One particularly insightful view to contemplate when exploring yoga through a therapeutic lens is this:
When you are in alignment there is harmony, where there is harmony there is freedom, where there is freedom we find joy and ultimately with joy, radical well being.
The alignment referred to here is not just concerning the physical body but addressing a timeless and beautiful teaching in the Upanishads, the Pancha Maya Kosha view of human embodiment. The word “pancha” means five, “maya” all pervading and “kosha” layer or sheath. This framework says that we have five all pervading and interwoven aspects to ourselves, the densest layer is our physical self and the others are progressively subtler, more sublime and less easily perceived. When we view our health through this lens we see that a truly holistic perspective of wellness is offered and Yoga becomes a therapeutic tool that helps us find alignment through all five layers of our five layered self.
The next time you are on your yoga mat, use these contemplations to re-orient and re-align through each of your five layers.
Anandamayakosha – The all pervading layer of bliss.
At our very core, woven into every fiber our being and what is the ultimate fabric of our existence, is our true nature – described by the yogis as “tesase” - luminous, bright, “purnatva” - complete, full, and “shri” – innately perfect just as we are in this moment with all of our blessings and all of our challenges. Take a moment to quiet the mind and re-orient your awareness to the affirmation:
“The Divine dwells in me as me”.
Vjnanamayakosha: The all pervading layer of wisdom body.
Term Vijnana is often translated as “knowing”. Beneath the endless stream of thoughts, opinions, and emotions of our reactive mind is our faculty of discernment, intuition and innate intelligence. It is through this layer of wisdom that we are able to access deep insights into our experience and reflect with clear seeing. Intentionally affirm to yourself:
“I am fully awake to the innate intelligence in my body”.
Manomayakosha: The all pervading layer of thoughts and the emotions
Our mind, thoughts and emotions have the ability to create our moment-to-moment reality. Without our direction the mind tends to travel at the whim of our senses. We see something, it jogs a memory of a painful past event and we are reliving an experience that happened many years ago. We hear something and our mind creates a daydream that takes us out of present moment reality and we pass our exit on the highway. We smell something and pretty soon we have broken the pact we made with ourselves to stay away from sweets. However, once we learn to harness this amazing resource our mind becomes the vehicle by which we manifest the life we so deeply desire. Pause, breathe, and bring into your awareness this profound truth:
“I consciously create my present moment reality through uplifting patterns of thought”.
Pranamayakosha – The all pervading layer of our life force
Prana is our vital energy and most physically expressed through our breath. When we are out of alignment the circulation of our prana becomes sluggish. Just as when the flow of a river becomes stuck and the pool of water stagnant, so it is in our prana body that when they are blocks or tensions in both our physical body and mind our life force stagnates. Use your breath, in yoga practice to bring healing thoughts to areas that need more light.
“My breath flows freely and infuses every cell of my body with life force”.
Annamayakosha – The all pervading layer of our food body
This layer represents the most familiar layer of our physical selves. Interestingly, it is called the food body and implies that we are nourished by and created by what we eat. When we move out of alignment physically either by eating in ways that deplete our life force, or through our habits of daily living “dis-ease” becomes more prevalent in our lives. Each time we come to our practice mat, we have the opportunity to focus on creating balance, “sama”. A well aligned practice helps you to quiet the dominant muscles groups, stabilize the hyper mobile ones, stretch and lengthen what is tight and strengthen what is weak. In this way, with “sama”, an even quality of light (your consciousness) shines through every cell of your physical self.
“With balance as my intention I create health throughout every cell of my physical being”.
Svadhyaya is one of my favorite aspects of the Yoga path. It is this ingredient that helps me become less judgmental, less attached and more accepting of myself, others and the world around me. This word is typically translated as 'self study' which implies an honest, compassionate attention to self reflection. Each one of us has this capacity, especially when we take the time to realize and develop svadhyaya on our yoga mat and at the same time extend it into our daily life. As a result of self- reflection we learn to pause, uproot the patterns which no longer serve us and choose, instead, thoughts and actions which heal our physical body, uplift our relationships and ultimately bring more joy into our lives.
One of the best ways to dive into the practice of svadhyaya is through a deep immersion as part of a supportive group experience. Aloha Yoga Shala’s upcoming Yoga Teacher Training program is open to all sincere students with a deep interest in yoga. In this training, we will create a nurturing community to embrace us as we practice, breathe, study, discuss, meditate, and reflect together. This program will cover the full spectrum of yoga including postures, alignment, adjustments, modifications, pranayama, philosophy, anatomy, meditations and much, much more. The curriculum and assignments in and out of class will provide the road map; our community of like-minded yogis will provide the inspiration.
