Posted by: Bruce Black | May 1, 2016

Finding Tranquility in Tree Pose

Have you noticed

the variety of trees—

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trees that sway and bend,

straight trees,

misshapen trees,

trees with branches

tied in knots,

trees with limbs

as bare and white

as the bones of ghosts?

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Tall trees,

short trees,

thick trees,

slim trees,

mighty oaks,

royal palms,

long leaf pines,

sycamores,

elms,

just to name a few.

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What tree, I wonder,

will you be today

when you lift your leg

off the ground

to balance

in Tree pose?

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And will imagining

a tree

in your head

change your pose

on your mat?

And how will

your pose—

imagining

a tree—

change you?

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Each of us is

a different tree

at different times

of our life—

weeping willow,

birch,

sugar maple,

cottonwood,

cedar,

redwood,

juniper.

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Thanks to yoga,

no matter which tree

we are,

we can still feel

rooted to the earth

and find tranquility

in how we stand

on just one leg,

arms like branches

reaching above

our head,

hands folded

in front of

our heart,

like fragile

petals

clinging

to life.

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Practice Journal: As you lift your leg in Tree Pose today, are you aware of the trees around you? Tall oaks or swaying palms, flaming maples or budding birches, they can offer you inspiration to find your balance and stability in Tree Pose. What tree will you be today? How might choosing a certain kind of tree alter your perspective of yourself and others? Write: 10 min.

 

Posted by: Bruce Black | April 1, 2016

The Yoga of Aging

Of all the things in life that are out of my control, one of the hardest to accept is that I’m getting older.

With age comes all sorts of challenges—health challenges and limitations, cultural expectations, negative stereotypes, and a shift in status from working youth to, ultimately (I hope), senior citizen.

I feel lucky to have found through yoga a way of becoming more mindful in my practice, and lately I’ve wondered how to take that mindfulness off my mat so I might live life more fully aware in each moment.

How might I embrace aging gracefully, and can I learn to embrace aging the same way I learned how to embrace a challenging pose on my mat?

So, as a way of challenging myself, I decided to grow a beard.

In the past I’d grown a beard but it lasted only a week or two before it started to itch, the gray hair started to make me feel old, and I eagerly shaved it off.

I guess I’m not the only one who feels older when seeing gray. A good friend admitted a while ago that she dyed her hair black because seeing the gray depressed her. I understood why. But I didn’t want to dye my beard.

What I wanted was to feel this moment in my life, whatever age I might be, as fully and completely as possible. I wanted to live this pose, this age, right now, with the same energy and enthusiasm that I muster when I step into a challenging pose on my mat.

But would I be able to accept my own gray hair without judgment, and with the same equanimity and grace as my teacher, who had recently grown his own gray, bushy beard?

After a week without shaving, I examined the gray stubble reflected in the mirror.

My yoga practice helped me see the gray hairs as neither good nor bad, young nor old. Gray was simply another color of life, a part of living in this moment.

Soon friends began offering opinions. Some suggested the beard made me look distinguished, others thought it made me look like a beach bum. A friend told me that I looked like a professor, another like a hippie radical. One of my neighbors told me I reminded him of a Russian immigrant from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Another laughed and told me–this was in late December–that I looked like a skinny Santa.

Much to my surprise, many people told me the beard looked becoming, even flattering. One of my fellow yoga students said it made me look rakish. Rakish! No one mentioned it made me look older. That was my issue. When I saw my reflection in a dark window, I thought I saw a 90 year old man.

Part of growing the beard meant learning to accept these opinions as theirs, not mine. The beard was like a Rorschach test in that way.

And then one morning, a few weeks after starting to grow the beard, I happened to notice a painting hanging on my office wall.

It was a portrait that my mother painted from a photograph of her grandfather, my great-grandfather, who had lived in a small village in Poland. The painting shows him wearing a dark brown cap, brown jacket, and a long, thick beard.

I had looked at that same portrait on my office wall every day for years but never really saw it. Now that I had a beard, I noticed my great-grandfather’s beard. What would our portraits look like, I wondered, if I placed them side by side?

So I took a picture, and the comparison stunned me. How similar we looked—similar noses, lips, and eyes!

