Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Gilgamesh and the Yamas and Niyamas April 17, 2011

Filed under: books,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 6:25 pm
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Reading the yamas and niyamas this month, I was reminded of one of my favorite literary passages. Gilgamesh is an ancient epic poem, chronicling the adventures of a long-ago king. Badly shaken and grieving after the death of his best friend, Gilgamesh sets out on a journey in search of the secret to eternal life, but what he learns is that we can’t control life or the future. What he learns is to live the life he has as best he can. Here’s my favorite quote:

“Humans are born, they live, then they die,
this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.”
– Shiduri the tavern keeper, to Gilgamesh

I see the yamas and niyamas in every line here. If Gilgamesh follows Shiduri’s instructions, he’ll also be following the yamas and niyamas, and he’ll be a better man with a simpler, more joyful, more spiritual life. I love that this wisdom isn’t just in spiritual books like the Yoga Sutras but also in one of the earliest stories known in human culture. I love that this epic isn’t just about adventure and ass-kickery, but about coming home and finding the best way to live.


Niyamas: Isvara Pranidhana April 16, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 3:26 pm
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The final niyama is isvara pranidhana, defined as surrender or devotion. The idea of isvara pranidhana is to surrender to a higher power: God, the Divine, the ultimate reality, whatever you want to call it. The idea is to put your faith in something larger than yourself. When we surrender the ego, dedicating ourselves to something beyond our own desires, we are practicing isvara pranidhana.

Satchidananda talks about surrendering in selfless service to God and to humanity (because how do we best serve God? by caring for others). Most of us have done some volunteer work at some point; how did you feel as you left the soup kitchen or the hospital or the community center? Probably tired but satisfied. You’ve worked hard, and your work is going to help others. Someone will eat dinner because of what you did; someone sick and alone feels comforted. You did that. That good feeling comes from setting our selfish desires aside in order to serve.

Devi discusses isvara pranidhana in terms of prayer and wholehearted devotion. Have you ever had an experience of the Divine that came from prayer? I have. Sometimes when I’m walking in the woods, the beauty of the world just overwhelms me. Sometimes when I work hard, I can forget myself in my yoga practice, so that in sivasana I feel truly peaceful. It doesn’t have to be a traditional Hail Mary to count as prayer.

My usual experience of isvara pranidhana is random; it’s a harder practice for me to cultivate purposefully. I’m so busy, I say, I don’t have time to volunteer. Even just in my thoughts, it’s hard for me to relinquish control, to “let go and let God” as they say. I’m always trying to imagine the possible outcomes of every situation, what will happen next, how other people will react, how I will deal with their reactions. It’s not useful, and it can get exhausting. I suspect that making a practice of isvara pranidhana would alleviate this: I’d like to say more often, “I’ve done everything I can, now it’s up to the universe.” And then stop worrying! It’s hard to imagine being able to surrender like that even once, let alone every day.

Satchidananda and Devi both say that isvara pranidhana can be one of the easiest paths to enlightenment if you can do it. It seems like it’d be a nice way to live: do your best, work hard, serve others, pray devotedly, and let your higher power take care of the rest. It sounds so simple. Maybe the first step is doing it once, or even just imagining doing it once. We have to start somewhere.


Practical Experiments in Asteya April 15, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 6:53 pm
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I’ve been thinking a lot about asteya lately. With writing this blog, attending yoga class frequently, and completing my other teacher training work, plus house-hunting, spare time is really at a premium, and it’s hard to find time both to unwind and to spend just relaxing with my husband, F. We try to cook dinner together 2-3 nights a week, and after dinner cleanup we’ll often head to the computer room to try to get work done on our various projects. No matter what, we always try to wrap things up around 9 o’clock so we can watch a little TV together before bed.

Except that, as I found out the other night, F and I appear to have very different definitions of what “around 9 o’clock” means. For F, when we say “around 9 o’clock”, that means that he starts keeping an eye on the time at 8:57 and finishes typing at 9:00 so he can be out on the couch before 9:01. I have a much looser definition of “around 9 o’clock”; my version includes the ten minutes before and after 9, and usually I don’t get moving till after. Then I use the bathroom, refill my water glass, maybe get a snack together, so that by the time my butt hits the couch, F’s been sitting there seething with the video on pause for a full ten minutes. This is clearly something we have to work out.

