Both yogic and Buddhist traditions emphasize the inherent suffering of being alive and being human. And both traditions place great importance on removing suffering in order to live contently and peacefully. But these traditions, focused as they are on our conceptions of the self and the world around us, tend to zero in on one kind of suffering in particular — suffering which comes from desire and attachment.
There are other forms of suffering, too. And it is vital to understand what we are talking about when we discuss 'removing suffering'. As we see it, there are three distinct forms of suffering.
1. EXISTENTIAL DISTRESSS
It may be obvious to state that we are here as living, breathing beings. We are born, we live for awhile, and then we die. This period of 'being' is defined by a physical, biological form, a body which is shot through with nerve endings and loaded with self-preserving instincts. These characteristics are shared by every living being — whether human, animal, insect or amoeba. They are inherent in the physical nature of our being.
When the existence of our physical being is threatened, we experience distress. This happens when we are hungry or starving, when we have no shelter, if we are threatened with physical violence, etc. These create real, visceral suffering that is common to all living beings. You can think of it like this: If another animal would suffer in this situation, due to a threat to its life, it is this type of existential suffering.
Another result of having physical bodies is that they are sensitive. If I hit my finger with a hammer, or cut my face, I will experience pain no matter how enlightened I am. Neurological scans show that the brain registers physical pain acutely, even in meditating monks. There is no way around this as long as we inhabit these bodies.
3. THE SUFFERING OF EGO, DESIRE AND ATTACHMENT
The third kind of suffering is uniquely human. It is the target of the systems of yoga and Buddhism. While we can not remove the first two kinds of suffering while we are alive, this third type can be eliminated to a large degree.
As humans, we have an acute sense of who we are and how we are different from those around us. This sense of individual identity is called ego by the yogis. Modern western culture cultivates this sense of identity, encouraging us to embrace our individuality and live out our desires — who we wish ourselves to be. As powerful as this idea may be, it is still only an idea. We build much of our lives around this idea of self, and it causes us great suffering.
Our desires and attachments stem from our ego, and they cause us to hold onto things that are fleeting by their very nature. A job, a car, a cookie, a spouse, our own identity... all these things change over time and eventually disappear altogether. When we link our happiness to them, we are setting ourselves up for suffering because they are transitory. To paraphrase the Yoga Sutras, we are taking impermanent things and imagining them to be permanent. It is a recipe for trouble.
The traditions of yoga and Buddhism insist that the third kind of suffering can be halted by stopping it before it starts. Like weeding a garden, we remove our desires, attachments and ego so that contentment may grow and thrive. The first two kinds of suffering — existential distress and pain — are unavoidable elements of living in these bodies.
When we talk about 'removing suffering', this does not mean that we will never be hungry, never fear for our lives or experience pain. It means that we will see ourselves and the world more clearly, thus ceasing to mistake our own ideas of self for reality.
A short while ago, we decided to accept donations for Covid relief in India. We were not sure what to expect, but so many of you donated so generously! We committed to matching up to $1,000. You sent much more than that. The current total is $3,803!
A portion of the funds is going to the Patharpratima Runners, who are working in a very rural part of Bengal. Recently, they organized a blood donation site because blood banks are running out of supplies. They didn't know if anyone would show up, but they met their goals quickly and easily through the generous spirit of those who showed up. As Covid ravages India, other medical issues do not go away. This is one way of trying to prevent other disasters from piling on top of Covid-19.
They are also organizing the distribution of 500 face shields, 1000 masks, 500 bottles of hand sanitizer and 500 bottles of soap to the water taxi drivers. These drivers transport people between 15 small islands and the mainland.
You may have heard that much of the Covid relief in India is a grassroots effort. It is being done by people on the ground there. They are communicating where hospital beds are available, organizing free meal delivery services to those who have tested positive or are sick, and helping out where they can. With your donations we will continue to support these efforts for as long as we can.
Truth is an elusive idea.
While human beings place tremendous value on what's true, there is often disagreement on what that truth is. In any given situation there may be disagreement or multiple versions of the truth.
Nowadays, we are encouraged to develop a personal truth. We are often instructed that our personal version of the truth should inform our belief system and our actions. Sometimes we are told that we know what the truth is deep within us, and we just need to discover what that is. Herein lies the complexity of truth. Personal truth is subjective.
