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    Tuesday
    Dec152009

    The Niyamas -- The Observances of Yoga

    This is the second in a series of articles about the Eight Limbs (Ashtanga) of Yoga. You can read the first article, on Yama, by clicking on "Yoga" in the subject list on the left side of the page.

    This article explores the second limb of Yoga, Niyama, which consists of the five traditional observances of yoga. The five observances are purity, happiness, radiance, self-knowledge and surrender.

    "Saucha," or "Purity" is the first observance of yoga.

    In 1847, the great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book entitled Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing -- one of those books you don't really have to read because the title says it all.1

    Purity in yoga, as in life, means being one thing -- and to be one thing is to will one thing, because being and will are not separate, not two things. As we focus, we are, and as we are, we do.

    Yoga is a joining, a coming together, of everything -- all the differences resolved into a single orchestration -- a return to the one from the many. It is a return from conflict and differentiation to a single, uninterrupted focus.

    Living purely means living in the world as one being -- and that one being a blend, a joining, of universal Two hands, one heart -- purity means all things aligned as one.and particular, part and whole, simultaneously. The person can see life from the broadest, most inclusive perspective, and at the same time from the narrowest, most specific perspective, without contradiction. This is yoga.

    Being pure means having a clear and consistent purpose in living -- one vision, with all parts of the mind working together. It means willing one thing, wanting one thing, living one thing, moving life forward, one moment at a time.

    Purity means integration of all parts into one seamless whole -- this is, in essence, what yoga is.

    From a operational perspective in the practice of yoga, purity means reducing internal conflicts, and aligning one's focus toward one, simple aim. It means bringing disparities into alignment and coherence, the way we bring all the frequencies of light into harmony to become one laser beam.

    Diversity becomes unity -- understanding ourselves as one while celebrating differences. The joining of the one and the many, without losing either, is the miracle of yoga.

    The one force powerful enough to bring everything together, to make everything whole again, to bring all of us into alignment, into "purity," is the power of love. When we eliminate oppositions and polarity through love and reconciliation, when we stop resisting the flow of love and appreciation in life, yoga comes into being and impurity becomes a thing of the past.

    Purity is a gift of yoga, of self-alignment -- purity comes into being as a result of yoga. Purity is not a means to yoga, but an attribute, a fruit of yoga.

    Purity as a "way of being" turns fear into understanding. Confusion becomes clarity and weakness becomes strength.

    Being purely oneself means that the flow of life that is coming through us is orchestrated in such a way that it culminates in one life-giving focus.

    Click to read more ...

    Friday
    Dec112009

    Asana, Understanding Yoga

    This is the third in an ongoing series of articles on Yoga. The first two articles, Yama and Niyama, can be found by clicking on "Yoga" in the subject listing on the left-hand side of the page.

    Yoga is more than a physical fitness regimen. Yoga is a broad set of understandings, a practical philosophy that, when practiced, allows us to bring our total being into alignment, which, in turn, allows us to live in harmony with the world around us.

    The principles of yoga are practiced through the body, through the mind, but most of all through the heart. Learning physical poses and movements is one aspect of yoga, but the mental poses and emotional poses are far more important.

    Yoga, in its essence, means reducing internal conflicts. It means releasing resistance, allowing flow.

    It means living in harmony with Nature, and enjoying a state of optimal health, sanity and well being.

    Freedom, peace, happiness and lightness of being are evidence of the practice of yoga. Tension and resistance or a sense of needing to force or control are the evidence of a need to practice yoga.

    Yoga feels easy. Yoga needs no effort, requires no discipline or strategy. Yoga is effortless -- if what you're doing feels like an effort, feels like a strain -- its not yoga.

    Again, yoga is a practical philosophy, concerned with the everyday practice of living in harmony with oneself and the larger world. And so long as a person lives and breathes, there must be a continuous process of realignment and readjustment -- there is no state of Yoga that is permanent, no enlightenment that is absolute.

    Our experience of being in "Yoga," or alignment with ourselves, will always be a relative value -- Yoga is about the relationship between you and you.meaning our experience of alignment will vary, from moment to moment, from situation to situation, depending on whether we're able to enjoy the flow of life in that particular situation.

    When we're enjoying ourselves we're more or less in a state of Yoga. Happiness is an indicator of Yoga.

    When we're happy, it means our energies are flowing more harmoniously, and that means we're going to enjoy a greater measure of  health and well-being.

    When we're unhappy, it means we're at cross-purposes with ourselves, and we feel tense and stressed as a result.

