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

 

Most disciplines (music, art, sports) require dedicated practice of skills over time. How we practice influences our mind state and sets the course of our path. Infusing our efforts with enthusiasm, focus, and dedication may be obvious to some. Less obvious is the need for detachment (non attachment) to our efforts and outcomes.

In yoga, we use the word “practice” quite a bit. It’s important to remember that practice is a noun and a verb. Essentially, we practice our practice. Which begs the question, “what are we practicing and how are we practicing it?”.

One potential answer comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In the first three sutras yoga is defined as “the ceasing of the fluctuations of the mind”. Patanjali then tells us in Sutra  1.12 Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah (practice and detachment are cultivated to still the fluctuations of the mind).

At first glance, practice and detachment may seem like opposing instructions. However, the brilliance of pairing these concepts is that when we apply the actions (verbs) of practice and detachment in a manner that focuses our yoga practice (noun), we get us closer to the goal of yoga.

We are always practicing something. Often, we practice worrying, getting angry, being busy, obsessing over the past or future, etc. And guess what? We get better at those things as we practice them. Yoga challenges us to observe our mind state. Is it becoming more stable with your efforts? How does your mind state change when you stop trying to achieve in your asana? In other words, are you able to detach from your perceived goal of yoga and move toward the goal that Patanjali presents?

I like to remind my students that we are not practicing in order to perfect anything. We’re already perfect! We are practicing so that we can observe the process of nudging ourselves toward our consciously chosen goals. Detaching from judgement, achievement or whatever other results we are hoping to obtain frees us up to fully embody the present moment. And that is the ultimate goal of yoga.

The ladies from Wednesday morning yoga find the time and space to practice together while Studio Z Yoga is on break. Way to go!

While it can be useful to study individual lines from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is also helpful to contemplate some sutras grouped in the order they are written. This is the case with understanding the kleshas, a sanskrit word which translates as obstacles, afflictions, or “causes of suffering”. According to Patanjali there are five kleshas that sidetrack you in your quest for attaining the state of yoga. 

The following is my composite of various translations of the sutras 2.1 – 2.9. For those of you interested in learning more, I encourage you to read various translations and use the versions that speak to you.

2.1 Kriya yoga (yoga of action) is comprised of discipline, self study, and dedication to a “higher power”. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga

2.2 The practice of yoga brings samadhi (meditative absorption) and weakens the kleshas (obstacles) which are the causes of suffering. 

2.3 The obstacles are lack of knowledge (or understanding), egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear.

2.4 Lack of true knowledge is the source of all the other obstacles. They may exist in a dormant, weak or fully active form.

2.5 Lack of knowledge or wisdom, is mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and the non-self for the self. 

Lack of wisdom leads to errors in understanding the nature and effects of perceived objects.

2.6 False identity (ego) results when we regard out thoughts at the source of our perceptions.

2.7 Attachment is clinging to pleasure. Excessive attachment is based on the assumption that it will contribute to future happiness.

2.8 Aversion is dwelling on pain. Unreasonable dislikes are usually the result of painful experiences in the past.

2.9 Fear or clinging to life is the inborn feeling of anxiety for what is to come. It affects both the ignorant and the wise.

I hated brussel sprouts. Until I had them broiled with oil, garlic and salt. Yum. I used to strongly dislike (not very yogic to hate, right?) triangle pose. Until I learned how to engage my core appropriately, extend my arms using back muscles instead of neck muscles, and was shown a variation that didn’t involve looking at my top hand or raising my top arm. 

If I had to eat overly boiled brussel sprouts, I still would not enjoy them. Ditto for doing an extended triangle pose with a long stride, my hand on the floor, and my neck overly turned to gaze at my top hand. Fortunately, I’ve had friends who served me brussel sprouts cooked in tastier ways, and yoga instructors who’ve taught me variations and adaptations for triangle and other poses. 

My point here is, there is no one way to practice an asana (pose). Triangle pose is an asymmetrical standing posture, side bending against gravity, with an external rotation of one leg. The more I learn about the essence of a pose, the more options I have for doing it in a manner that will bring about a desired effect. Do I want to emphasize strength or range of motion? Am I doing it as part of a quieting practice or an energizing one? One thing is for sure – I’m not doing it to increase my dislikes or frustration level, and you probably don’t want to either. 

If there is not one correct way, it means “how to do a triangle pose” becomes a more challenging question. I’m currently taking an online training and one of the mentors likes to say “the answer to any question is – it depends”. Not a very satisfying response if you’re looking for absolutes. But the reality is that there are no rules that apply to every body. We come to the mat with our unique blend of genetics, experiences, interests, and injuries. Let’s celebrate that by allowing for variations in our yoga practices. You just might surprise yourself and learn to enjoy something you previously did not. Still haven’t learned to love liver and onions, but I’m open to your best recipe!

Lately, I feel like I’ve been defining yoga by what it isn’t rather than what it is. Yoga is not about extreme flexibility, or doing advanced poses, or wearing fancy tights. Having a sanskrit tattoo, standing on your head or taking 5 classes a week will not make you better at yoga. That’s not to say you can’t do some or all of those things (I love standing on my head!) but they aren’t the essence of yoga. 

The poses are a portal into the practice of yoga but it’s not the only one. For those of us in the west, the physical practice is the way most of us come to yoga. It’s what brought me to the mat. But it isn’t why I stayed on the mat. 

If it’s not about the poses, what is it about? There are many books, teachers and schools of yoga that have answers to that question. Ultimately I think each person needs their own working definition. For me, it’s about noticing my response to stimuli, bringing awareness to my likes and dislikes, and challenging my very strong attachments to my physical body and my thoughts. It’s about having a lifelong practice that supports me regardless of my physical capacity. One that deepens my relationship to myself and others, and connects me to humanity.

Keep doing poses and keep exploring what they have to teach you. If you listen closely and are open to what they have to offer, you may be able to craft your own definition of yoga.

There are many benefits derived from back bending. They open the front body, strengthen the back body, extend the spine, and energize the spirit. Of course, like most poses, some people love ‘em and some don’t. 

We’re spending the month of July practicing  a wide range of backbends. Some backbends such as locust and cobra are great for development of back strength. Warrior I, pigeon and dancer lengthen the front body – especially the hip flexors. Upward bow has the added challenge of arms overhead and pushing up against gravity. In passive backbends such as supported bridge and reclining cobbler, gravity assists by opening the heart center and relaxing the mind.

Like all of our yoga, it’s important to approach back bending from an honest and personal perspective, and not from a place of striving or comparison. Done well, backbends can  strengthen the spine and improve posture and breathing. Done poorly, they can exacerbate back pain and sacroiliac joint instability. 

My intention for teaching backbends is for students to find their level of comfort in spinal extension and practice in a way that enhances their understanding and experience of back bending. Through personal practice and study it is my hope that students will learn best practices and find the freedom and strength that comes from this family of poses.