Archive | Sanskrit Roots

What is OM?

Yoga classes often start and finish with chanting together the sound OM. Why? What does it mean?

In Sanskrit, the meaning of OM is Avati or Rakshati. Om is also sometimes in English spelled AUM. In English, Avati or Rakshati means, “One who protects and sustains.” That one who protects and sustains is really each of us.

Ultimately yoga teaches that we can protect and sustain ourselves – whatever we are dealing with in our bodies.

Om is not a word, but a sound made up of three parts: “Aa,” “Uu” and “Mm.” Each of three parts represents three aspects of living. The “Aa” is the physical world – all that it is possible to see and experience. “Uu” is the thought world –all that is in your consciousness, your dreams and imagination. “Mm” is the sleep


What is the Heart Chakra? What Does Anahata Mean?

What is the heart chakra? Back up – what are chakras? And what does Anahata (the Sanskrit name for this chakra) mean? Who cares? Why should we care? Just because it’s Valentine’s Day?

The heart chakra, also know as Anahata, is located over the heart and is in the middle of the seven common chakras, which gives this light well a special significance. In the middle, this chakra integrates opposites – male and female, self and community, mind and body, lust and reason, earth and divine. A healthy, balanced heart chakra enables us to offer compassion, love deeply and bestows a sense of ease and centeredness.

In Sanskrit, chakra means “wheel.” Some think of the chakras as energy centers or filtration systems or “wheels that heal.”

Anodea Judith offered that last definition. She also describes the chakra system as the architectural of the soul. She is most knowledgable and accessible writer about the chakras I have encountered. Her book Eastern Body Western Mind is, as John Friend puts it in his blurb, an “Absolutely brilliant synthesis of the chakra system and the heart of Western psychology.”

In the Hindu tradition, seven main chakras exist –

  1. Root Muladhara, which means root
  2. Sacral Svadhisthana, which means sweetness
  3. Solar Plexus, Manipura, which means lustrous gem
  4. Heart, Anahata, which means unstuck
  5. Throat, Vissudha, which means purification
  6. Third Eye or Brow, Ajna, which means to perceive
  7. Crown, Sahasrara, which means thousandfold

The three below focus on the physical and emotional realms and the three above the heart chakra focus on the spiritual. The heart is the connector between the two realms along this system. And it’s the place of human love and feeling.

According to Dr. Brenda Davies, there are 27 minor ones and many lesser chakras. I read a book last summer by Alberto Villoldo who there noted that in the Native American Indian tradition, there are 9 chakras. Unsurprisingly, he elaborated that other living beings have chakras, even trees. I found his teachings very interesting because of the similarities and dissimilarities between these two distinct and apart cultures. Though separated by the Atlantic Ocean, each culture came to recognize these energy locales in the human body and soul. In the Inka tradition, chakras are called ojos de liz, or eyes of light. His Inka mentor called them pukios, light wells. Isn’t that lovely?

Chakras can be imbalanced if there is too much energy or too little. With the heart chakra too much energy there is characterized by possessiveness, jealousy and poor boundaries. Too little is associated with isolation, loneliness, bitterness, critical, shyness and lack of empathy. Imbalances in this light well are deeply connected to our own self-acceptance.

Associated with the the element of air, Anodea Judith writes of the Anahata,

Air is formless, largely invisible, absolutely necessary, and the least dense of our first four elements. Air is expansive as it will expand to fit any space it is put into, yet it is soft and gentle.

So, too, is love. Love is the expansion of the heart, the transcendence of boundaries, the interconnectedness of spirit. Love is balance, ease, softness, forgiveness. And love at the heart chakra is felt as a state of being, existing independently of any object or person.

Rather than reinvent the wheel (pardon the pun), for a brief overview of the heart chakra, I refer you to this terrific brief essay Anodea Judith wrote on Anahata – The Heart Chakra for the Llewellyn Encyclopedia. There she notes that the Sanskrit name Anahata means “sound that is made without any two things striking.” She elaborates the meaning clearly and beautifully and also refers to the Celestial Wishing Tree, which is related to the heart chakra.

I also took a very rewarding online course Chakra Activation with her at Sounds True last fall. You can check out her other offerings here.

