On Pratyahara

The world can be a distracting place. . .

As long as I’ve been practicing yoga and as much as I believe in the power of a well-trained mind, I remain overly sensitive. Now, I don’t necessarily mean I’m overly emotional or prone to get my feelings hurt at the smallest probing (although I do have my moments!) but rather that certain senses are particularly heightened, specifically my hearing. I hear everything. I’m hyper attuned to any audio-stimuli: the slightest creaking of a radiator, or even the dull electric buzz of a speaker turned on but not emitting sound catch my attention and hold on.

One day last year I realized we must have a new downstairs neighbor. There I was on my mat: breathing and moving, when I heard the resounding blasts of exceptionally loud music vibrating up through the floor. Suddenly all of my attention was ripped out of my practice and focused on this noise! “How unfair,” I whined to myself, “how horrible!” I sulked around, complained to my husband, and stopped my practice early. When it happened the next week I felt my heart drop. After a few minutes of self-pity I thought about how I could help myself carry on. My solution? Earplugs.

All that noise got me thinking about distraction, which got my thinking about Pratyahara.

Our senses are the means through which we experience the world. How something looks, tastes, smells or feels gives us a multitude of information about the object and can definitely contribute to experiences of great and simple joys in this life: the honeyed taste of a ripe peach, the comforting smell of fresh brewed coffee, or the sudden, unexpected glimpse of the face of a loved-one.

I know I love it when my eyes fall upon a particularly beautiful display of fresh flowers, but like I mentioned, I’m hopelessly distracted by sounds, and I’m sure some of you can relate: perhaps you’re extra sensitive to bright lights, or, like my husband, hyper aware of smells.

The pull of the senses on our mind is undeniable: they show us the good, the bad, and the ugly, often with little warning. And naturally, whether we like it or not, our mind follows. This can lead not only to feelings of spontaneous joy and delight, but also to distraction, anxiety, a lack of focus, and an overall feeling of being out of control of things.

The fifth of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s classical path of Ashtanga Yoga is Pratyahara, commonly translated as “withdrawal of the senses.” While this translation is accurate, for me, a more precise description might be restraint of the senses, or conscious control, connection to, or mastery over the senses.

Now, there’s no doubt that the information we get from our senses is not limited to being either enjoyable or depressing, it can be downright vital! If you’re out in the world, you need your senses about you.

So what are we trying to accomplish when practicing Pratyahara?

My understanding of the fifth limb is that it’s placed specifically between what we might consider the external limbs of the eightfold path: yama, moral restrains and niyama, ethical observances – you can read my blog about them here; asana, posture, and pranayama, breath control, and the internal limbs that follow it: dharana, concentration, dhyana, meditation, and Samadhi, enlightenment. Using the yama and niyama as moral guidelines and practicing yoga postures and breathing exercises are things we can do. We can interact with them. It’s pretty clear if we’re engaged with them or not, and often, pretty easy to measure their effects on our life. Whereas concentration, meditation and enlightenment are often more ephemeral…sure we can sit down with the intention to meditate or to focus in on self-study, but without the limb in between, pratyahara, control of the senses, our success might not be guaranteed, and no amount of “doing” is going to help us gain enlightenment.

Throughout my years exploring yoga I’ve found that some of the best tools to practice reigning in the pull of the senses in order to more fully focus our conscious attention on the meditative and contemplative aspects of the practice are those of the Ashtanga Tristhana, or the or three pronged approach to focus. I use these guidelines during my own practice on the mat, when leading others in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, and even when I teach other styles of yoga asana classes. By constantly trying to fixate our attention on the breath, the gaze, or direction of the eyes, and a connection to the internal locks or bandhas (and sometimes therefore on the external form of the body or its alignment), we systematically train ourselves to reign in the senses. Instead of looking all over the place we look at one place. Instead of fidgeting or fixing our clothing we learn to stand still and simply feel in order to connect. This practice allows the possibility of a more internal study of the self, without the constant pull of external stimuli. How many times have you found yourself looking at someone else’s pose during a yoga class and being instantly taken out of yourself? Just a glimpse of another practitioner can induce a flood of internal dialogue: How is he doing that with his leg? Where did she learn that? How long have they been practicing?

One important thing I’ve begun to ask myself when thinking about reining in the senses is: is this information serving me? As a beginner to physical asana yoga practice, it’s often extremely useful to actually look at the shape of our bodies in order to understand where they are in space. For some it might even be useful, on occasion, to look at someone else do a posture to gain a glimpse of understanding. And similarly, listening to a teacher demonstrate the sound of the ujjayi breathing technique could clue us in to how we might create the sound. Visual and audio input is extremely useful tools in this stage!

But once we establish a steady practice, and more importantly, if we want that practice to lay the foundation of a deeper connection to the greater path of yoga, we must ask ourselves if these external stimuli are still serving us. Do we really need to visually double check the alignment of every single posture every single time? To fix our t-shirt before each pose? To watch others do more complicated postures on the mats next to us? Usually the answer is no; these things simply aren’t serving us anymore. And in the subtlety of that self-inquiry comes the opportunity to choose sensory withdrawal. The point is not that reacting to the pull of external stimuli is always wrong – but rather that we might learn something from practicing connecting to our senses without unconsciously reacting to them. The circumstances are never going to be perfect; your mat could always be a little straighter, your house could always be a little quieter, so how can we practice staking a step back from those pulls? Can we steady the eyes and practice the discipline of not glancing around the yoga room, or hone in deeply on the internal resonance of the sound each breath makes? Great lessons can be learned once the mind can be more directed around the pull of the senses…opportunities for meditative experiences, concentration, and the possibility of a full realization: we are not our thoughts, we are not our bodies, we are not our senses.

And perhaps in a similar way we can start to direct our attention more accurately and effectively outside the yoga studio and off of the mat, and maybe we won’t find our minds pulled by every single small external distraction.

