Category Archives: How Yoga Works

EXPLORATION in LETTING GO #1

For a while now, I’ve been thinking of an idea that is popular in spirituality and health circles, but is as well grounded in yoga philosophy. It appears in various guises, names, and nuances: letting go, releasing, vairagya/dispassion, allowing. We’ve heard “just let it go,” which is so easy to say, and so hard to do. And that, exactly, is the problem. Letting go is un-doing, which seems impossible.

I’ve been thinking about it because it feels very important to me in my practice right now. With many years of practicing yoga, I seem to have embodied well the idea of practice and discipline. I know the efficacy of doing, of getting on my yoga mat, my meditation cushion, sitting down with a book or recording of my teachers to do studies, contemplating and writing. This I can do. But what about undoing?

To some extent, what has been done cannot be undone. I ate that chocolate cake, I took a nap instead of going for a walk, the injury happened, be it physical and/or emotional. This relates to karma, and the idea that every action has a consequence. My strategy has generally been to try to make better choices, and this is critical on the path of yoga. For example, redirecting my desire for cake to a healthier choice. My practice has definitely aided in making better choices overall.

Yet I can’t help but sense there’s more to it. Through my practice, I have noticed many attachments fall by the wayside when they no longer fit into my life. The letting go happened naturally like when a kid no longer cares for particular toys. Often it seems this happens because something else becomes more attractive. Again this is the result of replacing one attachment with another hopefully more adaptive one.

Still there are some persistent deep rooted patterns that continue to lurk, even after decades of practice. And as I’ve introspected, my conclusion is that in general they are all a fundamental disconnectedness with _____ . You fill in the blank: source, God, Self, heart, etc. It is a contraction that makes me feel smaller, and Tantric yoga philosophy calls it the “anava mala,” the fundamental separation of the individual being from divine source. It is a necessary contraction for the individual soul to become embodied, to take on the limitations of a body-mind.

How does one meet these deep-seated contractive patterns? I sense this is a place for actively letting go. But it feels extremely paradoxical. How does one undo? How does one actually release some deep seated pattern that has been reinforced for years, perhaps lifetimes? Can it be done, more precisely “undone,” or is it more of a process of replacing bad patterns with good patterns?

As a good yogi who started practicing on the level of the body, that’s where I am beginning my experimentation with letting go. I’ve begun to watch how much I hold in my body. I watched it first in shavasana, the relaxation and integration pose we do at the end of yoga class. There I can feel my body actively release. I put my attention to a contracted area and ask it to let go. For me this begins with my shoulders, as I am one of those people that carries the weight of the world there. So as I am in shavasana, I allow the muscles of my shoulders to release. Then I notice where else feels contracted, usually my jaw or my face, and again, send the message to relax.

I’ve also noticed it on the massage table, in the dentist’s chair, when I’m on a walk. I notice it as I sit here typing. I take a deep breath and release unnecessarily contracted muscles.

So I’m making some progress on the physical level. And I suspect this is teaching me something about letting go the deeper layers of psychological and emotional patterns that keep popping up. How do I let those go?

I have a lot of ideas, but I really don’t know. And for me, saying “I don’t know” is a form of letting go. That’s a start.

Stay tuned, I hope to have more to add as I continue my explorations. For now, you are invited to practice noticing and releasing bodily contractive patterns, shavasana is a great place to start. As well, I invite your contemplations on this subject.

REFINEMENT REFINED

judge

I previously wrote on “Refinement” (http://cindylusk.com/refinement/) and in the 3+ years since, I have refined my understanding of refinement. This points to precisely the process of refinement: it is a continuing process, and in that process there are many stages. And as I previously argued, this process of refinement applies to all aspects of your life. And yoga, particularly meditation, is a key means to facilitating refinement.

We all know this to a large degree on the surface of our lives. Take our bodies for example: many of us are continually refining our diet toward more healthy habits. Likewise with exercise.

As I discussed previously, our yoga asana practice is a continuing process of refining. We learn how to correctly align our bodies to an optimal pose, when to back off, and when to go deeper. We refine our ability to listen to our bodies.

