The History of Yoga

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The History of Yoga

In honor of International Yoga Day, I am offering you a brief history of Yoga and how it has developed throughout the centuries. Although yoga began as a Hindu practice in India, it is now considered unrelated to any religion in particular. It is thought of as more of a science of overall health and well being that has a spiritual component. Spiritually, Yoga enables you to begin to understand and create deeper connection with the true self, or Atman, with the freedom to embrace any religious or spiritual approach you may follow.  

Yoga may be a relatively new practice and way of life to the Western World, being introduced in the last century by great sages such as Swami Yogananda, Swami Satchitananda, and Swami Vishnu Devananda, but it has been a familiar practice in the East, where it originated. The exact origin of Yoga is still a matter of debate, but many people believe the practice of Yoga began some 5,000 years ago in India. Historians have discovered archaeological proof showing that the teachings and community practices of Shamanism during the Stone Age bear a striking resemblance to Yoga, which would date the practice to 15,000 years ago, maybe more. Some historians claim that the practice developed during the Vedic Period between 500 to 200 B.C.E. when Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as philosophy and religion were still taking form. Yoga can be found not only in ancient Hindu practice but also in Buddhism.

Yoga is perhaps as ancient as the human desire for peace and wellbeing. The benefits of Yoga have, indeed, given it it’s rightful place in the development of society.  

Four Main Periods In Yoga History

Vedic Period (1500 to 500 B.C.E.) - The earliest known textual reference to yogic teachings was inscribed in the Vedas, the sacred text of Brahmanism, which form the basis of contemporary Hinduism.

The mantras, or individual verses contained in the Rig Veda, the first canonical collection of the Vedas, relate to the earliest Yogic teachings characterized by the performance of ceremonies and rituals in order to exceed the confines of the mind. During this time, the hotar (priest) leads the Vedic people in performing rituals and also teaches them how to live in divine harmony.

It is generally believed that ascetic practices, meditation and bodily poses or postures performed by Vedic priests introduced what we now know as the Yoga practice.

Vedic texts are rich in descriptions of performing contemplation, breathing control, stimulation of vital body energies and specific bodily positions, which may have evolved into the Yogic asana (obtaining certain postures to maintain suppleness, strength and flexibility in the body in order to master the skill of sitting still for extended periods in meditation). The chanting of sacred hymns during Vedic rituals in order to create vibrations or mantras was also realized. These Yogic practices to attain a certain state of body, mind and spirit are considered fundamentally important in being able to obtain self realization or enlightenment. 

Pre-Classical Era (500 to 200 B.C.E.) - The Pre-Classical Era is marked by the emergence of the Upanishads, a collection of 200 texts revealing truths on the nature of ultimate reality and human salvation through a devotion to the unknowable, infinite, eternal Brahman, or, God. The Upanishads is also known as the end of the Vedas.

The Katha Upanishad offers the first known definition of the term “Yoga,” which is said to be the exercise of control over the senses, including ending mental activity, to reach a supreme state of being or the transcendental Self.

Other Upanishads, meanwhile, refer to Yogic teachings of meditation, the five vital energies (prana), the relationship between thought and breath, control of mind, breath channels, Om meditation and the hierarchies of chakras. For this reason, the Upanishads are considered to be the earliest text outlining the fundamental principles and techniques of Yoga.

Several hundreds of years later, the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture, was written as part of the epic Mahabharata. The Bhagavad Gita is known as the oldest written scripture entirely dedicated to the practice of Yoga. Written as a conversation between the God-man Krisna and Prince Arjuna, the verses describe traditional Yoga practice and the essence of Yoga as a way of life.

