Category Archives: Yoga Sutra

ATHA

Cindy Lusk- ATHA

Atha yoganusasanam
NOW WE COMMENCE THE STUDY OF YOGA.

This is the aphorism with which Patanjali begins his teachings in the definitive text of Classical Yoga, the Yoga Sutras.  On one level it simply announces that the subject of the text is yoga.

Traditionally, the first word of a text carries great significance, and here the first word is “atha,” which means now.

With the word “now,” there’s a sense of all times, of the past, the present, and the future.  Now we’re going to learn about yoga. Historically the teachings had not been coherently codified, and Patanjali did just that.  But for us as a student of yoga, there can also be a sense that  now is our time.  Now is the time to delve into this text.  Our past studies have led us to this moment to begin a serious contemplation of these teachings.

From a broader perspective, there’s a sense of the “present moment,” of “be here now.”  I find these ideas a bit overused, and I cringe at using them, because I don’t find them very useful. What does it mean to be here now, and how does one actually come into the present moment?  Well, that’s what the whole text of the Yoga Sutras is about: yoga. Our practice of yoga teaches us how to become present.

And as yoga practitioners, this aphorism reminds us: now, at any and every time, is time for yoga.  And I’m not talking about getting on your mat and cranking out some asana, or even getting to the meditation cushion, though for most people practice is the prerequisite. When we regularly do the practices that connect us to what Patanjali calls the seer, a deeper core presence that is the essence of who we are, we are able to meet each moment  with that presence.

Through our practice of yoga, we learn to connect with the ground of our being, a place of wisdom inside ourselves that then guides us in the present moment. With this process we inevitably begin to confront all of our habitual patterns from our past, which we tend to allow to pull us out of the present moment.  Our practice helps us clear out, identify, and shift these patterns. And THEN, as we go about our lives as we all must, we are better able to be in the present moment.

In each moment, with the help of the connection we have established to our deeper awareness through our practice, we become able to see more clearly what is actually present, and what is an old pattern, or our own clouded perception.  This is our yoga happening in the present moment.  And it allows us, when things are particularly challenging, to take it as an opportunity for yoga. Now we do our yoga, in the most challenging moments. Having established the connection, we draw on the deepest source to work with whatever is unfolding in this present moment, to guide us through that moment and into the future.

If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here

How Much Is Enough?

Aparigraha is the last of the yamas (moral edicts) put forth by Patanjali.  It comes from the Sanskrit verbal root, graha, which means to grasp, so it literally means “non-grasping,” non-covetousness, or greedlessness. As the last listed, it could be thought of as least important, and as a subset of asteya, not stealing. But as with the previous four yamas, the subtle aspects of this quality are manifold, and in some ways aparigraha encapsulates the path of householder yogis.

One of my teachers tells the following story:  Once upon a time, there was a monk who lived a simple life in a cave, carrying out his practices.  Nearby villagers brought him food, and they noticed he had only one dhoti (a traditional men’s garment worn around the waist) so they decided to gift him with a second.  So then he had one dhoti to wear, and the other was stored.  He discovered that mice started nibbling on the stored dhoti, so he acquired a cat to deal with the mice.  The cat had to be fed, so he got a cow to provide milk for the cat.  Then he needed a field for the cow to graze in, to provide milk for the cat, that dealt with the mice and kept the dhoti from being eaten.  You can see where this story goes: eventually the man ended up with a house, wife and kids, no longer a monk able to do his practice.

Of course we as householders are not monks, so we require possessions to conduct our lives, and we may also enjoy creating and having beautiful belongings. For us the point of the story is not that we should have NO things, but instead: how much is enough? This story also reminds us that as we keep acquiring things, at some point in our lives we may stop and survey it all and inquire: at what price? How much time and money have I spent acquiring these things? Is it worth it?

This fall’s flooding in Boulder forced me to look at a whole lot of stuff, both literally and figuratively.  My crawlspace flooded, and I excavated boxes and boxes of stuff, which had been hidden in my dark basement and now sat exposed. A lot of it was stuff I brought home after my mom’s death, which I hadn’t had the heart to deal with.  I am still sorting through this mess now, and my reluctance to let go of these things points to something deeper inside myself that is grasping to hold on to old memories, times, and places, people, relationships long gone. Allowing the memories to reside in my heart, and letting go of my attachment to the stuff, is part of the practice of aparigraha for me. Yes, I will keep some of these mementos, but the question is, still: how much is enough?

