• Posted on May 28th, 2013 Alice G. Walton 4 comments

    Eight Limbs of Yoga Samadhi

    People often joke that writing about samadhi, the eighth and final limb of yoga, is an exercise in futility – since words can’t convey the experience in any meaningful way, you might as well just leave a blank white page. To experience samadhi, which is sometimes called enlightenment, it’s often said that you lose your sense of self as separate from the other. The observer and the observed blend into one.

    Sri Swami Satchidananda writes that even he finds it hard to express adequately – to him, though, it’s a state that takes over after you’ve done the work (the preceding limbs) to get there. “There is not much I can say about this one… Nobody can practice samadhi. Our effort is there only up to meditation. You put all your effort in dharana. It becomes effortless in dhyana, and you are just there, knowing that you are in meditation. But in samadhi, you don’t even know that. You are not there to know it because you are that… In samadhi there is neither the object or the meditator.”

    It sounds like in samadhi you lose the “you” perspective, but you don’t lose consciousness (although that can happen, too, but that’s another story!). Figuring it might be less effective for me to write about samadhi, I thought it would be interesting to turn to the people who have commented along the way, and ask them to explain what samadhi is to them. Here’s what they said.

     * * *

    Beryl Bender Birch really emphasizes that the feeling of separateness between you (the observer) and what you’re observing disappears. “Samadhi isn’t something you can talk about, write about, or for that matter, even think about… Samadhi is an experience, and as such, can only be experienced…. It is the experience of yoga, that ‘ahah’ boundless, infinite moment when one answers the question, ko-aham, or ‘Who am I?’ Almost any book you can think of that attempts to explain the experience of enlightenment, doesn’t really explain it at all and ends up being a road map with directions on how to reach the destination… I think the best we can say about the experience is that it is a loss of individuality, of separateness, which is replaced by a boundlessness that goes beyond anything the mind is capable of understanding. It’s silly to even try to explain it. Just pay attention. Breathe in, breathe out. That’s all. If even for only a nanosecond, you’ll know it when you meet it.”

    Reverend Jaganath Carrera urges us to remember that we’re actually already enlightened – and it’s just a matter of peeling back the layers to realize it. “Samadhi is yoga’s technical term for higher states of consciousness,” he says. “Although there are several levels of samadhi, when we use the word alone, it usually refers to the highest samadhi, the state of enlightenment. We are already enlightened. It is our true nature to be so. We don’t really have to attain enlightenment, just realize it. But, what is enlightenment? To be enlightened means to be fully awake, to experience life and self without the filter of any conceptions, biases, or beliefs. To be awake is to experience our inmost nature, the core and source of our being – all being. It means to know our purpose and to be in tune with the flow of the divine will. When all the limitations of limited, ego-centered consciousness dissolve, when all barriers that separate us from each other and from nature, we experience oneness, the unity behind all diversity. It is pure love.”

    Linda Sparrowe expands on this point that the merging of perspectives doesn’t have to be you and the object of your meditation – it can be you and another being. “It all sounds so lofty and so impossible to attain, but we all experience precious moments of samadhi when we are fully present to and completely absorbed in whatever is happening. I had a wonderful experience years ago that illustrates this concept perfectly. In a Qigong class at the Chopra Center, I partnered with an older man who was dying of throat cancer. The assignment was to move to music together with our eyes closed. The teacher asked us to bring our hands close enough to each other that we could feel the energy, but not close enough that they touched. The music started to play, we closed our eyes, and we began to move, tentatively at first–hyper-aware of each other’s movements and needs. By the time the music ended and we opened our eyes, we both realized there was no separation between us–we were one entity. The music itself wasn’t separate; we had embodied it. We were the dance and the dance was us. Nothing in the universe existed outside of that experience. I can still feel that tender moment of true integration and bliss.”

    For Elena Brower, it’s even simpler. She finds Samadhi in the quiet moments, like ones with her son. “Just before bedtime, there is this moment with my son when the book is over, he puts his head down on my shoulder, takes a huge breath and says, ‘I love you, Mama.’ There is nothing else between us or around us aside from that connection, and that empty/full space for me is Samadhi.”

    Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT says she feels “a little presumptuous writing about samadhi,” but her feeling is that it’s about multiple, perhaps infinite, points of view all happening in concert. “Usually we just identify with our body and our particular ego’s point of view. But as one begins to experience life more often from the perspective of ‘the other’ through the arising of empathy and compassion, one is beginning to taste samadhi. As this process continues and grows in one’s consciousness, it is possible to experience the world from a wider and wide perspective. Maybe God is that consciousness which has all points of view from all aspects of the Universe at once. We have all had moments of an identification shift where we perceive the whole as one, and the one as the whole.”

    Samadhi can indeed come in bits and pieces – it doesn’t always have to be a momentous single experience, says Dinabandhu Sarley, and it’s something you can encounter more and more with time and practice. He says that “for a yoga practitioner in the 21st century, the important thing to realize is that while this is often described as a stable, non-changing state of consciousness, the typical seeker can actually access this phenomenon on a intermittent basis through their practice of yoga. You can access this both in your daily life and in your meditation or yoga posture flow… For those of us on the path, these intermittent and time-limited experiences of integration point the way and give us a sampling of who we truly are and what we might move towards in our practice. Small tastes of Samadhi form the milestones marking the path.”

