In the West yoga has been marketed as a system with many benefits, so I am not going to go into it in depth. We all know how yoga can enhance your mood, calm the nervous system and focus our attention, however, most of us also know that these benefits don’t last as long as we want them to last. Sometimes, moments after leaving a class the world will challenge you with a bombastic road user or a crisis at home. We are confronted with the same issues, problems and challenges once we leave a class, which leaves us frustrated and to an extent exhausted. It seems the more we want peace and harmony, the more the world would through the opposite to us. On your yoga mat and meditation cushion, yes we can taste the POTENTIAL for growth, we feel the peace and love and light and harmony, yet off the mat we encounter greater resistance. But how can we affect a more lasting change then?
I would frequently sit before a class and just talk to my yogis and if you listen carefully most of the time they complain about tension, stiffness or even pain in the hip area and sometimes they would refer to their chests and how tight it may be after a cold or flu. The hips and heart seem to be receptacles for frustration. “My hips are so tight!” people say, or “How do I open my chest—no matter how hard I try, it doesn’t seem to respond!” This is because much of our emotional issues are concentrated in the hips and heart. It seems to me the heart, chest and hips are receptacles for our painful memories, hurtful emotions and unresolved issues. But on the other hand they are also the founts from which creativity flow, so we express a need to open the heart and hips in order to open ourselves to connect more deeply with our bodies and innate creativity. And in this connection lies the solution to our sometimes very complex emotional states. This is the gift of yoga to you, greater awareness unravels the emotional issues, yes difficult at first, but transformational as we grow and continue of our yoga path.
THE ISSUES ARE IN OUR TISSUES
Yoga doesn’t rid us of our anxieties, our fears, our sorrows or our stress: it just creates awareness that we have these fears, anxieties, sorrows and stresses and if we stay long enough on the yoga path, we start to understand why we harbour these emotions, I call it: awareness that the issues are in our tissues. From a purely Western point of view, it may not make sense that we store our “issues in our tissues” for that Western medicine has alienated us from our bodies and why we have certain diseases and illnesses. However, from a spiritual point of view, it starts to make sense that our mind, body and emotions are inextricably linked. We are much more what we think rather than what we eat! However, we are always surprised when yet another issue arises just as we think we have now worked through it all. My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to call it stirring the coffee grounds. There is always something more, yoga seems to penetrate our membranes of defences to reach the deepest, most primitive layers of experience. So the practice of Yoga can feel like opening Pandora’s Box: a primal storehouse of memories, emotions and experiences awaits us. The problem is that this storehouse of memories, emotions etc. seem to evade us most of our life until we start to practice something like yoga which brings us within reach of the subconscious mind. And this is the power of yoga, it transforms us, yoga forces us to live in the present, to focus on what is now in front of us and to being mindful of the here and now.
Once our yoga practice starts to be more than just another set of exercise and we connect deeply with ourselves, our body, emotions and mind, in other words when the transformation starts, we are confronted with unexpected consequences. We seek peace, but yoga brings anger and disharmony, we see happiness, but yoga brings sorrow and sadness or we seek love and yoga brings us rage and anger! We all respond differently to what yoga throw our way, I have noticed two kinds of responses:
- The nervous system sounds the alarm and moves us into a fight or flight lockdown.
- Or, the emotional energy that comes surging forth from our depths creates a state of denial or cognitive disassociation.
Whatever option we choose, each one forces us in a different way to look at ourselves and to start to acknowledge that we are on a path of change, of self-healing and making peace with the story of our lives.
Every life on this planet is worth a book! We all have a story to tell and in that story there are different chapters, actors and scenes. We constantly move in and out between the different stories and scripts. Some is simple stories: my grandmother died when I was 10 years old – this is what this sadness is about. Or more complex: my partner is abusive, cold and emotionally distant, he/she isn’t taking care of me – why I feel such anger and frustration. Or another scenario might be: look how my teacher is assisting that person over there; I’m clearly not one of his/her favourite students – reason for my resentment and jealousy. Our story usually fits our mental and emotional patterns (or samskaras). And this is the amazing aspect of yoga, it creates awareness of the patterns and the reasons why we repeat these patterns so that we can mindfully start to change our mind and say: I am not my father or I am not this pattern I am repeating, I am not this anger, this rage, this jealousy or depression. Once we cognitively start to recognise and realise that we are just repeating old samskaras, then the healing, the transformation can start to happen.
We have this amazing power within us, the power to change our story. Change is the only constant we can be sure of, so instead of fighting change, why not accepting it lovingly into your life and see how different your life might become!
Unfortunately affecting this change in our lives doesn’t come easy, the Ego will try to dissuade you from change, from transformation, it will always try to navigate back to the old familiar patterns and this is the challenge: to change before the pattern become too deeply ingrained. Our mind has specific way to cope with the different stories in life, it likes to run away with a story, give it so many add-ons that we later become confused and in this chaos of confusion we start to repeat old patterns, fear, anxiety, anger, resentment etc. reach into the depths of our consciousness and takes residence there. The danger is that later we cannot remember what the original issue was! This coping mechanism of our mind and Ego lure us away from the original and deep emotion that needs our attention. In this way, it reinforces the very patterns that clearly contribute to our suffering. And it short-circuits the opportunity the story gives us: to go inward and root out the long-standing samskaras that cause us suffering.
This might sound like a cliché, but there is great truth in the statement of my life partner: “Let’s not confuse the issues here!” Whenever we have a difference we need to sort out and I would bring in too many other issues, he would call a time-out moment and remind me of this. It is hard not to bring in other narratives and even harder to focus all our attention on this one story in the here and now. It is human nature it seems to reach to the depths of our minds and to pull out old stories and trying to connect them to what is happening in the here and now. Staying present, being mindful of the moment are tools that can assist us on our path, it can help us to handle our stories better, resolving them quicker, reaching an understanding of the why and how on a deeper level of our being. So yoga is about inhabiting our bodies in a deep way and teaching us to be mindful.
HOW YOGA HELPS
I have written about this, but I am going to repeat it here again: I have this little experiment I do in my yoga classes to illustrate certain truths – I would ask my yogis do to a simple Tree Pose, focusing all their attention on that pose for that moment. Amazingly, when we breathe deeply, focus our attention and will, we can all do a well balanced Tree Pose. I would bring them out of the pose, ask them to feel what they have done and then I would do the other side. Once they are in the pose I would ask them to think about their day, their problems, work, money problems etc. and like clockwork they would all lose the balance and focus. Yoga helps us to sort the issues, by forcing us to be in the moment, focus on what is at hand and to do that well. In that way yoga transforms us, makes us more focused, looking at the issues one by one and transform each one over time.
My dear yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to say that the only constant we can be sure of is change. Change is inevitable. No matter what we do, it is busy happening right now, even while you are reading this article, change is happening in the NOW all the time. Change is the way of the Universe and of the Divine, change is the creative Force that ensures the evolution of our souls, without it we cannot make our spiritual jumps.
However, humans are afraid of change and for that reason we resist change. Change challenges us on too many levels and it brings greater awareness into our consciousness and that relentless wave of choice after another we have to make can be tiresome and scary for many. Instead of embracing change, many of us choose to rather live in a fearful place, where we lie to ourselves about the Truth of change. How we deal with change can change how we create a better life for ourselves. How we accept change into our lives as part of our spiritual evolution cannot only change you, but also the world around you. It is a law of the Universe, when you start to change, the world will change with you. The secret is how to successfully deal with change and how to ensure that we make positive changes and I hope my article will inspire you to incorporate change in your life.
This is the way of the universe. And this is the dilemma for most people. If we keep on resisting change it usually happens in any case with a huge bang, calamity or crises in our lives. Either you make the change or something is going to make the change for you. The secret is to learn how to deal with the force of change in our lives. So instead of resisting, why not try to flow with change, anticipate the change you need to make and implement it in a structured way in your life before the Universe force the change onto you! Yes, I know, sometimes change is forced upon us through events and people outside of us over which we had no control. But, instead of going into panic mode, try to look at the change in a calm way and see you can deal with it immediately and how you can accept the changes it will affect in your life.
Control your Response
So, we have learned that change will happen, no matter what. The next logical notion will be instead of fearing change, why not rather focus our energy on our response to change? And this boils down to the choices we make in life. While most of us like to see change as just another obstacle in our way, we are frustrated by that obstacle and the choices we must make and we choose to ignore it. Instead of ignoring it or seeing it as just another negative in your life, change your mind about how you perceive change itself in your life. See the choices you have and see them as opportunities, a window opening, a fresh approach and become a vehicle for change and not the one that tries to block change all the time. And the approach starts with making choices that you are happy and comfortable with. Yes, sometimes we must make difficult choices, but those choices will serve you well in the long term.
What we resist, persists
The truth about this statement from Jung has another side to it: that which we resist not only persists, but also grows in size! When we start to accept that change is part of us and who we are to become, then only can we start to dissolve the many issues arising from resisting change in our lives. We will try to erect many barriers to protect ourselves against the onslaught of change, we have our comfort zone where things are so good we don’t want to change them. We prefer the familiar and known rather than the unfamiliar and unknown. We don’t like surprises and will avoid them at all cost. And finally, ignorance is bliss, or so we think! We can live just so long in ignorance until change will force you out of it and usually in a violent way if you don’t implement change.
In order for the tree to sprung new leaves, blossoms and fruit in spring and summer, it has to give up something and as such, we need to learn that change means to give up something in order for the new to come forth in our lives.
Allow change to become a positive force in your life, let it not be the monster you fear, but make it your friend, allow it to become the force that helps you to improve your life, finding new meaning and a different way of seeing your life. And lastly, realise that if you hold onto things for too long, they will start to hurt you. Out of denial and fear we may choose to ignore the signposts along our journey, but ignoring those signs will only lead you to more trouble and difficulty. Read the signs, pay attention to them and if it says the road will curve to the left in front, don’t try to force straight ahead, rather follow the curve and you might be surprised about what is around that corner!
