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Sanskrit: modern context for ancient practice

Sanskrit Foundation

Have you wondered why Sanskrit is used to describe yoga? Yes, it’s a dead language and might seem unnecessarily arcane in the yoga studio. But consider that Sanskrit contains a nuance that require several English words to express. Sanskrit terms are handy because yoga philosophy and ideas can be expressed in a concise way.

For example:

Yoga (derived from Sanskrit yuj): the union of the self with the divine. To yoke. In the Yoga Sutra 1.2, Patanjali defines yoga as “the restriction of the whirls of consciousness.” Yoga is slippery in its definition but describing the practice with its Sanskrit word captures the essence of yoga without needing excessive description.

Samadhi: placing, putting together. The putting together of consciousness and objectiveness. The understanding of the self in relation to the other. The existence within the self while simultaneously escaping the confines of the ego.

Samadhi is the eighth limb of yoga and is tricky to understand, much less articulate. Carl Jung took a stab at describing why the concept of Samadhi is best left in its root word. He said that it’s used without definite meaning but instead represents a concept that can only be understood through broad conception of theory. He compares it to asking a man in India what grass feels like. Rather than describing a blade of grass, the man will show you a meadow filled with different types of grass. The concept is articulated by a broad description. Samadhi is a single word that articulates the broad concept of transcendence.

Spiritual Geography

Sanskrit provides a spiritual geography for the practice. The use of the language manifests the ideas of the practice. By representing ideas rather than translating the words, the landscape of the practice is relevant and accessible to modern yogis.

Consider two Sanskrit words: virabhdrasana and avidya

virabhdrasana A, B and C (the warrior series) represent the battle against avidya (the ego).

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Warrior Two – Battling the ego

Avidya translates to ignorance, misunderstanding and incorrect knowledge. The warrior poses are an allegorical battle against fundamental misunderstanding of the self.

Yoga is the restriction of the whirls of consciousness. Samadhi (the “goal” of yoga) is existence while escaping the confines of the ego, avidya is misunderstanding of who you are and the warrior poses are your physical self, doggedly carrying on in spite of it all.

Mistaking passing thoughts and experiences as the totality of existence is an example of avidya. Believing that the abject misery of a romantic breakup is your true state is a misunderstanding of yourself. Thinking that the bliss of vacation will last forever is also avidya. It’s not that bliss and misery can’t consume you, it’s that your true self is a moment-to-moment awareness: experiences and thoughts are impermanent reflections of you.

Confusing sorrow with joy is another example of avidya. Convincing yourself that you’ll be happy when you get a promotion or when your husband cooks you dinner is failing to understand that happiness occurs now.  It’s not that these things don’t equate to joy, but their absence must not create sorrow.

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timeless

The warrior poses represent the complex and unending battle with your ego. You practice the warrior poses as a way to battle misunderstanding of your true self. Instead of that misunderstanding, you seek to understand yourself in the present moment of consciousness.

Practicing yoga seems simple in its execution, but complex in its description. The battle of misunderstanding is relevant for everyone, regardless of creed, religion or generation. Everyone struggles against the whirls of consciousness and strives for contentment in the present moment. The timeless nature of the battle is represented with Sanskrit. Universal concepts are summarized with concise words. Sanskrit words inform the practice as a representation of the collective struggle.

Sanskrit is no longer a living language, but its use lives on in the practice of yoga. Using Sanskrit to describe yoga provides enduring context to a modern practice. Understanding the concepts of yoga using the descriptive terms of Sanskrit is a tool to inform your understanding of yourself, your health and wellness and your relationship with the world around you. The greater your knowledge of Sanskrit words, the richer your practice will be.

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Integrating yoga philosophy: the Koshas

Understanding yogic philosophy is daunting! It can be difficult to convince yourself that there is more to yoga than physical poses. Yoga classes are so focused on doing the poses, that practitioners might wonder what else there is to yoga besides stretching and balancing in awkward poses.

