poses as lessons, not goals

Initially in my yoga practice, I was very strong driven by the desire to "achieve" poses. As though a pose was something I could conquer and move on to the next thing. After several years of practicing in this way, I came to realize that you never actually "own" a pose. You might be able to do it for years and then something changes in your body or your practice and it no longer belongs to you.

Also, I must say that I find commercialized yoga practice to overly emphasize achievement and posture. I don't think you can separate your bodily practice from your mind/breath/moral practices and have them make the same impact on your life. If yoga is truly going to work for us, we have to be willing to put in work in all the areas or "limbs" of practice.

In other words, there is no instant gratification here. We can work on postures without them being the end goal. There are many lessons to be learned along the way. Patience, detachment and kindness toward your body, to name a few.

SUPTA VIRASANA is one of those poses that requires a whole lot of practice and much cultivation of patience. This is not an instantly gratifying pose. But through our continued effort and the generous use of PROPS and BREATH, it might just be worth the wait.

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The Mystery of Yoga

From the late Michael Stone:
"Yoga teachings are not a response to life that stand apart from its movement. Yoga is a living question that continually points its practitioner back toward his or her own life, back into the body, straight into community. An ongoing practice recognizes that there is a transcendent mystery beyond the techniques that a practice employs."

Time and time again as I come back to my mat, to my cushion, my practice, I accept the mystery of yoga. What is it that keeps drawing me back in? There are so many components to this practice, creating a framework for understanding the complexity of life, of humanity, of ourselves.

Working at postures is a lot of fun. It is a holistic system for keeping the body functioning optimally. Daily practice allows us to dive into what we NEED in the moment, in the current climate of our lives. The diversity of available yogic practices makes for endless exploration and creativity.

Meditative work is often removed from the classroom setting, but should really be as important as our asana practice. Coming in to the stillness of meditation is a constant challenge requiring daily discipline and effort. And it sometimes creates more frustration than inner peace. But the experience of sitting with WHAT IS, whatever that may be, teaches us so many lessons, this work is invaluable.

Living as a yogi in the modern world requires non-stop engagement with life, with people, with your own habit patterns. Not always the most desirous of affairs. Taking on yoga philosophy as a guideline to living my best self has been my TRUEST practice of living the life of a yogi. It isn't usually easy, but it certainly feels rooted in REALITY + MYSTERY in equal measure.

So why do you practice? What motivates you to show up and do the daily work?

2017-09-19 10.38.33.jpg

Seeking Support

I always think it's nice when your yoga teacher expresses their humanity. So, here we go.

One thing that I regularly struggle with is the willingness to accept help or support from anyone. My strong sense of independence and need to "get things done" means that I often just do the thing, rather than accepting help when it's offered. This can lead to unnecessary stress, resentment and burnout--all of which are total yuck. I am vowing to work on this --it's my new project.

In the yoga realm, the support of the community is called the SANGHA. The people in your SANGHA should hold you, encourage you, inspire you. Ideally, in a class setting, in the studio where you practice, you can feel at ease and supported. In fact, this is true of people in your life. You should surround yourself with people who help you to BE YOUR BEST SELF.

In terms of ASANA, the word SALAMBA in sanskrit refers to the idea of support. There are several poses -- salamba sarvangasana, salamba sirsasana which imply that some part of your body is supporting another part of your body. In the style of yoga that I teach, PROPS are utterly integral to create the SALAMBA experience. I want students to feel completely supported in order to better facilitate SHTIRAM/SUKHAM.

Another way in which your body can provide support in a yoga posture is through MUSCULAR ENGAGEMENT. You can be your own salamba! Supporting your postures through correct alignment and muscular action is the best way to be safe and secures as you go deep.

Paying Attention

I love my practice on the mat, because it's TRAINING for paying attention. Because I spend so much time quietly exploring and investigating, it makes my interactions with the world that much more interesting. The SUBTLE aspects of life, the quiet things, the small things are fascinating and I find, totally worth my while.

I also think that this ability to PAY ATTENTION and openly investigate makes me a better friend, sister, partner, and person in life. The more I pay attention to my habitual patterns and frequent reactions on-the-mat, the more I can begin to tune in when they're happening in my off-the-mat life. And hopefully, through continued EFFORT, change my reactions as necessary. Perhaps even react with better integrity or more thoughtfulness next time.

Deborah Adele says, "When we open our eyes and see everything as an opportunity to explore and to learn, nothing becomes insignificant in its ability to teach us and to grow us."

How about that?

Transformation through Tapas

Sutra 2.43 says, SELF-DISCIPLINE in practice leads to the destruction of impurities and to the perfection of the body and senses.

Hm. Lofty goals.

The 3rd NIYAMA (practices for self-care) is TAPAS. Tapas can be translated in many ways -- regularity of practice, heat, fire, discipline, continued effort, transformation -- but the message is pretty much universal. The MORE you come to your mat with regularity, the more you will create positive change, leading to the likelihood that you'll keep coming to the mat. FUN!

In tapas practices, we build heat or INNER FIRE which is said to burn off impurities. These impurities may be due to what we eat, how we act, how much screen time we take in and/or environmental factors. And when we experience the transformational potential of our practice, it creates a positive neural groove to encourage us to come back again and again.

Seek out Inspiration!

There is nothing quite like a week with my TEACHER to reignite my passion for practice + teaching. Luckily, I generally operate at a pretty consistent level of commitment and discipline in my practice. But when I get to spend a week absorbing, learning and filling my own cup, I feel so clear about my journey on this PATH. I offer a deep bow of gratitude to Tias and the Prajna sangha.

We need teachers to guide us into deeper experience. I have had so many teachers on this yogic path and many others in my off-the-mat life. My hope for you is that in several aspects of your life, you have guidance from someone who is a master of their craft. I encourage you to seek out people who INSPIRE you, who move you to greater awareness, who encourage you to dig deep.

What I offer to you in class is simply the opportunity for exploration. My aim is to inspire you to go INWARD and SENSE. And then to continue your own investigation of YOURSELF as you move off the mat.

