Nirodhaḥ Yoga Blog
Just where you are – that’s the place to start.
- Pema Chodron
This blog post is part of our Yoga Sutras series. Want to start at the beginning?
Each year, I will select Sutras from the four, successive Padas. Although every one of the 196 Sutras could lead a person to transcendence, I will be limited to 43. In these 43 Sutras, I will attempt to cover most of the important themes within the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as a whole, by referring to other important Sutras within the discussion.
I invite you on this exploration with me. To discover the heart of yoga: what yoga is and how to master it.
Sutra 1.1 - अथ योगानुशासनम् - Atha Yoga Anuśāsanam - Now Is the Guide for Yoga
The reason the Yoga Sutras take a lifetime (or even longer!) to understand fully is that many of the Sanskrit words contain multiple meanings. The richness of this approach means both that the essence of Yoga is expressed as succinctly as possible and that the process of understanding their meaning is the path toward Yoga itself. In that way, the Yoga Sutras are both philosophy and instructions (Satchidananda, 23); they give both the why and how in one breath.
To truly understand a Sutra, the student must devote successive readings to it. There is an unfurling process, as the student deciphers its meaning over time in conjunction with the student’s lived experience.
This is why the aphorism, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” also applies to the Yoga Sutras. The lessons to be learned from this text develop in the student’s mind over time, finally becoming fixed when life gives the aspirant a chance to practice and then comprehend their meaning.
So let’s start on the most surface level - the literal meaning of the Sanskrit words - and then delve deeper.
If there were a little more silence, if we all kept quiet...maybe we could understand something.
- Federico Fellini
This blog post is part of our Yoga Sutras series. Each year, I will select Sutras from the four, successive Padas (with January's - February this year - dedicated to an introduction to a specific Pada). Although every one of the 196 Sutras could lead a person to transcendence, I will be limited to 43. In these 43 Sutras, I will attempt to cover most of the important themes within the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as a whole, by referring to other important Sutras within the discussion.
I invite you on this exploration with me. To discover the heart of yoga: what yoga is and how to master it.
In 2023, we will cover Pada One. The first Pada is for Patanjali’s most advanced students (Stiles, xvi), intended for “those who are already highly evolved to enable them to maintain their advanced state.” (Iyengar, 4).
But in Patanjali’s brilliance, this Pada also serves as a sort of introduction to Raja Yoga. Specifically, why practice yoga? What benefits develop from steady, continued yoga practice? And generally, how to get there?
Within the space of these two hundred short sutras, the entire science of Yoga is clearly delineated.
- Sri Swami Satchidananda
This month, I begin a daunting, multi-year project outlining key Sutras from the original yogi guidebook, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I don't pretend to be a Yoga Sutras expert, especially after reading commentary from some of the great translators and interpreters who have tackled this approach to yoga philosophy. And this project won't be able to comprehensively explain all 196 Sutras of Patanjali's explanation of yoga, even over the course of four years.
In the past, we’ve hosted Yoga Sutra book clubs, which produce rich discussions arising from our common understanding of the ideas Patanjali expounds. These discussions have inspired me in this effort. It is amazing that although the Sutras were written centuries ago, the ideas are so universal that they always resonate as contemporary.
I also take inspiration from the dharma talks my teacher, Sonia Sumar, has led on these Sutras. Although we often return to a Sutra repeatedly in these talks, each new group of students brings its own perspective and illuminates the often dense and esoteric knowledge contained within the terse threads of wisdom.
Since we have plenty of blog posts for those just getting started practicing yoga (Our Approach to Teaching Yoga to Beginners, The Beginner's Mind, and Meditation for Beginners), I thought it was time to dive into the more philosophical components of our beloved practice of Patanjali’s yoga for those students advancing. Studying these Sutras clearly shows that our role as yogis is much more than attaining mere physical fitness. Our goal as advanced practitioners of yoga is spiritual fitness.
I enter this discussion humbly, as a student myself, and welcome your comments and insights throughout this process. If you enter your thoughts as comments below each post, we are all benefitted by your experience and the project will be enriched.
CREATING YOGA In Your FAMILY
No matter how foolish your deeds, those who love you will love you still.
Those of you who know me (or have just been avid readers of our blog), know that this year was very special for my family, as we welcomed the birth of my son this spring. So I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it means to create a yogic family and home environment.
This applies to us all, whether or not we have children and whether our family is biological or chosen. The way we set up our family and home environment has a profound impact on our sense of security and well-being. In a way, setting up a yoga family and a yoga home, nurtures our own inner child as well.
If you’ve ever attended a class at our studio before, you know how precisely we care for the space. It is tidy and uncluttered (okay, at least most of the time…) We aim to create an environment that is conducive to the inner work that yoga does: creating security, peace, and a space for contemplation.
In setting our physical space up this way, it is our goal to attract and retain people who have similar values. In that way, we collect a community that can support one another and lift each other up. It is no surprise that some of our closest friendships have developed in this space.
None of us are able to be at a yoga studio all the time. In fact, this year I was unable to be at the studio as much as I am used to, being so tied up in my new familial obligations and joys. So it makes sense that we consciously curate a space at our home that works in tandem with our time spent in reprieve at our hOMe away from home.
