what are they teaching out there?

depaul panel

 

The other night I was one of the speakers on this panel discussion in Chicago. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I was invited to be on this panel by The Breathe Network.  The Breathe Network is an excellent online resource for trauma survivors looking for practitioners of holistic modalities and I am proud to be a member.

It was a great event with a big turnout. The other three presenters spoke about their modalities, Biofeedback, Holistic Psychotherapy, and Reiki. I learned from all three presenters and what was interesting was that we all had a single thing in common, as noted by the moderator:  the BREATH and HOW WE BREATHE can change things for us mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Many of you know that I am a long time student (10+ years) in the Krishnamacharya Yoga tradition and that the Yoga I teach is all about the breath, a breath centered practice.  I have seen how conscious breathwork can change lives.  Yes, literally, such as with trauma survivors and people with anxiety attacks and major stress.  They learn to self-regulate just as the ancient yogis, the sramanas, discovered that asana and breath can regulate their internal systems.

“Trauma sensitive” and “trauma informed” Yoga are buzzwords in modern Yoga but when I did my four day Trauma Sensitive Yoga training at The Trauma Institute, I realized how the training was a retooling of what I learned at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram insofar as therapeutic yoga.  It was nothing new to me.  The only thing new was the information about the physiology of trauma, the parts of the brain that are affected, and some languaging, the “technical” stuff.

Before I did that training in 2011 I had already been teaching for 6 years to survivors at a domestic violence shelter starting in 2005.  I intuitively knew that what I had learned in India and from my own insight meditation practice would help them.  And it did, tremendously — because it was a breath centered Yoga practice.  The survivors learned how to be in charge of their own physiological systems.

After our 90 minute discussion we had breakout groups where attendees could ask us questions.  I had handouts of articles (one that I wrote) about how Yoga helps with PTSD.  More than a few young people (“young” meaning college age students) took my handouts and then it got interesting — they started telling me about their experiences in Yoga studios.  Note that this was in Chicago so they were talking to me about studios there.

I preface what comes next by saying that I no longer attend public Yoga classes so I don’t know what people are teaching nowadays.  If I do go to a studio it will be to my teacher’s class at the studio where I certified as a teacher 15 years ago (one of the first studios to open in Chicago.)

I take that back — I DID go to a class just last week.  It was a gong meditation plus Yoga class and one of my students came with me.  I know that every teacher is trained differently, has his/her own style, and I am 200% sure there are many who would hate my classes and probably with a vengeance.  But I was stunned at the practice.  Shocked even.

The teacher was also a “woman of a certain age” and whom I know has been teaching longer than me.  There was absolutely no attention paid to the breath.  In fact, I could not even catch my breath because the sun salutation was so fast.  I decided (of course!) to move at my pace with my own breath ratio.

My long time student was incredulous and instead of a calming, grounding practice to go into an hour long gong session (by the way, I was NOT expecting a gentle or restorative practice, just a more mindful one) I felt completely agitated.  This is the reason why I no longer attend public classes taught by teachers whose teaching styles I don’t know.

Each person at my table at DePaul asked me “where do I find a class as you describe?”  Because EACH student told me “I take Yoga but …”  It’s “competitive.”  A “work out.”  “No one talks about the breath.” “I feel intimidated.”  “How should I breathe?”  “They don’t teach meditation.”  If I lived in Chicago instead of 40 miles away I’d probably have a dozen new students now.

Finally, what made me sad was a trauma survivor who told me she went through a teacher training program at a corporate Yoga studio chain.  I won’t say which one but they are all over Chicago and other big cities.  Many times they open down the street from independent studios.

She told me that she went there looking for a more meditative, what she called “spiritual,” YTT.  Instead, she told me the training triggered her PTSD, so much so that she completely stopped her own Yoga practice.  What was worse, she told me, that when she tried to tell her trainers what was happening with her, no one knew how to help her.

She finished the training but no longer practices.  She told me that in order to teach she knows she has to work on herself.  She asked me how to get back on the Yoga horse.  I said slowly and recommended Sarah Powers’ book, Insight Yoga, and her DVDs.  I gave her my card, it was all I could do, and told her to contact me if she got stuck.

After listening to the questions and comments, I was re-inspired to create a teacher training so I had better get my ASSana in gear before I go to India in November.  But I am SO STUCK, I don’t know where to start.  Mainly because I don’t know where to begin in writing a manual.  You can’t charge $3,000 for a training and not have a manual, people expect one after dishing out the dough.  But I only know how to teach OLD SCHOOL, the way I am taught in India.  You sit down, listen, and take notes.  In all my years at KYM the only handouts I have are from asana and meditation classes.  Ten plus years of notes will make a kick ass YTT.  I’ve already decided that this book will be the class text.

But when the day comes when I have a Metta Yoga: Mind-Body Education training you can bet your ASSana that I will have sliding scale payment for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and vets with PTSD.

