Category Archives: Philosophy

Don’t Try Hard; Try Easy

“Trying hard invites strain and struggle. Trying easy gives you the levity and freedom to fly. When you try hard, you are using willpower. But willpower never works and will always fail you. That is because willpower is based on brute force as opposed to soul force. Brute force is like trying to lift a Chevy truck with your bare hands. Soul force is having a pulley to raise it right up. Willpower comes from your intellect, but soul force is powered by your connection to the infinite universe.” –  Baron Baptiste

Annie Adamson bound low lunge.

Annie Adamson yoga poses

I’m working on softening my yoga practice and it’s not easy. A lot of us guys struggle with muscles that get in the way. Big shoulders, tight hip flexors, football quads. Not only does this make the physical practice of asana challenging, the mental side is not tipped in our favor either. Many of us grew up in an athletic culture that values pushing your self to extremes to maximize physical ability, capture a league title, or make an all-star team. Digging into yoga philosophy over the past seven years has exposed me to very different values.

Selfless effort. Let go of the clinging. Chill out. Breathe. While you’re at it, contort your body into seemingly absurdist shapes. Literally and figuratively turned upside down, I have learned that to expand my asana practice and access some of yoga’s fruits – less fear, anxiety, judgment, I need to slow down and soften the struggle. Anusara Yoga calls this process – Open to Grace.

When I over-effort in class my friends hear me grunting and my teacher sees me staring intensely. I squeeze my muscles as if trying to choke the pose from my body. I am always determined to give the poses everything I have, undoubtedly a positive trait. After all, I grew up pushing my body through intensity. However, “open to grace” is revolutionary for a guy like me. Venturing into foreign territory, I am scared to surrender control.

My teacher, Annie Adamson of Portland, Oregon’s Yoga Union, recently asked me to demonstrate Handstand to Uttanasana in front of class. Immediately I felt desire, and the need to force myself upon the pose. It was as if John Cafferty plugged his guitar into my head and started singing his song from the training montage in Rocky IV, “Hearts on Fire”. I wanted to go big, rely on the passion that helped me succeed in sports. Kicking up into handstand, I was fairly steady, no easy feat for me, one that took months of dedication to approach. As I began to lower my legs sweat poured from my face.

“Slowly”, Annie said.

I began to exert more. Grunting deep breaths and firmly hugging my arms toward each other, I fought to complete the challenging transition. Landing with a thud, I felt relieved. I accomplished my task. I “stuck it” to use gymnastics parlance.

“Now do it softly, without grunting.”

I laughed. The most vibrant part of asana practice, and yoga in general, is the daily reminder of how much I have to learn. When recently my Anusara Immersion teacher, Sianna Sherman, asked me to breath like “soft moonlight” during practice it became abundantly clear. Open to Grace, Chris. Trust there is support. You don’t have to struggle and do it alone.

Anusara Yoga’s first principle asks that we surrender the effort of ego and have faith in the power of a buoyant and compassionate spirit that surrounds us. Open to Grace requests we literally trust that the universe is inherently good and begin every posture, and in turn every day, with an open heart. I recognize that trust this deep is hard to come by. A lot of terrible things happen in a world supposedly so supportive. It is challenging to fully dive into a heart-centered practice like Anusara but this choice is ours to make. We can see each moment and all experiences as opportunities to expand consciousness or we can try to push through with a single-minded focus using our individualized determination. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of moments that call for forceful and decisive action. Moments when you’d better act and skillfully navigate real danger. Nonetheless, can burning passion alone, that “heart on fire”, access “yoga”, state of integration between mind, body, and soul? Can I will myself to God?

The trait I never want to lose seems like the one I need to transform the most. I will not dissolve or decrease my passion but rather radically expand it by infusing a soft and agile flexibility that supports a dance with life rather than a struggle against it. If I am not mindful, the same fire with which I aim intensely at handstand will entangle me in hardening and contracting mental habits of ego like judgment, impulsivity and craving. These traits confine perspective to a limited view that is too often reinforced by culturally appropriate achievements in education, employment and financial gain. In the name of more holistic growth, I am learning to notice these moments where ego drives experience and consciously breath into their intensity. The power of a single full breath, of opening to grace, is astounding. These moments soften my tendency to over effort and offer unparalleled support in shifting from tense and rigid to fluid and open.

