Posts Tagged With: Sutra

The sign says “pull”.

Have you ever found yourself pushing against a door and it won’t open because it’s a door you pull- not push? Do you find yourself chuckling when you realize there’s a sign right in front of you – “PULL”? I find people behave this way in yoga too. Which is, they use the wrong energy to try to achieve a particular result. I see people pushing their hips back while they should be trying to pull their hips forward. I see people pulling themselves up into headstands but not remembering to push down into the floor. I see people pulling themselves forward with their arms, but not pushing down through their legs. It seems a little bit like trying to get people to pat their head and rub their tummies. Why can’t we do two things at once? I thought we were the great multi-tasking society of highly evolved people. Seeing the way people practice yoga always makes me question how effective they really are at multi-tasking? If we can’t push and pull at the same time, we are truly missing the beauty of our universe. It’s made of opposites and it’s how we use these opposites that will truly make us successful.

The space shuttle get’s lift off by pushing down against the earth. It all begins with the way we push down, in every posture. It’s in the downward effort that you get upward momentum. It’s in the setting of your foundation that the posture is constructed. I see the opposite of this all the time in yoga, particularly with headstands. Pushing and pulling are both necessary to stay inverted. You should pull your legs above you using your hamstrings, but all the while keep pushing down with your forearms. Then once you’re there you need to push your thighs back but your hips forward. You need to pull your ribs in, and push/broaden your shoulder blades out. All of the poses we do have opposites at work. Downward dog you push with your arms and pull with your legs. In upward dog you push with your arms, pull with your back, you push with your quads, and pull with your inner thighs. This goes on and on. When you start to look for the duality and learn to use it effectively, the posture will start to stabilize. You can be damn sure that if you are not stable in an asana then you have not yet found this balance of the opposites. As sutra 2.46 says “Sthira sukham asanam”, first – steady yourself. Balance is crucial, it’s why a ship has ballast that keeps it from tipping over to one side, and why a plane can’t land if it is tipping to one side. Even my car tells me when it’s out of balance by sending an alarm when one of the four tires is not equal to the others.
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Let’s look at things that you have probably experienced to help you understand this application of opposites. The first thing I think of is a swing – if you pull to hard with your right arm it immediately makes you swing crooked. How about this… why does someone limp? Because one leg is doing more of the work. Injury or weakness sets in motion a change in their gate. It’s like trying to push a grocery cart with one hand, or riding a bike with one hand. You can do these things, but you should notice that you have to do twice the amount of work and twice the amount of correcting. Where if you would use duality to your favor, you would be exerting less effort. You’d be more efficient and hence experience better balance. Harmony comes through equally applying effort and resistance to all your muscles that are set up as pairs.

You have two groups of muscles – the agonist and the antagonist. The antagonist resist what the agonist is trying to do. When the antagonist resist equal to the effort, the movement is smooth and balanced. The sooner we come to realize this the easier life becomes and the more we learn to ride the duality gracefully. It plays out like this – the Quadriceps oppose the action of the hamstrings and vice versa. Just like the opposite of being lazy, is hard work. Duality exists everywhere. Because it’s such an ingrained part of our life, we forget how these forces can work together harmoniously.

If yoga students would take a greater interest in the way their body works, they would find themselves in a state of auto-correction all the time. They would see that the adjustments that their teachers are making can be made with their own applied effort of the right muscle. As things go, there is either an excessive amount of energy or deficient amount. Tightness is too much energy, where as looseness is too little. Here is an example from one of my most favorite yoga asanas – Urdhva Dhanurasana; if your quadriceps are stiff and tight which means they are short, and at the same time your hamstrings are weak and slack it is no surprise that you would struggle to get up off the ground. And that is just one example, keep in mind you have 640 muscles in your body. Take that idea and apply it to 10/12 more pairs of muscle and then you might begin to understand this amazing kinetic chain that you walk around in all day. This might give you a better understanding to why upward bow is difficult, but not impossible.

When our body is in harmony it feels easy to be human; to be alive, vibrant and capable of some of the craziest looking yoga asanas. At 42 I am still surprising myself. I am still taking risk with my self implied limitations. The space shuttle has put astronauts out there to explore uncharted territories and to continually make new discoveries. Your body is capable of shuttling you to new discoveries. It is in the space of disbelief that you will find that you are pushing yourself into new territories.

Pattabhi Jois was said to have much “Gravitas, meaning his energy pulled people towards him, that what he was putting out was magnetic. Find something that is powerful enough to rotate around, the way the sun is powerful enough to keep our planet in orbit. I have found that Yoga is my sun. It keeps me moving, it keeps me illuminated and well balanced. Yoga is my anchor and my engine all at the same time. I can PULL myself back down to earth with yoga or I can PUSH myself to shoot for the stars. But it’s only going to work if I know how to push and pull myself in all manners of speaking.

Good luck and I hope you find lift off in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Categories: Asana, For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My name is not George, but I am curious.

One of the best accessories you can bring to your yoga practice comes from a children’s book, also an old wives tale. It doesn’t cost you a thing and it looks better on you than those new yoga pants. What is it…it’s curiosity! You need to bring this to your practice more than you actually need to bring a yoga mat. Mat’s are just for comfort, but curiosity is for transformation. It’s the fertilizer for any life changing work you are hoping yoga will facilitate. In the children’s book “Curious George” George, the little monkey was always on some adventure, all because he was curious. There’s also the old wives’ tale that cats are given 9 lives and their curiosity puts them in jeopardy of running out of those 9-lives. I once heard that if you have found yoga in your current life, it’s because you were a yogi in your past life, and that you will keep coming back to yoga until the work is done. Maybe we yogi’s get something like the 9-lives of a cat for navigating this yoga journey.

I see people all the time coming to yoga with the latest yoga mat, coolest yoga attire and the best sweat absorbing rug, along with the latest prop that they believe will help them execute pincha mayurasana. But I don’t see them bringing any curiosity to their practice. Curiosity is evident in people who are experiencing results and progressing along nicely. But I have seen some people practice for 5+ years and their practice is not evolving. The reason is they have no new approaches. They are going about their practice as they always have: wrought with predictability, smothered with unwillingness and drowning in disinterest. Disinterest is like a wet blanket to the fire of curiosity.

Where does curiosity come from? Do we all get our fair share? Look, right now I am being curious about where curiosity comes from. Can’t get any more curious than that. We were all curious at one time. Around about age 3 we start filling our heads with as much information as our little selves could handle. We did this by using the symbol for curiosity, the question mark (?). So that means that when practicing yoga (but really life in general), we should be asking more and more questions. This is the way out of ignorance (Avidya). In the yoga sutra’s the definition of ignorance/avidya is seeing the impermanent as permanent (Sutra 2.5). For all those people who believe they can’t, they don’t understand yet that everything is always changing. Everything is impermanent. The way through ignorance is questioning the state of things. As sutra 2.26 says Vivekahyatir Aviplava Hanopayah – Uninterrupted discriminative discernment is the method of removing ignorance. So here’s your ammunition for a good yoga practice – How? What? And Why? “When” is not terribly important because if your asking How? What? and Why? the “when” will take care of itself. Too many people set themselves up for failure by taking things at face value, believing what they have heard from others. Life is meant to be questioned, and the more you do, the more you grow.

