Monthly Archives: January 2013

Live Your Yoga….

As I return from retreat with my teacher Paul Muller-Ortega, I am even more committed to this slogan: Live Your Yoga. I’ve had this as my tagline for many years, and what it means to me keeps changing, as my practice and life continue to transform in a multiplicity of ways.

I began my yoga practice in a rigorous hatha yoga lineage, which in may ways was fortunate, for it taught me a lot about the nature of practice in general, the path of inward turning, and the existence of an abiding Self.  “Live your yoga” in this context demanded a rigorous, dedicated, diligent effort, while at the same time releasing expectations for particular results. The practice required an inward focus on the breath, and as I watched my mind in that practice, I discovered there was some part of myself that was steady, consistent, and unchanging, even in the midst of the wild undulations I was putting my body through.

Nonetheless I yearned for something more that I couldn’t quite articulate. I felt uncomfortable with a sense of austere asceticism, so when I learned of  a more tantric based system of hatha yoga, I was drawn to explore it more and more. The philosophy that everything is an embodiment of the divine, with an emphasis on becoming aware of, and celebrating that innate divinity was extremely enticing.  I appreciated the sense that the body itself is divine, rather than something to be controlled. My body appreciated an asana practice with greater variety, and the clear ways of aligning my body allowed me to heal a back injury that had been debilitating.

I deeply resonated with a philosophy of intrinsic goodness and the idea that life was a gift to be celebrated. It was at this point in my practice that the “live your yoga,” tagline was formulated, as I was immersing myself in myth and tantric philosophy, and using these teachings as a metaphor for how to live life as a householder yogi. Yet eventually that practice, too, left me feeling like something was missing, a certain grounding and abiding stability.  It felt increasingly shallow, and I missed the discipline and focus, and inward turning that I had experienced in my earlier years of practice.

So I started meditating.  The discipline I had learned early on serves me well: I get on my cushion twice daily, no matter what I feel like or what comes up in the course of the practice. I’ve learned that the deep withdrawal into the heart of my Self can feed my life on the surface. I see how both these streams of yoga come together to form a beautiful pulse in my life.

On a daily basis through my meditation and other practices, I follow the stream deep within to the stable abiding Source, which benevolently brings greater clarity and alignment.  Then this connection helps steer me as I ride the outward current into my householder life, manifesting more creatively and efficaciously as I move through each day. Now I know I need both the inward moving current and the outward manifesting current to fully live my yoga.


When I first began studying yoga in 1985, and I had the opportunity to have long discussions with one of my teachers about the greater context of yoga. He was a younger teacher beginning to explore philosophy, and I was an eager student.  After class I would stay, sometimes an hour or more, while we would debate the meaning of life.

That spark of interest never went away.  The more I practiced on the mat and observed the changes within me, the more I wanted to understand  the historical and philosophical context of the practice.

At that time, yoga was still on the fringes, and there were just a few academically oriented translations of texts like the Yoga Sutra available.  I formed different study groups with my fellow practitioners in which we struggled to understand the teachings.  They had some utility, but generally it was very frustrating.  With continued practice and studies, some of the teachings started to make some sense, and as I brought them into my classes, students started asking for more, and the next thing I knew I was teaching a class on yoga philosophy. As yoga gained popularity, various scholars started emerging with books and seminars that were extremely helpful, and I continued teaching by inviting students to my house for study groups.

Through this process I discovered several things about studying yoga philosophy. First, many of the teachings are purposefully cryptic. Originally an oral tradition, many of the texts are comprised of pithy aphorisms, not unlike a present day power-point presentation, intended to be further unpacked.  Or it could be intentional to occlude the meaning to the uninitiated.  So second, it is really necessary to have a teacher.  And third, all of the translators and teachers have their own bias that they bring to the teachings, so it is necessary to look at multiple translations for a broader perspective. Fourth, the teachings come alive when one reads, recites, and actively engages with them through contemplation, writing, and discussion. As I observed myself and my students, I noticed that those who “got” the most, were those most actively engaged in practice, writing and discussion.

As I struggled in these early days, I vowed that I would do whatever I could to make the teachings more accessible given the challenges I faced as a young yoga student.  When the philosophy scholars began to emerge, I considered whether I needed to keep teaching philosophy since I was far from an expert.  I continue to struggle with this, and with the format of my offerings.  But ultimately, I think I bring something of value because I am NOT a scholar in the traditional sense, and can make the teachings accessible in a unique and interactive way.

From my years of experience, here’s five reasons I’ve found studying philosophy important and rewarding.

1. It is exercise for your brain! Yoga for your mind. Just like we stretch and strengthen our bodies with the asana practice, wrapping our bodies into seemingly impossible postures, studying philosophy forces us to wrap our minds around concepts we may have never imagined.

2. Theory and practice supplement and support one another. As in many modalities, understanding the theory behind a practice can enhance your understanding of your experience, and vice versa.  Understanding the philosophy can help explain and authenticate your experience.

3. Discussing philosophy gives you an opportunity to interact with fellow practitioners in a meaningful way, build community, give and receive support. There is an unvoiced connection with those people on their mats next to you in yoga asana class which can become voiced as you consider the teachings, creating an opportunity to solidify  connection and create community with like-minded individuals.

4. Contemplation of the teachings allows you to examine how you might live your life more skillfully and in line with your yogic values.  As we move further down the path of yoga, we become increasingly interested in aligning what we learn on the mat and through our studies with our actions in the rest of our lives.  Yoga philosophy can provide a perspective to enable this.

5. The teachings are a word stream of the great lineage of yoga. They are products and descriptions of heightened states of awareness.  As we immerse ourselves in that stream through reading and contemplation, we immerse ourselves in this flow. We connect ourselves to those yogis who produced the teachings and to that flow of energy they describe.

Please comment below on your experiences studying yoga philosophy.