Archive for the ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’ Category

Practice What You Practice

People are drawn to the practice of yoga for a multitude of reasons. There’s plenty of evidence showing it can help improve strength, flexibility, and physical health. Meditation is also becoming popular, mainly for its ability to relieve stress. These and other benefits to the body and mind, though wonderful, are still not the ultimate purpose of this ancient philosophy. In Louisiana we’d call these benefits lagniappe, a little something extra we can enjoy, but not to be mistaken for the main event. Yoga is a spiritual practice meant to lead the aspirant to enlightenment. In the West we often think of our being as two-fold, mind and body. In this dichotomy the body is external and the mind is internal. In Eastern philosophy however there are 3 parts to us: mind, body, and spirit. The spirit is the real deal, and the mind is just as unreal and external as the body. This is why our own mind can be such a mystery, seemingly controlling our thoughts, words, and actions. Through the practice of yoga we use the body and mind as tools to transcend both, getting in touch with the true nature of our inner being, our spirit.
In the yoga sutras, Patanjali says yoga is the calming of the mind. He chooses to mention friendliness, kindness, joy, and equanimity/non-judgment (1:33) as the four qualities to cultivate within ourselves in order to have a calm mind. Later he describes the 8 limbed path that includes the restraints, observances, postures, breathing, introspection, concentration, and meditation that will lead us to enlightenment. But before all of that he chooses to call attention to these four practices that anyone, regardless of ability to stretch or sit, can begin to practice and therefore get more clarity of mind.
I often tell my students, we don’t do yoga to get better at yoga…we do yoga to get better at life. I believe one reason we call it “practicing” yoga is because the things we do on the mat or while meditating are practice for the main event, which is life. Whatever we do on the mat or cushion is helping us to learn the principles of yoga which we then apply in our lives. And we must take our practice off the mat, we must be able to translate those lessons to our experiences in this life. That’s why we were given this incarnation, to learn and experience until we return to our Source. It’s great if we can practice being kind to ourselves when we can’t perform a challenging asana, but if we don’t take that lesson with us and speak kindly to ourselves when we’re stressed about money, or to our co-workers in a tense meeting, then we’ve missed the real benefit, and perhaps even the purpose, of yoga. It’s wonderful to find that state of peace while in meditation, but if we leave the meditation hall, get in our car, and get angry and yell at the drivers around us, again we’ve blown it. To be clear, I’m not saying we have to be perfect people. As Wayne Dyer said, you can only be better than the person you used to be. An effective yoga practice supports us in being our best self in each moment, evolving along the way.
Your thoughts, words, and actions are the results of what you practice. By practicing these principles when we do yoga postures, sit for meditation, or breathe deeply we are strengthening our ability to be friendly to a difficult person, kind to someone who has hurt us, to find joy even in the midst of challenges, and to remain even and non-judgmental through the ups and downs of life. The true measure of a yogi is not just our ability to be present during our practice; it’s in how we treat ourselves and others during the moments between practices.


Hashtag Savasanuary

It started as a joke, as good ideas often do. On a random Facebook thread, my good friend and fellow yoga teacher Shana Stein of Operation Yoga said, “I really want to nail my savasana this year.” She was making a tongue in cheek reference to all the yoga challenges, progress pics, and advanced asanas that appear all over social media. Now, I’m not saying these are all bad.  I’ve participated in some really fun Instagram challenges with gracious hosts who offer modifications and encouragement to all yogis. I also see that sometimes the focus on the image overly emphasizes “getting the pose,” yet misses getting the yoga. Yoga is about union, connection, calming the mind, and overcoming the ego. There is a reason for asana, and postures are an important part of the yoga path for many, including myself. Asana can also be a double edged sword. Postures can trigger the ego, telling us we aren’t as good as another yogi because our backbend isn’t as deep, or that we’re better than someone else whose crow isn’t flying quite as high as ours. The important work is what we do with these thoughts, how we face our fears and challenge our ego based beliefs. When I teach kids I often say, “Savasana is the hardest pose in yoga.” Although it may be easy for the body, simply lying down, it’s the mind that can struggle to find the “steadiness and comfort” that Patanjali recommends for a successful asana. So back to Shana’s comment. I loved it. I ran with it. And so #savasanuary was born.

