Dec 15 2010

Family Yoga!

Willis Tant

There is a class at Jivamukti Yoga on Sundays at noon that is called Family Yoga.  It is intended to be for all people of all ages and can be shared by any and all family members.  The teachings are simple and useful, there is a sense of fun, and songs that help students easily learn the movements.

It is my favorite class that I have the honor of teaching.  I am often so touched by family togetherness that I am moved to tears.  There have been students who bring in their sisters who visit from out of town, there have been father-son moments, and grandparents and small children who delight us all.  But most regular has been one family, who, come almost every Sunday, because they make it THEIR Family time.  Their time to BE and grow together!  Their time to stretch, and breathe, and SEE each other.  Often they go on a picnic or to the beach or even to the grocery store together afterwards.  But for that one hour, every Sunday, they practice together.   I revel in their beauty every week. 

Last Sunday they were telling me how they invite other families to join them, how they spread the word because they have experienced such value from the practice together.  They inspire me and I am so grateful to their dedication and enthusiasm.  They humble me and are a living example of light.  So may this, my first blog, be a sincere offering to this family who has shown me so much love.  Thank you. 

And thank you for coming to practice yoga together in my presence so many times over.  We invite more Charleston yoga families to join us! And look forward to growing, being, and seeing you more often.

Aug 9 2010


Mark Knowles

This may upset you.  Or you may have never heard of any of this before.  You may not believe any of this.  You may not like any of this.


There is a story in India about how they catch monkeys.  It seems they would take a coconut, cut a small hole in it and nail it to a tree, with the hole pointing out, parallel to the earth.  Inside it they would put a tasty treat.  A monkey comes along, sees the nice delight and sticks his hand inside, closing his fist around the morsel.  The hole is large enough only for the hand, not the closed fist, the monkey is trapped!!  He’ll remain there for days perhaps thoroughly baffled as to how he’s not able to have both this treat and his freedom.  Soon some trappers will come along, release the coconut from the tree and take our simian friend off to be sold into a circus or some other such fate.

See something here?  Sound like you?  Well it is, it’s all of us.  This idea of enlightenment we’ve been sold sounds great.  But can someone tell me exactly how tree pose will lead me to enlightenment?  And better yet, show me someone who it has worked for.  Come on, any idiot in a white coat can sell this acne cream, where are those 9 out of ten dentists, and why do lawyers use paid actors dressed up as lawyers to tell us we need them.

Ya want to know why.  They’re selling us something.  Yoga classes, books, prayer beads, peace of mind, all this stuff to lead us to non-attachment!

 ”Take it off the mat” they say.  Take what off the mat?  Exactly what?  And why?  And where did I get this, did I not have it before?  And where am I going to keep it in these little tight yoga shorts?

The minute we decide to take something off the mat (I’ll say apply a “Spiritual Concept”) we invest an interest in it, we have an expectation of the outcome an ATTACHMENT.  Practice, let things play themselves through without orchestrating every little aspect.  Quit TRYING to be enlightened, you’ll miss it when it happens.

We have an amazing knack of accessorizing the practice of Yoga.

Not too long ago I was subbing a class for another teacher.  A student came barging up to me and demanded, “Where’s—–, is she not teaching this class?”  “No”, I said.  She stormed out.

I stayed, taught the class and got paid.  I don’t know what she did, I know I didn’t suffer any.

Do you want to know how addicted you are to your attachments?  Use the other hand for a day, brush your teeth in the opposite direction, put your keys in the opposite pocket. 

I taught a class recently to illustrate this point.  I had the students, many of them dedicated regulars, switch sides of the room, and then switch rows!!  There was definitely some tension.  But, many of them almost immediately recognized the purpose of the exercise (remember, they are dedicated regulars) and laughed at their own discomfort.  I was ecstatic.  I encourage everyone to try this, it can change your life.

We have an amazing knack of turning a liberating practice into a binding one.

Yoga teaches that without practicing non-harming (अहिंसा ahiṁsā) realizing the goal of Yoga (samādhi समाधि) is much more difficult.  Notice I didn’t say “Jivamukti” or “Anusara” or some other style?  It’s because the idea is a fundamental and universal one, not particular to a certain style.  It’s expounded upon, made into sutra, verse, chapter, story, allegory, and even the qualities of God Himself are associated with it, it forms the BASIS of Yoga fundamentals and yet…. Don’t like it?  Shop around, you’ll find a teacher/class that will re-enforce your attachment.  A good example is if a student says “What about this vegetarian thing?”, the teacher may say “Well, I think it’s a personal decision, so I don’t teach it.”