And when all else fails…there are always earplugs!

Have Yoga Mat, Will Travel

**The original version of this post appeared on Land Yoga’s Blog in July, 2018.



Summer is in full swing, and chances are if you haven’t already been on a boat, train, plane or in a car, you will be in the coming weeks. Vacations are a wonderful privilege; a great time to unwind from the ordinary, spend time with loved ones or even explore far-away places. But what about your yoga practice? Carefully cultivated throughout the year only to be lost while you’re out of town for a few weeks?

I’ve just returned to my regular NYC routine after five wonderful weeks out of town in Israel (for the Israeli version of our wedding and a family trip), Greece and Italy (for our honeymoon). Taking my practice on the road isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. I find the benefits of peace of mind and a healthy body far outweigh the hassle of finding time to unroll my mat while on vacation.

Here are my top tips for keeping the prana flowing while out of town.

  1. Keep the tradition (yet stay flexible!)
    Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga is a wonderful tradition ready-made for travel. Since we spend time in class slowly learning, internalizing and memorizing the sequence, we’re not dependent on a teacher’s counts or instructions. This means that with a little dedication, you can keep practicing almost exactly as you would while at home. If you’re new to the method and have any questions or uncertainties, talk to your teacher before you leave for advice on what exactly to do. Similarly, if you’ve recently started learning a more complex or intense posture, ask your teacher how you should approach it while away.

    Traditionally Ashtanga yoga is practiced in the early morning, under the guidance of a teacher, six days a week, taking one rest day (usually Saturday or Sunday) and the new and full moon off. This is an ideal guideline, however, I advise that when you’re out of your regular routine on vacation, that you remain flexible! Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day (or a few days!) or shorten your practice* to fit the available time between beach trips, or even switch around your rest day to fit activities or outings better. The important thing is that you keep some kind of consistency, even if it’s slightly different than you might keep at home.
    On my recent trip, I practiced six days a week, but it wasn’t always at the same time of day, nor did I push myself to make it through my entire practice each day. Instead, I flowed with the plans of the people I was visiting; fitting in my sadhana before breakfast or while everyone else was taking an afternoon nap. On those days I found it hard to stay motivated, I turned my thoughts back to my teacher, Sharath, in Mysore, and to my students at home in New York. Re-focusing on my teacher’s encouraging voice and my community always helps me keep my dristi.

  2. Make practice a priority (but be realistic!)
    Plan ahead. Take a look at what you have on your travel itinerary and make sure you carve out some time for practice. But be realistic…If you have an early morning trans-Atlantic flight which requires you to be at the airport two hours ahead of time, plus a layover and possible jet-lag, seriously consider if it’s realistic to be up extra early for practice! Maybe it is – but my point is not to set up unrealistic expectations for yourself and feel like you’re letting yourself down when you fail to meet them.
    Tell the friends and family you are vacationing with about your dedication to your yoga practice. If others know, they’ll be more supportive of helping you fit it into the routine, and more likely to understand when you turn in an hour early, maybe skipping that extra helping of gelato. Consider inviting loved ones to join in with your practice if they’ve done yoga before (or even inviting them to do a different physical activity or meditation while you’re on your mat). Sharing your healthy habits might be the inspiration someone else needs to make a positive change. I was lucky enough to practice with both my mom one morning and my dad another while on our family trip around Israel after our wedding. Both have done yoga before and were happy to practice alongside me for a short time while I completed my longer practice. My husband also has an Ashtanga practice, and we made it a priority to practice together on our second wedding morning in Israel, and several other times throughout our honeymoon in Greece and Italy.
  3. Visit Yoga Shalas and Studios (make it a part of the vacation!)
    One of my favorite things about visiting a new city is dropping into a local Yoga Shala. Visit kpjayi.org for a list of authorized and certified teachers around the world, and do a quick google search of the area you’ll be visiting to see if there are any studios offering Ashtanga classes. It’s always a good idea to email the studio in advance to ask if they allow Mysore drop-ins for visiting students and to inquire about any special policies. At Land Yoga, we’ve had traveling students from Japan, Brazil, Denmark, England and all over the U.S. just to name a few!
    Taking a class at a studio is a great way to meet locals and get off the beaten tourist path, plus it offers a chance to reconnect with the group dynamic.
    During my recent trip, I took a class at Ashtanga Yoga Tel Aviv where I’ve practiced and taught before. It already feels like a yoga home away from home in Israel! I even took a class at a small, new outdoor yoga studio on Milos, the Greek island we were vacationing on. Yoga Journey Milos offered a great outdoor yoga experience on a secluded beach overlooking the sunset. Back in Athens, we dropped into Mysore class at Ashtanga Yoga Athens 2002. I loved waking up early before a day of sightseeing in Athens and navigating through the sleepy streets to practice. My hotel’s front desk was happy to offer advice about the best route to walk and where to grab a coffee. I’d emailed the studio in advance, and the teacher was happy to welcome me in, where – although thousands of miles from New York – I felt right at home among the ujjayi breathing and the smells of Mysore Sandalwood incense.

One last word of advice: get a good travel yoga mat. At Land Yoga we sell the Manduka eKO SuperLite mat which folds flat like a thin towel, making it perfect to pack in a suitcase. I use my thicker Manduka Pro mat, even for travel, and have invested in a backpack with buckles that allow it to be strapped and carried right on the plane! Happy travels, yogis!

* A note on shortening your practice: I advise asking your teacher personally about this, but in general, if you’re short on time don’t rush or skip postures. Instead begin your practice as normal, taking the correct number of sun salutations and breaths in each posture. Do the series you’ve learned in order, and when you only have 10 – 15 minutes left begin the finishing series. Depending on the time you may choose to complete the entire finishing sequence or move directly to the final three finishing poses. Always make time for rest at the end.

