Movement for Life

All of life is movement. The moment we’re born we’re wriggling, pandiculating, breathing, and finding our way through space. We explore and thereby learn to master our movements. Or we struggle, and the body, miraculous organism that it is, finds a way to overcome our limitations. It’s those patterns that we then habituate.

And then one day, our bodies start to change and we wonder why it is suddnely too hard to do the things we’ve always done. Maybe we’re just exhausted, or maybe we lift something or sleep funny or fall and suddenly, something hurts, be it our back or a shoulder or knee. We do our usual workout and suddenly discover our bones ache. We think “arthritis” or worse. The panic sets in and we wonder how badly we might have hurt ourselves and what we need to do to about it: ignore it and hope it goes away, see a doctor, self-treat?

Aside from the decision about what to do about our injured part and assuming we haven’t broken anything, we have two basic choices thereafter. We can either stop moving to ensure that we don’t risk further pain or injury, or we can continue to move in safe ways so our body stays limber and fluid.

Sadly, many of us choose to stop moving. We fear the discomfort, pain or effort, so we hold back. We rest, thinking we’re doing ourselves a favor. Trouble is, when we stop moving, it gets harder to move. When it gets harder to move, we move even less. When we stop moving, we rather suddenly age. We lose the freedom that movement brings. We stop doing the things we enjoy.

The better choice, the important choice, is to keep moving. Maybe we have to make changes. Maybe that mile run needs to turn into laps in the pool. Maybe the Ashtanga yoga practice needs to become more restorative. The important thing is to keep the body moving to keep it young and to fully enjoy life.

We used to look at the body as a set of individual parts…the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, etc. The latest science of movement has revealed that the body isn’t just a bunch of isolated parts. It’s a unified whole tied together by tension lines called fascia.

Fascia needs movement to stay healthy. When we injure a “part”, the fascia is what knits together to protect the injury. This tissue then becomes less flexible. The problem is, the fascia is connected from head to toe. It’s all one. So if one part of the fascia is tight, it impacts the entire body.

It’s the resistance that makes us say, “It’s too hard!” But if we stop moving, that body-wide tension becomes habit and ages us before our time.  We see it in bodies that are bent over, hunched, and  crooked — signs of a body doing its utmost to guard the still-tender wounds of life.  We need movement to break this rigidity that can settle both deep in the body and eventually the mind.

When people who don’t practice yoga look at yoga, they think, “Oh, I can’t do that!” But what’s important is not some twisted up, contortionist posture. What IS important is movement. Just keep moving — as much or as little as your body allows and preferably in ways that free you from habits. Practicing sports can be great for well-being, but they can also be great at reinforcing imbalance. Certain muscle groups are built up (as necessary to engage in the sport) and others are forsaken. That’s why exploratory yoga and improvisational forms of dance are so wonderful. Practiced with a sense of curiosity and adventure, you’re more likely to discover new ways to move and bring enjoyment and liberation to your body.

 

 

 

Whooz Yer Guru? Getting Over “Guru” Baggage

The word “guru” gets a really bad rap these days, and for good reason. There are those who make claim to “my guru” like having one is some kind of spiritual goalpost. They quote their guru, usually in an attempt to convince themselves of the teaching, pretending as if they already embody it. It’s a real turn-off.

Plus there are a growing number of news stories about unethical gurus taking advantage of their followers, the recent Wild Wild Country series on Netflix being one such example of the possible and/or perceived danger of gurus. And there is a danger…the danger of putting your responsibility for your life in the hands of another or actually thinking that gurus aren’t people too, with the same weaknesses of character we all face.

There also seem to be a lot more self-proclaimed gurus out there these days. So many think they are enlightened and that what they have to say is worth the hundreds or even thousands of dollars they charge to share it. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.

But what is a guru anyway? Guru simply means teacher or guide. It means “dispeller of darkness”, more specifically. The word is quite simple, though its connotation has been made so complex.

It unfortunate that people will discount a message because it comes from someone considered a guru, as if that word alone would render the message meaningless. Life-altering messages are often discounted because the person offering it is of a certain age, race, or religion…or because they dress funny or wear too many rings. It’s sad that valuable messages can be so obscured by our own judgments.

It is also unfortunate that there are those who will bow down to another, as if everything they are searching for is to be found outside their own knowing. It is a sad, hellish trap when we can blame others for our inadequacies or misunderstandings. It is a denial that ensures a lifetime of suffering.

Neither approach really works. We’re either defending ourselves against new perspectives or we’re relinquishing our inner power to some image. The thing that matters is the message, not the person sharing it. How long will it take us to break out of our “shoot (or bow to) the messenger” mentality?

It’s time to get over our “guru” baggage. We are all just human beings. Some of are better at accessing humanity-wide relevant wisdom than others. Some have gone so deeply inward that they now see so much more clearly than the rest. But none of us are capable of knowing what is true for another. It could also be said that every single one of us is a teacher to someone. Why do so many feel the need to judge another’s teacher if they feel they are getting from that teacher something that gives them insight or peace?

I’d been warned in the past by well-meaning friends not to put my faith in some guru. I wonder why they felt the need to tell me that? I’ve never put a teacher on that much of a pedestal. Respect, yes. Trust, yes. Devotion, maybe. But I have never been at risk of losing myself in that. I know who I am, and I know that the teachers who come and go from my life are only representatives of something far more mysterious and far greater than the human form they may take.

Don’t let the word “guru” stop you from discovering what is inside of you. I am my own guru. And so are you. We are each the dispeller of darkness in our own lives. We are each the experts on our own experiences. No one can ever play that role for another, not entirely. We can learn much from each other, no question. We can inspire each other with our wise words and perspectives. We will be attracted to those whose message resonates and not to others. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make one message superior to another just because at this point in time it resonates with you. That spiritual materialism needs to go too.

I gotta laugh when people make fun with comments like, “Everyone thinks he’s a guru” because the truth is, we all are…just not to anyone but ourselves.

Seated Posture: Prop Yourself Up!

Yoga is often believed to be about some ideal end point. Many students will strive to assume a posture they have seen another body do without taking into consideration everything it may have taken to get there. But when we aren’t initiating movement from the proper starting point, we risk injuring ourselves.

I always give my students options for sitting. I even offer the couch when I know we’ll be seated for some time. I’m always amazed that so few will take the options available, preferring instead to fit the picture they have in their heads of yogic sitting (I’ve been guilty of that too!). But there’s absolutely no shame in using props to achieve a more comfortable seat. In fact, it’s a sign of intelligence and body awareness. I hope this helps  you understand why when it comes to sitting criss-cross-applesauce, also known as Indian style or easy pose.

Note in the picture below that the back is straight and the shoulders relaxed. That’s good and may be comfortable. However, the knees are just slightly higher than the hips, and that might cause problems:

In the next photo, the back is clearly strained, the knees are much higher than the hips, and the shoulders are at the ears. It’s actually not that uncommon to see people sitting like this in a yoga class. There’s an easy fix.

Simply place a block, rolled blanket, or cushion (or any combination until it feels “just right”) beneath your hips to raise them up:

Voila! The knees drop below the hips and everything else can relax upright:

Now let’s take a look at a seated forward fold (paschimottanasana). If the hamstrings permit, it is possible to sit upright, legs straight, both sit bones on the ground, shoulders relaxed:

From there, one folds forward at the hips and is able to extend toward the toes:

But if your starting seated posture is hunched or rounded, head dropping forward of the shoulders like this…

…the seated forward fold might look more like this photo below. The hamstrings aren’t getting the stretch. There’s no deep flexion at the hips and all the work is coming from the upper back, which can lead to injury. Plus, with the chest collapsed, what’s happening with the breath?

The fix is again quite simple. Just place that block (blanket or cushion) under your seat.

