ashtanga yoga

An Approach to Ashtanga that Supports Aging & Fatigue

Below, is an email exchange I had with a friend in the Ashtanga community, someone who is struggling to find a way into her practice such that it supports her fatigue and depression. I share it because I have the sense that many practitioners silently struggle with these very issues, and I do not believe that the teaching community adequately speaks into these issues.  Often the instruction students receive is, “Keep practicing.  It will change.” And so many fatigued and frustrated Ashtangis, just keep doing the same practice over and over hoping for a different outcome.  Many, however, quit.  Ashtanga is a powerful practice, but there can be an ethos within the community that is unforgiving.  There isn’t a lot of space for those who need to deviate from the standard practice.  It is not uncommon for students to essentially get the message: “You either do it the way it’s taught in Mysore, or you’re not welcome in this room.” 

I share this dialogue for those people who have not been able to find the space within the world of Ashtanga to know that an Ashtanga practice does not have to look just one way and that there is a way for the practice to support you, no matter where you are in your life. 

Dear Chad,

I have had chronic fatigue for many years, and used to find my Ashtanga practice helpful with my energy levels, but lately, I’ve been struggling with the intensity of the practice and have been asking myself, “What the heck am I actually doing?” I do think the Primary Series is very detoxifying, but it wasn't until I went back on antidepressants that I had any kind of ability to maintain my practice. I have been off of them again for 1 year and want to keep it that way.

However my fatigue returns when I try to expand my practice, and my self-practice at home is never very energized.  I feel I need the energy of others in order to really push through my energy issues. And now that I’m in my mid-40’s, I’ve been asking myself, “How am I going to maintain this practice?” Lately, I am always on that line of questioning because it seems that without the pills I cannot maintain my energy, and I am committed to keeping myself off medications.

At this time the support of a community and teacher would be so helpful, but I cannot seem to find it; in fact, I have been greatly disappointed by folks within the tradition who I admire, people I thought would understand and point me in a particular direction.  They’ve neither been kind nor helpful. If you could offer me some advice on how to proceed I would be very grateful.

Thanks,

T

 

Dear T.

Many within the tradition we come from, unfortunately, promote the notion that we should be able to maintain a vigorous practice no matter what stage of development we're in, no matter how healthy or unhealthy we are.  And that's just not a viable, life-long approach to practice.  The practice that suited me in my early 20’s, for example, no longer fits for me in my 40s. A mature perspective on practice recognizes that yoga should support our health and well-being no matter where we are in life.

When I first started learning the practice, I was 19 years old, so it helped me immensely to have a place to direct all of my energies, both positive and not so positive.  Without it those anxious times might have been met with a lot more self-destructive patterns, like drinking, drugs, and self-loathing.  Having the structure to get up early each morning, to show up on that mat and practice strongly each day was the perfect solution for all that anxiety, self-doubt, and agitation that seemed to be central to my 20s and early 30’s.  But as I’ve gotten older, practicing like that zaps me.

I’ve recently stopped practicing Advanced A.  I find that it stresses me out physically and emotionally.  As I transition into my early 40’s, I notice that all of the arm balances make my neck, shoulders, and upper-back ache and tax my energy. I am at the stage of life where I want to have enough energy to give to my wife, our family, my clients, and my community, and it is a lot to manage.  At some point in the last few years I woke up to the fact that I did not want to keep giving all my energy to my practice.  I wanted my practice to be able to support me, to support my life, to support my pursuits.

And these days, I’m just starting to be okay with the fact that my practice might look different each day.  I tend to stay on the six day per week schedule, but I no longer beat myself up if I don’t get to it that often.  If I, at the very least, get on my mat four days a week, I feel like I’m on track.  After all, I’m not trying to “kill it.”  I’m not pushing into the next pose or the next series. I’m maintaining my health, vitality, and clarity to face my life.  While I practice primary and intermediate series most of those days, I may or may not complete the whole series of postures.  I usually jump back between sides, but when I don’t have the energy, I don’t push it.

I especially don’t push it when I have an injury, am sick, or don’t get enough sleep.  Melissa, my wife was up all night with the flu last week, which meant that I was up, too.  When I got on my mat the next morning, my head was spinning.  I wasn't sure if I was coming down with the flu, myself.  So after the Ashtanga Invocation, instead of starting Suryanamaskar A, all I had the energy to do was to take padmasana; do ujjayi pranayama for about 30 minutes; and then take a 45-minute savasana.  Yep, that was my practice.  And, yes, I still consider that Ashtanga Yoga. I did not, in fact, get sick.  I had eight clients that day, and had I not taken care of myself, I would have been a mess.

It is my sense that the practice continues to evolve as we get older.  When I was in Mysore in 2005, I was told that someone I was practicing with in the shala in his mid-50’s was taking anti-inflammatory drugs in order to continue practicing Advanced A and B.  His practice looked quite acrobatic for someone his age, but was that practice supporting him or was he supporting it?  What’s clear to me is that as the body evolves, so should we.

Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois’ teacher, divided yoga practice into various categories, called krama, which means a step used to achieve a particular goal.  As we get older, our orientation moves from athletic perfection (siksasana krama) to maintaining our health and preserving our youth (raksasana krama).  Eventually, our orientation moves to adhyamatya krama, or spiritual matters. (1) We tend to move our practice in this direction in the time of life we in the West tend of think of as retirement.  It occurs in our culture when we are in our 60’s or 70’s.  Our focus turns toward questions about the meaning of life. And so the orientation is less in the way of getting and staying strong and flexible in the body. I am not suggesting that it is unimportant to maintain health and vitality as we age, but that the 60’s onward are about developing wisdom, and that comes about primarily through stillness practices, like meditation. (2)

I cannot personally speak about this stage of development because I am not there. I do know several Ashtanga practitioners in their late-50’s and 60’s who do not keep the same practice they kept when they were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but they’re not very public about how their practices have changed; in fact, about a year ago, I asked an old friend who has been practicing since the 70s if he would be willing to be interviewed for this very question, but he declined.  He did not want to expose himself to criticism.  I completely understand his perspective.  When someone speaks about altering the practice to even the slightest degree, some people who have elected themselves to be the “yoga police” within the community launch in with vitriolic abuse. Nevertheless, I do sense that it would be very healing for all of us to learn how our teachers and mentors evolved their practices to account for the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes that occur with aging.

As far as I can see, T, you can take the practice we're taught and break it into component parts that support you energetically and spiritually.  Maybe one day you skip all jump-backs and jump-throughs to prevent fatigue from setting in.  Maybe on another, you practice only a few postures paying particular attention to your breath and bandhas and only go as far as you can keep your attention.  When you notice it flagging, you stop. Maybe on another day, you wake up feeling ungrounded, so you just do the standing sequence, holding each posture for 10-20 breaths.  Or maybe the mood needs lifting, so you focus on back bending, chest openers, and emphasize inhales and inhale retentions.  The variations are endless.  What’s required is the willingness to take the dive, to experiment.

Yes, it can be helpful to have a teacher who has already walked down this path, someone who can show you the way, and it can also be extremely helpful to have a place with group support where your experimentation is welcome, but there are not many Mysore rooms or teachers that are ready for a student like you, not yet, at least.  So you have to be willing to develop a home practice and then also be equally willing to take risks, read, and just keep showing up on your mat with curiosity.

