Comment

Reflecting on a practice.

I’ve been practicing asana 12 (13?) years now, which is a reasonable amount of time, and I look forward to many more. I am currently reflecting on the massive changes that have taken place in my life since I begun practicing. @christinasell once said something about how when we first begin an asana practice, there are incredible, large shifts in who we are and how our bodies work. Then as we practice longer, there are fewer changes and / or things may even get worse (forgive me Christina if I got that wrong). I interpret “worse” as meaning that we have a better understanding of what clarity in our movement and our minds is, and can spot it when we don’t have it. Which sometimes causes suffering, when we can’t detach from something as the Yoga Sutra remind us to.  Whereas in the early days of our practice, everything brought more clarity. Just moving your body and understanding where you were putting your foot brought clarity. And if you have a sustained practice of 5 years or more, you made progress on the path, either through asana or another aspect of the yoga practice, and that’s why you’re still practicing. And now you have an ability to understand exactly what isn’t necessarily happening for you to make Mayurasana work, or whatever asana it is that challenges you. And you have decided to make better lifestyle choices, and that has alienated you from a group of friends who were your core confidants. Or any number of other things. As my friend and colleague in teaching @staceymoves says, “Yoga ruined my life” (tongue in cheek, of course). 

I suppose I’m recognizing that sometimes, the clarity isn’t fun. Or the clarity goes away. Maybe you fall out of love with asana, and it’s a chore to get on your mat. Or you don’t want to give up relationships that aren’t serving you. Or you don’t feel like you’re making the kind of progress you “should” be as a practitioner or teacher. What I’m hoping to remind you of is that you’ve made a ridiculous amount of progress, and that you’re a warrior of the best kind. The warrior that stands for being better, for being kinder, for understanding the impact choices make on yourself and others around you. I’m reminding you to remind myself, because I know that life sometimes gets in the way of remembering that your hard work is paying off. It’s paying off in remembering (one in three times) to pause before shooting off that thing you’ll regret saying later. It’s paying off in ordering the food that has less impact on the planet and your consciousness. It’s paying off in smiling at strangers. 

The key is to keep coming back to the practice. Again and again. And again. And to attempt to detach from the results of your practice while at the same time acknowledging yourself for simply doing the work.

Comment

Comment

Ritual

Earlier this week, I got back from San Marcos School of Yoga, where I had spent 5 days learning from my teacher Christina Sell and a new teacher to me, Mari Young. Our study this time was about bhakti. Bhakti means devotional worship of your chosen deity, or Ishta Devata. When I signed up for the intensive, I really wasn’t thinking that I needed more bhakti in my life; like many things that end up impacting me deeply, I just knew I should do it for some reason, and I didn’t question it. My Sanskrit teacher Manorama says that certain things have a “heat” to them, they attract us, and we should pay attention to that. What has had “heat” for me lately has been anything about the divine that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. India has heat for me, too. 

What stuck out for me about San Marcos was the ritual of it. All of it. Every day, Margret, a student and friend of mine, and I got up, ate my homemade granola and made coffee, got dressed in our yoga clothes, greeted the ranch cat, Monkey, drove to the studio. We got tea and sat down. We engaged in a puja of devotion and meditation. We practiced asana and went to the river to paddle board or simply just sit and be with the water. We gathered in the afternoon to talk about worship or draw mandalas or sing beautiful bhajans. We went home and watched the sunset (after greeting Monkey). We went to bed. And so it went. It was healing in ways that I haven’t quite grasped yet. I do know that my words always seem to ring more true as they leave my mouth after spending time reconnecting to that deep part of myself that yearns for sweetness and ritual. 

I was reading over my journal from India tonight. I’m heading to India for the second time in January with my dear friend Gaura Vani. The last time I went to India, in 2012, was also with Gaura. I was reading about a particular day on which we visited the Balaji temple in Tirumala. We got up very early (4 AM) and after puja at the temple we were staying at (the Lotus Temple of Tirupati) we had prasadam, which is food prepared in the mood of worship. Then we walked up 3800 stone steps barefoot to the town of Tirumala, where we bathed in ghats to purify ourselves before we took darshan of Balaji. We waited hours to get into the temple complex, in snaking lines of devotees. When we finally took darshan it was very swift but intoxicating. It was mystical and deep. And back out in the temple complex of one of the busiest temples in the world, we reconvened and I felt a sense of release. For in the following of ritual we bow to something greater than ourselves, surrender our constant need to have everything under control. 

Ritual is different than habit, because ritual is about devotion and worship, and again, surrender. It is without attachment to the outcome but simply for the act of doing and in the spirit of deep love and awe. Rituals are deeply held and feed the deepest recesses of our hearts. What rituals are nourishing you?

(Read more about our upcoming India trip here.)

Comment

Comment

Tonight before the Counting Crows concert my boyfriend proclaimed listening to their music as his “church”.  

 Everyone’s got something. Something that brings them back in touch with their truest self, back to someplace that feels like home. 

 Mine is yoga, and a good art museum is church to me too. Oh and baking is definitely worship. What is your “church”?

Tonight before the Counting Crows concert my boyfriend proclaimed listening to their music as his “church”.

Everyone’s got something. Something that brings them back in touch with their truest self, back to someplace that feels like home.

Mine is yoga, and a good art museum is church to me too. Oh and baking is definitely worship. What is your “church”?

Comment

Comment

Surrender

I’m often told that my classes are like a conversation with my students. This is meaningful to me because I am still working on my internal chatter of “am I right?” or “am I wrong?” which more often than not seems to be answered with “I am wrong”. This eternal perfectionism leads me often to exhaustion and disappointment with my efforts, and sometimes (like today) to my body saying “enough” and physically grounding me for overexertion. 


So, being able to be comfortable with allowing my teaching to be a conversation with students rather than me walking in as an authority who knows absolutely everything, allowing myself to engage students in the conversation about what is actually happening in a posture or a sequence, and not always having the answer…that feels a little like freedom to me. I hope that it feels like freedom to students, too, when I present the classroom environment as a place where they can experiment, enjoy, feel their limbs, laugh, maybe even cry once in a while, and feel safe to do all of the above. 


Sometimes I hear people refer to “corrections” or “adjustments” in a pose, and I feel myself flinch. Of course there is an external form to a posture, and alignment information and instruction is necessary to a safe posture and even achieving postures that you haven’t mastered yet. But what is mastery of a posture? As my practice progresses, it’s finally dawning on me that the “doing” isn’t the whole thing. It’s the “surrendering” that makes a practice whole and beautiful. For a long time, the postures that really appealed to me were the ones where I could emphatically do the pose, poses like Bakasana, Tittibhasana, Eka Pada Koundinyasana II. I’ve found that in the past couple of years, the backbends are what have been enticing me more and more. Perhaps part of it is the feeling of well-being they give me, but I’m understanding lately that it’s the requirement of strength alongside the willingness to let go that is intriguing me to go deeper into my backbending practice.


The postures in Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar can be looked at as laid out in the book in a progressive way; the most advanced postures occur towards the back (not that the postures early in the book aren’t hard!). They’re the big crazy backbends like Chakrabandhasana (below). Listen, I’m not going to say that poses like this don’t require a huge amount of preparation and practice, but they also require that equal amount of surrender, or as the Yoga Sutras call it, vairagyam. I’ll reference Judith Lasater again here from a 1997 article she wrote for Yoga Journal called “Tips for Teaching Yoga”: “In the Yoga Sutras (11:1), Patanjali describes the dual concepts of abhyasa and vairagyam. Abhyasa, or “determined effort,” involves discipline, attention, and action, and it manifests as attention to the form of the posture. Vairagyam, on the other hand, is “supreme detachment.” Vairagyam is surrender, letting go, and allowing; it involves opening to the experience of the practice. When technique and form are balanced with heartfelt, free movement, then the asana is whole.”

The asana practice mirrors life off the mat for me. The more I can truly embrace the idea of vairagyam, surrender, the more ease I will have, the more whole I will be for myself, but also for my students. 

Comment

Comment

The importance of deep rest.

image

“Savasana is where people are most likely to experience the meaning of yoga, which is their conscious unity with Infinity… You lie there and look dead, but as you relax and sink into the feeling of the very alive energy that is being you, it literally feels like you come to life again.”–Erich Schiffman

Savasana isn’t the “sexiest” of poses–rarely do you see an Instagram post showing someone getting deep rest. But it’s arguably the most important asana in a yoga class. Savasana helps balance out the nervous system after an asana class and “recalibrate” the body. Most importantly, the number one reason for making Savasana a priority in your practice and in classes (if you are a teacher), is that it helps relieve stress. Stress is a state in which many of us constantly live, and which can have very poor effects on our health, including reducing our libido, affecting the quality of our sleep and our digestion, the health of our heart, and the strength of our immune system.

Restorative Yoga expert Judith Hanson Lasater says that we need 15 minutes for our bodies to move into the stage of Savasana where you deeply relax and your thoughts drift away. I know that when I give myself or am given this long to be in Savasana, I am in a completely different state of mind when I come out–my skin is flushed and radiant; I feel what I can only describe as “healthy”. This is a distinctly different state than “strung out”, which is where I often find myself living. 

As a yoga teacher, I realize that in public classes, this is a helluva lot of time to devote to Savasana, even though I believe that it is in fact the most important pose we do in a class. So, how to handle Savasana as a modern yoga teacher with all the things we want to accomplish in what are increasingly 60- to 75-minute classes? 

1. At least a 6-minute Savasana: I believe I learned from Judith Lasater herself that it takes the body 6 minutes to shift into parasympathetic nervous system activation and “rest and digest” mode. Giving your students 6-10 minute Savasana will ensure that they get the full benefit of this pose.

2. Don’t use songs with English lyrics: The goal of Savasana is to let students drop out of their personal narrative and conscious, individual mind into a sense of expansive awareness. Songs with English lyrics will keep students attached to their conscious mind and in their day and habitual thinking.  Try songs with Sanskrit lyrics or no lyrics at all. Definitely do not use any song that is recognizable from the radio as students may already have an emotional association with that song and be kicked right back into that memory when hearing it. 

3. Pay close attention to the rhythm and percussion in a song: Any song with a strong beat or which has a crescendo is energizing for students and will have the opposite effect that Savasana is meant to impart, a letting go of action and moving into relaxation. Savasana is not the time to use a “theme” song with lyrics that are inspiring–use your playlist to do that if you have a strong intention you would like to weave into class. Savasana is a time for a complete lack of thinking, including anything related to inspiration.

4. Create a restful environment: The room for Savasana should be dark, still, and a comfortable temperature. My preference is to turn the lights gradually down as I move students through the”denouement” of a class, or the poses in response to a peak pose that prepare a student for their final rest in Savasna. If you have a fan on during class, turn it down as soon as students begin to forward fold. If you have a heated room, be sure that you have already turned off the heat immediately after backbending postures. Give students props to make them comfortable (e.g., bolsters under their knees to relieve tightness in their lower backs or blankets under their heads and necks to relieve tightness in the shoulders). Ask everyone in the studio to keep the volume of their voices down while your class is in Savasana. 

5. Prepare for Savasana appropriately: In the arc of a class, a backbend is often a “peak” of the sequence and the most energizing pose due to the compression of the adrenals and the ensuing release of adrenaline into the body. It is important to stabilize the back and broaden the adrenal area slowly and safely after backbending to prepare students to move into Savasana, otherwise they will be lying down with adrenaline surging through their system and unable to rest. Grounding the pelvis with Supta Padangustasana, lengthening out the back body with gentle forward folds, doing a gentle supine twist, and other similarly cooling poses are excellent preparation for Savasana.

My teacher Christina Sell says that a rested student is a return student (I’m paraphrasing). Not only will you fulfill on what is surely one of your aims as a teacher, to make people feel better, but you will prepare your students for a long, sustainable yoga practice by taking the care to give them a Savasana that is rejuvenating and restful. 

Comment