Raga: Clinging to Past Pleasure

Raga

Clinging to Past Pleasure

Wherever you will be attached, there you will go.

Kirpal Singh

 

One of the most powerful causes of suffering is pining for wonderful things that have occurred in our past. This form of duhkha (suffering as opportunity) afflicts all of us as human beings, and is one of the hardest to be overcome, especially in its subtlety in our personal lives and ubiquitousness in our culture.

 

At this point in this blog series on Nicolai Bachman’s novel commentary, The Path of the Yoga Sutras, I have been asked if I copy and paste the list at the beginning of each new post. I must admit: I TYPE this list at the beginning of each blog post for one obvious reason: to commit all these sutras to memory. The ultimate goal of this blog series was to be able to deliver these messages to my yoga students when teaching. I was always “that teacher” who never really got into the traditional side of yoga, including learning Sanskrit names of both poses and sutras. In my first yoga teacher training, I knew them when I needed to know them for the test we had to take, and I wasn’t empowered by it. To be frank, I took that test when the first non-iPhone smart phones came out, and my teacher left the room during one of the tests. I was a student athlete during this time, and I studied for my university classes instead of yoga teacher training, and when my teacher left the room for the two-hour test, out came my phone, and in I went to my browser researching the Sanskrit terms for poses and sutras. I made sure to purposely answer some questions wrong so it didn’t look too suspicious!

 

I bring this up because my second yoga teacher training was much different. I am the kind of learner that genuinely enjoys learning, so I don’t need the pressure of a test to be motivated to commit interesting things to memory. I have also learned, in my post-collegiate years, that I learn from writing things down, and NOT being tested on them. I recall my first essay ever from fourth grade. I wrote about tigers from books I had read about them. I digested all the information and exhaled it out onto the longest receipt paper out of anyone in my class (why my teacher had us all write out essays on receipt paper is beyond me). I still distinctly see my work lining the wall of my elementary school glued to bright fuschia construction paper. Every fact I knew about tigers, especially Siberian tigers, was on that long, toilet-paper-like strip of paper, and I remember the awe I was filled with when I learned tiger stripes are all unique, no two are alike, just like the swirls of our fingerprints.

 

I remember that from over twenty years ago.

 

The only thing I remember from my college tests less than ten years ago was a funny question one of my professors asked about who should be NFL MVP on a nutrition test.

 

I got it right. It was a Ravens player. That’s the only test question I recall from college. Good thing I went to a private school.

 

Today, I feel empowered to learn these things because I actually have a driving interest and curiosity. I actually want to know what the ancient yogis had to say about life, and their beautiful language interests me.

 

That’s the reason I chose to write this blog series at all, and it is also the reason I write out the entire list of sutras I have covered thus far every single entry. It helps me to remember all the sutras, and I hope it works as a great resource for you if I use one during the post and forget to define it. It’s meant to be a resource for me as well as for you.

 

Here are all the sutras listed in order that I have covered so far:

 

Part I: Key Principles

  • Atha: Readiness and Commitment
  • Citta: Heart-Mind Field of Consciousness
  • Purusa: Pure Inner Light of Awareness
  • Drsya: Ever-Changing Mother Nature
  • Viveka: Keen Discernment
  • Abhyasa: Diligent, Focused Practice
  • Vairagya: Nonattachment to Sensory Objects
  • Yoga as Nirodha: Silencing the Heart-Mind
  • Isvara: The Source of Knowledge
  • Karma and Samskara: Action and its Imprint
  • Parinama: Transformation

 

Part II: Understanding Suffering

  • Duhkha: Suffering as Opportunity
  • Samyoga: False Identification of the Seer with the Seen
  • Vrrti-s: Activity of the Heart-Mind
  • Pramana: Correct Evaluation
  • Viparyaya: Misperception
  • Vikalpa: Imagination
  • Nidra: Sleep
  • Smrti: Memory
  • Antaraya-s: Obstacles that Distract
  • Klesa-s: Mental-Emotional Afflictions
  • Avidya: Lack of Awareness
  • Asmita: Distorted Sense of Self

 

This list now brings us to raga, or clinging to past pleasures, which can be one of the hardest klesa-s to overcome.

 

Bachman writes, “Raga is one of the most powerful causes of suffering and, therefore, one of the most difficult causes to weaken and overcome.”

 

Literally translated, raga can mean “coloring”, meaning an intense experience can color, or leave a stain, on your psyche. This sutra is controlled by attachment to past experiences, and specifically the desire for those experiences to happen again. Suffering comes from this when we desire to have these experiences again and they do not or cannot ever happen again. This can be due to a sensory or emotional experience that created an attachment.

 

The ancients have a wonderful way of describing the human emotional experience that it far different than that of modern psychology. It isn’t necessarily better: the difference in languaging around it sets a new tone for the same idea: “When we experience a pleasurable event, a memory is created-one that colors our heart-mind by making us desire that experience again. Each time we repeat the event, the memory is strengthened. The more intense the pleasure, the stronger the memory. This memory can create a habit or addiction, a ‘pleasurable stain’ that remains and influences future action.”

 

Habits and attachments are much stronger than we tend to realize. Habits govern our daily lives: from brushing our teeth to how we brush off an annoying cowoker, from how timely we wash our dishes to how timely we respond with a “thank you” after receiving a gift or compliment. Habits create the foundation of our lives and are literally the thread that holds it all together.

 

By the way, “sutra” means “thread” in Sanskrit. In my first yoga teacher training, my teacher explained the sutras as the “threads that hold life together.”

 

The root of this klesa is fear: fear of not ever experiencing that kind of joy, excitement, or happiness again.

 

When considered, this idea seems preposterous because life is so full of experiences, but how often do we find ourselves melancholy over an experience we once had many years ago that we wish we could have again, right now? The pain comes from desiring to a point of not accepting the fact that we do not have that experience right now.

 

In my own personal experience, I can relate this to when I used to run track and field.   I always said that once high school was over I was going to commit myself to college only and not do a sport. Well, I tried that when I went to Scotland to study at the University of Aberdeen, and quickly realized I was very unhappy. Sprinting was an extreme source of joy for me. I truly felt elated, light, and whole when I got to sprint. I made the decision to run track and field there, but was dissatisfied with their practice schedule. The team only met twice per week. A far cry from the athletic system here in the United States.

 

I also realized I missed the education system from back home, too. The Brits had this odd method for notetaking: they would write notes in a notebook that was spiral-bound at the top instead of the side, and once they reached the end of the notebook, they would tear the page out very conspicuously during class, and then transfer the torn page into a binder. Also, the pages were a couple inches longer than notebooks back in the United States.

 

I found the page-tearing technique so insanely distracting, especially when multiple people would tear their pages out at the nearly the same time. Sometimes the pages would be shorn off their notebooks in succession, making the lecture halls at Aberdeen sound like a kind of leafy orchestra. Oftentimes it was so loud it would drown out what the professor was saying. I this type of notetaking was ugly and undignified, so much I pined for the cleaner, quieter methods I learned in school back home in Minnesota, where notes were neatly kept within the confines of notebooks where I felt they belonged.

 

These two things made me really miss how I was taught to do both schooling and track and field. This didn’t, however, make me miss out on seeing much of the country and getting to do interesting things (like spelunking and going in a glider airplane over the rolling hills of northern Scotland). My desire to go back to what I knew caused me to transfer back to the United States. And, when I was back in the United States, my suffering continued, because once back home, I ached for the ambience of Scotland once again because I thought the culture was so great and better than what I grew up with.

 

My raga behavior continued because I decided that I missed track and field so much, I had to get back on a team in the States to relive my glory days from high school. I likened this time in my life to dragon-chasing, I was in constant pursuit of the success I had experienced in high school and decided it was time to pursue a new career I hadn’t previously considered: professional sprinting. Sprinting was the one thing that made me feel alive. I loved the hard work it took to become great at it. I loved the feeling of having a strong body that could move fast. I loved the resting potential my body carried with it everywhere: looking at me most people couldn’t tell I was fast, but I was fast as hell, and I loved moving that way.

 

When I sprinted, my heart and soul literally sang. Sprinting feels like flight, something that I always wished I could do since childhood. The colors of the world were brighter, I felt at ease when I got to go to track practice. Track meets made me so nervous I was always on the verge of throwing up, especially when in the starting blocks. Sprinting was my favorite thing because I felt vital and purposeful when I did it, and I never boasted about it. For years sprinting was a constant exploration of how fast could I go? What did a faster 200 meter dash feel like? I know what it feels like at 25 seconds, what does it feel like at 23? 22? 21? What steps do I need to take to get there?

 

Sprinting was not only a way of life, it was a quest of the heart for me.

 

While in Aberdeen, my intention was to pursue a career of writing historical fiction novels. My degree track there was English and history. Moving back to the states, I changed completely and went for track and field and exercise physiology, literally in that order. My determination to get that “high and flying” feeling I had when at my sprinting prime caused me to spectacularly injure myself, and, even when I transferred to a Division 1A school (University of Miami) and walked onto the team, I was in such hot pursuit of my goal that I put my physical health and well-being to the side in order to train. I still suffer from knee pain from those decisions. Regular yoga and proper weight training keeps at bay, and sprinting is long in my past these days.

