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01 August 2011
19 July 2011
A letter from Sri.K. Pattabhi Jois to Yoga Journal, Nov. 1995
"It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out teh [sic] essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations."
"Spiritual Madness and Compassionate Presence" -- healing of mental suffering through the philosophy and practice of Yoga
"One of my patients had severe post-traumatic stress disorder. His experience of isolation and helplessness sent shockwaves through his day-to-day life. He had flashbacks and significant difficulty relating to others.
We began his treatment with daily pranayama. We added meditation on both the destructive and creative aspects of the mother goddess Kali. Finally, he began to meditate on his own eternal nature: “I am that I am” (Hum So). Slowly but surely, this healed his illness..."
I worked with a private student today and after 10 years of teaching I am still amazed at how transformative the breath is. She is a relative newbie to yoga and in her classes at various venues from health clubs to studios, teachers have told her to "focus on the breath" but apparently no one has ever TAUGHT her how.
I could see how tight her belly and shoulders were. We did conscious breathwork just like Mark Whitwell or Ramaswami or my teachers at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram teach. A light bulb went off over her head. Her entire body visibly relaxed and she left my house looking lighter and brighter. In a word, transformed.
She's returning for more instruction on the breath and wants to work with me in the vinyasa krama method:
“By integrating the functions of mind, body, and breath...a practitioner will experience the real joy of yoga practice. . .Vinyasa krama yoga strictly follows the most complete definition of classical yoga.” – Srivatsa Ramaswami, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga
Breath + yoga = healing.
01 July 2011
|breath + movement = roots|
Psychologist Babette Rothschild has said:
"Breath is a reminder of trauma. Sensory messages from muscle and connective tissue that remember a specific position, action, or intention can be sources of triggers. Accelerated heart rate and increased respiration can be implicit reminders of that same reaction that accompanied the trauma."
As we talked about the breath during the training, I thought about how fortunate I am to have studied directly in the Krishnamacharya lineage -- studying with Srivatsa Ramaswami, Desikachar, Mark Whitwell, and lately with Gary Kraftsow. They all studied with Krishnamacharya and Krishnamacharya's yoga is all about linking breath with movement. This aspect is crucial in teaching trauma sensitive yoga.
Donna Farhi has said that "breath is a dynamic system that most of the time runs on automatic, allowing input from internal organs to mange the rate and depth of breathing."
Trauma is stored in the body and body memories can override thinking. Breath is the doorway to the nervous system -- trauma survivors have layers of physiological defenses in place that serve as psychological infrastructure and protection from implicit memories. Removing these defenses too quickly can result in significant destablization.
Hearing this I thought about the yoga classes I've taken where pranayama is indiscriminately taught, seemingly for no purpose other than to fill space in the class (this is my experience, your mileage may vary.) I became more aware of this after I returned from studying at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram the first time.
In that lineage yoga practice is asana-pranayama-meditation. I remember being in a class after my return and the first thing the teacher did was kapalabhati breathing -- no explanation, no instruction, just do it. It was very jarring (I started but did not finish) and I thought...HUH? Does this teacher know everyone's dosha in the first place to be doing this? If it did not feel at all right to my system, an experienced practitioner, I could only imagine what it felt like to the ones who were brand new to yoga in this class.
If you've read the first two parts of this series, you'll know where I am going with this. Breathing -- just doing it or hearing the breath of another student -- can be a PTSD trigger for trauma survivors. Ujayi breath can be very scary; techniques such as kapalabhati and breath retention are out of the question in a trauma sensitive yoga class.
Trauma sensitive breathing should always be performed in the context of a muscular, physical form (asana) to facilitate grounding and present moment experience. The movements are always initiated by the inhale or the exhale, because breath alone can trigger PTSD.
What are some breath practices for a trauma sensitive yoga class? Simple breath awareness (constant attention to the breath); "add a little" breath; emphasizing breathing through the nose because some trauma survivors breath through their mouths; nadi shodana; and ratio breathing, i.e., different counts for the inhale/exhale.
The bottom line is helping people notice when their breath changes, helping them notice the quality of their breath so they can notice their experience in the present moment. Mindfulness. Just this, just here, just now.
As you may have determined, with so many PTSD triggers, being trauma sensitive in a "regular" group yoga class would prove difficult. Although a trauma survivor may really want to experience yoga, the thought of walking into a public yoga class might be too challenging, too scary. In his book Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, our teacher Dave Emerson wrote about the experiences of trauma survivors in public yoga classes. One woman said that just the experience of a teacher walking up to her slowly and silently as the woman was in child's pose was enough to make her run out and never return. She did not feel safe at all.
Creating a yoga class exclusively for PTSD or trauma survivors creates community, a sangha. We were advised not to do this work in a vacuum, but to connect with a mental health professional, a VA center, a domestic violence shelter, among others. We were also advised not to work privately with students because of safety issues. I feel confident enough to work privately with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, but I might not feel secure with others, it would depend on the situation. I am using The Trauma Center's protocols in working one-on-one with TS students: (1) the student must also be working with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional so we can work together as a team; (2) the student must continue taking their medication, if any; (3) the student must not have been hospitalized for any psychological issues within the last six months; (4) there can be no active psychosis.
At the start of our training, the question was raised: how must yoga in America change if 80% (according to a collection of research) of the population have experienced or witnessed trauma? Trauma is defined by Dr. van der Kolk as being inescapable stress, heightened alertness (constant hyperarousal), or helplessness in response to an event. Some responses to these states are detachment/disconnection from the body, self, or social relationships; insomnia; fight or flight responses; depression; chronic pain; constant intrusive thoughts; consistent feelings of anger and shame; substance abuse.
We were asked: do we need to return to a "simpler way" of yoga?
This training was one of the most influential trainings I've taken in my 10 years of teaching. I hope I have helped both yoga teachers and trauma survivors in this three part series.
Krishnamacharya said that breath is central to yoga because it is central to life...and yoga is about life. Trauma is a part of life, but we do not have to allow it to define us. Yoga is about replacing old negative patterns with new positive ones, one step at a time.
Just this. Just here. Just now.
28 June 2011
A trauma survivor can be an adult survivor of childhood abuse, a domestic violence survivor, a survivor of sexual assault, someone who was in a horrible car wreck or natural disaster, or a returning soldier with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.)
Basically, anyone who walks into your class. As teachers, we never know what a student's story is, either physically or psychologically.
A “trauma sensitive” yoga class is taught very differently from the yoga class with which we are familiar -- soft music, altars, incense, physical adjustments. A typical yoga class may not be comfortable place for a trauma survivor and in fact may feel very dangerous. Merely saying the word "relax" can be a PTSD trigger if the person was told to relax and then was abused.