Most people who come to a yoga class really do want the vigorous part of the practice – they want to stretch, work their muscles and get the blood flowing in their bodies. It’s the physical asana that tends to calm people and satisfy their craving for movement. In the warmth of that calm, philosophical teachings become meaningful and relevant.

The koshas are a way to explain the layers of yoga. By envisioning the self as a series of layers, yogis can start to understand their true purpose. Furthermore, understanding the koshas in harmony with other philosophical aspects of the practice gives yoga meaning beyond a physical workout.

Studying yoga reveals that the central intention of yoga is to understand and have knowledge of the self. “Knowledge” is the emphatic belief that there is only the present moment and that the self is inextricably united with the present moment and nothing more.

The quest to understand the self is as timeless as humanity itself. Modern yogis are no different from their predecessors in their search to understand who they are, what their purpose is and what it’s all for. Without a sense of clarity, the daily drudgery of activities can seem toxic, pointless and without merit. By examining the five koshas, the layers of the self, yogis can arrive at a state of bliss and understanding about who they are in relation to the world.

Annamaya kosha, Physical sheath

Awareness of physical sensations. The physical body is the most obvious part of the self. It’s the part the world sees first. Awareness of annamaya kosha brings attention to how the body reacts to external force such as exercise, accidents or substances. Reluctance to truly feel the physical body and to understand its needs can result in feeling unwell. Yoga poses draw attention to the physical body and instruct you how to treat your body to avoid injury. Awareness of what you eat and how you move will instruct you on how to take care of your body. Becoming aware of annamaya kosha teaches you how to nurture and honour your physical self. This awareness contributes to ease and a sense of peace to your life.

Exercise: Physical awareness. Think about your skin. Visualize how it protects your organs, bones and muscles. Think about your muscles. Visualize how they work together to propel your body. Visualize your organs. Heart, liver, kidney…. Envision how these organs take care of your body. How they work together. Now focus on one organ. Hold it in your attention. If other thoughts pop into your head, label them (“thought”), and bring your attention back to one organ. Notice the appreciation you feel for the physical body as a system. Understanding annamaya kosha gives you an appreciation for how your body works and how you take care of it.

Pranamaya kosha, life force sheath

Awareness of the breath. Pranamaya kosha is the breath and the life force that flows through and around the body. It’s an energy that you can feel within yourself and that can be felt by others around you. Energetic, dull, lethargic, buoyant, excited, calm…these are all descriptions that describe your energetic life force.

Exercise: Breath control. Notice how your breath flows in and out of your lungs without you consciously needing to do it. The breath is one of the only subconscious needs that can also be harnessed and controlled. Observe how you can control your breath and that you can calm yourself down or energize yourself by changing the pattern of your breath.

Manomaya kosha, mental sheath

Awareness of ideas and behaviour. Emotions and thoughts punctuate your day. Manomaya kosha is the layer of thoughts and ideas that make sense of the world around. This is a layer of feelings and emotions that arise in response to external stimuli. Noticing this layer of mental awareness is necessary; reacting to every thought is not necessary. Manomaya kosha contains thought patterns that have been created by absorbing information from family, culture and perceptions of the world. These thought patterns are worth noticing because they describe the world around you and create a running narrative. The trick is to notice the thought pattern, be non-reactive to it and realize that thought patterns can be modified.

Exercise: Self-inquiry. Write down a situation in your life that has recently changed. Write down three thoughts about it. Now, one at a time, examine each thought. Ask: “how would I feel without this thought?” Notice a change in breath and awareness of self. Now consciously replace each thought with “I have the freedom to choose my reactions,” “There are numerous ways to examine this situation.”

Vijnamaya kosha, the wisdom sheath

The ability to observe the body and mind without judgement. Vijnamaya kosha is wisdom, intuition and knowledge of self. Awareness of this layer will provide insight into who you are. It’s like finding the flow state in work or sports or art. A feeling of transcendence where purpose and intention become clear. Access to vijnamaya kosha arrives when the first three koshas (body, breath, emotions) are peeled away and you can access the intuitive self.

