Yoga Day 2018

“My studio is doing a special 2 hour yoga class for Yoga Day. Looking forward to practicing the poses.”

“Guess what? The YMCA is adding an outdoor yoga class this evening. And, the studio in my neighborhood is also hosting a lunch time yoga class along with some healthy snacks. I’m planning to go to both.”

“Did you hear Kathy’s gym is holding a four hour yoga class today? Can’t wait to sweat it out on the mat.”

What did you do this Yoga Day?

Origins

Sept 27th, 2014 was the day Mr. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, proposed International Yoga Day at the United Nations General Assembly. A day dedicated to create awareness to the practice of yoga with an intention to spread peace and harmony across the globe. June 21st, 2015 marked the first celebration of this day and it is gaining popularity each year.

Over the years, many of us have been a part of yoga awareness seminars and workshops before a day was dedicated to yoga. June 21st being summer solstice, studios usually plan special classes surrounding Surya Namaskar, sun salutations or various ‘sun’ meditations. A few times, a handful of fellow practitioners planned an outdoor practice of asana and meditation, followed by music around a camp fire, a healthy picnic, celebrating Mother Nature with gratitude. One year at the YMCA, we dedicated a whole day to yoga practices where students could walk in at their convenience and try variety of classes (asana, meditation, pranayama) offered within various levels (beginner, intermediate, senior, kids) by different instructors all the day long. Each year I have looked forward to these gatherings and am grateful to have enjoyed many a summer solstice celebration under the blue skies.

Yoga

It is surprising that the word yoga continues to be synonymous with asana, poses. While asana is an appetizer and has its wonderful, and a much needed place in yoga, this tells me that there is more work to be done to dispel that myth and educate the masses about the depths of yogic practices. Understanding ‘what is yoga‘ may be the place to begin.

Yoga is the embodiment of the eight fold path, Raja Yoga. Each of the eight steps help us work towards transforming our body, purifying the mind and consciously dwelling in the spirit. Once you have been initiated into Raja Yoga, it is up to you to begin your efforts to employ any means to cultivate the discipline for a regular practice. These steps awaken inner subtler parts of ourselves to become aware of our habituated patterns of behavior and thoughts in order to begin this transformation.

The key word here is “cultivate”. Discipline can be cultivated. Just like you have repeatedly trained yourself to perfection in certain negative habits, training in the opposite behaviors is also achievable. You must have a burning desire and indomitable will to achieve it. And, companionship with other ‘buddy’ practitioners is essential to build a network of support to sustain these practices.

So, if we proclaim that we are students of yoga, we certainly know it’s benefits. Then, our intention must be to spread the word about Raja Yoga – as to its practice and benefits. Each bringing a friend or family member join us to partake in the yoga day celebrations is a good start.

Intentions

In Samskritham, the word ‘yoga’ comes from the root- युज्yuj, meaning “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach”, “to harmonize”. It is empowering to know that we – as a collective can make a difference by practicing yoga together. Imagine going to a neighborhood studio or gym to participate in various yoga practices with lofty intentions – starting with wanting to become healthy by alleviating aches and pains, to attaining peace and joy. Of course, we begin with baby steps to initiate transformation within ourselves and by extension, become a catalyst to bring peace and harmony to the world.

And, if we proclaim to be teachers of yoga, then our responsibility is much more. While it is a great beginning to take students through an enjoyable asana, pose practice followed by a restful relaxation in shavasana, corpse pose, we must also teach specific tools listed in the Yoga Sutras that have clearly proven their efficacy in creating a transformational practice. For example Y.S. 1:33-34 gives us a fantastic tool called Pratipaksha Bhavanam, the yogic practice of opposites. Here, one begins to consciously understand the presence of duality and becomes empowered to look at life through the lens of healthy, positive opposites. In fact, each of the eight steps of Raja Yoga is a technique in itself. How amazing is that!

As a yoga teacher, it is exciting when new students walk in, as I get to introduce them to this life changing practice. Each time a handful of students who practice regularly ask questions about how to deepen their yoga, it is a pleasure to lay out the next stages of this glorious practice and support them as they make their way navigating each new territory.

Each of us who have had good teachers know how important it is to say encouraging words at the outset, to demonstrate the correct techniques, and to follow through with our own practices. Most importantly it gives us, teachers, an opportunity to practice sharing the joyful seriousness of yoga practices as egoless actions in the spirit of service, and at the same time, reminding ourselves to be eternal students.