Unexpectedly, my beard brought me closer to my great-grandfather. Each time I looked in the mirror, or at his portrait, I saw him looking back at me, expanding my vision and connections–to family, to who I think I am, to who I might be and who I might still become.

Since then I’ve shaved off the beard. It’s April in Florida, after all, and the daytime temperature is inching up into the 80s.

With or without the beard, though, I’m still aware of myself as aging, but more willing to accept where I am and how I feel and how much I might be able to do.

That’s because every time I step on my mat, yoga inspires me to accept each moment as it is and to accept myself as I am–with or without a beard, young or old–and to live each moment, fully alive.

Practice Journal: What about you? How do you feel about aging? And how does yoga help you accept getting older as part of life? How does it inspire you to live fully in each moment? Write: 10 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | March 1, 2016

Exploring Limits

“Limitations are inspiring: they lead to thinking, so I don’t mind them.” – Mike Nichols

My yoga practice inspires me to explore and think about limits in new ways.

Each pose, and the limits of that pose, help me better understand and acknowledge what I can and can’t do.

But it’s not just the poses that help me explore limits.

Limits are involved from the very moment that I step on my mat.

The mat, this rectangular piece of rubber, is the limit within which all my yoga happens at first.

Notice how the mat is relatively small compared to the size of the room. It’s a small slice of space, isn’t it?

I’ll stay on the mat for the length of my class or home practice, and for that time I’ll define the limits of my physical space within the dimensions of my mat.

But rather than confine me or shrink my world, the mat offers me the freedom to explore my body in different poses and from different perspectives.

It gives me a point from which I can view my self and those around me.

It lets me go deep into my self because of the safety and security it provides by helping me establish the limits of my own space.

Safety and security.

Two benefits of limits.

I think it offers serenity, too, not by helping me see what I can control (on the mat) or what I can’t control (what happens off my mat or on the other mats in class), but by giving me the ability to recognize the difference.

It gives me the chance to explore the limits of my body—the length of my arms and legs, the strength of my muscles, the ability to bend forward or backward or kneel or twist, the depth of an inhalation or exhalation—in a way that gives me a new knowledge and understanding of my body.

With this new knowledge, this self-knowledge, comes a certain sense of peace, as well as joy.

It’s the joy that comes from stepping on my mat and discovering a new perspective, and a new range of possibilities, in each pose.

Practice journal: How does stepping into the limited space of your mat inspire you to think differently about the limits of your body and your self? Write: 10 min.

A special note of thanks to the yoga teachers-in-training at Yoga Village who inspired these thoughts on limits.

Posted by: Bruce Black | February 1, 2016

Just Words?

This morning I was returning home from a peaceful walk before breakfast when I met one of my neighbors walking her dog.

“What do you think of Trump?” she asked.

“I wish he’d walk off a cliff,” I said, stunned by the words as they came out of my mouth, unable to take them back.

“Oh, I’d never wish death on anyone,” she said, interpreting my words in the most extreme way possible.

Is that what I’d done? 

“I just wish he’d disappear,” I said, already regretting the words that I’d uttered for exactly the reason that my neighbor had given.

But the words had just come out, and I was surprised by how quickly they’d emerged and how my feelings of fear and anger toward this man were so close to the surface. (I imagine others are dealing with similar feelings of fear and anger toward other politicians, as well, not just Trump.)

They’re just words, I tried telling myself as I continued my walk toward home.

They reminded me of the childhood remark my friends and I used to use when we were angry with someone: “I wish he’d take a long walk off a short pier.”

But I’m no longer a child, and they aren’t just words, just as Trump’s lies and fear-mongering racist speeches aren’t just words.

Words have power. They can become walls that imprison us in xenophobia, intolerance, and lies just as quickly as they can help us open doors, reach out in friendship, and spread the truth.

As Trump’s rhetoric grows more and more inflammatory, I believe it’s essential that we speak out against him and his intolerance, as well as against any others who attempt to spread fear and hatred.

Our yoga sages remind us that we must choose our words carefully so that we don’t fall into the trap of becoming intolerant ourselves, of letting our fear and anger overwhelm us as I did earlier this morning (or as I let it overwhelm me years ago as a child).