The practice of aparigraha has come to the forefront for me lately as it intersects with my yoga asana (posture) practice.  As I age, I find it more challenging to perform asana at the level I once did.  I could do it, but it would require a lot of time and energy to maintain.  So I find the question arising:  how much is enough?  I have let go of doing many of the advanced poses and along with it, the self-perception of myself as an advanced practitioner. It has been both challenging and rewarding to discover how much is enough in this domain.
Ultimately, a lot of our acquisitiveness is a reflection of a deeper lack, an emptiness that needs filled up-with stuff, experiences, sex, alcohol, drugs, and the other myriad ways we attempt to fill that void.  We keep seeking fulfillment outside ourselves, when ultimately fulfillment is deep within ourselves.  Aparigraha may be best practiced through carefully considering how much we really need and connecting to the source of our greatest fulfillment.

CONTEMPLATE and PRACTICE and JOURNAL

For at least one week, keep track of how much time you spend acquiring and maintaining your possessions.

What material goods are essential for you?

What makes you hold on to stuff that has no function? Is it necessary?

What non-material stuff do you grasp on to?

What are any emotional states or ideas about yourself that you continue to hold on to that need to be released?

Should we accept gifts we don’t need?

How might the concept of aparigraha impact your notion of holiday gift-giving?

If you practice yoga asana or do some other exercise or sport, notice whether you find yourself grasping to go harder or further.  How much is enough?

What is most genuinely fulfilling to you?

If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here

Brahmacarya

In the renunciate path outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga sutra, the fourth yama, brahamacarya, is chastity. There is no way around it: this is clearly what Patanjali meant.

So how do we apply this to those of us that are householder practitioners?  By householder I mean we participate in society.  We have jobs, homes, families, etc.  We don’t view sex as bad in and of itself, in fact may see it as one of the inherent joys of being human. So in our case a good definition of brahmacarya is: right sexual conduct.

Then, of course, the question becomes: what is right sexual conduct?  There is no black and white answer to this.  What is right is defined by the parties involved (assuming both are healthy functional adults). And it harkens back to the other yamas particularly ahimsa  (non-harming) and satya (truthfulness). Any sexual conduct that is harmful or untruthful is not right, and therefore violates brahamacarya.

THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE IF YOU ARE IN A POSITION OF POWER, e.g., teacher, boss, therapist, etc.

The issue for ascetic yogis is that of conserving sexual energy that is then transformed into life force energy.  This can also be applied to householders who should consider the difference between healthy sexual activity, and the obsessive need to for pleasure,  which can lead to a depletion of energy or even sexual addiction. Thinking  more broadly, we should explore whether all of our relationships improve our vitality, or deplete us.

Interestingly, the word brahamacarya is composed of two Sanskrit words.  The first is Brahman, which a word for Absolute.  And the second is the verbal root “car,” which means “to move.”  So literally brahamacarya means “moving with the absolute.”  This definition goes straight to the heart of  yoga. Ultimately, yoga is intended to help us connect with Source. That connection, that Awareness, can then guide us in our practice as we move into the world.  This is an alternative and additional interpretation of brahmacarya.

Contemplate and Practice and Journal
Consider the two different meanings: sexual restraint and moving with Brahman/the absolute.
What do they each mean to you, practically speaking?
Where/how do they intersect?
Which of your relationships increase your vitality and which deplete you?

If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here

Are you a thief?

“Thou shalt not steal:” we all know we should not take that which belongs to another.  So as I approached the week of teaching this third of the yamas, asteya or non-stealing, I felt a bit of a yawn inside myself. I knew I was going to have to dig deep to bring it alive, and what helped was considering not only the ways I have participated in or avoided stealing myself, but ways I have felt stolen from.

Below I raise many questions. The answers are not always obvious, and what came up for me is a bit of a rant, so bear with me as I explain how I came to realize that in some ways we are all thieves.

There is the obvious, of course: blatantly stealing someone’s physical possession, be it from an individual, company, store, etc. I was once held up at knife point. This is a clear violation of this not stealing, and also of non-harming.

Then there’s the blurry distinctions: taking office supplies from the office, not reporting items left in your cart at the grocery store or drinks left off a bar tab, not trying to return something  you found that clearly belongs to someone else.