 

The pursuit of raga in my life really stirred up a lot of suffering for me, yet conversely, it helped me gain a lot of experience, knowledge, an excellent degree, and I made lifelong friends on my track team at UM. It wasn’t a total loss of time, energy, and money, however I did spend many years feeling very hurt and disconnected from my inner-self because I didn’t make my ultimate goal of becoming a professional sprinter and representing the United States in the Olympics.

 

I held on to both the feelings of failure around that attempt at going pro in a very competitive sport and let it define me for quite a long time (this would be an example of the klesa dvesa which is coming up next-it means clinging to past suffering).  What made this a raga klesa was that I was mostly suffering from the fact that I was forever cut off from the physical sensations of both a top-speed sprint and what it felt like to win races again. It truly tore a hole in my soul I thought I would never recover from.

 

Of course, I did recover from it, and I even recovered from it enough to be able to tell my story about this klesa from a space of detachment and clarity. Looking back on that experience, I can see now, too, how some experiences can cause us to experience both raga and dvesa simultaneously. My life was so enmeshed with track and field, my passion for it also caused its demise, for which I am forever grateful.

 

The beauty of this sutra is a reminder to remain unattached. This doesn’t mean apathy, or not caring or having no passion for things, but the kind of detachment that means you are still connected to the light-being that exists within you. That no matter what external thing you think may define you-a sport, a position, an object, money, a car, a home, a certain piece of jewelry, a certain career path, the list is endless-this thing is NOT actually you.

 

One of my yoga teachers would say in class, “Whatever you can observe, is not who you are.”

 

This includes thoughts, emotions, hands, feet, heartbeats, trees, shoes, the sun…

 

The feeling I had when I made the decision to quit track was extreme heartbreak and grief. It was something I had identified with for so long, I truly felt lost when I realized I had to give it up. At that point in my life, track and field was costing me my peace, freedom, and relationships with people. It was even costing me a lot of money since I was train instead of work and I had massive student debt to pay; since I walked on to the team injured at UM, I was never well enough to get fast enough to earn the scholarship I knew was there for me, so student loans were my only route to completing my degree. I was constantly unhappy, and the only decision-making I had was this: in my own head, I would ask myself, “Will this decision help me become a better sprinter? Will doing this thing help me become an Olympic champion?” If the answer I perceived was “yes” to both, then I did that thing, and oftentimes it cost me friendships and romantic relationships, and even extra hours at my jobs so I could live more comfortably.

 

I felt that track and field gave my life it’s one and only purpose and meaning. Yoga taught me that my life is so much more. The Awakened Practice weekend immersion module at greenmonkey yoga helped me release my attachment to those experiences and move forward in a more empowered way, a detached way, and helped me realize my failures were good things, because they made me so much stronger today, and that the fact that I failed trying to accomplish something huge was not actually a failure at all. I was set up to be able to do new things with the open path ahead of me.

 

Now I see the power in looking back on not just my Scotland and track and field memories with fondness and love, but I can take a step back and realize desire is in and of itself a choice I have. I can choose to be grateful for those experiences and leave them where they are, in my past, because my present is an awesome place to be.

 

By letting go of track and field I have been able to have the most amazing experiences of my life, namely meeting my boyfriend, Al, whom I otherwise never would have met if I hadn’t have gotten injured and had to quit. That to me is worth quitting the sport I used to live for so passionately.

 

My present is exactly where I am meant to be.

Joy exists in my present life.

I do not need track and field or European schools or fancy degrees or anything else to define joy for me, because joy is innate not only in me, but in all of us.

 

Focusing on the experiences of the past keep us in the past and takes us out of enjoying right now, which is the only time and place life happens.

 

Smile fondly on your past, be grateful it happened, let it go, and go seize your day.

 

THOUGHTS

 

The need to re-experience an enjoyable event is a source of suffering.

 

Past experiences can color present and future thoughts, words, and deeds.

 

If I cannot have what I want, I will let go of it and move on.

 

Asmita: Distorted Sense of Self

Asmita

Distorted Sense of Self

If you compare yourself to others, you may become

Vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser

Persons than yourself.

Max Ehrmann, from Desiderata

 

 

“Asmita” means “I am-ness” in Sanskrit, and it is one of the klesa-s, or mental-emotional afflictions defined in the yoga sutras. What this word means is: possessing a distorted send of self that does not match reality, usually manifesting as egotism or insecurity. Both egotism and insecurity are misrepresentations of the truth; they are forms of delusions. “We are not better or worse than anyone else,” writes the author of The Path of the Yoga Sutras, Nicolai Bachman, on which this blog is based on.

 

The sutras thus far covered are as follows:

 

Key Principles

  1. Atha: Readiness and Commitment
  2. Citta: Heart-Mind Field of Consciousness
  3. Purusa: Pure Inner Light of Awareness
  4. Drsya: Ever-Changing Mother Nature
  5. Viveka: Keen Discernment
  6. Abhyasa: Diligent, Focused Practice
  7. Vairagya: Nonattachment to Sensory Objects
  8. Yoga as Nirodha: Silencing the Heart-Mind
  9. Isvara: The Source of Knowledge
  10. Karma and Samskara: Action and its Imprint
  11. Parinama: Transformation

 

Understanding Suffering

  1. Duhkha: Suffering as Opportunity
  2. Samyoga: False Identification of the Seer with the Seen
  3. Vrtti-s: Activity in the Heart-Mind
  4. Pramana: Correct Evaluation
  5. Viparyaya: Misperception
  6. Vikalpa: Imagination
  7. Nidra: Sleep
  8. Smrti: Memory
  9. Antaraya-s: Obstacles that Distract
  10. Klesa-s: Mental-Emotional Afflictions
  11. Avidya: Lack of Awareness
  12. Asmita: Distorted Sense of Self

 

This section of Bachman’s book is dedicated to the understanding of suffering. Understanding is important because once something is understood, it can be owned, and whatever is owned, gives you the power of choice to let it go or to keep that thing which is causing suffering.

 

Bachman’s analysis of asmita is excellent: “Asmita is a mental-emotional affliction because it makes us think that we are our body, we are our mind, and therefore, we are our thoughts and emotions (vrtti-s).”

 

Believing we are only those things limits us to who we truly are and could be. Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, said that it is our duty as human beings to constantly ask ourselves, “Who am I?” and implies to never be satisfied with the answer.

 

But it isn’t enough to mindlessly ask “who am I” to ourselves over and over again and feign wise detachment from it. That would be the farthest thing from authenticity. What Aristotle challenges is that you take on and own different possibilities and aspects of yourself as modes of self-exploration. Explore what it means to live your labels, whether it’s good/bad, mother/father, girl/boy, man/woman, writer/laborer, business owner/employee, artist/chemist, and the list goes on and on. All things essentially are identical, because all things do one thing simultanesously: exist. Good cannot exist with bad, light cannot exist or even be understood without dark.

 

Yoga teaches we are ultimately our purusa, our inner light of awareness, and not the outer shell of our bodies. Light is infinite and expansive, all the contradictory labels listed above are limited. Not that they are not powerful or empowering or true, we are just so much more than those labels.

 

Asmita is very closely related to ego. Ego is afraid of change, and it loves to win. Winning is not an inherently bad thing, nor is your ego bad. In fact, competition can be good, healthy, and fun, and as human beings, we are born with egos because it is human nature. It is important to be in a practice of viveka, keen discernment. It is easy to be in a state of competition in all walks of life. If you find yourself in a field or life path where competition is ever present, it is important to remember it is not essentially bad, it just is. Competition becomes “bad” when we are controlled by it. Competition has it’s positive attributes in that it can help you become the best version of yourself, but ultimately the only thing competition creates is emphasis on someone or something outside of yourself, because your focus is on what or who is creating or doing on the “other side” of your own business. Competition does not always serve nor does it tend to serve well. Even the best and most competitive of athletes will speak to this: creativity is a very close cousin to competition, and those who truly excel at their work, whether it’s as a CEO or athlete, will speak to the importance of focusing on creating their performance or product rather than competing with others around them or in the field.

 

Competition can be great when it is playful. When it becomes intense and rife with negative, downward spiraling energy is when it no longer works for you. It ‘s energy takes on the element of wanting to crush another competitor. With playfulness present, competition takes on an air of creativity and creation, the energy of life and growth. With playfulness and curiosity gone, and only a sense of forcefulness driving competition forward, expect things to not go your way, to not work in your favor, because you are out of alignment with your own inner light, your purusa. Purusa connects us all to our highest self, to isvara (Source of Knowledge), and to one another.

 

Conjure the focus of a cheetah, and focus on what you can create, and create from joy, and asmita will be at bay because ego and insecurity have a difficult time penetrating your awareness when you are focused on the things you love to do and create.

