Monday, April 25, 2011

A Million Little Reasons

There are a million reasons not to practice.  This is a picture from my mat at 5:17 am. 

Thankfully my eyes are a bit better than my camera, but it is still dark.  And cold.  And I hurt.  And I didn’t sleep well.  And my stomach is a bit upset from sucking down 2 cups of coffee in 10 minutes.  And I’ve got to go to work. And I…and I…and I…and I…

A million reasons not to be on my mat at 5:17 am, six days a week.  But it only takes 1 reason to be there.  That reason may change every day.  More and more the reason is because it needs to be done.

I gravitated toward the Ashtanga Vinyasa system for several reasons.  The first is that it promotes self-practice.  The system is designed for householders, those of us with worldly responsibilities, who cannot spend the majority of our time in study (or attending classes, immersions, etc.).  It is a succinct method of practice encompassing the 8 limbs into each session.  The second is that it is a specific, time tested practice.  It is not a benchmark—meaning that I am not comparing and judging yesterday’s practice v. today’s; it is a consistent practice. It does not matter if I don’t feel like doing forward bends today, they are part of the practice so I have do them regardless.  Yes, there is room for customization (I do pretty well with the full Primary Series in 1hr 15, but I move pretty quickly), however, the framework is set.  I’m not making it up as I go, I am following instruction with faith.  Why is headstand after shoulderstand?  Why is utplithi, a very demanding, heat-building asana, performed as the last pose before rest?  Because that’s the way it’s done.   Do it consistently and your practice will provide you with all the answers you need.  

When the mind is coming up with an infinite flow of reasons not to unroll the mat, or roll the beads, or sit on the cushion, or open the harmonium, or serve the poor, or do whatever your practice is, THAT is the one reason you need to do your practice. 

Tomorrow morning at 5:17 am when you are wondering why the H E double hockey sticks you are out of bed, know that I am there, too.  And it will be a good practice.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Culitivate Skillfully and Continuously

This week's focus has been from the Yoga Sutras, I.12--I.14:
"12. Practice and detachment are required to still the fluctuations of the mind.
13. Practice is the sustained effort to remain in that stillness.
14. And this practice becomes firmly rooted when it is cultivated skillfully and continuously for a long time."

Our practice must be cultivated.  There is effort involved.  Ask  anyone who has ever tried to cultivate anything, from a potted plant to a massive garden. Aside from pure effort, awareness--skill--is involved.  One has to recognize what grows best in which environment.  I may love pineapple, but if I put all my effort into growing a pineapple in Dutchess County, NY, I have to understand that I cannot be upset if that tropical plant does not want to grow in the current climate. Because this is a long term practice, that self-awareness has to check the ego.  If I am to have a sustained practice, but I push to the point of injury, or try to follow a practice which leaves me frustrated, sore, and dreading the next session, I need to know what I am doing is not working. 

How does one know when their practice is correct?  These verses tell us:  when it is sustainable; when it is done because it is to be done.  If you can commit to practice when no one is looking, and do it smartly (without injury or self-judgement), and do it for 40 days straight, you are on your way.  It does not matter what it is, recall that Patanjali defines yoga as "The cessation of the fluctuations of the mind" not foot behind the head or 6 pack abs. 

The beginner student says: "I WANT to do that."
The intermediate student says "Sure, I'll do that."
The advanced student says "I shouldn't do that."

Work with your teacher and your self to find a practice which is right for YOU, that you can do skillfully and continuously for a long time.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hanuman Jayanti

As promised, the best story that I know:

Bhajelo Ji Hanumaan! Bhajelo Ji Hanumaan!

Oh Friend! Sing the praises of Hanuman!

Shree Guru charana saroja raja,
Nija manu mukuru sudhaari

Having polished the mirror of my heart with the dust on my Guru’s lotus feet

Baranaun Raghubara bimala jasu,
Jo daayaku phala chaari

I sing the pure fame of the best of the Raghus, which bestows the Four Fruits of Life (Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha)

Budhi heena tanu jaanike,
Sumiraun pavana kumara

Knowing this body to be devoid of intelligence, I recall the Son of the Wind

Bala budhi vidya dehu mohin,
Harahu kalesa bikaara

Grant me the strength, wit, and wisdom, and remove my sorrows and shortcomings

Seeyaavara Raamachandra pada Jai Sharanam

Hail the refuge of the feet of Sita’s bridegroom, Ramachandra

1.Jaya Hanumaana gyaana guna saagara,
Jaya Kapeesha tihun loka ujaagara

Victory to Hanuman, ocean of wisdom and virtue,
Hail Monkey Lord, illuminator of the three worlds

2. Raama doota atulita bala dhaamaa,
Anjani putra Pavanasuta naama

Ram’s emissary abode of matchless power,
Anjani’s son named Son of the Wind

3. Mahaabeera birkama bajarangee,
Kumati nivaara sumati ke sangee

Great hero mighty as a thunderbolt,
Remover of evil thoughts and companion to the good
4. Kanchana barana biraaja subesaa,
Kaanana kundala kunchita kesaa

Golden Hued and splendidly adorned,
With heavy earrings and curly locks

5. Haatha bajra aura dvajaa biraajai,
Kaandhee mooja janeu saaji

In your hands shine mace and banner,
A sacred thread of munja grass adorns your shoulder.

