The Urban Yoga Den

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February Focus: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali February 9, 2011

At Yogaville, where all dorm rooms have a copy (or two) of Satchidananda's commentary on The Yoga Sutras.

From the title of this blog, one might think:

  • “Wow, Holly’s really going for it this time.”
  • “She’s taking on the ancient text of Yoga (with a capital “Y”)!”
  • “How in the world will we cover four books of aphorisms in one month?”
  • “Who does Holly think she is, teaching the Sutras?”

Hahahahaha!  Believe me, gang, I know better.

For February, our monthly focus is, indeed, the Yoga Sutras. Because without the Yoga Sutras, I wouldn’t be teaching yoga classes.  I wouldn’t have known how to guide you through the basics of Asana, Pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Sankalpa that we reviewed in January.  Heck, I wouldn’t even know what those things were without the Yoga Sutras.  In my estimate, without the Yoga Sutras, none of us would be enjoying yoga as we do today.

Then again, who knows?

I’m open to other POVs.  But I can only teach from mine!  I will admit (because my M.O. is “nothing to hide”) that my knowledge of the Sutras focuses on the practical portions we studied at my Integral Yoga Hatha Teacher Training in 2008.  Like any other studied text, there are parts of the Sutras that are ingrained in my brain – and I quote them the way some people quote one-liners from movies.

Specifically, five Sutras rocked my world when I first learned about them; and they continue to serve as essential tools for living yoga on and off the mat. This is our February focus.

HOLLY’S FAVORITE SUTRAS FOR CULTIVATING INNER PEACE

1 – A PROMISE

Early in Book One, Sutra 1.2 says, “Yogas Citta Vritti 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.  What I love most about this promise is – I don’t have to do it.  I don’t have to force my mind to be undisturbed; I don’t have to change uncomfortable thoughts; I don’t have to force positivity to replace negativity; I don’t have to effort anything.  Yoga will take care of all of this.  I do the footwork (practice yoga); and the rest will fall into place.

So in the very beginning of Patanjali’s aphorisms, we are assured: through yoga, we can still the mind and show up for life with serenity and peace.

2 – A PRACTICAL TOOL

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.  I’ve told this story before; here it is again.  My dearly departed Uncle Bill (revered in my April 2010 “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 gentle churchgoer’s 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 smallest intentions and greater dreams have been realized!

Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed!  Wondering where/when you can use this tool?  Read on.

3 – THE FOUR LOCKS AND KEYS

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.”  In his commentary on Patanjali’s Sutras, Swami Satchidananda advises: “These four keys should always be with you in your pocket.  If you use the right key with the right person you will retain your peace.  Nothing in the world can upset you then.”  Another lovely promise.

Life has offered me unique opportunities to test this Sutra.  To read my personal experience about using compassionate detachment to understand and find peace with the violence of murder, please see my November 2009 “Compassion for Killers” post.

Yoga can offer relief beyond belief.  It has helped through horrible situations happening around me – as well as situations that I make horrible for myself.

4 – AHHH-SOME

I’ll admit it.  Sometimes I try too hard.  I overload my schedule; I forget to relax.  I feel disappointed that I haven’t mended every past mistake; I forget to forgive myself.  I give and give; I burn out.  And so on.  Mentors often suggest practicing Sutra 2.46 symbolically, as a remedy for this. “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.”  Here in Book Two, Patanjali discusses the practicality of yoga, reminding us that our poses are a blend of effort and ease.  Holding and resting.  Flowing and pausing.  We find ourselves physically expressing yoga poses with this fusion of steadiness and comfort.  Ahhh…just like a nice, balanced, healthy, sustainable life.

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…

5 – THE ULTIMATE PROMISE OF ALL PROMISES

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 (steady AND comfortable), we can also decrease mental anguish by embracing the Sutras’ ideological guidance (“Yogas Cittas Vrittis Nrodhah”).

