Let’s Learn About Yoga! (Part 1)

Being that this is a blog about my experiments for cultivating more bliss in my life, I feel like it’s high time I do some posting about one of the experiments that has been consistently paying off for me:  Yoga!

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I plan to cover this very broad topic in a series of posts, so be sure to check back often for more yoga talk.  For now, we’ll begin with some basics …

Yoga, as many people will already know, translates to union.  To practice Yoga is to practice the unification of body, mind and spirit.  We practice asanas (postures) to tonify the body.  We practice meditation to clarify the mind.  And we practice pranayama (breathwork) to purify the spirit.  This all leads us toward samadhi or enlightened connection with the divine.

Yoga, itself, has become a pretty vulgarized philosophy these days.  We westerners have picked at it, like the culture vultures we are, and pieced it together to suit our own modern needs.  And just to be clear, I think that’s okay.  That works for some people.  It works for me, sometimes.  But I also think it can be helpful to at least have a basic working knowledge of a thing before it gets restructured into something else entirely.

So, today’s blog post is about sharing a basic understanding of the foundations of Yoga.

I’m going to keep this pretty simple since this is a blog post, not an encyclopedia entry.  However, the philosophy of Yoga is vast and, in my opinion, worth exploring if you get a little free time in your days.

Let’s begin with the 8 LIMBS OF YOGA.  These 8 limbs consist of practical steps for working toward enlightenment.

8 LIMBS OF YOGA:

  1. Yamas
  2. Niyamas
  3. Asana
  4. Pranayama
  5. Pratyahara
  6. Dharana
  7. Dhyana
  8. Samadhi

Let’s learn what each of these lovely sanskrit words actually mean, shall we?

  1. Yamas – These are universal ethical recommendations.  They are designed to make us better contributing members to the World Community.  The more people who practice these moral recommendations, the healthier and happier the World Community becomes.  There are 5 Yamas:
  1. Ahimsa – Ahimsa literally means an absence of violence toward others.  This can be expanded to include not just a lack of physical and/or verbal violence, but also a general compassion and kindness towards all sentient beings including one’s own self.  This concept also means adopting an attitude of thoughtfulness about how one’s words and actions affect others.
  2. Satya – Satya means truthfulness.  It is the idea that it is best to express one’s Self authentically in all interactions.  The one caveat is that speaking your truth should never inhibit your ability to practice ahimsa.  If speaking your truth is likely to cause great pain to another, then it might be best to abstain from speaking altogether.  More simply stated, sometimes if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.
  3. Asteya – Asteya is the Yogic equivalent of “thou shalt not steal.”  This includes, of course, material items, but also applies to ideas (intellectual property), proprietary information (secrets), and even others’ attention (the old ‘bait and switch’ schemes).  Aside from the notion of taking from others, asteya also urges us against using the property of others in ways other than their intended purpose, or beyond the expected time of use.
  4. Brahmacharya – This yama is most commonly associated with sexual abstinence, but that is a limited interpretation.  Brahmacharya teaches us that it is best to be conscious about how we utilize our personal energies.  To throw away our energy freely and recklessly, either through meaningless sexual encounters or through over-committing to too many projects, is to further segregate ourselves from the divine.  It is best to be impeccable with how we offer our energies to the world.
  5. Aparigraha – The lessons of aparigraha are two-fold.  First of all, this yama is an advocate of minimalism.  We are cautioned against hoarding and greed with both material items and situations.  Aparigraha teaches us that if we burden ourselves with too many things, we leave no opportunity for the Universe to provide for us, and, therefore, implies a lack of faith in divine providence.  The second piece of this yama is the notion of only taking that which has been earned.  We are cautioned here, too, of the inappropriateness of taking advantage of that which has been produced by others.

