Obstacles to Practice: Doubt

The obstacles to becoming an adept yogi are sleep, laziness and disease. One has to remove these by the root and throw them away … Asana will help all this. To acquire this skill, recite the following slokam every day before practicing yoga.  Yoga Makaranda (II.3)

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

Salutations to the king of the Nagas,
to the infinite, to the bearer of the mandala,
who spreads out the universe with thousands
of hooded heads, set with blazing, effulgent jewels.
(Listen to Richard Freeman chanting.)

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (I.30) there are nine obstacles to the practice listed.


doubt negativeDoubt – sanshaya

Lacking conviction or confidence, distrust, and fear, are among a few of the definitions of “doubt” that make it pretty clear why it tops the list of Patanjali’s obstacles in the third position.  However, the other definition that is found most in tandem with these less positive ones revolves around uncertainty.   It is that definition family that gives rise to sentiments like Paul Tillich’s “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith.” Or Volataire’s, “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” Or doubt being one of three great qualities in Buddhism: Great Doubt, Great Faith, and Great Determination.

Doubt is the factor that allows us to drop how and what we’ve pre-decided about people and situations.  It grants us freedom to respond to what is, freedom from having to know, freedom not to need to make up our mind about what’s happening right now – to be alive and open to what is.

Two Doubts

Doubt can function in our practice in two ways; one is as a general mood of open inquiry – of a cultivated uncertainty that keeps us awake to the moment. The second is one of critical inquiry that takes a teaching we’ve read or seen and begins to turn it into something we experiment with and experience for ourselves.  The results of any teaching reveal its worth.

Stephen Batchelor describes the first kind of doubt in his book, “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist”;

“When the retreat began and I started meditating in earnest on the question “What is this?” my mind insisted on coming up with clever answers.  Each time I tried to discuss my latest theory with Kusan Sunim, he would listen patiently for a while, then give a short laugh and say: “Bopchon [my Korean name]. Do you know what it is? No? Then go back and sit.”

Irrespective of how suitably enigmatic they seemed, my answers were either trite or predictable. After a while, I simply gave up trying to find an answer. “What is this?” is an impossible question: it is designed to short –circuit the brain’s answer-giving habit and leave you in a state of serene puzzlement. This doubt, or “perplexity” as I preferred to call it, then slowly starts to infuse one’s consciousness as a whole.  Rather than struggling with the words of the question, one settles into a mood of quiet focused astonishment, in which one simply waits and listens in the pregnant silence that follows the fading of the words.”

We can offer this type of listening to our experiences in nature, in relationship, in our meditation and yoga practices.   We can be free from what we think is happening, right in the middle of it happening. Not that we erase our memory, or don’t have ideas, but that we can drop the teacher, you can say to yourself “neti neti” – not this not this, and practice the freedom from knowing.

“Doubting has immense power. It allows us to remain curious and to consider multiple alternative perspectives.  This is deeply important because as soon as we think we understand something, we stop paying attention.  We then miss the truth about it because nothing is ever as simple as our minds try to make them.  Once we think we think we have the answer, we stop questioning.   Once we understand something, we grow bored with it.” Sangha member at ID Project

doubt inquiryRilke writes of the second kind of doubt; “And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”

Here Rilke gives us advice on what to do when doubt arises, as if seemingly on its own.  How to allow it to be a harbinger of investigation.  While not recommended as how to work in the midst of a meditation or yoga practice, later reflection on doubts that arise from practice or elsewhere would be a powerful way to cultivate great doubt in our lives.

A paper by Robert M Baird on Creative Doubt looks at that second type of doubt from a more proactive lens – to take on the task of actively doubting.  The online abstract opens with this story:

“A college student approached his professor after class. With anguish he complained, “I don’t know whether you know it or not, but this class is painful.” “How’s that?” the professor asked. “Well,” the student continued, “you have convinced me that we ought to do what you are encouraging us to do, but when I do what you suggest, it’s so painful.”

What had this professor suggested? What had he encouraged his students to do, the doing of which created, in at least one student, pain? He had encouraged them to doubt creatively. That is, he had encouraged his students to challenge and evaluate the fundamental values – ethical, political, and religious – to which they were committed.”

Follow this source link for further information about the paper, as well as the complete abstract which presents his four arguments for the benefits of creative doubt.

