Category Archives: Yoga Sutras

The Yamas and Niyamas of Śāṇḍilya Upanishad

upanishad

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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Asanas are 1% of Yoga: Patanjali

Patanjali

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

If studios taught Yoga classically, they’d probably go out of business

aghori-sadhu-with-skull

In preparation for my next level of assessment, my mentoring teacher asked me to summarize the first Pada of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and relate it to my own experience thus far in my practice. Each time I read it I get more insight into what it really takes to study Yoga. Not Asanas, but Yoga.

Patanjali pretty much says unless you were born under divine intervention, the practitioner has very little chance of actually stilling the mind. Only through supremely intensive practice without attachment to the outcome will one still the mind just enough to get a glimpse of one’s true nature. Only then the path of Yoga can begin.

Fast forward to 2015.

I saw on today’s Facebook page that yoga studios in Colorado are protesting a proposal to have the state regulate them. Many are up in arms about how it will put their studio out of business. There are also plenty of studios advertising “advanced” teacher trainings for just $2,000 USD to “further deepen” one’s practice. In short, all of Yoga we see around us is about making money or not going bankrupt. Very little in modern Yoga is about practicing and not being attached to the outcome.

I’m not decrying this. We live in a modern society and have bills to pay. I even work in a studio that has those bills to pay and will go out of business without my and my teacher’s efforts. However, my observation is that there is so much emphasis put on Yoga as a means of making a living in the West, that much of the true Yoga teaching has been distorted or lost.

Under what conditions would we be able to teach classical Yoga? In India, Sadhu-s (holy men) go without homes, leave their families, barely eat just to follow the classical teachings. Not to say that all of these men are legit, but the commitment to the system is there.

My gut feeling says that studios in Colorado and other states will be regulated, studios will go out of business, “advanced teacher trainings” will be the new Amway, and Yoga as it is being taught in the West with endless 200 hour certification programs will be one of those things people will have remembered about the 2010s that won’t necessarily be around in the next 20 years.

However, classical Yoga will never die as long as there are human beings crazy enough to try to still their mind to get a glimpse of their true selves.

On that note, have a great weekend!

Forward bends calm the mind

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“Yoga ceases the fluctuations of the consciousness,” says the the second sutra in the first chapter from Patanjali. That could  not have been a more appropriate sutra for this week. It was officially the first “work week” of the year and already there are many crises on my caseload. There are also worldwide crises with the Paris bombings. The world needs yoga more now than ever before. How can we have a peaceful world if we are not peaceful within ourselves?

I was fortunate enough to take a lunch hour to devote to forward bends (paschima pratana sthiti). For many years, I was taught that forward bends have a “calming effect” on the nervous system. I was so stiff at the time that I thought the teacher was nuts. “How can my screaming hamstrings have any calming effect?!” I would say to myself.

Seasons change for one’s practice, and the more one practices, the faster that season changes. I can now say my forward bends bring me a substantial calmness internally. Even with my tight hips and groins, poses like Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana are coming better. My mentoring teachers and peers have been working on this pose and using me as a demo student. I’ve notice it is making a difference in loosening my hips and groins.

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And there is nothing like a passive forward bend like hanging from the horse in an inverted Dandasana to elongate the spine and loosen tight shoulders.

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So much in the Yoga world now is about profit, jumping around to loud music, and wearing the latest fashion. Let this be a reminder that Yoga is not about any of that. It is about stopping your mind chatter so you can see yourself more clearly. Then you can be the change the world needs right now.

Have a great weekend!

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

soup nazi

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.

 

Yoga blog trends I would like to see in 2015 – part 1

this-is-a-no-selfie-zone

In less than a week, 2014 will be a memory. It was a very interesting year watching yoga blog trends come and go. Here is what I am putting out to the universe (and other bloggers) of what I would and would not like to see more of in 2015:

1) Fewer Selfies

What do selfies really do? Some say they inspire others to practice Yoga, but I think that is a bunch of bull pucky. Just because you can do Pincha Mayurasana doesn’t mean your shoulders are not collapsing. Having lift in the shoulders is something that is learned in as basic of a pose as Tadasana. I have plenty of pictures of myself doing asana in this blog, but to make a distinction, I am using myself as a guide to teach, not to show off my ego. Believe me, I’m not much to look at! Next time you post an asana selfie, ask yourself why you are doing it. Are you doing it to teach, or show off your new yoga pants?

2) And on that note… less “wild thing,” Bakasana, and Pincha Mayurasana in those selfies

If you really want to show off, don’t be like everyone else. Wild Thing isn’t even a yoga pose, but some John Friend distortion of Urdvha Danurasana. Who would want to follow in that guy’s footsteps? Not to mention it is dangerous. And every other person who has half a practice is doing Bakasana. If you want to really wow someone, do Paripurna Matsyendrasana, Kandasana, or even a well-executed Krounchasana . Just don’t do it unless you are ready because you’ll injure yourself.

paripurna matsyendrasana

3) Less profanity

Lululemon has a recent promotion of being “present” and then shows a yoga teacher saying “f-you.” Every other blog I read has someone dropping the F-bomb or namaste-every-damn-day. Are we yoga practitioners, or truck drivers? I actually know truck drivers who swear less. If you are going to use profanity in your blog, at least make it mean something for emphasis. I don’t mean to be prudish, but Yoga is a sacred subject for those who take it seriously. Can we clean up our language around when writing about this sacred practice?

4) Speaking of Lululemon…less fashion industry influence on our Yoga practice

At what point did Lululemon become the neighborhood Yoga expert? That company doesn’t give a rip about tradition, it just wants to line its pockets. Whenever profit is the first priority, Yoga is not practiced. I am pleased that CEO Chip Wilson was ousted this year, but this company still projects an unhealthy body image with it’s petite line of clothing. As long as you keep shopping there, this will not change. At $100USD for a pair of pants, the real joke is on you. That money is much better spent on a workshop or even a month of classes.

5) Fewer playlists

I hate to break it to you, but people could care less about your latest playlist. Music and yoga may sound like they go together, but music actually gets in the way of the stopping your mind chatter. There are plenty of music fora out there for you to show off your musical taste. Go there instead instead of subjecting us to your latest taste of mixing Math Rock with Krishna Das.

6) More from the other limbs of Yoga

Asana is only 1/8 of the practice from Patanjali’s thread. When I first started doing yoga, everyone was in it for the mind benefits. Now everyone is in it for the physical benefits. It seems like we have regressed. There are a handful of blogs that focus on Yoga Sutras and other classical texts. It would be nice to see more blogs going in that direction. Yoga is a very internal practice when done correctly.

…to be continued