Category: Theme of the Week

In this second week of Summer Session, I am delving again into the subject of developing your own practice of yoga. Often this topic provokes guilt or disappointment, as students recognize their lack of initiative in practicing at home. If we can witness these reactions, and explore more openly, we may find just the right insight to help inspire a more fulfilling practice, especially if we are motivated by clear intention in WHY we do yoga! One important element in practice, is in its offering of relief, sanctuary and healing in our lives. In order to experience this, it is essential that we decide on our expectation of how much time we will spend that is reasonable within the context of all our other tasks and pleasures! I have recognized that many students receive benefit from just 10 or 15 minutes of practice, several times a week. As it turns out, major medical research studies bear out the truth that even practice short in duration can creat measureable change for an individual. Record your practice sessions in your calendar and conduct your own study to see  what difference your practice makes, physically, mentally and emotionally, as well as in your spirit!

2-46  Sthira Sukkam Asanam

These Sanskrit words come from the Practice Book (Sadhana Pada) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and remind us to be steady and firm, and nonetheless relaxed as we practice the asanas, or “postures” of yoga; our teacher BKS Iyengar has made many brilliant recommendations about utilizing props, as well as our keen attention, to move towards this challenging practice of making “effortless effort,” and also achieving proper alignment in our asanas and in our bodies.  When we turn to the Sutras that follow 2-46, we seem to enter the deeper  territory of this “alignment”,  and effort with simultaneous relaxation, that has more to do with our inner experience, and the quest intrinsic in yoga of peeling away the surface layers, to find the more revelatory answers to fundamental questions of who we are, in our most essential selves. Take a few moments in your week to either look online (or download a pdf of the sutras here or here) or in a Sutra book you own, to read Sutras 2-47 and 2-48, and the direction they suggest.

Ravi Ravindra’s Sutra book aptly speaks of the French word for posture as “attitude”, which clearly points to the idea of an inner experience relating to our body’s “posture.” Guruji (the affectionate and reverent name for BKS Iyengar to his students) has repeatedly claimed that alignment and enlightenment are one. So the practice of relaxing and finding steadiness in the body, along with alignment, while it may seem like physical instruction, reaches into the emotional and psychological realm of freeing our bodies to free ourselves. This close attention to how we do each asana lifts the practice out of it being simply physical, into the realm of an embodied awareness practice.

Each time I practice with this awareness, I make myself available to a deeper connection with the Infinite (Ravi Ravindra uses this term frequnetly in his spiritual writings) as it lives inside me, though I may name that as Buddha consciousness or Christ consciousness if I have a more specific naming of that which lives beyond or within the personality self. Bringing the whole subject back to my earthly self, in my body, I know that how I carry myself in the asanas and beyond creates an inner effect that I know as my mental and emotional attitude, how I am FEELING, and what sorts of thoughts are arising. We can each explore through our practice and our daily lives what we observe about how we are carrying ourselves physically and what impact we notice internally in relation to what we are noticing. We can also notice an inner experience and see if working with alignment, effort and relaxation in our practice can shift an undesirable state.

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Aligning With Justice Without Condemnation

Sutra I-33   A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous, and impartiality twoards wrong-doers.

Is it possible to align ourselves with what we find to be true and good without “condemnation”? Does condemnation have its place? To condemn, according to the dictionary I consulted, is “to declare to be reprehensible, wrong or evil, usually after weighing evidence and without reservation.” I know there are situations in close proximity, and afar, actions by individuals and collectives, and by formal governing bodies which I would easily judge and perhaps in my mind “condemn.” Does this Sutra tell me to follow an alternate course of action? I know it does not CONDEMN me for my impulse to judge!

When we judge, and we condemn we create separation, and ultimately yoga is a practice of union, of love, of communion. And yet we live in a world where at least for most of us, there is much to speak out against, and attempt to rectify, each of us having our small say, our one drop impact in the giant ocean of the world.

