I’ve been thinking about what yoga is (and isn’t) a lot over the past few months. Okay, it’s probably been more like years, but the point is that I think it’s important to know why you do yoga. And it’s okay if it changes over time.

Like many people, I originally thought Yoga was synonymous with stretching. I had also heard it defined as union, balance, and that the root comes from “to yoke”. Although I wasn’t sure to what I was yoking. 

The definition I resonate with the most is written in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Sutra 1.2 states “Yoga is the ceasing of the fluctuations of the mind”. The steps for this simple but not easy objective are listed in the sutras that follow. When I feel lost, I use them for guide posts. Cultivate attitudes of friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity (Sutra1.33). The first limb of yoga (the yamas) instruct us to be non harming, truthful, not to steal or envy, and to conserve our vital energy. One of the few sutras on asana lists that our efforts should cultivate steadiness and ease (Sutra 2.46). All good efforts to be sure, but to what end? If you know why you’ve chosen the path of yoga then you can determine if you efforts are truly taking you where you want to go.

And that’s the question I want to ask you. Where do you want this practice to take you? Why are you pursuing yoga, and not pilates or kickboxing? If it’s truly just a physical practice, then there are plenty of other fine disciplines that will help you get fit.

For me, yoga is about coming home to my true self, to the unchanging part of me that is connected to everything and everyone. It’s about following a time honored tradition that is still relevant in the modern world. I’m thankful for those that have come before me and left me enough signposts that I don’t fall off a cliff. 

Walking the path of yoga challenges me to put in the effort to inhabit my life fully, without fears, worries or regrets. And it reminds me that despite how I may sometimes feel, I am never truly alone.

Most of the time we identify with the body as our true “self”. But is this actually where our true nature lies? Yoga gives us the model of the koshas as a way to navigate the different layers of being. Below is a brief description of each of the five layers or sheaths.

Anna maya kosha. Anna means food. This is the outermost layer of the body and consists of the muscle and bones. It is the most gross/dense and the least likely to change. 

Prana maya kosha.  Prana means energy.  It is the vital force that produces the subtle vibrations related to breath, circulation, and the nervous system. 

Mana maya kosha.  Mana means mind. It is the level of processing thoughts and emotions. It controls, through the prana, the physical body and the senses.  

Vijnana maya kosha.  Vijnana means knowing. It is the sheath of wisdom and intuition that is underneath the processing, thinking aspect of mind. 

Ananda maya kosha.  Ananda means bliss. This is the most subtle layer and is the residence of the soul. It is the felt experience of peace, joy, and love. Anandamaya pervades each of the previous outer sheaths, but is only experienced if we are able to peel the illusions of each sheath away to reveal our true nature.

When looking for themes for classes, I often refer to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. There are very few pose (asana) instructions in the sutras. That’s because asana is just one part of the eight limbed system of classical yoga. Which is interesting since most yoga classes spend the bulk of their time on physical postures. And as a yoga teacher, I do too.

However, I think it’s important to recognize that asana is a single component of a larger whole. By studying the eight limbs and our relationship to them, our understanding of yoga and the poses deepens. The eight limbs, in order, are the ethical guidelines (yama), personal practices (niyama), postures (asana), vital energy control (pranayama),  sense withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption (samadhi).

The limbs do not need to be studied sequentially, but because I like starting at the “beginning” I usually introduce them that way to show their interconectedness. The yamas or ethical restraints, are the first limb. Think of them as guidelines for conduct in society. The yamas are non harming, truth, non stealing, conservation of energy, and non greed. Hard to argue with any of those. In fact, I’ve often thought they could easily be listed on a poster on the wall of a kindergarten class.

These past few weeks, I’ve been encouraging my students to pick one yama and observe how it shows up in their lives and their practice. Since we all spend more time off the mat than on it, it’s interesting to notice how these moral codes play out in our relationship to others, material objects, and the self. For my own yama study, I chose to practice and reflect on non greed. 

I’ve always felt a bit confused about how non greed differs from non stealing. After some contemplation I’ve decided stealing is about taking, and greed is about wanting. Sometimes we take something because it is needed (an example would be stealing food to satisfy hunger). With greed there is never enough. The acquisition of the “thing” doesn’t fill us up, instead it feeds the cycle of wanting more. The wanting isn’t always for material objects. For me, it’s wanting things to be different than they are in the present moment, wanting to be more “successful” as defined by our society, wanting chocolate at 10 pm…plenty to practice with. 

