Stilling the Mind through Yoga

As many of you know, I will be leaving on July 29 for my fifth trip to Pune, India, the home of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI). There I will have the opportunity to learn from Abhi and Prashant Iyengar and other institute teachers, and to relax deeply into my daily practice and study of the yoga sutras, pranayama and asana. Preparation for the trip is complicated, but I am slowly making my way through various lists of tasks to be completed before I embark.

While in India, I plan to blog regularly about my experiences, so I hope you will check in to see how it is all going. I absolutely love hearing your comments, so please engage! The blog is a great way for me to stay connected to my friends ands students at home. If you want to receive the blog in your email, please subscribe using the form on the right.

Over the last couple months, I have been posting some of my published articles about yoga philosophy. I hope you will enjoy my thoughts on the opening aphorisms of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

May your practice flourish, for the benefit of all beings!


Stilling the Mind through Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali begin with a simple statement, “Now the teaching on yoga begins.” This first sutra or aphorism is a way of calling us to attention, so we can receive the wisdom contained in the teachings that will follow. The very first word of this treatise on yoga philosophy is artha or now. In a sense, this initial word of the first sutra is a summary of the entire teaching, which is to learn to live in the present, in a state that is content, spacious and blissful, free from any desire for that moment to be different from what it is. All the teachings that follow point to this end.

The second sutra of Chapter I is the often-quoted definition of yoga: Yoga cittavrtti nirodhha. It is useful to reflect on various translations of this sutra.

Yoga is the cessation of the movements in the consciousness.
B.K.S Iyengar
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
Chip Hartranft
Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuation of consciousness.
Georg Feuerstein
Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
Alistair Shearer
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distraction.
T.K.V. Desikachar
Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.
Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

All these translations tell us that the movements of the mind, or cittavrittis, can be stilled, bringing the mind to a state of undisturbed silence. Some translations use words like “cessation” or “control” implying an active use of will to restrain the mind’s habitual patterns. Other translations use the terms “settling” or “still the patterning” giving a sense of a passive or receptive experience that we need only allow to take place. Each approach may be useful at different times. What joins them is the need for regular, disciplined practice.

Any of us who have attempted to relax in a soothing yoga pose, or sit in quiet meditation, are well aware of the mind’s conditioned habit of jumping from thought to thought. This experience has been labeled “monkey mind” and we instantly understand what is meant when we hear this phrase. The mind moves quickly from desire to fear to memory to hope to regret to nostalgia and around again. Countless sensory images and thoughts pass through our minds in short periods of time. Yoga practice trains us to observe this habit, slow the process down, and eventually, bring it to complete cessation.

It is interesting to note that the definition of yoga is based completely on the condition of the mind, and does not mention the physical state at all. The physical postures or asanas have many benefits, and a key one is that we develop enough physical health and vitality to be able sit for long periods of time without the disturbance of physical pain. The ability to sustain a seated posture that is stable and comfortable allows us to do the deeper work on our habitual mental tendencies.

The third sutra in this first chapter tells us that once our mental fluctuations have been stilled, we will experience the spacious, free and whole state that yoga posits is our true nature, or as B.K.S. Iyengar translates, “our own true splendor.” The idea of being completely free of disturbing thoughts and emotions may seem to most of us like a distant dream. Yet we can all feel the calm that follows the practice of a supported, restorative yoga posture, or the refreshment that comes after a few minutes of silent sitting.

Yoga practice gives us practical means to uncover the divine within. While the goal may seem distant, it is helpful to remember the teaching from the Bhagavad Gita, another sacred text of yoga. “No righteous action is ever wasted, and no obstacle is eternal.”

Copyright Karen Allgire 2008

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From Earth to Space – The Five Elements in Yoga Practice

According to many traditional systems of cosmology and medicine, all of creation is composed of and governed by five elements – earth, water, fire air and space. These five elements are considered the fundamental constituents of each individual, and represent progressively more subtle aspects of our being. In yoga practice and in daily living, we can use the model of the five elements to help us create balance and health in our lives.

The first element is earth, and this element relates to the framework of the body – the bones and muscles. The qualities of this element are solidity, form and stability. When we learn a new yoga posture, this is where we begin. We get the basic shape of the pose, and then begin to refine the relationships between the parts of the structure. This balanced alignment makes the structure more stable and less subject to strain. The earth aspect of a pose is its foundation, that part of the body that is touching the floor. When you press your feet into the floor in Mountain Pose, or press your hands firmly into the mat in Downward Facing Dog Pose, you are expressing the earth element.

