When Less is More

Make more time for doing the things you love by simplifying your life.

By Helena Echlin (originated posted here in Yoga Journal)

simple flower arrangementJudy Davis never buys anything new if she can help it. A 58-year-old freelance marketing consultant who lives in Red Bluff, California, she favors thrift store clothing and secondhand furniture. Instead of buying gifts, she gives plants from her garden or bags she has sewn from cut-up vintage gowns. Judy is part of a Bay Area group called the Compact. The Compacters have vowed not to buy anything new for a year except bare essentials: food, medicine, cleaning products, and underwear (although not, of course, lingerie from Paris). Although few people take frugality quite as seriously as the Compacters do, more and more of us are voluntarily cutting back on buying and consumption. Many individuals choosing this lifestyle happen to be yogis. The seminal work of yoga philosophyPatanjali’s Yoga Sutra, frowns on materialism, and some yogis find that their asana practice alone helps them be happier with less.

The pursuit of the simple life is nothing new, of course. From Quakers to Transcendentalists, America has always had its share of those who associate simplicity with spiritual growth. Back-to-the-land hippies of the ’60s and ’70s found simplicity appealing for more secular reasons, such as ecological sustainability. But those who practice pared-down living today are not necessarily spiritual ascetics or off-the-grid granola types. Most are ordinary people modifying their everyday behavior-trying to be conscious about what they eat, drive, and buy.

In the past 15 years, “voluntary simplicity,” as it is called, has gained thousands of converts. Many books on the subject have been published, such as Janet Luhrs’s The Simple Living Guide, Cecile Andrews’s Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life, and Linda Breen Pierce’sChoosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World. Dozens of websites have sprung up, and nonprofits like Seeds of Simplicity and Simple Living America champion the cause. When the Compacters publicized their manifesto in January 2006, their Yahoo group swelled from about 50 in February to 1,225 in July, with members across America.

Most spiritual traditions encourage simple living, and yoga is no exception. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali< laid out the yamas (moral restraints) and niyamas (observances), a set of 10 principles that are crucial to one’s progress along the yogic path. One of the yamas is aparigraha, often translated as “greedlessness.” But it means more than just taking only what you need, explains David Frawley, founder and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies and author of Yoga and the Sacred Fire. Aparigraha also means “not having a lot of unnecessary things around yourself and not hankering after what other people have,” Frawley says. In other words, aparigraha also means keeping only what you need and wanting only what you need.

Read more here.

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Does Spiritual Practice need to follow a system?

By Richard Rosen  (originally posted here in Yoga Journal)

Yoga poseOften in spiritual literature, you’ll find the image of a boat used to symbolize the spiritual path.

The reasoning runs like this: Just as a boat is used to cross a river and is then left behind once the far shore is reached, so too is a spiritual system used to cross the “river” of self-ignorance and then abandoned when self-realization is achieved. Spiritual practice is a means to an end.

“We are having to learn [spirituality] by prescription, because we are not sensitive to whatever is natural in us,” says Swami Veda Bharati, author of a detailed commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Once you recognize your authentic Self, he notes, the “whole yoga practice will come to you.” At that moment, we no longer need the system and can “throw it away.” We can sail on, in other words, without our boat.

There are some teachers who pooh-pooh the idea of a specific spiritual process altogether. The late Indian sage J. Krishnamurti, for example, uttered the famous dictum “Truth is a pathless land.” These teachers maintain that a system—any system—is actually an impediment to a successful river crossing. Why? Because each one—no matter how comprehensive at first glance—is inherently limited. When we’re looking at the world from the deck of any spiritual boat, we’re seeing only the view it affords us and not the fullness of what’s really there.

But many teachers are in favor of a system, especially for beginners. It’s like a map to an unfamiliar city, they say—without it, we’d wander around lost and confused. An established process shows us where we are and where we want to go. It points us in the right direction and may indicate some of the detours and dead ends we may encounter along the way. Just as a map tracks bus routes, a spiritual system gives us the means—by way of a time-tested set of practices—to arrive at our hoped-for destination.

So does a system have value or doesn’t it? Tradition has an answer. In the early stages of spiritual practice, some kind of procedure is most certainly indispensable. As our practice progresses, as Bharati notes, we learn to listen to and trust our own inner voice. Then a system becomes less essential. In the end, all systems drop away—we step out of the boat—and we continue our journey “without means” (anupaya), in the realization of our authentic Self.