Yoga is the Antidote to Fixity

Over the course of a lifetime, through our various life experiences, we form some strong attachments and opinions. We dig a hole, set up camp, grow roots, and harden. Physically, psychically, opinionally.

Yoga is the antidote to fixity. Yoga practices of asana, pranayama, meditation and energetics bring PRANA (life force) into areas of holding, areas of stuckness. When we bring new fluid and awareness to long-held and tight spots, they open up. SPACE can occur and space lays the groundwork for healing.

My teacher Tias says, "The art of the entire yoga training is to be free of all kinds of fixation, not only mental and physical fixation, but to be free from cultural, linguistic, economic, racial or gender fixation."

So, as much as YOGA can free us up physically, the more SUBTLE implications are equally important. When we are loose and open, we can much more easily merge with the FLOW to let things play out as they will.

The pathways of the NADIS allow energy to flow freely through our bodies, hearts and minds. When we have blockages energetically, we are not functioning optimally. Yoga practice opens us up to SPACE and FREEDOM in all aspects of ourselves.

Newness in Each and Every Moment

Every day, every hour, every minute offers us the possibility of NEWNESS. But, how often do we see that potential?
How routinized is your every day, every hour, every minute?
The composer John Cage said, "I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing." His composition style certainly reflects this sentiment -- he was an extremely innovative and provocative composer.

I myself am extremely routine oriented. I love a good schedule, and a finished to-do list and all the "good" habits that I've incorporated as I try to be a better human. But sometimes, life can feel like a series of morning meditations and brushing (and flossing!) my teeth. I don't mean to lose the spark, but the day-to-day grind can make it a challenge.

The same could be said for our ASANA practice, our time on the mat. Do you tend to always do things the same way? Can you approach each practice with an openness to NEW experience, NEW pathways, NEW information?

Yoga practice teaches us to be IN THE NOW. The more I practice, the more I'm interested in the SUBTLE nuances of my body, breath, heart and mind. The deeper I dive into meditative work, the more often I find myself IN THE NOW, taking a breath, enjoying the MOMENT.

I'll Meet You in the Middle

Extreme points of view are generally the ones that get the most press. And in our culture, there's a really strong tendency to shout our views from the rooftop. Or rather, from the comfort of our computer screens via social media. But the idea is the same--everyone MUST know how I feel, because it defines me as a person. I have to set myself APART from the other people. My views are very strongly NOT theirs. Sound familiar?

Now believe me, I am prone to very strong feelings. I side politically distinctly on one side. I have a lifetime of religious guilt built up, which inhibits me from magnanimous feelings toward organized religion. I have a particular way of eating that I think is the right way. I have a certain way in which I present myself to the world that I think is correct. I think that the way I do asana practice is THE way to do asana practice. You get the idea.

I share my own experience of strong opinions to illustrate that yoga doesn't just make opinions go away;  I am also quite human. I am prone to my own particular views. But, I also recognize what happens when we insist on setting ourselves apart from groups of humanity. Viewpoints of "my way is the only way" can be really damaging to the people who we"re separating ourselves from and also to ourselves. The "my god is the one and only god" argument comes to mind. Why should we insist on a singular path for everyone? Does anything else in life work as a one-size-fits-all set-up? 

The definition of yoga is union. The root word of yoga is yuj which means to yoke, as in to yoke an oxen to a cart. So, generally in western modernity, we understand this union to be that of yoking the body to the mind. Or the breath to the body. I like to entertain defining yoga as the yoking of my individual consciousness to the cosmic consciousness. Or the unity of we as a people in the search for something greater than ourselves. For happiness and contentment and universal love. 

Now, I'm nothing if not a practical yogi. I don't posit that yoga will lead to everlasting bliss or automatic happiness. But what I do believe is that through the exploration of ourselves, as we TRULY are, opinions and all, we begin to understand our true natures. And when you get right down to the truth of the matter, everyone, no matter their opinions, is looking to be happy, content and offered unconditional love. So, if we could align even in just that small unifying thread, is it possible that we could meet somewhere in the middle? 

Staying True to You

Finding Your Own Truth

I desire to emulate the teachers who've had the most impact on me, and in turn offer my own experiences to my students in the yoga classroom. But occasionally I find myself in a yoga teacher struggle. Should I emphasize (perhaps even require?) strict + precise alignment in myself and my students at all times, or should I allow for them to explore sensing/feeling/joy of movement/freedom in their bodies? I know I have an obligation to keep people safe, which to my mind means aligning well. But is it restricting for the feeling body or the subtle body to tinker with alignment non-stop, while holding a pose? 

Everyone's body is a little bit different. Even if I have a similar body shape/type/medical history/athletic history/injury history as someone, their experience is always going to be a bit different from mine. And I can only teach from my own understanding and knowledge of how a pose feels in my body + mind + breath. I'm sure you all know that one teacher who just loves backbending or forward-folding and you always seem to be doing it in their classes? They have a felt experience which happens to be their favorite, and also which they are excited to share with you. But just because it feels a certain way to them, doesn't mean that you'll have the same experience. I think it's fascinating that a single class can land differently on all 15 people in the room. 

One way that I try to keep it fresh and applicable to everyone is to teach a different direction every week. In my new workbook, I outline the "planes of the body" or five ways that the body can move. They include side-bending, forward-folding, backbending, twisting + core engagement.  One benefit to working in a new plane each week is that it encourages me as well as my students to be comfortable with all the ways of moving. Full range of motion in the spine is a worthy ideal, achievable through working with all the ways of moving. There are seemingly endless possibilities of exploration within each plane. For example, forward-bending can focus on the feet, ankles, calves, hamstrings, hips, spine and neck. Within forward folds I can work with straight legs, bent knees, balancing, inversions, arm balances, seated forward folds, supine poses, and standing poses. See? Limitless possibilities. 

an excerpt from Sequencing + Stick Figures, The 5 Planes of the Body

an excerpt from Sequencing + Stick Figures, The 5 Planes of the Body

Teaching Alignment Yoga

From the beginning of my own yoga experience, the principles of alignment-based yoga have always resonated with me. To me, refining your pose to create optimal structure for the bones/muscles/connective tissue is a no-brainer. Why shouldn't we want to make our poses more integrated, more expansive?

