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My yoga practice – post shoulder surgery

Standing wide-legged bend

After my shoulder surgery on January 6, I met with my doctor four weeks after the surgery for my first post-op follow-up. At that time she told me that due to the nature of the surgery which involved the use of a human graft, the recovery is going to be quite slow. It could take up to a whole year before I gain full range of motion and strength. Of course, since using human graft is a relatively new procedure, not much data is available from actual case studies to make a good, realistic assessment of the recovery time. It is not even clear what "full recovery" means. In my doctor’s estimate I may regain full range of motion; however, I may gain only about 80-85% of my previous strength in my arms and shoulders. These follow-ups will continue every four weeks for the next few months.

My current yoga practice

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14-day Pranayama Immersion, March 27 – April 9

Vishnu Mudra

I am pleased to announce the next Pranayama intensive. In this program, we will be practicing some of the main pranayama techniques given in our ancient yoga texts. I will also discuss the underlying concepts in the practice of pranayama and all the wonderful benefits that the practice can bring us.

No prior pranayama or meditation experience is required.

Here are the particulars:

  • What: 14-day pranayama intensive
  • When: Monday, March 27 – Sunday, April 9, 2017
  • Time: 6:00 – 7:30 AM
  • Location: 4000 Bearcat Way, Suite 102, Morrisville, NC 27560
  • Daily Routine: Light stretching (10-15 minutes), Pranayama (40 min), Relaxation (15 min), Yoga philosophy/meditation (15-20 min)
  • Commitment: A firm commitment to follow this schedule and attend every day
  • Fee: $90
  • To register: fill out the registration form, providing information in all the fields, and submit it online

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Surya Namaskar Yogathon (108 rounds), Saturday, March 18

Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation)

Surya Namaskar Yogathon (108 rounds) – Saturday, March 18, 7 – 11:30 AM!

I invite you to join us for this memorable yoga event where we will practice 108 rounds of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations). Surya Namaskar, practiced to the accompaniment of beautifully chanted mantras,
will not only invigorate and energize you but also lead you into a state of deep meditation.

  • Event: Surya Namaskar Yogathon (108 rounds of Sun Salutations)
  • Location: Hindu Temple (HSNC), main Cultural Hall, 309 Aviation Parkway, Morrisville, NC 27560; temple phone: (919) 481-2574
  • When: Saturday, March 18, 2017
  • Time: 7:00 AM to 11:30 AM (on-site registration starts at 6:30 AM)
  • Program Fee (donation to the temple – includes veggie lunch): $20 with pre-registration or $25 on the day of the event; In addition, please try to find sponsors who might be willing to pledge money per round that you complete.
  • Program: Om chanting, invocation prayer, a brief discussion of the mantras associated with SN (a chart of SN is available on my website here), practice 108 rounds of Surya Namaskar accompanied by the chanting of beautifully rendered Surya Namaskar mantras, yoga nidra (deep relaxation), brief session of pranayama to balance out the flow of prana, closing chants.
  • Lunch: Vegetarian lunch will follow the event
  • Light snacks, tea/coffee will be available in the hallway during the event.
  • To register: please fill out the registration form on the HSNC website and submit it online. You can make the payment on the same page.

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What causes suffering?

In a previous article, I talked about how to make right choices in life so we can diminish or prevent future suffering. In this article I will expand a little more on the concept of suffering and discuss the various causes of suffering. We’ll turn our attention to one of the sutras from Patanjali (sutra 2.15):

परिणामतापसंस्कारदुःखैर्गुणवृत्तिविरोधाच्च दुःखमेव सर्वं विवेकिनः॥१५॥

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pariṇāma tāpa saṁskāra duḥkhaiḥ guṇa-vr̥tti-virodhācca duḥkham-eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ ॥2.15॥

"To one of discrimination, everything is painful indeed, due to its consequences; the anxiety and fear over losing what is gained; the resulting impressions left in the mind to create renewed cravings; and the constant conflict among the three gunas, which control the mind."

What this sutra tells us is that a person with sharp discriminatory wisdom (the Sanskrit term used in the sutra is "vivekin") begins to realize that all life experiences are either actively or potentially full of suffering. When I read this sutra for the first time, it seemed a little strange to me that a person of wisdom should feel any suffering at all. After all, the purpose of all yoga practices is to attain enlightenment which will put an end to suffering. It took a little deeper reflection to understand the significance of the sutra.

