Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Today we come to the fourth niyama, or observance, known as svadhyaya, meaning “self-study.”  Sva means “self; one’s own” and  adhyaya  means “study; going into.” Often translated as “study of the scriptures,” it is really more about availing ourselves of all the resources that will help us understand the nature of the true Self. Both scriptural study and inner inquiry through meditation and prayer are essential tools for illuminating knowledge of Self.

Please note that in Indian philosophy, the word “self” (with a lower-case “s”) refers to the egoic self, the personality, the part of our being that is caught up with worldly desires and concerns.  The “Self” (with a capital “S”) refers to the transcendent, Divine essence that is our true nature. It is Self-realization that is our true life’s purpose.

In addition to scriptural study, contemplation and meditation, svadhyaya involves associating with like-minded seekers who will support us on our path. Gatherings where yogis come together to share inquiry are called satsangs, or “meetings in Truth.” This can happen through a community of practitioners that mutually support one another, or in a group of devotees that follow a particular guru or teacher.

Japa, or mantra repetition, is another aspect of svadhyaya. It is traditionally practiced with a mala, a necklace or bracelet of prayer beads. Repetition of a mantra helps to still the mind and focus awareness on the Divine. It is seen as a way of purifying one’s mind and heart, clearing away distractions and obstacles to knowledge. One can use any name or attribute of God/dess that one finds inspirational, or any prayer that serves to open the heart and turn the mind toward Spirit.

On the mat, our asana practice offers us an opportunity for deep Self-study. Paying exquisite attention to the movement of the breath, the sensations in the body, and the arising and passing of emotions and mental states can cultivate deep insight into who we truly are. Eventually we see that there is something greater, deeper, more subtle and vast than what is passing through this body-mind.  In the words of poet and yogini Danna Faulds:

What is the soul of yoga? Follow your heart into the center of the pose and find in the midst of detail and precision, in breath, alignment, balance, bliss, fear, and sadness—
at the very core of all this is Love.

One of the methods of inquiry into the Self is the deep and relentless use of the question “who am I?” This is the core practice of Jnana Yoga, the path which uses the power of the mind to transcend the mind. One peels away the layers of the self by affirming: “I am not this body, I am not this thought, I am not this wave of emotion, not this ego—not this, not this, not this,”-- to discover what is left when all those false layers the self are dissolved. One asks, over and over,” Who am I, essentially, in truth, beyond appearances, beyond what is always changing?”

As rivers, flowing down, become indistinguishable on reaching the sea by giving up their names and forms, so also the illumined soul, having become freed from name and form, reaches the self-effulgent Supreme Self ~ Mundaka Upanishad

What I’ve mentioned above are some of the traditional methods of Self-study. However, there are countless ways that one can explore the nature of the Self.  Any sport or athletic discipline, artistic or musical endeavor, or the development of any skill or art form can be an avenue into one’s true nature if undertaken as a spiritual practice (rather than motivated by the ego’s need for recognition and achievement). Any study that helps cultivate self reflection is part of svadhyaya.  Just as it is said that “all roads lead to Rome,” all passionate pursuits lead to Self-knowledge.

The practice of Svadhaya is supported by and interwoven with the observance of 2 other niyamas—tapas (discipline) and Ishvara-pranidhana (surrender to God). When our inquiry into ourselves is energized by the inner fire of tapas and inspired by a strong  devotion, then we have found a powerful formula for awakening.

There’s a simple and lovely meditation practice that I’ve been working with lately. It uses the repetition of the mantra So Hum. (aka So Ham). So Hum literally means "I am That" (So = "That" or "Thou" or "Divinity"; Hum = "I am") and the mantra’s aim is to bring about union (yoga) between one’s individual consciousness and Divine Consciousness. 

