January, perennial month of reflection and re-commitment. Also, perennial month of guilt and disappointment. Swami Satchidananda often told his students that if you want to avoid disappointment, “make no appointments.” In other words, have no expectations.
But how are we supposed to have no expectations and yet pursue our goals?
As we dive deeper into the philosophy of the Yoga Sutras and especially, the Bhagavad Gita, we find many messages about selfless service. Selfless service does not mean pushing yourself to the point of burn-out or never making mistakes. Selfless service means “do your best and leave the rest” (another thing Swamiji liked to say.) Selfless service is perfection in action.
What is a perfect act? One that harms no one, benefits someone - by the way, you count as someone - and is done without expectations for the results. Surrendering to the natural flow of life. Sometimes losing, sometimes gaining, but always enjoying the process.
It is so easy to blame ourselves when our intentions (or New Year's resolutions) go awry, but an arrow released from the bow does not always go where expected. By practicing hitting the target again and again, we will eventually become more accurate. Why would we expect ourselves to hit a bullseye with our resolutions right away?
The other side of this: even if "fail" we need to continue to try to hit the bullseye every time, even if it we don't hit it right away (or ever). We can get closer over time and practice our resolutions until they become second nature. We can enjoy becoming, rather than being.
When we blame ourselves for failing once and deciding to never try again, we miss the opportunity to enjoy learning and refining ourselves. A resolution doesn’t have to be a straightjacket, but can be a trellis for our personal development, inching little by little to the light. We have to learn to celebrate life with all its ups and downs.
Released by the archer, the arrow is surrendered to universe. We can choose to regard our actions with this kind of total surrender, or Ishvara Pranidhana. Ishvara Pranidhana is the fifth niyama (observance) in Raja Yoga. Swamiji says if a person can master this niyama, they will not need to practice any of the others.
Clearly, mastering “surrender to life” is a lofty pursuit. We should even regard that goal without expectations. Sometimes we will feel totally surrendered and at other times we will feel attached to people, things, or outcomes.
Perfection in action is to notice when our mind drifts into desires or aversions. Then, pull another arrow out of the quiver and steady our hand to the bow. Once we let go of the arrow, we can let go of the results. We've already done our part.
I wish you a year with many arrows loosed, wherever they may land.
It’s hard to count all the moments I might feel grateful for. Even in the midst of deep turmoil and pain, there are things to appreciate. Of course, our human brains are evolved to avoid threats and guard opportunities. But every spiritual master I have heard or read has said that avoiding losses and preserving boons doesn't give a person true, lasting happiness. That inevitably, life is a dance of gaining and losing, pleasure and pain. True happiness, they say, is to feel content with profit and loss in equal measure. Enjoy when it comes, enjoy when it goes. Karma yoga then, is to act for the benefit of humanity without regard for the reward of your actions.
I have thought about this a lot since opening our studio. There are busy days when it feels like every little thing has a hitch and needs my attention. There are slow days when I feel worried that opening a studio was naïve without an MBA. These thoughts, which Dr. Daniel G. Amen calls “ANTs” or automatic negative thoughts, obscure the reality of the situation I face. When I really sit down to think about it, I see there is a thread of gratitude that runs through all of these challenges. I can choose to direct my thoughts to that thread whenever I wish. That is pratipaksha bhavana, which means to cultivate the opposite (positive thought). It is easy for me to direct my thoughts towards positivity when I think about all the people I know through this studio.
At the risk of sounding like an Academy Award winner on Oscar night, I really feel that the studio would not be possible without everyone involved. It starts with the students. Without students, we are not teachers. I know that all of the teachers at 5KY are incredibly grateful to you for sharing your practice with us. Practicing yoga can be a time of deep intimacy and vulnerability (first of all, with one’s own self). Your trust in us to navigate with you through it is something we do not take lightly.
No less important are the wonderful teachers and workshop leaders who choose to hold space here for that vulnerability. They have many gifts and it touches me to see the flow between them and their students. It inspires me to do my best work and create a space that nurtures personal transformation on every level. I feel a deep commitment to the symbiotic growth between this community, our teachers, and our students.
On a personal but also, practical level is the gratitude I feel for the people behind the scenes. Gratitude for the people who keep things running when I am away from the studio, the people working on our online presence in the wee hours of the night, the people offering support and guidance when I need it, as well as the people inspiring our mission.
And that is the definition of a sangha. It is a collective of like-minded individuals, who remind one another of the mutual goal (no less than self-realization) and support each other in this bold pursuit. Individuals who believe that by benefiting the sangha, we are benefited ourselves many times over. It is a collective of people who are optimistic that humanity can be a force for good. People who know that to create the intimacy and vulnerability we seem to lack today, we must focus on creating it within our own selves first.
