Tell your mind: Just hush.

At certain points in your life, surely you’ve heard an inner voice talking to you. Who am I kidding? That voice is talking to you all the time. Am I right? It’s talking to you right now. It’s saying something like, ‘why are you wasting your time with this. You have so many other things to do. Like… oh, when can I get some fro-yo?’

And you may have noticed that the voice isn’t always kind.

It might have said things like, ‘I can’t believe they asked you to dinner,’ or ‘you’re going to wear THAT?’ or ‘well, they’re just being charitable so bow out and eat that pizza from the freezer instead.’

Maybe your voice gets straight to the point: ‘You don’t even deserve their dinner or their charity. Look at you.’

Or maybe it’s more socratic and it does that open-ended thing like your dad used to do that shuts you down immediately. ‘What are you thinking?’ Ugh.

(How’s that for a funny, almost paradoxical question? I mean, THAT is precisely what you’re thinking. Come on, mind! And also, lighten up! I’d be thinking something so much better if you didn’t ask everything with that horrible tone.)

Oh, that voice. Imagine that voice in a body. Sharing your living space. Telling you how little you’ve made of your life. You’d be looking for a new housemate. If it took you to the beach for a fun day out, then told you how crappy you look in your bathing suit the whole time? Please say you’d ditch it. Go for a nice swim. Enjoy your time alone.

Right?

But this voice, we can’t really escape it. It keeps talking. Just today, I laughed when I heard that voice suggest that the meditation I was starting wasn’t going to serve me at all. Wouldn’t it be better, it advised, if you just had a cup of coffee? ‘Oh voice,’ I had to say, ‘just hush.’

Which isn’t to say that it should always be quiet. Sometimes it has really interesting information for us. Like, turn left, avoid that pothole, pick up the wedding present and call your clients.

But sometimes, for a little bit, it would be awesome to get a little silence. So we can listen into our deeper wisdom. Which may sound bonkers to you. Or not. But here’s the deal. That voice you hear endlessly yammering is the voice of your mind. For a lot of us, it get so consistently loud that we lose track of the messages that our intuition has for us. We can’t access that deeper intelligence and power through all that ruckus. For even more of us, we’ve completely forgotten that we have a source of wisdom deeper than the mind. We just… forgot.

And that’s because the voice of the mind tends to go on and on and on. Ceaselessly. Amidst all that flibber flabber blah blah, we forget that we have any control whatsoever over its agitation. All the negativity—the fear, doubt, grief, shame, guilt—that it broadcasts can actually be turned down. We can even work to prioritize a practice that will minimize these emotions. And when we do, we can start to seek peace in our wisdom with a peaceful mind. How can we possibly expect to find calm with the help of a distracted, confused and agitated mind? We’re lost from the first step.

But we have the means and ability to quiet that voice. We can say, ‘just hush, my dear dynamic mind.’ We can ask it to settle for a bit while we explore the reservoirs of joy, intelligence and knowing that come stock in all of us.

How so? Deepening your yoga sadhana to include breathing techniques that will help you understand and shift your energy, meditation practices that will help you identify your mind’s processing patterns, mantra practice that will guide you toward focused attention, and prayer to build your trust in all that surrounds you. These are just a few elements of an integrated yoga practice. This is how yoga brings you to a place of balance. This is what it means to be in union: to master the ceaseless fluctuations of your rambling mind.

Send me a note if you’d like to chat a bit more about this. I’d love to hear from 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.

 

 

Off to hike. And a small prayer in advance.

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.

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.

 

The point of yoga is you.

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.

The form of your yoga.

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?

Let your yoga grow up.

For years, I practiced Ashtanga.

With all the enthusiasm of a kid, honestly.

Intermittently, my practice may have been a touch irresponsible. I pushed myself into certain postures for no other reason than I wanted to achieve. So simple; so rambunctious. Urdva dhanurasana, with an ankle bind, is a good example from my old circus repertoire. I knew my body would eventually give into the pose because my hypermobile body does that. And my mind, well, it’s an achievement-oriented mind anyway—anxious to prove and succeed. Very little gets in the way of my mind.

If I’d been a little more thoughtful at the time—or prepared for this kind of thinking—I would have recognized that a better way, for me, would be to challenge myself to be strong enough to forego the pose. Or, let’s say, honor what might be a principled tightening of my body to strengthen the musculature around my loose-goosey ligaments. And that, honestly, might have yielded a better experience in the pose. I might have actually experienced the function of the pose, rather than appropriate the form for one silly purpose: showing off.

And I did show it off. To my teacher, to other students, to my students. I didn’t blow up balloons or throw confetti. But I always knew I could do it. Gold star for me. Woo.

Until I was injured. Whoops! I had to go through 6 months of physical therapy to fix my shoulder. I was 31. Sigh. It sucked to discover mortality.

But a little suffering is okay if it doesn’t get in your bones and sink you. And that experience, honestly, became the catapult that made me learn yoga. It made my yoga grow up.

