Tag Archives: Yoga Sutras

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!

 

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Book Review: I Am That, by Nisargadatta Maharaj

I just finished all 531 pages of I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj, translated by Maurice Frydman. I started reading it in late May and just finished now in mid-September. Why did it take me so long? It certainly wasn’t that he used complicated words. Any high school student could understand it if they have the patience to decipher some the Sanskrit terminology that can be found in the book’s appendix. It certainly wasn’t long drawn out chapters. The book contains 101 chapters which are two to four pages long. It took me so long because the concepts in the book, when thought about and considered, are among the deepest one may experience.

The book is in the the typical question and answer format one reads in most of the non-dualist genre. Nisargadatta Maharaj gave satsang, or spiritual teachings, based out his Bombay (Mumbai) apartment until his death in 1981. He wasn’t a typical yoga practitioner. He made a living making and selling cigarettes on the street and chain smoked them as he gave his teachings. He liked to argue with his disciples, and would kick them out if he felt they have overstayed their welcome after receiving the essence of his teachings. He only spoke in Marathi, and would employ translators for Westerners.

In all of his eccentricities, his teachings get to the heart of the matter: we are not what we take ourselves to be, we are the very universe itself. He foremost rejects that he is his body which is repeated ad nauseum in this text. He rejects that he is his mind, which he says belongs to the body. “As long as one is burdened with a personality, one is exposed to its idiosyncrasies and habits.” He says he is that which does not change: the purusha. Purusha can be translated as “soul” but Maharaj gives it a much more nuanced and textured meaning throughout his book.

His basic teaching is summed up in this dialogue:

Maharaj: How can an unsteady mind make itself steady? Of course it cannot. It is the nature of the mind to roam about. All you can do is to shift the focus of consciousness beyond the mind.

Questioner: How is it done?

Maharaj: Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought ‘I am’. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally without any interference on your part. (page 17)

This may sound a lot like the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Maharaj’s teachings are very similar with the exception that Maharaj was not silent the way Ramana Maharshi was (Maharshi said very few words to his devotees). But by using his preferred format of argument, the teachings of Nisargadatta yield more concrete “instructions” that are well suited for the Western mind.

I would recommend this book after one is familiarized with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, as many of the concepts draw from that classic text. In fact if you struggle with the Sutra-s in terms of how prakriti and purusha interplay, I Am That offers elegant explanations and possible solutions. To read this book properly, I wouldn’t advise taking on more than a chapter a day (3-4 pages), and really think about the words. You won’t be the same after reading it.

Linked below is a pdf of the book, and also a video which can be viewed as a primer to the teachings.

http://advaita.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/1-I-Am-That-Nisargadatta-Maharaj-Resumo.pdf

 

This old Pune belt

After my father-in-law passed away in May, my mother-in-law is now wanting to go to a care home which means we will have to sell our house. My wife and I are surveying this daunting task and were in decision paralysis on where to start. We decided that the first thing to do was start cleaning.

While I was straightening out my “yoga room” I came across an old Pune strap that my mentoring teacher Ray Madigan gave to me many years ago when I first started on my assessment path. Back then the strap was slightly used from the studio. Now, as seen above, it is ripped in half and heavily stained.

It reminded me of my Karate training early in life. When I was young, like 7 or 8 years old, my father enrolled my brother and I in Karate classes. We were given fresh, white belts. The theory with the karate belt system is that as you progress and practice, your belt gets stained. So the progression is white, yellow, green, purple, brown, then black (at least that was our system in the school). The “black belt” is that way because of blood, sweat, tears, and a bit of grass stains over many years of ardent practice.

So as you can see above, I am probably a yellow/green belt in yoga (using the same belt system). Obviously this took far beyond 200 hours which is the current standard of most yoga schools.

Another thing about Pune belts is that they are extremely durable. They are a light weight cotton corduroy, so to break one takes repeated beatings. I am fairly gentle with my props, so the above strap is a product of time, pressure, and repeated use. I remember the day it ripped when I was going between halasana and sarvangasana. It made me a bit sad.

Interestingly enough, I have been studying the second pada of the Yoga Sutras. This week I am focusing on II.11 dhyāna-heyās tad-vṛttayaḥ, or the states of mind produced by these klesas (ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear to death) are eliminated by meditation. Vyasa, a famous commentator, likens removal of kleshas to washing clothes by hand. First you shake the clothing removing the large dirt particles, then you scrub the clothes in soap and beat them against a rock to remove the finer dirt. If the clothes are stained so badly, you burn the garment. As meditation “burns” the seeds of kleshas and samskaras, it purifies the being. I will definitely not burn this stained strap as it is more of a marker of my progress.

As change is the only constant in life, I will be better off in not being attached to my house, or yoga room, or straps and just surrender to what is in front of me. Perhaps the years of hard work it took to get my Pune belt it that condition will help me in this next phase of my adulthood. I wonder how many years it will take me to get a “black belt?”

 

An afternoon with Bharadvaja and Matsyendra

After work I had a bit of time for practice this afternoon. I have been subbing heavily and taught eight classes this past week! Needless to say my personal practice has been neglected. Partly because of lack of time and partly because of sheer exhaustion. I absolutely love teaching, but it takes a lot of energy to do that many classes coupled with a full time job and family duties.

As I approached my mat, I wanted to work steadily and not strenuously. After supta padangusthasana, I was inspired to do twists. I started light, with Bharadvajasana I which is a simple upper back twist. I then remembered one of Laurie Blakeney’s classes where she spent 45 minutes on Jatara Parivartinasana, and thought I would have a similar practice with one or two twisting poses.

