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Checklist to help you find the right Yoga classes and teachers

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Towards the end of Kenneth Liberman’s essay on The Reflexivity of the Authenticity of Hatha Yoga1, he provides guidelines that can be used to distinguish what can be “… authentic in yoga today”. I’m listing them below because I thought the items he lists would also be useful for finding teachers and classes.

I personally prefer smaller, more intimate classes, taught by teachers who are attentive to the needs and safety of their students. I find classes taught by “celebrity” teachers, in trendy studios, to be disappointing. With the right teacher, larger classes can work. But I find popular teachers to be more “performance-oriented”, and thus their classes tend to be distracting, if not outright competitive. I prefer teachers who are service-oriented, humble, and familiar with the psychological & spiritual benefits of asana practice. Thus, I love the following guidelines I culled from Kenneth Liberman’s essay.

Fortunately, I’ve found teachers that have guided my practice. These days my asana practice is primarily a home practice. But through regular private sessions and workshops with my teacher, my practice remains vibrant as ever.

  • First among them is the resolve of yoga to overcome egoism. This especially conflicts with contemporary Western culture and its individualism and its idolatry of celebrity; but anything that results in inflating ego cannot be considered a yoga practice. It is the considered opinion of two millennia of yoga practice that egocentrism leads to ruin, so techniques for reducing obsessiveness with which a student pursues his or her self-image and interests need to be preserved.
  • The system of yoga of Patanjali and all yogis since have included yamas and niyamas or something similar, that refers to basic moral practices such as honesty, good will, selflessness, and the like, without which a daily practice cannot be considered “authentic” yoga. Accordingly, these need to be made part of the regular and daily instruction in yoga classes worldwide.
  • The point of teaching asana is to lead students to a pacification of nervous energy so that spiritual rewards of simpler ways of being can be experienced for oneself. … Can there be an authentic yoga that is not oriented toward cultivating spiritual motives? Doing yoga is not like doing chin ups, and the thoughtful cultivation of one’s nerves and energies has a spiritual purpose. This does not mean it has to be worded or clothed in Hinduism, but it is to be felt along with “the exercise” and within part of the exercise. And in this regard, asana and pranayama must provide skillful guidance, for only confusion will result without it.
  • Karma yoga involves social service, which itself can contribute in a powerful way to the reduction of egoism. In the modern fitness marketplace, where the disciples are motivated primarily by the desire for an attractive body, social service can be employed as a radical method to redirect consciousness.
  • Finally, there is the large region of yoga that involves tapas or self-control that may involve “forceful repression” (i.e., hatha yoga). … Simplicity should be taught and practiced for it is the very heart of yoga. … somehow its practice must be introduced into the modern yoga studio instead of lines of yoga wardrobe. … A fundamental yoga practice that is given short shrift even in the classic texts and commentaries is pratyahara — the withdrawal of one’s natural circumspective inquiry from the pursuit of external sources for happiness and the simultaneous cultivation of internal resources for enduring satisfaction.

  • (1) Liberman questions “… the belief of many modern practitioners that there was once an original and pure yoga that now serves as the basis for the contemporary practice of yoga.”


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    May 2, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Posted in Sadhana, Seva, Yoga

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    Recent notable Women’s memoirs

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    Eat, Pray, Love gets most of the attention, but below are a few other recent memoirs that I enjoyed even more than Eat, Pray, Love. (A side note: I thought Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent book, should have been the subject of a longish magazine article. A whole book on her vacillation about marriage got a bit long for me. I’ve also read Poser, and thought it was funny in parts, but I prefer the books listed below.)

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    March 16, 2011 at 7:56 am


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    • Margaret Atwood on the Publishing Pie: The ideas in this talk applies to all creative types, not just writers. For that matter, yoga and meditation teachers who struggle to make a living have a lot in common with writers and artists:

    • Cartwheels In A Sari: Born into the organization of Guru Sri Chinmoy, author Jayanti Tamm provides an insider’s view into Chinmoy’s organization. As for Chinmoy himself, he “… comes off as a spiritual huckster both ridiculous and oppressive.”
    • Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Not that we’re returning to the days when spiritual gurus were fashionable, but as Carol Horton points out, it’s easy to see how Yoga students end up idolizing certain teachers.

