Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

Discussion of physical aspects of yoga (on and off the mat)

Mahabhutas (the great elements)

The mahabhutas are the grossest, most physical of the 36 tattvas described in Kashmir Shaivism.  They are:  prithivi — earth or solidity; ap (or jala) — water or liquidity,  agni (or tejas) — fire or formativity; vayu — air;  akasha — space.  When we practice asana, we can focus our practice on discovering one of the elements in our bodies and how we move.  As we get more skillful, we can choose which element seems out of balance and emphasize one or the other to bring ourselves more into balance.  This week, for example, I have noticed that my mind has been scattered and distracted because of all of the excitement of the Inauguration.  After being blown about by the cold and the wind and all the excitement, I had gotten to airy (which is my tendency anyway).  It is a good time, therefore, to explore prithivi (earth) in my practice.  By emphasizing a strong foundation coupled with the Anusara principle of muscular energy, I can literally bring myself to a more solid, stable, and grounded state.

We can work with the tattvas as described above, to realign our energies so that our physical and mental state is more balanced.  We can also explore the more concrete tattvas as we embody them to understand better how they are manifestations of the subtler tattvas — the tattvas that the great yogis who have described them would call more real and we dwelling in our bodies and minds might think of as observably less real.  Where we can best appreciate and experience the relationship between the gross and the subtle elements is in meditation, and our asana practice can help lead us there.

Look forward this week to working with the earth element in your bodies and minds, practicing strong standing poses and shaping your physical and energetic bodies like clay.  Use your earth nature to sculpt the art of your intention.

For suggested readings see my earlier post on the tattvas.

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Hot Water Bottles and Wristwarmers

One of my father’s joke bits of wisdom is “everything in moderation, including moderation.”  When I first studied philosophy academically, I was very much taken with Aristotle’s concept of the “golden mean,” which (this is a gross oversimplification) advocates living in moderation as a way of right living.  Pantanjali in the niyamas in his Yoga Sutras invites the yogin to balance effort (tapas) and surrender  (ishvara pranadhana) in our practice.  The Bhagavad Gita suggests that extreme austerities are just as indulgent as wildly excessive consumption of food, sleep, and comforts.

What does that mean in our modern, middle class lives in a time when we are being confronted head-on with the impact on the earth and our fellow beings of the way we, as a society, have been consuming?

In part, I think it is mindfulness.  It is not denial, but balance — choosing ways to consume less, but still not feel deprived.  I am fortunate in that much of what we are learning now about both lifestyle and impact (the stuff under the “green living” umbrella) is not new to me.  My parents were children of the Depression and my father had a modest income. I went to Quaker youth camp in upstate New York in the 1970s, and I did volunteer work for the first Earth Day when I was in college.  We turned the lights off when we weren’t in the room, we turned off the faucets when we were brushing our teeth, or lathering our hair in the shower.  We creatively changed what we cooked out of Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Virginia Lee, or Diana Kennedy or the New York Times Food Section with what we learned from Diet for a Small Planet.  We wore warmer clothing inside to be able to keep the heat down.  It is important for me to try to live mindfully, but I also very much like to be warm and comfortable, love the feel of beautiful fabrics, and one of my greatest pleasures is eating well.

I have a number of reasons I like to keep the heat down in the winter:  it feels better on my sinuses because the air is not as dry and I do not like to have to run a humidifier (yet another electrical appliance); it costs a lot of money to keep an old row house at even 65F in the cold months; and I am concerned about my carbon footprint.  I can get really cold when I am working at my desk or getting ready for bed.  I don’t like being cold, and it seems silly to insist on being miserably uncomfortable just so I can feel better from the perspective of some perceived moral ground.  So I try to create a balance.

Hot water bottles and wrist warmers are part of the balance.  Two hot water bottles taken to bed (and then I use the water on the plants the next morning) makes going to bed toasty and delightful, but not too hot in the middle of the night.  If I am working at home and it is midday, I can warm myself up with a two-minute handstand or a few sun salutes or some abs work or other arm balances. That’s not an option if I am on a conference call or at the office.  Nor does it make sense after dinner when it is time to get energetically quiet.  The wrist warmers, though, make an amazing difference (I also enjoy wearing them when I start practicing until I warm up as another layer that easily can come on or off.  I kind of like the way I look and enjoyed all the complements I got when I was meandering around New York over the holidays.  They are a great way to use scrap yarn (especially if you don’t have the time, yarn, or inclination for a larger project — see my post on “Sauca (and the blanket).”

If you want to make your own wrist warmers and you are a fantastic knitter, you can go for four double-pointed needles, multiple colors, and add a thumb section.  For those of you who are newer to knitting or who want wrist warmers very quickly, here’s all it takes to make the one’s shown above.

