Entries in yoga (10)


Sound Asleep

Ever since I first started writing a yoga blog, I’ve had some interesting online interactions. I suppose it’s inevitable when you put yourself out there publicly that you are somewhat vulnerable to anyone that comes your way. The first interesting interaction my friends and I refer to as ‘the Swiss Family Robinson incident’: I received an email from a Swiss man who was apparently “traveling to your area” with his family over the summer and wanted to book 10 private sessions for his family with me. He also felt very, very strongly that he needed to pay me in advance for all 10 sessions. I played along for a few emails, on the off chance that this highly unusual request in somewhat poor English was actually real, but I refused to take the payment bait, which caused his English to become increasingly erratic and oddly full of blessings. Needless to say, Swiss Family Robinson didn’t exist. Neither did the Japanese man who emailed a few weeks later who was also “traveling to your area” and – what a coincidence – wanted to book 10 private sessions in advance.

[I know of at least one other yoga teacher this has happened to, and all I can say to these scammers is: dudes, we’re generally not the wealthiest. You might want to finesse your target.]

So I was primed to be suspicious when I received this email the other day:

Subject: Just following up: the Sound Asleep pillow STILL rocks

[I have to interject here to note that this was the first email I had received on the subject.]

Hi Sarah,

Just wanted to touch base with you on my email from last week regarding the Sound Asleep Comfort pillow. We’d really love to send a free product sample your way for review consideration on your health blog, Sarah Court yoga.
In case we weren’t clear on our first email, the Sound Asleep comfort pillow comes with a built-in speaker that will play sound from your portable music device – but feels just as comfortable as any other pillow you have on the bed already!


[Something about that entire sentence cracks me up. Like it says, “It may sound uncomfortable to try and fall asleep with a speaker under your head, but it’s really delightful, if you didn’t get that from our first email – which we didn’t actually send to you!”]


This is going to be a very popular new product that will make bedtimes easier for kids and also for adults who might have trouble sleeping. We know, it’s hard to believe something like this exists but that’s why we can’t wait for you to test-nap it for yourself. Please let me know if I can send one your way today! 

As it turns out, this email was neither Swiss nor Japanese but in fact real. To be on the safe side, I gave them the address of a studio where I teach to send me the pillow. I also said very, very clearly that although they were free to send me a pillow, I doubted that I would review it. That was apparently fine with them, as I am now in possession of said pillow.

This is not going to be a pillow review piece, in large part because the pillow is still sitting unopened in my living room. Somehow I can’t bring myself to try it, not because I think it’s necessarily a bad product (although I do wonder why the speaker needs to be IN your ear and not just next to the bed). It’s just that I find it odd to be in a position of product review. I know it’s not unusual for bloggers, and it makes me feel like I should play along and be more mercenary-minded and see what else I could get. But that’s not what this space is for, and I don’t think it’s why any of you read this.


So here we go:

Dear Sound Asleep people,

Thank you for sending me one of your pillows, even though I was very ornery about whether or not I would even review it. Your willingness to give me one anyway is lovely. After a certain amount of wrestling with the idea, I’m choosing not to review it on my site, because I don’t feel that product reviews of anything are in line with my goals for my blog. Perhaps this is foolish and I should get with the program and start accumulating free stuff. But as my teacher Sharon Gannon used to say, “You get more stuff, and then you just have more stuff you need to clean.” I’m giving the pillow to my brother: if he gives me any sort of review, I’ll let you know.




Mea Culpa

This is what happens when you edit and write for one blog, and then agree to submit twice monthly articles to another blog. The blog that you started more than a year ago when you didn't know if anyone was listening and you just had to get some stuff out - i.e., this blog here that you're reading right now, gets relegated to the status of the once loved family dog that is now an afterthought ever since proper children arrived.

This blog is not an afterthought. This blog is my firstborn. Well, technically, this blog is my firstborn, but let's not split hairs. Suffice to say: I am writing things. They will go up. On this blog here. When will that happen? That is an excellent question. In the meantime: I have not forgotten you, my three blog readers. Funny things have happened. You will be reading about them soon. If you would rather not be checking the blog to see if I've done it, you can subscribe over on the right and you'll get an email from me when it's happened.

Thank you for reading along. There are more of you than I ever thought there would be. I haven't forgotten you!!



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.


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! 


Denial: Not A River In Egypt

Suffering comes in many forms. Sometimes it is emotional pain, sometimes physical, and sometimes your whole world literally comes crashing down around you (if you haven’t already, please donate to the Red Cross or another reputable relief organization working in Haiti, and re-count your blessings).

For the most part, we are fortunate enough to be sound in body and mind, and to be surrounded by a fair amount of creature comfort. It is easy in the midst of a crisis on Haiti’s scale to dismiss our individual sufferings as unimportant, and perhaps some of them are overblown, but as Daniel Stewart reminded me the other day in class, “It is not our feelings that are wrong, but our judgment of our feelings.”

I want to write about denial, because it strikes me as possessing a powerful, serpentine ability to wrap itself around any situation and squeeze the truth out of it. When a person undergoes a great tragedy on the scale of Haiti’s earthquake, the mind often enters a state of shock as a way to protect itself from the horror of its surroundings. In a less dramatic situation, denial can be our mind’s way of protecting us from a painful truth that we are not yet ready or able to deal with. We may convince ourselves that our partner’s excessive drinking isn’t a problem, or that our credit really isn’t that bad, or that the one that got away is still in love with us.

In my late teens and early twenties I grappled with an eating disorder, helped along by both a modeling career and a pretty fragile sense of self-worth. Eventually someone convinced me to go to a therapist, and at our first session he asked me what was going on with my eating. I gave some long-winded, run around answer about not having a choice because of work, and that I knew what I was doing, and how I had everything totally under control. I’ve never forgotten how he just looked at me and replied, “Wow. I should’ve given you a cane and a top hat to go with that tap dance you just did.” His brutal honestly was a great gift, because I knew he was right, and on some level I had been waiting for someone to call me out on what I was doing. It wasn’t the end of the struggle, but it was the start of my way out.

Like many coping mechanisms, denial works until it no longer works. As denial leaves the body, we feel the suffering we have been avoiding. As it loosens its grip on the mind and on the heart, and truth flows back in, we are flooded with feeling, just like the prickling sensation of blood flowing back into a limb that has fallen asleep.

We must be gentle in this process. We must commend our bravery, our willingness to look deeply and honestly at how we are in the world. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali tells us that future pain can be avoided, but the catch is that it’s not by trying to avoid it. Instead, as we slowly and steadily awaken to the truth of who we are and allow that truth to determine our future behavior, we will eventually and inevitably no longer need to go down that river in Egypt.  


YS II.16 heyam duhkham anagatam

Pain that has not yet come is avoidable.

(translation from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda)