• Posted on June 6th, 2014 8:30:38 AM Alice G. Walton 2 comments

    The Language of Yoga: Kriya
    If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you may have discovered that you feel incredibly clear and grounded directly after class. You’ve probably also noticed that the hard part is transferring that clarity back to real life. That’s the common challenge of yoga, but it’s also the exactly the point of it: To apply what you learn in the practice to every corner of your life. And this is where the concept of kriya comes in. The word itself means “action,” and it overlaps in many ways with the concept of karma. But the practice of kriya-yoga is much larger, and it’s actually a way of putting yoga into action in our lives. “It’s really where the rubber meets the road,” says Jivana Heyman, the Director of the Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco and co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center. “You find that you can actually practice yoga all day long.”

    There are three elements to kriya-yoga: Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Isvara Pranidhana. You might recognize these concepts as part of the second limb of yoga, the niyamas, which are outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. “In Book II of the Sutras, Patanjali is giving us this way of practicing yoga in life,” says Heyman, “while you’re actually living.” Because the three elements are so essential and therapeutic, they’re worth talking about again in this context.

    Tapas is generally translated as burning. But it’s really about the discipline of a practice like asana or meditation, which gets us into a state where change can happen. The idea is that with the discipline, we’re forced to work through the source of unhappiness or pain – and it’s “burned” away though the practice. “Tapas is about accepting pain,” says Heyman. “That it’s something we can learn from, instead of just avoid. In Western yoga, we tend to just skip over that. But one reason that kriya-yoga is so important is that it gives meaning to pain. People who have a lot of pain often feel victimized – that’s a very weakened position to be in. To no longer be the victim is completely empowering. Patanjali is saying that pain is for your growth – not in a masochistic way – but that it’s a path to self-realization, and to greater peace. That the pain is actually showing you the direction you need to go in order to grow.”

    So that’s tapas, which is a necessary part of working through pain – but it’s not all there is to it. The second element of kriya-yoga, svadhyaya, is about reflecting and introspecting into the nature of your unhappiness. For example, says Heyman, “You have to ask, why is this painful to my mind? What does it mean about the way my mind works and about my attachments?” Heyman points out that most psychological pain exists because we get attached to a thing – an opinion, our own reputation, or even to a person – and identify with it so strongly that when it’s threatened, it hurts. “We feel pain because the ego doesn’t want to be challenged. Often we go to addiction to avoid the pain. But yoga is all about trying to move beyond the ego – so pain is kind of like a gift in that it shows us where the ego is attached.” Of course, it’s not easy to see pain as a gift; it takes a lot of practice to view it that way, and then a lot of chutzpah to introspect enough to understand it. Sometimes you can do it alone, and sometimes you’ll need others to help you work through it – a circle of friends, fellow yogis, or even a psychologist.

    Finally, the third element, isvara pranidhanam, is about surrendering to something beyond our own minds. We often think of it as giving in to, or being awed by, an outside thing – like god, the universe, or nature. But, as Heyman points out, “It’s letting go of the mind to something greater – but it’s not necessarily outside yourself. It can be inside yourself, too. After all, in yoga our essence is divine, and it’s all about connecting to the truth within. Like Patanjali says, ‘Once you quiet the mind, the true self abides in its own nature.’” Though it might be the ultimate goal to surrender to that within, it’s often easier to find that overwhelming experience of isvara pranidhanam while gazing out at the ocean, or up at a starry sky.

    So these are the tenets of kriya-yoga. Putting them into action is one way to put yoga into action off the mat. But as Heyman points out, carrying out these three practices is not as simple as it sounds. “Of course, it’s not easy – am I making it sound like it’s easy? Sorry! It’s not. It takes a supportive community, a lot of practice.” He leaves on an interesting note, mentioning what his teacher, Swami Satchidananda, once said to him. “’Life is a lot like holding a hot pot in your bare hands…. It hurts! Yoga is realizing that you can let go of the pot.’ We’re holding on so hard to our ideas about ourselves, and holding on to the pain. But when we can learn to let go, even though letting go isn’t so easy, it gets better.”

    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 16th, 2014 7:30:29 AM Alice G. Walton 2 comments

    The Language of Yoga: Sastanga

    Satsanga may not be one of the most common Sanskrit words you hear, but it will come up from time to time, especially if you hang out around institutes and ashrams. It comes from the root “sat,” which means “truth” (also see Satya, one of the Yamas), and “sanga,” which means “coming together.” So the term itself is often translated as “truth seekers coming together,” says Devarshi Steven Hartman, who lived and taught at Kripalu Ashram for many years, and now has his own school of yoga. “Satsanga typically happens in the evening, with family and friends, whether it’s chanting (kirtan), chanting prayers, or listening to someone give a talk. It’s all about gathering together with like-minded people.”

