Kino MacGregor is an international yoga teacher, author of four books, producer of six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs, writer, vlogger, world traveler, co-founder of Miami Life Center, co-fouder of Yoga Challenge and OmStars and co-creator of Yoga Pro Wheel.
There is magic both in the student and the teacher’s journey in yoga. Both are interdependent and not separate from each other. The teacher does not exist on some far removed, distant pedestal in the sky. The student is not some lowly being saved by the grace of the teacher. The deification of the teacher goes against the grain of the promise of yoga. And yet, there is an element of surrender that is vital to a successful teacher-student relationship. The student has to love and trust the teacher if they are going to have enough faith to practice through moments of difficulty.
As a student of the Ashtanga Yoga practice I have known great benefits from the act of surrender to my teacher. This has taken many different shapes. One simple example is that whenever I practice with my teacher in India I get up hours earlier that I would on my own. If I didn’t surrender to my teacher’s authority I would protest and fight to practice later. All my personal preferences would indicate that a later practice time would be more reasonable. But truthfully I learn a lot from surrendering to the time that my teacher sets for me to practice. There is a certain discipline that I take on that I wouldn’t otherwise. There are many poses that I currently practice because my teacher believed that I could. The first times I tried he had to lift up and basically do the pose for me. But slowly I got stronger. If I hadn’t surrendered to my teacher’s guidance in those moments I would not the practitioner or teacher that I am today.
So many people misunderstand what it means to surrender. The act of surrender is not like joining a cult. It is a highly intelligent choice made from a place of spiritual maturity. There is mystery around the notion of surrender that makes it hard to understand in pragmatic terms. Let’s unpack it a little here.
Students and would-be spiritual seekers such as myself come to the practice of yoga in search of genuine guidance towards a happier and more peaceful life. That is why I turned to this practice over 20 years ago and why I continue to practice today. To declare oneself a student of yoga or to identify as a spiritual seeker requires a desire to be taught and an awareness of the necessity of guidance. It’s a little bit like that moment when you realize you’re lost and need to consult your GPS before proceeding any further. Without the acknowledge that one needs help, the necessary request for help will never be made. You cannot be a student unless you feel like you need a teacher.
Continuing the GPS analogy, let’s explore what surrender might look like for the student who is a traveler on the spiritual path. Assume that you are progressing along a course that you think you know quite well. It’s a journey that you’ve completed many times before. You feel confident in your own abilities and decide that you do not need any guidance. With good intentions you set off. But, unbeknownst to you, there are many obstacles ahead—a car accident, road construction and all other sorts of delays. Stuck in a massive traffic jam you decide to open a popular navigation app, perhaps one like Waze that calculates the fastest route based on real-time traffic reports from users. The route you’ve been given by Waze takes you into unknown territory, to places that without the guidance you’d be lost. You’re a little afraid to divert off your known path, but Waze tells you that you will save 40 minutes and arrive at your destination on time if you follow the path as directed. It also shows you that if you stay on your usual course you will lose 40 minutes and arrive at your destination late. In a leap of faith, you “surrender” to Waze and decide to follow this new path. Now, since you don’t know the way yourself you will need step-by-step instructions or else you’ll get lost and end up even more late than you had been on your original route. As a good driver, you follow the directions and stay on the path until you reach your chosen destination. Having followed Waze navigation, you arrive close to the predicted time and successfully avoid inconvenient traffic delays. In the future you will find it easier to surrender to Waze. If each experience is similar while using Waze, you will conclude that Waze is a good teacher and a good path.
Similarly, in the yoga discipline surrender is not meant to be blind faith based on the charisma of a leader. Your decision to follow the teacher and the teachings is always meant to be evidence based. The results should speak for themselves. Just like a good GPS, your yoga teacher has walked the path before you and has seen where the traffic jams, road construction and other delays might be. As you proceed into the congested path your yoga teacher can suggest an alternate route, just like Waze. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to listen to the advice being given or stay the course on your own terms.
Now, assume the opposite happens. Imagine if instead of Waze you chose some new navigation app that uses sub-standard GPS calculations. Instead of avoiding traffic these directions bring you directly into the middle of even worse traffic. Then, instead of bringing you to your destination you end up utterly lost with north, south, east and west muddled and no clear sense of where to go next. You would give this navigation app a one star review and delete it from your phone. Apply the same logic to spiritual teaching—if you observe a community and the fruits of the practice lead to emotional and spiritual traffic jams, if the longterm students are not peaceful and the teacher embodies anger, chaos hatred and anxiety, then you might want to consider leaving the community. At the very least, you should think twice before engaging in an act of surrender. That is, of course, unless you want to get more angry, anxious and hate-filled.
The act of surrender in yoga is very much like the act of falling in love and deciding to start a relationship. You may meet someone whom you find attractive, but before you jump into a marriage it’s useful to date for awhile. In the process of getting to know one another you make a decision about whether you want to trust this person enough to surrender your heart in love. While many people quite literally “fall” in love at first sight, the process of surrender in yoga asks you to press pause and think before you jump. Instead of jumping head-first into whatever tickles your heart’s desire the whole premise of yoga is built on the idea that the results are measurable. Patañjali describes the yogi’s mind as equanimous, cheerful, harmonious, pleasant, kind, focused and filled with the light of God. These are the fruits of a lifetime of practice. While most yoga teachers, myself included, are working on cultivating these qualities we are all far from perfect. In fact our human foibles ensure that we too are students on the path and we too need a teacher. Much like the Waze app is built on users reporting real-time accidents and traffic jams that they see, teaching yoga is like reporting on where you have stumbled and fallen along the path in the hopes that those who come after you will not stumble and fall in the same spot.
To trust another person enough to let them lead you into unknown territory is scary. That trust must be earned and treated with respect. And yet, we are all human and make mistakes. I have personally let many people down and broken their trust in me. My faults have been all too obvious at times, perhaps to everyone except me. Our inevitable faults do disqualify us from being teachers of yoga. In fact, it makes us better teachers because we will be crystal clear about our humanity and generate more compassion for ourselves and others. As students of yoga, since all yoga teachers are human being and come with all our human faults, it’s a good idea to surrender only in what I could call a small limited sense. Every spiritual teacher has blind spots and if something doesn’t feel right and if there is no evidence that the methodology works, speak up and don’t blindly follow. But, at the same time be careful to assume that you know everything. You may not be seeing clearly yourself. Or, a path that works for someone else simply might not be a good fit for you. As a student so much of the work is about cultivate a heart that is both wise and compassionate, independent and teachable, or, you could say, a good balance between abhyasa and vairaghya, practice and surrender.
There is also a big act of surrender that yoga is meant to prepare you for. And that is one that you will be able to give all your heart and soul without holding back. You will need your logical mind to evaluate the fruits of this higher path as well. You will not be able to grasp the totality of what is being asked, but it will all line up and be perfectly clear anyway. Yoga is a path to deepest and highest knowledge of the Divine. It is a method that prepares your heart and soul for a direct, personal and revelatory experience of God. When God happens, that is the moment when you have to be ready to fully surrender. And only God, the alpha and the omega, the Infinite, is truly worthy of your absolute trust. God is love. Love is an all-consuming fire, big and grand and beyond your control. Only those willing to risk everything truly experience the totality of love. Nameless, timeless, eternal, love is all there really is.
Hate is safe, small and predictable. Hate you can control because it’s smaller than you. Choose hate and you belittle your greatness with a groveling weakness that is beneath you. But, so many do because the other option is terrifying—to choose love is to risk everything, not knowing, no guarantees, no timeline, just a leap into a waterfall that sounds like infinity. If you come to the practice of yoga and think it’s just about some poses you will find out that we are seekers on an ancient path of awakening. As yogis, we pray at the highest temple, the altar of love, the unquenchable fire that burns through all impurities, leaving only the glowing heart within, filled and overflowing.
I cannot be conquered by anyone or anything. But I can choose to willing surrender into the arms of love. And I choose it every single time. What you seek also seeks you. So in your seeking set your sights on something worthy of your worship.
It’s been hard for me to find the space to begin writing this month’s #YogiAssignment blog. If I had to put my finger on why I would say that the reason is because I have been relishing the paradigm of being a student. The six weeks that I spent in India felt like a seismic shift. Even though I’ve been going to study in Mysore nearly every year for the past 20 years, this trip felt all brand new. Last season was the only time that I didn’t return to India to practice with my teacher. It was a choice I made to spend time with father around his passing, and I am so grateful that I was able to be there for my family and for myself during such a difficult period. Grief and grieving are game-changers for life, or at least, they have been for me. Never before have I felt the delicacy of life in all its tender ephemerality so poignantly in each moment. Never before have I realized the relative shortness of our lives here on Earth. In youth and naiveté I felt like I had all the time in the world. But now it feels like time, as we measure it here on this plane of existence, is both finite and limited. Each breath is precious and we are not guaranteed of the next.
