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. 
  • You may refer to 1-2 books at a time. More than that may be overwhelming.
  • 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 2-4 translations or commentaries to compare each sutra.
  • Write down the main descriptions and interpretations.
  • Take it with you into meditation. Be completely aware of unexpected revelations. 
  • Then try bring it to life by applying its essence in your daily activities. 

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.
  • Return to your meditation seat and be a witness.

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 while 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 Moon. Life 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 great 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 presumed to have experienced a tiniest morsel of this joy on my yoga mat. In any case, the author clearly states that yoga is not about poses, asana, 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, aphorisms. Sutra, सूत्रmeans 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).

The YogaSutra,योगसूत्र, may have been compiled sometime around 350 CE or even as early as 3000 BCE. Now, as we study together we weave this thread and connect our practices to carry this ancient wisdom through time.

Sutras are composed of few words – meant to provide in a very condensed form all essential knowledge for an advanced student of yoga and not to serve as an introduction for a beginner who has yet to learn the abc’s of this subject (Taimni). 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

gurus and teachers

There are many designations provided to the one who instructs – teacher, lecturer, instructor, professor, and so on. Similar words in Samskritham (Sanskrit) are अध्यापक, adhyapak, शिक्षक, shikshak, उपाध्याय, upAdyaya; specifically for a spiritual teacher are धर्मोपदेशक, dharmopdeshak, बोधक, bhodhak, आचार्य, Acharya, etc., to list a few. Although the hierarchy among the above listed words is sketchy, the word गुरु, Guru is placed at the highest and is not to be taken lightly.

Currently, the term Guru is used very loosely in the modern world. Anyone who may have achieved a little something becomes recognized on the media platform is deemed a guru; like a fashion guru, or computer guru, a cooking guru. For instance, Steve Jobs was Apple’s guru, Akilah, a youtube comedian is a beauty guru and Keith Edward Elam (July 17, 1961 – April 19, 2010), stage name Guru, was an American rapper, producer, and actor. And, of course the websites: guru.com, getguru.com, guruscafe.com, gurucycling.com and guruenergy.com.

Years ago, I remember reading a phrase ‘wastepaper-basket term’ in Speech Pathology which referred to a word that is used very loosely and very often,- that it looses its reverence and importance. Sadly, Guru has become a wastepaper-basket term. Unfortunately, because of media hype of pseudo yoga gurus, a few of the true Yoga Gurus have succumbed to ridicule as well.

This blog is a feeble attempt to restore the respect for the word ‘Guru’ and bring back the faith in the ancient tradition of Guru-Disciple relationship. The more knowledge you gain by studying about ancient gurus and their paths, the more your faith and reverence towards true Gurus will be restored. Start with Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda, or At the Eleventh Hour by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD (Swami Rama of the Himalayas). You will be inspired.

Origins 

Look around and see who your teachers are. How would you describe the person who teaches you? What qualities does he or she possess? Is he or she your role model and is helping you grow? Would you emulate your teacher?

The word ‘Guru’, derived from the ancient language of Samskrithamis made up of two syllables Gu and Ru:

  • Gu comes from the root “Ga” that denotes the spiritual ignorance of most humankind +“U” Suppression – removal of darkness/ignornance.
  • Ru comes from “Ra” seed sound for fire and light (anger and insight) + “U” suppression – suppression of negative aspects that cloud pure vision.
  • The vibrational meaning of “Guru” is – one whose radiance of spiritual knowledge dispels the spiritual ignorance and amplifies spiritual experiences and spiritual knowledge.

Mundaka Upanishad (1.2.12) states that anyone seeking to study Advaita Vedānta should do so only from a Guru, who has the following qualities:

  1. Śrotriya — must be learned in the scriptures of Vedas, Upanishads, etc
  2. Brahmanişţha — must be “established in Brahman; must have realized the oneness of Brahman in everything and within himself.

A Guru must demonstrate the following

  • Clarity, perception and proper dissemination of ‘true’ knowledge
  • Regularity in spiritual practice, Sadhana
  • Freedom from desire and fruits of actions
  • Living example of humility and dispassion

For everyday purposes, a literal translation of the Guru is a Spiritual Teacher; a person with virtuous qualities who enlightens the mind of the disciple, a master from whom one receives the mantra initiation (Diksha), a mentor who inspires dedication, and a role model who exemplifies how to live a spiritual life.

Many Teachers, One Guru

You will encounter many different teachers on your spiritual journey. But there is only one Guru.

A true Guru is not an ordinary spiritual teacher, but one who has attained union with God and is therefore qualified to lead others to that goal.“The blind cannot lead the blind,” said Paramahamsa Yogananda. “Only a master, one who knows God, may rightly teach others about Him. To regain one’s divinity one must have such a master or Guru. He who faithfully follows a true Guru becomes like him, for the Guru helps to elevate the disciple to his own level of realization.”

According to the types of functions and various texts, Guru may be categorized as rishi, acharya, upadhya, kulapati or mantravetta, etc. Seven types of Gurus according to Guru Gita, another spiritual text is listed below.

Suchaka Guru Mastery over any one science or art. e.g. Mastery in Healing, etc.
Vachaka Guru Initiates one into spirituality by giving a Diksha Mantra, which transforms the life of the recipient
Bodhaka Guru Gives insructions relating to caste, creed, religion.
Nishiddha Guru Invokes God’s Secret powers for personal benefit or with evil intention.
Vihita Guru Shows Vairagya (Dispassion) in Society
Karanakhya Guru Guru who gives Sanyasa Diksha (initiates disciple into Monkhood). He is the remover of the disease of this mundane world.
Param Guru Dispeller of doubts, removes the fear of birth and death is the The Supreme Guru, i.e. who shows the path of Liberation (moksha).

 Yoga Philosophy teaches that there is no true knowledge without a Guru and outlines four levels of Guru.

  • Shiksha Guruteaches basics, helps establish routines and practices, and helps to gather information through spiritual study. May be at the same spiritual level as you or I, but may know things that we haven’t found out yet and inspires us to practice.
  • Diksha GuruOne who has mastered a spiritual practice, whose intellectual enquiry is confirmed by self-experience, who can initiate one into a mantra, meditation or Sadhana (spiritual practice) by transmitting live energy or knowledge during initiation.
  • Sat Guru – One who has achieved the final goal of Self Realization; These Gurus have the power to affect you whether they are embodied or not. They are transcended but we don’t need their physical presence to connect to their guidance.
  • Aadhi GuruSupreme First GuruPathanjali mentions in the text, Yoga Sutra, 1:25-27- that Ishvara is the Divine Guru and , AUM or the Word is the original Guru vibration which can guide us to our divine essence.

Finding a Guru

Ancient texts also talk about Guru tattva, the essence of the supreme teacher. This, they say, is brought into your spiritual practice by the repetition or meditation on AUM. It helps to cultivate a pure intention to find the “right teacher” and to develop the ability to listen to intuition in order to tap into the essence of Guru Tattva.  Ultimately, this will improve and strengthen our Guru Karma, opening the way to knowledge. Yoga teaches us that the types of Gurus/teachers we attract to ourselves in our life is a reflection of our own Guru Karma.

When asked if I had found a Guru, my response – from the place of ego was – not yet – because I am looking for – elaborating a long list of requirements. Of course, not realizing that my finite mind with a list of finite characteristics, finite personality descriptions, finite knowledge cannot find the Infinite Absolute in a Guru, even if I tried.