To keep alignment in mind, I always encourage the use of props. Some people think that props are just a crutch and only for people who can’t work in the full expression of the pose. I call bullshit on that. For me, props encourage deeper integration, strength building, integrity in the spine, and safety in asanas.

Let’s consider a shoulderstand (sarvangasana) and its need for props. In the full expression of shoulderstand, one stands on their shoulder blades with shoulders deeply tucked under. The hips stack directly above the shoulders and the chin draws in toward the chest (jalandara bandha). For many people, this extremely beneficial posture is just not accessible without props. Common misalignments are too much pressure on the head/neck, splaying elbows, pikeing at the hips, and sagging in the upper torso/spine.

How can props help?

To keep weight out of the head/neck and the neck safely in flexion, I encourage at least 2 if not 3 blankets stacked under the shoulder blades. This allows for maintenance of the cervical curve and the weight to stay primarily in the support of the upper-body skeleton. It takes a boatload of strength to get the hips over the heart in the position, so using a block as a “launchpad” can help some people by creating a sense of lift. This way they are less likely to “fling” themselves into the pose, sending pressure into the neck. The shoulders have a difficult time staying tucked under, so belting the elbows encourages that a shoulder-width distance is maintained. With the shoulders safely held in place, it is also easier to keep the weight balanced and to open up through the frontal hips. Other options for safe support are to place a chair under the sacrum and also to put the feet on the wall rather than trying to extend fully. None of these props diminish the integrity of the pose, they simply improve one’s capacity to hold the pose longer and with greater emphasis on safe alignment. 

how can props help your alignment?

how can props help your alignment?

Accepting Your Truth

So, while I can understand the potential for joy in free movement and dancerly-style yoga, what feels most true to me is to stay the course. My teaching style is heavily based in prop-usage, clear and concise cueing of body alignment, and progression to a peak pose for a reason. It's what feels the truest to me. I know that it won't land on everyone, I may not be the right teacher for you. But if you're looking to keep things sharp, safe + aligned, I just might be your gal. 

How to Begin (and Sustain) a Yoga Practice

Hi everyone!

I'm recommitting to Santosha Sounds as a goal of mine for the coming year. I intend to continue to write accessible and useful posts about living as a yogi in the modern world and embodying the full breadth of the human experience.

Since it's the first of the year and many of you will be interested in self-improvement and healthier living, I thought it would be useful to provide some tips to finding a yoga that's right for you.

Sometimes (more often than not) people go to a class that they don't like and think that yoga is not for them. Maybe they didn't jive with the teacher, maybe it was too hard or too slow or maybe it just wasn't up your alley. PLEASE try again. There is a yoga teacher and a yoga style out there for everyone. My teacher Theresa once said that if you wanted to buy a car and you didn't like the first one you test-drove, you wouldn't give up your search for a car. Right??

There's no need to be intimidated by yoga. Everyone was a beginner once and they had to start from square one too. The best approach is to take a class geared toward beginners. That way you'll be able to do most of the poses and see some benefits immediately. After a Basics class or two, you can decide if it's the appropriate level for you or if you're ready to move on to a different style/level.

Also, the argument that you ARE NOT flexible does not groove with me. That is precisely why you NEED yoga. To become more flexible. And not just loose in your muscles. Yoga helps to release long-held patterns of tension in the body and breath, rigid points of view, and the notion that we are separate somehow from our fellow human beings. This practice can ultimately be a way for us to be malleable and open in our day-to-day lives.

baddha konasana

baddha konasana

 1. WHAT ARE YOUR OPTIONS?

If you've never done a yoga class before, you may feel intimidated and overwhelmed by the vast options available. There are classes at yoga studios of course, but there are also DVDs, online classes, package deals, yoga at the gym, etc.

So, where to begin? Things to consider at this first stage are your current finances, how much time you have to devote to regular practice (twice a month, once a week, three times a week?), the type of practice you're interested in (yoga for health, yoga as fitness, meditation, breath instruction, etc), and the level of seriousness you're looking for. The most disciplined and traditional classes will likely happen at yoga studios, though you occasionally find them at the YMCA or your gym.

vigorous virasana in anjenayasana

vigorous virasana in anjenayasana

2. CHOOSE YOUR FORMAT

If you are planning to begin from a DVD or online courses, you have a multitude of available resources. I started with Yoga for Beginners with Patricia Walden and found it really useful. She is a renowned Iyengar instructor who's been teaching for decades and has a practical and soothing approach to alignment-based yoga.

There are also many well-known yoga teachers who teach classes online. One particular site is called YogaGlo and features not only yoga classes but also meditation and work beyond your mat. I would particularly recommend classes from one of my teachers Tias Little. He has a deep reverence for yoga philosophy and an alignment-based approach to posture. I think he's brilliant.

Benefits to practicing at home are that you can do your practice whenever you have time and it is quite affordable. In my personal opinion, this is a great way to spark your interest, but eventually a teacher can help you improve your form and take you deeper into your own path and practice through their knowledge. If you're especially interested in understanding the tradition and philosophy, a teacher will be indispensable.

restorative salamba halasana

restorative salamba halasana

3. CHOOSE YOUR TEACHER

It's quite challenging to be discerning about a yoga studio, teacher or class if you have no point of reference. But if you are leaning toward a more serious approach, I recommend looking thoroughly through the website of a studio/studios. In fact, I would say check out the websites of all the studios in town. Read each studio's philosophy and history, read through the class descriptions and read through the teachers bios. You may find something that intrigues you or something that turns you off. Pay attention to your intuition. Many studios have a "new person special" designed to give you a couple weeks to do a studio tour and take several classes. You should totally take advantage of these deals to try out multiple teachers and class styles.