    Devarshi says that what amazes him is how affecting and educating the experience of being in a group of others on the same path can be, whether it’s a formal satsanga or just a group of close friends sitting around engaged in conversation. “Kripalu himself said that the single best thing you can do for spiritual growth is to surround yourself with like-minded people… That makes me go, ‘wow, the single best?” That’s pretty big, given all the many, many ways there are to cultivate oneself within the umbrella of yoga – so the fact that it’s thought to be the most effective one speaks to its effectiveness.

    And this makes sense for a couple of reasons. One is that we have a really hard time seeing ourselves honestly – both our attributes and our faults – so it often takes another person, or better yet, a group of people to do that. “Kripalu said that the key to our hearts in lies in the heart of another,” says Devarshi. “One element of this is that we really can’t see ourselves – our inward experience is very different from the outside. We don’t see our gifts or our foibles so clearly. It really requires others to see this. It takes another person – or going larger, a community of people – to call us out when we’re off base.”

    The other part of the ‘satsanga effect’ is that the people we surround ourselves with have a strong influence on us, psychologically and emotionally. You can probably feel that when you spend time with energetic, loving people, they bring those same qualities out in you. The opposite is also true – it’s way too easy to pick up negativity from others. And when we spend time with people who are a little more knowledgeable than us in whatever arena – business, romantic life, spiritual growth – we start to internalize it.

    “When we surround ourselves with someone who has mastered something – a posture, a pranayama, a meditation technique, a loving way to listen and communicate – it rubs off on us. We get entrained by those around us. You become a different person if you hang out in a bar versus satsanga with people studying and practicing to be their best selves. It’s sort of like ‘you are what you eat’ – you become like who you hang out with.”

    And if you really want to take it even deeper, Devarshi says he often encourages his students to gather in small groups and – aloud – express gratitude or pray. “I’ve found it’s one of the most intimate things we can do,” he says. “So when I leave workshops, I’ll put people into groups of three or more…have them go out into the night and pray out loud. What’s amazing is that people’s voices actually change when they do this – they speak from a different place. When it comes down to it, we all want the same things in life. It takes courage and vulnerability to do this with other people… This is what satsanga is: it’s coming together in the presence of truth.”

    If you’re lucky enough to be able to attend satsanga, see how it affects you (and please share your experience below). And if you can’t attend one, surround your self with your closest friends on a regular basis, and maybe take a few minutes and make a point of expressing your hopes, fears, and gratitudes – and see if it doesn’t change your mood and your energy quite palpably.

    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 9th, 2014 9:00:35 AM Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Duhkha

    The beautiful part of the term “duhkha” is that, like many other yogic concepts, it’s so universal. We still think and talk about it today because most of us feel it every day, just as people experienced it a few millennia ago. Although duhkha is often translated as “suffering,” the question of whether that’s the best translation is up for grabs. “The word duhkha has various shades of meaning such as suffering, pain, sorrow, trouble, difficulty, imperfection, impermanence, and emptiness,” says Marcy Braverman Goldstein , PhD, Sanskrit scholar and visiting assistant professor at Davidson College. “All yogis understand that duhkha is a problem, and yoga traditions throughout history have described practices that liberate disciplined people from duhkha.”

    Goldstein points out that the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, the first one being that duhkha is just a fundamental part of life. “The Buddha broke it down into three categories: 1) ordinary physical and mental suffering such as sickness or not getting what you want; 2) suffering produced by change such as chasing after happiness even as it is fleeting; 3) suffering produced by the ever-changing conditioned states of an ‘individual’ or ‘I whose permanent essence does not exist.” So duhkha covers the gamut from literal, physical suffering to abstract, existential suffering – in other words, the plight of being human.

    But this definition of duhkha-as-suffering still isn’t complete. And the derivation of the word speaks to that: “The etymology of duhkha reveals its meaning in a different way,” says Braverman. ‘”Duḥ’ (bad) + ‘kha’ (axle-hole) means ‘having a bad axle-hole. Having a chariot with a bad axle-hole (nowadays a car with a flat tire) is suffering.”

    That’s definitely partly true, but duhkha might be thought of more simply as a “bad fit”, says Cora Wen, founder and director of Yoga Bloom. “Duhkha is almost always translated as suffering and something to avoid,” she says. “But it’s more like uneasiness, or discomfort. Duhkha is not something that we can really get rid of, it’s something that resides within us, always. Even when you’re happy, it can still be there.” So the idea that finding happiness is like climbing a mountain is erroneous, she says – sure, there are things we can do, like yoga, meditation, or going to talk therapy, that help us learn to sit with the basic unease of being human. But it’s more a matter of managing duhkha than getting away from it. In other words, “there are things we do can make it weigh more or less,” says Wen.

