About the Body – Hatha, The Heart and the Thoracic Spine

Hatha Yoga in the classical sense is a journey of integration where the body becomes the perfect vehicle for a different kind of consciousness – the adamantine body.  This happens through integration – where the physical form is transformed by the substance of that consciousness. Through breath and positioning the energy channels of the body – the nadis – become clear.  Allowing yourself to experience breath in the varieties of positions  is essential.  And I use the word “experience” deliberately.  It isn’t about forcing the breath through a posture that feels stuck.  It’s about being easeful and allowing enough that the breath can still be felt and enjoyed regardless of what shape you in.  In that sense it is a cleansing the breath is a cleansing solvent for the nadis.  There is not better place to breathe than in a posture where you are bumping up again your limitations.  Often they are not muscle and bone, they are energetic – energy is stagnant.  And, when the energy is stagnant, so is your mind.  Movement is so important, and yoga asana is designed for this.  This cleansing of the physical form allows the spirit to become more tangible in the physical realm.  A well-done posture facilitates this integration.

That intersection of matter and spirit begins at the level of the thoracic spine – at the heart.    The integration is simplest and most straightforward in the backbends.  This alignment of these two forces (material and spiritual) occurs when the feet are well positioned. Parallel the feet in a back bend and the point of integration of the primary opposing forces – of gravity and upliftment  is shifted from the lumbar spine to the thoracic spine.  This  creates a gentle, subtle space in that very restricted area.  You will know the opening has occurred by the way you feel.  There may be tears or a sense of wonder or great love which occurs with the opening.  The practice at that juncture is to be spacious and allowing of the powerful feelings which unfold -and to understand that your practice is moving into another level – beyond mere physical release and into transformation. 

Interested in stepping a little more deeply into the philosophy and inner practices of yoga? I send a newsletter once a week or less, in conjunction with blog posts, where we explore the inner practices of yoga within the context of a life. Sometimes drawn directly from the traditional yoga texts, and sometimes just commentary on the big picture of a yoga practice – I always intend it to convey something that will be useful to you. I don’t sell anything in these newsletters – it’s an offering and a way to keep my own practice fresh.

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About the body:  Empowerment and Ease

About the body:  Yoga and the Parasympathetic nervous system

When we breathe calmly, peacefully, rhythmically through the nostrils, we ignite our parasympathetic nervous system – the relaxation response.  In that mode – many things happen.  Rigid long held stress patterns in the body dissolve, the immune system is nourished and deep healing occurs.  It is also easier to access deeper levels of inner states of consciousness – which allow for different perceptions of the world – for transformation on the level of mind. 

As we take a posture we want to ignite this kind of easeful experience while remaining awake, alert and active.  The more challenging a posture is for us – the more powerful it will be to nurture this kind of breathing.  This is pivotal in transforming our life experience from being a person with a body that is always controlling us – to being a person who has some degree of mastery over the physical and energetic bodies.  It’s important.  

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About the Body: Navasana:  The Boat that Crosses Samsara

The imagery of yoga is embedded in the understanding of yoga.  On one level the imagery is just about communicating an idea – how to convey an abstract principle in a way that all kinds of students can understand.  On another level it is about communicating technique – something is called what it is called for a reason.  On another level it ignites our spiritual know which supports the execution of the posture. 

One of my favorite examples of the spiritual image of a posture conveying the experience of the posture is  Navasana – boat posture.    In the classical yogic way of looking at life – there is suffering. The practices of yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and the associated behavioral prescriptions are considered a vehicle which can carry us to the other side of suffering – peace, joy and liberation.  The suffering is global and cosmic.  It’s also deeply personal, intimate and immediate. The capacity of the global suffering to land as the personal experience of suffering in our lives is mitigated by our practice of yoga.   The uncomfortable experience may be present, but we don’t experience it the same way when we are well practiced.  Navasana, or boat posture, is an asana where we embody the boat which can safely convey us across the vast presence of suffering in the cosmos to the safe shore of the state of yoga. 