There is so much that I have to feel grateful for this year. I thank you for being a part of our sangha. Happy Thanksgiving to you.
Five Keys Yoga is participating in #MindfulMarch again this year! We'll be offering donation-based classes, with proceeds going to the Love Your Brain Foundation. The LYB Foundation provides yoga and guided mindfulness meditation to survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury and their caregivers. Both of our #MindfulMarch classes will include yoga and a mindfulness meditation. Beginners are welcome!
#MindfulMarch classes at Five Keys Yoga
March 10th, 10-11am
March 28th, 5:30-6:30pm*
*Class on the 28th includes complementary chiropractic adjustment with Dr. Taylor Clifford
But you don't have to wait for March to get started on mindfulness. There are oodles of guided meditations on Youtube, the Headspace app, etc. (not to mention some on this very blog...) to give you a sense of the various ways of meditating. You might feel ready to start right now, but aren't sure what to expect or don't know how mindfulness is different than meditation. Never fear! Mindfulness is just a type of meditation. All you need is a relatively quiet space, where you can remain undisturbed for a few minutes. Once you're ready to give it a go, here are four tips.
New Year's resolutions are the first topic around the water cooler once January rolls around. It seems that everyone has a love-hate relationship with them. We love the extra motivation and clarity, but hate the feelings of failure that arise when we inevitably fall short of our lofty goals. Yoga has much to offer those of us working to continually improve ourselves. In the spirit of the new year, here are four tips on crafting and maintaining resolutions throughout the year.
1. Ask Why You Want to Meet This Goal
By questioning motives, we’ll soon find the base issue at hand. Let’s say you want to lose weight. Rather than picking an arbitrary number on the scale and creating a impossibly rigid routine, identify why you want to lose weight. Perhaps you want to live healthier, to play with your kids without losing your breath, or to fit into that fabulous dress? Make that your goal. Focus on how you can fill your life with foods and activities that nourish you, instead of trying to remove non-nourishing habits. When we focus on obtaining what we want to create in our lives (rather than what we want to remove) we have a greater chance of success. This is a radical way to view change.
2. Acknowledge That Failure Is Part of the Process
It’s easy to become so frightened of failing that we lose the ability to grow. Often when we set a goal or resolution, if we forget or ignore it, we feel badly about ourselves. Maybe we even think we aren’t able to meet the goal or don’t deserve to. These are normal feelings. But they are just our feelings and not necessarily our reality. We must push against these feelings and the “automatic thoughts” that arise, in order to become our best selves. Facing our fears of failure allow us to become mentally and emotionally stronger. When we avoid failure (like giving up a resolution after one “bad” day), we miss out on the chance to grow beyond ourselves. Accepting failure as part of the process allows us to learn from and move on from mistakes.Just get right back on that horse if you fell off!
3. Take Small Steps
Picking the resolution is the easy part because often we already know what we’d like to change in our lives by the time it’s January 1st. The hard part is knowing how to accomplish the resolution. Start small and tack on additional goals as you find success. Let’s say you want to earn more money this year. Instead of making huge sales goals or planning to drastically cut down on spending, think of one action a week you can take to increase the likelihood that you earn or save money. Make it a game. Make meals at home one week. Call a sales lead the next. The third week, find free events to go to. Or talk to your boss about what it would take to get a raise. How creative can you be? By keeping the weekly goals small and manageable, we increase the likelihood of sticking to our goals and seeing big changes by the time January 1st comes around again.
4. Hold Yourself Accountable
Commit to some time to reflect on your efforts each week. Lots of people skip this step but it is the most important, in terms of sticking to your goals. We have to measure our successes to build momentum and motivation. Maybe the first week your resolution was really hard, but when you look back after a month, you see you’ve saved a couple extra bucks. After four months, you’ve saved a couple hundred. By the end of the year, you have enough for that vacation. If you weren’t measuring each week, you might feel that your first month was a failure. When in fact, you would’ve met your goal if you had felt motivated. It doesn’t have to be a big time commitment; five minutes writing about how your goal went each week should be more than enough. If you hate writing, you could also make a chart, giving yourself a sticker or check for each week you met your goal. Pick small rewards for obtaining your monthly goals. Even better, if you have a group of colleagues or friends who are also trying to stick to their goals, have a quarterly or yearly meeting to discuss what your goals were last quarter/year, what successes you had over the last quarter/year, and what your goal will be for the new quarter/year. Make it fun and you will stick to it!
Do you have tips for staying on track with your goals? Please share! We're all stronger when we work together.
The presents! The parties! The food! The holiday season can bring great joy or great misery, depending on how you look at it. Who among us hasn't thought it might be better to escape the dreary weather and endless commitments, for a jaunt in Hawaii instead? At the same time, most of us have fond memories of a favorite family tradition, the extra time to spend with friends, and the cheery lights surrounding us.
This can be a stressful ambivalence, as making many holiday plans seems like a great idea several weeks out. With the best intentions, we say yes to every invitation that comes our way, commit to hosting a party ourselves, and make homemade presents for all five dozen people on our list. But by the time these commitments roll around, we realize just how busy we've made ourselves. And resentment builds. The annual holiday fight storms over the dinner table. Expectations and reality collide, leading to sometimes colossal disappointment.
So how do we take ownership over our experience of the holidays? It isn't easy. And we can't expect perfection (but really, when can we?) However, there are a few things we can do to be mindful around the holidays and reduce our stress levels.
1) Do it for Someone Else
This is the oldest trick in the yogi book. Karma yoga is an action performed without expectation of results. Unfortunately, many of our activities during the holiday season have an implicit expectation tied to them. So when we give a gift this year and the reaction is not as enthusiastic as we'd hoped for, let's ask ourselves why we chose to give the gift in the first place. Was it because we wanted to show our appreciation for the recipient? Or because we were desiring that they express their appreciation for us? When we spend hours cooking a meal or getting our home ready for a party and feel angry that no one helped us, let's remember why we are hosting in the first place. Not to force others to give to us, but so we could give to them.
When we evaluate our expectations like this, it's easier to see how they disappointment us. If our motive is to "get" something, maybe it's time to evaluate our methods as well. Would our friend be just as happy with a homemade card as the present we bought? Would our family be okay doing a potluck or rotating party duties every year? Getting in tune with our wants and needs is liberating. Once we realize that we're feeling angry because we aren't feeling appreciated or respected, it's easier to ask for what we really want. This is more effective than turning gift-giving into implicit, reciprocal needs-giving. A final, powerful way to cultivate this attitude is to donate your time to a worthy cause, like your favorite local charity or your elderly neighbor who lives alone. It is easier to see how much we really have when we give to others.
2) Take Care of Yourself
This one sounds easy, but isn't. If we aren't able to strike a balance between taking care of ourselves and others, we run the risk of burnout. Burnout is the fastest way to build resentment and nobody likes that! Let's take a few minutes before the holidays really get into swing and brainstorm three ways we're going to take care of ourselves this month. As examples, we might commit to practicing a half hour of meditation and yoga everyday. Or book an hour one evening each week for a candlelight bath with music (lock the bathroom door). We could treat ourselves to a spa day or get tickets to a concert or play we've been wanting to see. Or maybe a daily walk or some extra family-time will clear our minds.
3) A Mindful Exercise
Old habits die hard. It's likely that unpleasant thoughts will continue to arise, even if we are practicing karma yoga and self-care. In these moments, it's helpful to have a short practice to get the mind back under control. Recognize that noticing unpleasant thoughts and experiencing them without judgement is a mindful practice itself. This practice takes about five minutes.
How do you stay relaxed during the holidays?
It's easy to get swept up in the hustle and bustle of the city. Between running a business, making art, keeping personal relationships strong and maintaining the practices that keep me grounded, I can feel like there are more tasks to do than time to do them. Occasionally, I am fortunate enough to retreat into myself and reconnect with the peace that has always been the foundation of my yoga practice. Peace that I seek to spread to my students and my community. This summer, I was doubly fortunate and visited Satchidananda Ashram - Yogaville in Buckingham, VA twice. It gave me some time to think about linking my desire to be connected to "the source" with the modern lifestyle.
One of my favorite aspects of yoga's teachings is that although retreating to reconnect with our own inherent peace is necessary, it isn't sufficient. Sri Swami Satchidananda (the founder of Yogaville) warned against being a hermit in a Himalayan cave forever. Anyone can find peace meditating away from all problems and stresses. But to be a true yogi, we must engage with the outer world to test our inner peace. When the outer world begins to shake us, we can retreat again, becoming stronger each time. The purpose of remaining peaceful is to serve the rest of humanity without attachment to the rewards of this service (Karma Yoga). Only then can we be truly useful and make an impact.
So how can we find a place and method to retreat? This has been on my mind as I return to my sweet home, Chicago, which is far away from my spiritual home at Yogaville. Here are three ideas to develop a personal retreat within our daily lives, so we can more effectively serve others in our beautiful home, wherever that may be.
