Nirodhaḥ Yoga Blog
A SIMPLE YOGA SEQUENCE FOR BEGINNERS
The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.
For January, we focus on the Beginner’s Mind. January is a month when many of us elevate our choices and commit to new ways of being. This is the month when we see New Year’s resolution setters and many beginning yoga students.
We love welcoming some of the newest yogins (yoga practitioners) to the art and science of yoga. Talk to any of our teachers or students and you’ll find we are all eager to share our experience of our developing yoga practice, which I think starts with the community you are in (in Sanskrit, this is called Sangha).
I just love how our regular students embrace new students. This is the kind of studio where you are not anonymous. It takes courage to be seen. But the relationships that have developed within the four walls of 1818 W. Belmont (and even in an online or hybrid format, everyone is still saying hello to one another, sharing their pets, etc.) show how impactful a smile or an encouraging word can be, especially in our darkest hours.
That is what yoga is. Yes, you’re probably going to feel amazing after your first (or millionth) yoga class. Yes, your mind is likely going to feel calmer and your emotions and energy levels more balanced. But this is all in service of turning the positive state of being developed through yoga into blessings for the entire world.
Yoga develops union, not simply between mind-breath-body but between ourselves and the rest of the universe. It helps us feel at home in our bodies and on this planet. Then we become empowered to welcome others into this state of being “at home”.
As much as we love welcoming new yoga practitioners at 5KY, I think it may be a bit of a selfish act, to be honest. Because meeting new students helps remind us of what yoga is like at the very beginning. The transcendence of that first breakthrough.
I remember being very resistant to the idea of practicing yoga before I tried it. I thought it was a bit twee. After an old injury worsened in my foot, I decided I would have to swap the dance classes I was taking in my theater program to a gentler yoga practice.
My first teacher was an alumna of the school, whose physical condition and control over her body amazed and inspired me as a performer. So I set about the practice and discovered that not only did I feel stronger and more capable, I also felt a sense of relaxation and well-being I had only ever felt after exhausting running sessions that were roughing up my foot.
When I left college, I was sold on yoga but still very skeptical about the spiritual aspects of it. I didn’t want to be indoctrinated or chanting for things I didn’t know what they meant. Nevertheless, I was very committed to practicing yoga (though I now understand the only part of yoga I was practicing at the time were asana or yoga poses) a few times a week.
This is the way many of us enter yoga. Fighting and struggling with the physical condition of our bodies (at least, I did). It is natural to start there because the body is the only part of ourselves that is physically tangible. We may feel it is the only thing we actually have control over.
Then I met my spiritual teacher or Guru, Sivakami Sonia Sumar. After surgery on my foot, the financial bottom dropping out in 2008, and a traumatic experience post-college, I was very closed off and defensive. It was like my head was separated from my body, even after practicing yoga consistently with a variety of teachers for two years.
On the very last day of the program I was attending with Sivakami, she asked us to talk about something which we wanted to work on letting go of. Not really knowing why I began to cry after my turn.
For many years when I was a bit younger, I had prided myself on not crying easily. But now, the tears wouldn’t stop. They flooded my eyes through the entire hour and a half long yoga practice, including the 15-minute deep relaxation at the end.
I was terribly embarrassed to have lost control over my emotions during class. So I skipped our first of only two meals at the ashram where I was staying and slept deeply. When I woke up, I felt like I had all this weight lifted off my shoulders.
That afternoon, we were given a puja (which is an act of worship) by a swami from India, all standing around a small Ganesh statue in a grove of palm trees. I thought that this could be my opportunity to start anew. My heart had finally opened.
It was at this point that I decided to have faith in Sivakami and therefore, the methodology of yoga as a complete practice, not just yoga poses. I mean, if she could break down years of walls I’d build up in six days with that stuff, what could she do in six years? What about 60?