 At its worst, Navasana is a clench your teeth, grin and bear it hold your breath posture.  At its best we lightly balance on our sitz bones, heart lifted, reaching our toes to the sky.   We can aspire to endure the posture or to understand the posture enough to find the lift that will take us across the sea of discomfort that life can be.  It’s a posture that invites us to take ourselves lightly.  

In my experience working with students the key to the posture is the connection of the sitz bones to the earth.  Too far forward, the posture will be more challenging than it needs to be – but notice where the challenge emerges in the body.  It points to an area that may need some awakening  try a combination of strengthening and stretching the area with good breath and attention.  Too far back on the sitz bone the heart closes.   To discover the sweet spot for balance prop yourself a bit.  Sit with knees bent.  Place your hands on the floor slightly behind you.  Lift one foot at a time until you feel comfortable with the action.  Lift both feet, then press your hands into the earth and rock forward on your sitz bones, experimenting to find the spot where it’s easiest to hold your feet in the air.  Lift your hands.

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About the Body: A Unique Constellation of Tension and Ease

Each of our bodies is a unique constellation of tension and ease born of the musculoskeletal landscape we were born with, the impact of habits of movement,  the impact of emotional, psychological and physical trauma, and bodily awareness,  In Hatha Yoga, we are invited to iron out these differences – bringing the ecosystem of our individuality into a harmony embodied in the sound vibration of Om.

The seasons are turning cooler, our attentions turn inward yet again, and we are invited to shift gears in our yoga practices. This subtle adjusting of focus and style to harmonize with the seasons is a classical organic element of yoga practice which invites us to consider balance in our lives, our practices and our creative work. In yoga the balance emerges as the fine tuning of our awareness and integration in the pairs of opposites  – activation and ease.  The foundation for this teaching is found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

The postures develop our capacity to discern.  We can consider the following in crafting our personal practices  – the perfect posture is born of cultivating a personal understanding of places in the body you need to activate, and the places in the body that you to would benefit from bringing ease to.  For this  – we can work with large areas of the body (the back of the legs) or more specific areas of the body(the juncture of my sacrum and vertebrae L1) depending on the degree of awareness we have of the nature of the sensation. 

A tool I use to discern tension and holding versus slack and unconsciousness (or lack of any feeling of awareness at all)l is to work with repetitions.

  1. Choose a basic posture, one that is reflective of some physical discomfort you have in life.
  2. Practice this base posture – breathing and scanning the body nonjudgmentally for various sensations.
  3. Practice some postures you believe might be helpful – scanning the body and breathing throughout.
  4. Repeat the base posture – scanning the body again.  What feels different?
  5. Repeat the repetition.

I’ll sometimes go through a repetition sequence several times with several small sequences within a day of practice if I have time.  Sometimes I just run through it once.

Note that  many discomforts in the spine are born of tension in the neck and hips, so you may want to include postures that dress the neck and hips in repetition sequences.

Did you like the post? In my newsletter I dig a little deeper into the philosophical aspects of working with the postures. You will never get more than newsletter a week, and the newsletter is meant for edification and entertainment – not sales.

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About the Body: Breathing into Expansion in Yoga

It’s very popular these days to skip over the restraint practices in yoga (ethical vows, structured asana practice, breathing and concentration practices, lifestyle observations).  Mastering them is the key to transforming yourself and your life through the practices of yoga and is an important facet of practice.  Liberation as intended in classical yoga is a very specific experience.  It’s not about crashing through to a new shape with the body even if it hurts.  It’s not about “doing our own thing” without structure or discipline.   It’s about being awakened into the experience of our spiritual wholeness.    The restraint practices should not, and do not have to be dramatic or drastic.  It might mean staying in a particular posture even if you are a little uncomfortable – maybe sometimes when you are a lot uncomfortable –  in order to move beyond your sense of limitation.   To practice yoga in this way does require a high degree of discernment –  of learning to feel and experience the body and develop skillful means of working with our sensations. To some extent no teacher can really tell us that.

