Thursday, December 18, 2014

Honoring the Sun with Movement, Mantra and Breath

As we approach the Winter Solstice, we in the Northern Hemisphere are experiencing a time of increasing darkness. On December 21st, the Longest Night, the diminishing daylight reaches its peak, and the sun begins its gradual ascent back to the balance of Spring Equinox, returning to fullness on the Longest Day, Summer Solstice.

The practice of Surya Namaskar, or Salutation to the Sun, offers us a way to honor the sun's journey, to reflect on the many gifts that we receive from the sun, and to welcome its return to fullness.  It is a meditation-in-motion that draws upon the qualities of our own divine light, connecting with the radiance of our true Self.  This is a practice which is both contemplative and physical, toning and strengthening our muscles, nourishing our internal organs, awakening the energy body with prana, and cultivating a sense of devotion and gratitude.

Our practice begins by tuning in to the breath. Just as the sun moves from emptiness to fullness as it circles from Solstice to Solstice, and rises and sets from day into night, so moves our breath--filling, emptying, filling again in this continual, life-sustaining rhythm. If we add a short retention at the top of the inhale and at the bottom of the exhale, we mirror the pause of the sun at the Winter and Summer Solstices (the word "solstice" comes from the Latin sol, meaning "sun," and stitium, which means "to pause or stop." The sun appears to linger for a while at the peak of long, light-filled days in Summer, or in the very short, dark days of Winter, before we can perceive a slow shift in the length of the days). So as we turn our attention to our breath, inviting in a pause in fullness and in emptiness, we still the mind and calm the nervous system, while honoring the rhythm of life.

While taking a few minutes to breathe deeply,  try bringing the hands into Surya Mudra (the mudra of the sun), which increases the fire (Agni) element in the body. This mudra creates warmth, preparing us mentally, physically and energetically for Surya Namaskar.

The twelve sun mantras
Every year the sun passes through twelve different phases,  known in Western astrology as the Zodiac,, and 'rashis' in Hindu astrology.  Each rashi has a specific attribute or mood, and in each of these twelve moods the sun is given a different name. These twelve names comprise the twelve Vedic sun mantras, which are to be mentally repeated in their respective order in conjunction with the twelve movements of surya namaskara.

These sun mantras are not merely names of the sun, but every sound syllable contained in them is the vehicle of a basic, eternal energy (shakti) represented by the sun itself. By repetition and concentration on these mantras, one's entire mental and subtle body will be energized.

Although these mantras do not require intellectual understanding, translation of their meaning is given below for those who wish to use the mantras as a form of attunement with the source of spiritual illumination symbolized by the sun. 

Here is the sequence of twelve postures of Surya Namaskar, with the associated mantras:

1. Om Mitraya Namaha
(Salutations to the friend of all)
Pranamasana: standing with palms joined at the heart center
This first position embodies the attitude of reverence to the source of all life as we know it. The sun is regarded as the universal friend, endlessly giving light, heat and energy to support this and all the other planets. In the scriptures, Mitra is described as calling us to activity, sustaining earth and sky, and beholding all creatures without discrimination, just as the early morning sun signals the beginning of the day's activities, and sheds its light on all life.

2. Om Ravaye Namaha
(Salutations to the shining one)
Hasta Uttanasana: hands raised to the sky, slightly bending backwards (if comfortable)
Ravaye means one who shines and offers divine blessings upon all life. In this position, we are stretching our whole being upwards, towards the source of light, to receive these blessings.

3. Om Suryqya Namaha
Uttanasana: Standing forward bend, hands to the floor
(Salutations to the one who induces activity)
Here the sun is in a very dynamic aspect as the deity, Surya. In ancient vedic mythology Surya was worshipped as the Lord of the Heavens, pictured crossing the sky in his fiery chariot, drawn by seven horses.  The seven horses actually represent the seven rays or emanations of the supreme consciousness, which manifest as the seven planes of existence, bhu (earthly, material), bhuvar (intermediate, astral), suwar (subtle, heavenly), mahar (the abode of the devas), janah (the abode of divine souls who have transcended ego), tapah (the abode of enlightened siddhas) and satyam (the ultimate truth of reality). Surya symbolizes the supreme consciousness itself, in control of all these different planes of manifestation. 

4. Om Bhanave Namaha
(Salutations to the one who illumines)
Ashwa Sanchalanasana: Low lunge, back knee rests on mat. fingertips to the floor
The sun is the physical representation of the guru or teacher, who removes the darkness of our delusions, just as the darkness of the night is removed with every dawn. In this position, we turn our face towards this illumination and pray for an end to the dark night of ignorance.