Now your spine is able to remain upright and your pelvis is not pouring out behind you in a posterior tilt:

From there, the forward fold is once again happening where it should, saving the body from excessive pressure, strain and injury. Though not pictured, it is also perfectly acceptable to bend your knees (or use a strap around the feet). In fact, it would have allowed me to lengthen my spine rather than collapse over my chest as I did:

 

Of course, once we move into a pose, we also need to move out of it safely. A picture can be worth a thousand words, but it can also be misleading. What one body can do with comfort and without strain doesn’t necessarily translate to another body.  So use these photos as guides, not superlatives.

Even with these modifications to a posture, it is still essential to listen to your body, taking your time to journey into the fold, easing off when the body tells you to. Forward folds may be contraindicated for people with lower back issues, osteoporosis, or women in the late stages of pregnancy.

Sometimes, students tend to think of props as a last resort or get the idea that using them is somehow cheating. That’s a mindset that helps no one. Would you begrudge a person his glasses in order to read? Yoga isn’t about some ideal posture that every body should attain. It is about the ideal posture for your body. Make sure you give your body every advantage in your practice.

Listening to the Body: The Language of Sensation

An ever-increasing awareness of your body can be one of the many benefits of yoga. It helps us to bring balance to the body by working neglected muscle groups. It improves our overall strength and flexibility. It helps us develop a better lung capacity and focus of mind, among other things. It can.

Yet, we live in a world where performance seems to be everything. Competition infiltrates what is meant to be fun. Striving, self-improvement, and “doing it right” can all lead us down a path toward injury, away from a deeper body awareness, away from the true meaning of yoga, “union”.

One of the most critical aspects of body awareness is recognizing when something we are doing is causing (or will eventually cause) us trouble. Sometimes, pushing through discomfort makes us stronger, as when we add a few extra squats after the thigh burn sets in. Sometimes, that pushing injures us, as when we ignore the knee about to snap from one too many squats! Body awareness is about learning to distinguish the difference. Here are some important things to keep in mind.

No Pain No Gain is a Load of *%&$!

First of all, pain is NEVER a good thing. Who ever started the rumor “no pain, no gain” had ultior motives, perhaps to prove something to his own ego or perhaps to get others to bow to his (or her) biddings. Think about it, how deeply that meme has rooted itself into our consciousness! Consider how many times you’re heard it on TV or in movies, read it in books, heard it in gyms or even said it yourself to justify self-abuse. “Pain? Abstain!” is far more helpful a mantra. So the first and foremost rule of movement is that pain means you must modify or stop. Period. There’s no such thing as “good pain”.

When is Discomfort Okay?

When is discomfort okay in our workouts or routines? It might be helpful to distinguish whether we lean towards under or over-achievement in our lives. If we’re big strivers, then discomfort may be a little too close to pain. If we are underachievers, enduring some discomfort can help us break out of our limitations.

One way to think about it is whether or not the signals coming from your body are shrouded in thought or not. When we are pushing against the mind more than the body, the mind will grumble loudly about how difficult something is and that it doesn’t want to continue. As long as you don’t have pain sensations telling you otherwise, it is usually safe to push past a resistant mind’s discomfort. This is how we build endurance and resilience. Problem is, for many of us, we’ve lost the ability to distinguish mind from body. In fact, the mind is just as likely to tell us we can push a little bit harder. It can’t be trusted! Well, maybe mind over matter comes in handy in crisis situations when walking on a broken ankle is the difference between life or death, but that’s exceptional.

Pain, actual pain, tends to send a very clear signal that the mind doesn’t need to interpret. Discomfort, absent of actual pain on the other hand, is trickier to decipher, so don’t leave it to logic. The body just knows, intuitively. Trust what it communicates.

Other Danger Signals

Are there other sensations, apart from what one would label as “pain”, that are pretty good signals that we’ve entered dangerous territory? Yes!  If we experience intensifying pressure, feel dizziness, start buckling under the strain, notice we’re holding our breath when we’re supposed to be breathing, or are gripping in such a way that there is more tension than ease in the body, we’ve already pushed ourselves too far and need to let up! Stop. Release. Reassess.

The Language of Sensation

When we develop a vocabulary that helps us identify what we actually feel, it can help us determine a course of action. When you get feedback from your body, can you describe it? Does it burn or sear, tingle or pulse? Is it shaky, prickly or clenched? Numb? Radiating? Disconnected? Are you feeling nauseous, is your muscle tender, or is your heart racing or fluttery?

I’ll often ask students, “Is it the good kind or a bad kind?” when they express discomfort with a movement or pose. This helps them clarify whether what they are experiencing is benign or harmful.

Chest pain doesn’t necessarily mean a heart attack nor does a throbbing ache mean you’ve pulled something. Usually, it just means we need to relax and let go for awhile. Rest, recover. Developing a sensory vocabulary can help us more deeply feel and understand what’s going on inside of us, help us regulate ourselves back to ease and comfort, and if necessary, help us describe the sensation to someone else, be it a teacher or health practitioner, making it easier for them to help.

We can’t fix what we don’t notice! Body Awareness is a multidimensional skill that takes time and consistent willingness to awaken and hone. The more we do it, the more we notice what is and isn’t working, what does and doesn’t feel pleasurable. It is crucial for our well-being as well as an impetus for creativity and change. What we discover on the mat we eventually take with us into our daily lives as we learn to live with more ease and pleasure, too.

 

 

Yoga & Anger Management

Ever beaten up a pillow? Ever driven to an empty parking lot and screamed your head off? Ever swallowed a wad of anger only to feel sick to your stomach afterwards?

Anger exists. It is a natural emotion and one from which we can run but never hide. Eventually, it will catch up to us. In the meantime, both suppressing and/or overindulging it can actually do irreversible damage to the body’s systems, verified by studies done at both Boston and Columbia Universities.
Depression, anxiety, heart problems, IBS, addictions even cancer all have a relationship with anger.

We all get angry. No one is above anger. Not even the Dalai Lama:

“You never stop getting angry about small things. In my case, it’s when my staff do something carelessly, then my voice goes high. But after a few minutes, it passes.”

The important thing is to recognize signs of anger early, admit them, and face them…without judgment. It isn’t easy to do. Often, our minds are jumping on such negative emotions, convincing us we don’t feel what we actually do…or that we shouldn’t. So what are some signs that anger is arising? Look for:

  • Tension in the jaw or neck or gut
  • Changes in the tone or volume of your voice
  • Irritiability
  • Shutting others out
  • Sarcasm or passive aggressive behaviors
  • Feeling hot “under the collar”
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Pacing
  • Craving an addiction

There’s no question that anger is a strong force. It can make us very uncomfortable whether we are on the giving or receiving end of it. It is an emotion very tied into childhood experiences, the self-image we work to maintain, the stories our minds tell, and the truth about how we feel about ourselves. Many of us have been brought up to believe that anger is a bad thing to be avoided at all costs. We’re constantly lambasted with moral ideas of anger being a base emotion that benefits no one, that it is something to overcome. Perhaps it is, but the overcoming of it takes hard work.

To put it quite simply, people deal with anger in one of 2 ways: they hold it in, either conscicously or unconsiously or they let it out, either consciously or unconsciously. Generally, it’s usually the unconscious variety! We stuff our feelings of anger so as not to destroy that “nice person” self image we’ve constructed or to keep from hurting others, but what often results is self-inflicted stress. On the other hand, if we act out our anger, we very often do so with unnecessary aggression or even violence. Obviously, that serves no one. Where’s the middle ground?

Some would say that we need to practice the mindful approach to anger: we need to be aware when we are angry and watchful of our response to it. From my own experience, I don’t think mindfulness is enough. We also have to find safe passage for the energy of anger so it can be expressed and released safely. If we don’t, that energy accumulates, and we’re left with the building blocks of frustration and eventual illness.