In closing, I recently heard about this experiment called the Asch Paradigm where they put 10 people in a room.  9 of the people were shills.  1 was not.  They showed all 10 cards with lines of different lengths.  Two of the lines were clearly of equal length (Exhibit 1 and B) while the other two (A and C) were not.

asch_conformity

The researchers asked the nine shills to claim that two badly mismatched lines (B and C) were actually the same, and that the actual twins (Exhibit 1 and A) were total misfits. The one person who was not a shill almost always went along with the other 9 members.  Why?  When they quizzed the victims of peer pressure, it turned out that many had done far more than simply go along to get along. They had actually shaped their perceptions, not with the reality in front of them, but with the consensus of the multitude. (3)

In short, what I'm suggesting is that you're not weird or unusual in your experience of the practice.  That you're fatigued from it is pretty common.  My question to you is whether you have the guts to trust your own intuitive sense that something is off and find an approach that supports your well-being and that supports your mood.  That can be a huge challenge, especially if you're used to the support of the Mysore room to carry your practice as well as the support of a teacher and friends who share a mutual love for the system.  It's hard not only to stand on your own, but to trust your innate knowing when everyone around you is telling you that you’re crazy when, in fact, you’re not.

I hope this helps.

Chad

 

Footnotes:

(1) So for example, B.K.S. Iyengar reported that “In 1978, after my 60th birthday celebration, my guru (Sri T. Krishnamacharya) advised me to devote time to meditation and to reduce my physical strain.” (Iyengar, B.K.S., Astadala Yogamala. New Delhi: Allied Publishers Limited. 2001)

(2) I’m not suggestion just because one has reached a certain age, they should stop doing the Ashtanga series.  If someone has the inclination, time, and energy to devote to progressing through the series and they’re no longer young, by all means, I think it is important to follow that urge.  It can be incredibly life affirming to practice advanced postures and to push the limits on what’s possible in this human form.

 

Five Element Series Part 6: Fire Element

The fire element brings heat to the body-mind-spirit.  The sensations of fire range from feelings of warmth to heat of desire to lust.  This is the element of aggression, anger, tension, hostility, and rage.  It also puts us in touch with burning passion and intensity, the testosterone-driven urge to "f-ck it or kill it" and many lesser extremes, too.  In its milder forms, it shows up as the warmth and generosity we bring to our relationships.

The Horny Celibate

Some yoga and spiritual teachers, especially those that focus on transcendence from the temporal and mundane, tend to have an awkward relationship with the fire element. They discourage their students from feeding the fire element. Much of the teaching is centered around overcoming passion through suppression rather than transformation.  When anger gets suppressed, we tend to see aspirants pretending to be blissed out when, in fact, they’re really angry.  We also see people pretending to have transcended sexuality but are, in fact, what Ram Dass  calls "the horny celibate."

Part of the issue is that fiery emotions can be extremely destructive.  We all have had the experience in which someone close to us has said something to us or someone else in a moment of rage that destroyed that relationship.  Oftentimes people who kill will say, "I was in a fit of rage.  I wasn't in my right mind."  Playing with fire requires great skill, both literally and figuratively.  We tell children not to touch the fire, but we train firefighters to develop a a healthy respect for it.  Suffice to say, the fire element is scary for us all, but if we don't learn how to wield and use it, we miss out on a whole side of life, one filled with expression, warmth, passion, aliveness, sexual expression and adventure.

Saying, "Yes" but meaning, "No"

Another expression of the fire element that can be extremely useful to harness is our capacity to say, “no.”  Many of us just have the hardest time expressing anger in a clean way.  Anger is really the emotional experience that a boundary has been crossed, the boundary that marks and protects something we cherish or love deeply, whether a value, someone we love, or ourselves.  And if we learn how to handle the fire element with a degree of proficiency, we don't end up feeling ripped off or used by others.  We simply have the capacity to say, "No" and mean, "No," rather than saying, "Yes" but meaning, "No."

Present moment, firey responses that come from the ground of our being and through our center tend to be clear, succinct, and powerful.  When the energy of the fire element is sourced in the mind and is past oriented and based in resentment or future oriented and based in anticipatory fear, however, the expression tends to create more chaos. This is a sort of top down expression rather than the first, which is bottom up.  This is the kind of anger or lust sourced in fantasy, the kind we replay over and over again in our heads.  Actions that are sourced from this place often end us in a heap of trouble.  I am not suggesting that we suppress the fire element that arises like this.  Instead of reacting from a place of rumination, it can be helpful to learn to channel the energy until clarity and insight arise.  When we can learn to move the energies, they shift and awaken insight in us.

Fire in the Belly

From the yogic perspective, the fire element that is centered in the navel is called agni.  It is situated there in order to metabolize the food we eat and the experiences we have into energy and insight.  The metabolism is fueled by fire, and it's not just any fire.  It's the fire of transformation.  Our systems alchemically transform other life forms, whether in animal or vegetal forms, into the life force we use to survive.  Similarly, the fire element is the source of the various faculties we use to transform our inner experience through, staying.  In other words, we experience plenty of situations in life when we want to run, when we’re freaked out, but when we continuously observe our experiences without labeling or running, we’re harnessing an inner fire that in Sanskrit is called tapasTapas is our capacity to stay with discomfort in order to see clearly into things.

Fire is also an incredibly useful tool for clearing blockages and debris in the system, called apana.  The grandfather of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya used to teach that we can use the breath to direct the cleansing nature of agni: "On inhalation the breath moves toward the belly, causing a draft that directs the flame downward, just like a fireplace: during exhalation the draft moves the flame in the opposite direction, brining with it the just burned waste matter." (Desikachar, T.K.V., The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice.  VermontInner Traditions International, 1995. Print).  Similarly, inverted postures, like sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand) help direct the agni deeper into the lower abdomen and pelvic floor.  In the inversion, the inner flame is said to be pointed upward into the lower chakras, burning away our preoccupation with fear (first chakra) and sex (second chakra).  Ultimately, all of these cleaning techniques are aimed at transmuting the lower nature of the mind so that we can experience higher states of consciousness, like love, compassion, wisdom, and insight.

Exercise

Click here to listen to Fire Element Music 1

Click here to listen to Fire Element Music 2

Diagnosing the Fire Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Fire is the element representative of the fiery nature of the body, mind, and spirit.  We feel the fire element in our bodies when we sense heat or lack there of, from fevers, to frenzies, erotic feelings to rage.  Heat has the tendency to rise up, and so it does in our bodies manifesting in burning eyes, headaches, and hypertension.   Fire element is present when we describe the things of life as: "intense," "hot," and even, "scary."

The Personality of the Fire Element

People with a lot of fire element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • Sexy
  • Passionate
  • Direct
  • Enthusiastic
  • Warm
  • Expressive
  • Active
  • Stimulating
  • Generous
  • Daring
  • Inspiring

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • Scary
  • Reckless
  • Angry
  • Edgy
  • Domineering
  • Egotistical
  • Need to be recognized and admired

Examples of people who exude the positive qualities of the fire element include: Madonna, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Courtney Love, Joan of Arc, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Basinger, Jack Nicholson,  and Vincent Cassel

What Fire Element Feels Like in the Body

Excess fire element can be subtle and so we feel:

  • fidgety
  • uneasy
  • vague anxiety
  • slightly dizzy
  • ringing in the ears
  • low grade fevers
  • night sweats
  • difficulty staying asleep

When the fire element is in full force, we can feel:

  • rage
  • throbbing headaches
  • rashes, acne and skin sores
  • high fevers and other burning sensations in the body

Deficiency of fire is the same thing as fatigue. There's no energy present for transformation of life into life.  Prana or life force is a rarefied form of fire.  Without prana life expires.  So an extreme case of deficiency of fire element is death, but, then that's true of all of the elements.  Loss of life is the extreme separation of the elements, while life is the coalescence of the elements.  Yoga is a path that teaches us how to harmonize and balancing the elements such that we live in true-bliss-consciousness (Sat-Chit-Ananda).  Nevertheless, when fire element is deficient, we feel

  • cold
  • fatigued
  • lifeless
  • unmotivated
  • disinterested
  • weak

Antidote for Excess Fire Element:

  1. Observe the fire element
  2. Express the fire element
  3. Increase water

 1. Observe the fire element.

  • The Ashtanga practice has all sorts of ways to express the fire element (see below), but just observing it can be very powerful.  By applying observation to the sensations of heat, irritability, fluster, and excitement, we simply begin a relationship with the fire element that is not based on reacting to it.  Most of us have a difficult relationship with the fire element.  Either we like to keep a lid on it, or where all about expressing it.  Very few of us have the capacity not to become bothered when we're hot.  Somehow the two go together.  All societies ask us to curb our fire element.  If we didn't we'd probably want to fuck or kill lots of people.  So, that's probably a good thing.  It helps keep societies just, safe, and sustainable.  But when the fire element is repressed, we have a tendency to go into all sorts of vices.  Examples of hot vices include internet pornography, alcoholic spirits, cocaine, coffee, cigarettes, and methamphetamine.  In a way, our addictions give us space to express our fiery nature.  The only problem with most of the vices listed above is that they burn not only us, but those around us who we effect.  And they don't transform our transmute into compassion, wisdom, or insight.  Rather, they tend to perpetuate ignorance (moha).

