philosophy

Yoga Sutra Chat

I am leading an informal online Yogasūtra Chat on Friday mornings. Each week, I post a short video introducing the yoga sutras by chanting them and giving a brief translation and explanation. Here are links to the videos--you will also find links to the handouts in the video description. (The first two videos were created on Facebook. I am looking into downloading or re-recording them to post on Youtube).

Samādhipādaḥ (Chapter One)

The first chapter of Patanjali's Yogasūtra introduces the topic of yoga, defining elements of practice, the activities of the mind, and the result of practice.

Sutra 1 - 4: What is yoga? And what is the result of practice?

Sutra 5 - 11: What are the activities of the mind?

Sutra 12 - 16: What does yoga practice consist of?

Sutra 17 - 22: How does yoga practice lead to self-realization?

Videos and handouts will be added here each week right after class. You can comment on the video itself, or join us on Patreon for discussion (I post these videos to the Patron-only feed). I hope you enjoy this resource and find it useful in your studies!

If you find these videos useful, check out my free Monday Meditations and Wednesday Ask a Yoga Teacher videos on Patreon.

Notes on Prāṇayāma

The following are some notes I have taken over the past few years on practicing and teaching prāṇayama. I wish I'd written dates and teachers so I could give attribution to the shared knowledge. The bulk of what I have learned came through teacher training with the Yoga Well Institute and discussions with my personal teacher, Pam Hightower, as well as reflections on my own experience.

What is Prāṇayāma?

Prāṇa is thought of as vital energy or sometimes spirit, and its presence is what makes the difference between something being alive or not. The word prāṇa comes from the word roots "pra" (completely) and "an" (moves), meaning "that which moves/exists throughout" or "that which moves well." The word root "āṇ" also means "to breathe," from which we have the association of prāṇa with breathing.

The word root "āyāma" means to stretch, or to extend. Some texts will translate prāṇayāma as "control of the breath," combining the roots of prāṇa (breath/life force) and yama (control/restraint). However, the second word should be -āyāma (note the long a), and while this difference may seem pedantic, a practice of controlling the breath and that of extending the breath will differ in their approach and attitude.

For me, the word "extension" doesn't simply mean lengthen, as in making the breath so many counts longer, as much as bringing a quality of evenness and endlessness to each breath. I think of the breath as fine thread, and the "extension" is the gentle drawing out of kinks and tangles so the thread is smooth.

According to the Yoga Sutra (2.49-50), prāṇayāma is practiced by interrupting, or consciously influencing, the natural/chaotic flow of the breath once the body is in a state of sthira-sukha (a balance of stability and ease). In prāṇayāma, we strive to keep the breath long and subtle/smooth (dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ) as we modify the exhale, inhale, and the suspension of breath after exhale and inhale.

Why do we practice prāṇayāma?

Prāṇayāma is the "chief way of focusing prāṇa," and the ideal tool for working with disruptions to the flow of energy in the body (see the prāṇa vayus) and for preparing the mind for meditation.

In a yoga practice or group class, we usually begin with movement to connect with the body. The body is easiest to move and be in relationship with, as it's a physical thing that we are accustomed to moving consciously. Then we move to the more subtle breath. By working with breath in prāṇayāma, we prime the mind for working with thought in meditation.

Prāṇayāma has a profound effect on the state of the human system. Depending on how it is structured, the practice can build capacity for clarity, or letting go, or digestion, or many other qualities that will prepare the system for the direction meditation is intended to go.

Yoga Sutra 2.51 and 2.52 give the result of prāṇayāma:

Once a student is established in prāṇayāma, the veil that obscures the light of knowing disappears, and the mind attains the capacity for concentration.

How do we practice prāṇayāma?

To begin a practice of prāṇayāma, we first need to know the capacity of the practitioner. The quality of a person's breathing is an indication of their state, and that state has a given capacity. Trying to exceed that capacity will only "anger" the prāṇa.

