Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My Weekend with Dharma Mittra

Hello Friends,

I've just returned from a wonderful and inspiring weekend at Kripalu with the great living master Sri Dharma Mittra. He's the dude on that famous poster with 908 yoga poses. At 71, he is still quite impressive both on and off the mat.  I learned some new postures and powerful pranayama techniques, but much of the inspiration that I felt came from listening to his talks on scripture and the yoga lifestyle. 

Sri Dharma spoke at great length about the yamas and niyamas, the first two steps of the eight-limbed path of yoga. Yoga, he explained, is "purifying the mind, heart, and body to enter the kingdom of God," and yamas and niyamas are an essential part of that preparation.  We have 72 thousand psychic channels that run through us, and insight from God comes to us via these channels. Practicing yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) serves to purify those channels, so that we may experience the deeper realization of and connection with the Divine Presence.

He also stressed the importance of eating a clean diet and cleansing the colon, as he believes that an unhealthy colon is the root of all disease. Sri Dharma is a staunch vegan and spoke at great length about the physical and spiritual benefits of renouncing meat. His interpretation of Ahimsa includes non-harming of any animals (This certainly made me squirm, as after being vegetarian most of my life, I returned to eating meat a few years ago. A long moral dilemma story, which I'll save for another post).

Dharma's humor and loving energy, along with his emphasis on the spiritual foundations of yoga, made it a joy for me to be in his presence. To learn more about this extraordinary teacher who is considered "the rock of yoga," visit www.dharmayogacenter.com

Fix your mind on Me alone, rest your thought on Me alone, and in Me alone you will live hereafter. Of this there is no doubt.

~Bhagavad Gita, translated by Swami Nikhilananda.


Hello Dear Yogis,

Those of you who have been reading my blog for the last few weeks will be familiar with the yamas and niyamas. I've been highlighting a different one each week as an exploration of the yogic lifestyle. If you've missed any, simply click on the "yama" label below and it will bring up all those previous posts.  I invite you to comment, and share your reflections.

Today we come to the last of the yamas, or restraints, that are part of ethical yogic conduct. Aparigraha means non-possessiveness, or refraining from hoarding. It involves a letting go of greed and attachment to wanting or owning. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't own anything, but rather that we cultivate non-attachment to the things we do own. We practice being content with what we do have and be willing to let them go if necessary. We practice generosity and willingness to share what we have without expecting something in return.

The ego, by nature, keeps us in a state of perpetual wanting, craving, and not-enoughness. Greed and possessiveness are woven into the fabric of our Western consumer-driven culture. Our economic system depends on dissatisfaction. Environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill speaks of our societal mantra, "bigger, better, more, now," as a reflection of the human ego's functioning on a collective level.

In the yoga sutras, it is said that when we are free from greed, the mind begins to open to receive insight about greater spiritual knowlege. A mind that is contracted around holding on to possessions, relationships, status, or experiences cannot be spacious enough to see the "big-picture." Aparigraha invites us to release clinging and fear and asks us to trust the Universe. In the classical teachings, it is said that through practicing aparigraha, we will come to know the illusion of death and the cycles of rebirth. We trust that we have nothing to lose, and so we can let go of grasping. The great Sufi poet Rumi expresses this beautifully:

Don't grieve. Anything you lose comes round
in another form. The child weaned from mother's milk
now drinks wine and honey mixed.

God's joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flower bed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open.

~ excerpt from “Unmarked Boxes”by Rumi, Trans. Coleman Barks

Living by the principle of aparigraha, we do not identify with, or invest our ego in, our possessions. I'm reminded of the woman who was known as Peace Pilgrim (1908-1981), a great American sage who truly embodied the spirit of aparigraha. She devoted her life to living simply and walking across the United States spreading her message of peace.

Before she began her pilgrimage, Mildred Norman Ryder led a “normal” American life. She enoyed the comfort of a large home in the suburbs, was married to a successful businessman, had a job, money, fancy clothes, and expensive furniture. Then, when she was thirty, she went through a personal spiritual transformation in which she no longer saw that lifestyle as having any meaning for her whatsoever.  She received a calling to give up all her material possessions, her job, her home, and all her money. She even renounced her name and became known simply as Peace Pilgrim. She vowed to walk across the United States, never accepting rides in vehicles.  She carried no money or possessions, except a toothbrush and a comb. She fasted until she was freely given food, and walked until given shelter, with an unwavering trust in Spirit that she would be given exactly what she needed. In her words:

Just after I dedicated my life to service, I felt that I could no longer accept more than I needed while others in the world have less than they need. This moved me to bring my life down to need-level. I thought it would be difficult. I thought it would entail a great many hardships, but I was quite wrong. Now that I own only what I wear and what I carry in my pockets, I don't feel deprived of anything. For me, what I want and what I need are exactly the same, and you couldn't give me anything I don't need.