Go to a driving instructor and see if when asked about the need to use a turn indicator they say the same.  When you put two of us together with our attachments-LOOK OUT!! 

We have an amazing knack of re-enforcing and justifying our attachments.

Darwin tells us we’re evolved from primates.

I think that may be true, bigger bodies and brains-more advanced thought capacity.  Bigger more complex attachments.

If our simian friend had it to do again from a different perspective, do you think that little scrap of food is worth more to him than his freedom, he had alot of time to think about it while he stood there.  All he had to do was let go, though.  Not analyze the hell out of it.

We have an amazing knack of complicating simple matters.

लोकः समस्तः सुखिनो भवन्तुः

lokaḥ samastaḥ sukhino bhavantuḥ

Apr 5 2010

Tied to a Post

Mark Knowles

Did you know that one of the definitions of  haṭhayoga हठ is “tied to a post”?   It always makes me smile when I hear people talking about how much they love  their calm, peaceful music, gentle, sleepy yoga classes.  What about “Gentle Yoga”, that’s an oxymoron!

According to Wikipedia:

Haṭhayoga हठयोग is a system of Yoga introduced by Yogi Swatmarama, a sage of 15th century India, and compiler of the haṭhayogapradīpikā हठयोगप्रदीपिका.   In this treatise, Swatmarama introduces Haṭhayoga as preparatory stage of physical purification that the body practices for higher meditation. The āsanas and Prāṇāyāma in Rāja Yoga were what the Hindu Yogis used to physically train their body for long periods of meditation. This practice is called shatkarma.

The word Haṭhayoga is a compound of the words Ha and ṭha meaning sun and moon ( हकारः कीर्तितः सूर्यष्ठकारश्चंद्र उच्यते | सूर्यचंद्रमसोर्योगाद्धठयोग निगद्यते || ), referring to Prāṇa प्राण and Apāna अपान, and also to the principal nadis (energy channels) of the subtle body that must be fully operational to attain a state of dhyana or samādhi.  According to the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary, the word “Haṭha” means forceful. It is a strong practice done for purification. In other respects Haṭhayoga follows the same principles as the Rāja Yoga of Maharṣi Patañjali महर्षि पतञ्जलि including moral restraint yama यम and spiritual observances niyama नियम.  Haṭhayoga is what most people in the Western world associate with the word “Yoga” most commonly practiced for mental and physical health.  The word “ha” refers to the solar nadi (pingala) in the subtle body and “ṭha” the lunar nadi (ida). However, when the two components of the word are placed together, “haṭha” means “forceful”, implying that powerful work must be done to purify the body. Yoga means to yoke, or to join two things together, hence hatha yoga is meant to join together sun (masculine, active) energy with the moon (feminine, receptive) energy, thus producing balance and greater power in an individual.  The signs of success in hatha yoga are slenderness of the body, cheerful face, hearing mystical sound, bright eyes, sense of well-being, control over the bindu, increase in gastric fire and purification of the nadis.

The  Bhagavad Gītā भगवद् गीता as well as Maharṣi Patañjali महर्षि पतञ्जलि tell us that the practicing of āsana, prāṇāyāma, and the other four limbs of Haṭhayoga are not necessarily the best way to go about seeking enlightenment.  See “With Intensity of Spiritual Practice” posted earlier.  Yet, if we have chosen this path it makes sense to understand what is expected of us.


This word is frequently translated as conscious spiritual practice.  It is made up of two words: sad from siddh which means to reach, and dānaṁ to give.  So the true meaning of the word is to give oneself over to reaching.

This can seem strange when we think of yoga as stress relief.  What constitutes stress, where does it come from?  If we follow Maharṣi Patañjali’s Yoga sūtra 2.3 we have the answer:

avidyāsmitā rāga dveṣābhiniveśāḥ kleśāḥ ||3|| अविद्यास्मिता राग द्वेषाभिनिवेशाः क्लेशाः ॥३॥

avidyā-ignorance of the true self, asmitā-ego, rāga-attachment to that which is pleasureable, dveṣa-aversion to that which is uncomfortable, ābhiniveśāḥ- fear of death, these are the obstacles to yoga- kleśāḥ

The order in Sanskrit is important, one leads into the other.  Try it.  If I am ignorant of my Divine nature, then I think I’m perhaps a white, male yoga teacher, therefore I like things which support this pleasurable story I’ve created for myself.  So, of course I must not like things which challenge this incorrect view.  Once I’ve spent years creating and re-enforcing this initial avidyā and it has grown to gigantic proportions and more or less things are acceptable in my world I fear losing it all.  This scenario may repeat itself by the second, hour, minute, day, month, or year.  This continuous attempt at controlling the outcome of events is stress.  Sound familiar?  It’s at this point we usually have exhausted a good many efforts to CONTROL this stress.  We may find ourselves in a yoga class (YAY!!  Hopefully a Jivamukti Yoga Class!) as a last resort.

