This spring, I began advanced teacher training in the Viniyoga lineage. This tradition, led by the incomparable Gary Kraftsow, focuses on adapting the practice to the individual practitioner in a highly intelligent way. Eventually I will work toward my certification as a yoga therapist, which is an emerging healthcare profession in the US, capable of integrating with Western healthcare to treat a wide range of conditions, mental and physical. I'm thrilled to be a part of the future of a new type of wellness care.
This training was serious business. We were in sessions from 6:30am-8:45pm with some breaks for meals. This is the 600-page manual for session one, and, yes, we did go through it all. I will travel to California 7 more times to complete the therapist training. It is thousands of hours of work and I must admit I was a little nervous!
Plus, I had to leave this face. We've been together 11 years this year, and rarely have we spent more than a few nights apart. I'll be honest, there were tears around leaving for two weeks. But he was really encouraging.
The retreat center is located in central coastal California, among the mountains and the redwoods...
Do you see the people on the bottom of the frame for reference as to how big and beautiful these trees were?
The property also included a temple to Hanuman, the monkey god of faith in the Hindu tradition. In yoga, Hanuman is a mythological figure that hops over the ocean out of love for his friend (he needs to grab a mountain with special healing herbs and carry it back...no biggie). His pose is, therefore, hanumanasana, or the splits. I attended a ceremony honoring our inner faith on the first morning. We walked through the dark mist, wrapped ourselves in blankets as we sat on the stone floor of the temple, and sang songs like this one (so beautiful). I couldn't get the tune out of my head for two weeks.
I met some wonderful people during my time in training. Students had traveled from all over the world to attend: Norway, New Zealand, all over the US. And we came from all professions: doctor, physical therapist, psychological therapist, moms, editors, writers, respiratory therapists. There was even a Marine on leave! One of my favorite people was Miss Adeline, pictured below. We clicked right off the bat, and I announced to her that we would be friends. Later, we found out that we had some amazing similarities!
The first session of the training focused on the biomechanics of movement. We also spent time sequencing, chanting the Yoga Sutras, and discussing yogic philosophy. We set the stage for the integrated therapeutic training many of us will complete! I have to tell you...we worked hard and there was not a slacker in the group....
I thought I'd be skipping home. And in a way I was: I was excited to get back to the comforts of home and especially my little family (Andy and da Fuzz). But I felt a longing for the simple connection to the teachings and my incredible teacher, Gary, fellow yogis, and the beautiful natural world.
So I'm excited to go back in October for session 2! Meanwhile, come enjoy the fruits of my labor in my regular classes. I'm incorporating a lot of what I learned. More to come!
I am forever a student.
My inspiration a few weeks ago came from my mother-in-law, who bravely took her first yoga class on her sixtieth birthday! She had been meaning to try it and finally made her move. Maybe you relate to that and are not sure what class to choose to begin. Maybe you're new to the practice or maybe your practice has grown stale and you need to refresh it. The very first of the yoga sutras (ancient yogic texts) tells us that the time to begin the practice is NOW.
I teach four different classes, and I've found each has its own personality. Which one is your best match? Here is a fun, Buzzfeed-style quiz to find out. Once you've identified your perfect match check my schedule and mark your calendar weekly for a few months. Change is very possible with a yoga practice, but it takes commitment and consistency!
Student question: How can the practice of brahmacharya be seen as a practice of kindness toward oneself rather than self-denial or austerity?
Fellow yoga teachers will understand why this made my day as a teacher. It's incredibly inspiring to have students engage with the practice on this deep level. So keep questions of all sorts coming my way and I'll do my best to respond based on yogic texts. I will also refer you to relevant resources, which can be a good jumping off point for self-study and inquiry (probably even more useful than my commentary).
That said, my astute student is referring to one item on the ten-item yogi code for living, which we call the yamas and the niyamas (or the restraints and observances). This particular code asks us, as yogis, to respond to our desires in a way that is not excessive. We are asked not to overindulge. (Note that there is another interpretation of brahmacharya that refers to conserving sexual lifeforce, but I find that translation too limiting and impractical for daily life outside a monastery. So I will leave that translation alone and go with the broader one.)
My understanding is that the texts are not asking us to become ascetics and refrain from all pleasurable activities. Yoga is a science of happiness and this would make for a pretty bleak existence if we could never enjoy a sweet strawberry, a glass of wine, or a day in our pajamas. So then we must make a distinction between indulging in a healthy way and overindulging in a way that causes harm. How can we tell the difference? One way, according to my meditation instructor, Pema Chodron, is to observe when enough is never enough.
A personal example. I could live on sugar alone. If not practicing discretion and simply going with my urges, I'd probably eat nothing else. If I have sugar in my home, I eat it, and not in moderation. I just eat all. of. it. Some part of my brain, my inner sugar monster, will invent a thousand seemingly-plausible reasons for why I need one more cookie. Or why that cake at the end of the day will make my anxiety go away. So what's the problem, besides my girlish form? It doesn't work. It's a trick.
I'm imbuing the food with a power that it doesn't have. I'm asking it to make me feel OK. It can't. Nothing outside can. Certainly nothing in cellophane. It is a setup for disappointment over and over and over again. The more power I give it, the more I make it responsible for my happiness or "okay-ness," the more I am addicted. When I'm addicted, I can't see clearly.
From this perspective we all have addictions. They are not all substances. Perhaps it is negative thinking. Gossip. Overworking. Worrying. Micromanaging. Sex. Gambling. Shopping. Selfies. Social media. Pema refers to these as "bubbles." We want to find a Safety Bubble of some kind where we can return to get a certain feeling (most often safety). But the fundamental problem is that these transitory states and situations and substances can't give it to us. They just can't. Ever. Maybe there is short-term symptom relief, but that quickly goes and the underlying issue remains. Some part of us realizes this, right? Some part of us is addicted and truly believes that this time the cookie will really work. Or that new phone. Or a new wardrobe. Or that awesome guy. That great professional success. Except it's fleeting. We are in a constant state of transition and we try to cling on to parts of life like a static oil painting. It doesn't work.
From this perspective, it is not kind to overindulge or become addicted. It creates suffering. An easy example is the tummy ache I got when I ate a piece of cake after a long day. I felt bad about myself. I didn't feel better about the situation I was trying to "solve." And I strengthened the neural pattern feel bad --> get cake (will feel better!)-->don't feel better ---> feel worse than before (maybe need more cake?).
To break this cycle we must learn to be mindful. It is the only way that I know of making kind choices for ourselves and others. That is, we have to learn to observe the mind working in this way so that we can make different choices. New choices take a lot of effort. (I hope this isn't news to you.) But by breaking this cycle of overindulging, we become a little more free. This takes a LOT of practice. So come practice. Consistently.
As for me, I don't keep sugar in the house anymore. I eat it on special occasions a few times per week. And I enjoy it more. The other day I was cleaning out the cupboard and found a stray chocolate chip, probably a year old. Did I consider eating it? Shamefully yes. I know. How gross? That's the nature of strong addiction, though. The urge might not go away. The awareness that a consistent yoga practice cultivates helps us to recognize the harmful patterns and stop them. In the words of Krishamacharya, "Yoga is a process of replacing old patterns with new, more appropriate patterns."
So, you see? Yoga isn't supposed to make you harder on yourself! And you don't have to be a monk that never eats a cupcake. Just become very curious about the things in your life that make you feel like enough is never enough.
References for further reading:
The Yamas and the Niyamas by Deborah Adele
Getting Unstuck by Pema Chodron
It's a common conundrum for the modern yogi: How do I use technology mindfully? I want to stay connected to those I care about and I want to document the small, sweet moments in life, but I don't want to spring to action every time my phone dings. And I definitely don't want to be checking my messages while there are real, live humans to interact with. That's a big issue that I'm still working out myself.
One practice I've cultivated is to simply turn off my phone after 8pm. This helps me to simmer down for the evening and turn inward in preparation for restful sleep.
However, I have found that not all smartphone usage is bad news. One strategy I've used to be more mindful with technology is to limit the aspects that stress me out (frantic emails) and increase my positive activities online.
The following three apps have really improved my life online and offline, so I want to share them with you, too.
Gratitude365: It's like Instagram but it's a gratitude journal. Each day you take a photo of something you are grateful for and list as many items as you'd like. There is a simple photo editor to make it pretty, and you don't have to save the photos to your phone, freeing up space. I keep this on my home screen so that when I'm fiddling around with my phone I remember to take a moment for gratitude. Gratitude makes us happier. Period.
Insight Timer: I enjoy using this timer sometimes for my meditation practice. It has a pleasant bell to begin and end the session. You can also connect with others and see who you've meditated with that day. After I use the app, I like sending someone (a stranger, usually) a message thanking them for meditating with me. It provides me with a sense of connection, even in a solitary practice. The timer also rewards you with stars for consecutive days of meditation and keeps track of your overall time. The pitta part of me is motivated by this tracking and it helps me be consistent in my practice.
Pranayama: This is a very simple app that provides me with an alternative to counting while working on pranayama. I don't like counting because I find it stressful. That's the short of it. I also feel that increases the activity in my mind. As an alternative, this app plays a deep, soothing sound for both inhale and exhale. You can set the time you want (including holding time, if appropriate) and then go with the flow. It doesn't instruct specific technique, however. I personally think this should be learned in person anyway, so please come to class to learn more. Then you can use this app wherever you are to increase energy, relax, and refresh.
There you have it! Three ways to use your phone for mindfulness. Enjoy and share other apps you've found useful in the comments.