Pratipaksa Bhavanam I

Photo33_33Vitarka badhane pratipaksa bhavanam

When the mind is disturbed by thoughts contrary to yama & niyama, one should ponder on the opposite, that is, on constructive thoughts, and driving forces. II.33
In the yamas and niyamas, Patanjali outlines 10 qualities and modes of being in and seeing the world. Tools and techniques to mutually benefit our journeys, and those of the people, beings, and world we move through.

He follows that up with: but you’re still human.

You will have moments where the habits cultivated over the majority of your life will come in and all you can think to do is lie, or say the mean thing, or be so mad or hurt that you just want to be tight and closed around your heart.

And he says –pause in that moment (which we’ve been training to do with the yamas and niyamas). And see it, acknowledge the dark thing, and hold it – which in and of itself is hard work.  And hold it lightly, unjudgingly and uncelebratingly, in your hand, and then hold up your other hand and counter it with the opposite.

It’s a contemplation exercise.  It’s a brain plasticity exercise – choosing a new way-of-being mental groove. It’s training a vine to go up a different path. At each cross-road of the lattice work, you hold the space to see your options, and decide which direction to grow in.

Implicit in this is the “do not beat yourself up” idea. Neither celebrating, nor ignoring, nor judging, nor fixing, nor feeling like you are wrong in some way. It’s neither trying to be holy (and ignore these things) or just going as always (and ignoring the possibility), it’s accepting and choosing. It’s as Ram Dass says “to risk being human”, or as Michael Stone says, “yoga is the process of becoming more human.”

Sometimes it could be with a “what would ahimsa do?” What would satya, etc. do? What would my isvara do? Invariably it would be to let go, which might not always be the antidote you’re ready for. But sometimes just imagining maharaji in my situation, makes letting go seem more likely.

Bird Wings by Rumi

Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
if it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
and expanding,
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.

Isvara Pranidhani


Isvara pranidhana


What is it?


Although it is the most mystical of the yamas and niyamas, isvara pranidhani can be simply thought of as cultivation of a connection, through devotion, through the heart – not through the mind like svadhyaya  –  to Oneness/Realization/True Self/etc as represented by isvara.

Connecting to Oneness is vague at best, and nearly impossible at worst.  By using the placeholder of isvara, one is much better able to cultivate a relationship or intimacy with the Divine.

Isvara is generally conceived of as a personal idea of god – Christ, Krishna, Mary, Buddha, etc.  But can often be, for those rare beings, a guru.

By linking up, connecting to them – you cultivate it within you.  Like when you become good friends with someone, you start to take on some of their habits, or personality traits, or vernacular. But this relationship is with THAT. Tat twam asi. So ham. That kind of THAT.  And you can imagine what kind of habits and traits thalakehouset would cultivate.

Don’t get caught up in finding a person, or a thing, or having one, or not. It will come. Mine is a particular small forest of trees in upstate New York. I was hung up for a very long time, because I didn’t have an isvara, and I wanted one. The ironic thing is that trees always were, since I was a kid, I just had never thought of trees as isvara.  Until suddenly, one day I did. When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.

How to connect without an isvara?

heart handsSo what to do if you’ve yet to realize your isvara?  There are several practices orientated around service that help us cultivate the openness to find our isvara and be in that type of relationship by starting with those we already are in relationship with.  It must be made clear that humans are human, and when we surrender to them, it is to develop this internal state – not to follow them.  Even using a “guru” is tricky, and it is highly advised you feel you can make the distinction between a sat-guru and an upa-guru.

1) Service & Surrender

The story as I’ve heard it: Allen Ginsberg was told by his doctors that he had one month to live. He went directly home, and called his friends, and asked each one; “What can I do for you?”

Ram Dass has described the process he goes through before he does one-on-one work with people. He does his mantra until can say “How may I serve you?” and be addressing that to the depth of the other person, the light of them, the Namaste of them. He is NOT asking, “How in the melodrama can I serve you?” It’s not about lending a car, or rehashing the terribleness of an ex-lover.  He’s really asking, “How may I serve you in the journey we’re on to the light?”


What journey are you on with another? That’s an excellent place to play with as well.