Guru, a true teacher I’m told – masked by my ego, is very near; an inner teacher, already active, extending an invisible hand – guiding me every step of the way. He found me. Ah yes – you are wondering how this happened; as if he knocked on my door to introduce himself. In fact, he did – knocked on the door of my consciousness, announced himself through my intuition and now, has settled happily in my heart. I am truly blessed.

Guru Stotrama popular hymn is chanted by many – as way of offering gratitude for guidance as well as deliberateness to find the right Guru.  Over the years, I have chanted this mantra as a vow, with an intention to find answers. It has not failed me. Each time the power of this mantra has guided me to find great teachers to help me on my spiritual journey.

A yoga teacher can share impressive asana sequences, alignment tips, breathing techniques and other practices that can help students achieve good health and feel uplifted. But only a Guru can bring a student face to face with Ishvara, Divine essence (Yoga Sutras).

There is an ancient saying – “when the student is ready the teacher appears”. What does the word “ready” mean? I think it translates to “How did the student “prepare” himself or herself to receive a guru?”

Let’s explore the role of a yoga student or a spiritual seeker in the next post. Until then be the best student you can be – for your true Guru may be just around the corner.

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Further Study

  1. Saraswati, Satyasangananda Swami. Light on Guru and Disciple Relationship.1983. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India.
  2. Tigunait, Rajamani, Pundit.PhD. 1996. The Power of Mantra and The Mystery of Initiation. Himalayan Institute Press, Honedale, PA
  3. http://www.dlshq.org/download/gurutattva.htm
  4. http://www.yogananda-srf.org/HowtoLive/The_Role_of_a_Guru_in_One’s_Spiritual_Search.aspx
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gizu496Nac (14 videos in this series)

surya namaskar asanas

Surya Namaskar is a graceful sequence of twelve asanas, poses performed as one continuous exercise.

Components of Surya Namaskar

Surya Namaskar is composed of three main elements – asana form (alignment), energy and rhythm (breath) and manthras (japa/bija). Chakras, energy centers and bandhas, locks, are not addressed in this post.

Twelve Asanas

This version begins and ends with Samastithihi – translated as Even Standing. Stand lifted from the base of your spine with your feet hip-width apart. Arms are resting on either side with palms facing forward – open and ready to receive from the practice. This position is in addition to the twelve asanas of the original sequence.

One full round of Surya Namaskar consists of two sets of the twelve asanas is listed below. You may practice the Samskritham pronunciation of each asana by listening to the audio clips.

Samastithihi

Pose #

Asana

English Name

Breath

1. Pranamasana

Prayer Pose Exhale
2. Hasta Uttanasana

Raised Hand Inhale
3. Pada Uttanasana

Forward Bend Exhale
4. Ashva Sanchalasana

Equestrian Pose Inhale
5. Parvatasana

Mountain Pose Exhale
6. Ashtanga Namaskar

Eight-Point Pose Suspend
7. Bhujungasana

Cobra Inhale
8. Parvatasana

Mountain Pose Exhale
9. Ashva Sanchalasana

Equestrian Pose Inhale
10. Pada Uttanasana

Forward Bend Exhale
11. Hasta Uttanasana

Raised Hand Inhale
12. Pranamasana

Prayer Pose Exhale

Differences in Traditional Version

  • Asana #3 Variation – this asana is sometimes reffered to as Pada Hastasna (Foot to Hand) or Hasta Padasana (Hand to Foot) pose. In Pada Hastana, your hands are placed under your feet and hence considered different from this version.
  • Asana #4 Variations:
    • Hands placed in prayer position
    • Hands placed beside the feet
    • Asana replaced by Anjaneyasana – where the arms are raised upward, palms interlaced with index fingers pointed. (Bihar School of Yoga Version)
  • Asana #5 is sometimes substituted with Adho Mukha Shvanasana, Downward Facing Dog. In Parvatasana, the body weight is centered and may be used as a resting pose. Adho Mukha Shvanasana the body weight is over the legs and is a very active and dynamic pose.

Breath

“Think of your body as a wind instrument. Your breath is the wind through the instrument. For asana practice, your body is the instrument through which the breath, the carrier of prana – life force flows” says Eric Schiffman. The right flow of the breath produces the right music. Similarly your breath, ignites the prana and initiates movment through exhales and inhales. This provides a steady rhythm for stretch and release.

In the begining, coordinating the movement with the breath can be a challenge. Many times I have been asked ‘how fast should sun salutations be performed?’ It is the breath that dictates the pace and rhythm of every Surya Namaskar. If you are concentrating on how quickly you are coming in and out of each pose, then you are not working with the breath.

Check colunm #4 in the above table. Do you notice a pattern for inhales and exhales? Each time the body opens up and out, the chest cavity expands and you will inhale. Each time the body folds and closes in, the chest cavity narrows and you exhale.

Start with regular breath. Once you become familar with the asanas and comfortable with the sequence, Ujjaiyi breathing may be introduced. This breath is both energizing and calming. It must be practiced separately in a seated pranayama, breathing practice before adapting it into movement. It takes a qualified teacher, mastery in transitions and disciplined practice to introduce Ujjaiyi breath in Surya Namaskar. In time you will become skillful at making breath and movement inseparably entwined. With repeated practice – Abhyasa, your concentration is refined in preparation for meditation. 

Surya Namaskar Manthras

There are two sets of manthras for the traditonal Surya Namaskar – bija or seed manthra. and Japa Manthra, which is essentially a longer version of the bija mantra. You may practice the Samskritham pronunciation of each Japa manthra by listening to the audio clips.

Japa Manthra

# Asana Japa manthra (Sanskrit) Japa Manthra (English)

Salutations to the One Who

1. Pranamasana ॐ मित्राय नमः

AUM Mitraya Namaha  Befriends  all
2. Hasta Uttanasana ॐ रवये नमः

AUM Ravaye Namaha Causes change
3. Pada Uttanasana ॐ सूयार्य नमः

AUM Suryaya Namaha Source of Creation
4. Ashva Sanchalasana ॐ भानवे नमः

AUM Bhanavay Namaha Illuminates
5. Parvatasana ॐ खगाय नमः

AUM Khagaya Namaha Moves in the sky
6. Ashtanga Namaskar ॐ पूष्णे नमः

AUM Pushnay Namaha Giver of strength and nourishment
7. Bhujangasana ॐ हिरण्यगर्भाय नमः

AUM Hiranyagarbhaya Namaha Golden Cosmic womb
8. Parvatasna ॐ मरीचये नमः

AUM Marichaye Namaha Powerful rays of the Sun
9. Ashva Sanchalasna ॐ आदित्याय नमः

AUM Adityaya Namaha Son of Cosmic Mother,  Adithi
10. Pada Uttanasana ॐ सवित्रे नमः

AUM Savitray Namaha Beneficial to all
11. Hasta Uttanasana ॐ अर्काय नमः

AUM Arkaaya Namaha Source of Life Energy
12. Pranamasana ॐ भास्कराय नमः

AUM Bhaskaraya Namaha Guides to Enlightenment

Bija Manthra

# Asana Poses Breath Bija Manthra  Sanskrit

Bija Manthra  English

1. Pranamasana Prayer Pose Exhale ह्राम् AUM Hram
2. Hasta Uttanasana Raised Hand Inhale ह्रीम् AUM Hrim
3. Pada Uttanasana Forward Bend Exhale ह्रुम् AUM Hrum
4. Ashva Sanchalasana Equestrian Pose Inhale हैृम् AUM Hraim
5. Parvatasana Mountain Pose Exhale ह्रौम् AUM Hraum
6. Ashtanga Namaskar Eight-point Pose Suspend हृह AUM Hraha
7. Bhujangasana Cobra Inhale ह्राम् AUM Hram
8. Parvatasna Mountain Pose Exhale ह्रीम् AUM Hrim
9. Ashva Sanchalasna Equestrian Pose Inhale ह्रुम् AUM Hrum
10. Pada Uttanasana Forward Bend Exhale हैृम् AUM Hraim
11. Hasta Uttanasana Raised Hand Inhale ह्रौम् AUM Hraum
12. Pranamasana Prayer Pose Exhale हृह AUM Hraha

Other Versions

You will find several versions of Surya Namaskar such as Surya Namaskar A and B  by Beryl Bender Birch, especially in Ashtanga yoga. Here the number of asanas in the each sequences varies – 10 (A) or 18 (B). These are used as warm-ups in many yoga studios. Adding other asanas into the traditional sequence called Vinyasa flow is popular as well. Once you have mastered the original sequence, you will be able to expand the vinyasa safely.

