Note: Joy is one of our eleven Benefits of Yoga

Joy imageYoga identifies five dimensions in our human system: the physical or annamaya, the energetic or pranamaya, the intellect or manomaya, the personality or vijnanamaya, and the emotional or anandamaya. The word ananda, in the emotional dimension, is translated as “joy that never stops.” This level of our system is capable of joy because it is not linked to habitual ways of thinking that cause suffering.

Habitual patterns of thoughts may be things such as ruminating over regrets about something in the past, or thoughts of failure because we have less than our friends, or fears about our future or our children’s future. When our minds our engaged in these kinds of negative thoughts, we feel constricted, ill at ease: we cannot experience joy.

Since yoga acts on all the different parts of our human system, doing postures, simple breathing techniques, and using sound or other tools of yoga can allow us to see negative patterns of thought and help free us from them and the frustration and unhappiness they engender. Over time, an appropriate, regular yoga practice helps us to see those things creating “non-joy” so we may let go of them, and those things linking us to that joy inherent within us. Through our yoga practice, we can choose to move toward what is positive, toward what nourishes joy at our deepest level.


Sunset at the beach

I don’t know what I expected when I went to “Ted Talks” on the web to listen to Brene Brown talk about vulnerability. All I know is my friend told me, “you have to watch this.”

The thirty minute talk set off a flurry of reflections for me. But what has stayed with me, returning again and again in my thoughts, came in the final moments when she spoke of how to practice “whole-hearted vulnerability:” love with our whole hearts; practice joy and gratitude; believe we are enough. It was the last element that has been the biggest stumbling block for me, and for so many other women I know.

Friday was a journey. We rose at 5:15 am. I said good-bye to each of my dear kitties, and then we drove to Baltimore to board a five plus hour flight to Los Angeles and arrive in what seemed like chaos in the Los Angeles airport. Our reward was seeing our daughter and family and being with our oldest grandson to celebrate his college graduation. But the preparation for leaving during the previous five days had left me feeling as if I had gone beyond “enough.” I had been trying to take care of things in all areas of my life before leaving town, as if all had to be in order so I could go. I was not conscious of my thinking until I looked back. When I did, I realized I was operating with the belief that by completing all these tasks, I would have done enough. I would be enough.

I have been in the “doing enough to be enough” place many times. We live in a culture that reinforces this belief constantly. After all, our economy is about production and consumption and progress; we receive these messages all the time, in media, from other people, from our teachers. It is as if we are enculturated into the belief that there is always more to do, to accomplish, to buy, and to be. If we come to a place where we accept ourselves as we are and believe what we do is enough, we usually notice we are swimming against the current.

But we pay a price for trying to be enough by doing more. When I feel that way, my heart, not to mention my mind, feels depleted, and I have little emotional energy or ability to be present or patient. Doing too much in order to feel I am enough robs me of what is most important, my connection to those dear to me and to myself.

The ability to observe our reactions and behavior is called svadhyaya in Sanskrit. This is one of the three elements of kriya yoga, the yoga of action, as described by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra 2.1. Svadhyaya offers us the possibility of seeing how we create suffering in our own lives, things like believing we are not enough. This sutra tells us to develop a practice to deal with behaviors or attitudes causing problems. The practice, called tapas, requires effort and continued self-observation to make sure it is reducing the negative effects. The last element of kriya yoga is isvara pranidhana, requiring an acknowledgement that there is a power greater than ourselves to whom we must turn over the results of our actions.

Our tapas could be a mantra we include in a meditation each day. One student in my Wise Women class told of a therapist who had given her a mantra that could be used: “I am enough. I do enough. What I do, I do well.” The svadhyaya becomes our continued self-observation. Since our old way of thinking has become a habit, at some point we face resistance. The old pattern will be pushing us to do more so we can feel we are enough, yet our practice will be linking us to a new message, one that assures us we are enough as we are. Inevitably this resistance creates heat, the heat of tapas, as we move to create the new positive pattern, and so effort over time is required to transform the old pattern. To maintain the effort required we need humility and faith that something positive will come to fruition, over time, through our efforts – isvara pranidhana.

