Monday, October 13, 2008

Sadhana: Your Practice is Your Teacher

 The 3rd Warrior: Commitment and Balance

Yoga is an ancient spiritual tradition, science and art of living founded upon the knowledge that all life is interconnected. Yoga, often inadequately translated as “union,” refers to the action of awakening to, as well as a description of, the unified nature of the True Self.  When we perceive ourselves to be separate from life we suffer.  As a result of this misperception our actions in the world may be misguided, causing unnecessary pain to ourselves and others.  Yoga teaches that we can free ourselves from of unnecessary suffering by recognizing that no “one” and no “thing” is separate from us.  We achieve this undivided state through an earnest and careful practice of the eight limbs of Yoga as recorded in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. 

The eight limbs are the very foundation of yoga.  Though many volumes can be devoted to their meaning and application, it is an endeavor that is beyond the scope of this paper and I will keep my description brief.  The eight limbs consist of moral codes for living (yamas and niyamas), physical practices (asana) and breath awareness techniques (pranayama) designed to purify and strengthen the mind and body so that attention is free to turn further inward.  Through consistent practice we begin to dis-identify with the objects and thoughts held captive by the five senses (pratyahara).  We recognize the impermanence of the contents of our consciousness and are invited to concentrate the mind (dharana) on what is unchanging and of lasting value.  In time we learn to surf life’s waves with grace so that even in the face of monsoon season, we are able to maintain our equanimity (dhyana) and thereby liberate ourselves to attain our highest potential (samadhi).  This may sound all well and good, but the practice of Yoga requires a genuine commitment to become established in the state of freedom.  Yoga is for those who are disciplined and perseverant, devoted and humble in a field where everything is verified and understood through first-hand experience.  Fortunately, it’s called Yoga practice, not perfection.  On this path I think you will find your practice to be your greatest teacher.     

The beauty of Yoga is that it is not a religion.  Yoga is a philosophy of existence free of dogma and a paternal figure that actively defines your progress.  Yoga allows you to come as you are and meet what is arising in the moment.  With the veil of perfection raised there is enough room for all of you to show up, even the parts you question, judge and would rather deny.  My own personal definition of Yoga has to do with holding space for all aspects of the self.  In order to embrace the union of Yoga we must welcome all of ourselves into the room.  Yoga isn’t about rejecting or repressing certain things while elevating others.  It’s not a power struggle of sacred and profane.  It’s about being with it all just as it is, equally.  In this way we transcend our patterns of thought, emotion and behavior and resolve residues of unfinished “business.”  We step off the figurative wheel of suffering. 

Now that you’ve committed yourself to the practice of Yoga and perhaps teaching, you’re probably wondering what comes next.  The two pieces of wisdom I will impart from my own experience as a student and teacher of Yoga are: Start where you are and never take off your student “hat.”  Most of us are drawn to Yoga through the practice of physical exercise or asana.  If you are a considering teaching Yoga this is a fantastic place to start as the largest part of most mainstream studio and fitness club classes are devoted to the art of sequencing, adjusting, demonstrating and calling postures.  For this reason, a dedicated asana practice, whether at home or elsewhere, is essential for beginner teachers.  The Yoga tradition is not interested in textbook explanations and diagrams.  It is primarily concerned with first hand knowing of its observances, physical and otherwise.  Practicing asana is especially important in finding unique ways of describing sensation and succinct ways to language technical cues.  When you first start teaching you will be amazed at the various ways a simple physical instruction can be interpreted!  You are not alone if as you read this you are badgering yourself for not currently having a home practice or are stuck with the quintessential “blank screen” syndrome.  Remember your practice is for you and you alone.  Try to let go of the “right” way of doing things and find your own way into the practice.

There are various ways to cultivate your home practice.  My personal practice involves taking a moment to settle in and listen to what is arising in the moment.  This can be done by coming to your seat or to stand and feeling into your body and breath.  Open all of your senses and notice what is present.  Welcome all physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, beliefs and images into awareness.  There may be an overwhelming amount of messengers or not a one.  Nothing is still something and if continue to feel stuck notice if you are striving or thinking your way in to your body.  Can you melt your eyes and mind into your heart and feel the body from there?  Usually something will announce itself quite adamantly.  It may be stiffness in the hips or a tired feeling that leads you to a hip opening or restorative focused session.  If you need more structure to your practice try focusing on a certain area of the body or category of postures (i.e. forward bends, back bends, standing poses).   You can refer to books, videos and sequences you remember from classes you’ve attended to supplement your intuitive process.  It may also be helpful to set aside twenty minutes rather than an hour and allow your practice to grow organically.  It’s worth saying again; your practice is your teacher.  It is only through consistent practice that you become your own unique flavor of teacher.   