Anger doesn’t have to be scary or throw us off balance. In fact, the energy of anger can be used productively and constructively. Various tools for helping us do just that exist. Yoga, specifically kundalini yoga, offers some very powerful techniques for allowing, accepting, expressing and transmuting anger. With our anger in check, we can then genuinely work toward cultivating more enlightened states of being like compassion and equanimity. Sure we can cultivate those things without addressing our anger, but the anger will be there, under the surface, undermining you and shading your vibe.

Do you have outdated ideas about anger that may be affecting your health? Need a new tool for dealing more constructively with the energy of anger? Here’s a video of a powerful kundalini yoga kriya for cooling the flames of anger:

Beginners: 3 Things You Need to Know About Yoga

If you are new to the world of yoga and are thinking about or have just started a new practice, here are three crucial things to keep in mind and on track.

Breath is Key

Many people approach yoga with the pose as their goal. This is not suprising given that the postures are the outward physical representation of a much deeper inner process which can’t be photographed. Poses, on the other hand, are frequently used to depict the practice of yoga. Extreme postures are celebrated in photography or found peppering the pages of instagram. But the pose, especially some idyllic pose of perfection, is secondary to something else…the breath.

If you move your way into a pose and forget to breath on the journey, let alone can’t breath when you get there, you’ve lost your yoga. I’m not referring to breath practices commonly found in kundalini yoga where the breath is intentionally held; I’m talking about every other time when the breath is meant to continually function in an integrated manner.

If you’re holding your breath, it’s a definite, clear signal that A) you’re distracted for any number of reasons, possibly because you’re learning something new B) you’re trying too hard and overexerting yourself and/or C) you’ve lost your connection to yourself and are not in your body. In any case, bring your attention back to your body, ease off the pose, restore comfort, reconnect to the breath, and then repeat as often as necessary until the breath can move freely and easily. And hey, it’s a practice. Even seasoned yogis need reminders.

I like to tell my students to be greedy for oxygen…that this is one time and place where greed is okay.

Emotional Release Can Come Out of Nowhere

This one can be really disconcerting for newbies. Our bodies hold onto tension and stress that we haven’t fully processed. As we move our bodies, in new ways and old, and breathe more fully, that tension and stress can finally find its release. Emotions can unexpectedly rise to the surface as we practice, making us feel tender and vulnerable, anxious or self-conscious. Whatever happens, let it flow! Tears are not all that rare in yoga classes. No one will be shocked or rush to your side to embarrass you. In fact, yoga class is a great safe place to let it out. And you’ll feel much better, too.

If something is too much for you, you can also stop and rest. You can leave the room, too. Do whatever is necessary to comfort yourself, have space and feel safe.

I often share my own story of the first time I ever practiced kundalini yoga. I was doing a movement in frog pose and just started bawling. It came as a complete and somewhat bewildering shock. I didn’t even know why I was crying. Something just got released. I felt great afterwards and fell into love with kundalini practices from that point on. This may have been the first such experience, but it wasn’t the last. It’s just something that happens sometimes.

What Feels Weird Now (or Good) May (Not) Feel Great Later

Our bodies are in constant flux. What we can do one day we may not be able to do the next. Likewise, what we couldn’t do today may actually come easily another day. This is so important to understand because otherwise, you may think you are losing ground when you’re actually just experiencing a natural ebb and flow.

There are things I could not do when I first started practicing yoga. For example, I remember the first time a teacher told me to spread my toes as I stood in Tadasana/Mountain Pose. I looked over at his bizarre feet, gaping space between each toe, and then at my own…no space. I kept trying to get my toes to move apart. Nothing. Not even a fraction! Today, I can spread my toes without much thought.

Then again, when I was much younger, doing Urdhva Dhanurasana/Wheel Pose was a piece of cake. These days, I have to do a lot of preparatory fascia work before I can attempt what is these days a somewhat deflated wheel! It’s essentail to honor your body where it is each and every day and enter into your practice as if for the very first time.

In fact, it’s okay not to do certain poses if you are feeling fragile or unsure about them on any given day. I’ve been in classes where I’ve quietly done a completely different posture than the one being taught because I felt a little weak or “off”.

Yoga is an amazing journey, but it can be unnecessarily difficult if one approaches it from the wrong angle, causing a myriad of problems or bad habits. Be smart from the start. Let your breath be your guide. Lean into the emotions and feelings if may stir up. And above all, honor and listen to that amazing, complex organism of yours. It’s the only real guru in the room!

Learning to Slow Down

I admit it. I’ve never been known for my patience. I’ve always been the person passing everyone out on the sidewalk even though I’m not heading anywhere. I’ve been the one watching the clock…be it at work or play. Only in hindsight do I see all the ways that has caused me trouble. My timing has always been slightly off as I pushed things through, made things happen, or gave up way too early. I’ve screwed up or missed out on many of life’s opportunities thanks to this mentality. Years ago, I can remember being introduced to Feldenkrais thinking, “My god, what sort of torture is this!” for the meticulous, minute, and turtle-paced movements it required.

Now that I am older and wiser, I recognize the price I’ve paid for my inability to simply wait, and recently, I’ve discovered a new joy in slowing down. I don’t doubt that meditation has helped, but it was more the result of my recent yoga training and explorations into somatic movement. Now, I finally understand the immense value in slowing down.

With  my interest in human consciousness and evolution, I’ve been working with a particular type of electronica music created by Shapeshifter DNA of Visionary Music for years. JoAnn Chambers, one of the creators, would regularly encourage movement to deepen one’s experience with the music. Though I would dabble in movement with the music, I usually found it too slow and spacey. There was no rhythm, no inspiration to move me. It was a block for me which I tried to move past unsuccessfully.  I was more comfortable to sleep and dream with the music. It was also great to just listen to it in the background of my busy life or while driving. So, I worked with the music in those other ways, and I moved my body to different music, music that was somehow more predictable and danceable.

But recently, I learned how to engage with the music in a new way. It is outside the kind of dancing I am used to. It is me slowing down, even stopping. It is me waiting…patiently…until something moves. In fact, it is not always me dancing at all. It is me being danced or dancing with myself. And that dance is sometimes happening on the unobservable, cellular level.

Through it, I am exploring and communicating with the miraculous world of fascia, the connective tissues that run in various tension lines through the body. It is a watery world, a mysterious world, in which one tiny movement in one location creates cascades of movement everywhere. Fascia is so incredibly sensitive, so aware. And this type of moving is so healing, because it gently reveals places of tightness and adhesion, imbalance and rigidity.

When I teach movement classes, I always encourage my students to slow down, and I see them struggle with it. It is so contrary to our conditioning to go slow. Even when some students attempt to slow down, they don’t yet know that they’re still moving 5x too fast! I get it. I was one of them. To be honest, I still struggle with slowing things down. But I have the experience now to know doing so is important to the skills of deep listening, observation, and discovery.

It is only in slowing down that we can actually become aware of our choices, not just in movement on the dance floor, but in life. We can hear the quiet messages not just of the body, but of the spirit, that so easily get overridden. We can learn timing. We can learn to trust the flow. And maybe most importantly, we can begin to comprehend in a microcosmic way the universal truth of oneness…how one small thing ripples through and affects everything else.

Here is a video of an embodied movement exploration using Shapeshifter DNA’s Shamanic Dreamtime:

Music: Shamanic Dreamtime Intro by ShapeshifterDNA Visionary Music & Multimedia http://www.visionarymusic.com Support Temple of the Divine MUSE http://www.patreon.com/garychambers

Are We Meditating Yet?

Meditation is wildly popular and its benefits repeatedly proven by science. There are groups of meditators all over the globe — in ahsrams, in offices, in neighborhoods, churches, schools, and health centers. Maybe you’ve even taken up a practice yourself. Would you be shocked if I told you that you may or may not actually be meditating?

“Then what they heck do you think I’m doing when I make that commitment to sit on a cushion or chair, close my eyes, and cease all activity?” you may be thinking. Well, it depends!

Usually, we are simply preparing for or practicing to meditate. We are concentrating our mind. We are strengthening our awareness of our awareness. We are watching our sensations, thoughts, and feelings. But all of these things are “a doing”. True meditation is not a doing. It is beyond doing.