Yes, F could use a dose of santosha at times like this – he could approach the evening with a more relaxed attitude and more acceptance of his wife’s flakiness. But really, I’m kind of the one causing the problem. I find myself doing the exact thing that Devi described in her commentary on asteya: thinking to myself, “Oh, I can get one more thing done before 9”, and then thinking, “Really, I’m not THAT late!” Ultimately, I know that when I’m late, it upsets my husband who I love. It’s such a little thing, and should be so easy to fix, but time and again I find myself running around and yelling “Sorry, I’ll be there in a sec!” over my shoulder to the living room.

I need to practice some asteya here, because what I’m doing at times like this is stealing F’s time, not to mention his energy and good humor. He paid attention to the clock and wrapped things up on time; I should be considerate of him and do the same. Plus, the later we start watching our show, the later we’ll finish it and the later we get to bed, and with such a crazy schedule lately, I need my sleep! And of course it’s harder to fall asleep when we’re both tense because I was late. When I behave this way, I’m also stealing sleep time from both of us.

So what am I doing on the computer that’s so important? Usually it’s something minor: writing one more sentence of a blog post, or dropping a quick email to a friend, or (and usually this is what it is) checking Facebook for the 85th time. F understands about the blog and the yoga homework, but he points out, quite rightly, that with such a busy schedule lately, if I’m wasting time on Facebook, then that’s time we don’t get to spend together. When you put it that way, it feels like I’m choosing Facebook over my husband, and that’s a pretty sucky way for my husband to feel. It’s not an active choice, because Facebook-time creeps in so insidiously; if I were making an active choice, I’d be choosing to spend time with F, but I’m not choosing actively. This is something I want to change.

Still, a part of me is crying out for just some “stupid time”, some non-scheduled time when I can zone out and relax and not have to be smart or motivated, time when no one expects anything of me. Facebook definitely fulfills that for me, but there are plenty of other things (like watching TV with my loving husband) that can fulfill it too. I hope that in the future, I’m able to act with more consideration and kindness, because that will make both F and me happier.


Ahimsa and food April 14, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:33 pm
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For some yogis, practicing ahimsa (non-violence) means being vegetarian or even vegan. If you’re practicing ahimsa, then you don’t want to cause harm to anyone or anything; that goes for causing the harm personally or having it done on your behalf. They believe that, by eating meat, they are taking in and nourishing themselves on the animal’s pain and suffering. If “you are what you eat”, why would you want to be pain and suffering?

The counter-argument can be made that human beings are omnivores. We’ve been eating both plants and meat for thousands of years, and that’s what our bodies are designed to do. But humans haven’t been raising animals in factory farms for thousands of years, so there are different ways to look at this. How much suffering do my diet choices cause? As I understand it, chickens and cows in large factories are kept in small cages, fed food that is unnatural for them to eat, and are pumped full of hormones and drugs to make them fatter and their meat tastier. This seems to me to constitute a suffering overload. Also, I am lucky enough to live in a country where we have access to a huge variety of foods. In the past, humans had to eat whatever they could to survive, but our modern society allows for different choices than previous generations could even imagine. We have the luxury of not eating meat if we don’t want to. And… I don’t want to.

For a while now, F and I have been trying to buy our animal products organic, because the animals are humanely treated and allowed to live with a cow’s or a chicken’s natural dignity before they become our meal. We don’t buy beef anyway, but we’ve been buying organic hormone-free milk for a few years now, and we prefer organic chicken meat and eggs from free range, cage free chickens. It’s hard to make this kind of change on everything, though: we buy organic milk, and we’ve started buying organic yogurt, but I like Activia yogurts too – what kind of milk do they use? What kind of milk is used to produce the cheese at the deli counter? And (and this is huge) I rarely pay attention to this issue when we go out for dinner, and we eat out often. I doubt Panera is using free range chicken breasts or organic cream in their sauce. We should be thoughtful about what we eat; it’s not just food, it’s your lifestyle. If I’m going to make a lifestyle choice, I ought to be making it across the board, no matter where I’m eating.

We’ve also been working to add more vegetarian options to our daily meal plans – originally with the idea that we wanted more variety in our meals, but then more and more with the idea of trying to phase out meat. Our honeymoon in Belize was a huge eye-opener for me on beans, because people there eat beans with EVERYTHING, and the beans were always delicious. We haven’t managed to recreate Belizean rice and beans here at home yet, but we do a lot more with black beans and refried beans. I’m also in love with edamame, and F discovered this terrific chickpea salad recipe last week. There’s so much more out there than meat and potatoes.

