In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed a privileged sort of fun. I bumble around with people who came to a decision to change some old habits. Something happened, some sort of ‘that’s it, this is it, who am I, I’m doing this, let’s go.’ And they didn’t just let the decision go. They acted on it.
So they tried some stuff out—pilates or running, rock climbing, swing dancing, diet or bike riding—and they get a little insight, and then a little frustrated, and then they pick themselves up and try again. They start to see that this decision is going to require some attention. That they want to be paying more attention to how they live their lives and interact with life around them. They stumble into ideas rooted in the practice of yoga. Not just ideas about poses and yoga journal conferences. But ideas about calming the mind through careful, consistent observation of habits and patterns of behavior.
And because I’m lucky, or because the wind blew, because the door was open, because I had availability on my schedule, some of them introduced themselves to me.
A friend asked me recently whether I would ever stop my yoga practice. He said, ‘Do you get tired of doing the poses and doing the meditation? Do you get tired of sitting still and then hearing people like me dismiss yoga as some false faith system? Don’t you get tired?’
I answered, ‘No. Because I make a new decision every day to practice yoga.’
Which means, I say hello to every morning with gratitude for the light shining through the windows. And then I decide to express my gratitude by making a decision to practice. Which is my way of growing my love—for myself, my questioning friends, my clients and everyone I haven’t yet met. It’s my way of knowing myself so I can know the world.
Which doesn’t mean that I’m not going to fail a bunch. But a new day comes along with frequency, and, as long as I’m fortunate enough to awake to it, I’m regularly grateful to the light for returning. It gives me another opportunity to dedicate myself to my practice. Because the whole point is practice. The brief moments when light shines in the darkness are just gifts that remind me to recommit to my practice. Plus, they break my heart open a little more. And that just makes me happier to see how much light shines in everything. In everyone. In me.
The Yoga Sutra advises consistent practice. Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodha. We should use consistent effort and we should keep ourselves from attaching to it. And we should do this for a long, long time. Satu dirgha kala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhabhumih. The effort becomes fixed only when done over time, with reverence and focus.
Which means that a diligent effort requires a continuous decision. It isn’t easy to practice. The mind wants to be busy with external ideas. The body wants to be lazy or active or fed or rested. The decision is to become disciplined but the decision itself requires discipline. And every day, a new decision. Every moment, another one.
So see what happens if you start by making a decision every morning: today, I’ll practice yoga. I’ll practice coming to the present moment through awareness of my movement, my breath, the flow of my thoughts. And watch what happens if you do this a few days in a row. And if you fail to make the decision on one day, no worries. Just try again. And again. And again.
It’s always a decision. And no one else is going to make it for you. So when you make your decision, remember how special it is that others are doing the same. And appreciate the presence of your sisters and brothers meandering mindfully on the path—whatever path it is that they decided to pursue.
Oh relationships. The benefits they add to our lives—in companionship, support, community—teeter-totter so enthusiastically with the challenges they pose to our peace of mind. Among clients (and in my own unremarkable life) I’ve been watching those sublime trials that intimacy initiates in otherwise steady lives. I’ve even considered, as a preventive measure, whether solitude might be the simple solution to maintaining calm.
This idea, I confess, isn’t my own. It’s ancient. We see ascetics and monks and nuns and the occasional good friend opting out. They say no to the deep, personal, mundane connections with family in favor of that profound connection with their own spirit and community. In talking with a respected mentor about this same subject, he acknowledged that he keeps his distance in friendships and love because of the distractions they provoke. In his mind, they’re obstacles on his path.
Honestly? I’m not comfortable with that. Seeing our fellow travelers as barriers to the self-understanding inspired by a yoga practice is a bit like looking at a door and believing it a wall. While I agree that most of us share a funny habit of letting the lights in our lives dim our own, that doesn’t mean the habit is intractable.
The key, I think, is to remember (again and again and again) that the only person in this world subject to your control is you. Which means that the behavior of your companion isn’t for you to manage. Or change. Or manipulate. It’s their behavior. And your reaction to it is up to you.
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali provides a helpful reminder on making this possible. (Though, truth be told, Patanjali makes it pretty clear that certain relationships, like, you know, with that funk-you-up flavor, are just not gonna jive with your practice. But if I know you, you’re probably feeling the left-hand path a little more on this one. Am I right? Anyway.)
First, remember that the main obstacle to our greater peace is our own ignorance. Ignorance underlies all the other afflictions—like ego, attachment, aversion and fear— that keep us from realizing the potential of our consciousness. That ignorance in you is what prevents you from seeing how so much of what you do could be done better.
Once you understand that you can open your eyes a little wider, you’ll start taking in a little more light, and seeing things for what they are. Your partner is someone who will never be under your control. It’s a silly (ignorant) thing to believe otherwise. Which means it’s up to you. You get to control you. And as you do, here’s a lovely little helper: this moment.
