warm ups

The dictionary definition of warm up is the act of preparation for a game, performance, or workout, involving gentle, loosening exercises. To perform the best on the field, stage, tennis court or a yoga mat, warm ups are absolutely essential.

Many in the yoga world agree warm ups are important. But with the push of power yoga and vinyasa flow it is not truly given an honest attempt in the classroom. In the past year the few classes I attended spent less than 5 minutes on warm-ups even on cold days. A couple of times I came home with pain in my lower back, needing to relieve it with additional asanas. Recently, I had to leave a class within the first ten minutes due to severe cramping in my left calf and hamstrings since the vinyasa began immediately after a brief centering with no warm up at all.

The Huffington Post had an article on how injuries related to yoga are on the rise. Is it because classes are lacking adequate warm up? It is the responsibility of yoga teachers to make sure all students leave the class injury free.

Thirties

When I began asana practice in my early thirties, I was suffering from sports related injuries. I found relief almost instantly in my lower back – a pain that had been nagging me for years. Then, during teacher training I discovered these back relieving asanas were preceded by a set of warm ups – detailed beautifully in one of the textbooks. Without a proper warm up sequence, these asanas would not have been as effective.

Still, in the infancy of my yoga teaching career, I seemed to have completely forgotten this crucial aspect and developed a misconstrued image of a ‘perfect’ yoga teacher. Ignoring the tenet of non-harming (ahimsa) and feeling the need to prove that I can teach a power vinyasa class in order to get a job at a studio or a gym led to costly compromises. Obviously, I had completely overlooked Patanjali’s advice in the Yoga Sutra – 1.12, (अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः॥१.१२॥) – which I interpret here as – the practice is successful only with detachment from the ego – i.e. letting go of illusionary perfection.

With continued study of the Yoga Sutras, I was able to erase the image of a ‘perfect’ yoga teacher and settled into giving my best one class at a time. I have been using the warm up asanas series for the past fifteen years to help me stay pain free (most of the time) and help others manage theirs as well. Many of my students have been coming to class for over six years and have active lifestyles – playing tennis, running or biking – with asanas to support their sports. I am happy to hear them vouch that the warmup part of the class prepares them to safely enjoy a more involved vinyasa.

Forties

Don’t believe it when people say that forties is the new thirties. My body signaled that a good warm up routine couldn’t be overlooked no matter what. Especially for those who came to the class looking to me to lead them safely in asana.

Very few people can jump out of bed and land in Trikonasana perfectly. It takes patience to identify the tight areas, recognize the muscles needed to create movement so that the “stretch” can occur effectively in Triangle pose. Sadly, I have had people leave the class because the vinyasa flow did not start right away. And – I believe one must be adequately warmed up to perform Sun Salutation correctly, despite the popular opinion that it should be used as a warm up.

Certainly, senior and gentle yoga have found their respectful place in the hierarchy of asana classes. Still, the schedule seems to be filled with power vinyasa classes. The vinyasa classes are designated as beginners, intermediate, or advanced, yet there ends up being a mix of all levels – ability and age. A few come in to check if they can graduate from a beginners class to an intermediate one. Some refuse to use props to transition from one pose to another safely. Then, it becomes a serious responsibility as a teacher to not only initiate an effective warm up sequence but also to provide additional variations to make sure the students leave the classroom injury free.

As a student of the eight fold path and a teacher of asana, the vow of Raja Yoga binds me to ethical principles like ahimsa, non harming (Yama/Niyama). This dictates the necessity of being the enforcer of safe, injury free classroom experience. My sincere commitment to these ethics gives me the freedom not to second guess myself when instructing each asana. These ethical principles become my intention and a foundation for an energizing and a mindful class.

In essence, it is a must that yoga teachers be taught the philosophy of Yamas and Niyamas with its application to daily life.  Again, the wisdom of Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras 1:14, (स तु दीर्घकालनैरन्तर्यसत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः॥१.१४॥) irrefutably posits a measure for any practice – asana or teaching. That every teacher must practice these ethics for a long time to set a firm foundation before embarking into the world of teaching asana. The practicality of these principles will be reflected in your work as a yoga teacher and will be perceived by the students in the way you instruct them. It becomes a pleasure then to help the students understand that the warm up movements are designed to open and release the various tight spaces of the body gradually in preparation for more complex postures.

Fifties

It is an erroneous assumption that if one has been practicing asana, all your aches and pains, and diseases are cured. How can years of compromised dietary habits, sedentary lifestyle, genetic predispositon – disappear with just a weekly yoga class?

Now, in my fifties, inspite of regular asana practice, I wake up each morning quite stiff. Genetic predisposition of arthritis or process of aging – or both? Don’t expect me to touch my toes without warming up the hips, hamstrings, knees and lower back. Still, it is because of the ‘right’ warm-up asanas with props each morning that I am able to bend safely – to get down to my toes.

Recently, I began warming up at home before I teach a class, and then some more with my students – especially if I was teaching an early morning class. While some are blessed with flexibility and strength, others clearly aren’t. And for those who aren’t, warm up asanas provide a sure way to initiate movements with care and confidence.

I realized that cutting down on warm ups to accommodate ‘difficult’ poses – whether to remove the boredom factor or to prove to my ego that I can still teach like other teachers is completely futile. Asana done correctly is not a competition, even with myself. Each of us needs to honor our bodies by acknowledging the aging process. Adjusting our asana practices with proper warm up, keeping in mind aging and other health related changes is simply a logical choice. A big part of mastery in practicing asana lies in sensing just how far to move into a stretch. Priority is to learn how to stay injury free so I can keep myself and my students practicing asanas safely well into our seventies.

It is a fact that the muscles are continually loosing their elasticity, joints will begin to creak – the body is aging even though the mind stubbornly ignores it. Have you noticed your body getting stiff due to lack of movement – especially after a long flight or six to seven hours of sleep, no matter your age? Gentle, loosening exercises called warm up is where you should begin.

Warming up for yoga-asana is called काय, Kāya or शरीर सञ्चलन, Śarīra Sunchalun. (Next Post)

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The teachings of gulob jamoon 

Just hearing the words gulob jamoon, a delicious dessert from India, could make one salivate. And if this means you have one foot out the door to the nearest Indian restaunt for an all-you-can-eat buffet, I don’t blame you. This dessert, as popular as it is, can be a cause for sorrow which we happened to discover this past year during yoga teacher training.

In April of 2016, I was talking to my teacher, Dr. Butera, about referring someone to YogaLife Institute for teacher training when he suggested that I do it in NJ. I was surprised, hesitant, unsure of how this would work out. I was aware he had helped other teachers begin their own teacher training programs. He proposed a few ideas on how I could collaborate with him, allowing the students to do a few required classes in PA and the rest with me in NJ.  I read through the requirements for the 250-hour teacher training that he had sent to help with the decision so the training could begin as soon as possible.

And it did.

We gathered first Monday after Labor day, 2016 to begin the year-long training to learn how to teach yoga. The first month was filled with questions about the curriculum, books required, essays to write, classes to attend – it all seemed daunting. As we took in each class, the lesson handouts appeared to fulfill the teaching prompts. And the questions that surfaced during the class fueled intense study and preparations for the following class.

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Essay Beginnings

What I can’t tell you is how gulob jamoon became the go-to example in this twelve-month training. We began with the study of Raja Yoga, the eight -fold path. And right off the bat, gulob jamoon appeared to fit right in as we studied the ten ethics of Yama and Niyama, the first two limbs. Ah, you have to join the teacher training to get the details on how we applied them to this dessert!

Each time we foccused on yoga philosophy, somehow it circled around to this dessert and all its ingredients and qualities. Studying philosophy required full attention to go beyond the literary meaning and comprehend its deeper essence and practical application. Certain topics led to difficult discussions provoking unsettling thoughts. We were glad gulob jamoon interjected itself at the right moments and brought lightheartedness to the fray without losing the seriousness of the message. In time, we came to realize that it symbolically represented various parts of the philosophy such as kama, desire, ahimsa, non-harming, aparigraha, non-hoarding, raga-dvesha, attachment/aversion, avidya, ignorance, asmita, ego/will power, etc., that were being addressed in the study.

Towards the end of the training we thought we had learnt a lot; the knowledge about the body through asana and nutrition, about the breath through pranayama, about the senses through pratyahara, about the mind through dharana, jnana yoga, and more – only to find that there is much more to learn as the past twelve months had just opened the door to the ocean of knowledge. In essence, we understood that just knowing the attributes of gulob jamoon, effects of its taste on the body and mind, etc., is not enough; especially if we continued to be a slave to our habit of eating it inspite of having the knowledge of its detrimental effects. Here is where we acknowledged that the tools of Raja Yoga can train the mind to release itself from its many habitual shackles.

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Books recommended for Teacher Training

We also understood – while bookish knowledge and intellectual gymnastics have their place in the scope of learning, practical application of the knowledge is critical in making progress in yoga and spiritual study. Besides getting a certificate of completion, the idea was to become aware that by using the yogic tools the body can learn to heal and purify itself, and help train the mind to police itself. And if – by bringing the mind repeatedly back to such an example meant we were motivated to use the tools of Raja Yoga in our daily practice, then –  gulob jamoon served it’s purpose well.

The sun showered its blessings on graduation day. We sat on our yoga mats, encircling an ancient lamp adorned with red roses (brought by Chetna): students and families passed around the “talking block” (decorated by Deepti) so each one could share their ups and downs, and compromises the families had to make to support their journeys. Amidst laughter and tears, we rejoiced a successful completion – rather a great beginning to a yogic way of living and learning.

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Place where we spent many hours of study and practice

Finally, having dangled this carrot (rather dessert) for twelve long months, it was demanded that this dessert be the dessert of choice for the graduation luncheon, along with an assortment of savory dishes (made by Manjula and others). Seated with our families around the table, we enjoyed a potluck of delicasies. Sharing various stories of how gulob jamun made its way into the yoga teacher training lessons, we took the first bite of this delicious brown ball (made by Kalyani) letting its sweetness trickle down to the soul of our being.

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Gulab Jamoon

Warnings of yogic discipline playing in our minds at this very moment? (some of us ignored it and went for seconds). That this delectable dessert found its way into yoga teacher training and then into our mouths to mark its final chapter was completely acceptable at that moment of celebration. Here is hoping the lessons learned in the practical application of the yoga philosophy using gulob jamoon will have its lasting effects!

September 2016 through August 2017 was a year committed to serious yoga study with a group of students who showed grit and grace in their work and their attitude. It was an honor to study with them and a pleasure to be a part of this Satsang, spiritual companionship. Much gratitude!

Thanks to Dr. Bob Butera for this opportunity to mentor these dedicated students and another chance to study Raja Yoga.

Smiling faces of the 250-Hour Yoga Teacher Graduates after successfully completing the teachings of gulob jamoon.

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From Left to Right – Kalyani, Deepti, Manjula and Chetna


Chair Surya Namaskar

“Since my illness, I’m not able to get down to the floor to do my Surya Namaskar practice. When you come to India next week can you show me yoga poses to get back to my previous level of fitness?” This was my mother’s query approximately 10 years ago. This gave me an opportunity to explore asanas in a chair in preparation for the trip. I discovered that many asanas could be performed using a chair – seated and standing including Surya Namaskar.  Now, chair yoga has its own certification requirements!

Chair as a Yoga Prop

Back then, Iyengar yoga had already popularized the use of chairs and other props in creative ways allowing a student to learn alignment correctly and go deeper into poses safely. Chair is considered a prop in yoga-asana practice.

Using props during yogaasana practice is becoming necessary for alignment and safe transitions as the students are coming into class with poor flexibility, injuries or stiff joints. Some, unable to bend but push to stay in certain poses for longer, may be compromising their safety and setting themselves up for injuries. And those who are older and/or recovering from surgery or illnesses feel depressed that they can’t go back to their exercise routines especially if they were active before their illness. Here, props can help.

Of course, the ego will not allow the use of yoga props at first. Try considering a prop as a supportive companion; it provides a way to ease into yogaasana or exercising –again. You can always discontinue their use once the body regains its health and you are able to come into the asana with steadiness and comfort.

Chair Yoga

Chair yoga is becoming increasingly popular and has found its way into senior citizen centers and skilled nursing facilities. It is also safe to practice chair yoga during pregnancy. A complete yoga class starting with warm-ups, strengthening asanas, poses, and cool down can be designed using a chair as a prop. The class may end with breathing practices and short meditation making it a fulfilling practice.

Surya Namaskar, salutations to the sun using a chair is an invigorating practice even if it did not originate in the Himalayas. A valid question – can Sun Salutations really be performed using a chair? Absolutely!

Chair Surya Namaskar 

Thanks to the internet you may already be aware of different versions of Surya Namaskar that are being performed using a chair. But finding one that mimicked the traditional sun salutation with mantras was difficult. With a few modifications and test practices, the following two sets were born that have proved to be effective with family and friends alike.

Here are two versions of Surya Namaskar with twelve asanas and manthras using a chair. Please try them out on yourself, your family or friends and let me know if they were beneficial.

Seated-Chair Surya Namaskar

This is a version you can use if you feel weak following an illness or surgery, have poor balance and are not ready to be on your feet.

The names of asanas and corresponding manthras are tabled below.

Asana Manthra
Sama Sthitihi (Even Standing)
1.    Pranamasana (Prayer Pose) OM Mitraaya Namaha
2.    Hasta Uttanasana (Raised Hand) OM Ravayay Namaha
3.    Hasta Padasana (Forward Fold) OM Suryaya Namaha
4.    Parshva Vakrasana (R ForwardTwist) OM Bhanavay Namaha
5.    Hasta Padasana (Forward Fold) OM Khagaya Namaha
6.    Sama Konasana (Right Angle Pose) OM Pushnay Namaha
7.    Naagasana (Serpent Pose) OM Hiranyagarbhaya Namaha
8.    Sama Konasana (Right Angle Pose) OM Marichayay Namaha
9.    Parshva Vakrasana (L ForwardTwist) OM Adityaya Namaha
10. Hasta Padasana (Forward Fold) OM Savitray Namaha
11. Hasta Uttanasana (Raised Hand) OM Arkaaya Namaha
12. Pranamasana (Prayer Pose) OM Bhaskaraya Namaha
Sama Sthitihi (Even Standing)
  1. Roll out your yoga mat. Find a comfortable chair and place it on the mat.
  2. Sit towards the center of the chair, placing your feet firmly on the mat. Use blocks under your feet if your are not able to place them flat on the mat.
  3. Use the Divine Light Prayer by Swami Sivananda Radha to set an intention for your practice.
  4. Watch the following video to familiarize yourself with the names of asanas.

Then, follow the video, begin the practice of Surya Namaskar seated in your chair. Start with one or two rounds. Assess your body and breath before adding more rounds.

Of course the ego can make things difficult by saying “this is not the real Surya Namaskar “, trying to dissuade you from adopting this modified version of the traditional one. The idea is to awaken your will (Tapas) to bring movement back and honor the body through Ahimsa, non-harming. This is only a start. The body and mind will tell you when you are ready to resume original practices safely.

The breathing requirements in chair sun salutations are simple. Inhale as you lift your arms up and when you come up opening your chest. Exhale as you fold forward and your chest narrows. You may make the movements slower and breathe more often – especially if you feel like you are running out of breath. It is, however, best to learn from an experienced yoga instructor who can add transition poses or make modifications appropriate for you.

Once you have memorized the names of the asanas and the sequence, you can add reverence to the practice with the Japa  mantras. 

Here is a video of the seated version of Surya Namaskar with manthras.

Standing-Chair Surya Namaskar

When you are stronger, able to stand for longer periods of time and perform alternating bending and twisting movements without losing your balance, then try the Standing-Chair Surya Namaskar. 

Here is a table with the names of asanas and corresponding manthras.

Asana Manthra
Sama Sthitihi (Even Standing)
1.    Pranamasana (Prayer Pose) OM Mitraaya Namaha
2.    Hasta Uttanasana (Raised Hand) OM Ravayay Namaha
3.    Sama Konaasana (Walk Back R Angle) OM Suryaya Namaha
4.    Veera Bhadrasana (Warrior – R Leg) OM Bhanavay Namaha
5.    Hasta Padaasana (Forward FoldRH) OM Khagaya Namaha
6.    Sama Konasana (Right Angle Pose) OM Pushnay Namaha
7.    Suraasana (Snake Pose) OM Hiranyagarbhaya Namaha
8.    Sama Konaasana (Right Angle Pose) OM Marichayay Namaha
9.    Veera Bhadrasana (Warrior -L Leg) OM Adityaya Namaha
10.  Hasta Padaasana (Forward Fold -LH) OM Savitray Namaha
11.  Hasta Uttanasana (Walk Forward) OM Arkaaya Namaha
12.  Pranamasana (Prayer Pose) OM Bhaskaraya Namaha
Sama Sthitihi (Even Standing)

NOTE: One hand can always hold the chair if necessary.

  1. Place the chair at the top of the mat for this Surya Namaskar. You will avoid slipping and it will give you enough space to move your feet backward during the practice.
  2. Watch the following video of StandingChair Surya Namaskar to learn the names of the asanas and the movements in this version.

Then, following along with the video, begin your practice. Remember you can always remain reaching distance from the chair so you can hold onto it whenever you need to, even if the video doesn’t show it.

Again, once you have memorized the names of the asanas and the sequence, you can add reverence to the practice with the Japa mantras.

NOTE: In this version, additional movements are seen in the video but not clearly designated as poses. For example #11, you will walk forward first and then come into raised hand  pose # 2. These movements help you to safely transition into the poses in the sequence. The idea was to keep the number of asanas to twelve so that the traditional Japa Manthras may be adapted into the sequence.

Here is a video of the StandingChair Surya Namaskar with manthras.

Other Asanas

If after following a recent health crisis, you began your practice with seated sun salutations and have graduated to a standing version, you are on your way to regaining your health. Congratulations on your commitment to your practice.

There are other asanas, poses that can be done using a chair – seated and standing, that are effective in strengthening and lengthening the muscles. You can explore other resources – books, online videos or DVD’s to develop a routine – especially if you need it only for a short period of time. Of course, finding a yoga instructor to guide you safely through chair yoga and take you to next level of practice is the best.

