The other day I was looking something up for a class, and happened to go through several of my old ACE manuals. For those who do not work in fitness, ACE is one of the largest certifying agencies for fitness professionals. I still have my first manual... published in 1987. I also later did a personal training certificaion, and then, after taking time off when my kids were little, did the group fitness one again. So I have a lot of manuals. One of the things that struck me is not just that a great deal of research has honed the understanding of the nature of fitness, but how much more space in the newer manuals is given to things like adherence and motivation, and communication skills rather than just to science and methodology.
This reminded me of a conversation a few years ago on a q and a site for fitness people where someone new to the field was asking how one can make people understand the benefits of fitness, because they felt that if one can only explain that, of course everyone would smack their heads and immediately go start and stay with a fitness routine. Which kind of misses the effects of all the other parts of why and how and when people choose to do what they do.
If you have ever gone to a yoga class you know that one of the things that gets said a lot is about setting an intention. I often tell my students that I want them to pay attention, so that they can set an intention for their practice (each one, and all of them) not based on habit but on their own needs and values. I don't think the role of the teacher is to tell the students what they should do, but to help people to clear their own mental clutter and look for paths, and consider consequences, good and bad, of those possible paths. This is never a simple process, either for teacher or for student. What matters is having a conversation where each actually listens to the other and frames a response based on what was said, rather than memorized phrases, or stories we tell ourselves. And to have that same honest conversation with ourselves.
In other words, a student will do well if they can articulate to themselves and to a potential teacher what they need and want. A teacher or studio will do well if they listen to the student rather than trying to sell everyone what they have on the shelf. (Remember the old movie 'Miracle on 34th Street, when Santa is irritated at being expected to get the kids to ask for toys that the store had in overstock?) And if a studio or teacher is asked for something that runs counter to what they see as their mandate they need to be honest, but not judging.
In my experience there are a few broad categories of reasons people come to yoga class (or fitness), though there are so many differences of temprament, of experience, of interest, that there is never one answer or one path that fits everyone. However, this is a pretty good place to begin your practice, and a pretty good thing for a studio to consider.... are we purposely serving some of these categories, and do we refer out those looking for something else, or do we aim to work with all of them and define our program perameters accordingly?
For some their needs/desires are Preventative. They want to strengthen the core to avoid back pain, or to keep their bodies limber, or work on balance to avoid falls. For some it is Therapeutic. They have had an injury or illness and they are working their way back. For some it is Developmental. They want to support their running, or their golf, for example. For some it is Transformative. They want to engage in a journey of self understanding. And of course you do get some whose orientation to practice is purely Curiosity.
But if we take this conversation a step deeper we can ask, are there basic things that most humans want, beyond these different orientations? I think there are, and I do not think the answer is fitness, or health, or a beautiful body. I think the two things almost all of us want are Meaning and Connection.
The best places in which I have worked and worked out over the decades, have all been places that have fostered a real, deep, and inclusive sense of connection. Some of the worst have been those that have put up a facade of connection on a foundation of desire for profit, or connection of exclusion.
So connection is not the same for everyone. For some people connection is to a group, for others to one or two people. I know not a few people whose strongest connections are to animals, rather than people. I also know people who are most strongly connected to a place that holds meaning. But generally, except for the true narcissist, people seek human connection. Is there someone who has your back? Someone who would bring you soup when you are ill, someone who will listen when you need to speak? Someone who looks at you for who you are, having dropped the masks and the roles we create for ourselves, and accepts you in the nakedness of your soul?
Again, I would say there are different types of connection. There is the fake connection: like the telesalesperson who addresses you by your fist name to build a false sense of intimacy to facilitate their sale. There is the real connection that is based on exclusion... not what or with whom you share, but who is not invited to the party, so to speak. Some businesses do a brisk business with this, but a friend who comes to visit when there is somehting in it for them is a poor and empty substitute for true connection. Like the yoga studio that says … 'I teach REAL yoga' or “I will let you drink coffee here, those other guys are not as up to date'. Then there is connection that is real, but selfish. This is particularly disappointing in a yoga studio, but truly, even the best fitness studios I have worked with transcend this. It is what I call 'spa yoga'. 'We will have a 'juicy' practice and feel GREAT.' Nothing wrong with this.... we all need a 'spa night', or a comfort meal of mac and cheese from time to time. I just think by itself it is limiting our ability to explore ourselves and foster connection. The truest and best connection... the thing that draws me to a place... and keeps me there.... and makes me invite friends to share in the bounty... is belonging that is based on an open heart, concern for health, and well being, and compassion that is expressed to the self and to the world. As Bill advised in 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure'; “Be excellent to eachother.”
