The Space Between

Hamsa .. the singular mantra that every breathing being is born and dies with.

 

Ham is our first breath from the womb.

Sah is our final relaxation as we shed the body.

 

Traditional Yoga relates that Yoga occurs ‘between the breath’, or the natural retention of  the breath (kumbhaka).   Due to a misunderstanding, many will hold their breath, seeking the elusive sensation of Yoga.

 

Think on this:

First there is birth and with it, our first breath .. Ham.

Then there is death and with it, our last breath .. Sah.

What occurs between those two is life .. or the retention / kumbhaka.

 

This is no mystery.  Breath naturally falls into three parts: inhale, retention, exhale .. repeat.  So lets look at it another way ..

Beginning, Now, End

Morning, Noon, Night

Below, Middle, Above

Child, Adult, Senior

.. and the list can go on.

 

Poetically, yes, ‘life occurs between breaths’, but from a practical perspective, it means the entirety of our life and the stillness of our life.

 

Yet another poetic expression is that Hamsa means “goose, swan”, and in Traditional Yoga is a symbol of vitality, purity, divine knowledge, prana, and highest spiritual accomplishment.  As a mantra its role is said to encapsulate all the Upanishads (practical wisdom teachings), specifically:

Hamsa = I Am That

Soham = That I Am

So with every breath we are affirming: I Am That, That I Am!

 

As a Westerner, when I think of ‘swan’ I think of Mother Goose and the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.   Mother Goose is either an old, wise woman, or a bonnet wearing goose that dispenses wisdom; she is a fertility goddess, a giver of life, wellbeing and nourishment.  Likewise, the goose gifted its golden egg – divine aid – only to the most humble.  Additionally, in Western mythology, the stork / swan / goose delivers a new born baby, whereas in Traditional Yoga the supreme swan is a degree of highest emancipation.  So there again, where East meets West, is the Beginning / Ham, and the End /Sah.

 

Back to the Middle .. our life is filed with business, working, learning, studying, all on several levels of consciousness.  All this amounts to experience, and the more experience we can have during a lifetime – the space between breaths – and approach these experiences in a positive manner, the more capable we are of balancing the instinctive with the intellectual, the better able we are to mold the atoms / Atman (soul) so that it aligns with the spiritual force that is the Absolute Reality.

 

You see .. the instinctive mind will re-act and resent some experiences, and the intellectual mind will rationalize others, but when we tame the two, we find the middle ground – Raja, Tao, Middle Way – of the superconscious , which is the gateway to our spiritual self.

 

Ham = instinctive

Sah = intellectual

the Still Quiet Center = our true self

 

So it is that we should identify with the kumbhaka, the retention, the pause between breaths, for therein lies true Yoga.

 

Prem and Metta!

Yogini Devi

 

Upward Facing Dog

Upward Facing Dog is not Cobra.  However, it does begin that way, then takes its own unique route.

Think of Urdhva Mukha Svanasana / Upward Facing dog as a suspension bridge, where the arms, forearms and shoulders are the support on one side, and the knees, ankles and feet are the support on the other side.  The suspended portion being the  chest, abdomen, pelvis and thighs.

Like my post on Headstand, there are STAGES to Upward Facing Dog (UFD).   And as with Headstand, there are FOUR Stages.

As with Cobra, UFD begins with the chin on the floor, hands at chest level, but slightly lower than what you would have for Cobra.   The top of the feet are on the floor and the great toes touching.

Just as with Cobra, pull/drag the body slightly forward, THEN lift the head and shoulders upward.  At all times, the lower body should be  engaged, so not slack/relaxed.  In this way, as soon as you reach the edge of your upward lifting in the spine/back, the elbows fully extend so that the upper body is now supporting the entire body.

Again, the entire body is engaged .. do not relax the lower body here.   Now .. at this juncture .. lift the heart/chest higher than the shoulders .. or, another way to look at it .. allow the shoulders to relax downwards so their natural triangulated point aligns with the kidneys, activating the Pranic line.

That is STAGE ONE.