Find a comfortable seated position, either in a chair or on a cushion on the floor, with the spine erect and the body relaxed. Inhale on the word “so,” exhale on the word “Hum.” Let the mantra follow the breath, with the exhale being longer than the inhale. Soooo…  Hummmmmm.... This mantra is repeated silently to oneself—no actual sound is made, except for the breathing. As the breath cycles in an out, the mantra becomes an endless loop affirming “I am that I am that I am…”

Just a few minutes of this practice has the power to calm the mind and sharpen the awareness, reminding us of the vastness that we truly are.

Self is what gives breath to Life. You need not search for It, It is Here. You are That through which you would search. You are what you are looking for! And That is All it is. 

Here are some suggested inquiries for exploring svadhyaya in your life:

--In what ways do you seek out community that supports you in turning toward your true Self? How do you experience satsang?

--using a mantra or Divine name that resonates for you, make a commitment to practice japa (repetition) of that mantra for 40 days. Reserve judgment of the efficacy of the practice until after the 40 days are over. Keep a journal to record what changes you notice in your life.

--Similarly, practice the So Hum meditation for 40 days. Take it on as an experiment, with a spirit of adventure. Notice what shifts, either in subtle or more obvious ways, in your life.

--What sacred texts have been powerful for you in shifting your views of self or reality? Be willing to read something new. In exploring scripture, one need not be restricted to Hindu texts. The Tao Te Ching, the Buddhist sutras, the Hebrew or Christian Bibles, or the writings of contemporary authors such as Eckhart Tolle and Gangaji can all be inspiring and transformative tools for exploring the question “Who am I?”

--Don’t forget to have fun in your inquiry!

The Self that is subtler than the subtle and greater than the great is seated in the heart of every creature. ~ Katha Upanishad

Be the Self and that is bliss. You are always that. The Self is always realized. ~Ramana Maharshi

Monday, March 21, 2011


Over the past several weeks I’ve been writing about the yamas and niyamas, or restraints and observances that are an essential part of the eight-limbed path of yoga. This week brings us to a discussion of tapas, the third of the niyamas.

The Sanskrit word tapas  translates as “heat” or “fire.”  The root  “tap” means “to burn, blaze, shine, consume by heat or suffer pain.” As a niyama, tapas means austerity, endurance, self-discipline, effort, asceticism and the control of or abandonment of desire. It involves willpower and the exertion of ”burning effort” in our practice.

Now, you might read this and say, “Suffer pain? Asceticism? Austerity? No thank you. I’m outta here.”

But, if you’re still with me, let’s explore this a little further.

In today’s culture, we generally associate the term “austerity” with severity and deprivation. However, within the philosophy of yoga, austerity is an opportunity to free ourselves from distraction. And it’s often true that when we discipline ourselves toward a long-term goal, we may experience difficulties and challenges as we confront the limits of our own commitment and self-control. Yet, with the support of our teachers and a community of fellow practitioners, our personal fire becomes stronger, and we find great rewards from the inner strength that we cultivate through our practice.

Last fall I went to a yoga festival in California where I happened to notice a young man wearing a t-shirt that said “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” That has become somewhat of a motto for me these days. When I notice myself avoiding anything uncomfortable, when I see that I’m clinging to what’s easy, familiar and safe, when I’m unwilling to step into the fire of a challenging practice or situation, I remind myself that growth is often uncomfortable.  Being fully and deeply alive means stepping into the fire with courage and faith.  

Going beyond our comfort zone does not mean that we need to create unnecessary pain or suffering for ourselves. It’s not about self-flagellation. The underlying operative principle here is Love.  And we must remember that the practice of ahimsa (non-violence) applies to all activities that we undertake.

In addition to self-discipline, the niyama of tapas also implies purification. Just as fire transforms all that it touches, tapas is a method of personal transformation. In the practice of tapas, we find our own inner flame – the fiery motivation that keeps us focused on our goals and helps us to incinerate any obstacles blocking our path. Sensory temptations, laziness, negative thoughts, weakness and blockage in the body, and self- centeredness are gradually overcome by the observance of tapas. Clear and disciplined focus limits the power of the senses to distract us, and in this way, tapas perfects the body and mind, and clears away impurities.