There is a studio in DC where I taught for some time that had this. They had social events for the members... helping them to connect to each other. They paid and treated the employees well and with respect. (And one of the best indicators of a good studio is how the staff is treated). They raised money for important causes. They took care to offer not just the latest flashiest programs, but programs that were not going to injure their members, as well as being fun. They capped the membership to ensure there was only reasonable waiting time for equipment. If you are in DC you can still go to City Fitness. I haven't been there for almost 15 years, but I have fond memories of it.
Meaning is a more esoteric concept, and one that does not often come to mind when thinking about one's gym membership. It is, however, there... in the zumbathon I did last weekend to raise money for Autism awareness. It is in the class that the Bikram studio where I teach will be offering to raise money for animal welfare ('Bending for Beagles'). It is in the chair yoga class where lI met an elderly lady who had lost her husband and was alone, but found rest, and social support.
Meaning is steeped within highest rung of the connection ladder. Not that people always seek it there. Sometimes we look for meaning by making sure our name is remembered, or by making our mark on the world without thinking about how we will be remembered and what sort of mark we make. That is why I say meaning and connection are intertwined at their deepest place. The deepest work of yoga is not to open just our hamstrings or make us physically strong, but to make our hearts open and strong. As someone who has within their meandering life experienced times where I lacked both, I believe fully in the beauty of a life that is connected and meaningful, and understand how hard people seek for it, and how hard it can be to keep going without it. If there is one thing all of us want at the end of our days it is to have a sense that our lives mattered, and to have and to have had someone to hold our hand and hold us in their heart.
One day when my youngest brother was about 12 or 13 (and I was about 15) he decided he wanted some cake. Not having money or transportation, or a store anyplace near us he decided to bake one. Actually he decided to bake an angel food cake. My mother had always done a lot of baking, but had gone back to work full time the year before and we were all learning to figure out how to use her heretofore closely guarded kitchen. When I got in from wherever I was he told me about it, and showed me what he had baked. He said it was pretty tasty, but he was surprised how it had turned out: dense and about an inch high. I asked him about the recipe, and he said; 'Well, the recipe did call for cream of tarter, but we didn't have any cream, so I used milk.” It was actually a smart idea, but based on a lack of information about the basic tools of cooking.
Most people do not begin cooking in an organized fashion. If you are lucky, at some point you go to a school with home ec classes, or have a parent who cooks who can teach you the basics, or watch cooking shows, or take some classes. This is true of a lot of basic things we learn in life: interpersonal skills, reading, self care.... It is also the way most of us get introduced to yoga. Today it is so ubiquitous in our culture most people have heard of it, and have some basic knowledge. Like my brother who knew how to turn on the stove, and read a recipe, but didn't have a comprehensive understanding of leavenings and how they work.
While it is possible to draw a definite distinction between someone who has never done yoga, or cooked, or whatever, I think it is harder to draw a definite distinction between a novice and an intermediate, and a master of the discipline. There are just too many possible paths to that mastery. And it is easier to become adept at mastering advanced postures than it is to become an advanced yoga practitioner. That they are different things is one of the hardest things to explain to a beginner yogi, and one of the most important things you can understand to unlock the deeper principles and practices available in the tradition.