The Bhagavad Gita built on the yoga teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads and introduced the unity of three practices that must be integrated in daily life:

Bhakti Yoga: (devotional practice based on emotional connection and unconditional love for God)

Jnana Yoga: (focusing on an intellectual mental understanding and knowledge of the sacred scriptures and yoga practices to become closer to realization)

Karma Yoga: (selfless service or the giving of one’s time with no thought of what one gets in return)

Classical Period (200 B.C.E to 500 C.E.) - This period in yoga’s history is marked by the creation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in the second century. The text is an attempt to outline a standardized and formal teaching of Classical Yoga.

Patanjali believed that each human being is composed of two elements, matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha), which must be separated to purify the spirit, a belief that diverges from Vedic and Pre-Classical Yoga’s teachings on the unity of body and spirit. 

The Yoga Sutras - The Yoga Sutras are composed of 195 aphorisms (sutras) and outlines Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga which are called Ashtanga Yoga. These are: 

1. Yamas – Abstaining from violence, lying, stealing, sexual indecency and possessiveness 

2. Niyamas – Personal observance of purity, contentment, austerity, study and surrender to God 

3.   Asanas – Keeping to a seated position in meditation and performing physical exercises

4.   Pranayama – Suspending breath and controlling the life force

5.   Pratyahara – Withdrawal of senses

6.   Dharana – Strong concentration

7.   Dhyana –  Meditation

8.   Samadhi– Liberation and realization of Union with all

9.   Patanjali’s Eight Limbs will form the basis of what is now known as Ashtanga Yoga and Raja Yoga. 

Post-Classical Period (500 C.E. to the present) - This period in Yoga history saw the development of several schools of Yoga which were based on earlier teachings but also integrated unique practices that cater to specific periods and milieu. During this period, however, Yoga schools taught both liberation from suffering but also how to embrace life and live freely.

In the centuries immediately following the Classic Period, various yoga traditions and schools emerged following both Hindu and Buddhist strands of Yoga, such as the Bhakti, Vajrayana or Tantric and Hatha Yoga.

It was not until the 20th century when Yoga was brought to the West initially as a subsection of the study of Eastern Philosophy. In the 1930s, yoga was introduced as a social practice, particularly as a movement for healthy lifestyle and vegetarianism. Beginning in the 1960s, however, yoga was introduced by expatriates and yoga gurus from India as a practice of meditation, exercise and breathing techniques and has since gained a steady stream of followers in the West. Among the most prominent Western Yoga schools are, the Sivananda Yoga Organization, Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga, Satchitananada’s Integral Yoga and Maharishi Mahesh’s Transcendental Meditation. Several other schools of Yoga, each offering specific techniques and goals, have gained equal or even greater popularity in the West and throughout the world.

The proven benefits of Yoga have indeed helped this ancient practice grow in popularity in leaps and bounds especially in today’s society where hazardous lifestyles and stress levels are hitting the roof. Yoga Journal’s latest Yoga in America Survey shows that 8.7 percent of Americans are practicing Yoga- that’s 20.4 million Americans, up from 15.8 in 2004. Yoga is no longer considered esoteric or strange by Western culture. In this survey, even 44 percent of those who don’t currently practice Yoga said they aspire to begin a practice. More and more people are striving to breathe, strike a pose, contemplate and feel balanced. And Yoga is simply making that a reality.

Namaste,

Jen

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Be a Peaceful Warrior – Finding Strength Through Yoga

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Be a Peaceful Warrior – Finding Strength Through Yoga

"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace...."
Jimi Hendrix

Strength means many different things to different people.  When we talk about strengthening our bodies, the vast majority of people in the Western world think of lifting weights, running, biking, or boot camping until we're ready to drop. 'Insanity' workouts are all the rage. Even in yoga there is a segment of practitioners who practice 'power yoga' and push, push, push until they are vulnerable to injury or sheer exhaustion to the point of it being unhealthy. This tendency has produced a whole subculture of yoga in the West that is nothing more than sophisticated calisthenics, with those who can bend the farthest or do the most extraordinary yoga postures being deemed as 'masters'. Unfortunately it is through these external, superficial forms that many believe they have strength. This system may work for a time, but the underlying foundation is not there and inevitably, we come to a point in our lives where brute strength is no longer sustainable.