    Ever the realist, Glenn Black cautions that though it may be magnificent to experience, even enlightenment won’t solve all your problems: “Samadhi, the eighth and last stage of Yoga, can never be explained. It is to be directly experienced after pratyahara, dharana and dhyana have been experienced, and they are not so easily attained either. In this age there are so many distractions that the same practices the sages did ages ago cannot possibly be as effective. I have taught and hung out with some people who have practiced seriously for decades and they still get angry. Ram Dass once said, ‘if you think you are enlightened spend a week with your family.’ There are some happy, peaceful and content people over there. Slap them upside the head and see what happens.”

    Brad Waites brings up an interesting point to leave on. He asks simply, why do we do it? Samadhi might blow your mind, but he wonders whether there isn’t something at least as important to aim for. “Should samadhi as traditionally defined still be considered the ultimate expression of the practice? Does it matter that an individual consciousness enters into samadhi if the rest of the world is left just as it is? Really, what has been achieved in the big picture? Sri Aurobindo spoke eloquently to this with his integral yoga, teaching that universal transformation, not individual enlightenment, holds the true potential of the practice.”

    Maybe it’s all just a matter of discovering the balance, where we can work on our own consciousness, but not forget that our relationship with others is at least as fundamental. It’s fitting then that the yamas, which are the guidelines for how we relate to others, are taught first, as the “roots” of yoga – and that samadhi, which teaches us that there’s not much, if any, separation between ourselves and others is the ultimate limb. There’s a lovely connection there, and the limbs of yoga truly come full circle.

    Have you experienced samadhi? What, to you, is the central goal of yoga? 

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.


  • Posted on May 7th, 2013 Alice G. Walton 1 comment

    Eight Limbs of Yoga Dhyana

    So here we are, at the penultimate limb of yoga. Dhyana, or meditation, is described as the “continuous flow of cognition” toward an object – the object being the one we’ve been concentrating on from the last limb, dharana. But as teachers will tell you, there are lots of ways to practice meditation, and as many different objects to focus your attention on – inward or outward mantras, the breath, a physical item, or nothing at all besides the space between your ears. Meditation is a spectrum in itself, and can fit all sorts of different definitions. So you don’t necessarily have to become “one” with the object of your attention (although it would certainly be nice to experience that from time to time). But rather, meditation can be as simple as spending a few minutes observing your mind every day, coming back to the same physical practice, or just spending a moment each day in appreciation of the universe.

    Sri Dharma Mittra of the Dharma Yoga Center in New York City, who’s taught students for some 45 years, says that what’s initially important is the coming back to – that return to something, every day or every week, whatever that something may be (within reason, of course). “All these are facets of concentration,” he says. “All of these are better than the other one where you just sit there and you don’t know where you are or what’s happening to you.” He talks about students who come to class every week without fail for over a decade, and of people who simply spend a minute of each day remembering god. “That is concentration,” he says. “That is the very definition of steadiness. So, to meditate is more about steadiness than it is about how you sit or the quality of your concentration or anything else. This steadiness in concentration brings fruits.”

    So that is one form of practice. Another way is, of course, to sit in stillness, or to “retire in solitude,” Sri Dharma says, which allows your brain to reboot. For this, he advises people to sit for five minutes and work from there, just being still and watching your mind as an observer. “It is in the absence of mental activities that you get recharged, that you come to operate on higher levels.” If your mind is just too restless and you can’t do it yet, not to worry – you can go back to concentrating on something specific, and work from there: “if you are not ready for this,” Sri Dharma says, “you may concentrate on a picture or a diamond, the sun, a flower, or anything. But, the best thing is to sit comfortably for this with the eyes almost closed. There you remain unconcerned, watching the activities of the mind… This is not this kind of meditation that you lose your consciousness. No, it’s just to sit quietly and keep watching, observing.”

    One of the loveliest points he makes is one that’s true when we’re meditating and when we’re not. He urges people to remember that “We are not the body or activities. So it is good always to sit quietly like a witness watching the activities of the body and mind. You realize through this that everything is passing away all the time.” The idea that we’re not our bodies, our reactions, or even our thoughts, is sort of mind-blowing, and it may be one of the most important messages that yoga can impart.

    So, however simple or barebones our practices may seem at first, the reality is that we can all meditate in some way. It’s not easy to quiet the monkey mind – and thankfully, everyone, even the most practiced teachers, agrees on that – but it gets incrementally easier the more you try. Sri Dharma ends by saying this: “Meditation is available to anyone regardless of where you are starting from. For those who are not in good physical condition, lie down. Lie down in a very comfortable position, but don’t fall asleep! And there you stay, also trying to be unconcerned just like a witness. All these techniques lead to what: for the mind to become sharp. And then you’ll be able to find answers.”

    How do you meditate? Do you notice that it gets easier over time? Please share your thoughts below.

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.


  • Posted on April 23rd, 2013 Alice G. Walton 5 comments

    Eight Limbs of Yoga Dharana

    The sixth limb of yoga, dharana, is affectionately referred to as “concentration.” It’s a limb that can get overlooked as either unimportant or too difficult to bother with, especially since its fuller, less tangible translation is “the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.” This conjures up images of master yogis staring at objects until they’re “one” with them. And while there can be some truth to this scenario, it’s not entirely accurate. Dharana, in reality, is one of the most important parts of yoga there is, and learning how to practice it (because it is definitely a practice) may be one of the most worthwhile things we can do for our brains.

