The technology of Yoga

What an honor it was to spend the last few days at the Yoga Journal Conference in San Diego assisting my teacher, Gary Kraftsow. Curmudgeonly Gary. He has the onerous task of traveling widely to these corporate-sponsored events—for whom poses do a better job than self-inquiry of selling— to say again and again, ‘Yoga is not simply asana.’ He says it kindly at first. And then he repeats himself. And then he take a long, deep breath when someone raises a hand and asks, ‘so should I keep my feet hip-width or not?’ His answer should be trademarked under the American Viniyoga Institute: ‘It depends.’

I don’t believe I run the risk of learning too much curmudgeonry from Gary. For this, I can thank earlier teachers, the law and a healthy few millennia of past lives. But in the spirit of curmudgeonly cooperation—curmudgeonly community?—I offer this little echo of Gary’s broken record and a hopefully helpful metaphor.

Every time I’m introduced as a yoga teacher, someone is sure to say, ‘oh, you must be really flexible.’ Or they harumph: ‘those poses are for circus freaks.’ Or maybe, ‘I should stretch more.’ Even funnier lately, when I meet fellow yoga practitioners and they tell me, ‘I just can’t get a good workout in your kind of yin class. I need to sweat and get my heart rate up.’

Okay, right. Where to start? Honestly, with a small sigh. And then a little bonk of my heart to jostle my compassion muscle. It is absolutely the case that we are all perfect souls seeking higher consciousness. Our paths need not always converge or even cross. And I’m grateful for the tension that I may practice the discipline of patience. Breathe.

So, what does yoga mean to you?

If yoga means poses, you’re not wrong. You’re just missing the forest for a tree.

(If yoga means racerback tshirts with wacky sayings—’puppies, lattes and yoga!’— you’re totally on the pulse of the Yoga Journal Conference of 2016. But you’re a little distracted. Please pay attention.)

In fact, yoga means union. And the union it seeks is within you—body, mind, spirit— and beyond you. It is you learning how to master your body and mind so that you can be you. Your best you. It is you discovering that you are infinitely connected, absolutely perfect and invested with unconditional joy.

The history of yoga is long, circuitous and complex. The tradition, however, can be viewed quite simply. For several thousand years, humans before you have sought a path to find peace. There have been masters—sages like Jesus, Buddha and Mahavira— and there have been millions of ardent practitioners. The ardent practitioners discovered from the masters that an steadfast effort toward self-exploration and discovery can transform their microcosmic power. With this greater personal power inside, they can spare a little to contribute some positive change to the macrocosm. This potential is the birthright of every individual. And yoga is simply a means of finding it.

Wow. That’s awesome, right? But how?

Around 2600 years ago, a guide book was offered. This is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It’s generally accepted that this small compendium of yoga advice brings much older wisdom into one location. And it’s by no means the only book to consult on yoga. But it’s so well-organized and this post is already going to be way too long. So. The Yoga Sutra. We’ll start there.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lets us know that yoga is a system. Followed diligently and with humility, it will quiet the fluctuations of the mind. It requires discipline and patience, deep self-inquiry and devotion. There are eight limbs that must be practiced. They are, in order, the ethical restraints, internal restraints, postures, breathing practice, sensory control, concentration, meditation and integration.

You’ll note, poses are one-eighth of the practice. And the poses we find familiar were not described in print until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika came around… in the 15th century CE. Which isn’t to say that postures were not taken to assist a practitioner’s ability to sit still for meditation. But they probably weren’t taken in conjunction with an awesome playlist, live DJ or stand-up paddleboard. Although, what do I know?

All of this is to reiterate, as Gary says, the poses have no inherent value on their own. It is the poses practiced for the purpose of self-discovery that come to mean something. The poses, like the ethical and internal restraints on behavior, like the breathing, the concentration, the meditation, all of it, serve as a mirror. These are tools that serve us as we pursue our paths of self-discovery. As tools, they are fantastic. Practiced for the sake of the tool itself, they are meaningless.