2.  Expressing the fire element.  If we cannot be with the fire element, it can be extremely powerful to express it.  On the other side of expression is often both grounding (earth element) and clarity (air element).  That's what catharsis is about.  In Greek, catharsis means to purify and purge.  In yoga, we say that tapas is the fire needed to burn away the impurities of the mind.  So we build tapas all sorts of ways in the practice.

  • We don't hold poses for long periods of time.  Instead, we stay moving fairly rapidly from one pose to the next, creating heat.  Maybe we stay in poses for 3-4 breaths instead of 5-10.  Active practice (as opposed to static postures), like Surya Namaskar tends to increase agni; so it can be useful to do a full-vinyasa practice rather than a half-vinyasa practice to increase the internal cleansing fires and to increase the amount of Surya Namaskar A and B that you do in the beginning of practice.
  • Both primary and intermediate series are designed as an arc of transformation:  Suryanamaskar A and B build the fire, the standing poses and most of the sitting poses keep building it up.  The intensity of the sequence peaks somewhere around navasana in primary series.  In intermediate series we experience a few peaks.  Kapotasana is the first one. Next comes titbasana. Finally, comes karandavasana.  After these peaks, the rest is a downhill arc.  By maintaining the intensity up to the peaks of the arc and coming back down on the other side, we move some of the chaotic energy of the fire element through.  In a way, we can create a cathartic experience just by following the sequence.  By the time we jump into savasana we can ground ourselves--earth element--and return to a state of clarity--air element.
  • Keeping the dristi allows us to be less reactive, less volatile.  In a lot of ways, the dristi is a form of pratyaharaPratyahara is the fifth limb of Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga.  Pratyahara is all about drawing the senses inward.  Guruji used to say that pratyahara means, "Sense control, anywhere you look, any thought that you have, any perception, it is all Atma (the Self or Soul)...When you exercise sense control you are no longer deceived by outward appearances, but perceive only Atma."  When we direct our attention to the inner fire rather than seeking retribution outside of ourselves, we start to rewire the habit patterns of mind, the samskaras.  
  • Certain asanas build a lot of heat.  About a year ago, I was involved in a research put on by Yoga Journal about the effects of yoga practice on heart rate.  We were given heart rate monitors to wear while we practiced.  As my heart rate increased, I tended to get hotter.  I found that those postures that asked me to engage my lower abdominal and pelvic muscles more intensely, increased my heart rate:  forward bends and inversions, especially.  As an experiment, try staying in paschimottanasana, sarvangasana, and sirsasana for a good 20-30 breaths.
  • Bhastrika pranayama is one of the pranayamas that Guruji historically taught in the Ashtanga Pranayama Sequence.  In bhastrika pranayama we take a vigorous exhalation and a reflexive inhalation through our nostrils.  When we exhale, we pull the lower abdomen back strongly, using both uddiyana and mula bandhas.  We do this quickly about 100 times; take a slow inhale and retain the breath somewhere between 20 and 100 seconds.  And then exhale the breath.  We repeat this process three times.   
  • Listen to hard rock, heavy metal, or rock n' roll while you practice.  This music can help really get the fires moving, excite, and enliven a dead practice.  Let the rhythm carry the movement.
  • Another way to increase the fire element is to make the ujjayi sound louder and emphasize the sound of the exhale so it sounds a bit forced.  The restriction in the back of the throat causes the lower abdominal muscles to work harder, thus stoking the internal fires.  As the exhale comes to completion, pull the lower abdomen int tightly and draw in on the whole pelvic floor, the anus, the perineum, and the genitals.  For men, an advanced form of this is to develop the capacity to draw the testicles up and into the pelvic floor and for women to develop the capacity to tone the ovaries, which is an advanced  Taoist practice, as well.

3. Increase the Water Element. Water balances fire.  If you put too much water on a fire, it stanches it out.  But if you put just the right amount, it creates warm vapors.  In other words, water and fire are constantly in a balancing act.  If our practices are all fire, we end up burning away too much.  We see this in people who've had a kundalini rising situation, in which their nervous systems got burned or fried through too much fiery practice.  The water element is all about emotions, deep, soulful emotions.  When we're in the land of the water element, tears naturally pour forth.

  • Staying in touch with our feeling nature, especially feelings of sadness, longing, and mystery can balance our fiery, hot emotions, like rage, anger or addictive sexual tendencies.  Something else that can be immensely useful is to find self compassion with mantras like those found in the Buddhist Lovingkindness (Metta) Meditations, words like the following:May I be filled with peace.May I be filled with love and compassion.

    May I be safe and protected.

  • Some food and fluids can increase fire too much, foods like sugars and sweets, alcohol, coffee, stimulants and dry, pungent, warm, and acrid spices, like chillies, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon.  Soups and stews, lots of cooked vegetables and grains, and a bit of animal protein tend to add moisture where there's too much dryness and heat.  
  • Connect to the fluidity of the vinyasa.  (See Water Element)
  • Emphasize smooth, fluid transitions between the inhale and exhale and the exhale and inhale.  (See Water Element)
  • Develop a stillness practice.  (See Water Element)

 

A Living, Breathing Practice

1462139_orig A group of friends and I have started to gather at my house monthly to take a deeper dive into Yoga than the kind we get when we go to the yoga studio or even when we do a teacher training.  The problem with teacher trainings is that there's so much to cover in terms of content, that we don't have a lot of time to linger on some of the deeper questions, like what on earth is yoga about?  Or what's yoga to me?  Or how did the ancients view yoga and spirituality?  And how does it pertain to my life?  It is my sense that we all have to ask these questions, to not just accept techniques like asanas (yoga postures) or meditation without an analytical consideration.

And because Yoga has the propensity to be embodied and non-analytical, we're not  encouraged to go here a lot.  My teacher, Pattabhi Jois,is often quoted as saying, "Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory."  How often do we hear the instruction, "Drop the the thought and return to the body," or "Your thoughts are like passing clouds.  Notice the thought, and come back to the breath."  This is really the heart of spiritual practice, just noticing.  And most practice, if it's effective, takes us out of our thinking, comparing, and analytical mind and into a more intuitive, sensing, feeling, and non-thinking place.

But that's not to say that the spiritual experience is, strictly speaking, a non-thinking experience.  Actually, there's a lot of thought, in fact, thousands of years of thought, about the spiritual life and the spiritual experience that we can draw from.  There are a ton of maps written by those who have walked the path before us that we can use to understand and make sense of our own journey.  It is not only important but should be mandatory for all of us who are deeply seeking to understand the traditions we come from.  That way we can start to contextualize them and make sense of them.  More importantly, I think it's imperative that we develop a critical eye for our spiritual practice and the teaching associated with it, so we can choose a path that takes us to where we need to go rather than where we're told we should go by a teacher, a teaching, or a community.