As I dug deeper to contemplate the ways we steal from each other, several of my pet peeves surfaced, and identifying them as ways we steal made me understand why I found them so annoying. These are challenging as well, because often it is not clear or agreed what the “possession” is that is being stolen.

Ideas are commonly stolen property. I often witness others make statements verbally or written that have been directly taken from someone else’s work, without given the appropriate credit.  This, of course, is known as plagiarism.  When I was at university, on several occasions I had to educate tearful undergraduates about this thievery. It is an obvious theft when someone directly uses someone else’s words.  Most of the time, however, the boundaries are not as clear.  Sometimes someone takes an idea you’ve expressed, or copies something you’re doing.  Is this stealing?

For many years I spoke often about my teachers, because when I taught, I used language and ideas I learned from them.  I wanted to credit and honor them and make it clear I did not invent what I was teaching. Yet I wondered if students thought 1) I was trying to brag about my teachers or “sell” my teachers to them, or 2) I didn’t feel confident in my own grasp of the teachings. And, I came to understand that my teachers were using what they learned from their teachers, and so on.  So I stopped speaking about my own teachers as much.  Does this make me a thief?

One of my biggest pet peeves is stealing time, from ourselves and from others.  We waste so much time, I can feel it when I watch one more episode of Madmen when I had planned to clean off my desk, or when I cruise Facebook instead of working on this essay. I have some friends who are chronically late, and I feel they are stealing time from me.  I’ve also had friends who consider appointments we’ve made to be optional and when the day arrives, decide they don’t feel up to it, or have other more important things to do. I may have rearranged my schedule or turned down other opportunities in order to be with them, so I feel I’ve been robbed.

What about paying for and showing up to a class, workshop, retreat etc to find that the teacher and/or organizer has not bothered to prepare? Is this stealing your time and money? Or how about thoroughly preparing to teach something, or prepare for a meeting and have the attendees not show up or come unprepared? Have they stolen your time? Have they stolen their own time and money?

Have you ever had the experience of someone using you to access someone else?  Stealing a friend, contact, student, or lover? I include this here because I have been accused of doing this, and have felt others have done it to me. Are these “possessions”? Is this really stealing?

Many of these above instances come under the category of “broken promises.”  Someone has agreed to or promised something, but has not followed through. For me, in these situations, I feel my trust and faith have been stolen. When I was held up at knifepoint, there was money stolen, but worse was that my inherent trust in human nature was stolen from me. And when people repeatedly take their commitments to me lightly, or repeatedly show up late, I find I can’t trust their words, which is a great loss to me.

Last, but by no means least, what about natural resources?  I thought a lot about this during our Thanksgiving holiday.  How much do we take what is not ours for the taking, or take more than our share?  How do we share the earth’s resources such that all its creatures get their fair share?

Consideration of the more subtle levels and aspects of asteya made me consider more deeply how we all can be considered thieves to some degree. I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered, as how and where we draw the line between taking what we need and stealing is not always clear, but hopefully we can be more conscious with how we prevent stealing from ourselves and others.

CONTEMPLATE and PRACTICE and JOURNAL

Give your definition of asteya, non-stealing.

Commit to practicing it for a week, or some other period of time, in light of the obvious meaning, but also the more subtle interpretations mentioned in this essay.

Consider the following questions raised in this essay. For each consider it not only intellectualy but how it feels in your heart and your body.  Contemplate how your feelings have changed as you’ve gone further down your spiritual path?

– Do you ever take things in the “blurry” situations: office supplies, items overlooked in a grocery cart of restaurant bill.?

– Do you credit others when you use their ideas? Why or why not?

– Have you experienced other using your ideas without crediting you?

– In what ways do you steal time from yourself?

– In what ways do you steal time from others?

– What are other ways you steal from yourself?

– What are other ways you feel you’ve been stolen from?

– Consider relationships. Have you stolen a relationship?  Has one been stolen from you? Does this question even make sense?

– In what ways has your trust or faith been stolen from you?  Did someone else steal it or did you steal it from yourself?

– In what ways do you contribute to stealing from the natural environment?  How can you change that?

If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here

STAND IN TRUTH

What is truthfulness? What is YOUR truth? How do we bend the truth to our advantage? What lies do you tell yourself? These questions spring from a conscious consideration of satya, truthfulness, the second in the ethical practices oulined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. On the surface, we all know: Thou shalt not lie. As prerequisites to living your yoga, maintaining these edicts simplifies your life, and helps keep your mind and heart clear, allowing the other practices to unfold more easily.  If you lie, not only will you likely find that lie bouncing around your brain as you try to practice, but you have to remember who you told what, and life can quickly become very complicated, like some sort of bad situation comedy.

