29 February 2008

"you are all Gandhis"

Pongal festivities were in full swing when I arrived in Madurai in January. India has thousands of festivals and Pongal is an important one in Tamil Nadu. it is a harvest festival and I had read in the paper that it is similar to the American Thanksgiving because it is a time to give thanks and hope for a bountiful coming year. wherever I went in Madurai people would wish me "Happy Pongal!"

Just when I thought India had thrown me for a loop this third time around --

a stolen necklace in Chennai...
a four hour bus ride from Thanjavur to Madurai watching cheesy Tamil videos from the '70s played at full blast, tissue stuffed in my ears all the way...
an Indian cop who wanted to take my swiss army knife I always carried when I tried to re-enter the Meenakshi Temple on one side when I was allowed to enter with it on the other side --

something wondrous happened. that's what always happens to me in India -- my best experiences are born from serendipity.

I had hooked up with a regular rickshaw driver for my stay in Madurai and we were driving through the slums along the river. somehow I always get drivers who know I am not afraid to go off the beaten path into the places that tourists usually don't go.

We drove past a small school where I saw children in a doorway dressed in their dance clothes. the little girls were beautiful and I told the driver to turn around for a quick photo. of course, as soon as they saw me stop about 10 kids ran outside and surrounded me. some of the teachers came out to see what the commotion was. I saw a stage inside and a woman talking into a microphone. I apologized to the teachers, I said I did not mean to cause such a ruckus and disturb their show by taking a photo.

A male teacher came up to me and said "no problem, madam" and he invited me in to celebrate Pongal with them. he said they had planned a special celebration and it would be their honor if I came inside. I tried to beg off because I knew the commotion my presence would cause and I'm not one to have people fuss over me, but the children grabbed me and the teachers insisted. I had planned to sit in back and watch quietly, but I was led to the stage steps. I stopped and turned around and there had to be at least 100 kids sitting on the floor, all eyes glued to me, big smiles on their faces. I was stunned, and I kept shaking my head no, but the teachers kept pushing and pulling me until I was given the guest of honor seat, between the principal and the head mistress. I felt like a rock star.

The teachers asked where I was from and what I did. they introduced me, telling the children that I had come all the way from America for them, then they asked me to get up and say a few words. I was still in shock so I mumbled something about "stay in school and get a good education" and that got a huge round of applause.

it is the Pongal custom to boil a pot of rice and when the rice boils over the sides, that signifies a fruitful coming year. as the Pongal pot of rice was boiling, the teachers presented me with a Pongal gift -- a towel that they draped over my shoulders. the price tag was still attached and it said 20 rupees which is about 50 cents, but to me it was priceless.

as the children danced on stage the teachers told me that these were slum children, that the school gets money from the government to educate them. there are about 600 kids in the school and they are taught English, computers, reading, and math, among other subjects. one of the teachers took my camera and took pictures of the dancers for me. when he returned my camera I took the perfect Pongal picture -- a picture of the pot just as the rice started to boil over. serendipity.

finally, the teachers wanted me to say some last words to the kids. by this time it was over an hour later and I was composed enough to say something intelligent. I spoke and it was translated into Tamil....

I told them that I had read in the paper that morning that Pongal is like the American Thanksgiving and I explained a little about what Thanksgiving meant, about giving thanks, having gratitude. after wishing them Happy Pongal, I told the children that their teachers teach from their hearts and to never take their education for granted. I told them that they were the future of India and with their education they could change the world, that they could be anything they wanted to be. I told them, "you are all Gandhis, never forget that."

When I finished I saw some of the teachers dabbing their eyes and I thought about how some upper caste Indians would look down on these children and down on me for even being with them. I thought about how so many people in my white bread suburban community have no idea, or worse, don't want to know, how the rest of the world lives. here I was in a slum school half-way around the world and I felt blessed to be with them. all things happen for a reason, there are no coincidences.

a teacher then told the kids how it was their privilege for the American yoga teacher to visit their school today. I said, no, it was MY privilege to be treated with such graciousness, a total stranger. The principal took my hand and said I was a gift from God for them...and that's when I started to cry.

the principal and I walked off the stage as the Pongal lunch was being served to the children. we went into her office and she asked me to write in their guestbook so I wrote what I said at the end of the program, about changing the world. I was also given the special Pongal lunch, as was my driver, and the principal told me more about the school. before I left I gave her a donation and said she should use it for whatever they needed, food, books, anything. the principal told me she would make sure that each child got a pen, so I bought about 600 pens that day. you have to travel in india to know the significance of the question "one pen, madam?", so when she told me she would buy pens I thought it was a very appropriate purchase.

the principal wrote the address of the school for me and told me I am always welcome to return. I told her that I had a beautiful time with them and that I would always remember them as long as I live. I got back outside and into the rickshaw as children and teachers came out to wave goodbye to me. the driver started his rickshaw and we left, and when I turned around about a block away they were still waving goodbye.

this is the India that cracks open my heart and makes me count the days until I can run back into her arms and lose myself all over again.

28 February 2008

your true self?

what if you finally found your True Self...and didn't like what you found?