Try it out before your next asana class:

Close your eyes. Imagine the person closest to you. Say to them “How may I serve you?” – Notice all the tightness, panic, backpedaling, exit strategies, and worst case scenarios that arise. Pause, breathe. Then trust that this person wouldn’t ask anything of you that would be harmful. And ask them again.  Open-ended, heartfelt, totally committed.  It might feel a bit like going bungee jumping – a whole giant dangerous mess of space where anything could happen. Practice in that space.

2) Surrender & Serve

qqi2oo5j3qa6uupn.D.0.jay-hanuman-khatrijiHanuman has a ton of great stories that always seem to be a bit more relevant to our lives than some of the other gods. One of my favorites is the story about his powers.  He was born with incredible strengths, but as a small monkey wasn’t quite in control of them.  Some of his exploits angered powerful humans and gods alike.  As a precaution, the king of the gods put a curse on Hanuman. He would forget all his strengths and powers until the time he was called upon to be of service to another.  So he spent the rest of his teen and adult years as a normal monkey/man.  Then he met Ram. Ram had a stolen kingdom, stolen wife, and arch nemesis. He needed a lot of help. Hanuman’s powers were reawakened, and he served and aided Ram in retrieving his kingdom and wife, and defeating his arch nemesis.

We are a bit like Hanuman – so many of our powers and strengths are latent until called into service by another.

We get so tight around developing our breath, our yoga practice, our concentration. But the power they give us pales in comparison with what those strengths could do in the service of others.

3) Surrender the need to be the one who knows, the one who figured it all out, the one with the correct answer.

Journey-Together-300x168“Mount Analogue, by Rene Daumal, is a lovely metaphor about climbing the mountain of consciousness. First, the travelers have to deduce the existence of the mountain, and then they have to figure out how to get there. Finally, they start to climb the mountain, and the narrator says, “By our calculations, thinking of nothing else, by our desires, abandoning every other hope, by our efforts, renouncing all bodily comfort, we gained entry into this new world.  Or so it seemed to us.  But we learned later that if we were able to approach Mount Analogue, it was because the invisible doors of that invisible country had been opened to us by those who guard them… Those who see us even though we cannot see them opened the door for us, answering our puerile calculations, our unsteady desires, and our awkward efforts, with a generous welcome.”  [“Pathways to God” Ram Dass p.172]

4) OM

Meditating-Aum-Woman8Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tell us that “OM” is the sound expressive of Isvara.  Chanting OM is one way to tap into relationship with Isvara, and cultivate the qualities of the Divine.  Repeating any mantra shifts our internal state – just think about some of the negative self-talk mantras you’ve played in your life and how they have created your worldview, and how your world has shifted when those mantras become positive self-talk.  The resonance of OM works the same way.

When you chant, make sure you are chanting OM the fullest and most accurate way possible.  It would be best to work with a teacher in person, but a few tips that I find most students could benefit from:

* Complete the chant with the “mmmm”
* Try chanting it normally once, quietly once, and the silently once
* Try chanting it only silently, with the breath, throughout class
* Begin the OM on the final lift of the diaphragm at the end of the exhale, and keep the diaphragm engaged
* Draw in as much prana as you expel during the chant
* Emphasize the vibration and resonance over a singing quality

5) Listen & Take things to heart

A story

Listen_to_Your_Heart_by_cho_okaA teacher who wanted to show his students the transformational value of deep listening took them to a cremation ground. There, he picked out three skulls. Taking the first skull, he put a stick through the hole where the ear once was, and it came out through the other side of the skull. The teacher said, “This is a person who heard the Truth with one ear, but was too lazy to contemplate what he had heard. Instead, he let it go out the other ear.”

The teacher picked up the next skull and put a stick into the ear hole. The stick got stuck in the middle of the skull and moved upward.  “This person,” the teacher said, “not only heard the Truth, but contemplated it.”

When the teacher put the stick into the third skull, it entered the ear, moved upward toward the brain, and then came down toward the heart. “This is the skull of a person who not only heard the Truth and contemplated it, but also let it permeate the heart. This person cultivated the type of deep listening that leads to realization.”