“…Don’t try to control [the] energy experience, we’re free to surrender to the wave of sensation, of feeling, and of energy. In these remarkable moments of freedom, we can let life touch us as it is, because at our core we know everything is already OK.” –  Stephen Cope Yoga and the Quest for the True Self

It’s simply a hell of a practice. The hardest thing I have ever done. I am asked not to “try” less but to try differently. I can grow the most radically when trusting the vast sweetness of grace instead of ignoring it by charging headlong into the next challenge. Small glimpses of grace tell me that when we strip away the anxiety and ego that permeates our day to day functioning, human experience is rooted in a universally connected web of pure love so potent its impossible to fathom.

Article by: Chris Calarco


The 3 A’s of Handstand!

Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand) requires grace, commitment, strength, and playfulness. This pose has become a common goal within the Yoga Union community. At home and in the studio, students are navigating the new sensations of standing upside down, finding joy in working with the pose.  Their persistent practice is now bearing fruit: walk into the studio for an Anusara Inspired 2 or a Prana Vinyasa class and, if your timing is right, you may see more than half the room up on their hands!

For those who aspire to stick handstand in the middle of the room,  this sight can be misleading. In my early years of yoga I would look around and think, “Most of these people don’t look like tremendous athletes. Why can they do it and I can’t?” After several years of consistent practice, my answer is that a successful asana practice can come from following the three A’s of Anusara Yoga.

1. Attitude – This is by far the most important part of the practice. As John Friend says, “Attitude comes first.” In practicing a positive mental approach, yoga transcends and includes the physical realm, and the poses become an inside-out practice, a practice of self-expression. Much of what holds us back in the poses is unnecessary mental baggage. Only when we’re conscious of our mental chatter and our attitudinal alignment can any heavy self-talk be alchemized into the lightness of laughter. When we learn to laugh at our self-diminishing narrator, we lighten the burden of our mind and then we can float up into handstand. Without lightening this burden, we feel too heavy to support the weight. Before you attempt handstand, always check in with your attitude to see if it will serve you. More often than not, your awareness alone will transform a diminishing mindset into one that opens the possibilities of your pose.

2. Alignment – There is a skillful technology of aligning the outer body that makes the poses accessible. After checking in with your attitude, bring your awareness to your physical form. The following is an offering from the Universal Principles of Alignment of Anusara Yoga.

To go into handstand, first come into downward facing dog with your hands five inches from a wall. Be sure that your fingers are spread wide and the creases of your wrist are both parallel to the wall. Take a deep breath and lengthen your side body by sliding your shoulders toward your ears. Ground through your index finger mounds and draw your forearms toward one another; then contract the shoulder blades on your back by softening your heart. Keep the kidneys full, up away from the earth. Keep breathing your waistline back. Keep your arms strong and your heart soft as you step one foot halfway toward your hands. Extend the other leg to the sky. The skyward leg is the straight leg. Keep it straight as you kick up to the wall. Remember, the arms must also stay straight here as well.

Once you’re upside down, bring both heels to the wall and squeeze your legs together.   Lengthen your tailbone toward the ceiling, so that your stomach tucks slightly.  Keeping your arms strong, exhale and soften your heart again to contract your shoulder blades into the back of your heart. Keep your gaze forward rather than dropping your head and looking back toward the center of the room. Hold for as long as you can maintain the alignment, and then come down to rest. Lowering one leg while keeping the other high, gently descend. After resting, repeat: each handstand in a practice-set will become more familiar due to muscle-memory.

3. Action – The pose is always playfully expansive. Extend your pose once it has been aligned inwardly and outwardly. Keep your legs hugging, arms squeezing in, and shoulder blades muscularly contracting on the back. From this place of muscular contraction, focused at your heart, expand energetically in all directions. Press your arms more deeply into the earth. Stretch up and out through your legs into your toes toward the sky. Actively spread your toes.

Handstand is a wonderful pose for partner-work.  I don’t know anybody who has achieved proficiency without help from friends. Surely it is possible, but only with far more time and effort. In any case, the real question is not “Can I do it by myself?” but “Why not work together at this?” Many people at Yoga Union, working on handstand together, are improving their poses while enjoying the teaching and the learning and the friendship of working with peers. Working together reinforces our commitment. Together we are stronger and more supported, our practice more interconnected and more playful. By sharing our practice and integrating it into a community we also help others in their endeavor, so we all grow together, as individuals and as a community.

Applying the Universal Principles of Alignment in Anusara Yoga

1. Initiate your asana with Opening to Grace, an intentional approach of softness. In the first moment of your pose, align your heart’s intention with your spirit and your physical being. Soften your whole being with humility. You can begin with any asana.
2. Affect the Heart Chakra (The Heart Chakra is the centre from which feelings of love emanate. It is also associated with other virtuous emotions, such as joy, happiness, honesty, respect, compassion, understanding, and generosity, and with loving oneselfin a sincere, non-egotistic way) energy center as you maintain your pose. Muscular Energy, the second Universal Principle of Anusara Yoga, establishes stability andcoordinates physical strength. Muscular Energy draws into the Focal Point, an area of localized power in the body.

3. Expand energy with Inner Spiral. Energy expands from the feet up into the pelvis and waist area, thighs widen.

4. Apply Outer Spiral principle, which redirects energy inward, back down through the tail bone and out the legs and feet. Remember that the previous principles are still active.

5. Activate Organic Energy, the final Universal Principle of Anusara Yoga. Organic Energy is an outward energy that runs through the body’s outer core.

Muscular Energy and Organic energy

Muscular energy and organic energy are the two primary forms of energy and alignment within the flow of Anasura Yoga. Muscular energy, initiated first, is the flow of energy from the outside in. Muscular energy is the conscious movement of energy along the lines of the body, drawing muscle to bone and connecting limbs to joints as the energy moves ever inward to the body’s core. This integration of the outer body to the inner creates greater strength and stability, and is the result of great intention and awareness of the body moving within the flow of the poses. Organic energy is the reciprocal flow of energy from the inside out. Organic energy originates in the core focal points of the body and radiates outward, lengthening the limbs and expanding the muscles through expressive ranges of motion. A balanced flow of postures maintain the flow of muscular and organic energy to the outermost and innermost limits of the physical experience.

Focal points

The focal point of the body is the central point of power within any given asana, or yoga pose. The focal point of a pose is the central point within the body to which muscular energy is drawn and from which organic energy radiates. There are three possible focal points within the body, all located along the central line of energy and determined accorded to the most weight-bearing place of each pose.

The three possible focal points (and common corresponding poses) are:

  • The core of the pelvis. (standing poses)
  • The bottom of the heart. (most arm balances)
  • The center of the upper palate in the mouth. (inversions)

The Eight Limbs of Raja Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are an ancient Hindu text of yoga philosophy and practice. Within the Sutras, Patanjali examines Ashtanga Yoga, or the Eightlimbed Yoga (ashta translates to eight, and anga to limb). The eight limbs of yoga are an ethical framework for a yoga practice that becomes much more than just a physical endeavor, bringing together body, mind, and spirit. Each of the limbs builds towards the next, together creating a holistic approach to life through yoga. The first limb of yoga are the Yamas, five universal principles focusing on our outward behaviors and integrity towards others. The five yamas (the same as the five vows of Jainism) are also called the abstentions:

Ahimsa: Nonviolence. Inflicting no harm on others or yourself through thought or action.

Satya: Truthfulness. Honesty in all that you do, say, and think.

Asteya: Non stealing. Not taking that which is not your own, extending beyond physical objects to things such as attention, relationships, and responsibility.

Brahmacharya: Non lust, or abstinence. Many view this not as a call to celibacy, but to refrain from meaningless sexual encounters.

Aparigraha: Non-covetousness, or non-possessiveness. Not desiring what does not belong to you, or what you do not need. Freeing yourself from material greed and the need to be the center of the attention. 

 The second limb of yoga are the Niyamas, five observances of inner discipline and spiritual responsibility towards ourselves.

Shaucha: Purity and cleanliness. This coms from practicing the five yamas, which clear away physical and mental negativity. It is also essential to be fastidious about keeping your body, clothing, and surroundings clean and consuming only fresh, healthy food and drink.

Santosha: Contentment. Finding tranquility by accepting and being happy with what you have and where you are. Learning to live in the moment and grow from there.

Tapas: Austerity. Self-discipline of body, speech, and thought. The purpose of self-discipline is not simply to develop ascetic control, but to strengthen the body and mind for higher spiritual purposes.

Svadhyaya: Education and learning. Study of the sacred Vedic texts, or whatever teachings and books that are relevant to your spiritual growth, in order to become more aware and mindful of our connection to the divine.

Isvara pranidhana: Surrender to the divine. Living in constant awareness and worship of whatever higher power or divinity you believe in.

The third, fourth, and fifth limbs focus on external, or physical aids to yoga practice:

Asana: Asanas are the physical postures most commonly associated with the practice of yoga in western cultures. In true yogic philosophy, however, the asanas provide the physical discipline, energy, and concentration necessary to prepare the body for long and focused meditation.

