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: A Balanced Connection to the Earth

At its simplest…any asana is wholesomely built on a balanced connection to the earth.  Whatever parts of the body are connected with the earth…evenly distribute the weight throughout that footprint and then reach up and out.  This is an accessible basis of alignment rooted in physical and spiritual realities.   It also does something interesting…done with ease and spacious focused breathing it will re-balance the structure of the body by strengthening that which needs strength and softening imbalanced patterns of tension.  The weight distribution across the seat of the posture (the part of the body which connects to the earth) becomes the limiting factor in how far you take the posture on a given day.  In standing postures the energetic work comes with mastery of the foot structure – what lifts up (the arches) and what roots downs (outer edges and heels) and balancing that dynamic. 

One posture which demonstrates this in an interesting way is Virabadrasana 1 or Warrior 1.  Classically, the back foot is at a 45 degree angle to the front foot.  Reaching into the heel and stretching the front knee forward – we then gently adjust the hips to move the left hip forward.  Sometime this taught instead with the back heel lifted so the hips can be square like a lunge.  The classical version  – with the dynamic of rooting through the feet, allows for grounding and upliftment, stability and joy.  By lifting the back heel into a lunge like position…the position of the hips squared forward becomes primary, and the connection to the earth secondary.  Of course I am clearly biased!  An artful student could apply these ideas in a lunge – like Virabhadrasa 1.  I do believe that a body is similar to any other physical structure.  You wouldn’t build the third floor of a building before you’d built the foundation.   But the point is to investigate  how you are anchoring your posture – and if that creates equanimity, balance, joy.  The word asana refers to a seat or one’s situation in relation to the earth.  In this sense these energetics are also connected to the idea of giving and receiving – taking in and releasing – which is reflected in the breath and in our capacity to be spacious and stable as we move through our lives. 

It’s worth the experiment to explore Virabhadrasana 1 to learn what stability means to you in a kinesthetic sense.  Which approach leads you to feel stable and why?  And which version allows you to reach out and expand in a multitude of directions.  It’s always good to practice an experiment like this consistently over a chosen period of time.  The body will be different every day and life experiences will have an impact on the felt experiences and the actual musculoskeletal alignment on any given day.  Big changes in a life can bring deep changes in the body – by investigating with some consistency in practice as we move through life we can develop insight, clarity and understanding.

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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. 

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!

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. 

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. 

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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