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?

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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.

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? 

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.