It was only two years since I had been in Mysore. While certainly there were changes, perhaps the biggest change was in my heart?
In the Ashtanga Yoga method there are six series of poses that increase in complexity and difficulty. One asana is more challenging than the next, and some are utterly impossible. When I first started practicing I remember dreamily looking at advanced practitioners wishing that one day I would be able to include those poses in my practice. For many years I worked hard at getting stronger and each time I went to India I hoped that I would learn a few more poses. I was, you could say, ambitious about my asana practice. If you know me at all, you’ll know that I have not only been ambitious about yoga poses. I set high standards of achievement for myself. I’m an author who dreams of one day getting on the NYT best-seller list. I’m the founder of Omstars and I dream of bringing the tools of traditional yoga to people all over the word. But my biggest ambition is for the world—I dream of a world where every human being practices yoga because I sincerely believe that would make the world a more peaceful place. Many days I wake up with the question of how I can contribute to bringing that dream into fruition. But, this time while I was in India, I kind of let it all go.
Instead of striving and working, I spent many hours sleeping and resting. It sounds indulgent, but truly after such deep yoga practice I needed to lie down and let my body recuperate. Instead of arriving with an agenda of getting new poses, all I wanted was a space to practice and be a student. The ironic thing is that in this space of non-attachment to new poses I learned two of the most impossible poses int he Fifth Series imaginable! Instead of making a plan of different projects to get done, I just sat around a lot. I read novels, watched silly animal videos (when the internet and power were on), drank lots of coconuts, and took videos of cows. It was uncharacteristic of me.
Don’t think it was all unstructured vacation. The practice itself had the element of striving, which in yoga language is called Tapas, Discipline. Tim and I set our alarms for 1:30 AM so we could be at the shala at 3 AM. My practice lasted from about 3 – 6 AM. I would often get back home just before sunrise, eat breakfast, shower and then get back into bed. Yes, I went back to bed after practice. In general I don’t nap and don’t like napping. I prefer to get a full eight or nine hours of sleep each night and let that be enough for the whole day. But, there is simply no way to get a full eight hours of sleep at night if you have to wake up at 1:30 AM. And, the practice itself was really hard. I’m not complaining. In fact, the element of challenge is why I travel half way across the world to practice. There are things that I will only do in the presence of my teacher. If left alone in my practice I will slowly be gentler and kinder to myself until I remove all elements that are not to my liking. We all do it. For example, it is very easy in self-practice to make the breaths in the poses you find difficult pass quickly. Just time yourself next time you’re in Navasana or Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and you’ll see what I mean. While this might appear to be “self-love” it is actually classic avoidance of struggle and aversion from pain.
At home, though, it’s unrealistic to hold oneself to a high standard of practice when just getting on the mat itself is a struggle. Do not beat yourself up for those short Navasana breaths or for the days when you only do Sun Salutations. When you’re practicing at home, your Tapas is just getting on the mat for as little as five minutes a day. But when you’re with your teacher, put all your heart and all your soul into the practice. Surrender yourself fully to the experience. It is after all why you’re there. It really helps that your practice is the only thing you have to do each day. I know personally I often shorten my practice at home because I have a thought in the back of my mind regarding my list of things to do later in the day. I wonder if I should go deeply in backbends because I have to teach later. Or I question whether I should cut the practice short so I can prepare for a business meeting. This is life. But this is also why it is so important to make time to devote yourself wholeheartedly to the student’s journey.
This month’s #YogiAssignment is just that— the student’s journey. Wherever you are along the path, I want you to take time to recommit yourself to the practice as a student. You may have fallen a bit off daily practice or lost the spark of inspiration. You may be going full throttle ahead with a clearly defined path. You be languishing in injury, grief or heartache. Regardless, it is always useful to hit the refresh button on the student’s mindset. To be a yoga student is not defined by how many poses you do or how many yoga courses you take. To be a yoga student is best defined by what’s in your heart. To every teacher, I can recommend this—always be a student. To every student, I can recommend this—make yourself receptive to the teaching and allow your heart to be soft and pliable under your teacher’s guidance. If you have learned a thousand techniques, be prepared to unlearn them all. I can only encourage you to dive deeply into this ancient tradition. There is depth beyond measure in the kernels of the lineage. Make your heart receptive to the teaching, become the fertile ground that the seed of yoga will flourish in. Be willing at any moment to give everything up, to be a beginner, to toss your pride and ego aside. Never stop seeking. And of course, keep practicing.
Note: I hope you’ll join me in Miami as we welcome my teacher Paramaguru Shri R. Sharath Jois. He will be teaching for six days, including both the Primary and Intermediate Series. Full details here—http://miamilifecenter.com/paramaguru-sharath-tour/
And of course, I’d love to see you in class. Please check my schedule page to find out where I’m teaching. We just opened registration for a One Week Mysore Retreat in Miami with me this August. The course is limited to 30 students. Details here (scroll down)—http://miamilifecenter.com/workshop-events/
To say that the room was packed is a dramatic understatement. There were so many eager yogis gathered from all over the world that yoga mats were stacked nearly on top of each other, the corners of them touching. Some who arrived late placed their mats at any angle of available floor space. Others who got there too late were sent home to return for the next batch. The first group of students at KPJAYI, called the first batch, starts at 4:30 AM. But it’s not really 4:30 AM. It’s much earlier. The shala is on what people call “shala time”. This was a legacy left from the now-deceased Guru who was perhaps the most punctual man in India. Pattabhi Jois loved to be early and to get everyone else, including his students on time, he set the clocks in the shala 18 minutes ahead of standard Indian time. The tradition is kept alive today. So, 4:30 AM actually means 4:12 AM. Doors open about 20-30 minutes before the practice starts so that everyone can get their spots, use the bathroom and just generally get situated. That means eager students start lining up around 3 AM. No matter how many times I visit India to practice with my teacher, R. Sharath Jois, it always feels like practicing yoga in the middle of the night to me. And I’ve been coming here for 20 years. This obscenely early time of day, the hours between 4-6 am, is called the Bramha Murtha. It’s not just torture to make students do yoga then, it is stated in the scriptures that the Bramha Murtha is the most auspicious hour for spiritual practice. The mind and body are most likely to taste the elixir of the eternal at these early hours of the day. For me, this is place where the inner work of the yoga practice happens most intensively, at this time, is this shala—you could call it Mysore magic.
Here I am on my mat, equal parts sleepy and excited, nervous and grateful, eager and surrendered. I’m lucky that I got a spot in the room. Some people were practicing out in the lobby and others upstairs on the bathroom balconies. I was next to Laruga Glaser, who is an amazingly inspirational yogi (you can find her classes on Omstars!) and we shared a smile and a hug before practice. Then, my teacher Sharath entered the room. Silence followed and a palpable energy shift flowed through like a wave as all the Ashtangis got up, nearly in unison to Samasthitih. My eyes were closed when he walked in so I actually felt the oscillation in my body before I saw it was time to start. My first practice at the shala in two years, my first practice of the year on New Year’s day—what a blessing.
I don’t know how many people were in that first batch, probably a hundred, or maybe a hundred a fifty. But it hit me like a freight train, in a good way if there could be a good freight train direct hit. Like a call to presence, I stood absolutely still in anticipation of the journey of the practice yet to come. In silence I was mindful of my heartbeat, my breath, my body and its placement on the mat, on the ground, on this patch of Earth in India known as Mysore. With the sound OM everything changed in a way that I can only liken to my very first practice more than two decades ago. All these years later I still remember being a young twenty-two year old standing on my mat and feeling the holy vibration of OM in my first Ashtanga Yoga class. It cleared my mind and opened my heart. Today I felt something similar, but not in the personal, self-centered way I did when I first started this journey. As the OM rang out in a hundred-plus-person harmony I felt the interconnected network of us all. All these yoga practitioners from all over the world, gathered to this mecca of Ashtanga Yoga for one purpose—to practice. The sheer beauty of all the hearts united by this humble and universal path touched me in a unique and revelatory way. I was moved to tears by the depth and power of it all. To be here, in a space where entry to the community is not earned by anything else other than your love of the practice, is a blessing beyond measure. To be here, in a group of human begins willing to make the necessary sacrifices to come to India and devote a portion of their lives to spiritual practice, is an immense privilege. There I was, part of it all, part of a sacred and eternal dance of seekers, a lineage of the heart that has drawn countless students to the yoga practice over thousands of years. Sure, there are a thousand divisions in the yoga world, and in the world at large. Sure, there are petty problems in and limitations to the Ashtanga Yoga practice. Sure, people are people and there is always drama, politics, jealousy, competition and in-fighting in every group. But for a moment at least, I got tuned in to the pure intention of the heart space of all my fellow yogis and it spoke to my soul.
