated 100-200 billion galaxies. Some of those galaxies merge into one. This shows that the practice goes beyond what we can comprehend or perceive.

merging galaxies

 

The point of the essay is that our motivation changes with continued practice. The more we practice Yoga, the more we get a “glimpse” of our True Selves and hence get a step closer to the Sun. May you all one day “merge” your True Self with the divine in your practice.

More Mary O. notes…

This is the continuation of my last blog post about Mary Obendorfer’s workshop. The intermediate classes I attended were more of a refinement of concepts we learned in the basic level classes.

The one concept that I will take home is how crucial the base is in every pose. We did an exercise in Adho Mukha Vrksasana (upward facing tree pose, or handstand) where the palm of one hand was smoothed along the mat along with each finger. The other hand did not get the “treatment.” The student had a markedly noticeable straightness in the side of the hand that got the “treatment” versus the side that didn’t have the hand manipulation. See the progression of photos below of how to manipulate the base of the right hand:

 

hand 1hand 2

 

hand 3hand 4

hand 5hand 6

Now compare the two hands. You may be able to tell my right hand (as seen on your left) it is much flatter. Try on your own for a more dramatic comparison.

hand 7

Mary uttered Geetaji’s words over and over that “Mother Earth feeds intelligence to the practitioner through the base of each asana.” Very profound to think about when you consider what part of your body is touching the floor and the “quality” of that contact.

 

As far as the workshop as a whole, we worked intensely on seated poses. As stated in the previous post, Mary imparted Geetaji’s words that regular practice of Upavistha Konasana and Baddha Konasana are extremely important to offset “suffering” in standing poses, and to address “pains that are yet to come” as the the practitioner ages.

There are many more things that she covered that I need to practice on my own before publishing my thoughts. She did a tremendous amount of partner work on Ardha Sirsasana (half head pose) seen below. In the intermediate class she held us in this pose for 30 seconds as per instructions from Light on Yoga before going into full sirasasana. I couldn’t last 15. She stopped and asked “did you come out because you are in pain, or did you come out because of something else?” It was something else I couldn’t describe. That is something I will have to unpack within my practice until she comes back next year.

half sirsasana

 

 

Notes from a Mary Obendorfer workshop

 

mary obendorfer

Mary Obendorfer was one of the teachers who gave my practice a complete 180. Back in the early 2000s, I attended a teacher training she conducted to inaugurate the center where I now teach. She introduced concepts of sequencing back then that I continue to use today in my practice and teaching.

At the time she asked us to come up with a sequence and then the group would critique it with her provisions. I actually handed her a sequence that started with Paschimottanasana (intense stretch of the West side of the body pose) as the first pose because that was what my teacher at the time was teaching (he was not Iyengar based). “Why are you starting with such a difficult pose?!” She asked, but not really wanting to know the answer. After her instructions, I now completely understand why starting a sequence with Paschimottanasana is a bad idea on just about every level. I won’t give you the answer if you don’t know, because so many of my previous blog posts have addressed it.

Fast forward 13 years, Mary Obendorfer still visits our studio annually. This year she is back from GeetaJi’s December intensive in Pune, India with more gems. What I have always enjoyed about the Iyengar system is that you get the knowledge eventually even though you may not be able to attend Pune intensives first hand.

Obendorfer gave us detailed instructions on two poses: Baddhakonasna (bound angle pose) and Upavistha Konasana (seated angle pose.) I will write posts about these poses later once I have integrated the teachings in my practice, reflected on them, and developed my on insights on them.

baddha konasana

Baddha Konasana

Upavistha-Konasana

Upavistha Konasana

The one thing that was imparted is that regular practice of these two poses will “decrease the suffering of your standing poses.” Obendorfer also relayed Geetaji’s message that these poses will also help to alleviate problems that people face when they age. With all the upward apanic (pelvic region) action required to do these poses, it is evident that Geetaji has noticed people suffer from GI problems as they age and has given us an “antidote” through Baddha Konasana and Upavistha Konasana to minimize the problems that manifest as we grow older.

Tonight I will continue the workshop with the intermediate class. More gems to come I am sure…