Yoga Sutra Conversations 1:32 "In order to prevent these obstacles from arising, you should habituate yourself to meditation upon a single principle."

So far in the Sutras we have been told that conscious awareness, or awareness of Being in the present moment,  is the key to yoga, or as I’m choosing to term it for this conversation: listening. The obstacles that precipitate during the process of yoga are things that scatter the mind and lead to suffering. We encounter suffering as the obstacles transmute.

One way to steady the mind is to repeat the sound of “Aum“, and Patanjali has told us that this actually makes the obstacles disappear. But there are two handles we can use to turn the mind: obstacles present as a result of former states of consciousness, and obstacles we create with our current state of consciousness.

Pema Chodron in one of her stunningly loving & peircing dharma talks (I can’t remember which or I’d tell you… it might be “Getting Unstuck”) refers to this process with the metaphor of a potter’s wheel. The turning of the wheel creates the pottery, and the turning is perpetuated by the motion of the potter. There is an inherent momentum which drives the wheel, but we can choose to kick it every so often to keep it going.

The obstacles, or causes of suffering, are a consequence of the container we form on the wheel. As long as the wheel, our mind, turns the container is being created. Some call this process karma. You can also call it ego. It has an inherent momentum, actions and reactions that grow from what it is, which in turn is a result of what we have done and been. We can mold it by kicking the wheel to keep it turning. Even if we’ve taken our hands off the clay – “Look ma! No hands!” – if we keep kicking the wheel we’re unwittingly creating our container. And unwitting doesn’t mean un-responsible. It just means we’re not paying attention.

So how do we keep from kicking the wheel, from encouraging the momentum of our habits? How do we keep from building onto our container? And how do we abide its dissolution when we still our minds? First, by remembering we are not any of our things, roles, thoughts or conditions. And we can support that present moment consciousness, in which we know we are not this or that, through meditation on a single principle. Is that the same as repetition on the sound of “Aum” or concentration on the breath? That all depends.

On the path, we don’t just awaken all at once, stop our vices, extricate ourselves from our histories, cease desiring all that we’ve built our facades around. Our hopes, dreams, pleasures and pains transmute. We don’t simply become non-attached from the whole world in a moment. In fact, I’d be mighty suspect of someone who claimed to do so. I don’t know about you, but there’s a very fine distinction in my life between attachment and joyful duty. In fact, I’d say I’m attached to my most joyful duties, my husband, my dogs, my practice and my patients. I’m downright in love with them. But that’s another post.

For now, it’s enough to say that as we ponder and navigate the meaning of non-attachment, of how not to muddy the river after the distractions have precipitated during a given days’ practice, steadiness is a virtue. Given that all objects arise from the same source, it doesn’t ultimately matter which you choose. What matters is the steadiness and clarity of your focus upon it.

Which is not to say that any and every image, feeling or idea is equivalent. Some objects aren’t conducive to steady concentration. Some objects foster the depression, frustration and dissipation we looked at in the previous sutra. So, for instance, focusing on being frustrated wouldn’t be particularly helpful. However, becoming aware of where you feel that in your body, what sensations arise for you in a moment you feel as frustration, that might be a practice that returns you to your present moment awareness. Or chanting “Aum”, or “One”, or picturing a waterfall or praying in your tradition… the possibilities are endless, but not unbounded.

In the end, I’m reminded of one of Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose“: #5 Something that you feel will find its own form.

Abiding

The Dude abides.  ~The Big Lebowski

“Son, I’m goin’ all the way, ’cause I wanna see how it ends.” ~Brother Meadows, quoted on NPR’s “All Things Considered”

Lately I’m thinking a lot about obstacles, steadiness and presence. The Yoga Sutra Conversations with Kate & Jenni have afforded me this opportunity, and the timing, for me, is particularly poignant. Today the United States of America will Inaugurate our 44th President, Barack Hussein Obama. 

The well of emotion tapped by this uber-symbolic event has geologic depth and age. American news is rife with recounting of prejudice, division and outdated beliefs that sound as old fashioned as stone wheels, but are younger than, well… me, and Obama, and a great many of the world citizens who shed a tear in this moment.

Those stories are uniquely American in that they are the particular growing pains of our democracy, with villians defined by our national pantheon and heroes with roots in the same. But they are not ours alone, because the division, opposition and otherness they have as themes are part of human consciousness and lives. The very ability to name, to reason and build an identity assume the need for distinction, and once lines are drawn we are free to use them for multitude purposes. And universally, every culture, every time, every class has at times used them in pain.