The language of the practice is a prayer spoken through the movements of the body. Practice is a body prayer, an expression of the innate divinity within each sentient being. What defines yoga is a spiritual quest, a kind of seeking that is as eternal as the human race. In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that seeking itself, not just for worldly pleasure but for the highest truth, may just be the defining feature of humanity. As it is written, those who seek, shall find. And what unites every single Ashtanga Yoga student who makes the journey to come and practice at the shala in Mysore is the urgency of their seeking. What you find on the mat is what brings you back to the practice, over and over again, as worship of all that is holy and sacred.
This heartfelt space stands in stark contrast to the increasingly more advanced poses that seem to permeate the yoga space in general. If there’s one thing that I want to do in the world of yoga, it’s to change the paradigm of extreme ableism being the qualifier of spiritual growth. I’m not against advanced poses, I do them and benefit from them. Just because someone can put their leg behind their head doesn’t mean they’re a spiritually advanced person. But, if the act of trying to put your leg behind your head teaches you patience, humility, kindness and peace, then yoga is working even if you never the pose. It’s not about the pose, it’s about what the journey of the pose has taught you. It never matters whether “get” a pose, it matters how well you try, what your intention is and what you take away from the experience. Today in the midst of a relatively advanced group of practitioners, I watched Sharath assist all the students whose level of strength or flexibility might cause them to feel unsure of whether they belonged. But with his attention and encouragement these students flourished in the practice. I remember when I first started practicing Ashtanga Yoga, the thing that I loved about this traditional practice is that it can really be made accessible for all levels with the guidance of a qualified teacher. While there is an element of discipline to the practice, there is no judgement for which poses you can and cannot do. It’s the fact that you practice that matters. Whether you’re an advanced yogi able to perform complex asanas or you’re working through the basics, it’s all just practice. No one is here to judge anyone or pass out prizes for the highest lift up. But perhaps, that’s a lesson that we each have to learn for ourselves. I used to judge myself and my worthiness by how well I performed the poses. I’m not sure of a time and date for when the shift happened. All I know is that one day I realized that my sense of self-worth was rooted in something so much deeper than a shape my body can or cannot make. Every being, including you and me, has an intrinsic value and worth that is so vast it is immeasurable and priceless. Your light, the spark of the divine that illuminates your breath, your body and your mind is consciousness itself. When you wake up, the world shines that little bit brighter. You matter, just because you’re you. It’s that simple. I don’t know what path you need to go on to experience your beauty and your greatness, but I do know that what you truly seek you will one day find.
Your first Yogi Assignment of the year is just that—seek. Identify what you seek because that defines the direction of your journey, not just in practice but in life. Dive deeply into both conscious and subconscious levels of seeking. Do you seek fame, fortune, and popularity? Are you chasing satiety in gratifying the senses through pleasure? Are you running from pain? Or, are you interested in seeking the answers to the most difficult and important questions of the human race? Who are we and why are we here? From whence do we come when we enter this life and where will go when it’s all over? What is my role in this thing called life?
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
It is impossible to go through life without making certain estimations about the world. In fact, it would go against the very nature of the human mind to float freely with no regard for the environment. We constantly judge things. These judgements can be harmless, necessary, harmful and sometimes unnecessary. For example, when you’re about to eat a banana it’s useful to make an assessment as to whether the banana is ripe, unripe or overripe. I personally love my bananas when they are just between ripe and overripe. I look for a few brown spots on the yellow skin and a familiar banana odor when selecting a banana. We do this with everything, not just bananas. Whether you find yourself looking at cars, dogs, houses, or people chances are there is an inner commentary that takes stock of the situation. While this state of mental assessment is the unavoidable nature of mind, there is a line between intelligent discern and divisive judgement.
While judging the ripeness of a banana by its exterior is relatively harmless, making that same estimation of a human being based on the color of their skin can be extremely harmful. As a yoga practitioner it’s important to work on your judgmental mind from the paradigm of the spiritual path and take responsibility for your thoughts. First and foremost in the world of yoga is the notion that thoughts themselves are not true, but merely practiced. No thought is independently true or deserves a-priori value. Instead, thoughts, like actions, are choices that we make moment to moment. We may assume that our thoughts are true and real, when in fact we may have made a faulty estimation or drawn a wrong conclusion. Sometimes still what we assume to be true may merely me a cultural assumption passed on to us by our community.
Thoughts, and the judgements that follow, are not permanent or fixed. We can change our thinking and thereby also change our world. When working with the judgmental mind, remember this—don’t believe your thoughts.
There is a difference between discernment and judgement. I’d like to unpack that a little. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras presents “Viveka Khyatih” as the end result of years of continual practice of Ashtanga Yoga. Translated into English as discriminative discernment, this yogic state is defined by the ability to see things clearly and purely, free from any bias. Another way of thinking about the state of Viveka Khyatih is to think about it as the bringing things into the light of awareness. Only a calm and equanimous state, free from the chains of the ego, has the power to be truly revelatory. In clear sight there is no emotional hook, no agenda and nothing personal. It simply sees what is without any attachment to a particular outcome. In order to see clearly, the yoga path first asks for the ego to be purified and burnt up. Otherwise, as long as the ego is present, it will obscure the clarity that of Viveka Khyatih. Think of this like a laser beam that can focus in on any area of attention. If the laser beam is blocked by filters or clouded by dirt, the light will not reveal the truth. But if all occlusions have been removed and only the laser beam shines, then the light will reveal simply what is. Most of us, myself included, have a long way to go before we rest in the purity of egoless awareness. There are moments of clarity mixed in with many other judgmental thoughts. The second yogic principle that applies when working with judgements is to do the work of inner purification. In other words, we all need more practice. As long as we are triggered and we personalize the experience, the voice of the ego breeds more separation and judgement and we won’t see clearly. While it’s tempting to point the blame outside, yoga encourages you to turn your attention inward and purify your own mind. The more righteous you feel about your judgements, the more world you probably have to do. At least I know it’s that way for me!
When I look inside my own mind, I am sometimes shocked at the judgements I see. Some of my worst judgements are about myself. I feel shame for failing at work or speaking harshly to my partner. I judge my words and actions and start a circle of self-denigration that ends badly. If you find that your harshest judgements are towards yourself, then I recommend finding an antidote to self-hate in a loving-kindness meditation. Sit for a few moments and bring your attention to a neutral point such as the breath. Then, once the mind calms down, bring your attention to your heart center. See yourself happy, fulfilled, peaceful and joyful. Next, forgive yourself for any mistakes and say a line similar to this—“Even though I may not have done everything right, even though I messed it up, I forgive myself. My love is not based on any success or failure. I love myself unconditionally. Self, I want you to hear this, I like you and I love.”
Judgement stems from separation. When we judge ourselves we feel separated from our true nature. When we judge others we see them as “other”. The ability to see yourself in all people, all beings and all things is the definition of an open heart. A belief in otherness is the beginning of bigotry. Compassion and empathy are triggered when you see sameness and identify with others, whether human or non-human. The illusion of separateness is what normalizes hate and abuse. There are all sorts of judgements that can be weaponized to build walls of identity and exacerbate grievances, but none of those things are real. In fact, there is a kind of automatic defensiveness gets sparked whenever someone is called out for participant in systems of injustice, whether knowingly or unknowingly. It’s like we instinctively know we shouldn’t harm others, yet we do it anyway. Then, when we are confronted about our moral failures it touches such a sort spot of shame that it feels more natural to be defensive. We lash out and get defensive instead of listening and opening our hearts. We judge others and push them away rather than drop down and feel their pain. But somehow underneath it all, it’s like there is a moral meter built into the circuitry of our inner being that we have to willfully ignore in order to harm another. We participate in systems of oppression to the degree that we accept the otherness of the beings that are oppressed. If we didn’t judge them to be “other” we could not stand by and watch them suffer. We would instead be compelled to act out of compassion.
So much of what we do in the yoga practice is about tearing down the hardened walls that line the heart. Enlightenment has always traditionally been presented as an act of service for the benefit of all beings. Your liberation is defined to the degree that you’re able to love others. I have never seen anyone change their mind as a result of a heated argument. I’ve only seen people get entrenched deeper into their point of view after being yelled at. Maybe what works is the willingness to remain open-hearted in the real world, to get offline and out of chat groups and to treat all beings how you would like to be treated yourself, that is, with respect, understanding, forgiveness and love.