Many believe someone is truly strong when they force others to think, act, or believe in what they personally think is true. Yelling louder than another, talking faster than another, even intellectually out maneuvering another to get one's way is, to many, is a sign of strength. Trying to make others 'wrong' in order to make oneself appear 'right', whether it comes to religion, politics, or personal viewpoints, may give someone a false sense of strength. With children, as well as adults, we all are quite familiar with bullying and the destruction and pain that this ego driven behavior causes.

What if we were to back away for a moment and consider what true strength really means and how we can achieve it in a kinder and more compassionate way?

Strength is so much more than physical. It is also having strength of heart, strength of character and spiritual strength. It is being strong to stand for what you believe is right and standing for your truth without hurting others. Sometimes choosing silence is the most effective show of strength.

Through the ethical codes of behavior laid out in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, we are taught strength through self purification and shedding of the ego in order to recognize our true self.  These central precepts called The Yamas ask us to remember that the techniques and forms are not goals in themselves but vehicles for getting to the essence of who we truly are.
 
Through Patanjali's teaching, we learn how to find a deep strength in all aspects of our being. Let's look at how these teachings provide us with accessible guidelines for attaining strength through the Yogic principles of the Yamas. 
 
Ahimsa--Compassion for All Living Things:
Ahimsa is usually translated as nonviolence, but this precept goes far and beyond the limited penal sense of not killing others. First and foremost we have to learn how to be nonviolent toward ourselves. From this grows our understanding of nonviolence towards other human beings and ultimately towards all living beings.

Mahatma Gandhi is a prime example of showing  strength through the practice of Ahimsa. To regain the freedom of the Indian people, Gandhi demonstrated that through nonviolent, peaceful protest, his people could show great strength of will and conviction and, in the end, they succeeded in gaining their liberation.

What yoga teaches us is that who we are and how we are constitute the ultimate proof of a life lived in freedom. If you do not truly believe this, it is likely that you will measure your successes and your strengths in your yoga practice and your life through the achievement of external forms. Because it's easy to measure physical prowess, we may compare ourselves to others who are more flexible, more muscular, or more "advanced" in their yoga postures, getting trapped in the belief that the forms of the practice are the goal.

Satya or Truthfullness in speech, thought and action:
Have you ever been caught up in a big lie? If so, you have experienced how a lie can compound on itself. It potentially causes the necessity to lie about other things in order to protect and keep the original lie going. Because there is no foundation in the truth, eventually a lie can cause a life to fall apart, big time.

Probably the most challenging part of the practice of Satya is being true to our own heart. Mistrust or lack of clarity of our inner values can make it difficult to know the nature of our own heart's desire, but even when we become clear enough to recognize what truth means for ourselves, we may lack the courage and conviction to really live our truth. It is important to know our truth and through inner reflection and meditation so that we can be clear on what that really is. When you have the truth on your side and you live it, you can look in the mirror at yourself with peace in your heart, you can look into your loved one's eyes with no guilt or shame, you can fall asleep at night with a free spirit. This is life affirming and strengthening, knowing that you are coming from a place of truth and not having to manipulate your way through situations and relationships.

Practicing Satya also demonstrates your own strength of character to others so they will trust you and depend on you to hold them when they need your support. Speaking your truth to yourself and to others is crucial for your integrity and to live a fearless life.

Asteya or non stealing:
Oftentimes we feel a 'lack' in our lives and from this feeling of not having enough or not having 'what it takes' we steal or take what is not rightfully ours.  This not only refers to stealing 'things' or money, but also by stealing other people's ideas, concepts and intellectual property or stealing people's time by being late.  Each time that we lower our energy by taking something that is not ours, we weaken our character, our integrity, and our inner strength.  We also undermine a sense of trust with those around us.
In essence, we are telling ourselves that there is 'not enough' in our world to go around and this is simply not true.  There is enough abundance in this incredible universe for everyone, and when we shift our attention to all of the positive things that we're surrounded by rather than what we lack, by the law of attraction, we will draw the positive things into our lives.  Through affirmations and meditation (especially on gratitude) we can begin to see the world through a lens of abundance rather than through the lens of 'not enough', and we begin to see and recognize strength and positivity popping up all over in our lives.