Parampara, Lineage and Non-Attachment in Practice

Chai Talks Lecture Notes

Thanks again to all the students who joined Lara, Michael and I for our first series of “Chai Talks” at Land Yoga!

DanaChai
July 9 Chai Talk with me!

Parampara, Lineage and Non-Attachment in Practice

Presented July 9, 2016

“First I want to give an overview of the lineage this yoga practice comes from, what that means and who our teachers are. And then I want to touch on the concept of non-attachment in practice and how that can be of practical and beneficial use for the long-term yoga practitioner.

I think the most interesting way to link these two is through the opening and closing chants.

The opening chant is actually a combination of parts of two different mantras, combined together and used to give thanks to all the gurus that have come before us and taught this practice, our guide to the removal of ignorance and the path towards happiness, peace and control of the mind.

MichaelChai
Michael’s Chai Talk on Ego, May 14

The opening chant first bows to all gurus and then specifically hails Patanjali, the ancient sage who codified the Ashtanga yoga method.

Click here to read and listen to the opening chant.

As we “bow to the lotus feet of the gurus,” in the opening mantra we acknowledge that Ashtanga Yoga is taught in a paramapara lineage system. This term is an Indian concept that comes from the idea of a guru-shishya relationship which is very common in Vedic, Hindu or Buddhist studies.

Paramapara is a Sanskrit word that means a direct succession of knowledge passed from teacher to student. Literally an uninterrupted row or series, order, succession, continuation, mediation, tradition.

Click here to read the KPJAYI’s definition of the term.

It’s as undiluted as possible, it’s in a pure form and therefore is most valuable because it’s based on direct and practical experience and knowledge 

Teachers of this lineage:

  1. Krishnamacharya

Click here for the book I use to learn more about this teacher.

  • born in India in 1888
  • “Father of Modern Yoga”
  • learned yoga first from his father and went on to study in Varanasi and earn many advanced degrees in yoga and vedanta
  • found his teacher in the Himalyas of Tibet: Ramamohan Bramacharya and studied with him for 7.5 years
  • King of Mysore, Wodeyer 4th was patron, he traveled giving lectures and demos
  • Opened the yogashala at the Mysore Palace 1926

2. Sri K Pattabhi Jois, “Guruji”

Click here for the book I use to learn more about our Guruji.

  • born in India 1915
  • studied with Krishnamacharya from 1927-1953
  • established another yoga shala at the palace in Mysore
  • 1948 established Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute at his home in Lakshmipurim
  • began teaching western students in 1960’s. Moved the shala to its current home in Gokulam, Mysore in 2001.
  • came to USA in 1975, Encinitis CA
  • Book Yoga Mala 1962, published in English 1999

3. His children, Saraswati and Manju

  • Saraswati and Manju both still teach today, Manju in the US and Saraswati in India.
  • Saraswati was one of the first women to teach yoga in Mysore. She taught in a local temple and the opened a shala in her home.

4. His grandson, R. Sharath Jois

  • born in 1971
  • assisted Guruji from around age 18 until his death in 2009
  • current director of KPJAYI in Mysore India
  • Guruji’s most advanced student
  • First edition of book Ashtanga Yoga Anusthana released in 2013

Non-attachement

What does Patanjali say? –Yoga Sutras 1.15

Patanjali says that there are two core principles upon which all of yoga is built – we know one – practice! The other non-negotible is vairagya – non-attachment.

Screen shot 2016-07-23 at 8.05.42 PM
Chai Talk with Lara on Long Term Practice, June 18

Vairagya literally means – “not getting stirred up” and is the willingness to let something arise without reacting to it.

“Practice leads you in the right direction, while non-attachment allows you to continue the inner journey without getting sidetracked into the pains and pleasures along the way.”

When we talk about dis-attaching in a yogic sense, we are really letting go of reactions towards pleasure or away from pain. So positive or negative – reacting connects us to the “me-ness” that separates us away from the universal.

Every time we soften to an experience that would otherwise cause us to react we break or habit of setting our personal consciousness apart from nature.”

This does not mean we “don’t care” about yoga or practice or the physical poses. Instead we care deeply and practice with devotion and connection but are learning to not be devastated or too excited about any of the outcomes.

The closing mantra which is a shanti mantra – a peace chant – that literally asks us to give up the fruits of our efforts and send peace to all beings.

By making this not about “me” or the “success” or “failures” physically or mentally at the end of my practice, we’re more able to connect with the true transformation yoga offers.

In order to get it we have to let it go. By dedicating to the good of all – we’re practicing non-attachment.”

Click here to read and listen to the Closing Mantra from the Rg Veda.

 

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Mysore Trip Five: Locked In

Two days ago I arrived in India for my fifth trip to study yoga at the KPJAYI in Mysore. So many things have changed since I made my first trip five seasons ago. I’m much more relaxed and strong now than I was then, so much more comfortable in the practice and in teaching, and more secure being a traveler in a foreign country.

panorama

But in many other ways, nothing much has changed. Again I’m here in November and just like my first trip, after I leave India, I’ll travel to Israel to spend time with my boyfriend’s family.

Again, I find that I brought way too many clothes.

And, just like my first trip, on my very first morning of practice, I found myself locked inside my apartment complex; unsure if I’d make it out to class.

Let me take you back a few hours…

Unlike most people, I kind of enjoy the strange effects of jet lag, especially here in Mysore, when I need to wake up so unnaturally early. Yesterday I let jet lag lull me to sleep around 4pm, woke up at midnight, and spent a relaxing few hours enjoying the silence of pre-dawn south India, reading and preparing for Led Primary at 4:30am. By 3:25 I was showered and ready. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m chronically early, but after five seasons of waiting on those steps, I’d already decided not to try to get to the shala too early. So I left at a reasonable time, assuming a good number of students would already be there.

