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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Eye Ur Veda and Other Lessons from Ayurvedic Practitioner, Sonam Targee at Stillwater Yoga in Atlanta

Sonam Targee is a man of many talents with a list of degrees and certifications as long as most of our resumés. Stillwater Yoga practitioners, Tom and Anastasia Ragland brought him to Atlanta, and he offered a free lecture at the studio.

An Ayurvedic and herbal medicine practitioner for 30 years. He currently practices and lives in Rochester, NY. He was born in Tamil Nader, South India. He holds a masters degree in Chinese Medicine, a practitioner's certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a Bachelor's Degree in Ethno-musicology, a graduate of The New England School of Acupuncture, and a member of the National Ayruvedic Medical Association having studied extensively with renown Doctors of Ayurvedic Medicine Dr. Vasant Lad, Dr. Robert Svoboda, and Dr. Mahadevan, as well as His Holiness The 16th Karmapa Master Mantak Chia, Baba Mktananada, Dr. Hawkins, and Yeshe Donden (personal physician to His Holiness the Dalai Lama). 

I usually never regret attending a lecture at Stillwater, and this turned out to be no exception. When I entered the studio, Sonam's sense of calm struck me immediately. Non-plused by late comers, he directed us to gather up several handouts to take home. Once we settled, he chanted an invocation. Apparently well-versed in yoga alignment techniques, he sat on blankets with his inner thighs weighted with sandbags. He began writing on a whiteboard some key points about Ayurveda. Marking an easy way to remember how to pronounce it by breaking it down to eye • ur • Veda.

He began by explaining that the Gunas or qualities in nature in Ayurveda are the results of the balance or imbalance of the basic elements earth, water, fire, air, and ether. Too much fire creates heat and dryness. Too much water creates dampness and cold. Too much air and ether create gas and spaciness.

In Ayurveda, Doshas are what make up the primary constitution of a person. There are three basic doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. We can be a single, double, or tri dosha.  Our constitution is determined by things like the mind space around your conception, the pregnancy, and childbirth, as well as seven generations or more of your ancestors --- not to mention the snake, frog, or swan pulse pattern on your wrist felt by your index, middle and ring finger.

Each dosha has specific food propensities, for example, Vata like dry and salty foods, Pitta like spicy and sour, while Kapha prefers sweet and creamy. There are also physical cues to a dosha type Vata may have long legs short arms or short legs and long arms.  Every dosha has a planet and day association like Monday and Friday are Kapha, Tuesday and Thursday are Pitta, and Wednesday and Saturday are Vata.

In addition, when a dosha is out of balance, it creates specific changes in the physical and mental constitution of a person.  A Kapha imbalance may lead to sadness and cysts.  A Pitta imbalance may lead to anger and rashes. A Vata imbalance may lead to anxiety and respiratory issues.

It is difficult to give justice to this 5000-year-old practice in just two hours - a practice that can even boast surgery techniques like the "nose job" which are still being used (unchanged) by plastic surgeons today. However, Sonam gave a wonderful overview and left us knowing there's a lot more to Ayurveda than meets the eye.


To learn about other workshops and lectures at Stillwater Yoga visit To contact Sonam Targee in Rochester, NY call 585-256-1841. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Further discussion on freedom from suffering by "Cultivating the Opposite", Pratipaksa Bhavana

In my last blog, I explored the idea of pratipakṣa bhāvanā, "cultivating the opposite".  I talked about the importance of using this concept to counter the afflicted acts or thoughts that keep us in an endless cycle of suffering. The klesas or afflictions are avidya, ignorance, followed by asmita, egoism, raga, attachment, devesa, aversion and abhinivesa, clinging to life. I focused mainly on raga or attachment.

In an effort to deepen our understanding of how to use this new counteracting tool, lets look at its application in prānāyāma - regulating the breath. BKS Iyengar, in Aṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā, Vol. 1 goes into great detail about witnessing the breath and noticing how we breathe without the interference of other thoughts.  However, he says to do that we have to first establish silence.  In the same breath, he explains that "breath stimulates and creates thoughts in the brain."

Do you notice we have two opposing things going on here?  How can we find silence to breathe if breathing stimulates noise in our head? But that's life isn't it? Life is full of opposites. There's positive and negative, hot and cold, happiness and sadness, laughter and anger just to name a few. To cultivate silence in our head, we have to remember the Sutra Tivrasamveganam Asannah that Iyengar translates as, "The goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice."

We have to practice quieting the brain while witnessing the in-breath, the out-breath and the natural retention. If we don't discipline the brain to be quiet, it will suck all of our attention away. In my last blog, I describe a tornado of spiraling thoughts. To avoid thoughts from spiraling, the student "[...] has to learn to develop the sovereignty of intelligence and sobriety of brain so that the brain remains as a witness and not an actor. This is called pratipakṣa bhāvanā."

Once we find silence, we can begin to experience the wonders of our internal world. We can discover the origin of the in-breath. We can follow the breath and notice how one nostril or lung seems to engage in the process more than the other side.  If the left side is active or pakṣa the other side is the opposite or pratipakṣa bhāvanā.  

This week at Stillwater Yoga, we will be working on prānāyāma. Kathleen Pringle often asks us to notice the two opposing sides of the body as we breathe. We can strengthen the breath by bringing attention to the inactive side, which helps to balance our awareness of our breath.  This is also a form of pratipakṣa bhāvanā."  

Using the breath is also a good way to calm ourselves down when we are suffering deeply from any one of the five afflictions or klesas, which BKS Iyengar describes as 1. Nescience 2. Egoism 3. Attachment to lust or greed 4. Aversion, hatred or malice; and 5. Selfishness or fear of losing the joys of life.  The breath enables us to step away from those negative sensations. Instead of painful noise, we cultivate silence and breath.

We build strength one breath at a time, moment by moment, countering debilitating thoughts or feelings first with the breath. We create space, silence and awareness of our internal world. It brings us closer to our true self. It gives us an ability to gain clarity --to think and act in a more positive way than ever before. I encourage you to learn about how the breath can help you develop a habit of pratipakṣa bhāvanā.  It can become a strong force to fight the pains in our heart and head that keep us bound in suffering.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Cultivating freedom from suffering through Pratikpaksa Bhavana

"Yoga starts not only with the analysis of sorrow  
but also helps trace the root cause of sorrow."  
- BKS Iyengar, Astadala Yogamala, Vol.1

According to Yoga Philosophy, there are five klesas or afflictions that cause suffering that is either seen or unseen. First is avidya, ignorance, followed by asmita, egoism, raga, attachment, devesa, aversion and abhinivesa, clinging to life. BKS Iyengar states the afflictions as 1. nescience 2. egoism 3.attachment to lust or greed 4. aversion, hatred or malice; and 5. selfishness or fear of losing the joys of life.

I am going to focus on the third affliction Raga or attachment. It's all about what we want to have or hold.  It's about desire or expectation and the afflicted thinking that results. According to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2.33 Vitarkabadhane pratipaksa bhavanam, when we have what BKS Iyengar describes as an "arousal of thoughts" or Vitarka Badhane, we have to Pratipaksa Bhavanam. We have to counter that brain activity by contemplating what the heck is going on in there and doing the opposite.

Oscillating ruminations from lusting after or afraid of losing something or someone, expecting a raise to just being attached to a particular outcome in your yoga practice all cause endless suffering. They can only be countered by stepping away and getting a different perspective. As systematically stated in Patanjali's next Sutra 2.34. Vitarka Himsadayah Krta Daritanumodita Lobha Drodha Moha Purvaka Mrdu Madhyadhimatra Duhkhajnanananta Phala Iti Pratipaksa Bhavanam.  Iyengar explains this as "Pain are of three degrees - mild, medium and intense, caused by three types of behavior - direct indulgence, provoked and abetted. They are motivated by greed, anger, and delusion, and they have to be countered and corrected with right knowledge and behavior."

Jaganath Carrera's Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study & Practice of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras explains that the path of yoga isn't for "passive bystanders on the sidelines of life." If we are striving to be free from the destructive tendencies (read afflictions) of the human condition to gain any semblance of a state of peace and tranquility, then we have to work hard to counter our 'unbridled' thoughts. 

Destructive thinking can become like an endless tornado. It spirals downward and takes us and everything else in its path with it. Therefore, we must understand the imperative to stop it. To stop it, we must make a habit of Pratipaksa Bhavanam, cultivate the opposite of harmful or destructive thinking.   
It's mentioned twice in Patanjali's pithy 196 sutras. Perhaps that's because it plays an important role in the what he deems the ultimate goal of Yoga: Citta Vrtti Nirodha, the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.  BKS Iyengar describes as "the cessation of all forms of thinking, whether internal or external, that sprout with or without volition."  