Now – and again, with the entire body engaged – flex the feet so the toes are on the floor .. one at a time.  The knees stay down at this time, so take a moment to adjust the foot position.   This is STAGE TWO .. where the gastrocnemius and the quadriceps are working as antagonists.  Lol .. or, if your gonna cramp, its gonna be here.

The relationship between these two .. the calves and quads .. determines how far the pelvis will be able to relax or assume its suspended position.  Which is also directly related to any stress one may experience due to underdeveloped calves, quads or pelvic bowl.

Remember, STAGES are essential because they allow us to GRADUALLY develop, instead of simply coming into a pose and injuring our self.  Further, in gradual development, we are better able to sense then be aware of Prana, which allows us to then begin its cultivation and storage.

Next, slowly lift the knees off the earth, so that the entire body is suspended.   This is also where the ‘middle’ part of the body (not hands/arms/shoulders, and not ankles/feet) becomes ‘soft’ or suspended.

This is STAGE THREE, and where one can also play/layla with having either the goes curled under or with the tops of the toes on the earth (body still suspended).   The latter is far more challenging in that the urge is to return to a tense position (or Cobra).

As in all Yoga poses, breathing is CRITICAL.   In fact, this is the first line that demarcates physical exercise from Yogic exercise.  In this case, breath in Cobra is NOT the same as breath in Upward Facing Dog.

And herein begins STAGE FOUR .. gently swaying side to side or forward and back, as a suspension bridge would.   In fact, just like in Downward Facing Dog .. Western Yoga has long forgotten the Traditional Yoga wisdom that teaches how both Dog poses are BREATHING poses.   Otherwise, it is this swaying / suspended movement that opens the thoracic inhalation and exhalation, allowing the spine to deepen into the Wheel (backbend) movements.  This is what makes Upward Facing Dog – when done properly, as described above – so beneficial in helping those with stiff spines open into the more challenging backward bending poses.

Prem and Metta!

Yogini Devi

Headstand

I started practicing Yoga at 11, so doing a Headstand was something I never thought about .. I just did it.

In my 20s, after my grandmother had a quadruple heartpass surgery, at her request, I taught her Yoga.  She loved headstands.  She told me once that she really enjoy Sun Salutations and Headstands.   She would use her kitchen timer to keep track of both.  She lived to see 100.

 

Even so, Headstands should never be approached lightly.  Honestly, Ive met more than my fairshare of Yoga teachers who dont teach it because they simply dont know how.  This is why its best to learn from someone who does them routinely .. like from myself!

 

The key to Headstand is anatomy and physiology.  Again, most Yoga teachers I know dont teach it because they have either never been taught to do it correctly (so it hurts), or they have tried independent of a qualified teacher, and hurt their self.

For example, a safe – and true – Headstand begins on the CROWN, which is the highest point of the cranium.  Next, there are STAGES that MUST be employed.  The majority of Headstands I see .. no one gets the head position right, and no one employs any stages.

Now, back to anatomy and physiology.  The commonly held view .. that the vertebral bodies and intervertebral disks support the body .. is inaccurate.  More accurately, it is the ENTIRE vertebral, intervertebral, vertebral arches, joints, muscles and connective tissue that is responsible for bearing the bodies weight – so that the comparatively small size of the cervical vertebral is not as critical as previously (or commonly) thought.

The second sort of Headstand is the BREGMA, which is located approximately 1″ in front of the Crown.  The two are similar yet different.  For example, the Crown is the traditional Yoga position, whereas the bregma is almost a different pose altogether.   From an energy/Pranic perspective – which all true Yoga incorporates, versus just doing the physical movement alone – the Bregma is a more dynamic (perhaps even ‘flashy’, show-off, sort of lift.

Back to energy/Prana, the Bregma also has a more dynamic effect on our consciousness (compared to the Crown lift).  Now, this doesnt necessarily equate to ‘better’.  For example, the Bregma lift is more akin to an inverted backbend (as seen in Scorpion, for example), whereas the Crown lift is what brings the calm serenity so often mentioned in the ancient Yoga texts.  Both are accurate but have different Pranic ramifications.

Prem and Metta!

Yogini Devi

Warm Up Like a Yogi

The recommendation of ‘come to class at least 10 minutes early’ is not just to get-in and get-settled, but an opportunity to get ready.

 

Mentally, we get ready by, first .. being in class.  Many of us rush to get here, or get stuck in traffic so are frazzled, or had a bad day so are fried.  Getting to class early allows us to mentally decompress.

 

Physically, we have an opportunity to warm-up.

 

‘Warmth’ in Yoga is from two fires:

-breathing / prana / heating the internal body,

-poses / asana / gentle stretching prior to the routine.

 

Think about it: If you are doing Yoga then you are looking to develop Yoga within your body, mind and spirit .. so why should your warm-up be any different than a Yogis?

 

Next you come to class, get there early and start doing Ujjayi Pranayama combined with some spontaneous asanas.  You can still chat with the student next to you – and you may even enourage them to join you!

Yoga Shala on Facebook

DVDs and Real Yoga

I recently came across this article: The Poverty of DVD Yoga.

I agree with this essay, that DVDs are a product, but do feel they can be a “mode of instruction”, just not where Yoga is concerned.

Yoga is one-on-one teaching, where the teacher and student (guru and chela [1]) form a direct line of communication.  Human to human contact is the bedrock upon which the foundation of Yoga is built.

Watching a DVD can never replace the direct experience of the teacher, and the individual unfoldment of the student.  During a Yoga class, ideas burst forth like mushrooms after a rain; and over time, individual dawning of conscious expression reveals itself in every aspect of being.  So no matter where the student finds themselves – driving to work, dropping the kids off to school, doing the dishes, cooking supper, walking the dog – they will gradual manifest the presence of mind that is Yoga.

A Yoga DVD is not a teacher.

Because Hatha Yoga in the West is primarily a physical practice (in some cases, a sole practice), DVD sales have sky rocketed.  And because personal lessons can be learned from them, those who buy DVDs have concluded that they are learning Yoga through them.

They are mistaken.

They are indeed experiencing physical fitness, and so a physical benefit, but this is but one facet – the least of which – that is Yoga.  In fact, any physical practice learned from a DVD – dance, aerobics, Chi Gung, and the like – will have a similar effect when the student’s mind is receptive to the subject.  But simply being receptive to a thing does not make one a student of that thing, let alone able to expand past the perimeters of that thing.

For example, when my students ask what DVDs I recommend I tell them ‘none’.  DVDs are strictly physical, so that when watching, the owner of the DVD simply mirrors the movements seen.  This can be harmful in several ways.  Not only can the watcher hurt them self in a singular pose, but they may also create injury through repeatedly making the same mistake.  Then, through repeated mistakes in movement, they create habit, which as we all know, are difficult to break free from.  So when the DVD practitioner meets a Yoga teacher, they must first be taught to break free from a harmful habit before they can learn the correct way of movement.  This can create mental turmoil in the way of ego, where the student feels they are doing it right and the teacher is wrong, so they will resist the one-on-one instruction either consciously or unconsciously on both a physical and mental level.

And this is just one example – a physical one that but briefly touches upon the realm of mind.

So when my students ask me to recommend a DVD for home practice, I suggest they do at home what they learn in the Shala.  When they relate that they cannot always remember the many steps that are necessary in the correct approach to any given pose, I tell them to move freely, to follow that feeling they get while at the Shala.  I tell them to follow that intuitive sense of ‘rightness’ they experience when they are in a pose under my keen eye.

This cannot be had from a DVD.

Hatha Yoga is a physical practice, as seen in the word hatha [2], but this should not be mistaken to mean that it exists outside of Yoga; hence the inclusion of the word.

Hatha Yoga has, from its timeless past, been a teacher-student practice.  It was meant from its beginning to be a means of building an interpersonal relationship.  First, teachers must be capable, which means identified by their teacher as ready to teach.  Then the student must be capable, which means receptive to learning, to include situational constraints where applied by a teacher.

