Monday, June 27, 2011

Asana as Prayer

Yesterday I had the good fortune to participate in an exclusive webcast Q&A session with Ram Dass, one of the most beloved spiritual teachers of our time. As many of you know, Ram Dass is the author of the groundbreaking “Be Here Now” and several other books that have helped make Eastern spirituality accessible to Western minds. As a member of his online satsang, I have the opportunity to send in questions via email and receive his teachings in a live video stream from Maui, where he lives.

During last night’s webcast, a viewer sent in the following question:  “I am a yoga practitioner, and when I do yoga I feel something shift in me energetically, but I don’t feel connected to Spirit. I don’t feel that sense of union that everyone says yoga is about. How does one experience unity and oneness through yoga?”

Ram Dass speaks haltingly (due to the effects of a stroke several years ago), but nevertheless with great wisdom. In essence, he said:

You can let your yoga be God-focused. You can choose to make it simply a practice of physical exercise, or you can let it be an opportunity to direct your mind, heart and body toward Ram, Krishna, or Shiva. Asana is shaking hands with God. All asanas are communications with that Presence, with the One.

He used the sacred Names of Ram, Krishna, and Shiva, but one can focus on any form or name of the Divine. One can do Christ-centered yoga, or offer oneself to the Divine Mother. Or to the Ein Sof, the primordial formlessness that gives rise to all Life. or simply to the Radiance of one’s own true nature.

In yoga, we practice deep and mindful breathing. What if each inbreath were an opening to Grace? What if each outbreath were a surrender of the ego into the ocean of God’s Love?

Asana is body prayer. What if each upward lift of the arms and opening the chest were an act of inviting that river of Grace to fill our hearts and minds? What if each forward bend were an offering of ourselves to be an instrument of God’s Love?  Each inversion a surrender of small self to Big Self?

Yoga practice can be a meditation-in-motion, and a vehicle for prayer. When we bring a devotional quality into our sadhana, we cultivate a deep peace and sense of expansiveness of which the great yogis have spoken:

Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, lessening the tendency for restless breathing, and promoting an identification of oneself as living within the infinite breath of life. ~Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 11, 48

I’ll leave you with this delicious image from The Radiance Sutras, as an invitation to play with movement as prayer. Beyond alignment, placement of the feet, and doing it “correctly” our asana practice can be an exploration of the joy of embodiment:

Rocking, undulating, swaying,
Carried by rhythm,
Cherish the streaming energy
Flooding your body
As a current of the divine.

Oh, Radiant One,
Ride the waves of ecstatic motion
Into a sublime fusion
Of passion and peace.

~Radiance Sutras, #60, translated by Lorin Roche

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Celebrating Summer Solstice with the Gayatri Mantra

Hello Dear Yogis,

Happy Summer Solstice! This is pinnacle of the year, a time to celebrate the fullness of life. Enjoy this longest day of the year, and partake of the sweetness of strawberries and flowers and the verdant earth. In this week's classes, we will be practicing embodying that radiance and abundant prana through our posture flow and chanting.

Summer Solstice is a perfect time to chant the Gayatri Mantra, one of the oldest and most sacred mantras from the Vedas.It's a prayer to the Sun, asking that the radiance of the sun illuminate our minds and guide us on the path toward awakening. Below is the Sanskrit transliteration, followed by a few possible interpretations of the mantra. Interestingly, the translations I've found vary vastly. That's because Sanskrit is a language with many layers of meaning, more poetic than linear, and touches us on a vibrational level. If you google around on the web, I'm sure you'll find many more versions. But more important, I invite you to try chanting it and see what happens energetically in yourself.

Gayatri Mantra

Om Bhur Bhuvah Svaha
Tat savitur varenyam
Bhargo devasya dheemahi
Dhiyo yo na prachodayat

Oh Divine Presence, Creator of the Universe,
May your supreme light
illuminate our intellect and guide us on the path toward enlightenment.


We meditate on that wondrous spirit of the Divine Solar Light, which shines in every dimension of life. May that Light inspire and guide our inner vision.            
Let us honor the unity of Divine Spirit
that pervades all realms of existance:
the earth, the atmosphere and the heavens.

May That most brilliant Divine Light
protect us, sustain us
and illuminate our consciousness

that we might realize
our inherent goodness,
our inborn divinity
and our unity with All That Is.

By this knowledge may our actions be inspired.
If you want to hear some beautiful versions the Gayatri Mantra sung, I recommend renditions by Tina Malia and Shimshai, Deva Premal, and HARC. These are all available on iTunes.

Our asana practice is also an opportunity to discover our own radiance, as breath and movement allow the chattering mind to drop into stillness. We begin to touch into That which is moving us, breathing us, illuminating us, and shimmering in each particle of our being.  May you enjoy that exploration and feel the glow!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Seven Chakras

Dear Yogis and Yoginis,

In our classes this week, we will be exploring the chakras through sound, chanting the bija mantras associated with each one. Chakras are energy centers that are central to the anatomy of the subtle body. The yogic view of the body extends beyond the physical bones, muscles and organs, and understanding and working with the subtle body is central to yoga practice.

The word chakra is Sanskrit for "wheel." It is named as such because they are continually spinning vortexes. There are seven major chakras located in the central core of the body, along the spine (there are also several minor chakras throughout the body, but our focus today will be on the seven main ones). These wheel-like energy centers are swirling intersections of vital life forces, and each one reflects an aspect of consciousness (physical, emotional and spiritual) essential to our lives.

The function of the chakras is to receive, integrate, and transmit information at particular frequencies--sort of like different radio stations along the dial.

Chakras are organizing centers for the reception, assimilation, and transmission of life energies. Our chakras, as core centers, form the coordinating network of our complicated mind/body system. From instinctual behavior to consciously planned strategies, from emotions to artistic creations, the chakras are the master programs that govern our life, loves, learning, and illumination. As seven vibratory modalities, the chakras form a mythical "rainbow bridge," a connecting channel linking Heaven and Earth, mind and body, spirit and matter, past and future. As we spin through the tumultuous times of our present era, the chakras act as gears turning the spiral of evolution, drawing us ever onward toward the still untapped frontiers of consciousness and its infinite potential. ~Anodea Judith, Wheels of Life

Although the chakras themselves are not physical things--you can't cut the body open and see them--there are nerve ganglia, organs, and glands located around and associated with each one. So there are visible corresponding physical structures that are connected with each chakra, linking the more ethereal yogic science with western anatomy and physiology. It is fascinating to see how these two streams so beautifully meet.

We are most fully alive and functioning optimally in mind, body, and spirit when our chakras are balanced, open, and aligned. The shushumna, or central energy channel that runs along the spine, then becomes a clear conduit through which prana easily flows. When one or more of our chakras are blocked, we experience various types of dis-ease. There are many yoga practices that balance and align the chakras, including specific mantras and asanas that benefit each chakra.

The chakra system is a vast exploration, as a science and a spiritual journey. I will be writing more about each chakra in future posts, but here is an overview of the names and qualities of each chakra: 
  • Muladhara, or root chakra, located at the base of the spine, is connected with physical survival, safety, and being grounded. It is associated with the element of earth and the color red.
  • Swadhisthana, or sacral chakra, located just below the navel, is connected with sexuality, pleasure, and emotional connection with others. It is associated with the element of water and the color orange.
  • Manipura means "lustrous jewel," and is found at the solar plexus. It is connected with the will, power, ego, and self-identity. It is associated with the element of fire and the color yellow.
  • Anahata, the heart chakra, is located in the center of the chest and is associated with love, compassion, and balance. It is also called the "bridge chakra" because it connects the lower chakras(our more animal nature) with the higher chakras that move us toward spiritual awakening. It is associated with the element air and the color green.
  • Visshuddha is the throat chakra, connected with expression, communication, and creativity. It is associated with the element of ether, with sound, and the color blue.
  • Ajna, or "third eye", is located at the brow and is connected with intuition, imagination, higher wisdom, and clairvoyance. It is associated with the element of light and the color indigo.
  • Sahasrara, or "crown chakra", is also called the "thousand-petaled lotus", and is found at the top of the head. It also hovers above the head, extending beyond our physical body. It is connected with universal consciousness, non-dualism, bliss and connection with the Divine. It is associated with the element of thought and the color violet or white.
These beautiful, swirling wheels of life are all essential components of our being. Some people mistakenly believe that the lower chakras are negative parts of ourselves, to be transcended so that we may live in bliss. However , all the chakras are important and operate in concert with one another. They are in constant interplay and can only be separated intellectually, for the purposes of study.

Put attention into the luminous connections
Between the centers throughout the body.
The base of the spine and the top of the skull--
The genitals and the heart--
The heart and the throat--
The throat and the forehead--
The forehead to the crown of the head.
Enter that glowing net of light
With a focus born of awe
And even your bones will know enlightenment.

~from The Radiance Sutras, translated by Lorin Roche

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Summer Day

Hello Dear Yogis,
As we approach Summer Solstice, I've been enjoying these long days, with early mornings in the garden and sunset bike rides. To be honest, I've noticed that it's harder for me to keep my  motivation up to do sadhana indoors--expansive movement outdoors (hiking biking, running, swimming) is much more of a pull these days than doing asana practice with four walls around me. Have you noticed that, too?
But I find that when I do my asana practice, it helps my body more fully enjoy the outdoor exercise, as there's a sense of greater ease and openness in my physical body. And, the breathwork and prayerful focus helps my heart and mind be able to take in the beauty of the natural world with more attention, gratitude, and awe.
Taking a yoga class is the perfect way to keep your asana practice strong throughout all the lovely distractions of summertime. Sharing movement, deep breathing, chanting and deep silence with a community of yogis and yoginis is a gift--one I hope to be able to share with you this week.
The following poem by Mary Oliver speaks to that awe and wonder that yoga and meditation help to cultivate:

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--­
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down­--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

 Mary Oliver

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