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One example that I can give is my approach to the sensations I feel during yoga. If I run into pain or an injury, I take it upon myself to find out what muscle the pain is coming from and what that muscle’s function is. I identify and examine; the same way a good detective would examine a suspect. I suspect that muscle is the cause of such pain, but I must first gather all the information that I can about it. I always say when I’m teaching a class that you need to approach your yoga practice the way Jacque Cousteau approached his love of the sea, with curiosity and passion. Before He passed away he had been an explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author and researcher. All of his great accomplishments were because he was curious. It’s the same thing that had Christopher Columbus sail the ocean blue, and Buzz Aldridge navigating through space. There is endless opportunity for discovery, but only if you question and challenge everything you know and hear.

Next time you want to have a great experience on your yoga mat, don’t try to reinvent one you already had, by wearing the same clothes, or putting your mat in the same place. Do away with predictability. Come at your practice with new eyes. Approach it with what I call the 3-year-old brain. Ask lots of questions, and try a bunch of different approaches. Get used to saying “that was interesting, but what if I did this.” Stay captivated by your body’s adaptability. Be open to uncharted territory. I often say during Surya Namaskar “Inhale and look toward horizon”. Christopher Columbus must have been looking out at the horizon when he thought, “there must be more out there, that we haven’t explored yet.” Keep the horizon in mind, for keeping the dreamer inside of you alive.

It’s probably no coincidence that one of yoga’s fabled character role models is Hanuman, a monkey, just like Curious George. Let your inner monkey do what’s most natural – be curious. Stay open to the idea that ALL things are possible. If you’re not so sure just go roll out your yoga mat and let your teacher and all the students around you inspire you. Dream big, and don’t accept that what seems permanent, is permanent. Curiosity really is your best accessory no matter how good you look in those new yoga pants. Don’t mistake outward appearances, for the real benefit of inner work.

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A journey to India.

Not all journeys require a plane ticket. Some journeys are taken in the soul of a person. They never have to leave their current life to have this journey. It happens inside the life they are already living. This is my story with regards to India. I have never been and I don’t know if I’m going to get there. There is this feeling that I am missing out and that I am not as respected inside the yoga community, because I haven’t been to India. I’m not blaming anyone for these feelings, they are more than likely self implied feelings of inadequacy. But none the less, they are my feelings.

Many of the Ashtanga yogi’s I know have traveled to India, some even more than once. Most made the trek there to study with the late Pattabhi Jois, of Mysore.  I have always wanted to go, but have had numerous reasons not to. Some of those reasons are that I am quite fearful of flying, I have never had enough time and money to go for the prerequisite 1-3 month implied time frame, and I am incredibly sensitive to seeing the suffering of animals. Everything I have read and seen of India shows stray dogs and cats running in the streets with their ribs showing. Even some of the cows I have seen photos of seem to be suffering of starvation, even though cows are considered sacred in India. I don’t think I have the strength to see these things and not be broken to pieces by them. I became vegetarian instantaneously, here in the states, by seeing one semi-tractor trailer of chickens being transported for slaughter. My home currently has 3 cats, two dogs and two parrots living in it. And every evening I take care of 3 feral cats in my neighborhood, and this is America. If I go to India, who knows how many animals or children I would want to bring home. Because of these things, I have not journeyed to India but I have been taking a different kind of journey;  the journey of what to do with my feelings of inadequacy.

There seems to be a bit of a divide in the Ashtanga community; there are those that received Pattabhi Jois’s blessing to teach the system, and there are those that didn’t get that blessing before he passed. Just because I didn’t make the many trips necessary to receive this blessing does this make me any less dedicated or deserving than those that have? Am I missing out on some sort of spiritual epiphany? Do we have to leave our lives to find ourselves, or to gain permission? It seems that my dharma is to study here in the states, with my teacher, Tim Miller. Since I practice yoga I have had many spiritual epiphanies without having to go to India. Could India create more or different epiphanies? I’m sure it could, but life really is what we make it. I am taking a journey to India, it just looks different than most people’s. I’m making it a journey inward to the place inside myself where the desire to go to India exists.

Photo taken by Vatsa Shamana. Vatsa was a student of mine from Mysore, India. He took this picture on a recent trip home.

Photo taken by Vatsa Shamana. Vatsa was a student of mine from Mysore, India. He took this picture on a recent trip home.

How am I taking this journey? Well I am studying first and foremost with Tim Miller. He has taken over 18 treks to India, and he was given Pattabhi’s blessing. I have been reading about India and yoga for years now. I am seeking out the wisdom of others and I am doing the most important thing of any journey, which is the study of the self – svadhyaya.

I’m still struggling with that feeling I get when trying to find my place in the Ashtanga community. There is a sort of chronological order to things which I think should be considered, such as Pattabhi studied and taught for 80 years, Tim has studied and taught for over 33 years and I have studied and taught for over 13 years. Though I never experienced India first hand, I have tried to experience it through reading many wonderful books about India. For years now I have been listening to Tim tell stories of India and Pattabhi Jois. I continue to honor Ashtanga yoga as it has been taught from teacher to student; Pattabhi to Tim, and from Tim to me. That’s as direct a path I figured I could get without going straight to the source. It has been what has worked for me. I am proud of my dedication. I am proud of my unwavering belief that Ashtanga yoga is a great way to make my life better.

Through the years of studying the sutra’s I have learned a few things. A great bit of advice from the sutra’s comes from the niyama’s. The niyama’s are about how do I interact with myself. One of the ways to better understand that is self-study, svadhyaya. Svadhyaya has helped me look more closely at why I have felt inadeqaute. What this self-study has made me realize is that we all take different paths and there are many different mountains for us to climb. A very dear friend of mine has climbed Mount Everest. He speaks of the Northeast Ridge being one the harder climbs to the top. There are many faces of a mountain that you can climb to get to the top. I think staring down my own feelings of inadequacy has been like climbing that Northeast ridge. I have had to make peace with myself time and time again about feeling like I am looked down upon by other yogi’s for not making the journey to India.

I have also had to confront my feelings of jealousy to those that have found a way to make the trek to India. There is a sutra that reminds me how best to embrace others. If I do this, then I am at peace. Sutra 33, chapter 1 Maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatah citta prasadanam – The mind becomes serene when it cultivates friendliness in the presence of happiness, compassion in the presence of unhappiness, joy in the presence of virtue, and equanimity in the presence of error. If my fellow ashtanga yogi’s are also letting the sutras guide them in life then it should be abundantly clear that they would not judge me based on whether or not I have been to India, and that they should really not judge me at all. So if they are not judging me, then how do I escape the feelings of “You’re not good enough”?

I escape these feelings by doing another practice. The times I have wanted to walk away because the road was getting rough are too numerous to count. But what tells me I am deserving of respect with or without a stamp on my passport, is that I haven’t walked away. That I haven’t given up, instead I have given in. I believe there is a big difference between giving up and giving in. Giving in means softening, to become more malleable, to adapt, to adopt new patterns and philosophies, to keep going inward a.k.a. svadhyaya! But giving up means you walk away. “When the road gets rough, the going get tough” and every practice I do when I’m tempted to walk away makes me tough, resilient and deserving of respect. The only real respect I need is self-respect. I respect myself greatly and I’ve gained most of that respect from not quitting. I know that I am authentic, honest and that I live yoga instead of just doing yoga. My yoga filters into everything I do and I didn’t need to go to India to get to this place. This place was already inside me. I just needed to journey inward. Every time I stand on mat and chant the invocation, I invoke Krishnamacahrya, Pattabhi, Tim, India and my own inner guru. I’m accumulating a little more dust on my lotus feet. The feet are the symbolism of the journey and so far I’d say that my journey has been pretty great right here in my own back yard.

