Into the same river twice, we both do and do not step. —Heraclitus
As many of you know, my sister is a Greek philosophy professor and a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. During one of our conversations about teaching, philosophy and yoga, I said, "It’s kinda like that saying, you can’t step into the same river twice.”
She said, “Actually, the more accurate translation from Greek is into the same river twice, you both do and do not step.”
I mused, "You know, that translation is better when it comes to practice and teaching. On the one hand, down dog is always down dog. Same river. On the other hand, every day is different, our bodies are constantly changing, we are learning more all the time about ourselves, our needs, our students, and the poses. Different river.”
I could come up with endless examples to elaborate on the point. I am sure you can also. In a very real way, this inquiry is at the heart of practice and at the heart of teaching. If you have been in my classes and courses for any length of time, a point comes where you know most of my jokes, examples, and tricks of the trade as it is impossible to have new material ALL the time and some things are so good they bear repeating. So there are always some “same river moments” to be expected, no matter how creative your teacher is and no matter how diligent your studentship is..
Even if you are newer to me and my teaching, you will probably hear me say and teach principles, poses, and techniques that are familiar to you. Once again, same river.
And yet, I am always refining my perspectives, continuing my education, enlarging my reference points and so are you. No matter how long we have known each other and how many urdhva dhanurasanas, we have shared, I know there will also be many “new river” moments throughout the course of a class, workshop, intensive or training. Perhaps the "new river" will be a physical accomplishment. Maybe the "new river" will be a new understanding, a clarifying explanation, or a surrender of a limiting belief or a contracting emotional pattern. However, they come, I encourage you to acknowledge your "new river moments" and celebrate the many ways that the same river is also a different river.
On a deeper level, this teaching about the river is an invitation to non-dual thinking that is a crucial perspective to embrace on the yoga learning journey. In the same way that Heraclitus invites us into the paradox of “same river, different river," yoga is an invitation to explore the inherent paradoxical principles that live in yoga philosophy, practice, teaching and that each of us hold within ourselves.
Is yoga a path of self acceptance or a path of transformation and change? Is yoga a path of surrender or a path of effort? Is yoga a path of spirit or a path of physicality? Is yoga a path of transcendence or embodiment? Is asana about the flow or about the details? The experience or the analysis? The muscles and bones or the energy?
I have been thinking about these distinctions as I have been preparing my upcoming year-long, in-depth program, Studies in Form and Flow. The underlying assumption of the course is that yoga is a both/and proposition where one can learn to hold two apparent opposites in a creative, dynamic tension without collapsing the distinctions inherent to each. From this vantage point, non-duality can be seen, not so much as a merging, but as the capacity to live in a place of reconciliation or creative relationship with seemingly contradictory principles. So, not black or white, but black and white. The “and” is a place of the middle, sometimes known as The Heart-- not the heart as a physical organ, but the Heart as an organ of spiritual perception.
The mind naturally functions like a computer, in a binary way. And, our waking consensual reality is a lot like that also— we have night and day, inhales and exhales, sleeping and waking, doors that are open or shut, republicans and democrats, etc. Knowing these differences is important and clarity is key for successful functioning in the world. And, knowing how to hold both aspects in their differences is the key to the advanced yoga of non-duality where unity arises out of difference, not as a result of those differences being negated.
Not only might this capacity to hold the tension of paradoxical forces help us as yoga practitioners and teachers to “play better with others” and respect the various traditions, approaches, and perspectives that are in play in our industry, I believe practicing this perspective could help us navigate the binary, win-lose, us-against-them, increasingly divisive world in which we find ourselves.
For instance, is it possible to care about black lives and police officers? Certainly.
Is it possible to recognize, validate and express our various racial, ethic, and cultural differences and also recognize our unity as a human species. Yes.
Can we care about human life and also care about the right for someone to have legal agency over their body and their decisions? I think so.
Again, there are endless examples— that take us far away from the yoga classroom— where the kind of philosophical viewpoint we will practice in regards to yoga is relevant and applicable.
I should also say that part of putting this philosophy into practice involves recognizing when we fall into the binary nature of our own thinking and to offer ourselves honesty ("I am doing it again, making their way wrong and my way right!") as well as compassion. ("Wow, well, of course I have unconscious assumptions, biases, and I want to be right-- its the nature of my mind. Perfectly natural and yet, I want to evolve beyond these limitations,")
So, these are big topics and we are going to dance around them all year-long together in the course and well, the rest of our lives from what I can tell. I personally believe that flow and form is another one of those binaries that creates what philosophers call a false dichotomy. You can have alignment in flow. You can have dynamic movement in alignment. And while there are differences in the marketplace which are important to remain clear about, my premise for this course is that they are not in an essential conflict with one another. In fact, these two different approaches have a lot to offer us in physical conditioning, instructive metaphors for living, and as lenses through which to view reality.
Want to jump in the river with me and some other amazing folks? Find out more here--
photo by Andrea Killam
photo by Mike Frosolono, circa 1976
I recently joked that I should write a memoir called, My Life in Leotards, referring to the fact that I started teaching fitness in 1988, asana in 1998, and have spent over thirty years in front of a room instructing people in some kind of movement, I have been wearing leotards since, well, they were called leotards. Many of you know them as leggings or simply “clothes” but many of us remember days well before the current athletic-inspired fashion craze where yoga pants outsell jeans, including that super-awkward phases in the 80’s during which we wore thongs on the outside of tights. But I digress.
I could also write a memoir of My Life in a Body. Oh wait— I did write that one. Three times! (All great books, by the way, and, if you haven’t read them yet, I suggest skipping the first two and starting with the latest, A Deeper Yoga. I think it is the best.)