At bottom, what the Sutras speak to is our ability to abide. To abide is to love, is to remain, is to watch, is to bind, is to be in it for the long story, is to stay, is to witness, is to weather the storm, sit in the sun, drink in the rain and so grow to the sun and through the clouds. To abide is to be whole, to be steady, to be clear. Our ability to abide depends upon that which underlies the distinctions, that which can be distinguished but remains whole.

The obstacles and distractions which lead to suffering are the current topics of the Sutras we are discussing, but the reason to wonder & care about them is to learn to abide. One abides by the side of a river, one abides mistreatment, one abides sickness and health, one abides in the light of love. The abiding bridges all, and what it brooks, it brooks because there is something bigger, more important, and maybe, in the end, as Brother Meadows alluded, just something more interesting.

What allows us to abide is that which is bigger than us all. For the Civil Rights activists it may  have been their faith, and for many it was the Law. For a particular person on a particular day, what they did to stand up to or simply outlast mistreatment may have been fueled by Love, for family, for life, for dignity or even for their foe.

The techniques outlined in the Yoga Sutras are ways of abiding, of fostering our consciousness of and unity with that which encompasses all suffering. Sometimes just knowing there is a “Bigger” is enough.

And sometimes we need proof. We need to feel the connection. And symbolic but real moments such as the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States is both: A reality that was beyond possibility so very few years ago. This is history because it is evidence of what abides. Abide on.

Yoga Sutra Intro..

Since we’re joining a conversation in progress, I thought I’d give you a cheap and dirty blow by blow of what’s been covered so far, like the beginning of a TV show. Patanjali begins Chapter 1 – or Samadhi Pada (on Being Absorbed in Spirit) – with the formulaic “Hatha Yoga Nusasanam”: Now yoga instruction. (btw: if you ever want to hear or learn the chanting of the Sutras, I recommend Sonja Nelson’s 4 CD set, guarunteed to plant the seeds in your soul).

I use Mukunda Stile’s translation because I like the gentleness and power of his poetry, but I reference four others: Sri Swami Satchindananda (his commentary bores through the distractions of my vascillating mind), Charles Johnston (very dualistic, but often a brilliant turn of phrase), Desikachar (because he’s Desikachar, mais non?!), Georg Feuerstein (see prior + historical interreference).

So, Now Yoga Instruction. Which I often think of re-arranged as “Yoga Instruction leads us to Now.” As in “The Now”, the ever present but never changing moment of consciousness. The very next sentence (or sutra: they’re arranged as sutras, or threads – aphorisms such as Wittgenstein and the Old Testament have used) tells us that yoga happens in the mind that listens, or Yoga Citta Vrtti Nirodaha: “Yoga is experienced in the mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception.” Whoa. Yeah. But this is a montage for under the opening credits, so we’ll move on.

When the mind settles, the Self is revealed as the ever-present witness. The way to settle the mind is through practice and non-attachment. Knowledge is required because it guides what & how we practice and reminds us why attachment is distraction: the things we usually desire and go after are not the same as what we think we’ll get from them. If we actually pursue what we want our lives to embody, we might not go after some things that we like, but we will create something that encompasses them all the same.

One of the very practical things about the Sutras is that it introduces on level ground many methods of listening, or yoga. If you are depressed or distracted or sick or lethargic, Patanjali has a list of things you could try or consider. Such a plan is very modern, I think, acknowledging the diversity of our histories, places and conditions – even over the course of our own lives, let alone across people and countries.  (Fade out to opening scene for this episode: Relief of Suffering, not just for Buddhas any more….)

Yoga Sutra Conversations with Jenni & Kate

Picking up in the middle is the fate of all humanity. We always wake up, when we awaken, in the midst of a life, a breath, a sentence and the trick (which is the opposite of a trick) is to continue being awakened for whatever we find. Well, I’ve been blessed to awaken to a conversation among yoga teachers on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a foundational text for yoga practice in which Patanjali gives instruction and advice primarily on preparing your character & your mind for the transformation that yoga brings about. He wrote sometime between 2 centuries before the common era (200 BC or BCE) and 2 centuries after (AD OR CE).

