This being human is a guest house.— Jellaludin Rumi
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
You’ve often heard me refer in class to the five elements (pancha maha bhutas) – earth, water, fire, air, and space.
Last week we explored the element air, vayu. In yogic philosophy this element is experienced in the physical body as movement, mobility, and release; and is the interface between our own intelligence (buddhi) and the cosmic intelligence (mahat). More simply, imagine that as we breathe in, we take the air in from atmosphere through the inhalation, process and utilize it in metabolism, and return it to the atmosphere on the exhalation. And, consider that each breath is composed of atoms that have been here for a long, long time; that we may be breathing the atoms of dinosaurs. Now, that’s cosmic.
There are 5 vayus, and last week we explored the apana vayu, the element that involves the downward and outward flow of energy from the body. We located it physically in the area between the navel and the pubis bones. So physically and physiologically, it is associated with digestive elimination, and with menstruation. The seat of apana vayu is the muladhara chakra, or the root chakra located at the perineum and pelvic floor. The apana vayu guides the elimination of physical wastes, and mental and emotional waste—the thoughts and feelings that we can let go of. So, you can consider the function of this vayu as a means of releasing energetic and well as physical toxins.
On the mat, in the practice of forward extensions, we used the exhalation in the conscious deflation of the abdomen (in the words of John Schumacher), to softly let go and create space for extension and expansion.
Off the mat, we can also use the slow steady exhalation to release tension, mental fatigue and anxiousness. Imagine listening to an irritating co-worker, getting stalled in traffic, or accidently overcooking the evening meal. Take a moment to exhale, pause, and release – several times – and observe what effect that has on the moment, your emotional experience and mental state.
This week we explore samana vayu, the air element that involves the meeting between the inward flow flow of energy (prana) and the outward movement (apana). Samana is located around and slightly above the navel and is associated with the physical and physiological process of digestive and assimilation. Mentally and emotionally, samana represents how we “digest” information, and how we “process” it through our mental and emotional experiences. So, just like a soured food can create a “sour” stomach, thoughts and experiences that are received as “bitter” or painful can create an “achy”, distressing or unbalanced emotional response. Focusing on the samana vayu can direct the physical, mental and emotional body to approach what is taken in more intelligently – assimilating good foods and good thoughts for health and well-being – and how to direct what needs to be released.
On the mat, in the practice of lateral extensions (twists), we can use the exhalation to stabilize the base of the pose, and the inhalation to create lift and space for the twist to occur. Observe that coming into the deeper twists does not happen all at once – each time, the base is re-stabilized, and the subsequent extension allows for a deeper pose to occur.
Off the mat, we can observe what how the experiences and information we take in get processed. Observe how some experiences create a feeling of “stuckness” or immobility, perhaps because of a reticence to assimilate or process an experience so it can be released. Observe what happens when a distressing or distracting event occurs – can you “revolve” your perspective so that you no longer feel
stuck? Re-establish where you are, assimilate what you’ve learned, release what’s no longer needed, and evolve.
As I look towards 2019 and contemplate the role of yoga in my life, I am struck by the difference between how I am being on the mat, and how I am off the mat. Practicing or teaching, when I’m on the mat the quality of my attention sharpens, colors “pop”, and I am present, receptive to the direct experience of each moment. Off the mat, I’m distracted, multi-tasking, behind my timeline in my actions, ahead of my timeline in my thoughts, often missing the moment I am in (“excuse me, can you repeat what you just said?”).
So it is this introspection that has brought me to declare the theme for 2019 to be an exploration of what we discover on the mat – in terms of svadyaya (self-study and study of the “maps of the territory”, e.g., the sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and modern teachers like Michael Singer, Pema Chodrin, Sadhguru, Ekhart Tolle, etc.) and tapas (devoted
practice) – and how it occurs/does not occur when we move about in our daily lives.
We’ll examine the nature of consciousness (citta) and how the qualities of consciousness (gunas) and aspects of consciousness (ahamkara, manas, buddhi) and the deep ruts of old habits and thoughts (samskaras) filter and disrupt the experience of mindful absorption in the present moment (samadhi). The seeds of these concepts will be explored in asana classes, discussed in our bimonthly philosophy class, and contemplated in writings via this newsletter and social media. And, if you’d ever like to sit down to talk and reflect over a cup of tea, we can do that too.
