Sweeten Your Asana

My niece, Haley, was about six when Wendy and I sat with her to have tea one vacation day in Dewey Beach. We all had cups of tea and we each added sugar. Haley stirred her tea for a long time after Wendy and I had laid down our spoons. When I asked her what she was doing, she proudly explained her logic, “My mom said, the more you stir it, the sweeter it gets.”

I think a lot of people who practice yoga, including many teachers, suffer from this same limited kind of logic.

We see the physical result but are confused about the cause.

Then we mistakenly think that the result is what we are going for. In yoga, this leads to two faulty sets of actions:

  1. Asana done for the wrong reason; and
  2. Asana done incorrectly, because someone else did it that way.

1. Asana done for the wrong reason

Let’s take number 1. If you presume asana is like stirring the tea, then you just do a sequence because it moves you. It’s obvious, it’s what you see when a yoga master practices. But like my sweet niece, who didn’t understand that the sugar completely dissolved during the first few stirs of the tea, the yoga practitioner who has not grasped the nature of what we’re doing thinks the yoga master is simply doing a sequence of postures.

At ISHTA Yoga, we study to experience the whole nature of things, as they have been described by yogis for millennia and are being similarly described by physicists today: we are energy, combining and manifesting in ways that our senses perceive and our minds describe. Asana is a movement of energy in the body to create a shift in energy. It may provide health, ease of sitting, or balance to allow a meditation where the mind goes still enough to experience personally what the yoga writings (and physicists) say, which is that the universe goes back and forth from multiplicity to singularity.

To say, ‘I don’t care about those esoteric things; I just do yoga for my body,’ is like Haley continuing to insist, now at age 19 that the tea gets sweeter the more you stir it (she laughed when I told her the story last month). It’s ignoring what’s going on in fact.

2. Asana done incorrectly

Looking from both a purely physical and an energetic place, an asana can have one affect on one practitioner and a different effect on another. The difference can be subtle, as in making one person more grounded and another more obsessively striving (which reads on devices like blood pressure gauges); or it can be overt, as when it helps one person stretch the piraformus while causing another to tear the anterior cruciate ligament (potential results of pigeon pose).

tea-photo-67We need to move beyond thinking of asana as only having its own value. We say things like it’s a meditation in motion, or it reverses the aging process or it overcomes fear, or it builds discipline. But every time we do asana, it moves prana in our system, it affects the headquarters of that prana in the chakras, it influences the physical, emotional, nervous, and other subtle systems that make us up — and it moves the body.

And that’s why it’s sweeter.

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You won’t believe what happened next: Contentment

The hardest part, for me, of participating in the din of social media, is listening to so much cheerleading about happiness, positive change, and improvement. This roar that you are just an improvement away from everything you always wanted points to an enthusiastic disconnection from what is.

Promises or suggestions or affirmations that you’ll always have joy, you’ll get what you want, you’ll be famous, students will love you, bloggers will quote you, money will pour in, you’ll accomplish a yoga posture, or your prose will be poetry are so much wishful thinking. Don’t get me wrong, the opposite — to be defeated, to be gloomy, to give up, to speak pessimistically — is, of course, just as bad. 

swansSo if affirming and giving up are both bad, is there a third way? In sanskrit, it’s called samtosha, which could be translated as ‘contentment.’ English translations of sanskrit often fall short, so let’s add some nuance to this idea of ‘contentment’ as samtosha by looking from its two extremes.

  • One extreme: Contentment could be seen as accepting that nothing’s going to change, so just resign yourself to what is. But that interpretation lets you off the hook from doing the hard work that is in front of you (there’s always hard work in front of everybody). To be content is to try to stay balanced while doing that. The hard work is sometimes physical, but more often, it’s emotional, like letting go of hurt feelings. Those might be feelings of not getting what you want or deserve; or being overlooked, under appreciated, or even misjudged. Contentment equals carrying on when you’d rather give up; and ultimately getting less worked up over everything.
  • The other extreme: Contentment could be seen as altering your perception of the way things are. My teacher, Alan Finger, caricatures someone in this mode with palms together, bowing to ducks and butterflies and peace and love  — in other words, living in a dream of a perfect world. When talking about people who imagine only blue skies, one of my favorite teachers, Mark Whitwell, once commented,” If you’re not mad [at what’s going on in the world], you’re not paying attention.” Contentment is accepting a world that contains both dark and light — the world as it actually is.

Putting it all together, then, rather than affirm, give up, or delude, practice staying balanced and gracefully work on what is in your realm of possibility to do. You won’t believe what happens next: contentment.

History Repeating

We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. They reported on, or rather “chatted” about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge.

– from Magister Ludi: the Glass Bead Game, 1943, by Hermann Hesse

Magister LudiI started re-reading this Nobel Prize-winning novel, because the idea of the Glass Bead Game keeps coming up in my inner conversations about the nature of creation itself — why is there a universe; is it a great game? When I read the above introductory section of Hesse’s utopian novel, I was struck with how much his feuilletons, which can be translated as ‘serial writings,’ had gone from the newspaper articles of his time to the blogosphere of today, where they are going strong.

In this 1943 book, the author of Siddhartha and Steppenwolf contemplates a move away from the cult of personality toward greater rationality, no doubt in response to World War II in Europe, which raged between 1938 and 1945. The quote above is from his background history of the fictional glass bead game, and in it, Hesse struggles to find a reason why both the public and the writers and scholars of the time participated in the “pabulum,” of what would now be called ‘blogging’ and could include all other social media expressions.

As an intellectual, whose book ultimately affirms the value of individuality tempered by rationality, Hesse doesn’t criticize writing; instead he wonders why this writing. He provides a couple guesses. One is that there’s some kind of hidden “irony and self-mockery”* that his age (era) doesn’t have the key for, the irony including the superficial nature of the information shared and appreciated. An alternative reason, he postulates, is that the people are so traumatized by their modern lives, that they need to escape, “to close their eyes and flee from unsolved problems and anxious forebodings of doom into an imaginary world as innocuous as possible.”*

I find this food for thought on so many fronts:

  • why are we so content to have no quiet time;
  • why do we spend time looking at selfies and videos of people doing yoga instead of practicing;
  • why do we spend so many hours in front of non-fiction entertainment watching “all these grotesque things with credulous earnestness”;*
  • am I of an age (generationally) that doesn’t have the key to appreciate the irony of current expression;
  • will the cream of the blogs ultimately rise to the top or will they be buried under the sheer volume of well-marketed pabulum;
  • should one be complicit with the trend (shout among the din) or buck it (trust in an alternate platform)?

I know so many brilliant people striving in the midst of this situation for an experience that transcends it. Hesse points out a stumbling block to trying to participate: “…citizens of the age (who were still deeply attached to the notion of culture, although it had long since been robbed of its former meaning)…”*

I’m looking forward to reading on and following the utopians on their pendulum swing back toward some middle ground; I’m trusting it will give me hope for a quieter, creamier, less pabulum-esque social discourse.


*Quotes are all excerpts from pages 11-13 of the Bantam paperback edition, 1986


Having just experienced July 4th, a day commemorating us changing the circumstances to suit us, I was reminded by the conversations among my holiday compatriots that sometimes we can’t.

Wendy grills up a yogic picnic

ISHTA Yogiraj and founder Alan Finger likens the reality to more of a bargain: you get x% and the universe gets y%. In non-math terms, life is going to hand you circumstances — some overarching, some small — and your job is to use affirmation or whatever plan you have (hopefully yoga), to meet the circumstance with wisdom and grace.

So it’s not that you can’t have what you want or you can have what you want, but rather, as you’re giving it your best, you can see with clarity and act with an eye toward transcending the circumstances to find contentment. That’s independence.

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need

~ Mick Jagger & Keith Richards


I am finally starting to see posts on Facebook that echo what I’ve been saying to the people around me, and I’m glad I’m seeing this approaching swell of sentiment: Enough!

There’s so much chatter, so much documenting, so many self-projections, so much self-marketing. I call it ‘looking at life with an exclamation point attached.’

Some is good, too much is too much. Continue reading “Sshhhhhh…”

Yoga Tube

I got to have an impromptu discussion with my teacher, Yogiraj Alan Finger, at his home in Williamsburg as part of the ISHTA “Ask a Yogiraj” video stream. We cover a lot of ground, including the role of asana, and finding a practice with the help of a teacher.

Tweet Poem

Stop; inhale, exhale; notice the inhale, the exhale; notice the moment between the inhale, the exhale; now go do something inspired…

Philosophy word for the day: Mantra

In my recent workshop for yoga teachers, How to Teach Philosophy and Meditation in Asana Class, I posted a list on the wall of Sanskrit words that I find make good vocabulary for sharing ideas in class. I’m going to define them over the next weeks, so keep posted. Here’s the Intro Post for this series.

Today’s word is mantra.

Mantra is a technique for altering one’s consciousness. The word itself means ‘mind liberation/transformation,’ and works on the mind with the mind itself. Explicitly, mantra is the repeating of sound or words, usually in Sanskrit, a language with carefully tuned vibrational sound (see the second bullet). Mantra works on several levels: Continue reading “Philosophy word for the day: Mantra”

Philosophy word for the day: Avidya

In my recent workshop for yoga teachers, How to Teach Philosophy and Meditation in Asana Class, I posted a list on the wall of Sanskrit words that I find make good vocabulary for sharing ideas in class. I’m going to define them over the next couple of weeks, so keep posted. Here’s the Intro Post for this series.

Today’s word is avidya.

Avidya is a negation of the word, vidya, which means knowledge. Avidya, therefore means ‘not knowledge.’ As with most things in yoga, however, the kind of knowledge is pretty all-encompassing, that is, it’s not about knowledge of the A-B-C’s or knowledge of how to bake a pie. Avidya is the opposite of knowing the nature of who we are. It is often translated as “ignorance,” but as I stated in the  Intro Post for this series, one-word translations of Sanskrit almost always leave out significant information. Continue reading “Philosophy word for the day: Avidya”