    Wen points out that the flipside of duhkha is “sukha,” which means pleasure or ease – or more accurately, a “good axle-hole,” or a “good fit.” To illustrate the duhkha-sukha relationship, she recalls a time after she first started doing yoga when she was so taken with it that she practiced for six hours a day. In fact, she was so into it that when she “had” to go home for Thanksgiving one year, she was annoyed at having to stop her practice for those few days. “I was pissy,” she says, “because I thought it was duhkha to be with my family and stop my practice.” But it later turned out to be her last Thanksgiving with her mother, who passed away before the next Thanksgiving; it was then that Wen realized her perspective was what was the problem. “That Thanksgiving could have been sukah,” she says, “but I didn’t see it that way at the time. The suffering was all in my mind.”

    So sometimes the suffering just comes from the ennui and the strangeness of being human. Sometimes the suffering is “realer,” and comes from painful life experiences, like the loss of a loved one or an illness.  But even in these cases, the goal is to learn how to sit with it, or even better, detach from it so that you can see it for what it is. Knowing that the “suffering” or the unease of simply existing is a part of life – and that the truly bad times will pass – is one of the major goals of yoga.

    And sometimes you just have to laugh. “When we say that life is suffering we sound like really unhappy yogis,” says Wen. “But it’s a part of life. But if I accept that life will change – not might change, but will change, then it gets a little easier. Sweetness and sorrow are like two sides of a coin. You can’t stay in sorrow always, just like you can’t stay in sweetness always. It’s like the quote by Aubrey Menen,” Wen adds. “’There are three things which are real. God, human folly, and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.’”

    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 2nd, 2014 8:56:38 AM Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Kirtan

    Even if you’re not completely familiar with kirtan – the “yoga music” genre that’s often devotional in nature – you’ve probably heard it in passing, perhaps at a yoga studio or online. Though chanting and mantra go back a few thousand years, kirtan itself is a little more modern, dating only back to the 15th century or so. It was originally a way of expressing devotion to the deities, and even today it can have this element. But it doesn’t have to. Some people, like Dave Stringer, a well-known kirtan singer, use it for other purposes: Mainly, as a powerful (and beautiful) way to bring people together, to transform consciousness, and to access that feeling of universal awareness that yoga itself can bring about. In this way, says Stringer, it’s more about a psychological and neurological transformation than a religious one.

    Stringer points out that that kirtan was largely an invention of the Bhaktis, “a joyously rebellious movement, that took the music out of the temples and into the streets. They felt that if yoga is all about accessing a space of unitary consciousness, then there’s no meaningful distinction to be made between sacred and profane, or between temple and street.” So they made up simple songs and dances to convey to everyday folks what yoga was all about, or what another state of consciousness might feel like. “Music can be the fastest way to get there,” says Stringer. “It’s giving people the experience of what the state is – you get a taste of it, and that sticks with you. It’s way more efficient than lectures on yoga philosophy. Even for moment, if you slip the bounds of your limited sense of self, through music, dance…. that always remains.”

    So kirtan was a tool to give everyman a taste of yoga, which otherwise would have been reserved for the upper castes. It only made its way over to the west in the last century, and it’s just been in the last 50 years or so that it’s really gained momentum. Today it’s fairly popular in the U.S., and different styles of kirtan that would have never intermingled, says Stringer, are doing just that. And fusing other styles of music with kirtan has made it even richer and more engaging.

    Kirtan is a call-and-response style of mantra chanting, which makes it even more audience-participatory than other styles of music, says Stringer. He adds that what amazes him about the experience is how “consciousness-transformative” it can be. “We’re not doing it only to feel good, but to connect with others and enter into an experience of timeless, ecstatic awareness. Kirtan always involves the audience’s response – even though music always engages the audience, the audience in kirtan is always really part of the music. It blurs the separation between audience and performer.”

    It also blurs the separation between audience member and audience member. The pieces usually start slowly and steadily, and gain speed and energy over time – they can be fairly long, and the build-up is part of the key to its effect. By the end, you can feel completely connected not only to the music, but even more to the people around you, which again gets to that experience of unitary consciousness.

    Stringer says that another part of what asana and kirtan have in common is that they “both involve awareness of breath. With asana and kirtan we’re getting everyone to breathe together in unison. And we’re modifying the breath. You can feel the effects on the mind and nervous system. When you slow your breathing down, you begin to affect your autonomic nervous system – the parasympathetic system calms the body down.” In other words, the music can cue those same body systems that asana and pranayama do – they turn off the stress response and turn on the relaxation response. But, as the music builds in speed, it also incites a kind of energy, “giving the chanter an experience of a kind of weightlessness, completely relaxed and at the same time totally present and aware,” says Stringer.

