This weekend at a lunch invitation at the table the conversation turned to what you do as there were a few new faces around the table. I am yoga teacher and chef, I explained and the immediate response as usual is firstly disbelief, I am a kapha body and most can’t imagine me doing even a forward bend and then follow the “yes, I always wanted to do yoga, where do I start?”
And, my advice is always the same, find a good beginner’s or foundation Hatha yoga class where the class is sympathetic to you and your body, go with an open mind and heart and stick to it for at least 3 months before you decide yoga is not for you.
Invariably, they don’t always listen.
Most decide that they can’t make the designated beginner’s class as the time slot don’t suit them or some other excuse and they go to an intermediate or advance hot Bikram or Asthanga class and walk away wondering why anybody ever subjects her/himself to that kind of torture.
Others find an intermediate or advanced class, go and go until it’s not entirely torture anymore, but inevitably develop bad habits like holding sloppy postures or taking shortcuts. Bad habits lead to injury, injury leads to disillusionment, and disillusionment leads to skulking back to the gym classes with a completely wrong impression of what yoga is supposed to be.
Some do take my advice and start with a low impact or no-heat beginner’s class. In the 21 years that I have been doing and teaching yoga it has been my experience that everyone who I allowed to join my advanced classes as a beginner, don’t last and they never return to yoga. Those who stick are those whom I started out as beginners, I have build them up and slowly allow them to do more yoga. There is much to learn and to understand and this is the purpose of my beginner’s class, to slowly serve as an induction for at least a year into yoga and to build you up according to your body and where you are.
Here’s why new yogis need to start as beginners:
- Yoga is a skill you learn
If you were going to the gym for the first time, you can’t just walk in and start using the equipment and lifting 100kg weights, you will hurt yourself. Just as you need guidance and an instructor to show you how the equipment work and give you a plan according to which you must develop, the same goes for yoga. You need time to learn the asanas, the lingo, the rules and limitations of your body and this is a time consuming exercise.
During the first month or so of your yoga practice, you will be watching and learning more than ever before in your life. In the beginner’s class everybody is in the same boat, and this makes the class easier actually. Give your teacher a chance to show you, listen and learn and remember. Be patient. Be humble. Be present. Yoga, more than almost any other activity, is about non-competition. It’s about meeting your body where it’s at, no matter what anyone else around you is able to do.
- Yoga is different.
We are all beginners for the rest of our lives. I learn every week something new, as I grow older now, I have to learn how to adapt my practice to suit my body and age. There is no end goal in yoga. In the beginning you arrive at a class due to a back ache or you want to increase flexibility or you want to loose weight, doesn’t matter, be open, your expectations will change as you do yoga. Your learning curve is forever in yoga, there is no end to what you will discover and learn. Start at the very beginning and be ready to never stop learning. If you do anything less, you will be robbing yourself of the limitless lessons yoga has to offer.
- Yoga injuries suck.
Period. If you rush your own process, over-exert, ignore your pain, or compete with your classmates, you’ll almost certainly get hurt. And you’ll blame yoga, probably never return to it, and that will be a darn shame. The beginner class is sympathetic, it allow you to do what you can with what you have. There is now pushing, no forcing, just allowance for slow evolution at your own pace.
- The breath is the thing.
Pranayama is the in and out breaths I teach you with every asana. Most of us need to learn again how to just breathe in and out, this is a skill that you must re-learn again. Starting slow will prove that to you. A good beginner class instructor will remind you of the breath frequently, encourage you to return to your breath, and remind you to rest as much as you need.
- You risk missing the point.
When you start in an advanced or intermediate class you risk missing the point of yoga. An advanced class may be so intimidating, too much for you to take in that your mind and heart goes into shutdown mode and you miss the beauty of yoga. All you see and remember was how hard and difficult it was, the intense pain you experience two days later, resentment against me as a teacher because I don’t want to allow you to do more that once a week yoga and between all of this, you are missing the beauty of yoga. The purpose of yoga is to find focus. The purpose of finding focus is to find peace, and to keep growing within that new peace.
This isn’t to say that all the other things you thought yoga would do for you won’t come to pass. Because of yoga, I am stronger than I’ve ever been and rarely get injured anymore. Because of yoga I don’t have agonising back ache anymore and the list goes on.
But none of those things will happen if yoga becomes just another of a long list of things you “have to do” to lose 10 kilos or to heal your back. Who needs another one of those? If yoga becomes something you have to recover from because you over-did it, it can never become the wonderful nurturing thing you do for yourself.
And that’s what it’s supposed to be.