Mastering the postural work is actually a really good beginning. If someone hands you a knife you slice a bunch of things with it, try different grips, figure out how to clean it, and so on. A good cook learns each of his or her tools as well as possible. The postures are some of the most basic tools of yoga. It would be difficult to move forward in the practice without working in a focused manner on the postures. My suggestion for the beginner would be not to get too worried about highly complex postures until you are comfortable in the more basic ones. One of the problems with 'instagram yoga' is that it makes us focus on really complex poses, rather than to see the beauty and worth in the simpler foundations on which those poses rest. Of course this isn't new. Even back at the turn of the 20th century teachers would have the students demonstrate complex postures. It is motivating and captivating. There is a beautiful poster of Angela Farmer in Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana I had hanging in my studio. But think of poses like down dog and standing forward bend and boat as your plate of good bread and olives and fresh fruit, and the complex arm balances as tiramisu and gnocci with vodka sauce. The foundation of good practice, and good health is with the simple, fresh, and well prepared meal, with richer, more complex dishes as complements and treats.
For my students who are reading this and are wondering how to more from beginner posture work to advanced posture work I recommend that you start by developing a regular practice. If you cannot get to regular group practice practice on your own. Just remember that there is a huge benefit with working with a teacher if you can. There is also a benefit to working with different teachers in different styles of practice. You will learn more. Then once you feel comfortable with a basic posture, begin exploring variations. For example boat can be done with different arm positions. As you feel comfortable with some variations you can begin to work on variations that are not just opening the body differently, but require more strength, more flexibility, more balance, or more focus. I prefer to think.... where can I move from this place where I am now, rather than, I want to master this hard posture, what are the basic postures I need to do to get there. But you can do it either way. I just prefer the primacy to be on the practice, and the needs of the practitioner, rather than the postures.
A more advanced asana practitioner is one who understands the principles of sequencing. At the same time as you are learning to do the postures, you are learning why and how you want to string them together. Our cook needs to learn that the final product might be different if the ingredients are added in a different order. This isn't just about having a goal of getting to those harder postures, but of how the practice as a whole affects you.
I have, thus far, talked more about how to get better at asanas, but to be advanced in your yoga means to get to know the other tools in the box, aside from the asanas.
I don't think an advanced yogi needs to master all of the tools of yoga, but should at least be aware of them, and have tried enough to see what works for them. There are many tools in addition to asanas: breath work (pranayama), mental focus, kriyas, mudras, chanting, personal ritual, meditation, chakra work... these are most of the primary areas of focus.
The use of breath is sometimes taught concomitantly with the postures. Deeper breath work, though, is usually taught after one has some experience with asana. I do think an advanced yoga practitioner ought to have spent some time exploring pranayama. I am not sure I would say someone who is a master of kapalbhati is more of a higher level yogi, than someone who isn't, or that being able to do a really impressive ujayii is the most important thing. Understanding, exploring with an open mind, and finding what works for you seems to me to matter more. In other words... to be an advanced yogi is less about simply doing abstruse postures and breaths and kriyas, or having a smattering of sanskrit, or wearing a mala, and taking a beautiful photos of yourself in full split with your thumb and fingers in agni mudra than it is about how and why and when we do those things. It is about having taken an inner, as well as an outer journey.
You might have mastered all the knives in your kitchen, and be a whiz at chopping lemons, but if you are not able to pay attention, to focus, you are likely to chop off a finger. Mastery of the field of attention is the first step in mastering the postures, and it is a consequence of working on mastering the postures. It is also then the first tool you need to begin working on meditation in yoga. Meditation in yoga is more than simply being able to focus. You might be able to focus on doing a perfect chaturanga dandasana but have you explored the consequences of doing that posture, have you considered its effects on your body, have you looked honestly at why you spend so much time on that posture? Most of know it is possible to spend a lot of effort propping up a pretty facade, rather than letting it fall, and facing the hurt and disfunctions, and loss, and lacks within. The capacity of honest, deep, compassionate self study and of adapting one's practice to that study.... the capacity to use the mental, and emotional resources of the self as well as the physical... all of this is more a hallmark of an advanced yogi... more than the perfect side crow.
Artisan and Ersatz
Most people know that the Shakers were a religious group, mostly died out now, who were famous for making furniture. The history of the Shakers is actually really interesting, but what I have been thinking about lately is how their furniture became so valuable and sought after. Their core religious/philosophical/ethical principles were honesty and simplicity. Thus decorated inlay, and even metal drawer pulls were not used, and the furniture stressed sturdy quality over decoration.