When you find yourself struggling to keep your cool in the heat of a situation with someone, pause and come home to the present. I think of it as home base. It works just the same. You tag home and you’re safe. No one can make you ‘IT’. You get to catch your breath, feel your place in the universe, notice the way you’re feeling. You even have time to deliberate over your best response.
And here’s a lovely fact about hanging out in the moment. In the sanctuary of home base, you’re perfectly situated to intentionally look for the vulnerability in the person before you. And to remember that you, too, have been vulnerable. You can look and see that your friend is uncertain, or afraid, or insecure. Just like you’ve been. Because we all pray for safety. Because we’re all people with just a bit of flesh protecting everything inside.
Having used the moment to exercise this bit of compassionate seeing, you’re now free to invite your companion to join you at home base. He or she may not want to come along. And that’s fine. But an invitation to share a moment of safety with someone will bring you together. And a reaction against someone’s fear or hurt or uncertainty won’t. It’s always your choice.
Which doesn’t mean it’s easy.
But it is a choice. And it’s a choice that can become better used with practice. Again and again. Practice. So don’t be afraid to love. But always remember: the present moment is your sanctuary. From home base, you can learn to respond instead of react. You can learn to see that the union between you and your loved one isn’t just about the beauty of togetherness, but the sublime coincidence of vulnerability.
From that place, you can learn to care even more deeply.
Let me know if this helps.
Happy New Year, my friends. I hope you’re inspired by the turn of the calendar and delighted by your place on earth. Why not?
As we reflect on the march of time, it’s darn common that we look at ourselves and wonder: who have I become? how can I be better? what the hell happened? Or maybe we aren’t quite so confrontational. We may, instead, make a promise to ourselves that sounds something like a sweetness offered to a neglected kid: I’m going to make you happier. Healthier. Stronger. Fitter. More productive. More creative. Different.
We make goals; we make promises to ourselves. And then we join the march of time—to steadily march away from them.
I write today because I have a suspicion that I’m starting to understand why this happens. I don’t want to be presumptuous, so correct me if I’m wrong.
When we make promises to others, we aim to assert our accountability. ‘I promise I’ll be there in 20 minutes!’ In essence, we’re saying: ‘I will not let you down.’ We don’t want our friend to be waiting outside for an hour so we get in the car and get our ass down to our friend.
When we make a promise to ourselves, the issue of accountability becomes a little fuzzy. ‘I’ll be there in 20 minutes!’ doesn’t really matter if it’s just you waiting on yourself. What are you going to do if you don’t make it? Pace the block cursing that flake… I mean, you? Unfriend yourself on facebook? You’re just going to sigh and have a beer. If you even notice that you let yourself down.
So why do we let ourselves down? What’s up with that? I think it has something to do with this: we prefer to avoid suffering. Because we don’t understand the value of suffering. And the resilience of our own hearts in response to it.
Consider this. Your best accomplishments are generally hard-earned, fueled by passion, sweat, tears and a refusal to surrender. We all have a few of them. We sometimes forget how we got there. So let me suggest a little guidance from an old tradition.
In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, we’re told to practice consistently and remain detached in order to shift our patterns toward greater understanding, integration, control of wild thoughts: abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodah. In the following sutra, we learn: tatra sthithau yatnabhyasa. Practice—through an ardent and sustained effort—will bring stability to this understanding. With this understanding, we find tranquility. Calm.
Which all seems pretty familiar. No?
It is a great gift when we are able to succeed and experience the satisfaction of a goal completed. We feel exhilaration and relief. It is a blessing when we turn the requisite steps of success toward the development of our best selves. This is when we find calm. Equanimity. And this is what Patanjali is getting at. This is how we find the stability to stick with our resolve. To go the distance on behalf of ourselves so we can be tranquil.
As an exercise, consider answering the following.
What efforts do you make that lead you toward greater stability in your self-knowledge, toward personal calm? What actions can you commit to that will lead toward this stability?
What efforts or actions do you make that lead you away from this stability? What actions should you release because they deter you from calm?
It’s a good time for this kind of reflection. It’s the new year. It’s a time of renewal. Of course, any time is appropriate to begin considering your patterns of activity that serve or challenge you. But now is now. And this is the only moment I have. Join me in giving it a little thought.
Because time is always moving. And we all are so lucky to move along with it. Hopefully, with great love for the calm in our souls and the bodies that usher them around this good earth.
I think we all know how good it feels to be thanked. Truly thanked. So consider this.
