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Yoga Philosophy

What Does it Really Mean to Let Go? (plus yoga teaching tips!)

By Yoga Philosophy, Yoga Poses, Yoga Practice, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

In my early days of practicing yoga, I found myself curious about what seemed to be a very common yoga theme – letting go. I’d hear it at the studio, I’d see it on social media, and in blog posts, but I didn’t quite understand what it meant. When in a yoga pose, let go seemed to be a cue to relax where possible. In terms of yogic philosophy, I took letting go to mean loosening my grip on the things I couldn’t control. In a sense, both are true, but as I dove into the nitty gritty of yoga, I discovered more.

Letting go is a simple phrase, but the instruction isn’t. Even for the most seasoned yoga practitioners, relinquishing control, detaching from sense distractions, and demonstrating faith is a constant, daily practice that can ebb and flow between graceful diligence and downright frustration. The following paragraphs offer another perspective of letting go, plus suggestions for teaching this topic in a yoga class.

Detachment isn’t enough – we must seek out something higher.

Like letting go, the concept of detachment or dispassion – called vairāgya in Sanskrit – suggests a release of something. But what are we letting go of and what fills the gap left behind? Vairāgya – the necessary counterpart to abhyāsa, or practice – is more than severing our attachments to the shiny objects of our sense world; it also entails repositioning our energy towards what really matters – our souls. And the texts speak to this. Translators of the Bhagavad Gītā agree that detaching from material desires is not enough; we must also engage in something greater than ourselves 1,2. Yoga Sūtra commentators mirror this understanding of vairāgya, explaining that detachment means pursuing the soul3,4.

Letting go is a choice to focus on the deeper essence of who we are, and this perspective is a powerful lesson to weave through a dharma talk, or the spiritual message of a yoga class. I’ve met this moment again and again, of realizing that a job, a relationship, or routine distracted me from Spirit, and from knowing myself. At those times, I’ve had to practice quieting my mind in order to refocus inwards. It’s really impactful to share this type of experiential knowledge with our students, backed by yogic teachings, because relating these concepts to modern life makes them more understandable and transformative.

It all comes back to calming our fluctuating thoughts.

So how does this all translate to an āsana practice? Yogic postures are tools for shifting our awareness from the actions of our bodies to the energetic levels of our souls. The reason why the postures should be steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha) is so we can maintain them for meditation5. It all comes back to quieting our minds. In order to turn our attention within, we need to bring our minds under control so we can untangle ourselves from material lures.

To help students experience āsana as a mental discipline, pair movement with breathwork (prāṇāyāma). Focusing on our breathing gives our minds something to do, rather than fixate on our fleeting thoughts. Regulating the pace of an āsana sequence is also important. If we tire out our bodies a bit with steady to fast-paced vinyāsa before holding stationary poses, our minds have a better chance of slowing down. This might look something like multiple Sun Salutation (Sūrya Namaskar) variations to start, followed by 10 breaths in Warrior II (Vīrabhadrāsana II), several counts in Chair Pose (Utkaṭāsana), Fierce Angle Pose (Utkaṭā Koṇāsana), and Garland.

Pose (Mālāsana), and so on and so forth. This approach combines physical endurance with mental focus – the two dynamic components of āsana.

When it comes to letting go, presenting this deeper meaning opens doors for our students to connect, in even small ways, to something bigger than themselves. Letting go of the things we can’t control is part of it, as is releasing tension and giving up expectations of ourselves for our practice. But, in truth, letting go is more than a single moment; it’s a lifelong process of connecting to what’s most important, of devoting our hearts to the eternal, divine truth knitting us all together.

1. Prabhupāda, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, translator. Bhagavad Gītā, As It Is. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983, p. 288.

2. Goswami, H.D. A Comprehensive Guide to Bhagavad Gītā, with Literal Translation. Krishna West, Inc. 2015, p. 95.

3. Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Thorsons, 2002, p 62.

4. Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 53.

5. Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 284.

Teaching During COVID: A Pep Talk for New Yoga Teachers

By Yoga Philosophy, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

It’s true – becoming an effective and confident yoga teacher takes practice. While opportunities to teach āsana may currently be in short supply as a result of COVID-19, being a yoga teacher is not dependent on having access to public spaces to teach. Discovering who you are and sharing that person with not only yoga students, but also the people you encounter throughout your life is at the heart of being a yoga teacher. It’s a process that has the potential to transform you and impact those around you in profound, and sometimes unexpected, ways.

Yoga is more than the āsana, and so are you.

