What is Yoga? ~ Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Alistair Shearer
Yoga is a way to restore our lost wholeness, our integrity as complete human beings, by unifying the personality around a center that is silent, unbounded, spacious, and joyful.
The techniques of yoga are methods of purifying the nervous system so that it can reflect a greater degree of consciousness and our lives can become an increasingly positive force in the world.
If these techniques are correctly practiced, the whole nervous system is revitalized – the body enjoys better health and more energy, the rested mind is freed from the burden of past experience, and perception is restored to its primal freshness. Thought and activity become coherent and integrated, life becomes richer and more fulfilling.
Yoga is not a religion. Its techniques, however, will gradually lead you to the direct experience of those truths on which religion rests. Yoga is a catalyst that allows us to grow in whichever direction is natural and life supporting.
When and how has your dark side appeared to you?
What behaviors, words, and thoughts have arisen?
What were the triggering situations?
What did you do about it?
Should you have better control the next time that darkness is accessed?
How can you transform “negative” feelings of anger, depression, greed, guilt, jealousy, shame, etc. into something useful?
Yes, it is lovely to focus on light and beauty. The fact that we can consciously reprogram our brains is fascinating and extremely useful. Focusing on so-called “positive” thoughts is a great way to unlearn some of the lies we’ve been told or told ourselves inadvertently. We can transform wrong beliefs to engage in a more productive and enjoyable life.
The truth is, though, we are all made up of both light and darkness. What we often tend to perceive as “good” and “bad.” One cannot exist without the other. We see this reflected everywhere in nature and in the people around us. We judge some emotions as better than others just because they feel good. They are, however, all a part of life. And it’s not healthy to deny our emotions or thoughts even if they are ugly or frightening.
Becoming aware of our true nature is the essence of yoga. That way we can gain some control over emotions and thoughts that may lead to harmful actions and words. We can free ourselves from the stories we make up in our heads, which can seem so true. We can learn to deal with triggering situations and people in a more peaceful manner so we are not left with regret or other “bad” emotions growing inside of us. We can look at ourselves and others with love and compassion rather than judgment or fear.
The Yamas and Niyamas (the first two of the eight limbs of yoga as laid out by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) deal with how we behave and interact within ourselves and with the world around us. Self-study is a very important aspect of yoga. I offer the questions above as a starting point for self-study. Meditating on similar types of questions can help us become our best selves. Taking mental notes, or much better, keeping a journal, can help us become aware of our reactions. We become aware of the transitoriness of thoughts. We realize emotions arise and then subside. We become more aware of the world around us and hopefully grow into an agent of peace not disaster.
Stress causes all sorts of health havoc. It’s important to know how to handle its inevitable triggers. I learned this following “amygdala reprogramming” exercise from a medical doctor. Just an idea to try the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation.
The amygdala is in the lower part of the brain and it stimulates the body’s fight-or-flight response. When we are exposed to something upsetting, we have about 5 seconds to decide how we’ll respond to that stress. If we don’t do anything, the amygdala will release its stimulation causing the adrenals to release stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Your blood sugars will shoot up as well as your heart rate. Your immune system will be depressed. Your blood is more likely to clot – leading to greater stroke/heart attack risk, etc. These are only a few of many examples of the negative health effects of stress.
Studies have shown we can block that amygdala response. We only have 5 seconds to make that decision. Energy levels and sense of wellbeing often dramatically improve once people start automatically stopping that response. As soon as you experience a stressful situation, physically put your hands out and say “stop” – with a smile on your face. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the situation. The whole negative experience goes away.
Consider experimenting with this exercise when faced with stressful situations in your life. Follow these steps exactly – the physical movement, out loud command, and smile are important. The concept is controlling how your mind works instead of going through the autonomic responses, letting your mind control you.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. 1995. “Women Who Run With the Wolves.” Chapter 7: Joyous Body: The Wild Flesh (p. 214).
With the June new moon approaching, I’d like to dedicate this post to the new moon ritual.
