Friday, March 30, 2012


Artist: Sanjay Patel

Sunday, April 1st is the celebration of the birthday of Rama, hero of The Ramayana, destroyer of the demon Ravana, incarnation of Vishnu.

I am not a Hindu, but I do have a strong connection with Rama (even more so with Hanuman—more about that next week in time for his birthday).

Rama, both in the religious aspect and as a character in a story, represents an ideal.  He is the ideal King, son, husband, leader, master, brother, always acting with righteousness—that is to say acting as an extension of Truth.  The word of a King cannot be wrong, so his words are true.  The son must obey the word of the father, and he does so even though hardships will befall him.

We have these representations of ideals so that we may know how to act, how to live correctly.  Rama is considered to have been an actual living, breathing human.  If one person can act this way, it demonstrates to others that right action is attainable.

Hard sandals to follow.

The story of The Ramayana captivates me at each reading.  It is filled with fun stories which explain very complex Vedic law.  Many of the poses we do in asana class are representative of characters from this story (either the original by Valmiki or the more recent one by Tulsidas), such as Kakasana, Vasisthasana, Visvamitrasana, Dhanurasana, Anjanyasana, Virasana, Bharadvajasana, Parighasana, among others, which act as a modern connection to the ideals of their namesakes.

Come hear some stories this week. Let me tell you about Rama.  It doesn’t matter what religious affinity we have—stories of goodness are meant to inspire us to try to be better.  We may succeed or fail in various amounts, but once the seed is planted, it will grow.

Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram

Friday, March 23, 2012

Habits of Highly Effective Yoga

I offer a nod to Stephen Covey for the inspiration for this post.  While I freely admit that I have never read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, nor do I have any desire to ever read this book, I have found that Habit #2 “Begin with the end in mind” is extremely useful for our yoga practice.

Most of us know and practice some variation of Hatha Yoga.  Hatha Yoga is ANY yoga practice which is primarily concerned with utilizing the body and breath to manipulate energy flow.  Take your pick: Ashtanga, Iyengar, Hot, Jivamukti, Kundalini, Vinyasa, etc, etc are all under the umbrella of Hatha Yoga.

It is easy to get caught up in Hatha Yoga practice.  I can identify postures I want to be able to do; I can look at another and judge my postures against theirs; I can measure how long I can inhale, retain, and exhale the breath.  I can easily (and unconsciously) use these benchmarks to mark my progression in the practice—last year I couldn’t touch my toes,  now I can put my foot behind my head.  WHAT A GREAT YOGI I AM!!!!!

One of the oldest surviving, and most widely available texts we have on Hatha Yoga is The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written by Swami Svatmarama +/- 1350 AD.  It is a true pity that this work is not read by many yoga teachers and trainees, as it very succinctly outlines specific practices (which we still use today) and the reasons behind these practices.  To be clear, this small work forms the basis for EVERY Hatha Yoga brand name offshoot that you encounter. 

Before explaining postures, breathing techniques, cleansing practices, mudras, and bandhas, Swami Svatmarama states the purpose, the whole reason to apply any of these techniques.  Chapter 1, verse 2:

“Yogi Svatmarama presents Hatha Vidya (wisdom) solely and exclusively for the attainment of Raja Yoga.”(Hans-Ulrich Rieker, tr.)

Raja Yoga, the yoga of PataƱjali, is “The cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” (I.2) which happens through meditative absorption.  Only 7 of the roughly 200 verses of the Yoga Sutras speak of posture (3) and breath control (4), and no techniques are given.

Why then do we spend so much time with Hatha Yoga?  Because we are not prepared to jump right into meditative absorption.  Don’t ask why, just accept it.

For our Hatha practice to be effective, we must remember its goal—to be able to sit still and shut up.  As an example, the Ashtanga system achieves this through the practice of Trishtana,  3 focal points: Posture, which purifies the body; Breathing system, which purifies the nervous system; and Dristhi (looking place), which purifies the mind.  Basically PataƱjali’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th limbs.  Other systems have different methods of achieving the same purpose: using the body and breath to prepare for meditation.

An essential element to all this is to ACTUALLY PRACTICE MEDITATION. Yes, we may not be prepared to make meditation our entire practice (yet), but we need to include it to move forward.

Let’s say you want to learn to ride a bike.  You read books and watch videos on riding techniques.  You talk to those who ride.  You do extensive balancing and leg-strengthening exercises.  All are very good preparation. 

But if you never get on the bike and try to ride, you are wasting your time. The goal is to learn to ride, not to know theory or add pure bulk muscle to your legs.

No, you are not going to do the Tour de France your first time out, or your first year, or maybe ever; but you can ride up and down the street then increase the distance over time as your ability grows.

