Category Archives: yoga sutras

It’s easy to have faith when everything is going my way

Thomas Prior‘s heart-racing photographs from the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec. — Click image to check out more fireworks photos on wired.com

I’ve noticed that when things are going well, then I have no problem having faith in the order of the universe or believing that the direction of life is guided by a higher power. I can embrace the principle of Īśvara-pranidhana: we aren’t in control of everything that happens and yet we are held. The tapestry is bigger than the small part I’m seeing. I may not understand how things will work out, but they will. This is all very comforting during times in which I’m already quite comfortable.

When things aren’t working out the way I think they should, or something ‘bad’ is happening, then a very different mode kicks in. I become afraid. I start fretting and worrying. I read, read, read and think, think, think about whatever it is as if knowing more about the situation will change what’s happening. Then I begin to spin my wheels about what I am going to do about it. It reminds me of a time I was in Mexico and happened upon a saint’s festival in the town’s plaza. When it got dark, these young men put on what looked like back-packs made of twigs and then took a match to them. There were fireworks on these backpacks and once lit, they shot out blasts of sparkling white lights, causing parts of the backpack to spin furiously and for a few seconds, they lit up the whole plaza. The young men ran around, and we all screamed and cheered because it was exciting but also because we were afraid that they’d light themselves, or us, on fire. These were a glorious, emotional few seconds and then the fireworks were all used up and the show was over. That’s how it feels with me.

There’s no śraddhā or faith here. I forget all about universal goodness and comfort and the support I feel the rest of the time. I forget all about the bigger tapestry and I narrow in on the little part that doesn’t and can’t possibly fit in with anything else. I’m not plugged in to an infinite energy source, I’m burning through something limited and small. This shift makes hard times worse because even if I read and think and act out with every second of my day, some things aren’t within my power to change. Trying to change these things causes more grief and further extinguishes śraddhā.

Śraddhā and Īśvara-pranidhana, a sense of faith and trust, are comforting in the good and easy times. In order to connect with them during difficult times, I have to be willing to let go of this mode where I flail-around attempting to control things that are beyond me. There are certainly things I can do, but changing the outcome of an election, or curing someone’s cancer, or putting an end to a Syrian tragedy aren’t within my power. I have to be willing to accept that I’m not in control. But there’s more.  There’s also remembering that the power that is at work in the good and joyful moments is also working in the difficult ones as well. I’m finding that this takes a lot of trust to loosen my grip and find the feeling of faith in the order of the universe or believing that the direction of life is guided by a higher power even when things are difficult and scary.  It’s a different than something that burns fast and then burns out. It’s like moving into the flow of something that keeps offering light in a steady enduring way. Love. Faith. Trust.

We passed through the darkest night of the year and now welcome the growing light of the season. May we all bask in the enduring light.

Lots of love to each of you,

Amanda

Conversations with a tween

The girls are both delighted to be posing with their dad for the Christmas photo!

The girls are both delighted to be posing with their dad for the Christmas photo!

I have a tendency, these days, to talk less. I really value quiet. I like the pauses in conversation to be with what was just said. I like to listen to where people go with their thoughts when given the time. I enjoy being around people and noticing what that feels like, seeing what they do and what I do– maybe listening to breathing.

Though this has been really nice in a lot of relationships, I’m starting to see that it may not be the best strategy with my tween daughter. Hazel doesn’t ask me what I think very often. She’ll tell me something about a friendship or something that makes her laugh, but it’s usually brief and it comes when her mind is there, still with her friend or connected to the funny thing she saw on pinterest. In these moments, I don’t get the feeling that she really wants to talk with me and that leaves me unsure of what to do. If I just sit there quietly, then she’ll eventually wander off. Though she’s not engaging me in conversation with her comments or passing thoughts, she is talking to me. In order to help get a conversation going, I have to push past my enjoyment of quiet and the awkwardness of not knowing exactly what to say and I need to make the effort to engage her. It seems so obvious now that I’m writing it down, which is good. There isn’t much that’s obvious in parenting a tween.