Years ago when I was thinking about moving I asked my teacher Tim “Where should I go.” I said “I want to move somewhere where Ashtanga yoga is popular and booming.” and he said “Why don’t you go somewhere it’s not and bring it to life.” That’s what I have been trying to do for 8 years now in Charleston, SC. It has been a long, slow process, but right now I think we have a pretty darn great community, even if it is small. I appreciate each and every person that loves the practice as much as I do here in my small town some 7,000 miles away from India. The story goes that Krishamacharya daksha (payment) to his teacher was that he had to go out into the world and be a householder and teach yoga. I felt like Krishnamacharya when Tim said why don’t you take the road less traveled and bring Ashtanga yoga to people who haven’t experienced it. It’s what I’ll be doing today, tomorrow, and the day after that. It’s not easy, but if Krishnamacharya didn’t quit, Pattabhi didn’t quit, and Tim hasn’t quit, then neither will I. Even when it’s hard and I am feeling inadequate I just do what they have all done before me. Practice, Practice, Practice. As my teacher says “the only thing that removes doubt is experience.” I have that, 13 years strong. Today will be no different. “Ommmmmmm. Vande gurunam charanaravinde….

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Caution! Many distractions ahead!

People everyday hop into their 2,000 pound loaded weapon and drive it at 70 mph facing other 2,000 lb. weapons driving towards them at 70 mph with a small grassy space of approximately 15 feet between them. That requires a great deal of trust on each and everyone’s part. The preparation for this starts at age 15. At such a young age, and after only a few hours of study and practice they are unleashed on the world as acceptable drivers. It’s crazy how we are all so anxious to drive and explore the world thru these heavy machines that have the potential to become dangerous if not driven carefully. So to help us stay safe and limit the amount of damage such a large piece of machinery could inflict, the roads are riddled with all sorts of warnings to the dangers we face when exploring the world. There is the “Caution- slippery when wet” warning, the “curvy road ahead” warning, the “65 mph hour” warning, the slow down “school zone” warning, the caution “deer crossing” etc… If you have driven a car, you know this is just a small sampling of warnings available to us when behind the wheel. Even the cars we drive themselves have warnings. There are the brake light warnings, saying that “I’m slowing down”, the turn signal warnings, hazard light warnings signaling that “my car has broken down”, and the “Watch out! I’m backing up warning”. With so many warnings it’s amazing that we are so eager to drive and to commute in this chaos each and every day. Yet we can be so unwilling to listen to the many warnings that our body signals to us each and every day we venture out on our own two feet.

Yoga is a place where we become very good at interpreting all the unspoken warning signs that our body elicits. Here’s an example of a warning sign that the body might give: “Warning! Warning! You are carrying too much weight for the frame of your body”. What does this warning look like you might ask? Well it looks the same as a car carrying to much weight for it’s frame. It collapses, things buckle and the suspension looks shot. In humans it shows up as the classically buckled/knocked knee and flat foot. These people will make endless trips to the doctor pointing all the blame of this pain they are experiencing to their knees and none of the blame at themselves. I recently heard a great quote which said “be careful when you point your finger because there are still 3 pointing back at you.” If your knees are rubbing together when you walk it’s probably like driving around in a car with no shocks. I’d say that the cautionary sign this would equate to is “Caution! Falling rock!”. The sign I’m talking about warns you the earth has a possible tendency to collapse. The human frame when put under too much pressure also has the possibility to collapse.

Rocks Falling Symbol Sign

Our body warns us a lot like these signs do. The greater the risk the more warnings it sends us. Just like as the risk increases while driving they will warn us more frequently and intensely of the dangers approaching with bright colors like red’s and yellow’s, or by adding lights that blink, or even rumble strips. When we practice yoga we are being bombarded all the time with similar warnings’. Feelings that tell us to approach with caution, to slow down, to use our brakes, or to not ride to closely to the person in front of us. Sometimes when we practice yoga we are hot on the tail of the person in front of us. It’s as if we want to be better then them, faster than they are and we definitely want to get to the next pose first. Sometimes on our mats we never use our brakes. Instead we just jam our foot on the accelerator, even though the teacher reminds us that we have brakes available to us at all times. The external brake is Mula Bandha and the internal brake is humility. The teacher may pause class to discuss alignment and give cautionary warnings necessary for the next pose, and yet sometimes we choose not to listen and jump right into it with-out any guidance, because we must get there before anyone else. It’s like the people that see the speed limit is 65 mph but decide that they know best and that 80 mph is better. But is it safer?. We also know that to drive 80 mph makes us less fuel efficient. Why is efficiency so under-rated?

Efficiency doesn’t mean you work less, it means you work smarter. Efficiency is strongly associated with wisdom/knowledge. Yoga’s word for knowledge is vidya. Someone lacking it is experiencing avidya. Patanjali’s Yoga sutra 2.4 says – Avidya ksetram uttaresam prasupta tanu vicchinnodaranam translated – Ignorance is the root of all the causes of suffering, whether these are latent, feeble, intermittent or intense. Sutra 2.5 expounds by saying – Anityasuci duhkhanatmasu nitya suci sukhatmakhyatir avidya translated – Ignorance is confusion of the transitory with the eternal, the pure with the impure, pain with pleasure and the relative with that absolute. To work efficiently is what sutra 2.16 epitomizes – Heyam duhkham anagram – future suffering should be anticipated and avoided. That’s what all these warning signs when driving are trying to tell us. Avoid, or approach with caution the bridge that freezes before the road. Avoid, or approach with caution area’s of dense fog (not being able to see clearly should guide you to sutra 2.2 – Samadhi bhanvanarthah klesa tanukaranarthas-ca translated – The intent of yoga is to establish clear perception by removing the causes of suffering.) Avoid, or approach with caution, or at the very least, anticipate what lies ahead. These signs should allow you enough time to react accordingly and allow you to get to your destination safely. As sutra 2.26 says – Vivekakhyatir aviplava hanopayah – Discrimination is the method to end the confusion and bring clarity. If you can’t discriminate where the yellow line in the road is because it’s too foggy, rainy or snowy out, you just might end up in a ditch. When students approach asanas with-out caution they may experience this “falling in a ditch” by experiencing injury, jealousy or worse… narcissism. I heard this joke once that said “If you teach Ashtanga yoga you are narcissist, masasochist and sadist.” Good thing we have the sutras to keep us in line.

It’s important to listen to your teacher, they have traveled this road before. They should know it well and be able to point out to you all the hidden dangers (You should find out what your teachers credentials are). But even more important is to listen to your body. Listen when it says, slow down, approach with caution, turn on your brights to see better, or yield to oncoming ego’s. Become a responsive interpreter of your bodily sensations. Here’s a few of my interpretations; tightness means decelerate, dull pain means take a new route, pain means Stop! Now! Confusion means put on your hazards, ask questions and slow down. Fatigue means you should take the next exit and take a break (Balasana). Tension means take your foot off the accelerator. If you’re experiencing a bumpy ride, it means work with less effort. If your breath is spuddering, it means slow down, you are approaching a school zone. Remember to be a student and learn something new. Holding your breath during yoga is equivalent to stopping where there was only a yield sign. Falling out of poses means it’s time for a detour, you need a new approach. I could go on and on.

