The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are known as the fundamental text for the system of yoga. They are brief and dense, only 195 short verses, and they can be difficult to understand by themselves.
The sutras are not really intended to be understood without the explanation of a knowledgable teacher, and there is a long tradition of great teachers writing commentaries and explanations of each individual sutra. "Our understanding of Patanjali's text is completely dependent on the interpretations of later commentaries; it is incomprehensible, in places, in its own terms." (1)
The first and best-known commentator to explain the sutras was Vyasa, from around the 4th or 5th century CE. Vyasa's commentary is practically inextricable from the sutras themselves and known as the bhashya, which means "commentary." "It cannot be overstated that Yoga philosophy is Patanjali's philosophy as understood and articulated by Vyasa." (2)
It has been about 1600 years since the Yoga Sutras were created. In just the past 100-200 years, the understanding of yoga and the sutras themselves has changed somewhat, mostly due to modernization and recent philosophical developments. But in the prior 1500 years the Yoga Sutras were "remarkably consistent in their interpretations of the essential metaphysics of the system." (3)
Modern yoga has gotten far from the values of the Yoga Sutras, which focus on the concentration of the mind and emptying its constructed identities to find its underlying reality. Modern interpretations of the Sutras can be shaded by Vedanta---an old Indian belief system that is separate from the Samkhya system of the Yoga Sutras---new-age philosophies and Western modalities.
As yogis, the Yoga Sutras have a lot of insight to offer, and the accompanying commentaries are vital to understanding the sutras themselves. So when you pick up a copy of the sutras, try to find one with a traditional commentary. It will help you understand the intended meaning of this important text.
1. Bryant, Edwin. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, North Point Press, New York, 2009, p.xxxviii.
2. Ibid. p.xl
3. Ibid. p.xxxix
A huge amount of the sensory and motor processing power of our brain is dedicated to the hands. It is necessary for us to function as we do in the world, picking up objects of various shapes and sizes, carrying things, judging their texture and temperature. But it means that at any given time, the brain has more of its attention focused on our hands than it does on, say, our back.
This function of your brain is represented by the picture above, called the Homunculus. It represents the amount of the brain's sensory power that is dedicated to each part of the body, with greater attention displayed by larger features. The results end up being almost obvious, with a lot of the brain's sensory attention focused on the lips and tongue, eyes and ears, genitals, hands and feet. These are the most sensitive parts of the body.
What does this mean for us as yogis?
In general, it means that it's easy for us to think about our hands. We may be doing an exercise that is focused on the spine, but we will wonder, "What do I do with my hands?" Or while we are balancing or breathing, "How should I hold my hands?" It is easy for our brains to answer this call, since it likes to put its attention on the hands.
But this makes it harder to focus on things---parts of the body or mind---that are not the hands. It is difficult to take the attention away from the hands and put it on the spine or abdomen, or knees.
Next time you do (or teach) a posture, check how much of your focus you put on the hands, their grip and their position. Then ask yourself if they are the central focus of the exercise. See if you can move your attention and effort away from the hands to the part that is most important for each practice. It can be challenging at first, but tremendously beneficial.
Knowledge is power. Our understanding of the world around us and our place in it directly affects our ability to function effectively and attain happiness or success (or both), or whatever it is that we seek. As a teacher you pass information and the ability to think to your students, making them more powerful. The better you are as a teacher and the more knowledge you provide, the more powerful your students will become.
This power dynamic can create tension between the teacher and student. Many teachers are afraid of the power that the student will gain if they offer all their knowledge. Won't the student then be equal to the teacher? Or perhaps even better? So the teacher limits the knowledge they offer, only providing part of the information to prevent the student from rising too high. Or they may belittle their students, criticizing and insulting them to remind the students how low they are. This keeps the student---in the teacher's mind, at least---below the teacher.
How do we avoid this? By embracing the possibility that our students will become greater than us. Hoping for it. The value of our students is not in the way they build us up, looking up to us admiringly as all-knowing gurus. The value of our students is the way they are individuals with unique experiences, minds and ability to think. Their value is the same as ours, the same as anyone's, to recognize the things that need to be done to make the world better. To have the knowledge and courage to pursue them.
