Category Archives: Yama/Niyama

The Yamas and Niyamas of Śāṇḍilya Upanishad

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If you give any depth of study to Patanjali, you will find he is often quoted as a “codifier” of Yoga. He was a journalist of the highest order writing down all the practices at his time and also referencing practices of the past. He was quite diplomatic in the Yoga Sutra-s giving a nod to all the different practices. And he put all the practices in terse format, so it would be easier to memorize for generations through the millennia.

One of the references that Patanjali may have drawn from come from the Śāṇḍilya Upanishad, an Atharvavedaic text dating back between 1000-1500 BCE (Patanjali existed around the second century BCE). This is a short treatise that mentions eight limbs of Yoga. It begins with a teaching between Arthavan and Śāṇḍilya:

Śāṇḍilya: “Please tell me about the eight angas of Yoga which is the means of attaining Atman.”

Artharvan: “The eight Agnas are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Of these, Yama is of ten kinds and so is Niyama. There are eight Asanas. Pranayama is of three kinds. Pratyahara is of five kinds; so also is Dharana. Dhyana is of two kind and Samadhi is of one kind only.”

The ten Yamas of this Upanishad are:

Ahimsa (not causing pain of anyone both physically and mentally)

Satya (Truthfulness)

Asteya (Not coveting)

Bhramacharya (Celebacy)

Daya (Kindliness)

Arjava (equanimity of mind in actions)

Kshama (Patience)

Dhriti (Preserving firmness of mind in periods of gain or loss)

Mitahara (Taking of only oily or sweet food leaving one fourth of the stomach empty)

Saucha (Both internal and external cleanliness)

There are also ten Niyamas:

Tapas (Empanciation from the body through penance)

Santosha (Contentment)

Astika (Belief in merits or demerits of actions set forth in the Vedas)

Dana (Charity)

Isvarapujana (Worship of God with a pure heart)

Siddhanta-Srivara (Inquiry of the significance of Vedanta)

Hrih (Shame when straying from actions set forth in the Vedas)

Mati (Faith in the paths laid out in the Vedas)

Japa (practicing the Mantras)

Vrata (Regular observance of Vedic actions, and non observance of actions that are not in the Vedas).

The text then expounds on Asanas and Pranayamas. Perhaps that will be another blog post. The scholar/historian in me is fascinated by this text. I find it comforting and reaffirming that these practices have been around for thousand and thousands of years. The fact that we can still access this text in 2015 shows that it is true enough to stand the test of time.

 

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Several approaches to the eight limbs of Yoga

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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!

Asanas are 1% of Yoga: Patanjali

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I write a great deal about Asana in my blog. One could argue that my blog is only about Asana and that I have not even come close to touching the other limbs. That would be a valid argument. I have been fortunate enough lately to devote much time to reading and studying the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s. After hearing an interview with scholar Edwin Bryant, the idea has crystalized that has been inside of for much time: since Asanas are so powerful and profoundly life changing by themselves, the entire practice of Yoga is light years more powerful and transformative.

There are only three Yoga Sutra-s that address Asana: sthira sukham asanam (the seat/pose steadies and brings about comfort for the aspirant’s consciousness), prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām (mastery in the Asana is accomplished when the aspirant has a state of effortless effort in the body and in the consciousness), and tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ (from then on the aspirant is not vexed by the dualities that exist between the pure consciousness and the perceived world.)

As Bryant points out, reference to Asana only encompasses 12 words in a 1200 word text, or 1 percent. But rather dismissing Asana as unimportant because of its brief “cameo” in the Sutra-s, reflect on how powerful Asana has been in your life. For many of my readers, Asana is only what they have practiced. That is not a bad thing, as Asana as Bryant describes is “plugged in” to a larger system of total transformation.

Now imagine how powerful it would be to practice daily and uninterruptedly a concept like telling the truth, or keeping yourself clean, or not being greedy. Just practicing those concepts for one day would be life changing to many. Then one only begins to gather how difficult and how deep the whole of the Yoga Sutra-s are in what they are trying to impart to the reader.