1.  Two needles of appropriate gauge and less than a skein of yarn.

2.  Measure loosely around your knuckles.  That’s the right width for your wrist warmer (notice that the girth of your knuckles and your forearm a couple of inches below the elbow are about the same).  Then knit about a two-inch square to make sure you know how many stitches you get per inch horizontally.  When you have your gauge correct, unravel your test square to use that yarn in your wrist warmers.  I recommend rechecking the gauge about an inch or two into your first wrist warmer to make sure you were right.  It is easier to start over at that stage than to try and fix it later or have to give them away to someone larger or smaller (unless you want to).

3.  Cast on the correct number of stitches for how many stitches per inch you get with your yarn and needles and the width you measured around your knuckles.  It is OK to round to the nearest half inch.  First two rows are simple rib — k1, p1.  Then do basic plain knitting (k first row, p return row) until the first wrist warmer is about 6-8 inches long and reaches almost the desired length up your lower arm.  Then do 6-8 rows of moss stitch (row 1 — k1, p1, row 2, p1, k1) [or you could just do more ribbing].  Cast off.  Measure second wrist warmer against the second.  Turned inside-out, using the knitting yarn, sew into a tube, leaving a whole for the thumb a the end with just the double row of ribbing.  The sewn part at the knuckle end should be about 2/3 to 3/4 inches, then there should be about a 1 1/2 to 2 inch whole (just hold it up on your hand to make sure it fits).

4.  They will stretch out as you wear them, but if they are a little too wide or tight, you can wet them and then make them either longer and thinner or shorter and wider by blocking.

4.  Bored with the colors you have at home?  It’s pretty easy to swap with a fellow knitter.

5.  Want to be just a little fancier?  Do stripes by alternating colors when you change rows.  Want to practice cables.  Do one center cable, just remember that it won’t be in the center if you want it to go on the top of your hand; it will start a quarter of the way in.

6.  New to knitting?  Go into any yarn store, tell them that this is your project, and they’ll tell you a good yarn, what needles you need, and show you how to cast on, knit and pearl.  There are farmers at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market on Sunday who have beautiful homespun, hand-dyed yarns.  They might not show you how to knit, but they include patterns for hats.

7.  Have fun.  Be creative.  Be part of a fashion wave.  Stay warm.

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Hard Freeze Forecast (Heyam Dukham Anagatam)

My favorite sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s is, II.16, “heyam dukham anagatam.”  This translates roughly as “the pain that is yet to come can be avoided.”  What does this have to do with a forecast of a hard freeze?

My chard, beets, and turnip greens are still flourishing.  They can manage with a night or two in a row in the high 20sF, and that is all we have had so far.  The forecast for later in the week, though, is for the first true cold snap since 1994 (you may remember that as the year when lots of people’s pipes froze).  My winter garden (which does not have a cold frame due to lack of space — maybe I’ll get more creative next year, and I’ll try an experiement with plastic bags on Thursday night) cannot survive lows in the low teens highs in the twenties.

I could suffer today by bemoaning the coming cold, worrying about the garden, and remembering that I don’t like cold.  That would be present suffering in anticipation of potential future suffering.  I certainly can avoid that.  I can also do what I did yesterday, which was harvest lots of the chard and most of the beets, put the beets into cold storage (vegetable bin in the refrigerator) and make pasta with sauteed garlic and chard.  Between now and Wednesday night, I’ll harvest most of the remaining greens.  I’ll make a big vegetable soup with the beets and the chard, maybe make chard pie or calzones (truly delicious), and eat the rest over the following days.  I’ll feel grateful that in the bitter cold, I can be eating fresh garden greens.  I’ll be even more grateful that I can just shop at the grocery store or the farmers’ market and don’t need to rely on my garden feeding me year round.  I’ll also be happy for the hard frost.  Part of the reason the aphids and the mosquitoes have been so bad is the absence of a hard frost in winter.

Some bitter cold in winter in a temperate zone is inevitable, as are sickness and death.  We can avoid suffering by not just getting anxious and unhappy and suffering in the present, but not taking action to alleviate potential suffering.  With preparation and practice, we can avoid some suffering.  Just has preparing for winter in the garden can allow it to be productive for greater parts of the year, so too, with a steady practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation we can avoid some physical and emotional pain and suffering.  Most important, with steady preparation (preparing for the potential for difficulties in the future is not the same as being anxious about it), when the inevitable comes, we will likely suffer less, at least in our hearts, if not in our bodies.

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Winter Reading on the Tattvas (the elements)

I am returning to a contemplation of teachings about the tattvas (the 36 elements in Kashir Shaivism; in Vedanta only 25).  Each time I go back to study, practice, and contemplate the tattvas, a new understanding arises about how I am in the world and how I might want to shift my alignment to be better able to serve, for want of a better word, the good.  The tattvas provide a way of understanding the structure of consciousness [Consciousness], from the most metaphysical, universal elements to the most diverse, individual, physical elements and the relationship between the two.  Practicing asana with the Anusara principles of alignment at the same time as reading these teachings has, for me, helped bridge the space between the intuitive and concrete understandings of being in the world.  The point of trying to understand these extraordinary philosophical ideas is not for the sake of acquiring academic learning, but rather is an invitation to use the joyous experience of wrestling intellectually, intuitively, and physically to illuminate understanding, as a way to dwell more consistently in the heart.

Reading Sources:

Kashmir Shaivism, The Secret Supreme, Swami Lakshmanjoo, ed. John Huges, Universal Shaiva Fellowship (2003)

Kashmir Shaivism, J.C. Chatterji (SUNY Press, 1986)

The Triadic Heart of Siva, Paul Eduardo Muller-Ortega (SUNY Press 1989)

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Sankalpa (Intention)

In the tradition of our culture’s “new year’s resolution” I like to practice yoga nidra at this time of year to help establish a new sankalpa or intention.  A sankalpa is different from a new year’s resolution.  It is short, affirming, and is both in the present and forward-looking.

Usually it takes a couple of weeks for me to be certain of what sankalpa is right for me to work with for a period of months.  One year, I had been very sick for the entire fall and early winter, so it was easy to choose “I am healthy.”  For the past two years, as I struggled with my place this time of war and societal struggle and thought about my own role in creating and avoiding conflict, I chose the sankalpa “I will come from the light in all I do” (“light” for me meaning an inner place of peace, compassion and spaciousness).

In the past several months, mostly due to having thoroughly enjoyed creating meals from the garden and the farmers’ market, I am a little heavier than works with the clothing I own and my sense of comfort with my body image.  Instead of having a new year’s resolution to lose five pounds, which would likely fail, I am working with the sankalpa “I love and respect my body.”  The former buys into societal expectations of what my body should look like, imposes mental will over my body, and reinforces a mindset of negative judgment and denial.  The latter is joyous and affirming.  I believe that if I truly love and respect my body, I will eat in a way that is healthy for my body and the earth.  I will either lose the few pounds or be more accepting of my body as it is.  This sankalpa thus gives me much to contemplate in terms of my relationship to the mirror, my clothes, my asana practice, and my way of eating.  How much it gives me to contemplate expands if I think of the body extending beyond just my flesh and bones and physical appearance, but also to my energy body and all that I bring in through the senses.

What sankalpa would be transformative for you this year?  What would help you embody your sankalpa (other than, of course, establishing a regular yoga nidra practice — see yoga nidra resources).

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Yoga Nidra Resources

The practice of yoga nidra is a wonderful way to deepen the connection between the full range of consciousness and your physical body.  It is enjoyable and helpful to practice it on an occasional basis — we did it for the last class of the session in the Willow Street gentle/therapeutics class and you all are welcome to come to the New Year’s Yoga Nidra workshop on Sunday, January 4th — but it can be even more productive as a regular weekly practice.

Here are some good resources if you have found yoga nidra helpful and want to find out more about it and establish a home practice:

To read more about yoga nidra, I recommend the following books, both of which I believe are available at Willow Street Yoga Center.

  • Yoga Nidra, Swami Satyandanda Saraswati, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India, Bihar School of Yoga (1988)
  • Yoga Nidra, The Meditative Heart of Yoga, Richard Miller, PhD, Integrated CD Learning, Sounds True, Inc. (2005) [this comes with a CD]

These CD’s lead you through yoga nidra practices of various lengths and emphasis:

  • Experience Yoga Nidra — Guided Deep Relaxation, Swami Janakananda, www.skand-yoga.org [my favorite — maybe it is the soothing tones of an Indian swami speaking English with a Swedith inflection]
  • Yoga Nidra with Robin Carnes, Robin Carnes leads a yoga nidra class at Willow Street Yoga Center.
  • Moving Into the Garden of Your Heart, Betsy Downing, Ph.D [Betsy Downing, the “grandame of Anusara” will be at Willow Street Yoga in January 2009]
  • Relax Into Greatness with the Treasure of Yoga Nidra, Rod Stryker [Rod Stryker is an exceptional master and leader of tantric yoga practices, such as yoga nidra, and I highly recommend his meditation CDs and his workshops. This is an older CD, and I sometimes find that the body scan is a little fast for my comfort].
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Four Cats

Between Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner I spent time with four cats in four different households.  One is the cat who lives with me — Becky, who has been with me since she and her sister Henrietta were just under five weeks old.  Becky will be 21 years old in April.  Becky likes to be near me, but prefers to just sit still on my lap and be petted very gently.  She still goes up and down pretty steep steps several times a day, but she needs a cushion next to the bed and a low coffee table next to her favorite sofa to be able to climb up to her favorite sleeping places.  She is very affectionate.  When I have guests, she always comes out to greet them.