Svadhyaya 2 ~ The Jnani


Svadhyaya – Self-study:  study of the Self, study of the self, study of oneself, study by oneself

Svadhyaya 2 ~ The Jnani
Jnana Yoga is the practice of the intellect, through inquiry and study the Jnani Yogi traverses his/her path towards realization.  Svadhyaya is very much a jnana yoga practice.dep_5277997-Strong-brain

Intellect influences the mind, and like any other sense and muscle, it can be not only trained, but cultivated. Modern neurology reveals that “mental training and enriched life increase brain weight and size. It increases the number of branches among neurons.  ‘The brain is a muscle that grows with exercise’ is not just a metaphor.” (43 The Brain That Changes Itself)

It is also the only practice that comes with its own warning: beware of “armchair yoga”.  It’s not meant to be a practice that is just you and a spiritual text up in the mountains.  The preceding yamas and niyamas have given us an entire master craftsman’s toolbox of yoga actions to work on.  Svadhyaya is tying in the wisdom element. As the Buddhist saying goes, “Wisdom without action has no legs, action without wisdom has no head.”

svadyaya-sanskritClassical svadhyaya practices are: studying foundational texts such as the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita – both alone and in satsang (community of yogis), meditation, and chanting “om”.

Iyengar has built an entire yoga-asana system that is in many respects a jnana one.  Through deep knowing of the body, insights and realization arise.  It is not my personal practice, but cannot be doubted.  For further study on this, please refer to any of his texts or your nearest Iyengar Yoga Center (the nearest one to me that I enjoy going to is Yogasana in Brooklyn).

There is a particular way of moving, speaking perhaps, sitting, dancing even, that we do when we are at home alone by ourselves.  And it becomes quite clear what those are whenever we have moments where we’re caught by someone in the midst of it.  There’s a complete unguarded, natural expression to our being in those moments.  Rodney Yee speaks of pranayama as work towards catching the breath home alone by itself.  Svadhyaya could be said to be work towards catching the Self alone by itSelf.

“My goal isn’t to take away your confusion.  Confusion is a fertile field in which everything is possible. If you think you know, you’ve just calcified again.” Ram Dass

The next time you feel yourself confused, make it a jnana practice.  Allow yourself to be confused, without trying to solve it, or push it away. Relax as much as you can, and just be confused.  At a certain moment, the rational mind may short circuit, and a glimpse of the Self home alone may be possible.

Svadhyaya 1 ~ Svadhyaya as Silence

The final two niyamas: Svadhyaya and Isvara pranidhanadva can be the most challenging, both to work with and discuss, as they are the most internal and therefore less in the range of words and more in the range of experience.  The first evidence of which is finding it necessary to break Svadhyaya into three separate posts. We’ll see what happens when we get to Isvara! The second evidence to follow:)


Svadhyaya – Self-study:  study of the Self, study of the self, study of oneself, study by oneself

Svadhyaya 1 ~ Svadhyaya as Silence

With prior yamas and niyamas, we’ve been working with a lot of our patterned thoughts, words, actions, ways of seeing and being in the world.  Working towards cultivating those in a direction that create the most beneficial relationship with the world and all beings.  Svadhyaya is the stepping off point, a shift from that kind of work, or perhaps more aptly, a broadening.  Instead of focusing on our likes/dislikes, cravings, attachments, habits, reactivity exclusively, we are now looking beyond/beside/within it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecently Davidji gave a dharma talk related to the new Jivamukti t-shirts. On the front are the words “I AM”.  He asked us, what is on the back? For him, it’s “David”, for me “Jen”, for you “Your name here”.  The previous yamas and niyamas can be seen as practices cultivating the “Jen” side, svadhyaya asks us to investigate “I AM”.   And since we’ve spent the majority of our lives getting to know the back side of the t-shirt so well, a lot of svadhyaya is evening the scales with the “I AM” side.

As Rodney Yee said, “Suspend the knowing, the karmic history – the patterned ideas of you. To make space for you.”