I can’t tell you how pleased and grateful my mother was that she could actually do the Surya Namaskar and many other asanas in a chair and quickly worked her way back to her old fitness routine. And each time she had a health setback (which we all will probably succumb to due to aging, disease or injuries) she went back to using the chair to safely modify her exercise routines. In fact, we made a few video recordings last summer during her visit to New Jersey to help her remember the movements and alignment. I’m delighted to see her continue to use these asanas safely to keep up her fitness level as she ages. It is giving her the chance to be active and freedom participate in many religious and social activities of her liking.

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Yoga Day 2017

Many of us live most of our lives in suburban homes or apartments where our eyes barely see nature’s green. Our ears are accustomed to reacting to honking or announcements as we spend long hours in cars or riding the trains. Often our noses catch the whiff of spice coming from the kitchen or a nearby coffee shop, but has not had the pleasure of smelling the rain. Our fingers are busy touching the keys as we use an array of electronic devices to work from home or office, forgetting what the touch of grass feels like. You get the idea. We spend most of our time indoors surrounded by things that our senses have forgotten the existence of Mother Nature. Even our yoga-asana practice is mostly indoors in climate-controlled studios.

One of yoga’s many allures is – it can be practiced anywhere. Practicing in nature enhances our practice in an entirely different way than in a room with four walls. Practicing outside the security of a studio environment for the first time can make you feel somewhat self-conscious. Try stepping outside your comfort zone and allow yourself to practice in a whole new way to see what happens. Having had the sky as the ceiling, trees for walls and grass for a floor, today’s was a practice out of this world.

On June 21st, summer solstice, a perfect sunny day, we decided to take our mats, blankets and blocks outside to perform our practice under the sun’s watchful eyes. I’m certain that each of us found that being in nature increased our energy, internal focus, and enhanced relaxation for a very rewarding yoga-asana practice.

Senses

Although Pratyahara, in Raja Yoga means training the senses so they can turn inward for meditation, today’s instruction began by letting the senses wake up and connect to the outside with an attitude of reverence and awe.

We were aware of the gentle breeze that carried the scents of Mother Earth as we took in full, deep breaths. Research says that fresh air intensifies breath awareness while practicing in nature and activates parts of the brain that make us more present. With fresh oxygen flowing through each of us, it is safe to say our minds started to clear and enhanced our practice.

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Listening to the sounds of the breeze through the trees and the songs of the birds was invigorating. The sounds of intrusions like the lawnmower, cars or planes flying overhead were not bothersome at all. It was as if they didn’t exist. Although we alternatively heard the birds chirping and the roar of the lawnmower or the plane overhead, we were able to synchronize our heartbeats to the flow of our breath as we moved gracefully through sun salutation.

Our eyes captured the movement of clouds across the bluest sky each time we raised our arms upward. We folded forward to touch our toes dropping our heads below our hearts in an attempt to surrender our egos just for a moment. My eyes caught the slightest movement in Trikonasana, triangle pose, to find a couple of ants crawling on one side of the mat only to exit on the other.

Turning your senses outward to tune into nature’s abundance during yoga-asana practice, will not drain the senses as it would during other daily activities. During yoga-asana in nature, if you take pleasure in knowing and respecting the role your senses play in this world, you are preparing to turn them inward with complete acceptance during Shavasana, your final relaxation. As we become comfortable in processing these sensory experiences, it transforms into a gratifying experience that shuts off the list-making part of our brain and allows our mind to rest in the present.

Grounding

The practice of Surya Namaskar, sun salutations and other yoga-asanas under actual sun rays has the power to transform a stagnant routine into a heightened experience.

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The touch of the earth under our feet and hands was grounding and empowering. The slight unevenness of the grassy surface prompted our muscles to grasp more firmly in order to steady the body and breath. The unevenness spontaneously engages the core to make us rooted in Trikonasana, Triangle, or Virabhadrasana, Warrior 2 – although there is a tendency of forgetfulness when it comes to engaging them. Despite the unleveled earth, our stance stabilized, helping us find the grounding we needed in our practice.

Balance

Everyone agreed that practice of yoga-asana, especially outside is not complete without Vrikshasana, tree pose. To begin with, balance poses can be formidable for many. And trying to balance on an uneven surface can be even more challenging. However, today’s tree pose was not a practice of competition.

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Standing in Vrikshasana next to a sixty year old maple tree can be a humbling experience. It was not about showing off how well we stood motionless on one leg. Just has the aged maple stands rooted in rain or shine, it would serve us to remember that our ability to stay rooted in our daily yoga-asana practice can make the transition from adulthood to old age as smooth as possible.

Rest

Fish pose,  Matsyasana, is a must especially under the sky. Craning our neck backward to rest on the crown of our head can be challenging. But we did get into the final position where our eyes had a chance to capture the world upside down giving the mind a different perspective.

What a view! I like to focus on something closer first and then extend my gaze outward or upward to the tops of the gigantic maple tree while admiring the vast blue expanse. This steady gaze always brings such calmness to my mind and body.

If you haven’t done this in many years, drop everything and do it – now. Keep your eyes open and appreciate what the world looks like upside down. Looking at the world upside down can bring you to a deeper understanding of change – to become aware that – this too shall pass. It helps to cultivate patience and compassion towards ourselves and others, especially if you are battling emotional demons or mending relationships.

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Finally, we settled in Shavasana, Corpse Pose. The body was ready to shut down. Our eyes closed savoring a quick snapshot of the infinite vastness. The mind was guided to anchor to the breath – inhaling without future expectations, holding to notice the present, even if it was fleeting, and exhaling the past without any regrets – words of the wise. Although the senses were actively engaged in an outward practice earlier, they did not resist to turn inward. If I may speak for everyone, we enjoyed a well-deserved rest. We were fanned by a gentle breeze for a refreshing slumber. We were sung to a restful sleep by the birds.

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Thank you all for sharing this wonderful, uplifting yoga-asana practice to welcome the first day of summer. Hope this blog captured everyone’s experience of what it was like to practice yoga-asana with nature’s best. If it did not, please share the experience in your own words in the comments section so the readers can get a better sense.

Happy Summer!

Shavasana – Corpse Pose

A soft voice floated upon my ears. “Please don’t get up; (pause) not just yet. Continue to breathe and let the earth hold your body.” Without hesitation I settled right back on the yoga mat breathing deeply. The melodious flute blending with the pitter-patter of the raindrops on the roof soothed my being. No cares at this moment, none at all. This was my Shavasana, today.

In yoga-asana practice, understanding the importance of Corpse Pose, शवासन, Shavasana, is essential. What does Shavasana mean to you? Do you feel the need to hurry out of class, skipping this final pose? Your excuses – chores, deadlines or a wailing toddler? No matter what the excuse, Shavasana is for you.

Etymology

Often the word Shavasana is mistaken to mean relaxation. It is actually a posture in which one trains the body and the mind to relax.

In Samskritham the word Shava (शव) means “corpse” and Āsana (आसन) means “posture”. Some yogic texts refer to it as मृताशन, Mrutasana, dead man’s pose, describing it as – “lying full length on the back and still like a corpse.”

Shavasana as asana

Try keeping your body still – meaning no movement, without tension but in full awareness and complete relaxation. It is harder to do than describe it for a blog.

Go ahead – roll out your yoga mat.

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Lie on your back with the legs spread towards the edge of your yoga mat. Begin to scan your body for muscle tension starting from the tips of your toes, slowly working your way up to the top of the head. Stop at the parts of your body that hold tension – like your lower back and hips, or neck and shoulders. Inhale – tense these muscles; exhale and consciously release. Repeat a few times. Don’t forget to relax your jaw, cheeks, forehead as some of us hold tension here.

When you are done scanning the body, let your hands relax to the sides with palms facing up in a yogic hand-seal –  पुष्पपुट मुद्रा, Pushpaputa Mudra, (palms open and receiving) or in आदि मुद्रा, Aadi Mudra. (Aadi Mudra – Fold the thumb at the base of the little finger and bend the remaining fingers over the thumb forming a fist. Then place this hand-seal facing downwards on the floor/mat besides you.)

Comfort is crucial in this asana; slightest discomfort can be endlessly bothersome. You may try variations – like keeping the knees bent to support a tight lower back. Or use other props – blocks under the feet/knees and a blanket under the hip/lower back to increase comfort. There is a tendency to point the chin upwards crunching the neck. A blanket – flat or rolled up under the head will support the neck and relax the jaw. Now, you are settled in the posture of Shavasana.

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With your eyes are closed, slowly deepen the breath using dirgha, long breath. Be aware of the chest and abdomen rising and falling with each breath. Merge into the rhythm of the breath, gradually relinquishing the control of the breath, mind, and the body to the earth for the duration of the asana. 

Ideally 20 minutes is recommended. This may not be the case: 6-8 mins in a one hour class at gyms or 8-10 mins at studios seem like the best options. Accepted rule of thumb: stay until the heart rate and breath return to a resting rhythm – which may be different for each person.

Release Shavasana by slowly deepening the breath, gently flexing your fingers and toes. Exhale – bring the knees to your chest and roll over to one side. Pause here in fetal pose, Garbhasana, before sitting up.

Shavasana as Tapas

One of the meanings of the word Tapas is effort. It is categorized under ‘Niyama, Observances’ in the second limb of Raja Yoga.  How often have you had the urge to disregard Shavasana, roll up your mat and rush out of class? Yes, it takes effort to stay, more to keep the body still and a lot more effort to silence the mind.