There is a price we pay for staying in our old patterns, which is continued suffering. And, there is a price we pay when we engage in making change, which is effort. But there is a pay off eventually as we begin to move from “not enough”‘ to a place of believing we are enough. When we live in the place of believing we are enough, we are kinder and gentler to ourselves and others. We feel connection in our relationships, and we are able to touch joy and peace within ourselves. The universe is full, the Veda-s tell us. And indeed it is when all is enough.


Exploring an Inner Radiance

Bare tree

Earlier this week, before the weather turned chilly, I took a rest from cleaning up weeds and detritus around the two crepe myrtle by our driveway. Their fushia flowers had brought us great pleasure during the summer, but what remained now, in November, was just browning and falling leaves.

Leaning my arms on the trunk of the car, I looked toward the creek, to the old sycamore whose boney branches rose above the rooftops, glowing in a slant of sunlight. But my gaze was stolen from the tree by the motion of hawks. Two hawks circled in similar flight paths, at different heights, riding the thermals as they flapped and coasted, flapped and coasted. Banking to maintain their circle the angle of their bodies shifted, and sunlight flashed across their creamy white bellies.

Sycamores, hawks, light.

“Light originates in the center of the heart,” explains Bernard Bouanchaud in his commentary on yoga sutra I.36. Meditating on that light, which is believed to be the source of the divine within, brings a sense of serenity.

This concept is very precious to me, personally. At a time when I was struggling with a lack of confidence and a feeling of distress, my yoga teacher said to me, “Your light is so bright. You just cannot see it.” Her words were a gift, something I return to for solace and stability.

We all experience times when we feel as if we are in a dark space. That is why I offer this image of the light in the heart to my students as focus in class from time to time. When we are caught in a dark space in our thinking, we can visualize the image of the light within. As flicking a switch in a dark room dissipates the darkness that had been there, linking to the image of a light in the heart can help dissipate the darkness of our thoughts.

The ancient Vedas offer a beautiful image that can help us explore this mystery of the light in the heart.

In the body is the heart,
In the heart is a lotus,
In the lotus is a light,
This light is the source of inner peace…”

According to Bouanchaud’s commentary, meditating on the luminous quality of the heart offers us the possibility of more than a sense of peace and stability, as wonderful as that is. This serenity can open a door connecting us to “the life that animates all beings and everything in nature” and encouraging “a deep relationship with it.”

As I watched the light flash on the bellies of the circling hawks and gleam on the white skin of the sycamore, I was reminded of the light living not only within me, but within all people, all beings. The promise of peace and connection is there for all of us, if only we notice.


Cultivating a Tranquil Mind

Tranquil Mind blog image

Two friends, Vicki and Naomi walk to their cars after having had dinner together. They work together and have known each other since kindergarten. Naomi wanted to get together to share her good news. Not only had she received a promotion and a substantial raise, but she had just gotten engaged. Vicki tried to be happy for her friend, but inside she was consumed with envy and resentment. Her mind was racing with thoughts about how unfair life had been to her.

This is an example of just one of the situations that Yoga Sutra I.33 speaks to, as it addresses how to maintain a stable, tranquil mind in relationships. This Sutra is translated: “A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous, and impartiality towards wrong-doers.”1

Vicki, in the example above, is seeing the happiness of her friend through the lens of what she feels she is missing in her own life. Her thinking has become negative, and she is suffering, as a result. This Sutra advises us, instead, to see the happiness of others as just that. By being friendly towards those who are happy we share in their positive experience. Our minds remain tranquil.

Actually each of the four situations mentioned in this Sutra share a common thread. What keeps a person’s mind ensnared in negativity is seeing other people’s lives through the lens of one’s own life, experiences, or values.