2. Niyamas – Where the yamas provide a universal ethical code, the niyamas offer us a personal code of conduct.  These basically make up a how-to for living a happy, healthy, productive life.  There are 5 Niyamas:

  1. Sauca – Sauca is about purity.  Purifying our external environment means cleaning our living space, getting organized and decluttering.  The same can be applied to our internal environment, as well.  Cleaning up our bodies with proper diet, hydration, sleep, exercise and other practices that increase optimal physical functioning is always advisable.  (Using practices like asana and pranayama can help here.)  Likewise cultivating purity of mind and spirit can bring us great benefit. Speaking in positives rather than negatives, utilizing affirmations, practicing meditation, and so forth are invaluable tools when putting sauca into practice.
  2. Santosa – Contentment is the gist of santosa.  This niyama encourages us to cultivate equanimity even in the face of challenge.  Doing so reminds us that the Universe is always conspiring to bring us to our Highest Good, and even our challenges are part of that process.  Everything happens for a reason.  The Yogis refer to this concept as karma.  This doesn’t mean that we lie down when we’re being kicked, but rather that we take what actions we can, and accept with gratitude what remains, trusting that all will unfold to our greatest good.
  3. Tapas – The lesson tapas teaches us is how to cultivate and control our internal fires.  These fires are both physiological – the digestive fires, the kundalini energy – and mental/spiritual – namely, our passions.  Tapas relays the importance of stoking and directing these fires with self-discipline.  The ultimate goal is a transcendence of suffering as we align ourselves with our highest purpose and passion.
  4. Svadhyaya – Svadhyaya translates to self-study.  If we regularly redirect our attentions to ourselves, we are given the opportunity to learn about, and to address, recurring patterns and limitations.  This is the way we grow.
  5. Isvarapranidhana – This niyama can be summed up quite nicely by quoting George Michael:  “You gotta have faith!”  Isvarapranidhana is the acceptance of and reverence for a higher power or creative force.  It could mean a belief in a monotheistic god, polytheistic pantheon, the Natural Order, or even Science.  It is the recognition that that force is present in all of creation – that we are all one, and the notion that it is important to pay homage to that legacy on a regular basis.

3.  Asana – This is the Yoga most of know and love (or don’t …).  Asana is the physical practice of postures.  It is through regular asana practice that we cultivate tone and flexibility in our bodies.  The resulting suppleness allows us to sit for extended periods of time while practicing the remaining 5 Limbs.

4.  Pranayama – Pranayama is the practice of measured breathing.  There are many individual exercises for doing this, but they are all geared toward improving respiratory function and control.  When we have trained our lungs to optimum performance, we are better able to foster a sense of connection between the mundane and the divine.  The breath is, essentially, the intermediary between the two, and the more we develop its capabilities, the stronger that connection, and, therefore, the greater our ease of existence.

5.  Pratyahara – The word pratyahara means to retreat from that which feeds the senses.  Basically, this Limb is the practice of restraining our focus.  It’s about keeping our inner magpie in check so that we can maintain focus on living a spiritually grounded life, rather than getting distracted by every sparkly object or idea that is presented to us.  The way to do this is to practice always returning our awareness to the present moment, getting in touch with how we feel in our inner environment about what’s happening in our external environment, and choosing our responses accordingly from that place of authentic awareness.  It is also a useful practice which teaches us to sever the connection between our minds and our senses.  In doing so, we are preparing ourselves for the Limbs that follow.

6.  Dharana – With pratyahara we practiced the restraint of our senses.  With dharana, we are practicing the controlled focus of the mind.  When we are able to free ourselves of the stimulation of external distractions we are able to then start training the mind to disconnect from internal distractions.  This is what we often refer to as quieting the monkey mind.

7.  Dhyana – Dhyana is, essentially, meditation.  But it is really more than that:  It is devotional meditation, or meditation with the pursuit of discovering the inherent truth of that upon which one is meditating.  The idea is that intensely meditating on an object gives one an intimate understanding of that object, ergo, intensely meditating on the divine gives one an intimate understanding of divinity.  And since Yogis believe that we are all containers of Divine Spirit, then it goes to reason that meditating on the divine gives us a more intimate understanding of ourselves and each other, too.

8.  Samadhi – It is in the attainment of samadhi that we are finally and fully merged with the divine.  We cease to exist as separate, and experience ourselves as the energy of all that is.  We truly embody oneness, which is a bit of an ironic choice of phrasing since we are really transcending the physical experience altogether.

There you have it:  The 8 Limbs Of Yoga broken down into what is, hopefully, an easy-to-understand bite-sized chunk.  Stay tuned for more fundamentals of yoga philosophy to come!