When I first started practicing yoga I had not idea that there was so much depth. All I knew was that I wanted to live a more peaceful life and I thought yoga would lead me there. Years later, I can say for certain that yoga is a path of inner peace and if you want to experience a more peaceful life, just keep practicing.
But, there is an unspoken invitation to explore the more philosophical foundations of the practice. This isn’t something I took too immediately. One thing that I loved about yoga was how much of a sanctuary it felt like from the sometimes divisive morality of organized religion. In those initial stages of my journey all I really wanted to feel my body and dive into the world of asana. After a few years of being honestly obsessed with the yoga poses I felt the inclination to learn more about traditional yoga philosophy. I started with the Yoga Sūtras, which wasn’t an easy task. The pithy aphorisms that comprise this text are not easily decipherable to the novice. So I began with chanting and later explored various commentaries. While I am by no means a Sanskrit scholar or even a scholar of sacred yoga texts, my studies opened up a door to translate the lessons learned on the yoga mat to ordinary life. This week’s Yogi Assignment is based on the a practical application of the Niyamas.
Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras outline five Niyamas in the second limb of the eight-limbed path known as Ashtanga Yoga. A good way to think about these five precepts is to frame them as observances that you as a yoga practitioner take on in order to optimize your practice. Sometimes the Niyamas are called the list of “do’s” in opposition to the list of “don’ts” that you find in the Yamas (for more about the Yamas, see my blog from last week). But, rather than a list of things to be done and checked off, the idea is to make each of the Niyamas as personal and relevant as possible to your daily life. I see the Yamas as the moral and ethical guidelines for how the yogi ideally acts in society and in relationship to others and the Niyamas as the same outline for how the yogi treats oneself. The Niyamas are observances that can be done in silence and quiet without much fanfare. Most, if not all, are best done as a solitary pursuit in the realms of the inner body and mind. If any of the Niymasa are performative and done for worldly praise, then they miss the mark. Whereas the outer marking of Yamas are evident in lifestyle choices, the Niyamas are more subtle. I always say that the true journey of yoga happens internally and that the practice is a walk taken in hand in hand with God. In this way, neither the Yamas or Niyamas are meant to be weaponized as scales of judgement to cast shade on yogis for what appears to be the success or failure to execute these guidelines according to a standardized level. Instead, each of the Yamas and Niyamas is a ceaseless personal process of deep introspection that perpetually evolves. Instead the goal of the Yamas and Niyamas is to keep the yogi humble and committed to personal practice.
Definition: Cleanliness, Purity
Practice: Traditionally the principle of śaucha is applied to body, mind and speech. Body can be taken to include not only one’s own physical body but the environment that one occupies, both in terms of living space and world. Mind implies the type of thoughts that dominate the inner world. Speech usually indicates responsibility for every word spoken, in terms of both intention and effect. This one principle has the power to radically change your life is applied with diligence. For today, I encourage you to choose one aspect of śaucha that you find inspired to apply in your life. Perhaps you feel motivated to clean out an old closet or sweep the floor. Or, maybe it’s time to clean out your thoughts and replace destructive self-hate with positive affirmations. Lastly, consider being mindful about your speech and drop all gossipy or snarky comments, whether written or spoken.
Definition: Contentment, Acceptance, Optimism
Practice: Some people resist practicing Santosa because they think that being content and accepting of what is pardons injustice and normalizes grievous actions taken by others. Or, other still feel like optimism is spiritual bypassing that ignores reality in favor or plastic positive thinking. Santosa couldn’t be further from this. So often we run from inconvenient truths and try to avoid situations that bring up discomfort. Acceptance in this context implies the willingness to see clearly and truly and go into places that scare you. If there is injustice in the world or if harmful actions have been taken, the teaching of Santosa willingly acknowledges this fact and see it with a heart full of love. If there is something in your life that you need to acknowledge but you are avoiding it, Santosa encourages you to be plainly honest with yourself. Without that first step of honesty, healing cannot take place. For example, you never admit to yourself that you’re exhausted or burnt out, then you will not take the steps needed to heal. Similarly, if a society cannot see its own injustice then it will never take the steps necessary to create true equality.
Santosa is a kind of radical acceptance that courageous sees pain, suffering and hurt without shirking away into the shadows of bitterness, hatred or unprocessed rage. It is a choice to defiantly believe in the goodness of all things and see clearly, even amidst great pain. Santosa sees with eyes of wisdom, resists nothing and refuses to tell an exacerbating story about reality. I am not someone who easily live-in a state of Santosa. Instead, I often find myself lapsing into hopelessness and targeting figures outside of myself as villains to be taken down. On a personal level, I’ve had sniffles all week but have refused to admit that I needed rest until this weekend. For this week, I want you find one thing that you’re running from in your life. It could be the simple acknowledgment of exhaustion or it could be coming to terms with actions you’ve taken that have harmed another. Or yet, still it could be admitting that someone whom you trusted let you down. Without pardoning the harmful behavior or trying to immediately solve the problem, just start by being willing to see what is with open, non-judgemental eyes. This Niyama is a lifelong process, and for this week, just start here with pure observation.
Definition: Discipline, Persistence
Practice: Perhaps the easiest to apply out of the Niyamas, Tapas gives you the foundation of the ritual of practice. Daily discipline is required to progress along the path of yoga. The spiritual path is an operation of the mind, and, like any good surgeon, you have to practice. Commit to five minutes a day and get on your mat to do yoga or meditation every single this week. Let this be the foundation of consistent practice.
Definition: Self-study, study of sacred scripture
Practice: Traditionally Svādhyāya includes not only the actual reading of sacred texts, but the paradigm of study itself. When reading the key texts of any spiritual tradition, Svādhyāya instructs the yogi to be open-minded and receptive to the teaching. Instead of taking a critical perspective that seeks to debunk the text, the yogi is encouraged to read the primary texts from the paradigm of personal usefulness. This paradigm epitomizes the student’s mind and acknowledges that the yogi is first and foremost a student. In a nod to the lineage-based traditions of yoga, Patañjali includes Svādhyāya in the Niyamas to ensure that all yogis remain perpetually students. For your practice this week, choose a key text from your main spiritual lineage. It could be the Yoga Sutras, but it could also be the Dhammapada or the Bible. In the morning, before you start reading the news and answering emails, commit to reading a few lines or paragraphs of the text. You could start at the beginning or you could flip through and randomly choose a passage. Let the words of the ancients be your start to the day. Later as you move about your day reflect on these words and see if you find relevance in their teaching. If you have time, journal about your experience at the end of the day.
Definition: Devotion, surrender to God
While there are many religions and definitions of God, the Divine principle is nearly universal in all human beings. Even self-proclaimed atheists usually believe in a force greater than themselves. Whether you call this force the Universe, Source-energy, Life Itself, Oneness, Love, Light, Buddha Nature, Emptiness, Spirit, Brahman, īśvara, Jesus or God matters not for this portion of the yoga practice to work. Devotion and surrender are two key aspects of faith. For this week, as an exercise in building your relationship to the Divine, choose some place in your life that you feel utterly stuck or stressed out. Then, rather than asking for God to solve your problems and grant your every wish, ask for the burden of needed to fix it, solve it or control it be lifted off your heart. Turn it over and ask for stress and stuckness to be replaced with peace and understanding. If you’re familiar with the 12-step program, you might be familiar with the first few lines of serenity prayer. If not, you might familiarize yourself with it and reflect on it in moments of difficulty surrounding your most pressing issue.
“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
~ Reinhold Niebuhr
The moral and ethical principles that are the foundation of yoga practice are a 24/7 commitment. It is said that once you start the path, there is no turning back and no room for excuses.
Across the United States, this week marks the official beginning of the holiday season with the national holiday known as Thanksgiving. We usher in the festivities with decorations, shopping, gift-giving, parties, and family gatherings. Along with the usual seasonal fanfare is the unwelcome stress of holiday traffic, busy malls and shopping streets and facing unprocessed familial tension. Coinciding with the beginning of winter, this time of year often brings up loneliness when feeling of loss surface and many are left to confront wounded relationships. Many people draw inward and retreat into the unhealthy inner worlds of depression and grief. While the holiday season is meant to be celebratory and there is always much to celebrate, the truth of the matter is that the holidays can be a lot to handle.
While I’m a yogi every day of the year, it’s times of heightened stress that I fall back on my practice to support me. Standing in long lines amidst traffic, instead of fuming with impatience I choose to breathe. Faced with added pressure to feel the “holiday cheer”, my practice keeps me honest and real. When my Instagram becomes inundated with Black Friday adds encouraging us to buy more, instead of letting the seed of bitterness into my heart, I choose compassion and kindness and forgiveness.