This is the great outcome of accepting change in our lives: our awareness grows exponentially with it. The quality of our lives will change, because we come from a place of positive energy instead of negative resistance. The beauty of change is that it expands our wisdom. We come better prepared for our world and what it will throw at us and we have peace about our path in life. Changes afford us new ideas and experiences and this in turn develop our understanding and expand our awareness not only of ourselves and our place in the Universe, but also of others and how we impact them.
We sit in a room with many windows and doors around us, but due to fear and denial, we become too fixated on this one door or one window, that we tend to forget to see the other windows and doors in our room. Close your eyes, now take a deep breath in, open your eyes and look around you, your room is full of other windows and doors, beaming with opportunity for you. In the words of Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
We are all familiar with non-verbal communication – it is that aspect of our daily communication that requires no words, but rely on facial and body expressions, hands gestures, frequency of glances, pupil dilation, blink rate of the eyes, aspects such as pitch, volume, intonation and rhythm of the voice it also includes aspects such as the space and time around our bodies and environment. Non-verbal communication represents two-thirds of all our daily communications. All these indicators help us to code and decode messages from and to other people and as humans we are very good at it. We are constantly busy interpreting what other are saying to us non-verbally!
Only a small percentage of the brain processes verbal communication. As infants, non-verbal communication is learned from social-emotional communication, making the face rather than words the major organ of communication. As children become verbal communicators, they begin to look at facial expressions, vocal tones, and other non-verbal elements more subconsciously. We are fluent in non-verbal communication long before we are fluent in words and sentences.
Spiritual Non-Verbal Communication
Mudras (the word means gestures) are the non-verbal communication aspect of yoga and Spirit. We employ our hands, face and even full body to activate certain energies on the subtle level of our existence and we communicate these energies to Spirit with the help of mudras. A mudra is a spiritual gesture and an energetic seal of authenticity employed in the art of communicating with Spirit.
When we sit for example in Padmasana (lotus pose) we not only stimulate the process and flow of prana or energy in the body and on the subtle levels, but we are also indicating to Spirit our intention of sitting for meditation and thus inviting conducive energies to flow while we are in this state of meditation.
In Tantra Yoga there are 108 mudras that we use to communicate to Spirit what we want to change, achieve or influence during such a performance. It is not the goal or scope of this article to give a description of all of them, but I would like to share a few general and powerful mudras with you and encourage you to please use these mudras when you feel the need for them.
8 Basic and Important Mudras
1. Atmanjali Mudra (Gesture of Prayer) – The gesture is used for both greetings and farewells, but carries a deeper significance than a simple “hello” or “goodbye”. The joining together of the palms is said to provide connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and represents unification or “yoking”. This yoking is symbolic of the practitioner’s connection with the Divine in all things. Hence, performing Atmanjali mudra is an honouring of both the self and the other as the gesture acknowledges the divinity of both practitioner and recipient. On a spiritual level it communicates our devotion and readiness to give gratitude to the Divine for all our blessings. It also expresses our reverence to the Divine.
2. Abhaya Mudra (Gesture of Promising Protection) – Is a hand pose that is the gesture of reassurance and safety, which dispels fear and accords divine protection and bliss to the devotee. In Abhaya mudra, the right hand is held upright, and the palm is facing outwards. This is one of the earliest Mudra found depicted on a number of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina images. This mudra is usually used by a spiritually stronger person (like a deity, master or guru) to dispel fear in his/her disciples and to bring calmness into their hearts and situation. This is also a mudra that is depicted in Christian Iconography of Christ. We see Christ promising protection though this mudra to his flock.
3. Varada Mudra (Gesture of Granting Wishes or Mercy) – It indicates a gesture by the hand and symbolizes dispensing of wishes or mercy. For Varada mudra, left hand is used. It is held out, with palm uppermost and the fingers pointing downwards. Again this mudra is mostly used by a spiritually advanced soul like a deity, master or guru, and is used to indicate that you need to practice the art of forgiveness in order to receive certain wishes or mercy. We see this mudra being used extensively in Christian depictions of the Christ when he shows his wounds in his hands to his disciples, which demonstrates the Great Act of Mercy the Christ performed on behalf of all his followers when he granted forgiveness to all by his sacrifice.
4. Dhyani Mudra (Gesture of Meditation and Contemplation) – This mudra forms into a sort of bowl in your lap and is commonly used in meditation. This is symbolic of emptying yourself to be filled with light. The gifts of light might come in many forms, like expansion of consciousness, greater insight or ease of mind. The point is to let whatever comes come, and trust that you are being cared for. The hands and fingers form the shape of a triangle, which is symbolic of the spiritual fire within all of us. When we assume this classical meditation mudra, we are indicating to Spirit that we are ready allow the Divine Force to act within me and for me. It is an indication that we surrender to Divine Will.
5. Jnana Mudra (Gesture of Knowledge) – In Jnana mudra the hands are placed on the knees in seated meditation with the palms facing up. This mudra gives a feeling of spaciousness and has a subtle uplifting effect on the body and mind. In both Chin and Jnana mudra the connection made by the thumb and index figure is said to create a kind of circuit by connecting the terminus of certain nadi thus re-circulating the body’s vital energy. This mudra connects us on a subtle level to the vast body of spiritual knowledge in the Akasha (ether) and increases our spiritual wisdom.