25 February 2008

"ecology of mind"

Here is Chogyam Trungpa's "ecology of mind", a talk given at Naropa University in 1974. for those of you who don't know him, Trungpa was the "crazy wisdom" meditation teacher credited with bringing the Shambhala tradition of Buddhism to the west in terms accessible to westerners. The Shambhala tradition believes in the inherent wisdom, compassion, and courage of all beings. It holds that these qualities are ultimately more stable than aggression and greed, and shows us how to use this worldly life as a means to ripen our spiritual potential. Besides his idea of "crazy wisdom", I love his other ideas of "idiot compassion" and "spiritual materialism."

since my post body consciousness: a discussion attracted so many comments about "what is meditation?", I thought I would post some excerpts from Trungpa's article. talk amongst yourselves!

"Meditation helps to simplify your life. It is the act of surrendering while sitting on your meditation cushion. Then, by relating directly with your breath, body and mind, you have no problems communicating with yourself."

"When we begin to practice and to learn more, we may think we should be adding tricks or embellishments of all kinds to our practice. This is the approach of spiritual materialism."

"Spiritual discipline is not about advancement, but it is a question of undoing what we have created already. We are not talking about extending ourselves to become greater or more professional meditators, we are talking about meditation as unlearning."

"The basic practice of meditation is a question of simplicity. The technique for the practice of meditation that was prescribed by the Buddha is working with the awareness of breath. That tends to cut through the unnecessary chatter of thought....Just be with your breath; just be with your body....Just sit and be with your breath. Let the breath be your thought."

So let your breaths be your thoughts as Trungpa's son, Mipham asks you, "What about me?".....

spreading the love

I was overwhelmed when Vanessa of Vanessa:Unplugged! graced me with the "Spread the Love Award." She said that I (among other bloggers) are "shining examples of bloggers who uplift and inform." You are too kind, girlfriend!

Vanessa also received the award from another blogger and she writes about herself, "as one who started blogging without a plan or a niche or following any of the recommended steps and practices in the blogging process, I am honored when another blogger takes the time to recognize and appreciate what I post."

I feel the same way. I started this blog in 2005 to write about my first trip to India and it's morphed into something larger than that. I love that some of my posts have created lots of discussion about yoga, meditation, Buddhism, or social action, with no shortage of pithy comments from around the world. I just started a new blog where I will rant and muse about things other than yoga and India and time will tell how prolific I'll be with that one. however, I guarantee that the posts will be just as pithy and passionate as they are here. now if only I can figure out how to get paid for my rants and musings I'd be set!

In keeping with the spirit of spreading the love, I am awarding the Spread the Love Award to Fran, Gartenfische, and Mike (who I wish would get back to writing, damn it!) I read many blogs but these bloggers were the first three who popped into my mind when I thought about bloggers who "uplift and inform."

Once again, thanks to Vanessa, and thanks to all my readers. even though I have been miserable for the last 5 days with a vicious upper respiratory infection -- two hospitals in two different countries in one month is too much for me, I've had my fill of doctors! -- I think I will get up and dance to the Love Train...and check out Vanesa's blog, y'all!

19 February 2008

Yoga Action Squad

(the dance of Shiva and Kali)

and now for something to take our minds off the Kali Yuga that we are living in...

Yoga Action Squad to the rescue!

a friend sent me this link this morning and I just about about blew my chai tea out my nose watching them. loved the one about the evil pilates teacher....

OM, y'all!


18 February 2008

body consciousness: a discussion

There were so many comments posted to Body Consciousness that I thought I would turn them into an entirely new post. my readers' comments are too insightful to be ignored.

talk amongst yourselves!

Maybe it's just wording, but I disagree with "Yoga was meditation and meditation was yoga, no duality." If they were the same thing, there would be no need for two words. Also, from what I've learned, yoga has been a preparation for meditation, and thus separate. Obviously very interrelated, but separate nontheless. Your point remains, though, that the asana practice has become very separated from the meditation practice in the West, but still, even if some people never find or care about the non-physical part, many will, and that's good. It sure would help if yoga instructors would stop yammering quasi-spiritual stuff through savasana and allow more than 1 minute of silence to clear the mind!

asana + pranayama are prerequisites to meditation according to the lineage that I follow. not just asana. and is not asana practice a moving meditation? I suppose it depends on what your definition of meditation is.

come to one of my classes. I don't yak during savasana. but even if I did, would you be able to observe the external sounds and not react to them, engaging in pratyhara with equanimity?

thinking more about your comment, steven....

have you ever done walking meditation? is the meditation separate from the action of walking? and if you are walking, are you JUST walking? or is your mind "in here" instead of "out there"?

This is so insightful (and yeah, we're thinking along the same lines!). I know that we Westerners---me included---are way too head-oriented. It's why yoga and meditation are so important for us.

I think that yoga and meditation are different, but that yoga (asana, that is) can be a meditation.

I am not a teacher like you, but as I practice longer, I see how asana, breath, the bandhas, the driste, all lead one into a meditation. Presence is so, so important---inhabiting each pose, as Pattabhi Jois says (Iyengar says this, too, and I'm sure the other great teachers); otherwise, like you said, it's just acrobatics.

Yoga is such a gift. I am so grateful for teachers, like you, who bring it to us here in the West---we so, so need it!

the thing is, gartenfische, each time I come back from my studies in India, the more I feel like an outsider here, in the western yoga world.

