Dropping Into Our Roots

I am so grateful to live in a place where I can feel so connected to my environment. Recognizing my connection to the world around me is a way I practice yoga off the mat. And a big part of that connection is through light: We are so lucky to live in a place known for its beautiful light, and I love watching how it changes.

The light changes moment to moment with the movement of the clouds. It changes from morning to night. The phases of the moon change the light at night. And the light shifts with the changing of the seasons. As we move towards the winter solstice and darker, shorter days, I notice the environment responding by turning inwards—I notice the landscape going dormant—and I feel like doing the same thing. I feel like turning inward, and cooling down after the brightness and the heat of the summer. This makes me think of pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga, defined as withdrawal from the senses, and considered the gateway from the more external outer limbs to the internal subtler ones.

The term pratyahara is made of up of two Sanskrit words—ahara, meaning food or anything taken in, including what comes in through our senses; and prati, meaning away or against—that is, moving away from sensory input. Practicing non-attachment to our senses moves us along the yogic path to the deeper limbs—dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption).

I think about trees and plants shedding their leaves in the fall. Not only do the leaves of plants provide nourishment, they are also the way plants receive information from their surroundings. Leaves are the trees sensory organs; through their leaves, plants take in nourishment, feel the breeze, and sense the seasonal changes of the light. And their response to this change is to shed their sensory organs—they simply detach from stimuli. As they do this, they become still; they drop into to their roots and their deeper connection to the world.

This is what I think of when I have glimpses of pratyahara: I am not actively trying to shut down my senses. I can’t stop the vibrations of sound from entering my ears, or stop the feeling of the sun on my skin, but I can practice detaching from those sensations—I can just let them go. As I do this, I feel I am taking a step on the now leaf-covered path of yoga, towards an even deeper connection to the world around me.

Found and Lost

I hate losing things. I still mourn the loss of a white sundress that went missing on my honeymoon, and a pair of pink Gucci sunglasses that the ocean swallowed one Fourth of July weekend.

Two months ago, I was at a pharmacy on the upper east side picking up medication. I remember feeling anxious and unsettled, like I’d had way too much coffee or was about to take an important exam that I wasn’t prepared for. It was only 7:45 a.m., but I’d already been to the doctor and battled my way across town to get to the one pharmacy on the island of Manhattan that had what I needed. I left the pharmacy clutching my paper bag of drugs, and I was walking toward the subway when I realized my sunglasses—my favorite Ray-Bans—were missing. The case was empty. I checked the little side pouch of my bag where I sometimes hastily throw them, but they weren’t there. I turned around and raced back to the pharmacy.

“Hi,” I said breathlessly to the woman behind the counter. “I left my sunglasses here.”

“No, Miss…” she began, but I cut her off.

“I’m sure they’re here. I know I just had them, and I must’ve put them on the counter or something while I was paying, because they’re not in my bag or…“

“No, Miss, they’re…”

“They have to be here!” I said. “I know I was wearing them when I came in, and I haven’t been anywhere else and…”

“Miss,” she said sternly, silencing me. “They’re on your head.”

“Oh,” I said. My face got red hot. I reached my hands up to pat my head, and, sure enough, there were my sunglasses. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, and skulked out the door.

There’s a phrase in Sanskrit, praaptasya praapti, which means, “acquiring that which is already acquired.” The woman at the pharmacy didn’t give me anything—she didn’t have my sunglasses—but she guided me to the realization that nothing was lost.

So what does all of this have to do with yoga?

The yogis say that our true nature is limitless joy. Not that we have joy, but that we are joy. Can you even imagine?

It’s a tough idea for our limited little egos to grasp. Also, our daily experience belies this concept of unconditional happiness and peace. We’re so used to conditional happiness: I will be happy when I have a healthy, happy baby; I will be happy once I make more money; I will be happy when I lose 10 pounds; I will be happy when I can hold handstand in the middle of the room. I don’t know about you, but just looking for parking on Main Street on a Saturday in summer is enough to make me feel agitated and stressed out. So much for being eternally at peace.