None of this means that we can avoid bad or intense experiences, because life will deal us whatever cards we are meant to hold.  But by embracing the above promises and tools, we can avoid misery and suffering – and above all, sustain an undisturbed mind – while going through any of life’s difficulties or sorrows, celebrations and joys.

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

Resources that influence my POV on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda.
  • Raja – Yoga; by Swami Vivekananda.
  • Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace; by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D.
  • “Yoga Sutras Unveiled” from Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010; with contributions from Michael Stone, Mukunda Stiles, Deborah Adele, Dr. M.A. Jayashree and more.
  • “Love in Full Bloom” from Yoga Journal, May 2010; by Frank Jude Boccio.
  • “Journey to the Light” from Yoga Journal, May 2010; by Kate Holcombe.

(I first wrote about these “promises” and tools last March and April, when our class focus was “Transition and Balance.”  That original, shorter post lives on the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.)

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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 (www.YogaHealthBooks.com)
  • Raja Yoga – by Swami Vivekananda (www.YogaHealthBooks.com)
  • Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace – by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (www.HimalayanInstitute.org)
  • Yoga Journal, May 2010 Issue – “Love In Full Bloom” by Frank Jude Boccio; “Journey to the Light” by Kate Holcombe (www.YogaJournal.com)
  • Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010 Issue – “Yoga Sutras Unveiled” section with multiple authors (www.IYMagazine.org)

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.

HOLLY’S FAVORITE SUTRAS FOR CULTIVATING INNER PEACE

1 – A PROMISE

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.

2 – A PRACTICAL TOOL

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!

3 – THE FOUR LOCKS AND KEYS

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…

4 – THE ULTIMATE PROMISE OF ALL PROMISES

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!

 

Firm and Pleasant November 12, 2009

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you…while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  – John Muir

This morning a group of students and staff from Past Tense Studio (see “Services” page) went for a Yoga and Meditation Hike in Rock Creek Park.  We first walked chattily to our starting point – a bridge crossing a particularly rocky and rumbling section of the creek – then settled into our practice.

It’s not hard to do Asana in plain sight of the public eye when surrounded by the Autumn beauty of Rock Creek – a true refuge where one can completely forget the rush and trash of city life.  We opened our journey in a strong and engaged Tadaasana (see instructions below), breathing the deep three-part Deergha Swaasam breath (see “Tips-n-Tools,” Sept/Oct focus), and inviting the mind to soften into the neutral space of the present moment.

Flowing through our Sun Salutations without yoga mats, in jeans instead of yoga pants and with sneakers instead of bare feet, I felt a surprising authenticity.  Simple connections – face raised toward the warm fall sunlight, ears filled with the sound of rushing water, bare hands pressed into the cool concrete bridge – forged a humble oneness of human and nature.

For our hike, we explored our senses, one-by-one (one of my favorite styles of meditation, as many know!).  After exploring sound (crunching leaves underfoot and weepy children passing by), smell (wet earth as well as runners’ cologne), taste (indeed, I could taste fresh air) and touch/feeling (limbs swinging freely, bodies heating on the uphill climb), we paused at a peak of the trail to transition to the sense of seeing.

Taking advantage of the elevation and view, we practiced Netra Vyayamam (see instructions below), circling our open eyes around the periphery of the sockets, taking in the closest details and stretching our gaze to far off vistas.  As we walked back to the bridge, we gradually activated and enlivened each sense, reaching our starting point in full sensory awareness.  To close, we stood again in a firm Mountain Pose, and allowed the senses to soften back to neutral, releasing all effort, resting in the here and now.

Sounds like a lot of work for a walk in the woods, eh?

This balance of effort and ease is the essence of yogic living.  In the Yama and Niyama – yoga’s first two limbs – it is the skilled practice of ethical living while exercising compassion and love for our humanness.  In Pranayama, it is the healthful benefits of deliberate breathing; in Yoga Nidra, it is a conscious restfulness; in Dharana, it is concentration toward the meditative state of Dhyana.

