Category Archives: Niyamas

Ishvara Pranidhana: Your Practice Is Bigger Than the Size of Your Shorts

Ishvara Pranidhana is the last of the Niyamas, or moral “observances” of yoga (read more about Patanjali and the 8 limbs of yoga here). It translates sort of like, devotion to God, which is a little tricky for some folks (I’m a Buddhist, so I feel free to go ahead and take some liberties here, which I’ll talk about shortly). It might also be one of the least popular observances to talk about in your sort of contemporary yoga class setting, at least in my experience. I guess it’s easier to talk about feel-good santosha (“be happy with where you are today!”) and “work it, girl” tapas (“one more navasana, guys!”) than it is about, um, devoting your practice to the divine.

For myself, though, and many others, a yoga class devoid of spirituality is not really yoga.  At our yoga studio (YogaFish), the teachers believe there is something more to the practice than just the physical element. This is why we do pranayama in our classes, offer free meditation, and offer chanting as part of the practice (even if it’s just the “Om”). Here’s how I summed it up for would-be visitors:

There are lots of great yoga studio options in the area. What YogaFish offers is an atmosphere of acceptance with an emphasis on the mind/body/spirit connection. Sure, if you want to come to class and just stretch and sweat, you can do that. We believe that what keeps people coming back, though, is the way that they start to notice their lives changing. In addition to the physical benefits (strength, flexibility, overall feeling of better health), there’s an increased awareness. More mindfulness, more appreciation, more self-insight. YogaFish instructors understand that experience- that’s how we teach. Our classes are designed to help our students achieve those insights.

As teachers and studio owners, we can create the space for students but ultimately, it’s up to the practitioner to decide how to handle their time on the mat. Ishvara Pranidhana is your opportunity to devote your practice to a higher power. In my classes, I offer time at the beginning of class to create a sankalpa– an intention, dedication, or resolution that can be a touchstone throughout the practice. I also suggest students bring their hands to heart’s center (anjali mudra) and chant Om with this intention in mind, so that any time their hands return to this mudra during class, they can be guided back to the higher intention.

Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, in his essay “Is Yoga A Religion?” says:

“At the heart of all forms of Yoga is the assumption that you have not yet tapped into your full potential as a human being. In particular, Yoga seeks to put you in touch with your spiritual core- your innermost nature- that which or who you truly are….you are free to allow your personal experience and realization to shape your understanding.”

In other words, you are free to interpret Ishvara Pranidhana however you like (in fact, you’re free to ignore it altogether)! Some students may choose to create a sankalpa that focuses on cultivating a particular positive attitude in their practice, or they may dedicate the practice to someone they know who needs that positive energy. To me, these are all different expressions of devotion, and I think a valid way to practice Ishvara Pranidhana. Not everyone agrees. According to Sharon Gannon and David Life and their school of Jivamukti Yoga, specifically devoting your practice to the divine is really a necessity:

“The yoga practices amplify and direct the pranic flow. If we do not consciously aim that flow upward, it will flow to whatever tendencies might be passing through the mind… The psychotherapeutic power of the yoga practices lies in their ability to bring unconscious feelings to the surface. This can be overwhelming, unless the practice is steadfastly dedicated to God. When that unleashed energy is directed toward God-realization rather than toward expressing unconscious selfish emotions, it becomes liberating rather than binding.” –Jivamukti Yoga

There have been times over the past two years where I came to my yoga mat and sort of felt like, What’s the point? Why bother? It felt like a job, or a chore. Sometimes it just felt like exercise.

Although I understood (and paid lip service to) the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana, it wasn’t really clicking for me. As a teacher, I knew I needed to maintain my self-practice in order to stay fresh and able to offer insight into my students’ practices, but I wasn’t able to make that direct connection. I was working from ego on my mat, that is, thinking about myself and my own practice and its ups and downs.

Interestingly, as I was feeling disillusioned with my asana practice, my meditation practice was growing, and I felt a disconnect between what was happening on my yoga mat and what was happening on my meditation cushion.My meditation practice includes time at the beginning and end of each session to dedicate the practice to the service of all sentient beings. I was in meditation one day when it occurred to me in one of those awesome lightning-bolt-of-intuition-moments that I was wasting the opportunity I had every day on my yoga mat. I could dedicate each whole asana practice in the same way!

Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, lends itself handily to a meditative experience. Students are asked to follow the tristana method by focusing on the breath (Ujjayi), drishti (a specific gaze/focal point in each pose), and the asana (which includes the bandhas). If you’ve ever tried to do all of these things at once for a whole 90 minute practice, then you know how hard it is to stay focused.