This effort, Tapas, when activated coaxes you to stay, trains you to stop all activity and promises you a gift of relaxation. Adequate relaxation is necessary for healthy functioning of the mind and body, clarity of thought, judgment and decision- making.  Next time you’re ready to run out, stop and take a few minutes to quiet your mind in Shavasana. Without it, you’re doing your body a great disservice.

Think that Shavasana is equally important to your body and mind as any vinyasa practice. Activate your Tapas, effort. Please stay, enjoy the stillness and reap the benefits of this relaxing pose. With practice your effortful attempts (Tapas) to participate will slowly transform into effortless effort – not just to stay but to consciously realize the benefits of relaxation. Soon, without Shavasana your practice will feel incomplete.

Shavasana as Pratyahara

Pratyahara is the fifth limb of Raja Yoga that deals with training the senses. The senses constantly operate to keep you connected to the outside world. Throughout the class, the senses have to be attentive to the instructions of the teacher guiding you through the poses. When you pause to find your silence after moving into the pose, you are instructed to withdraw the senses inward and observe its effects. Practice of Shavasana gives your body extended time to turn inwards and process what just happened during your asana practice and prepares you for the outside world. Along with teaching the body to relax it also trains the mind to perform daily activities with equanimity.

In Shavasana, breath is a tool used to train the mind to be present. And to be present begins by training the senses to turn inward to become aware of the movement of your thoughts. Each time your senses and mind tune outward, gently direct them back inward, to the breath without judgment. This is your effort to induce Pratyahara.

After Shavasana, as your senses connect back to the outside allow yourself to be somewhat detached by not jumping back into the world of chatter. There may be days when you choose to leave the class in silence – to let the serenity of Shavasana infuse your footsteps leading to the car, linger on the drive back home and flow into your daily activities. Initially, it may be awkward or hard to let go of small talk after class, but notice how quickly you deplete your renewed energy by engaging in idle chatter immediately after Shavasana.

In a state of sensory withdrawal, it becomes easier to be aware of the breath and observe the activity of your mind. Here, Shavasana provides the space to begin the practice of Pratyahara, preparing you for deeper meditative practices.

Shavasana as Vairagya

The word Vairagya means detachment, to let go – not just physically, but also the mental attitude of attachment and possessiveness. Ignoring the importance of Shavasana, many think of it as simply taking a break after a vigorous asana practice.

Rest is important. It allows the body to let go of fatigue, and helps assimilate the energy generated through movement in yogaasana.

But, to renew vitality of body and mind we have to detach from that which is not benefiting us now – in this moment. Then, it becomes important to ‘let go of the unnecessary, non-essentials’ in our lives – the stress, judgement and busy mental chatter.

In Shavasana, tell your mind to follow the inhales and exhales. Here, your effort to anchor the mind and steady the breath should not be too tense (I am trying hard but my body is not relaxing) or not too lax (I can’t stop thinking, let’s see if my body relaxes anyway). Still, try using long gentle breaths. Notice the body settling down. Gradually, let go of any specific breathing technique you may be using and allow the breath to move through its natural rhythm. This in turn slows down the turnings of your thought.

As the breath finds its way through the unrestricted channels of the relaxed body, visualize the mind unwinding itself out of the spirals of inflexible thought. When there is unobstructed flow of  breath, the mind is able to operate free from habituated attachments. Detachment then is about shedding the constraints of old ideas, fixed habits, and unyielding emotions, so that we can see with clarity, forgive easily and live fully.

Shavasana Benefits

There are many; along with the ones listed above, a few additional benefits are:

  • a decrease in heart rate and respiration rate
  • a decrease in blood pressure
  • a decrease in muscle tension
  • a reduction in anxiety and stress
  • an increase in energy levels
  • an increase in focus and productivity

In addition, children love Shavasana. Although nap time or bedtime may be a chore, Shavasana is a frequent request at the Sunday school with kids and teenagers alike. When my six year old was asked to lie down in Shavasana in a kid’s yoga class, she could not lay still. There was always an itch or two that needed to be scratched, a neighbor’s mat that needed her assistance or the crack on the ceiling that warranted her attention. She wasn’t the only one – all her wiggly peers were alike. The teacher placed beanie babies on their bellies and asked them to watch these fuzzy animals move up and down to the rhythm of their breath. This movement was mesmerizing enough to lull them into a power nap.

I read somewhere that yogis believe that conscious, purposeful relaxation gives maximum amount of renewed strength in minimum amount of time. In other words, a ‘super’ power nap. After working your muscles hard for an hour or more, Shavasana allows the body a chance to regroup and reset itself.  When you are gently guided to awaken, you will feel refreshed and renewed, energized and peaceful.

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Finally

Although, it’s just a matter of relaxing your body, the demands of the day can be taxing for anyone. Your thoughts can yo-yo between what’s for dinner to submission deadlines. Or you may just fall asleep. This isn’t unusual as disconnected thought is one of several obstacles to truly appreciating the benefits of Shavasana. Be assured – Shavasana is one of the most difficult poses to master.

Yoga instructors insist that Shavasana is a vital part of any asana or vinyasa class. So, please stay but remember to respect your fellow yogi-corpses. Nothing is more disturbing than the end of class scrambling during this essential quiet time. Shavasana, corpse pose, is a metaphor for ‘dying’ and then coming back to life.

“In Shavasana, we relax completely, sustained by silence. In this expansive peace we open ourselves to the transcendent, slowly merging with timelessness.” BKS Iyengar

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Saraswati, Satyananda. Swami. 1966, 1999. Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India.

Muktibodhananda, Swami. 1993. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India.

Daily Pranayama

Thinking back to the beginnings of my pranayama feels like a different lifetime. It is interesting how the body and mind can be harnessed once you commit to this training. Now, a day of missed practice feels unbalanced; more than one day feels like I can’t breathe. Not in the literal sense of course. My emotions are triggered easily and mind becomes susceptible to agitation. I have come to rely on these practices, especially now – during menopausal roller coaster. Seated pranayama followed by meditation techniques prepares me for the day where I hope to juggle between Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde with dignity.

Pranayama is the fourth limb on the eight-fold path of Raja yoga. Daily yoga-breathing practices, called Pranayama Nithya Abhyasa,  प्राणायाम नित्य-अभ्यास or just Pranayama, is essential for everyone for general health. Although some of the practices listed here may be performed anytime of the day, others like Kapalabhati, must be done at set times as a seated discipline. There are a few other pranayama techniques that are not mentioned here.

Of course, preparation for pranayama is the essential first step. Then proceed to familiarize yourself with the sequences listed below.

Pranayama Sequences

A few basic pranayama practice sets are presented – certainly not limited to the following:

Set 1

  1. दीर्घ प्राणायाम, Dirgha Pranayama (Three-Part Breathing) – Detailed instructions are provided in this link.
  2. Focus on expanding and contracting of the three parts – diaphragm or upper belly, ribcage or chest, and the space below the shoulder bone, clavicle.
  3. Allow the breath to become smooth (which takes time – weeks or months) by just watching the breath.
  4. To finish: as you inhale silently chant So’as you exhale silently chant ‘Hum’.
  5. So Hum means ‘I am Eternal’ – stay in this meditation for several minutes.
  6. When you are finished slowly open your eyes starting with a downward gaze and gradually bring the rest of the world into your vision.
  7. Do your best to take the positive effects of this practice into your daily activities.

Set 2

  1. Start with Set 1. Add Set 2 – explained below.
  2. समा वृत्ती प्राणायाम, Sama Vritti Pranayama (Equal Breathing) is an extension of the Dirgha breath. This breath may be practiced as a part of Set 2 or separately.
  3. Once you become comfortable with Dirgha Pranayama, focus on making both inhales and exhales the same count.  For example, if you inhale to a count of 6 (OM1, OM2, OM3 and so on), exhale to the same count; i.e., equalizing the breath.
  4. Keep you attention on the count and not on the three parts as in Dirgha Pranayama.
  5. Finish using steps 4-7 from Set 1.

Set 3

  1. Begin with Set 1 and 2. Add Set 3 only if you are comfortable with the technique.
  2. नाडी शोधन प्राणायाम, Nadi Shodhana is called Alternate-Nostril Breath.
  3. Detailed instructions are provided in this link. 
  4. This breath may be practiced as a part of this set or separately.
  5. Keep the breath smooth and gentle to balance both hemispheres of the brain and soothe the nervous system.
  6. Pause and feel the emotional, mental, and spiritual effects of this breath.
  7. Finish using steps 4-7 from Set 1.

Set 4

  1. Start with Set 1. Continue with Sets 2 and 3 if you have added them to your practice. Add Set 4 only when you are ready.
  2. Although उज्जायी, Ujjaiyi Pranayama (Ocean-Sounding or Victory Breath) is relatively easy, its best to learn the technique from an instructor.
  3. Detailed instructions are provided in this link. 
  4. Ujjaiyi breathing should be practiced separately at first and then added the practice sequence.
  5. In Ujjaiyi, keep the breath fluid and rhythmic; avoid straining or forcing the breath. This helps to calm and quiet the fluctuations of the mind.
  6. Pause and feel the harmonizing effects of Ujjayi. Scan for any new sensations and emotions. Discuss them with your instructor if necessary.
  7. Finish using steps 4-7 from Set 1.

