Category Archives for "Practice"
सरस्वति नमस्तुभ्यं वरदे कामरूपिणि ।
विद्यारम्भं करिष्यामि सिद्धिर्भवतु मे सदा ॥
Sarasvati namastubhyaṃ varade kāmarūpiṇi |
vidyārambhaṃ kariṣyāmi siddhirbhavatu me sadā ||
“O Sarasvati, embodiment of fulfillment of desires. I am beginning my education. Bless me to achieve success always.”
Above is a short prayer said before one’s studies, a common occurrence when reading a Sanskrit text. Similarly, many lineages of yoga offer similar prayers, as a yoga practice is, indeed, a study. I have been working on my own manuscript of research and commentary on the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā (Gheranda Samhita) for some time now. Even though I suspect it will take a few more years to shape my work to my satisfaction, I thought to share some of it with you. It is a work ever in progress. I am not offering these glimpses in any sort of order. They are, if you will, teachable moments.
(v.2.20, Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā [G.S.])
जानूर्वोरन्तरे पादौ कृत्वा च गोपयेत् ।
पादोपरि च संस्थाप्य गुदं गुप्तासनं विदुः ॥२०॥
Jānūrvorantare pādau kṛtvā ca gopayet |
pādopari ca saṃsthāpya gudaṃ guptāsanaṃ viduḥ ||20||
In my manuscript itself, I offer several translators’ interpretations of what is being said here, but for the sake of brevity (this being a blog post) and because the Sanskrit and translations are consistent and non-controversial between the various translators, I will offer one that is generally representative of the verse:
(v.2.20, G.S., Swami Vishnuswaroop)
“Keep both feet in the middle of the knees and thighs, and place the anus area between the feet. This is called guptāsana.”
A number of years ago, when I first encountered the description of this pose, I was struck by how similar it sounds to a few other poses. The Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā considers guptāsana (“hidden” or “secret” pose) to be synonymous with siddhāsana, muktāsana, and vajrāsana (perhaps a different variant of vajrāsana than what is now commonly practiced). I would add svastikāsana to the list. One might ask, “why so many similar poses?”: The first possibility concerns the fact that finding one’s best mediation pose was (and is now, as well) a big point of practicing āsana through much of history. This is likely a partial reason for the continued existence of so many similar meditative poses. With this variety, yogins of all abilities, shapes, and sizes would likely find an āsana best suited to their efforts in finding a comfortable and stable meditative pose.
A second possible reason for such a seemingly similar variety of postures concerns the manipulation of the subtle body. For example, a heel pressing on the left side of the anus could be said to be stimulating the vajra nāḍī, while a gaze at the nose tip (nāsāgraḍṛṣti) stimulates mūlādhāra cakra. So, you see, slight alterations in the details of the āsana can give it rather different purposes. The body is used as a control panel to access the subtle body. Bandhas, mudrās, placement of body parts, pressure applied here and there are like buttons that create different reactions and effects within the individual. The genesis of many poses we do today comes from this sort of context. The origins of many yogic techniques come from a very different point of view and set of goals than what many people presume is yoga at their local gym.
Viewing yoga as mere exercise and focusing on āsana alone obscures the use of these subtle elements as well as the thought provoking philosophies that go along with the physical techniques. However, people who are interested in mental training and meditation will find the subtle techniques extremely useful, whether or not they believe in the reality of the subtle body. Just as the attention needed to hold a pose keeps our busy minds engaged, a ḍṛṣti (focus of gaze) keeps us from being distracted by what we see in our immediate environment. The sound of ujjāyī prāṇāyāma keeps us from being distracted by external sounds (granted, there is more to this, but we will save that for some other time). Contemplation of the subtle body and the use of the techniques said to manipulate it gives us a world to occupy our minds with that won’t distract us from our goal of a one-pointed mind, as it is an internal world meant to help us relate to the inner-workings of consciousness.