What the hell are they teaching out there?

 

 

 

 

Who are YOU?

original upload by Life Essentials Institute http://lifeessentialsinstitute.com/
original upload by Life Essentials Institute http://lifeessentialsinstitute.com/

“When we cling to an identity, we create rigidity within ourselves that limits our ability to engage spontaneously with the world. We become bonded to images of ourselves that have grown out of this rigidity, and anything that threatens these images has the potential to collapse our sense of self. We fear a loss of face, a loss of self, a loss of identity. Clinging to a set identity keeps us trapped in old patterns and causes needless pain and suffering.”  (Life Essentials Institute)

I’ve been dealing with a shit load of pain and suffering since June 1.

I have a mid-shaft spiral fracture of the 5th metatarsal of my left foot.  I broke my foot dancing, barefoot, something that I love more than Yoga.  For two weeks I was in a cast and was told to absolutely not put any weight on my foot and therefore was given crutches.  Practicing trying to go up and down the bottom step of a staircase, the tip of my crutch stayed in one place and I kept going.  Putting my hand out to save my foot I broke my left radius two weeks after breaking my foot.  After x rays I was told if you’re going to break a wrist, mine was the “perfect fracture” to have — nothing displaced, my metacarpals still sitting perfectly atop my radius and ulna at 12 degrees.

A few days after the wrist I received a second opinion from an orthopedic surgeon on my foot.  The second opinion was on foot surgery that supposedly was the “only thing” that would fix my broken bone according to the first doctor, a podiatrist.  Take it from me, NEVER go to a podiatrist for anything other than cutting your toenails and even then I would think about it.  At the time I had no other choice but to go to this foot doctor.

After laughing at my cast the ortho surgeon told me he NEVER casts or does surgery on a break like mine.  He told his assistant to remove my cast.  Like yesterday.  I now wear an air boot and can walk, besides having the brace on my wrist.

The thing is, had I not had the cast I would not have had the crutches and therefore would not have fallen off my step and broke my wrist.  Unfortunately, according to an attorney, my broken wrist is not large enough money- and aggravation-wise to warrant a lawsuit against the podiatrist for professional negligence.

Life changes in a second.

I have no income this summer because I can not teach.  But I have lots of time to think and what I began thinking about — after the first 10 days of anxiety attacks which I never experienced before in my life coupled with deep depression — was identity.

So much came up during the first two weeks of basically being bed ridden with a cast because I was warned off walking (although I used a knee walker to get around): teaching yoga, cancelling my classes for the summer, having to cancel a weekend teacher training I was going to give, possibly cancelling my trip to India at the end of August (which is more than a personal trip, it is a tour I am being paid to do), how my body has changed, how soon can I get back to MY NORMAL LIFE.

Of course I know that a broken foot and wrist are nothing in the grand scheme of things because I…

did not lose a limb
did not suffer traumatic brain injury
did not become paralyzed
was not diagnosed with cancer or another catastrophic disease
am not going blind
and no one died.

But it still changed my life.

For moi, a very active woman of a certain age, to come to such a screeching halt, is a mind-fuck.

I thought:
WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING AND WHO THE HELL AM I?

It dawned on me:
I am not a yoga teacher, it is only what I do.

Even with all my training in India, the thousands of hours I’ve put in, If I stopped completely, never taught again, how important is all that, really?  As Grace Slick used to sing, it doesn’t mean shit to a tree.  Life goes on and people move on.

No standing asana but sitting and supine and lots of pranayama and meditation.  And that got me thinking as it did here 7 years ago:

If you are in your 40s or 50s or 60s, why are you still doing a yoga practice as if you were in your 20s? get real. be authentic.

“I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.”

I thought about all the yoga selfies out there — handstands, sick arm balances, crazy back bends, acro yoga, poses on top of a cliff during a sunrise or sunset, always looking for the newest Yoga Thing.

I don’t give a rat’s ass if I ever do another headstand or chatarunga again.  

Yeah, I said that.

How does modern American yoga become someone’s identity?

Because one day you won’t be able to accomplish a handstand, an arm balance, a pretzel back bend, or maybe might not be able to walk outside to pose on a clifftop.  You might not be able to even see a sunset or sunrise.  Old eyes get glaucoma.

Writer and long time yoga teacher Charlotte Bell commented on this blog’s Facebook page: “Yoga was never intended to keep you from aging, getting sick or injured, or dying. Aging is not a mistake. It is written into our DNA. Anyone who thinks yoga will keep them from aging is in for a big disappointment. What yoga can do is to help us navigate reality with love and grace.”

Love and Grace.  I learned long ago that I can only get that from me not from any outside source.  So why am I freaking out about my so-called NORMAL LIFE being ripped away from me?  That’s why the words in the first quote hit me in the gut (to paraphrase):

became bonded to the image of myself as a dancer/yoga teacher/yoga student.  My broken bones threatened those images and collapsed my sense of self.  I feared a loss of face, a loss of self, a loss of identity. Clinging to a set identity kept me trapped in an old pattern and caused needless pain and suffering.

WHO ARE YOU?  REALLY?

not a yogi

Whether you are a teacher, massage therapist, healer, paralegal, lawyer, business owner, whatever it is that you DO…

if you could not do THAT anymore, WHO ARE YOU, REALLY?  You can always change that identity of what you do like you can change one blanket for another.  But when you are laid bare, WHO ARE YOU?

The best thing I can do for myself right now is to take care of ME.  To NOT worry about my classes or about whether my students will return after such a long hiatus or about teaching ever again.  All that is not worth it because I AM WORTH SO MUCH MORE THAN ANY OF THAT.  

Earlier this year a wise woman told me that 2015 will be the YEAR OF ME, that my word for 2015 is DONE, that I have put myself out there for so long for other people via learning and teaching, that now it’s my turn.  I finally get it.

And whatever you do, PLEASE don’t tell me ALL THINGS HAPPEN FOR A REASON, that I broke my bones because it’s a “training.”  Bullshit.  

Because sometimes shit just happens.

the walking wounded: when Love and Yoga aren’t enough

screamBy now the world knows that Robin Williams killed himself.  How shocking it is when someone who appeared so manic, so funny, suddenly decides they no longer want to live because the pain of their life — no matter how “good” or successful it looks like to outsiders — becomes too much to bear.

I tried to kill myself when I was 16.

I have had the rep for a long time of being some type of bad ass bitch.  One who always tells it like it is, no holds barred, a Kali Ma.  I have heard that local yoga teachers consider me to be “hard to approach.”  I have been told that I am not the type who “gives hugs” to people.  I’m the bad cop to your good cop.

My humor has always been self-deprecating and I always put on a good mask.  I hate talking about myself and any time someone asks me how I am or what I’ve been doing lately I usually redirect the conversation back to them or onto another topic — because if I told you how I really felt you’d probably run away.

Depression is always a few steps away.  A number of years ago PTSD reared its ugly head again after a huge emotional incident that brought back buried memories of emotional abandonment.  Here I was a woman in my late 50s and feeling like a blubbering baby on the inside when I had to put on the happy face to the outside world, the wise teacher face to my students.  I was dying inside.

When I feel it sneaking up I am mindful of the physical sensations.  I do my breathing, I am aware.  I’m a yoga therapist, I have the tools.  I’ve been trained very well.  The best teachers about suffering are the ones who have walked through Hell, not the ones who have only read about it.

But sometimes all that Love and Yoga just isn’t enough.

Every day I make great effort to wake up grateful for what I have and I truly am.  I am blessed to live where I live, to have the house that I do, to be able to travel to India 8 times.   People tell me “I wish I were you” or “I want your life so that I can [fill in the blank.]”  And I think, really?  If they only know what a mess I feel like I am most of the time.  Never envy someone else’s life because you don’t know the shit they’ve been through.

I was emotionally and physically abused by my mother.  Or the woman I thought was my mother because my sister could have been my mother.  I moved out when I was 18 and never looked back.  When the woman who raised me wasn’t bragging to people about how brilliant I was in school she was telling me I should have been an abortion.

I found out last year that I was lied to about my heritage — I am not 50/50 German-Polish as I was told, but I am Polish-Native American-Mexican, proven via three genetic tests.  Someone has some ‘splainin’ to do but anyone who could tell the truth of my birth is dead.  I was ecstatic to finally confirm what I have always intuited but I very quickly nosedived into rock-bottom despair because of the lies that were told to me.

I was sexually assaulted in college before the term “date rape” was invented.  After that I was in an abusive relationship where my drunken boyfriend would throw me up against a wall, wrap his hand around my neck and push me up until my feet were off the ground.  But I still managed to get As in all my classes and my teachers loved me.

I watch how much I drink because I know I could very easily fall back into using alcohol to dull the pain.  I wasn’t called the Acid Queen for nothing.  When my first husband pushed me into the edge of a table and I cracked my back the doctor gave me Valium for the pain.  I quit that shit cold turkey and it wasn’t easy.

A person can seem to have it all and yet, there is something missing.  Something unnameable.  It feels like a deep and unfathomable emptiness.

It is a terrible feeling of isolation and disconnection from everything and everyone.  The so-called “yoga community” makes me laugh because depressed people do not need to hear that they should “manifest abundance”, that they should “ask the Universe” for Love and Light, or that they should not feel the way they do because it will only “attract” more negativity, or that they need to do 108 sun salutations and namaste everyone or whatever the fuck.

Fuck that New Age Rose Colored Glasses Shit.

What depressed people need is kindness and understanding just like with any other disease.  I always refused to take medications because I took enough mood altering drugs when I was young and I know I have an addictive personality.

Sometimes I am so damn tired.  Tired of giving so much of myself emotionally to everyone and not getting it myself, feeling unsupported with unequal exchanges of energy.  It is why by the end of each year I can’t wait to spend a long time in India in order to get nourished and nurtured.   This year that feeling has come way sooner.

And here’s a clue:  when someone is saying how “tired” they are or how “done” they are, wake the fuck up and listen to them.  Don’t tell them, “I’ve been hearing this from you for a long time” or “shut up and snap out of it.”  Dealing with a depressed person sometimes requires a lot of patience.

Can we make the Robin Williams tragedy a wake up call?  Can we make it okay to be able to reach out when we need help?

I have always felt uncomfortable reaching out and asking for help.  I implode instead of explode.  I could kill myself and you would not find  me until weeks or a month later —  because most people think I am so together and “out there” and never once think that I could easily swallow a fistful of pills with a bottle of gin and lie down in savasana.

I learned at a very early age how to go away quietly.

My life story is probably why I love working one on one with students, especially people dealing with trauma.  It takes me outside myself.  I recently adopted a cat because she was in a cage for three months.   I had an epiphany in the pet food store where she was up for adoption:  as I petted her I began to weep because I realized that no one wanted her like the way my mother (or the woman I thought was my mother) really did not want me.  It’s probably why all my life I’ve fought for any underdog.  It’s probably why I always butted heads with the powers that be and walked to the beat of my own drummer.

Yoga and meditation saved my life but it is always a thin rope to hold on to.

It can snap at any moment.

So before you think someone is a tough, bad-ass bitch, realize that you never really know anyone’s back story of pain and trauma.   Don’t be surprised to learn that sometimes the strongest or the funniest person you know are one day away from ending it all because they are just so damn tired and done.

But I keep hanging in there.  Because Yoga is about Life (Krishnamacharya.)

Me and Anne Lamott: Happy Birthday to Me

I officially enter Yoga Cronedom next weekend.  This Ageless Hippie Chick — who was not supposed to see the age of 17 because I tried to kill myself when I was 16 — hits the big 6-0.  What a long, strange trip it’s been, and I’m not even talking about the yoga.  I am grateful for every damn thing that has come my way, good and bad.

When I saw this Anne Lamott quote on someone’s Facebook page, it resonated with me.  Apparently everyone has read Anne Lamott except me so I looked her up.  The blurb on her agent’s page says that “she writes about what most of us don’t like to think about” and that she “tells her stories with honesty, compassion and a pureness of voice.”   I thought, hmmmm…interesting, people used to say that about me and my yoga rants and musings, I should check her out.

So I decided to take some of her lines and do my own spin on my upcoming birthday.

AL: “This is the last Saturday of my fifties. The needle isn’t moving to the left or to the right. I don’t feel or look 60. I don’t feel any age. I have a near-perfect life.  However, I grew up on tennis courts and beaches in California during the sixties, where we put baby oil on our skin to deepen the tan, and we got hundreds of sunburns. So maybe that was not ideal. I drank a lot and took a lot of drugs and smoked two packs of Camels (unfiltered) a day until I was 32….  My heart is not any age. It is a baby, an elder, a dog, a cat, divine.  My feet, however, frequently hurt.”

Next weekend is the last weekend of my fifties.  I also do not look or feel 60 and I certainly don’t move like I am 60.  What is that supposed to look like anymore?  When I grew up in the ’60s when people hit 60 they looked damn old.  Most people don’t know I smoked for 30 years, less than a pack a day, and I gave it up just like that when I became a yoga teacher at 48.  When I was in my early 20s I weighed 200 pounds, another thing that no one believes.  I lost about 60 pounds when I was in my early 20s but I still see a 200 pound face in the mirror.  You want to talk about Yoga and Body Image?  Just ask me.

I also have a near-perfect life considering some of the things I’ve experienced:  child abuse, domestic violence, attempted suicide, sexual assault, a lot of drugs and rock n roll as they say (don’t you wonder who the hell “they” are?)

Like Lamott, my heart is not any age.  Oh yeah, it will stop pumping one of these days.  But I am an energy body and energy is neither created nor destroyed, I will morph into something else somewhere.  And it’s not my feet, but damn, I have a tweaky back sometimes.  

AL: “My great blessing is the capacity for radical silliness and self-care.”

My greatest blessing is surviving and radical self-care.  The older I get, the more powerful I become.  I have not even begun to reach my full potential.  When a lot of people my age are thinking about retirement, I feel like I am just getting started….funny, when I’ve been teaching for a dozen years now.

I always tell my students, “ask yourselves, if not now, when?”  But I’ve known too many women who put themselves last after everything else in their lives, behind husband, partner, children, even in this time of post-Women’s Liberation Movement.  

AL: “I’m pretty spaced out.” 

Over the years I’ve noticed many times how still my mind is, like a still pond.  Many people tell me their minds are rarely quiet in spite of being long time yoga practitioners and practicing meditation.  I catch myself on how often I am not thinking but standing in pure awareness, at least that is what I call it.  Maybe it is my mind observing itself and it sees emptiness, a clarity, and then when it notices the emptiness it yells “hey, where are the thoughts?!” and that’s when I get distracted.  

“The tranquil state of mind when it rests constantly upon the contemplation of the goal after having again and again detached itself from myriad sense objects through a process of continuous observation of their defects, is called Sama.” Vivekachudamani, Adi Shankara, 8th century.

AL: “Mentally, the same old character defects resurface again and again. I thought I’d be all well by now.  Maybe I’m 40% better, calmer, less reactive than I used to be, but the victimized self-righteousness remains strong, and my default response to most problems is still to try and figure out who to blame; whose fault it is, and how to correct his or her behavior, so I can be more comfortable.  …Spiritually, I have the sophistication of a bright ten year old. My motley crew and my pets are my life. They are why I believe so ferociously in God.”

During my last yoga therapy training we discussed the concept of equanimity.  Many believe that when we finally reach the ultimate state of equanimity we become like Ramana Maharshi where we can sit in meditation and allow the ants to bite us without reaction.  I thought about that after our discussion and thought that if I can not feel passion about something or experience compassionate rage then you can keep enlightenment. 

AL: “Forgiveness remains a challenge, as does letting go. When people say cheerfully, “Just let go and let God,” I still want to stab them in the head with a fork, like a baked potato.  This business of being a human being is infinitely more fraught than I was led to believe.”

I learned a long time ago that forgiveness is for me not for the one who treated me badly.  Forgiveness is to relieve my own suffering.

In the last 6 months I received confirmation via three DNA tests that I am Native American with Spanish and Southeastern European thrown in.  I grew up believing I was 50/50 German and Polish.  Surprise!  Not a drop of German and the Polish is iffy.  That is what I was always told.  My life was based on lies and deceptions.  Imagine finding that out when you are thisclose to 60. 

Anyone who can tell me the truth of my birth is dead.  I came up with three possible scenarios:  I was the product of an affair; my sister (who was 19 years older than me) was my mother because she got pregnant with me before she married when I was four and had given me to the people I thought were my parents but were really my grandparents; or, someone gave me away to the people who raised me because in the mid-1950s my parents would have been considered too old (41 and 48) for an official adoption.

Follow?

I had always intuited that I was something other than what I grew up believing.  A friend who also found out she is Native said that Native Americans have blood memory of their heritage — so that’s what that feeling was all these years.

Do you want to talk to me about forgiveness?  When I found out I am Native, I was ecstatic because I have always felt a kinship with anything Native American even as a young girl.  Then I sank into a morass of despair — it explained why I was treated the way I was until I moved out when I was 18.  It explained why my sister wanted nothing to do with me and rarely had any contact with me.  Then I became enraged at the lies and deceptions.  I created scenes in my mind that if I could go back in time to confront the liars and abusers I would destroy them.  But then I said….

JUST STOP.  

What difference does it make now, in this present moment?  Why should I create my own suffering over something that happened 60 years ago?  My life is NOW.  Not in the past, not in the future.  Just this, just here, just now.

I saw my astrologer yesterday and told her the story.  I asked, what if my birthday is not what is on my birth certificate since it was obviously altered.  No problem, I have the same akashic records of my birth that makes me ME.  The akasha is beyond any date on a calendar.

Then I began to think how truly lucky I am.  Because I have the power to create a new Me, at age 60  I shed my past like a snakeskin.  I am a blank slate and how many people can say that at my age?  Because my early life was not about integrity, I can now claim the integrity of my New Consciousness.  I separate myself from the betrayals that went before.  Maybe that is why people have branded me “fiercely authentic” and why my astrologer always told me I can not be anywhere near any thing or person is that is less than true.     

AL: “So we do what we can. Today, I will visit a cherished friend post surgery, and goof around with her kids. I will try to help one person stay clean and sober, just for today.  I will loudly celebrate my own sobriety, and also the fact that my writing has not been a total nightmare lately. I am going to go for a hike on these sore feet, and remember Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Charged, electrical with life’s beauty and light!  Wow.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I have experienced things in 60 years that would have made a weaker person crazy or dead.

I facilitate personal transformations via Yoga and meditation.  I teach people how to breathe to save their lives.  I help them regain mobility or peace of mind.  I will never own a studio and I will never again teach to a large group of people unless someone invites me.  I do not see that happening in the foreseeable future because what I do and how I am is not everyone’s cup of chai.  I am too masala for many.  I am not the modern yoga status quo and I am happy now to stay in my little yoga cave.  But I am honored and humbled to be in a book with some famous yoga teachers….and then there’s me.

I do what I can every day to live the idea of “I will not die an unlived life.”  Or sometimes I do nothing at all.  I have always said that life is a vinyasa. 

I celebrate ME, my surviving, my ups and down of my entire life thus far because every day is a blessing.  I have become so detached from the identity of “yoga teacher” that sometimes it frightens me.  That’s because true freedom can be frightening.  Think about that one.  If I never taught another class I would be happy.

Because I am so much more.  I am everything that is contained in this Universe, good, bad, and indifferent.  I caught a glimpse of that as I did energy work on a student this week.  The Native American shaman that is buried in my DNA is raising her head.  At the risk of sounding foo-foo and woo-woo, those things that I disdain in the New Age scene, we are stardust.   

And I thank the Universe that I am capable of such Joy.

 

reflections on 2010 and ruminations on the future

My oh my, what a blessed year 2010 was…no apologies, no regrets, and always moving on.

I started out in South India at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, flew to Kolkata where Kali Ma knocked me down, traveled to Bhubaneswar to meet the 64 Yoginis, and then spent 9 days at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Hardiwar where I jumped into the Ganges on Mahashivratri and met a swami of the highest order.

After India I flew to Africa and spent a night in Nairobi, Kenya after crisscrossing the Persian Gulf to spend hours in Qatar AND Dubai due to flight problems, flew to Zanzibar to spend five days on the beach, then flew to Arusha, Tanzania where I introduced yin yoga to 20 or so Arusha yogins and the two zebras that waltzed into the retreat on Saturday morning. Yoga teaching doesn’t get any better than that.

After the retreat I went to the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater and as I watched a herd of wildebeast and zebra, hearing only my breath and the wind and their grunts, I experienced such a visceral feeling of oneness with all things that it rendered any words I had ever read about that primal recognition almost meaningless.

Of course one does not have to travel thousands of miles for that realization — I feel the same way sitting in my garden and watching the butterflies and honeybees. Or upon opening an acorn and seeing an oak forest in miniature and feeling that time has stopped — Tzimtzum which means Divine Contraction. It is the belief that if God is infinite, He would have to draw in and make a void into which creation can come, whether it’s in my yard or the bottom of a prehistoric crater in Africa.

I don’t know why but this year brought a closing in rather than expansion, but not a closing in in a negative way. My yoga practice definitely changed after my trip. I gave up all my classes except my private ones and I was amazed at how content I became because of it.

What was foretold to me had come to pass: I died in India when I jumped into the Ganges and was reborn at the bottom of that crater.

And all that was just the beginning of my year.

The words that describe my yoga teaching this year are “less is more” and “quality over quantity.” I no longer teach at studios and have no desire to ever teach regularly at studios again except for the occasional workshop. The students who come to my house are sincere and dedicated and are hungry for more and more meditation. We’ve developed quite the sangha yet they know I must go to India to refuel. “You will always be my teacher,” one student told me on our last night before my upcoming trip.

The women at the domestic violence shelter where I teach have inspired me to take a special training in teaching yoga to trauma survivors. Those battered women who are also my teachers have also inspired me to embark on a new journey into graduate school and a Masters in Transpersonal Psychology. One night after teaching I had another epiphany after speaking with a woman, again so visceral that I saw my life’s path laid out before me – there will be no turning back.

The year has shown me how asana is such a small part of the practice. It’s only the appetizer to the feast. Yoga blogs where the only thing written about is mastering this pose or that pose are incredibly boring to me. Yoga has become a cult of the body in America. I think, what are they going to write about when they can no longer do that sick arm balance or inversion, what will they have left? Get real.

The yoga blogosphere in 2010 burned up with the heated discussion about Tara Stiles and her book and the “who owns yoga?” debate.

Although I also jumped into the debate I became bored with those discussions, too. The turning point came when a post was published in a yoga-ish online journal that seemingly pitted me against Tara Stiles, my yoga vs. her yoga. While the writer thought it was complimentary, I felt blindsided and betrayed. The writer did not feel it necessary to ask my permission or even to ask my opinion before he wrote about me.

Needless to say the writer felt Kali’s wrath and the post was pulled, but the incident left an extremely bad and bitter taste in my mouth that made me rethink my time in the yoga blogosphere. The best thing that came out of the situation was the support shown me by certain yoga bloggers, one especially, who also felt the writer’s actions were unconscionable.

The question of what is “real yoga” also arose in different venues. I have always said that this is my real yoga and one of my students also used the phrase. I will say again that I really don’t care what your yoga is, I know what mine is, but one thing that I am convinced of is that if something isn’t changing for you off the mat or off the cushion (and how many yoga practitioners also have a dedicated meditation practice?), then it’s not yoga.

And no apologies to those who hate the phrase “real yoga.” I’m tired of that judgment, too. It’s almost a reverse snobbism. Anyone who criticized or questioned the yoga status quo was called a “hater” or “judgmental” in the yoga blogosphere. Many discussions served to separate rather than gather the online yoga community. I grew tired and it drained me and further convinced me to stay away from yoga blogs.

Yes, I am sensitive about the topic of “real yoga.” Over the five years of writing this blog I’ve caught flak about being so outspoken and that has made me misunderstood at best and unpopular at worst. I’ve been described as being passionate in my defense of yoga in the face of commercialism, exploitation, and misunderstanding. If the body cult of modern Americanized yoga is right, then I’d rather be wrong.

I’m not everyone’s cup of chai and I’ve always been an outsider, and frankly, because of decisions I’ve made, I’ve never been happier with teaching. Quality over quantity. I don’t want to teach a dozen classes a week to those who do not see yoga as a wisdom teaching on self-transformation, as something beyond the cult of the body. There are other teachers who do that but I’m not one of them and that’s just fine. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is. That’s my yoga and yours is yours.

So as I plan my fifth trip to India (I’m leaving in two days), I wonder what 2011 and beyond might hold. What can top the Maha Kumbh Mela and Ngorongoro Crater? My gut tells me that this will be last trip for a few years as I work on a masters degree. I was told that this will be my last trip as a student, that when I return I will bring India something instead. We shall see.

Maybe I am drawn to India because she has her own strong personality, just like me. She shows you incredible aspects of yourself while at the same time showing you impossible suffering. Nothing is hidden, suffering and death are on the street every day. You have to face it and if you go to India for spiritual bliss, you will be challenged beyond your imagination. If you accept the challenge, if you don’t run in fear, your life is changed forever.

Sounds like yoga.

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yoga and the evolutionary process

No, not yoga and evolution.  Yoga and YOUR evolution.  Change.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what my student said in class the other night, about what she thinks “real yoga” is.

It was her belief that mainstream yoga caters to this culture rather than trying to change this culture.

To this student “real yoga” is about change on the micro- and macro- level.  Or as I’ve heard Desikachar say, anything else is acrobatics.

I know the phrase “real yoga” irks some people.  People don’t like to hear that phrase used, considering it judgmental or arrogant.  They say that all yoga is good yoga and so what if someone does a 60 minute yoga DVD to get a slim, sexy body.  And contrary to popular beliefs about this Krazy Old Yogini, I agree to a point: so what.  The way yoga is advertised is a separate and entirely different issue.

Because as a wise reader told me recently, reality means that not everyone sings like Cecilia Bartoli or plays violin like Jascha Heifetz.  So why can’t we accept that there is talent involved in yoga and meditative arts also?  The democratization of everything (democratization being another word for mainstream) makes us think everyone should benefit equally from martial arts, yoga, or tea ceremony, but that simply is not true.

Many say that the more esoteric benefits of yoga will eventually come to those who practice for purely physical reasons.  I’ve never believed that because that assumes that everyone is on the same path, running at the same pace, equally.  That’s not true in a marathon and that’s not true on the yogic path.  There is also a little thing called karma.

There are plenty of people in yoga classes who practice for purely physical reasons and become stronger and more flexible, but they are still unhappy and depressed or full of fear. Some will be that way the rest of their lives, in varying degrees; others, not.  There are those who will run from teacher to teacher, from one ‘ism to another, and still die with their most intense fear buried deep within their hearts.  There are others who have suffered horribly in their lives, studying with one teacher or even none, but through their internal work will fly on wings of joy on their dying day.

Life. Change. Stages of evolution. Karma.

The reader who wrote to me believes that it is only natural that some will not connect with the esoteric levels of yoga and will remain happy with a basic understanding of yoga, the basic level being purely physical.  A lucky few on the yoga path will know enlightenment. Most will be stuck somewhere in between.  This has to do with talent, but also with what the Chinese call yuanfen.

So even a basic understanding of yoga and attaining purely physical benefits are better than none at all, but I have my own standards of what constitutes “real yoga.”  And just as there is nothing wrong with someone doing yoga for purely physical benefits, there is nothing wrong with my standards either.

As I’ve come to believe over the years, students get the teachers they need at the time, teachers get the students they deserve at the time.  Think about that.

One of my standards is that yoga is about physical and emotional healing.  Another standard is that yoga is about accelerating our personal evolution.  I’ve told my students many times that if something isn’t changing for you off the mat, then it’s not yoga.  If your path is only the length and width of your yoga mat, that’s not much of a path.  That’s my standard.  And someone can choose to accept that or not because frankly, in the end, I don’t care.  It’s your own personal evolution.  Or should I say revolution?

In his book A Life Worth Breathing Max Strom writes:

“Hatha yoga is a profound evolutionary system that will benefit everyone who has the passion to change his or her troubled existence into an extraordinary life. It has changed my life forever, and every day I see it transform more and more people into happier, healthier, and more empowered beings….

 

Imagine two people practicing side by side. One is still and struggling in a posture, barely able to open his hips, but he is not letting it bother him. Instead, he feels calm in this difficult moment, centered in deep breathing.

 

Then there is the second person next to him, able to wrap his legs around his neck, but breathing erratically, thinking negative thoughts. Whose practice is better? Flexibility is not the aim; it is a side effect….

 

If you find joy and you are living a meaningful life, then you are becoming good at yoga….

 

Remember, the goal is not to tie ourselves in knots — we’re already tied in knots. The aim is to untie the knots in our heart. The aim is to unite with the intimate, loving, and peaceful power of the universe and fully awaken into the highest level of human consciousness.”
(Max Strom, pp. 122-125)

A spiritual adept once told me that it is not my job as a yoga teacher to change people. They have to change themselves.

I can only give you a road map — you have to drive the car yourself.

life is a vinyasa

1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

The forever changing images that I see in the mirror each morning remind me of the first of Buddha’s Five Remembrances. Today this soul’s present incarnation has been on this planet for over 50 years.

My photographs are also constant reminders of my mortality. Every birthday reminds me that I now have less time ahead of me than I have behind me. That knowledge makes each day more precious than the last. I will not die an unlived life.

“eat mangoes naked
lick the juice off your arms
discover your own goodness
smile when you feel like it
be delicious
be rare eccentric original
smile when you feel like it
paint your soul”
—SARK

What happened to the 16 year old? What happened to the 20 year old? They are still here but the package has changed, the ribbons are torn and frayed and the wrapping paper yellowed and weakened in spots.

I see these old photos and am reminded that I almost died at my own hand when I was 16. I never thought I would live to be at the party where my friend grabbed me with gusto around the waist. I could have left this earth a long time ago in more ways than one. I tried my damnedest for years to do just that. But I am still here, those girls are still around somewhere inside my head.

Those photos are also a reminder of the me I lost but found again once I got back on the yoga path. Life is a circle.


“The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end. It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished.”

The photos bring home the truth of the Five Remembrances and the truth of impermanence and they remind me to THINK. Birthdays are contemplations on what I would like to plant in this final season of my life.

What will it be?

What do I plan to do with this one wild and precious life?

2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

Every day I wake up with pain. My freaky femurs that Paul Grilley uses as examples of extreme internal hip rotation are beginning to ache. My hair is thinning and I can see my scalp. My eyes have the beginnings of cataracts. But I thank the Universe for my physical yoga practice because without it I probably could barely move.

I thank the Universe for my yoga and meditation practice that allows me to know the truth of Buddha’s Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness: mindfulness of the dharma, of the true nature of reality that nothing is permanent, that each moment is constantly changing. Asana practice offers a great window into impermanence because our practice changes every time we step on the mat, from day to day, moment to moment. Is your practice changing as you change? And if not, why not? Get real.

3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

These remembrances are the hardest lessons to learn. Thoughts of death of those near and dear to us and of our own death strike the most fear in our hearts. It is said that our only fear is the fear of death, all our other fears arise from that primal one.

We know things change but we put so much effort and energy into trying to live life as if that were not so. This is what Patanjali wrote about in chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutra-s: he described the qualities necessary to change the mind effectively and gradually from a state of distraction to one of attention, one of the qualities being avidya which is literally “not seeing.” This willful denial of reality, this willful not seeing the truth of impermanence perpetuates our suffering and misery. We so want things to never change – our hair, our skin, our supple spines, the people in our lives – that clinging to things that are by their very nature impermanent causes our suffering.

The suffering of change is what gives us the most gut wrenching pain in our lives. It is not our physical pain, but the pain of pain.

But when this truth of reality sunk deep into my bones it was liberation. I am not responsible for anyone’s happiness, I am only responsible for my own. No one is responsible for my happiness, I am only responsible for my own.

It’s a law of physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. We are energy bodies, filled with chi, prana, Life Force, whatever you want to call it. This body is merely the vessel that will eventually crack open and fall apart like an old terracotta pot. But the essence of me will live on. What is born dies but what is never born can never die. We truly are billion year old carbon.

We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-T.S. Eliot

5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Like everyone else, my life is composed of losses and gains. My losses have been due to neglect, poor judgment, ego, recklessness, selfishness. My gains have been through hard work, grit, determination, and intuition. Other gains have simply come through the blessings of the Universe. Karma. I’ve been graced with a fortunate birth despite going through things back in the day that would have killed a weaker person. I should never have become this old. The cards were stacked against me. Or were they? I truly am a survivor.

The Five Remembrances keep me awake to the human condition. My spirituality has brought me closer to Spirit, have helped open a heart that was closed for so long, and has taught me to have gratitude for whatever comes my way. My dharma wheel is turning and it tells me to embrace the inevitability of life’s changes.

Life is a constant series of movements that change from one form to another — just like asanas. I have reached a deep sentient awareness that nothing is truly lost in the end. We meet who we are meant to meet in this life and people come and go and return again in a constant dance and flow — like a vinyasa. We meet ourselves and each other over and over again in this spanda until we find our way home.

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?