4. CHOOSE YOUR STYLE

What type of class to choose?

Earlier in this blog, I wrote some guidelines for picking a class or practice that's right for you.

Hatha
yoga refers to what people in the West typically think of as yoga. It includes postures and breathing, and occasionally has a meditative component. Within the Hatha distinction, there are many styles of yoga class to weed through. Here are just a few common ones to clear up:

Vinyasa
yoga is typically faster moving with a breath focus. If you're looking for something more aerobic, this is likely the class for you.

 

meditation practice counts as yoga

meditation practice counts as yoga

Hatha
classes are usually prop-heavy (don't be afraid of props! they help you get deeper into poses and sustain poses longer! I use them EVERY SINGLE DAY!) and are alignment focused with long holds to really learn each posture.

Yin
yoga features long (really long) holds and is usually all passive stretching. It's designed to lengthen your connective tissue and build pranic energy within the body. Some people find it extremely soothing and relaxing.

Power Yoga
is a vigorous style which will build strength and endurance. Usually includes abdominal strengthening and a loud soundtrack.

Restorative
yoga is a highly supportive style designed to calm and relax the body and mind.

Wall Ropes
classes use a system of ropes and hardware to create traction in the spine. The ropes allow for longer holds and create great spacial awareness.

wall ropes

wall ropes

 IN SUMMARY

  1. Choose your format (class/DVD/online course).
  2. Find a teacher/teachers.
  3. Choose a style.
  4. Commit! Decide how often you can sustainably practice per week and stick to it. The benefits of yoga will unfold over time with diligent practice and detachment from the outcome of your practice.
  5. Have FUN! While there is a certain reverence to the practice and the tradition, it's also supposed to be a dang good time .

If you find a teacher and class (or classes!) that fit your needs, and attend regularly, you are bound to see the fruits of your practice. These benefits are what keep me coming back to the mat day after day and year after year. You will likely see changes in your physical body, your mental state and your interaction with the world. And as a result, it'll be a challenge to keep you away from your mat.

**If you're in Omaha, come and see me! I teach a variety of classes at One Tree Yoga, including 2 beginners classes per week. 

Yoga in Action: inner listening

To listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed by what you hear. 

This morning I listened to Tara Brach speak about active listening. Like, really listening. Listening is a real skill that requires effort.

Oftentimes we have to teach ourselves how to be listeners, how to be active participants in conversation. In the podcast, she talked about ways in which we avoid active listening: our propensity to multi-task while we are in telephone conversations, our tendency to try and shape the way that someone views us while we converse with them (rather than actually listening to them), and the need to develop skills of listening, which can eventually impact our deeper meditation practices.

This meditation application eventually becomes an act of inner listening, though it often begins with acts of outer listening. There are some meditation schools which encourage that you note the environmental sounds around you as you sit. There are some forms of meditation which encourage concentration on a sound or chant. Sometimes in the beginning stages of our meditation journey, even awareness of our thoughts can feel like outer listening as well. I have been inclined to think "who is that person thinking those thoughts?" a time or two in my own sitting work. In the yoga realm, we typically begin our practices by following the instruction of a teacher through outward listening.   

And then through time and regular effort, listening for sounds/thoughts/instructions outside of ourselves can be replaced by inner listening. Listening to our own thoughts for instinctual feelings and habit patterns of the mind, and listening to our bodies for signs of our overall health, clues about injuries/disease and effectiveness of our practices. Inner listening is how we can know us. By taking time to get quiet, go inward and tune in to us, we can better understand ourselves and what we want, what makes us happy, what our true expectations are for not only us, but others. Sometimes through listening, we hear things that are unpleasant. But then we have the opportunity to work with those challenges rather than avoiding them. 

Sometimes through this inner awareness, we begin to move toward silencing. Not necessarily silence as the goal, but pleasant quieting, softening of the typical clamor of the mind. 

In her amazing Bringing Yoga to Life, Donna Farhi notes:

Just as the impressions left by the constant stream of thoughts and sensations tend to propel more of the same, the impressions left through participation with the silent substrate of consciousness generates a flow of itself. Silence begins to flow through us as our fundamental state of being. This is as it as always been. Nothing new has been created; we simply have cleared a pathway through which this silence can flow and regenerate itself.
— Bringing Yoga to Life (p.72–73)

So, how can we move from being a so-so listener, to an active listener to inner listener? 

spending quiet time in the woods is a great way to listen

spending quiet time in the woods is a great way to listen

One of the main ways to become a more active listening with others is to be present. I regularly find myself planning my day or my dinner or just generally caught up in my own thoughts when I'm talking with someone else. I think it happens to all of us. But it doesn't feel that great to me. When several moments into my distracted thoughts I re-emerge, I always feel a little like a jerk. Like my brain was telling me that another being is less interesting to it than my own being.

This is just a point of awareness. If you can first create awareness around presence in conversations with others, you can begin to work toward greater and greater presence generally.

Through deepening awareness moment-to-moment in our daily lives, we can create ease around the same work, the same desire for presence when we're on our mats or cushion. It will be easier for us to be active listeners of ourselves, to be inner listeners, if we're willing to be present with what we hear. And if we're willing to really hear what the inner teacher is offering, then we are more likely to make positive change. Or at the very least, to be open to the possibility.

Yes, But, How Do You Know?

How do we know that we're doing what we're supposed to do? How do we know the right course of action, the right step to take? How do we KNOW that we're on the right path?

I recently had a conversation with a friend in which he asked me how I knew that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Well. I kinda just know. I feel it deep in my bones, deep in my gut. I feel continuously pulled toward yoga practice, teaching, studying, understanding. And I've felt it from the very beginning. It only took me one yoga class to know that I wanted to do this. All. The. Time.

So, that's a pretty good indication to me.

Yes! I'm on the path!

Yes! I'm on the path!

But, there's more. In the past month or so, I've realized that in addition to my own gut feeling about the course of my life, there have been 3 outside influences, specific instances, that gave me the clarity and the motivation to continue along my path. Especially when it was challenging. I'll tell you about them.