Namaste, y’all!

(above photo by Steve Clarke)

6 Key Ingredients To A Truly Magnificent Inner Sanctuary

I’m feeling like I’m an incubation tank for Feelings that haven’t fully formed yet.  They’ve made it through the most significant stages of gestation, but, for whatever reasons, they just aren’t quite yet ready to be sent out into the wide world.

This leaves me feeling contemplative and craving Silence.  I feel a sacredness in this state – like I want to be very precious in my duty to make safe space for these Feelings.  I want to treat them – and my Self, as container – very gingerly and tenderly.

That’s not always an easy feat when living in a bustling community of more than twenty people.  It’s not always so easy to create a silent sacred inner landscape for oneself when one does not have a silent sacred outer landscape to which one can retreat.

Still, I suppose, this lack of personal space is yet another lesson I’ve been brought here to learn.  Perhaps it’s time I spent an equal amount of energy cultivating my silent sacred inner temple as I’ve often spent working on my external surroundings.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a super spatially sensitive person.  I have rearranged and fengshui-ed and smudged with sage practically every living space I’ve ever called home – and multiple times, too.

But, I’ve never really allowed the same efforts toward my internal house.  I mean, sure, I’ve made a few attempts over the years at meditation and I’m certainly no stranger to spiritual study and yoga asana practice.  I’ve even sought the services of a professional inner house cleaner – commonly referred to as a licensed psychologist.

These were all fine and good practices, and were helpful, too, but I never put them all together for any extended period of time with the express intention of healing the psycho-spiritual parts of my Self.  And I’m really starting to (finally!) understand how important that is, and what the key ingredients for creating a truly magnificent inner sanctuary are.

To make a truly magnificent inner sanctuary takes the following:

  • Time – It doesn’t happen overnight.  Just as the physical Self needs ample Time to heal dis-ease, so does the psychospiritual Self.
  • Commitment – It takes an active dedication and Commitment to the process to continue doing the necessary work when things start getting really real.
  • Forgiveness – It’s going to get hard if true healing is allowed to unfold.  The ability to Forgive is paramount for continuing to delve into the darker, more neglected areas inside – Forgiveness of old transgressions (committed by Self and by Others), and Forgiveness of the Self for wanting to find distraction when the Work becomes difficult.
  • Silence – Sometimes it takes getting really quiet to hear our inner truths – especially the ones that we might not be so comfortable hearing.
  • Permission & Priority – This is a big one for me.  I am someone who tends to focus on the needs of Others and to place a higher value on them than on my own.  But, in order to really dig in and sort my internal affairs, I must first give my Self Permission to do so, and then place the highest Priority on that task.  I must relinquish my hold on the desire to help others on their journeys and instead put most of my energies and resources on meeting my own Needs.
  • Love – Pain is what blocks us from flowing fully and freely in the Waves of Pranic Bliss that is all around us.  Untended Pain is what most of us have buried deep within ourselves, until such a time comes when we feel strong enough to tend to it.  Love provides that strength.  Love allows us to tend to those old wounds.  Love is the only sure tonic for Pain.

This is the lesson I’ve been dancing with most closely these past couple weeks:  Only I am responsible for meeting my Needs, and I am NOT responsible for meeting anyone else’s needs.  I might ask for assistance from others, but they are under no obligation to give it, nor are they obligated to give assistance in the way I am asking them to do.

And since my Feelings are generated as a direct reflection of whether or not my Needs are being met, then my power to meet my Needs also translates into my power to determine my emotional state.  This is huge!  No one else can make me happy.  No one else can make me unhappy.  No one else can bring me out of a swoon and into a foul mood.  Only I can do that.  And I can also undo it … by getting clear on what my Needs are and finding alternative paths to meeting them.  I have the power!  I am in control!  I’m driving this train!

While it may seem as if I’m getting a little tangential here, there is relevance in this inelegantly jumbled mass of words and thoughts.

