Maui Yoga Blog

Yoga: Beyond the Asana Practice

“How liberating it is: to pursue wholeness instead of perfection.” -Morgan Harper Nichols.

“Enlightenment is when a wave realizes it is the ocean.” -Thich Nhat Hanh.

On the first day of a yoga teacher training, one of my mentors invited the group to introduce ourselves, share a personal anecdote, and answer the question: what is yoga to you? We were allotted a few moments to write down our answers before we went around in a circle to share.

I scrawled the initial thoughts that came to me in my notebook. “Yoga is a way to release excess energy before it manifests as anxiety. It is a time to sit with myself and really think about and process past trauma. It is a way to connect with those around you without words.” My classmates each had varying narratives about how yoga had impacted them, eventually bringing them to the room we were sitting in together.

At that time, I thought of this as my first day venturing into adikara: studentship. Of course, I had practiced asana, the physical exercise aspect of yoga, for several years before I began the teacher training. My motivation was the physical benefits: better sleep, toned muscles, relaxed nervous system, improved joint longevity, and greater mobility, as well as the mental clarity, peace, and sense of belonging I felt after leaving a yoga class. In retrospect, I became a student of yoga long before I ever embarked on an official 200 hr and 300 hr training.

Bre’Ann Rupp in Compass Pose – Parivrtta Surya Yantrasana (Revolved Sun Instrument)

Although my perspective is limited to the confines of my own experiences, I feel comfortable expressing this conjecture: most of us live the early stages of our life in a state of curious avidya: an absence of knowledge, or ignorance of who we truly are. Inevitably, questions arise: “who am I?” which leads us to “what is my purpose?” and “am I walking the path of my life in alignment with dharma, doing the right thing?” We all differ in how we choose to move forward with these questions and the way we seek answers to them.

For me, that first day of training did not mark the beginning of my adikara but instead the beginning of my journey of abhyasa, or consistent practice. It is important to note that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines practice as “to perform a task habitually or regularly in order to achieve or maintain proficiency” and although it is true that yoga must be a continuous, life-long practice for efficacy, the idea of being proficient in yoga is not really what it sounds like. Here it is helpful to invoke Patanjali, a Hindu sage who authored many texts but is most famed for his Yoga Sutras, which are revered and studied as a path to enlightenment.

2.42 santosha anuttamah sukha labhah

“From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction are obtained.”

This means that one should be content with what one has and accepting of one’s situation unconditionally; this makes perfect sense when we consider that we can only ever be as happy as we are grateful. In this way, just by practicing at all, you are already a proficient yogi whether you can find ease in advanced asana poses or you are still having trouble sitting in sukhasana for more than a few minutes.

This illuminates a profound concept: that there is no “hierarchy” in yoga. Yogis respect and honor ourselves and each other at all levels. We meet each other wherever we are at on our individual journeys. This realization freed me from the invisible shackles of shame, uncertainty, shyness, and self-doubt I had been wearing on my wrists like bracelets for years. My dear mentor, Jennifer Bonadio, once defined freedom as “the ability to experience the present moment unencumbered by conditioning, filtered by perception, or weighed down by the past.” When I found confidence and freedom on the mat, I felt more inclined to seek out confidence and freedom in all areas of my life- intellectually, socially, and spiritually.

This free state of being I am attempting to describe is reminiscent of the state of kaivalya: “spiritual liberation that is achieved by realizing one’s existence is separate from physical matter.” At some point between studying the physiological effect different yoga poses can have on the body, hearing the phrase “moving meditation” repeatedly, and shouting “mudita!” whenever another yogi achieved a goal in asana class, I think I became more aware of kaivalya than I had ever been previously. I sensed it within me and around me: an intangible energy that connects me to myself, my community, the earth we live on, and the spirits we pray to. That’s what yoga is to me.

