Why yoga? Address subtle physical and mental issues so you can handle the unexpected 

Rebecca Hersh, a wonderful yoga teacher at Laughing Lotus SF, had a terrific theme for a class this week.  I love it when classes have a theme that runs through both the asana part of the class and the philosophy part.  It shows a lot of preparation and thought, and few teachers do it well.

Forgive the paraphrasing in what is to follow.  If anyone who was there – including Rebecca – would like to correct anything below, I’d be honored.

Rebecca started Tuesday’s class explaining that when a muscle is a lttle tight, it sends you little messages all the time saying “I’m tight, I’m tight.”  But it’s not so bad so you walk around throughout your day with the muscle complaining “I’m tight, I’m tight” and you not really paying attention to it.  And then one day, something unexpected happens: you are playing with your neice and she wants you to run after her and suddenly this tight muscle siezes up and causes far more tightness or cramping or even a tear.

The same thing can happen with your mind.  There’s something nagging you in the back of your mind all the time and you don’t take the time to look at it and listen to it and address the issue.  And then one day, something unexpected happens: you lose your job, or a family member has cancer, or you get a chance at a great new house.  And if that nagging problem was at all related to your unexpected event then your ability to respond is unecessarily limited.

So her point was that yoga works at addressing this issue both for the body and the mind.  You stretch that hamstring so it doesn’t cramp up when you chase your niece.  But more importantly, yoga citta vritti nirhoda: yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind.  By stopping the fluctuations we can calmly and with ego set aside, deal with what we need to deal with.  And that includes unresolved nagging issues as well as new unexpected events.

Or at least it was something like that 🙂

Made me think auto maintencance (or maybe motocycle maintenance).


108 salutations for the equinox

Today as on every solstice and equinox I celebrated the change of season with a morning practice of 108 sun salutations.

I first learned of this practice at Inland Yoga in Riverside California, where they had a 108 sun salutations class every solstice.  I did it that winter, in 2007, and have done it pretty much every season since.  Google shows many websites discussing the practice and I’ve heard of a fee others doing it too, but I don’t know if there is any special reason for the practice other than as a way to mark the passage of time.  If you have more information on the background please let me know!

I like the practice both as an excellent ritual for remaining mindful of the passing of the year and as a great workout for bothe body and mind. 

It takes me about an hour. It’s important not to rush it both so you pace yourself and so you can remain focused on the movement and maintain proper alignment.  So I set aside an hour and a half just to keep from feeling rushed.  

The first few times I tried this, I lost count a lot.  Apparently that’s one of the reasons Buddhists practice 108 mantras- to make sure that at least 100 are done :). But now I say the number our loud as I bend forward into uttanasana.  That seems to help but I still lose count sometimes.  Not today though!  It was a beautiful, calming and refreshing practice today and I’m grateful to have the time and health for it.  Happy Spring!

The “Life-Saving Sequence” of Krishnamacharya – save your life in 15 minutes :)

Krishnamacharya was one amazing dude.  He was a yogi and professor of vedanta who taught the two most influential yoga teachers in the west, Patthabi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar.

I’ve seen a couple of documentaries on him and have one book about him. I encourage you to look him up, at least on YouTube.

One documentary includes interviews wiht his son and daughter.  The daughter explained how in his later life, Krishnamacharya developed what he called the “life-saving sequence” to be performed daily.  It is very short and when I saw it I thought I could easily add it to my routine as a nighttime sequence.  Here is my transcription – if anybody reads this and has a correction to this please let me know:

  1. Matsyasana for 3 long breaths
  2. Cobra for 3 long breaths. Concentrate on the middle of the eyebrows starting with eyes closed then opening.
  3. Shoulder stand  for 6 breaths. Concentrate on the throat.
  4. Great seal – maha mudra – each side, for 3 long breaths? (I do this one with Kumbhaka (Breath Retention) after each breath)
  5. Paschimotanasana
  6. Then sit concentrating on the heart.  I fold my palms and breathe for a few minutes.

Now you are ready for bed — and apparently, your life has been saved!

Experiment: how to optimize stress relief when work + sleep + family + yoga > 24 hours

This past Monday night, my son stayed up yelling and kicking in his bed until 12:30 a.m. when he finally calmed down.  For new readers, my son is 14 and has special needs.  He is deaf and has very little means of communication  – some sign language and otherwise gestures and vocalizations.  In the past year, possibly since entering puberty, he has had periods like Sunday night where he is in a very agitated state for hours, vocalizing loudly and often kicking or thrashing about and sometimes pulling his hair aggressively. We try to calm him, of course. Hearing the yelling and kicking, especially while trying to express your love and calmness to him and failing, can be tough.

On Tuesday morning I had a meeting at work starting at 9:30.  I kept working with only 2 short breaks until 12:30 am.  It took an hour more to get to sleep.

On Wednesday moring I had another meeting at 9:30.

