Tag Archives: yoga sutra

Ain’t That a Kick in the Head

8 Jun

Getting kicked in the head is one of the occupational hazards that come along with teaching yoga. Yup, it happens all the time. Just ask anyone who instructs headstand, handstand or forearm stand on a regular basis and they’ll tell you. Although I exercise a reasonable degree of caution when assisting students in topsy turvy poses, I’ve certainly had my share of knocks to the noggin.

Turn the human body upside down when it’s not accustomed to being there and the usual response is fear, panic and flailing legs. Master Patanjali calls this knee-jerk reaction abhinivesha, or fear of death, and he states that this brand of fear is one of the five main obstacles to our practice of living lives that are happy and free (see Yoga Sutra II.3).

Because it can trigger abhinivesha, the yoga asana practice is one way we can bring our deeply seated patterns to light. As my teachers like to say, it shows us where we are tight and where we are uptight. And so we deliberately work on the mat with poses that push our buttons to reveal the hidden contours of our suffering.

The amazing thing about getting kicked in the head during a yoga class is that, while it can stun and smart, it doesn’t trigger an emotional response the way the same action would in another context. Many times, in fact, the incident barely registers at all and I have to remind myself of what happened when my husband asks about the shiner.

I wonder if this is what Master Patanjali means when he says, “the practitioner will cease to encounter hostility from others by practicing kindness and non-harming (Yoga Sutra II.35). Sure, a hoof to the head is still a hoof to the head but the key is that it’s not perceived as hostile. It’s nothing more than an accident and it’s the very same thing I did to my teachers who repaid me by holding me extra tight and turning the other cheek.

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A Well-Rounded 90 minute Practice

1 Oct

Spritz Fritz

Let me tell you a true story about egoism, disgrace, and a bottle of perfume. It was the late 1990s, I was fresh out of law school and I had just spent the longest year of my life working as an articling student at a downtown law firm. It was a good year in some ways: the money was outstanding, I learned lots, and my parents were brimming over with pride. The experience was also pivotal because it confirmed a growing suspicion that the legal profession was not for me. Call it negative research, if you will. And so I walked away from the firm’s job offer, applied for unemployment insurance and broke my parents’ hearts.

The thing is, while I had some clarity on what I didn’t want, I still hadn’t figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t unlike that feeling you get when you’ve left Mr. or Mrs. Wrong but you don’t have much faith that Mr. or Mrs. Right will come along. It was a groundless and edgy time. In the meantime, my rent was due and I started to have anxiety-filled dreams about the mountain of student debt I incurred to become a lawyer.

Around this time, a friend’s mother took pity on my situation and offered me a job to tide me over while I plotted the next step on my career path. She was an upper level manager at a swanky department store and the job she offered me was almost too good to be true; it would’ve paid more money for less work than my legal job, but there was a major catch: the department store was located in the same commercial complex as my former law firm and the job would have had me standing in a conspicuous location holding a bottle of perfume while my former colleagues walked by. I could just imagine their pitying looks. “Poor thing,” they would say to each other as soon as they were out of earshot, “she couldn’t cut it as a lawyer. Just look at her now.”

The perceived tumble from lawyer to perfume spritz girl was too much for me to handle. My poor, fragile ego couldn’t deal with the shame, the disgrace, the loss of face, and so I turned down the job. What happened next? Well, pride goeth before the fall, as they say. I don’t mind admitting that I spent another six months or so broke and in a minor funk. I lost touch with my yoga practice, sat in front of the TV for days at a time, and had nothing to show for the time off but a pile of bills and a few extra pounds. In the end, I took another lawyering job out of necessity and spent another five or six years figuring out what I already knew—that I wanted more from my life than financial security and an impressive title.

In hindsight, the perfume spritz incident was a stark lesson in something Master Patanjali calls egoism (asmita). In book II, sutra 3 of the Yoga Sutras, he says egoism is one of the five major obstacles to true happiness and freedom. The others are ignorance of who we really are (avidya), excessive craving (raga), excessive aversion (dvesha), and fear of death (abhinivesah). He implies in this list that our ignorance of who we really are causes us to over-identify with our ego selves and that misidentification causes us to chase our selfish, petty desires, on the one hand, and cower from anything that challenges our ego identities on the other hand, especially the death of the body.