It's not super often that we can understand why things are happening when they're happening. Especially! if they're difficult or uncomfortable things. Then we feel especially indignant about understanding them. I think it actually makes us feel better to throw our hands up at the universe and ask "WHY ME?" rather than face the possibility that it's just a step along our path.

When things are going well, it's a little easier to feel that the steps make sense, but even still it can be hard to see clearly.

In my opinion, this is one of the many reasons to note our reactions to the events of our lives. It's also another reason to practice regularly. If you come to the meditation cushion/yoga mat every day, you'll continue to do so even when shit is hitting the fan, even when all the good things are happening, even when you don't feel like it. If you are aware of the typical way in which your mind reacts to "good" events and "bad" events, you can begin to work with your own perspective and letting go of outcomes and offering your work up to something greater than you. But, that's another post entirely.

I am currently co-leading a teacher training program at One Tree Yoga in Omaha. It's been incredibly enriching so far and I am so grateful for the opportunity to pass on the tradition. Our program is very well developed and goes pretty deep compared to many teacher training programs. So, these newbie teachers are just inundated with new information and hopefully a new way of thinking about themselves and how they relate to the world.

This brings me to the first of my 3 experiences which spurred me along on my path. Through this co-leading experience, I'm very aware of how much I've learned in my own yoga path. Like a lot. And when I had just finished my own TT I knew very little. But regardless of my new teacher status, my teacher Theresa Murphy gave me a bunch of her classes to sub, immediately following my graduation. She just handed them off to me and fully trusted me to do a good job and conduct a good class and hold my shit together.

Now, this might not seem like a big deal to some of you, but having seen the state of teachers just coming off a training, I am blown away by her level of trust. And her willingness to give me such a big responsibility with her complete confidence. I absolutely didn't understand the scope of this at the time, but looking back today, I see it as a major stepping stone to where I am today. Major gratitude, T-Love!

The second of my major motivators came from one of my teachers in MPLS. His name is Ben Vincent and if you follow this blog, you've heard me talk about him several times before. His greatest strength, in my mind, is his intellect. He and I teach entirely different styles of yoga asana and so my biggest takeaway from our work together has been in the realm of philosophy. I had the pleasure of taking two courses with him, one on the Bhagavad Gita and the other on the Yoga Sutras. The Bhagavad Gita course was our first encounter. It was a big group, at least 25 people and we would get together once a week to practice meditation and discuss the book. Ben and I, to this point, had almost no personal interaction. Which is why I was incredibly surprised and pleased to receive an email from him one day in which he stated "It is apparent that you are fully ready to receive the Dharma." Done and done. And yes, he talks like that. 

These simple words came at a time when I absolutely needed them. I was working a job that was highly dissatisfying and trying with all my might to be a yoga teacher on the side. I really believe that this motivation from Ben kept me going, feeling like I was on the right path. 

The third actually doubles as a major cue that I was on the right path and the biggest compliment of my entire life. Some of you know this story, but the way that I came back to Omaha was through this compliment. Tias Little of Prajna Yoga in Santa Fe has always been in the periphery of my yoga awareness, but it wasn't until May of 2013 that I really understood his greatness in full when I came back to Omaha to take a weeklong workshop with him. It was swell. Since I knew the owner and the studio manager, I was invited to hang with them throughout the week and had the opportunity to get to actually know Tias and have some conversations with him. Apparently we hit it off.

Next thing I knew, I was back in Austin with a call from Jamie Rye suggesting I come back to Omaha and an email from Tias suggesting I continue study with him. Apparently he orchestrated the push to get me back to Omaha, to my home studio of One Tree Yoga where I am today.

These two knew. My grandparents wed in the 1940's.  They super loved each other a lot.

These two knew. My grandparents wed in the 1940's. 
They super loved each other a lot.

As these events were occurring there was no way that I could see them for the major stepping stones that they were. In the moment, we can't ever really know how the events of our life will play out, form patterns and shape our existence. But damn if it isn't nice to look back and know that we're doin' alright.

I feel so grateful for the tradition of yoga, the teachers who have and continue to inspire me and the ease of my surety about my path. I know how it feels to not know if you're doing the right thing, which makes it even sweeter when you find your place in the grand scheme of the universe. And it may be fleeting! So you best enjoy it while it's good. Trust your instincts and do what feels right.

Happy practice!

Awakening to spirituality

I was raised in a faith, 12 years of school in that faith, all the sacraments, all the Sundays at church. And I can see the benefit for my parents to follow this framework. It was what their parents did, it was how they were raised and it made sense to them to continue in the same way. Well, as commonly happens, around the time I was 16, I started to question the faith and why I had so many disagreements with their approach. I eventually denounced my faith, spent a lot of time pondering, experiencing agnosticism and at times even bordered on atheism. I was really turned off by organized religion and felt that I had to make it very clear, very loudly, that I was no longer a practicing member.

on a blanket in the sun? yes, please.

on a blanket in the sun? yes, please.

It took me nearly a decade to come to the realization that I can be a spiritual person without any religious affiliation. For so many years, I just couldn't separate the idea of divinity/spirituality from that of the rules and dogma present in most of the world's religions. It actually came as quite a relief to discover that I wanted to feel spiritually connected to something and to be able to recognize it as a joyous moment when it occurs. For my whole life, I've felt really deeply moved by classical music. But I didn't ever see it as a divine experience until I could create separation. The same is true of natural beauty. The joy that I experience in the quiet of nature is almost unsurpassed. I now feel a genuine, at times even physical pull toward this depth of feeling.

