I often write in response to something that comes out in one of my classes.... a question from someone, or an thought I have as I respond to how I see someone moving, or an emotional or physical response in a student. In this case I am responding to an article a couple of people forwarded me. It is something I have been thinking about for quite a while, and something which has shifted both situationally and purposely certain aspects of my teaching, that is, the commercialization of the practice. Here is the link to the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/opinion/sunday/the-hidden-price-of-mindfulness-inc.html
and here is a link to a humorous video kind of on the same topic from a while back: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBMc9s8oDWE
There is that first issue of whether yoga is a spiritual discipline, or a type of exercise. This question could be answered historically, or contextually, but generally I believe it is a framework, and what you use it for is a question of choice. And although some might feel squeemish about selling the stuff of spiritual quest I would suggest you might wish to reread your Chaucer or walk through the gift shop at the Vatican. I got some very nice post cards there. Any object can be useful or not useful, any object can be imbued with meaning, or simply used and forgotten. It is a question of how we interact with the stuff that matters.
If, as many of us believe, yoga is about balance, there must be a balance in how much stuff we own. This is not unique to yoga. Whatever passions people have there will be people who will make stuff they hope will encourage them to buy. Generally in our culture we have more than we need, and we keep and repair it a lot less than we should. It is more glaring when we are loading ourselves down with 'om' tee shirts, than with ceramic cats, but it is the same idea. The thing about yoga is that it is not just about the work on the mat.
Part of this is the old law of supply and demand. If something becomes popular others will rush in to supply it. If everyone decided that they wanted to eat mango salsa mango growers would start planting more trees, and factories would ramp up production. Of course there would be some who would add cheaper fruit to the salsa and try to figure out the least amount of mango they can add and still get people to buy it, figuring if they drop the price more people will buy their salsa and they will make more money. Not a problem as long as they are clear that is what they are doing.... but of course often they are not. And there are plenty who go to artifical ways to get mango taste with no mangos at all. So we get another old phrase: caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).
There was a study I came across a while ago (I posted it to my FB page) about how people who spend their money on experiences rather than stuff are generally happier. I think this is likely true. But as the article suggests experiences can be over produced and marketed just as much as stuff can. For some time I developed a mindfulness practice and eventually started offering a workshop based on this practice. For me meditation is not the same thing as mindfulness, but it is a part of a mindfulness practice that is rooted in an understanding of human dimensionality and shifting attention inot those dimensions as a way to develop and understand the self. I have of late not spent much time trying to offer it though, as I feel I am somewhat crowded out of the market by much louder voices. And when it comes right down to it I love to teach anyone who feels I have something to offer, but I really don't want to market agressively or suggest that somehow what I am offering is inherently better than what someone else is offering. There are a lot of options out there, most of them will offer benefit. If you educate yourself enough to set aside the jars of salsa that are badly or cheaply made you are still going to be left with quite a few options.... then you can decide what tastes best to you, or goes best with what you are making, or is in your price range. Over time though not every well made salsa will sell, in spite of having experienced, well intentioned cooks.
And we come to the principle of competition and survival of the fittest. As yoga teachers and mindfulness teachers have increased they have had to find ways to bring in students. Do you remember the old movie musical “Gypsy”? There is a great song in it called “You gotta get a gimmick” in which a group of strippers sing to the herione about how to stand out in a crowded field. A few years ago at the IDEA Wold conference of fitness professionals I was struck by how many people are trying to find their niche.... it isn't just that they are teaching in a traditional lineage, or teaching eclectically by blending lineages, but they want a niche with a catchy title and the ability to market it to others to increase profitability. As the author of this article points out, and like that non mango salsa, this has gone pretty far. And here is the thing.... I have a lot of trouble with this, because not judging people for experimenting or taking the path less travelled is really important for me... so when I feel myself think.... there is something non yogic in something I always try to pull myself back and see the possibility.
Still and all... I would rather have mango salsa made for me by someone who has spent a long time learning about how to make salsa, who grows and understands mangos, and who... even if they use a non traditional recipe does it authentically and with love and ecological respect, that from a jar by a company that at core wants the best profit they can make at the expense of filling the world with non recyclable packaging.
I guess I agree with the author that the tea or the magazine or the latest variety of yoga class (or the salsa) are not the problem, and can in fact be a medium to help us find the mindfulness, the health, the awareness, or whatever it is we need, but that we need to be prepared to do more than shop and buy. Kind of like the fitness enthusiast whose garage is filled with all of the latest cardio equipment unused and dusty. A thing can stand as an intention, but we need to act to create change from that intention.
There is always a pull in yoga between adapting practices to the needs of the individual within our current world, and honoring and understanding its often complex traditional principles and practices. I think I've made the point before that I think it is like a chef cooking a traditional dish from a culture, with the original ingredients and methods, and another chef creating a dish that represents a fusion of cultures, or a modern take within a culture of a dish that has been around in different forms for a very long time. I think both have value, but I think the best fusion is created by those who first understand the originals deeply.
As yoga has become more and more popular it has spawned more and more adaptations. In my mind some of them are brilliant. The use of weights in yoga is not traditional (although it is not a new, or even a non Indian idea that one can practice both yoga and body sculpting with weights) but I think the idea of adding extrinsic (that is, weight other than the body) weight to the practice can provide some different and interesting benefits to one's practice. However, there are also a great many practices that seem to me to exist because there are more teachers than students and teachers are always seeking ways to stand out and draw in students. A lot of this is driven by the medias tendency to draw attention to whatever seems most unusual. Some of these practices are SO different that they seem to me to be yoga in name only, and in fact to demonstrate a singular lack of understanding the foundation upon which they are built. Still, I belive each person has both the right and the duty to find the paths and practices that speak to them, and I believe even more foundtationally that the mark of truth in practice is not that it speaks to or makes sense to me personally.
I think if one looks more closely at the roots of the modern more asana based practice there are some ideas and practices that can have value. Of course, there are others that I personally would neither practice nor recommend, but that can also be said of some of the modern ideas and practices. All of these things are tools and the best thing a teacher can offer is to show you how to use the tools and to consider carefully what it is you want to build with them, rather than to put their name on a particular line of tools and hawk those to everyone as better than anything else and perfect for every use.
I really wanted to point out something that relates to behavioral change. This is a huge area of interest to health coaches, personal trainers, physicians and other medical practitioners, and pretty much anyone who wants to give up an unhealthy habit or loose weight. In yoga at the start of 'coming to the mat' we take time to focus the mind and to 'set an intention'. Really that intentionality is about learning to focus attention on what our internal proprioception shows us, on our physical state, but also on our cognitive and emotional state as well, in a compassionate but non attached way. This attention allows us to see more clearly what is needed and then allows the flow of movement, thought, and breath to be in the direction of desired change. And the habit of being intentional makes us develop the self discipline of staying aware and focused. My image is of a drip in a cave that has hewn a deep channel. If we don't pay attention the water will keep flowing in the same channel. If we keep cutting new shallow channels the water will keep flowing in the same channel. Only by going again and again and purposely redirecting the water will we create a new path where it will easily and naturally take its course.