I locked my front door, grateful for such a comfortable apartment so close to the school, and made my way down to the front gate. I was surprised to see it still locked from the night, since I could have sworn I heard several students leave the complex before me. Nevertheless I dug my keys out. The landlord told me that whoever leaves first for the morning can unlock the gate, so I’d been prepared for this.

I blinked through the pitch black, fumbled my key into the padlock, and turned. Nothing. I pulled it out and tried again. Stuck. I managed it take it out and tried three or four more times with no success. By then another student had come downstairs and she tried with her key as well…no luck. Our keys seemed to fit, but we couldn’t make any of them turn. Two more students joined us, all equally unsuccessful. (Now, I’ve had my fair share of drama with keys including managing to break a key inside a lock in Florida, and fighting with not one but two different apartment locks in Paris, one ending in tears and hours sitting in the stairwell, so it was actually reassuring to see that it wasn’t just me and my inability to use a key!)

But, let me take you back even further to November 2011: my very first practice morning of my very first season in Mysore. That year I was staying a solid 20-25 minute walk away from the shala with an Indian family who had never hosted a yoga student before. I had a tiny room on the family’s roof with a private entrance via an outdoor stairway. As I tried to leave quietly that similarly pitch-dark morning, I crept down the stairway and found it’s exit gate locked. I was totally alone: the only yoga student in the building. They hadn’t given me a key, most likely because they hadn’t anticipated I would be leaving in those pre-dawn hours.

What could I do? I had no way to climb out, and desperately wanted to attend my first practice. So, I knocked on their door. The family was fast asleep and didn’t stir, but the daughter, a girl around my age, was walking through the living room on her way to the bathroom. She squinted out the window, saw me, shrieked at the top of her lungs and ran, terrified that all her worst nightmares were coming true and a strange white woman was indeed trying to break in! Thankfully the father, realizing it must be me, his new yogi tenant, woke up and let me out. After quite a few embarrassed apologies, I made it to practice that very first day.

Back to this morning, years later, surrounded by fellow students, locked in again on my first day, I couldn’t help but laugh.

What could we do?

We threw our mats over the gate and climbed out, and again, I made it to practice today.

gate

So, what I’m trying to say is that getting there isn’t always easy. We get locked in, sometimes literally, but more often metaphorically. We might have to ask for help, to climb fences, or make sacrifices, but it’s almost always worth it to get to practice. To meditate. To go to a yoga class. To do anything that makes us better. Usually, it’s us locking ourselves in because of stories we’ve told ourselves or ones others have told us and we’ve decided to believe.

It’s not often an actual gate locking us in, but rather it’s us actively creating obstacles that leave us locked inside our own excuses.

But if we can get past them,

if we dare to climb over,

if we can ask others for help,

if we attempt to start to undo the stories we’ve told ourselves,

…something remarkable is usually waiting.

 

Mysore Trip Four: Yamas and Niyamas, Pillars of the Practice

Every morning I wake up, rub the sleep from my eyes, make a cup of coffee and try to practice Ashtanga Yoga. I start with a few hours of asana. I inhale and exhale, bending my body into different shapes and experiences, and hopefully removing some of the samskaras stuck between my joints. I try and I fail and sometime I fall flat on my face. And after the yoga rug is rolled up and the laundry is hanging out to dry, I keep trying to practice Ashtanga Yoga.

Because this yoga thing doesn’t end at the corners of my mat.

I’m attempting to allow the remnant feelings from the ritual of asana practice to spread like butter on bread throughout the rest of my day. I try to be nice. I try not to do harm. I try, through interactions with others and with myself, to practice Ashtanga Yoga. I try and I fail…

Pillars at Melukote Temple
Pillars at Melukote Temple

For the past few weeks in conference, between beautiful discussions about guru and mula bhanda, Sharath has continually brought our attention to the first two limbs: the Yamas and the Niyamas. (If you’re a Land Yoga student or following me on Instagram, you might have participated in or seen The All Eight Limbs Movement’s first few monthly focuses: the Yamas, where Lara invited us to share photos about non-violence, truth, non-stealing, energy conservation and non-greediness.)

He keeps coming back to this starting place. We can do all kinds of “yoga practices,” but if we don’t place attention on the first two limbs, the foundational pillars on which the rest of our practice is built, something big will be missing. So I’ve been spending a lot of time with them. Recognizing my failures and seeing my efforts…

“How will you know the depth of the sea if you continue to sail around on the surface?” Sharath asks, echoing one of his favorite analogies. “You have to dive in to know the beauty of the sea. Just like this you must apply all the Yamas and Niyamas to your practice in order to experience an in depth understanding. This process won’t happen suddenly…”

Pillars at the Venugopala Swamy Temple
Pillars at the Venugopala Swamy Temple


 

The Yamas are:

Ahimsa, non-violence:

Yoga Sutras 2.35 “As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in non-violence (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility.”

Being non-violent is important. Sharath says that our asana practice creates heat and strength, but it is important not to misuse the strength! Grounding ourselves with peaceful thoughts and actions off the mat is vital.

Satya, truth:

Yoga Sutras 2.36 “As truthfulness (satya) is achieved, the fruits of actions naturally result according to the will of the Yogi.”

We should be true to ourselves and to others.

Asteya, non-stealing:

Yoga Sutras 2.37 “When non-stealing (asteya) is established, all jewels, or treasures present themselves, or are available to the Yogi.”

Sharath reminds us that a yoga brand that steals postures to create its own yoga “style” is not practicing this yama!

Brahmacharya, celibacy or energy conservation:

Yoga Sutras 2.38 “When walking in the awareness of the highest reality (brahmacharya) is firmly established, then a great strength or vitality is acquired.”

 Aparigraha, non-greediness:

Yoga Sutras 2.39 “When one is steadfast in non-possessiveness or non-grasping with the senses (aparigraha), there arises knowledge of the why and wherefore of past and future incarnations.”