By no means are the postures insignificant; Iyengar asserted that, for the average person, practicing āsana and prāṇāyāma are the two most effective disciplines for quieting the mind. But, in reality, the postures are only a piece of a much bigger process of self-discovery and transformation. Teaching āsana is not the only way to share yoga.

I once supported someone through the death of a loved one. To help her manage the mound of tasks that surfaced in the wake of her loss, I would remind her to take breaks, to take deep breaths, and assess situations before acting. In essence, we practiced a little yoga every day. By helping her to hold the space between stimulus and response, she was able to control her thoughts enough to meet her responsibilities, while also honoring her grief.

Ask yourself these questions: Beyond the postures, how have I shared yoga with others? And, how can I continue to do so? Maybe it’s been through writing, conversation, or relationship, but if you’ve offered any of yoga’s gifts to another person, that’s teaching too.

Memberships expire, but knowledge doesn’t.

Several years back, I moved from my home of four years. In the two years that followed, I taught yoga in studios sporadically, struggling to find my groove in new places. When it came time to renew my Yoga Alliance registration, I didn’t have many teaching hours to log. For a moment, I felt like I had lost my legitimacy as a teacher. Then I realized that, while memberships expire, knowledge doesn’t. My connection to yoga hadn’t gone anywhere, and that’s because I never stopped practicing.

During those tough two years, I maintained a very disciplined morning practice of worship and meditation. When I started teaching in studios again with regularity, I did so with ease and authenticity. Through a committed daily spiritual practice (sādhanā) and self-study through sacred texts (svādhyāya), my relationship to yoga shifted from a set of practices I performed to something that I lived.

Being a yoga teacher means being a student first. If you don’t have many opportunities to teach or share yoga right now, weaving yogic practices and philosophies into your everyday life is essential to uncovering what you’re meant to offer as a teacher.

Keep your eyes on your own mat.

In other words, don’t compare yourself to others, and commit to what feels right for you. If we’re focusing on what someone else is doing, we may stray from the work we’re meant to do. Krishṇa speaks to this in Bhagavad Gītā 3.35 when He explains that no one else can perform our dharma (spiritual purpose) for us, nor can we perform another’s. In fact, it’s dangerous to attempt to do so.

I run into this trap all the time. I’ll notice someone else’s work on social media, make a snap judgement, and then I’m full-steam ahead down one continuous, self-critical scroll. I eventually catch myself, realizing I’d been investing time in an idea of who I think I should be, rather than nurturing who I am. It happens, especially when the digital world tends to showcase large and enticing markers of success. Focusing on what it is we do well is really just another way to practice yoga.

If you recently completed a yoga teacher training, it’s both possible and important to continue your journey as a teacher right now, despite the plethora of unprecedented challenges we face today as yoga teachers, studio owners, and simply human beings. These perspectives are not meant to be magic-fixes, but rather things to practice. If there’s one thing that yoga reveals to us, it’s that we can show up imperfectly and make progress, even if we can’t immediately see the transformation taking place.

1. Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on Yoga. Schocken Books, 1979, p 27.

Śraddhā: Faith as Yogic Practice

By Sanskrit, Yoga PhilosophyNo Comments

We all have a story to tell, a story of collapsing to our knees, winded and weary, and then picking ourselves up from wherever we’ve fallen in order to keep going. What fuels our ability to persevere through loss and adversity? One short answer is faith. But what is faith and how does it really work? Because faith relates more to the heart than it does to logic, it’s something we can feel but not necessarily define with absolute certainty. We tend to think of faith as something we have or we don’t, as in having faith in God or the Universe, or in a worldly sense, as having faith in humanity or a particular organization. Yoga offers another perspective, one that links faith to personal practice.

The Sanskrit word śraddhā translates to faith or trust. But encased in this word is a deeper, more illuminating meaning. B.K.S. Iyengar describes śraddhā as mental and intellectual firmness, which fosters an innate trust (1). Vyasa, an original commentator on the Yoga Sūtras, interprets śraddhā as clarity of mind that sustains us as we move along with our yoga practice. When the mind is clear, truth reveals itself; With untainted vision, we can see the way forward and trust it (2).

Faith is something many of us long for, and it’s also something we need – a deep trust in our purpose, preceded by mental clarity and fortitude. Faith is, without question, a necessary component of yogic practice. It’s our sustenance, our spiritual nourishment. But faith is also a practice in and of itself. It’s a quality of being that need not be left up to chance, but rather is something we can cultivate. Just as any type of personal growth stems from effort rather than luck alone, we can develop a relationship with faith wherein it becomes a reliable and vibrant force in our lives.