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How to make proper choices in life

At every step in our life, we are presented with multiple options to choose from. The choices that we make today can have a serious impact on our future. We can be faced with simple questions like "which shirt should I wear for the party?", or whether or not I should eat this ice cream, or more serious matters like picking the right profession or career or picking the right life partner. Every option that we pick, every decision that we make, can have short-term and long-term implications.

What propels us to make inappropriate choices?

In a previous article, I wrote about how the mind functions and how we tend to be driven more by our ego rather than the pure intellect. Based on our past experiences, the ego likes to pick those choices which gave us a pleasurable experience in the past. For example, if we enjoyed a piece of cake in the past, in our memory bank it gets labeled as a "pleasant or enjoyable" experience. Next time when we are given the choice of eating a cake vs. not eating it, the ego will decide to eat the cake even though the intellect knows that it may not be good for our health. When we repeatedly make choices which are pleasant but not desirable, it can lead to much suffering in the form of disease or other physical and mental ailments. This also ties into the theory of Karma which can be summed up in this oft-heard statement, "as you sow, so shall you reap". As per this theory, our current thoughts and experiences are driven by our past actions; also, our future experiences will be driven by our present thoughts and actions.

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21-day Yoga Immersion, Feb 6-26

Virabhadrasana (Warrior2)

I am pleased to announce the next 21-day Yoga Immersion program. The past programs have been very well received by all the participants. For most of them, it has been truly a life-transforming experience. I invite you to join me on this exciting and deeply rewarding 21-day yoga journey. Here are the particulars:

  • What: 21-day yoga immersion
  • When: Monday, February 6 – Sunday, February 26, 2017
  • Time: 6:00 AM – 7:30 AM
  • Where: 4000 Bear Cat Way, Suite 102, Morrisville, NC 27560
  • Cost: $125
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My shoulder update – surgery January 2017

If you have attended my yoga classes in recent months, you would have noticed that I have been dealing with a nagging problem in my right shoulder for some time now. In a previous update on my shoulder, I wrote about the re-tear of the rotator cuff muscles after the surgery in October 2013. As a result of that tear, I have had a limited range of motion (ROM) as well as limited strength in the right arm/shoulder. However, despite the tear and some limitations, for almost three years after the surgery I was able to raise my arm to a full vertical position without any significant pain. That level of ROM allowed me to practice sequences like Surya Namaskar and asanas like up/down dog etc. without much problem. I was, in fact, able to practice almost 75-80% of all the asanas in my usual routine. You can view a sample of the movements in this video on the Sun Salutation sequence which is from August, 2016. I was perfectly happy with this level of functionality in my shoulder and had no desire or intention to get any further treatment done to the shoulder. Of course, I have vivid memories of the painful experience after all three previous shoulder surgeries. For those who are not aware of it, I had my first shoulder surgery on the right shoulder back in 2002. That surgery was quite successful and I was back to normal functionality. Soon after, in 2005, I had to have the same surgery on my left shoulder as well.

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Sun Salutation with Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana) and Intense Side Stretch (Parshvottanasana)

warrior 1
Virabhadrasana (Warrior 1)

If you’ve attended a yoga class with me, you would have noted that Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) is an integral part of the routine that we practice. Typically, we practice three rounds of Surya Namaskar. In the first round, we go through the basic sequence which has the classic 12 movements. In the second and third round, we add some variations to many of the movements. For example, in the second round some of the common poses that we practice include warrior 1, warrior 2, triangle pose, pigeon pose etc. In the third round, we usually practice the upward facing dog and also occasionally some twisting variations from the lunge position.

In today’s post, I am presenting the sequence of three rounds of Sun Salutation with warrior 1 and the Intense Side Stretch integrated into the second round. My friend Neha has graciously agreed to bring you the video presentation.

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Nine Obstacles to Wellness

With the New Year approaching, you are likely to exchange a large number of greeting messages with friends, relatives and well-wishers. Majority of the messages have phrases like "wishing you another year of health, peace, happiness and prosperity", or something similar. Health, peace and happiness etc. are all required for us to function in our daily life at our most optimum level. Without these, our work efficiency and productivity will drop, and we can fall prey to mental ailments like stress and depression. Another term that includes many of these attributes and is gaining acceptance is "wellness". If you search the Internet you will find multiple definitions of the term wellness. Two of these definitions are given below:

The World Health Organization defines wellness as:

"a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

The National Wellness Institute defines wellness as:

"a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential."