Let’s look at another example. Jean is 26 and recently divorced after an abusive marriage. As a result she asked to move into her parents’ home with her 1 year old. Neither her father nor mother liked the man Jean had married. They told her it was her choice to marry him, and now she has to live with the consequences. Without their help or a job, Jean and her baby are living in a shelter. Jean is obviously suffering from her failed, abusive marriage and lack of resources. Yet, anger and blame cloud her parents’ minds and close their hearts to her suffering. Sutra 1.33 advises us to cultivate compassion, a sympathetic consciousness, of another’s suffering. Our mind, then, remains stable and calm.

When faced with someone doing things that are wrong or harmful, this Sutra advises impartiality toward someone acting poorly. Many of us might stop at this and ask if this means ignoring someone’s harmful behavior.

I don’t think so. Yoga is about cultivating responsible, thoughtful action based upon seeing clearly what is in front of us. This part of the Sutra, I believe, directs us to withhold judgment about behavior because we cannot know the whole story behind it.

In Ferguson, Missouri this week, protests have turned violent following the shooting and death of Michael Brown, a young, unarmed, African-American man, by a white policeman. His death is being investigated, and the violence in response has been condemned.

Yet, we do not know the whole story. We can be disturbed and angry judging the behavior of the white policeman. We can condemn the behavior of African-American crowds angry over another case of police violence seemingly based on race. But, to be impartial means we don’t take events personally. We have to take more into account than just our own ideas and beliefs. And, we need “to understand that there are compulsions…which cause them [wrong-doers] to act as they do.” For that we need sympathy and understanding as well.

1Translation from The Wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, by Ravi Ravindra


Breath of Life – Pranayama

Pranayama blog imagePranayama is the conscious regulation of the breath. Considered one of the most powerful tools to purify and discipline the body and mind, it is a subtle practice. To benefit, a practitioner should be knowledgeable in the application of pranayama as its misuse can create harm. That is why pranayama should be learned with the guidance of teacher skilled in its practice.

Why do pranayama?

The practice of asana or postures in yoga help to remove obstacles, restrictions, or tensions in the body. Pranayama helps remove the obstacles, restrictions, or tension in the mind. The work with the breath is also the most important part of moving the body in asana practice.

As we pay attention to the breath, we notice how the breath also reflects the state of the mind. Notice your breath when you are nervous or anxious. It will feel shorter, faster, more shallow. Notice your breath when you feel calm and peaceful. You will see it, too, is calmer, longer, deeper.

Likewise, we can affect the mind by changing our breathing pattern to help feel calmer or more alert. If I am feeling anxious and do a few postures with the breath, and then do a pranayama practice in which my exhale is twice as long as my inhale and use a throat-sounding breath, I will likely feel more calm. If I am feeling sleepy or dull and must take a test, and perform a few postures with the breath. and then do a pranayama practice in which I hold my breath, 2, 3, then 4 seconds after inhale, keeping my exhale the same length as the inhale, I will likely feel more alert as I take my test. But these are just examples to help you see how pranayama can affect how we feel. We have many possible pranayama practices, each with their potential effects depending upon the person and the context.

As you can probably imagine, pranayama requires complete attention. Because pranayama requires so much focus, it helps train the mind for meditation. We can’t be thinking about lunch or work or a disagreement with a friend and do the pranayama practice. Pranayama prepares the mind for moving within, away from the focus on what is around us in our lives and toward our inner life. And, in that way, pranayama helps move us toward yoga. For the goal of yoga is connection. And, not just to mind and body. But beyond to what is most profound and subtle, to what is deep within us – to that place of such clarity that is pure light and peace.


Here Comes the Sun

Horizon imageVisualization can be a powerful tool of yoga, especially when the visualization focuses on an object in nature. One of the most revered objects of visualization and meditation in yoga is the sun.