The Sutras Through a Critical Eye

As I was preparing for our last gathering, I came across an interesting podcast by Matthew Remski that really had me questioning how much authority I wanted to place in The Yoga Sutras as a map for my spiritual practice.  Remski points out some of Patanjali's weird views.  Examples include:

  1. The idea that Yoga is about such a complete separation of awareness (purusa) and nature (prakriti), that it veers in the direction of disembodied, spiritual bypass.  In other words, the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness (1:2) lead to a recognition that one's true identity is not this body; this entity I call me; or these relationships I surround myself with.  These are all fluctuations within awareness.  Through a gradual process of detachment, we see that these things are ephemeral, and thus, not eternal.  The awareness (purusa) that notices these things that arise, stay for awhile, and pass away is eternal, and, thus, our true identity.  Extreme form of non-attachment, like the one espoused in The Yoga Sutras, has the potential to validate the avoidance of practical challenges or difficult or painful feelings or memories.  This stark dualism, separating awareness and all the things within it tends to unground people and unseat them from their innate wisdom.
  2.  The fourth chapter, Kaivalya Pada, commonly translated as chapter on liberation is a mistranslation. Pada means subject.  Kaivalya actually means perfect isolation; thus, one of the end goals of a good yoga practitioner, according to Patanjali, is to detach so much from nature (prakriti) so as to separate from society, as a whole.  Yoga was heavily influenced by the monasticism of Buddhism and Jainism.  In fact, the ethical precepts, the yamas and the niyamas, come from the Jains who believed that separation was a necessary ideal to experience complete liberation, that to be in contact with others leaves the yogi vulnerable to the negative karma of another.  In our everyday language, this is another way of saying that liberation requires that we stay away from others so as not to pick up on their bad vibe.
  3. The book is chalk-full of  magical thinking.  For example, intense forms of absorption lead to one's capacity to fly or inhabit the body of another and make that body move.

Remski's analysis--which is brilliant by the way--forces us to look twice at this text that we yogis tend to hold with reverence.  Without a doubt, much of the instruction in The Sutras is erudite and brilliant.  Developing a capacity to practice anything with non-attachment (vairagya) (1.15) is a simple and brilliant instruction on how to learn anything.  The tools that the Sutras offer us on how to witness and what to witness are fabulous instruction for each of us who would like to develop greater capacity for objectivity.

But how far do we intend to take this process?  In its most extreme form, it could lead us away from our relationships, away from community, and either into monastic life or a cave in the Himlayas.  Or maybe what we're looking for is just an hour in the day "where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. (Campbell, Joseph; Bill Moyers (2011-05-18). The Power of Myth (p. 115). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.)

Bringing Old Texts to Life

As I said before, I'm not suggesting that we ignore the classic texts.  They're giving us hints that can help us immensely on the journey.  But if we are on the path, we have to take responsibility for our journey.  Doing so requires that we look with a critical eye.  When we accept these maps on faith we sometimes end up in places we never intended to be.   A lot of the orthodox approaches within the Buddhist and Yogic tradition posits the notion that because we're too rife with avidya (misunderstanding, misapprehension, or spiritual ignorance), we cannot possibly see what will help or hinder us on the journey.  That's why we need not question the authority of the teacher, the teaching, or the community but, instead to have faith in their innate validity.

There's a third approach to working with the teachings of a tradition. We don't take them at face value, and we don't ignore them.  Instead, we struggle with them.  We see them as texts written by human beings, like you and me, and who were writing for a particular audience living in a particular moment in history with a unique set of struggles.  And then we work with the text to separate that which is essential truth for us from that which is particular to the times and perspective of the writer.  And then we try to make sense of it for the current situation we find ourselves in.  This how a tradition becomes a living, breathing, and evolving thing.  And if you consider it, we are the critical link to the evolution of the tradition.  How each of us interprets and makes sense of any tradition determines how it will be carried forth from one generation to the next.  In short, to go through this process is to take responsibility not only for our spiritual path, but to create new maps, maps that one day will influence seekers, like us.

Knowing When to Let Go

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rk_15At some point, all of us face the need to evolve.  It's almost an imperative in spiritual practice that if we are to experience the aliveness of life, we must keep growing.  And sometimes that means letting go of what no longer serves us or that we serve whole heartedly.  If we don't let go, we suffer.  And yet doing so can be grueling.  I wanted to share a teaching from 'The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna' about knowing when to let go.  Ramakrishna was a 19th century, Indian mystic.

When we plant a sapling we put a fence around it so that cattle will not eat it or nobody would accidentally crush it under one's feet.  But when the plant starts growing into a large tree, the fence should be removed and taken away.  If the fence is not removed in time then it might even hinder in the growth of the tree.  The trunk of the tree may even get trapped within the fence.  Moreover, after the sapling turns into a big tree neither can cattle eat it up fully nor can people crush it under their feet accidentally.  Likewise, the tree will drop fruit that will feed the cattle and the people who once threatened its very existence.

Whenever we begin anything new, especially the discipline of spiritual practice, we need to protect the fragility of our endeavor.  When I first started my yoga practice, it took me a few years, but I had to learn the discipline needed to maintain a daily practice of yoga: going to bed early, waking early, eating properly, resting enough, getting enough mental and emotional stimulation, etc.  I needed that discipline in order to grow within my practice.  And I loved it!!!  It fed me deeply.

Spiritual Arrogance

But, after awhile, I started to feel like the fences I'd created for myself only created more rigidity.  I'd find myself judging non-practitioners as "unconscious."  The fragility I'd once felt around my practice gave way to a quality of spiritual arrogance.  A lack of curiosity is  a sure sign for each of us that either we need a new challenge or we need to find a new way into the practice we're committed to. This is where it's critical to remove the fences that once kept our fragility from being devoured.  Distinguishing when it's time to give up or alter the discipline and what exactly to give up is highly individual.  That's where having a good teacher or a community of friends on the journey with us can be extremely helpful.  What is clear, though, is that at some point aspects of the structure stop empowering transformation and, instead, only harden us.

Very few of us have the courage to let go of what no longer serves us, though.  Why?  Because our identities get wrapped up in the external recognition and kudos we receive.  These external boons can be enticing, but they can easily be traps for all of us.  When you're considered 'advanced' in a community and you're identified with your role in it, it can be a sort of identity suicide to let go.   I am not saying that we should completely stop looking to the outside for recognition.  As humans, we long for and need this recognition.  But we're all so starved for it, that we tend to forego our own authentic experience and expression of fulfillment in order to be loved, liked, wanted, admired, needed.  And then we miss the opportunity to live a rich and full life on our own terms.

Knowing When We've Deceived Ourselves

When we're attuned enough to our inner wisdom, however, we know when we're 'b.s.'-ing ourselves.  But when we're not, it can be extremely helpful to have people in our lives that offer us the space of honest communication. If  we don't have this, it can be helpful to empower our inner witnesses, the neutral part of us that is noticing all the time, noticing what we're saying, doing, and experiencing.  That part of us can notice when we're "should-ing on ourselves."  I love this expression.   When we're "should-ing," we say we do what we do not because we love it but because we "should" do it.  That's a good sign that our heart is no longer in it.

The point of all practice is to bring us to the heart of our innate wisdom.  It is not to end up more disciplined.  Paul Meuller-Ortega aptly said, "Eventually as Seekers, we must become Finders."  Knowing when you've discovered an access to your innate wisdom is not  a form of spiritual arrogance.  It's just something that's not empowered within spiritual traditions.  What is empowered is hierarchy.  Tapping into our innate wisdom does not necessarily lend one to becoming recognized in the external sense.  But that it isn't recognized by a community of seekers is not of significance.  What's important is that we not only recognize this indweller that the yogis call the purusa, but that we share it, that we have the courage to give our gift.  That's the part of Ramakrishna's story in which the tree drops fruit for everyone, even the cows and humans who previously threatened its existence.