Also in many varieties of yoga asana, we learn to work with our breath, which brings a deeper level of refinement. As we listen more deeply to our breath we notice its rhythm, if we’re holding it or it is agitated, etc. This somewhat more subtle avenue of awareness allows for refinement on a deeper level, as we begin to notice more subtle shifts in our being and awareness.

Our thinking also undergoes refinement. As we apply our minds to any subject, our understanding is refined. This is the process of vikalpa samskara: the refinement of our conceptual understanding of anything, be it it technical, philosophical or artistic.

To have maximum capacity for refining our lives and understanding on many levels, the yogic texts argue that we must refine ourselves. If the instrument we are using for refinement, our body-mind, is itself unrefined, then the results of using it to refine other aspects will be less than optimal. It is as if you’re using a blunt instrument to do fine work. To some degree it will work, but the results will be messy and unrefined.

The practice of meditation works to do this in many ways. First of all, the practice itself begins to rearrange and clarify our awareness. I think of one result of meditation as clearing a pathway to our highest self. So, first, meditation is like a cosmic cleaning service that clears out old, no longer useful patterns in our life. This includes anything that hinders our access to that pathway or connection to the highest part of our self.

And then, having established that connection, we are better able to access the wisdom and guidance that resides in that highest part of ourself. All of this allows us to begin to make better choices and generally just get clearer, which is the engine of refining our lives at the surface. Everything is impacted. As we access our hearts we can relate better to others. Our decisions are more aligned with our core such that we refine our lives to be more fulfilling.

Ultimately the connection and clarity allows us to be a conduit for sharing our highest potential and we find ourselves creating refinement not only in our own lives, but in the world at large.

Thus our practices enable the process of refinement for us individually to create a healthier and happier life. Through the alignment with our highest self that we contact with practice, we begin to fulfill our life’s purpose. Each of us has the opportunity to create a more fulfilling life that also can contribute to bringing forth in this lifetime our own unique talents and gifts.

May we each seek greater refinement and alignment with our highest self, for ourselves, for those with whom we interact, and to create a better world for everyone.

SELF-CARE

take-care

On social media these days, I see a lot about “self-care,” truly an important thing to do. Most of us know we must take care of our physical health through diet, exercise and rest, which are so fundamental to our well-being. And many of us understand there is some relationship between our physical and mental health that moves in both ways, each affecting the other. Yet few of us understand that there are deeper layers, beyond the physical and mental that need to be taken care of as well.

The beauty of yoga is that it can address all of these layers of being with its different practices. The practice of yoga asana, the postures, can stretch and align and heal our physical body. And as with many exercise modalities, we’ll feel better mentally and emotionally from our physical practice.

If your yoga practice incorporates turning the mind more consciously toward awareness of your breath and observing your internal sensations, feelings, and thoughts, you will begin a process of healing that goes beyond the physical. You will start to stretch and align and heal deeply held patterns of being.

And when you incorporate meditation as part of your yoga practice, you penetrate to even subtler layers of yourself, and eventually to your deepest Self. And that traverse which clears out the most tightly held chronic patterns and challenges will yield healing and positive effects in all the levels and domains of your life.

As you penetrate to your deepest Self, you connect with the Source of everything, that which connects and permeates everything. That process begins to align all levels of your being with all that is. You will find not only that you are healthier in all aspects of your being, but that you begin to flow more fluidly within all aspects of your life: your relationships, your work, everything.

And remember: yoga and meditation is for everybody. Often people feel they can’t do yoga or meditation is impossible. But the truth is: you can! You can experience the transformative effects of these practices, though you may have to find the right teacher. If you’ve ever been discouraged I hope that you seek out a teacher of these modalities to guide you into the depths of your being to facilitate the profound healing and alignment in life that is possible.

HOW YOGA WORKS, Part 1

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as yogas-chitta-vritti-nirodhah, yoga is the calming of the whirling of the mind.  As we are able to calm our minds, we can see more clearly who we truly are, as Patanjali says in his next aphorism, otherwise we remain identified with our thoughts and feelings.