This is a duality that exists in all sorts of craft work and manufacture. With furniture, it used to be that people went to a cabinet maker and ordered pieces made as they wanted. It took longer, and cost more, and people without the money for a cabinet maker generally made their own. However, you can look at furniture in museums from the 1700s, that endured generations of use, and still are in good shape, and see the value of such work. In the mid 1800s mass produced furniture became a thing.... good because more people could go and buy things ready made, but at the cost of often shoddy workmanship. You might point out that it is good that more people can have things that help them to live comfortably. I would say we are back to Aristotle.... starvation is bad, gluttony is bad, but there is a lot of room for good between the two. It is possible for people to get mass produced wares that may not be museum quality, but may also not be made to fall apart within a month so the person has to go and buy more stuff from the seller.
We still all stand between these choices today (and not just regarding shelves and tables). My mother had a seasoned cast iron pot that had lasted through 3 generations. Think about how many pots you have bought. And tossed out. There are a bunch of issues here It is true that a 10$ blouse is easier to justify than an 100$ blouse.... and if you are on a budget it might seem cheaper. But if it tears, or stains easily after 2 washings you have to add up how many of those blouses you buy in a year, and it seems that if we could save up and buy quality we might end up spending less in the long run. It is also true that all that stuff that gets thrown out has to go someplace. People do recycle... but how many benches of recycled PVC do we need? And fabric that is really cheaply made isn't always going to be easy to use even for rags.
What we don't talk about as much is the choices the creator of the object makes. A cabinetmaker would start as a youth apprentice, and spend a lifetime learning their trade. When they made an item it was real, and solid, and honest, and it represented a lifetime of knowledge. When each of us looks at what we make, or do, or teach, would we not want to feel it is not quick and shoddy, but real, and honest.... to strive for excellence rather than speed.
This duality is not just about stuff, but about us. It is about how we approach our work, and our lives. Do we seek excellence, or quick cheap results? Well: faster weight loss is less likely to be maintained. Cheaply made stuff wears out and must be replaced. A poorly trained physician is more likely to provide poor treatment.
Back to Yoga and Exercise
Krishnamacharya was one of the greatest yoga teachers of the 20th century. He taught or influenced most of the teachers who founded the major lineages that are still being taught today, and you can see his influence even in their offshoots. I have read different accounts of the time line of his education, but it seems clear he began to study Sanskrit and Vedic philosophy, and yoga as a child, first with his father, and later at his great grandfather's school. These studies continued until 1916 when he was able to go to Tibet and study with a very famous yoga teacher. He stayed there 7 and a half years, before returning. I have also heard that he studied ayurveda after his time in Tibet. All of this was before becoming a teacher himself.
There is a reason why he was one of the most respected and influential teachers of the last hundred and fifty years. Part of it is his clear gift for the practice. Part of it is that he spent a lifetime honing his skills, and learning his craft.
Today in yoga most yoga training programs, certainly in the USA, bear the label of '200' or '500' hours from the Yoga Alliance. And most people who teach yoga go through such a program. If you are considering becoming a teacher, or looking for a teacher I would like to suggest that such a program is neither necessary nor sufficient. That doesn't mean I object to them.... such a program is a really good jumping off point, or learning experience. I just mean these type of programs are relatively new. They reflect standards set in the last 20 years or so by the Yoga Alliance. There are many good ways to learn to teach yoga that do not involve such a program. Moreover, they are really only a start. Once you have the stamp of approval it is not possible to stop reading, studying, and training, if you want to be a really good teacher. So, yes, do training if it is at all possible for you. For one thing, in this highly competitive environment it is much less likely you will be employed without it. But let it be a jumping off point, rather than a finish line.
Just as in fashion there is always a push to cheaper and cheaper as more and more manufacturers enter the market, there is also a push for cheaper and quicker trainings. There are actually 'yoga like' classes that you could go and get 'certified' in in a weekend. There are 'certifications' in yoga, and in other modalities, like Pilates, that you can get online, by doing an unproctered online exam.
Compare that to 7 years in Tibet.
My biggest problem with the Alliance is not the 200 and 500 hour standards. I actually think they have produced a state where the average teacher has a reasonable understanding. I actually know very few bad yoga teachers, and the couple I have met that I do not like were not because they were deficient in some way, but because I didn't personally like their teaching style, or I found them grating personally. But I do think the system does not reward excellence, as much as it rewards being good with self promotion.
I also did not at all agree with them setting the standard for someone offering teacher training as having the 500 hour training. I think teaching the teachers should require passing a higher bar... a certain number of hours of teaching, running your own program, advanced study in either auryeda, or anatomy, or meditation, or yoga philosophy.
So if you are considering teaching yoga please take a breath. Look in the mirror and ask yourself if you want to do it because you teach group exercise, for instance, and want to make more money (and I am a certified group ex teacher, so I read the same industry things that talk about how yoga can make you more money, or be a good thing to teach), or if this is your calling... something so close to your bones that it is not what you do, but who you are.
It is certainly fine to do a teacher training even if it is not about calling. There are lots of classes out there, and if you can master the postures and do the 200 hours you might find that it is a good use of resources.
But for me, I might not ever get to the level of a hand turned inlaid chest, but I have made it my life's work not to be the kit from Walmart where the bottom is plywood, and the sides do not dovetail, and the veneer is thinner than paper, and the wood possibly full of arsenic.
Do yoga. Read yoga texts old and modern. Meditate. Attend workshops if you can. Be ready so that when you get to your training it isn't new material, but a new understanding of how to put it all together. Buy an anatomy textbook and learn your body from the inside out. I did 2 years of graduate work in exercise science and that has been enormously helpful in my teaching.
Be excellent. The good news is that with yoga excellence is not in the perfectly executed headstand, but in the daily study and practice. If you turn your eyes to excellence you will be there already. Because the practice is what matters more than the endpoint.
“ Do your practice and all is coming” Sri K Pattabhi Jois
In 1980 there was an article published in Yoga Journal by Joel Kramer. He talked about the balance between control and surrender and about how in yoga you have pushers and surrenders and that the pushers need to learn to surrender and this surrenderers need to learn to push. This idea became a central idea in my yoga teaching. It is an example of how the practice of yoga is about creating balance, often between oppositional forces: right and left, distal and proximal, inhale and exhale, backbends and forward bends, strength and flexibility, work and release, for example. There is an anatomical aspect to this. For example, if one muscle group or muscle is over tight, or over stretched we can rebalance the body by working not just on the muscle, but by its opposing antagonists and/or its synergists. But this goes beyond Anatomy (just as yoga is about more than muscles and tendons). We all have a tendency to move and explore those aspects of ourselves, and those disciplines that are most interesting to ourselves, and that we do best.
However, when we move out of our comfort zone we learn something about ourselves . I also think that we can deepen one sort of practice by moving in an opposite direction and coming back to it. And perhaps even more importantly, when we explore a different area we don't just learn new skills and improve our old skills, but we can discover commonalities that we wouldn't expect. In a larger sense it allows us to find the deeper connections that bind us. For example I've blogged before about my experience as a yoga teacher taking spin. http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/a-yogini-s-thoughts-on-taking-a-spin-class
There are many different kinds of yoga practice. If you wanted to list and sort them, you could see they exist on a number of a continuums: from more structured to less structured, from more anatomically scentered to more physiologically centered, from more restorative to more physically challenging. (There are also what might be considered to be specialized types or niche markets of yoga. Some of these are for specialized populations, chair or pregnancy yoga for example, and some really push the boundries of the core definition of yoga, but, well, a little pepper and paprika can take the taste buds in interesting places.)
In any case there are a great many sorts of practice. On the gentler end you have Yoga Nidra probably aon the far end, with yin and restorative on that side. On the other side you have practices like the classic Ashtanga vinyasa of Pattabhi jois and Bikram. Bikram sits at the end of intensity in terms of heat, although in terms of strength and complexity of postures I think there are harder practices.
So how did I end up teaching restorative at a Bikram studio?
Like a lot of teachers I occasionally will look through postings by people in the yoga world and in my local community. I am dealing with my own dichotomy: a desire to teach more, practice more, train more, and go to lots of studios, and a life that makes all these things challenging. But I am always open to possibility. In any case one day I happened to see a notice from an owner of a Bikram Studio who is looking for a Yin teacher for her studio and it caught my eye because it's the sort of thing I admire a lot that somebody who is on one end of the spectrum is interested in the other, that a teacher who specializes in something is interested in learning other paths, and that a studio owner wanted to offer her students and clients the chance to explore these inherent dualities. I have done Yin, but made a decision a while ago that it wasn't something I wanted to teach. However I do sometimes teach restorative so I went to talk to her. And immediately loved her as a person, and admired the way she ran her studio. And then from there became the restorative future at the Bikram Studio.
My way of approaching this was not to give a cookie-cutter restorative class but to try to give the students each day that which they needed. In other words to provide the restorative balance from which people who typically take Bikram might benefit, to adapt restorative principles to the needs of the Bikram students. To do that well, I have had to try Bikram myself.
Up to this point I had not done this style of practice. In part it is because I had had students tell me things that were not appealing to me. For example, that they were ordered not to drink water unless the teacher gave them permission. What I discovered is that, just as with restorative, or with vinyasa, Bikram classes can vary. The teachers I have had and the experiences I have had thus far have been good and welcoming and interesting. And I can leave out bits that don't work for me, or get a drink between postures if I need.
Bikram is a highly structured practice. The movements are done in a defined series, and for defined amounts of time in a very hot room. The primary principle, as I see it, is self discipline and self control. So in restorative we turn the heat to just pretty warm, and we choose movements based on what we are feeling at the moment, and work on figuring out what that is. We also work on how to release the breath and the mind along with the muscles. We use external supports (not used in Bikram) as a way to practice yielding control. We also practice inward focus, with an emphasis on pratyhara. Which brings me to the mirrors.
The hardest thing for me in Bikram is the continued insistence on looking in the mirror. As far as I can make out (and clearly I need to do some reading on the theoretical underpinnings of the Bikram path) the idea is that we use our outwardly directed visual sense to see and thus correct our own alignment. And here is one of those commonalities buried in a huge difference. When I begin class I often ask students to shut their eyes for a few moments. The goal is to use proprioception to feel alignment, as well as energy level, and mood, and so on, but to do it by moving inward. But what I realized is they were going through rather than under. By looking at the form you are just taking a different path to the same place. The danger in looking at yourself in a mirror is that you can get trapped in ego, or self judgement, OR you learn to look at your form with honesty burning away the ego in the heat. As opposed to in my practice in which I attempt to embrace and flow and allow the ego simply to be washed away. You will notice, if you look at the blog on the cycle class, that idea of the choice of fire or water comes up as well.
There are a few ways in which I will likely always bend to my primary way of being.... to adapt from an inner understanding of my being. My neck does not enjoy the deep backword bend of the first breathing exercise, although I love the breathing itself. There is also at least one posture my knee resists. With an old hip injury I need to move carefully there. But I am open to the possibility I will find those paths open to me. I suspect the self discipline is good for me, as it is not my natural strength. And I really love the students. They have been open, and curious, and welcoming. But then there are few students with whom I have been privlidged to work that I have not enjoyed and from whom I have not learned.
I would like to share (with her permission) a recipe for a protein smoothie that I got from a local nutritionist. She has counselled family and friends and gets high praise. I like this recipe because it works for the child (or adult) who is fruit averse, or generally averse to anything unusual, but who would benefit from having a protein rich breakfast or snack to replace a sugary carb load. It is quick to make and can be consumed in the car running late to work or school.
I am going to give you her original recipe, and then my adaptations. I prefer sardines or nuts or eggs, and fresh fruit for breakfast myself, but not everyone in my household is on board with that.
Meghan Martorana's Chocolate Smoothie
½ - 1 cup chocolate milk
2 tbsp peanut butter
1 Tbsp cocoa powder (optional)
1 scoop protein powder
I mix the milk
( Note I am not a nutritionist myself, but I choose 2% organic chocolate milk.... My reasons are that there seems to be a lot of questions about the advisability of non fat dairy. I do buy and use skim milk as well, but also use higher fat dairy at times. I like organic as I am anti hormones in animals... and thus in the milk, and in my or my family's bodies. Also I like to avoid pesticide residue and contribute to keeping our planet less polluted. And of course I try for local where I can see how the animals are treated as much as I can. I imagine one could use a vegan alternative, though I think you would want one with a less strong flavor. I personally avoid almond milk due to the very high water costs of that product. Please also note, I am giving the reasons for my choices. I make no judgement on anyone making different choices. I think what matters is taking the time to think out your ethical underpinnigs and how your choices relate to those ethics.)
with the peanut butter
(I like the Teddy's smooth. It is less grainy than the fresh ground whole foods stuff, and I think does better in a drink. I imagine you could use soy butter, or some other nut butter. Do read the labels as a number of companies add hydrogenated fat to their peanut butter to make it smoother. )
and the protein powder
(I love Tara's Whey organic chocolate. It is not grainy. )
and I blend this into a thick drink.
Here is where I make a little change. Instead of the cocoa powder I melt 2 squares of dark chocolate. Then I add ice and the melted chocolate on top of the ice and mix it together. The melted chocolate forms little flecks and the whole thing makes a kind of icy slushy.
Perfect for a sleepy teen who would otherwise go without breakfast or grab something from the snack cupboard.
Sensei Dan used to talk about what the kids in his dojo learned: not just high kicks, and blocks, and so on, but also self control, the ability to stand up to bullies, and self respect. With any physical discipline there are physical end points, but also benefits of understanding, character, and behaviour. The practice I know best is yoga. Not simply a physical practice, it is unsurprising how much one gets from a long term yoga practice. Lately I have seen a lot of articles on 'the benefits of yoga'. I am very happy that research has given us insight and quantification for these benefits. We know a lot more today about how yoga can help give us strength as well as flexibility, balance as well as focus. We also have studied the effects of yoga on various conditions: arthritis, ADHD, urinary incontinence, scoliosis, anxiety, …. it is clearly beneficial across a wide range of human health concerns. But what I would like to share with you is what I believe I have learned in several decades of yoga practice and study and teaching. What I have found that I can take off the mat and into my life.
Beyond a Certain Point Doing is Better than Having (and People are More Important than Things)
There was a study I read about a while back that looked at measures of happiness, and showed that people who spent their money on experiences were generally happier than those who spend it on stuff. In a culture where we are drowning in stuff that is really important to consider. I was thinking about that recently when I went to take a class at a studio owned by a friend and former colleague, taught by someone for whom I used to teach. It was a really good class, and really a beautiful space, and it was wonderful was seeing a number of people I hadn't seen in a while. I had been thinking of going that evening to buy a sweater and some kitchen supplies. I cannot imagine I would have felt so good afterward, whatever the advertisers are working so hard to make me think. I remember a long time ago becoming disillusioned with academic Philosophy, which I found was often more a 'bellum omnium contra omnes' (war of everyone against everyone else), rather than a shared community of seekers of truth and wisdom (which was what I had been looking for). In my yoga community I have found that shared path.
Answers are Not Unitary/Truth is a Land of Many Paths
One thing I tell my students a lot is to think of postures as tools and not as goals. If I come to the mat with uncomfortable tension in my low back I set an intention of stretching and opening that area. There are a wide range of postures that will serve me. I also understand if I take one posture that doesn't do what I need, or isn't accessible I can try something else, or modify the posture.
Another way to look at this has to do with the pattern of stress. There is a pathway to the process of a stress response, and we can affect that response in different places along that response. If we are in a loud, chaotic environment it can cause stress. A yoga studio is a place of quiet and slow deliberate movement. Simply to enter the space is generally a way to remove the sensory burden from our shoulders. Emotional and cognitive apprasals of ideas and sensory overload are part of the process. But a yoga practice is about love, not judgement. It is about exploration, not self harm or self judgement. It is about process, not endpoint. I have met a few yoga teachers who do not radiate love and acceptance (not that they always feel that for themselves or others.... but that they walk toward the light) but they are rare.