Sharing yoga is only truly possible when it comes from deep personal experience. If you wish to be supported in self-study to deepen your practice, refine your yoga postures, explore tools for positive change and access your amazing potential, please join us.
Wrist strain, an unwelcome yet common culprit in a yoga flow class, is easily recognized by teachers when they see their students pause to flex, extend or cup their wrists protectively between poses. The biggest instigators of wrist strain are some of our most beloved poses - downward dog, plank, upward dog and any or all of the wide variety of arm balances; basically any pose that bears weight on our hands. Fortunately, with a few alignment principles and practices to strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the hands and forearms wrist discomfort no longer needs to disrupt your practice.
The wrist is anatomically comprised of eight carpal bones crossed at the base of the palm by the transverse carpal ligament. This structure creates a tunnel through which the medial nerve passes. With excessive weight bearing at the base of the wrist, the medial nerve becomes compressed, oxygen and blood flow are restricted and repetitive strain aggravations may develop.
Take moment and a look at your hand, turn the palm face up and notice the area at the base of the wrist that slightly indents just about midway between the wrist on the thumb side and pinkie side. In poses such as downward facing dog, when we collapse our weight to the base of the palm this indent flattens, compressing the transverse carpal ligament and medial nerve. Ultimately for wrist health, one of the key principles of healthy wrists in yoga is to maintain this natural concavity by emphasizing rooting and grounding into the earth through the base of the fingers more so than through the base of the wrists.
There is one more very common, often subtle, misalignment in the hands that tends to compress the carpal bone known as the pisiform bone. This very small pea shaped bone is located on the pinkie side of the hand forming the ulnar (inner forearm) border of the wrist. By design the pisiform was not a weight bearing addition to our complex human form. The pisiform is a sesamoid bone, a bone designed to increase joint mobility whose job it is to hold the tendon far enough away from the center of the joint to prevent its flattening into the joint cavity.
Take downward facing dog pose. Look up and study your hands. Is the base of the index finger lifting off of the mat? Are the nail beds sloping to the outer edge of the hands? Take a look at the energetic direction of the skin on the back of the hands, is it sloping laterally? Anyone of these three indicators suggests that too much weight is falling onto the outer edge of the hands and that pea shape pisiform bone.
The very first principle to create safety in poses that weight bear on the hands is to set a very attentive foundation with precise alignment of the hands, fingers and wrists.
Come into table pose.
1) Take the hands shoulder width apart. To determine what shoulder width apart is draw an imaginary line straight up from the center of the wrist. This line should brush past the outer deltoid muscle. If the hands are too close together the line will intersect the inner armpit, too far apart and the line will bypass the shoulder all together.
2) Orient the crease of your wrists parallel to front edge of mat.
3) Spread the fingers evenly.
4) Root firmly through the 4 points of the hands evenly. The four points are the base of the index finger, base of the thumb, base of the pinkie finger and base of the wrist on the pinkie side. Keep the beds of the nails pointing straight up to the sky.
The second principle to explore is developing healthy muscular patterns to create strength and stability in the muscles of the wrists and forearms. Please note: only proceed with the following exercises if you are pain free. If you experience undo pain or discomfort seek the advice of your medical doctor or schedule a private session with a yoga therapist.
1st exercise: Routing through the Inner Edge. From table position, roll the lower arms in toward one another. Feel this action root the base of the index finger strongly into the earth. This action specifically activates the pronator quadrates and pronator teres muscle. Exaggerate this action for a moment and root firmly though the inner edge of the hand, specifically through the base of the index finger. Allow the pinkie side of the hand to become light. Keep the forearms rolling in and lightly return the outer edge of the hand back to the earth. Balance this action with the external rotation of the upper arms to create space between the shoulder blades.
2nd exercise: Suction Cup. Curl the tips of the fingers into the mat without lifting the knuckles off the earth. Align the nail beds straight up toward the ceiling. Pull slightly back on the finger tips and squeeze the outer edges of the hands toward one another. This effect will create a suction cup sensation so you feel the arch in your palm increase. This work is very subtle muscular work, if the knuckles, base of the fingers or wrist lift up off the earth the actions you are creating are too big. This exercise strengthens the intrinsic muscles of the hands.
