One of my friends, Peentz, asked these two questions of our Yoga Sutra study group:
• Do you practice the 8 limbs of yoga as defined in the second chapter of the Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras?
• Do you carve out specific time each day for practice?
For me the simplest answers are Yes and Yes. Here is a longer answer. Ever since I learned about the Yoga Sutras, I became really interested in learning more about them. In the last decade I have been trying to answer the simple question: Can the Yoga Sutras be applied today?
Once I made a commitment to follow yoga as my main system for living a fulfilling life, I keep revisiting a fundamental question: What is Yoga? Over time the definitions have changed, with some definitions staying the same for a good while and others lasting only a few weeks or months. At this point, the definition that seems more direct, complete and comprehensive is Yoga is Presence. At any point I can use the definition to check if I am fully aware of where I am and what I am doing. Inevitably, as I check in during my day, I have noticed that some of my tendencies, inclinations and ways of being can be either an obstacle to be fully present. In other cases, some of my ways of being serve as useful ways to move towards being present. Why is this important? Because I am interested in enhancing the quality of my participation in my life, to contribute my presence to the world with greater clarity, kindness and compassion. There are always reminders that I am still learning. This is where I have found that a consistent practice is very helpful to diminish obstacles, inefficiencies and distractions on the journey to presence.
For several years there have been two aspects to my practice. First, there is my daily formal practice and second is the practice of showing up to my life to the best of my ability. These two aspects of the practice act synergistically, each one provides feedback and reinforces the other. In addition to presence, there is one idea shared by my formal and informal practice, Range of Action. In my opinion the guiding value in many societies, particularly in the society I live in, is the concept of “MORE.” It is prevalent in our economy and in how marketing works, by selling us the idea that we are not enough, not strong enough, not beautiful enough, not intelligent enough, not rich enough, not flexible enough, not traveled enough. The list seems never ending. When I believed the idea that more is always better, my internal life seemed to always have a low-level anxiety that influenced everything I did, what I felt, what I thought and how I interacted with others. No matter how hard I tried, I still ended up feeling that I was never enough. It was exhausting and unhelpful. Once I stop believing in the notion of more as the guiding principle to my life, I could recognize the abundance and richness of life everywhere. Rather than trying to accumulate more possessions and experiences I recognized that it is, at least for me, more important to focus my energy on the quality of my participation in my life. The quality of my participation is closely related to the idea of Range of Action. Everything in the world has a natural and organic range of action. Thus, we can experience enthusiasm and dejection, sadness and joy, ease and discomfort, vitality and exhaustion. And, since we are not digital beings, we are not limited to 0 or 1, to either feeling joy or sadness. We are lucky enough to be able to feel a wide range of emotions and sensations. Range of action applies to our emotions, our breath, our muscular engagement and to our mental activity. In both aspects of my practice I am curious to exploring a healthy range of action at the physical, mental and emotional levels. In the process of exploring it becomes obvious that these aspects of ourselves articulate elegantly to enable us to respond intelligently and appropriately to every situation and interaction that we find ourselves in. Presence and Range of Action are the guiding principles of my practice.
In my daily formal practice, I explore the natural range of action in my joints, muscles, breathing and capacity to focus. I use the following yoga techniques in my explorations:
• Mindful movement of the main sections of my spine
• A concentration and coordination practice called the Dance of Shiva.
• Agni Sara
• A selection of postures (asanas) moving slowly from one to the next (vinyasa). The guiding principle for my postural (asana) practice is movement of the spine according to all of its natural directions. These spinal movements are complemented by the actions of the shoulder girdle and hip girdle. I complete this portion of the practice with corpse posture (shavasana). In my physical practice I modulate the level of muscular engagement to facilitate circulation, so that it tends to stay within a 40-75% muscular engagement.
• A systematic breathing (pranayama) practice including traditional breathing techniques (ashvini mudra, kapalabhati, bhastrika, shitali, dirgha puraka, dirgha rechaka, nadi shodana and some retentions.
• Yogic meditation, usually mantra recitation (japa).
After my practice, if time permits, I also try to chant a portion of the yoga sutras. Although I know that some scholars speculate that the yoga Sutra may not be a text that was transmitted orally, I find that trying to chant and memorize the Yoga Sutras is an amazing way to enhance my memory and my ability to concentrate.
I see my practice as a way to enhance function in body, breath, mind and emotion. Thus, my goal is to feel energized after my practice and never sore or exhausted. In the last couple of years, I developed the habit of going to my computer after practice to write my own understanding of the yoga Sutras of Patañjali. During my day I usually will try to read something related to yoga, especially related to philosophy and anatomy to enrich my understanding and my teaching. I see my daily formal practice as my own laboratory to clarify what yoga is for me through my direct experience.
The second aspect of my practice is my attitude as I participate in my life, this is intimately linked to the precepts offered by Patañjali, the yamas and niyamas . Before I wake up in the morning, I give thanks for being alive and for having another day to try to be the best version of me that I can be. I also try to set my intention to practice gratitude, compassion and presence in my interactions with the people that I encounter. During my day, some of the questions that I use to remind myself of my intention include:
• Am I present?
• Am I doing what I think I am doing?
I also try to attend to my tendency to add comments and judgments of whatever happens. In other words, instead of making up my mind about whatever might be happening, I try to pause to pay attention to what is actually happening withholding judgment. Sometimes, as on the days when I have to drive for a while between my classes and my private sessions, I listen to podcasts or lectures related to yoga and other times I chant, either devotional chants or the Yoga Sutras. Most of my days revolve around yoga, because I really love how yoga has enriched my life. Of course, as a happily married man, I make sure that I spend time every day with my lovely wife, because it is a lot of fun to be with her and to learn from her. And of course, like many other people, I still have to wash dishes, clean, do laundry, cook, update my website, etc. Fortunately, since my job is teaching yoga, I have many opportunities to pay attention and to try to apply what I have been learning over the years. My goal is to participate in all my activities with a friendly attitude and a smile on my face, if simply because it makes everything more enjoyable in my life.