Thursday
Jun102010

Superheroes

My talented artist friend, Tobias, makes customized superhero figures. As in, he turns you, and your story, into a superhero (or villain, if that’s your thing). For my birthday he made one of me, complete with back story of my transformation from ordinary yoga teacher into extraordinarily bendy bestower of Samadhi:

 

(You totally want one for yourself. Get it at www.imatoy.com.)

As small children, we learn self-soothing, the ability to calm ourselves down when we are upset. At a young age we need self-soothing primarily so that we can go to sleep without help from parents, but it is also an important skill to learn for life. Self-soothing allows us to successfully negotiate emotional landmines as we get older and can no longer cry for mom to come and fix the problem or take the pain away.

Some of us learn healthy self-soothing techniques as a child and are able to implement them as an adult. Many of us do not, and turn to substances outside ourselves to try and take the pain away, be it food, alcohol, drugs, or sex. Still others rely on those around them to step in and heal the hurt, and are continually disappointed when those needs aren’t met.

One of my favorite superheroes, Wolverine, has the ability to heal himself when physically wounded by regenerating skin, bone and muscle as if the injury never happened. This may not be possible for us ordinary humans, but as adults we can learn self-soothing skills we may not have had the opportunity to learn as children. The philosophy of yoga says, again and again, that the answers to our biggest questions will not be found outside of ourselves, but that only by looking inside will we come into contact with the peace and truth that we need. Successful self-soothing in times of distress are exactly that ability to find peace and truth below the turmoil.

The Hindu pantheon is filled with gods and goddesses – the original superheroes – performing amazing feats of bravery and self-sacrifice. Hanuman, the monkey god, leaps across the ocean to Lanka to save the kidnapped Princess Sita. That same Sita, when her loyalty is questioned, walks through fire to prove her trustworthiness and emerges unscathed. These acts are performed from an unwavering closeness to center, not from a place of self-doubt, fear, or attachment to pain. Of course, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to fly without an airplane or be left unburned by fire, but these are just metaphors for the bravery and strength we all possess.  We can be superheroes when we allow the truth at our center to come to the surface and soothe our pain, like balm to a burn.

This is not to say that we cannot ask our friends for support, advice, or help. It would be unwise to never allow ourselves to be vulnerable to others out of fear of pain or suffering – in fact the etymology of the word vulnerable is wounded – but the healing of our own wounds is something we must address on our own. In the end, we’re on this journey of life with just ourselves, and by reminding ourselves that we are our own greatest source of strength, clarity and love, we are well on the way to living as the superheroes that we all are.

 

“We can be heroes, just for one day.” – David Bowie

 “Our parents raise us to the best of their ability; we must raise ourselves the rest of the way.” – Manorama 

Saturday
May012010

Latin Is The New Sanskrit

I remember one of the first really challenging yoga classes that I took in New York, when I was starting to get serious about yoga (we had dated on and off since I was a senior in college, but I had resisted settling down) sometime around 1999. The teacher spent the first part of class talking about the five kleshas, (Sanskrit for obstacles) and how these obstacles of the mind affected our behavior. I had never heard of kleshas before, but I listened as she went through the list (ignorance, egoism, attachments, aversions, fear of death). We then went into a vigorous vinyasa sequence; I sweated, breathed, relaxed, and left with that yoga high, and with some new knowledge of yoga philosophy.

It didn’t seem out of place for the teacher to bring philosophy into an asana class, and I have since taught many classes that way myself. The practice of yoga is an integration of art and science. As such, it is completely appropriate to approach yoga with the goal of increasing awareness of both your physical habits (through pose adjustments from the teacher to prevent unhealthy patterns) and your mental ones (when the teacher uses yoga philosophy to illustrate a real life experience).

It strikes me as strange, however, that with all the different styles of yoga that are out there, it’s rare to hear a yoga teacher talk about muscles in the classroom. I don’t mean basic alignment cues, as in how much to bend your knee in Warrior 2, or to ground down through your big toe mound in Trikonasana (admit it: you’ve said that one. I have too). I mean actual names of the muscles that the students are using in their bodies at that very moment. Why is this?

I will admit, when I took my first teacher training, the anatomy module was an impregnable fortress of Latin surrounded by putrid swamplands of kinesiology, and I was miserable and confused. Over the years however, and in particular through studying with Jill Miller this past year, my teaching has changed to encompass as much anatomy as I can get away with, because I believe that physiology is as important to communicate to students as philosophy. 

Here’s an example from my class a few days ago: when in Warrior 2 pose, the abducted position of the arms requires two muscles to hold them in place, the deltoids and the supraspinatus. I don’t expect students to already know what or where these muscles are, but I respect them enough to know that they are intelligent and capable of learning by embodying this anatomy themselves, considering they all have bodies to practice with. So I turned around and touched the two muscles on my own shoulder and upper back, and I also demonstrated what commonly happens when the muscles that raise the shoulderblades are unnecessarily contracted as well.