 

If viveka (keen discernment-what TRULY benefits you?) is not honored during a creative process and competition is relied upon instead, then avidya sneaks in, or, “lack of awareness” in Sanskrit, the sutra directly ahead of this one in the yoga sutras.

 

Awareness is the ultimate goal of the practice of yoga. Awareness is our true power as human beings. Tony Robbins says that our greatest power as human beings is our ability to choose. The ancient yoga masters would argue that our greatest power is awareness. What good is our ability to choose if we are not aware that we CAN choose?

 

Insecurity is a powerful form of asmita. Bachman uses the example of the yoga student, which is an obvious choice, so I am going to use my personal example of learning to play the violin. For years I masked my desire of wanting to play the violin as musical inadequacy within myself.   I would also blame it on the fact my parents “didn’t let me play” due to their divorce when I was a young child. Truth is, I could have been more vociferous in my desire to play, and had gotten the chance to play, but the asmita of insecurity got in my way: I believed music was not an inherent talent of mine. I see this all the time with new students of both yoga, meditation, personal training, and CrossFit. Just because they have not been told that they could be good at those things from someone outside themselives, they automatically think they will not be good. What this sutra reminds us is that it does not matter what others may think or say, or how they may perceive us, what matters is how we perceive ourselves, move beyond the negative assumptions we may have about our own abilities and potentials, and choose to move into them.

 

Enter the transformative power of awareness.

 

I became aware a couple months ago when my frequency of listening to Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach were reaching an all-time high in my life, and I kept picturing myself playing the violin. I noticed the tape recorder of words floating through my mind: “I am not good enough to play the violin. I wish I was smart enough to play the violin.” I realized that the only way to silence the negative voice was to get a violin and learn. A very affordable violin soon arrived in my life, and many YouTube videos and a violin lesson later, I am able to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Silent Night.   Learning new anything, whether it’s an instrument or a new way to move your body during exercise, is a journey! This has helped to silence my heart-mind and increase my confidence. After a couple short weeks of playing the violin I have shown to myself that learning it is possible, and it has expanded my life in great ways, and allowed me to forge new relationships with people I otherwise never would have met, and deepen existing ones from those who play or played violin and never would have otherwise known.

 

By honoring a two-decade long desire to play the violin, I have conquered one aspect of asmita within myself: I have let go of my ego resisting the change in my life about becoming a musician, and I have overcome my sense of insecurity about playing the violin. Through this experience, I have learned that ego and insecurity are two sides of the same coin, one often existing to help the other exist. My insecurity around playing the violin maintained my ego’s desire to never play, and therefore remain the same out of fear.

 

By reading this chapter by Bachman I realized that my blaming and excuses about not learning to play the violin when I was a kid was my own asmita rising up to save my ego. The truth is I didn’t have the confidence to voice what I wanted when I wanted it and I had the chance. The opportunity was there, and I didn’t take it. Despite the fact I was a child, it was a great learning experience. Blaming my parents because I was a child was an excuse, and thusly made me seem powerful in my powerlessness. This is a form of delusion and conceit, which is essentially on par with lying.

 

Bachman defines a healthy ego as feeling content and not feeling threatened by change.

 

“When we realize that the inner heart-mind is distinct from, yet close to, the inner light of awareness, and that we are better off when the ego takes orders from the inner heart-mind, then asmita will not cause us suffering.”

 

Practicing viveka even on the powers that exist within us will earn us contentment and peace, and an empowered life and way of being. It will create a life of fearless action. When our actions are governed by our higher selves, our higher, inner intelligence, instead of the heavy ego, which is stuck in the belief that our lives are about our bodies and we are confined by our emotions and thoughts, we live a freer and more abundant life rife with possibility and promise.

 

Asmita may be weakened by the practice of kriya-yoga, or practice in action (coming in a much later blog post, but go ahead and read Bachman’s book, The Path of the Yoga Sutras from which this blog series comes from if you wish to learn it right this second). Self-observation, or svadyaya, is always a simple and powerful starting point, which opens us up to tapas, or the heat of change. The best way to stay grounded is to remember none of us are better than the other, and change is not a threat to our survival and safety, but rather is a tool to strengthen and empower us. The harder the change, the more profound the growth.

 

Having a healthy ego is important for proper functioning in society, as well as for self-fulfillment. The contented ego means we think of ourselves as equal to others, and we welcome suggestions to self-improvement and feedback, even if it’s difficult to hear. “Saving face” and avoidance are non-existent because we are beyond embarrassment; what this looks like in action is being in open and generous listening to what our peers have to say about us or to us, and practicing compassion is we are met with anger, jealousy, or any other heavy emotion from other people.

 

The beauty of yoga is the divine light within that unites us all. The light that illuminates us from the inside out is what we are truly made of. The outer casing around it has nothing to do with who we actually are as people. Our work as human beings is to continuously cleanse our citta (pronounced “cheetah”!), or the lens through which our inner light shines, through meditation and yoga practice, and I also include the practice of pursuing your dreams, because you live authentically in that moment, and you are expressing a contented version of your ego.

 

We are all important. Every single one of us. You are living in the body you are meant to live in, and it is great. Shift your listening to your inner, divine voice, and you will be empowered to the end of your days, and be bestowed with boundless spirit energy, because your asmita-klesa will be controlled, just because you are aware.

 

And the beauty of learning to play the violin at 32 instead of 12, is that I never have to worry about competing for first chair in an orchestra. My chosen focus is the love and desire of playing alone, and not succumbing to competition from teachers or peers.

 

Playing with joy is life’s simplest form of gratitude.

 

Thoughts

 

Who am I really? Am I limited by the façade of external things such as my name, occupation, reputation, and preferences?

 

I am no more or less important than anyone else.

 

I will not be controlled or confined by an overinflated or underinflated sense of myself.

Coloring Book Meditation

For the last couple months I have been teaching a weekly, 30-minute meditation at greenmonkey yoga, where I spend a couple hours per week teaching power yoga and also teach workshops and help facilitate the 200 hour teacher training.

Every month, I choose a new type of meditation to teach, and this month I broke from my usual traditional types of meditation and did something that has taken a deep hold on society the last year or so: coloring book meditation.

This meditation is nearly over, next week is the last class which will also mean we go back to traditional pranayama and chanting-based meditations. I haven’t written about any of the other meditations because this one truly surprised me. I definitely took a risk teaching this one: I could have been admonished for having students pay to just color (not that I work for the kind of company that admonishes it’s employees, which I definitely do not, but if bad feedback had come through from a student I could have heard something about what a terrible choice it could have been!) or people could have just not shown up, which, in the fitness world, is really the worst-case scenario.

To my pleasant surprise, this class did VERY well. I had quite a few people show up to take this class, and what really solidified this meditation choice as a great choice is something that occurred for one of my regular yoga students this week.

It was my student’s first time taking one of my meditation classes, and he was expecting pranayama, or breathing exercises, to make up the bulk of the class. He wasn’t far off from expecting that, because nearly every single one of my classes before this month have incorporated pranayama. In the yoga community here in Miami I have learned I have become the go-to yoga teacher from pranayama work, just because I emphasize it so much in my yoga classes and, since last year, I teach so many meditations, as well as teaching meditation and pranayama workshops and seminars for both greenmonkey yoga and Red Cheetah Yoga.

So when my regular yoga student asked about breathing exercises, I told him, “Not this month. This month we are coloring! We begin breathing again in April.” I saw his face fall when he realized his expectations were not going to be met, but I took it as the greatest of compliments when he reached for a coloring book to tear out a piece of paper.

The group on Tuesday was approximately 8 students. I had 2 full packs of 24 colored pencils, including the coveted metallic pencils. I had purchased 7 different coloring books so that all tastes and styles could be covered: flowers, mandalas, mendhi designs, animals, fairies, mermaids, and a gold foil book that had paisley, flowers, and inspirational quotes. Apparently I went a little crazy with the variety of books I chose…there were so many great options to choose from!

The 30 minutes flew by fast in class on Tuesday. Before I knew it I was calling out the halfway time, and I had more than halfway to go on the gold foil floral page I had chosen for myself. Everyone was so intently coloring that the only sound besides the Dustin O’Halloran radio station on Pandora the scratching of pencils on paper and the light tinkling sound of students searching for the perfect color among the pencils strewn across the floor. Everyone was focused and having a great time, sitting in relative silence and allowing our inner five-year-olds to have a field day with colors and pictures.

By the time I called the end of class, it was a struggle to get all the students off the floor to stand up for a photo to commemorate the class. Many of us stayed after and continued to color until we were complete, or as complete as we could be without staying on the studio’s floor until well into the night.

When I finally completed my piece, a couple students were still left, including my one student who had inquired about pranayama at the beginning of class.

He came up to me at the end and said, “At first I thought this was going to be stupid because you weren’t doing the breathing. But I really got into it! It gave me the focus I needed to get some other things done.”