Set 5

  1. Begin with Set 1, 2 and 3. Set 5 is added only after mastery.
  2. Kapalabhati, कपालभाती (Skull-Shining Breath): This practice must be learned from an instructor.
  3. Detailed instructions are provided in this link.
  4. This breath must be learned separately. Then, follow your teacher’s advice on when to add it on as a part of regular practice.
  5. Contraindications are important here. Don’t begin the practice Kapalabhati if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, glaucoma, hernia, or abdominal discomfort; recent surgery, or are pregnant.
  6. Pause and feel the effects of Kapalabhati. Scan for energizing sensations such as heat, tingling, lightness, expansion, or enhanced awareness. Discuss them with your instructor if necessary.
  7. Finish using steps 4-7 from Set 1.

Cautions For Pranayama

Cautions for each of the breathing techniques are in the links provided above. A few additional considerations:

Fatigue can hinder the practice of pranayama, while a good night’s sleep can enhance your morning practice.

If you suffer from diabetes, heart conditions, epilepsy, or vertigo, please consult your doctor before you begin Kapalabhati.

Smoking will nullify the effect of pranayama.

Any time you become anxious, angry, emotional or uncomfortable during pranayama practice, please stop. Transition to ‘normal’ breathing and relax in Shavasana, corpse pose or in crocodile pose, Makarasana. Consult with your teacher immediately.

Practicing with conflict or heightened emotions can compromise the benefits of pranayama.

Do not strain or be in a hurry during practice. Pranayama should be a refreshing experience.

Breath Observations

Your breathing should not be jerky or hasty. The process of breathing in and out should be smooth, soft except in Kapalabhati.

Always breathe through nose unless advised otherwise.

Holding the breath is not recommended for a beginner. Once you have prepared the body through asanas and enhanced the capacity of the breath with daily pranayama practice, then, Kumbhaka, retention and suspension maybe introduced by an experienced teacher.

The correct way to breathe is to first lengthen the breath by strengthening the muscles of the diaphragm and lungs using deep yogic breath, Dirgha Pranayama. Here, the lungs will be trained to expand to full capacity. This breath can be mastered through diligent practice.

Choosing the ‘right set’ 

Pranayama should be done with great care, awareness and reverence. Once you complete your pranayama preparation, plan a disciplined routine using the guidelines in the sets listed above.

If you are just starting out, Set 1 is definitely where you will begin. Since sets 1-3 are considered as cooling and harmonious breaths, you can easily add up to Set 3. Decision to add on Sets 4 (Ujjaiyi) and Set 5 (Kapalabhati) must be made with your yoga teacher.

Each time you add a new set, the time required for seated pranayama practice is lengthened. If 15 or 30 minutes is the time you have available, then choose the sets accordingly.

Most importantly, allow your teacher to observe your practice so she can catch inappropriate breath patterns, facial tics or unnecessary body movements before they become faulty habits.

Be assured that Pranayama will improve your concentration, and revitalise your body and mind. Once you start, stay disciplined but enjoy the journey. Over time you will begin to notice the benefits of pranayama.

Here is a promise – each pranayama practice will leave you wanting more.

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Rama, Swami; Ballentine, Rudolf, M.D.; Hymes, Alan, M.D.1998. Science of Breath – A Practical Guide. Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, Honesdale, PA.

Sivananda, Swami; Science of Pranayama.1935. Divine Life Society Publication, Uttar Pradesh, India. Download a copy at http://www.dlshq.org/download/pranayama.pdf

Preparation for Pranayama

Although first day of spring left us buried in snow this year, the only thing we can be sure of is that Mother Nature will prevail. She will arrive in all her colorful grandeur bringing with her a basket full of allergies for those privileged few. If you are one of those (un)fortunate people, this blog is for you.

Pranayama, yogic breathing practice is essential for everyone, especially for those with seasonal allergies. Here are a few basic suggestions to prepare yourself for pranayama. 

Guidelines For Pranayama

Time

Pranayama is generally practiced early in the morning as the body is rested and mind is calm. However, to wake up early, there must be a discipline of going to bed at a decent hour without the distraction of television and other digital diversions to promote restful sleep. If mornings are not feasible, cooling practices such as dhirgha, ujjayi, and nadi shodhana can be done in the evening or before bedtime.

Consistency is more important than duration, so choose the most realistic time for your home practice. Even if the practice is for 10-15 minutes per sitting, a daily routine is a must. It is best to do pranayama at the same time, same place everyday as regularity strengthens will power and cultivates discipline.

Duration and counts are explained in separate links pertaining to each of the pranayama techniques listed in the next post.

Place

Practice Pranayama in a ventilated room. Avoid practicing under a fan or near an air conditioner vent as blowing air can be a distraction and may also cause chills. Keep this space uncluttered. Bottomline, make your practice space clean, safe and sacred.

Alternatively, practice outdoors in your garden or in a park, provided the weather is neither too cold nor too hot or windy, and you don’t suffer from allergies.

Diet

General rule is not eat anything for 3-4 hours before pranayama, hence practicing first thing in the morning is advised. It is difficult to perform breathing practices on a full stomach. Mostly, what you eat, quantity of food consumed and the lateness of the previous night’s meal will impact your pranayama the next morning. Follow the essential principles of a yogic diet while allowing considerations for your health issues.

Distractions

Please turn off (not on vibrate, please) and put away your phones (cell and wrist), tablets and computers to avoid interruptions. If your neighbor or friends usually call or drop in at regular times, let them know ahead of time that you are busy with your practices and will call them later.

Women 

If you are menstruating, gentle breathing practices such as dhirgha, ujjayi, and nadi shodhana will help alleviate painful symptoms and lessen fatigue so you can function during the day. If you are pregnant, consult your doctor about joining a prenatal yoga classes to start pranayama.

Dhrishti 

The mind is easily distracted even if you are focusing on the counts assigned in each technique. Yoga recommends the use of Dhrishti, eye gaze, to control the roving mind. Most popular focus points are – tip of the nose, Nasagray or the space in front of the closed eyes, Chidaakasha. Pick one that you can sustain throughout your seated practice.

Nasal Wash

Before you begin, remember to perfect the art of nasal cleanse by using this technique of Jala Neti. This practice may feel unnatural at first, but I cannot stress enough how important this is to make your pranayama successful.

Finding the right seat

Some people do not practice asanas but have a regular pranayama practice. The eight fold path of Raja Yoga, recommends the practice of asanas to condition the body before pranayama. It also helps to transition from busyness of daily activities into quiet mindful awareness on your yoga mat.

Finding the right seat or posture for the body to be comfortable in a seated position is first and foremost before attempting pranayama practice. How can your mind concentrate on breathing when every two seconds it is worried about the annoying pain in your knee, shoulders or back? Daily yoga-asana practice starts to loosen up your body, relieves minor aches and pains and strengths the posture muscles.

If you are coming out of injuries or have long term knee issues, please consider the use of props to help you get started. Sitting on a cushion, a block and/or folded blanket to stabilize the pelvis, support knees and hips, lengthen the spine, and relax the belly is a wonderful and sometimes a necessary option.

Most popular asanas for pranayama are Vajrasana – thunderbolt pose or Sukhasana – easy pose. You may also experiment with Ardha Padmasana – half lotus, Padamasana – full lotus, and Siddhasana – adept pose. Google these asanas and you will find instructions on how to perform them correctly.

If you cannot sit comfortably in any of these asanas or with props, please use a chair. Sitting on the edge of a chair with your feet grounded or on blocks and the knees over ankles can provide comfort for painful spots or longer practice sessions.

Work on consciously relaxing the major tension holders in the body – the forehead, eyes, jaw, shoulders, belly, hips, hands, ankles and feet. This allows you to sit still for extended periods of time. Only then seated pranayama practice can be effective. Remember to wear loose fitting, soft breathable clothes for utmost comfort.

Intention

Reading an inspiring quote or chanting a prayer at the outset sets the right intention. It helps to decrease mental distractions and anchor the mind on the purpose of purification and concentration.

And Finally

It is easy to put things off or not be consistent with any kind of exercise or practice. These basic guidelines show how you can begin, and where you might encounter breakdowns. Please use these guidelines to be prepared and avoid a few pitfalls before they happen.

As you finish reading this blog – if you are thinking about how you can make changes on your calendar to carve out time for pranayama, or wondering about ‘your right seat’ or how to frame your intention, then you are inspired to begin. Finding the right sequence for your breathing practice becomes your next logical step.

Welcome to the practice of pranayama.

Next Post: Pranayama Sequences

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Rama, Swami; Ballentine, Rudolf, M.D.; Hymes, Alan, M.D.1998. Science of Breath – A Practical Guide. Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, Honesdale, PA.

Sivananda, Swami; Science of Pranayama.1935. Divine Life Society Publication, Uttar Pradesh, India. Download a copy at http://www.dlshq.org/download/pranayama.pdf

How to study the YogaSutras

Scriptures or religious texts may be used for many reasons; mostly to provide meaning and purpose, and to evoke a deeper connection with the Divine. Many look to these texts to the convey sacred truths and use them to promote ritualistic practices and moralistic experiences that foster communal identity.

But the YogaSutra is not a religious text; notice the lack of dogma within its pages as the author implores each student to take on the challenge of experimenting with the techniques to arrive at absolute freedom.