Kate Holcombe, a teacher in San Francisco and who has studied extensively at the same school I do, has said that for a long time she hesitated calling what she does yoga because it was so different from what is practiced in the west.

I now know what she meant.

So is there a way to bring more of the true yoga into the West, or is it hopeless?

Most of my teachers are, at least, trying to be very true to the Indian teaching (Annie Pace, especially).

Even if it is not yoga as it is supposed to be, I have known a lot of growth and healing as a result of my practice, and I am grateful for it. I don't know---I may never get to India.

gartenfische, I am in no way saying that the yoga I study is the way it's "supposed to be"! that would be so autocratic! and no way am I saying that all yogins/yoga teachers have to go to India to study! HA! India is definitely not for everyone! however for me, the first time I put my foot on indian soil, I felt like I had come home.

I just know that what I study there resonates with me and it is a traditional style. for example, when I'm there I study chanting, pranayama, meditation, asana theory, etc. and from my teachings I've come to realize that (for example) pranayama is taught indiscriminately here in many classes I've been to, like an afterthought, or with no purpose. A teacher will announce "ok, let's do kapalabhati" in the middle of the class. I can tell you after my first training, I immediately stopped teaching that pranayama in group classes. that's just an example.

my classes are always asana/pranayama/meditation. of course, YOUR yoga is what resonates with YOU!

I have the same hesitations about pranayama, but I think they came from reading something several years ago that warned that it should not be taken lightly and that beginning yoga students shouldn't do it at all. I have heard of teachers teaching it indiscriminately (it seems) and I've wondered if they know what they are doing.

Earlier, I was reading about pranayama in Light on Yoga. He recommends Nadi Sodhana Pranayama for headaches, but elsewhere, he talks about supervision by a guru or teacher being necessary to practice pranayama. So I don't know if it would be okay to try it as a remedy when I have a headache. Probably not. I have noticed that even ujjayi breathing helps, though

yes, I agree about having a qualified teacher to teach pranayama. another thing that is never taken into consideration regarding pranayama in group classes is the dosha, or the body type, so to speak, of each student.

a certain pranayama might be appropriate for one student while it may completely agitate another student, in a group class. how does a teacher know the dosha of each student in a group class? just like yoga, pranayama is not one size fits all, so that is why I believe pranayama is indiscriminately taught in western yoga classes.

also, regarding the bandhas: Krishnamacharya believed that bandhas should not even begun to be taught unless the student can comfortably inhale 10 or 12 counts, and exhale 10 or 12 counts. now tell me how often a teacher in a group class will announce "engage mula bandha!" or whatever bandha as if every student knows what she/he is talking about!

this is why I have said time and again what I have been taught: personal transformation can begin in a group class but is accomplished in a one on one relationship with a teacher.

and THAT is the difference between east and west as I see it.

Mula bandha is a common teaching in Ashtanga, including with the teachers who study in India. I am NOT saying you are wrong! There just seem to be different "rules" coming from different teachers.

But it is confusing for people, because we don't know! All these teachers are teaching pranayama and then other teachers say they shouldn't be. Then everybody's teaching the bandhas and others say no.

I know that mulabandha is common in astanga -- altho I'm not an astangi, I did a workshop once with Manju Jois, Guruji's son. what I am saying that things like pranayama and the bandhas sometimes are taught indiscriminately or not deeply enough. and Krishnamacharya was Iyengar's teacher AND Patabhi Jois' teacher, so how THEY interpreted his teachings was up to them!

I for one, totally agree with your post (as I would!)
I am so tired of that other yoga, that is in fact not-yoga.
And the hotpants/ flashy yoga gear that goes with it. Why are people so very very afraid to face themselves, unarmed, undressed (as it were)?

yah, what's up with the hot pants?

17 February 2008

it's the words, not the asanas

This is a video of a Chicago yoga teacher I know, Jim Bennitt. I've taken his workshops and he's an excellent teacher -- pure yoga and from the heart. Although he can twist his body into a pretzel, he is also humble. I need to see that humbleness first from a teacher in workshops -- the showbiz yogis that are on all the yoga conference tours don't impress me. Jim studies with Rod Stryker but I've told him that the way he teaches and what he talks about is right from Krishnamacharya, the Teacher of Teachers.

He has a beautiful practice in this video, but what he says about yoga is even more pertinent given the shootings at Northern Illinois University on Valentine's Day.

salaam aleikum
so shall it be

15 February 2008

be here now

DeKalb Chronicle photo Eric Sumberg

Campus Horror

"What is known about the gunman late Thursday is that he was an NIU sociology graduate student in spring 2007, said Peters, who added that the gunman apparently has no police record and there was no known motive for the shootings as of Thursday evening."

I was not at NIU but I had yoga students who were upset because they have friends at NIU. Even though I did not directly experience this tragedy it has still affected me. I keep thinking about the looks on the faces of the students who came in late to class and said, "there's been a shooting at Northern. my friends...." I have never seen so much fear in someone's eyes before.

DeKalb is down the road from the community college where I teach. the yoga studio where I teach is in a small town that is literally across the street from DeKalb.

