Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Form or flow. Flow or form.
It seems sometimes like the whole of modern yoga is divided up into form-based practice and flow-based practice, and we, as students, should identify ourselves as being a follower of one or the other. I find myself frequently fielding questions and conversing about the two practice styles, and often times in an almost defensive tone as if I need to substantiate my choice with sound reason. An all-too-typical conversation for me is one in which I tell somebody I teach yoga, they get real excited and tell me how they just love their vinyasa flow class (or that they really enjoyed that one semester they took in college), and then ask me what kind of yoga I teach. As soon as I mention the words "form" or "alignment" their eyes glaze over, and I can see they have lost interest in what I'm saying. Of course it's not just "flow yogis" not understanding "form yogis"; disparateness easily goes both ways. From either perspective, it can feel almost like being on differing sides of a political issue; as if there is no common ground or relatability.

To form or to flow has become a yogi's question. But what does it even mean to call some yoga "form" and some other yoga "flow"? What are they? And are they as different as they're made out to be? I propose that they are in fact in some ways distinct entities; two components of a singular intention. That is to say, form and flow are two means of a single end: the practice of yoga. But rather than being unrelated communities peering at the other from across the uncrossable railroad tracks, they are instead each a vital aspect of a kind of yoga co-op; a circle or a cycle in which flow follows form follows flow and so on. I'll explain, but first a tiny bit of history.

Form and Flow are just two (not the only) ways of distinguishing practice styles. Yogic lineages are more complex than that, but for simplicity's sake let's stick with just the two. Form-based yoga is often credited to B.K.S. Iyengar. Young Iyengar was sick and weak, and his yoga practice was a means of turning his chronic disease into sustainable fitness. In the early stages, his physical condition didn't allow for robust athleticism or rapid, high-impact aerobics. His body needed time to learn proper mechanics and functionality. He needed to reinforce his entire musculoskeletal system, invigorate his nervous system, and nurture practically non-existent physical and psychological stamina. Therefore the yoga he practiced, and subsequently taught, was slow, even seemingly static, and meticulous. His starting point was just shy of crippled; anything more demanding than a thoroughly thought-out and well-executed single pose at a time would have been impractical and even dangerous.

Modern form-based practice uses those same intentions of teaching the body proper mechanics and functionality even when the starting point is less diseased than Mr Iyengar's. The idea is the same, though: reinforce the musculoskeletal system, invigorate the nervous system, and nurture stamina. Through critical analysis and precision of action, the body performs the pose in the most optimal and accessible way (given its unique structures and capacities).

Alternatively, flow-based yoga is often credited to K. Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga. Nearly every modern interpretation of flow-style practice can be traced back to Mr Jois. Young Jois was healthy, active, energetic, and athletic; his practice was a means of employing and enhancing his existing vitality. Neither his musculoskeletal nor nervous systems were impaired; he had strength and stamina. His health and safety weren't as vulnerable, and therefore weren't as compromised by less-fastidious, more-vigorous activities. The yoga he practiced, and subsequently taught, focused less on thinking and more on simply doing.

Modern flow-based practice typically assumes a starting point of at least basic physical and physiological health and vitality, and that strong, fast actions won't compromise one's safety. That kind of activity creates optimization and accessibility also, but from a kind of meditation in motion. That is not to say that one or the other style is safer or less risky than the other. It is not to say that flow practices lack concern for proper alignment or can't be used therapeutically. And neither is it to say that form practices lack vigor or breath-coordinated transitions. They both include risks, the need for thoughtfulness, and the support of proper respiration because that is how anatomy and kinetics work, and in that way they are inherently interrelated. And it is all the more reason to view form and flow as belonging to a cycle rather than as rivals on separate sides of the track. (Also, these comments are not at all directed specifically toward "Iyengar Yoga" or "Ashtanga Yoga" which are two very distinct brands of practice which cannot be simplified into merely being of one method or another; I am speaking only very broadly in regards to form and flow style practices.)

What, Why, and How
I think the best yoga practices are centered around a comprehensive understanding of what, why, and how. The right question is not Is the best kind of yoga form or flow?, rather the question is actually three-fold: What is yoga, why is yoga, how is yoga? And the answers are (1) Form (here the word "form" is referring to basic shape, not the style of practice known as "form-based"), (2) Function, and (3) Refined Form. Together they make Flow.