I asked the students to lower their arms, and then with this new knowledge that they had acquired, to raise their arms to shoulder height again using only the two muscles they needed. Fourteen demonstrations of efficient shoulder movement followed, and it made me very, very happy. Will they remember the muscle names? Perhaps, or perhaps not, but they now know it has nothing to do with their neck, and I think they’ll remember that at least. This doesn’t have to live in a vacuum from teaching yoga philosophy, either: when I use that demonstration again (and please, use it too in your own class!) I could even tie it into one of the kleshas, and talk about having attachments to too many things when we can often do what we need with less.

I’m not saying that your flow class has to completely change into an Iyengar-style picking apart of every single pose, but I think taking a few moments here and there to impart some of your study of the body would be invaluable. And if you’re thinking to yourself “But all the muscle names are Latin, and they don’t speak Latin,” I would remind you that none of them speak Sanskrit either, and yet they have learned all the Sanskrit pose names through your repetition, as well as probably several other words that are practically ubiquitous at this point (Namaste, anyone?).

Yoga is a practice of embodiment. The human body is a humbling structure full of stunning, brilliant architecture. Why shouldn’t we learn and teach as much as we can of it to our students? Why shouldn’t students of yoga know as much as their gym-going counterparts, so that they can practice intelligently and avoid injury? Why shouldn’t we as teachers take it upon ourselves to continue learning, to hold ourselves to a higher standard than what is currently required of us (especially since future legislation will likely raise that standard anyway)? Why not, since we are working with people’s bodies, and in a therapeutic capacity, train to the level of a physical therapist? The worst thing that could happen? You might be mistaken for one.

Sunday
Apr182010

Where The Yoga Class Ends

I teach sometimes at a very fancy gym that has several different locations around Los Angeles. The yoga rooms are always lovely, with the latest environmentally-friendly recycled bamboo flooring, plenty of props, and generally located away from the rest of the gym so that there is a modicum of serenity. But try as it might, the yoga room can’t escape the fact that it’s at a gym.

Last week I was in the yoga room at the gym, chatting with a regular student who always shows up a few minutes early, setting up my music, lowering the lights – all run-of-the-mill stuff for a Monday night – when suddenly the door burst open and a sweaty man strode in. Assuming he was there for class, I asked him to please leave his sneakers outside, but he was too engrossed in his iPod to hear me. Without breaking stride, and without acknowledging anyone else, he marched across the room, opened the side door, and left. I had a moment of total confusion before I realized that he had used the room as a shortcut to get to the bathroom on the other side (In sneakers! The horror!) instead of walking around the room.

When you’re at a yoga studio, for the most part, students are aware of good yoga etiquette: don’t barge in during OM, turn your phone off, take off your shoes, make space for other students – the kinds of things that if you don’t already know, others will educate you about pretty quickly. It’s all in service of one idea, which is to be aware of yourself and how your behavior affects those around you, and to create a space that is sacred. However, sometimes this gets lost in translation when the yoga class moves to a different location.

This is not a rant about someone who dared to march through the sacred yoga space: this man was, in his mind, taking the most direct route to the bathroom, through a room that he probably assumed was just an empty workout studio. So it would be unfair to judge him for not knowing the customs that surround the practice of yoga. But it did get me thinking about my own blind spots, and where in my own life I lose awareness. It’s relatively easy to be present and considerate and compassionate, all those things that come through from our higher nature, when we’re surrounded by people who are doing the same. But what about the other 22 ½ hours of the day?

My not-so-compassionate self comes out when I’m driving. I’m going to blame this on my dad, who likes to yell at other drivers (“You, Dad! I learned it from watching you!”) and so set the tone for me. Generally speaking, I refrain from yelling, but I do enjoy creating a heavily sarcastic running commentary of the driving skills of those around me (sample dialogue: “Oh, so pulling in front of me without using your blinker and then slowing down seems like the right thing to do right now? Really!”) While none of them (fortunately) can hear me while I’m doing this, it certainly doesn’t create a serene state of mind for me, and is often followed by my own self-dialogue (“Wow, again with the talking to the other drivers. This does not serve you in any way.”) I take a little consolation in the fact that I do catch myself in the act, but I would rather get to a place where I don’t lose that much awareness.

So this is my question to you: where are your blind spots? And if you’re thinking to yourself, “If I knew what they were, they wouldn’t be blind spots!” then maybe it’s time to practice a little self-awareness as you move through your day. Does someone you work with make you nuts? Do you find yourself behaving poorly when confronted with certain situations? Can we all, maybe, start to expand our idea of where the yoga class ends, so that when we leave the classroom or the studio and walk out into the world, we continue to behave as if we were still there? Maybe if we trick our brains into considering the whole world as a yoga studio, we won’t have to work so hard at trying to stay self-aware! 