    This is party because dharana and the next limb of yoga – dhyana, or meditation – are two sides of the same coin. Conceptually they can be separated, but in practice, that makes less sense. Dharana, at its very heart, can be thought of as the work it takes – the practice – to get your mind to the point where it’s ready for meditation. So dharana isn’t so much the state of concentration, but it’s more the act of brining your “monkey mind” back to whatever it is you’re focusing on. Again, and again, and again.

    Many yogis say that for beginners, choosing a thing to focus on, rather than an idea, is the way to go. The object can be a physical object, the breath, or an oral mantra. The idea is just to have something outside yourself that serves as a point to draw the attention toward. “I usually recommend practicing in the morning, before you get into the machinations and manipulations of your daily life,” says Thomas Amelio, managing director of the Open Center in New York City. “I recommend setting a timer – just to 10 or 15 minutes if you’re beginning – so you don’t have to think about it. Pick something to concentrate on, and try it for a few weeks or months.”

    Most people, including Amelio, know that this is easier said than done. The problem is that the mind goes where it wants. So while the idea of intently focusing on, say, a flower is all well and good, the mind is naturally going to wander away from it, especially at first. Swami Satchidananda writes about a funny scenario that we’ve all experienced in some iteration, where a person is trying to practice dharana with a rose. “As you look at the rose,” he writes, “the mind will try to go somewhere. The minute you begin, the mind will say, ‘Ah, yes, I remember she sent me a rose like that for my last birthday.’… And then, ‘After that we had dinner. Ah, it was the best dinner. Then we went to the movies. What was that movie? King Kong?’ It will all happen within two minutes. Even less than two minutes. So, on what are you meditating now? Not on a rose, but on King Kong.”

    Because just about everyone experiences the unwelcome King Kong meditation, Amelio says he usually recommends practicing dharana with a mantra, since “it gives you something – a vibration – to focus on. And an internalized mantra can actually be more powerful than an oral one because you’re occupying your mind. If you’re repeating a mantra aloud, you can still be thinking about what you’re going to wear to work the next day. But an internalized one takes up that space.”

    If you’re not using a mantra, though, and you’re practicing concentration with an image or an object, the most important thing to remember is that the goal is in the practice. Bringing the mind back to the rose – as many times as it takes – is what dharana is all about. Satchidananda points out that the practice of dharana is not concentrating on the rose – it’s the act of redirecting the mind, again and again. He writes, “This very practice itself is called concentration: the mind running, your bringing it back; its running, your bringing it back. You are taming a monkey. Once it’s tamed, it will just listen to you. You will be able to say, ‘Okay, sit there quietly.’ And it will. At that point you are meditating. Until then you are training yourself to meditate. Training your mind to meditate is what is called dharana.

    Finally, it’s worth pointing out that dharana can help us with our focus in any walk of life, not just when we sit down to meditate. Amelio stresses the fact that there’s just something innately gratifying about focusing intensely on something – like getting lost in a book or abandoning yourself to the beauty of the ocean. “People often feel that they’re scattered in day to day life,” he says. “They get taste of dharana and they’re surprised. Concentration gets easier as you practice it. It’s joyous to concentrate on something, there’s pleasure in it. When you get familiar with dharana, the mind becomes a much less restless place to be.”

    Have you practiced dharana? What do you find is the most effective way?

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.


  • Posted on April 2nd, 2013 Alice G. Walton No comments

    8limbs_pratyahara

    Pratyahara is the fifth limb of yoga, and it’s usually translated as “withdrawal of the senses.” The limbs from here on out are starting to feel a little less familiar, and maybe a little more intense (read: intimidating?). But the beautiful thing is that they’re actually pretty accessible, even if you’re just “going there” for the first time. As many yogis and scholars have pointed out along the way, there really is a very natural and scientific progression across the limbs, moving from body (asana) to breath (pranayama) to senses (pratyahara) to mind (the last three limbs). And you may not realize it, but pratyahara is actually something that you’ve probably already practiced somewhere along the way.

    Here’s where: Most yoga classes end with savasana, or corpse pose, and for this period of time, you’ve likely experienced some form of sensory withdrawal. Many teachers dim the lights and ask students to relax deeply, and just sort of…exist. When you’re lying in savasana, with your eyes closed and your breath slow, it’s very easy to bring attention inward and be less attuned to what’s going on around you – and this, in essence, is pratyahara. If you’ve been in this state, you might feel as if there’s a layer of distance between your senses and your surroundings: You might still register sounds in the studio, the temperature of your skin, your position on the mat, but you respond to them less. It’s as if you’re a little removed from your senses, not flush up against them – and for a true meditative state, this is a key element.

    Because my experience with pratyahara had been mostly unintentional up till now, I spoke again to Patton Sarley, former head of Omega Institute and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Life to understand more about what it actually is. True pratyahara, he says, requires deep relaxation, not only physically, but neurologically. The physical relaxation comes first, so that the mental state can follow. This is why savasana is done at the end of class: After 90 minutes of asana, and hopefully a little pranayama, the body is usually very ready to go into this state. “Once you’ve relaxed deeply, and are in an open, alert state,” says Sarley. “You’re in a position to be alert to your inner energy. What we’re essentially doing by relaxing into pratyahara is reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to take over.”