However, if you are choosing to make Surya Namaskar a spiritual practice, then begin with the traditional sequence with the bija/japa manthras. Add the Ujjaiyi breath and learn how to focus on chakras and bandhas (advanced practices) to enhance concentration, Dharana and prepare for Dhyana, meditation.

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Next Post: Surya Namaskar Abhyasa

 

surya namaskar salutations to the sun

The Sun. Topic of many a conversation.

We complain when the Sun unleashes its glory – a scorching summer day. But we endure knowing it is shortlived at the approach of cold weather. We also complain that the Sun is not warm enough – a dark, freezing winter day. When a ray of sunlight cuts through the curtain of darkness it is a mood altering moment. It has a potential to transform a frown to a smile, letheragy to action and sadness to joy. It’s no wonder yogis all over the world raise their hands up in gratitude when the clouds part for the sun.

rising_sun

As we step on the yoga mat to begin our salutations to this wonderous cosmic light, a feeling of reverence is essential to invoke its grace. To avoid making sun salutations just another form of exercise, here are a few thoughts on the origin and history of this ancient tradition to help evoke reverence in your personal practice.

Origins

The Samskritham (Sanskrit) name for Sun Salutations is Surya Namaskar, सूर्यनमस्कार.

Surya, the Sun is revered as a form of God, in Hindu philosophyThe word Surya is derived from the root ‘sur’ to shine or ‘svir’ to promote wellness.

The ancient texts – the Vedas and Upanishads consider the elements of the universe –the sun, moon, earth, air, water – sacred. Surya has been represented by various names (nama) and forms (roopa). Among other names, Surya is called Savitar, Vivasvat, Aryaman and is adored for health, strength, courage and most importantly for igniting the light of spiritual consciousness.

Rig Veda, oldest of the four Vedas, salutes Surya as Shipivishta, the one who enters everywhere with the nutrient power, an energy source; yogis refer to the same as Prana.

In Vedic rituals, Surya was denoted as a wheel (on coins), gold plate and a lotus flower. In 200-100BC, Surya was represented as a globe with radiating rays on coins. Surya in human form, represented on coins goes back to Greek and Persian origins.

Svastika, स्वस्तिक, symbolizing the Sun, has been found in the prehistoric remains of Spain, Portugal, and Greece and in Native American tribes.

The science behind the lines of the Svastika:

The four arms of the Svastika indicate the position of the Sun at midnight, sunrise, noon and sunset. The four short lines of directions and the four points of cosmic cross indicate the apparent movement of the Sun from East to West. This figure symbolizes the reproductive aspect of the Sun, was taken as the symbol of fertility, luck and auspiciousness.

Reverence

There are many mantras, hymns in the name of Surya. A few are mentioned below.

The most famous among them is the Gayathri Mantra, revealed to Sage Vishvamitra. Daily prayers included chanting of the Gayathri Mantra, Arghya (offering of water) at dawn, noon and dusk.

Surya Gita, Song of the Sun, is a portion of the text called Tattvasarayana, composed by Sage Vashishtha. The first translation was printed in 1904. It is a dialogue between Surya and his charioteer Aruna on the cause and effect of one’s actions in the process of the evolution of the soul.

Surya Dvadasha Naman, is another text that includes verses for the Sun in twelve different forms relating to the monthly Zodiac signs.

Adithya Hrudhayam, the One shining in the heart, is a prayer given to Lord Rama by Sage Agastya during his battle against the demon king Ravana to save his consort, SitaThe names praising the Sun are in verses 10 – 13. The last sentence in the verse 15 states “Salutations to Thee who is the One being manifest in the twelve forms”.

This is a popular hymn and is used as a therapeutic and spiritual antidote. Astrologers and priests advise those with various problems to chant this hymn with the right intention each day for 12, 24, 48 or 108 days.

The festival called Makara Sankrathi or Pongal in the name of Surya, is observed all over India since seventh century A.D. On this day, the first harvest is offered to Surya in gratitude for showering His energy and light for health, fertility and sustenance of all beings.

Although any day of the week can be used for worship of Surya, Sunday is considered auspicious. Sages and yogis rose before sunrise to complete their ablutions and to catch a glimpse of dawn’s first rays by prostrating to the cosmic light.

Twelve Prostrations

The traditional Surya Namaskar consists of twelve asanas, poses arranged in a specific vinyasa, sequence. Although other vinyasas have been created, the bija (seed) mantras are twelve in number and not generally used in longer sequences.

Why twelve? Here is probably a clue to the origin of twelve asanas and mantras in the current practice of traditonal Surya Namaskar.

The pre-Vedic period refers to six major solar deities called Surya, Savitar, Vishnu, Pushan, Mitra and Ushas. However, throughout the Rig Veda twelve solar deities collectively referred to as Aditya, sons of Aditi, the Vedic Goddess of space/ether were popularly used in worship.

In addition, the Yajur Veda, contains a complex set of verses called Surya Namaskar Prashnam.  The number of individual mantras is 130. The person who recited these verses had to prostrate before the Sun after each individual mantra, thus prostrating 130 times.

This practice of prostrations was later adapted as twelve prostrations in the Hata Yoga version of Surya Namaskar. The twelve solar deities, Adityas were then used to create the coresponding bija (seed) mantras to accompany the prostrations.

Sun Meditation

This is an energizing and reverential way to begin your day.

Sit outside in your yard or on a bench in a nearby park. Face the sun and close your eyes.  Wrap your whole body with sunlight. Allow the golden rays of the sun circle around you, starting near you and then spreading in concentric circles to encircle your loved ones far and near, and finally the whole world. 

yogasonnenuntergang_jpeg

If you are not able to go outside because of  winter, seat yourself near a window facing the east sun. Align yourself with its energy and meditate on its golden rays. Visualize the sun’s light entering your physical body for healing and renewal. 

Feel the light and warmth on your skin. Let your heart be open with gratitude. Let your negative thoughts be transformed into loving, generous thoughts. Stay with the rhythm of your breath and sit for as long as your heart wants. You can chant the Divine Light Prayer printed below if you like.

Divine Light Prayer  by Swami Sivananda Radha

Fill your entire being with the Light. Breathe deeply and affirm:

I am created by Divine Light

I am sustained by Divine Light

I am protected by Divine Light

I am surrounded by Divine Light

I am ever growing into Divine Light

Slowly exhale and relax. Feel the warm glow of Divine Light suffuse your entire body, outside as well as inside. Acknowledge silently to yourself:

“Every cell of this my physical body is filled with Divine Light;

Every level of my consciousness is illumined with Divine Light.