Whether it was dance class as a five-year old, gymnastics from six through thirteen years, cheerleading through much of high school, aerobics, spinning, or asana, the truth is, I have been in a leotard A LOT, exploring the ways that movement effects well-being, exacerbates obsession, creates comparison and dissatisfaction, fosters empowerment, creates injury, nurtures resilience, aids in self-acceptance, includes and excludes, fosters community, and so on. If I were to write the memoir I would assert that there is not any one movement discipline that has the corner on healing or positive physical and psychological outcomes.
I was thinking today about a woman who came to my fitness class at the YMCA many years ago. She started in the most moderate class I was teaching as part of her New Year’s resolution to lose weight. Over the year, she lost weight, left her marriage, became a fitness instructor herself and her entire affect and personality expression brightened. I saw her many years later, after I had left the YMCA and had started teaching yoga. She was still teaching fitness, had maintained a healthy weight she felt good about, (By healthy I mean she seemed vibrant, with some curves still intact, she liked how she looked, and felt empowered by the fact she had maintained her goal weight, etc.. “Healthy weight” is a bit of a triggering idea and, for the record, I believe health is a multi-faceted, personal thing that can exist at many different weights, sizes, and shapes. )
I was thinking of her as an example of how a seemingly physical resolution cascaded into a series of positive outcomes that were emotional, social, relational, professional, and dare I say, spiritual. I think this is one reason why I lost interest in the discussion of who is doing real yoga out there and find myself much happier keeping my eyes on my own yoga. Having spent my life in leotards, the outcomes I might attribute to yoga— and to my own particular path within the vast world of asana that has centered largely on the alignment studies-- someone else has found in a different asana style, a different movement modality or through a different discipline altogether. These positive outcomes are consistently more interesting to me than the judging the means through which they were achieved.
And, the not-so-positive outcomes must be acknowledged as well. Anyone who has spent any time in my classrooms has heard me say that every asana style has people with healing stories and every asana styles has people with injury stories. Injury, like health, is a multi-faceted process that is never physical-only, even if we are talking about torn hamstrings. And, unless you have been living under a rock these last few years, you know that Yoga-land’s injuries are clearly not limited to torn hammies. Not at all.
So, when I say, “eyes on my own yoga” I do not mean that I turn away from what is painful to see. I am not talking about ignoring abuse, failing to make clear distinctions, or avoiding exploring how even seemingly good ideas can unfold within the life of a community into situations that are toxic. That work needs to be done with committed vigilance.
What I mean is that I focus my gaze on where my practice is taking me more than I look at what the folks down the way are up to. I am talking about the every-day level of what feels to me like a form of yoga tribalism that has the superior tone of my-yoga-is-better-than-your-yoga and look-at-what-those-other-people-are-doing-wrong mixed into it. My personal opinion is that if I can’t work to stop othering in yoga, well, I am going to have a hard time stopping othering at the borders, in my communities, houses of worship, politics and so on.
Once again, how I engage practice is what practice yields more than the practice itself. Running with loving attention is probably more loving than yoga with strain, stress, and judgement. Like I said earlier, no one discipline has the corner on positive outcomes. And, of course, this work is a practice and a process.
So, that’s what I have today other than another shameless plug about my upcoming online Teacher Training course. I am excited about the course because it brings together over 20 years of yoga teaching experience into one comprehensive program. I based this program on the questions I am most often asked in teacher trainings such as “How would you cue that?” and “Why do we do it that way?” and “How would you teach that to a new person?” and so much more. This is a course designed to help you know the HOW of teaching and the WHY behind common cues.
At its heart, this course is an invitation to move beyond dogma, rigidity, and what has always been done into a field of understanding that embraces paradox, invites inquiry, and celebrates difference within unity. It is going to be great.
photo by Andrea Killam
In my last blog entry, I made a comment about how yearly cycles and resolutions at the beginning of the calendar year are not really my thing. They aren’t. I tend to be more focused on the beginnings and endings of my personal astrological cycles and more tuned into what is unfolding organically within my inner process than I am on the yearly calendar. New years and new intentions always feel a bit forced to me and, having tried to fit myself into that model over the years to no lasting effect, just seem better left to other people.
That being said, as I scroll through Facebook and Instagram reading the testimonies and reflections from my friends, colleagues and students, I am touched and inspired by the challenges, triumphs, upsets, victories and overall resilience the people in my life exemplify. No matter how shiny any person’s outer life appears, there is always a back story of adversity overcome, hardship experienced, and disillusionment transformed into wisdom. No matter the mess another person appears to be at any given moment in time, there is always a hidden strength that surfaces, a faith that is forged, or a tenacity revealing itself in the cracks of their seeming brokenness.
The theme emerging for me over the last cycle of my life (not the yearly cycle of 2019 but perhaps more like the last 5 years or so) is the surrender of the obsession with self-improvement. Don’t get me wrong— I love growth. I love refinement. I love all things related to the process of shedding what no longer serves and the renewal of Spirit in the recognition of what is most true. But somewhere along the way, that process stopped being about making myself into a “New and Improved me" and started being more about getting to know myself better as I am.
What I want today is to live in such a way that I can become more known to myself. And I want that knowing to happen in a spacious field of Love. And, truth be told, that aim sounds better on paper than it often feels.
In practical terms, what I am talking about is the difference between creating an intention to be more patient and instead, being curious about my chronic impatience. Instead of trying to be less angry, I am more interested in holding my anger in the light of my own Love and seeing what hurt lives underneath the anger, what unmet need stokes its fire and if, perhaps, the anger is alerting me to the fact that I have limits I am ignoring, boundaries I need to honor or pain I need to validate. I find myself more interested in clarity than I am in strategies of positivity, wishful thinking, or promises of a better tomorrow.