Beyond the doing is where we discover actual meditation. It’s when the body stills, the mind quiets, and the watcher of it all dissolves into something bigger, like a drop of salt water in an ocean. It is completely effortlessness. We are not sitting and meditating. We no longer identify as a mere person. We see with the eyes of the Divine.

And the eyes of Spirit are not so enticed by visions and memories, fantasies and imaginings. The eyes of Spirit remain outside of time. Concepts are recognized as empty, meaningless…even the idea of meditating.

 

There’s Nothing Wrong with Your Body

We live in a culture that is constantly telling us what is wrong with us. We need some new products or have to do something differently because we’re not pretty enough, young enough, rich enough, successful enough, or living enough. So many of our choices are made to prove something, either to others or to ourselves.

We obviously must have entered into this world quite deficient! We are so bombarded with concepts and ideas that make this assumption that it has become a deeply imbedded and unquestioned aspect of being human. Something’s wrong with us. Something is missing. So, we must strive to improve, be better, get more.

Even the things that are meant to help us live life, to free us of such conditioning, can themselves become absorbed into this black hole of our imperfection. Take, for example, the practice of yoga asana (asana being the fancy name for physical yoga practice).

Most people head to yoga class for one or more of several reasons: to feel better, to workout, to be happier. The intentions are good. But what thoughts surface while they are there?

“My body doesn’t do that. I must not be flexible enough. I better try harder.”

“My teacher tells me I have to put my feet just so. It hurts, but he must know better than I do.”

“Wow, that person is so graceful and flexible. I want to look like that. I can just barely force myself…into…that…ouch…position.”

“I’ll never be able to get my leg over my head like that. I suck at yoga. I hate this body.”

“The teacher is doing it this way, therefore, I have to torque my body just like that, no matter how much my joints whine.”

“Wow, look at me! I’m doing a wheel. Hurts like hell, but what an acheivement!”

Not exactly the enlightening experience one was hoping for!

There’s nothing wrong with a person who can’t turn out their hips just so, who doesn’t have perfect alignment, who can’t reach their toes without bending their knees, who simply can’t sit like a pretzel. And yet, they try. They try because they think there is something wrong with them. There is something they must attain. Something is missing. Something is wrong and they need to fix it by pushing harder.

Look, the problem is not with you and your body! I promise. There’s nothing wrong with your body…whether it can bend with the best of them or not. It’s just fine. The problem lies in one of two places:

Your Own Head

Your own judgments of yourself may be telling you stories about how you should be able to do something because someone else can or because someone else demonstrates it thus or has told you “the right way”. But if you are honest with yourself, your very own body is telling you what’s true, what’s right. Get out of your head and into that “just fine as it is” body.

Your Yoga Teacher’s Head

As for your instructor, maybe they think you should be able to do something because they simply don’t understand that forcing a body to do something is just plain ignorant. Maybe they are victims of a rigid dogma they’ve been taught, ignoring the intelligence of their own bodies for the sake of a pose. It unfortunately happens.

In the first instance, you simply need to recongnize that how you are built is how you are built. There is nothing wrong with your body. Okay, you might  have a back injury or tight hips, whatever. These are things to be worked with, not against. These are things that inform your practice. But there’s nothing wrong with you…nothing that needs fixing. Healing…maybe. Accepting…probably. Fixing…not so much!

And in the second instance, you simply need to realize that no one is a better authority over your own body than you. Teachers are there for a reason. They serve an important purpose, of course. But there will be those who carry their own “not good enough”, “gotta be better” issues. Don’t let them become yours. If a teacher is making you feel “less than” because you’re not complying with their technique, find another teacher. If they are telling you to push through pain and ignore your own body, or offering you unwelcome hands-on adjustments, run as fast as you can.

Movement should be joyful. It should feel good. We should enter movement with trust and the certainty that we will not hurt ourselves. If we believe the lie that there is something wrong with us, if we enter a class thinking we have to measure up to something or hold the belief that we need to push through and beyond the limits of our body, we’re going to get hurt. Maybe not immediately, but eventually.

Why not face the realization here and now that there’s nothing wrong with your body? Why not decide that what you have to work with is perfect, in whatever state it is in? Why not discover with gentleness and intelligence how truly perfect your body actually is?

The Journey from Machine to Organism

Some say science is outpacing our ability to know what to do with it. Just look at the frontier of artifical intelligence. So many questions abound about how to create more and more intelligent machines.

I am far more fascinated with the under-discovered realms of the intelligent systems already in existence…our own bodies.

I remember years ago, (in another life, it seems), when I worked at the most loved amusement park in the world. I played the role of various cartoon characters that were “in my height range”, dancing in parades and shows. It didn’t take long for the heat, costume weight, and shoddy footwear to wear my 20-year-old body down into chronic pain. It seemed I, unlike the “animatronics” or life-like robots on display at this same amusement park, was not meant to endure such a regular pounding. A lifelong dancer, I felt betrayed by my body which began its very long road to recovery.

Though they are often treated as such, our bodies are not machines. Machines are merely an assemblage of parts that function together, without any intelligence or communication. The body, however, well, that is a whole different level of miracle.The body is a highly intelligent, interconnected universe.

Unfortunately, I like most people was taught that the body was there to serve the mind. I was the master who could bend it to her will, overriding the messages it was sending me such as “stop and feel”, “find another path”, or “danger!”. I treated the body like a machine instead of the intelligent system it is. I bypassed it’s communication until it was too late and the damage was done.

Lucky for me, the body isn’t just a machine. Lucky for me it is an organism with the ability to heal.

We tend to learn about and think of our bodies in terms of its respective parts, isolated, each with their separate function. But in truth, every cell of our bodies is connected to every other cell via a liquid highway of connective tissue called fascia. It is the fascia that responds quickly to emotional and physical trauma. It is the fascia that locks down and knits tight when we are injured to protect us from further injury.  It is the fascia and its history that we see in haggard, bent bodies, it’s substance loyal to the last, despite being ignored for a lifetime.

It astounds me on a daily basis that it has taken me a 30-year-journey since my work injuries to finally feel as through I am able to listen to the conversation my body has been trying to have with me all these years. It brings me no end of delight to help others discover this communication too, to have them try something and discover how absolutely delicious it feels to move in ways that are harmonious with the body’s innate smarts.

Most of us are quite practiced at abusing the body, getting it to conform to our wishes. Why do we find it surprising when it breaks down?  Anything (and anyone) would given the same treatment. Why have we never been taught how to enjoy, care for, and love our bodies? Why are we so far removed from our senses and feelings,  always backing away from the intensity of living, disconnecting ourselves in some way from the very thing that allows the miracle of movement?

Thankfully, it’s never too late to slow down, listen, and get to know what’s there.

Try this. Lay on your back on the floor, legs out straight and arms comfortably resting at your sides, palms up or down. Feel where your body is in contact with the floor. Scan from the feet, up the legs, along the backside of the buttocks, hips, and lower back, up the spine and neck to the head. Just feel.

Now, begin to press the heels into the floor gently and use that slight pressure to begin to rock the body back and forth toward and away from the feet. Notice how this action, originating at the foot, moves up the body, creating a chain-reactional pulse, pulling the entire body with it.

Maybe you’re not sure. Maybe it is difficult to feel. Maybe everything feels more like one massive rusted adhesion, all stuck together, and less like the flowing river of honey it should be. Give it time.

This isn’t a dissociated flexing and unflexing at the ankle. Stay with it. See if you can literally connect. Slow down and feel how this one action in one area of the body runs up the legs to the skull. You are feeling your fascia, the connective tissue of the body. You are feeling “one”.

You can and will awaken the waters within you. Slowly, softly, the body’s singing will make its way into your awareness. Then the healing begins.