3rd exercise: Ridge Top Downward Facing Dog. This is an excellent exercise to strengthen the forearm muscles; it also teaches us the feeling effect of rooting though the base of the fingers. Come into table position with precise attention to your alignment. Lift the wrist and base of the hand up off the mat and point the thumb straight back behind you and place them on the floor. Take a look at the wrist and orient it into a neutral position, avoid the tendency to flex or extend at the wrist joint. Keep rooted through the base of the index finger and orient the beds of the nails straight up to the ceiling. Pause, breathe and check in. If your wrists feel stable keep the hands in this position and press back into downward facing dog.
4th exercise: Putting it all together. Come back into table position, align the center of the wrist with the outer deltoid, align the wrist creases parallel to the front edge of your mat, and spread your fingers evenly. Roll the forearms in and feel the index finger root firmly, keep that, roll the upper arms out. Without lifting your wrists off the floor, press firm through the base of the fingers. Experience this as if you were on ridge tops, curl the tips of the fingers slightly into the earth, pull back on the finger tips isometrically and suction cup the palms feel the center of the palms lift slightly, keep these actions and press into down dog. Keep these actions and rock forward into plank. Use these actions and this detailed awareness in upward facing dog and any or all of your yoga poses which weight bear on the hands.
As yogis we are invited to use the challenges we face on the mat to become more attentive, to listen deeply to our body’s sensate wisdom and to realign our thoughts and actions to create more ease within ourselves and in the world. Ultimately wrist strain in yoga is this invitation; it is an invitation to become more aware, to slow down, take notice, and to reconnect more deeply. When the body sends us signals of discomfort and dis-ease, especially in the joints, listen. Yoga is awareness, a process of a deep attunement, and a humble honoring of our experience.
This week in yoga class I shared Hanuman’s pre-birth conception story with my students.
This is the story where Visnu decides to incarnate once more on planet earth as Lord Ram to help humanity remember how to live the righteous life. As the story opens we are in the presence of Parvati, who is fretting and obsessing, over her husband Shiva’s strange behavior. To a prepubescent love-maddened melody, Shiva is chanting the name RAM over and over again. Parvati thinks “what is Shiva, the great Lord Nataraja, the Divine Dancer, Supreme Consciousness in its purest form, doing chanting the name of someone else?” In an uncontained fit of curiosity warped with suspicion, Parvati climbs up the slopes of Mount Kailasa to Shiva’s personal mountaintop retreat, interrupts his trance and demands that he tell her what he is up to. After a frustrating pause, Shiva emerges from his meditation with a sparkle of mischievous delight in his eyes and tells Parvati of Visnu’s plan to incarnate once more. “There is a buzz in the universe, all the Gods and Godesses are talking, the latest craze is manifesting. Everyone wants to go with Visnu and be together to celebrate. This will be an epic festival, an awe inspiring adventure, a wanderlust of galactic proportions.“ Shiva continues, “Parvati, I want to go too. This time I want to manifest into a form where I can be of complete service to Visnu and his mission. I am sitting here chanting and contemplating what form to take. If I choose human form, I will be on equal terms with Ram. If I come as a dog, a form too subservient, I will not be able to fully serve.” In an awakened flash of ojas-infused inspiration, Shiva exclaims, “I have got it! I will go as a monkey. “
Parvati reels, unconvinced. “Shiva, you can’t trust a monkey! Embody into a nice form. Monkeys are dirty; they are mischievous and rascally creatures.”
Alive with the enthusiasm, Shiva explains. “Parvati, monkeys are the perfect maya. As a monkey I will be truly free, I will not be constrained by class system requirements, I will not need a house or clothes, I will not need to cook my food or pay a mortgage. I will be truly free, radically unencumbered, and able to offer this freedom to Visnu’s worthy mission. Who would think that monkeys are devoted enough to serve? I will incarnate as a monkey and be all a monkey is not."
Caught up with Shiva in the pulsation of a great idea currently manifesting, Parvati exclaims, “Oh Shiva, I will go too. I will join you; I will come as your tail!” And so Pure Consciousness, in consort with a Shakti filled tail, takes the form of Hanuman and the famous bhakti yogi takes form.
A great, present day philosopher, Douglas Brooks, passed this story and a road map for its interpretation on to me. His road map is to invite us to think of ourselves as every character in the story in possession of every attribute that every character has. For me, placing myself into the story in this way invites some pretty profound reflections, mostly in the form of questions—deep questions that I often don’t take the time to find answers to.
