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Yama #1 Ahimsa

April 16, 2013

In my previous blog on the Eight Limbs of Yoga, you read that Yama and Niyama are the first two limbs. Yama are the general ethical principles, self-restraints for social harmony, and vows of abstention. Niyama are the codes of conduct molding individual morality and behavior, and personal disciplines.

There are five principals of Yama and five observances of Niyama listed in the Yoga Sutras II.30 and II.32 respectively.

Ahimsa is the first Yama, and as the ancient texts are designed, in a list, the first one is always the most important one. In fact, of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Yama is listed as the first, and therefore holds the greatest importance. The most important Yama is Ahimsa, which translates as non-harming and non-violence.

We practice Ahimsa during our yoga practice by using props appropriately to create peace, to remove strain and stress, and to prevent harm while creating space and life in the body. But we can practice Ahimsa off the mat too.

B.K.S. Iyengar writes in Light on Yoga, “It is more than a negative command not to kill, for it has a wider positive meaning, love. This love embraces all creation for we are all children of the same Father – the Lord. The yogi believes that to kill or to destroy a thing or being is to insult its Creator”.

I love that. And take note, this is in regards to every thought, word and action you take. Just being a vegetarian doesn’t mean you’ve got your bases covered. Ahimsa requires being non-violent by temperament, by thought, word and deed, and not only towards others, but towards ourselves too.

Love is what it’s all about. Love is #1. Love is the most important. When B.K.S. Iyengar spoke in China two years ago, during a Q/A session a man asked, “Why sir, do we do yoga?” Guruji answered, “So that we may love one another”.

Yoga to Overcome Insomnia

November 16, 2012

Many people suffer from insomnia at different times, for different reasons. Perhaps you are worried about something. Other times you may just not seem to be able to “shut the mind off”. Either way, there is a solution.

The purpose of yoga is for stilling the mind so that the true Self within can become apparent without anything blocking it. “Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah”, says Yoga Sutra 1.2, translated as “Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness”. These “movements in the consciousness” are the swirling thoughts in your mind, keeping you awake. “Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam”, says Yoga Sutra 1.3, translated as “Then, the Seer dwells in his own true splendor”. This is the blissful contentment of being present in the most extraordinary way.

Step one get out of bed. Don’t just lie there, thinking to yourself that you’ll be able to force yourself to sleep. If you’ve been lying awake for more than 15 minutes, get up and do something about it.

Step two:  Come into a supported version of Adho Mukha Svanasana, (Downward Facing Dog pose). The support is the wall. Place your hands on the floor at the base of the wall, thumb and index finger touching the wall, and keep your fingers together. Press back into Adho Mukha Svanasana, and stay as long as you can. All the while you are in the pose, feel your body in the pose.

Step three:  Move out of Adho Mukha Svanasana and into Child’s pose. Rest completely. Feel the weight of your head release into the floor. Feel your spine lengthen with every moment you stay in the pose. Stay in the pose as long as you can.

Step four:  Move into Viparita Dandasana, (Inverted Staff pose, also known as “Legs up the Wall”). Simply rest the torso on the floor, with your straight legs resting vertically up the wall. This pose is key. Pay attention. Feel what is happening as you lie in the pose. Notice the effects of gravity not only in the legs, but also in the chest, throat, and head. Stay in the pose as long as you can.

Step five:  Roll out of the pose, and go back to bed, lie comfortably, and feel your body. These simple poses remove obstacles of all kinds, allowing you to feel free again, and slip off into a contented slumber.

“Then, the Seer dwells in his own true splendor”.

How much Yoga is enough? Consistency is key.

June 19, 2012

One day, a student of mine was surprised to hear that coming to a Yoga class once a week was not sufficient for progress. It occurred to me that what is sufficient might be a nice topic for a blog.

Consistency is key. Patañjali spoke about consistency of practice in his Yoga Sutra 1:14:  Sa tu dirgha kala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhabhumih

Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time. – Translation by Edwin F. Bryant

How much Yoga is enough? Yoga was designed to be practiced every day to receive all the many benefits it offers; however, this doesn’t mean the same Yoga poses every day. But it may mean attending more Yoga Classes during the week.

  • Try mixing it up by attending different classes that have a different focus, such as Restoratives, or classes with a special focus such as Low Back and Hips, attend a Flow class, or learn something new by returning to the Fundamentals or trying a different teacher.