And, yet— I know there have been seasons in my life where a stake in the sand was required. Times when “enough was enough” and I needed to mark the moment in such a way that there was no turning back, no wiggle room, and no way to negotiate what life was requiring of me. And, if those times have come before, chance are they will come again. And, those times call for resolve— resolutions, if you will. Whether these stake-in-the-sand-moments coincide with the end of the calendar year or not, they always call for courage in the face of fear, standing strong when we feel weak and living with vulnerability and not-knowing when what we’d like most is the assurance of a “happy ending.”
While I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions as such, I didn’t want the season to end without taking a moment to acknowledge that everyone I know is dealing with something. Hidden or exposed, seen or unseen, ready -to-shift or still-in-process, pretty or messy— the human condition is a condition of coming together and falling apart, of necessary tensions living alongside one another, of pain and joy informing one another. Whether you orient yourself with the calendar year, to the zodiac, or to some other North Star is not really so important, in my opinion. What I think matters is that the process of orientation you engage helps you to navigate more authentically toward what is most true within you.
And, to be clear, if that authentic orientation means a change in diet, a visit to the gym, a new training program, an appointment with a psychotherapist, or a renewed commitment to asana, then great. And if it means vacation, more cake, and less rigidity— also great.
All right, that’s what I have on that for now.
Lots on deck for me with work— A year-long in-depth Online Training, 2020-21 Advanced 300-hour Teacher Training, A 3-Part Writing Program with Angelon Young and Regina Ryan, weekend workshops all over America as well as Japan and Singapore and 5 amazing intensives in Colorado. I am excited to continue my work with Yoga International and on a personal note, I am enjoying time on my mat, my snowboard, with my piano, and of course, with Locket, God’s most perfect creature. Oh, and spoiler alert-- a podcast will be coming your way this spring, so stay tuned for details on that. (Sign up for my mailing list, if you haven’t and subscribe to the blog.)
May you recognize Grace in its many forms in whatever cycle in which you find yourself.
photo by Andrea Killam
Happy 2019 ending and 2020 beginning.
I suppose I should say something meaningful about yearly cycles, new beginnings, intentions v. resolutions, and all that. Instead, I am writing a nerdy entry on how I work with a sequence in my home practice. These reflections may or may not help you with your New Year, New You project. I will leave that up to you.
For the record, I am on the New Year, Same Me program, which is another blog entry I could be writing. The thing is that I feel like I am growing and living into an ongoing inquiry into how best to bring that growth into a meaningful, authentic expression. A new calendar year isn't really part of that process for me. Don't get me wrong - I am all for whatever helps someone align with themselves, so if New Year's intentions and resolutions do that for you, use them. No judgement from me. With much of the world engaged in the resolution process, you just might be able to tap into the collective energy quite effectively.
So - home practice.
I generally write a sequence for my practice. The sequence functions like a plan and helps me stay focused on my asana practice rather than on Facebook, Instagram, or dust bunnies. I have not always practiced with a set plan, but currently I find that heading into my practice with a plan provides a valuable structure.
Pictured below (on the very same piece of scratch paper that I wrote it on) is my plan. Down the right hand side of the page is what I wrote down and planned to do.
I often start with virasana, baddha konasana, malasana and uppa vista konasana. These leg positions help mobilize my hips and have the added bonus of being poses I can do sitting down! When I was younger and asana was my primary athletic endeavor, I always started with more dynamic postures like sun salutations and standing poses. Now, I hike, bike, snowboard and such and my legs are generally tired when I get to my mat. The seated hip work serves me well and helps me ease into things.
The other thing I like about these four poses is I can go in just about any direction I want from there. You see these leg positions in the forward bend syllabus - virasana becomes triang mukaikapada pascimottanasana. baddha konasana informs janu sirsasana and ardha pada padma pascimottanasana. Malasana relates to all the maricyasanas. And uppa vista konasana has its twisting and forward bending expressions and relates to the straight leg of poses like janu sirsasana, etc. (if the sanskrit is all too much, look in Light On Yoga and see plates 125-152 and you can get a sense of the way the shapes repeat.)
Additionally, these leg positions become the eka pada raja kapotasana back bends, so they can take me to back bends. Also, the hip mobilization prepares padmasana, all the standing poses and so on. As a jumping off point, these poses are excellent, provided you have knees that can do them, which is not always the case and would be a different blog entry, For a glimpse at the eka pada raja kapotasana back bends, head back to LOY and look at plates 539-547 and for fun with padmasana look at plates 104-124, then back up to the previous section where you will find baddha konasana and virasana variations.)
I am directing you to Light on Yoga for additional references and pose education to stimulate your thinking about how my sequence makes a certain sense. You can also take my online course where I explain a lot of Light on Yoga stuff.
From there, my plan was to take those basic leg positions into supine, hip extended versions. Then to a little side stretching, thigh stretching and upper back mobilizing, before taking those same leg positions into the eka pada rajakpoatasana preparatory cycles with quad stretching. Then into back back bends like ustrasana, dhanurasana, urdhva dhanurasana and some deeper work with the chair.
NOTE - these are not the full eka pada rajakapotasana (EPRK) backbends, just the leg positions with cobra-like back work. So, preliminary EPRK.
Also, I think about the three primary categories of backbends and incorporate them when I can into a back bending session. Some back bends are lifting up into spinal extension with the belly down, such as dhanurasana here. Some have one end anchored and lower down which requires an eccentric contraction of the muscles, like in ustrasana or drop backs where the abdominal muscles are toned as they lengthen. Other back bends have two ends anchored like urdhva dhanurasana.
So that was my plan.
Once I got into the sequence, however, I found my body needed more preparation than I planned. So what you see down the left side is what I actually did.
Also, sometimes when I am into things, I get ideas or creative inspiration and I think, "Oh, now, how might that fit in?" Or, "hmmm... you know, I forgot about that other thing, let me give it a go and see what it gives me."