These are profound teachings and summarize how we end up in lives full of suffering and angst, as well as point us to a trajectory that helps us return to our essence. We get so caught up in our everyday world that we often forget what is most important in life.  It is like when we go to the movies, and we are captivated by the story, and forget ourselves.  Likewise in our lives, we get caught up in our daily dramas, without recourse to a sense of centeredness.  We get pulled and pushed around by the crisis du jour or the next item on our “to do” list without ever pausing to consider why we are here and what is most essentially important.

Our yoga practice involves a process by which we begin to cut through the surface layers of identification to discover or simply remember our essence. Though ultimately meditation is the primary way to do this, our yoga asana practice can help us move in that direction.

One of the most helpful techniques for calming the mind in our asana practice is working with our breath.  The technique of ujjayi breathing is cultivated by closing the back of your throat and creating an aspirant sound at the back of your throat.  This starts to balance the breath and gives a focus for your ears as you listen to the sound of the breath. We begin to draw our awareness away from the outer world, as well as from the inner turnings of our mind.

The breath is such a beautiful part of ourselves to honor with our attention. It is perhaps the most easily accessible and obvious manifestation of the divine pulsation present in each of us. It reflects the vibration of being that pulses through everything, all of the cycles of nature: day and night, the tides, the seasons, life and death, our heart’s beat, the inhale and exhale. Keeping our awareness on this fundamental pulsation begins to draw us in to the still point from which it emanates.

Consider how in a yoga class we try to maintain a focus on our breath while still attending to the class itself.  We have the teacher’s instructions to listen to, all of the different parts of the body to be aware of and coordinate, not to mention the activities of all the students around us as well as other parts of the environment, along with all the thoughts and reactions that all of that is creating in our mind.  These are all the  whirlings of the mind, the chitta vrittis.

Trying to both stay centered in our breath, while maintaining an open awareness to all of that other stuff is not unlike what we have to do in our lives as householders. On the mat we try to stay connected to the breath while we listen to the teacher and attend to our bodies, and to some extent while we maintain an awareness of our environment, but often so many extraneous and unnecessary thoughts enter our awareness, and the next thing we know we’re going over our grocery list.

So, we simply keep coming back to the breath. We come back to our ujjayi breathing without judgment, without making it a big deal, back to the breath, again and again.  Inhale, exhale. Start again. Breathe, listen to the breath, feel our bodies, stay present, notice the person next to us, should I get a haircut like that….ooops!  There I go again. That’s OK, start again: come back to the breath, inhale, exhale, feel my body, stay present….

And so it is when we step off the mat.  We take whatever calm, peaceful awareness we cultivated in our practice as we step out the door and into the rest of our lives.  Then when someone cuts us off in traffic, we get pulled into our reactions, and our mind whirls, we begin to lose that presence, that awareness. Yet there it is, as close as our breath.  We can pause, collect ourselves, take a deep breath, reconnect to that peaceful awareness, and remember to respond from that place of greater connection.

SPACE IS THE PLACE

I am not sure where this phrase came from, but it seems apropos to much of the work we do in yoga.  And it is the exact opposite from being the “spaced out yogi,” that is sometimes the stereotype of yoga students.  It is creating space on all levels of your practice and life to become clearer in your heart, mind and actions.

SPACE AND TIME
Many of us struggle with finding the space, both physically and temporally to do our practices.  How do we structure our days to insure we get to practice, and where do we do it?  And we need not only the physical and temporal space, but the psychological space: we need to prioritize and clear out unnecessary items on our agenda. 

Practice: Contemplate the following.

–    When:  how do you create the time to practice?  What needs to be eliminated?  Can you spend a little less time on the internet? Do you need to schedule it in, like you would a doctor’s appointment, and make it non-negotiable? Perhaps you could look over the schedules of your favorite teachers and schedule in some classes for the next week.  What do you need to do to create the time to practice?

–    Where:  do you have a space to practice?  Can you create some corner in a room?  Can you meditate on the bus or an airplane (I’ve done this! You can download a tamboura app for your phone and play that as background).  Is there a favorite studio or other place in which you feel most comfortable?

