Category Archives: Patanjali’s Sutras

What makes yoga postures so darn special?

Relaxing, watercolor, Amanda Green

Introduction: Is yoga the same as stretching?

For a long time, my yoga practice was about mastering certain postures.  I worked really hard to stick a handstand.  I went to vinyasa class and wanted so badly to be able to defy gravity and float my feet from downdog to that forward bend at the front of the mat.  Fancy arm balances? Yes, please.  Bend further? No problem. Big, dancer-like transitions between postures that took me high and then low? Bring it. I worked out. I got better at all of these things and even had moments of of feeling that particular kind of strength, balance and presence in my body that I was seeking. I also got increasingly more sensitive, an enduring shoulder injury, way too much flexibility in important joints, and the realization that this kind of practice was not sustainable.

Was I doing yoga? Does the ability to hold a handstand for 30 seconds make someone good at yoga? If I look at a yoga postures in a magazine and try to do the stuff I see, does that count? How we answer these questions depends on how we define yoga practice and what we think āsana (aaah-sun-uh, the practice of postures) is for. In the next few posts, we’ll look at several definitions of āsana, considerations for structuring a practice, and a few of Patañjali’s yoga sūtras that will give us a sense of what postural practice is all about and what we can look forward to when practice is well established.  

Seventeen years after my first yoga class, how I practce āsana is really different from those early years. With the guidance of my teacher and support of peers, my yoga practice is now slow, safe, and satisfying to me in very deep and essential ways. I practice at home, in the quiet. Breath is way more interesting that balancing on my hands. In times when I’ve been injured or in pain, I have ways to stay connected to my practice. And most interestingly, my mind operates much more attentively and peacefully.  I can imagine doing yoga like this for the rest of my life.

Here’s the sneak peak for the series…

Part 1: Āsana is about being and becoming

Part 2: What we do in āsana is not normal or ordinary

Part 3: For Āsana to help us operate in a new way, we have to be willing to have new experiences

Part 4: Āsana reaches all parts of our being

Part 5: Vinyāsa krāma: start where you are and take the necessary steps to reach your goal

Part 6: Prevent future suffering (Yoga Sūtra II.16)

Part 7: Āsana should be stable and comfortable (Yoga Sūtra II.46)

Part 8: Āsana helps us loosen the knots and reduce resistance (Yoga Sūtra II.47)

Part 9: The result of āsana practice: we will not be affected by extremes (Yoga Sūtra II.48)

9 solutions for difficult times

Girl reading, watercolor, Amanda Green
Girl Reading, Watercolor on paper, Amanda Green

Yoga practice isn’t about rising above or rejecting our humanness. Instead, yoga can help us learn to accept, heal and develop our human nature. An amazing guidebook for this process is the Yoga Sūtras, authored by the ancient sage, Patañjali. 

The first chapter of the yoga sūtras dives right into one of the universal and unavoidable experiences of being a person on this planet… each of us will have some really hard stuff happen in our lives. At times, we may be able to move through these difficulties. That doesn’t mean we won’t feel the feelings, grieve, get angry, suffer or realize something about ourselves in the process.  What it does mean is that we aren’t stuck.

There are other times when the hard stuff will stop us in our tracks leaving us heavy in the chest, stuck with a negative outlook, a shaky body, breathing that is short and shallow and with a mind that is unable to focus. When we see these symptoms (Yoga sūtra I.31), we need help. Patanjali provides us with nine ways that we can seek support and balance during these times.