Some yoga texts explain that the reason we feel unrest or anxious is because we’ve forgotten who we are. We wrongly believe we’re separate from one another and feel isolated in the human experience.  We carry around shame, disappointment, guilt, and resentment, and those things are heavy—it’s no wonder we’re exhausted all the time! We’ve lost our connection to our deeper Self, that part of us that’s always joyful and divine.

Patanjali tells us that even when we’re in darkness, or working through tremendous grief, our true Selves are limitless, eternal, content, happy, and peaceful. But what good is all this happiness and peace if we can’t feel it? Why have we forgotten? How can we remember again? How do we recover what’s lost?

Last year, at Ramanand Patel’s suggestion, I started studying Vedanta remotely with a teacher named Vijay Kapoor. Kapoor says that 80% of the Bhagavad Gita, that seminal Hindu scripture, is sadhana. I’d always thought sadhana meant “practice,” or even “an ego-transcending practice,” but Kapoor defines it as “positioning yourself”—positioning your life and your mind so that you can better understand your true nature.

Sounds easy enough, but finding your true Self takes sustained practice, hard work, and continuous study. It’s not an easy veil to lift, but the Gita gives us clues that it has to do with alignment.

How are you setting yourself up? Are you positioning your life in a way that allows you to access joy, or do you keep banging your head against the same brick wall and then wonder why you can’t find peace? As a head banger myself, I’ve been questioning my own alignment lately. Why do I continue to reinforce patterns that deplete me? Why am I reluctant to shed habits that make me anxious? Why am I still my biggest obstacle to experiencing lasting contentment? Why is it so hard for us to live our best lives?

Pema Chodron says, “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” The habits that diminish us are the clouds passing through. Sometimes they congregate into violent hurricanes, thunderstorms, or blizzards, but the sky remains the sky: vast, open, blue, radiant. I sometimes think I have more fun identifying with the storms, because they’re powerful and dramatic. They can shake the very ground beneath me and send bolts of fire from the heavens to the earth. They’re beautiful and awe-inspiring and exciting and badass. But I’m no more the storms than the waves are the ocean. I know this, but I also forget it. I lose it.

How do we find our way back to our true selves?

I think it’s different for everyone. I’m learning that for me it’s a combination of rigorous exercise, sitting quietly, being near the ocean, chanting, spending time with my son and my mom, rolling out my mat, reading Mary Oliver, traveling, walking in the woods, and narrowing my to-do list. Then I find myself again.

Then I lose myself again.

So the bad news is, you’re the problem. The good news is, you’re the solution. You’re both the disease and the cure. The poison and the tonic. You’re the only one who can start paying attention to how you can better align yourself so you have access to the well of joy and peace that you already are.  You find a way to acquire that which you’ve already acquired. Your favorite sunglasses that you fear you’ve lost are right there… on top of your head.


It’s the week after Christmas, and I sit fireside in upstate New York with the 14-year-old Lab I helped raise from puppyhood. These days he’s generally halfway across the country with the ex-boyfriend, so stroking his white fur I mourn our impending separation. “Even in Kyoto … I long for Kyoto,” the 17th-century poet Basho wrote, nailing it then as now—and writing a pretty good primer for yoga study into the bargain.

The blues for being there is the stuff of aparigraha—the yogi’s pledge not to cling to the things and people we want, to what and who we shouldn’t want, to memory and calculation, to life and time itself. This fifth of the yamas, or restraints, is the toughest for me hands down. (“I could become attached to a box of hair,” a coworker once uttered, striking a funny indelible chord.) So it happens that I sit staring into a crackling fire alongside my beloved dog, lamenting not only losing him, but also Christmas, with its sparkle, its scents—even the carols, yo. (And this yogini is Jewish.)

Without a doubt, clinging plays out interestingly, nowhere more than in our practice. Triangle: Bring it on. Revolved triangle: Time to go to the bathroom. Just do the poses you like and you’re in trouble, though. The “bits and bobs,” to quote Colleen, wind up overstretched and underutilized.