 

22 Yoga Styles?? Help to Find the Right One for You

When I tell people I am a yoga teacher, I sometimes hear in response, “Oh, I’ve tried yoga. I didn’t like it.” When I dig a bit deeper, I find out that the person tried one particular style of yoga and is completely unaware that there are many different approaches to yoga bearing little resemblance to each other. Because of the long list of benefits available to yoga practitioners, it saddens me that their concept of yoga has been poisoned by one unfortunate or mismatched experience.

Did you know there are over 22 different styles of yoga, some more similar to others, but a handful that are truly unique and nothing like what most people think of when they hear the word “yoga”. So if you tried yoga once or twice and hated it, you might be missing out on the perfect yoga for you.

When I started researching this post, I myself was astounded and confused by the many styles that are out there, so I’m not the least surprised that complete novices are also confused. In fact, I discovered that many written descriptions of yoga styles are exactly the same, even when the actual practices have little in common. It seems words or phrases like, “individualized”, “focused on alignment”, “internalized” and “linking breath to movement” mean different things to different people! And just as often, I found that words used to distinguish one style from another very often proved to show very little difference in actual practice. To top it off,  many styles offer the exact same promises of stress-relief and/or being yoga “anybody can do”. So how is anyone able to discover the perfect yoga style for his or herself?

So, I’ve taken it upon myself to create the kind of guide to yoga styles that I was looking for but unable to find, one that compared and contrasted in one fell swoop.

Quick disclaimer:  when it comes to Hatha-inspired styles, I have not tried every one on this list personally, so my understanding is sometimes reduced to the style’s own description and any sample videos I could find. Also, not every style is represented, but I tried to include the most popular or widely known. I don’t go into too much detail about the contrasts. Rather, I focus in on the categories of contrasts to help you know what to look for.

In addition, let me clarify that there are many paths that fall under the umbrella term of yoga. This post isn’t about that, so I won’t be covering the differences between such paths as Raja, Karma, or Jhana yoga, for example, here. Instead, I’ll be focusing primarily on asana, or postural practices.

And finally, let’s assume that every style is about movement, breath and alignment, though perhaps to varying degrees and approaches…and that all styles will stretch you and work you in some fashion or other, with the ultimate goal being spiritual unification.

The Granddaddy of Them All? Not Quite!

Hatha Yoga is often described as the granddad of all other yoga styles. It can be traced back to the 11th Century CE. In other words, it all started here (that part is mostly true) and the various approaches that have since arisen have their roots in Hatha, with identical or very similar postures. This is the case for the majority of styles, but there are exceptions that are more like distant cousins of Hatha. I’ll go into those separately later.

So what styles of yoga closely follow the Hatha system? This would include the following:

Ananda (set sequences, pranayama,  doctrine)
Anasara (individualized, heart-centered, doctrine)
Birkham (hot, set sequences, vigorous flow)
Forrest (hot, vigorous flow, meditation, chanting, pranayama, poses held)
Integral (meditation, chanting, pranayama, doctrine)
Iyengar (defined movement, held postures, props)
Jivamukti (vigorous flow, discourse, meditation, chanting, pranayama, themed)
Kripalu (individualized, meditation, pranayama, held postures, doctrine)
Moksha/Modo (hot, flexible sequences, vigorous flow)
Power (hot, vigorous flow, pranayama)
Scaravelli (subtle and deliberate,  interpretative and proprioceptive)
Sivananda (core sequence, meditation, pranayama)
Svaroopa  (individualized, gentle/slow, core and set sequences, props)
Triyoga (set sequences by level, mudra, pranayama)
Viniyoga (individualized, meditation, pranayama, doctrine)
Vinyasa/Ashtanga (set sequences, vigorous flow)

Though each of these has its own twist (no pun intended) on yoga, the postures are recognizable across styles. That’s what makes them alike. So then what’s different about them? The words in parentheses provide some clues.

Generally speaking, they differ in considerable ways in the speed or intensity at which the the postures take place and the amount of repetition involved, the sequences of movement (how regimented and whether they are taught in “levels”) and how one gets into the postures, how long poses are held and whether they flow from one to the next or not, whether meditation, mudra, or chanting is an integral part of the practice, how much breathwork is incorporated, whether or not props are used, the temperature of the environment, whether is it  heart-centered, psychologically inclined, or themed in some way, and whether discursive teachings are considered an equally important aspect of the class. There may be additional aspects to consider as well, such as whether or not adjustments are given and whether or not adherents are asked to maintain a particular lifestyles such as vegetarianism.

The Distant Cousins

Let’s talk about the styles of yoga that bear a lesser or barely noticeable resemblance to Hatha. In fact, to a greater or lesser degree, they don’t bear much of a resemblance to each other either, so let’s spend a little more time going into each one.

Kundalini – This may very well be the true granddaddy of yoga (it’s complicated) as it is mentioned in the Upanishads dating back 2500 years. In the interest of keeping this short, suffice it to say, the kriyas, or sequences, of kundalini are truly unique and meant to help cultivate the energy coiled at the base of the spine known as, surprise, kundalini. Though some postures bear the same names as Hatha poses, they are not performed in the same shape or fashion. Meditation is a critical component as is chanting and breathwork which are deeply integrated and interwoven throughout a typical practice rather than performed separately. Every movement, chant or meditation is performed to bring specific benefits to the body, mind or spirit. Kundalini is exceptional for strengthening the nervous system and exalting one’s spirit. It is said that Kundalini yoga is the yoga for our Aquarian Age.

Yin – The purpose of yin yoga is unique in that unlike it’s “yang” counterparts which are meant to invigorate and work the muscles, yin postures are held for extended periods of time to work with the ligaments, fascia and more plastic tissues of the body. It is a process of finding one’s edge within a posture, holding it and breathing into it, and melting through it only when invited by the body. It’s a practice that cultivates mobility and flexibility in a way that other styles simply cannot.

Restorative – When it comes to yin and yang, restorative yoga shares the yin category but it does not have the same purpose as Yin yoga. The name says it all; it is meant to help regenerate the body,  bringing balance and healing. It’s great for the overworked and overtired who need to nurture themselves. It is like Yin in that the poses are resting and held for longer periods. But unlike Yin, cushions and blankets (and other props), and lots of them, are essential to “propping’ up the body in order for everything to deeply relax.

Bowspring – I only recently became aware of Bowspring (and it is rather new), but it is definitely it’s own animal. In fact, it literally focuses on the inherent movement of the human animal. All postures arise from this bow and spring concept in which the knees are actively bent and the gluteals engaged while the chest if lifted and opened through what they call “radiant heart”. This curvy alignment is quite an intense workout and therefore more “yang” in style.

Somatic – I have a feeling that Somatic Yoga will one day need its own “22 styles compare and contrast” article. But for now, I’m speaking here of the application of somatic movement to the practice of yoga. The focus is on proprio- and interoception or body awareness. And while all yoga can be said to teach body awareness, not all of them teach body intelligence in the same way. Just ask the increasing numbers of people getting injured in more traditional yoga classes! The focus of somatics is neither on the external nor end result of a pose, but instead on the internal journey toward it. Think of it as “deliberate exploration”, a bit of an oxymoron, but accurate. It teaches practitioners to deeply listen to the wisdom of their bodies and helps to facilitate healing on multiple levels.

So, that’s it! I hope this has been helpful and will inspire you to try something new or try again if you made up your mind about yoga a long time ago. Bear in mind that even within each of these styles, each teacher is likely to have his or her own unique approach. I myself am less than a purist when it comes to my classes, incorporating anything and everything from Toltec Tensegrity to Chi Gong to Laban Movement Analysis. I know this disturbs some people, but for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ultimately, yoga is meant to be a practice for self-liberation, but it’s up to you what’s most important, what feels great, and what feeds all parts of you. Once you’ve identified what you like and don’t, it will be easier to hook up with the right teacher.  Namaste!

PS: Would you like to shed some light on a style represented here that you feel is incomplete? Send me a message.

What is Yoga Fusion?