I haven’t done much Bharavajasana II since my assessment and not sure why. I remember it was one of my most challenging poses as I could only grasp the foot on one side and not the other. After trying it I realized I cannot grasp either foot now. So I went back and forth between the two sides using a strap around the foot. While I was preparing for my assessment, I neglected to notice how nice Bharavajasana II is for the hips and lower back. Even though I ended never finding my foot, the going back and forth was a satisfying practice. Below is Faeq Biria’s flawless pose.

faeq bv 2

I then kneaded Ardha Matseyandrasana into the mix. That is another challenging twist for me. I aspire to have a pose like Birjoo Mehta as he has a similar build than me and can easily negotiate the pose with a few choice props.

birjoo ardha matseyadrasana

I can’t even get my hand to the knee, so I use a strap around my front foot and hold that.

The nice part of ardha matseyandrasana is it gives a strong spine twist complete with “cracking.” It reportedly does wonders for the gastric region as well.

I found that the constant repetition for one hour in these two poses (sometimes one after another, and sometimes two times each) and losing track of how many I have done, I sensed that tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ state mentioned in the sutras where one is not concerned about the dualities. It didn’t matter if I caught my foot in either poses, just the practice was enough to reach the mental state.

It is interesting to note that Bharadvaja, of whom the asana is named, was one of the authors of the Rg Veda which is one of the world’s oldest texts (1700-1100 BC). He was considered a rishi who attained extraordinary scholarship and had a powerful meditative practice. Very fitting that studying and reaching a peaceful state can both be achieved in the pose dedicated to him.

 

Starting the new year under the weather, and with Patanjali

Some of my greatest years have started under less than ideal conditions. 2016 is set to be stellar as I am stuck in bed with a Z-Pack (antibiotics) from a lingering cough that turned into an infection. That being said, I am grateful for all that Yoga has to offer that isn’t asana or pranyama related.

I am able to catch up on some of my readings in the Sutras and other Iyengar works. I also received my quarterly issue of Yoga Rahasya from India. It is a beautiful edition that features Patanjali and the Sutras.

Many times in my practice I have reflected on the Sutras. At first, it seemed like they had nothing to do with my actual asana practice. Now the more I read them and the more I read how Iyengar used them, the more it seems that there is nothing outside my life that isn’t somehow connected to them.

They are considered Yoga Shastra, or a fundamental yoga teaching. They are in many ways a theorem of truth that has been proved and tempered by time. They are estimated to have been written around 400 CE, which is slightly younger than the New Testament. However, they are a compilation of practices that go several millenia before.

There are many different translations in English. It is interesting to see the differences between actual yoga practitioners and scholars. Iyengar’s translation has a “bhakti” feel to them as he was quite devoted. “Rub yourself with each word through work and practice. Rubbing means to experience,” Iyengar writes.

This is an interesting side by side comparison of the Sutras I have found online. This does not include Iyengar’s translation, but does have other “heavy hitters” of the Yoga Sutras like Satchidanada and Edwin Bryant.

I am hardly a Sanskrit scholar, and I am not adept at what the Sutras ask of me to still my mind. But the main thing is that I practice every day. Even if I can’t do Asana or Pranayama because I have a cold, I can at least have a text to read which fills me with ideas on how to proceed in my practice in daily life.

Many blessings!

 

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.

 

The spiritual import of Pranayama

hanuman

By the time you have gotten to the point of practicing Pranayama regularly, you take your practice seriously. Pranayama is the end of the line of the physical practice. Like approaching the end of the high dive board, this is where the practitioner takes the “plunge” from the known physical practice, to unknown internal practice. In short, Pranayama is the most spiritual physical practice one can do.

Sutra 1.34 says: pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyām vā prāṇasya, or the exhale and retention (rechaka and bahya kumbhaka) are a means to cease citta vritti (mind chatter). As you may remember from Sutra I.2 stopping the mind chatter the main aim of Yoga practice. B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Pranayama (1999 ed.) takes this Sutra’s concept a step further:

Exhalation is the process by which the energy of the body gradually unites with that of the mind, merges into to soul of the sadhaka and dissolves into cosmic energy. It is the path of return from the peripheries of the body towards the source of consciousness know as the path of renunciation (nivritti marga). (Page 100)  and Bahya Kumbhaka (retention on the exhale) is the state in which the yogi surrenders his very self, in the form of his breath, to the Lord and merges with the Universal Breath. It is the noblest form of surrender, as the yogi’s identity is totally merged with the Lord. (Page 106).

Here, Iyengar may be referring to the “fourth” type of pranayama found in Sutra II.51. This “fourth” type of pranayama “surpasses the limits of the internal and external.” Then uncovers the thin veil between ignorance and illumination. Then the practitioner is qualified for Dharana (paraphrasing Sutras II.52-53).

In short, these Sutras are telling us that Pranayama is a destroyer of Karma which is a fundamental “goal” of the serious yoga practitioner. And like Pranayama cannot be commenced until Asana is mastered, the Sutras are suggesting that one must be proficient in Pranayama before intensive concentration (Dharana) can be undertaken.

I am very far from this level of progression in my personal practice. But the reason I am posting this is that it seems most Yoga we see and read about are just addressing Asana for Asana’s sake. In other words, “30 days to master scorpion pose” which we see ubiquitously on the Yoga news feeds of Facebook and WordPress. Perhaps this post will show that there is a progression along the eight limbs, and that each rung, like a peak of a mountain, must be ascended with much preparation and awareness. That in itself is an extremely spiritual undertaking.