For me, a plan is not a rigid, fixed or problematic constraint. For instance, Kelly and I had gone snowboarding the day before I wrote this plan. When I sat in virasana, my feet felt tight, my ankles felt restricted, and my calves felt bulky, making it harder than usual to get the deep knee flexion of virasana. So, I added in a whole big series of work for my feet and lower leg. (Many of you who are long-time students of mine affectionately know this work as the "foot and calf smashing routine.")
Then, back over to my original plan, after which I realized that some focused quad stretching and hip flexor work would make supta virasana a much more pleasant experience.
As I went on into the next part of my plan and I was down on my belly stretching my quads, I added in some twists, some cobras, some upper back opening with blocks.
I didn't plan on the twists, but I do like how they help my back bends. And there I was doing supta padangusthasana to the side and them anatasana and I thought, "well, supine twists would feel good." And then by the time I did anahatasana I figured, "Hey, I should do some cobra to get even more going on in my upper back." Once again, a plan does not limit me, it just gives me a basecamp from which to explore.
Now, the downside of all these exploratory trips down the left hand side of my page is that they took some time. So when I got to the back bends I did ustrasana and then a bunch of urdhva dhanrasana, I cut out the dhanruasanas, I didn't get to the chair work. But I did make a significant deposit in the bank of urdhva dhanurasana.
So here is a sped-up glimpse into my practice. And while this is a fast recording, I used a timers so most poses were 1-minute holds.
Pro tip - Use a timer for home practice. I use one on a basic Timex Ironman watch. The timer function has a repeat setting. I generally set the timer for 1-minute so I hear a beep every minute. This has been an invaluable tool for me in developing the capacity to self-generate intensity and focus. And, like a plan, a timer is not a rigid thing-- if I need to come out of a posture, I just come out. Plain and simple. No problem.
It's my practice, after all.
All in all, a good day's work.
I revisited the sequence two days later. I did the whole shebang, incorporating the side trips as part of my plan, since I had found them useful.
Which brings me to Sunday afternoon, a few days later. VIsit #3 to the sequence.
Down the left hand side of the page was my plan, incorporating the two previous days. You can see the basic repetition. (Also, figuring I was going to post the sequence, you can also note that I wrote more neatly and used a fresh piece of paper, rather than scrap paper from my pile.)
Down the right hand side are the notes of what that I actually did.
I used side stretching and twisting variations in the opening hip work. Once again, these were 1-minute timings so I was in virasana a minute, then each side stretch a minute, then each side twist a minute. I love side stretching in these four basic seated poses, whether I am going to forward bends or back bends. I get length for my side body, some deep opening in the groins, a lot of which I think has to do with the fact the psoas attached in the leg at the lesser trochanter so changing the leg position while stretching along the sides is not just a side-stretch only. And, as most of you know, nothing in yoga is only one thing. (Again, a different blog entry for a different day.)
Not included on my list of postures are the Down dogs I did between these long bent-knee holds. Once again, a plan is simply a plan - need something more or less? Add it in. Simple.
I should note, that this kind of planning is my approach for teaching as well. I always have a plan. I almost alway veer from the plan. In the words of Winston Churchill (I think): "Plans are useless. Planning is essential."
I stayed reasonably close to the plan through the supine segment and then the upper back work, but began to realize that my body felt pretty ready for back bends. So, I did not do the entire eka pada rajakpotasana prep work as I had planned. Once again, I skipped the dhanurasanas. (There is a theme here emerging - I am generally happy to skip those poses. Note to self - practice those poses.)
I got to some chair work. and while it says urdhva dhanurasana, what I actually did was:
Then I added in some supine closing postures and simple forward bends and then did my evening meditation session. I would have like to do savasana after that, but life was calling and I answered and went on to the next thing.
So that's a wrap, except for my shameless promotions. If you are still reading, then you are just the kind of yoga practitioner who would love my upcoming online offering Studies in Form and Flow. This is an in-depth, year-long, online program where I will:
So, that's a lot. It is a lot because there is a lot to cover and I want you to know a lot as a practitioner and teacher.
My main aim in a program like this is to give you the reasons behind the sequences, the cues and instructions, and the principles behind the methods. This is a program for people who want to understand what they are doing in practice and teaching so that they can more consciously and skillfully participate in the the thing that is transforming them. Almost everyone reading this blog loves asana and has felt it change their life. That is one thing asana practitioners - no matter what style or approach - seem to share. What I want to help teachers with is unpacking the practice in such a way that they understand more about the practice they love and love sharing with others.
And, while I am primarily a "Form teacher" I am included Flow sequences because I am continually asked about the interface between alignment and flow, because I enjoy vinyasa practice when done intelligently and because I think you can have form in flow and flow in form and both have tremendous value.
Studies in Form and Flow is a stand alone program or can be paired with a series of intensives and workshops (done over 2+ years) for a 300-hour advanced teacher training program.
I took a snowboarding lesson last week. Among such gems as “Alignment is something we need to be vigilant about” and “Your breath is the best tool you have on the mountain,” my teacher taught me an acronym for riding that seems relevant to yoga practice both on and off the mat: Visualize, Commit, Execute, Celebrate.
See yourself riding in good form. If you come up on challenging terrain, see yourself navigating the situation skillfully and confidently.
Decide to ride. Half way down the mountain is no time to be half-hearted or half-committed so commit to the course you have visualized.
Well, this one seems obvious enough, right? Do the thing.
If the ride went well, great. If you fell into a pile of powder and spend 30 minutes swearing and digging yourself out, well, great- you got out. Whether the execution was what you had hoped for or not, there is always something to celebrate such as survival, a learning moment, and so on.
These four steps may happen in the blink of an eye or be a thoughtful, more involved process, but one of the things this approach does is help us “take hope out of the equation.” Whether it is snowboarding, kicking to the wall in handstand for the first time, opening a studio or launching a new teacher training program, “hope is not a plan.”