This weekend, I tried it out. Whenever Hazel said something, I thought of it as an invitation to connect. I’d ask her a question or talk about what I thought or a time I felt that way. It rained all weekend, so we spent a lot of time in the house together and I had many opportunities to practice. I’m pretty sure I talked more in one weekend than I average most weeks. It was a different way to be together. I felt closer to her and I could see that this way of connecting was working for her, too. On Sunday night at bedtime, I bent down to kiss her goodnight and give her a big squeeze. She didn’t let go right away, and so we stayed there, quietly hugging, feeling each other breathe. And then, she told me she’d had a really nice weekend. I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that my heart swelled and I felt grateful for her, for the time we spent talking and for all the quiet moments in between.

 


 

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True or False? Something outside of me can make me unhappy

 

This is my grandpa, Henry.

This is my grandpa, Henry.

The kleśas are afflictions—things that cause us suffering. The five kleśas suggest that the root of our suffering is misperception. If we misperceive or understand something incorrectly, we take action based on this bad intel. When action is based on a kleśa or misperception, our action isn’t correct. This causes a lot of problems for ourselves.

Two of the kleśas I’d like to highlight today are raga and dveṣa. When raga is at work, I act from an incorrect belief that something outside of me can make me happy. Dveṣa is the belief that something outside of me can make me unhappy.

Take that in for a moment. The implications are huge.

Sure, our circumstances can cause us problems. There are some pretty horrible situations at work right now and it’s okay and very human to have emotional reactions to those things. But here’s the thing. Patañjali teaches that even when circumstances or experiences are very difficult, we don’t have to be happy or unhappy because of them. Our sense of peace or upset doesn’t depend on things going on around us. There’s something within us that can be steady, clear, and with peace all of the time. No matter what.

Even though I’m not in a constant state of equilibrium and peace, I have a lot of faith in the practice of yoga. So much of what’s presented in the yoga sūtras has been right on, describing my experiences and the growth I’ve had as a result of practice. So I’m holding on to this possibility, too. And I’m hopeful that as I continue to embrace this perspective I can be at peace even when I have to take action that’s difficult. I can be at peace even if I strongly disagree with someone’s ideas. I can be at peace and show up for my family, students, friends, community and country in that way. And this peace can spread.

The rewards of yoga practice (It’s not what you think)

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When asked to chose her fav’ Austin destinations, this burger joint was at the top of her list. Extra pickles, two ketchups, please.

My husband makes me laugh harder and certainly more often than anyone else I know. He’s clever and light hearted. He can improvise a catchy song at the drop of a hat and has a knack for an Australian accent. He’s good for a deep belly laugh, but he’ll go for a chuckle, too. He’s good for some word play. Puns make our 12-year-old roll her eyes which makes the whole thing even funnier. This special kind of wit isn’t it’s reserved for the girls. When I come into the room after 20 minutes of Vedic chant practice, Dave finds a way to slip in how en-chanting he finds me. And after my yoga practice, he’s fond of asking, Did you get it right this time? I always smile but that one makes me think…

Why do we practice yoga? Are we doing yoga to get it right or to achieve some level of mastery? Are we going through the steps and ‘climbing the ladder’ because we believe there’s a reward wating for us at the top? Will yoga make us more deserving or more loveable? Is there something magic about the techniques that if we just get them right, they will transform us?

Even though I couldn’t have put these words to it before, this approximates my attitude. I’ve been bartering with my yoga practice. I put in my time, and yoga will repay me with more peace, ease in my body, more insight. The harder I try, the further I’ll go. Even though I know it doesn’t really work that way, it’s hard to give up the belief that I’m in control of yoga and what it does for me. It’s hard to let go of the sense that I can make it happen.

Lately, I can feel myself wanting something even more from my yoga practice. Through yoga, I can have feelings of profound connection to some deep essential part within me –a part that’s inextricably linked to the special thing inside of everyone else. This experience is an antidote to my long-time attachment to loneliness. I want more of that connected feeling. I want to remember that essential part. And, even though I don’t know exactly what it looks like, I want whatever comes next…on a tray… with pickles and two packets of ketchup.

