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Focus Wrap Up: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali March 8, 2011

“If I wasn’t making some people uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be doing anything important.” – Justine Siegel, 1st woman to throw batting practice for Major League Baseball and founder of “Baseball for All”

I didn’t plan to write this today.  I have cleaning to do, laundry to fold, breakfast to cook.  But I feel compelled.  Plus, I’m behind on my blogging and have to wrap up our February focus!  Here goes…

A yoga class is definitely NOT the place I go when I need to control things.

But it used to be.  When I was feeling icky, I went to class to feel held, comforted, fixed.  When I was feeling great, I went to class to celebrate, connect, thrive.  I needed to feel that I was in control of my feelings, my well-being, my state.  Therefore, I had expectations on the teacher, the students, the staff, the atmosphere.  I had expectations on yoga.  And guess what.  Surprise, surprise – my needs were not always met. I sometimes spent an entire class in resentment, disappointment and/or frustration.  I sometimes wanted to leave class.  For some reason, I never did (as far as I remember).

Something held me there.  And I kept coming back.

Over the years of attending many, many classes, I have come to realize that on a very tangible level, there are too many uncontrollable factors in a yoga class for me to predict any kind of outcome.  There is the teacher’s style, the teacher’s voice, the teacher’s class format, the teacher’s class theme, the teacher’s background, the teacher’s teachers.  There is the teacher’s music choices, lighting choices, air temperature choices.  And so on.  And then there are the students – sometimes hundreds of them if during a workshop – with their varying energies, moods, needs, backgrounds, strengths, challenges.

A yoga class is a room full of humanness.

Also over the years, on a spiritual level, I started to realize that a yoga class is exactly where I need to go IF I am feeling like controlling things – it is the best venue to practice surrender, willingness and acceptance.  It is a great place to practice self-inquiry, compassion, patience.  It offers the beautiful opportunity to respond to, learn from, and be shaped by whatever happens, whatever comes up, whatever is.

A yoga class is a place to grow.

And that, my friends, is why I so lovingly embrace The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – particularly the five aphorisms that we explored during our February class focus.  If I did not infuse my personal yoga practice with the philosophical, ideological and ethical ideas of the Sutras, I would still be stuck in resentment, still pissed off at whomever rattled me, still personally offended by whatever someone said or did – and I’m talking on AND off the mat.

A yoga class is my chance to develop spiritually.

I honor you, noble students, for so fearlessly taking on Patanjali’s wisdom; for writing to and confiding in me with comments and questions, frustrations and celebrations, concerns and realizations; and for sharing your teachings with me.  You are beautifully human.  We are beautifully human.

Over the past month, we looked at five Sutras as tools for experiencing yoga on and off the mat.  We began with Sutra 1.2, “Yogas Cittas Vritti Nrodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I like to think of Sutra 1.2 as the 1st “promise” of many in this ancient text.  Here in book one, we learn that although yoga can open our hips and heal our asthma, its primary purpose is to cultivate a peaceful mind. During our classes we made decisions regarding Asana choices based on cultivating and sustaining this peace.  When faced with challenge, we weighed out the options and consequences of seizing that challenge or easing off.

Next we explored the practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana,” described in Sutra 2.33 as the replacement of negative or obstructive thoughts with positive or opposite ideas.  Here we realized that we cannot replace reality with something opposite – we recognize that our practice (and life) might bring difficulty.  But by sustaining a positive mind through the challenge (i.e. dwelling on a pose’s benefits, concentrating on life-giving breath or focusing deeply on Sankalpa or intention), we can maintain our peace of mind and face troubles gracefully.

With this practical tool in hand, we backtracked to Sutra 1.33, which suggests that we cultivate certain attitudes toward certain types of people – or toward certain types of states within ourselves.  To summarize this complex aphorism (explored more deeply in the last most, “Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder), we are encouraged to befriend happy people (or states), have compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.  A tough order at times; but all for the sake of that ever-serene mind.

