Another Year, Another SYTAR

The event hasn’t begun and already I’m sitting in a circle. And if you know me at all, you know how I loathe sitting in circles. I’m attending SYTAR – the Symposium of Yoga Therapy and Research. It’s an annual four-day event that brings inquiring minds, old friends, and new acquaintances together in order to share the latest research and advances in yoga therapy. There are practice sessions in the morning, plenary speakers mid-day and a great variety of special interest meetings in the afternoon. As usual, the halls of our hotel are lined with vendors promoting a variety of yoga therapy programs, opportunities to study Ayurveda, essential oils and various tools of the trade. A highlight is bumping into Rebecca Deano. We shared a room at my very first SYTAR. And it’s always nice to catch up with Jason Scholder,  comedian and the man behind my favorite yoga prop,  the great Three-Minute Egg. Bay Area yogis are always plentiful. I can usually count on seeing the co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging Baxter Bell, yoga for cancer specialist Lorien Neargarder and American Viniyoga’s Gary Kraftstow.

My very first SYTAR conference, the one where I shared a room with Rebecca, was at Asilomar in 2009. That was the year I fell under the spell of BK Bose and soon after began formal yoga therapy studies at his Niroga Institute. A decade passed and then, last June, I flew across the country, to Reston, Virginia. This year I flew an hour south, to Newport Beach. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) are the organization responsible for SYTAR. I’ve been a member for fifteen years (give or take) and in that time I’ve seen them transform. Since Asilomar they’ve grown into their name. A few years ago they initiated a rigorous credentialing criteria for certified yoga therapists who hope to add the letters ‘C-IAYT’ behind their name. Their high standards raised the bar for us all. In the next few years the organization hopes to have in place a qualifying exam for new graduates of IAYT-certified yoga therapy schools. This is exciting news. As yoga therapy moves from the fringe toward a routine wellness protocol for our physical and mental health it’s critical that IAYT continues to refine and codify what it means to be a yoga therapist.

The Beautiful Business of Yoga and What I Did in My Spare Time

Ferry Building San Francisco after the 1906 Ea...

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I love the architecture of the Hyatt Regency on Embarcadero.  A cross between Logan’s Run and The Poseidon Adventure (after the rogue wave), it’s all sharp angles, shafts of light and heavy concrete.

The last time I was here greenery trailed from each floor like the Gardens of Babylon.  But this year, in an attempt to brighten a dark winter, a thick fringe of white lights hang from the ceiling ending about twenty feet above the atrium restaurant.  The effect is dizzying.  Seizure inducing if you’re of that ilk.

The good news.  I woke at 5:30 with a new game plan.  Galvanized.  Hopeful.  I jotted down a few ideas before they melted away, drifted back to sleep and woke again to see the red sunrise reflecting off the Bay Bridge.

After a shower I walked over to the Ferry Building, enjoyed a non-fat latte and strolled among the fruit and vegetable stalls.  Yes, I strolled (those of you who know me know that I do not, by nature, stroll).  I sampled fermented carrot (an acquired taste) and pickled okra (yummy even on an empty stomach) from the Cultured Pickle Shop and then made my way back to the atrium restaurant for breakfast.

I may have been a little harsh yesterday.  There are plenty of wonderful reasons to attend the conferences Yoga Journal hosts around the country, month after month, on and on, forever and ever Amen.  Ooops.  I think I meant to say “Om”.

Give me a moment to contemplate these reasons while I dig into a bowl of steel cut oats large enough to provide sustenance into next Tuesday.

Right.  Sorry.  Can’t do it.  Trying to defend these conferences is a little bit like me trying to defend chiropractics.  While I know having regular visits to a chiropractor resonates with plenty of people, it doesn’t with me (for the record, I’m a fan of acupuncture).  And I know there are attendees here who are being opened to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new poses.  New ways of being.  And, with all sincerity, that is wonderful.  But I’m not.  Because in the back of my head there’s a little voice whispering, “this isn’t what yoga is supposed to be.”

