A Way to Health and Peace
There is a common misconception in the Western world of yoga as purely a physical practice, or a fitness routine. The word “yoga” has many definitions, among them “to come together,” “to unite,” and “to tie the strands of the mind together,” implying that yoga is first and foremost a mental and spiritual practice (Desikachar, p. 5). In The Heart of Yoga, TKV Desikachar (son of renowned yoga teacher, ayurvedic healer, and scholar, Tiramulai Krishnamacharya) discusses the physical and non-physical aspects of yoga, which we use to cultivate true presence. By focusing inwardly and connecting breath with movement, we unite our mind, body, and breath. This allows us to be more present with moment-to-moment experience. Rather than getting lost in thought, we begin to experience life more fully and respond more consciously to whatever arises, beginning on the yoga mat and extending out into our daily lives.
Yoga involves awareness in all aspects of life: our relationships, our actions, our behavior, and our health. When one begins a yoga practice, he or she wishes to make a change – to progress to a previously unattained point – by being aware of moment-to-moment consciousness and acting deliberately with a clear mind. Beginning a yoga practice, one embarks on a journey of conscious personal evolution. Focusing inwardly on the breath and merging breath with movement, one becomes more in touch with what is happening moment to moment and starts to feel a deeper connection to oneself and the world.
According to Desikachar, “yoga attempts to create a state in which we are always present – really present – in every action, in every moment” (p. 6). When we are attentive, we are better able to carry out tasks without being “prisoners to our habits” and making mistakes (p. 6). We become better equipped to handle the ups and downs of our daily lives, and our relationships improve as a result. This attentiveness, and presence, is often clouded by “avidya,” or “incorrect comprehension,” however (p. 10). The way we perceive events is colored by our ego (asmita), fear (abhinevesa), desire (raga), and our rejection of people, events, or places (dvesa). These four branches of avidya cloud our perceptions, and can lead us to actions that are detrimental to our wellbeing or that of others. The practice of yoga enables us to become aware of incorrect perceptions, and therefore to act consciously in ways that will benefit everyone.
Yoga involves various practices used to cultivate awareness and presence. Today I will discuss Asana and Pranayama, two of the most commonly known aspects of yoga in the West. Asana practice matches movement with breath in various postures, in a specific order, starting out simply and progressing into deeper postures when the body is ready. Pranayama refers to breathing techniques that increase our breath capacity and allow prana to flow freely without blockages. “Prana” means “that which is infinitely everywhere,” and ayama means “stretch” or “extend” (p. 54). Prana is also known as Qi or Chi in Chinese medicine. It is brought into the body through the breath, but it is so much more than air. It is the energy of life itself, contained in everything. It is that which gives us life.
Asana practice refers to the physical postures associated with yoga. They are the visible part of the practice. “Asana,” or “posture,” is derived from the Sanskrit root “as,” meaning “to stay,” “to be,” “to sit,” or “to be established in a particular position” (p. 17). Paraphrasing Patanjali, Desikachar explains that when one practices an asana, both “sthira” – steadiness and alertness – and “sukha” – the ability to remain comfortable in a posture – are present to an equal degree (p. 17). If we attempt postures for which we are not prepared, neither of these qualities is present. We must be aware of where we are, where our abilities lie or tension exists, and practice postures in an evolutionary way – from simple to more complex. “Practicing the postures progressively, we gradually achieve more steadiness, alertness, and overall comfort” (p. 18). This awareness of where we are and acting consciously from that starting point are “the foundation for our whole yoga practice” (p. 18). “In yoga we try in every action to be as attentive as possible to everything we do” (p. 23).
This awareness comes from attention to the breath and linking the breath to movement: “The first step of our yoga practice is to consciously link breath and body … We do this by allowing every movement to be led by the breath as we practice the asanas” (p. 18). Desikachar recommends raising the arms on an inhale and lowering them on an exhale to feel the connection of the breath to the movement. Other postures that can easily be combined with the breath are twists, where you twist to the side on an exhale and come back to center on the inhale; Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), where you begin on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor and breathe into the posture raising your hips and exhale back down to the starting position; and Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), where you inhale and rise up into the posture, and then exhale down onto your belly (pp. 20-21). With some exceptions, we generally contract the body on an exhale and expand the body on an inhale. Not only do we focus on linking the breath with the movement – and letting the breath initiate the movement – but we also try to lengthen our breath and make it full, deep, and smooth.
Ujjayi Breathing/Victorious Breath
In asana practice (and sometimes in meditation), we typically use “ujjayi” breathing. In ujjayi breathing, we inhale and exhale through the nostrils. We slightly contract the glottis, a valve in the throat, producing a sound similar to an ocean wave. It has also been compared to Darth Vader! This sound is a good measure of the quality of our practice – if it is smooth, steady, and not strained, we are practicing in line with our current state or ability. If the breath is labored and the sound is choppy or unsteady, we are practicing beyond our abilities and should practice more simple asanas (p. 23). This presence, and awareness, is the foundation of a yoga practice: “However beautifully we carry out an asana, however flexible our body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath, and mind we can hardly claim what we are doing is yoga” (p. 23).
Nadi shodhana pranayama makes the mind peaceful and balances the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It is an excellent pranayama to use during meditation or any time we feel stressed. Nadi Shodhana is alternate nostril breathing, done without using the throat (as we do in ujjayi). We lengthen the inhales and exhales, breathing through one nostril at a time, using the thumb or fingers to close the other nostril. First, inhale deeply through both nostrils and exhale through the mouth. Next, close the right nostril and breathe in through the left. Then close the left nostril and exhale through the right. Inhale through the right, then close the right nostril and exhale through the left. Inhale through the left… Repeat these steps for a few minutes. Nadi shodhana, like everything else in yoga, should never be forced. If nasal passageways are blocked, practice throat breathing instead (p. 62).
