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Why teach yoga?

 

It seems like a necessary time to ask myself that question.

Today is my first day back after road tripping across the country to marry my partner in crime, the one and only Jeff, and I am now preparing to co-lead a Brahmrishi Yoga teacher training with some incredible teachers- all of whom I have the utmost respect and admiration for and owe a lot for my teaching style.

So, it seems like the perfect time to pause and reflect on the growth I have had over the past almost decade of both being with Jeff and studying Brahmrishi Yoga before we travel into our new growth together. Funny the marriage and training are beginning within months of each other.

Why do I teach yoga?

To keep reviewing and learning

I remember in being in one of Bill’s legendary philosophy talks in my 200 level training and thinking, “Ok. That sounds right to me. Got it. Makes sense.” I laugh at that now as I know that the space between hearing a concept, understanding it in yourself and living with it is a vast canyon. One that is filled with huge boulders that cast a shadow on the Self, rivers that seem to sweep details away and at least one place where you lose the trail. Even if you’ve hiked that one before.

Teaching weekly yoga classes is a way for me to keep the trail clear and fresh. Like writing on the chalkboard a million times to remember my lessons. I remind myself to keep looking for what I didnt see before and to keep in mind that these lessons are imbedded in me which means they are evolving and changing along with me.

To have a philosophy to look to when life is confusing

Yawns are contagious. Negativity is contagious. Positivity is contagious. It is easy for me to get carried away, overwhelmed and confused in life. A good friend once critiqued me for needed more structure and as time goes on I see how right he was.

The appeal about yoga and it’s philosophy is that is gives me an outline, but it is my responsibility to understand exactly what that outline means to me. How does it function in my life? It doesn’t save me from the work of having to go inside and search for answers, but it gives me a starting point. I have grown to find a lot of comfort in that.

To serve life

There are many many ways we all serve others and do our duties on Earth. I have decided that part of my service is to hold a space for others in yoga practice. I teach yoga as a sign of gratitude for what I have learned and to honor the teachers and teachings that have had such an impact on my life. I feel that I am a better person from practicing yoga. And secretly aside I don’t think I would be entering a marriage without the yoga study. I have learned to be less rigid, to listen, to empathize, to be wrong, and maybe most importantly that I am here and I matter. I don’t have an option not to act- so it is my duty to choose my actions and to acknowledge my duty. The third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita calls me back again and again.

To keep the lessons of yoga fresh

I can do all the planning and studying in the world, but it is in a class with students where I am continually refreshed and make discoveries. Each class is a unique interaction where I have so many opportunities to learn. So much so that the terms “teacher” and “student” aren’t really adequate. It is a collaboration. I am so honored to be able to hold space for a class, but I know I’m not so much “teaching” as listening and trying to communicate what I am hearing from students.

Namaste. I bow to you.

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A case for wearing yoga pants every day

Learning to Walk Performed at MOCA Cleveland- May, 2013

Learning to Walk Performed at MOCA Cleveland- May, 2013

Ok I admit this title is a little misleading. I wrote it earnestly for this piece, but ended up hearing insults thrown at women who wear yoga pants in public. Maybe this is partly a response to that, but not really. One reason is that there are more issues at play there than I will get into here and another is that I am writing this not just for women, but men too.

I’m not interested talking about fashion and this isn’t about small or big thighs or whether or not your underwear or cellulite is showing. Be you a lady or a gent this is an argument for wearing “yoga pants”- or gym shorts, sweat pants or any other loosely fitting or stretchy clothing that allows your body to move freely.

There’s the simple point- wear clothes that you can move freely in. Then move freely.

Put these two images in your mind. One of a person wearing any kind of stretchy pants and a loose but well fitting t shirt. The next of the same person in a neatly tailored suit.

If you or I were to see these images we might think that the first image was of the person on the weekend, lounging and lazy or perhaps prepared for recreation or exercise. We might not expect that person to be prepared to make creative decisions or problem solve.