In yoga, we do asana to cultivate strength and movement in the body. We do this, believe it or not, consciously or otherwise, as an act of gratitude for these fleshy vessels that carry us. Sure, you may also want nice looking deltoids. And a yoga butt. Ultimately, however, acts of mindful movement are powered by a deeper knowing that these bodies deserve our attention and care. That maintenance of these bodies can’t be outsourced. That we are our own custodians.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the attention can go wonky. We haven’t upskilled and we pretend like we’re still 18. Like, for example, we turn upside down into handstands at 8:30pm with an expectation that we’ll fall into a calm sleep shortly after. Or we let our egos push your bodies into poses they can’t cash. These efforts are a misguided attempt at gratitude—something like giving your Grandma your favorite mix of dubstep and expecting that she’ll want to hoof it out to some illegal dance party with you. You gotta be thoughtful about your attention, capeeesh? You got to be considerate about your care. Good custodians know that maintenance should be both effective and appropriate.
Which is why I’m so grateful for my training in Viniyoga with Gary Kraftsow. The yoga I teach—thanks to his guidance—is less about what you think yoga should be and more about discovering what yoga will be for you. You may be ready for more pranayama. For more concentration. Or maybe there’s structural issues that can be improved. Maybe you’re tired of your patterns. This is the yoga that answers your needs. Which is a lovely gesture toward yourself—body and mind.
When you start giving yourself this kindness, you’ll start to realize how sweet it is to feel thankful for this life you have. That gratitude means understanding that what you have is plenty. And you’ll be inspired to offer what you have to others. And you’ll enjoy the feeling of gratitude from within and without.
So pay attention to your decisions. To the way you practice your yoga. And if you’re interested in developing a practice that honors your physical and emotional conditions without the demands of your ego, let me know. I’d love to help you consider a deeper path.
And thank you. Truly.
Well. Here’s a great big topic. Finding happiness.
I can hear the snorts. See the eye rolls. Because a whole lot of folks think happiness is something that rumbles into them. A storm that dumps rainbows and unicorn tears on the heads of those born under perfect stars. Or worse: a consequence of status. As if financial security brought happiness. Sheesh. If this was the case, I think all the billionaires in the world would be way friendlier. And not trying to take more and more from those with less and less.
But I digress.
Happiness. Consider for yourself how you feel it. Is it the consequence of situations outside of your control? Or is it some kind of magic that arises when the state of your mind allows it? And if your happiness was the result of external circumstances, how long did it last? Was it fleeting? Maybe just a moment of pleasure that you confused for happiness? (Which is not to say that pleasure can’t complement happiness… it can!) And if it came from within, can you access that feeling again? Like, right now?
This is sort of how you cultivate happiness. (Though there are a lot of things you can do to help you do this. Like yoga! Call me!) No matter what, however, it must be cultivated. It doesn’t just find you. You may have friends who seem unrealistically lucky; you may know people who don’t seem to suffer quite as much as you. But look carefully before you make your assessment. Are you friends actually so lucky, or do they do something to create their good fortune? Do you truly believe they’ve failed to suffer in their lives?
We have the seeds of happiness within. And all the factors to allow them to grow. But we have to do a little work to get the sprouts sprouting. It’s sort of like seeing a beautiful plot of land alongside a river in a valley of sunshine and realizing no one’s planted a veggie garden. It’s just going to take the decision to become a gardener.
Take a moment. Look inside. And source that deep love and gratitude that occasionally overwhelms you. That’s where your seeds hunker down, waiting.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali writes about the arising of negative emotions. ‘When harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate their opposite.’ You can find this at chapter 2, sutra 33. And this, in a nutshell, is how happiness is created. When we indulge again and again in negative emotions as they arise, we cast a spell over ourselves. We come to believe that we have no control over them. We victimize ourselves with them. We say things like, ‘there’s nothing I can do.’
This kind of magic isn’t the kind that serves our best selves. So why do we bother with it? Because, somehow, we’ve been convinced that we can’t do anything to change. Despite the fact that change is always happening. Every moment.
Happiness attends the liberating realization that you can shape the change happening in you. This is also an important teaching of yoga. With the wise decisions that come from careful self-study—svadhyaya—we can influence the direction of change in our life. We can never stop change; we can shape the course it takes.
Consider the amount of time we spend cultivating things—relationships, careers, homes, gardens. This is a way that we shape the course of our lives. We don’t expect these things to manifest for us without a degree of effort. Positive emotions and the happiness that blossoms as a result of our practice with them requires the same effort.
The next time you find yourself stewing in a sludge of yucky blahs, take control of your mind. Remind it that you’ve got seeds somewhere in there and you’d like to water them a bit. Then shine some light on them. Think a happy thought. Turn your frown upside down. And keep doing that. Again and again. Forever.
Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tanninirodhah. With practice and detachment, your mind will calm. It may take a while. But so did saving for your home, your graduate degree and all those other things you hoped would make you happy. And didn’t quite hit the mark.
I heard this from a yoga student recently: ‘From now on, I’ve decided I give zero f*cks.’
And I got a little sad.
I wanted to give a f*ck in his place, if he’d let me. So I asked. He was cool. He said, ‘whatever.’
Of course he did.
