Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

First Hindu Congresswoman in the US November 9, 2012

Filed under: bhagavad gita,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:00 pm
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Among the many interesting victories in this week’s election, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard’s win in Hawaii caught my attention. Gabbard will be the first Hindu-American to serve in Congress, and she’ll take her oath in January on the Bhagavad Gita. How awesome is that?

Huffington Post reported on Ms. Gabbard last week – their article describes her background more fully. HuffPo also quotes some of the senseless hate that’s been strewn against non-Christian politicians, from Gabbard’s opponent in the race, Republican Kawika Crowley, as well as the American Family Association and the ever-evil Rick Santorum, who according to HuffPo stated that equality was a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.” Which is completely erroneous, by the way. I’d venture that Eastern religions are actually far more egalitarian than some forms of Christianity, many of which have that whole “I’m saved and you’re not” thing going on. Anyway, I think it’s fantastic that Gabbard is following her Hindu values (and, I’m guessing, what she perceives as her karma yoga duty) by serving her country.

Hawaii also elected Japan-born Mazie Hirono, who was previously one of the first Buddhists to serve in Congress, and will now become the first Asian-American woman in the Senate. Rock on, Hawaii.

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Books: Bhagavad Gita September 9, 2011

Filed under: bhagavad gita,books,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:06 pm
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The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Eknath EaswaranThe Bhagavad Gita is one of India’s best known scriptures. It tells the story of Arjuna, a warrior on the eve of battle who has lost heart and become uncertain as to his duty. Arjuna turns to his spiritual guide, Krishna, for answers to all the key questions of life, questions about wisdom and service and spirituality. The battle that Arjuna is about to fight is the perfect metaphor for life and the interior battle we all fight to live a life that is meaningful and fulfilling. The Gita, in essence, is a manual for how to live.

For my yoga teacher training, we were asked to read a translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran. On the back cover, Easwaran’s version is described as “reliable” and “readable”, and this is definitely true. Easwaran opens the book with an introduction to the Gita, setting the scene, and then each chapter of the Gita opens with a brief introduction that explicates the content of that chapter. This makes the story easy to follow, and really helps in understanding the context of Arjuna’s and Krishna’s conversation. The endmatter of the book includes a section of notes (typically, helpful insights on issues of translation), as well as a glossary of Sanskrit terms and an index. Easwaran’s version really focuses on making the Gita accessible for the reader, so this version is a great place to start if you’re reading the Gita for the first time.

I had read the Bhagavad Gita previously, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Mitchell is known as a translator of ancient poetry – he’s done the epic of Gilgamesh and the Tao Te Ching, among others. The great thing about Mitchell’s work is that he finds a way to take this ancient poetry written in another language and capture not just the meaning but the beauty of the language. Easwaran’s translation of the Gita is verse, but Mitchell’s translation is poetry. The last time I read it, I was looking mostly at the poetry; I decided to read it again, and this time, it was really enjoyable to read the book in a different context, looking more at the content, the instructions for how to live. Definitely got more out of it this time.

When we were assigned to read the Bhagavad Gita for class, I chose to read both versions back to back. I didn’t try to do a line-by-line comparison (that would defeat the purpose of reading it at all, really). Instead, I re-read the Mitchell translation, and then read the Easwaran translation, in the hope that reading both versions would deepen my understanding. I think it did, but I also felt a little burnt out by the time I got to the end of the Easwaran version. I definitely want to reread both versions again, but next time I’ll space them out more.

 

The Gunas August 10, 2011

Filed under: bhagavad gita,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:42 pm
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Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna talks about three gunas and the effects they have on each individual. The word “guna” means “strand” or “quality”; the gunas are qualities that influence and control our actions and even our personalities. Having a working understanding of the three gunas – sattva, rajas, and tamas – can help us to better understand ourselves, our motivations, and our spiritual path.

The first and highest of the gunas, sattva, denotes peacefulness, calm, contentment, and balance. Ideally, after meditation or after yoga asana practice, you’ll be feeling sattvic: the goal of these practices is to bring about a sattvic state. Sattvic foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and seeds, dairy products, and sweet spices like cinnamon or cardamom.

