Excerpts from Kali's book, Beyond the Mat
Chapter 7: Just Say Yes
Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment…. Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life—and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”
During my first 10-day teacher training with Sri Dharma Mittra in New York City in 2007, I had to get up at 5:00 a.m. and commute for at least an hour on the F-train from Brooklyn, where I was staying, into Manhattan; spend 12 to 15 intense hours learning yoga; and then return late at night on the same train, which frequently incurred delays.
One night, after an unusually long wait on the subway platform, there was a garbled announcement saying that the F-train had stopped running; Brooklyn-bound commuters should go to another platform, take another train deeper into Manhattan, and – – -. The message trailed off.
Panicked, I wondered if I’d ever make it home. I started running down the stairs with other commuters. We stopped cold when another unintelligible announcement was made, telling us to do something completely different.
I started to run with the others and then stopped, not knowing where to go. At that moment, I realized that I could spend the night on the train if necessary, and it would be OK. Relieved, I took a breath and looked around. The woman next to me caught my eye and asked where I was headed. “Park Slope,” I said. “Me too,” she replied, smiling. “Let’s share a cab.”
Sometimes, when we accept a situation, it solves itself.
Indeed, much of our pain and suffering comes from having expectations about the way we think things will be, and they turn out differently (e.g., we plan a picnic and it rains). Instead of dealing with the situation, we resist it. When we do this, the mind often adds some old memories and starts churning out of control and putting us into what Eckhart Tolle in his 2005 book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, calls “the pain body.” Next thing you know, we’re miserable and taking everything personally.
“Why sometimes does life become so difficult?” asks Swami Vishnudevananda in his 2015 book, Teachings on Yoga Life. “What is the real difficulty? I will tell you. The difficulty is only in our mind. There are no difficulties. Many of us fight against the natural flow of life whether consciously, or even subconsciously, without knowing that we are struggling. But if we do this, our energy, our prana [vital life force], is eaten away by the fight. Others among us manage challenges easily because we may have already experienced enough difficulties in our lives to have come to an understanding that resistance brings suffering. Each one of us, teacher and student alike, has to eliminate the negativity in the mind, because otherwise it stays with us throughout our lifetime, and we lead an unfulfilled life.
When the opportunity arises to rid ourselves of negativity, we have the choice to surrender or to resist. To change by surrendering is not easy; it is like being burnt.
"Remember though, that once that moment of pain has gone, it has gone forever and we emerge stronger.”
In other words, surrendering can initially be painful and even feel a little frightening. But fighting the way things are causes more pain, not to mention a great loss of energy.
When we try to rush or control things, we fall out of the natural flow of life. This causes us to feel more separate from others, which thickens the ego (asmita, or ego, is the second klesha, or cause of pain and suffering, on the path of yoga) and makes us feel like we’re swimming upstream. Our consciousness and world contract, and we live in anger and fear.
In other words, resistance, or dvesha (aversion, the fourth klesha), only increases our suffering and makes us feel like the world is a hostile place.
When we accept what we cannot change and go with the flow—even if it’s initially difficult—the ego begins to thin. We feel open to life; we feel taken care of, and our consciousness expands. Fear is replaced by trust, and we start to feel surrounded by love.
We have an invitation to do this in every moment. Wonderful things are happening around us all the time if we’d just stop resisting what is, and pause to notice them.
Tolle calls it coming into presence. “When you recognize that the present moment is always already the case and therefore inevitable, you can bring an uncompromising inner ‘yes’ to it and so not only create no future unhappiness, but with inner resistance gone, find yourself empowered by Life itself,” he writes in A New Earth. This means sitting with the situation and any emotions it brings up, rather than fighting them.
Being in the present is sometimes referred to as flow. “It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were,” writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal 2008 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.”
“I think there’s a lot of similarity between what people try to do with religion and what they want from art,” musician Brian Eno once said. “In fact, I very specifically think that they are the same thing. Not that religion and art are the same, but that they both tap into the same need we have for surrender.”
