On Transition

Are you hanging onto your knowledge of how things are?  Are you looking for proof?  Are you debating the cause of a particular circumstance in your life?  What are your ideas of yourself?  How did you come to these definitions or ideas?

Life is an experience of constant transitions.  We grow from embryo to fetus to newborn to toddler to child to adolescent to adult.  We then transition from life into death, death back into life.  Nothing is constant:  Jobs come and go; relationships come and go; the seasons come and go; our wordily belongings come and go.  Our bodies are always changing.  Our life circumstances too, are in a constant state of evolution.  Yet, somehow, we all are guilty to some level of grasping at the opposite of change. 

“How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change.  And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.”  -Elizabeth Lesser, Broken Open:  How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

Transition is a process, a movement, passage, or change from one position, state, concept, subject, etc. to another.  Simply put, transition is change.   In the English language, transition words, such as and, however, moreover, furthermore, are phrases or words used to connect one idea to the next.  They are used by authors to help the reader progress smoothly from one significant idea to the next.   In his book, Ashtanga Yoga:  Practice and Philosophy, Gregor Maehle describes how the Ashtanga Yoga system is like a yoga mala:  The body is used as a mantra, the postures represent the beads, and the breath, bandhas, and dristhi form the string that holds the garland of yoga postures together.  I like to think of the transitions in yoga as those spaces between the beads, the gaps, or leaps from one bead to the next.  These gaps or movements are just as important as the beads themselves; they create the space that helps us visually understand each bead is an individual bead.  The negative space in between helps us understand and perceive the positive space of the object.

The Ashtanga Yoga practice is a practice of transition.  Yes, there are 38 plus “jump backs” in the primary series, which we typically think of as the transitions in the primary series.  But, the postures themselves, as well as the movement between the, are also in transition.

Let’s first take a look at how postures in the Ashtanga Yoga practice are a form of transition.  First, you have a student who is working on “getting” a posture…..you know, that “dreaded” Marichasana D or Supta Kurmasana.  More often than not, the mistake a student initially makes in working toward “achieving” this posture is that the posture is a goal, an achievement, something to be “had”.  It is treated as an object, something to attain and hold onto, perhaps place in a pocket.  And yes, when that bind comes for the first time there may be that initial rush of excitement and pride which feels great.  But then what?  Along comes another asana, and with that asana more work to be done.  If your focus as a yoga student becomes this achievement or goal of collecting asanas, you will only find suffering, because just like they come, asanas also go.  However, if you take the time to observe the process you are going through over a period of days to weeks, maybe months, to work your way into that particular asana, you will experience transition in your physical body and in your mind.   It is this transition that is the true teacher, not the posture itself.  Don’t rush this process.  Relish in it.  Learn from it.  What is going on in your day to day life and how is it affecting your body’s ability to move on a particular day?  Listen to what happens in your mind.   The growth you experience on the mat will carry over into your daily life, and that is the real experience of yoga.   

It is also important, however, to not brush of the transitions between postures.   Ashtanga yoga sometimes gets a “bad rep” because of all the jump backs and jump throughs(I once heard it called “jumpy uppy downy yoga” which I find amusing).  Often, teachers or students will just overlook the ability to do these transitions, deeming them less important.  On the contrary, some teachers and students place too much emphasis on them, leading themselves and students down the path of learning “tricks” instead of focusing on the yoga.  While there is most definitely a fine balance between the two, I am a strong supporter of giving the transitions in Ashtanga Yoga as much love and attention as we do each posture.  Why?   These transitions are an important opportunity for growth, and they ultimately help us understand growth within asanas themselves (the beads on the mala!).

Many of you (my students) may know that I won’t let you be lazy with the seated vinyasas (or any vinyasas for that matter).  If I see that you are not at least trying to lift yourself up off the ground, I will get on you about it.  If I see that you are lifting up but giving up on moving forward, I will harp on you about it.  Yes, I have heard every excuse in the book:

“I’m not good at it”

“I just can’t do them”

“My arms are too short”

“My legs are too long”

“My feet are too big”

“My hips are too wide”

“My hips are too tight”

“I don’t think they are that important”

“I don’t have the strength”

And the list goes on.  But these are just the vrttis of our mind, circling about telling us who we can and can’t be, what we can and can’t do, and by spouting out these excuses we are choosing to listen to those vrttis and avoid CHANGE, GROWTH, TRANSITION, and SELF-REALIZATION.

Students, I know I often do this in class, but let me remind you:  Anything you put your mindset to and work hard on, you can achieve.  Will it be beautiful and perfect?  Maybe not.  Will you grow from the experience?  Absolutely YES.  When I first started this practice, I could not lift up and jump to chaturanga.  In fact, I could barely just lift my butt off the ground.  I learned over the course of 5 years of practice that with hard work, putting aside self-defeating thoughts, practicing with patience and devotion, that I could one day lift my ass off the ground and jump back gracefully without touching.  What is important here is that I grew as a person in the process of working on this:  I became more patient, more willing, more submissive, more positive; I became more aware of how capable I am of letting my mind take the steering wheel and drive me to a complete stop.  I also learned that I can sit back, observe my mind and all it’s craziness, and just let it be.  The process I went through in learning these difficult vinyasas was the important component of the practice, not the fact that I actually “achieved” or “got” it.  And guess what?  Now that I am 5 months pregnant, there is no lifting my heavy butt off the ground now!! (wait….is that an excuse??  Uh oh….)

I was working with a student last week in Mysore on an important transition into Ubhaya Pandandgusthasana.  It was interesting to see, how no matter what I said initially about keeping her legs straight as she rolled up into the posture, she continued to bend her knees, literally before she even started to roll up and balance!  (wonder what this posture and transition is?  Check out this video here ).  I knew that she had the mobility in her hamstrings and shoulders to keep her legs straight, and that part of it was a core strength/bandha issue.  But, the more she attempted and continued to bend those knees, the more I observed and realized two things.  First, she was containing herself in an old habit, allowing her body to reflexively do what it always has comfortably done, rather than allowing it to actually attempt to make a change.  Second, fear of that change came from her mind’s desire to achieve the “end result”:  the posture itself.  THIS realization is where we grew and transitioned together as student/teacher.  I cued her to just roll back and forth, and forget about getting into the posture for now.   Just work on keeping those legs straight and rolling up and down, feel what that is like, break the habit by practicing it in a new way without concern for the end result, while at the same time building the necessary strength.  Did she roll up into the posture?  No.  But did she learn something?  Oh yes, yes she did.  She learned to let go of the end result (which we have already discussed is not really an end result right?  We just have a habit of treating postures this way!), let go of the fear of not getting there, experience something new and different, and find a new inner strength she didn’t know she had.

Yes, transition is difficult both on and off the mat.  If we continue to resist transition, or try to understand causality of why transition occurs, it will only lead to suffering. 

The Yoga Sutras, Chapter 2 on Sadhana Pada (On Practice) touches on our attitude toward change: 

Sutra 11.3 reads, Avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesah:  The causes of suffering are ignorance, egotism, excessive attachments, unreasonable aversions, and fear.   For example, when we become excessively attached to a certain object or situation, change in that object or situation can lead to suffering.  We may also have an attitude of fear toward change, and when change then occurs, we may suffer. 

Sutra 11.24 reads:  Tasya heturavidya:  Thinking that these causes are yours is ignorance.  Ignorance is belief that stems from false knowledge.  False knowledge makes us believe that we are our mind (with all of its emotions and thoughts) and our physical bodies; this results in imprints, or samskaras, and we become bound up with external, constantly changing things.

Finally, Sutra 11.39 reads:  Aparigraha sthairye janma kathamta sambodhah:  One who establishes a non-grasping attitude gains a deep understanding of the meaning of life.

It is so easy to say to someone, “sit back and watch, observe for a time” or “don’t react” or “change happens”.  It is much more difficult to experience the change for ourselves, because of our grasping, attached attitude toward our physical bodies, thoughts, emotions, and external circumstances.    It’s hard to stop and remember in the middle of an emotional event that your body is ever changing, the world is ever changing, the universe is fluid, and you, the Self, is untouched by all of that transition.  But if we can catch a glimpse of this, just on our mat alone, we are making great strides in our self-realization and journey to peace. 

“Light precedes every transition.  Whether at the end of a tunnel, through a crack in the door or the flash of an idea, it is always there, heralding a new beginning.” 

-Teresa Tsalaky, The Transition Witness

 

Peace.

 

Laura

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frustration In The Practice

When thinking about what to write for the newsletter this week, all I could think about was some of the frustration I have been dealing with over the course of the last month.  There are many reasons for it, which I won't expound upon, but it has been a very persistent and present "friend" on my shoulder the last several weeks.  I think much of it has to do with my regular, yearly frustration with winter:  the dark mornings and evenings, the cold days, my incessantly dry skin, the typical worsening tightness in my body from the cold air, and the list goes one.  There has also been frustration in my practice.  I have been tired, tight, cold, dry, weak and I feel so so so frustrated about it!  Yet, in many ways, I know I have no control over these elements.  I only have control over how I choose to respond to my frustrations:  Head down the path of negativity by dwelling in them, or choosing the path of positivity and trying to overcome and/or learn from them.

I've seen this frustration in my students' faces from time to time as well.  Frustration that they can't balance; frustration that they can't bind; frustration that an area of their body has suddenly "tightened up" and won't release; frustration that yesterday they bound but today they can't; frustration that they feel weak or sluggish; frustration that everything is taking so damn long to change in their bodies...and the list goes on.

Ah, yes.  I'm quite familiar with each and every one of these feelings, and still experience them in my own practice.  I get frustrated that my hip flexors remain so tight despite all the work I'm putting into opening them.  I get frustrated that my endurance in third series remains poor.  I get frustrated that my recent IT band injury is taking so long to heal.  And my list goes on.

This is, however, one of the lessons of the Ashtanga yoga practice.  While the practice remains constant, every day within the practice our bodies, minds, and environment are different.  If we set an expectation that every day should be the same, or each consecutive day that we practice should only be better and better, we set ourselves up for a boatload of frustration!  Expectation feeds frustration.  Antonio Banderas himself stated that "Expectation is the mother of all frustration."   So true for me!!!  If we choose to dwell in this intense sensation, our bodies will only tense up more, our minds will close up more, and we will only go backward on the mat.