Left Winding Road Sign – Sharp Turn Sign

There will always be things that distract you. Why do you think the highway is littered with billboards? Because the mind is a fickle thing, easily tempted this way and that. Even though there are many roads that will lead you up the mountain, not all roads will get you there. If I walked across the United States, it would take me longer, but ultimately I would see so much more along the way and I could notice the details. Or I could drive at a high rate of speed and have it pass by my window as a blur. Take your time with your yoga. Listen to all the warnings. Each is a new detail about your body. Some practices will be 35 mph practices, while others will be 65 mph. As some roads can only be driven at 35 mph in order to be safe, so is true of your ever changing body and state of mind. It’s okay if someone seems ahead of you in yoga, maybe they had an earlier start. People have been ahead of you for centuries. You can not catch up to those that have a 10 year start over you. Let them carve the path that you and others can follow. Your teacher, and his teacher before him, and the one before that have cleared the way a bit by gathering the knowledge collected over centuries and sharing it with you. Trust the process, trust your teacher just as you trust all those people on the road. You trust everyday that they are driving with their eyes open. But just remember this is never blind trust. Always filter it first through your natural instincts. Be careful out there. Many obstacles lie ahead. It might be a bumpy road but “Practice and all is coming.”

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Ripe for the pickin’.

Do you remember your graduation from pre-school? Do you remember all the excitement about starting out the next year at a new school? Each year working your way up to the eventual end – graduation from college. Is it that there is an eventual end that keeps us on track? Is it knowing that at some point we will be given the reward of a title that allows us to keep our nose to the grindstone? What if there were no-end? If there were no diplomas, would you still work as hard as you do and for as long? Is it possible you would work even harder for less – less acknowledgement, less status, less pay? It seems as the human species goes, we do well with things that are going to end but we do terribly with things that have no end. If I told you that you only needed to do backbends 50 more times before you could spring right up out of it to standing, would you be willing to do 50 more? What if I told you it was going to take 100 more backbends, or 500 more? Would you still be as willing to do them? What if I told you all you were ever going to get out of yoga is a better night’s sleep? Would you do it, would you stick with it? I find the hardest part about yoga for some people is the endless effort that is needed without knowing what the results will be.

The most difficult sutra for a yogi says “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah” – Practice without attachment to a particular result. But if we are putting forth effort, aren’t we aiming for a particular result? Well, how do we practice with out attachment? We must practice patience. I do believe you will ultimately get any result you strive for with enough due diligence. In the same way that you eventually do get to enjoy a nice glass of wine. But keep in mind that wine was first a grape, or even further back a seedling. The process of making a good glass of wine takes a while. If you just consider alone the fact that it takes about 3 years to make a productive grape vine. Let’s not forget about all the TLC that is needed in that three year process to keep that vine healthy, pest free, frost free, drought tolerable, etc. Add to that how the soil had to be cultivated before the germinated seeds could be planted. Then of course, there is the harvesting, smashing, fermenting, bottling etc. It takes from 1 year to 5 years to make a bottle of wine, the extreme being 20 years with reds. If people were only willing to put that much time into their yoga practice. Just think of the limitless potential you could experience by allowing yourself time to mature into a yogi.

Patience. If you try Padmasana before it's time you might risk injury.

Patience. If you try Padmasana before it’s time you might risk injury.

A three year yoga practice could be like growing your deep roots and vines before you are ready to produce a mature fruit ripe for the picking. During that 3 year period processing what you’ve learned. Then you might be ready to be picked, pruned and overall cleansed of the fruit that might be weighing you down and that can be turned into something better. But even then, you might need to sit and contemplate your next phase of yoga, just like wine sits in the fermenting process. You must discard the waste before you can take on a new form – going from your solid state to a liquid state of being. In yoga, we are trying to become more fluid, to become sweeter, to become better with age. Each of us has the potential to add to this world something unique, something that comes from a good exploration process. If we walk away from yoga before the process has had time to really set in, we would be missing out on all the colorfulness that yoga brings to so many. With enough yoga we do become a lot like a red wine. Where it’s hard to get the stain of yoga out of our hearts, just like it is hard to get the stain of red wine out of carpet. Yoga leaves an impression, and a strong one at that, when practiced for years, not months.

Wine doesn’t make it to your lips without having a heritage. Most vineyards are centuries old. The craft being passed down from one generation to the next. The craft being refined with each year by experimentation. From when to pick the grapes, to what to add to the soil, to how the climate produced a specific result. When you are part of Ashtanga yoga, you become a part of that heritage. Yogis before you have experimented. They have refined the craft of Ashtanga yoga. You automatically get an umbilical cord to India. Just like wines have a particular flavor when they come from a particular region, you automatically step into a family tree with the great, great grandfather figures of Ashtanga yoga – Ramamohan Brahmachari, Krishnamacharya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Tim Miller. As each year of your practice goes by, you are becoming a bigger limb on this old, amazing family tree we call Ashtanga yoga. You are fertilizing the soil for the next crop of yogis.

So give yourself time. Don’t be in such a hurry. Be still. Stand in the sun. Receive from the earth what it has to offer. Be gentle when you prune back what you no longer need. Squish out all the flavor that yoga is giving you, and be willing to share it with others. Don’t hold back and don’t be shy to have your own unique flavor. Yoga makes us ripe for the picking. You just never know when you will be picked in life and for what cause. You might get picked to be a mother, you might get picked to be a cancer survivor, or you could get picked to be a civil servant, or picked to write a great novel. Whatever it is you get picked for, yoga will make you humble, sweet, patient, generous and RIPE.

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Bruce Lee would have loved Ashtanga yoga.

Surrender and come out with your hands up. That would be some great advice for how to begin a yoga practice. Surrender…ekam, inhale! There’s a lot of talk about surrendering in yoga, but I find that it is a concept that people can’t seem to grasp the meaning of. I have seen two very different types of people in yoga – those who try to force the body to surrender , with inappropriate effort, while paying no attention to their mind. Then you have those that seem to walk through the door already surrendered. These are the one’s that move their body around like limp noodles in yoga, while also paying no attention to their mind. Surrendering in yoga is not a physical act, but a mental state.

Yoga sutra 1.12 says “a steady practice, with non-attachment will stop the mind from fluctuating.” –   Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah. Bruce Lee, a great Martial Artist said that exact same thing this way:  “Any technique, however worthy and desirable, becomes a disease when the mind is obsessed with it.” Or he said it another way  “learn the principle, abide by the principle, and dissolve the principle.” He is saying, let go of everything you know, be open to what you don’t know. Now, there is this other  suggestion that is a short cut,  sutra 1.23 ” Isvara pranidhanat-va” – Or the goal can be obtained by surrendering. But sadly, the problem with surrendering is people take it to mean giving up, which seems negative. To give up, means that you are no longer moving forward. Stagnation is not the answer. Surrendering still creates movement, just not in a predetermined way.