People throughout history have been guided by the moon. From its role in the creation of calendars and tidal charts to its reputation for its effect on our emotions, behavior, and energy levels, the moon has always had a strong influence on humans. Various rituals have been performed throughout history during different phases of the moon. New and full moons are very powerful times for reflection and celebration, respectively. However small or large the ritual, I try to pay attention to those times. Living life this way can make us feel more alive and grateful. It reminds us of why we we are here and what we are evolving toward and helps us get there.
The new moon is a powerful time for meditation and taking stock of our lives and where we are headed. The new moon is an opportunity to initiate projects, intentions, and goals. One of my teachers calls it “fertile darkness.” The new moon is a great time to plant the seeds of intention. We think about what we are moving toward and what specific steps we need to take to get there. And then we seal that intention with asana practice and meditation. Here are some photos from the last new moon for inspiration (I was lucky enough to be at the beach at the time…)!
Happy June New Moon on Tuesday! I would love your comments and stories if you’re interested in sharing, please!
Meditation enhances our inner peace, our ability to concentrate, our sleep, and our enjoyment of life. It helps us deal with physical and emotional pain gracefully and has even been shown to potentially lengthen our lives. People often think of meditation as a seated practice where they must completely clear the mind. Sometimes this can be intimidating. Our minds are often racing and sometimes it can be difficult to get comfortable in a seated position for a long period. Here are a few ideas for meditations that can help take your mind off your racing thoughts for a while. They are done in communion with our environment or other people and can lead to a powerful transformation – the ability to live life as meditation, to live each moment mindfully.
Find a quiet forest where you will be unbothered for a while. Bring your attention to your breath and slowly walk among the trees. Find a tree that seems to call your attention and go to it. Touch the tree, acknowledge its presence, hug the tree – do whatever you choose to connect with it. Now find a comfortable spot to sit with your back up against the tree – if you prefer to stand you can also stand with the back of your body up against the tree. Close your eyes. Relaxing the breath, bring to mind your ancestors. Ask a question. Imagine the wisdom of your grandmother coming through the tree. Your grandfather. Your parents. Your teachers. See what answer arises. Sit quietly with the tree for 30 minutes – or however long you have – and see what visions arise. Connect deeply with nature and express your gratitude.
Smile Walk Meditation
Smiles are powerful. Just one brief glance at a smile can brighten someone’s day and improve both the recipient and the giver’s moods. I once read about a “lovingkindness” meditation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In this meditation, you encounter people on the street or wherever in your daily life and genuinely wish them happiness. You cultivate this wish by realizing your similarity with these people, whether strangers or friends. Realize we all deserve and want happiness as a basic human right. Then silently offer this genuine wish with a smile. Bringing this meditation into your daily life can vastly increase your compassion and peace.
How often do we actually take the time to appreciate our partners, friends, and family completely? To really be present with someone is a profound gift, and that’s the idea of this meditation. In a love meditation, take an entire day if possible or at least a half hour to truly be present with your partner. This can be a lover or a close family member or friend. Be silent together for a period of time but interact with gestures, eyes, and expressions. Do something you both love to do together – maybe an art or culinary project, perhaps a walk on the beach. Enjoy a warm, long, heartfelt hug. Gaze into each other’s eyes without looking away. Touch the other person mindfully, thinking of how it would feel if this were being done to you. Be present for the other person while truly appreciating their presence with you.
I hope you enjoy these meditations and look forward to hearing about your experiences or other ways you bring meditation into your daily life. Thank you for stopping by! Sending love to you all.
Good morning! I thought I’d share a yoga class I taught recently, appropriate for all levels. For those of you looking for a nice, easy daily practice, part or all of this sequence may work well. I’ll go into more detail on what I feel needs more explaining, but for other poses/sequences listed, you can easily find more information online and on other posts on this blog. If you want more explanation, feel free to ask!