Kapalabhati is a strong breathing technique used to clear the senses and create energy. “If we have a lot of mucus in the air passages or feel tension and blockages in the chest it is often helpful to breathe quickly” (p. 62). Kapalabhati is diaphragmatic breathing. With rapid short, powerful exhales through the nostrils, the abdominals act as a pump – on the exhale, the abdominal muscles contract. Do not practice kapalabhati during menstruation or pregnancy, or with an abdominal hernia. Consult a doctor in the case of high blood pressure. Start with 30 seconds to a minute, and increase as is comfortable with practice.
There are many other forms of pranayama, but these are some I have encountered in many yoga classes, and that I regularly use on my own. I especially love nadi shodhana – I always feel so relaxed, refreshed, and clear-headed after I practice it for just a few minutes. I also sometimes use ujjayi breathing without even thinking about it – it’s very calming and centering. Many videos depicting these techniques are freely available online. Experiment with these techniques and look into others – our breath is so powerful and we can achieve serious benefits by manipulating it!
Many of us come to yoga for its physical benefits. We want to look good and feel good; we want to switch up our work out routine. We want to recover from an injury. Regular practice increases one’s flexibility, mobility, and strength. Through personal experience and according to the stories of many people, I’ve learned it can sometimes be the only thing that heals a physical ailment or injury. Its physical benefits are too many to list here. However, once we get deeper into the practice we begin to notice its all-encompassing benefits – to the whole self, not just the body. Yoga cultivates presence and awareness. It enables us to live in a more authentic way, with increased joy and peace. In future posts, I will discuss other limbs on the “tree of yoga.” For now, I hope I’ve inspired you to try some of these Asana and Pranayama exercises on a regular basis and notice what happens!
The Bhagavad Gita
Introduced & Translated by Eknath Easwaran
Applying Krishna’s Wisdom Today
Of all the reading required for Prana Flow teacher training, the Bhagavad Gita struck me the most. It hit close to home, challenged me, made me reflect a lot about my thoughts, feelings, and actions, and encouraged me to meditate religiously. I found it applicable to my own life and those of others, though difficult to consistently follow. I’d like to discuss specifically Krishna’s advice to control the senses, let go of the ego, do your own job (not someone else’s), and carry out selfless actions without being attached to their outcomes.
Krishna advises Arjuna to focus on his work and meditate on Krishna every day. He encourages Arjuna to be fully present in his actions without thinking of selfish desires or expectations. He teaches Arjuna that through meditation, the senses can be controlled, a peaceful life will ensue, and Self-realization can be attained. He emphasizes the importance of following one’s own dharma, letting the ego and any selfish desires go.
Basically, Krishna advises Arjuna to carry out his duties without thinking of himself or the outcome. This involves Arjuna fighting and killing his own family members without worrying about the sadness of losing them or the feeling of doing something wrong. Even though Krishna’s advice is relatively simple on the surface (meditate consistently on Krishna, and do your job without any selfishness), it involves letting go of one’s ego and attachments. Upon reflection I discovered, not surprisingly, that my ego is alive and strong and that I have many attachments. Even though I’ve brought my attention to them, I still have trouble letting go. It made me wonder how many of us in the modern world can truly live by Krishna’s advice. I can meditate daily, of course, and I can keep bringing to mind the welfare of others when performing various actions. Can I, however, truly let go of my ego and my selfish desires? In my experience, this is a lot easier said than done.
The idea of the individual, at least in Western culture, has only gained importance in recent years. We are encouraged to be unique, to express ourselves, and to go for what we want in life. Therefore, to me, Krishna’s advice seems to go against what we learn living in this society. How do we perform our tasks without being attached to their outcomes or hoping that we gain something in return? How does this fit in with setting goals and striving for “success?” If we are to let our ego and any attachments dissolve, aren’t we denying that innate individuality we have always been encouraged to express? What about romantic relationships? Are we to deny our desire for love and affection? And as for jobs, I’m always looking for something different. What I’m doing isn’t helping people, I tell myself, and it’s not satisfying. Maybe I’ll be happier in a new place. Krishna would probably tell me to stay put and do my work without complaining or thinking of myself.
In Chapter 3, Krishna illuminates the importance of working for the greater good – thinking of the welfare of the masses rather than selfish desires when performing work: “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind” (p. 106). Reflecting on my own life, I know that I am always trying to help others in whatever ways I can. I give without expecting anything in return, and I truly hope that I can help make other people’s lives easier and more peaceful. This is why I decided to teach yoga. However, I also often find myself wondering why I am where I am in life. I’m 35 years old, unmarried and without children, living in an apartment complex and working at a seemingly pointless job. This is not how I envisioned my life and I feel powerless to change some of these things. Even if I did, would I be in a better place? As you can see, my thinking is very ego-based and I have had trouble letting go of my attachments to desired outcomes.
It seems just about everyone I talk to is dissatisfied in some way about his or her situation. Whether it be about a job, a romance (or lack thereof), family difficulties, or health problems, many people, including myself, are often restless and feel as if things could be better if only they were different. We look at other people and envy their situations. We criticize ourselves and others for supposed shortcomings. We think, “If only I had this or that, I would be happy.”
