I would like to tell you the story of a man named Ian Manuel. I “met” Ian through Seane Corn. And before any of you think that I truly know either one of them, I do not. I only know of Seane Corn through one of her family friends, and because of how strongly this woman loved Seane, I started following her as she rose to yoga superstar status. Now if you know anything about Seane Corn, you know that she does not just use her platform to promote herself. She has been involved for years in social justice, founding (with Hala Khouri and Suzanne Sterling) the Off the Mat and Into the World organization. So I saw a picture of Seane with Ian Manuel on her IG feed. Because they were in Montgomery, AL, working together on a training, I got curious about who Ian was, and what was his story. It is one that I feel connected to, not because it mirrors my life at all, but because to me it shows the philosophy of yoga in action. It is a story of the circumstances of our lives leading us one way, and the ways in which our world views get shaped by what we know, who we are surrounded with. It is also the story of finding our way beyond those conditioned layers to who we are at center. It is about recognizing our commonality. It is about finding the work that is ours to do and doing it because we know it is what we are here to do. And it is about being who we are and doing what we need to do without worry about what anyone else will think or what will happen as a result. In yoga philosophy, this is Tapas, Svadhyaya, Isvara-pranidhana.
There are a number of places where you can read about Ian, so I will only give you a short recap here.
At age 13, Ian was imprisoned and put into solitary confinement for 18 years for a crime he committed. Imagine being in a small, concrete box for 18 years, from the time you were a young teen. What would you do? Ian did at times cut himself, tried to commit suicide more than once. He also wrote to and eventually called the woman who he had shot, and apologized. They began to correspond, and this woman over time forgave Ian. She actually advocated for his sentence to be lessened, and helped Bryan Stevenson and the folks at the Equal Justice Initiative to gain his release, although this took a long time.
Ian wrote many poems, a way of bringing out all that was inside of him, things he had no one to tell in that prison. When I contacted Ian to see if he was okay with me writing about him, I asked if I could share some of his poetry. He graciously sent me this poem that he wrote while he was in solitary confinement:
Genie in a bottle
By Ian Manuel
I’m the Genie in a bottle
the world has forgot
They put me in this abyss
And, closed up the top.
I was a little boy
when they did what they did,
But time continued to tick,
And, I’m no longer a kid
My mother is dead,
So is my father
I’ve been abandoned by family
while trapped in this bottle.
But I hold on to hope
That someone will open the top
Answer my prayers, and help me out.
Sometimes people pick- up the bottle
put their eye to the hole.
But instead of compassion,
act indifferent and cold
I suffer sensory deprivation,
a loss sense of direction.
There’s no mirror in this bottle
For me to see my reflection.
They say being lonely and alone
Are two different definitions,
But it’s only me
in this bottle,
so I fit both descriptions.
What I need is a friend.
Someone to extend a hand.
it can be as simple
as picking up a pen
Someone who cares.
Accepts me for who I am.
My magnetic personality
And my baggage from the past.
Someone who helps heal the sorrow.
Will work on building our tomorrow.
Someone who refuses to leave me to die in this bottle!
Ian, without support, found himself, in that center place where our mind and heart meet. Even through the time of life when we are all lost and confused in some way, he found this voice through his poetry. I am in pain. I am suffering. And he reached out. And his victim went beyond being a victim and saw the soul. That there was way more to Ian than the bad circumstances that led him to shoot her in the jaw that night. And Bryan Stevenson saw that Ian, and other young children like him had been given punishment that was way beyond what should happen to a child. He saw the soul. Ian did the work to get to know himself beyond the stereotypes of a young black man, this woman and the folks at EJI did the work to change the system and get him released from his prison. Tapas, Svadhyaya, Isvara-pranidhana.
What I most appreciate about what Ian, Bryan Stevenson, and others who are activists for social justice are doing, is that they are identifying ways in which our broken justice systems need to be fixed, but they are also looking to bring us all into the healing that needs to occur as part of that. Healing is what is needed now more than ever. At this time, it feels as though across the world we are becoming more and more divided rather than united. I see and hear way too much “us versus them” type of language. When people in powerful positions use their platform to spread more hate and fear, “othering” anyone, whether it be immigrants, women, LBGTQ folks, environmentalists, people with different colored skin, whoever “they” are, there is an uprise of violence, hate, separation. We all end up in the prison of our bias’ and beliefs. I think its high time to be part of turning our world back towards seeing the human in us all, and showing up for each other. Lets work to bring an equal chance at justice, voice, opportunity, and connection for everybody. This is how we live our yoga.
Ian now works with Seane Corn and others to promote activism for social justice. To help us all learn about the prisons we are in, the boxes in which we lock ourselves when we can only see the world in terms of right and wrong. So on this Martin Luther King day, instead of taking the day off, perhaps we can find a way in which we can make a connection with someone, help heal some sorrow, work on building our tomorrow, as Ian said.