Jump in anytime for this “unchallenge.” Just take a pic of yourself in savasana, post it on the social media platform of your choice, and tag #savasanuary. No hosts, no sponsors, no pressure. The prize is peace! Give yourself the gift of a few moments of rest each day and share, if you’re so inclined, to encourage others to do the same. Do it every day or any day, whatever works for you. Enjoy!


I’ll Be Om for Christmas

Maintaining equanimity amidst the holiday rush can be challenging for even the most mindful yogis. The good news is even regular Joe-gis can benefit from some simple techniques drawn from the yoga tradition. Come with me on a journey of OM from AM to PM!

Snooze Button Meditation
The holiday season sometimes means late nights and early mornings, which isn’t great for motivating you to get up early to meditate. Make it easy on yourself by using this snooze button meditation technique. When your alarm goes off, hit the snooze button and sit up cross-legged in bed or hang your legs off the edge. With a tall spine, rest your hands palms face up on your thighs. Inhale and exhale deeply and slowly, observing the sounds and sensation of your breath until the alarm goes off again. Bonus points if you set your alarm a few minutes early and get up for a longer session!

Traffic Jammin’ Dance Party
Typical rush hour traffic is bad enough, but add in the shoppers, travelers, distracted drivers, and bad weather and it can get downright nasty out there. If you find yourself caught in traffic, you can either arrive late and angry or arrive late and happy! Practice the yogic principle of santosha, or contentment, and make the best of the situation. Take advantage of the awesome acoustics in your vehicle and have a good old fashioned traffic JAM! Put on your fave holiday tunes, or any song that lifts your spirits, and sing and dance along. True story, one day I was getting super frustrated in traffic and glanced in my rear view mirror to see the driver behind me singing and grooving, having a blast! It made me smile and reminded me not to take anything too seriously. Bonus points if you can get the driver next to you to dance along!

Under the Table Tennis
Standing in line for Santa in those cute holiday heels may be fun, but your feet won’t be happy! Bring a tennis ball to work or keep one at home to roll your feet on under the desk. The feet are the endpoint for many energy channels, sometimes called meridians or nadis, that run to different parts of the body. By massaging the feet you also stimulate and balance the organs, glands, spine, and chakras. I like to roll my feet while working on my laptop. Bonus points if you take it outside and take off your shoes, connecting to the healing energy of the Earth!

Mall Meltdown Mantra
When faced with the hectic shopping scene, create a serene space inside your own head. Repeating a calming word or phrase to yourself can distract your busy mind from those worrisome, negative thoughts and replace them with something positive. One I like to use is, “It’s all good.” You can mentally chant in any language, whether it’s the traditional Sanskrit or your native tongue. Of course, “Om” is always a good choice. Om is the sound of the universe, and though it doesn’t have a literal translation, you can think of it as meaning “light.” Bonus points if you get brave and chant out loud!

Present Wrapping Pranayama
During routine tasks like wrapping presents, baking cookies, or writing cards, you can perform a mental version of analoma viloma, or alternate nostril breathing. In the traditional breathing exercise you use one hand to periodically close off one nostril then the other, inhaling and exhaling between sides. If your hands are busy, you can simply visualize the air flowing in through one nostril and out the other. Here’s the rhythm: Inhale through the left nostril, Exhale out the right nostril, Inhale through the right nostril, Exhale out the left nostril. Repeat as many rounds as necessary to achieve a calm, balanced state of mind and body. Bonus points if you use a neti pot in the mornings to clear those nasal passages, allowing the breath to flow freely and helping nip any winter colds in the bud!