The point of all spiritual practice is to attune us to our truth, our innate wisdom, and our joy.  This is what the yogis call, Sat-Chit-Ananda.  The point isn't to win in some hierarchical game that all traditions can't help but maintain.  The point is to find access to our inner strength, our magic, and our gifts and to trust them.  I'll end with the following quote from Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who inspired the Star Wars trilogy and who coined the term, "follow your bliss."  In this quote Campbell helps us to not mistake the trees for the forest:

What is important about a lightbulb is not the filament or the glass but the light which these bulbs are to render; and what is important about each of us is not the body and its nerves but the consciousness that shines through them.  And when one lives for that instead of the protection of the bulb, one is in Buddha consciousness. Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. 2011. The Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF)

 

Living with Doubt

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There's an inner process to change.  In the outer sense, all that's required is that we leave a job; start a new relationship; tidy up our resumes; or enroll in a class.  But what gets us to the threshold of outer change is a subtle, mysterious process that requires a capacity to track our inner lives.  So much of what we read in the self-help world is the "just-do-it!" methodology.  Just go to a Landmark Forum or Tony Robbins' Unleash the Power Within, and by the end of the weekend, you'll be walking on hot coals and doing your best to get all your friends to enroll in the same program you got snookered into yourself.  While these trainings offer powerful reminders that we're much more capable than we give ourselves credit for, they tend to give lip services to but undermine our relationship to our inner lives.  Even worse, after we've shelled out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for these trainings, we're often left feeling even more stuck than when we began because on top of feeling unsure about our next steps, we, now, feel weak or inferior because taking those steps isn't as easy for us as The Landmark Forum Leader or Tony purports them to be.  Maybe that's why we sign up for the Level 2 course.  Real and substantive change doesn't happen in a weekend.  What's required aren't quick fixes, new tricks, or gimmicks.  What's needed are two things we already have: attention to our interior lives and the capacity to live with confusion.  I personally am in the middle of what I consider to be a major work transition that I think is demonstrative of this notion that substantive change is 80% an inner job/ 20% outer. About a year ago, I started to feel a dimming of interest in one of my current work projects.  I've been co-running an Ashtanga Yoga program in San Francisco with a friend of mine for five years, and I stopped feeling that magical feeling I'd previously felt about running a Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga program.  While each student always brought something new and alive to the class, I kept bumping into a kind of been-there-done-that, burned out feeling along with the sense that there was something "out there", something unclear waiting for me.  I'd had these sort of feelings before. I'd been running these programs, for a little more than fifteen years, so aversion isn't new hat.   Like all feelings, this one would previously come and go.  But in this case, these feelings were persistent.

Distinguishing Reactions from Callings

It's often hard to detect when a feeling is just a passing reaction or when it's a message from the deeper interior.  We all have periods of time when our jobs or our relationships don't satisfy us.  That's normal.  The notion that we're always supposed to be happy all the time is a myth.  Even the best of job or relationships can go stale on us or just irritate us to the core.  That's normal.  But when that difficulty is prolonged, it's often an inner message that it's time to slow down and reflect on what we're bumping into.  Often times, we get busy trying to alter our lives or situations to make our discomfort go away only to discover that we're in a new relationship or new job meeting the same feelings again.  Sometimes the message from the interior is that, in fact, it is time for a change.  Deciphering the inner codes can be quite difficult.  It can be immensely helpful to have wise counsel as well as a community of friends on the path with us that we trust enough to help us distinguish the wisdom of our inner callings from the voices that deceive us.

So I shared the experience with my coach, my wife, and my partner in the project.  I said, "Okay, I'm feeling burned out. I'm starting to wonder if co-running this program is coming to an end for me.  I want to give voice to this experience, but I don't want to make a decision. I want to wait and see if, in fact, I am done, or I am just a little burnt out.  I'd like to revisit this conversation in two months."  In the meantime, it was important for me to test my hypothesis.  Was I really done?  Or was I just experiencing a message from the interior saying, "Slow down. Stop giving your energy.  Find a new way to work."

Sure enough, after two months, the feelings had passed.  I felt reinvigorated by some responses I'd had to some blog writing I was doing about the intersections of yoga and life coaching and started to see that the project I was in was a great platform for the expression of this cross-breeding.   But then a friend contacted me and said, "I'd like to partner with you to do some coach-consulting work in corporations."  And my response was, "Yes!!! I'd love to do this!"  But with a little deeper reflection, I came to the sad conclusion that I was still teetering on burnout.  There was no way I could take on another project.  I just didn't have the energy reserves to take something like that on.  My days were too filled with teaching classes, seeing clients, and treating patients, that I couldn't possibly give this new project the attention it needed.  This recognition had me feeling extremely frustrated .  And so, here I was, once again, thinking that it was time for a change, but somehow I wasn't quite ready.

Are We Really Meaning  Making Machines?

This is where I imagine most coaches and self-help workshops would throw me off of the cliff.  They'd tell me, "Just do it!"  All change has the tendency to be dummied down by these so-called change-agent experts:

No action = No change

No change = Procrastination

Procrastination = Bad/Unhappy

Action = Good/ Happy

And while this perspective, no doubt, gets people into powerful action, it's the kind action that makes them feel cut off from their interiors, which, by the way, deliver messages slowly and subtly and require not so much boldness but softness, receptivity, and awareness to detect and decipher their messages.  Many self-help programs regard humans as machines that misinterpret everything and, thus, need reprogramming so they can function as better machines. Disregarding all of the self-help jargon I'd acquired over the years, I thankfully held off from making a decision for another few more months.  And then I had this experience that absolutely changed me forever.

The Teacher Appears When the Student is Ready

After an arduous bike ride to the top of Mt. Tamalpais, I stood on a hillock overlooking the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, The City of San Francisco, and the East Bay.  As I stood there taking in the scenery, I felt a sense of gratitude for the beauty that surrounded me, and so I started to do a little, improvised gratitude jig, somewhere between a yoga sun salutation and a dance.  As I did my gratitude dance, I started to hear a clicking noise behind me that kept the rhythm.  And when I turned around, I saw this raven standing only a few feet from me with a seed of sorts in its beak. The clicking was coming from the raven's beak making contact with the seed, and I had this clear sense that the raven was relating to my movements by keeping the rhythm.  I continued to dance my gratitude dance around the hillock.  Each movement I made to the left, the raven moved to the right.  Each movement I made to the right, the raven moved to the left.  We were in a dance together, and the raven was keeping the rhythm.  At the same time this dance was taking place, I'd had this intuitive sense that the raven had a message for me.  Who knows whether I was making it up or not, but it was a message that moved me:

"It's time to let go, to stop dancing someone else's dance, to dance you're own steps, and to trust them."

For me this was code for the fact that I'd spent the last 20 years faithfully following a tradition.  I'd been a student and teacher of a deep and old tradition of yoga, but, nevertheless, someone else's interpretation, someone else's ideas, and it was time for me to learn to trust a deeper and more personal wisdom, the one that was moving through me.  Gulp.  I'd been a student of and run these sorts of programs for so many years because they had given me access to deep teachings, the security of a teacher a community, a sort of authority to back up my own teachings, and an identity.  Now, the raven-teacher was giving me the the sage advice, "Let go!"

One might read this as a sort of self-aggrandized interpretation of an experience, a sort of glorification of narcissistic tendencies, but the inner sense of clarity the experience evoked in me was profound and true.  I realized, in that moment, that my need for change wasn't so much about leaving the program or about being burnt out.  Rather, it was about making room for something more personally truer to enter.  I realized that I had to make space for that to come about.  And for that brief moment, I felt released.  Released from the burden that by leaving, I was betraying my students, my partner, or the tradition.  It was a visceral experience, this clear sense that not only was it okay to make a change, but I was being called forth to make it.  And while I'd been preparing for this moment for the nine months of back-and-forth, the inner teacher's message had clearly arrived.

