May 11 2010

Yoga & The Art of Listening

Matthew Foley

One of the classic texts of the Yoga tradition, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Within these teachings, Patanjali lays down a quintessential definition of “yoga” that has become a bedrock of modern Yoga practice. In Verse 2, the Sutras read:


Which can translated in various ways:
“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of consciousness”
“Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff.”
“Yoga is the stopping of the turnings of the mind.”

Well, what on earth are the “fluctuations of consciousness,” “modifications of the mind-stuff,” or “turnings of the mind”? And why should we be concerned with them coming to an end?

The turnings of the mind are our habitual mental chatter, the interior monologue running through our brains almost every moment of every day. It is the voice that constantly proclaims its like, its dislikes, its judgments, and its comparisons. It is what carries on our inner autobiography; our feelings of being a good or a bad person, beautiful or ugly, a success or failure, worthy of love or deserving of contempt. It is what worries and obsesses about the future, as well as lives in pride or shame over the past.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this mental chatter. But it tends to create a problem when we habitually identity ourselves with this stream of thought.

Ask yourself this question: where do you most strongly experience your sense of “I”? If you were to say “I exist”, where do you most feel that coming from? Your big toe? Your arteries? Or perhaps your spleen? No, most people (at least in our culture) would answer that “I” is most strongly located somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears. Located ourselves primarily in the head, we connect our identity with the stream of thoughts passing through the mind. This forms our most basic sense of who we are.

From the time of some of our earliest records of human history, human beings have sought through various contemplative practices to bring this mental stream to a stop. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, ascetic practices, drumming, dancing, and singing can all become paths towards turning down the volume of our inner chatter so that something else, something deeper, might be heard. Why? Is it a form of intellectual suicide? Does it mean becoming a mindless bump on a log? No, not at all. By such an attempt, human beings have sought a way to peace, profound happiness, and liberation from suffering.

They realized that the reflective nature of our thoughts – our ability to think about our thinking, and even think about our thinking about our thinking – leaves us in perpetual anxiety about our lives and actually creates an illusory barrier between ourselves and the world around us.

When we give all our attention to this constantly critiquing voice in the head, we subtly disconnect ourselves from what is happening right in front of us. If you are in the midst of an experience and are busy the entire time judging and commenting to yourself on everything – the warmth or coldness of the room, the quality of the company around you, other things you could be doing at this moment – then you aren’t really living in that present moment. You are “stuck up in the head,” too self-conscious to fully be engaged with the experience you are having. It is a little like constantly checking your phone for missed calls or texts while on a first date – it shows you aren’t really interested.

There are days when, feeling a little blue or tired, I can walk through the entire day in a sort of “blah” feeling, wrapped up in whatever crummy feelings I’m going through. If someone were to ask me later how my day went or what I did or saw, I might draw a blank on the contents of the day. I was so wrapped up in my mental “stuff” that I didn’t really notice the beautiful park I drove by on my way to work, or the smell of the rain during the afternoon, or the way my cat stretched himself as I opened the door coming home. This mental chatter keeps us from, in the words of Ram Dass, “being here now.”

Awakening to life therefore involves turning down the volume on this inner noise and instead listening more deeply to what is really going on.

For instance, if you are in a conversation with someone and you’re the one doing all the talking, you aren’t really connecting at all with the other person. You aren’t really having a conversation; you are having a monologue in someone else’s presence. It also means that you probably won’t learn or grow much from that conversation, because you’re just repeating what you already know. But when you become silent and listen, allowing the other person to speak, you expose yourself to new perspective and points of view. You grow, you evolve, you expand.

Well, life is the same way. We could think of our every day lives as a conversation with the world. If we are the ones doing all the talking, by means of our constant internal judgments, comparison, and commentary, then we aren’t really listening to what life may be trying to tell us. Even in prayer, when we are supposed to be seeking answers from God, most people in our culture pray by talking the whole time. Thus it has been said that whereas prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening to God.

So, let us try a meditation of deep listening. You may want to read this first and then go and experiment.

Find a comfortable seat, whether in a chair or sitting in meditation on the floor. Close your eyes and place your hands comfortably in the lap or on the knees.

Bring all of your attention to your sense of hearing. Imagine that you are one giant ear and your only purpose is to hear. Listen to the sounds around you. Maybe you hear a bird chirping outside, or cars driving some distance away, or the sound of faint music in the background.

Whatever it is, just listen, with no judgment, commentary, or interpretation. As Alan Watts once said, “The sound of the rain needs no translation.”

When thoughts begin to arise in the mind, treat them as just another thing to listen to. There is just a deep listening.

What you may begin to notice is that within the quietness of mind, the most ordinary sounds of every day life take on a staggering quality of beauty. The sound of the wind becomes a music just as beautiful as those played by orchestras. The flowing sounds of ocean waves become poems for the ear.

If you listen deeply enough, you may notice that in the midst of such beautiful sound, there is no sound of one listening. That is because there is no real separation between the knower and the known, the experience and the one having the experience. This lack of separation, which was only an illusion in the first place, is the experience of “yoga,” which literally means “yoke” or “union.”

Yoga is a practice of deep listening, turning down the volume of our mental noise, so that we may hear the wisdom of the Universe more clearly.