I think the epiphany arrived as I worked through a rack of organic bamboo/cotton blend/75% spandex yoga trousers woven by Blind Monks from Tibet.  Or maybe Alabama. The clothing was very beautiful and very, very expensive. The tag suggested that wearing the pants would change my life.  I’d find freedom.  Liberation.  Breathtaking beauty.  Wearing that particular brand of clothing pretty much guaranteed powers of levitation on the way to Nirvana.

I understand that we pay a price for what we love and that in the 21st century Yoga is Big Business.  But can we try to make it a better, more beautiful and honest business?  One of the reasons I support Jason and his Three Minute Eggs (see yesterday’s post here) is because he doesn’t promise Enlightenment.  He doesn’t suggest I’ll be more wonderful than I already am if I use his eggs.  He simply made a good prop better.  You have to admire his ingenuity while slapping yourself on the side of head and saying, “why didn’t I think of that?”

As far as teachers go, that’s why I admire Paul and Suzee Grilley and Gil Hedley.  They teach from the heart, with humility.  Yes, I pay for their teaching the same way I pay for Jason’s blocks.  But they share their knowledge with loving generosity.

My life challenge is jealousy and envy.  So I suppose there is always the possibility that these feelings of cynicism are coming from that dark place.  Would I feel the same way if Yoga Journal asked me to teach?  Am I jealous that I don’t have a book to hawk or a clever prop to demonstrate?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Or maybe the truth is my heart is weary of watching the thing that has given my life depth and character being demeaned by the competitive marketplace in front of my eyes.

And maybe I learned more than I thought this weekend.


The Ugly Business of Yoga and What I Did in My Spare Time

I decided to attend this year’s San Francisco Yoga Journal Conference mostly because Jason Scholder asked if I would help out at his Yoga Market Booth.  Jason is the inventor of the Three Minute Egg – my favorite yoga prop.  And I say that it’s my favorite prop not because Jason is a nice guy – although he is – but because it’s a versatile little piece of mandorla shaped foam.

But I digress.

I decided to attend the Yoga Journal Conference because Jason asked me to help. In exchange I’d be given a free pass to one or two of the classes being offered over the weekend.

Since classes were going to be free, then it just made sense to splurge on the conference rate rooms at the Hyatt.  And so I did.

One big problem.

I have a deep dislike for the business of yoga that only intensifies when I’m in an environment dedicated to the business of yoga.

Still, I could set that aside for ninety minutes of Yin with Sarah Powers and a morning of Yoga Nidra with Richard Miller!  I could drop my attitude and enjoy the gift.  Except both classes were sold out with no hope of my sneaking in.  But what about the other classes?  Yeah.  What about them? I had my heart set on Sarah and Richard. Everything else had a sort of “been there, done that, why bother?” ring to it.

So what’s a girl to do with a paid for hotel room and twenty-four hours to kill?

I floundered.  I checked emails.  Opened the mini-bar and quickly closed it again.  I turned on the television and took off my shoes.  The sun slowly settled as the buzz of a Friday night in San Francisco began to build.

In a reckless moment I considered ordering room service – something I’ve always wanted to do (I’m easily thrilled) but I came to my senses.  I left my room and rode the elevator down to the restaurant on the atrium floor.

Which is where I am now, enjoying a beautiful grilled shrimp and scallop salad with avocado, mango and shaved ginger.  Oh yeah.  And a glass of chardonnay as velvety as amaretto.

Today has changed from being the beginning of an exciting yoga weekend to being the start of a disappointing weekend.  But I can’t let that happen.  So I’m turning it into a writer’s weekend.

When I return to Room 408 I’ll crack the window in order to freshen the stale air that has a fetid base note of sour milk and pull on my jim-jams and wooly socks.  I’ll crawl under the stiff sheets of my king sized bed and do what I never really had a chance to do over the holidays.  Regroup.

Things happen for a reason.  The Universe tricked me into this downtime.  Thanks, Universe.

Come On, Everyone, Get Happy!