6. Chin Mudra (Gesture of Consciousness) – This mudra is used in either seated meditation or pranayama such as ujjayi. The hands rest on knees or thighs facing down. This Gesture has a grounding effect on the mind.The middle finger, ring, and little finger represent the three classic qualities of all of nature (the Three Gunas). The middle finger symbolizes sattva, (purity, wisdom and true understanding) the ring finger rajas, (action, passion and movement) and the little finger tamas, (inertia, lethargy and darkness). Classically the yogi is meant to transcend these states, progressing from darkness into light and from ignorance to wisdom. This mudra symbolizes the connected nature of human nature (prakriti) to that of Divine consciousness (perusha) and that we strive for greater connection with the Divine.
7. Yoni Mudra also Uttarabodhi Mudra (Gesture of the Highest Enlightenment) – Yoni is the origin of life. The yoni is also considered to be an abstract representation of Shakti and Devi, the creative force that moves through the entire universe. This mudra connects us with the Mother Principle in the Universe and as such serves to inspire us. It connects us with the Divine Mother and as such to the creative force in the Universe. Yoni is our muse or Divine Inspiration.
8. Pran Mudra (Gesture of Life Flowing) – In this Mudra the tips of the thumb,ring finger and the little finger are touched together while keeping the other two fingers straight. It awakens the dormant power of prana within us and as such provides us with energy when we need it most. On a spiritual level it keeps us alert and helps us to maintain clarity during meditation. It anchors us in our meditation and as such strengthen our meditative resolve.
Spirit provided us with powerful communication tools, of which mudras are extremely powerful, but also safe to use. I encourage you to explore the use of mudras in your life and use them on a regular basis, they have a profound influence on your spiritual awareness and evolution.
If there is one idea in yoga philosophy that is difficult for most Western yogis to grasp and to get used to, it is the idea of Maya. Over the years as a yoga teacher I have come to realise that even harder than karma or reincarnation to digest, is the theory of Maya for Western yogis and I hope that this article will shed some more light on the subject for them.
Samkhya, also Sankhya, is one of the six (astika) schools of Hindu philosophy and classical Indian philosophy. Sage Kapila is traditionally credited as a founder of the Samkhya School. It is regarded as one of the oldest philosophical systems in India. Samkhya is an enumerationist philosophy that is strongly dualist. Samkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two realities; Puruṣa (consciousness or God) and prakriti (phenomenal realm of matter or nature). Jiva is that state in which puruṣa is bonded to prakriti through the glue of desire, and the end of this bondage is moksha(liberation).
From this dualistic view flows the idea of Maya. Maya is part of prakriti, it is the realm in which we as reincarnated souls function within the limits of our karma and Maya serves as the catalyst through which we can experience prakriti. However, Maya is also part of this bondage or Moksha and we need to remember that all these constructs, Prakriti, Maya and Moksha are not real, they are part of illusion, the unreal, hence the famous words from the Shanti Mantra: “Om asato maa satgamaya, Tamaso maa jyotir gamaya, Mrityor maa amritam gamaya” (Lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to immortality.) The only aspect that which is then real is Puruṣa as it is God or that part of us which is Light, Real and the only Truth.
The world of names, forms and constructions is then Maya. It is our human nature (prakriti) to names things, to put them in categories and to organise them down to the smallest atom and even name those atoms into smaller parts. And this is Maya, while in a body it has purpose and it helps us to make sense of a very complex world, but once we are dead this system has no use to us. We don’t know what awaits us on the other side and even if we will need these Maya constructs to function. It is generally accepted that we forget them as we exist then in Puruṣa, pure consciousness and there is no need for these constructs that we have created and learned while in prakriti.
The Western Dilemma
The main dilemma for most Western yogis are that we grow up with such a strong sense of our world and our bodies, that to tell us suddenly that your body is only an illusion is a bigger shock to the system than the law of karma. As one of my yogis once challenged me in class to come and feel, smell and even taste her body and tell me it isn’t real! For the Western mind the world around us is very real and no illusion, it is a place of joy and sorrow, ups and downs, love and hate and much more. So, to tell a grieving mother and yogi that the death of her 11 year old daughter is only an illusion is no comfort to such a person, but adds to the confusion and sorrow.
True vs. Truth
For me illusion or Maya is true as long as I have a physical body and ego! Yes, my body is true: – I can feel it, smell it, taste it and even sometimes hear it function. I can perceive my body with all my senses. My emotions, my nature, my personality, all these aspects of me and the world around me are true as well. There is no illusion in that. There is even no delusion in that as well. It is also true that we construct words and ideas to describe and categorise our world around us and these constructs are also true and necessary to function in Maya. It is important to realise that all of Maya is true; there is no need to deny our prakriti of even Maya, in doing so we delude ourselves even more and association with our ego becomes stronger.