We might assume that the second image was of that person in professional life. We might assume that person held a position of some kind of importance, which may or may not be true, but that is what the outfit, at least in part, exudes. This type professional attire asks for respect and promises results. This person is a problem solver and get’s the job done. And while there is nothing ‘wrong’ with this, chiseled clothing may not only be uncomfortable but it also allows our bodies take the guise of a predetermined shape. With rigid fabric it is also a shape that also has a predetermined range of motion and potentially inspires a predetermined range of thoughts. It may seem like a long shot to connect a lack of creativity with clothing constraints, but how many of us have felt stuck in a problem, then unstuck after moving around a bit? Even the words stuck and unstuck imply motion. What happens when motion is unnecessarily hindered?

Watching the State of the Union address last week, I wondered what it would be like if government showed up for work in flip flops and track pants. Are neckties cutting off blood and oxygen to the brain? Jokes aside- of course problems need a lot more than comfy pants to come to a solution- the ability to move your body to it’s fullest extent may refresh and inspire the mind to move to its fullest extent also. Here is a snippet of research for what it’s worth- http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/261667.php

If you practice yoga asanas you know that in the practice we explore our bodies and how they move. In the process we learn about ourselves- we learn about the capacity of our body and step by step, with awareness and breath, we move into new territories and create shapes that before may not have been possible.

We also move through koshas, or layers of our beings, from the physical body to energetic body, then to emotions, thoughts, wisdom and finally spirit. One by one, practice by practice, we dive into the layers of who we are. This process takes time and is accompanied with many boundaries and borders- some useful, some not. How and when are the boundaries of our clothing useful and when not?

Now, I am sure that for some a suit can fuel inspiration in the work day and yoga clothes might make some feel lazy, wear what you like- I’m not proposing a mass cultural change- just asking ‘what if.’ While I’m at it, I am in no way suggesting that those who do not have much, or any, motion do not explore their minds. We all work within the range of our own capacities and grow relative to ourselves and in our own way.

And finally-back to the more feminine view of clothes that take the shape of our bodies rather than expecting the reverse. That is worth exploring in a future article.

why now

In yoga we often focus on the present moment. Whether we are honing in on how our breath is moving, how our body feels in an asana, or how we react when that person says that thing- we are training to observe what is happening here and now.

This practice can be incredibly calming and empowering. Moment by moment we take notice of what comes and what goes, riding the wave of life with less and less friction. Through observation we learn about our selves. We learn what we can control and what we can’t. We are less overwhelmed. Slowing down, letting the moments decompress helps to find feelings of peace- we’ve heard all this before right?

But what about the past and the future? With this emphasis on the present moment what does yoga philosophy say about the past and future?

I had been thinking about this lately, but was inspired to write this down once a friend expressed the view that focusing on the present denies the past and future. Then, if there is no past or future how can there be a present?

I picked up my book that interprets both Kapila’s Samkhya philosophy and the Yoga Sutras. It was written by my teachers Margot and Bill Milcetich. I can’t say I have any sort of answer to my question, but here is something to get the ball rolling.

The past. The Yoga Sutras outline five modes of the chitta. Chitta can be described as the house of our intellect, ego and mind. One of the modes is memory. To me, this seems to addresses the role of the past. Margot and Bill’s book states that memory is, “the reconstruction of the past that is useful in the present.” Our past experiences create our lens through which we see the present.

In the Secret Life of the Brain, a 5 part pbs series, it is interesting how the adult brain uses emotions from past experience in the present. Watch it here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/brain/episode4/index.html

The future. This was a little harder for me to suss out. My knowledge of the text didn’t point me to a specific passage that spoke directly of the future. The only thing I can think of here is that the second chapter on practice is intended to alleviate our suffering. This chapter is a guideline of work we can do in preparation for a future moment that opens the possibility for us to suffer less.

If you have any insights on yoga and the ghosts of past, present and future please comment below. I know I will be bringing these questions to a future satsang.

For now, my experience tells me that focusing on the present moment allows me to be alert and clear for the daily decisions I need to make. My thoughts have space to be thought and (potentially) understood. This practice is preparing me to act appropriately in the way is required of me.

Where I feel the present moment focus falls short is if we use it as a way to escape our responsibilities. If we forget the lessons that are there to be learned from past experience or if we pretend that a future issue is not impending. I don’t believe this is how the practice is intended to be used, but the possibility is there to use the idea of the present moment to escape or postpone our real work.

photos are extinct moments/documentation of movement

photos are extinct moments/documentation of movement

Yoga Traveler

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In a glacier carved lake in northern Montana, cold and exhilarating, I float on my back for as long as I can. With my ears under the surface of the chilled water my breath echos a rhythm. Above me the sky is clear blue, with a sporadic cotton ball cloud and a mountain in my periphery. Below me, if I were standing, I could look through the clear water to my feet. I give in to the feeling of weightlessness. I settle in to the soft and electric water.

 

I was happy to be in this place, happy to release tension and stress, happy to rest with nothing to do. Later, I thought about the nature of getting away from it all and wondered about the power that taking a break from normal routines and landscapes has to refresh us. So many of us dream of being “on a beach somewhere” and that “where” is often not “here.”

 

Traveling is something that I truly adore. My favorite is exploring nature. Mountains, streams, different shapes and shades of green. It is stunning to walk through trees and think about ecosystems that are working their own cycles. I often look at a tree and think that my whole life has happened and that tree has been growing in that spot the entire time. Along with the magnificent and breathtaking, I also look forward to the mundane. I love to reap maps, look at unfamiliar streets and walk into unfamiliar grocery stores. It’s about my body moving into new space. A journey into the unknown.

 

This got me thinking about something my teacher, Bill, often says which I will paraphrase here: You are always in new space. The Earth, a little rock hurling through the universe, is always encountering new space. The same four walls around you are just tricking you into thinking the space between them is the same. That which is fresh and amazing is always around you- and within you.

 

I feel that this is the yoga journey. We may keep a steady practice of the same asanas and pranayama, but we are always finding ourselves on new paths. The difference between this and traveling with our bodies is that inside of us there is no map. Well, some might say there is, and maybe there is, I’ve just lost mine. I see a dense thick of vegetation (confusion/clutter) that holds many paths, some well travelled and some overgrown. I look at the maps I have created in the past and they seem to be wrong. Each time I focus on my breath and practice I am mapping that vegetation, getting rid of some and cultivating some. If I’m away too long, I come back and everything has grown over. Each time I practice there is something interesting to explore. There is a thought or sensation that grabs my attention. Sometimes I know which path I’m heading for when I begin practice, sometimes I don’t.

 

At first glance, traveling through my internal world didn’t seem as appealing as witnessing the magnificent landscapes on this planet. Through the internal focus of yoga, I can witness that which is vast and stunning within me. That which is there all the time, regardless of where I am physically. Yoga teaches us that this is the thing that is vast and stunning within all of us. Practice lights up a torch inside of us so we can see what’s inside differently. And while my internal experience doesn’t look like the mountains or sky or ocean, it’s got it’s own way of soothing me. Even though I sometimes yearn to get away, my yoga practice reminds me that it’s good to be home.

 

 

 

paths crossed

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Weaving the web of life more vast than thought

I ran into an old college buddy at a wedding last week. I met him my freshman year in college, living on my own for the first time in 2002. We had a good bond, but stayed acquaintances through our time in college and had since lost contact for six years or more. Right before “you may kiss the bride” he leaned in and said, “We need a giant om session right now.”  I wanted to start the  “you’re into yoga too?!?!” conversation, but obviously it wasn’t the right time. Later though, I learned that he’s been teaching yoga in Denver for three years or so. He said, “Remember that time we didyoga in Johnson Hall (in 2002 or 2003)? After that I discovered if I did yoga four hours a week my migraines stopped.”