A consistent Yoga practice also means adding a few days of Home practice. If a Home Practice seems daunting, let me describe my own experience. At home, I can listen to my own desires and address my personal needs in my practice. Taking care of my body in this way is rewarding, and fulfilling.

Yoga Class time is essential, but a Home practice is satisfying and inspiring. It hones your ability to identify your state of being each day:  are you stressed and anxious, full of energy and excitement, lethargic or irritable? By getting better at acknowledging our current state, our compassion for ourselves increase, and we learn how to care for ourselves with a Home Yoga practice.

Aids to support a Home practice:

  • Try journaling, simply writing down the poses you perform at home, every time you practice. Include in your journal how you feel prior to your practice, and how you feel after your practice.
  • Schedule yourself for a private lesson with a Yoga teacher, to get a personalized Yoga sequence that is designed specifically for you. The hour lesson provides you with a sequence you can take home to practice. Rescheduling a private lesson regularly keeps your home practice fresh and moving forward.
  • Begin. Remember what Iyengar says, “take action, no matter how small”. Iyengar himself says that his practice changes each day, according to how he feels. Some days he doesn’t feel much like practicing, but he always begins. Once he has begun, his practice might continue and blossom, and it might not, but he won’t know until he begins.

With all of that in mind, if attending a Yoga Class only once a week is all your schedule allows, that will have to be enough. Yoga will meet you wherever you are. Your flexibility and strength will be helped, just much more slowly. Bottom line is, find more time for your Yoga practice, and enjoy more results.

Santosha Yoga is encouraging our students to attend more classes during the month by offering The Rest of the Month Free, after attending 12 classes! This is a great offer, and one that shouldn’t be missed. Try committing to a regular, daily practice and see for yourself the benefits of Yoga that are quickly and exponentially noticeable.

Also, Gary’s next workshop just happens to be “How to Practice Yoga” and will be held on Saturday, August 25th from 2:00 – 4:00 PM.

Santosha: the journey of contentment

April 20, 2012

Santosha is translated as contentment, in the Yoga Sutras, as one of the Niyamas, or personal practices/spiritual disciplines. This is the advice:  Practice contentment. It is not:  Pretend you are contented, or perfect your life in all ways so that you will finally achieve contentment.

“Santosha brings about a state of cheerfulness and benevolence”. –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

“As a result of contentment, one gains supreme joy. Here we should understand the difference between contentment and satisfaction. Contentment means just to be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness. If something comes, we let it come. If not, it doesn’t matter. Contentment means neither to like nor dislike”. –Swami Satchidananda, Translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 2:42.

“The cultivation of contentment (santosa) is to make the mind a fit instrument for meditation as contentment is the seed of the meditative state”. “… contentment can only come from the ability to harmonize with our immediate environment”. –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life

Practice contentment, in every breath, in every moment. The reason to do this is for equanimity of mind, allowing us to live so that even under stress, we are able to maintain an evenness of mind, to remain aware of the state of Being from which we can make the most clarified decisions, and have complete understanding.

But practicing contentment isn’t second nature to our minds. Our minds thrive on problems and discontent, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can reprogram our minds by practicing contentment, but stressful situations come up constantly, and it isn’t easy to figure out how to be contented in all situations. This is the journey of contentment, and it is every step you take. It is a constant practice, a spiritual discipline.

There are two different tools available to help us practice contentment; gratitude and acceptance. First, gratitude in every moment can change your outlook in any stressful situation. True gratitude, not sarcasm, or “thankfulness” seasoned with resentment, but true gratitude.

The second tool at your disposal is acceptance. The sages said, “The fastest way to happiness is acceptance”. But listen, acceptance can be misunderstood to be passive, non-responsive, or even apathetic. Instead, think of it this way; in every situation you have three choices:  to change it, leave it, or accept it. The situation exists no matter how you interpret it. The toast is burnt, matter of fact. This fact you must accept before you can think clearly to make a decision on your next course of action. Can you change it? Maybe you could do the scrape-scrape thing, and still eat it. Can you leave it? Maybe it’s not worth saving, and you should just throw it out. If you cannot change it or leave it, your only option remaining is to accept it.

Watching yourself throughout your day, notice how contented you feel. During the times you are not feeling contented, try to apply the practice. Employ gratitude and acceptance to aid in your practice of contentment, in every moment, with every step.