Yoga Day, 2018

Instead of sitting within the four walls and complaining that the world we live in is becoming more corrupt- ask how can we – each one of us contribute to steer it in the positive direction. Transformation starts within each of us first. One can only change the person in the mirror.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves frequently in order to initiate and sustain a wholesome transformation. For example, do I practice asana with competition? Did I learn a breathing technique that helps me calm my anger and cultivate compassion? Or did I learn a meditation technique that supports my daily activities – at work and at home?

Yes, transformation is a slow process – it takes patience, perseverance and practice. Industrial revolution did not happen because people sat on their front porches, playing their ukulele after a scorching day of cotton picking. Electronic and Computer revolution did not happen because people spent their evenings watching movies at the neighborhood drive-in. Then again, in spite of ukulele and drive-ins, we are reaping the benefits of these revolutions now.

In this age of internet addiction, even yoga mat creators and yoga tights designers spend laborious hours in the processes of designing and have been extremely successful in marketing them to you, the customer – that the whole experience of yoga is a fancy outfit and a designer yoga mat with its various accessories of non-skid gloves, socks, etc. But where is the transformational philosophy?

As much as I enjoy a new yoga mat, cultivating the restraint of ahimsa, non-harming in action, speech and thought has been exciting as well as an exhausting practice. For example, becoming aware of my tone of voice in the spirit of ahimsa, to convey the right message has been the hardest. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Likewise, learning the ethics of Yama and Niyama so that the values remain at the forefront while discussing controversial issues or when gossiping; or understanding that the effect of pranayama in movement and it’s calming effects on the mind, can deepen the practice of yoga. And, training the senses in Pratyahara to help us withdraw the mind from temptation, redirect it inward and attach it to a higher purpose in Dhyana, meditation will bring us closer to the true meaning of yoga – perfect peace  and spiritual union.

It is hard work but persistence pays. Find a teacher who can introduce you to the philosophy of Raja Yoga. You will not regret it. Together, let’s help spread the word that Asana, pose practice is only the beginning – this is the message for this year’s yoga day.

Happy Yoga Day!

drishti

The word दृष्टि,driśti’ comes from the Samskritham root ‘to see’. In yoga, it means to hold a steady gaze. This steady gaze can be directed in two directions:

  1. Outward gaze using physical points called Bahir Driśti, बहिर्दृष्टि 
  2. Inward gaze as in चक्र, chakra or मुद्रा, mudra called Antar Driśti – अन्तर्दृष्टि

दृष्टि, driśti is used in आसन – āsana, प्राणायाम – prānayāma and धारणा – dhārana. It is a soft, intentional gaze, not a penetrating stare with relaxed and half-closed eyes. Its a simple process where you first, become aware of where/what you are looking at. Next, direct the eyes with an intent to focus your attention using one of the driśti points (see below).

Texts

The text योगसूत्रYogasutra mentions to focus attention on various points such as चक्र, chakras, wheels of energy or on शाम्भवी मुद्रा, Shambavi Mudra, space between the eybrows to enhance concentration. However, no specific driśti point references are mentioned for āsana practice.

Other हठ योग, Hata Yoga texts while describing certain āsanas, state that the gaze should be fixed at the tip of the nose i.e. Nasāgrey Driśti. For example, the chapter on āsanas in Gherandsamhita while describing Padmāsana (2:8) and Simhāsana (2:15), Gorakshāsana (2:25) states the point of focus placed on Nasāgrey Driśti. And in the fifth chapter of Gherandsamhita (5:43) the same driśti is used for Nādi Shodhana Pranayama (also reffered to as  Nādishuddhi Pranayāma).

Hata Yoga Pradīpika does not list the nine types but makes references within certain āsana descriptions.

Nine Types 

There are nine driśti points (counting Pārśva Driśti, left/right side). Few āsanas are mentioned within each group. However, please note an āsana may have multiple driśti points. And, many prefer to close their eyes as it brings a sense of calmness and joy into the practice.

Samskritham script with audio has been provided for pronunciation practice.

अङ्गूष्ठमध्ये Angusthamadhyay 

Aṅguṣṭhamadhyay अङ्गूष्ठमध्ये; means “at the middle of the thumb or big toe” or simply the practitioner looks at the thumb or big toe.

Āsanas

  • वीरभद्रासन,Virabhadrasana (Warrior 1)
  • त्रीकेणासन, Trikonasana (Triangle)
  • कोणासन, Konasana, sidebend (Standing or seated)
  • पादहस्तासन, Padahastasana, (Hand to foot pose)

भ्रूमध्ये Bhrumadhyay

The Bhrūmadhyay Driśti भ्रूमध्ये, means “at the middle of the eyebrows/brow, at the “third eye”. Here, eyes are halfway or fully closed and focussed toward the space between the eyebrows. Yogic texts refer to this point as शाम्भवी मुद्र, Śāmbhavi Mudra, आज्ञा चक्र, Ājna Chakra and कूटस्थ चैतन्य, Kutastha Chaitanya.  Hold the gaze for a few minutes and gradually increase the time.