There is another tool that comes from yoga that I think can be particularly helpful when adapted to the area of personal behavioral transformation. But it might be helpful for those reading this who don't have a strong sense of the history and types of yoga practice.
Feel Free to Skip this Section as it is Background
This is grossly simplified, but I am don't want to end up writing a whole book. The vast majority of traditionally trained yogis would say that yoga has 8 parts as described by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These 8 'limbs' include the postures, meditation, pranayama, certain mental techniques, as well as a set of ethical or philosophical or spiritual foundational principles. In addition there are other practices that are used that stem from these 8 parts. When one studied yoga (before say 20 or so years ago) one studied in a lineage.... the lineage would be a teacher who had studied with someone who had studied with someone back to whoever was taken to be the founder of that lineage. Of course even that teacher studied with someone, and sometimes with a bunch of people, and sometimes over time their teaching would develop, so if someone taught for a very long time there could be changes in what one learned from them earlier to later in their life. Most modern yoga is heavily based on the physical postural work, and follow such lineages (although once the Alliance set teacher training standards so anyone could train other teachers if they met one standard lineages are less ubiquitious, though there are some that are still quite popular... like the Ashtanga Vinyasa of Patthabi Jois or Bikram yoga or Iyengar). Yoga that is heavily based on asana would generally be referred to as Hatha. Some would argue that you wouldn't refer to them all that way, and that there is a huge variety even within postural yoga. I agree, but I think it is helpful as a way to disginguish postural practice, which might include meditation, from meditation practice, which migh include some postures. In addition to the Hatha path one might take the Raja path, or the Karma path, or the Bhakti path, or the Jnana path, for example.
The yoga practice is a way to link together the multidimensional self, to attain true understanding of the self and the world. The practice can be through physical movement, or meditation, or doing good works in the world, or chanting and connecting to the divine, or through study of sacred or uplifiting texts.
The practice that I want to talk about is used in a number of lineages, but is pretty typical of Tantra, the path of ritual. (Also of chanting and mysticism, and yes the idea of sexual union as a representation of the unity of matter and spirit, but I REALLY don't mean to do disservice to an extremely complex branch of Vedic philosophy.... )
To Get Back to Toos for Personal Transformation
If you are a trainer or a life coach or a yoga teacher, or, as I suggested before, someone who wants to create change and has trouble breaking old habits this is a huge area of interest. How do we motivate students to make and to sustain healthful changes? How do we create and sustain such changes in ourselves? Physical exercise is a tool that, used properly, can create personal transformation. If you love and/or teach exercise it might seem unfathomable that others don't love it, or have trouble committing to it. Meditation.... healthy eating.... these fall into the same camp.
Some trainers will say... we just have to get the message out there and if people know they will act. If that were true we would be a world full of strong, fit, health people already. People need to know why to use the tools, and how each tool is best used, but they also need tools to fight ingrained habits.
Personal ritual is not a magic wand that will fix everything. It will not end samskaras (yoga for bad habits). It is however a tool that can be helpful. You might ask me.... aren't you just advocating making a change in how you do things? Yes, but it isn't just the change, but how we think about it and feel about it that matters. It is also important to undertake such change not just because we want the certain endpoint, but because we understand our habits, or interests... our selves.
Here is an example of what I am talking about
I have had a habit of staying up rather late in the evening. Sometimes I am reading or researching something online. Sometimes it is social media. Often there are a number of tasks that I haven't gotten to during the day, and that I don't want to slide into the next day to start out feeling overwhelmed. So the outcome is that I get more and more tired, get diminished results anyway, eat snacks that are not the healthiest, but the quickest to access, and have trouble waking the next morning. I therefore set myself a personal ritual. As of 9 pm I eat no more solid food. If I definitely have to work on something I might have cocoa or tea. However by no later than 11 I have a glass of wine and a hot bath. The wine pretty much insures that there is no way I will be doing any more work. I might read something pleasureable... Agatha Christie, or something like that. I focus on the taste of the wine, the warmth of my joints, the quiet of not having a computer screen in front of me.
Approaching this change as a personal ritual allows it to become to me a symbol of my path toword self understanding. It allows me to create a bit of sacred time within my every day. It is like stopping to say grace, or walking out to look at the sun set, or spreading seed for the birds. It is an every day activity that one does with presence, imbuing it with personal meaning, and making it therefore valuable in its own right, rather than just for its results. When I went to the gym back in the late 80s changing from work clothes into spandex wasn't just about doing the exercise.... it was a ritual that set apart that time at the gym from the rest of the day. The repeated action of changing shoes and putting back the hair was a way of saying.... here I am and this matters.
Such ritual really needs to be individualized. If someone has a history of alcoholism that glass of wine becomes an excuse rather than a tool of transformation. If someone has a habit of coming home and laying on the couch for three hours and then staying up playing on their cell phone they do not need a ritual of turning off, and getting to bed, but a ritual of getting off the couch earlier. That is why I don't like self help books that offer one answer to all people, or branded equipment that is supposed to work for everyone. Whatever tool you want to use should be chosen after you have first practiced mindful, non judgemental self study.
That said, I do think there is room with practices not just to create meaning, but to underline for ourselves where we find that meaning with the use of personal ritual.
There are always a lot of posts on social media that list the benefits of yoga. As always some research is well designed, and some less so, but there is so much research being done these days on yoga and related topics that one can see pretty clear evidence of a number of benefits of the practice. In some cases we can also see the factors within the practice that lead to those benefits. Actually, those of us who have practiced if for a very long time would shrug an 'well, that is not news to me', but I think it is important to understand and measure these effects. Things that effect me one way may not have that same effect on every person in every situation. And that is actually one of the important things one learns in yoga: we should balance an understanding of our commonalities and our uniquenesses.
I have actually been thinking a lot not about the benefits, but more about the lessons I have learned from doing yoga. A lot of these thoughts might sound like things you would also find as posts on social media. The interesting thing about learning them during the time on the mat is that they are lessons one does not just understand, but lessons one soaks into ones bones. That is a bit poetic, I guess, but I think there is a reality behind that poetry. If I see a picture, or read a post, or a note on someone's wall I can understand it.... that is broadly speaking 'cognitive', or what I (as a non scientist) might call 'frontal lobe'. Perhaps the word speak to me, because there are memories of actions, or ideas stored in my mind. But when I physically move as I think of that memory or idea that is more what you might call 'limbic'. Just as a scent or sound or visual image can be stored as and/or trigger memories and emotions, I find when I physically practice certain things in yoga I do not just learn that I can do that physical thing, I feel my capacity for a particular kind of emotion or action or understanding.
A physical practice at first is learned physically. So if one is doing a bicep curl at first the movement is not precise or smooth. Over time and with practice neuromuscular understanding is built; even before the muscle gets bigger or stronger those connections are built which lay the foundation of the work. One learns to do the movements with precision and form. It is the same with our yoga postures. We learn the physical postures, and as we build proficiency we build strength. Over time then one comes to articulate how it feels physically, and emotionally, and intellectually to do that practice.