The Divine Light penetrates every single cell of my being,

Every level of consciousness.

I have become a channel of pure Light.

I am One with the Light.”

When you are done, take a deep breath and slowly open your eyes. Starting with a downward gaze allow the eyes to slowly roam. See the world around you that has been lit up by the sun – as if you are discovering it for the very first time. Try to hold on to the effects of the meditation as you go about your day.

Wisdom

The idea of introducing the history of ancient practices is to add reverence to a very physically-oriented practice of Surya Namaskar. Setting aside the idea of a perfect body image and replacing it with gratitude can deepen the practice of yogasana.

In yoga philosophy the Sun represents health and vitality – mental and physical. By practicing Surya Namaskar with all its components, we bring health to our body, peace to the mind and joy to the heart. When practiced with a meditative mind and a devotional heart, sun salutes aide in developing santosha, contentment, vairagya, detachment and prepares the mind for Dharana, yogic concertration.

Ancient yogis taught that each of us are replicates of the universe at large, with rivers, seas, mountains, stars, planets, sun and the moon – within us. (Shiva Samhita 11.1-3) The ‘outer sun’ they asserted is in reality an extention of our own ‘inner sun’ – the subtle spiritual heart. On this ‘the inner teacher’ our wisdom guide – we place our deep faith and begin our daily practice.

Next Post: Surya Namaskar Asanas 

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Saraswati, Satyananda Swami.1930. Asana, Pranayama, Mudra Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga. Munger, India.

 

choosing your yoga path(s)

Truth is One; paths are many. – Rig Veda

My family loves exercise and sports. Growing up, my brother and I were introduced to tennis and table tennis by my father who was an avid player. While early morning walks was my mother’s exercise, she supported his love for the sport by regularly driving us to our practices amidst her busy schedule. Trying her hand at table tennis, she got quite good to make our family game nights in our garage a roaring success. While volley ball, track and field were the other choices, yoga-asana was not one of them.

Decades later, I went to YogaLife Institute, in Devon, PA for a yoga class and was introduced to Classical or Raja Yoga. I had not frequented many studios or tried different styles. The choice fell into my lap and I did not find the need to question it at that point. Once my practice was established in Raja Yoga, I did experiment with other styles.

The act of choosing a yoga path – of choosing one of the oldest exercise systems – is not an easy task. It takes patience, perseverance and practice to find a yoga path that suits you. The differences between types of yoga which includes asana – postures within its practices, and styles of yoga where the main focus appears to be the way asanas are taught – are elaborated in the two previous posts to help with your choice.

How does one make the right choice? How many yoga -(asana) studios are listed in your hometown? How many gyms have recently added yoga – (asana) to their exercise schedule? Probably a lot. Seeing an array of classes – restorative to vinyasa flow, can make the choice confusing and frustrating as these classes are taught by instructors who have been trained from various lineages and styles.

When you bounce from style to style with no commitment it is hard to improve and perfect what you learn. For instance, you’ve probably heard an instructor give specific alignment cues only to attend another class with a different instructor completely contradict what you heard a week ago. Each instructor has his or her own approach to teaching. Gaining exposure to different teachers, types and styles is a way of discovering what agrees with you – in the beginning. But be wary of getting lost in the variety and using it as a diversion.

No matter which style of asana practice you choose, without the tenets such as non-harming, ahimsa, or contentment, santosha of yoga philosophy, you may not observe change in your attitude or in your lifestyle. However, choosing the type of yoga such as Raja Yoga (8-fold path) which is inclusive of philosophy and asana, will effect a change in your body via asana, (3rd limb) and in your mind via the other six limbs.

Of course, choosing a yoga path is a very personal decision. Different philosophies, though similar, have a varying appeal to different people. Spending time with each philosophy, and ideally, with the teacher or diciples of the teacher, to help decide which teachings feel best for you is a necessity.

There are many wonderful paths, many true teachers; but one teaching will tend to draw you, will inspire you to get more involved, and to make a commitment. The root cause of all our sorrows and sufferings is loss of contact with our true Self according to Swami Adhisvarananda. Yoga philosophy prescribes four spiritual paths to attain this Self-knowledge: karma-yoga, path of selfless action; bhakti-yoga, path of devotion; raja-yoga, path of meditation; and jnana-yoga, path of knowledge.

In the text, Yoga Sutras, Swami Satyananda Saraswati noted that Patanjali clearly understood the presence of four categories within the human personality: emotional, active, intuitive and volitional. Each person has a different temperament and inclination according to the predominance of one or more of these categories. Meaning that the yoga path had to be decided to suit the specific characteristics of an individual.

Swami Adishvarananda says that each seeker is called to decide which type of yoga best corresponds to his or her natural disposition. Karma Yoga is advised for the active, Bhakthi yoga for the devotional, Raja yoga for the strong-willed and Jnana Yoga for the rational. It’s best to ask for guidance from an illumined teacher who is able to advise which path a seeker is to follow and prescribe the specific practices suitable for his or her natural disposition.

My disposition: I’m active, devotional, strong-willed  and somewhat rational. My primary practice should follow the path of my strongest disposition (strong-willed) and use other types to supplement it. Right? Is this a contradiction to choosing only one yoga path? Not at all. I started with Raja (Classical) Yoga and added Kriya Yoga a few years later which also uses the 8 fold path at the core of its practice.

The instructions for yoga given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras is not confined only to the eight fold path. Swami Satyananada Saraswati clearly points to the hidden implication behind many obscure verses; Mantra or Japa yoga is clearly indicated in the sutras 1:27-29, bhakti in 1:23, 2:23, jnana in 1:27-29, 2:20-21, karma in 1:30-32 and raja in the entire text.

Of course, each seeker may uncover something for themselves as well. For example, the 5th Niyama of the 2nd limb of Raja Yoga, is Ishvara Pranidhana, which implies surrender (ego) to the Self. To surrender the ego, you must have unconditional love of the practices, fierce dedication to attaining the Self, Ishvara. I see this unconditional love as Bhakti yoga amidst Raja Yoga practices. As a part of this surrender, I also practice Mantra (Japa) yoga, Kirthan, soulful singing and some Puja, worship as it fits perfectly with Raja/Kriya Yoga practices.

The 4th Niyama is Svadhyaya, study of the Self. In this study, you are unveiling the layers of Maya, delusion and Avidya, ignorance, in order to uncover the true Self. Jnana Yoga is the study of understanding the presence of this ignorance and process of unveiling the delusion.

The knowledge thence uncovered will help us understand that we operate in this world using lower knowledge to achieve material desires and instant gratification. The yogic disciplines help to overcome egotistical desires to realize who we really are. In essence, Svadhyaya and Jnana Yoga can be sister practices.

Swami Adhisvarananda states that the goal of the four yogas is essentially the same – Self-Realization. “Exclusive practice of any of the four yogas is difficult. Although each of them have been presented as an independent path to the Divine, the four are interconnected. When one of the four yogas leads the way, the other three remain in the background.”

The beauty of yoga is that you can dip as far as you like in the sea of practices and still receive wonderful benefits. Not only will you feel great at the end of each class, but over a period of time other aspects of your life will begin to change for the better. Of course, the deeper you go and the more disciplined your practice, the more profound the changes.

Finally, when we settle into our chosen practice, it is not just our physical (ego) self that evolves. Gurus want us to notice that – our Spiritual Self – will slowly begin to reveal itself in subtle ways. When this happens – when we become aware of a quiet presence – an inner teacher; this is when practice really begins to create transformation within our individual selves.