Our thoughts have the power to create or destroy. We want to counter negative thinking with positive thoughts. Ultimately, we don't want to allow a tornado of thoughts to begin at all so we can be free of them and create peace. First, we have to be a witness to our thoughts and actions. We have to begin to recognize how they are affecting us and those around us. From there, we can begin to cultivate right thoughts and actions. Yes, it's a lot easier said than done. But my teachers and mentors continue to stress Sutra 2.21 Tivrasamveganam Asannah, which Iyengar translates as, "The goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice."

I may be an idealist, but I believe we can change. However, I'm smart enough to know change takes a lot of effort. Oddly enough, most of us will avoid that effort and choose to endure unbelievable amounts of suffering instead. Some of us don't see the problem has anything to do with us (it's something or someone out there causing all my suffering). Transformation can't happen without first acknowledging our thoughts and actions have something to do with it.

Chip Hartranft in his book The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, A New Translation and Commentary says we've all developed bad habits in our thoughts and actions that we cling to because they are what seem to define us somehow. Therefore, we need a systematic way to purify our thoughts so that we can be free from suffering. He says, "The central human wisdom Patanjali teaches us, is that a pure awareness resides, impervious, at the core of each and every kind of sensation, thought, and feeling, whether we see it (vidya) or not (avidya). And the route to knowing this wisdom fully is yoga." I just wonder how much suffering do we all have to endure and cause others before we recognize it and decide it's time to learn how to stop it?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Getting to the heart of language and intent: Valentine's Weekend Iyengar Teacher Training with Kathleen Pringle

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland character the March Hare inspired the ubiquitously quotable line 'Say what you mean and mean what your say'. Of course, how often do we say what we mean? We usually discover if we did or didn't by the outcome, right? Did you get the action or reaction that you wanted?

Language is a powerful tool; however, it can become a heavy and superfluous appendage to inter-relational effort when used carelessly. Iyengar Yoga Teacher Training is not like any other kind of  education. I recommend it for reasons that go far beyond a desire to teach yoga. Learning discrimination and refinement in our speech is an invaluable skill, and it's an enormous part of Iyengar Teacher Training. BKS Iyengar set up a system of teaching the mind and body through the science of yoga that is designed to work on us synchronistically from the outside inward.

"Yoga releases the creative potential of Life. It does this by establishing a structure for self realization [...].  The Light that yoga sheds on Life is something special.  It is transformative. It does not just change the way we see things; it transforms the person who sees. It brings knowledge and elevates it to wisdom."  --BKS Iyengar, Light on Life

Kathleen Pringle has helped transform innumerable Iyengar students into more self-realized individuals and certified teachers. The Valentine's Weekend Teacher Training paired introductory level teachers with junior level teachers. What is so unusual about this particular pairing is an innate sense of respect for each other and openness to learning. Iyengar Teacher Certification involves a lot of training, even Introductory Level teachers usually have a solid number of them under their belt, and they still may not be Certified Iyengar teachers. Junior Level teachers are veteran learners. They always come with a beginner's mind. In this atmosphere, there is a comfort level that allows organic exposure of what needs attention. While the training involved lessons on a myriad of details in teaching and questions on syllabi covering a total of over 90 poses, Kathleen often brought it back to our words.

'Do your words follow your intent? The idea came up not only with our teaching, where we would use confusing words to solicit an action, but also in our general questions. When someone articulated a question, it would seem clear at first what was being asked; however, Kathleen helped us understand how it could be interpreted in various ways. While it could be just "a matter of semantics," it's important to see how the subtle differences in language can create confusion. The amazing caliber of learners in our group allowed the possible interpretations to be aired freely. The more I listened to the banter the more I learned about the imperative for clarity.

Having the opportunity to take classes and train with Kathleen on a regular basis, I have slowly  begun to develop an ear for the care she takes with her words. She has studied the words of BKS and his daughter, Geeta intently. She knows words are not thrown around lightly in Iyengar Yoga. They are carefully said or written to bring Light. Every word matters. When the words change, there's a reason. Developing a refined sense of what we want to say is a constant challenge.  However, discrimination and wisdom with our words keep teachers from becoming white noise in the heads of our students.

Interestingly, I experienced something like this firsthand today, albeit in reverse. I had to finish some copy for a project and a woman who is renting a room in my house temporarily stayed home.  Her job involves calling film production people, and though she worked in her room with the door closed, her voice carried. I found it impossible to work, so I had to leave and go to a coffee shop.  It struck me how I could work undisturbed in such a crowded place. I texted Rusty Cobb, a music producer who works with sound regularly, and I asked him how I could write at Aurora Coffee with all the noise and not at home with one voice talking?  He said, "It's all about clarity." Unbeknownst to my roommate (who is wonderful, by the way) her singular voice resonated clearly throughout the house.