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What Science Can Teach Us About Flexibility

BY FERNANDO PAGÉS RUIZ  |  Originated published here in Yoga Journal

FlexibilityYJIf you’re already practicing yoga, you don’t need exercise scientists and physiologists to convince you of the benefits of stretching. Instead, you’d probably like them to tell you if there’s anything in their flexibility research that can help you go deeper in your asanas. For example, when you fold into a forward bend and are brought up short by the tightness in the back of your legs, can science tell you what’s going on? And can that knowledge help you go deeper?

The answer to both questions is “Yes.” A knowledge of physiology can help you visualize the inner workings of your body and focus on the specific mechanisms that help you stretch. You can optimize your efforts if you know whether the tightness in your legs is due to poor skeletal alignment, stiff connective tissues, or nerve reflexes designed to keep you from hurting yourself. And if you know whether any uncomfortable sensations you feel are warnings that you’re about to do damage, or whether they’re just notices that you’re entering exciting new territory, you can make an intelligent choice between pushing on or backing off—and avoid injuries.

In addition, new scientific research may even have the potential to extend the wisdom of yoga. If we understand more clearly the complex physiology involved in yogic practices, we may be able refine our techniques for opening our bodies.

Why Stretch?

Of course, yoga does far more than keep us limber. It releases tensions from our bodies and minds, allowing us to drop more deeply into meditation. In yoga, “flexibility” is an attitude that invests and transforms the mind as well as the body.

But in Western, physiological terms, “flexibility” is just the ability to move muscles and joints through their complete range. It’s an ability we’re born with, but that most of us lose. “Our lives are restricted and sedentary,” explains Dr. Thomas Green, a chiropractor in Lincoln, Nebraska, “so our bodies get lazy, muscles atrophy, and our joints settle into a limited range.”

Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we got the daily exercise we needed to keep our bodies flexible and healthy. But modern, sedentary life is not the only culprit that constricts muscles and joints. Even if you’re active, your body will dehydrate and stiffen with age. By the time you become an adult, your tissues have lost about 15 percent of their moisture content, becoming less supple and more prone to injury. Your muscle fibers have begun to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links that prevent parallel fibers from moving independently. Slowly our elastic fibers get bound up with collagenous connective tissue and become more and more unyielding. This normal aging of tissues is distressingly similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather. Unless we stretch, we dry up and tan! Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. It pulls the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and helps muscles rebuild with healthy parallel cellular structure.

Remember the cheesy ’70s sci-fi flick in which Raquel Welch and her miniaturized submarine crew get injected into someone’s bloodstream? To really grasp how Western physiology can benefit asana practice, we need to go on our own internal odyssey, diving deep into the body to examine how muscles work.

Muscles are organs—biological units built from various specialized tissues that are integrated to perform a single function. (Physiologists divide muscles into three types: the smooth muscles of the viscera; the specialized cardiac muscles of the heart; and the striated muscles of the skeleton—but in this article we’ll focus only on skeletal muscles, those familiar pulleys that move the bony levers of our bodies.)

The specific function of muscles, of course, is movement which is produced by muscle fibers, bundles of specialized cells that change shape by contracting or relaxing. Muscle groups operate in concert, alternately contracting and stretching in precise, coordinated sequences to produce the wide range of movements of which our bodies are capable.

In skeletal movements, the working muscles—the ones that contract to move your bones—are called the “agonists.” The opposing groups of muscles—the ones that must release and elongate to allow movement—are called the “antagonists.” Almost every movement of the skeleton involves the coordinated action of agonist and antagonist muscle groups: They’re the yang and yin of our movement anatomy.

But although stretching—the lengthening of antagonist muscles—is half the equation in skeletal movement, most exercise physiologists believe that increasing the elasticity of healthy muscle fiber is not an important factor in improving flexibility. According to Michael Alter, author of Science of Flexibility (Human Kinetics, 1998), current research demonstrates that individual muscle fibers can be stretched to approximately 150 percent of their resting length before tearing. This extendibility enables muscles to move through a wide range of motion, sufficient for most stretches—even the most difficult asanas.

If your muscle fibers don’t limit your ability to stretch, what does? There are two major schools of scientific thought on what actually most limits flexibility and what should be done to improve it. The first school focuses not on stretching muscle fiber itself but on increasing the elasticity of connective tissues, the cells that bind muscle fibers together, encapsulate them, and network them with other organs; the second addresses the “stretch reflex” and other functions of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. Yoga works on both. That’s why it’s such an effective method for increasing flexibility.

—— Read more here on Yoga Journal.