Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Have No Fear of Books!

We are told over and over again that “you cannot learn yoga from books.”  Ironically enough, these words often appear in books.   There are two main arguments to support this:  for an asana focused practice, although books and videos provide instruction and reference, they do not provide feedback.  And most of us (especially in the beginning, but even advanced practitioners) have a difficult time judging our alignment, increasing the potential for injury.  The other argument, for scriptural study, is that the literature is so dense that the student needs a learned teacher to interpret it in an accurate and meaningful way. 

Recall that yoga is an oral tradition, passed on from teacher to student directly.  There was a time when students learned the Yoga Sutras, The Vedas, The Epics (all 100,000 verses of The Mahabharata and 24,000 verses of The Ramayana) by hearing them and committing them to memory.  Those who learned by this method would be expected to hold the oral tradition as the most authoritative.

Swami Sivananda
Things change with time.  There is a story that at one time there was only one Veda.  The sage Vyasa felt that humanity was no longer capable of learning such an immense work, so he broke it into four parts. (He must have still had some faith in humanity, because the four parts are still pretty expansive.)  Recently (within the last 150 years or so) the oral teachings began to be written down and translated into other languages. Great teachers like Swami Sivananda (9.8.1887—7.14.1963) created and freely distributed libraries worth of teachings—many are still available for free at And now one can find anything on the Web: texts, teachings, podcasts, videos, etc. can be downloaded or shipped right to your house. 

The question becomes: Does the widespread availability of teachings dilute or diminish the authority of these teachings?

We should look at this question in relation to the four ages.  In the first age, Satya Yuga, virtue reined.  In the second age, Treta Yuga, there was 75% virtue and 25% vice.  This was the time of Rama.  The third age, Dvapara Yuga, had 50 % virtue and 50% vice.  This was the time of Krishna and The Mahabharata.  Krishna’s death ushered in the fourth age, Kali Yuga, our current time where there is 75% vice and 25% virtue.  The cycle renews at the end of the current age.  

Something needs to happen to turn the wheel from it’s darkest point to it’s lightest point.  Although the cycle degrades gradually, it renews suddenly.  In Satya Yuga, there was no need for teachers because humanity had direct contact with the Divine.  As that connection diminished, the availability of teachings increased. It makes sense that in Kali Yuga there would be widespread availability of the teachings in order to push the world from darkness to the light.  

The teachings are available because they need to be. In hindsight, we can see examples of those who knew humanity needed access to these teachings: Krishna gave the Bhagavad Gita not only for Arjuna’s benefit, but so that those of us in the following age would have a handbook (authored by a human incarnation of The Divine) to ferry us through the upcoming darkest of ages. Vyasa altered the format of the Vedas to make them more accessible, dictated the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita.  Vyasa actually gave the gift of Divine Sight to Sanjaya, so that he could recount the Gita directly to the blind King. The Gita we read today is considered to be an exact transcription of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna) to Ganesha preserving it for all time, and provided the first commentary on the Yoga Sutras (this commentary is the basis for ALL other commentaries which followed). Swami Sivananda states again and again [liberally quoting] “Read books until you find a suitable guru,” and part of his selfless service included writing, publishing, and freely distributing volumes of information to any seeker who asked.

How blessed we are that we have access to a wealth of teachings, for free, delivered to our own homes, and that there is a yoga studio on every block.  We do not need to travel, give up our daily responsibilities, or spend a lot of money to reap the benefits of these teachings.  The teachings are there for us, if we don’t take advantage of this accessibility, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

Whether the teachings come from the corner yoga studio, Google Books, B&, iTunes, YouTube, or from a cave in the Himalayas, if they inspire you, provide health, provide comfort in time of need, encourage you to lend a hand to someone in their time of need, or serve to move you toward freedom in any other way, then that teaching is valid.   Any practice or search for knowledge is better than no practice and no search for knowledge.

A teacher does not have to be physically present to effectively impart their teachings.   Read a book, watch a video, or click away without fear! 

Reminder: Student Training Program begins in August!  What’s that?  Contact me for more info.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Student Training Program Is Coming!

“An Ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching”~Mahatma K. Gandhi.

Have you ever wondered what they are learning in yoga teacher trainings?

Have you considered taking a yoga teacher training course only to be deterred by the cost, time commitment, and competitiveness?

Have you ever felt left out because you did not understand what was going on in class, but did not feel comfortable asking the teacher?

Do you want to deepen your practice but just don’t know where to start or who to ask?

Then a STUDENT TRAINING program may be right for you.

Learn what they’re learning in yoga teacher training programs at a fraction of the cost, in a non-competitive and supportive environment from a locally trained teacher who is committed to your success as a student both during and beyond the program.

We will plant seeds which you can cultivate into your own consistent practice, and grow and enrich the practice you currently have. When practice is fun and meaningful for you, there is more of a chance that it will be consistent.  