 

The Niyamas are:

Shaucha, cleanliness:

Yoga Sutras 2.41 “Also through cleanliness and purity of body and mind (shaucha) comes a purification of the subtle mental essence (sattva), a pleasantness, goodness and gladness of feeling, a one-pointedness with intentness, the conquest or mastery over the senses, and a fitness, qualification, or capability for self-realization.”

This applies to internal thoughts and our external environment. Asana helps to clean the internal body, but we must also do our part: keep our mat, our clothes, our home and our thoughts clean. (Also, it’s important to shower before asana practice!)

Santosha, contentment:

Yoga Sutras 2.42 “From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.”

This niyama asks us to be happy. To be deeply, internally, happy and to think good thoughts and not compare ourselves to others or to what we don’t have. We should relish each moment in this human life and find happiness that comes from within! “Santosha does not come from the iPhone 6…because next week iPhone 7 is coming!” Most of our stress and delusion will melt away with the practice of santosha.

Tapas, discipline:

Yoga Sutras 2.43 “Through training of the senses (tapas), there comes a destruction of mental impurities, and an ensuing mastery or perfection over the body and the mental organs of senses and actions.”

This niyama is related to the Sadhana, the practice and leading a disciplined life. “Without discipline,” Sharath says, “it’s impossible to learn something.”

Svadhyaya, self study:

Yoga Sutras 2.44 “From self-study and reflection on sacred words (svadhyaya), one attains contact, communion, or concert with that underlying natural reality or force.”

Self-study is the art of doing internal research and putting effort into understanding what your teacher has told you. We should become a Sadaka, one who does Sadhana.

Ishvarapranidhana, surrender to the divine:

Yoga Sutras 2.45 “From an attitude of letting go into one’s source (ishvarapranidhana), the state of perfected concentration (samadhi) is attained.”


 

So we have our work cut out for us! These foundational concepts are deep and complex. I love hearing Sharath talk about them and reminding us of the well-rounded life we should aim to lead. Which is why I say each day I wake up and try to practice Ashtanga Yoga… Some changes have been easy for me, like maintaining a vegetarian diet based on ahimsa…others not so easy, like keeping a disciplined schedule.

What about you?

How are the yamas and niyamas working in your life?

What are you trying to practice?

Mysore Trip Four: Travel Update and Conference Notes

“A Beautiful Habit.”

Shala Card

To get to Mysore from New York City takes roughly 30 hours. Between taxis and planes and layovers and delays I notice a sense of internal calm I haven’t felt before. This is my fourth trip. I’ve already done this three times. As my boyfriend says, it’s not a coincidence anymore… I’m not going to India on a whim. I’m consciously choosing to make this trek year after year after year.

I arrive in early morning of October 1st, stumble into a taxi and sleep for most of the 3.5 hours it takes to drive from Bangalore to Mysore. Sharp stops and turns and then,

“Madame! Sleeping? Mysore coming!” says my driver.

I pull myself upright and recognize the stretch of road we’ve entered. By the time we reach Gokulam (the neighborhood where I stay and where I practice Ashtanga Yoga), I’m ready for a proper nap.

I find my small studio apartment, shut the curtains, settle into another typically hard Indian bed, and snooze until the shala opens at 3:30pm for registration.

I have my passport photos ready and copies of my Indian Visa. I’ve printed my confirmation letter which grants me access into the increasingly in-demand shala. I have my rupees counted and stacked to pay tuition.

Because it’s the opening of the season (my teacher only opens the school for western students to practice for part of the year) it’s a week of led Primary Series classes to begin. Jetlag wakes me up at 3am the next morning. In the pre-dawn dark I make coffee and prepare for practice.

Class just feels right the next few days. Strong and soft at the same time. The shala rugs feel a faded shade of familiar. I place my mat in the front row and listen to my teacher chanting the opening mantra just a few inches away from me. I practice with a smile. I see friends from past seasons, meet new ones from all over the world, and surrender to jet lag. I get my only-in-India pink elephant print bed sheets out of storage and make my bed. I walk around with wonder still in my eyes at the sights and smells of India. I try a new Eggplant curry at lunch and marvel at how they’ve cooked the vegetable just right so it actually does melt in my mouth.

Right now everything feels comforting here. The familiar and the unfamiliar. I want to keep this beautiful habit of coming to India year after year…

As the week of Led Classes (classes during which our teacher calls out each posture and we practice together as a group) gives way to the regular classes (called ‘Mysore Style’ classes during which each student practices only the postures they have been taught, individually without a teacher leading) my back starts to ache. I see a sweet Canadian for acupuncture sessions and the pain slowly melts into comfort.

This year the day off is Sunday instead of Saturday as it has been in the past. Conference with our teacher, Sharath, is now on Saturday afternoon. It’s a small change that funnily enough has most of us wondering what day it is – constantly holding to that old, conditioned pattern of ‘the week.’

So we adapt to our new week and pile into the shala each Saturday to listen to Sharath’s wise words…

Some Conference Notes October 11, 2014

“Yoga is the greatest gift,” Sharath says to start this season at the shala. Words so simple and true we all smile softly in a reply to him.

He explains that yoga is special because of the breath and the vinyasa system, the art of placing the breath in a special way connected to your movement. This process of breathing and moving takes time to learn. It must be tuned like an instrument or like a singer might train to tune her voice.

Once one has learned to control the breath, automatically control of the mind happens.

Student questions begin to flood the room.

“Is it possible to practice with perfect vinyasa?”

Sharath says yes, it is possible and we are all working towards it. But this is something that you must do one posture at a time, slowly. At the beginning we might spend two weeks on just Surya Namaskar A and B. The first day to complete a sun salutation it takes 25 breathes! But the more we practice, the more we train to breath correctly, and over time we can complete it with one breath per movement, the nine vinyasas required to complete a sun salutation A.