Think of it like this: if I show you a bridge between two land masses, do you immediately think of the cranes used to build it? Do you want to know more about the bolts used, the brand of cement and the grip on the wrenches? Maybe yes, if you’re an engineer. But the engineer will see the bridge for its utility, its harmony, its safety and know that its construction required more than a knowledge of nuts, bolts and the wrenches to bind them. And this is precisely how an engineer of the self must think: though we may be fascinated by some of the tools we use, ultimately, we’re building a bridge. It’ll take more than a tool or two to get there and we’re going to need to change our tools as we progress. And age. And learn.

We want to move from the chaos of our minds toward the peace in our souls. If we obsess on the wrench, we’re never going to move beyond the tightening of nuts and bolts. And there’s a lot more to a bridge than nuts and bolts. Just like you are so much more than that beautiful body containing you.

Now, what’s yoga to you?

I know. It’s about the pants.

What was I thinking?

(Please note! You may also be interested in reading up on Tantra. Which actually means system. And will be the topic of some other post, some other day. For now, I have to go balance in eka pada koundinyasana. Until I find enlightenment.)

(Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, please join me at 8 Elements West on the first Wednesday of every month at 6pm. We’ll chant the Sutra and discuss.)

Here’s a simple little bit about love.

Every morning, I say thank you. First thing. It’s a practice.

When I put my feet on the ground to get out of bed, I take quick account of my many gifts. Legs work. Cognition: check. Hands open and close. Eyes see. I’m fortunate. I love my life. Thank you.

And then the day starts.

I share this because I’ve come to realize a few things in the last year of living alone. Whether you’re fortunate enough to have a love share your bed or if you’re simply growing love in your heart, it’s the love that counts. Not the partner. Not the bed. Not even the legs or hands or eyes that function. It’s the love YOU have. It’s your love.

We may initiate other practices to help us stabilize the love inside us. Some people choose to scrapbook memories; some people bake cookies for their friends. Other people surf, go to church or volunteer somewhere. We might cook or clean or teach or draw horoscopes for people or make necklaces to give away to those who need them. Our practices are usually about being of service, whether to ourselves or others. About taking ourselves out of our routines and offering ourselves to another moment. And in that other moment, we rediscover our connections. To ourselves first. And then with others. And the world around us.

And when we find those connections in whatever idiosyncratic practice we keep, and when we let ourselves experience a sense of gratitude for the connections and the practice itself, we discover a totally cool feeling. The connection we’re feeling is just a longer word for love.

Check it out for yourself. I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong. We all love love. We all have our little ways of cultivating it. I, for one, practice yoga— did you know it means union? Another word for connection.

But my practice doesn’t mean I buy $100 mats or sticky-soled socks. It just means that I do my best to remember—no matter what I’m doing—that I conduct my life honestly, kindly, moderately and with devotion. I take care of my body and my mind. I study myself. I express gratitude. I do my best to be compassionate. I remind myself to see the light inside myself and inside others.

But all this, with all due respect to yoga, is somewhat of an abstraction. A necessary one because it helps to have a practice that guides me. But an abstraction nonetheless. The practice simply helps me remember a very simple thing.

Which leads me to my point. The simple bit. What if you remembered on a daily basis that your entire purpose on this fine earth is the act of making connections? Of creating love? That your highest and best use is to be of service to love. Whether you share love with another, teach others about love, receive love without condition, inspire others to love or help love to grow where it hasn’t yet rooted.

The only important consideration for you and me and everyone else is connection.

Love.

It’s the whole point. And it makes the whole point much, much clearer when you just surrender and accept it.

I love you!

Give thanks; get thanks.

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.

 

 

Yoga to go.

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.’

She shrugged.

‘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:

  1. Stand with very good posture and find your breath. Pay attention to it as you inhale and exhale. Feel the details of your ribcage moving, your spine moving, your deepening breath, your increasing height as your breath deepens. Do this for 10 breaths.
  2. With a slow inhale, reach your hands over head. With a slow exhale, take your hands to your sides. Do this 5 times. Try to come up on your toes as you inhale! Notice if it feels different to breath while moving your arms compared to breathing without moving your arms. (Just notice!)
  3. From your standing position, inhale slowly to bring your hands over head. Clasp your hands and bend toward the right on an exhale. Inhale back to center then bend to your left on an exhale. Do this two times on each side. Feel the long lines of the left and right sides of your body. Notice whether the sides of your body feel different from each other.
  4. From your standing position, place your hands on your hips and, with a slow exhale, fold forward. With an inhale, come back to standing. Notice the strength you have to use in your legs and tummy. Try to keep your shoulders away from your ears. See whether it’s easier or harder to inhale or exhale in this movement.
  5. In your standing position, close your eyes and notice how you feel after just this little bit of breath and movement. Feel the structure of your body—the stability of your bones, the sensation of muscles that have stretched and moved, the circulation of your blood. Feel the way your energy moves in your body. Notice the light behind your eyelids. Consider your breath again. Then open your eyes.

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.

 

Yoga is so hard, for other reasons.

Inevitably, when people learn that I teach yoga, I get this: ‘Oh god, yoga is crazy hard.’ Or, ‘Yoga! I’d do it if I wanted to, you know, rip up my joints.’ Or this: ‘Sometimes I worry I might break my neck. Is that normal?’ Finally, the most common of the common doozies: ‘I did P90X yoga. Whoa. Killer.’ Yikes.

Also perversely funny. Is a marketing campaign successful when the public perceives the product as potentially homicidal? Maybe these days, yes? In place of bolsters and blocks, should we stock our studios with helmets and pads? Maybe we should introduce tigers to class? And gladiatorial guest teachers?

So what’s going on here? Are the people attending yoga classes junked out on adrenaline?

And what does that say about people like me? Me and my friends who teach? Those of us who practice daily? Are we the executioners? The kids with suicidal tendencies?

Well, this turned grim in a jiffy. (Here I thought I was nurturing a little happiness in some handy pockets.)

No question that yoga asana, done safely, offers some decent challenges. Poses present little tests for the body. Sometimes you need strength you don’t quite have; sometimes, it’s balance. Or flexibility. Maybe you need to learn how to relax into something; or to let go while remaining stable; or to contain mobility while remaining soft. Generally, all of this guided by a healthy helping of the breath.

It’s a bundle of action, that’s for sure.

But it isn’t death-defying. And it shouldn’t be risky. The key to putting all this together is a focused mind. And that, my friends, is the greatest challenge of all. Preparing yourself for Bird of Paradise or Sirsasana might seem like a task demanding life insurance but I’d argue that an appropriate response to that fear might be: ‘I’m not ready.’ Not, ‘let’s give it a go, then!’

Which is where the focused mind comes in. A clear mind—one that listens to the depth and quality of the breath and the alarm bells in the body—is a mind that will put the brakes on before you launch into Visvamatrasana without adequate knowledge of your undertaking. A clear mind knows when to say, ‘no, thanks,’ and ‘not yet.’

And this, with respect, is what those yoga classes poking at the mental hive of mortality are failing to cultivate. At the very beginning of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he writes yogas citta vritti nirodha. Yoga is the ability to direct and sustain the mind’s attention without distractions. Or, yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind. When this happens, tada drastu svarupe avasthanam. Correct understanding happens.

In other words: when you understand, you don’t perceive the poses as inherently dangerous. You know your limit and respect it. You play carefully before you reach it. You’ll have the vision to see why you don’t need to launch into that bird of paradise or headstand. You’ll have the courage to sit the pose out. You’ll realize that the true challenge of yoga is the maintenance of this focus, and not the silly poses, some of which, are nothing more than ego boosters in an esoteric disguise.

