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Yoga: A Spiritual Practice – Part I

Today, in our modern Western culture, yoga is everywhere! The term conjures varying images in people’s minds; some think of isolated bearded “gurus” sitting in the famous lotus pose (cross-legged with feet drawn in to rest against the top of the thighs), somewhat unaffected by reality, while others often associate yoga with matters relating to health, longevity and fitness.  Due to yoga classes being offered so freely in the West, it has somewhat become commoditised and lost its true meaning.

It is difficult to neatly define yoga within the boundaries of traditional Western maxims.  In the West, many view yoga as a collection of physical exercises that bring health, vigour and even cure illness. Although these are certainly some of the physical benefits of practicing yoga, it is its spiritual end that is too often, if not always, divorced, where the tendency is to reduce yoga to nothing more than a sport, physical discipline or therapy.  Another misconception is that yoga is an abstract, godless mysticism embraced by pagans and hippies which leads one to artificial isolation where one is somewhat out of touch with daily life.  A correct understanding of yoga can be described as a way to spiritual liberation that demands a concrete arrangement of feelings and actions.

So what makes yoga authentic? How do you know that you are receiving the correct discipline, practices and theory being passed onto you from your yoga teacher?

“…yoga is a path to undo the root of all types of misery through the direct experience of deep, clear, open awareness.”

~ Richard Freeman

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Yoga Aid: 2012

The Yoga Aid Challenge was a huge success! Thank you to all in the local community who contributed in some way to this success.  We had 46 participants and raised $1340 on the night alone! Thank you Claire Schafer, Sam Ballantyne and Fionna Findley for your incredible support – you have been the dream team!

“Giving is living, living is learning,
learning is knowing, knowing is growing,
growing is giving and giving is living.
That is the cycle of life.”

~H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji

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Coming up: Yoga Aid September 2012

“Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.”
~ J.M Barrie

The Dream Team: Sam Ballantyne, Claire Schafer, myself and Fionna Findley

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Nada Yoga: Music and Yoga

Nada is a Sanskrit word which means sound and the nadam is referred to as one’s inner guru (teacher) or inner guide and it is said that one who is devoted to the inner guru, the nada, the inner music, obtains the highest bliss!

 In class, I often talk about pratyahara, the withdrawing of the senses by shutting out as many external sights and sounds as possible.  The first stage of pratyahara is to become still and quiet and allow an inner tranquillity to permeate the senses.  This can often be difficult for us to do! So one skill to work on first is to fine-tune our ability to listen externally, so then we can have the ability to listen internally. 

 Nada yoga involves a deep listening to the body, to its inner sounds and acoustics.  It also involves listening deeply to the music of the natural world.  Music can play an invaluable role in a yoga practice that is dedicated to enlightenment. Uplifting, spiritually directed music during asana practice as well as chanting can be used in yoga classes to refine hearing. 

 Music can conjure different emotions – it can make you feel happy, jealous, aggressive, calm, depressed or elevated.  It is evident that music has the power to transcend the thinking mind and good music can help bring about an expanded state of consciousness.  It has been said that good music has no literal meaning and it longs to connect us to the divine.  This deep spirituality of music is embedded in traditional Indian music.  Music is seen as a spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss.  Ravi Shankar, the famous Indian musician, says that “our tradition teaches us that sound is God.  Musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realisation of the Self.” 

 “One who desires complete dominion of yoga should thus explore the nada with an attentive mind and abandon all thoughts.”  ~Hatha Yoga Pradipika IV:93

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Who is your Guru?

In the month of July, it is tradition to acknowledge our gurus.  The word ‘guru’ is the Sanskrit term for “teacher”.  ‘Gu’ means darkness, ignorance, that which obscures beauty and truth.  ‘Ru’ means ‘that which removes’.  So guru is interpreted as one who removes ignorance or darkness. 