The what of a pose comes from its basic form: what does the pose look like, what am I trying to do? Form, in this sense, is looking at a picture or a demonstration of the pose to see shape and position. By itself it's just an outline, a blueprint. It is foundational and therefore vital, but it's without substance or structure. Take Down-dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana 110), for example. What does Down-dog look like, what is its shape? Your hands and feet are on the floor; your arms, legs, and spine are straight; and your butt is high. So the basic form of Down-dog is in inverted-V. You cannot perform the pose if you don't know what its most basic components are. But understanding that alone does not mean that you are practicing Down-dog; it doesn't tell you anything about why you're doing it or how to do it well.

From form follows function, which is the why: why am I doing it, why is that a good choice? Answering why provides purpose. Why do I practice Down-dog? Because it stretches the shoulders, opens the upper-back, and lengthens the legs. Why do I need to do those things? There are multiple ways to answer that particular question, but often Down-dog is used as an immediate counter-pose to a back bend or series of them. Within a traditional Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar), for instance, Down-dog follows Up-dog. And if you look for Down-dog within Light on Yoga, you will see that it comes immediately after a series of belly-down back bends (100-111). Poses like Upward-dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana 109), Locust (Salabhasana 100), and Bow (Dhanurasana 102) contract the muscles of the shoulders, spine, and legs. As a direct counter to those contracting actions, Down-dog provides a stretching and an opening to those same body parts. Therefore, understanding that Down-dog's function is to stretch the whole back body tells you to practice it after belly-down back bends.

The how is form (what) revisited and refined: how do I accomplish that, how do I turn theory into practice and basics into nuances? How do I do it well? It is like "advanced form" or "form with skill." Knowing that Down-dog's form is an inverted-V whose function is to counter-act back bends does not tell you how best to use that form to create that desired function. After acquiring a theory of shape (form/what) and an understanding of purpose (function/why) you can properly apply anatomic mechanics into optimal combinations of stability and mobility which in turn become a good yoga pose. In other words, refined form is the means by which you create actual substance and structure.

If you want Down-dog to counter a back bend, you need to know how to position your bones and engage your muscles to achieve that end, and the more refined and skilled you are with position and engagement, the more effective the pose will be. Look at the picture of Down-dog from the front. The reason why this pose is serving as a stretch for the shoulders and upper-back is because of how his arms are positioned and engaged. His hands are slightly wider than his shoulders and his arm-bones are inwardly rotated. You can tell that by the fact that his elbows are pointed out rather than down. Those two things combined allow him to move his arms way back behind his ears into extreme flexion and to move his upper-back in. Now look at the side-view image of Down-dog turned upside down: notice how far his arms are behind his ears, and the angle which that creates where his arms intersect with his spine. That is part of what makes it a big stretch for the shoulders and upper-back.

Although knowing the answers to what and why does not explicitly explain how (because that comes from good instruction, practice, and experience), it does take both of the first two questions to answer the third. Jumping from form (what) straight to refined form (how) without function (why) can lead to a pose not adequately suited for your intentions. We can see that by answering Down-dog's why question differently.

Instead of a counter-pose to Up-dog as we were using in the previous example, imagine you are in Down-dog preparing to hop forward into Standing Forward bend (Uttanasana 93) as is typical in a "vinyasa flow." How would you refine your form, how would you position bones and engage muscles to achieve a safe and graceful hop forward? Look again at the full side-view picture of Down-dog.

This is the version of Down-dog best suited to stretching your shoulders, spine, and legs after back bending because of the deep opening of the shoulders and upper-back, the length of the legs, and the fact that the head is literally on the ground. The function of this pose is to restore and rejuvenate. It is a fantastic pose! But it clearly does not have the power and focus necessary for hopping into Uttanasana. In fact, here is the picture of the first stage of Uttanasana next to the picture of Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana 287); see any similarities?

Look closely at the arms, upper-back, and head.

The basic form of Uttanasana is much more closely related to that of Handstand than it is to the version of Down-dog pictured above, right? If you want to hop forward into Uttanasana, it makes sense to power up your arms and legs and look forward, which is not unlike what you would do to lift into Handstand.

There isn't a right way or a better or best way to perform Down-dog; it's about context and intention. Function informs refinements. The Down-dog whose function is to stretch you after back bends does not use the same skillful actions as the Down-dog whose function is to propel you from the back of your mat to the front. They share a common basic form (i.e. the inverted-V) which can deceive you into thinking they are one in the same pose when in fact they serve different functions and therefore utilize different refined forms. If you find yourself in Down-dog, and you haven't asked yourself why you are there, how can you be properly skillful?