A yoga practice for this is to focus on the third eye (spot in between the eyebrows). This is where intuition is housed. By quietly focusing on that spot, true information about the self can be revealed. For some, access to vijnamaya kosha will be revealed through a vigorous vinyasa practice. For others, a quiet introspective pose of forward folds like supported paschimottanasana or child’s pose will provide access to intuition.

Exercise: Complete concentration. Choose an activity that you love and that challenges you. Whether it’s work, making art, playing sports, writing, reading. Give yourself time to focus wholly on the activity and continue to do it even if you feel the desire for distraction. Distractions abound – social media, chores, pets – but you have the power to ignore the distractions so you can lose yourself in the flow state of the activity. Observe how that feeling of transcendence guides you to a greater purpose.

The next time you practice yoga, recall the absorbing feeling of being in a flow state. See if you can find that transcendence in your practice. From that transcendence, patiently wait to see what your true self, your intuition, reveals to you.

Anandamaya kosha, the bliss sheath

Awareness of the true self. This most hidden sheath is acutely felt through the instinct that life itself is good; that being alive is worth it. Revealing this sheath is to understand that life is its own reward. Mantra and meditation are a tool to connect with anandamaya kosha. The information that reveals itself is that love is the ultimate state of being.

These statements aren’t to mean that emotional ups and downs are not going to happen, rather that contentment and acceptance of all moods is possible.

Peeling back the layers to reveal anandamaya kosha and finding yourself in the bliss body is more of a visceral feeling than an intellectual one. It’s a subtle awareness that everything is as it should be, that love and joy are the foundation of the universe and that happiness is possible for all.

Exercise: Meditation. Practice sitting quietly, alone and without distraction. Practice acceptance of your physical body, of your breath and of your emotions. Some days it won’t work and you won’t be able to find bliss and contentment. But some days it will work. You’ll feel simultaneously grounded and buoyant and content with who you are. With practice, this awareness of bliss, of anandamaya kosha, will be increasingly easy to remember and you’ll be able to tackle life’s challenges with acceptance and compassion, and understand that the present moment is really all there is.

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Mindful Meditation for Peace of Mind

You don’t have to practice yoga every day. But when you need your practice, you’re going to wish you’d been practicing every day.

Yoga is a physical, emotional and psychological practice. The physical part, the poses, is the most obvious. The emotional and psychological components of a yoga practice are much harder to understand. But tapping into the emotional, mindful and psychological aspect of yoga presents a platform for training the mind to avoid negative self-talk and unnecessary distractions. Try practicing mindfulness meditation as a way to navigate difficult experiences, understand interpersonal relations and ease the suffering of yourself and those around you.

When the body is suffering, there are tools that can be used for healing. Tools such as resting sore muscles, splinting broken bones or massaging tired muscles are all useful for healing what ails the physical body. On the contrary, when the mind is tired or emotional pain is present, the tools necessary to heal are not as apparent. The subtle body and the mind present great complexity and require tools such as mindfulness yoga for healing.

There will always be suffering. Emotional suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition. Heartbreak, loss, failure, rejection…these are just a few examples of suffering that every human will experience. The attachment to this suffering is optional. As children, our personality structure is based on seeking love from the environment. Seeking and finding love is a strategy of the ego and children must pursue love and acceptance as a survival technique. As we reach adulthood, however, the pursuit of love, acceptance and pleasure creates a false sense of self. Constantly seeking approval and love from external sources represents the inherent idea that we are “not enough” as we are and thus suffering ensues when external circumstances of love and acceptance change or disappear.

The strategy for navigating difficult emotions and indulging in less suffering is to train the mind and heart to be free of misunderstanding of the true self. Mindfulness meditation is the tool. Our lives are a collection of stories and the challenge is to understand that these stories are not the totality of our existence.

By understanding that experiences and situations are often beyond our control, we can escape the assumption that experiences and emotions represent our faults as humans.

The intention of mindfulness meditation is to develop a strength where sensations such as emotions are present, but not threatening.