Coming from one of my most regular students, this really elated me, and was an even better example of the benefits of this type of meditation than even I could have invented with my own imagination. Seeing his definite change from the beginning of the class, when he was so hesitant to explore the coloring books for his own meditation, to not wanting to put the paper down and seeing his eyes shine with appreciation and understanding, it was a fulfilling moment for me as both yoga teacher and meditation teacher.

Hearing that coloring in a coloring book has the power to help people regain their focus to complete projects and thus prioritize better, get more focused, and therefore live a more fulfilled life was something I, of course, knew was a possibility arising from any kind of meditation, but it was a relief to know that this was truly beneficial to my students lives when it comes to those parameters. I literally chose this meditation as an experiment, and, in keeping with my intent of making meditation approachable, achievable, and something that people will WANT to do, this definitely fits right in to all three of those values. And I am definitely relieved I hadn’t received any negative feedback about the content of the class itself!

Feeling very complete with this meditation experiment, I am so excited to teach the last class of this type, and then move on to the next type of meditation in April, which will definitely involve a return of pranayama.

 

 

Avidya: Lack of Awareness

Avidya

Lack of Awareness

In darkness unawakened, they make foolishness cover

Their wisdom and overflow. One remembrance of illumination

Can break through and leap out of the dust.

Zen Master Hongzhi

 

 

 

According to yoga tradition and philosophy, this is the main evil that can manifest: lacking awareness or knowledge. The root word, vidya, means inner light of knowledge, so avidya is without knowledge.

 

Up to this point, here are the other yoga sutras that I am commenting on, according to Nicolai Bachman’s classic, The Path of the Yoga Sutras:

 

  1. Atha: Readiness and Commitment
  2. Citta: Heart-Mind Field of Consciousness
  3. Purusa: Pure Inner Light of Awareness
  4. Drsya: Ever-changing Mother Nature
  5. Viveka: Keen Discernment
  6. Abhyasa: Diligent, Focused Practice
  7. Vairagya: Nonattachment to Sensory Objects
  8. Yoga as Nirodha: Silencing the Heart-Mind
  9. Isvara: The Source of Knowledge
  10. Karma and Samskara: Action and its Imprint
  11. Parinama: Transformation
  12. Duhkha: Suffering as Opportunity
  13. Samyoga: False Identification of the Seer with the Seen
  14. Vrtti-s: Activity in the Heart-Mind
  15. Pramana: Correct Evaluation
  16. Viparyaya: Misperception
  17. Vikalpa: Imagination
  18. Nidra: Sleep
  19. Smrti: Memory
  20. Antaraya-s: Obstacles that Distract
  21. Klesa-s: Mental-Emotional Afflictions

 

Bachman says, “When our field of consciousness becomes muddled by perceptions and actions that are harmful to ourselves or those around us, then our inner light of awareness cannot shine out into the world.”

 

What Bachman is speaking to is the lens through which our inner light shines, our citta. It accumulates debris over time from experiences we have had, and the more we allow that lens to get covered in matter, the less knowledge we are able to attain about ourselves and the world because when light cannot get let out, nothing can come in, either. In other words, you see the world “…less and less truthfully” than if your citta was clean and clear from clutter from your inner and outer world. The eyes through which we see perceives things as being inaccurate, because there is so much in our way cluttering our spiritual, mental, and emotional vision.

 

Avidya is one of the klesa-s, and it is the first because it is the most important. The other four rely on avidya in order to exist.

 

Avidya is the root cause on unhappiness and discontent.

 

I have experienced this recently in a personal event. A friend who I once considered loyal, honest, and compassionate has shown she lacks in those characteristics. My own lack of awareness around her behavior and way of being, after I had been warned by those close to me of this behavior, clouded my judgment because we always had fun together, always hung out together, and would get quite a bit of work done together. Then slowly, over time, I began to notice her priority was actually to have more fun, and not to focus on work, and she would distract me over and over again (if you notice, I have not blogged in over six months), causing me to be resentful and not speak my truth for fear of upsetting her, rather than being in listening to my own personal needs. Furthermore, I realized in much too long of time that I considered her to be a greater priority in my life than I was a priority in her life.  In the end, the behavior caused me to discontinue the friendship when a quarrel erupted between her and another dear friend of mine, which left me sadly choosing sides. This experience taught me many things through the yoga sutras in the last six months since this drama has unfolded: my judgment was severely clouded by the perceived friendship we had, a relationship that seemed promising and prosperous on the surface. However, had I taken the time to truly tune in to my inner voice, take a step back and be a witness to the events occurring, I could have avoided suffering. And yet, as the sutra of duhkha reminds us, all suffering is opportunity, and without the fortunate events that did cause me to meet her, I did have wonderful experiences I have learned from, gained more recognition for my work, and started projects that, even though she left them unfinished, I have an opportunity to work with other professionals and expand my network for Red Cheetah Yoga and for personal projects.

The past few months had left me in a space of inner darkness because I was in a blaming frame of mind, which clouds the citta considerably, and intensifies avidya. Blaming is never a solution for any problem, and I recognized I was doing it, even though it felt as though I couldn’t stop. For a time I was silently accusing the third person in our group for causing the friend fall-out, and it was through a crystal singing bowl meditation I participated in that I was able to separate myself from the experience, and realized I had done all I could to mend the relationship; steps were not taken on her part, and my heart-mind sensed were not ever going to be taken. A situation that had started out as joy, fun, and work ended up being a distraction, an intense antaraya, resulting in klesa-s, or mental-emotional afflictions. Thankfully the work of yoga and meditation exist to help direct and guide me during tough mental-emotional situations like needing to give up a friendship that has turned sour. In yoga sutra terms, it was an experience that turned my perception from viparaya (misconception) into pramana (correct evaluation), at least for the time being.

And being how I am, I cannot forget the concept of pramana, and that it is always a possibility. “Pramana” is the Sanskrit word for “transformation”. And with the transformations I have witness not only in myself and my dear boyfriend and business partner, Al, as well as the hundreds of yogis who have completed the yoga teacher training program at greenmonkey yoga, formerly Bala Vinyasa Yoga, never has there been a more profound program that alters individuals’ consciousnesses like this one, that transforms people from outer to inner and back to outer awareness again without so much as mentioning the yoga sutras as a crutch or resource in order to achieve this inner transformation. Truly, the modernization of their yoga teacher training has the ability to make manifest pramana in the most profound ways, and I can say it definitely gave me the tools in order to speak clearly and straight with my friend and take effective action on what I needed to do for myself in order to heal and move forward, no matter what I was feeling.  My freedom in this situation was my commitment to myself five years ago in teacher training to take action in my life, something I have fallen back on over and over again since I graduated and grew with the BV/greenmonkey community and worked to grow Red Cheetah Yoga with Al.  With this being said, I know there is always hope for a pramanic change to occur with my friend one day, as it has for me, and I am so grateful for everything the experience has taught me, and for all the great laughs we shared together.

 

Losing friendships always seems senseless, but when personal growth is at stake, it is what must be done.  I am grateful I gave myself the time I needed to feel what had to be felt, in order to even get to the place I am now to be able to write about it.

 

This entire situation was a perfect example of samyoga, or false identification of the seer with the seen, or mistakenly thinking that the two identities were the same, as best friends can often be, which made this split all the harder for me. As human beings, we can take much comfort and solace in relationships such as these, without realizing the consequences of smudging lines between yourself and another, and how disempowering those smudged lines can be when there is an imbalance in an interpersonal relationship. And the hurt feelings I was feeling after this situation had nothing to do with how I was treated by this former friend, it had everything to do with how much I had separated from myself, and attached myself to her and overly identified with her instead of my own inner light. I was truly the source of my own inner conflict and suffering as a result.

 

For now, my course of action will be to flow with drsya, ever-changing mother nature, and stick to viveka (keen discernment) when it comes to making decisions in the moment, by asking myself, “Does this serve me and my highest purpose?”. My commitment is taking a step back to being the witness to what repercussions there are to ALL of my decisions, including creating partnerships and friendships that move my own life and others’ lives forward generously and with a sense of compassion and non-attachment. This situation, however, does not mean I will not form friendships any longer, in fact, the absolute opposite. The power of samyoga was so powerful with this former friend I had stopped making many connections with other people, for business as well as friendship relationships, that now I have more freedom to do so, and come out into the world and play uninhibited again.

 

Casting out relationships in your life that do not serve is one of the most significant ways to cleanse and purify your life. My relationship with my business partner and boyfriend has become much closer and deeper, and we are experiencing great growth in all our businesses. This experience has left me feeling more open-minded towards others, and while I am compassionate and present for others, I am also more aware of being able to take care of myself more energetically, as in standing up for myself and what it is I want to do with my time, especially when it comes to completing projects on the deadlines I choose. Open-mindedness contributes to the learning of my own truth, and the awareness of these afflictions helps me to wipe them away with conscious awareness, to step forward more gracefully and empowered into the next steps of my life.