But when you turn poses like triangle and revolved triangle on their ear—when you parivritta them, in asana speak—you balance the openness of hips and groin through attentive use of your outer hips, buttocks, and thighs. Asana, like life, has a way of insisting we engage in the full catastrophe in order to reap homeostasis, not to mention samadhi.

The same is true of yoga philosophy. Aparigraha becomes possible when you put forth intense, loving effort fueled by strong surrender underpinned by right living—in short, by hewing to the eight-limbed path. So you do it. A lot. Regularly. That’s the practice. It’s never been about feeling good always.

Back to my cozy Christmas for a moment, please. When those coveted days with doggie got cut short by a death in my extended family, the object of my gaze shifted from things I glowingly adore to a sweet old man in a coffin—the perfect windup to a story of aparigraha. Death is where we’re all headed, we know academically. But abhinivesha—clinging to life—prevails even among the highest beings. What we fear will be taken from us we must share.

So if parigraha, or clinging, boils down to the “I, me, mine” lyricized by the great yogi George Harrison, a-parigraha, the restraint against it, is ultimately the embracing of us all. It is the practice of engendering love and compassion for the full, gorgeous catastrophe of existence.

Because the one with the most marbles ultimately loses anyway, yo. And we all win by grasping kaivalya, liberation, with open palms, the only way it will be held.

Bridging The Gap

When Rodney and I were students in the three-year teacher training course at the San Francisco Iyengar Institute in the early 1980s, we learned the backbends include both “babies” and (though the name wasn’t made explicit) “adults.” Among the former are Locust (shalabha), Sea Monster (makara, usually mis-translated as something like Crocodile, Alligator, or worst of all, Dolphin), Bow (dhanu), and Bridge (setu bandha), though there was some suggestion that this one is no longer a baby but more of a tweener, like a teenager. Most of us typically enter Bridge by lifting off the floor, but in Light on Yoga (hereafter LoY) it’s is achieved by dropping back from Shoulder Stand (sarvanga), thus its formal name, setu bandha sarvanga.

Setu is a very interesting word. We usually translate it as “bridge,” but it also means “dam.” It appears in at least four of the vedic upanishads (the brhad aranyaka, chandogya, mundaka, and the maitri) as a synonym for and two-pronged symbol of the atman or essential Self (with a capital S). As a dam, the setu is said to keep our sorrow-full, mundane world separate from what’s called the brahma-world, the “happy-full” heavenly realm. But as a bridge, it provides the way for us to cross over from here to there, and “upon crossing that bridge, if one is blind, he becomes no longer blind; if he is sick, he becomes no longer sick….[and] the night appears even as the day, for that brahma-world is ever illuminated” (chandogya 8.4.2). To be more precise then, the setu is a causeway, which is a raised bank of earth between two irrigated fields that serves a dual role. On the one hand it keeps the water contained in each field, just as the Self divides our world from brahma’s; but on the other, it allows the farmer to walk between fields without getting wet, just as the Self offers safe passage between the worlds. So what do you think? From now on should we translate setu bandha as the Causeway Pose?

This message is very familiar in the yoga world: What binds us is also the means of our liberation. In all schools of yoga the key that opens the door is the answer to the $64 question: Who am I? (for those too young to have lived then or too old and absent-minded to remember, the “$64 question” is a popular catchphrase from the 1940’s, referring to a question or problem that’s especially difficult). There’s nothing else we ever need to meditate on, no mantra, no image, no breathing rhythm, but this seemingly simple question. As the Indian jnani Nisargadatta Maharaj advises us from his own experience, “Give up all questions except one: ‘Who am I?'” Paradoxically though it’s extremely important that we don’t try to answer it for ourselves, that would just lead us back to our same old self (with a small s). All we need do is hold the question in our consciousness as much as possible as we go through our days, without any expectations, without even any hope of success. When the time is ripe, when we’ve been sufficiently “baked in the fire of yoga” (as Gheranda tells his student, Canda, whose name means “glowing with passion”), the answer will make itself known.

But be prepared, it will come as a shock, not because it’s so entirely new and alien, but rather because, in fact, the answer was staring us in the face all along. As the Sufis say, It was hidden in plain sight (in this regard, read the short story by EA Poe, The Purloined Letter). We’ll stop here for now and save the rest for another newsletter.

Your Perfect Offering

“Turn my sorrow into treasured gold…” – Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”

While scrolling through Instagram recently, I found an image of a beautiful pottery bowl. It was the faded green color of the Statue of Liberty with veins of gold running through it. The image was tagged #kintsugi, which I then looked up.

It turns out Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with resin that’s mixed with gold dust. The philosophy behind Kintsugi is the beauty of repair – cracks are part of the story of an object, to be illuminated rather than hidden. The life of something doesn’t end the moment it has been damaged; rather, it can be even more beautiful for having been broken.

We’re rarely encouraged to showcase brokenness in our culture. When we do, it can make people uncomfortable. While at a baby shower last month, I opened up to an acquaintance about my painful journey to motherhood – including a stillbirth, two surgeries, a miscarriage and several fertility treatments – and she grew visibly uneasy; she would have preferred I cover up my scars. But, honestly, all that heartbreak that I was describing to her gave me some pretty powerful golden threads. The cracks are a part of my story, and my story didn’t end just because I broke a few times.

I used to avoid sharing my grief, because I was afraid I would erupt in sobs, unravel completely, and never be able to put my pieces back together again. But I soon realized that if I kept my sorrow inside, it would chew away at my insides like a voracious parasite. I was broken, and pretending otherwise would be a lie.

Instead of thinking of brokenness as something to be ashamed of, what would happen if we honored our breaks? Could illuminating our brokenness actually liberate us from it? If we celebrated our scars instead of trying to hide them, would we no longer be at their mercy? Could we become even more whole for having been broken?

Gold is stronger and more luminous than clay, just like skin that has been scarred is tougher and often shinier than unblemished skin. Perhaps it is in the places where we have been split open that we are our strongest and most radiant. The “damage” ends up being the most interesting part of us.

If there’s one thing we know about the human experience, it’s that no one gets out of here alive. And whether someone drops us, or we drop ourselves, or we just get banged up along the way—we are going to break at one point or another. We get to decide how we want to put ourselves back together.  Sure, you can Krazy Glue the pieces in place and hope that no one sees your cracks, your chips, your hairline fractures, but maintaining a flawless facade to mask internal despair is exhausting, and sooner or later, you’re going to spring a leak.  Owning what happened to you, being true to your stories, honoring your scars, and mending yourself with lustrous gold sounds like a lot more fun.

When you acknowledge your cracks, you are freed from their clutches, and brought to the awareness that even in brokenness, you are whole. Nothing can take away your completeness. Oftentimes it is only when you crack open that you’re able to catch a glimpse of that part of yourself which is unbreakable.

One of my favorite chants is from the Isha Upanishad: om purnamadah purnamidam purnat purnamudachyate purnasya purnamadaya purnameva vashishyate om. The rough translation is: “That is complete, this is complete, from the completeness comes the completeness, if completeness is taken away from completeness, only completeness remains.”

If Sanskrit isn’t your thing, Leonard Cohen does a pretty good job when he writes: Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.

You are a perfect whole—made all the more beautiful and powerful for having been broken.

Kāmabandha, Bound to Love

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, most of us here in the West will be reminded of Cupid, whose name comes from the Latin cupido, “desire, love.” One dictionary suggests this word is “perhaps” cognate with the Sanskrit kupyati, “bubbles up, becomes agitated,” which I suspect some of us have experienced once or twice in our lives under certain circumstances with certain people. Another dictionary traces this word even farther back, to the Indo-European root kwep, a not especially poetic sounding word—all you need is kwep? Can’t buy me kwep? Kwep me tender?—that means “to smoke, cook, be agitated emotionally,” once again relational conditions at least a few of us may be able to identify with.

Cupid carries two different kinds of arrows, one very sharp and gold-tipped, the other made of lead and blunt. When struck with the first, we bid adieu to sanity and devote every hour of our waking lives to making the biggest fool in the world—think Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber—look perfectly rational and intelligent. When struck with the other we react completely oppositely and inexplicably, at least to the other person, turn tail and run.