Because I’ve been wanting more, I can feel myself trying harder. There’s a quiet urgency as I come to my mat in the morning. I’m reading books in hopes of uncovering a secret key hidden between the lines. I’m doing the stuff that I think I’m supposed to do, because I want to receive something in exchange. But there’s tension. I can know the motivation isn’t correct. There’s wisdom inside nudging me to remember that trying harder hasn’t been the way I’ve experienced personal growth in the past. It isn’t the way I’ve made strides in my self-understanding or my relationships. That growth always happens when I do less. It comes when I’m not begging for it. It sneaks in when I finally accept something about my life or myself, I soften and I let go of the struggle. When I make space and open to what is, that’s when something shifts. I don’t make it happen. It’s offered. Grace.

My practice is essential, not because it’s what’s required for spiritual advancement, but because it prepares me to recognize grace when it’s offered. Daily practice readies my system — body, breath, mind, personality and emotions, to function well and to be content and balanced through the dramatic ups and downs or while I wait. Īśvara pranidhana encompasses this notion of grace. I can do what’s best, not because I’m are striving for a particular result, but because it’s the right thing to do. It isn’t service performed in exchange for goods or reward.  It’s action without attachment to the outcome (Bhagavad Gita Ch 2:47).

We don’t have to work hard for it, but I think it is hard work to consistently see ourselves with a loving and honest lens. At least it is for me. But that’s exactly what practice can help us to find. Less effort or striving can nurture an internal environment that’s suited for this gentle, patient, compassionate work. It requires dedication, not because we’ll get kicked out of the club if we slack, but because having structure and regular committed time supports us along the way. It supports us while we wait.  It helps us know our true nature (YS I.3) and this mystery of receiving gifts of grace.

***I offer individual yoga sessions and support for those who would like to begin or deepen a personal practice.  You can read more about the process on this website or contact me  to learn more.  I’d be happy to hear from you!

Abhyāsa Vairāgyam: Effort and Relinquishing

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I’m not sure what happened, but I forgot about blogging until 8:38pm on Thursday night. This is surprising because I’ve written and published something every single Thursday since June of 2011.

I’ve given up some old habits recently and I’ve found that this requires much discipline and causes a surprising amount of unrest and upset to my system. I didn’t expect it, really. I’ve been making my way to this point for several years, now – trying out quitting… coming back.  But I think I’m really ready to actually let these things go. This time, the letting go has happened without much fanfare. I decided that it was time and I stopped without much conversation or buildup. But I find it does require energy. The energy that I’m putting towards these efforts means I have less for the other things I need to do. Like remember things.

I’ve heard from my teachers that Mr. Desikachar would say that you can measure the strength of a person’s practice not on what they can do, but on what they can give up. I don’t think he was talking about forcing a change onto ourself as a measure of how much ascetic and painful torture we can endure without whining, but as an exercise to see how attached we are to the things that we enjoy. Or how much our balance and sense of peace depends on the weekly chocolate bar we get at the check out line, the evening run we have to take to unwind, or the glass of wine before dinner. Maybe giving something up that we enjoy is something that lets us see if we have our attention, our sense of self, or maybe even our joy anchored in the right place.

In the past, I’ve ‘let things go’ but I haven’t really. I must not have been ready. I’d decide to give it up and then thought about whatever it was constantly. My body might not have been indulging in the behavior, the substance or the distraction, but my mind was totally linked to it. This time, it’s less dramatic. It feels like I’m waiting for the old stuff to flush out of my deepest tissue layers. I’ve noticed these occasional pangs of wanting, but I’m not obsessing. Even so, I’m a little thrown off. I get confused about the timing of things and my dreams have a different quality. I’m likening the new patterns to a transplanted organ. Right now, I’m still recovering from the surgery. I’ll have to remember to take the anti-rejection medicine for a while. Then, maybe after a long time, it will be more normal and the new thing that I’ve taken in will be a part of me.

Yoga Sutra 1.12 abhyāsavairāgyābhyāṁ tannirodhaḥ

Make some efforts (abhyāsa) then relinquish what is getting in the way of your effort or goal (vairāgyām) so that you can reach a state of yoga (nirodha)

RAGA: The Kleśa that has us going back for more

I'm now enjoying chai in the mornings...