The yamas are not commandments or absolutes. They, along with the other limbs, provide a yogic lens for self observation and study, They allow me to look at my thoughts, words, and deeds so that I may chip away at the things that are not my true nature, and cultivate the things that genuinely fill me up. Not so that I’m perfect, but so I can find more steadiness and ease in my life (another sentiment from one of my favorite sutras). It’s a slow process but I’m learning a lot and I’ve got the time. Do you?

I often joke that my job as a yoga teacher is to shoot down all of my students excuses for not practicing. You know the ones…not enough time, not enough space, too tired, no mat, the dog/cat/kid/spouse is distracting me…

In Sutra 2.1 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali offers a clear method for practice, Kriya Yoga. If you’re familiar with the eight limbs of yoga, you’ll recognize three of the niyamas (personal practices – the second limb of yoga) listed in Sutra 2.1

Kriya Yoga, the path of action, consists of discipline, self study, and faith
Tapah svadhyaya isvara-pranidhana kriya yoga

Sanskrit, the language of yoga, is concise. As such, we often need multiple words or phrases to capture the meaning of a single sanskrit word. For example, Tapas is often translated as discipline or heat. In our culture, discipline is often punitive. In the context of yoga and the sutras discipline should be enthusiastic, self directed, and for positive change. Svadyaya or self study is achieved through observation, and study of the texts. It is also helpful to find a trusted teacher or guide. Finally isvara-pranidhana, literally translates as surrender to the Divine. Implied in that meaning is surrendering from a place of fullness and having faith in something bigger than oneself.

To me, the beauty of Sutra 2.1 is that it gives us a “plan of action”. Yoga is not a passive practice. There’s a reason you’ve chosen to study yoga. Perhaps you’ve already realized that the richness of yoga and its teachings go deeper than the postures. As our practice develops, it is inevitable that we will encounter obstacles. The tools of Kriya Yoga help us navigate these stumbling blocks and keep us on the path. If you keep reading the second chapter of the Sutras, you’ll find a list of the five kleshas or obstacles. They are lack of knowledge, an over or under developed ego, attachment, aversion, and fear. Check out this previous post for more info on the kleshas.

When I first closed my studio in mid March, my thoughts were as follows….”this is temporary, I’ll be open again April 1st” and “I don’t need to teach online, there is a ton of good content on the web already”.

This time of sheltering in place may be temporary but I quickly realized that it’s going to last longer than any of us had realized. Since I’m committed to my students and my role as a yoga teacher, I decided to offer online classes.

When I first thought about teaching online there were other thoughts that I didn’t share with you. They sounded like this….”the existing online content is better than anything I can do”, “no way do I want to be on camera”, “I’m not into using tech for teaching”… blah, blah, blah. This mental chatter was my fear. Fear based on my past, my perceptions, my misperceptions – you get the idea.

Fortunately, through the practice of yoga (and some gentle nudges from others) I was able to dampen the voices down enough to do what I needed to do. Which was to get over myself and get on zoom! After two weeks of being online, some patient and wonderful students, and a steep learning curve, I’m feeling much better about virtual classes.

What’s your vision for the new year? Perhaps it’s a bit cliche, but it does seem fitting for 2020 to be the year for clear vision. For the past 18 years, my main focus was raising my son. I remember when we figured out that 2020 was the year he would graduate from high school. It seemed so unimaginably far into the future. And now, here we are.

I haven’t made new year’s resolutions in many years. In fact, I’m not sure I ever made them. But I like the idea of a fresh outlook. Resolutions, solutions, resolve. A chance to “solve” some of life’s puzzles. Turns out my son fledged early. He’s spending his senior year in Anchorage. The challenge of an “empty nest” is now my reality.

Fortunately I’ve been practicing for this. It’s not always easy, but the lessons off the mat never are. However, I can create some “ease”. And so, I sit – breathing in, breathing out – waiting with curiousity, to see how the pieces fit together.

I was explaining the concept of the habit loop to my class the other day. It goes like this:  a cue creates a habit and the habit provides a reward. My intention was to encourage students to look at their tendency of rushing through poses and the underlying belief that faster is better. The cue is that something needs to be done, the habit is rushing and the reward is a sense of mission accomplished. I asked them to consider the positive effects of moving slower through their poses. 

We all know changing habits isn’t easy. Especially when a habit (like getting more done or having more stuff) is reinforced and/or valued by our family, friends and society. Transforming longtime habits requires awareness and effort. Fortunately, there are tools that help us develop the ability to examine our actions and beliefs. Patanjali lists many of them for us in the Yoga Sutras.

Kriya Yoga is considered yoga of action, and is defined in the second book of the Yoga Sutras. The components of Kriya Yoga consist of the third, fourth, and fifth of the personal practices, or second limb of yoga (niyamas). They are discipline, study of the self and the texts, and surrender to a higher power (sometimes translated as faith). When considering what is necessary for habit change, the tools of Kriya Yoga can be powerful and effective. 