And that is to say that I am feeling ready – even called – to start some committed conscious work on my psychospiritual Self.  I’m committed to spending some time and energy on my Self so that I might get clearer on what’s cooking in my soup pot of Feelings and Needs.  And then it is my hopeful intention to find joyous ways to meet my Needs and authentic ways to express my Feelings.  I have a sneaking suspicion that once I am successful I will have found the magical elixir which will transform the barbed tongues of Blame and Shame and Guilt into the sweet honeyed tongue of Love.

And Love, after all, is all we need.

Thank you for continuing to let me share my journey with you.  I am so grateful for you.

 

Getting Naked In Hawaii

I know that there are more popular topics in the world right now .. like, say, the election of the office of President of the United States, the continuation of war and strife across the planet, the atrocities human beings can inflict upon other sentient beings and even their (our) own habitat thanks to their (our) pesky lack of foresight, the upcoming holiday season … but right now, my focus lies elsewhere.  Right now my focus is on my own present experience.  And my own present experience finds me getting naked in Hawaii.

This nakedness I speak of is both of a literal (read: physical) nature and of a metaphorical type.

Let me begin by stating that I am currently living in the Puna region of the big island of Hawaii.  This is probably the most … let’s say … bohemian region of the island state.  Most of us living here are off-grid, meaning that we use alternative forms of power, usually solar, and we are very conservative with what power and water we use.  It’s quite normal for the residents here to rise and set with the sun, to use composting toilets (or the land, itself) to eliminate our physical wastes, and to frolic in as naked a state as we comfortably can.  Suffice it to say, this is a spectacular place to shed one’s unnecessary layers.

Secondly, let me add that I am living in an intentional community here in Puna.  This community, known as Kanekiki, is one focused around a raw foods diet and Non-Violent Communication.

For those of you who have never pursued a raw foods diet, it should be clarified that raw foods lead to raw emotions.  When one eats nothing but fruits and vegetables in their natural state (with some few nuts and seeds), then one begins to come face to face with one’s own emotions in their natural state.  There is no dulling uncomfortable or challenging feelings with a tub of ice cream, a vat of chocolate sauce or a fifth of tequila.  We have no way of stuffing those feelings back down into the nether regions of our Selves, instead we must just *gasp!* feel those feelings, and do our best to navigate them as gracefully and/or authentically as possible.  It gets pretty intense, that, sometimes.  No more covering up these expressions and feelings … I’m stripping them naked and letting them run around flying their freak flags until they have been so fully expressed that they dissolve into absolute healing bliss.

I wrote a bit about Non-Violent Communication in my last post.  (Check it out here.)  And since that writing I have had, if I’m not mistaken, a total of at least eight NVC exchanges with people in my community.  Some of them have been mildly challenging, but overall pleasant discussions, and others have been deeply emotional, gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, exhausting, heart-breaking clashes.  And I am grateful for each and every one.  I am learning so much about my Self, my Needs and my Feelings and how to better communicate with each and every instance of discord.  With each exchange I am given the opportunity to remove yet another layer of my defense mechanisms.  I am getting more and more naked with each opportunity to practice this new language, and it is liberating.

With all of this emotional unveiling happening, my body has expressed an interest in getting in on that action, too.  And its prayers have been answered in the form of one of Hawaii’s greatest treasures:  the clothing optional beach.  Kehena is a black sand beach not too far from the farm where one can simultaneously shimmy out of one’s swimsuit and one’s inhibitions.  And because people have been getting naked here for time immemorial, there’s no stigma to it, no spectacle.  It’s totally Natural, and no one really turns an eye to the extra few inches of flesh being exposed.  Sure, it can make navigating the rocky entrance to and exit from the oft turbulent sea a bit trickier, but the freedom of feeling the sun, salt and surf against my naked skin is so very worth it.  And every time I shed my clothes I feel my connection with Nature deepening.  I feel like every naked romp gets me closer to being my most Authentic Self.  And that makes me want to get naked even more often.

And so it goes, and my defenses begin to fall away, slowly and steadily, and I begin to get to know my Self even better than I ever dreamed I could, and I begin to see the Divine Light inside of me growing more brilliant with each breath.  And I feel beautiful in all this nakedness.  Mahalo, Hawaii.  Mahalo, Pele.  Mahalo, brave Self.

Big Love, everyone!

xoxo,

Melanie