For someone who has been abused, a physical assist can be a severe trigger for PTSD. Many teachers say, "but I always ask first." Think about that statement. For someone who has a history of abuse and was not allowed to say no (so has issues with power and control), assists are problematic.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is the recognized authority on PTSD and heads The Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. He has said that “the goal of treatment of PTSD is to help people live in the present without feeling or behaving according to demands belonging to the past.”
The Trauma Center has begun to establish empirically that yoga is helpful for people with PTSD (van der Kolk, 2006). Along with feedback such as, “I feel like I can use my body again,” the groundbreaking study that the Trauma Center conducted in 2004 showed that yoga changes core brain physiology related to PTSD and trauma.
In a brain subjected to trauma, parts of the brain can be underdeveloped; parts of the brain can be atrophied; a compromised neocortex (the "thinking" brain) can not regulate the lower brain (the limbic brain is the emotional center of the brain); there is a lack of synaptic connections. The amygdala is the alarm clock of the brain, it is the site of stored memory and bodily sensations. It becomes engorged and overactive in PTSD. The corpus callo is the fibrous material beneath the cortex that transmits information between the two hemispheres of the brain -- in PTSD this can atrophy. The right side of the prefrontal cortex can atrophy in PTSD. These are just three examples of structural changes in a traumatized brain.
This makes recent research on how the brain can change (neuroplasticity) huge. The research is out there, you can google it: via yoga and meditation, new synaptic connections are made, old pathways are reactivated and there is neurogenesis. The Trauma Center's research has shown that a 60 minute yoga class once a week in a 10 week session begins to reduce PTSD symptoms.
So how do you make your class "trauma sensitive"? As teachers we naturally think our classes are healing in a certain way, but some aren't. We were told how Iyengar yoga classes, for example, because of the language used and the way many are taught can be problematic for trauma survivors. Seeing yoga straps lined up on a wall is not a good environment for someone who was tied down and abused.
Since much of trauma was caused by physical manipulations, physical assists for the most part are out of the question. At the root of trauma/PTSD is an extreme lack of choice. With specific yoga shapes (don't say "pose"), trauma sensitive yoga teachers invite people to begin to make choices again in a direct relationship to their experience. All these choices are about safety, comfort, and ease.
Environment is important: smells, mirrors, exposed windows, closets, temperature, and lighting can all be PTSD triggers to someone.
Do you see where I am going with this? ANYTHING a yoga teacher does can be a trigger for PTSD. How many teachers are equipped to handle stress responses that may come up such as hyperarousal, hypoarousal, disassociation, or flashbacks? If a stress response happens, one key is to start moving the large muscles like gluts or quads because those muscles use up the stress hormone cortisol (Warriors, forward bends.)
For a trauma survivor in a yoga class, it's about reclaiming their body, not about a teacher manipulating a student into a shape. As teachers we need to cultivate our ability to offer verbal assists. In trauma/PTSD, survivors have "lost" their bodies. Our teacher gave an example of how one of his students said she felt like she had a hole where her stomach should be. As yoga teachers it is not our job to "fix" a student, but to help them begin to trust their bodies again. It's about helping students use their bodies and breath as resources for self-regulation, calming themselves down if need be. Physical assists create dependency.
In a trauma sensitive yoga class, language must change: no absolutist, commanding language; use concrete and visceral language; no woo-woo "out of body" language, no metaphors. It is the invitatory language of inquiry that directs attention to the body and invites mindful movement and breathing. The teachers advised us not to say "be gentle with yourself" because that comes across as a challenge that can set people up for failure -- trauma survivors don't know how to be gentle with themselves. Even the word "play" (saying "play with the pose" is not a good idea) is a loaded word. Emphasize choice: "as you are ready"; "if you like"; "you decide"; "you choose."
Use non-intimate language for body parts: sternum v. chest; base of spine v. tailbone; seat v. butt or pelvis. However, ANY word can be a trigger and a teacher must be able to handle triggers.
Use non-aggressive language. How many of us have been in a yoga class with a drill sergeant instead of a yoga teacher -- "you SHOULD look like this." An abuse victim interprets your words differently than a soldier would with PTSD. The body is not a combat zone...for any of us.
Some of the loaded poses (for obvious reasons) are Happy Baby, hip openers, chest openers. Powerful bodily sensations can create powerful emotions so these poses must be taken slowly, in increments. Bookend a new pose with a familiar pose.
"The body keeps the score." - Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
According to the teachers at my recent Trauma Sensitive Yoga training, 70-80% of the population have experienced some type of trauma, whether being in a war or a catastrophic car accident. This statistic comes from a collection of the clinical literature currently out there. Keeping that statistic in mind, think of your yoga class. In many cases abuse is caused by physical manipulation of the body. Now think about what those yoga adjustments are doing to a trauma survivor with PTSD who was held down during their abuse. Even chanting and Sanskrit can be triggers for someone who suffered cult abuse.
Anything a yoga teacher does can be a trigger. Anything. Telling someone to be still and watch the breath can be a trigger, especially to a woman who was raped and the last thing she heard before she disassociated from the attack was the rapist's breath in her ear. The word "pose" can be a trigger, especially for an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse who was made to POSE for pornography.
How will you teach your classes? Whether as teachers or students, we know that yoga heals, that is a purpose of yoga. But for many trauma survivors, walking into a yoga class is impossible. If you were that child who had been tied up, think how seeing a yoga strap would make you feel. Trauma survivors are stuck in a body/breath/mind that is still relating to past conditions. Time is frozen in the trauma survivor's brain, we're stuck in a loop. I know what my triggers are.
Approximately 88% of men with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder met lifetime criteria for one or more disorders such as depression and anxiety. Seventy-nine percent of women with PTSD met the criteria for one or more. Eighty percent of people with PTSD met criteria for another psychiatric disorder (Solomon and Davidson, 1997.)
In a word, my training at the Trauma Institute was amazing. I consider it one of the most influential trainings I've done in my almost 10 years of teaching. Forty yoga teachers and clinicians from all over the United States and some from Europe came for four days to learn about the ground-breaking research being done (scientists and researchers are finally catching up to what yogis intuitively knew thousands of years ago) and to learn how to create trauma sensitive classes. A "trauma sensitive" class is not your mother's yoga class. It MUST be taught differently, even as to word choice and environment.
Many of us in the training were survivors, including me. Many felt that a true community was being created, much more so than a regular yoga teacher training. On the last day I sat in a small group and heard how just listening about trauma and PTSD was a trigger for some. Many of us had jangly nerves, as one woman described it, but all left empowered and ready to take this healing into our communities. One woman said she was proud to be a survivor and I nodded my head in agreement.
We learned much about the different parts of the brain that are literally physically damaged during trauma. Prolonged abuse damages the brain even more -- parts of the brain can atrophy and shrink and the connection between our "reptilian brain" and our "thinking brain" short-circuits. There are now many studies on trauma survivors via brain scans that show the physical changes. But the fact is that it does not have to stay damaged. The fairly recent concept of neuroplasticity is huge. It was previously thought that the adult brain can not change, but brain scans show that it can change and repair itself from trauma. One of the most important things we learned was that while talk therapy is effective, it can only go so far because it is head/mind oriented and trauma/abuse is so body-based. The Trauma Institute's soon to be published research shows that the body-centered activity of yoga combined with talk therapy is much more effective in treating PTSD and trauma survivors. Why? Because the body keeps score, the body has memory. Next year the Trauma Institute will begin a 5 year study of the effectiveness of Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques v. yoga on trauma/PTSD. The research will utilize brain scans.
We heard about "Trauma Theory for Yoga Instructors", "The Neurobiology of Trauma as it Relates to Yoga" (presented by Heather Mason), and also heard from Bill, a Viet Nam war vet who suffered from PTSD. He told us his story about how he was a hospital corpsman in the Marines and his PTSD did not manifest until his own children were born years later. "Life became gray," he said. The birth of his children triggered his PTSD because when he saw his babies he remembered all the dead Vietnamese children he saw. He said he constantly feared for his children, he was stuck in the loop that something terrible would happen to them, at any time, he was sure of it.
In both 2001 and 2002 he suffered a neurological episode where his left side stopped working -- PTSD and traumatic brain injuries affect the same part of the brain. He attributed his neurologic damage that showed up years later to the herbicide Agent Orange telling us that the body reacts to herbicides in a very specific way: "we were eating it and drinking it." Bill was fortunate enough to connect with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk as his psychiatrist who told him to try yoga for his PTSD and neurologic symptoms. Bill told us that yoga managed his symptoms and have grounded and centered him. Bill is in his 60s and he told us that he has been told that he should be in a wheelchair or in a nursing home but yoga has saved his life.
Bill has been doing Bikram yoga three or four times a week and has been doing it for about five years. He says he has tried other types of yoga but Bikram is it for him. Bikram is not considered "trauma sensitive" yoga but it helps Bill because of the consistency of the routine, the same thing every day, every class. We learned that consistency is one of the top three requirements of a trauma sensitive yoga class: BE SAFE, BE PREDICTABLE, BE CONSISTENT. Bill gave us his opinion about why consistency is important:
in the last 45 years America's warfare has been ill-defined, ambiguous, with poorly stated goals, and all have been counter-insurgency wars. In wars such as these, soldiers can never create a pattern, nothing is ever repeated, you can't go down the same road twice because you might get killed. Bill asked us to think how it feels to have our neurological system disrupted if we don't have patterns -- it is disruptive to the emotional system that is connected to our physiological well-being. For Bill, Bikram yoga via its repeated patterns serves as his ground.
However, for someone else, Bikram yoga with its commanding teachers could be a trigger. The yoga remedies for trauma and PTSD are definitely not one size fits all. For example, Richard Miller worked with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in a famous study of the effects of yoga nidra on soldiers with PTSD. Yoga nidra was found effective on this population. Bill told us that soldiers with PTSD like the feeling of deep relaxation that yoga nidra gives just by virtue of how "on" they had to be while in the field. Yoga nidra is a relief to them, it's "heaven" just to be able to relax, Bill said. But for someone else, such as the survivor who was constantly told to be still and don't move, deep stillness for so long would be a severe PTSD trigger.
03 June 2011
Another newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami....enjoy
When I was a student I had to study a course in Mathematics (or was it Physics or Engineering?) titled, “Statics and Dynamics.” That was the time Mathematics left me but I liked the name of the course which I am using as the title of the article.
When I was young I used to be called “Soni Ramaswami” by many relatives, friends and many who were not very friendly. "Soni" means puny. I used to be very thin, even so I used to be very interested in outdoor sports activities. I managed to get onto the college/school teams in Tennis and Cricket. In fact, I was coached for several years by the father of the National Tennis Champion in India at the time and the father had coached the champion. I thought I did well in spite of a lack of the required physique and stamina. I was the college champion in Tennis for three years and also won the district championship for college students. My best moment was the match I played against the All India number 3 ranked player at that time.
Barely 18, I came close to beating him. In the close match, in the final set I could not cope with the physical demands. My coach told me later that I had a good ball sense and talent (please bear with me on this, old men like me need some bragging for sustenance), but with my kind of physique and lack of stamina I had little chance of making the grade.
Much earlier I had started learning Yoga from my guru, Sri Krishnamacharya. Prior to that I had learned some Yoga asanas from my father, several people in my school and a few other teachers. In my school the physical education teacher usually doubled as a yoga master as well and several students were familiar with yogasanas and many were able to do several poses like sarvangsana, padmasana, etc. I used to do asanas randomly, no coordinated breathing, no pranayama, more interested in the form alone.
But when I started the studies with my guru the whole picture was different. Slow synchronous breathing, the counter-poses, the sequencing, the adaptations, pranayama, chanting, text studies were all new and it was astounding studying with him. Initially I was continuing to engage in outdoor sports which he was aware of, but did not ask me to choose between the two. One day he said that the philosophy of Yoga and outdoor sports were very different. He would say that while Yoga is considered as a sarvanga sadhana or practice for all parts of the body (and mind) modern sporting activities were anga bhanga sadhana as they affect different parts of the body differently producing disequilibrium and asymmetry. I remembered at that time I came across a story in a sports magazine about the left wrist of Rod Laver an outstanding Australian Tennis player. It was said that the wrist size of his playing left hand was twice as large as the right one.
Sri Krishnamacharya also used to say very interesting things during the rest pauses between different asanas and sequences. Once he said that the Yogi should be thin or krisa. One should not be overweight.... Carelessly developed fat bellies and cultivated oversized biceps one should guard against. It suited me as I refused to put on weight when I was a young adult. After I became a senior citizen, of course I started putting on weight growing sidewards.
He also emphasized individual home practice. Merely studying with the teacher may not be sufficient. Regular comprehensive practice was emphasized. He would quote the following sloka:
anabhyase visa ham vidya
ajirne bhojanam visham
Visham sabha daridrasya
Vridhddhasys taruni visham
"Knowledge without practice (application) is toxic. Food during indigestion is poison. Partying is poison (ruinous) to the poor, while to the old a young spouse is disaster indeed."
By then I had a copy of his Yoga Makaranda, the Tamil version. Fortunately this book, a treasure of information and instructions for everyone who wants to know the Krishnamacharya system is now at everybody’s fingertips, literally.....
Modern day yoga asana practice follows two different streams. There are old schools which teach different asanas and require the participants to stay in the pose for a long time, no appreciable movements or breathing but just stay in the pose for a long time. They emphasis the steadiness definition of yoga even though many find long stay in the poses painful and boring. There is no 'sukha' in it. Then there is another stream, more modern, in which the asana practice is a continuous flow of movements like a train going at breakneck speed not stopping and looking at at any of the beautiful stations and places called asanas in between. A set of regimented routines on a graded scale of difficulty is done at a hurried pace without coordination with slow breathing day in and day out.