This was when I could officially call myself a beginner at yoga because I was finally practicing all the components of yoga with my whole heart. Over my 10+ years studying with Sivakami and at the Integral Yoga Institute to become a Yoga Therapist, my scientific and personal understanding deepened about why these practices (physical, mental, and spiritual) are so beneficial.
This is why the fit of the teacher with the student is paramount. Your teacher is there to inspire you to open your heart and go further into your practice. Otherwise, we’re just spinning our wheels.
Some people are extraordinary and able to do all this without a teacher. They have connected to the Guru within (Guru literally means remover of the darkness: Gu - darkness, Ru - remover) without the help of a Guru in the form of a person.
I think most of us would benefit from a connection to a person who has already walked the path and can give us directions. For some, they can read books and get inspired by the words of Gurus from the past and feel that spark of inspiration. I think I needed a Brazilian woman who could give me a big, Brazilian hug.
So whenever someone tells me they’re a beginning yoga student, I instantly think of this entire story and how I feel now and how yoga has helped me become stronger and more balanced. I think all longtime yogins have a story about their journey practicing yoga.
Your story about why you, as a beginner, are practicing yoga reminds us to approach our own practice with the mind of a beginner. Because the mind of the beginner has no preconceptions and is absorbing so much information, it has to remain in the moment.
For this reason, beginners inspire experienced practitioners as well. We are so excited for you to start your own journey!
But you may be wondering, how do I get started with yoga? After all, there are so many options: different yoga studios, different yoga teachers, different yoga apps.
So I would love to give any beginning yoga students out there a short introduction to a complete hatha yoga practice according to the lineage I am in, which descends from Integral Yoga and the Sivananda tradition of hatha yoga.
This year, we’ll be posting helpful resources on our blog each month, from practice guides on sun salutations, breath work, and meditation, to explanations of why yoga specific practices are beneficial to us.
If you’re looking for more personalized attention from a live instructor, I am also hosting a Yoga for Beginners four-week workshop. I’d love to see you there!
"For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile."
- Elie Weisel
I am writing this in early October but by the time this is published, election day will have come and gone. We may or may not have election results yet. And I’m anticipating that whatever the outcome, this week will be tense and fractious.
How lovely that we have a holiday that reminds us to be thankful later this month. Gratitude is about living in grace. If you navigate over to our About Us page, you’ll see this quote by Swami Satchidananda guides our every decision at 5KY.
The goal of yoga and the birthright of every individual is a body of optimum health and strength, senses under total control, a mind well-disciplined, clear and calm, an intellect as sharp as a razor, a will as strong and pliable as steel, a heart full of unconditional love and compassion, an ego as pure as crystal, and a life filled with Supreme Peace and Joy.
That is grace. Stepping into our natural birthright of calm, strong, and balanced body, mind, and emotions. It isn’t something that we need to do, per se. It is what we are.
Swamiji liked to joke (though there’s always an element of truth in his humor) that his religion wasn’t Hinduism but un-doism. Yoga can help us peel away the layers of our past experience that get in the way of this birthright.
Maybe this sounds really difficult. The idea of having a will that’s as strong and pliable as steel or an ego as pure as crystal can feel very intimidating.
The good news is, yoga teaches that this is our natural state. It’s only the other things that unbalance our equilibrium.
Especially as a "down-to-earth" Midwesterner, it sometimes feels uncomfortable to admit to aiming for a goal so lofty. Like, who do I think I am to believe I have a pure ego?
But this is what I absolutely love about yoga. We don’t have to be or feel a certain way to get in touch with this birthright.
Yes, many of us will never attain enlightenment (at least in this lifetime) and no one is perfect, even those that are enlightened. We are all human. We all make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get the benefits of grace in the here and now.
In fact, the very first Sutra in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is translated to “Now the exposition of Yoga is being made.” It indicates that at every moment, we have a choice of whether to practice Yoga. To live our union with ourselves and with all other things.