Āsanas

  • मत्स्यासन, Matsyāsana (Fish)
  • विपरीत वीरभद्रासन, Viparīta Vīrabhadrāsana (Reverse Warrior)
  • सिद्धासन, Siddhāsana
  • सुखासन, Sukhāsana (Easy Pose)
  • अर्ध पद्मासन, Ardha Padmāsana (Half Lotus)
  •  वज्रासन, Vajrāsana (Thunderbolt)
  • अर्ध मत्स्येन्द्रासन, Ardha Matsyendrāsana (Half Spinal twist)

नासाग्रे Nasāgrey

Nāsāgrey Driśti  नासाग्रे, means “to the tip of the nose”  has the eyes fixed on the tip of the nose. You may begin by fixing your gaze in front of you either on the floor or front edge of the mat as in tree pose.

Āsanas

  • व्रृक्षासन,Vrkshasana (Tree)
  • उत्तानासन, Uttānāsana (Standing Forward Fold)
  • शिरीशासन, Śiriśāsana (Handstand)
  • ऊर्ध्व धनुरासन, Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana (Wheel)
  • उष्ट्रासन, Uśtrasana (Camel).
  • समास्थिति:, Samāstithihi in सूर्य नमस्कार, Sūrya Namaskār

हस्ताग्रे Hastāgray

The Hastāgray Driśti हस्ताग्रे means “front of the hand” which involves looking at the fingertips or palm of the hand when extended.

When प्रणव, Pranava or आदि, Ādimudra is practiced during āsana, the gaze can rest on the mudra. However, during शवासन, Śvāsana, Prānayāma and meditation, other inner, Antar driśti points may be used or eyes may be closed.

Āsanas

  • उथित त्रिकोणासन, Uthita Trikonasana (Triangle)
  • परिवृत्त त्रिकोणासन, Parivritta Trikonāsana (Triangle Twist)
  • उथित पार्श्व केणासन, Utthita Parśvakonāsana (Extended Side Angle)

पार्श्व Pārshva

Pārśva Driśti – पार्श्व means “the side” – looking sideways to the left or right side.

Pārśva driśti is somewhat ambiguous as “sideways” can be up for interpretation. Mostly, a sideways gaze follows the direction as the head – upward or downward. However, Swami Satyananda Saraswati recommends using Bhrumadhyay (भ्रूमध्ये,Driśti, once you complete the sideways movement or the twist.

Āsanas

  • अर्ध मत्स्येन्द्रासन, Ardha Matsyendrāsana (Half Lord of the Fishes)
  • मरीचियासन, Marichyāsana (Marichi’s Pose)
  • भारद्वजासन, Bhāradvājāsana (Twist)
  • वीरभद्रासन, Virabhadrāsana 2 (Warrior 2)

ऊर्घ्व Ūrdhva

Ūrdhva Driśti – ऊर्घ्व means “above” – has the eyes pointing upwards, to the sky, to infiniteness. Also referred to as Ākāśa Driśti and Anantha Driśti.

Āsanas

  • उत्कटासन, Utkatāsana (Fierce pose)
  • वीरभद्रासन, Vīrabhadrāsana I (Warrior I)
  • आंजनेयासन, Ānjanèyāsana (Wisdom pose)
  • उपविष्ट कोणासन, Upaviśta Konāsana (Seated side angle)
  • ऊर्ध्व पादअंगूष्टासन, Urdhva Pādaangushtāsana (Seated leg lift)

 नाभिचक्रे Nābhicakre

Nābhicakre Driśti नाभिचक्रे means “on the navel” where “Nābhi” means naval center and “chakra” means wheel, circle.

Āsanas

  • अधोमुख श्वानासन, Adho Mukha Śvānasana (Downward Facing dog)
  • पर्वतासन, Parvatāsana (Mountain pose)
  • नौकासन, Naukāsana (Leaning boat pose)
  • सर्वांगासन, Sarvāngāsana (Shoulder stand)

पादयोरग्रे Pādayoragrey

Pādayoragrey Driśti पादयोरग्रे means “to the tips of the feet” – is gazing at the toes.