Yogic Sleep and Sweet Dreams
Use a guided meditation to help you wind down before bed. You can find yoga nidra, or yogic sleep, guided relaxation videos on YouTube. I like this one by Jennifer Reis. This healing and restoring guided meditation technique helps to turn on the body’s natural healing response and counteract the “fight or flight” stress mode that many of us maintain throughout the day. Bonus points if you fall asleep during the nidra and stay in a state of peace all night!

No matter what traditions or beliefs you celebrate this winter, I hope these simple yoga practices help keep you merry and bright! Happy Holidays!

christmas star

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Money Can’t Buy Me Love

“Aparigraha-sthairye janma-kathamta-sambodhah.” Patanjali, Chapter 2 Sutra 39

In his yoga sutras, Patanjali writes, “When non-acquisitiveness is established, an understanding of the purpose of birth is gained.” Aparigraha, non-acquisitiveness or non-attachment, is the final of the five yamas that form the foundation of the practice of yoga. In our modern society, in the West and in America in particular, much emphasis is placed on what you have. Advertisements constantly bombard us with messages about “newer, better, must have” products. Many people measure success with how much money they make, the type of car they drive, where they live, their clothes, toys, vacations, in short, their possessions. Wayne Dyer teaches that ego is “Edging God Out” and that ego tells us we are what we do and what we have. We get so caught up in making and spending money that we forget to enjoy life. Even thousands of years ago the yogis knew humans were subject to this flaw. By letting go of the material world, we can instead focus on our spiritual path. The purpose of birth that Patanjali refers to can be thought of as our path, our dharma, or our destiny.
My partner, Charlie, and I have spent the last year cutting back and paring down in many ways. At first it was out of necessity, due to financial issues. But once we saw how our lives began to change because of it, we became willing participants in living a more minimalist lifestyle. The first major change we made was cancelling our cable television. Before that I thought that commercials didn’t affect me that much. I knew I watched them but I thought I was too smart and aware to let them influence me. I was very wrong. Even if the commercial didn’t succeed in getting me to buy the product, it still seeped into my consciousness. After being without cable for about six months Charlie and I both felt less desire for things. We felt lighter, and we lost that constant nagging feeling that we needed something more, something better. We began to realize that we already had almost everything that we needed. There are only a few items we still want to obtain, and even these we see not as necessities but as things that would be nice to have. We are now able to get by on much less yet still feel satisfied.
We also began to give things away. Little things, like extra clothes, books or just anything that we had been holding onto that we no longer used. And as we did this two things happened: one, the universe began to put people in our path who needed the very things we were giving away; and two, we began to receive the very things that we needed from others. When we let go of attachment to specific possessions, it created room for a natural flow to establish itself. It is recommended in many traditions, like feng shui, to clear out old clutter in order to create space for new things to flow into your life.
Finally, we both at different times in our lives gave up a lucrative career in a field we were unhappy with in order to follow our hearts and do what we were passionate about. When you let go of the need to buy and have lots of material things, it allows you to explore your true passions and possibly make less money to do something you love. I am grateful that I have been able to do this, as not everyone has the support it takes follow their dreams. However, I do think more people could if they were able to practice non-attachment and simplify their lives. It isn’t always easy and there have been times when we struggled, but it has been worth it. For us, giving up some material pleasures has freed us up to follow our true path, and we have found so much more fulfillment and happiness because of it.