New Beginner’s Class 2019
Start 8 January 2018 | 17:30 – 19:00 | Queenswood, Pretoria | Cost R330 pm
To Enroll, send me an email from the Contact Page.
I am not going to use this post to sing the praises, the headstand or any inversion for that matter. There are enough articles on the net that do that. Just Google “headstand” and you will find the one site after the other that will tell you of the many benefits. There are also many contra-indications and one of them is that the headstand is not recommended for people with high blood pressure. I am suffering from high blood pressure and I am on medication, as my doctor once said to me, as long as the blood pressure is under control, you can pretty much do any yoga asana you like. I am following my doctor’s advice and I do at least once a week a headstand for a few minutes. I belief it does help to manage my high blood pressure.
However, this post is about an aspect, a benefit of the headstand or inversion of which very few article will refer to. I want to start at that amazing event in every human’s life, being conceived and born into this world with your unique set of karmas & samskaras and reincarnating into a life full of endless possibilities. However to be born into this life, we need to leave the comfort and safety of our mother’s womb and this is where an amazing evolutionary event happen, we need to do a headstand to basically get into this world! Jip, think about it, you were born into this world upside-down. An inversion was the very first thing you did to enter this life.
And this is where the miracle of life already starts, in order to enter this world, we had to turn our world around. In order for you as a new human to this planet you had to change not only your physical position to enter this world, but also your mental view to prepare your self for the challenges of this life.
Say hello to your dose of endorphins when you do an inversion. Yes, the brain releases feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins when you invert your body and this in turn assist you to be calm and collected when you need to make those big important decisions.
Apart from changing your point of view, an inversion help us to concentrate and to really focus on what is at hand. It help us to sustain our concentration and to direct all our energy to the challenge or obstacle in front of us. An inversion align the mind in such a way that we can then think creatively about the issue in hand and find a solution flowing from a space of inner calmness.
Increased body awareness.
Ever get into an asana and think, I have no idea where my feet are right now? Inversions are notorious for this. However, inverting your body not only invert the body and your awareness of your body, but also your mind. Your mind has to literally think differently when you invert and this is a valuable asset you have in problem solving. Figuring out where the body is in space is a beautiful practice in cultivating spacial awareness. Figuring your problems out while there, that is just as special and amazing.
Enhanced focus on the present.
When we worry we usually either retreat to the past to find solace or we rush into the future to seek the solution or to escape. Inversions have the power to bring you into the moment, into the here and now and to confront everything right here and now. It’s hard to do anything else when upside down! Staying grounded, calm, focused, breathing slowly and remaining present are truly the only ways to stick an upside-down asana, but while there, things do change, so that when we come down, our world might look different, we might think different. Inversions release the mind and allow it the freedom to think differently.
Therefore, if you ask me how to approach your problems, how to find a solution, my advice will always be, do an inversion or two.
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.
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 go onto many yoga websites and especially yoga forums and start to read through the issues and comments and pay attention to who publish them, one soon realises that there are two huge misconceptions prevalent under most users. The first misconception under Westerners is that yoga is just a set of exercises and they don’t want to acknowledge or have anything to do with the spiritual side of yoga. The second misconception is prevalent under the Asian users, especially Indian, who think that yoga in the West has been perverted to a set of exercises only by those who want to line their pockets. Both misconceptions of course carry some truth in it, but both also generalise tremendously.
My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to say that it doesn’t matter for what reason you practice yoga, whether it is purely as exercise or for more, the spiritual impact and implication of yoga on your soul is inevitable. I am doing yoga now for 14 years of which I am teaching 6 years. In all these years I have seen it over and over how people come to me for yoga and they are only interested in the physical exercise aspect, but end up so absorb and enchanted by their spiritual growth en newly found spirituality. At this point I usually remind my students that yoga is a process of transformation and every aspect of you are touched by that transformation, you cannot avoid it, as sure as the sun will rise and set, so sure this will happen.
Why does this happen? All beings strive to attain and maintain a level of happiness and in yoga this happiness is referred to as Ananda or Bliss. The truth about Ananda is that it cannot be acquired through education, wealth, toys and gadgets or the fulfilment of other earthly desires through entertainment. But Ananda is achieved through a spiritual practice and discipline such as yoga and the spiritual practices associated with yoga such as meditation, satsang, karma yoga, bhakti yoga and more.