And sure, life is uncertain and there are variables beyond our control that affect outcomes. Still, having a clear vision for our endeavor is better than beginning with a vague sense of hope.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for hope in the Big Picture- hope for humanity to pull its collective head out of its collective you-know-what to confront the challenges of our times and the fears that have lodged themselves deeply in our individual and shared psyches and made their way into our institutions, sure. I have hope for that because I have faith in the ever-present nature of Grace and Love to triumph and yet, in the immediate sense I think education, soul-searching, some good therapy and difficult conversations with self and others is going to be the means through which my Big Picture Hope comes alive. And voting. But I digress.
Visualization is not magical thinking. Visualization is grounded in skills. In snowboarding, I can imagine myself soaring down the hill all I want, but if I don’t understand edges, weight distribution and speed management, well, I am most likely going to be in a pile of snow with something broken not long after I begin my run. In snowboarding, visualization is not just imagining myself going down the hill but imagining how I am going to do that.
In asana, I may want to balance in handstand, do a drop back, or get my leg behind my head (although, let’s be clear, you can live a happy life without ever doing any of those things) but if I do not understand the mechanisms through which these postures occur and the progressive stages that mitigate the inherent risk of such endeavors, I will be disappointed at best, and hurt at worst. I need to know how to do the poses.
And, if I understand the steps and can see clearly where I am in terms of my skill, then I need to commit and execute. Take a drop back from tadasana to urdhva dhanruasana, for instance. I need to know to keep my weight in my legs, to bring my pelvis way forward, to lengthen my spine, lift my chest, and coil my upper back like crazy. And, even with all those things going for me and a good sequence as preparation, if I can’t see the floor behind me, I am not ready to go. Furthermore, “let’s just see if I can do it” is not really a good way to approach a pose where I could land on my head. And, if I can see the floor and I am gonna go for it, my arms need to be straight and nothing good will happen if, half-way to the floor, I am half-hearted or inattentive.
I think one reason why so many people are getting hurt in advanced poses is because they do not truly understand the process by which the poses occur. Not enough information, skill development and then the commitment and execution is either “lets see what happens” or is so full of willful zeal that there is no recognition of whether the poses is appropriate or not.
And, so, here we are having done the thing and it’s time to celebrate. Celebrate is not a simplistic, “it’s all good, life is a celebration” kind of concept but is actually an honest self-review with a mindset determined to learn, grow, and evolve through the ups-and-downs of learning through practice. When my run or pose goes “well” and I feel like “I did it!” do I know why? Can I articulate the reason behind my success so I increase the chances of being able to recreate the success and/or help others? (Teachers, we need to know why we can do things as much, if not more than we need to understand why we can’t. This is especially true for those teachers for whom many poses came easily.)
If the run or the pose didn’t go as I had hoped, do I know why? Can I identify my growing edge and acknowledge my mistakes without— and this part is key— beating myself up, criticizing my personhood or invalidating my sincerity? Can the exacting self-review be done in a spirit of compassionate celebration or at least be in a movement toward greater love? Celebrating is celebrating the fact I am on a learning journey, not celebrating that I am super competent and always kicking ass.
So, that’s what I have today in terms of learning, practicing and teaching. Lots of opportunities coming your way to join me in the process— Online Teacher Training Studies in Form and Flow, 2020-21 Advanced Teacher Training, Intensives and Workshops and online classes with Yoga International.
Regardless of your vision— snowboarding, asana studies, teacher development, or getting through holidays with a semblance of equanimity, I hope this entry finds you developing your skills, committing to what maters, doing your thing with joy and recognizing the many ways Life is always there to help you learn.
“How you travel is where you are going.” - Richard Rohr
“Work is love made visible.” - Kahlil Gibran
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!"
-2 Corinthians 5:17
I am returning from a great trip to Arizona, the first part of which was my annual 3-day intensive with Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis, which we have come to call “The Work”. This year we worked with a poem from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and included reading, dharma talks, writing and discussion along with the asana offering.
For all of the technicalities of asana and the intricacies of philosophy, the heart of the Path for me is the Heart- the revelation, recognition, and expression of Love. And, as I have come to realize with increasing clarity, I simply cannot bully, force, intimidate, criticize or otherwise hate myself into Love. I must travel towards Love with love.
I am not talking about sentimental, Hallmark-card, pop-song love. I am talking about Love as the ground of Being, Love that is big enough to hold the paradoxes of my beauty and my rough edges, my capacities and limits, my profundity and my pettiness. I am talking about Love in its fire, in its sweetness, in it’s demands and in it’s ever-present affirmation of the All That Is As It Is. So, Big Love. (Not to be confused with the excellent TV show by the same name which is a different topic for a different day.)
As many of you know, Darren and I have spent over 1200 hours teaching in the room at Yoga Oasis together (he added it up a few years ago) and this year felt to me like “old times made new.” I felt like we found the current we used to ride together without having to go backwards to do it.
Truth be told, backwards is never really an option, even if the old times were good ones. After the intensive, I spent five days at my guru’s ashram with three of those days on solitary retreat. On the drive into the retreat center there is a road sign off to the left that reads “Private Drive. No Turn Around.” I remarked to my friend who was driving me, that the sign had good spiritual advice.
At a certain point on the Path, there is no turning around.
I have found that while there is a need for honest self-review, which includes integrating past insights, lessons and experiences, there is really no way to turn around. Sometimes nostalgia comes calling and the innocence of past times feels sweeter than living into the wisdom that periods of disillusionment so often bring.
And still, there is no way to turn around.
Darren and I consider ourselves siblings on the Path. In the Indian tradition, he would be called my gurubhai, which means brother in the guru. We both practice and teach in the lineage of Lee Lozowick, Yogi Ramsuratkumar and Swami Papa Ramdas. And, like any brother and sister, we have had ups and downs; long periods of time when Love was sweet and a few periods when Love tasted a bit bitter. And, through Grace and work, we are still in the game together, blessed with and by, the many students who have stuck with us through our (and their) growing pains.
