yogic new year 2016 (1)

“Yesterday I was clever and wanted to change the world. Today I am wise and decided to change myself. ” – Jalal ud-in Rumi (Sufi Mystic)

Change means to act differently – to adapt, make amends or make things different from the way they were. The act of change begins with an intention. The intention then, persuades many of us to set new year resolutions, a common tradition, to initiate the change. Take a moment to ponder over your typical new year resolutions. How do they make you feel – excited and hopeful at first, anxious or fearful, restless or incomplete later?

For example, do you feel guilty or defeated if you skipped a few days at the gym or for having that slice of carrot cake at your best friend’s birthday – mostly for not sticking to your resolution?  The word resolution, invokes a narrow viewpoint or a serious connotation; meaning – if broken or not followed through, the consequences can be hurtful. We feel compelled to expect certain outcomes without any room to make mistakes, hence – the disappointment.

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When the new year rolls around, exercise and diet resolutions still seem to be most popular. Trying out a yoga class at your gym or neighborhood studio may be on your list this year. In that case, reflect on how you would like to feel during the coming year. Can you do things differently that will make this year’s resolution more joyful and rewarding?

For years, new year resolutions left me feeling guilty and annoyed; blaming the resolution itself, not my effort, if expectations weren’t met. Then, making a conscious effort to reject this self-loathing, and I attended a special New Year’s Eve yoga class at the YogaLife Institute. Listening to Bob, my teacher, talk about transforming resolutions into intentions was enlightening. This was my first attempt (before teacher training) towards making real lifestyle changes using the tools of Raja Yoga.

The yogic word for intention is sankalpa. A Samskritham (sanskrit) word, sankalpa means “a purpose, or determination, or simply – an intention.” To set an intention is to give birth to a sankalpa. A sankalpa is not set at the surface; it coaxes one to explore not just the goal, but also the exact thought or feeling behind which the intention was created.

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I realized that sankalpa as an intention had much more to offer than a resolution. It provided a mindful way to change myself, to be forgiving and, to be accommodating when life happens. With this new attitude, bhava of sankalpa, the hostility that came from dwelling on past transgressions began to dissolve. It encouraged me to look back at my many lapses and let go, even if it took numerous tries. In its place, an exercise in effort, Tapas and surrender, Ishvara Pranidhana, —was born to create an achievable intention. These tools of Raja Yoga helped me to open my heart to new possibilities, by rooting in yoga and expanding it to my whole life. Studying and practicing at YogaLife Institute for 10 years, I have come to accept yoga as a lifestyle and not dismiss it as an ordinary exercise.

There are two separate ideas in sankalpa; – one, the setting of the intention as a goal; two, the thought behind that goal. Let’s look at the first one in this discussion and the second one on the next post.

If you are wondering how to set an intention, it can be an exercise in itself. Sara Ivanhoe suggests the following exercise to help create an intention. Be relaxed, calm and positive; then begin.

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  • Take the time to create a simple statement of intention in the present tense, almost like an affirmation, for your sankalpa. For example, instead of “May life bring me happiness this year” consider “May I be happy and open to receive from life.” Rephrase and re-write as many times as you need until you feel it is just right for you.
  • Once you are clear on your statement, use your breath to bring that intention into your body.
  • Take a deep breath and imagine the intention filling out your physical body, allowing your body to understand who you are now. Hold the breath for 15-30 seconds and release. (10-15 seconds is fine as well)
  • Release, and take a few regular breaths to regain your equilibrium.
  • Next, take another deep breath in and hold. This is for your mind. Picture the intention clearing out your brain and setting a new pattern.
  • Lastly, inhale and hold. Direct your intention to the deepest part of yourself, your soul. Focus and repeat the intention and finally, release your breath.
  • Close your eyes and notice how this practice makes you feel.
  • Here are some examples of intentions.

