We have been journeying through Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga known as astanga (asta meaning eight in sanskrit). We last covered pratyahara, which we learned as withdrawal of the senses. By learning how to tune out our senses, our mind is no longer fed with mis-information. Our mind stays in a neutral zone so we are better able to focus within. Pratyhara leads us to the samyamas, the last three branches in this eight limb system. Samyama means "tying up" or "binding". Symbolically, these last three limbs, concentration, meditation and union, "tie up" the eight limbs in an elegant package of understanding our oneness with all.
Dharana is the sixth branch as outlined in the Yoga Sutras and it means concentration on a given object. We use the lessons from pratyhara to help us tune out everything around us so that we can solely focus on the one object we have decided to concentrate on. This object can be anything! A candle, a tree, your breath, a visualization of a friend, a picture, a book, a healing stone, your mala beads, etc. This is a great way to help train the mind to stay focused. You are giving the mind one thing to zone in on and one thing only. Dharana is leading us up to this concept of oneness but it, itself, is not oneness. In dharana, there is an object of meditation which is consciously separate from the meditator.
"It is attention itself, which is progressively moving inward through these few stages:
•Attention leads to concentration (dharana). (3.1)
•Concentration leads to meditation (dhyana). (3.2)
•Meditation leads to absorption (samadhi). (3.3)" swamij.com
Iyengar : “Here the concentration is on the innermost core of the heart, wherein alone the sorrowless, effulgent light glows. This is the seat of the soul. The mind is guided in such a way that it becomes engrossed, and penetrates towards its source. Movements in the form of thoughts in the mind are the waves, and citta [mind], or the seat of consciousness, is the ocean. The sadhaka [person on path to a goal] must learn to keep the citta motionless and thoughtfully silent, without creating waves of thought. This effort of stilling and silencing the citta brings forth the sorrowless effulgent light of the soul."
"Dharana is concentration or fixity on that inner conception or object of meditation. Thus arises from this contemplation the perception of the Divine Presence, first within oneself, and then evolving into cosmic conception—conceiving of the vastness of Spirit, omnipresent within and beyond all creation. The culmination of samyama self-mastery is when the meditator, the process of meditating, and the object of meditation become one—the full realization of oneness with Spirit." From the writings of Paramahansa Yogananda
"If we know the divine art of concentration, if we know the divine art of meditation, if we know the divine art of contemplation, easily and consciously we can unite the inner world and the outer world." Sri Chinmoy
Pratyahara is the fifth limb in Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga. It seems to be the one least taught and probably the one most difficult to understand and attain. It means withdrawal of the senses. Sight, sound, touch, taste, hearing.. how are we supposed to cut all of that off? Can you eat a piece of chocolate and not taste it? Can you sit through a dog barking and not hear it? Is this possible? Why would we want to do this?! It has to do with how the senses feed the mind.
"Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady." -Bhagavad Gita
Although pratyahara is defined as withdrawal from the senses, the word breaks down into ahara, meaning food and prati meaning away. Food is anything we take from the outside and bring to our inside. The senses feed the mind constantly with information. How can this information always be truth when it is biased by our interpretations? It is thought that when the senses are turned "off", both the mind and the senses are in a neutral state. We are constantly being fed physically by the wrong types of foods, mentally by sense-created interpretations and spiritually through our associations with the people we choose to be around. If all three types of food are wrong, we are left distracted.
“When the mind runs after the wandering senses, then it carries away one’s understanding, as the wind carries away a ship on the waters. Therefore the wisdom of him whose senses are withdrawn from the objects of the senses stands firm.” (2:67 Bhagavad Gita)
Much like the heart chakra is centered between the three physical chakras below and the three spiritual ones above, pratyahara lies between the physical practices of asana and pranayama and the spiritual practices of dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). It also lies between the external practices of yama, niyama, asana and pranayama and the internal limbs of yoga, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
Swami Satchidananda states, "The senses are like a mirror. Turned outward, they reflect the outside; turned inward, they reflect the pure light."
The practice of pratyahara divides into four main types: indriya-pratyahara (control of the senses), prana- pratyahara (control of your energy), karma-pratyahara (control over your actions), and mano-pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind from the senses).
