Before the Pose

We can engage in yoga practice long before we ever roll out our mat.  As I’ve mentioned in past entries asanas or postures are actually the third out of eight limbs of yoga practice.  So there are many other references points to be had as one travels deeper and deeper upon the path of yoga.

Despite the glossy images in the magazine and the tremendous feeling of integration that can arise through practice, everyone’s passage through life is marked with adversity.  In part, this is why there are so many limbs to yoga practice.  The limbs give us some reference points for how to best maneuver through life’s challenges and achievements and not be defeated in the process.

These core reference points are called Yama and Niyama (restraints and observances) and they are the foundation of yoga practice.  Without them, it does not matter how open our hamstrings are or if we can launch up into handstand.  These practices outline our basic moral instinct and encourage us to challenge our egocentric limitations.  This is how we can practice yoga “off the mat.”

The first rung of our eight-limb yoga latter is called yama or restraints.  Interestingly, the author of this system (a sage named Patanjali born around 200A.D.) begins not by telling us what to do but rather what we should refrain from doing, there by leaving it up to the aspirant to arrive at the appropriate course of action.

These restraints are to be practiced on a physical, verbal and even mental basis.  They offer the student of yoga the opportunity to practice in every aspect of their lives regardless of weather or not they can touch their toes.  The yamas are further broken down into five sub categories, each of them deeply interrelated. The first of these sub categories is called ahimsa or none-harming and it will be the subject of the next entry.

Essential Practices

Yoga practice has the potential to touch upon every single aspect of one’s life.  How is this so?  To begin, we must expand our definition of yoga beyond the postures and begin to recognize the other components of traditional yogic practice.  In-fact, there are eight limbs of practice that constitute a formal system of yoga.  The name for these limbs is Ashtanga Yoga or the eight limbs of yoga.

A complete discussion of each of these limbs is the subject of another entry and I wish to touch upon two of the foundational limbs.  The limbs that have to do with our day to day existence are called yama and niyama or the restraints and observances.

What these two limbs do is give some reference point as to how to conduct ourselves socially, in our actions, in our words and even our thoughts.  Our very lives are constituted by our actions, words and thoughts so the application of yama and niyama will pervade every aspect of one’s life.

I was once having an enduring conversation with a woman in her 80’s.  She was a very sweet soul who I had an ongoing relationship with.  Her name was Vishnu Ma.  We were discussing stories from the past and how people operated. Then she said something in passing that left an impression upon me.
“There are no guidelines anymore.”

I found that to be a resonate, simple and astute observation.  What do we reference as a culture for guidance?

In the coming weeks I’ll give a more detailed account of yogic tenants for living and how they can be applied to life.

The Truth

Our fall training program is underway and the students are deeply immersed in the study of yoga.  As part of our studies we are examining the classical yogic code of conduct called Yama and Niyama.  The idea behind these guidelines is to give the practitioner some reference for how they conduct themselves in the world, away from their mat.

These guidelines, such as non-harming, truthfulness, cleanliness and self study can be referenced in every circumstance and are deeply interrelated.  They are not only intended to harmonize our social relationships but to invoke deep transformation within the practitioner.  These principles can be applied not only to our physical actions but to speech and thoughts as well.

Each student had the opportunity to choose one of these precepts and apply it to their lives.  My group chose “satya” which literally means “To Be” and is more commonly translated at “truthfulness.”  The implication here is that when we are in accord with our essential beingness, truth arises spontaneously and unswervingly.

As part of our experiment we emailed one another daily to report our discoveries.  I thought I’d just share a few of my entries to give you a sense of this experiment.

“I was walking in the park this morning with my young son.  I thought it would take 20min instead it took an hour.  I wanted to go home and complain to Brenna how Rama, took to much time looking at little things!  The complaining functioned at a pretty low frequency of truth and underneath it was more aggression than anything else.  So I refrained.  Lesson: Truth can be not saying something as well.”

“In practicing truthfullness I find myself editing my words and choosing to align myself with my higher ideas, words and actions.  Part of the implication in the reading was that the truth carries it’s own potency.  I can sense this in the small examples I’ve listed and am curious to discover the source of truth itself….

“…This is when the truth flows most easily.  There is no effort or justification required.  At these times the truth starts to look a lot like love, peace and compassion. The truth seems to be a port-hole into a deeper dimension of ourselves.”

Gayatri Mantra

Om bhur bhuva svah
Tat savitur-varenyam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Dhiyo yo nah prachodyat

Om. Let us meditate upon the wondrous spirit of the Divine, creator of the earth, space and the heavens.  Oh God, may our minds be inspired by the light of that Supreme Self and be filled with divine qualities.

Probable the most well know and revered mantra is the Gayatri.  It is believed to be the foremost accustic manifestation of the Divine Mother, Creation itself.  It is both a mantra and a prayer, beginning with essential seed sounds called bija mantras and gradually evolving into a personal petition.