The next element is water, which corresponds to the internal organs of the body. If the earth element of the musculo-skeletal system is like a container, the water element of the organic body is its contents. These inner structures are softer and literally contain more liquid. The qualities of the water element are weight combined with fluidity and adaptability. As the outer forms of our poses become more organized and familiar, we can begins to sense movement within the stillness of the form. The movement of breath, circulation, heartbeat and digestion are all rhythmic expressions of the organic body. When we experience ourselves as being firm but not rigid, receptive but not collapsed, we are balancing the elements of earth and water.

The element of fire is hot, stimulating and invigorating. In our practice, the fire element isn’t stimulated only when we are heated and sweating. The fire element is related to the brain and nervous system, and to the mind and emotions, known as manas. Our thoughts move like electric current along our nerves. To harness the energy of our thoughts and emotions requires will power. This element is accessed when we use the fire of our will to practice regularly, to try challenging poses or to extend our holding times. We can also use our will and awareness to tame the constant movement of this outer layer of the mind and to work skillfully with habitual emotional patterns. To work with the mind and will in this way is to access the power of the fire element.

We have moved from solidity of earth, to the adaptability of water and the heat of fire. Now we come to the air element, which expresses lightness and movement. On the outer level, the air element connects to our skin, as we feel the touch of wind on our skin. Moving from the skin makes our movements more refined and sensitive. On the inner level, the air element relates to breathing and the circulation of prana or life force through the body. On the subtle level, the air element relates to a deeper aspect of mind, the discriminating intelligence known as buddhi. This intelligence lets us make distinctions and value judgments, supporting choices based on deep wisdom rather than on old patterns or habitual desires. When we do yoga, the air element helps us refine our postures and apply mental acuity to our practice. We learn to be highly alert, yet calm, and able to discern subtle ways to move towards effortless effort. The air element supports the journey inward to experience a quiet and stable mind.

The final element in this model is that of space, considered the container or womb of all existence. This constituent, also known as ether, relates to consciousness and to sound. Sound is vibration, which is subtler than form and from the yogic point of view, the very foundation of form, as all matter is made up of vibrating atoms. We know from modern science that all matter is 99.99% empty space, with infinitesimally small particles or waves moving in ever-changing relationships. Connecting to the space element helps us to recognize that on the deepest level of existence, everything is in constant flux, and therefore open to change and new possibilities. Practicing our postures from the point of view of the negative space – the space we are not filling – changes our perspective and enhances awareness. The space element supports us in coming to practice from a place of connection to the divine and openness to move beyond past conditioning.

In any situation or any yoga practice, we can check in to see which elements are dominating the experience and which may be missing. As we move from the solidity of earth to the vastness of space, we penetrate the various layers of our being, bringing balance and harmony to the whole.

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Cultivating a Graceful Disposition

Several years ago, I had a regular yoga column in a local periodical. I also wrote several articles for our Iyengar Yoga National Association magazine, Yoga Samachar. Over the next few months, I plan to publish some of these articles via this blog.

Today’s subject is Sutra I:33, a beautiful teaching that guides us on how to interact with others in order to keep ourselves in a peaceful state. As always, I welcome your comments, so please feel free to add your perspective on Patanjali’s timeless teaching.


Cultivating a Graceful Disposition

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras offer perennial wisdom about the perspectives we can adopt regarding others. Cultivating positive states of mind helps us overcome obstacles to experiencing inner peace and harmony. BKS Iyengar translates Sutra I:33 this way:

Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favorably disposed, serene and benevolent.

Alistair Shearer’s poetic translation says

“The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated: friendliness towards the joyful,
compassion towards the suffering,
happiness towards the pure,
and impartiality towards the impure.”

In Sanskrit, these four qualities are known as maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksa. Together they bring cittaprasdanam, translated as “graceful diffusion of consciousness” or “favorable disposition.” Citta is consciousness, or state of mind and prasadanam means infused with grace. When we practice these healing qualities, the mind is kept in a state of well-being and life is better for us and for those around us.

Maitri is friendliness towards those who are happy. How easy it is to become jealous of those who seem to have it all – a good marriage, a secure job, a lovely home or beautiful yoga postures. We may find ourselves wondering why we don’t also have these things, or find something to criticize about this person who appears to be prospering and enjoying life. Patanjali says that such attitudes disturb our minds and are based on false views. The marriage, the job and the home are all subject to change. Life has unexpected ups and downs. So when we see those who are happy, we should be friendly and good spirited towards them, hoping that their happiness endures and helps them to come to a state of peace.