Means to control the senses...indriya pratyahara:
-You could turn off electronics or abstain from speaking for a set amount of time.
-Practice Yoni Mudra, which uses the fingers and thumbs to block the senses.
-Shambhavi Mudra teaches you to go inward without shutting off the senses. For example, can you look within while keeping your physical eyes open?
Means to control the prana pratyahara
-pranayama to build strong energy; pratyahara to expend the energy
Means of controlling action- karma pratyahara
-offering selfless service
Means to withdraw the mind...mano pratyahara
The mind is like a puppy happy to tag along behind a playful kid. If the kid darts to the right, the puppy follows. If the kid leaps to the right, so does the unthinking puppy. If I am in a bakery and my eyes zone in on the eclairs, I miss seeing the napoleans. If we can separate the mind from following the senses, it is hopeful we miss nothing.
"shaucha santosha tapah svadhyaya ishvarapranidhana niyamah".
In verse 2.32 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali introduces us to the niyamas, the second branch in the eight limbs of yoga. Where the yamas deal with our ethical thoughts and actions towards others, the niyamas turn us to look more deeply at ourselves. The yamas are what we should not do; the niyamas are what we should do. There are five niyamas to lead us on this path of self-correctness.
Saucha means cleanliness and purity. Showering, brushing your teeth, cleaning your house, and cleaning your space are the easy examples. In your yoga practice, saucha reminds us to put our props back neatly and to clean off our mats. It is respecting your fellow yogi's by not being heavily scented (perfumes or body order!) and it is not stepping on someone else's mat, thereby impurely mingling your spacial energies. It does not simply refer to your care for your body and home, though, but also includes mind and spirit. Words and actions must also remain pure; there isn't room in saucha for jealousy or hatred or anger, which result in a disheveled cluttering of the mind. It refers to the purity of what you eat; it is the difference between eating homemade cookies made from organic products and love versus eating artificially preserved oreos! At its root, saucha refers to the purity of your intentions as intention comes before action.
Iyengar: "The body is your temple. Keep it clean and pure for the soul to reside in."
Sutra 2.41 offers the result to practicing saucha: "Purification of the pure subtle essence, cheerfulness and joy, one-pointedness, mastery of senses and readiness for knowledge (of self)."
Santosha is the second niyama and it means contentment. Can you be content with what life is offering you right now? Think about that carefully. It doesn't mean can you be content when life is rolling along and everything is fine; can you also be content when life is hard? My students know I love to use the verb 'to choose' often. Santosha asks that you choose to remain content in all aspects of life and to trust in the bigger picture. What about being content for others? If you are constantly wishing you had what someone else does, material or characteristic, you are jealous and, therefore, not content.
The third niyama, tapas, refers to the discipline we exhibit over our energy. Literally, it means to heat the body. It also can mean deep meditation. Think about a very active yoga practice where you find yourself dripping in sweat. You have heated the body and, in turn, it is cleansing you through the release of sweat. Heat provides cleansing. But without the discipline of the mind to stay present and focused, this type of heat cannot be physically or mentally created. We rely on tapas for the discipline to meditate. We rely on this same discipline to stay focused on pranayama, regulation of the breath. The strength of our presence and focus results in our being able to bring heated attention to the body and mind.
Svadhyaya refers to self study. It is the practice of learning and seeing the True Self versus our "fake" self. Who are you truly? Forget the labels that define you; who are you without the labels? The asanas, poses, help us to clear our minds of ego-driven thoughts so we are better able to narrow in on the space behind all those busy thoughts...the space, where we learn to access our inner Self.
The final niyama is ishvara pranindhana. Translated this means complete surrender to God. Since yoga is not a religious practice, Patanjali's use of the "word" va (meaning 'or')signifies that "God" is open to your personal interpretation. It is the practice of complete surrender to divinity of whatever sort. Are you able to completely let go in the name of grace?
“Complete surrender is like falling from a tall tree without flinching a muscle,” Sri Ramakrishna.
"Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens." Carl Jung
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali breaks down the theory of yoga into eight steps or limbs. He refers to these as astanga, not to be confused with the branch of yoga with the same name; asta in sanskrit means eight. The eight limbs to yoga are not meant to be followed in order; you do not have to accomplish step one before moving on to step two. Instead, they are meant to be practiced together. The eight steps are: yamas (your moral codes towards other people), niyamas (your moral codes towards yourself), asana (poses), pranayama (regulation of the breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concenttration), dyhana (meditation) and samadhi (bliss).
“The five points of yama, together with the five points of niyama, remind us of the Ten Commandments of the Christian and Jewish faiths, as well as of the ten virtues of Buddhism. In fact, there is no religion without these moral or ethical codes. All spiritual life should be based on these things. They are the foundation stones without which we can never build anything lasting. ” ― Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras
This is such a great quote because it explains that these codes or rules are for everyone; yoga is not a religion so it does not conflict with religions but is based on similar codes that all can share.
The yamas break down into five branches of their own. They are as follows:
The word ahimsa means non-violence. I use it all the time in yoga classes to remind students not to push their bodies into pain or beyond its limits that day. But the definition goes way beyond the yoga mat. Ahimsa means non-violence to every living thing. If you are unkind to someone, you would not be practicing ahimsa. Offering no judgment on my part as I am not a vegetarian, ahimsa is also not being followed when we choose to eat meat or animal proteins. Killing the bothersome fly in your kitchen is himsa, violence. Ahimsa is kindness and thoughtfulness before acting or thinking about others. It means in all situations to do no harm.
Satya means truth. Satya tests us to look for the truth in everything. On the mat, the truth might be today I cannot do any back bending because of low back pain. If I follow ahimsa on the mat, I will find a different pose to do while the rest of the class enjoys their back bending! If, instead, my ego pops in to tell me I will look stupid or not as good if I don't do the backbend and I choose to listen, I am not practicing ahimsa nor am I listening to the truth. Satya and ahimsa must not conflict with each other. If I know a truth but it will hurt someone should I express it to them , I must keep it to myself or fail to follow ahimsa practices. This means sometimes white lies are considered good. Remember the expression, "If you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all"? According to the yamas, you should heed this. Telling lies is the obvious opposite of satya, speaking the truth. But, so is lying to or about yourself. Bragging and exaggerating are forms of untruths. Talking yourself out of blame for your actions is also a non-truth. Telling someone to do something one way and then doing it another is hypocritical and it is also a non-truth.
Steya means to steal. Asteya is the opposite; not taking something that does not belong to us. It also means not using other people's things beyond the set intention. For example, let's say I borrow a hose from my neighbor to water my garden and I promise I will return it that day. But then I hang onto it overnight and use it the next day to wash my car. I have fallen to steya in two different ways in this one example; I "stole" time keeping the hose longr than promised and I "stole" it for a purpose not offered to me. What about when you call a friend to vent? If you are imposing upon them, steya here menas you are stealing away their time and energy.
Brahmacharya means self control and usually refers to abstinence from sexual activity. Does this mean in order to follow the eight limbs of yoga that you have to become celibate? What if you are in a committed relationship, let's say even married, and Person A declares celibacy while Person B does not. Person A is actually inflicting himsa, violence, on the other. You could even say Person A is also inflicting steya, stealing away the other's rights to sexual activity. So, instead, consider that brachmacharya refers to your control while engaging in sexual relations. Are you practicing ahimsa? Are you respectful of the person you are with as well as of yourself? Are you present or are you thinking about unanswered email? Your sexual energy needs to be in line with all aspects of the yamas.
Aparigraha means non-hoarding. Do you continually buy more than you need? Do you recycle or donate what you choose to let go of to the benefit of others and Earth? Consider aparigraha as thoughts, too, not just tangible stuff. Even yogis can fall victim to hoarding thoughts such as 'I want more enlightenment, I want more peace, I want...'. Aparigraha is about being present and accepting that what you have is enough.
Judith Lasater writes, "In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states significantly in verse 16 that “the sorrow which is yet to come is to be discarded.” This future sorrow is avoided because of the choices one makes now, thus creating a future in which suffering is lessened. It is critical to remember that the teachings of the Yoga Sutras are not presented in an attempt to control behavior based on moral imperatives. The Sutras do not state or imply that one is “bad” or “good” based upon one’s behavior. Rather, Patanjali teaches that if one chooses certain behavior one gets certain results."
