Are You Listening?

thI was uncomfortable with the idea of my turning sixty, which is going to happen in late November.  

I have friends who are older than me who thought they were laughing with me when they saw what they considered feigned distress. “You’re a child,” they said. “Just wait until you’re my age.” 

I have friends who are younger and, with what I read as a patronizing tilt of the head told me, “You look great. Besides, age is just a number” (I’ll get back to them when they’re approaching sixty to find out if they’ve changed their opinion).

They believed they were offering support but I didn’t feel heard. Their words invalidated my complicated relationship with aging and I felt myself becoming invisible.

And then, one day after class, a student said to me, “You’re right – turning sixty is a big deal.” The moment those words landed in my heart I reclaimed my focus and returned to being sharp edged and filled with color. 

Someone listened not just to the words coming out of my mouth but the meaning behind those words. Someone heard me and I was no longer alone. It was time to celebrate.

Hearing is easy. Listening? Not so much. How often do we formulate a response before the person with whom we’re engaged in conversation has completed their thought? How often do we try to finish someone else’s sentence? How often do we interrupt?

I’m guilty of all three more often than not. What about you?

Listening can be part of our daily practice. We hear in a rush. When we listen we are mindful. 

Give this a try. Find a friend and a timer. Pour a cup of tea. And then choose someone to go first, set the timer for five minutes and begin. One person will talk about anything or nothing, the other will listen. No questions, no comments, no chatter in the mind. Just pure listening. When the five minutes are over, switch roles and practice again.


Singing Dragons and a Better Me

Putting together a ‘little something’ for a blog and wanting to be a published author are different mental activities. I arrived at this obvious conclusion two different ways. 

On August 8, 2018 at 5:00 PvTOk5zX4QYi1IByBEiHxVAM I submitted my first book proposal to the wonderful Claire Wilson at Singing Dragon Publishers. I met Claire at SYTAR, the Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research I attended in Virginia last June and from where I  wrote my last post for Practically Twisted. The process of creating a non-fiction book proposal is intense, time consuming and, at times, thrilling. It is also a process that forces you to question your goals and motivations. The process asks you to look at what is real and what might be possible.

I pressed ‘send’ that afternoon and am now waiting. I feel a little empty – as if the act of creating the proposal drainedany desire to write anything ever again (as I, of course, sit here writing).

After I submitted the proposal I began to ask myself questions. How would my life change if Singing Dragon picked up my proposal? Where would I find the time to write? How long would it take me? Would I have to quit teaching? Abandon private clients?

This long list of irrelevant questions, instead of rooting me in the present, dragged me into a unpredictable future. They interrupted the flow of oxygen and almost extinguished the little flame that keeps me searching for a way to tell my story.

Today I found myself, at 6AM, still in bed, sipping coffee and scrolling through the news headlines. Remember when I vowed to break this habit? I intended to build a better me. The truth is, I’m not comfortable with the idea of a better me. It implies that the me I am isn’t good enough. But another truth is that I miss those dark winter mornings when I wrapped myself in words to stave off the cold. 

And so, here I am again. 


Is Gratitude a Spiritual Bypass on the Road to Samadhi?

IMG_3246I’m at a four-day yoga therapy conference at a Hyatt Regency in Virginia. I’m sitting on the floor of a large, carpeted ballroom. It’s filled with one hundred beautiful, mostly mid-life women dripping in Lululemon, Om symbols, prayer beads and diaphanous Shakti-printed shawls purchased at the ashram in Buffalo where they attended their last silent retreat. 

Scattered among the women are a few earnestly bearded men dressed in baggy cargo shorts and shapeless, faded tee shirts.

This is my tribe. My people. We are all devoted to our practice. We are all devoted to helping others. But we’re all just a bit too grateful. We use gratitude as a balm to protect us from truths we’d rather have slide off our souls like rain on an oil slicked street. It’s no surprise then, that as I listen to the call and response of platitudes, I begin to fidget. My brain begins to twitch. It’s time for action because if I make no effort to stop the next person from proclaiming their gratitude for an injustice served my head will almost certainly explode. 

I raise my hand. It’s a first for me, speaking up in a crowded room. I’m a happy introvert and chutzpah is not in my nature. But when I see a woman across the room raise her hand, too, I take mine higher and suddenly it’s as if we’re competing to see who’s the most logically evolved. I win. I consider the repercussions for one tiny moment and then open my mouth.