Pranayama: Prana is the the universal life force that flows through us as breath. Pranayama are focused breathing exercises with a basic rhythm of inhalation, retention, and exhalation. Pranayama strengthen the connection between breath (body), mind, and emotion, which builds the concentration necessary for meditation.

Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses. Removing sensory awareness from world around us through asanas, pranayama, and meditation. Pratyahara allows us to detach from our senses and examine ourselves without distraction.

The sixth, seventh, and eighth limbs are internal aids to yoga, and achieving divine awareness.

Dharana: Concentration. The final step in preparing for meditation is through developing and sustaining intense, concentrated focus on one physical point or object. Practicing asanas, pranayama, and pratyahara, prepare you to free your mind from superfluous thought and distraction and develop uninterrupted concentration.

Dhyana: The act of concentrated and undisturbed meditation. When concentration moves into meditation the mind is no longer aware of distractions and can achieve a stillness and awareness without thought. When practiced and achieved, the tranquility experienced in Dhyana will translate into other, everyday parts of your life as well.

Samadhi: Transcendence through oneness with the divine object of meditation.

This ultimate goal of the eight limbs of yoga brings you into a higher consciousness and awareness of one’s connection with the universe and the divine. Samadhi is enlightenment, ecstasy, bliss.

Open To A Higher Consciousness

The concept of a higher realm of human consciousness is a common foundation of many spiritual traditions, including Yoga, Hinduism, Sufism, Theosophy, and many others. Higher consciousness, akin to enlightenment, is regarded to be a spiritual evolution bringing about a more developed awareness and understanding of reality and the human experience.

In contrast to higher consciousness, within ordinary consciousness we experience life through a filter or fog of unconscious conditioning that limits our abilities to fully explore our reality. Many teachings compare ordinary consciousness to a “waking sleep” from which we fully awaken when we raise our consciousness towards enlightenment. Buddhist traditions call these lower, ordinary, obscured mental states kilesa, which translates to “defilement” or “poison” and is sometimes compared to clouds covering the sun.

Through the careful development of moral virtues such as patience, kindness, honesty, humility, forgiveness, and lucidity, we can begin to transcend ordinary consciousness and open ourselves to a higher consciousness. As we develop this moral self-discipline, we will also realize our ability to control our own life experiences and personal growth. Instead of projecting responsibility for our human suffering and joy onto the outside world, we will realize that the full power and potential of the human experience lies within our own minds and hearts.

The practice of yoga, specifically Raja Yoga, seeks to continually develop this awareness of our higher consciousness. As we bring our growing mindfulness into the physical practice of yoga, each pose and series of poses becomes a meditative journey; as we continue to open our bodies and mind, we continue to rise above the ordinary and (re)unite with the enlightened and divine within ourselves.

Yoga Union Philosophy

At Yoga Union, we practice Rajanaka Yoga, a Tantric philosophy seeking to draw the highest good from the full spectrum of human emotion and experience. To understand and experience the divine and enlightened consciousness through any means possible from the extravagant to even the most mundane human experience. Rajanaka yoga is a branch of tantrism growing from the practice and teachings of Douglas Brooks, [] a world-renowned Tantric scholar. According to Ulla Lundgren, a certified Anusura Yoga instructor who has studied with Brooks:

A branch of tantrism, [Rajanaka] is part of a South Indian tradition called Shri Vidhya (auspicious wisdom). Rajanaka says that, as embodied beings, we will and should have the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences including anger, fear, happiness, courage, desire, grief, wonder, disgust, and peace. Yoga is not about stopping these experiences from happening, but how we can open to receive the gifts that these experiences offer us. Practicing our yoga, we can turn a seeming curse into a blessing, a kleesha (stain) into a lakshmi (a mark of beauty). We do this by engaging life and stepping into its currents of joy and challenges — not by turning away or trying to stop the flow. []

Thus, instead of only seeking to transcend, or leave behind, the tangible human experience of life, Rajanaka encourages us to find the higher consciousness within ourselves — to see ourselves, body and mind, as manifestations of the divine creation. Where more classical yoga traditions believe the body and mind are a diversion (or an illusion), and that the real stuff the divine can’t be manifest in physical form, our purpose within the Rajanaka practice becomes one of balance, of affirming every aspect of our reality (including the painful and difficult) in order to experience and delight in every possible good. We seek enlightenment through a heaven-on-earth mentality: this is heaven and we ought to recognize that this life is an absolute gift.