And in Asana, it is the engaging of structure to find stillness in a pose.

In the text “Raja-Yoga,” Swami Vivekananda translates Sutra 2:46 as, “Posture is that which is firm and pleasant.”  For the months of November and December, our yoga classes, meditations and field trips (see “Services” page to join us!) will explore this fusion of effort and ease…a fusion that inevitably leads to deep, profound rest…a rest that we all need during the holiday craze.  Visiting, shopping, eating.  Family time, financial stress, physical imbalance.

Read below for tips to reach restfulness.  Try (just try) to let go of pushing, straining and reaching.  Engage as much as possible, breath the deep three-part breath, fine-tune, then surrender into stillness.

Let’s take refuge in yoga.

shavasana-3

Savaasana is the ultimate resting pose!

BI-MONTHLY FOCUS: November/December – Rest

“When you have succeeded in controlling the body and keeping it firm, your practice will be steady…  This is the only real rest you can give to the body.”  – Swami Vivekananda, “Raja-Yoga,” Sutra 2:46

Here are two exercises for practicing the balance of effort and ease, leading to rest.  Enjoy!

TADAASANA – MOUNTAIN POSE

Tadaasana is a standing pose and a foundational posture for other Asana or yoga movements.  One can apply Tadaasana’s principles of alignment to any pose.

  • To engage Tadaasana, stand tall with the arms by the sides.  Scan the body from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head.
  • Stand with the feet parallel and a little bit apart (aligned with hip bones).
  • If the knees are locked, unlock them; allow them to relax.
  • Tighten the quadriceps – the long muscle in the front of the thighs.  The knee-caps will raise, safely straightening the legs.
  • Bring the awareness to the hips, pelvis and “sit bones” (aka ischium – the two bones at the base of the buttocks).
  • Imagine the sit bones reaching down the backs of the legs toward the heels; allow the hips and pelvis to float above the legs.
  • Feel the grounded sensation in the lower half of your Mountain Pose.
  • Bring the awareness to the spine.
  • Inhale a deep three-part breath from the tailbone, through the backs of the ribs, up to the shoulder blades.
  • Exhale, release the shoulder blades toward each other and down the back.
  • Inhale, breathe into the front, sides and backs of the ribs, filling the lungs like a barrel.
  • Exhale, open and extend through the sides of the ribs.
  • On the next inhale, reach the crown of the head to the sky.
  • Exhale, close the eyes, breathe, find stillness.
  • Rest.

NETRA VYAYAMAM – EYE MOVEMENTS

Netra Vyayamam tone the optic nerve and stretch the eye muscles.  The exercises can be practiced to rest the eyes from staring at computer screens, studying, driving and so on.  When practiced outdoors, they allow the depth of focus to stretch.  Try the palming described at the very end to relieve eye strain anytime.

  • Sit (or stand in Tadaasana) with the spine long and the crown of the head reaching toward the sky.
  • Close the eyes and breathe deeply in three parts.
  • Gently open the eyes and bring the gaze to the top of the vision.
  • Begin circling the clockwise, exploring the edge of the eye socket, stretching without straining.
  • Inhale as the eyes circle from bottom to top; exhale from top to bottom.
  • After three slow, fluid repetitions, return to the top of the vision.
  • Close the eyes, center them and relax.
  • Repeat circling counter-clockwise.
  • If outdoors, explore the range of vision, from the closest objects to the farthest vistas.
  • After completing three repetitions in each direction, keep the eyes closed, and rub the palms together at the heart center.
  • Generate heat in the palms from the friction.
  • Cup the palms over the eyes and allow them to drink in the darkness and warmth.
  • Rest.
  • As the heat begins to dissipate, gently sweep the fingertips across the eyelids.
  • Gradually open the eyes.
  • Rest some more.

Please visit the “Tips-n-Tools” page for an archive of these instructions.