This month we begin our limb-by-limb exploration of the eight limbs of yoga as delineated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. These eight precepts are intended as guidelines to living a life with meaning and purpose. They may be seen as a kind of map for seekers of greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
The first limb consists of the yamas, or universal ethical observances. The Sanskrit term yama more specifically translates as "bridle" or "rein". Just as a rider places a rein on a horse to steer the animal in the proper direction, the yamas are restraints that we willingly and intentionally place upon ourselves in order to direct our efforts towards creating a full, happy and meaningful life.
The first yama is ahimsa, or nonviolence. In its most literal sense, nonviolence may be interpreted as not hurting or killing other people. Most of us don't need to muster up too much discipline to refrain from murdering our neighbor. But to truly embody ahimsa we must extend past this literal interpretation to include not just these violent actions but also thoughts, feelings, and words. We must pay constant attention to our propensities towards unkind behavior, harmful thought, and hurtful speech. We must practice compassion towards all living beings.
Many yogis practice ahimsa by eating a vegetarian diet. They believe that killing another living being for any reason, including one's own sustenance, is a violation of the first yama. Others adopt a looser interpretation: they choose to eat meat mindfully by investigating where and how the animals they eat are raised and supporting farms that cause the least amount of animal suffering and environmental devastation.
Whichever interpretation one chooses, in practicing ahimsa it’s necessary to examine one's choice to eat or not eat meat and to acknowledge, honor and respect the suffering of animals that surrender their lives for human consumption.
Nonviolence as a practice is not just outwardly focused. We must also turn in upon ourselves and treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. For some this may prove even more formidable than being kind and loving towards others.
This is a challenge that often comes up on the mat. You may find yourself constantly pushing yourself to work harder, to stretch further, to go beyond your edge in a constant pursuit of perfection and progress. This kind of striving is a form of aggression and violence towards oneself.
If you observe this tendency in yourself, work towards awareness rather than aggression. When you feel the urge to mindlessly push past your boundaries, consciously pull back and tune in to what's going on in the moment. When you feel compelled to do something your body's fighting against, see if you can stay in that space just before you reach your edge rather than pushing beyond it.
This doesn't mean you should be complacent or lackadaisical; on the contrary, you must be constantly aware and attuned to where your edge is in each moment. Your edge is that place where you move away from your comfort zone and challenge yourself, but can still maintain your alignment, your skill, and a calm, steady breath. Mindfulness of one's edge is key to practicing ahimsa on the mat.
The most important quality of ahimsa is not the negative injunction not to kill but its broader positive message of love. Love towards oneself and all beings is the very first step and the foundation for the entire philosophical system of classical yoga.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while you’ve undoubtedly heard your teachers make reference to Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras. Perhaps you’ve wondered exactly who Patanjali is, what’s this book he wrote, and what’s a sutra? All good questions, and ones which may not be addressed in the limited time span of an asana class.
Surprisingly little is known about the great Indian sage Patanjali, considering he wrote one of the most influential works of yogic literature. There is debate over who he was and when he lived. It is generally believed that he wrote the Yoga Sutras at least 1,700 years ago.
The Yoga Sutras consist of 185 sutras (an Indian term for aphorism, or words of wisdom) that collectively systematize and elucidate the discipline of classical yoga. In the second of four chapters he describes the eightfold path, or ashtanga (ashta=eight, anga=limb). These eight limbs are intended as guidelines to living a life with meaning and purpose. They may be seen as a kind of map for seekers of greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
Most yoga classes in the west focus predominantly on the development and honing of asana (posture) technique. However, asana is just one of the eight steps described in the Sutras. It is possible to derive great benefit from asana practice without ever paying heed to the other seven steps on the eightfold path. But if you do choose to dig deeper and explore the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, your practice and consequently your life will undoubtedly be richer, fuller and more gratifying.