On Christmas Eve, I went to a party at a neighbors’ house.  There were lots of children running around, tumbling with each other; those who were not in the play basement climbed on adults and furniture, filling the house with energy.  After most of the children went home (departing early in bright-eyed anticipation of Christmas morning), Tabitha, who is about 13 came downstairs to visit.  She checked out most of the people in the room and jumped up and down off of the sofas several times before picking my lap for a nice petting.  Although she is still is solidly, physically able, she has slowed down since I first met her 8-10 years ago.

At lunch on Christmas Day, Sunshine, who is about three, sat in my lap, wildly draping herself into fabulous contortions as she was petted.  She lives with two elderly huskies.  She was feeling spunky because one of them just had a major operation, and she was feeling safer and more confident, being far the nimblest of the three animals.  She even played with her feathery thing on a string toy right in front of the huskies, neither of whom had the energy to disrupt her play.  She engaged in some tolerably strenuous antics, but only for a short while before she got bored and took herself off for a bath.

The cat guest at Christmas dinner was seven-week old kitten Toulouse.  She does not walk.  She bounces.  She likes to dance around on her hind legs.  She has figured out that if she gets a running start, she can leap onto, instead of clambering up, the sofa that is about five times her height.  She played the whole time before dinner and then after dinner played madly with any hand, string, dust mote, rumpled up piece of wrapping paper, computer cord, shoelace, shadow, rug corner, pants leg, cat toy, etc, etc, that flitted across her vision.  Like the children, she is still building her strength and flexibility and discovering how to get around and where she can go.

Watching those cats made me think of my continuing coming to terms with the range of my asana practice.  I often practice with a group of yogis who are, for the most part, 10-20 years younger than I am.  They are beautiful and flexible and strong and a joy to witness.  Sometimes when I am practicing with them and I am feeling the aches and pains of an aging spine, it is hard for me stay at peace with the fact although I have a fairly strong physical practice, I cannot have the same one that I would have had if I were working from my level of competence and was 15 years younger.  Even when we stay physically engaged throughout life, the realities of aging will change our way of being in the body.  Just as it was a delight to sit with all four cats at such different places in their lives and observe their grace, we will age more peacefully if instead of fighting always to have the physical state of youth, we celebrate what enhances our feeling of well-being wherever we are in life.  And regardless of previous practice or physical fitness, a steady asana practice at every age, like the play of a cat, can help keep us more vital.

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Playlist for Hanumanasana Workshop

Many thanks to all who came out, got deep into their practice, and gave support to the Seva Foundation and the Willow Street kula.  Per T’s request, here’s the playlist for the workshop:

Mountain Chalisa, Krishna Das, Pilgrim Heart

Sita Ram, Jai Uttal, Kirtan

Sri Ram, Shantala, Sri

Veerapuram Dham, Hanuman Foundation, Songs in Praise of Hanuman

Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Dave Stringer, Japa

Rock on Hanuman, MC Yogi, Elephant Power

Hanuman Chalisa, Bhagavan Das, Now

Good Ole Chalisa, Krishna Das, Flow of Grace

Anjani Putra, Hanuman Foundation, Songs in Praise of Hanuman

Enjoy!

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Hanuman — Adamantine

When I prepare to teach a workshop, I usually do a fair amount of background reading in addition to preparing the asana practice and contemplating the theme.  Right now, I am getting ready to teach a workshop on the hidden powers of hanumanasana (See Workshops page for more info).  A few weeks ago, I came across a tattered 1987 edition of an Indian publication of the Ramayana by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. I was planning to read other works about Hanuman, but thought that I must be meant to read this one.

It is an interesting little book.  Chakravarti, also known as “Rajaji” was the first Indian governor-general of India and a close compatriot of Gandhi.  The work is interesting from a historical perspective.  It was first published in 1951 in Tamil and then translated from Tamil into English.  The purpose of the work was to make the Ramayana accessible to those who were not educated in Sanskrit and philosophy.  Although purportedly for children, it obviously had appeal for a wider audience (the 1987 edition I found was the 25th).  Rather than a translation, it is a retelling of the story, filled with homilies and somewhat paternalistic commentaries. Although because it is faithful to the story it still has the relentless sexism of the original, Rajaji does tell his readers in his commentary that the commonly held belief (supported by the language of the Ramayana, which is regarded as a religious text) that a woman has sinned or is shamed if “a villain behaves like a brute” to her is just wrong.