The Secret in the Sutras

As we learned from the X-Files, the truth is out there, and I love when I find the same truths from different sources. The movie “The Secret” claims to be based on ancient truths that were known by all the great minds of the past, but have been lost to many modern people. Its main assertion is that there is one law of the universe, the law of attraction: like attracts like. In order to manifest more of what we want to have, do, and be, we should think and feel as if we have already attained those things. Most people make the mistake of focusing on the negative, or what they do not want, and inadvertently attract more of the bad stuff. The Secret teaches us to focus on the positive, to imagine what it would feel like to already have accomplished what we want, and to stay in that frequency of feeling good in order to attract more positive to our lives. Recently when studying Patanjali’s yoga sutras, I found several that seemed to be the basis for some of the principles of the Secret. The yoga sutras are 196 aphorisms written down by Patanjali around the 2nd century BCE, and are said to be based on teachings even older than that. In chapter 2 of the sutras, Patanjali begins to outline the yamas and niyamas, which are ten foundational principles of right living that yogis are called to uphold in order to progress on the path to enlightenment. These principles are to be practiced even before postures and breathing exercises, which most of us think of as being the core of yoga. Patanjali describes these principles and tells us what benefits we can expect if we put them into action.

Chapter 2, verse 36 says that when satya, or truth, is firmly established the yogi attains the result of action without acting. My interpretation of this sutra is that when you are truthful in your thoughts, words, and actions, then your personal frequency or vibration matches that of the truth. Like attracts like, so truth must in turn match your frequency. Your thoughts, words, and actions become truth. You manifest your honest desires into reality, thus creating the results of action without acting. The Secret tells us that thoughts become things, and that what we think about we bring about. A yoga teacher I know says that the highest truth is love. When you have loving, truthful thoughts, you establish truth within yourself, and manifest good in your life.

The next verse says that when asteya, or non-stealing, is established then all wealth comes to the yogi. The Secret teaches us that the best way to get things we want is to cultivate the feeling that we already have them. By being grateful for what we have, we then bring more good things to us. If we concentrate on what we don’t have, we send a vibration of lack and want out into the universe, so that is what it gives back to us. If we instead focus on being abundant and fulfilled, then the universe gives us more so that we continue to have that feeling. If we are taking what is not ours, then we are sending the signal that we don’t have enough. Because like attracts like, the universe then sends us more lack, more “not having enough.” We will experience having less. But if we don’t steal from others and instead are content with what we have, then the universe sends us more abundance, more “having enough.” We will experience having more. This idea is also contained in the Bible. Several times we see Jesus teaching something similar to this line in Matthew 13:12: “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

Finally verse 42 tells us that supreme happiness comes from santosha, or contentment. Notice that it doesn’t say that happiness will bring you contentment. It says that being content with what you have, where you are, what you do, etc. will bring you happiness. Instead of chasing things, people, or experiences that we think will make us happy, we should foster contentment for what we already have. This verse emphasizes the idea that feeling happy, content, and fulfilled with what we have right now is actually the best way to get more of what we want.

Finding commonalities in various ancient sacred texts and modern writings helps to prove to me that there is truth in what they teach. The truth is out there, and it is waiting to be found.

Control Issues

“If you change the rules on what controls you, you will change the rules on what you can control.” –Zack, Revolver

