Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Youngest Yoga Student

What a cutie pie! This little girl's mom and big sister come to my Monday night yoga class.


Next we’ll move on to a discussion of the Niyamas – the other half of the “ten commandments of yoga.” The Yamas are considered the “social” disciplines, while the Niyamas are the “individual” disciplines.

The first Niyama is Saucha, or purity. This is generally defined as purity of body, including good health habits and personal cleanliness. But it’s also about keeping one’s living space (alas, that includes the car) clean – the home, the desk, even the computer desktop. It applies to both the internal and the external.

And Saucha also extends out to one’s thoughts, words and deeds.

So I guess it’s not very yogic of me to drop the “f-bomb” repeatedly when I’m angry or stressed . . . Swearing is not exactly “purity of words.”

Some other things that wouldn’t be included in that category include: gossiping, lying (and telling half-truths), and guilt-tripping.

Getting control of one’s words can be a challenge, but harnessing one’s thoughts . . . even more difficult. But this is an essential thing to practice! What you think, what you say to yourself – these are powerful words. The more you say them, the more likely they are to come true.*

Good thoughts produce good actions. And not-so-good thoughts . . . well if you keep telling yourself you can’t do something, then you’ll probably never do it. Richard Bach wrote, “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” So true.

So how does this one apply to your yoga practice? Number one: come to class with a clean (well, clean-enough) body. You don’t have to shower right before class, but if – for example -- your feet are a little bit stinky (and summer’s the time for feet to be stinky, for sure!), then give ‘em a quick wash before you head out the door. Your classmates will appreciate it.

But more importantly, be aware of your thoughts as you go through your yoga practice. Are you telling yourself you can’t balance on one leg? Redirect those thoughts with something more empowering . . . even if it’s something like, “I can’t do dancer pose today, but tomorrow I will feel more confident about it.” You’ll see results.

* For some expert assistance in overcoming negative self-talk and the bad habits that are associated with it (smoking, overeating, lack of motivation, etc.) I highly recommend the services of Beth O’Connor, who has an office in Norwell. Find out more at

Friday, May 21, 2010

Yoga Is Good For Your Brain

Last night I attended a lecture at the Harvard Club in Boston, presented by one of my favorite yoga teacher/scholars, Stephen Cope, the Director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at Kripalu Center. The subject: the studies his institute has done in conjunction with doctors and researchers at Harvard Medical School to document the short-term and long-term physical, mental and emotional benefits of yoga.

Cope, along with Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa and Dr. Sara Lazar, outlined some of the studies they are currently conducting – including the mental health benefits of yoga in secondary schools; yoga for treating post traumatic stress disorder; and the physical changes to the brain that occur with sustained yoga and/or meditation practice.

A quick summary: yoga is good for your brain! It actually increases the amount of gray matter in certain parts of your brain. It helps improve your concentration, and helps you to process multiple stimuli better (like when you’re driving your car). And it makes you more resilient – better able to handle stress, and better able to bounce back quickly after adversity or trauma. Not just in the short term (how you feel better, more centered after a yoga class) but in the long term (and you will tend to feel better overall, over time).

So, what does this mean? . . . Keep coming to yoga class! It’s good for you!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Aparigraha, or Non-Possessiveness

The last of the five yamas is Aparigraha, or non-possessiveness. Aparigraha is defined as non-attachment. Non-attachment to possessions, to relationships, to routines and ways of being. Not hoarding, not clinging to anything or anyone. Fulfilling our needs rather than our wants.

The principle of Aparigraha asks us to take only what we need. To appreciate what we have. To do what we can for those who are in need.

Here’s a story that illustrates the principle of Aparigraha. When I was a child, my mother (or possibly the Easter Bunny) gave me a really nice ceramic mug. It was a simple but beautiful mug -- hand-crafted, tan in color, with a three-dimensional lion’s face on one side. It was “my” mug, and I used it whenever I drank tea or cocoa (provided it wasn’t in the dishwasher).

It managed to survive my childhood, as well as my first two years of college, when I lived in a single dorm room (no roommate). But in my third year of college, I shared a campus apartment with seven other people. At some point that year, my lion mug disappeared. I couldn’t find it, and none of my housemates could account for it. Maybe it got broken, maybe it got lost – but definitely it was gone.

I was upset – sad that my favorite mug was gone, angry that one of my housemates had either lost or broken it, hurt that one of my possessions had been treated so carelessly. But I understood that there was nothing I could do to bring it back. Sure, I could rant and rave, or sulk, or break/lose someone else’s favorite mug, or beat myself up for letting other people use my mug in the first place -- but the outcome would be the same: no more lion mug.

So I just let it go. It was an epiphany for me, because up until that point, my usual modus operandi was to rant or sulk or beat myself up.

Aparigraha asks us to embrace the simple fact that life is all about change. Losing a favorite mug is pretty easy to take when you compare it to losing something far more substantial – a friendship, a job, a loved one. But even in the most extreme circumstances, we can still apply Aparigraha and learn to let go and move on. It takes practice, of course, and it’s not necessarily easy. But the more we “just let go,” the easier it becomes.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Brahmacharya, or Moderation

Another yama is Brahmacharya, or moderation. This is broadly defined as energy management. The ancient yogis caution us to avoid overindulging in anything -- to be moderate in all aspects of our lives.

One traditional definition of Brahmacharya is celibacy or chastity. This ties into the longstanding requirement in various religions that spiritual seekers (priests, monks, nuns, etc.) repress their sexual selves in order to enhance their spiritual lives. But history shows us that this strict practice often backfires. It doesn't really make sense anyway -- inherent in the definition of Brahmacharya is that energies are managed -- not repressed (nor overindulged).

So . . . managing one's energies. What’s that all about? For one, it’s regulating one's consumption. Paying attention to what we eat and how much we eat. What we buy and how much we buy. What we consume (not just stuff, but energy, time, resources) and how much we consume. And finding the middle path – moderation – with regard to this consumption.

It’s all about finding balance. For example, many of us are paying more attention these days to the impact we make on the environment. Maybe we wish we could make significant adjustments – going solar, for example, or driving a hybrid car. But perhaps those types of changes are not in the budget – or just don’t make sense right now (say, because your car is new-ish and works fine).

Applying Brahmacharya to this aspect of our lives could include finding simple ways to change our lifestyles so that we make a more positive impact on the environment – bringing our own shopping bags to the store, using refillable water bottles, turning off the lights at home when they’re not really needed. This way, we are moderating our consumption – making small, positive changes to the way we consume energy and resources. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.

So, what about on the yoga mat? Brahmacharya is applied when we decide how much to push (or not-push) ourselves when we practice. Say you come to class wanting a strong workout – you have lots of energy and want to channel it into strengthening your body and improving your endurance. Applying Brahmacharya, you can push yourself to your edge, going a little deeper and holding the postures a little longer than you normally would, but at the same time you avoid pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion or injury. Again, finding the middle path.

Are there parts of your life where it’s easy to apply moderation? Areas where it is more difficult? Just by being aware of these, it becomes easier to make changes.