–    What do you use as an excuse not to practice?  Is it a real obstacle? Can you remove it?

ASANA
In our asana practice, much of what we are trying to do is to create more space: lengthen, expand, stretch.  For example, I’ve been teaching recently about keeping space between the vertebrae on the side into which we’re moving: in forward bends, keep space in the front of the spine, and in backbends, keep space in the back of the spine.

Practice:
As you do your yoga asana practice this week, focus on your vertebral column and notice when and how you can create more space, and when and how you feel more compression. 

THE MIND AND MEDITATION
In my meditation practice, I’ve found that creating mental space is a natural consequence of the practice, and ultimately this might be the most important aspect of creating space. This happens in a plethora of ways.  One way is that the practice begins a process of purification.  Old thought patterns and ways of being begin to dissolve, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes consciously.  This creates space for more productive patterns to take hold.  Also, as we slow down and open the mind in meditation, we create space between an incoming stimulus, and our response to it. In that space we have the opportunity to shift our hearts, minds, and behavior.

Practice:

– If you don’t currently have a regular meditation practice, commit to doing one thing to move in that direction. 
–    If you’ve never meditated, find a book or preferably a teacher, sign up for a class or workshop. 
–    If you have meditated before, commit to one month of regular practice (this next month would be an excellent one!). Set aside 10-20 minutes each day.  Make it non-negotiable, like brushing your teeth.

– Begin to create space in between registering an experience in your consciousness, and responding to it.  Can there be a moment of letting it be and digesting an experience before you take the next bite?  Notice how quickly you respond to things and see if there are times when creating more space may be beneficial.

Ultimately, creating space is opening up to new possibilities, ideas, and ways of being.  Many of us have studied the pañcha-kṛtya-s, the 5 acts of Śiva, the last of which is anugraha, translated as revelation or grace.  Contemplating this recently has brought me to a deep consideration of this idea of space.  My current thinking on anugraha is that we can’t force revelation happen, but we each can create the space for it to enter.  This can happen in a flash, and often it is a result of our practice. We can facilitate its occurrence by creating the space for it in bodies, hearts, and minds.

REFINEMENT

You may be familiar with the notion of saṁskāra as a latent impression or innate tendency. In my studies with Paul Muller-Ortega, I have learned that it can also refer to refinement, as when raw ore is refined and worked to create a purified product.  He particularly teaches about the process of  vikalpā saṁskāra, which is a process of progressive refinement of your conceptual understanding of the teachings.

Some of you are engaged in this process with me currently as we study the Pratyabhijñā-hṛdayam, which starts out with the concept of svatantrā, or freedom.  Consciousness is innately free to create the manifest world, and further, as conscious beings, we have the gift of self-awareness.  As I refine my understanding of these concepts, I have come to realize that freedom and self-awareness are important factors in my continued process of refinement.

In many ways, the whole path of yoga, and the journey of our life, can be a process of continued refinement.  Likely you’ve seen how this works in your āsana practice.  As beginners, we have a gross understanding of how to perform particular poses which becomes more easeful and refined as we progress. Through your own careful self-awareness and observation, the attention of a teacher or sometimes unfortunately through an injury, we become aware of some misalignment in our body.  We then further refine our understanding of the proper way to perform the asana, exercising greater self-awareness, and our freedom of choice, to do so.  We do the same thing with our intellectual knowledge, we are repeatedly performing vikalpā saṁskāra, refinement of understanding, in any domain that we study.

And hopefully, we apply this process of refinement to our journey through life.  This is where the notions of self-awareness and freedom are sometimes not exercised.  As we move through our lives it is sometimes easier to behave habitually, without practicing self-awareness and our freedom to make choices on a moment-by-moment basis. As in our asana practice, sometimes it takes a painful episode to awaken us to how our behavior has not been in alignment. This is applicable so many aspects of our life: physical, emotional, social, spiritual.  How often do you apply self-awareness to:  diet, exercise, work habits, mood, relationships, your yoga practice, how you spend your time, etc?