Do you feel the need to try to control every aspect of your life, and that of others? Or do you feel totally out of control and helpless? What do we really have control over? These questions are common for many of us, myself included. I often joke that I had to become a yoga teacher to get over my type-A personality traits that I inherited from my father (love you dad!) Some of the aspects of this tendency are good, like being organized and thorough. However it gets us in trouble when we try to overstep our boundaries and increase our circle of influence beyond what we can truly control. At my last weekend training for my 500 hour yoga certification, Thom Allen presented another amazing “swadhyaya” session. Thom is not only a yogi, he is also a psychotherapist, so he brings a unique talent and perspective to the topic of self-study. He had us look at the areas of our lives on which we expend the most energy. Then he had us take that list and separate it based on what we can control, what we have influence over, and what is out of our control. Finally he had us take the same list and separate it based on how much time we spend on each item. In doing this exercise we had some interesting observations and discoveries, both individually and as a group. I realized that I spend a lot of time and energy on things that don’t support, nurture, or help me to grow. And many of these things that I put so much time and energy into are actually in the sphere totally outside of my influence and control! The only thing I put in the category of “totally under my control” is myself: my own thoughts, words, and actions.  Another student brought up the fact that our goal in yoga is to control our own minds, which then gives us ultimate control. We direct our thoughts to the positive and by the law of attraction positive things manifest for us. Anything that we perceive as negative in our lives, we learn to turn around by using a positive perspective. By this logic we actually control everything in our lives. If we maintain equanimity in all situations by controlling our own minds, then we remain in true control over ourselves. Problems arise when we try to start on the outside and work our way in, instead of starting with ourselves and letting the universe work its magic from the inside out.  We often think that if we can change our external situation then we will finally find peace and happiness internally. We might think, “once I get that job, find a partner, or can afford that car, then I’ll be happy.” Instead, yoga teaches us to cultivate that internal peace and happiness and then let that positive energy flow out into our lives. Another fellow student told a story of when someone made the passing comment, “you can’t control the weather,” and how that really helped her to let go of the need to control things in her life that she couldn’t change, like other people. In meditating on this topic lately I was also reminded of the Bible quote in which Jesus reminds us to “first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the speck out of your brother’s eye.” If we can’t first control our own thoughts, words, actions, and reactions then who are we to try to control someone else? The beauty of the paradoxical universe is that by first working on ourselves, we can affect our external circumstances. If we have only loving, positive, grateful thoughts then we will attract loving, positive, grateful people. And think of it this way, even when we do need to interact with people who are negative, if we maintain our own positive attitude then we don’t let them affect our mood. Again, we are in control! When we focus on happiness and peace we will be given circumstances that reinforce our happy and peaceful state of mind. Even if you don’t think your thoughts can literally change the world, which I do, at the very least you will have a more positive lens through which to view any situation. So start working to control your internal state of mind, cultivating inner peace and happiness, and you will soon see the ripple affect begin to create peace and happiness all around you!

Persistent Practice and Non-attachment

In verses 12-16 of the yoga sutras, Patanjali describes two ways to control the fluctuations of thoughts in the mind and thereby end suffering. One is through abhyasa which is constant practice or repetition of a mental or physical exercise. Not to be confused with sadhana, abhyasa refers to any process, practice, or focused effort. Sadhana is the spiritual practice or method used, the techniques employed in a fashion of abhyasa. The other way to control the mind is vairagya which is non-attachment to situations, people, and things. Non-attachment eliminates the emotional reactions to changes in circumstances relating to these things. When there is a regular repetitive practice of anything the mind realizes it can relax into the practice. When the mind is thus relaxed it is easier to train it to not become attached to outcomes. These two mental modifications can work together to calm the mind. Control of the thoughts does not mean that they will be eliminated, rather the mind is harnessed and one can choose which circumstances to act on instead of always reacting. Each moment gives us a new opportunity to choose our responses. Ultimately the choice is to either follow love or fear. A fluctuating mind is anxious and fearful. When we use the above practices to calm the mind it can relax into love, knowing that the true Self is really united with Source and not separate, as our thoughts which come from the ego lead us to believe. Even though we may still experience waves of fear or anger, we become better at recognizing them an unreal and instead choosing love. Thus the ultimate goal of calming the mind is achieving enlightenment, transcending the mind and entering a state of bliss.