A third possible reason for the existence of these sometimes vague or nearly identical poses likely has its root in the secretive nature of yoga (and upaniṣads) through-out history, coupled with the necessary conservative scholarly practices used to transmit and preserve such ancient knowledge. I can imagine scholars coming across vague, partial, or bastardized verses – trying to both make sense of them and conserve them for the sake of keeping an ancient text as intact as possible. Such scholars would likely keep a muddled verse for the sake of posterity, leaving it for future generations to make sense of. Sometimes a verse is preserved even though its real meaning has been lost for hundreds and hundreds of years. All sorts of tricks of scribal or oral error could occur in that time. I don’t doubt that all three of these propositions are valid concerning this verse on guptāsana. (guptasana)
Now, let’s return to the discussion of guptāsana itself: Two common forms of guptāsana exist. They are both cross-legged positions; There is the version described in the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā in which the feet are hidden, and there is the version which is not unlike a simplified form of siddhāsana (which I discuss in my book). This second version involves crossing the legs so that the heels stack on top of one another: in this case it is the genitals which are hidden (behind the heels). I agree with the opinion of many scholars throughout history that guptāsana is a sort of siddhāsana (siddhayoni āsana for women). Though it certainly echoes muktāsana and svastikāsana in my mind. Guptāsana is said to have the same benefits as siddhāsana. In short, some of the benefits of siddhāsana are the stimulation of mūlādhāra and svādhiṣṭhāna cakras. Siddhāsana (and thus guptāsana as well) provides a very stable meditation position which helps the process of reversing the flow of apāna vāyu, so that it moves up the body to meet prāṇa vāyu.
On a gross physical level, an āsana such as guptāsana creates greater control and flexibility in the hips and lower back. This can alleviate some hip, knee, and lower back problems. Guptāsana provides people with an alternative to padmāsana (lotus position); however, if you have particularly acute issues with your knees, hips, or lower back, or have a hernia I suggest an even more gentle position such as sukhāsana, or perhaps even sitting in a chair. Remember, once you have become comfortable in guptāsana, it may or may not (depending on the individual and circumstances) be prescribed to apply additional techniques such as jālandhara bandha, khecarī, or nabho mudra, etc.
I hope you have found this excerpt of my larger work edifying, or at least interesting. Admittedly, I consider this all to be in rough draft phase. I provide more detailed explanations of many things mentioned in this post in my book, and have not particularly striven to explain every little thing in this post you have read. I chose to share this with you for the general teachable moment I came across when first writing this in my book. If this has sparked your curiosity, I suggest you seek out the publications of Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, James Mallinson, Swami Vishnuswaroop, Chandra Vasu and many others who have done so well at shedding light on yoga, or you can arrange an appointment with me – or just wait a couple years for my book to come out!
In my last blog post I discussed the need to attach purpose to the yogic techniques we learn, to not just have the tool, but to know what to do with it. The purpose of yoga is to know who we are, and how to handle ourselves; personal contentment and happiness allows us to serve the greater good of humanity. The elusiveness of such guidance in yoga class is, in part, because of the attachment to the idea of yoga as exercise. This forms a reluctance on the part of both teacher and student to be involved in discourse-based education: some things just need to be talked about, and there is a lot to talk about.
This isn’t to diminish the importance of physical health and exercise. There is a good reason the path to yoga begins with physical techniques such as posture and breathing. A healthy body is a vital platform for a healthy mind. So yes, whatever condition we are in, it is necessary to be as healthy as possible and yogic techniques are wonderful for doing this. The problem is the physical side of the path to yoga is vastly over-represented. As a teacher who has regularly offered lecture-based classes, I can tell you they are never as well-attended as classes where physical techniques are practiced. I can sympathize with teachers who don’t offer lecture-based classes because they need to be able to pay the bills so they can continue teaching the yoga that they do teach. For the students, I understand they often have never even heard of yoga as something other than just another type of exercise, which is unfortunate because they may very well miss out on the most transformative aspects of the path to yoga.
It is the antithesis of yoga to only be willing to engage with it when jumping around and holding shapes made with the body. A ubiquitous and respectable definition of yoga is “yogah citta vrtti nirodhah,” yoga is stopping the activity of the mind --- which brings to the surface consciousness we are otherwise unaware of. Knowing yourself involves leaving no stone unturned. The subject of this blog post is not meant to be a blame game, but a discussion about yoga not being approached in a well-rounded way. It also must be said that the bar has become so low for what constitutes a “yoga teacher” that the teacher is often unqualified to teach yoga in any other way than just another exercise (and often unqualified to teach yoga at all). A teacher’s registration with Yoga Alliance is no guarantee of competency.