This might make more sense if I just give you my list of some of the things I've learned from doing yoga for all these years, that have been helpful to me:
This begins for me with the moments at the beginning of the class. The visual image for me when I begin class is that I was swimming in a stream and got out and sat on the banks of the stream and then watch the water without being connected to it.
An example of the post I've seen on Facebook to this effect is: “Not my circus, not my monkeys”.
The difference between simply reading that and saying “yes I can see that” and sitting on the mat, is that as I sit on the mat I can hear weights being dropped on the floor above the room, or feel the cold and damp of the room, or hear kids running in the hallway.... and I physically as well as mentally am disengaged. I've learned that I cannot control all those factors... the physical situation of my practice will never be perfect, but my practice does not depend on those things. Moreover, once I disconnect from those external imprefections I can do the same with my own mood and physical situation. The cold air is not me, but neither really is the arthritic twinge in my hip. I don't know how to describe this any better than that it is now second nature when I sit on my mat I simply become the self that observes the self and the world with compassion and lack of judgement and anger. Although I flow in and out of that when I am off the mat, I have found more and more simply bringing up the memory of sitting on the mat brings that feeling of calm and attention.
Ego is not Strength
The best way to feel this is one I do with my students from time to time. I have them come into plank and hold it, and ask what they would do if I said hold it for 15 minutes. I could lecture you for an hour on how strength is not just in how long you can hold plank, but in understanding when you need to get out of a difficult situation and being able to do so without face planting. I instruct them to feel their own strength in the pose, but also in their ability to feel when they need to let go, and to do so with enough time and in a way that will not injure themselves.
Process, not Endpoint
This is something that vinyasa yoga has over the years made clear to me. This is another thing I see posted all the time. I think vinyasa is a wonderful way to experience it physically. As I have said before, the interstitial space between the postures is as important as the postures. I think this is one of the truths behind the idea of being here now. We move out of the past and into the future and we have to be able to look into both, but not at the expense of the paths we take between. Every time I move through from one posture to another it gives me an opportunity to be present to that core meaning. And as I make it a habit to underline the posture with that idea I find that that idea also becomes habit as I move from one situation or task to another as well.
Habits can be good or bad
The way we move tends to be habitual. In yoga we learn to be aware of those habits, and that becomes the platform for change. If one's shoulders are tight yoga can help to stretch and remove that tightness. Unless one moves in yoga without awareness and therefore simply reinforces the movements and patterns that created the tightness in the first place. A habit of eating potato chips every night because one is anxious is probably not a healthy habit. A habit of brushing one's teeth nightly is a healthy habit. By practicing awareness of what movements I make when I am on autopilot I can find my own disfunctions, and be present to the possibilities of creating change.
Actually teaching has been wonderful for making this real to me. Teaching takes me out of my ingrained patterns. When I bow to the needs of others I learn to walk intentionally rather than by habit. It is one of the lovely things about doing a practice in a group, especially when the teacher takes the whole room into a place to show something to someone else in the room. We all learn more by leaving our well worn tracks.
This is the truth of that old game 'Shoots and Ladders'. You can have a bad day. You can have a practice that doesn't go where you want. You can have an injury and be off the mat for a while. We all have set backs. But I have come back to the mat whether after days, or weeks, or sometimes longer for many many years, and slowly, with patience, by engaging in the process, by finding my own strength, by believing in what I can do, by finding ways around what is hard, by working and not giving up on easing back on my own bad habits I learn and adapt and deepen my understanding and appreciation of my yoga, my self, and my life.
This is particularly important for teachers of yoga, I think. There have been quite a few things written by people lately who are frustrated and angry or just sad about the difficulty of working as a teacher of yoga these days. There are some real problems in 'the industry'. Certainly, I would like to teach more than I currently do. And certainly I have concerns about certain aspects of teacher trianing and teaching emphasis now. But these are really just more cold floors and noises in the hall. As long as there are students who want what I have to offer I will come to the mat to teach. And if there are not as many opportunities as I might like I will do what I can (I am not particularly great at self advertisement, nor am I willing to spend more precious time on advertisement than I do on study and practice). And if I a time comes there are not opportunities to teach I will still come to the mat with those other wonderful teachers I have found and to read and to take workshops. That is one of the biggest things a life of yoga has taught me. I have been through some dark times in my life, yet I come back to the mat. I have had injuries, or illness, yet I come back. I remember a poem I read as a child called 'Invictus'. Sometimes it is like that. Sometimes it is more like a river that flows around what seeks to block it. More often it is like a light that grows dim but never winks out. When we breath into our postures, or practice our pranayama, or rest in our meditative space we move aside the darkness that clouds the light and are able to find within ourselves our inner, warm, bright hearth.
Vinyasa can be described as a linked series of postures. Typically in a vinyasa one strings the postures on the breath like beads, and the flow will repeat a series between longer holds at specific points in the chain.
There are some yoga lineages that have specific vinyasas that are done in a specific order, like Bikram or the ashtanga vinyasa of Patthabi Jois. On the other hand, a great many teachers teach in the vinyasa, or flow style, and create their own flows. Surya Namaskar is probably the earliest one that we can specifically trace to a specific creator, though it seems likely to me that the practice is quite old. Actually, I've read historians that suggest the sun salutation form was likely a different practice than other yoga practices at one time. Whatever the roots, it is pretty ubiquitous in postural yoga today.
One can practice flow without a net. That is, without a pre designed series: allowing the postures to move organically from eachother allowing the non cognitive part of the brain to direct the movement. Amrit Desai called this 'moving meditation'. I've occasionally done this with students, but I think it is fairly challenging and probably easier to teach oneself working alone. Ego and self consciousness do tend to intrude in a public practice, especially when entering new territory.
My suggestion would be to start with the tried and true classics, and get used to the way it feels. Then begin to try variations. Then develop your own... writing them down if possible.... honing and exploring. Once you really understand the form of practice, and have a good tool box full of possible postures you might want to explore that deeper brain practice.
Here are a few suggestions for anyone thinking of developing a vinyasa. Please keep in mind that I am sharing my own thoughts and opinions. If you do a teacher training or get a book on the subject you will likely get a good introduction that would be more linear than this. I just want to point out a few of the things I think about when I develop my sequences.
What is the Intention of the Practice?
What postures/movements will best meet that Intention?
The transitions between the postures are as important as the postures.
What breath techniques will best serve the Practice?
What modifications do I have ready if I/my students need to flow around some impediment?
What range of motion openings do I have ready to breathe into my holds?
What is the intention of the Practice?
I often liken starting a practice to standing in the woods at the center of a number of diverging paths. Knowing what we want to explore can be really helpful. Some vinyasas are fairly general, and good all around practices. Some might focus on postures that open the hips, some might focus on breath that wakes the brain, some might focus on core control or balance. Sometimes I will ask my class what they need. That helps them get better at looking inside and being present to what they are sensing inside. It also reminds me that my needs and ego are not the most important thing when determining how I am going to teach others. Sometimes I will start a warm up and watch what I see and determine how to go based on what I am seeing. When I see shoulders really close the the ears, for example, I am likely to add shoulder range of motion. Please keep in mind that the intention does not have to be limited to anatomical stretching and strengthening.
What postures/movements will best serve the Practice?
