Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

I Went To The Woods

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” are Thoreau’s famous words.  He could have easily said it a different way, and may have, had he been part of a different culture or from a different time.  He could have said that he went to the woods in order to sacrifice the modern conveniences of a busy society to gain clarity, the chance for intense introspection, and submission to the inherent interconnectedness of nature.  Had Thoreau wanted to simplify his writing, for easy memorization, he could have boiled it down to sacrifice, study, and surrender – the three ingredients of Patanjali’s Kriya Yoga.

tapas svadhyaya isvara pranidhana – sacrifice study surrender


I went to the woods recently.  Going into nature is, well, second nature to me.   It is something that I have done since I was young.  It is not something I ever appreciated as special, until I came to New York City.  It is a daily sacrifice to live in New York City and as with any sacrifice something is expected in return.  The New Yorker’s willingness to live in small cramped spaces, polluted settings, and noisy environs gives them access to some of the best food, services, fabulous entertainment, and fascinating people.  Living in New York is a constant stimulation of the senses and that outpouring of power (the Sanskrit word for sense, indriya, can be translated as power) is draining.  The sacrifice of going to the woods, living without services, taking in simple pleasures, and being amongst few people is far less draining of power and serves to encourage the calmness required to reflect, withdraw, and study one’s own place in the world.

Reflection and study take time and space.  Multitasking is a fool’s errand and, most especially when it comes to concentration, is impossible for the mind.  It is this very limitation of mind, its inability to be conscious of both itself and another at the same time, that separates it so resolutely from what is commonly referred to as the soul (see the 4th chapter, sutra 20 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras).  Nature tends to take care of itself, letting nothing go to waste and completing most of its processes with slow deliberation.  This is in direct contrast to the bustling city, which requires constant maintenance from its residents and demands an exacting break neck pace of change.  Where is the opportunity for self reflection and deep study amongst the general crazy of the modern metropolis?  Certainly, the opportunity is there, but it can be like hunting a snake in the grass – difficult and possibly detrimental to one’s health. 

We, us tiny human beings, do not cause the sun to rise each day, nor the wind to blow, or the tides to ebb.  Yet we attempt to control these events.  We have invented artificial lights, fans, and swimming pools all in an effort to control that which was never meant to be under our control.  So we play our little games, hoping against hope to win.  How could we win?  We are playing against the playing field.  There are no laws, no rulebooks, no judge and jury in nature.  There is only submission, that great surrender to your own interconnectedness.  It becomes so obvious as you hike up a mountain, swim in a waterfall, or walk through the forest; you are not alone, nor have you ever been alone.  You are utterly connected to everything, this has always been and always will be – there are no beginnings and there are no ends.  And isn’t that comforting?

Go.  Take a walk through the woods.  Listen to the birds sing and the chipmunks chatter.  Stub your toe on a loose rock.  Scream and shout to your heart’s content and receive nothing in reply.  Find a high spot to survey the surroundings like an eagle.  It will allow you to, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” so that when the time comes for the greatest change you will not, “discover that I had not lived.” -Thoreau


Lost In Translation

The other day I was giving a lecture on yoga philosophy (or at least my version thereof).  I posed the question:  “What does yoga mean?” and I received the expected answers of union, to yoke, peace, oneness, etc. 

None were the answers I was looking for and to be quite honest it was a nasty trick question that I was asking.

I rephrased my question:  “How would you translate the word yoga?” and received much the same response.  Again, not what I was looking for.  Again, a trick question.

The answer is – drum roll please:  “Yoga means yoga.”  It’s a simple answer, if a bit obtuse. 

A word must be experienced to have meaning.

Yoga is a word originating in another language (Sanskrit) that is used in the English, just like sushi is a Japanese word used in the English.  I developed my personal definition of sushi by trying sushi.  The word sushi causes various images to jump into my mind and feelings to rush through my system.  Just hearing the word sushi can cause me to salivate.  My personal definition of sushi – as a once in a while sushi eater living in New York City who has never traveled to Japan – is going to be different from that of a Japanese native who eats sushi often and it is also going to be different from the unlucky person who tried sushi once and got food poisoning.  All of our experiences are going to color and shape our own personal definition of the word and certainly be much more genuine for us than that of our dear friend Merriam Webster:  “a Japanese dish of cold cooked rice shaped in small cakes and topped or wrapped with other ingredients (such as pieces of raw fish),” and that’s just fine.   