If you are a capable yoga teacher, offer lecture classes even if it is just a few times a year, it will not break the bank and eventually more people will show up. If you are a student and you really love yoga, be willing to show up to some lecture-based classes. It will deepen your practice and open the true benefits of yoga to you. For newer students, understand it is natural to first approach yoga on an entirely physical level. It’s an important aspect of yoga and often the intended starting point and an ever-present aspect of your yoga practice, just know to not stop there. Ask your teacher when you feel ready to learn more. Yoga has much more to offer than physical health. If you teach yoga and feel you may not truly be qualified to teach yoga in a well-rounded way, realize lecture-based classes are for you too. A good teacher will be there to help you, not shame you. My textual-studies series and lecture-based classes will return in a few months when my own work load has lightened a bit (your teacher is a student too!).-- Marc-Cristobal Guilarte
You have attended a yoga class, or are thinking of attending one. Often the thoughts arise, “will this ever be easy, when will I ‘get it,’ and what will this do for me?” We learn how to do some poses and styles of breathing, yet often get only cursory guidance concerning the purpose of these tools and how to get the most out of them (or perhaps don’t realize this guidance is necessary!). The poses, breathing, mantras, and visualizations are not yoga itself; they are tools that lead to yoga. Yoga itself is coming to an understanding of what you are and what you are not. The tools of yoga are meant to present you with a challenge in order to reveal your personality: what are your motivations, aversions, desires, and habits of thought? And out of those, determine what is good or not good for you: what should be discarded and what should be cultivated. Advanced yoga is a mental state, not a pose or some other technique.
The goal is not for the tools leading to yoga to be easy, or even for you to be an expert (as the techniques of yoga are vast and diverse and sometimes even contradictory towards each other). If they are easy, they won’t churn up what is inside of you, and the aim is to be an expert about your own inner workings. Our mastery of the techniques of yoga is only so important as we know enough about what is safe for us, what gives us self-knowledge, and where to go from there. To know yourself is to be able to control yourself; to know what is “you” and what is not “you” is to know what is in your control and what is not. If you can control something and there’s a need to, then focus intensely on the task at hand. If you know something is out of your control, then relax and accept things as they are.
Once you have started to learn a set of yoga techniques and have found a good teacher to guide you, use what you’ve learned in solitude. Just observe your thoughts, habits, and reactions. Over time you will begin to acquire deeper and deeper insights about who you are, and thus begin to truly steer yourself towards a happy life as your true self. This touches on the need for lecture and didactic discourse in yoga studios: the willingness for the teacher to offer this, and for the students to attend.
-- Marc-Cristobal Guilarte
This is Part 1 of a 2 Part Post. Check Back Next Friday to Read Part 2.
This fall Marc Guilarte will be offering a variety of discussion based workshops about the nature of Yoga. Make sure to download our App and Follow us on Facebook to get notified about our events!
Sometimes, as a sort of game with myself, I will try to go through my morning ablutions without thinking of anything other than what I’m doing, without allowing myself to interrupt the task at hand (i.e. to check my mail, pet a cat, etc.). I enjoy playing this game because it’s always astounding how much more quickly the task at hand is completed.
It’s a reminder of the power of focus, as well as the difficulty involved in maintaining it. Keeping vows and staying equanimus regardless of the pins and pricks of life are two important virtues found in the domain of focus.
My yoga practice is a toolkit that provides me with the opportunity to struggle with and fine tune these virtues: There is a wide array of technique in yoga including and beyond asana (postures). Yoga provides different paths for different times and different people, so even an individual person would benefit from a well versed education in Yoga: a science concerned with leading people to meditation (meditation being the ultimate degree of focus). How lucky we are to already have a method for controlling our focus and consciousness. Of course the difficulty here is actually practicing, especially since everyone starts before they have such control.