This is a question to be asked in any practice. On one level it is fairly simple: to target the hip flexors postures like warrior and lunge, to target the hamstrings postures like down dog. But once you get past simple anatomical considerations it can get more subtle. Some postures may be more triggering for someone who is anxious or has suffered trauma. Some postures might in theory open what you want but may be likely to cause other problems for other areas, or for the population you are working with. If you are a teacher who is fairly new it is really really helpful to take trainings in working with varied populations. The likelyhood that you will walk into a class of only 20 to 40 year olds with no injuries, good health, strong musculuture, and unwounded psyches is pretty slim.
The transitions between the postures are as important as the postures.
At its most basic level this is clear. Imagine linking something like Dhanurasana (Bow) to Setu Bhandasana (Bridge). It would be physically awkward, and the breath would not work. You could link them by putting something in between.... one or more other postures.... if you were doing a series focused on chest and hip opening.
The easiest way to think about linking is to imagine how you would breathe in the posture. In a linked series, unless you are doing a hold, typically you inhale into a posture, and then exhale into the next. You can also imagine the way a spring works. If you keep stretching a spring in one direction it will loose its elasticity. We open the joint into the inhale, and relax it and open its synergists into the exhale.
More than that, it is important to keep the mind, breath, and body in sync. If we are always jumping, (like doing hyperdrive, or beaming down, in science fiction) we are allowing our mind to leave where we are physically, jump ahead, and wait for our body to follow. We need to be present within the transition just as much as at the point of rest.
And those transitions can aid the Intention. If I an moving from Tadasana (Mountain) into Uttanasana (Forward Fold) I could just let the hands drop and allow gravity to get my hands to the floor. By contracting the abdominal wall, and lifting the seat, and opening the arms, and slowly curving the belly down as I move downward I am allowing the breath and the movement to follow the same pattern of release, I am allowing myself to feel the way core and limb strength shift at different points in that range of motion, and to feel how different muscles come online and go offline during the movement. This is what it is to 'be here now'.
What breath techniques will best serve the Practice?
If you have not yet studied pranayama much you might want to stick to the simple breath in, breath out. I think a practice can be quite good done in this way. Actually, I teach in this mode a lot. Ujjayi is one of the most used of the breath techniques. But if the only breath technique you use in your vinyasa is Ujjayi that is a great tool. But it is kind of like doing all your cooking with your favorite pot. Depending on what one wants or needs there are other techniques that are useful. If one's energy is low the 'Breath of Joy' can wake the brain as much as a cup of tea. Some of the techniques, like khapalbhati The breath can be lengthened, or shortened, or slowed so the flow is more tear drop shaped rather than round, or progressivly lengthened during a postural hold. Not all 'breath work' is suitable to vinyasa. I like doing alternate nostril breathing, but clearly it would be hard to flow in and out of postures while holding a hand to the face. Kapalbhati is not typically used while doing asana, as it is a kriya rather than a form of pranayama. It is also not a good idea to use or teach this process unless you have been fully trained to do so.
A metronome can be a helpful tool in learning to work with the breath, but the safest and best way to prepare to do so is to take a class to learn the safe and effective use of these techniques before you start to use them.
What modifications do I have ready if I/my students need to flow around some impediment?
If you are a student working on your own flows you are likely to start by choosing postures accesible to yourself. If you are a teacher creating a flow to share it is important to be ready for options. Flow is less flowing if people have to stop and figure out how to get where you are going and find that the rest of the class is then several steps ahead. As a teacher I like either to build the flow by doing the basic movements first and then making the flow longer by adding pieces, or by teaching a whole flow with the gentlest movements first and then adding options that stretch deeper or require more strength. I will also often try to see whether there are situations in the students I have in class that would make me want to flow in a particular direction. I think all students learn by having to take new routes, so this is to everyone's benefit.
Some of the places that often need options are:
standing fold (can be hard on the back if the legs are tight. Blocks very helpful, or positioning certain
people near a wall, to turn and use the wall in a half bend, bending the knees is always an
option, although I generally prefer using a half bend and bending only a bit.)
down dog (can be hard on the wrists. A folded blanket can help. Or going to dolphin. Or cycling in
and out of child pose if the strength is not there. Can be hard on the heel/achilies tendon.
Folded blanket is great, slight knee bend also works, as does cycling in and out)
8 limb staff pose (I always make this one optional. Always. My favorite option is to go to high plank
and work on slowly coming to the ground with control, which really builds the core. And high
plank can be done on the knees if necessary. Or you can go to low plank out of dolphin.)
seated folds (seated forward bends, particularly with a twist can put a huge amount of pressure on the
vertabrae of the low back. The first tier of option would be to sit on a folded blanket to assure
a pelvic tilt. If that is not enough I would suggest doing the movement with the back on the
floor, stabalizing the spine and shifting the relationship to gravity.
Upending is also good for people with knee replacements or other knee issues in poses like Pigeon.
But keep in mind that the options are not just about flowing around difficulties, it is also about shifting the stretch or angle of the limbs to more directly mirror the line of origin to insertion of the muscles within the kinetic chain of the movement. Options can be there for the injured, the very strong, those with specific needs, or those with sport specific interests.
What range of motion openings do I have ready to breathe into my holds?
Here is an example. If I come into a low plank and I want to hold and breathe into the posture to build strength and the ability to focus and maintain form I can use that hold to stretch the spine and open the shoulder girdle. So if my right foot is back I would life my right hand and stretch it as far forward as I can while pressing back with the right ankle and attempting to keep the belly lock strong, and the seat, shoulder and heel aligned. Then I would sweep the arm up to face the ceiling while rotating the palm to face away from the body, hold as long as I wanted, or simply move through the sweep a few times with one breath to open and one to stretch the arm out. I also like to use shoulder openings while in Virabhadrasana. Releasing the neck and shoulder in a rhythmic way while holding a firm base helps create focus and control as well as fluidity.
Please always feel free to contact me with questions or comments. I feel strongly that the mandate of a teacher is to help show possibilities and encourage and foster curiosity and exploration.
In a couple of minutes I am leaving for Kripalu. For those who aren't familiar with it it is a yoga training center in the Berkshires. That is a pretty bare bones description for a place that offers some of the best training programs for teachers and students alike, as well as acres of natural beauty, wonderful yoga classes, fabulous food, and quiet spaces to sit and read or meditate. I can't train as often as I like, so I pick my programs pretty carefully and try to balance them between yoga, exercise science, spirituality, thought, and physical practice. The program I am going to be doing for the next 3 days is on the connections between mind and body in healing trauma. It is being presented by a clinical psychiatrist with a lot of experience with various mind body modalities in working with trauma and ptsd.
I highly encourage anyone reading this who works in fitness to consider taking trainings of this kind. It is not that your scope of practice is or should be that of a therapist. Your scope of practice is also not to be a physical therapist or an orthopedic specialist but many personal trainers and even yoga teachers take classes to understand how to work in their field with students/clients who have such issues. As many people will come to you with fractured souls and broken hearts as with broken bones. And often those hurts are hidden from our view so how we are at baseline... how we respond to people when they first step on the mat in our class matters.