  1. Connect to a belief or faith in a higher power.  Can we sense and be comforted by the possibility or even the knowing that something bigger than ourself is at work in our lives? In difficult times, we may not know how things will work out but if we trust that it will, this faith can help sustain us. Yoga sūtra I.23
  2. Go deep in one principle. Let your attention and your energy focus on one perspective or method for sorting through the stuff that’s coming up in your hard time. Yoga sutra I.32
  3. These attitudes will be very helpful in moving through the hard stuff: friendliness toward those who are happy, compassion for those who suffer, support for those doing good work in the world, and for those who are doing bad and upsetting stuff, maintain emotional distance. If that kind of emotional equanimity isn’t possible, then you may need to establish physical distance.  The point with this last one is for you to do your best to stay emotionally and mentally balanced. Yoga sūtra 1.33
  4. Practice breathing with a focus on exhale and pause after exhale Yoga sūtra I.34
  5. Notice how the senses are operating. Are they leading you or are you leading them? Yoga sūtra I.35
  6. There is a place inside of you that is full of light.  This place can’t be darkened by sadness or grief. If you know the feeling of this place and can connect to it during difficult times, it can be a relief and comfort. Yoga sūtra 1.36
  7. Someone who has come through hard stuff of her own can be a great support. Yoga sūtra 1.37
  8. Dreams can offer insight into a difficult situation. Yoga sūtra I.38
  9. Meditate on something that you like and that is appropriate for your difficult situation. Meditation is best guided by a teacher who you trust, and who knows you well. Yoga sūtra 1.39

The yoga sūtras acknowledge that there will be times when life knocks you down. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. When these situations arise, it’s tempting to spend energy imagining the ways they could have been avoided, to feel like it isn’t fair, or to dwell on how much we don’t like what we are going through. If we stay in that mindset for too long, that is a signal that we need some help. In realizing this and seeking a new way of working through a situation we learn about ourselves– about fraility and strength.  Of what we can endure and of the forces that are in waiting to help us to keep going. This list from the yoga sūtras may seem simple at first glance, but when we need help like we may not have needed before, the profound nature of these solutions shines.

Fear effects our thinking, actions and relationships

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There are times when we must endure life-threatening situaitons and fear is a part of our mechanism for survival. There are also times when something in our life feels threatened, and this, too, can arouse fear and the host of symptoms that go along with it. When fear is operating at the lower levels of the spectrum and the symptoms are more subtle, we may not even be aware of the effect it is having on our thinking, actions, and relationships. But it is. Fear is powerful.

There was the time when my manager thought we should change my class schedule and drop one class. I freaked out. I couldn’t even consider the proposal. I started to worry that I was less popular than the other teachers and no one would come to class ever again and how would I make up the income… I put all my energy into fighting to keep things the way they were. I couldn’t see it any other way.

Since the election, the same thing’s been happening. I’m freaked out, and I keep feeding this fear with news, news, conversations about the news, and more news. It has been obsessive and I’ve been distracted by it. I must also be uncharacteristically short tempered because last week my girls both asked me if I was mad at them. This made me stop and think about my tone of voice and my lack of patience. I pulled them in close and apologized and told them a little bit about what was going on (none of it is their fault). Then I turned off my NYTimes alerts on my phone and started to wean myself off of talk radio.

The yoga sūtras give us a list of five ways that we can incorrectly perceive something, the kleśas (YS II.3-8). Patañjali says there is a general misperceiving, avidyā, we mis-identify, asmitā, we let our likes or preferences decide for us, raga, or we let our dislikes to determine what we do or don’t do, dveṣa. The last one in the list is abhiniveśā, or fear. Patañjali describes this version of misperceiving by saying that when we experience it, it’s like it mounts us and tells us where to go. The rider is directing our action and behavior. The rider is fear and our body, system, mind, responses… those are the horse. (YS II.9)

And that’s totally how it is. That’s what this obsessive behavior feels like. Part of me is watching while I read another alarming article and it’s like the watcher has almost no power to stop the doer from doing it. Something else is in charge. The fear.

So what do we do about it? Patañjali offers two very useful suggestions:

  1. If you see a kleśa, take action! Do something to oppose the symptoms when they are small and make some effort to come back into balance (II.11). This might be yoga practice, taking a walk in nature, disconnecting from devices and connecting to a person you love, or taking care of something – your garden, your pet, your house, someone in need.
  1. Meditate on something that is appropriate (II.12). When you give your full attention to something, as with meditation, your whole system benefits. The appropriate thing might be something that helps you feel connected, safe, or loved. It might be something that gives you hope. If you have a prayer practice or a connection to higher power, this can be very helpful.