1) Practice, Practice, Practice
Sadhana (a person's daily practice) is the foundation. Yes, it is important to keep up a daily sadhana that may include meditation, hatha yoga practice, relaxing, eating well and sleeping enough. However, a formal sadhana takes up only a portion of our days. For someone truly looking to find permanent peace, it is equally important to practice living mindfully outside of our formal sadhana.
There are many methods. We can look at our interactions with others as an opportunity to engage peacefully. Imagine how our relationships would change if we approached them all as a method of service to humanity. Or we might devote ourselves to honoring the divine manifestation of life all around us. Can you picture what a disagreement would look like if both parties saw one another as divine? Or we could try to put 100% of our focus on the present moment. What couldn't you accomplish if your entire mind were focused on its accomplishment?
Connecting to other like-minded individuals (sangha) is also key. A sangha can help a practitioner remember what the goal of practice is, why they are striving toward the goal, and how to make steps forward. It's easy to feel connected to a sangha at a place like Yogaville, where everyone is so focused on seeking the universal truth, peace. It is harder to find a sangha away from formal gathering places. I was reminded of this after my Intermediate Teacher Training group began an email ring to keep an informal sangha. After some inspiring messages were exchanged, a person who had accidentally been included on the list wrote us, asking to take him off the list because he didn't "give a flying [expletive] about yoga." Even in our email ring, we were reminded that not everyone is on this path. And that's okay. It shows us that we must continue reaching out to our precious relationships with those who are. For those of us who have not found a sangha near us geographically, we still have options. We are lucky. Nowadays, there are many virtual sanghas we can find. We can use uplifting books, movies or music; we can watch inspiring TED talks or YouTube channels - Yogaville even posts its Saturday night sangha gatherings online! If we're feeling brave, we could join a Meetup group and find like-minded people in our area.
This little word kept coming up for me this summer. Surrender doesn't mean giving up or being lazy or apathetic. Surrender means to let go of the attachment we naturally feel to the results of our work. I find this concept of surrender difficult, especially since "surrender" has negative connotations in our contemporary, goal-oriented society. But surrendering to life is a beautiful practice that acknowledges how little control we actually have. That can be a scary truth to face.
The upside is that once we have conquered the fear of surrendering our attachments, we have nothing to fear or be angered by because we have no expectations to gain or lose. Good and bad come equally and we can ride the tide because we aren't grasping onto anything. It is empowering to strive toward our goals without worrying about whether things will go according to a plan. With this mindset, every moment becomes an inner retreat.
We see this in our hatha practice all the time. We might be attached to performing the pose "correctly" and looking a certain way. We are afraid that not being able to perform this pose the way we expect, means something bigger: we are weak, inflexible, not good at yoga, or even unworthy of it. We may feel anger towards ourselves for our body's limitations or toward that yogi in the front who is "nailing" the pose. But not all poses are meant for all bodies and yogis have varied gifts depending on physical attributes, past events, and even mental conditions. Getting angry with ourselves (or others) tends to stiffen our bodies and minds, keeping ourselves from moving forward. Practice that same challenge pose with a mindset of surrender and our bodies and minds find ease. We move deeper into the pose and feel gratitude for how our body is capable. We see this peace within ourselves as the unchanging truth - deep, still and pure. It is the only thing that matters.
I have these three tips, but there is a wealth of knowledge out there. I'd love ideas about how you connect to your own peaceful nature. What practices do you employ? Do you have a sangha?
How is yoga different from exercise?
Book Two of the Yoga Sutras: Portion on Practice
Book Two of the Yoga Sutras lays out eight yogic practices, only one of which includes exercises for the body. Before Patanjali even comes close to explaining the trendy practice of asana, he takes twenty-seven Sutras to explain why a person might want to practice yoga, as well as how and what a yogi gains by practice.
Sutras 1-24 in Book Two culminate in the understanding that the root of all suffering is a misidentification of the true self (Purusha) with the physical self (Prakriti, literally “nature”). In Sutras 25-27, Patanjali explains that if we do not identify with Prakriti, we are not bound to the cycle of pain and suffering. Only by “uninterrupted discriminative discernment” (S.S. Sachtidananda trans., Yoga Sutras, II.26) can we quiet our mental modifications enough to see the Purusha clearly.
Sutras 28-55 in Book Two outline Raja or Royal Yoga. The is one of the many paths we may choose to explore in Yoga. Also called Ashtanga Yoga, it includes eight practices to develop unity between the body, breath, and mind.