One of my teachers says we spend the first part of our lives acquiring our ego identities and the remainder of our lives defending them at any cost—even when it hurts us and the people we love. Does this mean we should abandon our egos and adopt an egoless existence? Good luck—that’s like asking the mind to stop thinking—it’s next to impossible. As yogis, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate beautiful, graceful egos, in the same way we build strong, flexible bodies and elevated minds. Let’s make our egos our allies, rather than our enemies, and use them to assist our movement towards greater happiness and freedom. And don’t forget that when push comes to shove, you are not your mind, you are not your body and you are so, so much more than your job.

Black and Red Blues

27 Jun

The travel advisory for Thailand warned us to “avoid all non-essential travel” due to violent clashes, between the anti-government protestors known as Red Shirts and heavily armed troops, that left dozens dead and downtown Bangkok smoldering. And so we changed our plans because, as Kenny Rogers would say, “you got to know when to walk away and know when to run.”

It’s too bad, I thought, that gentle Thailand, once known as the Land of Smiles, happened to turn all struggle and strife just as we arrived in the neighborhood, but hey these things happen… It’s nothing personal right?

Well imagine my surprise when we returned home this weekend to a G20 Summit and stark scenes of smashing, burning, pillaging and general chaos in the streets of the city we know as “Toronto the Good.” According to the media, the Black Bloc, a faceless group of black-clad protestors, is to blame for much of the mess.

Hmmm… Black Bloc versus the police. Red Shirts versus the military. Is it just me or is it “same, same?” Suddenly, issues that seemed to exist a world away are coming home to roost where I live and work, and I can’t help but take it personally… personally in the best possible way.

The ability to take a hint and to perceive the teachings that are around us and within us at all times is an important yogic skill say my teachers. They explain that it’s even more important to apply these teachings to our lives in a meaningful, constructive way.

According to yogic wisdom, the outer circumstances of our tumultuous human lives provide precious opportunities to see and work on what’s going on inside. In book IV, sutra 15 of the Yoga Sutra, Master Patanjali goes so far as to suggest that our mind-stuff is directly responsible for the way we understand the world: “Each individual person perceives the same object in a different way, according to their own state of mind and projections. Everything is empty from its own side and appears according to how you see it” (translation by Sharon Gannon and David Life). It follows then that the macrocosm contains valuable clues for those interested in exploring the microcosm.

The practice of applying the lessons of the macrocosm to the microcosm of the self is not for the faint of heart. We live in a culture of finger pointing and this paradigm bending approach asks us to take universal responsibility for the problems we see out there. This practice involves a dizzying logical leap, I know, but we yogis take it with eyes wide open.

I might add that I’ve found it’s good to catch on early, while the personal messages inscribed on the world are still subtle. Too many times I’ve left things until the lessons start to hit closer and closer to home; until they became much harsher and harder to ignore. Trust me, it’s no fun when the Red Shirts manifest in your personal life or the Black Bloc shows up in your body or, worse yet, your mind.

So, assuming my recent experiences of conflict are an opportunity for inner work, the questions I’m posing to myself this rainy night are:

■ In what ways do I, in the pursuit of a happy state, hold rigidly to polarized notions of “the good” that, in practice, cause suffering to myself and others?

■ How can I best clean up the mess?

I sure am looking forward to some better news tomorrow.

An Economical 45 minute Practice

14 Jan

Shopping for our Souls

If there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud of the global financial crisis, for me, it’s that I’ve become a choosier consumer as of late. Sure, the years of yogic living went a long way towards curing me of the belief that I could shop my way to the good life, but the bottom had to fall out of the economy before I eased up on the spiritual materialism.

You know what I’m talking about: spiritual materialism is, at it’s most obvious, a fascination with mala beads, statuettes of Ganesh, eco-friendly yoga mats, and designer yoga togs; it’s the impulse to continually expand an already sizable library of spiritual reading material, CDs, and DVDs; and it’s the burning desire to be at every workshop, yoga conference and retreat in the hopes of gleaning some practical wisdom. I know I’m not alone in this because American yogis are estimated to spend almost $3 billion USD annually on classes and products.

Spiritual materialism probably goes hand-in-hand with an increase in spiritual choice—which is a good thing in and of itself. Yoga practitioners today have an unprecedented range of options available to them: there are more brands of yoga than ever before; many North American cities now have a yoga studio on every corner, while places like New York have two, three or more per block; saints and sages can be seen at stops on their world tours or accessed online; and book stores everywhere have entire shelves devoted to yoga and meditation. It’s all right there at our fingertips, and that’s a real blessing.

