"Yoga is said to be the union of the individual self and the supreme self (divine)... These are the limbs: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Yama and niyama are subdivided into ten types. Eight asanas are important and among them, three are the most important. Dharana is said to be of five types. Dhyana is of six types; among them, three are said to be more important. Samadhi is one, but some think it to be of many divisions."
From the Yoga Yajnavalkya.
How do we find peace
When we are surrounded by violence?
How do we find humility
When we are surrounded by pride?
How do we find silence
When the air is filled with pompous voices?
How do we find moderation
When we are surrounded by excess and gluttony?
How do we find happiness
When we are encouraged toward dissatisfaction?
Are these things within us?
Do we find them by turning inward?
Will we learn to resist?
How can we become pure?
How many times have you been instructed to "make space"? Sometimes it is "make space in your joints," sometimes it is "make space in your breath," and sometimes it is mental - "create space in you mind." To be honest, I have never understood or associated with these cues. I find them abstract at best, confusing and meaningless at worst.
But lately I have been finding space, particularly in my mind. Through regular Pranayama (Breath) practice, my mind is gradually becoming still. My thoughts become fuzzy and distant instead of the usual zippy urgency of the rest of my day.
I have also been practicing Surrender to the Divine (Ishvarapranidhana), in which I release all of my accomplishments and failures. I consciously choose not to carry them around as defining elements of my self - I am not defined by my successes or failures. I am only who I am. (But what does that mean? I'll keep you posted!)
When releasing my accomplishments and failures, I also release the pride and shame associated with them. So I find myself carrying around less pride and less shame than I have in the past. Where I used to be filled with urges and compulsions driven by my shame and pride, now I feel growing stillness and calm. There is a vacuum in my mind and emotions where there used to be driving forces. This, I have come to understand, is "space." I have made space.
The most significant part of finding the space is resisting the habit and the urge to fill it.
My mind is in the habit of having thoughts. Whenever I am at rest, a thought appears: think about tomorrow, hatch a new plan, analyze the day. Now that I find myself with "space" in my thoughts and desires, I don't know what to do with it. Do I fill it with new thoughts? Or do I let it be empty? Will it fill itself with something else? I have read that this is where God comes in - that we make the space and God fills it. It is a bit abstract for me, but certainly conceivable.
At this point I am trying to be patient and sticking with my practice. I have faith that this "space" will reveal something new and important and, for now, that is enough.
Why did my father's father worship the sun?
Did it shine more brightly?
Did the moon affect the tides more?
Did the earth rotate faster,
Or the wind blow more wildly?
My father's father had no electron microscope,
No quantum physics,
No automobile, no internet connection,
No indoor plumbing or running water.
The sun still rises in the east,
The earth rotates and the seasons change,
Seeds grow into plants, fed by the sun and the rain.
The wind blows and the rivers run to the sea.
Perhaps not much has changed.
Only us, for we no longer worship the sun.
The posture pictured to the right is called Short Man (or Short Person). It is normally done with the hands in prayer at the chest, but I have taken to extending it with the arms stretched overhead. There are a few different reasons to lift the arms overhead with the hands-in-prayer. Some are physical and some are spiritual.
1) Strengthen the shoulders. The most simple reason to lift the arms overhead is to strengthen the shoulders. Straightening the arms is one step further, especially if the hands are in prayer and not interlaced which can allow the stronger arm to support the weaker.
2) Lengthen the chest, abdomen and hips. Stretching the arms overhead draws the chest muscles tight, stretching them and drawing the ribcage upward. This has a chain reaction down the front of the body, stretching the abdomen and even the hips. It is especially valuable in backbends, hip openers like Short Man, and even front-of-leg stretches like Fixed Firm.
3) Raise the center of gravity. When we lift the arms overhead, it becomes harder to balance because we raise our center of gravity. This means that, all things being equal, arms up demands a little more stillness, awareness and control.
4) Dedication to God. Much like the well-known hands-at-prayer in front of the chest, hands-at-prayer raised overhead is a traditional form of dedication to God. Ancient ascetics would sit or stand for hours with their arms raised overhead. So raising the arms is a powerful and traditional spiritual component.