The eight limbs are:
1. Yamas - universal ethical practices
a. Ahimsa - nonviolence
b. Satya - truthfulness
c. Asteya - non-stealing
d. Brahmacharya - establishment in divine consciousness
e. Aparigraha - greedlessness
2. Niyamas - personal lifestyle observances
a. Saucha - cleanliness
b. Santosha - contentment
c. Tapas - heat, spiritual austerities
d. Svadhyaya - study of the self
e. Isvara Pranidhana - surrender to God
3. Asana - posture
4. Pranayama - breath control
5. Pratyahara - sensory withdrawal
6. Dharana - concentration
7. Dhyana - meditation
8. Samadhi - enlightenment, transcending the Self
In Light On Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar explains how each step on the path prepares us for the next. He describes the first three steps as the outward practices (bahiranga sadhana), enabling the practitioner to control his/her passions and emotions and rendering the body a healthy and fit vehicle for spiritual development.
The following two steps are the inner practices (antaranga sadhana). They teach the practitioner to regulate the breath and thereby tame the mind. The senses can then be freed from the objects of desire.
The final three steps are the quest of the soul (antaratma sadhana). They take the practitioner on an inward journey to the deepest recesses of his/her soul in order to achieve peace, harmony, and enlightenment
In the months to come we’ll explore these eight steps one by one and examine ways to apply them in and out of the studio, on and off the mat.
It’s the start of another year, a time that many of us associate with new beginnings; the opportunity to change our behavior for the better; the chance to become healthier, happier, more fulfilled. These good intentions for oneself often take the form of New Year’s resolutions. Even if resolutions aren’t your thing, there will surely come a time in the year ahead when you decide to make a positive change in your life.
While having the intention to make healthy changes is undoubtedly a good thing, sometimes the desire to “improve” or “upgrade” our lives can lead us to beat ourselves up when we don’t adhere perfectly to the course we’ve charted for ourselves. This harsh attitude towards oneself is actually counter-productive to the health and happiness we’re intending to create through our resolutions.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali addresses overcoming negative patterns and behaviors. He explains that these behaviors do not disappear overnight, but may be overcome when worked with step by step. Positive change is possible when approached with a mindset of patience and self-compassion.
When we decide we want to make a change in our lives, often we are identifying a negative behavior that we want to alter. However, sometimes instead of seeing it as simply a behavior or habit, we see it as an inherent part of ourselves. Then when we mess up, or falter, or fail to change, we believe there is something fundamentally wrong with us. Rather than surrendering to this self-denigrating attitude, we can take a step back and see the distinction between our behavior and our true selves.
Patanjali uses the image of the self as a luminous diamond. Over the course of our lives, this bright jewel becomes clouded over by our experiences and by conditioned thoughts and behaviors. We consequently forget the inner brilliance that still exists under the layers of dirt and dust. The practices of yoga are intended to rub off layer by layer the coating that clouds the clarity and radiance of the true self.
As you work towards changing a behavior, it may be helpful to come back to this image of your behavior as a layer of dust obscuring the brilliance that lies at your core. You don’t need to completely overhaul yourself; you just need to do a little dusting.
Rather than berating yourself each time you slip up, it’s more conducive to change to see the mistake as an opportunity to learn. It’s also an opportunity to practice compassion towards yourself; to recognize that while you’re making your best efforts to be healthy and happy there may be missteps along the way, and that’s okay.
During times when I’m working to make a change in my habits or behaviors, I often turn to these words of Pema Chodron from her book The Wisdom of No Escape:
"When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s a bit like saying, ‘If I jog, I’ll be a much better person.’ ‘If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person.’ ‘If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person’…The point is not to try to change ourselves. [The] practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s the ground, that’s what we study, that’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest."
As you work towards uncovering that bright jewel at your core, be kind to yourself. Acknowledge the inner source of wisdom, strength and resilience that inspired you to make a healthy change. Look inside yourself honestly, openly and with true compassion.
The turning of the seasons, the autumnal equinox, is upon us. As we prepare for the transition from summer to fall it’s the perfect moment to pause…to slow down…to stop and observe. To notice what the past few months have wrought, and to contemplate what seeds we will sow for the months ahead.