6. Shankara suvana Kesaree nandana,
Teja prataapa mahaa jaga bandana

You are Shiva’s son and Kesari’s joy,
Your glory is revered throughout the world.

7.Vidyaa vaana gunee ati chaatura,
Raama kaaja karibe ko aatura

Supremely wise, virtuous, and clever,
You are ever intent on doing Ram’s work.

8. Prabhu charitra sunibe ko rasiyaa,
Raama Lakshana Seetaa mana basiyaa

You delight in hearing of the Lord’s deeds,
Ram, Lakshman, and Sita dwell in your heart

9. Sookshma roopa dhari Siyahin dikhaavaa,
Bikata roopa dhari Lanka jaraavaa

Assuming tiny form you appeared to Sita,
And in awesome guise you burned Lanka.

10. Bheema roopa dhari asura sanghaare,
Raamachandra ke kaaja sanvaare

Taking dreadful form you slaughtered demons
And completed Lord Ram’s mission

11. Laaya sajeevana Lakhana jiyaaye,
Shree Raghubeera harashi ura laaye

Bringing the magic herb, you revived Lakshman,
And Ram embraced you with delight.
12. Raghupati keenhee bahuta baraai,
Tuma mama priya Bharatahi sama bhaai

Greatly did the Raghu Lord praise you-
“Brother, you’re as dear to me as Bharat!”

13.Sahasa badana tumharo jasa gaaven,
Asa kahi Shreepati kantha lagaaven

“May the thousand-mouthed serpent sing your fame!”
So saying, Shri’s (Lakshmi’s) Lord drew you to Himself

14. Sanakaadika Brahmaadi muneesaa,
Naarada Saarada sahita Aheesaa

Sanak and the sages, Brahma, gods, and great saints,
Narada Sarasvati, and the King of the serpents

15. Yama Kubera digapaala jahaante,
Kabi kobida kahi sake kahaante

Yama, Kubera, and the guardians of the four quadrants,
Poets and scholars-none can express your glory

16. Tuma upakaara Sugreevahin keenhaa,
Raama milaaya raja pada deenha

You rendered great service to Sugriva,
Presenting him to Ram, you have him kingship

17. Tumharo mantra Vibeeshana maanaa,
Lankeshvara bhaye saba jaga jaanaa

Vibhishana heeded your counsel,
And became Lord of Lanka, as all the world knows

18. Yuga sahasra jojana para bhaanu,
Leelyo taahi madhura phala jaanu

Though the sun is thousands of miles away,
You swallowed it, thinking it a sweet fruit

19. Prabhu mukrikaa meli mukha maaheen,
Jaladhi laanghi gaye acharaja naaheen

Holding the Lord’s ring in your mouth,
It’s no surprise you leapt over the ocean
20. Durgama kaaja jagata ke jete,
Sugama anugraha tumhare tete

Every arduous task in this world
Becomes easy by your grace

21. Raama duaare tuma rakhavaare,
Hota na aagyaa binu paisaare

Your are the guardian of Ram’s door,
None enters without your permission

22. Saba sukha lahai tumhaaree sharanaa,
Tuma rakshaka kaahu ko daranaa

Taking refuge in you one finds all delight,
Those you protect know no fear

23. Aapana teja samhaaru aapai,
Teenon loka haanka ten kaanpai

You alone can withstand your own splendor,
The three worlds tremble at your roar

24. Bhoota pisaacha nikata nahin aavai,
Mahaabeera  jaba naama sunaavai

Ghosts and goblins cannot come near,
Great Hero, when your name is uttered

25. Naasai roga hara saba peeraa,
Japata nirantara Hanumata beeraa

All disease and pain is eradicated,
Brave Hanuman, by constant repetition of your name

26. Sankata tena Hanumaana churaavai,
Mana karma bachana dhyaana jo laavi

Hanuman releases from affliction
Those who remember him in thought, word, and deed

27. Saba para Raama tapaswee raajaa,
Tina ke kaaja sakala tuma saajaa

Ram the ascetic reigns over all but
You carry out his every task
28. Aura Manoratha jo koee laave,
Soee amita jeevana phala pave

One who comes to you with any yearning,
Obtains the abundance of the Four Fruits of Life