Bija mantras have no literal translation; there meaning is conveyed through their deep resonance –as pure sound.  The mantra then evolves into a more literal prayer, that the mind be illuminated by universal light.

In other translations the word “Sun” or “Solar Spirit” is used in place of  “the light of the Supreme Self.”   This gives more immediacy and personal context to the prayer.  We have only to step outside, and look up at the sky to appreciate the magnitude of that radiant form that makes all life on earth possible. The Sun is a classic icon for resplendent spiritual insight.

Further dementions of the Gayatri mantra are revealed by a brief commentary from the Chandogya Upanishad:

This entire Creation is Gayatri. And the Gayatri is speech
–for speech sings and protects the entire creationWhat I appreciate most about this verse is how it begins by conveying the largest magnitude possible, the entire Creation, then distils that enormity into a more embodied form (speech and song) and finally, loops back upon itself to embrace the entire creation., the song of the universe.  Thus we can begin to get in touch with the unending reverberation of the Cosmos.

As we read a little deeper into the verse, we find that the Creation is embued with beauty, in the form of song.  The Creation is the Mother, the Mother is Beauty, Beauty is the Creation.

What’s more we are assured protection as we embrace the current of beauty in our own lives.  In that sense our very life process is an offering unto the creation itself. We can trust that the creative process is in accord with the forces of nature.

Our creative instincts and expressions play an intimate roll in the greater life process.  Despite the often fear based and editing tendencies of the mind, the Universal Mother embraces Herself with an intimate appreciation for beauty in its multitude of forms.  We are an inherent expression in that Universal Song.  We are that Song.

Oh God, may our minds be inspired by the light of that
Supreme Self and be filled with divine qualities.

The Yoga of the Body

Occasionally I go for a run.  It is a great way to get some fresh air, take care of the body and listen to some music along the way.  I set my MP3 on shuffle so I never know what will be playing next.  It keeps it interesting.

As I rounded the bend on mile number three the music change and the unmistakable voice of Swami Muktibodhananda fill my eardrums.  Among his many productions, the Swami has created an audio series on meditative practices.  I reached for the shuffle button.

With the button at my fingertips, I changed my mind.  Who knows, I might learn something new I reasoned.  He began with a detailed description of establishing one’s meditative posture.  He emphasized the importance of remaining still.  And then he uttered one simple phrase that dramatically caught my attention.

“Now we will practice the Yoga of the Body.”

What initially caught my attention was the reverence in his voice.  We were about to enter sacred territory, to enter a temple full of mystery, depth and elusive truths.  His words opened up a whole new field of possibility.  The entire path of yoga was held, cradled, hidden, within the innocuous folds of our skin.  From this perspective the body was a port-hole into the secrets of the cosmos.

His comment implied that there were many other forms of yoga practice, each holding the same limitless possibility that was held within the body.  “Yoga” stood as the center most expression in his sentence.  The feeling behind the word conveyed a kind of sacred endeavor or elixir that could be applied to any discipline; the Yoga of Sound, the Yoga of the Breath. The Yoga of the Mind.

The hidden promise contained within the sentence was that mastery was possible, yoga practice, in its many forms led to profound spiritual unity, that Yoga was a sacred vehicle.  I was grateful for this lesson as the miles pealed away.

The Process of Asana

The yogic tradition is rich in methods and techniques.  It is important to remember that the techniques are a means to a much greater end, the complete physical, mental and spiritual integration of the human being.  It is equally important to recognize the moment to moment process of transformation that arises within the application of these various methods.  As we pay close attention to our breath or the sensations within a posture, we gain insight into the nature of our own experience.  From this perspective the path is the destination.

What we call life is already existent inside of us.  The various means, including asana, are a way to explore that inner reality that we live with on a day to day basis.  While the postures and breathing practices may initially appear quite foreign, they draw upon what is most available, namely our breath our body and our mind.  All of the postures and other related practices give us a way to explore the phenomenon of the body and re-pattern it in ways that are much more conducive to deeper states of realization.

This process of re-patterning is what we call transformation.  What the practices give us the opportunity to consciously transform our breath-body-mind, in essence our lives, on multiple levels; physically, mentally, spiritually.  That is one of the reasons people experience such deep currents of change once they start practicing.  Yoga consists of moment to moment dedicated attention to the practices and the ultimate realization of our deepest nature…  Everything in-between is called life!

The Bottom of the Ice Berg

I remember taking a yoga class at my University back in the early 90’s.  The teacher was quite patient, knowledgeable and dedicated.  Somewhere about mid-quarter I remember her saying “asana was a very small part of yoga practice, just the tip of the iceberg.”  She really emphasized the smallness of the asana practice, as though we really had no idea of what we were actually studying.

At first I wrestled with her statement. If the result of asana practice felt so wonderful and transformative how could that be only a small fraction of the practice?  How could you top that?  I took her statement to mean that asana’s were one among many different methods used that could make me feel special or high.

“Tell me the Other Methods!” I mused.

I don’t think that is really what she had in mind.  After years of my own exploration and inquiry into yoga practice I now understand her statement quite differently.

Technically speaking, the term “asana” or posture is quite separate from the word “yoga” which means to join or unite.  Yoga is union of individualized consciousness with Universal Consciousness –the bottom of the iceberg that resides below the surface of our awareness.  Yoga is the conscious union of these two interrelated aspects of ourselves into a seamless whole.  Wholeness arises in the absence of fragmentation.

Often times the term asana is used interchangeable with the term yoga, as though they are the same thing –which they are not.  The classical purpose of asana is to support the greater process of yoga and not the other way around.

The postures are a means unto an end. They are a method by which we can gain insight into Yoga.  All of the euphoric feelings I had associated with the postures were really a by-product of the greater process of yoga.  They were an individual (and very important) part of a much deeper transformation.

How the postures relate to the process of yoga will be the subject of our next post!

The Self

There are many facets to the yoga tradition. Some systems of yoga focus on the purification of the physical body, others focus on cultivation of love and still others focus on the development of knowledge through the study and application of scriptural texts.  These different approaches are intended to suite the varying natures of the practitioners.

The common aim of these systems is to free the aspirant of a contracted and inherently limited sense of identity and reveal their deepest essence, their original face or universal existence.  These are among many terms that attempt to describe this vast and imperishable being.

The yoga tradition uses the word “Atman” to indicate that spiritual identity.  Atman is often translated as the “Self” (with a capital S.)  This is equivalent to the Western notion of the Soul.  Unlike our Western idea of the Soul, the Atman is attributless.

It does not yearn for anything, nor feel compelled to express it-Self in the world in anyway.  It is complete unto itself.  It needs nothing to validate its existence because it is existence itself.  It is the substratum that pervades the entire creation and simultaneously is apart from all manifestation.

In the words of the Kena Upanishad:
That which makes you draw breath but cannot be
Drawn by your breath, that is the Self indeed.
This Self is not someone other than you.

From the yogic perspective, we all suffer from a profound state of mistaken identity.  We tend to think of our-self in terms of our relationship to objects, our body and thoughts.  The ancient Upanishads tell us tell us that all this things are transitory and therefore contain no essential identity.

The atman on the other hand, is the essence of our being, the ground upon which we stand, the most refined spiritual dimension.  The practices of yoga then, are designed to loosen the obstructions that vail our most fundamental nature, the Self.  This, is the utmost goal of yoga.

Literary Yoga

Yoga is an epic subject and much has been written about it.  The literary tradition surrounding the subject goes back to ancient Sanskrit texts from India and more recently has found its way into the glossy folds of magazines, best selling books and most immediately, this blog.

The yoga tradition is buried within age old questions about life, our purpose within it, the human condition and how to find lasting happiness.  Philosophers throughout the ages have wrestled with these questions, debated with one another and passed their illuminated insights on to the next generation who further experimented with and refined the process.

The chronicles of their discoveries can be found in age-old texts that were originally composed in an oral format for generations before they were ever written down.  These early and unanimous authors used metaphor, symbolism, logic, poetry and many other styles to deliver their timeless message.

Coupled with this narrative was an equal emphasis on methods and techniques that the reader/practitioner could use to elevate their consciousness enough to perceive the deeper dimensions of reality which the scriptures professed.

However the prose or the diversity of descriptions the ultimate purpose of these texts is to transform us, to free us from the constraints of our own limited perception, open up a deeper dimension of our being and find lasting peace.

Transition from Denver Institute of Yoga to Axis Yoga Trainings

Welcome to our newly minted website and blog H.Q. This marks the culmination of a long process of transformation from our former identity as Denver Institute of Yoga (DIY) to our current title Axis Yoga Trainings. Why the change? There are several reasons actually.

The Institute was founded in 2003 with the intention of providing Denver residents with a rich immersion into classical practices of yoga. The program was an immediate success. We operated independent for the small handful of studios that existed at that time, renting space from a local dance studio as we continue to do so today. The word “Institute” in our name proved to be confusing because there was no formal Institute/Space for ongoing classes or visitation.

After a long process of considering new titles, a number of which were in Sanskrit, we finally settled on “Axis Yoga Trainings.” It was more concise and descriptive. The term axis is in reference to the central axis of the body, which all of the asanas orient around. The deep core of the body is both mysterious and illuminating.

I remember speaking with one of our Instructors, Kim Johnson, about the change in name. It was a late winter’s day and her delivery was concise and to the point…

“When you change the name of an entity you change its destiny.

With that she walked away and I knew that the school now had a renewed life of its own.