Ultimately, there is no contradiction once you have chosen your path(s), found your teacher and owned your practice.

Choose your path. Begin. The right time is – Now.

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Adishvaranada, Swami.2006. The Four Yogas – A Guide to the Spiritual Paths of Action, Devotion, Meditation and Knowledge. Skylight Paths Publishing, VT

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

styles of yoga

It is interesting to see many different ways that yoga is being practiced. With instructors trained from various lineages, and multitude of classes to choose from, it can be confusing.

When you see the class listings you ask a friend who has been taking the class: if the instructor is holding poses longer or is creating a pose sequence that moves in a vinyasa flow. You may be wondering if the poses are going to challenge you and make you sweat or if the poses are going to be gentle based on who the instructor is – even though the class is listed as intermediate.

Essentially you are directly enquring about the way in which asanas, postures are taught. You are not enquring if the instructor is teaching yoga philosophy in the classroom so that you, the student can take the practice off the mat and into your daily life. Is it then safe to assume that the majority of yoga practitioners are equating style solely to the way asanas are taught?

Most popular styles of yoga are listed below.

Classical Ashtanga Or Classical Yoga 

  • Original form of Yoga that focuses on both inner (Antaranga) and outer (Bahiranga) practices for the body, mind and spirit.
  • Follows the 8 Fold Path – Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dhaarna, Dhyana, Samadhi as described in the Yoga Sutras by Pathanjali;  
  • Also referred to as Raja Yoga (used interchangeably as type and style), Classical Yoga or Original Ashtanga (8-Fold) Yoga 

Who

  • Popularized by Swami Vivekananda as Raja yoga, and by Swami Niranjananda Saraswati of Bihar school of Yoga, Munger, India
  • However, Shri Yogendraji (1897-1989) was responsible for simplifying Classical Ashtanga Yoga and bringing yoga to the common householder and pioneering yoga therapy (Chikitsa).
  • He founded The Yoga Institute in 1918 at the residence of Dadabhai Naorji at Versova beach, Mumbai; current location-Santa Cruz, Mumbai since 1948.
  • A sister facility, Yogalife Institute is located in Devon PA, run by Dr. Robert Butera.

Ashtanga

  • Popular method of Hata yoga involving synchronization of the breath (pranayama) with a progressive series of asanas and bandas, yogic locks—a process producing intense internal heat and sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs.
  • Also referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and frequently Power or Vigorous yoga.
  • Taught as: Primary Series, Intermediate Series and Advanced Series – in a vinyasa flow style.

Who

  • Taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), in Mysore, India.
  • Pattabhi Jois began yoga at the age of 12, was a student of T.Krishnamacharya, a renowned yoga master.
  • Established an Ashtanga Yoga Institute, Mysore in 1948.

Iyengar

  • Form of Hata Yoga – emphasis on detail, precision and alignment of asana
  • Makes use of props, such as belts, blocks, and blankets, as aids in performing asanas. The props enable students to perform the poses correctly, minimizing the risk of injury, making the postures accessible to both young and old.
  • Based on the traditional Eight Limbs of Yoga by Pathanjali in the Yoga Sutras

Who

  • Founder: B.K.S Iyengar (1918-2014)
  • Established Iyengar Yoga in Pune, India
  • Was invited to the US in 1956, gained popularity after the publication of the book, Light on Yoga

Kripalu

  • Form of Hata Yoga that focuses on standard yoga poses, breath-work, meditation, “development of a quiet mind”, and relaxation
  • Also follow the YogaSutra text for their philosophical study

Who

  • Amrit Desai, a native of Halol, India, met his guru Swami Kripalvananda (1913-1981), after whom the Kripalu style is named.
  • In 1965, Amrit Desai, founded the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania, later in 1972 made it official by naming it Kripalu, after his guru.
  • The current Kripalu ashram is in Stockbridge MA – acquired in 1983.

Viniyoga

  • Viniyoga (not Vinyasa = sequencing) is about adaptation.
  • Viniyoga teachers are highly trained and tend to be experts in anatomy and yoga therapy (chikitsa)

Who

  • Viniyoga is the legacy of the great guru T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), Mysore, India), whose prominent students include Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar
  • Krishnamacharya’s son T.K.V. Desikachar carries on the guru’s legacy as the world’s foremost Viniyoga authority.
  • Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute, is the most prominent American proponent of Desikachar’s method.

Integral

  • Integral Yoga vision is  “…a flexible combination of specific methods to develop every aspect of the individual: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. It is a scientific system which integrates the various branches of Yoga in order to bring about a complete and harmonious development of the individual.”

Who

  • Founder – Swami Satchitananda (1914-2002), disciple of Swami Shivananda (1887-1963) of Rishikesh, India
  • Swami Satchidananda gained attention as the opening speaker at the Woodstock music and arts festival in 1969
  • He was the founder of the Integral Yoga Institute and Ashram in Yogaville in VA.
  • In 1986 opened the Light of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS) at Yogaville Ashram in Buckingham, VA.

Sivananda

  • Sivananda Yoga, follows the teachings of Swami Sivananda, is a form of Hata yoga in which the training focuses on preserving the health and wellness.
  • Training revolves around frequent relaxation and emphasizes yogic breathing.
  • The system philosophies are summarized in 5 principles.

Five points of Yoga

  • Proper exercise: Asanas
  • Proper breathing: Pranayama
  • Proper relaxation: Shavasana
  • Proper diet: Vegetarian. A yogic diet is encouraged, promoting sattvic, pure diet, limiting rajasic, activating and tamasic, dull foods
  • Positive Philosophy and Meditation: Darshana and Dhyana

Who

  • Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati (December 31, 1927 — November 9, 1993) was the founder of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers
  • A disciple of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, India
  • He established the Sivananda Yoga Teachers’ Training Course, one of the first yoga teacher training programs in the West.

Bikram

  • Hata Yoga class – 90 minutes
  • Consist of the same series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises
  • Practiced in a room heated to 105°F (≈ 40.6°C) with a humidity of 40%
  • Certain health safety concerns have been documented.

Who

  • Bikram Choudhury synthesized the practices from traditional Hata yoga techniques and popularized it in the early 1970s.

Sahaja

  • Sahaja Yoga is a style of meditation. It is the state of self-realization produced by Kundalini awakening and is accompanied by the experience of thoughtless awareness or mental silence.
  • The belief is that the kundalini is born within us and can be awakened spontaneously.
  • The word ‘Sahaja‘ in Sanskrit: saha meaning ‘with’ and ja meaning ‘born’.
  • In 2000 the term ‘Sahaja Yoga‘ was trademarked in the United States by Vishwa Nirmala Dharma.

Who

  • Nirmala Srivastava (March 21, 1923 – February 23, 2011), also known as Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, was the founder of Sahaja Yoga.
  • She claimed to have been born in a fully realized state and spent her life working for peace by developing and promoting a simple meditation technique which for self-realization.
  • Shri Mataji never charged for her instruction in Sahaja Yoga.
  • Still taught for free in over 140 countries.

Anusara

  • Form of Hata Yoga, sub-form of Iyengar Yoga
  • Anusara Yoga emphasizes a set of Universal Principles of Alignment which underlie all of the asanas and also connects to philosophical aspects of the practice.

Who

  • Started by American yoga teacher, John Friend in 1997.
  • Friend derived his style from the Iyengar style of yoga and reintroduced elements of Hindu spirituality creating a wholesome approach to yoga.