The practice of constant inquiry through Raja Yoga helped to re-frame my intentions. Over the years, they have matured to be more inclusive of uplifting thoughts than to reject negative ones. And, instead of dropping previous year’s intention to make room for a new one, at times I’ve kept both, hoping the old one becomes a part of my lifestyle while I worked on the new one. Many failed intentions (list is long) and a few wonderful successes make up my story. I would like to share this one.

In the midst of learning new asanas, poses, and teacher training, I discovered that yoga practice was incomplete without pranayama (breathing practices) and dhyana (meditation). A sankalpa to make them a part of my daily practice was born. Demanding, laborious, exhausting are a few choice words that come to mind to describe what it took to implement this sankalpa. Of course, I had to keep reminding myself of ahimsa, non-harming every step of the way. Then, “sitting for meditation” following prananyama meant that I was going to be seated for a longer time. Hence, an addendum – to honor my body with yoga props to tolerate longer sitting times. I had to reframe, rephrase and repeat this all inclusive-intention, every year for 4 (long) years until it became a habit and a part of my yoga lifestyle. In the process, I began to cultivate patience and perseverance – an unexpected but joyful bonus. Little did I know that I needed both of them in the very near future. Although I had many breaks in this practice, every obstacle was reflective and every step in the right direction was worth the effort.

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As I proudly reveled in the success of this difficult, all-inclusive sankalpa, my husband, Anil, lost his job. After a few stressful months, – a new job was found – in a new state, which meant packing up and moving. I had sown my seeds of yoga, the roots were just getting fertilized and buds of yogic lifestyle were beginning to appear when I had to uproot and re-plant in a new state. I had to begin again. Sage Pathanjali in the yogic text, Yoga Sutra, states the first line as “Atha Yoganushasanum,” – “Now begins the instruction/practice of yoga.” Now, I begin again, digging, sowing new seeds – using the ever-faithful tools of Raja Yoga.

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And so the journey continues. It has been 5 years since the re-planting. Still fertilizing and hoping spring will come soon; I couldn’t have done it without sankalpa and the tools of Raja Yoga.

New year intentions don’t have overnight successes. So, when you stray from your sankalpa, don’t criticize yourself. Gentle reminders help; and try incorporating your sankalpa into your daily routine. Make it visible – post it on your computer, near the phone, or on your dresser mirror; simply say it to yourself quietly when you wake up and before going to sleep, and as many times as you want during the day. Better yet, persuade a friend to collaborate with you, which makes implementing your ‘new’ intention (or a recycled one) a joyful one.

Paramahamsa Yogananda calls the yogic union of Samadhi, as “Ever-New Bliss.” So, resolve to keep the ‘new’ active throughout the year. Step on the mat like you did the very first time. Recall the first time you practiced Surya Namaskar, sun salutations. Do you remember your excitement to perform your first vinyasa, sequence of asanas? Recollect the first time you were introduced to your breath. Recall the feeling of practicing Ahimsa, non-harming in speech for the first time. And, each time you repeat these actions, embrace it as a “new” yogic feeling – of doing it blissfully – for the very first time.

Ultimately, being ready for the New Year is getting ready to embrace life—seeing the same people in a ‘new’ way, doing your chores with ‘new’ zeal, working with your old boss or long time colleagues with a ‘new’ attitude, practicing asana, poses with ‘new’ zest – essentially, preparing ourselves for whatever happens next with an open heart, – is the essence, bhava of sankalpa, your intention.

Happy Holidays from our family to yours!

*****

Ruiz, Miguel Don. 1997. The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book. Amber-Allen Publishing

yoga props

“To use or Not to use”- that is the question.

To answer the question, let’s take a peek into the world of yoga props.

Many of us (me too at first) think that using props means that we cannot do a pose or we are somehow cheating. This is an obstacle the ego puts before us.  In class, we notice a few students not using the props. If they can do it without a prop, we can too, is our motto. Or seeing others using a block or a strap incorrectly, we decide that we are not going to be caught dead using these props.

A yoga prop is simply an object that is used to assist in the practice of yoga poses. The props make the practice accessible to everyone as there is no one-size-fits-all type of practice. People from the ages 8 to 80 should be able to practice yoga-asana as long as the poses are assisted and modified, to reduce the risk of injury.

Age of electronics has led to a sedentary lifestyle. Both children and adults seem unable to touch their toes or sit with their backs erect. Utilizing props helps them to understand that flexibility is needed to succeed in sports and that posture is important. Many seniors make good use of the props which allows them to do their activities of daily living with strength and flexibility. Therefore, age aside, I believe finding your modifications is both positive and empowering. Most importantly, it will keep you injury free.

You may already be aware of a few props like the blocks, straps, blankets and bolsters. B.K.S. Iyengar founder of the style, Iyengar Yoga refined the use of props so everyone can receive the benefits of the postures regardless of physical condition, age, or length of study. Leann Carey gives us an idea of how to use these simple props.

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Depending on where you take a class; in a well equipped studio or at the YMCA/gyms, you may find all or a few essentials to add to your practice. However, as you get acquainted with each of these props, you can carry with you what you personally need to make your practice a fulfilling one.

There are few other props worth mentioning – towels, chairs, walls, sandbags and eye pillows. Aside from using a towel to wipe your perspiration in a vinyasa (poses in sequence or flow) class, a rolled-up towel can also be used for supporting the head or neck when lying on the mat. It can also be used under you feet in Vajrasana, thunderbolt pose.

chair can help with support and balance in standing poses or backbends, and if you are pregnant or a senior. A popular new style of yoga, called Chair Yoga is built around use of a chair.

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Walls provide a solid structure for balance and support during certain standing poses such as Virabhadrasana (warrior pose), Adho Mukha Shvanasana (downward-facing dog), Vrikshasana (tree pose) and Viparita Karani (legs up the wall). Using the wall can help you hold some poses longer and eventually allows you to balance without it.

Using a yoga sandbag (different weights) for its weight can help you achieve a deeper stretch. A sandbag on your lower back during Balasana, Child’s Pose is soothing or on top of your feet in Viparita Karani, Legs Up the Wall, can stabilize the legs.

Eye pillows are small sandbags that can be placed over your eyes during lying poses such as Shavasana, Corpse Pose. The little bit of extra weight helps to deepen the feeling of relaxation by keeping your eyes closed with ease.

A few Benefits of using props

  • To learn the skill involved in maintaining alignment
  • To take unwanted struggle out and cultivate a calming practice
  • To make a pose more accessible now, and also as we age
  • To help old injuries to heal and prevent new injuries 
  • To lengthen the spine and support the joints
  • To achieve a deeper release to stay longer in a pose comfortably
  • To promote balance by encouraging weak parts to strengthen and less flexible areas to lengthen
  • To increase stress where there is too little or none (adding sandbags)
  • To decrease stress (using blocks or blanket) if there is too much

The inner dialog of “I can do this pose without a prop”, can hinder your practice. The intention is not to ‘look’ a particular way in a pose; it is not to get into a pose with a competitiveness: the intention is to feel a certain way; to notice the release or stability. If a little extra support is needed to get the sensation in the ‘right’ area to give your body what it needs – please use them. Over time you can try other props or discontinue their use completely.

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Having these props may not mean you know their diverse benefits or how to use them correctly. Please make the time to ask your instructor, read other articles (Yoga Journaland watch a few you-tube videos to educate yourself on how to use yoga props effectively. I have only briefly summarized here what the experts have expressed eloquently on their websites.

Today, I am comfortable with my practice because of a few props. A blanket on a couple of blocks helps release my hips in Ardha Padmasana, half lotus so I can practice “sitting” for a longer time. On cold days, a spine-roll helps to support my stiff lower back. For a deeper back bend, I use a chair. Yesterday, to come into a bandha, a bind, in a seated twist, I used a strap.

However, it is essential to remember that each day the practice changes based on the health of your body. Training yourself to honor the body by practicing non-harming (Ahimsa) is the first and most important ethic (Yama – 1st Limb) in Raja Yoga .