We’ve all had periods like this in our lives with too much work and family and it seems like we have to trade off good habits like sleep or yoga during the remaining time.  I’ve tried this a bunch of different ways and I’ve come up with some best practices that work for me:

  1. Do yoga every morning no matter what, at least for 20 minutes, even though it cuts into sleep.
  2. Try to fit in Pranayama at some point in the day, even if just during a break at work.
  3. Remain mindful of the yamas and niyamas throughout the day — including taking a short minute to jot down how I am doing on them.
  4. At night — again even though it appearst to cut into sleep time — do the “lifesaving practice” of Krishnamacharya before bed.  It’s only 15 minutes and time after time I have found I will go to sleep faster and sleep better if I do this practice first.
  5. Don’t let tiredness lead me to overeating or drinking. I seem to have a deep-rooted instinct that tells me food or sugar or alcohol will pep me up when I’m tired; but it doesn’t.  As Iyengar explains, Moksha or liberation involves ensuring that your actions are deliberate and intentional and not driven by mindless instinct.
  6. Get as much sleep as possible in the time left over after fulfilling my commitments and doing the small amount of yoga practice above.  Note that I think fulfilling my commitments is part of my practice of Satyagraha: the flipside of honesty is not committing to something I cannot do / and doing whatever I have committed to.  For those workaholic dads out there: this includes your committments to your family, spoken and unspoken.

So how did I do over the past few days?

I did do yoga every day.  I did not do the lifesaving practice Tuesday night and if I had, I may have fallen asleep faster.  I did do a quick journal of yamas and niyamas on Monday but not Tuesday.  I had chocolate snacks and lots of extra food on Tuesday which I really regretted later that night — again proving point 5 above.

One thing I think went really well was maintaining an attitude of Ishwar-Pranidhan: surrender of my ego and focusing on what it takes to accomplish my goals.  On Tuesday night when I learned that some of my coworkers had not done parts of the task I had expected they would do, instead of feeling anxious or defeated or angry, I pulled out my detailed task schedule and added those items, told my wife it would be another hour before I finished, and went back to work.  By maintaining calm if not contentment during these stressful moments, I saved myself time, improved my ability to work efficiently, and avoided an unhealthy adrenaline boost that might have kept me up even longer.

Overall I was kind of happy at many times during the day too, and I recall distinct moments of feeling Santosha – being content in the moment: looking at the beautiful sunset, walking in the evening while on a conference call and looking at the city skyline, and hugging my wife when I got home.

So some things went well, and for others there is room for improvement — that’s part of why I’m here, writing this down.  Perhaps even the act of making it public will help me follow the above 5 practices in the future.

The picture accompanying this post is from a Businessweek article published in 2006 about me and my family.  That’s me, just at the beginning of my daily yoga practice, with my work and behind me, our whiteboard with the detailed schedule for taking care of my son.

“What you resist, persists”

– said by my yoga teacher on Saturday.

I’ve been realizing this lately as I try to be mindful of maintaining ahimsa (nonviolence).  Ahimsa is not just about avoiding physical violence, but also – even more – living without actions or words directed with threats or aggression toward others.  But for a long time – over a year I guess – as I’ve kept my journal about the yamas and niyamas including ahimsa – I had extended this to trying to avoid feeling anger.

Finally only a few months ago I realized that attempting to suppress feelings of anger ultimately caused the underlying discontent to linger.  It is so much better to recognize, “I am feeling anger.”. I long ago realized that anger is always a reflection of fear, so I can ask myself, “what am I afraid of?” and either deal with it or let it go.

What you resist, persists.

Practice, Practice, Practice, Practice: Patthabi Jois about Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha, and, incidentally, god

I love this video, I’ve watched it a dozen times and finally transcribed it.  It’s the founder of Ashtanga Yoga talking about the first yoga sutra from the ancient yoga sutras of Patanjali.

The video is below but one thing I love about it is that his answer to everything, including the question of how religion firs into yoga, is simpky: practice, practice, practice, practice.

The video is here: 


And here is my transcriptiin: 

Yoga means your mind controlling capacity, taking practice, that is yoga.

Yoga is chitta vritti nirodha.

“Chitta” means mind control.  Now your mind is not control you.

Your mind searching all the places.  That is not good.

[Q: is this practice spiritual or physical?]

A: Both.  Both.

[Q: if I’m not a so spiritual person, will I … the practice?]

A: You take practice.  Take this practice, automatically it is coming.  

That is take practice, practice, practice.  That is method.

Don’t ask theory.  Theory don’t want.  

Two methods is there — outside, inside.  

Outside method — practice asanas, pranayama.  Asana, yama, niyama, asana, pranamaya.

Inside — pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi — inside method.

Outside, correcting, possible.

Inside, not correcting, impossible.

You follow.  Keep practice, practice, practice, practice.

Last moment, inside, God is looking possible.

One month, two months, 1 year, 2 years, 10 years. No use.

Whole life.  Whole life is practice.

That is method.