The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

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.)

Advertisements
 

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!

 

January Focus: Back to Basics January 26, 2011

Luscious.

That’s how I would describe, in one word, the yoga class I just took with veteran Asana teacher Sandy Kavalier up the street from my apartment at Yoga Chai (http://www.yogachai.com/).  Breathing emphasis and mechanical cues.  Nothing more, nothing less.   My hips feel heavenly, my arms stronger, my shoulders intact, my lungs larger.  My entire body is vibrating with fresh oxygen.  My mind feels serene.  What a gift.

The focus in my yoga classes this month is Back to Basics. After a few months of conceptual themes (“Abundance,” “Yoga in Action,” “Why Yoga?”), we are returning to the nuts and bolts of Asana, Pranayama and Yoga Nidra.  And after a few months of almost completely abandoning my own personal yoga practice due to end of year busy-ness, I myself am enjoying those nuts and bolts at home, and in classes like Sandy’s.

I’m noticing that many studios around town (Yoga District, The Studio DC, and more) are featuring fundamentals and basics classes, most likely in answer to the abundance of New Year’s resolutions to start practicing yoga.  I know that Kelly’s “Virgin Yoga” class at Past Tense brought some newbies into our mix!

So welcome newbies and experienced yogis alike! There’s nothing like fine-tuning to awaken a long-standing practice or to start a new practice off on the right foot.

For more on the Principles of Alignment and Pranayama, please check out the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.  More later!

OM Shanti.

 

100(+1)% May 13, 2010

Back on April 8th, I attended a Krishna Das Kirtan concert, where he told an inspiring story about learning to apply himself 100%.  At the time, I was stuck in discernment-process limbo, trying to decide between two career paths.   Should I continue applying for full-time communications jobs, or expand my yoga teaching, music performance/teaching and promotion of both into a full-time profession?  I was applying myself approximately 1% to each option and feeling about 1% peaceful with that ugly truth.

“When – and to what – will I apply myself 100%?” I asked myself (and you guys) in a blog dated April 9th.

On April 20th, I wrote the following e-mail to my friend Manu at Yogaville:

There has been SO much synchronicity swirling about life this month.  Primarily regarding my mother’s influence and my career path discernment.  When I returned from my Florida trip at the end of March, I planned to gauge my motivation, to see which direction I should travel professionally – would it be a full-time job in communications, or, a collection of part-time gigs/projects in yoga, music, marketing/promotion?  Of course, after Spring Training, I was brimming with enthusiasm about teaching yoga to athletes.  And so my energy was a bit tilted in that direction.  One of the first things I did was meet with my friend, Emma, who teaches yoga full-time, to get a clear picture of the pros and cons.  The pros definitely won.  Then my computer broke down, so I couldn’t search or apply for full-time jobs.  Still, I resolved to continue gaining counsel from friends and advisers, to make the best decision.  On Easter Sunday, I was remembering that 20 years ago in mid-March, I was emerging from a very dark period which included many destructive events and toxic habits.  That April Easter of 1990 represented a resurrection of sorts, when I resigned to clean up, stick around and see what life had to offer.  So this year for Easter, I was pretty emotional and reflective about life’s purpose and calling.  The next day, Easter Monday, I was invited to speak to an addiction recovery group that meets at the synagogue where my mother converted to Judaism in the 1950s.  So mom – one of my biggest creative motivators – was in the back of my mind as I told my story of transformation that night.  On Tuesday, I donated my services to lead a Yoga Nidra for young cancer survivors at the Smith Farm Center (my mom had cancer three times).  Wednesday I took a very intense Jivamukti class; Thursday I fasted and went to a Kirtan with Krishna Das – his between-song banter kicked my butt into positivity (see the “100%” blog for more); and Friday morning I took another Jiva class to finish my one-day detox.  My computer was also fixed the day before – and what was the first thing I did?  Apply for full-time communications jobs?  No!  I wrote three yoga blogs within 12 hours!  Saturday and Sunday I attended two workshops with heart-opening teacher Max Strom and Mom was with me the whole time (see “Oh Death” blog for more on that experience).  And in asking her about the career journey, the answer was, “Follow your heart.”  What else?  By Monday I don’t think I needed any more counsel about my work life; but somehow I still felt the need to continue this discernment process “responsibly.”  Digging deep with a trusted friend on Tuesday, we pretty much put an end to my waffling.  That day – April 13 – was also the 8th anniversary of my mom’s death.  And the day I found out that my Uncle Bill had died (again, see “Oh Death”).  Uncle Bill was a man of great faith – if he were here, he’d say, “If it’s god’s will, you will be OK.  Go for it, Holly!”  A couple of days later, I traveled to Nashville for Bill’s funeral; and when long-estranged family/friends asked, “So what do you do?” I answered, “I’m a teacher – I teach yoga and music.  And I write.”

It’s funny because, BEFORE I went to Florida for Spring Training, I’d said to my friend Athena, “I have a dream – I want to teach yoga, teach music and perform music full-time – using my communications skills to promote my efforts and the activities of others in those professions.”

So the journey of being an independent business operator begins.