In the Yoga Makaranda of Krishnamacharya and the way I learnt Yoga from my Guru, the asanas are described in two perspectives. The book contains pictures of a number of asanas. Krishnamacharya also in most cases mentions that one should stay in these poses for a long time:
Chaturanga dandasana (10mts),
Mahamudra/Janusirsasana (15 mts),
sarvangasana (niralamba)10mts, etc.
It is clear that many of the static poses require time to confer the intended benefits to the abhyasi. He also details the benefits that accrue from the long stay in these classic poses.
One also finds that Krishnamacharya has described in the Makranda a number of Vinyasas leading to an asana and then the return sequence. These are not illustrated though. It it is gratifying to know that Yoga Makaranda’s English version published by Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram has sketches to illustrate most of the Vinyasas which along with the beautiful asana pictures of Krishnamacharya makes it a very useful companion to understand the Krishnamacharya system of asana practice. Further the required breathing also is described in the Makaranda, whether a particular movement is to be done on inhalation or exhalation or occasionally holding the breath. However, the book does not contain the several vinyasas done in the asanas or ‘in situ’ vinyasas mainly because the book is a small one. He has though mentioned that several of the asanas like sarvangasana, sirsasana, padmasana, etc. have a number of vinyasas emanating from the basic
poses. These vinyasas, as many and as varied as possible, should be done. These vinyasas make the system of yoga a sarvanga sadhana as my Guru mentions in the Makaranda. In my book. Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, I have attempted to include almost the complete range of vinyasas in all the major asanas as I had learnt frm my guru. When one exercises the body with deep vinyasas one is able to squeeze as much of the venous blood as possible from the various tissues and thus enhance the muscle pump effect. Then the deep associated breathing used in Krishnamacharya’s system helps to enhance the respiratory suction pump effect on the heart thereby increasing the rakta sanchara or blood circulation especially the venous blood return to the heart. More and more vinyasas help to stretch the blood vessels as well keeping them more elastic.
The practice of vinyasas itself is made very interesting by my Guru. Each expansive vinyasa would be done on slow ujjayi inhalation and every contraction movement would be done on slow smooth exhalation. What should be the length of the inhalation and exhalation as compared to our normal breathing of about 2 seconds of inhalation and 2 seconds of exhalation? He would ask us to take a slow inhalation, say about 5 seconds and another 5 seconds for exhalation. It is the minimum. One could slowly increase the time for inhalation from 5 to 6 and even up to 10 or twelve seconds. The vinyasas were never done at the breakneck speed with which they are done these days. The slower the movements the better and more beneficial it is. A rate of five to six breaths per minute in vinyasakrama is in order. At this rate the suryanamaskara routine of 12 Vinyasas would take about 2 to 3 minutes. By studying Yoga with him one could realize how different Yoga is from workouts, aerobics, outdoor sport activities and even fast paced Yoga where the slow, mindful breathing is compromised.
So Sri Krishnamacharya’s system of asana practice, as evident from the Makaranda and also from how I have studied with him, is a judicious combination of dynamic Vinyasas and classic asanas. Vinyasas also help to achieve perfection in poses. A few years ago when I was conducting the teacher training program, we went through the entire gamut of vinyasas centered around Padmasana. We continued the practice for several days gradually adding more and more vinyasas. Then we did a number of movements staying in Padmasana. At the end of it all, a participant came to me and said that it was the first time he could do padmasana even though he was a yoga practitioner for morethan ten years. The quality of his padmasana improved day by day as he started practicing more and more vinyasas in padmasana which all helped to make the final posture more secure. And he could stay in the posture for a longer period of time, say 10 or 15 mts, as Sri Krishnamacharya would want the abhyasis to be able to do.
How can one stay in postures like paschimatanasana, sarvangasana, sirsasana, etc. for 10 to 15 mts or even 30 mts as some yogabhyasis do? Will it not be painful, won’t the limbs go to sleep and what about the mind, does it not get bored? It will be interesting to know the way Sri Krishnamacharya taught Sarvangasana to me.
First do the preliminary poses like desk pose, apanasana and urdwa prasarita pada hastasana, slowly with the appropriate breathing. Then get into the more relaxed viparitakarani position. Keep the legs relaxed -even limp- for a while watching the unhurried breathing. Then come down.
Do it for a few days and then after getting into the viparitakarani position straighten the body, support the back behind the ribcage with the palms placed close to each other. Stay for a few minutes, come down, do an appropriate counterpose and do the routine a few more times for a total of about 10 minutes. From then on try to increase the duration of stay in the pose until you are able to stay for 10 mts in one try. After a few days of comfortable steady stay in sarvangasana, increase the stay to about 15 minutes the ideal duration in sarvangasana. Now start concentrating on the breath. Your inhalation can be short say 3 seconds or so in this pose as the inhalation is a bit more difficult because of the cramped nature of the chest. But one can have a very long exhalation. After a few days practice try to introduce the bandhas as you start your slow exhalation. Start drawing in the rectum and the abdomen in tandem as you exhale finishing the exhalation with mulabandha and uddiyana bandha in place. Hold the breath out and maintain the bandhas for about 5 seconds. Then release the bandhas and start the next slow inhalation.
After a few days practice count the number of breaths that you take for the entire duration of your stay in the posture. Then try to reduce the number of breaths you take for the same 15 minutes stay. The aim is to reduce this number until you reach a steady state that you can maintain consistently. There are people who are able to maintain a breath rate of about 4, 3, 2, or even one breath per minute staying in a static yoga posture as sarvangasana. It is better to learn these procedures from a teacher.
Many years back I used to teach in Houston for several weeks at a time. It was a time when asanas like sarvangasana and pranayama were taboo and padmasana was a dreaded asana. I tried to encourage the class to practice sarvangasana, learning it an orderly fashion through preparatory Vinyasas and finally the posture. It took a while and then the participants were encouraged to try to stay in the asana for a while doing slow smooth breathing. They were able to stay for longer and longer duration and towards the end of the program more than half of the class could stay for the full fifteen minutes maintaining at best a breath rate of 3 or 4 per minute. In my teacher training programs the participants are encouraged to develop endurance to stay in some of the important poses like the inversions, paschimatanasana, mahamudra, etc. even as they learn several hundred Vinyasas in the course.
Further, while asanas are a necessary routine for a yogabhyasi it is not sufficient. A well rounded yoga practice should contain other angas of yoga like pranayama because they between them help to reduce the systemic excess of rajas and tamas. Day’s yoga practice should consist of a proper combination of dynamic vinyasas and static asanas. Add a stint of pranayama practice and some meditation or chanting, and you have a wholesome daily yoga practice.
31 May 2011
24 May 2011
Hanumanasana is Overrated
"From a standpoint where the purpose of Hatha yoga is to facilitate and maintain a healthy functioning body, there is no reason why a person would ever need to be able to do Hanumanasana. However unattached we may be in working towards it, the goal belies our better purpose.
Touting images of flashy classical asana demonstrations as examples of “mastery” has led to a gross exaggeration of physical practice, beyond the point of practicality, and has fueled a physical fitness industry that is more concerned with aesthetics than health. I realize that I may be taking a hard view of things but seeing past the cultural sensationalizing of just about everything can be a daunting task given the deeply ingrained mores stacked against it. Some amount of push back seems necessary."
"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."
Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher -- and as quoted by Paul Grilley about certain "truths" of modern-day yoga.
His philosophy controversial, Schopenhauer "claimed that the world is fundamentally what we recognize in ourselves as our will. His analysis of will led him to the conclusion that emotional, physical, and sexual desires can never be fulfilled. Consequently, he eloquently described a lifestyle of negating desires, similar to the ascetic teachings of Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism and the Church Fathers of early Christianity." (from Wikipedia.)
Why do we engage in certain practices at a certain time, why do we think they were important at the time? When do we begin to move beyond our conditioning and attachments? What is the impetus that throws us headlong into a different direction when we thought for so long that we were always headed in the right direction?
Has your yoga truth changed since you started your practice?
Rod Stryker: "YOGA IS A QUEST FOR THE TRUTH"
23 May 2011
It always does my heart good when I hear a student talk about how yoga has helped them in their life. Most of the realizations I've heard are more about the non-physical than the physical, things on a deeper level than achieving an arm balance or handstand. I sit back and say to myself (or sometimes out loud), yes, they get it, someone has been paying attention!
I've always said that yoga is about life so what better teaching than a pile of dog doo-doo in the middle of a bike path.
A few weeks ago I had told my students that at Will Kabat-Zinn's retreat he had talked about how one little thought can create our reality in a second. For example, we're walking down the street and we pass someone, we assign the word "creepy", and our mind instantly creates an entire story about that person, we create an entire world around that person. Will said, "you never know what someone else's story is." In other words, just as the Buddha taught, be on the lookout as to how your thoughts create your reality.
Then on Saturday morning during the yin part of our practice I read excerpts from Sarah Powers' chapter in Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga & Buddhism.
Sarah wrote about how embroiled she became in her emotions as she laid in bed bathed in sweat from the heat. She said she became "utterly intolerant of my experience and before I knew it, I was defiantly standing, almost expecting I would encounter an enemy lurking." Sarah said that as she simply watched her intense emotions she became aware of how her angst effortlessly slipped away and how she began to feel calm and present. She was astonished at how a strong emotion can decompose as she mindfully turned her attention inward to her direct experience in the moment. Her next moment was no less fiery, but her inner attitude had shifted. Her experience of the sweltering heat had changed simply because her attention had shifted from resistance to mindful observation.
As my students were in sphinx post one of them told the story of how she was walking her favorite path and she experienced what Sarah experienced: the shift from rage to mindful observation of her fiery emotions:
"On my first lap I just missed stepping in some dog poop in the middle of the paved walking path that circled my neighborhood park. I was enraged that someone would let their dog defecate on the walkway without cleaning it up and assumed it came from the large dog being walked by a woman I had just passed going in the opposite direction a few minutes earlier. I spent the rest of my first lap feeling irritated and blaming this woman for not cleaning up after her dog.
When I got to that same spot during my second lap, I still felt irritated and decided dogs should not be allowed in the park.
On my third lap I began to wonder whether or not the poop had perhaps been there for several hours, which would then exonerate the dog currently in the park as well as his owner. My irritation began to dissipate.
On the fourth lap I realized I had no way of knowing if it was this woman's dog that had made the mess, so I really couldn't blame her. I didn't think anymore about it as I finished the lap.
On the fifth lap, I reminded myself there was poop on the walk but it no longer upset me. An oncoming jogger and I smiled at each other was we both sidestepped the mess."
After my student told her story I clapped and thanked her for sharing this marvelous teaching. "You get it!," I told her, "You've no idea how this does my heart good, thank you for listening all these years!" I asked if she felt these emotions in her body -- Buddha's First Foundation of Mindfulness. Yes, she said. I told her that ultimately on the fifth lap she experienced Buddha's Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, mindfulness of the dharma, i.e., the nature of reality which is impermanence -- all things change. Her feelings of rage at the dog poop in the middle of the bike path during the first lap had changed to feelings of neutrality by the fifth lap. My student's thoughts on first seeing the dog poop and then a woman and her dog had created her reality and her own suffering. If we are paying attention we notice how all things are temporary. That's awakening, and it comes slowly but surely.
I said, "See how our thoughts create our reality? You created your own suffering all because of a pile in the middle of the path." I asked whether she would have noticed these subtle shifts of consciousness if this had happened before she started a yoga and mindfulness practice. Her answer was no.
Yoga is Life. All things are a training. Even a hot steaming mess in the middle of your Path.
16 May 2011
|late July gardens, 2010|
Last week on my birthday I listened to Mark Whitwell's talk on the new website Yoga Teacher Telesummit. I have to admit that I did not finish listening to his talk because my birthday arrived with gorgeous weather and I was compelled to practice my other yoga -- gardening. A beautiful day is wasted sitting in front of the computer even if it is spent listening to Mark. You can read my other posts about Mark here.
However, I did write some notes as I listened and what Mark talked about bears repeating: yoga is about the breath first and foremost, as Krishnamacharya taught.
Mark believes that "yoga [in America] has painted itself into a corner by a few obsessed people." He said that exaggerated postures done by people of certain body types is not what yoga is about -- yoga is about connection, our connection with the intimacy of Life.
Mark feels that the source scholar of yoga, Krishnamacharya, has been forgotten and it is "time to put scholarship into what has been popularized"; i.e., put the principles of Krishnamacharya back into what has become popular. When this is done "yoga then becomes efficient, powerful, and safe." It becomes the "direct tantra of intimacy", the nurturing reality of what yoga really is.
Mark said that five things must be remembered in order to accomplish this:
1. Body movement is for the breath, not the other way around -- body movement IS breath movement. Breath starts and ends every movement.
2. Inhalation is receptivity from above -- the receptive aspect of life; exhalation is from below -- the abs in and up, the chest secondary, strength receiving.
3. Ha-tha Yoga is the union of opposites in your own system: sun/moon, male/female, strength that is receiving, softness supported by strength, yin/yang, shiva/shakti.
4. Asana creates bandha and bandha serves the breath. Bandha is the "intelligent cooperation of muscle groups" in our system. They are in polarity of above to below, inhale/exhale, strength to receptivity
5. Asana allows for pranayama and when you do pranayama in the way that is right for you then meditation arises naturally, this is what Krishnamacharya taught. Meditation then comes as a siddhi, it is a seamless process. Understanding that Krishnamacharya referred to the combination of asana and pranayama as sadhana -- (sadhana being "that which you can do", that is, the asana that is right for you as Krishnamacharya taught) mediation will arise as a result of YOUR sadhana.