Feuerstein declares that the reader should appreciate the fact that Patañjali’s work is a technical treatise and not just a popular summary. Therefore, it would be entirely unsatisfactory to attempt to understand complex concepts in the sutras using everyday vocabulary when the author himself had to find specific Sanskrit terms.

Who 

Traditionally, a Guru is responsible to elaborate each sutra after the student has mastered preliminary practices. Please refer to this blog to learn about the nature of a student-seeker.

The Yoga Sutra is for serious student-seekers of yoga who want to embark on a personal journey of transformation. This ancient text was presented orally as a guide for refining the mind to achieve the highest state of concentration. Nowadays, with surplus of printed books, you can read the Yoga Sutra cover to cover, sutra by sutra or browse online summaries to make some meaning of it. Because the sutras are not linear, it is easy to become disappointed if you did not get what you anticipated.

An Acharya, or “one who walks the path”, an experienced teacher of yoga philosophy can help you appreciate the layers of complexity in this text. This exquisite work has transformational concepts embedded in every word. Each aphorism has a clear message and implications. To apply the meaning of the sutras to our life we most definitely need a teacher.

Language of the text

While utilizing the available translations, bhashya, note that in each commentary some Sutras may be rendered differently, but sincere effort is made by authors to avoid moving away from its essential message.

Swami Venkateshananda of Divine Life Society declares that anyone who translates a text which is in the Samskritham language is confronted by two difficulties:
(a) not all languages have concise words or phrases which accurately convey the exact sense in which the Sanskrit word is used in the text; and
(b) the each Sanskrit word has a number of meanings, and it is easier to choose the correct meaning when the word is used in a structurally complete prose or verse, than when it occurs in the Sutras.

The Yoga Sutra cannot be read as fiction. It is imperative to remember that ideas and concepts are scattered over several sutras in more than one chapter. These concepts are also repeated in different ways and multiple words are used to describe one idea or same words are used in different sutras to convey different meanings. For example – Samapatti and Samadhi, Purusha and Ishvara are used interchangeably; chitta and manas as mind or thoughts, is a comprehensive term for the thinking principle (Paramahamsa Yogananda). This makes it open to multiple interpretations which can be disorienting to a casual reader.

Traditional language of the YogaSutra focused on discovering the one’s true Self in Samadhi and finding freedom from bondage, Kaivalya. This is suited for a yogi living in the mountains leading a monastic life. However, the idea of self analysis, experimentation and self realization is sought by all kinds of people from a hermit to a householder and all classes of beings.

For example, in his translation  Marshall Govindan includes a section titled “practice” after each sutra. Here, he asks us to pick an activity and apply a sutra. Like sutra 2:33 – वितर्कबाधने प्रतिपक्षभावनम्॥२.३३॥ //Vitaraka Badanay Pratipaksha Bhavanam// – which means that when you have afflicted thinking, then contemplate and take another view—look at the situation from another perspective.

This type of practice allows a householder-student struggling to bring the sutras to life, an opening to verify its essence in her own practice. Patañjali surely knew what he was talking about when he complied the Yoga Sutra. But each of us reading the sutras and its various commentaries will only glean different meanings based on our childhood and life experiences.

Commentaries 

Many different translations of this ancient text exist. Every translation is an approximation which can improved upon (Feuerstein). Some may be confusing and sometimes difficult due to the variety of interpretations. Others may seem long and complicated or short and inadequate – each trying their best to make it accessible to the ‘current’ generation.

Furthermore, knowledge of both science & philosophy is essential to study yoga. Yoga states that every organ (body) is related to the psyche (consciousness). For example: when one is fearful or anxious, one may experience palpitations, blurry vision, dry mouth, frequent urination or irregular breathing. (Mishra, M.D.)

Yogananda asserts that Patañjali has presented a systematized means of reuniting the soul with Spirit between layers of knowledge embedded in each sutra. The popular saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover’ – can come in handy when you venture into the world of sutras. Instead of wondering what another translation can do for you, put yourself into a beginners mindset with an intention to learn.

How to Study 

Obviously there are many ways to study the sutras. While it is best to learn from an experienced teacher, a study group, Satsang, can be energizing and fun. Here, multiple translations are utilized, ideas elaborated upon; you can participate in animated discussions and derive the best possible meaning to apply in your daily life. Most importantly, it helps to know that there are others like you, struggling to understand the mysteries of yoga.

Still some gurus say, as a practicing yogi, you do not always require an interpreter; you need to come to your own understanding through systematic study and disciplined practice.

Here are a few limited suggestions; see if one works for you. Then again, think outside the box and come up with your own way.

Method  1

  • Read the original quote, its word for word meaning, followed by the literal translation.
  • Try to study a minimum of 3-5 sutras a day. More than that will make them seem complicated than they really are.
  • Sutras are intended for deep study. Sit with one sutra in meditation. You may repeat the literal meaning a few times in your mind.

Method  2

  • Chant or listen to the sutras being chanted. Close your eyes and allow the vibration of sounds to penetrate the mind.
  • Surrender to the rhythm of the chant and enjoy the chant without having to worry about the meaning. Allow your own meaning to unfold.
  • Have faith that the meaning will be revealed to you at the right time.
  • Journal your experiences.

Method 3

  • Choose 2-3 translations or commentaries to compare each sutra.
  • Write down the main descriptions and interpretations.
  • Take it with you into meditation, then bring it to life as an applied lesson.

Method 4

  • Identify the concepts like Sadhana, practice, or Karma, patterned actions.
  • Pick one and study each concept thoroughly.
  • Cross reference these concepts with other related texts and notice its application.

Wisdom

Concepts elucidated in the Yoga Sutras can be understood through an intuitive state which we can enter solely through our practice. The ‘Truths’ are based on experiences of many mystics, yogis, saints and sages, who have realized and borne witness to them throughout ages. The facts of ‘Higher Yoga’ can neither be proved or demonstrated. Their appeal is to the intuition, not to the intellect. (I.K. Taimini)

Working with the Yoga Sutras should not be a chore. It should be a positive experience that will assist your transformation in your yogic journey.

Notice if you become emotional by those sutras that you label ‘difficult’. Or those that you get attached to because you think you have understood them. Reflect to consider why. Is it because these are areas where you already excel or need your greatest work?

Strive to practice at least one concept in the sutras patiently for a period of time. Be forgiving of your practice whenever necessary. Trust that what you need to focus on will jump out at you in some way.

If the doctrines of yoga are studied in the light of both ancient and modern thought, it is much easier for the student to understand and appreciate them. (Taimini)

Personal Study

When I was introduced to the Yoga Sutra in 2002 at YogaLife Institutethe book that was required for the 8 week session seemed so unfriendly. At least that’s how my mind perceived it, implying a lack of readiness.

However, in 2004, I read the sections needed for teacher training from the same book (Swami Satchitananda). After reading the required sections I went back to read this book cover to cover. I enjoyed the way he spiritualized the dry practices through wonderful stories.  I realize that what I learned then is different from what I am comprehending now.

During teacher training class, my teacher would read a sutra’s given commentary first. Then he would read some supporting notes from this beaten-up notebook. At first I did not think much of it. Four months into the training, I happened to observe him placing a few ripped pages carefully back in the book and perceived a sense of reverence with which he held those old pages. I wondered if it contained his notes from the days he spent with his teacher in Mumbai. Maybe it also contained his efforts as a student to gain deeper understanding of this wonderful text. Then it dawned on me that if I were to gain a deeper understanding of what I was being taught I needed to be present with similar reverence. To receive the message he was presenting out of those pages then became a privilege. My sincere gratitude to Acharya, Bob Butera, for imparting this unexpected but indispensable aspect of learning. I try to remember this each time an opportunity to listen to spiritual teachers presents itself.

Eventually, after many restarts it dawned on me that I did not how to study the text. Reading cover to cover was one way. Multiple translations and commentaries helped, but something was missing; a guideline – which I eventually found embedded in the introduction section in the books listed below.

Each introduction I realized brought forth the authors’ perceptive; how they viewed the sutras, how they went about studying it and the differences in their approaches. For example, Barbara Stoler Miller has grouped the aphorisms into logical sections and commented on each group. BKS Iyengar on the other hand, identified ‘concepts’ scattered in multiple places throughout the text and has rearranged the sutras accordingly. In his commentary, Swami Satyananda Saraswati has also presented ways to link some of the concepts to other texts like the Bhagavad Gita, Dhammapada, while Paramahamsa Yogananda uncovered the similarities within Christianity and Sufism.

This has inspired me to patiently find all sutras connected to each concept and follow the links to other texts making it an amazing study. Although it can be a frustrating process to unravel its inner meanings, unexpected insights has brought forth unexplainable joy. It becomes an adventure then to apply these insights everyday to spiritualize a mundane act.

Final Thoughts

The YogaSutras contain a roadmap to reach our highest potential as we travel the yogic path (Govindan). With each attempt made at the YogaSutra study, you are taught to work through your traditional beliefs and habituated behaviors using disciplined practices – in anticipation of the coveted spiritual union.

Remember the wisdom presented in the YogaSutras is relevant to any generation, ancient or modern. You can approach the study with curiosity or with arrogance; what you take away will either expand your personal truth or deter the progress on the path. You must be ready to devote ample time to study and receive its message.