I was talking to my sweet little sister Laura this weekend and she asked me if yoga was a religion. I think this is a great question. And one that I'm surprised I don't hear more often. There are a lot of aspects of yoga practice that seem well, religious. Chanting at the beginning of class seems a lot like praying, mala beads seem a lot like a rosary, many studios have statues of the Buddha or Hindu deities, there is a whole body of philosophy that goes along with a physical discipline. And I can say from my own experience that it took me several years of asana practice alone before I was even remotely interested in the spirituality/philosophy piece. I think this is one of the brilliant things about a yoga practice—there is always the potential for more depth, more knowledge, more study. And not in a one-dimensional way, in so many ways—physically, mentally, emotionally and spirituality. But everyone must allow this to play out in their own time. I think we become ready to learn the deeper aspects when we're truly ready to be open to them.

A walk in the woods can deeply connect one to the divine.

A walk in the woods can deeply connect one to the divine.

So, what's the answer? Is yoga a religion?

Yoga is a science. 

The ancient yogis developed yoga practices as tools for enlightenment. Open up the energy channels in the body through asana and pranayama, create vibration and additional energy through chanting and devotional practices and then meditate in a cave in India for 15 years.

Tada! Enlightenment. 

While this level of devotion isn't super practical for most of us in the modern world, we can certainly benefit from these ancient practices in much the same way. Through our asana work, we cultivate sensitivity to our bodies and minds, we begin to tune-in, to awaken essentially. And on a spiritual level, when we are moved by beauty in the world, we can recognize it for what it is.

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't had a spiritual experience, but many people are uninterested or unwilling to view it in those terms. I think that each time we are moved by beauty, joy, contentment, even sadness; these all have potential for spiritual awareness. Of course some experiences are more intense than others and one can certainly have feelings without it being a divine encounter. But when we feel really deeply about something, when we are really open to the experience of depth, the potential for spiritual connection is present. As with anything, it takes practice to see these experiences for what they are. But with a bit of effort and self-reflection, any one of us can find ourselves on a spiritual journey. 

Yoga in Action: Loving You First

Perhaps it's self-imposed, but I commonly sense that other people think of my yoga practice, or yoga practice in general, as very selfish. And to a point, it sort of is. It's certainly self-involved; I would even argue that yoga is the study of the self, it takes up large chunks of time, and typically your practice isn't really a group thing. Sure, you go to class and see your friends and fellow practitioners, but ultimately you're there to dig into you. And then hopefully, you can take that work out into the world. (That seems to be a message in every single one of my posts, huh?)

In one of my favorite books on yoga, Awake in the World, author Michael Stone puts it this way:

Yoga reawakens ones connection with the whole body and mind and in so doing restores pathways of communication at an inner level that then begin to spread out into the interpersonal world as well. When we are safe in our own bodies, we have a ground from which to step out into the world. (p. 155)

And I wonder, how else are you going to get to know yourself? To really begin to understand the inner workings of the mind, you have to go deep. You gotta really go inward and get really quiet and listen, listen, listen, and do that again and again and again. And then you might, just maybe, possibly catch the tiniest glimpse into your true nature. Your capital S Self, if you will.

Okay, that's all well and good, but take caution. You come to know yourself through svadhyaya or self-study, but hopefully we can use that self-awareness to be part of the greater whole. We get into trouble when we think of ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity.

Again, Michael Stone:

We are not in any way separate from anything else. Ocean cliffs get hammered by the wind, falling rain is eventually pulled back into cloud, and the ego is always traumatized by the flux of life. When we are stuck in the framework of a "me" and a "world out there" or a "me" in a body in a world, we alienate our "selves" from the world. Self apart from the world is a mere abstraction because we are not inherently separate from anything. (p.23)
Makin' myself the Number One love.

Makin' myself the Number One love.

Alright, so we've got a few things going on. Through the practice of yoga, we study ourselves and become aware of our habitual patterns of thought, our reactionary tendencies, and the intense hold of our ego on our own minds. Then, (probably many years later) once you are armed with your Self-knowledge, you can start to break down the barriers of the mind which see the self as separate from the rest of humanity. Everyone has the same (to borrow a term from sanskrit scholar Nicolai Bachman) inner light of awareness and ultimately we're all just trying to be happy. Or perhaps more importantly, we're trying to have santosha (contentment). 

Which brings me to my point, the reason I'm writing this post.

Only you can make you happy. When we rely on other people (spouses, children, boyfriends, friends) to create our happiness, we run into trouble. It might work for a bit. We can certainly feel joy and love in the presence of others, but to rely on that feeling, to need the presence of another person to feel it sets us up for future pain. Because then when things change, as they inevitably will (the world and all its creatures are in a constant state of flux) suffering results. 

When we can take refuge and root into ourselves, while we will evolve and change in time, we are present for that change. If you can be comfortable with all your quirks, if you can accept your humanity, if you can love you, you'll have the foundation for a life of contentment. Which is not to say that there won't be suffering, but when it occurs, you will be both your anchor and your guiding light to joy again.

Okay great! Let's do it, right? Well, how?

Like pretty much all the posts on this blog, it's easier said than done! If it was so easy to love ourselves, there wouldn't be nearly the heartache and pain and struggle that exists in the world. But I know it's possible! We have to practice acceptance. We have to be as kind to ourselves as we would to another being. We have to offer ourselves compassion for our failures and missteps. We have to acknowledge our shortcomings and try to be better. Put your lovin' kindness into you first. If you can be happy and content, you'll project that action out into the world.

What are some of your ideas? How do you practice self love?

Cultivating the Opposite

Last night, I had dinner with my Grams who's 91 years old. She is fortunate to still be completely sound of mind and fully capable mentally, spiritually and emotionally. She looks to many sources for her spiritual growth and guidance included the Catholic church (she's big on JC), Judge Judy and Deepak Chopra. She reads every book that she can get her hands on that centers around positive thought. She does the work for herself first. But she also wants you to do the work too. For yourself. Last night, the plan was to manifest me a husband through a writing exercise from a book called Write it Down, Make it Happen. For her, every opportunity for practicing positivity and impeccable speech (from The Four Agreements) is worthwhile for improving her life and the lives of those around her.