What most in the West fail to realize is that only through a teacher-student relationship is the student able to work independently.  Instead, the student may think, “I can do it myself, I don’t need a teacher to show me how.”

If Yoga was a practice that one was literally born to – that one was as familiar with as the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat, then they would know the need for a teacher.

The one-on-one approach in the teacher-student model is not just advantageous for the student but for the teacher as well.  At the most basic level, the teacher learns from the student.  This happens when the teacher listens to the student, considers what they (the teacher knows), then relates that in a way the student can understand.  For myself, I have explained the same concept hundreds of different ways, all to aid the individual student I am speaking with understand the basic concept I am relating.  Simply put, we all do not learn the same way, so being a teacher means being fluid enough to adapt and adjust their knowledge in such a way to make it understandable to any given student.

A DVD cannot do this.  In fact, after a few viewings it becomes repetitive, so boring to the student; and before long, sits on the shelf collecting dust.  Perhaps next to the other objects the student has bought in an attempt to learn something.

This cannot happen in a teacher-student relationship simply because there is no repetition in a true Yoga class.  Sure, the student may come in and expect to do certain things – such as Surya Namaskara or Ujjayi Pranayama – but between the keen eye of the teacher and the ever growing receptivity of the student, coupled with their mental ‘frictive / hatha’ force, what may look the same on the outside is far from it on the inside.

And it is only under direct teaching that this situation can occur, can truly be experienced (let alone understood by merely reading these words).

Another challenge with DVDs is that they are being churned out by fitness trainers (Jillian Michaels, Denise Austin, Kathy Kaehler or Mandy Ingber [3]); and not much better, those so called ‘yogis’ who have DVDs (Ana Brett and Ravi Singh, Trudie Styler, and Rodney Yee, to name a few [4]).

There exists a unique chatter within a Yoga Shala [5], one that both supports and ensures the learning process.  A true Yoga Shala is a place of learning, growing, laughing and crying, where topics range from why the ‘splits’ are named after Hanuman, or the internal application of ‘energy locks’, to the importance of what the students had for lunch, to the many applications of breathing outside the Shala, to how one’s pets do Yoga, to the Yamas and Niyamas, to the nature of illness, to Ahimsa and Tantra, to Kundalini and Raja Yoga, to the mass marketing of Yoga products, to the integral steps involved in every Yoga pose, and so much, much more.

And it is this level of intimacy which allows for individual interaction, or the rich soil from which the seed of true Hatha Yoga can be properly nourished and grown.

Likewise, from which a student becomes trapped / confused into thinking that their fitness instructor is the ‘only’ or ‘best’ teacher.  I’ve seen this over the years: Where a student takes gym yoga and thinks this is the only way, or that their fitness trainer is actually passing on Yoga wisdom to them.  They are mistaken.

Hatha Yoga’s ancient poses are seen today in marketing – from TV commercials to glossy magazine ads – and in cardio / fitness / martial arts / fat burning / muscle building DVDs.  So the general public is duped into thinking that if someone is dong a Yoga pose then they must be teaching Yoga.

This is grossly incorrect.

Yoga is not just a physical practice.  Even Hatha Yoga is not just a physical practice.

So simply striking a Yoga pose does not make a Yoga pose.

Overall, one gets what they pay for; and this applies to both DVDs and gym / fitness yoga.  For example, I’ve attended Yoga classes where the instructor is barely knowledgeable about Hatha Yoga – so almost wholly ignorant of its more sublime points (let alone application) – and so passes on their misinformation to their students.  Notably this comes via attitude; so that I’ve seen catty, back-biting, ego-driven teachers who stand at the front of catty, back-biting, ego-driven students.  They are, therefore, propagating a seed of ill-will upon the world around them.

Hatha Yoga is a tool that helps the individual mold them self into a strong and calm, resilient and peaceful, healthy and non-stressed, toned and fit, keen-minded and spiritual aware being.

And face it, this is what we all want our life to be.

Mutual Respect and Peace Out!