Tapas cleanses the inner debris existing in the physical body, the subtle/energetic body, and the mind in many ways-- through asanas, pranayama, a healthy diet, and meditation practices. In this way, tapas relates to the first niyama, saucha (purity/cleanliness). Brahmacharya,  the moderation of one’s vital energy, is also a natural extension of tapas. Its practice helps keep the fire of the heart bright and pure.

The way tapas manifests is different for each individual.  Each of us is called to examine what it will look like for us, and to what depths we are willing 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?

I must mention here that many of us struggle with addictive behaviors that seem to overpower our self-discipline or willpower. This can be very discouraging and demoralizing. Seeking support from a spiritual teacher, recovery support group, or therapist can be an essential life-line, helping us recommit to our spiritual practice, one day at a time.

Here are some inquiries for exploring tapas in your life, whether or not you engage in formal yoga practice on a mat:

--What am I passionate about? In what ways do I discipline myself to engage in that endeavor or work toward those goals? How do I create focus in my life so that I can nurture and support that passion?

--In what areas of my life do I exhibit self-control, discipline and focus? What have been the benefits?

--Are there areas of my life where I have been undisciplined? What have been the consequences of this lack of focus?

--Do I have an addiction that I have not been able to control with willpower alone? How has that affected my spiritual practice? What resources are available to me for support, and am I willing to use them?

--What calls to me with a burning desire, and why? How can the practice of tapas move me forward toward manifesting that vision?

Living tapas, you are like a burning arrow. swift and direct in reaching your goals. With single-pointed focus, you burn away everything in the way of your achievement. Consumed by the fire within, you are disciplined in overcoming destructive desires. You are strong enough to combat negative forces and strive past all obstacles in your path to victory. ~Joanna Mosca, YogaLife: 10 Steps to Freedom

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Hello Dear Yogis,

Last week we began our exploration of the niyamas, which are the inner disciplines and prescribed observances that bring greater aliveness to the yogi’s life off the mat. I spoke about saucha (purity and cleanliness), and its many levels and benefits.

The second niyama is santosha, which means contentment. This is the kind of contentment that allows us to meet the vicissitudes of life with equanimity and acceptance. Whatever life brings, we maintain our sense of inner calm as we cultivate the “witness”—the awareness that watches without getting sucked into identifying with the story.  We learn to view our life situation with a detached (yet compassionate) presence.

Santosha does not mean that we never experience dissatisfaction or get upset. We are human, and waves of emotion move through us. But having a strong foundation in the practice of santosha means that we are better able to observe these emotions as they pass through. We see the forest through the trees.  We are more readily able to return to center, rather than indulging in thoughts of victimhood and other habits of negative thinking.

The ultimate embodiment of santosha would be the ability to maintain unwavering serenity in the presence of all of life’s ups and downs. We are able to witness pain and pleasure, hardship and ease, through the eyes of unconditional love, without succumbing to emotional disturbance.

No matter what happens, we maintain a state of peace and emotional evenness, knowing that we have God’s love and lack nothing. We have faith that everything that happens is somehow ultimately for the highest good. The adept at santosha becomes the alchemist who can transform the worst situation into a glorious celebration. When we master santosha, we will be totally free of desires and attachments.  ~Joanna Mosca, YogaLife: 10 Steps to Freedom

This may seem like a tall order for most of us. But part of practicing santosha is compassionate acceptance of ourselves, no matter what.  We are content with wherever we are in our spiritual journey.

In thinking about who actually embodies santosha at this level, I am reminded of Byron Katie, author of the bestseller “Loving What is”, and several other titles. She is a truly remarkable woman, a living example of one who is completely content with whatever life brings. However, she wasn’t always that way—in fact, she suffered from chronic, debilitating depression for over ten years. One day, her mind just cracked open, and the depression dissolved in an instant (along with her identity as a separate self). All that was left was peace and joy.