Also for your information, Villoldo runs the Four Winds Society in Park City, Utah. They had an exhibit booth at the Yoga Journal Conference in May, and I find the work they are doing very intriguing and personally meaningful. Another really good book on this subject is The 7 Healing Chakras by Brenda Davies, MD. Her book is short and is really a workbook – offering guided meditations, exercises, questions to ponder. Indeed, turns out she also has a workbook based on her book! Check it out here.

What are the Yoga Sutras?

Sutra literally means, “thread,” and each sutra contains a thread of a thought. A sutra is an aphoristic statement or a work containing such statements.

The Yoga Sutras is the source text of classical yoga. These 195 aphorisms serve as a concise guide for the philosophy and practice of yoga. Patanjali compiled them over two thousand years ago. Although often considered the author of the yoga sutras, historians generally believe that he assembled and recorded the oral tradition of yoga.

The Yoga Sutras are divided into four chapters:

  • 1st chapter on ecstasy samadhi-pada
    Addresses the theory of Yoga is called the chapter on ecstasy
    51 aphorisms.
  • 3rd chapter on the powers vibhuti-pada
    Sets forth the internal rigor and ability a yogi acquires
    55 aphorisms.
  • 2nd chapter on the path sadhana-pada
    Introduces the practices of Yoga for the novice
    55 aphorisms.
  • 4th chapter on liberation kaivalya-pada
    Delineates the freedom and peace gained from Yoga
    34 aphorisms.2

2Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition (Prescott: Hohm Press, 1998), p. 216.

Hot Oil Massage in the Winter

These cold months are a perfect time to develop a routine for the ayurvedic practice of Abhyanga – a full body oil massage. A regular practice of giving yourself a full body oil massage is an essential part of yogic health.

Ayurvedic medicine complements and completes yoga and is the traditional healing system of India. As old as yoga (5000 years old!), ayurveda uses the same Sanskrit language as yoga and struggles as well with the translation of certain concepts and attitudes which originated in a very different language, rich and with deep roots. Ayurveda, like yoga, encompasses more than the physical. In Sanskrit, Ayur means “life” and Veda means “science or knowledge.” So ayurveda means science or knowledge of life. Therefore, in ayurveda, good health address all of life – not just the physical organs.

Snehana is the Sanskrit term for massaging herbal oils into the skin. The root of this word highlights a vital aspect of this practice. Sneha means love, and the literal translation of snehana is to love your own body. So as you do this, you really need to feel affection for your own skin and what’s underneath.

Abhyanga is any massage treatment that uses oil, and here I describe how to administer a self oil massage.

Abhyanga is also a Sanskrit word and with ang meaning “movement” and the prefix abhi meaning “into” or “toward”, Abhyanga literally translates as moving into the body. Moving what into the body? Energy, love, prana.

I used to heat up the oil on the stove. But my own yoga teacher showed me an easier way, with some tools easily available from from Bed Bath & Beyond. First I looked for a hot plate for a mug. Turns out an electric candle warmer does the trick. I’d never heard of a candle warmer before, but it’s just the right size. You can check them out here. I got the Valmour brand. Electric power heats the plate and on top I place a Faberware “melting pot. You can check that out here. It’s just the right size and has a pouring spout.

Then all you need is the oil and the time. Check out the link with instructions above.

Abhyanga, Self Oil Massage, Nourishes Skin & Body

A regular practice of giving yourself a full body oil massage is an essential part of yogic health. Ayurvedic medicine complements and completes yoga and is the traditional healing system of India. As old as yoga (5000 years old!), Ayurveda uses the same Sanskrit language as yoga.

Snehana is the Sanskrit term for massaging herbal oils into the skin. The root of this word highlights a vital aspect of this practice. Sneha means love, and the literal translation of
snehana is to love your own body. So as you do this, you really need to feel affection for your own skin and what’s underneath. Abhyanga is a broader term and refers to any massage treatment that uses oil, and here I will be describing how to administer a self oil massage. Abhyanga is also a Sanskrit word and with ang meaning “movement” and the prefix abhi meaning “into” or “toward”, Abhyanga literally translates as moving into the body. Moving what into the body? Energy, love, prana.

One of my clients suggested I was highlighting this because of Valentine’s Day. The connection is apt. If you have someone in your life, this practice is wonderful to do with a partner. Whether with a partner or alone, practicing love toward your body with the practice of abhyanga is a perfect way to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day.

