• Posted on May 28th, 2013 9:55:12 AM 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 7:00:03 AM 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 12:00:53 PM 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 March 19th, 2013 9:31:45 AM 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 January 21st, 2013 8:00:16 AM YogaGlo No comments

    The core is the foundation upon which all movement is based. It stabilizes your spine and allows the body to actually move. Every movement you make is initiated by the core and in order to prevent health problems, it is crucial to keep the core as strong and stable as possible. A strong core will reduce injuries (especially back injuries), improve posture, increase balance and stability and will even aid in digestion.

    Looking to improve your core strength? Several studies show how practicing yoga can help build the underlying muscles to build abs that are both strong, stable and flexible. So this week’s featured classes will leave your core worked and full of strength!

    Yoga for Core Strengthening

    You can use our new Search Feature to search through all of our Yoga for Core Strengthening classes on your own. To get you started without searching, we’re highlighting six classes in a variety of styles, levels and durations that are designed to work your core.

    • All About Core with Kathryn Budig: It’s all about the core! Focused plank and stepping forward work starts out the class followed by core oriented standing poses and fun floor work leading up to crow and side crow. Inversions and backbends wrap up the class for a lovely savasana.
    • Strengthen Your Core with Kia Miller: Enhance your capacity to move and act from your center. Balance your navel and heart energy and feel the power of coming home to your SELF. Familiarize yourself with this set and practice it regularly as a way to stay truly connected.
    • The Core of You with Steven Espinosa: Many of us consider the abdominal as our core. But we also have our skeletal core, the core of our pelvis and the heart as the core of our deeper self. The focus of this practice to move from our many levels of core. Strong heat building opening warm up with emphasis on strengthening the abdominal core area while aligning our skeletal core for solid bio-mechanical movement. Standing Poses include Crescent, Warrior 1 & 2, Extended Side Angle and Triangle. Also includes brief explanation of “mula bandha” i.e., the drawing in and up of the internal organs to engage abdominal core. Continues with Arm Balance in Crow Pose (bekasana), Boat Pose (navasana) and pelvic core opening in Fire Log Pose (agnistambasana).
    • Strong Core and Arm Flow with Dice lida-Klein: A strong core workout with focus on strengthening the shoulders and arms. Side plank (vashistasana) and forearm side plank variations along with a navasana sequence (boat pose). Also, a quick look at lolasana (pendant pose), which will help with the jumpback and pickup in the ashtanga primary series.
    • Core Strengthening Practice with Jason Crandell: You will awaken, strengthen and integrate your core in this practice. You won’t do 10,000 sit-ups or crunches. Instead, you’ll examine how your feet, legs and abdominals work together to create greater strength, integration and depth in all of your poses. You can expect plenty of abdominal work woven into sun salutations, standing poses, forward bends and twists.
    • Core Workout with Jo Tastula: Just new to yoga or coming back from injury and want to build some gentle strength through out the entire body? This is a simple little sequence starting with cat/cow and plank variations that strengthen the spinal muscles. Plank pushups on the knees are a great way to gently build upper body strength. We flow through a crescent sequence that works the entire body and then take it to the back where we will target key abdominal muscles finishing with bridge pose and a twist.

  • Posted on September 11th, 2012 11:58:56 AM Alice G. Walton 5 comments


    The Eight Limbs of Yoga

    When Beryl Bender Birch said, “The word yoga is not synonomous with asana – the word yoga refers to all 8 limbs,” in the last series, I realized how much we were just scratching the surface of what yoga actually is. My sense, just from looking around in yoga class, had been that our concept of yoga in America is a little more than slightly askew from yoga in the classical sense – the kind that had been handed down through thousands of years in India and led people to enlightenment, or at least to inner peace. Indeed Bender Birch added that, “I’ve been such a serious student of classical yoga for – gosh! – 30 years. It seems that, even today, as Judith Lasater once said, yoga is a mile long and an inch deep.” While there’s no denying that yoga had to change a bit to be embraced in this country by our modern, Western minds, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t welcome – or at least understand a little bit about – the rest of the practice.

    So, let’s get philosophical. In this series, we’ll look at the eight limbs of yoga, one by one.

    In short, the eight limbs are: yamas (“restraints’), niyamas (“observances”), asana (poses), pranayama (breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (intense focus), dyhana (meditation), and samadhi (state of oneness). Most people are familiar with asana (poses) and perhaps with pranyama (breathing). And meditation is even gaining ground, as more people start to experience its tangible benefits – and as scientific research shows what wonders it can do for the brain, even after a very short time.

    An important thing to remember about the eight limbs is that they’re not like the 12 steps – you actually incorporate them all at once (as much as possible), rather than stepwise. I spoke to the Reverend Jaganath Carrera, who is founder and spiritual leader of the Yoga Life Society. He underlines that “The eight limbs are not steps to be completed one at a time before going on. They represent a harmonious balance and integration of body, mind, and spirit.”

