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.


When Gratitude is Too Big

fullsizeoutput_6e7Over the past few weeks in the creative expression classes I teach we’ve been creating gratitude journals. Gratitude journals are, as they say, ‘trending’. There are studies, in fact, that suggest keeping one benefits our mental and physical health. This might be true. Shifting our energy toward the positive rather than nurturing our habit of catastrophizing the difficulties we encounter builds our emotional resilience and reminds us that living is a group experience. 

But sometimes the concept of gratitude feels too big for me and at the same time too elementary. It’s difficult for me to winnow down all the reasons I have for being grateful.  The simple act of creating a daily list of well-meaning gestures, happy accidents and unexpected outcomes might remind me of the good in life, but it doesn’t satisfy the yearning I feel in my heart to understand how acknowledging these moments feeds my soul.

How can we add depth to the act of recognizing the positive in life?  The things that turn our frowns upside down?

In yogic philosophy we study Patanjali’s niyamas. The niyamas are a collection of five virtues. One of these virtues is self-study (‘svadhyaya’).  Anchoring the contemplation of gratitude in self-study provides an opportunity to embrace those moments for which we are grateful and then to explore the deeper nature of gratitude and how we can express the gratitude we experience. 

If we want to narrow our focus even further we can turn to Naikan – the Japanese practice of introspection. When we practice Naikan we ask three simple questions:

  • What have I received?
  • What have I given?
  • What difficulties have I caused?

The questions might be asked about a relationship, a situation or even an event. For example, if I choose to practice Naikan on my mother then the questions I ask are:

  • What have I received from my mother?
  • What have I given to my mother?
  • What difficulties have I caused my mother?

The obvious fourth questions, What difficulties has my mother caused me?, is ignored. It is human nature to shine a spotlight on that question, but it is through the examination of our answers to the first three questions that we’ll find enlightenment.

When you open your journal tonight, how will self-study or a Naikan practice influence how you consider gratitude?


My Left Wrist: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

IMG_0035Remember when we took walks for the joy of fresh air and sunshine? When the best thing about walking was the unmistakable scent of spring in the air or the sharp, salty brine and the startling launch of an egret?

I do.

But then I wrapped a FitBit Charge II around my wrist and became shackled to the number of steps I took instead of being thrilled by the number of pelicans feeding near the shoreline. I looked forward to the reward of positive feedback from my FitBit’s app when I moved every hour for ten consecutive hours instead of looking forward to and embracing every opportunity to be still. I lived for seeing those celebratory green stars, animated balloons and flashy stripes that meant the goals my FitBit and I set had been accomplished. I was obsessed with keeping my FitBit happy and losing track of the happiness I deserve.

And so, on Monday morning we broke up. I broke free from the device and its freakishIMG_1676 ability to manipulate how I feel. I removed the FitBit and put it in my dresser drawer.

Yes. I know. A FitBit is a simple device. An inanimate object. A tool I use to measure with some accuracy the energy I expend and the energy I ingest. But for a person like me – a woman who likes to have a place for everything and everything in its place – it’s easy to become preoccupied with the numbers, the graphs and the positive reinforcement. Prone to giving human characteristics to machines, at times my FitBit became an encouraging best buddy. Sometimes, though, it was my worst enemy. 

My left wrist feels naked but removing the tracker is liberating. It’s brought me back to the reason why exercise and a healthy diet are important. My walks to work are mood balancing. They reduce anxiety and improve my outlook on life. They soothe me. Good food made from locally sourced ingredients provides my body with ‘clean energy’. Together exercise and an intentional diet have helped me lose the twenty extra pounds that were adding too much stress to my joints, my heart and my pancreas (there’s a bit too much diabetes in my gene stock to ignore).

Ending the relationship with my tracker does not mean I’ve lost my motivation. In fact, let’s be honest. I’ve not ended anything. What I’ve done is reconsidered the relationship. There will be a time when I reach into the dresser drawer and charge up my Charge. It may be that I need a little bit of motivation or that I’ve become so wrapped up in work that I need to re-focus my intentions.  And that will be ok. A tracker as a tool is ok. As long as I remember that healthy living – a life worth living –  can’t be measured in an app.


Small Rituals

fullsizeoutput_5dfI threw off the morning’s rhythm on Monday and made everyone cranky. Even Bruce the Cat. I rose early rather than settling in for a second round of snooze control. I filled the kettle, ground the beans and sifted the matcha. I gave Bruce fresh kibbles and changed his water.

This is not my job on a Monday morning.

My job is to linger under the covers, snuggle with Bruce the Cat and to listen as my dear Ben shuffles into the kitchen to complete the tasks that on this particular Monday morning I completed instead.

And now the rhythm is off and the morning (at least Ben’s morning) has been not quite ruined but most definitely bumped from our household’s comfort zone. Bruce the Cat, however, is doing just fine. He’s eating breakfast and has already forgotten that I didn’t rub his belly this morning. I’m doing just fine, too. It was nice to boil the water, grind the beans and sift the matcha. I know that I barged unfairly into a weekday ritual that is Ben’s, but my intentions were pure.

Ben has gone back to bed. His morning ritual stolen, the day has temporarily become too much to face.

Rituals pull together the loose threads of our lives. We all have rituals, whether we label them as such or not. Some rituals are obvious: attending church or temple, family meals taken together or the walk we enjoy with loved ones at the start of the new year. Others rituals are less obvious. Like sifting matcha in a dark kitchen by the dim light of pre-dawn or counting the number of turns it takes for the burr to grind enough beans for the cafetiere.

Rituals shift and change – at least mine do – depending on the season. When I was a child, before I even knew the word ritual, I sat on the deep windowsill in my bedroom and watched muskrats swim upstream in the steep-banked creek toward their den. The creek was one of many small afterthoughts that broke from the larger Ontaulaunee, which originated in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In spring heavy blooms of white and purple lilac leaned down over the water to drink. In summer the giant weeping willow standing guard on the far bank kept the creek in shade. Sometimes, after the winter snow melt, the waters would rise a foot or so up the bank, turn from clear to muddied grey and push downstream with violent energy. Once, during Hurricane Agnes, the water breeched the banks and threatened to spill through my window. I guess when that happened the muskrat dens were washed away. I didn’t think about that as a young girl. When I was a girl, watching muskrats swim against the current calmed me and reminded me that there was a world beyond the view from my window that my heart ached to explore.

My small rituals as an adult are also tied to the world around me. On my walks to the yoga studio I am certain to keep to a particular side of one street in order to walk past the lemon tree that has, from time to time, left fruit for me to enjoy. And I make sure to walk through the abandoned lot where a fig tree grows. If I didn’t follow this path on my walks to work it wouldn’t feel right. And when I walk to the pain clinic I keep my eye on the persimmon trees growing in Peers Park. Watching the lemon, the fig and the persimmon trees blossom and bear fruit season after season, no matter the depth of chaos and suffering shown on the news, reminds me of the long afternoons I sat at the windowsill and watched muskrats. It keeps me calm and reminds me that it is still a beautiful world.

What are your small rituals? What pulls together the loose threads of your life?