One way to help us choose what words come out of our mouths is to ask ourselves these three questions before we speak:

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Is it necessary?

In a recent yoga class, my teacher invited us to practice with a sense of peace, something that’s easy to lose these days as the primaries begin, even while taking an early morning walk.

It was this class and my teacher’s lesson that helped remind me this morning that peace is something that we can create.

It’s not just a word but something more–a sense of quiet contentment that we can feel in moments when our lives are in balance.

Peace is always within our reach as long as we choose our words with care, and as long as we treat others with the same compassion and love that we want to be treated with ourselves.

Practice Journal: Have you ever said something that you regretted as soon as the words left your mouth? How does yoga help you become more mindful of your speech… and of the feelings of those with whom you disagree? Write: 10 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | January 1, 2016

Gifts Bestowed

For many of us, the gifts of our yoga practice extend beyond the mat into our daily lives, into our work and our relationships, into the very essence of our existence.

Each of the poses that we explore day in and day out–whether we find ourselves wobbling, swaying, or firmly rooted to the earth–have the power to remind us of these gifts.

For some of us, it can take years to develop the ability to see how our response to a specific experience in our lives has as its underpinnings in a certain quality that we learned from exploring a specific pose on our mats.

This kind of vision, the kind that lets us see a connection between what happens on our mats and what happens off them, is part of the beauty of yoga, but it doesn’t come the moment we begin our practice.

It can take years to become aware of this cycle of learning, to glean lessons about life from our mats and incorporate these same lessons into the experience of our daily lives, and vice versa, and to see these lessons as gifts.

It can take years to learn how to tap into this ever-present loop of energy, to understand it as a nurturing process that helps us learn and grow physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.

As the years of practice add up, this loop of energy between on-mat and off-mat can become almost tangible, a resource in times of stress and challenges.

And as we begin to perceive the gifts of our lives–the gifts of vision, taste, hearing, smell, and touch–we can learn the pose of gratitude.

We can learn to offer thanks:

For the gift of sight with which we can see the beauty of the world;

For the ability to sit up each morning and get out of bed and walk across the room and go to the bathroom;

For the softness of our mat, the chance to stretch our body in a way that helps us feel better;

For the words of our teachers, and for our ability to hear their words;

For the touch of a partner, a lover a friend;

For the memory and anticipation of love;

For the sweet taste of chocolate or a morning cup of coffee;

For the coolness of a mat beneath our feet on a hot summer day;

For the way our knees bend and the way our spine supports us;

For how our body allows us to walk and bike and drive and climb and make love and sleep;

For the sweet breath that fills our lungs each day when we awake and before we shut our eyes each night;

For life and love and trust and faith;

For the gift of a new year and new beginnings…

For whatever gifts we have that we might have forgotten, let us offer gratitude.

Practice Journal: Make a list of the things in your life that you’re grateful for. Start with the phrase “I’m grateful for the gift of…” Write: 10 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | December 1, 2015

The Taste of Freedom

“Freedom is the triumphant state of consciousness that is beyond the influence of desire. The mind ceases to thirst for anything it has seen or heard of; even what is promised in the scriptures.”

“And supreme freedom is that complete liberation from the world of change that comes of knowing the unbounded Self.” – from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Patanjali’s fifteenth and sixteenth sutras are not only helpful reminders of what can happen when we step on our mat, but also excellent explanations of why we return to our mat again and again.

It’s this sense of freedom, I suspect, that attracted many of us to yoga in the first place, even if we weren’t altogether aware of our need for freedom when we started out.

When I took my first yoga class more than a decade ago, the last thing on my mind was freedom. All I wanted was a way to stay in shape without further hurting my knees which were tender and sore from years of long-distance running.

That first class met at the end of a long day, and I remember the teacher asking us to begin by stretching out in Savasana, her soothing voice inviting us to let go of the tension and whatever stress or worries might have accumulated during our day.

Something miraculous happened that evening. In the process of letting go of a) worries about my knees, b) fear of trying something new, and c) anxiousness over writing projects that I was struggling with at the time, I felt lighter and more free than I’d ever felt before.