Yoga provides different paths for different times and different people. - Marc Guilarte
This conundrum reminds me of something Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati said, ”One has to practise constant effort as a discipline, not according to one’s own sweet will.” We all have to go through the process of learning and growing. When I am struggling with my own focus, practice, or studies I remind myself there is a futility in shrinking away from something because “I’m not good enough at it yet.” I ask myself, “do I want to be a part of this or not?” and my answer is invariably, “of course.” So, I keep on studying and practicing.
Marc-Cristobal Guilarte - Owner and Lead Teacher
For most of my life yoga has been a private affair, which I didn’t really share with anyone else until I started teaching. Being a very introverted person, I never entangled with the yoga community beyond my own teacher; when I started teaching in studios I was frankly quite surprised that many people in the local yoga community seemed to think yoga hadn’t been written about much throughout history, and that there wasn’t much information to glean other than going to asana-only classes.
I am here to tell you there is an enormous amount of information out there, and much of it is absolutely free. Around about the middle of the 19th century India started translating and disseminating a great deal of its philosophy, art, religion, and so forth into English to try to show the world India as an advanced culture with much to offer. This was, in part, in hopes of being freed from the imperial designs of Britain, were the world to see that India deserved more than a place of servitude and submission.
Many of these translations are on the internet for free now, often with multiple translations to choose from. Many people don’t know how to proceed to become more literate in yoga, it’s history and philosophy, so here, I will point the way: Swami Nikhilananda’s translations of the principal Upanishads are a great start. I suggest you read at least Kathopanishad, and the Mandukya Upanishad along with the Guadapada Karika. Not only is it free, but these are very clear solid translations. I also suggest the Shiva Sutras of Vasugupta and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali....there are many many different translations out there. Chandra Vasu’s translations of the Shiva Samhita and the Gheranda Samhita. You can also find the Goraksha Samhita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika free online.
I am here to tell you there is an enormous amount of information out there, and much of it is absolutely free.
It is important to realize to understand one book, you often have to read many. If more than one translation is available, read them all. This is the way it is when you are reading something in translation, especially the more different the time, culture, and place of the text. To make it even easier for the local yoga community, I have done a lot of the heavy lifting for you, and am now teaching many of these books in my yogic textual studies series.
Have you ever felt stuck despite all your efforts to create meaningful change in your life? Are reoccurring patterns holding you back from progressing in the direction of your goals. Have you ever considered you might be the problem? Probably not. That is difficult to admit. It is much simpler to pass the blame on to external people and circumstances for the unhappiness we experience in our lives. What if we had the power to change our fate? But you see, there is no question of if we have the power to change, we are the power of change.
So then, how do we make this change to an enriching meaningful life, to this happiness and contentment that we search far and wide for? It is not done through solving the problems in our lives or eliminating perceived problematic people. It is done through balancing the flow of energy through our chakras. The chakras, or centers of energy, have a direct, immediate and profound effect on our daily lives. When all of the chakras are open and flowing you experience life through your higher consciousness, your problems dissolve and you live you life as a witness of experiencing everyday miracles. You become, present, centered and empowered.
Yogi Bhajan taught about the functions and attributes of the eight major chakras so that we could understand and transform ourselves with the practice of Kundalini yoga. Kundalini yoga does not force the chakras to balance and open, but it prepares the body to allow the kundalini energy to rise from the base of the spine throughout the crown of the head. As this energy rises it touches each chakra along the way and enables the state of being where you can live from your higher consciousness. You live in flow with the universe accompanied by effortless manifestation, guidance and resources to fulfill your purpose.
We are the vehicles for change that we seek. Kundalini yoga is an effective method for tuning up our bodies and our chakras so that our journey through life becomes joyous and fulfilling.
-Peace to all, light to all, love to all
Marc's parents visited Raleigh on their annual trip from Michigan to Florida. They got their first visit to Cat Tilt Studio. Marc's mom taught him yoga when he was young and was excited to assist him with Supta Vajrasana. She has a pretty big grin on her face! Make your mom smile by practicing at Cat Tilt Studio!