We used to work with the guideline that if the sensation is sharp you need to back off and approach the posture in a different way. For a dull softer discomfort we would generally stay  in the posture and breathe ease into the form.  The sensations we have are never black and white, so a guideline like this can’t be followed blindly. 

We could consider this…if we bump into a tugging resisting sensation, then we are trying to expand in a place where there is currently contraction, and our work then is to find a way to allow the expansion.  Breath is a good starting place, but it requires some attention to how one is breathing. How well you are able to receive an inhale? What conditions support that? Can you allow the lungs to expand? That quality of expansion will travel throughout the body as we allow it, and will gently open our places of deep holding and restrictions. To push against or fight against it will yield a different result. If we soften the mind and the heart and work with wisdom the experience of restraint transforms into its opposite –  the experience of liberation.  Tension melts and we are no longer restricted by tightness.  This transformation of opposites into a unified experience is yoga – to yoke together.   

The restraints imposed by the global experience of pandemic have resulted in massive shifts in the way we live and work and love.  Training ourselves to be spacious and allowing in of those changes fosters our capacity for resilience and blossoming. 

Yoga, Freedom and Moving into Sovereignty

The focus this moon month in the newsletter is freedom or in Sanskrit, Mukti.  Mukti translates as “liberation”,  freedom, and it’s important to understand that freedom in the sense of yoga is different than freedom in of our day-to-day life – although they are related. We may think that having tons of money would be freedom or rebelling against social conventions would be freedom. Freedom is not inherent in those experiences.  Ask anyone who has very large amounts of money or who has lived in the counterculture for a long time and in their story you will hear of the oppressions that still remain.  In yoga  freedom is something that we develop inside ourselves as we cease identifying with the fluctuations (vritti’s) of our mind. That’s the  second sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The fluctuations of our mind frequently take the form of how we think of ourselves, how we think of others and how we think of the world we live in. These mental constructs can become rigid and block our ability to be open and spacious and, well, liberated.  The freedom of the yogi comes in the form of an inner sovereignty which allows us to become the masters of our own minds and to use that freedom to choose the path of love over and over again.

Yoga is a discipline that leads to freedom The practices of yoga involve experiencing certain kinds of restraint and under those conditions finding the freedom there. When the  restraint is lifted you have a different understanding of who you are. Restraint comes in the form of tying yourself in a knot in an awkward posture and remaining peaceful.  Restraint can mean  being willing to suspend our immediate desires in order to allow a higher state of wisdom consciousness to guide our actions.

When we tie ourselves in a knot in a posture we stir up the deep resistances we have to living.  The knots are knots within our consciousness and so the goal is that to breathe, to be present to what’s happening and not fight with it. Consider this first level of freedom one that you could find contentment even when circumstances around you are not to your liking.  That’s a tremendous amount of freedom. Sometimes for whatever reason it’s not the best idea to change a circumstance. Even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s better to be strong. This capacity is honed in the practice of asana.  Accept the limitation, breathe be still and allow your inner guidance to direct you step by step to moving beyond the limitation into a deeper expression of the posture.

This kind of yoga training reveals discernment – the capacity to understand if our impulses are coming from our authentic heart desires or our desire to control. It’s a powerful means of developing aligned autonomous inspired choice making. Sovereignty. It is a gift of the yoga practice born of moment by moment alignment with self and that is the freedom. Rather than having others dictate who we are or who we become  or what actions we take in our lives we are free to take action in alignment with our highest best interest.  Yoga will take us to a healthy and beautiful body of all different kinds of shapes and sizes but this is the heart of the yoga  – this sovereignty and the freedom that emerges through practice.