Clarity gets our attention. Kathleen said in an earlier training that clarity can also come through the quality of our voice. Our tone plays a large role as well.  The dynamics of the voice can become like a prop to our students to encourage, motivate, and keep them safe. In teacher training, Kathleen also made a point that to be clear doesn't always mean we have to use words. There is power in silence. When we demonstrate observable actions without words, it becomes another language (think sign language), and the eyes, not the ears form the impression.

Patanjali, credited for codifying the art, science, and philosophy of yoga through his 196 Sutras or aphorisms also wrote a commentary on the importance of purifying our speech and grammar. The American Sanskrit Institute says on their website, "Patanjali so perfectly captured the essence of yoga in his Sūtras that there is virtually no difference between theory and practice. The text is the practice."

Yoga develops the discrimination and wisdom that brings about lucidity in our thoughts and gives us more precision in our words. Iyengar Yoga offers a systematic way for that evolution to happen. Refining our speech is what will create the educational system, the neighborhood, the community, the business, the government, the city, the state, the world --the life we want.

In my opinion, it's a skill worth learning.


A big thank you to Kathleen Pringle for her time and insights. The tips on teaching inversions are invaluable. I'd also like to thank Nancy Mau for coming in on her anniversary and demonstrating exemplary teaching under our curious microscope.  Finally, I want thank my training peers, who will always and forever be my teachers, too.

*Source:  Yoga Sutras, The Practice by Vyaas Houston, M.A.

Happy Valentines Day To My Son

                                                                                                         February 14, 2015
Dear Cole,

I fell in love with you even before the tests proved you were there. Your dad and I had been creating TV, radio and print campaigns for years.  However, you will always be the greatest show of our creative abilities. They don’t give out ADDY’s or One Shows for that, but we didn’t care. Something bigger than fame, success, and ambition was developing. I felt an immediate connection.  You did make me sick at first, which made hiding your existence a little difficult. Not that we didn’t want to shout the fact from the rooftops. Your dad and I changed jobs to lower the stress of our work so that it wouldn’t affect your development. We wanted you in our lives. I talked to you every day. I read to you, too.  I couldn’t wait to meet you. You took your time. I waited weeks past your due date.  That was a bit too long. Luckily, we were in the right place at the right time, and though you came into this world with great urgency, you landed safely.  I will always be grateful for that.
Every parent I know describes feeling a love like they’ve never felt before.  It is amazing to me how every babble, blink, burp, or bm was a wondrous event. Reading “Pat The Bunny” to you again and again and again and again and again never seemed to bore me. A Blues fan from the beginning, the music that would settle you was The Cobra Record Story. I know every word of every song by heart. I even made up my own songs to the rhythms of those like,  “You get fussy at four, but I just love you more.” 
You smiled from day one.  Even though you had colic, and your system was very distressed, you could always summon a smile between pains. In fact, I’ll never forget we were in the doctors because you were running a fever, you were maybe 4 or 5 months and your dad started playing with you and your belly laughed so hard.  Here we were in the doctors because you were sick, and this infectious laughter came out of you for the first time.
Your whole being seemed to emanate joy. If you missed a day at daycare, the teachers would say that the children didn’t eat as well. Apparently, you walked around the tables and made sure every child “ate their colors”.  When I would pick you up you would squeal in delight. It thrilled me while at the same time making me aware of how much I wanted to be home with you. We decided to give it a try. 
I stopped working full-time and went freelance. That meant sometimes you sat quietly at my feet and played in the recording studio and occasionally, I’d have to take you to meetings. One meeting, while I looked for an address at King Plow, you decided to climb into the fountain to try to catch a fish. Luckily, your diaper held up to that; even the fish survived. When I brought you to New York while I helped Ogilvy & Mather with a client pitch, we spent a weekend at an Ashram. I remember you were pretty much potty trained by the end of it. Running around diaper-less long enough to discover the wonders of being a boy and urinating outside worked like a charm.
At home, the bottom drawers in the kitchen were all yours. However, the idea of sharing came innately to you.  One night we were all watching a movie, and you went to the kitchen, climbed up on a chair and got three plums.  You walked back and handed one to me, one to your dad, and kept one for yourself. You were like a magic fairy enchanting us all.  Of course, I do have fond memories of you utilizing the concept of sharing as a negotiating tool to get what you wanted as well,  “Mommy, would you like a popsicle?
Your first haircut, your first day at school, your first best friend, your first band concert, your first play, your first jujitsu competition, your first big idea, your first love, your first car drive – are all still vivid in my mind. Our first big trip together was to Paris. At only 11 or 12, you enjoyed going to museums and seemed so taken by the artwork. Your favorite at the time was Rodin. Getting the chance to see just how many times he sculpted a hand or foot to “get it right” fascinated us both. For your high school graduation trip, we went to Seville. It was such fun, from witnessing the passion behind the art, dance, and other crafts of the area to giggling over “monkey butt” remedies. Our most recent trip to India seemed daunting compared to our other excursions. I felt less in control on many levels. It became a demarcation line marking your independence. Though you’d already gone to college at Clemson, our trip made it clear to me that you were now your own man. I attended the Geeta Iyengar Birthday Yoga Intensive, and you found a Sitar teacher to study something you wanted to learn. Our days held vastly different experiences, but in the evenings we would share them along with an adventure together at a restaurant, a cave or museum. However, our connection felt more like two adults than mother and son.
Needless to say, it’s still an adjustment for me. We did do a few walkabouts together in India, and I cherish those. They have been our ritual since you were very little. Our first ones began as an adventure and a time to use our imaginations. We created a parade of dinosaurs that followed us. Every walk we made up fun stories where a dinosaur got out of line or had an issue where we helped them. When you got older, our talks changed. You shared your ideas about a software company, which you later began in 5th or 6th grade developing software games. You told me about your ideas for inventions for everything from cars and rail systems to an intriguing plan for a better educational system (one that teaches based on the student and not a one-size-fits-all curriculum - I wish you had that available to you now). 
I’ve watched you become such an amazing guy. You have an analytical mind, a creative soul, and a warm heart. You have so many talents you enjoy already from barista, banjo, guitar, and sitar playing to cooking inventive gourmet. I know that no matter what you do or where you go you will make a difference in the lives you touch.
My most profound moment with you was when you were just a toddler and unfortunately caught me crying after I’d experienced a great loss. You patted my knee and said, “Mommy, don’t lose yourself.  Don’t lose yourself.” You were only two and a half and your wise words resonated so strongly with me, I shifted immediately to a better place. For that reason, every Valentines Day I want to send those beautiful words back to you. Don’t ever lose yourself, because as you can see you are a precious, magical soul, my dear King Cole and you are loved very much.   