 

My greatest learning from this experience is this: no matter what the yoga sutras say on the surface, it seems to be unwise to make decisions solely off of avoiding pain and suffering.  Because, no matter what my emotional reactions were over the course of the last six months that distracted me, it created an impetus to transform things in my life that normally I would not have addressed, things that I will remain private and close to my heart and those closest to me.  The sutras SEEM to err on the side of avoiding pain and suffering, yet without pain and suffering, how can we grow?  And aren’t the most difficult yoga practices meant to challenge us in ways to give us new experiences, so that we may expand in exactly the same way?

 

Look beyond the mere words of the sutras, and get into the heart of what they truly mean, because, at the end of the day, suffering TRULY IS opportunity.

THOUGHTS

 

The inability to perceive clearly and act consciously causes pain and suffering.

 

As I purify my body and heart-mind, I experience glimpses of my divine inner light.

 

I will vigilantly strive to weaken and neutralize the latent afflictions responsible for suffering.

Yoga For Low Back Pain

Last Saturday I went to teach yoga at one of the Red Cheetah Yoga locations, CrossFit Fortress, and shouldn’t have been surprised when the only people who showed up were me and the desk girl.

Why should I have foreseen this?

Because this past weekend was the CrossFit Games out in Carson, California, the CrossFitter’s Olympic Games.

Undeterred by the lack of attendance, I do what any entrepreneurial Cheetah does: I got to work with Gabby, the fabulous front desk personality there, and helped her out with the lower back pain she was experiencing from deadlifting heavy the week before.

This is exactly what I created my company for: to help mobilize and heal hard working athletes of all kinds: from Games-level competitors to the weekend-warrior, fitness enthusiasts.

I offered to stretch her out manually instead of give her a yoga class. I knew this would give me a better idea of what she was experiencing in her body and where her strengths and weaknesses were in terms of her flexibility and range of motion.

This is what I learned: she LOVES stretching her hamstrings, and pretty much ignores everything else.

I found this ironic because I literally just saw a blog post go viral in the last couple days whose title was pleading for athletes to stop stretching their hamstrings.

Where I wouldn’t necessarily agree with quitting stretching your hamstrings cold-turkey (I’m not actually saying that post says that by the way, because I didn’t read it so I don’t know it’s context; I recognize it was a catchy title to get people to read it), I have encountered over and over again athletes thinking that the route to overcoming low back pain is to stretch the hell out of your hamstrings.

This actually CAN work. But there is a lot more at work here, and what you do to one side, you must do to the other. Your hamstrings attach at your hips, but so do A LOT of other muscles, too. So it’s important to understand that if you are going to stretch one side of your body, you have to stretch the other, too. This is equivalent to only squatting and never deadlifting. We would never do that to ourselves with a barbell, so why would we on our yoga mat?

Gabby’s low back pain and tightness reinforced the need to give two other muscles groups love: your quadriceps and your external hip rotators, also known as your piriformis.

Firstly, let’s tackle the seated forward fold. It’s really important to do a hamstring stretch properly in order to really heal your back and hips. This was something I noticed Gabby needed improvement on, because the reality was that she wasn’t actually doing anything for her low back and hammies the way she was doing it.

In the first photo, Gabby demonstrates how she has been doing a forward fold, because it is how she and many of us have been taught to do it:

IMG_3251

Her back is rounded. She was probably taught to reach her forehead to her shins or knees, or maybe cued to reach the crown of her head to her feet. Those were the things I was taught as a kid, too.

Please note: this isn’t necessarily “wrong”. There is just a more effective way of doing it, especially if the goal is to help alleviate pain. One of my professors in college would actually vouch for a slouched spine while sitting: it actually can give your spinal erectors a little break. However, spending too much time in either position (too tall all the time or too rounded all the time) can be too much on your back and all the interlocking muscles that connect there. Awareness is always your best friend.

 

So here is how we fixed her seated forward fold:

IMG_3250

It doesn’t actually matter how far you can fold over.

What makes all the difference is how straight you can keep your back. Gabby actually complained of increased pain in her low back in this new version of this pose. Feeling more sensation means you are stretching the muscles that need to be stretched. Stretching can be painful sometimes, especially if you are an active athlete who lifts a lot.

Unless you have a doctor’s order to not do this stretch in this way for any medical reason, this is how you should do it: focus on bending from your hips, and get your belly to connect with the top of your thighs. It’s a major difference in sensation in your posterior chain, and is hitting your muscles precisely how you want them to be hit. By expertly folding from your hips you are specifically targeting your HIP JOINT, whereas rounding your entire back gets your vertebrae in the game: this makes it too easy to execute and completely ineffective. Because your goal is to attain great range of motion and to get back to working hard in the box again, it is in your best interest to do seated forward folds with a nice, flat spine. You don’t have time to be held back by silly injuries when your body is designed to heal itself, all you have to do is apply the right techniques.

 

Key points in a seated forward fold:

  1. Dorsi-flexed toes (flex your toes toward your shins)
  2. Straight knees (engage your quads)
  3. Flat back
  4. As you fold forward, keep your back flat, focal point is the space between your big toes
  5. Grab the sides of your legs, and use your arms to pull forward. The goal is NOT to touch for your feet (although if you can, do!)

Following these 5 points will actually gain you more hamstring flexibility and low back flexibility, especially if it is done every day. Which it should be. As a general rule, flexibility and strength should increase together throughout training cycles. If you follow these simple rules, you are going to find that you don’t have to fold so far down in order to start feeling the work. In fact, the angle that your hip needs to be in to facilitate the best effect is probably so shallow to the point you might be embarrassed by your lack of flexibility. Remember that this stretch is about what you feel in your posterior chain, and not about what it might look like to others watching you.

Sure, rounding your upper back like a shrimp might make you look like a bendy badass, but it actually is doing nothing to help you. Straighten up and think of getting your belly to touch the top of your thighs.

 

And here are the two missing components when it comes to low back pain and hip inflexibility:

 

Quadriceps and Hip Rotators

Long story short: if your quads are tight, it moves your pelvis out of place. If your pelvis is out of place, your low back will hurt. If your hip rotators are tight, your thigh bones have a hard time moving through their natural full range of motion, especially when you squat to depth, which has an impact on the ranges of motion your hip can perform in both kinds of hip flexion (knee up and squatting, aka closed and open contractions). The network of muscles crisscrossing around all of your joints is very complex, so hitting all of them is essential.

Gabby was a perfect example of an athlete who could touch her toes but couldn’t get her heels to touch her butt when laying prone on the floor. This creates an imbalance that causes all kinds of pain that can go all the way to your knees and up into your low back.

Pigeon + quad stretch (I have nick-named this pose “galaxy pigeon”) is the perfect stretch to hit both muscle groups at the same time.

 

Galaxy Pigeon

IMG_3267

Point #3 is something I have been wanting to address for some time with this pose, because most yoga teachers give very weird instruction for the front leg in this pose. If new to this pose, follow these steps from beginning to end.

 

  1. Bring your right knee to your right wrist, and move your right foot to your left wrist. How close your foot gets to your opposite wrist does not matter, what matters is that you feel this stretch in your right glute/outside of your hip (some might feel it more in the hamstring)

IMG_3254

2. Please note: if there is any knee pain in your right (front) knee, this is a compromised position for your knee. You should probably lay on your back and do figure 4 stretch, and stretch your quads separately.

3. Your front foot: so many yoga teachers say that your front foot must be flexed to “protect your knee” in this pose. This isn’t true. What is occurring when you flex your foot is you are activating your tibialis anterior muscle, or the muscle of your shin located right next to the bony part of your shin (the part that hurts really bad when you hit it against something hard). I bounced this question off my friend and colleague, Kyle Krupa, who is part owner of Athletix Rehab here in Miami. He services many top-level athletes with injuries of all kinds, and him and I both call the University of Miami alma mater. His analysis of a flexed foot in pigeon is as follows: since the tibialis anterior doesn’t cross the knee it actually doesn’t affect your knee, since it’s work is to dorsiflex your ankle. More on this after I complete explaining the full expression of this stretch. With this in mind, keep your front foot relaxed instead of flexed in any direction.

4. To hit the left hip flexor, stay upright (refer to above photo). Fold over your front leg to shift the work from your left hip flexor to your right hip rotator/gluteal.

IMG_3252

5. To add in the quad, lift your chest and reach back with your right hand (if your right leg is in front, otherwise it is your left if your left leg is in front).

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6. Bend your left knee, and grab your foot on the pinky-toe side with your right hand.

7. You can remain here, or you can add a bend to your right elbow, drawing your foot to your hip.

IMG_3258

8. Another option to go deeper is to drop down on your left elbow. This will make the stretch really deep, so if it is too much rise back up onto your left hand.  If you still need a deeper stretch, bend your right elbow, too.

IMG_3259    IMG_3260

9. When you feel you have completed the stretch work on this side, stretch out your hamstrings in either downdog (not pictured) or go back to a seated forward fold, then repeat all of these steps in sequential order for the left side.