    Yoga means being at ease within yourself, being true to yourself in a way that feels good to you, and when that is the case, even the most difficult circumstances tend to resolve themselves. You enjoy a sense of strength, of resilience, even in the midst of difficulties.

    The concepts and ideals of Yoga are not rules or commandments. They are not truths or tenets. They are pointers, tips, suggestions -- ideas that can guide us to an experience of alignment, peace and freedom, but only if we put them into practice.

    Yoga as a practice is a commitment to a better way of life -- but before the concepts of Yoga can be put into practice, they must be firmly understood. One cannot practice Yoga successfully without right understanding of what alignment is and is not, for this framework of understanding is the foundation of practice.

    Having such a foundation for the practice of Yoga is called asana.

     

    Asana

    "Asana (one's seat) should be steady and comfortable." -- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

     

    It's interesting to note that the above sutra is Maharishi Patanjali's entire teaching on asana.

    The word asana, in Sanskrit means "seat." The ancients used this word to point to the need for a seat, or platform, from which to practice yoga.

    Asana, "one's seat of understanding," is the third limb of Patanjali's Yoga. Patanjali devotes just one line to the subject -- the one quoted above -- and says only one thing -- that our seat, meaning, the place we're coming from in our practice of realignment, must be steady and comfortable in order to be useful.

    Learning and practicing the asanas of yoga is the basis of the practice of Yoga.

    In conventional Yoga practice, asanas are physical postures, or poses, with names like down dog and child's pose, and they are often linked together into a vinyasa, a steady dynamic flow of connected yoga asanas linked in a continuous movement.

    Practicing these physical poses, or asanas, is useful in that it allows us to discover where we are misaligned in our posture and in the way we move.  We physically feel ourselves in or out of alignment, first in relation to gravity, secondly in relation to the ideal example of the pose, and thirdly in relation to ourselves and our intentions.

    But asana is much more than the practice of physical postures.1

    Click to read more ...

    Wednesday
    Dec092009

    Germ-free kids may risk more adult illnesses

    by Karin Zeitvogel Karin Zeitvogel – Wed Dec 9, 3:57 pm ET

    WASHINGTON (AFP) – Parents who let their kids romp in the mud and eat food that has fallen on the floor could be helping to protect them against maladies like heart disease later in life, a US study showed Wednesday.

    "Our research suggests that ultra-clean, ultra-hygienic environments early in life may contribute to higher levels of inflammation as an adult, which in turn increases risks for a wide range of diseases," including cardiovascular disease, Thomas McDade, lead author of the study, said.

    Researchers at Illinois' Northwestern University looked at data from a study in the Philippines, which followed participants from birth to 22 years of age, to better understand how childhood environments affect production of a protein that increases when there is inflammation -- a sign the body forced to fight infection or injury.

    The data were compiled by tracking children born in the 1980s to 3,327 Filipino mothers.

    Researchers visited the children every two months for the first two years of their lives and then spaced out the visits to every four or five years until the kids reached their 20s.

    Among items that the researchers assessed were the hygiene of the children's household environment -- "whether domestic animals such as pigs and dogs roamed freely" -- and their families' socioeconomic resources.

    Blood tests taken when the study participants reached adulthood showed that although Filipinos suffer far more infectious diseases as infants and toddlers than their American counterparts, their level of C-reactive protein (CRP) when they reached adulthood was at least 80 percent lower than in Americans.

    Filipinos in their early 20s had average CRP concentrations of 0.2 milligrams per liter, while Americans in the same age group had blood concentrations of the protein of 1-1.5 milligrams per liter.

    "CRP concentrations are incredibly low in Filipinos compared to people in the United States and that was counter to what a lot of people would have anticipated because we know that Filipinos have higher exposure to infectious diseases," McDade told AFP.

    One finding of the study published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society was that adults with high CRP levels -- indicating more inflammation -- were exposed to less animal feces in the home as kids.

    But that should not serve as an impetus to rush out and buy a pig to have running around the home, said McDade -- adding that Americans' obsession with hygiene would probably rule that out anyway.

    Rather, he said, the message to take home from the study is the importance of being exposed early in life to common microbes and bacteria.

    "These bacteria and microbes may never result in outright clinical disease but they do play an important role in promoting the development of regulatory networks," said McDade, who is an associate professor of anthropology at Northwestern and a fellow at the university's institute for policy research.

    To explain the importance of exposure to such microbes, McDade, who has a two-and-a-half-year-old son, likened immune system development to the way Americans promote brain development in infants and toddlers by exposing them to "all sorts of cognitive and social stimuli."

    "There's rapid brain growth early in life and there are lots of neurological connections being formed, and you need to engage with your environment in order to promote those connections," he said.