Join me, won’t you, in bringing your practice to life? Martin Luther King Jr. Told us about his dream back in 1963. Let’s see if we can actually make it more reality in 2020.
You can follow Ian Manuel on IG at: the_diamond_in_the_dirt
Here is a great video that recaps Ian’s story.
Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson’s book has been made into an amazing movie. Please go see it, or read the book. Ian’s story is told in the book.
This is the Ted Talk Bryan Stevenson did some years ago, and he was given one of the longest standing ovations of any Ted Talk. If you hadn’t heard about Bryan Stevenson before reading this, please watch this. It will help you understand a lot more about why racism still persists to the extent that it does in the United States.
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you, that would suffice.” Meister Eckhart
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the US or elsewhere that is celebrating this week (and a belated one to my Canadian friends). Do you take time to give thanks on a regular basis? If you don’t already have a regular practice of gratitude, or giving thanks, this is a great time of year to start.
There is a lot of research that has been done in the past 10 years on gratitude. Findings show significant health gains (lowers stress, improves immune system function, improves blood pressure and heart function, and overall health improves) as well as improvement in a person’s resilience — recovering faster from both injury and trauma. Anecdotally, I know of a number of people, myself included, who find that a daily practice of noting things we are grateful for (whether journaling or just thinking about these things at a committed time) brings a sense of being able to stay present for more of our day, and a greater feeling of appreciation for what we have. Any of the above something you want in your life?
Another advantage to a gratitude practice is that anyone can do it. I have done this with little kids as well as people near the end of their life. I find that writing down at least three things I am grateful for daily seems to make me feel the benefit of presence and joy more so than just thinking about them. However, there are times when I just think of what I am grateful for at night before I go to sleep, and it is sweet as well.
I first began to practice this after my nearest sibling had died from injuries due to a car accident. It helped me to see that even though there were days I was consumed by grief, there were also gifts to be appreciated, like the 30 minute commute I had that allowed me the time to weep every day without worrying about who was around. As much as I missed her, I was grateful for having had such an amazing sister. I also realized one of the gifts of her death was that it brought my other sister and I much closer. I was grateful for the gifts within the tragedy.
I am not telling you that everything in life is rosy, and that we should be happy for everything. Yes, there is crap in my life, and I don’t want to cover it up or avoid the tough stuff. I just am grateful for what gets me through that tough stuff, even if it is simply feeling the sun on my face, or cuddling with my dog. Its not about spiritual bypassing, because you are not using this in place of handling life. It is breathing into and recognizing the grace of the moment, which can help me find the strength to handle what needs to be done.
If you are gathering with others to celebrate Thanksgiving or any of the holidays in the near future, try going around the dinner table and asking everyone to give at least one thing they are grateful for before you dig in. If you don’t have the chance to do it with others, do this for yourself, whether in your journal or saying it out loud. Try this everyday from now through the end of the year, see what this brings, and let me know how it goes. May it be of benefit for you and all others. I am grateful for all you are doing to live your best life, and for the ways in which you are spreading your light in the world.
In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, there are eight limbs of yoga described. Three of the last four are Pratyahara (withdrawing of the senses), Dharana (concentration), and Dhyana (meditation). In my early days of practicing yoga, I got the part about withdrawing the senses pretty well. It started to happen when I would do my sitting meditation, as well as occasionally when I was practicing the physical postures. Yet the difference between concentration and meditation eluded me for quite a while. I used to use my breath, a visual point of focus, a thought, or mantra to place my attention and then I called this meditation. However, what I was practicing was concentration. It was and is a worthwhile practice. Yet I then began to discover that what is meditation is actually beyond this one-pointed focus. I had read about it; knew this intellectually, yet it took a long time for me to distinguish the difference to being in a state of concentrating on just one thing rather than a meditative state. A meditative state, by contrast, is being able to have full awareness of everything, really being fully present for reality.
For all the years in which I was basically practicing concentration, the practice felt as though I was condensing myself, through my awareness to try to maintain my focus on that one thing. Whether it was staring at a candle flame, chanting mantras, or visualizing an object, it was the continual noticing that awareness had crept away from the one thing, and bringing it back over and over. It did help me to be able to focus for longer periods on things like writing blog posts! 🙂
I began to actually understood how meditation can be different. While they both look the same from the outside (me, sitting with my spine straight, eyes closed, stillness), the experience on the inside is way different. Meditation is expansion. As though this much-more-intense focus extends to every cell of my physical body, my mind, my heart, my energy, and all that is around me, and sometimes even stuff that is not around me, including other people, nature, sights, sounds, energy. It is a still, calm, awareness that is expansive, enveloping, embracing,…words just don’t do this justice. It is, in fact, when I have felt the absolute most alive I have ever felt. Aware AF, if it were to be condensed to a meme. It does not mean being ignorant of what has passed or what is to come. It is an embracing of all, without getting lost in any one part of it. While it has come about during my meditation practice, it has also happened to me when I have been deeply immersed in playing music, creating art, or absorbed in nature.