Consistency is much more important than practicing for long periods of time. Ten minutes a day vastly outweighs one 90-minute practice a week. So if you only have time for some sun salutations, take a few minutes to go through the sequence. You’ll be working your entire body while calming your mind, and everyone can find an extra ten minutes! It’s very simple. I’ve heard a lot of people say they’d love to do yoga at home but cannot seem to find the time. Even if you’re only doing one pose or a quick breathing exercise, it’s very valuable. With practice, it’s easy to find ways to fit yoga into your day.
1-Hour Beginner Yoga Class
Movements of Prana Meditation
Begin in Tadasana, Mountain pose. Close your eyes, search throughout the body for tension and consciously release the tension with your breath. Deepen the breath, breathing only through your nostrils if possible. Feel the breath filling you up from the belly to the chest and lungs all the way up to the top of your head. Exhale and imagine the breath traveling back down, emptying from the head to the tailbone. Circulating life-giving oxygen to every cell of the body. Become immersed in your breath. Connect with your body and your state of mind.
Try a simple movement meditation – embodying the movements of Prana. Bend your elbows, palms open to the sky and on an inhale, lift the arms up slowly with the breath. At the top of the inhale turn the palms to face down and exhale the hands slowly down, feeling the grounding force of gravity, bending your knees slightly to accentuate the downward movement. Continue this practice for several breaths, closing your eyes, immersed in breath. Next, on an inhale, bring the hands to the heart and feel the inward, contracting forces of nature/Prana. Pull the belly in. Feel your core strength. On an exhale, expand the hands out to your sides, radiating energy in all directions. Imagine (if it’s easy for you to visualize) beams of light shining from your fingers. Or just feel that you are sending energy out. Breathe deeply, feeling the opposite forces – the inward moving, contracting, coiling in energy and then the outward, expansive, radiating energy. Imagining the energy this way helps you get in touch with your body and the space around you. Coordinate the breath with the movement – beginning, middle, end of the breath is the beginning, middle, end of the movement. Take your time! About five minutes of this meditation can create a shift of consciousness; tranquility will envelop you.
From Tadasana, dive forward into Uttanasana (standing forward bend), hinging at your hips (not your waist). Come into a “flat back,” palms to shins lengthening the spine tailbone and crown reaching in opposite directions. Come back into Uttanasana and then up to a flat back three times. Take it slow.
Step back into plank, high push up pose, strong core, radiating energy back through your heels, forward through your heart, shoulders wide, hold for a few breaths bringing the knees down if you must.
Bend the knees (or with straight legs), come down into low pushup (chatturanga), bending the elbows and keeping them close to the ribs, hands beneath shoulders, strong core
Inhale up into cobra pose (bhujangasana), lifting the hands for a moment, make sure you’re lifting from your back and stomach muscles, not just pushing yourself up with your hands. Lengthen the spine looking down to the floor ahead of you – long neck.
Exhale back into downward dog (ahdo mukha svanasana), bend the knees deep and lift the tailbone high, pull the belly in, shoulders wide – maintaining these actions, slowly reach the heels toward the floor by straightening the legs
From downward dog, inhale and lift the right leg high, then, slowly, with control, bring the knee toward the naval, then the right foot forward into lunge. Feel the four movements of lunge: You’re not noticeably moving, but you’re energetically/isometrically working the muscles. This is very subtle. The front knee is pulling forward, the front thigh grounded down. The back thigh is lifted and strong, and the back heel is pressing back. Pull the belly in, lengthen the spine and enjoy some breaths in this strengthening pose. Come back into downward dog and then lift the left leg and lunge on that side. Take the time to feel those four movements.
Sun salutation x3 on each side
Vinyasa (Downward Dog – Plank – Chatturanga – Cobra or Upward Dog – Downward Dog)
Lunge on the right, back knee down, bring the hands to the inside of the right foot and either stay there or come down to your forearms. You can straighten the leg to increase the challenge. You can also come onto the side of your front foot to increase the stretch. Do what feels good!
Next lengthen the front leg out in front of you and flex the foot. Stretch the arms long and bring the hands to the sides of your lengthened leg. Inhale, stretching the spine long. Fold forward over the extended leg for a nice hamstring stretch, a counter pose for the lunge.