I’ve finally had some breakthroughs with my most recent fear. I’m starting to notice a cycle and a process that I go through when something seems new and threatening and that cycle takes time. Neither of the solutions above are instant fixes. They are ongoing and helpful practices. As I start to feel a little less afraid, the concerns haven’t gone away, but the fear-based responses have less of a grip. I imagine they aren’t gone for good, but I find it so helpful to remember and connect with these teachings from the sūtras. I hope you do, too.

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.


Clean Tweets

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I have to be sneaky when I talk about the yoga with my daughter, Hazel. She has a tendency to roll her eyes if I say anything that she might sniff out as a yoga-teaching, “Mo-om (changing pitch half way through), you aaaaah-lways talk about yoga…” But this week with high profile politicians getting heat for twitter comments, I thought it was worthwhile to talk about śauca, the niyama that teaches us about cleanliness in all aspects of our lives.

The two of us laughed over some clever #trudeauEulogies. We talked about the W. Virginia mayor and city employee who lost their jobs because of a racist tweet-exchange and we talked about Trump’s recent four-word tweet after learning of Fidel Castro’s death. Hazel gets that even though we may have a reaction to something that happens, that’s often NOT what we want to say or send into the inter webs. I didn’t grow up with social media and it’s a good thing, too.  I wasn’t good about restraint or conversational cleanliness, but what kid does? Growing up now, in this time of texting, social media, and the internet, has it’s gifts, but definetly has it challenges. Kids need to embrace śauca, cleanliness, more than ever.

If Hazel doesn’t leave her books, laundry and dishes all over her bedroom floor, she’ll be less likely to trip over them later.  She’ll have fewer stains to scrub out of the carpet and fewer things will get broken because she’s taken care at the front end. Habits of cleanliness are important on the internet, too. All digital exchanges leave a record and internet messes are a lot harder to gather and throw into the washing machine. Digital stuff can be spread far beyond the intended audience. Your peers can hold onto those akward photos sent via text, and they can unearth the inevitable mis-steps or clumsy trial-and-error social experiments long after they should have faded from memory. What pre-teen kids do, say, write, and post can follow them. How can they possibly get the potential impact of that since they’ve only been on the planet for a decade or so? Luckily, we have some fine teaching examples.

The practice of cleanliness is about more than maintaining clean surroundings. The practice has the potential to teach us things about our life and our true nature. If we take care of the stuff we have, we’ll come to understand that the cost of posessions goes beyond the initial price tag. Practices that help us to maintain a clean body, clean thoughts, cleanliness in relationships, and cleanliness in how we conduct ourselves in the world offers other experiential teachings and an opportunity to get to know our tendencies and habits. When we take care in this way, we uncover important truths. In The Heart of Yoga, Mr. Desikachar says this about the result of the practice of śauca (YS II.40), “When cleanliness is devleoped it reveals what needs to be constantly maintained and what is eternally clean. What decays is the external. What does not is deep within us.” Through śauca, we come to know our nature. We can know who we truly are.

Desikachar , T.K.V. (1995). Heart of Yoga, Developing a Personal Practice. Rochester,Vermont: Inner Traditions International

Signs and symptoms of shock vary…yoga offers a path of recovery

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I thought these lists of symptoms might be helpful as you try and make sense of what you’ve been going through.

Signs and symptoms of shock vary depending on circumstances and may include:

  • Cool, clammy skin
  • Pale or ashen skin
  • Rapid pulse
  • Rapid breathing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Changes in mental status or behavior, such as anxiousness or agitation

http://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-shock/basics/art-20056620

Emotional Symptoms of Grieving

A person who is dealing with grief will most likely display some of the emotional symptoms associated with grieving. The Mayo Clinic lists the emotional symptoms found with prolonged, or complicated, grief. These can include:

  • Increased irritability
  • Numbness
  • Bitterness
  • Detachment
  • Preoccupation with loss
  • Inability to show or experience joy

While these emotional symptoms are normal in the days and weeks after a traumatic event, they can be indicators of a more serious disorder if they do not fade over time.