My Teacher śrī David Life said at a workshop I attended said “If you’ve made it to a yoga class, something in your life isn’t going the way you would like.”  This is important.  Many people think that their lives are perfectly under their control.  They will inevitably become angry at God if they don’t receive something they have pleaded for.  Even worse, they may become violent towards others who they mistakenly believe deprive them of something they feel deserving of.

Many people use alcohol and drugs, shopping and sex, food and exercise to TEMPORARILY relieve this stress.  It transports us away from the uncomfortable place.  Yet, as any addiction specialist will tell you (or any alcoholic for that matter!) when the distracting substance is used up, the feelings which drove the person towards them will return, sometimes hundredfold.  The person may even form a resistance to the substance, requiring even more to escape.

If we go to a yoga class to blow incense, wave candles and only engage in postures which stroke our ego, or that we have lulled ourselves into thinking they’re all we’re worthy of, we are missing out on a great benefit of yoga; the ability to change our perception of the world and our relationship to it.   However, it may be take a little effort.  Everything is initially uncomfortable, challenging maybe.  Your High school degree was challenging, your climb up the corporate ladder, your desire to become a Vegan may have been especially challenging (congratulations!).

This is why Maharṣi Patañjali tells us:


अभ्यास वैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः

abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tannirodhaḥ

Mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment

Remember the order of YS 2.3?  If you cut the root of a plant all the growth above the cut dies.  If we practice this sūtra we cut very close to the root-ego, and this in turn will help us realize our divine nature.


स तु दीर्घ काल नैरन्तर्य सत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः

sa tu dīrgha kāla nairantarya satkārāsevito dṛḍhabhūmiḥ

Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness

To do be able to attend to the practice for a long period of time (at least 12 years) we have to remember to offer the practice each time.  Almost always the students who come religiously for a while and then give up have been expecting some sort of gain from yoga.  My Teacher śrī Jeffrey Cohen says “What can you do for Yoga, not what can Yoga do for you.”  Try this, next time you practice, take a variation (if the breath allows you to) but before you do, think of a being who may be experiencing a difficult time in their life.  Then, as you move through the posture notice how they are very similar to you in that you too are trying to overcome a challenge, that as soon as this one is over, another will come, and above all how YOU created this challenge.

We don’t have to do funky postures.  Sometimes just being present for each breath and offering every posture to the Divine is enough to make it a very demanding class.  Whether it’s Primary Series, Open Level Class, or Candlelight Waffle Yoga, you can turn each class into an opportunity to grow.  You can lean against your post , or beat yourself up with it.  Or untie yourself from it.

I humbly bow at the lotus feet of my great Teachers

ॐ शान्ति शान्ति शान्तिः

om śānti śānti śāntiḥ

Jan 21 2010

With Intensity of Spiritual Practice

Mark Knowles

In the first sūtra in Sadhana Pādaḥ, Maharṣi Patañjali  gives us the 3-step method to realizing the goal of Kriya Yoga-the yoga of purification.

महर्षि पतञ्जलि योग सूत्र ।२।

Maharṣi Patañjali Yoga Sūtra |2|

तपः स्वाध्यायेश्वर प्रणिधानानि क्रिया योगः॥१॥

tapaḥ svādhyāyeśvara praṇidhānāni kriyā yogaḥ ||1||

“With intensity of spiritual practice, sacred study, and devotion; here lies the work to get back to a state of equilibrium, purity, and brightness.”  -Translation by śrī Sharon Gannon

Tapaḥ-This word is often translated as heat.

This sūtra is the first in the Pāda entitled Sadhana (conscious spiritual practice) and follows the first book entitled, Samādhi (where Master Patanjali expounds on the goal of yoga).  It therefore stands to reason that in this context he’s referring to the spiritual practices of Yoga.

He goes on to describe how they should be pursued with intensity.  Think of gold.  The more the gold is heated, the higher the temperature, the more impurities are burned out.  We can usually find the time to sleep a little later, or not twist deeper into ardha matsyendrāsana (seated spinal twist).  This is a mental exercise.  We generally chase after things which bring us pleasure while we shy away from those which may seem challenging.  By coming to class AND staying focused, giving our full attention to the work at hand, we purify the mind.  By accepting things which may cause us discomfort, we may actually be happy to receive this pain knowing the purification it will bring.  This cannot be practiced in the meditation rooms, only in our daily lives.  We should always look for ways to expand our ability to evolve.  We should be wary of becoming stuck in a routine which may lead us to moving on autopilot.  Our asana sequence, for example, may become rote execution, taking the “consciousness” aspect out of it.  We may seek classes which don’t challenge us because we don’t want to feel like we can’t “do” a posture.  We may resist giving a few dollars to someone less fortunate because we’re scared to make eye contact.  We may never try a delicious vegan Biscuits and Gravy (One of my recipes: recipe because we mistakenly think “I could never go Vegan”.