But with my understanding of asana practice as service- my Ishvara Pranidhana– I was able to use each of these three points of meditative awareness as an opportunity to serve. Every time I drifted away, I said to myself, “Hey now, engage your bandhas for the good of all sentient beings.” If this sounds a little nuts to you, I understand- at one point, it may have to me too. But I don’t need to understand how it works. Maybe it’s as simple as this- by bringing meditative awareness to my own practice, I’m learning more that I can share with my students. When I have a hard time doing something in my practice, or when my awareness drifts, or when I start wishing I had worn different shorts, I can use it as an opportunity to be compassionate toward others who experience the same thing. It’s not about me and my practice any more- it’s about something bigger than that.

Finally- for those days when even getting to the mat feels like a chore- I’ve been inspired by a Buddhist text that says the following:

Used well, this body is our raft to freedom. Used badly, this body anchors us to samsara (the ocean of suffering in which we all live).

May I continue to serve, to use this body well, for the benefit of all beings. 1972261_655174854544705_1407643906_n-1




Tapas: I Fell Into a Burning Ring of Fire

So, if anyone was paying attention (I’m trying not to flatter myself unduly), you may have noticed that SIX MONTHS have gone by since I last visited the Niyamas. It was all gangbusters right up through Santosha, and then things sort of just petered out as I ran up against Tapas.

Perhaps you are thinking “Tapas- a delicious Spanish appetizer.” Provided that they are vegetarian, I’m all in for this kind of tapas! But that’s not what Patanjali is all about. Tapas- often read as “heat,” “austerity,” “catharsis,” “burning discipline” or “burning zeal” in your practice- well, I thought, it’s not really a problem for me. I’ve got more Tapas than I know what to do with. As you may remember from my personal experience with Brahmacharya, I tend to overdo. If presented with a problem or an opportunity of some kind, my instinct is to work quickly and urgently to resolve it. If that means, for example, that my back is tight, I’ll do 9 Urdva Dhanurasanas every day for a month to try to resolve it- even if my wrists and shoulders are killing me. Ah, tapas. “Feel the burn” indeed*.

So when I got to Tapas, I sort of thought, hm. What to say here? I mean, my problem is not lack of discipline. It’s lack of moderation. Which is why I’ve written two times about Brahmacharya-!

Yeah, I could tell you that you this Niyama asks you to be disciplined, it requires you to be focused and committed, that if you want physical, spiritual, or emotional growth, you must be willing to work for it. All of this is true. This morning, though, I’m seeing Tapas in a different sort of light.

In his neat and concise commentary on the Yoga Sutras, Alistair Shearer sums up Tapas in this way:

(Tapas)…is usually translated as “austerity,” and as a result the popular image of yoga is of a discipline involving asceticism or mortification. In fact, the word describes yoga as a process of transmutation, an inner alchemy that burns away the dross of imperfection.”

Hm. What if Tapas isn’t something that I generate myself internally- but something that’s happening to me as a by-product of my yoga practice?

During the past few years, I immersed myself completely in yoga- committed as fully as possible to living the eight limbs. In the Buddhist tradition, you might say that I began to live the Dharma. I took refuge (Buddhist vows), and things really, really started to change.

I hear lots of stories about people whose marriages and relationships with loved ones become complicated and fearful when one partner takes up a serious yoga practice. So it was for me. “You’ve got religion,” my ex would say. “You joined a cult.”

I know it was hard for him. It was a big change. I no longer wanted to hang around with people who weren’t nurturing me in some way. I didn’t want to eat meat or watch horror movies or gossip (as much). I learned to hug and touch people in a way I’d been afraid to do.

Initially, it was like a big honeymoon with me and my practice. I felt amazing in so many ways, more honest and open and lighter and happier. I was pretty sure I had found the key to navigating through life joyfully. I’m sure I irritated many people during this time. “Yay! Yogayogayoga!”

But what happens when that first pleasure falls away? When you come home from yoga class, or teacher training, and you see your home with fresh eyes, and you consider the life you’ve built, and you can no longer not look honestly at it? If the truth you’re feeling inside doesn’t match the life you’re living outside, you can no longer be happy with things as they are. And then the real Tapas begins.

“Never think that you will be able to settle your life down by practicing the dharma. The dharma is not therapy. In fact, it is just the opposite. The purpose of the dharma is to really stir up your life. It is meant to turn your life upside down. If that is what you asked for, why complain? If it is not turning your life upside down, on the other hand, the dharma is not working… the dharma should really disturb you.”

This quote by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is on my fridge, where it reminds me every day that  I asked for this life. I wanted to live honestly and truthfully. I deliberately stepped out of my comfortable box- marriage, job, security- and (cue the trumpets) it burns, burns burns! 

Tapas, then, is not an internal process. It’s the searing flame of transformation.