In asana practice, we start off focusing and spending so much time on physical body alignment.  After a while, we get comfortable, we feel safe in the strange poses, and we begin to investigate our mental habits, our fidgets, our reactions and emotions.  When we begin to feel comfortable and safe within this level of exploration, we study our breath and the energy exchanges of the subtle body.  After that, we go one level deeper still – and that’s the level of svadhyaya.  It’s like we’re at the eye doctor, and they flip between two perspectives and ask “Is 1 or 2 clearer?” you respond, and again they flip, “Is A or B clearer?”, again “Is A or 2 clearer?”.  Except we’re our own eye doctor, and keep evolving through clearer and more evolved perspectives.  We’re working towards seeing ourselves at a level that is all “I AM”, and “Jen-ness” is quiet.  The amazing part of this is that when I can really be with “I AM”, then my “Jen-ness” becomes more and more brilliant.


Rodney Yee also says, “If you can’t relax, you can’t hear more than one voice at a time.”  Whether in our own minds, or in the room we’re standing in, we know from personal experience that the loudest voice we hear is not always the one we want to listen to.  So when we practice asana, pranayama and meditation, we’re moving towards a kind of relaxation where the eager, well-meaning, but loud and insistent Jen voices quiet down, so I can hear the voice of “I AM”.

Recommended practices for this work: restorative asana, pranayama, and nadam meditation



Contentment. More than any other yama, niyama, and perhaps any other yoga practice, Santosa is what a majority of people turned to yoga for, believe the purpose of yoga to be, or both.  Backed by the misleading equation:  end result of class = end result of yoga (a glorious perpetual savasana) and false advertising yoga buzzwords like ‘bliss’ and ‘nirvana’, it’s easy to understand why one of the most common things people new to yoga tell me is “Wow, yoga is hard!” Any yogi worth her/his salt will tell you yoga is hard, always been hard, always will be. It’s not for the faint of heart, it’s not the easy path.  All of those amazing beautiful stress-free epxeriences are the perks, not the purpose, of yoga.

That being said, I love the rare blissful savasana experience, where not only do ten minutes pass timelessly, bodilessly and worry-free, but I feel that it was ten minutes baking in a shifted perspective that I can’t help but emanate to others as I leave the yoga room.  The trouble with that being taken for the goal of yoga is that you wind up with a lot of people like:

I’ve met them, you’ve met them – more often than not in a yoga studio and more often than not they don’t even realize they’re forcing it. Because they do a lot of yoga – a lot – and yoga makes you peaceful, happy, serene and stress-free. Yoga makes you smile all the time, to all people. Right? I’m not just being sarcastic. I was right there with them/you.  For years. The term “spiritual bypassing” was coined in part as a response to this.

It’s only when we start to work with Santosa as a practice, and not a goal, that it becomes possible to actually be content.

“You don’t practice to get enlightened. You practice because you already are.” Dogen

Contentment comes from the word content – to contain.  The source of santosa is realizing that we already contain all we need to be happy.


We’ve all had those moments, when we look around at the people we’re with, the sunset, the drink, the wide open space, close knit forest, or deep ocean and think “There’s no where else I’d rather be in this moment. Nothing is missing.”  Santosa is the art of making those “Nothing missing” moments intentional, rather than the happy collaboration of fate they normally are.

The caveat is we are striving all the time for contentment and happiness. It’s pretty much an American way of life.  We just generally seek it in forms that won’t actually bring us contentment. That’s because we base it on our experiences in the past of contentment, and all the external sources that were around us. We keep trying to gather people around, or move to live by the ocean, or buy more of that drink.  Mentally and physically we are going forward, backwards, and more often than not, in circles trying to “get” our way to contentment.

there__s_a_sunset_inside_me_i_guess_by_incandescentinsanity-d508l1xSantosa, however, is sourced within – not with out.  Those external components struck something inside us that allowed us to be in touch with our “nothing missing” experience.  That experience is always within us, we just have to train ourselves to pay attention to it on our own, without the external stimulus.

We have to follow Dogen’s advice; “Don’t go forward, don’t go backward, don’t stay in the middle.”  As a practice now, or at the start of your next yoga class, close your eyes.  Say to yourself “Nothing is missing. My life contains, in this moment, all I need to be content and happy.”  When the “After I get the new job.” or “When I have a bigger apartment” or “Once my bank account is…”  etc. show up, acknowledge them, but let them go, and return to the “mantra” above.  Continue to do so until you feel that subtle shift within – one to contentment.  To believing the mantra, not just saying it. It’s a shift in perspective.