Whether Rilke or Baird, Batchelor, or the Buddha, there is a strong tradition for actively cultivating skillful doubt in our lives.  Can you imagine undertaking one of these practices for a month? What happens? What shifts?

Small doubt, small enlightenment; big doubt, big enlightenment – Zen Master Nine Mountains

Obstacles to Practice: Sickness

The obstacles to becoming an adept yogi are sleep, laziness and disease. One has to remove these by the root and throw them away … Asana will help all this. To acquire this skill, recite the following slokam every day before practicing yoga.  Yoga Makaranda (II.3)

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

Salutations to the king of the Nagas,
to the infinite, to the bearer of the mandala,
who spreads out the universe with thousands
of hooded heads, set with blazing, effulgent jewels.
(Listen to Richard Freeman chanting.)

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (I.30) there are nine obstacles to the practice listed.

How we practice

When we commit to practice, we soon understand that we’ve undertaken a lifelong pursuit.  What can sometimes take longer to perceive is that it’s a twenty-four hour one as well, including weekends.  We don’t take time off.

The first obstacle, disease or illness (vyadhi), is perhaps the most universal. We can all recall when it’s been nearly impossible to get off of the couch/floor/toilet/bed, let alone onto a mat or cushion.  So the question arises: “What is practice? What does it look like, what does it feel like, when we’re sick?”

I recently experienced a stomach bug while travelling, and have front line recommendations for the question.  Ethan Nichtern of the ID Project shared his own list with his sangha which is worth checking out as well.

savasana-corpse-pose1) Savasana – truly use the time to be quiet, still, resting and inwards.  Avoid the habit embedded in us since childhood of turning to TV or movies.  If you can’t get up, truly be down. Since I was travelling, I did not have my Netflix queue nor my stash of comfort reading.  I had no choice but to savasana, and it was delightful.

2) Notice – just as you would in practice, pay attention to the thoughts and stories that come up while you’re sick.  How did this happen? How much longer will this last? When I get better I’ll take X action.  Let go of ruminations. Notice tendencies towards judgement or blame. Cultivate the positive, calm, healing thoughts.

3) Movement – therapeutic stretching for parts of the body that get strained, constrained, or achy with illness can be a sweet relief. Simple, slow, and easy –a few neck rolls or hips movements can suffice.

 At the first signs of illness I know many people go to a yoga class in the hopes it will move the illness through.  Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. If you have this thought, practice at home so as not to potentially spread what’s brewing. In many illnesses, it’s the beginning period when you’re most contagious.

4) Breath – sometimes it’s the only thing you can pay attention to that isn’t painful.  It can be an important anchor. And sometimes you can barely make a full round of breath. Paying particular attention to the end of the exhale during pain can give you a small moment of oasis.

5) Experiment – the next time you’re not feeling well, bring in this question and see for yourself how practice shifts with you.

How we’re calledmoney-and-illness

We never know how we will be called to take care of others. We never know when we are going to need others to care for us.  What we know is that both will happen. People we love will get sick, they will need care.  We will get sick, we will need care.

Our practice can prepare us to be receptive and open to meet another when they are in the hospital or the bathroom floor or the couch. Our practice can help us cultivate deeper and deeper relationships, and the ability to ask for help.  It can teach us to rest and be still.  There are so many ways in which our practice can serve us when we’re called.  We can use that as motivation to truly give our hearts to our paths.

How joy enters

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his essay ‘The Peace of the Divine Reality’, writes: “When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. That is peace. I had to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful. My nontoothache is peace, is joy. But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be very happy. Therefor to look deeply at the present moment and see that I have a nontoothache, that can make me very happy already.”

Take a moment to reflect on one or two recent physical ailments or illnesses in the body or mind which are no longer present.  Perhaps any of the afflictions of allergies, a persistent cough, a toothache, food poisoning, or joint or muscle pain. Remember how it felt, how difficult and challenging certain aspects of asana practice, or sitting practice, or sleeping, or getting dressed, or general life were. Notice how easy it is now.  You’re not just fine or ok, you are nontoothache! Allow joy and gratitude for your healthy eye, tooth, elbow, hamstring, toe to well up and infuse you. Sense, perhaps, an appreciation for your life.

What would it be like to infuse a week with this type of reflection?