One of our favorite quotations is credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The greatest way to honor one's teacher is to obliterate him." This contains a great lesson for the student and the teacher. The goal of both parties is the transfer of knowledge and understanding, which is not to be confused with doing things the way they've always been done.
A successful student will be able to think independently of the teacher. A successful teacher will embrace and encourage that independence.
As the year turns over, we quickly shift from looking backward---"what happened this year?"---to looking forward. I have mixed feelings about New Year's resolutions because they encourage us to be dissatisfied. It would be better to focus on contentment, as Ida writes in a new blog.
The more I practice, teach and study I am shocked by the way my mind changes. I see things so differently now than I did when I started learning about yoga years ago. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. How could we possibly have clear vision or intention when we are beginning on a new path? Each bit of practical experience and insight necessarily changes our perspective.
Lately, I have been studying the Bhagavad-gita, and it is so clear which passages are speaking to my present situation: Actions should not be undertaken for the benefit of myself or my ego. When I say this out loud, it seems obvious and silly. But which of our actions are not designed to benefit ourselves?
When I say things so people understand my intelligence, I am serving my ego. When I eat the food I "like," I am serving my sensory desire. Even when I study and learn, am I doing it just to develop my sense of accomplishment and my ability to excel in the world?
It is increasingly important to me to recognize and subvert these thoughts and actions. Instead, my actions should be directed toward the service of others. The difficult part for me to understand is do I do this for the benefit of myself or other people? Even that dilemma is addressed in the Gita. One who performs apparently selfless actions for his own benefit is ignorant, while one who takes no credit and accepts no personal benefit is wise.
This is my goal: to serve with no agenda. To recognize the emergence of my ego and discard it, so my actions build the good of the world at large instead of just myself.
So many yoga words are from Sanskrit, an ancient language that is an ancestor to modern-day Hindi and many others. When we use these words as English speakers and translate them into English, we have to convert them into our alphabet, since Sanskrit uses a different one.
We end up having to approximate some of the Sanskrit sounds since we don't necessarily have them in English. Also a system of marks, like accents, lines and dots (called diacritics), has been developed to clarify the sounds of the Sanskrit language. If we don't read these marks correctly, we can end up pronouncing a word wrong.
Let's look at two commonly mispronounced yoga words: shavasana and chakra.
Shavasana means Corpse Posture, since the word shava means corpse. The first letter of the word is श, pronounced sha. When it is written in English, the word usually gets a little accent mark over the "s", śavāsana. This is the official, scholarly way to write the word. But as you can see, if you don't read the accent, the word looks like "savasana", with the "s" sounding like "sedan" instead of "sh" like "shirt". So the word is commonly mispronounced as savasana, when the proper pronunciation is shavasana.
Chakra means wheel. In the yoga world it often refers to visualizations or energy centers of a "subtle body". The first letter of the word is च, pronounced cha, with the "ch" sound like "chair". It often gets mispronounced as shakra, with an "sh" sound like "shout" or "chandelier". The same is true of the common Sanskrit word chandra, which means "moon". It is commonly mispronounced as shandra, but the correct pronunciation is cha-ndra with the "ch" like chair.
Sometimes it is suggested that the pronunciation can vary, like toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe. Or that a different pronunciation suggests a different meaning. That is not the case here, where the mispronunciation happens as a result of translating the Sanskrit sounds into English letters, and then reading them. The sound and spelling of these words in Sanskrit is quite clear.
The holiday season is here and that means lots of gatherings, food, drink and gift-giving. So many cookies and cakes, rich meats and huge meals. Not to mention the relatively high level of stress that comes with the responsibility of gift-giving, being friendly for long periods of time, lack of sleep from late nights and travel.
How do we avoid losing ourselves during this time when the routines are so different and the discipline that we cultivate during the rest of the year gets discarded for a few weeks of cultural tradition? The answer is non-attachment.
