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Extra Grace Required - Our Blog

Introduction to Raja Yoga: Patanjali's Yoga Sutras for Spiritual Growth

“For everything there is a season.” “Measure twice, cut once.” “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” These types of pithy sayings are known as aphorisms. (The book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible is full of them.) They are easy to remember and contain a readily recognized truth. Raja yoga – or royal yoga, the yoga path of spiritual growth -- is based on a series of aphorisms called sutras in Sanskirt, that are attributed to an ancient Yogi sage, Patanjali. Not much is known about Patanjali—whether he was one person or many, when he lived or what kind of profession he had.

The sutras that he is credited with authoring are thought to have been written down anywhere from 200 BCE to 200 CE. Patanjali is not considered the originator of yoga—the practice of yoga is much older, dated by some scholars as early as 5000 BCE. But Patanjali’s yoga sutras are considered by many to contain the essence of yoga--a distillation of the yoga spiritual technology written down in a simple, accessible manner to encourage each of us to find our Authentic Self, God within, and in so doing experience the peace that "surpasses all understanding."

As far as we know Patanjali was not a religious leader. He proposed no theology, no dogma, wrote no creeds nor sacred texts, nor founded a religious community. In fact Patanjali, in the yoga sutras, despite living in the ancient world of the Indian subcontinent, does not describe any religious practices at all-- neither Hindu nor Buddhist. He does acknowledge that worship is one path to spiritual growth (Sutra 1.23) but adds that we are free to worship the God of our heart. (Sutra 2.44.) Not sure about what you believe? No worries--Patanjali encourages seekers to then meditate on anything that they find life affirming. (Sutra 1.39.)

Despite this rather cavalier attitude towards religion, inherent in the yoga sutras is the assumption that the Supreme Creator, God (Ishwara) already abides in each and every one of us as the "Seer" (Purusha). Seer is often translated and understood as pure consciousness or our Authentic Self, our soul. The sutras assert that our biggest obstacle to experiencing this truth of God within is our misidentification with our own endless internal narrative (called vritti in Sanskrit and often translated as mind-stuff modifications). These yappy little thoughts in and of themselves are not a problem. The problem lies in our attachment to them, to our own ego-centric, selfish version of reality. To reconnect us with our Authentic Self, Patanjali's sutras describe practices that seek to remove the obstacles that keep us stuck in the small self. These practices are called yoga.
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Seven Sacred Breaths: The Daily Offices

“Is the Lord among us or not?” Exodus 17:7

One of the first yoga skills that I try to cultivate in new students is the practice of paying attention to the breath. Breath awareness is central to all yoga practice: breath draws the spirit inward, calms the monkey mind by giving it focus, and nourishes the body. It’s no coincidence that the ancient words for spirit, ruach (Hebrew), pneuma (Greek), and spiritus (Latin) also mean breath. The quality of the breath reflects our state of being. When we are stressed our breath becomes fast and shallow, preparing us for a quick burst of energy to run away from the proverbial tiger. A deep and slow breath, on the other hand, indicates that the body is in a healing “rest and digest” mode.

I knew all of this in my head but it wasn't until I learned a new way to pray that I was finally able to stop viewing the breath as a physiological event and actually experience my breath as a vehicle of the spirit. This happened last fall when I had the pleasure of attending a women’s retreat with the wise and wonderful Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis. The theme of the retreat was “Savoring the Sacred Pauses: Practices for the Rhythm of our Days and a Rule for our Lives”. I found myself particularly resonating with Bishop Jennifer's descriptions of the Daily Offices or “Hours” – prescribed periods of daily prayer commonly observed in many monastic and church communities. Pointing out that “the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work,” the Bishop described practical ways for us to tap into the spiritual power of praying the Offices to increase our awareness of God’s Presence and experience our Holy connection throughout each and every day.  Read More 

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Samadhi - Amazing Grace

When we've been here ten thousand years.
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Then when we'd first begun."

Amazing Grace by John Newton, Verse 4

My beloved mother died from cancer in the living room of our Victorian farm house surrounded by her family, having been taken out of the hospital to die at home. In the minutes after her death I fled to the fields behind our barn, unable to stay in the same room with her lifeless body and my family members’ cries. My sister followed me. Stunned with grief I squatted next to my sister, my gaze fixed on the dirt, the detritus of the harvested row crop, stretching before us. How long we were there, I don’t remember, but long enough for my attention to be caught by the airy movement of a small yellow butterfly nearby. As I mindlessly watched the little insect flit around me, I noticed that it wasn’t going away. As I raised my head I noticed another butterfly, and then another, and another, until my vision widened and I saw a company of butterflies, seeming to dance around my sister and me. I found myself softly smiling with recognition, ‘Hey Mom’, I thought, and KNEW that she was well.  Read More 

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Dhyana - Releasing to God

Not my will, but thy will.
Luke 22:42

I’m a long-time Alanon member, finding in that 12-step program a spiritual recipe that allows me to stay in healthy relationship with an alcoholic loved-one. Step 11 in particular has been critical to the maintenance of my own serenity.