Surrender to the will of the divine, or ishvara (also isvara) pranidhana, is the fifth niyama (observance) in Raja (Royal) yoga; it means constantly living with an awareness of one’s own true nature and surrendering to the will of the universe.
“Isvara pranidhana, or devotion to the all-knowing Isvara, is another method for obtaining Samadhi,” says Swami Satchidananda. “It is the emotional path which is easier than other methods … just surrender yourself unto Him, saying, ‘I am Thine; all is Thine; Thy will be done.’ The minute you have resigned yourself completely, you have transcended your ego.”
Surrender means to trust that life is unfolding exactly as it should be. A direct and practical way to surrender when things are difficult is to look at past problems and realize that things have always turned out for the best. (If they hadn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this.)
As Sri Dharma Mittra says, “Everything is moving perfectly.”
“Walking by faith means being prepared to trust where we are not yet permitted to see,” Chandra Om once said. “This kind of faith knows nothing of doubt, discouragement, or impossibilities, but solely in success and trust in God.”
Someone close to the Dalai Lama was once asked what he is like in person. “The smallest person in the room,” he replied. In other words, he has no agenda; there is no craving and no seeking or sense of entitlement. Just presence.
“We expect there to be some sort of prize, some sort of gift for us in the world out there,” writes Tony Parsons in his 2003 book, All There Is. “All the time we are looking for that, we are not seeing what is already there. Awakening is simply the dropping of looking for something. It’s the dropping of the one that seeks. That’s all it is.
“And once that acceptance is there, there is also an acceptance of the character, the character in the play, the ‘me.’ There is an acceptance of this body/mind organism that walks around on this stage. It is simply seen and taken in, in love. Once there is an acceptance of this character, then there is an acceptance of all the other apparent characters. It is seen that this is simply all the one manifesting.
“This is really what unconditional love is.”
Excerpted from Kali's book Beyond the Mat: Don't Just Do Yoga - Live It
Chapter 15: Warming Up to Fall Weather
"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower."
A friend who lives in San Francisco once told me that she feels cold much of the time and wears a down jacket to ward off the morning chill, even in the summer.
"What do you eat?" I asked.
Turns out the primary foods in her diet are lentil soup and salads. I suggested that she try swapping lightly steamed vegetables for the salads and start adding brown rice to her lentils (brown rice is warming) and then notice if it made a difference. Because what you eat affects how you feel.
In the northern climates, the cold season's dry wind and dipping temperatures can lead to a vata imbalance, or too much air or wind in the body. According to yoga's sister science, ayurveda, an overabundance of vata can manifest as dry skin; difficulty keeping warm; joint pain; anxiety and restlessness; weight loss; poor circulation; insomnia; rigid thinking; fearfulness; dizziness; or gas, flatulence, constipation, and other digestive problems.
In addition, many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during the dark months. SAD symptoms include low energy, depression, mood swings, oversleeping, overeating (especially a craving for high-carb foods), weight gain, and an overall feeling of hopelessness.
I tend towards the vata category; as soon as autumn hits, I get chilled easily, my skin becomes dry, my digestion slows down, my body becomes stiff, and my mind becomes anxious. That's when I know it's time to switch to my cold-weather diet and lifestyle.
I learned how to do this after ending up in the emergency room with blocked digestion several years ago; afterward I called my mentor, Chandra Om, founder of the Shanti Niketan Ashram and author of The Divine Art of Nature Cure. She made some suggestions that immediately restored me to health. Some of what follows was learned from her and from my guru, Sri Dharma Mittra; I've relied on my own experience and other sources as well.
Yoga is experiential, so don't take my word for any of these things. Try one or two for yourself, and see if they work. If they do, hang on to them. If not, let them go.
When cold weather hits, it can feel like something's stuck— and not just the bowels. That's when it's time to reignite the digestive fire. For centuries, yogis have done this—and cleaned the stomach—by drinking a cup of warm water with the juice of half a lemon first thing in the morning. In the cold months, a few sprinkles of cayenne pepper may be added to help heat things up. If you're feeling congested, add ginger and turmeric. The concoction
may be sweetened with maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, or whatever is handy.
It's important to eat at the same time each day, which is especially important for a vata imbalance. Avoid eating heavy food after 6:00 p.m. (eating heavy food late at night can interrupt sleep and make the body feel stiff and heavy in the morning). If your digestion is slow, avoid eating too much dairy, meat, wheat, or leftover/ processed food. Increase water intake and certain live foods such as pineapple, plums, spinach, and oranges to alleviate constipation, but avoid salads, which cool the digestive fire; substitute lightly steamed vegetables. (For more, read "The C Word: Help for Constipation").
You can also combat excessive vata energy with fresh (not leftover), moist, warming, grounding foods such as soup, stews made with root vegetables, and kitchari, a digestion-friendly stew made of moong dal and rice (see "Kitchari, Yoga's Wonder Food"). Just don't skimp on the oil, which lubricates your digestive system.
Try baked sweet potatoes slathered with ghee or olive oil, oatmeal with plump raisins that have been soaked in water for 20 minutes, or butternut squash soup. Cooking at home, rather than going out, will result in healthier meals. It's also a great way to warm up and reduce stress.
Use plenty of ghee or organic olive oil and warming spices such as cardamom, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, salt, cloves, mustard seed, basil, oregano, sage, tarragon, thyme, and black pepper. Avoid sprouts, salads, most beans, tofu, cabbage, popcorn, toast, crackers, chips, and any other cold or gas-producing foods. Limit coffee intake as well as barley, corn, millet, and rye.
If you have trouble sleeping, reduce your caffeine intake, and avoid it altogether after 3:00 p.m. Instead, try warming ginger tea.
To balance symptoms of vata, go to bed and get up at the same time each day, and build some downtime into your schedule. Add more bright and warming colors to your wardrobe and home. After attending my Beat the Winter Blues workshop, a student started using brightly colored plates in the winter and claimed that it immediately cheered her up. The most warming colors are red, orange, yellow, and pink. But any bright color will cheer you up (colors such as black, gray, and navy blue may be stylish, but they are not warming).
Wear warm clothes at home and outside. If you have trouble sleeping, try wearing a hat and socks (I do). If your house is drafty, invest in a safe space heater. I take mine with me from room to room when the temperature dips below zero, and unplug it when I leave.
Spend time outside whenever you can, even if it's just a walk to mail a letter. Nature is the great healer, and the sun's natural light— even on cloudy days—will give you a dose of vitamin D and help regulate your internal timeclock. Sit in the sun whenever possible (but protect your skin if you're staying out for a long time). If you can't go outside, visit a conservatory or botanic garden (or even a florist with a greenhouse). My friend and I did this during a particularly grueling winter, and the beautiful flowers and greenery immediately warmed us up, opened up our sinuses, and made us feel human again.
During the flu season, keep in mind that 99 percent of all illness is related to stress. Yoga of course is a wonderful de-stressor. But it's also important to weave regular periods of relaxation or "doing nothing" into our schedules. I call it "enforced periods of relaxation." It can be as simple as sleeping in once in a while, spending time in nature, or taking a longer savasana (final resting pose; see below).
To soothe the skin and joints and induce sleep, take a hot bath before bed. Pour in a few teaspoons of sesame oil (made from untoasted sesame seeds) and Epsom salt.
Don't neglect asana practice! If you're depressed or suffering from SAD, make sure you attend class; do not stay home and practice. Being with other people will remind you that you're not alone. Helpful poses for SAD include twists and backbends. In general, a more active practice (such as Ashtanga or Vinyasa) is recommended for those experiencing lethargy or depression.