After all this hard work of self-witnessing and shaping the mind toward peace, we wrapped up the month with two of Patanjali’s most comforting statements (in my opinion).  Sutra 2.46, “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” (Asana is a steady, comfortable position.) and the promise of all promises, Sutra 2.16, “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” (Future pain will be prevented.)  If I practice yoga as prescribed by the Yoga Sutras, I learn that I have permission to express each pose with a balance of effort AND ease, steadiness AND comfort.  And one of the most relieving results of practicing in this way is the prevention of future pain – physical and otherwise.

Beyond the mat, how did this all pan out?  Did the Sutras inform your every day life? From some of your feedback, I know you sought to use the tools, but admitted they escaped you at the most important times.  I heard that they helped you respond compassionately to angry drivers.  I heard that coming to class gave you the tools to navigate tough interpersonal situations (I’m cleaning up the language, here!).  I heard appreciation for the Sutras’ promises and affects in general.

I know for me, as soon as I select a theme to teach, I start hitting all sorts of wonderful “trials” in daily life to test out my tools and learn some new lessons!  It’s been an intense – and intensely lesson-filled – few weeks.  In terms of the quote above from my new Karma Yogini heroine (who probably does not know what Karma Yoga is), Justine Siegel, if I weren’t feeling some kind of discomfort, probably nothing important is happening in my life.  And thanks to the Yoga Sutras and other spiritual practices and resources, discomfort yields growth.

Which to me, is important.

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


Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder February 28, 2011

Each morning when I rise, I try to spend about 30 minutes praying, meditating and doing some Pranayama.  When I do, my soul feels infinitely more peaceful throughout whatever the day tosses my way.

For me, this is the point of yoga.

From what I’ve learned, this was also the point of yoga for the ancients who invented this deeply balancing art  – ancients like Patanjali and others, who thankfully passed yoga along for thousands of years so it could reach us. Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah is the 2nd aphorism in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  “Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”  The only Sutra that comes before this is the statement, “Now we will explore yoga.”

So clearly, cultivating a calm mind is the most important goal of yoga practice.

In our February classes, we have been exploring a very basic introduction to the Yoga Sutras.  I am sharing five aphorisms from Patanjali’s wisdom that, for me, are practical tools and inspiring promises.  (Please see “February Focus: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” for an introduction to the five.)  On and off the mat, they inform my discernment process when making large and small decisions; they remind me how to live in peace with all others; they guide me toward self-acceptance, -love and -compassion; and they give me hope.

Last week we covered Sutra 1.33, which is a tough order.  In my opinion.

In Sutra 1.33, Patanjali introduces “The Four Locks & Four Keys.”  He suggests that (in order to fulfill yoga’s purpose of a calm mind) we cultivate the following attitudes toward the following types of people: friendliness toward the happy; compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; and disregard (or indifference, or equanimity or detachment) toward the non-virtuous.

As I prepared to teach my seven weekly classes on this theme, I decided to share the story of my 11-year-old yoga student who was murdered in March 2009 – and how I used the four locks/keys to navigate that deeply disturbing situation.  I meditated on this decision, realizing that such a dark story could potentially shake up the room.  I prayed, “May I be relieved of self-centeredness, that I may better play a small, useful role in your big picture.  I pray to be relieved of anything that stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.  Grant me strength to do your bidding.”

I checked my motives, reminding myself that I do not teach for my own needs, but for the well-being of my students.  In the end, I decided to share my personal experience in order to demonstrate yoga’s solutions for every possible situation.

Even a situation as severe as murder.

*  *  *

In my early experience, the toughest part of Sutra 1.33’s “advice” was offering anything but anger, disgust and all kinds of judgment toward the non-virtuous.  Even today, as harmful things occur around me and happen to me, I can naturally (and humanly) sink into all kinds of harsh emotion.

Thankfully, in his commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda nudges me, “We come across wicked people sometimes.  We can’t deny that.  So what should be our attitude?  Indifference.  ‘Well, some people are like that.  Probably I was like that yesterday.  Am I not a better person now?  She will probably be alright tomorrow.'”  Simply put.  And with an underlying vibe of self-forgiveness.  Beautiful.