The only thing he has to say about physical postures is that Yoga pose is steady and sweet, which is sometimes translated as comfortable. Like the Buddha, to whom he is sometimes compared, he emphasized the importance of preparing ourselves through reflection on our everyday life & actions & gave really practical suggestions and encouragement on how to sweep away the obstacles to clarity, discipline & enlightenment. He even tells us that we can change the world in contemplating our own heart’s true light… but more on that in a later post 🙂

Please meet Jenni & Kate, if you haven’t already. You’ll be glad you made their acquaintances 🙂 Kate is a yoga teacher in the ViniYoga tradition who teaches and practices in New Brunswick, Canada. We also share our careers & histories in Emergency Services – she dispatches for Emergency Services in her area. Jenni is also a ViniYoga teacher who practices and teaches in Denmark. Every weekend we’ll each post a reflection on the Sutra, working our way through all four books. I’m excited & priviledged to part of this beautiful experiment!

Yoga Asana & Weight Loss

Yes, it’s January and the usual topics rear their heads. I’ve railed against marketing yoga for weight loss as much as a stretching routine. I’ve waxed mildly philosophical about contentment & acceptance as more transformative focuses than self-improvement. And yet… And yet.

Weight loss is no superficial matter. Being overweight increases infalmmatory processes in the body, as well as risks for all the major causes of death and disability: heart disease, vascular disease, stroke, diabetes.

Moreover, feeling overweight compromises how we are in the world, what we allow for ourselves and what we imagine. I’ve written here about quitting smoking, I’m writing a memoir about sober vinophilia, and I still write occasionally about my icey fascination with adreneline and extremes. So why not write about my experience with yoga and weight?

Weight has always been a sensitive topic for me. I started serious weightlifting when I was a young teenager & still feel safest, most at home in a spare, bright room full of metal and benches and bars and sweat. When things go really bad, I go to the gym. Because of having built a physique more muscular than the average woman, I’ve often heard extreme assessments of my appearance. Whether appreciative or derisive, it’s always felt intrusive, like someone commenting on your religion.

And of course through the years age, divorce, career change, night shift & the poignant stresses of living have taken their own tolls adding padding here & there, only to be shed as I process the emotions and memories they embody.

And this is where yoga comes in. My practice has given me the structure to observe the relationships between the shapes I embody and ideas, emotions, sensations and experiences I am processing. Yoga specifically addresses how we process and digest energy, specifically our food, emotions, rest and desire. Through breathing, circulation, motion and rest we can intentionally influence the efficiency with which we process our life experience. And this is the most important thing about weight, because even yogis die and in the end it’s always the heart that stops. Even yogis age, and in the end the face is never the same as it was when we were born. Even yogis struggle, and in the end stress shares the same physical processes regardless of where it is born.

From my own observation, weight stores emotion. Sometimes this is benevolent: we may not be ready or have the resources to process it we will soon possess. And the more thouroughly we process, the more time it can take, but the more we will understand and the freer we will be. When I was raped during my teacher training three years ago, I began a slow weight gain that was resistent to all my diet and exercise attempts. As that weight dissolved this last year, I was sometimes awash in emotions that were clearly out of context for my current existence. They were remnants washed out in the process of renewal. Cultivating witness consciousness (which is palpably and functionally different than disassociating), staying connected to breath and listening to my body for the poses and seats that would best support my activity were crucial in caring for and supporting this part of my process.

The weight that I carried wasn’t always comfortable, but it was often comforting. Loosing it wasn’t always comfortable, but my lighter body feels at home in my world. I lost thirty pounds during 2008, which is a steady & sustainable rate.  As important as the physical activity in yoga is the constructive rest and meditation. The eight limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) are as necessary to yoga practice as to an octupus.

Overall, daily practice and meditation are crucial. Even if it’s just a moment on the mat, the imprint that I carried into my day was sustaining. What I did on a given day was based on a general structure which I refined over the course of time, but tailored each day to my needs. My sleep patterns were stabilizing, my food habits were changing, my practice varied depending on my health, my cycle, the time I had set aside, emotions, work demands and classes I was prepping.

What I recommend for students who are designing a practice with weight stabilization in mind is first to be clear about what emotions and meanings you anticipate processing. Be open for change, and stay grounded in your overall process. For some drawing and journalling help with putting a particular day’s events in the larger context of their life. Remember that your practice is ultimately supporting you in digesting your experience and that no emotion, no day or night or wash of feeling is definitive of anything. It is information, it is color and you can be present for it and be the space and awareness of it.