BENDING THE TRUTH
Yet how many times do we bend the truth?  I know a teacher that loved to use good stories in his teaching.  Often I knew he was exaggerating, adding, or deleting details, or otherwise “bending” the truth to make his point.  I grew to distrust his words because of this, and he therefore became less effective. Politicians are notorious for bending of the truth, sometimes then spending a lot of energy explaining themselves.  In both cases, we as consumers of information must then decide whether to perpetuate the untruth, ignore it, or call out the perpetrator.
I’ve also had teachers responsible for giving me feedback on my work who didn’t give me anything but positive praise, and in doing so failed to tell the whole truth, which in the end didn’t allow me to grow. The examples of how we bend the truth are many, and I’ve included several such examples for you to contemplate below.

BALANCING TRUTH WITH NON-HARMING
On the other hand, satya must be balanced with the first listed (and therefore most important) yama, ahimsa or non-harming, so perhaps those teachers who only give positive feedback simply didn’t want to create harm. I know for myself, I have at times been too quick to speak the truth, or have done so unskilllfully, and indeed people have been hurt.  And there are certainly times when lyng is the best course of action (e.g., those helping Jews during the Holocaust).  So although the aspiration to tell the truth is obvious, there are many situations in which we must consider more carefully our responsibility to uphold both non-harming and truthfulness.

STANDING IN YOUR TRUTH
Examining subtler layers of truth makes the practice of satya even more compelling.  Consider nuances of the word that relate to being “authentic” and “genuine.” You may have seen the sanskrit word “Sat” in different chants and it means “Truth” with a capital “T.” In this context, translations of Sat include Truth, Reality, Being.  So one way to think about practicing satya is to become aware of your Truth.  Before reading any further, you may want to take a moment right now and consider: What is YOUR Truth?  What is the truth about who you REALLY are? Stop to sit with this question, then write what comes to mind.
On one level, my answer to this question relates to the values I hold dear: e.g, integrity, love, and respect for nature, among others.  Penetrating deeper, I see myself as a manifestation of the Divine, and thus as a being of love and light. So then the practice of satya becomes one of aligning my thougths and actions with this definition of my Truth.
Sometimes our practice or other life circumstances challenge this Truth, e.g., when we find ourselves thinking: I can’t/I’ll never be able to ______ (do this posture, teach others, understand….).  Or I am ________ (stupid, fat, old…). Each of us has habitual ways of thinking about ourselves that are more or less true.  Often we perpetuate telling these lies to ourselves, and they could fulfill themselves to become true if we allow them to.
There are many other ways we may fail to stand in our truth. I recently overheard a conversation in which one guy said something to another about a nearby woman that was blatantly sexist. I saw the second guy flinch, but he did not say anything. How often to we tacitly participate in or perpetuate such lies instead of standing in our own truth and speaking out?
Ultimately our ability to be truthful on all these levels is in direct correspondence to how well we have established a strong connection to our innermost “True” Self.  Once this connection is clearly established, we are compelled from inside out to stand in our truth, and our ability to navigate the nuances of truthfulness comes naturally.

CONTEMPLATE and PRACTICE and JOURNAL
What is truthfulness?
What is your truth? What is the truth about who you are?
Watch what you say: are you always truthful?  If not, why?  How does it feel?
Do you ever say things because you think it is what another wants to hear? Is that appropriate?
Watch what you think: are your thoughts always truthful?  If not, why?  How does it feel?
What lies do you consistently tell yourself?
Watch your actions: do you always act in a way that is true to yourself?  If not, why?  How does it feel?
What is required for you to be truthful about who you are?
In what ways are you not totally truthful? What is the effect of this?
What other ways do we bend the truth?
How does truthfulness fit in with non-harming?

If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here

Respect for Life

I love yoga philosophy!  I love it because it has so many rich applications for how to live our lives.  In my local classes, we are currently exploring the yamas (moral restraints), the first limb of the aṣṭanga (8-limbs) yoga laid out by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras.  In coming weeks we will explore each of the five yamas, then maybe move on to the second limb, the niyamas (observances).  It seems like a sweet exploration as we head into the holiday season.