All yoga includes a form of organized movement (i.e. exercise), but it’s only one part of the story. Yoga is an intact wellness system that addresses health on every level. This means yoga has practices for the body, breath, mind and emotions. The first two practices are ethical exercises, the third and fourth are exercises for our bodies and breath, and the last four practices exercise our ability to withdraw our attention from the outside world, tune into ourselves and attain consistent peace.
The Eightfold Path - Raja Yoga
We will go over these practices in more depth in future Jnana Yoga posts.
By gradual movement along this path, we learn to master our senses. When we are not controlled by the senses, we are able to disidentify with feelings of pain. Though pain is inevitable, suffering is preventable. And the best part is, anyone can benefit from these practices! To quote the great sage, Sri Swami Sivananda, yoga can "adapt, adjust, and accommodate" to the individual.
Which practices draw you to yoga?
Book One of the Yoga Sutras: Portion on Contemplation
The Yoga Sutras are the guidebook to Raja Yoga. A sage, named Patanjali Maharishi dictated these notes to his students around 400 CE. His students recorded his explanation in shorthand, so it is difficult to read without a commentary. I use Sri Swami Satchidananda’s, but there are many good ones available.
Book One, Sutra Two - The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga
The second sutra is one of the best known for good reason. As Swami Satchidananda writes, “for a keen student this one Sutra would be enough because the rest of them just explain this one.” (3) Indeed, our blog derives its name from this Sutra. Nirodhaḥ means restraint in Sanskrit.
Put simply, yoga is the practice of restraining one’s own mind. When a person is completely in control, they are naturally content. Rocked by neither loss, nor desire. Lasting peace is attainable for everyone, though learning to control the mind is difficult. However, developing restraint is worth the trouble because difficulties appear whether we choose the peaceful path or not. At least by trying to attain peace we can use these difficulties to learn, instead of repeating patterns that don’t serve us when they arise.
Book one is an important foundation for anyone who wants to understand yogic philosophy. Patanjali explains various states of mind, the causes of suffering, methods to alleviate them, what obstacles might arise along this path, and how to achieve lasting peace. The next books of the Sutras go into detail about yogic practices and what a person gains by practicing. We’ll dive into those later.
This is a Jnana Yoga post, where you will find discussions of yogic philosophy and practice. Could I have made this post more clear or comprehensive? Let me know how I’m doing!
and yoga nidra (deep relaxation). The lineage of yoga I study, Integral Yoga includes all of these practices in hatha yoga classes. Some hatha yoga classes don't.
Hatha yoga may also mean a style of yoga that emphasizes holding an asana for a few minutes. You will usually see yoga being described this way at a local yoga studio. It is in contrast to the various other styles of yoga practiced at studios, such as vinyasa, ashtanga, anusara, yin, etc.
The hatha yoga practices fall under the Raja (Royal) yoga path, which also includes practices such as meditation. A person may practice Raja, Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (wisdom), and Karma (service) yoga. Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love. Any time we express devotion, we are practicing Bhakti yoga. A mother cuddling her child is practicing Bhakti yoga, as she is when she scolds him for running into the street. An artist creating a beautiful painting is also practicing Bhakti yoga. A pilgrimage to Mecca is Bhakti yoga as much as an artist creating a beautiful painting. Forgiveness is a powerful Bhakti yoga practice. Jnana yoga is the yoga of discrimination. This path is motivated by philosophy and self-inquiry; understanding the patterns that cause problems in our lives and learning to correct them. Karma yoga is a beautiful path dedicated to the service of others. Karma yoga is service without expectation. Service done for its own sake. On all paths, we are reminded not to become attached to the fruits of our actions. Having a direction is important, but we must perform the work along our chosen path for the sake of our work itself and not its result.
I have heard these paths described as a bird. Raja yoga is the head of the bird, which provides vision, guidance, and discipline. Bhakti yoga and Karma yoga are the wings. They interact with the environment, allowing the bird to fly and negotiate the air currents that ruffle its feathers. Jnana yoga serves as the rudder, giving the bird direction.
Most people use all four paths to some extent but have one path that is dominant. By exploring these paths as your interest dictates, you will have the stamina to dig deeper in your own practice. Use the practices which serve you. There are many ways to practice yoga and doing something - anything - is a good start. You will certainly find yourself more peaceful.
This is our first "Jnana Yoga" post. In our Jnana Yoga posts, you will find information related to the philosophy and study of yoga. In the coming months, look for "Bhakti Yoga" and "Karma Yoga" posts, as well as further discussion of Raja yoga in our Jnana Yoga posts.
Is there a particular path you'd like to know more about? Anything you'd like me to clarify?
Just some thoughts about yoga as I go...