 In the West, the concept of guru can seem mysterious and difficult to accept.  You may be asking, “How do I find my guru?”.  A guru is a teacher who imparts insights and revelations to you about Yoga.  A guru may also help one to come to know truth.  We are each other’s gurus and you can be your own guru! Traditionally (and still present today), yoga is a tradition that is passed on from guru to student.  In the West we have established teacher training courses and in just a couple months, one can be certified as a yoga teacher! Tradition however saw a much closer relationship between guru and student whereby the student develops a respect and love for the teacher with the same respect and love they have for the Divine.  In this tradition, knowledge is passed on over many many years and it is only after years of dedicated and loyal practice as a student that a guru may bestow the honour of ‘teacher’ to their student. 

 Yoga teachers must uphold the moral and ethical principles of yoga.  Three necessary criteria for a good teacher are:

Lineage: the teacher should have had direct transmission of knowledge from his or her own teachers.  The teacher also should have been blessed to teach by his or her teachers. Practice: the teacher must have a regular daily practice.
the teacher must love the students so much that he or she is willing to sacrifice anything to serve them.

I often think of my best teachers as being demanding, yet gentle where the asana (posture) practice becomes a mere structure for the real work, which is transformation.  

In my case, I feel blessed to have had extraordinary teachers over the years of my yoga practice and especially blessed for my guru of 9 years, Eileen.    You continue to ‘remove the darkness’ even though my body is far away from you.  I pay homage and respect to all the extraordinary teachers I am blessed to have had and continue to have and I bow in devotion to them and my teachers’ teachers and their teachers… This is my lineage.  To the late Patthabi Jois, Guruji.  You are our Ashtanga father and are greatly missed.  Namaste. 

 “The guru said to the disciple:
You have three jobs.  Your first job is to find me.  Your second is to love me.  Your third is to leave me”  ~Indian Proverb

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The Guest House

The human being is a guest house
Every morning there is a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor

Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house
and empty it from its furniture
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.


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How do you hold your Asana?

Asana is often referred to as posture and is the aspect of yoga practice that is often misunderstood and taken for the sum of all yoga practice, rather than one aspect of yoga.

Asana literally means “seat” and is the seated position or posture where one’s body is firm but relaxed.  It is about certain ways of holding the body along with certain attitudes.  One must be in a meditative state when practicing asana and these certain movements promote concentration of the spirit and inner connectedness.  The aim of asana is to achieve an effortless alertness where one’s body is focused on the infinite.

In the yoga sutras, Patanjali describes asana as ‘stirum, sukem, asanam’ – steady and comfortable.  It is important to remain supple when moving in and out of postures and opening to the flow of energy, breath and awareness.  Avoid holding poses rigidly in body and in mind.  Stay soft and hold your asana with awareness and suppleness.

Ultimately, asana is a means to prepare the body for spiritual exercises, with less obstacles, in order to find union with the divine, be it God, Allah, Christ or a simply the universe.

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Ujjayi breath

Ujjayi breath is often known as Victorious breath.  It is most often used with the practice of vinyasa (breath-synchronised movement).  Ujjayi means “to conquer” or “to be victorious”. 

Ujjayi breath is highly beneficial as it concentrates and directs the breath, giving asana practice extra power and focus.  It also helps quiet the mind and slows and smooths the flow of breath.  The breath slightly constricts the back of the throat, the glottis.  You can imagine fogging up a pair of glasses, where the breath is like a sigh – that is the type of breath Ujjayi is.  This constriction of the glottis is done on the inhale and exhale and it creates an ocean like sound (some also describe it as a Darth Vadar sound).  It takes some practice to control the throat on both the inhale and exhale and once this is achieved, you can gently close the lips and breath through the nose.  This is Ujjayi breath.  Although the nose does the breathing, the Ujjayi breath is often called the ocean breath because as the air is inhaled, it passes through the throat. 

 Try to even out the inhale and exhale in Ujjayi breath to help focus on awareness and prevent the mind from wandering.  Ujjayi also assists in creating heat in the body which is said to release toxins from the body and mind.  It also provides more resistance during your asana practice. 