Step 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

To put Step 11 into practice I experimented with various meditation and contemplative techniques that I had learned in church, in my yoga classes, and through my own investigation – particularly in Zen meditation. I found that while attention-focused meditation practices made me feel more peaceful, clear-thinking and alert, in other words, “10% happier”, I was missing the deeper connection with God for which I was praying and hoping. I was still having trouble discerning God's will from my will.

To experience a deep connection to God is the whole point of Patanjali's eight limb yoga path for spiritual growth, and it is in the seventh limb, dhyana, that I have found one of the most profound intersections of my Christian faith and yoga. Dhyana is typically taught as meditation, but it is much more than that: dhyana is the release of our ego-centric self to uncover our essential nature held deep in ancient memory: that we are beloved children of God.  Read More 

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Dharana - Seeing the Holy

" ... in your light we see light"
Psalm 36

Teenagers at my church go on a week-long pilgrimage to a Holy site as part of their discernment process before confirmation. As a youth leader, I learned many practical things about pilgrimage: how to organize it, where to go, how to prepare physically for the long days of walking, etc. But I discovered the most important part of pilgrimage from our wise Faith Formation director (imagine a female Dumbledore in a long india-print skirt, shoulder-length grey hair, and an infectious laugh). After the evening meal, when the group re-gathered after another day of walking, she encouraged conversation to center on this question:

Where did you see the Holy today?

Dharana, the sixth of Patanjali's yoga limbs, is often translated as concentrated focus. It is similar to pilgrimage as it is practiced through specific exercises that direct our attention away from distractions to that which is presently before us. I was introduced to this limb by being encouraged to “watch” my breath. In this practice one observes the sound and sensation of the inhalation, the brief pause between inhalation and exhalation, and follows the exhalation to the pause before inhalation. This breath-watching exercise invites yoga students to focus their attention on the breath and observe bodily sensation. In doing so, the student is gently prompted to become the objective witness or seer, free of judgment--taking in the body's information without the distraction of mental commentary or wanderings.

The importance of focused attention in our yoga practice cannot be overstated: our mindful presence is drawn from the focused attention we bring to the practice. This witness to our own bodies, mind, and breath, connects us to information that help keep us safe and balanced in our asanas, and affirm our being. In the medical world, studies confirm how a regular practice of non judgmental focused attention through yoga and meditation, provides rest and relief to our monkey minds, improves memory, increases productivity by strengthening the brain to be better able to concentrate on the task at hand, and is a skill that can be successfully cultivated for chronic pain management.  Read More 

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Pratyahara - Remembering Sabbath

Namaste! We are back and blogging again after our summer break. Today's post is the fifth in a series started last spring on the Eight Limbs of Yoga as viewed through Yogadevotion's faith-based lens.

He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." Mark 6:31

In our efforts to be good, do we forget to be whole? Barbara Brown Taylor poses this question in her book Leaving Church, as she recounts the busy-ness that permeated her life as an Episcopal parish priest. But its a question that applies to all of us, not just overworked clergy. How many of us, in our effort to live a good life, pack our calendars full of activity, and end up feeling drained rather than fulfilled?

Pratyahara, the fifth yoga limb, is a set of tools that help us restore balance in our busy lives. It's the practice of dampening external distractions, including those of our own making, to increase our awareness of God's healing Presence. Pratyahara is often likened to a turtle withdrawing limbs inside of its shell, or of traveling metaphorically to the desert, as Jesus did, to pray and be restored. Pratyahara is arguably one of the most important yoga limbs to practice today in our overstimulated, over-scheduled, 24X7 smart phone dominated culture. Read More 

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Pranayama: Connecting to the Spirit

Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ John 20:21-22

This blog post is the fourth in our series about the eight limbs of yoga, the yoga technology of spiritual growth, outlined in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. The fourth limb of the path is pranayama, breath work.