The picture below is two different expressions of a similar basic form: hands down, arms straight, hips above heart. But their functions, and therefore their refinements, are very different.

What am I doing? Why am I doing it? How am I going to do it well?

It's all form and it's all flow.
The shape of the pose is important. The purpose of the pose is important. And the skillful actions of the pose are important. When the what, why, and how of any given pose come together and serve each other, and the pose is otherwise performed (relatively) singularly and statically, therein lays what is often referred to as "form-based practice." In other words, the what, why, and how focus primarily on getting you into and out of just that individual pose. But the thoughtful and skillful manner in which that is accomplished has its own inherent grace, fluidity, momentum, and therefore flow. Just because you return to Mountain (Tadasana 61) in between each standing pose does not mean it lacks flow. You move in coordination with your breath, you move with elegance, you flow smoothly from one pose to another. In that way, it is all flow practice.

What is thought of more commonly as traditional "flow-based practice" occurs when the what, why,and how are expanded to include more seamless (and often creative) transitions and (relatively) constant movement between two or more poses. The fact that the movement is continuous does not by any means negate the importance of answering all three questions, however. In fact, in some ways it makes it even more imperative because the pace is faster, the time to analyze is reduced, and details will surely be left out. If you are in a flow and you haven't considered what, why, and how, you may be sabotaging your intentions or, worse, setting yourself up for injury. The individual poses need to be understood very well before they are linked together with other poses. Not only that, but the transitions themselves have their own what, why, and how. By that I mean that you master the form, function, and refinement of Pose A, and then you repeat that process for Pose B, and then you repeat it again in order to master the transition which links Pose A to Pose B. Then you master Pose C, followed by whatever it is that links Pose B to Pose C, and then whatever links Pose C back to Pose A, etc. And in that way, it is all form practice.

There will always exist differences -- different lineages, different methodologies, different philosophies, different focal points, different intentions, and on, and on. Conversations about what it is or what it isn't can go on ad nauseam. Rather than perpetually standing across from something seemingly different from you in separation from it, yoga can teach you how to step across the divide into relationship. When you ask the right questions, the answers lead you to clarity and continuity. And the question, remember, is not Is the best kind of yoga form or flow? The question is What is yoga, why is yoga, how is yoga? And then you practice. It is always one pose at a time. And it is always one pose after another after another after another.

Form. Function. Refined form. Flow.

And repeat. Always repeat.

Image of Sutra: Yoga Sutra I.33 as translated by Chip Hartranft, 2003.
All other images and page numbers: Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1979. Print.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


The further we progress on the yogic path, the more we can examine yoga's relationships. There exist significant interplays, continuities, similarities, derivatives, connections, and exchanges, both direct and indirect, all throughout yoga's practices. And those relationships, be they physical or philosophical, are a fascinating aspect to study. For now, I want us to look again at some physical relationships between poses.

Sometimes Pose A serves as a direct and immediate preparation for Pose B. For instance, one easily recognizable relationship between Warriors I and III (Virabhadrasana 71 and 74) is that Warrior I is a direct preparation for Warrior III; it is explicitly stated so in the text (LoY 73).

Other relationships take more discrimination to uncover. If, for example, you understand that successful back bends require sufficient mobility in your hip-flexors (front thighs, even up into the lower belly) as well as your side body, then you could glean the value of using Gate pose (Parighasana 86) as preparation for Camel pose (Ustrasana 88). It isn't explicitly stated, and it isn't necessarily obvious simply by looking at their images; it's a relationship more likely to be recognized through practice itself.

And still other poses seem entirely unrelated, and yet they play together tremendously well. A great example of that is how efficiently a series of deep, skillful twists prepare your body for back bends. That is because twists stabilize your legs and hips while mobilizing your spine, and thus leave you properly anchored and nimble for back bends. So one way to prepare for a challenging pose such as Upward Bow (Urdhva Dhanurasana 361) would be with other obviously similar poses like Camel, Bow (Dhanurasana 102), and Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana 229); in other words, you could use back bends to get into back bends. That's clearly direct. But it's not the only (or necessarily best) way. You could also use poses like Revolved Triangle and Side Angle (Parivrtta Trikonasana and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana 64 and 65), Bharadvajasana variations (252), and Jathara Parivartanasana variations (239). It's certainly indirect, but surprisingly effective.

