Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga

Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga

Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga

Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga


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365 daily reflections offering a way to integrate the mindfulness that yoga teaches into everyday life, from the acclaimed yoga teacher, Rolf Gates who offers "a healthy way to find peace and a sense of coming home, day by day” (USA Today).

As more and more people in the West pursue yoga in its various forms, whether at traditional centers, in the high-powered atmosphere of sports clubs, or on their own, they begin to realize that far from being just another exercise routine, yoga is a discipline of the body and the mind. Whether used in the morning to set the tone for the day, during yoga exercise itself, or at the end of the day, during evening reflection, the daily reflections in Meditations from the Mat will support and enhance anyone’s yoga journey.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385721547
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/03/2002
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 57,667
Product dimensions: 7.32(w) x 7.46(h) x 0.92(d)

About the Author

Rolf Gates, author of two acclaimed books on yogic philosophy, Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga and Meditations on Intention and Being: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga, Mindfulness, and Compassion, conducts yoga workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, and coaching and mentorship programs throughout the U.S. and abroad—and online. Rolf and his work have been featured in numerous media, including Yoga Journal, ORGINS, Natural Health, People Magazine, and Travel and Leisure’s 25 Top Yoga Studios in the World. Rolf is the co-founder of the Yoga, Meditation and Recovery Conference at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California and the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts and a teacher at Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center in Northern California.  He is also on the Advisory Board for the Yoga Service Council and the Veterans Yoga Project.  A former addictions counselor and U.S. Army Airborne Ranger who has practiced meditation for over twenty-five years, Rolf brings his eclectic background to his practice and his teachings.  Rolf and his wife, Mariam Gates, author of Good Night Yoga: A Pose by Pose Bedtime Story, live in Santa Cruz, California with their two children.

Katrina Kenison has been the annual editor of The Best American Short Stories since 1990. In 1999 she was coeditor, with John Updike, of the national best-seller The Best American Short Stories of the Century. She coedited the anthology Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood and is the author of Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry. Her essays and articles have appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, where she has been a contributing editor, and in Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, and Family Life. Kenison lives outside Boston with her husband, Steven Lewers and their two sons. She began practicing yoga with Rolf Gates in 2000.

Read an Excerpt



The Beginning


He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator.
—Sir Francis Bacon

As we move into the twenty-first century, yoga seems to be the West's new remedy. Yet this remedy is in fact over five thousand years old—far older than Islam, even older than Christianity. Today, in yoga studios throughout the West, Sanskrit, one of the oldest written languages, is used as contemporary classroom jargon. So we might ask, Why yoga? And why now?

I believe our hunger for yoga, and our eagerness to embrace yoga as a spiritual practice, are a testament to our growth and our desire for change. In the aftermath of the bloodbath that was the twentieth century, and in the presence of threats posed by more recent events, there is a pressing need for what Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman describes as a "cold revolution." We need a new paradigm, one that will replace our present attachment to imbalance. Yoga is the study of balance, and balance is the aim of all living creatures; it is our home.

The flow of this book follows the course of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Written between 500 and 200 b.c., the Sutras codified a spiritual path that was already many centuries old at the time the Sutras were actually written down. Patanjali provides 196 succinct lessons on the nature of the human condition, human potential, and how that potential can be realized. Comprehensive, systematic, and remarkably precise, the Yoga Sutras organize the essence of all spiritual practices into a basic plan for living. You will find nothing in this ancient text that contradicts the precepts of any religion. Instead you will find a step-by-step guide to right living, a guide that complements the goals of any spiritual tradition.

A spiritual practice is one that brings us full circle—not to a new self but, rather, back to the essence of our true selves. Yoga is the practice of celebrating what is. At the end of the hero's journey, he finds that he did not need to go anywhere, that all he sought was inside him all along. Dorothy, having traveled across time and space to the land of Oz, and having struggled desperately to find her way back to Kansas, discovers that she could have gone home at any time. In the end, she learns that her adventures have simply brought her to the point where she can believe this. It is the aim of all spiritual seeking to bring us home, home to the understanding that we already have everything we need.

We are far now from home, and weary from our travels. The sun is setting and there is no destination in sight. Yoga is a lamp lit in the window of our home, dimly glimpsed across the spiritual wilderness in which we wander. At a time when we could not feel further from our home, yoga reminds us that we are already there, that we need simply awaken from our dream of separation, our dream of imperfection. Allow this book to awaken you, to be a light that shines in the darkness, guiding you through your days, pointing you home.