In her book A Thousand Names for Joy, Katie gives us a glimpse of her world and the unshakeable peace that she now experiences:

I’m preparing a salad. I see flashes of colors. My hands begin to reach for what calls out to me. Red! And I reach for the beets. Orange! And I reach for the carrots. Green! And my hands move to the spinach. I feel the textures, I feel the dirt. Purple! And I move to the cabbage. All of life is in my hands. There’s nothing lovelier than preparing a salad, its greens, reds, oranges, purples, crisp and juicy, rich as blood and fragrant as the earth. I move to the countertop. I begin to slice.

Just when I think that life is so good that it can’t get any better, the phone rings and life gets better. I love that music. As I walk toward the phone, there’s a knock at the door. Who could it be? I walk toward the door, filled with the given, the fragrance of the vegetables, the sound of the phone, and I have done nothing for any of it. I trip and fall. The floor is so unfailingly there. I experience its texture, its security, its lack of complaint. In fact, the opposite: it gives its entire self to me. I feel its coolness as I lie on it. Obviously it was time for a little rest. The floor accepts me unconditionally and holds me without impatience.  As I get up, it doesn’t say, “Come back, come back you’re deserting me, you owe me, you didn’t thank me, you’re ungrateful.”  No, it’s just like me. It does its job. It is what it is. The fist knocks, the phone rings, the salad waits, the floor lets go of me—life is good.

The beauty of the salad, the interruptions, falling on the floor, are all embraced fully, without being partial to any of it. That’s santosha to the max.  I have been deeply inspired by Byron Katie and her process of inquiry she calls The Work. To learn more about this amazing woman and her teachings, visit www.thework.com .

Another aspect of santosha is gratitude. This is a practice we undertake, an attitude we commit to, rather than something we do as a response to circumstances. It is a spiritual muscle that we exercise, as we practice saying thank you for things in our life and in our bodies that we might otherwise take for granted. Gradually, gratitude becomes the foundation upon which we stand. We cultivate a ground of gratefulness to support us and keep things in perspective when difficult circumstances and challenges arise.

It isn’t happiness that makes us grateful; it is gratefulness that makes us happy. ~Brother David Steindl-Rast.

Santosha can also be manifested by practicing being at peace with the simple, mundane tasks of life, without falling into the trap of boredom. We can enjoy the fullness of folding the laundry, washing the dishes, raking the leaves. Our modern culture continually entices us toward bigger, faster, more exciting, and better. Our economic system is predicated on the idea of not-enough, encouraging us to be dissatisfied and restless. Technology is designed to lure us into a fast-paced life with constant stimulation from media and various electronic devices. Our society urges us to keep wanting more, newer stuff.  The clothing we just bought last season is now out of fashion, and the computer that still works just fine is now a “dinosaur.” The practice of santosha affirms our appreciation for what we have and who we are, and allows us to rest in a sense of “enough.”

How can we practice santosha in our daily lives?

--Keep a gratitude journal. Every day, think of at least three new reasons to be grateful.

--Life gives us plenty of opportunities to practice resting in “enough.” Try working with the following affirmation: This is enough, this moment is enough, this person is enough, this meal is enough, I am enough.

--Limit your use of television and other media that make use of ads that continually bombard you with messages that reinforce a sense of lack and inadequacy.

--Include affirmations of gratitude as part of your daily prayer practice. The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said that “if the only prayer you ever said in your life was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.”

--Engage in a regular meditation practice that focuses on equanimity, such as vipassana (insight) meditation.

I came to see that the world is always as it should be, whether I opposed it or not. And I came to embrace reality with all my heart. I love the world, without any conditions. ~Byron Katie

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Hello Dear Yogis,

In previous posts, we’ve been exploring the yamas, or ethical restraints that are part of the life of a yogi. The yamas are the “don’ts” of yoga; the niyamas are the “do’s”.  And, whereas the yamas are guidelines for social conduct and relationships, the niyamas focus more on personal conduct and inner discipline.