If your digestion has stalled, be sure to include plenty of slow meditative twists, forward bends, deep squats, and belly-down backbends such as cobra, salabasana (locust), and dhanurasana (bow) to help get things moving. Traditional poses to aid digestion such as the half wind-relieving pose (with the thigh pressed into the belly) can also help. Do not skip savasana, and stay there for at least seven minutes.
Those who know bhastrika, or bellows breath, and positive breathing should include those as well. Deep breathing will also help (see "Change Your Breathing, Change Your Life"). Better yet, go to class so your teacher can show you these things in person.
That said, practice the first ethical rule of yoga—ahimsa, or nonharming—and stay away from class when you're sick and can infect others. In general, people are contagious one day before and two to three days after common cold symptoms appear, and for flu, it's one day before to a week after symptom onset, so consider doing a short, easy home practice and take rest if you're feeling run down.
And don't forget: If you can't breathe, it will be extremely difficult to practice yoga.
Excerpted from Kali Om's 2018 book Beyond the Mat: Don't Just Do Yoga - Live It.
Chapter 31: Make An Offering: Karma Yoga
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
Back in 2004, my asana practice at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, was focused on standing up from backbend. Sharath Jois, then assistant director of the institute, had told me that once I could do this consistently, I’d be able to practice Ashtanga’s intermediate series.
So, every day I’d practice primary series and try to stand up from backbends. One day, when this was exceptionally difficult, I found myself repeatedly falling down and was about to give up.
Then I looked over at the large images of Lord Ganesh and Lord Ram on the shala (studio) windows and silently addressed them: “This one is for you.”
Next thing I knew I was standing up, as if propelled by an unseen force.
On another day in Mysore, I felt like I was getting sick and went to my pharmacist for some medication. He gave me some digestion medication and said it should work within 24 hours. It did, and when I went back to thank him, he gestured towards the sky and said, “I did nothing.”
In other words, he was acting as an instrument of God—or the universe. Something similar had happened to me with backbends; on some level, I’d stopped struggling and let go of focusing on the outcome. I’d surrendered.
This is the path of Karma yoga, or selfless action, as outlined in the Bhagavad-Gita, which says, “To work, alone, you are entitled, never to its fruit. Neither let your motive be the fruit of action, nor let your attachment be to non-action.” This means that we should perform our duties without attachment since the outcome is not in our hands. It is similar to the Christian idea of “Thy will be done,” or aligning oneself with the universal or divine will.
Karma yoga is one of the four main paths of yoga and the easiest to follow for householders (lay persons) and those who are active in the world. It is said to be the quickest way to dissolve the ego or sense of separation, which is one of the things yogis believe keeps us from experiencing lasting peace and happiness. On a practical level, Karma yoga takes us out of our own heads and helps us see the common thread that binds everything together; it moves us from aloneness towards oneness.
In class, we can do this by offering our asana practice to something unselfish, such as dedicating it to someone who is suffering or to an ideal—or the highest practice of all: dedicating it to God or the Supreme Self (the spark of the divine that resides in every
“If you practice any aspect of yoga for selfish reasons, it’s not really yoga at all, according to the Bhagavad-Gita,” my guru, Sri Dharma Mittra, said in a February 2017 interview with Yoga Journal magazine. “Anytime we are able to make our practice an offering, our practice becomes really powerful. Experiencing this leads to lots of enthusiasm to pursue and keep at it. The secret of success in yoga practice is constant practice. Success in practice will lead to inner peace, which will have a great effect on everything, eventually leading to peace for all, everywhere.”
I once explained this concept to a group of yoga teacher trainees, and one of them jumped in with a personal example. A criminal defense attorney, he said that he practices a version of Karma yoga every day: he makes the best case he can before the judge and jury, and then must let go of the outcome, or verdict.