Karuna is compassion towards those who are in pain. Compassion is different from pity, in which we feel sorry for the person who is suffering, perhaps thinking that she brought this misery upon herself. Yogic wisdom suggests that we remember all the times we have been troubled, and to extend empathy and sincere well wishes to those in pain. Compassion is the heartfelt wish that those who are suffering may be relieved, and the motivation to provide whatever help is in our power to give.

Mudita is rejoicing in the virtue and success of others. This may challenge us deeply, as we see others achieve goals that we may be unable to reach. It is good to practice being glad when others have material wealth and security, but this sutra especially advises us to rejoice in virtuous action. Sometimes when people do what is right, we feel uncomfortable or criticized. We might consider this person to be self-righteous or impractical in his adherence to a seemingly rigid standard of ethical conduct. We can instead make space in our hearts to truly celebrate the good and noble qualities we see in each other. Taking delight in the praiseworthy actions of others brings peace of mind.

Finally, Upeksa is impartiality towards those who indulge in wrongdoing. While sometimes translated as indifference, the sense of this sutra is that we are to refrain from judging others. Instead we can remember our own misdeeds, and maintain a sense of equanimity towards the person engaged in misconduct. Even if we believe someone’s actions to be negative, we should remain impartial and free of judgment, wishing only happiness for this person.

The sage Patanjali has outlined how we can relate to people in various circumstances in a way that benefits both others and ourselves. Everyone enjoys being around people who are friendly, compassionate, joyful and non-judgmental. Through maiti, karuna, mudita and upeksa, we can continue the personal quest to develop a calm and tranquil mind. Over time, we may experience cittaprasadanam, the graceful disposition of consciousness.

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The Virtue of Yoga, The Yoga of Virtue

When you ask people why they started doing yoga, a few common responses emerge. Most often, students simply want to feel better. The body feels stiff or achy, weak or imbalanced. Some people have injuries or ailments and have heard that yoga can help. Many turn to yoga as a way to manage the strain and stress of life, and to learn how to relax, both physically and mentally. Yoga may help us to sleep better, improve our posture, up our tennis game or manage our moods. The list of ways that yoga helps is endless.

But how many of us took up the practice of yoga as a means of developing a more virtuous life?

This question occurred to me as I was reading an article by Prashant Iyengar. He states that in today’s general approach to yoga, there is hardly any emphasis on the “philosophy of the conduct of life.” In ancient times, Prashant asserts that the meaning of yoga was understood to be the study of how to live a meaningful and ethical life. It is the very essence of yoga to provide a philosophical foundation to guide our life choices and help us develop virtuous qualities within ourselves.

As Prashant has stated many times, “Asanas are not yoga. Asanas are for yoga.” They are method, not goal. But we so easily mistake the means for the end. Yamas, niyamas, aasana, pranayama and all the limbs of yoga are techniques to lead us to the essential truth of who we are, to help us become free of ignorance and to end our perpetual cycles of dissatisfaction and suffering. While these goals may seem far away, we can shift our orientation. We can proceed from an understanding that yoga is fundamentally concerned with providing a philosophy for how to conduct our lives, and for helping us develop our virtues so we can live up to our own ethical aspirations.

The practice of yoga both requires and develops virtue. By virtue, I mean those universal, abiding qualities that make life good – kindness, clarity, gratitude and serenity. When we progress with our yogic practices, we may find that some virtuous qualities are slowly developing. They may be tender shoots of patience, discipline and thoughtfulness, but the roots are firm. If we continue to water and care for these tender shoots, they may grow into hearty plants of generosity, compassion and truthfulness. Iyengar Yoga encourages us to practice with these qualities, so that developing consciousness becomes the primary goal.

In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “A virtuous asana is done from the heart and not the head.” He says that the “organ of virtue” or the conscience is situated in the heart. When we bring awareness to the heart region, the brain become calm and awareness and intelligence spread to our whole being. In this way, Mr. Iyengar explains that our practices must be done with the right intention, not for ego or to impress, but as a way to continue our journey inward to the core of our being.

If I keep in mind that my practices are to develop my inner qualities, it changes my orientation. I may work just as diligently to achieve a new pose, or to improve a well-known one, but knowing that the pose is the method and not the goal helps me remain detached from outcomes. This point of view frees me from concerns about my limits and difficulties, since the purpose of the practice is not perfect poses, but to live a virtuous life, and to develop qualities that transcend this life.

In the fourth chapter of his Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali says that when the path of yoga is complete, a stream of virtue descends upon us as if from a rain-cloud of virtue, pouring down like torrential rain. Until that day comes, we can consciously practice yoga as a way to live a more wholesome, compassionate and connected life, for the benefit of ourselves and all those around us.

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