Intensity is relative.  For example, to someone who is proficient at salamba śīrṣāsana (supported headstand), going through the preparations of dolphining, half headstand, balancing with knees into chest, and with knees raised may be very intense, both mentally and physically.  My Teacher śrī David Life suggests that if we are a fiery personality, one who needs movement, then we should take a slow class and vice versa.

What could prevent us from this intensity?  Fear.  A friend of mine has a great definition for this:

F  alse  E  vidence  A  ppearing  R  eal

We think we’re not capable.  That somehow we may be less than Divine.  Maharṣi Patañjali says “I thought you might say that, here’s what you can do…..”

svādyāya – Study of  the Self/spiritual books

Anything that will elevate your mind and remind you of your true Self should be studied, absorbed, and then PRACTICED.  We cannot just become walking libraries.  Remember, we’re in the book called Sadhana-PRACTICE.  We can study Yoga Sūtra, Bhagavad Gītā, Bible, Koran, or any uplifting scripture.  We’ll find that these sources are essentially the same in their guiding words.  They never become old.  A true scriptural source lasts forever, it is timeless because the Self is timeless.  We must be wary of “New and Improved” Yoga, or of others who say “That doesn’t apply anymore.”  We must go to the source of the scripture.  In śrī Swami Satchidananda’s words “If I say every day you must tell 10 lies in the name of Yoga and you can find no scriptural source to back that up, it should be suspect.”

Furthermore, if it is a true scriptural source many other sources of the world must agree.  The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is a good example of this.  Also of how we can change it to suit us, “Thou shalt not kill HUMANS, animals okay, just not humans, except of course if they kill someone first, and then also maybe if they threaten to kill you, or someone you love, or if they have a country that has more oil than you, or maybe have weapons of mass destruction, and if they happen to be around an area we think is a hideout for bad guys…”  Scriptures and teachers may present information, but is up to us to decide how to practice and apply it.  We should then sit in meditation DAILY to observe the effects of these practices on our minds.  We may find the spiritual path is not an easy one, that the truth may be inconvenient yet we will find an easeful, peacefulness in it.

īśvara praṇidhānāni-offer with devotion to God

Maharṣi Patañjali reminds us, as he has throughout the first book, Devote everything to God.  He uses the term īśvara.  This translates as Supreme Being, God in personal form.  He doesn’t say Jesus, Mohammed, śiva, or Kṛṣṇa.  Yoga has been around for thousands of years.  There are no doctrines in Yoga which conflict with the beliefs of others.  So Maharṣi Patañjali tells us to offer the intensity of our practice towards realizing the Divine within ourselves.  He says offer all your efforts to God, whoever you believe Him/Her to be.  This is necessary because he knows our tendencies to become attached to our actions.  As my Teacher and Co-Founder of the Jivamukti Yoga method David Life says in Jivamukti Yoga Practices for Liberating Body and Soul :We recommend this dedication because asana practice is very powerful.  It can stir up a lot of energy, and the student may wonder, “What do I do with this energy I feel pulsing through my body?”  A teacher who is teaching Yoga only as an exercise- not as a spiritual, psychological, and physical system of purification- responds “I don’t know , do what you want with it,” might as well take the student to the edge of an abyss and say “Go ahead, jump.”

Students who are not taught to dedicate the energy released by an asana practice to God tend to do one of two things.  They may let all that power manifest in their bodies and personalities and become highly charged and very charismatic.  If you look at their faces, however, you may see rage, as well as anger, jealousy , and selfishness.  These are emotions that were stirred up by the practice but were never turned over to God.  Or, the students may fall to pieces, destroyed emotionally and physically by the practice.  These students will probably lose interest in Yoga.  Neither of these outcomes will occur if you apply Maharṣi Patañjali’s sound advice: Give it to God.  Devote all effort to God Realization.

Maharṣi Patañjali’s eight-limbed system is predominantly an effortful path, but the last two limbs-Dhyāna (meditation) and Samādhi (enlightenment)-cannot be attained through effort.  They are the result of Grace.  Yet it is only through intense effort that we can prepare ourselves to receive such grace.

