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. 

The Fruits of Yoga: Awakening into the Experience of Infinity

About the body

II.47 Patanjali Yoga Sutra Steadiness and ease of posture is to be achieved through persistent slight effort and through the concentration of the mind upon the infinit

II.48 Patanjali Yoga Sutra When this is attained the pairs of opposites no longer limit.

(translation of Sutras by Alice Bailey)

One of the techniques from the classical practices which is really powerful in uniting the two opposites is something called moola bandha.  Moolah is “root” and Banda is lock,  and the experience of moola bandha or root lock can be activated by several different approaches.

On the physical level a very simple way to begin to activate this root lock is to engage in lift the space between the anus and the genitals. Bring your attention to the area and attempt to draw it up and in toward your navel.  Now hold that for your entire practice while breathing at the same time.  For me, to be honest, I have the best luck with this if I work with it in seated forward bends and standing postures.  Some yogi’s can perform this to an extent they levitate the body.  In my opinion working with it on both levels is useful, and working with it simply is safer. 

On and energetic level what moolah bandha does is move the energy in an energy center called the mooladhara chakra(the root chakra) which energizes the entire pelvic girdle. To directly experience our energy requires patience and the cultivation of a subtler level of attention.  But for some, this is easier.  Just know that if you keep practicing consistently and well you will have tangible experiences of this kind of energy and be able to learn to manage it.  As a matter of fact we all feel our energy all the time.  Some examples are the experiences of sexual desire or butterflies in the stomach. When we’re focused on identification with our sexual identity,  our financial identity our tribal identity and our identity as a body (as opposed to as a spiritual being) the energy of this center moves out into the material world. We may notice this as an experience of deep fatigue. The energy also moves outward if we seek our answers outside of ourselves, rather than listening within.

 When we work with Moola Bandha this way of looking at ourselves and looking for answers shifts. We begin to wake up to a different way of understanding our lives –  what are we creating, how we participate in the larger community of the universe, what is our personal path of love and what is our authentic expression. When we start asking these kinds of questions, looking in these directions for the answers to the questions that arise in our lives Moola Bandha is activated on an energetic level. When it’s activated on an energetic level it often spontaneously arises on a physical level as well.  The trick is to keep the state of mind as you re-engage the external world.

 A powerful way to support the physical practice of moola bandha is to shift our attention towards these universal considerations while we practice.  Our attention will work harmoniously with the physical contraction of the space between the anus and the genitals.  By working these two aspects together we activate a powerfully gentle form of transformation. How do we shift our attention while we are in our practice? Shouldn’t our attention during our practice be on our practice?  I encourage you to ask those questions when you are on your mat in your personal practice. There are as many approaches to this integration as there are people practicing yoga.  Some people meditate before practice. Some people chant before practice. Some pray.   Some extend the benefit of their practice to others or take a moment to envision that somehow as the practice transforms them  – that the world around them will transform into a peaceful world where beings are happy and free.  The possibilities are endless hence Patanjali’s statement about the limits.     The important thing is to consider incorporating these kinds of techniques into your practice on a physical level.  In actual practice an effective moola bandha will show up in a lightness – a freedom of movement,  a steadiness of the mind,  and a stability in the grounding of the posture. It may also show up as a different understanding of yourself in the practice and this I will leave you to discover on your own!

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.

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. 

Pranayama: Potency and Subtlety

Patanjali Yoga Sutra III.43  When you focus on the relationship between the body and the space around the body, the lightness of cotton fiber is attained and allows one to travel through the sky. 

We use the word  focus here, but it is about Samayama, restraint of the qualities of attention.    When our casual attention, our intermittent attention and our constant attention are all resting in one concept, we become that concept.  We lose our identity in that something.  It’s just something that human minds do.  We slip into falling in love and we become the other’s partner instead of being ourselves.  We become our role, instead of inhabiting the role for a time.  Patanjali, the great yoga psychologist teaches how we can master this tendency and use it intentionally.  This sutra is one of the many where he describes a practice one can do, here focusing on the body and the space around the body, where the qualities of lightness is revealed.  We focus on the edge of our density and the air around us and our own spaciousness is revealed.  In Yoga the intention is to identify with the unlimited aspect of consciousness, and then operate from that vantage point.  In order to do this we must develop our awareness of the subtle.  We developed this awareness by learning about prana – the subtle energy.  Learning to work with prana transforms our relationship with the body and with the asanas.

Asanas work powerfully on the gross level, developing muscles and balancing bone structure.  Squeezing out the internal organs and changing the blood flow.  Working with prana impacts the subtle fluid energies of the body and their conduits – the veins and nervous system – purifying blood and lymph and plasma.  In the traditional Chinese system, chi, a relative of prana (it appears to function differently), is associated with the spirit in its function in blood.  We can understand then that the finer the substance the closer it is to spirit.  To understand our prana is to come to understand ourselves.

A primary yogic technique for working with the prana is pranayama, or restraint of the prana.  We practice consciously controlling, restricting and releasing the prana. The result is energy, wakefulness and creativity.

Don’t be surprised if you go through a period of transition before you feel that.  The heavier elements of consciousness formed by lifestyle factors may present obstacles to clarity.  But that’s part of the gift.  Like dropping sandbags out of a balloon we may decide to let things go.  It’s important to note that  it’s not necessarily the object of attention that we let go of, it could be how we relate to it.  We see things differently when we take a few steps back.  When we release the obstacle and  gather our attention on what lifts us up we float, like a cloud, or a helium balloon when what weighs it down is released. In the case of this sutra, the we learn that what weighs us down is the compartmentalization that there is space and there is body,we are the body, and not space. And they are separate.  The deeper our intimacy with breath and space through the practice of pranayama, the more we develop discernment of the subtle in our practice, and find our way to lightening up. 

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