Besides, as Rodney Yee says “Beyond the brick wall, is another brick wall.”

Craving and Contentment

The warning sign for this work is getting caught up in negotiating your cravings.  Generally, craving for something is one of the biggest challenges to contentment.  You can be walking along in your “Nothing Missing” state of mind, and suddenly smell that extra cup of coffee wafting by, see the best pair of yoga pants ever, read about the newest version of your technology, or whatever your “thing” is – and you’re caught in wanting it.  And the majority of our good feelings that come from satisfying these cravings is that for one moment – nothing is missing – our craving has been satisfied. It’s a huge factor in habits and cravings.

Our inclination, based on the tools of psychology and philosophy handed down to us via actual people or our culture – is to delve into the craving. Where did it come from? Why would it make me happy? Is there enough in my bank account for it? What do I need to do to get enough? What will he/she say when he/she knows I bought it?  And we wrestle with it from lots of angles until we either go for it or not.  While some insights can arise from this practice, it’s not the long-term answer.

The yogi switches perspective and focuses on the craving, and not the object of craving. You turn the full gaze of your awareness to the craving, how it makes the physical body feel – tightness, breathing, temperature, etc.  You notice the emotional responses. You stay with the depth of the craving, until it passes.  The drama of the object itself is not invested in.

To work with this in yoga class try out the intention, every time you’re in a pose:

Don’t chase after the next pose, ponder the last, or cling around this one.
Breathe into what’s left.

I used to think content was the worst thing to be – to no longer dream, or try or reach.  I confused cultivating a certain kind of inner state with what I would be doing with my external life.  As if to be content all the time meant to be “finished” with acting.  Actually, what winds up happening is that the content inner state infuses all outward actions, and you are better able to dream, try and reach.

I realized it’s a process of becoming more and more fully present.  To fully know who you are, in each moment, is content. To see others, and not try to change them, is content.  Those are far-reaching goals, and Santosa brings us closer and closer


Niyamas – the practices following the Yamas in the Ashtanga yoga system are often considered the internal practices.  In many ways, the yamas and niyamas interwine and augment each other, both encouraging work within and beyond the body mind of the practitioner.

The first Niyama is Saucha, which usually translates to Cleanliness.  clean

Unlike what generally springs to mind when we think of clean – spring clean, showers, laundry, dishes, etc – saucha in yoga practice refers to a cleansing approach targeted to various levels of the human experience.  Yogis back in the day created a whole series of bodily cleansing practicing collectively known as shatkarma kriyas (6 cleansing practices).  Some of which are reasonable additions to a modern day yogi’s home practice, some are not.  Adopting any of these kriyas should be done under the guidance of a seasoned teacher who themselves practices said kriya.

On a more everyday level, saucha does include personal hygiene. Most of us have the showering and housecleaning thing down. But the act of cleaning itself is performed by all humans.  Maybe we don’t specifically do the laundry, or the dishes, or the floors, but everyone cleans. Even if it’s just picking up after ourselves and bathing.  Practicing saucha on one level, would mean bringing more awareness into these acts – how do you clean your yoga mat? Your body? How do you approach spills or cleaning lettuce? How often would you be described as unconscious, ambivalent, or entirely somewhere else when performing these actions? There’s a Buddhist expression that to be fully present, you should do something with two hands. Not that you need to physically adopt that, but to be aware of where both your hands are, and what they’re doing, is one way to bring more awareness into cleaning. Another is to cultivate a thankful mindset while cleaning your yoga mat, or a loving one when cleaning the dishes of someone who just cooked you dinner, or chant a mantra while folding the laundry.

weedingOn another level, the idea of dirt and cleaning carries with it the idea of impermanence.  The analogy that I enjoy most is that of gardening and weeding.  No matter how thorough a gardener you may be, both in terms of your weeding skills and in what you choose to water and give sun, and what you do not, weeds will grow.  They will grow in creative and unexpected ways.  They will literally shift the ground beneath you, and challenge the way you react to them time and time again.