I’ll be honest, I have a conflicted relationship with the holiday season. As a multi-racial person of Japanese-Scottish descent raised in South Florida I always felt like an outsider. Too white to be fully Japanese, too Japanese to be white, not part of the large minorities of Hispanic and Jewish populations, I had no “people” to call my own. During the holiday season I often acutely felt my status as an outsider. My family had no formal religious affiliation. Between my Buddhist Japanese grandfather and my Scottish religiously unaffiliated father, the decision was made to raise me without any religious education. Well, as it turns out, I was also raised without any strong cultural affiliation as well. I am certainly “American”, meaning that I identify as and am a native-born citizen of the United States. But, I am also placeless in the sense that nearly everywhere I go, people ask me where I’m from. To this day I never know what to fill out on in-take forms that ask for religion and ethnicity, so I mostly fill out “other” which feels alienating in and of itself. I think about this when I see large families gather with long-established traditions passed down from one generation to the next.
I know firsthand how this season brings up questions and reflections on identity, history and culture and that’s why I’m bringing up my personal history. My most common associations of holiday season from my youth are a time of shopping and eating. When I first started practicing yoga I reacted quite strongly to the unfettered heights of consumer culture. As an act of personal resistance, I spent the holiday season in India. From late November through early May for a few years straight, I checked out of the trifecta of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Trading casseroles and fruit cake for chai and coconuts was so freeing. But eventually, my travels lead me back home to the U.S. While I still make annual trips to India, these often now happen in January. I made the decision to spend the holidays with my family for the last few years as my father’s ailing health seemed to indicate there would only be a few more holidays left. And, last year, right before the Thanksgiving holiday my father passed away. I’m grateful for the years I spent at home during the holidays. This year, as I prepare for a busy holiday season at my home base in Miami, I am prioritizing my yoga practice to maintain as much of a calm center as possible and I hope you do too.
It’s often during the busiest times of years that we place ourselves last and routines of self-care fall by the wayside. During the holiday season the best way to navigate the murky territory of identity, emotion and stress is to maintain continuity of your practice, both on and off the mat. The yoga practice is so powerful because it is more than just a physical practice. Yoga is effective because of the inner transformation that happens when you practice. Without the deep shifts in the mind and heart, yoga would lack the resilience to be a lifelong practice. Traditional yoga philosophy is often rooted in a 2,000 year old text written by the sage Patañjali called the Yoga Sūtras. In Book II, an outline of the eight-limbed path, called Ashtanga Yoga, is presented. The first of the eight limbs presents a guideline for the yogi’s interaction with society and is broken down into five sub-categories. Called the yamas in Sanskrit, these moral and ethical precepts contain life-wisdom for all yogis. Whether you are a seasoned practitioner or brand new to the practice, diving into the practical application of the yamas will give you an anchor of peace amidst the holiday season.
Here are five ways you can put the yamas to work during the holiday season. If you’re in the U.S., try them out this week during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Practice: Loving-Kindness Meditation—Translated into English as non-violence, take this on like a a mantra and let it be the foundation of your meditation practice. If you don’t already have a seated meditation practice, I invite you to cultivate one by sitting for as little as five minutes a day. Spend a few minutes of the day practicing loving-kindness meditation. Start off by sending love, peace, joy and forgiveness to yourself. Then extend your heart and send those same blessings to a friend or family member. Finally, extend the same feelings to all beings, human and non-human, all over the world and all through the universe. Once you get established in the practice of loving-kindness meditation you can do it anywhere. As you’re on the way to that holiday gathering, practice generating loving-kindness towards yourself and all attendees. As you wait in long line at department stores, generate loving-kindness towards yourself and all other shoppers and employees. In this way you will make the world a more loving, kind place for yourself and for those around you.
Practice: Cultivate a Truthful Heart— Satya, the second of the yamas, means truthfulness. It can be tempting to put on a happy face and say you’re “fine” even when you’re not. But, this creates emotional distance between you and the world. Try being honest in an authentic and undefended way. If you’re having a bad day and someone asks you how you’re doing, be honest. Reply that you’re having a bad day and then see what happens. Truthfulness opens the door for honest connection. You might be surprised to find compassionate responses as you share your vulnerability with the world.
Definition: Non-Stealing, Non-Appropriation
Practice: Sympathetic Joy—It can be so easy to feel jealous of other people’s happiness. It sometimes feels like there’s a limited amount of happiness in the world and when others are happy, it can seem like they “stole” our happiness. Jealousy is vicious cycle that leads to a dead end. To help curb that state of mind practice sympathetic joy. Start easy. Choose someone you love like a child and celebrate their happiness. Then, expand your heart and see everyone in your city happy. Finally, hold the person who brings up your jealousy in turn heart. Freely send them the happiness, success and joy that you desire. Then bring your mind back to you heart and feel the freedom.
Definition: Sexual Continence
Practice: Cherish Your Relationship— Brahmacharya, the fourth of the yamas, is often translated as celibacy. There is, however, more to this precept than abstinence. Only renunciant yogis who have taken vows of celibacy should think about maintaining abstinence as their commitment to Brahmacharya. For most yogis, it may be best to think about Brahmacharya as an act of valuing and honored the committed relationships in your life. If you’re in a committed relationship, take on gratitude as a daily practice and express it in actions. Starting today, think of at least one thing each day that you are grateful for about your partner and thank them for it. Commit to expressing your gratitude each day for the holiday season (and perhaps beyond). If you’re not in a committed relationship, turn your sense of honor inward and think of one thing that you are grateful for about yourself each day. Then, look in the mirror and thank yourself for that. Of course, feel welcome to do both gratitude exercises if you’re in a committed relationship because the more you practice being thankful, the more full your heart will be!
Practice: Yogi Gift-Giving— Aparigraha, the last of the yamas, means non-greed, non-covetousness and non-attachment. True acts of giving are not performative and need no celebration or public praise. A big part of Aparigraha involves releasing your attachment to a particular outcome when giving a gift. It’s easy to feel disappointed when a friend or family member doesn’t seem as appreciative of a gift as you’d like them to be. Perhaps they even return an item you spent hours choosing for them. If you truly put Aparigraha to work in your heart, you will practice letting go of your judgements around how they treat your gift. Studies show that engaging in acts of service increases positive feelings in the brain. Try something as simple as buying a cup of coffee/tea for a friend or a stranger and see how you feel. If you do not have funds to give an economic gift, donate a few hours of your time to a good cause. Remember it’s not about the result or the praise that you get from others, it’s about opening your heart to act of giving.
I travel nearly every weekend and I’m often staying in new places. Sometimes I stay in hotels, but sometimes I also stay in private apartments and airbnbs. Last weekend I was staying in an airbnb and, when I was just finishing my evening meditation, I heard a rattling at the door. Whereas normally I would have screamed, my mind was tuned into the meditative state. Much to my shock, I calmly got up, put on some clothes and walked to the door. There, standing in the doorway was a large man who had let himself in the key the apartment. Confused to see me there, he informed me that he had booked a stay in the apartment and was given a key. Since my host booked the accommodation for me I actually didn’t have any answers. We decided to call the airbnb host. As they engaged in conversation a host of possible scenarios ran through my mind, ranging from searching for a hotel room and packing up my stuff to calling for help in case anything fishy went on and he wouldn’t leave. Luckily the airbnb host confirmed my reservation and expressed deep concern that this man had a key and was standing in the doorway asking to come in. The host asked him to leave the key with me and leave, and luckily, he did so without too much protesting. What happened after is the inspiration behind this blog.
I stood there alone, in an apartment that wasn’t my own, in a city that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the incident delivered a shock to my nervous system. After he left I drank some water, read a few lines in a book, sent a few emails and scrolled through Instagram on my phone. As I closed my eyes to sleep I was rattled awake by the sound of the doors each time the air-air-conditioning kicked in. I woke up the next morning without the feeling of rest that each night of sleep usually delivers. I went through my morning sadhana of meditation and yoga but I still arrived at the venue to teach my class feeling a bit disturbed. During the break between my events I decided to sit again. It was only then, close to 24 hours after the event that I registered the trauma response. My body was shaking and my breathing was short and shallow. I felt like I could hardly breathe. Even when I tried to still my body my hands would shake. I decided to sit in meditation again for another twenty minutes. Having finally tuned into the reality of my nervous system, my body shook, my breath accelerated and then I cried. Throughout the entire time I observed the experience in my body without reacting to it. After the last tears flowed down my cheeks, my body stopped shaking and my breathe deepened. I felt lighter and more free, like the experience has lifted. That night I slept soundly and deeply. In hindsight the first thing I should have done after the incident was to meditate. But in the midst of trauma, the most common responses are fight, flight or freeze.
