Two Beautiful Candle Poses

Candle PoseThis is a strange yoga alignment story. The image above may seem like an odd conjunction. But for me, it seemed a perfect match. Two candles. Both posing. Maybe I should back up and explain!

Earlier this week I was walking my dog and came upon a Night Blooming Cactus in a pose of full expression. I’ve seen these flowers many times. They grow on the large oak tree trunks in my Tampa neighborhood in Florida. Curious and wanting to know more that day, I looked it up. Listen to this: it blooms once a year on one night only! Its botanical name is Selenicereus Grandiflora. Let’s break down that Latin like Sanskrit: Greek Moon Goddess (Selene), Latin word for candle (Cereus), large flower (Grandiflora). My mind takes a yogic leap. It’s a Candle. A Candle Pose.

Maybe I’ve found my edge and this Grandiflora alignment is really over stretching! Who would would expect to answer this analogy correctly on an exam: Iyengar in candle pose is to Night Blooming Cactus as down dog is to cat stretch. Anyway, the idea was sticky as a yoga mat to me!

Now, when I go into shoulder stand, I’ll start thinking about candles. Then as I lower down into plow I’ll begin to feel some odd resemblance to a melting candle. Some moments later I’ll realize that my mind has started to wander. I’ll bring myself back to the present moment, focus on my breathing, inhale deeply and exhale slowly …. as I blow the candle out!

 

To master, teach

ToMasterTeach1IMG_2028To learn, read.
To know, write.
To master, teach.

Oh, how I wish I knew how to read tea leaves. After opening my tea bag, plunking it in my cup and covering it with boiling water, I turned over the tag to read these three simple lines of inspirational text. Sipping my tea quietly put me in mind of how teaching others is the best way to learn.

Maybe the tea leaves would reveal that I have always loved teaching because I love to learn. I love yoga and I love teaching yoga. And now teaching yoga is teaching me.

Malcolm Gladwell goes through many formulas for achievement in his 2008 book “Outliers – The Story of Success” but it’s his 10,000 hour rule that stuck with me. He says that it takes at least 10,000 hours of doing something before a person gains true skill.

Teaching motivates me to put in the time so that I might master a subject. After all, one should feel very confident in their understanding of something before they try to teach someone else. In order to know something thoroughly you have to read, write and practice. That takes time. Teaching gives you bonus hours once you’ve become competent enough to spend time passing knowledge on to others. Teaching also has the effect of making you feel like you’ve earned back much of the time invested, especially when the light bulbs burn brightly over your students’ heads.

I’m confident that I have put in over 10,000 hours doing yoga poses (asana – one of the 8 Limbs of Yoga) but I certainly would not say I have mastered asana. For the other seven limbs of yoga quick math tells me that if I spend an hour a day everyday for nearly 28 years I’ll make the required 10,000 hours. Quick psychology tells me 10,000 hours of teaching yoga would remind me that I’ll remain forever a student! Many traditions would say that the moment you think you’ve mastered something you’ve just hit the 10,000 hour reset button that puts you back at the beginning.

If tea leaves could talk they might say, “rinse and repeat:”

To learn, read.
To know, write.
To master, teach.

Pratyahara – the branching of the 5th limb

In oral traditions much effort is given to numbering spiritual precepts. The four noble truths, the ten commandments, eight-fold path, three sections of the Torah, five pillars of Islam and others. This continues in print and online with titles in the self-help genre: the twelve step program, four agreements, seven habits of (fill in the blank) and the eight steps to seven figures, a healthy back, better communications, and on and on.

So it is with the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The list helps to compartmentalize the main areas of concentration for the yogic path. The limbs provide a mind map revealing interconnectedness and the endless suffering of the human condition. The word “limbs” is very well suited to the Eight Limbs of Yoga because it has many straight branches, curvy branches, leaves, roots and berries and bark of every texture imaginable! If turned into a pure listing it would be called the “16 subcategories of the infinitesimal inspection of spiritual molecules found in the human species.” That’s a little long to be memorable!

For this discussion I’d like to turn the fifth item on the list of the Eight Limbs of Yoga into an analogy. The fifth limb, Pratyahara involves so much “branching” that it seems better suited to analogy. Let’s consider this analogy: Pratyahara is to the Eight Limbs as trunk is to tree. Its mid point in the Eight Limb list makes it a good candidate for a trunk, supporting the top four limbs and connecting them to the lower three limbs. The trunk of Pratyahara reaches right down to the last item on the list, the ultimate oneness of Samadhi.