The yoga word for life force or Spirit is prana, and breath is the vehicle used in yoga practice to encourage the free flow of prana. It is somewhat similar to the eastern idea of qi or chi. The idea of unblocking qi underlies the practice of Tai chi, Qigong, Reiki, Healing Touch, Acupuncture, etc. As in this eastern therapeutic concept of qi, in yoga, the free movement of life force/prana/Spirit is thought to encourage vitality in the body and foster its ability to heal. What distinguishes prana from the energetic concept of qi is the yoga idea that life force, prana, rides on the breath. We can see in this yoga idea of prana our Judeo/Christian concepts of the breath of God and the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Consider the synonymous meaning of the following words as both breath and Spirit: ruach (Hebrew), pneuma (Greek), and spiritus (Latin).  Read More 

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Asana: Embodied Prayer

“Let the posture of our body incline our hearts to prayer.” Thomas Ryan CSP

This is the third in our series about the eight limbs of yoga. The third limb of yoga is asana or right posture. Hatha yoga is the practice of asana. Hatha means balance. Ha is often translated as sun, while tha may be translated as moon. Together ha-tha or sun-moon suggests the balance of energy that is promoted through the physical movement of asana. Traditionally, hatha yoga is taught as movement that prepares the body for prolonged seated meditation.

There are many hatha yoga styles but most of the hatha yoga practiced in the West today originates from a single teacher-- the yogi Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). Krishnamacharya’s students include: BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar, and Pattabhi Jois. Each of these students interpreted Krishnamacharya’s teachings about asana in a slightly different fashion, although they all adhere to yoga practice as described in Patanjali's yoga sutras. (See our blog post Yoga's Eight Limbs: A Spiritual Pathway for more information about the sutras.)

Iyengar Yoga focuses on spinal alignment in yoga shapes, and students tend to use props to achieve that alignment. Ashtanga Yoga, as taught by Pattabhi Jois, focuses on the linked poses or vinyasa of the Sun Salutation series. It tends to be a vigorous practice and many “power” yoga styles trace their lineage back to Jois. Viniyoga, is a therapeutic style of yoga that is taught by the students of TKV Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son). Viniyoga uses breath-centered, gentle asana to encourage the flow of prana throughout the body to promote healing.  Read More 

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The Yamas and Niyamas – Yoga’s Ethical Foundation

“The kingdom of heaven…you don’t die into it; you awaken into it.” Cynthia Bourgeault

The foundation of yoga practice, the first two limb's in Patanjali's eight fold path describing the spiritual technology of yoga, is a set of ethics and ethical practices called the yamas and niyamas. This ethical foundation is what distinguishes yoga as a spiritual practice, something more that just exercise. Often referred to as “jewels” the yamas and niyamas guide not only the physical practice of asana, but also have application for our lives off the yoga mat. There are many similarities between the yamas and niyamas and the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes of our Judeo/Christian faith. But rather than try to equate them, we invite you to explore how your faith beliefs inform and deepen your understanding of this yoga philosophy and visa versa. We have found affirmation and insights into our faith, when we study the yamas and niyamas.

The yamas describe right action or principles. Perhaps the most important yama is that of ahimsa, non violence. Ahimsa encourages us to practice non violence on our yoga mats by listening to our bodies and modifying yoga shapes so as to do no harm. Off the mat, ahimas encourages us to practice the Golden Rule--to do unto others as we would have others do unto us: to practice non violence in our relationships and towards the earth. The next two yama “jewels” are satya or truth, and asteya or nonstealing. Keeping our asana practice grounded in the truth of our own bodily limitations and not comparing ourselves with others, are ways that we practice satya and asteya on the mat. These jewels encourage us to delve deeply into our faith teachings and share what we find. In our relationships, satya and asteya encourage us to communicate truthfully, from our own experience and perspective.  Read More 

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Yoga's Eight Limbs: A Spiritual Pathway

Abide in I in you. John 15

We have been writing off and on this year about yoga’s ethical foundation, the yamas and niyamas, and how they inform our Christian faith. But we thought we had better back up and put them in context. The yamas and niyamas are part of yoga’s eight fold path, or “limbs” of spiritual growth. Over the next few weeks we’ll be writing about each of the limbs and showing how, in total, they form a transformative spiritual path for all, regardless of whether you are churched, unchurched, or a none.

The yoga sage Patanjali, in the 2nd century of the common era, wrote a series of short aphorisms about the practice of yoga, referred to as the yoga sutras. The practice of yoga as a spiritual practice had originated thousands of years earlier, some say as early as 5,000 BCE. Patanjali’s sutras capsulized the wisdom from the ancient yoga practices, but did so in a particularly non-religion specific way, although the sutras clearly anticipate connection with the divine. There was vast religious diversity on the Indian subcontinent when Patanjali wrote the sutras. Clearly he saw yoga as a spiritual discipline benefiting all who practiced it, regardless of individual religious beliefs.  Read More 

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