    It takes a bit to learn about all eight limbs (as I’m finding out in spades!), but doing so, I’m also learning, can round out one’s practice in a significant way. After all, for me and I think for a lot of people, the whole point of yoga is to feel better – and not just physically. Any form of physical activity can make your body feel better, but the value and the beauty of yoga is that it takes you out of yourself, out of your head, which for me has always been the problem. Learning only yoga poses or breathing techniques doesn’t give a complete picture of what yoga really is – it’s sort of like reading the middle chapter of a novel and thinking you understand what the novel is about.

    In fact, Rev. Jaganath says that, “While the physical practices are wonderful and might help us experience clarity and peace, they don’t address the reasons why we lose our peace, why we may be anxious, insecure, or unfulfilled.” If learning about the eight limbs can help a person be less of those things, I’m in.

    Next time we’ll start with the first limb, the yamas, which include five of the ten “moral and ethical guidelines” for feeling less stressed, distressed, depressed, and generally more at peace. Stay tuned, and please feel free to comment below.

    Do you have experience with the eight limbs of yoga? Has learning about them helped expand your practice?

    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 July 3rd, 2012 8:15:20 AM Alice G. Walton 5 comments

    In my still early yoga practice, one of the beauties of yoga, for me, lies in its marriage of “heart” and science. Sometimes the technical side can seem intimidating: Strewn throughout classes are often words like sacrum, lateral movement, inner spiral, and psoas. The lingo and precision can be daunting to a newbie, but it’s totally alluring, too. But what’s even lovelier about yoga is its mental effect: the head space that class leaves you with – that odd coupling of energy and calm that it brings with it – can be indescribable.

    The other day I went to a class where the relationship between the two elements became clearer to me. The class included some sequences and holds that were seriously humbling. Among them was bakasana – crane pose – where you squat, put your knees on your upper arms, and lift off. It’s probably all in a day’s work for someone who’s been practicing for a while, but it can be scary when you first try it out. An hour in, the class was attempting it for the third time: people were tired, sore, and getting cranky. Some endured and some dropped like flies. Amazingly, a large handful of people spontaneously erupted into laughter mid-pose or mid-fall, at the pure comedy of it all.

    Looking around and sensing exactly what was going on, the teacher said, “And it just got funny – that’s right where we want it to be.”

    Laughter in Yoga

    That eruption of laughter in class signaled, I think, a pretty fundamental shift. People had gone from being completely caught up in the technique and trying hard (maybe too hard) to get it right to launching into a much more lighthearted place. And laughter seems to be what got people there. The whole feel of the class was very different after that point.

    One of the big challenges in yoga, for novices and experts alike, is taking what you learn on the mat into life. We all have those days that exemplify Murphy’s Law, where nothing goes right, and you get into a blacker and blacker mood. Oftentimes, there’s some last straw, where you either have a mental meltdown or you laugh at yourself. Figuring out how to make the laughter come sooner and, hopefully, eclipse the breakdown is a good goal to have, and something that yoga seems like it can help with.

    If technique gives way to heart, or body to mind, then maybe laughter is some sort of link between the two. Maybe when you find the funny, you know you’re finally getting somewhere.

    Do you ever find yourself taking your practice too seriously? Do you find that yoga helps you take yourself less seriously in daily life?

    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 June 19th, 2012 8:00:41 AM Alice G. Walton 6 comments

    The Changing Face of Yoga by Alice G. WaltonYoga has gained a pretty good foothold in the U.S. in recent years, so it’s not surprising that it’s undergone some scrutiny. In reality, this is probably a good thing (as long as it’s constructive), since it helps keep yoga on its toes. Most of the women I talked to for the last post agreed that yoga had to transform itself fairly drastically to make its entrée into this country, morphing into more a physical practice than a mental one (and still feeling this change today). But things are beginning to even out: More and more people are becoming interested in yoga’s greater benefits – attention, concentration, mindfulness – and this will probably become more the case as time goes on.

    That said, there are some ways in which yoga’s relationship with the mainstream is still, if not exactly moving backwards, not really moving forwards. Melanie Klein, a Women’s Studies professor at Santa Monica College, brings up the issue of how yoga is promoted through the media. One of her critiques is a common one: “As yoga has become more mainstream,” she says, “the spiritual part of it has suffered, and the industry – and the business of yoga – has emerged. But what’s really disconcerting is that the same images of beauty from mainstream media are often reproduced in yoga magazines – young, white, skinny, hot. This is not what yoga is all about, but it’s the image we see over and over.” The practice and business, she says, are at odds, and this divide needs to be rectified.

    But before we get too down on this phenomenon, Klein points out that the issue is double-edged: Though yoga may fall victim to the whims of the mainstream, it also relies on it to get it into the public’s consciousness. “Yoga gets absorbed by pop culture,” says Klein, “and it then reflects pop culture. This is both good and bad. But the trend in the last few years, I’ve noticed, is that many of the women who have emerged as public voices tend to look like models. I’m not saying that they’re not credible or important, but you can’t tell me that there aren’t other women who are as valuable. Are we really allowing everybody a platform?”

    She adds that another issue is that pop culture isn’t always the most nurturing, and this shows up in yoga, too. “I see ads for diet pills in yoga magazines now, for example. And I find that problematic.“

    Linda Sparrowe, who commented in the last post and who’s also the editor-in-chief of Yoga International, says, “yoga should be a help, but it’s not always, and can actually be a hindrance. For instance, there’s this trend to be decked out in Lululemon, and make comparisons to others in class. At Yoga International, we still grapple with whom to put on the cover… it’s a question of what sells vs. what’s the reality and what’s the integrity.” She adds though that it’s changing, and “yoga insinuates itself however it can. It adapts itself to the people it serves.” Maybe it’s up to us to give it a little push in the right direction.

    The Changing Face of YogaKlein agrees that the power of yoga is that it can correct for the strange place in which it finds itself – particularly if we continue to move towards honest-to-goodness-yoga. “Yoga is a great way to come back into the body and transform really distorted images that we’ve been fed our whole lives,” says Klein. “A lot of women don’t fit the pop culture ideal, and are doing some phenomenal things, all over the world. Look at Ana Forrest; look at Seane Corn. They don’t fit the ideal, but they’re beautiful – and look at all they’ve done.”

    In fact, Seane Corn herself makes a nice point about how yoga continues to move forward. “Maybe there’s still a misunderstanding about what yoga is. Some people may not understand how physically and emotionally challenging it can be… or maybe they do, and this is why they resist it. There are so many ways to approach yoga. There are women who are more ‘alpha,’ like me – I approach my yoga practice in a more confrontational way – but that’s also an aspect of femininity. For other people, other approaches are better. It’s exciting that there’s such diversity. ”

    So yoga continues to reach more and more people in this country, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the ways in which it’s changed over the years. If one has experience with all the benefits of yoga, it can be easy to get down about its newer changes. But looked at another way, yoga (which, after all, is translated as “union”) is reaching more and more people every day. And that’s a pretty good place to start.

    How do you feel about yoga’s adaptations? Is its relationship to pop culture a help or a hindrance?

    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 June 5th, 2012 10:02:01 AM Alice G. Walton 9 comments

    The Feminization of YogaIf you’ve attended a yoga class recently, chances are that a good portion of it, if not the vast majority, is made of up women. Depending on how you look at it, this might either be a benefit or a drawback of the practice (more on this to come), but in any case, it’s the reality. One of the more interesting questions to me has been why yoga became a “women’s practice” in the first place. For a tradition that began as fundamentally male (with a very few exceptions) on another continent, it’s curious that it has become so predominantly female over here. How did yoga make the jump from Eastern men to Western women? And what happened to it in the process?

    To help answer these questions, I spoke to a number of people – as luck would have it, mainly women – who suggested that there are several answers, some philosophical and some technical.

    One of the instrumental female yogis in this country was Beryl Bender Birch, who has also been fascinated by the phenomenon, as she witnessed it firsthand. She says that when she traveled around India in the 1970s, yoga was still “run” by men, and women were all but banned from it. She suggests that one answer to the question of how yoga made its leap, in very broad terms, comes from the fact that the East has always been somewhat more associated with the “feminine,” and the West more “masculine.”

    Western men weren’t really able or available to embrace yoga in the same way, so women were the key: They were the ones who could relate to both realms – East and West – and so they served as a sort of conduit for yoga, allowing it make its transcontinental leap. Of course, yoga had to morph somewhat to do this, and not everyone is totally happy with these changes.

    Nischala Devi, who translated the Yoga Sutras, points out a more functional explanation, which also explains the shifts yoga had to go through and is still feeling today. She says that the American women who popularized it back in the 1960s were often homemakers, and as such, they were the ones who had the time do yoga. “Housewives were the ones who had time to think about these things for themselves, and they had time during the day to do it. This is why women embraced it…. They were available, but they were also hungry for it. They didn’t want traditional religion, they wanted a practice that had no dogma attached to it.” These were the women who took classes,

    But, she continues, things changed a bit as yoga laid down new roots. “In the 1980s, yoga became more about the physical. This was also during the fitness revolution, and some women were more comfortable in yoga practice than running, working out, and so on. This is when women really came in droves. The 1990s were all about buns of steel and strengthening from the core. Now here we are in second decade of 21st century, where it’s stuck as a physical women’s practice. It’s really become labeled a ‘Woman’s Thing.’”