5. Om Khagaya Namaha
(Salutations to the one who moves through the sky)
Plank pose: shoulders over wrists, arms and legs straight, body in one line.
It is the sun's daily movement through the sky which is the basis of our measurement of time, from the earliest use of a sun dial to the sophisticated devices used today. In this posture, we offer obeisance to the one by whom time is measured, and pray for progress in life.

6. Om Pushne Namaha
(Salutations to the giver of strength and nourishment )
Ashtanga Namaskar: knees, chest, chin, hands and balls of feet touch the floor, buttocks raised.
The sun is the source of all strength, nourishing us with energy, light and life. We offer respects in ashtanga namaskara by touching all the eight corners of our body to the ground. In essence we are offering our whole being in the hope that the sun may bestow mental, physical and spiritual strength and nourishment upon us.

7. Om Hiranya Garbhaya Namaha
(Salutations to the golden cosmic self)
Bujangasana: Cobra pose--palms down, under shoulders, chest and torso raised, with elbows bent.
Hiranya Garbha is also known as the golden egg, resplendent as the sun, in which Brahma was born as the manifestation of Self-existence. Hiranya Garbha is the seed of causality, thus the whole universe is contained within Hiranya Garbha in the potential state prior to manifestation. In the same way, all life is potential in the sun, which represents the great cosmic principle. We offer respects to the sun in this position, praying for the awakening of creativity.

8. Om Marichaye Namaha
(Salutations to the rays of the sun)
Adho Mukha Svanasana: Downward-facing dog. Inverted V, hips high, hands and feet flat.
Maricha is one of Brahma's sons, just as the rays of light are produced from the sun, but his name also means mirage. For our whole life, we seek after a true meaning or purpose, like the thirsty man seeks after water in a desert, but is fooled by mirages dancing on the horizon produced by the sun's rays. In this position, we pray for true illumination and discrimination in order to be able to distinguish between the real and the unreal.

9. Om Adityaya Namaha
(Salutations to the son of Aditi)
Ashwa Sanchalanasana: Low lunge (whichever leg stepped back now comes forward).
Aditi is one of the many names given to the cosmic mother, Mahashakti. She is the mother of all the gods, boundless and inexhaustible, the creative power from which all divisions of power proceed. The sun is one of her children, or manifestations. In this position, we salute Aditi, the infinite cosmic mother.

10. Om Savitre Namaha
(Salutations to the stimulating power of the sun)
Uttanasana: Standing forward bend, hands to the floor
Savitre is known as the stimulator, the arouser, and is often associated with Surya.  Savitre is said to represent the sun before rising, stimulating and arousing us into waking activity, and Surya is said to represent the sun after sunrise, when activity begins. Therefore, in this position, we salute Savitre to obtain the vivifying power of the sun.

11. Om Arkaya Namaha
(Salutations to the one who is fit to be praised)
Hasta Uttanasana: hands raised to the sky, slightly bending backwards 
Arka means energy. The sun is the source of most of the energy in the world we know. In this position, we are offering respects to this source of life and energy.

12. Om Bhaskaraya Namaha
(Salutations to the one who leads to enlightenment)
Pranamasana: standing with palms joined at the heart center
In this final salutation we offer respects to the sun as a symbol of the great revealer of all transcendental and spiritual truths. It lights up the pathway leading to our ultimate goal of liberation. In this position, we pray that this pathway may be revealed to us.

Finally, we can end our practice in Savasana, noticing the enlivening effects of Surya Namaskar. 

Note: The above interpretation of the sun mantras is referenced from the book “Surya Namaskara” from the Bihar School of Yoga.

Listen and practice along with this 16 minute recording:

Monday, August 25, 2014


The worldwide yoga community lost one of its most beloved masters last week--BKS Iyengar passed away at the age of 95 in Pune, India. Actually, it's never the case that we "lose" someone. He touched, inspired and transformed the lives of so many yogis, and he lives on through his teachings and the many teachers all over the globe that will continue to carry his lineage forward. I never had the opportunity to study with him personally, but I have had teachers who did. In that way, BKS Iyengar has shaped my life as a yogi.

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, better known as B.K.S. Iyengar, died Aug. 20 at the age of 95. The Indian yoga guru helped popularize yoga around the world and wrote 14 books on the subject.

Mr. Iyengar was born on Dec. 14, 1918, into a poor family in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. He was a sickly child who suffered multiple illnesses, including typhoid and tuberculosis. “My arms were thin, my legs were spindly, and my stomach protruded in an ungainly manner,” he wrote. “My head used to hang down, and I had to lift it with great effort.”