Wisdom

No one style is wrong or superior to another. While choices are a wonderful, there is wisdom in sticking with one style of yoga that resonates with you in order to go deeper into the practice.

Teacher training programs allude to yoga philosophy and the 8-fold path – some more  – while others may skim the surface. It is left to us to delve deeper and apply the philosophy: first in our own practice and then in our teaching.

When we actually ‘find’ our teacher our evolution is both physical and spiritual. With spiritual evolution, it’s no longer about finding the style that is ‘right’ or ‘better’. It is simply that in finding our guide we’ve also discovered the style that resonates with our ‘true’selves.

The novelty of each class then is in the unfolding of the inner self – which is not solely dependent on the asana flow led by the outer teacher. Slowly, we become willing to observe our practice morph over time while we still occasionally take different classes. Our practice will become our own as we become diciplined in our personal yoga.

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types/paths to yoga

Teachers from various lineages have contributed to the evolution of yoga that is practiced in the West over the past hundred years. Here is an attempt to outline the paths to help you make your choice. The word ‘yoga’ was explained in the post ‘what is yoga’ . Now, lets define the words type and style before relating it to ‘yoga’.

Types versus Styles

Frequently, the words type and style are used interchangeably. This gets confusing for students who are sincerely trying to choose one in an effort to deepen their practice. Defining these words will help to clarify the meaning and intent of using them accurately.

Type indicates a category of people or things having a common set of characteristics or practices. According to Swami Adishwaranandayoga darshana, yoga philosophy prescribes four main paths to attain the knowledge of the Self through yoga, spiritual  union. Here,the words paths and types are used alternatively. For example, Rāja Yoga is a type of yoga, or a path that outlines the practices a student of yoga can follow.

Style implies a manner of doing something; designated with a particular name, description, or indicating title to a person or thing symbolizing exemplary practices. For example, Iyengar Yoga is a style of yoga, named after B.K.S. Iyengar. Although his basic teachings align to Rāja Yoga, here the practices have been taught a certain way by Mr. Iyengar and hence the style is named after him. (styles – another post)

the four main paths to yoga, spiritual union

Karma yoga            

Spiritual Union through action/selfless service

  • कर्म योग, the “discipline of action/service”is achieving ‘union’ by perfecting action through selfless service.
  • Karma is derived from Sanskrit kri, meaning ‘to do’. In its most basic sense karma simply means action, and yoga means union.
  • In Yoga philosophy the word karma means both action and the effects of action; i.e. the law of cause and effect. Karma yoga is described as a way of thinking and acting in accordance with one’s duty (dharma) without egotistical desires, likes or dislikes and without being attached to the fruits of one’s deeds .

Jnana/Gnyana yoga            

Spiritual Union through realized knowledge

  • ज्ञान योग is union through the path of ‘realized’ knowledge.
  • Knowledge used to achieve material desires is lower knowledge or ignorance, Avidya.
  • The knowledge that helps to overcome egotiscal desires to realize who we really are is true knowledge.
  • The veil of maya delusion, prevents us from knowing our real nature and the nature of the world around us.  Jnana yoga is the process of lifting this veil.

Bhakthi yoga          

Spiritual Union through devotion/surrender

  • भक्ति योग is spiritual union through the path of love, unquestioning faith and surrender (of ego).
  • Bhakthi is love for love’s sake without expectations or fear. It is the easiest way for the layman to realize spiritual union as it doesn’t involve extensive yogic practices.
  • The term Bhakthi comes from the root ‘Bhaj’, which means ‘to be attached to God’.

Rāja yoga

Spiritual Union through the Royal Path of self-control and meditation

  • राज योग Rāja yoga was first described as an Eightfold or Eight-limbed (aṣṭānga, ashtanga) path in the text Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali.
  • Also known as Classical (Paarampariya पारम्परीय) Yoga or Classical Aṣṭānga yoga. 
  • The term Rāja Yoga is a term introduced in the 15th-century text Hata Yoga Pradipika and popularized by Swami Vivekananda in order to distinguish it from the school of Hata Yoga expounded by Yogi Swatmarama
  • It is a complete path with clear guidelines, and encourages learning by way of discipline, experimentation and reflection.
  • As we pursue Rāja Yoga thoroughly, we will discover that it is inclusive of the above paths within its Eight- Fold Path.

Frequently asked question – what is the difference between Hata Yoga and the four main types?

Hata yoga  – Yoga of physical movement/force

  • Note: The popular word “hatha” is actually  pronounced as “haṭa” or “hua“in Samskritham.
  • हठयोग haṭayoga, or haṭa vidya (हठविद्या), is a system of yoga described by Yogi Swatmarama, a sage of 15th century India, compiler of the Haṭa Yoga Pradipika.
  • Sanskrit term haṭa हठ, refers to the use of persistence or force; haṭayoga is translated by the Monier-Williams dictionary as “a kind of forced yoga or abstract meditation (forcing the mind to withdraw from external objects)
  • This is based on asana, pranayama and shatkarma, cleansing practices – is a preparatory stage of physical purification for higher meditation. This must be followed by practices listed in Rāja Yoga.

Kriya Yoga

Kriya Yoga (क्रिया योग) is a comprehensive spiritual path based on the 8-fold path and specific Kriya  pranayama techniques. This ancient system was revived by Mahavatar Babaji through his disciple Lahiri Mahasaya.

Kriya Yoga was brought to the west in 1920 by Paramahamsa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi.

The Kriya yoga system consists of a number of levels of pranayama, breathing practices, mantra, chants, and mudra, energy seals intended to rapidly accelerate spiritual evolution and evoke profound tranquility and spiritual union. There are similarities to the pranayama taught in Rāja Yoga. 

A few other paths to yoga.

  1. Kundalini yoga              yoga through energy awareness

कुण्डलिनी योग, Kundalini yoga is a combination of physical, mental and spiritual disciplines focussing on the expansion of sensory awareness to achieve Spiritual Union. Kundalini is untapped energy, prana at the base of the spine that can be drawn up through the body awakening each of the seven chakras, energy centers

Each Kundalini asana series is done with a specific breathing technique that intensifies the effects of the poses with the purpose of freeing energy in the lower body and allowing it to move upwards.

Kundalini energy is often represented as a snake coiled at the bottom of the spine at the first, Muladhara Chakra. Spiritual Union happens when this energy reaches the crown, Sahasrara Chakra at the top of the head.

2. Tanthra yoga          yoga through rituals 

तन्त्र, Tanthra means theory, system, series of the spiritual disciplines based on power (shakti), as the Divine Mother. Tanthra scriptures are usually presented as a dialogue between Shiva and Shakti explaining the divine play of Shakti, feminine energy and Shiva, male energy.

Most misunderstood of all the paths, Tanthra Yoga is about using ritualistic forms of worship to experience what is sacred and to liberate the practitioner from ignorance and rebirth. Although sex is a part of it, it is not the whole of it since this path aims to find the sacredness in the act of procreation.

Tantra Yogis must possess purity, humility, devotion, dedication to the Guru, and truthfulness among other qualities to attain spiritual union.

3. Manthra yoga         yoga through vibration of chants

A मन्त्र manthra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of “creating spiritual transformation”.

Simply, a manthra is a sound vibration. The word “manthram” is a Samskritham word consisting of two syllables: “mun” (mind) and “thra” (deliverance). In the strictest sense, a mantra is pure sound vibration that delivers the mind from its material inclinations and illusion. 