Cultivating a home practice means never taking off the student “hat.” As teachers, particularly new teachers, we are vulnerable to getting carried away by the many demands and “hats” of the role.   It is easy to get so swept up in teaching that I forget to make time to nurture myself as a student of Yoga.  For this reason it is crucial to continue learn at home or with other teachers in your community.  This alone establishes a fertile ground of inspiration for the teachings of Yoga to naturally and authentically travel through you to your students, family, friends and colleagues.  As Donna Farhi states in her book Teaching Yoga, “In the study of Yoga, the teacher can lead the student only as far as she has gone herself.  She can shine the light only into places that she herself has been willing to go.”  This is no small task and may take a lifetime to explore.  The Yoga Sutras define practice as the ability to remain there (I.13).  Thus we come full circle; start where you are and continue to evolve and grow as a student of Yoga.  Make it your own and teach what you practice.   Students have an uncanny ability to sense ingenuity but when it comes from your heart and first-hand experience you can never go wrong.  As teachers we mirror the student’s search for authenticity.  We will all undoubtedly fail at times but what is most important is the teacher’s sincere and deep commitment. 

Lastly, I feel it worthy to mention the practice of Yoga is not limited to physical postures.  Your individual work may involve breath awareness, meditation, mantra, reading sacred texts or related books, reflective writing or other creative expressions.  If done mindfully, you can be doing Yoga while washing the dishes, walking to work or talking to a loved one.  Your practice can blend seamlessly with everyday life and completely transform the way you experience the world. 

The place of light within me greets, honors and welcomes the place of light within you.  When you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are one.  NAMASTE.



Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Japamala Workshop 2008

In 2007, my dear friends, Samantha Spitzer and Julia Einarson, and I started an annual tradition of leading a Japamala Workshop at Yogalifin Greenlake. A mala is a set of 108 beads used during chanting or meditation. A mala is used to focus one's awareness and concentration while repeating a mantra. Malas have been used by practitioners from many disciplines for thousands of years.

During the workshop, participants create a mala and use it to repeat the Gayatri Mantra 108 times.  Please visit my Blog, 
Gayatri Mantra: The Celestial Song of Light, for more about the meaning of this beloved chant.  Participants learn how to use the mala, the significance of each bead, and the meaning of 108.  Also included is a discussion of the yamas and niyamas.  Please visit Samantha's Blog on the meaning of the yamas and niyamas.

This year we've decided to save a tree or two and go paperless.  We hope you enjoy perusing the materials online with the confidence in knowing they'll always be there when you feel like refreshing your memory.  Its not too late to join us!  We look forward to chanting with you....

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Gayatri Mantra: The Celestial Song of Light

Gayatri Mantra: The Celestial Song of Light 

It is the support of every seeker after Truth who believes in its efficacy, power and glory, be he of any caste, creed, or sect. It is only one's faith and purity of heart that really count. Indeed, Gayatri is an impregnable spiritual armor, a veritable fortress, that guards and protects its votary, that transforms him into the divine, and blesses him with the brilliant light of the highest spiritual illumination. – Swami Sivananda

Meaning and Origin

To recite the Gayatri Mantra is to enter the stream of generations of spiritual seekers who have repeated the sacred incantation for thousands of years.  The Gayatri is considered “the essence of the Vedas.”  The four Vedas are the oldest and most revered of the Hindu sacred texts.  Veda means knowledge, and thus this mantra illuminates your intellect and lights your path.  The Gayatri is an appeal to the Divine to awaken and strengthen the powers of discernment and wisdom.  Chanting it fosters and sharpens the knowledge yielding faculty and bestows all that is beneficial to the chanter.  The Gayatri is highly revered in Hinduism, second only to the mantra AUM.  It is a prayer that asks for a clear intellect so that the Truth may be reflected therein without distortion.  It is universally relevant for any spiritual seeker for it is a revelatory song about Light: the Light that represents our True Nature as unchanging and undivided Pure Presence.  The Gayatri is an earnest exclamation that everything is an expression of Pure Presence. Understanding and purely loving the essence of the Gayatri Mantra is seen by many to be one of the most powerful ways to awaken mind and soul.  Just as we take bath to cleanse our bodies, so we chant the Gayatri Mantra to purify our mind and intellect.

Gayatri is the name for a Vedic poetical meter that contains three lines of eight syllables each. The word Gayatri is a combination of Sanskrit words: gaya (vital energies) and trayate (preserves, protects, grants liberation).  The word mantra means “instrument of thought, sacred text, or a prayer of praise.”  Together the words gayatri mantra can be translated as “a prayer of praise that awakens and protects the vital energies and gives liberation.”

There are, therefore, many gayatri mantras, but the one shown above is the oldest and most well known of all.  In Hinduism each God and Goddess is associated with a particular gayatri mantra.  There is a gayatri for Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi and so on.  Most people are unaware that when Hindus refer to the Gayatri Mantra they mean the one discussed below.