A question about the importance of alignment prompts Sharath to remind us that of course the alignment of muscles and bones are important, but so are the movements, the breathing and the heat that this helps to create. These moving asanas help to purify the lungs and nervous system and create a spiritual transformation within us.

Some Conference Notes from October 18, 2014

During the second conference of the season Sharath reminds us that there is no recoded birth date for yoga. For as long as there has been this universe, there has been yoga.

Almost universally it is agreed that yoga is for calming and controlling the mind. These initial stages lead to deeper understanding and ultimately higher consciousness.

In order to begin to control the mind, Sharath spent time talking about the importance of the Ashtanga Tristana, the three points of focus. They are asana, pranayama (breathing, which brings control to the mind) and dristi.

Sharath specifically mentioned the power of the gazing point, dristi, and it’s ability to bring more focus to our practice. Our attention is always on others, on the outside. The more we bring the focus inside the more potential the practice has to become a meditative experience which can lay the groundwork for deeper spiritual growth.

Pranayama can be described as the expansion of prana. In one day we take 21,600 breaths, he says. But we can expand the breath. And if we can expand the breath we can expand our life.

The ancient risis knew this, he reminded us, because of many, many years of practice, research and experimentation. He told a story of Guruji’s village, Koushika, where the great sage Vishvamitra did many thousands of years of meditation and research. Now everyone is rushing, but this research takes time!

Sharath reminded us that “yoga cannot be described. Yoga cannot be purchased. Yoga is all that happens within you.” And without the yamas and niyamas asanas are useless. He spoke of the importance of especially satya, to be truthful to yourself and others and asteya, not to steal. He also mentioned ahimsa, nonviolence. He warned us that asanas make us strong and create heat, but it is extremely important not to misuse the strength!

One of the points that made the biggest impact on me was a question regarding the global community of teachers and practitioners and the unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable conflict and competition that arises. Sharath really encouraged the community to commit to be wise enough not to fight, and instead to unite. To have an internal focus and not worry about the actions of others. To not get worked up in politics and external distractions, but instead to correct our own actions and build a supportive community that way.

 

Serengeti Namaskar: Yoga on Safari in Tanzania

driving into nothing
Driving into nothing…

We’ve been driving into the nothing for hours, it seems. Our caravan is made up of three Jeeps. Three amphibian Jeeps: vehicles that can be almost fully submerged in water and still run, I’ve learned. This can be particularly important on a safari, I’ve learned.

My companions are sixteen Israelis, one of who is my boyfriend, none of who want to speak much English. Our Tanzanian drivers are experts: they know this journey intimately. I can’t yet imagine knowing this nothing. It’s still an alien landscape on our first full day out on Safari.

Rumors bubble back and forth through the three Jeeps in Hebrew, crackling from the radio and gossiped by my boyfriend’s niece and her cousins. Bits and pieces are translated from sweet relatives for me, the lone American:

“We should arrive to the lodge by sundown,” I learn.

“Someone was attacked by a Buffalo there just last week,” I’m told.

“We’ll each have a tent,” I understand.

Before this phase of the journey into the uniform nothing landscape, the terrain has been varied. We drove through the lush rainforest-like mountains that surround the Ngorogoro Crater, then entered rolling hills and plains where Maasai grazed cattle outside our windows.

Maasai
Maasai children herding cows

 

“Can you imagine being Maasai?” our driver asked. “He walks all day. He is headed from nowhere to somewhere and back.”

And I can almost imagine it for a moment as I peer out the windows and see 360 degrees of nothing. Pure grey clay dirt stretching for miles. The scrub trees have long stopped decorating the terrain, and the herds of giraffe we came across a few hours back are nowhere to be seen.

Giraffe
The Lone Giraffe

 

But suddenly in the distance I see those flat-topped trees starting to appear again, adorning the earth, and as we approach the drivers make a sharp left turn. No signs. No indication that this might even be a road.

We drive slower now, the Jeeps staggering in parallel formation to avoid the other’s billow of white dust. We wind past the setting sun into thickening brush and suddenly take another left turn, this time at a small sign: Lake Masek Tented Lodge.

Lake Masek is a small lake several hours northwest of Arusha, at the corner of the Ngorogoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Reserve. This is where we’ll spend the night, right at the crux of these two legendary wildlife regions.

tents
Lake Masek Tented Lodge

Our caravan pulls up, and my heart skips a beat. We’ve arrived to a collection of tents, majestic, as they appear to float on top of stilted platforms among the trees. We unload in front of the main tent, my group of Israelis and me, powdered with dust kicked up from the nothing terrain and blown into our open Jeep windows.

Rumors percolate easier through the group outside of the Jeeps, and the translations come in again:

“It was a driver who was attacked by the Buffalo, just here, where we stand!” I learn.

“Do not leave your tent alone at night for any reason!” I’m told.

“Ring the main tent and an escort will be sent!” I understand.

My boyfriend hugs me close as we’re assigned to the Duma tent, Swahili for Cheetah, and escorted through the dusk by a Maasai warrior with a spear and a flashlight, checking the pathway for animals.

Once inside the mosquito nets the celebration is huge! We are in a tent, its khaki fabric spires draped above us, cascading around a white-netted four-poster bed. We’re shown a shower outside, under the stars, and a tub inside, under our canopy.

We smile like teenagers and skip around our tent, giddy.

“It’s like a dream!” we cheer.

Nighttime is colder than expected and we huddle under extra blankets. No insulation from the elements in our magical tent. I’ve set my yoga mat out and my alarm for just before sunrise, when I’ll practice on our deck, safe inside the screened netting, facing Lake Masek.