Abhyasa implies a long-term and consistent practice. Whether the technique is meditation, mantra chanting, asana practice, volunteer work, study of scriptures, or devotional worship does not matter. A combination of these may also be used as long as the consistency is in place. All the many paths lead to the same goal. In psychology there are several therapeutic techniques which use this same ancient wisdom. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves recognizing the triangular association of thoughts, emotions, and actions. By changing any of these you affect the other two. Dialectical behavioral therapy counts mindfulness training as part of its practice. Deep breathing and breath retention is taught in therapy to relieve anxiety. Modern scientists have come to the same conclusions that were revealed to the yogis of the past. It is said that a bad habit cannot be broken, only replaced. By replacing negative thoughts, actions, or feelings with positive ones practiced through abhyasa, you can lead the mind in a positive direction. I have experienced this personally when I was going through therapy. My yoga practice was instrumental in my healing and continues to be my anchor when I feel myself getting out of balance. I can tell when I do not practice consistently my mind begins to go to negative places. When I am more disciplined about practicing meditation, asana, and pranayama I can more easily observe and respond to my thoughts and feelings instead of being influenced by them and reacting without thinking. I am better in tune with Source and can find wisdom and lessons even in difficult situations. I have also found that even a short daily practice is better than practicing for a longer period of time but inconsistently. And I know that when my mind is particularly anxious it is better for me to practice a led or guided meditation or asana because then I can surrender to the instructor. For me it has also become important not to berate myself when I don’t practice. That only leads to more frustration. I can only choose my actions in the present moment, and dwelling on failings in the past doesn’t serve anyone.

The other aspects that are important to abhyasa are that the practice must be continued over a long period of time and with sincere devotion. Yoga is measured in years, decades, and lifetimes. In the anime series “Full Metal Alchemist,” a character says, “The more steps we take forward the longer we see the road is ahead.” The road to enlightenment is long but this should not be discouraging. Rather it shows us that we do not have to race to the finish or win a contest, as there is really no end but enlightenment. The practice is there for us forever and we continually learn and grow from it. Devotion means that your practice is dear to you, it is a passion. Sometimes it is hard to get motivated but in general you enjoy what you do and it makes you feel better. In chapter 9 verse 26 of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells Arjuna, “The reverent presentation to Me of a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, given with pure intention, is a devotional offering acceptable in My sight.” Any offering given with sincere devotion is accepted by Source. Scrubbing toilets can lead to enlightenment just as well as meditating alone on a mountain, perhaps even better. It is the intention, and not necessarily the action, which matters.

Which leads into the second mental practice to calm the mind, non-attachment. You do not have to renounce the world and dedicate your entire life to one thing. In the Bible Jesus says in John 17: 15-16, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” Again, it is not necessary to go to a cave or mountain to attain enlightenment. The better path may be to stay among other beings and try to elevate your own and thereby their consciousness, to try to alleviate suffering as much as possible. You can own material possessions as long as you are not owned by them. As the Thai meditation master Achaan Chaa said, “When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”   As long as you know that the glass is already broken, you can maintain non-attachment to it so that when it does break you do not experience suffering. Rather you are grateful and appreciate the value you got from it when you had it. Non-attachment applies to aversions as well as attachments, likes and dislikes must both be eliminated. Light and dark are the same from the highest perspective. The yin-yang symbol shows us that there is a little bit of darkness in light and a little bit of light in darkness. We try to move from rajasic or tamasic to satvic, but in the end even satvic qualities are overcome and there is nothing but bliss. Going through life everyone has established attachments or aversions to certain things. We have desires and expectations, and when they are not met then we suffer. In the beginning of the practice our goal is to let go of these attachments. As we advance then we learn to also prevent our minds from making the attachments in the first place. We stop taking on attachments. We try to stop judging or forming opinions. We are not triggered by our likes and dislikes, tempted by our cravings. I used to think I was a non-judgmental person. The more I learn and study and practice the more I realize I make so many judgments, good and bad. You never really know what is going on in another person’s life, and to assume anything is counterproductive to cultivating non-attachment. Even if the assumption is of a positive nature, there is still judgment in it. Instead of trying to figure out someone on an intellectual level, it is more important to connect with the Source within them.

I will close with a translation of the word “namaste” which I always say to close my yoga classes. “I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light, and of peace. When you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are one.” Truly living this idea can create a connection at the level of Truth and Source instead of at the false level of the cosmic dream and all its attachments and anxieties.  When we cultivate abhyasa, consistent devoted practice, and vairagya, non-attachment, then we are free to dwell in the heart, not the head.

Erin Marie Yoga



Helping people who are ready for better