What was most interesting to me about this particular telling of the Ramayana, aside from its historical and social context, was how it resonated with my Anusara studies.  When Hanuman first battles the demons, Rajaji says the demons “showered missiles on him which mostly glanced harmlessly off his adamantine frame.”  Rajaji uses the word “adamantine” to describe Hanuman elsewhere in the work. Here, Hanuman is adamantine because his devotion and steadiness make an energetically impermeable boundary.  Hanuman is able to love deeply and to engage in battle fully, but is protected from the inside out by his practice and his devotion.  John Friend speaks often of using one’s practice to become “adamantine.”  He suggests that the practice of opening to grace, and then pulsing a perfect balance between drawing in and reaching out energetically (muscular and organic energy), gives us an adamantine core that enables us to be open to a full range of experience without being harmed by negative things.  I have experience myself from six steady years of Anusara practice, how the principles can indeed help me be open, while keeping negative energy from invading my space.

A used copy of this edition would likely have been around when John Friend was traveling in India when he first went to the Siddha yoga ashram.  Did reading this particular edition lead him to use the word “adamantine” in the context of his teaching of the energetics of asana?  I do not have an answer to that question, nor should I conjecture.  What I do know, is that regardless of how I feel about some of the exterior social influences and teachings of the great Indian texts (think how I might feel about the Spanish Inquisition as it relates to the Bible), there is much to learn about meditation, yoga practice, and personal integrity interwoven in the stories.

Other readings:

The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki by Swami Venkatesananda (much more scholarly — the translation you would read if you were taking a university course, but didn’t know Sanskrit)

The Ramayana retold by William Buck — easy to read; like reading a novel-length fairy tale rendition for adolescents (changes the ending to make what happens to Sita more palatable)

The Ramayana — A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon.  Great novel.  Cannot recommend highly enough, but probably won’t resonate as much unless you are familiar with the Ramayana and other Indian epics and philosophy.

The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz, trans. from the Spanish by Helen Lane.  From the back cover:  “Hanuman, the red-faced monkey chief and ninth grammarian of Hindu mythology, is the protagonist of this dazzling prose poem — a mind journey into the temple city of Galta and the occasion … to explore the nature of naming and knowing, time and reality, and fixity and decay.”

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Music for Asana Practice

Yesterday the mysterious beeping was beeping again in Studio 1B.  I have all sorts of approaches to teaching with the beeping.  One of them is to switch the attention of the ears to music.  We flowed to Now by Bhagavan Das (because it was already in the CD player and I like it well enough) and listened to selections from Love Reigns by Diana Rogers during final relaxation.  Monty asked me after class to give a list of some good music for home practice.  Here are some of my favorite “yoga” cds in no particular order:

Krishna Das — Live on Earth; Faith of the Heart

Wah! — Hidden in the Name; Jai, Jai, Jai

Jai Uttal — Kirtan (this double CD also has a useful spoken background piece on what is kirtan)

Deva Premal — Love is Space; The Embrace

Ragani — Best of Both Worlds

Dave Stringer — Mala; Japa; Divas and Devis

Shantala — Sri; The Love Window

Many of these are available at the Willow Street Yoga Center shops.  Most should be available on-line directly from the artists.  Dave Stringer also has other music available for download.  The rest can be obtained from Amazon.  Also great listening is Invocation, which was put together by Ty Burhow.  It is a collection of different artists offering versions of the Anusara invocation.  Willow Street work studies are raving about MC Yogi’s Elephant Power, which is rap music telling the stories of various deities — funny and delightful.

Mostly, I prefer to teach and practice without music, but I was a dancer and find music helps to lead me into heart and body simultaneously.  I find bringing music into a practice session especially helpful when I am having trouble getting settled on my mat.   I do not just play “yoga” music, but play whatever gets me into the spirit of play or relaxation and contemplation as I am moved.  My bias is towards chamber music (especially Bach) and Indian classical music for a late evening quiet practice and for an upbeat daytime practice anything that would go with being outside on a grassy field on a bright sunny day with frisbee players around.  Alice Coltrane is also wonderful if you haven’t discovered yet her discography.

Play what enhances rather than what distracts.  Also, check out the artists when they come to town:  Wah!, Dave Stringer, and Shantala (Heather and Benji Wertheimer) all come to town.  Enjoy!

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