To find out more about why to do this and how to…

Purposefully Going to a Good Space

If you read no further in this newsletter, at least click on the link below. Steadiness & Ease, from the latest issue Yoga & Joyful Living (formerly Yoga International), covers the breadth of yoga – including physical postures, promotion of vitality, nourishment and building relationships. The authors go back to the roots of Sanskrit woods (which I just love) to delve into the meaning and include some helpful sidebars.

One author, Dr. Robert Svoboda, is one of two leading Ayurvedic doctors in the USA. A few ideas may strike some as fanciful: “Never cook when you are angry, depressed, or frightened for you will transfer that negative energy into the food you are preparing.” (Actually, my meals have been looking pretty sad and pathetic lately). But most of the information, particularly the section, “On The Mat,” is very good. Reading this piece is a great way to start your year.

Read on…

On Happiness

Five years ago,on September 11, this month also became forever tinged with sadness. In response to that, I’ve been reading a book by Matthieu Ricard called Happiness. I’m not far along, but already I’m learning new ideas.

Many yogis are familiar with sukhasana. A cross-legged seated pose, many translate the posture as “easy pose,” or sometimes as “pose of happiness.” (Some with tight hamstrings find it anything but easy or happy!)

But sukha in Sanskrit means something more beautiful and more encompassing. According to Ricard, sukha is “a way of being that underlies and suffuses all emotional states…A happiness so deep that, as Georges Bernanos wrote, ‘nothing can change it, like the vast reserve of calm water beneath a storm.’ ” Find Out More about Ricard’s Happiness

If you wish to read something shorter on happiness, try the provoking article on happiness by another favorite author of mine, Sally Kempton – click here. Perhaps building on that definition of sukha, Kempton tells us how “yoga teaches us that happiness is always available to us, no matter what our circumstances.” Find Out More about Ricard’s Happiness

How To Deal With Illness & Fatigue

The Yoga Sutras compiled by Patanjali, are aphorisms that represent the essence of yoga knowledge and experience. The statements are succinct (averaging six words) and provide guidance on the benefits, philosophy and practice of yoga. For more about the Sutras, click here.

What are the nine obstacles in yoga?
Nine obstacles or distractions are outlined: illness, fatigue, doubt, carelessness, laziness, attachment, delusion, the failure to achieve samadhi and the failure to achieve samadhi. (Chapter 1:30) . Even 2500 years after Patanjali first assembled the Yoga Sutras, these obstacles can still veer yogis off their path.

Note that Samadhi means “settled mind,” which is said to bring very deep rest to the entire body. In this issue of nilambu notes, I examine the first two – illness (vyadhi) and fatigue (styana).

What does yoga say about illness?
Illness or sickness that disturbs the physical balance is the first distraction, because in yoga, the body is the key mechanism. If the car breaks down, the trip stops. The root of the Sanskrit word, vyadhi, means to “stand apart” or “be scattered” (Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, p.157).

So illness is said to break apart and alienate a person, a life. The primacy of the physical health indicates how, in yoga, the body is integral to and important for the mind. Mental development and that settled state of mind will be harder to achieve, though not impossible, when the body is ill.

What does yoga say about fatigue and apathy?
Styana is variously translated as fatigue, apathy, languor or lethargy. The root means “to grow dense.” (Ibid, p. 158). A yogi who is fatigued or apathetic enjoys no enthusiasm and forms no aspirations.

BKS Iyengar notes that in this state,

mind and intellect become dull due to inactivity…water in a ditch stagnates and nothing good can flourish in it. (Light on Yoga, p. 25)

My current yoga teacher speaks of the “walking dead” – people who are listless and unaware and unable to concentrate.

So what are we to do about these obstacles?
They impede obviously – but the Sanskrit term for these “obstacles” actually means “interval.” That is, illness and apathy create a break or a gap and thereby distract from the goal. The gap can be bridged. The Sutras continue,

Such distractions make the body restless, the breathing coarse, the mind agitated. They result in suffering. But they can be eliminated if the mind is repeatedly brought to a single focus. (Chapter 1:31-32).

Notably, the sutras do not deny or belittle these challenges. They exist. The sutras acknowledge the pain they can cause and note yoga requires an even more diligent focus when these obstacles are encountered.

So the answer to distractions?
Focus. Not a stunning aphorism, but one worth remembering. Important to me is that yoga recognizes these difficulties. And the etymologies of the words resonate and illuminate fresh perspectives on difficulties that can arise to hinder us.