But is it the Truth? No, it is not the ultimate Truth, this body, this world with all its constructs is not our ultimate Truth. It is not really who we are and that is the path of yoga, to guide us to understand that while Maya is true, Maya is not the Truth! The ultimate Truth, that which is Real, the Light, call it what you want, that is what Maya serves us to discover, Maya is the great reminder that while certain things are true, it is not the Truth and that we are on a path of discovery. The discovery we need to make within Maya is to realise the Truth – and at that a very hard thing to do as well. So Maya helps to differentiate between that which is true and the Truth.
In classical yoga the yamas-niyamas are very demanding obligations. They represent the yogi’s commitment to a life where ethics, discipline, constraint and self-control plays and integral part in the spiritual as well as mundane life of such a yogi. For the serious yogi they are his/her way of life and there is no negotiation. In Patanjali’s framework they are absolute in their compliance and meaning and very little room for interpretation.
In classical times, yoga used to belong to the sphere of the Ashram where monks and sannyasa (final stage of the ashramic life, total renunciation) and other spiritual aspirants practiced yoga. The yamas-niyamas were their guidelines for right conduct and they were prescribed and followed to the letter. However, by 1947 when India gained independence from Britain, yoga was practiced as an exception and not a rule. Many of the gurus and swamis of the time were extremely worried about the lack of interest in yoga in India during this time. This prompted great yogis to send disciples to the West to promote yoga and Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh to send his disciple Swami Vishnu-Devananda in 1957 with these words ‘many souls in the East are reincarnating in the West. Go and reawaken their consciousness and bring them back to the path of yoga.’ And the stellar growth of yoga in the West is from there astounding till this day.
But with it came a huge problem, many of the Western yogis were normal householders, they were married and many were initially part of the Hippie Movement in the 1960’s where especially the Brahmacharya yama was extremely problematic in an age of free sex. I have read many interpretations and as a teacher it remains the most difficult yama to explain to students who are married and have a duty and obligation towards their partner regarding sex. All the explanations of being constantly aware of the universe, immersed in divinity, divine conduct, continence, celibate when single, faithfulness when married etc. has never really satisfied me or my students and I hope my interpretation might add another view on this very important yama.
Unfortunately in the West we had mistaken the yamas-niyamas as a canon of behaviour, describing what is preferred and what is not. We have classified and codified them as superficial guidelines to regulate and explain certain behaviours, choices and even personality traits. The problem is they are not any of this, no matter how much we want them to be the above, the yamas-niyamas represent distinct classes of human manifestation and need not be narrowly interpreted as doing this or that.
Brahmacharya or “abstinence from sex” is a classic example of loss in translation. I do not think for one moment Patanjali was so naïve to overlook a need for the perpetuation of the human species and sex is the vehicle for that. I also am certain the Patanjali realised the pleasure factor that goes with sex. And in a way I think if he wrote the Yoga Sutras, which contains the yamas-niyamas, for the ordinary man, he would have most probably worded Brahmacharya completely different.
I think that Patanjali had no problem with sex between two people in a loving relationship per se. I think he most probably would understand the need for sex and also the pleasure we as humans derive from it. What I do think would have been problematic for Patanjali in this context would be total over indulgence and our mind’s attachment. And I think for that matter Patanjali would have a problem with over indulgence whether it was sex, eating, gambling, gossip, judging other, internet surfing, addiction or anything else.
One of the great pitfalls for many yogis is attachment. Our attachment to indulgence in anything is then a problem. For me in a modern Western context, Brahmacharya is then not a warning not to have a sexual life, but it is a warning against something much deeper – our attachment to such acts as sex and the pleasure we derive from it.
I know may yogis who are guilt ridden because they find Brahmacharya just so difficult to adhere to. This guilt burns them up and instead of becoming more joyful and contends with life, they fall into depression, anxiety and a life of guilt. They way out is to realise that Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras for a completely different audience than who is doing yoga today. I don’t even think that Patanjali contemplated the possibility of yoga in the West and how it morphed into different branches and styles. The way out is to understand the necessity for sex, but without the over indulgence and attachment to it.
On the social media networks, i.e. blogs, Twitter and Facebook, I recently followed a hot discussion about how to find the right yoga teacher and issues such as qualifications, ability to do intricate and all asanas, ability to explain yoga philosophy and to understand yoga in the larger “Hindu” context, all came up as relevant “qualifications” for a competent yoga teacher. The discussion even went so far as to discuss reasons for having an affair with your yoga teacher and then morphed into a discussion when and why you should dump your yoga teacher. The issue of one teacher versus a variety of teachers, styles and classes also came up for discussion.
However, the entire discussion failed to mention the role of the “student” in this whole process. Basic issues like the duties, responsibilities and commitments of the student were never even mentioned. No one touched on the inherent nature of the teacher/student relationship and the way we learn any discipline like yoga. Yes, yoga is a discipline and in the word discipline you can even read the word disciple and while most yoga students are looking for a teacher, most teachers are looking for disciplined disciples. The “teacher” question is handled more like I am going to shop something these days rather than this is my teacher, this is my student, what do we mutually bring to the mat – discipline and commitment.
- Interaction: You have shopped around, phoned a round and looked around and have been to a few classes and suddenly most students think they are now able to make a judgment based on a single interaction of not even two hours. Allow yourself plenty of interaction with your new or chosen yoga teacher before you decide he/she is not for me. Take at least a month and then make the decision.