I think of surrendering as giving in. Giving in, in yoga, is like going down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland. The garden is a representation of your mind, your “citta vrtti”. You must go into the garden/mind to explore what is in there. Yoga is the exploration of the mind. The mind has a lot of contradictions. Remember, at first Alice was too big to fit through the tiny door to the beautiful garden, so she drank from the glass and shrunk. But then, she was too small to reach the key on the table to unlock the tiny door to the garden. Too big/too little, too tight/too loose,  too strong/too weak; in one yoga class you might experience all of these contradictions. The way to not be plagued by these contradictions, is to be like water, to surrender.

Surrendering in Ustrasana.

Surrendering in Ustrasana.

Giving in, is what water does. Bruce Lee said “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.” By going inward with our attention, outward things start to make more sense. But, if we look outside to understand what we feel on the inside, it doesn’t translate. If you approach yoga this way, it becomes dangerous. It’s what happens to people when they take everything that their teacher says to heart and they never question it. That is just regurgitated information. You have to question what you hear, and look inward to see if it resonates with your truth. You must always stay individualized in your practice and never surrender to someone else’s information. Surrender to the translation of  the information. Take what you hear and feel, then dissect it until what’s left has been authenticated. Authenticity in your practice is when the truth has been established. Keep this yoga sutra in mind 2.36 “Satya pratisthayam kriya phala asrayatvam” – For one established in truth, the result fits the action.

The steel inside of  buildings has to give, the tires on our car’s have to give, the clothes we wear have to give, the trees in your yard have to give. If things don’t give, they break. To surrender, or to wave a white flag means that two opposing entities want a truce. It’s time to negotiate. I’ve always said that in yoga, your breath plays the role of negotiator. The breath is aways trying to be neutral to the opposing energies. We tend to come to yoga fairly exhausted because we are constantly being pulled in opposite directions, like when our work responsibilities butt up against our desire to play. This will create a feeling of conflict. So what better way to resolve conflict than to call a truce, to surrender and negotiate. Yoga helps you figure out what it is that will make you feel at peace, no longer conflicted. The physical practice of yoga will take your body back and forth between flexion and extension, between inhale and exhale. With this, you will start to find the balance point. Not contraction, nor relaxation but the two energies in harmony. Having both energies in harmony gives the body adaptability; fluidity like water. Water adapts to the shape of a glass, bottle, or bucket that its contained in.  You can either do the asana, or you can BE the shape of the asana.

Surrendering is also the process of letting go. Bruce Lee said ” In building a statue, a sculptor doesn’t keep adding clay to his subject. Actually he keeps chiseling away at the essentials until the truth of its creation is revealed without obstructions. Thus, contrary to other styles, being wise in Jeet kune-Do (or Ashtanga) doesn’t mean adding more; it means to minimize, in other words hack away the unessential.” Eliminate your preconceived ideas of yoga, eliminate how you think your practice will go, eliminate what you think a pose should look like, and surrender to how fast you think you should be progressing. Surrender doesn’t mean to give up, too quit, or to walk away. It means to let go of thoughts that limit you. Yoga is the practice of subtraction, learning to listen for the truth and eliminate everything that doesn’t align with it. In order to really call a truce,  you have to be willing to hear new ideas, and to be open, and receptive. If your going to surrender… you have to let go.

On a yoga journey not everything seen or heard will make sense. But if you take a rigid mindset into yoga, it will break you. Another great Bruce Lee insight is ” The softest thing can not be snapped.” Be willing to give in to new ideas, be willing to take out old ideas. Where there is a will, there is a way. If you are not willing to be any different than you already are, then don’t unroll your mat. Bruce Lee would have been a great ashtanga student and teacher. It’s no surprise to me that some of his greatest insights align with the yoga sutras. He was a disciplined man, a student of adaptability and a master of his craft. He realized that “A teacher must never impose this student to fit his favorite pattern; a good teacher functions as a pointer, exposing his student’s vulnerability (and) causing him to explore both internally and finally integrating himself with his being.” Keep it in mind that “The height of cultivation” whether cultivating awareness, flexibility or skill, “always runs to simplicity.”  So stand at the top of your mat and start by surrendering. Keep it simple. As Bruce Lee would  have advised “Be water my friend.”

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A to-do list.

I made a to-do list today. It had your normal things on it like: go grocery shopping, pay the bills, wash the dog, and buy stamps. Sometimes those lists can seem daunting. Now imagine  you had to put on that list “remember to breathe”…Thankfully, we don’t have to remember to breathe, or do we? Life begins on an inhale and ends on a exhale. You never have to tell your body to do it again, and again, and again. Can you imagine what life would be like if things in our body needed our attention for them to happen? What if you had to think when you wanted to put a shirt on: “I need to move my arms up above my head to put my shirt on.”,or  if you wanted to smile at someone: “I need to contract my facial muscles to smile”, or “I need to digest lunch now.”? You would be a wreck, trying to do all those things and everything else you are responsible for. Thank goodness, for the things that were ingeniously designed into our survival like breathing, and digesting, smiling and getting dressed. But oddly enough, we do forget to breath, not for long extended periods of time, but enough to interrupt our prana. Prana is our life-giving force.

Have you ever experienced having the wind knocked out of you? It’s frightening and terribly uncomfortable. It strongly invokes panic. You grab at your chest, and bug out your eyes while trying to engage everything you know about breathing as quickly as you can. But the reality is we don’t know that much about breathing. It’s instinctive. Or is it? Instinctive means it is an unconscious skill. This would explain why no one had to or could explain to you how to inhale at birth. It’s already written into our life manuscript. Even though it’s already written into to our behavior, we still can lose sight of its necessity and take on bad habits like shallow breaths and short, incomplete breaths. Sometimes we even go too far the other way where we are breathing too quickly and forcefully, like when we are scared. Our breath is strongly influenced by outside experiences. Which is why we have the ability to impact or breathing from the outside in, even though it happens from the inside out.

There is this expression that goes “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the number of moments that take your breath away.” Now why would we want our breath taken away? Because when those moments happen it means we have stopped, we have become fully present. You are never more fully present then when you stop your breath! Which is why yoga practitioners do their pranayama exercises. One of the exercises is to stop your breathing, briefly, but then overtime try to increase stopping it for longer periods of time. This stopping of our breath draws our attention very quickly to the here and now, allowing us to reflect on what’s really going on in that moment. What thoughts are going through us and what effect are they having on us physically?

But what about the moments in life that are more mundane and repetitive? And the way that we breathe into those situations. Those are the moments that are probably more detrimental then having the wind knocked out of you. Because those moments that you are not breathing fully, living present, those moments are like leaving a faucet dripping. You are just wasting your nectar, your ojas, your prana right down the drain.

It’s funny, because as I have been sitting here brainstorming and trying to write this, I have noticed that when I am deep in concentration, I stop breathing. This happens periodically and at other times I was breathing very shallow. If I do not become aware of these moments, what might happen? Well I think the most apparent physical response in our body to bad breathing is feeling tired, dull, maybe even depressed. To me, that’s why yoga and running feel so good. Because they are all about the breathing and my involvement with something that is unconscious in behavior. Both of those exercises take my awareness inward instead of outward. I feel after yoga and running, that I have cleared my head and that I am awake, vibrantly awake.