Therefore, deciding to use or not to use props is a question of respecting your body. 

May you have a joyful, injury-free practice in your sacred space.

yoga mat – sacred space

“Yoga is about getting on the yoga mat and uncovering who you are.” Unknown

It’s true – the himalayan yogis did not use a Gaiam or Jade yoga mat. But tradition suggests that ancient yogis did use some sort of ‘mat’ woven from grass or animal skin (tiger, deer or sheep); essentially for cushioning on hard ground and a clean surface for asana practice. Today, I want to share with you that a yoga mat is much more than that.

Have you bought a yoga mat recently? Finding the best yoga mat can become as serious as an athlete trying to buy the right pair of shoes or a tennis racket. Flexible sole or a bigger grip, lightweight or heavy, wide toed or wide head; many individual needs. Buying a yoga mat is no different. Some things to look for – thickness and cushioning, stickiness and texture, type of material used, eco-friendliness, lightweight or heavy, size and style and the price.

free-shipping-Eco-friendly-6mm-font-b-yoga-b-font-font-b-mat-b-font-slipBut before you go shopping consider this. Have you practiced yoga-asana on grass, in the sand, or even on a blanket? If you have, you would know for instance, that standing postures require more strength than flexibility. Your effort to engage the right muscles is needed to prevent your hands and feet from sliding. Without this awareness you may be causing an imbalance in the strength and flexibility required for asana practice. Let’s compare asana practice on a sticky mat versus on these other surfaces.

For example, the front and the back leg in Trikonasana, Triangle pose on a sticky mat may stay steady even if you, the practitioner did not put in much effort. Hence, it is possible that the muscles that are needed to anchor and steady are not completely activated. On the other hand, try doing the same pose on a blanket or in the sand. Notice if your legs shake as you try not to slip. This means your muscles may be weak, but they are attempting to work as you are trying to stabilize your pose. Check yourself from your feet and work your way up. For starters, you may need to spread your toes and push down with your heel to anchor. Then, let the calf muscles engage to lift the ankle. Next, activate the hamstrings and thighs to lengthen and steady the legs (see the above link for detailed instructions). Essentially, as long as you are consciously aware of the muscles and how they work in standing poses, you are fine to use any mat. Then you won’t be compromising your strength in your yoga-asana practice. Another concern could be painful knees in Ushtrasana, Camel pose. Here, a thicker mat can help or place a blanket under the knees for added cushion comfort. Just a couple of things to keep in mind when you shop for a yoga mat.

All of us begin with the idea that a yoga mat is place to perform asana. It becomes especially important when practicing at a studio or with a group of people. It creates a partition between our spaces. No matter how crowded the yoga classes or workshops, we still have our own private yoga space. The yoga mat defines our space, a place to pause, to notice our breath. At that instant, we can decide what we are going to do and treasure every moment of our practice. Slowly, we may realize that our mat can be much more than just a sticky surface to do asana.

I admit to having a couple of yoga mats; received them as birthday gifts. One, permanently, takes up a corner in the trunk of the car. There are a couple of strays that have ended up in the classroom basket as well. But my daily practice is on this beautiful blue mat that I bought for $30 at YogaLife Institute  15 years ago. Initially, it was just a space that I used, to learn the “how-to” of yoga-asana. However, as I spent time on it, it began to feel more like a compassionate friend than just a yoga mat. It has provided me a safe place for solace and respite.  Slowly, it has become a revered space for reflection and surrender.

IMG_2014As my practice deepened I realized that a yoga mat can also serve the purpose of transforming any space into a “sacred” one. When traveling, having a yoga mat is clearly a saving grace. In a hotel room or at a home of a friend or a relative, I quickly clear the surrounding clutter and spread the mat creating an instant sacred space so I don’t have to miss my practice.