The first niyama is called saucha, which means purity or cleanliness. Saucha can be practiced on many levels, relating to body, mind, and spirit.

At its most basic and obvious level, saucha involves personal hygiene. The yogi incorporates the practice of kriyas, which are various cleansing techniques ranging from methods meant to address the hygiene of the physical body to methods meant to bring balance to the energetic body. Some kriyas are quite familiar to most of us, including daily bathing, brushing and flossing the teeth, exfoliating the skin with a loofah, cleaning the tongue, and flushing the sinuses with warm salted water (neti pot).

Asana (postures) and pranayama (breath work) are also powerful methods for cleansing our physical bodies. The practice of asana tones the entire body and removes the toxins and impurities caused by over-indulgence. Pranayama cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves.

Maintaining an orderly space around us nurtures clarity of thought, balance and calm.  Clutter and disorder affects us energetically (you may be familiar with the Chinese art of Feng Shui, which emphasizes the relationship between one’s physical surroundings and the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity in one’s life). When we clean, arrange, and let go of items that are no longer of use to us, we stimulated renewed flow of prana and creativity into our lives. Through practicing this aspect of saucha, we begin to create an environment that supports our internal process of spiritual growth.

In addition to caring for our physical space, we can bring mindfulness to our consumption habits, avoiding processed foods and choosing organically-grown food as much as possible. Purchasing environmentally friendly household products and using chemical-free cosmetics are also forms of bringing purity into our lives.

Occasional fasting, as well as colon and liver cleansing are powerful ways to eliminate toxins are restore the body to optimal health. The Ayruvedic, Chinese, and Western herbal healing systems all offer effective ways to do this, under the guidance of skilled practitioners.

Purifying the mind is another of the intentions behind saucha. During the course of the day, most of us experience a constant, random inner dialogue. Our senses are pulled in one direction or another, as is our attention and energy. Devotion, self-study, and concentration are some of the methods used to bring this random mental activity under control. There are many kriyas that serve to focus and calm the mind, such as gazing steadily at a candle flame, or following the movement of the breath with one-pointed attention. Mental purity can also be achieved by Japa (repetition of sacred names), chanting mantras, and studying and contemplating scripture. All of these practices serve to replace negative thinking and habits with positive thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.

Every day offers us opportunities to practice purification in a variety of ways. All faith traditions and cultures have their own purification techniques, and there are many that we can incorporate into our own practice of saucha. In addition to our culturally prescribed bathing, tooth brushing and flossing, here are some examples of ways to cleanse your life, physically and energetically:
-- Walk mindfully in nature. Taking in the expanse of the land and the sky can serve to clear the mind and body of stagnant energy.
--Singing, repetition of mantras, and devotional chanting opens the heart.
--The ringing of bells, singing bowls or gongs can shift and lighten the energy in a space.
--Smudging with sweetgrass, sage, or incense can cleanse the energy of our physical space and energy body.
--Blessings with water, rituals with fire, anointment with oil help us release the old and begin anew.
-- Refrain from speaking for a day or more. Notice what clears in the mind from observing a period of silence.
--Take a hiatus from television, computer, recorded music, and other technology for several days. Notice how much time you have for connecting with loved ones and with Spirit!
-- Go through closets and clear out clutter.  Give away items you don’t need. See what shifts energetically, and in your life circumstances, when your material world is purified.
--Laugh!. A good, long, belly laugh works wonders for clearing the mind and opening the heart. Check out   www.laughteryoga.org.

In closing, I’d like to add a reminder to be aware of the challenge of focusing on purity in our culture. Western society doesn’t support clean living. We are constantly bombarded with messages to eat junk food, pesticide-laden produce is more affordable and available than its organic counterpart, and our fast-paced life doesn’t allow us enough time to eat pure, home cooking as often as we would like. We are surrounded by environmental pollution, and bombarded with emails, advertising, and toxic messages from the media. Let’s be gentle with ourselves on this path, avoiding self-judgment, rigidity and perfectionism. Let’s support and encourage one another, and enjoy the practice of saucha as a many-layered, loving inquiry.