Burning zeal in practice, self-study and study of scriptures, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga.
—B. K. S. Iyengar

The Yoga Sutras outline a plan for living that flows from action to knowledge to liberation. This plan, or path, has eight limbs, which work more like spokes on a wheel than like steps on a ladder. The first four limbs are the limbs of tapas, or spirituality in action. Included here are the yamas and the niyamas, or the five moral restraints and five observances of yoga. The yamas and niyamas are akin to the Ten Commandments and are the true foundation of the yoga student's life.

The next two limbs of tapas are asana and pranayama, the postures and yogic breathing. The yamas and niyamas, asana, and pranayama all combine to form our path of action as we deepen our practice. They are actions taken or not taken with our bodies.

The yamas and niyamas bring us into right relationship with ourselves, others, and the spirit of the universe. The asana refine our bodies, deepen our awareness of the senses, and enhance our powers of concentration. In pranayama we develop control over the flow of our breath, thereby entering into a dance with our life energy. These four practices refresh the body, refine the mind, and bring peace to the heart, allowing us to meet the pressures of life with equanimity.

The next two limbs of the eight-limb path are called svadhyaya, or self-study. They are pratyahara and dharana. Pratyahara literally means turning inward—the mind withdraws from the senses of perception. In the stillness of pratyahara, dharana—or concentration—can be developed. The light of our awareness can begin to shine on our soul. The deepest form of connectedness is now possible.

Dhyana and samadhi form the final spokes of the wheel and comprise the limbs of isvara, the final frontier—the surrender of the individual self to the universal self. Dhyana is meditation, and samadhi is union with the object of meditation—the state in which meditation is no longer necessary, in which we reexperience our primal oneness, we come home.

The eight limbs are a map, but in yoga as in life, the journey is more important than the destination. In Alcoholics Anonymous they say that "we must be willing to grow along spiritual lines." And that is really all that is necessary as we undertake a yoga practice. We must simply remain open to our own spiritual potential and be willing to take action on our own behalf. As the days go by, we will examine each aspect of the eight-limb path in turn. Together we will experience the great adventure, the only adventure, the journey from darkness into light.


Everything all the time . . .
—The Eagles

At first glance, the eight-limb path appears to lend itself to a linear approach. It would seem to make sense: you do the first limb, then you proceed to the second, and so on. In fact, we take up all the limbs together. As the line in the Eagles song goes, we do everything all the time. It's not possible to practice the first two limbs, the yamas and the niyamas, without the support of the practices outlined by the other limbs. As we practice asana and pranayama, the postures and breath work that comprise the third and fourth limbs, we refine our relationship to our body, creating the necessary circumstances for brahmacarya, or moderation, the fourth yama. To practice living in the truth, or satya, the second yama, we must have a mind that has let go of the habit of distraction and developed the habit of concentration. Concentration is deliberately cultivated in dharana, the sixth limb. We must actually do everything all the time.

Our yoga practice makes this possible. Each time we come to the mat, we have an opportunity to work the entire path, moment by moment. As we move through the postures we are constantly enacting each aspect of the path. Our bodies, our breath, our minds, and our choices are being refined in the laboratory that is our yoga mat. As this symphony becomes established on our mats, it becomes established in our lives as well. Driving to work, mailing a letter, meeting a friend for lunch all become part of the uninterrupted flow of our yoga practice. We are doing our yoga all the time.


We are the ones we've been waiting for.
—Hopi elder

Now that you have a sense of how the book will flow, go with it. The Yoga Sutras will set the course as, in our travels, we explore each tributary of the eight-limb path. The daily readings that follow are an invitation to get into the canoe of your practice and flow down the river of yoga. You may go deep, into uncharted waters; you will surely encounter challenges and delights along the way. But first you must get into that canoe and let go. In class I say, Let your practice be a refuge from the need to control. And I suggest the same to you: get out of the driver's seat for a while and enjoy the scenery. Let the river of yoga take you where it will. If you hit whitewater, stay in the canoe and keep paddling. When you enter calm pools, do the same.

At a Native American gathering in Arizona for the 1999 summer solstice, a Hopi elder said: "There is a river flowing now, very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment we do that, our spiritual growth comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves; banish the word 'struggle' from your attitude and vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred way and in celebration. We are the ones we've been waiting for."