Chanting is the process of repeating a manthra. This act of silently (Japa) chanting mantras and merging with the vibration is Manthra Meditation. 

4.    Nāda Yoga        yoga through sound 

नादयोग, Nada yoga  is based on the premise that the entire cosmos including human beings, is made of sound vibrations called nāda. This system promotes that sound and music are something more than sources of pleasure.

Nāda Yoga divides music into internal music, anahahta, and external music, ahatha.

Ahatha music made by external objects is conveyed to the hearing consciousness via the ears. Here, mechanical energy is converted to electrochemical energy and transported to the brain where the sensations of sound is translated to music.

Anahatha music is defined as the unstuck sound, which is heard in the heart chakra, – not by the way of a sensory organ.The anahatha concept implies listening for one’s own sound vibrations. This inner sound is sacred and will open the chakras, energy centers, creating yoga, spiritual union.

And finally ….

There are other misconceptions about yoga, for instance – if yoga is a religion. Mostly, yoga is a system of disciplines/tools to spiritualize daily living. Currently, yoga is being practiced by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and others.

Hopefully the above information is helpful to make your choice of a ‘yoga path’ less confusing. It is also important to trust yourself, trust your teacher and know that although there are different paths to attain yoga, dedicated practice is imperative.

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Adishvaranada, Swami.2006. The Four Yogas – A Guide to the Spiritual Paths of Action, Devotion, Meditation and Knowledge. Skylight Paths Publishing, VT

Easwaran, Eknath. The Mantram Handbook. Nilgiri Press. Blue Mountain Meditation Center, CA.

 

what is yoga?

 “Yoga is a journey of the self (ego), through the self (selfish to selfless) to the Self (True Nature)”. Essence of the Bhagavad Gita

The yoga that we all talk about during social hour is actually asana, pose practice. When you tell everyone that you do yoga, is it safe to assume that you are referring to an exercise class at the gym or a studio? But yoga is so much more than that.

Yoga as exercise

The answer to the question when do you do yoga may look like this: at 9:30 am Friday morning or 6:30 p.m. Wednesday evening. The answer to the question where do you do yoga is – at the gym, at the studio, at my house (in front of the T.V. DVD or you tube). The answer to the question how do you do yoga could quite possibly be – using a mat, blocks, blankets and straps. And, finally the answer to the question why do you do yoga may not be limited to these – following my grandfather footsteps, knee pain, to lose weight, to decrease stress and anxiety, or it is your doctor’s prescription, or your are trying it out with your neighbor. All these answers are perfectly fine, if – the meaning of yoga is – exercise.

Yoga as physical exercise — the asanas or postures has gained widespread popularity in recent decades. Although Asanas play a vital role on the path of yoga, they can become a superficial aspect of this great science of unfolding the limitless potential of the human mind and soul.

yoga-poses-at-sunset-background-vector-952732

“Yoga is not a PE class. You’re teaching students how to start feeling free and intuitive. It is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are.” Erich Schiffmann. 

The Word – Yoga

In the ancient language of Samskritham (Sanskrit), ‘yoga’ comes from the root- युज्yuj, meaning “to add”, “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach”

‘Yoga’ can also mean “method”, “application”, and “performance”.

yoga

For the purposes of this blog, we will use the meaning “to unite”:  i.e. the union of the individual consciousness or soul called जीवात्मन्, Jivatman, with the Universal Consciousness or Spirit, परमात्मन्Paramatman is what yoga practice is all about.  In the Yoga Sutras, the yogic text, Patanjali describes this as the union of Prakriti, प्रकृति nature, with पुरुषPurusha or ईश्वरIshvara, – other names for Universal Consciousness or Spiritual Union.

Now that we know that yoga means spiritual union, when you say that you are practicing ‘yoga‘, are you declaring that you are in that higher state of being – i.e., united with the Universal Consciousness? On the other hand, if you mean to say that you are practicing postures on the mat, then you (we all) have to get into the habit of saying – that you are practicing asanas or yoga-asanas at the gym at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Yoga as Spiritual Union

Following this introduction to the meaning of yoga, i.e., union, let’s figure out when we are and when are we not “in spiritual union.”

We can agree that when our body is in pain, when the mind is in turmoil and our negative emotions get the better of us, we are not in spiritual union. When we have forgotten that it is the hand of the Spirit that leads us, the love of the Spirit that nourishes us and breath of the Spirit that enlivens us – we are not in union.

On the other hand, when we help a stranger, rescue an animal, volunteer to pick up trash in our neighborhood park or stop using styrofoam to save the environment, we experience fleeting moments of union with a ‘Higher Purpose’. Are these ‘small gestures’ of Higher Purpose – tangible, transitory aspects of the Universal Consciousness? How do we make this permanent? How do we begin to cultivate the practice – to be in this state of union – day to day, moment to moment?

We could begin on the yoga mat. When you go to the gym for a yoga-asana class, you are choosing to step on the mat. This is the beginning of cultivating the union – for you must show up – everyday – to practice. Yoga mat becomes a place where you work hard to release the blocks in your body and begin to train the mind to be less of a critic. After mat practice you experience a sense of accomplishment that somehow you were able to leave your world of chores and project deadlines to make it to class. You take deep breath and smile – for having found that fleeting moment of joy in your heart and peace in your mind. Have you united your body and mind to be in this moment?

yoga_silhouette_vector_179799

Each week you return to the yoga-asana class and you step on the mat – this repetitive act induces a sense of practice, cultivates the attitude of being present and sparks reverence to the path of yoga. You begin to practice with gratitude for many blessings – for showing up to class, for moments of peace you experience on the mat which may prompt you to take deep breaths throughout the day – to stop and smell the roses. The yoga mat transforms into a sacred space where you work towards creating health in the body, clarity in the mind and joy in the heart. When the body and mind unite, uncontrolable feelings of joyful gratitude overflows from the depth of your being towards the Spirit. Is this when you begin to truly unite in yoga?

When this ‘yogic ‘union happens repeatedly, lasting longer and longer each time, yogis affirm, that there will come a time when you can constantly dwell in this peaceful, joyful state, a state of constant gratefulness, a state of limitless love – then and only then you can confidently say that you are in a state of yoga, a state of complete union.

My ‘Yoga’

I have been so focussed on trying to learn about ‘yoga‘, through ‘yoga-asana‘ and other allied practices, that fleeting moments of spiritual union quite possibly may have come and gone without me being aware of “It’s” presence.

Awareness happens in small steps. First, I became aware that to achieve yoga, theory and practice were important. Although the books provide a way to acquire some insight into the field of study, it is the actual practice that provides insight into the inner workings of the body and mind.

Then, I became aware that knowing the true meaning of yoga altered the answers to the questions we started with. When do I do yoga – now translated to when am I in the state of union. The answer should probably be – all the time, not just between 9-10 a.m. Tuesday morning, right? But that’s not the case at all.

Next, where do I practice yoga translates to – in all daily activities and interactions, not just on the mat. Not successful here, either. Here is where I keep forgiveness at the forefront in order for me to return to the mat, to Raja Yoga practices to prepare for the next attempt.

And, how can I cultivate the state of yoga – doing selfless service, practicing forgiveness, performing random acts of kindness to name a few practices – are recommended. Again, it is an ongoing process.

I am aware that although there are various paths to yoga, spiritual union, the earlier post on Raja Yoga, eight fold path, is inclusive and complete – a path I must continue to travel on – in order to wipe the slate clean and ‘unite’ with the Universal Consciousness.

