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.)

Outwit yourself.

A yoga practice should always be smarter than your habits. This is a slight paraphrase of T.K.V. Desikachar, the son of T. Krishnamacharya and the author of the book every yoga teacher training grad seems to have and not have read, The Heart of Yoga.

(Seriously, read it. And also read Health, Healing and Beyond if you’d like to know more about the father/son relationship between two foundational teachers of modern yoga.)

So it comes down to something like this: to cultivate an intelligent practice, we need to cultivate awareness about our patterns. Imagine all the frustration you’ve experienced in life because you’ve gathered up the will to pursue a goal but ultimately lost the energy to complete it. Or you’ve mustered the courage to try something new but not necessarily enough to ask for help. Or maybe you’ve gone so gangbusters on a plan that you ended up hurting yourself, thus consigning the plan to the shelf once again. 

These little failures are great. Use them! They’re guideposts to limitations imposed by our habits. Look at your failures and discover your habits. 

Then.

Build your practice. The most important thing about a practice, I think, is an understanding that it’s yours. And it evolves as you do. Because it’s a practice. Which means that you do it again and again. And you remember that a practice is the constant integration of everything you’ve learned in preparation for something more. In the case of a yoga practice, well, my teacher would say that it’s in preparation for death. Long may you live.

As you build your practice, please remember to honor yourself first. If you’re in classes, recognize your limitations and interests. Find a teacher you trust who can help you integrate these into your self-study. Acknowledge your patterns and share with your teacher the ways that they’ve been in your way in the past. And then watch as your yoga becomes a process of evolution rather than just a repetition of poses and sequences. This is the viniyoga of practice: that every path toward knowing the self is paved to benefit the self on the path.

In the last few months, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a student who came to me to strengthen her core. As we discussed her interests, she acknowledged that she often feels short of breath. She also shared her history of feeling like she should know more than she does. From this powerful self-evaluation, we started to build a practice that would encourage questions and breath regulation. Only three months into her yoga practice, and her breath threshold has rapidly increased, as has her curiosity. Her curiosity daily inspires her commitment to learn more. And through these quick changes, she’s becoming physically stronger. She said today, ‘I remember when I couldn’t inhale to four and the strain of it scared me. And now I look forward seeing how my breath moves in me, whether I’m doing my asana or just taking a walk. And I’m asking questions of everyone.’

This student has found her way to a practice more clever than old habits. Her old habits are falling away in the process. Which means she’ll have to engage in evaluation again. And again. And again. This is the development of higher consciousness.

With this awareness, she’ll continue to modify her practice to suit her evolving needs, restrictions and patterns. And as she continues, she’ll become stronger and more aware of the myriad ways that her journey through life can embrace all of its beautiful mysteries—whether these come as people, projects or topsy-turvy challenges.

As long as she always remembers this: whoever seeks her higher self must remember to outwit the one she intends to leave in the dust.

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.

 

 

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.

Yoga on the inside.

Ah, re-entry. I’ll use the metaphor of that awesome Philae probe landing on a hurtling comet to announce myself back in the world: where are my harpoons?! (I would also sing for you. Like this.)

Fortunately, like the Philae, I’ve made a ‘fairly gentle landing’ and I’m curious all over again about what’s what. This old, familiar terrain is new again. And because I’m more human than machine, I get to feel out the sensations of shift even as I operate ground control. Whoop!

So what am I on about? For two weeks, I camped and learned at a phenomenon I call hippie-yoga camp. I do it twice a year with the American Viniyoga Institute’s Foundations for Yoga Therapy program. We are a strange batch of yogis. If yoga remains in anyway subversive, this form of yoga is perfectly tailored—or, maybe, purposefully left seamless—for the misfits.For two weeks, we discuss body mechanics, the physiology of the breath, yoga philosophy, sequencing skills and a bit of esoterica. The asana practice, while understood as the gateway for the west into yoga, is taken fairly lightly. We don’t pretend that perfection is possible. Not in the physical manifestation of a pose or in the emotional result. We are flawed and deteriorating bodies. Our goal is to rot gracefully, as free from our neuroses, attachments and silly limiting behaviors as possible. The time we spend cultivating this grace is what yields the grace itself.

(I won’t prattle on about how much I’d like the training to go on and on; you can snoop on my love letter yourself.)

When the two weeks end, we disperse to our worlds. The worlds where we didn’t/don’t fit so well. We try to figure out how to fit again with this insight into the things we really should leave behind.

So here are some impressions. The rocks and dips around me matter far less than my internal topography. Which is to say: what is outside me is all perception gathered by my busy, seeking mind, which, in its great hubris, has decided to identify as me. The thing is, my mind is overstepping its place.