When you practice Hatha Yoga (asana and pranayama), reflect upon how what you are doing is helping to prepare you for Raja Yoga (meditation). Seek to understand that every pose emanates from and leads to “Sitting with the head neck and body erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of the nose” (Bhagavad Gita VI.13) and “Shutting out (all) external contacts and fixing the gaze between the eyebrows, equalizing the outgoing and incoming breaths moving within the nostrils.” (Bhagavad Gita V. 27). 

Not dropping some serious lb.’s, not putting your foot behind your head, not doing what that person can do.  Sitting still and shutting up is the endgame.  No need to wait for some level of “perfection;” put your practice to its rightful use: add seated meditation to your practice.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rules Are Only Tools

I’ve probably posted this story before, but it’s been on my mind lately so it’s getting posted again.  I cannot remember where I read it, most likely in Sivananda’s writings or maybe in The Gospel of Ramakrishna.  My apologies for not citing the work (if anyone can provide a source, let me know and I’ll gladly document it):

Once upon a time, in India, an old wandering sadhu (holy man) sought shelter in a temple.  The temple priest led the hermit to the meditation hall and left to prepare some food.  When the priest returned, he was horrified to find the sadhu lying down with his feet pointed to the Shiva Lingam. 

“Dear Brother! Please move your feet at once!” exclaimed the horrified priest.  “Why do you disrespect Lord Shiva by pointing your feet toward his image?”

“I am tired and needed to rest,” replied the sadhu.

“It is a sacrilege to show your feet to the Lord!”

“If it bothers you that much, please move my feet so they do not point at the Lord,” the sadhu responded.

The priest immediately grabbed the feet of the sadhu and began to turn him.  But in every direction he turned, the priest saw the Lord Shiva.  The priest realized that the Lord is everywhere, not just in statues and rituals, and gained enlightenment.

Yes, we need to be organized, systematic, and disciplined about our practice.  Rules and rituals are useful, especially in the beginning of our practice when we need to develop discipline.  Yet we must remind ourselves that the goal of the practice is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.  The "rules" are only tools to meet this goal.  There are a wide variety of rules because there are a wide variety of people--all rules and methods do not work universally for all people. Obsessing over every bit of minutiae (Internally rotate your spleen to a 47.34 degree angle; each pose must be held for 5 breaths, no more no less; Are there ONIONS in that?! Onions are worse than meat!) increases fluctuations and decreases practice time.

When rules are trumping common sense and take over as the focus of the practice, it is time to lighten up a little.  You won’t be smited for leading with the wrong foot. Your cushion won’t turn into brimstone because you mispronounced a word in that chant. The gates of Hell won’t open because you had a hamburger. 

The Lord is just as present in ‘mistakes’ as in ‘perfection.’ 

Sincerity is more beneficial than precise mechanical repetition.  Enjoy your practice and you will return to it, make it a source of stress and you will drift away from it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Spring Training--It's Not about Yoga, It's About LIFE and How Good You Are Willing to Become

It’s not about [fill in the blank], it’s about LIFE and how good you are willing to become.

Back in the day, this is what the captain of our swim team said to motivate us.  He would alter the  [fill in the blank] to suit his needs--swimming, football, algebra, eating hot dogs, etc. Seemed fitting to co-opt this saying  considering this weekend is SPRING TRAINING! Saturday March 10th 2-4 at Hudson River Yoga, Poughkeepsie.

In baseball, the teams have reported for spring training.  This is a time to return to the fundamentals, build endurance, and become a team again after an extended break.  If you’ve played any sports, think about how much time you spent training versus the amount of time the “Big Game” takes. Our HS swim team trained 3 hours a day, 6 days a week.  The longest event anyone swam was over in under 6 minutes, many were finished in under 1 ½ minutes (even for slow, leaden anchors like me).  18 hours of practice for 2 minutes of production.  99.8% of the time was pratice,.19% was production. 

The practice of yoga is the complete opposite of this.  I practice about 1 ½ hours per day, 6 days a week, for a total of 9 hours on my mat and cushion per week.  The “Big Game” is life.  That 9 hours of practice has to sustain the other 159 hours of the week.  About 5% practice, 95% production.

We’ve got to make our practice time count, so I bring you Spring Training.  For this session, I’m going back to my fundamentals, the practice that instilled the discipline, strength and endurance which allows me to do my current practice: The Ashtanga Vinyasa system. 

The practice will be inspired by this system (I will never nor have I ever claimed to teach Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.  The only people who are allowed to say this are listed on 

We will use movement to cleanse the body, the breath to purify the nervous system, and the focus of the gaze to purify the mind.  Basically we will be moving and breathing with purpose, and doing a lot of both.

The best thing about this system is that it encourages the student to practice on their own.  We will come together to practice as a group, and you will have the tools to continue to practice until the next group session.

I invite you to come jump around with me.  Everyone is welcomed equally.  This is a great jump start to begin or renew your yoga practice, and it will knock off that rust (and cookies, my word the cookies!) that accumulated over the winter so you will be ready to run, bike, swim, play baseball, etc. this Spring and Summer.

See you on the mat!