All of this combined so that I had a revelation at dinner one night two weeks ago: I feel really passionately about this issue, and I am already ideologically a vegetarian. I was so surprised, but it’s true! I just haven’t totally stopped eating meat yet. In a typical week of meals, I was only eating meat maybe 1-2 nights, so I was already almost there. I’ve been paying attention since my first teacher training weekend, and I’ve been a practicing vegetarian all month now, even while traveling last week. With beans and soups and salads, and oatmeal with pecans and raisins and cranberries (yum), I’m already doing pretty well on the nutrition front, and that’s without even really trying. All I need to do is take the next natural step.

So I’m going to finish phasing meat out of my diet. I’m going to eat the last of the meat that’s in our freezer (because it seems worse and more disrespectful if I throw out the meat than if I eat it), and then that’s it. We have a free range bison chuck roast in there, and that will probably be Easter dinner, and then I’ll be done with meat. I’ll still eat seafood, dairy products, and eggs (I don’t want to try to make too big of a change, plus I can’t imagine life without cheese), and will try to eat these organic when I can, but no more meat.

Will there be challenges? Of course. I keep coming up with new difficulties: Bacon. KFC. Hot dogs. These are things I adore, and so I may slip from time to time. But overall this is a new adventure that I’m excited about. I’m finally going to find out what lentils are for! Think of all the kale and spinach in my future! Maybe I’ll try beets! (Okay, not as excited about beets.) But being vegetarian just feels right. That was the biggest surprise in my realization the other night, that this is absolutely the right path for me.


books: The Royal Path, by Swami Rama April 13, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 8:42 pm
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The Royal PathYesterday I finished up with this month’s assigned reading: The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga, by Swami Rama. This slim volume is a guide to Ashtanga Yoga: “ashtanga” means “eight”, so “ashtanga yoga” is the “eightfold path” of classical yoga described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The eight steps of the path are as follows:

  1. yama: moral restraints
  2. niyama: moral practices
    (you know all about these now)
  3. asana: posture
  4. pranayama: control of the breath
  5. pratyahara: withdrawal and control of the senses
  6. dharana: concentration
  7. dhyana: meditation
  8. samadhi: superconscious meditation or enlightenment

Rama explicates each step on the eightfold path, providing a chapter for almost every step (yamas and niyamas are covered together in one chapter). He does include some description of yoga postures (asana), and some helpful photos, but this is only a portion of what Rama covers; he spends much more time on morality, breath, prana energy, concentration, meditation, and the mind.

For the most part, I really enjoyed what Rama had to say, and I found that reading this book deepened my reading of the Yoga Sutras. There were a few areas, though, where this book fell a little flat for me.

First, Rama’s prose can be dated at times. The original book was published in 1979, and Rama’s writing is surprisingly gendered. Here’s an example:

The central teaching of yoga is that man’s true nature is divine, perfect, and infinite. He is unaware of this divinity because he falsely identifies himself with his body, mind, and the objects of the external world. (2-3)

The sentiment here is interesting and well worth discussion, but his phrasing makes me cringe: man‘s true nature? He falsely identifies himself? I thought we got away from that sort of rhetoric years ago, even before the 1970s when this was written, and even so, I would have thought that the Himalayan Institute would have updated this in the new editions published in 1996 and 1998. Clearly Rama is talking about not man but humanity, not male yogis only but any yoga practitioner, but it still feels exclusionary to me, and the whole book is written like this. I did not feel like I personally was included in Rama’s definition of a yogi except for the parts where he specifically discusses women. This could be easily corrected in future editions, and I hope the Himalayan Institute does so.

Another thing that bothered me is that Rama fully believes that any disease can be cured with the mind. I know full well that the mind has astonishing powers for healing, but at one point he says, “If unwanted and undesirable thoughts are controlled, all diseases will vanish” (94). Really? Rama’s sentiment has some value, because we’ve all heard stories about people who were able, through prayer or positive thinking or holistic measures, to cure themselves. But not everything can be cured that way. What’s more, to say that diseases can be cured by positive thoughts could lead to blaming the patient for not getting better or for getting sick in the first place. That one line on page 94 bothered me so much that I had to shut the book for a day.

