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Focus Wrap Up: The Eight Limbs – Yama April 10, 2011

It was 10:38am on Sunday, April 3rd when I started writing this wrap up, and the New Moon hung invisibly above.

In that Sunday’s classes we wrapped up our March focus on the 1st of the Eight Limbs of Yoga – Yama, or, abstinence. I extended the March focus through April 3rd so the New Moon – at the height of its energy of surrender, letting go and dissolving – could reinforce our liberation from what we might refrain from in our attitudes, our actions, our lives.

During the past month, our classes bravely began a journey of self-examination by way of yoga’s 1st limb.  For me, such exploration of patterns and beliefs is a process.  I have grown to understand that I might not be transformed within the period of one class, one month or perhaps one lifetime!  Each time I step onto the path, I am simply opening a door – maybe even just a little crack – to look inside with curiosity and compassion.  Still, this is deep work, and I try to balance intensity with restoration – during my personal efforts and our classes.

In his commentary about Yama (and Limb #2 – Niyama, or observance) in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda says: “These points are for whole-time, dedicated Yogis; and so, for them, Patanjali allows no excuses.  For people who aren’t that one-pointed toward the Yogic goal, these vows can be modified according to their position in life.”  So rather than introducing the Sutras’ list of five yogic abstinences (non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, non-greed), I invited students to cultivate their own, personal Yama.  Toward the end of the month, we considered the official Yama from Patanjali’s ancient guidance.

Along with students, I cultivated my own personal Yama based on my “position in life.”  And the position I’ve been playing for most of my life is…

DEFENSE.

Last week, I squarely faced the huge deficit this role has hollowed out of my heart, soul and life.  Ugh.

What happened?

A number of things.  I’ll skip the long story about childhood and other traumas leading to the necessity for self-defense.  If you’ve read my past blogs, you know that I am devoted to looking backward in order to move forward with health.  You might also remember that just last summer I was blind-sided by a serious betrayal that erased all my trust in humans.  My heart was on lock down.  In my yoga practice, with professional counsel and through other spiritual practices, I started to open back up.  More recently, during the Off the Mat Into the World leadership intensive in early March, I revisited my bruised little heart and noticed that it did not feel so safe after all.  It was still in defense mode.  Again, I re-committed to the process of looking inside, taking action, sparking transformation.

But the biggest eye-opener happened last week.

I went through a breast cancer scare after a doctor’s examination.  Thankfully, at the radiologist appointment a few days later, I found out that I do not have cancer.  During those in-between days of fearful anticipation, however, I contacted family and spent a lot of time with friends for support.  Knowing me as well as she does, one friend reached out her arms and said, “Put your hands in mine.”  I did.

Then she told me, with resolve in her voice, firmness in her stance and steadiness in her eyes,  “You are going to be OK.  And you will not be alone.”

I felt my entire body seize up in defense mode.  My stiffened hands could not hold on.  My eyes could barely meet hers.  When I did look her in the eye it was through a hard plate of glass.  I could hear her words but not feel the sentiment in my heart.  I wanted to believe her but could not.  I could not trust for fear of being betrayed again.  I could not accept her love.

What’s the big deal?

If I don’t allow myself to accept love, I will never feel loved.  That’s it in a nutshell.  I don’t think I need to go into the specifics of how humans need to share love; how vulnerability is essential to trust-building; how risk-taking might be the only way to true intimacy.  The fact is, if I don’t take action to continually and consistently address, transform and heal the core wounds of my heart, I will continually and consistently struggle with every relationship in my life – at work, in family, with friends and otherwise.

Realizing this last week, I set a deep intention that will bring purpose to my Eight-Limb work in the coming months.  A Sankalpa.  My own personal Yama:

I aim to abstain from fear-based responses to life’s invitations for connecting, trusting and loving.  I will liberate my icy-cold, walled-up, scared little Anahata Chakra through heart-opening Asana, heart-expanding Pranayama and Bhakti-influenced practices.

Some wounds are hard to heal.  But for the sake of Ahimsa (non-harming – the 1st Yama from the Sutras), I am going to non-harm myself by taking the risk of being vulnerable.  No holds barred, I am rolling my shoulders back, breathing deeply and chanting my heart out. I am abstaining and refraining from, letting go of, dissolving, and surrendering fear.  Damn-it.

Why abstain?

As mentioned in the Intro to this month’s focus, I want to offer my best self in service to the world.  That is what Samadhi (yoga’s 8th Limb) means to me – an interconnectedness that dissolves separation, invites love, cultivates trust.  So in the end, I don’t want to heal my heart so I feel better – although I’m sure that will be a benefit!  In the end, I want to liberate my heart so I can serve others with authenticity, strength and sustainability.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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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/).

*  *  *

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.

 

Focus Wrap Up: Yoga In Action October 28, 2010

To wind up our September/October class focus of “Yoga In Action,” we are expressing appreciation for noble acts of service through Pranayama and Asana.

Whether your service occurs within your family, your workplace, your community or otherwise, please take some time to breath deeply into your beautiful, generous heart center and celebrate your efforts.  Lift your heart to the sky in Chair Pose, Crescent Lunge, Cobra and Bow in gratitude for the service of others.

Whether you held the door open for your neighbor, were patient with an anxious child, rescued a pet, volunteered to teach a yoga class or fortified an at-risk population through your grant writing – I encourage you to now inhale self-appreciation, and on your exhale (ahhhhh) simply rest.

Back in September, we began our exploration of Yoga In Action by practicing self-care.  We acknowledged that self-care often includes asking to be cared for.  We drew upon the infinite resources of the earth beneath and air around us to enhance our yoga practice – and our daily well-being.  We opened our minds to the concepts of forgiveness (of self), acceptance (of self) and surrender (to other).

In October, we identified the tangibles from yoga practice that fortify our service off the mat in the form of Karma Yoga. We took the balanced calm of Pranayama, the supportive foundation of standing poses, the motivating wisdom of the Yama and Niyama and more to our challenges, our opportunities and our efforts to be there for others in Seva (selfless service).

Now it’s time to celebrate, appreciate and recognize your deep intentions over the past two months!  To close our classes, we offer gratitude to those who have been of service to us, as well.  And as we close our Bi-Monthly Yoga In Action focus, I offer gratitude to those who intend take their yoga off the mat and into the world however possible – even by simply sharing your glowing smile at the end of your yoga class!

Be gentle with yourselves, take good care, identify your resources and offer all of this to others.

I leave you with a Hebrew prayer for those who serve humanity, below.  May you continue to serve sustainably.  OM Shanti.

May the one whose spirit is with us in every righteous deed, be with all who work for the good of humanity and bear the burdens of others, and who give bread to the hungry, who clothe the naked, and take the friendless into their homes.  May the work of their hands endure, and may the seed they sow bring abundant harvest. – Mah Tovu prayers for Shabbat morning

 

Prayer & Niyama June 2, 2010

One of the reasons I love prayer is because it is an antidote to guilt and blame. If I am unhappy with the way I have acted or have been treated, instead of stewing in self-recrimination, or harboring ill will toward someone else, prayer gives me a way out. I bring my painful feelings out into the open and say, ‘I have done wrong,’ or ‘I have been wronged.’ And then I ask for a vaster view—one that contains within it all the forgiveness I need in order to move forward.

– Elizabeth Lesser from “The Spiritual Adventurer’s Guide to Prayer”

I had a rough day at work.  Day two of a brand new part-time job.  You’d think I’d be breezing through.  But I am very sensitive, and I have anxiety in new group situations.  Today, there were conflicts within the team that left me emotionally rattled.  I won’t get into the details.  I think the paragraph above says enough.

Yoga’s Eight Limbs offer tools for every kind of rattling one could imagine.  Their goal is to dissolve unrest and replace it with serenity.

Today’s unrest churned a pit of both guilt and blame in my stomach.  In the moment, the Eight Limbs were a distant solution.  In the moment, the only tool I remembered was GET OUT.  This is old behavior, left over from growing up in an emotionally hostile and physically violent household.  When things got rough, I got out.  These days those memories and reactions can be triggered by family like situations that feel hostile.  But at work today I didn’t leave – not for good.  I detached from the situation, confided in someone, saw a new POV for the situation, then took a lunch break.

When I got home this evening, I was pooped.  Guilt and blame still rumbled in my tummy.  I fell asleep sitting upright in a chair.  When I awoke from this little nap, I checked e-mail and found the latest eNews blast from the Omega Institute, which includes the above-quoted article by Elizabeth Lesser.  (http://www.eomega.org/omega/enews/article/?content=CON&source=ENEWS.OM.LAND)

So I guess I did use a yoga tool in this situation – the Niyama (Limb #2) suggest the study of spiritual texts toward a goal of self-purification.  In this case, Elizabeth Lesser’s inter-faith offerings about prayer brought serenity for my emotion-crowded mind (and ease for my rumbling tummy).  As she suggests in her article, I know that my solution is to pray.