I myself will continue to make my attempts to align with what I perceive as justice and compassion, while trying to hold a larger view of imagining that Marshall Rosenberg is right in suggesting that any behavior we find reprehensible in another,  somehow tragically expresses an unmet need. I will hold the possibility of there being a larger picture, and elements of mystery beyond my individual understanding. While attempting to align myself with love, justice and kindness I will continue to wrestle with what is asked for in this Sutra as I try to comprehend impartiality as a way of nonjudging that still allows for me to stand up for what calls to me as fair and “right” on the world stage, whether it is in my small, immediate world, or in another country.

And I know my yoga practice helps me to maintain faith and peace within as I observe the world inside and around me.

Sutra I-33 contains four directions for achieving tranquility of mind, through our ways of being in relationship with other people. In this Sutra, which has the same content as the Buddhist teachings called the Brahmaviharas, or the Four Immeasurables, we are called to be happy as we witness happiness, or even joy, in another individual. As we know, this can present us with challenging moments.

At least most of us would hope we could meet the good fortune of those in our midst with joy that would NATURALLY emerge, especially as we witness the good things happening in the lives of those with whom we feel closest. But this teaching is present in the Yoga Sutras because joy upon hearing of someone else’s happiness is not always what simply arises for us. We may surprisingly, somewhere in ourselves, register a lack within, or in our current situation that causes us to feel envy or jealousy when good fortune appears for another.

It is essential that we not turn on ourselves in these moments, but instead notice uncomfortable feelings and let them guide us towards greater self understanding through compassionate curiosity about a particular response.

I believe that The Sutras invite this psychological and emotional exploration geared towards one dimension of self study, but there is simultaneously a sense of letting our practice itself carry us closer and closer towards a spontaneous ease and joy in relation to the happiness of another person. When we have ease and acceptance in who we are and how our lives unfold, when we are content and recognize in ourselves interconnection and peace, we will be more able to be present for others compassionately in their pain, and in meeting them in their joy and abundance.

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MeditationLast week, I focused on the Sutra that calls us to avoid future suffering, and there were numerous reflections from students about compassion’s place within the Yoga Sutras.

The Sutras are a meditation manual of sorts, and there are not many sutras referring to compassion, though there are a few that are certainly pertinent. Sutra II-33 addresses our yoga practice within the context of relationships, and in part speaks of offering compassion towards the suffering, so that we may achieve inner tranquility.

While each of us may indeed either perceive ourselves as presently compassionate, or at least aspiring towards that state, when we look more deeply into the practice of being compassionate many hardships can prevent us from finding our way to its true expression. Compassion in its very etymology suggests that we identify with the one who suffers, and are aware of our own likeness to that person; compassion becomes an embodied, intuitive arriving in full presence with the one who suffers. This may be really different than what we have done in the name of compassion, in giving recommendations, offering advice, and staying separate on some level from the one who is right before us in pain. Active ways of showing compassion can of course be most needed and welcome, but there is also a quality of presence that can be the most powerful expression of compassion.

I listened to a Zen teacher, Harada Roshi in teachings he offered over last week-end at One Drop Monastery on Whidbey Island. His teachings, focusing on compassion, suggested that the open hearted presence that allows us to find true and deep compassion emerge from practice. In yoga, the direction of practice is towards an experience of communion where we know our inviolable and true connection with all of the life around us. The more I know this in my body and being, the more I can offer the one who suffers not ONLY my concrete acts of help in the forms of recommendations, advice, food preparation and so forth, but also my true deep presence.

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Yoga Sutras Where: Yoga Sutra NYC studio Why: I love how the yoga sutras have created this fresh & contemporary piece of art.

One of the great charms of Patanjali’s yoga sutras is their ability to seem at once entirely obvious and completely opaque.

This week’s theme is a perfect illustration. It is found in the second book of the yoga sutras, which consists of some of the more practical advice to be found in these writings. This aphorism, heyam dukham anagatam, as translated by Ravi Ravindra,  tells us: “Future suffering is to be avoided.”