You will notice that each character in this story— Visnu, Shiva and Parvati—has taken form to be in service to something greater than themselves. The very first question then, is, “What am I, and what are you, in service of?” In this embodiment, what is your highest purpose? The world is in need of positive transformation. It needs us. What is your unique contribution to assist that?”
Interestingly, Shiva spent time deep in contemplation being very intentional in his decision about how he would incarnate, and he chose the form of a monkey in order to be absolutely empowered, unencumbered, and completely free. He offered this freedom not for selfish gains but to be completely in service to Ram and Ram’s mission.
Did you, did I, do the same? Did you intentionally choose your current life, in all of its complexities and sometimes what appears as imprisoning limitations, in order to recognize and embrace your own empowerment and freedom? If so, do you, do I, do we support ourselves enough to honor our full empowerment? Do we make the choices we need to make in order to cultivate our powerful, luminous unencumbered and radically free nature?
The story implies that we can’t be a liability to what we serve; we need to let go of or rise above the things that get in the way. In the story the things that get in the way are metaphorically represented by class system requirements: clothes, cooked food, and bills to pay. Lets keep this real; we all need to wear clothes to function in the world, but what are your liabilities, what are the attitudes and practicalities that hold you back?
To be that positive change maker, we need to have the basics covered: money, home, relationship, self esteem, compassion and ability to live in truth. We need to have the time to listen and honor our intuitive voice and see our inner vision. The element of faith and trust comes into play. When we are aligned, the universe will support us and provide the means for us to carry out our deepest vision in support of positive planetary transformation. Once we are aligned enough, we can make manifest our unique gifts and offer these in service to that something greater. In order to fully serve, we need to first create a fully empowered life.
Many images of Hanuman show him with his heart wide open— ripped open, in fact. Inside of his heart sits Ram’s image or sometimes Ram with his consort Sita. Hanuman placed his highest purpose, what he was truly dedicated to, directly into his spiritual center (not, you will note, into his mind). He placed his highest purpose into the very fabric of his being.
This Hanuman story provides a few secret keys to leading an empowered and fulfilled life. It tells me, “Lead that radical life. Gain clarity around your true purpose. Allow yourself to be empowered. Make it happen. Recognize where you play small and begin to shift that. Place your unique vision into your spiritual heart, nestle it into the fabric of your being and allow Grace to unfold.”
And that, from Hanuman himself, is true Monkey power!
In my experience, the richness of the Yamas (ethical observances described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras) comes by exploring below their surface, looking for the subtleties in their meaning and journeying into their murky depths. It is here we find their treasures, jewels that illuminate the path to a place within where our direct access to love, peace and joy is more readily accessible. Asteya, the third Yama, is often and commonly translated as “non-stealing”. On face value, this translation sounds pretty much like what I learned growing up and secretly leaves me to wonder why I need to revisit this again in Yoga class. These blanket statements of virtue, without discussion or reflection, tend to make my rebellious self rear its head and rather than become defiant as I might have as a teen, I most certainly choose to use my time to focus on something else more interesting. Amazingly, however, I have found that the deep inspiration of Asteya, is accessed through digesting Patanjali’s entire sutra.
Yoga Sutra 2.37 says
Asteya pratisthayam sarva ratna upasthanam
“When one is established in refrainment from stealing, all jewels manifest.”
The wisdom of Patanjali is that he does not give us the full meaning of Asteya in a literal fashion. The word “sutra” means thread and these short phrases are threads, meant to be unpacked, contemplated, and ruminated over, chewed on again and again. It is through the very act of chewing and ruminating that we begin to digest their meaning, absorb their offerings and their perspective begins to awaken in us the path to our true Self. This approach does not summon in me the rebel within, rather it invokes my curious nature, the part of myself that wants to figure out the riddle and find the more I know is there.
Although there are many levels of exploration worthy of self-reflection on this one topic, this month my contemplations have focused on the aspect of Asteya, which lies within our Matrika (subtle inner speech). As we practice yoga asana on the mat and navigate daily life, Matrika invites us to become aware of our habits of thought and self-talk. It is here, with Asteya as the lens to look through, many questions of interest arise.
- In yoga class, when I focus on my limitations, am I robbing myself of the opportunity to honor myself fully?