It is important to remember that building strength and opening within the practice takes TIME.  A LOT OF TIME.  Months.  Years.  Multiple lifetimes.  We cannot force the practice onto our physical bodies.  We must ease into it day by day, minute by minute, with diligence and patience.  So yes, it is natural to feel frustrated when you have been working on trying to bind Marichasana D for 6 months and you still can't do it without an assist!  But it is important to reflect on not what you can or cannot do in the moment, but rather the path you have taken to get where you are today.  Look back and you will see, progress has been made because of your dedication to the practice.  (or not made due to lack of commitment ha!)

I think it is important to feel frustrated on the mat.  It forces us to ask questions:  why is today different than yesterday?  how is this feeling affecting my practice today?  what can I learn from this?  how can I grow from this experience?  

Whoa.  Small questions and their small answers become enlightening.  For example:  Oh, I drank quite a bit over the weekend.....is THAT why I feel so stiff today?   Wow, maybe if I want to make more progress I'll party less hard next weekend. Or another example:  Why is that student next to me breathing so LOUDLY?  Why can she just be quiet?  Oh, there I go letting myself get distracted and upset.  This is my time on the mat, I need to stay here and not concern myself with what is going on around me.

There is no doubt in my soul that progress can be made if you practice diligently.  There will be days when the yoga fairies visit and you will magically jump back without touching and then "poof" the fairies abandon you, and you are left to toe touching and feeling frustrated that you can't do it again.  In yoga, you will take some steps forward, then many steps back.  This is part of your growth process, just like life!  I mean how many times have you thought, "okay, i'm back on track, things are going well again!" and then BOOM life sends you a set back?  

When you feel frustrated on the mat, acknowledge it.  Don't dwell in it.  Acknowledge it, process it, redirect yourself, and move on.  Learn from it, rather than letting it drag you down.  Progress will be made, and you eventually, some day, won't need those yoga fairies to help you maintain that progress!  I promise :-)  

-Laura

Healing Through Yoga

"The goal of spiritual practice is full recovery, and the only thing you need to recover from is a fractured sense of self."  -Marianne Williamson

It's been 4 weeks since my husband and I went through a pregnancy loss at 10 weeks.   The process of healing and recovery has been, to say the least, amazing.  Through the love and support of family and friends, through the outlet of writing and sharing our journey openly, through open communication and support for one another, and through the practice of yoga, our hearts are full of healing, acceptance, hope, and happiness.

I had the opportunity to spend a week with my guru Tim Miller in Mount Shasta, California two weeks ago.  At that time my body was weak, my heart was raw, and tears still easily flowed.  I started the retreat meeting several of the other students, all lovely spirits, followed by the embrace of the "love aura" of my guru, Timji.   Just to be in his presence is enough to warm my heart and make me smile. His positive energy is infectious. Without even speaking about his own guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, it is easy to feel the love and respect he had for him. This love and respect emanates from Timji effortlessly. It wraps around each and every student, whether new or old to Tim, he simply offers it up and shares it, I think most of the time without even knowing he is doing it . 

The following morning and every morning thereafter, I woke up and joined Tim and my new fellow students for Pranayama practice.   This intense method of breathing as usual forced me to focus my mind on the task at hand....breathing.....(or lack thereof???)....and quiet the cries of emotional pain from loss that were lingering in my mind.  Following pranayama, we practiced for 2 hours each morning.  The Mysore room with Tim is quiet and steady, only briefly interrupted by a giggle here and there from Tim or a fellow student (myself being guilty of the laughs) as he and his assistant Leigha moved throughout the room to teach us.   Every physical assist from Tim, no matter what posture I am in, feels like a safe, enveloping bear hug of love.   We would then gather ourselves after a brief break for an afternoon of hiking in the mountains.  Tim has each hike meticulously chosen and planned out, each one gradually getting longer, more challenging, and at the same time, more beautiful than the one before.  Most involved bodies of clean, refreshingly (and some bone chillingly) cool waters.  On the second hike Tim warned us that the water was cold, only about 50 degrees, but it was worth a "quick dip and swim" across the river to the other side where we could perch on a rock, bathe in the sun, and enjoy a more pleasing view of the waterfall.  As much as I despise being cold....cold weather, cold water, cold whatever.....I was willing to follow my guru and fellow students across the icy cold river simply for the experience alone.  With each morning pranayama and asana practice, with each hike full of breathtaking views of Shasta and the surrounding area, with each chilly dip in the fresh waters, my spirit lit up more and more.  I felt less and less pain and began to open up to the other students around me.   I formed new friendships that will last and came home with a heart full of steadiness and joy.

Not everyone who goes through a loss that leads to pain and suffering is so fortunate to study with their guru on a yoga retreat in a beautiful mountain range full of strong spiritual energy.   I feel so blessed to have had this experience during a time of need.   I planned this time to study with my guru before I got pregnant, but I did not plan it to happen after a miscarriage.  My time at Mount Shasta with Timji, Ashtanga Yoga, beautiful company, and Mother Earth fueled my spirit and body.  Healing took place.  I was exactly where I was meant to be in my human journey at that time, and the coming weeks before as well.  But we don't all have to go to Mount Shasta or another retreat to heal.  I have shared with my students at The Shala how much I believe the Ashtanga Yoga practice can be a very healing practice. It can help heal injury, physical ailments, physical weakness, balance issues, depression, and anxiety. What about the practice is it that allows us to heal?

First, we work closely with a teacher that knows our practice, that cares about us individually, and can help to guide us through the practice day to day no matter what we have going on in our personal lives.  Second, the practice itself is meditative.  With focus on the breath, dristi, and bandhas as we move, we are given the opportunity to quiet our minds, which is a form of rest from stress and pain in our daily lives.  In turn we actually physically calm our cardiovascular and respiratory systems.   Third, if we have physical injury, we can modify the practice and in doing so, build strength in areas that are weak or that we otherwise were not aware needed work.  As we build strength where there is weakness, or open up where there was tightness, we are helping our bodies to heal physically.  Finally, there is an amazing Ashtanga Yoga community that we become a part of.  No matter where we practice, be it in our home shala or in a shala abroad, the sense of community that exists among Ashtanga practitioners is very strong.  I have traveled to study Ashtanga Yoga in California and other states with Tim and other teachers, and I always leave with new and dear friends.  Surrounding ourselves by beautiful spirits is in itself very healing!

The wonder of Ashtanga Yoga, what I think ends up drawing students in to commit to the method, is the spiritual journey on which this style of yoga takes us.  Each student's journey is unique.  Mostly, this journey takes us inward, helps us dredge up all our shit, and forces us to work through it.  It is therapy on a mat.   I think more than anything, a spiritual journey is not so much a journey of discovery, but a journey of recovery and healing......a journey back to the divine self.

Or to put it David Swenson style, "In a nutshell, I'd say ashtanga yoga is a universal tool to enhance life!"

Peace.

Laura


On Yoga and Surrender to Love, Fear, and Loss

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”  -Anais Nin  

It was a very, very, very faint positive line.

After a year of trying to get pregnant, could it actually be true?

I shared the news with my husband, and my heart was full - I’m pregnant!  Holy shit! A blood test confirmed: I’m 37 and for the first time in my life, I am finally pregnant! The nurse told me to come back in in a few days for more blood work, this time to assess the health of my pregnancy.

This time, the news was not good. The pregnancy hormone should be on the rise – mine wasn’t. More blood drawn, now confirmed the doctor’s suspicion. He told me, “This is not a healthy pregnancy…”

Tears swelled. Anxiety and worry set in where love and excitement once lived. The doctor was convinced I would miscarry - but until then? There were many things during those weeks I wouldn’t allow myself to do … like share my heartache with family and friends (what would I say?) or allow myself to get attached to a life I knew would only be taken. And so, a mixture of denial, hope, fear, anger, and sadness enveloped me and I began to spiral down into a silent, lonely hell.

What I did allow myself to do - was practice.

Now, I know both Saraswati and Guruji have recommended that women not practice asana at all during their first trimester of pregnancy. But as anxiety and depression set in, I realized that yoga practice was exactly what I needed - first trimester of pregnancy or not.

So when my body and soul felt strong enough, I rolled out my mat. Some days, thanks to fatigue and nausea, I would only make it through the standing sequence, while other days, I enjoyed a longer and fuller practice, modifying when necessary. And when I really needed my practice to hold me, a modified primary provided that healing love.

Truth is, I thought that I would break down and lose my shit on the mat each time I stepped upon it. But the opposite occurred. The worry and angst, the fear and pain eased with each movement and breath.  My mind found solace on the mat.  

Yoga citta vritti nirodah  || Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.   

Yoga is our natural state of being in which we no longer identify ourselves with the body and mind; through yoga we see our true Self, which is infinite and present within all beings and the universe.

I practiced, and peace came. 

I practiced, and strength came. 

I practiced, and one day, surrender came.

We talk a lot in yoga about “surrender” on the mat; surrender to what your teacher is telling you to do, surrender to the state of pose, surrender to touch or assistance, surrender to the challenge that encompasses you. 

Yes, yoga can take you to your physical and mental edge until you are forced to surrender to the fear or pain you may be experiencing.  I have been there … terrified of trying a pose, forced to surrender to my teacher’s instruction and touch. The practice of the eight-limbed yoga indeed helps to guide us onto the path of surrender. 

But then the time comes to do it in real life … surrendering now, with stakes so much higher, the act of letting go takes on all new meaning.

Isvara pranidhanad-va || Samadhi is attained by devotion with total dedication to God. 

Surrender is a devotion to something higher than yourself.  It requires complete trust, an open heart, and a release of the ego. The great sage Ramakrishna once said, “Complete surrender is like falling from a tall tree without flinching a muscle.” 

Oh believe me, from the moment I found out I “might” lose this pregnancy, I held onto that tree branch soaring high above the ground for dear life. In fact, I wrapped my whole body around it. 

But through my yoga practice, the quieting of my mind, I realized I needed the love and support of my friends and family. Still two hands on the branch, I at least weakened my grip and trusted my fragile secret with those closest to me, realizing I didn’t need to go through this alone. It was not weakness to seek the love and support of others. Surrendering to their love was strength.