 

More on #3: For years I have heard yoga teachers say that it is so important to flex your front foot in half pigeon (there is a “full” pigeon pose, which I will cover in a separate post later) because it is important to protect your knee. While practicing, I decided to self-test this. What brings people back to yoga again and again is the ability it has to tune us in to our bodies and our bodies’ true needs, wants, and desires. One thing that came up for me while practicing half pigeon was the desire to relax my front foot. Intuitively, I knew it would feel great, and not put my knee in any danger whatsoever. Of course, I was right, and what I loved the most about it was that it seemed to totally relax my hip musculature even more than when I would keep it flexed. In other words, I went deeper into the stretch and facilitated healing on a deeper level. Since then, I have consciously chosen to quit flexing my front foot, and Krupa’s analysis truly confirmed that for me. In fact, I teach it that way now to my students.

This is a post on the lower back and not the knee, so I will go back to that now. I mention this detail because relaxing your foot is going to give you more access to healing your hip rotator than when you flex it, which so many yoga teachers seem to think is right, and just isn’t.  In the long run relaxing your front foot is going to help your low back pain, too.

Making sure you stretch all of the muscles around the large joint of your hip is crucial. Truly great athletes work on everything: all the ten components of fitness (strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, agility, coordination, speed, power, accuracy, and balance) and on top of that they also don’t leave out conditioning of any individual muscles. In some way shape or form, every muscle and organ in your body must experience these ten components in some way. If one muscle is not experiencing all 10 of these then the system is incomplete and you are setting yourself up for lasting and recurring injury. This is why the best athletes spend as much time mobilizing as they do training.

So, in the case of athletes similar to Gabby, it’s great to have enthusiasm around stretching, but make sure that stretching repertoire is complete in it’s execution. More muscles attach to your hip than just your hamstrings (and it actually extends beyond just this post, too). Where your hamstrings could be a cause to your low back pain if they are tight, know that they are not the only possible cause.  In this post we have not only covered the quadriceps and the hip rotators, but we also mentioned the hip flexors, too, which are the only muscle in your body to go from posterior to anterior in your body. There are many, many things you can do for them and galaxy pigeon is definitely one you can use for that, too.

There are also many more stretches and muscle groups to hit when healing your low back, so do not limit yourself to only these. Explore and educate yourself!

Remember that all training of all kinds relies on consistency for success, and flexibility is the only component of fitness that affects all of the other nine.

So, get on your yoga mats and get to stretching! Red Cheetah Yoga now has videos up on YouTube to help you on your fitness journey (just search Red Cheetah Yoga on YouTube) and we will be launching videos in collaboration with Soul Akademy in the near future.

And, by the way, when Gabby and I were complete with her stretching assessment and training, she said all of her low back pain was completely gone! She has been deadlifting like a champ ever since.

Klesa-s: Mental-Emotional Afflictions

Klesa-s

Mental Emotional Afflictions

Seeds of unhappiness

Sources of fear,

Cause of conflict and strife.

Roast them with the flame of awareness

And clearly hear,

The inner essence of life.

Nicolai Bachman

 

 

Emotions and thoughts are inextricably tied to one another. Whatever you think stirs emotions in your being. It is physically impossible to think negative things and be happy, and vice versa. One thing my yoga practice and meditation practice has taught me is to be aware of emotions that are occurring within my being that I otherwise never would have been aware of. Emotions run deep and can be extremely subtle, and when low-vibrational emotions occur all the time, it is easy to not notice them or to believe that they are a natural daily occurrence.

They don’t have to be.

This chapter delves into the yoga sutras commentary of mental-emotional afflictions and their affects on our lives.

 

Here is what I have covered thus far in my posts reviewing Nicolai Bachman’s book, The Path of the Yoga Sutras:

 

  1. Atha: Readiness and Commitment
  2. Citta: Heart-Mind Field of Consciousness
  3. Purusa: Inner Light of Awareness
  4. Drsya: Ever-Changing Mother Nature
  5. Viveka: Keen Discernment
  6. Abhyasa: Diligent, Focused Practice
  7. Vairagya: Non-attachment to Sensory Objects
  8. Yoga as Nirodha: Silencing the Heart-Mind
  9. Isvara: The Source of Knowledge
  10. Karma and Samskara: Action and its Imprint
  11. Parinama: Transformation
  12. Duhkha: Suffering as Opportunity
  13. Samyoga: False Identification of the Seer with the Seen
  14. Vrtti-s: Activity in the Heart-Mind
  15. Pramana: Correct Evaluation:
  16. Viparyaya: Misperception
  17. Vikalpa: Imagination
  18. Nidra: Sleep
  19. Smrti: Memory
  20. Antaraya-s: Obstacles that Distract

Klesa-s specifically speak to negative emotions that arise when we become triggered. There are five klesa-s: avidya (lack of awareness), asmita (egotism, feeling more or less than you really are), raga (desire for previously experienced pleasure), dvesa (aversion to previously experienced pain), and abhinivesa (fear of death; the will to live, instinct to survive).

We all have these five klesa-s existing within us to various degrees and they are all present to us at differing times throughout our lives. When these thoughts are awakened in our being, they cause all sorts of negative reactions and emotions.

Bachman emphasizes that all of these mental-emotional afflictions are fear-based. From the meditation seminars I give, many studies have shown how the lack of meditation in people’s lives allows the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, to grow out of proportion, thus creating more drama in people’s lives and an inability to exercise problem-solving measures.

Bachman defines the basis of all five of the klesa-s:

  1. Avidya is the fear is borne of ignorance.
  2. Asmita is the fear the ego has of losing decision-making power or things it has become attached to.
  3. Raga arises when we are afraid a certain pleasure will not be experienced again.
  4. Dvesa occurs when we are afraid we will experience a certain pain again.
  5. Abhinivesa is the deepest fear of death.

 

The klesa-s are arguably the hardest part of ourselves to confront. I know that in my life experience the fourth klesa, dvesa, occurs for me the most intensely in many aspects. My personal focus on dvesa could also be working to obscure how the other four occur for me, in that perhaps I am actually affected more by one of the others but I do not notice because I am focused on avoiding decisions that will cause me to re-experience pain from my past.

Weakening and ultimately liberating ourselves from these klesa-s is the work of both yoga and meditation. Like the Buddha says, “Just as the snake sheds its skin, we must shed our past over and over again.”

The Sanskrit word for negative thoughts is klista-vrtti-s and this causes suffering in our lives. Remember that suffering is not in and of itself “bad”, it is only “bad” if we choose to make it so. It is only out of great suffering can great strength emerge. To suffer is part of the human condition. It is where we have the opportunity to overcome and prove to ourselves what we are capable of achieving on this planet.

The three practices, collectively known as kriya-yoga, we can adhere to to weaken the klesa-s are: tapas (causing positive change), svadhyaya (self-observation), and isvara-pranidhana (humility with faith). Together, these things “…have the power to fundamentally change our behavioral patterns and cripple these powerful afflictions.”

We have the power to strengthen or weaken our klesa-s based on our daily behavioral patterns. It is these klesa-s that the greenmonkey yoga teacher training unabashedly attacks, and why it changed my life so much, and why I love being part of the facilitating group that leads teacher trainings. This work is the most important work your can do in your life, because it is YOU. Yoga teaches conscious actions at all levels and forms of your being, and to do any program reminiscent of a Landmark program is exactly what these klesa-s are speaking to: face your inner demons, and face the blind spots you have acquired over the years of your life. There is no denying you have them: we all live a lie. When you expose yourself to your own lie is the moment you truly begin to live.

 

“Every action we perform creates a subtle impression that is recorded in our memory. Performing an action over and over, or experiencing a very strong impression from an event (like a trauma), creates a memory strong enough to influence future actions. The stronger the impression, the more it can affect our action or reaction.”

 

Over time, these memories form habits, which become very difficult to change or erase the longer they are allowed to persist. How Bachman writes of these really landed for me: “…these memories lead us to form habitual patterns strong enough to overpower our conscious mind’s intention to act differently.” The one thing we don’t want as human beings is to live our lives on auto-pilot, which so many of us do. So often we take the same routine routes to work, the same routine routes in the mornings going through the motions of beginning our day, we rarely pause to ask ourselves if decisions like these are really serving our highest purpose.

Understanding where these klesa-s come from and how they were produced is called pratiprasava. This is EXACTLY the work of the yoga teacher training conducted at greenmonkey yoga, without any of the scary Sanskrit words. I understand that if you have made it this far into this post or this series of posts that Sanskrit clearly does not intimidate you, but for many it does, and having the opportunity to learn these things about yourself in language that is suitable for a five year old is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself. Learning my own personal lie in the language of a child, “I am a failure and I am not good enough”, has changed my life so completely and in such a positive way, letting that in to my being has allowed me to create two companies, help them grow, write multiple books, and begin an empowering crystal jewelry line. I know this seems highly contradictory, but being open to your darkest side is exactly what is required in order to grow and expand.

