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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. Continue Reading »

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.

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.

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.

What makes for a successful and fulfilling life? How do we maintain a sense of balance in the face of life’s challenges and difficulties? How do we maintain a sense of who we are and what we consider to be valuable and true when life gets tough? Phillip Moffitt’s wonderful new book Emotional Chaos to Clarity addresses these questions with clarity and wisdom. It goes to the heart of what we all face as human beings regardless of our background, economic status, religion or belief system.

This book helps you get in touch with your authentic self, the genuine part of you that acts from your deepest values and intentions.
Our society conditions us to believe that our material possessions, recognition from our peers and our health are the markers for a successful life. The author argues that it is fine to have skillful goals as long as we don’t determine our self-worth by the success we have in reaching those goals. The hallmark of a successful life is how well our actions reflect the intentions that are formed by our core values.

Skillful living requires that we first have to discover for ourselves our core values and intentions. It is in life’s difficult moments, whether it be at work or in our closest relationships that we come to rely on our values and intentions to guide how we respond when we are in the midst of a difficult situation. Otherwise we get lost in a storm of reactivity which compounds our suffering. Moffitt acknowledges that living from our values and intentions is not an easy thing to do. It requires patience and persistence and the willingness to start over.

The author states that a necessary condition to bringing about more clarity in our lives is the practice of mindfulness which trains you to be present and aware in daily life. Without mindfulness we would fall back on unskillful habit patterns which cloud the mind and form the basis for reactivity.

What sets this book apart from the multitude of other books that deal with this subject matter is the author’s skillful use of pedagogy. Each chapter addresses an aspect of our lives: practicing gratitude and generosity, starting our day with clarity and making major life changes are some of the topics that are addressed. At the end of each chapter, Moffitt lists practical exercises that one can incorporate into one’s daily routine. I personally found the self-reflection exercises to be very helpful. They allowed me to pause and ask the really important questions that we all long to ask – how do I want to spend the rest of my precious life for the short time that I am living on this earth?

Two prominent institutions are currently undertaking scientific studies to measure the effectiveness of yoga on alleviating post traumatic stress disorder in war veterans.

The Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living in collaboration with Harvard Medical School faculty and research assistants have developed a comprehensive yoga program specifically designed to relieve symptoms of trauma.

There are pre-, mid-, post-, and long-term follow-up treatment measures that include questionnaires and interviews that measure PTSD symptoms, subjective well-being, and mood; electrocardiogram readings to monitor heart-rate variability; and 24-hour urine samples to assay the presence of stress hormones. Three months following the study, subjects will complete a long-term follow-up.

A second study under the direction of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds will apply the tools of neuroscience – including brain imaging to determine what if any effect such contemplative practices have on veterans with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Researchers hope to develop psychological profiles and a kind of tool kit that help them target contemplative practices in ways that are most effective.

There is, at least, anecdotal evidence that contemplative practices are beneficial for veterans. Both Navy veteran Dennis and Jennifer Kannel, who spent a year in Iraq with the Wisconsin Army National Guard, said the breathing exercises and meditation practices improved their sleep and sense of well-being.

Andrew Hendrickson, who leads a yoga-based relaxation series for returning combat troops asks vets in his program to rate their level of distress, on a scale of zero to 100, before and after participating.

“I frequently get people who drop from 80 to 20 or 10,” said Hendrickson, who used yoga to sleep at night while working at a combat hospital in Afghanistan. “One guy with severe depression went from 60 to zero.”

A human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind wrote psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University in the Journal Science. According to these researchers, mind-wandering is a human brain’s default mode of operation.

Using modern technology, the authors created an iphone app that contacted volunteers at regular intervals throughout the day to find out what they were currently doing and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Intrigued by the researchers skillful use of modern technology to determine the causes for human happiness, I decided to sign up as a participant. Five times per day over a period of ten days, my trusty iphone would beep prompting me to answer the designated questions. The questions ranged from my current level of happiness, how well I slept the night before, what I was busy doing in the moment that I was beeped and how focussed I was with that particular activity. I was also asked if I was judging myself, the people around me or my current environment. After 10 days of answering questions , I was rewarded with a handsome set of charts measuring my level of happiness across a wide spectrum.

The results did not surprise me. I am happiest when I am doing my yoga practice or when I am helping others in need. For both of these activities, I am fully participating in life as it is happening in the present moment. Also not surprisingly the results confirmed that I am least happy when I am commuting over long distances. My mind wanders a lot when I am sitting in the car with nothing to do.

“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now,’” Killingsworth and Gilbert note in Science. “These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”