It is no wonder. The sun is the source of life. All that grows is sunlight transformed. The sun warms the earth, the air, the water and provides light. The light of the sun in yoga is also associated with the qualities of clarity, healing, protection, courage, and health. When we link to the light of the sun in our practice, we may grow in that quality we desire in our life.

If a student comes to a yoga teacher needing more clarity on her life path, the teacher might suggest a practice that incorporates both a visualization and a mantra or chant focusing on sunlight. The practice then would incorporate “sight,” and sound, all with the intention of linking to the clarity the light of the sun brings.

Mantra, like visualization, is another powerful tool of yoga. The translation for mantra is “that which protects.” A mantra focusing on sunlight can help the student move toward clarity not only because of the word or words, but also because of the vibrational quality of the letters of Sanskrit. It is believed the Sanskrit language has the ability to touch and affect our entire system.

The bija mantra or seed sounds of the sun is a powerful mantra connected to the sun. The bija mantra is a relatively simple series of seven syllables in Sanskrit that denote the colors of the light of the sun: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.

It is even possible to use the bija mantra with the sun salutation or other postures, which can intensify their effect. You can imagine how the layers of movement, sound, and visualization can focus the mind, and, if practiced over time with consistency, could help bring greater clarity to the student.

I know because I have worked with such practices myself and found they helped me to achieve greater clarity, courage, and healing.

Bija mantra:
Bija Mantra
You can hear the bija mantra by clicking below:

Discovery Yoga and Yoga 4 Wise Women often include visualization and chant. If you would like to explore these tools check the class calendar or contact me to schedule a private session.



Tomato Horn Worm LarveToday at my family’s Labor Day picnic, my niece, an avid gardener, showed me a tomato-devouring hornworm. Bright green, about three inches long, and fat from having feasted on my brother-in-laws tomato plant. He was big enough to see even the detail of his mouth and the aphids that had taken up residence as parasites. I loved seeing him in all his brilliant green detail even while hoping my tomatoes would escape his attentions.

Last May I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. What struck me most in Dillard’s memoir was her attention to observing. Noticing. Seeing. She loved paying attention to the small things – observing insects, frogs, tadpoles, minnows. She loved the detail as it required being present, fully, to even notice this glut of life.

Sometimes this idea of seeing comes up for me in ways I don’t expect. In the spring I take my bonzais to a workshop at Nature’s Way. I admit to being a fearful pruner, a hesitant shaper, always afraid I will make a mess of my trees. This spring my patient bonsai teacher placed my oldest juniper on a counter about eight feet from where we stood and instructed – look at the tree. Where is the front? Where are the blocks of growth? What is the deeper shape of the tree to be revealed? That is what guides the scissors. Seeing.

In the spring I was struggling with the details of proper pronunciation of Sanskrit and the rhythm of Vedic chants I am studying. I called one of the teachers to ask for help. She went over three chants with me and told me to work only on those. As I followed her instruction, I saw more deeply into the letters and their pronunciation, recognized syllables and how they built the lines with their rhythm. The more I explored the same chants, the more I discovered, not just about them, but about chanting, and about myself, as I noticed my reactions. Focusing on less, more was revealed. And I saw it.

Often, though, I am not really seeing because I am taken up with speculating, or worrying. I imagine how a new class might turn out or anguish over whether a granddaughter will like a birthday present. When I am so caught up with these thoughts, I am not present. I am not seeing, let alone seeing deeply. The beauty of yoga practice is the awareness it brings so I recognize where my mind is loitering and choose to let go of the fruitless wanderings.

You may not be interested in the details of insect anatomy or bonsais or Vedic chant, but I think all of us seek to live fully, which requires being present to see the world in which we live. As we learn to be present in our yoga practice, we become aware when our mind wanders, as well. Then we can bring ourselves back to the moment. Present, we have the chance to see, to notice, to observe the hornworm and our heartbeat, the tree shape and our suffering, the rhythm of the chant and the ones we love trying to garner our attention for just a minute. Yoga practice gives us the foundation and practices to live fully.