I once had a teacher say to me: consider whether each of your actions takes you further down the path of yoga.  I realize now he was asking me to engage in this process of refinement by exercising self-awareness and freedom.  The process of yoga is one of progressive refinement, and our guide is Consciousness itself. Through our practice of yoga, particularly meditation, we contact that place inside ourselves that is deeply connected to the essence, the heart, or hṛdaya, and this is what aids us in most effectively exercising our freedom of choice to bring even greater levels of refinement into our lives.

WHY STUDY YOGA PHILOSOPHY? FIVE REASONS……

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.

Yoga Can Change Your World

When you practice yoga regularly, and you pay attention, you will notice its effect on you.  Sometimes it is hard to see because we are so close to it. It is like my garden after I was gone for two weeks.  Prior to being gone, I didn’t notice how much it had grown, but when I returned it seemed to have exploded.  Sometimes we have to step back and/or look more closely to see the change. And with your life, the changes may be both subtle and gross.

On the gross level, you may notice that when you practice yoga postures (asana) your body simply feels better: you can breathe more deeply, some ache has abated, or you have more energy.  Or more subtly, maybe your mood is lifted.  Or subtler yet, you may change your habitual thought patterns, or perhaps you may even change the world!

Those of you who attend my classes regularly know that in addition to teaching you good physical alignment, I also invite you to use the practice as an opportunity to explore other dimensions of our being by providing a contemplation or suggestion of focus (which you are welcome to embrace or ignore as you wish).   Often these come from yoga philosophy, like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the root text of Classical Yoga.  In that text, Patanjali offers many suggestions of qualities to bring into our lives and our practice. For example, ahimsa, translated as non-harming or respect for life, is one we have recently worked with in class.

Over the months and years of a yoga practice, we slowly cultivate a centered place in of awareness. Into that field of awareness, we can place whatever quality we wish to cultivate. We just allow it to be there.  We don’t need to manipulate it, we simply keep some part of our awareness with it and slowly nurture it. As we move through the yoga postures, our attention inevitably goes to the details of our practice, noticing our bodies as we must. Then we pause, soften, listen, and remember that quality.  How are we feeling?  What is coming up? Is there some insight, resistance, or other information about how we might work with that quality?

In our example of ahimsa, we might first notice on a physical level that we are pushing in an aggressive way that might be injurious to our body.  On a subtle level, we might notice that we start having negative thoughts about our bodies, or our lack of focus, or someone else in the class.  Then we have the opportunity to pause, back off, drop those thoughts and come back to our breath. We allow the breath to remind us of this quality of ahimsa.  In this way, we choose which thought patterns to reinforce and start shifting the internal dynamics of our being.

Then we take it off the mat., which requires practice, just like our asana practice. In our everyday lives, we can begin to cultivate this quality  and that moment of pause to watch our habits. We begin to see the many unconscious patterns that automatically reel off in our lives.  We pause and observe, then choose.  What quality do we want to cultivate?  What quality do you want to bring into the world?

Here is where it gets really interesting. Patanjali indicates that cultivating these qualities can not only affect our own awareness to a profound degree, and  thereby shifts in our lives, but beyond that it can begin to shift the field around us. There are several aphorisms in the Yoga Sutras suggesting such effects. For example, he says that in the presence of one established in ahimsa, hostility vanishes.  Thus your practice of yoga can change your world.

Don’t take my word (or Patanjali’s) on any of this.  Observe for yourself whether or how the energetic qualities that you and others cultivate on a regular basis manifest in those lives and the surrounding environment.  You may have already experienced how particular people, places, or art have distinct vibrational fields around them. I invite you to try it out for yourself:  choose some quality to explore for a week or more and observe the results of placing it in your awareness, pausing periodically to remember, watch your thoughts, emotions, behavior around it, and see what effect it has on your life.

I think of cultivating such qualities  like planting seeds in my garden.  It requires intention, awareness, nurturing and perseverance. And the effectiveness of these seeds we place depends on the quality of the field into which they are placed. The more we practice and clarify that field, the more effective this work will be. And the effects may not be immediately obvious.  The roots have to grow first before the plant can grow.  But ultimately the fruits borne of this work have the potential to change your world.