      … A yoga instructor stands in a different cultural space than an aerobics teacher or sports coach. Even if students are only interested in “fitness yoga,” most recognize that for others, yoga can involve not only the body, but also the mind and perhaps even spirit as well. Even if it’s not necessarily taken seriously, the fact that yoga is a “body-mind-spirit” practice is a well-known part of its “branding” and appeal.

      Conversely, yoga instructors aren’t considered spiritual teachers along the lines of priests, rabbis, lamas, or monks. Yoga, of course, is not a religion, so that’s appropriate. But it’s also true that yoga teachers are trained in so many different ways, and have so many different outlooks and commitments, that it’s impossible to assume anything about their orientation to spirituality – or any of the “big questions” – at all.

      While this is great in that it allows for openness, innovation, and authenticity, it’s also confusing.

      This is particularly true because yoga, by its very nature, offers people a path into deep psychological and emotional territory. Even if you start yoga simply because you want to exercise and/or de-stress, it’s very common that sooner or later, you’ll start to have much more intense emotional, psychological, and perhaps what you might call “spiritual” experiences anyway.

    • Yoga, meditation program helps city youths cope with stress:

      They found a 12-week yoga program targeting 97 fourth- and fifth-graders in two Baltimore elementary schools made a difference in students’ overall behavior and their ability to concentrate. They found students who did yoga were less likely to ruminate, the kind of brooding thoughts associated with depression and anxiety that can be a reaction to stress. The findings, which focused on a pilot program that took place in 2008, were published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. One program is still active, and researchers are now applying for federal funding to expand the effort into schools across the city.

      … While many studies on yoga are limited, there is “intriguing evidence” that it can have a host of health benefits, she said.

      To test their theories, Hopkins researchers used a curriculum designed by the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit founded in 2002 by brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their college buddy, Andy Gonzalez. Upon graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, “the traveling yogis” as they called themselves, returned to their poor West Baltimore neighborhood looking for a way to give back.

      … The traveling yogis combined various yoga disciplines, poses and breathing exercises to create their own blend of practice that emphasizes mindfulness, or awareness that emerges when one is present or “in the moment.”

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    February 28, 2011 at 7:44 am

    Mindfulness and death preparations

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    From Dying with Confidence by Anyen Rinpoche (page 13 & 20):

    During our lifetimes we generally pay a lot of attention to our bodies, but rarely think about what goes with us when we die. We cannot, of, course, take any physical or material aspect of our lives with us when we die. It is only the consciousness that goes with us. It is also the consciousness that experiences suffering or, more accurately, is able to perceive the experience of suffering. Most importantly, it is consciousness itself that can be transformed into wisdom during the dying process. The majority of the time we are focused on maintaining our physical body and material environment, when we actually need to place our attention on practice! Realizing this can help us shift our focus and motivate us to practice every day.

    … Just as all of us make great effort to maintain our everyday lives, we should make similarly great effort in our preparations for death. If we are living and practicing the essence of the Dharma teachings, there should be no difference between our spiritual practices while we are living and those that we engage in at the time of death. One practice that we all share on the path, no matter what other teachings we have received or practices we have committed to, is training in mindfulness to ensure that in our last moments we will be able to make good use of our death.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    February 11, 2011 at 7:20 am

    Posted in Meditation, Sadhana


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    • Journey Into Buddhism Trilogy (the Yatra Trilogy): Just stumbled upon these gorgeous (travel) documentaries from writer/director John Bush. The cinematography is mesmerizing, and you’ll learn about Buddhism as practiced across several Asian countries. Highly recommended!
    • The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview:

      Having lived in Cambodia and China, and traveled in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Africa, I have come to appreciate how religion functions quite differently in the developing world—where the majority of believers actually live. The Four Horsemen, their fans, and their enemies all fail to fac­tor in their own prosperity when they think about the uses and abuses of religion.