Next I would surrender my fear … my fear of losing this baby, the fear of disappointing my husband and his family, of not being able to get pregnant again, of pain, of being to old to bear a child, and the fear of anything scary the future might hold. And as my breasts swelled with soreness and nausea set in, one hand slipped from the tree branch.

I hung there suspended, looking up at my tired working arm, and looking down to the now inviting ground.  I had let go of the fear and enjoyed a week of feeling truly pregnant and celebrating in that. 

In the end, the doctor didn’t need to tell me what I already knew. I looked down at that ground again and I finally let go, surrendering to my grief. At 8 weeks, our baby, whose heart beat for only a short week, had died. Though I still cried when delivered the final answer, I was at peace. I had already let go, released, hit the ground unflinching, surrendered to my sadness and suffered less as a result.

But letting go isn’t something we do once. This time, it would be fear of surgery that left me clinging to the hope I could miscarry naturally. Two long weeks I waited until I finally allowed myself to wait no longer. I would have a D&C (surgical procedure to remove the fetal tissue from the uterus).  The day before my scheduled surgery, I woke up early and joined my students in the Mysore classroom at The Shala. I practiced the primary series, Yoga Chikitsa(Therapy), to soothe my anxious and tired soul. Calm set in immediately. I knew I could move on from this dark place and time, move back into the light and celebrate love and life again with hope and light in our lives. I was ready.

Ironically, once I totally surrendered, the universe granted me my wish: to miscarry naturally. It was far more physically painful and a longer process than the surgery would have been, but it was also very cathartic. For the first time in 6 weeks, I was the happiest I had ever been.

I am sharing my story because every journey we walk in life is a learning process and helps us grow. For me, a meticulous control freak, this was a lesson that it is okay to need support of loved ones. It was a lesson in the power of surrender – especially in the face of fear. But really I’m sharing my story so someone else might now, you’re not alone.

Whatever we are experiencing as part of our lives now, one day we will be parted from it.  So don’t just pass the time.  Practice spiritual cultivation.  Take this parting, this separation and loss as your object of contemplation right now in the present, until you are clever and skilled in it, until you can see that it is ordinary and natural.  When there is anxiety and regret over it have the wisdom to recognize the limits of this anxiety and regret, knowing what they are according to the truth.  If you can consider things in this way then wisdom will arise.  Whenever suffering occurs, wisdom can arise there, if we investigate.  -Ajahn Chah, It Can Be Done

Thank you to the wonderful teachers at The Shala, who supported me during this difficult time.  They took on my classes willingly and reached out with loving hearts when I needed it the most.  I thank my students, who, while they did not know what was going on during this time, were a daily light in morning Mysore class.   Thank you to Guruji and my teacher Tim Miller for teaching me the Ashtanga Yoga method so that I could learn to use it as a tool in my life.   Thank you to my closest friends and family, especially my mother, who were there for me during times I needed their listening ears and loving arms.  And finally, I extend special love, gratitude and everlasting humility to my husband, who suffered on this path as well, yet was my rock in times of desperate sadness and pain.  I love you baby, and I look forward to sharing a future family with you!

Did you know?  Miscarriage Facts:

-Miscarriage is very common.  Up to 1 in 4 or 5 pregnancies end in miscarriage, maybe more!

-Most miscarriages are due to genetic problems in the embryo that would prevent a baby from developing normally and surviving.  These genetic errors are random but common.

-Once a miscarriage has started, it cannot be stopped.  A woman may choose to let nature take its course, or move forward with a D&C to speed up the process

-Miscarriage is so common that typically no special testing is performed unless there are risk factors present

-Most women who miscarry go on to have a successful pregnancy

-In most instances, the CAUSE of miscarriage is outside of the woman’s control

NO WOMAN SHOULD EVER BE ASHAMED OF MISCARRIAGE.

Peace.

Laura

Photo courtesy of Nathan Peel Photography, Copyright 2013, All rights reserved.

Blog also available on Ashtanga Dispatch 

Lessons From Ashtanga Yoga

This week's blog comes to us from Miriam Lamey.  Miriam teaches the Ashtanga Yoga Basics classes at The Shala. 

Last night’s wine hadn’t finished working its way through my system, but I had the wisdom, then, to eat enough and stop when I’d drunk enough. Interrupted sleep had me slightly unsteady on my feet, my chest tight with some unidentified emotion that had no weight, yet pulled taut. Breathing, doing, moving hadn’t shifted it; the burden was precariously balanced on a hot, dry cliff’s edge, teetering enough that a solid heave would send it tumbling over to whatever depths lay below.

But I still made myself go to Yoga. I still chose to follow my practice. I still waited patiently with the room full of statues breathing and preparing for the class to start. Yoga is a continual learning process, and I was about to have my first Ashtanga Yoga experience.

He sat in front of the assembled, no music punctuated his words: “We will hold each pose for five breaths. And just remember, nothing lasts forever.”

Until this moment the class had not intimidated me — another unpronounceable, mysterious Sanskrit word that would likely appear on a test at the end of my course. I love languages, but not ones that have no universal application, no way to communicate. These are merely words, names for poses and practices that hover above the ocean of language and try to fly against the wind that is my mindset. If Yoga is about opening the mind also, then it might be time for me to change direction.But I’ve never been one of those people who like to permit the wind to guide them; I relish breezes that blast into my face, I struggle against the gales, and I live for the feel of the wind swirling my clothes and hair to a confusing disarray.

I had no idea what the tides were doing, nor in which direction the wind had shifted as I rose from my mat and stood in  Samastitihi — Mountain Pose — feeling wobbly in mind and in body. The instructor walked about the room, calling out poses and demonstrating the deeper, thicker breathing pattern that was a fundamental part of the practice. Ujaii breathing. It mattered, in ashtanga, as I started to quickly realize.

We were in Adho Mukha Svanasana — Downward Dog — and instructed to hold for five breaths. Ropes of muscles pulled and tightened to keep alignment and body steady, the breath acted as an anchor, lurking in the depths of the pose. Yet I felt a slight fire. Too much water before practice? Did I eat too soon? I breathed through the burn, finished the sequence and without a second thought, except to attend to the breath, we all began again. As suddenly as the sequences started, they stopped. “We move on to balancing poses,” the voice said, floating over the sea of still and sweaty bodies. “Remember, I don’t care if you’re good at each pose — in fact, no one should want to be the best in the class. Just breathe.”

I swallowed. “It’s just Yoga,” I told myself, “You can always stop.” But I knew that I would not and could not curl up in child’s pose; leaving something unfinished is only reserved for terrible books, tedious films and television series that become flat, grey and uninspiring.

The standing poses were, as usual, difficult as I swayed and pitched around, not able to fully unfurl my body and limbs. “It’s all about the attempt,” I remembered, as the room misted around me into a soft focus. We started the familiar forward bending poses. Then I received an assist. In Paschimottanasana — Seated Forward Bend — which I’ve always liked, a pair of hands suddenly applied a steady pressure to my lower back, rising and falling with my breathing. The wave of my back eased further forward, my front tucking more neatly than I could have imagined onto the shores of my legs. I breathed. In. Out. In. Out. I had never stretched this far, yet the guidance was sympathetic to my natural breathing pattern. Five breaths felt never-ending, but I began to ease out of the pose as the instructor guided the class into the next pose, which I don’t remember.

We finished with backbends and a glorious Savasana — Corpse Pose — where the instructor's calm, accented voice described how the pose is representative of that final stillness, death. As every journey comes to an end, the body and the mind and energy will find its final port and cease. Death is not something modern American culture addresses well, especially death in a dignified fashion: it still terrifies me, knowing this permanent harbor is one none of us cannot leave. Yet I breathed and lay still, hearing the soothing rings of singing bowls in some distance as I allowed the tears to bead up behind my closed eyes and, occasionally, trickle into my hair.

At the end of the class we collectively rose, slightly windblown, and took our possessions away from the voice, the ringing and the room. I felt a bizarre mix of utter calm, a strong desire to laugh crazily, and that the familiar weight in my chest had somehow worked its way into my throat. The tears had stopped for now, but a tide had turned somewhere and an understanding and acceptance would devolve, later, into the full expression of deep, murky emotion.

If life is a continual state of learning, then, for now, ashtanga yoga is the new lesson I have chosen to study. My teachers are the poses, my classmates my breath and physical from. Ashtanga practice is a more solitary book that I have opened, but in the collective space with other practitioners, people trying to navigate their way through this existence, I am not alone

-Miriam Lamey, Writing and teaching yoga as one "simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."     www.miriamlamey.com

Why Mysore: A Teacher Perspective

One by one students quietly and respectfully arrive at the studio, lay out their mats, and begin to practice.  As the room begins to swell with students, the energy level and heat also swells.  An ocean of breath gradually surrounds me.  I stand quietly observing, scanning the room, reminding myself of who is practicing what and how far into which series.  As the warmth increases and students have made their way through the first several sun salutations, I begin to make my rounds, gently moving in on students’ spaces and touching, assisting, helping them to deepen postures with every inhale and exhale. I move more quickly between students to catch them in a posture that needs work or more depth as they begin to progress further into the practice.  Occasionally, while assisting one I will call out to another by name and say, “Lift your bandhas!”  “Engage your quadriceps!”  “Butt up!  Higher……higher!”  Sometimes I hear or am guilty of myself the occasional giggle.  Two hours go by and I don’t even notice.   

I am both an introvert and an empath.  Surrounded by all these students in silence with only the breath and positive energy saturating the shala, I am truly in my element.

Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally taught Mysore style, as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India.  His grandson Sharath carries on the tradition today.   In the Mysore method, each student has an individualized practice following the Ashtanga sequencing that is developed and overseen by the teacher. Postures are learned one by one, and as they are “mastered”, the student gradually builds a personal practice.  Students practice together in the same room, but each student practices at his own pace. The instruction is “one-on-one” as the teacher walks around the room and provides physical adjustments and verbal instruction.  The instructor also helps remind students of the sequencing, and advises students when to move on to the next asana in a sequence or when to close at a particular point in the sequence.  The practice of Mysore style Ashtanga yoga teaches the student patience, diligence, and a self-dedicated practice.  It develops a strong and intimate bond between teacher and student, one that is necessary for a student to not only practice yoga safely, but to grow as an individual through the practice.