Holding the Tension

Within a week of this experience, my partner and I met.  I shared my decision, and we both wrote a public announcement about that decision.  By the way, this doing, this action required little to no effort.  Even though most self-help programs focus on action, that wasn't the challenge.  The challenge was living with the uncertainty for almost nine months.  One of my teachers used to call this form of waiting, "holding the tension."  Holding the tension is another way of saying, living with uncertainty.  It's called holding the tension because it feels uncomfortable to live between a question, to live in ambiguity. Each of us has a propensity to try to get ground underneath our feet by wanting certainty or clarity.  That's why we turn to self-help programs, gurus, yoga traditions, techniques, methods, and philosophies.  But if we're following our inner guidance, the messages come in only when we're really ready.  Sometimes we must undergo a trial by fire before the message is clear.  You can't coax the interior into a "yes or no decision" in a weekend. It is much more subtle than that.  But when the message is announced, it comes in declarative tones from that still small voice within: "Call her."  "Go to New York." "It's time." "Let go!"  And when we disregard these messages because they're inconvenient, we sometimes find ourselves in the throws of depression.

And Continuing to Live With Uncertainty

Tomorrow is the last day I will be teaching at Mission Ashtanga.  I can't say that I am not sad or even that I don't regret my decision.  I can't tell you how many times my doubting voice has entered.  Right after I made the decision to leave, I started to like teaching, again.  All of the previous feelings of burn out have completely gone away.  In fact, some aspects of my teaching, which previously had been driven by a proving energy, are gone.  I don't have to prove anything to anyone anymore.  And as that's gone away, I am just enjoying the process, which has me thinking, at moments, "Why the f-ck am I doing this?"

But I know, within a much deeper place of my being why I am doing this.  This decision is not whimsy.  I had to struggle valiantly with the decision.  I had to endure lots of back and forth while continuing to live with uncertainty.  And since that certainty came, I have to be willing to trust it in spite of the fact that I want to second-guess my decision. I get that my ride is unique to me, but I think that the essence of my experience is universal, that if we want real and substantive change, we have to be willing live for sustained periods with the discomfort of ambiguity and doubt.  In fact, one might say that most of life requires us to get accustomed to uncertainty.  The sooner we get that message, the less we'll fall prey to quick fixes and the more authentic our lives will be.

So as I enter the next step of this journey, I have some more ambiguity I have to live with:  What is my next step?  What is the deeper and more personally authentic expression I am being called forth to bring about?  To be honest, I have no f-cking clue.  I've made several stabs at it over the last few months since making my decision.  Every time I start to get something down, I feel like I am met with more confusion and uncertainty.  I've tried to put deadlines and timelines on the process.  I've spent hours trying to distill a message.  All of my efforts have been in vain.  In spite of my frustration with this process, I'm pretty clear that if I am patient and am willing to live with the uncertainty and a low-level of frustration, the next step will clarify itself.  Who knows, maybe I'll crumble and send away for Tony's Power Talk CD's.

Five Element Series Part 5: Air Element

The air element is the source of all mobility. It feels light and clear.  It is the place of spirit and of spirituality, the place where the yogis and saints reach for.  It is also the place of unconditional love, unconditional compassion, unconditional friendliness, equanimity, and well-being.   It is the place we get to when we can finally take a breath of fresh air.  It can feel like coming out of hibernation to something fresh, clean, bright, and alive.  It is also the place of humor because humor acts like a breath of fresh air within the space or ether.  People who know how to move space, know how to breathe light and life into it.

Exercise

In a moment, I am going to ask you to stand up and away from your computer.  You're going to click on this link: Air Element Music.  Allow your body to move to the sounds that you hear while simultaneously noticing what you feel.

What did you notice in your body?  What was the movement like? This is the air element, mobile, cool, subtle, flowing, of a higher plane of consciousness.

Diagnosing the Air Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Air is the element representative of the movement, change, and shifting we experience in our body, mind, and spirit.  We feel the air element in our bodies when we sense things moving.  The air element has multiple directions. In hatha yoga, we're primarily concerned with the ascending quality of the air element in the upper body that allows us to breathe and expand, called prana vayu and the descending quality, apana vayu, that allows us to root and stabilize.   The air element is present when we describe the things of life as: "buoyant," "uplifting," "inspiring," and "exhilarating."

The Personality of the Fire Element

People with a lot of air element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • Funny
  • Light
  • Mentally Agile
  • Intellectual
  • Logical
  • Objective
  • Spiritual
  • Godly

 

 

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • Unemotional
  • Heady
  • Impractical
  • Ungrounded
  • Untrustworthy
  • Ditzy
  • Floaty

Examples of people who exude the positive qualities of the fire element include: Shirley MacLean,  Lucille Ball, Goldie Hawn, Chris Rock, Bob Marley, Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, George Harrison, Joan Baez, Spok (Star Trek), Richard Freeman.

What Air Element Feels Like in the Body: Deficiency and Excess

A deficiency of air element produces sluggishness and dullness in the body. When the air element is deficient, we tend to feel like everything is stagnant, stuck, and not moving.  This lack of movement can be extremely frustrating, so we also feel gloomy and experience frequent mood swings and irritability, sometimes even chronic depression.  Because things aren't moving properly and are staying stuck, we also experience pain in the body.  Either the pain moves from place to place or, if the air element is really deficient, the pain can be boring, fixed, and stabbing.

When the air element is deficient, we feel:

  • pain that moves from place to place
  • mental depression
  • gloomy feelings
  • frequent mood swings
  • frequent sighing

When the air element is extremely deficient we can feel:

  • pain that is fixed in location
  • pain that is boring and stabbing
  • abdominal masses that do no move
  • chronic depression

When the air element is excessive, we experience a quality of nervousness, hyper-excitability, and agitation in our bodies.  It's like our nervous system is always turned on.  In those moments, when the air element is excessive, we can feel ungrounded, nervous, agitated, and sometimes even frightened.

When the air element is in excess, we feel:

  • dizziness
  • fidgeting
  • uneasiness
  • vague anxiety
  • twitching
  • spasming
  • tremors

Antidote for Deficient Air Element in Yoga Practice

  1. Increase the ratio of inhale to exhale in ujayi pranayama as well and/or take an inhale retention.  Inhalations are expansive, while exhalations create contraction.  Air element is all about expansion, movement, and mobility.  Creating space through breath increases the air element and gets things moving, again.
  2. Emphasize sukha over sthira, the pleasant nature of the asana over its firmness.  Patanjali describes two qualities of asanas in 2.46 of The Yoga Sutras: sthira sukham asanam.  Sthira means firm, fixed, or steady.  Sukham is happiness and delight.  In Ashtanga, we tend to emphasize the firmness of the posture through contracting various muscles within it. So, for example, in forward bends, we tend to contract the biceps, the quadriceps, and the pelvic floor (mula bandha).  By deemphasizing the engagement of these muscles, we back off of postures, creating more space and spaciousness within them.
  3. Find a fluidity of movement, both in and out of the poses that feels light, buoyant, and airy.  Try a full-vinyasa practice.
  4. Emphasize uddiyana bandha, which means upward flying.  It tends to send the life force (prana) upward, creating a sense of buoyancy within the movement.
  5. Increase the amount of time spent in backbends.  Backbends expand and open the fronts of the chest and increase our lung capacity. Backbends that increase the air element include: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel Pose), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), Dhanurasana (bow pose),  Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose).
  6. While in forward bends, emphasize lengthening of the spine out of the pelvic girdle...
  7. ...rather than contracting and laying down on the outstretched leg(s).  Lengthening the spine out of the pelvic girdle creates a quality of openness, extroversion and expansion, while contracting tends to do just the opposite.
  8. Put yourself in contact with people, places, and things that revive and inspire you.  It can help to have books by your mat that you can return to that remind you of what's encouraging, positive and uplifting.  It can also help to keep a journal there, too, so you can write down any insights that inspire you as your practicing.
  9. It can be helpful to reduce certain foods that obstruct movement, foods high in saturated fats (lard, mammal meats, cream, cheese, and eggs), hydrogenated and poor quality fats (such as shortening, margarine, refined and rancid oils), excess nuts and seeds, chemicals in food and water, prescription drugs, all intoxicants, and highly processed, refined foods.  And, instead, increase foods and spices which stimulate movement:
  • beets
  • strawberry
  • peach
  • cherry
  • vegetables of the Brassica genus: cabbage, turnip root, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussel sprouts
  • mustard greens
  • turmeric
  • basil
  • cardamom
  • cumin
  • fennel
  • ginger
  • rosemary
  • mint