I am not burdened by unnecessary possessions or meaningless activities. My life is full and good, but not overcrowded, and I do my work easily and joyously. I feel beauty all around me and I see beauty in everyone I meet - for I see God in everything.

No one is truly free who is still attached to material things, or to places, or to people. We must be able to use things when we need them and then relinquish them without regret when they have outlived their usefulness.

From Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words

To learn more about this inspiring woman, visit www.peacepilgrim.org . And, if you don't mind me tooting my own horn a bit, I invite you to watch an 8-minute documentary about her life that includes me singing a song I wrote about Peace Pilgrim. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVRC3sPctCM. Enjoy!

To conclude, I offer some suggestions for inquiry around aparigraha, and how it might apply to your own life:

--Do you have possessions that no longer serve you but that you have been reluctant to give away? What fears come up when you think about letting them go? As a concrete practice of aparigraha, go through your closets and give away some of those items. Notice how you feel when you lighten up.

--Are there people in your life that you feel attached to in a way that causes pain or stress for you or them? Are you being overly possessive? Can you practice letting go and simply loving them without clinging or controlling? What would that look like and how would it shift your relationships?

--Is there a role or position that you hold in your work or social circle that you have been attached to keeping? Are you digging your heels in or defending your status even though it may no longer be serving you or others? What if you "passed the baton" and trusted that you would be led to the next right situation in which you can offer yourself to others?

Blessings and Namaste!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Hello Dear Yogis,

Over the past few weeks, I've been writing about the yamas, or restraints that are part of the ethical life of a yogi. This week I want to share about Brahmacharya, the practice of energy management.

Brahmacharya translates as "walking towards Brahma (the Creator)." It teaches continence of body, speech and mind, and drawing one's focus inward through dedicated study, deep introspection, strict practices. In classical practice, celibacy was one of the primary criteria of this yama.

The intent of observing Brahmacharya is not a moral judgment, but rather arises out of an understanding of how sexuality affects prana, our essential life energy. Sexual energy, and the thoughts and fantasies associated with sex, use up a great portion of our vital force. For men, celibacy was traditionally seen as a method of preserving and cultivating the life force inherent in semen. The Brahmacharyan redirects sexual energy toward spirituality. devoting heart, mind, and body toward Brahma.

I'm reminded of a story about Tulsidas, the great 16th century Indian saint  and poet. When he was first married, was so in love and passionate toward his beautiful young bride that he had to be by her side all the time. He was so infatuated that he couldn’t be without her for even a few hours. One day she went to visit her parents in another town. Tulsidas couldn’t stand being without her, and before the day was over he showed up there. At this point, his wife turned to him and said, “You know, if you were to take all this passion and devotion and turn it toward God, you’d be enlightened in no time.” Tulsidas thought about this, and then began to take her advice. He practiced directing his passion and longing toward the Divine, and it is said that he became one of the great bhakti yogis (one who practices the yoga of devotion). 

Most contemporary Western yogis, however, choose to have families and intimate relationships. Celibacy is not an appropriate choice for everyone. Therefore, the practice of Brahmacharya can mean using one's sexual energy responsibly and consciously. The sexual drive is a very powerful force, and can easily lead us astray into hurtful and addictive patterns, and at the very least can distract us from our spiritual focus. Choosing to use this energy mindfully, engaging in lovemaking as a sacred act, is one way of embracing this yama.

As yoga philosophy has evolved and changed, Brahmacharya has come to be interpreted as "energy management, or "conscious self-restraint." This yama invites us to examine the many ways that we deplete our life force by not containing it appropriately. Do we indulge in excess chatter, with no clear purpose? Do we overeat, or eat junk foods that sap our vitality? Do we take on too many activities and projects, without making room for contemplation and rest?

Kripalu Yoga teacher Danny Aguetty writes:

We can utilize the practice of energy management in any of these realms to engage in the inquiry of prioritizing vitality...Typically, we are bombarded with constant stimulation from television, advertising, work, family, shopping, and other demands on our time. People get burned out as a result of overcommitted schedules, addictions to unhealthy foods,, and lack of self-nourishment. If we open to the idea that everything in the physical world breaks down into a vibrational frequency, which in turn has  profound effects on our energy, we can better choose those elements of life that renew us and enable us to function optimally. What would happen if we could pause before every action to contemplate whether it would augment of deplete our life force? ...How would things shift if we infused more conscious choices into our lives?

Here are some suggestions for inquiry:
  • Draw a circle and create a pie graph to show how you use your energy. Create a pie slice for the percentage of time you spend on work, family responsibilites, yoga, contemplative practices, prayer, as well as television, phone conversations, etc.. Examine your energy pie, and notice the balance of inward and outward focus. Reflect on which of these activities serve you, deplete you, restore your energy, etc. Which of these do you want to reduce? Which ones do you want to increase? In what ways do you overindulge in sensual cravings or distractions?
  • Think of at least three ways you use your energy in loving service.
  • Think of at least three ways that you practice moderation.

There is some kiss we want
with our whole lives,
the touch of Spirit on the body.
Seawater begs the pearl
to break its shell.
And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild Darling!
At night, I open the window
and ask the moon to come
and press its face into mine.
Breathe into me.
Close the language-door,
and open the love-window.
The moon won't use the door,
only the window.

~Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Namaste Everyone,

In recent posts I've been sharing about the yamas, or restraints that are part of the ethical life of a yogi. I spoke about ahimsa (non-violence), and satya (truthfulness). The third yama that I'd like to explore today is asteya, which means "non-stealing."

Asteya seems pretty basic at first glance. We don't take anything from anyone that has not been freely offered or paid for. Most of us might think we've got that one covered--we don't shoplift, we don't sneak out of restaurants without paying for our food, we don't take other people's belongings without asking.

Asteya also applies to the use of ideas--writings, art, and other forms of creative expression. If we use someone's creative work, we obtain proper permission and give credit where it is due.

But there are subtler levels of "stealing" that can be quite insidious, and so in order to fully embrace asteya, deeper inquiry is asked of us.

Are there ways that we are demanding attention from others, dominating discussions, or in other ways taking up more than our fair share of space, energetically and emotionally, in social settings and relationships?

Are we demanding more than our fair share of resources from the planet? Do we have a larger than necessary ecological footprint?

Are we living in a constant state of not-enoughness, giving in to the egoic tendency toward incessant wanting and craving? Is scarcity mentality running our lives, causing us to grasp for more, more, more at others' expense?

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says: "When we are steadfast in our abstinence from theft, all wealth comes to us." When we become free from all feelings of covetousness, we no longer experience the lack of anything; therefore we are weathy beyond measure.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

~Lao Tzu, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

The practice of Asteya, therefore, isn't just about not physically stealing things. On the deepest level, we cultivate a sense of contentment and abundance in our lives, through practicing gratitude. We go beyond simply not-stealing to living generously and honestly. We engage in loving service to others. We examine ways that mind states such as jealousy and possessiveness become obstacles to enjoying a sense of abundance and inner wealth.

The practice of asteya is closely related to two other ethical principles in yoga: aparigraha (non-possessiveness) and santosha (contentment). I'll be writing about these in upcoming posts.

The highest level of asteya would be a complete falling away of the idea that there is anyone other than yourself to steal from. When the heart opens so wide that there is no one but "us," when there is no "them" in your consciousness, then stealing becomes impossible. Ram Dass writes:

In order to steal, you have to see your victim as "other." That means stealing takes us deeper into the illusion of me/you, which is the illusion of identity, which is the illusion of separation. That, from a spiritual point of view, is why non-stealing is part of the practice of ashtanga yoga; it's not because of our usual ideas about morality, it's because in order to steal we have to turn the other person into "them," which rules out seeing them as "us." That takes us away form the One. It's just that straightforward.

~Ram Dass, Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita

So, the reflections I've shared above are some off-the-mat inquiries that can keep you busy for a lifetime.

We can also bring the practice of asteya to our asana practice, on the mat. We can approach our sadhana with the spirit of generosity toward ourselves, and a sense of fullness and abundance. Kripalu Yoga teacher Danny Arguetty reminds us to notice ways that we may be robbing ourselves of being fully present as we move through the postures. Are we being competitive or jealous of another person's skill or expression of a posture? Do we devalue ourselves by comparing ourselves to others? He writes: "Use the practice of coordinated breath and movement to aid you in pinpointing awareness of the obvious and subtle ways in which you debase your own experience. As we become more conscious of the recurring patterns that detract from our practice, we can begin to choose a different path and honor ourselves as we are."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Just Breathing

You may wonder why we begin our classes by sitting still and just breathing together. Perhaps you've come to class ready for a workout, and you are antsy to start "doing yoga."

In the West, many think of yoga as primarily physical exercise. But if we read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a 2000-year old text that is central to yoga practice, we see "doing yoga" as a much broader endeavor.