I don't think we can be reminded enough that the Universe is unending abundance and is able to offer us the things we seek. I also don't think we can be reminded enough as to how to receive what it is we think we seek.
In his book, Secrets of the Lost Mode of Prayer, Gregg Braden tells a story of how he was invited to a prayer circle in New Mexico to "pray rain". He very deliberately does not say pray for rain as his friend, David, did not pray for anything. He determined what he needed and prayed it as if it was a given...and then he expressed gratitude. His friends' prayer was so quick, Braden's response was, "I thought you were going to pray for rain?" His friend smiled and said, "I said that I would pray rain. If I had prayed for rain, it could never happen."
I am always telling my classes put out what you want or need to the Universe but do it in a positive way as if it has already occurred. This is the same idea as "praying rain" rather than praying for it. Braden writes, "When we ask for something to happen, we give power to what we do not have."
David's explanation is to use all your senses to feel the rain: the muddy texture, the muddy scent, the dripping sound. The goal is to experience the rain (or whatever you are hoping for) as if you already have it. Then be grateful. David expressed to Braden, "Through our thanks, we honor all possibilities, while bringing the ones we choose to this world."
That last quote expresses to us how strong our innate power truly is. You get to choose exactly what you want. In context, if it is a job you are seeking, do not pray for a job; close your eyes and offer thanks for the job as if it is yours and then really feel it; see your desk, the people around you, hear the office sounds, taste your hot coffee, experience what you feel being in that setting. Make it yours.
A lot of it has to do with staying present; a lot of it has to do with the Law of attraction. Roger Miller said, "Some people feel the rain — others just get wet." If you are fully present you should be one of the people really feeling the rain. It's time to stop and ask yourself, which one are you?
Lila is a Sanskrit word that means play, sport or pastime. But most often, it is used to refer to life as an ongoing play put on by the divine. Hinduism believes that Brahman is the ultimate Creator and that earth is a manifestation of His in order to play. Since everything comes from Brahman and returns back to him, the world and Brahma are not considered separate "entities". It's kind of like a little girl playing with her dollhouse. She makes all the people move and speak as she is the director and actor. Brahma moves us all as our Higher Self, engaging us in a game of play.
“Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world would mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. Hence, there can be no purpose for Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or play, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss.” Ram Shanker Misra
Lila and the word maya have a close connection with each other in regards to the world. Where the word maya typically is translated as illusion, in this sense it does not mean the world is an illusion; it means we see it through our illusory point of views. If we view lila without recognizing Brahman in all parts, we are under the magic spell of maya.
Krishna Das writes, "It's very difficult for people like us, who are identified with our bodies and minds, to understand the concept of lila- the divine play. It's called play because there 's no selfish motive in the action. God's lila or the lila of a great saint, his or her action in the world, is done only for the sake of helping others...The saint's actions come out of the awareness of the oneness of all life and compassion for all beings."
Meditation requires an element of lila. I like how Krishna Das writes in his book, Chants of a Lifetime, that when he does workshops and tells people it is time to meditate, they all sit up straight, get serious and close their eyes. But if he says it is time to sing, everyone relaxes and just sings without the element of thought defining how to do so.
Are you taking life too seriously? Have you lost your element of play? Martin Buber wrote, "Play is the exultation of the possible." How do you know what is possible if you cannot play act the different scenarios?
The weather seems to finally be taking a slow turn towards spring. More grass is able to peek through the melting snow than before and remnants of last year's leaves and bits of garbage have been showing themselves, reminding me it's almost time to do a spring cleaning of he yard. But what about our minds? It also seems to be the right time to do a spring cleaning of our minds, as well. Letting fresh breezes move in to push clouds of stagnant and unused thoughts out.
If you have a mind that seems to fuel itself on more thoughts per minute, try to slow down by focusing on something in your present moment. For example, shift your attention to your breath; shift your attention to your right shoulder blade. Anything, that forces you to release the mundane ego-driven to-do list types of thoughts and bring awareness back to now.