There is yoga for everyone, you know. It is mindful yoga—modified for the body performing it, appropriate to the background and experience of the person. If a teacher is making you look around for the reaper, I’d argue you’re in the wrong class. Listen to your suspicions, ask for help or roll up your mat and find someone who will help you. Or, if you’re looking to really experience yoga and what you’re doing is just throwing weights around in poses with battlefield-ready names, I’d suggest you look around for something different. Go ahead and brave the quest to understand. I dare you.

Yoga is out there to help you discover peace in your mind. So you can discover the consciousness behind it. And your truest, joyful nature.

What a gift. Thank you, Patanjali. To correctly and clearly understand. Imagine the burden this kind of clarity removes from your life beyond the mat. Imagine how much easier life will be when you work on the truly challenging part of yoga: the focusing of the mind.

What is your body telling you?

A conversation with a client over the weekend, followed by a spill off the sidewalk, has me thinking about the funny ways our bodies call for change. And the anxious rebellion our mind wages to ignore the call: ‘I have no time for this.’ ‘I don’t slow down.’ ‘I can handle it.’ We are our own worst insurgents. Eventually, if we ignore our bodies long enough, we’ll be at war… with depression, or disease, or that intransigent grandmaster of fate– death, itself.

Contrary to popular belief, it is no great weakness to acknowledge that the rat race isn’t for humans. (It isn’t for rats, either, a sad fact proven again and again by scientists who put rats into stressful situations and then watch them crap out.)

But what to do, what to do? In justifying her reluctance to save herself, my client ducked into a blackhole of excuses– schedule, family expectations, future anxiety, paralyzing fear– before she said, ‘I mean, it’s amazing I’m even here for this massage.’ Which, I assured her, is a huge accomplishment. And a great step. And something that sends a telegram to her body that says, ‘I hear you, you wondrous strapping beast.’ It’s like that kindness you get from a stranger that reminds you that we’re all capable of loving and being loved.

It’s also the case, however, that the kindness of strangers might exceed the favor we show ourselves when we spiral into that black hole. My client, fortunately, had someone push her into her massage. Literally, with two hands. The thing is, the psychological stress that spins us– that some of us would say sustains us– is a relatively new phenomenon when you consider the time it took our animal kingdom to get around to crowning us. Old school homo sapiens might have suffered physical crises– running from predators, overcoming famine or bacterial infection– but their helplessness didn’t present the same sort of absurdities as comes with a showdown with your insurer or the DMV or the IRS. Fifty thousand years ago, no one was zooming at 80mph when someone decided to cut them off before slamming on the brakes. No one was ingratiating themselves to a grumpy customer so a middle manager in Houston would approve a paltry bonus. The bank didn’t even exist to call a loan on our cave sweet cave. Despite our apparent freedoms, our orbits expand and contract at the whim of forces beyond us. If we let them.

These stressors are not only ubiquitous– in the air as surely as particulate matter and dandelion kites– they’re insidious. They challenge our hearts, our nerves, our lungs, our adrenals and our tummies– the whole of our physiology.  Under stress, our bodies careen to their edge, get taut like wire. Maybe they fray; maybe they snap. And while old school stressors– predators and drought– eventually tired or ended, new school stress doesn’t seem to tire. It keeps pinching our shoulders like that crappy alcoholic uncle. Which means our bodies never find a quiet moment to activate their magical mechanics of restoration and repair.

Enter our big, evolving brains. The smarts that come up with dumb ideas like for-profit health care can be put to use devising ways to see beyond for-profit health care. Or the inequities of the tax code. Or the sour relationship you have with your neighbor. Our big brains, with a little work and a lot of detachment, can help our bodies find ease. So offer yourself time to relax– a massage or a series of Slow Yoga classes is a good way to start. An evening walk away from a screen is great. A day spent in shade at the park. A morning reading poetry. Plant a garden, deep breathe, hold someone’s hand.

You have more control than you might think, and your control is pretty absolute. This is your life to manage. Act appropriately.

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