What of the people who are habitually “wicked” – who commit harm as a reaction to being harmed themselves; or due to fear; or to fulfill a sense of survival?  How do I keep a peaceful mind in the midst of serious threat?  I first recognize that in order to commit harm, a person is most likely deeply unhappy.  Therefore, as the 2nd lock/key suggests, I offer compassion to that person.  And I disregard the non-virtuous deed as the result of that very human state of unhappiness.

I was inspired toward this approach by the beautiful book, “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace” by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait.  “…if someone is ‘non-virtuous’ according to our definition, the judgmental part of our personality comes forward and we label those people as ‘bad.’  We try to maintain a distance, either my withdrawing ourselves or by pushing them away from us.  Any of these actions sets the stage for violence.”

And then he makes the strongest point.

“Cultivating indifference for people we believe to be non-virtuous damages our sensitivity to others and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness, and selfless love.”  He reinforces, “But by cultivating indifference toward the deeds themselves, we remain free of animosity for those whose actions are non-virtuous.”

Hmmmm – a mind free of animosity sounds like an undisturbed mind.  Therefore, if I want to practice yoga as the Sutras suggest, I must disregard the deed, have compassion toward the doer…and perhaps even forgive her.  I had to practice this recently.  And believe me, it works.  And it’s worth it.  For peace of mind.

In his May 2010 Yoga Journal article, “Love in Full Bloom,” Frank Jude Boccio takes this Sutra one step further.  He invites us to offer ourselves these same attitudes – friendliness or lovingkindness, compassion, delight or joy, and equanimity.  He asks, “How would you like to be unconditionally loved, just as you are, without having to be or do anything special?  What would it be like to feel truly, completely, radically accepted, without feeling as though you had to hide or deny or apologize for any aspect of yourself?”

And I add – can you imagine how peaceful the world and our own mind states would be if we offered this unconditional acceptance to all beings?

So let’s start with ourselves.  Can we remember to offer ourselves lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity?  Can we forgive ourselves for mistakes, accept our humanness, see ourselves as worthy?  Boccio points out, “…if we cannot love and accept ourselves just as we are, we will find if difficult to truly love anyone else in such a limitless, unconditional way.”

Remember, yoga’s ultimate goal is an undisturbed mind.  So how do we cultivate love when it feels impossible?  If I am firmly stuck in harsh judgment toward myself or another, the most effective elbow-to-ribs is the tool we learned in Sutra 2.33 – Pratipaksha Bhavana.  The replacement of negative thoughts with positive.

In his ever hopeful way, Swami Satchidananda says, “If the thought of hatred is in the mind, we can try to bring in the thought of love.  If we can’t do that, we can at least go to the people we love and, in their presence, forget the hatred.  So, although the hatred comes to the surface, we can keep if from coming out or staying long by changing the environment.”

May all of your yoga classes be an Environment Of Love.  May you feel surrounded by love.  May you feel secure, safe and supported during your practice.  May you find peace of mind.

*  *  *

Over the past week, I have witnessed students’ profound dedication to cultivating the virtues suggested in Sutra 1.33.  I have seen them apply The Four Locks & Keys during their Asana practice.  I have watched them wrestle with discomfort, re-commit to cultivating a peaceful mind, and choose positive over negative.  I have felt the love in the room; and I am certain it has found its way off the mat and into the world.

Since hearing the “murder story,” many students have confided in me about difficulties or hardship they are going or have been through.  I pray that, during our classes, they feel support for their healing.  I pray they get an ounce of relief, a break from troubles and tools to cultivate the peacefulness to face whatever life tosses their way.

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


Focus Wrap Up: Back to Basics February 2, 2011

Over the weekend I taught the final classes in our January Back to Basics focus. To complement our fine-tuning of alignment, review of three-part breathing and return to proper resting, these last sessions invited students to deepen their commitment to setting an intention.

Personally, I can’t imagine getting on the mat without exploring some kind of purpose for my practice.  To set an intention, I like to let the thoughts naturally flow through my mind while arriving, and see which one most strongly asks for my attention – it might even be a thought that’s been tapping me on the shoulder for a few days.  Maybe weeks!  Or longer!  Then I shape that thought into a dedication, affirmation or reflection.