Happy Valentines Day! 

Love, Mom 


Saturday, February 07, 2015

Keeping Your New Year's Resolutions by Applying Constant Abhyāsa and Tapas

"The yogi knows the paths to ruin or of salvation lie within himself." - BKS Iyengar Light on Yoga.

As the new year gets underway, our resolutions begin to wane. As stated in the January 28, 2015 article in Women's Health entitled "Beware: The Date Most People Ditch Their New Year's Resolutions to Eat Healthy is almost here," by Ashley Oerman.  Oerman says, according to data collected by GrubHub, February 2nd is the day keeping your healthy eating resolutions begin to get more difficult. 

I'm guessing healthy exercise initiatives get more difficult after the first week in January. We are all gung-ho in the beginning. We inevitably push too hard and end up with aches or pains that give us the perfect excuse to take a day or two to rest. A day or two turns into three or four and before you know it, you are on the couch with a bag of potato chips. 

We are all familiar with Newton's first law of motion:  "A body at rest stays at rest, and a body in motion stays in motion, unless acted on by an external force; inertia is the direct result."* Keeping that New Year's Resolution momentum means staying in motion. Perhaps in yoga we'd say the key to that is mastering our ability to deal with our state of consciousness, which is based on a predominance of one of three attributes or guṇās.

In yogic philosophy, the three guṇās or qualities: rajas (firey, mobile, active), tamas (dark, inert, retraining), sattva (illuminating, clear, serene) have a direct effect on the quality of our physical state. For example, if we have a dominance of tamas, we are dominated by a heavy earthiness, laziness, inactivity, delusion, and torpor. In such a case, moving from a resting state is quite a feat. However, remember Newton's law. Once even a tamasic person begins to move, they can keep moving. In yoga, we know to keep our tamasic nature moving we have to apply constant abhyāsa, practice and tapas or discipline.

According to BKS Iyengar in Light on Yoga, the student "...learns which thoughts, words, and actions are prompted by tamas and which by rajas. With unceasing effort [the sadhaka, student] weeds out and eradicates such thoughts as are prompted by tamas and [...] works to achieve a sattvika frame of mind. When the sattva-guṇā alone remains, the human soul has advanced a long way towards the ultimate goal.  Like unto the pull of gravity is the pull of the guṇās. As intensive research and rigorous discipline are needed to experience the wonder of weightlessness in space, so also a searching self-examination and discipline furnished by Yoga is needed by a sadhaka to experience union with the creator of space when he is freed from the pull of the guṇās."