    The other part of kirtan, like yoga, is more cognitive. By concentrating on something – here music, rather than an object or the breath – you’re shifting your attention from the chatter that’s typically looping in your mind (at least for many of us) to something else. Taking your awareness out of your self and toward something other is perhaps the most essential part of yoga.

    “One essential thing that yoga philosophy is saying,” says Stringer, “is that you and the world exist in state of interconnection. The more you inquire about the nature of things, the more the distinctions break down. The practices of yoga are designed not only to have you examine that, but to give you the experience of the breaking down.” And that’s exactly what one can experience in a live kirtan concert. “With kirtan we’re trying to lead people to the experience of it. It’s not even necessary to be completely immersed in it. Even a partial experience can have tremendous therapeutic value.”

    As lots of people have said before, whatever works for you – asana, mantra, meditation, pranayama – do it. For most people, it will be a combination of practices, just as it’s been for thousands of years.

    “The yogic texts talk about the experience of being Pure Awareness – not being bound by the body,” says Stringer. “It’s actually the illusory aspect of the world that things are separate. But when you experience yoga, you realize that the connection is what’s real, and the separateness is what is unreal. Kirtan, asana, and meditation are all practices designed to heighten awareness and deepen compassion. “They all affect the mind, the brain, and our emotional and nervous systems – and they were all developed long before we knew anything about neuroscience.”

    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 18th, 2014 7:00:45 AM Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Bandhas

    The term “bandha” in yoga has several different meanings, some more philosophical and others more literal. The word itself translates as “bind,” “bond” or “bondage,” which can obviously signify a lot of different things, positive and negative, mental and physical. Nikki Villela, of Kula Yoga in New York City, says that “the more literal translation of bandha is bondage or lock. However, at Kula we like to refer to them as valves, as they regulate the flow of pranic energy as a switch would control the flow of electric current.” Sometimes called the “yogic locks,” bandhas are different ways of locking or contracting the body, and are said to direct the flow of energy, or prevent it from escaping. Other connotations of the word have more to do with the human condition, and yoga’s powerful capacity to help us understand and navigate it.

    There are three main bandahs: Jalandhara, Uddiyana, and Mula. “Jalandhara means a netting or mesh,” says Villela. “When employing Jalandhara bandha the chin drops towards the notch between the collar bones as the side waist of the neck pulls back.” The chin can rest gently on the sternum, if possible, as the sternum reaches up towards it. Jalandhara bandha is generally done along with breathing practices, and, says Villela, is thought to regulate blood flow and energy from the constriction of the structures and vessels of the neck.

    Uddiyana, known as the abdominal lock, actually translates as “flying up,” says Villela, and is thought to help energy rise upwards. “When employing uddiyana bandha, the navel draws towards the spine and the abdominal organs are lifted towards the heart (and away from the pull and effect of gravity).” Uddiyana bandha is done after exhaling, and while doing a “mock inhalation” – that is, you open your rib cage as if you were inhaling while the abdominal muscles are drawn strongly towards the spine. This bandha is also said to increase “gastric fire,” and help digestion.

    The last bandha is the Mula bandha, known as the “root bandha.” Says Villela, “This bandha corresponds to working the pelvic floor. It can be helpful to think of the pelvic floor as a second diaphragm or a parachute that contracts and lift up.” Mula bandha is thought to redirect the flow of energy upwards towards the heart, and prevent energy from leaking out through the base of the spine or pelvic floor. ”Awareness of mula bandha helps to organize the organic body and give it support from the bottom up, much like working the feet helps to organize the entire body above them,” says Villela.

    Maha Bandha, or “the great bandha,” is when all three bandhas are done together, begun one at a time and then released in the same order. “For me personally,” says Vilella, “I like to think of the bandhas as a way to assist in one of the yogi’s primary goals: how to channel and then conserve energy. How do we work more intelligently so that less effort is exuded and less energy is lost? How can we conserve energy? How can we get our energy, which is said to lie dormant at the base of the spine, to percolate so that we can channel it and use it more efficiently? The bandhas.”

    As mentioned, bandha also has other meanings. Its translation as “bondage” can also refer to our original state – the state of “unenlightenment,” which yoga seeks to help us undo. In other words, the “bondage” refers to our own spiritual ignorance or unknowingness, and it’s yoga that helps us peel back the layers to reveal a more enlightened self.

    Another meaning from classical yoga is that it signifies the “correlation” or bridge/bond between our two selves, the ego self (the finite) and the transcendental self (the infinite). In this way, it is related to the term samyoga, which suggests that this “correlation” between the two selves is actually the root of all suffering, or dukkha. Through study and practice, it’s possible to break the “bond” – so in some ways, bandha is not only the source of suffering, but it’s also the key to enlightenment.