Using the three-part Deergha Swaasam breath, I deepen my reflection by imagining filling with intention on the inhale, and simple resting with it on the exhale.  Later in my set, during the internal focus and natural surrender of seated forward folds, I inhale to fill with intention, and exhale to surrender (dissolve and let go of) any obstacles (distractions, old stories, self-imposed limitations) that might stand in the way of realizing my intention.  And I reconnect with my intention before settling into Yoga Nidra – a process of deep relaxation, between a state of sleep and consciousness.

Although I’ve been shying away from the word “resolution” this new year, I will say that having a Sankalpa (a firm, prayerful, resolved intention) during my time on the mat makes a huge difference in my practice, my day and my life. Different traditions approach Sankalpa with unique perspectives – for example, setting a Sankalpa during Yoga Nidra so this process of yogic sleep helps us realize that intention; belief that Sankalpa can erase negative Samskara (imprints on or patterns in our lives); or using Pratipaksha Bhavana (replacement of negative thoughts with positive) to create a resolution.

There’s that word again!  Resolution.

I can’t escape it – if I am going to reflect deeply on intention, I must have resolve.  So I’ll try to ease up on my anti-resolution attitude!  Your encouragement is always helpful; I’m not the only teacher around here.

I hope you’ve found something useful during this Back to Basics month of reviewing and fine tuning Asana, Pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Sankalpa practice.  Looking forward to starting a 9-month look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Eight Limbs beginning in February!

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

P.S. Remember, the fine-tuning tips for Asana and Pranayama that I’ve taught over the past month can be found on the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.  Enjoy!


Focus: Yoga In Action – Acceptance September 4, 2010

This brought me to the good healthy realization that there were plenty of situations left in the world over which I had no personal power… – Bill Wilson, “As Bill Sees It”

I’ve just returned from an intentionally slow walk down the hill, to the creek, and back.  I paused to lean against a bridge railing and watch the creek ripple then swirl then ripple again.  Bugs traveled along the railing’s highway, detouring to the underside when encountering my resting arms.  Leaves dropped and danced their way to the water.  I was silent.

Clearly I have no personal power over nature’s course, I observed.  I felt relieved.  Because I am just a small part of that process.  I must accept that there is much beyond my control.

This morning, I really needed that slow and silent walk.  Yesterday (Wednesday) there was a hostage situation at my former employer, Discovery Communications, in nearby Silver Spring, MD.  I happened to be in Silver Spring at that time, giving a talk to a 12-step recovery group.  The talk’s theme?  Acceptance.  Of all things.

I didn’t know exactly why I was stuck in unmoving traffic after the talk. Judging by the variety and number of law enforcement vehicles and officers along the roads, I guessed it was something quite threatening.  And because Discovery is the only fairly controversial and very high-profile organization in downtown Silver Spring, I guessed it was there.

Where did my mind go?  To the fact that I needed to be back downtown in 30 minutes for a business meeting with someone whose phone number I did not have.  Yup.  Completely self-centered!  I was worried.  At the same time, I was pretty darn patient in traffic, understanding that the magnitude of the situation would not warrant any fast movements or clever detours.  I also considered the number of people inconvenienced and changing directions at that very moment.  I listened to the radio awaiting the news, sat up straight and breathed.

I accepted the situation and therefore was able to feel peaceful in the moment, rather than disturbed by worry and lack of control over the situation.

Referring back to our opening quote from Bill Wilson, and the idea of acceptance, which in yoga is known as Samtosha

Acceptance means letting go of expectations, plans, wishes and such for the sake of cultivating a peaceful mind – which we learn from Patanjali’s Sutras, is the goal of yoga.  I inch toward acceptance using two tools. I write a gratitude list nightly; this helps me focus on the gifts in my life and let go more easily of the disappointments.  In addition, I try to look at the BIG picture – if my little plans do not work out as I wish, perhaps it’s because conditions had to be right for someone else’s day to work out.

Wednesday, the day worked out differently than many imagined. In the Discovery situation, three people experienced how it feels to be held hostage.  A company of about 1900 utilized their oft-practiced emergency drill procedures for a true emergency.  Hundreds of drivers and travelers were delayed.  And Discovery’s intruder was killed by police.