This pause is akin to the time we take at the beginning of a yoga class to set an intention, a sankalpah, for our practice. Sankalpah is a Sanskrit term for will or determination. When we set a sankalpah we are choosing to move beyond the physical aspects of the practice and imbue our efforts with meaning and purpose.
What we choose need not be complicated or verbose. It might be an idea, a concept, even simply a word that signifies something we wish to cultivate in our lives: peace, love, health, honesty, truth, gratitude, relaxation, mindfulness, compassion, kindness, strength.
This brief moment of consciously and deliberately slowing down marks the transition from the external and often scattered attention of our daily life to the inward, steady focus of our practice. It prepares us to move forward with purpose and dedication.
It also serves as an anchor to what is truly important to us amidst the inevitable distractions and meanderings of the mind. When we get lost in thought or the mind wanders or we come up against frustration and annoyance, we can return to our intention as a reminder of why we are here on our mats. Our sankalpah brings us back to the present with precision and direction.
This practice of contemplating and choosing one’s sankalpah is just as useful off the mat as on. Before we embark upon the final few months of the year, perhaps set aside some time to pause. Take as little or as much time as you like – a few minutes, an hour, a day – to put aside the phone, email, computer, television, Facebook, Twitter, and any other distractions. Turn inward; observe; contemplate what you’d like your focus to be for this day, this week, this month. Having taken this time to choose your intention, you can move forward with stability, clarity, and inner strength.
It was approximately 5,000 years ago that yoga first emerged in India. While the yoga that we come together to practice today has evolved and changed considerably over these many years, its roots are embedded in the Vedic traditions of India (for an illuminating article by Mark Singleton on the evolution of yoga asana see http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/2610).
Due to this ancient heritage, many of the words, gestures, and practices presented in a typical yoga class may at first seem mysterious and strange. Often a class will open and close with the chanting of Om. As class ends teacher and students usually seal the practice with a bow and the word Namaste. What exactly do these sounds and gestures mean and why do we use them?
Mantras are sacred chants that come in all shapes, sizes, and sounds. Om is the classic mantra. It is considered to be the root mantra from which all other mantras emerge. It is also believed to be the primordial sound of the universe, the cosmic vibration that contains all other sounds.
While it looks like just one simple syllable, Om actually consists of three sounds:
- A (pronounced “ah”) - U (pronounced “ooh”) - M (pronounced “umm”)
As the vibration of these three sounds of A-U-M dissolves into silence, we experience the mantra's fourth part, the anusvara (after-sound). This deep, profound silence is symbolic of the transcendent state of consciousness, wherein we are aligned with the universal consciousness and body, mind, breath and spirit are united as one.
By chanting Om at the beginning and end of a yoga practice, we are reminded of our kinship with all other beings and the whole universe. Thousands of years ago yogis taught that everything in the universe continually vibrates and pulsates; modern day science teaches the same. When we chant Om we tap into this universal vibration. On a micro level, we create harmony and unity among our fellow practitioners and the teacher in the room. On a much larger level we attune ourselves to the interconnection of everything and everyone in the universe.
Namaste is a Sanskrit term. "Nama" means bow, "as" means I, and "te" means you. Namaste literally translates as "bow me you", or "I bow to you." When performing the gesture of Namaste we touch the palms of the hands together at the heart center, close the eyes, and bow the head. It can also be done by touching the palms together in front of the third eye, bowing the head, and then bringing the hands down to the heart.
This gesture acknowledges that the same Divine spark that exists in you exists in me. Teacher and students bow towards each other and say “Namaste” as a symbol of respect, gratitude, and reverence for the energy that interconnects us all. We transcend our attachment to the ego to experience the truth that we are all one.
While Om and Namaste have different meanings and origins, their essential purpose is the same: to go beyond the fragmentation and disillusion that results from identifying with the small self and the ego in order to experience wholeness and the underlying unity of the universe. And this, in essence, is the true purpose of yoga.
Perhaps you don’t connect with these sounds and gestures. If that’s the case, it’s always okay to choose to not perform them. We all come to yoga from unique backgrounds and with varying intentions. It’s vital to first examine and understand the reasons and meanings underlying each pose, sound, and gesture; then to decide whether these reasons resonate with you. Yoga is a practice of authenticity; therefore it is never required to do something that feels wrong or false. You alone can determine what feels right and true for you.