Not stealing demands that we cultivate a certain level of self-sufficiency and let go of unrealistic expectations so that we do not expect more of others, our family, or our community than what we really need. Even those that have very little can find ways to give, especially of their love or their time, showing great strength of heart. It is often those that have the least that are the most generous and sometimes the people that appear to have incredible abundance in their world that are the most selfish and give nothing at all- we all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge!

Many of us may not have all the clothes, exotic vacations, fancy cars and houses that many consider signs of success, but isn't having an intact character, close, trusting and healthy relationships with the ones we love and an open and compassionate heart so much more important? Ask those who are close to death and they will tell you that these are the things that truly matter in a life.

Brahmacharya--Merging with the One:
This teaching is translated into purification through celibacy. Many people in today's world find this one difficult to understand or incorporate into modern life, but I will give you my interpretation of it. It is obviously unrealistic to expect anyone to be completely celibate unless you are a monk or a swami, and I think this teaching is more about learning to control one's sexual energy, not stop it or ignore it.   I also relate this teaching somewhat to dealing with addictive behavior of any kind, but we will focus on sexual addiction.

If we are committed to a yogic lifestyle of clean living and purification of the body, mind and spirit, our sexual behavior definitely is one aspect of our lives that we should look at. When embraced joyfully, abstinence, or the containment of sexual energy can be enormously self-nourishing and vitalizing and, at the very least, can provide us with an opportunity to learn how to be mindful and use this energy wisely. 

In Yoga, balance is an important part of the practice and we learn that too much of anything, even if it's sex, is not beneficial. If we don't know or understand how to redirect our sexual energy back inwards (we can learn through tantric and breathing practices) and unknowingly allow it to flow out during sex, this results in a temporary loss of our inner prana or energy and strength. It is a well known fact that when athletes are about to compete they are told not to have wild sex the night before or even several nights before in order to store up and keep their energy.

Sexual addiction to pornography is rampant in our culture today because porn is so easily accessible on the internet. I won't get into a big discussion on the moral issues of porn, but I will say that going down the black hole of obsessively looking at pornography creates a false sense of what sex is and dehumanizes the experience. The more graphic ideas and images that the mind gets used to, the more extreme one needs to go to get stimulated and this creates unrealistic expectations of real life intimacy. One can easily become controlled by this urge rather than being the one in control which is contrary to the teachings of walking the path to liberation.  

Sex can bring joy and delight into our lives and it should, but in a mindful way. Maintaining a deep respect for your own body and with whom you share it with gives you peace of mind and strength of character that you may not feel if you are careless. 

Aparigraha--Non Grasping:
The early sixth century philosopher, Heraclitus, professed that you cannot step into the same river twice. In other words, the world is in constant flux or change and nothing remains the same.  The teaching of Aparigraha or non grasping is based on this concept. The world is constantly changing and is, in effect, not real, therefore, trying to hold onto physical things or even mental constructs will always result in suffering. When we acquire something we consider good in life, many of us hold on to it for dear life, believing that our self worth and happiness depends on this thing. Whether it be fancy cars, big houses, successful businesses or personal relationships, nothing lasts forever! Learning to 'go with the flow' and be adaptable is one way to truly find your inner strength. Having a solid spiritual practice and basing your happiness on your inner awareness and understanding of your true self is much more of a sure thing than believing that 'things' or another person will make you happy.

I often tell my students that connecting with your inner essence or what we call in yoga the 'Atman' or the divine spark within you is the key to understanding your eternal nature and focusing on the part of your being that is always joy, always peace, always love. We know that life is unpredictable and we can't control what other people do, but we can control what we ourselves do and this is where we find our strength.

As we all have discovered at some time in our lives, holding on too tightly to anything, whether it be possessiveness of our partner, material things or even our youthful appearance, only leads to disappointment, suffering and ultimately the destruction of those very things that we've placed  the most value on. Our deepest strength lies in detaching mentally and emotionally from the ever-changing world of 'things' (what we call Maya), letting go of the old constructs and the beliefs that are no longer serving us and allowing ourselves to internally adapt, change and grow. It is through this growth that we become stronger and yet, even more resilient.
 
So how do we tap into our inner strength? Through living a healthy lifestyle (check out the five principles of yoga series), practicing yoga as many times a week as possible (3-5 if you can!), meditation and positive thinking, and a meaningful spiritual practice that suits you, you can find that anchor of strength within you!  

With love and deep inner strength, Jai!

Jen

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Releasing Fear and Anxiety

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Releasing Fear and Anxiety

It's normal that we all feel fear at one time or another. It's necessary for our survival. Sometimes the emotion of fear is legitimate and we need to feel this emotion to protect us from an immediate danger or a real threat.  Thankfully, most of us live in a safer world today and we no longer have to be afraid of the wild animal attacking anymore like we did years ago in our distant past.  

Most of the fear we experience in today's world is in the form of anxiety or worry. These emotions come from the anticipation of something fearful happening. This results in thinking fearful thoughts about what happened in the past or what may happen in the future. Whether we're thinking about fear or actually experiencing fear, our body reacts the same way, by activating the lymbic system in our brain and shifting our nervous system into fight, flight, freeze mode. This releases adrenaline, cortisol and other stress related hormones into the body. When our body is in this state, we cannot heal, we cannot think straight, we cannot relax and find true peace and joy. We are living in a state of dis-ease, which creates disease.

The frontal cortex or higher thinking part of our brain is activated when we step back, recognize and name the fear. This de-activates the limbic system of the brain that is responsible for triggering our emotions and survival based behaviors. We can regard what's going on with presence and heart capacity and not be tossed around by our emotional brain. By detaching somewhat from a difficult emotion, such as fear, and being the witness of it, we take that crucial step of living in a constricted reality to an expanded one.  Any true healing requires that we face the fear, sit with the fear, open to it's presence in order to let it go. We need to make the difficult journey through fear, or better yet, let the fear make its journey through us. At this point we can find a space of freedom around the fear and reduce the strangling constriction that it has on us.

When we feel the clutch of anxiety in the body- it's an opportunity to breathe deeply into the place in the body holding that deep fear, stay there and hold it with kindness and presence. In the process of staying with it from a place of compassion, we begin to understand that we inhabit a much larger space of presence than just that. It is revealed that the fear is merely a wave in the huge ocean of consciousness- it's not the whole of us, and it will pass. We can recognize the loop of fear, and stay for a moment in that raw, space... take some deep, cleansing breaths, and we can watch it dissipate and begin to let it go.

To anchor and re-anchor in the present moment is the gateway to healing. It provides us the moment-to-moment opportunity to create new and healthier connections in the brain and body that makes space for us to live in peace. We notice the habit of worry and then bring ourselves back to the moment of presence allowing us to feel the underlying joy is always there but that we've perhaps lost touch with.  We can wake up to the call of what's really necessary in the moment and not live in the future anticipation of what's around the corner. Life offers us the constant opportunity to begin anew and create a healthier reality and to realize our greatest potential. And most of all, living a life without anxiety and anticipation of fear opens us up to seeing the world as a place of support, of unity, and most importantly, of love.

May you be healthy, happy and peaceful,

Jen

Please practice my meditation on releasing fear-based anxiety.