And while "angry prāṇa" may have a funny ring to it, it's no fun! I know this from a lot of experience angering my prāṇa by trying to push it too far. It leaves me feeling anxious, depleted, sleepless and generally miserable. Remember that this is your vital force you're working with. The goal is to develop a relationship with it, not take over its job!

One of my teachers put it this way: "The key is to participate in the way the state is functioning." This is true for all yoga tools in your system--consider yourself a participant, or a partner, not a micro manager (she tells herself).

That said, there are many techniques available for prāṇayama. Here are a few possibilities to consider:

You can change the length of different parts of the breath (the exhale, inhale, or pause after the exhale/inhale).

Usually you'll need to modify the size of the aperture the breath flows from to change the length. For this we have ujjayi breath, in which the throat is gently constricted to slow the flow of breath, or nostril-control breathing, in which we breathe through one nostril at a time. There are also sitali and sitkari, in which we breathe through the mouth (I'll post more on these individual techniques later).

Another way to alter the length of the breath is by using chanting, in whatever language you are comfortable with. Saying words or phrases of different lengths is a more subtle way to control the length of the breath, and in my experience, the more subtle I can be when working with prāṇa, the more digestible the practice will be.

We also use breathing techniques in which we consciously draw the lower belly in during exhale, or lift and expand the chest on inhale. As long as these are not too forced, they can be an excellent support for concentration and connection to the experience of the breath in stillness or in āsana practice. These breathing techniques include bandha practice as well--a complex topic I will have to cover in a separate post!

How Do I Develop a Prāṇayāma Practice?

Quite frankly, I would leave the work of creating your own practice to a qualified teacher. Even I am most successful when somebody else (who knows me and has carefully observed my state) plans my breathing practice. It's so hard to consider yourself and your practice objectively, especially if you have a goal you are tempted to rush toward.

If you are a teacher wanting to develop a prāṇayāma practice for your students, the first step is to observe their quality of breath at rest and during yoga practice. Is it smooth and easy? Does the body have freedom to move as the breath flows in and out?

Most students do not have a daily yoga practice and will be best served by beginner and early intermediate breathing practices. These include:

  • ujjayi breath and sound (chanting);
  • gradually lengthening the exhale (perhaps to 6 or 10 counts) while leaving the inhale free;
  • and building up to a ratio like 4.0.8.0 (inhale four counts, exhale eight counts).

These are the practices I give most often in group classes, although I might give something more challenging (like pausing after exhale, or lengthening inhale) to students who have been attending class consistently and are in a balanced state.

The best prelude to prāṇayāma is some movement connected to the breath. This helps students come in to their bodies and builds their concentration for working with the less tangible breath. Depending on the students' state, 10 to 30 minutes of asana usually warms them up to a seated breathing practice.

It is difficult to bear in mind that the simplest prāṇayāma practices are often the most useful! I have to remind myself frequently that the goal of prāṇayāma is stable energy and a steady mind, not having an impressive breath capacity. Whenever I feel tempted to push the breath, I look instead for a feeling of ease in my breath, heart and mind. Remember that this is a practice of meeting the breath where it is each day, of being curious about how it is, and accepting that it knows what it's doing.

Working with Energy: The Prana Vayus

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One of the many tools yoga philosophy provides for understanding the human system is the prāṇa vayu model, which describes how energy flows to keep our system working.

Prāṇa is life energy. It's presence is the difference between something being alive or inanimate. And the unobstructed movement of prāṇa throughout our system makes us vibrant and healthy.

Each of the vayus is a description of how and where prāṇa moves to accomplish energetic tasks in our system.

Prāṇa

The prāṇa vayu is located in the chest and head area and is responsible for intake (such as in eating, breathing in and seeing the world around you).

Samāna

The samāna vayu is located in the midsection, around the stomach and upper digestive organs responsible for absorption and integration.

Apāna

The apāna vayu is located in the lower abdomen and pelvic region. It is associated with elimination, the menstrual cycle, childbirth and general letting go.