    Finally, as Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras, the sixth limb of yoga, dharana (concentration), is about bandha of another kind. With dharana, the goal is to focus on something visual (e.g., a flower) or auditory (a mantra). Since the mind naturally wanders from the object of attention, the task is to bring our attention back to the object, again and again. So here, bandha represents the bond that forms (after a lot of practice!) between the mind and its object of focus.

    So, bandha can have a lot of different connotations. In yoga class, it typically refers to the more advanced practice of the yogic locks. Philosophically, it has different meanings, which, in various ways, all conjure up the larger aims of yoga: To break down the bonds that hold us back, to connect with things outside ourselves, and to move from a limited form of awareness to a more encompassing one. Removing the bonds that limit us and creating new ones within and outside ourselves is, after all, what yoga is all about.

    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 26th, 2014 8:30:36 AM Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Ujjayi
    Learning how to breathe isn’t just a neat little thing you can do when you do yoga – it’s a central, and, some would say, nonnegotiable part of the practice. Pranayama, the art and science of controlling the breath, is an integral part of the Eight Limbs: Getting your body into the right state through breathing is the threshold to the next goals – focusing attention and calming the mind. Regulating your breathing has a measurable effect on the nervous system, so whether you’re a yogi or not, learning how to breathe differently can be life-changing. And a specific kind of breathing, known as ujjayi breath, is a very effective way to home into that calming, regulating part of the nervous system.

    “Ujjayi is also called Ocean Sounding Breath,” says DevarshiSteven Hartman, Dean of the Pranotthan School of Yoga and the former head of Kripalu’s School of Yoga. “But the difficulty is with the simplicity. True enlightenment lies in the continual practice of this breath alone.”

    The key, he says, is to layer ujjayi on top of dirgha breath, which itself breaks down into three separate phases. “Dirgha breath is learning to articulate the full range of expression of your inhale and exhale with consciousness,” says Hartman. “With dirgha breath, one breathes first into the lower abdomen, belly, then fills the middle (the ribs), then up to the top (the chest and clavicles). When exhaling, one empties from the top down – chest, ribs, then belly. Inhale belly, ribs, and chest. Exhale chest, ribs, and belly. Learning how to fully articulate the lung’s capacity helps to break open habitual patterning in the breath, restoring consciousness to resisted emotion and experience.”

    Once you have dirgha breath down, you can bring in ujjayi. “By slightly constricting the glottis (the back of the throat) one creates a smaller passageway for the breath which results in a sound like the ocean, or the beginning of a snore. Some call this the Darth Vader Breath.” As Jason Crandell says, what you want to do in ujjayi breath is reduce the aperture of the throat to get slow, smooth, regulated breath. Imagine that you’re trying to fog an imaginary mirror in front of you – it will be audible and intentional, but not labored.

    Hartman says that part of the value in this type of breath is that it may stimulate the vagus nerve, which among many basic bodily functions, is also linked to mood. “Recent studies have been focusing on the importance of vagal tone and happiness. The parasympathetic nervous system is soothed, natural endorphins (antidepressants) are released, the fright/flight response reduces, mental activity calms, the heart rate slows, digestion is aided, and much more – all from dirgha-ujjayi breath.”

    Deliberate breathing not only calms the nervous system in a physical way, but since it gives us something to focus our attention on, it also calms the mind in another way.The “monkey mind” phenomenon that many of us experience every day happens when the mind is unfocused and allowed to spin in multiple directions. But focusing attention on the breath (or on anything, for that matter) can reign in the wandering mind. “Practicing dirgha ujjayi breath results in becoming more present in your life,” says Hartman. “It establishes the ability to be in charge of directing your attention on what you choose, deliberately calming the common chatter of the mind at will. This ability begins to break existing thought patterns that are indoctrinated, unhelpful and unconscious. Witness consciousness (Vijnana Maya Kosha) is re-established and you become free to choose where and what you wish to place your attention on… Clearly being able to deliberately direct your attention is a foundational skill for obtaining a sense of well-being, happiness and self-improvement.”

    Again, ujjayi breath can be integrated into your practice whether you’re doing asana or a stiller form of meditation. And the great thing about it is that you can take it with you outside the home, at work, sitting in the park, or even in a coffee shop. (If you’re self-conscious, you can do it a little more quietly, but for the most part, ujjayi is quieter than you think, and passersby aren’t likely to take notice.)

    “Throughout the scriptures,” says Hartman, “the authors explain clearly that yoga asana without deliberate breath is not yoga at all; merely gymnastics. Deliberate and conscious breath, dirgha ujjayi, ignites the whole being into presence, integration, and ultimately the true knowing of the experience of bliss…beyond words.”