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Cultivating Joy through Mindfulness

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Cultivating Joy through Mindfulness

Hi, and welcome to our Yoga family!! With all of the myriad responsibilities, distractions, obligations and stressors we deal with everyday, sometimes joy is hard to find. We all need a regular  injection of joy into our lives and your yoga and meditation practice should be a dependable source for you to tap into and find that joy. My yoga practice has been a constant source of joy for me, whether I'm teaching it or practicing it and I'm sure you'll find the same.

Whether we recognize it or not, true happiness exists within all of us. Not the passing happy of buying a new dress or going out on a fun date- but the type of happiness that is not dependent on things or circumstances. The joy I'm referring to is eternal, unchanging and always there within us. Is resides in the deepest part of your being- what we call the anandamayakosha, or the 'bliss sheath'.

A very brief teaching of yoga philosophy explains that our being consists of 5 'sheaths' or koshas and each sheath is made up of less and less dense energy.  In the Upanishads the koshas are explained:

Annamaya Kosha:“Human beings consist of a material body built from the food they eat. Those who care for this body are nourished by the universe itself.

Pranamaya Kosha:“Inside this is another body made of life energy. It fills the physical body and takes its shape. Those who treat this vital force as divine experience excellent health and longevity because this energy is the source of physical life.

Manomaya Kosha: “Within the vital force is yet another body, this one made of thought energy. It fills the two denser bodies and has the same shape. Those who understand and control the mental body are no longer afflicted by fear.

Vignanamaya Kosha: “Deeper still lies another body comprised of intellect. It permeates the three denser bodies and assumes the same form. Those who establish their awareness here free themselves from unhealthy thoughts and actions, and develop the self-control necessary to achieve their goals.

Anandamaya Kosha:“Hidden inside it is yet a subtler body, composed of pure joy. It pervades the other bodies and shares the same shape. It is experienced as happiness, delight, and bliss.” 

The anandamaya kosha is what we also call the 'seed body'. This is the subtlest form of energy that makes up who you are- this is the eternal part of you that you are born with- what some would call your spirit or soul- and this is the part of you that moves on when your physical body dies. This deepest part of your being is what we are all trying to realize when we refer to 'enlightenment' or 'awakening'. It is where we go when we are in the deepest form of meditation. It is what we experience when we are feeling true bliss.  

Here I have a short reading on how to live your days in joy. I read it in my class on joy for you, but I love it so much that I'll repeat it for you here.  I was inspired by Tao Porchon Lynch in this writing. It is her inner bliss and beautiful spirit that keeps her young and incredibly vibrant as the oldest yoga instructor in the western world. She's 98!

Shine Your Light in Joy

When you wake up in the morning, look outside first thing at nature. It's a new day w/endless new possibilities. The light of dawn wipes out the darkness of despair. The sun rises from East to West bringing promise and hope.

Take a moment to listen to the melody of your own breath. This is the power behind all things. As long as the breath is in you and you listen to the pulse of your own heartbeat- the world is yours to enjoy and live! This pulse is telling you to listen and live in harmony, not dissonance, and be ready for anything with an open heart-

Awaken thinking that this is going to be the BEST day of my life! Think- I don't know what I may experience but it will be amazing and life affirming. Celebrate and listen to the breath of life within you!

Stop and look inside your heart at the book of life and approach the day finding the good in all. Be open to receive the good rather than focusing on fear or negativity.

Go into the new day embracing the fact that you don't know what will happen and look for good things to happen. See the light side of the play of life unfold before you.

Observe nature as much as you can and see that the geese that fly before you don't worry about where they're going- they just greet the new day and fly into it with ease and grace.

Get out of the mind and into the heart- let your heart open and light up your smile and let your  smile shine out into the world as a gift for all to receive.  Acknowledge the power of your smile and ignite the world with it!  Bless every space you enter into with your smile and let it be contagious!!!

See life in everything and listen to the music of your heart. Take a breath and mean it! Expand your lungs, expand your heart, expand your life in joy!!!

In Joy,

Jen

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