Yoga for the Present

Yoga tells us that as long as we are subject to the pairs of opposites, we will suffer. When we connect instead to the infinite within, we may learn to experience true peace and joy. The current situation is certainly challenging me as I struggle with the dualities of hope and fear, gain and loss, success and failure. I feel best when I am immersed in the moment, whether that is while doing yoga, playing music, gardening, cooking or walking.

I am thinking of you – my yoga friends, students and colleagues – every day, and imagining that we are all going through similar ups and downs. I hope you are finding ways to stay present, cheerful and optimistic, despite the enormous challenge that we face.

Part of being present means accepting things as they are, and that means accepting that the way I can share yoga right now is with a computer. While I was hesitant about this online teaching endeavor, it has been unexpectedly rewarding. I find that I can see my students, make suggestions, and see whether my instructions have been understood. The classes are truly interactive, and I am grateful for the Zoom platform that is making these classes possible.

I am delighted to be connecting with the students who have joined me on this online journey. It is wonderful to see that many students who normally take one class a week are now able to take two or three classes a week. With travel time taken out of the equation, there is more time for yoga classes! For some of us, new daily schedules may now allow more time for yoga and other pursuits. You may be taking this opportunity to dive into your personal practice, trusting your training and inner guidance.

I understand that taking a yoga class through an electronic device may not sound appealing to everyone, but right now it is the only option. I am enjoying my opportunity to take a couple classes per week with my teacher, and it is a silver lining within the chaos of this strange time. If you have not tried an online class because you are unsure about what the experience will be like, I warmly invite you to join us and find out. Students have discovered that they enjoy having the chance to practice in their own space in the comfort of their home. Some students have found that they feel more relaxed and comfortable without me seeing and correcting them, so they simply turn their camera off.

The health and well being of my students and teachers is very important to me. I am doing my best to keep up with the news and best practice recommendations for when we do reopen. For now, the way to take a yoga class with me is online. There is no way to predict how much longer the onsite studio will be closed, but the online studio is open now. 

View our schedule of Online Yoga Classes

However you choose to practice your yoga in this challenging time, I wish you all the best. May your practice bring you balance, self-knowledge and serenity.

Sending love and light,
Karen

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Unshakeable Serenity

The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali begins with a description of kriyayoga, the three tiered “yoga of action.” Kriyayogais comprised of intense, unwavering practice, self-study and deep reflection, and surrender to the divine. In his commentary B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “By following the precept of kriyayoga, all aspirants may learn to live in unshakeable serenity regardless of circumstances.”

I recall reading these words for the first time, and being struck so forcefully by their power. I knew immediately that “unshakeable serenity” was something I had never experienced. But here a great yoga master was telling me that inner peace was possible, and that there was a path to attain it. We must work with commitment, whether in our yoga practice or in our everyday lives. We must then reflect on what we have done so we can learn from it. And then we must let go.

Like many of us, whatever serenity I have developed has been shaken by the enormity of the challenge we now face. Whatever difficulties we may be encountering, our yogic practices are more important than ever to carry us through these tumultuous times.

A few weeks ago, I was teaching my classes one of the definitions of yoga from the Bhagavad Gita, and this definition also touches on our ability to stay calm in all conditions. Verse II:48 says that “Yoga is perfect evenness of mind.” This state of equanimity can be experienced only when we learn to relate to the infinite being within, rather than to constantly changing circumstances. Circumstances are changing fast right now, so this is a tall order.

I am trying to start with simple things. A daily walk outside feels essential right now. While on the walk, I try to see the shapes, perceive the sounds, and give myself over to the beauty of nature. In my yoga practice each day, I aspire to be fully in the yoga. As I immerse myself in the body, breath and mind, I allow myself to put other concerns at bay.

I am working hard on learning the technology that will allow me to support your yoga practice, and for you to support Green Tara Yoga should you be so moved. You can check the Green Tara Yoga Homepage to find support materials as we develop them, and also to learn how you can support us.

Learning new technology tools is proving to be a steep learning curve. As I practiced this morning, I realized that to calm my nerves, I needed to do head supported forward extensions. Practicing Downward Facing Dog with my head on a block, I felt better within just a few minutes, and I had an insight. I realized that every moment in which I remain calm contributes to the collective calm. By making the effort to remain centered and peaceful, I help both myself and others. I can dedicate each moment of serenity to the benefit of all beings, one breath at a time.

Another strategy that is helping my serenity is to recognize that we are all together in this situation, and that many people may be facing much tougher situations than I am. I have been chanting the Traditional Prayer for All Beings. This prayer is chanted for the welfare of humanity as a whole. If you would like, please join me in this practice, expressing our wishes for the health and well being of everyone on our planet.

May this prayer and all our positive thoughts, words and actions be of benefit to all.

Namaste,
Karen

OM
SARVE BHAVANTU SUKHINA
SARVE SANTU NIRĀMAYĀḤ
SARVE BHADRĀNI PAŚYANTU
MĀKAŚCID DUKHA BHĀGBHAVET
OM ŚĀNTIḤ ŚĀNTIḤ ŚĀNTI

OM
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be free from illness.
May all beings see and experience that which is spiritually uplifting.
May no one suffer.
OM peace peace peace

Audio File of Karen Chanting the Prayer for All Beings

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The Many Forms of the Divine

In just two days, my time here will be over and I will be headed home. It has been an incredible month in so many ways. I have remained free of illness and injury. I have had lovely roommates and a wonderfully supportive place to stay. I have received fantastic guidance in the classes and done my best to apply those lessons in the practices. It is hard to sum up what has been learned or gained, since the effects of this immersion will continue to unfold for a long time to come.

I was thinking about how my practice needs to become more intense when I get home. I have gained strength, mobility, confidence and self-awareness during this month. Certain poses are coming better. Understanding of what it means to practice and how to engage with the material has deepened. I do not want to lose what I have gained! But how do I keep this all going once I return the duties of home life?

My thought is that I will have to be more disciplined with my time and that I will have to start working harder. What does it mean to work hard? When we “work hard” over time, difficult things may become easier. And when we “take it easy” we may find that challenging things are less difficult. Patanjali tells us that practitioners can be mild, moderate or intense. If the practitioner is intense, then the goal of yoga is near. Abhi explained that we misunderstand intensity to be “working hard” and “buckets of sweat.” Real intensity, she said, means working with greater and greater sensitivity. While in one way that is actually more challenging, it also seems more doable and productive than just gearing up to exert myself more and more.

Last weekend, I had a most enjoyable afternoon touring some of the temples of Pune. We visited a centuries old Shiva temple and cave carved out of solid rock. The OM I chanted within the cave resonated for several seconds after I stopped producing a sound, and it was goosebump inducing! We took in the energy and beauty of temples to Kali, Hanuman and Ganesh. We ended the afternoon at a Krishna festival, as it was Krishna’s birthday. Multicolored lights and huge animated displays created a colorful and festive atmosphere.

In the Indian culture, the Divine is depicted in many forms. Each deity has a different function, energy and areas of life over which they preside. The myriad forms of the Ultimate allow practitioners to work with the form that suits them or the form that is suited to their need at the time.

The subject of Iyengar Yoga also manifests in many forms, all leading us toward the goal of Self Realization. Abhi spoke to us about this shortly after our arrival. She said that our view of Iyengar Yoga might be limited to those particular aspects that we are attracted to, but that we might be missing the true breadth and depth of the subject.

Here are some of the ways I have been taught Iyengar Yoga during the month here at RIMYI!

  • Quick movement, jumping, exertion
  • Long, slow holding of poses
  • Many detailed instructions
  • One or two instructions that run through the entire class
  • Anatomical precision and explanation
  • Little or no instruction – silence
  • Metaphor and analogy
  • Graphic imagery of various geometric patterns on or within the body
  • Long rests in between exertions
  • Little or no rest
  • Comparative study – try things different ways and notice the different effects
  • Many props
  • No props
  • Leading with the body or the breath or the mind
  • Various configurations of body, breath and mind
  • Holding a pose for a set amount of time
  • Coming in and out of a pose as needed
  • Repeating the same pose many times, the same way or in different ways
  • Doing many different poses with no repetition
  • Activity: press, dig, hit, tuck, extend, reach, cut, lift, broaden
  • Receptivity: soften, recede, let go, release, relax

So all of that is Iyengar Yoga. This method supports us in our quest to become more open minded and versatile as we take the inward journey through the kosas. With all these approaches and more at our disposal, we have the tools we need to continue our growth through all the circumstances that life delivers to us.

I find that my appreciation for B.K.S. Iyengar, Geeta Iyengar, Prashant Iyengar, Sunita Iyengar, Abhi Iyengar, all the institute teachers and my teachers at home, just continues to grow and grow. I hope that I can take what they have given me and put it into practice, not only for my own sake, but also so I can become more helpful to others.

Thank you so much for being part of the yoga community. I will be happy to be back home soon!