To explore this further, let's discuss truth in two categories: objective and subjective.
Subjective truth is defined as what you personally believe to be truth. This does not have to be—and will not be—the same for everyone. Importantly, it is not right for one person to try to convince another of their own personal truth. These ideas are personal, based on our unique experiences and goals. They don’t require others to believe the same thing. However, they require your own belief to be true for you. Subjective truth requires belief.
Objective truth is different. Objective truth is true regardless of whether you believe it or not. You do not have to adhere to a certain belief system. You do not have to even know or understand things that are objectively true. Objective truth does not require belief—it is true regardless.
A final layer of complexity is something called collective subjective truth. This can be an idea or belief system that is widely agreed upon by hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. Collective subjective truths can be agreed upon so widely that we mistake them for what is objectively true. Regardless of how many believe an idea, it is still a subjective truth if it requires belief.
It is worth examining our personal beliefs time and time again. Are they only true because we believe them to be true? We can ask ourselves, what is true regardless of whether I believe it or not?
Today we mourn the passing of Dr Prem Sundar Das. Dr Das spent his life teaching yoga. He was a kind and generous soul who lived a life of service.
For decades, Dr Das has been affiliated with various yoga organizations. He served as a consultant, founder, chairman or principle for many institutions such as the World Yoga Society founded by his late brother Mr. Dibya Sundar Das, Ghosh's Yoga College, and his own research and teaching institutions. He taught over 1,200 teachers and spent countless hours with students and patients, teaching and prescribing therapeutic yoga.
Dr Das held a plethora of higher degrees and was held in the highest esteem by communities he came into contact with, both in India and abroad.
In his book Yoga Panacea, Dr Das writes:
"The art of yoga not only concentrates on the physical organs and muscles but also on the power of life. The life force in the muscles and nervous system is rejuvenated by the practice of yoga. In order to develop physical strength and the power of the mind, most people acknowledge the efficacy of the 'Love Formula.' God is love and love is god."
Both his knowledge of yoga and his caring demeanor touched the lives of so many around the world. Today our hearts go out to his family, and all of those close to him who are mourning his passing.
Here is a simple act of generosity you can do: Next time you are at the grocery store, in addition to buying your own groceries, pay for those of the person in line behind you.
You can apply this act in restaurants — pay for the table next to you.
At a drive through — pay for the car behind you.
In a coffee shop — pay for the order behind you.
At a fast food restaurant — pay for the person behind you.
At any other store — pay for the person behind you.
Don't try to judge whether that person needs your help, nor whether they deserve your help. It is a simple act of generosity on your part, offering some of your resources for the benefit of someone else.
Chances are it will do more good for you than the other person. And it may inspire them to commit an act of generosity for someone else.
The vast majority of humans need to sleep for about 8 hours per night. This fact is increasingly supported by scientific studies. Sleeping for less, even if it's only one or two fewer hours per night, can have immense negative impacts on our brain, physical health and longevity. Even if you don't read any further, make a point to get plenty of sleep tonight, tomorrow and every night thereafter.
Our modern culture has come to wear all-nighters and claims that "I don't need much sleep" as badges of honor that signify determination and a strong work ethic. Unfortunately, no amount of will-power or toughness can match the memory, cognition and mental flexibility that sufficient sleep offers.
You probably know that our daily sleep-and-wake cycle is governed by the circadian rhythm. Every living being on earth has this cycle built into its cells and brain, as we have evolved on a planet with 24 hour patterns of light and dark.
It has long baffled humans why we spend so much time unconscious. Do we really need that much "rest"? Actually, no! Because sleeping shouldn't be confused with inactive "rest". Sleeping is an active state for many systems in the body and brain. It is not just "turning off", but more like a race car pulling into a pitstop. The car's wheels may not be spinning, but it is getting vital repairs and maintenance that enable it to function. Skipping a pitstop will reduce function and eventually cause catastrophic failure.
Sleep is the same way for humans. It is absolutely vital, and every hour of it is essential.
Humans need about 8–9 hours of sleep each night. This is broken up into 90 minute cycles where the brain goes into deep sleep and then returns to a shallower form. There are a few different "levels" of sleep, and each accomplishes different tasks in the brain. We need all of these things for the proper function of our memory, learning and coordination, let alone our health.