    In other words, we’re turning the stress response off and allowing the relaxation response to kick in. Bringing the senses inward follows naturally: Just think how when you’re stressed, you’re in a state of hyper-vigilance, and your senses hyper-attuned to your surroundings. On the flipside, relaxing completely allows your senses to take a break, and withdraw themselves, as it were.

    To be sure, this isn’t a practice that we can do walking down the street or riding the subway – it wouldn’t be very safe to do so. Sarley recommends that pratyahara be done intentionally as part of your practice at home, in nature, or in class. In fact, he makes the excellent point that pratyahara almost can’t be understood without the following two limbs, which are dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation). These three limbs together make up a trilogy of sorts, which is tightly and logically connected: Once we withdraw the senses, then we can focus our attention in concentration, and ultimately allow the mind to meditate.

    A couple of points of caution about what pratyahara isn’t. Most people have probably had the experience of being so caught up in your own thoughts that you miss what’s going on around you. The other day, waiting for the train, I so completely wrapped up in my own contemplations that I missed a train announcement and probably a whole lot of other things that happened around me. Needless to say, this kind of withdrawal of the senses is not pratyahara.

    A related point, also worth mentioning, is that pratyahara is not a way to intentionally cut yourself off from the world or to use as a form of escapism. It definitely shouldn’t involve self-centrism. Sarley points out that “Yoga and narcissism can, unfortunately, go hand-in-hand. The self-referential processes can become pathological. And this is not at all what pratyahara, or any part of yoga, is about.”

    In contrast, yoga should do the opposite, and it’s generally extremely good at this – at quieting down those “self” centers of the brain. But sometimes in practices where we’re focusing intently on ourselves, even in the name of self-improvement and peace, we can a little get self-centered at first. Pratyahara is just about quieting down and being less distracted by our senses, so that we can be more open to the good stuff that’s inside. “The senses are like a mirror,” Satchidananda writes in his Sutras book. “Turned outward, they reflect the outside; turned inward, they reflect pure light…. when allowed to turn outside they attract everything and transfer those messages to the mind, making it restless. Turned inward, they find peace by taking the form of the mind itself.”

    Have you experienced pratyahara in your own practice? How would you describe what it feels like? And does it help you prepare for meditation? 

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.


  • Posted on March 19th, 2013 Alice G. Walton No comments

    Eight Limbs of Yoga: Pranayama

    The goal of the fourth limb of yoga, pranayama, is to gain control of the breath. The Sanskrit term “prana” actually refers not only to the breath, but also to the life force, or to energy in a larger, more cosmic sense – gain control of the breath, and you gain access to a sort of cosmic energy. But the practice of pranayama doesn’t have to be thought of as a way to connect to a larger energy (although it certainly can be, if that’s helpful to the individual, and it is for many). At a much more literal level, pranayama is just an incredibly effective way to become more aware of your own bodily reactions to the things that trigger you into stress, negative thoughts, even despair. Learning how to change your breath actually allows you to halt (and redirect) that stress reaction, which is “turned on” all too often for many of us.

    For a long time, I actually thought breathing exercises sounded kind of hokey. Breathing itself seemed like an arbitrary bodily process to pay attention to (I mean, why not pay attention to eye-blinking, or any other sort of physical pattern?). But I’ve since learned what any yogi or scientist will tell you: Breathing is truly unique in that it’s the only bodily process that lets us gain access to – and control of – our brains. And importantly, for some of us more than others, this lets us have some element of control over our stress responses and our reactions to the world around us.

    Rolf Sovik, PsyD, the president and spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute, agrees that “the importance of breath work in yoga and in human life can hardly be over-estimated. Normal, automatic breathing is governed by cells in the brain stem. These cells propel breathing by adjusting its style, pace, and volume. Breathing is also affected by emotion, pain and stress. And, of great significance, breathing is the only autonomic system that permits conscious access. That means that through breath training, a practitioner can gradually gain the ability to restore nervous system balance during times of stress, and use the breath as a focus for attention.” Controlling the breath allows us to take matters into our own hands, dialing down the sympathetic nervous system (the one charged with the “fight or flight”/stress response) and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which calms us down after a stressful encounter).

    Another way of thinking about it is that breathing helps strengthen the connection between the body and mind: In this case, it’s through the one we have access to the other. That’s a lot of what yoga is all about, reconciling the “divide” between gross and subtle – and doing physical things (like breathing and asana) is often the easiest way to gain access to the mental ones. Sri Swami Satchidananda even asks, “which is subtler, mind or breath? Which is easier to handle, a subtle thing or a gross one? Always the gross thing.” As we become more experienced in our practice over time, we can rely less on the physical methods, and more on the mental ones. But for people just getting into the limbs of yoga (like me), it’s a little easier to work on the physical methods.

    There are a lot of different practices in pranayama, from observing the breath, to training it, to retaining it for some length of time. For most of us, the simpler ones are probably the most powerful and the safest. To start out, Sovik recommends relying on the natural patterns: “Breathing practices are most helpful when they arise from the spontaneous flow of normal, relaxed breathing,” he says. “It is a process that evolves over time and emphasizes smooth, deep, diaphragmatic breathing.” He recommends beginning breath training in one of two reclining poses: corpse pose or crocodile pose. (Here’s a more in-depth description by Sovik of how these poses can help with deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Also see YogaGlo’s collection of classes on pranayama.) Having a teacher who can help you with more advanced forms is generally a good idea.