I humbly bow at the lotus feet of my great teachers.

ॐ शान्ति शान्ति शान्तिः

om śānti śānti śāntiḥ

Nov 23 2009

A Vegetarian Diet for Yoga

Mark Knowles

I’ve subbed quite a few classes over the years and have been quite surprised when the students were asked what yoga was.  They answered “Postures; a way to relax; a snack made from fermented milk and bacteria cultures?”  It’s difficult sometimes to determine the true purpose of doing something.  “I’m working at _____________to get money for rent, kids, to make the world a better place, to get out of the house, etc”.

There are many reasons for doing something.  The practices of yoga, however, spells it out for us: yoga=union.  śrī Brahmananda Saraswati defines yoga as “The state of missing nothing.”  Once we unite things we are no longer able to tell them apart.  Through the consistent application of the principles of yoga, we will find that happiness and peace extend beyond our daily yoga class, perhaps beyond the gross physical into the subtle energetic, emotional, and mental.  So if that is your purpose for practicing yoga, read on.

We may practice asana.  Asana purifies karma: past actions.  The process then requires us not to create the same karma we purged ourselves of.  Otherwise, it is like going to the gym and burning 500 calories, then immediately eating a snack which contains 500 calories.  We don’t get anywhere.  We want to purify more karma than we create, or at least create less harmful karma. ie: by eating vegetables instead of other sentient beings.  How can we expect to reach a state of union, eternal bliss, when we deprive others of happiness by seeing them as ours to eat?  It’s no coincidence that yoga practitioners who adopt a vegetarian diet are more flexible than meat eaters.

śrī K. Pattabhi Jois, the aṣṭāṇga yoga guru, when questioned on the subject of meat eating and yoga:
Questioner: “Some yoga teachers say that a vegetarian diet is not necessary.”
Guruji: (laughing) “Oh… a new method!”
Q: “Many Indians and Westerners eat meat.”
Guruji: ”They are not practicing yoga.  Meat eating makes you stiff.”
Q: “What is the most important Yogic practice in this time?”
Guruji:  “Vegetarian diet is the most important practice for Yoga.”

महर्षि पतञ्जलि योग सूत्र ।१।
अहिंसा प्रतिष्ठायां तत् संनिधौ वैर त्यागः॥३५॥
Maharṣi Patañjali Yoga Sūtra |1|
ahiṁsā pratiṣṭhāyāṁ tat saṁnidhau vaira tyāgaḥ ||35||
When in the presence of one firmly established in non violence, all hostilities cease.

If we have not yet reached the goal of yoga and still perceive others, the Yama are guidelines as to how we must treat them to maintain the serenity of our minds.  Master Patañjali gives the first limb of the eight limbed path of Yoga as Yama: that which we do to others.  Ahimsa, or non-harming, is the first practice of the first limb.

All our yoga practices must, if we still believe in the goal of yoga, be based upon a solid scriptural source.  We cannot simply create or disregard that which is inconvenient.  If I wish to bake a chocolate cake (vegan, of course) I cannot leave out the sugar simply because I don’t have it.  The result will not be the same as if I used it.  These sutra are also commonly translated and manipulated to suit us: “I practice ahimsa toward myself, I don’t want to hurt myself, so I eat meat.”  What!?  Meat itself is harmful, both spiritually, as our bodies become the graves of murdered beings, and physically, as our bodies are not suited for meat consumption.  Further, there is no nutrient necessary to our survival that can only be gained from the consumption of meat.

Master Patañjali gives the first two limbs as: Yama-Restraints, that which we do to others and Niyama-Observances, that which we do to ourselves ie: cleanliness, contentment…  After introducing each Yama specifically ie. ahiṁsā, he then gives the benefit to the sadhak (spiritual practitioner) pratiṣṭhāyāṁ tat saṁnidhau vaira tyāgaḥ.  This would be redundant if the Yama were indeed practices we do to ourselves.  With this in mind we could turn it into the negative:  One who is firmly established in violence or who causes violence to be performed will continuously encounter violence.
The Ethic of Reciprocity states “Do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you.”  This is actually an evolution of the commonly known Golden Rule.  Every wisdom tradition has a similar version.

We get closer to Yoga when we realize that if we do something to another it will eventually come back to us. Keeping this in mind we strive to practice compassion in our food choices by choosing not to contribute to the suffering of others.  We attain Yoga when we realize there are no others.

We may not practice Asana every day but we eat every day, sometimes more than once.  Our fork can be a weapon of mass destruction.

ॐ शान्ति शान्ति शान्तिः
om śānti śānti śāntiḥ


Mark Knowles
Certified Jivamukti Yoga Teacher