“Tapas is growing our ability to stay in the unknown and the unpleasantness, rather than run in fear. It is the willingness to be both burned and blessed.” –Deborah Adele, the Yamas and Niyamas

In my case, once I’d made the conscious decision to be awake to my life, there was no turning back. This is not to say it has been easy. I’ve cried a lot, of course. I’ve even tried to run and hide- but once I was in the ring of tapas, so to speak, there was no way back out. Not any way I could allow myself.

With every passing day, week, and month, things continue to change at a rapid pace in my life. I have grown much more comfortable with the discomfort. I’m not growing so much as I am being burned down to my essential self. When life is hurting, I am learning to look through the pain and ask myself: Why is this hurting? What is the lesson? What is important here?  How can this help me to serve?

The fire still burns- but there’s a relief, too, to the letting go into the flame. I’ll leave you with this poem by Rainier Marie Rilke. I love how it sums up how it feels when we step out of our comfort zones and into the painful flame of transformation.

The Hour is Striking- Rainier Marie Rilke

The hour is striking so close above me,

so clear and sharp,

that all my senses ring with it.

I feel it now: there’s a power in me

to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real

without my beholding it.

All becoming has needed me.

My looking ripens things

and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

*Last month when I met my newest teacher and she watched me practice, she said to me: ‘Some people I have to tell to work harder. That is NOT a problem for you. You are working much too hard.’

Santosha- Happiness as Moral Obligation

So we arrive today at the second of the “moral restraints” of yoga, the niyamas. This one is Santosha, or contentment. For information on the first of the niyamas, click here. For more information on what all this is about anyway, click here


I love this smiling picture of my beautiful friend Joy visiting NYC. While meditating with closed eyes in the park there, she was (joyfully? heh) surprised to find that all the people she could hear sounded happy. 

Recently I ran into an old co-worker, who suggested that I return to work with her in order to have a more financially stable lifestyle. “You know,” I said, “I really wasn’t happy there. I’m happy now.”

I recounted the story to another friend, who said to me, thoughtfully: “Are you happy now?”

This was sort of the conversational equivalent of running into an invisible wall. I stopped short and thought. Am I happy, really? Well, actually, in the past few weeks, I haven’t been acting very “happy.” I’ve been quite worried about some stuff, and I’ve forgotten to appreciate the things that are so very wonderful about my life (and there are quite a few).

Nischala Joy Devi, in her book The Secret Power of Yogasays, “Some of us are open naturally to joy, while others need to cultivate it more carefully.” I am the latter. Whether it is chemical or conditional, my default response over the course of my life has been to see the glass as half-empty. I’ve come to believe that this is not a terrible thing- it’s something to live with, like having a birthmark, or being right-handed. Like many others, I just have a natural tendency to dwell on the shadow side of life a little more heavily. My yoga and meditation practices work to create new thought patterns that are more positive, but 30+ years of conditioning are a lot to overcome. So it’s not always a picnic, but I work with it.

Santosha, the second of Patanjali’s Niyamas, or moral observances, asks that we observe contentment:

When at peace and content with oneself and others (Santosha), supreme joy is celebrated.     -Yoga Sutras 11.42

When I find myself slipping into old patterns of depression, anxiety, self-doubt and worry, I am generally subscribing to the belief system that if something were just different in my life, I could be happy. Past experience (and logic) tell me that this is not true. Relying on external objects or experiences for fulfillment can only lead to more suffering, since they are temporary. Instead, in Santosha, I practice remembering that everything is basically okay already. Even when the circumstances aren’t what I would like.

In true freedom and happiness we like whatever we do, but we do not always do whatever we like. -Swami Nirmalananda

This might be a challenge to buy into, but I believe that it is perhaps the most important thing I can do at this stage in my life. The Dalai Lama suggests in his work The Art of Happiness that not only is it nicer to be happy, but that it is an ethical obligation!  When I consider how much nicer I  am to be around when I am happy- how much more present, loving, kind and compassionate I am for my students, my family and friends, and even strangers, it is selfish NOT to strive for contentment, joy, and happiness.

Seeing Santosha as an unselfish practice is what makes it work for me. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned by the Nazis in WWII, said “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see meaning in it.” This really resounds with me. Yes. I can take on this work of cultivating happiness, the pain of challenging situations, with gratitude when I remember that doing so is for a greater good.

I am at my weakest state, mentally and emotionally, late at night and first thing in the morning. Sometimes I wake up feeling pretty unhappy. For the last month, as I wake up, I’ve made my first thoughts the following:

  • I have important work to do that helps others
  • I cannot do this work, I cannot help others, while I am caught up in despair
  • My time is limited and I will do my best not to waste it wallowing in unhappiness

To return to the question at the beginning of this post- Am I really happy now? The answer, my friends, is yes. Do I always remember that I am happy? That’s the trick, isn’t it? No. But I know the work I need to do and I am committed to finding my way to a more stable state of Santosha. Then, perhaps, the real (more interesting) work can begin.