When students become aware of this spiritual growth and evolution in themselves, they usually ask me what they can do to ensure greater progress and maintaining this level of Ananda. As with most things in life, we needs rules and discipline to ensure that we hold onto that what we have achieved and spiritual progress ask for a spiritual practice which is aligned to a few basic principles. These are my basic principles and I trust that you will find their value in your own life as well as they have proof themselves over the years to be highly effective:
1. The summit of the mountain is the same for all
When we start out at the foot of the mountain we are usually not even aware that just a few metres away somebody else is also starting to climb the same mountain. The paths start far apart, but as we progress up the mountain and the paths draw closer to each other and the summit, we suddenly realise we are not alone on the mountain. There are others as well and we all are heading to the same place – the Divine.
It is important to recognise that there are as many spiritual paths as there are people. As a yogi and spiritual traveller we need to understand this and respect each path as truth, no matter how much we might feel that ours is the one and only and correct path. The notion of correctness must be abandoned and replaced the awareness that all is appropriate.
In a spiritual context each of us is a unique blend of the the following parameters.
- According to the composition of the 3 subtle basic components (Trigunas) i.e. whether one is sattvic, rajasic or tamasic by nature.
- According to the five cosmic elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether)
- According to the degree to which, different aspects of spiritual practice, have been completed in prior births.
- According to the individual karmic account of give-and-take, destiny and wilful action.
- According to our temperament – person may also adopt a certain path depending on his/her temperament.
2. Our essence is One
For many Western yogis who come from a Christian background this is an easy concept to understand and grasp as we grow up with the notion that God is One. From a spiritual point of view we have to take it a step further. We need to realise that “the kingdom of heaven is within us” and as such our essence is the same even though we may differ on the outside. The underlying awareness is that we are ALL Divine in essence and that we need to recognise the Divinity in each other and respect it.
Just as we realise that the true essence of the gold earring, necklace and armband is gold, although each looks different and functions differently, we recognise and realise that the underlying truth of those items, their commonality, is gold.
3. Progressing from gross (tangible) to subtle (intangible)
As we progress on our path the next step is to cultivate awareness regarding the states of existence around us. If we want to make progress we need to transform our spiritual practice by going from just physical actions to a practice at a more subtle level. A subtle spiritual practice is more powerful than a gross one.
To explain: Sometimes you will meet a person at a meeting, you will shake hands with that person and will be courteous and cordial even to the point where others around you might think you two are good friends and like each other. However, the physical display of friendship was merely a façade from both sides in order to get a favourable outcome to the meeting. On the other hand, two people may feel genuine goodwill towards each other, even though there may be no physical contact.
Likewise, when it comes to practicing Spirituality, simply going through the motions of external ritualistic worship (gross level), with no devotion, needs to be replaced by having real inner devotion to the Divine and an intense desire for spiritual growth (subtle level).
4. Your spiritual practice must reflect your inner level
This is one of the great dangers of the spiritual path and can throw many off the path if they are too impatient initially on the spiritual path. I have seen this many times, people discover their spiritual path and the more you as the teacher try to caution them to take it slowly, the more they push forward. It is like going to school, just because you can suddenly read and write doesn’t mean you can now skip grades and progress instantly from grade 3 to grade 6! Many aspirants look at the teacher and think teacher has attained his/her level overnight, not realising that their teacher and fellow travellers are on their own paths for years now already.
However, for the patient student who is willing and prepared to follow the teachings of their teacher, progressing according to their spiritual ability and capacity, the reward at the end is great. Just as we must heed against impatient and forced development, so we must heed against getting stuck on one level of our spiritual practice as well.
Let us go through the various stages of development from the more gross forms of worship to the more subtle forms as per the level of the seeker:
- At an initial level, we feel that we can make contact with the Divine, only by going to a place of worship and through praying to a statue of God or a Divine being.
- As we progress the next steps is when we feel a connection with the Divine, not just through rituals, but through reading spiritual books whilst sitting in the place of worship, while doing yoga or just watching nature.
- Usually the next step is that we even feel that words are too gross and we become aware of the “vibrations” of a place. Just experiencing the vibrations in a church, temple or at a spiritual place such as the Buddhist Retreat in Ixopo or going to India are enough to spiritually nourish a person.
- After that we do not need to even go to a place of worship but can experience the Divine in the beauty of Nature, high up in the mountains, at a serene lake, watching a bird feed or the sun setting.
- At an even higher level, we do not need nature anymore but can experience the Divine even in daily living and at great will. No matter where you are, there is a quit presence within that permeates all in your life now.
5. Making your spiritual jumps now
The parable of the sower in the Bible immediately comes to mind here. I know many would like to read this parable as an indication that karma and reincarnation is present in Christian dogma and I am myself very partial to it. However, I also feel this parable has a deeper lesson for us and that is that we need to understand that there is an appropriate time for all things to happen in life. If seeds are sown in the dry months instead of the rainy season, then we will have no harvest. Similarly on the spiritual path, certain spiritual practices are more conducive according to the time (yuga) or era we live in.