I am filled with gratitude each time I step on the mat. Because of how the practice on this space has transformed me, I have developed a sense of reverence toward my yoga mat. Hence, it is important for me to store it properly, keep it clean (yes – in the washing machine and hang dry on sunny days), prevent others from eating or stepping on it, especially with footwear in order to maintain its sacredness.

The yoga mat is my sacred space. It is a place I consider pure, holy and safe. I trust that within the sacred space my practice is protected. This space allows me to enter a quiet inner-world where transformation and healing occurs. Within the sacred space my burdens have become lighter for having been touched by the hand of the Spirit.

Now that you’ve bought your yoga mat with an intention to practice, let’s figure out how the practice can begin. Each time we practice on the yoga mat –  you, in your sacred space and I in mine;

  • Let’s make it a place to discover the intelligence of our physical body, and understand how to heal and honor it.
  • Let’s make it a place to understand our emotional body; i.e., our habitual patterns of behavior (why do we do the same thing repeatedly even if it doesn’t work in our daily life) and to practice letting go of negative ideas, perceptions, opinions, prejudices, resentment, judgment, greed, jealousy, etc., which do not feed the health of our body, mind and Spirit.
  • Let’s make it a place to discern our mental body – to create pure intentions, clarify our motives, resolve to be disciplined, and to practice forgiveness and compassion.
  • Let’s make it a place to connect with our spiritual body by making gratitude our fervent prayer, to ask for courage to introspect, to practice silence often in order to notice the presence of the Spirit.

And remember, when you and I gather in a class to perform our yoga practices, we are connecting with others of impeccable intent in their sacred spaces. Here, in partnership with the Spirit, we discover our true selves, a sense of freedom; what Eknath Easwaran refers to as original goodness. Here, many yogis declare, we prepare to meet the Divine.

Amidst the joy of practice and knowing that practicing yoga-asana on the mat is a way to prepare for the union, yoga, it would be absurd for me to judge the various yoga mats/spaces as being good or bad. Whether you buy a thicker mat or spread a blanket to cushion your knees, practice in the sand or on grass; just make it your sacred space. But don’t waste your time denouncing one and commending the other. What works for you may not work for another. Practicing with conflict creates more discord, and that is not the purpose of mat practice. Here, freedom means awareness to the options you have for your practice, and having the power to make the right choices to create your own sacred space. Only then, you will be able to surrender and enjoy the time you spend on your mat.

Now, having created your very own sacred space, may you have the best yoga practice each time you step on the mat. This is only the beginning. And whatever you discover or transform in your sacred space, may you remember to take it off the yoga mat and into your daily life. Then, watch closely, because the best is yet to come.

SUGGESTED READINGS

Bennet, Sage.2007. Wisdom Walk : Nine Practices for Creating Peace and Balance from World’s Spiritual Traditions. New World Library, CA

first things first

Faith is taking the first step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.” Martin Luther King Jr.

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There are many firsts in life; a first step, first bike-ride, first hike, first job. Yoga-asana practice, has many firsts as well – first yoga-mat, first yoga teacher, first yoga class, first yoga retreat, first yoga chant, first yoga text. Of course, if you didn’t have a ‘good first yoga’ impression, it is difficult to get a second chance to create a first impression. This becomes a hurdle to get to the next stage of practice. But once you cross this ‘first’ hurdle, and seriously commit, practice becomes surreal.

My first yoga experience is an amusing story. I did not frequent many studios or try different styles, although this is how many make their choice. There is some wisdom in doing this as long as one doesn’t fall prey to their likes and dislikes. That makes commitment to a style or studio challenging. I am grateful to have skipped this step.

Anyhow, at 6 months pregnant, I was introduced to Prenatal yoga by my husband’s cousin; my first exposure to yoga. She, at that time, had been taking classes at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India. She gave me a handbook specific for prenatal issues published by the institute. I read through the book and was diligent with the practices as they helped keep my back pain-free and my mind calm. Having had lower back issues for a few years and frustrated with not finding a remedy, this was a welcome relief.  I promised myself to continue ‘yoga’ after delivery as well.