I got laughed at by a boss once when I borrowed a metal cutter from another department to cut tabs off some hanging file folders, rather than just buying new ones... but it was a way to get more quickly what I needed, and to do it more quickly. I find if I can stay calm and look at a problem and think about the possible tools at my disposal, like modifying my postures I generally solve those problems better. And if I do not hang onto a particular tool even when it clearly isn't working I do even better. Hmmm.... down dog just not doing it. Think I will go into dolphin.
It is about the Now. But it is also about the Was and the Will Be.
It is common in yoga to say 'be here now'. I had worked on that a long time before I realized that it is harder to be here now, so we emphasize it in class. But it is not better to be so in the moment that I jump backward into plank and forget I sprained my wrist last week.Understanding where we have been allows us to build on that. Looking to the future allows us to prepare for it. Being present to our physical, emotional, and physical self anchors us and allows our movement forward to be more honest and better guided as we move forward.
Passion and Measured Understanding are Not Mutually Exclusive
In college I developed a great affection for the English Romantic poets. I loved their overbrimming exhuberence. As Byron put it 'The cistern contains, the fountain overflows.' But I also was really drawn to Aristotle's ethics. Yoga has helped me to understand that these are not diametric opposites, but two ways to respond to our experiences. In fact, I think it is healthier not to live in the extremes, and healther to visit them sometimes.
This is something else I often tell my students... if you only backbend and never forward bend you court back injury... if you only twist right the same.... if you only inhale and never exhale your lungs will explode. By and large my daily yoga practice is about standing in the center and moving outward in balancing directions, to enlarge my range of motion in all the multiplicity of human possibility. But there are times that it is so good to take a more difficult post... to walk into the rain and feel it on your face. There are a number of times over the years I have led someone into some form of inversion (usually headstand) and watched how filled with joy and a sense of new accomplishment they become. I am not particularly a risk taker or adventurous by nature. (Some might say I am very muc a Taurus). But I have learned to recognize that about myself and to take a breath and sometimes move into the unfamiliar. I rarely regret it. My students know the tale of being at a conference with my husband, and some of the scientists deciding to do a Padi dive (which you can do without training, as you go down with a guide, and not extremely deep). I don't really swim very well, and I dislike cold water, but I went.... and had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. To walk into another world, with fish swimming by your head... the only sound your own breathing.... is to meditate as deeply as I have ever meditated.
“The Mediator between the Head and Hands Must be the Heart.”
I watched Metropolis the first time probably not too many years after I began to think about and try to practice yoga. I am not sure when I began to articulate consciously that idea from the film as the central mantra of my practice, but it has been percolating a very long time. I can read as many books on yoga as I want. Simply to understand the postures is not enough unless I also do them. But if I do the yoga without study I often miss the point, or move a joint in a way that might feel good now, but cause underlying damage, or simply not provide a framework to move me in the direction I want. And if I practice only to master the poses without compassion in my heart I am practicing a surface 'selfie' kind of yoga, where striking the pose is the only justification I need. The idea that I need to think, to care and to act on my understanding and compassion is one that I am present to every time I am on the mat, and try to take with me when I leave it.
I don't think everyone would have this same list... nor should they. It is in stripping away ego, self deceptions, cultural stereotypes, and so on, that we can start this journey of self discovery. I like Proust's quote “The real voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” I am pretty well aquainted with my strengths: I am industrious, and patient, and given time I can think through things pretty well, though not brilliant (and I have family members who are and I can see the difference). I suppose my most important character trait, the one that has served me and preserved me through difficulties is that I am essentially hopeful. I can't always feel the dawn coming, but I believe in it. This is why I keep coming back to the mat. I do not believe that love always wins. (One has only to look at the suffering in the world to know this). But one can fight for it.. by opening one's mind to learn what needs to be done and how best to do it...by opening one's heart to care enough to do what one can... and by opening one's hands and doing. Love may not always win, but somewhere under the snow it survives.
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.