I am getting tired of people confusing the hope and optimism I experience on a daily basis for naivety.  Seriously.  Get over it.  I can’t help myself.  I’m a happy person.  A few years ago I had a roommate who enjoyed calling me a ‘Pollyanna’ whenever I expressed any positive thoughts about – well – about pretty much anything. And then, over the weekend, my Mom said to me, “I was naïve like you are.  I trusted everybody.  I believed in love…but you can’t trust anyone.”

It must be very sad to wake up every morning believing there isn’t one soul in the whole wide world batting for you.

Listen, it’s not like I spend my days skipping through imaginary fields of flowers, the air filled with birdsong and woodland creatures gathering ‘round to bask in my glow of giddy positivity.  It’s not like that at all.

Anyone who’s been near me when I’m pre-menstrual knows I have a fierce snark streak.  Traveling companions know that I throw f-bombs at bicyclists who run stop signs (not directly at them, of course – I wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings). And don’t get me started on people who bring more than fourteen items to the Express Check-out line at the local Safeway.

Like everyone, my moods vary.  They can cover the gamut of the Seven Dwarfs in the time it takes you to watch an episode of the Big Bang Theory.  But underneath it all is the knowledge that everything will be all right.  This isn’t a ‘hope’ or a ‘wish’ – it’s a knowing.  I know.  Some people wear their bitterness and cynicism as if it’s something to be proud of.  But if I didn’t know there was good in the world – or the potential for joy in every moment – I would lose my mind.

Opening Your Heart

The truth is, while I believe it’s possible for individuals to have a predisposition toward being either preternaturally happy or melancholy, it’s yoga that elevates my mood and keeps it elevated.

Of course there are other mood enhancers, but why would we choose a cheap, processed sugar-filled meal over a fresh, organic feast?  The first might provide a fast high, but it’s inevitably followed by a mighty crash. A regular yoga practice sustains me.

Let’s Get Physical

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the asanas in yoga have a physiological effect on our body.  We can feel the stretching and strengthening, the twisting and the rush of blood.   But the poses have an emotional effect as well.  For instance, forward bends tend to be calming while backbends are heart-opening energizers.  And that’s pretty much any forward bend or back bend.   As you might have guessed – I’m a big fan of the back bend.  My favorites?  Simple, supported poses that utilize props to protect the lower back:

How simple is this?  Nancy has used Three Minute Egg blocks to arch her spine and support her head.  But the same effect can be achieved with a bolster and pillow.  And you can see the lift in her chest as well as the way her shoulders open back.  Her legs are straight, but knees can remain bent or placed soles of the feet together in cobbler’s pose.  Come out of the pose when your body tells you to (although I wouldn’t hold the pose longer than ten minutes – but that’s just me).  Follow the pose with knees to chest.

Not only will opening the heart energize and enhance your mood, it will reverse the chronic rolling forward of shoulders computer work and driving encourages.

Go ahead – get happy.

Fasten Your Seat Belt…

I want to say, before anything else, that maybe I’m wrong.  That perhaps my time in high school and again in college spent as a Bible-thumping, tongue-speaking Charismatic has made me a bit wary of preachers.  My mission as a Yoga teacher is to teach you what I know and what I’m learning.  My mission is to keep you safe and injury free as you grow in your Yoga practice.  My mission is to encourage you and my hope is that you discover that there is more to Yoga than the physical.  When we practice with peace, with non-violence towards our body, free of an agenda and expectations, a connection takes place between the body and the spirit. It’s not up to me to point it out to you.  You must find it.  Sometimes it takes no time at all – we feel the connection with our very first triangle.  But for many of us our fear of doing it ‘wrong’ holds us back.  There is no ‘wrong’.  There is tightness, joint restriction, agitation, fear…but there is no wrong.   Sometimes to grow, we need to step back, to take a lighter approach.  Sometimes to grow, we need to dig deeper.