I can’t count the number of times an acquaintance has said to me, “I’m doing everything right; what did I do to deserve this?”
Or, “I’m putting my whole heart into this – I don’t understand why I get nothing in return.”
It seems to be the human condition to want to better ourselves and find happiness in things like our work, our relationships, and various pleasurable experiences. We can get frustrated or down when things don’t go our way – the way we expect or hope them to go. We often do things with the expectation that certain consequences will arise in response. For example, we might do a favor for a friend expecting that the favor will be returned. We might work a lot of overtime expecting a promotion. We might go out of our way to win the affections of a love interest only to be rejected, and then we feel sorry for ourselves and disappointed that our desired outcome did not happen. If we had no attachments to expected outcomes, these problems would go away. Again, easier said than done.
Can we truly follow Krishna’s advice to perform selfless actions without expectations or greed? Does this mean we must live our lives passively? What about working toward specific goals? Is this selfish? Is it wrong to desire a romantic partner and act on those desires? Isn’t this natural?
This is where my struggle with the Bhagavad Gita began. I started questioning many things. If we are to deny (or “control”) our sense pleasures and ego in order to attain Self-realization, I thought, I am not sure I want Self-realization. Does that make me a selfish person with a huge ego I can’t let go of? Maybe.
Perhaps I am overthinking things, or misunderstanding Krishna’s message. I know I’m a good person; I do my best to help others and not be selfish. I can’t say, however, that even after years of meditation and reflection about all of the things I’ve discussed that my ego has diminished or my selfish desires have gone away. I do believe I am less attached to desired outcomes, but they still exist. There’s no use in denying them, is there? Perhaps it’s just a lifelong journey, a constant battle to overcome the senses and let go of the ego. I’m not sure my writing about this book has accomplished anything except more questioning about my humanness and whether I am truly ready for the spiritual path.
And now, writing this, it dawns on me: my job in life is to be a joy to others and to set an example of love and health; to make an effort to be upbeat at all times and available to help in whatever ways I can; to serve others (all others – anyone who I encounter), sometimes in the most subtle ways. It may not always be possible, but if I can try to be this way, things will go smoother. Thinking of others and not myself, I will find peace. It doesn’t matter what my “job” (i.e., career) is; my true job in life is to always be ready to serve in whatever ways I can. I can make it my job not to allow anxiety about where I could or should be take over my mind. In order to be available, in my clearest and best state of mind, free from anxiety, I must continue on the path of yoga and never lose faith.
As Krishna suggests, I can control my senses and meditate on the Self. I can do my best to maintain my physical health. Being aware in all my actions, I will hopefully make good choices and do my best to help others and contribute to the greater good. Krishna says this is a lifelong journey, and I’m sure I will struggle at times, so rather than being anxious about not being ready for spiritual development, I will continue on this lifelong journey and remember it for what it is. Am I human? Yes. Do I have desires and attachments? Yes, of course. Can I work toward letting them go? Yes. And I will continue to do so for the rest of my life.
Introduced & Translated by Eknath Easwaran
Exploring the Mundaka and Prashna Upanishads
The Upanishads are a collection of ancient wisdom teachings, ten of which are considered to be primary. Poetic and full of imagery, the Upanishads prescribe ways of living in order to realize the “Infinite,” the “Self,” or the “Lord of Love” that exists in everything and everyone. The Self is often compared to salt in water – when we add salt to water, it permeates the water and exists throughout. We can taste the salt in the water though we cannot see it. The Self is similar to salt in water because it exists, unseen, in everything. The Upanishads proclaim that we, and all of creation, are one with this creative energy from which everything came into existence. We can realize the joy of truly knowing this through meditation, control of the senses and passions, and with the help of a Self-realized teacher. The Upanishads are told as stories, all of which include a spiritual seeker (or student) and a teacher. I will discuss the Mundaka and Prashna Upanishads, as translated by Eknath Easwaran.
The Mundaka Upanishad explains that the Self, which created everything and everyone, is everywhere, in everything. Knowing this Self is the highest knowledge, the sage Angiris explains to householder Shaunaka. Knowledge is separated into higher and lower groups – knowledge of the “Vedas, linguistics, rituals, astronomy, and all the arts” is considered lower than knowledge of the Self (pp. 185-186). Angiris goes on to say that practicing meditation and control of the senses and passions, as opposed to performing sacrifices and rituals with hope for profit, is the only true path to cross the “sea of samsara,” or to attain Self-realization:
But those who are pure in heart, who practice
Meditation and conquer their senses
And passions, shall attain the immortal Self,
Source of all light and source of all life. (pp. 187-188)
He also maintains that a seeker must find a teacher “who has realized the Self,” and if the student’s “heart is full of love,” and he “has conquered his senses and passions, The teacher will reveal the Lord of Love” (p. 188). Finding this “Lord of Love,” hidden in “the cavern of the heart,” Angiris says, is the “goal of life” (p. 190). This goal is achievable through meditation and discipline. Angiris explains that the wise serve others, recognizing the Lord of Love in all creatures. As it is the goal of life to know the Self, Angiris repeats why the wise follow this path: “The Self reveals Himself as the Lord of Love to the one Who practices right disciplines” (p. 194).
