Archive for July, 2012

The practice of ahimsa on the yoga mat

yogi with curled toesAhimsa is derived from the sanskrit word hims which means to strike – himsa is injury or harm. The “a” in ahimsa turns himsa into its opposite therefore ahimsa means non-violence or non-harm.

What does it mean to practice ahimsa on our yoga mats? For many of us it means learning to let go of the competitive ego mind. (more…)

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Clarifying intentions and goals

Recently I have been spending a few moments setting an intention before beginning my daily practice. These are the qualities of the heart that I would like to manifest in my life. Part of setting an intention means listening carefully to what the deepest part of me wants – to the still silent whisper of my heart.

The intention may be to be kind to myself or to open to whatever arises or simply to be more present to the flow of body sensations as they rise and fall from moment to moment.

It is important to distinguish the difference between goals and intentions. Goals are aspirations for the future that I seek to achieve whereas intentions happen in the here and now.

For example I may have the goal to get physically stronger in my yoga practice. Whether or not I achieve my goal is not entirely in my control. For instance, it will depend on the state of my health, how often I practice and a myriad of other factors. On the other hand my intentions are entirely in my control and dictate how I relate to myself in any given moment. For example if my intention is to practice non-harming, then in performing an asana I will not push myself to the limit and potentially hurt myself. I will practice in a way that strengthens the muscles, joints and ligaments without compromising them. Practicing in this way strengthens the values of non-harming, patience and humility and the wisdom factor of not being attached to outcome.

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The meaning of asana

The word asana literally means “to take one’s seat”. The great first century sage, Patanjali, in his famous yoga sutra, the “declaration of independence” for all students of yoga, refers to asana as both the inner and outer posture one takes in seated meditation. At first glance this would seem at odds with our modern interpretation and understanding of asana that we are accustomed to finding in sweaty yoga studios on practically every street corner of urban America. In fact hatha yoga, the yoga of movement, did not come into existence until the beginning of the second millennium approx 1000 years after Patanjali wrote his famous sutra. However the contrast between the ancient and contemporary meaning of asana ends at a superficial level.

One can be in a yoga flow moving from one posture to the next in quick succession while being “in one’s seat” fully present to the ebb and flow of experience from moment to moment. Hatha yoga invites the practitioner to remain still within the movement of life. By that I mean being fully present to sensations of body and breath as they arise and pass away. Practicing in this way over and over again the yogi learns a powerful truth. All things are impermanent. Everything that arises must pass away. All conditioned phenomena are subject to the forces of birth and decay. This is the great lesson of yoga.

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The Sanskrit word “yoga” has the literal meaning to “yoke” from the root “yuj” meaning to join, to unite or to attach. As practioners of yoga we are literally yoking to our experience each time we arrive awake to this moment. The mind is habitually lost in worries about the past or fantasies about the future. It is rarely here in this moment. Our practice is to wake up to that reality. We set the intention over and over again to wake up to this moment for this is the only moment we have. Hatha yoga is a set of physical postures that are merely a form or vehicle to practice the true meaning of yoga – waking up to this moment afresh, alive and renewed. Without the intention of waking up, yoga is nothing more than a series of physical exercises. Yoga builds greater strength, flexibility, emotional stability and clarity of mind. These are all secondary benefits to yoga’s true purpose which is perfect harmony with the world and union with all things.

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