    "The immune system also needs engagement with its environment to drive its development, and without that environmental input, we're depriving it of a necessary source of information that it needs to promote its development," said McDade.

    And with his own child, McDade said he ignores the two-second rule when food drops on the floor.

    "I don't hesitate - I tell him to pick it up and eat it," he said.

    Wednesday
    Dec092009

    Pranayama, Stabilizing the Emotions

    Part Four of the Essays on Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga 

    "The elegant shapes and impressive contortions of the asanas may be the most eye-catching element of hatha yoga, but yoga masters will tell you they're hardly the point of practice. According to yoga philosophy, the postures are merely preludes to deeper states of meditation that lead us toward enlightenment, where our minds grow perfectly still and our lives grow infinitely big. But just how do we make the leap from Downward Dog to samadhi? Ancient yoga texts give us a clear answer: Breathe like a yogi.

    "Pranayama, the formal practice of controlling the breath, lies at the heart of yoga. It has a mysterious power to soothe and revitalize a tired body, a flagging spirit, or a wild mind. The ancient sages taught that prana, the vital force circulating through us, can be cultivated and channeled through a panoply of breathing exercises. In the process, the mind is calmed, rejuvenated, and uplifted. Pranayama serves as an important bridge between the outward, active practices of yoga--like asana--and the internal, surrendering practices that lead us into deeper states of meditation.

    "My first American yoga teacher, a guy named Brad Ramsey, used to say that doing an asana practice without a pranayama practice developed what he called the Baby Huey syndrome," says Ashtanga teacher Tim Miller. "Baby Huey was this big cartoon duck who was very strong but kind of stupid. He wore a diaper. Basically what Brad was trying to say was that asana will develop your body but pranayama will develop your mind."
    Claudia Cummins, Prescriptions for Pranayama, Yoga Journal
    http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/673

    "Pranayama is derived fron two Sanskrit words - prana (life-energy) and ayama (control). Pranayama is therefore life control and not  "breath control." The broadest meaning of the word prana is force of energy. In this sense, the universe is filled with prana; all creation is a manifestation of force, a play of force. Everything that was, is, or shall be, is nothing but the different modes of expression of the universal force. The universal prana is thus the Para-Prakiti (pure Nature), immanent energy or force which is derived from the infinite Spirit, and which permeates and sustains the universe."

    "Yoga works primarily with this energy in the body, through the science of Pranayama, or energy control. Prana means also "breath." Yoga teaches how, through breath control, to still the mind and attain higher states of awareness. The higher teaching of yoga take one beyond techniques, and show the yogi, or yoga practitioner, how to direct his or her concentration in such a way as not only to harmonize human with divine consciousness, but to merge his or her consciousness into the infinite."

    Paramahansa Yogananda (1893 - 1952) Source: God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita

    All of the precepts and practices of Yoga work together to bring all aspects of ourselves into harmony and alignment. Yama and Niyama support right understanding, right lifestyle. Asana and Vinyasa focus on the physical practice of yoga, working with the body to produce a stable physical platform. Pranayama, the fourth limb of yoga, works with the breath to bring mind and emotions into harmony and alignment. Pratyahara clarifies the relationship of the mind to experience, and helps us learn to manage the undue influences of the world around us.

    Yoga is an understanding which becomes a physical practice which becomes an energy practice, and all the levels of practice work toward reconciling the fundamental polarities of experience and existence.

    Energy work is about balancing polarities -- yin/yang, positive/negative, here/there, sadness/joy, self/other, tension/flow, and this is the ultimate focus of yoga. As the sutra says, the yogi is unperturbed by the play of opposites. All duality is reconciled in yoga.

    Pranayama, the fourth limb of Yoga, deals with energy in the most obvious way: we work with the basic cycle of intake and outflow of breath -- and in harmonizing and balancing the breath, we "tune" the basic polarity of mind and body, inside and outside. Pratyahara, the next and fifth limb of yoga, has to do with removing the innappropriate influence of the outer world -- it lessens the intrusion of outer influences on us, and restores us to a balanced sense of subjectivity.

    The term "pranayama" is used in the Sutras to describe both the practice of pranayama (the process: breathing exercises) and the state of pranayama (the goal: balanced energies).

    The first three sutras, YS II:46, YS II:47, YS II:48 describe the prelimary conditions necessary for the successful practice of pranayama. The remaining four describe, in general terms, the practice of pranyama itself.

    First, one's asana, or physical foundation, must be steady and comfortable. The body

    Click to read more ...