So this week we’ve been considering the first of the yamas, ahiṃsā.  Literally, ahiṃsā means non-harming. As the first yama listed in the first limb of aṣṭanga yoga, it is of foremost importance.  This was one of Mahatma Gandhi’s primary practices, leading to a non-violent independence movement in India, and was later adopted by Martin Luther King as an approach to civil rights activism in the United States.

It is a huge topic, worthy of extensive reflection and practice. For now, let’s consider a few approaches to its practice, and I’ll leave you with some considerations to contemplate and further your practice.

First of all, what does non-harming mean to  you? Is it the same as pacifism?  Is it possible to be completely non-harming?  Where do you draw the line? For example, what if someone attacked an innocent child?  Is it OK to kill another being to sustain your own life?  These are challenging questions to consider, because sometimes it does seem to be necessary to do one being harm in order to not bring harm to another being.  That’s one reason I prefer “respect for life” as a definition for ahiṃsā.  It adds a nuance that I feel is important to my decision making.

It is important to remember that all of these qualities we seek to cultivate on the path of yoga come more naturally when they arise from our connection to a greater or higher or more essential part of our self, rather than some moral edict.   We have all heard the command, “thou shalt not kill.”  Yet killing other beings is rampant.  One reason I think this is so is because we are disconnected from our hearts, our essence, from who we really are.  When we have cultivated a strong connection to our hearts through our practices, we begin to understand that essence that flows through others as well, and we are less likely to hurt others as it would be like hurting ourselves.

As we start to delve into this practice of ahiṃsā, we will uncover layers of our actions, how our actions (or inaction) affect different layers of our being, and of other beings.  Speech is one such consideration.  Words have energy behind them, and what and how you say something to another can be more or less respectful or harmful. Have you ever been talking about someone when they walked into the room?  Given the content of your words, how did it feel?  If it was disrespectful, likely it felt icky.  And it wasn’t icky just to get caught gossiping, but when confronted with the actual humanness of the person, you realize more clearly your essential connection, and you feel less compelled to talk negatively about them.

What about our thoughts, including those toward ourselves?  Often we have habitual thought patterns about ourselves that are harmful.  For example, I sometimes think I am not expert  or skilled enough to present these philosophical teachings to others.  That thought squelches some part of myself that sincerely wants to help others with these teachings. So if I allow those thoughts to dominate, it creates harm not only to myself, but to those who might benefit.

Likewise, we can create a lot of harm in relationships by the way we think about them.  There have been instances in my life with particular individuals who rub me the wrong way.  I find myself obsessively thinking about how to win an argument with them or get back at them in some way, which can escalate conflict.  When I started shift the way I think about them, and even purposefully creating a more loving thought pattern,  the whole conflict dissolved.

Obviously there is much to reflect on, so much that it can be quite overwhelming.  The most important point is to consider for yourself how you think about ahiṃsā, and to start practicing it in a mindful way.  It is facilitated by creating that connection with your innermost self, then allowing that connection to guide you in refining your thoughts, words, and deeds.  Like any practice, you begin where you are, and then start shifting your life to align with the value of ahiṃsā.

I leave you with a long list of considerations, as this is quite a deep practice.  Pick any of them that stir your interest, and please leave a comment here, or on my Cindy Lusk Live Your Yoga Facebook page post of this article, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

CONTEMPLATE and PRACTICE and JOURNAL

Contemplate ahiṃsā, and write down a definition for yourself, and keep that definition in mind as you complete any of the following.

Commit to a mindful practice of ahiṃsā for some period of time, like a week or a month.  Consider whether each of your thoughts, what you say, and how you act is in line with your definition.  Journal about your experience each day.

What helps or hinders the practice of ahiṃsā?

What is the effect of practicing or not practicing the ahiṃsā?

What do you do when know someone is behaving out of line with the ahiṃsā?

How does gossip relate?

Why is ahiṃsā listed as the first yama?

Is anyone exempt from the practice of ahiṃsā?

How is your practice of ahiṃsā reflected in actions that affect the planet?

How does your practice of ahiṃsā relate to actions done on your behalf? For example, killing an animal for you to eat or drone strikes by our government.