Four sequential, yet stand alone, sessions will be offered.  Each session will include: a physical practice where poses will be broken down so that you can find your individual expression of each pose; history and mythology to provide a framework for why we do what we do in class, breathing and meditation techniques; and constant Q & A opportunities.  Be prepared for homework!

Practice should be affordable, accessible, and sustainable.  Take one, some, or all of the sessions and you will benefit.  Take just one class and receive access to a number of free resources and access to a teacher committed to your development of the practice. Take more than one session and receive a discount.  Bring a friend and receive a discount.

From very beginners on up, all are welcomed equally. 

You don’t have to be flexible, strong, or know your asana from your bandha. We’ll start from where you are and go from there.

Coming this AUGUST to Hudson River Yoga.

Think this might be right for you?  CONTACT ME to find out more. 

More details will follow in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Get Inpired!

In the morality play that is professional wrestling, Terry “Hulk” Hogan was the man.  He was the good guy when we needed good guys, inspiring nationalistic pride by tearing off his shirt with his 24” pythons to the song “I Am a Real American.”  He challenged us: “Whatcha gonna do, brother, when Hulkamania runs all over you?” Perhaps his best lesson, one that has been burned into my brain (either by  good marketing or from being hypnotized by that suicide blond hair) is his guide to being a good Hulkamaniac.  To be a Hulkamaniac, we are instructed to:

  • Work out
  • Say our prayers
  • Eat our vitamins

Being a good Yogamaniac is no different.  Do your practice, see the Divine everywhere, and provide the body with worthy fuel so that you can do your practice and see the Divine everywhere.

Look to those who serve as examples.  Copy the teacher.  Allow yourself to be inspired.

Whatcha gonna do, brother, when Yogamania runs all over you?

For those who don’t know or want to remember: 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Purpose Not Postures

Shri K. Pattabhi Jois said (quoting liberally from memory) “An intelligent person can gain enlightenment by practicing the First Series.  A less intelligent person can gain enlightenment by practicing the Second Series.  An even less intelligent person can gain enlightenment by practicing the Third Series…”  SKPJ indicates here that it is not the complexity of bodily contortion which indicates advancement, it is the intention, attitude, and focus of the practice which demonstrates advancement.  SKPJ also stated, echoing PYS II.47, (again quoting liberally from memory) “The posture is perfect when the mind is clear.”

One area where I see students (and teachers) push themselves to dangerous places just to “do it” is inversions.  Just listen in class.  Inversion time.  Everybody migrates to the wall.  Then THUD THUD THUD as students throw themselves to the wall.  Breath sounds like a group of Olympic power lifters, alternately sucking air for dear life and holding the breath as if even that minor movement will topple them over.  Look at the faces—twisted, snarled, not enjoying it at all.  Coming off the wall, THUD THUD THUD  in reverse as legs crash down to the mat. 

Congratulations, you have done a head/hand/forearm stand!

But you did not do the pose at all. Asana, PYS II.46 instructs, is composed of firmness AND relaxation.  Without both, you have not performed asana.

I encourage everyone to give up the wall.  Asana is not the wall’s practice, it is your practice.  “But wait, Ron.  The wall helps beginners learn alignment!”


Headstand—The King of Poses.  The key to headstand is creating a firm foundation.  Most of the weight (90%) is carried in the elbows and forearms, with 10% in the head.  By pressing into the elbows, the shoulders are set correctly so that the weight is carried by the bones.  The core muscles are stabilizing the alignment of the rest of the body, which is, in the truest expression, the exact same as Samasthiti—crown, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles aligned.  If one is using the wall, first they kick up to the wall, so they are overshooting the weight of their torso and legs to get to that wall.  This causes more weight to be carried (quite suddenly, because a kick up is generally uncontrolled) on the head and neck, and the rotator cuff muscles are strained because the head of the arm bone is no longer correctly placed in the shoulder socket.  If the student remains at the wall, either their hips or their feet will remain on the wall, drawing weight to the head—the wall is behind, not aligned with the head.

Handstand—The stability in this pose comes from having wrists, elbows, and shoulders aligned so that the bones carry the body’s weight. The safest way to do this is to begin with shoulders, elbows, and wrists aligned and set, then pivot the body up.  To do this, there needs to be room for the head, which initially is forward of the arms.  Let’s say this would put on 6-8 inches from the wall.  Again, kicking up places weight past plumb—shoulders, elbows, and wrists may still be aligned, but hips, knees, and ankles are behind the shoulders to get to the wall, causing strain on our friends the rotator cuff muscles.

Neither of these methods allows for sustainability in the poses.

Learning these poses in the center of the room has several great benefits.  It forces you to focus on creating a stable foundation, without which there is no safe way to do the pose.  Physically, you have to learn to use your muscles in conjunction with one another—you must move slowly because there is no wall to catch you.  This creates muscle memory and strength needed to enter (and exit—remember transitions are part of the poses) the pose. 