Lokah Samasta

Lokah Samasta Sukinoh Bhavantu
May all beings be happy and free

Lokah samasta – all beings everywhere
Lokah – location, here, region, world
Samasta – all, whole
Sukinoh – be happy and free
Bhavantu – may I contribute to this, I pledge to this, may it be so

Part of embodying lokah samasta is to fully inhabit your body – your personal region, your world of existence. Asana practice is one of many ways we deepen our ability to do so.

Seeing clearly the whole space and world in which we find ourselves, moment to moment to moment, is another part.  This is both in the larger scale of world citizenship, and also the daily scale of the space you’re in, right now, reading this.

Our ability to fully embody all aspects of our lokah samasta is limited by our edges. We all have edges. We all have parts of us, others, and the world, that we don’t want to see. Sometimes we can’t see.  We have lines drawn between what we’re willing to work with and what we’re not. What we include in our intentions and practice and hearts, and what we don’t.  Often, a large part of the path is being able to first see those lines and then to soften or shift them.

As Abbot Myogen Steve Stucky said, “Whatever you feel is right at the edge of your familiar world, that’s the edge of your deep intention to wake up with what is.”

cut out (2)This past year I’ve made a practice of a weekly morning silent walking period through my local park.  There’s a waterfall along the route, and I usually sit with it for a good while.  One day, the light, the leaves and sky behind invited a picture.

I soon noticed that I was being very careful to cut out the collection of three or four discarded soda bottles someone had left on the side.  The waterfall was beautiful and inspiring, the trash was not.  A clear line – what I was including in my experience, and what I was cutting out.

I was cutting it out because if I spent time with it, I would go on cut outa thought train of how thoughtless those people were. I’d berate the park employees for not picking it up.  Thinking those thoughts made me feel bad. So I cut all of it out.

Seeing the division enabled me to turn and actually look at the bottles. To actually include them in the whole moment of experience.  This park is special to me, my time here is meaningful.  I love the earth. Even the part of earth over there on the side that’s ugly and unusable.  If I’m also committed to yoga and dharma in action, how can I respond fully? How does all of my personal embodied world meet the needs and experience of the whole space and world I’m in this moment?  The answer for me was a new addition to my weekly walks: a plastic bag.  I fill it two to three times on my way to the waterfall with trash, emptying along the way in the park garbage cans.  It doesn’t matter why they did it, or whose job it is to pick it up.  What matters is how I respond to it.

What or where are your edges? What do you care about? How can seeing and softening those edges allow you to interact and respond to the world, to the moment? It won’t look the same for everyone. But imagine if everyone did this practice?

To celebrate one of my favorite holidays, I’ve started Pick Up & Picnic. Join me 🙂


Asana 3: tato dvandvanabhighatah

Tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ PYS II.48

When posture is mastered, there is a cessation of the disturbances caused by the pairs of opposites…whether physical, mental or spiritual

Most translations go on to give examples of opposites. Common ones are: like/dislike, love/hate, relative/universal, hot/cold… And that’s where I got stuck. I, like you, have noticed how yoga has influenced my choices and my outlook over the years. I am less attached to my likes and dislikes, habitual preferences that create cycles of suffering are easier to see. All of them are still there of course, but I get how asana embued with the qualities of the two preceding sutras work towards the cessation this sutra indicates.  Except for hot/cold.

I really really don’t like the cold. If I could transplant my family, close loved ones, and yoga community to New Orleans tomorrow, I would do it. Without thinking twice.

2059-fall-tree-800x600Fall is often a challenging time for me.  Despite the beauty New York offers at this time, it’s all a subtle reminder that winter is coming. cold winter2

All of which meant this particular duality bore closer inspection, and I happened to re-cross its path during late winter, so it was great timing.

While walking down the street I realized I could, in fact, diminish the cold. I could begin ujjayi breathing. I could focus on a mantra. I could draw my body in towards the central line. I could catch myself before I start to complain about the cold to myself or someone else – which only ever makes it more present, entrenched, and generally worse. The cold could be like another teacher, who I would not speak poorly about either in its presence or not. I could stop making it bad and just let it be itself. As I would let a tree be its tree self, my mom herself, my dog himself. I could also stay right in the uncomfortableness until it shifts, without trying to fix it in any particular way – like pigeon pose and how my outer hip felt when I first learned it.

Asana had actually taught me valuable and multiple ways to deal with it.

This was a reminder, which we must revisit again and again, that asana and yoga never change anything or anyone external to us. The only thing asana and yoga ever work on is ourselves. You diminish the dualities, they do not diminish.