About the body the body  – In time

Hatha Yoga Pradipika Verses 103-104

“All of the all the processes of hatha and laya yoga are but the means to attain raja yoga. (samadhi) One who attains Raja yoga is victorious over time (death).” (Bihar edition and translation)

Perhaps when you were a child you experienced being measured. Sometimes parents make marks on the wall to emphasize how much a child has grown physically. As children we were measured physically, intellectually, emotionally… how we are growing? Then at some point the nature of that measuring starts to compare itself to an end point rather than the beginning point.  We mark a wrinkle (one step towards old age) A gray hair (another step towards old age). Perhaps we worry more about a physical symptom than we would have when our hair was colored rich and deep and our skin was rosy and clear.  One great blessing of combining the inner and outer yogas is that the processes are designed to liberate us from time. A mark of a well-done yoga practice is that decline is minimized and many times even reversed. One advantage of studying the tales of the great accomplished masters is that they completely transcend time. They choose when to leave the body behind. It’s a great teaching. There are many records  (Paramahansa Yogananda, Shri Brahamananda Saraswati ) of enlightened beings whose bodies did not compose after death but remained intact as their devotees prepared the funeral rites. When Shri Brahmananda Saraswati was cremated it is said that his ashes were pure and white as snow. He also regenerated his body and brain after a stroke through study and practice of Sanskrit (an energetically based yoga practice).

What does that mean for us as contemporary yogis? We don’t really know. We don’t really know what that means. Will we be immortal? Do we want to be immortal? Will we just stay lively? Will we live on as souls beyond the body?

What we do know is that well-done yoga is a rejuvenating practice.  It’s hormonal, it’s energetic, it’s the nervous system but essentially to tap into the field of consciousness is to tap into that place beyond time and that is infinite.  To keep the spiritual dimensions of the practice front and center. Serenity makes for a great facelift.

How do we make this more tangible? The usual choices for this kind of experiment are meditation or chanting. The point is your body will change through these practices.  And you can practice it and find out.  Just note that other lifestyle choices will mitigate your results.  Wise lifestyle choices will enhance them. 

For me the door which opened the understanding of this spirit body connection was yogic chanting. I knew it immediately even though I was not spiritually or athletically accomplished. I was living in New York and had much pain in my body — weight training, aerobics, desk work, crazy diet — so many possible culprits for the pain. After finding no remedy that was clear through the western medicine lens I started yoga to ease the pain.

I noticed almost immediately that if the class started with an Om  my body didn’t hurt as much during class. I thought it was a goofy thing and I made jokes about it. I figured I was imagining things, but then I found the Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York. Chanting was central to that practice,  and I learned there that the ancient yogis understood that the body is made of sound. To those I spoke with and studied with there, when I made the statement that my practice was better if I Om’d first, it made perfect sense. I stayed with that practice for years and experienced many complex postures that I never imagined that I would do in part because my relationship with my body changed as I worked with this understanding that the body was made of sound. Things I could never imagine at 29 opened up for me as I moved towards and through a so called middle age. I am now 58 and I have less pain in my body than I did at age 29 – even in the wake of injury.

For this I rely on my yoga practice.

For the practitioner I believe that the bottom line of this is that we begin to consider that our bodies are not our masters — our hearts and our souls are. To embrace the spiritual aspects of the practice is not to deny the body but to nourish it at a deep level — beyond DNA, consciousness (which is experienced through practice) nourishes our very cells. You will be strengthened by it and it will cost you nothing to try.

About the Body – Thoughts on designing sequences for personal practice

I’ve waited years to talk about this!  It’s absolute freedom to me to be honest about designing your personal yoga practice.  You see, when you teach yoga you have to learn to construct a sequence which will be manageable for the largest number of people in the demographic that you are working with.  It’s a fabulous way to learn, taking group classes.  The support is amazing and often, especially in the early stage of practice – you can go further in association with others.  There comes a time in practice though…a time when it’s really time for you to discover your own personal connection with yoga and the truth that is being uncovered in you by the practice.  This can really only be done on your own.  No one else can feel what you feel.  No one else can really understand that revelation that you have.  It all travels through our personal filters.  And what, if not the actualization of our own yoking to the sacred, to the infinite, to the wise  – are our practices about?  It’s something to celebrate when we are called to develop our personal practice.