29. Chaaron yuga parataapa tumhaaraa,
Hai parasidha jagata ujiyaaraa

Your splendor fills the four ages,
Your glory is famed throughout the world

30. Saadhu santa ke tuma rakhavaara,
Asura nikandana Raama dulaare

You are the guardian of saints and sages,
The destroyer of demons, the darling of Ram

31. Ashta sidhi nau nidhi ke daataa,
Asa bara deena Jaanakee Maata

You grant the eight powers and nine treasures,
By the boon you received from Mother Janaki (Sita)

32. Raama rasaayana toomhara paasaa,
Sadaa raho Raghupati ke daasa

You hold the elixir of Ram’s name,
And remain eternally his servant

33. Tumhara bhajana Raama ko paavi,
Janama janama ke dukha bisaraavai

Singing your praise, one finds Ram
And escapes the sorrows of countless lives

34. Anta kaala Rahubara pura jaeee,
Jahaan janma Hari bhakta kahaaee

At death, one goes to Ram’s own city,
Or is born on earth as God’s devotee

35. Aura devataa chita na dharaee,
Hanumata se sarva sukha karaee

(Even if you) Give no thought to any other deity
Worshipping Hanuman, one gains all delight
36. Sankata katai mite saba peeraa,
Jo sumire Hanumata bala beeraa

All affliction ceases, all pain is removed
By remembering the mighty hero, Hanuman

37. Jai Jai Jai Hanumaana Gosaaee,
Kripaa karahu gurudeva kee naaee

Victory, Victory, Victory to Lord Hanuman!
Bestow your grace on me, as my Guru

38. Jo sata baara paata kara koeee,
Chootahi bandi mahaa sukha hoee

Whoever recited this a hundred times,
Is released from bondage and gains bliss.

39. Jo yaha parai Hanumaana Chaleesa,
Hoya sidhi saakhee Gaureesaa

One who reads this Hanuman Chaleesa
Gains success as Gauri’s Lord (Shiva) is witness

40. Tulaseedaasa sadaa Hari cheraa,
Keeje naata hridaya mahan deraa

Says Tulsidas, Hari’s constant servant,
“Lord, make your home in my heart.”

Pawana tanaya sankata harana mangala moorati roopa

Son of the Wind, Destroyer of sorrow, embodiment of blessing

Raama Lakhana Seeta Sahita,
Hridaya basahu sura bhoopa

Dwell in my heart, King of Gods
Together with Ram, Lakshman, and Sita

Mangala moorati Maruta nandan,
Sakala mangala moola nikandan

Embodiment of welfare and auspiciousness, Son of the Wind
The source of all blessings and the root of all destruction
Jai Bajrangbali Naharaj ki Jai!
(with thanks to Krishna Das and Sri Dharma Mittra)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Millenia (or more) of History, in 5 Easy Minutes

I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a guest speaker for our History and Cultures of Asia class, and will be providing an experiential learning piece on yoga as living history.  Here is the 1 % theory.  Of course, it is only the stopping points not the lecture, but you can get the idea.  If you are used to powerpoint, please check out the presentation to see what Prezi can do.

5 minutes of history will be followed by some demonstration illustrating the story telling ability of asanas.  Much like cooking, one does not need to know any history or theory to do it well, but it is there and it can enrich the experience.

Where will we go with the 99% practice?  Surya Namaskar A.  Virabhadrasana with story. Paschimottanasana, baddha konasana, shoulderstand and headstand introduction (always fun to see the variety of looks when springing headstand on an unsuspecting group), padmasana variations.  I know all too well what professional cooking does to the body, and am looking forward to giving these students some short, practical elements of practice which can benefit their bodies (and minds and spirits).

Here's to bringing the laboratory into the classroom!

Monday, April 11, 2011


“Let Sri Rama be your ideal. Ideals are remembered and adored for the purpose of adopting them in your own life.” (Swami Sivananda, Hindu Fasts and Festivals. 55)

Ramnavmi is the celebration of the birthday of Rama, this year April 12th. 

Krishnamacharya recounts that his first teacher was his father.  Before his father died, he gave a copy of the Ramayana to Krishnamacharya and said “This is all that you need.” Swami Sivananda states that the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita are all one needs for spiritual study. 

 I was drawn to the story of Rama through the chanting of Krishna Das, before I even knew who Krishna Das was or who Rama was. I only knew the song “Sita Ram” which goes:

Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram/ Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram / Sita Ram/ Sita Ram / Sita Ram / Sita Ram / Sita Ram / Sita Ram /Sita Ram / Sita Ram

I knew the song only from hearing it as background music.  Yet at a very important time, it spontaneously played in my head as loud as if I were sitting in front of a speaker. That lead me to read the Ramayana the first time and I  knew that it was important for me. 

In the story of Rama we find the teaching of the Vedas in a very accessible form. 