Put another way, we sleep differently early in the night than in the morning just before waking. The first hours of sleep are populated with deep, dreamless sleep, while the last hours are full of vivid dreams. Deep sleep clears our day's short-term memory, integrating it into long term storage and preparing us for the next day of learning. Dreaming sleep improves coordination of the body and motor function. Athletes and others who will benefit from physical coordination—including modern yogis—need this part of sleep. So don't skimp!
Sleep shortages, even as small as one or two hours, can negatively impact our memory, our ability to learn new information, our blood sugar, our immune system and our hunger. We may think that missing only a couple hours in a night will have minimal impact, but sleeping six hours per night for six nights is roughly equivalent to pulling an all-nighter. Our waking function becomes hugely compromised.
The moral is this: Don't cut your sleep short! Be sure to get enough total hours, and be sure to get all the different parts of sleep. Probably the easiest to neglect is dreaming sleep in the morning, which is the first to get cut off by an early alarm.
(Also, read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD. An excellent book that blew our minds. Thanks to Sue for the recommendation!)
Usually we write about yoga topics like anatomy, philosophy, history and such. Today we have a different purpose, because these are extraordinary times. This morning we got the first dose of the Moderna COVID vaccine.
In Northern Minnesota, about an hour from where we live, is a large vaccination site. It is in a curling arena, right next door to the National Hockey Hall of Fame. In the past few days, word began spreading that they were not filling the available appointments for vaccine shots. One day it was 30 slots that went unfilled, and yesterday it was 400, which is about half of the capacity of the site. So, in order to vaccinate as many people as possible, they encouraged anyone to make an appointment and come, regardless of age (as long as you're over 18, of course).
Scientific experts say that this pandemic will only end when the world reaches herd immunity. Vaccination plays a pivotal role in that goal. Leaders have also encouraged us to talk about getting vaccinated and post pictures, since some still fear or distrust vaccines or consider them pointless.
Throughout this pandemic, we have made an effort to listen to respected scientific leaders and follow their advice. We are relatively young and healthy, but it is clear that our actions affect others who are more vulnerable, including our own parents, grandparents and families. In order to do our part, we (like so many others) drastically changed our lives over the past year. We thought that we would have to wait until the summer to get the vaccine, due to our age and health histories. We were fortunate to have this opportunity to get vaccinated, and we took it! We hope that you and your loved ones (and everybody else too) gets vaccinated as soon as you can.
Yoga, like pretty much every other skill, relies on a combination of factors. Two of the most important are knowledge and practice. Knowledge is our understanding of more theoretical concepts: why we are doing it, what is the underlying belief system, how might I improve, etc. Practice is the actual putting-in-motion of these concepts: the hours, days, months and years of using the body and mind to build experience and generate progress.
These two are powerful when used together. They are much less impactful when apart.
Knowing what you believe, why you believe it, what you're practicing and why is absolutely essential to any sort of progress. If you don't know these things, any effort you exert could easily be put in the wrong direction, taking you further from your goals rather than closer to them.
If you want to go north but don't have a compass, it doesn't matter how fast you run. You are likely to unknowingly head in the wrong direction, getting further from your goal. And the harder you work, the further you get.
Yoga practice is the same way. Whether you're trying to improve your balance, stand on your hands, breathe better, or have deep meditation, it is essential to first know what to do. Each of these goals will require different techniques, and if you use the wrong one you will essentially make progress in the wrong direction. Therefore knowledge is indispensable to progress.
Effort or practice without knowledge can be futile and counterproductive. This can lead to frustration. Often, when you feel stuck in your practice, it is greater knowledge rather than greater effort that will help.
Knowledge helps us refine our understanding of who we are, where we are, where we want to go, and how to get there.
The other half of the conversation is the effort we exert toward our goals — practice. It may be obvious to say, but this is where the actual progress happens.
If you want to go north and you know which direction is north, you still have to put one foot in front of the other and actually go north. No amount of knowing will get you there.
It is easy for intellectual people to overemphasize knowledge. We think that if we know more, then we will make more progress. We continually collect and consume copious amounts of information and knowledge. But we make limited progress this way.