Antidote for Excess Air Element in Yoga Practice

  1. Emphasize grounding by keeping the awareness at the mula dhara chakra and performing mula bandha, since the muladhara chakra is the residence of the earth element.  Placing our attention here has the tendency to root us.  It also allows us to connect to our physical seat, which grounds and centers us.
  2. In standing poses, place the awareness at the soles of the feet by grounding the base of the big toe, the base of the small toe and the inner and outer edges of the heel.  This grounding is called pada bandha and creates stability in the body and mind.
  3. In arm balances, chaturanga dandasana, jump backs, jump throughs, and any time you have your hands on the floor, place the awareness at the contact the four corners of the hand—the bases of the index and small fingers, the base of the thumb, as well as the heel of the palm—make with the ground.
  4. Increase the ratio of exhaling compared to inhaling.  Try a 1:2 ratio; so, for example, you might inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 10.  Or maybe that's too time consuming, so you inhale for 4 and exhale for 8.  When we increase the ratio of exhale to inhale, we have the capacity to calm our nervous system.  If, for example, you notice you're agitated, take time aside from your asana practice to just try the 1:2 ratio of inhale to exhale, and you'll notice that your mind will naturally find more stability.  Additionally, you'll notice that at the end of an exhalation, you naturally engage mula bandha. In other words the pelvic floor naturally contracts; thus, exhaling is a natural way to engage mula bandha.
  5. Put an exhale retention into the breath sequence.  By doing so, you will be emphasizing the exhalation and its capacity to calm and stabilize the nervous system.
  6. Increase the time you spend in forward bends over back bends.  Forward bends have a more sedating effect on the nervous system than backbends.  That's one reason why primary series is so powerful when us Westerners first learn it.  We're so used to being amped up that when we take all of those forward bends, we start to find an access point toward introversion.
  7. Aasnas that decrease the air element include: Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose), Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C, & D (Wide-Legged Forward Bend), Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Marichyasana A & B (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi), Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
  8. While in forward bends emphasize the bend at the waist rather than the extension  out  of the pelvic girdle. By emphasizing flexion rather than extension, we create more introversion, grounding and sedation.
  9. In forward bends, bring some awareness and a slight increase in effort on the exhalation and relax on the inhalation.
  10. Do less asanas.  Excessive movement can agitate the air element more.  Don’t feel obligated to do the complete series of postures you've been taught each.  Know when enough is enough.  It might be beneficial not to jump back or jump through between asanas or sides of asanas.
  11. When we're hyper-exitable with excess air element, it can be helpful to get out of our heads, to get into our bodies, and to create some action rather than analysis.
  12. It can help to decrease the time we spend in front of the computer and television; and to eat nourishing foods, especially root vegetables and whole grains.
  13. Foods which treat excess air element include:
  • millet
  • barley
  • tofu
  • most beans: black, mung, and kidney
  • watermelon and other melons
  • seaweeds
  • algae: spiraluna, chlorella
  • eggs
  • cheese
  • warm milk

Avoid

  • coffee
  • alcohol
  • chocolate
  • sugar

 

Five Elements Series Part 4: The Ether Element and Curiosity

Ether is the space from which our consciousness arises.  It, in fact, has no form.  Its essence is emptiness.  And so it is the space that all the elements arise and pass away in.  Because ether has no qualities, it also represents emptiness or the void we all experience at moments and is filled, not through more activity but by quiet and retreat.  For many of us, our yoga practice is the place we go to in order to continue to empty out so that we can connect with the space of the ether element.

Ether is also the element that represents the mind.  After all, the mind has no form and cannot be contained, seen, or experienced on a sensual level.  Thoughts and emotions ride on the substratum of ether element.  Our capacity to experience the qualities of the four other elements is entirely dependent on what we do with our minds and, ultimately, with the ether element.  If we direct our minds, then we are harnessing the power of the ether element.  If we allow the mind to move in a willy-nilly fashion, we have no access to the other elements.

Noticing What Is

The ether element is the same thing as chit.  Essentially, chit is noticing what is.  It’s a kind of looking, listening, feeling, tasting, touching, and intuiting that allows us to see into things but is not obstructed by stories, dramas, or any interpretation whatsoever.  It’s really just noticing what is.  The action of chit, as described in The Yoga Sutras is an active form of observation without interpretation.  When we really get to know things without immediately jumping to conclusions, when we can just notice, we come to know them as they are.

Curiosity

Before we can ever really direct our mind or give space to anything, we have to be curious. Curiosity is a quality of being that is open, available, and full of wonder. It does not assume anything, nor is it attached to anything. It’s free, open, and innocent. It does not needing to make anything happen.

Do you remember what it was like to be a three year old? Three year olds walk around amazed at what’s in front of them. They never stop and think they've got it all figured out.  Once they're done taken a toy apart, they're off to find out something else. A three-year old's curiosity can be an amazing starting ground to approach the practice of yoga.  Without it, our practices become stagnant, rote, and monotonous.

Most of us initially start our yoga practice filled with curiosity.  We start enthralled by what our practice awakens in us. Then we start to think we know something about it.  We have it pegged, labeled, and understood.  We start to think we know how this posture is and how to approach it. We begin interacting with the practice based on history. Then we start to get bored with our practice.  Something that was once super-exciting becomes boring and predictable. What happened?  We stopped being curious. By taking our practices for granted, we numb out to the subtle shifts and changes that are constantly happening in our practices.  We assume we know.

When was the last time you were in wonder about your practice?  When was the last time you experienced something you’ve done a million times, like a posture or a drishti, and were shattered, literally torn apart by it?  That’s where curiosity is born. How do we show up on the mat everyday, curious about something new and wonderful, either in yourself or in the way a movement feels?  When we turn up the volume on our curiosity within our practice, not with the story or the circumstances, but the inner truth of our practice, our ability to apply the ether element grows and expands exponentially.

Exercise #1

As an exercise for acquainting yourself with the ether element, stop reading for a second, close your eyes, and simply listen to the music on this link, noticing what you feel in your body.

While this music is a bit dark and mysterious, which has a mood, just the act of listening has a quality of expansiveness.  That's the quality of ether or space element. The ether element is said to open in the ears.  So we learn about the ether element when, in yoga, pranayama, or meditation practice, we direct our attention to the sound of the breath, to listen both to the gross sounds and the subtle ones.

Exercise #2

Next time you find yourself in a crowded space, spend a few minutes walking around that space.  Spend the first few minutes trying to avoid others.  Notice what that's like.  Next, spend a few minutes stepping into the empty space.  If you try the latter, you'll notice how much the space will open up for you.  We tend to spend our lives defensively avoiding whatever it is that comes at us.  If, instead, we can learn to step into the empty space, into ether element, possibilities begin to open for us.

Exercise #3

Take a field trip to a few venues, like a library, a hotel lobby, the waiting area in an emergency room,  or an airport bar. Notice the way the space feels is it: angry, frustrated, joyful, board, at peace, anxious? What else you notice about the environment? What is the buzz in the space? Notice where the energy is in the room and how it shifts as people arrive or depart. Write down your impressions. Then try listening with your eyes closed. Notice how that changes things?