To work with this in your next asana class, or really at any time, watch your self-talk for dualistic language especially of good/bad.  Watch for trying to fix bad with forcing good, or vice versa.  Watch your conversation indicators of listening for dualistic tones, and figure out how to make your language match your yoga.

lovehate37-thumb“Who we truly are goes beyond all polarity, including the polarity of love and hate.” Ram Dass

In case you missed the first two installments of asana: one and two.

Asana 2: prayatna saithilyananta samapattibhyam


Asana should be attained by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite. PYS II.47

The second sutra on asana has further instructions for the yogi.  Or what can also be seen as a refinement of the previous sutra: sthira (steadiness) is to be done with a relaxation of effort (don’t try so hard!), and sukham (joy) is to be completely absorbed on an infinite level (embody down to every cell of your being!).  Or sthira is truly attained when it is an expression of a deep infinite well of stillness, and sukham when you have relaxed your habits of wanting and aversion, of efforting in the world to simply be in it – the true wellspring of contentment and joy.

NBT. 26-11-2008Relaxation of Effort
“…it takes a special kind of effort to achieve effortlessness” Chip Hartranft

“You make that look easy” – A statement generally following someone performing a physical feat the speaker knows required an enormous amount of effort to achieve, and yet the performer enacted it effortlessly.  In some cases, it is actually effortless, and it others the performer just makes it look that way. Generally this is born of months or years of toil, and constant dedicated practice. This is not what this sutra is referring to.

This sutra is referring to the way in which those months and years played out – not the performance at the end.  It is a step by step, moment by moment instruction for the way we choose to act (not do!) our lives.

It is experiencing stillness within motion, connecting the inner and outer.  It’s working in your life while connected to your element.  It’s cooking dinner with ingredients everywhere, timers going, your hands chopping and stirring, the oven generating heat and you’re conscious of your breath.   It’s balancing in tree pose, working to articulate all the alignment points the teacher is guiding you towards, and you’re using an inner stillness to balance, rather than the external point you’re looking at. That external point is just the center of your dristhi field, not the source of your balance. When you experience that – you have relaxed effort in asana. The relationship you have with the external world is not the only relationship you have going on – when you experience that, you have relaxed effort in life.

“Stillness is a reflection of our growing openness to the unpredictable unfolding of the world as it is, a freedom from the constant effort to bending things to our liking, to make them conform to our conditioned notions of good and bad.” Chip Hartranft

tumblr_mqw2xl7Zmm1ssyifho1_400Absorption in the Infinite

One of the best practices for touching on this instruction is incorporating nadam work into asana practice.

Nadam is the subtle sound of the universe; the nature of the universe. It’s going on all the time and pervasive to every nook and cranny, but unheard. Similar to the way you don’t hear your fridge, or the subway station outside your apartment, or the animal sounds that come every night outside your house.  In quantum physics string theory posits the fundamental nature of the universe is waves. Nadam can be thought of as the sound those waves make, if we could hear them.  Yogis try to hear them.

Hearing begins with listening – the active work of the ears.

So in asana – listen to your breath.  Begin, after chanting, your ujjayi breathing. Make sure you can hear it, but it is unnecessary for anyone else to. Then listen to it for a whole class. That’s months work of homework right there.

In life – listening begins with being quiet.  So take time to be quiet.  If we don’t allow for silence, we will only hear the loudest voice – our own or others.  As we know from personal experience, it’s not always the loudest voice we want to listen to.

And if there is sound, be mindful.  What we hear alters the physical makeup of the brain, unlike any of our other senses (“This is Your Brain on Music” Levitan).  As carefully and consistently as we choose what we eat, and how we decorate and the colors we use, we should do that with what we hear.

Listen_to_Your_Heart_by_cho_okaAt a fundamental level, this sutra is encouraging us to let go, and dive deep.  Echoing the Bhagavad Gita’s encouragement to let go of expectations, results, and goals as the motivation for effort, but instead to revel deep in the effort itself.  Or as the new Michael Franti song says “Do it for the love” of it.

Asana 1: Sthira Sukham

I was inspired to re-delve into the eight limbs from reading a passage of Dogen’s in the collection “Moon in a Dewdrop”.  It’s only fitting that in coming to the most popular of the eight limbs – asana – we investigate through Dogen’s lens with an excerpt from the Genjo Koan – Acutalizing the Fundamental Point. (Click here and here to read more about Sthira Sukham Asanam)


“A fish swims in the ocean and no matter how far it swims,
there is no end to the water.
A bird flies in the sky and no matter how far it flies,
there is no end to the air.
However, the bird and the fish have never left their elements”

fish sky The question arises; Have You? Have you ever left your element?