I choose to believe it is almost spring; that thirty degree weather is far behind. I feel ready to open the windows of my mind and release the thoughts I have been dragging around all bundled up all winter long. I release them from their binding to find that, underneath they are not thoughts I seem to need any more. They are free to leave because, I myself, chose freedom. How about you?
Gregg Braden, The Secrets of the Lost Mode of Prayer, "Four hundred years ago in the high deserts of the American Southwest, the great wisdom keepers of the Navajo families were tested by the earth, nature and the tribes that surrounded them. Through the extremes that drought, intense heat, and lack of food caused in their societies, the Navajo realized that they must harness the power of their inner pain to endure the harsh conditions of their outer world. Their very survival depended upon learning to do so. Recognizing that life's tests pushed them to the depths of their greatest suffering, they also discovered that the same tests revealed their greatest strengths. The key to their survival was to immerse themselves in life's challenges without becoming lost in the experience."
Today, in class, we aimed to discover your inner strengths by holding poses longer in a slower vinyasa sequence. Braden's quote says the people were tested by the earth; so are we in balance poses....especially when the earth just won't stay still so we can balance! Choose a balance pose and challenge your inner you. Immerse yourself in the pose but do not lose track of your breath and your focus, thereby becoming lost in the pose's experience.
"What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the sunset.
-- Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior and orator
In other words, fleeting. Are you willing to let it slip by so easily like dry sand through your fingers? I don't mean to give you a gross analogy but, are you ready to work at life, adding some hard-earned sweat to the sand so it sticks in the palm of your hand?
There is a Buddha parable I have told before called The Sweetest Strawberry. Below I give you the more lengthy and humorous Sufi version. It is worth repeating as it is about a man enjoying life's sweetness even in the most inopportune times.
"The Sweetest Strawberry the World Has Ever Known (retold by Nasruddin)
Good day! My name is Nasruddin. I was born in Amritsar in the Punjab, in India. Or...it was so long ago... it may have been in Cairo, in Egypt. In fact, I think it was Newark, New Jersey, though my uncle claims it was Turkey, and my birth certificate says Balkh, in what is now Afghanistan.
Anyway, I was born, and I stand here as proof. I would like to tell you about the time I went to see my friend Tekka. I met Tekka when he was a young man, but that is another story altogether. So I was here, and Tekka was in his home village, and all that lay between us was a desert and a jungle.
The desert was easy. Twelve days under the burning sun...no sweat. Well, not exactly, but to return to the story, I came to the jungle. If you have ever seen a jungle, you know that it is big, and dark, and very green. The trees are tall, the bushes are thick, and there are lots of little animals moving about, making you think they are big animals!
Well, the path was narrow, and the jungle on either side was thick and noisy, and closed over the path in a way that made me a little nervous. But I love my friend Tekka, so I said to myself, "Nasruddin, you are a stalwart soul, and you must go through this jungle in order to see Tekka. Just think of it as taking a walk through the jungle!" I tried to argue with myself, but it was no use. I had to go.
So I started off through the jungle, and the path was not so bad when my eyes got used to the gloom. I was walking happily along, when I heard a noise behind me: "hhahh... hhahh... hhahh." I looked over my shoulder, and saw, to my surprise, a tiger was also taking a walk through the jungle!
"Ah," I said to myself, which was the best I could do in the circumstances. Then I had a thought, which was fortunate. "It is never too late to begin an exercise regimen. Why not start with jogging, for your health, that is." I agreed, and began at once. There I was, jogging through the jungle, enjoying what remained to me of my health, when I heard a sound behind me: "hhahh...hhahh...hhahh." I looked over my shoulder, and – what do you know!– the tiger had also taken up jogging! Although I think the tiger was less interested in exercise, and more interested in nutrition!
Due to the beneficial effects of exercise, my brain was functioning more efficiently. "If you can jog, surely you can run," I told myself. "Why not try for a world record?" It's amazing how quickly you can come to an agreement with yourself. I began immediately to see if I could set a new world record for land speed running. I tore through that jungle as if the path were a highway.