But something unplanned wakes me from deep, Jeep-rattled sleep. The bellows of a huge animal seem to be coming from directly under the raised platform of our tent. In the deepest dark I can’t tell if my boyfriend has heard it too, so I lay still as the beast, making noises that seem to signify some immense dissatisfaction, makes a temporary home underneath us…

After falling back to sleep post-buffalo, I rise with my alarm before the sun comes up but it’s too dark and cold to practice just yet. I wait a few minutes, listening to see if our nighttime visitor’s still around before stepping out of the bed onto cold wooden floors to roll out my mat on the front deck.

Masek Sunrise
Masek Sunrise

 

To the east the sky above the lake is just beginning to crack open with the first rays of red sunrise. It’s a scene I swallow up whole. I raise my arms with the first Surya Namaskar and smile towards this golden African dawn. I’m thinking suddenly that this is quite possibly my favorite place in the world so far. The deafening quiet of the stars. The simplicity of sleeping in a tent. The impossibility of this lodges’ existence in the middle of hours of driving through nothing. Even the visit from some huge potentially dangerous animal in the middle of the night has charmed me.

upward dog masek
Upward dog on our deck at Lake Masek

 

I take rest on my mat as the sky turns from golden-black to pink then inky blue; the sun casting rays across Lake Masek.

As we leave the tent with our Maasai escort (still wielding his spear) we see definite evidence of our visitor: huge buffalo droppings, just next to our stairs!

The group reconvenes, bleary-eyed from the excitement of it all, and possibly from lack of sleep:

“The mosquitoes kept me up,” says one.

“There was a hyena outside our tent!” reports another.

I tell them of our Buffalo visitor and of my early morning yoga practice.

We set out again that day, north towards the Serengeti and the Kenyan boarder. No longer driving through nothing, the terrain turns from rusty orange grasses to green fields and dried streams. Our safari will see Elephants and Giraffes, we’ll see Ostriches mating and Wildebeest migrating across the Mara River. I’ll even teach the group yoga in a sparkling glass-windowed room deep in the Serengeti. The magic of this terrain and this country will flicker in our eyes for the entire week. But still, I think I’ll hold on tightest to the memory of our first night in tents along the lake, after hours of driving into the nothing. Of our escort with a spear, of the Buffalo under our tent and the next morning’s practice with the African Sunrise…a Serengeti Namaskar.

Post-India Daze

Dana Colors

Dana Colors
It takes me roughy a month to decompress from life in India and settle back in to the peculiar comforts of western life. I love these post-India days. I remember my time in Mysore vividly through my jet lag. It was truly inspiring. As I grocery shop in Harlem at 6am because I can’t sleep, the days seem to swirl together, peppered with the smooth, polished sounds of Sanskrit chanting and the peculiar rhythms of the Indian tabla drums. They burn bright in my memory with Indian sunshine. They were fueled by the crispy masala dosa, and buzzed with the caffeine from sweet chai.

My physical asana practice felt steady, challenging, but surprisingly pain-free.

My boyfriend was able to join me there for the last half of the journey and we bonded over our deep love for the country, zooming through town on a rented scooter, marveling at the perfect chaos of each intersection we somehow survived.

And I started to study the Yoga Sutras with a wonderful teacher. After the talks I’d ride home on the back of Michael’s motorcycle, grateful for the helmet on my head, which seemed to be guarding not only my actual skull, but also my thoughts from spilling out of my ears as they ran wild with philosophical questions, realizations, revelations.

I tried, as my teacher Sharath says he does, to practice yoga 24 hours a day. I’m sure I failed, but I’m sure that doesn’t matter.

I started to examine what it means to “have a practice.” I’ve been bending my body for nearly ten years now. I’ve been dedicated to a spiritual practice for about five. I’ve been trying to seriously apply the principles of a yogic life to my life for about three years.

And I feel small.

I feel like I’m a total beginner.

I feel I know nothing of the depths of practice.

And it’s thrilling.

So I dive deeper.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes Practice as ‘Any effort entered in the direction of restraining the tendencies of the mind,’ and says that practice should be ‘long-termed, continuous and done with dedication (love and respect) to be fruitful.’

In that way the physical asanas start to change the patterning of our outer material body. The yamas and niyamas shape or reshape the way we interact with the world and treat ourselves. As we withdraw our minds from the chatter, we’re practicing feeling the stillness.

And in that way, in anything and everything, in each moment of our day, we can practice.

How do you practice? How do you  still the fluctuating tendencies of your mind?  Do you do it with love and respect?

*photo by Christine Hewitt of Yogic Photos

“You can sail around and around on the ocean for years. But it’s only when you dive in that you know the beauty of the sea.” -R. Sharath Jois

conference

Conference Notes December 8, 2013

conference

It seems like the whole shala has been sick at these past few weeks. Poor Sharath finally caught the bug and began conference apologizing and telling us he’d do his best to get through. His doubt was unfounded because he delivered an inspiring and poignant conference, as always!

Sharath began conference this week by quoting a passage from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. By doing asana, it explains, sweat is produced. We shouldn’t waste the sweat, but instead to rub it back into the skin (a note to all you vigilant sweat wipers!). This opens the pores and allows all the toxins to come out, which in turn makes the body light and strong. Sweat should come from within, from hard work, not from a heated room. Through the effort of working on asanas and building stamina we sweat and cleanse.

He also made sure to note that we should work towards a balance of every element of practice, both strength and flexibility. That’s why in this system Guruji taught primary series first, beginning with the Surya Namaskara. The teacher should analyze the practice of a beginner, as the work with sun salutations. They should see that the vinyasa is done correctly and move them slowly along, building strength and flexibility from the ground up. The body should be given time to adjust to the asanas and the vinyasa system. Vinyasa plays a big role in the sweat and detoxing process within our practice and it is very important to do it correctly.