Non-attachment can seem like a strange and complicated concept, but its essence is simply a knowledge of who we really are. We are deep, calm beings at the core, unswayed by the constant changes of the outside world. But we are constantly drawn outward into the realm of our senses where we latch onto sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and even ideas. We become absorbed in these sensations and activities and think that that is who we truly are. Ok, enough philosophy for now...
Next time you are having a cookie (or something delicious), notice the pleasure you experience in the taste. This is a reaction of your senses and does not impact your true self. When you get a great gift, realize that it may bring you pleasure or make your life a little easier. But it does not impact your true self.
Yogically speaking, the detriment in eating rich foods and accepting gifts is not in the way that our health suffers or we need to buy more batteries. It is the way in which we derive pleasure via the senses---which everyone loves!---and then think that our truest self is there in the senses. That mistake is the essence of all yogic practice.
So this holiday season take a moment or two to separate yourself from your senses and your experiences of pleasure. Recognize the pleasure and then recognize that it is not who you truly are!
One of the essential---and I mean ESSENTIAL---elements of yoga is humility: searching for and recognizing the true nature of who we are. As such, ego is a fundamental enemy of yoga. This isn't necessarily ego as in: "he or she has a big ego", but rather mistaking our true identity with our body and mind.
So any action or practice that encourages us to think of our body or mind as our true self is going to take us in the wrong direction. The same is true for any entity that we create, a brand, a product, a philosophy or a system of yogic practice. Confusing our accomplishments with the true nature of our being is a mistake and leads us away from contentment. (This is admittedly difficult because we want to build up our egos to create a worldly sense of security and value.)
CREATING A YOGA METHOD
There is no problem at all with developing or revising a method of yoga. Each culture and time period has its own language and tendencies, so the methods of communication and practice necessarily change, even if the goal is the same. Great teachers are usually ones who can communicate clearly to a population that others have failed to reach. It is of course vital that the goal of yoga---recognition and experience of the true self---remains regardless of the practices to achieve it.
So...what should one name a system of yoga?
Many name their systems after concepts or terms from yogic history or philosophy, like Ashtanga Vinyasa or Kundalini. These names have the benefit of referring to concepts that are bigger than the originator and any individual teacher, but have the drawback of being misleading, especially if you understand the meaning of the terms.
Others name their systems after their teacher. This is a sign of humility and respect while also recognizing the uniqueness and specificity of the teachings. The drawback here is that each teacher will inevitably put his or her own interpretation on the teachings, so they will naturally evolve even when the name suggests that the teachings are from a specific teacher in the past. A good example of this is Sivananda Yoga, which was developed and named by Swami Vishnudevananda, a student of Sivananda. Sivananda's own organization is called the Divine Life Society. (We at Ghosh Yoga fall into this category, teaching a yoga system named after the teacher of our teachers.)
Some name their systems after themselves, including Iyengar, Bikram, Forrest and Baptiste. This has the advantage of being quite specific about the practices and beliefs therein, even with the implied statement that "this is yoga as I see and teach it." It is very personal. The main problem with this is not in its clarity about the system, but in its danger to the founder. By naming a system after oneself and then dedicating years to building it up, it is almost inevitable that the name, the character and the ego get built too. This takes one very far indeed from the goals of yogic practice.
Let's start with something obvious: we can breathe through either the nose or the mouth. The air that goes into our lungs is the same both ways, but there are vastly different effects on our nervous system and---according to new science---our brain. A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that "memory significantly increased during nasal respiration compared to mouth respiration."
But they also stated that "core cognitive functions are modulated by the respiratory cycle." Which means that our brain is hugely impacted by how we breathe.
Anyone who has practiced pranayama, which involves a lot of nasal breathing, has probably experienced its effects on the memory. It is almost ubiquitous that breathing practices bring up old memories and stimulate dreams of the past.
Keep your eyes, ears and nose open for more news about this exciting branch of neuroscience! There are sure to be more developments as we understand the brain better.