These obstacles are not huge boulders, too weighty to move, that stop us dead in our track. Nor are they locked gates on our route that we ignore by going around another way. These obstacles are potholes in our path. And so we continue on our chosen way with heightened care and concentration – watching out for the potholes and gaps to bridge.

That’s the message of the Yoga Sutras.

Yoga Nidra – A Restful State of Being

Yoga Nidra. What does it mean?

Well, the answer to that has varied over the centuries. It’s often translated as yoga sleep, but sleep is understood very differently in yoga.

Patanjali wrote of sleep in the 10th Sutra of Chapter One –

Sleep is the mental activity that has as its content the sense of nothingness. – trans. by Alistair Shearer

Sleep is the turning of thought abstracted from existence. – trans. by Barbara Stoler Miller

So in yoga, sleep is not the absence of consciousness. It’s just a different stage of consciousness. In the earlier centuries of yoga, yoga nidra even was considered the highest form of consciousness, the closest to God. In this altered conscious state, one experiences continuous awareness of the self and a merging or even engrossing with God’s consciousness.

But today, yoga nidra most often refers to a state of deep relaxation in which the senses are aware of external stimuli but do not in any way react, even in the mind.

How does one get to that state of relaxation? Here are some steps:

  1. Put your body in a comfortable physical position. Typically, this pose is corpse pose or savasana – you lie on your back, palms up. You can support your neck and head and put a cushion behind the knees. Just be sure you’re comfortable.
  2. Set an intention – this could be to let go of an irritation, to forgive someone who wronged you, to make this deep relaxation effective – whatever you’d like.
  3. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Slowly try to match the length of the inhalation to the exhalation. As you exhale, try to image the carbon dioxide, the waste, that your body naturally exhales.
  4. Survey your body – think in your mind of each body part, right side and left side separately. You can be as specific as thinking of each toe. The more precise you are the better. As you think of each body part, concentrate on relaxing that part. Do all of this in quickly. Don’t linger in any place of the body.
  5. When the survey is complete, think of the whole body, supported by the floor. (hopefully by now, you’ll have a slight sensation of floating)
  6. Think of your intention.
  7. You can repeat the body survey or simply focus on your breath. You can stay in this for 10 minutes or 60. You should feel calm, a calm abiding. You are aware of sounds, the floor touching you, smells. But you don’t react to them, either actually or even in your mind. You may even fall into a different state of consciousness (sleep).
  8. Come out gently.

You can do yoga nidra on your own. Admittedly, it’s easier to have someone with a kind and gentle voice to guide you in, through your body survey and back out.

I’ve actually transferred some of Shiva Rae’s yoga nidras onto my Ipod and sometimes go into yoga nidra to help me transition into night or during the day when I need deep rest. (See review of her Yoga Nectar CD next month, but if you want to check out her web site, click here.

I also really relish doing it. I come out feeling refreshed and renewed. Nectar, indeed.

For general background on Patanjali click here and the Yoga Sutras, click here.

All About Sun Salutation

Here Comes the Sun by Richard Rosen is a delightful and enlightening article, chock full of information and instruction regarding the sun salutation. Richard Rosen is the author of THE book on yoga breath: The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama.

As the sun returns to us, this first week of spring seems an especially appropriate time to remind ourselves about the origin of this basic yoga sequence called Surya Namaskar. Surya – sun; namas – salute (same root as namaste which means literally “I salute you.”)

Here’s a sample –

The outer sun, they (ancient yogis) asserted, is in reality a token of our
own “inner sun,” which corresponds to our subtle, or spiritual, heart. Here is
the seat of consciousness and higher wisdom (jnana) and, in some traditions, the
domicile of the embodied self (jivatman).

It might seem strange to us that the yogis place the seat of wisdom in
the heart, which we typically associate with our emotions, and not the brain.
But in yoga, the brain is actually symbolized by the moon, which reflects the
sun’s light but generates none of its own. This kind of knowledge is worthwhile
for dealing with mundane affairs, and is even necessary to a certain extent for
the lower stages of spiritual practice. But in the end, the brain is inherently
limited in what it can know and is prone to what Patanjali calls misconception
(viparyaya) or false knowledge of the self.

To read the full article, click here.