I’m now enjoying chai in the mornings…

Coffee is one of my favorite things but when I drink it, over time it starts to have this cumulative effect of gradually increasing my anxiety. I’ve tried to will this side-effect away, to ignore it, or to pretend that it isn’t all that bad, but after a few months steady coffee intake, the anxiety reaches a point where I can no longer deny the problems it causes me and I resolve to quit. Again.

The kleśas are five ‘afflictions’ or ways that our perception can cause us problems. In a nutshell? We suffer because we don’t see things as they are but instead, misperceive. This isn’t ignorance. If I’m unsure what time the appointment is, then I’ll open up the calendar and see that it is scheduled for 10:00am. But if I know that the appointment is at 1:00, then I leave the house at 12:15 and drive to the office. I miss the appointment because of my avidyā, misperception. We knew incorrectly. Because we believe that the way we see it is the right way, we take action based on that misperception. This causes us all sorts of problems.

Patañjali describes particular ways in which we misperceive.

  • We misidentify, confusing what is happening in the mind.  We say, “I am angry.”  “I am sad” etc.  We think we are these emotions and if we act from this place, this is Asmitā.  It would be better expressed if we said, I feel angry or I feel sad, giving space to observe the experience rather than identify with it. (*Edited 8/28/16 see below)
  • We have a positive or pleasant experience and want to repeat that experience of pleasure so we go after it even if it may no longer be appropriate or helpful. I think of this as also misidentifying what it is that will be truly satisfying. Raga!!!!
  • We have an unpleasant or negative experience so we avoid the thing that we associate with the problem. Dveṣa
  • Fear makes us see things in ways that may not be accurate or correct. We all know that when we are afraid, many things can seem threatening or dangerous even when they may not be. Abhiniveśā.

Why do I struggle with coffee, so? .

Patañjali nails it with raga. When I’m out of balance, underslept, or over-committed, then the attraction to the morning bev can overwhelm the more practical voice in my head. “I waaaaant it” is the beginning of the story I start to tell myself. “I like it. I like the routine. I like the little jolt and I want to repeat it every morning of every day. Why not? My parents drink coffee. My husband drinks coffee. It’s for sale everywhere.“

This is how I’ve known it to start. It seems good at first, but inevitably, unpleasant effects show themselves. If we see a kleśa at the foundation of any action, Patañjali advises that we take action early when they are small. If we don’t, the suffering may eventually be great enough, and provides motivation to change.

 

** read more about the Kleśas in the second chapter of the yoga Sutras or join us NEXT WEEK in Ojai, CA for our women’s retreat and get in on some great discussions on how this applies to daily living. http://handson-retreats.com!

Edit 8/28/16: When I originally published this post, I confused asmita and moha YS.II.32 “We think we are “wife” or “mother” or “yoga teacher” but then something changes and that role is no more or needs to adapt in some way and this can be very painful.” This is moha.  Asmita is something that happens with how we are thinking… confusion in the mind with how we are perceiving. (see above)

How to do yoga āsana

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The yoga sūtras doesn’t give us a lot about how to do āsana. There aren’t any descriptions of postures and no instagram worthy pictures. But there are two sūtras specifically about the qualities that should be in every āsana and these include the following ideas: sthiram sukham or steadiness and ease (2.46) and prayatna śaitilya (2.47).

A common working definition of prayatna śaitilya is “appropriate effort to loosen.” Sure. Yogis should be flexible, but not too flexible. We should work toward those qualities, but still with sthira sukham. Makes sense.

But this week, I learned of another way of thinking about this sūtra. Prayatna is defined as the intention that comes before a movement or the energy that precedes an action. It’s fascinating to wonder and attempt to feel what is behind a conscious thought that leads to movement. Śaitilya is ‘loosening’, but what is it that needs loosening? If we think about prayatna as the quality of connecting to something more subtle and something behind even the intention of our movement, then perhaps the loosening that happens is on the level of our identity. Can I let go of the idea that I am in charge of everything my body does.  Is it possible that I am not the illy force that allows my body and breath to move.

This sutra feels like a beautiful invitation to slow down, be quiet and listen to the subtle force within.

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Deep gratitude to my YATNA teachers who make it possible for me to have these kinds of ongoing conversations in the company of amazing colleagues.