More important physical benefits are the mental benefits.  Committing to inversions in the center of the room is very humbling.  You have to admit failure.  There are times when you will fall, and there are times when you will not make it up.  You have to learn when to bail out, and how to do so safely. You have to learn to get back up and try it again. You have to commit to practice away from group classes—free-standing inversions cannot be learned in 10 minutes of practice once a week.  Through repeatedly approaching a difficult pose you gain personal understanding of that pose.  The pose becomes sustainable because you are in your expression of it, not the wall’s or your teacher’s expression.

My practice was born when I learned headstand.  My practice became cemented when I gave up the wall.  It was the last prop I used.  Without props, practice is freed because props focus on the “can’t”—can’t touch your toes, use a strap; can’t invert, use the wall, etc.   Build on what you can do and your practice grows; define your practice by what you can’t do, and your practice stalls. Work with your teacher to create a practice which is correct for you.  Always remember, preparation IS the pose—movement of energy, not movement of body is the purpose of the poses.  All poses can be found in the only pose prescribed in the Bhagavad Gita:
V.27 Shutting out (all) external contacts and fixing the gaze between the eyebrows, equalizing the outgoing and incoming breaths moving within the nostrils,
28. With the senses, the mind and the intellect always controlled, having liberation as his
supreme goal, free from desire, fear and anger—the sage is verily liberated for ever.

VI.11. In a clean spot, having established a firm seat of his own, neither too high nor too low, made of a cloth, a skin and kusha grass, one over the other,
12. There, having made the mind one-pointed, with the actions of the mind and the senses
controlled, let him, seated on the seat, practise Yoga for the purification of the self.
13.Let him firmly hold his body, head and neck erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of his nose, without looking around.

That’s all you need to do.  But I am not so intelligent, so I have to practice more asana! 

This week, we continue to focus on handstand preparation, utilizing FULL Vinyasa counts for all poses (meaning every pose in the series will begin and end in Samasthiti.) Come turn your world upside down with me!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


It was a Tin Man morning.  You know, one of those where “Oil Can!” replaced Om Saha Navavatu as the opening chant.  [Side note.  Calling for the oil can is different than calling “WINCH!”  For all you non Jeep enthusiasts, one calls for the winch when they are completely stuck and unable to extricate themselves from a situation.  It happened to me once, when, without exaggeration, I came very close to breaking my neck.  The teacher laughed.  I am still very sore over that reaction.  Not very yoga of me, but owning the gross and icky feelings are the first step to overcoming them]

Even though nothing was moving, I still did my practice.  Sri Pattabhi Jois said “Do your practice, and all is coming.”  This was the oil can that got me moving.

Do This practice requires effort.  It is not a spectator sport.  When learned teachers state “You cannot learn yoga from books,” they mean that one does not succeed in the practice through intellectual understanding. Even the Jnana Yogis—those whose practice is focused upon intense study of the ancient texts—put the knowledge into practice.  Do does not mean judge.  Today’s practice will be different than yesterday’s and tomorrow’s.  You are not the same person right now as you were or will be. Be OK with that.

Your This practice belongs to the individual.  A teacher can illuminate options, but they cannot do the practice for you.  Yoga is a science.  It requires consistent, thoughtful experimentation.  Not all practices are appropriate for all individuals (a valid practice is the one that works for you).  However, you cannot expect success if you just jump from method to method or make it up as you go along.  Pick a legitimate style (one that is systematic, time-tested, and is taught by those who know what they are doing) and experiment with it.  Let the practice be your guide.  Investigate it.  Read about it.  Be open to “coincidences” as teaching points. [For instance, the above mentioned teacher studies under and promotes a “renunciate” who is accused of murder. Coincidence?  Laughing at potentially serious injury and promotion of a “holy” man accused of heinous deeds is not my practice, and not influences I want surrounding my practice, no matter how fun the asanas were.  You must investigate and make your own decisions about your teachers.] Take the teachings you learned in group classes and practice them at home.  Make them yours, not the teacher’s, not the group’s.

Practice  Is both similar to and different from the sports connotation surrounding the word.  Like sports, yoga practice is an opportunity to learn and improve.  There is an implication of “failure,” that is, we use practice time to screw up and learn from our screw ups so that we can perform optimally in the big game.  Here is the main difference.  When I swam in high school (well, flailed around in chlorinated water), we practiced 3 hours a day, 6 days a week—18 hours of practice per week.  We had 2 meets per week, and I averaged 3 events per meet.  My longest event ran under 1:30.  So that 18 hours was all to benefit about 9 minutes of total performance.  Yoga practice is the opposite.  Practicing 1.5 hours per day, 6 days per week gives 9 hours of practice time.  There are 168 hours in a week.  The big game is the other 159 hours spent outside of practice.

Without these 3 elements, “All is coming” will not arrive.  Find your oil can, whatever it may be.  Find your winch, whatever that may be. Overcoming the inertia to not practice IS practice.