Don’t forget, widespread access to yoga is a relatively recent phenomenon. Eastern spirituality and the practices of yoga really came into the North American consciousness less than 40 years ago when India became both pilgrimage site and playground for throngs of hippies seeking mind-expansion and a good time. Ram Dass wrote his landmark bestseller, Be Here Now, in 1971 after meeting his guru, the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba. David Williams, the first non-Indian to be taught the Ashtanga Yoga system of asanas from K. Pattabhi Jois, brought the first vinyasa yoga practice to America in 1975. Still considered a part of the counterculture, yoga only moved fully into the mainstream in the 1990s.

The thing is, too much choice can be a curse, and easy access to abundant options can give rise to a number of pitfalls. These include:

■ apathy (“I’ll start yoga, painting, and gardening when I retire.”)

■ indecision (“Iyengar, Ashtanga, Kripalu… where to begin?”)

■ over-ambition (“I’m just starting my fourth yoga teacher training.”)

■ superficiality (“Been there, done that, got the chakra T-shirt.”)

In this age of almost infinite choice, the art of choosing wisely is a practice unto itself.

In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali recommends we cultivate viveka, or discriminative wisdom, as a way to end the pain and suffering caused by our inability to see what is real and our tendency to look for comfort in the unreal or disposable (II.26). In short, you’ve got it made if you can discern the difference between the real and the unreal. Easy enough, right?

Perhaps not. As Swami Satchidananda explains, the exercise of discriminative wisdom goes beyond simply distinguishing between sugar and salt . However, we can start to cultivate viveka by taking our time, doing our research and looking honestly at our own motivations as we make mindful choices in our lives.

In a way, we’re fortunate to live at a time when it’s all up for grabs. During times like this, the implications of our actions are thrown into high relief. Everything matters. Everything counts. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited about voting with my dollars and shopping—or choosing not to shop—for the sake of my soul.

A 75 minute Core Practice

24 Dec

 Here Comes the Sun

While the longest night of the year has come and gone with the winter solstice, it feels like we might still have a way to go on our annual journey back to the light. Granted, long nights have much to offer—think of all the extra time for quiet contemplation, journaling and reading while cozying up with a steaming mug of something or other—but the lack of sunlight can also be a little depressing.

A surprising number of spiritual traditions share the concept of a dark night of the soul—a painful, but necessary, initiatory phase in a person’s spiritual life, characterized by a certain anguish, loneliness, despair and even physical illness. A shamanic initiatory crisis, for example, might involve both a psychological breakdown and life threatening illness during which the initiate has the experience of being transported to the spirit realms and dismantled or devoured before being reassembled anew.

The dark night of the soul ultimately brings integration, but it achieves its ends through a process of disintegrating the entanglements of ego. It may not be pretty, but as St. John of the Cross, the Christian mystic who coined the phrase explained, “…the endurance of darkness is preparation for great light,” and that’s downright beautiful.

Chanting the Gayatri Mantra is a lovely way for yogis to invoke the light on dark nights. Considered to be the holiest verse of the Vedas, these lines honor the sun as the source of light and life:

oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
(a) tat savitur vareṇyaṃ
(b) bhargo devasya dhīmahi
(c) dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt

Here’s a translation by Manorama D’Alvia: Earth space heavens. We meditate on the divine light of the radiant source. May that inspire our hearts and thoughts.

A 60 minute Backbending Practice

12 Nov

Insects, Yoga and Ayahuasca

Fold your wings, like this dear, and tuck them underneath you,” said an unfamiliar, though kindly, voice that seemed to emanate from inside my head.

“My wings?” I asked aloud, confused by the instructions. “Do you mean my legs?”

“Yes, yes, bend your legs… and your other legs too.”

And so began what can only be described as a yoga asana lesson taught to me by a startlingly large praying mantis-like creature during an ayahuasca ceremony in the Peruvian Amazon.

Paying little heed to a nagging injury that would normally prevent such movement, I did as I was told and suddenly I found myself in a surprisingly deep series of backbends, fit for the pages of a yoga magazine. Before the mind could protest, I moved spontaneously from pose-to-pose with a sense of ease and playful power. Upon rising the following morning, I was amazed to find my body retained all of its newfound strength and suppleness. And with no sign of the old injury, I demonstrated what I’d learned for my duly impressed partner: what I’d learned from the praying mantis was a group of back-bending poses known in yoga circles as the “insect series.”

