Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shaking off the Fuzz

Hello Dear Ones,

In this morning's class I spoke about how, when we sleep, tiny strands of connective tissue begin to form between the sliding surfaces of the muscles. When we get out of bed in the morning and take the time to stretch and move our muscles in all the many ways they are made to move, we are breaking up and melting all those little fibers, or "fuzz" that builds up in the musculature. If our muscles are not regularly moved and stretched, either because of injury or habit, that fuzz gets thicker and stronger, and eventually forms adhesions that limit our range of motion. Here's a fascinating and entertaining video by anatomy guru Gil Hedley that explains all this--I highly recommend you check it out. The video does show a human cadaver, but it's very clean--there's no blood or guts. Gil's informative 5-minute speech clearly and humorously illustrates why hatha yoga practice is so essential for our bodies and general well-being.

May you enjoy waking up each morning and "shaking off the fuzz!"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Last week I spoke of the yamas and niyamas, the restraints and observances outlined in the 8 limbed path of yoga.  I'd like to share with you some reflections on ahimsa, the first of these restraints.
Ahimsa means non-violence, or non-harming. On the most gross and obvious level, it means refraining from killing or doing bodily harm to others. As we examine ahimsa on more subtle levels, we see that it also involves refraining from words and thoughts that project violence toward others and ourselves. In its deepest expression, ahimsa means the complete absense of negative thoughts toward self or other, and a pervasive feeling of love and compassion for all beings.
The principle of ahimsa inspired Ghandi's non-violent resistance to British rule in India, which in turn influenced Dr. King's leadership of the civil rights movement in the U.S. Jesus' teachings were also ahimsic, although from a different religious framework.
Our lives offer us plenty of rich opportunities to explore the many layers of ahimsa. Some questions for inquiry:
  • How do my food choices and my habits of eating, driving, and consumption impact upon animals, the earth, and other humans? In what ways do I contribute to exploitation of the earth and its populations?
  • What are the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that my language may be tinged with critical, angry and judgmental words, or words that in some way cause discord? 
  • Am I "shoulding" on myself and others? How does that affect my relationships?
  • Do I engage in habitual negative thinking? What impact does that have energetically on myself and others?
  • Do I allow others to be unkind, harmful or violent towards me? If so, how can I take back my power in a way that is love-based?
  • What ways am I practicing ahimsa in my life? In what ways am I kind, loving and compassionate toward myself and others?
  • On the mat: How can I practice ahimsa? Can I move in and out of challenging postures with utmost care, respect and compassion for myself?
Examining our lives with regard to ahimsa is NOT about making ourselves feel guilty, because NO ONE, in pursuing this inquiry, will come up completely innocent. When we become aware of the areas where we have fallen short, we can practice ahimsa by cultivating compassion and forgiveness for ourselves. By nature, our lives have an impact on other beings. The practice of ahimsa calls us to be more mindful and aware, and it is a lifelong adventure.
"Strictly speaking, no activity and no industry is possible without a certain amount of violence, no matter how little. Even the very process of living is impossible without a certain amount of violence. What we have to do is to minimize it to the greatest extent possible." ~Mahatma Gandhi
The peace in the sky, the peace in the mid-air, the peace on earth, the peace in waters, the peace in plants, the peace in forest trees, the peace in all Gods, the peace in Brahman, the peace in all things, the peace in peace, may that peace come to me. ~ Rig Veda X

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Power of Chant

Hello Dear Ones,

I just got back from an amazing weekend tour with my band, ONE LOVE. We did a big loop through Pennsylvania, from Doylestown (just north of Philly) to Harrisburg, and then up to State College. We led kirtan and interfaith chanting at two churches, were the featured guest musicians for a Sunday worship service, and then went on to play for a live music yoga class followed by a kirtan. 

I'm still vibrating from the experience. In each venue we witnessed people melt as they dropped into their hearts, as they chanted along with us. Teary-eyed folks came up to us afterwards to share how powerful an experience it was for them--some of them participating in chanting for the very first time. One woman described the experience as "a massage for the soul."