Discipline is needed to endure the discomfort of changing an old habit and replacing it with a new habit. Self study gives us insight into how our current actions affect us and helps us decide what we really want to change. Faith allows us to believe that change is actually possible and that we are capable of it.

In my mind, one of the most important benefits of yoga is we can practice on the mat, the attributes we would like to possess when we are off the mat. When we hurry – whether it’s through our poses or our “to do” list, we miss the chance to be truly present in the moment. Coming back to the habit loop my example was that the cue was yoga practice, the habit was slowing down, and the reward was enjoying the moment. One of my students astutely noted that there was a word for that. Savoring. To savor is to truly be in the moment, to use one’s senses fully and joyfully. To me, that sounds a lot like the goal of yoga.

There is no one “right” way to practice. Different styles of yoga may emphasize certain aspects of practice – asana, meditation, chanting, etc – but one is not better than the other. As you hopefully know by now, yoga is not an accomplishment, or something to use to judge yourself or others. Yoga is the act of stabilizing the mind and dissolving our sense of separateness. It gives us the ability to move, think and feel from a place of awareness.

The second book in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras gives suggestions on how to practice. The first concept introduced in it is Kriya Yoga or the yoga of action. It incorporates three of the niyamas (the personal practices and the second limb of yoga). They are tapas, svadyaya, and isvara pranidhana. If you read the sutras, you’ll find these words have a variety of english translations. Now, I’m no sanskrit scholar (although I have a friend who is!) but I find that using the sanskrit word rather than the english can free me from my personal and cultural biases about certain words.

Take tapas for example. It is translated as discipline, heat, intensity, desire, austerity, or fiery passion. Tapas is an inner fire, not the heat that comes from sweating profusely or being in a warm room. My favorite definition for it is discipline that comes from the desire to achieve the fruits of yoga. Discipline is one of those words that can be charged for some people. So that’s why I think it’s important to contemplate the underlying meaning and work with them within your best understanding. It’s also helpful to realize that your comprehension will grow and change with practice and time. Which brings in the second concept – svadyaya.

Svadyaya translates as study, self study, or study of the ancient texts. I include study of (or with) learned teachers. The idea behind svadyaya in yoga is to really observe how you feel, think and respond in your yoga practice. It’s useful to read and learn from others but ultimately you are your best authority on what works or doesn’t work for you. When employing svadyaya a question to ask might be “is this bringing me closer to the state of yoga?”.

Isvara pranidhana is often translated as surrender to God (or a higher power). This was definitely the most challenging niyama definition for me. Over time, I have been able to craft a meaning that fits for me. Dedication from a place of fullness and humility is what I’ve come up with. I like to joke with my students that I don’t care what they believe in (or not) as long as they realize there is something bigger than themselves out there!

These are not rules. Think of them as suggestions, tools, or guideposts to use along the path. My advice is to try one out and see if it fits. Don’t throw it away at first glance. If something doesn’t feel right you can set it aside and try something else. Who knows, with some discipline, self study and dedication, you might notice changes that makes you want to try those things you set aside again.

Most of us spend the majority of our time functioning within our comfort zone or “zone of tolerance”. This is true for our actions, thoughts, mental patterns, emotions, and physical movements. I often encourage my students to practice in ways that create tolerable  discomfort. As a teacher, it’s also important for me to dip into the places that are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable. 

I will readily admit that one of the things that scares me is leading chants. In the spirit of pushing my edges, I recently committed to chanting at the end of my Wednesday morning class. Was I nervous? You bet! But guess what – I didn’t die or choke up. Students didn’t laugh or stay silent or walk out. They chanted with me. And I think some of them even enjoyed it. 

So, in the spirit of expanding what’s possible, I’d like to invite you to try something that’s a little scary. Start with something small and see what happens. This isn’t an invitation to throw all caution to the wind. Be smart and keep yourself safe. But ask yourself – how do I limit myself in ways that aren’t useful? Can you nudge those places and see if there’s any movement? You just might find yourself writing a poem, running a race, or singing in public!

Thanks to those of you who chanted with me. Here’s the chant and the translation. If you’d like to hear it you can google it to find a variety of interpretations.

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

Translation: May all beings be happy and free, and may my thoughts, words, and actions contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom.

This is a sanskrit mantra or pledge which is understood as an expression of the universe and of our deep connection to the beings around us (people and nature).

Check out my interview on KTNA.  The topic was group fitness opportunities in Talkeetna and how having a “workout buddy” or an online community can help with motivation. Click the link below to listen.

Tips for Healthy Living