    Sovik stresses that pranayama should really be about getting in touch with something visceral and learning how to work with it – it’s not about teaching the body something new or unnatural. “Frequently, breathing techniques lead to over-control and a sense that the life force can be governed mechanically. Ultimately,” he adds, “the effort to control the breath is not robotic but a natural stage in the meditative process.”

    So here’s to breaking misconceptions. Pranayama isn’t hokey, mysterious, or mechanical. It’s actually quite simple and natural, and it may be the single best physical tool we have to gain some access to our minds. Offering some perspective on how the limbs of yoga relate to one another, Satchidananda sums up the transition across the eight limbs in this way: “first we learn to control the physical body, then the movement of the breath, then the senses, and finally the mind. It is very scientific, gradual and easy.”

    Does your yoga practice include pranayama? Do your teachers integrate it into their classes?

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.


  • Posted on March 5th, 2013 Alice G. Walton 3 comments

    8 Limbs of Yoga: Asana

    For most of us today, the third limb of yoga, asana – the poses or postures – is the essence of the practice. Asana is borne of down dogs, alignments, up dogs, chaturangas, warriors, twists, and trikonasanas. To most practitioners over the centuries, though, it’s not. And this is where the discussion really gets interesting. Instead of debating the benefits of kundalini vs. yin yoga, or trying to figure out where our heels should be for perfect warrior II, a better question might be, “Why do we do asana at all?” And even better, “Why do we think this is yoga?”

    In the last series, some very clever people weighed in about the evolution of yoga, and how it had to morph itself into somewhat of a different beast, to assimilate, as it were, into the Western world. If you read Patanjali’s Sutras, though, there’ s not much discussion of asana, and certainly not much about specific poses. DevarshiSteven Hartman, who’s Dean of the Pranotthan School of Yoga and the former head of Kripalu’s School of Yoga, points out, “in the Bhagavad Gita and the Sutras, it says there are as many poses as there are manifestations of god. It sort of makes you go ‘Hmm. What’s yoga then?’ These texts don’t talk about poses or alignments. But there’s an awful lot about how to BE in a pose. And this is more to the heart of yoga.”

    So why do we hang on the idea that yoga is physical, or that asana is yoga? Glenn Black, who’s taught for over 30 years at Omega Institute, was featured in the much debated New York Times article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” and has seen, in decades-worth of students, how yoga can, actually, wreck your body. Part of the problem, he says, is that Westerners are simply not prepared – in body or in mind – for practicing yoga, and certainly not for the rigors of the physical practice that today we call yoga. He points out that the practice we think of as yoga is really quite young, and it’s certainly not part of the millennia-old tradition that originated in India. But, physical risks of yoga aside, he still questions seriously, as hopefully more and more burgeoning yogis are beginning to, the value of a purely physical practice.

    “Basically, the asana that’s taught here now is Indian gymnastics,” he says. “Americans who get into yoga are going to have a difficult time, because our bodies were never prepared to do intricate movement. I find that in most Western cultures, we’re so enamored of anything physical. And maybe it’s because of this that we tend to negate the subtler aspects of own bodies and minds. I don’t know why in the West we got so fond of the asanas. I don’t think they allow us to go into regions of ourselves that we really need to explore.”

    For him, Hartman, and most of the yogis who have commented along the way, getting in touch with our awareness – some would call it mindfulness – is a step in the right direction. Black also recommends learning from a teacher how to experience yoga nidra, which is a kind of in-between consciousness – a state of deep relaxation, literally translated at yogic sleep. This, for him, is leaps and bounds more useful than asana alone.

    Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, Black also recommends that people get away from yoga classes a bit. “Go to nature – a stream or a mountain – and just practice. Find two or three things, and go into them deeply. Otherwise it’s just talk. You have to attain the condition yoga nidra, so that the stress you’ve accumulated will be alleviated, and, more important, new stresses won’t gather back up.” He says one of the big challenges of yoga today is that we may feel great when we practice and shortly afterwards, but the benefits of yoga too often wear off when we find ourselves back in the real world, amongst our everyday stressors, cell phones, and other attachments. Redistributing our time, so that more is spent regularly in yoga nidra or meditation, might make a big difference to our overall mental health.

    Hartman agrees that we often make strange assumptions about asana, or ask the wrong questions of it. “The real issue is, what really makes something yoga, if it’s not the asana? And the answer might be, it’s who we’re being in the asana. The physical practice is just one method, just like pranayama, or any of the yamas or niyamas. Many great yogis don’t even do asana; and they’ll be enlightened way before people who do great backbends.”

    If this sounds discouraging, it shouldn’t. Like sex or pizza, even a bad yoga class is still pretty good. “Luckily,” says Hartman, “even when done poorly, when the yoga teacher doesn’t do anything but walk around barking commands, students can still gain awareness from the practice. This is the great thing about asana – it still opens the door.

    “True alignment is not where toes are,” he continues. “It’s when the consciousness, the body and mind, and awareness are in alignment. That’s what it’s all about. To me, the real yoga is when you create awareness, authenticity. Asana is prayer in motion. That’s where we should be moving.”