Gramma Jamma

Gramma Jamma

In our chat, we were discussing the inevitable "mind loop" that occurs when something bad happens. More specifically when someone does you wrong. We can't help but go over and over the same damn scenario in a million different ways to try and figure out what went wrong, what we could have done differently, what the other person should have done, what we would say to them if we saw them today, etc.

What we both recognize is that these thought processes are a waste of time. Maybe not at first while you're hashing out your feelings and gaining clarity into the full-scope of the situation. But eventually, once it becomes obsessive and we begin to grip and grasp it for all that it's got, it's time to change tactics.

The Yoga Sutras offers an absolutely precise and clear solution to the problem of the "mind loop."

2.33 vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam
When difficult thoughts restrict us, we can cultivate opposite ones.

Okay. Easy enough, yeah?

Well....maybe not the easiest. I think this is a practice that you work your way up to. The first step to retraining the mind is to be aware

I try to remind my yoga students that the initial stages of yoga are really about creating body and mind awareness in a new way. We have to first create new neural pathways to see things and then see things as they truly are so that we can approach them with clarity and insight. In yoga asana you have to recognize the body's defects and differences from one side to the next and where you are stuck and where you are too open and how your body moves. In that way you can approach physical practice safely and for your specific bodily needs.

In meditation and matters of the mind, you first become aware of the frequent thought patterns that you're prone to, the mind loops that you tend to get in, and when and how often you find yourself thinking negatively. If you kept a tally throughout a single day of all the times you had a negative thought, how many would it be? 5 or 500? If you were aware of an excessive amount of negative thoughts, would you want to change it?

Armed with your new-found self-awareness, you can (hopefully) see the areas which need attention.

just cultivating the opposite over here.

just cultivating the opposite over here.

For me, it pretty much always comes back to the mind-junk. The mind loops of 'what if' and 'why didn't I' and 'how could I have' etc. My work is to cultivate the opposite. What did I do right? In what ways did I display integrity in the face of challenges? Was I able to act with kindness and compassion, even though I probably didn't want to?

When things don't go my way, my work is to first change my perspective and hopefully through that effort begin to plant new seeds (remember that work?) for positive thoughts.

And like anything else in life, the more often you practice, the more it becomes easily accessible. If you can cultivate the opposite one difficult thought at a time, eventually it will become a part of your routine.

Holding Yourself Accountable

In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges in our day-to-day lives is holding ourselves accountable. It's pretty easy to talk a big game about ways that we are going to improve ourselves, how we are going to be better, resolutions, etc. but in truth it's really really challenging to actually follow through. I don't think that anyone wants to over-eat, watch TV all night and not be physically fit, but it can be easier to let yourself off the hook than to actually do the work.

If you have made the decision to live yogically, you pretty much have no choice but to hold yourself accountable. A big part of the day-to-day work is the discipline that it takes to get yourself to your mat and cushion on the regs. The more often you can make it there and do the work, the more you will build tapas, one of the components of kriya yoga. Through practicing again and again, we build tapas which is an internal heat. Essentially you "stoke" the fire within which hopefully keeps you coming back to practice again and again. 

If you are not a regular practitioner of yoga, it is still important to hold yourself accountable for things that you say you are going to do. How many times a day or a week do we say we are going to do something and do exactly the opposite or a half-assed job? It's hard to put forth the effort that is required to achieve our goals and aspirations. There is no question about that in my mind. But the more often you plan to do something and don't actually take the steps to follow through on it, the more challenging it will be the next time for you to keep your promise to yourself.

You know darn well that you have to come back up.

You know darn well that you have to come back up.

And then, there is the issue of holding yourself accountable for things you promise to other people. Be it your spouse, your children, someone you just started dating, or your yoga students, it is absolutely integral to honoring your own inner light of awareness to actually do the things that you say. For instance, with your yoga students, are you expecting them to attend 3 to 4 classes a week but not practicing regularly yourself? Are you telling your children or your spouse that you're going to make more time for them and then filling in that timeslot with other less important life events? When we say one thing and do another, we set a precedent for others to follow our lead. By actually remaining true to our word, we are establishing a foundation in truth. This good example will hopefully lead to continued true behavior.

If you are reading this and you think that I am talking to you specifically, I am not. But it seems that way, right? It's because we all do this. We all make greater promises and than we can keep. So, how can we do better?

For one, I think we need to lessen our expectations of ourselves. Not that we need to dream smaller or aspire less, but we need to make more realistic goals that have actually achievable outcomes. We also need to not get down on ourselves for minor deviations from the path. Shit occasionally goes awry and it's our job to recognize when we've strayed and come back to the straight and narrow.

For another, we need to just follow through.  Most especially when it's challenging and we don't want to, that's the time that we need to put on the heat and make ourselves act. This way the next time will be much less difficult.

We also need to celebrate when we do accomplish what we set out to achieve. However small, if you plan an action and make it happen, it is worth your while to recognize your work.

See if you can begin on a small scale. Follow through on several small projects/ideas and take note of how it feels. And then build from there. Happy practice!

Asana Tutorial: Backbending Goodness

I was working with this yesterday and found it extremely useful. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

gabriellehopp-backbending.jpg

Two straps. One around each thigh, threaded toward the midline creating internal rotation. Bring length of straps between your legs and wrap around outer thighs with crisscross between inner thighs. Pull straps in front of you to create internal rotation in the thighs and pull the heads of the arm bones back.

Next wrap the length of the strap around your upper trapezius muscles threading from the front. The length of the straps will crisscross at the back. Pull down to create internally rotating thighs as you backbend. Pull through to front under armpits, threading under shoulder blades. Maintain crisscross at mid-back. Pull up as you go back. Super supportive!

You can also pull the straps forward and pin them under your hands in downward facing dog. I also put them under my elbows in sphinx pose. Both excellent support.

Yoga as a Useful Tool

You guys know that feeling when you very first like someone and it feels like the world is moving super fast and super slow at the exact same time? It sort of makes you into a crazy person. And it definitely affects the ability of the body to function. In the extremes sleeping and eating even become impossible.