There are so many layers to this experience that I want to unpack them for you as a lesson from the yoga practice. I credit the meditative mind for giving me the poise not to react immediately when the stranger walked into my airbnb. Without a cultivated attitude of observation and equanimity, I would have operated entirely from a fear response. I startle easily. I always have. My nervous system is wired on a hair-trigger. I’m a childhood trauma survivor, so that might have something to do with it. I surprised myself with how calm I was in the moment. But, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t deeply impacted by the experience. The whole experience reminded me of the deer-in-head-lights response to danger. I initially froze my own emotional response. But then, having survived, started to shake in the aftermath until I finally released everything in tears.
It took a good deal of time for me to register that my body and mind was impacted by the experience of a stranger walking in on me. It wasn’t until I sat with all the sensations that were arising that I was able to be free of it. In the space between the incident and the meditation where I cried and released whatever pent up energy was in my body, I had a host of interactions that were less than ideal. I sent emails with unskillful communication. I taught a less-than-ideal class. In other words, I wasn’t myself. Everything that I did in the space between the incident and when I felt that my own reaction had been processed emanated from a place of fear. It makes reasonable sense that one’s feeling of safety is challenged after a stranger walks in uninvited to your residence. The process of healing and returning the mind to a state of love and trust is a more meandering and personal journey. I am so grateful that I had the tools of yoga and meditation to help me move through my triggers around this experience.
But, it got me thinking. How many of us take the time to process large and small traumatic incidents to the degree that I allowed myself to? It seems more likely that we put up a facade of strength and pretend to be ok when in fact we are not ok. Or, worse yet, we begin to take action from a place of trauma before the trauma has been processed within ourselves. On an average day there are so many things that could illicit a trauma response. Micro-aggressions expressed in casual racist or sexist comments, mean-spirited sarcasm from friends or family, or the negative self-talk that perpetuates cycles of abuse. And, there is the real abuse that many people unfortunately face daily. As a yogi I now have tools to guide me through the inner work of my own process. But I didn’t always have those tools. When I was a little girl and I experienced sexual assault I didn’t have the tools to process what happened. It look me years to realize the extent of the damage done and the boundaries and violations that were perpetrated against me. It’s more often the case that we are ill-ill-equipped to handle and process the hurt that we experience. It’s less the case that we find the support needed to heal. That is, unless we engage in devoted spiritual practice and have access to therapists and other healers that can help lead the way.
If you’re sensitive like I am, you will probably register varying degrees of trauma throughout every single day of your life. There are tools that will help you retain a balanced mind and process your emotions. Whether it’s a cruel word spoken by an anonymous stranger on the internet or a careless done by your partner, the tools outlined below help me and I truly hope they give you some relief from what can sometimes be a stressful, traumatizing world.
Keep a root of your attention grounded on your breath throughout the day. Notice when your breathing accelerates, tightens or drastically changes. As soon as you notice that a shift has happened, pause whatever you’re doing and focus on your breath. If possible come to a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. Count to ten as you breath in through the nose and count to ten as you breath out through the nose. Repeat ten times.
2. Feel all the Feels—
The trauma response of fight, flight or freeze is a response of disembodiment. There is an uncomfortable feeling in the body and instead of sitting with it, the habituated response is to either fight the world, run from the source of pain or freeze and numb out. Choosing to feel everything is a courageous and brave choice. Get quiet and inquisitive. Turn on your creative mind and be receptive to the sensations of the body. Do not judge what you feel. If possible come to a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. If not, simply direct your attention to the body. Scan through the whole body. Start at the top of the head, sweep down towards the toes and then come back up again. Register all the sensations but refrain from assigning value judgements to them. For example, if you notice that your hand is shaking, simply observe that your hand is shaking. If you notice that there is a pressure around your shoulders, simply observe that. Do not try and figure out why the sensation is there or make it go away. Just observe. Keep your mind engaged with scanning the body for at least five minutes, but up to twenty.
Even if you aren’t immediately aware of a trauma response to a difficult situation, give yourself at least a few hours to decompress before you take any action or make any big decisions. It’s very common to displace anger or fear onto the people closest to you or take a bad decision in the period of time after a traumatic event. Pressing pause and practicing patience can be an extremely useful tool in maintaining balance through difficult times.
Sometimes in the midst of traumatic experiences it can be tempting to stay away from your yoga mat. This is exactly the time when you need practice the most. The yoga poses encourage a sense of embodied presence and help you reconnect to all the feelings and sensations in the body. This is exactly what is needed to heal and process trauma. Remember that just five minutes of yoga each day counts as consistent practice.
After the incident has passed you will probably need to work through your grievances and judgements about it. In order to really be honest with yourself, try journaling and allowing yourself to rant uncensored about the experience. You may find that you judge yourself for not responding in the way that you would have liked. You may find that you hold a grudge against the perpetrator and have a hard time letting it go. Once you get honest about your judgements and grievances, you can forgive yourself and everyone and everything else too. Even if you find it hard to say, try writing out the sentence, “Even though I didn’t respond as I would have liked and I caused pain, I forgive myself. Even though I feel violated by this person, I chose to forgive them. They are also wounded imperfect beings and I forgive them.”
You might not know this about me, but I have a strong interest in politics. Before I was passionate about yoga, I was passionate about politics. I used to get into heated arguments with people about government policy. I was on the high school debate team (and even won awards for public speaking). Graduating fifth in my high school class, I was offered full scholarships to a few universities in exchange for participating on the debate team. My plan was to major in political science and go to law school. I wanted to be a lawyer and fight what I thought was the good fight in politics. But, obviously, my life took a dramatically different course. Surprisingly, the shift happened long before yoga. It was during the summer off between high school and college that I woke up one morning and realized that I was so much happier than I had been in a long time. After a few moments of introspective probing I realized it was because I was not debating people all the time. It suddenly hit me that scheduling a debate is like scheduling time to argue. It was evident to me that I would not be happy if I devoted my life to arguing with people as my profession. I knew what direction I didn’t want to be heading, but I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go. That is, until I found yoga.
For years after my choice to turn away from high school debate and the pre-law path I was lost and searching for meaning and purpose. I turned away from politics and news in general and went on a kind of media fast. It was in this period that I discovered yoga. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the yogi’s role in civic discourse and public service. Now, don’t stop reading. I’m not running for President or anything even remotely like that. I’m also not here to endorse a particular agenda. I do, of course, have my opinions on what I believe good government is. But, I’m not writing this blog to try and convince you of my beliefs. Instead, I’m writing this blog to help you, as a fellow yogi, navigate the often murky territory of post-election polarization. Two sides engage in rounds of debates, run onslaughts of advertisements, amplify their positions in echo chambers and charge forward. One side emerges as the winner, the other side as the loser. Meanwhile, our shared sense of community fractures and we grow further apart. Or, at least, that is how the last few election cycles seemed to play out to me. So, what does the yogic path have to offer civic discourse in our current state of affairs? As it turns out, a lot.
Let’s start off with the foundational yogic principe of Ahimsa. Often translated as non-violence, I’ve always liked a positive definition of this principle. Ahimsa to me is more than just the absence of violence. Ahimsa is the active state of love, forgiveness and acceptance. There is nothing like a polarizing election cycle to bring out the hatred, judgement and vitriol. This is the state of himsa, hatred, violence or negativity, and goes against yogic values. In order to balance your mind, I recommend to practice ahimsa in this very real and challenging way—learn to love your enemies. This isn’t a new concept. The master Christian yogi Jesus espoused this view thousands of years ago. Now, in our present day quagmire of political voices we need this high teaching more than ever.
Think about how many times you have unfollowed someone whom you once found inspiring or unfriended someone you know from high school just because they proclaim different political beliefs than you do. I recently shared some of my personal opinions about the governor race in my home state of Florida on my Instagram stories and got both positive and negative response. There were people who called on me to “stick to yoga” and announced that they would now be forced to unfollow. To others I was more of a hero. It’s almost like we categories people who don’t share our political beliefs as our “enemies” and those who do as “heroes”. In doing so, we also normalize harsh and sometimes cruel words and actions towards those people whom we deem as enemies.
I’ll be honest, I’ve had those same type of judgmental thoughts about others. We all have friends or family members whose political beliefs are not our own. I’ve been shocked to see what someone that I know on a personal level thinks about government policies or leaders. I’ve been tempted to leave a point comment. But, as long as their beliefs and actions are not causing me personal and direct harm, I believe it is my work as a yogi to learn to stay present with them and learn to love them anyway. This is ahimsa in action. And, it is so freeing. Hate and judgement can be heavy. Love and forgiveness often feel light. I’m not saying that hate is bad or wrong or that you shouldn’t feel hate. In fact, if you feel hopeless, sometimes being angry is a positive step. What I’m suggesting is that you do your work to process your emotions about the election cycle until you find a place of love and positive action before you take action. The reason is all about your own energy. This is not a “love and light” blog asking you to think away the often harsh realities of injustice. This is a request for you to stand firm in your belief for the type of world you want to create. Action rooted in what you love and what you want to create is simply more effective than action what rooted in what you hate.