However, there is so much more to yoga beyond the realm of my individual narrative or the scope of an hour long class at your local gym. Yoga is an heirloom tradition that is thought to have originated over five thousand years ago and was first mentioned in writing in the sacred Hindu texts, the Vedas. Although most Westerners have primarily embraced only the physical exercise aspect of yoga, it is a much more expansive practice than this, and practitioners will also find that it broadens spiritual horizons with awareness and creates opportunities to build strong communities. It is acknowledged as a science because of the research, anatomy, and possibilities for therapeutic applications. It is an art because each practitioner applies the tools in a unique way and with personal intentions.

In Ashtanga (eight-limbed) yoga, it is implied that eight parts come together to make a whole. Picture this “whole” as a tree with eight large branches swaying in the wind, somehow solid and fluid all at once. It is flexible, ever-changing, and grows organically without limits. All the branches are connected to each other, each vital in their own way to nourishing the whole unit. If one branch of the tree atrophies, the tree might not be balanced and will consequently fall over or become too ill to bear fruit.

The first branch is composed of the yamas, or ethical codes of external restraint, which are further broken down into five parts: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha. Ahimsa is the principle of non-harming or non-violence, meaning that the yogi should do as little harm as possible in every situation. Satya means truthfulness, so the yogi should always tell the truth as best they can while adhering to ahimsa. Asteya means non-stealing, so the yogi should never take something that doesn’t belong to them or share information they were entrusted with in confidence. Brahmacharya implies celibacy but can also mean responsibility with one’s body. Aparigraha means non-holding or non-grasping, which means that the yogi should resist the urge to hold tightly to material things, feelings, or plans.

The second branch is composed of the niyamas, which are observances of internal restraint, also further broken down into five parts: saucha, santosha, tapas, svadhyaya, and ishvara pranidhana. Saucha is cleanliness and it implies that keeping one’s body, mind, and environment clean is essential to living a pure life. Santosha is contentment, meaning that the yogi should be humble and content with what they have, accepting of situations as they come, and at peace with life as it is. Tapas is often described as “the inner fire” or discipline, and it means that the yogi should choose productive ways to expend energy. Svadhyaya means “self study” and it means one should cultivate self-awareness during all activities as they perform them. Ishvara pranidhana directly translates to “celebration of the spiritual” and is often interpreted as meaning “surrender to the divine.” This final niyama ties all of the yamas and niyamas together: it means to surrender to forces greater than yourself, to have faith that life is unfolding in a way that is only for your highest good, and to walk this path of awareness lightly, with humility, grace, and gratitude.

The third branch is asana, the physical postures of yoga that are often the most recognized aspect in Western culture. Each asana class is as unique as the instructor guiding it. There are thousands of different asanas and specific poses render benefits, such as lumbar pain relief in forward folds and sciatic pain relief in pigeon pose variations. The asanas can be sequenced together in an infinite number of different ways to create a variety of flows, or practiced individually to reap specific benefits.

The fourth branch is pranayama, or restraint/control of breath. Breathwork is celebrated for being relaxing to the nervous system. Pranayama is essential when practicing asana and requires concentration. The fifth branch is pratyahara, which means withdrawal of the senses to clear the consciousness of outside distractions so that one can become more self-aware. The sixth branch is dharana, or concentration and focus. This was already mentioned in pranayama, which illustrates how interconnected and important all the branches are to each other.  This is even further evidenced by the seventh branch: dhyana, which is meditation. Meditation is the act of concentrating for a prolonged time with senses withdrawn and pranayama employed. The eighth branch is samadhi, which describes a state of oneness in effortless meditation. Almost every previous branch is at work when the yogi achieves samadhi, true enlightenment. In samadhi, one can find ananda, or bliss, in the harmonious balance of mind, body, and spirit. This is awareness of satnam: “one’s true identity” or “one whose name is truth.” This is the answer to the questions we asked earlier in our journey: “who am I? What is my purpose?” Another trusted guide of mine, Dawn DeLeonardis, said that “satnam is your true north.” She meant that whenever one is seeking direction, this inner truth should be the guide, the fixed point as the world moves around you.