Our greatest challenge to misunderstanding ourselves is interpersonal relationships. If, as Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” then how can we escape that hell? Sartre did not mean this literally; as in, he didn’t mean that other people are poisonous villains. What he meant was that much of our understanding of ourselves comes from the knowledge that other people already have of us. Our interactions with family, friends, strangers and coworkers creates parameters for how we are judged. In turn, we judge ourselves by the same criteria. If we can escape this judgement and stop allowing other people’s perception of us to be the dogmatic definition of ourselves, we can achieve a sense of peace and a deeper understanding of ourselves.

A heart-cultivation practice is a mindfulness meditation technique that acknowledges the other people around us, but does not focus on the mutual judgements and expectations we have for each other. This is a strategy for exercising the four qualities of the heart. It’s a useful strategy for managing difficult emotional times, but is most beneficial if it’s part of a regular practice.

  • Loving kindness
  • Compassion
  • Sympathetic job
  • Equanimity

Loving Kindness (metta)

Loving kindness is an inclusive, unconditional love for all living beings. It is not based on “merit,” and has no expectations of anything in return.

Start with yourself.

May I feel at home in my life.

May I trust the process of my life

May I feel patience with my circumstances

May I be free from harm

May I find peace and joy in this world

May I be happy

Next move on to a neutral person. This can be someone with whom you have limited interactions. For example, someone that you see on your daily commute to work or the receptionist at the gym or the cashier at the grocery store. Practice sending loving kindness to this person with whom you have no positive or negative interactions with. A neutral relationship.

May he feel at home in his life

May he trust the process of his life

May he feel patience with his circumstances

May he be free from harm

May he find peace and joy in this world

May he be happy

Finally, if you feel ready, move on to someone with whom you have a very trying relationship. Do the best you can.

To the best of my ability, I wish her comfort in her own life.

To the best of my ability, I wish her patience with her own circumstances

To the best of my ability, I wish her freedom from harm

To the best of my ability, I wish her happiness and health

Compassion (karuna)

Practice compassion by taking note of all the stages of suffering. Refrain from seeing suffering as a binary creation. Suffering is more than a start point and an end point. Suffering is a string of constituent parts and to be compassionate is to look at what is happening and look at the circumstances that gave rise to it. Being compassionate is the ability to recognize and be with pain and know that it is not personal. Rather, the experience of pain can be construed as a welcoming to the human family.

Practice compassion by choosing a person who you know is suffering. Focus on their experience.

May he be free from pain and suffering

May he grant himself permission to love

May he forgive those who have hurt him

By developing a feeling of compassion in your heart, you are cultivating an energy. By practicing this compassion, you are allowing this energy to grow and propagate.

Sympathetic Joy (Mudita)

Create sympathetic joy by acknowledging joy in the simplicity and finding joy in other people’s joy. This is a challenging practice, but it’s important to remember that someone else’s joy does not take away from your own potential for joy. The opponents of joy are envy and jealousy, but by unselfishly noticing someone else’s joy, the poisonous opposite feelings can dissolve.

May her feelings of joy be abundant

May she feel joy in the simplicity of her life

Equanimity (Upekkha)

Equanimity is love plus insight and is characterized as evenmindedness. Cultivating equanimity creates a skill set where you are not thrown off balance by your experiences. It is a recognition that all experiences, good and bad, are impermanent and that participation in the human experience will always present highs and lows, but neither needs to define you

I love all beings and understand that all their experiences are impermanent

I love all beings and understand that making space for love, compassion, joy               and kindness is the way to peace, not clinging to craving, jealousy, envy, pleasure or fear.

Conclusion

A regular mindfulness meditation practice is a tool for achieving emotional stability. By cultivating loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, we can participate in the human experience with ease and understand that our experiences are not the sum total of our existence.

A traumatic or difficult experience may prove to be the catalyst to start practicing mindfulness, but the practice will be of most use if it’s done regularly. You don’t need to practice yoga every day, but when you need your practice, you’re going to wish you had practiced every day.