Hearing the Yoga Sutras chanted helps to appreciate the musicality of the recitation. iTunes has a soothing version by Ante, Felicia, Saraswati and Sundar for you to enjoy.  Each sutra is on a different track which makes it painless to learn the Samskritham pronunciation.

The principles taught here can uplift and inspire – turning daily humanness into divine action. If guided by the ‘right’ teachers, the practices outlined in the YogaSutra serves the needs of the householder-yogi more than a hermit-yogi in these modern times.

The first sutra is –

अथ योग-अनुशासनम्” –Atha Yoga-Anushasanaum“.

“Now (begins) the discipline of yoga”.

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Further Reading

Aranya Hariharananda, Swami; Mukerji, P.N. 1963. Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. (Reprinted in 1981 by State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Mishra, Rammurti. M.D. 1973. Yoga Sutras – A Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Doubleday Anchor Press, Garden City, New York

Prabhavananda, Swami; Isherwood, Christopher. Patañjali Yoga Sutras. Ramakrishna Mission  Press, Mylapore, India.

Feuerstein, Georg. 1979. The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali – A New translation and Commentary. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont.

Saraswati Satyananda, Swami. 1976. Four Chapters on Freedom – Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India

Taimni, I.K., 1961. The Science of Yoga. The Ind-Com Press, Chennai, India

Iyengar, B.K.S.2013. Core of Yoga Sutras – The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper-Collins India

Satchitananda, Swami. 1978. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham VA.

Yogananda, Paramahamsa; Kriyananda, Swami. 2013. Demystifying Patañjali – The Yoga Sutras. Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA

Govindan, Marshall. 2000. Kriya Yoga Sutra of Patañjali and the Siddhas – Translation, Commentary and Practice. Kris Yoga Publications, Quebec, Canada

The YogaSutra

There are people who say that most texts – scripture or academic can be a tedious read. While some knowledge can be gained from studying these texts and their various interpretations, they realize that ‘true’ understanding is largely intuitive – a continuous outpouring of ‘aha’ moments. Others enquiring about the phase of life you are in might be implying that empty nesters can happily dedicate more time to texts of all sorts – even the Yoga Sutra, while a mother of three is finding her moment of joy between the pages of Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web or Harry Potter.

I was introduced to the Yoga Sutra in 2002 in one of the intermediate classes at YogaLife Institute. I looked through the book that was needed for the 8 week session and put it back on the shelf, obviously not ready to give up Goodnight MoonLife had the upper hand – toddler and parents in the house – family and work – different priorities. In 2004, I read only the prescribed sections needed for teacher training using 3 different commentaries, grasping mostly the superficial meaning and an occasional deeper significance.

In 2007, I bought another book – or two in an attempt to restart when I realized that I did not how to study the text. It is only in the last few years that I have returned to study the sutras more patiently while staying alert for unexpected insights in my daily practice.

The Student

Although the YogaSutra, योगसूत्र is one among many yogic texts, it is the one frequently referred to by yoga practitioners all over the world. It is an extraordinary treatise which outlines a royal path for self-transformation by addressing the physical, mental, emotional facets while spiritualizing the human existence. I am realizing what I learn on the way down to my toes is more important than just touching my toes.

For example – how many times do you think of surrendering your ego as you drop your head down to touch your toes? The Yoga Sutra is teaching me to separate the action and the sense of doer-ship (second chapter). Of course, it is difficult to separate the ego from the action, but noticing the presence of the ego in each action has been a huge learning experience for me.

Or when your arms reach over your head in sun salute, the joy you feel at the glimpse of the infinite sky is just a morsel of what is to come when you realize the crux of yoga in Samadhi (first chapter). I have experienced a tiniest morsel of this joy on my yoga mat. The author clearly states that yoga is not just asana, pose and then proceeds to lay down the dos’ and don’ts of Abhyasa, yoga-practice in preparation to infinitely multiply this joy

The Author

The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, was authored by Patañjali, पतञ्जलि, who is also credited with writing other texts on Ayurveda and Samskritham. Essentially, nothing of any degree of historical certainty is known about the author (Feuerstein). It is unclear whether Patañjali was an individual or merely a name forged to represent several people living in different periods of time. It appears there were several authors known as Patañjali which was just a family surname according to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Aranya & Mukerji).

Patañjali, also a compound word, has been explained by Sanskrit scholars in a few different ways. Leaving the literary paradox for the scholars to decode, here is a popular version that makes him a person. The name, Patañjali comes from a legend surrounding his birth. The story claims that Adhishesha, the divine serpent fell (पत् –puthinto the folded hands (अञ्जलि, Anjali) of a pious woman who had prayed long and hard for a child. Her prayers were answered. She raised this child who is portrayed as a person with the head of a snake and body of a man, who grew up to be Patañjali, पतञ्जलि(पत् +अञ्जलि), the author of this wonderful yogic text, the YogaSutra.

The Text

The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, contains 196 Sutras or aphorisms. Sutra, सूत्र, means thread, that connects each of 196 aphorisms. It was structured this way to make it easy for students to memorize the least amount of material in a time where there was no concept of books (Prabhavananda & Isherwood). Now, as we study together we weave this thread and connect our practices to carry this ancient wisdom through time.

The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र,  may have been compiled sometime around 350 CE or as early as 3000 BC. Though composed of few words, each sutra, सूत्र is rich with meaning and depth, even the most ‘advanced student’ can continue to gain new insights after years of study.

The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र is also referred to as Raja Yoga. The text outlines eight limbs, Ashtanga, for self-realization. The confusion regarding Raja and Ashtanga being a type or a style of yoga is dealt with in other posts. Barbara Stoler Miller says “Yoga Sutra is not a sacred scripture but a set of philosophical analyses that probe timeless dilemmas of cognition and obstacles to spiritual tranquility.”

The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, is not a religious sermon like the Vedas, the Bible or the Koran. The text contains no creed or rituals, verses nor hymns. Although it appears that yoga is a part to Hinduism (Sanathana Dharma), it is actually found in the Sankhya philosophy and can stand on its own without the dogma of religion. Yoga psychology is based on the Sankhya system of philosophy; i.e., you arrive at the truth by calculation, experimentation and careful reflection through the study of YogaSutra.

Despite arising amidst the most religious of all cultures, there is no direct reference to a divine incarnation or goddesses such as Krishna or Durga in the YogaSutra, योगसूत्र. Still, the word Ishvara, ईश्वर, accessible through chanting OM – is mentioned in the first chapter. (YS 1:25-27). What this word actually signifies in Patañjali’s use may be contentious even though some translations allude to a formless Universal Spirit.

Patañjali also mentions the word, Purusha, पुरुषः, (similar to Atman, आत्मन् in Vedanta/Upanishads) possibly with an intention to indicate the presence of the universal sentient being – separate but identical – within each of us (Prabhavananda & Isherwood). Hence, the belief in multiple Purushas. Ishvara, then is a superior Purusha who remains untouched by afflictions, action, fruits of action and seeds of Karma (Satyananda Saraswati).

The Chapters – Four Padas, पादाः

Samadhi Pada  समाधि पाद :      51 Sutras

  • The first chapter provides a definition of Ishvara, alluded to as a universal Absolute and the purpose of Ahbyasa, practice with detachment, Vairagya.
  • According to Sankhya Darshana, there are many Purushas and Ishvara is the superior of them all (1:24, Satyananda Saraswati).
  • Patañjali focuses on cognitive dynamics, thought modifications, and their relationship to the sense of self, the ego. (Mishra)
  • He also characterizes yoga as surrender. It is the letting go of all doing that allows yoga to reveal itself in a state of cognitive absorption called Samadhi.
  • Samadhi is the main technique the yogis learn in order to dive into the depths of the mind to achieve true freedom, Kaivalya.
  • Many levels of Samadhi are described. By repeatedly diving deeper into Samadhi, the yogis emphasize cognitive deconstruction and eradication of the ego.
  • Here, Patañjali is presenting yoga as an deep awareness state.

Sadhana Pada    साधन पाद :         55 Sutras

  • The first part analyzes the dynamics of identification of self in Kleshas, hindrances of the mind. This is linked to cognitive dynamics by way of the suffering they cause. (Mishra)
  • Patañjali presents yoga as Abhyasa, repeated practice of techniques until one is completely habituated with them, and at once detached from them (Vairagya)
  • The second part contains the practical approach to achieving the goals of yoga. Here, two forms of Yoga are outlined: Kriya Yoga (Yoga of Action) and Raja  Yoga, Ashtanga, an Eightfold systematic approach, providing a map to the inner world. (Yogananda)
  • This section explains the five ‘external’ limbs, (बहिरङ्ग  -Bahiranga) of yoga with exercises in physical, mental, emotional and moral concepts in order to increase inner-self awareness.
  • Patañjali insists that Abhyasa, practice is deep and liberating leading to the process of reflection.
  • Here, he calls perseverance of this practice – Sadhana.