So I told him: ‘With this f*ck you’ve let me give in your place,’ I said, ‘I’m going to give a f*ck for you.’
He laughed. He’s a good one. He even said thank you.
So we chatted. And here’s what we came up with.
We both give a lot of f*cks. We care about the well-being of our families and friends, the safety and potential of children, strangers who cross our path or don’t, the broadest possible understanding of community, even—meaning, the whole family of humans who inhabit the world with us. When we got down to it, we realized that we both really have quite a lot of f*cks to give. We care about universal access to quality healthcare complemented by a growing understanding of prevention and self-care habits. We care about rising sea levels and diminishing animal species. We care about literacy and spelling. We care about appropriate behavior, gender equality, safe sex and self-respect. Dogs, cats, potholes, litter, space: we care!
It’s just that, sometimes, it’s easier to put our heads in the sand in the midst of the deep caring. The caring becomes, occasionally, overwhelming.
This is when we started talking yoga. And not just the form of our virabhadrasana. (Though I do care that your low back is protected in the warrior pose. That your legs are strong. That you feel your spine extending.)
In particular, an idea posed in the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In sutra 2.21, we learn tad artha eva drshyasyatma. Or, ‘the essential nature of that which is seen is exclusively for the sake of the seer.’ In plain speak, the world around us offers opportunities to feel pleasure and pain and in these experiences, we find ourselves.
If we were to stop giving a f*ck, what growth would we ever enjoy?
The good and the bad you see out there—the wealth and the homelessness, the irrepressible happiness of drunk college kids and the dismal despair of families grieving a shooting victim, all of it—exist for the purpose of our liberation.
Liberation is a big ask. But I think we all know how we gain from feeling deeply. It’s usually transformative. A big laugh, a big cry. Big anger, big falls. We resurface from these experiences with perspectives newly illumined by the emotion. If we’re willing.
And when we turn ourselves off, turn ourselves over and hide, we miss out. Which isn’t to say that we should try to see everything at once. But that we should be present in every moment to discern it for what it is. See it clearly. Feel it. And let everything kindle the fire of our discernment.
In this kind of attentiveness, we not only learn but we see how to love the world and all its inhabitants for these experiences.
Crazy? Try it for a week. Let me know what you think after asking yourself to focus clearly on the situations confronting you.
The thing I love most about my Viniyoga training? Gary Kraftsow’s stubborn and persistent message that yoga is more than asana. Thank goodness for Gary. Thank goodness for the students who came before me who confirmed his path. His teaching is authentic and it works. Bodies change. Minds change. More importantly, people change their perception of themselves. I’m honored everyday to be his student. I’m grateful that he hasn’t altered course despite what I imagine would be some strong pulls for him to consider other paths.
In my funny beach ghetto, yoga is widely understood as a physical practice that takes place in a studio, on a rubber mat, in specially designed clothing made from organic hemp or body-slimming plutonium or something. The innovation of all the inconsequential components of a yoga practice is a mesmerizing example of the distractions our society enjoys.
Did you know you can practice yoga without a Lululemon bralette? I promise you: you can. You can even practice without a playlist. Your breath can actually serve as the rhythm of your movement. Astounding. We are amazing beings, us humans. Even without our toys and gimmicks.
Especially without them.
When we begin to set aside the unnecessary parts of what is commonly known as a yoga practice, the bones of a practice become apparent. In the quiet, in the austerity, we can begin to notice what our practices might be missing.
For example, I have a student who used to do his asana practice to music. As a result, his ability to observe his breath was pretty weak when we started working together. He’d never really listened to it. When he started to hear it, he discovered how labored it was. How his inhales caught in his throat. How he never let himself exhale completely. It took only a few sessions and he was suddenly able to move with more comfort. His breath changed. And lengthened. He started to notice that he could relax himself when he got in bed, simply by extending his exhale. He discovered an amazing tool for himself—a tool completely free to him, not available on Amazon or at the gift shop of your favorite yoga studio.
Another student had pushed herself in some serious hot yoga classes. This is a woman who was already dealing with high stress in her personal life. She experienced frequent anger—at herself and those she loved. She came to me with a yoga blanket, a yoga towel, a water bottle, really short shorts and her phone. She resisted when I initially told her that she wouldn’t need any of those things to lie on the floor for a while. She gave me funny looks when I asked her to move with her breath into a sequence that would calm her nervous system. But she came back because she felt better after resting, after eliminating some of her body’s suppressed energy. When she learned how to settle herself, she discovered that she felt a deep connection to her own vibration. Now she’s learning to silently and verbally chant as a way to explore this vibration. She’s incorporated a mantra into her asana practice and she spends more time in child’s pose, feeling her body learning how to relax.