      Harris and his colleagues think that religion is mostly concerned with two jobs—explaining nature and guiding morality. Their suggestion that science does these jobs better is pretty convincing. As Harris puts it, “I am argu­ing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” I agree with Harris here and even spilled significant ink myself, back in 2001, to show that Stephen Jay Gould’s popular science/religion diplomacy of “nonoverlapping magisteria” (what many call the fact/value distinction) is incoherent. The horse­men’s mistake is not their claim that science can guide morality. Rather, they’re wrong in imagining that the primary job of religion is morality. Like cosmology, eth­ics is barely relevant in non-Western religions. It is cer­tainly not the main function or lure of devotional life. Science could take over the “morality job” tomorrow in the developing world, and very few religious practi­tioners would even notice.

      Buddhism, for example, is about finding a form of psy­chological happiness that goes beyond the usual pursuit of fleeting pleasures. With introspection and discipline, Buddhism and other contemplative tradi­tions attempt to find a state of well-being that is outside the usual game of desire fulfillment. Bud­dhism aligns metaphysically with the new atheism and psychologically with the humanistic tradi­tions. Many of the new atheists have recognized that Buddhism doesn’t quite be long with the oth­er religious targets, and they reserve a vague respect for its philosophical core. I’m glad. They’re right to do so. But two days in any Buddhist country will painfully demonstrate to its Western fans that Buddhism is an elaborate, supernatural, devotional religion as well.

      … Religion is not really a path to morality, nor can it substitute for a scientific understanding of na­ture. Its chief virtue is as a “coping mechanism” for our troubles. Powerless people turn to religion and find a sense of relief, which helps them psychologically to stay afloat. Those who wish to abolish religion seek to pull away the life preserver, mistakenly blaming the device for the drowning.

    • A Workout Ate My Marriage: There have to yogis and yoginis in a similar boat as the couples described in this WSJ article.

      With exercise intruding ever-more frequently on intimacy, counselors are proposing a new wedding vow: For fitter or for fatter. “Exercise is getting more and more couples into my office,” says Karen Gail Lewis, a Cincinnati marriage and family therapist. Newlyweds have long recognized the risks of potential sickness, infidelity and ill fortune. But few foresee themselves becoming an exercise widow. After all, the idea that one’s beloved will take the occasional jog sounds appealing—until two miles a day becomes 10 miles, not counting the 20-mile runs on weekends.

    • What is spiritual materialism?: This old lecture, reminded me a of a recent Dharma talk (by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron), which I highlighted earlier.

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    February 7, 2011 at 7:20 am


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    • How to Deal with Criticism Well: 25 suggestions grouped into Personal Growth, Emotional Benefits, Improved Relationships, Time Efficiency, and Self Confidence.
    • Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8 weeks:

      … For the current study, MR images were take of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation – which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind – participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images were also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval. Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses.

      … “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” says Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

      Amishi Jha, PhD, a University of Miami neuroscientist who investigates mindfulness-training’s effects on individuals in high-stress situations, says, “These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training. They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an 8-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amydala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR’s potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.” Jha was not one of the study investigators.

    • States Help Ex-Prisoners Find Jobs: It took a fiscal crisis to make public officials realize that compassion and forgiveness, does make sense in certain situations.

      All told, the 50 states and the federal government spend $69 billion a year to house two million prisoners, prompting many budget cutters to see billions in potential savings by trimming the prison population. Each year, more than 600,000 inmates are released nationwide, but studies show that two-thirds are re-arrested within three years.

      “An exorbitant amount of money is dedicated to incarcerating people,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “There are ways you can go about reducing the number of people incarcerated. The best way to help them successfully integrate into society and become independent, law-abiding citizens is to make sure they get a job.”

      Pushed by faith-based organizations and helped by federal stimulus money, California, Michigan, New York and other states expanded jobs programs in recent years to give prisoners a second chance and to reduce recidivism. The nation’s overall jobless rate is 9.4 percent, but various studies have found unemployment rates of 50 percent or higher for former prisoners nine months or a year after their release.

    • Slow food meets mindfulness:

      Food can be a source of genuine pleasure and gratitude if approached in the right way, but usually we’re too busy doing other things or caught up in our own thoughts to even taste what we’re eating. (Audio below)

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    January 31, 2011 at 7:54 am

    In the end, just three things matter

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    From Jack Kornfield on Twitter:

    In the end, just three things matter: how well we have lived, how well we have loved, and how well we have learned to let go.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    January 26, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Posted in Meditation, Quotes, Sadhana