Because here and now is where we practice. Not in the past and not in the future. Now. At any moment in time, we have the choice to be filled with supreme peace and joy. Nothing external can stop this opportunity, though external things can distract us from it.
As we wrap up this difficult year and hope for a bright 2021, let’s not forget to feel grateful for the beautiful things we have in our lives right now. Let’s live in grace together.
In honor of giving thanks, I would like to leave you with a meal prayer we use in Yoga for the Special Child and Integral Yoga. An audio recording of the meal prayer is also below.
Wishing you a month filled with grace and gratitude!
"There are no shortcuts to any place worth going."
- Beverly Sills
I just finished the first 100 hours of my second 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training with Yoga for the Special Child. Many of our students at 5KY love to take classes with us after we’ve attended a teacher training with YSC because we come back filled with new inspiration.
This time is no different, especially because I have not taken this program for a long time. I am uncovering forgotten and incomplete ideas that had surfaced when I took my first teacher training.
This is similar to the way we approach the Yoga Sutras. The Sutras are meant to be read again and again because your understanding of them develops more each time. Life brings pleasures and pains and the meaning of the Sutras becomes clearer as you confront these challenges.
And so although I have read the Sutras and studied with my teacher many times, certain things are becoming clearer to me as I go deeper. As my teacher says very often, “there will be no shortcuts on the path of yoga.” We will need determination and perseverance to reach the goal.
One of the concepts we discussed in the TT was pratipaksa bhavana (pronounced prat-ee-pak-sha bha-va-na). Pratipaksa bhavana literally means manifestation of or meditation upon the opposite thought. The Sutra this is introduced in (2.33) says that when we are “disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of.”
We have the power to change our own mind and control which thoughts we allow to enter.
This is a very powerful Sutra and concept, as it indicates we have the power to change our own mind and control which thoughts we allow to enter. What is the virtue we need to develop to practice pratipaksa bhavana? Determination.
One of the participants in the teacher training mentioned that this Sutra comes within the group of Sutras discussing the Yamas and Niyamas (the “dos and don’ts” of Raja Yoga). She drew a relationship between pratipaksa bhavana and the first two limbs of Raja Yoga that I had never noticed before.
She suggested that when we fall short of our goals - to live righteously and love unconditionally - it is not helpful to dwell in bad feelings about our misapplication of these principles into our life. Sutra 2.33 is placed within the discussion of the Yamas and Niyamas to remind us of a tool we can cultivate when faced with disappointment in our own behavior.
Say I have violent thoughts or said violent words (lack of ahimsa), lie to someone (lack of satya), take credit for something that isn’t mine (lack of asteya), overeat (lack of brahmacarya), or hang onto a situation that isn’t good for me (lack of aparigraha). In other words, if I fail to practice the Yamas.
Or maybe I have trouble keeping my space clean (lack of saucha), feel discontent about life’s circumstances (lack of santosha), lash out when hurt (lack of tapah), don’t make time for self-improvement (lack of svadhyaya), or can’t let go of control (lack of Ishvara pranidhana). And I fail to practice the Niyamas.
Instead of thinking “wow, I’m a really violent, lying, thieving, gluttonous, greedy person. I can’t believe I’m so impure, malcontent, reactive, lazy, and controlling,” we should think opposite, positive thoughts instead.
Our mind and therefore, our character is made up of these tendencies.
When we dwell in these negative thoughts, we only increase our tendency to express them. Our mind and therefore, our character is made up of these tendencies. So we have the power to change them by our will and determination.
So instead, when we fail to meet our goal, let’s think things like “I am trying. Look! I just noticed that I wasn’t following the Yamas and Niyamas. That is really hard to do. I must be making progress. Next time I will do even better. I am proud that I’m trying to make positive changes in my mind and my life.”
Eventually, you might try challenging yourself to think, “What?! That’s not true. I may have slipped up this time but I’m doing my best. I really am a peaceful, truthful, respectful, moderate, and generous person. I am pure, content, accepting, thoughtful, and surrender myself to my place in the universe. I’m going to keep learning, applying, and refining my understanding of these universal principles to get better and better every day.”