The deity associated with the Gayatri Mantra is the Sun, Savitri.  The more common name for the sun is surya as in surya namaskar (sun salutations).  Generally surya is the name for the sun while it is above the horizon and savitri is the sun as it is rising and setting just below the horizon.  There is a great metaphor in Hinduism that when understood explains a lot about the Hindu way of seeing the universe.  The metaphor is: “the sun equals light, which equals knowledge, which equals consciousness.”  This metaphor applies not only to the Gayatri Mantra but also to the design of temples and homes and to details such as the clockwise circumambulation involved in rituals and prayer.

Word-by-Word Translation

The first line: om bhur bhuvah svah is not technically a part of the Gayatri Mantra.  It is a special invocation that has been added to the beginning of this famous mantra.  This invocation is important and will be discussed after an explanation of the Gayatri Mantra itself.  The three lines of the Gayatri Mantra are: 1) tat-savitur varenyam 2) bhargo devasya dhimahi 3) dhiyo yo nah pracodayat.

The word tat is a neuter pronoun meaning “that.” It is a direct reference to Savitri.  According to the metaphor mentioned above, the Sun, as the source of illumination, heat, food and so many other precious things in our life, can be seen as a symbol of God. 

There are two verbs in the Gayatri Mantra: dhimahi and pracodayat.  Dimahi means, “let us meditate.”  So the second line of the mantra is “Let us meditate on the Light (bhargo) of the Sun which represents God.”

The verb pracodayat literally means, “it should push.”  It can be more poetically translated as, “let it inspire.”  Dhiyah is “thoughts” so the final line of the mantra is, “let our thoughts be inspired.”

The most literal meaning of the Gayatri Mantra is, “Let us meditate on the Light of the Sun which represents God, and may our thoughts be inspired by that divine light.”  My favorite translation is:

We recognize the glory of the Light that illuminates the three planes of experience: the physical, astral and celestial.

Let us meditate on the sacred Light of the effulgent source that shines within us.

 Let that inspire our thoughts and awaken the Self as the Light that pervades the entire Universe.

The Great Utterance

As mentioned above, the first line of the mantra, om bhur bhuvah svah, is not part of the Gayatri Mantra itself.  This special invocation is called the mahavyahriti or the “great utterance.”  AUM is the voice of the universe out of which everything emerges.  It is the great vibratory symbol for unitary Consciousness.  The three words, bhur, bhuvah and svah express a “call to creation.”  Taken collectively they honor and invoke the light of the Sun (or the Light of the Sun God, Savitri) that shines on Earth (physical plane), the sky (astral plane), and in space (celestial plane).  The implication here is, “let that light also shine on me.”

The technical explanation of mahavyahriti has to do with more esoteric yoga practices.  Simply put, the Earth is one of many planes of existence.  In fact, above Earth are six higher planes or heavens.  Including Earth, there are a total of seven higher planes (heavens) and seven lower planes, or hells, below this earth.  Earth is in the middle.  If you have ever heard the expression, “he is in seventh heaven,” this is a reference to the Hindu idea of heavens.  The seventh heaven is the highest heaven.  The first three of these planes starting with Earth are named bhur, bhuvah and svah.  The great utterance, therefore, refers to the first three subtle planes of existence that may be reached in meditation by a yogi.

When and How to Chant the Gayatri Mantra

The Gayatri should not be chanted casually.  Each word should be pronounced as clearly as possible, without haste.  The Gayatri Mantra is synonymous with Divinity and therefore must be approached with humility, reverence, faith and love towards.  Chanting with humility, reverence, faith and love is more important than mechanical repetition and pronunciation.  The more one chants the Mantra, the greater benefit to the chanter.  This mantra is ideally chanted three times a day – dawn, noon and dusk.  The mantra is not, however, bound by these three times of day can be chanted anywhere and at any time.  Chanting the mantra 108 times is said to result in the maximum benefit.  One may chant it for 3, 9, 18 or any division of 108 when pressed for time.


A mala is a set of prayer beads used during chanting, meditation or pranayama (breath practice).  The word mala means “garland” or rosary in Sanskrit and is commonly made from a 108 beads.  A mala is used to focus one’s awareness and concentration while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra.  This practice is known as japa in Sanskrit.  Japamala is the practice of using a mala to focus one’s awareness and concentration while reciting, chanting or mentally repeating a mantra.  Japamala has been used as a meditative aid by practitioners from many disciplines for thousands of years and is a form of Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of Devotion) in its own right.  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali state that repeating a sacred syllable and pondering its meaning lead to its understanding (Sutra I.28).  It is said that through contemplative repetition of mantras, the effectiveness of yoga is improved, and through yoga the chanting of mantras is improved.  With the glory of such chanting and such yoga, the highest Self is revealed.  


Iyengar, BKS.  Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1993).