The Mundaka Upanishad also mentions the concept of truth. Truth is synonymous with the Self, because the Self contains all: “He alone is; in truth, he alone is” (p. 192). This is why realizing the Self is so important: “Truth is victorious, never untruth. Truth is the way; truth is the goal of life” (p. 193). With practice, one can find the Self through truth:
By truth, meditation, and self-control
One can enter into this state of joy
And see the Self shining in a pure heart. (p. 192)
Seeking truth, one can come to peace and find an end to restlessness and questioning: “What the sages sought they have found at last. No more questions have they to ask of life. With self-will extinguished, they are at peace. Seeing the Lord of Love in all around, Serving the Lord of Love in all around, They are united with him forever” (p. 195).
The Prashna Upanishad speaks in depth about prana, which can be roughly translated as consciousness. In his introduction to this Upanishad, Easwaran describes prana as the “energy which fuels evolution, powers the vital processes in all forms of life, and ultimately becomes thoughts and desires in the mind, where it becomes most readily accessible for us to conserve or redirect” (p. 222). In the Prashna Upanishad, six seekers ask spiritual questions of sage Pippalada, which he answers after they’ve spent a year with him “Practicing sense-restraint and complete trust” (p. 225).
The questions evolve from “who created the universe?” (p. 225), to more specific questions regarding how our bodies work, the nature of prana, human sleep and different levels of consciousness, and the meaning of AUM and what happens to someone “established in AUM” (p. 235) at the time of death. In answering the questions, Pippalada demonstrates prana’s superiority and all-encompassing qualities. It is a vehicle through which we can access the Self. As in other Upanishads, the Prashna Upanishad stresses the importance of self-restraint, meditation, and being taught by a sage in order to realize the Self.
Pippalada explains that “the Lord meditated and brought forth prana With rayi” (p. 225) as male and female, so they “would bring forth numerous creatures for him” (p. 226). He goes on to describe prana as the sun and rayi as the moon, and talks about the ways in which they make life possible. He points out various ways in which we can perceive the Lord and says that only the pure, who have meditated, practiced self-control, and lived in truth will enter into “the bright world of Brahman” (p. 228).
In response to the question, “what powers support this body?,” Pippalada explains that prana is above all other powers (space, air, fire, water, earth, speech, mind, vision, and hearing) in holding the body together. The other powers do not at first believe in prana’s superiority until prana leaves the body and the other powers know they need to leave as well – like bees following the queen. Pippalada goes on to extol prana and explain that it contains everything, is the source of all light, and is that which “gives us the breath of life” (p. 229).
Pippalada, like other sages in the Upanishads, stresses the importance of meditation in finding the Self. He explains that when the sound AUM “Goes on reverberating in the mind, One is freed from fear, awake or asleep” (p. 235). He discusses the sixteen forms of the Self (the Self as a whole, prana, desire, space, air, fire, water, the earth, the senses, the mind, food, strength, austerity, scriptures, sacrifice, and all the worlds). He says that when one realizes the Self, all sixteen forms disappear; “Then there is no more name and form for us, And we attain immortality” (p. 237). This is the goal of life – by controlling the senses, meditating, and seeking spiritual guidance from a learned sage, one may attain Self-realization. When we are immersed in the Self, are one with the Self, there is complete peace; there are no more questions.
All Upanishads contain variances of the same theme – uniting with the Self through control of the senses, meditation, and the help of a spiritual teacher. As Easwaran quotes in his Introduction to this translation of the Upanishads, “There is no joy in the finite; there is only joy in the Infinite” (p. 16). Easwaran discovered the Upanishads when he had reached a point in his life when all of the things he enjoyed ceased to satisfy him. He found, to his surprise, that these 4,000-year-old texts were as relevant today as ever. Spiritual seekers of all ages may delve into the Upanishads for guidance and support in attaining Self-realization.
Yoga is an incredible tool for transformation. Our bodies and minds hold so much stress and tension. We can consciously ease tension through asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breath work). Meditation allows us to relax, contemplate, and rejuvenate. Mantra (syllable, word, or phrase) repetition centers us and can create a shift in consciousness. Utilize any of these yogic tools once and we feel a difference. Practice them daily and we transform! As part of yoga teacher training, we completed a 30-day sadhana of our choice. It was an amazing experience. It taught me that even if I am feeling hopeless, lost, or weak, yoga transforms! A 30-day sadhana utilizes sacred practices to generate vibrant health. I am honored to share this practice with you – it is simple and incredibly effective!
“Sadhana” translates loosely as “practice.” We were given six choices of sadhana: hatha, creative, bhakti, health-regenerating, vira, and shanti. Each sadhana was designed to allow us to embody a certain “bhava” or feeling state (e.g., peaceful-shanti, energized-vira, loving/devotional-bhakti, etc.). The idea of sadhana is to transform through living yoga. By “living yoga,” I mean making certain practices a part of each of the 30 days. These practices included specific asana, pranayama, meditations, mantras, mudras (hand positions that create various energetic states), and an altar. We also chose appropriate related texts/artwork to study and contemplate. I won’t go into details about each type of sadhana, but I’ll use the bhakti sadhana as an example.
Recently, I was feeling a little shut-down/stifled in the heart area – physically and emotionally. Autumn is a tough time for me – adjusting to the colder weather often results in illness, exhaustion, and depression. I thought a heart-centered bhakti sadhana would pull me out of my funk. After the very first heart lotus meditation, I felt a shift.