Thursday
Apr012010

Richer Than You Think

I spent last week in Toronto assisting Jill Miller’s Yoga Tune Up® workshops at the Toronto Yoga Conference (although since we only saw the hotel and the conference center, we could have just been anywhere with a lot of Canadians). On the shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel, we passed a billboard ad for a bank that had the tagline “You’re Richer Than You Think.” The bank was of course after your Canadian dollars, but as is my long time habit, I put the slogan into my mental yoga filter and thought of the mantra Purnam Adah:


Purnam Adah

Purnam Idam

Purnat Purnam Udacyate

Purnasya Purnamadayah

Purnameva Vasisyate

 

That Fullness

This Fullness

Fullness unto Fullness

Fullness emerging from Fullness

Fullness indeed remains

The mantra reminds us that right here, right now, in every moment, fullness, completeness, wholeness is available to us. There is no greater richness than the ability to be in the present moment with whatever is taking place, whether we perceive it as good or bad, positive or negative, joyous or painful. Those labels that we consciously or unconsciously use to qualify our experiences disappear at the moment that we are able to come into the present moment and be there fully. Greater richness is not waiting for us next year, regardless of the state of our personal finances. There is not a more complete experience to be had later down the line when we are married, or in our dream job, or having a baby – while these can all be positive, rewarding, exciting experiences, they will inevitably disappoint if we do not bring our own fullness to begin with.

This is all very easy for me to regurgitate from the canon of yoga teachings, but what about the reality of trying to make it happen? If our minds are habitually navigating the past or the future and truly challenged by the idea of spending time in the present, then what are we supposed to do?

The answer, according to yoga, is practice. Now this practice may have to begin, for someone whose mind is deeply distracted or agitated, with taking a walk or some other physical activity. Our attention is so constantly drawn away from the here and now – and as a society, we are so actively encouraged away from the present – that for some people, the practice of sitting still that is an integral part of meditation is initially inaccessible. This doesn’t mean that they are beyond capable of getting there, but at first, the nervous system needs quieting. This was what the asana part of yoga was originally designed for – to release tension from the body and mind in order that we might be less distracted. 

When you feel you are ready, the practice becomes sitting quietly and breathing, without concerning yourself with doing anything. (Again, so easy to describe, yet far more challenging to do!) Feel how in that quiet, there is nothing wrong – as Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati described yoga, nothing is missing. There may be circumstances in our life that are upregulating our sympathetic nervous system (or in other words, bothering us) but with practice, we can learn to separate out the conditions of our world from the condition of our mind. The greatest satisfaction we will ever experience is right here, right now. If we can feel that: even for a millisecond – even just for the moment of reading that sentence – we are well on our way to being richer than we think.

 

[Mantra translation by Professor John L Griffin from his essay “A Consideration of Divinity & Consciousness 
With Qualities (Saguna) & Beyond Qualities (Nirguna), 
Focusing on Shiva as a Primary Mediating Symbol 
In the Process of Self-Realization”]

Thursday
Mar042010

Fuzzy Logic

First, watch this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FtSP-tkSug

(Contains cadavers. You have been warned! Also contains Gil Hedley, my new geek crush.*)

What keeps me constantly engaged as a teacher and practitioner of yoga is the endless stream of proof that the body and the mind are not unrelated. As much we tend to walk around as what I like to call “a brain on a stick,” sending messages from the brain to control the body, without considering what the body might need (like sitting in front of a computer for hours on end), it is an unavoidable fact that our mental, emotional, psychological content (which manifests as electrical signals inside the brain and spinal column) directly impacts our bodies, our behaviors, our habits, even the way we walk down the street. I think Gil demonstrates this beautifully when he describes how he used to be a very still person until he realized the negative impact it was having on his body.

The mind-body relationship runs not only from brain to body (“I am a still person, therefore I will not move my limbs”) but from body back to brain as well – as the ‘fuzz’ builds, and our mobility is compromised, so do our attitudes stiffen and our interactions with the world around us decrease in flexibility. The grumpy old man stereotype exists for a reason!

More often than not, when I meet someone and tell them I’m a yoga teacher, their immediate response is “Oh, I’m not flexible at all!” This oddly confessional outburst usually makes me smile – after all, I’m not there to judge someone if they can’t touch their toes – but I think it overlies a deeper held belief. It is fuzzy logic to decide we are something, when that something we decide that we are can change. Obviously there are certain things that are immutable about us – even if I were to dye my hair black, it would continue to grow out red (more and more white, actually), but our ability to find movement and space in our joints is not one of them. Yoga practices remind us of this again and again by returning us to that spaciousness within using a variety of techniques for both body and mind. Our job is to hold on to that spaciousness, keep room within ourselves, so that we continue to reside in a state not of being any one inflexible thing, but simply of being.

 

“Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to the spiritual path.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

 

*geek crush: when you have a crush on someone’s skills, talent, brains.