So while practice and meditative techniques are one way to get there, our life itself can be our practice. My underlying philosophy on my spiritual path is that life is to be lived, that we are here to enjoy, be present for the divine play of our lives. So the more time I can be in that state of presence, the more I truly enjoy it all, even the downs within the ups and downs. If there is sadness, what does it feel like to experience that in my body, my breath, my mind? How does it change the way I see and interact with the world around me? If there is joy, let me be present and explore in the same ways. If this sounds good to you, I suggest you find all the ways in which you can be here now. If you find that tough to do, reach out. I have some good ideas of how to begin to live your yoga.
I absolutely love when a student asks this question. It begs the question, What is Yoga? So that is where I start all my teacher trainings, for in order for us to know if what we are doing is yoga, we have to come to agreement on what that four letter word means.
What does yoga mean to you? Is it about physical postures and flexibility? Is it Sun Salutations? Is there a certain way in which you must breathe in order for movement to be yoga? Does it need certain clothing, location, temperature, people, chanting, Sanskrit, tradition, knowledge, certification, amount of time practiced, mat, props, bare feet, sweat?
I’d say no to everything listed in that previous paragraph. Yoga to me means more about how I do something and the results of my actions than anything else. Yoga to me is an attitude of attentiveness, reverence, and curiosity to each moment as it appears. My practice involves first getting centered, finding my intention, honoring my teachers and dedicating my practice to something greater than me. I will then do some sort of physical practice — moving my body is definitely a must for me, though these days I find that I do not do the same practice daily like I used to. I have more variability based on what different parts of me are feeling.
I include breathwork in my practice and meditation as the last part of my morning session. Then in the afternoon, I will do more breathwork and meditation. Yoga off my mat can include a practice of “mindful walking” as a way of staying present to the beauty of nature, or the environment and people around me.
On the weekend mornings, when I have more time to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea outside, I will sit on my porch and allow myself to get absorbed into the sounds and sights of birds and animals as they wake up. I love to stay connected with the natural patterns around me, so I am typically found doing this with the the plants and trees, stars, the sun, and especially the moon. I greet them, send them my love, and attempt to “feel” them — it doesn’t always happen, but sometimes there is a sense that we are one.
Those are the easy times. Then there are the times when my button gets pushed, or I’m not in that lovey mood, and I realize this is the real practice. I remember to take some nice slow, even breaths, and allow myself to actually be with what is going on. Be with the discomfort of an emotion perhaps, or be with the tightness in my stomach, slow down my inner narrative of everything that has NOT YET HAPPENED, so that I can be present for that other person and myself. It can help me (if I catch myself in time) to act consciously rather than react unconsciously. Breaking through these old patterns (samskara in Sanskrit) is great work! It brings me back to the place where I remember that the other person and I both came from that same star dust…we are both the sparks of the divine light. That’s usually my best yoga practice, those difficult moments. And that’s why I practice daily on my mat when its easier, because it helps me do a good practice when its not so easy. This is what I call living my yoga.
Love and light,
In one of my earlier articles, I wrote about the Yamas and Niyamas, yoga philosophy’s moral underpinings from the Sutra of Patanjali. This article will focus on one of the Niyamas (personal observences), Saucha, sometimes translated as purification or cleanliness.
Donna Farhi writes in Yoga Mind, Body, & Spirit:
“Practicing saucha, meaning “that and nothing else,” involves making choices about what you want and don’t want in your life. Far from self-deprivation or dry piety, the practice of saucha allows you to experience life more vividly. A clean plate enjoys the sweetness of an apple and the taste of pure water; a clear mind can appreciate the beauty of poetry and the wisdom imparted in a story; a polished table reveals the deep grain of the wood. This practice both generates beauty and allows us to appreciate it in all its many forms.”
Many people think of purification as having to be, well, pure. This may be one of your aims in life. Clean eating, or only eating organic and local food is a great way to bring in the essence of purity or saucha into your body. Considering the kinds of people you surround yourself with, the types of entertainment you watch, hear, and participate in is another way to bring in the quality of Saucha. Yet, if you are reading this and thinking that you aren’t cut out for going all the way to the monastery yet with this Niyama, consider perhaps the baby steps that may be doable for you.