What could be a simpler or more agreeable task than avoiding future suffering? Who wouldn’t want to?

Yet if this is to be a piece of useful advice, one might easily ask – how in the world do we do that? If life is suffering, as Zen Buddhists would have it, is it even possible? We all know there is no avoiding change, illness, pain and death. So what exactly is Patanjali telling us?

Perhaps heyam dukham anagatam means more specifically, that some kinds of suffering (and as some translations suggest) can and should be avoided.

How many of us, consistently, knowing, repeatedly take actions or invite thoughts or emotions that we know will cause us future suffering? Future suffering that could be avoided if we were, perhaps, more aware and more awake in our lives.

On the simplest, most mundane level, we do this frequently enough. We eat that delicious food that we know will make us feel poorly later. We insist on holding that yoga pose for as long as everyone else in class, maybe even longer, even though we know it will hurt our backs later. We buy that irresistible item even though we know we will suffer when the credit card statement comes next month. Perhaps Patanjali is telling us – when you hear that tiny little voice in your head that says whoa, are you sure you want to do this? – that you, at the very least, stop and carefully consider.

But is Patanjali just giving us advice about diet and finances? How do we understand heyam dukham anagatam on a larger scale in the bigger picture context as well? Do we view our world, our fellow human beings, ourselves in a way that, in itself, will cause future suffering? And if we do, how do we change?

Have you found a way to enact the yoga sutra heyam dukham anagatam in your own yoga practice, in your life?
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Theme of the Week: Inner Peace

At the end of the every class, we lay ourselves down for savasana, just as Mr. Iyengar is doing above. We concentrate on our breathing and we prepare the ground of our minds for the possibility of inner quiet, inner peace.

And yet how often during savasana – and even while doing other more active asanas – do we find ourselves caught up in the hope and fear-filled currents of the thought stream? How often are we pining for the past or fretting over the future, or even without a single thought to prompt us, awash in the full flush of a strong emotion – an upwelling of sadness or pride or fear or joy?

And how often do we then try to escape our feelings and even chastise ourselves? After all, aren’t we doing something wrong? Why are we ruminating over that insult we received last night or that compliment that came our way this morning, when we are supposed to be cultivating inner peace?

Or could it be that it is our attempt to escape from just such emotions that is the biggest obstacle to inner peace? Could banishing feelings cause the greatest suffering of all?

Consider what Pema Chodron has to say in her book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”:

We might feel that somehow we should try to eradicate these feelings of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace. A more practical approach would be to get to know them, see how they hook us, see how they color our perception of reality, see how they aren’t all that solid.

Perhaps inner peace is so vast and so compassionately all encompassing it can even make room for the ugliest, loftiest, pettiest, bitterest and sweetest of emotions.

We are now halfway through the quarter. Feel free to bring any questions to class this week that you are having about your asana practice, yoga philosophy or your journey to inner peace!

Theme of the Week: Aum

Janet Abel a   Hampton Roads, Virginia based Yoga Alliance registered instructor, La   Yoga Loca, because life gets crazyEach week of class marks the exploration of a new theme from yoga philosophy or practice  during a short talk before active asanas. This week’s theme is the giant subject of a tiny word: the mantra aum (or om).

What is Aum? We chant it at the beginning of each class and at the end of the invocation to Patanjali. It can be found in the 8 Petals studio, painted in gold, above Ganesh, the elephant. But what does Aum mean?

Aum can be defined many ways, including god or divinity, oneness, Earth, Creation, the heart of existence, essential reality or the spoken essence of the universe.

Whatever a person’s belief system, they can potentially benefit from the chanting of om, through the “relaxation response.” The relaxation response is the term describing the way the body naturally relaxes when exhalation is elongated, as during the chanting of Aum.

What is your experience? Do you feel any difference after chanting?

For those wanting to explore this vast subject further, here are two possible books to begin with:

“The Yoga of Sound: Healing & Enlightenment through the Sacred Practice of Mantra” by Russill Paul


“Aum: The Infinite Energy” by Vinod Verma