First, I created a simple altar to reflect the intention of my sadhana. The altar is near my daily meditation spot in my home. Set atop a dresser is a small collection of objects that reflect my “ishta devata” – connection to the divine – and the feelings I am trying to cultivate through sadhana. The altar gives the practice a spiritual dimension – it creates a sacred space and reminds me of what’s truly important. For example, I have a small shell and a big amethyst I found at the beach on my altar (since the ocean is my main ishta devata). You can even create a small portable altar – it can be something as simple as a photograph of a teacher, a stone, a shell, or any small object that brings peace and devotion to mind.
Next, I chose a few meditations to practice throughout the 30 days. They are all heart-centered, focusing on that physical and energetic space. I have been practicing either the heart lotus meditation, the inner smile meditation, or the so hum meditation for 20 minutes first thing in the morning and again after work.
I’ve been either listening to or chanting the gayatri mantra for about 10 minutes (during my commute or silently during my lunch break walk). Chanting “om” either silently or aloud from the heart (actually picturing/feeling that it is emanating from this area) has also kept my focus on that compassionate space. A Sanskrit mantra isn’t necessary for this practice – choose anything that resonates with you – even one word, “Love,” “Compassion,” or “Peace,” for example, works well.
My asana practice has been focused on heart-opening, so backbends are important. I’ve been doing Shiva Rea’s “Hridaya Namaskar” three times on each side, either alone or at the beginning of a longer practice. It begins in a simple standing backbend with hands at the sacrum. Then you fold forward massaging the backs of the legs on the way down. You move slowly to a standing split, and then through several low lunges. Backbends and gentle twisting and stretching of the sides of the body in these lunges makes them heart-focused. Full prostration adds a devotional aspect. The sequence continues with upward dog and downward dog, back through more low lunges, and ends up where it began – with a gentle standing backbend. I’ve been focusing on poses like Dolphin and Wheel as my peak poses. (Peak poses are typically more challenging and require some warming up first.) Here are some great poses to practice during a bhakti sadhana. Work with what resonates with you!
In conjunction with asana and meditation practice, I’ve been doing nadhi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and just bringing awareness to my breath throughout the day. During nadi shodhana and meditation, I either have one or both hands on my heart, in chin mudra: or heart lotus mudra: , but mainly I’ve been keeping my hands on my knees, palms up for receptivity.
Aside from specific yogic practices, I have been doing other things to keep myself heart-centered. If I feel negative thoughts arise I consciously change them, and I am doing things that I love – things that open my heart and allow me to live from there instead of in my head! Painting, dancing, playing music, being in nature, cooking for myself and my loved ones … these are all things I enjoy and can easily make a part of my daily life.
Through practice, we begin to let go and really get to know ourselves. We become stronger and more flexible – both physically and mentally. We begin to notice a greater connectivity with other people and with nature. We surrender to a greater power, and we recognize that same divinity within ourselves and others. Yoga helps us navigate life. Never have I practiced yoga and not felt better after. We make better choices; we know when and how to react to stressful situations… Even just committing to a few minutes of daily meditation can make a world of difference in how you perceive and react to events in your life.
I encourage you to try your own sadhana, for 30 days or any period of time! Feel free to ask me for details regarding any of the other types of sadhana I mentioned, or create your own. I would love to hear about your experience. May you live from the heart and enjoy each breath!
My teacher, Shiva Rea, taught me this beautiful meditation. It’s a great way of getting in touch with your true essence. Focusing on your heart and the energy that emanates from that region allows us to feel and give love freely! It allows creativity to flow. It turns off the negative self-talk that most of us are occasionally victims of and nurtures compassion for ourselves and all other beings. Try this meditation when you are feeling constricted in any way. Does your heart feel closed off, your chest caved in, your shoulders hunched? Do you feel overstimulated by the constant stream of information bombarding you? We all feel this way sometimes and this meditation is an easy way to reverse that! When you are in tune with the energy of your heart, you live life from a more authentic place and others will benefit just by being near you.
First, find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted. You may want to set a timer for 10 or 20 minutes so you can settle into meditation without wondering about the time. Get into a comfortable position, either sitting cross-legged on a cushion or blanket, or in a chair with both feet flat on the floor. You can also meditate lying down if necessary. Let your spine rise effortlessly from the pelvic floor up to the crown of your head, imagining your vertebrae stacked one on top of the other. Allow your shoulders relax down the back. Close your eyes.
Take a long, deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth — the inhale and exhale are about equal duration, smooth and slow. Let go of all tension, all thought. Just focus on the breath. Inhale deeply again through the nose and then exhale out the mouth. One more time, inhale deeply through the nose until you can’t breathe any further and still try to take in a little more breath. Let it all go in a sigh through the mouth. Now you are ready to begin.
Inhaling through the nose, focus your attention on the pelvic area and as the breath enters your body follow it up the spine to your heart area. Exhaling through the nose, focus on your heart region and notice any feelings in that area. Does it feel warm? Tingly? Expansive? What emotions come up? Let the sensations fill your body and mind. Continue this for several breaths until you feel immersed in the heart energy.
Next, focus your concentration on the heart, both physical and energetic. Imagine a stream of consciousness flowing from the backs of your eyes down to your heart. Feel the heart energy. Now, if you can, imagine the heart as a lotus flower. As you inhale, imagine the lotus flower blossoming, its beautiful petals opening up with the breath. On the exhale, imagine the lotus flower closing as you dwell inside its protective space. Continue with this visualization for several minutes until you feel complete (or your timer goes off!). If visualizing the lotus flower is difficult, try envisioning a flame at the center of your chest. Just keep your focus on the flame, glowing more brightly with each inhale.