Similarly, Rama will talk about how meditation has been known and practiced in the Western world for generations, but most of Western society wasn’t ready for it, so all our Western saints practiced meditation in secret, as if there’s a big esoteric cover-up going on. Yes, St. Teresa of Avila communed with God, and what she practiced may have been a form of meditation, but was she practicing techniques passed down in secret from Indian gurus? I think probably not. Hinduism and Buddhism are strong and powerful traditions, but there are many paths. When Rama made claims like this, I couldn’t help reading it skeptically.

I’m describing the things that I found troublesome in the book, but really these things are pretty minor in comparison to what Rama does achieve, which is a strong book and a good guide to the practice of yoga. It’s definitely a worthwhile read and I plan to return to it in the future as I progress through the sutras and work more on meditation.


Niyamas: Svadhaya April 12, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:20 pm
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The fourth niyama, svadhaya, can be translated as “spiritual study” or “self-study”. Devi translates it as “sacred study of the Divine through scripture, nature, and introspection”, which is wordy but a very complete description. Svadhaya is important because we’re all seekers on our own path of spiritual understanding. If you don’t seek, if you don’t study, you’re not going to get anywhere.

There are many ways to practice svadhaya. The most obvious (possibly even the most direct translation) is to study spiritual books. The Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, whatever spiritual book calls out to you. But it’s more than just reading the book: if I pick up a Bible and I read a story about a guy who got eaten by a whale, then I think “What a funny story!” and I move on. What we really need to do is not only to read the story, but to think on it, ponder it, discover its deeper meanings. Jonah got eaten by a whale because he said no to God; he turned his back on the gifts and talents God gave him, on the work he was meant to do. It’s not a story about a whale, it’s a story about discovering and accepting your purpose. It’s also a story about surrendering to God’s will, which we’ll talk more about when we get to the last niyama, isvara pranidhana. There are many meanings to discover; each time we read the story, we may find something new that relates to our own lives. That’s why these are the sacred books: people have been finding meaning in them for thousands of years. These stories endure and have meaning for young people, old people, men, women, people of different races, ancient peasants and modern CEOs. We can do a lot worse than to study these books. By reading the Yoga Sutras, reading the commentary on them, and thinking it through to add my own commentary, I’m engaging in svadhaya right now (and I have been for weeks! Score!).

Books about sacred practice are also valuable. Before bed every night I like to read about Buddhism and meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my favorite writers of this sort of book. Written in simple, beautiful language, Hanh’s books calm my spirits and give me faith and hope (all of which makes it easier to sleep). I also read practical books about how to meditate: I’ve read Pema Chödrön, and right now I’m reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (who based on his cover photo seems like he must be the nicest man in the world). These books are most useful to me, again, when instead of just reading and saying “that’s nice”, I actually go on to use their strategies and practice the techniques.

Satchidananda says that any spiritual practice that you regularly engage in can be a practice of svadhaya. I think something like saying the rosary would fall into this category: it’s a spiritual practice that can be done regularly and that leads to a meditative or contemplative state. Whether you attend a daily religious service, meditate, roll out your prayer rug five times a day, light incense at your family altar, or just go hiking in the woods or ladle soup at a homeless shelter: whatever it is, if you’re doing it thoughtfully and with your full attention, it can be a practice of svadhaya. Mindfulness is key: most of us have known someone who practiced their religion in a huge, time-intensive way, but yet came out of that daily practice with a holier-than-thou attitude. The point of religious practice isn’t to pump up our egos (most of us don’t need any help with that!), it’s to deepen our connection to the Divine.