I begin my own practice with breathing and pranayama. Kalabhati & Stomach Churning are particularly mind clearing and energy producing. They are also helpful for generating warmth on a cold morning, or on a camping trip. I follow these with 20-30 minutes of sun salutations beginning slowly and meditatively, feeling every centimeter of motion exquisitely with every cell of my body and working up to crisp motion in concert with breath.

Standing postures with lots of twists and revolved poses felt integrative, strong and cleansing, and by Fall I was closing with Sarvangasana, or shoulderstand, for 5 minutes each day, followed by Halasana, or Plow, a final twist & squeeze. After a luscious Savasana I like to practice Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, before silent meditation, focusing on my breath. Some chanting brings me nicely into the rest of my day.

That’s what I’ve devised. I’ve recently read Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga with great pleasure and he has a routine at the end which has many of the same elements. I wouldn’t recommend diving in without a teacher, because no amount of reading will enable you to transition between postures or guage your readiness like a teacher. But if you have experience or a teacher to guide you, either through private or group lessons, it’s a well rounded program, and regardless, the thoughtful first chapters are valuable for the clarity & simplicity of his explanation.

I continue to observe the changes of my body and mind through my practice and while I’m now at the weight I was before, my body continues to grow slimmer and more muscular, though of a different  density than my 145# benching days. (Yeah, I actually used to loose boyfriends because I could bench more.)  I regard this as evolution, information, experience and contribution to the wisdom I seek. I invite you to share your story, plan, experience or struggle through comments or email. Remember, it’s all Gunas acting on Gunas (Bhagavad Gita) or loosely translated, “It ain’t nothin’ but a thing. Another thing.”

Workshops!

Going to Yoga workshops is one of my dearest pleasures. I use them as rewards, treats, carrots and sometimes just fun. That’s why I’m excited to announce the first of this year’s YogaEveryDay workshops, my chance to share a concentrated yoga experience with you!

Intro to Yoga on Saturday 31 January will focus on basics. Like a parent who secretly favors one child, my favorite classes to teach are the “Level 1”, “Basic” or “Beginner.” This Workshop will be an afternoon to learn or return to basics of alignment, breath, strength & opennes. Affordable, Supportive & Fun – Join Now!

Partner Yoga on Saturday 21 February: we’ll provide a safe, open, light environment for practicing yoga poses in unique, supportive combinations that will open and enlighten your heart and connections. Join Now!

jalandara bhanda

For the last few months I’ve been experimenting with methods for teaching bhandas. I’ve experimented with asana (standing, hands on thighs, sitting in virasana, downdog, uttanasana), whether to focus on the abdominal motion or the chest wall in uddiyana, whether or not to mention mula bhanda concurrently (because it is involved, but conceptually seems to overload folks while learning), what terms to use for the pelvic floor when teaching mula bhanda, how to describe the “false inbreath” of non-ventillatory chest wall expansion.

Simple is best, of course, but since the point is to direct another person’s attention to the sensations produced for them with muscular actions not commonly felt, much less intentionally induced, points of reference are both crucial and tricky. For my own part, I feel the effects of uddiyana bhanda most acutely between my shoulder blades, in front of my thoracic vertebrae. But for others, this isn’t even on their sensation map; they might feel it between particular ribs. The point is not to feel anything particularly, but to develop refined awareness of what is there for you to feel.

I used to think the best way to approach bhandas was bottom up: mula, uddiyana, then jalandara. Truthfully, I’ve had precious little connection to jalandara. Conceptually, I understand why a “top” on the cooking pot is important. My experience has been lackluster, however.

Until I read a description that added the chest wall expansion of  “false inbreath” to the external action of flexion of the upper cervical vertebrae.  This one little addition lit up the sensation of the lock so that it made sense to me. The idea of  jalandara bhanda is to touch your chin to the notch just above your sternum, not by hunching the shoulders & whilst keeping the front of the chest broad. This is done by rotating the skull & jaw around the top of the cervical vertebrae while keeping the neck long.

What lit up this experience was after engaging jalandara, exhale, close the glottis (like the beginning of a swallow, it prevents air from moving into the chest), and then expand the chest as if to inhale. Indeed, I felt lit from within.

Because this passively activates the lower bhandas, I’ve decided to use this as an initial forray into bhandas, moving to uddi & finally to mula. Of course, like the yamas & niyamas, we learn about these layers concurrently, it’s only in theory that there’s any seperation. 

What are your experiences with learning the bhandas? Or with teaching? I’d love to hear your bhanda stories!