The emotional and mental states that had bound me like invisible chains during the day melted away. No longer did these chains of thought—these worries, anxieties, fears, and doubts—weigh me down.

Each week I returned to class and found on my mat this same sense of freedom, although I couldn’t have named it then or described what was happening. All I knew was that I no longer felt the need to run from a difficult situation, escape a challenging relationship, or turn away from a hard or painful experience.

The regular practice of yoga enabled me to move beyond the influence of desire to a state that was closer to contentment. Simply by moving, stretching, bending, laying still and being on my mat, I could breathe easier, and each breath seemed to whisper: you are free.

I hadn’t thought to call these moments on my mat moments of freedom. It wasn’t until I read Patanjali’s fifteenth and sixteenth sutras that I understood. He was describing these moments—moments that exist beyond the influence of desire for anything. They are moments of contentment, of simply being awake, alive.

It never occurred to me to view the attainment of this kind of freedom in triumphant terms. But, looking back on my practice, I can see how my practice is a victory of sorts, a triumph, if you will, over negativity, despair, anxiety, fear, doubt, resistance, self-criticism, and a host of other issues that might have kept my mind and heart closed had I not found my way to the mat.

In the sixteenth Sutra, Patanjali refers to supreme freedom as complete liberation from the world of change that comes of knowing the unbounded self.

What is this unbounded self? And how does one come to know it in order to arrive at complete liberation from the world of change?

My sense is that the unbounded self is the self no longer trapped in misconception or misassumption, no longer chained by worry or anxiety, fear or doubt, but free of these things.

I suspect that we come to know this sense of supreme freedom once we unfetter ourselves from our anxieties and fears.

It’s this taste of freedom, I believe, that brings us back to our mats again and again.

Practice Journal: Do you remember the first time that your practice helped you feel a sense of freedom? Can you describe the experience, as well as what it was that yoga helped free you from? Write: 10 min.

Note: The quotes at the beginning of this entry are from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer (Bell Tower, New York, NY).

Posted by: Bruce Black | November 1, 2015

Firm Roots

“The practice of yoga will be firmly rooted when it is maintained consistently and with dedication over a long period.” – from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

I love the image of a tree that Patanjali paints with a single word: rooted.

And I love how he suggests our practice is like a tree, rooted deeply into the earth, expanding toward the sky, bending with the wind, swaying, dancing, celebrating the miracle of our bodies, the joy of life, the mystery of the divine.

But what does it mean to be firmly rooted?

Perhaps it means feeling not just that our roots are planted in the earth, but that they are held in the earth’s embrace in such a way that they form a strong foundation for our practice and our life.

How would you describe the “roots” of your practice?

What might you “plant” into the earth to gain stability, firmness, confidence?

My teachers often invite us to plant our feet in class so that we feel rooted to the earth. It is a very physical action requiring us to use our bodies in a certain way.

But might the roots of practice be something unrelated to our bodies or to physical action?

Roots might mean, as Patanjali suggests, something more abstract, such as our willingness to dedicate ourselves to our practice.

Or roots might mean love, as in how much do you love stepping onto your mat?

Or faith, as in how much faith do you have that you can enter into an unfamiliar or challenging pose?

So, you might think about love and faith and dedication as possible roots for your practice.

Or you might think about determination, too, as another root.

That’s because if you have no determination to persist when a pose gets hard, you’ll give up your practice.

The deeper our roots, the deeper our commitment to yoga.

Patanjali offers two ways to establish deep roots.

First, he advises us to maintain a consistent practice.

Not just an oh-I-happen-to-feel-like-doing-yoga practice, although that might be a way to start, but, rather, a consistent way of coming to the mat. Once a week, perhaps, in class. Or twice a week in a home practice. Or three times a week after work or before breakfast.

If you create consistency in your practice, you’ll be able to watch how your roots grow and how your commitment to your yoga practice deepens.

Patanjali also suggests maintaining your dedication to the practice for a long period of time.

I find this helpful to remember, especially after a discouraging class when I’ve had trouble in a particular pose, or the next day when I feel especially sore or tired. He reminds us that we can’t judge the worth of our practice in a day or after a single class.

