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. 

Kleshas: the five afflictions

As practicing yogis we will inevitably come up against difficulties in our lives. Sometimes they are related to practice (here's a post I wrote about that: Obstacles to Practice) Sometimes they are challenges just associated with being a human in the world.

Which is challenging. Seriously.

What creates these difficulties?

In the yogic philosophy, the klesha(s) are five afflictions are the root causes of why we suffer as human beings. The kleshas are at the heart of life's bumps in the road. They are innate to all of us as humans, as we all experience difficulties and subsequent suffering.

gabriellehopp-suffering.jpg

Nicholai Bachman calls the kleshas "arguably the most challenging aspects of ourselves to confront, yet the most liberating after they are weakened and eventually removed" (The Yoga Sutras Workbook, pg. 82). They tend to come up consistently when difficulties arise. So, on top of whatever trial we are experiencing, it may be exacerbated by the onset of a klesha and a deep emotional reaction as a result.

The 5 Klesha(s)

1. Avidya (ignorance)

  • Avidya is root the klesha and it is said that all the other afflictions are caused by avidya. It's translated as unclear seeing, ignorance, not-seeing and lack of awareness. I personally prefer to think of it as "unclear seeing" because it suggests that it may be something that we just don't fully understand yet and also gives us the opportunity to eventually see things clearly.
  • Avidya may result from an inability to see things for what they are or from avoiding the reality of things as they are.
  • Avidya happens when we see things as permanent, despite the impermanence of all things. Richard Freeman, yogi and yogic philosopher says, "This basic misidentification of the temporary as the permanent, of the happy as the unhappy, of the pure as the impure, this confusion generates all sorts of miseries." (The Mirror of Yoga, pg. 168).
  • The antidote to avidya is to try and understand things as they clearly are. In interactions with others, try to understand their perspective. When you have emotions, feel them for what they are. If there is something that you don't understand, avoid talking about it as though you understand it. And if it interests you, try to learn more about it in order to fully form an opinion. 
     

 2.  Asmita (egoism)

  • Asmita is the ego issue and is sometimes translated as "i-ness." 
  • Asmita happens when we see ourselves as the epicenter of the universe.  It creates a separation of ourselves from the rest of humanity, as though we are somehow different having a completely unique experience. This may be related to feelings of superiority or feeling misunderstood. Often in asmita, we hold ourselves to different standards than we would others or feel that we can play by different rules.
  • The antidote to asmita is to remember that we're a tiny blip in the grand scheme, but an integral piece in the order of the cosmos. We can work with feelings of ego by treating all humans as equal and valid and trying to imagine ourselves in other people's positions. What if we were all on giant universal team trying to work together harmoniously?

3. Raga (clinging to past pleasure)

  • Raga happens when we cling to our desires. When something feels good or makes us feel good, we want to perpetuate that feeling. We get attached to "good feels" and try to make them continue. Sometimes we do this to our detriment. Addiction disorders may arise from raga.
  • The antidote to raga is acceptance that nothing is permanent and that the world is ever-changing in a constant state of flux. To work with raga we can begin to recognize when we are pursuing feelings of pleasure and joy, based on a past experience of the same feelings. We can work to try to feel emotions and experiences as they arise in each moment.
     

4. Dvesha (clinging to past pain)

  • Dvesha is the opposite klesha to raga and translates as clinging to past suffering.
  • Dvesha happens when we are unable to accept experiences for what they were and are attached to their effect upon us. This may occur as a result of asmita or ego, and a feeling that no one could understand our particular situation.
  • Dvesha may also arise when we become attached to something as permanent, which is impermanent and ultimately changes. In dvesha klesha, we perpetuate the notion of our own dukha (suffering).
  • The antidote to dvesha is acceptance that nothing is permanent and that the world is ever-changing in a constant state of flux. Similarly to raga we can notice with our feelings in each moment as they arise and learn to recognize if it's a learned response based on a previous experience. It is okay to feel suffering and discomfort, but problematic when we are attached to a certain way of thinking/feeling based on a past event.
     

5. Abhinivesha (fear of death)

  • The final klesha is abhinivesha and it is the fear of death. Put another way, it's "clinging to the status quo."
  • Abhinivesha is another way in which we are unwilling to accept the natural changing and fluctuations of the universe. We fear death because we don't know what's coming next. This klesha is deeply rooted in all humans, even the wise.
  • The antidote to abhinivesha is to begin to accept the nature of the life cycle, not only for ourselves but for all living beings. One notion that's very comforting to me, is that the ancient yogis recognized these difficulties over 2000 years ago. In other words, it's not a modern problem to experience discomfort and suffering and to wonder what to do about it.

All kleshas are weakened and confronted through yoga practice. Consciously living, making mindful choices about our reactions and interactions help us to work with the effect of the kleshas. Additionally, accepting and exploring our interconnectedness with the cosmos, with fellow human beings, with the ebb and flow of all things is a step in the right direction.

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.