What I am isn’t a matter of the elements around me but an inherently balanced energy within. Because my mind is so damn communicative, however, I’ve listened to it for most of my years. What a nag. Let this be a lesson to us highly verbal humans: watch the word count else others begin to believe our bullshit.

Being heard has given my mind power to say that it knows how to describe my nature better than anyone else. It says things like, ‘you should be really worried’ and ‘people probably don’t want to read this blog.’ Oh mind of mine: please hush yourself.

I write this now because I’m highly aware that the privilege of hippie-yoga camp is the access to these kinds of insights. As time distances me from the wild turkeys who accompanied me down the hill every morning, and the deer who gathered at my campsite like I was some sort of Snow White, my mind will probably regain some control. Or maybe I’ll be able to keep it at bay? Asana is a start. Pranayama is a whole other experience in silence. And the moment after I let go of controlling the breath? That’s the glimpse of quiet that I’d like to grow.

Defenses usually dismantle upon observation, just like monsters in the closet. And if the mind is offering anything to any of us, for the most part, it’s a fortress hiding the light of our true nature. With practice and letting go, these obstacles clear up.

Patanjali said, abhyasavairagyabhyam tannirodha. My teacher says that it’s practice that allows the letting go. So, onward to the yoga. In all of its forms. It is the cause and effect of innate faith.

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!

 

 

A man in his element?

I wonder if this has ever happened?

A man walks into a yoga studio and unrolls his mat. The yoga teacher welcomes him and asks, ‘why are you here?’ The man says, ‘I wanna study the contours of my existence.’ The yoga teacher faints, revives and lets the man lead the class. He doesn’t have a playlist but all the students are moved. Somewhere, someone weeps.

I ask because I just read a Yoga Trail article that advises yoga teachers– especially women– to mind our yoga talk when men come in the room. As in, cool it with the convo about ancient wisdom and hooha because guys just want a workout. As in, dudes aren’t reflective beasts so let them scratch themselves. As in, grunt roar burp. (To be fair, the writer lists a few common restrictions in the male body that can present a challenge in asana. But yoga, remember, is not all physical.)

Which brings me back to this: Poor men. It’s a sad stereotype they’re expected to abide. And, I think, an incorrect one. I’m not sure I can lead a charge to free them of it, but I’d like to provide three examples of perfectly manly men who manage to tolerate– read: teach me a thing or two about– introspection.

Example One: This morning, I taught A Restorative Yoga Class at PB Yoga & Healing Arts.
(FYI: You can find me there every Sunday at 9am, or every Wednesday at 6pm, or every Tuesday and Thursday at 8:45am, or, starting August 3, every day in my massage room! Oh, that’s big news that will be trumpeted later.) A new student (to me, anyway), male, entered the studio and asked, ‘So what’re we doing this morning?’

‘Did you really just stumble into my restorative class?’ I asked.

‘I don’t like to have any expectations,’ he said. ‘Where do I sit?’

Let’s all consider, for a second, just how awesome that preference is. It’s a perfectly good representation of how our circumstances are mostly irrelevant. They arise; they pass. They transit and leave us behind. This guy knew he was going to yoga. Beyond that, he was free. He was the constant. He claimed his space with himself. He settled into a lazy boy of blankets and let go a few groans. He never once complained that he would have preferred to bench press the bolsters. He even stuck around to chat and admire the rain.

Example Dos: Two of my current teachers– Gary Kraftsow and Juris Zinbergs— are guys. Developed of an XY chromosome and yet, somehow, compelled to inspire me to re-examine my relationship with yoga philosophy. From them, I understood that this was where my body wanted to be. That I was ready to practice yoga in a new way so that I can better know myself. Also, so I can join the discussion. Four of my former teachers are also men. In fact, I can’t even say that they’re former teachers as any of them, except the dead one, would likely take my call and blow my mind with something that is not at all about crunching abs but crunching old patterns of thought.

Example Three: This one is not so much an example as a statement of fact. Every man is capable and competent in perceiving his own thought, emotion, condition and mortality because every man is human. While a certain feminist spirit kindles in me that women have claimed a few modern soapboxes to remind their communities to occasionally peer within– just, I might add, as some revered yogini were known to do in the wayback– it’s still the case that the past few millenia of history have been largely recorded and contemplated by men. They are certainly capable of managing a moment of insight in a yoga studio.

So, yay men, I suppose, and yay to women as well. Seriously. Whoever you are and however you identify, there’s great intelligence available for you if you start listening in. It’s one of the burdens and blessings of being alive.

And that, to man or woman, can be a frightening proposition.