~ Matthew Foley

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

Feb 10 2010

Yoga and Music: To Crank Up or Mellow Out

Harry Dinwiddie

Recently, I received a complaint from a student about the music choice I had chosen for savasana. I had never received a complaint before about my playlists, but this one had said it was not yogic. The song, granted, could be seen as offensive (which I warned the class prior to playing it) but the message was positive and needed, in my opinion, to be shared with the class. The songs I play in my classes are not the soft music with Tibetan bowls or anything played by Krishna Das. My music is typically music I like and associate with. Currently this is a lot of indie rock and a lot of these songs are loud and fast. Occasionally I will throw in some hip hop or a playlist dedicated to 90′s alternative music. But the idea that a song is not yogic to me is ludicrous. Its not the music, the beat or the meaning that is important. Its the focus one has toward the music.

This brought up an interesting topic that is usually overlooked in our practice. That is music’s place in yoga classes. Traditionalists could say that there shouldn’t be any music. Contemporaries could say use it as it adds to the flow of the class. When I started out teaching, I believed in the former and that music deserved no place. Yoga needed a place to be sacred and nature is the most sacred sound. Today though, I see it completely different. Music should be used as it enhances our practice and actually challenges us further.

Yoga has the ability to allow our minds to focus. This actually is a much harder task than even the hardest of poses or sequences. Think of your mind as a muscle and focusing on one object for a certain time requires constant practice. This exercise is often in combat with our monkey mind and any thoughts that pop up to interrupt our practice. An hour yoga class becomes rather difficult to focus the entire time but constant effort and practice allow this focus to sharpen itself.

There are two ways to focus during a class. The first is to focus on one thing. This could be an intention, your breath or your movement in your poses. The idea is to never leave your mat and allow all other distractions to not even be a concern. The second way to focus is to accept and welcome the entire environment around you and allow yourself to move freely through it. It may seem like a farce to say to focus on your environment, but allowing yourself to use all five senses to equally take in everything and be amazed by your surroundings is a way to shift your attention to the present. All distractions than are natural and cease to become distractions. Focus itself than is either attention on one thing or all things.

Music itself than becomes a way to hone your focus. Whichever focus is chosen, music can play a part. If the chosen focus is to concentrate on one point, music is a challenge to not focus on it. Think of meditating. Meditating is great when it is completely silent but a struggle when there are tons of outside noises that can distract. Is life silent? Does the world stop making noises when you want to sit? The answers are no. Meditation and focus require a challenge of sorts to keep us strong in what we want to focus on. Music than becomes a challenge to maintain we keep our focus, so that it may make us stronger in our practice. On the other hand if the focus is drawn to the equality of five senses and the present, music becomes part of our environment. When this occurs, the beat gets into our head and the music takes us. We become a part of the song and it lifts us to whatever feeling it is giving us, whether it is slow or fast.

Usually, I offer a choice of songs for savasana. I ask the class “Happy or beautiful?” These refer to two songs I absolutely love and fit perfectly for final relaxation. They are Sigur Ros’ Festival and Ara Batur. These songs emit the wonderful feelings for finishing a great class. It was these two songs that made me want to use music the way I do and without apology. Songs can lift us, move us and put us in places we are uncomfortable with. It seems like yoga and music are similar in that fashion. Why wouldn’t they be shared together?


Harry Dinwiddie will be exploring mixing music, yoga and art as he will be teaching a new class at Eye Level Art at 103 Spring St. Tuesday nights at 6:30 starting Feb 16.

Feb 1 2010

Giving Everything, Because it Takes Everything

Amy Jo Gengler

The alarm rings and I barely stir.  My muscles are sore, still tired and though the sun is starting to come out all I want to do is bury my head in the covers.  I am instantly faced with a choice and this decision will determine the course of everything. 
I have come to realize that choosing ‘comfort’ rarely leads to it, but only makes me more uncomfortable.  As I unroll my mat I start to wonder what the next hour and ½ will bring.  Will I be able to do it?  Will they ask me to do something difficult, or worse yet something that I don’t want to do?  And then I smile, knowing that choosing authentic development is a harsh mistress, indeed.  The things I fear will always be hurled right in my path and I know the answer is ‘yes’ to all of the above.  I will again be faced with a choice and this decision will determine the course of everything.  
We have been in warrior II for at least a minute.  My legs are starting to shake, I want to give up, and then he says ‘are you breathing?’….oh, right I forgot about that part.  The minute I inhale that sweet dose of oxygen, I feel everything release and I move into a place of ease.  He walks up behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders, moving them down a few inches.  My neck and shoulder blades begin to release and I wonder how I didn’t even realize how hard they were working?  Why is it that trying so hard is, well…so hard?  It was only four years ago in this very class that I began to discover that resistance is so much more difficult than surrender.  That trying to be perfect at every asana was so much more difficult than allowing myself to melt into it with ease.  Many of us consistently move through our day with absolute confidence that we are actually in charge.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we consciously know what ‘perfection’ is and that we can attain it whenever we want. 
This practice is based on the premise of cultivating awareness of where we are in relation to time, space, and the continuum of development.  I am always grateful to reach that perfect balance in class when I am pushed far enough to be uncomfortable, while simultaneously given enough time to be present inside of my head, alone with my thoughts even for just a few seconds.  In the middle of this struggle I am challenged to be still in the face of the internal chaos.  As I am confronted with the limits of my abilities, I am also given the opportunity to witness how interested I truly am in development.  When I focus on where I am and where I want to be, I know I have to ‘mind the gap’ between what I know and how I am living.  The practice isn’t over when I roll up my mat and walk out of the studio.  It is only just beginning.  I know that I will be given hundreds of opportunities to close the gap between what I know and how I am walking my talk, and the choice that I make in that moment will determine everything.

Amy Jo Gengler, LAc
Re-Soul Acupuncture & Chinese Herbal Medicine


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