Yoginiji

~ ~ ~

References:

1-The essay uses the word shisya, which is often used synonymously with chela.  They both mean ‘student’, but shisya specifically means one who has been initiated.  In the Western approach to Hatha Yoga, students are not initiated by their teachers, so chela is more accurate here.

2-Hatha means ‘friction, force’, meaning surface resistance to relative motion; as in the movement of muscle with ligament and/or tendon, or the movement of muscle with bone, or muscle to muscle.  It is also indicative of sliding or rolling (as opposed to bending, as in, there are no ‘backbends’ in Hatha Yoga).

3-Jillian Michaels, Denise Austin, Kathy Kaehler or Mandy Ingber, all, are fitness instructors who are now branching out into Yoga poses.

4-“Yogis” who have DVDs who are actually fitness trainers:

-Ana Brett and Ravi Singh: “Teach a system of exercise and meditation.”

-Trudie Styler: “actress, film producer, director”, “Pilates and dance instructor.”

-Rodney Yee: “gymnast, ballet dancer.”

-Beth Shaw: “fitness instructor.”

5-Shala, a Yoga teaching center; a holistic place of learning traditional Hatha Yoga.  As opposed to the Western concept of a ‘yoga studio’, where the physical practice of Yoga is taught.

Obstacles / Antaraya

The question is:  “What is the most common weakness or obstacle that hinders your clientele in pursuing and obtaining their fitness goals and how do you fix it?”

When we start any fitness approach, it’s with enthusiasm, which, more often than note, fizzles out.  One shouldn’t feel bad about this because, first, it’s quite common, and second, quite surmountable.

Yoga, being a practice developed in ancient times, has literally thousands of years of advantage over all other workout routines.  In the case of “common weaknesses” and “obstacles” generally encountered in pursuing / obtaining an fitness goal .. Yoga not only has a name for it: Antaraya (“to come between; obstacles”), but has it codified.

The inner obstacles that disperse the mind are

complaint, self-defeat, self-doubt,

lack of persistence, non-commitment,

misunderstanding, lack of self-confidence,

self-depreciation, and instability.

Rajayoga sutra 1.30-31

The first is Vyadhi, which is physical health and mental preparedness.  For example, one should never start a fitness routine when unhealthy.  This is why there are warnings attached to starting a new exercise; and we’ve all seen them, “Before starting this exercise routine please consult your physician.”  Does this pertain to you?  Well, if you have several existing medical conditions, and/or if you are obese, then yes, this is certainly an example of Vyadhi.

Regarding the ‘mental preparedness’ of Vyadhi, this is simply preparing psychologically.  Often, the initial enthusiasm wanes before the practice is begun, making positive thinking very important.  I suggest to my students that they visualize seeing themselves doing Yoga – without strain or effort, with deep, smooth and rhythmic breathing, with ease, strength and grace.  Such a mental exercise bolsters and prepares the body for the actual practice.

Second is Styana, which is apathy, or defeating one’s self before even beginning.  For example, people tell me, “I can’t do Yoga because I’m not flexible”; which is silly, because the best way to become flexible is to come to Yoga.  Eitherway, my standard comeback is always, “Flexibility is a state of mind”, meaning, we must be rid of Styana – or that reluctance to commit, that idea of defeat before we begin, or of procrastination – or else all attempts will fail.  And if one looks honestly at their life, they have probably experienced Styana time enough to strengthen their lack of commitment so find themselves in a “rut”, or “spinning their wheels”.  The cycle of self-defeatism, though not easy to be rid of, must stop; or else always be the ass that pursues the carrot.

Third is Sanshaya, which is self-doubt.  When we lose faith in our capabilities, when we have lost sight of what we have already accomplished in our life, then our own blindness of our ever present potential interferes with our Yoga practice.  Sanshaya leads to deviation from our goal, from what we most desire.

Fourth is Pramada, which is the lack of persistence, commonly known today as ‘boredom’.  The bodymind has become adept at creating excuses for not continuing with a fitness practice, so that for every good reason one has for exercising, the bodymind has three reasons why not.  Pramada then is a major obstacle.