When we surrender all the toys we gather to distract ourselves—when we strip down— we start to discover who we are. From that place, a yoga practice can be developed that integrates so much more into the physical practice. We can work on the breath, we can learn to control our senses, we can come to stillness, we can concentrate and meditate. We don’t turn our back on our asana. Instead, we discern the appropriate movements for our current condition and we incorporate breath or mantra or sound.
Our practice becomes so much more interesting at that point. Like the former hot yogini (though temperamentally cooler, she remains a hot woman), we might discover other methods of practice to complement our idiosyncratic potentials. Some of us might want to incorporate mantra with our practice. Some might like prayer. Or maybe a little bit of everything.
There’s so much to explore beyond the material fiddle-faddle; there’s a whole smorgasbord of practices to focus the mind and body toward joy and freedom. We need only become willing to release our attachment to the things that identify us as yogis and look a little more closely at the patterns that have allowed those attachments to form.
And this, my friends, is why I love my Viniyoga practice. And why I enjoy sharing it.
If you’d like to explore the potential of an integrated practice for yourself, please join me on the next two Saturdays, July 25 and August 1, at Eight Elements West, for the last two workshops in a series called Moving Toward Stillness. We’ll be looking at the things that prevent us from sitting still and learning more about using our breath to help us train our attention and feel our inherent joy.
As I review my last post, I see how ridiculously egocentric it was. Oh, silly ego. In Sanskrit, it’s ahamkara—a state of subjective illusion wherein I appropriate some thing or action and pretend like it’s me. Sure it gives a sense of I-ness, but it can really fence in the free range of consciousness. (Consider: ‘I’m a yoga teacher!’ Am I not, actually, something much broader?)
So, apologies for my moment of totally limited I-ness. But it was, at best, informed by what I knew. And before I left, I didn’t know the incredible men and women who would share the trail (and stories, and water, and jerky, and so much more) with me.
The mission of Warriors Live On is to provide life-changing adventures and life-contemplative guidance to combat veterans suffering the symptoms of post-traumatic stress after deployment in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. WLO is committed to demonstrating to these folks the transformative power of compassion—especially toward oneself. Their aim to foster a holistic process of healing to the veterans is part of the reason they wanted to incorporate yoga on the trail. Also on offer during the trek? Two licensed counselors and three Somatic Experiencing guides. From the start, there was no question that whatever was felt would be examined.
And feel, we did.
The weight of the packs, for one, the ground beneath our feet, and the heat. On the first day, a fire broke out within view but not in our path. The flames—a cunning tribute to a good, hot catharsis—also served to make an already sweltering day just a little more infernal. One of the veterans acknowledged her limitations early on and chose to resume the trek another time. Another veteran found himself seriously dehydrated; he also had to return home. It was a challenge. We felt the absence of our two new friends keenly.
All this, on just the first day.
But experiences are meant for experiencing. Even the Yoga Sutra agree that this knowable world exists to be seen by the seer. And then, if we’re good at discerning what we see, we let it go and become free.
And so we continued on.
In the mornings, we did asana to wake up our bodies, to lengthen our spine, relieve tension in our shoulders and necks, and to remember that we can channel our awareness by watching how the breath moves our body. We also moved our ankles and stretched our legs. I believe it served our bodies well. I know it helped us become a fun-loving family. Asana does that. It brings smiles to faces. And who doesn’t like seeing a smile?
But the yoga highlight on the trail, for me anyway, was an afternoon of walking meditation. It wasn’t planned; it developed in a step-wise process that made me grateful for the wisdom of my teachers and all those who walked before me.
It was our third day and the conversation among some of the vets had turned negative. Bodies were tired. Minds wanted to know how much longer. The topics, while unlimited in scope, shifted from bad to worse in tone. Though the pink and dusty desert landscape stretched over rolling hills and our trail curled around boulders and wildflowers, the chatter got heavier. My pack felt heavier. The heat of the distant fire returned to bother all of us.
We stopped in a tiny crouch of shade and the WLO leader and I spoke. She decided to intervene and I shared some thoughts. We agreed it would be a good time to ask for silence. We also agreed it would be good to offer guidance. So I shared two techniques that I hoped would be appropriate.
The group group gathered in a staggered line. We stood momentarily to feel our breath. In this moment of stillness, we prepared to move by feeling the position of our bodies in space. We noticed the sensations in our bodies. We each called to mind a true desire and learned how to phrase it as though it were already a fact in the present. I asked that we try the following.
We would walk and notice the feeling of our feet on the ground, our ankles, our calves with each stride. We would walk and pay attention to the details of our knees bending, our thighs moving through the air, the rise and fall of each side of our hip as one leg moved forward and the other back. We would feel the softness of our bellies and the expansion of our ribcage with every inhale, the contraction of the ribcage with every exhale. We would notice the way our arms might swing. And the position of our heads.