I’d been practicing for 12 years when I hurt myself. I honestly believed that challenging poses would quiet my mind. And they probably did. Sometimes. But I hadn’t come to understand what yoga really meant for me. That the quiet mind would come with the practice of calming detrimental instincts. Like needing to achieve at the expense of my humility. Like believing I wasn’t good enough if I couldn’t achieve. Like ignoring pain.

What I realized then was that, as a teacher, if I planned to share yoga with others, I had to figure out how to be safe about it. And it’s taken me another few years (and some really good teachers—Gary Kraftsow, Juris Zinbergs, Neal Ghoshal and Vincent Bolletta, among others— to work my way through this idea. Here’s where I’ve arrived: safety means understanding the principles of yoga as a system of transition. Not a system of achievement.

My teacher Gary refers to Nathamuni’s stages of life when he describes the way yoga should change as we age.

For the first 30 years or so—what Gary calls the sunrise period—we’re growing, cultivating power, learning balance, discovering morality. Through this period, yoga should be rigorous, disciplined, designed to improve character. From this point of view, practices like Ashtanga make sense. Training the body restrains the mind. But then the body starts to change. And so does the mind.

We approach our midstage—midday—and our interests shift. We find that we’re subject to death; we want to delay it. We want to protect our health so we can nurture others. We want to protect our bodies so they carry us along a journey whose distance we start to appreciate. This is when we discover that asana alone isn’t resolving our stress or helping our diet or improving our relationships. If we’re lucky, someone suggests that we might want to refine our asana to move with our breath. We may want to work with our breath. We may start to meditate. Even if we’re not so lucky, we intuit these things and seek our way alone. We age.

By the time we reach our sunset phase, we might be well-oriented toward self-realization. Or not. But inevitably we’re going to have to turn inward. Maybe. Or, at least, we acknowledge the fact of an approaching demise (may the approach be languorous and quiet). Yoga in this phase should focus on meditation, prayer and ritual. On the ways that allow us to manage our impermanence. To resolve our karma. Arguably, this could be the most strenuous phase. Especially if we haven’t learned the discipline of asana and breath.

The thing about yoga? It’s a system. It’s so much more than asana, if we let it grow up.

Yoga offers a practice for every phase of life, for anyone breathing, for everyone willing. From asana to pranayama to meditation, prayer, ritual and conduct, it’s a comprehensive system comprised of discrete, but complementary, elements. And these elements are available at every stage for anyone looking to find them. Someone at 25 may want a more transcendent practice. Someone at 75 may want to keep up their asana. It’s all good. Yoga provides. And it transforms.

Because everything is always shifting. The way we do yoga, and teach it, should respect this by becoming as mature and wise (and generous and playful) as our natures will possibly bear.

Viniyoga and me.

You may or may not know that I’m a student of Gary Kraftsow. Good guy. To be honest, despite studying his work for over a year now, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to call him my teacher until the last two weeks. I read his books, signed up for his 2-year training, spent two weeks with him in April and now, after another two weeks breathing the redwood air with him and his faculty in the Santa Cruz mountains, I’m ready. Atha yoganusasanam. Now’s the time to do some yoga.

So what happened?

Gary’s a kooky guy. Like most of my faves in this life, he’s mildly neurotic and intensely bright. Also, earnest. And flawed, but occasionally apologetic for his quirks. The combination intimidated me at first; because he doesn’t rest on pretense, interactions with him are notably sincere—with all the challenges this brings. He’s pretty funny too, which means he’ll offer up Vedic philosophy, biomechanics and mild esoterica with analogies to Tastykakes and, without awkward prurience, allusions to sex. (We’re adults. Partaking is our privilege, you know.)

But at the get-go, and fully acknowledging that I’m making a telling confession here, I was skeptical. Gary is the founder of the American Viniyoga Institute, an organization dedicated to sharing a safe and healing approach to yoga based on the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya and his son, T.K.V. Desikachar. Gary makes no bones about honoring the ancient teachings passed along a long family line to Krishnamacharya while recognizing that our modern lives (and dysfunctions) require reconsidered practical application. I told you: he’s smart. And thoughtful.

But I wasn’t quite ready for him. Not at first. It took some dismantling of defenses for me to get there. And Viniyoga helped. As my body gained integrity, so did my interest in improving my relationships. Especially with myself. The best teacher is patient with a student’s reluctance. Gary told me to think, practice and wait. It was very good advice.

So while it’s the case that he teaches yet another brand of yoga, his brand deliberately explores zones other brands won’t dare approach. His brand is, actually, yoga. It’s a holistic approach to realizing the great potential of our lives. It isn’t limited to asana practice; it resolves to care more about the bodies and minds it engages than the poses and procedures it promotes. To watch bodies doing their Viniyoga may mean watching someone completing an asana practice in five poses, taking a seat in a chair and sitting still to breathe. Or, as is my current practice, it may mean I match my occasionally limitless energy with an initially strong asana practice that tapers into soothing pranayama.