I was struck because I remembered myself at that time. Despite partying a lot, I was planting the seed of a yoga practice that was unknowingly beginning to grow into a lifestyle. Over time yoga has taught me an awareness that has changed and continues to change my life. It has become a basis of how I learn and make decisions. It has strengthened the tools I need to achieve my goals. It has given me a way to relax, find peace and feel better.

So there we were, kids trying out an experience together, feeling out what life had to offer and choosing which direction was right for us. This experience would stay with each of us as we traveled through life. Our paths crossed for short time and over a decade later, when they cross again, we are both amazed at what we’ve seen.

The image of a maple tree comes to mind. Green seeds equipped with helicopter flight gather nutrients from the mother tree. When the time is right and these seeds have properly browned, they detach from the mother and begin separate journeys. From there each story is unique- some seeds root down, some are eaten up, some torn apart by curious hands. Whatever their story, they take their common experience of the mother with them.

The point of writing this is that through this yoga journey I’ve often thought about my own curious and winding path. However, in our yoga classes or satsangs or heart to heart conversations or any time we gather and look and learn together we are all green seeds connected together through the mother of that experience. As the wind takes over our wing, we disperse but the experience stays. Some of us connect to the same tree over and over again with the same seeds. Some seeds connect up for only a moment before the winds of life spread us apart.

It is beautiful to think of how, for a fleeting moment, something that made a difference to me was also making a difference to you. And we didn’t know it. And we may have never known it. And there is much that we will never know.

Every person you come in contact with is a seed connected to your experience. That experience goes with both of you to the next tree.

Balance

In the middle of a workshop I was teaching about hips, I observed myself explaining why awareness of your body is valuable when working through asana/postures. I talked about diving into your experience and discovering what you need to do to bring your muscles into balance and your bones into alignment.

I believe what I said. By paying attention to the subtleties of how we hold our bodies and use our muscles we can alleviate pain caused by a misalignment we somehow programmed in ourselves somewhere along the line.

At that moment, however, I felt an incredible urge to stress that this practice of finding balance doesn’t come from a place of needing to be “fixed” or searching for “perfection.” We are not “bad” if we are out of balance and “good” if we are in balance. Even if we do manage to find balance it will probably be momentary and fleeting, like a sandcastle built up near the incoming tide or like the ever fluctuating energies of life. Even though I am dedicated to the practice of yoga, I may always walk around with hips out of balance. And this is ok.

I did not say any of these things to the class. The time we had left together was fleeting and the focus of the class was different. Nonetheless, there I was standing in front of a group of people teaching them the necessary tools to find balance but at the same time wanting to tell them that it is an ever changing fantasy that we need not be fixated on. A balancing yoga practice can ease pain and bring more emotional ease, but it’s not like a day comes where we achieve balance and are done with it.

My internal dialogue went something like this, “We do these poses to find more balance in our bodies…. But there is nothing wrong with you that needs to be fixed….Then why do this practice…. to find balance….”

This seeming contradiction strikes me as interesting. In this practice of yoga, I feel that there is a ‘balance’ to find between precision/determination in actions directed toward change and observation/acceptance of what is.

And this is where the contradiction falls apart. While I focus and observe the muscles in my hips that are out of balance (or a thought pattern or behavior etc.) I can still surrender and accept it for what it is. I can watch it grow, wither and change.

Through a balancing yoga practice I can learn how to participate in the delicate and magnificent dance that is energy. I can learn about what it means to be in a body in this life. I can become a witness to my fluctuations between pleasure and pain.

Balance is not a finish line that a yoga teacher tells you to aim for. It is not a point that is attained. It is a movement, an acknowledgement of what is.

This poem, written by Christian O’Keeffe says it all.

“In that moment when my skin becomes one with the graffitied train I listen by rivers,” he wrote. “That place where I belong. My eyes sail like driftwood to become one with the color blue, and give up my body to that sweetness which is neither pleasure nor pain. Which is nameless. Which is me.”

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