Over my years of practicing, I’ve been exposed to several different styles of yoga each with its own benefits. I consider the following to be my “perfect combination”. They each target something that my mind, body and spirit need. I am referring to the following influences which anyone will experience in my classes, which I dub Yoga Fusion:

Hatha

Hatha, meaning “effort”,  is what people generally think of when they think of yoga. Indeed, it is the ancient foundation for most contemporary styles of yoga. To keep things simple, I refer to it here in those terms alone. Among other things, Hatha focuses on a series of poses, (standing, twisting, seated, prone, balances, backbends, and inversions) each held for a period of time while focusing on the breath.

Kundalini

The kundalini is said to be a serpent-like energy that rests at the base of the spine until activated and cultivated. Once cultivated, we have easy access to our true nature, innate healing potentials and inner guidance. It is a prescriptive yoga that targets a multitude of mental, emotional and physical needs from clearing states of anger to balancing our hormones to centering the mind. It is energizing, brightening, and works via the breath and body’s energy channels.

Yin

In this style of yoga, long-held resting poses target deep tissues, ligaments, joints, and fascia. It’s a great way to relieve long-held tension and improve flexibility. We resolve to be still and rather than stretch, we gently stress the tissues mentioned in order to lengthen them sweetly. It’s all about improving mobility and such an important balance to the strengthening we achieve via the more yang styles of yoga.

Somatics

I was blessed to be trained in a mindful approach to yoga movement with Gemma Mallol’s Still Flowing Yoga team. Somatic movement increases body awareness and intelligence. It honors individual bodies as just that…individuals…one size fits one. It takes the stress and strain out of “exercise” and facilitates deep internal release.

When I was young, I was a dancer. I learned to push my body to do what is was expected to do. I never stopped to question whether or not I was hurting myself long-term. When I later adopted a yoga practice, I entered it with the same mindset…bend the body to the mind’s will! The somatic approach rescued me from that stinkin’ thinkin’ and has helped me realize that just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should. Now I listen to my body instead of my  mind.

Somatic awareness makes yoga more about movement and less about poses. And it places the attention where it should be…inside!

Embodied Movement

Embodied Movement is organic movement as a self-expressive and creative practice. It is deep listening that arises through breathing, waiting, feeling, and responding.

A Final Note

While emphasis is generally placed on the asanas or postures in popular culture today, all true forms of yoga place equal emphasis on right living (yamas and niyamas), breathwork (pranayama), and meditation. Yoga was never meant to be a mere physical workout (although it serves that purpose very well) but rather a preparation for spiritual practices. It is a whole-life means to liberating one’s self from the psychological mind. If the yoga we practice isn’t raising us up, chances are we’re missing the point of it all. While that might all sound way “out there”, the proof is in the practice. What you give to yoga always gives back ten-fold!

The Message in Pain

There are all kinds of pain. There’s the pain we choose to ignore, even though we know it is there. There’s the pain we block unconsciously or because we don’t have the awareness not to. There’s the pain we consciously overcome because we must. And there are extremes of pain, from what we can to what we cannot tolerate, too.

But what is pain? Does it always mean that we’ve hurt something? What is it trying to tell us?

Many years ago, perhaps about 2006 or so, I went to one of those workshops where everyone walks on hot coals to demonstrate the power of mind over matter. It was winter time in the mountains of North Carolina, and there was snow on the ground. And good thing too!

I watched as everyone’s excitement grew, the energy being raised higher and higher with drumming and chanting. I was amazed as one person after another got in line for their turn and then walked across. Some walked very quickly, like it hurt, others just stood there in the middle of the blackened, red-hot coals as if they were defying the heat to burn them.

I observed and did my best to clear my mind. I neither wanted to hold a thought of fear that we were all nuts and that I was about to regret this,  nor one of certainty that I would succeed unscathed. In fact, I didn’t want to think.

When something in me drew me forward toward the top of the six to eight foot long track of hell, I took a deep breath and walked. I was deliberate but did not tarry. Man, was that hot! I was so relieved when I got to the other side and stepped off onto snow.

My joy at having overcome my fears was quickly diminished by the growing searing pain coming up from my feet. I pretended as if everything was fine. I looked around. Was I looking at other people pretending everything was fine? It didn’t seem so. Some people were going back for seconds! I kept blessing the snow, standing there in my bare, burnt feet, in agony and growing fear.

Following the ceremony, I confessed to the facilitator that I was in serious pain. She helped me hobble back to the house and shared her certainty that I was not injured and that it was more about the massive energy I had just experienced. I wasn’t so sure in that moment, but she turned out to be right. She said I simply needed to receive that energy, be with it, allow it to flow. I didn’t quite know how to do that, but I set that intention. And I  was absolutely fine the next day.  I ended up with one teeny, weeny blister that didn’t even hurt when I walked.

Why am I sharing this? It’s a great story to remind us that pain is not an indicator of actual damage. Pain tells us that something is a threat, that we may be injuring ourselves. It alerts us that we need to change what we’re doing or become aware of something we’re missing. For me, it was an indication of two things: 1) once across the fire was enough for me and 2) there was a surging energy that I needed to allow to flow. I’ve no doubt that if I hadn’t worked with the energy of the pain I was feeling, I would have woken up unable to walk the next day, the soles (and souls) of my feet scorched. And I am also sure if my ego had convinced me to walk across the fire a second time, like everyone else, I would have regretted it.

It is natural to feel averse to pain and not want it in our lives, but it is not a mean or evil thing. In fact, it is entirely necessary, protective and loving. If we ignore it, we certainly pay the price, especially long term. But we need not fear it. Nor should we buy into the story that it is a life sentence that means more than it does. Today’s pain can easily evaporate tomorrow. Pain calls us to reflection, evaluation, and action. It’s that simple. Everything else is what we build around it with our disaster-fascinated minds and egoic pride.

So  the next time you find yourself experiencing pain in yoga class, consider the message. You may still have time to heed it and prevent a bigger problem.

 

How Yoga Classes Fail & Why They’re Still Important

I’ll let you in on a most surprising secret. For many years, I stopped going to yoga classes. I stayed committed to my practice, don’t get me wrong. I just chose to practice at home,  alone.  Why,  you ask?

Well, for starters, I didn’t really resonate with the types of classes that were available. For me, yoga has always been first and foremost a way of keeping mentally fit, not physically fit. But most classes out there always emphasized the “workout” or what I found to be a boring regime. Sometimes, I enjoy a heavy-duty sweat and endurance session, but generally, that kind of yoga just doesn’t do it for me. Years ago, it was a challenge to find a yin or kundalini yoga class, so I just used lots of videos, read, and stayed at home…in my jammies, even more comfortable than yoga pants!

Another reason I didn’t like going to classes was because of their size or the environment. Maybe it’s just me, but I really hate rolling around on a cold, filthy floor, and sometimes, classes were so large that it seemed pointless to be hidden in that crowd. I wasn’t going to receive any feedback, let alone a sense of community. It’s one of the reasons I am committed to keeping my classes small. (No, I don’t make as much  money,  but I’m in the business of quality not quantity.)

I also found classes a bit distracting sometimes, whether it was the voice of the instructor that set me on edge either due to tone or an endless stream of words, or their bizarre choice of music, or simply the pace of the class that barely allowed me to feel a muscle finally starting to elongate before being led directly into the next move. It all went too fast. At home, I could set my own pace and linger where I wanted…where it felt good. And I could relish the pauses and play my own music…or simply enjoy the silence.

And then there was the schedule. Sometimes, I simply didn’t want to go out at night or have to wake up for that early morning class. Practicing at home was a luxury that afforded me flexibility with my time.

Why am I, a woman who teaches yoga, presumably for a living, telling you all the ways that yoga classes can fail? Simply because it’s the sad truth.