Physical Symptoms of Grieving

It may come as a surprise that grief is not entirely emotional. There are very real effects that grief can have on the body. Some of the physical symptoms of grieving, according to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, are:

  • Digestive problems
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Sore muscles

Though these symptoms are normal during the grieving process, you should remember to contact your doctor if you experience any severe physical symptoms.

http://www.psychguides.com/guides/grief-symptoms-causes-and-effects/

I’ve felt a lot of the above symptoms in the last 24-hours. In addition, I only want to eat toast. I’ve had moments when I believed my legs were going to buckle out from under me. I’ve felt myself dissociate—floating out of my body while I fixed my gaze on this tiny red decoration in my kitchen. And I’ve had eight to twelve seriously messy cries.

In the midst of all this, I’ve also felt something else: A need to take care of myself.

You know those people who have a fine-tuned moral compass? The ones who can identify and support the things that align with their values and call out the things that are not? The ones who have a clear sense of right and wrong and are able to move and act on that inner guidance with clarity and courage? The people who stand up for others and for themselves and don’t miss a beat? The ones who can lead? The ones who can follow a great leader? The ones who dedicate themselves to a cause worth fighting for? I want to be well resourced so I can be one of those people. I want that for you, too.

To do any of this, we have to prepare. It occurs to me that maybe the last eighteen years of yoga practice have been preparing me. Maybe you’ve been preparing, too. We aren’t done. We need to care for ourselves and continue to practice. With this, our ability to pay attention and stay focused will improve. Dhāraṇā —dhyāna — samādhi[1] describe the progression of deepening focus.

Attention is important for several reasons. One good reason? It comes with a side of praśānta[2]peace. Yoga describes peace as a symptom of attention. Peace doesn’t mean that everything around us is perfect. It’s a feeling that we can have on the inside even when the outside looks bleak or threatening. Nirodha — a deep state of attention and the flowing peace that comes with it are felt everywhere in us –in our body, breath, mind, and emotions. This is important because attention with peace can give us equanimity. When we can hold the binoculars steady and bring the little bird in the nearby tree into focus, we have a chance at seeing it clearly.  Attention, like binoculars, is a tool that can help us to see something we couldn’t see without.

Patanjali defines three aspects of a yogic path: tapas – effort, svādhyāya- self-reflection, and Īśvara-pranidhana –acceptance[3]. Do some work. Think about what motivates your actions. Know that you won’t always get everything right, and that’s okay. This is ongoing, moment-by-moment kind of practice. It involves Abhyasa and vairagyam[4]making efforts and relinquishing what gets in the way of those efforts. And you know what helps a lot with this? Śraddhā – a conviction, abiding faith, or something you can believe in. Patañjali says when we know and can feel this deep faith, it is a sign that we are very near our goal.[5]

Acceptance doesn’t mean going along with everything is happening. It does mean that we allow ourselves to see our current situation clearly and accurately. Prāmaṇa[6] is clear and accurate understanding. If we can see and understand a situation, then we can address what’s actually going on. If it’s not a good situation, we can go inside ourselves and listen for the guidance that helps us to know what we can do about it. We need viveka – discernment, to do this work and to make sense of the many things that go on in our inner world and the world around us. There’s a lot going on all of the time and viveka is helpful when we need to discern between the stuff we should witness compassionately or even dispassionately and the call to stand up and act.

Let us really take care of ourselves during these next 4 years and beyond so that we are nourished, resourced, clear, perceptive, and strong. May our efforts and practice continue, re-invigorated by our circumstances. Yoga, or whatever practice you cultivate, is going to be as important as ever in helping us all to be the kind of humans and the nation that we want to be.

[1] YS III.1-3

[2] YS III.9

[3] YS II.1 – kriya yoga

[4] YS I.12

[5] YS I.20

[6] YS I.7

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!

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.

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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