A large part of us does not like impermanence,  it prefers to believe things are or can be stable, secure, and unchanging. To the extent we identify with that we have frustration, anxiety, sadness, anger, and confusion when change occurs –or in this analogy, when another weed sprouts up.

Shifting our perspective to seeing things as they actually are (vidya), is a very high level function of saucha. To the extent we choose to identify with the understanding of impermanence, we have clarity, focus, and lightness in the face of change.

A pitfall, particular to the yogi, of identifying with the preference for stability is the idea that it is possible to achieve a final, lasting meditative state.  This has happened, to a handful of individuals in the history of humanity.  For most of us, we garden. Regular yoga (in all its forms) practice is required.

But don’t make it a chore, get the snazziest gardening gloves around, get cushy knee pads, make it a gardening party once in awhile and invite friends over. Embrace the entirety of the garden, even the weeds, even as you discard them.

Rejoice that you’ve found gardening after all this time! Something you enjoy doing, brings you peace of mind, and cultivates a clearer perspective!

nothing is permanent

My favorite impermanence exercise, when I feel like I’m getting a bit too attached to identifying with the permanent side, is to go outside and try to point to something that never changes. You quickly realize you can’t, but instead of letting that get you down, start to play with it. Imagine all the ways it will change, switch perspectives.  And there is a beauty and lightness that arrives.  And it’s good to practice that, so that when change comes to you that initially doesn’t look so beautiful or light, you can trust that, in time, it will.

For further investigation review Yoga Sutras I.30-I.39 – which list obstacles to yoga, and practices to overcome them.  Traditional commentators believe that these obstacles are the main weeds saucha should address.


Asteya, non-stealing.  Perhaps one of the easiest to abide by yamas, and yet Patanjali felt it worth a place in the cannon of ethical ways to work with others.

Two perspectives:

1)    Broaden the definition

The full definition of asteya is not taking things belonging to others (Edwin Bryant).  Still, when taken at face-value, it seems obvious – don’t take another student’s awesome yoga mat home with you while they’re in the bathroom.

But what if we broaden our definition of “things”, and start to include “time”, “talent”, “love”, “space”, “energy”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice very much alive in each moment – choosing to take up an extra seat on the subway for your bag, or not – choosing not to ask that extra favor of a friend when they are already so busy – choosing not to take your frustration out on a loved one because they will always be there –  choosing not to plan your grocery shopping during savasana or meditation – it can become a really interesting lens for viewing our choices and actions.

How about if we broaden our definition of “others”, and start to include “the Earth”, “animals”, “our ancestors”, “future generations”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice that peers into every nook of our lives – choosing to use an animal’s fur to keep yourself warm, or not – choosing not to add additional pollution or usage strain to the water supply of your grandchildren – choosing to watch a documentary on the condition of the Earth (11th Hour, Flow, Earthlings, I am …) to become more knowledgeable of ways we may inadvertently be stealing from the Earth  – choosing not to take the credit due to someone who came before you – asteya starts to become something a lot more complex and fascinating to work with than simple theft.

2)    Letting go

At the root of asteya – is letting go of desire.  If you don’t desire that awesome yoga mat belonging to the yogi next to you, you won’t be inclined to steal it.  Letting go of desire is cutting asteya off before it can even become an issue, and it’s also the foundation of the Budhha’s  Four Noble Truths, some of the earlier practices in the Yoga Sutras such as Vairagya, and the heart of the Bhagavad Gita’s karma yoga.

Letting go of desire though, is a “biggie” in terms of our practice.  As Ram Dass says – surrender is only surrender when there is no surrender.  In other words – letting go doesn’t really work if you stop drinking coffee, but think of it as much as you used to drink it.

The next time you practice asana, try this intention: start by focusing on the breath.  Notice the inhales and exhales, gradually lengthening them to a comfortable asana practice duration.  Then let go of noticing the breath, and don’t replace it with anything.

Too often in our practices, we’re busy thinking something yogic, we’re busy thinking anatomy, we’re multitasking in our asana.  One of the hardest practices can be to let go of trying to change your awareness to be directed in a specific way – without letting it go wherever it wants.  It’s one of the things I most enjoy when I take class.  So often in my home practice I multitask thinking about students, and teaching points, wording, dharma talks, actions of energy, etc.  When I take class it’s incredibly mentally freeing to just let go, even of focusing on the breath.  It’s also a great trust exercise that your breath will continue to serve your asana without your strict attention.  Although the breath is a great starting point – so when the mind does get distracted and you notice, start again with noticing intently the inhales and exhales, and then let go again. And again. And again.