Close your meditation by bringing your hands to heart center in Anjali mudra (prayer pose). Feel gratitude and awareness that you can be an agent of positive energy in this world! Live from the heart more often than the brain and you might find things come easier and life flows more smoothly. I hope you enjoy it!
Maintaining a daily yoga practice is an excellent way of optimizing your whole health: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. It allows you to live life more fully and enjoy it more. Going to yoga classes on a regular basis is a wonderful way to learn and practice with the support of a teacher and a like-minded community. Teachers can guide you in yogic breathing techniques and meditation; they can demonstrate yoga poses and modifications and assist you in alignment. Being surrounded by others on a similar path is motivating. However, YOU are the only one who can create your own daily home practice.
Consistent home practice takes diligence. Give yourself time to do some yoga every day, no matter what is going on. Whether for five minutes or two hours, just do it! It helps to be consistent with timing (choosing to do your yoga before or after work, for example). And it helps to not be so rigid (if you only have five minutes, that’s OK! If you only have the energy to sit and consciously breathe for a few minutes, that’s great!). By becoming acutely aware of your moods, patterns, and needs you begin to intuitively shape your yoga practice around them. The inward-focused attention of your yoga practice will increase your self-awareness.
Every day, get on your mat, stand in Tadasana or sit in Easy Pose and begin to notice your breath. Let the breath fill your entire body. Close your eyes. Feel your belly rising and falling with the in and out breaths. Scan your body for any areas of tension. Release the tension. Imagine the breath clearing space between your ribs, dissolving any tension. Notice any emotions or thoughts that arise. Are you feeling energized? Sun salutations and some standing poses may be where you start. Are you feeling tired or run down? A more restorative set of poses and a rejuvenating meditation may be best. If you need guidance, try a DVD or online class. Read yoga books. In time, though, you will have acquired enough information to truly focus inward and guide your own practice.
In yoga, your task is to focus on what you are doing while you are doing it – to be in the present – and by doing so you begin to cultivate an awareness of your current state, and thus an ability to determine what you need in your practice. This ability then spreads out into your everyday life – you notice patterns and habits. You begin to more clearly see the ways you typically deal with particular situations, and sometimes notice that these behaviors aren’t serving you. By observing them you can make changes that help you progress into a more balanced, calm, and clearly-thinking and acting person.
Maintaining a daily yoga practice is not as daunting as it may sound. Yoga is much more than the asanas (postures) that we see in yoga classes and in magazines. Yoga also involves cultivating morality and practicing personal observances. It involves consciously controlling the senses, practicing breathing exercises, developing concentration, and meditating. One can approach yoga from various paths. Most westerners are introduced to yoga through asana practice, and often become interested in the other limbs of yoga when they start realizing its benefits. Yoga can be practiced by anyone, of any size or shape, at any age, at any time. Some days you may need a vigorous asana practice to enliven your senses and give you energy. Other days you may need a gentler asana practice to pacify your mind or heal after injury or sickness. Some days, a simple meditation may do. You may commit to repeating a mantra for a period of time to cultivate a particular bhava (feeling) or to progress toward a specific goal.
Yoga classes are important and beneficial, but when you are serious about undertaking a yoga practice, you are making a commitment to yourself to become the best person you can be. No yoga teacher can do this for you. They can support you along the way, but you and only you know yourself well enough to create an appropriate daily practice. You can create your own personal yoga practice by becoming aware of your moods, patterns, and needs, which are constantly changing.
Yoga will help you navigate the ever-changing waves of life with intention and grace.
This blog exists to serve others, as a repository of information on yogic living, and a support system on your path to radiant health. Please let me know if you have any feedback, or if you’d like me to explore a particular topic. Thanks so much for reading!
I was always one to shy away from chanting. It seemed weird to me and honestly, I didn’t really understand it. Saying “om” at the beginning and end of a yoga class was pretty much the extent of my comfort zone. And I had to admit, I liked how it felt. The sound vibrated throughout my body, waking up all my cells. I felt very present, totally in the moment, not thinking, just being aware. I felt connected with the other people in the class. I felt my chest and throat open up. There was something slightly magical about it, and when it was done in a group its power increased. Still, I felt awkward when asked to chant more prolonged mantras or verses in the rare yoga classes that included that practice. I didn’t understand or remember Sanskrit, and it just felt odd and artificial. My aversion toward chanting, I see now, was simply fear of the unknown or misunderstood.
In yoga teacher training I was exposed to much more chanting, and I realized its potential for transformation. I now use it as a tool to bring my awareness into the present moment, to bring all the cells of my body into resonance, to relax or energize, and to maintain happiness and stability. Here’s an easy chant that you can practice any time. I find during my commute to and from work is a great time to fit it in. Try it and see what changes you notice!