“Gratitude is over-rated.”

Do I really mean that?

imagesThe Naas Bypass, opened in 1983, was the first of its kind in Ireland. Otherwise known as the M7, the highway connects the town Naas in County Kildare to the town of Limerick one hundred and sixty-eight miles to the southwest. In the thirty-four years since the ribbon cutting, new and upgraded bypasses have woven there way across the country. But the Naas Bypass has the honor of being the first road in Ireland to take a driver around rather than through a town. In doing so it relieves congestion in Naas’s town center and slices minutes from the journey.

UnknownIt’s a nice trade-off. We crave speed and ease and so when the goal is to get from Naas to Limerick as fast as possible then the town’s charming character, with its retro Eddie Rocket’s diner and Carphone Warehouse, is not a priority. We can avoid being slowed by the locals on their way to do a weekly shop at Supervalu. We don’t have to dodge truant children chasing runaway pups across the street. We can avoid anything at all that threatens our smooth journey to someplace else and enjoy the open road. The bypass is an alternative that’s both fast and direct.

In the ballroom I avoid the few pairs of eyes turned on me and look toward the instructor for some sign of understanding. She nods vague approval but to be honest I was expecting more. I thought there would be at least a smattering of knowing smiles and a few light chuckles. But the ballroom is silent. It’s not the dead silence of drop-jawed shock. It’s just silence. Silence that in one reckless moment I decide is my responsibility to fill. I attempt a clarification.

“Don’t you think we need to wallow in the muck before we can be grateful? When shit happens to me I need to sit with it. I need to figure out how I feel about it and hang with it until I can step back and stop reacting. If I can do that, then after the dust settles maybe then I can be grateful.” 

I don’t know why I feel that way. I don’t realize until later that anything less than standing in the middle of our discomfort is a spiritual bypass.

We hope that moving from pain to gratitude and bypassing the sticky stuff in the middle puts us on the fast track to samadhi but there are unintended consequences to avoiding suffering. Moving through misfortune directly to gratitude, without stopping to acknowledge and experience our suffering – or without considering the cause of our suffering – leaves an imprint of unresolved issues and open wounds. While the Naas Bypass is efficient and time saving, a spiritual bypass circles around our pain. It distances us from and delays the discovery of our authentic spiritual nature.

Changing the language we use to describe our suffering – whether it’s to a friend, a partner or the family cat – can rewire our brains to think differently about it. Saying “I’m sad” is very different than “I’m feeling sad.” In the former we are the situation. In the latter we are the observer of the situation. Prakriti and purusha. The ‘seen’ and the ‘seer’. This simple shift creates the space for us to sit in the middle of our discomfort without becoming the discomfort.

If our goal in practice is to still our fluctuating thoughts it doesn’t serve us to avoid the unsavory circumstances in which we sometimes find ourselves. Instead of choosing the bypass, let’s choose the slower scenic route.


Isn’t All Yoga Therapeutic, Part II

Ok.

So Maybe Yoga Therapy Isn’t Everything

For example, it’s not yoga. And when Gary Kraftstow took us on a journey from the roots to the fruits of yoga therapy during his keynote address on Thursday evening he described a yoga therapist as someone who has “a specialised knowledge base and skill set differentiating them from a yoga teacher.” Our yoga therapy training must teach us the skills that allow us to understand a client’s limitations. It should support our ability to build a practice with the client and for the client that takes into account their needs and their goals. A yoga therapist will, according to Kraftstow, “inspire their client to practice, thus empowering them to become an active participant in their own health-care.” The work we do with clients and the partnership we develop with them should support their ability to connect to “a deeper meaning and purpose in life.”

This is a huge responsibility. Yoga therapy is not simply “physical therapy plus yoga”

(an aside Kraftstow made that garnered a healthy round of applause). As yoga therapists, we should feel inspired to continue our education and to remain humble – to resist the urge to, as Kraftstow quietly demanded, “assume we know what we don’t know.”

The Case for Clear Knowing

We’re wise to follow Kraftstow’s advice. As yoga therapists we should continue our education, break our reliance on unverified beliefs and our habit of treating clients with similar issues with the same protocol. Yoga therapy is, after all, more than a series of asana.