The weekend was fun, tender, raw, real and full of good company from near and far. One of the closing teachings I gave is inspired by the Baul tradition of Bengal. The Bauls are itinerant beggars whose practice is aimed at the the recognition of the Inner Beloved. They sing, dance, practice Hatha yoga, wander, beg and occasionally come together in small and large groups for satsangs of different varieties. Eccentric, iconoclastic and somewhat radical, their path is a dynamic synthesis of tantra and bhakti, grounded in and through the natural ecstasy of the body. Their traditional garb is a patch work jacket made from discarded, unwanted scraps of material.
I can think of no better metaphor for the old being made new than these jackets.
My own life is a patchwork jacket of past experiences— both joyful and painful, some eliciting pride, while others are more challenging to include in my own loving tenderness. Be that as it may be, these experiences are the pieces of my life and they are stitched together by the thread of Grace which has kept me walking the path even when I wished I could turn around and return to some moment in time when I was not so aware of the cost of transformation. And, as many of you know, while the cost may be great at times, so too is the reward.
As I return home for some R&R and some online work and to finalize the details of my 2020-2021 teacher training program (with deeper, more formalized curriculum and requirements), I do so feeling the rewards of not turning around, of walking forward, of shifting my bearings occasionally to recalibrate my trajectory to align myself with my path and to make sure my path is aligned with me. (Different entry for a different day, but both side of the equation need to be considered, in my opinion.)
And I hope that for you— whether your path feels easy-going or rocky and filled with land mines, whether you have energy for the journey or you have sat down in the road to rest—that you find some way to keep moving forward. I pray that each step forward stitches you together, makes you more whole, provides you with the courage to include what was discarded, to make the old new and to travel toward Love with love.
An student of mine recently completed one of my courses on Yoga International and wrote me a few reflections, one of which was “You taught to lift the legs first in the back bend which was a lot harder for me to then to lift my chest first.”
Her comment made me think about my learning process with asana studies. For many years, I studied the shapes, the forms, the “how to” of getting into and out of the postures, the application of the actions that help activate the shape or mitigate the inherent dangers of the shape, the ways to make the pose more accessible and, in a sense ,“easier” and so on. I learned (and learned to teach) all about the poses as though doing the pose is the point of the pose. Fair enough. After all, the execution of asana is part of our subject matter as is understanding the means by which we might practice the poses with greater proficiency and/or help others do the same. We might call this stage “learning the language of asana.”
So far so good, right?
Once I learned the language of the asanas and had some familiarity with the “how to” as well as the “how to do what I need to do for ourselves within the pose” then I got to use the poses as tools for explorations, not as the subject of the study itself. Once we learn dhanurasana, for instance, we can practice it by lifting our chest first, by lifting our legs first, by lifting both as evenly as possible, by belting our legs, by squeezing a block between our legs, by adding height under the top of our hips, by adding height under the lower part of our pelvis, by changing the placement of our grip and so on, ad infinitum. And, like my online student noticed, not every variation makes the pose easier, better, more enjoyable, or is even going to be consistent with other variations or common interpretations of the posture.
Using the asana as a means of exploration rather than simply the subject of study opens up a world of possibility, although the leap is not for everyone. For those people looking for any form of certainty, the exploratory work is often frustrating. For those who enjoy competency and being good at things, the fact that the exploratory work often makes poses more difficult and not always more doable, is sometimes too much to bear. For those seeking the safety of “right” and “wrong” the exploration through asana contains too many variables to manage with way too much gray area to navigate. And, of course, for those folks who don’t want to reflect, analyze, observe, make distinctions and/or find nuances within the asana experience, this work will be way too mental to be enjoyable. Or sustainable. (Like black licorice- people like it or they don’t. Although, some occasionally acquire the taste for it.)
For me, the exploration is where the fun of alignment is. I know some people look to alignment for the how-to of the pose and we have great information for that domain of interest. Others see alignment principles primarily as safety protocols and I believe we have some of that to offer. Others practice alignment as a means by which to be certain, to be right and for others to be wrong and that is a possible application. I see alignment in asana as a means through which we explore ourselves through the postures. While it can seem like “working on the pose” and can easily tip into obsessively tracking details or imposing something on ourselves from outside-in, alignment-oriented approaches offer a means by which I can develop a relationship with the pose and my body as well as with my attention, awareness and consciousness.
I get to see, “Wow, that approach is more difficult. Why? What does it require differently of me, of my body?” Or maybe, “Wow, that is so much easier the way! What do I get from the variation that I don’t normally have? What can I build to move in the direction of this new-found ease? What might I let go of?” And, perhaps topping the list of important in my book is “Wow, that approach is harder and I am not good at it. How am I with myself when my competency isn’t high? Am I nice to myself? Might I learn to be?”
And so on.
At some point my interest changed from the “How To Do The Shape” domain of study to the “Interest in the Exploration” domain of study. In the “Interest in Exploration” domain, that I notice the difference is what is compelling and vital, not that the difference makes me better or worse at the pose or makes the pose easier or harder to perform. Noticing, rather than performing, is the skill-set being developed.
And of course, there are other games to play beyond the work of observation, noticing, and tending to the cascading effects of the instructions within a pose while we study the the cause and effects of the alignment within ourselves. The work in asana is never-ending and the depths never reached in their entirety. And, so we are clear, I am naming these domains as categories as through they are distinct, when in truth, I think they are intersecting sets, like a Venn diagram. All those different explorations often yield proficiency in execution. And greater awareness will often take us to deeper non-analytical absorption and experience. And a more compassionate relationship with difficulty and a more curious relationship with ease are actually life-skills where as balancing in handstand does not pay the bills, make relationships function smoothly, or provide much in the way of soothing one’s existential angst, fun as handstands may be for some folks.