Each day I walk a path strewn with challenges – or opportunities – to cultivate forgiveness, to serve in order to lessen the grip of “I-ness” and to practice constant remembrance of the Spiritual Hand that feeds me, and makes me whole. And when (not if) that moment of Spiritual Union is bestowed upon me, my fervent prayer is that I should be completely aware of “Its” presence.

“Yoga (as a system – Raja Yoga – 8 Fold Path) is the perfect and appropriate method of fusing body and mind together. It is the full realization of the soul’s oneness with Spirit.”
― Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi

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Yogananda, Paramahamsa. 1955. Autobiography of a Yogi. Rider Publishers. CA

Schiffman, Erich. 1996. Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. Simon and Schuster Publ. NY

nadi shodana – alternate nostril breath

Nadi Shodhana, नाडी शोधन प्राणायाम, is also known as Anuloma Viloma Prāṇāyāma, अनुलोम विलोम प्राणायाम.  Simply referred as Alternate Nostril Breathing, it is a powerful breathing practice.

Nadi, नाडी, is a Sanskrit word for ‘channel’ or ‘flow’ and shodhana, शोधन means ‘purification.’ The Nadis, channels that connect the chakras, energy centers are the psychic pathways within the human system.  This pranayama technique is used to purify these channels, balance the masculine and feminine energies.

How to Practice

Seat

  • Choose a comfortable seat; on the floor (with a cushion, block or blanket), or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor or on a block with an erect spine and head.

Guidelines

  1. Begin with Dhirgha Pranayamadeep yogic breath.
  2. When the breath feels relaxed, begin Nadi Shodhana.
  3. Bring the right hand into Vishnu mudra by folding the index and middle fingers inward until they touch the palm at the base of the right thumb. Align the length of the ring and pinky fingers on the right hand. (You may also fold index, middle and ring fingers in a modified version of this mudra)
  4. Alternatively,  Nasagra Mudra may also used.
  5. You will use the right thumb to close the right nostril and the right ring and pinky fingers (together) or just the pinky to close the left nostril alternately.
  6. Left hand is placed on the knee palms facing up (gesture of receiving). (Note: the mudras, yogic seals for pranayama – not discussed in this post.)

Variation One

  1. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril.
  2. Exhale through the left nostril.
  3. Keeping the right nostril closed, inhale through the left nostril. As you inhale, allow the breath to travel upward along the left side of the spine – from the pelvic floor to your head.
  4. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the inhalation.
  5. Use the pinky and/or ring fingers of the right hand to close the left nostril and simultaneously release the right nostril.
  6. Exhale through the right nostril, sending the breath down the right side of the body from the head down to the pelvic floor.
  7. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the exhalation.
  8. Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril, drawing the breath back up along the right side of the spine from the pelvic floor up to the head.
  9. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the inhalation.
  10. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril as you release the left nostril.
  11. Exhale through the left nostril, surrendering the breath back down the left side of the body from the head down to the pelvic floor.
  12. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the exhalation.
  13. This is one round of Nadi Shodana, Alternate Nostril Pranayama.
  14. Do 5-10 rounds.
  15. Complete your final round with an exhalation through the left nostril.
  16. Return your right hand on your knee and breathe with complete awareness.

Breath Ratio

The above instructions are meant to provide a simple introduction to Nadi Shodhana.

Single Nostril Nadi Shodana can also be introduced to beginners. In other variations of Nadi Shodhana, advanced techniques incorporate breath retention and duration ratios for inhalation and exhalation.

There are multiple instructions regarding breath ratios in this pranayama. I was oblivious to this in the early stages of the practice. I was introduced to the variation one (see above) in the first year of yoga classes at Yogalife Institute. This variation provided a sense of calmness I needed at that time.

Frequently suggested breath ratio is 1:1, where the inhale count is the same as the exhale count. This is the safest way to introduce Nadi Shodana Pranayama to a new practitioner. For example, if your inhale count is 6, your exhale count should be 6, following the 1:1 ratio, i.e. 6:6.

However, within this pranayama, the practice of Kumbhaka or breath retention (at the end of the inhale –Antara – internal retention) and suspension (the end of the exhale – Bahir – external suspension), is taught only when students are ready.  The word ‘ready’ implies different meanings for different people. Hence it’s always best to learn Kumbhaka in person, from a qualified teacher and choose the practice variation that is right for you.

For example, the first ratio can be 1:1:1 with instructions for breath retention to be the same count as the inhale and exhale. That means – 6 will be your retention count – i.e. 1:1:1 ratio pattern equals 6:6:6 breath count.

If you are also practicing breath suspension, then the ratio will look like this – 1:1:1:1, where the last number refers to breath suspension – 6:6:6:6

Cautions 

  • Breathing should never be forced. The breath should be slow, soft and relaxed, and performed with full awareness.
  • Remember –The quality of the breath is always more important- not the ratios.
  • Performing a lower ratio correctly is more beneficial than trying to forcefully perform a technique beyond your capabilities.
  • If you feel any discomfort, stop and return to normal breathing. Only when you are  comfortable with a technique attempt the next level under the guidance of a teacher.
  • Practice for 2-4 weeks or more on the first technique, but it could take years to master it. It depends on how often you practice.
  • As the nadis, channels are cleared, blockages will be released. They could surface in unexpected ways. Be prepared for emotional releases (desirable and undesirable) and seek professional help if issues become uncomfortable or confrontational.
  • Nadi Shodhana should be practiced on an empty stomach. Early mornings are best, or choose the best time and make it part of your daily practice.
  • Everyone and everyday is different. How you progress depends on how disciplined you are in seated practice. In time you will notice the effects on your mind and body.

Benefits

Nadi shodhana can be very gratifying, even when practiced for as little as 5 minutes regularly. But practicing daily for 15 minutes offers deeper benefits.

Physical/Physiological

  • Infuses the body with oxygen
  • Clears and releases toxins
  • Rejuvenates the nervous system
  • Helps to balance hormones
  • Helps to alleviate respiratory allergies that cause hay fever, sneezing or wheezing
  • Balances solar and lunar, masculine and feminine energies
  • Brings balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain

Mental/Spiritual

  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Fosters mental clarity and an alert mind
  • Enhances the ability to concentrate
  • Calms the emotions and prepares the mind for meditation

My Practice

At the outset, this pranayama had an instant calming effect for me. It was/is helpful to slow down my racing thoughts and overactive mind. I returned to it, sometimes several times in a day, if I was anxious, stressed, or had trouble falling asleep.

I was told by different people that if I had been practicing variation one of this pranayama regularly for over a year, then I could add the retention/suspension ratio. I did experiment with the ratios with limited success and finally settled down with what is best for my body and mind.

The 1:1:1 ratio for internal retention did not work for me. I modified the ratio to look like this: 1:1/2:1 = 6:3:6. This practice was manageable and did not agitate the mind or unsettle my emotions. Although I have increased the count of my inhalations and exhalations since then, the base ratio for kumbhaka – retention and suspension still remains at 1/2; meaning if my inhale and exhale is 12, my retention and suspension is 6 = 12:6:12:6.

And, when I am exhausted or rushed, I break it down further. I do only retention or only suspension for 5 -1 0 rounds. The ratios look like this: retention = 12:6:12:0 and suspension = 12:0:12:6.

These decisions are based on the physical capacity of my lungs and is guided by the first ethic, Ahimsa, non-harming.

Now, Nadi Shodana is an integral part of my daily seated pranayama practice. I use it to quiet my mind before meditation.

Next Post: Preparation for Daily Pranayama Practice