“The difference between regular action where there is always expectation and Karma Yoga is truly the mental attitude,” Sri Dharma Mittra said. As he explained in a 2012 interview, “When I first began doing Karma yoga, I had already heard that it had to be offered as a completely selfless action. In the beginning, even though it looks from the outside as though we renounce any physical benefits or rewards inherent in the actions we are supposedly offering to others, deep down inside we are always interested in spiritual rewards and there is always a ‘little string’ attached. As we grow and evolve spiritually, spend time near the Guru, gain more knowledge and are engaged in constant practice, we come to realize there should be no string at all. We expect nothing and hope to receive no spiritual benefits. With a little bit of Self-Knowledge and as we get a little bit closer to Self-realization, the ego disappears and automatically the Karma yoga becomes perfect and is performed without any expectation. We do everything because it has to be done for the sake of the Self, not expecting anything.”
There’s a wonderful story about oil magnate John D. Rockefeller meeting Swami Vivekananda in 1894. The swami said that the money Rockefeller had earned did not belong to him and suggested that he use it to do good in the world. Initially annoyed at the swami's brashness, Rockefeller returned a week later and showed him his plans to donate a large sum of money to a public institution— his first such effort—then waited for the swami to thank him. Instead, Swami Vivekananda said, “It is for you to thank me.”
In other words, Karma yoga does not mean making grand gestures and boasting about them in your bio or doing good for a tax deduction or to secure a wing of a hospital in your name; rather, service is done for the sake of service. My spiritual mother used to tell a story about waiting for a flight at the airport with Sri Dharma when someone near them became ill and began to vomit. Sri Dharma was quick to offer help before anyone else acted.
If you are ever feeling sorry for yourself or have a strong sense of entitlement, volunteering or donating money or helping someone in need can quickly transform those feelings into gratitude.
Karma yoga can also mean helping a spiritual teacher, fellow aspirant, or organization. On a very basic level, Karma yoga means serving others anonymously in small ways, whenever possible, such as letting someone go ahead of you in traffic, giving up your seat to an older person, blessing someone when they sneeze, giving a compliment, or praying or doing your spiritual practice for others.
Any activity—including one’s job—can be a form of Karma yoga. The important thing is to do it to the best of your ability and without attachment. (This does not mean you should stagnate in your work or not stand up for yourself or not ask for a raise or promotion when it is due; it means doing what is right and letting go of the results.)
Karma yoga has many benefits. Sri Dharma says it can be even better than meditation and is an essential step on the path towards liberation. “Acting in this way, one gradually loses all selfishness and notions such as: ‘I am the doer,’” he explained in a 2010 New Year’s message. “Thus comes total surrender of the ego. Why do selfless service? Because without it, there will be no union, absorption or Self-realization….”
In addition, according to the laws of karma and reincarnation, selfless action creates no new karma that must be paid back later. The Bhagavad-Gita says, “He who does actions, offering them to the Absolute and abandoning attachment, is free from error.” You may find that the more you give up doership of your actions (having the feeling that you are acting alone), the more the universe will start to work with you (rather than against you).
“There is nothing chaotic or capricious in this world,” said Swami Sivananda. “Things do not happen in this universe by accident or chance in a disorderly manner. They happen in regular succession and events follow each other in a regular order. There is a kind of definite connection between what is being done now by you and what will happen in the future. Sow always the seeds which will bring pleasant fruits and which will make you happy herein and hereafter.”
The Bhagavad-Gita translated by Swami Nikhilananda
Karma Yoga by Swami Vivekananda
Practice of Karma Yoga by Swami Sivananda
How Can I Help? by Ram Dass
volunteermatch.org or idealist.org
Excerpted from Kali's book Beyond the Mat: Don't Just Do Yoga - Live It
Kali's first trip to India
A return to India
Feels like the third time
An account of Kali's fourth trip to India
Kali's most recent trip to South India
An embrace from Mata Amritanandamayi
A first-person account practicing yoga in NYC during and after September 11, 2001