Having the opportunity to teach in a Mysore class setting is not only a great blessing for a yoga teacher, but it is a continually enriching learning experience.   Ashtanga yoga in general is different in that, if someone is teaching this method, he or she is likely (and absolutely should be) an avid practitioner of this method.  While most yoga studio owners only teach a handful of classes, those that run Ashtanga Yoga studios are also the principal teachers.  Why is this? Why have I chosen to teach this way?  Why get up at 5am every day to arrive at the studio and teach from 2 to 4 hours (depending on the day)?  Why not hire other teachers to teach this class?

I think that Kino MacGreggor eloquently speaks to these questions:

“In order to teach Mysore Style, a far deeper level of personal experience and education in the field of yoga is required. There is really no training program that makes you into a Mysore teacher...The teacher must have gone through healing and personal transformation through the Ashtanga Yoga method over the course of many years. Direct experience, called pratyaksa in Sanskrit, is the highest form of knowledge and it is from this space that Mysore Style teachers ideally teach from…Ideally, Mysore Style teachers have gone through a kind of deeply individual journey where the obstacles to true practice have presented themselves and the teachers have used the practice itself to work through these difficulties…The basic motivation to teach, especially Mysore Style, is about spreading the sacred flame of the Ashtanga Yoga tradition

And to answer those questions I asked above in my own words...While it is important to stay well educated on the various postures in the Ashtanga sequences, there is no deviation from the sequence.   I do not have to worry about spending hours preparing a “flow” or coming up with something “new and creative”, performing through speech, jokes, and verbal instruction as is often needed in a led class.  When teaching Mysore style, I do not have to focus on maintaining the led pace, while at the same time trying to personally help students that I can see need it. Instead, in the Mysore classroom, I can conserve and use energy for deep assists and intimate personal instruction.   I can personally observe each student, get to know his ability on the mat, and take him as far as he can go or stop him if he needs to work on something, and know that because that student has chosen this method of study, he will be okay with either.  I get to celebrate each small success in the practice, help students release and then nurture those releases.  I get to watch students make steady, inevitable progress, observe as their bodies and minds respond to or resist my words or touch, until they finally surrender and they are fully in an asana they have been working on for months.

In the Mysore class setting, I get to see the joy and empowerment that the practice brings to my students and watch them undergo personal physical and spiritual growth.  Sometimes, I see the pain that the practice brings to my students, and I have the opportunity to reassure them, “This is a normal part of the process, it will happen again and again, I have been there.  Acknowledge it but don’t dwell on it.  It is part of the process and you will get past it.”  There is something truly special and intimate about moving into a student’s space and providing a deep assist.  It’s like I’m giving them a hug (although I’m sure it doesn’t always feel that way to them!!!), and together we breathe in and out, in and out, in and out, deeper into some aspect of the posture with each breath cycle.

My students energize me and motivate me, so that I am motivated to take my practice regularly as well.  Before I taught Mysore style, this motivation came entirely from within, and you can imagine how that would go sometimes (like NOT go at all).  I get to be a part of an amazing community that has literally built itself through hard work, dedication, commitment to and love of this method.  I am inspired daily.

Teaching Mysore style every morning is hands down the best part of my every day.  Enough said ;-)

Peace.

Laura

 

 

Why Mysore? The Student Perspective

As The Shala moves into a new phase of growth and development, I found myself thinking about how there is to so much share about the Mysore style of learning Ashtanga Yoga.  This is in fact the traditional way in which to learn this method of yoga.  Our program is expanding substantially the week of June 8, to accommodate more students that have started their Mysore journeys.  As such, I felt it quite appropriate to dedicate a 3 part blog series to the topic of Why Mysore?  This first of the 3 part blog series features exerpts from students at The Shala, answering this question:  Why do you practice Mysore style?  The pure love, reflection, simplicity yet complexity, exploration and expression of their words warms my heart yet erupts goosebumps on my skin!  I hope you enjoy reading the whole hearted intimate feelings that they have volunteered to share with you, the reader.

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Commitment, Dedication, Consistency, Discipline.  The Big 4.  Qualities I've admired my whole life and qualities I struggled with cultivating until I landed in a Mysore room 3 years ago. 

I am a wildly blessed free spirit who lives and laughs easily.  I was the kid in school who got good grades and was a teacher’s pet while also in trouble for talking too much and not following directions.  These qualities followed me into maturity and helped me live great adventures off the beaten path.  And also left me wanting more stability and structure, which I have found access to while practicing Ashtanga in Mysore programs. I've been practicing yoga for 15 years, the past 3 years I've been practicing the Ashtanga Primary Series in the Mysore self-led teacher-guided style. And finally I feel like I'm on my way in cultivating the Big 4 with the stability and structure I seek.  What I cultivate on my yoga mat, I carry into other areas of my life. 

Mysore is different than other asana classes because the teacher isn't there to lead me through a sequence of postures, in Mysore that is my job.  The teacher is there to help me deepen the experience in postures and to help guide me gently past the edges of my comfort zone.  I love this.  I love that I am in charge of the Big 4 and the teacher is there as a guide, supporter, cheerleader or challenger depending on what I need in a posture to access deeper lessons in the experience of being there and doing the work. 

 -Lizandra Vidal, Student and Teacher at The Shala

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 The most obvious benefit/differentiator is the personal touch of a skilled teacher, the adjustments and attention that you get to assist improving your practice.  This helps with humility and ego, as you work through wanting adjustments, or not, depending on what you think of your practice and poses, on that day. And the actual adjustments are key; the only way to get better is to practice, but the feedback is important to ensure that you are doing it right.  It’s one thing to tell me to square my hips - it’s another thing for Laura to adjust me into the position so that I can feel what it’s supposed to feel like, even if I can’t get there yet on my own, to use that memory each practice to improve.  But in a supportive manner - there are times when Laura walks away after an adjustment so fluidly that I am not sure she’s gone.  

Mysore forces my focus inward to my practice, forcing me to concentrate on my poses; if my mind wanders, my practice suffers. At the same time, you have to be aware of your surroundings, to be in the moment but not distracted.  The energy that fills the room is supportive, and the ujjayi breathing is a subtle reminder to keep your breath through the more difficult poses (where I have a tendency to hold my breath).

Finally, patience and ego.  There is no shortcut to doing the work, meticulously; this allows me to work on patience as I have to work within myself to improve, given where I am, where my body is, at this time.  Some day I will float, but not any time soon!  Mysore keeps ego in check and allows one to work with humility, to get better but accept where you are now. 

 I have been practicing Mysore for about six months; prior to that I did very little organized yoga.  I am sure that yoga, Ashtanga yoga, and mysore style in particular, have already made me a better person and I look forward to continued personal, physical and spiritual growth and learning.

Gwendolen Pechan, Student at The Shala

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 I've only practiced Mysore style Ashtanga twice but I'm hooked. Everyone kept telling me how wonderful it is but until I tried it I didn't understand. I challenged myself to attend the early morning practice and was amazed to feel the energy and openness last all day (until I got home at 9pm!) Being in a room full of people just breathing and moving on their own is liberating. I love it because I can go at my own pace while still being observed and assisted by my teacher. If I have a question about a particular pose in the sequence it's never a problem to ask. The teacher is there to help you improve your personal practice. Learning the sequence means you can practice on your own whenever you like as well.

I will continue to come back to this method because of the relationship I'm building with my teacher. This is such a great method to build self-discipline, cultivate self-care and self-love, and bring patience into your practice.  I've already noticed the choices I make off the mat are different and influenced by this method. I keep my commitments I've made to myself and others and give 100%. I can't wait to see the changes and growth after one month and longer!

Grace Kosko, Student at The Shala

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There is only one destination for the yogi, but there is no one way of arriving there. In our practice, both on and off of the mat, we make wrong turns and plenty of detours. The turns and detours that I make are entirely different from those made by my fellow yogis, and Mysore allows each of us to pause where we need an extra breath and when we need those extra moments to find grounding, to find space, and to focus on our alignment. Mysore is both humbling and empowering. When you lead your own practice, you are better able to turn your concentration inwards to allow your body, breath, and thoughts to flow with a balance of effort and ease. You lead your own practice, yet, you are still able to connect to the vibrant breath and energy of your fellow yogis and to receive skilled touch through assists from a trained teacher who is aware of your needs, your limitations, and your strengths. Mysore is a practice in presence and patience, and it is a community that provides supportive, slow change as we journey together towards self-remembrance and freedom.

Love and light,

Nicole Zinsser, Student at The Shala

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I like the way that I can take my time moving through the Ashtanga series at my own pace at the same time the person next to me moves along to theirs. This allows for a meditative space as the teacher gently guides or adjusts the body, encouraging a consistent breath.  I've had a number of injuries and a regular Mysore practice has helped me learn that pain and injury are my body's way of helping me learn how to modify so I can grow stronger and more flexible. Mysore is a more personalized instruction than you get in a led class, and it's helped me learn to focus on breathing as the central part of the practice. 

Kim Beck, Student at The Shala

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As an Ashtanga student who is also a teacher by profession (I teach biology to 9th graders!), the Mysore method makes a lot of sense from a pedagogical standpoint. In the classroom, some of my toughest and most rewarding work is to build my students' capacity for doing challenging work independently. This is exactly the type of work that I am encouraged to do as a Mysore student. 

 Speaking for my own practice, there are three main points of contact for learning: 

1. Learning through what we school teachers call "direct instruction," i.e. a led class. 

2. One-on-one teacher-student contact through personal adjustments, assists, and verbal feedback.

3. Self-study from being with my own body and breath throughout a particular day's practice.

Most yoga students enter the practice through the first avenue, a led class, and experience personal adjustments and feedback from their teachers in such classes as well. However, the most transformative work of a yoga practice happens within the confines of your own body and mind. Often in a led class, there is little space for self-study because our minds are busy receiving information from the teacher. In a Mysore-style class, the student is given a much greater share of the responsibility for his or her own practice and receives personal assistance and feedback where it is most needed. In school teaching, we call this "differentiated instruction," offering personalized instruction for each student based on strengths and needs. 

For me, Mysore class has served as a great bridge for building my home practice since it has helped me to be more comfortable working independently and in my own, often awkward, headspace. I also always have specific things to work on (I'm looking at you, tight knees and hips!) through the feedback I get from my teacher. An Ashtanga practice, which for me includes led classes, Mysore-style instruction, and independent practice at home, really emphasizes this quiet, personal exploration of one's perceived limits, and how these limits change over time. 

Margot Goldberg, Student at The Shala

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Participating in a led class can be an invigorating experience - strong energy is generated through the collective efforts of syncopated breathing, movement and point of focus. Acting as one, the led class offers a common experience - even when it involves individual groans, grunts, sighs, mutterings, and joyful exhalations.

While a led class can be a very outward facing experience; Mysore practice is a very inward facing time.  Mysore is my time to quietly investigate and inhabit the body, mind and spirit through its various ebbs and flows. It's a time when I can draw in and pay extra attention to facets of Ashtanga I am trying to understand: Where do I need to relax or strengthen? Is it really possible to quiet the mind through drishti? (try, try again!) How can I better maintain my steady breath when encountering a pose that frightens or tires me?

When my focus is within, Mysore is always a new experience. For me, it's the never-ending reveal of body and mind that brings me back to the mat at every possible opportunity. With each new posture, with each new lesson, there is something special waiting to be discovered.

"I must enter into all that I do with a spirit of love."

~ San Miguel Febres Cordero

Laura Z, Student at The Shala

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I went to my first Ashtanga class nearly 15 years ago in Encinitas, CA where Tim Miller was teaching in his former E Street studio. Curiosity brought me to my first class: what was this challenging, exacting, ujjayi-breathing (what?!) dynamic style of yoga all about? Previously, I had been a runner for years. Could Ashtanga be for me, without the constant punishment to my knees? After my first Ashtanga Basics class, I was stunned. Again and again, week after week, I went back to class. My teacher worked with me and progressed me at the points I was ready. I felt physically and mentally stronger after each time I got on the mat. It just worked. 99% practice, 1% theory clicked. *Lightbulb*

My personal Ashtanga journey hasn’t been a smooth one. I’ve moved multiple times within the country and internationally, I’ve flown a lot for work. Sometimes, I just haven’t had access to Ashtanga teachers or studios. My nightmare! So I’d try to get on my mat and do the best I could on my own, until I found myself running again. When I experienced illness, I practiced ujjayi-breathing. A lot of it. Even during my unintended breaks from Ashtanga, its physical and mental benefits stayed with me. The positive impact Mysore style practice has made in my life is what keeps me coming back. I love being able to practice Ashtanga via the Mysore style method here in Pittsburgh with my husband, my awesome teacher Laura, and fellow practitioners who inspire and encourage me.

 -Nora Boyd, Student at The Shala

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Who wakes up at 5 AM almost daily, practices yoga for 1-2 hours, then goes to a stressful, more-than-8-hour-day- job? Me!  I cant imagine not doing it.  It's all because of Mysore.  Since I've been attending an early morning Mysore class on a regular basis for about 9 months, I've progressed on a physical level AND, I feel calmer, happier, stronger, and more focused. I've been practicing Ashtanga yoga for a long time...here and there, when I could find a led class (which I also enjoy). Often practicing on my own, so easily distracted.  At times, I'd be lucky enough to find a Mysore class. Finally, here in Pittsburgh, we have an Ashtanga Yoga Mysore program!!! 
Mysore-style, which is the traditional way to learn the Ashtanga yoga method, gives the opportunity to learn yoga in a safe and individualized way, yet in a group setting. There is assistance and support from the teacher for everyone. Yes. Every. One.  The room is full of quiet but intense energy. No teacher talking at the front of the class. The only sounds are the rhythmic meditative sound of each others' breath and maybe a chuckle, groan, or sometimes a cheer.  It's a lot of fun! We are each doing our own practice, at our own pace, following the Ashtanga method under the hands-on guidance of a teacher. Some beginners, some with more experience, supporting each other. All of us taking on the intensity of the daily Ashtanga yoga practice, facing the challenges in the  postures on  the mat to help face the daily life challenges off of the mat.

-Susan Wassick, Student and Teacher at The Shala

Creating Space

Monday, May 18, 2015 marked the anniversary of Guruji’s death (2009).  The week prior to that, I completed a 5-day Intermediate Series intensive study with David Garrigues and a 3-day workshop series with Kino MacGregor. So, naturally, the past 2 weeks have filled my heart, mind and soul with thoughts and teachings of the many gurus of the Ashtanga Yoga lineage, including my own guru, Tim Miller.  Though I have not yet studied with Sharath, his presence has been on my mind as well.  He is Guruji’s grandson, one of the only people to complete all 6 series of the Ashtanga Yoga method, and he carries on the lineage of the Ashtanga Yoga method to students all over the world.  As such, not surprisingly, he popped up in one of my dreams this week.  Which lead to the topic of this blog:  creating space.

Funny how you can dream about someone you have never met, and somehow still learn something from them in the oddest of circumstances.  We were in a home, not mine or his, a simple abode with not much “space”.  We were discussing the householder’s daily yoga practice, he said to me:  “You need to create space for your practice. Your mat should be enough space, but if you need more, draw a line on the ground between your external world and your mat.  Don’t let any distraction cross that line.”

I know exactly what it is that sparked this dream.  My thoughts of gurus combined with my fears of what will happen to the daily practice in my life when I have children.   I’ve always wanted to be a mother, and have a husband eager to become a father, and that is a true blessing!  And so as we work toward parenthood, there is this small nagging voice in the back of my head saying, “What is going to happen to your ability to practice when you are pregnant?  How are you going to find time to run a business, teach yoga with a full heart, work your other job, be a wife, maintain a home, raise a child, and PRACTICE?!”  Sound a bit selfish?  Well, perhaps yes.  But, for those of us fully committed to this practice, it is a legitimate question, right?  Getting to the mat to practice can be a daily challenge for the householder:  jobs, health status, travel, children, and other family obligations all can interfere.   The practice is more than just physical fitness, it is a practice.  A daily devotion.  A daily meditation.  For me, an absolute must in my day for all of those reasons and more. So what did Sharath mean with his instruction in my dream?

I think we create space in many ways in yoga.  We create space in our physical bodies.   By simply practicing Ujjayi breath and pranayama, we create expansion in our lungs, thorax, and abdomen.  With each asana we take we are working to open up somewhere in the physical body, be it the hips, shoulders, spine, pelvis, hamstrings, and the list goes on. As a result of the practice, we create space in our minds and hearts.  As we release samskaras through asana practice we begin to hone our abilities to practice other limbs of ashtanga yoga, including yama and niyama, which aren’t always so intuitive and easy to practice for us humans.  But, in order to do the above, to take practice, which will help open our bodies and consequently our heart and mind, we must make space in our lives for the practice.  Both physical space and time space are required.  Physical space enough to at least sit and meditate, or fit our mats.  Time space enough to at least take breath practice, or more for a full asana practice.

I sometimes think about Tim Feldman and Kino rolling out their mats at the break of dawn in the bathroom or small spaces of their hotel rooms to take practice during their travels to teach and share this method with eager students all over the world (they share photos of these experiences!).   They find physical and time space to take practice, even with advanced practices and their extremely busy lives.   I had a conversation with one mother during my training in Philadelphia about how she finds time to practice.  She told me that once she had children, her practice became more serious, more consistent, and more grounded, because she absolutely had time make the time and find the space to practice, or it simply wouldn’t ever happen.  She is more committed to the practice now than she was before she had her children.  I read stories about women practicing Ashtanga Yoga during pregnancy, and wonder with awe how they managed to do it!

D.T.Suzuki, Japanese author on Buddhism, Zen, and Shin, once wrote:  "Emptiness, which is conceptually liable to be mistaken for sheer nothingness, is in fact the reservoir of infinite possibilities."  When we create space, we create an emptiness, which we can then fill to the brim with possibility!   Create time space and then you have a practice session!  Create space in the pelvis with Uddiyana Bandha and someday as a result you are floating and flying with lightness and ease!

I think the message in my dream was simply to, no matter what, ensure that I create time and space in my life to practice.  (I mean, one thing is for sure, no imaginary or drawn line is going to keep your nosy cat or 1-year-old child off your mat!  So I think the line was more representational than literal?).  When you travel, take your mat and make time for practice, even if it is just the sun salutations and last 3 closing postures.  If you are in a hotel room, lay the mat out wherever it will fit and then get on it!  If you have to work a 12-hour shift, get up 30 minutes earlier and take those extra 30 minutes to practice before the long day.   If you have babies or young children, tend to their needs and squeeze the practice in between when you can, again even if it is short.  Breathe.  One day, when the kids are old enough, if you teach them, they will understand when you are on the mat that is your time, and they are certainly welcome to watch or play nearby, or practice with your, or heck, even assist you!  Don’t worry about whether or not it is the practice of a lifetime, or if you complete a whole series or not.  You have time.  Don’t become attached to the physical practice.  The practice will ebb and flow with intensity and change throughout your life, but it should always be a constant presence if you are fully committed.  That commitment will help you create space for practice, no matter what your life circumstances. 

Peace.

Laura

 

 

 

 

The Power of Touch

Touch.  To some of us, this word seems so second nature.  We go throughout our day touching things with our hands…phones, light switches, keyboards, our hair and faces, clothing, food or food utensils, books, bags, chairs, desks, papers, and multitudes of other objects.  Our feet touch the ground upon which we walk or run.  It is a sense that often goes more unnoticed or taken for granted than seeing, smelling, hearing, or tasting.

Here is a rhetorical question for you:  How often throughout the day do you touch another living being?  More than you touch your devices or keyboards?  Less?  How often do you hug and kiss your spouse, or simply hold his hand?  Do you work in a field that requires you touch people all day and if so, how does that affect you?  Do you have children who are constantly interacting with you through the touch of their tiny hands?   I ask this question so that you might start to really think about your sense of Touch in your day-to-day life, and how this might be affecting you and your energy.