Retracing the klesa to it’s origin allows you to re-experience that memory. For some reason, it is programmed in to the human psyche to heal when we experience negative and traumatic experiences over again, as long as we allow healing to occur. This means allowing us to truly feel the emotion again and understand the WHY of it, rather than hamster-wheeling dwelling on horrible things that happen to us and giving it space to define us. Allowing negativity to define us is the opposite of healing. Giving ourselves the opportunity to feel emotions again and understand why we reacted to past events gives us the space to see things differently, how we could have handled past events differently, and that awareness gives us the power of choice to behave in a more empowering way in the future. Once our emotional reactions to klesa-s are considered inert, meaning we no longer reaction negatively to triggers in our lives, then we are considered healed from those triggers and klesa-s.

“Harmful thoughts and emotions (klista-vrtti-s) are like outer manifestations of klesa-s, and can be reduced my meditation (dhyana).”

So the pattern is this: klesa-s exist, we have all five of them at varying degrees and intensities. We nullify them using kriya-yoga, which are practice causing positive change, self-observation, and humility with faith. We eliminate them when we realize their source, or pratiprasava. Realizing the source of klesa triggers is powerful because it eliminates unconscious reactions, which do not serve ourselves or the world.

Our citta (heart-mind field of consciousness) is clear when our mental-emotional baggage is no longer driving our actions (read: being in a reactionary state) then our attention can move to permanent freedom: kaivalya.

 

THOUGHTS

 

Ignorance, egotism, attachment to past pleasure or pain, and the fear of death all create suffering.

 

I want to know why I react negatively, then take steps to lessen my reactions.

 

I will practice kriya-yoga in order to resolve my afflictions and cultivate true inner happiness.

Antarayas: Obstacles that Distract

Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.

Joseph Campbell

 

The work of meditation is not to limit things that distract us, but for us to become aware of the things that distract us. Awareness gifts us with decision: the decision to let the distractions in and pull us away from our purpose or to give no attention to our distraction, and march down our respected path more powerfully.

 

Our mission: to live our lives.

 

Here is my recap of all the sutras I have covered thus far:

 

  1. Atha: Readiness and Commitment
  2. Citta: Heart-Mind Field of Consciousness
  3. Purusa: Pure Inner Light of Awareness
  4. Drsya: Ever-Changing Mother Nature
  5. Viveka: Keen Discernment
  6. Abhyasa: Diligent, Focused Practice
  7. Vairagya: Nonattachment to Sensory Objects
  8. Yoga as Nirodha: Silencing the Heart-Mind
  9. Isvara: The Source of Knowledge
  10. Karma and Samskara: Action and it’s Imprint
  11. Parinama: Transformation
  12. Duhkha: Suffering as Opportunity
  13. Samyoga: False Identification of the Seer with the Seen
  14. Vrtti-s: Activity in the Heart-Mind
  15. Pramana: Correct Evaluation
  16. Viparyaya: Misperception
  17. Vikalpa: Imagination
  18. Nidra: Sleep
  19. Smrti: Memory

 

According to the yoga sutras, there are 9 antarayas. They all act to take our attention away from our point of focus. When “…our breath flows freely…our heart-mind is alert,” writes Nicolai Bachman, the author of The Path of the Yoga Sutras, from which this series of blog posts is based on.

 

Here are the nine separate antarayas (distractions) according to Bachman:

  1. Disease
  2. Apathy
  3. Self-Doubt
  4. Carelessness
  5. Fatigue
  6. Sexual Preoccupation
  7. Erroneous views
  8. Ungroundedness
  9. Regression

 

Understand that none of these things are evil or indicate a “bad” or “wrong” way of living. Consider the antarayas and all the yoga sutras to be guidelines, something that can help swing our pendulums back to neutral when it has swung too far to the right or left. Our bodies aim for homeostasis at all levels, and this encompasses the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. All three are part of the same singular package. By bringing awareness to these nine obstacles, they may bring to light one or more that could be affecting you and inhibiting your growth right now. Awareness is your greatest teacher.   Awareness gifts you with choice. When you are acting from awareness, you are consciously giving up reacting to your environment and situation(s)/circumstance(s) and choosing instead to respond in a conscious way. For example, in the moment I know I would like wine with dinner, but tomorrow I may suffer from headaches and grogginess and not be as effective at my work. My choice is to either give in to the temptation of drinking wine tonight because I crave it and find it more socially acceptable, or I can give in to the temptation of having a great and productive day of work tomorrow. Which would be more empowering? Which would help move my cause forward? When we are aware we have that choice, and we make a decision from that awareness, we are living an aware life, whether or not we choose the wine or the work. And, it can be argued it is possible you can have both, depending on the type of wine at dinner and how I choose to take care of myself after drinking the wine. Either way, we know we will either suffer or delight in the consequences.

 

Here are the nine antarayas.

 