    He says to try ujjayi breath wherever you are, and as often as you can. “Just begin,” he says. “That’s the assignment.” He suggests making it a key part of your practice now and in the future, whether you’re doing asana, a sitting meditation, or just taking in the view of your cityscape or landscape. “That’s yoga – union,” he says. “Yoga is not yoga without ujjayi breath. Begin.”

    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 11th, 2014 12:30:39 PM Alice G. Walton 1 comment

    The Language of Yoga: Jai Ma
    You may have heard the term “Jai Ma” at some point in your practice, either used in mantra, or perhaps just “jai” alone more casually. It’s a lovely and simple phrase that calls to mind the creative forces in the universe – and more specifically, our acknowledgement and gratitude to them. Even more interesting, it calls to mind the feminine forces, which not only give birth to new things, but can also effect change in the old ones.

    “’Jai’ is the modern north Indian pronunciation of the Sanskrit ‘jaya,’” says William Mahony, PhD, Charles A. Dana Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion Department at Davidson College, “the latter meaning: victory to, hail, praise to, or admiration/adoration/respect for. ‘Ma’ is a word for ‘mother’ and in this context refers to the universal Goddess … powerful, protective, creative, effective. So, ‘jai ma’ could be translated as ‘great gratitude to the divine Mother. May her power be victorious over all obstacles.’”

    The maternal or female energy is one of the earliest objects of contemplation and worship. ‘Ma’ itself refers to the universal creative force that’s represented in the powerful feminine deity Shakti. Says Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, “The Divine Mother represents Shakti, or cosmic energy. I would use this phrase to say, in effect: ‘May the Divine rule in the form of the energy and love of the Mother, and may that energy bring us all good things.’

    Shakti is the counterpart of Shiva, who represents the masculine, “destructive” force in the universe, and who ultimately makes room for the creation of new things. Shakti, on the other hand, is that creative (feminine) power that fills the void with new energy and matter, and is a key agent of change. So, says Lasater, the phrase “Jai ma is another way of saluting the Divine Feminine in our world. We need it!”

    “Jai ma” is often used in chanting or mantra, says Lasater, but “jai” by itself can also be used in everyday communication. For instance, Lasater herself often signs her Facebook posts with “Jai!” as a valediction. “Jai itself is an exclamation meaning ‘victory to the good’ or ‘victory to God.’” 

    So try including a “jai” in your communications (and see if people ask you what it means). Or if you’re searching for a simple mantra that holds a lot of significance, you might try “jai ma.” Repeating the phrase either aloud or silently, while holding its meaning in your mind, may be an effective way to reboot your brain and get re-centered. And this attention-shifting is important whether you’re having a rough day, or whether you just want to express your gratitude to the universe, and to the power and importance of change. 

    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, 2014 12:00:33 PM Alice G. Walton 1 comment

    The Language of Yoga: Tantra

    One thing’s for sure about tantra: Its history is as complicated as its philosophy. Though there’s a lot of beauty to it, the tradition has picked up some not-so-positive connotations along the way. Many people equate “sex” or “weird sexual practice” with the word. But, says Coby Kozlowski, a teacher at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Life, but this isn’t totally accurate, as there are lots of different philosophies within the tradition. “The word itself has a vast history and can be thought of in many ways,” she says. “So often when we hear the word tantra, we think ‘sex.’ But tantra is a much more diverse and rich part of the evolution of yoga and is both a school of thought and body of practices. Within each school of thought there are diverse belief systems and today it stands as a path for many spiritual seekers.”

    The word tantra itself is translated as to weave, or loom, since the root “‘tan’ means to ‘stretch or expand,’” says Kozlowski. The suffix “tra” generally translates as tool or instrument, making tantra an instrument by which to weave. “We are given the gift of embodiment, and have the opportunity to dance with all that life has to offer and weave into the infinite tapestry—a constant and never ending loom, which is always expanding into more.”

    So why do we think of tantra as being so much about sex? Danny Arguetty, also a Kripalu teacher and student of Douglas Brooks, points out that tantra incorporates many different philosophies which diverged into three separate approaches over time. One of the arms became increasingly sexual in nature, but tantra as a whole got stuck with this connotation. “The Tantra involves a vast array of thoughts, philosophies, and schools which are often thought of as representing either a right handed, left handed, or centric approach,” says Arguetty. “The left handed practices used sexual practices of varying degrees – from benign to sadistic – and are the reason the Tantra still has negative associations in India.”

    But the associations just deepened as tantra moved to the U.S. “As yoga migrated to the West,” he says, “small groups of practitioners discovered the approach of left handed schools in turning sexual intercourse into a practice of raising energy, honoring pleasure by delaying and then having a more powerful orgasm, and feeling the dance of the feminine and masculine energies (Shiva and Shakti). With the help of these teachings and the Kama Sutras, neotantra (sometimes called California Tantra) was born, popularized, and created the association of Tantra as sexual practices. While many other Tantric schools do not deny physical intimacy as a conduit for rich exploration, they are also invested in infusing passion, increased energy, and pleasure into broader facets of life.”