A few translations and definitions to get us started:

• To draw toward the opposite
• Sanskrit – prati means “against” or “away”
• Sanskrit – ahara means “food” or “anything we take into ourselves from the outside”
• Control of the senses, or sense withdrawal
• Withdrawing from thoughts or actions (i.e., internal: thoughts, impressions, emotions; external: all that we take in with the five senses)

Ok, here we go. Start climbing the tree. Did I mention it was a Sequoia? Pratyahara is one tall order. Shut off all input of the mind and all information coming in from the five senses. Withdraw all attention to what we experience as being alive and draw to the opposite. Got it?

B.K.S Iyengar explains that Pratyahara is a “hinge” or pivotal moment in the yogic path. He describes that the practice of yoga Asanas and Pranayama breathing generates an expanding energy that can spin out of control. The loss of control comes when the yoga practitioner falls in love with the extra attention and greater attraction that they receive in the world with their new found yogic strength. The hinge point comes when we incorporate Pratyahara in our practice by withdrawing from the desire to control, consume and seek gratification. The forward fold of this hinge comes with our detachment.

It is quite human and instinctual to experience and indulge the senses and to entertain thoughts and emotions. So how do we begin the practice of Pratyahara? Is it even possible to reach such a state?

A few ideas for practicing Pratyahara:

• Breath. Pranayama – Control the breath to control the mind. The mind is governed by the breath and the senses are governed by the mind.
• Spend time away from sensory overload – turn off the TV, computer and cell phone
• Stay away from wrong food, wrong thoughts and wrong associations
• Open up to the opposite (right diet, positive thoughts, right relationships)
• Meditate
• Use Visualizations (creating positive impressions and pleasant thoughts that clear the mind of external worry, anxiety, anger, tension)
• Karma yoga – right work, right action, service to others, surrendering personal rewards

And the most difficult practices of Pratyahara:

• Withdraw from unwholesome impressions
• Place your attention on the formless nature of the mind

At the very least it is helpful to remember: where the prana flows, the energy goes!

Pranayama – teaching and practicing

Pranayama is one of the 8 limbs of yoga that deals with using the breath to teach us to manage our “prana” or life force energy. Breathing is one of our most important life functions. We have direct control over our breath. The way we breath is the clearest indication of our state of mind. Pranayama practice is the most direct route to controlling our emotions and the start of controlling our mind. Breath awareness and breath practice will guide us to the proper way to dial into whatever energy level is required for our daily activities. This includes building up energy as well as calming the unpleasant energies of stress, anxiety and fear.

There are many types of Pranayama techniques. This discussion includes: Dirgha, Ujayi, Kapalabhati, Nadi Shodhana and Sitali.

The following Pranayama techniques should be done in a comfortable seated position with an erect spine. It is best done in the morning on an empty stomach and in a quiet location with fresh air and good ventilation.

General warning: consult your doctor before beginning this or any Pranayama practice. During this workshop or when practicing Pranayama on your own, if you experience any negative or physical or emotional effects (pain, anxiety, agitation, etc.), discontinue practice immediately and consult with me, another qualified yoga teacher or a physician.

1. Dirgha (long)
Three part breath: fill the belly, ribcage and collarbone
Main precautions: recent surgery to head or torso
Notes:

  • Is a warm up breath used to bring the mind into focus, is a concentration technique
  • Welcome the breath
  • Wherever the mind goes, the prana flows
  • Loosen jaw, relax, “invite” the breath
  • Options: 1) intense, working the breathe, or 2) gently, using regular breathing

Duration: 2-3 minutes

2. Ujjayi (victorious)
Ocean-sounding breath: create meditative sound by gently constricting the throat
Main precautions: respiratory infection, sore throat
Notes:

  • Victory over the mind, victory over the clutter of the mind
  • Be gentle with this breath, use steadiness and a rhythm
  • Is all about creating the sound, the technique of creating the ocean breath
  • The sound is heard on both the inhale and the exhale
  • Noise is created when the glottis in the throat is slightly closed by the epiglottis, some can create the sound deeper in the throat
  • Helps with letting go of distractions, stress, anxiety
  • Stimulates the parasympathetic, creates groundedness