Wow.  Since writing that letter, I have: started teaching a new private client twice weekly (referred by my chiropractor – thanks, Dr. Bahnson!); answered an opportunity to pick up three classes at another studio (fingers crossed!); taught a two-hour Integral Yoga class at the Happy Destiny Retreat; shared my prayer and meditation experience with another addiction recovery group; been accepted to Seane Corn’s Off the Mat/Into the World Leadership Training program (with partial scholarship!); begun attending a weekly Level 2 class with Caroline Weaver and a Dharma Mittra style series with Laura Ivers; and been offered a part-time job with a yoga-related organization (whose name I won’t mention because I haven’t given my answer yet…I’m back in discernment-process mode!).

Now to catch up with my blog writing!

But what really blew me away as this momentum started to pick up was an amazingly thoughtful letter from Stacey, the teacher coordinator at Past Tense Studio, where I teach regularly.  Without getting into the details of her positive feedback from a class she attended, I’ll share that she pretty much affirmed my big-picture life purpose – to give back to people what has been so generously shared with – and therefore has healed – me.

Stacey also shared the following quote.  I’ll leave you with this.  OM Shanti.

UNTIL ONE IS COMMITTED – W.H. MURRAY

CONCERNING ALL ACTS OF INITIATIVE (AND CREATION) THERE IS ONE ELEMENTARY TRUTH, THE IGNORANCE OF WHICH KILLS COUNTLESS IDEAS AND SPLENDID PLANS:

THAT THE MOMENT ONE DEFINITELY COMMITS ONESELF, THEN PROVIDENCE MOVES TOO.

(P.S. Thank you, Cathy Duarte, for motivating me to write this tonight!)

 

To Rock or Not to Rock December 11, 2009

It IS difficult to please everyone, eh?!

What is “appropriate” (or non-) music during yoga classes?

Coldplay

As a yoga student, I’ve been through phases of liking/disliking lyric-based or non-devotional music during class.  Pop music, like Coldplay, for example.  Sometimes I felt “put-upon” by the teachers’ tastes or moods.  Many, many years ago, I even wrote a similar complaint to the owner of DC’s premiere yoga studio stating this opinion!  I’m quite certain these complaints pop up in studios around the world.

These days, I simply understand and accept music as part of the teacher’s unique voice and spirit.

As a teacher, during the Integral Yoga classes taught at Past Tense Studio, I typically do not use music during Asana – just a meditative sound CD if anything, then something meditative or devotional for Nidra.  The studio is on the first floor of a city intersection, so I like to dull the street sounds with yoga sounds at times.  IY teachers are trained to not use music, so I try to follow suit out of respect for Satchidananda’s teachings.

However…

…lately I am choosing lyric-based Yoga Nidra songs to match our “comfort” theme for December (see set list in the “Comfort…” post).  I admit that I could be forcing my idea of “comfort” onto the class!  But I’m letting them know ahead of time that we’re trying it out for this month only.

On the other hand, for this month’s special Sunday Seva Nidras (see “Events” page), I’m using relaxing devotional Sanskrit chants only.

When I choose music for sub-ing non-IY classes, I use set-lists of rhythms and lyrics that support the feel of the class style.  For example, swinging and groove-y for Vinyasa’s dance; or driving and energizing for Hatha’s longer holds.  Indeed, a mix of genres – singer/songwriter, folk, Brazilian, Latin pop, R&B, Sanskrit devotional, American gospel, and so on – but all themed to a spiritual and encouraging nature.  (In my opinion, of course!)  Even on most current yoga-mix CDs (i.e. Shiva Rea’s collections), there is a mix of genres – from reggae to new age to chant – that are mostly devotional songs.

I recently attended a very intense Iyengar class where the teacher matter-

B.K.S. Iyengar

of-factly instructed a crowded list of detailed anatomical directions with little space to breathe (I’m out of breath just typing that sentence) – but with a soundtrack of beautifully moving Sanskrit chants of many styles.  Eventually, the odd juxtaposition faded and I melted into his amazing yogic knowledge and authentic yogic sounds.

And not so long ago, I attended an Anusara-inspired class where the teacher played Cuban “Timba” (like Puerto Rican Salsa, but better) – with lyrics that might be inappropriate for a yoga atmosphere.  But the energy of the music drove the class, who probably didn’t know Spanish!  I loved it, honestly.

Then there was the time I was outside the door of a Jivamukti class and heard the teacher blasting “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.  I figured it was a heart chakra focus!

All that to say – lord only knows what people think of our music at any time!  I know one student who cringes when he hears Krishna Das – a well-respected yogi and Kirtan musician!  To this friend, it’s over-used and really distracts his peaceful practice.

Go figure!

There is probably world-wide debate on the subject of “yoga music.”  Frankly, as a yoga teacher AND musician, I can have a very liberal opinion of what’s “appropriate” music for a yoga class.  But mostly, I try not to analyze it too much – instead, I trust the teacher’s intention to pass on teachings and share vibrations.  I hope others can allow that freedom, as well.

If not, there are millions of classes and teachers to choose from!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.