- Senior in training and experience: Many students walk into a class and simply forget this simple fact; most teachers are still very much senior in training and experience. Period. And even though they might not be able to do all asanas, they do have an intimate knowledge about yoga and how it can help you.
- Odd and weird behaviour: So you have your eye on a teacher, but he/she has a few odd behaviours or he/she talks about topics such as karma and reincarnation and you don’t agree with it? This is the most dangerous trap you can fall into! To simply judge a teacher based on odd behaviour, they way they look or talking about stuff I don’t like or agree with, that is subjective and extremely short sighted and will rob you of the opportunity to actually learn something. To say that there is not a single thing to learn from any senior person is highly pretentious and makes such a person a ‘bad’ student.
- Your commitment: Regularity, urge to learn, passion for practice, humility, desire to transform, perseverance and much more is needed by a student to learn even from the ‘best’ teacher. Do you have these qualities? There are many yoga aspirants, but few yoga students and teachers are looking for those students who have the commitment to stay even in the face of the humiliation when the teacher starts to expose your ego.
- It is a spiritual path: Yoga is a spiritual path. You may wish to ignore it, you may think that you teach just asana, but eventually yoga leads to the spiritual even though you may just teach asana. One can see it as anything else only if there is an overriding personal agenda or a conditioned, anaemic view of spirituality. Unlike other religions, yoga upholds a 3-tier model of spirituality of which the physical is an integral part and gross asanas go hand in hand with subtle meditation. That’s why yoga can be viewed as absolutely material or absolutely esoteric or anything in between. Being essentially spiritual, a yoga teacher has to have a different kind of relationship with the students. A yoga teacher has to show a much deeper understanding of the psyche and the spirituality than physical wellness.
- Sharing insight: A yoga teacher has to go far beyond the qualifying few hundred hours of training and be open to the opportunity to learn and gain insight from your own practice every day and your students. If you think you are above learning then you are wrong and shouldn’t be teaching.
- You are the mirror: If you see your student only as a source of income, you have to think twice about why you are teaching. Yes, the exchange of energy, physical for monetary, is important, but you are the mirror for your students and as such a ‘source of redemption’. Can you reflect back to them and ensure that what they see is what they need to learn? And vice versa, can you look at them and see those aspects of yourself which they reflect back?
- End it now: A yoga teacher should know instinctively how far he/she can guide a student and at what point to hand over to the next teacher. If a student has any amount of discomfort it is the teacher who would know that first and care for it. A student is his/her ‘total’ responsibility. Such a teacher is called ‘guru’ and by that yardstick many certified teachers may be just ‘demonstrators’ of athletic skills. Like a true leadership is not residing in a leader but embedded in the followers’ mindsets, a yoga student’s allegiance to a teacher has to be born in the student’s self-view and not on a signed form. Know when to end the teacher/student relationship with a student, no matter how painful it may be.
All our learning is incremental. We learn a new thing only as an addition to the already known, and also use the known as a filter in the learning process. It is difficult to learn to learn; especially with the pedagogic constraints of school education. Mind plays a catalytic role as well as an indulgent one. So, in learning how we learn we have to use the mind to discover its mischief and finally keep the mind away. In the process we have to change our natural outbound orientation to inbound. An external teacher can help us tremendously in the external practice, but progressively less & less once the student is firmly rooted in the inner domain. In yoga too we get launched like a satellite; need a booster rocket of an external teacher for the initial lift off but the same rocket becomes a drag after reaching a desire altitude. Then, the teacher can only guide, protect and sync leaving the bulk to Ishvara, the inner guru. After all, yoga is considered largely a ‘process of unlearning’ and how will we ever begin to unlearn by not knowing how we learned in the first place.
Looking at it this way makes it easier to understand why the Vedic literature often assures us that ‘your guru will find you ’. It pays to take whosoever happens to be your teacher. Even an ‘apparently not-so-good teacher’ may fall in certain scheme of things, odd for common sense logic, but will enhance your yoga. Trying situations are meant to be teaching situations.
Wishing all aspirants well in their search for a teacher and all teachers well in their search for those committed yoga students.
With gratitude to Suhas Tambe, author of The Making of a Yoga Master: A Seeker’s Transformation.
If you read this post you most probably had one of two experiences while doing yoga:
1. You were extremely down before a yoga class and by the time you finished the class you are amazed by the fact that you feel emotionally refreshed, positive and uplifted.
2. You went to class in such a good mood, but during class you started to experience a swell of emotions which totally engulfed you to the point where you just started to breakdown and cry in class.
My own teacher Sri Durga told us that yoga has the uncanny ability to purify us on all levels and more so on the emotional level. We think that we have our emotions under control or that we have dealt with certain emotional issues in our lives, just to discover through yoga that in fact we haven’t. And if you haven’t, your yoga practice will bring forth those emotional issues until you have positively dealt with them. I am a great proponent of Louise L. Hay and her work on how our emotions affects our muscles, our internal organs and ultimately leads to dis-ease and illness. But, as a yoga teacher and practitioner I have learned how yoga can help us to face these emotional challenges and assist us to overcome them.