The reason I'm sharing all this with you is not to brag, but to emphasize the incredible power inherent in the practice of devotional chanting. This is an integral part of yoga, and it's a huge part of my practice and service to others. I invite you to visit my band's site, to get a taste of this yoga that I practice off the mat.

Basically, the word yoga means "union." It is the Sanskrit ancestor of the English word "yoke, " and it has come to mean a method of spiritual union. A yoga is a method (and there are many kinds) by which a person may become united with the Godhead/Divine Presence/Ultimate Reality. 

When we do postures and breathing, we are practicing Hatha yoga, which conditions the body and calms the mind. . Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion, and uses the power of the heart to express our love and longing for the Divine, through chanting, prayers, and ritual offerings.  One does not need to be deity-oriented-- we can use these practices to call upon our highest Self, that wellspring of love, joy, and radiance that is our essential nature.

I look forward to sharing the power of chant with you, in yoga class or at the next kirtan in your town! 

"The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience."  Emily Dickinson      

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ten Invitations

Hello Dear Friends,

In the last post, I wrote about the 8 limbed path of yoga, as described in the 2000 year-old Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Interestingly, the first two limbs of yoga practice are not the postures and breathing that we focus on in class(those are the 3rd and 4th on the list) The practices of yama and niyama (restraints and observances) are presented as the first two limbs. There are 5 restraints and 5 observances, which are essentially a code of personal ethics and guidelines to live by. Some call them the do's and don'ts of yoga, and they've also been called the "ten commandments" of yoga. In brief, they are:

Ahimsa (non-violence)
Satya (truth)
Asteya (not stealing)
Brahmacharya (energy management/moderation/celibacy)
Aparigraha (non-greed, non-possessiveness)

Saucha (purity, cleanliness)
Santosha (contentment)
Tapas ("fire" or "heat" of self-discipline, exerting effort)
Svadhyaya (study of scripture and of oneself)
Ishvara-Pranidhana (Surrender to God)

In Kripalu yoga, the yamas and niyamas are not seen as commandments, but rather as invitations into inquiry. They call us toward an exploration of what shifts in our lives when we take on them on as dedicated practice. It is said that, just as postures and breathing allow the healing energy of prana (life force) to come into our physical bodies, living by these guidelines creates an opening for prana to flow more freely through us emotionally and spiritually.

Each of these restraints and observances is going to be embraced and expressed differently by each person. For example, most of us would agree that Ahimsa (non-violence) means that we refrain from killing or doing bodily harm to another person. But what about eating meat? For some, a vegetarian diet is an essential piece of practicing Ahimsa. For others, it may mean simply choosing to eat only meat that is raised sustainably and humanely.

And Brahmacharya traditionally has meant celibacy, but has come to be interpreted as "energy management".  It means using our sexual energy responsibly, as well as other forms of energy. We examine how we are using and expending our life force. Are we making choices that deplete our life energy, or are we learning to conserve it for optimal living?

Tapas, or self-discipline, is going to look different for each one of us as well. The word Tapas actually means "fire" or "heat." With regard to yoga practice, it involves willpower, endurance, and austerity--exerting burning effort in our practice. Each one of us is called to examine what that will look like for us, and to what depths we want to take our sadhana (spiritual practice). There is no right or wrong here--only an invitation to examine our goals and our level of commitment. We can also ask ourselves what our "burning desires" are in our lives. What calls us forward with passion?

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing reflections in this new blog about each of these yamas and niyamas. These practices and principles do not require you to embrace a particular religious doctrine. Rather, they can be seen as complementary to any other spiritual path. It is my hope that they will inspire you to look more deeply at your life through a yogic lens, and that it will be a spiritually enriching inquiry.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other"
doesn't make any sense.

Jelaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Namaste everyone,

Since yoga is about increasing our sense of well-being, aliveness and peace, I want to offer some ways that you can practice outside of class. In addition to your asana practice, I encourage you to think of yoga in the big-picture sense, and explore ways that you can live your yoga beyond the mat. One of the ways to do this is to apply yogic principles to your life in general.

In the West, we often think of yoga as a series of physical exercises we do on a mat. This is actually a relatively small part of what yoga is about. Postures were taught as a way to condition and prepare oneself for the deeper practices of meditation and absorption in Spirit's presence. I've also heard it said that the asanas arose spontaneously as a result of yogis being in deep states of awareness from meditation and breathing practices.

In the classical teachings, yoga is viewed as an eight-limbed path. Some use the image of 8 spokes on a wheel, or a ladder with 8 rungs. According to the 2000 year-old yoga sutras of Patanjali, these 8 limbs are:

--Yama: restraints
--Niyama: observances
--Asana: postures
--Pranayama: increasing life force through breath control
--Pratyahara: sense withdrawal, introversion
--Dharana: concentration
--Dyhana: meditation
--Samadhi: absorbtion, merging with the infinite

These 8 limbs are what comprise Ashtanga yoga (ashta=8, anga=limb). This is different from the popular brand of power yoga that is known by the same name. The original Ashtanga yoga is a system that integrates each of these 8 aspects into a spiritual life that is balanced and deep.

In addition, there are many types of yoga beyond the physical postures, breathing, and meditation. What we typically practice in class is called Hatha Yoga. Karma yoga is the practice of selfless service, through work, to others and to the Divine. Bhakti yoga is the practice of devotion through prayer, chanting and ritual. Jnana yoga is the discipline of seeking Truth, using the power of the mind to transcend the mind.  We'll be exploring these more fully in future postings.

All this information is an invitation for you to broaden your concept of yoga practice. When you say "I do yoga," it can mean a lot more than doing downward dog on your mat. When you are at work and giving your energy to others, that is part of your yoga practice. When you are engaged in prayer or meditation, that is also yoga practice. Yoga is anything that brings us to a sense of union with Spirit and inner peace. Perhaps your yoga happens through walking in nature, singing, making love, running, dance, or serving others. What makes you feel fully and vibrantly alive?

Through the streets

Throwing rocks through windows,
using my own head to ring
Great bells,

Pulling out my hair,
Tearing off my clothes,

Tying everything I own
To a stick
And setting it on

What else can Hafiz do tonight
To celebrate the madness,
The joy,

Of seeing God

 ~Hafiz (trans. Daniel Ladinsky)

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Song in My Heart

Hello Dear Ones, and welcome to my new blog! As I begin this first entry, I am celebrating the new name I've chosen for my yoga teaching work, Singing Heart Yoga. As a musician, songwriter and leader of devotional chanting, I feel that the name expresses the joining together of two deep passions in my life--singing and yoga. 

In sifting through the many possible ideas for names, I was reminded that, back in October of 1995, I attended a 5-day meditation retreat with the great Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. At that time, I was given a dharma name: "Wholehearted Voice of the Heart." Although I liked the sentiment it conveyed, it seemed rather long and awkward to use in any practical sense. So it sat on my altar, written in beautiful calligraphy on a certificate, reminding me to sing and live from the heart.  

Over the years, I have poured my heart into my music, my interfaith ministry work, and most recently the teaching of yoga, which for me includes chanting, singing, and prayer. It seemed a natural choice, and one that honored the spirit of my dharma name, to call my work Singing Heart Yoga.

Atha Yoga Nusasanam
"Now, with great respect and love (and a song in my heart!), the blessings of yoga instruction are offered." 
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I,1

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
a passion, a longing-pain.

Remember the lips
where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don't try to end it.
Be your note.
I'll show you how it's enough.

Go up on the roof at night
in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!

Sing loud!

~Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)

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Poetry, readings & words of wisdom from modern and ancient sources