Generally I suggest that you start out considering two approaches to designing.  The first is to get on your mat and play – and in this I encourage you work with and without music.  Music will drive you in a particular direction, but it can also obscure what is going on inside at a deeper level.  It’s a complicated topic which we’ll address in future posts.  The key at this point is to be aware that it will have an impact in your practice.  The second is to decide on a goal and then work towards it.  For this second, more structured sadhana-like way to practice yoga asana – I suggest you start by picking a few basic key postures and doing them every day.   Overall, I design my sadhana moon month by moon month, and each month I will design a full sequence for myself. I decide the minimum postures I will do on a busy day.  Each day when I get on my mat it falls somewhere in the spectrum.  I always have a posture which is key for the moon month.  I try to tie it into my spiritual theme.  I always did that for the students and yes, I do it now just for myself.  I don’t hesitate to indulge the desires I have about my body, but I always try to give them a context.  For example, I gained weight during COVID (can you believe that? Lol) and I want to change that.  So my spiritual themes are around sadhana and the discipline contained therein.  That spiritual practice supports what I need to do for my body- which right now is to practice almost everyday.  We are integrated beings and there will always be a physical and spiritual coherence in our practice if we are open to it. 

Also, in this more structured component of developing practice it’s good to decide how you want to learn to understand your body.  Some people thrive with that anatomical memorization of parts.  Eh, not me.  For me, learning about the energy body was the doorway to learning about the muscles and bones and tendons and organs.  Once you decide on your approach, there are many resources online books and workshops.  If you are serious about yoga, I highly recommend, Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar.  He has sample sequences at the end of the book which are great learning devices. 

IF YOU FORCE NOTHING YOU WILL BE 100% SAFE.  FORCE NOTHING!

Remember to bring your wisdom with you on your mat.  In my years as a teacher I’ve seen people fall out of arm balances because they were drinking before class, people pushing postures until they snap, all kinds of things.  Most recently, my last employer – probably in his early seventies, felt fat from the COVID too.  He jumped immediately into doing 200 sit ups with a 25 pound weight on his head.  I said, “I would never let one of my students do that”.  He kept doing it.  Let’s put that in the “don’t try this at home” file.  The beauty of yoga is that you can gain without pain, and that the results of everything you do are cumulative  – a sustainable practice builds sustainable gains.  Moderation, balance and consistency are better than dramatic pushes followed by collapses into nothingness because you’ve overdone it. 

It is my deepest wish that this information will be useful to you, that you will grow in your life through your practice.  Keep practicing all is coming.

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The Elements of Sadhana: Santosha- Contentment

In the newsletters we’ve been talking about creating a sadhana – a conscious spiritual practice of yoga, a discipline of yoga as conscious spiritual practice. This past week I introduced the mahavratam or great vows outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. These vows aren’t something that Patanjali devised – he compiled them from studying with the esteemed yoga masters of the day (which was some time a few  thousand years ago no precise date is known).  There are ten of them. They are often considered to be moral imperatives. In practice I’ve found it more useful and more authentic  – I get better results – if I let that idea of morality go and open up to practicing them whenever and however I can, trusting that they are actually learning devices for me.  Through practicing them I open to understanding who I am and who everyone else is.  As I open to understanding I make better  choices. The ten mahavratam are: nonviolence, non stealing,  adherence to truth, continence, non- hoarding, cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self- reflection and devotion. In the newsletter I briefly talked about the practice of saucha or cleanliness. Today I’d like to speak a little bit about contentment, or santosha. 

One thing to consider when practicing these – they’re also called yamas and niyamas, restraints and observances – is that we are always creating. We are creative beings – extensions of the divine, which is the creative energy of the universe, the supreme creative energy of the universe. This is an underlying paradigm of the yoga practice.  The yoga practice will reveal that we a specks of divine creative consciousness – and we can live from that truth. This is co-creating, which is yoga – to be yoked to the divine. The restraints and observances clear the palette of our consciousness, enabling creativity which is unbridled by our past. 

