Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

Why Practice; Why Teach

Last night in class, I asked why people continued to come to class.  “To see how I can expand,” “for the community,” “for the delight,” “for relaxation,” were some of the answers.  Orie asked me what led me to teach.  The first reason I gave (and the one that was the primary reason for entering teacher training) was that I had been so inspired by what yoga had offered me that I wanted to share it.

The second reason I gave was that teaching helps keep me disciplined about my practice.  I cannot abide hypocrisy, and so, I feel compelled to try my best to practice what I teach.  I do not always embody fully the teachings in my own life and practice, but I am always trying.  Knowing how the teachings and practices have shifted me and witnessing how the teachings inspire my students, leads me to continue to study, to practice, to try and align better on and off the mat.

Today, with a day of stressful meetings and phone calls ahead, it will be a good day to try to live the practice.

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Savasana

When I first started teaching, one of the things I found most inspiring was seeing my students in savasana.  It is such a rare and precious things to see a group of people deeply relaxed, especially for someone who came to yoga essentially restless and who inhabits a workplace that is, so to speak, rather caffeinated.  For me, the practice of savasana has been transforming.  After 10 years of steady practice, my sleep has deepened and become more consistently restful, which has enhanced my ability to come from a yogic place off the mat.

Savasana is in some sense for me always the so-called “pinnacle pose” of practice.  The pinnacle pose is not necessarily the most physically challenging pose in terms of combined strength and flexibility, although it is an essential component of the sequencing of any good practice to have the poses gradually open all the parts of the body needed to do the most physically challenging pose.

When thinking about any practice and determining whether a cooling or heating, expanding or inward-going, playful or serious practice would be most appropriate, I ask whether the practice will lead to a place where is will be possible to be completely free and relaxed for 10-15 minutes?  Will the practice enable the body feel open and released, strengthened and supported, integrated and aligned, so that lying on a hard floor will seem like being on the finest bedding?  Will the focus of the practice help simultaneously free the mind of thought and burden and yet keep it focused and alert so that body and mind can surrender to the full, blissful of conscious being in the moment?  Will the practice serve to align the koshas (or sheaths) so that the outer body is soft and relaxed, the energy body full and bright, and the mind and intuitive bodies one with the anandamaya kosha (the bliss body)?

Some teachers have said that savasana is one of the most advanced of yoga poses.  I would agree.

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Ready or Not Here It Comes (Summer Heat)

This morning when I stepped out into the back garden, I heard the sound of clippers on the other side of the fence.  It was my back garden neighbor of over 15 years.  “Is that you?” I asked.  “Yes,” was the reply and we both walked up onto our decks so we could see across the fences.  “It must be summer,” my neighbor said, in acknowledgment of it being the first morning of the season we coincided in the garden.  “I am so ready,” he said, and we caught up with the winter news and discussed what was going on in our gardens.  I told him about Becky, marveling at her wonderful long life of 21 years.  “It was time, then,” he commented.  “I still miss her, though,” I replied.

Yesterday, several people said to me that they were not ready for summer.  Whether people were ready (or not) for the 90 degree weather seemed to depend a lot a preference cold or warm weather.

It hardly matters whether we are ready for a shift in the seasons, the loss of a precious being, or the arrival of gray hairs and degenerative arthritis (I am finding myself  not ready for any of these, really).

Life comes to us, ready or not.  We can use our yoga practice, especially asana, to help us expand and shift and be prepared for whatever comes, by inviting all of our practice and our growth (which includes both expansion and contraction) a rich exploration.  We can experiment with where is our edge, listening to both ourselves and our teachers to discover not only what we are ready for, but also how we react when confronted with that for which we think we are not ready.  By seeking the subtle knowledge of when our mind is ahead of our body and when our mind is holding back our body, we can enhance our ability to respond to what comes in the most open, sensitive, discriminating, flexible, and thus, life-enhancing way, on and off the mat.