That night, we dedicated our Yoga In Action self-care practice to all of these people.  We reflected on whether we can accept that there is much beyond our control. We explored whether we can accept that people who inflict pain are often in pain themselves.  We brought in as much self-care as possible in an attempt to reduce pain – in ourselves and others.

Maybe this is a stretch, connecting hostage situations and yoga.  But to me, any opportunity to share compassion and practice care is a chance to practice Yoga In Action.

OM Shanti.


Focus: The Eight Limbs, Pt. 2 – Asana & Pranayama June 5, 2010

In our yoga classes, the May/June Focus is The Eight Limbs.  Each week, we practice a pretty pure Level 1 Integral Yoga (IY) Hatha set accompanied by background on the Limbs from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

To review Weeks 3 & 4, Asana & Pranayama:

Continuing our process of growth through the Eight Limbs, we now transition from the moral observances and purification guidelines of the Yama and Niyama to the more tangible Hatha practices that support these philosophies.

The 3rd Limb – Asana (postures or poses) – addresses physical limitations so we may cultivate more comfort during the limbs that follow.  When we practice Asana we decrease stiffness, aches, cramps and digestive dis-ease.  The classic IY set is my favorite for effectively aligning the body, stretching the muscles, stimulating digestion, toning the thyroid gland and eliminating toxins.

As you know, I am an alignment junkie (an affectionate term that a small group of DC yoga instructors has informally adopted).  So when I teach Asana, I spend a lot of time fine-tuning Tadaasana (Mountain Pose) so students may apply the same alignment principles in their other poses.  Why spend so much time on alignment?  Let’s revisit our promises from the Sutras.

“Heyam Dukham Anagatam” is the lovely assurance that, through yoga practice, future pain can be avoided.  I admit that I take license (under the influence of Dr. Steve Weiss from Align By Design anatomy and physiology program) by making this a literal statement about physical pain.  Various commentary on the Sutras typically explores psychological or karmic pain.  Still, for my previously injured and oft aching body, the promise of less physical pain is relieving.

Consider as well the Yama and Niyama (1st and 2nd Limb) – particularly Ahimsa (non-violence) and Samtosha (contentment).  What if we approached each yoga pose without mild forms of violence such as pushing or straining or hurting – what if we shaped our bodies with ease?  What if we accepted exactly where our body is instead of comparing or contrasting with yesterday’s abilities or the guy on the next mat – what if we were content with our very own Asana, as it is, in this moment?

After all, Book Two, #46 says “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.”

With physical distractions out-of-the-way, we can move closer to yoga’s goal to still the mind, and deeper into Pranayama (breath regulation) practice.

As previously described, the 4th limb – Pranayama – continues detoxification, awakens our life force energy and balances our nervous system.  Specifically, the following practices (also archived under the Tips-n-Tools page) each have their own powerful and tonic-like benefits.


  • Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position or on a chair with feet flat on the floor, hands on the knees.
  • Elongate the spine to create space for the breath to fill the torso.
  • Inhale and exhale through the nose, unless otherwise instructed.
  • The lungs are long and thick, like a barrel inside of the torso.  Fill up the barrel!


This deliberate deep three-part breath can increase the oxygen intake by up to seven times more than normal; consequently, we generate more red blood cells and therefore strengthen the immune system.

  • Begin with a complete exhale, all the way down to the lower lungs, around the belly.  Contract the belly to empty the torso of air.
  • Begin your inhale at the lower lungs, allowing the belly to relax outward.
  • Continue inhaling into the middle lungs, expanding the rib cage forward, along the sides and into the back.
  • Top off your inhale at the collar-bone.
  • Exhale, releasing the air from the collar-bone, emptying the rib cage, and then contracting and emptying the belly.
  • Continue for three to five minutes then return to normal breathing.


This rapid, naval-pumping breath continues your Asana’s detox process, energizes the body and enhances alertness in the mind.