Yuga in Hindu philosophy is the name of an ‘epoch’ or ‘era’ within a cycle of four ages. These are the Satya Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dvapara Yuga, and finally the Kali Yuga. According to Hindu cosmology, life in the universe is created and destroyed once every 4.1 to 8.2 billion years, which is one full day (day and night) for Brahma. The lifetime of Brahma may be 311 trillion years. The cycles are said to repeat like the seasons, waxing and waning within a greater time-cycle of the creation and destruction of the universe. Like Summer, Spring, Winter and Autumn, each yuga involves stages or gradual changes which the earth and the consciousness of mankind go through as a whole. A complete yuga cycle from a high Golden Age of enlightenment to a Dark Age and back again is said to be caused by the solar system’s motion around another star. Currently we are in the Kaliyug and as such we are very far from the Sun. The ages see a gradual decline of dharma, wisdom, knowledge, and intellectual capability, and life span, emotional and physical strength, here follow a brief explanation of each yuga:
Satya yuga: This was a very pure era when the average spiritual level of a person was 70% (this is the level of a Saint). These people were so pure spiritually that the Path of Knowledge was best suited to them as they had the potential to spontaneously understand the implied meanings of all the spiritual scriptures.
Treta yuga: This was the era when the spiritual level of the average person dropped to 55% and so they lost their potential to follow the Path of Knowledge. But they were spiritually capable enough to undertake penance (the kind that allowed a seeker stand on one foot for 12 years) and meditation (the kind that made a seeker meditate long enough for an ant hill to grow all over him).
Dwapara yuga: In this era, there was a further decline in the average spiritual level to 35%. People lost their potential for rigorous penance and sustained meditation. Thus it was Divinely ordained that they would be able to make progress through ritualistic worship. These rituals and sacrificial fires (yadnyas) were very time consuming and laborious as they had to be done after searching for the right ingredients. Along with this there were numerous steps that had to be followed to the last detail. But in this era people were religious-minded enough to spend the time, effort and money to do these rituals.
Kali yuga: This is translated as the ‘Era of strife’ and is the current period. The average person’s spiritual level has dropped to only 20%. Our capacity to do any of the above spiritual practices has greatly reduced. But considering the turbulent times we live in and the extent of the spiritual pollution we experience – the Divine has made a simple provision for us to still grow spiritually. And as Sri Durga always pointed out, your greatest spiritual jumps you can make in the kaliyug as the opportunity to grow spiritually is also magnified for those who stick to their path and their discipline.
6. Give according to your talent
All of us have some kind of resources at our disposal. A basic principle in spiritual practice is that we use these same resources to serve the Divine as part of our spiritual practice and grow spiritually. The resources we have fall broadly into four categories: our body, our wealth and worldly connections, our mind and intellect and lastly our sixth sense.
We can use our body to serve the Divine by for example cleaning a venue before a yoga practice or spiritual lecture starts. We can use our body to drive other seekers to the venue or we may offer our body to assist with the lecture or teaching.
When we are unable to offer our body, we can offer our financial resources as way to serve the Divine. We can help to pay for others who don’t have enough, we can ensure that out contributions to our spiritual teachers and institutions are regular and on time in order for them to serve us spiritually.
It is important to apply your good intellect and mind to spiritual practices that may advance others on the path. For example, you can be a guest writer on a blog such as this one if you feel you have something to share, or you can share your knowledge and experience of yoga and spiritual forums.
Lastly, all of us were born with a sixth sense; some just allow it to develop further than others. If you are gifted with a strong sixth sense the onus is on you to use it to facilitate spiritual growth in yourself and others.
The spiritual path is like any other path, there are signs that will indicate where you must go now or what you must do next. Some signs will stop you for a while and then there may be obstacles on your path which will require much effort and persistence to overcome. Sometimes there are exits on the path and we are tempted to take those exist, but I implore you to stay on your chosen path. If you cannot even see you hand in front of you so thick is the fog on your spiritual path, realise that you are not alone and ask for help as well sometimes or accept help when it is offered – it might just clear the fog for you. Stay on your path, but if you need to change tyres or even the vehicle, then follow your instinct and do it.
Same on the spiritual path, to make progress we must traverse all the signs, obstacles, spiritual potholes and other conditions to make progress. Sometimes we need to change from one teacher to the next, but ensure that it will further you on the path. Sometimes your own teacher might give you warnings about upcoming dangers, heed these and don’t think your teacher is just difficult or feeble. However, also take time to enjoy the journey, stop sometimes and remember to just breathe as well!
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.