Whether it’s faith in the potential for personal transformation, faith in humanity, or faith in the goal of equity and justice for all, it starts with quieting our minds. Cultivating faith is not a linear process, and that’s because focusing the mind and removing obstacles, like ignorance and attachment, are by no means easy undertakings. Our minds are wild and turbulent like the wind, and therefore seemingly impossible to control, so exclaims Arjuna in Bhagavad Gītā 6.34. But, Lord Krishna replies in 6.35, it is possible to control the mind, however obstinate it might be, through practice and detachment. Yet, try as we might, sometimes the mind is steady and focused, revealing our true nature, and at other times we identify with our fluctuating thoughts (See Yoga Sūtras 1.3 and 1.4). Such is the nature of practice.

As we work to transform ourselves and better the world around us, it’s normal and necessary to fall down from time to time, whether from the weight of doubt and despair, a wave of humility, or just exhaustion. But within spiritual work like yoga runs a river of grace. Each moment is an opportunity to examine ourselves, to course-correct, to try again, to make real change happen. If we give it the time faith will lead us somewhere special, towards authenticity, deeper empathy and compassion, so we truly become caretakers of each other. If we work to still our minds, truth will arise and reveal the next right steps.

We can’t force faith upon ourselves through any type of logical thinking, but we can allow it to expand within us by creating the necessary conditions to reveal our inner selves as holy places where truth does exist. In times of great despair and hardship, it may feel like we’re dragging ourselves across the floor, hoping for just a shred of strength to peel ourselves up. In those moments, practice faith like medicine. Be still and listen. Just like a sailor must know the direction of the wind in order to guide the ship, we must know truth in order to persevere. We must seek out that divine wisdom, adjust our course accordingly, and then allow that steady breath to fill our sails. It will lead us to where we need to go.

 

(1) Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Thorsons, 2002, p 75.

(2) Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 77-78.

3 Mindset Tips for Finding Balance

By Yoga Lifestyle, Yoga PhilosophyNo Comments

Consider this common scenario. It’s the start of a new day or work week and the anxiety rises up in your chest, settling in like a ton of bricks as you anticipate the scope of what you need to get done. You’re exhausted and your efforts to focus are futile. It feels impossible to slow down and your plate is so full you can’t figure out what needs to go. I’ve been there, too. When we have too much to pay attention to, it’s challenging to focus and establish better rhythms for ourselves. Sometimes too many unexpected changes happen all at once and it’s tough to scale back. But very often we can find some balance by managing our thoughts and changing our perspectives. The Yoga Sūtras offer practical teachings for achieving balance through mental discipline.

You are not your thoughts.

Our minds are like flooded internet browsers with numerous tabs and pop-ups open at any given time. However, we do have the option of clearing any and all irrelevant windows. According to yogic wisdom, our true selves and our minds are two separate things. Let’s consider Yoga Sūtra 1.4, “Otherwise, at other times, [the seer] is absorbed in the changing states [of the mind] (1, p. 24).” Sometimes our thoughts overwhelm us, and at other times we’re able to let them go.

While our minds are very reactive and become easily consumed by what’s happening around us, often leading us off track and distorting reality, we can discern which thoughts warrant our attention. For example, if you think you’ve failed because something didn’t work out, it doesn’t mean you have or that there’s no chance of turning things around. A missed step is not failure, nor is it a reflection of who you are; it’s just another way to move your feet. Keep your mind open, steady on the path forward, and detach from the thoughts that threaten to distract you.

What can you let go of?

When we’re scrambling to meet every demand, it’s hard to know which priorities to keep and which ones to toss. This relates to tasks as well as expectations for what we can accomplish. And that’s where Yoga Sūtra 1.15 comes in, which states: “Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires (2, p. 64).” Not attaching to our desire for success is a learned skill of keeping the mind steady and clear of distractions. Without attachment to worldly gain, we can work with greater ease, fulfilled by what we’ve accomplished, and unbothered by feelings of failure or lack. When the pressure to do it all feels utterly consuming, take a pause. Step away from the computer or the paperwork. What can you scratch off your list? What expectations of yourself, or desires for achievement can you let go of all together?

Change your thought patterns.

Disciplining our minds also includes changing our thoughts when they threaten to drag us down. For this one, let’s turn to Yoga Sūtra 2.33, “Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts (1, p. 255).” This teaching could mean reversing our outlook from a glass-half-empty mentality to a glass-half-full. But sometimes that can feel like we’re forcing optimism where it doesn’t belong rather than looking at things through a different lens.