Today I did wrong; as well, I felt wronged.  I pray for a vaster view.  I pray for complete and absolute forgiveness for myself and others.  And I pray to move forward in the spirit of yoga – with a loving and tranquil heart and mind.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Focus: May/June – The Eight Limbs May 21, 2010

On July 13th, Past Tense Studio in Mt. Pleasant will celebrate its 1st year of operation!

For me, this year at Past Tense was a wondrous opportunity to practice weekly with groups of adults (vs. periodically with private clients, or, daily with young children).  Adults who are devoted to their yoga practice. I have felt honored to witness the growth of pure beginners into seasoned yogis.  I have watched the MtP yoga community blossom, thanks to newbies and seasoned students alike.  Fellow teachers have inspired and motivated each other.  I myself have transformed immensely from this energy.

Since July 2009, our Bi-Monthly Focus has bounced around the yoga universe, from Anatomy & Physiology (i.e. oiling the hip and shoulder joints), through Health & Wellness (i.e. immune-boosting Pranayama practice), to Philosophy & Ideology (i.e. heart-opening Chakra exploration).  In these final months of our 1st year together, we will discover where all of these concepts originate.

The May/June Bi-Monthly Focus is the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Book Two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (discussed in the recent March/April Wrap Up post) lays out yoga’s Eight Limbs.  Probably the most widely known are Asana (Limb #3 – poses), Pranayama (Limb #4 – breathing exercises) and Dharana (Limb #6 – concentration as a form of “meditation”).  With yoga classes becoming more and more accessible, we can share these limbs in community and reinforce our practice.

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 (like the “oversoul” that Walt Whitman wrote about).  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.

LIMB OF THE WEEK!

Each Sunday at the 8:30am “Ahhh-some” class at Past Tense, we’ll launch our “limb of the week.” Together, we can deepen our practice by exploring each limb through special poses, breathing exercises, meditations and Sutras excerpts.

  • WKS 1 & 2 (MAY 9 – MAY 22) – YAMA/NIYAMA
  • WK 3 (MAY 23 – MAY 29) – ASANA
  • WK 4 (MAY 30 – JUNE 5) – PRANAYAMA
  • WK 5 (JUNE 6 – JUNE 12) – PRATYAHARA
  • WK 6 (JUNE 13 – JUNE 19) – DHARANA
  • WK 7 (JUNE 20 – JUNE 26) – DHYANA
  • WK 8 (JUNE 27 – JUNE 30) – SAMADHI

To review Weeks 1 & 2, Yama/Niyama:

How do we wish to behave in this world?  In Book Two, Sutra 2.29 spells out suggested “do’s” and “don’t”s for yogic living.  By earnestly setting our intentions on the Yama (abstinence) and Niyama (observance) – and remaining compassionate and patient with ourselves in this goal – we begin to still the mind as promised way back in Book One.  “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – “yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”

There are five Yama and five Niyama – perhaps reminiscent of other spiritual traditions’ moral precepts. The Yama include: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (continence or chastity) and Aparigraha (non-greed.)  The Niyama are: Saucha (purity), Samtosha (contentment), Tapah (acceptance), Svadhyaya (study of spiritual texts), and Isvarapranidhanani (worship of God or self-surrender).

Most of these are self-explanatory.  Still, I’d like to add something about the “G-word.” I don’t think one has to believe in a mystical “god” in order to practice yoga authentically.  For Niyama #5, I focus on the “self-surrender” part.  I play a more ethical role in the world when I dissolve my isolating self-reliance and surrender to the guidance of some kind of “higher power” – whether that HP is my parent, my doctor, my Asana practice, a wise text or nature.  HP is any being or resource whose influence faithfully restores me to my essence.  And to that, I’d gladly surrender.

If these ethical suggestions seem overwhelming, keep it simple. I like to reflect on and set intentions to practice just one Yama or Niyama at a time.  Or, I might generally reflect on my own, personal, well-examined (and life-long reinforced) character qualities (or patterns) that I hope to decrease or increase, one day at a time.  One thing’s for sure – I feel the most peace of mind (aka my “chitta” is free of “vritti”) when I am useful and of service to others.  And the Yama and Niyama outline a design for living that will inevitably lead to that.

Next week…limb #3 – Asana.