When we’d spent time scanning the details of our bodies in motion, we would fortify our true desire by giving it the strength of the ground beneath our feet. With every step, we would repeat the true desire as though it had already come to pass. As though it had long been fact. We would move slowly. And if we lost track of ourselves, when our minds wandered or time-traveled, we would return to noticing the sensations in our bodies. And as we noticed them again, we would allow our true desire to move through our bodies with every step, made stronger and stronger by the firm ground passing beneath us.
We passed two hours in silence. Even small breaks to share water or food were quiet. But our connection to each other was stronger. In the seclusion of our own personal meditations, we’d shared yet another experience. That experience was knowing that we each were in pursuit of our true desires because we loved this gift of life. Because this life deserves that we endeavor toward our greatest potential. And those potentials are already present and available to us. I’m pretty sure we connected with a certain faith: that our recognition of that access would benefit our own microcosm as much as the worlds we would return to.
We made it to Splinters Cabin and spent our last night along a riverbed. We didn’t do any more yoga together, but I sort of sensed that everyone was engaged in great contemplation. And this, along with that burning fire of intention, and a reverence for the fact of existence, is what the practice of yoga requires. Tapah svadhyaya isvara pranidhanani kriya yogah.
I remain honored and grateful to have shared the time with my new family and I’m already excited for WLO’s next adventure. I thank them for sharing their trust with me, and their stories, and their food, and their fears. I thank them for sacrificing so much of their personal comfort to serve our country. Each of them told me that they followed a deep instinct to protect their families and friends. We’re all fortunate to share a world with men and women who have the courage and integrity to abide that noble instinct. Because of these new friends, I now include all the men and women who serve this country in my prayers. That they will heal from the sadness, grief and anxiety they experience. That they will see how truly appreciated and important they are. That they will be happy and at peace.
If you’d like more information about Warriors Live On, or would like learn how to take part in their programs, please don’t hesitate to contact me or visit their website. In addition to organizing future treks, they are also working with the staff at Eight Elements West (including me!) to provide holistic healing to veterans looking to relieve their symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
About a month ago, the amazing executive director of Warriors Live On asked if I’d join a group of combat Veterans on a 4-day/40 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. She wants to introduce them to yoga, with the intention that it’ll complement their healing process as they walk the trail. I thought it would also relieve tension in the shoulders, back and legs after the walk. So I said yes.
Yes. Of course. And without hesitation.
I was (and remain) humbled and honored by this adventure.
In between then and now, however, I’ve had a few epiphany moments that will sound silly to anyone with actual trail-traveling experience. (That would be anyone, it seems, who is not me.)
I’ve climbed a few mountains in New Zealand, and wandered around trails in California. But, really, I managed those on whims. I didn’t plan. I didn’t read. I just went out and always got back before dark. Maybe shortly after. Then I had a beer. Or a glass of wine. And I put my feet up. That’s what I know about hiking.
When the WLO Director instructed me to get fitted for a pack—generously provided to all the participants by Adventure 16—it dawned on me that trek means something more than hike. I would be transporting my personal survival on my back. Food, water, shelter. Layers. I would be forced to acknowledge that a whole bunch of things that I consider imperative—laptop, phone, almond butter, and about 15 books—were not actually requisite to my existence.
Then I realized that generous as Adventure 16 has been to WLO, they are not providing us with donkeys.
And no one I know volunteered to be my sherpa. (Really? No one?! Sheesh.)
The trek will follow the PCT from Big Bear Lake to Lake Arrowhead. In the morning, before we eat, I hope the Veterans will enjoy moving slowly through some yoga asana with me to prepare our feet, ankles, legs, backs, and shoulders for the 10-mile day. In the evenings, when we’ve settled into our camp, I’ll invite them to move again, and to breathe and notice their energy after the great exertion of pushing the ground beneath us. I hope I can share whatever knowledge I have with clarity and integrity. I hope whatever I can share will be a helpful reminder to each of the Veterans that the study of the self—through asana, trail-wandering, or that mindless state of wonder that both bring—is an elevating pursuit. It serves all of us to look within. May we all be safe and supportive of each other.
I leave tomorrow. My pack slumps against the wall in a state of half-packed anticipation. It doesn’t quite weigh more than I do. Please think kind thoughts for all of us! I’ll report back soon.
I teach yoga almost everyday. For this, I’m grateful. And fortunate.
I love the students who show up with their mats and their water. They have their special clothes and they like a certain place in the room. Sometimes, they pick themselves up and try another corner. Sometimes, they find their space taken by someone new and they have to accommodate a change they didn’t want. Ah well. Such is life. They move and find a new space to inhabit. It’s a lesson, whether they realize it at the moment or not.
Someone asked me recently what my favorite part of yoga class is. ‘That’s easy,’ I said. ‘The sangha.’
‘The community of folks,’ I said. ‘All of us hanging out.’
She clarified. ‘No, no, I mean, like the sun salutes or the backbends or handstands.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Then it’s the breath.’ It’s true: I do love hearing everyone breathing. It’s hypnotic. And slightly euphoric.
She shrugged again and I felt like I should just stop answering her questions. I made nice and said that I like teaching all the poses and I love the hello and good-bye portion of class. (Also true. People come in a little scattered; people leave with bright eyes. It makes me melt a little to see them transit through these phases.)
The woman told me that she liked savasana.
‘Yay,’ I said. ‘Me too.’ Because sometimes I try to make nicer than nice. (Though I do love savasana. I mean, come on. I’m not totally crazy!)
As I thought about this interaction later, I wondered if I’d been unnecessarily obtuse. I thought that maybe I should have just picked a pose or two. It’s not like I don’t know that asana classes are comprised of a sequence of poses. I spend a lot of time putting these sequences together for my students, and I always hope I do a good job. When I teach, I enjoy almost all of the asana I include. When there’s a pose I don’t like to teach, I intentionally teach it again and again. When there’s a pose I’m not enjoying, I try to find ways to do it with pleasure. So, surely, I could have just told this woman that I like all the parts of a yoga class for different reasons.
Then again, I told her the truth. My favorite part of a yoga asana class IS the community. It inspires me to refine my personal practice, to think compassionately about the limitations of my body and other bodies, and to share my happiness with others.
All of which, in my mind, contributes to the greater purpose of a yoga class: to make yoga a to-go affair. It should be prepared and packaged up special order to each and every person interested in living a good life. It should be seasoned to taste and delicious to the practitioner’s unique experiential taste buds.
Which is a big ask out of a 75-minute class, one or two times a week.
Which is why a few private yoga sessions can be a nice supplement to a developing practice. Yoga, essentially, is a science intended to help us develop the wisdom to pursue lives appropriate to our natures. It may start in the studio but it doesn’t have to stay there. Yoga can come and go from the studio. It can develop anywhere, really. On the beach. In your room. On the lawn. Even distractions don’t really detract from a yoga practice if you decide to accept their place in this world without letting them interfere in yours. (That’s harder when it’s a kid or a spouse with a demand, but communication helps this kind of conundrum. As in, ‘Not just now, thanks. In a moment.’) (Okay, MAYBE the kid will get it. The spouse? That depends on the training you’ve done with each other.)
So here’s an exercise for you. A real life yoga exercise. Try it at home. Or anywhere.
Every morning for one week, set aside five minutes—that’s nothing, really—to do the following:
At the end, smile. Go get a glass of water and tell someone you love them. Why not? That’s the best way to learn that our very highest purpose is to create and share love with others. The movement and the breath are just the tools we use to do this without too much interference from negative stuff. (Of course, yoga offers other tools as well. Meditation is one that’s particularly nice. But more on that later.)
Finally, let me know how it goes, hey? And if you want some guidance, ring me up. I’m happy to help. Seriously, it’s what I love to do.
And remember! You can always find me at Eight Elements West in La Jolla.
I’ve got some rubberband hamstrings. I love to stand on one foot. Most of the time, gravity is challenged by me. And sure, I did hanumanasana in the cradle. A man once told me that he wanted a girl who slept in half pigeon. Well. I may or may not have fed that fantasy.
So it’s not surprising I do yoga. It pretty much came with the body. (A functional body for which I am grateful.)
But here’s the rub: I started doing yoga as an angsty teenager who wanted to find something greater than the world I perceived. I saw malls and bad movies and ugly fashion choices and made my commentary by scowling heavily. As in, I just didn’t have anything else to pierce to lodge another complaint against the world and its inhabitants. So I made myself look at the world differently.
Lucky for me, my crunchy-granola high school offered yoga. Unlucky for me, the teacher really liked my hanumanasana. Not in a gross way. But certainly in a way that pet my ego. I tolerated it because who doesn’t like to be pet sometimes? Plus, I was 16.
As I got older, and the brawn of my ego waxed and waned, I always knew I had hanumanasana. But I also kept hoping to see the world differently.
I meditated sporadically. Did asana with the ardor of a Sound of Music nun. And I played around with pranayama and meditating occasionally. Never enough to feel any different, if I’m honest. The only thing I was finding in yoga was a body moderately changed from adolescence. A good feat, I admit. But at 30, I suspected that my mind had stalled as well. I sometimes felt angry about my life choices. I’d become a lawyer in the middle of all that asana. I was fighting all the time for causes that would never resolve in a fight. I was sad. Sometimes, I was angry.
The truth I was missing is that yoga is a philosophy AND a practice. Or, to be more clear, understanding the philosophy is PART of the practice. And the way to understand the philosophy– in addition to studying it carefully– is to recognize that yoga offers a system for anyone to attend to their body, energy, mind, personality and heart.
The first step, I think, to appreciating this system is to gain control of your breath. When you start to regulate your own breath the deeper purpose becomes much more clear. But controlling the breath takes practice. Pattabhi Jois used to say, ‘practice, practice and all is coming.’
So how does this work? What does the breath have to do with anything?
Pranayama, or the practice of breath, is the fourth limb of the eight-branched system of yoga. It follows the guidance on personal discipline, social conduct and the method of asana. Krishnamacharya, my teacher’s teacher, said ‘Control the breath, focus your mind, and direct it into the heart. That is the meaning of spirituality.’ The breath, then, helps you bridge the divide between moving your body and the more subtle stuff. In Patanjali’s Sutras, it is sandwiched between the practice of asana, or poses, and pratyahara, the mindful taming of our senses. It’s that part of the yoga infrastructure that leads you toward the integration of your body, your personality, your intellect, your energy, your heart. But like bridges in America, we might have let it crumble a bit. Despite having to use the bridge daily.
We really should be a little more attentive to the state of these things.
To jumpstart that attention, look around for a teacher who can help you learn to regulate your breath. It really is just that simple. You can even call me, if you’d like. I promise I won’t totally freak you out.
Though I may ask you to consider your commitment to your own sadhana—your personal practice. This means reconsidering your relationship to your yoga. Not the yoga of poses and studios. The yoga of you. Are you simply doing a series of poses at the gym so your hamstrings get lengthen? Are you even aware of what you’re asking of yourselves when you hang out with your asses up in downdog? Or are you engaging with the science of a personal practice?
I hear you: Ugh. A personal practice. You mean I have to think about what I need? Or, maybe, like a student who recently complained that she didn’t like moving at the pace of her breath, you’d prefer to keep bouncing around like an acrobat for a little while longer? It’s cool. All of this stuff only works when you’re ready. As Patanjali put it: ‘Atha yoganusasanam.’ You have to get to the atha—the now. You have to be ready to perceive the now.
But when you do, you’ll be intermittently overwhelmed by the transformation that happens. Seemingly without your own effort, though, of course, you’re the one doing the work. The thing is, you’ll just be preparing yourself to breathe. Then breathing. Breathing to do the work better.
Which, I think, is the whole point of yoga. That you’re changing yourself for yourself, so you can explore the relationships you nurture—between yourself and your body, yourself and your mind, yourself and others, yourself and your higher purpose. Ultimately, the whole point of yoga, I think, is to help you love yourself. And that love—regardless of the length of your hamstrings, the shape of your downdog—is the highest and best use of your life.
So I guess what I’m saying is that the point of your yoga isn’t yoga. The point of your yoga is you.
A few weeks back, I met a brilliant woman at a party who, slightly drunk, invited me to her Jazzercise class. And I, maybe a little goofed as well, said, ‘ohmygodyes.’
When I say she was brilliant, I mean it. She had a shine. She radiated. She talked about her classes and her students and her pathways into, through and amongst the roses of Jazzercise with all the verve of a true devotee. Because she is.
The morning came and I totally missed it. Sigh. (And I dreamed of rocking a leotard with a belt.)
But check this out. While the party did its ebb and flow, I learned that this woman teaches Jazzercise five days a week. Two classes a day. And she’s kept this schedule for 30 years. She has an average of 50 students in her classes. People have been following her for decades. This woman IS, essentially, a guru. She initiates others into a knowledge she’s gathered and honed so they may share in some delight for life.
Which made me think a little more carefully about the status of yoga in our world. By and large, it’s still perceived as an athletic, acrobatic activity for the lithe and limber. As someone fairly lithe and limber, I totally get the source of the perception. But, as I’ve muttered a million times when people blah blah blah about their favorite postures, yoga ain’t all that. It’s not limited to striking poses or wearing tight pants. It also isn’t just playlists or awesome sticky mats either.
Yoga is whatever magical activity you do that consumes you. It compels your body to respond to your mind and your mind to attend to your body. The cooperation between the body and mind lets your essential nature—your soul, your self, your absolute and divine you—experience small moments of liberation. Guess what? Freedom of the true nature is the whole point. That’s yoga.
So yoga is a transformative process, meant to release you from the confines of all that silly limitation. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he suggests that we can only clear our perceptions by confronting the obstacles that drop a veil over them. These obstacles will be familiar to us all: ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and an overly aggressive clawing at life. Our practice of yoga is meant to help us see that our bodies and minds are simple tools of perception; that our true nature inhabiting these temporary abodes are truly joyful; that clinging to the temporary is akin to trying to take up residence in a sand castle. Something like that.
All of which is to say that your practice of asana—the poses yoga is so well known for—is only a gateway to a higher ground. And, in truth, your practice of asana is sort of irrelevant. You might like to do Tai Chi instead. Or backward crab walking. Or Jazzercise. Whatever it is that gives you that connection between the body and the mind so your nature can elevate above their transience: that’s your yoga.
Which, of course, begs the question: what is your yoga? And how can you let it grow so that you become a source of joy fueling this world of yours?