    So that’s how it got its sexual and, in some circles, its negative connotations. But as both teachers point out, there’s a much richer way to think about tantra and incorporate the idea into our lives. Kozlowski says, “if you keep the more original definition in mind, tantra is about building upon and integrating past experience – good and bad – into the self. Tantra Yoga then becomes an opportunity to surf the different flavors of life such as grief, sadness, sorrow, passion, lightness, peace and recognize that tantra is not about escaping or disassociating from life but rather a rich relationship with all the different flavors that life has to offer.”

    How often have terrible situations in life – a job loss, a divorce, or some other form of rejection – later turned out to be turning points for something better? Keeping in mind the fact that the really painful things that happen to us are often, eventually, ways of inviting in better things is important. Of course, sometimes a bad situation is just a bad situation, and not always a door to something great. But even these times can be opportunities to learn to at least sit with the lousy stuff, and know that it too shall pass – and we’ll be the better for it. Oftentimes it seems like it’s the kindest, most soulful, and most giving people who have been through the most difficult situations in their lives. And that seems to be more than just coincidence.

    “Each moment becomes an opportunity to find a deeper and more intimate connection and an opportunity to delve into the intelligence and luminosity around us and in us,” says Kozlowski. “Rather than trying to reach a peak experience of enlightenment, we can both weave and bind to this moment and feel the evolutionary impulse of desire that expands us into the more.”

    What has been your experience with tantra, in any of its forms? Please comment 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 January 28th, 2014 12:30:30 PM Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Prana

    Most of us have heard the word “prana” somewhere along the road: Yoga teachers might mention it in reference to a person’s energy or their breath – or both. In fact, prana has elements of both energy and breath, as the two are intimately linked. Classically, it’s thought of as being the life-force that sustains us all, the energy that’s present in all forms of matter. Whether you think of prana as a physical entity within our bodies, or more generally as a metaphor to describe the underlying energy in everything – perhaps even in the universe itself – is up to you. Defining prana is difficult – feeling it is much simpler.

    Prana comes from the prefix “pra,” and the root word, “an,” which means to breathe. The word translates as “to breathe forth,” or often even more simply, “life.” Jillian Pransky, director of Restorative Therapeutic Yoga teacher training for YogaWorks, and a founding Director of Bright Spirit Yoga Trainings, says that the concept goes back thousands of years, to the ancient writings known as the Vedas. Pransky describes prana as being “the sum total of energy that is manifest in the universe; the ‘universal life force.’ In western science, the atom, of which matter and all life are comprised, is 99.999% empty space. From the yogic perspective, this space is not really empty but is filled with creative potential, the universal energy, Prana.”

    It can be hard for Westerners to wrap our minds around prana being a physical entity, as it’s understood in Eastern thought. Researching it will lead you to wildly disparate fields: from yogic philosophy to psychology to molecular biology to particle physics. Pransky points out that though it may not be quantifiable – now – this doesn’t mean it won’t one day be. “While not measurable by western scientific instruments,” she says, “yogis and most Eastern spiritual practices, agree that there is an energy, a life force, that, just like the breath – it is both within us, keeping us alive, and around us, pervading the environment and all of creation. Yogis believe that  ’energy’ – also known as prana – is the universal life force that makes all our bodies systems work, our mental and emotional systems produce activity, and fully sustains our actual ‘aliveness.’”

    Pransky says in her classes she sometimes has students do various exercises in which they rub their hands together very fast and then place them close together, but not touching. “They notice,” she says, “that when their eyes were closed they experience a sensation of heat, vibration, or energy. Some say it feels like they are pulling apart taffy; there is a magnetic force between their hands; a cushion between their hands; a heavy liquid barrier. Definitely something tangible is there. This is energy. Your prana. This is the part of you that walks in to a room before you do. This is the part of you that enters another persons space before your bodies touch.”

    Prana, as Pransky points out, is also intimately linked to the breath, which she says is “both a major source of prana and serves as a vehicle for regulating the flow of prana throughout the body. For this reason the science of the breath is called pranayama, or the channeling or harnessing of prana.” Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga, and allows us, at least to some degree, to control the mind. As many people have pointed out, it’s a lot easier to control the gross form (the breath) than the subtle one (the mind) – hence the study of pranayama.

    Finally, there’s another, really fascinating way to look at prana: The ancient Yoga-Vāsishtha describes prana as the “vibratory power” that underlies everything, animate and inanimate alike. Sri Swami Satchidananda in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras also describes it as the “basic vibration which always exists whether it is manifesting or not. It is never-ending…. We say that animate objects move while inanimate ones do not, because it appears that way to our eyes. We can’t see any motion in a stone, but that does not mean it is motionless. We need not go to the scriptures; the scientists themselves have proven that.” Indeed physics tells us that matter is made up of tiny vibrating particles – and even what appears to be empty space isn’t really empty at all.