The most simple version, take a deep breath before each sound and chant the entire thing three times in a nice, clear voice, at whatever pitch/tone comes naturally – really let the sound resonate throughout your body:
Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngggggggggggggggggggggg (a buzzing sound like a bee)
Add awareness of the following areas of your body once you’re comfortable with the chant. This is where the sound vibrates naturally:
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh (perineum, base of your spine, Muladhara/root chakra)
Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee (sacrum, reproductive organ area, Svadhisthana/sacral chakra)
Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo (solar plexus/naval area, Manipura chakra)
Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii (heart area, Anahata chakra)
Auuuuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmmmmmm (om) (throat area and then rising up to your third eye, between the eyebrows – Vishudda & Ajna chakras)
Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngggggggggggggggggggggg (a buzzing sound like a bee) (crown of your head – Sahaswara chakra)
I just learned that a beloved yoga instructor in my area took her own life ten days ago. I never met her, but I first heard the news via email from my yoga studio, and I wondered what had happened. I feared that suicide may have been the cause of her passing. Young, beautiful, and described as a “bright light,” she exuded warmth in her photographs. She was passionate about yoga, cooking, and art, and she had a daughter. I am sure many of her students are struggling to understand how someone who appeared so outwardly “together,” someone they looked to for physical, emotional, and spiritual guidance could be so deeply in pain. As she shone her cheerful light on others, teaching them the art of self-care, she was apparently suffering immensely. Why did she feel she couldn’t get the support she needed? Did she not share her feelings with someone who could have helped? Would it have mattered? She was loved by so many. Someone, it seems, could have shown her the light of her own being. All I know is I have been hearing more and more stories about friends of friends killing themselves. Something has to change. Why are we so unable to ask for help when life is just too hard? Why are the loved ones of suicide victims so often unaware of their suffering? How many of us are silently struggling just to make it through the day? How would knowing that about each other change things?
Suicide, to me, has always been baffling. At the same time, though, I’ve flirted with the idea myself. I wouldn’t ever do it, not only because that would hurt and confuse many people, but also because I believe life is a profound gift and taking that gift for granted only causes more grief and pain. I hope that my spirituality has evolved to a point where I would never seriously consider it. I hope that I always, when I am feeling down, remember to use the tools I have amassed over the years to cope – or if that seems too difficult that I have the strength to ask for help. But I am sharing this because I’ve had these feelings on occasion and I wonder how many of us have? How many of us are silently struggling with depression, anxiety, and other difficult states of mind when we could be reaching out to each other for support? Even typing this out now takes off a little of the weight on my own heart that I’ve been working to conquer. How would allowing our true feelings to be known help heal us? What happens to a person who, unlike me, has these feelings but does not have the tools to cope? What happens when a person is not surrounded by a loving, supportive community, friends, and family when even those who are sometimes fail to see their own lives’ worth?
Those in the healing arts, such as a yoga teacher, feel responsible for others’ wellbeing. Letting people in on the fact that we, too, are “only human” and sometimes struggle with these difficulties can be hard. Might that knowledge make them feel we are not capable of guiding them along their spiritual path? No matter what you do for a living, whether you are trying to help others achieve and maintain wellness or not, making one’s own wellness a priority is paramount: and it always seems to mean admitting difficult truths and being OK with the fact that we are perfectly imperfect.
I have felt so low, so in the dark, so alone, so many times. I’ve struggled to cope with the pain of anxiety and depression for about as long as I can remember. It’s not constant, it’s more of an occasional thing, but it can last days or weeks on end. Over time and through lots of self-care (including yoga, diet, meditation, social connections, and doing the things I love), the occurrence has drastically diminished. And most people who know me, I believe, would never imagine this side of me existed. Always cheerful and smiling to the world, I rarely let my emotional difficulties be known. We have been taught in this society to be ashamed for various reasons. We are told either outright or through innuendo that we are not good enough. We are too fat, too thin, too ugly, not achieving enough, not smart enough, even too nice… We are taught that mental illness or feelings of depression and anxiety are signs of weakness. And so we often hide it, which accomplishes nothing but deepening this problem that can tear us apart from the inside out. I challenge you to be yourself, raw: to be open and honest and make your struggles known. Be compassionate with yourself and know that these struggles are absolutely not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of humanness. And they can and will get better, with compassion and sustained effort!
I hope that my admission to you has not diminished your respect for me as an aspiring teacher. I hope that it shows you I, too, and human and have studied and practiced for years at improving my life – especially my inner life. I hope it shows you that I have attained the peace I was searching for (for the most part!), and that it can be done with consistent effort, devotion, and surrender. I hope that I have inspired you to admit something to someone – even yourself – that you would prefer to hide. Bring it out of the darkness into the light and let it be transformed! Let’s love ourselves and each other unconditionally, even when it’s not so pretty. Love and light will always prevail. Let’s let something good come out of the horrible tragedy of suicide. It is our responsibility.
Most of us could use more self-love. Why is it so hard to think positively about oneself? Why do we constantly criticize, judge, and denigrate ourselves? If you watch your thoughts and the things you say closely, you may see this behavior, if you aren’t already aware of it. Some of us tend to think we don’t look good enough, aren’t smart enough, aren’t successful enough, aren’t worthy of love or happiness, and the list goes on and on. We compare ourselves to others and wonder why we can’t be more like them. Sometimes we pity ourselves, and sometimes we blame ourselves, but not loving ourselves is a trend we must reverse! Practicing yoga regularly helps.
With more and more mass shootings, suicides, eating disorders, substance abuse, and insidious negative talk, we should think about the root of these problems and learn how to fix them starting with ourselves. They are all caused by pain, fear, and lack of self-love. Unfortunately, these things are nurtured by unrealistic societal expectations. These expectations, and feeling a need to meet them, seem almost impossible to escape. Young people are especially susceptible, and once the trend is set, it can be difficult to reverse. As more people become conscious, however, together we can make a difference.