Which is not to ask; Have you explored outside your comfort zone? But rather; Have you gone past your beneficial boundaries? Have you overextended yourself? Have you spent an inordinate amount of time being your social self, without sinking into your original self?

Yes. We do it all the time. Usually, we are aware only after we’ve returned, when we say things such as, “I feel like myself again.”

So the next question arises; Do you know what nurtures you? What reinforces you being in your element?

When I personally think about things that do – for example, studying with my teachers, it’s not remembering the details.  It’s not, per se, their teachings, advice or philosophy.  It’s remembering how it feels to be around them, who I am when I’ve been around them, and how that extends out afterwards. It’s a place that holds space for me to both work on myself, and be myself.

Can we allow sthira sukham to be recast from a command to be steady and joyful, to a reminder of who you are when you are steady and joyful, when you’re in your element?

Dogen continues:

 “When their activity is large, their field is large, when their need or activity is small, their field is small”

fieldWhat is your field? Sometimes it’s the universe of the breath, sometimes the yoga mat, sometimes the neighborhood, sometimes it’s the whole world.  At those times, it’s not your office, nor your home. When it is your office or your home, it is not the yoga room.

Sometimes life is huge, and you are called upon to fill it all, and yoga asks you to  do so staying in your element.  You are party planner, host, mother of two small children, best friend of a friend in need, and wife all at the same evening event. You are a manager of employees, yourself an employee, responsible for the success of a project that is dictated by another, and need to figure out the IT situation preventing the work from being done, all in the same half hour.

How do we fill large fields, or let go into small fields, with sthira and sukham? First – find your element. From there –  realize that you act within your field for the sake of that action, with success or failure not mattering either way.  The Bhagavad Gita shares this wisdom.  But it’s only philosophy until you do it. Until you stand in honest presence before your field, grounded with both feet in your element, and decide the field and the whole way out to the horizon do not depend on what you get, or don’t get.

Try it on the practice field of asana. Internally stand before the pose (field), find your sthira sukham beginning with an exhale (element), and imagine doing the asana perfectly, but invisible.  No one will know, you will have no feedback or barometer for how it went. All you will be left with was how you existed in your element, in that field, in that moment.



“Thus the bird and the fish totally covers their full range and totally experiences their life”

Michael Stone says nothing obstructs steadiness and joy (enlightenment) more than believing it is outside of you and your life.

Rumi (2061) says

Give yourself a kiss.
If you live in China, don’t look
somewhere else, in Tibet, or Mongolia.

If you want to hold the beautiful one,
hold yourself to yourself.

When you kiss the Beloved,
touch your own lips with your own fingers.

The beauty of every woman and every man
is your own beauty.

The confusion of your hair
obscures that sometimes.

An artist comes to paint you
and stands with his mouth open.

Your love reveals your beauty,
but all covering would disappear
if only for a moment your holding-back
would sit before your generosity
and ask,
“Sir, who are you?”

At that,
Shams’ life-changing face
gives you a wink.

Asana as Object of Meditation

Yathabhimata-dhyanada va  PYS I.39
– Or (steadiness of mind is attained) from meditation upon anything of one’s inclination.

This sutra appears at the end of a listing of various objects a yogi is suggested to use for meditation practice.  In the yoga system, meditation is almost exclusively encouraged through methods of concentrating the mind in one place, creating a groove in the mind in one direction that replaces and stills all the multiple grooves and dances the mind is usually following.  Once this one pattern is established, it too, eventually, is let go and:

Tada drastuh svarupe vastanama PYS I.3
-Then the seer abides in her/his own true nature

In Edwin Bryant’s commentary on this sutra, he mentions BKS Iyengar’s book Tree of Yoga.  In this book Mr. Iyengar offers what Edwin Bryant sees as an innovation to sutra I.39 – to take asana as the object of meditation.  This is an innovation because while asana is mentioned several times in the yoga sutras, it is never mentioned in this context. However, if a yogi were to practice asana with it being the single point of concentration, Edwin Bryant says, it would absolutely be in line with these teachings.  It might, he says, even be a more advisable practice than ever before, due to the way that most yoga is approached today – through asana.