Well, I am up agains my 1000-word limit so I will close it out now.
I am in Tucson this weekend for 3-day intensive with Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis. This is a yearly team-teaching program we offer and I always look forward to being in his good company and in the supportive community of Yoga Oasis. This is my last out-and-about teaching gig for 2019 and I am taking a few days to go on retreat at my guru’s ashram after I finish. Then I’ll head home from some R&R (Snowboarding, here I come!) and some online program development I will launch early in 2020. (So stay tuned for details on that!)
Love to you all.
The Way it Is
by William Stafford
There’s a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change.
But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. Y
ou don’t ever let go of the thread.
I suppose it sounds a bit trite to say that I am grateful for my practice, given today is the day before Thanksgiving and expressions of gratitude are somewhat obligatory, but I do feel grateful for my relationship to practice. Keep in mind that for me, the notion of practice is not limited to asana but includes those actions in which I repeatedly engage in order to participate in the process of Self-remembering. From lifestyle choices to formal practices to the cultivation of bhav or mood, practice is multi-faceted.
Like any relationship, my relationship to practice has gone through many seasons-- from zeal to avoidance and back, from hope to disillusionment to acceptance, and from externally-referenced to internally-oriented. What I feel most grateful for today is that I have stayed connected to the thread of practice during the various seasonal cycles.
Staying connected to the thread of practice might mean being honest about the fact I am avoiding a life pointed toward consciousness. Staying connected often looks like doing some small thing in the face of seeming futility. Staying connected often means facing boredom, difficulty, and resistance in its many forms. And, of course, there are seasons when my commitment is renewed, when I can savor the sweetness of the fruits of my efforts and I want for myself those things that my practice requires and offers.
In a recent business meeting, I was talking about why I call my programs Live the Light of Yoga and how the name has evolved for me over time. I am no longer interested in living the prescriptions of yoga, in being defined by any one asana style, a set of dietary protocols, a style of meditation, or by notions of what real yoga is or isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, this level of practice is important, but to me, the do’s and don’ts of practice are not an end in and of themselves, but are in service to the awakening of the Light within so that I can truly live the Light.
So, I have landed this consideration smack in the middle of the great paradox of yoga practice— I can’t realize the fruits of practice without the practice and yet, the practice is not the only point. And yet, practice is the thread upon which so much hangs. Personally, I am in a season of finding my various practices enjoyable and enlivening. I feel a congruence with myself as I sit in the mornings for meditation, chant the sadguru arati, and do my simple puja ceremonies. I am enjoying time with my journal, time with my mat and the way these practices give me time with myself. Teaching, too, as many of you know, is another practice and when engaged in a certain way, offers a tremendous transformational pathway.
I am grateful I held onto the thread of practice during the darker times so that I am still in place now that the Light shines more fully. There is no easy formula for it other than to do some small thing, even if that small thing is simply telling the truth that you aren’t doing much of anything. And, as times has passed, one thing I have learned is that while a certain amount of force may be useful at times, that approach is not sustainable over time. I simply can not force myself into something— be that something a pose, a protocol or a perspective— that is not authentic without experiencing some kind of backlash. At some point, I stopped using practice to work on myself and started using it to work with myself. As obvious as it sounds, the pathway toward Love works best when it is, well, loving.
So, that’s what I have today. I know holidays can be a mixed bag for folks for various reasons so I wish for you your own love in the midst of whatever they are for you. I wish for each of us that we hold on to the thread of Love and that we keep practicing in whatever way we can.
I am home from a week-long trip to Texas to teach at Wanderlust Austin in Austin, TX and to help Dad move to Waco. Dad's move is the big news in our family life. After being here for three years, he decided to move to Texas to live closer to Anne and to be near some resources he may need as he need as he ages. It is a big transition for everyone and the move went as well as could be expected. His new place is beautiful-- located a few doors down from Anne's Waco residence, many Baylor faculty members and friends, and close to the church he plans to attend.
The weekend workshop at Wanderlust Austin went well with lots of students I have never met and many I have known for years. I hope to get a little more time than I have this morning to unpack some of my insights from the weekend, the November Intensive in Colorado and my time in Tucson before that. One common theme in each worksop has been the consideration of maturing in practice.
I define practice as those actions we repeatedly make to participate consciously in the process of Self-remembering. For many people the initial foray into practice is a process of learning new things, going along with recommendations, taking advice, following protocols, and getting integrated into a community. Over time, the process of sifting through the information, making more adult choices about what to disregard and what to include comes (often after a period of upset, disillusionment, etc.) and we learn to consciously participate in the process that is transforming us.
I am passionate about the shift from what I think of as passive studentship--waiting for the teacher to say all the right things, to give all the right cues, to create the best sequences (although, to be clear, as a teacher I am committed to doing a good job) to what I think of us as active, adult studentship. Active, adult studentship is collaborative between teacher and student, between the student and the teachings and between the individual and the community in which we practice.
I recently peeked in on a Facebook thread from a seasoned student who was upset that the teacher in whose class she was practicing got upset when she modified a posture and did her own thing for a while. On another thread in the same group, there was a long discussion about what one should do as a student if they needed alternative alignment (such as feet slightly turned out to adjust for a variation in their knee) and the teacher kept insisting they turn their feet straight ahead in classic alignment. And, most of us have been been considering touch, consent and the sticky wicket of hands-on adjustments as of late.
There are a lot of nuances and needs inherent in each situation that are too numerous to name this morning and yet, I am struck by the differences in how I handle those things now compared to how I was trained to deal with them over twenty years ago. Somewhere along the way, I started asking students, "Hey, are you turning your feet out for a reason?" before adjusting them verbally or otherwise. And sometimes the reason is "I had no idea I was doing that" and sometimes the reason is "Yes, because I need this for a structural reason" and sometimes the reason is "I learned it that way" and so on. (And, as a student, I always let my teacher know if I am hurt, tweaky or worried about some type of posture. )
At any rate, that little pause and question has been a revelatory unfolding in my teaching life, allowing me to enter into a dialogue with my students which empowers us both to participate consciously in the teacher-student relationship and saves me the nightmare that comes from assumption-making. None of what I describing is easy, nor has the process of my own maturation in practice, studentship and teaching been smooth. Anyone who knows me knows that I am full of fire, opinions, and perspectives and no one formula works all the time, no matter how sincere the players.