I am certain a world record was within my grasp, if only a judge with a stopwatch had been there. And when I heard a familiar sound behind me, which I probably don't have to explain sounded like "hhahh-hhahh-hhahh," I didn't even have to stop and look to know the tiger was also bent on setting a world record.
So there we were, the two athletes running like the wind through the jungle! It was thrilling! It was exciting! It was terrifying! Suddenly, there was no jungle!
There was no path either, only the blue sky, and a cliff, and me, Nasruddin, falling down it. I said to myself, "Aaauughh!!" but it did no good. So I grabbed onto a bush.
(Did you ever notice, every single time you fall down a cliff, there's a bush to grab onto. Check it out for yourself!)
So I grabbed this bush, and held on for dear life. I clung to it with all my strength, which I needed, because there was the tiger looking down at me, saying "hhahh...hhahh...hhahh." "Don't you know any other words?" I said. Apparently not, because the tiger continued to say the same thing over and over. I looked desperately about me for a way out, and could find none. Then I noticed the roots of the bush begin to pull out of the cliff, one by one.
"Nasruddin," I said, and I have a little song I sing to myself when I am in trouble, which seems to be more and more often these days, "Nasruddin, you have been/ in better sit-u-a-tions." It's a nice little song, very comforting. It certainly helped at that moment.
Then I heard a sound behind and below me that sounded strangely familiar: "hhahh...hhahh...hhahh."
"Wait!" I said to myself, "I thought I left that sound safely up above!" I looked down, and saw that the bad always comes with the good. Why is that, do you think? The good was that the cliff was not very high, and I would not be hurt if I fell. The bad was the other tiger standing below me, looking up!
There I was, hanging on the face of a cliff from a bush whose roots were pulling out, with a tiger above me and a tiger below me. I thought it was a good moment for my little song, so I sang again, "Nasruddin, you have been/ in better sit-u-a-tions." It had its effect – my head was clear, and I cast about desperately for a way out of my predicament. I assure you I didn't think of the word predicament at the time.
I looked on both sides, and suddenly spied a little green bush, with a single red berry. It was a wild strawberry! Now, my philosophy is always to enjoy yourself to the fullest, wherever you are. So I got a good grip with my toes, which are considerable, and held the bush with one hand, and reached out, risking all, and picked that strawberry.
And did I eat it? Oh, yes, my beloveds, I did. And I am here to tell you that if you are hanging on a cliff from a bush that is pulling out by the roots, and there is a tiger above you and a tiger below you, and you find a strawberry and you eat it, that will be the sweetest strawberry the world has ever known!"
May the sun bring you new energy by day,
may the moon softly restore you by night,
may the rain wash away your worries,
may the breeze blow new strength into your being,
may you walk gently through the world and
know it's beauty all the days of your life."
-- Apache Blessing
(And enjoy its sweetness....)
Your life begins with this and ends with this...a breath. In yoga, the breath is so vitally important it would be correct to say it is the life of the pose. Holding a pose without the breath causes stagnation and, usually tells me, you have gone far beyond your comfort zone in the pose or you wouldn't have to hold your breath! Let's delve into the breath to discover why it is so important.
Father of yoga Patanjali defines the eight limbs or branches that make up the entire yoga practice. One, only one, of those branches refers to the poses. In fact, in the Yoga Sutras, poses are actually only mentioned in three verses. We will cover the 8 steps over upcoming weeks but one of the steps is pranayama. Prana means life force energy; we all have it as does everything on earth. Yama means a regulation to. So pranayama is a conscious way of taking the natural rhythm to our breath and changing it. There are many different techniques to do so but it is first important to understand why we need to do this. The vast majority of us are not taught how to breathe; it is just something we do. As a result, some of us are chest breathers that take short breaths that virtually ignore the bottom half of our lungs. Others are abdominal breathers who never fully allow the air to lift upward into the chest. Pranayama teaches us to combine the two, if for nothing else, for better health.
Wouldn't you agree that our breath is highly influenced by our emotions? When I am angry, my breath is much different than when I am calm. My breath is different again when I am stressed versus when I am excited. Yogis believe the breath and mind are interdependent; when the breath is deep and clam, so is the mind. If we are able to learn to control our breath on the mat and stay focused on it, it is reasonable to conclude then that I may be able to use my breath control off the mat in times where it would be clearly advantageous to my body, mind and spirit.
Speaking of spirit, the word inspiration can be defined as being in a state of spirit but it is also defined as breathing. I want you to make that connection and remember to see your breath as an inspiration. When we learn to breathe with the entire lung, many fabulous things happen. Let's break down these fabulous things into the realms of physical, mental and spiritual. Physically, when you inhale, your diaphragm moves down and when you exhale, it moves back up into place. The deeper you breathe, the more tugging sensation on the tendons and organs because the diaphragm moves farther. Your body responds by increasing your oxygen flow to your brain and by releasing toxins. When I practice asana, I am more engaged by my breath's mental impact. It is an amazing source of focus. Take chair pose, utkatasana, for example. A deep bend in the knees to liven up the quads and before you know it, your mind is complaining along with your thighs. If I were to ignore my breath and let my thoughts run away with me, I will either fall out of the pose or, more likely, talk myself out of staying in the pose. If I am focused on my deep breath, I am able to endure the challenging poses for a longer period of time. The increased oxygen to the brain from the deeper breath work increases your mental clarity. Spiritually, the breath focus is so calming it enables you to go beyond the mind to a place where your Higher Self exists.
From the Radiance Sutras –" Pour one breath into the other, out breath into the in breath, into the out breath, be there, in the harmony of that fusion where one rhythm turns into the other, awaken into equilibrium. Tending to breath in this way, become capable of experiencing oneness with the self."
Taoist sage Chuang Tzu says that most of us breathe from our throats, and that real human beings breathe from their heels. Isn't that a great quote? Try breathing from your feet, from your back, from the back of your neck. Can you engage that sensation?
There are many different techniques of pranayama that can calm the nervous system, lower your heart rate, and offer mental clarity. Or simply, anapatasati, which is being present and watching the breath. Gabrielle Roth writes in the book Sweat your Prayers, "the breath is promiscuous, and if you don't pay it attention it will find another lover."
Alternate nostril breathing creates balance in the ida and pingala nadis, ujjayi is a victory, a mastery, of focus, skull breathing ignites fire, and 3 part breathing teaches you to discern where the breath is and how you can control it. Counting the breath creates awareness. What about whole body breathing? Sometimes, we yoga teachers, say some weird and confusing things. If I tell you to inflate your front body as you breathe, you can understand that easily as you watch or feel the rise and fall of the chest. If I tell you to breathe with your whole body, your first reaction may be to tell me that's not possible! It's like a riddle or a koan...how does the breath move in and out through the entire body at the same to impact the body, mind and spirit?
Sometimes in a vinyasa class I will say I'm slowing things down because the energy in the room has shifted. I could also say that I am slowing things down because the breathing in the room has changed. If students are becoming tired and the breath winded, they have lost their connection of focus with their breath. Remember I started out by saying the life of the pose is the breath? If I am out of breath trying to scurry through sun salutations, it doesn't feel as meaningful to me; so I wonder how can it be for you? I recognize the Western need to whip through surya namaskars and sweat it out, but it is not my need. My need is for my movement to match my breath, not play catch up with it.
"As you inhale, visualize receiving the elements of your life – experiences people, things you are capable of – with gratitude/as you exhale imagine sharing that sense of fulfillment with others."
Karma is a difficult topic to explain because most people use the word karma to mean what comes around goes around, which is so misleading. The word Karma means action or deed. Every word, thought and act created by you, mentally, physically and spiritually, is an action resulting in karma. Let me give you this example. Picture a scale with a balance on each side. I have decided to stop a bad habit, say biting my nails. Every time I bite a nail, I put a weight on the bad side of the scale. Every time I remember to pull my finger away from my mouth, I put a weight on the good side. The good and bad weights sometimes even each other out, right? At that point, you could say my karma is even or balanced. When the bad side outweighs the good, it doesn't mean something bad is going to happen to me in response; I now carry this negative or vipaka that leads to bad things because the Law of Attraction says "like attracts like". Karma is the action, vipaka is the result.