I've been thinking about this for quite some time. A year or so ago, for instance, I discovered, and started using a thing called a flip chip. It is a small circle of fabric a teacher gives each student and the student leaves on or beside their mat. The side with white stitching means 'instructional touch works for me' and the side with brown means 'instructional touch does not work for me'. I love these because it means each student can make a decision at each class.... getting over a cold.... thanks for not sharing today.... recently strained the back.... maybe would feel safer without touch guidance. But also, anyone with trauma (such as having endured sexual violence) can feel safe and in control and not at the center of everyone's eye, or that they have to have that conversation overtly with me before class, unless they want to.
Beyond the issue of those who are teachers of yoga or exercise professionals I think people generally benefit from understanding how to reach out to others who have suffered or are grieving, as well as to manage their own trauma and grief. It is in the nature of being human to endure suffering as well as joy and it is in our connections to others and to our world that we can find our own inner strength and that we can find healing and comfort.
A great many years ago I had a friend who was going through a divorce. I brought her a wrapped box marked 'to be opened in an emergency'. Inside were things that I knew would be particularly comforting for her: camomile tea, microwave popcorn, crosswords, bath oil, a good book, some clippings of a humerous or uplifting nature.... I remember some time later she told me that she kept the box for many months, and when things were bad she would look at it and think... 'well, I can still handle things'. Eventually she did open it, but just having it helped her to find her own inner strength. I think the beauty of something like this is that it is a gift that only works when one person knows another well enough to know what makes sense to put in the box, and the giving of the box is a reminder to the one suffering that there is someone who cares. I have given one or two of these out since then.
Of course there are a lot of ways we can connect and offer support, on and off the mat, as it were. As a teacher of yoga my primary task is to make my class a place that is safe, and warm, and kind for everyone who comes. And to foster the communal idea that everyone who comes to my class participates in that spirit. That is one reason I encourage my students not just to bow to me at the end of class, but to share that acnowledgement with everyone else in the room. It is also why I never allow anyone who needs special help, or cannot do certain things to feel that the class is giving up something to help them, but that we are all learning something new by travelling a different road together.
This is particularly poignent to me at this moment, as this past Monday I lost my brother to pancreatic cancer. The thing about something like this is that it is like saying that Kripalu is a yoga center. There is the bare fact of someone's passing, but even aside from the grief and sense of loss, there are all the attendent difficulties and issues. For me one part of this is that I am particularly concerned for my 96 year old father who lived with and was being cared for by my brother (neither of them wanted to change that). And, somewhat off topic, let me say that anyone who says that we need to shrink the government and put everything into a for profit system because it will be better for the country is, in my opinion, either foolish or lieing to maximize their own profit. The for pay facility I called to ask about options for medicaid/medicare baldly said to me when I called the day after the death to see that might be an option 'I don't know how you expect to find a bed if there is no revenue stream'. On the other hand the rather wonderful lady from Family Matters in Ward 8 of the District of Columbia whom I called to ask about getting some home delivered meals and house cleaning, and home visits so he could stay at home until we could find a place, actually went that evening over to the house to visit him. And she is an employee of the DC office on aging. Where there is an emphasis on profit for its own sake compassion and kindness are not always given pride of place.
This is not to say that I disagree with someone running a business and making a profit, but just that I prefer the family business model where the people live in the community they serve and where profit is not to be maximized at the loss of human compassion. Or if there is a large company it needs to be run from the top with the idea that giving back is not a self serving opportunity for press and profit (see the story I posted on the Mother Jones article about fast food companies giving help to schools to teach about health in a way that promotes eating junk food). The Gates foundation and Newman's Own are good examples of getting this right.
One of the nicest gifts I received this week was a neighbor calling to say she wanted to bring dinner over the night we got back. The great thing about that is that it was a practical gift, and a defined one. She even asked about a specific dish she had in mind.... very helpful if there are allergies or vegetarians in the house.
I think that is a really good thing to remember. Whether one is an instructor using a tool like a flip chip, or a neighbor bringing over food, or a friend offering to help research home health care, such offerings combine what I call head, heart, and hands. The head thinks about what might be needed and what skills and resources one has available. The heart cares enough to offer and to make offerings in a way that is considerate of those in need. The hands signify solid action.
If you are close to the east coast and find yourself in a space of grief or loss I would suggest, if you can afford to do so, you consider coming to Kripalu for a few days. It, and places like it, are places where land and community both serve to ground and heal. I am not sure I can fully put down the load yet.... I don't think I will have space to grieve my brother fully (he was a good, decent, kind, gentle soul who walked dogs for a living and wrote music and played in two local bands) until I help my dad get better settled, but it will be nice to put the bag down for a while and help heal myself by reminding myself of ways to reach out to others.
Happy New Year.
Much of the practice of yoga is centered in the idea of balance. Rather than building muscle but ignoring flexibility, or flexibility without strength, we seek both. We seek to open and express and develop our self across dimensions of being: physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, social. This doesn't mean that we strive for the fullest expression of each of these aspects, but that we breathe toward both: like a focal point, still and strong, able to stretch outward in more than one direction.
This time of year tends toward excess; the lack of balance. I don't know that a little excess is so bad. To be centered doesn't mean not being able to be joyful, or over cafeinated, or to express righteous anger, or even being irritated with the traffic. It is more about being rooted before stretching out our branches to the sky, rather than floating on the winds of chance like a dandilion seed.
Almost 20 years ago we unplugged our TV. While I missed Jeopardy, it was an enormous relief to be spared the incessent push of advertising. The print sources of news we gravitated to at that time had their share of advertisement, but it was easier to avoid overload. Since that time we have replaced most of our print sources of news with online, and of course, there are plenty of ads there also, but there are ways to avoid and minimize one's exposure.
One of the side effects of raising kids without TV is that my kids almost never asked for specific toys for Christmas, as no one was putting the idea in their minds that they needed some thing that someone was selling. They always seemed happy with whatever we gave them, and I am not anti present. Presents are nice; they give us the opportunity to express connection with people in our lives. I have a jewlry box full of little pieces, few very valuable, but each imbued with the memory of a person or a time. I also tried very hard to teach my children to spend time thinking about what they wanted to give, rather than what they wanted to get. They both have turned out pretty great guys, so I figure even if I never quite knew what I was doing or few of my ideas were great, at least I didn't mess them up too much.
Coming from the perspective of a yoga person I would like to suggest a few things you migh consider giving this year, along with whatever presents you will be wrapping up for whatever holiday you celebrate.
Let me give you an example within the context of how we present ourselves as yoga teachers. If you say “Come to my class, and I will let you bring your coffee.”, or you say “Come to me if you want true yoga.” you are essentially saying the same thing. You are not saying that what you have to offer is valuable so much as you are saying other people's offerings are less than yours, either because they are stuffy and not relevant to the modern world, or because their path is lacking in depth or truth. It is like many of our current political candidates who rush to tell us how awful others are rather than telling us exactly what they have that will be helpful to us. Remember what Krishnamurti said, “Truth is a pathless land”. If what you have to offer is of value let it stand on its own merits. And leave yourself open to learning from others.