The area is corn and soybean country, farm country, it's about as Midwestern fresh-faced as you can find. many of these kids are still innocent about the world, they aren't tough Chicago kids like I was growing up. many of them are farmers' kids.

A friend in India told me that the story even made the International Herald Tribune, he had already read about it last night before I wrote about it here. I always laugh when people ask me, "aren't you afraid to go to India by yourself?" Let me tell you: I feel safer being alone in an Indian village than I do in America. I feel safer being on the streets of Chennai at 2 AM than I would being in Chicago at 2 AM. Every time I go to India, when someone asks me what country I'm from and I tell them, more times than not I am asked whether I own a gun. This is the image that America has even in a remote Indian village.

The reality is that the same thing can very easily happen at the school where I teach. maybe somebody did not like the grade I gave them and they'll walk into my class, look at me and say "I GOT YOUR YOGA RIGHT HERE, BITCH" and start blasting. Buddha taught that death is certain, the time of it is not. our lives can change in a split second as many people found out yesterday in DeKalb. yet we live our lives as if we will never die.

Tragedies like this always bring home to me how important it is to live in the present moment, to be mindful and to live mindfully. thinking back on yesterday I recall how before I taught my class I went to my department's office to make copies of some handouts. two department secretaries were in the room complaining about one thing after another -- how the hot water in the sink was not hot enough, how the faucet in the sink was loose, how someone on campus did not respond fast enough to a secretary's email. it was a constant barrage of negativity and I could not wait to leave that room. I remember thinking, man, if they complain about that stuff, how do they handle the really big events in their lives? most of the stuff that we think is important really isn't in the grand scheme of things.

The other night I read excerpts from this article by Phillip Moffitt to my private students. I loved what he said at the end of the article:

"Looking back over your life, how many weeks, months, even years have you wasted anguishing over something you didn't get from a parent, a spouse, or in life? Did all that anguish serve you, or would it have been more skillful to have received fully the experience of the loss, accepted it as what is, and then allowed your emotions to go on to experience what is possible in the present moment? More importantly, are you still caught in an endless cycle of wanting mind, imagining that it is the next accomplishment, change in relationship, or piece of recognition that will make you happy? Pay the boatman at the river of loss and sorrow his three rupees and cross over to the other shore. Your life is here, now."

Be present. Be here now. Be love. Be peace.

salaam aleikum
so shall it be

14 February 2008

when loving-kindness is needed

(Photo for the Tribune by Patrick Yeagle)

About 5 hours ago I had to deal with students whose friends witnessed a massacre.

7 dead in NIU shooting; 4 identified; Ex-graduate student slays 6 before killing himself

I teach at a community college that is less than 40 minutes from Northern Illinois University. I was starting my 4:45 yoga class when students walked in late and told me there was a shooting at NIU, that they were waiting for news about their friends. Two girls were crying because they did not know if their friends were dead or alive.

I had to make some announcements before I started to teach, but I knew that metta -- loving-kindness -- meditation was in order. So I asked them to come to a comfortable seat and just breath, to watch the breath, and not to run from whatever physical or emotional sensations come up. and then I started to teach them about loving-kindness meditation.

I told them to step outside themselves and see themselves and repeat "may I be well, happy, peaceful, may I be safe." I said that if they preferred they need only say "may I be safe." after awhile I told them to visualize the NIU campus, to visualize anyone that they knew was in that killing hall, or to visualize the friends, parents, and loved ones of those who died, and to send them loving kindness and peace.

then I told them that what they are about to do will be the hardest of all: to send loving-kindness to the killer. I told them that when I was in the Dalai Lama's teachings, His Holiness said that the highest compassion of all was to have compassion for your enemies, or someone like a terrorist or a murderer. I told them if they did not want to do that, that's fine, but keep sending loving-kindness first to themselves, then out to others.

I told them that thoughts are energy, so they should send out love and peace, even to people who they think don't deserve it, like the killer. I told them about my Buddhist prayer that I end all my classes with (however, not at the school -- it's a public school, tax-payer supported, you know how that goes), the prayer about the Four Immeasureables:

may all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness
may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering
may all beings never be parted from freedom's true Joy
may all beings dwell in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion

I told them that "all beings" meant just that: everyone, not just "good" people, but even killers.

Tomorrow will bring more news about what happened. next week I will deal with the aftermath of this on my students. I hope for the coming week they will remember what I taught them today, for themselves, to ease their suffering.

I thank all my teachers, and my teachers' teachers, for all that I have learned about yoga, meditation, and Buddhism.

and I bow to Buddha, for the Dharma and for showing me the way out of suffering.

salaam aleikum
so shall it be

happy valentine's day from the Universe

Love where you've been.

Love where you're at.

Love how you think.

Love the power you pack.

Love all that you seek.

Love all that you feel.

Love your rocking emotions,

and the thoughts you make real.

But mostly, I really, really love you in this very moment.


Loving you from every angle -

The Universe

this was today's email from The Universe.

love yourself first. send metta -- loving-kindness -- to yourself first and then to others in your life.

here are some roses from India for you all....

