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.”


We Have a Date! Samyama will Open its Doors in March

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Samyama Yoga Center, the new studio in Midtown, Palo Alto that I’ve been harping about for the past six months has Grand Opening Date officially set in stone. Following a celebratory Grand Opening Party on Saturday the 9th and an Open House on Sunday the 10th, classes will begin on (drum roll, please):

Monday the 11th of March

(Update…Our opening date has had to be pushed back a few weeks.  No, we won’t be opening on March 11th but when we DO open, and it won’t be long after our original date, Midtown will light up with Yoga Joy!  We’ll keep you posted…)

I’ll still be teaching:

Gentle Morning Flow:  Tuesday and Thursday from 7-8:30 AM

Yin Flow:  Fridays from 1:30-2:45 PM

   Hatha:  Saturdays from 4:00 to 5:30

    If you haven’t checked out the Samyama Facebook page yet, click here.

      Give us a look and then give us a ‘like’.


Samyama

 

The term samyama refers to the combined practice of dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (union). It is a technique we can utilize to cultivate deeper understanding of the qualities of an object or a person or a concept. It’s said that the yogi who successfully practices samyama will experience the lightness of being freed from the mental constructs – the kleshas – that bind us to the ‘real world’. In other words, samyama liberates us from obstacles, hindrances, troubles and suffering.

Samyama is also the name of the new yoga studio opening in Midtown, Palo Alto in October (just in time for Diwali).

Samyama isn’t your ordinary yoga studio. It’s one man’s vision manifested. To read the history of how Samyama began, click here.

Two months ago John Berg and I met for coffee at Philz – John’s office until the new one is built. The following week he invited me to teach at Samyama. I’ll be joining local yoga master Anirudh Shastri plus Louis Jackson, Annika Williams, Hillary Easom and Bethany Sala. One or two others have yet to be confirmed but the truth is John is keeping the teaching staff small for a reason – he’s not creating a yoga mini-mart with 48 available flavors . He’s creating a yoga home.

And I can’t wait to move in.

 


So You Just Got Your Yoga Teaching Certificate…NOW What Do You Do?

When you boiled it all down, the question my friend wanted an answer to was this:

“What do I do now?”

Deepa and I began Avalon Art and Yoga Center’s teacher training course in September 2011.  Six months and almost $3,000 dollars later we had a beautiful piece of paper to show the world that we were yoga teachers.

Hold up.  Actually, what we had was a piece of paper that said we’d completed the program.  The Avalon Teacher Training program is an intense and comprehensive six months of study.  It was worth my time and my money.  But when it was over, did the world have twenty-eight more yoga teachers?  I’m not sure.

It’s one thing to learn the techniques of teaching and another to know how to touch a student with words that describe the impact of a yoga practice or to provide support that make her feel safe.  Knowing how to instill confidence, knowing how to adjust a posture, knowing how to set the tone in the studio – it takes time and experience to develop those skills.  It takes an instinct that I’m not certain can be taught.  It’s a bit like learning that red and blue make purple.  Knowing how the color wheel works does not make you an artist.  And completing a teacher-training program does not make you a teacher.

The reality is I taught for many years before becoming a certified teacher. Instead of certification, I studied informally.  I read books and attended classes.  I asked questions.  I practiced.  I was a student for ten years before I began teaching.  I’m not suggesting the path to teaching I chose is better or even desirable.  There were holes in my “home study” yoga education I had a craving to fill.   What I’m trying to point out is that there are different paths, and maybe this push to collect certificates and to study with the flashiest Pop Star Yoga Idol (and after this past year we certainly know how quickly and how far yoga idols can fall) is blinding us to the truth that being a compassionate, effective and capable teacher takes more than a file cabinet of certificates.

So how important is that piece of paper?  I’m happy that after eighteen years I have certificates not only from Avalon but also from Paul Grilley’s Yin Teacher Training.  I could have continued to be a fine teacher without them, but they represent opportunity. They open doors.  If you choose – and for what it’s worth – your new certificate allows you to register with Yoga Alliance (which I’ve done).

But I’m through with formal training for the time being.  I’m happy to return to reading, talking with fellow teachers, attending classes in my neighborhood.  I’m happy to focus on my students and my teaching.

So how did I answer Deepa as she tried to decide what to do next?

I told her to take a step back.  I told her to find her teaching voice.

Your yoga voice – how you speak to students, the vocabulary you use to describe asana or pranyama or mudras or bandhas – it can’t be taught.  You have to find it and the only way to find it is to teach.

When you find your authentic voice as a teacher, that’s when you’ll begin to teach your truth.  And when you are teaching your truth you’ll know that the path you chose – the path that brought you here – it was the right one.

ps….Some people, by the way, are born to teach.  They’re naturals.  Deepa is one of them.  From mid-July she’ll be teaching at Downtown Yoga Shala in San Jose, California mornings and Friday evenings.  

As for me, I continue to teach my truth at California Yoga Center, Avenidas in Palo Alto and Prajna Yoga and Healing Arts in Belmont, California.  I also teach for Feinberg Medical Group and privately.