The very first thing Patanjali tells us, in the first three sutras, is in essence:

1) This is the beginning of yoga practice, and I offer you these teachings.
2) Yoga is about calming the mind, bringing the wild fluctuations of thought into stillness.
3) When you can do that, then you will know who you truly are.

Notice how he hasn't said anything about putting our foot behind our head, or twisting the spine. That comes later. The first, most basic thing he tells us about yoga practice is to be still and calm the mind, so that we may know our true, limitless nature.

So that's where we start. Taking a few moments to honor that stillness, using the breath and awareness to dip down into the reservoir of peace that lives within us, is a fundamental aspect of our sadhana (spiritual practice). We may not be successful at touching into deep peace, especially if we've been experiencing agitation in our daily life. Most of us bring quite a bit of turbulence with us to the mat. But just that moment of settling in and breathing sets an intention, and is essentially a prayer for inner peace.

May I be peaceful.
May I be happy.
May I see even just a glimpse of the vastness of who I really am.

As a yoga teacher, it is my intention to begin each class by inviting you to into a sanctuary, into that place of peace that can be found in the midst of even the most unsettling day. The breath is our key to that sanctuary, and it's always available to us, always waiting to welcome us in.

In the beginning, darkness covered the face of the deep.
Then the rushing-breath of life hovered over the waters.
Let us breathe together.
Let us catch our breaths from the need to make, to do.
Let us be conscious of the Breath of Life.
We breathe out what the trees breathe in.
We breathe in what the trees breathe out.
Together we breathe each other into life.
Blessed is the One within the many.
Blessed are the many who make One.

 ~Arthur Waskow

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Hello Dear Ones,

In a recent post, we began an exploration of the yamas and niyamas, or restraints and observances, which are an essential piece of the yoga lifestyle. I shared a little bit about ahimsa, or the practice of non-violence. Today I'd like to speak about another one of the yamas, the practice of satya, or "truth."

On the most basic and obvious level, satya means not lying. It means telling the truth. We fess up and come clean when we've made a mistake. We practice saying what we mean, and meaning what we say. We strive to be honest in our words.

Where it gets tricky is when satya bumps up against ahimsa. In our zeal to be brutally honest, is our truth-telling causing hurt to another person? When do we need to temper satya with gentleness and tact? For example, do we tell Aunt Bertha that the sweater she sent is ugly and we would never wear it? Or do we lie and say how much we love it?  How do we find the skillful language that balances being honest and kind? 

On a deeper level that pervades all aspects of our lives, the practice of satya calls us towards authenticity.  It means being true to ourselves. not hiding or pretending to be someone else, and not being afraid to speak out and show who we truly are.

One of my teachers at Kripalu, Dinabandhu Sarley, says that something powerful happens when what we say, what we think, what we feel, and what we do are all in alignment. That power is called authenticity. One's ability to be effective and fully alive is contingent upon one's ability to be in alignment, or authentic. When there is a disconnect between these areas--when we are doing/thinking/feeling/saying all different things--our life energy becomes blocked. We become like a hose that is kinked in 4 places.

So, satya is being authentic--bringing our thoughts, words, feelings and actions into alignment. This allows prana to flow through us unimpeded, making available to us a life that's filled with more power. Just as alignment is important in asana practice, it's equally (if not more) important in how we move through the world off the mat.

On a more expansive level, satya calls us to seek spiritual truth, to discover the Divine Oneness that holds everything together. The highest expression of satya would be to transcend the world of illusion and awaken to the deeper truths of Reality--to see the True Self beyond the limited, egoic self. Satya is being who we truly are.

When you seek the Truth, you are seeking God. Truth is God. Truth exists; so too, God exists. Truth must be considered as life giving as breath itself. Just as a person with no breath in him becomes useless, life without Truth is useless and becomes a dwelling place of strife and grief. Believe that there is nothing greater than Truth; nothing more precious, nothing sweeter and nothing more lasting. ~Sathya Sai Baba

Some questions for self examination with regard to satya might be:

  • Is there an area of my being that I'm afraid to let others see? Am I "in the closet" about who I am? If so, what impact has that had on my life?
  • Are there areas of my life where I don't "walk my talk"? In what ways are my actions inconsistent with my speech?
  • What are 3 ways that I can be more true to myself?
  • What are 3 ways that I can be more truthful to others?
  • Is there someone I've lied to, in either the recent or distant past, that I need to come clean with and to whom I need to make amends (remember, making amends clears the way toward our own freedom)?
  • What are the ways in which I do honor my truth? What are the ways that I do speak, act and live authentically?

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.   ~Steve Jobs

If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything. ~Mark Twain


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