Patanjali himself shared wisdom to aid us in tuning in to this true north:

1.33 maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam

“The mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.”

This sutra is a reminder that the yogi walks lightly, gently, and consciously. They choose compassion, humility, empathy, and connection over ego, pride, selfishness, and self-importance. The yogi assumes a position of neutrality whenever possible; when called to action, the yogi answers the call with love.

All of this sounds wonderful and is attainable, but as my advisor Shakta gently reminded us when we graduated from that teacher training: “yoga is a constant practice” and you must habitually perform a practice in order to maintain proficiency. Luckily for us, proficiency is achieved just by showing up- whether it’s to your mat, to your favorite meditation bolster, or adhering to the yamas and niyamas on occasions when it may have been easier not to. This dedication and commitment to your abhyasa is a perfect example of tapas… and tapas is an act of radical self-love. 

May we be peaceful, happy, and loved. May we keep showing up for ourselves and each other. May we celebrate our journeys with gratitude always.

The light in me sees, honors, and cherishes the light in all of you. I bow to you with utmost humility. Namaste.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” -Rumi.

A Life of Trust and Gratitude

The word for faith used in Yoga is sraddha. It refers to our faith in the practice, a trust in our own life and in the mystery that moves us and connects us. More than ever in times of transition, change and uncertainty, we need to lean into our faith and trust to keep going with our hearts and minds open. The practice of gratitude is a beautiful way to cultivate our faith and stay aligned with the wisdom of yoga.  Gratefulness expands our heart and helps us to see a bigger picture. Gratitude helps us to see with the eyes of love and trust.

Yin yoga sound healing maui
Instructor Danielle Bushell at Yin and Sound Healing yoga class

When we choose to live in gratitude, we are more able to say yes to life and wholeheartedly show up for the moments that we are given. When we befriend the fact that our lives are sacred and temporary, we are better able to remember what matters and to discern where wisdom is directing our attention and choices. Our yoga practice helps us remember and come back to harmony of body, mind and heart again and again. Even when things are uncertain or challenging, it is possible to choose gratefulness to help us see where the wisdom of growth and grace may be. 

Making the intention to live a life of gratefulness and trust is a brave choice, and it a choice that nourishes our heart and soul and keeps our hearts open to aloha and Light. We have been given the amazing wisdom tradition of yoga, a gift that illuminates our lives and helps us to live a life of meaning and gratitude. As we go deeper into our practice and the teachings this year let’s remember how very blessed we are to have and share Yoga! 

Practice

Yoga is a wisdom tradition that has been around for a long time, a philosophy realized and understood only through practice. This is one of the profoundly beautiful things about yoga – it is not only teachings and movements passed down through time, it is brought to life by our direct experience. It is personal and intimate…we breathe life into the teachings of yoga and make it our own with our practice.

There are so many reasons to devote ours selves to the practice of yoga – the resilience that develops over time, the quality of ease and balance in body and mind that comes more and more naturally. We never know what life will bring, or the growth and challenge that we will be called to. But when we practice, we know we are nourishing our strength so we can accept and meet each moment as best we can. 

Francesca in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana

Over many decades, my practice has changed and evolved right along with me. In times of expansion and progress, moments of sadness and loss, passages of forgetting and shadow, yoga has helped me return to my center of gravity. Turning with practice to the sovereign sanctuary within over the years has cultivated a deep steadiness that I give thanks for everyday. 

More than ever, we need our practice to cultivate a rooted, grounded presence that can stay open, fluid and ‘fit’… fit to meet whatever comes next. The more stable we feel, the safer we feel to be open in our heart and mind. Practice develops stability that we can lean into in as we evolve and grow. 

May we be devoted to what nourishes us and brings out the best in us. 

We are so blessed to have the teachings of yoga to illuminate our lives. We hope you will come practice with us soon!