The story of Rama is the story of how to do what is right.  Rama is the perfect husband, king, brother, son; Sita is the perfect wife, Hanuman the perfect devotee.  If we act for the greater good, even if that act causes us personal difficulty, we are acting according to our true nature.  Acting for the greater good simply means acting in service.  Easy to write, hard to live, which is why we have the Ramayana.  It sets an example to guide us.  This is not a purely Hindu story, it is a human story.  Chanting “Rama” does not mean  converting to anything, it is a reminder of the ideal which we are capable of achieving. 

Another main theme of The Ramayana:  The mind becomes what it focuses intently upon.  In Hanuman, we have the ideal devotee, with Rama on every cell of his body.  Ravana, the demon who Rama is born to destroy, attains the highest reaches of heaven upon his death.  Why?  His mind was focused intently upon Rama, even though those thoughts were of how to annihilate Rama.  The story of the story further demonstrates this theme:  The thief Ratnakara was directed by sages to chant Rama in order to change his ways and attain righteousness.  Ratnakara was so corrupted that his mouth could not form the name of the Lord, and instead, the syllables came out reversed: “Mara,” meaning death.  With constant repetition Mara became Rama, and the thief Ratnakara became the sage Valmiki, who was the world’s first poet and composer of the Ramayana.

Read the Ramayana (I recommend William Buck’s retelling).  It is not full of Hindu  dogma, it is universal.  Keep a bookmark to the list of characters so if you become confused with the foreign names you can easily reference who is who.   Read it as an adventure story and a love story.  Read it for the flying monkey and the giant, the 10 headed and 20 armed demon and the shining image of the king in exile.  Read it for the spider web of a plot; read it for the history.  Just read it.  Make the act of reading a practice. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

They All Start With One

I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a guest instructor with our History and Cultures of Asia class.  The plan is to present a very brief history of yoga and relate it to modern times.  If I can accomplish this in 5 minutes, we will have 45 minutes to put history into practice.

History is an element of yogic practice which is often forgotten.  We often focus on what we are doing right now—the movement of body and mind, the breath, and the future (c’mon, admit it, we all think about our progression: physical, mental, and spiritual, physical, physical, physical at least some of the time), but it is not often that we take the practice as living history. 

Starting with OM we connect with  and acknowledge the subtlest form of creation itself.  OM is not the actual vibration which emanates from the divine, it is the name of that vibration.  It is old.  I open my personal practice, and sometimes classes, with OM saha navavatu / saha nau bhunaktu / saha viryam karavavahai / tejasvi navadhitam astu ma vidvisavahai / OM shanti shanti shanti [Accept us both together, protect us both together, may our knowledge and strength increase, may we not resent each other, OM peace, peace, peace].  This chant opens some of the Upanishads, meaning it has been spoken since Vedic times.  The knowledge of the Vedas was imparted to the minds of sages directly from the Divine.  These 17 words have been chanted in this order, in this language for tens of thousands of years, and come directly from the Divine. Think about that the next time you chant, alone or in a class.  Most of these chants are incredibly old and unchanged. 

In the lineage that I follow, asana practice begins with Surya Namaskar A.  It is not a warm up, it is an invocation, a complete practice within itself, and the link which weaves the story of every other posture which follows.  According to Vamana Risi, all movement is initiated by a breath, and every breath is issued a count.  This one breath/one movement combination is called Vinyasa.  Surya Namaskar A has 9 vinyasas.  The first movement is on puraka (inhalation), raising the arms above the head, gaze between the eyebrows. It is counted as Ekam “One.” Traditionally this is done facing East.  These 9 movements represent a prostration, and acknowledgement of  and respect for something greater than ourselves, without which we could not exist. 

In the Ashtanga series (the series’ proper, not the standing sequence), all asanas are a function of Surya Namaskar, either explicitly or implicitly. Every Asana is a stopping point in a series, and every series begins with Ekam, one.  Most of the time we do not see this because it is customary to practice a “half-vinyasa” (in this case, vinyasa has come to mean the process of jumping back to chatauranga dandasana, urdhva mukha svanasa, adho mukha svanasa, jumping forward to dandasana. Dandasana is counted as 7, the first six, rarely done, are the first 6 vinyasas of Surya Namaskar A). Pashimottanasana, for instance, has 17 vinyasas, if done completely, from standing, the 9th being the recognizable state of the posture.   The state of the asana is only a function of the prostration.  So much for a simple forward bend.

Every asana fits into one of four categories (lifeless forms, animals, human forms, or divine forms) and each tells a story.  Is it important that we know the history of Drona and Drupada or Arjuna or Rama to lift into dhanurasana (bow pose) or that we understand the conflict between Shiva and Brahma to put our foot behind our head? No.

But we could.  And if we did, the postures would be come more than just contortion, more than just a physical focal point.  They can become living lessons of history.

 “It is important to have a perspective on history in order to move forward.” 
~ Dr. Nathan Myhrvold