    Sunday
    Dec062009

    Pratyahara, Freedom from Undue Influence

    This is the fifth essay on the Eight-limbed Yoga of Maharishi Patanjali

    "Yoga is a vast system of spiritual practices for inner growth. To this end, the classical yoga system incorporates eight limbs, each with its own place and function. Of these, pratyahara is probably the least known. How many people, even yoga teachers, can define pratyahara? Have you ever taken a class in pratyahara? Have you ever seen a book on pratyahara? Can you think of several important pratyahara techniques? Do you perform pratyahara as part of your yogic practices? Yet unless we understand pratyahara, we are missing an integral aspect of yoga without which the system cannot work."

    "The term pratyahara is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. Ahara means "food," or "anything we take into ourselves from the outside." Prati is a preposition meaning"against" or "away." Pratyahara means literally "control of 'ahara,'" or "gaining mastery over external influences." It is compared to a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell — the turtle’s shell is the mind and the senses are the limbs. The term is usually translated as "withdrawal from the senses," but much more is implied."
    David Frawley, from Pratyahara: the Forgotten Limb of Yoga

     

    Modern physics, philosphy, and psychology all agree with the two-thousand year old observation of the ancient yogis: the world we live in is a perceptual reality, not a "physical" one. The world of the senses is a cognitive and perceptual construct, a fiction of the mind. The material world exists, but all we know of it is our experience of it -- and that experience is not "objective" but "subjective," meaning constructed in mind from a mixture of sense data and memory.

    The world isn't real in the way we commonly understand something to be real. The world is real -- but it's a real experience rather than a real thing. The world that we take to be real, meaning finite, fixed, solid, substantial, is none of those things. The world is ever-changing, ever-evolving, always in motion, never the same twice, and infinite in it's dimensionality.

    The "world of the senses," the world we all talk about and agree on, the world we live in is a subjective, experiential, dimensional reality, utterly relative and dependent on the state of being of the observer. It is not the "objective," independent, hard-and-fast physical Newtonian reality we like to pretend it is.

    Matter and energy are two forms of the same flow; space and time are relative phenomena; and there are no edges, no "real" dimensions -- just infinite (and arbitrary) dimensionality. Life is a perceptual, cognitive-emotional reality, with no more substance than a thought.

    Physicality is an experience. Measurement, knowing, understanding, seeing, believing, being certain are all experiences. The only proof that anything exists is that you experience it, and experience, which is ultimately a construct of mind, can only be subjective, never objective.

    The world exists. The world is our home. The world is real. It's just not a knowable, definable, finite thing. It's an experience, a flowing, changing unfolding,  made up of a blend of sense data and imagination. Life is a verb -- you are a verb -- everything you are ends with "-ing."

    We understand that no two beings experience the same world, and the world we experience is never the same twice -- so where is the "real" world, after all? The world is a story, a fiction, not an object.

    Two people walk down the street together. For the sake of argument, let's say that they are in precisely the same environment at exactly the same time. But each is in still their own world -- they notice different things, respond to different things, form different conclusions, and behave differently in relation to what should be the same set of factors.

    To a firefighter, a burning building is a destination, his or her place of employment; to the building's owner, the fire something to flee, and ultimately, it's a tragic loss. A mouse on a greeting card is cute -- a mouse on the breakfast table is disgusting (unless it's a pet.)

    And it's not just the meaning of events that varies -- the experiential elements are not the same either. Sociological and psychological studies agree -- we each of us see, hear, feel, taste and smell a different world. There are no objective observers.

    The evidence of the senses, while enticing, is not compelling. The world we are so sure of, that we think of as "real" and "out there" is largely a construct of mind. It is an experiential reality and a perceptual reality, and we each of us experience it differently. And therein lies an opportunity.

    Click to read more ...

    Friday
    Dec042009

    Dharana, Focused Mind

    This is the Sixth in a Series of Essays on the Eight Limbs of Patanjali's Yoga.

    III.1  desa-bandha-cittasya dharana
    desa = place, here
    banda =binding
    citta=consciousness
    dharana=focus; lit: "to hold, uphold"

    III.1  Dharana (Focus) is holding one's awareness in one place.

    Thus begins the Third Pada, Part, of Patanjali's Yoga, known as the Vibhuti Pada. The word "Vibhuti" is best literally translated as, "extended becomings." The word is commonly used to describe what are called the siddhis, or extraordinary powers of yoga, but rather than think of them as supernatural or magical abilities, we do well consider them to be the fruits of the evolutionary process of yoga -- natural, developed extensions of our already everyday abilities.