How then can we put this in to practice? How do we make asana, which is constantly changing throughout a practice, something steady enough to meditate on, as an object of concentration?  The breath seems like a good lead, but that has its own sutra.  A specific body part could work, and I believe does in the Iyengar tradition, but it doesn’t really suit the vinyasa style class, in my mind.

This reminds me of what Davidji spoke about during the Master Classes at the beginning of the year.  While sitting in virasana (hero’s pose), he asked us to consider what the “energy signature” of the pose is. He said that all poses have their own energy signature – much like an energetic graffiti tag.  He encouraged us to see it.  Then to have a sense of each energy signature like a sound vibration, or like a letter, and that when we practice a vinyasa (especially a strict one-breath-count vinyasa like Suryanamaskars) to feel that we are stringing them together into a sentence, a chant, a prayer.  And it’s not cool to mispronounce prayers… So make sure that each pose is as fully “pronounced” an energy signature as your body is capable of, then let go and move onto the next.

I believe if we were to set this as our intention for our vinyasa practice – to really enact asana as chants or prayers, with that much concentration on fully enunciating the energy signature, we could approach this idea of using asana as a point of concentration.

To fully enunciate the signature requires a great deal of concentration – and a dialogue between the external structure of the body, and the internal energy.  Without the external structure and alignment being maintained, the energy signature gets static-y or completely fuzzed out. Without the energy signature, we may as well be doing any other form of workout. To fully enunciate a pose, to create a resonant vibration of a chant with our asana, it is necessary to have this back and forth between the external and internal – in every pose, every time, all class long.

From there we could begin to imagine how carrying over a practice like this to our day would make us more aware of the moment to moment of our lives.  We might be encouraged to savor the moments more, and be less likely to arrive at the end of the day and feel like it was all a blur.  We might even start to be aware of the “sentences” that we create with the physical and mental asanas we perform throughout the day, and decide if we could make them more true to the story we want to be creating on our path.

Vessel ~ 2

Unlike other vessels, human vessels are changed by WHAT flows through them, and HOW it flows.  For example, whether you choose to drink water or coffee will affect you.  Whether you sip, chug, gulp; whether you do this once a day, or consistently and steadily all day; all of this will affect the human vessel.  This is just a micro-example, but this is true of any WHAT and HOW we have flow through us- fluids, food, thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.

Yoga asks us to cultivate several different kinds of WHAT (yamas, niyamas, vairagya, isvara, karma yoga etc.), and it is generally best to focus on one or two at a time.  Abhyasa (practice), as defined in Patanjali’s yoga sutras, advises that the HOW be steady, consistent over a long time, in all earnestness, and joyful.

In yoga practice, on and off the mat, check in and see WHAT and HOW you are being a vessel.  You might be surprised, as I was, how often the answer is boredom, inertia, criticalness, ambivalence, or of course the “bigger” ones of anger, regret, guilt, joy, love, etc.  Once you spend enough time noticing this, take it even a step further, and set an intention for the WHAT and HOW you want to be a vessel for, in actions, thought, and speech.

This is not a program for changing us into better people, because there is nothing missing in us. We are already holy beings, are already whole, already light, already divine – whatever term you use. The key is to cultivate that as the WHAT that flows through us and the HOW as all the time.

Beings that have achieved that are the ones we call gurus – they are just vessels for the divine. It is that light that draws us towards them, and encourages us on our path. Teachers are beings who are vessels for the teachings. They are just a bit further down our path, and flow to us what they have seen and experienced.  Students are vessels for experience – for the real-life application of what has been passed down by gurus and teachers – whether in writing or spoken transmission.

That being said, it’s not realistic to say “I’m going to have ahimsa flow through me all the time.” One because inevitably we will fail in some small way, and two because external circumstances change. What is ahimsic one day, may not necessarily be the same the next.  The air in NYC flows differently than the air in Hawaii, and will inevitably affect WHAT and HOW flows through you, and your ability to be a vessel.

While we need intention, we also need to keep that intention fully open to the present moment.  This is not to say we become inconstant in our WHAT, but that we don’t become rigid in it either.  There must be a balance, a flow, to our practice as a vessel.

Vinyasa is generally thought of as meaning “flow” – but really it means: well-sequenced indivisible moments of time.  How well are your moments sequenced, how well are they chosen?  The better sequenced and chosen, the more you “flow” in practice – on and off the mat.