Let’s reflect a bit on just how important touch is to us as human beings, how truly powerful it is.

In 2014, Feldman et al. published a study in Biological Psychiatry about the effects of maternal-preterm infant skin-to-skin contact on development within the first 10 years of the child’s life.   Over a period of 10 years, preterm children’s functioning was analyzed using the intervention known as “Kangaroo Care” (mother’s body heat is used to keep babies warm...skin-to-skin contact).  In this trial, premature babies receiving kangaroo care during their hospital stay were compared to premature babies that received “standard” incubator care.  These children were followed for ten years, and the results were fascinating.  Not only did mothers in the kangaroo care group show more sensitivity and express more maternal behavior toward their infants, but these children showed better cognitive skills, improved sleep patterns, better responses to stress, and better executive functioning abilities up through 10 years of age (compared to the standard group).

Many of you may have heard of children neglected in orphanages here and/or overseas.  The lack of consistent, nurturing, loving touch and interaction leads to developmental delays and abnormal bonding behavior patterns.  Evan Ardiel and Catharine Rankin in their review article “The Importance of Touch in Development” published in 2010 in Pediatric Child Health summarized that “organisms need sensory stimulation for normal development”.  In various other studies, massage therapy has been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure in the workplace, improve the immune system, and decreased anxiety levels.

What exactly does touch have to do with yoga?  Well, in my opinion, everything.  First, the touch from within ourselves:  the contact we make with our hands and feet to our mats or to other parts of our bodies (fingers to toes, hands to shins, thighs, foot to groin, the list goes on).  This contact we make with the mat and our bodies gives us constant feedback and grounding.  But then there is that special place you get to go in a yoga posture when a teacher physically touches you.  The Assist. 

Teaching yoga without skilled touch (okay sidetrack here…notice I said skilled, meaning well trained/educated with astute awareness of the student’s physical, mental, and emotional state in the posture/practice and an intimate knowledge of the student’s yoga practice) deprives students of the opportunity to truly find the depth in the practice that their minds and bodies have the potential to go.  Skilled touch from a teacher helps students find their bodies in space, bring awareness to areas that they weren’t aware were not “awake” and “active”, to open up somewhere just a bit deeper, or to engage somewhere with a little more strength. 

But remember, touch is powerful.  It can be good, but also bad.  A slap or a hit hurts and causes pain and suffering, not the kind of touch a being can thrive on.  As a yoga teacher, pushing a student beyond his physical boundaries, or aggressive, un-attentive, or un-sensitive touch can sometimes bring more harm than good.    It is important to remember that our energy shifts toward other beings without even touching them.  Just reaching out sometimes is enough for another being to feel a connection.  That energy is powerful, even more so when you make physical contact. 

There are days in Mysore class when some of my students are feeling particularly tired, or their bodies feel sluggish and angry, and the thought of an assist almost terrifies them.  And there are days in their practices when they crave a deep assist, to be touched, to be helped along in their journeys on the mat.  I try as a teacher to listen to my students bodies, feel their breath under my hands and breath with them, look at how their body reacts as I approach them, before I even touch them, to get a sense of where I can help them go on that particular day. 

Most days I practice alone, without touch.  I crave it more than anything else in my practice.  If I could get assisted at least once every day in my practice, I would practice whatever my teacher wanted me to…primary, second, third series I wouldn’t care!  Today I had the opportunity to finally, after 9 months (since training with Tim Miller in August), get the intense, deep assists and touch that I needed in my Intermediate Series practice, and I couldn’t be more grateful.  With each day that I practice here in Philadelphia with David Garrigues and his teachers and apprentices, I know that progress is inevitable, that I will go deeper than I could ever go it alone.  I will cherish the next 4 days and come home knowing that Touch has taken me somewhere I wasn’t before, in a positive and reflective way.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said, “Without touch, progress is very slow.”   Nurturing Touch is essential to our physical, emotional, and mental development both as children and certainly as adults.  Hold your significant other’s hand when you wouldn’t think to.  Give your child an extra kiss.  Pat your friend gently on the shoulder or give her a hug when she is having a difficult time with something. Let your dog lick your face.  Pet your cat and listen and feel as it purrs under your touch.  Go get a massage.  Hug yourself.   And find a yoga teacher that will give you strong but nurturing assists to take you deeper into the yoga practice, to a place you never imagined you could go before.  Touch and be touched with nurturing hands, so you can make progress yourself and help others make progress in life, both on and off the mat.

Peace.

Laura

 

Mind Medicine

“Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body.  Conversely physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions.  But the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other.”  -Dr. Candace Pert (1946-2013)

The late Dr. Candace Pert, PhD, who discovered the elusive opiate receptor (the receptor that allows us to feel pain), played a pivotal role in bringing the mind body connection to the forefront in the scientific world. 

What IS the mind exactly?   It is the faculty of consciousness and thought.  It is what enables a person to be aware of the world and their experiences.  It enables us to think and to feel, to judge and to remember. 

It is a bit easier to understand what is the body.  It is our physical structure, comprised of bones, connective tissue, organs, and flesh.  It is, in a sense, a physical vessel in which the abstract part of us, our mind, resides and takes material form.

Without the body, we do not have a vessel in which to physically exist; without the mind, the body is an empty vessel.  They are intimately connected and interwoven.  One does not fully function or experience without the other.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois himself once said in an interview:  “There are three types of disease:  body disease, mind disease, and nervous system disease.  When the mind is diseased, the whole body is diseased.  The yoga scriptures say “Manayeva manushanam karanam bandha mokshayoho”:  the mind is the cause of both bondage and liberation.  If the mind is sick and sad, the whole body gets sick, and all is finished.  So first, you must give medicine to the mind.  Mind Medicine – that is yoga.”

Last week after one of our Mysore classes at The Shala, a few of my students questioned each other and me as to why they were feeling so “emotional”.  One went home after a deep hip opening and bawled her eyes out.  Another has been crying off and on for several days for a reason she can’t pinpoint, but she had just started practicing the primary series consistently 2 weeks prior.  Yes, they were all women; you could attribute it to that.  But you men…well, you men practicing Ashtanga are probably having some mind manifestations of sorts too.  Maybe not tears, but perhaps anxiety, or feeling “revved up” for no apparent reason. 

Why do we feel this way when we take regular practice?  Why do we tear up or literally freak out inside or out sometimes when we get deep into a new pose, or go deeper than ever before in an established pose?  Why do we get nauseated with back bending?  Why does Intermediate Series feel so agitating, especially when starting out?  Why, why, why???

Yoga, or Mind Medicine as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois so intuitively and knowingly called it, if practiced daily, helps us begin to clear samskaras. Samskaras are marks, or impressions, left deep within the subconscious mind (chitta) by past experiences.   These experiences occur with each breath with take, every sound we hear, each sight we see, every feeling we feel, each taste on our tongues, and every smell that envelopes us.  The world enters our mind through our senses, creating samskaras that become deeply imbedded into our being.  Samskaras are formed (if you believe in reincarnation) in our previous lives (thus we can bring them with us into this life), in our childhood as parents and our surroundings impose beliefs and morals upon us, and again by the experiences and actions that we take throughout our lives.  Once formed, samskaras lie latent in the chitta.  When they resurface, they may generate memories.  Or, they may manifest as established patterns and habits by which we live that can be positive or negative.  They can potentially generate repeated suffering, suffering that we choose to relive because that is what is comfortable to us.  They can form layer upon layer of rooted negative behavioral patterns.  They can “color” our future experiences.  They can aggregate and draw us into repetitive loops with repeated actions, patterns, and events.

Sutra 2.12 reads:  Klesa mullah karma asayah drsta-adrsta janma vedaniyah:  Acts stemming from mental disturbance leave imprints that always show themselves in some form or other, visible or invisible.

Hmmmm.  So, if we just sit and meditate, or talk to a therapist, or just try really hard to change our patterns that are negatively afflicting us, and thus negatively affecting our bodies, then we can get rid of this little suckers call samskaras, right?  After all, these methods are all “medicine to the mind”, right?  How about a drink?  I know….an Old Fashioned will do the trick!

If only it were that easy.   How many times have you repeated a negative pattern, and then told yourself you wouldn’t do it again, and then did it again? How many times have you told yourself, or maybe others, that you would change?  That you will break a habit?  That you will quit smoking, or be nicer to your spouse, or be nicer to yourself for goodness sake? 

Here is again what Pattabhi Jois had to say about medicine to the mind:

“A weak mind means a weak body.  That’s why you build a good foundation with asana and pranayama, so your body and mind and nervous system are all working.  By practicing (yoga) every day, the blood becomes purified, and the mind gradually comes under your control.  This is the yogic method”

The physical and breath practice of yoga leads to a healthier mind.  Yoga is therapy that recognizes the intimate mind-body connection.   Take daily practice, build strength in the body and thus the mind, build fire with the breath and generate tapas (heat) through the practice, and then we will begin to truly release layer upon layer of samskaras.  When we begin to deepen into the yoga practice, be it through increased regularity of practice, or moving forward in a sequence of poses, or getting deeper into a posture than we have ever been before, this is when the samskaras will surface from the subconscious to the consciousness. 

I like to think of samskaras as old files in a locked vault.  Records of sort.   Yoga is the key to that vault.  It opens the vault door and allows us to begin to burn these files one by one.  The way is not easy.  Tears will flow.  Anger may surface.  Nausea or headache may take form.  Anxiety or restlessness my encompass us.  The beauty in yoga is that all of these feelings and experiences that we are pulling out of the vault and tossing into the fire will burn and dissipate, but first we may have to feel and acknowledge them before getting rid of them altogether.

So to the students at The Shala experiencing emotions of all kinds in your practices on and off the mat, I commend you for dedicating yourselves to this practice.  With each passing day you grow stronger physically, and as a result mentally and spiritually.  Let those tears flow, but don’t dwell on them.  Let anxiety surface, but don’t perseverate on it.  Let anger or shame reveal itself, but don’t feed it.  Acknowledge these sensations, let them pass, and then move on.  Continue to practice this medicine for your minds, and as Pattabhi Jois said, “the blood becomes purified, and the mind gradually comes under your control”.