While it can be useful and necessary to bring issues that are problematic to the surface, it can also be easy to get swept away in the passion of hate. I know because I’ve done it myself. While protesting actions that I deemed unjust I let hate get the better fo me. Before I knew it, I was no longer standing for something I believed in. Instead, I was fighting against something I did not believe in. And truly, what you resist persists. What you hate grows stronger. What you love you make strong and the act of love makes you stronger. If I call you my enemy and throw words of hate in your direction, but you love me, then your love has the potential to disarm my hate. And at the very least, your love for me acts as a shield that protects you. In an argument, whomever loves simply has the upper hand and is the true winner. But, if you hate me and I hate you back, then we are both in hell. If we both love each other, then we are equals. Every action rooted in hate perpetuates the very thing it seeks to eradicate. Every action rooted in love has the potential to heal.
The reality of this message is that it is people of privilege in positions of power who need to hear it. It is not marginalized communities that need to hear more tone policing of their voices speaking out for justice. I hope that people of privilege read this, particularly yogis, and take up the cause to truly create a world of justice. It is so easy to use the language of spirituality to bypass key issues that can be difficult and confronting to hear. But true spiritual practitioners must harness the strength of their practice to face their fragility with courage and take action to make the world a more just place.
A common prayer that ends yoga and meditations classes is for all beings to be free from anger, be peaceful and be filled with love. Well, the only way that the world would truly be a place where no one was angry, everyone was peaceful and all were filled with love is if the world was a truly just place for all beings. That means that no group in the ideal world is marginalized, abused, or taken advantage of. We have a long way to go before we reach that state, but as yogis it is our responsibility to apply ahimsa in real life, navigating the challenging waters of our social fabric to create the world we stand for. If yoga is a path of peace, then it is a path of peace for all beings.
I don’t know which side will emerge from the mid-terms victorious. But I do know underneath all the heated political arguments coming from “strangers on the internet” are real people whose pain and suffering is present. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you identify with, there is a real live human being on the other end of every word written on the internet (just like I am really here behind this blog). The challenge of ahimsa in a bitter atmosphere is not just to do no harm. Ahimsa is bigger than that. Ahimsa means to make every act an act of love and to define love as more than saccharine phrases. Ahimsa in action makes the case for a broad notion of love as social justice, mutual respect and positive action.
I’m not suggesting for yogis not to protest. I believe in civil discourse and open forums. But, as a yogi, I believe that before we take any action we must put in the world to process our own stuff. Then, we will be more effective at creating the world we want. Instead of reacting, you will be free to act. At the heat of the spiritual practice is the desire for all beings to come out of their misery. If you are not grounded in this action in the midst of planning a protest, wiring a comment or engaging in a debate, especially in the wake of a polarizing election, my suggestion is for you to put in the work of spiritual practice until you reconnect with a heart full of love. Otherwise, it will be so easy for you to get drawn into hate. And once your heart is given over to hate, then, the battle is already lost.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Ahimsa in Action. Let these four points help you act in love this week, especially if you find yourself lapsing into harsh bouts of negativity or being triggered by the election results.
Love your enemies—
Called Tonglen in Buddhism, the practice of sending love to your enemies can truly set you free. Start off with a few minutes to calm your mind. Then send loving thoughts to yourself. See yourself happy and filled with love. Let the feeling of love wash over you. Next, send love to someone you truly admire. Simmer in the love. Finally, send love to your enemies. I recommend doing this practice before you go to a protest post-election. Be sure to send love to the other side, the ones you consider your enemies. It will be hard, but remember love is your greatest weapon. Notice any resistance and see if you freely give love. Then, sit back and tune into your heart as all the love you send out returns to you tenfold.
2. Ahimsa Listening—
Learn to listen without judgement. Learn to listen with love. The next time you find yourself about to attack or judge someone and respond with harsh words, try something else. First pause, breathe, and take a step back. Put in your own work to return to a center of calm within yourself. I recommend at least five full minutes of meditation. Then, return and ask a genuine question in an effort to listen without making any conclusions about the character of the person. This type of innocent perception can help release your judgements and humanize the opposing side. Plus, understanding where your adversary is coming from will better equip you for the path ahead.
3. Get Real about Your Judgement and Your Hate and Turn the Thought Around—
There is no sense in pretending that you are beyond judgement and hate just because you are a yogi. At least I can say that I’m not. Give yourself permission to allow your judgments to float up to the surface where you can see them. Then, instead of pushing them away or feeling shame about them, just observe. When you notice yourself thinking judgmental, hateful thoughts, pause and just feel them in the body. Let them run their course and in the meanwhile, don’t take any action. Usually I find that sitting with a thought or feeling in the free space of mindfulness allows you the time to process. There have been times that I thought I wasn’t passing judgement. The only thing that happened is that my judgements all came out as passive aggression. Be brutally honest with yourself.
Next, see if you can turn that judgmental thought around. This is inspired from the Work of Byron Katie. Ask yourself if there is an opposite thought that is equally true. For example, if your judgement was, “My friend is so close-minded and hard to speak to” see if it might be equally true to say, “I am so close-minded and hard to speak to”.
4. Act in Love, Stand for a Positive Future—
Unless your action is rooted in love and you have a positive vision for the world you want to create, simply refrain from acting. If you feel compelled to share something political, check yourself regarding love and hate. If you notice that you want to share because you hate the person who won, then consider not sharing. For example, if your candidate doesn’t win, you may want to post all sorts of negative articles about the candidate who won. But if you share in hate you will be centering your attention around the very thing that you do not want to get stronger. Instead, try to root what you share in your view of what your want the world to be and what your contribution is to creating that world.
If you notice that you want to share because you truly come from love for all beings, then share. Centering your action around love for all beings does not to be placid and calm. In fact, it could be fierce and powerful. You may find that you call a friend or family member out on a racist point of view because you love them and want to educate them. The key is what’s in your heart. If you share from a place of hate, then you will tying yourself into a powerful cycle that may drag you down. But if you share even the most confronting opinion, when you are rooted in love you will be more successful at maintaining your own peaceful heart.
This morning I woke up at 5 AM, over two hours before sunrise. Before 6 AM I was meditating and before the sun peaked over the clouds I was already in Downward Facing Dog. It may surprise you to hear that I’m not a morning person. Over twenty years of yoga practice and I still find it challenging to wake up before the sunrise. My natural body clock wants to sleep in for a good thirty to forty minutes after the sun has risen. But, years of practice and a good dose of discipline have taught me about the benefits of stretching far beyond my comfort zone, both in practice and in life.
Traditionally yoga practice is a spiritual journey that aims to cleanse the body and mind of old and destructive habit patterns. These patterns are called “samskaras” in Sanskrit and we all have them. Since samskaras are the most manifested embodiments of our thoughts and personality we are very identified with them and it often causes us great emotional turmoil to change them. There is a powerful inertia that drives the samskara cycle and, if left unchecked, the pattern will continue largely driven by unconscious motivating forces. Some samskaras are said to be benign, meaning that they do not generate further suffering. But the majority of the ones that govern our lives are in fact not beneficial to our liberation and will ultimately lead to more suffering. Working with the samskaras is like performing a deep operation of the mind. It isn’t something that can be undertaken in a haphazard manner. Much to the opposite, restructuring the habit pattern of the mind and laying the foundation for a life of inner peace is a devoted, disciplined practice that will require your full undivided attention.
Calls for discipline can be unpopular, and even sometimes thought of as negative. In our free-thinking, self-invented culture many people revile at the idea of following the rules. Well, in the yoga practice there is a long history of the need for a disciplined approach to spiritual practice. Called Tapas in Sanskrit, the need for discipline is discussed in all traditional forms of yoga practice. Sometimes Tapas can be translated as austerities, which can be even more intimidating. A softer translation comes from Swami Satchidananda where Tapas is defined as the acceptance of those pains that lead to purification. I love this definition because some overzealous students hear discipline and use it as an excuse to practice with harshness and severity, and even turn the practice into a kind of penance. But, yoga is rooted in the path of balance and extreme hardship is simply not recommended. Discipline in the yoga practice actually comes from love.
Here’s a real-world way that discipline works in the yoga practice to achieve spiritual results. My alarm goes off at 5 AM. The “old” me wants to stay in bed and snuggle. The “new” me has to force myself a little to roll out of bed. There is so much momentum around the pattern of staying in bed. My entire inner dialogue speaks a seductive language that entices me to sleep in. “You deserve rest” it says. “Just hit snooze for five minutes” it continues. “It’s way to early— the sun isn’t even out yet!” it enthusiastically states. I can choose to listen to the inner voice of my old patterning or I can choose to get up out of bed and start my spiritual practice. It isn’t easy to chart out a new course. It requires effort, willpower and determination. But, as I sit on my meditation cushion and my mind quiets, in those pre-dawn hours I feel a sense of peace and awarenes. This dawn, the awakening of inner light, fills me up so much so that it makes it all worth the effort.
My teacher R. Sharath Jois likes to say that every practice should contain at least some element of difficulty. If practice is too easy, the idea is that it won’t be able to teach you about the depths of yourself. The mountain of yoga is the truly the highest peak of human consciousness. In some sense it should be a little hard and present challenges that mirror the challenges of life. The yogi is a seeker of truth and the journey to the deepest truth demands strength, commitment and resolution from would-be aspirants. Tapas is there to tell you that it is ok that your first attempt at a difficult arm balance is not a success. Tapas encourages you to try again, one more time or one thousand more times, to build the strength and learn the lesson your practice is trying to teach you. If you normally back away from hardship, Tapas is there to encourage you to rise up and meet hardship with a fierce love. Tapas is one of the most important tests along the spiritual path of yoga. Tapas teaches you a spiritual paradigm that changes your response to adversity and struggle. By learning how to face those pains that lead to purification (not injury!), you will learn how to lean in to the scary places in your life. So, if your yoga practice is too comfortable, then you might benefit from challenging yourself just a little. There are many forms of tapas you might choose from. Discipline is needed every single time that yoga asks you to change your life. And truly, life transformation is where yoga has the power to be a revolution and change your world.
Yoga has been my life for over twenty years and the Tapas of the practice has changed nearly every aspect of my life. First, you already know that yoga changed the time I wake up in the morning. While I still play hooky sometimes and sleep in (I’m human after all), I generally wake up much earlier than I did before I started yoga. That necessarily means that I go to bed much earlier as well. Like a domino-effect, going to bed early and rising early puts a serious dent in what types of parties and social interactions are pleasurable in the late evenings (read: no more late night parties for me). Second, yoga changed my daily rituals. The only thing I did every day before yoga was brush my teeth. Twenty years ago I accepted the six-day-a-week demand of Ashtanga Yoga and I am here today writing this article because to a large degree I haven’t wavered. There are many days when my practice isn’t the full two hour sweat fest that Ashtanga Yoga is known for. Some days my practice is just five minutes long and comprised of only the Sun Salutations. But, my Tapas means that I get on my mat with great frequency. This daily discipline has become my spiritual ritual of mental and physical purification. Third, yoga changed my diet. Within the first few months of committing to a regular yoga practice I simply felt the need to adjust my diet. Stemming from the moral and ethical commitment to ahimsa, I went fully plant-based. There are so many more changes that the discipline of yoga has effected in my life, but I’ll leave you with one last important aspect of Tapas. Once I learned how to build discipline on the mat, I learned to be disciplined off the mat as well. I’ve written four books and am working on my fifth. I co-founded a yoga center, Miami Life Center, and founded an online channel for yoga, Omstars. I travel and teach yoga all over the world. This has been no mere act of luck, while surely I have been both blessed, privileged and lucky. I applied the same disciplined approach to life that I applied to my body when learning to jump through, jump back, lift up in inversions and other asanas. If I failed once, twice or one thousand times, I did not waver. Each time I picked myself back up and tried again. Twenty years later, there are some dreams that I’m still working on and there are certainly many poses that I’m still working on. With the power of Tapas, I am faithful that all is coming in its due course of time.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Tapas, Discipline. I’d like you to introduce one challenging aspect to your spiritual practice this week. As you do, be sure that your Tapas is rooted in love and not punishment. With the same kind heart that you would feel as you discipline your child, speak to yourself of the benefits of discipline. Below are some options for how you might apply Tapas to your practice this week. Choose one or all. And, of course, feel welcome to explore other areas of discipline. If you feel inspired to share your progress on this week’s #YogiAssignment on social media, I’d love to see how it’s going. But also feel welcome to make this a private, introspective journey. You might find that journaling about your experience of Tapas helps you process your relationship to discipline.
Early Morning Practice—
Commit to waking up before dawn and getting on your mat as soon as possible. Avoid sending emails or logging on to social media before you practice. The early morning practice capitalizes on the relatively quiet state of mind that is predominant directly after waking up. By starting your practice in this calm space you will be able to work very deeply in the mind. Plus, if you get your practice in before “life” starts, then you will be set up for the whole day in the paradigm of spiritually oriented thinking. Your day will flow from a place of peace and you won’t ever get “too busy” to practice.
2. Yogi Food—
Changing food habits is never fun. You often meet cultural and social resistance, not to mention desire for past pleasure. Just for this week, try giving up a food item that you feel particularly attached to and is an impediment to practice. For example, if you always have a glass or two of wine in the evenings, challenge yourself to give that up for a week. See who you are without your samskara of wine. It won’t be easy. In fact, it will probably be confronting. But, just try it out for one week and see how you react in both positive and negative ways.
Commit to getting on your mat for at least five minutes at least six days this week. It will be easier if you practice at around the same time every day. Just as we brush our teeth first thing in the morning and last thing at night, practice is best done when you make a ritual out of it and do it at the same time every day.
4. Disciplined Thinking—
The yoga practice gives you a view into the inner world. There, in the space between your breaths, you will often find your repetitive thoughts. Once you see those thoughts on your yoga mat, you will probably also see them in your life. As an act of Tapas this week, be watchful over your thoughts both on and off the mat. If you notice yourself thinking negative thoughts about yourself like “I feel fat” “I’m too old” “I’m ugly”, see if you can turn the thought around. Using your spiritual strength, see if you can find a positive thought to think about yourself instead. This type of work is the hardest and requires the most discipline. But if you succeed at the other aspects of Tapas you will develop the grit it takes to retrain the habit pattern of the mind. Eventually, your mind and heart will be filled with kind, peaceful, loving thoughts about yourself and your whole world.
It took me years before I understood just how important the breath is to the depth of yoga practice. There are people who can perform quite exciting asanas but they are unable to breathe deeply. Similarly, there are other students whose asanas may not appear so deep but their breath demonstrates a penetrating inner focus. While it may be tempting to associate proficiency in asana with deep yoga, the truth of the matter is that the yoga practice is an inner experience. While we can never measure or judge someone’s spirituality from the outside, the breath gives you a window to peer into the often obscured realm of the spirit.
The breath is the thread that ties the conscious and subconscious together. By tuning in to the breath you have a window into the deepest layers of the mind. Even more, the mysteries of life and death are contained within inhalation and exhalation. The faculty of the breath is the power that illuminates the body with the vibrance of life. Without the breath, there is quite simply no life. There is an old yogi myth that states that each individual’s life span is defined by the total amount of breaths allotted to them on this journey. When those breaths are finished, then the journey ends. If you have had the grace to be present when a soul is born into a human body, it is miraculous to see the breath bring life to the body. Similarly, if you have been present when a being breathes their last breath out and life leaves the body, another miracle has occurred. The breath is life and intimacy with the breath brings wisdom and attunement to the rarefied realm of the spirit.
My teacher said that the entire purpose of the asanas is to create a field of experience for you to breathe. The breath is the magic catalyst for the inner world. Without a deep full breath the asanas are just body bending. Use each pose as an opportunity to breathe deeply. Let the shape of the pose be a secondary experience to the depth of the breath. During the context of the asana practice the breath is resonated, creating the deep breathing with sound. The audible breath allows you to hear and feel your breath more powerfully. It also allows the breath to resonate within the emptiness of the inner body.
Called Prana Vayu in Sanskrit, the breath in yoga is more closely related to the winds of our life force than simple oxygen. There is a breath associated with every emotional state. Anger and anxiety are often associated with short, shallow, rapid breaths. Sadness, depression and hopelessness are often associated with long exhalations or sighs. Happiness, joy and love are often associated with deep, rhythmic diaphragmatic breaths. During your practice, you will notice that certain poses trigger different types of breathing. Proficiency in asana is demonstrated as much by the ability to breathe deeply as it is by the ability to bend he body. Place your emphasis on the inner experience of the breath and there will be no limit to how deeply your practice will go.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Prana Vayu, the Breath. During your practice each day this week place careful emphasis on the depth and quality of your breath. Then, in your life throughout this week place extra attention on the quality of your breath in all moments. Notice when your breath changes from moment to moment, depending on various life situations. Let this be a root into your inner world.