Here are some ways I have been working to create the same stability and quiet I find at Five Keys Yoga, when I am away.
Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.
If you want to learn yoga, you might start out (as I did) looking up yoga poses online, getting a book on yoga, or even attending a class for beginners. A few decades ago, it might have been difficult to find a yoga class nearby and so, whatever kind of class you found, well…that’s what you got.
These days, there are so many options, the problem is now one of overwhelm. “Which kind of yoga should I do?” “How should I start practicing yoga?” “What is the best kind of yoga for me?” are all questions that arise from beginners approaching our studio.
The truth is, do whatever kind of yoga makes you feel best and that you can do consistently. As I mentioned, I started practicing yoga with poses I found online and in books. Eventually, my curiosity brought me to classes. Finally, I met my guru, who has taught me what yoga is really about. The process unfolded naturally over time.
With kids of all ages returning to school, we are reminded of the importance of continual learning and education. One of the things we love most at 5KY is bringing yoga into schools. Although what the kids learn in their classrooms about math, literature, history, and science is essential, yoga brings an education on something slightly different.
Whereas our schools educate our children’s bodies and minds, yoga nurtures their hearts. This is why bringing yoga into the classroom is so important. Yoga for children is not a type of play but a true education. In the method we use, we are not simply teaching our kids cute animal poses or telling a story with yoga poses interspersed.
When taught correctly, this method of children’s yoga is a serious practice that can teach children how to calm themselves, regulate their emotions, and tune into the messages that their body, heart, and mind transmit. It works on all aspects of the child. Not just the physical or even mental aspects, but their spirit - their heart - as well.
We are starting to understand that it is not just the IQ that matters. There are multiple types of intelligence that we ought to be developing. Yoga works the mind and body, yes. But it disciplines the body to be calm and the mind to be silent, so that the heart can speak.
When we teach our kids emotional intelligence - empathy, compassion, wisdom - we prepare them to live in a world filled with other beings and all the joys and challenges inherent in that. This world, rich with the experiences of loving others, is what I want to prepare my child for.
But we have all been children before and retain (deeply buried as it may be) some of that childlike wonder and vulnerability. Yoga is a gift to that inner child, as it nurtures the emotional intelligence that this world so desperately needs.
So I’d like to give a different kind of primer on yoga. Not one like I sought out when I first began; full of flashy poses and not much substance. I’d like to suggest some tips for the beginner that I wish I would have received when I started practicing yoga. This is a primer for beginners on the heart of yoga.
Adventures in Yoga
Adventure is not outside man; it is within.
- George Elliot
Yoga is a serious business, there is no doubt about that. It requires discipline, self-inquiry, and detachment to results, among many other virtues. However, that doesn’t mean that yoga isn’t fun.
If you aren’t having fun in your yoga practice, I recommend revisiting the reasons you are practicing. If you are practicing only to make your body look better or because you like the way it looks when you walk around with a yoga mat slung over your shoulder, it will probably be hard to maintain the spirit of fun innate in experienced yoga practitioners.
The discipline required to practice yoga allows us to find freedom and a sense of adventure. And what is more fun than freedom and adventure?
Our inspiration at the studio, Sonia Sumar still loves to climb trees in her 70s. That is exactly the kind of thing yoga is preparing the body for - climbing trees in your 70s.
In fact, the most adventurous, fun-loving, and free people I know are the ones who have been consistently practicing yoga and meditation for many years. They are unencumbered by worries, emotional burdens, nagging physical ailments, and attachments.
Are they human? Of course. But they take challenges and pleasures that arise in equal stride.
After practicing for years (or even months), sometimes my passion for practice dulls. At this time, I like to reinvigorate my yoga practice with one of these tools, finding fun and adventure in my practice again.
My greatest hopes for myself, for my students, and for you is that we never lose our sense of adventure and that we always have fun on our yoga mat.
The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice.
- Vladimir Horowitz
We’ve all been there. Perhaps we heard from a friend about the wonderful benefits they’re getting from practicing. Or maybe we’re inspired by an influencer’s incredible poses. Maybe we’ve practiced before but it’s been a while and we feel creaky or out of shape.
Starting a yoga practice can feel intimidating. Being consistent with it can feel impossible. Yet, in Yoga Sutra 1.14, we’re told “practice becomes firmly grounded when well-attended to for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness.”
That means to feel established in our yoga practice, we not only have to be consistent with our practice for some time, but we also have to do it with our whole heart engaged.
So how do we develop the habit of practicing yoga when we’ve been consistently inconsistent? How do we even start to practice yoga? I think this Sutra offers some ideas.
What we aspire to at 5KY is to cultivate an appreciation for the deepest, most powerful benefits of yoga. I believe it is these benefits that will inspire you to return to your mat again and again.
Physical accomplishments, once mastered, will eventually wither as time passes. But these inner accomplishments become grounded through regular practice, done for a long time, and in all earnestness. That is what will inspire us to continue coming back for more.
To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.
