Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Off the Mat -- Saucha

The first of the niyamas we’ll discuss is saucha – some people translate it as purity, others as cleanliness. Either way, it conveys a kind of personal discipline that encourages us to strip away non-essentials.

When it comes to our physical bodies, it means a great deal more than simply attending to basic cleanliness. Considering purity can lead us to being mindful about what we put into our bodies, about how actions make us feel. One of the things that I value most about yoga is the feeling of essentialness, of purity, that sometimes comes at the end of a physically demanding practice.

A cautionary note, though, about purity – something the leader of the meditation part of the retreat I attended recently pointed out: it’s really easy to get attached to the idea that yoga (and meditation, for that matter) is all about sweetness and light and butterflies and flowers. At times in my life, I’ve thought that pursuing purity would require me to avoid parts of life – people who didn’t fit my then-current notion of ideal, ideas that didn’t fit my preferred patterns, situations whose very existence seemed to contradict the ideas I thought to be right. In retrospect, I think I mistook attachment to the idea of purity for attention to the practice of purity. I’ll explain.

Attention to purity can teach us ways to engage with our own lives more directly, more clearly, helping us to simplify and slow down enough to discover the essence of our own thoughts and actions. From one vantage point, that simplification process is much of what happens on the yoga mat. Take Tadasana – Mountain pose: soles of feet pressing into the earth, side of big toes touching, heels slightly parted, kneecaps lifted slightly, hamstrings and quads both firm, pelvis balanced forward-and-back, abdominals engaged, spine lengthened, shoulders down, arms extended up, neck long. This is the slowed-down essence of what we do dozens of times a day – standing up – but it’s the most attentive, pure, essential and mindful version of standing up that I do in a day. All the rest are variations on that theme. Other poses deliver similar experiences of essentialness, of purity. Even in the years before I discovered yoga, I benefited from practicing purity.

I first read Walden, by Henry David Thoreau when I was in high school, then again several times in college. A handful of my favorite lines:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life….


Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

Thoreau got the idea of purity, of boiling life down enough to experience its essence. That was an approach that I valued long before I discovered yoga, and it bears on all kinds of aspects of life. I liked yoga when I found it, in part, precisely because it provided me with a way of experiencing clearly the pure physical essence of being embodied.

But, as I mentioned before, it’s pretty easy to slip from valuing what attention to purity allows us to see and experience into an attachment to notions of purity – “I appreciate purity, so I am pure,” “others who do not appreciate purity as I do are not pure,” “purity is better than impurity” … You get the picture. Purity can easily become a way to build up oneself by drawing lines: “I only shop at organic food stores,” or “I practice yoga more than anyone else I know.” At the extremes, it’s pretty easy (at least from the outside) to recognize self-righteousness and to distinguish between it and valuing purity itself. But sometimes the way we perform exactly the same action can swing the act from one of attachment and self-righteousness to one of experiencing life more clearly through purity.

The meditation leader followed his cautionary note about what we expect from yoga and meditation by pointing out that life is filled with all kinds of discomfort, unhappiness, suffering, and difficulty. If we expect nothing but sweetness and light from yoga and meditation, we’re in for a tremendous let-down, or we’re going to have to repress and ignore lots and lots of real experience. Purity doesn’t mean “pleasantness.” Pain can be pure. Unhappiness can be pure. So can discomfort. Experiencing them at their essentials can lead us to change not only the way that we think about those experiences, but the very ways that we experience them.

In the end, purity and cleanliness boil down to the same thing -- getting to the bare essentials of life.

Consider putting saucha into practice:

1. For breakfast, one day, set out your breakfast dishes, and put onto your plate or into your bowl, twelve blueberries – only twelve blueberries. Eat them one at a time with all the attention and effort you bring to your Warrior 2 pose. See what you experience.

2. At the end of a day, take a half hour to list what you did with your time that day. Consider what you might prune away.

3. If you practice yoga at home, take a clear-eyed look at the area where you practice. Does it need to be cleaned? Is it cluttered? If you don’t practice yoga at home, look at the place where you go to be quiet. My experience is that if I take the time to clean and straighten up before practicing, both at JM’s fitness center and at home, my practice goes better, my mind is less distracted, I am more centered.

4. Consider whether there are ways you might use attention to purity to change the way your mind works. Much of meditation is a practice of becoming aware of what is going on in our minds.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Monday, July 16, 2007

Off the Mat -- Reflecting on the yamas and anticipating the niyamas

(This is another post in the series of dharma talks I've presented to my yoga students.)

Off the mat: Reflecting on yamas and anticipating niyamas

We’ve now reviewed each of the five yamas (ethical practices for interacting with external world): ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha, non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, mindful sexuality, non-grasping.