As a longtime proponent of the whole yogic lifestyle-thing—no meat, alcohol, caffeine or late nights for me, thank you—I was initially reluctant to participate in the ayahuasca ceremony, despite the Amazonian tea’s reputation as a sacred plant medicine of the highest order. Like many, I had heard horror stories about violent ayahuasca-induced purges and, on a practical level, I wondered how I would do my morning yoga practice if the all-night affair left me nauseous, weak and sore. I also had lingering concerns that the psychoactive brew could somehow undo years of disciplined practice and virtuous living and destabilize my physical and energetic bodies, not to mention what it might do to my calm mind.

Though curious, I waited almost five years before I agreed to experience ayahuasca for the first time. The change of heart came after a meeting with an internationally-renowned yoga teacher who drew a strong parallel between ayahuasca and the mythical ritual drink Soma, which is described in the Rigveda as nothing less than the nectar of immortality: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered” (8.48.3, as translated by RTH Griffith). “Well,” I thought, “if it’s good enough for the Gods, enlightened beings and celebrity yoga teachers….”

The praying mantis yoga lesson was the first of many yogic teachings that have come to me in ceremony. Sometimes the ayahuasca makes me move around—mostly wild inversions and heart-blossoming backbends—and sometimes it puts me into deep states of meditation—where my breath all but disappears into the stillness of my being. Even the dreaded purges feel good and cleansing in a way—not so different from the seemingly strange purification practices prescribed in the ancient yoga manual, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, when it comes right down to it.

Perhaps most significantly, I was initiated into the practice of Nada Yoga (the yoga of sound) during a ceremony. It happened when I began to perceive what yogis call the inner music—the primal sound signified by OM—which came, at first, in a dazzling symphony of clanging bells, snare drums and cosmic sitars. During that same night, the hinge joint of my jaw popped wide open and music and poetry flowed unstoppably from my mouth for several hours. The telepathic message I received—this time from a cheering chorus of insects and amphibians—was that, as a yogi, I have an obligation to literally open my mouth wider and speak-out on behalf of those who can’t.

Ayahuasca took my yoga off the mat and made my practice practical. At one time, I did poses such as locust, scorpion, cobra, dog, and tree without thinking too much about their correlates in the natural world; they were little more than exercises with fanciful names. Now it seems obvious that before there were yoga studios, designer yoga-wear lines and sticky mats, the yogis took their teachings from nature. The first yoga teachers were the plants, the animals and, yes, the insects too. They say the practice of yoga is directly informed by nature and I finally get on a cellular level why yogis have such a close friendship with the earth—because we’re not separate from her.

Much like the yoga practice itself, ayahuasca and other plant medicines are said to have the ability to reunite human consciousness with natural and supernatural rhythms. Taken with the correct intention, they can help catalyze a profound shift in our all-too-limited take on things. With the radical deepening and broadening of perspective comes a new brand of happiness—the real stuff that lasts and lasts. Experience teaches that when I stop thinking about myself and connect to the other—even when the other is something as alien as a giant praying mantis—I put some space between myself and my mental afflictions. What flows from that space is the taste of freedom.

In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali explained that spiritual attainments leading to liberation can arise from drugs or chemical means, as well as from yogic practices such as mantra recitation, performance of austerities and samadhi, which is union of individual consciousness with divine consciousness (book IV, sutra 1). Interestingly, practices such as pranayama (breath control) and asana (physical exercise)—the two most important components of modern yoga practice in the West—are considered chemical means, according to Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, because they work by causing biochemical changes in the body and mind.

Scientists have found DMT—a powerful hallucinogen and one of the primary psychoactive ingredients in ayahuasca—occurring naturally in the human body. It is reportedly released by the pineal gland (what yogis refer to as the third eye) and stored at the base of the spine, where kundalini shakti is said to lie dormant until activated. Yogis have long known that transcendent experiences are accessible through certain yogic practices. Certainly the “yoga high” is what keeps me and, I’m sure, millions of other yogis coming back to the mat day-after-day.

While some may scoff at the notion of seeking enlightenment through stretching and psychedelics, the reality is this stuff works. It’s not just talk: it’s experiential and tangible and it taps you into something big and juicy. As one of my teachers likes to say: plant teachers aren’t exclusive to South America and India doesn’t own the rights to yoga. As a modern-day seeker, it feels like I’m just now coming into my spiritual birthright—it just took a giant insect to show me the way.

This article by Padmani originally appeared on Reality Sandwich and is included in Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age