“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.”
― Rumi

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.

Ghosts of Christmas – A yogi’s look

In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts – from his past, present, and future. Each brings a glimpse into the truth of that time, as well as a warning to change his behavior.  From a yogic perspective, there are overtones of the three kinds of karma, the kleshas (avidya – not seeing things as they are, raga & dvesa – attachment & aversion, asmita – ego, abhinivesa – fear of death), and even the 8-limbs (yamas & niyamas).  Not that I believe it was Charles Dickens’ intention to speak to these yogic concepts, or that everything must resonate with yogic teachings. However, it did provide the impetus for an addendum to the end of the year meditation I usually do.

Once you have taken your meditation seat for the session, and focused the mind through the technique you are currently working with, move through the following concepts. Notice urges to shift or move, especially in uncomfortable thought moments, and allow them to subside before continuing. Avoid getting caught in any stories, and reliving them for the whole meditation.

1)    Ghost of Christmas Past – We spend a great deal of energy either continually rehashing past unpleasant experiences, or completely ignoring them. Break both of these thought patterns. Bring to mind an action (thought, word, or deed) you chose to take in the past that was harmful to another person in some way.  This can be quite challenging, since as yogis we are misled into believing we should be non-harming and compassionate all the time. While this is certainly something we are striving for, it is not expected that the moment you become a yogi or learn what the yamas are, you instantly embody them.

The yamas are not meant to induce guilt or suppression, instead they are meant to be tools of self-analysis. To admit to ourselves that we have within us these unflattering tendencies, to be open, and honest about them, and then to work on them, is the true path of a yogi.  To “act yogically” is not to act like some sort of flexible angel, but to be brutally truthful and present with what really is. No matter how ugly. So bring to mind, as honestly as possible, a harmful act of the past – without going into the story of why it happened, or what happened after – just the act itself. Resist the urge to feel guilty or think “why did I do that” “I can’t believe I did that”, etc.  Instead, consider how you would act differently if a similar situation presented itself in the future.  Acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as it may seem, you did the best you could at that moment. Then let it go on your next exhale. If it feels particularly sticky, sense where it is stuck in your body. See it as a black cloud, and with each exhale release some of it out through the nose. Continue until it has completely emptied out. Take a few moments with slow steady clean breaths.

2)    Ghost of Christmas Present –  The Ghost of Christmas Present can be even more elusive than the Ghost of Christmas Past – our unconscious patterns and actions.  Being unconscious, they can be very tricky to see.  A large part of the work we do in yoga classes is to bring unconscious habits (whether in our bodies or in our lives) to light.  From there, we have the ability to act with full awareness, and prevent wear and tear on our bodies or lives that unconscious habits create. In this stage of the reflection, bring to mind the way in which you move through your entire day. Try to identify moments when you are moving unconsciously – common points are eating, commuting, etc. Try to dig a little deeper, or take a step back and look broader. This is can be a powerful wakeup call.  Observing how often we move unconsciously, and in which moments we do so, can lead to subtle or momentous shifts. If it’s challenging to do this right now, notice this tomorrow, throughout the day check in and see how often and when you are moving unconsciously. Then take one of those moments, and commit to seeing things clearly and being fully present from then on. Create  plan that will help you, or even talk to someone close to you that can help remind you.

3)    Ghost of Christmas Future – In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer is swayed to change his ways due in large part to his fear of death.  In yogic philosophy, a fear of death is actually a hindrance to the practice.  A yogi works to cultivate living with death without fearing it.  There are a variety of practices to choose from, which were the subjects of a previous post, so I won’t go over it again here.  Please refer to that post and end this session with one of these practices. By cultivating a new relationship with death, we can let go of that fear and what keeps us from residing in the present moment.

At the close of 2010, I just want to thank you for your continued support of my teachings, and for your interest and dedication to yogic study. I look with great joy to deepening the practice with you in 2011.