November 25, 2013

Researching Yoga

As I mentioned, I'm becoming interested in Yoga as a physical practice again, but want to minimize my cultural appropriation. In addition to the sites already mentioned, I've been reading a lot of articles. I won't list all of them here -- I had a good thirty tabs open at one point, and I've closed most of them -- but the best for me were these:

Stop Cultural Appropriation: Yoga is all about Hinduism, albeit without the Hindu

<a href=>In the Church of Oprah…

My Practive: Yoga and Cultural Appopriation

Culture Shock

What I got from all my reading was, basically, a) don't be an asshole, b) do study what Yoga means in its cultural context, and c) do study the entire system, particularly the Eight Limbs of Yoga, even if you do not practice all parts of it.

So then I looked up the Eight Limbs. This is the article I'm referencing and quoting from.

The Eight Limbs are:

  1. Yama, or Universal Morality
  2. Niyama, or Personal Observances
  3. Asanas, or Body Postures
  4. Pranayama, or Breathing Exercises and Control
  5. Pratyahara, or Control of the Senses
  6. Dharana, or Concentration of the Mind
  7. Dhyana, or Meditation on the Divine
  8. Samadhi, or Union with the Divine

The first two have subsets:


  1. Ahimsa, or compassion for all living things
  2. Satya, or commitment to truthfulness
  3. Asteya, or not stealing
  4. Brahmacharya, or sense control
  5. Aparigraha, or taking only what is necessary


  1. Sauca, purity or cleanliness
  2. Santosa, or contentment
  3. Tapas, disciplined use of energy
  4. Svadhyaya, self study
  5. Isvarapranidhana, to lay all your actions at the feet of God

I find that much of this has some parallel within my own practice and life. Of the Yama, Brahmacharya and Aparigraha are a little difficult for me. The article describes the first thus:

Brahmacharya is used mostly in the sense of abstinence, particularly in relationship to sexual activity. Brahmacharya suggests that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths. Brahmacharya does not necessarily imply celibacy. Rather, it means responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth. Practicing brahmacharya means that we use our sexual energy to regenerate our connection to our spiritual self. It also means that we don’t use this energy in any way that might harm others.

Those last two sentences work well for me, but I mean something very different by this. Sex and sexual energy are part of my practice, as a form of ecstasy. (This doesn't necessarily mean engaging in ritual sex or sex magic, simply that I use the act and energy of sex as a way of connecting with Dionysos.) I would not use it to harm anyone, but I certainly do… enjoy things I sincerely doubt traditional Yogic philosophy would not approve of.

Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary, and not to take advantage of a situation or act greedy. We should only take what we have earned; if we take more, we are exploiting someone else. The yogi feels that the collection or hoarding of things implies a lack of faith in God and in himself to provide for his future. Aparigraha also implies letting go of our attachments to things and an understanding that impermanence and change are the only constants.

I admit, I am very found of stuff. I collect things. Toys, books, art, tools. I have an awful lot of stuff, actually. Some of it I'm very attached to indeed. Some of it I got on a whim, and later give to other people, because why not? I work on being less attached to stuff, not because of moral reasons, but because it makes things easier. But it's never going to be a thing I can really manage to escape, nor do I particularly want to.

Further, I disagree that it shows a lack of faith. My gods, at least, demand that we do what we can to help ourselves. There's an aphorism about not praying to Hercules to move your cart when you're stuck in a rut unless you're down there pushing first. We have a responsibility to take care of ourselves as best we can, and yes, that can mean laying things in against hard times, or taking care of ourselves in very material ways that improve our mental and physical health. Yes, when we have the ability, we should make sure that our buying choices are ethical, so as not to exploit people, but in our society, that's simply not possible for many people. WalMart is a terrible, terrible company that exploits its workers and sells mostly sweatshop-made items. Many many people, though, are simply too poor to buy $60 ethically-made shirts when they can buy $15 t-shirts at WalMart and have enough money to eat for the next few days. They are themselves exploited and oppressed, and this is part of the cycle of exploitation.

I am not always as ethical as I could be in my buying choices (although now I definitely don't have the ability to be, having no income at all). That's a thing to work on, at least.

The Niyama are personal observances, and they are:

Sauca - Purity
The first niyama is sauca, meaning purity and cleanliness. Sauca has both an inner and an outer aspect. Outer cleanliness simply means keeping ourselves clean. Inner cleanliness has as much to do with the healthy, free functioning of our bodily organs as with the clarity of our mind. Practicing asanas or pranayama are essential means for attending to this inner sauca. Asanas tones the entire body and removes toxins while pranayama cleanses our lungs, oxygenates our blood and purifies our nerves. "But more important than the physical cleansing of the body is the cleansing of the mind of its disturbing emotions like hatred, passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion and pride."