"There is no violent yogi. Nor is there one who utters falsehood. Bandit yogis are nonexistent. Philandering and yoga do not mix. Avarice also is not a yogic trait. Yogis have clean minds and bodies. Contentment is the hallmark of a yogi. Moderation is a yogic virtue. A yogi is a scholar as well. All that a yogi does, he does so with a sense of loving offering to God."
From Yoga Beneath the Surface by Srivatsa Ramaswami and David Hurwitz.
My interest has been renewed in studying the ancient texts of yoga. In addition to the Yoga Sutras there are texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Jogapradipika, the Bhagavad Gita, expositions by various masters like Vashista, Matsyendra and Gheranda. Plus thousands or tens of thousands of other shastras written anonymously.
I ask myself, "do I know more than these yogis?" If I disagree with something they have written, do I have the authority to disregard it and do my own thing? Why would I take their advice in some aspects but not in others?
Like many other modern yogis, I have instincts and opinions about what is "right" in yoga and what is "best." Not to mention the powerful pull of capitalism that seems destined to drag yoga into the world of physical fitness. Who am I to say what yoga is or is not? Especially when there is documentation from yogis far greater than me.
At this point, I feel the need to be humble. Practice, be focused and studious. Read what these yogis wrote that has lasted thousands of years. Develop my own relationship with this powerful force we call yoga.
Happy New Year! I want to start this year with focus and simplicity. What better way than to ponder the wisdom of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad? It spells out the value of right action, a moral code that can be found at the root of almost all spiritual traditions.
"As a person acts, so he becomes in life. Those who do good become good; those who do harm become bad. Good deeds make one pure; bad deeds make one impure. You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny."
From the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
A poem "Encouraging Words" by Zen Master Guishan, via friend and fellow yogi Paul. Make sure you read all the way to the end!
"Some day you will die.
Lying on your sick bed about to breathe your last,
you will be assailed by every kind of pain.
Your mind will be filled with fears and anxieties
and you will not know
where to go or what to do.
Only then you will realise that
you have not practised well.
The skandhas (matter/form, sensations, conceptions/apperceptions,
impulses/mental formations, and consciousness)
and the four elements in you
will quickly disintegrate,
and your consciousness will be pulled
wherever your ancient,
twisted karma leads it.
does not hesitate.
will not wait.
You will not be able
to extend your life by even a second.
How many thousand more times
will you have to pass through
the gates of birth and death.
If these words are challenging,
let them be an encouragement
for you to change.
Do not accumulate
Don't give up.
Still your mind,
end wrong perceptions,
concentrate and do not run
after the objects of your senses.
Be determined not to let your days
and months pass by wastefully."
Yogi Gregor Maehle recently wrote this blog post called What is Authentic Yoga? It is a brilliant discussion of the diverse and often misunderstood practice of yoga, the ultimate goals of the practice, where Asana and the other limbs fit in, religion versus spirituality, and the perversion of Asana as "physical exercise" and still calling it Yoga. It is definitely worth reading in its entirety. I am copying some of my favorite parts below.
"...there are actually two different yogas out there. The authentic one that mainly deals with spirituality (and has health arising from harmony and wholeness as a side effect) and a new exercise regime that is only called yoga for namesake. This new so-called yoga has been castrated to such an extent that it can now be introduced pretty much anywhere because all ‘offensive’ aspects have been removed."
"There is an eternal, sacred core to each being and once this core has been seen, the individual can place itself in the service of humanity and the whole. It is to the search for this core, its cultivation and then the placing itself in the service of all beings that historical, true and authentic yoga was dedicated to."
"...And this is exactly what true yoga is about. It is not what a particular religion says about the experience but having the experience yourself, and the way and methods to get there."
"...Then Ramakrishna developed his teaching (as it was the teaching of the mystics of all ages) that THERE IS ONE UNDERLYING TRUTH AND ESSENCE IN ALL SACRED TRADITIONS OF HUMANITY. It is to this one underlying truth and essence that our practice must be dedicated. While there may be cultural differences in metaphor, these are only at the surface and once the mystic enters the mystical state, they all vanish."
Maehle's website is here. He is among the most advanced and authentic yogis I have come across.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga