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Carried By A Promise is the story of Swami Radhananda, the president and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram, and her relationship with her teacher, Swami Sivananda Radha. Yasodhara Ashram is a thriving spiritual community in Southeastern British Columbia which was founded by Swami Radha, one of the first Western women to be initiated into sanyas.

The story follows Swami Radhananda’s life from her first meeting with Swami Radha in 1977 until her teacher’s death in 1995. While reading this humble and clear memoir, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own journey and my spiritual life. Like Swami Radhananda – or Mary-Ann MacDougall, as she was known at the time of her meeting – I am in my mid-30s. Even though I don’t have a husband and children, or a career for that matter, I relate to her dissatisfaction, her desire for more out of life, her questioning.

Also, full disclosure, I have studied yoga with Swami Radhananda and I lived at Yasodhara Ashram for two years. I have intimate experience with the teachings and practices that she talks about in the book. But I also feel that this book has much to offer anybody who is on the path of yoga, anyone who has the courage to practice, investigate themselves and apply what they’ve learned in their real lives.
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In the winter, my tendency is to slow down and go inwards. The chilly Montréal air and long nights make me feel like spending a lot of time indoors ~ and correspondingly, my yoga practice has become slower and more restorative. I hold the postures, breathe, and allow whatever thoughts to arise.

The Inner Life of Asanas, a collection of columns by Swami Lalitananda originally published in ascent magazine*, is the perfect guide for this kind of internal process. The short essays in this book are based on the practice of Hidden Language Hatha Yoga, a reflective approach designed to illuminate the physical, psychological and mystical dimensions of key yoga asanas.

The book is made up of 26 postures, which have been organized into 5 thematic chapters: Awareness, Choice, Action, Devotion and Union. Each posture is structured with a short reflection/anecdote related to a greater theme, followed by a practice – a description of how to do the form of the pose (very basic and applicable to all systems of Hatha Yoga), keyword prompts and questions.

For example, the section on dhanurasana (bow pose) features an anecdote by Swami Lalitananda about service and putting ideals into action, relating the pose itself to the image of a bow. “I think about the bow and how it is created from a strong but flexible piece of wood, tempered and shaped to serve its purpose.”

She then gives us questions such as “What is your purpose? Can you find the place of balance where you exert effort and let go at the same time?” The practice itself is very loose and fluid, with no directions for timing or sequencing. The only expectation is that practitioners are working with a pen and paper, to capture their responses to the postures and the questions. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s January 27 and do you know where your New Year’s resolution is? Remember, that goal you’d set for yourself in a drunken fit of festive cheer just before the clock struck midnight, back when 2010 was just a distant dream…?

Yes, that resolution. So imagine being Robyn Okrant, who committed to something even bigger than a resolution on January 1, 2008: she challenged herself to do everything that Oprah Winfrey told her to do. For a whole year. She called her project “Living Oprah” and she blogged about her efforts, of course. That blog was recently published as a book, also called Living Oprah and I just finished reading it.

Robyn Okrant is a writer, performer and yoga teacher based in Chicago (Oprah’s hometown). I related to Okrant on many levels, being part of the same demographic (mid-30s) and profession (that strange mix of writing, art and yoga). I have to admit that I wish I’d thought up this idea! A self-confessed pop culture junkie (as y’all know), I am fascinated by Oprah, for many of the same reasons as Robyn. I find Oprah’s rag-to-riches story, her rise to fame (based mostly on intuition), her influence on women and her mastery over the art of making a personal brand completely compelling.

For the whole year, Robyn made her choices based on Oprah’s directives. She heeded Oprah’s wisdom through a daily diet of The Oprah Winfrey Show, O: The Oprah Magazine and oprah.com. And 2008 was a particularly interesting year to take on such a challenge. Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth was the Oprah Book Club choice, one of the most exciting and relevant US presidential elections ever took place, and the global financial system collapsed. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the drawbacks about being a yogi blogger is that I get regular exposure to some of the most tasteless and depressing aspects of yoga in Western culture (and y’all know what I’m talking about, because I can’t stop myself from commenting on it). Crass commercialism, hypersexualization, narcissism, branding… it’s enough to sometimes make me wonder why I bother with this practice.

Which is why I’m so grateful for Yoga for a World Out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action (Shambala Publications, 2009). The latest book by Michael Stone, a Toronto-based yoga teacher, psychotherapist and author, puts to rest my unease about current developments of yoga and assures me that it’s a practice that is not only worthwhile, but essential for modern life.

“The aim of yoga is not perfect mastery over technique or the ability to memorize scriptures,” writes Michael. “But rather the activity of bringing one’s insights into the world through action… yoga occurs when our inner work manifests in the world around us.” The book subtly provides a system for how we can do this in our everyday lives.

Michael explores how yoga can be relevant to culture, ecology and politics, and he does this through the lense of the five yamas, or “external restraints.” The yamas are the first limb on the ashtanga (eight-limbed) path of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These five restraints are generally known as guidelines for how we relate to the external world, and Michael clearly defines the yamas as  “the clarification of one’s relationship to the human and non-human world.” Read the rest of this entry »

what_is_yoga_front_coverYoga practitioners in the West are in a constant process of understanding themselves and the complicated, centuries-old tradition they have embraced. The latest addition to this quest is the recently published, Yoga in America: Passion, Diversity and Enlightenment in the Words of Some of Yoga’s Most Ardent Teachers, edited by Deborah S. Bernstein and Bob Weisenberg. The book features a crop of fresh voices from the American yoga community (you won’t see any big names or A-list teachers here), most of whom are experienced, certified teachers.

The 46 essays in this compilation are responding to the question “What is yoga?” (which is ultimately, “What is yoga in America?”). They cover the full spectrum of yoga styles, from hot to gentle to Ashtanga, and examine yoga philosophy and how yoga intersects with Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and everyday life. The simple act of purchasing this book is an act of service, as proceeds support yoga retreats for wounded soldiers and the families of fallen firefighters (the retreat centre is run by one of the editors on the US Virgin Islands – and because the book is self-published through Lulu.com, all the proceeds go directly to the cause). Read the rest of this entry »

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