Perhaps you can relate this thought, “I’m never going to be able to accomplish X and Y by Z.” Maybe that’s true, but this mindset can be debilitating midst pressure to meet all the demands thrown at you. An example counteracting thought could go something like this, “I won’t be able to accomplish X and Y by Z, but I can get A and B done by C.” When the unfavorable thoughts won’t stop no matter how much you dismiss them, consider this exercise. Write down your negative thoughts on one side of a piece of paper, and then write out the counteracting thoughts right next to them. Cross out the negative and proceed with the opposite thoughts.

Yoga provides some of the very best instruction on how to live life, especially when life is difficult. It’s helpful to apply yogic teachings to our lives in practical ways so that they serve their purpose of helping us transform. Yoga is meant to be lived and experienced; That’s how we experience its gifts. The wisdom of these three sūtras can help us bring a chaotic situation back into balance by enabling us to see things clearly and examine our lives with some fresh perspective.

(1) Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009.
(2) Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Thorsons, 2002.

4 Ways To Overcome Emotional Triggers Though Yoga

By Wellness, Yoga PhilosophyNo Comments

Literally, sometimes it comes on like a wave. Completely unexpected. Uncalled for. And truly throws you into an internal and external fit of not knowing what to do. Have you ever had this feeling come on while watching the news about a particular crime? Or maybe while reading someone’s personal story about a trauma they’ve experienced? Or maybe you’ve had this unexpected feeling come on while in conversation with a colleague who holds limiting perceptions of particular groups of people, or even at lunch with your mother because she thinks you could be doing better.

And just maybe, you’ve had this feeling in a yoga class, right at the end when you’re being asked to close your eyes and take Savasana in a room of strangers.

Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s called being triggered. That wave of unexpected, unsettling, consuming rush of anxiety, panic, fight or flight is called being triggered. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US HAS FELT TRIGGERED! And it’s okay and there is no shame in feeling triggered.

Here’s the thing about being triggered – we have conscious and unconscious understandings of what triggers us. I know from my personal experience, my mother’s way of genuinely expressing interest is to ask me a lot of questions and give me new things to think about in an effort to push me to new heights.

Although I am aware of how my mother expresses interest and support, in my mind, I hear her questioning nudges as, “I am not good enough. She knows I’m not good enough and is telling me so right now. And any successes I’ve had to date are meaningless because I need to be doing more.”

My mother without knowing unearths that wave of triggering emotions and one of two things happens: I shut down and push her away, or, I lash out at her and do my diligence to try to make her upset. Neither of these are good strategies for me or her.

The thing about feeling triggered is someone or something is able to unearth a feeling we haven’t quite dealt with or have made a choice to suppress. In my case, the feeling is insecurity and a sense of low worthiness or low value ascribed to my successes.

Now, I recognize having this conversation with my mother would be beneficial for both of us (and when she reads this, naturally a conversation will ensue). But, I have to stop and take care of myself first, before I can have an effective conversation with my mother or anyone who causes me to feel triggered (or to deal with an event that caused me to feel triggered – like being in a room of strangers with my eyes closed during Savasana).

So how do I that? Yoga! All of the yoga! Sure, going to a power yoga class will make me feel better. But, feelings of being triggered can linger on after I attend a class.

These triggering emotions are necessary, as Thich Nhat Hanh, spiritual leader and Buddhist monk, teaches us. He teaches us that these emotions arise and need to be treated with the same love, care, and affection as you would treat a baby. Once we learn to accept and treat our emotions with loving kindness, their power fades and an emotional healing process can begin. Remember – there is no personal growth without discomfort.

Here are four meditation and pranyama practices I do when I notice my triggers. Next time you feel yourself being triggered emotionally, you can easily do one of these practices in your office, your car, at home, or anywhere else you choose:

 

1. Loving Kindness & Self Love Meditation

Begin in a comfortable seated position (in a chair, on bar stool, on a bolster, wherever), with your eyes preferable open. Fix your gaze on something and place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly. Breathe in deeply through your nose and as you exhale, audibly let the air out of your mouth. Do this about five times. As you engage in this breathing exercise say to yourself the following mantra, “I am light. I am love. I am okay.”


2. Power In The Present Moment Meditation

Begin lying on the floor face down and place a bolster or a thick pillow underneath you – right around your navel (solar plexus chakra). Next stretch your arms out overhead and take a V-position with your legs. You want to resemble a starfish on your stomach. Turn your head to one side (with eyes opened or closed), breathe in through your nose and hold for a slow count of four, and exhale out of your mouth for a slow count of four. While in this pose say to yourself the following mantra, “Today is today. Tomorrow is tomorrow. I am in control of my present.”

3. Acceptance Meditation

Take Supta Baddha Konasana or Reclining Bound Angle pose with a bolster or thick pillow right between your shoulder blades. Place your arms out to the side (If you are at work or somewhere you can take seat, take this pose by placing both hands behind you on your low back, puff your chest out, and lift your head towards the ceiling).