Often times, when you look closely at the form of a pose, you can see the components of some other pose(s), and that keen eyesight can help you decide what and how to practice. Say you want to work toward the first variation of One-legged King Pigeon pose (Ekapada Rajakapotasana I 390). It is a tough one that can be daunting to take on. You may look at a pose like that and think Yeah right, maybe next lifetime! But you only need to break it down to recognize its more digestible pieces. Start by asking yourself what you need to do to prepare; which poses have similar looking components? Well, the front leg looks like Bound Angle (Baddha Konasana 128) or Janu Sirsasana (150). The back leg is reminiscent of Bow or One-legged Frog (Ekapada Bhekasana [not in LoY]). The arms are overhead like Fierce pose (Utkatasana 89) or Down Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana 110). And the torso is arched like Camel or Cobra (Bhujangasana 108). Those are all "Level 1" poses that are likely already a part of your ongoing repertoire. If you worked on each of them in their own right, you would simultaneously be working toward EPRK.

Recognition of related components certainly isn't limited to poses as dramatic or "advanced" as EPRK. We recently spent a class time focused on Upward Plank (Purvottanasana 176), and we prepared for it via a series of poses targeting the feet, legs, and hips plus a little attention to the shoulders. We could have spent our time more focused on the shoulders and upper back. Or we could have more thoroughly opened the hip-flexors. Or we could have looked carefully at the shape of Upward Plank and picked out some specific poses sharing similar components.

What do you see when you look at Purvottanasana? Which other pose(s) are you reminded of?

I see Locust pose (Salabhasana 100) turned upside down and Camel pose with straight (rather than kneeling) legs. Can you see the similarities?

How about when they're seen side by side? Here is Upward Plank next to Locust which has been turned upside down and rotated slightly so that the legs are at the same angle in both pictures.

And here is Upward Plank next to Camel.

Look specifically at his torso, arms, and head.

And now look at what happens when the images are overlapped.

There are substantial similarities between Purvottanasana, Salabhasana, and Ustrasana, which means that one way of preparing to practice any one of them is through practicing the others. You can practice a sequence which includes Locust and Camel and then peaks with Upward Plank, for instance. But their abilities to affect each other are reciprocal, and you could just as effectively practice a sequence which uses Locust and Upward Plank to peak with Camel, or practice Camel and Upward Plank to prepare for Locust.

And someday you might practice a sequence which includes Locust, Camel, and Upward Plank as a means of preparing for something like Two-legged Inverted Staff pose (Dwipada Viparita Dandasana 375). Can you see why that would be effective?

Asana practice is forever challenging and intense. But it isn't challenging just for the sake of being challenging, nor is it intense just for the sake of intensity. It is through endurance of repetitive intensity that you learn and change. The study of the forms of poses theoretically (i.e. analyzing the pictures and their instructions) informs the study of them experientially (i.e. actually practicing them on the mat). Through theory and practice you come to recognize their relationships to each other. Through the poses themselves, you recognize their relationships to your body. That takes you into deeper and deeper realms of understanding and accessibility. And from that comes recognition of the relationships between your body and your "something-more-than-just-your-body" (which is another post for another day).

Recognize. Relate. Repeat.


The following is the "16th and 17th week" sequence including the poses we have learned together in class up to this point and omitting those we have not yet learned.

     Sanskrit names are in bold.
     (English names are in parentheses.)
     [Numbers in brackets correspond with illustrations.]
     Poses with an * are new to the sequence.
     Observe the change in the order of the asana.

Salamba Sirsasana I (Supported Headstand first variation) [184]

Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle pose) [4 and 5]

Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle pose) [6 and 7]

Utthita Parsvakonasna (Extended Side-angle pose) [8 and 9]

Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side-angle pose) [10 and 11]

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior pose first variation) [14]

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior pose second variation) [15]

Virabhadrasana III (Warrior pose third variation) [17]

Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon pose) [19]

Parsvottanasana (Intense Side-stretch pose) [26]

Prasarita Padottanasana I and II (Standing Wide-angle forward bend first and second variations) [33 and 34, 35 and 36]

Padangusthasana (Standing Big-toe pose) [44]

Padahastasana (Hand-under-foot pose) [46]

Uttanasana (Standing forward bend) [48]

*Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits) [49]

