drishti

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

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

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

Texts

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

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

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

Nine Types 

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

Samskritham script with audio has been provided for pronunciation practice.

अङ्गूष्ठमध्ये Angusthamadhyay 

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

Āsanas

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

भ्रूमध्ये Bhrumadhyay

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

Āsanas

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

नासाग्रे Nasāgrey

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

Āsanas

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

हस्ताग्रे Hastāgray

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

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

Āsanas

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

पार्श्व Pārshva

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

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

Āsanas

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

ऊर्घ्व Ūrdhva

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

Āsanas

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

 नाभिचक्रे Nābhicakre

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

Āsanas

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

पादयोरग्रे Pādayoragrey

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

Āsanas

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

Benefits

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

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

Personal Practice

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

warm ups

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

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

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

Thirties

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

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

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

Forties

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

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

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

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

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

Fifties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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surya namaskar abhyasa

Sunrise is one of the most beautiful sights of Mother Nature. Writers and poets near and far have sung its praises. Seeing the rising sun illuminate mountains and roof tops, places of work and worship is breathtaking. My best memory is a glorious ball of fire rising on a faraway shore as if emerging from the ocean itself on one of our family vacations. To this sacred light, the Divine fire that is the source of creation, I offer my salutations. 

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Guidelines for Surya Namaskar

Disciplined practice of sun salutations is called Surya Namaskar Abhyasa. Please refer to previous  posts for its history, names of poses and corresponding mantras.

Traditional Surya Namaskar is a practice open to people of all ages and levels.

Pace

There is no set pace for Surya Namaskar. The pace – set by your breath is the safest. If done at a faster pace you may jeopardize alignment and risk injury. At a medium pace follow the rhythm of Ujjaiyi breath and enjoy it’s energizing or aerobic benefits. At a slower pace with breath awareness, the practice relieves mental stress, and can become meditative.

Alignment

When you are focussing on the breath, you might wonder – ‘Am I doing each asana correctly? Will I injure myself?’ Good questions. This is precisely the reason why Surya Namaskar asanas have to be taught separately so the alignment can be mastered.

Each asana counteracts the one before, stretching the body forward/backward and alternately expanding/contracting the chest to regulate the breathing. Form and alignment of each of the twelve asanas must be learnt separately. This is followed by learning how to transition between each of the asanas safely within shorter sequences before introducing complete rounds.

The first few repetitions can be tiring when you are learning the asanas for the very first time. You will notice an increase in your heart rate and may perspire as well. As the practice gets regular, you will build up your endurance and then become ready to add Ujjaiyi breath into your rounds.

If you are wondering how many rounds to practice each day, there are no set rules. However, be aware of your physical and medical limitations. As a beginner, you may start with 2-4 rounds and work up to 8-10 very gradually (weeks or months) depending on your health and frequency of practice.

Props

Simple props like blocks, blankets or straps can help you learn each asana correctly and transition between asanas safely. At once, the ego may resist as it wants to portray a false sense of perfection even before you have dedicated yourself to this practice. The magazine cover that depicts a picture perfect asana is not you or me.

Using a prop can assist not hinder your practice. It will help you ‘feel’ the asana in the ‘right’ areas in your body and teach you not to hurt yourself. Over time you can try other props or discontinue their use completely based on your progress. Only with disciplined practice your body will begin to look steady and aligned.

Cautions

  • Do not eat (2 hours) a heavy meal before practicing Surya Namaskar.
  • Be aware of medical conditions like high blood pressure, spine injuries, diabetes, etc. that warrants a consult with your doctor before starting this practice.
  • If you are recuperating from sickness or surgeries, or a senior, please modify the poses accordingly or use a chair as a prop for support.
  • Knees can stay slightly bent to protect your lower back during transitions.
  • Avoid straining, excessive or painful stretching in asanas. Honor where your body is on that given day of practice.
  • Observe if your practice is weighed down by likes and dislikes. For example, you have to practice with a certain type of music, a certain sequence taught by your favorite teacher, occupy the same spot at the yoga studio, and external distractions, etc. These become limitations to your practice.
  • Be aware that teachers structure their classes differently based on their teaching styles, schooling and personal practice. Try not to be attached to one teacher.

Abhyasa – Practice

One full round of traditional Surya Namaskar is two sets of the twelve poses set in a vinyasa, sequence.

Here is a video of the traditional Surya Namaskar.

You may follow along and try it in your living room. However, it is best to learn the names and alignment of each asana, how to transition between asanas safely, and how to coordinate movement with the breath from an experienced teacher.

Start from Left or Right side?

You may begin the first set leading with the left foot and the second set leading with the right foot for a total of twenty-four asanas. 

Why left side first? Beginning on the left side of the body may be attributed to Devi Prakriti, Mother Nature, generally associated with feminine qualities of nurture, compassion, love, humility and for a more meditational and mindful practice. Beginning on right side of the body may be attributed to Purusha, the masculine aspects of assertiveness, courage, willpower, and the practice of mental concentration. One side is not better than the other. It depends on what quality you need on that given day.

This philosophy may have been used by yogis and gurus as a type of Chikitsa, therapy to help people through different mind states. For example: Each day check your emotions and state of mind before you begin your practice. If you feel lethargic, depressed, anxious, Sunday blues, bored – you may begin your practice from the right. Add Ujjaiyi breath (after learning it correctly) for an energizing practice.

On the other hand, if you are hyper, stressed, irritable, egotistical, restless – you should begin from the left. Move slowly through the asanas concentrating on the breath for a calming practice. This is an ingenious way devised by wise teachers for setting an intention at the start of the practice to keep the wandering mind in check and bring mindfulness to a physically-oriented practice.

Breath

Notice the alternating inhalation and exhalation in the asana sequence outlined in the Surya Namaskar table. In the sixth asanaAshtanga Namaskar (eight-point pose), the breath is held in external suspension, Bahir Kumbaka. Learning how to suspend the breath without a struggle takes diligent practice. Alternatively, you can practice with regular breath between the 5th and 7th asanas.

Manthra

You can make Surya Namaskar a spiritual practice by incorporating manthras. Japa manthras are more frequently practiced than the bija manthras. Here is a video of Surya Namaskar with Japa Manthras.

Gurus recommend the use manthras to coax a practitioner to bring reverence to a physically-oriented practice. By understanding the meaning of each manthra, you can slowly transform the egotistical attitude and cultivate devotion and gratitude.

Learn the mantras separately by listening and repeating them multiple times before adding them to the movement. You can find the manthras listed in the Surya Namaskar Asanas blog.

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Sunlight has found its way through the trees and into my living room. My mat is beckoning. I can’t wait to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. Let’s practice together. Roll out your yoga mat and step onto your sacred space. You may chant the Divine Light Prayer by Swami Sivananda Radha. Let it set your intention. Let us express reverence to Surya, the Cosmic Light by practicing Surya Namaskar with devotion and gratitude.

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Sarasvati, Satyananda Svami.1930. Asana, Pranayama, Mudra Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga. Munger, 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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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.

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“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?

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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

first things first

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SUGGESTED READINGS

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

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

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