Last month in class, J told us that svadhaya is important because, simply, it’s really helpful to study the words of those who came before. If we’re following in someone else’s footsteps, it just makes things easier: we already have a map to where we’re going, and we don’t have to break our own trail. In the book Finding Your Religion, Rev. Scotty McLennan likens spiritual searching to hiking up a mountain. There are a bunch of paths going up the mountain already, some more and some less traveled. If you pick one, you’re going to have an easier time of it and will make more progress than if you were off hacking through the brush yourself. You’ll meet more fellow travelers who can help you on the path, and you don’t have to stick to just one path: the paths cross back and forth, all the time, so if you pick one, you’re not committed forever, you can switch to a different one whenever you want. Just pick one and get started. In my yoga practice, I have a lineage and tradition that I’m following (J was taught by Jai Deva Yogendra, who is the son of Sri Yogendra, who founded the Yoga Institute and was a great guru). What J is teaching me was passed down to him from Sri Yogendra, so there’s an established path for me to follow, and I can look to Sri Yogendra’s teachings and example for help on the way. I can also look to others, like Patanjali in the distant past and Thich Nhat Hanh in the modern day. It doesn’t have to be someone from the East, either: I get a lot of inspiration from attending my Unitarian Universalist church. Many people look to American philosophers like Emerson and Thoreau for guidance, or poets like Whitman or Mary Oliver, or religious theorists like Thomas Merton.  They can all be guides on the journey.


mid-month check-in April 11, 2011

Filed under: checking in,Pose of the Month,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 3:22 pm
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It’s been three weeks since our first teacher training weekend, and there’s a week and a half until the next one. How am I doing?

  • I’ve read most of The Royal Path (I’m on page 109, so I really just have one more short chapter to go, since the glossary doesn’t count)
  • I covered all the yamas and three of the niyamas, with two niyamas to go (and I read the sutras on those niyamas this morning)
  • I’ve been blogging like a fiend and posting almost every day (I even scheduled a post for Saturday, when I was out of town!)
  • I made it to yoga class twice the first week, twice the second week, and once last week, and I’ve taught twice in class

The thing giving me the most trouble right now is the Pose of the Month. I’m finding it really frustrating, I feel resistant to it, and I admit I haven’t been doing it. It’s not being asked to do a certain pose every day that’s the problem – at first I was enjoying focusing on a specific pose, and after a few days of practice I noticed my body was improving and I was able to go deeper into the pose. I also understand that practicing the pose will help me to understand it better and therefore be better able to communicate how to do the pose to my future students. The part I’m having trouble with is being aware of and examining my feelings while I’m in the pose. This is surprisingly hard.

These particular poses (forward bends: I chose a standing forward bend and paschimottanasana, seated forward bend) do not inspire a lot of strong feeling in me. They’re enjoyable poses; they feel good and I like doing them, but I don’t have any particular feelings around them. When we got the assignment, N gave the example of a woman in a previous class who hated paschimottanasana because when she bent forward, her stomach got in her way, reminding her that she was overweight. That’s gold right there. There are other poses that I do have strong feelings about: I don’t like chair pose because it’s uncomfortable, I do like tree pose and warrior 2 because I feel strong and confident when I do them. I like dancer pose because it’s challenging and I feel accomplished when I do it. With forward bends, though, I don’t feel anything really. Good pose, good to do, I get a good stretch, end of story. So I feel kind of like I’m being asked to make something up. Seriously, I don’t feel anything earth-shattering here. What I feel is kind of annoyed that I have to analyze my feelings about this pose, which is perfectly nice but not really noteworthy.

But then I started to second-guess myself. Maybe I’m supposed to be feeling something that I’m not. What do other people feel in this pose? N and J always describe paschimottanasana as a pose of surrender, when I learned it as a much more active pose. So I started trying to practice it in a surrendery way, but I couldn’t tell if I was doing it right. And this hooked right in to my worry that I’m not doing meditation right. There will be a longer post on meditation later, I’m sure (so save your comments about that), but I’m really struggling with quieting my mind, and when I’m doing these poses, instead of noticing what I feel while I’m in the pose, I spend the whole pose thinking about the fact that I’m doing the pose and wondering what I should be feeling right now. Not the most useful thing ever.

So I started to feel resistant to the Pose of the Month, because doing the pose was no longer the pleasure it was before. It’s hard enough to fit yoga time into my schedule, but when yoga time isn’t enjoyable, when I have to spend all my yoga time analyzing my yoga, then yoga time becomes and chore and I don’t want to fit the yoga time in. So I haven’t done the Pose of the Month since probably Wednesday. I’m trying to be gentle with myself about this while still trying to enforce the fact that this is a requirement I need to fulfill. I don’t want to get to a place where I think, “I haven’t done the pose in five days, so what’s one more day?” I still need to practice the darn pose.

But if the weather’s nice tonight, then I’m skipping yoga and going jogging. (Hey, at least I’m not skipping yoga to eat cheese puffs on the couch.)