But Carrie Demers, board-certified in internal medicine and who now blends modern medicine with holistic and traditional therapies, reminded us in her plenary session on Friday morning to listen deeply and to “know what we know.” She spoke to the devaluing of human intuition and asked us to “open up to the intuitive mind.” She asked us to “Listen deeply, with your eyes, ears and heart.” To do this, she said, is to hold space and to reflect the story back to the client. This gives room for our clients to reframe the story and to begin a new chapter.

Practice What We Preach

In their talks both Kraftstow and Demers told us that we can not offer to clients that which we do not practice. Without a strong practice of our own the work we do with clients lacks authenticity. In particular, the changes to our brain’s architecture that meditation promises connects us to the roots of yoga therapy that Kraftstow spoke of and, says Demers, it “keeps us compassionate and opens the door to our intuitive mind.”

What Have I Learned?

I still have one more day of talks and classes at SYTAR 18. My mind and heart are full and I wonder how much room is left in my brain for new knowledge…although I suppose there is always room in our hearts and minds and brains for more.

These three days have shown me that I am not alone on this journey. Yoga Therapy encompasses so much and can be given in so many ways: VA Hospitals, pain clinics, private clients, wellness centres, Dean Ornish programs, cardiac care units…even the Department of Defense (yes, I met someone who has a DOD contract to offer Yoga Therapy).

This can only mean that the roots Gary Kraftstow spoke of are very deep and numbered. The promised fruits are varied and beautiful. We nourish them through our personal practice, our continued education and our open hearts.

 


Isn’t All Yoga Therapeutic?

down dog 2I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked that question. My answer is ‘yes’ – all yoga is, of course, therapeutic. And so, one might wonder, what is yoga therapy and how is it different from our day-to-day practice?

The answer is complex. It’s on my mind, however, because I’m spending a few days in Reston, Virginia at the Symposium for Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR). This annual gathering of yoga therapists from around the world is an opportunity to meet Facebook friends in the flesh (I’ll be looking for the roomie I had during the last SYTAR I attended at Asilomar). More than that, of course, SYTAR is our chance to gather as a community and to be inspired, encouraged and educated.

It wasn’t too long ago when it seems like all it took to be a yoga therapist was a business card. Over the course of many years and most likely more than a little heated debate, however, in 2015 the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) announced a rigorous certification process. I know the process is rigorous because I survived and since 2016 have had the honor of having the C-IAYT credential behind my name.

But that still doesn’t answer our question. Just what is yoga therapy?

It depends on who you ask.

I know yoga therapists who are also licensed MFTs who use yoga therapy to support the work they do with patients in session.

I know yoga therapists who excel at sports. They’ve created a clinical protocol and work with individuals with sport-related injuries.

There are yoga therapists who focus on individuals with cancer and yoga therapists who focus on depression.

The application of yoga therapy can take place in a group or one to one. It can be practiced in a studio, a medical setting or in a client’s home. Yoga therapy will almost always be informed by the therapist’s own yoga journey – whether our practice is Iyengar, Viniyoga, Yin or Restorative.

Is attempting to define yoga therapy a fool’s errand?

Yoga therapists certified through IAYT must have received their yoga therapy training from an IAYT-certified school, of which there are few (although numbers are increasing). The education provided by these schools must follow strict curriculum guidelines set forth by the IAYT – these guidelines are available on the IAYT website.

Our education teaches us to use our strengths.

And that’s why, if you asked ten yoga therapists to define yoga therapy you’d get ten different answers. As yoga therapists and as students of yoga we work from our strengths. We trust the knowledge we’ve gained through our education and our experience to develop the correct protocol whether we work with individuals or with groups, whether we are clinicians or work transpersonally. We trust our instincts to know our boundaries, our limits and our skill set. We trust ourselves enough to know when to advise a client to see a doctor, or accept counselling, or to seek a different yoga therapist who might be better able to provide care.

What is yoga therapy?

It’s everything.


When Did Yoga Arrive in America? It’s Complicated.

The thing about truth is that it’s not solid. It’s not one thing. It’s filled with light and shadow and nuance and biography. What is a wonderful truth for you may be devastating to the person sitting next to you on the bus. I suppose, too, that we can choose how we feel about a truth. For example:

Donald Trump is president. How do you feel about that truth?

Of course, some truths are absolute. They have no nuance, no foggy shadow blurring the edges. They are clear truths that stand on their own and have not been muddied by the filter of life’s experiences. For example:

Two plus two is equal to four. I’ve only met one person in my life who will debate this arithmetical truth, a fellow student during my graduate studies and a psychotic provocateur whose one mission in life was to irritate the sane, rational minds of our cohort (this is an opinion, not the truth).

I’m pondering the question “what is true?” because there is a great and varied debate about the origins of yoga in the West. Among my friends and fellow teachers, there are some who begin America’s yoga journey with the arrival of BKS Iyengar. And as much as my practice and teaching is informed by Iyengar yoga, I respectfully disagree. 

When I consider the story of yoga in the West I fall into the camp that looks toward the Transcendentalists, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot. In particular, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his buddy Henry David Thoreau, who has been called ‘The First American Yogi’.

But is that true? Did Thoreau know anything about downward dog or sun salutations? Did he begin his day with a brisk Ashtanga Series I or a simple slow flow? No. But Emerson and Thoreau were entranced by ‘Hindooism’ and we’ve been taught that when Thoreau decamped to his pond in 1845 he spent much of his time in deep contemplation; perhaps meditation. He was mindful of his actions, aware of the world around him and in communion with nature. Henry David Thoreau was a student of yoga.

UnknownIt was Vivekananda’s arrival at the World Parliament of Religion, however, that sowed the seeds of yoga across a wider receptive audience. His delivery of twelve off-the-cuff speeches stole the show and made him a sought-after teacher of the yama and niyamas, pranayama and Kundalini. Vivekananda’s yoga was Raja (Royal) Yoga. Raja Yoga is the practice of attaining unity with the mind, body and spirit. In other words, attaining a state of yoga. It differs from Hatha Yoga in that while Hatha intends to still the mind through the body and breath, Raja brings the practitioner to a state of yoga through the control of the mind. Hatha prepares the student of yoga to practice Raja. The practice of asana is not the key element in Raja Yoga as it seems to be in Western Hatha Yoga, and Vivekananda ignored asana. That doesn’t mean the practice of asana isn’t important, but the practice is intended to build strength and flexibility in order to tolerate long hours of sitting in meditation.

I know that I’ve skimmed the surface. Perhaps I’ll continue to explore how we all landed here and that will inspire more writing. Still, what I’ve written here is, for me, the truth of how Yoga came to America. The documented truth of Vivekananda’s impact is enthralling.

Yoga was here, in America, long before Jois or Iyengar or Bikram. But the story of asana, and how it came to America and morphed into a six-billion dollar industry…well…that’s a different story and a different truth. 

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within, by controlling nature. External and internal. Do this either by work or worship or psychic control, or philosophy, by one or more or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”


Morning Light and Failing Better

fullsizeoutput_746Since it’s Memorial Day, Ben is off from work and is enjoying a lie-in. I, on the other hand, am set to teach my Monday morning class at Samyama. So when the alarm rang at 6AM Ben, blessed soul that he is, continued snoring while I stumbled first to the bathroom and then to the kitchen where I fed Bruce the Cat, boiled the water and ground the beans for the morning brew.

It wasn’t until I was at my computer checking the record low number of emails that fell into my inbox during the night that I remembered. When I wrote, so many months ago, about re-awakening my writer-self; about reviving discipline and being present – this is not what I meant. What I imagined was my waking early, sitting down and arriving for the work I do for me – the work that feeds me.

Which makes me want to pause and ask – what work feeds you?

I managed to honor those good intentions for a few months and then, as happens to so many of us so often, just when the habit was beginning to set it slipped away. It’s easy to understand how that happened. Maybe, one morning, instead of answering the first call of the alarm I hit the snooze button once then twice. Maybe, one morning, I became distracted by something that had happened in the news while I was sleeping. Maybe, one morning, I was pressed by a deadline for work and had no choice but to set aside the ‘other’.

It doesn’t matter. The sweet rhythm of hope that tickled the heart of me stopped beating. So here I am again, charging the metaphorical defibrillator and starting again.

What’s that wonderful Samuel Beckett quote? 

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

And so I shall.