The second guna, rajas, denotes activity, energy, sensuality, desires, attachments, and enjoyments. Being in a rajasic state can be good for getting a lot done at the office because you’re full of energy and drive. Feeling rajasic can be pleasant, but to make progress on our spiritual path, we need to strive for a sattvic state. Rajasic foods include caffeine, meats, heavy foods, and very spicy foods. From an ayurvedic standpoint, the vata dosha is most rajasic.

The final guna is tamas, which denotes laziness, lethargy, confusion, and ignorance. We all feel tamasic sometimes, but it’s not a state anyone really wants to be in. Tamasic foods include fast foods, old or leftover foods, canned or boxed foods, and foods with lots of preservatives. In ayurveda, kapha is the most tamasic dosha – spicy rajasic foods can help to get kaphas moving!

The three gunas act together to influence our thoughts, words, and actions. In understanding the gunas, we can come to understand our motivations and why we do what we do. Try using the gunas as a system of measuring your mental state. The gunas fluctuate depending on each person and each day, but at any given time one guna is dominant over the others. Which guna is affecting you most right now?

As yogis, when we’re aware of the gunas, we can use that knowledge and our discrimination to make choices that will lead us to a sattvic state. When you first wake up in the morning, you may feel sleepy and tamasic, so what do you do to get yourself moving? If you have six cups of coffee, that will lead to a rajasic state; if instead you do your yoga practice followed by a healthy breakfast, that’s more likely to lead to a sattvic state. (And if you roll over and go back to sleep, you’re giving in to the tamas and you won’t get anything done!) Paying attention to our moods, and to the effect our choices have on our moods, will lead us to make healthier choices, choices that make us happier.

As a yoga teacher, it’s important to be aware of the gunas too. The purpose of yoga class is to bring the students to a sattvic state. This is why most yoga classes begin with a series of active rajasic poses, then lead students to more calming poses and finally to relax in savasana. If the yoga teacher is aware of the gunas, she’ll be careful to preserve the sattvic state of her students at the end of class: talking in a soft voice, making slow movements, and turning the lights up gradually. Loud voices, bright lights, and being rushed out of the room can spoil that yoga high!

 

Four Paths: Karma Yoga August 5, 2011

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the four paths of yoga:

Each of these paths has the potential to lead a yogi to enlightenment, so you choose your path based on your temperament and personality. Choosing the wrong path will make it much more difficult to make progress, because essentially you’re fighting your nature. This month, my assignment is to consider the four paths and decide which one appeals to me the most.

Karma yoga, the path of action, is the path that called out to me right away during our class discussion at the last teacher training session. The nice thing about Karma yoga is that it’s all about action – you don’t have to give up your life in the world or retreat into secluded study or meditation. You still have to read and study and meditate, of course, but your main focus is your secular life. The difference between a Karma yogi and some regular guy, however, is that the Karma yogi seeks to perform the actions of her life with an attitude of selfless service, with no attachment to the results of her actions.

In Karma yoga, you perform your actions because it’s your duty, because it’s the right thing to do – no more and no less. You don’t get caught up in expecting a reward for your efforts. If you receive a reward, that’s nice, but the point is to do the action for its own sake. It’s not that the Karma yogi doesn’t care about what happens: to the contrary, she cares very much and works hard at her work, but she recognizes that she has no control over the results of her actions, so she just does her best and then lets go. She takes an attitude of service, making each action an offering to the Divine. This way, doing the work actually becomes your spiritual practice. (Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita discusses Karma yoga in more detail.)

