The Urban Yoga Den

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March Focus: The Eight Limbs of Yoga – Intro & Yama April 4, 2011

As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t dare try teaching the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to my classes.  First, my knowledge of this ancient text is based on my four-week Teacher Training, during which we primarily studied the 1st two books; since then, my study has been on my own.  Second, there are some great Raja Yoga teachers out there whose experience included decades of studying, translating, interpreting and practicing the Sutras; they are the true teachers.

I do, however, like to design yoga classes where (I hope!) our actions on the mat find purpose through the wisdom of the Sutras.  In the beginning of March we embarked on an eight-month exploration of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, as introduced in Sutras 28 & 29 of Book Two of the Sutras.  Drawing from my 2010 blog about the Eight Limbs:

“Book Two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lays out yoga’s Eight Limbs.  Probably the most widely known and practiced are Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing exercises) and Dharana (concentration as a form of “meditation”).

“But there are five additional limbs – and I believe they are in order for a reason.

“The Eight Limbs represent a process of growth from heady self-examination to soulful universal connection. The first two limbs – Yama and Niyama – list the ethical premises of yoga.  After we’ve set our intentions for values and virtues, we move on to Asana, to address physical limitations such as aches and toxins.  Next, Pranayama continues detoxification, awakens our life force energy and balances our nervous system.  With the 5th limb, Pratyahara, the senses are softened to remove outer distractions.  During Dharana, we concentrate intently on one point of focus.  Deepening into the 7th limb, Dhyana, our concentration shifts into meditation, and there is no separation between the meditator that point of focus.  The 8th limb, Samadhi, is generally described as “enlightenment” – but to me, that harkens of apart-ness.  I like to think of Samadhi as one-ness.  It occurs the moment when our practice of yoga’s previous seven limbs brings such peace and confidence that we are selfless.

“For me, Samadhi would be a state of consistently being my best self and offering that self in service to the world.”  (From https://urbanyogaden.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/focus-mayjune-the-eight-limbs/).

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The month of March has been an introduction to the Limbs with emphasis on the 1st limb, Yama (or abstinence).

When considering how I might practice the ethical or philosophical virtues of yoga, I ask myself, “Who do I want to be as I walk down the street?  How do I want to treat myself and others?”  In response, I return without fail to the very 1st Yama – that essential virtue that sets the foundation for all other virtues: Ahimsa. Non-harming.

It’s a tough question to ask, “How might I be harming myself and others?”  Ugh.  Do I really want to look at that?  Well, no.  But, yes. And so, when our classes started our journey through the Eight Limbs, I set the deep intention to squarely face my own vulnerability and begin to abstain from whatever harming tendency (or tendencies) I might have.

More will be revealed.

OM Shanti.

*  *  *

Post Script

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Frankly.

Lately I’ve been using “we” instead of “I” when teaching and writing.  For example, “When we practice X, we experience Y.”  Hello?  Who am I to decide what anyone outside of myself is experiencing  in practice?  And so, to finish off this particular blog about living yoga in daily life, I want to apologize.  It is wrong of me to take the position of “we” when aiming to simply pass along what “I” have experienced.

I am hoping this awareness will end the pattern.  Feel free to call me out when necessary.  OM Shanti.

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In the OM Zone November 11, 2010

You can hear the OM sound everywhere. It vibrates every cell in your body. It brings such a nice feeling of peace.  – Swami Satchidananda

There are times, at the end of a yoga class, when the closing OM is so sweet I have cried.  And there are times when it is so cacophonous that I have giggled with delight. I love both!

Personally, I’m a soft “OM”er.  My hope is to not hear my chant above any other, and to experience blended voices.  Still, I appreciate when students bring their loud, bright and even gravelly voices into the mix.  OM-style is an individual choice, probably influenced by a favorite teacher.  I used to get a bit rattled when the chant sounded noisy; but now I experience Santosha and feel content with all forms of OM-ness.

Chanting “OM” is a pure and soulful experience for me.  I do it everywhere and frequently – throughout my morning Sadhana; three times to open and once to close classes; as much as necessary to become present; three times before I start the car.

Over nearly two decades of yoga practice, I have heard many descriptions of OM’s origins and meanings.  Despite these varying definitions, I believe one consistent truth.  When we join our voices in OM, I feel that we are uniting.

To me, OM is a simple syllable that brings a vibration into the room, among us and within each.

I recently had the chance to experience the sheer power of this simple syllable during Ricky Tran’s DC Yoga Immersion (http://www.rickytranyoga.com/).  In approaching the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Ricky fuses authentic reverence with contemporary playfulness.

One of his favorite phrases was, “You’re in the OM Zone now!”

The morning began with Bhakti practice, including devotional chanting with Rudra Das Kirtan recordings (http://www.rudradas.com/home/).  The energy in the room started to rise. Next we moved into hips-centric Asana toward the goal of Lotus Pose.  Some poses challenged me immensely, others felt totally easeful.

(Side note: I believe that a great teacher supports students silently with prayerful and energizing vibrations.  Otherwise, there’s no way I could have effortlessly expressed poses beyond my present Asana level in Seane Corn and Max Strom workshops!  I focus more on the philosophical, lifestyle and service aspects of yoga than on higher-level poses.  So I felt totally at ease with Ricky’s accepting and encouraging Asana instruction.)

Happily, by the end of this brilliantly effective hip opening sequence, I was able to sit comfortably in Half Lotus – on both sides – for the first time!  Jai!  And it’s a good thing, because seated Pranayama was next on the docket.  I love me some Pranayama!  So any chance to sit and breathe for longer periods is welcome.

After Pranayama came what I call Ricky’s “Dharana Challenge” and what he calls “The Perfect 10.”

Glowing from Bhakti and Hatha, we were ready to meditate.  Ricky suggested focusing the mind by repeating OM 10 times in a row without distraction. If we wandered from OM, we were to start over at one.  If we reached 10 uninterrupted OMs, we should continue to 20, and on.  Ricky gave us the choice to chant silently or aloud.  One by one, students voices began to fill the cavernous studio with swirling, howling, beautiful chants of OM.  We chanted with conviction, a blend of bright and gravelly, loud and soft.  All sweet and pure and soulful.

And then it happened.

Perfect unity.  That simple syllable brought us together as one.  I couldn’t tell where my voice started and someone else’s ended. It seemed like the entire room of OMs originated from my mouth.  Then it switched.  Everyone else’s voices swirled through my lips, into my mind, penetrating my being.  There was no separation.

We were, indeed, in the OM Zone.

Gratitude to Ricky Tran and all the Eight-Limb-ers who stuck around after Asana practice to create this unforgettable experience.  It was the wildest OM moment of my life.  I feel thrilled to have more brothers and sisters with whom to explore the infinite promises of the Yoga Sutras.

OM Shanti.

P.S. Thanks for the photos, y’all!

 

Focus: Why Yoga? – Giving Back August 24, 2010

“When we are in pain, we become self-centered and myopic.  When we heal, we become more empathetic, self-less, and sympathetic to the pain and welfare of others.  It is our gift to others to heal ourselves.”  – Max Strom, writer and yoga instructor

The Bi-Monthly Focus in our yoga classes has been “WHY YOGA?” We spent July and August pondering why we come to the mat.  Since July was my birthday month, I reflected about how yoga has carried me through so many life challenges and celebrations since starting my practice in 1993.  And these days, how it allows me to give back to the world that has supported me along the way.

So tell me…why do you practice yoga?

Max’s quote (above) definitely describes my story – nearly two decades ago, pain brought me to yoga; and today, healing allows me to be of service to others.

At the same time, I don’t believe that pain is the only path that can lead a yogi toward a deeply generous practice.  In fact, I hope and pray that healthy and happy people flock to yoga for their own personal reasons.  And I believe that these fortunate people can be of great service when they bring their yoga off their mats and into their worlds.

Because no matter what brought us to yoga in the first place, or, what brings us to return over and over – if we are indeed practicing yoga’s Eight Limbs, and healing ourselves for the sake of reaching Samadhi (what I would describe as a oneness with all), we will inevitably be of service to those around us, in small and great ways.

For example, practicing any of the Yama or Niyama can make us so conscientious that we become more aware of the human condition.  Practicing Pranayama can make our immune system so strong that we are able to show up for work through the flu season.  Practicing Dharana can make us so calm that we end up practicing Ahimsa in the gnarliest of traffic!

What propels me to practice the Eight Limbs of yoga?  Personally, if I’m only practicing some of those limbs, my motives will be self-centered.  That’s just me.  Some people can just practice Asana and find it in their hearts to think of others.  Me?  If I’m just practicing Asana, I’m only thinking about what’s in it for me – my strong arms, my perfect alignment, my awesome balance.

The other day in Caroline Weaver’s Strong Hold Level 2 class, I felt like a million bucks.  Typically, I feel very physically challenged.  The difference?  Caroline asked us to set an intention for our practice.  I silently repeated my usual pre-class prayer, “I dedicate this class to you, my teacher, and to all of my teachers.”  Then Caroline up-ed the ante – she asked us to deepen our intention until something was at stake, basically.  Immediately I heard myself say,  “This is not for me, this is for You, this is for all.” I swear, this was the first thing that popped into my mind; and I repeated it through the entire set.  Despite the fact that Level 2 poses typically kick my butt, I had an easeful practice, full of light, smiles and even giggles at times.  I was propelled by the thought of helping others.

Above all, my motive must be gratitude. Gratitude for all that yoga has given me.  For this I feel a responsibility to share those gifts with others.

Call it Seva, call it Karma Yoga, call Yoga/Spiritual/Conscious Activism, or simply call it Giving Back.

So, for this final week of “WHY YOGA?” – our July/August Bi-Monthly Focus – we are exploring the evolution from self-centered motivations toward other-centric reasons.  How can we be of service by keeping ourselves well through and using the tools of yoga?  This will segue into our September/October Focus of “Yoga In Action” – a campaign that I’m leading for Off The Mat Into The World (www.offthematintotheworld.org) here in DC.  More later…

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.