In love and light,
Karen

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Container and Contents

In yoga philosophy, one way of looking at our existence is through the lens of the five kosas or sheaths. These are the anatomical, physiological, mental, intellectual and soul levels of our being. These layers move from the gross to the subtle and from the periphery to the core. Like nesting dolls or the layers of an onion, each sheath is the container for another layer within. The skeleton and the muscles are the outermost layer, creating our structure and our shape and providing a container for the other layers. The organs and fluids of the body create the next layer, and we could call this organic body the contents of the anatomical layer. B.K.S. Iyengar has written that the kosas are like a rainbow, with no clear cut delineation between the various sheaths. The organs of the nervous system, including the sensory organs, the brain and spinal cord and the nerve fibers, are part of the physiological body, but they closely touch the next layer – the mind and emotions. The final two layers are subtle and hard to comprehend – intuitive, discriminative intelligence, and the blissful state in which we perceive the soul.

The scheme of the kosas gives us a map for the inward journey. As the month is winding down and we enter our final week here, I find myself wondering just how much of the content I have received I can actually hold in my container. Another word for container or pot is kumbhak, which refers to retaining the breath in pranayama practice. If the pot is flawed, it cannot hold the contents placed inside it. In yoga practice, we carefully and diligently work to develop the health and vitality of the first two kosas – the outer and inner body – so that we have the physical energy, mental capacity and emotional stability to absorb, understand and integrate the profound teaching we are being given. Our container must be sound.

I am sure that the learning will continue to unfold over the months and years ahead. But for the moment, it is hard to take in the breadth of what has been given. There has been some time to reflect, but in general, I have been completely engaged with the requirements of each day. It will be interesting to see how the effects of this month carry over into my practice and teaching once I return home.

On Tuesday, August 20, the Institute celebrated the fifth Punyatithi or death anniversary of B.K.S. Iyengar. The hall was packed for a talk given by Prashant Iyengar entitled “Understanding Guruji.” The beautiful altar was adorned with flowers and there was a joyful feeling in the room of gratitude toward this great man who gave so much to his students. Prashant’s ability as a speaker is just fantastic. His insights into Guruji, his practice and his teaching were illuminating. I will do my best to summarize Prashant’s remarks, although I will say now that that is a difficult job. Prashant is eloquent, articulate and subtle. All mistakes in the following are my own, and any insight or truth is from Prashant.

Prashant first explained that even though Mr. Ieyngar had a very short time with his guru, that contact triggered the impressions (samskaras) of yoga within him. His energy level was super human. We have often heard that he worked “hard” and that is true. But we cannot really relate to what that means, because his capacity for work was super human. He was on a “high speed track.” Prashant said that Guruji’s ability was so far beyond that of even a developed practitioner, that it was like comparing the running capacity of an Olympic runner to that of a cheetah! 

Because his energy, intellect and practice were at such a high level, he could not actually teach what he practiced or what he knew. He had to teach what the students could practice. Prashant said that Guruji had a vivid imagination and he would devise ways for students to practice, even though he might never do those things himself. For example, Prashant said Guruji never practiced chair Shoulder Balance. That was invented for the benefit of the students. Even though Guruji did not teach what he practiced, it was from his practice that he derived what he should teach.

Prashant said that often, those who are great are not famous. Even more often, those who are famous are not great. Guruji had both greatness and fame. But the reasons he was famous were not the same as the reasons he was great. His true greatness could not be comprehended. He was famous for the most outward aspects of his work. But his true inner greatness could not really be understood by us. He had world wide acclaim for things that were not so important – the important things were hidden to the world. His contribution to the world and his contribution to yoga were two different things.

Prashant ended with a fantastic cosmic map, reminding us that within the vastness of the universe, the galaxy and the solar system, the earth is a speck, India is a speck and we ourselves are just specks of dust. If we primarily relate to the world, we are relating to the speck. The globe is a speck of dust in the vastness of the universe, but inside each of us is not just a universe, but a multiverse. Multi-million universes reside within us, and if we go inward, our journey will be on an astronomical scale. If we go inside, it all opens up for us.

So to know what B.K.S Iyengar was, who he was, and what was the nature of his greatness, we cannot turn to Google or Wikipedia or a biography. To know what Guruji was we will have to know yoga.

Wow – an amazing and mind opening talk! I hope we all continue to be inspired to take the inward journey and discover the vastness within ourselves, discovering all the layers within layers. As B.K.S. Iyengar took the journey inward through the kosas to experience freedom and beatitude, so should we do our best to take that journey as far as we are able. May your practice flourish!

In love and light,
Karen

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