Āsanas

  • पश्चिमोत्तनासन, Paścimottanāsana (Seated forward bend)
  • जानु शिरिशासन, Jānu Śirśasana (Head to knee pose)
  • नवासन, Navāsana (Boat pose)

Benefits

  • improves alignment and intensifying your experience in a pose
  • helps to filter out visual stimuli and distractions
  • helps find balance and depth in the pose
  • strengthens eye muscles
  • increases focus and attention during practice – being present
  • controls wandering eyes – stops you from judging peers
  • conserves energy for other yoga practices
  • decreases mental chatter (where our eyes go, attention follows)
  • adds meditative quality to your practice
  • Induces calmness

For example, in Ānjaneyāsana, low lunge, an upward gaze (ऊर्घ्व ) opens the chest, lengthens the spine, sinks the hips over the feet for a stable and strong pose. In Adhomukha Śvānāsana, Downward Facing Dog, driśti at the navel, नाभिचक्रे, nābhichakrey encourages lifting up at the hips and back of the tailbone preventing the rounding of the spine.

Personal Practice

Since the movement during vinyāsa is fluid, it is important to know exactly where the driśti points are for each āsana so it becomes easier to focus through transitions. As your practice matures you will also notice that the driśti point can vary.

It took me years to memorize the driśti for each āsana. Sometimes, when I forced myself to use the recommended driśti point, it either exaggarated or depressed a specific emotion, ending in a dissatified practice. But when I let myself be guided from within, my driśti settled on other points – possibly on what I needed at that moment. It helped me become aware of the unwanted emotion and tranform it for a fulfilling practice.

For example, when I brought restless emotions to the mat, nābhichakre driśti as in Naukāsana, leaning boat pose, aggravated the ego energy, unnecessarily increasing the agitation. Shifting my gaze to my big toe helped redirect the restless energy but settling the driśti on the heart or the eyebrow center dissipated the ego and replaced it with compassion or forgiveness.

Another day, when I was worried/anxious, in Pādahastāsana, hand to foot pose, with my head below the heart, my driśti on the (blocked) heart chakra, caused a sense of hopelessness. Redirecting the driśti to the eybrow center activated constructive inner reflection and flooded my being with gratitude.

While you enjoy the above nine दृष्टि, driśtis in your practice, remember to notice your own preferences and benefits on and off the mat.

Final Thoughts

Ever wonder why you felt drained after window shopping in the mall or staring at the computer screen? Could it be that your prāna was drained through your eyes? The world of social media and multitasking trains your attention to become discursive and unruly.  दृष्टि,driśti’ helps to manage your mind instead of allowing it to rule you.

Next time you are practicing yogāsana, prānayāma and dhārana notice the challenges your eyes present. Watch where your attention goes. Remember no matter the direction in which you are physically looking, using driśti increases your awareness and teaches you to hone the practice of inner reflection.

Practice driśti just as you rehearse awareness to your breath. Gently remind yourself to come back to your driśti just as you do with your breath. Soon, each part of your yoga practice will begin to work together seamlessly and you will notice a sense of deeper focus and calmness on and off of the mat.

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Swami Satyananda Sarawati, 1966, 1999. Āsana, Prānayāma, Mudra Bandha. Bihar School og Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India.

Swami Muktibodhananda. 1993. Hatayoga Pradipika. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India.

2018 Intentions

Intention – Sankalpa

Another year, another resolution.

Each year the most common resolution ends up being about health – a desire to initiate change through exercise and nutrition. Any type of change is born as an intention and morphs into a resolutionThey say intention to monitor change at the level of thought process is where change must begin in order to create new habits.

This year, I wanted to share a few quotes by saints, mystics and yogis which have helped me transform ordinary intentions into uplifting, spiritual intentions, called sankalpa. Of course, this transformation does not happen overnight, but every little effort counts.

Gurus and spiritual teachers declare that spiritual intentions are well thought-out, conscious motives that have a quality of discernment and simplicity. Relying on the wisdom of the ancients in creating my intention has been inspirational.

Holy Name – Mantram

I believe a prayer of your choosing especially in a familiar language, has the power to effect change in your consciousness and can also become your spiritual intention. Sri Easwaran calls a prayer – Holy Name or Mantram. The ritual of chanting the Holy Name, mantram exists in most religious and spiritual traditions. In his book, The Mantram HandbookEaswaran describes what a mantram is, how to choose one and how to use it as a tool in daily practice. Although I was introduced to mantram chanting in my childhood, it was more a mechanical repetition than a spiritual intention.

Now, my chosen mantram (in Samskritham) is a spiritual intention that supports and guides, calms and inspires. With years of sincere and disciplined practice it has proved itself to be a tool that transforms – one I cannot live without. For example, if I happen to dwell in greedy thoughts, it helps me realize that I don’t need to imitate the neighbors, that I already have ‘enough’ and should choose to abide in abundance. This type of transformation takes constant policing of thoughts through the yogic practice, abhyasa.

Practice – Abhyasa

Along with the mantram, I began memorizing these words of wisdom in order to make them an intrinsic part of my thought process – my sankalpa. It is taking immense practice to police my varying degrees of selfish thoughts and actions, and replace them with selfless ones. I believe these powerful spiritual intentions have changed some of my old, unhealthy thought patterns into new, loving ones. I still have a long way to go.

Besides, Paramahamsa Yogananda and Shri Easwaran both affirm that practice of meditation using the Holy Name or Mantram will take us beyond the ego-mind into the silence of pure consciousness. This is the ideal state in which to plant the seeds of uplifting, spiritual intentions.

Words of Wisdom

The following are a few quotes that are helping to reframe my thoughts; making me a better person, one day at a time.

“Yesterday I was clever and I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, I am changing myself”. Jalaluddin Rumi
“You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.” Swami Vivekananda

Changing myself has been a tedious process. Slowly, I am learning to enjoy the process of chipping away at negative, unhealthy, judgmental attitudes in hopes to discover the core of my being.

“Accept each inhale as a gift from God/Universe; Make each exhale as an offering to God/ Universe”. Unknown

This simple wisdom has allowed me to be aware of my breath, to be present – making my daily practice better on and off the yoga mat.

St. Francis of Assisi’s words have the power to arouse unconditional compassion within and teach us to turn tolerance into love. Although practicing the whole quote is inspiring, just the first two lines was enough to make a dent in my psyche years ago. Sincere gratitude to Easwaran for bringing this quote into my life.

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O Divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying (of the self ) that we are born to Eternal Life

Although everyday comes with failures and successes, I believe that these words of wisdom not only help in purifying my intention, sankalpa, but also in transforming current habits that are not supportive to my spiritual practice.

“Habits of thought control one’s life. Success is hastened or delayed by one’s habits. It is not your passing inspirations or brilliant ideas so much as your everyday habits (thoughts and actions) that control your life”. Paramahamsa Yogananda

When the sankalpa of making Raja Yoga was born, it took years to transform it from a 9:30 a.m. weekday class into a daily habit and eventually a lifestyle. A handful of yoga poses, asana, along with a few rounds of breathing, pranayama did not mean I was ‘doing’ yoga. It took years to understand that asana is the third limb of Raja Yoga and only the beginning. 

The eight fold path works not just on the body and breath, but on transforming the mind. Slowly, a daily practice of reflection and ‘sitting for meditation’ became a routine which overhauled my thought process. As I continue to juggle between failures and progress, eight steps of Raja Yoga are a constant reminder to be aware of my thoughts and motives before unleashing them onto the world of words and actions.

The words below have become my sankalpa, spiritual intention in preparation to face each day with courage and kindness.

“Always – pray to have eyes that see the best in people, a heart that forgives the worst, a mind that forgets the bad and a soul that never loses faith in God.” Unknown

Repeating these words is almost like repeating the mantram, the Holy Name. Easwaran advises that repeating them aloud a few times can help you get it started in the mind. He says the idea is to heal the divisions in our consciousness that create likes and dislikes, love and hate, and to slow down the mind in order to begin working from the inside out.

And finally, the one below has become my staff that carries me through the day.

‘”May I open my eyes in the morning  with the Holy Name (Mantram) on my lips. May I see God everywhere and in everyone. May I never hurt anyone and may I never be afraid of anyone. May I be inspired to choose persuasive words, loving language, creative and positive thoughts, to carry peace and goodwill throughout the world. May my meditation deepen, so I can draw upon the source of all life. May I fall asleep with the Holy Name on my lips, to heal my wounds and prepare me for another day of service.” Sri Eknath Easwaran

To meticulously peel the layers of unwanted debris of conflicting motives to reveal truer intentions can be annoyingly slow. I need strict reminders to stop wallowing and enjoy the practice. The philosophy of Raja Yoga has helped me to be forgiving of my failures and continue working towards changing my thoughts and habits.

This ‘new’ year, I hesitatingly admit (to avoid being jinxed) that these inspiring words are eliciting conscious motives at least some of the time. Leaving the liability of misunderstood perceptions to God and GurudevI promise to practice daily in hopes to unveil a ‘new’ me.

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Easwaran, Eknath. 1977, 1998. The Mantram Handbook. Niligiri Press. CA

Vivekananda, Swami. 1896. 2015. Raja Yoga – Conquering the Inner Nature. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

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 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 have to teach an early morning class. While some are blessed with flexibility and strength, others clearly aren’t. 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. 

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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 seator 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 propsto 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