Sthira Sukham Asanam – II

sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46

The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful  -and-
Asana should be steady and joyful.

In the Patanjali Yoga Sutra tradition, there is but one guideline for asana practice – that it is steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham).

Last month sukham was the focus, this month it will be sthira.


Steady is a term which makes one think of statues, of tall oak trees, of houses with deep cement foundations, of things which are mostly, if not entirely, unmoving. It is this that gives them the strength to be steady.

Swami Satchidinanda says “Anything that makes us stiff can also break us. Only if we are supple will we never break.” The first step in practicing sthira, then, is to come to a new understanding of what steady means.  To find a definition that allows for flexibility, for motion.  Just think – tadasana, mountain pose, is the steadiest of all postures. A quick self-check while standing in that pose will reveal all sorts of movement – breath, blood, small balance adjustments of the feet, light swaying of the torso, micro adjustments to stay aligned, electrical impulses – not all of which can be felt.

Let’s look at an experiment. Matthieu Richard mentions, in his TED Talk, of an experiment performed using bombs. Intentional explosions would go off, and researchers would measure the reaction of participants – which were all varying degrees of flinches and the like.

Long –time meditation practioners were then asked to participate. The bombs went off. They did not flinch. Not even a little. Matthieu explains that it is not because the monks took as their mantra “I will not flinch”, or some other intention to be still.  Instead, they meditated as they always did – with an openness to whatever arises in the moment.

Steadiness, then, resides in that same deep place within us that joy does.  It’s when we tap into that serenity that lies below the surface of the deep ocean of our being, that we connect to both sthira and sukham, steadiness and joy.  Instead of separate experiences, they actually inform and support the other.

During asana and meditation practice, we naturally experience this place. But instead of just allowing it to arise by chance, by the luck of the savasana, this sutra encourages us to intentionally make these connections.  Repeated work here leads to more natural connections, more often.  Eventually, this steady joyful place assumes its rightful place not only in our inner lives, but outer ones as well. It doesn’t mean we have erased hurt, disappointment, anger, or other reactions and experiences of suffering. What we have cultivated is a state of being that makes the hurts last short, hurt less, and feel smaller. They joys, in turn, last longer, are enjoyed more, and feel larger.

Sthira Sukham Asanam – I

In the Patanjali Yoga Sutra tradition, there is but one guideline for asana practice – that it is steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham).

sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46
The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful  -and-
Asana should be steady and joyful.


Looking at a yoga sutra that comes just before this one, we see that Patanjali has provided a pathway to practicing sukham:

Santosad anuttamah sukha labhah
By contentment, supreme joy is gained.

To practice joy is to first practice contentment – santosa.  The origin of the word contentment is “contain”.  When we are in a state of contentment, we contain everything we need to be happy. Nothing is missing. Nothing. The heart of this sutra is not that we need to work towards being content, but that we already are. Right now, we have everything we need. We are whole.

This is sometimes expressed as the ability to want what we have, rather than have what we want.

We have all experienced this. Moments when we look around us and realize that there is no where else we’d rather be. Or we look at our companion(s) and realize there is no one else we’d rather be here with.  Nothing is missing. We are happy.

The sutra on contentment is asking us to stop leaving it up to luck and happenstance, to a perfect concentration of circumstances.  Instead, intentionally shift perspective to contentment, to nothing missing. Try it out. Even if you have to do so doubtingly, put aside the new job, the different apartment, the change in your partner, the place you’d rather be, and fully believe that right now nothing is missing.

A natural joy and happiness arises, without force, as a result of a moment, however fleeting, of contentment.  It is a shift in perspective, not a shift in circumstance, that allows for santosa and sukham.

Repetition is necessary, all aspects of yoga are a lifelong practice. Eventually, we develop a deep well of sukham.  In the analogy by Matthieu Richard*, we are like the ocean far out to see. On the surface we may have leaping waves dolphins frolic in or turbulent storm tossed ones, but deep down we have a still, steady, always present serenity and joy.

Sometimes we experience this in asana. When we experience the sthira sukham within each pose, instead of purely the external motions of the physical body on the surface, we notice  how the body is moving around this steady joyful source.  All the asanas begin to feel the same.  Our sukham – joy – begins to become steady.

Next month we will focus on sthira.

*Inspired by Matthieu Richard’s November 2007 TED talk.