Come back into lunge and try grabbing a hold of the inside of your back foot with the opposite hand (if this is too much, just stay with the basic lunge or any variation that feels right). Ground down by pressing the opposite palm flat on the floor. Press the foot into the hand and look over your shoulder of the outstretched arm if that’s comfortable.
Vinyasa ~ then repeat from lunge on the left side
Pigeon pose on your back – lie down and bend both knees – bring the right foot/ankle over the left knee. To deepen the stretch grab a hold of your left shin with both hands and hug it in toward you. For an even deeper stretch, cradle the lower leg – foot in one elbow and knee in the other. Deeper yet, grab the right foot and slowly guide that bent leg toward your heart. Repeat with the left leg.
Wheel pose (or another Bridge with the option of leg lifts)
You can end however you like; sometimes a short meditation is nice or some Pranayama (breath work).
I hope you try the practice and enjoy it! And any feedback is welcome – I think some people benefit a lot from reading about yoga and these descriptions of sequences, but for some people seeing pictures or hearing someone speak the words is easier. I want to do whatever I can to help people maintain a daily yoga practice! So please feel free to let me know what works or not. Have a wonderful day.
Satya means “to speak the truth,” yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth come what may, for it could harm someone unnecessarily. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, then it is better to say nothing. Satya should never come into conflict with our efforts to behave with ahimsa. The Mahabharata, the great Indian epic, says: “Speak the truth which is pleasant. Do not speak unpleasant truths. Do not lie, even if the lies are pleasing to the ear. That is the eternal law, the dharma.”
From: Desikachar, T.K.V. 1995. “The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice.” Inner Traditions International: Rochester, VT. 244p., p. 98-99.
I am repeating myself when I say that yoga is so much more than a physical exercise. The whole point of yoga is to evolve as a human being, to become a better person. Asanas (yoga poses) are an important part of this — by keeping the body healthy, it is easier to maintain a healthy mind. Being our best selves certainly includes being in our best physical health. That’s only a small part of the whole picture, though.
The Yamas and Niyamas are another essential part of yoga. Yamas are guidelines for how we interact with other people and the world around us. Niyamas involve how we behave toward ourselves. Satya, the yama described above, or “truthfulness” is one I sometimes struggle with and am focusing on now. I think satya and compassion are directly related, as Desikachar’s quote illustrates. Truthfulness is important, but one must consider the consequences of truthfulness before speaking.
I’ve been studying yoga for quite a while now and I’m still continually reminded that I have a lot of growing to do. At 37 years old, sometimes I’m amazed at how little I still know. Despite my desire to be the best person I can be, despite the fact that I strive to only spread love, I sometimes become selfish and do not act or speak with compassion.
The above quote struck me as an integral lesson I need to learn if I want my life to be peaceful and if I want to maintain healthy relationships with myself and others. I have always been a rather sensitive person. I tend to take things personally and I tend to overreact at times. I have been known to speak out of turn. I sometimes let my emotions take over and say things that I should not say, even if they are my true feelings in that moment. It can be easy to get emotional and express a thought or feeling in a way that hurts another person. Too easy. And once said, words cannot be taken back. Others are hurt and I subsequently struggle not to wallow in guilt, shame, and depression. Obviously not the way I want to live!
I’ve learned this the hard way too many times in my life (and maybe haven’t fully learned since I am still working on it)! I hope that by sharing this quote I can help someone else to think before speaking.
We all depend on each other and compassion is necessary. It’s great to read about it, meditate on it, and think about it, but practicing compassion is a whole other thing. I am humbled to acknowledge this publicly, but for me it can be difficult at times to show compassion toward the most important people in my life. When I feel attacked and under stress, I tend to lash out and say hurtful things. Once said, there is no way to take these things back and I’ve only hurt others and myself. I am working with satya and compassion. Sometimes silence is best. Stillness and patience are key. I intend to practice compassion in my speech, thoughts, and actions. I’d welcome any suggestions for working with this! Thank you for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have a peaceful Sunday!