In yoga studios, there are often guidelines which embody this Niyama, asking students to come to class clean, without any strong odors, even from perfumes, colognes, or lotions. This beginning step towards Saucha ensures that everyone can enjoy the class environment (especially the deep breathing). This is done for common courtesy, yet can also be one way to understand the intent of Saucha and to remember this as you shower or get prepared for your practice. You may also consider for yourself how you can take the spirit of Saucha in your mind as you step onto your mat, allowing yourself to try to stay absorbed in the intent of your practice, rather than thinking of the list of things you want to do after your practice.
As a teacher, I also look at the how the physical environment of the room itself can help set up an atmosphere of orderliness and clean energy flow. If mats are set up facing different ways, not in either lines or a circle, I have observed students being more distracted, and often less able to keep their energy and focus within what we as a group are doing. I typically will ask students to set up their mats in an organized circle. This allows for the energy of the room to flow evenly around all of us, and also seems to contribute to a feeling of everyone working in harmony during the class.
In your home practice, look at how you can arrange your mat in a place that is clean and orderly, and in harmony with your surroundings. It is also good to keep your mat itself clean. See how you may feel differently in your home practice if you first take a couple minutes to assure that your space is tidied up. This actually is as much a ritual for me at the beginning of my practice as setting out my mat! I find myself much “clearer” in my mind when I am not looking at my dog’s hair on the floor.
I also teach beginning students to be mindful as they walk to the closet for props or go to the wall. They learn to walk around others mats, thus keeping their feet off of another’s mat, as well as respecting the energetic “space” of another student. I do even try to encourage students to put away their props and mats at the end of the class neatly. I suggest that you also do this in your home when you practice there. Perhaps respecting your practice equipment and environment will transfer to awareness and respect of your surroundings in the rest of your day.
As we do in class, you can also separate your yoga practice from the rest of your day, thus keeping your practice “clean”. We do this through chanting the sacred word “Om” to begin and saying “Namaste” at the end. Finding your opening and closing rituals for your home practice can have the same impact, whether it be through lighting incense, candles, or even reading an inspirational passage before you begin. You can also find meaningful ways that work for you to close your practice, whether it be through bowing in gratitude to your inner teacher or in simply sitting in silence for a moment to allow yourself to transition off of your mat.
I have found that through the years my working consistently with these simple approaches has helped me to clean up a lot more things in my life. I now recognize when my shelves of clothes are getting disordered and love how it feels when I go through them, donate what I don’t use, and make them neat once more. I recognize when I am holding onto so many objects that it is tough to keep my home area clean. It has gradually transformed the way I eat much of the time, though I do still enjoy things like pizza and French fries every once in a while! I embody Saucha in the ways that feel right for me, without feeling that I am denying myself things that I love and enjoy. I hope that you can find your path to this as well.
Now Begins the Study of Yoga
Over 2000 years ago Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, 196 short statements that are considered the source of what yoga is about. In the Sutras, Patanjali explains that classical yoga has eight limbs, the first two of these limbs being the Yamas and the Niyamas. The Yamas and Niyamas are ethical statements to guide us in our lives, very similar to moral codes found in the world’s religions. All well and good you say, yet what does this have to do with what most of us think of as yoga, you know, those crazy poses?
What Patanjali lets us know is that in all of the eight limbs, only two of them have to do with physical activity; the asanas, or poses, and pranayama, cultivating the prana or energy of our breath. Within the Sutras, its explained that when working with all of the limbs, not just those poses, we can achieve freedom that comes with being, knowing, connecting with our true self, this being the real purpose of yoga. Without this purpose of connection, yoga becomes just another form of exercise. Yoga requires us to become mindful within the physical activity of the practice and beyond.
The Yamas and Niyamas are a great way to begin to bring something of the whole of yoga into your life.
So while many of us come into yoga by doing the poses,It is a great addition to your asana practice to take one of the Yamas or Niyamas to focus on for a while, whether it be one a day, week, month, or even a year. Here are the ten precepts:
- Ahimsa – compassion for all living things
- Satya – truth in thought, words, and deeds
- Asteya – not stealing
- Brahmacharya – merging your energy with spirit
- Aparigraha – generosity
- Saucha – living purely
- Santosha – contentment
- Tapas – disciplined use of your energy
- Svadhyaya – Study of self
- Ishvarapranidhana – Acting from love, devotion, and good intent, and letting go of attachment to results of your actions.
There are many interpretations of the Yamas and Niyamas. Some of my favorites are: How to Know God by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin F. Bryant, Threads of Yoga by Matthew Remski, and most recently I have been appreciating the depth of Donna Farhi’s interpretations of the sutras, which can be found in just about any of her work (if you are not sure, begin with her book, Bringing Yoga to Life).
I highly encourage you to begin exploring how the Yoga Sutras can contribute to your practice of yoga, your life, and the connection to your true self. This is what the study of yoga is all about.