Have you ever wondered why we make sounds with the breath when we hold a yoga pose? Or what’s the purpose of the strange breathing exercises we do in the beginning of a yoga class? What is prana and why should it matter to you?
Working with the breath is a vital component of yoga practice. Without this focus on breath, a yoga class is nothing more than a stretching session. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with stretching or becoming more flexible, but by incorporating an awareness of the breath you open yourself to a much deeper, richer, more profound experience. It is through the exploration of pranayama that we tap into the energetic and spiritual aspects of yoga practice.
Pranayama is the fourth limb on the eightfold path of yoga delineated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. These eight limbs are guidelines for leading a life with meaning, purpose, and authenticity. Prana is a Sanskrit term for the vital life force that animates all things; ayama translates as extension or elongation.
Pranic energy flows through nadis (Sanskrit for rivers), the energy channels of the subtle body. Prana is analogous to chi or qi in Chinese medicine and martial arts, and lung in Tibetan Buddhism. Yoga teaches us to access prana by controlling and playing with the flow of breath. Pranayama enables us to connect with the vast energetic network of the subtle body through the breath.
If you’ve been to even just a few yoga classes you’re probably familiar with Ujjayi pranayama. Ujjayi means “victoriously uprising” which refers to the upward movement of pranic energy through the central channel running along the front of the spine known as the sushumna nadi. This is the audible breath that is engaged throughout a Vinyasa yoga class. Ujjayi breathing is the foundation of pranayama. It has 2 defining qualities:
1. A soft whispering sound performed by slightly constricting the muscles of the throat. This action activates the diaphragm and shifts the sensation of the breath from the nose and chest to the back body, creating a more expansive, less strained breath.
2. Steady, even flow of inhalation and exhalation as the breath enters and leaves the nose. Usually our breath begins quickly and then tapers off towards the end of the inhale or exhale; in Ujjayi the volume of the breath remains the same from beginning to end.
It is the soft, steady, sibilant sound of the Ujjayi breath that we bring our mind to rest upon as we flow into and out of each posture. It is the connecting thread that strings together each asana. It is the catalyst for the union of the body, mind and breath that is the ultimate purpose of yoga.
Another common form of pranayama is Nadi Shodhana, which literally translates as “channel cleansing” but is usually referred to as alternate nostril breath. As we manipulate the flow of breath through the nostrils, we access the Surya (sun) or pingala nadi through the right nostril and the Chandra (moon) or ida nadi through the left. At any given time, one nostril is more active than the other. When breath flows dominantly through one of these two nostrils, prana predominates in the related nadi and there is an effect on the nervous system corresponding to the energetic quality of that nadi:
- Right nostril, Surya or pingala: breath is heating and energizing; when this side is overly dominant anger, hyperactivity, aggression, or elevated blood pressure may result.
- Left nostril, Chandra or ida: breath is cooling, quieting; depression, fatigue, weak digestion or sleepiness may result.
Nadi Shodhana calms, centers and stills the mind by balancing the flow of energy between these two channels and discouraging the predominance of one side over the other. Other benefits include:
- Lowered heart rate
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Synchronization of the right and left hemispheres of the brain
- Purification of the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body so the prana flows more easily during pranayama and asana practice
It’s the end of another long work day. You’ve checked the last item off the day’s to-do list and will manage to leave just in time to make the 6:30pm yoga class you’ve been looking forward to all day.
Just as you’re about to shut down the computer, the boss walks over and asks you to make one more phone call before you go. With a sinking feeling in your gut, you smile and say “Sure!” As you pick up the phone, you think, “Ok, if this takes just five minutes I can still make it to the 6:30 class, no problem.” The person answers and puts you on hold. Time passes…
“How long have I been on hold? Six minutes already. I’ll have to run to make the class. Then I’ll get there all sweaty and stressed and there will be no spots left. And what if I don’t make it in time?! I’ll have to wait for the 7:45 class and I won’t get home until 10pm! Then I won’t be able to sleep, and I’ll be exhausted tomorrow, and ARGH I JUST NEED TO GO TO YOGA!!”