  • To find the correct area to activate for this technique, place the palm of the hand over the belly button, and stretch the thumb upward, toward the lower sternum, where the ribs meet.
  • It is important to sit upright, open the heart and isolate movement to the belly area.
  • To practice before your first round, relax the belly while inhaling just into the lower lungs, then exhale sharply while contracting the belly inward.  Some people compare this forceful exhale to a bellows, to the contraction we feel when laughing heartily (try it!) or to blowing out a candle with your nose.
  • Your inhale will follow naturally, filling up the belly as it relaxes outward.
  • To prepare for your first round, inhale a deep three-part breath, exhale all the way down and out of the belly, inhale just into the belly, then sharply exhale to begin.
  • Find your own rhythm and pace.  Continue with the sharp exhales and natural inhales for 15-20 cycles.  Repeat for three rounds.
  • After each round, exhale completely, inhale a deep three-part breath, then let the exhale slowly seep out.  Return to normal breathing.
  • If the practice becomes challenging during your rounds, focus on the forceful exhale, and let the inhale become more and more relaxed and passive.
  • As your practice advances, increase up to five rounds, with up to 100 cycles per round.
  • This is a complex practice.  Please consult the texts listed above or e-mail me at with any questions.


Use this soothing alternate-nostril breath for balance during stressful times or the change of the seasons.

  • Raise the right arm and place the palm in front of the face; make a loose fist; release the thumb, pinky and ring finger into Vishnu Mudra.
  • Inhale into both nostrils.
  • Plug the right nostril with the thumb and exhale through the left nostril; keep the thumb where it is and inhale through the left nostril.
  • Now plug the left nostril with the fingers and exhale through the right nostril; keep the fingers where they are and inhale through the right nostril.
  • Switch and plug the right nostril; exhale/inhale through the left.
  • Switch and plug the left nostril; exhale/inhale through the right.
  • As you become comfortable with the pattern of exhale/inhale/switch/exhale/inhale/switch/etc, begin to lengthen the breath to deep three-part breathing (into belly, ribs, collar-bone; out of collar-bone, ribs, belly).
  • After about three minutes, and after finishing an exhale on the right side, relax the right hand to the knee and return to normal breathing.

Happy breathing!

Next week…Pratyahara (withdrawal from or discipline of the senses).  I will be out-of-town, so if my subs do not address this 5th Limb, I’ll be sure to combine it with Dharana when I return to teach on Wednesday, May 16th.


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

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.


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.


Focus Wrap Up: March/April – Transition & Balance May 20, 2010

Yikes!  It’s May 19th and I’m just now writing the wrap up for our March/April Bi-Monthly Focus of Transition & Balance.  However, our 2nd month concentration on the Yoga Sutras will segue beautifully into our May/June class focus on yoga’s Eight Limbs (intro coming soon!).

At the end of April we rounded out our Transition & Balance theme by uncovering some of the tools and promises within the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The Sutras are like the scriptures of yoga – spoken thousands of years ago by yogi Patanjali; eventually written down by ancient teachers; and later translated and commented upon by sages like Sri Swami Satchidananda and many more.

To me, this is the most important fact that Patanjali shared: yoga was invented so people could sit longer during a specific task.

Back then, yogis were sages who were meditating toward the highest state of peace, otherwise known as Samadhi.  Patanjali’s system of Hatha Yoga created a process for practitioners to eliminate physical distractions such as body aches and digestive imbalances through Asana (poses); enhance detoxification and energize the body using Pranayama (breathing exercises); then, settle comfortably into long periods of contemplation via Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation).  These are just three of yoga’s eight limbs, which are thoroughly explored within the Sutras.

Today, yogis are regular-old-people who are sitting through work days, concentrating on family affairs, digesting world crises and seeking peace in daily challenges.  Personally, the Sutras have taught me tools for addressing all of this and more.  And their eight limbs have been the greatest gift of my life.  Thus far.  When I look around my home town of Washington, DC and see yoga studios popping up on every corner, I feel deeply grateful.

Simply put, without Patanjali’s ancient wisdom, we might not have yoga – today’s accessible, coveted, health-enhancing, community-building practice.