If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here

KRIYA YOGA

At the heart of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is an aphorism that outlines a profound and practical approach to yoga.  It is the first aphorism of sadhana pada, the chapter on practice: tapah svadhyaya isvara pranidhanani kriya yogah.  This is a description of the path of kriya yoga and it lists three components to that path. Kriya comes from the verbal root kr which means “to do.” So kriya yoga is the yoga of action.  The three listed components are tapas, svadhyaya and Isvara pranidhana.
The first component, tapas is typically translated as asceticism, austerity, or discipline.  It comes from the verbal root tap which means “to burn.”  So traditionally it relates to practices that are renunciatory and/or purifying.  The second element, svadhyaya literally means “self-study”, and traditionally includes study or chanting of sacred texts or mantras.  Isvara means God, and pranidhana is devotion, surrender, or offering.  So the third element, Isvara pranidhana is surrender or offering to God.

How do these three work together in our yoga practice?  Tapas is created when we turn inward:  when we listen to our breath, close our eyes, and/or take our awareness away from the surface and into the depths. Svadhyaya is when we observe our selves,  what is going on in a particular moment, paying attention and being mindful.  And Isvara pranidhana is the action we take to align ourselves with Consciousness.

We are creating tapas in our yoga asana practice when we allow our focus to move internally to the breath and listen to our ujjayi breathing. Svadhyaya occurs when we listen to and observe our bodies, both physical and subtle. Isvara pranidhana is when we choose actions that bring us into alignment to allow a clearer flow of energy, and also when we dedicate our practice to something greater than ourselves.

And ultimately, kriya yoga is a description of how our practice overall, and particularly the practice of meditation, works. When we practice, particularly when we meditate, we begin the inward turn of tapas.  It is a temporary renunciation of our surface world to explore the deeper parts of ourselves.  As we meditate, we study our Self, svadhyaya.  We glimpse our essence, and we begin to see and work with what blocks access to the deepest part of ourselves. We begin to see our habitual patterns.  Then we have the choice to align our consciousness with the greater Consciousness.  This is Isvara Pranidhana.

I invite you to observe how these three are, or are not, working in your own practice of yoga.  Perhaps you tend to favor one over the other.  Through practicing all three components of kriya yoga we can make contact with our more essential self, start breaking the patterns that block that access, and align ourselves with our higher Self.  This is the practice of kriya yoga, the yoga of action.

If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here

Perspective

I recently returned from a journey to Mexico, during which I was able to completely rest and relax, as well as experience a culture that is somewhat different from my own.  As the time got near to coming home, and as I began to transition, I took some time to contemplate and consider the gifts of this journey.

The greatest gift, in a word: perspective.

Stepping out of our lives into a different climate, rhythm, cuisine, etc., creates some space and contrast. The result reminds me of the Sanskrit word upeksha, from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (1.33 for any of you fellow geeks who want to go look it up).  Upeksha is usually translated as equanimity, and is a big concept that I’ve contemplated and written about repeatedly elsewhere.  For now, consider that the Sanskrit word comes from the verbal root iksh, which means to see, and upa can mean upon or above, so it can mean overlook.  I think of it not in the sense of ignoring, but in the sense of a scenic overlook, getting a bigger view, or perspective.

As I transitioned from my relaxing travels to the challenges in my life, I was able to maintain perspective in a way I have not before, and I realized that the greatest gift of my meditation practice has also been this sense of equanimity.  Having established a daily meditation practice for the last few years I am able to maintain a greater perspective in a way I had been unaware of.  My practice is like a mini-journey.  Each time I practice, I remove myself temporarily from my usual outer worldly patterns, and move inside to a different space.  It is in that space that I  connect with a larger perspective.   This larger perspective allows me to meet the world from a calmer, more loving, and more capable place.

I realized how much my meditation practice had given me this gift as I re-entered my Colorado world.  On the bus, I started to look at various messages on my phone and found myself getting annoyed as my old buttons got pushed.   In quick succession, I experienced anger, jealousy, withdrawal, and annoyance.  I definitely fully felt each of these, and in the past I would have been sucked into one or more of them.  But spontaneously, a bigger picture emerged, a space opened up, and I was able to just drop it.  I saw it as the old pattern it was, like a silly old sitcom. I didn’t find it necessary to indulge, I simply let it go, and moved my energy into a more productive arena.  It all happened very quickly and it wasn’t until I looked back on it, that I was able to see how it had unfolded.

