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Training in the Ashtanga Vinyasa system as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (and now by his grandson Sharath) is very physical as only with daily physical practice would the other seven limbs (Anga) of Ashtanga (Ashta = eight, Anga = limb) become apparent.  Sri Jois always called his system “Patanjali’s Yoga” after the legendary ancient sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras in which these eight limbs (Yama Niyama Asana Pranayama Pratyahara Dharana Dhyana Samadhayo ‘Stavangani:  II-29) appear.  Slowly over time with daily practice (Abyasa Vairagyabhyam Tannirodhah:  I-12;  the mind reaches the state of yoga through practice and detachment) the yogi cultivates awareness of the first two limbs – Yama (restraints) and Niyama (observances) which are the Ten Commandments of Yoga – which support the third limb of Asana (the physical postures) and lead by natural progression to the other limbs of Pranayama (breath/energy control), Pratyahara (restraint of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dyana (meditation), and Samadhi (equilibrium, union with the Divine, state of bliss.  

How can a physical practice lead to good behavior, healthy lifestyle, meditation, and even enlightenment?  The concept of “tristhana”, the three parts of the practice, involve yoking the posture, the breath, and the gaze to train the mind to focus on the practice itself and withdraw for a time from the frenetic pace of daily life.   At first the mind may wander, become bored or distracted, or even rebel against the performance of a fixed series of postures six days per week with only full and new moons, Saturdays, and major religious holidays off.  Continuing to practice through these challenges develops fortitude, determination, “tapas” (one of the Niyamas, from the root word for fire or heat) and eventually the mind becomes trained and disciplined rather than scattered and distractible while the body becomes strong, supple, and balanced.

When one becomes immersed in yoga practice, it becomes easier over time to reduce and eliminate habits which interfere with that practice.  The Yamas (Ahimsa/non-harming, Satya/truth, Asteya/non-stealing, Brahmacharya/moderation, Aparigraha/non-greed) and Niyamas (Shaucha/purity, Santosha/contentment, Tapas/dedication, Svadhyaya/study of the Self, Ishwaripranidhana/surrender to the Divine) slowly evolve from seemingly austere and difficult to follow “laws” to guidelines for healthy living to a seamlessly integrated and easily practiced lifestyle.  Once the body is no longer plagued by frequent illness, injury, or disease the mind then naturally begins to turn inward via the other limbs.

So what do these Yamas and Niyamas mean for the modern human (yogi or non yogi)?  For example, Ahimsa, non-harming or non-violence, is usually taken to mean that the yogi’s diet must be vegetarian but what if that body seems to require meat or other animal products and declines with a strictly vegan regimen?  Simply switching from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian or vegan one “cold turkey” (pun intended) might cause harm to that body if the primary replacement involves large amounts of improperly prepared soy protein.  Many cultures in Southeast Asia have traditionally followed a more vegetarian diet which included some sea foods or dairy products and so have over time found a balanced approach which provides enough nutrients to sustain life (even then, most vegetarians become deficient in B12 which is most easily assimilated from animal foods);  Sri Jois lived into his 90’s and his guru, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, both vegetarians from birth, died at the ripe old age of 101.  But those whose ancestors regularly consumed animal products (ie European, some African, or Native American descent) including meat, may have different dietary requirements but those following their traditional diets also often lived long and healthy lives.  

 Yoga’s “sister science” of Ayurveda provides some insight into these differences using the theory of the “doshas”:  Kapha dosha being a combination of the heaviest of the Five Great Elements (Pancha Mahabhuta) would be most benefitted by the lighter vegetarian or vegan diet as they need to balance their tendencies towards gaining weight when consuming heavier animal foods.  Vata dosha, being a combination of the lightest of the Elements would be depleted by that same diet and would most benefit from the heavier animal foods (though well cooked as Vata digestion can be irregular or weak).  Pitta dosha, being high in Fire Element which relates to digestion, can often eat anything (lucky Pitta!) but must be careful not to aggravate that same Fire or suffer consequences like acid reflux.

A body in balance with balanced digestion will experience good health, and more important than whether the diet is vegetarian (or not) is whether the diet is “clean” – the first of the Niyamas, Shaucha, requires purity of food, speech, and even thought.  A vegan who consumes conventional soy and other plant foods is possibly ingesting pesticides and herbicides applied to the crop while in the field;  if that soy is also genetically engineered (ie “RoundUp Ready”) the crop may have had higher amounts of toxic chemicals applied plus there may be evidence that the gene inserted into the soybean (which “tells” the plant to create pesticides to kill the pests) just might transfer to human gut flora, ie the microbes that help us digest our food may now be creating pesticides in our gut instead (thus driving an increasing epidemic of serious gut disorders like Crohn’s Disease).  Even more disturbing is the fact that industrial production of soy to feed consumer demand is causing devastating changes in ecosystems where it is farmed;  our very quest to consume a “clean” diet free of harming animals while promoting our physical health is causing harm to the planet and thus violates that first Yama of Ahimsa!

If the animal destined to become food lives a happy life eating its natural diet and allowed its normal behaviors, then is dispatched quickly so it feels no pain or fear, would that meat be a cleaner, more compassionate food than the chemically saturated mono-cropped rainforest-destroying plant food?  If the human eats a diet that keeps his body healthy and mind happy and practices in a way that minimizes harm to himself and others while not being “perfect”, is he not the better yogi than the one who is consuming a diet that is not supportive to his practice because of a lack of nutrients or inability to digest them in addition to destroying the environment in which it’s grown?