3. Kapalabhati (skull polishing, lamp shining)
Skull-polishing or skull-shining breath: strong exhalation, passive inhalation. Done by gently pumping the belly during the exhalation and completely relaxing the belly during inhalation

Main contraindications and precautions: pregnancy, heart conditions, uncontrolled blood pressure, respiratory infection, respiratory conditions, emphysema, nervous system conditions, MS, COPD, glaucoma, hernia, colitis, IBS, acid indigestion, any recent surgery, menstruation (first few days), high anxiety, emotional vulnerability, ulcers, irritable bowl syndrome, cold/flu, heart conditions
Notes:

  • Breath is performed as if you were blowing out a candle with your nose, using a crisp, short exhale
  • Is a Kriya, a purifying technique
  • Active exhale (willfulness) and passive inhale (surrender)
  • To be done smoothly with rounded off edges
  • Stimulating, clears nasal, heating practice
  • Best in the morning, best seated or can be done standing

Duration: 30 breaths = 1 round, do 1-3 rounds

4. Nadi Shodhana (channel cleansing)
Alternate nostril breath: use Visnu mudra (right thumb and right ring finger)
One cycle: inhale through left nostril, exhale through right nostril, inhale through right nostril, exhale through left nostril
Main precautions: respiratory infection, deviated septum
Can be done hands-free, in which case there are no precautions.
Hands free technique:
Visualize the body being divided into two halves (right and left), as you inhale imagine you are drawing prana up one side and as you exhale imagine you are letting prana flow downward, loosening and taking out toxins. This is just as effective as alternate nostril because “where the mind’s attention goes, the prana flows.” Follow the breath with the mind’s focus. “Pranafied and purified.”
Notes:

  • Nadi = river or channel, Shodhana = to purify
  • Alternate, closing off the nostrils using the thumb and ring finger of the right hand
  • Can put 2 middle fingers on forehead (creates heat), or fold 2 middle fingers down for a more cooled experience
  • Thumb represents “space” element, ring finger represents “water” element
  • Quiets the mind, soothing, calming
  • Good for PTSD, insomnia, nervousness, anger, fear, high blood pressure, grief, writer’s block, lack of clarity

Nadi Shodhana is the most important Pranayama technique and profoundly healing
If done daily for 15 minutes will change your whole perspective

Body has 72,000 Nadis, or channels for prana.

The 3 most important Nadis are:
ThreeMainNadis

  • Sushumna – intense, energetic channel that runs up the spine along the chakras
  • Ida – left nostril (controlling the right side of the brain: feminine, cooling, creative, intuitive, lunar)
  • Pingala – right nostril (controlling the left side of the brain: masculine, stimulating, linear, rational, solar)

5. Sitali (cooling)
Cooling breath: inhale through curled tongue, exhale through the nose
Sitkari – an option if tongue does not curl: inhale through clenched teeth and exhale through the nose
Notes:

  • Pronounced SHEE-tali or SHA-tali
  • Swallow frequently as this dries out the tongue and mouth
  • Cools down the tongue, good for moods of anger or aggression or whenever the mind is running hot with emotion (Anger is pitta – fire/hot)
  • Good for excess heat in the blood (i.e., rash, hives)
  • Good for frustration, criticism, inflammation, any kind of “itis”

Duration: 30 seconds to 2 minutes, be soft, quiet and consistent

Four seats of yoga – these ground the prana:

  1. Sukhasana – easy pose, simple cross legged
  2. Swastikasana – sun wheel, creates a closed chain keeping prana enclosed
  3. Padmasana – full lotus, slightly open chain, blood pools in the belly which is good and needed for advanced Pranayama
  4. Siddhasana – half lotus, accomplished or expert pose

When the ego (Ahankara) is challenged by prana, two things are likely:

  1. We quit, close down
  2. Get tired, become fatigued

Prana can bring up/create strong emotions (Samskara) and can cause fatigue.
“Invite” the prana into those areas of our body or those spots that are dark and “inky.”
Slowly and slowly!

Marma points used in Ayurvedic

AyurvedicMarmaPoints

Teaching and guiding Pranayama (Tips)

  • Warm up, speed up, cool down
  • Teach from your own personal experience
  • Emphasize precautions/contraindications
  • Offer options (i.e., “If you cannot do Kapalabhati, stay with Dirghe”)
  • Pause to assess energy between each round (“Scan the body” “How does that feel?”)
  • Don’t overwhelm (“pepper” just a little Pranayama in the class as appropriate)
  • Do not force
  • Give yourself permission to not know (the answer to questions)
  • Medical conditions: if you are not sure, give basic/safe options (i.e., safe = Dirghe and Nadi Shodhana)
  • Provide time for integration (e.g., journaling, meditating, sharing, etc.)