A poem for you:

Like Barley Bending, by Sara Teasdale

Like barley bending

In low fields by the sea,

Singing in hard wind



Like barley bending

And rising again,

So would I, unbroken

Rise from pain;


So would I softly,

Day long, night long,

Change my sorrow

Into song.

Saucha: Rediscovering Purity

This is the first of (probably) five posts about the niyamas, or moral restraints of yoga. You can get more information on the niyamas and their place in the eight limbs of yoga here

nuances-8_lLove, if it is love, never goes away.
It is embedded in us,
like seams of gold in the Earth,
waiting for light,
waiting to be struck.

-Alice Walker, Even So

The first of the niyamas, Saucha, is translated as purity. This may not excite you. I understand. “Purity” smacks of things too wholesome to maintain, like chastity, white Communion dresses, or a starch-free diet.

Thankfully, we’re given a bit of leeway as far as interpretation- and I’m willing to take it.

Sure, I bet Patanjali was suggesting we should strive for purity in lots of things. I do feel better when I eat less processed food, exercise regularly, maintain my meditation practice, refrain from gossip, spend less time on YouTube or Facebook. These are important parts of Saucha, and I don’t want to take away from them- but you can probably read enough about them elsewhere.

For my own practice, I’ve been inspired by the way Deborah Adele interprets Saucha in her book The Yamas and NiyamasShe suggests that Saucha “has a relational quality that asks us not only to seek purity in ourselves, but to seek purity with each moment by allowing it to be as it is.” In other words, we are asked NOT to “change, criticize, alter, control, manipulate, pretend, be disappointed, or check out.”

What does this look like in your daily life? It might be harder than that starch-free diet. It means  accepting heavy traffic (and other drivers) on the way to work without needing it to change. It means talking to your friends without wishing they’d act or speak differently- even when they themselves are acting with a lack of purity! It means, most difficult of all, that we accept ourselves and our lives just as they are- without needing to be skinnier, friendlier, happier, more patient, or anything other than just ourselves, as we are, in the present moment.

It means that we flush away the storyline, lose the interpretation, unwrap the layers of conditioning and fear and just practice being ourselves.  At our hearts, at our deepest layer, the foundational core of us, we are already pure. As Alice Walker’s beautiful poem says, “love is embedded in us, like seams of gold…waiting to be struck.” When I add on my stuff- my stories, my need to appear a certain way, my need for things to work out in my favor, I’m just muddying things up.

Eckhart Tolle, in his recording Deepening the Dimension of Stillnesscaptures this nicely. “You don’t need to remember who you are to be yourself,” he says, speaking of the tendency we have to label ourselves with the roles we play- mother, teacher, depressed person, vegetarian. “You can be yourself without any story… you are more fully yourself when you are not remembering the story.”

I’ve been actively practicing this for a few days. As with so many of these practices, it started with an awareness. I found myself caught up in a story of my own- I actually sensed myself putting on a role, like a jacket. It wasn’t quite so simple as, “OK, now I’m going to feel sorry for myself and act depressed,” but, crazy as it sounds- it was not that far off. I was able to see it happening and notice what (unflattering, so I won’t list them) behaviors went with it. And although I was not able to completely shrug off the story at that moment, I know that my awareness helped me to leave it behind more quickly than I have in the past. ‘Who am I underneath this?’ I asked myself (yes, I actually did talk to myself). ‘I don’t need to do this at all.’ And picturing Alice Walker’s gold vein, unstruck within me, I recalled my pure value.

At the same time, however, Saucha demands that I not chastise myself for these moments of role-playing, story-writing, forgetting our true value. Yeah, I am unconditional, pure love- but I am also a fully functional creative human being. There will be moments of grief, of anger, or frustration, or nausea or a broken leg and all of the potential suffering that goes with these. If I practice purity, I allow these things to happen, not needing to change them (!) and know they will pass.

Perhaps my favorite part of Deborah Adele’s interpretation of this topic is a quote from Matthew Sanford, who speaks from the experience of an accident that left him paralyzed from waist down: “I am not afraid of my sadness. My sadness is an incredible gift that allows me to be with people who are suffering without trying to fix them.” What a gift indeed, to accept without needing to change. To love without needing to interfere. To learn to be uncomfortable together, and then to find comfort in this way.

A last bit of a poem to illustrate:

David Whyte: Enough

“Enough: These few words are enough.

If not these words, this breath.

If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life

we have refused

again & again

Until now.


Until now.”

Photo credit: paul bica / / CC BY