- Are there moments when I wish I had the strength (flexibility or alignment) of someone else in the room? Do all these wishes and wants actually take me away from the opportunity to be grateful for what I have?
- Do I spend my time in Parsvakonasana (side angle pose) wishing it was still my 30 year old body (or my body 20 pounds lighter) doing the pose? Do these thoughts of desire for what I do not have steal me away from my own inner fulfillment?
- On my yoga mat does my mind wander to the past, rehashing the day, or draw me into thoughts of the future? Are my thoughts of the past and future stealing me away from the present moment and a fully lived life?
- Swami Sivananda says that “Desire is the root cause of all stealing”. Does my desire for what is not, steal me away from the magnificence of what is?
The practice of Matrika is about bringing the often, unconscious inner dialog we use to view our world, to the conscious level. The next step is applying this awareness of our mind speak, to shift what does not serve us and refocus our attention on that which does. Always, in my personal experience, coming back to the breath, again and again, helps me to redirect my minds less inspiring tendencies. Each exhalation provides the opportunity to let go, empty out, release all wishes and wants and relinquish my critical mind. The magnificence of each inhalation is in the opportunity to become more open to the beauty of this moment, right now. Contemplating Asteya from the perspective of our inner journey leads us to ultimately become more accepting of ourselves and more open to what the present moment has to offer. Through adopting an attitude of gratefulness we learn to embrace all we already have. Our lives are abundant, we have enough, and we are enough right now. In my opinion, these are the jewels that Patanjali alludes to in his sutra, the treasure is reconnecting to the essence of life, realigning, again and again, with the source of our blessing.
Recently at Yoga Centered students and teachers have been invited to contemplate together, in their practice both on and off their mats, the illuminative world of the Yamas (ethical precepts of restraint). These yamas are the very first limb of Patanaji's eight-fold path of Classical Yoga, a path which leads us toward the promise of enlightenment, or how I like to think of it, which leads us toward the doorway of enlightened everyday living.
Contemplation of the yamas are an invitation to expand our inner life, a barometer by which to self reflect, a way to examine our actions, words, thoughts and intentions, not in order to become judgmental or critical of ourselves or others, but rather a way to look at ourselves honestly with compassion, to find integrity, and make the choices which lead us to express our authenticity as we navigate daily life.
This month, the Yama of contemplation is Satya, which can be translated as truthfulness, authenticity or genuineness.
As a child, of a New York, Irish, Catholic family, my values around truth were pretty black and white. If you told the truth you were good, if you did not, you were bad. Truth telling leads you to heaven and well, not telling the truth…. you get the idea. The really crazy thing was that in my childhood brain, each month when I went to confession (a common ritual of my particular culture), I used to be so nervous about what the priest would think of me that I would often tell untruths so as not to expose who I really was. Yoga, as you can imagine, came as a welcome relief to this convoluted existence.
Yoga asks that as we contemplate Satya, we keep Ahimsa in mind. This means that we cultivate non-harming, fostering loving kindness for both others and ourselves first. Truth is the second level. Yoga also suggests that the yamas are a continuum, they are not black and white, yes or no, right or wrong. It is not just that we are either a truthful person or an
untruthful one. On one end of this continuum there are outright spoken lies meant to harm, then, this progresses into something along the lines of, not lying but not really owning up when necessary either. Further along this continuum is maintaining true thoughts, words and deeds while ultimately being genuine and authentic to who we really are. This, I find a much more valuable place to reflect.
Living with Satya, is about finding authenticity, it is about being who you are and not apologizing for it. It is about giving yourself the permission to celebrate your inner light and its unique expression with those around you.
To contemplate this, questions I find helpful are:
- What is my inner nature and how can I align with that authentically, completely honestly?
- In what situations do I allow my inner light to fade?
- How often do I allow the opinions on the outside to trump the voice of my inner vision?
- What is the balance between not boasting and bragging but not diminishing myself either?
- How does it make me feel when I choose not to honor my authenticity?
- When I am truthful, do my actions create more love or more harm in the world?
- In what ways could I celebrate my unique gifts and unique self-expression with those around me more?
May we, and all beings everywhere, live with authenticity and allow our true radiance to ripple out into the world.
- If you read Patanaji, the sutra on satya (II.36) says:Satya pratisthayam kriya phala asrayatvam“For one established in the truth the result fits the action.”To me, I think that this means that when the voice of our inner vision shines with great clarity, what manifests is our deepest intentions.
Namaste Liz ☺