*Utkatasana {Fierce pose) [42]

Parighasana (Gate pose) [39]

*Ustrasana (Camel pose) [41]

Salabhasana (Locust pose) or Makarasana (Crocodile pose) [60 or 62]

Dhanurasana (Bow pose) [63]

Bhujangasana I (Cobra pose first variation) [73)

*Virasana (Hero pose) [86]

Salamba Sarvangasana I (Supported Shoulderstand first variation) [223]

Halasana (Plow pose) [244]

Karnapidasana (Ear-pressing pose) [246]

Supta Konasana (Reclined Angle pose) [247]

Parsva Halasana (Side Plow pose) [249]

Ekapada Sarvangasana (One-legged Shoulderstand) [250]

*Parsvaikapada Sarvangasana (Side One-legged Shoulderstand) [251]

Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen pose) [274 and 275]

Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Upward Extended Legs pose, aka UPP) [276 to 279]

Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat pose) [78]

Ardha Navasana (Half Boat pose) [79]

Janu Sirsasana (Head-toward-Knee pose) [127]

Paschimottanasana (Seated forward fold) [160]

*Purvottanasana (Upward Plank pose) [171]

Ujjayi Pranayama with inhalation retention (Section 203) in Savasana [592]


"By performing asanas, the [practitioner] first gains health, which is not mere existence. It is not a commodity which can be purchased with money. It is an asset to be gained by sheer hard work. It is a state of complete equilibrium of body, mind and spirit. ... Where does the body end and the mind begin? Where does the mind end and the spirit begin? They cannot be divided as they are inter-related and but different aspects of the same all-pervading divine consciousness" (41).

Quote, images, and page and illustration numbers: Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1979. Print.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


"Correct knowledge is direct, inferred, or proven as factual" (B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali).

"The sources of right knowledge are direct perception, inference and scriptural testimony" (Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali).

"Knowledge embraces personal experience, inference, and insights from the wise" (Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga).

When we hear the word resolution it's difficult not to think a little cynically about all the long-gone Januarys marked with to-do lists, plans, goals, fresh-starts, make-overs, dreams, and intentions that had fizzled by February. The turning of the calendar year is a new beginning fully capable of being a symbolic inspiration for your own new beginnings, but perhaps if we reclaim the true meaning of resolution we'll be more likely to follow through with the ones we make regardless of the time of year.

A resolution is a decision. To be resolute is to be decisive, determined, and intentioned. It denotes a strength of character; an earnestness bordering at times on stubbornness. To be resolute means to know what you want and what you're willing to do to get it. There is an ongoing theme presented throughout yoga literature (ancient and modern) that exhorts the importance of resolutely (i.e. firmly, unwaveringly, devotedly) committing yourself to your practice in order to produce optimal results.

It is not, however, perfection or pursuit to the point of harm or imprisonment. You can be resolute and also be permitted to change your mind. You can be strong and also kind to yourself. And you can be determined in the face of faults and obstacles. In fact, it is through the waverings and the doubts and the unknowns that we often learn the most. It is precisely when things go less-than-optimally that we most clearly come to understand what optimal really is.

Understanding is the key. Resolution comes from the same Latin roots as the word resolve. The prefix re- means "again" and "repeatedly." The word solve literally means "to explain clearly," and its roots mean "to loosen" and "to release." So resolve means to repeatedly explain some thing or idea, to loosen its complexities, to release ignorance in order to make the thing or idea clear. To resolve, to be resolute, means to enhance your understanding through repetition. We try, we fall short, and we try again (and fall short again and try again and so on), and in that way we get a little closer to the goal each time.

Actually, think about a resolution as being more related to knowledge than to goal-setting. Or that knowledge itself (rather than fewer pounds on the scale or more asanas on the mat or more peace in the world) is the goal, and that through knowledge those other things might manifest. By stripping away misunderstandings, ignorance, delusions, vanities, criticisms, and judgments, we enhance our intelligence which allows us to make good choices, and good choices are much more likely to be followed through with than poor ones. Good choices are proper and reasonable: they are made with your best interests in mind, and they utilize all the accurate information which is available to you in that moment. You cannot make decisions based on information you don't have, information only knowable through hindsight or fortune-telling, or falsities. Good choices are made from correct knowledge.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali tells us that correct knowledge (pramana) comes from three sources: (1) direct perception -- pratyaksa, (2) inference -- anumana, and (3) expert testimony -- agamah.

