When I was younger, I began practicing yoga for the physicality of it. I liked putting myself into shapes that either stretched or strengthened me. It was demanding but doable, and I found it engaging and fun. As my studies continued, I learned that the observation and control of the breath and the mind were also part of practicing yoga. Asana became a tool along the path rather than an end goal.

Yoga has teachings and techniques regarding the breath and the mind. I am grateful that I found teachers along my journey that were able to translate them in a way that was accessible and relevant on and off the mat. It’s what I strive to pass on to my students.

Now is the first word of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and some would argue it’s the most important concept. I agree. For now, I find myself at one of life’s crossroads. My father died recently. Not unexpected due to his age and health and the natural trajectory of life. Now, I am a child who has lost a parent. I’ve often been amazed that I’ve had two parents for as long as I have – I knew it was coming. However, it’s still a transition filled with emotions, duties, and paperwork.

Now, more than ever, is when I appreciate the support of my yoga practice. It’s what I’ve been training for. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to practice when our bodies feel good, our minds and hearts are at peace, we’re in a familiar studio with a teacher we like, doing poses that we like. And that’s great. But it’s not always how it goes. 

What are you practicing for?

Now, the practice of yoga.

We recently had visitors from Hawaii, a mom and her almost eleven year old daughter. There are two other kids in their family, but this was their special trip. The daughter wanted to visit “winter” so they came to Alaska. She had never seen snow before and it did not disappoint. She loved it! This girl celebrated snow. She jumped in it, ate it, skied on it, threw it, sledded on it, and basked in all of its crystal white, frozen wonder. And really, when you think about it, snow is nothing less than amazing. Especially if you’ve been surrounded by sand all of your life.

Many of us who’ve lived with snow for more than a few years have lost or forgotten this sense of delight. Those of us who recreate in it are happy to see it fall. But along with that comes the need to dress for it, purchase gear for it, walk in it, drive in it, and shovel, shovel, shovel. After all we need to clear it out from where we don’t want it – the driveway, the roof, the car, the wood pile, the stairs, the deck, the dog house, and on and on and on. 

My yoga teacher and mentor has been instructing his students to orient ourselves to joy.

So, here’s the question – how do we find and authentically connect to that child like joy that we all once had? 

The reality is that there are a lot of grown up things that are downright hard. A few people suggested that we hand our young friend a shovel to show her the other “reality” of snow. But I say, let’s lift our faces and stick out our tongues, taste the sweetness of the next snowfall so we can remember the magic and miracle of snow.

Classically, Pranayama was used to develop the body and mind for the higher limbs of yoga (the subtle practices of sense withdrawal, one pointed concentration and meditation). However, breathing is one of the few bodily functions that are both conscious and unconscious. The way we breathe affects bodily functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and sleep for better or worse. By practicing various pranayama techniques, we can learn how to calm the mind, increase lung capacity, open the nasal passages, and even strengthen the core.

Back in March 2020, when everyone else was learning how to bake bread, making home improvements, or catching up on their reading list, I decided to devote more time to practicing Pranayama, the fourth limb of yoga. As a yoga teacher for over 20 years, it was one of those things that I always thought I “should” do but never made the time for. Having access to my teacher via zoom, provided me with the support for a deeper dive into Pranayama (and got rid of at least two or three of my excuses).

I’ve been practicing Pranayama more consistently for almost two years now. I am still a beginner, but I have learned a few things about the importance of this subtle practice and am bringing some of the techniques into my group and private teaching.

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you of the benefits of a Pranayama practice. I’d love to share what I’ve learned and help you with your journey.

Don’t get me wrong, I love winter. Long, snowing winters are one of the reasons I stayed in Alaska. It’s the “not quite” place between the end of fall, but not yet winter, where I struggle. It’s a familiar discomfort. It just comes earlier in Alaska than it did in New England. This year, rather than pushing back or running away, I decided to lean into it to see what I could learn. Not surprisingly, the teachings and practices of yoga helped. When I stopped hanging on to summer or yearning for winter, I was able to notice the subtle beauty of the transition season. Reflecting, rather than rejecting, allowed me to shift my perspective and open up space for appreciation of the present moment (also a teaching of yoga). I’m finding joy in quiet pursuits like knitting, reading and writing. And yes, as a way to energize during these rainy, gray days, I bundle up, go outside and run!

What do you find yourself pushing away? How can you lean into it? If it’s your yoga practice – let me know how I can help you!

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lists five obstacles or afflictions (kleshas) that keep us from attaining the state of yoga. They are lack of knowledge or awareness, egoism (too much or too little ego), attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, and fear of death. He goes on to explain that our lack of knowledge is the basis for the other four. Through increased awareness we can work with our obstacles and begin to weaken them. Conversely, through continual repetition of our habits we reinforce them. 

The first step in working with the kleshas is being aware of their existence. The second step is believing that you have control over your thoughts and actions. Patanjali suggests focusing on three of the niyamas as a means for practicing in a manner that can liberate us from the self imposed suffering caused by the klesas. For more on this, refer to an earlier post on the kleshas or check out Sutras 2.1 – 2.9.

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.