Putting it all together

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.

Fire, study and faith.

The last I wrote, I was preparing to set out on a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. I was jumping in with a group of men and women participating in a trek organized by Warriors Live On.

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.