    None of this is meant to say there isn’t value in asana, but just to remind us that asana is not the centerpiece of yoga – it’s just one piece. Hartman sums it up well: “Awareness is really what makes the difference in yoga. If you’re doing a handstand with no awareness, you’re just an athlete. But the person washing the dishes with awareness – that’s a yogi.”

    What are your feelings about asana? Is it the center of your practice, or do other aspects/limbs play a more principal role?

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.


  • Posted on February 19th, 2013 Alice G. Walton 7 comments

    Eight Limbs of Yoga: Niyamas

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The fifth and final niyama, ishvara pranidhana, is the queen mother of all the restraints and observances that serve as the roots of yoga. In fact, The Yoga Sutras translator Sri Swami Satchidananda says that if you can master this one, there’s no need to read any more of the Sutras because you’ll already have attained samadhi, the state of oneness which is the final limb of yoga. He defines ishvara pranidhana like this: “By total surrender to God, samadhi is attained.” If this sounds foreign, or the reference to God makes you nervous, read on: You don’t have to be religious to “get” ishvara pranidhana, you just have to be willing to look outside of yourself.

    Luckily, this is something most of us know on a gut level we need to do to be happy and at peace with ourselves. In fact, everyone from yogis to neuroscientists agree that stepping outside of ourselves is the key to happiness.

    Surrendering ourselves to something bigger than us – whether we call it God, nature, or the universe – is at the heart of ishvara pranidhana. We spend so much of the day in our own heads, listening to the endless chatter of our thoughts, and flitting from one worry the next. This pattern is so ingrained in us, but it’s almost always in an effort to control our circumstances and gauge how we’re doing. But relinquishing this control (or, as some would say, our false sense of control) to something bigger than ourselves is the goal.

    My lovely teacher and YogaGlo’s own Elena Browertalks about how she felt the power of ishvara pranidhana from an early age, in the context of religion, but wasn’t able to verbalize exactly what it was until she began practicing yoga. “Ishvara Pranidhana has played a role in my life since I was very small,” she tells me. “My parents would take me to Synagogue sometimes (we were Reform Jewish) and I distinctly remember feeling very connected to something much bigger than me while sitting in the sanctuary. The scale of the room, the sun in the tall windows, the voices chanting and praying in unison: I remember being deeply moved early on. Call it connection, call it prayer, God, Divinity… I could feel it, even though I hadn’t a name that really resonated with me at that time.”

    There are, wonderfully, many ways to experience ishvara pranidhana on a daily basis. Some feel it, as Elena did, in a breathtaking surrounding, whether it’s a place of worship, walking along the beach, or looking up at a sky-full of stars. But there are other ways, too. Many yogis believe that being of service to others is one of the best things – or perhaps the single best thing – we can do, since, after all, god is in all of us. As Satchidananda says, dedicate yourself to benefit humanity, and you’ve dedicated yourself to god.

    Satchidananda also underlines that, just as all the yamas and niyamas are different doors to the same place, there are lots of ways to practice ishvara pranidhana. “Tastes differ,” he says. “That is why the scriptures give different paths.”

    Seeing beauty and divinity in the small, quotidian things is another way to get there. Taking the time to experience the beauty and comfort of a hot cup of tea, the delight in your kid’s smile, or even the warmth of the soapy bubbles while doing the dishes, are the simplest ways – they can also be the most profound, because they are everywhere. Practicing asana and meditation are other, more deliberate ways, but equally important. Finding the connection between ourselves and other is what’s important, and at the heart of ishvara pranidhana.

    “Each morning and night, I spend just a few minutes experiencing and seeing this connection, in myself and in those around me,” says Elena. “Usually I’ll use a meditation or kriya… Kriyas bring us into a meditative state, which is our connection to that devotion, that state of surrender.”

    The point is, it doesn’t really matter how you do it – the opportunities are infinite. As always, it’s a practice: So if you only experience it for five seconds one day, don’t be discouraged. Just try to get in touch with it when you can, and you might be surprised at how it builds.

    “We practice creating that feeling of quiet even when we’re not practicing,” says Elena. “We can commit to seeing beauty in unexpected ways. We can serve others by giving our resources, time or listening. We can be confidently attentive to our kids, our parents, our friends or our colleagues. All of these small actions of noticing, listening and acknowledging connect us to that state of surrender, recognition, and devotion.”

    How do you experience ishvara pranidhana? Doing yoga? Communing with nature? Or in your ordinary activities throughout the day? 

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.


  • Posted on February 5th, 2013 Alice G. Walton 3 comments

    Eight Limbs of Yoga: Niyamas

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    So now it’s really starting to get good. A little less comfortable, for sure, but in a good way, I think. The consensus seems to be that moving through the yamas and niyamas, and actually incorporating them into your life, is not exactly easy or even pain-free, but it’s a necessary part of getting “there.” Samtosha and tapas blended so beautifully into each other, and here comes another that helps push us towards change and becoming more conscious:  svadhyaya, the fourth niyama. It has some different interpretations, having to do with studying the self, learning sacred texts, or reciting mantras, depending on whom you ask or what period of history you’re talking about.

    For our purposes, it has more to do with self-reflection and introspection, but it didn’t start out this way. Matthew Remski, who wrote threads of yoga: a remix of patanjali’s sutras with commentary and reverie, tells me that up until the Middle Ages, svadhyaya was really about studying and memorizing the sacred texts – but since there wasn’t a lot of written material a few thousand years ago, it was more about learning oral verse from a teacher. Memorizing texts and mantras, the theory goes, gets you in touch with god, the universe, and with yourself (of course, these are all one and the same, say most yogis) because the contents of these writings serve as mirrors that reveal us to ourselves.