It’s a foundational approach to yoga therapy: honor the body and mind by respecting the unique relationship they’ve forged. In the process, understand that this relationship will change both. The body will become stronger; the mind will catch glimpses of clarity more often. Everyone around will wonder what happened.

So why am I writing this post? Because I encourage my students to be skeptical of yoga brands. And because Viniyoga, as taught by Gary and his faculty, rises to the pinnacle of my long experience in this wacky yoga world. In other words, I’ve found a path and I hope I can share it with as much authenticity and passion as it deserves.

I write it also as a love letter, I suppose. And an invitation. Because this process is transformative—body and mind, and, dare I say, heart—and I’d like to serve anyone seeking a path toward change. At the very least, we’ll strengthen the spine and relieve tension in the neck and shoulders.

Viniyoga means that the appropriate techniques for me may not be appropriate for you. That what pains us both may have two different causes. That what works for me may require modification for you. It’s a path that gives us options depending on our abilities, conditions, perceptions, interests and limitations. We’re all looking for happiness and we’re all responsible for finding our way toward it. We should wander together, open to mutual support, but we’ll wander uniquely. We should practice together, but we may never practice the same thing.

If you care to dip your toes into a Viniyoga-style practice with me, please come along to PB Yoga & Healing Arts on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8:45, or on Wednesdays at 6pm. Or, contact me directly to schedule a private session. I look forward to working together!

 

 

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.

Circling and circling

Every once in a while, I find my yoga practice leads me back to a place I’ve been before.

Lately, I’ve been following a sequence to balance my courage and fear. For you chakra lovers out there, it’s a manipura thing. I have a habit of hanging out in the ether and failing to find ground. Which makes it really hard to endure the ether sometimes.

See, we all have to give ground to our higher pursuits. As in, foundation. And vice versa. The earth in us has to be worked to produce fruit. At our very center, we channel the energy cultivated by our base instincts into our greater accomplishments. If we fail to feed ourselves or steer clear of danger, it’s unlikely that we’ll survive to contribute anything more than exhausted CO2 to the universe. On the other hand, if we indulge in food and fear, sex and sleep without transforming this energy into action, we can turn toxic. Or dull. Or fat.

These days, having my own little studio tests the boundaries between ambition and panic. Just when I wonder how I’ll ever endure, someone pops up looking for help and, lo, I’m the one who can. Just when I question my choices in life, I experience a profound joy with a client who is feeling a little tranformed. Choices, it seems, always come right, come what may. But that knowledge doesn’t always stop me from swinging between audacity and dismay.

So to balance my pendulum, I worked up a practice to balance myself. My checklist:

  • contend with my courage so it yields to caution;
  • honor my caution and move forward.

Simple enough. I sequenced it with help from Yoga International and a whole lot of thought about the Viniyoga I’m studying.

It initially required a damn lot of tummy work. It had a navasana built for stormy seas, some tadasana to urdva dhanurasana drop-backs and planks scattered throughout. It’s for me, not you, so don’t go plopping onto your head. To transition through my energy builders, I added dynamic chakravakasanas, vajrasanas, and shalabhasanas. Also, it begins and ends in savasana. Intentionally. To start in a place where I can find my breath. To finish in a place where I can let it go.

And then I move into a pranayama practice of nadi shodana and sama vritti. There might be more nuanced exercises I could do, but these two serve me well. Calming, balancing, even. They also served to teach me this lesson about circles.

I practiced my sequence early this morning. I had clients coming in later and wanted to feel calmly confident about my abilities and powerfully centered for their benefit. But I’d also practiced last night. And taught two classes. And seen two clients earlier in the day. In addition to meditating in the morning and going for a run.

I was settling into my sama vritti breathing after practice this morning, plumbing the depths of my lowest bandhas, actually, when my sweet monkey mind hollered at me.

‘Hey,’ it said. ‘You’re doing it again.’

‘Shut up,’ I said.

So he repeated himself. Again and again. When I was done with my breathing, when I was ready to slump, I finally listened in.

This thing I was doing? I was trying too hard.

The practice I’d just done was too much for my energy level. It was depleting me and leaving me fatigued before the day had even started.

Which, ultimately, is a good lesson. And one I’ve learned many times in my past. It’s the very lesson that this manipura thing is trying to teach me. I have to care for myself to endure.

So, silly me, and yep, I’m humbled to admit how many times a lesson must be learned before it sticks. But it’s the same for all of us. Especially these lessons that teach the mind and body to honor the presence of our true nature. At least I’ve learned enough since the last pass through this particular pattern to see my monkey mind’s suggestion as a hat tip to my nature. It means my mind is starting to understand there’s something greater than it. Greater than reckoning with fear and courage. Greater than pushing too much. We’ve glimpsed that stable soul together and know it’s watching. But it won’t watch if we don’t find ways to nourish it.

And all of this reminds me of this perfectly meme-able T.S. Eliot quote.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

On my next journey through this place, I wonder what will be new. And how my monkey mind will kick me in the ass to see it.