Now, go to your mat and push off from the shore.


When transgressions hinder, the weight of the imagination should be thrown on the other side.
—Yoga Sutras

In a reflection of the pragmatism that is at the core of all yoga teachings, Patanjali takes a moment, before he begins to outline the necessary restraints of yoga, to tell us what to do if we get into trouble along the way. Whenever we find ourselves ensnared in negative behavior, he suggests, we should increase the amount of time, thought, and energy we direct toward positive behavior. This simple, elegant notion is articulated by Marianne Williamson in her spiritual guidebook A Return to Love. "If you want to end darkness," she writes, "you cannot beat it with a baseball bat, you have to turn on a light." We do not need to enter a showdown with our self-destructive behavior, nor can we deny its existence. We must simply come to know it, and move on. We learn to focus wholeheartedly on positive behavior.

Reading Deepak Chopra's The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, I came to understand that my own "What's in it for me?" attitude—however subtle or well disguised—was blocking me professionally. Chopra suggests that one of the simplest ways to access grace in any situation is to ask, "How can I be helpful?" Once I saw that my typical M.O. is to ask, "What's in it for me?" I did not enter into a protracted struggle to obliterate the question from my psyche. Instead, I simply embarked on the magnificent journey that begins with the question "How can I be helpful?" As soon as I began to direct my energy and attention to a new question, the old one fell away. The Yoga Sutras suggest that we deliberately turn away from the choice for death and embrace the choice for life.


If you do what you did, you get what you got.

The Yoga Sutras lay out two aspects of spiritual practice: abhyasa, practice, and vairagya, nonattachment or renunciation. Over two thousand years later, the notions of practice and renunciation are reflected in the twelve-step adage "If you do what you did, you get what you got." Renunciation on its own has no staying power. You can renounce bananas all you like, but if you continue to live in your banana home on your banana street, if you keep your job at the banana warehouse and hang out with your banana-gobbling friends, you'll be eating bananas before you know it. Practice is doing the work. It is following up your intention with action.

Many of us attend a few yoga classes and find that we like the glimpse of another way of life that yoga offers. We are delighted by the way we feel after class and we are pleasantly surprised as certain behaviors start to fall away. Perhaps we no longer need coffee in the morning; or staying out late at night becomes less attractive; or we find ourselves calmer and more compassionate. Suddenly we're convinced that we've hit upon a painless way to solve all our problems. Sadly, this is not the case. Practice is not a substitute for the difficult work of renunciation. The postures and breath work that you do in a typical yoga class will change your life. These practices—asana and pranayama—suffuse us with the energy we need to take on the hard choices and to endure the inevitable highs and lows. What yoga practice will not do, however, is take the place of the hard lessons each of us has to learn in order to mature spiritually. Renunciation is the acid test; it is walking the walk.

A number of my students come to yoga with issues concerning food and body image. Some binge, some starve, some purge; some do all of the above; some just obsess to the point that it blocks their personal growth. In each case there needs to be an ending and a new beginning. The old behavior must be faced and renounced. Yoga practice is not a substitute for that all-important process, but it does support us as we make a commitment to change. Once we take the first step of renunciation, our practice nourishes and sustains us as we are reborn. Practice without renunciation is avoidance. Renunciation without practice is not long-lived. Together, practice and renunciation make all our dreams possible.


Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, "Grow, grow."
—The Talmud

Many of us have spent years trying to ameliorate the world's suffering without first confronting our own. The belief that it is possible to heal the world without healing ourselves first is what the Yoga Sutras call a lack of true knowledge. The truth is, when we are happy we spread happiness, and when we are in pain we spread suffering. If our aim is to alleviate the world's suffering, we must begin with our own minds and bodies. We must do yoga. Each action taken in compliance with the eight-limb path brings with it an increase in our own peace and happiness—and our happiness is welcomed by the universe. We do not need to fear the steps we are about to take. In fact, we will experience each right action, no matter how small or insignificant, as a pleasure and a relief. With each step we take toward the light, the universe rejoices. When we let go of our suffering, we participate in the salvation of all living beings.

What People are Saying About This

Baron Baptiste

olf Gates is an inspiring teacher who has written an inspiring book. A must for yoga teachers and students alike, Meditations from the Mat brings yoga theory into the 21st century and into our daily lives.
— author of Journey Into Power

Foust, Sifhar

More than just cultivating more vibrant health, yoga is an evolutionary journey. This book reflects the deepening and expansive effect of a dedicated yoga practice.
— President, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health

Beryl Bender Birch

In this free-spirited journey to the heart of yoga, Rolf guides us, through daily meditations, to finding the appropriate balance between standing firm and surrendering to flow -- the key to peace of mind.
— author of Power Yoga and Beyond Power Yoga


A Conversation with Rolf Gates

Q: This has to be the first yoga or meditation book that quotes John Cougar Mellencamp, Almost Famous, Odysseus, a US Navy SEAL and Lao-Tzu. What inspired the wide range of quotes and references for the book? 
A: I’ve always loved quotes. They offer a way for us to gain wisdom and strength from one another. A politician from 100 B.C. may give you insight into your love life, a 17th-century sea captain’s words may give you the courage to ask for a raise. Good quotes are timeless. It’s as if someone just ahead of you on the path of life is turning back to give you a helping hand as you come along behind. As we repeat these quotes, and pass them on, we in turn are helping those who are following in our footsteps.
In Meditations from the Mat, the quotes also remind us that yoga is not an alien philosophy; rather, yoga helps us to remember what we already know. The quotes show that we are all practicing yoga all of the time. Yoga is the deep resonance of a great lyric; it is the essence of a grandmother’s advice; it is in the galvanizing ethos of Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr.; it is our mind reflecting God’s mind over and over again. And we get glimpses of this in the quotes.
Q: How did you match up each piece to its day? How did you go about organizing the text and quotes?

A: The text itself flows along the lines of the yoga Sutras, the ancient Hindu text that lays out the eight-limbed path of yoga. Believe it or not, the yoga Sutras are as relevant to our lives today, in 21st century America as they were thousands of years ago. Quite simply,the Sutras spell out what’s wrong, why we struggle so, what can be done about it, and what is possible in our lives. In Meditations from the Mat I take all this information, consider it from a contemporary perspective, and break it down into short, accessible daily readings.        
So, I did not have to come up with a basic outline for the book; that was done 2,500 years ago. But in the process of examining how I’ve lived and worked with the Sutras myself, I also share my own stories of struggle and transformation. I may write about the path to enlightenment one day, and then, the next day, report from the trenches—recount an anecdote from my life, quote a student, share a discovery I’ve made, offer a tip from yoga class. In the end, I provide the reader with a balanced, realistic sense of what yoga is, and how a daily practice can truly change your life. It has certainly changed mine.
Q: The progression of the book through each day is subtle and powerful, like the practice of yoga itself. How did you come up with the format, did it seem a natural progression?

A: When I think back to how the book came together, the word I have to use is “grace.” I began with a vision of a book that would help American yoga students understand basic yoga theory. Most of us don’t have the time to invest in serious study, but we can all read one page a day. I knew that a book of daily reflections could be enormously helpful to anyone, whether they were a brand new student or had been practicing regularly for years.
From that intention, the essays magically began to flow. Of course, having 365 of them to write, I had plenty of time to cover a lot of ground—and that really helped. But each essay is a little morsel; they are short and to the point. You take one bite a day, digest it fully, and then take another little bite the next day.
In class I emphasize one theme for the day—the breath, perhaps, or surrender—and by keeping it simple, by working with only one point over the course of an hour and a half class, we’re really able to explore that one concept fully. We experience it physically, emotionally, spiritually. The time I give to each concept in this book allows for the same level of integration, the same level of connection to the material. I can examine every idea from a variety of angles—tell a story, make a joke, see what another yoga teacher might have to say on the subject, come full circle, and, in the process, shine a light on something that you may never have even thought about before. Bit by bit, day by day, the reader’s level of awareness and understanding grows and deepens.
Q: Who would you most like to read and be moved by this book? 

A: I wrote this book for anyone who can benefit from it, whether or not they have ever set foot on a yoga mat. You really never know who needs to hear what you have to say. As a teacher, I get e-mails and letters and gifts from all sorts of people, thanking me. People often approach me after class to share their stories. They may say they have been taking my class for three months or three years, but in one way or another it has changed their lives. That is humbling to me. I am constantly amazed at the resilience of the men and women I meet each day—they may be going through a divorce or getting married, feeling old or feeling young again, dealing with illness or just getting well. You never know. All I can do is to come from the right place, give from the right place, and let go of the results.
Q: Do you see any danger in the Westernization of yoga? Do you think that people who practice yoga only for fitness are still practicing yoga?

A: I categorically do not fear the “Westernization of yoga.” I am also convinced that no one is “just working out.” Anyone who has had any success in a physical discipline—from running to Martial arts to volleyball—will, upon reflection, concede that their success began with their attitude. Yoga is a systematic attitude adjustment. It teaches us personal responsibility. You cannot accept a challenge like yoga, stay with it, make a modicum of progress, and not work on your attitude in the process. If you are practicing yoga, for whatever reason, you are also taking a greater degree of responsibility for yourself. And this is very healthy. Yoga also opens the door to a vast array of positive, life-enhancing practices—from eating healthfully to meditation to open-mindedness—that many people would not have had access to any other way. So maybe you start with a few yoga classes at the gym—and then, before you know it, you’ve added years of well-being to your life and you’ve given yourself the means to enjoy those years. This is good stuff! And no matter where you are on that journey, Meditations from the Mat will meet you there.
Q: You talk about your own journey with yoga, a journey that took you away from selfish thinking. Where do you think yoga can take your students and readers after they have practiced for ten years time?
A: There is no telling what the outside will look like—what kinds of changes may occur physically, or in terms of relationships, career, or life decisions, although profound transformation can happen in all these areas as we continue to practice yoga. But there are also enormous, invisible changes on the inside—the way we relate to ourselves, to our surroundings, and to others, not to mention the way we interpret the events of our lives. In all of these areas we experience a softening which is actually a kind of strength. Yoga practice encourages us to become supple in the most profound sense of the word. The rigidity that passes for strength in our culture is short-lived and unwise. Lao-Tzu said that the softest thing overcomes the hardest. Water erodes rock. This is the sort of supple strength that will increase over time—the ability to sit with extreme sorrow and joy, loss and gain, the passage of time, aging. We’re really talking about the ability to be in the midst of life as an adult, abiding calmly, seeing clearly, and behaving compassionately. Yoga does not prevent life from happening; rather, it allows us to participate in our own lives fully, with the dignity, effectiveness, joy, and compassion that is our birthright.
Q: How does it feel for you when you feel you have really reached a student, allowing yoga to open their hearts and minds?
A: We teach what we need to learn. People are routinely shocked to find that their yoga teacher is in fact a normal, flawed human being. We are all in the same boat, just human beings trying to sort out this thing called life. I actually believe that therapists and yoga teachers are people who simply need a bit more coaching than most, more assurance than most. To truly understand the healer, one must first grasp the healer’s need to be healed. My experience of a student’s progress is a powerful affirmation that my own progress is possible as well. As I look out at the world and see others getting better, making progress, I am reassured that I, too, am making progress, that there is hope for me as well. My commitment to my students’ growth is my commitment to my own growth. We are one.
Q: Does writing come easily to you? How would you describe the differences between writing MEDITATIONS FROM THE MAT and teaching and practicing yoga?
A: Teaching does come naturally to me. Both of my parents are teachers. and I’ve always known that my own life would be just fine if I would simply allow myself to be a teacher. Unfortunately, for years I thought that in order to really teach I would have to work in a school system, and that felt suffocating to me. So I danced around the edges of teaching, teaching as an Army officer, teaching as an addictions counselor, teaching in my friendships, teaching to anyone who would sit still long enough for me to make a point. Eventually, of course, I ended up teaching yoga and finally allowed myself to become a teacher in the true sense of the word, bringing out the best in my students, recognizing and honoring what is already there in each one of them. Now my life is working out.
Writing feels like teaching to me. When I’m teaching, I am taking a concept and fleshing it out, turning it over, exploring its relevance to me and my students. I’m not just reciting the answers, I’m asking the questions—what is this? And how can we apply it to our lives? For me, teaching is a means of sharing experience; together, we take what life brings to us and we learn how it fits into God’s plan for us. This is what Meditations from the Mat is all about, and it is the essence of all of my teaching. Writing, teaching, learning—they are all one and the same to me.
Q: What is still the hardest aspect of yoga practice for you?
A: Not making it about a specific result. It’s so easy to think, “I am going to practice yoga today to get in shape, to get in the right mindset, to get more comfortable in my body, to better experience this moment, to let go, to hold on, to be happy, to feel my sadness, to come together, to be alone.” But I work at letting all of that go. I am not really on my mat or in my life until I am there without an agenda.

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