For those of us practicing yoga for a while, Patanjali reminds us that we didn’t come to our understanding of yoga in a week or month. It has taken many years for most of us to begin to understand the benefits of the poses. Likewise, it has taken time to admit what we don’t yet know about yoga or about ourselves. Our strengths and our weaknesses are revealed over time, just as over time our poses reveal the fears that we need to overcome.

In this fourteenth sutra, Patanjali offers us a guide to deepening our practice so that it can sustain us when the strong winds of life threaten to sweep us off our feet.

With firmly planted roots, we can keep our balance in our practice and in our lives.

Practice Journal: Do you practice yoga with consistency? How does that consistency influence your sense of feeling deeply rooted in your practice? Write: 10 min.

Note: “The practice of yoga will be firmly rooted when it is maintained consistently and with dedication over a long period.” – from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer (Bell Tower, New York, NY).

Posted by: Bruce Black | October 1, 2015

The Practice of Yoga

“The practice of yoga is the commitment to become established in the state of freedom.” – from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

What strikes you about this statement, the thirteenth sutra, as significant?

Is it the word order? Is it the explicit offering of a goal? Is it the strong suggestion of a cause-and-effect relationship?

Three words in the sentence echo in my mind: “practice,” “commitment,” “freedom.”

These three words epitomize my understanding of yoga and why I find the practice of yoga so compelling.

Yoga is, indeed, a practice, which, in my mind, suggests being willing on a regular basis to try different poses, to experiment with different ways of seeing the pose and oneself in the pose, and to be willing to lose one’s balance and fall out of a pose and stand up and try again.

Practice means being willing to take risks and make mistakes. It means not only being able to learn from one’s mistakes, but also being able to learn in a way that allows you to keep practicing.

The first time you kick into a handstand, you might be able to lift your feet over your head without effort. That’s great. But most of us need to practice many times before we can find the balance, strength, and confidence to kick up into the pose.

So, for weeks or months or years, we might practice handstand by placing our hands at the base of a wall and slowly lifting one leg, then the other, not even trying to kick one leg up against the wall.

Or we might learn first how to deal with our fear of being upside down, or with our weak shoulder muscles, or with our lack of trust in our bodies to support us.

Practice, in this light, is essential to one’s growth on the mat, just as commitment is what brings us back to our mat again and again.

Our commitment helps us return to explore our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, our sense of inadequacy, and our assumptions about life. It gives us a chance to learn how to deal with our limitations in a new way.

Our commitment, according to Patanjali, is our practice. And it’s this commitment to practice that lets us find a sense of freedom.

Freedom isn’t simply an abstract word in this context. It’s a concrete state of being, a state in which we can enjoy the freedom of being ourselves… if we care for our bodies and commit ourselves to the practice of yoga.

Patanjali refers to a ‘state of freedom’ rather than simply to ‘freedom.’ Why might he do this? How does practice lead to this state of freedom?

Is he suggesting that a state of freedom is more permanent?

Or is he saying that you can arrive in such a state only by committing yourself to your practice?

Practice Journal: How would you interpret the three words—“practice,” “commitment,” and “freedom”—and link them together to help you better understand your own yoga practice?

Note: “The practice of yoga is the commitment to become established in the state of freedom.” from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer (Bell Tower, New York, NY).

Posted by: Bruce Black | October 1, 2015

Stillness in Motion

The world changes, and changes again, and then, just when you least expect it—when you think all the changing is done (which is irrational because you know the world keeps changing)—the world changes yet again.

Sometimes the changes, like falling in love or holding a newborn baby, sweep your feet out from under you and steal your breath away.

Sometimes the changes, like a friend’s betrayal, a partner’s aging, or one’s own loss of mobility or strength, feel like a sucker punch to the gut.

Sometimes the changes are so stunning, such as a sunset or the appearance of a rainbow in the sky, that you can only watch in awe as they occur and respond only after the change has taken place.

Why is change so surprising?

Why, when we know we change and the world changes—when we know life is change—do we continue to find ourselves shaking our heads in surprise or muttering and feeling distressed about change?

If change is natural, why do we respond to it as if it’s unnatural… as if we expect just the opposite?