Let's consider a term a bit more broad.  A word from my mother tongue.  The word "mother" holds meaning for me as I'm sure it does for you.  This meaning is of vast scope and most definitely eclipses Google’s:  “noun.  a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth.”  I could write for pages about the word mother and what it means to me.  I guarantee that if my brother and I (we share the same mother - I have to clarify that because not all brothers are of the same mother) were to both write up the meaning of mother our compositions would agree and disagree and possibly be paradoxical.  The meaning of mother is fully subjective.  It is colored by experiences with mothers directly and by how culture portrays the term mother in general.

Meaning can change.

My mother told me about sushi before I had ever tried it:  “It’s raw fish, gross, we don’t eat that.”  So for a while the meaning of sushi, for me, was based on second (possibly third) hand knowledge and involved general yuckiness and prohibition.   I had no reason to doubt my mother because the meaning of mother, for me, involves a woman who is more knowledgeable than I am and who is always looking out for my best interests.  I eventually tried sushi for myself and the meaning of the word radically changed for me – both mentally and physically (remember the saliva I mentioned earlier).  This also necessitated I make a slight change to the meaning of the word mother.  I’ve had more sushi throughout the years and each experience has changed the meaning for me.  I’ve also had experiences with that which is not sushi, but that is masquerading as sushi.  Had my first experience with sushi been with false sushi I would probably have been fooled, but since I’ve had so many experiences with real sushi I am now confident I can single out the fakes.  What if I’m wrong?  What if all this time all my experiences with "real sushi" were actually experiences with "fake sushi"?  This is possible, but not probable.  It is not probable because those I trust around me, my relations, my community, my satsang (a Sanskrit word), my sangha (a Sanskrit and Pali word) generally agree with me on the meaning of sushi, though our meaning comes from many different experiences.

Yoga means yoga.

If you want to know the meaning of yoga you will have to experience it for yourself.  
If you want to know the meaning of samadhi (“cognitive absorption” or “to put in place perfectly”), which means yoga, you will have to experience it for yourself.
If you want to know the meaning of citta vrtti nirodah (“stopping the fluctuations of the mind” or “stilling the mind” or “controlling the mind stuff”), which means yoga, you will have to experience it for yourself.

If you want to use yoga to attain yoga you will have to do it yourself.  

Get out there!  Talk to people that have more experience with yoga than you do (maybe even your mother).  Do some yoga, whatever that means.  Acquire enough experience of yoga with the help of enough knowledgeable people that you can separate real yoga from fake yoga.  Build a relationship with your yoga.  Work on this relationship for a long time, without interruption always dedicated to finding truth.

Oh……. And don’t hold onto that truth you find too rigidly.  Most likely it’ll change.

Post Scriptum

Words are powerful.

Yawn………………….that is a word…………………have you yawned yet?  I bet you will soon.  The world yawn is so powerful that just by seeing it or hearing it you are quite likely to have a physical reaction, namely a yawn.

Be careful with the words you use.

The Radical Life

My teacher says that yoga practice is radical.  And so it is. 

I did a quick Google search:  radical (the adjective) relates to or affects the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching and thorough.  Some of its synonyms are:  complete, exhaustive, extensive, profound, and rigorous

Yes, yoga is radical.  Yoga requires the rigorous study of your own mind – the thoughts, emotions, personality, sense of individuality, and conscience.  Through its various techniques it aims to clarify the mental field so that one can look at the world objectively rather than subjectively.  By seeing clearly compassion wins out over anger, hate, and indifference.

Compassion:  a feeling of sympathy coupled with a desire to alleviate suffering.

We all suffer, every single last one of us.  In fact, we all make the choice to suffer.  We could all make the choice not to suffer.  It is such an easy thing to say, and such a difficult thing to do.



Fear is a basic building block of the human experience.  It comes in so many forms and intensities.  All fear boils down to a loss of individuation; a loss of what is mine verses what belongs to another.  Fear is the threat of loss; whether it be my corporeal body, my free will, my possessions, my personality, my way of life, or anything that I have decided is mine (including the I in mine).  Yoga asks us to go beyond fear, in essence to become super-human.

My happiness is my responsibility.

No one except me can make me happy.  The shining jewel of bliss lies within, but it is covered with dirt.  While I’ve done some cleaning in my time here as Michael, The Human, I’ve also added some dirt.  My radical goal, the goal of my yoga practice, is to remove more dirt than I add to allow the light of bliss to shine through just a bit more.  No one can do this cleaning for me, with the possible exception of God, and in the case of God I would need to politely request it and then (more difficult) acquiesce to the process (not likely given my fear of losing my free will and way of life).  So I must engage in the radical practice of yoga, the thoroughly extreme practice of going back to the fundamental root of being. 