In the meantime, I give in to the premature summer heat.  This morning, I picked spinach and herbs to go with mushrooms from the fresh farm market for breakfast and made a posy of pansies for the altar.  Why leave them in the garden if they will just wilt in the heat?  It was a great afternoon for a siesta and a treat to be out in the city in the morning unencumbered by sweater or jacket.  For my evening practice, I will emphasize deep, cooling forward bends and pranayama.  Will I be ready for the cool days to come back at the end of the week?  I do not think I will have a choice.

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Early Morning Rain

This morning I stayed in bed after the alarm sounded and listened to the rain.  It was peaceful and pleasant, but it was not meditation.

Listening to the rain made me extra glad to have spent so much of the weekend in the garden.  The new plants are drinking up the fresh water and will almost soar when the warm sun returns at the end of the week.

Thinking about how the garden will flourish because I laid the ground to enable it to get the best of the rain and the sun inspired me to get up and take my meditation seat, even though I was late.  It is practicing consistently that lays the ground for us to be ready to have the fullest, most joyous, and most optimal experience of ourselves, the world, and our spirit whatever comes and whenever it comes.

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What I’ll Be Reading This Session

You may have noticed that I do not say what I will be teaching.  In my blogs and classes, when referring to the philosophy that inspires me, I speak of what I will be reading, what I will be contemplating, and what I will be exploring.  It is not false humility.  It is a recognition that reading and contemplating a work even several times over a few years is not enough to be “teaching” it.  My teaching can, however, authentically be inspired by that level of exploration.  I make offerings of what sparks me to think, to practice, and to want to continue to delve ever more deeply into the yoga practices.

This session, I will be reading, contemplating, and inspiring my own practices and my class plans from the Pratyabhijnahrdayam.

Pratyabhijnahrdayam:  The Secret of Self-Recognition, J. Singh (Motalal Banarsidass Publishers, Reprinted 2008)

The Splendor of Recognition:  An Exploration of the Pratyabhijna-hrdayam, Swami Shantananda with Peggy Bendet (SYDA Foundation, 2003)

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Parama Shiva Tattva (playlist from class)

Per Pam’s request, here’s the Shiva-themed (with a little Ganesha {son of Shiva} and Bhuvaneshwari {Adi Parashakti inseparable from Shiva} included)  playlist from Saturday’s class:

  • Om Shiva, Chloe Goodchild, from Sura
  • Hey Shiva Shankara, Dave Stringer, from Japa
  • Shiva Shambo, Bhagavan Das, from Now
  • Son of Shiva, MC Yogi, from Elephant Power
  • Om Mata, Ragani, from Best of Both Worlds
  • Dancing with the Goddess, Atman, from Eternal Dance
  • Namah Shivayah, Krishna Das, from Live on Earth
  • Hara Shiva Shankara, Jai Uttal, from Spirit Room

Enjoy.  Practice.  Dance.  Sing.

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Aphids (and limitations)

Even though we had real, hard frosts this winter, there are already aphids on my roses.  I went out this morning and picked the aphids off of the new buds — yes, my roses are budding.  It was too cold to stay out long, but I did a little weeding and planted a couple of pots of pansies.

I was thinking about how I garden in my tiny space — using my fingers to take the aphids off of each rose bud, pulling up individual weeds between new plants in containers, choosing to let some volunteers come up between bricks because it expands my planting area.  How different it would be if I even had a small yard by suburban standards.  It would not be possible to attend to all the detail that I see, unless I were to spend every waking hour in the garden.  If I had an acre, it would take three full-time gardeners to attend without tools and sprays the small things I touch by hand.

It seems we make our world as big or as small as we want it.  My tiny garden is as much a universe for me as a gardener as would be an acre garden — though of course I cannot grow sprawling things like melons and potatoes and fruit trees.

But the fullness of how much I see and experience, how much calls out for love and attention, how much I am enriched by tending and observing what is there,  is not diminished by what I do not have.  Rather, I am called to expand to the greatest what I have within my limits.  This is true, too, in our yoga and meditation practice, and our lives.  We can choose to live expansively no matter what our limits or we can choose to feel bound and diminished by our limits.  The garden, this morning, helped me remind myself of that choice.  It helped me turn towards possibilities for growth instead of towards constriction.

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Shiva-Shakti Tattvas

The shiva-shakti tattvas, the two highest tattvas, are completely subjective.  The shiva tattva is, according to the philosophy, the ultimate reality, the pure “I,” undiminished and undifferentiated consciousness.  As something purely subjective, it is both everywhere and nowhere, in every being and simultaneously beyond them.  It is not dissimilar to Hegel’s Absolute (though I believe Douglas Brooks, who knows far more than I in this area, might disagree with me on this one), which “is and is not,” or Kant’s “unmoved mover.”

Shakti tattva is power — the power to tranform, create, manifest, diversify, cloak.  Shakti is the power to become embodied in objective form.  Shiva and shakti tattvas are thus inseparable.  Ultimate unbounded consciousness and freedom (shiva) only has meaning to the extent the power to move, create, and diversify (shakti) pulses and transforms the subjective into the objective, the unimaginable to the observable.

In our yoga practice and meditation, we seek to use the practices to reveal to ourselves the ultimate pulsation (spanda) between the objective and subjective, the observable and the unknowable, the individual and the completely universal.  One way I experience the first principle of Anusara yoga (open to grace), is taking the mat or my seat with an openness to sense and experience this ultimate pulsation (spanda) and play (lila), so that by using my body, mind, and will, I can better recognize the spirit that shines in all of us and use that recognition to inform how I relate to myself, society, and all beings.

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Iccha, Jnana, Kriya

Above (or perhaps beyond, or maybe more elemental, or more universal — words inevitably tangle us in discussing essential philosophical constructs) the six kanchukas (cloakings or coverings) are the five universal elements.  These are suddha vidya, ishvara, saddha shiva, and shiva-shakti.  John Friend suggests that we think of the first three of these tattvas as corresponding to the principles of iccha (will),  jnana (knowledge), and kriya (action).

When I think of the Anusara principles in practice on and off the mat, I think of them in terms of the tattvas, particularly the five universal elements and the five mahabhutas .   Those of you who practice and study Anusara yoga are familiar with the principles of “open to grace, muscular energy, inner/expanding spiral, outer/contracting spiral, and organic energy.”  As part of the physical practice of asana, I think of these alignment principles as corresponding to the mahabhutas (the five great elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space/ether; see previous posts on how I experience the alignment principles as relating to the mahabhutas).  At that level, “open to grace” has physical characteristics.  These principles, when applied consciously, help us to align the physical body with the energy body, so that we can more fully delight in our bodies.  When we are in alignment and experience expansion through alignment, we can more optimally move in and experience the physical and mental realms in a way that helps us recognize the universal spirit in all beings.

The reason I come to the mat, the ultimate purpose of yoga in an of itself and for me as a practitioner, is informed by the five principles of the universal.  The yearning to connect to the spirit is in essence an opening to grace at an elemental, non-physical level (an uber opening to grace).  The next aspect of our practice, which is more important than the physical technical details of the alignment principles, are what John Friend terms “attitude, alignment, and action.”  These are by definition more universal and fundamental than the physical principles and correspond directly to the principles of iccha (will),  jnana (knowledge), and kriya (action).  The essence of yoga, especially from a tantric perspective, is the will (iccha) to embody and experience the union of mind, body, and spirit with a radical embrace of our being.   Knowledge (jnana), when used as a way to align with our true nature, is not to correct, but to better enable us to align our body, both physically and energetically, and our mind so we best can experience and express our will to connect.   The ultimate action (kriya) of a pose or what we do off the mat is a spontaneous offering or an expression of our will to connect, using ever increasing refinement, skill, and knowledge.

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