Yoga is a blessing in my life. But its ever-increasing commercialization has, at times, made me feel insecure as a teacher and as a student. Can I still practice Yoga if I don’t have the right clothes?  The right mat?  Am I skinny enough?  Can I put my foot behind my heads?  Why, after twenty-five years of Yoga practice does Crow still elude me? Dare I confess that, on occasion, I’m a sucker for a crisp slice of bacon?

So – in the spirit of healthy skepticism, fasten your seat belt, we’re in for a bumpy rant.

I want to like John Friend and Anusara Yoga.  I really do.  I love the alignment-based technique, the sense of humor and joy.  The highlight of the 2008 San Francisco Yoga Journal Conference (besides discovering Three-Minute Eggs) was my Anusara session with Désirée Rumbaugh.

But then I read this quote from Friend’s interview in the September issue of Yoga Journal“When I was four years old, Kennedy got shot… I was sick.  My mother fed me whiskey and honey and put me in front of the TV.  So I was in an altered state of consciousness when my shows were preempted by the Dallas tragedy.  Watching the funeral caused me deep questioning about the meaning of life.  Why would we be created to have it all taken away?”

John Friend and I are the same age.  I asked questions that week, too.  Questions like, “Mommy, why are the boots in the saddle stuck in backwards?” I’m pretty certain I didn’t question my existence. Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24th but, other than that, death had nothing to do with me. November 24th, 1963 was my 5th birthday.  I was afraid the celebrations might be cancelled.

Maybe as a child John Friend was calibrated to a higher universal frequency than me.  Maybe he tapped into something I didn’t notice because I was too busy thinking about my mom’s pineapple upside down cake and not stepping on the kitchen cockroaches that occasionally made daring daytime raids.

The truth is, as much as I want to believe, I’m very, very skeptical that John Friend questioned the meaning of life at age four.

But I like being a skeptic.  I think it’s healthy.  And, these days, there’s a place for skepticism in Yoga.

So I’m putting the Commercial Yoga World on notice.  Unless I see you walk on water I’m not going to follow you like a puppy.  But I’ll believe you’re a human, just like me, who has honed a skill through hard work and dedicated practice.  I’ll believe you have a gift for teaching.  But I won’t allow the masses to convince me you’re the Next Great Yogic Hope.

And please don’t put a copyright on poses that are thousands of years old.  Don’t try to convince me your sequencing belongs to you and you alone,  or that practicing the sequence in a super-heated room is healthy.  It might be, for you, but not for me.  I tried it.  I even enjoyed the spiritual benefit. And yet, each time I began a hot yoga practice the result, for me, was illness or injury.

So please, if hot yoga makes you feel jubilant  please don’t proselytize that your Yoga is the only way. I’m happy you found the Yoga that fits your body, mind and spirit.  Now pardon me while I go find mine.

If you are a human, just like me, don’t try to convince me that with your system I can become a Level I Yoga teacher in a weekend workshop.   It’s impossible.

And if I mention my Iyengar background to you, don’t smirk. Yes, it has happened. Don’t look at me as if I need de-programming.  My Iyengar background keeps my students safe.  Will you break a sweat in my class?  Perhaps during Surya Namaskar.  Maybe not.  Do we care?  Is Yoga a hard-core cardiovascular exercise?  On the other hand, will you learn how to modify each pose to suit where your body is that day?  Will you be in a quiet and safe environment?  Will you be mindful of the body and the breath?  Yes.

Finally, if you design, manufacture or sell Yoga equipment or clothing, I want you to know that I choose to no longer be manipulated by your advertising.  Tell me what your product is, how it works and why I might want to have it.  But be honest about it.  Don’t make me feel less of a Yogi because I haven’t purchased the latest mat, the trendy clothes, the coolest block.  Seriously.  Do you think Patanjali had a foam block?

Yoga in America is in a strange place.  It’s being diluted and pushed and pulled and turned into something I don’t believe it was ever meant to be. It’s becoming overpriced, over-marketed and elitist. The question new students usually ask, “Am I flexible enough to practice Yoga?” seems to be slowly changing to “Am I pretty enough/handsome enough/ sexy enough to practice Yoga?”  I hope I’m not the only one who finds that sad.