More moments in life should be like that. With our yoga practice we have the opportunity to take something that is instinctive and make it interesting. My teacher, Tim Miller says that “to be bored, is just a lack of interest.” So let’s make our breathing interesting. The breathing you do in a yoga practice should be done similarly to the way a scuba diver comes to the surface. If the surface of the water represents our mind, then we want to disturb it as little as possible. Breathing needs to be done slowly. You can not rise to the surface quickly in scuba diving or you’ll experience the bends, which is life threatening. Your very own breath begins to poison your blood. Is it possible that our poor breathing habits are poisoning our mind with, laziness, inertia, illness?

The sutra’s talk a lot about breathing, but there is that one that mentions the poison’s of our mind, the “halahala” of our life. Sutra 30, Chapter 1. Vyadhi styana samsaya pramada alasya aviriti bhrantidarsana alabdhabhumikatva anavasthitatvani citta viksepah te antarayah – the obstacles that distract the mind are illness, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, overindulgence, illusion’s about oneself, lack of perseverance, and instability. Breathing with awareness has the ability to impact all of these afflictions. Breathing with awareness exposes things that might be subtle and constantly ignored by lack of awareness. As sutra 12, Chapter 2 says, “Klesa mulah karma asayah drsta-adrsta janma vedaniyah” – Acts stemming from mental disturbance leave imprints that always show themselves in some form or other, visible or invisible. That should probably say conscious or unconscious. Yoga takes us to what is unconscious, to the things that are buried deeply and very subtle. So what we are looking for in our breath are the things that cause the breath to shift in any way, shape, or form. So in a way, you do need to put breathing on your to do list. Or at least put breathing practice on your list each day, to reflect on the things that might be disturbing your prana. If you make time for this it will give time back to you by giving you more energy, health and stability.

Urdhva Padmasana.

Yoga is the best way to do a breathing practice. To push your body in and out of postures a few times a week and to watch closely the fluctuations that come up, like the bubbles that come to the surface from the breathing tank of a scuba diver. Our mind ripples easily. Luckily yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind through pranayama and meditation/observation. A scuba diver must wear a heavy tank of air to breath underwater. But this is not how we should feel when walking around in our body. Let’s not get to a place where breathing feels difficult and tiring. Let’s let our breath be liberating. Let’s make breathing our lifeline to the here and now. When ever you are feeling overwhelmed, let you breath draw you inward to the present. Let’s not add anymore then what we already have on that to-do list. Be grateful breathing happens without your thought, but that when you do bring it to your attention you are forever reminded to live a life that is taking your breath away. Away to the now, which is where life IS happening.

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“When-to-say-when”

Our country has a “say when” problem. It’s something I am reminded of every Tuesday evening in my neighborhood when people put their trash out for the week. Trash just seems to over-flow. Don’t even get me started on the fact that some people aren’t making an effort to recycle. This “when-to-say-when” problem exist in other ways. Credit card debt is a great example of, yep you guessed it, they didn’t say when to the fact they had no more money. “When-to-say-when” is showing up in the form of obesity, too. People are not realizing when they are full, and so they keep eating. People keep buying more, and more, and can no longer park their cars in their garage. We are overflowing in our homes, bodies and trash cans. We are living in a world where we feel pushed all the time for more, and more. So it’s no surprise to me that the “when-to-say-when” shows up in the yoga room. Yoga is where I would like to address the problem. As I am not a financial advisor and I am not a dietary expert. When is enough…ENOUGH?

It’s all about what you grasp and and how you grasp it.

Aparigraha – Grasping would be the word yoga would use to describe this affliction. The sutras advise us on grasping in the yama’s, the 1st limb of the ashtanga yoga system. Sutra 30, Chapter 2 says “Aparigraha sthairye janma kathamta sambodhah” – For one who establishes a non-grasping attitude gains a deep understanding to the meaning of life. Holy crap, that’s a big one. Aren’t we all searching for the meaning of life? Well, I’ll tell you this; The meaning of life is not greed. We are not here to strip the earth of all it has to offer. We are not here to strip each other of the light we were all born with, and we are definitely not here to strip our body of its vitality.

But we are stripping our body of its vitality (prana). What we put in our body, what we do to our body, and what we think about our body can either be good for us, or bad for us. What we really need to come to understand, is there is a great benefit to emptiness. That it is ok for our bellies to be empty. It’s definitely ok for our minds to be empty. That is why a meditation practice is so good for us. It gives us time to clean out some of the clutter in our mind. Just like not eating for a while allows our body to become empty, and allows digestion to take a break.

What about what we do to our body? You might think I mean to suggest doing nothing, in the case of our body. On the contrary, we need to move our body to empty it of past scars, patterns (samskara) and waste. But even in yoga people come at their practice with greediness. They want to be able to do this pose, and to do it now. Like the girl from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, Violet Beaureguard, who turns into a giant blueberry from her greediness. “I want it, and I want it now!” That kind of thinking in yoga will likely lead you to injuries, fatigue and even disinterest. Burn out is a great example of greediness (aparigraha).

People walk away from yoga all the time and they say things like, I got bored, or I don’t have time anymore. If you have ever fasted, you are blown away by how much time you get back in your life when you are not eating food, preparing food, buying food, and even thinking about food. At least that’s what I learned from the two fasts that I have done. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t eat, that would be crazy. What I am saying is we can eat less, spend less and we can always make time for things we value the most. As far as boredom and yoga, I don’t understand it. Because for as long as I have been at this, I have never been bored. Ever! I find my body interesting and always changing. There are ways to keep things interesting though; things that can stave off the boredom excuse, practice at a new time of day, try a new teacher, or better yet, realize that your boredom might be a reflection of your will power. Your ability to see things through, even when they can become as routine as brushing your teeth.

If some of the people that walked away from yoga were willing to tell the truth, they would probably tell you it was because it became confrontational. Things weren’t happening as they wanted, on the time line that they were trying to control. By doing yoga, I have learned how much I try and control everything. There are the graspers/over indulgers, the lazy/lack of perseverance and then those that are steadfast and diligent.  The graspers are going to run into injuries and resistance, and the lazy/lack of perseverance will run into boredom and slack, the kind of slack that allows you to “cut yourself some slack” for not practicing. The diligent/steadfast type will embrace the practice with humility and become willing to relinquish their control.

Yoga is a process, and usually a slow process. There will probably be a handful of poses you will excel at right at the start, but the rest will take time. I like to say, “Your body didn’t get this way over night.” The tightness, weakness, and instability crept in when you forgot to make time for your health. (If you don’t believe me, read my  blog called “Paying it forward.” ) What are we willing to sacrifice time for; people will wait in line for hours to get the new i-phone, or to see the latest trilogy movie, spend hours tailgating before the big game, or camp out in chairs in 32 degrees for black friday shopping deals so they can cram their houses, garages, body and wallets with greed. If we don’t make time for our body it will break down and the wheels will fall of, so to speak. It’s amazing how quickly people will get to a doctor when that happens, and then want someone else to fix what they broke.

It’s time to eat less, spend less, buy less, throw away less and do more. More yoga, more meditation and most of all more reflection on why you roll two full garbage cans to the curb? Why do you have to work more to pay off greater debt? Why do you have an injury that won’t go away? Why do you need to buy more clothes, because you’ve out grown the old ones? Why do you need to take more pills to fix the things that are failing you? If you could just make a little more time in your life for exercise, stop making the excuses, don’t over do it and see it thru even when it gets hard, boring or routine, you would be doing yourself, your family, your employer and the earth a great favor. The new year is fast approaching, don’t make the promise that this year you’ll do this, wake up tomorrow and make it a lifetime commitment, not a January one.