 With yoga the idea is that creating in alignment  with the infinite divine opens the doorway to limitless possibilities- and that wisdom, that intelligence – will create richer more satisfying possibilities than our personalities with their cravings and conditioned attunement to lack. If we choose it, these practices deepen our understanding of the elements of a good life.  This is partly why I encourage you to set aside the idea that they are imposed morality.  Practiced lovingly, they open the way to a delicious abundant live.  Less is more. 

With the practice of santosha or contentment this connection between our behaviors our beliefs our thoughts in the world that we experience is made very clear. 

Perhaps in your life you have met those or perhaps you’ve been in this space yourself ( I know I have been) where you feel a need to complain about everything. I’ve seen a real uptick in this during the COVID situation. 

 I think we can all agree there is much to be addressed in the world., but right now we have to accept what’s happened and what is happening and learn to work with it. Shaking our fists at a perceived enemy is unlikely to change the world…changing ourselves is likely to change the world, not only because we engage those conversations differently. 

But let’s think back to the before time – before COVID – and remember those days in offices or classrooms or social gatherings where we or our friends or neighbors or our family would lapse into days where we complained and complained and complained. Surely we’ve all known in ourselves or others that momentum that complaining develops – once you start complaining there just seems to be more to complain about. The yogis understood this very deeply through their meditations , analysis and self reflection. The practice of contentment is to practice contentment under all circumstances that’s a key of these mahavratam – under all circumstances.   So in any moment (the grandeur of universality demands we operate one moment at a time) when faced with complaining, we choose contentment.  It’s like putting down a heavy object.  “I just don’t want to carry the weight of my complaints, so I’m a gonna put this down, right here.”  It’ll be okay.  Once we’ve entered a quieter state of mind, wise action can emerge more clearly. 

What does that mean – in the yoga practice – to work a difficult situation? Perhaps it is to rest in the understanding that you’ve participated in the creation of it and take responsibility for the fact that you’re there. You skip the blame (of yourself and others) you skip the victim story and nurture and invite the ability to see the situation differently.  Liberation arises when we realize there is no one to blame.  The practice of contentment opens our minds so that we are able to see that. To be honest, in content I perceive that there is nothing to complain about.  It’s all perfect.  But to deeply know that feeling we have to practice.  

One of the ways that we can train ourselves in the vast practice of contentment is to practice on our yoga mats. One of the most obvious powerful and potent ways to do this is to be content with a posture even as you are working to transform it. Where I am is fine but I’d like to deepen it. I’d like to expand it; I’d like to move to the next expression of it. So the first part of that is to enjoy every posture just where you are with it. This is one of the reasons why the postures that we can’t do are so important. As I say this I realize that this is one of the biggest difficulties of a home practice is that we never bump into those postures that we don’t like. At the same time if the classes available around us are not suitable – to force ourselves to go into a class that is just full of difficulties makes no sense either.  So what can be a good idea in your practice is to add a small step towards a posture that you would like to attain someday. For me right now this is wheel urdva dhanurasana. 

 I had an accident last fall where my wrist was smashed. I’ve consciously decided to recover slowly. In my full practice days I would do three full or wheel postures every day.  Wow right?  To me that seems like wow.  I was never a born gymnast. That posture has intense ramifications on the wrist and feels remote to me but at a certain point I had an intuition a revelation that in fact I would be able to do it again in this lifetime So what I’m going to practice this moon month is to sit at the wall and take a camel posture and place my hands on the wall. A highly modified introduction to the movement that would lead to wheel. And I am content.. This is the beauty of modifications in yoga. What they do is – if you practice them fully,happily embracing what the modification has to offer you – it’s actually like working the full posture you develop the shape energetically on a deep level and it opens from the inside out. One day your’re ready and the full posture emerges – like a chuck busting out of an egg. 

So how do we learn about modifications if we’d like to incorporate them in our sadhana?  I highly recommend them even if you don’t have an injury. Spend some time in modified postures.  By working with the modifications you’ll learn some of the paradigms of postural yoga. We’re very fortunate to live in an opulent world where there’s all kinds of information about yoga on the Internet so I’m sure you can find some information about modifications there.  As far as books books go and even Internet the best school of yoga from which to learn about modifications is the Iyengar school so I encourage you to look into that when choosing postures to work in your sadana. 