Okay, this might be me right now. My brain is a swarm of bees. My heart is running at top speed.

So, what to do with all this mind chatter and pukey feelings? Why, turn it into a yoga lesson, of course!

It is totally astounding to me to see how easily my body and brain just absolutely fall apart on something like this. My nervous system is totally haywire. After a certain point of years of yoga practice, you think that you can exert some control over your body and mind. But damn, if it isn't really really hard.

But, guess what? You probably already know what I'm going to say, right?

This yoga shit works! Seriously.

Guess when I've been able to actually calm down and relax my jack-hammering heart? Guess when I have been able to remove myself (very slightly) from the tumult that used to be a relatively calm mind? Yoga class, of course. And it's not instantaneous. It's not. It takes about half of class. And that is half of class of seriously focusing on my breath and my breath alone. And it's taken years and years of cultivation of yoga skills to even get to this point.

It takes every fiber of my being investing in a state of calm. But I can do it. And that's the important thing.

A decade of practice may seem like a lot, but it's a drop in the bucket. No worthwhile lasting change can come quickly. This ability to calm oneself down through yoga is usually years and years and hours and hours of practice in the making. It means getting on the mat and sitting down on the cushion even when (especially when) you don't feel like it.

So, how does it work? How can yoga be a useful tool and not just a way to exercise?

The Nervous System (does not lie)

The Nervous System (does not lie)

Take a look at the right side of this chart. I was (am) literally experiencing all of those symptoms. My sympathetic nervous system is in a tizzy. It's like a textbook example. It literally is a textbook example.

The work of yoga is to tap into the parasympathetic system—you can see it on the chart! When you practice well, the heart rate slows. The breath slows. You are less affected by external stimuli.

When you consistently come to practice, you learn to use your parasympathetic system. When the asana work is challenging, you teach yourself to slow your breath down. You teach yourself to get out of your mind and experience fully the body and breath. You respond to the bodily stimulation by encouraging it to chill out.

This is what I want yoga to be for everyone. When I teach, I try to approach it as scientifically as possible, with complete emphasis on breath. Breath as the gateway between body and mind. Breath as the tool that sets yoga apart from other disciplines. Breath as the switch for the parasympathetic nervous system. We need more calm and peace in this world.

Calm of body, soft of breath, quiet of mind.

And in this way, I like to think that yoga can be a most useful tool. So that you can inhabit the beautiful container that is your body, breathe with ease, and fill your mind with peace.

This is me on sympathetic nervous system.

This is me on sympathetic nervous system.

What is Yoga?

I currently have the privilege of teaching yoga to individuals in recovery from drugs and alcohol. They are awesome. They are also a special sort of yogi. Basically they are starting their lives over. Starting fresh. They have this amazing opportunity to begin life again with a clean slate.

Isn't it great to be alive?

Isn't it great to be alive?

And because they're in recovery and working through all the shit that got them there in the first place, they are particularly open. They are looking for something real and sustainable to help them maintain their sobriety and lead fulfilling lives. At least that's what I'm hoping...

So, I sort of see it as my job to provide that real and fulfilling activity. One of the aims of yoga is to open your eyes to what is real. To the reality of the universe, of yourself, of life. Most of us as humans lead our lives as if in a trance oblivious to the wonders of being alive. It's so easy to get bogged down in the mire of day to day crud. If you constantly keep yourself busy with to-do lists, it's easy to avoid examining the reality of being alive.

I am currently reading Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope which is a vast tome of yogic and psychology knowledge. It's packed to the brim with philosophical gems like this one:

"If you want to experience the joyous ecstasy that life offers, there is one commitment that is absolutely fundamental: the commitment to live in the moment. With that commitment as your guiding focus, whatever you do in your daily life is part of your
transformational process. Your commitment to the living in the moment becomes your vehicle for spiritual growth." (p. 113)

And another:

"The goal of the reality project is not to disengage from the phenomenal world, but to turn to embrace it more and more deeply—to discover its hidden depths. And in order to do that, paradoxically, we do not reject the vicissitudes of the embodied life. We do not reject suffering. Rather we turn and go through the doorway of suffering. We turn to embrace our neuroses, our conflicts, our difficult bodies and minds and we let them be the bridge to a fuller life. Our task is not to free ourselves from the world, but to fully embrace the world--to embrace the real." (p 115) 

So. My challenge with these new yogis who are newly sober and eager to embrace reality (maybe?) is to give them a well-rounded experience of yoga. A bit of asana, some breathe work, some meditation, some philosophy and even some yoga nidra. In an hour. Twice a week. How can I fully convey to these people the great depth of what it is I'm teaching? How can I offer them something that awakens them to reality? And the potential for the practice to create real and lasting change within them? What is yoga to these people? What is yoga?

Is this yoga?

Is this yoga?

Yesterday we were ending class with baddha konasana before savasana. One or two of them was complaining of the stretch. I told them to think about leading with their sternum as though they could lay their heart center down onto their feet. Well, they thought that was pretty hilarious. And one of them asked if that was the goal. 

Now, I probably could have just said that "yes, putting the head to the ground and the heart on the feet was the goal of the pose" and left it at that. But no. No! I owe to these people in flux to give them something more.

Here's what I offered:

Me: If the goal of yoga was to be flexible, then any gymnast could come in and automatically be good at it. 

Student: But that's not the case?

Me: No. 

Student: Really?

Me: Really. The goal of yoga is not to be flexible. What good is that going to serve you in your life? The reason that we do a practice on the mat is to learn to deal with difficulty. We purposefully put ourselves into challenging postures to see how well we can continue to breathe and be present. So that when shit comes up for you in difficult times, you have some tools for knowing how to be present and how to deal when life is challenging. If you can stay in the moment and be clear about what's going on in the mind, then you are doing yoga.

It was simple. It was a 2 minute little philosophy lesson. It made me feel so alive and present in myself that I was instantly filled with joy. I don't know what they think about it now or if they have even thought of it since. But in that moment, I was exactly the sort of teacher that I want to be.