By all means don’t give up your Asana practice! B.K.S. Iyengar taught that all limbs can be practiced in Asana and has proved it in how he changed the world’s view of Yoga.

Gandhi liberated India with concepts in the Yoga Sutra-s like Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence) and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to duplicate these principles to create civil rights in the US. Similarly, the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s teach how to emancipate ourselves not only from sorrows, but from all the Karmic and Samskaric imprints we have inherited.

 

 

 

 

Religious pundits bash Yoga, confusing it with Hinduism

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I always find it amusing when other religions’ pundits bash Yoga. This week we are hearing from a televangelist who says Yoga “tricks” people into praying to Hindu deities, and a Catholic priest who says practicing Yoga is “Satanic.”

Pat Robertson said this week on The 700 Club said “stretching exercise is cool, praying to a Hindu deity is not too cool.” He was answering a woman’s questions who had concerns about her daughter’s interest in new ageism.

Meanwhile in Derry Ireland, Catholic Priest Father Roland Colhoun said while people may decide to take up yoga with good intentions, they could set themselves on a path towards “the bad spiritual domain” and even “Satan and The Fallen Angels”. This is stemming from statements from the Vatican’s chief exorcist that Yoga leads to a belief in Hinduism, and that “all eastern religions are based on false belief in reincarnation”.

Before offering a rebuttal to these statements, the larger picture is that many who are practicing “yoga” in the West are not doing so because they are seeking spirituality. Most are doing it because it is a trendy fitness regimen. Yoga in the West has become so far removed from the original purpose of the practice, that it should not be called yoga anymore, but more accurately crossfitized asana-like selfie posturing.

How many people who pack the yoga class at 24 Hour Fitness whose teacher has the “killer playlist” are there to dial down their mind chatter? Furthermore, how many people at the Wanderlust Festival are there to merge Purusha with Ishavara? Many will actually say they are, but they are really just trying to be part of the yoga rock star “in crowd.”

Yoga  in the true sense is beyond religion. It has many “religious” elements, but it is a practice whose purpose is to sublimate the mind chatter until the practitioner, undisturbed by viewing his/herself in the context of the revolving universe, starts to see the true self and grow from the fruits of that experience.

Now back to Pat and Father Roland. Viewing Yoga from an orthodox Christian lens it is easy to unleash the dogma that says you shall have no other gods before Me and you shall not make idols onto Hinduism. How come in the same vein an orthodox Hindu can’t say, “you can’t worship The idol of the Virgin Mary” or in Robertson’s case “you can’t worship the idol of power and political influence?” I am not saying this to offend those of Christian faith. But practicing Yoga is not practicing Hinduism as these two commenters are led to believe.

We are more alike than we are different. I wrote a blog post that displays the Ten Commandments next to Yamas and Niyamas. They are shockingly similar. So rather than fearfully criticizing other people’s faith from around the world, first seek to understand the commonalities and then work from that place.

On a side note, Pat Robertson would benefit from Setu Bandha to address his slouch.

 

Ejecting a student from Yoga class?! Where to draw the line.

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Doing Sirsasana during Savasana?! Two weeks, no class for you!!

 

I have an 8 am Yoga class on Saturday morning. That is a tough sell for potential students, but in spite of the inconvenient time, my class has grown to roughly 8 regular students. I am very forgiving when people are late to that class because God knows over the last ten years I have had my share of mornings that I struggled to get there at 7:30 to set up the room.

This was “backbending week” and I had a nice sequence progressing from easier to harder poses. The class started with two students. After the second pose, four students, after the third pose, three more students. That was fine. I knew the students who were my regulars.

Then, a half hour into the class, another new student whom I haven’t seen before comes walking up the steps. “I was at the Church rummage sale and wanted to try out your class, I have 40 years of yoga experience,” she said. I told her that we were already halfway through class and I asked her to come back next week because she was too late. She cursed and left, grumbling to others that she was “not allowed in class.”