Fifth is Alasya, which is laziness – in both the body and mind.  This one relates back to Styana (apathy) because it’s the idea that one must be in shape first, before starting a fitness program.  This pretzel logic is further related to Pramada (lack of persistence, making excuses).  Yoga trains both the body and mind, so it’s not just a fitness routine, but mental stimulation as well.

Sixth is Avirati, which is non-commitment, or an absence of vows / resolutions.  The idea of a ‘couch potato’ is that of someone committed to sitting on the couch, stuffing their face, watching TV, and eventually creating a permanent indentation there.  Avirati is a lack of determination, a lack of respect for one’s body and mind.  If sick, the appropriate action is to get better, by whatever means.  The same is true for fitness.

Eighth is Bhrantidarshan, which is misunderstanding, or exercising for the wrong reasons.  This is very common today; for example, I will have new students tell me they want to do Yoga “because Madonna does”, or they want “to get a Yoga butt”, or they heard it was a “great way to lose weight fast”.  Because Yoga is more than a physical routine, this perspective is not balanced.  Now .. if a new student says, “I want to be fit, with a tight body and a balanced mind”, then they will do well.

Ninth is Alabdha-bhumikatva, which is self-depreciation or low optimism.  This relates back to the defeatism found in Sanshaya (self-doubt), but manifests on a much deeper level.  Alabdha-bhumikatva is true low self-esteem or the idea that one is not worthy.  This Antaraya (obstacle) is rooted in our subconscious mind; meaning, perhaps one has been told they are ‘fat’ or ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’ or ‘incompetent’, or otherwise not able to accomplish anything.  Because Yoga is both a body and mind practice, it works very well in healing the self of such a dark obstacle; remember, Yoga is a healing practice .. period.

Tenth is Anawasthitatwa, which is instability, or beginning a Yoga practice with a poor / weak foundation.  This is one of the reasons why I rant about ‘gym yoga’ or ‘DVD yoga’, and lately, ‘Wii yoga’, these are strictly physical practices that exist without a true Yoga foundation, without the keen eye of a true Yogi, and exist strictly for commercial purposes (respectively).  At their most innocent, they create bad habits that must be unlearned; at their worst they create injury, and physical and mental imbalance.  Anawasthitatwa is true body and mind instability, and is seen not just in Yoga but in many aspects of daily living.

Where any of these Antaraya exist, they create a ‘reason’ for one to either:

-walk away from Yoga,

-to ignore the obstacle and push through it,

-or to confront the Antaraya headon and so incorporate struggle.

All three approaches are wrong, for all three contribute to and add onto the obstacle(s).

A common expression heard in many Yoga classes is, Do the practice and all else will come. Over the years I have heard many parrot this without understanding it; in fact, taking one of the three courses of action above.  It does not mean, ‘fake it until you make it’, because that has never been an effective means of overcoming an obstacle.

The maxim is about DOing the practice, rather than just going through the motions, or not being truly present in the body during the practice.  You see, once you shift your awareness inwards then you begin to literally feel things you never felt before (physical and mentally ‘feel’), to hear sounds you never noticed before, to think on things not thought of in many years, or to have a thought that ‘comes out of the blue’ and surprises you that it was even in your head.

This is Yoga.  And this is the “all else” that does indeed come with the DOing.

So the way ..

To remove all these obstacles,

there is but one practice.

Clarity of bodymind is found

in friendliness and happiness,

in compassion where there is misery,

joy towards the upright,

and indifference to the mean-spirited.

All is attained through inhalation,

exhalation, and the retention of Prana.

-Rajayog sutras 1.32-34

Or, as I always teach, Breathe Well.  Smile Often.

Yoga is not a quick fix, but then, nothing truly worth having is.  Quality takes diligence and patience, determination and discipline ..lol.. words many of us don’t like to hear yet innately know to be the true, while realizing this to be the only way of accomplishment and attainment.

Namaste and Peace Out!

Yoginiji

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