In Chinese medicine there are twelve main meridians. Along the path of the meridians, there are certain places where the energy pools, making the qi of the meridian more accessible there than at other places. These pools of energy are called acupuncture points. When we do asana in yoga, we either stretch or contract, putting pressure on or taking pressure of these points, affecting the flow of energy in our bodies. It is taught in yoga as in Chinese medicine that there are several emotions identified as having a specific attraction to particular organs. An excess of fear damages the kidneys. Too much anger damages the liver. Excess hate damages the heart, while grief in overabundance damages the lungs. Too much sympathy damages the spleen and sadness destroys the brain. Conversely, equilibrium in the emotions causes the body and its organ systems to work more efficiently.
It is therefore the natural teaching of yoga that every asana have an effect not only on the muscles but also on the emotions. When we awaken to the emotional side of yoga asana and accept the impact of asana on our emotional body, we become more sensitive, perceptive, and responsive to the emotional challenges we have to face both on and off the mat. According to Patanjali yoga asana is a position that is both steady and comfortable, a place where one can feel completely present. From this silent backdrop, we watch the agitated mind. Practice then becomes a purifying method of listening to the inner workings of the mind and emotions. It is important to be patient and compassionate with yourself even in the face of negative emotions leading the way. Don’t judge, but use discernment to enhance your awareness, in other words pay attention to your emotions and how they affect you. And remember above all you are not those emotions, you are merely going through that experience like going through a traffic crossing.
When we come to yoga we all approach yoga from where we are – some might be already flexible and find yoga a breeze, for the next person every asana may be extremely difficult to perform due to stiff and inflexible muscles, some already have severe back, neck, shoulder or hip issues and the next person might be diabetic or have heart issues. It is the intention of yoga to meet you where you are and working with you on all levels, including the emotional level. You may find that practicing downward facing dog pose deeply stretches the shoulders, the spine, hamstrings, feet, and the Achilles tendons, but we can also use this asana to decrease depression and anxiety. A simple asana such as cat-cow breathing can reduce fear. Supine twists are excellent asanas for relieving back pain, but they help us to accept our stresses in life and prevent us from feeling overwhelmed by all our challenges. So gradually you learn to relax, you learn to release the emotions through your sustained yoga practice in a positive and sympathetic environment and you learn that it is save to release those built up emotional tensions in your body, guiding you to greater equanimity, peace, harmony and tranquillity. The ripple effect of this release of even very deep and old emotions, will eventually lead to understanding our bodies and ourselves much better.
Your yoga experience is unique and highly individual according to your body, it follows that the affect on the emotional body or Manomaya Kosha will also be unique and individual, depending on where we store stress in our bodies. In yoga philosophy, we are taught that the emotional body has its own sheath or layer. The Manomaya kosha (sometimes called the astral body) houses all our emotions. When the emotions in this layer get stuck – fear, anger, sadness, joy, any emotion – they can cause energy to become trapped in the physical body, including the internal organs. While some people may manifest anxiety in the throat (i.e., have a difficult time expressing or voicing their emotions) others will experience that same stress in the digestive organs, or the liver (i.e, they have a hard time digesting their feelings as in “I can’t stomach this.”)
Our poses can strongly influence our emotional states. For instance, because of the expansive inhalation and opening of the chest, backbending, traditionally a stimulating practice, can elevate a low mood. Exhale-intensive poses such as forward bends tend to calm an agitated mind. In any balance practice, both inhale-oriented and exhale-oriented postures are executed in order to create equilibrium in the body and breath and to gain emotional harmony.
Examples of a few asanas and how they can deepen our understanding and awareness of our emotions:
- Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) or halasana (plow) help reverse energy blocks— inflexible thinking, stuck emotions, and feelings of sadness.
- Balasana (child’s pose) sends relaxing signals to both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- Garudasana offers relief to the scattered mind and works on the balance of the external and internal worlds.
- Marichyasana (sage pose) is one of yoga’s greatest harmonizers because it both calms the mind and releases sluggishness in the body.
- Janu shirshasana (head to knee) relieves feelings of anxiety, fearfulness, and stress. On each exhalation, let the torso sink further toward the legs.
- Dhanurasana (bow) helps stimulate the inhale and arouses the adrenal glands.
- Woodchopper assists in the emotional release of frustration and anger. While standing, lift your imaginary ax on your inhale, and with a forceful “Ha!” on the exhale, chop the imaginary wood between your legs.
Though every person’s experience of yoga is different, the following are some common emotions that arise in varying poses:
Forward bends – these asana can trigger a release of egocentric attitudes. They force us to face our fears as we turn inward. Those of us always looking behind to see what the world is up to will have difficulty in forward folds, and may have to confront emotions which have to do with surrendering to our own strength. Forward bends calms the mind and body and emotions and tends to bring greater understanding into our consciousness.