12 February 2008

body consciousness

Those of you who have been reading this blog regularly know that I don't treat yoga as a physical exercise or performance art. I know that people come to yoga for all different reasons, and many people say "so what if people just do yoga for the work-out? they'll find the non-physical part of it eventually."

my contention is...maybe.

remember what I said before: in the pre-Yoga Journal days, that is, when I dabbled in yoga and meditation in college in the early '70s, the only people I knew doing yoga and meditation were patchoulli oil wearing hippies who had already been to or were going to India. They lived in communes or had studied with white-robed gurus who did not separate yoga and meditation. Yoga was meditation and meditation was yoga. what a concept!

I also contend that if one is "doing yoga" for only the physical aspects, it ain't yoga. it's acrobatics. it's gymnastics. but it ain't yoga. I've heard Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya, say the same thing. you can call a dog a cat a thousand times, but that will never make that dog a cat. it's still a dog, no matter what you call it. so you can call your morning work-out "yoga" all you want, but that does not make it yoga.

what I find in my classes both with beginners and experienced students is that they are very disembodied. their bodies are in the room, but their minds are not. my teaching is very breath-oriented, and I can always tell when someone moves first, and then breathes. it's become second nature to me. and when they are holding the asanas, I can always tell how they are "out there", instead of "in here", that is, in their own skin. the darting eyes, the twitching fingers, the hard bellies without the softness of breath, the constant adjustments without stopping to feel the asana, the need to rush on to the next asana, these are all dead give-aways of disembodiment.

I teach a slow flow vinyasa, moving with the breath, and also yin. Yin is a style that can make people uncomfortable in their own skin because they have to be still for at least five minutes in order to stretch the connective tissue (and thereby the meridians of the body) in order to facilitate opening and an increased flow of chi. it's a style that teaches you to stop resisting, first in your yoga, but more importantly, I believe, in your life.

it is also a style that connects you to the concept of surrendering to your body. I think the concept of surrender is a dirty word to many western yogis because the western mindset is conditioned for resistance and hardness, in other words, "working out." I believe that the way you do your yoga is the way you live your life...soft v. hard, resistance v. surrender, rushed v. slow, pushing away v. acceptance.

In my Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training we must do periodic readings and one reading was a chapter called "Sensations" from Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness by Will Johnson. as I was reading a light bulb went off over my head and I said "YES!, this is why people are uncomfortable meditating". not because our minds run away with us, which is what people always say, but because we run away from our physical sensations. what comes up in asana practice or when we try to meditate draws us into the present moment and sometimes that's a terrifying place to be. the present moment helps us experience life in the here and now instead of regretting the past or anticipating the future. the present moment helps us become embodied rather than disembodied. when we stop feeling our physical sensations, when we run away from them, when we are "out there" instead of "in here", that is when the monkey mind takes over. that's when I see the twitching fingers and the darting eyes.

it's hard to be still because we are conditioned to run.

Johnson says that "it is not possible to be aware of the full presence of bodily sensations and lost in the involuntary monologue of the mind at the same time." Buddha said that "everything that arises in the mind starts flowing with a sensation on the body."

Below is an excerpt from one of my favorite blogs The Absent Mind. In this post Mike writes about meditation, surrender, and acceptance:

I've been feeling that I could actually meditate indefinitely, if not for physical limitations. And even then, I could probably bear any level of physical discomfort. Somewhere along the line, I passed a point where I stopped resisting or expecting anything from meditation. Or life for that matter. The two go hand in hand.

...I still resist life here and there like everyone else. But not nearly as much as I once did. With regard to meditation, I am in awe of the beauty of utter simplicity. A friend of mine once said that transformation is the shift from nothing is very satisfying to nothing is very satisfying. Brilliant, and oh, so True.

When people ask me about meditation, they often tell me they have tried it but can't sit still for even 15 minutes. What can I tell them? Practice.

Here is another hint that might unlock the door for some. The reason that people can't sit still in meditation (or any other part of life) is that they want to eliminate what they perceive as the negative. In the case of meditation, it can be mind chatter or whatever unpleasant thoughts or feelings arise. How many times have I heard the words, "If I could only quiet my mind ..."?

But the problem with that perspective is this: reducing the negative in anything only changes the scale on which you operate. It never eliminates duality. For example, if you reduce mind chatter to the point where you only have a fleeting thought once every 2 minutes, you may still be just as annoyed by that thought as you were with constant mind chatter. There is no escape from thoughts, feelings, or any other forms of negativity. There is only surrender, acceptance.

As one of life's most excruciating ironies, a funny thing happens with surrender. Gradually one opens up to the profound beauty in every movement, thought, feeling, or stirring. One becomes able to perceive even the slightest shift in energy, and the Silence of Pure Being arises amidst the storm of thinking, feeling, and otherwise being alive.

(emphasis added)

In my comment to his post I said that when people try to meditate they usually run from any type of temporary physical sensation. Mike said: "I notice this, too, when attending yoga classes. The most challenging (yet also most satisfying) aspect of the asana is the relaxing into body consciousness. Of course, this is why breath is so important, because it is synonymous with energy flow and the consciousness of the body." (emphasis added.)

Mike said that he pondered the question, "why does consciousness follow this body around?" and when he asked his teacher, his teacher said "'the body is consciousness.' ...there is no separation of mind and body, they are one and the same."

mind + body = no duality. until we understand that, we're not doing yoga.

10 February 2008

how's this for power yoga?

for those of you wanting a yoga class that kicks your ass....

"Let's get physical, physical,
I wanna get physical, let's get into physical,
Let me hear your body talk,
Your body talk, let me hear your body....BOOM!"

(thanks, Y Dawg!)

09 February 2008

blog it forward

In the comments of my last post, my cyber-yogabud, YogaDawg, listed this blog as one of his ten faves as did Brenda of Grounding Thru the Sit Bones. to that I say, muchos gracias, y'all! it does my heart good to know who reads my rants and musings.

but naming my ten fave blogs is as hard as trying to name my ten fave songs or ten fave movies, it's almost impossible. just look at Lindia's Hall of Fame in the sidebar and those are my favorite blogs to visit. but out of that list, I can narrow it down to blogs that I try to hit every day, so here goes:

YogaDawg, of course, for the laughs!

my gal pal in India, sirensongs, for her Feringhee: The India Diaries

The Existentialist Cowboy -- I think Len's posts on politics are brilliant and why is he not on TV instead of fascist knuckleheads like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly?

Vanessa: Unplugged -- thoughts out loud, straight, no chaser (love that line!)

Just Breathe -- Nadine also studies at KYM so that's why!

Everything Yoga -- because I agree with a lot of what Diane says about yoga

The Divine Democrat -- 'cuz I love the avatar of the nun smoking a doobie and Mary Ellen is a Chicago gal just like me

FranIAm -- just 'cuz and because she writes the sweetest comments on my posts

A Bowl of Stupid -- Matt is on an "India sucks" rant right now, but, hey, even I think India sucks sometimes and I love India!

and last but not least, The Absent Mind -- I don't think Mike will be posting anymore unforuntately, but I found his writing to be the most profound and powerful that I have ever come across. I will miss his writing and his comments to my posts tremendously.

now y'all have to name your ten favorite blogs!

on a more contemplative note, this blog has been de-listed from two yoga blogs that I regularly read and I can't help but wonder why.

shanti, y'all...

08 February 2008

response to "getting back to yoga"

(Please read Getting Back to Yoga, Part 1 and Part 2 in their entirety before reading this post.)

This post is excerpts from an email I received from a regular reader who is also a yoga teacher. She gave me permission to use it, with edits. she asked me to disguise her words because she is worried that she might lose her job if someone recognized her.

is that what the state of yoga in this culture has come to? think about that. that might be the bigger issue here. are we as teachers so afraid to call a spade a spade, so afraid to speak our truth about teaching and the state of yoga as some of us experience it that we are afraid to lose our jobs? a job that we do because we love it and not because we can make any type of money to support ourselves.

call it a yoga rant if you want to but it's food for thought and I believe these things need to be said because the mainstream yoga media doesn't talk about it. the mainstream yoga media is more concerned with marketing to the perfect yoga demographic. as my yoga cyberpal YogaDawg says, no yoga BS here.

I thought her comments important enough for a post of their own instead of in the comments section where they might be ignored.

"...this whole "Americanized" yoga thing is the same thing that is going on with our whole culture...skinny, tight, no wrinkles on a 65 year old woman, tummy tucks after babies, puffy collagen lips...I won't even get started.

I had 30 in a class last night, way too many. After class a woman asked if I always do postures that you have to support your weight...she has a severe arm upper body strength at all. this is a public class, for the general population...this is not private instruction, which she needs.

I am working with a young man with rheumatoid arthritis. he was going to take a community class with a student teacher. When I heard that I told him absolutely not. I am working with him for free to keep him from injuring himself.

Yoga is advertised as a cure-all, body opener, strength builder, look beautiful like the pictures in Yoga Journal, your wrinkles will disappear as soon as you feel your breath....And everybody can do it, just modify a pose in a group class, no matter what the asana is.

A woman came when she was very pregnant and said, "I know you will modify every posture for me." And what am I supposed to do with the 20 other people (half of which are new) in class while I am attending to her? And she was new to yoga. Not a good time to start when pregnant with your first child. I told her to start a prenatal program.

At one of the first classes I taught I was asked, "Oh wow, are you going to teach us those really hard arm balances and all that cool stuff?" I said, "no, that would not be me", and the student hasn't been back. they have no idea that you go to an advanced class or one-on-one to learn those asanas.

Wow, I really took off on this one...sorry, but I do feel better...."

hey, even yoga teachers need to let off steam, none of us are enlightened yet.

and I totally get what she is venting about. because for as much as yoga is portrayed in western culture, for as much as we hear or read about it in the media (it had its 15 minutes of fame on Oprah), for as much as we yoga teachers like to think that yoga is "mainstream"'s not. yet yoga IS advertised as a cure-all ("GET THAT YOGA BUTT IN 20 MINUTES PER DAY AND OPEN YOUR THROAT CHAKRA, TOO!"), and as much as I believe in the healing power of yoga, this is a huge disservice. people who could benefit from private yoga go to group classes because they don't know any better and end up getting frustrated or worse, injured, sometimes seriously.

as I wrote in my last post, I was taught that personal transformation can begin in a group class, but is accomplished by working one on one with a trusted teacher and having faith in that teacher. there have been many times when I have suggested to certain students in a group class that their needs would be much better served by private yoga sessions. yet, for some reason, the idea of private yoga classes in this culture is met with skepticism. it boggles my mind that people will pay someone $75 or more to clean their house or to pick up their dog's poop (not to mention the money one can spend at Starbucks in one month), but the thought of paying a highly trained yoga teacher $75 or less for a private yoga session is anathema to them. people pay more than $50 for a pizza party for their kids.

it's all about priorities....

07 February 2008

getting back to yoga, part 2: sraddha

Yoga Sutra-s I.20:

sraddhaviryasmrtisamadhiprajnapurvaka itaresam

"Through faith, which will give sufficient energy to achieve success against all odds, direction will be maintained. The realization of the goal of Yoga is a matter of time."

(Reflections on Yoga Sutra-s of Patanajali, TKV Desikachar)

Some of you might be incredulous at Dr. NC's statement that my spine will become realigned in three months if I do my yoga therapy practice every day, but I am not. That's because I have sraddha which is Sanskrit for "faith."

Sraddha is not religious faith but a "strong belief." In his translation of the Sutra-s, Desikachar writes: "Faith is the unshakable conviction that we can arrive at a goal. We must not be complacent about success or discouraged by failure. We must work hard and steadily inspite (sic) of all distractions, whether good or bad."

When I first attended KYM in 2005 I was struck by a teacher's words when she said that personal transformation in yoga can begin in a group class, but is only accomplished by working one on one, the teacher with the student, in the traditional way, the old school way. THAT is sraddha and that is the difference as I see it between Americanized yoga and the yoga that I study in India.

The "goal" of yoga as propounded by Patanjali in his Sutra-s is freedom from suffering. nothing more, nothing less. How many doing yoga right now in the west have that sraddha, that belief? How many want to relieve their suffering -- and we all suffer whether you want to admit it or not -- or just merely go through the physical motions of the asana practice not being fully present, aware, and awake in the present moment? How many treat their asana practice as a performance or have been in a group class and felt that the teacher is on stage?

How can there possibly be personal transformation if there is no sraddha?

As I did my asana class every day with Usha, I felt myself softening, for lack of a better word. She knew I taught yoga and she asked me if I minded her "corrections." I told her that I absolutely did not mind her corrections, that I am a yoga student first, and then a teacher, and that I am at KYM to learn.

So she began to point out the "hardness" in my body as I moved. For example, the hardness of my outstretched foot in janu sirsana, the foot tightly flexed, the ballmount pushing out, toes spread, that "energized" foot as we are so often told in a group class. Or my hands above my head in uttanasana, tight, flexed, palms facing each other, instead of the palms turned outward, fingers soft.

I then began to realize how "hard" American yoga is compared to the yoga I do in india, soft, yielding, receptive, nurturing, and I have to question why.

While Usha was correcting me, I told her yes, this is the way my teacher Ramaswami holds his hands when he shows us uttanasana (Ramaswami was an original trustee of KYM, an old friend of Desikachar), how could I forget this? It was good to be brought back home and removed from my "performance", my need to show the perfection of my alignment, the hardness of my body, because it's not about that at all. It's about healing first and foremost, and having the sraddha to believe in that healing.

That is what I think in many cases American yogis need to realize, that yoga is about healing first, the other benefits are secondary. That our bodies and minds are laboratories for the exploration of the deeper aspects of yoga. That instead of performing on the mat, we need to dive into that yogic stew of the tools that Patanjali gave us in his Sutra-s and marinate and cook ourselves into a brand new, or at least, an improved, tastier dish.

Yoga Journal was waiting for me when I returned from India. If I did not get it for free through my yoga insurance I would never subscribe to it. I paged through it for about ten minutes and threw it in the recycling bin. It has become nothing more than one huge advertisement for yoga clothes and other yoga tchotkes that we supposedly need and one show biz yogi's or another's teacher training program. One huge advertisement for yoga stuff mixed in with articles on non-attachment. What a disconnect.

It's all about the marketing, but after all, that's so American. We're always running after the next best thing whether it's the latest cell phone or the latest yoga gimmick. I returned from india realizing (yet again) that I am tired of the mass-marketing, the dumbing down of this ancient holistic science. Years ago in the pre-Yoga Journal days, people went to classes that were just called "yoga" or "hatha yoga." When people ask me what style of yoga I teach, I tell them honestly, "my style -- come check it out and if it resonates with you, fine, if not, that's fine, too." I'm not going to label my yoga or give it a brand name to sex it up just to attract students. I am certainly not going to put my own name on it and trademark it, which I of course could do just like any number of well-known yogis have done. Yoga is yoga.

I will not give the name of the blog where I read this, but underneath a photo of a young, skinny, cellulite-free woman in tree pose, a reader wrote that if she were "that skinny" she could be a yoga teacher.


have a little sraddha, baby.

06 February 2008

the new official transportation of this blog

Back in October I wrote a post about what the official transportation of Linda's Yoga Journey is, i.e., the ubiquitous Indian autorickshaw. here is the post so you can read all about it.

However, since returning from my third trip the rick has been replaced by the lovely bullock cart. yes, friends, I am in love with bullocks and the carts that they pull.