I look forward to traveling with you in this next year –
Dharana is the beginning of the innermost quest. In the first 3 limbs (yama, niyama, and asana) the practitioner begins with the external quest – the firmness of the body. The movement from asana to pranayama to pratyaharatouches the inner quest – the steadiness of intelligence. The last 3 limbs (dharana, dyhana, and samadhi) comprise the innermost quest – the benevolence of the spirit.
Dharana translates as “concentration” specifically on one thing. The Yoga Sutras (I.17) describe 4 kinds of concentration; but to begin, we start with focus on an object (savitarka) like a candle, mantra or the breath. The practice is to move towards a single pointed (eka grata) state of consciousness.
In asana, we find the edges of awareness in the physical body; pranayamadraws us inward to the organic and energetic subtleties of the pose; pratyahara reaches inward to a quiet expression of the authentic self. Dharana is the stilling of the mind so that it rests in a an unchanging state.
Pratyahara is the bridge between the inner and innermost quest. In the first 3 limbs (yama, niyama, and asana) the practitioner begins with the external quest – the firmness of the body. The movement from asana to pranayama to pratyahara touches the inner quest – the steadiness of intelligence. The last 3 limbs (dharana, dyhana, and samadhi) comprise the innermost quest – the benevolence of the spirit.
Pratyahara translates as “the withdrawal of the senses”. If the normal use of our senses is directed outward, then the cultivation of pratyahara develops the ability to be in the present moment and attune to the inner experience.
In asana, we find the edges of awareness in the physical body; pranayamadraws us inward to the organic and energetic subtleties of the pose; pratyaharareaches further inward to a quiet expression of the authentic self.
BKS Iyengar describes pranayama as “conscious breathing—not deep breathing. Prana means energy or life force and pranayama is the channelling of energy within the body.”
If you observe your normal breath – just watch it, without controlling it — you will notice that it’s irregular, shallow, and difficult to pay attention to. Just as we turn our attention in asana to how the big toe stretches, or how the shoulder blade moves, in yoga we turn our attention to the breath with intention. Then, we can tap into the energetic force that supplies the organs, muscles, skeleton, circulatory, digestive, and reproductive systems with live-giving constituents.
Pranayama has 3 movements: the inhalation, the exhalation; and the retention. Each aspect of the breath is a potential for inquiry and experience of the next step of the journey inward. II.52 Pranayama removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom.
Asana means pose or posture or seat. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an asana is defined as the experience of “perfect firmness of body with steadiness of intelligence in the mind (shtira), and benevolence of the spirit (sukham). In practice our work is to understand and experience the asana to the maximum, without aggressiveness or self-harm (otherwise its not yoga).
“Asana brings steadiness, health and lightness of limb. A steady and pleasent posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind. Asanas are not merely gymnastic exercises; they are postures … By practicing them one develops agility, balance, endurance and great vitality.
Asanas have evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. They secure a fine physique, which is strong and elastic without being muscle bound and they keep the body free from disease. They reduce fatigue and soothe the nerves. But their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind… The yogi frees himself from physical disabilities and mental distractions by practicing Asana…. The yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit.” From Light on the Yoga Sutras.
saucha santosha tapah svadhyaya ishvarapranidhana niyamah
Cleanliness and purity of body and mind (saucha), an attitude of contentment (santosha), training of the senses with ardor and devotion (tapas), self-study and reflection on sacred words (svadhyaya), and an attitude of letting go to the source of all things (ishvarapranidhana) are the observances or practices of self-discipline (niyamas), the second limb of Ashtanga Yoga.
The last three Niyamas represent the path of kriya yoga, the yoga of action.
The path of karma, selfless service, is represented by tapas (ardent, devoted action); The part of jnana, learned, earnest study, is represented by svadhyaya. And, the path of bhakti, love and devotional surrender, is represented by ishvara pranidhana.
The yamas focus on “right living” with others, or how we conduct ourselves in regard to all living beings including the planet. The yamas include:
- ahimsa – Non-violence
- satya – Truthfulness
- asteya – Non-stealing
- brahmacharya – Non-excess, particularly in sexual matters.
- aparigraha – Non-possessiveness
A couple of points to note:
4 of the 5 yamas describe what not to do. These are practices of restraint. Consider that we begin the practice of yoga (restraining the fluctuations of consciousness) through our behavior (what not to do) first.
- Ahimsa is first on the list, therefore the most important.
- Satya comes next, suggesting that we tell the truth without violent intent.
- Consider that all these codes of conduct apply to all beings – humans, animals, the planet.