 The breath should be louder than your internal dialogue and loud enough for your neighbour to hear.  This helps keep the mind aware of the present moment and also allows the yogi to change from one asana to the next with ease and grace.  

 This video can be useful to help develop this practice of Ujjayi. 

 Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind.  ~Patanjali (translated from Sanskrit)

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To Bandha or not to Bandha

You have often heard me say in class, “engage your bandhas” and I most frequently refer to uddiyana and mula bandha.  In fact there are three classic bandhas: mula, uddiyana and jalandhara bandha.   These are often referred to as ‘energy locks’ and the paradox is that these energy locks, when engaged, work to unlock energy within the practitioner

 The energy lock is basically the subtle sustained contraction of a group of muscles.  Bandhas are used while holding asanas (postures) and moving in and out of asanas. 

 Mula bandha, known as the root lock is the subtle contraction of the muscles around the pelvic and perineum area.  Uddiyana bandha, known as the navel lock, is the subtle contraction of the muscles of the lower abdominal area .  This bandha is referred to frequently in asana practice as it supports breathing and encourages core strength. Jalandhara bandha, the throat lock, is where the chin is lowered towards the chin and the sternum is lifted. 

 The three main benefits of engaging the bandhas are:

  1. Strengths the core muscles
  2. Stimulates the digestive organs and elimination
  3. Creates a lightness in yoga practice

 “You cannot always control what goes on outside.
But you can always control what goes on inside.”  ~ unknown

Grace's Blog

Food, Fasting & Yoga

Recently I did a 5 day juice fast.  Before the fast I felt like my insides were clogged up and each time I ate anything, I felt it getting worse.  Bloating, feeling heavy and full despite how little I was eating.  I decided that it was basically best to get a dustpan and broom and do a good sweep of my insides.  So I went shopping and got a range of fruit and vegetables ready to be squeezed through my juicer.  I used a special program I had passed onto me by a friend.

I had 4 juices a day and the last night I had a warm broth.  The first day, I focused on sipping my juices slowly and mindfully and appreciated every nutrient my glass of juice had to offer.  The second day I was getting used to my routine and by the third day I felt it quite unusual that I hadn’t chewed with my teeth for a while! By the third day I was so mindful of every juice I consumed that I felt full on one glass of juice.  I did feel my energy low at times but also high other times.  After 5 days of a juice fast, I drank juice and pureed soup for another 5 days.  Consuming heavy food straight after a fast is not recommended!

The greatest reward of this fast that I felt was the ‘hollow’ yet completely content feeling in my belly and my entire digestive system.  My yoga practice deepened and I felt connected to my bandhas, my breath and my body on a much deeper level.  I have now made a personal commitment to do a juice fast regularly.  I am now due for my next one! It is a great way to give our digestive system a break and to connect with the body and mind on a spiritual level more regularly.  Even one day a fortnight is a great way to start and maintain a healthy system.

If you do decide to fast, it is important to find a good program with guidelines and the right juices.  The juices vary with fruit, vegetable as well as herbs.  Let me know if you’re interested in a fast and I can recommend what may be best for you.

Some of the benefits of fasting:

  • Helps promote physical and emotional health, by rejuvenating the body.
  • Helps lower cholesterol and normalise blood pressure. 
  • Helps overcome addictions.
  • Brings the mind awareness to the ‘divine’ and away from overconsumption and greed. 
  • Alleviates disorders of the gastrointestinal system, constipation, bloating and gastritis. 
  • Improves mental alertness – cleans toxins out of the lymphatic system and blood stream. 
  • Rejuvenates the digestive system, giving the digestive system a much needed rest. 
  • Quiets allergic reactions, including asthma and hay fever. 
  • Clears the skin and whitens the eyes. 

 “Fasting is simply a process of deep physiological rest. This rest period helps you rebuild functioning power and recover from the energy dissipation caused by hectic daily schedules and abusive living habits.” Frank Sabatino, D.C., Ph.D.