Knowledge must be accompanied by practice, because our bodies and minds grow through use. To improve our balance, we must allow the body to learn how to connect the feet, legs, hips, etc. No amount of study will do this. Only actual practice.
Also, study uses the mind in a specific way, essentially practicing one skill. If we study a lot, we will get good at studying. But we won't improve other skills, like balancing, breathing or meditating. To progress at those, we must practice them.
PUTTING THEM TOGETHER
There is a well-known saying in the yoga world, often attributed to K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga: "Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory."
The quotation is probably hyperbolic, intended to make a point. But the danger in this mentality is that it may encourage thoughtless practice and effort. To return to our analogy, it is like saying "99% walking, 1% checking the compass."
As teachers, we speculate that the lesson Jois was trying to teach is: Don't get stuck in thinking about things. And don't think that knowledge will save you or be enough on its own. You must practice.
We agree with this, but we also think that the opposite is equally likely. Students may think that practice and effort are enough on their own. Then they will cultivate very little knowledge or understanding of what they're doing and why. They will end up making progress in the wrong direction.
We think that the two are equally important: 50% practice, 50% knowledge. The two feed and inform each other. Your actual practice will help you understand why ancient scriptures say what they do. And your knowledge of history, philosophy, and your own goals will help your practice be more effective and productive.
This blog is part of a series about the hips.
The final two movements of the hips to discuss are abduction and adduction. Like internal and external rotation, these are less powerful movements of the hip than flexion and extension.
Abduction and adduction do not need to be developed to any great extent on their own. The muscles that make these movements possible are often accessed through other movements. For example, the muscles of abduction are used for stability and balance. Standing on one leg (or even walking) requires the muscles of abduction.
While we don't need to focus on developing these movements to a significant extent, let's look at them in more detail so we know what the actions are and which muscles make the movement possible.
Adduction refers to movement toward the midline of the body (or toward something). In the case of the hips, adduction is the movement of the leg toward the midline. Not surprisingly, this movement is achieved by engaging the adductors. These can be thought of as the muscles on the inner thigh. They include muscles like the adductor magnus, adductor brevis, adductor longis. All of these muscles connect from the pubis, or bottom and inner part of the pubic bone, to the femur (leg bone).
Throughout this series we've discussed six movements of the hip joint: flexion, extension, internal & external rotation, adduction and abduction. Considering this, anytime we are talking about the hips we have to consider what position the hip joint is in. Remember the hips can be in any one of these six positions or in a combination!
Any time you think "I have tight hips" or "this pose is a hip opener", think about what position the hips are in. Knowing these six options (and that it may be more than one), you can figure out with more specificity what is happening in the hips.
This blog is part of a series about the hips.
So far, we have covered three out of the six movements of the hip joint. We began with flexion and extension. In the last blog we discussed external rotation. There are three more movements of the hips to cover in this series. They are: internal rotation, adduction and abduction.
Let's look at internal rotation. This is a very small movement that occurs when your femur (leg bone) rotates in toward the center of your body. It is far less common than the prior three movements. It is not a movement worth working on to any significant degree. Rather, it's just beneficial to be aware of.
Muscles of Internal Rotation
We do not have a muscle dedicated to internal rotation of the hip. That is why this movement is not particularly powerful or coordinated. Instead, we have a few muscles that aid in internal rotation. These are smaller muscles that do other jobs in the body. These muscles include the tensor fascia latae and two adductors. Depending on what position the body is in, they can work together to internally rotate the hip. Let's take a closer look.
It is not surprising that when we discuss about hip adduction, these will come up again! Their main job is to adduct the thigh, which means to pull the thigh toward the centerline of the body.
However, if the hip is externally rotated to begin with, the adductors can help bring the thigh back to a neutral position. To say this another way, from a neutral position the adductors will not internally rotate the hip to a significant degree. It is when the hip is already externally rotated that the adductors will help to internally rotate.
Remember, internal rotation of the hip occurs within a small range of motion. It isn't a movement that is particularly coordinated. Rather than develop it in your body, be aware of it and use it to inform and bring clarity to your understanding of the other movements of the hip joint.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are scholars as well as practitioners of yogic postures, breath control and meditation. They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga.
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