Contemporary commentary on the Sutras has become progressive and expansive, enhancing what used to be mere physical exercise for many modern yogis.  To inform our April classes, I was influenced by the following sources:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda (
  • Raja Yoga – by Swami Vivekananda (
  • Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace – by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (
  • Yoga Journal, May 2010 Issue – “Love In Full Bloom” by Frank Jude Boccio; “Journey to the Light” by Kate Holcombe (
  • Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010 Issue – “Yoga Sutras Unveiled” section with multiple authors (

In my understanding, Patanjali’s Sutras are recognized as the most comprehensive treatment of Raja Yoga – the philosophy and ethics behind the spiritual practice of yoga.  When I say “spiritual,” I generally mean ethical, mindful and service-oriented; a spiritual life maintains these qualities.  So in our March classes, we focused on the physical and tangible process toward Transition & Balance with Asana, Pranayama and Mantra.  And in April, we contemplated the “spiritual” foundations of cultivating emotional and psychological balance within ourselves in order to share it with the world.

In my personal Raja Yoga practice, I turn to four favorite Sutras for nurturing balance in the midst of all kinds of challenge and/or change.



Early in Book One, Sutra 1.2 says, “Yogas Citta Vrtti Nerodhah” or “Yoga restrains the disturbances of the mind.”  We’ve probably experienced this at the end of a luscious Asana and Pranayama class!  That remarkable liberation of the mind, free of worry and forgetful of fear, glowing with presence and brimming with confidence.  So in the very beginning of Patanjali’s aphorisms, we are assured: using yoga, we can still the mind and show up for life with serenity and peace.


Sometimes I need more than my regular Asana class to restrain disturbances of my mind.  If I sneak forward to Book Two, I find the remedy.  Sutra 2.33 says, “Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam” or “When disturbed by negative thoughts, contrary thoughts should be employed.”  There are days when I find myself repeating “Pratipaksha Bhavana!” like a mantra, in order to snap out of negativity.  My Uncle Bill (recently departed and revered in my April “Oh Death” post) was the king of replacing negative with positive.  I remember one conversation in particular.  I was feeling hopeless and believed I’d made too many mistakes during my early adult life to ever repair the damage and pursue my dreams.  I’d been swimming in self-pity and doubt for a while.  As I defended my despair, Uncle Bill interrupted – “Well, Holly,” he said with his soothing Tennessee accent and churchgoers’ faith, “I believe you sort of lived your life backwards – when you were younger, you made all of your mistakes and somehow survived all of your trials.  Now you get to move forward based on what you’ve learned and live a better life!”  And you know what?  Since learning to replace negativity with positive or constructive thoughts, many of my dreams and intentions have been realized!  Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed!


To further pacify the citta (mind), we backtrack to Book One.  Sutra 1.33 says, “Maitri Karuna Muditopeksanam Sukha Duhkha Punyapunya Visayanam Bavanatas Citta Prasadanam.” The many lengthy translations and commentaries on this aphorism offer an overall belief that there are four locks in our own minds and in the character of other people: happy, unhappy, virtuous and non-virtuous.  To confront these attitudes – whether ours or others’ – Patanjali suggests: “Befriend the happy; have compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.”  To properly discuss this Sutra would take many blog entries.  I refer you to the Yoga Journal articles and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait book cited above for my inspirations to have mercy toward unhappy mindsets (i.e. being compassionate with myself when feeling low) and to compassionately detach from non-virtuous acts (i.e. the violence of murder – see my November 2009 “Compassion for Killers” post).

The previous Sutras offer immense assurance.  If we practice yoga in this way, we can count on these results.  When we show up for our practice in this way, we give back to the world with these offerings.

And then comes…


Sutra 2.16 is my most favorite idea in the whole-wide-world.  “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.”  By using yoga’s tools on and off the mat, we can avoid future suffering!  Yea!  Not only can we decrease physical injuries by practicing Asana with respect for our bodies, we can also decrease mental anguish by embracing Raja Yoga’s ideas.  This doesn’t mean that we can avoid bad experiences, because life will deal us whatever cards we are meant to hold.  But we can avoid misery and suffering while going through any difficulties by utilizing some of the resources that we’ve explored during March and April.

As we move into the May/June focus of yoga’s eight limbs, we can reach back into our toolbox of Balance & Transition to deepen our practice, our inner peace and our connections among others.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

P.S. If you are interested in “Raja Talk” – periodic get-togethers for sharing about the Eight Limbs and Sutras – please see the “Services” page of this blog and e-mail me!