    Perhaps prana is simply another way of expressing the idea that there’s more to us than meets the eye – more to our bodies, minds, and even the “empty” space that makes up everything. In physics, it’s called string theory. In psychology, it’s known as gestalt, borne out by the phrase, “the whole is other than the sum of the parts.” What that other is and why it occurs is anybody’s guess. Though science can’t quite explain it all just yet, yogis were talking about the underlying vibration of things thousands of years ago and learning how to direct it. Most of us can feel that energy in ourselves if we look inward, and in the person sitting next to us if we look outward. And perhaps right now, that’s all we need to know.

    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, 2014 12:00:53 PM Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Mantra

    Mantra is a central part of yoga practice for a lot of people today, and it’s certainly one of the oldest. Like other forms of meditation, mantra serves as a way to focus the mind and to bring attention back to a particular point when it wanders off – in this case, to a repeated syllable or phrase. YogaGlo teacher Kia Miller, who devotes much of her practice and teachings to mantra, says that in millennia past, a guru would have given his student a mantra – it would never be spoken aloud and it would be with him for life. Now, of course, it’s a completely personal choice, and you can settle on whatever speaks to you most strongly. “Mantra is very personal,” she says. “When you find a mantra that resonates with you, enjoy it.”

    The word originally comes from the Sanskrit root “man,” which means “to think,” and “tra,” which indicates instrumentality. So Mantra means “an instrument for thought” or more specifically, “thought expressed by sound.” Miller points out that “Mantras in their truest forms were said to literally come from the mouths of those who have reached an enlightened state… They were spoken by people in deep states of awakened consciousness.” Some mantras were passed down, preserved over time, and are still used today. There are of course many contemporary ones as well – and you can always invent your own, depending on what you wish it to convey. “There are all different types,” says Miller. “Mantras that heal, protect, activate, or help us move through blocks.”

    So how does mantra actually work? There are several different levels at which repeated words can affect us. The first, says Miller, is the “pure level of the sound vibration. The ancient yogis understood that everything in the universe is vibrating; mantra is our way to vibrate with the universe.” One of the simplest and most common mantras is “om.” It’s said to be the first or primordial sound of the universe, and repeating the syllable can help us feel connected to its infiniteness.

    Miller also stresses the psychological levels at which mantras may work: “There’s the level of intention,” she says, “since the words hold certain meaning… They express the truth of the intention.” In other words, just repeating an intention can help it take hold in your mind, and make it a reality in your life. Mantra may also work to “re-pattern” the brain, says Miller, as the repetition seems to affect certain aspects of brain function through the endocrine (hormone) system.

    Finally, mantra can be a powerful way to shift your attention. “People have always used mantra as a way to concentrate – mantras can be used externally (spoken aloud) or internally (silently).” The highest form, she says, is ajapa japa, in which mantra has been practiced enough that it becomes a constant state. Over time, the mantra becomes completely effortless and reflexive. “It’s as if the inner ‘radio station’ in your head is now the mantra,” says Miller, “instead of the anxiety jargon that’s so often going around in our heads. Mantra can become so ingrained that it’s just what’s playing.”

    Miller hits on the important point that all of our thoughts and ruminations – all those things we repeat in our heads all day long – have the exact same power over us that mantra does. Except that most of our go-to thought patterns are incredibly negative, and often fear-based, rather than affirming. “In a sense,” says Miller, “we’re always playing mantras in our heads. ‘Oh, I’m too fat.’ That’s a classic one. What are the mantras that you’re repeating?” Letting go of the refrains in your head that are not serving you well, and are in fact just leading to more anxiety and worry, is a pretty good reason to experiment with mantras. If you’re going to have something playing in your head, it may as well be something positive. And the ultimate goal might also be for those words to arise without you even asking them to, and before those negative thought cycles even have a chance to surface.

    “I think when we start to get conscious of it, and work with and rewrite our inner language, then we can reverse that inner loop of thinking,” says Miller. “Then it gets very personal, and very powerful.”

    As far as how to integrate it into your practice/s, that’s totally up to you. Some people might start the day with mantra, and then move into asana, or vice versa. Or you might practice mindfulness meditation in the morning and mantra at night. Miller says she often starts with a mantra first thing in the morning, since it’s a perfect way for her to jump into the day. “Like today,” she tells me, “I woke up even earlier than usual, and found that one particular mantra was just calling me out of bed. And it worked – I got out of my nice warm bed – that’s how powerful it was!”

    Have you tried mantra meditation? What has your experience been like? 

    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.