There is endless pressure to be perfect – to fit some ridiculous idea of what is good. Having more and more material things is looked upon as success. People walk all over others trying to “achieve.” When we are not achieving this “success,” we become despondent and compare ourselves to others, envying their supposed perfect lives. The media is constantly judging people’s bodies and telling us what looks good or not. At the same time, we are encouraged to eat huge portions of unhealthy foods, and many people think drinking alcohol is the only way to have fun or de-stress. There is an obesity epidemic in the US. Many people struggle with eating disorders and substance abuse. We spend so much time worrying about what others think, feeling sorry for ourselves, or blaming ourselves for not being perfect. This time wasted on counterproductive musings could be used in positive ways to help others or even just enjoy life – imagine that! Just enjoying life, doing the things we love, we are showing ourselves love and raising our collective vibration. This has a ripple effect – others feel it, too!
How can we begin to learn to love ourselves? To truly love ourselves means to be OK with where we are now – not who we were when we were younger, thinner, or prettier – not who we could be – but right NOW! This can start with positive self-talk, even if it is forced (“I am beautiful”; “I am intelligent”; “I am creative” – write a list and refer back to it daily!). Focus on the positive – the things you do like about yourself. Make a list of the things you enjoy doing, and do them! Try to have fun every day – even if just for a few minutes! Sing in the shower, play a sport, take a hike. Focus on others. What can you do to help someone else? Even if it’s just a smile at a stranger or a sincere compliment to your coworker or friend, that other person will appreciate it and you will feel good about yourself. Be grateful. Take a few minutes every day, at least once, to remember all of the blessings in your life. Really let that feeling of gratitude resonate inside of you before moving on. This can be done at any time, but setting an intention (like developing gratitude, compassion, etc.) before a yoga practice or meditation is a great way to develop self-love and the qualities of mind that lead to it.
Practicing yoga is a great way of developing self-love. Many people, myself included, start a yoga practice for the physical benefits. They are many and they have a domino effect (for example, when you get more in touch with your body, you tend to eat healthier foods and stop habits such as drinking a lot of alcohol or smoking). Despite this initial focus on the physical, the mental and emotional benefits become obvious over time. Consistently practicing yoga allows you to become more focused, think more about your reactions to situations, and feel calmer. It allows you to become more at peace with who you are, now and always, and this self-love emanates from you positively affecting all areas of your life. The more people who practice yoga, the better this world will be. In this small way, we can try to heal the problems that begin with a lack of self-love.
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda
A Brief Summary
Paramhansa Yogananda, widely credited with bringing yoga to the west, tells the story of his remarkable lifelong spiritual journey in Autobiography of a Yogi. From a very young age, Yogananda, born Mukunda Lal Ghosh, was clearly more spiritually natured than most. He grew up one of eight children to his mother, a “queen of hearts,” and his father, a strict disciplinarian who held a high position in the Bengal-Nagpur railway. His parents were disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya, guru of Yogananda’s own guru, and they enjoyed a calm and loving marriage. Aside from young Mukunda’s strong spiritual yearnings, he and his siblings appeared to have a typical lifestyle.
When he was 11 years old, Yogananda’s mother appeared before him in a vision that foretold her death. He would continue to have similar premonitory visions throughout his life. Soon after his mother’s death, Yogananda began feeling drawn toward the Himalayas and planned a pilgrimage. He was stopped by his older brother, Ananta, but Yogananda did not stop seeking his spiritual teacher, who he finally found at the age of 17.
Though he first distrusted his instincts, Yogananda knew immediately who Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri was when he saw him in a Benares market. He had seen him in visions and his appearance had been announced that morning by a “divine womanly voice.” During those first few moments of meeting, the two promised each other unconditional love. Soon after, Yogananda gave responsibility for his life over to his guru though he didn’t like all of his master’s suggestions or his “cold” manner at times. Sri Yukteswar was firm but loving, and he had an intense impact on Yogananda.
The guru-disciple relationship, which according to Yogananda began lifetimes ago, is a key aspect of the book. Yogananda’s devotion to Sri Yukteswar only grows stronger with time. At times he stays at Sri Yukteswar’s ashram, delighted to hear stories of Sri Yukteswar’s life. Sri Yukteswar initiates him into Kriya yoga, something he had experienced twice before but which he only feels the transformative power of when under his master’s auspices. During his time at Sri Yukteswar’s ashram (which was near the Serampore College Yogananda attended), he sometimes struggles to perform the mundane tasks that are required. He’d prefer to be meditating. Sri Yukteswar teaches him the importance of serving one’s worldly purposes. At other times, the two live continents apart. Even when they are living far apart, however, Yogananda claims his master appeared before him in a vision. He also appeared, in flesh and blood, from beyond the grave. This type of otherworldly experience pervades the book until it just appears a typical fact of life for Yogananda.
Yogananda received his Bachelor’s degree from the Serampore College in Calcutta in 1915, though he made no attempt to say he was a good student – he grudgingly did the minimum to get by in school, as he was only interested in the spiritual path. In 1917, Yogananda founded a school for boys in Dihika, West Bengal, where yoga was taught along with the typical curriculum. In 1920, Yogananda went to the United States where his talks about religion and yoga were enthusiastically received. He founded the Self-Realization Fellowship and lectured widely. In 1925, he established the Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters in Los Angeles, California. He met with various eminent spiritual figures and other notable people, including Therese Neumann, Sri Anandamayi Ma, Mohandas Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Sir C. V. Raman, and Luther Burbank.
Though Yogananda was Hindu, he respected and seems to have resonated with all religions. He often shared the teachings of Jesus Christ and quoted various other religious figures. His ability to transcend religion attracted numerous devotees and earned him respect among the masses. To this day, Autobiography of a Yogi is widely lauded as one of the most important spiritual texts of our time.