Exercise #4

While you're in your yoga practice, notice the spaces in the practice:

  • the space between the inhale and exhale, the exhale and the inhale
  • the space that is created in the body after you come out of a posture
  • the various spaces where you practice and how the spaces effect your practice.
  • the space between the feet and hands as they touch the floor
  • the space behind you, to your sides, and in front of you

Notice how placing your attention on the space alters your experience of your practice?  How does it change things?  How does it open things up?  What is newly open to you as you place your awareness on these places.

Five Element Series

This is one part in a nine-part series that explores the five elements and its application to yoga practice. Be sure to check out the other posts!

 

 

Five Elements Series Part 2: Getting Unstuck

We all face discomfort on the mat, whether in the body, emotionally, or in the mind.  As soon as we have the sense that something is askew, we can’t help but say, "I don't like this feeling.” Or, “I don't want to have this feeling.”  And it is so subtle when it happens.  It is usually just a split second.  There's a very subtle part of our awareness that is constantly asking, "Is this pleasure?  Or is this discomfort?"  And if it's discomfort, then we immediately need to do something about it.  The time between noticing pleasure and discomfort is so subtle and elusive that we are rarely responsive.  Mainly we are reactive to these sensations, especially those that do not feel good. There's a saying in yoga that suffering can be the doorway to wisdom.  And so our discomfort, pain, hurt, and, even anger can be used as an access point into truth.  If we will stay with the experience--not necessarily the thoughts about the experience, but the direct experience of what's occurring--then what tends to unfold is deeper insight and learning.  But the lessons won't emerge until we apply a quality of curiosity and presence to whatever is arising, from moment to moment.

Getting Unstuck

And I say, moment-to-moment, because what happens is that all experience is constantly in a flux.  It's constantly changing. There isn't one fixed experience we have.  While some feeling states last for extended periods of time, if we apply consciousness, we'll notice that they're constantly shifting.  That is, they're not fixed.  Even in this moment, what you felt 30 seconds ago doesn't correspond to what's occurring, now. And so by being in the now, we end up noticing a constant flux, a constant change. Applying this quality of present moment consciousness unsticks us.  What keeps us stuck is that we identify ourselves in fixed modes, like "I am an intense person;" or "I'm a Capricorn;" or "I'm a materialist;" or "I am a vegetarian."

When we begin to notice the qualities of the five elements that arise in the body and throughout our experience of life, we start to develop the visceral experience that nothing we experience out in the world is, in fact, is fixed, static, or eternal.  So, for example, we may experience a lot of fire in one moment.  In that moment we might feel anger, frustration, and warm, hot, or burning sensations in the body.  Many of us have a hard time being with these feelings.  They're uncomfortable.  But if we apply a quality of curiosity to them, if we stay with our experience long enough without looking to express or repress the feelings that come up, we'll notice them morph into another element.  Maybe we'll experience some water element; we may be become sad, weepy, heavy, and maybe even tearful.  It isn't that the elements follow an orderliness, but they do shift from moment-to-moment.

Asmita

The elemental approach is useful in that when we get a feeling we are either uncomfortable with or simply cannot be with, we can disentangle ourselves from the "I don't want" response, which leads to more "I don't want."  Patanjali's notion of asmita, which is commonly translated as ego, is really an excessive sense of I or me.  Two things comprise this false and excessive sense of I or me: the parts that cling to pleasure (raga) and the parts that avoid pain or discomfort (dvesa).  Instead of being led around by the asmita, the five elements give a different lens to simply see what it is that we experience. While all personal experience can never be truly objective, the elements do give a quality of neutrality.  As a result, they take us out of the propensity to think that whatever we are experiencing is either right or wrong.  They take us out of the land of raga, dvesa, and asmmita and, instead, put us in touch with curiosity, openness, and discrimation (viveka).

So when we're awake to our discomfort, instead of seeking solutions, we can immediately start to ask, "What am I feeling here?" "Where is it?" "Is there a metaphor in nature I might use to describe it? Is it hot or cold? Heavy or light? Moving or fixed?  Wet or dry?" "What is the primary element here?" "Are there any other elements present?"  And then we can stay with the feelings as they shift by asking, "What am I noticing, now?"  And then after a few moments, we can ask the same question, "What's happening, now?"  Throughout the process if we remain open and curious to whatever shows up, we can begin to unravel and awaken to a deeper experience of wisdom.

Five Element Series

This is one part in a nine-part series that explores the five elements and its application to yoga practice. Be sure to check out the other posts!

  • Part 1—Intro
  • Part 2—Getting Unstuck
  • Part 3—The Five Elements in History
  • Part 4—The Ether Element
  • Part 5—The Air Element
  • Part 6—The Fire Element
  • Part 7—The Water Element
  • Part 8—The Earth Element
  • Part 9-Transformational Breakthroughs

Asking "Why?"... is the Wrong Question

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I stopped to talk with a student in Mysore class today. I wanted to check in to see how she was doing, if she had any questions or needed a little support or encouragement. I thought the conversation would be a short one, but it turned into quite a discussion. Essentially, she's been practicing Ashtanga Yoga pretty regularly as of late, but she's frustrated. She doesn't feel as if she's progressing. She doesn't feel like she's either getting more flexible or stronger, and she wants to know, "why?"

Overvaluing the Intellect

I hesitated to walk into that discussion because looking for the answer to "why" she's stuck is a lot like going down a rat hole. Instead of offering her solutions, looking for the "why" really only deepens the potential that she stays in the rut she's currently in. Even if she found the reason for why she's not progressing that reason would just keep her locked in a particular way of relating to her situation. It might offer her some perspective, but it wouldn't offer her solution.

In addition, our reasons and justification are intellect-based. Her "stuck-ness" is non-intellectual. We have a culture that's overvalued the power of the intellect. It values "knowing" rather than "experiencing." We live in a culture that would rather have us relate to ourselves as some entity that exists somewhere behind the eyes rather than the whole, which includes body, emotions, heart, spirit, soul, etc. And yoga practice is all about the direct experience. It's all about noticing what's occurring in the body and mind from moment-to-moment. Looking for "why" she is experiencing a particular sensation takes her off on a wild goose hunt, far, far away from her capacity to be with the experience.

What You Resist Persists

One of my favorite quotes from the famous psychiatrist, Carl Jung, is, "What you resist persists."   Looking for why is just another way to avoid the direct experience of suffering that showing up both physically and emotionally.  The antidote to Jung's statement is: "what you will be with completely causes it to disappear."  In other words, when you can experience whatever pain or suffering that's arising, directly, using the body and feeling sense as your lens, transformation naturally happens.  Sometimes it happens quickly and instantaneously and other times it's slow-going.  Either way, by staying with whatever shows up, we grow.

20/20 Hindsight

The "why" of situations that show up for us usually only shows up once we've passed difficult or challenging situation. The reason or reasons we are in them, however, don't, in fact, reveal themselves to us until we have long passed the situation we're struggling with. When I look today at the chronic digestive problems I experienced throughout my 20s, the "why" is obvious. Now that I am in my late 30s, I can see clearly that not only was I grieving the loss of my brother to suicide, but so was my gut...20/20 hindsight.

So, essentially, I advocated that she stay with her experience, which included not just the lack of progress, but the feeling of frustration that accompanied that lack of progress. I asked her to find it in her body, to locate it, to feel it, and to compassionately stay in connection to it. The point, as I saw it, wasn't to get rid of it or to overcome it, but to have a direct experience of it. Her search for "why' was just another opportunity to avoid the direct experience. It's really when we stop resisting what we're feeling, discomfort especially, that it no longer has a hold on us. But when we're busy trying to understand or justify it, we don't have to feel, and, as a result, it just keeps us stuck in it.