Not really the part of yoga you see in magazines or on television.

But as soon as Patanjali finishes outlining the yamas, he then describes the niyamas -- the personal disciplines of Yoga: saucha or purity, santosha or contentment, tapas or self-discipline, svadhyaya or self-study, and ishvara pranidhana or surrender.

At this point, you may be thinking, “gadzooks! Isn’t there any strength and flexibility and pretzel poses to Yoga, after all?”

Of course there are, and we’ll get to discussing them in a bit. But there’s a reason Patanjali starts with the yamas and niyamas: to take the physical asana practice from a peculiar kind of exercise and turn it into a path of liberation, we need to understand it as more than simply a three-dimensional performance of muscle and bone. The first two limbs of yoga help us to develop the understanding and the discipline that create the sensitivity and the perception we need to make better use of the posture and breathing practices of Yoga.

I read from Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison’s Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga, this past week and was impressed by their insight regarding the yamas and niyamas:

The yamas are in many ways the hardest work on this path [of Yoga], for they confront us with the enormous challenge of rechanneling our spiritual energies. The yamas form the very bedrock of our existence. Before encountering the yamas, we are prey to the whims of our minds. Our minds tell us we are good, so we feel good; our minds tell us we are bad, so we feel bad. Our orientation is outward; we continuously compare ourselves to others, and most of the time we find ourselves lacking. We search outside ourselves for the validation we crave. And since we have no control over this validation, we can never truly be at peace or gain access to our true power in this life. The yamas change all of this. The energy we have poured into fruitless effort now becomes redirected into a process that gains us lasting peace and freedom. The yamas are the fundamental renunciation of a life based on fear. They are the change. The niyamas are the fundamental practices that sustain a life based on love. They sustain the change.
p. 83.

I especially liked their point that practicing the yamas lets us stop living a life based on fear – fear of perceived threats by others, fear of truth, fear of not having enough, fear of not being loved, fear of letting go. Each of those fears affects not just our thoughts, but our entire lives. Also, each one tends to contract us more and more tightly around what we think of as our “me,” our “self,” the part of us that wants to be validated, protected and preserved. Yoga doesn’t teach us that the self is a bad thing (though as one continues practice, the concept of “self” tends to change rather dramatically) – but rather Yoga allows us to see the self and its actions in brighter light. The renunciations of the yamas – of violence, of falsehood, of taking what is not offered, of sexual misconduct, of grasping and clutching – are all practices that work counter to our instinctual patterns of “self”-building and “self”-protection. Why? Not to annihilate the self – Yoga isn’t about self-hatred. But rather to free the self from those behaviors that work like addictions.

Within its context, each of these practices appears to give one a degree of control, a way to protect the self. Violence seems to lead to dominion. We tell lies to control others by controlling the information they receive. Taking others’ belongings seems like a way to become wealthy. Sexual exploitation seems to provide control and power. Grasping is, invariably, an effort to control something that is going to change (or, more frequently, has already begun to change, despite our clutching). Like other addictive behaviors, following those paths actually amplifies the need for more of them. So rather than alleviating our fears, they increase them. The only way to get to the end of a circular path is to step off of it. Pursing such courses in seeking freedom from fear only perpetuates it.

So the yamas help us extricate ourselves from the paths that lead on and on, but never really get to where they promise.

Once free from – or, more realistically, just aware of – those unfruitful circles, we’re able to start sharpening the tools that will be required for the next steps. And the tools are, of course, aspects of the mind-body itself – the ways that we approach ourselves. Implementing them, as we’ll discuss in the coming weeks, has a sharply different focus than the yamas, and a very different feel. Implementing the yamas may require some re-tuning of our minds and attitudes, but to one degree or another, each of the yamas is already assumed as basic good conduct within our society. The niyamas, on the other hand, begin to shift our attention from external to internal, and our society has a lot less to say about how we approach ourselves.

Yoga teaches us to engage each being we encounter with compassion. That includes the beings we encounter inside each of us. The niyamas enable us to act toward that being, and all others, with compassion and clarity.

Reflections on the yamas, so far?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Celebrate Liberty Right Here, Right Now

Along the lines of satya for an Independence Day Celebration:

"Meditation is really about freedom. It is first and foremost a liberative practice. It is a way of being that gives us back our life, and our happiness, right here, right now – that wrests it from the jaws of unawareness and habits of inattention and somnambulance that threatens to imprison us in ways that can be as painful, ultimately, as losing our outward freedoms. And one way it frees us is from continually making the same unwise decisions when the consequences of such are staring us right in the face and could be apprehended if only we would look, and actually see.