Udāna

The udāna vayu is responsible for communication and self-expression. It is located in the throat, and is accessed in the area that stretches from the chest to the face.

Vyāna

The vyāna vayu is diffused throughout the body. It is responsible for circulation, sensation and connection.

How to apply the prāṇa vayu system in yoga practice

We can have some influence over the flow of prāṇa in one of the vayus by moving the area (āsana), modifying breathing and bringing attention to a space. We can also use meditation and connection with various objects, gestures (as in mudra and nyāsam) and sound (chanting) to effect different aspects of the human system.

In time, I will share some ideas for using yoga tools like poses, breathing and meditation to influence the various areas of prāṇa flow.

But to begin with, it's helpful to consider how we can observe a disturbance in prāṇa (prāṇa prakopa)

Since the flow of prāṇa is what makes a body work well, noticing what's not working so well in the body/mind/emotions is a good start for choosing a vayu to work with.

For example, painful menstrual cramps, diarrhea, constipation or IBS would be a strong indication that the apāna region needs some attention. If a person doesn't make eye contact or speaks very softly, or on the other hand, speaks without consideration, working with the udāna region would be useful.

Once you can see a connection between an area of pain or difficulty and one of the vayus, you have some direction for choosing appropriate yoga techniques for bringing balance to that space.

Please remember that yoga practice we should never seek to control the system. Yoga practice is an opportunity to build or repair a relationship with the system, and the techniques you choose will work best if supportive and nourishing, not demanding or harsh. Especially where there is agitation in the system, go slow, be kind and choose a gentle approach.

Gayatri Mantra

The Gayatri mantra, also referred to is the Savitri mantra, is one of the oldest known Vedic mantras, and seems to be the most well-known among yoga and meditation students.

This chant was given to me to build my "repertoire" when I wanted to teach others to chant, as it holds a significant place in the Vedic chanting tradition. I practiced it daily at the beginning of my yoga practice for a period of time, and found it had a wonderful brightening effect. For me, chanting the Gayatri is like creating an inner sunrise that illuminates all the dark, uncertain places within me. It's light and warming, and it gives me the feeling of assurance.

The Gayatri mantra is traditionally preceded by an invocation to the three qualities of creation (called vyahriti or the “great utterance") which you can listen to here.

From Mantravalli (rev. ): "This is a significant and popular hymn from the Taittiriya-upanisat that honors the Sun in feminine form. The mantra is a request to the Sun to dispel the darkness of ignorance and provide clarity and strength. The daily recitation of the mantra is considered a pre-requisite for many vedic rituals." 

Listen to the Gayatri Mantra:

Word List:

  • om - auspicious sound (begins many mantras)
  • tat - that
  • savitur/savita - the Sun (feminine deity); the source of all things; power to distinguish right from wrong, discernment
  • varenyam - the highest, best, most worthy
  • bhargo - light; illumination
  • devasya -divine
  • dhimahi - let us meditate
  • dhiyo - thought(s); intellect
  • yo - which
  • nah - our
  • pracodayat - may it inspire/motivate/guide us

Finding Balance

Most of my new students arrive at yoga class ready to exercise.

They are ready to stretch, to balance, and maybe sweat a bit, so they can change, or fix, or maintain their bodies.

Then I ask them to breathe.

Over and over, I ask them to breathe. Finally, we move a bit, but I ask them to move slowly, or gently, or gradually.

This is not something most adults are used to doing. Especially in an exercise class.

But I wouldn't insist on it so strongly if it didn't work so well.

You see, yoga is not like other types of physical exercise.

Or it least, it ought not be, because it was designed to work differently. Yoga is about being able to direct the mind, because great change is possible (inevitable, really) when our perspective is cleared.

And as far as yoga is concerned, the mind and body are linked together so strongly, that moving and placing the body in a specific way is a very good preparation for meditation.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra gives the properties of yoga postures:

Sthira-sukham-āsanam.

Posture (āsana) is steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha). Yoga postures have support and adequate strength, and they do not create pain or exacerbate medical conditions.

Prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām.

It is a perfect balance of effort (prayatna) and effortlessness (śaithilya) combined (bhyām) with complete and endless (ananta) concentration (samāpatti).

This feeling of perfect balance is so different than what we do in exercise and other physical work.

In exercise, we are encouraged to push beyond our limits, to lift one more, run faster or farther, and to get the job done. It's a test of will to overcome your physical limitations.

But will and tenacity can be misguided. They are directed by the ego, and can drive you full-speed in directions that you thought you wanted to go, but end up bringing you frustration or pain, upset your life or relationships.

I'm not denigrating exercise or physical fitness. But yoga is in a different category of activity. It's in the business of helping you see clearly. And letting you perpetuate habits of overworking, overcompensating or avoiding conflict is not in the program.

In my own practice, sthira-sukha is the absence of certain habits.

There is no setting of my jaw, no determination to achieve or prove something, and there is no reaching or pulling further. It feels like there is an internal engine giving me purpose and strength, but it's not willpower. It's a steady, feeling, quiet focus.

When I teach, I see too much sthira when my student's faces become hard around the corners of their eyes and lips. Their body language becomes rigid and closed. Their breath is loud or stops or moves in a sudden whoosh instead of a soft, steady stream. They seem to be pushing or holding on fiercely.

I see too much sukha when a student's spine looks collapsed. When their bodies surrender and suddenly look too heavy for them to hold. Their breath is uneven or too faint or quick. They are disengaged, and their attention flits from one thing in the room to another.

When my students achieve sthira-sukha in class, I can see their eyes and faces are calm. Their bodies have a sense of endless inner strength. They are fully invested in the practice, and move and breathe with a purposefulness that brings the work to a deeper level than just their bodies. 

Until they have sthira-sukha, they are doing exercise. Yes, it might be useful exercise. But when they have the balance of stability and ease, they are doing yoga.

If you've ever been in the room during one of my classes, I'm sure you have felt the difference.

When people are really doing yoga, they have presence and a deep power about them. They aren't just going through a series of motions, or following instructions to get somewhere. They are completely engaged, and they get more benefit from the practice as a result.

What they are learning through their bodies becomes a part of them.

It takes repeated practicing over a period of time to know what sthira-sukha feels like, and to be able to find it again. That's why I encourage students to practice, every day. It doesn't have to be a full 60-minute sequence to be incredibly useful. Five or ten minutes is enough to remember how to be stable and easy in your body. And eventually, that feeling becomes the norm.

When it does, then you are no longer distressed (an-abhighātaḥ) by conflict (dvaṅdva).

Tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ.

When you have mastered this feeling of sthira-sukha, you know it so well that things which caused stress before no longer bother you.

You know you are capable of meeting challenges directly, without strain or avoidance.

You no longer worry about what will happen, because you feel safe, strong and easy inside.

The feeling of steadiness and ease has become a part of who you are.

The Promise of the Gita

Arjuna was overcome by grief and despondency, and thus he spoke with a sinking heart: ‘When I see the field of battle, life goes from my limbs and they sink, and my mouth is sear and dry; a trembling overcomes my body, and my hair shudders in horror; my great bow, Gandiva, falls from my hands, and the skin of my flesh is burning.
— Bhagavad Gita, 1.27-29

The first line of the Bhagavad Gita sets the scene on a battlefield of an epic civil war. It also places the scene at "the field of Dharma," and reveals the deeper context of the Gita: a discourse about how to live a meaningful life.

As he heads into battle, Arjuna represents our taking on the challenges and choices we face. Arjuna carries his bow (his mind) and arrows (directable thoughts) into battle. His chariot (body) is led by five horses (senses).

Arjuna has wisely conscripted Krishna (higher consciousness) to drive the chariot into battle. But when he reaches the center of the field, he faces a quandary: how can he perform his duty when it means battling friends, honored teachers and family? When it means disrupting the order of the kingdom?

In confusion and despondency, he throws down his bow and arrows and sinks into the chariot. He refuses to engage in the war.

Arjuna's confusion is the same we experience when there seems no right choice. Second-guessing and doubt render us inert, unable to move in any direction, let alone the right one.

Without direction or purpose, we disengage from life. We lose ourselves in mindless diversions.

We watch television for hours. We shop for things we don't need. We create drama, fear, pain, and stress in our lives because we aren't equipped to deal with the real choices before us and issues within us.

The Bhagavad Gita shows us how we can face our lives with confidence, conviction and skill in our actions.

It tells us that the path to peace and fulfillment is to know our purpose for living--our dharma--the natural expression of our true Self. This knowing is developed through the practice of yoga, which awakens us to the truth of our own nature, gives us faith and informs our actions.

As the wisdom of the Gita unfolds, Krishna reveals to Arjuna his true nature. He explains how the world works, humanity's purpose in life and how we can fulfill that purpose to reach our fullest potential. He shines a light on a path toward freedom, meaning and happiness.

This is the promise of the Gita. That we have purpose, and our lives are an opportunity to discover and fulfill it.


Seven Tools for Self-Realization

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The chakras are usually described as wheels or vortices of energy, spinning with the flow of life energy (prana) through the human body. There are traditionally seven chakras which run from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.

During the early Western interest in yogic practices, scientists attempted to locate the chakras within the body, and many posited that the chakras directly correlated with the plexuses of the nervous system. Today, however, the chakras are generally considered to be without physical, tangible form. Although research is still being done to determine whether the chakras have any quantifiable effects on the body or response to external stimuli, most yogis agree that the chakras are primarily a tool for meditation and personal development.

The locations of the seven primary chakras are determined by the paths of the nadis, or energy currents. The nadis begin at the base of the spine and weave their way upward to meet at the crown of the head, and their points of intersection are the location of the chakras. Defined by colors, sounds, shapes and elements (among other symbols), the chakras represent the full spectrum of our experience of life, from our most basic human needs to the highest reaches of our consciousness.

The first chakra: Muladhara, the Root Chakra

The Muladhara chakra is located at the base of spine, and is connected to the feet, legs and pelvic floor. Its element is Earth, and it represents man’s relationship to the material world and his basic physical needs.

The second chakra: Svadhisthana, the Sacral Chakra

Located in the pelvic basin, svadhisthana is symbolized by the element of water. It relates to the sexual organs and represents man’s sexuality, creativity and joy.

The third chakra: Manipura, the Navel Chakra

Manipura is found around the navel or solar plexus region, and its location connects it to the digestive system and metabolism. Symbolized by fire, manipura represents willpower, confidence and energy.

The fourth chakra: Anahata, the Heart Chakra

Its location at the heart center connects anahata to the experience of complex emotions, including love and compassion. It is symbolized by the element air, and it is related to the function of the lungs and immune system.

The fifth chakra: Vishudda, the Throat Chakra

Vishudda is located in the throat area and represents the expression of self, honesty and learning. It is related to speech and its element is ether.

The sixth chakra: Ajna, the Third Eye

Located at the center of the brow, the ajna chakra is related to the brain and pituitary gland, the “master gland” which regulates endocrine function in the body. Ajna represents intuition, imagination and inner guidance.

The seventh chakra: Sahasrara, the Crown Chakra

Resting at the crown of the head, beyond all material elements, sahasrara represents man’s connection with the divine and his enlightenment.

How to Find Lasting Peace

Non-attachment is the mastery of consciousness,

wherein one is free from craving objects of enjoyment,

whether they have been perceived

or imagined from promises in scriptures.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 1.15

In the opening scene of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna, greatest warrior among men, looks across the battlefield before the great war of the Mahabharata.

