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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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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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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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Components of a Faith-Based Yoga Practice

I had lunch recently with a busy working mom who had very kind words to say about the book. Specifically, she praised an aspect of the weekly devotions that I hadn’t considered: their brevity. She confided that she and her friends don’t have time to go to an hour-long yoga class, but long for and need the calm and affirmation of faith that she found in the devotions. In response to my friend's needs, here is an outline (below) describing the basic components of a faith-based yoga practice that is easily scaled for practices ranging from as little as ten minutes to an hour or longer. The practice components are derived from the eight limbs of yoga as described in the classic yoga sutras of Patanjali. This one is for you Katie!

Components of a Faith-based Yoga Practice

Be Present
Practice Presence. Give yourself permission to be fully present during your practice. Set a timer if needed. Even if you can only practice for ten minutes, imagine putting your cares and “to do’s” away for a time, perhaps inside of an imaginary cupboard. Assure yourself that you may return to them when you are done practicing.

Practice Breath. Encourage your mind to focus by following several cycles of breath. Watch yourself inhale and exhale as you slow, deepen, and lengthen your breath. During practice, whenever your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to the present by returning your attention to your breath.  Read More 

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