"For all these reasons, mindfulness can be a natural catalyst in deepening and broadening democracy, a democracy in which liberty is embodied not only in our rhetoric and in our laws and institutions and how they are implemented in practice, as important as that is, but also in our hard-earned wisdom as individual citizens, stemming from looking deeply into and feeling from inside our true nature, a wisdom that is embodied in our hearts and in our love for the interior landscapes of the mind and the heart. The more we become intimate with that landscape, the more we can participate effectively in society, in the appreciation of the beauty and unique potential of all of us. The more people come to know this terrain, the more we will all benefit from sharing in a distributive wisdom and goodwill of mutual regard that can translate into healthier communities and a healthier society, and a nation that knows its priorities and lives them in the world with authentic and unwavering reverence and respect.

"That kind of liberty cannot know borders. If others are not free, then in a very real way, we cannot be completely free or at peace either, just as we cannot be completely healthy in an unhealthy world."

John Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses, pp. 566-68

And this from MLK:

"Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. We’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time."

--Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967

Monday, July 02, 2007

Core works

I've had several people ask me recently what they can do to improve their core muscles, so I thought I'd assemble this post for them...

Even when I'm teaching 45 minute classes, I still usually include at least 5 minutes of core work.

It is usually comprised of a combination of stuff. I have them do crunches of various varieties to stave off boredom.

Try these for a taste:

(1) bicycle crunches: lying on your back, interlock fingers behind head (not neck); draw knees into chest; extend right leg forward and off the floor; draw right elbow to outside of left knee; then alternate by extending the left leg while drawing in the right knee, and taking your left elbow to the outside of your right knee; continue alternating (and breathing) for 30-60 seconds at your own (best) pace.

Tips: Keep your neck neutrally long -- not leaning way forward, and not drawn forward by your hands. Tightly bending your neck can do damage, especially with the side-to-side motion of this practice. Make the crunches harder by keeping your back curled up even as you rotate from one side to the other. I usually coach my students to keep their shoulder blades entirely off the floor, though most of them can't manage that for very many reps, and the longer they go, the more uncurled their backs tend to get.

(2) oblique crunches: lying on your back, interlock fingers behind head (not neck), draw both knees into your chest, then drop them, together, to the right side, while keeping your shoulders flat on the mat. Then crunch by lifting your head, neck, shoulders, and back straight up to the ceiling on an exhale; hold for two or three counts, then inhale back down to the mat. Repeat for 30-45 seconds at your own best pace. Then bring your knees back to center, and drop them to the left, repeating on that side for the same amount of time.

Tips: To make this harder, lift your feet and knees slightly off the floor. As with bicycle crunches, try to keep your shoulder blades entirely off the floor for all of the reps. Work to isolate the obliques. In actuality, you can't stop using your psoas muscles in this sequence, but you can start to distinguish between the rectus abdominus (six-pack) muscles and the obliques, usually by feel, since the obliques are smaller (thinner) muscles and will fatigue and start hurting faster than the abdominus. See, e.g., here. One vanity-driven result of doing lots of oblique crunches is you tend to build up your anterior serratus muscles, which look kind of cool when you do twists.

(3) Pelvic lift crunches: Interlock your fingers behind your head; recline on your mat. Draw your legs up, while keeping your sacrum on the mat, feet together. Then lift your feet straight up, toward the ceiling. This motion is no more than an inch or two for the most flexible and strong yogis. For some, their hips don't leave the floor at all, but the muscles that would lift, if they could, are fully engaged. Then on an exhale, lift the heart straight up toward the ceiling, as well, lifting until the shoulder blades leave the ground. Then, while maintaining both pelvis and shoulder blades off the mat, pulse up for as long as you can. (Note, this one can be really hard.)

One tip for all crunches: there's nothing like really loud, really fast, rhythmic music to crunch by.

Beyond crunches, I put my classes into Downward-facing Dog, have them lift one leg straight back and up, and then draw the knee of the extended leg in to their noses (for most this requires, and I encourage, them to arch their backs and shift their weight forward, over their arms). I have them hold for two to five counts, then re-extend the leg; and repeat the sequence three to five times on each side. Sometimes, when I'm feeling perverse, I have them draw the knee first to the nose, then on the second extension, to the armpit on the same side as the leg, then on the third extension to the elbow of the opposite arm, which requires both a crunch and a twist.

Finally (and my favorite) I also have them practice Boat pose, which is tough to get in terms of alignment, but is outstanding when it comes to working the psoas and abdominals. I frequently have them alternate between Boat and East Stretch as a kind of counter-pose to the gut-cramping that happens if you hold Boat for extended periods.

Finally, if you're looking for kicks, you can do crunches while in Boat pose by drawing your extended legs a few inches toward your extended torso, then a few inches away from it.