    The Ashtanga, or Eight Limbs of Patanjali's Yoga, can be thought of as the progressive practice of Yoga: Yama, then Niyama and so on, as follows: first, Yama and Niyama, which represent ethical realities and observances, or Yoga expressed in a behavioral context; then Asana-Pranayama-Pratyahara, which are Yoga applied to one's own mind-body experience; then Dharana-Dhyan-Samadhi, what it called "interior" practice of Yoga, the purest form of energy practice in Yoga, which deals with the subtlest aspect of our experience, the realm of focused intent or focused awareness -- what are traditionally called "spiritual exercises" in the West.

    The practice of Yama and Niyama stabilizes our social and behavioral world, while Asana, Pranayama, and Pratyahara stabilizes our personal world. Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi takes this further, and we begin to take steps toward full development of mind and consciousness, and utilization of our energy world.

    Energy practices are best understood as forms of focused intent. Intent is a stream of consciousness-desire that emanates from Nature, Source, and is focused through the lens of individual mind. Large "Being" streams forth through the lens of individual "being." Nature flows into creation through us.

    Another way of understanding the Angas, or "limbs" of Yoga is to see them as aspects of every practice. Every Anga is an integral part of every other Anga.

    Yoga remakes and stabilizes our connection to our source, Nature, from the inside, in our own experience of being.

    Alignment of world-body-emotion-mind-spirit (outside to inside) allows for full flow of spirit through thought- feeling-emotion-understanding-action-behavior (inside to outside).

     
    Dharana is traditionally translated as "concentration," which is true in a sense, but also misleading. Dharana is a special focus of attention, where we selectively single out one aspect of our experience and zero in on it, ignoring everything else. The art of this kind of focus is to increasingly appreciate, or value the thing we're focused on, which has the fortunate benefit of effortlessly allowing everything else drop into the background.

    Imagine an old friend coming for a visit -- in your happiness in seeing this person, all else would momentarily fall away naturally and be set aside -- you would drop everything to greet them warmly. All your attention would be drawn to them. You wouldn't have to make an effort to block out distractions -- any distracting elements would simply fall away as soon as your attention went to your friend. And the more valued and important the person was to you, the more rapidly and completely you would let go of everything else to focus completely on them.

    Click to read more ...

    Wednesday
    Dec022009

    Dhyana, Meditation

    This is the seventh in a series of eight essays on the ashtanga yoga of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

    YS III.2 tatra pratyayaikatanata dhyanam

    tatra = there
    pratyaya = notion; present idea; content of mind
    ekatanata = one flow, extending continuously; stretching; streaming unbrokenly
    dhyana = meditation

    This steady single focus propagating unceasingly is Dhyana (Meditation).

    When people speak of meditation, they usually mean the practice of a mental technique used to soothe, quiet and clarify the mind-field. Many of these popular techniques (TM, Insight or Vipassana Meditation) are known as "centering" techniques, because they involve deciding on a mental focal point, such as a sound (mantra) or counting breaths and returning to that point over and over again as the mind wanders from it. This is not meditation, properly speaking, but a preliminary training in Dharana, which if properly understood and practiced, over time, introduces the meditator to Dhyana, or true meditation, which is what Patanjali describes here.

    Dhyana here is described as a natural extension of Dharana. When one's focus of mind is one-pointed, effortless, and uninterrupted, the state of Dhyana is achieved, and this focused, uninterrupted resonance of mind causes the mind to expand and evolve.

    See the following article by Adyashanti:

    http://www.adyashanti.org/index.php?file=writings_inner&writingid=12

    Think of mind as a field of perception, and Dharana as a natural, effortless narrowing of the focus within that field. Our mind-field is a field of awareness occupied by notions, reflections, thoughts, feelings and impressions of many kinds. The word "pratyaya" simply means the present thought, the idea that is foremost in the mind at any moment -- "what's on your mind."

    When the attention remains focused in a relaxed, appreciative way on this single thought, without effort or fixation, and that flow of attention toward the thought continues, the object of contemplation, in this case a thought, progagates -- meaning, it expands, extends, grows, evolves and becomes more. Attention energizes and nourishes the thought, and the thought expands and grows as a result. This is Dhyana.

    We experience this every day, to some extent. We hold something in mind and dwell on it, and the idea grows and expands and extends. We think of "something refreshing" on a hot day, and stay with it long enough for the idea to  become "ice cream" then "a particular flavor and serving of ice cream," then, "where to get it," and "how to get there, and "let's go now." Whatever we focus on expands and evolves, and eventually takes form.

    The Dhyana that Patanjali is referring to is a very deliberate, pure form of contemplation -- dwelling on a single idea. But it is nothing exotic -- it's just an extension of something already present in everyone's experience.

    Click to read more ...