We really got into a discussion on the breathing style used during our asana practice. Sharath really wants us to understand that what we are doing is free, unrestricted breathing with a little sound. It is not ujjayi pranayama! This is a pranayama technique, which is totally separate from the breath we use during practice. We should hear the sound of our breath, but we shouldn’t try to breath very loud or very strong. That would be too taxing during the intense physical exercises we’re doing. The inhales and exhales should be even. We should relax into each posture with a free flow of breath.

In connection with our lively discussion on breath, a student asked about how bhandas relate to the breath. Sharath said he didn’t even mention bhandas in the discussion because they should be active all the time! Udiyana is more pronounced on the inhale and mula is stronger during exhale. Jalandara, he said is mostly reserved for pranayama. Only when bhandas are perfect during asana should we move on to pranayama. Asanas are like our test grounds to perfect bhandas to ensure that when we get to pranayama study, they are a sturdy foundation.

Despite the physical nature of our asana practice, we are not in Mysore (or attending Mysore style yoga classes in our hometowns/countries) to work out. We are here to gain better clarity and more knowledge. We are here, Sharath reminds us, to bring peace to ourselves and to come to know who we are. The practice can reveal the answer to the question “who am I?” if we let it…

Sharath also took time to address some of the most common questions he gets from students: how often should I practice, how much should I eat and how much should I sleep? All of these should be done in moderation, he said. We should do a little physical asana practice once a day, we should eat enough food to nourish and fuel us, not too much that we become dull, and we should sleep for 6.5 – 7 hours per night. Moderation in everything!

Next a student asked about correcting mistakes. At some point we’ve all, knowingly or unknowingly, hurt another person. So how do we correct the mistakes and move on? Sharath says, simply, to be a better person. Yoga is an ideal tool to help us be better. Make up from your mistakes by changing and acting differently in the future. He reminds us, yet again, that yoga is not just gymnastics. If we are in Mysore to work out and show off, don’t come! Come to learn and be a better person. The world needs more people like yogis. People who learn from their mistakes and actively try to do better going forward.

“You can sail around and around on the ocean for years. But it’s only when you dive in that you know the beauty of the sea.” It’s like this that we should try to dive deeper into yoga, past the physicality of it. We should use it as a tool and an exploration to know ourselves.

“Yoga is my breath and my heart.” –R. Sharath Jois

sharath

Conference Notes December 1, 2013

sharath
Sharath receiving an award

Sharath began conference by quoting a passage from the Bhagavad Gita and noting that yoga is not new to us. It was old even when the Bagavad Gita was written! He said that when god created this universe, then yoga started.

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna talks about parampara. This means the passing of knowledge from guru to student. A guru is no ordinary teacher…he is one who dispels darkness and gives proper knowledge: jnana. So, Sharath says, we don’t learn yoga through videos or books. Without a teacher it is impossible to transfer proper knowledge.

I’m always happy when he talks about the difference between cultures in the West and here in the East. He’s aware that most of us in the shala from the western world are used to questioning authority and he’s sympathetic to our experience but invites us to try to surrender. There is a difference in cultural norms from the west to the east. In the west it’s ok to question and rebel from the teacher, but in the east there is a surrender required, which can make practice so much sweeter.

To illustrate, Sharath tells the story of a day he was in a lot of pain from practicing and assisting Guruji with all the students in backbends. During his practice, Guruji came to him to drop him back and Sharath said “No I think I shouldn’t do backbending today.” Guruji smiled and said “no it’s ok, you do,” and somehow as he surrendered to him, he had no pain. It was one of his best practices!

He goes on to say that there’s too much attention on books and videos today that teach the technicalities of yoga. How to jump back and through. How to do asanas. This creates confusion. There should be more attention on the fundamentals of yoga: how to behave, how to act: the yamas and niyamas. These fundamentals make our spiritual foundations strong.

Of course asana is very important but we should understand why. Yoga is to bring health and stability to the body, it is sacred, supreme knowledge. Sharath begs us to leave from our mind the thoughts that a physically advanced practice means an advanced yogi. This is just not true!

There was also time for some student questions during conference. Someone asked how the parampara lineage in Ashtanga Yoga is designed to pick a successor. Sharath explained that it is not designed like that in the Ashtanga system…its not like an ashram, no successor is selected to take the place of the guru. He said (and he’s said it before, which I love) that if we have the knowledge, each one of us can be the successor of the Ashtanga lineage!

There was a question about the six enemies of yoga practice: lust, anger, attraction, pride, greed and jealousy. He makes sure to note that they are enemies to humans, not just to yoga. We are like a pearl covered in an oyster shell. We have six layers outside of us just waiting to be shelled off and to reveal the pearl within, the true authentic self. This takes a lot of hard work. It doesn’t come by taking a workshop or gaining an authorization. But if we are consistent we can make progress.

Sharath also took time to address one of Guruji’s famous quotes: “99% Practice, 1% Theory.” A lot of students have misunderstood the meaning of the quote, he said. It doesn’t mean that we should just do asanas all day and only think about a little bit of theory. On the contrary, it means whatever theory we learn, read, study or encounter, we should put to the text by practicing it applying it to our life. Only then, through practicing the theory is it useful to us.

Someone posed an excellent question, asking: can Ashtanga yoga change the world? I think all of us in the room knew the answer and were so happy to hear him affirm that yes, if practiced correctly, yoga can change the world. Tenants such as ahimsa (nonviolence) can be extremely important to creating world peace. Awareness of our natural world, the resources and their value is vital to saving the world. Again he talked about Guruji, how he never sought fame, but lived simply and did his practice. We too, he advises, should not chase fame and money, let it chase us…run away from it.

To close there was a question about money. Are finances an obstacle to learning yoga today? Sharath immediately answered yes, but said that the KPJAYI has a scholarship program and quite a few students are studying on scholarships. I think it’s important for shalas all over the world to follow suit, offering work exchanges, scholarships and other ways to help make yoga more accessible so that anyone and everyone who wants can become part of this life and possibly world changing yoga.