There is a saying that goes something like “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about”. I often say to my yoga students that yoga is exercise in which you remove the ear buds. I think the greatest gift you can give someone is to put down the cell phone, take out the ear buds and listen. I don't mean listen as in waiting for them to stop speaking so you can say more clever things and be admired. I mean really listen because people need to be heard. I mean really listen and think about what they have to say because that is the only way for you to learn. There is a scene in the Terminator movie where a young woman is listening to loud music in her headset and doesn't hear the fight happening in the other room until the Terminator throws the other guy through the wall. That is kind of like how people have been about climate change. This is also how we all are sometimes …. we get stuck in our own worries and engagements and opinions, and can't hear the silent cries around us. Listening allows us to have the gift of true connection, as well as the opportunity of learning something new.
One of the best things in doing yoga is that it is all about being present to our thoughts, or emotions, our bodies. As we head to New Years, when everyone decides to set resolutions, and to break habits (in yoga we would talk about habits as samskara) the practice of self study is one of the best ways to begin. We need to see the map to understand where the roads are and where they might lead. And in terms of the 'holiday season' what I see a lot is people complaining about holiday shopping, or decorating, or too many parties. Go to the parties that will have the people you want to see and hold them in your heart. From someone who has spent large swaths of her life lonely please know it is a great blessing to have people to smile with, and sing with, and laugh with, and dance with. Buy presents that mean something, not just stuff because the ads are making you feel self conscious about 'having to' do so. Sometimes the best gifts are spending time together.
This is the heart of yoga. This also should be the heart of a holiday that is supposed to be about love and connection. I grew up watching 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas', and that really made up for watching the ads. And yes, I had a DVD player and played such things for my kids. I also love the part in Dicken's Christmas Carol where the nephew talks to Scrooge about how it is the one time of the year when people remember not just to be busy, but to be kind. I remember my mom reading that to me when I was a very small child. I felt that was something that meant something really important even then. One of my favorite quotes is from Rev. Dr. Imre Gellerd, “Each word of comfort, each act of compassion is a small bonfire during dark nights.” And the lovely thing is that every time we have an opportunity to do some small act of kindness it rekindles the light in us, and spreads it outward. This is the meaning of namaste behind the act of bringing the hands together and bowing at the end of class. The light in me greets the light in you.
See you on the mat.
There will be no lack of options for yoga classes on Thanksgiving. However, I suspect that many of my students, and many people generally will less be making a choice of which of a dozen classes to attend, than between yoga and cooking, travel, family, and other duties and pleasures. I thought I would make a few suggestions of ways to adapt your practice to the more common needs of this time of year, and to doing that practice even if you cannot make it to your usual class.
When we think about what we need and what we want from our practice we need to think across dimensions: physical, and emotional/spiritual. I think there are some common physical aspects of practice that call us around the winter holidays, and clearly some emotional ones. Thanksgiving, at least in the part of the world that celebrates this holiday, is rooted in meaning as well as practice (what I mean is we have the 'practice' of getting together with family, and the 'practice' of eating a culturally significant meal, but we also have the idea of meditation on gratitude), so taking time to deepen our understanding of that meaning, and to deepen our feelings around that meaning (heart and head) are equally important.
In planning yoga for this time I think there are three things to consider: food, travel, and stress.
If you are going to do a bit of yoga at home there are a few practical tips across the physical dimension in relation to food and Thanksgiving I would suggest. Timing is rather important. It is probably useful to do your practice early, before eating a large meal. If you are going to practice after a meal it is helpful to rest a bit, and to walk first. You may also find that gentle spinal twists are really helpful. The squeezing action is helpful in aiding the process of digestion. But remember gentle. I blogged about twists before, so if you want you can read at length (http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/yoga-and-the-spinal-twist ). If you are doing a practice later in the day I would suggest a restorative practice, again with some spinal twists, and gentle stretches, and longer holds. Even a few minutes before bed can be really helpful to stretch out the kinks of the day and let the mind rest. Wind releasing pose (yes, there really is a pose called that) is also often helpful.
If you are travelling (and I am talking about the physical dimension still.... there are emotional layers to travel, and family engagements, and especially food) I am going to suggest paying attention in your practice to your hips, legs, and low backs. Unless you are going by dog sled, or on a packed bus and have to stand up the whole way, travel really tightens the hip flexors. I did an extensive blog on yoga for travel, so I won't repeat all of that here (http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/yoga-for-traveling-part-1-getting-ready-for-the-trip and http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/yoga-for-travel-2-some-suggestions
One tool I think can be helpful during travel is the meditation stone. I have one in my car, and a couple on my desk. They are a really nice unobtrusive tool to remember to stay centered, to stay calm, to try to breathe deeply... whatever one needs to keep the flow of body and mind from getting disconnected. There are a few ways to use it. If you find yourself getting disconnected or wrapped up in the chaos that is extended family (or whatever it is that winds you up) you can hold it while you sit and meditate and allow the simple firm weight of it anchor you. I prefer a smooth stone for this purpose. The stone I use on my desk I prefer a rather rough unfinished mineral sample. It also grounds me, but it reminds me that we may have rough edges, things that aren't perfect, but there is beauty even in that which is not perfect, and even unpolished we can see the natural possibilities and the unique texture and shape and colors. One way I use it is when I stop and look at it I will (NOT WHEN IN THE CAR DRIVING) shut my eyes, and then take a deep full breath, 3 counts in, 1 count hold, 5 counts out, and then open my eyes. A couple of rounds of that is really helpful for pulling back out of the inner storm if it is brewing. It can also be useful to carry with you when travelling by air, if that makes you anxious.
Thanksgiving is a mix of joys and stresses. (And yes, I did a blog on yoga and stress reduction, so here is that link also http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/stress-reduction-and-meditation-in-the-practice-of-yoga )I think yoga can be helpful for creating balance, so we can better enjoy the joys and manage the stresses. I think a Thanksgiving morning practice is a really good time for a vinyasa practice. The connection of movement and breath is really helpful to reset the balance between the fight or flight and relaxation functions of the nervous system. I do not always, but often do, use music when I practice, but one of my favorite thigs to use for a time when I am trying to create centered focus is “Om Zone” by Steven Halpern. It is simple and repetitive and rather like breath in sound. I recommend adding balance poses to the practice as they really help you to feel strong, and centered, and grounded. You could try the sun to moon vinyasa ( http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/sun-and-moon-a-vinyasa-practice ) to begin the practice. But I would certainly do legs and hips and twists and balances. And no matter how short the physical practice needs to be do make sure to give yourself at least a few moments of transition time before rejoining the flow of your day.