It seems that history is littered with holy men and yogis who have been disgraced by acts immoral and illegal. In their youth they may have been full of skill, insight, light and promise, but as the years passed they somehow lost their purity and path, becoming attached to fame, riches, power and the adoration of their followers.
We are left to wonder how we missed the signs of evil. Were they there all along, even when they were so young and seemed so pure? Were they hiding their true intentions, duping us into trust and faith? Is their evil misunderstood? Are they the victims of circumstance?
In truth, a yogi can be pure, realized and glorious at one point and then become overrun by worldly desires and corruption at another point. The two are not mutually exclusive, and presence of one does not mean that the other never existed or never will exist.
The mind of a yogi---or an ordinary person, for that matter---is like a garden. It begins as a wild forest, overrun with natural growth until it is cultivated by disciplined practice and study. If we practice with dedication, we can turn the mind into a beautiful, lush and organized garden. But a garden takes constant attention, tending to the plants that are growing and removing the resurgent weeds that will never stop coming.
Even a few weeks of neglect allow the wild weeds of the mind to grow and gain traction. If we neglect our practice and discipline for years or decades, even the finest mind will be overrun just as a garden neglected for years or decades will turn back to wilderness.
Regardless of how pure or holy we may be, we are never beyond the need for discipline, practice and study. We must constantly tend our gardens, because the weeds will always grow. Even a great yogi can be overwhelmed by the desires and attachments of the mind.
Most of us don't know where our psoas (pronounced so-az) muscle is. It is deep in the body, underneath our abs and guts, but it has a huge effect on the spine and hips. The psoas hugs the lower spine, the inside of the pelvis and crosses the hip. Its main function is to move the leg by flexing the hip, but the fact that it connects to the spine makes things a little more complicated. It is commonly ignored or misunderstood since it is not readily visible or easy to feel, but it is a vital muscle for our posture, our spinal and abdominal function, and our hip function.
In the picture above, the psoas and the rectus abdominis (6-pack) muscles are shown. The psoas is deep and close to the spine; and the rectus is on the surface of the abdomen. Ideally the psoas has enough length to allow the pelvis a neutral tilt (as pictured on the left). When the psoas gets overly tight or tense, as it often does when we sit for many hours a day, it pulls the pelvis into a forward tilt (as pictured on the right).
OTHER ISSUES ARISE
When the psoas is short, a handful of other problems arise. The first two problems come from the forward-tilted pelvis. These are 1) weak and long abdominal muscles (as seen in the picture), and 2) weak and long glutes and hamstrings on the back of the hips. These lead to poor posture and poor digestion, which in turn exacerbate the muscular issues of the abdomen and hips.
The other problem that arises with a tight psoas, as you can see in the picture above on the right, is that the low spine gets pulled down and forward toward the pelvis. This creates compression, tenderness and pain in the low back. It also cascades up the spine, creating poor posture in the mid and upper spine, which leads to upper back pain, neck pain and chest pain.
WHAT TO DO
It is worth saying that sitting less will help the psoas stay long. Things like standing desks are useful to this end. Every hour that we spend sitting encourages the psoas to shorten.
It helps to strengthen the abdominal muscles, especially the rectus abdominis. Then the pelvis will have an easier time staying neutral and upright, encouraging a relaxed psoas. Abdominal strengthening, like situps, is invaluable to this end.
It also helps to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings with squatting motions. These muscles of the hip will keep the pelvis neutral and encourage the psoas to be long and relaxed. Even if you can't do something like squats or lunges, it helps to do what is called the "Glute Drill", which basically involves squeezing your butt muscles for a few seconds. Do ten squeezes a few times a day and that will go a long way to balancing the psoas.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The Central Psoas
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- When You Take a Class, Take the Class
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- The Yogi Becomes Invisible
- The Power of Alternate Nostril Breathing
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- What Is Namaste?
- 80 Years of "Hands to Feet Posture"
- Breathing Through the Nose Improves Some Memory Functions
- We've Forgotten Why We Eat
- The Oxygenation Myth
- Why I Teach Yoga
- Yoga Should Not Be Diluted