More on these considerations soon.
If you are still reading this entry, then here is my shameless plug for my upcoming program. This program is designed to help support you through the holidays with simple, short, effective means to stay in touch with yourself. Each week, you will get a mantra practice, a breath practice, a writing practice, a visualization practice and an asana practice-- each under 15 minutes and recorded for download. Its a great way to stay connected to yourself throughout the upcoming season so if you feel to busy to do it, that's the best sign that it might be a good thing to do.
Anyway- we start Monday, so sign up!
Off to move some boxes and move some furniture.
“The 15 minutes of practice that you do is better than the 2 hours that you do not do.”
- Christina Sell
Begins November 25
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At the end of a recent interview, the interviewer said, referring to me, that “asana was my thing, my jam…” I replied, “Well, we should be clear that asana is what I am known for. And I have some experience and expertise as a teacher. But asana is not my primary life interest.”
Truth be told, there are plenty of people WAY more interested in postural practice and the mechanisms of bio-mechanical functionality than I am.
Don’t get me wrong— I find the body fascinating. I enjoy movement. I have been blessed to reside in the kind of body/mind for whom exercise and physical activity is largely enjoyable. So sure, I am into it. But mostly, my deep dive into asana was about having an exercise practice that was resonant with my spiritual interests at a time in my life when ordinary exercise modalities triggered dangerous eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors. (Want more of that story? Read my three books. And if you only have time for one, get my latest book. It is the best.)
Asana has never stood alone as the primary practice in my life. My asana studies have always been unfolding in the context of a larger spiritual life with a set of tools that include, and extend beyond, life on a sticky mat.
I have always been a seeker. I was brought up in the Methodist church, daughter of two committed Christians, and while my spiritual education has taken me to ashrams, temples, teachings and communities outside of the Christian faith, there is never going to be a meaningful life for me that doesn’t involve the exploration of my humanity through spiritual precepts, practices and in the company of others who do the same. And my love and respect for the Christian faith endures. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus and what I understand to be his teaching of Love, Forgiveness, Redemption and a unified Spiritual Heart.
More could certainly be said about all of that.
At any rate, for me, asana has never been a separate thing from yoga philosophy, spirituality, and self-inquiry. And while asana has been a lovely, supportive exercise practice for me for many years, the postural practice has always existed within a larger scope of study and my spiritual life has always extended to communities beyond the yoga studio. I would have to ask my astrologer to be sure, but something must have been going on in 1998/1999 because right around that time I started teaching asana, I met my guru, Lee Lozowick and I met Desiree Rumbaugh who introduced me to John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga. And while I loved the alignment principles of the Anusara yoga system and my asana practice blossomed during this time, I was primarily attracted to the fundamental premise and promise that “when a true seeker steps into a greater flow, Grace descends, carries them and reveals their capacity and worthiness to live in that greater flow.”
So, while I am no longer a card-carrying, licensed Anusara yoga teacher, nor do I use that term to describe my teaching work, I am still committed to the first principle of that system of yoga which, when I learned it, was Open to Grace. (I have since been told that the first principles is now Open to Something Bigger, but the machinations of all those shifts are outside the scope of my interest.)
I do not think every asana class needs to be some big sermon about Supreme Consciousness or a big song and dance of mystically-inspired theatre. I lean heavily on biomechanics in my work and spend a lot of time on the postures themselves— how to do them, how to modify them, how to progress toward them, how to back out of them, and so on. And while I have no interest in converting, convincing, or coercing anyone into philosophical teachings or religious orientations they do not feel, I find that asana makes the most sense and is the most satisfying to me when it is referenced in a larger process of awakening.
I have taught my share of atheists, agnostics, and people of faith traditions and belief systems much different than my own. I am sure some people never came back to my class because of the spiritual teachings I have shared. I know for a fact than many of my students have nodded and been polite (and even a bit impatient) with the “spiritual stuff” and just waited for the sermon to end so we could get to the asana. (I say I know this for a fact because many of my students have told me exactly that over the years.)
I have no idea what other teachers should do. I personally like a straight-physical class. I do not mind being responsible for my own spirituality when I go to class. I also love a good sermon, an insightful dharma talk and/or a moving testimony. (Please note, I said “good” sermon and “insightful” dharma and “moving” testimony, which is highly relative and hard to agree on, but that is another entry for another day.)
My point is, I am not suggesting that I have some fixed idea of what anyone else should do. I believe many expressions can be quite wonderful and efficacious.
New and seasoned teachers often ask me about whether or not they should present yoga philosophy in their classes. No one wants to alienate their students. No one wants anyone to experience undue discomfort. And the pain, betrayal and upset related to spirituality and religion seems to know no bounds in this day and age. Like I said, I do not know what other teachers should do. However, I have found that the more I make room for the Christians to be Christians in class, the Mormons to share their faith (yes, I know they are Christians), the Buddhists to be themselves, the atheists to be atheists, the agnostics to be who they are, and the Jewish tradition to be alive in the space and so on, then the people who come to my class get to be who they are and so do I.
The way I see it, it is not only that Grace descends and carries us. Grace arises in our midst when we gather with shared respect and with enough courage to testify to those things that give us strength and hope. When it goes well, Grace arises as us, in and through us and we carry each other.
I wouldn’t want it any other way.
PS- Interested in listening the interview I mention in the opening paragraph? Here it is.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."