Wellness can be thought of both as a process and a state of being. When you follow the guidelines for the process of wellness, you will achieve a state of wellness.

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Five levels of awareness – the Five Koshas

Being aware means being in the present moment. Being in the present moment implies that we observe a situation without interpretation, a situation in its "as is" state. Having observed the situation, we can now intelligently analyze it and respond to it appropriately. In the absence of this level of awareness, we tend to offer a "knee-jerk" reaction which is driven entirely by the ego based on past experiences and impressions called "samskaras". Through awareness or mindfulness, we learn how to "respond" intelligently to a situation rather than "react" mindlessly. If we look closely at most of our life experiences, we will realize that reacting mindlessly is usually the cause of much suffering in the end. A "response" on the other hand is driven by our pure innate wisdom, our intuitive wisdom and thus results in a positive outcome and a peaceful mind.

How do we develop this awareness? Our ancient yogis have given us tools to develop our awareness at multiple levels. In the ancient text, the Taittiriya Upanishad (defined in section Brahmananda Valli with further elaboration in the section Bhriguvalli), it states that we can think our being as a composite of five layers, sheaths or enclosures, called "koshas". These are:

  • Annamaya Kosha (the physical sheath, sustained by food) (the word "anna" means food and "maya" means compose of or full of)
  • Pranaymaya Kosha (the energy layer sustained by prana or vital life force)
  • Manomaya Kosha (the mental ("manas") layer, primarily the cognitive mind, ego, memory and the lower intellect)
  • Vijnanamaya Kosha (the layer of intuitive wisdom ("vijnana"), the higher intellect)
  • Anandamaya Kosha (the layer of total "ananda" or bliss)

Our yoga practice can be used as an effective means of building this awareness. As you perhaps know, Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, defines the practice of yoga as comprising of eight limbs. Of these, the three that are commonly referred to as the key components of a regular yoga practice are – asana (physical posture), pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation (calming the mind). Through the practice of asana, we develop awareness at the physical level (annamaya kosha), pranayama helps develop awareness at the vital energy level (pranamaya kosha) and meditation can lead to awareness at the last three levels – manomaya kosha, vijnanamaya kosha and anandamaya kosha. Once you deepen your awareness during your yoga practice, you can carry that same level of awareness to your day-to-day life.

The concept of the five koshas was given in the Taittiriya Upanishad to help us understand what is ‘self’ and what is ‘non-self’. The lack of ability to distinguish between self and non-self is termed "avidya" (ignorance) which is the main cause of human suffering ("klesha") (Patanjali yoga sutras 2.3 thru 2.9). It is our identification with the ‘mind-body complex’ that prevents us from realizing our true nature (the self) which is represented by our soul (Atma). Once we develop an awareness at the level of the five koshas, it helps us slowly peel off these layers and bring us closer to our true identity. In this discussion, we will also apply these concepts to our Hatha Yoga practices.

Annamaya Kosha (Food Sheath)

The first and the outermost sheath is called the Annamaya Kosha or the sheath sustained by food. The word "anna" in Sanskrit means food and the word "maya" means "composed of" (not to be confused with a similar word "maayaa" which means illusion). This kosha represents our gross body (sthoola sharira) which is the "touch and feel" part of our being " our musculature, bones, blood, all the fluids in the body etc. This is the sheath that needs food for its basic sustenance and hence the name Annamaya kosha. This sheath is a composite of the five great elements (five "mahabhutas") – earth, water, fire, air and ether. It is our identification with this sheath, which is the result of "avidya" mentioned above, which results in suffering. An example of this identification is a simple statement like, "I am fat" or "I am ugly" etc. If you can take a step back and replace these statements with "my body is fat" and "my face is ugly", you have taken an important step in recognizing the distinction between the self and the physical body. By saying "my body", we are recognizing that we have an enclosure called the body but "I" am not THAT body.

Our gross body can be looked upon as the first port of entry into all the deeper layers finally leading us to our core which is our soul. It is our responsibility to take good care of this sheath, keep it healthy, clean and free of impurities so we can gain an easy access to the inner layers. We can achieve this goal by practicing the hatha yoga techniques of asana (physical postures), cleansing kriyas, proper diet and relaxation on a regular basis. It is important to remember that while practicing the asanas we need to be fully aware of the impact of each posture on every part of the body. This awareness will prevent any injury that we might cause due to negligence or competitiveness/overzealousness that might drive us to strive for something beyond our body"s innate ability. The body awareness also helps us make a connection with the deeper layers that will be discussed below.

Pranamaya Kosha (Vital Energy Sheath)

In order for the Annamaya Kosha to function it needs to be energized and sustained by the vital prana available via the pranamaya kosha, the energy sheath. If the energy sheath is absent the physical body will disintegrate and merge back into its five elements mentioned above. The pranamaya kosha can be looked upon as being responsible for all the physiological functions in the body " breathing, blood circulation, digestion, heart beat, all hormonal functions, communication between the brain and the cells of the body etc. This kosha is further subdivided into five pranas briefly described below:

  1. Prana: has an upward movement and is responsible for all inputs into the body " food, fluids, air, sensory inputs and mental impressions
  2. Apana: has a downward movement and is responsible for all forms of elimination and reproduction functions – stool and the urine, the expelling of semen, menstrual fluid and the fetus, and the elimination of carbon dioxide through the breath
  3. Udana: has an upward movement and is responsible for growth of the body, the ability to stand, speech, effort, enthusiasm and will
  4. Samana: has an inward movement " moving inward from the periphery and works in the gastrointestinal tract to digest food, in the lungs to digest air or absorb oxygen, and in the mind to homogenize and digest experiences, whether sensory, emotional or mental
  5. Vyana: moves from the center to the periphery. It governs circulation on all levels. It moves the food, water, blood and oxygen throughout the body, and keeps our emotions and thoughts circulating in the mind. In doing so it assists all the other Pranas in their work.

The major Hatha Yoga practice that is used to energize and vitalize the pranamaya kosha is pranayama. Pranayama techniques involve controlling the breath in various ways. A description of some of the simple pranayama techniques is available here.

Manomaya Kosha (Mind sheath)

Pranamaya kosha, described above, is directly influenced by our mind. When we are agitated, stressed or angry our breathing is fast, shallow and irregular. When we are calm and peaceful, our breathing is correspondingly soft and regular. In our scriptures, the mind is usually described as a part of the "antahakarana" (the inner instrument " the senses being the external instrument). The other major part of this antahakarana is the intellect which we will talk about next. Mind is responsible for our cognitive abilities, receiving input from the five senses, communicating with the intellect and directing our actions. Thoughts, emotions, feelings, memories are all a part of the mind. Every thought has a great inherent power; it affects our physiology, moods, physical body, responses, work efficiency, relationships and even wisdom. The modern day epidemic problem of stress is basically a problem at the level of mind, wherein a great negative emotion has been allowed to build up without giving it a vent.

Patanjali, in his yoga sutras, defines yoga as the ability to control the fluctuations in the mind-field. Only through controlling the mind can we experience our true inner peace and joy. The main techniques that are recommended for attaining this peaceful state of the mind are pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration) and meditation. Regular, uninterrupted practice of meditation, when done with a sense of total devotion, can bring about a total transformation in one"s personality and provide lasting peace and freedom from stress.

Vijnanamaya Kosha (Intellect/Intuition sheath)

The Vijnanamaya kosha is the sheath of the intellect (buddhi) and intuitive knowledge/wisdom. Our intellect gives us the discriminative capability that helps her differentiate between good and evil, between right and wrong etc. The intellect can be looked upon as having two components " one that is controlled by our ego and driven by our past memories and impressions (samskaras) and the other which is controlled by our pure intuition. The ego-driven intellect can lead to actions which result in pain and suffering while actions driven by pure intuition will give us satisfaction and happiness.

Through the practices of meditation etc, as stated above, our mind becomes purified and the intellect can then begin to depend more and more on the pure intuitive wisdom rather than be influenced by the ego.

Anandamaya Kosha (Bliss sheath)

The Sanskrit word "ananda" means bliss or pure joy. When we can transcend the other four layers described above, we can begin to experience a sense of pure joy which does not need any sensory input or any of the past experiences or impressions. This layer is the closest to our true "self" which is ever pure and ever-unchanging. We can experience this bliss as a result of "samadhi", the last of the eight limbs of Patanjali"s yoga philosophy. Of course, to get there one has to practice the other seven limbs on a regular basis.