While in this position, choose a fixed point on the ceiling and see who or what it is that has triggered you. Next, speak into the silence, “I feel triggered because…Although, I feel triggered, my heart is open to my discomfort and I am okay.”

4. Inner Strength Meditation

The last and final pose, I find to be helpful when I’m feeling triggered is taking a power stance. The pose is similar to Extended Mountain pose or Upward Salute pose, but instead you look like a vertical starfish. To do this, take your arms overhead, spread wide, and stand firmly grounded with your legs hip width apart. Take a slight backbend and allow your heart to shine towards the ceiling. Bring to mind what has just triggered you – take a deep inhale and audibly exhale. Say to yourself, “I felt triggered because…but, I am taking my power back. I am love. I am power.”

 

Treat what triggers you with love, patience, and understanding because you are okay and you are powerful!

 

 

Valin S. Jordan Ed.D. is an Assistant Professor of Diversity Education at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Dr. Jordan’s work focuses on teacher identity and narrative as having particular implication for classroom practice. Dr. Jordan engages in contemplative pedagogy through the practice of yoga, she has founded an organization called, Yoga4SocialJustice. The organization is committed to mind and body connection through engagements of social justice and equity principles. More information can be found on Instagram @yoga4socialjustice or on the website https://www.yoga4socialjustice.org/.

 

Understanding Social Justice Through Selflessness

By Yoga Lifestyle, Yoga PhilosophyNo Comments

We learn a lot through the practice of meditation, mindfulness and yoga. We learn how to use our breath to support us through difficult moments. We learn how to set our drishti to keep us balanced on and off the mat. We learn how to set an intention and stick with it. But, one principle that I find we aren’t readily learning through the practice of yoga is seva. Seva being the Sanskrit term for selfless service. Now, I can argue all day that there really isn’t a such thing as a selfless service – if you feel good about what you’re doing, then it’s not selfless, because the reward is the good feeling. Or you may receive praise for your “selfless” act, and well, the second you receive praise there is an outcome for the individual who did a good and “selfless” thing. But, I digress. Let’s focus in on this concept of seva for what it actually means, a selfless act and let’s couple it with what’s necessary for social justice.

Social justice is about creating fair and equitable treatment for groups of people who experience unfair, inequitable and injust experiences due to social issues related to race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, etc. For most of us, the kneejerk selfless action is to donate money, donate time (i.e. volunteering), donate clothes, etc. – essentially, to donate and be giving – which is great. But, this does not create justice. This is charity. Justice starts with understanding what the inequities are, challenging our perceptions, notions and ideologies about those inequities, and moving forward to changing the dynamics of the system that continue to operate to create inequity or injustices. Justice is voting. Justice is creating policy. Justice is advocating for those who are voiceless or without the “power” to advocate for themselves. Justice is keeping your eyes and ears open, rather than turning a blind eye or deaf ear. This requires more than a donation or volunteering of time.

Selflessness must start with some focus on the self. In order for there to be growth or social change, each and every individual must be willing to drop what they think they know and begin to learn about and challenge the systems that privilege some and do not privilege others. As a starter to selflessness, we have to be willing to get a bit uncomfortable with ourselves and unlearn what we are holding onto about particular groups if we are hoping to see change for that group. In order to truly do good this society, selflessness requires deep self reflection and self-inquiry, an understanding of ourselves, before we can even attempt to give anything to someone else. Think about what you hear on an airplane: “put your oxygen mask on first, before you help your child or neighbor.” The truth in this statement isn’t about saving yourself first, the truth in this statement is, we aren’t any good to anybody else, if we don’t take care of ourselves first. Similarly, there is no good to be done with regards to social change or social justice if we haven’t done the necessary work to unlearn and challenge our perceptions, notions and ideologies about particular groups of people and what they need, rather than what we think they need.

So, consider doing things a bit differently, rather than assuming you know what’s needed or that your service is selfless. Social justice and social change requires people who are willing to say “I don’t have the answers, but I’m willing to learn and grow so I may be able to do better by others.”

 

 


Valin S. Jordan Ed.D. is an Assistant Professor of Diversity Education at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Dr. Jordan’s work focuses on teacher identity and narrative as having particular implication for classroom practice. Dr. Jordan engages in contemplative pedagogy through the practice of yoga, she has founded an organization called, Yoga4SocialJustice. The organization is committed to mind and body connection through engagements of social justice and equity principles. More information can be found on Instagram @yoga4socialjustice or on the website https://www.yoga4socialjustice.org/