As one of my teachers, Kquvien DeWeese says, "don't give up on yourself." Keep your goals in motion by ridding yourself of inhibiting thoughts, words, actions, and 'external forces'.  


*Source: Boundless. “The First Law: Inertia.” Boundless Physics. Boundless, 14 Nov. 2014. Retrieved 07 Feb. 2015 from

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Final Days of the Geeta Iyengar Birthday Intensive

It seems throughout Geeta's Birthday Intensive the idea of time and what we choose to do with it seemed ever present. We celebrated Geeta's birth and we honored her father’s life and death. Opening up to this span of time via the path of Yoga means learning to be more present from the beginning to the end. 

The last two days, Geeta maintained focus on Pranayama and the key preparatory actions to begin a Pranayama practice and sustain it.  It is easy to overlook these actions and rush through.  ‘Oh, I’ve done Ujjayi. I’ve done Viloma, so I am good.’ I feel Geeta wanted to get across the imperative of slowing down and paying better attention. 

In our yoga practice, that means being even more attentive to the actions in our Asana so that when we move into our Pranayama practice, we can be more present in our inner world and really experience what the breath is doing.  From there, we can be present to our life force energy, which in turn makes us present for even more.

Our personal yoga journey is very much our own. Geeta encouraged us not to lie to ourselves. She didn't want us to allow our egoic self to take us places we are not ready for. Pull back. Be present with yourself.  What is working?  What is not? What is the right side doing? What is the left side doing?  Is my brain in my head?  What if I put it in my upper back, my thighs, or in the openness of my floating ribs?

Am I overworking or under working?  Where are the dark areas? What is my skin doing, my muscles, my organs, my bones, and my cells?  Question.  'Decentralize'.  We have to break everything down to little bitty parts before we can put it back together and really know how every part is working. 

When I remember her words, I can’t help but think of a watchmaker I met in Atlanta. He’s the only watchmaker I’ve ever met and the last one I know of in our area. I used to have coffee with him at Aurora Coffee some mornings. I divert to this story because BKS Iyengar somehow reminds me of a watchmaker. Like a watchmaker, he was fascinated with all the many intricate parts and how those parts work together to create a beautiful timekeeping device:  our body.

To be a watchmaker or to fix a watch you have to know how it works. You have to take it apart – experiment, explore, experience what does what and why, so that you understand how to keep even the most intricate parts working beautifully. I feel Geeta wanted to convey that her father gave us the tools to learn about ourselves in that way. I believe BKS Iyengar was a physical learner. He wasn’t as we say in America, a box learner. I believe his approach to Yoga is unique to his style of learning.

I don’t know if you have followed some of the comments on Day 6 of my blog; however, there seems to have been a bit of a ruckus going on there. Piety is an easy thing to slip into (for all of us) especially when we want to defend something that means a lot to us. However, we know so very little in the scheme of things that it's hard to justify piety ever. I don’t care how long we've studied something, how many degrees we have, or how many books we’ve read or written. We basically all just study what already exists, whether that’s what’s physically in front of us or something that has been taught or documented by someone else. 

Most of us just regurgitate what we think we’ve learned, which is probably why Geeta was so fierce about us checking and rechecking what we think we know -- even when speaking to the most senior Iyengar teachers. Others, like BKS Iyengar, explore further. They experiment on what they’ve learned and may put it in some new form or explain it in a whole new way. Sometimes that new way resonates with others and gets attention or notoriety of some kind – but that still doesn’t mean that any of us has absolute knowledge of anything.

What I respect most about BKS Iyengar is his integrity. He wasn’t afraid to be BKS Iyengar. He never claimed to be an academic and freely admitted his strengths and weaknesses. When he discovered his ego had ruled his poses in his youth, he wanted his students know it, so they could be watchful of that in themselves. He was quick to tell students when he discovered something wrong in his teachings and (much to his granddaughter’s chagrin) was willing to admit it publicly to millions of people.

I feel BKS Iyengar was a true explorer and reported on what he found on his personal journey as honestly as he knew how. He didn’t need to be famous or even right – he needed to explore every aspect of his path. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t believe he ran around acting like he had absolute knowledge of anything or saying his yoga is better than someone else’s yoga. He stayed true to his personal path and explored it in every detail. 