Svadyaya – Know Thyself

Svadyaya, one of the Niyamas, is a beautiful Sanskrit word that means ‘reflecting on our self’, or self-study.  Traditionally, Svadyaya has been the study of sacred texts that gave us insight into our life.  Besides the texts it means even more for our practice on and off the mat. TKV Desikachar described it as ‘anything that helps us understand ourselves’, and is the foundation of a personal practice that truly reflects our deepest needs and aspirations.

Yoga philosophy sessions on the beach and svadyaya – know yourself in every moment

Honest self-inquiry isn’t always easy – it requires a willingness to be compassionate with our self, and look beneath our mind’s rationalizations. Each moment – every practice, every relationship – can be a mirror we look into to see our self, reflecting some truth back to us, giving us feedback about our strengths and the places we need to grow and tend to.  If we are willing to look at our self with the compassionate eyes of love, there is always information there for us that will guide our practice at every level. 

Our svadyaya helps us choose the right tapas, or discipline, based on where we need to develop and the aspirations we have for our growth. When our tapas and sadhana, or practice, is based on our ongoing practice of svadyaya, it supports balance and becomes true self-care. And self-reflection is not a selfish endeavor! As we look within and come to understand ourselves better, we naturally have more compassion and understanding for others.  As we care for ourself in a positive way, we naturally become more available and loving to others. What a blessing! 

Raja Yoga of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Raja Yoga refers to the ‘Royal Path’ of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is over 2000 years old, and is still one of the most enlightening  and insightful spiritual works of all time, as relevant and inspiring as ever. The word sutra means ‘thread’, and Patanjali weaves together the ‘threads’ of yogic knowledge into a path of our human possibility and potential. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali teach us the path of working with all aspects of our self, and, most importantly, becoming the master of our mind. Hence the term ‘Royal’ – the goal of this path, the practices and the philosophy, is to become the ruler of the vast territory of our mind, and in that way to reduce suffering and live a life of peace and ‘aloha’. 

One of the goals of this holistic and beautiful path is kaivalya, which is described in the 4th chapter of the Yoga sutras as the fruit of living the Raja Yoga, or Eight limbed path. The Sanskrit translation of the word kaivalya is often seen as ‘aloneness’, but a deeper translation refers to the wholeness and freedom of non-duality, of realizing in our being that we are sovereign  in ourselves, free from the conditioning that separates us from our true Self. Kaivlaya is the embodiment of yoga, a state of remembering who we are.

For us modern people, that may seem like a somewhat high aspiration, something not attainable for ordinary yogis. But Patanjali does remind us, in the first chapter of the sutras, 1:21, that for those of us that devote ourselves to regular practice, this goal of freedom is near. It is right here inside us, the gem of our being waiting to be polished by our regular practice, ready to shine as our light and love in the world. 

Yoga Heart

Yoga is a an age old practice of  joining body and mind,  and our attention to this moment.  As my teacher’s teacher, TKS Desikichar said  “Yoga is relationship”.  As we go deeper into the practices of yoga, we can see the quality of those relationships we have with our self, each other, and our world deepens and improves as well.  How is it that yoga does this? The answer is at the heart of the philosophy of yoga.

Yoga teacher training philosophy

Yoga is a lived philosophy, and we must practice it to truly understand it.   The practices help us to gradually shed the conditioned filters that cloud our perception and keep us from remembering our true heart and seeing the world clearly.  As we do our practices, linking our breath to our movement and our attention to our breath, our nervous system calms and our body systems enter a state of coherence, wherein our hearts and minds can align.  It is here in this state that we can see most clearly, and hear the voice of our own inner guidance and wisdom. 

Yoga brings us to the love and the harmony that is our heart’s nature. In our world sometimes we get distracted from that, and it’s easy to forget when we are stressed.  Yoga helps us remember who we are and get better and better at choosing the thoughts, words and actions that are aligned with what is best in us.  Our practice helps us to remember that we are all connected and we can choose each day to truly live from the heart.  Live Aloha!

The Power of Pranayama

Pranayama is the yoga science of extending and building our life force with our breath, and the benefits of regular practice are many.  A conscious breath practice links our mind with our body and directly affects our nervous system, bringing us into the present moment, and calming and relaxing all the systems of our body/mind.