Backward bends – these asana are important when dealing with attitudes of embracing life – of being wide open to receive the good, bad and the ugly, to rise to life’s challenges. When practicing backbends, we may have to deal with emotions of being a doormat to others – literally bending over backward to please them, letting go of co-dependent patterns and building our own self-esteem without relying on others excessively to give us a positive self-image. Just as in forward folds, backbends can bring up fears associated to these emotional patterns. Those who are extremely shy or have had their heart broken repeatedly may feel feelings of sadness as psychic wounds of the heart are healed. Because we are exposing our whole self to the world in backbends, they can also bring up feelings of confrontation experienced in the past with the self or others. But on the plus side backbends tend to calm the mind and bring harmony and peace into the body.
Balancing asana – Have you ever noticed that your one side is sometimes more balanced than the other? In yoga philosophy the left side is the female side, it is the ida or moon side and deals with our more feeling and artistic expressions. The left side also deals with issues of the past. The right side is our male side, it is pingala or the sun side and the right side is more logic and calculated and deals with the present. Balancing asanas are extremely indicative of a person’s emotional state. Someone with an un-easy emotional state, or a mind busied with too many emotions, will find balancing poses very difficult. As they find equilibrium in these poses, whatever emotions that are causing the mind to become agitated may increase before subsiding to a more peaceful place. Balance poses help to build a calm, resilient, steady mind.
Twisting asana – as you may have imagined, these asana have to do with untangling the knots of life. All twisting asana initiate feelings of dealing with obstacles we face, and developing strength to face whatever comes our way. Twists, along with backbends give us more confidence through sustained practice, and develop overly introversive personalities.
Finally, inverted asana – when we practice these asana, we are literally turning the world on its head – changing our perspective completely, turning our behavioral patterns upside down. Inversions help us to see ourselves, and our world from a different angle, so you can imagine all the emotions that can arise from turning your whole perspective around. Inversions help to purify the mind and bring greater peace and calm even when our worldview feels shaken.
Finally a few pointers in assisting you to cultivate greater awareness of your body-emotion connection and dealing with them:
Practice Off the Mat – Notice the situations that cause you to become tense. Are you an anxious driver, talker, or worker? When you cook or do the dishes, does your back feel strain? Whether the tension is in the shoulders, neck, back, or navel center, practice moment-to- moment body awareness. This will help you cleanse your negative emotions and trapped issues so that they don’t find a permanent home in your body.
Wise Words – Following the path of yoga cuts through the roots of suffering. Hatha yoga teaches us control of breath and control of body. Through awareness we learn concentration, control of our thought patterns, and emotional control. The serious yoga practitioner will cling less to life’s negative matters, permitting the practice to have a levelling effect on the emotional body.
Frustration in the Body – When we feel frustrated, it generally means that we’re not flowing with the experiences of our lives. Instead we’re pushing away or resisting something. Frustration then collects in the body. Many of us feel it in the shoulders, neck, low back, and hips. Problems in the shoulders represent irritability and resistance to change. Issues in the back can be related to a repression or restriction in your life, hurtful issues from the past, or the need to carry the weight of the world. Repressed anger creates tension in the neck as you force your feelings down your throat instead of saying what you want to say. You can literally experience a pain in the neck from something or someone who makes you angry. The hips are related to general frustration. Notice the person who often stands with her hands on her hips. This is a gesture of feeling frustrated and out of control.
Feel what you have done – Whenever your teacher stops during class and ask you to feel what you have done, take that time and cultivate awareness of your emotions and body and how the influence each other.
Intention is everything – The natural outflow of awareness is intention. Set your intention for each yoga class to work through those emotional challenges your body manifest at that particular point in your life.
Breathe regularly deeply – The breath is everything, my teacher used to say. Cultivate breath awareness and learn to breathe deeply into your belly, putting all of your awareness into the breath. Feel all the emotions of your respiratory system—the air in the nostrils, throat, and chest, the belly and chest rising. Feel the rib cage expanding to the front, to the sides beneath the armpits, and all the way into the lower back. Gently move your attention from your mental state to your breath so that you can more easily observe and step back from your emotions.
Embracing Change – Change is one of the most difficult aspects we have to face on a daily basis. Through the practice of yoga, we awaken to how life unfolds moment by moment. Things are constantly changing—the breath, your state of mind, the phases of the moon, the seasons. This can be both a profound revelation—life is like a flower that blooms continuously—and a harsh reminder that nothing lasts forever. Even your body will let you down in the end.
When we resist change, the ego will try to hold on to the body as it is. Consequently the body contracts and tenses, and the natural flow of energies slows down or may stop completely, creating blocks in the form of a tight hip or frozen shoulder. That’s why until we accept the changes that occur from day-to-day and from year to year, and until we surrender to the natural course of existence, little progress can be made along the path of yoga.
Asana practice shows us how our bodies, minds, and the world around us are constantly changing. Today, through breath, patience, and a watchful eye, we’ll honour our changes from movement to movement and embrace the reality of change.
- Embracing change creates ease and freedom in your world.
- The only constant is change.
- Give yourself room for expansion. Give yourself room to change.
- Allow change to happen to you. Don’t resist it.
- Sunrise and sunset are obvious reminders of change.
- May we learn to accept life’s constant changes.