Do you view your yoga or meditation practice as an escape from the stressors of everyday life? It may feel comforting to have a safe space where you feel removed from tension, anxiety, and busyness. However, this space need not be limited to your sticky mat or meditation cushion. In fact each moment of our daily lives can be an opportunity to practice yoga just as we do on our mats and to tap into the calm and peace we find there.
Throughout asana class, we listen to and observe our breath. The mind inevitably wanders: it drifts off into daydreams; it makes snarky judgments of the person on the next mat, or the teacher, or oneself; it curses the slippery rental mat. When we notice this churning of the mind we acknowledge it, let it go, and gently invite the mind back to the breath.
In so doing we create a gap: a moment of stillness amidst the incessant turbulence of the mind. It’s like pressing the pause button on the endless movie playing in our minds. Simply stopping to let go of thoughts and focus on breath allows us to drop into the present moment and relax the mind.
This quieting of the mind is the definition of yoga that Patanjali puts forth in the second verse of the Yoga Sutras: “Yoga citta vritti nirodhah”: yoga is the resolution of the agitations of the mind (translation by Judith Hanson Lasater). When these agitations are resolved the mind process has been mastered and there is a deep, profound calm. It is within this calm that the true unchanging Self may be perceived.
Quieting of the mind does not mean banishing thoughts. A common misconception is that if one practices yoga and meditation long enough, one will eventually exist blissfully in a magical thought-free zone. This is unlikely. The mind will always create thoughts, and thank goodness for this because we need some of these in order to survive and live our lives efficiently.
Through yoga and meditation we practice taming the mind. Rather than being a slave to our thoughts and emotions, spinning off wildly in whatever direction the mind turns, we instead master the mind process by quietly observing. We then recognize thoughts for what they are: stories created by the mind, like shape-shifting clouds that float across the clear blue sky of our true consciousness. Once we acknowledge their ephemeral nature we can let them go, then return to our center and experience the stillness within.
This experience of stillness, centering and grounding need not be limited to our yoga class. Whether we’re sitting in Sukhasana on our mats, hanging onto a strap on a crowded subway, or watching the papers in our inbox fill to overflowing at our desks, we can create this gap by letting thoughts go and tuning into the breath. As our attention draws inward, we go beyond the constant stream of thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, and reactions and tap into the deep peace and serenity that is our true nature. With this in mind, each and every moment becomes an opportunity to practice yoga.
Originally published on elephantjournal.com, June 4, 2013.
Last week I took a yoga class. As we prepared to begin and settled ourselves on our mats, the teacher announced, “Today we’ll focus on strengthening our arms”.
Inwardly I groaned. The internal monologue began: “Arms! Why do we have to do arms? All day I’ve been dying for some nice stretchy hip openers, and now I’ll probably have to do a million Chaturangas?! This is not fair.”
After whining to myself a bit longer the teacher said it was time to set our intentions for our practice. As I closed my eyes and searched for my intention I realized how ensnarled in judgment and negativity I had become in just a few short moments.
How quickly that happens! Just three simple words, “strengthening our arms”, had set off a litany of gripes, grumbles and groans in my head. I could easily have been sucked into this downward spiral for the entire class, or even the rest of the day. I decided to set as my intention vairagya: non-attachment.
It is the human condition to cling to what we like and to push away what we don’t like. We all want to feel as good as possible for as long as possible. While this is human nature, it is also the root of most of our suffering. Strive as we may to cling to comfort and get rid of discomfort, there inevitably comes a time when we have to deal with the stuff we don’t like. When we get what we do like, no matter how hard we hold on it will eventually slip away.
In our yoga practice we learn to deal with these habits of grasping and aversion by noticing our immediate reactions, our clinging, our pushing away. We notice and take a step back to just watch, unattached, observant, still and silent, without judgment. Then we let these feelings go.