Negative Space

I’m captivated by negative space.

The space that isn’t the thing:  the blue between the branches of a bare winter tree, the angles drawn by a box of pencils spilled atop a desk, the shapes that fall between the shadows of a picket fence on a summer sidewalk.  Negative space.  The space that isn’t the thing.  The space that connects.

Sometimes it happens that during our yoga practice the asana becomes a single intention.  A shape to hold in passive static until we decide – or someone decides for us – that it is time to move.

This can happen if we’re practicing a slow flow or lightening quick vinyasa.   The shape becomes the goal.  There’s a rhythm and a reason for our wanting to be there. When I arrive at my full expression of the asana I’m practicing I’ve arrived at someplace familiar.  Someplace balanced.  Home.

But what about the negative space?  What about the space between the shapes our bodies sketch? What about the movements we create as we shift toward trikonasana or sirsasana? And what about the breaths we draw around that movement?  Shouldn’t the journey we take to create the asana be considered, too?

As you practice this week notice the negative space.  Connect with the space that isn’t the thing.


Eknath Easwaren’s Passage Meditation

At first I was put off by Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation.  The prose was too anecdotal, the advice too simple.  The book was for beginners.  Didn’t I already know all of this?  I wanted the answers to my deeper questions, not a parable on the hectic pace of life.

But because I promised my meditation teacher I would finish the book, I continued to read. And once I tucked my ego and arrogance away (and admitted I am a beginner!) I discovered that this book is a gem of subtle yet powerful insights.

Embracing a daily meditation practice requires discipline that, quite honestly, isn’t easy for me to summon.  I keep trying.  There are rare mornings when finding my seat and watching my breath feels like my natural state.  As if this is how it has always been and always will be.  On most mornings, however, the clarity and stillness I’m looking for spends most of the thirty minutes competing with random thoughts about clients, classes and topics for my next blog post.  On these days I sit, I breathe, I wait and then, when the timer sounds, I smile.  Have I failed?  No.  I showed up.  And as long as I continue to show up I know that eventually the days I feel meditation is my natural state will outnumber the days when stillness has to compete with my chattering mind.

Tonight I was reading about the power of thoughts and control of the senses.  Easwaran writes that this is our goal:

 

When we stimulate the senses unduly, vitality flows out through them like water from a leaky pail, leaving us drained physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Those who indulge themselves in sense stimulation throughout their lives often end up exhausted, with an enfeebled will and little capacity to love others.  But when we train the senses we conserve our vital energy, the very stuff of life.  Patient and secure within we do not have to look to externals for satisfaction.  No matter what happens outside – whether events are for or against us, however people behave towards us, whether we get what pleases us or do not – we are in no way dependent. 

Then it is that we can give freely to others; then it is that we can love.

 

Initially I thought I’d write that Passage Meditation is a simple book.  It feels like a simple book.  But once the heart and mind are open to its teaching, it becomes a rich and layered set of ideas that will move us forward in our practice.

 

 


Yoga is More than Skin Deep

When I began to practice yoga twenty-five years ago, the emphasis was on the physical.  In fact, it would be closer to the truth to say I wasn’t practicing yoga at all – I was practicing asana.  And while my early training included work on the philosophy and history of yoga, I listened about as carefully as I did during fifth-grade arithmetic (and my friends are all too aware that my ability to add and subtract leaves much to be desired). 

What was I afraid of?

I convinced myself that asana was enough.  But I was only swimming on the surface.  To me, deeper work meant something physical, nothing more than graduating from half to full lotus without damaging my fragile left knee. The thought of moving deeper spiritually was too uncomfortable.  My asana practice strengthened  but I failed to see beyond its gifts. Deeper examination meant diving into the unknown.  And I was uncertain of what I might find.

But twenty-five years after my first utthita trikonasana I now see awesome beauty in the unknown.  I’ve yet to reach center – do we ever?  But to paraphrase one of my teachers, I know that when I do find my center, freedom will be waiting for me.

Although I have no proof, I think it is reasonably safe to assume that most yoga practice in the West is asana-centric. There’s nothing wrong with that.  I mean, what’s not to love about asana practice? It brings us to a place where we feel balanced and alive.  It calms or energizes depending upon our needs and our sequencing.  And if we pay attention to the sensations we feel after our practice we’ll realize they are more than physical. More than skin deep.  Our asana practice influences our emotional state.  It influences how we perceive the world around us.

But this is just a tease.

When we broaden our yoga practice with elements of pranayama and  meditation we build a practice that is deeply integrated and holistic.  The physiological and spiritual sensations that asana practice hints at become intensified. We begin to dive beneath the surface.

The same teacher who taught me where to find freedom also offered a metaphor.  He suggested that our day-to-day lives, our random thoughts, our unconsidered reactions to the world around us are like the surface of the ocean: rough and unsettled with white caps and tides that rush in and just as quickly rush out.  But beneath the surface of the ocean there is calm.  If we can turn away from chaos and turn toward the calm found in a measured breath and silence then our spirits – and our asana practice – will be nourished.