Direct perception (pratyaksa) is the rightness of your own experiences. It is the proper functioning of your senses and mental and emotional states: when you see something or hear something or feel something, and know it to be true. Now this could easily lead us down a hole of complicated discussions in the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, theology, and more. We are not going there: it is not worth our while to fixate on the fact that senses and emotions are obscure and can be faulty. Suffice it to say that direct perception is the feeling you have when you are aligning yourself with truth; when your intuitions tell you you're right. But rely on them with caution.

Inference (anumana) is an act of deduction, of figuring out the truth. Because we know that fire makes smoke, when we see smoke we can rightly infer fire is nearby. The fire itself need not be directly perceived for you to know its truth. Likewise you do not need to touch every fire to know that it is hot; you figured that out the first time your little toddler fingers reached out for the shiny pot on the stove. We make lots of inferences while on the yoga mat. We quickly learn things like I must practice before breakfast, not after, to avoid an upset stomach, or Standing poses perk me up when I'm feeling sluggish, or My chronic knee pain feels better after I've stretched my legs and hips without weight-bearing. Inferences help you make good choices, and even turn into direct perceptions by becoming past experiences from which you construct new ones. But you must be careful to avoid making false correlations.

Remember maya's fun-house mirror from a few posts ago? If you believe that all mirrors reflect accurate images and you see yourself in a fun-house mirror, you will falsely infer that that warped reflection is true. If you have incorrect knowledge about mirrors, you cannot make accurate inferences regarding their function. Likewise you may have some false knowledge leading you to make incorrect inferences about yoga such as Yoga is used as a healing therapy, therefore it is safe, or Stress and discomfort are bad, so I'm going to avoid feeling those things when I practice. Yoga is in fact used as a healing therapy, but you cannot then turn that into a broad statement about its risks or lack thereof. And of course some stresses and discomforts are bad; they can indicate harm or injury. But not always. The right kind of stress and discomfort is precisely what is necessary to affect positive change within the body and mind. Yoga can teach you to make good and mindful choices when you sense discomfort.

When we cannot perceive a truth directly or infer it, we can turn to the testimony of an expert or authority (agamah). We seek out guidance from trusted individuals who have more knowledge than we have; their ideas have been proven true through evidence, analysis, and repeated successful trials. Deciding upon a valid authoritative voice can be tricky since they are susceptible to false knowledge just as we are, and yet our teachers, gurus, leaders, and mentors are invaluable to our learning process as wisdom begets wisdom. When relying on the truth of another's testimony, we must be equally impartial and critical; we must consider their words with an open but scrutinizing mind.

An idea which comes from one or more of these sources can be considered correct knowledge and used to make good choices. For instance, your most trusted teacher tells you that having more patience will allow you to better endure life's hardships (testimony). Then she instructs you to prepare for Crow Pose (bakasana) which scares you, so ordinarily you stiffen up, clamp your jaw, and flail your feet behind you in an attempt to balance (or jet to the bathroom and avoid it altogether). But you have resolved to cultivate more patience, so you actually hear her words this time. As you exhale, you soften and surrender to the inevitability of the moment -- I balance or I don't balance and it is all good because no single asana defines me, and I will be stronger for having tried. Then your toes lift just an inch off the floor and you balance for a seemingly eternal five seconds (direct perception). The next time you find yourself poised for the pose, you remind yourself, When I feel impatient, I feel out of control. I endure better when I am patient. Patience lessens challenge. And you begin to associate patience with success in balancing poses (inference). You do it again and again, in more and more poses and off-the-mat, too. Now your resolve has created a new habit; not because you set a goal, but because you increased your understanding of what you wanted and returned to it over and over again.

Your work with patience as well as with crow pose is nowhere near complete. But you have the basis of correct knowledge which allows you to make good choices which keeps you committed and determined (i.e. resolute) which affects positive change. A goal by itself is just a what; a resolution is a what with how and why. When you make a resolution, do so with the intention of learning something about yourself, and know that (1) it will take repeated attempts to do it well, and (2) any achievement or result other than knowledge is a secondary reward, a bonus of sorts (a thrilling and meaningful one, for sure, but a bonus nonetheless).