Let this yoga sutra guide you. Sutra 30 Chapter 1 –  Vyadhi Styana Sansaya pramada alasya avirati bhrantidarsana alabdhabhumikatva anavasthitatvani citta viksepah te antarayah – The obstacles that distract the mind are illness, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, overindulgence, illusions about oneself, lack of perseverance and instability. If you are struggling with “when-to-say -when”, then you just need to look at the “when” as ” Now”. As the very first yoga sutra says “Atha yoganusanam.” – Now, yoga.

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Having the time of my life.

Pattabhi Jois, or affectionately called Guruji!

Many would agree that the Grandfather of Ashtanga yoga was Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, or affectionately called, Guruji. He kept time for Ashtanga for over 80 years. According to the stories my teacher tells, at age 13 Pattabhi ran away to take up study with Sri Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was the keeper of time for yoga before Guruji. If you take to Ashtanga yoga now, you are then keeping time for the system. The Hindu Goddess Kali, the mother of time knows that we all want more of it. Why then do we treat time so cruelly? Wasting time? Some people keep time with grace and ease. From all the stories I have heard of Pattabhi Jois, he did just that. At 80 years old, he looked just as strong as 20 years earlier; assisting the many yogi’s that would line up at his door in Mysore, at all hours. So why are so many killing time, running out of time and forgetting that time can be on their side?

Yoga reminds me to appreciate the time I have and to choose more wisely how I use it. It helps me to slow down and be more present. When we are present we are using our time the way it was intended. When we dwell on the past, or worry about the future, we are trying to manipulate time, to control time, or steal time. The best way to understand time is to know that time has a rhythm. It’s that perpetual tick, tock that time functions on, an even swinging motion that allows time to stay balanced. So, if it is balance that we are looking for, then maybe we should learn more about time.

Pattabhi did so much for Ashtanga for 80 years. He was steadfast in his teaching. His presence in the community reached all corners of the earth, and when he spoke of yoga it was clear and precise. Now the job falls on the fathers and mothers of ashtanga yoga, which would be people like my teacher ,Tim Miller. He has been teaching what he learned from Pattabhi for 32 years. This time line falls on me as well because of the 12 years I have studied with Tim.

Some yogi’s these days are taking up with new teachers and new styles of yoga every few months. Not seeing any one thing through for very long. That would be like a child being relocated to a new home every few months, breaking up the opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than him or herself. What’s bigger then the individual self? Family. Family becomes a network of people that you can go to, to help you feel your roots, for what grounds you. The great thing is we are born into a family, but we can also make a family  by the company we keep. The Ashtanga community does this very well. Whether we take study with Richard Freeman, Eddie Stern or Tim Miller, we still feel like a family because all these great teachers studied with the grandfather of Ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois. I am reminded of the family that I am a part of every time I go study at Tim’s studio in California. As I am surrounded by so many dedicated yogi’s. We are sharing our struggles and triumphs together.

Pattabhi was such a good teacher and such a good man that the one thing he really seemed to bring about amongst all his students is respect. All the great teachers of Ashtanga yoga seem to respect each other. For the 12 years that I have studied with Tim, I have never once heard him speak ill of another teacher. If anything, he almost always seems to give props to other teachers, especially in their differences. I think this kind character is why I continue to study with him.  I think this is partly a side effect of Tim having had such a great teacher himself. From all the stories I have heard and books and articles I have read about Pattabhi, he seems to have been a man of impeccable character and grace, with an amazing sense of humor and lightness of being.

I think Ashtanga yoga has this whole time thing pretty figured out. It takes time and lot’s of it to see the pay-off of yoga. I never understood my teachers statement that “Nobody should teach yoga until they had at least practiced consistently for 10 years.”. Now, I understand this statement. The amount of growth I have experienced in theses 12 years would be hard to show you. But I remember my struggles, and they leave me in a state of gratefulness. Grateful to have such great teachers, grateful for my health, and grateful to be wise enough to not take time for granted.

If time weren’t such a great teacher, I think the practice would be only 30 minutes or 40 minutes long, instead of an hour and a half. But I think the sequences were set up in such away to wean out those who aren’t willing to make time for their practice. Now that’s not to say that you can’t and won’t occasionally need to do a 30 minute practice. Most Ashtangi’s know what they have to sacrifice to roll out their mats. Time also teaches us by how our body changes over time.

Baddha Konasana.

Times greatest lesson is probably exposing impatience. Through my journey there have been several poses that I have become very impatient with. They were not progressing for me quick enough, which naturally pushed me towards aversion. Because these poses were so difficult and confrontational, I would rather not practice them. But I am grateful for my early wisdom to know that the only way I was going to improve in these poses was due diligence. My greatest teachable moments have come from  difficult postures like , baddha konasana, Marichysasana D, virasana and kapotasana. These poses marked milestones. Baddha konasana took 9 years to get my head and knees down. Marichysasana D took 3 years to bind, and somedays it can still be elusive. Virasana took about 4 years and kapotasana took about 10 years just to touch my toes. My teacher likes to call poses like this speed bumps, necessary intrusions to slow you down, to expose your grasping (aparigraha). I could have walked away when it got hard, but I didn’t. Time is what I have available and I’ll make good use of it.

It’s annoying that some poses come and go. The body is always evolving and changing. Some poses that were once easy become hard, and hard poses can become easy. These moments always make me chuckle. As we age through our practice, poses are bound to change. I find that I practice much slower in my home practice now compared to when I was 28. That is why Patanjali gives us the secret to the longevity of a yoga practice, sutra 12 chapter 1, ” Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah” STEADY practice, with non attachment, will stop the mind from fluctuating.” Steady like time. Not when it’s convenient. Not when it’s easy! Everyday consistently. Pattabhi knew this, Tim knows this, and I know this.

I heart Guruji!

It’s going to take me time to become half the teacher Pattabhi was. It’s kind of like marinating; the longer you soak in the juices, the more flavor you’ll have. All these great teachers are making the practice rich with history. Ashtanga has been around for almost 100 years, fairly unchanged. Each person that carries the flame of ashtanga in their heart is adding to the well spring of authenticity and history of this great practice. Each time we practice, it’s a way to say thank you to all the teachers of the system. Thank you for keeping time with such grace. Thank you for making our Ashtanga community a family that we can feel part of, even when we are rolling out our mats 3,000 miles from Tim’s studio, or 9,000 miles from the birth place of ashtanga yoga, Mysore, India. I feel connected to each and every person that is doing their part to keep Pattabhi’s work alive. I feel honored to be carrying this torch that has been carried by many. We are a family of great students and teachers. The light of this torch is dispelling darkness, with just a little yoga. I’m having the time of my life studying and teaching yoga. Light your flame, and don’t waste anymore time.

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We’re getting the bandhas back together!