I recently read an opinion piece on slower paced yoga, you can read it here. I teach both the vinyasa krama of Krishnamacharya (a slower paced yoga) and Ashtanga (a moderate paced yoga). A standard whole breath in Ashtanga is eight seconds long, go ahead and count out eight seconds in your head. An initial goal for the length of breath in Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa krama is four breaths a minute. I generally teach people to work towards a sixteen second breath first. Yes, count out sixteen seconds in your head (eight second inhale, eight second exhale). Perhaps in a good moment you may be able to lengthen your breath even more to thirty seconds – a fifteen second inhale, a fifteen second exhale. For the most part, the longer the breath the better in Krishnamacharya’s yoga.
You may have noticed when writing about pacing, I’m referring to the breath, not body movement. In both of these forms of yoga, your movement must be synchronized with your inhales and exhales, so if the yoga is to be slower paced, the breath must be longer. The persistent pace and rhythm of Ashtanga is one of its channels into meditation, while the lengthening of the breath (and even restraining the breath between inhales and exhales, if amenable to you) is one of Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa krama’s channels into meditation.
Concerning what may be popular at any given time, it’s important to not let the pendulum swing to either extreme. The article talks about a power yoga fad that started in the nineties, and suggests the pendulum is now swinging the other way. I teach and practice the two styles I do for a number of reasons. Krishnamacharya is the teacher of Pattabhi Jois (the guru of Ashtanga). Ashtanga has resonated with me so much, that I wanted to know the larger system behind it, and so I started to study the yoga of Krishnamacharya. The styles are quite closely related, have a lot of overlap, and have the same aim of mental peace, just approached from different ways.
The fact they are closely related makes them go together well. While my main practice certainly is Ashtanga, I find sometimes Krishnamacharya’s sequences are the better tools to get me to where I need to be, or are appropriate if I feel the need for a second practice in any given day. Learning the larger system behind Ashtanga has helped me understand it more, just as it has given me options for how I manage my mind and body. I’d also like to note, slower often doesn’t equate to being easier. Krishnamacharya’s yoga is no easier than Pattabhi Jois’s, yet its slower pace can be more favorable to some people and in some moments of life. If you have a great love of something, it’s a good idea to get to know its roots.
Thank you for reading,
The attention to detail in my classes can be new to some people. If you read my earlier post on meditation, Inviting a Meditative State, you’ll read that meditation often starts by focusing on something concrete (such as an object or action). The details of the yoga practice is that something: “gaze over your nose, keep your inhales and exhales of equal length, keep your chin tucked, keep your face relaxed”…etc. The details of the asana and sequence are not only for the physical aspects of the practice, but they are also there to keep you focused, to guide you into meditation. Often the first step in getting comfortable with a Krishnamacharya or Ashtanga practice is understanding the details are there to help you, meditation is the core of the practice.
As you practice the sequences more regularly they will likely become rather deep and quite athletic. People don’t often associate meditation with so much physicality, but keeping the practice challenging is a part of keeping your mind focused on the here and now. As you become more familiar and comfortable with your initial introduction to Krishnamacharya’s and Pattabhi Jois’s sequences, you will naturally begin to practice them in a deeper and more athletic manner. It’s a way to help you let go of the past and future – to help you be in the moment, in meditation. No one suddenly forces a student into demanding or advanced poses, it happens naturally over time, be it months or years.
This type of moving meditation is the same meditation as when we are sitting still, it’s just a different approach. I find it’s beneficial to have both a moving meditative practice and a still one. The video attached to this post is a great introduction to meditation, please take the time to watch it. It will help you in your journey as a yoga practitioner:
Whether you are new to yoga or not, learn to accept some hardship in order to receive great benefit. Being challenged not only reveals your inner strength, but also many truths about yourself. The truth is not a scary thing, it is either something to be proud of, or an opportunity to improve. A person could live their whole life with the capability of being a great artist, yet never discover their ability because they never picked up a paint brush. Likewise an artist who avoids criticism because of their fear of the truth will never improve until the flaws of their technique are revealed.
A good step to take with a yoga practice is to not ask it to be easy. Instead ask your yoga practice to give you the necessary challenge to discover your strength and to discover truths about yourself. Yoga is a tool to focus and strengthen your mind, to learn to put all your brain power into whatever task is at hand. Such a great benefit requires accepting some hardship. For the greatest rewards from your yoga practice: have patience, allow things to take a long time; practice constantly, it’s alright to start out small, but practice; don’t give up, accept that there will be struggles and that it won’t always be easy.