  1. This can be a major distraction. It is also the only one listed that you may not have control over. Bachman writes that this is the only one that may not originate from a klesa, or a mental-emotional affliction. However, with today’s knowledge of psychosomatic disorders, know that this can be the result of a mental-emotional affliction. Of all the distractions, this one is the most external, meaning it is most easily rid of and could totally originate from somewhere outside of you. Meditation and, most especially, breathing exercises are affected by this antaraya the most because it is difficult to focus and concentrate on what must be focused on when sneezing and sniffling, or feeling nauseous or unwell in other ways. However, a consistent yoga and meditation practice can help stave off symptoms of sickness and ill health. In many studies, yxygenated blood has been shown to ward off many types of disease including multiple forms of cancers. Oxygenating your blood comes from more modes than just exercise: it is also achieved through meditation and meditative breathing exercises, and incorporating a lot of greens and other fruits and vegetables in your diet. Breathing exercises are also the best way for us to connect with spirit in this plane.
  2. Disease can easily lead to apathy, or the absence of passion, emotion, or excitement. Apathy can also be defined as a lack of interest or concern for things that others find moving or exciting. What Bachman does beautifully throughout this entire chapter is he is able to tie in all nine of these obstacles to one another, and is able to illustrate how one can lead into the other. This does not necessarily mean these are listed in order; they can occur in any order, and any obstacle can lead to the other (with the exception of the first) and they can occur in any order and at any varying intensities throughout an individual’s day or life. We tend to experience apathy when we get sick in any way because our bodies are intent on healing instead of experiencing life on the inside or outside. It is an effective way for our bodies to take us out of life experiences, and, oftentimes, it is smart for us to take the time to allow our bodies to heal fully before proceeding. There have been many times when I have succumbed to taking a break to allow any kind of sickness or disease, and even injury, to run it’s course just so I may reach the other side more quickly. Fighting injury and illness only allows it to persist, which keeps us stuck in ill-health and apathy even longer. This isn’t fair to ourselves or to those around us. Bachman writes, “A more serious disease or injury can extend our apathetic state for much longer. Whatever the cause, this dullness prevents us from converting thoughts into action.” This speaks to the magical ability of the disciplined stillness of meditation and pranayama to propel us into action.
  3. Self-Doubt. Apathy can lead into self-doubt. Self-doubt is one of the greatest crimes of our species. Birds never doubt their ability to fly, and ants never doubt their abilities to build and harvest. That is what they do, so why do we continually doubt ourselves and others? We are just as natural and part of this earth as birds and ants. Self-doubt is a habit that, like any other habit, once realized we have the opportunity to choose to let it go. Lack of confidence is one of the most challenging aspects of the human condition that arrests forward momentum. Bachman writes that with self-doubt comes indecision: the inability to decided between two or more things. We can get caught in the trap of wondering if one thing is better for us than the other, and thus gets us stuck in a hamster wheel of questioning. Harvard scientists studied human thought. We humans think an average of 50,000-60,000 thoughts per day. 90% of those thoughts are the same things over and over again. We have the power to see what it is we choose to fill our thoughts with. Are we wasting energy on things that just bother and annoy us, things that we cannot change, or are we empowering and energizing our lives with thoughts that can and will move us and others forward? Be creative in your thought processes. Give up destructive thoughts, especially thoughts of self-doubt. One really effective practice I have is once I detect a thought or especially a feeling of self-doubt, I immediately intentionally think the words clearly in my mind or say them out loud, “I BELIEVE I CAN DO THIS.” Pay attention to your emotions during times of idleness, they tell you a lot about yourself. Your emotions are linked to your thoughts. Your emotions tell you what you are thinking, so pay attention to them and get curious to WHY you are feeling what you are feeling in relation to the environment you are in at that particular moment.
  4. Self-doubt and apathy lead to carelessness. This just means an inability to focus our attention, and doing things in an unintentional way. Acting carelessly causes ourselves and others unnecessary pain and suffering. Bachman writes that it causes unknown future consequences, which I agree with. “This obstacle is similar to being in a drunken stupor.” We have all experienced moments where we have been careless and ungrounded (coming up in number eight) and have unintentionally caused ourselves and others needless suffering and pain. I think the modern version of this would be texting and driving, the 21st century version of drunk driving. Be alert and aware and intentional in all things you do, otherwise you are headed on a crash-course.
  5. With all of this energy leakage going in every which direction, no sense of focus and direction at all leads to exhaustion. It is true that tuning in to your senses creates more energy as awareness increases. I was listening to an interview on Hay House Radio yesterday and, I apologize for forgetting the interviewer and interviewee’s names, but a woman was interviewing a medical doctor and the doctor was speaking about awareness, consciousness, and energy levels. This medical doctor is world renown for combining both eastern and western practices and techniques, and he said that if we have the ability to increase our tangible senses, the five main ones of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste, by 25% that we will allow 25% more input from our surroundings and reality in. That means we experience more of our surroundings, which means we can take in more of our reality. By taking more in, we have more to experience, and therefore we will have more energy because we are AWARE of more. Taking in more experience in any way gets you excited to seize your day every day, because it is something you GET to do. Think back to when you have been physically fatigued. Fatigue could even be present for you right now. All fatigue is trying to communicate to you is that you need to change something in what you are doing for yourself. More sleep? Better food? More water? Less alcohol? Less coffee? Fewer chemicals in your diet and sanitary practices? Doing more fun things that stimulate your imagination? Notice when you are fatigued, you miss a lot of important things that are trying to come in to educate you and connect with you, and give you an opportunity for fun. It’s akin to falling asleep at the wheel or falling asleep in class. Alertness connects you and grounds you to reality. Have a lifestyle that supports alertness. Drink plenty of water, get in shape, handle your finances, paint pictures, build sand sculptures, read a book, write a book, do whatever it is your soul desires and you will be rewarded with boundless energy. This probably means turning off the tv in most cases, unless there is something you can watch with intention that brings you a lot of joy, like a specific show or movie you have been wanting to see, or one of your favorite programs. When it comes to watching television, it’s a good idea to keep the container tight around it, and just watch what you intended to watch, because mindless television viewing has been shown to make brain functionality levels drop to their lowest points possible. So, get your brain active and do fun things with it! And, remember that honoring tiredness is part of a healthy lifestyle, so when you need sleep, give it to yourself.
  6. Sensory and sexual preoccupation. If you’re like me at all, this probably immediately makes you recall a period in your life when this was definitely present, and it was mostly likely college! In the human experience, this is okay and even good to experience because it is part of growing up and becoming aware of your sexual side.   We are all sexual creatures because it is how we connect with other human beings and it is also how we procreate. The yoga sutras do not say to abstain from having sex or to be celibate in any way (there is nothing wrong with that, and for many people that could be a great course of action for either a short amount of time or the rest of their lives) but they do encourage to practice viveka around sexuality and sensuality. Viveka is the practice of keen discernment. Just like our thoughts, it is important to be discerning about who we allow into our lives, because not everyone has our best interests in mind. Letting someone in to our lives in the closest way possible, sexually, can be damaging to our auras, psyches, and bodies. Be aware, however, that this does not mean to completely eliminate risk-taking at all levels from your life. A certain level of risk-taking is important to living a fulfilling and spontaneous life, just be aware of how often you engage in it and how often it is pursued. Eventually, taking too many risks, especially high risks, can be damaging over time. Our sexuality is one of our most potent powers we have as humans, and it is important to know and understand this, because it can really take us out of having varied experiences on this planet. I know when I was young all I cared about was the next cute girl or guy I was interested in, and now that I am in a healthy relationship I have more opportunities to experience other things. One of my dear friends is single, and we always laugh at each other when we go out to work together in a coffee shop: she always gets dolled up, and I am the opposite because I don’t care about who I may be attracted to or whom may be attracted to me. My love and partner is at home, I have no need to impress while I am out and about. This scenario also makes me laugh because this friend of mine is very attractive and quite often she gets distracted from her work when she gets the attention she is looking for! So, like anything else, be intentional with your sexual and sensual experiences. Let in spontaneity when and where you can, and always pursue this antaraya with someone or a couple people whom you know and trust explicitly. In this day and age, this affects your physical health in a big way.
  7. Erroneous or distorted views of the world. This is similar to the chapter on misperception (viparyaya). Delusion is not seeing the world for as it really is. Information that is coming in is clouded and distorted, and is stored in your memory inaccurately. Just like the pendulum example from earlier, swinging your pendulum too far in one direction (too righteous, literal, fundamentalist, etc) causes biased thoughts and actions. Consistent yoga and meditation practices help us let go of our opinions and consider other viewpoints as valid. When this happens, connection to others around us increases and we then have the ability to let more people in to our lives. It also means we have greater impact on a larger and larger scale as we give up more and more hard opinions and biases daily. In my experience, I have met many people over the years who have deemed others unworthy of their friendship or acquaintance because of differing viewpoints and opinions. I have seen people give up these behaviors once they adopt mindfulness practices, and sometimes this resurges if a vegan or vegetarian diet is adopted. Adhering to special diets of any kind is a perfect example because it can grow social connections in one direction, and diminish them in the other direction, if this antaraya is not made aware and brought to the forefront.
  8. Ungroundedness.  Being grounded is another word for being present and existing all-in in the moment. Groundedness means more than just presence, however, because it also speaks to a sense of logicalness about a situation or moment. Groundedness also encompasses a sense of compassion for self and others, and to make decisions and respond to questions and situations moment by moment in a powerful and empowering way. To me, this is one of the most important antarayas there is. I have no desire to have conversations with people who seem too “out there”. Being grounded could be the opposite of antaraya number seven, erroneous or distorted views. Bachman also writes about groundedness as being part of progressive development. For most of us, all growth occurs in stages. This includes yoga, meditation, our careers, relationships, and a multitude of other life experiences we have had and will have. Trying to force growth at any stage does not help us grow; forcing only holds us back and can leave us off-balance. It can keep us in limbo without the ability to move forward or backward, and, especially in the case of exercise, can make us move backward if injury occurs (notice the antaraya here-they are all connected). Bachman’s example here is great:

“For example, you try to meditate without having your breath (prana) under control. Since your breath directly affects your nervous system and mind, there is no way to become internally quiet, which is necessary for you to move through the stages of turning inward (samyama).”

  1. Regression. Regression is a natural part of life and learning. Sometimes it seems as though we take five steps forward and twenty steps back, but consider that in order to shoot an arrow from a bow you must first draw the string backwards. When you experience regression, especially when focus has been great and you have experienced a lot of parinama (transformation) as a result, know that no matter what knocks you off course and causes you to lose your focus and momentum, you can always gain it back. It is natural to experience moments of upward growth and a lot of progress, as well as plateaus. As a personal trainer, I keep plateauing in perspective when it comes to training my clients. So often a plateau phase, especially in the journey of giving up excess body weight, is great because it means they are not adding on extra weight. In other words, maintaining weight can be just as good as losing weight. This principle applies to a lot of things in life. As long as you are putting in the actions you must, even if forward momentum is not perceptible at the moment, it means forward action is occurring because that is what the intention is. Being in a plateau, especially when it comes to self-work of all kinds, is a good place to be because it can mean a rest from the work you have put in, thus preventing you from experiencing the antaraya of fatigue. The final stage of our work as spiritual beings, Samadhi, which is turning our sense inward is difficult to maintain at all times, but with diligent practice (abhyasa) “…the duration will gradually lengthen.”

 

Bachman concludes this chapter with: “These obstacles have symptoms or effects associated with them: pain (physical or mental), negativity/dejection, trembling, and disturbed breathing.”

One of these distractions may lead to the other. Bachman writes that it occurs in the order mentioned, but I argue that it can happen in just about any order. Every single one of these antarayas affects breathing patterns, which in turn cause each antaraya to get a little more severe.

Antarayas are distractions that pull us away from our inward-focused attention. According to the sutras, abhyasa is the key to preventing these obstacles from distracting us from our attention. The vibrations emanating from the Sanskrit chants as they are spoken out loud are meant to dissolve all of these things, and, specifically, when we chant “om”, the original sound of the universe, all distractions fade. In my experience, when I teach yoga classes and do 1 or 3 om’s at the beginning, I teach a much more focused class than if I didn’t.

Remember that as human beings we are ultimately MEANT to experience all of these things.  Experiencing these antarayas at any intensity level and for any length of time is a fact of living on this plane.  We all have obstacles we must overcome, and these are nine that the yoga sutras specifically dictate.  Know that no matter what it is you are experiencing in your life, you can overcome absolutely any obstacle, and that you are worth it to overcome whichever antarayas stand out the most for you.  There are ways for you to get help with each of these as well, so practice self-honesty, and know when you need to get help with any kind of illness or addiction.  It not only helps you when you admit you need help, it helps others around you, as well.  It does not serve you or this planet to remain stuck in a cycle of poor choices, and the worst choice we can make for ourselves is to choose to do nothing about our circumstances when we know we can make them better.

The inspiration that you have to share with this world lies in overcoming your obstacles, so bring on the challenge, and bring on the pain, because the best way out is only through.

It is through the cracks in your foundation that lets your inner light shine through to illuminate the world.

 

THOUGHTS

My ability to remain relaxed and focused is hindered when my body is uncomfortable or my heart-mind is not alert.

Through self-observation (svadhyaya), I can identify hindrances to my practice, then take steps to reduce and eliminate them.

I will develop a healthy body and calm heart-mind by practicing regularly and chanting Om.