Ugh Bandhas! For a yoga teacher, they are one of the hardest things to teach. For starters, you cannot show them to people. So You’re left with trying to explain something to people that on a day to day basis fluctuates a bit. Also, in the yoga world there’s this talk that you should be doing bandhas  24/7. That’s a tall order along with everything else we have to do. But they are interesting, and once you start to figure them out for the first couple of times, they actually become very intriguing. If you can execute them properly, they will make things easier. Maybe “easier” isn’t the right word. But instead, they will make things more accurate. Or an even better idea is they will direct your energy. When I do them to the best of my ability they seem to keep my practice on track, kind of like the way trains follow rails. But there definitely seems to be a learning curve to them. At 13 dedicated years of Ashtanga yoga practice, I think I’m still on that curve.

Chaturanga Dandasana. Holding it is a good bandha check.

It seems like with every new pose I take on in my yoga journey, there is a new process of learning how to use my bandhas properly. They are not as easily executed in every pose. Yes, for the most part they are an energetic movement that is inward and upward. I think of their engagement a lot like the way a suction cup engages to a surface. That when you engage your bandhas, in essence you are creating a sealing effect of keeping your energy secure, stationary. Once this seal or mudra has been executed, you then can work to direct your attention to the innate lightness we all are capable of. It’s as the yoga sutra’s say, Sutra 46 chapter 2, ” Sthira sukham asanam; a yoga asana should be steady (sthira) and at ease (sukham) at the same time.” But the most truthful part about that sutra is its order. Sthira is first, because you can not be at ease if at first you are not steady. A seal or mudra happens when two things come into agreement or alignment. Right? Your front door won’t seal closed if the door is not aligned?

I know if you translate the word “bandha” you actually get the definition as a lock, like a lock at a dam. A dam couldn’t work effectively if it didn’t seal properly. In my opinion “to seal” would be more appropriate definition. So how do you get this alignment to take place, to create this sealing sensation? Let’s be real. The bandhas are more sensation then they are an anatomical action. I mean don’t get me wrong, there are specific muscles involved. But even if you know definably which muscles to contract, does that then make bandhas automatic? Absolutely not. Especially interesting is that even when we do know which muscles to activate, we don’t tend to be the most adept species at things that are subtle. We are definitely much more in tune with gross movements. But that’s the beauty and the mystery of the bandhas. Which is that they, more than anything else in yoga, are teaching us about the subtle, sensitive, and more mysterious side of the practice.

Here’s another way that you can try to understand the use of bandhas in your practice. Have you learned yet how to drive a stick shift car? Just a sidebar: You should, because you never know when or why you might need to drive a stick shift car. What a process it is, right? Intimidating and yet so liberating once you master it. Well, bandhas are a lot like the clutch in the stick shift experience. You must learn how to operate it to get the car in gear and maneuver your way through traffic. Seems like it should be an easy enough process, but using two feet and one hand, all coordinated together turns out to be a lot harder then you would think. Sounds like the things we do in yoga. Sometimes yoga and stick shift driving have that feeling of trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time.

You first have to take your foot off of the brake to get anywhere. In yoga, for some of us that means getting the “I can’t” thoughts out of our way. Doing yoga thinking “I can’t” is a lot like driving your car with your foot on the brake. Then you have to push down on the accelerator while easing off the clutch smoothly at the same time. If not, you will bounce the car forward or stall out completely. They are subtle movements, it requires a sensitivity of how much to release the clutch and how much to push the accelerator. You might think of the clutch as the mula bandha and the accelerator as uddiyana bandha. They must work in unison. You can’t have one with out the other, and you must first engage the one before you can effectively engage the other. In yoga, mula bandha is sometimes called the roots and uddiyana bandha is called the wings. You could say then that mula bandha is the element of sthira and uddiyana is the element that creates the ease of execution, sukham. Just like you have to ease off the clutch and push down on the accelerator.

What’s interesting, is when you first learn how to drive a stick shift car, you are taught on a flat surface because it’s easier. But then when it’s time for you to refine your stick shift driving skills, you have to try it on an incline. It is a whole lot harder to know what degree of effort to apply to the gas and how much to release the clutch, all at the same time while  worrying about drifting backwards. The smaller the hill the easier to figure out. Just like the easier the yoga asana, the easier it is to activate your bandhas. But the more things in an asana that you have to pay attention to, the harder it seems to be to remember to engage your bandhas. You put people upside down in yoga and it seems that the last thing on their radar is bandhas. Lucky for them, bandhas automatically engage a bit when inverted, not completely though. Asking people to engage their bandhas when attempting a new, more advanced asana is a lot like trying to ask the driver to take their foot off the brake when sitting on a steep hill, in a stick shift car.

Sometimes we might accidentally let our bandhas out, and then our energy flows but without any guidance. However, we need to have the ability at a moment’s notice to activate the bandhas and get our energy and attention back on track. First, learn how to find and use your bandhas in easier poses, then as you advance you will know what to do with them. Bandhas are much more fun when we know how to use them to make our practice freer and lighter.  Bandhas are most effective when activated together.

You may not remember this cartoon from the 1970’s; The Super Friends. It had these two characters named the Wonder Twins. According to wikipedia “The Wonder Twins powers are activated when they touch each other and speak the phrase, “Wonder Twin powers activate!” This phrase is unnecessary and just a habit of theirs. Physical contact, however, is required. If the two are out of reach of each other, they are unable to activate their powers. As they are about to transform, they would each announce their intended form. “Shape of…”, “Form of…”” Our Bandhas are a lot like that. They need to operate together .And when we do activate them, they allow us to take on new forms and shapes.

Me and my brother just before releasing the fish I caught the summer of 1980.

I’ll give you one more story of how I see the bandhas operating before letting you run off and experiment with the cause and effect of bandhas in your asana. Have you ever been fishing? When I was young and before many years of being a vegetarian, I went fishing a few times from a shore of  Lake Pymatuning, in Ohio. Nothing fancy. We used the worm, weight, and bobber system. In order to catch the fish we needed the worm to dangle below surface, so we put a tiny weight on the fishing line. Nothing that was too heavy that would cause the line to drop to the bottom of the lake, but enough weight to give the look of the worm dangling. Then a foot or so above that on the line we attached a plastic red and white bobber to allow the line to float so that we would be able to see when the fish took the bait. The weight on the line is your mula bandha and the bobber giving the line buoyancy  is uddiyana bandha. We must be grounded, but buoyant in our asana’s. Just as it can be tricky to catch a fish, it will be tricky to catch your lightness of being. As my teacher, Tim Miller says “somethings in yoga can be taught but other things must be caught.” Go fish for your bandhas. Be patient, be sensitive and don’t be too attached to your results. Sutra12, Chapter 1, “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah; Steady practice, with non-attachment, will stop the mind from fluctuating.” Just as I let go of all the fish I did catch, we need to learn to let go of our expectations. If you always want to go fish for the biggest fish out there, you might miss out on the beauty of the little one’s.

So let’s get the bandhas back together and make another great album. Maybe we’ll call this bandha album,  THE ROOTS and WINGS, or THE CLUTCH and ACCELERATOR, or  The WONDER TWINS, or The WEIGHT and BOBBER? But no matter what you know or think you know about the bandhas, they are definitely worth your consideration and examination. Whether you think of them as a suction, clutch, roots, wings, super hero powers, weight and buoyancy, or anything else creative you have heard, they are a necessary tool to the practice. Before you know, it you will be reeling in your bandhas. They will help create a greater mastery of the mystery.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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