Karma is not punitive as most people reference. We are inheritently good. Karma is our reminder to stay that way! So, the thought may have crossed your mind, if nothing flies from the Universe to punish us for bad deeds, why would we care about our karma? Fair question! Karma is with you from birth to death, through transition or reincarnation and into your next life. The karma you have at the moment of death is what you are born with into your next life. If you did a lot of bad things in this life, and never learned to change those actions into good, you built up bad karma. Why would you want to start off your next life with that baggage?!
Karma is about understanding that our actions (thought, word and physical) are all based on intention. When I set positive intentions, I am expecting a desired result. Bad karma intentions are based in greed and hatred and maya (illusion from ignorance). Positive karma has intentions based in wisdom and peace and good will. Your very existence is action based. Your actions come from your intentions. Your intentions result in your positive, negative or balanced karma. Your karma is the only actual link that connects all your lives through reincarnation.
Let's use the example of someone who is paralized in a wheelchair and cannot move. Can they produce bad karma since they do not have the physical ability to act? Absolutely! In fact, Buddhists would say the only element of pre- determination in this life comes from your past life's karma. Let's assume the handicap of this person is the vipaka (result) of bad karma in his preceding life. This person still has the ability of thought. Negative thoughts will move out into the Universe and continue to build on the bad karma pile. Good thoughts prove free will as now the person is able to rescind the bad karma; change it for the good producing a different result.
Karma is not an external energy waiting to strike you for the bad; karma is created from within. We all actively create our own karma each and every day. Let's face it- we all have deeply rooted habits. Some are fabulous and make us who we are. Some we need to change because they cause us suffering; they do not serve us in any good way. Becoming aware of those patterns is the first step. Changing them is next. Your yoga practice helps you to recognize and dig out these deep roots so you change suffering into joy!
Wayne Dyer says, "How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours. " I would add that how you treat yourself is also your choice of karma.
Still confused? Karma is trying to teach you to let go of the past. All those feelings of guilt or sadness or regret that you carry around with you by choice do not allow you to stay present and move forward with learning to produce change.
An islamic scholar wrote, "Happy is the person whose karma is their dharma." Dharma means path and our path is strewn with learning lessons. Our karma brings us lessons we need to learn so we can reconfigure our initial intentions.
My yoga instructor/guru, Silvia Mordini, writes, "Today, I'd like us to practice mindful forgetting. Where we stop paying so much attention to PAST actions. At some point any shame or embarrassment from what's been done is only stealing from this moment and furthering an unnecessary suffering. Offering forgiveness to those that have hurt us [ I would add, including ourselves], instead of continuing to remind them of past actions will help us move forward in light and love... stop blaming yesterday for your today, using it as an excuse for the quality of your life right now. It's not fair, it's not healthy. "
There are many different types of karma but what you ultimately need to understand is that you have the power to create your own karma, you have the choice of free will to change, and that karma is not just about the past. It is about right now; you are creating it right now! If you are angry or jealous, you are sending that out and your intentions and thoughts come from this source. Choose happiness. Choose love. Your karma can be freeing.
So the expression "what comes around goes around" in reference to karma is very misleading and I think detrimental to personal responsibility. It makes it sound like some unseen force is going to swoop in and dole out punishment to someone who does bad. Understand, they are already doing that to themselves. The lesson abides in the learning and changing. The built up karma is like the potential energy you learned about in science. If I pull back a rubberband and hold it there, it has potential energy to move forward when I let go. If I pull back with an ignorance-based bad intention and send the rubberband flying with that energy, I am left with the negative results I created. Contrarily, if I pull back with loving intentions formed from having learned from past mistakes, I send love forward and am left with positive karma.
I leave you with this last overexaggerated example...Criminal A and B are both in prison for murder. Very bad karma, obviously. Criminal A spends his days pissed off and mad for ending up in jail. He feels he's a victim of his circumstances and the guy got what was coming to him. He dies with this thought. Criminal B is remorseful. He lives out his days trying to make amends from behind bars. Maybe he takes up meditation and learns to change the energy he emits. He sends out positive thoughts to the world and dies doing so. Do they have the same karma? Only you can make the change.