But here’s some more truth. After many years of my at-home practice, when I finally decided to become certified to teach, it was only in the presence of  teachers who knew how to teach and sharing in a group of unique bodies that I was made aware of the mistakes I’d been practicing alone.  It’s fine to have a home practice, but it can lead to some serious blind spots. And if I’d kept on, I have no doubt I would be facing long-term injury in the near future. My training taught me all the places I was going past my edge,  ignoring little signs from my body and doing things because I could, not because they made sense.

I am the first person to acknowledge that not every yoga class out there fits every person. They are each as unique as the people teaching them. But it is important to find a teacher who offers your preferred style of yoga and to work with him or her regularly. We “know stuff”, and that stuff can be the difference between a healthy practice or an ultimate injury. It’s worth the investment.

So will the yoga classes I offer suit you? I have no idea! I certainly hope so. The only way to know is to try and see for yourself. It might help to know that I am more in love with movement than exercise. I am equally in love with body, mind and spirit. I want to facilitate your own creativity and exploration. I want you to discover body awareness, and through that, an awareness of a truer self. I like options and doing new things in each (or at least every few) classes. I like sharing things that have helped my moods, anxiety, anger, and fatigue. I try to provide a tranquil and restful atmosphere, not a dusty, buzzing gym room. Sound good?

And hey, if public classes still aren’t your thing, I do offer privates. This is a great way to receive undivided attention, and you get to dictate music, pacing, and and practice elements. If that sounds lonely and you have a group of friends who want to try something with you, you can even arrange your own small group class on your schedule either in your own space or at the studio.

If you’d like more information about my classes or would like to arrange a one-on-one or special group, feel free to contact me.

 

 

 

 

 

What the Four Agreements Can Teach Us About Yoga

It was in the year 2000 that I began my first of several shamanic apprenticeships in the Toltec Eagle Night Lineage of don Miguel Ruiz, author of the iconic The Four Agreements. Now, nearly 18 years later, those four little agreements mean as much if not more than ever. They have proven to be much more than the words that comprise them; they are little packets of deep wisdom that have continued to unfold and reveal themselves over the years.

While I was on my yoga teacher training in October of 2017, I realized that these four agreements have a place in my yoga practice, too. I present them here, not necessarily in the order originally presented!

Don’t Make Assumptions

As we practice,  it is crucial that we neither make assumptions about what yoga is and isn’t nor what our body can and cannot do. In regards to the latter, it will always be different from day to day (see the 3rd agreement!). And in regards to the former, well, there are plenty of misconceptions about yoga in the Western world. It isn’t just some exercise program, though many have reduced it to such. Yoga is an ancient and holistic wellness system  that engages the mind, body and spirit. When we take the reductionist view and turn it into a good workout, we completely miss the gems that yoga is meant to provide a life. If we’re teachers, we perpetuate this misunderstanding in a world that is desperate for the deeper gifts yoga offers.

This also applies to how we approach a pose. If we have some construct in our heads of how, say, Trikasana looks, we might take our body there with our mind and fail to feel the actual journey that the body takes there. This is a surefire way to be injured. Instead, we should come to a pose as if for the first time each time, taking our time and listening deeply to the body.

When we make assumptions, be they about yoga or meditation or someone’s motivation for doing something, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to get it wrong, either putting ourselves in a box, putting someone else in a box, or just creating a lot of unnecessary drama.

Don’t Take Things Personally

Yoga has become a bit of a competitive sport, if not openly so, inside the heads of those taking classes. We see our neighbor doing a perfect wheel and we take it as a sign that there is something lacking in us. We watch the skinny ballet-like figure in the picture and compare our bulging selves. We do more than we should to save face and wind up with a pulled muscle.

There is nothing personal in having the body you were born with. Yes, it’s yours…for now. But what it looks like and moves like isn’t about you. It’s structure has been deemed perfect for you in this lifetime by something far more intelligent than the personal mind.  If you have an injury or disability,  it is not a punishment. But it is something to embrace and accept. Yoga is above all learning to accept ourselves. Sure, the Western culture tells us to work for the body we want, but yoga tells us to work with the body we’ve got.

When we take things personally,  we believe they somehow identify us. We are overly enamored with the image and out of contact with reality.

Always Do Your Best

This agreement ties into the one above fairly seamlessly, but from another perspective. This is perhaps the most misunderstood of all the agreements because the mind’s idea of “best” often has nothing to do with our true capabilities, instead being a composite of the voices of parents, teachers, and peers that we somehow internalized to keep ourselves safe. We often conceive of “best” by comparing ourselves to others or by gauging our abilities according to some unrealistic expectation.

Our best will look nothing like another’s, and it may change day to day. It will be impacted by how tired or stressed or hungry we are. This agreement is perhaps one of the most important to our yoga practice because, if taken in the right way, it reminds us that gripping and striving have nothing to do with yoga while it also reminds us that sometimes, the high road is a more challenging road, but it is still the one to take. And finally, if we do slip up or behave in a way that is out of alignment with our principles, this agreement reminds us that we’ve made the agreement to do our best, so there is no need to judge ourselves for messing up! We did our best!

So do your best. Not less. But definitely don’t set yourself up to fail with unreasonable expectations either. It is just as bad to grip and strive and force as it is to collapse and give up. This agreement points to the Buddha’s Middle Way…free from extremes.

Be Impeccable with Your Word

This applies to the promises we make ourselves and to the way we speak about and to ourselves. If we say we are going to practice daily for at least 1/2 an hour, then we should honor that. If we aren’t, we should investigate why we aren’t living up to our word. This is also about not using the word against yourself. Thoughts or outward expressions of “not being good enough”, being “too fat or too clumsy”, or falling short in any way is not only a terrible way to treat yourself, it’s a surefire way of creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

This agreement has a particular importance for those of us teaching yoga. If we’re giving too many or meaningless cues or worse, cues that have no basis in our own felt sense, we are out of alignment with our yoga. That isn’t to say we can’t be metaphorical or poetic. But is what we are saying rooted in both our experience and our knowledge?

We also have to be careful about making something “wrong”. Just because a certain approach or technique or cue doesn’t work for us, that doesn’t mean it won’t be better for a student. Rather than taking it on ourselves to make those kinds of decisions, we need to offer options and modifications to our students, helping them to increase their ability to perceive their own bodies, sensations and feelings so they can intuit what’s best for them.

Be Skeptical, but Listen

This 5th Agreement, added some years after The Four Agreements was published, reinforces that curiosity is a critical attitude to cultivate in yoga. When we remain curious, the body is free to discover its own path. This agreement reminds us that WE are the guru. So as we are listening to a teacher in a yoga class, we remember to listen and share in the group experience of whatever pose is demonstrated, but also to be skeptical.

Does the way a posture is being shown make sense to your body? Is your body sending you signals that it is too much or not enough, or that it is having to grip or resist? And even then, be skeptical. Is it your mind that is telling you your body can’t do another repetition of something? Perhaps you are stronger than you think?

Our curiosity keeps us open, free to explore and draw our own conclusions. Yoga isn’t about putting your body into a pose. It is about finding what the pose might be for your body.

 

Lessons from Yoga Teacher Training – Part III

An INTROVERT in an EXTROVERTED WORLD

There were many lessons learned while on Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) for 30 days in Ibiza, Spain. I’ve written about some of them already (Part I and Part II). Today, I’d like to share my 3rd big lesson which was perhaps the most personal…and lengthy. Bear with me…

I mentioned in one of the earlier posts that one of the greatest challenges was sharing close quarters with a group of strangers. We were, for the most part, a house of “odd couples”, and there were times when irritations and annoyances were magnified. I should also mention that despite this, we all got along very well…considering.

Still, I found it hard to find my comfort zone among so many people. I am not only a highly sensitive person but also a full-blown introvert. Finding space, downtime, and freedom from stimulation was a bit of a challenge. There were expectations for us to engage socially, which was fine; I wanted to get to know people. But I was often faced with a choice. I need a lot less engagement than others. I like being alone. I need it to feel centered. So would I take care of myself and my needs and risk feeling isolated or would I fit into “other people’s rhythms” and meet the social expectation?