Image: Yoga Sutra I.7 as translated by Chip Hartranft, 2003.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


spent much of the last several weeks focused on the joy and well-being of others in the form of giving presents. And now perhaps your focus is shifting toward more self-centeredness in the form of the New Year's Resolution. Of course the degree to which you participate in either giving to others or to yourself can fall anywhere along a continuum of possibility, but it is nearly impossible to escape the season without being affected by its tones of generosity. And nothing pairs better with gift-giving -- regardless of the recipient -- than gratitude. So how grateful are you these days?

A traditional way of showing gratitude in Indian culture is through the ritual offering of prasad. In Sanskrit, the roots of the word prasad mean "to be gracious" and "to be satisfied." Prasad is an exchange, not an unrequited giving: a devotee offers prasad (often in the form of food or flowers) to a diety, or a student offers prasad to a guru, and something valuable is offered in return (the consumption of the now consecrated foods, for instance or the instillation of knowledge or insight). For the devotee to openly and genuinely receive what is being offered to them is a gracious gesture, is their own reception of prasad.

Most people naturally feel inclined to say or write a Thank You when receiving a present, although gratitude is known to come in varying degrees of fervor. When somebody hands you a gift certificate to your favorite restaurant you say Thank You and you mean it. When you're gifted an unattractive sweater, on the other hand, maybe the Thanks has lost some of its sincerity despite your best efforts to believe "it's the thought that counts." And when you wake up in the morning with a life to live and a body to live in, you just ooze gratitude and promptly exclaim it, right?? Probably not, unfortunately, because it is much more difficult to offer a Thank You of any kind for those things we don't necessarily acknowledge as gifts or for those things to which we have grown accustomed. But the ancient yogis believed that life itself is a gift deserving of the utmost graciousness. The wisdom they have passed down through ritual and literature continues to teach us that offering prasad is one way to say a heartfelt Thank You for the life you live and the body you live in.

Yoga instructor and author Christina Sell writes candidly about using yoga to cultivate self-awareness and self-acceptance, particularly in regards to one's physical body, in her book "Yoga from the Inside Out." She says:

"Life as it is, in the moment, is a gift from the Divine -- 'the present.' How many times a day do we refuse the gift by complaining, avoiding, or compulsively attempting to bend reality to our whim rather than simply surrendering to the way that things are? We think nothing of exchanging something we have been given for something we perceive as better. (God forbid we actually wear a shirt we didn't like very much as a way to honor the gift giver.) When our body doesn't meet our expectations we criticize it, dress in ways that hide it and try to manipulate our appearance through diets and exercise. We even custom order body parts from plastic surgeons rather than face our feelings of inferiority and insecurity with how we are in the moment.

When we step away from this consumer mentality and enter into spiritual life we practice seeing the present moment as a gift -- perfectly designed for us to learn from. We remember that if we were supposed to be different in this very moment, we would be. If life were supposed to be different right now, it would be. We use our yoga practice to observe ourselves as we are, rather than for how we aren't good enough. When we accept our life as it is and our body as it is and when our yoga practice reflects this type of acceptance, we are making peace. Metaphorically, we are aligning ourselves with the ancient ritual of exchanging prasad.

...When we offer our practice and ourselves to the Divine as prasad, we get back the gift of the present moment. When we fail to accept the present moment, just as it is, we are refusing the gift the Divine has given us. We are refusing to participate in the exchange of prasad. Imagine the Divine Itself giving you a present and you saying, 'Well, thank you but I would really prefer it in a different size and color. Perhaps I could just exchange it -- you won't mind, will you?' When we accept our bodies and our lives in the present moment just as they are, we complete the ritual exchange of presad. Acceptance is the way we open the gift we have been given, use it to its fullest potential and say 'thank you'" (92-94).

Perhaps as a gift to yourself, setting an intention to cultivate self-acceptance and graciousness could be your New Year's Resolution. Maybe you're opposed to the traditional idea of resolutions; that's fine. Call it a theme or a project or a life-lesson instead. Chances are you're a good giver; we inherently care about the joy and well-being of those around us and think very little about giving giving giving (even if that's sometimes more pronounced seasonally). Yoga is a quest of balance, and giving without receiving (from others as well as from yourself!) is a life out of balance. Practice giving yourself unconditional love, patience, support, and encouragement. Then practice actually receiving those things, using them fully, and saying Thank You.

Image: Yoga Sutra I.33 as translated by Chip Hartranft, 2003

Quote: Sell, Christina. Yoga from the Inside Out: Making Peace with your Body Through Yoga. Prescott: Hohm Press, 2003. Print.