    But more recently svadhyaya has come to mean “self-reflection.” This shift makes it more straightforward, but also a little intimidating. After all, self-reflection is the thing that most of us not only resist, but resist with vigor. Sitting with all our pain and trying to understand it by looking into it can feel like the most heinous undertaking in the world, and it’s often the reason why we eat, drink, smoke, get high, or spend an extra few hours a day futzing around on the computer. It’s also not the simplest undertaking, since it seems (at least to me) like thinking about yourself or a problem in your life doesn’t always get you anywhere at all.

    So to look inside isn’t often comfortable, but, like samtosha (practicing contentment) and tapas (burning up our negative thought patterns and crutches), we really have to “ go there” if we want to change.

    To get started with it, Remski recommends just carving out some time in the day to sit alone with yourself. “The first part of practicing svadhyaya is just structural; it’s timing. Manage to rise an hour before sunrise, and have that hour or even 45 min, to yourself to pursue and contemplate whatever moves you most deeply, whether it’s sitting with your thoughts, reading, or what have you. What I usually suggest to people is to make a cup of tea after rising, sit by the window, wrap yourself up in a blanket, and ask yourself, ‘what do I need to know?’ ‘What do I need to know about myself, or to learn?’”

    Remski says that this “god hour” of the early day, or brahmamuhurta, is also known as the hour of expansiveness, where our thoughts tend to be clearer and crisper. “Every person needs to find his or her holy hour,” he says. “That’s the beginning point. We’re a very nondenominational bunch in western culture. For my students, for my clients, my job is to help people structurally, to create the space for them to find out how they’ll study their internal states most closely. From there, then, it can unfold.”

    It’s probably worth pointing out that there’s a difference between self-reflection and the self-centric thoughts we so often have throughout the day (the mind chatter, worries, and self-flagellating thoughts we often resort to). Svadhyaya is about inquiring in an interested, non-judgmental way – trying to figure out our patterns, beliefs, habits, and maybe even our purposes in the world. Paying attention to how we look inward is really important, as it can be easy to get caught up in our regular cycle.

    For people who are having a very hard time with this niyama, you can always back out of it, just like any other part of yoga, and come at it another way. “If this question [svadhyaya] makes you feel anxious,” says Remski, “then sitting in contemplation isn’t for you just yet and it would be really good to move your body instead. So if the question brings up anxiety, if it causes the mind to buzz or whir, then that’s the time to go for walk rather than sit. Use that time for movement instead.” Come back to it when you’re ready.

    That’s the beautiful thing about the yamas and niyamas – they offer different ways of getting towards the same end. If one avenue doesn’t feel right at this particular moment, you can always focus on another, and come back to the first when you’re able. And the thing about svadhyaya is that there’s no measuring stick for it: With this one, it’s up to you to measure yourself. This is what makes it both more challenging and more engaging. Of course, that’s true of many parts of life, and certainly many aspects of yoga.

    “Nobody has the truth,” writes Remski in his book. “Truth is the product of sharing what seems to be true. We all inquire into yoga.”

    How are you doing with self-reflection, or svadhyaya? Is it intimidating, exciting, scary, enlightening, or all of the above? 

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

     


  • Posted on January 22nd, 2013 Alice G. Walton 1 comment

    Eight Limbs of Yoga: Niyamas

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Tapas is a beautiful complement to samtosha (contentment), partly because it offers some more concrete ways to get us there. Of course, the first thing that yogis will tell you is that observing tapas is not always pleasant (it can actually be downright painful), but the rewards, they say, are so great that it’s well worth the bumpy road to get there. The translation of tapas is literally to heat or burn, by way of practicing discipline or “austerity.” This can all sound a bit inaccessible at first – I had visions of lifelong self-deprivation and a permanent kibosh on any kind of pleasure, but it turns out that’s actually not what tapas is about.

    Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. Rather, tapas is about adding little elements of “discipline” to one’s routine, which is key to getting the mind on the right track, and breaking down all the negative thought patterns that can plague us, creating unhappiness or depression. The disciplines you add to your life can be simple: Carving time out to exercise daily; practicing yoga, meditation, mindfulness; and eating healthily.

    Jennifer Schmid, who lives and teaches at the Ananda Ashram in upstate New York, tells me, “it’s through having a focused effort of self-discipline – be it asana, meditation, or mindfulness – that we purify the mind of impurities, habits and patterns that are no longer serving us. When these impurities are destroyed we begin to see the world as it is, rather than a projection of what we think it is.” In other words, it’s when we burn through our crutches (overeating, over-drinking, negative thinking), that we can be freer, and more in touch with the universe, and those around us.

    Schmid does point out that it’s a big endeavor, tapas, just like the other yamas and niyamas, which ask us to go beyond our comfort zone. “It’s intense,” she says. “But in that intensity, purification is a natural by-product, well-being unfolds, and we literally ignite the fire of consciousness within ourselves to burn brighter.” Just think about the first few days or weeks of dieting or quitting smoking – they can be miserably painful, but then you start to see the benefits and feel more comfortable in the new practice. Eventually, the change becomes pleasurable (hopefully), and creates more energy to continue on with it.