We are fortunate to be able to benefit from his explorations. However,  if we choose to learn from him or someone else is a personal choice. I like the thought that BKS Iyengar mentions in one of his books, the idea of letting the ‘yoga do the yoga’. I feel you choose to learn from a particular path because it resonates with you and you feel you can get further along by studying it.

However, Geeta reminded us how we are always in a rush to get there. Wherever “there” is. We rarely want to take our time and many times we get stuck along the way.  I often site one of my favorite stories in Light on Life by BKS Iyengar. It is the one about the great 19c. Bengali saint, Sri Ramakrishna. This fellow could go into (a seeded) Sbija Samadhi relatively fast. If you know the story, his Samadhi involved going to a place where he was blissed out in a divine love state with a goddess named Kali.  Who could blame him for hanging out there, right? 

The story goes on to tell about a Vedic ascetic monk who was wise enough to recognize that though Ramakrishna abilities were impressive, he was actually stuck. He let Ramakrishna know he could go further. So Ramakrishna went into his state of Sbija Samadhi and the wise monk watched him. To make Ramakrishna "unstuck" the monk took a shard of broken glass and pressed it between Ramakrishna’s eyebrows.  The result of this shocking act was that Ramakrishna was able to metaphorically kill the goddess. An awful experience, but one that took him to a whole new level of (seedless) nirbija Samadhi. BKS Iyengar goes on to describe this state as “…the final state of aloneness, a Oneness with no Other, like the pure beauty of a prime number to a mathematician – an indivisible state.”

What I want to get across by this story is that Ramakrishna thought he'd gotten "there".  He didn't know he hadn't. We know so little. The sooner we can be okay with that, the sooner we’ll stop feeling the piety of any practice we choose. BKS Iyengar was a humble man. When I saw the Institute, it drove that point home for me even more. And as far as I can tell, he never claimed to be anything he wasn’t. What we call Iyengar Yoga is an incredibly passionate man’s personal quest to answer his own questions, put words to his personal discoveries, and be courageous enough to share them.

I choose to listen to his words, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going on my own personal quest. I believe that is part of the journey and what he would want for his students. That is what I feel Geeta was trying to get across during this Intensive. She didn't want us to assume we know anything.  She wanted us to keep experimenting, exploring, and experiencing what is being taught. She constantly asked what is your experience? She didn’t judge our answers.  She wanted us to tell the truth and learn from our truth.    

I would hope those who choose to use the Iyengar system during their personal journey choose it because they are learning something from it. I know I am choosing to use information gathered by the Iyengars to aid my journey, because it is what I can relate to – other people may not relate to it.  I may not relate to it any longer one day.  I don’t know.  All I know is right now I am learning from it, and it is a system of learning that makes sense to me.

At this stage of my learning, it seems to me that as much as our individuation separated us into unique parts of a whole, our union back to that whole will be just as unique. However, we do need teachers and guides. While it is very easy for us to want to defend whatever path or teacher we are choosing, and to desperately want to share what we may think is a faster way to get ‘there’, perhaps we should just be happy with the idea that more of us are seeking to learn more about ourselves and the nature of our existence.  If for anything else that is a step in the right direction.

We could try to categorize those who choose to utilize the lessons of BKS Iyengar as perhaps more physical learners. However, if you look at the demographics of Iyengar students, you see a lot of PhDs and highly educated academics as well. Therefore, putting his students into a category seems a bit silly. His students, whomever they are, find encouragement to learn through his systematic method. A method that moves us from the external to the internal – from the gross to the subtle. 

By exploring all the intricate parts of our incredible timekeeping device (our body), Iyengar helps us begin to understand being free of it and merging with a timeless universe. As I've mentioned before, he's been an impeccable role model for how to live and how to die. I figure, if we follow his lead by staying humble, open and true to ourselves (exploring, experiencing, and experimenting) we can learn to be truly present wherever we are, so we can appreciate our life more from beginning to end ---and anything that just might be beyond it. 


Thank you, Geeta for your time, your dedication, and your energy; thank you for your patience, your knowledge, and your wisdom; thank you for your fierceness and gentleness, your fearlessness and courage, your humor and criticism, your charity, your beauty, and your peace.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Impressions of India: Geeta's Intensive Day 8 - Tapping into the Suksma of Pranayama

Prana means energy.  Ayama means expansion. Pranayama is a practice that teaches the regulation of the breath. The breath is like food for the Prana. By practicing various ways of breathing we tap into the the subtle energies of the body. There are four basic parts of Pranayama:  Recaka, exhalation, puraka, inhalation,  Abhayantara Kumbaka, pause after inhalation, and Bahya Kumbaka, pause after exhalation. It’s the fourth limb of the eight-limbed path of Astanga Yoga. From day one, Geeta explained how Asana prepares the body by giving it the flexibility and awareness needed to begin this fourth limb of the yogic path. 