Thank you Amy Wheeler, Dolphi Wertenbaker, and Chase Bossart.

equanimity

Fall Obedient Plant in my front yard

Fall Obedient Plant in my front yard

 

I’ve been thinking about equanimity, mostly because I had a situation this week where I was not that. I was totally and unreasonably pissed off. I heard some upsetting news, started stomping around and then catastrophic thinking took over. I could see into the future… how generations of people would be affected by the incident and how the people involved were fraught with wrong thinking. They were wrong. They are wrong. Totally. Their. Fault.

It took several hours, but eventually I cooled off enough to consider my reaction. Everything I felt still seemed absolutely true –the whole part about them being totally wrong and generations of people affected, but I was very unhappy and uneasy. This motivated me to look a little closer. I thought of a similar situation that happened with a family friend in which I was able to dispassionately consider the feelings of the people on both sides of the matter. Yes, there was this unfortunate incident…and the very strong response by those involved. Yes, both people had a right to their feelings. It went on like this and I found that I felt compassion for them all. I wished them well, no matter how it turned out. and I didn’t worry about the generations to come.

This helped me to see that, perhaps, in my situation, it isn’t the incident itself that upsets me, but my relationship to the persons involved. This admission is difficult because in a relationship, all sides play a part and each person contributes something. This means I have to take responsibility for my part and that part happens to touch on deep insecurities and the some things about myself that I would rather avoid. The real (and very painful) work has to do with what’s inside of me.

How do I want it to all turn out? Eventually, I’d like to be able to come to this relationship with the kind of equanimity that allows me to see the difficult stuff clearly without all my triggers getting in the way and clogging up the glass. Clear understanding can help me to identify my role  (What can I actually do here?) so I can lovingly respond even when hit with news of crazy stuff. I think of yoga sūtra 4.7 that describes a yogi who is neither black nor white. *There’s transparency… because the yogin has no personal agenda. I won’t try to work any angle… either for my own good at the expense of another (black) nor trying to help or support so that I can feel better about myself and avoid my own suffering later (white). I’ll. Be. Clear. And ultimately, that clarity will make it easier to simply love.

 

Yoga sūtra 4.7 karma-aśukla-akṛṣṇaṁ yoginaḥ-trividham-itareṣām

The yogin’s action is neither white nor black; for the others, it is of three kinds

Patañjali emphasizes the transparency… because the yogin has no personal agenda.

 

*From Franz Moors, Liberating Isolation, The Yogasutra of Patañjali, Media Garuda 2012

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Practice with me in Ojai, CA this summer!

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Take advantage of Early bird registration until July 11th. It takes a deposit of $500 to hold the space. For as little as $1475, enjoy 5 days of gourmet ayurvedic food, beautiful accommodations, plus full days of working with these amazing disciplines!

Contact me with any questions or visit www. hands-onretreats.com for more information.

A Quiet mind may be the ticket to a fulfilling life

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This morning I had a yoga class to teach. I’ve been teaching at this place for four years now so I’ve got a well-worn path from my house’s garage to the studio. I left on time, drove over, and parked my car in the employee section of the lot. I walked along the back of the building toward the loading ramp. I didn’t even notice the commute. Saṁskāras, patterns and memory, got me there.

As I walked toward the building, my mind was whirring with my plan for class, thoughts of my sister’s wedding weekend, the half-finished project I left at home and probably a few other things, too. I got to the edge of the parking lot and stepped onto the path and these two pigeons were right there, less than a foot away! The birds freaked out when my shoes hit the gravel and in a terribly disorganized escape effort they fluster-flapped off the grass, and toward the nearby tree. Their crazy take off startled me and I was jolted out of my head and into my body. I saw where I stood, felt my heart racing, and I became aware of the really loud low-frequency whirring noise of huge air conditioners.

I felt a camaraderie with these startled birds and started to think. Pigeons, like most prey animals, are wired to do one thing above all else and that’s survive—it’s in their nature. A main survival strategy for birds is staying a safe distance from predators. But that’s not what happened to these two. The noise of the machines made it so they couldn’t behave in the way that nature has wired them to respond. This background noise meant that I snuck up, undetected, and it wasn’t until I was way too close for comfort that they realized the threat. The noise meant they missed out on important survival information.

That struck me so hard.

I realized it is possible that, like the birds, the stories and thoughts running in my head are like the industrial air conditioners, keeping me from being able to hear to my essential nature. I might miss messages that are deep inside because of all of this unfortunate background noise. And like today, there’s a lot of time when I don’t even notice them running. They are there in the background having a dulling effect, and I’m just going along, unaware.

Virāma means “absolutely quiet.” It’s the word Patañjali uses in Yoga sūtra 1.18 to describe a highly refined mind. The sūtra goes on to say that in this state of mind, we aren’t run by saṁskāras and mental disturbances. We can be spontaneous and present without operating on patterns. Virāma. Absolutely quiet. I think this is so beautiful.  I have a strongly held belief that we are here, in these lives and the bodies we’ve been given, to do certain things. By doing them, we can have a fulfilling and meaningful life. But we have to get quiet, really quiet, and listen in order to know what those things are. We listen to the things that excite us, the things that satisfy us deeply and the direction we’re called to go. This knowing comes from within and we hear it best when we are our most centered, quiet, and calm selves. What a profoundly good reason to work toward an attentive mind and a calm system. This quiet, calm place can help us to know our true nature and essential self and just may be the ticket to a fulfilling life.

 

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It’s hard to be happy when we’re worn out

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The other day, Hazel came back from a weekend at girlscout camp. The camp was wonderfully exhausting. She loves her troop and all the adventures that go with hundreds of girls and cabins and camp activities, though three days of it left her introverted soul worn out and in need of a recharge. She came home still buzzing with excitement but within an hour, the exhaustion overcame her. She retreated to her room, flopped on her bed, and stayed there, sad and crying for a long time.

After a while she came and found me.  We talked about feeling sad and not knowing why. She wondered if this big mood swing was normal or if something was wrong with her. I assured her that for a lot of us, being physically tired goes along with feeling sad or having negative thoughts. We talked about puberty, too. Her body is in the midst of a big change and these changes aren’t just happening in the body…they happen in the mind and the emotional parts of us, too. Even though the sadness can overtake her, it isn’t forever.  When I asked her if it was there during the weekend, she said it wasn’t. That morning, she was happy to be with her friends and was looking forward to coming home from camp. What a big change a few hours can make.

Yoga’s pañca maya model* has helped to make the relationship between body, breath, mind, personality and emotions more clear to me. It speaks to the interconnectedness of all aspects of our being. Any shift, for better or worse, at any of these levels, sends a ripple of an effect through all of the layers. For worse—a tired, sore, worn out body may leave us sad, crying and catastrophizing. For better – we’re rested, well fed, and with time to recharge, then our thoughts are positive and we have feelings of peace. Yoga Sūtra III.9** says, there are patterns of distraction, OR patterns of attention playing out in our system at any given time. When patterns of attention predominate, this extends to the whole system. This is nirodha pariṇāma. In other words, when we make efforts to find or maintain balance and be attentive at any level of our system, this extends to our whole system. Attention and balance in our mind, goes along with ease in our body, long and smooth breathing, and peace in our personality and emotions.

These teachings have helped me to better understand the relationship between these different aspects of my being. I’m grateful for yoga, and my teachers who have helped it to come alive for me. And I’m so grateful that I get to be Hazel’s mama. It’s very possible that Hazel has more emotional intelligence at twelve than I have at thirty-nine. She can watch and identify when she feels sad. She can tell what happens when she feels this way. She asks for help to understand it and to normalize it and is learning to see the connectedness of it all along the way. She is one of my teachers, too.

 

*The pañca maya model describes 5 layers or ‘veils’: annamaya (body), prāṇamaya (breath or prāṇa), manomaya (mind, intellect), vijñānamaya (personality), and ānandamaya (emotions or bliss)

**Yoga Sūtra III.9 vyutthānanirodhasaṁskāroḥ abhibhavaprādurbhāvau nirodhakṣaṇacittānvayo nirodhapariṇāmaḥ

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Interested in learning more about the deeper teachings of yoga and applying them in your life?  Join me in Ojai, CA this August for a 5-day retreat!  http://handson-retreats.com It’s going to be great.