This is the practice of vairagya that Patanjali refers to in Yoga Sutra 1.12: Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah (identification with the fluctuations of mind is stopped by practice and non-attachment). By resisting attachment to our reactions and feelings we realize that we are so much more than these fleeting, transitory emotions and thoughts. By letting go of grasping and aversion we open ourselves to a complete and authentic experience of the present.
In the grand scheme of things, the fact that I had to do some push-ups when I really wanted to do pigeon pose is not a big deal. Worse things have happened. But by cultivating and practicing an attitude of non-attachment towards a small disturbance such as this, I prepare myself for those moments when life hits me hard. Through yoga we practice being present without judgment towards the minor annoyances and inconveniences of everyday life so that in times of greater adversity, we have cultivated an inner strength and we have a way to deal.
The next time you catch yourself getting wrapped up in judgment try to pause, take a deep breath, and tap into your core. Not your physical core muscles, but your spiritual core…a.k.a. the soul, spirit, essential nature, authentic self, atman. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the place deep down inside that is eternal, timeless, unchanging, everlasting. This core is not your thoughts, not your feelings, not your emotions. It is beyond attachments, likes, dislikes, and opinions. It is vast, limitless, and free.
Notice when you start to judge; when you come up against reluctance, discomfort, hostility; or on the flip side pleasure, comfort, bliss. Tap into your core and just watch these feelings as they come, then watch them as they go. Allow yourself to rest calmly within your core, free from grasping, free from aversion. Let go in order to open fully to the here and now in all its vivid detail: splendor, pain, delight, despair. Let go in order to be free.
Originally published on elephantjournal.com, May 16, 2013
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
As I was riding the subway on my way to teach yoga last week, I was planning my class based on mindfulness: the simple act of paying attention to the present moment. I went back and forth between reading a book, scribbling notes, and ruminating on what I would say. I became completely engrossed in my mental preparations for the class. When I looked up from my notebook I discovered I had missed my stop!
How's that for a wake-up call? I was so caught up in planning what I would say about being aware of the present moment that I became completely unaware of the present moment!
My initial response was exasperation. I began to berate myself: “What an idiot. And even worse a hypocrite. On my way to speak about the beauty and joys of being present and I’m totally lost in my thoughts.”
But then I took a step back. I realized that this blunder was in fact the perfect opportunity to delve into the three essential components of mindfulness identified by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been researching and studying the practice for over 40 years:
§ In the present moment: My mind had strayed as I thought and planned and strategized, but my misstep guided me immediately back to the present.
§ On purpose: As soon as I realized I wasn’t paying attention, I intentionally let go of my plans for later in the day and consciously directed my awareness to the present moment.
§ Non-judgmentally: After initially chastising myself I had to laugh, shake my head, and recognize that it’s natural and normal to get caught up in planning for the future or reminiscing about the past. It doesn’t make me a bad person or a failure as a yoga practitioner and teacher. It just means I’m human.
In the practices of yoga and mindfulness, we misstep and stumble and find ourselves lapsing back into the past and projecting into the future time and time again. The mind strays, and we guide it back to the present. It drifts again, and we guide it back again. Over…and over…and over. That’s the practice.
And what a valuable practice it is! Mindfulness impacts physical health, mental health and emotional well-being. Here are just some of the many benefits attributed to practicing mindfulness:
-improved mental focus
-improved mood and emotional stability
-enhanced self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation
-lower blood pressure
-improved immune system and brain function
-lower pain sensitivity
-extended attention span
-increased self-monitoring capacity
-reduced cognitive decline associated with aging
Mindfulness isn’t exotic or out-there or weird or obscure. It’s available to each of us in every moment of every day. It’s as simple as pausing, taking a deep breath, and dropping into the here and now.
While mindfulness may be simple, it’s not easy. Anyone who has sat in meditation or tried to follow the breath during asana practice knows this firsthand. Being mindful takes work, just like anything worthwhile. But hopefully the more we practice, the more we discover how valuable and vital this work is and begin to experience the profound effects of being fully present.
--Originally published on MindBodyGreen.com, March 26, 2013.
Christine Malossi is a yoga teacher and writer based in Manhattan.