When he was 15, his brother-in-law, the yogi Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, asked Iyengar, to come to Mysore, so as to improve his health through yoga practice. There, Iyengar learned asana practice, which steadily improved his health. Krishnamacharya had Iyengar and other students give yoga demonstrations in the Maharaja's court at Mysore, which had a positive influence on Iyengar.

Iyengar considered his association with his brother-in-law a turning point in his life, saying that over a two-year period "he [Krishnamacharya] only taught me for about ten or fifteen days, but those few days determined what I have become today!"

By the time he was 18, he moved to Pune to practice yoga and to teach it to others.

Mr. Iyengar created his own brand of yoga, called Iyengar yoga, and established studios in 72 countries where yoga practitioners are taught ways to improve breathing, concentration and meditation.

By the mid-1950s, word of Iyengar yoga spread in Europe, where he began teaching many new converts, including violinist Yehudi Menuhin and author Aldous Huxley.

The popularity of Iyengar yoga spurred him to write a book called “Light on Yoga,” explaining the 216 yoga postures that formed what he called the science and art of yoga. The book became a global bestseller, with more than 3 million copies sold, and has been translated into 17 languages.

Iyengar attracted his students by offering them just what they sought – which tended to be physical stamina and flexibility. He conducted demonstrations and later, when a scooter accident dislocated his spine, began exploring the use of props to help disabled people practice Yoga. He also drew inspiration from Hindu deities such as Yoga Narasimha and stories of yogis using trees to support their asanas.

Mr. Iyengar, recognizable by his bushy eyebrows and silvery shoulder-length hair, practiced yoga well into his 90s. He practiced asanas, including headstands, for 3 hours, and pranayamas for an hour daily. Besides this, he mentioned that he found himself performing non-deliberate pranayamas at other times.

Iyengar yoga’s physically challenging poses and breathing techniques have been adopted by mainstream medical practitioners to help patients who have diabetes, high blood pressure and chronic back pain.

In 2004, Time magazine named Mr. Iyengar one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth a hundred thousand.  Please check out this video of him at age 59, through which you can get a sense of the power and grace that he embodied: 

RIP, Guriji.

Monday, August 4, 2014

What's in a Name?

I want to share with you a significant change in my life. Some of you may know that I went on a couple of mini-pilgrimages this past month. In early July I was fortunate enough to be in the company of a living saint from India, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, or  "Amma for short. A couple of weeks after that, I took a retreat in Virginia at the ashram of the great master Swami Satchidananda. He is no longer in his body, but his presence, love and wisdom can be powerfully felt through all of his devoted disciples that have kept his teachings alive. 
The love of a guru or spiritual teacher can touch a person  in mysterious ways, often difficult to describe. One of the things that became clear to me as a result of these recent journeys is a decision to take on a new name. In the yoga tradition, it is common for one to take on a Sanskrit name,  which is often given by one’s teacher, but can also be chosen by the student. The name may be that of a deity, or a quality that one aspires to embody. Taking on a spiritual name is a way of continually reminding the practitioner to practice and cultivate that quality within themselves.
The new name that I am embracing is Jyoti, which in Sanskrit means the "effulgent Light." I love it because it sounds close enough to my given name, but its meaning reminds me of the radiance of my true nature. So when my awareness becomes clouded by negative thoughts, fear, or simply forgetting Spirit, just having someone call my name will be a gentle and loving reminder of who I truly am. 

I won’t be offended if you still want to call me Jody, but if you do remember to address me as Jyoti, I will be most delighted and grateful.

                        asatoma sadgamaya
                     tamasoma jyotir gamaya
                     mrityorma amritam gamaya

                     OM shanti shanti shanti

                               Lead me from the unreal to the real
                               Lead me from darkness to light
                               Lead me from the illusion of death to knowing myself as Eternal
                               May there be universal peace

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Jaya Hanuman

There's a challenging yoga pose where one does a split, with one leg straight forward and the other extending straight behind. Arms are reaching skyward, and the chest and heart are open in a gesture of unwavering YES; it is as if one is leaping forward with trememdous power and courage. This posture is Hanumanasana, the pose of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god.

Tuesday, April 15th is Hanuman Jayanti, the Hindu festival honoring the birthday of  Hanuman. So, I thought I'd share with you a little bit about this beloved character, and perhaps you'll be inspired to try the pose (or a more accessible, modified version, such as ardha Hanumanasana) in your practice this month!

Hanuman is worshiped as a symbol of physical strength, perseverance and devotion. In the epic tale known as the Ramayana, Hanuman is the servant of Lord Rama, and he demonstrates his unwavering and complete devotion to his Master with amazing feats of courage and strength. At one point in the story, Rama’s beloved wife Sita is abducted by the demon king Ravana, and she is held captive on the island of Lanka. Hanuman is given the task of crossing the ocean to find Sita. By the power of unwavering intention and loving service, he makes himself grow to a colossal size, and fixing his thoughts on the Divine Goddess Sita, he leaps across the ocean in a single bound. Lighting his tail on fire, he takes to the streets of Lanka and burns down the palace where Sita’s captor dwells.

After Rama and Sita are reunited, Hanuman is given a string of pearls as a token of appreciation. He immediately breaks the necklace and begins cracking each pearl open with his teeth. When asked why he is doing this,  Hanuman replies that he wants to see if Rama's name is present in the pearls. If it isn’t, then the necklace has no value to him. Sita then asks Hanuman if Rama is inside of him as well. At this point, the monkey god rips open his chest to reveal the name of Rama inscribed on every organ, muscle and bone, and the images of Sita and Rama are found on his heart.

The story of Hanuman’s strength and devotion are also depicted in the Hanuman Chalisa, a forty verse hymn written by 16th century Hindu saint and poet Tulsi Das. Many find great inspiration in singing these verses. In fact, there are many versions with different melodies by the kirtan artist Krishna Das. On his CD and book set Flow of Grace, Krishna Das sings the chalisa and provides instruction, interpretation and proper Hindi pronunciation for those who wish to learn to sing this beautiful hymn.

The Hanuman Chalisa is chanted specifically to clean the mirror of our hearts so we can come into direct contact with the grace of Hanuman. His river of grace flows into our nearly dried-up stream and fills it with the water of life, awakening us to the awareness of Ram's (God's) presence within. This is when our hearts truly come alive. Once the waters of two rivers mingle, they can never be separated.   ~Krishna Das, in Flow of Grace

Hanuman inspires us to find strength within ourselves we might never have known we had. He is an example of discovering our forgotten potency. It wasn’t until he took that giant leap across the ocean that he became aware of his own strength. It was something he had never done before--it was a “leap of faith.” But because his whole heart and mind were directed toward loving and serving God, this hidden potency emerged and empowered him. It is said that the word impossible is not a word in a devotee’s dictionary.

So, I invite you to reflect on an area of your life where you can offer your unwavering service and devotion. What calls you forth to summon your inner strength and courage? Can you take that leap of faith?

Hanuman, bestow your grace upon us,
Divine Guru
O, Son of the Wind, reliever of suffering,
embodiment of blessings,
live always in our hearts.
                            ~Hanuman Chalisa


Monday, March 31, 2014

Swish for Health!

I’m going to let you in on a weird and wonderful part of my morning routine. In addition to the typical activities you might expect a yogi to engage in—asana, pranayama, mantra, and meditation—there is something else I do every day upon waking. It’s called “oil pulling”, and it’s an ancient Ayurvedic practice for detoxifying the body and maintaining good oral health.

I first learned about oil pulling in a teacher training retreat at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, MA. The traditional Indian healing art of Ayurveda and the practice of yoga are considered to be “sister sciences,” and therefore it is recommended that students of yoga adopt some of the simple yet powerful Ayurvedic self-care routines that can have potent beneficial effects on one’s health.

Most of us have probably noticed a film of “gunk” that coats the tongue upon first waking up. This coating is full of bacteria and toxins from your body that end up in the mouth, causing “morning breath” and can contribute to poor oral health if not properly cleansed.  The swishing of oil in the mouth acts as a magnet that absorbs these toxic waste products, which you then spit out.

For oil pulling therapy, all you need is a tablespoon of raw, unrefined, organic sesame, coconut, or cold-pressed sunflower oil. If you use coconut oil, which stays solid at room temperature, it will take a minute or so to melt in your mouth and become liquid. If you use sesame oil, make sure it is the raw kind, NOT the toasted!

Here’s the procedure:

1) Using a tongue scraper (a U-shaped piece of metal with handles --you can find these in any health food store), remove the film by gently scraping it off the tongue. Do this upon first waking, before drinking, eating, or brushing your teeth.

2) Take 1 tablespoon of oil and swish it around in your mouth for 15-20 minutes. You can do this while you are in the shower, getting dressed, or preparing your breakfast. Swish until the oil turns milky white in your mouth.

3) Spit out the oil. Do NOT swallow it! I recommend spitting into a cup and then pouring it outdoors, so as not to gum up your sink drain. Some people spit into the toilet, but I’m not sure whether that can do damage to pipes over time. Best to save it in a jar and offer it to the earth.

It’s important to actively swish and “chew” the oil. When you move your chin, the mouth will create saliva as part of digestion. The poisons are drawn from the body through the mucous membranes of the mouth. That is why it’s important not to swallow the oil because it has become poisonous from all the swishing.

4) After spitting out the oil, the mouth should be rinsed with water and the teeth brushed thoroughly. I usually do a couple more scrapes of the tongue before brushing my teeth.

If we were to take a drop of this liquid and view it under a microscope, we would see all kinds of moving fibers, which are microbes in the first stage of their growth. Our mouths are the home to billions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other parasites and their toxins. Candida and Streptococcus are common residents in our mouths. It is these types of germs and their toxic waste products that cause gum disease and tooth decay and contribute to many other health problems, including arthritis and heart disease. Oil pulling has a very powerful detoxifying effect by literally pulling out disease-causing elements from the body and restoring vibrant health.

Oil pulling is most effective first thing in the morning, before breakfast. To enhance the healing process, it can be done three times a day –but always before meals and on an empty stomach.

It is possible that, in the beginning, there might be a slight worsening of symptoms (a healing crisis), especially in those who suffer from several illnesses at the same time. This mainly occurs when the pathogenic agents begin to disappear, or when one inflamed part of the body interacts with another. According to Ukrainian physician Dr. F. Karach, A worsening of symptoms is only a sign that the illness is disappearing and the body is recuperating.

Obviously, if you have a serious condition that is not improving, please see a health care professional!

Dr. Karach says that oil pulling therapy helps to heal headaches, bronchitis, tooth pain, thrombosis, eczema, ulcers, intestinal diseases , heart and kidney diseases, encephalitis and gynecological diseases. It can prevent the growth of malignant tumors and, in some cases, reverse cancerous growth. Chronic blood diseases, paralysis, diseases of nerves, stomach, lungs and liver and sleeplessness are also cured, as well as reverse the damaging effects of chemical drugs.

I can’t vouch for all of those claims, but I can happily say this: I’ve been swishing with sesame oil every day now for over two years. I had previously suffered from chronic periodontal disease, and have had several surgeries and extractions. Since I’ve made oil pulling part of my daily routine, the periodontitis has completely stabilized, and my gums are free from any infection.

Oil pulling has been an easy practice to add to my morning regimen. I typically follow it with using  a neti pot filled with warm salt water to cleanse the nasal passages (the subject of a future article…).

If you decide to try oil pulling yourself, give it a few weeks before deciding whether to stop or continue. Have fun (this is one of those things where you really have to have a sense of humor). May you swish your way to radiant health!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Holi--The Festival of Colors

On March 17th, many Americans, and especially those of Irish heritage, will be puttin’ on the green for St. Patrick’s Day.  But in India, March 17th will be a day to burst out in a rainbow of many colors, as is traditional during the Hindu festival of Holi.  This “Festival of Colors” has been described as “the world’s happiest event”  as it breathes an air of joy and merriment. People “bury their hatchets” with a warm embrace and throw their worries to the wind. Every nook and corner presents a colorful sight. Young and old alike are covered with colors (red, green, yellow, blue, black and silver). People are seen singing, dancing and throwing colors on each other.

Holi welcomes the beginning of the new season, spring. In 17th century literature, it was identified as a festival that celebrated agriculture, commemorated good spring harvests and the fertile land. Hindus believe it is a time of enjoying spring's abundant colours and saying farewell to winter. Holi festivities mark the beginning of new year to many Hindus, as well as a justification to reset and renew ruptured relationships, end conflicts and accumulated emotional impurities from past.

Celebrated with unstoppable energy, Holi in India transcends all people-created biases and differences of caste and gender. The fervor of Holi festival takes into its grip everyone, especially the youngsters. Reflecting the heightened spirit of the Holi festivities, a strong sense of revelry is overly obvious on this day. People express their emotions and demonstrate their affections and friendliness with complete freedom. This openness is apparent in Holi celebrations such as home get-togethers, Holi evening parties and card-game night-outs.

Holi is observed with special importance in the North of India. It solemnizes the love of Radha and Krishna, one of the many Divine couples in Hinduism. The spraying of colored powders recalls the love sport of Lord Krishna and His devotees.

Friday, January 3, 2014

What Matters

This poster speaks Truth to me:"Remember, it doesn't matter how deep into a posture you go…what does matter is who you are when you get there." And, one of my Kripalu Teachers, Priti Robyn Ross, so beautifully proclaims:

Therefore….In the posture have integrity in your alignment and find integrity with your direct experience and then live in integrity when you step off your mat…that is Yoga.

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