(view from atop a bullock cart)

(bullock decorated for a Pongal celebration)

(proud bullock owner)

I attended a village's Pongal celebration (Pongal being a holiday like our Thanksgiving, which I will write about later) and I had the great fortune to be given a ride to the village on top of a bullock cart.

You see working bullocks all over Tamil Nadu and for the most part they are placid creatures. Their eyes always seem to say that this is their lot in life so why get upset about anything.

The ride on the cart was very relaxing but I was very tempted to tell the driver "faster, faster!" so I could experience a run-away bullock cart. I wanted to pretend I was on a run-away stagecoach like in an old Western movie. what can I say? ever since I was a girl I always wanted to push the envelope. But it was a slow, easy ride where these kids were my bullock cart partners:

this was one of my wonderful tamil nadu days that I so achingly miss right now as I look out my window and watch the snow come down. we are supposed to get a foot of snow here in chicagoland and ever since I returned on January 23, this weather has been a total shock to my system after being in south india for a month!

When I returned from india so ill, I told myself that I would give india a break in 2009. but the missing is palpable and it is like an ache in my heart.

oh paraphrase Louis Armstrong about jazz, if I have to explain, you wouldn't understand.

02 February 2008

getting back to yoga

(Dr. NC @ KYM, The Power of Yoga, March 2006)

I guess maybe it's about time that I start writing about yoga again. but then again, maybe not, as I'm beginning to think that my yoga thoughts are too radical to be accepted calmly by some people. I told my students this morning that I've always felt like an outsider and now, returning a third time from my yoga life in India, I feel even more radical.

Every time I go to KYM to study, it always brings home to me how much I dislike about the state of yoga in the west. Maybe "dislike" is too strong a word -- I will rephrase: how certain things about the state of yoga in the west bug me. Now before anyone jumps down my throat, I am not saying that one is better than the other, i.e., east v. west. I'm saying that to me there are marked differences between the two and I know which one resonates with me in a much more profound way.

KYM is known for yoga therapy or what was formerly called viniyoga. Desikachar no longer refers to his father's style as viniyoga. We each met with a yoga therapist and received a consultation for whatever ailed us, physically, mentally, or emotionally, then an appropriate yoga therapy practice was prescribed for us. That practice became our private asana class with a therapist, and we took the daily classes in pranayama, meditation, and the Yoga Sutra-s together.

I came to India with a painful back problem that I've had for about three months. My ego was telling me I'm a loser because of course as a teacher I'm not supposed to have any physical problems because I do so much yoga...right? One day in October I woke with severe muscular pain on the right side of my lower spine and I had done nothing to my back like pick something up the wrong way or get up from a chair the wrong way, and it certainly did not happen doing yoga. I just woke up one day in severe pain. The pain would go away during the day as I moved around and I was still able to teach, but it served as a reminder of one of Buddha's Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of the Body, and that no one escapes sickness, old age, and death.

My consultant at KYM was Dr. NC (we call him Dr. NC because he has a last name with about 26 letters) who taught the yoga therapy classes in the intensives I took in 2005 and 2006. I explained my problem and my pain and he had me do some asanas and examined my spine. He asked me to squat and asked if I noticed anything. At first I said no, then he told me to repeat the squats and to pay attention. I noticed that my left side felt like it weighed a ton and my right side was very light. I told him this and he said yes, that I favor my left side to the detriment of my right. He said my spine had curved to the right and that the right side of my pelvis is higher than my left.

I was horrified. How could this happen, I asked, I'M A YOGA TEACHER! (as if we are supposed to be invincible.) Dr. NC said that walking a certain way, sitting a certain way, standing a certain way with a hip hiked up and out, constantly carrying a bag on my left shoulder, all of this contributed to a spine curvature after 50 years. It just happens, he said, it's just the way it is.

So after he said that it's wonderful I am so flexible and in such great shape for an old broad -- OK, he did not say "old broad" but he was amazed at my uttanasana -- he wrote a yoga therapy program for my back that is simply amazing and wondrous. He said if I did the practice every day for 3 months my spine should be back into alignment.

I did the practice for 5 days with Usha, one of the KYM yoga therapists. She was also wonderful, adding a little something every day to the asana mix, so I came home with five different yoga therapy sessions. I did the practice every day in India until I got food poisoning and I have not done it for two weeks now, but I started again from square one yesterday and I will build it up again.

It is an amazing practice because I can literally feel the change in my spine and pelvis when I sit in sukhasana. At the beginning of the practice my right sit bone is off the floor. At the end of the practice both sit bones are firmly grounded and I have no pain for the rest of the day. Before I started doing this practice, I would wake up at night in excrutiating pain when I turned from my right side to my left side and now that no longer happens.

So what does this have to do with yoga east v. west?


this is no surprise

You're Siddhartha!

by Hermann Hesse

You simply don't know what to believe, but you're willing to try
anything once. Western values, Eastern values, hedonism and minimalism, you've spent
some time in every camp. But you still don't have any idea what camp you belong in.
This makes you an individualist of the highest order, but also really lonely. It's
time to chill out under a tree. And realize that at least you believe in ferries.

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at the Blue Pyramid.