Today, on Day 8 of our Intensive, Geeta spent most of the day helping us understand the basics of Pranayama.  Pranayama has many variations just as Asana does. Each variation offers a particular benefit to aid in our emotional stability. One variation can calm our anger and another can heal our sadness.

So, why don’t we practice it more?  Geeta said if she’d made the Intensive a Pranayama Intensive, no one would come to it, except her committed advanced students.Even today, if she’d said it was going to be a session on Pranayama, many of us would probably have found an excuse not to come.

Once again, she intrigued us with her knowledge. Is there Prana in our big toe? You bet. The entire Intensive Geeta has been talking about the energy channels or Nadis.  She has taught us about how to activate several of these channels. She explained that is why sometimes we focus on the inner or outer heel, the spreading of the toes, and the ball of the big toe. These channels go from toe to head. Today, she explained how blocks in these channels can have an effect on our emotional stability. 

Consider for a moment, the idea that a block in an energy channel that begins in our big toe could throw off our system’s balance. Now, I'm over simplifying of course, but if that’s the case, we could become sick or sad, because of an energy block in the Nadi along our big toe. Pretty wild, huh? Does that bring a little more interest in Pranayama? 

I haven’t been mentioning the Pranayama sessions in my blog and I asked myself why. My answer (read excuse) was that I couldn't put words to what I was experiencing. Geeta has been systematically setting up experiences in Pranayama that should have everyone of us becoming more interested in learning more about it. 

One session, we studied the actions of the Jalandhara lock, a tilt of the head where the chin rests in the netting of the throat. It is basically a bandha or lock that is the first one learned because it helps keep the heat from going into our heads when we breath.  

Jalandhara kept the breath from agitating our head while our body "warmed" up through specific Pranayama  practices that Geeta gave us that day to counter the coldness in the stadium. Yesterday’s Pranayama after a long Sirsasana and Sarvangasana put us in wonderfully calm state where we got a hint of Citta Vrtti Nirodha, the stilling of the fluctuations of the consciousness. We all probably had a great sleep that night. I know I did. Today's Pranayama put us in an energetic yet calm state. Granted, I'm not giving justice to the experiences, but what I want to get across is that we experienced three significant states of being through specific variations of Pranayama. 

Many students are still in the mode of getting a workout from yoga.  However, some of us are beginning to understand that Pranayama is a huge workout, but it’s much more subtle than Asana.  As Geeta explained in the beginning of the Intensive there is also a fear complex associated with Pranayama. 

If we consider, Patanjali's explanation of Pranayama, it seems worth getting over our fears or whatever is holding us back and practice it. Once we learn to align ourselves and commit to a regular practice the moving inward process becomes a new world of experience. Patanjali
--> explains Pranayama in Sutra 2:52 as tatah ksiyate prakasa avaranam. B.K.S. Iyengar translates it: Pranayama removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom. While Asana prepares us for Pranayama, Pranayama prepares us for Dharna, concentration or one-pointed focus. 

There is a systematic Parinama or transformation of Citta, consciousness. Nirodha parinama, Samadhi parinama, and Ekagrata parinama.  It goes from restraint to single-pointed focus to no pointed attention.

Asana and Pranayama take us from the gross to the subtle - from the Sthula to Suksma.The more we practice Pranayama like Asana, we tap into the subtle transformations that the practice brings. Do we gain more fire or energy?  Do we calm down? Do we become more focused? Do we become healthier and happier? With practice, we can begin to understand what effect each variation has -- like what effect a very vocal Pranayama like Brahmari might have versus the effect of one of the many Ujjayi variations. 

However, we will only learn the powers of Pranayama by experimenting, exploring, and experiencing with the guidance of a good teacher. She talked about how poor we are without tapping into the Suksma of Pranayama

We may think we are witnessing such poverty here in India when in fact, we are the ones suffering from poverty - poverty of self realization, poverty of wisdom, and poverty of spirit. As I mentioned in my first blog on India.  There is such courage and fearlessness here. There is such calm.

Geeta encouraged us to practice by telling a story about how she began with a very simply and over time she naturally wanted to do more. Her point being, we don't have to get too ambitious with our Pranayama practice . We just have to begin.  

Thank you Geeta for the inspiration.