In yogic philosophy, there are three gunas or qualities that combine to form everything that exists. Tamas is characterized by inertia and heaviness. Rajas is characterized by activity and movement. And Sattva is characterized by lightness and harmony.
All three of these qualities have a part to play. Tamas is the fertile soil for change and creates the conditions needed for life. Rajas invigorates life, excitement, and passion. And Sattva allows us to achieve balance between Tamas and Rajas and develops clarity and peace.
Sattva can be described like a spinning top. Outwardly, the top may seem like it's not moving but actually, it spins so quickly it balances itself on a thin spindle. When Sattva is balanced, Rajas and Tamas are balanced as well. When Tamas and Rajas are out of balance, we have trouble feeling Sattvic.
An imbalance of Tamas manifests as dullness, apathy, delusion, and/or depression. A person who has given up on themselves and the world has too much of the tamasic quality.
An imbalance of Rajas manifests as anxiety, attachment or addiction, agitation, and a sense of egoism. A person who is constantly jumping from one thing to another or desperately hanging onto patterns that do not serve them has too much of the rajasic quality.
Yoga creates balance between Rajas and Tamas to develop a pervading sense of Sattva. This is why experienced yoga practitioners feel uncomfortable explaining yoga as simply relaxing. Yoga creates balance between activity and inertia. A yogi experiences relaxation and vitality at the same time.
Summer is in full swing now and energy is high. We may find ourselves slightly rajasic - accepting all the invitations, making too many plans, doing more than what’s within our capacity.
Perhaps in winter, or even now after so many months living with the uncertainty of the pandemic, we find ourselves tamasic, hibernating at home and not prioritizing things that create feelings of peace and well-being within ourselves.
This is where the gift of yoga comes in, as it is chock full of practices that help balance our energy levels. As you know, yoga is not only practicing yoga poses but is about the unity we create within our lives. In service of this, I offer these balancing practices for your energy levels.
A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.
- Nelson Mandela
Last month, I wrote more broadly on the seven major Chakras, including how they are related to anatomy and physiology, and their emotional aspects. This month, I’ll delve into one Chakra in particular, which so neatly aligns with February’s celebration of love. The Anahata Chakra, or heart Chakra is the fourth and therefore, central Chakra of the central nervous system.
Swami Satchidananda actually recommended that when working on the Chakras, we focus only on the higher Chakras (from the Anahata up to the seventh, which is called the Sahasrara). The lower Chakras will figure themselves out if we focus on the higher ones.
The reason for this suggestion is that the lower Chakras are related to the movement of energy downward (apana), which when focused on has the tendency to lower our own energy. Focusing on the higher Chakras has the tendency to raise energy.
This Chakra has a special place for me. As I mentioned last month (and in other places on this blog), before I began going deeper into yogic philosophy, I was centered entirely in my head. My own teacher, Sonia Sumar, has a very heart-centered approach, which has opened me up to my entire body.
Sonia often mentions that the heart is the very first organ formed in utero, even before the brain. And that perhaps this is a message about where to lead our lives from. That’s not to say that the head is unimportant but that the heart should lead the head and not the other way around.
So in service of the heart, I offer you this primer on the Anahata Chakra.
If you want to know more about the Anahata Chakra, join Laura at her Chakra workshop on February 13th about this very topic! Explore the heart through yoga with us on Valentine’s Day with a heart-centered beginner’s practice or bring a loved one to practice Partner Yoga with Asra.
Balance in The 7 Chakras
Yoga is the path, and the chakras are the map.
- Anodea Judith
One of the best aspects of yogic philosophy for me is the integration of the head and the heart. Having spent so much of my early life “trapped in my head,” delving deeper into yoga both challenged me to get out of my head and into my body (or heart) and liberated me from experiencing the world in only one dimension.
By that I mean yoga is a pathway toward more heartfelt living but is grounded in real, physical experience. As westerners, we sometimes forget how much knowledge the western medical world has only learned relatively recently, has been passed down in eastern medicine for centuries.
It is always a big treat to talk shop with other eastern medicine practitioners, such as Chinese medicine, shiatsu, etc., because so many of the concepts overlap with the traditional Indian view of medicine and the body. I am always flabbergasted by how similar the energy channels in Chinese medicine are to their Ayurvedic representation.
Now, in western medicine, we are learning that there are subtle channels of communication in a living body that have been unobservable in cadavers. Only recently has western medicine started to realize the wisdom that comes from eastern traditions.
It is this way with the Chakras too. It would be understandable if a person thought that the Chakras were woo-woo. It’s true that some unscrupulous people pretend that simply placing the correct rock over the area of a chakra will act as a panacea. These people do eastern medicine a disservice by simplifying what should be the personal study of a lifetime to something you can pay someone else to unblock in a few hours.
Just some thoughts about yoga as I go...
FIVE KEYS YOGA
WHAT OUR CLIENTS SAY
Five Keys is fantastic! The studio is lovely and soothing, and the teachers are very caring and attentive.
I've ... probably been to 25 different yoga studios. This is one of the most welcoming, calming spaces with very talented instructors.
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An ideal studio for someone new to yoga.