    Linda Sparrowe, who’s also done a lot of interesting work in this area, agrees that women’s co-opting of yoga has been necessary, and in fact yoga wouldn’t have survived in this country without it. Women have “basically had to pull apart yoga and put it back together in a way that allows yoga to meet people where they are. In some ways, it’s completely different from its origins, but in many ways it retains its core beauty.”

    The Feminization of Yoga by Alice G. WaltonSo it may be to women’s credit that yoga has become popular these days, but the kind of yoga that’s popular is troublesome to some. The main issue that’s still going on here is that Yoga = Physical. While this isn’t in itself a bad thing, the physical (asana) is just a fraction of traditional yoga. Beryl says that while she coined the term Power Yoga to appeal to the Western mind, her yoga incorporates all eight limbs of the practice and has never wavered. Others, though, have dropped the other seven, making it, as Nischala Devi said, simply a workout. All the women agree that helping Americans experience the other seven limbs is essential.

    There’s good news though: In the same way that women have been the “door” through which yoga has entered the American mainstream, asana is the portal through which we can get to yoga’s more significant benefits: meditation, attention, and awareness. “Asana was always the gateway for meditation,” says Beryl. “It begins to train us in attention, and yoga’s bottom line is all about paying attention. The more you focus your mind, the more clearly you see, the more conscious you are. But there’s much more after asana.”

    So, like most things, yoga is in its own evolution. It may have started with women and with asana, but it’s starting to change. “We’re very young in our practice – we’re basically in kindergarten,” says Beryl. “The ‘Yoga Scene’ – the looking good in class, having the right outfit – is a temporary phase. We’ll go deeper. We’ll get back to the questions like, ‘who is this true self I’m looking for?’ When you start addressing these questions, and looking inward, it changes you.” We’ll continue to move towards this, she says, but it may take some time.

    More on women’s role in yoga to come. In the meantime, how do you feel about the fact that yoga is so largely female today? What are the benefits and drawbacks? Do you see it shifting?

    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 8th, 2012 12:00:32 PM Alice G. Walton 7 comments

    The Science of Chakras - The Real EvidenceSo the chakra debate continues. Though I didn’t discover much empirical evidence in my search, and didn’t find any labs with chakra-detecting technology, there are a couple of reasons why this may not matter so much. A doctor and a yogi help close the chakra conversation we started a few weeks ago:

    One way of thinking about chakras, continues Dr. Jeff Migdow, who teaches Prana Yoga teacher training at the Open Center in NYC and also trains at Kripalu, is to remember that we all know what energy is intuitively. We can all recall the sensation when energy travels through our bodies, and conjuring up that feeling might help make chakras become more tangible.

    “Each one of us,” he says, “has had experiences we’ve felt really good in. It’s that tingling, champagne feeling in the body when we’re excited or engaged in something. This is energy flowing into the nervous system. We’ve all felt it at one time or another, even though we may not know exactly what it is. We may not be able measure it with medical equipment – it takes place on a subtler level.”

    I like this explanation. I can get on board with this, I think. Most people, myself included, have felt the almost-indescribable swell of energy during happy times, and the low contraction of heartbreak. These types of energy shifts, and other varieties, can be felt at different physical points in the body. Maybe thinking of these points as related to the chakras isn’t a bad way to look at it.

    Equally helpful was another person’s take. I asked my teacher, and YogaGlo’s own, Elena Brower, to help with my chakra confusion. In fact, I asked her to explain chakras to me like I was a five-year old. To this, she said, “chakras are specific places where we can put our attention in order to unwind any blocks in our bodies.” She added, “my experience is just that the chakras are locations in my subtle, energetic body toward which I can point my attention to experience consciousness more profoundly and with purpose.”

    The shift in attention that Elena talks about is so fundamental, and seems to be the key to a lot of things – like mindfulness, and its many accompanying physiological changes. To figure chakras as points in the body to which to attention can be shifted makes a lot of sense to me. It finally makes the concept relevant and valuable.

    In the end, it may not be about “proving” whether or not chakras exist. It may be more about how we sit in our own bodies, and connect to the energy that we already know is moving around within it. And if focusing attention on specific points in the body helps our minds let go of the roadblocks and quiet the chatter, then maybe that’s all the proof we need. Maybe we had it all along.

    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.

    Want to learn more about chakras through asana and meditation? Our seven week What the Chakra program allows you to explore the First Chakra, Second Chakra, Third Chakra, Fourth Chakra, Fifth Chakra, Sixth Chakra and Seventh Chakra in two very different ways.