From purity of food follows the purity of internal organs. From purification of the internal organs, comes unfailing memory. After achievement of memory (i.e. establishment of Soul-consciousness) comes falling into pieces of all knots of life. ~Chandogya Upanishad 7:26:2

Through the knowledge of the Soul, God, one is pure and clean constantly. ~Katha Upanishad 1:3:6

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Maha Shivaratri

This month brings the Hindu festival known as Maha Shivaratri, or "great night of Shiva" (also called simply Shivaratri). This celebration falls on the eve of the new moon in February-March, and is a night set aside for worship and remembrance of Shiva.

The legend says that the gods (devas) and demons were churning the ocean of consciousness in search of the Divine nectar of immortality. However, after a great deal of effort, what emerged was not nectar, but poison. The devas and demons knew that in order to continue churning, and ultimately to unearth the Divine nectar, they could not simply toss the poison aside-- someone had to drink it. Lord Shiva volunteered to swallow the poison for the sake of humanity. As a result, his throat turned blue, although Shiva was not harmed. The divine doctors advised Shiva to stay awake for a full night to allow his body to be fully cleansed of the toxin. The gods and goddesses responded with energetic dances and ecstatic chanting to keep him awake until sunrise.

Each year, in commemoration of this event, Hindus stay awake all night chanting repetitions of the mantra "OM Namah Shivaya." According to tradition, the planetary positions on this night are such that there is a powerful natural upsurge of energy in the human system. It is said to be beneficial for one's physical and spiritual wellbeing to stay awake and aware throughout the night, immersed in singing and prayer.

Shivaratri is also a day of fasting. Observances also involve elaborate pujas (worship rituals)and abhishekas (bathing ceremonies) to the Shiva Lingam (a stone phallus representing Shiva) that include offerings of special (Bilva) leaves. The lingam is bathed with water, milk, and honey and decorated with flowers, garlands, and sandalwood paste.

The lingam is symbolic of the Divine Creative manifestation. Its shape is representative of the power of Shiva, the Lord of Creation, the masculine creative energy. The markings symbolize the feminine energy, the seed which is fertilized to manifest the creative power in the dance of the cosmos.

The Shiva lingam represents the vast potential and possibility that lies within each and every one of us. If you do a search on Google Images for "Shiva lingam", you will see a wide variety of representations. The lingam is often placed in a holder that represents the yoni, a female symbol of the Divine feminine.

Maha Shivaratri is considered to be the prime time for every soul to touch into the primordial consciousness of Nirvana. One receives Shiva's grace and assistance by keeping vigil during the night.. Maha Shivaratri signifies the transition from the darkness of gloom and ignorance to the dawn of divine joy and knowledge.

As Western yogis, it may not be practical or possible for us to stay up all night chanting. But we can reflect upon how we can stay awake and aware through all the toxicity of our modern world. We can create our own rituals to affirm our commitment to staying present and fully alive, awake to our spirit amidst the the poison of media, global violence, war, racism, environmental destruction, and poverty. Can we stay awake to our divinity through it all?

Hindu mythology suggests that Lord Shiva is the founder of yoga, the Adi Guru (first teacher). Whether one accepts this in the literal sense or not, it can be powerful to remember that this practice of yoga, which transforms our lives, began somewhere as a spark of Divine inspiration many millenia ago. It has been passed along through the generations from teacher to student, via countless great and wise masters whose names we will never know. I like to think of it as a seed that was planted that has grown into a great and mighty tree that is spreading its branches in all directions as many styles and traditions of yoga continue to evolve. Today we enjoy the fruits of that tree, and Shiva is the original seed from which it sprouted. As we taste the sweet nectar of these fruits and offer it to one another, we are honoring Lord Shiva and embodying that Divine spark.

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