There are four steps to Karma yoga:

  1. Know your duty, know your life’s purpose (your dharma), and accept it fully
  2. Concentrate and be fully present as you perform your duty
  3. Do the work with excellence, as best you can
  4. Give up any attachment to the results of your actions

For me, this path is very, very appealing. I have always felt like I wanted to do more, to serve more, that there was something I owed to the world in gratitude for the wonderful life that I have. For years I secretly wanted to join the Peace Corps but was too afraid to take the risk. I can’t even talk about the Peace Corps; I get teary. I’m teary just typing about it. The concept of Karma yoga fulfills that need to serve by making everything a form of service. I don’t need to go far away to make my life meaningful or helpful or useful. I can do that right here.

I also like how neatly Karma yoga fits together as a system for running your life. If every action is service, is an offering to the Divine, then you’re pretty much going to stop being a jerk to people, aren’t you? The yamas and niyamas become even more practical guidelines for living. You start wanting to eliminate negativity and nastiness from every action you put out into the world; there’s an inherent kindness to it. I often feel that I am not very kind, and I’d like to be. As a system, it also puts emphasis on personal excellence – doing your best, striving to perform your work in the best possible way – and that resonates with me too because I’ve tried to live my life that way.

The hardest thing for me to imagine is acting without attachment to the results of my actions. And obviously that’s kind of a biggie. But that’s something I feel I need in my life, too. How comforting it would be to stop worrying over things that are beyond my control! To be able to let go of that suffering, and just reside in the fact that I did the best I could do. I’ve been telling myself this for years. Of course, it’s still incredibly hard for me to just do that, but isn’t that the point? To work at it, and to make the work the offering?

I’m getting a little emotional here, but that’s clearly indicative of something. Yesterday, I was thinking about Bhakti yoga and thinking that maybe that might be a good option for me, but Karma yoga is something I really feel passionately about, and something I’ve been trying to practice without even knowing I was doing it. There are many aspects of the other paths that do appeal to me, and there’s no reason I can’t take those things and use them on my journey, but my main path is going to be Karma yoga.

 

Four Paths: Bhakti Yoga August 4, 2011

Filed under: bhagavad gita,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:20 pm
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In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the four paths of yoga:

  • Karma Yoga: the path of action
  • Raja Yoga: the path of meditation
  • Jnana Yoga: the path of wisdom/knowledge
  • Bhakti Yoga: the path of love/devotion

Each of these paths has the potential to lead a yogi to enlightenment, so you choose your path based on your temperament and personality. Choosing the wrong path will make it much more difficult to make progress, because essentially you’re fighting your nature. This month, my assignment is to consider the four paths and decide which one appeals to me the most.

Today I’ll talk about Bhakti Yoga, the path of love and devotion. This is the most emotional path, for yogis who tend to think with their hearts; the Bhakti path encourages yogis to channel those emotions toward the Divine. Unlike Jnana yogis, the Bhakti yogi is happiest worshipping the Divine in a manifested form, such as Jesus, Mary, or Krishna, because it feels like a more personal connection.

Bhakti yogis are assisted in their spiritual practice by a variety of techniques:

  • chanting (such as kirtan music, or the many call-and-response chants in the Catholic liturgy, or even a rosary)
  • imagining or meditating on attributes of the Divine (the holes in Jesus’s hands and feet; Mary’s blue robes; the face of Krishna)
  • rituals (like lighting candles)
  • kneeling or prostration before the image of the Divine (Christians keep those big crosses around for a reason!)

These sorts of actions create a sacred atmosphere that a Bhakti yogi appreciates – they bring the participant into a meditative state where she can feel close to the Divine. The Bhakti yogi is always cultivating that longing to be with the Divine, striving to make her life an offering to her deity. You can read more about Bhakti yoga in chapters 9 and 12 of the Bhagavad Gita.

I was raised Catholic, and the rituals of the church do hold some appeal for me. I love to sing: I sang in church choirs growing up, and raising my voice in song does make me feel closer to my spirit. Sometimes I even feel moved to sing while I’m practicing yoga (it’s really fun, actually), or after my meditation (I learned a great song at my Unitarian church about breathing in peace and breathing out love, it’s perfect). I like having my little shelf set up at home with my little Buddhas all lined up; that’s where I meditate, and I feel like having them around is like having a tiny little support group cheering me on. I can relate to the feeling in Bhakti yoga that the Divine is a personal friend who loves you back. The more I think about this path, the more I think it’s an option for me. However, it’s not the path that called out to me right away (and if you’re keeping track, you’ll have it figured out by now). Next time, I’ll do some reflecting on karma yoga and see how I feel about it.

 

Four Paths: Raja Yoga July 31, 2011

Filed under: bhagavad gita,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 12:22 pm
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In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the four paths of yoga:

Each of these paths has the potential to lead a yogi to enlightenment, so you choose your path based on your temperament and personality. Choosing the wrong path will make it much more difficult to make progress, because essentially you’re fighting your nature. This month, my assignment is to consider the four paths and decide which one appeals to me the most.

Today I’ll talk about Raja Yoga, the path of meditation. Also know as “the royal path”, this is the path described in the Yoga Sutras and by Swami Rama in his book The Royal Path. Raja yoga is often called the eightfold path, since it is comprised of eight steps:

  1. yamas: moral restraints
  2. niyamas: moral practices
  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: enlightenment

We’ve already talked about most of these steps here on this blog, and most of them will appear in all four of the yoga paths at some point – for example, no matter what path you’re following, you’re going to do some yoga postures and you’re going to meditate. The difference is that someone drawn to Raja yoga will make meditation her main spiritual practice and the focus of her efforts. A Raja yogi is someone who would really enjoy a weeklong meditation retreat: eating meals in silence, getting up early to spend hours meditating. You can learn more about Raja yoga in chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita.

Although I’ve really been enjoying my meditation practice, and I’m glad to be devoting time to it every day, I don’t think that Raja yoga is my path. I’m getting better at calming my mind, but such a quiet, still practice I don’t think would be ideal for me spiritually. However, I’m really looking forward to spending more time exploring meditation as a part of whatever path I choose.

 

Four Paths: Jnana Yoga July 28, 2011

Filed under: bhagavad gita,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:06 pm
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In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the four paths of yoga:

Each of these paths has the potential to lead a yogi to enlightenment, so you choose your path based on your temperament and personality. Choosing the wrong path will make it much more difficult to make progress, because essentially you’re fighting your nature. This month, my assignment is to consider the four paths and decide which one appeals to me the most.

Today I’ll talk about Jnana yoga (pronounced Yah-Nah), the path of knowledge. This is the most difficult path but can be the shortest. A yogi drawn to the Jnana path naturally gravitates towards contemplation, thinking about spiritual questions, and studying spiritual books. The Jnana yogi is often solitary, quiet, and introspective, and may be interested in renouncing the world for spiritual study and reflection. The Jnana yogi is less interested in the Divine in the person of a figure like Jesus or Krishna, and more interested in the idea of the Divine, in unmanifested form or as universal consciousness or energy.

To progress along the path, the Jnana yogi uses reason and discrimination to distinguish between what is real and what is unreal, what changes and what remains unchanging. The Jnana yogi practices mental collectedness and concentration, not allowing anything to distract from the spiritual path. To that end, you stop looking for personal gain from the results of your actions, instead doing your duty simply because it’s what’s required, and you make enlightenment your top priority, refraining from actions that aren’t relevant to this quest. For more on Jnana yoga, take a look at books 4 and 7 of the Bhagavad Gita.

At first it seemed like maybe Jnana yoga would be my path. There are a lot of appealing things about it: I love to read and I’m good at studying, for one. But the more I think about it, the more this path doesn’t seem to go with my nature. I’m smart, but I’ve never been a big thinker – I never enjoyed philosophy classes or philosophical debates, and while I can be quiet and introspective, I don’t think I’d call myself contemplative. I think this path requires more discipline in study than I think would work for me – there are many things I can be disciplined about, but for me, reading has always been for the love of it, and I wouldn’t want to turn that into work. It’s a path that is a little more removed from the world than I think I can be. In many ways it’s a path I wish I could follow, but I don’t think it’s the right one for me.

Stay tuned for more on the other three paths!