Mark said that sleep arises naturally and spontaneously, you can not force yourself to sleep, it just happens. In the same way you can not force yourself to meditate, meditation arises spontaneously after your sadhana of asana + pranayama.
As much as I adore Mark, I canceled my teacher training with him at Omega in August. It would have cost me over $1000 and that is the price of a plane ticket to India. I have a chance to study yoga therapy with AG Mohan, another one of Krishnamacharya's long-time students.
Sorry, Mark, but I will see you somewhere in 2012. Ma India is calling me home. Again.
09 May 2011
|(thanks to the genius of Diane Arbus)|
Why doesn't awakening happen just like that? [visualize a finger snap.]
Because then you would never know the pain and the joy of it.
"Houston, we have a problem. What’s that? you say. I listen to these advaita newbies who have suddenly awakened and think, “What part am I missing here?” I know my teacher would fall down laughing if it weren’t so serious. Just because these people are personable doesn’t mean jack. Just because they are telegenic and well-spoken, we fall right into the trap of duality. “They say they woke up, who am I to doubt them. I don’t even know them. And I seem to still suffer the slings and arrows of my errant karma.”
You’re not alone. Awakening cannot be judged that easily. As Vernon Howard said, “Only an enlightened being recognizes another enlightened being.” He would have put the blame squarely on us for believing that awakening happens that often or that easily.
Good teachers make people squirm. They do not sit with a mic in someone’s living room decanting statements from their mouth into your consciousness. Satsang is a silly excuse to get out of doing your laundry if you ask me.
A lifetime commitment to truth is required and you will be broken before you awaken. Sleep tight if you don’t want to know the truth. Pull a Rip Van Winkle and put up a Do Not Disturb sign. The Work requires one to remember the Self that you are while witnessing the self that you are not. It isn’t easy nor is it without arduous engagement of body, mind and spirit.
Do yourself a favor and sit alone. You don’t have to fly around attending satsang with the best and the brightest, the ones with the most YouTube videos and the most influential friends. Get some books and dig in. Pray, purify yourself. Wait and wait and wait. Watch yourself become hysterical and useless. See the demons marching around your mind and try to stop them.
It may all be a play but it’s an hypnotic one. We were never promised a rose garden. Don’t believe it when you see it. Only believe what your inner guide tells you. And if you don’t know who your inner guide is, wait until that is revealed. It’s about revelation, repentance and all of the old biblical truths. We must approach them psychologically instead of literally.
Nothing is what it appears to be, including the truth of who you are. Lotsa luck in those satsangs."
Vicki Woodyard, Author, LIFE WITH A HOLE IN IT
02 May 2011
Yes, even my yoga guru shuts up to do his practice:
"...[the] English translation of my Guru Sri Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda (I have the Tamil translation of the book for over 45 years and refer to it even today whenever I want to just shut up and listen to my Guru, Sri Krishnamacharya.)"
Note: that's called humility...one of the aspects of a true yogi.
Click here if you want to download Krishnamacharya's "essence of yoga." This is a priceless gift.
Ramiswamiji's May newsletter on Advaita....
"My teacher Sri Krishnamacharya took considerable pains to teach the Yoga Sutras to his students. He also wanted his students to study and be familiar with other orthodox philosophies like Samkhya, and Vedanta. The several Upanishads, the Gita and Brahma sutra he taught to explain the rather tricky, involved vedanta philosophy, usually following the visishta-advaita approach, though he also was adept in advaita philosophy. He once said in the Brahma Sutra class to the effect that while Advaita could be intellectually stimulating it is visishta advaita that will be emotionally satisfying.
Perhaps the most widely read orthodox Indian Philosophy is Vedanta and especially the Advaita school. There are tons of material available on this philosophy and many people interested in vedic thought study this and gradually become lifelong students of Vedanta. Many long time Hatha Yoga practitioners have taken up the study of Yoga as a philosophical system and considerable material is available from both old and contemporary writers in different languages especially English. And some among the the yoga practitioners have taken an interest in studying the vedanta philosophy also especially the advaitic interpretation. In this however, the published material on Advaita Vedanta available is so technical and involved that the difficult subject is made more inaccessible by several portions which are very technical. Profound and daring, albeit very ancient, this philosophy stands out among all the vedic philosophies. I thought I could write very briefly on the basic tenets of this thought process.
There are at least two things we need to have an experience, a subject and an object. When you and I sit at a table over a cup of coffee or a can of beer or a more yogic glass of goat's or cow’s milk, I am the subject and you are the object and it is the other way from your point of view. We are two different entities and what does advaita say about our relationship? Advaita says that there is only one principle, the observer which is pure consciousness. It implies that there is only one principle or entity that is pure consciousness that can be termed as one having “Existance” (satya). Nothing else qualifies to be termed “It exists“. So the term advaita refers to that one principle that alone exists. Of course it appears to contradict our experience as we converse as you and I.
Many Indian philosophies both vedic and non Vedic, endeavor to explain the absolute beginning (aarambha) of the creation of the universe. The several puranas have the narration of creation as an essential aspect of purana. They explain how God created the Universe. There are other views like those of the Samkhyas and Yogis who say the evolution of the Universe began with the disequilibrium of the gunas in the dimensionless mulaprakriti. They do not see the need for a God to create the Universe. The vaiseshika philosophy says that the universe came about by the combination of various atoms of earth, of water, etc. and the atoms or paramanus are the basic building blocks of the Universe. Further all these vedic darsanas are careful to point out that there is also the individual self that is distinct and different from the material universe created. Because they suggest two different principles-- the consciousness and matter-- these philosophies came to be called dwaita or dualistic. They also differ from the modern scientific view which says that the universe started by the evolution from a tiny but hugely dense entity called singularity, but seems to imply that individual consciousness is a product of matter and not an independent entity—contrary to the vedic philosophies.
Advaita as the name implies indicates that there is only one principle and none else . That principle is pure non changing(sat) consciousness(chit) which they call Brahman. How do they explain the existence of the evolved Universe? Since there is only one principle which itself does not undergo any change with time (avakasa) or place (akasa) the evolved universe is not real but only an illusion and not independent. When we attempt to find out the beginning of the evolution we go back from the present. The classic examples of the chicken and the egg or the seed and the tree are mentioned to indicate the impossibility of finding out the beginning of the evolution. One school of advaitins says that since the chicken-egg phenomenon involves an unending chain of changes the beginning of which can not be determined , so the very exercise of finding out how the universe started (Aaramba vaada) is futile and all views about how the universe began are wrong. In fact, accordingly, the several theories about the beginning of the Universe cancel one another. The impossibility of finding the absolute beginning also could open the possibility that there is no real beginning and that the evolution of the universe itself is not real- the world is not rock solid as we see- and at best it is virtual. They assert that there was no real creation. Gaudapada in his commentary of Mandukya Upanishad states “nobody is ever born.”
In this context I remember a movie I saw when I was young (I was hardly sixty at that time). In the mystery movie, the young detective was trying to find out who murdered “Victim X”. After two years of painstaking investigations (and two hours of my painful viewing) the detective is unable to find the killer, only because “Victim X” did not die in the first place. Our detective started with a wrong premise. I have been trying like crazy for 72 years to understand how the world was created, poring over orthodox and contemporary dissertations on the origin of the Universe and now some Advaitin says that I can not find it because the world was never really created.
Advaita also asserts that a non-changing pure consciousness can not produce a 'real' material world nor can a non-conscious prakriti, paramanus or singularity produce non-changing consciousness which is the nature of our true self. So in our dualistic world the advaitin's view is that only the consciousness is real while the persistent world is unreal. In this context one may consider the statement of Einstein, “Reality is merely an illusion albeit is a persistent one”. Reality here refers to the universe which we experience as real. And advaita rubbishes the general perception that the Universe was really created (sat karya), a universal, taken-for-granted view. The advaitins give several examples to explain the 'virtuality' of the observed universe. They compare it to the space that we see in a mirror; though the space that we see in the mirror may be considered to be within the two dimensional mirror surface, it appears to be outside (beyond and behind) of it. The other example is that of the dream experience. In the dream, the space, the objects and the other beings and even our own dream self can be considered to be taking place within the dreamer's head but they all appear to be real and outside, during the dream state. The third example they give is that of the work of a magician who is able to create an illusion of space and objects. At a higher level is the world created by Siddha yogis. There is a story of sage Viswamitra creating an illusory heaven to accommodate one of his disciples, King Trisanku. And the Lord who created this virtual ‘universe of illusion’ is the most consummate magician of all.
The Brahman, the only one existing - the advaita -, is pictured as even smaller than an atom (anoraneeyan) but is immensely dense consciousness (prajnana ghana). Within it, due to the inexplicable Maya the beginning less universe appears, only appears, to evolve and exist and persist. Further even though the universe is within the Brahman, it appears to be outside it. And that is the grand illusion.
There is an interesting episode about Lord Krishna as a toddler. Krishan was a purna ‘avatar’ or complete incarnation of Para Brahman or the supreme being. He was raised by his foster parents Yasodha and Nandan in Gokulam. One day he was playing and his mother saw him taking some dirt from the floor and putting it in his mouth. Concerned the mother lifted him and asked him if he put dirt into his mouth. Without opening his mouth the child shook his head. The mother now more concerned asked him to open his mouth. The child opened the mouth wide and lo and behold! Yasodha saw the entire Universe in his mouth. She had a bird’s eye view, rather an eagle’s eye view (or a Google view) of the Universe including her holding the open mouthed divine child in her arms. She realized that the child was para brahman (the supreme being). The entire universe was within Him even as He appeared as a child, within the vast universe, like all of us. The Lord says in the Bhagavadgita “Everything is in Me but I am not in everything.”
I, as I know myself, wrapped in this maya (maya=that which really is not: the trickster), even though I am within the supreme consciousness, the individual I, as part of the Universe appear to be outside of it, engulfing It, the Brahman. And consequently the supreme consciousness, Brahman, appears to be within this physical me as the Atman or the individual Self ,in my heart cave (dahara). Now, though I am in It, It (Brahman) appears to be within me as my Self or Atman. The Upanishads tell us the means of finding It, within each one of us. The pancha maya model is one such vidya or practice by which each one can find the self within oneself, within the five kosas. It is an exercise by which one knows the only real principle that exists, the Brahman, the pure consciousness as one‘s self or Atman. The Self that resides in my heart lotus (dahara) and the Self that you, sitting across the coffee table , find in your heart lotus are one and the same, the same Brahman. That is advaita. Advaita does not mean all the varied objects like you and I are one and the same, but the Self within us are one and the same, even as they appear to be distinct and different, shrouded by illusion.
There is a considerable amount of source material available on this advaita pilosophy. The ten major Upanishads are the main source followed by the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavat Gita. In the Upanishads the Vedanta philosophy is presented succinctly through anecdotes, dissertations and dialogues between parent and offspring, teacher and pupil, spouse and spouse, God and devotee, saint and sinner and friend and friend. The advaitic interpretation is chiefly presented by Sri Sankara through detailed commentaries on these major Upanishads, Bhagavat Gita and also the Brahma Sutras. Sankara and some of his pupils have also written several easily accessible texts on advaita called prakrana granthas, like Atma bodha, Vivekachudamani and others.
Many of his works with some translations are available online. The Upanishads themselves explain the philosophy in detail from several viewpoints answering multitude of questions that may arise in the followers’ mind. Several vidyas or dissertations help to have a clear understanding of this old, unusual philosophy. They also contain some very pithy statements which are used as mantras or memory aids and are tellingly direct. Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman), Pragnyanam Brahma (Absolute consciousness in Brahman), tat tvam asi (You are That, the Brahman) ayam atma brahma (this individual Self is Brahman) are the most famous. Further there are other equally powerful statements like Brahma satyam, Jagan mitya (Brahman is real/ existence, the Universe is myth --mythya--illusion). Jiva brahmaiva na aparah (The individual Self is definitely Brahman and none other.)
What is the benefit of this kind of inquiry, especially to the majority of us who muddle through life rising with the tide and rolling with the punches? The advaitins say that knowing the truth about ourselves and the Universe is essential and they aver that this is the truth. Truth should be known whether it is sweet, bitter or insipid. Once we know the truth about ourselves and the universe around us our interaction with the outside world could drastically change. The Yogis say that the external world ,predominantly, is a constant source of threefold sorrow (duhkha). So say the Samkhyas. But the advaitin goes a step further and says that to a discerning mind the external world is not only a source of duhkha (barring individual variations, look at the enormity of the threefold collective duhkha in the world–self created, caused by other beings and by nature's fury) but is itself an illusion. How much importance do I give to the dream experience during dream time and then when I wake up? One tends to shrug off the dream experience as 'just a dream' on waking up.
Likewise when my mind after study, contemplation and determination finds that the world after all is virtual like a dream, I may not take my transient worldly life with so much anxiety, expectation and remorse as I seem to be doing all my life. An enormous amount of psychological burden that I unnecessarily carry may be taken off my mind then, and make me peaceful, hopefully. Furthermore, the thought or realization that I am the non-changing majestic reality, the one and only eternal Brahman, is just cool!"
While slowly inhaling, meditate that the virtual external world is being withdrawn into the source, the Brahman in one’s heart. Next during the breath holding (antah Kambhatka), meditate on the fact that the Universe is within the Brahman and has no independent real existence. Then while doing the exhalation meditate that the
illusionary universe is being renounced. And in Bahya Kambhaka the meditation is on the pure Brahman that alone exists as advaita (based on Sankara’s work and Tejobindu Upanishad.)
A Sanskrit prayer
Death without distress
Life without dependence
Grant me, Oh! compassionate Lord Sambhu (Siva)
In Thee are established all.
27 April 2011
I = Intelligent
T = Tenacious
C = Creative
H = Honest
"Embracing your inner bitch...means that you're being strong and honest with yourself and those around you, and I think that's a good thing."
Thanks to Tabatha for that!
Yeah, you heard me. I'm back. But on a very limited basis.
Since I stopped writing in February I can't tell you how many readers left comments on Facebook or wrote to me asking me to start writing again -- or to write for their online yoga mags. It seriously overwhelmed me. Goddess bless you all!
I've decided to reopen this blog to post about SPECIAL TOPICS such as my upcoming trainings in teaching yoga to trauma survivors, a weekend with Gary Kraftsow, a week with Mark Whitwell, and a weekend with Erich Schiffman.
We'll see how it goes, but I'm no longer into the blah blah blah of the modern yoga scene. It bores me.
The ayurveda teacher in my last training at the Mandiram said that a yogi is one whose prana is contained and doesn't let it leak out with unnecessary blah blah blah (among other things.) Hence, "shut up and do your practice." So no more snaps of my tats. Hey, I SAID TATS!
Others can write about the usual yoga suspects. Like Lululemon pants, how yoga makes you sexy, or a celebrity doing yoga on the beach. Whatever.
I remember what Kausthub Desikachar told us: if we do not teach others what we have learned we are nothing more than thieves.
I'm no thief. I'm a B.I.T.C.H.
13 February 2011
|original art Karin Bartimole|
"When you are truly genuine, there will invariably be people who do not accept you. And in that case, you must be your own badass self, without apology." (Katie Goodman)
"Yoga is not for people who are interested in staying the same." (David Life)
My decision to stop writing this blog came to me in India. I returned from India just last Thursday and my final blog post brewed in the back of my mind ever since the last Tara Stiles "rebel" story in the New York Times came out. Here I was in India and people emailed me telling me that I was quoted in the New York Times. I appreciated their attention (I think), but my first thoughts were Holy Shiva, I can't get away from the bullshit that is now part of modern yoga (yes, bullshit, and if you don't like that word, get over it) even though I am thousands of miles away. I thought it must be a slow news day for the New York Times when the writer had to dig up a story that yoga bloggers wrote about last summer.
Does the phrase "been there, done that" have any meaning?
But actually my decision to stop writing has been almost 6 months in the making ever since an article was written about me by the current yoga editor of elephant journal that seemingly pitted me against Tara Stiles, my yoga vs. her yoga.
While the writer thought the story complimentary, I felt blindsided and betrayed. He did not feel it necessary to ask my permission or even to ask my opinion before he wrote about me. While he apologized to me months later for writing the story, it did not matter at that point. Intention is everything and you can't unring a bell. To me his story brought to light what this modern yoga scene has become: us v. them. The rightous v. the unrightous. The purists v. the modernists. Old v. young. Thick v. skinny. The Lulus v. The WalMarts.
Back in the day when I got into yoga (and no, not the prehistoric days although it sure as hell feels like it sometimes), yoga was just yoga. No one gave a shit what you wore or how your yoga was labeled.
As one reader wrote on my Facebook wall, "on the psychological/spiritual side, perception is reality, which is different for everyone...the non-dualism of advaita wisdom does not map to North American uber-dualism."
I got over his offense almost as soon as it happened, but it set the wheels in motion to euthanize this blog.
I have always written about what my real yoga is. I really don't know how often I can repeat this before people understand it: I don't care what your yoga is, I know what mine is, but one thing that I know is that if something isn't changing for you off the mat or off the cushion, then it's not yoga. That's Yoga Sutras 101.
No bullshit, basic shit. Like compost for your garden, yoga is the compost for the garden of your mind/body/spirit.
And no apologies to those who hate the phrase "real yoga." I'm tired of that judgment, too. It dawned on me the other day that even in the yoga world, political correctness abounds. Certain things are not supposed to be said for fear of offending. Anyone who criticizes or questions the yoga status quo is called a "hater" or "judgmental" in the yoga blogosphere.
As a reminder after that last expletive, I heard Jack Kornfield say that anyone who thinks those on the spiritual path are not allowed to become angry or upset anymore, well, those people have a kindergarten view of spirituality. I bow to Jack Kornfield.
Yes, I am sensitive about the topic of "real yoga." Over the five years of writing this blog I've caught flak about being outspoken and that has made me misunderstood at best and unpopular at worst. I've been described as being passionate in my defense of yoga in the face of commercialism, exploitation, and misunderstanding. If the body cult of modern Americanized yoga is right, then I'd rather be wrong.
So I am moving on. I am not this body, I am not my thoughts, and I am certainly not this blog. When I started writing there weren't that many yoga blogs, I guess I was one of the first ones that people noticed. Now, just like there are hundreds of yoga teaching programs, there are hundreds of yoga blogs. I don't need to write anymore because it's all already being said on a daily basis. And actually, what is being said has already been said over and over again, there is nothing new under the sun -- I learned that at a supposed "meditation retreat" in India.
So I am moving inward. I feel a closing in instead of expansion, but not a contraction in a negative way. There is a Kabbalistic concept called Tzimtzum which means Divine Contraction. The thinking is that if God is infinite, he would have to draw in and so make a void into which creation can come. According to Wikipedia, "Tzimtzum...is a term used in the kabbalistic teaching of Isaac Luria, explaining his concept that God began the process of creation by "contracting" his infinite light in order to allow for a "conceptual space" in which a finite and seemingly independent world could exist. This contraction, forming an "empty space" in which creation could begin, is known as the Tzimtzum."
I have had more than a few experiences in India that some call "shakti blasts" and they are impossible to explain unless you have felt them. But they have always changed me. Change brings out either the best or the worst out in a person. I feel that my experiences have brought out the best in me although others may not agree. But as the jyotish told me, those others should never be my concern. Standing in my own truth is my only power.
So I am contracting in order to allow a new creation. I have been told by more than a few spiritual adepts and most recently by the jyotish in India that I am destined for great things, things I will not write about because they would be misread as being egotisical and indeed, impossible. But I know my path as surely as I know my own name. Changes have already begun by my signing up for a training in teaching yoga to trauma survivors. I am also applying for a Masters in Transpersonal Psychology program. The next time I return to India it will not be as a student.
My past has marked me and it made me a beautiful palimpsest. I jumped into the Ganges on a most auspicious day and washed myself clean so that I can be used again. You either dance with life or burn and become bitter. There isn't any other choice. Change is inevitable and unavoidable. It’s just life.
And real yoga is always about life.