Well, the first two parts are simple enough in principle, and certainly I have my own rituals of purification and cleanliness that I keep, but the last part I again find incompatible with my life and philosophy. Passion, anger, lust, and pride, in particular are important to me, although I try to do without the rest, or at least manage them carefully.

Passion fuels accomplishment. Anger fuels my fight against injustice. Lust, well, lust is a very Dionysian emotion, and I think my wife would be unhappy if I stopped lusting after her. And I should take pride in my accomplishments, as well as thanking the gods for them. None of them should rule my life, but all of them can be used to improve it. I don't wish to "cleanse" myself of any of them, as I don't find them dirty or damaging.

I really dislike the theme in so many religions that emotions are bad, rather than the actions we take because of them. I think it's a filthy thing, one that attempts to deny the reality and nature of humanity, which I prefer to embrace.

Santosa - Contentment
Another niyama is santosa, modesty and the feeling of being content with what we have. To be at peace within and content with one's lifestyle finding contentment even while experiencing life’s difficulties for life becomes a process of growth through all kinds of circumstances. We should accept that there is a purpose for everything - yoga calls it karma – and we cultivate contentment 'to accept what happens'. It means being happy with what we have rather than being unhappy about what we don't have.

I cannot agree with this. Sure, once survival is covered, this sort of principle can be useful for many people, but this sounds like it's meant to apply across the board. That people who don't have a roof over their heads, clothes to wear, or food to eat should just accept it. That people who are not safe in their homes, who are being abused and endangered, should just accept it. That people who are oppressed, exploited and persecuted should be content with it. And I'm sorry, but no. No one should tell us to be content in those situations. It's damaging.

And lack of contentment with the world as it is (rather than our individual lots in life) drives innovation, the fight for justice, all the ways that we strive to improve the world.

Everything happens for a reason? Yes. Everything is a result of what has gone before, of the choices of everyone around us and of our own. Does that mean that everything improves us? Well, I think that anything might be used by someone to improve themselves, although certainly not everyone can use everything that happens to them to improve themselves.

Tapas – Disciplined use of our energy
Tapas refers to the activity of keeping the body fit or to confront and handle the inner urges without outer show. Literally it means to heat the body and, by so doing, to cleanse it. Behind the notion of tapas lies the idea we can direct our energy to enthusiastically engage life and achieve our ultimate goal of creating union with the Divine. Tapas helps us burn up all the desires that stand in our way of this goal.  Another form of tapas is paying attention to what we eat. Attention to body posture, attention to eating habits, attention to breathing patterns - these are all tapas.

This one I have no quibble with, and in many ways is something I already strive for, both spiritually and more practically, although probably in different ways from traditional yogis.

Svadhyaya – Self study
The fourth niyama is svadhyaya. Sva means "self' adhyaya means "inquiry" or "examination". Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered svadhyaya. It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, even to the point of welcoming and accepting our limitations. It teaches us to be centered and non-reactive to the dualities, to burn out unwanted and self-destructive tendencies.

Again, not going to argue. This is yet another version of the Delphic maxim "Know Thyself". This, too, is something I strive for.

Isvarapranidhana - Celebration of the Spiritual
Isvarapranidhana means "to lay all your actions at the feet of God." It is the contemplation on God (Isvara) in order to become attuned to god and god's will. It is the recognition that the spiritual suffuses everything and through our attention and care we can attune ourselves with our role as part of the Creator. The practice requires that we set aside some time each day to recognize that there is some omnipresent force larger than ourselves that is guiding and directing the course of our lives.

Once again, something I strive to do.

There are still six more Limbs to go, but I think this entry is long enough, so I'll address those in a separate one.

Since I can't afford to buy books right now, what I've done instead is to hit up Project Gutenberg's books on the topic. These, of course, are all pretty old, since they're out of copyright, and are all written or translated by white Europeans or Americans, but it's a place to start. In particular, I'm reading the Yoga Sutra, the foundational text of yoga, which is thousands of years old. This translation and commentary is by Charles Johnston. Later, I hope to pick up <a href=>this version, with translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda. Also on my free reading list are An Introduction to Yoga by Annie Besant, The Doctrine and Practice of Yoga by A.P. Mukerji, and Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. That, along with all my other reading, should keep me busy for a while.

I've been trying to add the very simplest Pranayama, breathing techniques, to my evening rituals, but honestly, I've been having a very hard time keeping any evening rituals beyond my brief lustral rite. I'm trying to fix my sleep cycle, and also trying to sync it up with my wife's, and it leaves me so tired right before bed that I simply can't apply myself to it. Pranayama especially would simply put me to sleep. Perhaps I simply need to start doing them earlier in the evening, although that's very difficult for me, too, since I tend to get distracted, and don't want to go up and down stairs more than absolutely necessary (my knees are very bad). But when I manage to do it, I'm using a brief podcast by Amber Karnes of Body Positive Yoga as a guide.