Peace.

Laura

My Frenemy Ego

Two Mondays ago I was having a discussion with one of our teachers, Hayley (@hayleybethyoga) at The Shala about practice, our lives, Ashtanga Yoga, why Ashtanga is so different, why it attracts less students than the abundance of the flow classes here in Pittsburgh, and more.  We traded stories, thoughts, advice and teachings as good friends and yoga teachers do.  Hayley (who gave me permission to share this story with you) then said to me matter of factly “I’m bored with handstands.”

I was a bit confused, and quite surprised, at this remark.  I mean, first of all she is amazing with inversions, but, what’s boring about handstands??  They are challenging, fear conquering, invigorating, and the list goes on!  So I asked, “What do you mean?”

 “I’m bored with how I’m getting up into them.  I just kick up with the same leg,” she said. 

“Well, why don’t you practice kicking up with the other leg then?  To make it less boring?” I asked. 

“Because, I can’t get up into it as easily, or sometimes at all,” she replied.

“So what? Why does that matter?” I asked.  “If you know you can do a handstand and hold it, and you are bored, then why not work on getting into it a different way?  Why not kick up with the other leg, or practice “piking” into it?  You already know you can do and hold a handstand, so why does it matter if you get into it or not?!”

And then it became crystal clear to her.  Hayley’s frenemy, Ego, has been hanging out with her on the mat.  “Because……um, because I like to hold a handstand and show other students in the class that I can do it,” she said with in a lower, humbled, slightly timid voice as she grinned and curled her shoulders in.  She knew the answer the minute I asked her why she wouldn’t try it another way.

Some of us like to keep frenemies around.  Some of us don’t.  Most of us don’t have too much of a choice with Ego.  Ego is essential to our very existence as human beings.  Ego is actually our sense of self, our physical body and mind that are shaped by experiences, thoughts, habits, dreams and more.   There are many descriptions and definitions of Ego (Freud, Jung, etc.), but since we are in the world of yoga and I don’t want this blog to be too long, let’s focus on Ego in the spiritual sense.  Much of my description of Ego will originate from Hindu belief or background, but I think you will find that Ego is a constant, common thread no matter what religious or spiritual journey you are taking in this human life.

Ego, or “Aham” in Sanskrit, is the notion of “I”, or “me”.  It is considering yourself to be distinct from others and God due to identification with the physical body and its impressions (samskaras) in various parts of the subtle body.  It is the feeling of separateness, a sense of duality, being distinct or different from others.   Ego makes us perform our actions out of desire for the fruit of those actions.  Ego can ironically help or impede us on our spiritual journey.  In Hinduism, there is no separately existing self, and those who continue to identify with the self will only experience suffering.  

Why is Ego a frenemy? Passages from the Bhagavad Gita Chapters 6.5 and 6.6 read:   “Let man uplift the self (ego) by the self; let the self not be self-degraded (cast down).  Indeed, the self is its own friend; and the self is it’s own enemy. For him whose self (ego) has been conquered by the Self (soul), the Self is the friend of the self; but verily, the Self behaves inimically, as an enemy, toward the self that is not subdued.”   

Say what???  Bear with me.

Paramahansa Yogananda explains these versus of the Gita:  “The physical ego, the active consciousness in man, should uplift its body-identified self into unity with the soul, its true nature; it should not allow itself to remain mired in the lowly delusive strata of the senses and material entanglement.  The ego acts as is own best friend when by meditation and the exercise of its innate soul qualities it spiritualizes itself and ultimately restores its own true soul nature.  Conversely, the physical ego serves as its own worst enemy when by delusive material behavior it eclipses its true nature as the ever blessed soul”.

So, essentially, we need Ego to help us take the journey to realize our true divine nature, but Ego can be a major pain in the ass and get in the way of this aid if he identifies with and dwells on our physical senses, experiences, and attachment to the physical world.

Existing in a  physical body and having a human (or other life/object in Hinduism) experience is a choice we made as spiritual beings.  Without Ego, we would not have this human experience that identifies itself as “separate”.  We would only remember our spiritual selves, and thus negate this experience that we chose to have and from which to learn and grow. When we are born we are clean slates.  As we grow into teenagers and young adults, we move further away from our spiritual roots and identify more and more with Ego.  As we head into our elderly years, many of us begin to awaken to the light within us.  But how many years we have suffered before getting there?  And will we ever get there, to understanding our ture, divine nature?

In order to progress spiritually, we must eventually conquer Ego, even though he is our friend in helping us to start and work through this process.  How, exactly, can we do this?  Meditation and undergoing study with a Guru to learn how to detach from “I” and realize the true “Self” which is everything, oneness, is one path.  Another path, the path of yoga, can help us to come closer to this enlightenment at any age.

Let’s visit the Sutras for a moment here.  Sutra 1.2:  Yogas citta vritti nirodhah – Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.  Yoga is the “quieting” of the mind.  Mind chatter?  Are we identifying with that?  Often?  Always?  Sutra 1.3:  Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam – Then the seer stands revealed in its true form.  Once we shut off the mind chatter through the practice of yoga, once we stop identifying with it, we will then see our true Selves, our divine or spiritual Self.  When we eliminate our egos, we see our true nature as everything.  We no longer suffer, we become open, exist lovingly, and realize there is no need to become so attached to “I” because it in fact does not exist.

So let’s get back to understanding Hayley’s predicament here.  Hayley practices yoga for both its physical and spiritual benefits, as many of us do.  Yet here she is letting Ego get in her way.  Get in the way of what?  Progress, not just in her physical practice, but spiritually as well.  As we step onto our yoga mats and set our “intention”, are we really setting it to our spiritual journey, to self-realization, to divinity, to oneness, to letting go of the “I”?  Or are we identifying so much with the physical body and our mind chatter that we begin to let Ego take over and impede the purpose of our practice?

Practicing yoga is a wonderful way to practice detaching from Ego (“I” or “me” or this sense of “separateness”).   It is very difficulty to practice this in any other setting, even meditation (I mean, if you can shut your mind off completely for minutes to hours at a time while sitting quietly in the same position then you are well on your way my friend and I commend you!), because of the constant chattering of our minds and the constant external stimulation of our lives (friends, family, work, TV, phone, computers, pets, children…..).  When we take practice, we afford ourselves the opportunity to put those stimuli aside for 30 to 90 minutes and move, breath, concentrate, and maybe just maybe achieve meditation as well.

However, when we begin to take attachment to the physical practice and to our minds (keep Ego on the mat with us), we again impede our ability to progress spiritually. What does Ego feel like on the mat?  Here are some examples:

“I want other students to see I can do this posture and how amazing I am”

“I look awesome in what I chose to wear for practice today, I wonder if anyone is noticing”

“I’m the most advanced practitioner here.  Cool.”

“I suck.  Look at everyone else how good they are.  I’m terrible at yoga”

“I hope no one sees my fat hanging out in this posture, so embarrassing”

“Why is she so flexible?  I wish I was that flexible!”

“Holy shit he is strong!  Why can’t I be that strong?”

“I’m tiring of being stuck in this posture.  When is my teacher going to give me the next one? ” (for you Mysore junkies ha-ha)

“I’m going to cry” and then you start sobbing…..uncontrollably….to the point that you are identifying with your emotions completely and now disrupting class.  Yes, it does happen.

“I’m afraid, so I’m not going to do it” (To this Guruji would simply say, Why Fearing?)

“I’m tired of doing the same postures over and over”

“I know I can do postures from the next series so I’m done with this practice, I want to jump to some more advanced postures already!!!”

“So and so should be a vegetarian.  What is wrong with him?”

And the list goes on.  Over the course of 12 to 15 years of practice off and on, and the last 6 years of a dedicated Ashtanga yoga practice, I have experienced all and more of the above on my mat (well, except for the vegetarian comment……i eat meat.  I'm married to a Cambodian, what can I say?).  It is not easy to tell Ego chill out for an hour while you practice.  But it IS possible.  And remember, Ego sometimes can sound like this:  "You can do it.  You are strong enough.  I know you are tired but keep practicing.  Don't give up!"  So many a days I have needed those words from Ego on my yoga mat!

Developing a personal, self-dedicated (there I go using the word self……think of it as spiritual-journey dedicated) practice will help us, over time, learn to tell Ego to hang out in the waiting area or just sit quietly with us while we practice.  How can you develop such a practice?  I love that Ashtanga Yoga makes it easy for us.  You start with a set sequence, and build upon the practice sequencing under your teacher’s guidance.  You work through the same postures with all their associated struggles until you begin to open up, get stronger, and make progress.   You practice in a Mysore class setting, in which you are surrounded by other students doing work on their mats, but can practice at your own pace with your breath in silence.  My experience in both practicing and teaching in the Mysore class setting is that Ego eventually does tend to quiet down.  Maybe Ego comes in and tries to hang out for a while on some of the mats, but eventually he gets bored and leaves the room. In the Mysore class setting there is a strong but soft energy with light and strength, a sense of “oneness” as everyone takes practice alone but together.  Ego simply dissipates while support, inspiration, and oneness arises.

My final reply to Hayley’s last response above was, “You are impeding your progress.  Don’t worry about the end goal, work on the transition.  This is how you will learn and grow stronger!  (maybe I said in some nice form put your Ego aside??)”  And so Hayley had a revelation (not that she didn’t know this already, right?  Because she did, she just chose Ego over the journey!) that Ego was impeding her ability to progress both physically, and spiritually, during her sacred time on the yoga mat.  And while it may take more time to eventually always leave Ego at the door (he may come and go on the mat for weeks at a time), this is simply part of the journey.  Seek out teachers that can guide you with love and compassion and without their own Ego in the way.  Remind yourself of why you take practice.  If it’s because you want to lose weight or get more muscular, great, that’s awesome, but just remember you have a long way to go on your journey to self-realization, and that’s okay.  If it’s because you want to grow spiritually, remember, you will stumble and fall and have set backs and frustrations and you will fight tooth and nail with Ego, but at least you are on your journey to self-realization.

“….the ego gropes in darkness, while the Self lives in light….”

-The Katha Upanishad

Peace.

 

Laura

The Art of Starting a Daily Ashtanga Practice

Greetings, my fellow yogis.  So begins The Shala's blog.  While I have much to share regarding asana and growth on the mat in my daily classes, I am otherwise a woman of few words when it comes to sharing stories, inspiration, and spiritual teachings.  At least, vocally that is :-)  Many thoughts and ideas have formed in my now more available mind over the last several months, so I am finally taking the leap and writing them down (despite my untrained writing skills), with the hope that you will take some lesson from each blog that I write and be able to apply it to your daily life.

To begin, let's discuss starting a daily ashtanga practice.  It is, after all, fitting to begin this blog entitled The Self-Realization Journey with a discussion on the art of the start.  The art of starting a regular, and maybe someday, daily Ashtanga yoga practice. 

Before you begin to read or not read further, can you already hear the excuses lining up in your brain???  I can!!!!!  I heard them in myself when I started, and I continue to hear them every day!  What was my inspiration?  What was my motivation?  How was I able to give up my old ways of practicing yoga and dedicate my time and energy on the mat to this one, unique method of yoga?  Why would I do such a thing?  Why would I tire endlessly day in and day out on the same sequence, over and over and over and over again for years before getting to move on to another sequence?  

My story begins with a book.  It was a Christmas present from my Grandfather's girlfriend.    It sat on my shelf for a couple of years while I was in graduate school.  One day, while suffering a combination of boredom and despair (and this is another story for another blog, but essentially I was going through a divorce at the young age of 23, leaving a church that I had known and loved for the last 6 years, all while undergoing the intensity of my graduate school training), I pulled the book off the shelf and flipped through it.

One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was trying to do a headstand in the middle of my living room.  I decided to take a yoga class.  Not knowing I was taking "Ashtanga Yoga" at the time, I felt empowered and energized after my first class.  And so began my rough (yes, rough not easy rough rough rough!) journey with yoga.  For that first year, I practiced in class about once a week.  Once my clinical rotations started, I no longer "had the time" or regular schedule to practice yoga so I just stopped.  I then moved to Pittsburgh, where at the time only a few yoga studios were open.  I found a hot yoga studio that taught Baptiste style yoga, and latched on once my first year of intense career training was over.  I practiced 4 to 5 times a week, despite a crazy work schedule.    I even completed a teacher training and began to teach Baptiste yoga at a local studio and at a gym.  But, over the course of the 3 to 4 years that I practiced this style of yoga, that fire and love for yoga inside me began to dwindle. I was getting bored.  There was no consistency in my practice.  I wasn't learning anything more than how to be strong and bendy through an intensely hot class.  I was also very stressed and unhappy with work.  On a daily basis I questioned my decision to pursue the career path that I did.     I began to crave the study of Yoga, not just asana.  I was plateauing mentally, spiritually, and physically.

That was 6 years ago.  Having decided I wanted something more out of the practice, and struggling through depression, I quit teaching yoga, threw in a DVD of Kino leading the Primary Series, and put myself to work on the mat. Nice things were not said (I'm sorry Kino, I think you are amazing and I said mean things but only because you inspired me and to this day you do and now I say nice things to you!).  I belly flopped.  I fell over.  I cried.  I grunted.  I cussed.  I yelled.  But I got up and tried and tried and tried again.  I was use to working hard, so this was just another challenge for me to "get through", or so I thought at the time.  Little did I realize I was starting a long, lonely journey of spiritual self-realization.  I hated how weak I was.  I hated that when I was in shoulder stand my belly fat would roll up and nearly hit my face.  I hated that I couldn't be graceful or beautiful.  I hated that I had let go of my hobbies and talents because of my job.  I hated that I had let go of family and friends because of my career.  I hated that sometimes I felt pain for weeks, even months, while practicing, but that no-one could "make a diagnosis" as to why I was hurting.  I hated that sometimes I would just breakdown on the mat and cry, cry, cry.  Hell, I cried cried cried 4 days in a row right in front of Tim Feldman and Kino while studying with them.  Wait……what was going on?   Why were all these life concerns suddenly surfacing on my mat during practice?? 

Yes, it was a rough journey.   A journey of growth.  There is much more that I'm sure I hated. Now, I love that I am strong.  I love that I am graceful.  I love that I gave up my career to teach Ashtanga Yoga and get to share this method with as many willing students as will walk through The Shala's doors and ask to learn from me.  I love that when I am in shoulder stand my belly fat rolls almost hit me in the face (maybe a little less so now though haha).  I love that when I do get injured (and I do my best to avoid this!) I learn so much from it.   I love that I have a guru, Tim Miller, an amazing spirit who shares his love and devotion to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois with all who will listen and learn from him.  I love that I have learned Ashtanga Yoga and about Hindu Mythology and the Sutras from him.  I love that I have cleansed my life of toxicity and am surrounded by beautiful spirits.  I love that through my journey of yoga I found my husband.  I love that I feel normal again.  I love that I feel like the person I was meant to be.  I love that I know I have more potential and I will continue to do bigger and better things with my life.  I love me.  I love and appreciate the ups and downs.  I love life.  I love yoga. I learned through this method of repetitive practice the principles of patience, steadiness, diligence, commitment, courage, dedication, steadiness of heart, steadiness of mind, meditation, concentration, perseverance, equanimity, beauty, kindness, love and I LOVE that!  

As Kino MacGreggor so eloquently stated in her book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, "No matter how much support and help you have, the spiritual journey is a lonely quest that must be walked alone; you are directly accountable for each step you take in any direction.  It is your own strength that you discover along the way, and no one but you can truly find that."  As we each begin this journey, we quickly learn that we are taking a lonely one, but I can reassure you that it is more than well worth it.

How then, can YOU commit to a regular practice?  

Well, let's just run through the list of excuses first.  I will have you know that I have pretty much battled with all of these excuses in some form or another, and to this day many of them still creep into my head in attempt to keep me off the mat.  Some days we feel like practicing, and other days we don't.  Ashtanga demands that we practice, no matter what or how we are feeling about practicing that day.

"I already practice yoga several times a week, it's not Ashtanga but I practice and any yoga is good for me, right?"  You are absolutely correct.  Any yoga in my book is good yoga.  However, to make the transition from a physical fitness approach to a more spiritual and devotional approach, you need to practice consistently, methodically, without doing just what you "feel like" doing or practicing something different every day.  Growth will cease to happen over time.  When you sense cessation of growth physically, mentally, and spiritually, then you are ready to begin a regular Ashtanga practice.  Ashtanga will make you practice those poses you hate day in an day out until you are free of that hate because you can finally take the posture with ease, and then now ready you will continue on to learn more.  

"I'm too fat" or "I'm too weak".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga yoga.  You will gain strength, and you will trim down.  You will also learn, over time, to love your body more than ever, if ever, before. 

"I'm to stiff" or "I'm not flexible enough".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga yoga.  Through repetitive practice, your body will grow more supple.  Yoga does not require that you be flexible to take practice; rather, yoga requires that you take the journey to gain flexibility and suppleness in your body.

"I'm too depressed" or "I don't have energy"  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga.  It doesn't have to be the practice of the century.  Roll out your mat and take 5 sun salutation A's.  Feel okay?  Do 5 more.   Feeling more energetic?  Take 5 Sun Salutation B's.  Losing energy?  Close your practice there.  You did it.  You practiced.  Even if all you do is Sun Salutations for 8 years, you are practicing yoga, and you are establishing growth in your mind and your body.

"I have to much bottled up energy to practice yoga".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga.  While ultimately, over time with conditioning of the body and mind it becomes a meditative practice, you will find that for many years it will be quite physical.  You won't get bored.  I PROMISE.

"I don't like discipline and structure".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga.  Clearly you need some discipline and structure in your life.  Enough said.

"I don't have time".  Yes you do.  Even if it is just for 10 minutes, you can get a practice in.  Take that 10 minutes, roll out your mat, and practice.

"I don't know where to start" or "I don't know how to maintain a practice when I can't come to class".    Okay, then find an Ashtanga Yoga teacher.  He or she will teach you a sequence that you can practice in class and at home.  Over time, as you learn the sequence and your body becomes more supple and strong, more poses will be added to your sequence.  You will memorize it quickly.  

"I have an injury" or "I'm disabled".  Okay, then we will work around that injury.  We will work around your disability.  Find an Ashtanga Yoga teacher who can teach you modifications until you heal, or a fully modified practice if needed.  After all, breathing and dristi are all that is necessary to ultimately achieve concentration and eventually meditation in Yoga. 

"I don't have any yoga clothes".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga anyway.  Who cares if all you have is jeans and a button down shirt?  You can still practice.  It may not be as comfortable, but it can still be done!

"I don't have a yoga mat".  Okay, we will lend you one.  These days you kind find cheap mats for $10.  So get one.  That's 2 packs  of cigarettes.

"I already practice a form of yoga I love and I don't want to try something else".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga.  I'm not kidding. Be open.  Give it a try.  Maybe it won't be your path.  If you want an individual journey, in which you will always have room to progress under the guidance of a skilled teacher who will learn and know your capabilities on the mat, give you amazing assist and daily individual attention, then give Ashtanga Yoga a try.  If it is not your path, then go back to what you were doing.  But, at least you gave it a try!

"I can't practice Ashtanga Yoga because I can't practice 6 days a week".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga 3 days a week.  Or 2 days a week.  Give what you can give to the practice.  You won't be shunned for not practicing every day.  While it is ideal to practice 6 days a week, it is not practical for everyone due to family or career or health or whatever.  Start with a couple of days a week.  Once you begin to really want to practice more, you will find the time in your days to do it.  

"I hate this practice, I hate hate hate….."  Okay, then keep practicing Ashtanga Yoga.  This feeling is merely a part of your journey.  Some days you will hate it.  Other days you will love it.  More often you will love it.  

How then, can you the yoga student commit to a regular, daily (or several days a week) Ashtanga Yoga practice?  

Find an Ashtanga teacher.  Find an Ashtanga community.  If you can't find one, then while not ideal you must practice alone and travel to seek out teachers and the community you crave while practicing with care and diligence.  Finally, DON'T use excuses to stay OFF the mat.  Rather, use those excuses to get ON the mat.

 

Laura Gorham-Huon