I will offer one more piece of advice from my incredible teacher, Sonia Sumar. She suggested that if we are confronted by a negative thought (and let’s get real, we all have intrusive thoughts sometimes) to “sit it down” in front of you and have a conversation with it.
Question it. “Where do you come from? Why do you always come up in this situation? Why do I feel this way when so-and-so does that? Why have I not resolved these feelings yet?” (Notice that all of these questions are about myself and not "the other.") It’s not psychoanalysis we’re doing. We are letting these thoughts come to the surface to let them go through our yoga and meditation practice.
Once we have an idea of where these thoughts come from, it’s so much easier to figure out what the opposite, positive thought is. Then, we just work on affirming the positive ones and letting go of the negative ones.
That is the real work of determination. It is not stuffing challenging thoughts down or hiding them from ourselves. It is allowing challenges to surface and then having the guts to confront and transform them.
With everything we are facing right now, transforming the challenges in front of us is absolutely essential. This is how our yoga moves off our mat and into the world.
To go along with our spring cleaning theme, here is a breathing exercise and meditation to introduce clarity into a whirling mind. This guided audio includes the Nadi Suddhi breathing exercise, also called alternate nostril breathing. Nadi Suddhi is excellent for calming and balancing the nervous system. We use a gesture (or mudra) called Vishnu Mudra. You'll find a picture of this mudra below. Bend your index and middle finger into your palm, keeping your thumb, ring finger and pinky extended. If Vishnu Mudra doesn't work for you, just use your thumb and index finger instead. Let go of mental clutter and enjoy your enhanced clarity!
This short meditation for kids is very relaxing. It's great to do before bed, before school, or anytime you just need a break! Find a comfy place, close your eyes, and get ready to relax...
Yoga for Kids starts October 4th. Register here.
Autumn is around the corner! Even if we're not in the "Back to School" crowd, the approach of Labor Day has us all wrapping up summer projects and launching into the fall. It's easy to lose step with practices that support our well-being. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities, I tend to have a harder time convincing myself to meditate. I find guided relaxations are a great way to jump-start my practice when I'm struggling to motivate myself.
I hope you enjoy this relaxation, called Yoga Nidra in the Integral Hatha Yoga lineage. You can practice it in a chair or lying down. We start with a progressive muscle relaxation. Then, observe our body, breath and mind in its natural, relaxed state.
As we move into the autumn, change is right before our eyes. Some parts of this change are exquisitely beautiful and pleasurable: the vivid colors, the fresh, cool air, cozy sweaters and hot apple cider. Others can leave us mourning the end of summer and dreading the coming of the dark and cold weather ahead. However, seasonal change can be an opportunity for us to breathe through the changes that are constantly happening in our lives. To accept whatever is and whatever will be. When we can accept that change is a constant in our life, we open to peace. We open to the very core of ourselves, which never changes.
I hope you enjoy this meditation on change.
After a special request from one of my beautiful students, here is the famous Light in My Heart Relaxation, which I learned from my teacher, Sonia Sumar. I hope with this relaxation, you can witness the pure light within your own heart and within the hearts of others.
Short on time? Here is a five minute meditation for you to enjoy and share. You can easily fit this Raja Yoga practice in before breakfast, bedtime, or on your commute on public transportation.
This is a short guided meditation, focusing on the breath. I created this meditation for anyone who is short on time or would like to start meditating. It takes less than ten minutes, so you can use it to start your day, end your day, or as a short break.
This is a Raja Yoga post, where we offer you practical exercises and meditations. We hope to provide easy ways to fit yogic practices into your day. Look for more audio and videos in the future! Which Raja Yoga practices do you want to study first? Meditation? Yoga poses? Breathing exercises?
Just some thoughts about yoga as I go...
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