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.

 

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?

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.

Who, exactly, are you?

While I’d love to meet anyone taking the time to visit– hello, and here’s a hug– I’m less interested in the people we say we are and obsessed with this idea that we are not our thoughts. All this, ‘I’m tired,’ ‘I’m lazy,’ ‘I’m worried,’ ‘I’m going bananas,’ initiates with the preliminary fixture, ‘I am.’ I’m obsessed with this condition precedent. And anything that is my obsession becomes your reading material. You’re welcome.

Through the ruckus of my internal mob and resistance– vive l’me– I occasionally hear the words of my teachers, and the dead guys who interpret Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the even deader, though possibly reborn, guys who passed along the Vedas. A good bunch, all of them, sage-like but a mite dry. Sometimes, even, dusty. And not just due to decay. I’m not saying that wisdom seeking isn’t an adventure; I’m saying the adventure can be arduous.

Quick and dirty background: most folks who do asana think the postures pave the path to yoga. They’ll cruise a few rest stops here and there for breath and meditation. Maybe do a little good work to satisfy their karma. But this physical practice is really just the prep work. Folks may debate this, but here’s my position: we hone our bodies through asana to begin the process of settling our minds. Yoga postures ask that we move mindfully through space. Our attention becomes one-centered, hopefully, as we explore the boundaries of every pose. And if not completely one-centered, well, close enough in fleeting moments.

The healthy body’s our ride. Nothing more than a soft and juicy vehicle we’d like to go the distance. The mind: that’s the driver. And the pot-holed, winding road is yoga. The path, I might interpret for the new age folks in white pajamas. Sometimes the driver flies into a rage. He’s sure everyone on the road but him is an asshole. Sometimes, the driver gets lost. She knows she took a wrong turn but she can’t remember when. Both drivers are looking around, distracted by billboards, luxury cars, road conditions, traffic accidents.  To slaughter the metaphor: we’re just a bunch of truckers hauling our asses across land we barely see. Unless, suddenly, we become aware. Our mind becomes one-centered. Cue trucker horn.

Here’s an idea that Eckhart Tolle calls ‘observing the thinker.’ We learn to identify our thoughts as experiences, and then to distinguish them from our nature. Just as we may temporarily become cold when the window is open, we are not always cold. We may transiently feel anxious because we’re focusing on a future we can’t see, but we are not anxiety. What we are is people capable of feeling worry, or pain, or joy, or grief, or drama, or hot, or cold. What we are is a person who perceives. We aren’t what we perceive.

Whoa.

So, who, exactly, are you? All those sages (and, ahem, a therapist or two) suggest that observing thoughts– noting our emotions and manipulating them like so: ‘oh, I’m feeling sad as I think of the crap decisions I’ve made but I’m not actually a sad person who always makes crap decisions’– that we start to let go of the anchor of these perceptions. They become fleeting. Like the roadside distractions. They pass by and disappear in the rearview mirror. You may even start to notice that you have patterns of perception: ‘I’m so bad with money’ becomes ‘I’ve experienced some loss of money’ becomes ‘oh, that did happen but it’s not actually who I am.’ And you’ve just disarmed another billboard with a shitty self-limiting message. Well done. Now you know those billboards aren’t selling anything you need.

What do you think? Am I wacky with this? Let me answer that for you. I am. Occasionally wacky. But still. I am. Keep on truckin’, my friends. On whatever road you need to take.

 

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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