But first, I had to find a yoga studio. Few had heard of Phoenixville, a little town in eastern Pennsylvania, where I delivered a beautiful baby girl and where we settled for 11 years. Six months after my daughter’s birth, I discovered YogaLife Institute, a small studio that had recently opened 3 miles away. The name sounded familiar, but I was focused on the short drive to my first class. The thought that the studio in Mumbai, India and this one in Phoenixville, PA were related, never crossed my mind.edificio-de-la-escuela_318-62517I remember being excited, ready for my first class, my first impression. There was a room in the back where the students were filing in, books shelves on the left with small plant, an incense plate, a small couch and a couple of chairs. Bob (my teacher) was at the desk on my right, speaking with a student. After a casual greeting he told me that the first class was free. I remember thinking that was good and that I did not have to worry about coming back if I didn’t like it. Obviously, that’s not what happened at all. I signed up for the next session on the spot and haven’t looked back since.

Here is what some might call a coincidence, while I feel that I was truly blessed. As I was signing up for the session, I was surprised to see a set of thin books on a corner table titled Yoga for Total Health, Rs.15, currency of India. Curious, I asked Bob about it, he said that he had done his training at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, where those books, a monthly journal were published. My mind overflowed with questions for him. Since I had just met him, I decided to hold off the inquisition. Anyways, it didn’t matter; the decision was already made. I paid for the sessions, thanked him and left.

My first impression; was it the day I was introduced to the prenatal practice or the day I took the class at the studio? I chose YogaLife Institute, without knowing that the prenatal practices that provided physical relief and emotional respite, came from its parent studio in Mumbai. But I also chose YogaLife because I was inspired by the introduction to the eight limbs of yoga in the first class. So began my first phase of Raja Yoga study with Bob, which continued for the next 10 years. I am blessed.

Eight-Fold or Eight-Limb yoga is referred to by many names.  In the text, Yoga Sutra, it is called Kriya YogaSelf-Realization Fellowship by Paramahamsa Yogananda uses the name Kriya Yoga, which involves other breathing protocols as well. Moreover, in Sanskrit, the term for eight limbs is ashtanga, (ashta – 8, anga –limb). But, Ashtanga Yoga that is popularized, is a set of asanas (primary & secondary series) taught by Sri Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. The term Raja Yoga, was propagated by Swami Vivekananda, as the eight-fold path that is complete within itself. Whatever the name, it is the wisdom within the eight limbs that matters the most. For those who put their effort, the Yoga Sutra gives clear instructions on how to enable the practice. I cannot begin to explain what the practice of these eight limbs has taught me.

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First and foremost, these eight limbs must be studied frequently. Each time I read through them, new insights emerge that support my practice. I have slowly and tediously applied them to my life, experiencing both failures and successes. Being in the YogaLife Institute setting initially, helped me as I was able to study it each time the topic came around in the teaching cycle. Experimenting with them in daily activities has brought them to life. Raja Yoga has certainly kept my yoga practice fresh and dependable. I am on this path for the long haul.

I can be the first to tell you that the eight-limbs of Raja Yoga is good for you. But you already knew that. I can be the first to also tell you that it takes hard work and commitment to persist in the practice. But, you know this too. Then, I can be the first one to tell you that there will be failures and successes, although the failures (opportunities to do better) may outnumber the successes. Of course, you know this as well.

But please, let me be the first to tell you that when and not if you begin on the path of Raja Yoga, you will be guided all the way. Moreover, Sage Pathanjali assures us that these practices will transform our personality from selfish to selfless, from uncaring to loving, and ultimately from human to divine. This is the privilege of yoga that we will receive. There is no doubt about that.

The first draft refuting this privilege is yet to be written.

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SUGGESTED READINGS

Rama, Swami. 1979. The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA

Vivekananda, Swami. 1920. Raja Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, NY, NY

Butera, Robert. 2009. The Pure Heart of Yoga: Ten Essential Steps for Personal Transformation. YogaLife Institute, Devon, PA