The Kuru and Pandava clans both hold claim to the highest kingdom on earth; they are cousins, and have gathered men from all corners of the kingdom to fight in this epic war.  Arjuna is preparing to fight men who have been friends and family–he knows many are virtuous, courageous and wise, and he struggles with his duty as a warrior to fight them.  Arjuna asks himself how there can be glory in sacrificing his kin for the sake of his family’s reinstatement to the throne.

Krishna, the embodiment of God, speaks to Arjuna of his duty (dharma), telling him that the soul is immortal and that attachment to one’s own state of living, or to another’s, is selfish and fruitless as the attachment to material objects.  And if that attachment causes man to ignore his dharma, he cannot find honor, because he has lost the path of righteousness; and he cannot find peace, because all earthly matter is transient and will eventually fade or change.

“Prepare for war with peace in thy soul.  Be in peace in pleasure or pain, in gain and in loss, in victory or in the loss of a battle.  In this peace there is no sin.  This is the wisdom of Sankhya, the vision of the Eternal.”

Non-attachment is a practice that begins with distinguishing between that part of us which is eternal, and those things which are extraneous and transitory.  Recognition of this difference then allows us to avoid a feeling of personal loss or pain when things change or don’t go as planned.  We see that the true Self remains whole and untouched, and we can find peace in its permanence.

Yoga teaches us non-attachment through its various practices.  In asana practice, we are encouraged to work at a level appropriate to our personal ability, and not to push or strain ourselves past that level.  We also learn in challenging poses to disassociate ourselves from physical discomfort so that we remain relaxed.  In pranayama and meditation we relinquish attachment to the active thoughts, the worries or preoccupations we usually face, in order to maintain stillness in the mind.  We learn to become disinterested in the final results, to momentarily let go of future goals and obligations and limit our awareness to the present moment.

Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or failure. Yoga is evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.

Bhagavad Gita, 2.48

The Bhagavad Gita teaches that we have the right to our actions, but not to the fruit of those actions.  Since we cannot control the activity of other beings or matter in the world, we cannot control whether our actions will prove successful.  To form expectations, or to become attached to an outcome, is a futile and often disheartening exercise.

“Set thy heart upon thy work,” Krishna tells Arjuna, “but never on its reward.  Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work.”

Although the concept of acting without the promise of any return for our labor can be hard to accept, non-attachment is crucial to finding peace in life.  We  cannot escape work and action, and if we let our happiness be subject to the potential results of our work, we risk disappointment.

When I contemplate the philosophy of non-attachment, I’m reminded of R.K. Narayan’s novel, The Vendor of Sweets.  The story centers around Jagan, owner of a sweet shop in India, a pious, conservative, hard-working man.  His son Mali has disappointed him by leaving for America, wasting his money, and returning a few years later with an American wife.  Mali returns to ask Jagan to invest his savings in an unethical business venture.  When Jagan refuses, the rift between him and his son widens, and Mali becomes untrustworthy, stealing money from the sweet shop, and disrespectful.  Jagan is deeply troubled by his son’s actions and choices, and his worry leads to depression.  Eventually, he learns that his unhappiness was caused not by Mali, but by his own attachments to Mali’s behavior and prosperity.  Jagan chooses to retire to a temple, breaking all ties with his former life.  Having renounced his attachments, Jagan finds true peace at last.

“He whose undertakings are free from anxious desire and fanciful thought, whose work is made pure in the fire of wisdom…in whatever work he does such a man in truth has peace: he expects nothing, he relies on nothing, and ever has fullness of joy.”  Bhagavad Gita, 4.19-20

It makes sense that attachment to material objects which fade with time could be the source of much unhappiness in a lifetime.  It is perhaps more challenging to accept that our peace depends on action without attachment to the results.  What motive have we to act, unless it is to secure a specific outcome?  According to theGita, to fulfill our dharma, or our duty in life, is the only motive for pure, unattached action.  All other action is motivated by self-interest, and will likely lead to unnecessary suffering.