It sounds like I was being a jerk, but I was actually practicing Ahimsa. Safety is always my primary concern as a Yoga teacher. The woman looked like she had some health concerns as she had an unsteady gait walking up the steps. She also appeared to lack good judgement by assuming that walking into an unfamiliar class that was already in progress was okay.

Before a new student comes to class, I like to get a brief history of any medical problems they have. I am not a doctor, but I am trained to give students alternate ways of doing the postures if they have certain medical issues. For example, if someone just had ankle surgery, I will not teach them jumpings and give them alternate instructions when doing asanas that require use of the ankle joint. I am not comfortable teaching students until I have this brief dialogue with them.

So what does a teacher do when students act unsafely in class? There was a recent Elephant Journal post about what to do when students do their own practice and ignore the teacher’s instruction. The commenters sided with renegade student behavior and said teachers should  have a dedicated space in the room for those who beat to their own drum. That does not sit well with me. In Iyengar yoga, there are very precise instructions. If the student is not mature to follow them and is doing things unsafely, I would probably ask them to try another teacher and refund their money.

That is easier said than done for many teachers who actually make a living doing yoga. If you teach in a gym/fitness center environment, you’d probably get canned if you showed someone the door. So therein lies the problem: does your teaching space allow for bafoonery at the expense of liability? Does ego win over proper Yoga teaching? Are you so desperate to make money off of Yoga, that you are willing to accept reckless behavior from a student who perceives themselves as more advanced than you? Not easy questions for many.

I used to do group substance abuse counseling. I used to kick people out of group so often for not following the rules, that it was rare when a group went by without any ejections. It is sad to say that it has come to this in the Yoga community. But if you don’t feel that the group is safe because of one student’s dangerous behavior, or if you feel that the student is a danger to his/herself, you have my permission to show them the door. You will gain respect from the true Yoga students. But be careful, you may just get the axe.

 

Help! Help! I’ve been one starred on Yelp!

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I have to admit that I am a Yelp fiend. Because I enjoy writing, I often write reviews on places I frequent. I rarely one star businesses unless I feel they are preying on unsuspecting customers. Also, it is lousy to be on the receiving end of a one star review. And that is exactly what happened to me this week.

I was perusing yoga studios on my Yelp app and came across my own studio and noticed the stars have gone down. Much to my dismay, I came across this:

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Because I am classy, I left out the reviewers name. But I noticed his name didn’t match any of my students, so I complimented him. I said, “Funny I didn’t recall telling anyone who was male not to drink water in my all female attended class.” He later added the last part of his review stating he wrote it for his daughter.

As it turns out, the daughter had attended another teacher’s class and he wrote the review without even verifying which teacher his daughter was upset with. The good people at Yelp removed the post quickly as it violated their terms of service for reviewing a place you haven’t even patronized.

In a way I wished the review was accurate, because my mentoring teachers used to say I had a monotone presentation. Being compared to a basketball coach would make them proud!

As for the water complaint, my studio has a policy not to put water bottles on the new hardwood floor and another teacher probably asked the guy’s daughter to put her water on the shelf. In Iyengar Yoga, students don’t need to stay an arms length away from water just to stay alive like other styles. The teacher in question probably relayed that to her and all she heard was “you can’t drink water.”

It’s not good karma to one star people who don’t deserve it on Yelp. And because I live in accordance to the Yamas and Niyamas,  good things tend to come my way. I received another review from Luci at YogaSpy which was named one of the top 100 yoga blogs. She said in her recent post commemorating her five years of blogging that Home Yoga Practice is one of her favorite blogs! Coming from Luci who is a great blogger and seasoned Iyengar practitioner, this review feels better than being Freshly Pressed. Thanks Luci and congratulations of making 5 years as a blogger. That is a feat that I cannot image.

 

 

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 Master Sergeant, 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.