I am early to bed, early to rise by nature. The majority,  however, enjoyed their late nights and weekend sleep-ins. Because dinner was served often after 8PM, I took to setting aside leftovers so I could eat my dinner as soon as classes were finished, giving me time to digest. That meant that I missed out on many dinner conversations and connections. Instead, I’d be in my room  journaling, meditating, or listening to music before bed. When we had breaks, I’d often just want to go off alone on hikes or hang out by myself. And even though we had opportunities on the weekend, I didn’t really want to site-see. To me, it felt like a distraction from my focus. While I wouldn’t have minded getting off the top of that hill for a couple of hours, given the choice of relying on someone with a car and having to be out all day (or night) long, or being stuck at the house, I happily chose “stuck at the house” where I could recharge.

Most introverts sense the judgment that comes with being different, how extroverts might take it as a form of rejection, that we’re “too good for them” or “standoffish”. It creates a vicious circle as each “type” tries to establish their traits as normal or acceptable; it’s a form of self defense. (Of course, we live in an extroverted world, so I would argue that introverts have it harder.) Regardless, their is awkwardness on both sides, struggling to understand one another, and it all makes it that much harder to connect when we want to. I feared I was giving this kind of message in keeping my distance,  so I had to overcome this fear of being perceived as judging as well as of being judged.

As an introvert, I actually genuinely like people, very much, but I like them in much smaller doses than the average person. In truth, my system simply needs more down time. While the extrovert enjoys talking, I get overwhelmed by the stream of words. While the extrovert feels energized by interaction. I, on the other hand, just wind up feeling drained and disturbed by the various vibratory fields of others. If there are conversations going and music playing all at the same time, it is simply too much for my nervous system. After a time, it brings on physical pain. My charge comes from time alone and in peace and quiet.

Within the first few days, I became aware that others were engaging with one another in a way that they weren’t with me. It wasn’t something intentional on their parts. I figured they must have been unsure about me, maybe even afraid to interact because they had yet to get a sense of who I was. Or maybe they just thought that I was “the person who didn’t want to engage”…a typical box every introvert knows. So that night, I made the effort to stay up late and engage in more conversation than I normally would. It was worth it. It broke the ice. And thereafter, even though I lived as I needed to, I felt like it was okay.

I spoke with my sister, another introvert, about this today. She brought up an important point…that introversion is often considered some kind of pathology. But there’s nothing wrong with us. We’re just different. We don’t need fixing. We don’t need pity. We simply need more space and a healthy dose of respect and understanding.

Regardless of where we fall on the extroversion/introversion spectrum,  we’ve each got our stuff. The only thing we really need to deal with is our stuff. It’s so much easier than trying to deal with everyone else’s…or expecting others to deal with ours for us. Why should they? Sure, there will be misunderstandings and projections. So flippin’ what? Those will always be there until we become the sparkling-clean mirrors for each other that we were meant to be. And this will only happen if we each accept and deal with our own stuff!

Maybe it’s because I was finally able to release any last remnants of self-judgment over my introversion that any  outside reflection of being judged was vaporized. I was able to deeply honor and accept my introversion on this journey,  and I was fortunate enough to be with a group of people who were okay with that, if not at first, at least in the end.

So in summary, here is my third life lesson from YTT: I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re okay. Even when we’re not okay, it’s still okay. We only have to take what’s ours when it’s not okay. Okay?

Lessons from Yoga Teacher Training – Part II

We Never Have All the Information

One learns a lot of things at Yoga Teacher Training (YTT): asanas and yogic principles, anatomy, and sequencing, for example. It’s intensive in itself. Add to it tight quarters with strangers, lots of time for inner reflection, and heightened sensitivity and it all results in other lessons too, insights into the self or into life. Last time, I wrote about my mystical experience with a soap bubble, a lesson of our insubstantial nature. In this post, I’ll share another big lesson learned on my recent YTT experience in Ibiza, Spain.

In short: we never have all the information or all the pieces of the puzzle. It’s the nature of duality. Yet we are fabulous (and hell-bent) at generating meaning and judgments around very the sparse information we do have, convincing ourselves that what we’ve generated is absolute reality. In fact, though,  details are always missing.

Our entire lives, if we don’t wake up to this realization, we are constructing confining and very often inaccurate boxes to place ourselves, our situations, our solutions and other people into. We leave little room for miracles, let alone facts. But the facts that might be outside of our perception  might be enough to completely and irrevocably destroy those seemingly safe little boxes that give us the false sense that we’ve got it all figured out.

It all comes down to protecting ourselves. We are afraid of being neglected or disappointed, rejected or just plain wrong. This is the energy that lies at the heart of the need to draw conclusions, however erroneous.

Cases in point:

During YTT, I had volunteered to make breakfast one Saturday morning which historically consisted of oatmeal. Yet, after searching every drawer and cabinet, I could not find any oats. My mind, afraid of being accused of neglecting to provide what was expected, turned on those who were supposed to provide the goods in the first place!  I went about preparing what remained…eggs, fruit,  yogurt, granola, cheese, avocado, bread and tomato. I made my apologies, “There were no oats!” It wasn’t until later that day that I was in the kitchen when the damn bag of oats stared me right in the face. It had been on the counter all along. Seriously. Right in from of  my face! Yet I had gone on a very long journey in my head which was based entirely on them not being there.

On another weekend, the house ran out of bottled water. Several of us emailed the facilitators to let them know. We waited…and waited. More emails were sent. We waited some more. The conversations that occurred around this were interesting. In my own mind, I began to question the amount of concern and care our facilitators had for our well-being. Having had an earlier interaction with them over water, I was holding that opinion as loosely as I could.

The water came eventually, along with someone who had just arrived that day at the airport. You see, it turns out, the facilitator that eventually brought the water had to pick someone up.  She had other responsibilities. This is what delayed her.  On the way, they stopped for water and couldn’t find any big bottles anywhere. They ended up getting small bottles. So, the effort was there all along. The concern and care was there all along too. But there were extenuating circumstances of which most of us were unaware. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and so there was nothing to stop us from expressing our grumps. But how often do we grump with pieces of the greater puzzle missing? How often do we seek out validation from friends and loved ones that we are justified in our thinking about something? How often to we lack insight into situations pr  motivations, past histories, and personal challenges of those we judge?

In another example, when I  arrived at the house on the first evening, I was in a shared cab. We were told to look for a pink rock and turn there. What we eventually came across was a pink post on the left side of the drive that I could barely see in the dark from out the right side of the taxi. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “That’s not a rock!” I took a photo of the post to show my partner just how “ridiculous” our directions were. It wasn’t until nearly three weeks later on a walk up the road that I could finally see the “pink  rock” on the right side of the road. There it was…and had been, invisible to me from the right side of the cab. I admit, I formed judgments about the directions we were given while lacking this broader realization!

So three weeks later, I took a photo of the rock to remind myself of how ridiculous I can be! Now I have two photos that tell a story and remind me of this very important truth:

We are always missing information.

Always. The universe is that big and that complex. And no matter how much we want to make ourselves feel safe, secure, and like we’ve got it all sewn up, we don’t, won’t and can’t possibly.

Really, accepting this makes life so much easier. It becomes just plain silly, not to mention counterproductive,  to jump to conclusions.

LOL – I just remembered a song by Annette Funicello about not jumping to conclusions, a throw-back to age 10 or so. The universe has been trying to teach me this one for a very, very long time! A shame I spent over 15 years of my life thinking I understood the 2nd Agreement of The 4 Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz: Don’t Make Assumptions. It’s clearer now. So, I’m a little slow!

If we can hold everything more lightly, our opinions, judgments, explanations and seeming realities for why things are the way they are, we might actually get an insight or two into actual reality! We give ourselves so much more space to breath, to receive more of that missing information (or not), and just maybe to receive a miracle or two.