As a teacher of yoga rooted in the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga I strive to help my own students find their own path most suitable for their growth and development which may change over time and with practice.  It may be that at this moment some students feel no need to eliminate animal foods while others feel compelled by their beliefs to become vegan;  perhaps their nutritional requirements change over time as the vegan begins to crave animal foods as their bodies become depleted while the omnivore is gradually able to eat more “veggie” most of the time.  As one who has tried to be a “good yogi” for over 20 years it has become a part of my practice to follow Ahimsa by not judging myself for my own shortcomings while remaining understanding of others’ attempts to do the same.

“Without practice, theory is useless;  with practice, theory is obvious.”  David Williams, early student of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois



3 Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras Translation and Commentary by DKV Desikachar pg 43

4 ibid pg7











Breathe in the clear autumn air
and know that spring is hiding in the fallen leaves…..
Out of death comes new life.

Hawk in my yard...

looking for lunch

The hawk came back to my yard today, picking out a nice fat mourning dove to have for lunch. I wish it had grabbed one of the pigeons instead (those non-native rats-with-wings) but when ya gotta eat ya gotta eat!

Humans have become so out of touch with the natural rhythms of life in symbiosis with other creatures. We seal our homes against the outside air, add preservatives to our food and refrigerate/freeze/nuke it into oblivion, blast our eyeballs with light when we should be in bed, eat food out of season, and insist that humans feed themselves with highly processed fake foods even when it sickens and eventually kills them.

Traditional cultures hunted, gathered, and cultivated anything that was nourishing. Some peoples ate mostly starchy vegetables supplemented with fish and fatty coconuts, others ate mostly fat from the northern animals; each group ate what was available and figured out methods for naturally preserving foods for lean times. All of them had abundant energy for activities unaided by machinery.

Today many people eat mostly processed foods and have suffered greatly from it. Not only have they lost an intimate connection to Nature’s rhythms they have lost the knowledge of what food is, how it’s grown, how it’s harvested and prepared, even how real foods taste. When children don’t recognize a fruit or vegetable or understand where milk comes from is it any wonder that they are becoming diabetic and obese at younger and younger ages?

WAPF vendor

Pure Indian Foods

My recent attendance at the Weston A Price annual conference (this year in Valley Forge PA, or was it King of Prussia?) enabled me to listen to independent researchers, meet with vendors of truly natural foods (often small farmers or bakers), and dine on meals prepared from fresh local ingredients according the Weston Price guidelines for traditionally prepared foods. I must say that everything was delicious and while I really stuffed myself I never felt bloated like I do sometimes after eating out. Indeed, I feel fully nourished for the first time in a long time, like I would after eating a meal prepared by my MomMom (grandmother) on the family farm; she might go out in the yard and catch one of the chickens (you know what happens next) for dinner – chicken fried in lard, potatoes and peas grown right there. While I was upset that a chicken had to die I could not disagree that fresh chicken (or eggs, or veggies) tasted better.

Looking back over my life, I’ve noticed that at various times when my diet was less than optimal I would have “issues”: tooth decay (I admit I have always had a sweet tooth), headaches, sour moods. I always felt better physically and emotionally when my diet was cleaner. But something changed gradually over the years. Healthy eating began to have its definition redefined away from a variety of real foods that included whole fresh milk and other traditional foods and towards a more industrial and even pharmaceutical approach. It began to be said that it was impossible to get all of the required nutrients from food and we should add supplements. Traditional fats like lard and tallow, butter, whole milk, and even eggs began to be demonized.

Funny, the more I tried to eat from the new definition of “healthy” the fatter I got. Though I’ve never really been overweight (I was an aerobics instructor and lifted heavy weights during the week and rode my bike on weekends) I went from 105 pounds to 130 pounds in less than 10 years. I thought I was eating right, limiting my fat consumption and eating several small meals per day, eating protein bars full of soy because they were supposed to be good for me. Funnier still is that I began to shed the weight after becoming a dedicated yoga practitioner, giving up weight training and aerobics in favor of the Ashtanga method.

Once menopause hit my body went haywire: going off birth control pills (“you need to go through menopause ‘naturally’ ” said my gynecologist) allowed my body to tell me in no uncertain terms that it had no idea what ‘natural’ meant. Long story short, I ended up in surgery having my fibroids, endometriosis, and ovarian cysts removed. Embarking on a long quest to find out why I fell so far out of balance led me to the study of Ayurveda and the discovery of the powerful work of Dr. Weston A. Price, a 1930’s dentist who went looking for the answers to “why are all my patients so sick?”.

In a nutshell, it’s the diet. Independent research since at least the ’30’s shows that when people eat their traditional diets (whatever they are) and avoid processed “foods” they are healthy and happy people and rarely if ever fall prey to the diseases th which we have become accustomed. But when they begin eating a Westernized, processed, refined diet these same peoples fall prey to obesity, heart disease, mental illness, tooth decay, and more.

This is a reversible condition. Returning to natural foodways and relearning the wisdom traditions of following the cycles of sun and moon, getting to know the small family farmers and how our food crops and animals are raised will raise our consciousness about good food and lead us to remember the sacrifice of the living creatures that nourish us. We can taste with every bite the difference between the meat from a healthy animal raised humanely and allowed its natural behaviors and the meat from an unhealthy, unhappy animal raised in the cramped foul quarters of a factory “farm”.

And since we are what we eat, we can begin to understand the genesis of anger, greed, and discontent in the karmic fruit of our willful disobedience to the laws of Nature. In returning to our ancient traditions of honoring those we eat (from both animal and plant kingdoms) we will slowly relearn how to bring new life out of death.

July 2018
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