Once you’ve practiced santosha on your mat for some time don’t be surprised if you  catch yourself practicing it in your life.  You don’t have to make a big trip out of doing all of these mahavratam.  Just know that they can extend to all circumstances, and they’re not limited.  Your contentment is not limited to certain circumstances.  You can start practicing them in certain circumstances until you feel confident to apply them in more challenging circumstances.  

OK that’s our blog post for today. As always it’s my sincere wish that this information be useful to you and that your practice will lead you to a blessed and wonderful life. 

Experiencing Yoga:  Overcoming Obstacles within – without

This month in class – as we practice asana, we are holding space for the understanding of yoga as presented in the first pada or book of the timeless text Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In this pada Patanjali lays out the arc of yoga – he spells out the origin and result of the practice as well as  some fundamentals of practice itself.  He also spells out the inner and outer obstacles.  This is important.  Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people in the world find well-being in yoga.  We all want that  well-being, but, well, maybe we just don’t feel like we can do yoga. My teacher once taught me that the hardest part of yoga was just getting to class. Do you have obstacles? What are they?  As a yogi, I confront those obstacles daily. As a yoga teacher, my life is filled with persons telling me why they can’t practice — at job interviews, at the bank, at the dinner table and in the grocery store.    Hey, maybe you just don’t want to! Nothing wrong with that!  But if you do want to, acknowledging the obstacles and being willing to engage them can be a powerful move forward towards actually becoming stable in your practice. It’s really important to note that Patanjali spells out both inner obstacles (our thoughtforms) and outer obstacles (i.e.not feeling well). Adopting a two pronged approach to address these two apparently separate dimensions of our being can be a powerful catapult into a strong practice.

For many of us, the outer obstacles seem to be the easiest to focus on in the beginning.  It seems that  if there was just a little less traffic we could get there.  But, from the perspective of yoga, the outer obstacles always have an inner corollary.  The outer obstacles Patanjali identifies are: illness, laziness, negligence, the attraction of pleasures, confusion about the practice, attachment to the way things are and a tendency to fall back on old habits.  The inner barriers to the experience of yoga are the various thoughtforms that we have been conditioned to believe are true and unchangeable (“I’m not athletic – never have been since I was a kid”).    The solution to the equation is yoga.  In the samadhi pada Patanjali describes the experience of yoga arising as we shift away from identification with our conditioned thoughtforms and engage with and identify with the ground of consciousness which is fresh and clear and unfettered. 

Arm balances – historically – have always been a big struggle for me.  It took seven years for me to do a handstand.  When I finally stood on my hands, it was a surprise.  My physical effort had been minimal; linking to some measure of illumined consciousness had been maximal.  It’s a story I lived many times in my years of practice.  Today, faith in myself and a willingness to let go and link up with a more illumined perspective is still essential to my practice.  If that linkage wobbles, so does my posture.  But what I saw in that moment of my first handstand was that I had held myself down with the belief that I could not support myself with my own two hands.  To be honest, that epitomizes much of my life journey and my journey through yoga.  It’s been a journey from dependence to independence. 

The first step is a little bit of willingness to see what our inner thought forms are.  We don’t have to worry about changing them.  A willingness to consider that they are there can go a long way towards dissolving them.  Patanjali identifies them as:

  • What we’ve learned intellectually from valid sources
  • What we’ve learned intellectually from invalid sources
  • Hearsay – what we’ve heard about, but have never experienced.
  • The arising of states of non-wakefulness (sleepiness)
  • Recall – drawing forth of past experiences (memory)

Because the obstacles can be so deeply embedded in our programming it does take a bit of faith to get on the mat at all.  But if we desire the sovereignty to deeply transform ourselves and our world that desire can propel us along in our practice until faith in the practice emerges.  It’s all in what you focus on.

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