Meditation and pranayama at Baby Beach, Paia

Our nervous system has two poles – the sympathetic nervous system, which signals threat, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which signals safety and allows relaxation. When the flight/fight side is stuck on, which it often is in our over-stimulated world, we feel stressed and anxious. That constant defensive mode is hard on our body, and distracts us from presence and connection with ourselves and each other. The power of the intentional breath practice, or pranayama, can switch on the relaxation and safety side of the nervous system with deep, slow, conscious focused breath. If we do this practice regularly, it can help us to sooth and re-train our nervous system to be more resilient and begin to default to a place of calm and relaxation. That gives us the benefits of more regulation of our emotions and less reactivity, as well as many other health benefits that come from releasing stress.

Pranayama helps us build the capacity to be fully present and clear, and more tuned into our self and our heart. 

Start by weaving a simple pranayama practice into each day, along with your asana practice, to start a meditation practice, or before you sleep and whenever you feel anxious. Begin with a simple deep breath, through your nostrils if you can, relaxing your belly and allowing your diaphragm to expand. Exhale fully and slowly, without forcing or tensing your breath. Find a smooth rhythm and continue for 3-5 minutes or more.  Done regularly, pranayama can make such a helpful and profound difference for you.

May you cultivate and reap the benefits of this powerful Yoga practice! 

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Asana (Pt. 2)

One learns that one’s body is the bow, the asana is the arrow, and the target is the soul. – BKS Iyengar

Continuing our series on the three definitive sutras by Patanjali on asana, we turn our attention to sutra 2.47. The previous sutra (2.46) mentions that the yoga posture has or is to be sthira, stillness and stability, and sukham referring to ease, comfort, and openness (see Part 1). While there are many modern yoga texts with pictures and descriptions of yoga poses we begin to see that the Yoga Sutras is more about our relationship to reality via the mind on it’s path to realizing the soul. The three sutras on asana address the mind-body-spirit connection.

2.47 prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam
Perfection in the posture is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and  attention merges with  the infinite.

By relaxing the effort and fixing the mind on the infinite [ananta], asana is perfected.  Ananta, a word meaning “unending” or “infinite,” describes what is timeless, beyond birth, growth, death, and all modifications—a limitless state of joy and contentment. This sweet, natural state of ours, beyond the things of the senses, is embodied by the vast mythological serpent, Ananta, whose coils support the universe and who serves as Vishnu’s couch.   Vishnu rests on this great serpent couch floating in the cosmic ocean between incarnations as an avatar on earth.

​Think of a hip opener like eka pada raja kapotasana,  one legged royal pigeon pose:

-A considerable effort is made 
-The pose is held and maintained
-We have to consciously move beyond the initial resistance from the muscles
-The resistance or “tightness” is connected to the movements in the mind, the thoughts
-We may experience a flood of mental or emotional activity
-Through our perseverance and awareness, a stillness of mind and a state of balance is attained when we witness ourselves and let go 
-The hip begins to open as relaxation in the mind and body happen simultaneously
-All merges in the seat of the soul.

This feeling of oneness is boundless and universal!  

Discussing asana in the philosophy class, we ask the students to begin observing the state of the mind in a pose.  The deeper we get into the practice, the more aware we become of the ability to bring ourselves to a place beyond thought.  We’ve all heard before “don’t think, just do!”   The pose itself offers us a primordial power when we find ourselves nicely aligned in it.  That energy, or shakti, awakens and begins to move freely within us.  A thought  can return and block this flow so we do our best to stay one-pointed and present.  The more we visit this state of yoga, the more established we become in the practice for life!   

Sādhanā – practice, or spiritual practice, a means to accomplish
Ekāgratā – one-pointedness, undisturbed attentiveness
Shakti – power or empowerment, the primordial cosmic energy that represents the dynamic forces that move through the entire universe

Yoga teacher training

Part 3 of the Yoga Sutras and asana coming up – find out what happens when we perfect the pose…