The concept of equanimity is a challenging one, particularly since Patanjali suggests we cultivate it toward people who are apunya, non-virtuous.  I have been accused of spiritual bypassing when I suggest cultivating such qualities, and I understand how one may think it inappropriate or impossible.  But now I am convinced that the regular practice of meditation allows these qualities to arise more readily. When one takes a daily journey from the surface of life to explore the inner landscape of one’s being, one becomes established in the qualities that reside there: in this case an expansive spacious feeling of equanimity. Repeated journeying creates a pathway that allows such qualities to emerge when the challenges of our life demand them.  In this way we become established in many of the qualities the sages suggest are at the essence of our being.

If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here

Sthira Sukham asanam

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the definitive text of Classical Yoga, there are very few aphorisms devoted to asana, the postures of yoga.  One of these few states: sthira sukham asanam (2.46). The posture should be steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha), or even sweet (as in sucrose).  Since Patanjali’s yoga is primarily directing us toward meditation, he is talking about a sitting posture.  Anyone who has tried to meditate knows how distracting it can be to feel unsteady or uncomfortable when sitting for meditation.  From this perspective, practicing yoga postures is intended to prepare the body for sitting meditation.

However, for practitioners of modern postural yoga, this aphorism has wisdom as well.  In an aphoristic text, such as the yoga sutras, the word order is important, and here the first word is sthira, steady.  It makes sense that this is the prerequisite, as one is not going to be comfortable in any pose in which you are not first steady. In our asana practice, steadiness in the posture is cultivated first through the foundation, whatever it is that is on the floor.  Once the foundation is steady, a clear and judicious engagement of the muscles will contribute to more steadiness.

But Patanjali suggests there is more than simply being steady in the posture: it must be comfortable, even joyful or sweet.  What creates sweetness in the pose is proper alignment. If the pose hurts, clearly one must back off and find another approach.

I often say that your yoga practice provides a context for watching your mind.  In the context of your asana practice, what brings steadiness and sweetness to your mind and your overall state of being?  Are you perpetually thinking about the past or future, approaching poses aggressively, watching others, making judgments? Drishti (gazing at a particular point) is a wonderful technique to cultivate steadiness.  When the eyes are wandering, inevitably the mind is wandering.  Ujjayi breathing will help to both steady the mind, and bring a sweetness to your practice. By listening to the breath, you will notice discomfort and adjust your posture accordingly. Moving the prana through your body with the breath will create a sweetness.  Noticing your thoughts, then returning to the breath as a focus can attenuate repetitive, perhaps destructive, thought patterns .

What unfolds on that 2 by 5 foot rectangle of a mat is likely to be representative of how you approach many aspects of your life. As suggested above, watching and working with  your mind on the mat, will show you how you can do the same in the larger context of your life. Considering a deeper meaning of this sutra, asana can be thought of as your overall stance or posture not only in your practice, but in any situation, a relationship, even your life as a whole. In these situations, too, you want to be steady and sweet.  I have known many physically accomplished yogis, whose presence is far from sweet. Below are some practice and contemplation suggestions to help you live these yogic principles.

PRACTICE:
–          For one entire yoga practice, or for a week, focus primarily on your foundation.  Notice those parts of your body that meet the earth.  With your feet, notice the 4 corners, notice whether you favor the inner or outer edges, whether your weight is toward the front or back of your feet.  For your hands, notice if you are evenly rooting through the perimeter of the palm, or whether you tend to hang back toward the wrist or outer edge of the palm.  Notice as well when neither of these are part of the foundation, and how your body meets the earth.
–          For one entire practice, or for a week, focus primarily on your breath.  Notice when your mind wanders from the breath, and gently return to it.  After practicing in this way, journal on what types of thought patterns tend to emerge during your practice.  Are these useful to you?  What was the effect of returning again and again to the breath?
–          Begin to notice your stance in the world and journal on any of the following.  What is your general outlook on life? Are you steady? Do you generally feel comfortable? Are you sweet? Are you balanced between being stable and sweet?
–          Using two pieces of paper, or pages your journal, title one “steadiness” and one “sweetness,” Under each of these, make two columns labeled “+” and “-“ (or some other label that makes sense to you).  Then in the “+” column, write down aspects of your life that enhance steadiness, and in the “-“ column, those that detract from your steadiness, and likewise those that enhance your sweetness, and detract from your sweetness.  Journal on how you can encourage more of those aspects that enhance rather than detract. Try implementing one or two.
–          Journal on other ways you see these two qualities manifesting in your life.

If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here