Life continues to move, and our lives are always in movement, always revolving, always evolving, just as the earth is always revolving and evolving, though often we forget that we are standing atop a globe spinning through the universe.

Our lives are a reflection of the earth on which we stand, spinning toward some end we cannot see, in constant movement, even when at rest.

Our heart keeps pumping blood through our veins, and the blood flows even when we sleep, even when we rest in Savasana.

Our yoga practice is a flow of poses, always moving from one pose to another, a reflection of the movement of life.

Even in the deepest of poses, even when we think we’ve found stillness, we are stillness in motion. We are still moving.

Yoga can help us remember that movement and change are always part of life.

Practice Journal: What changes have you noticed lately—changes in the world around you, changes in your friends or members of your family, changes in yourself? How has yoga helped you become more aware (and accepting) of changes in your life? Write: 10 min

Posted by: Bruce Black | September 1, 2015

“Five types of mental activity…”

“There are five types of mental activity. They may or may not cause suffering.” — from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

When I first read these two sentences, which form the fifth line of The Yoga Sutras, I was surprised since it’s the first time that I’ve heard the word “suffering” mentioned in relationship to yoga.

The other surprise, as I continued reading (lines 6 – 12), came from Patanjali’s assumption that there are five types of mental activity: understanding; misunderstanding; imagination; sleep; and memory.

And I can’t help wondering why Patanjali divides mental activity into these five categories rather than into, say, any other categories.

Perhaps if we look at his definitions of each category, we’ll have a better understanding of what Patanjali means to say.

“Understanding is correct knowledge,” suggests Patanjali (in line 7), “based on direct perception, inference, or the reliable testimony of others.”

“Misunderstanding is the delusion,” he suggests (in line 8), “that stems from a false impression of reality.”

“Imagination,” as Patanjali defines it (in line 9), “is thought based on an image conjured up by words, and is without substance.”

“Sleep is the mental activity,” writes Patanjali (in line 10), “that has at its content the sense of nothingness.”

And, memory, we learn (in line 11), “is the returning to the mind of past experience.”

In summing up these mental states (in line 12), Patanjali tells us “These five types of mental activity are settled through the practice of yoga and the freedom it bestows.”

What these categories of mental activity illustrate, I suspect, is how our thoughts—our ways of thinking—can take us out of the present moment, distorting our view of the moment so that we might miss it.

Each category of mental activity, then, becomes Patanjali’s way of offering us a window into a deeper understanding of our relationship to the present. Yoga is the key to a settled mind and to freedom (from misunderstanding).

Understanding refers, I think, to understanding the present moment…and who we are in this moment. In order to understand ourselves and the world fully, we need to use our mental abilities, as well as inferences from what we see, hear, taste, feel, etc., and sometimes we need to rely on the reliable testimony of others about the world to gain a clearer picture of where we are and who we are in this moment.

Misunderstanding is a crucial mistake that we can make that distorts our understanding of the world and this moment. Hence, misunderstanding leads to delusion, as Patanjali warns, because we end up basing our decisions, our understanding of the present moment, on a false picture of reality.

Using our imagination to help us understand the world is almost as dangerous as misunderstanding the world, according to Patanjali, because imagination is based not on reality itself but on words or images that represent reality. This discrepancy between words and reality can lead us away from, rather than toward, a clearer picture of the moment.

Sleep is not helpful either in terms of understanding; it’s a kind of neutral zone, a nothingness in which our senses and thoughts are removed from reality.

And memory is returning the mind to past experience which means, according to Patanjali, that we are not seeing or experiencing the present, only the past, and, hence, missing out on this moment right now.

In the end, I find these categories helpful. With them, Patanjali shows us how our thoughts can take us out of the present or draw us deeper into the fullness of this moment.

And isn’t the fullness of each moment where our yoga practice can take us if we slow down and notice our mental activity in each pose?

Practice Journal: How does understanding a pose help deepen your experience of it? And how does misunderstanding a pose lead to distortion and delusion (and possible physical injury)? Have you ever relied on your imagination to escape a pose? Have you ever lost yourself in a memory to avoid a painful position? Write: 10 min.

(“Five types of mental activity…” and lines 6 – 12, from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer, Bell Tower, NY. 1982).

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