    Jeff Migdow, MD, who is director of prana yoga teacher training and lived for 15 years at Kripalu has seen what a little tapas can do, in others and personally. “The heat that’s created by the practice does various things: it burns away karma and it gives you energy to continue practicing. But it also gives you a certain vitality, a physical energy that emanates.” He says that during visits to India, he’s practiced alongside people who were almost literally glowing, so filled were they with the heat and energy of tapas. But like Schmid, Migdow makes no secret of the fact that it’s not easy, and can be quite uncomfortable at first. “It’s literally like burning up – you feel like you’re dying. The ego really resists it. But there’s this fire that gets created.” He says the unpleasantness in the beginning is actually how you know you know you’re doing it right, despite the days, weeks, or months of discomfort before the heat created from the practice actually feels positive.

    That said, if practicing tapas is too intense, you can always back out of it a bit, just like in any physical yoga pose that’s painful rather than challenging. But if you can take a little discomfort while your brain is sorting itself out, then go for it. “When we’re in a difficult place, and things are starting to heat up inside us, it helps if our self-awareness steps in and we tell ourselves, ‘oh that’s just my ego kicking up, I can get through this.’ It’s a bit like jumping into the fire.” But, he adds, in the end, the heat that’s stirred up by practicing tapas can lead to extraordinary change, which can last a lifetime.

    Where are you with tapas? Are you in the gritty, unpleasant part, or the energetic part? 

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

     


  • Posted on January 8th, 2013 YogaGlo 3 comments

    Eight Limbs of Yoga: Niyamas

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    When it comes down to it, most of us just want a little freedom from our pain, whatever the cause may be. At this time of the year, a lot of us are thinking about happiness…and how to get more of it in the coming year. We often look for the antidote to unhappiness outside ourselves – in new shoes or electronics, new clothes or a good meal. But like we saw with a lot of the yamas, looking outside usually only enhances the problem, and ends up multiplying the craving/anxiety/unhappiness that we feel. What samtosha is all about is going back inside and trying to tweak our own reactions to life, so that we can learn to sit more calmly and less reactively in the presence of whatever life throws at us.

    I have to say, I have a really hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that contentment is considered an “observance”– which is what all the niyamas are – as if one can just choose to be content. On the contrary, isn’t contentment sort of the overarching goal or endpoint of Yoga, something we should only achieve after we learn and become masterful at all eight limbs? Can it be as simple as making a choice to feel content? I’m reluctant to embrace this idea, but after talking with Patton Sarley, who has directed both Omega Institute and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Life, I start to warm up to it. He says that in fact contentment can actually be an outcome AND a practice – the seed is always present in the fruit, he says – so maybe it is that simple. (But it’s also a little more complicated.)

    Part of the secret is that our perception of pain or unhappiness is intimately linked to our reaction to it. We’ve all seen that certain people just seem to let things, even very bad things, roll off them, and they’re the better for it. It seems like this might be an innate quality, but actually it can be learned, though it may take some practice. Sarley first explains the contentment-as-a-choice idea by bringing to mind the old Native American tale of the two wolves: a grandfather is talking to his grandson about how inside his mind are two wolves in a constant fight. One is anger, greed, self-pity, revenge; the other is love, kindness, empathy, hope. The child asks which one wins, and the grandfather replies, “Whichever one I feed.” In the same way, we can make a choice to be content – to practice non-attachment (refer to the yamas) and take each event in our lives a less personally. It’s not that bad things won’t happen, but we’ll learn to react to them very differently, which leads to a lot less pain.

    “Most people think of contentment as a middle place,” says Sarley. “It’s arriving at contentment with the difficulties of life, the shitstorm of being alive, crisis to crisis.” Because, as he points out, life really can just feel like a string of unfortunate events. “With samtosha, it’s not that ‘everything is ok.’ It’s, ‘man this sucks, but I’m ok.’” In other words, you won’t be immune to bad things, but when they happen – when the shitstorm comes – you’ll weather them much better.

    So how do we practice contentment? It’s using all the tools we have at our disposal, and using them again and again. We can breathe, meditate, practice asana, observe the yamas and niyamas. Anything that shifts our attention to what’s going on inside, so we can attend to it (in a nonjudgmental, non-attached way), describe it (if possible), and then let it go of it just a bit. Anything that helps us do these things will get us a little bit closer to samtosha.

    It’s not easy or quick, and even Sarley says that “You can’t just meditate your way to enlightenment.” It takes some conscious effort – it’s about practicing over and over again, and gradually breaking down those fixed reactions that we’ve been falling back on our whole lives. To be sure, as Sarley points out, there’s a huge irony here: To change ourselves, we have to rely on the very thing that’s giving us the trouble in the first place – our minds. The endless and often destructive “mind chatter,” or chitta vritti, says Sarley, is what most people want to get away from, and largely the root of our unhappiness. Luckily, the brain is quite plastic, and with some practice it can be rewired. It may not be pretty and it may take a while, but we can learn another way of thinking that will totally transform us.

    “Whenever you get jacked up about life,” Sarley adds, “with either fear or desire – each of which tends to dominate our consciousness – you always have a choice. It’s all about tolerating the consequences of being yourself. Yoga is the practice of tolerating who you are.”

    Do you think that contentment is something you can cultivate? Do you make a conscious choice about how to react when bad things happen? 

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.