The last thing I would like to add is more in the spiritual dimension, and clearly this is personal editorial comment. I often talk in class about the idea that balance is about more than standing on one leg. It is also about balance between the dimensions of our life (mental practice to physical, social engagement to physical... etc) , and about balancing oppositional aspects and directions (forward to backward bends, right to left, inhale to exhale, rest to work,). I have always disliked calling Thanksgiving 'Turkey day” because it seems to me to reduce it to the act of eating a particular food. But simply adding a meditation on gratitude does not seem to me to be enough. It is like (and my students know I use a lot of images, so here we go) you are sitting with an unlit light, and you light it, but put a blanket or a basket over you so all that warmth is just for yourself. Remember that Namaste means the light in me salutes the light in you. What are you going to do with all that gratitude? How far out from yourself are you going to share it? Sharing with the family is a way of spreading the light outward, but it seems to me that the light glows brighter within the more and farther outward it is spread. I am a Unitarian, and in my faith action is as important as thought or words. Do you remember the words “for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was in prison and you came to Me....... inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” I think gratitude is not just looking at a beautiful sunset or a beautiful meal, or a beautiful family and being grateful for one's own bounty. To me such gratitude is the beginning, and an opportunity to share what I am so lucky to have.
The fall always makes me want soup. I love soup, and it is one of the things that is sometimes dissapointing in eating out that a food that can be so healthy is often caloric without flavor and heavy without depth. A cream soup, in my mind, can be a wonderful treat, but I don't want it often, and if I am going to have it I want it to be really worth it. At least 20 years ago my younger brother, who is a chef, made a cream of broccoli soup for Christmas that was so good I ate 3 bowls and didn't have anything else he made. I still remember how wonderful that soup was.
Homemade soup is a repository for memories of home. It is a cultural metaphor for home cooking and the warmth and love of family. Many people think of soup as the province of elderly grandmothers... and well, I guess I could be a grandma now, come to think of it, but I've been cooking it for decades, from my first go with avgolemono at about 17. I love to cook for people, and if it can be healthy as well as tasty, and if we can sit down together to eat and talk that is even better.
A couple of weeks ago we had friends to dinner, and I made my favorite vegan soup, and was asked for the recipe by everyone. Which made me happy. Since I cannot make soup for all of my students, I want at least to share the recipe. It isn't my first time giving a soup recipe here, a couple of years ago I posted my 'recipe' for chicken soup. ( http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/of-strawberries-and-chicken-soup ). And I suspect when the leaves start turning again and I have to put extra blankets on the bed it is likely there will be others....
Either spray or rub a small amount of olive oil on a cookie sheet. Put on a few vegetables. I like a stick of celery, a carrot or two, a half onion, some garlic and a few mushrooms. I would avoid the cruciferous ones and thing like asparagus. Roast till slightly darkened.
Dump into large stock pot with 2 boxes of Rachel Ray vegetarian stock, a bay leaf, and a few sprinkles of salt. Bring to boil and then simmer half an hour to an hour... till the veggies are pretty soft. Strain the liquid into a bowl and dump the soft stuff into the compost. Rinse and wipe the pot.
Prep your vegetables. I use: pound of parsnips cut into small cubes (though you can do them in circles), one or two carrots cut the same way, 2 leeks, chop off head and tough ends, cut in half and slice into semi circles, 2 or 3 potatos cut the same way, about 6 or so cloves of garlic (I like garlic), a couple of stalks of celery cut in small pieces, and a pound of mushrooms cut in sixths. Sometimes I put in cabbage, which is also nice, but if I do that I will leave out the kale which goes in later.
If you cut the mushrooms first you can put them in the oven on the cookie sheet while you do the rest which will sweat off some of the liquid and help the next step, otherwise you have to do it in 2 steps and brown the other stuff first, and then the mushrooms.
Put a little olive oil in the bottom of the pan, heat it till glistening and dump in all the other stuff and let it slightly brown.
Add stock and a cup of pearl barley to the pot with the veggies. Add thyme (I use Penzy's dried) and pepper and salt. Bring to boil and then reduce to simmer.
Wash, destem, and cut a bunch of lucinato kale into small pieces.
In about a half hour you can dump in the kale and cook another 15 minutes or so.
Squeeze in one small squeeze of fresh lemon juice and (this is a trick I got from Cooks Magazine, which is one of the best cooking magazines around) a small sprinkle of soy sauce... like literally a half teaspoon.
Taste for seasoning and doneness and add whatever you like.
Notes: I usually add some Penzy's dried garlic in step 6 and more salt and pepper in step 10. Sometimes I add an onion in addition to the leeks, but if I do I do it seperately first and cook on low heat in some olive oil until quite darkened and caramalized. This really adds a flavor boost. I also don't really measure and don't really watch the clock very carefully, so make sure to taste along the way.
If you werer going to take an exam, would you prefer a room with workers using jackhammers outside the window, or one that is quiet? Or, if you were writing an essay would you do your best work at the library, or in a disco with strobe lights flashing and loud music? There are certainly some people who would say they prefer to work with some external chaos, but most people find focus easier in a quiet environment. I've read, for example, that for youth struggling with ADHD one of the therapeutic interventions is to declutter and quiet their work environment ( e.g. The Journal of Clinical Psychology had a special issue in May of 2005 going into these issues).
When I teach mindfulness we often start with a game. I put 3 or 4 small objects down for a few minutes, and take them away and see if people remember them. Then I start adding objects. Of course, the more I need to notice the harder it gets. And when we finish I ask them to take out their notebooks and write down everything in their house. That always elicits a laugh. But of course it is impossible. Few of us in the developed world could even list everything in our kitchen. Being organized with things is helpful for developing focus, (clearing the clutter), but so is simplifying (having less stuff that serves no need and that we keep without remembering or noticing).
The practice of yoga is at its core a practice of being mindful, or paying attention, or learning to focus, …. however you want to put it. The most common activity that provides the context for developing the art of paying attention is physical movement, and the physical movement has a whole range of benefits of its own, but it is the attentionality that sets yoga apart. Moreover, that practice is not limited to physical movement (in other words yoga is more than asana practice or vinyasa practice) , and transfers to other parts of one's life.
To quiet our mind allows us to then focus on the mind body connection, and to develop greater self understanding. This also transfers from the physical practice. When I learn how to move my shoulder blade, and why and when I might wish to move it in a particular way, I am learning to take in innner and outer information, analyze and respond with attention, intention, and connection (I blogged on this triad before) whether I am working out the muscles or interpersonal relationships or the analysis of poetry.
The process of yoga begins and ends with emptying the mind, clearning away the clutter, and focusing attention on specific movements or on breath, or on a joint or muscle. But take a step back and ask where you got the clutter.... How do our minds and our bodies get the raw data that is streaming in to us in such perfusion?
The answer lies in the yoga principle of pratyahara (roughly, pulling the senses inward). We have 5 senses which relate to our understanding of the world in which we live and our relationship to it. We also have a range of proprioceptive sensors that give us information about what is going on inside of us. We spend a lot less time focused on the second group. I think that is one reason a lot of us have a disconnect with our bodies, and why yoga is so valuable. If we focus on a specifically inward directed kinesthetic cue and how it reacts to movement or breath or focus, that really helps us to be more physically present to our physicality.