 Vibhuti Pada    विभूति पाद :    56 Sutras

  • Although this chapter is named Vibhuti Pada, this is word is not used again through out this portion of the text. (Feuerstein)
  • The first part of this third chapter deals with the three ‘internal’ practices (अन्तरङ्ग – Antaranga) of the Eight-Fold Path
  • Practice of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi is referred to as संयम:, Sumyamaha, and is a tool of achieving various perfections, Siddhis. (Taimni)
  • The second part focuses on Siddhis, supernatural powers of an adept yogi.
  • Patañjali explores the depths and subtleties of the meditative mind through Siddhis.
  • Here, yogis warn us that Siddhis are distractions (you can get lost in the maze of supernatural powers) or with discernment view them as milestones on the path. (Satchitananda)

Kaivalya Pada    कैवल्य पाद :   34 Sutras

  • Patañjali delivers a wonderful concluding chapter, summarizing the nature of consciousness and its implications on human experience, Karma.
  • He describes Kaivalya as perfect isolation or fulfilling freedom – the final fruit of yoga within which no sense of ego-self remains.
  • This chapter describes the process to the liberation of the ego and promises the attainment of the highest freedom when we bravely go beyond kleshas (hindrances) and karma-samskaras (action-reaction); i.e. deliverance from earthly bondage. (Satyananda Saraswati)
  • We arrive at a state of consciousness that is natural and wholesome, induced with pure, non-dual awareness – without prejudice and finite constraints.
  • Here, Patañjali also presents Kaivlaya, as perfect detachment – the yogis’ most sought out state of true freedom.

The Study

Traditionally, a Guru is responsible to elaborate each sutra after the student has mastered preliminary practices. Today, the Yoga Sutra is best learned from an Acharyaa, आचार्या – “the one who walks the path and leads by example”; an experienced teacher who can help you appreciate the layers of complexity in this text as every word has clear meanings and expansive connotations. He or she, will also point out that the concepts expounded in the Yoga Sutra, योगसूत्र, cannot be understood through the intellect alone.

In essence, the YogaSutra is a reference guide that inspires me to practice everyday and encourages me to trust the inner language that unfolds during my asana and pranayama practice. So far, it has been an amazing study.

Next post – how to study the योगसूत्र, Yoga Sutra.

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Further Reading

http://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras-intro.htm

Aranya Hariharananda, Swami; Mukerji, P.N. 1963.Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. (Reprinted in 1981 by State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Mishra, Rammurti. M.D. 1973. Yoga Sutras – A Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Doubleday Anchor Press, Garden City, New York

Prabhavananda, Swami; Isherwood, Christopher. Patañjali Yoga Sutras. Ramakrishna Mission  Press, Mylapore, India.

Feuerstein, Georg. 1979. The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali – A New translation and Commentary. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont.

Saraswati Satyananda, Swami. 1976. Four Chapters on Freedom – Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India

Taimni, I.K., 1961. The Science of Yoga. The Ind-Com Press, Chennai, India

Iyengar, B.K.S.2013. Core of Yoga Sutras – The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper-Collins India

Satchitananda, Swami. 1978. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham VA.

Yogananda, Paramahamsa; Kriyananda, Swami. 2013. Demystifying Patañjali – The Yoga Sutras. Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA

Govindan, Marshall. 2000. Kriya Yoga Sutra of Patañjali and the Siddhas – Translation, Commentary and Practice. Kris Yoga Publications, Quebec, Canada

asana – seat or pose

“Why can’t you sit still?” I remember admonishing my daughter when she was little. Picture a 6 year old with two pigtails sitting on the stool ready to practice piano. Her legs hanging half way up and swinging. One hand disappearing from the keys every few minutes to brush her hair away from the face or to scratch an itch before one line of the song was completely played.

Then an epiphany. One morning, I noticed the number of times I moved during my breathing practice. I moved because of low back pain and tight hips. I moved because of tight shoulders and my foot falling asleep. How long was I sitting? Possibly 15 minutes. My attention was on my sleeping foot and lower back, not on breathing. My mind was agitated about the pain and discomfort and was not calm. My practice, putting it mildly – was pitiful. I needed to find a comfortable seat first before I could make a dent in the breathing practices.

Asana as seat

Asana is the crucial third limb of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga.

आसन asana is popularly translated as pose; it also refers to the place where one sits. Patanjali, the scribe of the text, Yoga Sutras writes – asana is “to be seated in a position that is steady and comfortable”. He implied the ability to sit for extended periods in this position is essential for success in meditation.

It is safe to say that Patanjali was not referring the poses posted on social media or to the variety of the poses we practice in class. He intended asana, posture as a seat for Pranayama and Dharana (breathing and concentration) practices. Asanas designated for meditation will be discussed in another post.

These days, the word asana conjures up images of perfectly aligned, fashionably attired magazine cover models in warrior poses, handstands, and impressive backbends. This tells us that the physical practice of yoga poses equals ‘asana’.

Asana as pose

I have not read them all, but here are a few yogic texts that mention asana, as pose.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (3000BCE – 1800 BCE) focuses on transcending the body and mastering meditation. It does not mention a single asana by name, merely specifies the characteristics of a good asana, i.e., steadiness and comfort required to stay seated for long periods for meditation. You can choose a seat from a few asanas that are recommended for meditation. Once chosen this asana must be practiced to mastery. Mastery then indicates that the student can stay motionless in comfort for upto three hours.

The Goraksha Samhita (10-12 century CE) an early Hata Yoga text, describes the origin of 84 classic asanas. Observing that there are as many postures as there are beings, the text implies that Lord Shiva assigned one asana to a group of 100,000 beings out of the 8,400,000 species to be in existence; thus giving 84 asanas in total. However, only two are described in detail: padmasana, lotus pose and siddhasana, accomplished pose; interestingly both are meditation poses.

The Hata Yoga Pradipika (15th century CE) considers these asanassiddhasana, padmasana, bhadrasana and simhasana important among 84 asanas. This text also has details of breathing practices, yogic diet, and other crucial tips for Hata Yoga practice.

The Hata Ratnavali (17th century CE) attempts to list the 84 asanas, although it appears a few may not have appropriate Samskritham translations or proper description. It appears only 52 asanas in the Hatha Ratnavali are described.

The Gheranda Samhita (late 17th century CE) tells us that Lord Shiva taught 8,400,000 asanas, out of which 84 are prominent, and 32 are most useful for everyday practice.

In Shiva Samhita (17–18th century CE) the poses ugrasana and svastikasana replace the latter two of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Modern Asana

Ancient yogis lived during the times where processed foods, variety desserts and carbonated drinks were not available. They did not sit behind desks for long periods of time. It is possible they did not view their asana practice as a ‘work out’. They wanted to transcend the mind. They practiced mastery of asana for meditation purposes only.

The physical and emotional challenges of modern life make it difficult to maintain a healthy body and mind. What we buy, what we eat, and what chemicals we use in our houses, yards, in our cars, negatively affect our bodies and the world around us. Furthermore, the physical wear and tear due to lack of mobility prevents us from sitting still at the desk, let alone maintaining a steady and comfortable asana.

Here, asanas as poses, aide in ridding our bodies of impurities and blockages. In asana class, we twist, bend forward and backward, move sideways, and end up upside down to cleanse our bodies, promote healing and sustain health. Asana as a physical exercise – mindfully and respectfully performed, places the body in specific positions to promote strength and flexibility, and uses the movement of breath to cultivate awareness, concentration and relaxation.

I have benefited immensely from this practice of asana – strengthened my lower back, released the tension in my neck and shoulders. Now, with the help of a few props, I am able to sit motionless and concentrate on my breathing exercises for short periods of time. I am grateful.

Asana Wisdom

First, remember, poses can be challenging depending on your fitness and health. If you are struggling in certain poses, use props for proper alignment. Then settle into the posture for as long as your breath is comfortable. This supportive practice creates a space in your mind to find peace in a place you may find unpleasant. These poses, despite challenging, can open blocks and strengthen the body, and by extension, train us to find solace in difficult situations. Although, adopting the attitude of ahimsa, non-harming may hurt your pride, it is imperative to avoid the risk of injury. I can vouch for that from my own practice.

Second, be careful not to designate favorite poses and get attached to them. In poses that seem pleasant and wonderful, realize that change is inevitable and practice santosha, contentment as you transition out of these favorites. While my favorite asanas led me to ‘like’ one instructor and enjoy the class, my non-favorite poses made me dislike another, leaving me dissatisfied after the class. It took me years to understand that the instructor had nothing to do with the way my ego was operating -using likes and dislikes of asana to manipulate my emotions in a classroom setting.

Next, be open to new poses and variations to the poses. Do not become dull or stagnant by always doing the same asanas or using the same focus in poses. Watch out for habit-forming patterns – mental and physical, and prepare yourself to welcome change  – both in asanas and instructors. It becomes difficult to accept change when you operate from old habits. Conversely, don’t view your yoga class as a source of entertainment by looking for new poses all the time. That will leave you critical of your instructor and discontented with your class.

Finally, take a moment to reflect on how you can give valuable feedback instead of judging your yoga instructors. Every instructor is a student first. She or he began their practice on your side of the room and worked their way to the other side with the intention to share this wonderful practice. While there is always room for improvement, each instructor has patiently developed a style that they work from, while adding and modifying periodically. Place your mat in front of the classroom and ask yourself – how would you teach the class if you were the instructor.

Patanjali’s Sutra 2:46 states, स्थिरसुखमासनम्॥२.४६॥ – Sthira Sukham Asanam; “a posture that is steady and comfortable is called Asana.” Make your seat an asana-seat. Only then real “yoga” practice – the practice to transcend the mind in order to uncover inner joy – begins.

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