Since this is a yoga newsletter, we’ll turn our attention to India, which has its own version of Cupid, a randy young fellow by the name of Kāma. As with so many Sanskrit words, we have to be careful with the spelling: with a long second, kam (pronounced kuh-MA), it means “beauty, radiance;” with a long first (pronounced KA-muh), it means “desire, longing, wish.” As we might expect there are lots of words that are compounded of kāma: if I’m bound to love, I’m kāmabandha; if I’m lustful, I’m kāmabhik ma; and if I’m following my own desires unreservedly, I’m kāmacara.

Kāma himself is said to be the first creation of the Absolute at the dawning of the world. In the famous Vedic song of creation (10.129), we read that at the outset “all that existed then was void and formless,” after which “rose Desire (kāma) … the primal seed and germ of Spirit.” This seems to indicate that within each of us then at the very essence of our being is Desire, but not the everyday worldly desire to, just to pull an example out of my hat, date Kate Upton (or whoever you’d like to fill in here), but the original intent of Desire with a capital D, which is to know ourselves as we truly are and so be truly happy.

Kāma of course has a family. His wife’s name is Rati, “pleasure,” his younger brother is Krodha, “anger,” and his daughter is Trisha, “thirst.” Sounds like that might be an interesting Thanksgiving dinner get-together. We might expect him nowadays to drive a very flashy, expensive car, but traditionally his ride is a parrot, said to be the wisest of birds—Polly want a kwep-er?—or a peacock, which represents impatient desire. Like Cupid, K ma has a bow, his is made of sugar cane, its string a line of buzzing bees, his arrows are made of lust-inspiring flowers. Oddly enough, for we might expect just the reverse, K ma is worshiped by the yogis, because it’s only he who can free the mind of desire. I guess it’s good to know, as Alain Danielou writes in the Gods of India, that it’s not “pleasure but desire” that binds us all to suffering and blocks our way to liberation. He quotes from an obscure Upanishad: “He (and let’s add “she”) who hankers after pleasure with a view of enjoying it becomes addicted to desire. The sage partakes of sensual pleasures as they occur, with a detached mind, and does not become addicted to desire.”

Like most Indian deities, Kāma has a host of names; just a few are: Ishma, “spring,” Mada, “passion,” Smara, “remembering love.” He’s also known as Abhirupa, the “beautiful,” Dipaka, the “inflamer,” Kantu, the “happy,” and naturally Samantaka, the “destroyer of peace.” His special celebration, which we might compare with Valentine’s Day, is called Madanasava, the Festival of the God of Love, which is described as a pretty raucous affair, in which the castes mingle freely, kings and beggars alike, singing and dancing and engaging in behavior we’ll not describe in a family newsletter.

A few month ago, while researching another article, I had occasion to look up the word prana, familiar enough to most yogis, meaning “breath of life, respiration, spirit, vitality.” As I plowed my way through the complicated definition I ran across this beautiful phrase which I give to you to share with someone special on Valentine’s Day: tvam me pranah (pronounced, more or less: twam me pra-nuh-hah), which means, “To me you are as dear as life.”

And a poem that I penned especially for Rod and Colleen:

Will you be my Valentine?
If you will my Heart will shine
If you will my Brain will glow
I’ll light up from head to toe.
And oh my Lungs will sing and shout
My Liver angel wings will sprout
My Kidneys too will celebrate
Say you will, don’t make me wait.
My Stomach out its joy will pour
Oh how would it just you adore
You my wildest dreams surpass
Right down into my Pancreas.
When other lovers get the sack
Only Hearts in pieces crack.
But if you me won’t make your bloke
All my insides will be broke.
My Thyroids they will turn to gruel
However could you be so cruel?!
My Pituitary will be crushed
And look, poor Spleen, all chopped and mushed.
So once again, please don’t decline:
Will you be my Valentine?
Oh so happy would I be
In every vein and artery.

We are excited to announce that Richard Rosen will be teaching two workshops at Yoga Shanti this February: Asana as a Preparation for Pranayama in Sag Harbor on Valentines Day, February 14th, and Forgotten Hatha in New York City on Sunday, February 15th.