When one enters a yoga studio one often has a sense of release. The sensory set up of the studio is designed to help that happen, not just because it feels good, but because it helps to clear some of the sensory overload of our world. The lights are dimmed, the music is either low or off, the décor is minimal, as is the furniture, and there is a minimum of screens. Think about the waiting room at your doctor or dentist or mechanic. There is always a screen going. We learn to ignore it, but it is always there.... pushing out sound and sights. A number of yoga studios also have up signs asking people to refrain from using strong scents. I am a big fan of this idea. Just as cacophanous sound and fast moving images are not helpful in developing mindfulness, too much scent is just as bad. I was on a flight last week and a woman sat behind me wearing very strong cologne. Given I was over the wing it was not a good combination for me. But I do have a vested interest as being around incense gives me a terrible headache and I am allergic to lavender. (There are also some health issues here. There was a recent piece in the Canadian Medical Journal suggesting that all their hospitals should be scent free zones as scented products can be a problem for people with asthma or skin sensitivity or upper airway problems.)
So, you ask, would we not want to ban everything that creates focus and just sit in a dark room not moving. Well, there are meditation practices that focus on inner emptying and noticing from a non attached place. In yoga, however we are interested not just in emptying what we do not need, but learning how to be more present to the things that matter, and how to be present to what really matters for each of us. This brings us to why yoga studios offer things like gong baths and aromatherapy and candle meditation.
In down dog (adho mukha svanasana) I am focusing on specific points or joings.... perhaps on the feeling of pressing into the knuckle of the big toe, or on the lift of the pelvic joint and the press of the navel to the thigh... in doing so I learn to focus and am more directed, more aware, and more in the moment and in my body. I am also focusing on the connection between my emotional state and the particular physical stretch or movement or hold. Here I am being attentive to inward signals.
It is easy to think of things like gong baths or aromatherapy, or other such modalities being new age things that someone who has a studio thinks will bring in people because they are 'cool'. And I am sure there are some studios and some teachers who might be in that camp. But really, all of yoga is about balance, and just as you balance forward and backward bends, and stretching and release you balance focus in and focus out. And just as you want to explore all your joints, and not just the hamstrings, without attention to the rotators or the hip flexors, and so on, you want to explore all of the ways we take in information. Then of course we need to focus on our own emotional and cognitive reactions to such input.
For each of the senses there are tools and techniques to explore them with the same focus and clarity. So my relationship with the signals coming from the outer world becomes equally attentive and focused. Such work lays the groundwork of being able to find that clarity and focus even if I find I have to prep for an exam in the middle of a busy cafe.
There was a time when medical wisdom was that bed rest was good care for a heart condition. A lot of thought and research has led us away from that notion. We have come to understand the role of activity in healing, as well as in maintaining health. We also have a better idea of how multifactorial health and wellness are. One of the most interesting early studies to look at this was the lifestyle heart trial of Dr. Ornish. He showed how exercise, diet, and lifestyle support eachother.
Of course, there have always been those ideas in fitness, and in particular in yoga. But it is nice that research backs up both the effects on the physical heart, and the effects on the metaphoric heart. Both yoga and exercise more broadly have been shown to support treatment for anxiety and depression, and a range of other mind/body ailments. Although people do go to the gym looking for the body beautiful, the gym and the yoga studio are both places that exist to facilitate healthy change.
Exercise professionals are always asking eachother: “How do we get people to commit to change?”. I think the answer is that we cannot make someone do this, but we can work together with people who are ready, and support those changes. One thing about the Ornish program was that when people had looked into the face of their own mortality they often were more ready to try to make changes that would have seemed daunting in the normal course of things. Working to support the journey to health and wellness is one of the greatest joys a trainer or exercise or yoga teacher has, and is, I think, its most important gifts.
But what I have been thinking about lately,and what I think we need to notice and bear witness to, is about how it is not just diabetes or heart surgery or joint replacement that brings people to us. Grief and loss are also part of the human condition, and require as much healing as the blocked artery and frayed tendons.
Most fitness and yoga people are not trained for this. Well, we are not on the front lines. It would be inappropriate for us to work outside of our scope of practice. First responders, ER staff, and even doctors and therapists, religious leaders and hospice workers all deal directly with trauma and loss and the first blast of the storm.
However, I think there comes a point when people want to try to find their way back from a place of grief, and here, I think we have a role to play. Grief can be like sitting in darkness. We are positioned to be beacons, to point the way. Trying to eat and nourish the body, trying to exercise and heal the body, and trying to engage with life: all of these are about healing. I was thinking about a number of older ladies whom I have in class, and many of them have talked to me about a loss of a partner or husband. How wonderful that they find their way to a class that provides sociability, and physical exercise.
There are some ways I think we can all be mindful of hidden wounds, and welcoming to those who come for more than ripped abs and flexible hamstrings. (And grief and loss are universal. We may not see the scars but I know almost everyone I have in class, and almost everyone with whom I have worked, myself included have known loss and grief and emptyness.)
Create a Space Free of Judgement
I was watching an episode of My Little Pony recently (It is actually a great show) and all but one of the ponies were crying about something very sad. When one of the ponies mentioned it another responded that Applejack was crying on the inside. There are a lot of Applejacks out there. Not everyone expresses grief in the same way. You can't assume that someone not shedding tears is not in pain. Be kind, be understanding, and above all be respectful of whatever confidences are shared with you. This also goes for not mocking those who may not have the look you think they should. Judgement is not always bad. Just save it for cruelty and greed and violence. And even then temper the judgement with compassion.
I think as leader we need to set an example of how each student treats the others. I do not model judgemental talk. I do not complain that I ate too much and need to loose weight. Imagine someone struggling deeply and being confronted with an atmosphere of judgement and criticism. I avoid criticising other teachers or students or other studios. Rancor does not breed healing.
Create a Safe Space
One of the yoga tools I really like are the Flip Chips. They are small cloth circles that students can place either side up to indicate if hands on correction works for them. They are great for a larger class, and let people figure out each class if this is what they need. It also helps keep me from spreading colds. More importantly, I know I have had students in the past who have been the victims of violence, and given the statistics I am certain there are more than I know who have put down a mat in my class. It is wonderful to give them a tool where they do not have to feel self conscious, but can be empowered to say yes or no with no judgement either way.
I always want my students to feel they can leave early if they need without being made the center of attention. If someone is making an effort to come to class I am so happy they are joining us, but completely understand they may not have the emotional stamina to make it to the end.
Create a Shared Space
At the end of class I try to remind my students to bow to eachother as well as to me when we say “namaste”. I like the idea that everyone is important and that everyone makes the class what it becomes. More than that it is one small way to try to build supportive community.
Especially when dealing with an older group loss will be assumed. Loss of loved ones, but also loss of youth, loss of function, loss of hearing.... these are with us as we grow older every day. A home that was once full and is now empty can be very lonely. A studio of gym that offers social programs, even if it is a few couches and a water cooler in the atrium can support the physical work being done in the class. Some of the studios where I teach offer book clubs and pot lucks and movie screenings and all sorts of things other than just classes.
There was an episode of the original Star Trek (which I remember watching the first time it aired) where Kirk is walking with someone who asks something like 'Can I Help?', and he tells her that some hundreds of years hence a poet will suggest those words are more important than even “I Love You”. I think they kind of work together. I think our job as instructors may be to teach down dog or squats, but our work as humans is to help and support eachother.
Beloved community is the strongest light for our path up from the dark.