Deciding which kind of Pranayama to practice or teach

    1. Determine what is needed for balance before you start. Is calming and gentleness needed or is energizing needed?
    2. Beginners may not want/understand much Pranayama at first.
    3. Steps to presenting: name, define, give benefits/contraindications or precautions, demonstrate, lead practice.
    4. Can use Pranayama before Asanas to center the class.
    5. Dirghe can help center the class at the beginning (maybe use a short sequence, then do Asanas, then add in more Pranayama if appropriate).
    6. Can follow the flow of Ashtanga, the 8 limbs of yoga in your approach to a yoga class structure, going from gross to subtle:
      • Yama – read a poem
      • Niyama – set or invite and intention
      • Asana
      • Pranayama
      • Pratyahara
      • Dharana
      • Dhyana
      • Samadhi
    7. Breath and invite prana into the areas that need healing.
    8. Prana is powerful and subtle. As a teacher, build up skillfulness with a specific Pranayama, study it thoroughly, and find out what works best for you.
    9. Try all sorts of variations, guides, queues, times of days, conditions, etc. to find your own way to “language.”
    10. Know your audience (i.e., may not want to say “clean and purify” to someone with eating disorders but would instead say “nourish and calm”).
    11. Love, patience, compassion – consider language that is most appropriate for the student.
    12. Recognize what is out of balance in someone, then choose something that will help balance that. You may have to start with energies that attract them and then slowly (slowly and slowly!) introduce opposites and skillfully guide to harmony.

Learning to be with yourself in a deep and satisfying way is the springboard for sharing that depth with others. Share yourself in a way that is fulfilling and keeps your love flowing. Teach from the radiance of your own experience with Pranayama.

Share the stuff you love.
Share and teach the things that light you up.

Sources

Workshop with Larissa Hall Carlson at The Lotus Pond Center for Yoga and Health, Tampa Florida

Illustration of Marma points from various sources including: http://ayurvedayogavilla.com/scretsofmarma.html

Illustration of three main nadis from various sources including: http://www.india2australia.com/ajna-chakra/

A discussion of Tapas – the third Niyama

What it means to me, where I practice Tapas in life and yoga practice, ways I do not practice tapas and how I bring this practice into my daily living.

Any discussion on the meaning and importance of the term “Tapas” in the modern western world wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that many of us think of Tapas as small meals eaten in overpriced restaurants. It actually fits in this discussion because the definition of the Spanish word “tapas” is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, “to cover.” According to The Joy of Cooking by way of Wikipedia, “the original tapas were the slices of bread or meat which sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to cover their glasses between sips. This was a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the sweet sherry.” Wikipedia further describes Tapas as being either hot or cold, can be combined to make a full meal and are designed to encourage conversation. Consider this topic covered and still relevant in a yoga discussion!

Hold that half Buddha smile as you consider that the Sanskrit term “Tapas” is not too far afield from these small plates of Spanish food. Laugh out loud with a shaking Buddha belly as you envision an enlightened master tell the story of keeping the annoying “fruit flies of life” out of the sweet sherry of your contented mind by covering your glass with Tapas! Is your western mind having trouble following the thread? Here’s the analogy: fruit flies are to impurities as glass of sherry is to body-mind. The two will seem as one in a few more paragraphs.

In traditional yoga teachings Tapas comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap,” or “to burn.” Scholars writing about Tapas describe it as the fiery discipline needed for purification. It is the burning off of impurities and impediments (and fruit flies!) through a consistent, dedicated practice. Tapas is the first component in yoga in action (Kriya yoga).

Several sources of yoga literature describe Tapas in very strict terms using words like asceticism, abstinence, penance and austerity. I believe these terms cloud the concept in severity and harshness that seems unwarranted. It is true that bringing discipline and consistency to our lives and our relationships can be harsh and very difficult. But let us consider that as human beings on the difficult path to union and bliss (Samadhi) there is nothing wrong with having a hard time mastering Tapas. It may be an unfair starting point, for mere mortals working to gain discipline along the path to think of Tapas as atonement, repentance or a penalty for some wrongdoing.

Instead, I relate to teachers like B.K.S. Iyengar who describe Tapas as having a zeal or passion for “yoga in action” (Kriya yoga) that is a determined effort on the path. Tapas is the burning dedication and aliveness we feel when we are on a quest, a pursuit, or involved in a spiritual endeavor. This approach to Tapas feels positive and helps to inspire and motivate. At the very least it speaks to the concept of restraint as a personal choice one makes in exchange for a better life.

Another school of thought on Tapas that I personally am trying to bring into my life of relationships and yoga practice is the idea of abiding and of enduring opposites. I am trying to approach this form of Tapas with a passion and patience using continual awareness of the thoughts in my mind. Watching for opposites as they arise helps me see them and understand where they come from. I can do this by noticing what happens in my mind when I experience wildly opposite emotions (love/hate, joy/anger, calm/anxious), when I practice breathing (Pranayama) slow or fast, or when I stay in a yoga posture (Asana) for longer versus a shorter amount of time.

Many times in the course of a day I notice I am not practicing Tapas. One of the most obvious ways is when I finally realize that I have not noticed Tapas for several days! This is a clear sign that I am not practicing with any of the adjectives in this discussion: zeal, passion, dedication, abiding and consistency. Specific examples would be when I choose to eat breakfast or dinner before practicing yoga making it unlikely that I will go to my mat or when I meditate for a few minutes and then have this urge to jump up and look up something on the internet that ostensibly relates to my practice. The list goes on with things like becoming impatient or irritated at running into an acquaintance who is very different than I am and who talks at length on subjects for which I strongly disagree. Road rage. Anger or jealousy toward loved ones. These would all be considered impediments to purification, or on the simplest level roadblocks to being of clear mind to practice yoga, Pranayama and meditation with clarity and focus.

I continue to work at bringing more Tapas into my life is by choosing the intention and discipline to practice yoga and Pranayama everyday, along with the other 8 limbs of yoga. I work to actually use the words “yoga in action” when I speak and when I make decisions through incorporating the 3 components of Krya yoga: Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana. I find that Tapas slips from my daily practice when I become too rigid on the length of my yoga practice or in the intensity of my Asana series. Back to the glass of sherry analogy . . . I don’t need a full glass of sherry everyday and a few fruit flies in the glass won’t kill me! In other words, I need to remember the Yama’s of Aparigraha and Brahmacharya so that I am not too greedy, clinging too tightly to how things must be or expelling energy in wasteful ways.

To borrow the definition of Tapas from the Spanish term “tapar” I would like to reiterate the idea that keeping a cover or a lid on your glass is in fact yoga in action – where you remain pure and free of fruit flies and where the sherry in your glass is always rarefied and clarified! Both kinds of Tapas are less like small meals and more like morsels that increase the appetite for the larger feast of life.

Notes

Translations and Yoga Sutra

Sanskrit verb “tap” means “to burn.” Tapas is a “fiery discipline” for purification.

Tapas svadhyaya isvara pranidanah kriya yogah  (Yoga Sutra – Chapter II, v. I)

Self-discipline, self-study and devotion are yoga in the form of action, as a means of orienting toward the ideal of pure awareness.

Tapas in Niyama and as Kriya yoga

Tapas is the third of five principles of Niyama and the first of the three components of Kriya yoga (yoga in action: Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana).

Explanation

Tapas is the ability to endure opposites like heat and cold, pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow. It is often referred to as penance and austerity. Tapas is not simply enduring difficulties but abiding in the midst of difficulty. Tapas is having a zeal or passion for yoga in action and is a determined effort on the path (the Sadhana, or quest, practice, discipline, pursuit, spiritual endeavor). It is the discipline of consistency that is focused on the quality of life and relationships. Consistency is difficult because it requires a dedication to practice (postures, meditation, breathing) regardless of external circumstances. Tapas is having a willingness to begin practice again and again, over and over to bring awareness to the present moment.

Purpose of Tapas

The purpose of Tapas is to bring strength to the body and mind through the elimination of impurities. This happens by burning off impediments that keep us from being in the state of yoga. The body prepares to hold the infinite consciousness and the body-mind can come to see the divine that is in everyone.

Sources

Judith Lasater: http://www.judithlasater.com/writings/livingtheniyamas2.html

Chip Hartranft – The Yoga-Sutra in English, Appendix B, The Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Core of the Yoga Sutras