The Body Is My Temple, Asanas Are My Prayers

December 14, 2011

Our Guruji turns 93 years old on his birthday on Wednesday! Guruji translates as beloved teacher, but words can hardly express the deep love I have for this man. The following video montage of our Guruji, Yogacharya Sri BKS Iyengar was created as a beautiful dedication to this man.

It was created in honor of his 2005 visit to the United States, when he The Body Is My Temple, Asanas Are My Prayers came to Estes Park, Colorado. The video shows Iyengar’s yoga demonstrations over the years, spanning over five decades of devotion. The video begins quoting Iyengar who says, “The body is my temple, asanas are my prayers”. In 2000, Time Life magazine pegged Iyengar as one of the top 100 most influential people of the century. The latest edition of Oxford Dictionary of English defines “Iyengar” as “a type of Hatha yoga focusing on the correct alignment of the body, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids to achieving correct postures. – ORIGIN named after B.K.S. Iyengar (born 1918), the Indian yoga teacher who devised this method.” He was a victim of malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis in his childhood. At the age of 16, his Guru Sri T. Krishnamacharya introduced him to the physical discipline of yoga. Gradually he mastered the art and science of yoga and took it to a higher level.

Enjoy the video, or join in for 108 sun salutations as a dedication to Guruji!

Bone Health & Yoga

December 3, 2011

Did you know that bone loss normally begins at the age of 30? In the average population, 55% of people older than 50 years of age will have low bone density. Women are as likely to die from a hip fracture as from breast cancer. Men are more likely to have a hip fracture than prostate cancer. Yoga to the rescue!

I am excited to share the results of a study done on bone loss and yoga. The study was conducted by Dr. Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall, who presented the results in March of 2009. All participants in the study had already been diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia (a pre-cursor to osteoporosis). Participants were an average age of 68, and had a bone density test done at the start of the two year study for a baseline.

The control group made no changes, while the experimental group only performed ten minutes of yoga a day. They were given ten yoga poses, holding each pose for 20 to 30 seconds, with a 5 to 10 minute Savasana following the sequence.

After two years, another bone density test was performed. The control group showed a T-score loss of -.12 of the spine, and -.07 of the hip. The Yoga group showed the average T-score improvement of .69 of the spine, and .87 of the hip. (Bone Mineral Density is measured in T-scores, as provided by DEXA scans, as well as blood and urine tests).

We’ve all heard that impact exercises stimulate bone growth, but gravity is only second best to the action of muscles pulling on the bones. Yoga poses act on the bones by “applying forces of opposing muscle groups to them that greatly exceed gravity, stimulating bone cells (osteocytes) to create more bone.”

Dr. Fishman also said, Yoga helps grow bone mass, but because yoga poses pull and stretch the bones from every conceivable angle, yoga also may stimulate the formation of a bone structure that is able to resist greater amounts of pressure, as well as many different types of challenges”. Dr. Fishman also found the bone stimulating effect was found to begin at 12 seconds of holding a pose, and continued to increase until 72 seconds, after which there was no increase in effect.

In conclusion, yoga has been proven to be beneficial in stimulating bone growth, even in older patients already displaying bone density loss.

Doesn’t it make you want to get your Down Dog on?


November 1, 2011

Savasana (Corpse Pose) does not have a level of difficulty in B.K.S. Iyengar’s 1-60 scale of difficulty in Light on Yoga. When asked why, he replied that on a scale of 1 to 60, Savasana would rank 1,000.

Savasana is not a nap. During Savasana you remain aware, with focused attention, while relaxing as completely as possible. “By remaining motionless for some time and keeping the mind still while you are fully conscious, you learn to relax. This conscious relaxation invigorates and refreshes both body and mind. But it is much harder to keep the mind than the body still. Therefore, this apparently easy posture is one of the most difficult to master”.

Mr. Iyengar is encouraging us all to practice Savasana as a separate practice, separate from any other activities, and put aside at least fifteen minutes for the practice. “The stresses of modern civilsation are a strain on the nerves for which Savasana is the best antidote”.

Savasana, as difficult as it is, is a favorite pose for most people. Ah! You get to lie down and close your eyes! I’ll describe my own understanding of the pose, in the hopes that it helps you to deepen your practice.

But first, think of this:  Infrared goggles use thermal imaging to show us the heat emitted from people’s bodies. We’ll call it the Energy Body. Our naked eyes cannot see the energy of our heat, but thermal imaging reveals it to us. (Remember this concept of an Energy Body provided by the goggles, because I’ll be referring to it later).

Read more…

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