Working with what I’ve got.


I have a body, which houses my mind.  The best chance for my mind to become clear, insightful, and content is with a healthy body.  I live in a society, which influences my mind.  The best chance for my mind to remain calm, collected, and free of pain is to help others in society better themselves, thereby uplifting society in general.  I make choices constantly and those choices affect me, all of me.  I will study my choices and listen to the advice of those that I trust and those with more experience than me, with the aim of always improving my own condition.  I will be patient and compassionate with myself.

What is the next step on this radical journey?

Every journey is made up of a multitude of tiny steps.  Each step counts, whether it be forward, backward, or sideways.  We can choose to move quickly or slowly, or some combination of the two.  I’m about to go cook for myself with ingredients that are wholesome and sourced to my satisfaction.  What step are you taking?   

I'm Celibate

Firstly, no, I’m not celibate.... or maybe I am. If I were I certainly wouldn’t tell you. If I were to take a vow of brahmacharya – celibacy – it would be a personal choice and none of your business. Furthermore, it’s none of your business whether I’m vegetarian or not, if I cheat on my taxes, or if I own more than one home.

Brahmacharya is one of the 5 yamas, or vows, listed as the first limb of Patanjali’s 8-fold path, ashtanga yoga. Brahmacharya is the fourth yama and is, perhaps, the most varied in its interpretations. The other four yamas are ahimsa – not harming –, satya – telling the truth - , asteya – not stealing -, and aparigraha – not grasping. Brahmacharya has been interpreted to mean (amongst other things):  strict celibacy, not having sex outside of wedlock, only having sex for procreative purposes, having respect for your sexual partner(s), and/or not using sexual persuasion to influence others.

Why so many interpretations? Because all the yamas can be taken to varying degrees of intensity.

To what degree should you take Brahmacharya? This is a question only you can answer. Only you know what you are ready for. Brahmacharya goes more than skin deep. A vow of continence is mental, emotional, and physical. Simple abstention from sexual contact is not enough; sexual thought and feelings are also violations of a strict vow of Brahmacharya. Try to deny yourself anything before you are properly prepared and you will end up fetishizing it. This is pretty easy to see when someone takes a strict vow of ahimsa – not harming – before they are ready. Ever met a vegan who can’t stop talking about how awesome it is to be a vegan? Within the space of one brunch you find out, without the slightest inquiry on your part, why they are a vegan, how long they’ve been vegan, and various reasons why you should become vegan. This is why the bottomless Bloody Mary was invented (which, if made traditionally, is not vegan). Deprivation of food without proper preparation leads to an obsession with food and deprivation of sexual function can lead to an unhealthy obsession with sex.  Obsession does not lead to clarity of mind, quite the opposite.

Brahmacharya will come naturally as you progress in yoga practice. Yoga practice drives us to go more and more internal with our awareness, ever seeking out the unadulterated bliss that lies within. The more internal we go the less we are concerned with the external. Acts of external sensory stimulation, like sex, become banal at best. As the relationship with internal bliss becomes more profound and satisfying both external pleasure and pain become dull in comparison. The eventual leaving off of sexual thought, feeling, and act is quite normal, even trivial, when proper preparatory work has been done.

When you are ready for Brahmacharya you will feel no need to tell your friends and family; it’s doubtful the topic would ever come up in conversation. It would be highly irregular for anyone to even make sexual advances towards you, given your natural lack of desire. You won’t be returning any flirtatious glances, idle conversation with soft sexual overtones will be easily avoided, and the bump and grind of the dance floor will seem lack luster and a waste of time.

So please, don’t feel the need to tell me or anyone else that you are a practicing Brahmachari. If you are true and sincere in your vow of Brahmacharya we will have already noticed.

PS. The current exchange rate of retained seminal fluid to nectar of immortality is so low that it’s probably not worth your time.

What is Ashtanga? The Long Version

Mysore Ashtanga practice typically starts with a mantra. Eight simple lines in Sanskrit are chanted by thousands of people across the globe before they begin their daily yoga practice.  Many mornings “vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde” are the first words to pass my lips. Repeating the mantra morning after morning over the years has imbued it with a special power – the power to bring my mind into focus and transform any space from mundane to specially set apart for the task at hand. The task at hand is breathing and moving at its most basic level and complete mental absorption at its most intense. 

vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde
I give honor and respect to the teachers, bowing down to their lotus feet

Sharath in NYC

Sharath in NYC

Ashtanga Yoga is a lineage based system and as such the exact method of practice is passed down directly from teacher to student. The only way to learn how to practice ashtanga is to study with someone who learned how to practice ashtanga from someone who learned how to practice ashtanga……….and so on.

The practice cannot be learned from a book, though there are good books on the subject, and cannot be learned from videos, though there are a plethora of videos on the subject. The importance of the student teacher relationship cannot be stressed enough. The current lineage holder, R. Sharath Jois, resides in Mysore, India where he teaches the ashtanga method at the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI). Sharath teaches the way his grandfather, Pattabhi Jois, taught him, who in turn taught the way he learned the method from the great T. Krishnamacharya, a veritable legend of a man in the yoga world. KPJAYI is only entity in the world to keep a list of teachers with permission from Sharath to teach the ashtanga yoga method.  Any teacher with the blessing of KPJAYI will have made several extended trips to India to study, in addition to their own “self practice” which is expected to be daily.   

The revealed knowledge of one’s essential Self, which brings joy

The Mysore Style of teaching cultivates a self-practice within each student. The ashtanga system is comprised of postures done in a specific order to special breathing technique.  The postures and their order coupled with the breathing technique are taught to each student individually. When the student becomes proficient in what he or she has learned the teacher adds more postures to her or his daily self-practice. 

A random moment in the Mysore R===

A random moment in the Mysore R===

Walking into a Mysore Style ashtanga practice can look like pandemonium to a new student.  Everyone is breathing at their own individual pace, working on different postures of the sequence, and focusing on their own practice.  The room is often silent except for the sound of inhale and exhale with the exception of the teacher who roams the room explaining, clarifying, giving physical adjustments and support.  Learning to practice through this method builds the student’s confidence in her or his ability to practice with or without the support of a teacher and group of fellow practitioners. Cultivating a self-practice, done to one’s own breath, with full concentration on the task at hand engenders curiosity towards introspection.  With consistent practice knowledge of one’s own essential being can be gained.  

niḥśreyase jāṅgalikāyamāne
(this knowledge is) beyond the best – without comparison, acting like the jungle physician
saṁsāra hālāhala moha śāntyai
pacifies the most deadly poison of conditioned existence

Ashtanga systematically works strengthen and heal the body, control the breath and nervous system, and calm the mind. The sequence of postures is intelligently designed to build muscle, increase range of motion, and improve the actions of the internal organs. Anyone willing to put forth consistent effort can practice ashtanga regardless of body type, fitness level, or special consideration.  The practice will always meet the student at his or her level and encourage a steady progression towards new horizons. Consistent practice leads to a strong body, controlled nervous system, and steady mind.  The skills and self-awareness gleaned from sweat and toil on the yoga mat can be used in all parts of life. There is no end to the ashtanga journey, only a beginning.

abāhu puruṣākāraṁ
In the form of a man to the shoulders

śaṁkhacakrāsi dhāriṇam
Holdinga conch, a discus, and a sword

sahasra śirasaṁ śvetaṁ
Having one thousand shining white head

praṇamāmi patañjalim
I bow to Patanjali


The word ashtanga – eight limbs - comes from the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of the sage Patanjali. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is one of the definitive texts on yoga.  T. Krishnamacharya went so far as to say that if it is not contained in the Yoga Sutras then it is not yoga. This eight-limbed path of yoga is comprised of moral ethics, posture practice, breath control, inward focus, and mental control - to put things simply. The sage Patanjali is traditionally depicted as man up to the shoulders with a thousand shining white serpentine heads.  The serpent, a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, is held in reverence in India.  Patanjali’s thousand heads illustrate his need and ability to impart knowledge in many different ways to many different people.  The sage holds a conch used to trumpet the primordial sound of creation, a discus to sever the ego, and a sword signifying his knowledge of ultimate truth.  The Yoga Sutras have survived 2,000 years and continue to inform and define yoga practice today.

Tradition is held in reverence in the ashtanga system.  Ashtangis adhere to a lunar calendar for their practice, taking both new moon and full moon days off to rest. Teachers present and past are honored and respected for the knowledge they are spreading by continuing to teach the method as it has been taught to them, without creative deviation. In no way does this commitment to tradition cause the practice to stagnate. The ashtanga practice develops a different way in every committed student. Each practitioner comes to truth after his or her own fashion. Liberation from suffering is guaranteed; it is only a matter of time.  

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois