What Better Time is There to Practice?

What would happen if you gave yourself this gift of stillness? What would happen if you let the world take care of itself while you take care of yourself for these few, brief moments?

It’s out of character for me to ask questions during those last ten minutes of class, when we assume our final pose for the day, savasana, and prepare for guided relaxation. But at the end of a recent class, and even though my guided relaxation style leans more toward a body-scan sort of script, that’s what I did. I was hoping the questions might open everyone’s heart toward the idea of it being all right to rest without judgement of what’s happening in the body or with the breath.

Some might disagree but I’ve always believed that those final moments in our asana practice are the most important and the most difficult. We are asking ourselves to balance stillness with presence. We are letting go of the expectations we place upon ourselves. We are doing our best to not think about what we’re having for lunch.

But when we feel agitated and when we know we have a long list of projects waiting for us after that final namaste’, assuming savasana and resting in present-moment stillness is challenging. Yet what better time is there to practice? 

When we are in a brick and mortar studio the idea of a practice feels somehow more available. There are few distractions and the quiet, intentional atmosphere of the studio offers a focus not always available to us when we are rolling our mat out on the living room floor and sharing a virtual class with fifteen others. And while we count the dust bunnies under the bookcase from downward dog and find cobwebs between the paddles of the ceiling fan our mind wanders and our ability to hold our attention on the sensations in our body and the movement of our breath wavers. 

And so I ask again: what better time is there to remain present in and with our practice?

By the way, I understand this challenge because it’s my challenge, too.

There’s a level of loneliness to the online class that doesn’t exist when we’re together in a studio. That’s why I believe it is important to treat our virtual yoga space with the same reverence that we treat the studio yoga space. To remember that we are sharing our practice with others and that while we apart physically we are united energetically.

What would that take to make that shift? 


Last Time Land

Last Sunday Ben turned left onto Fruitvale Avenue and I began to cry. The afternoon had turned from hot and humid to bright and breezy. We spent it enjoying cold pizza from Terun and chilled ice tea in Pat and Bob’s garden while their eight-month old Golden Doodle ran in playful circles around us. A few hours later we stood at their door not wanting to leave but knowing it was time. I wanted to hug them both – a simple gesture of love and affection – but Pat is immunocompromised and we were not willing to risk COVID. The best I could do to let these dear friends know how my life changed from knowing them was to say,

“I’m hugging you in my heart.”

Pat replied, “I know.”

The day that we move to Virginia is two weeks away. And now we can’t help but say, ‘that’s the last time we’ll grab coffee at Printer’s Cafe’ or ‘that’s the last time we’ll be up in the City’ or ‘that’s the last time we’ll sit in their garden with a glass of summer wine’. In other words, sadness and excitement have locked horns. We’re living in Last Time Land.

Last Time Land is an odd place. It’s full of sun bright joy – like the joy felt a few Tuesdays ago. That was the clear blue sky morning when a few dozen friends who have been gathering with me to practice yoga on Zoom gathered instead in Susan’s garden. It was less a ‘going away’ party and more a celebration saturated with love and appreciation for one another. I’m so happy that morning happened. It was an experience I didn’t know I needed.

It’s difficult to describe the other side of Last Time Land. It’s like a deep sigh more than anything. It’s not sad or melancholy. It’s a letting go.

Like the letting go of a good job with good people and where I learned so much. But I’m not sad to be leaving my work at the pain clinic because the space I once occupied there is now occupied by someone else. Nothing has ended, only grown.

It’s the true endings that make this side of Last Time Land difficult to navigate. I had a true ending this week. The experience that came to an end this week was one that created so much possibility for me and over the past ten years influenced so much of who I am as a human and how I walk through the world. I feel a deep sense of loss in this true ending.

A true ending creates a void and an unknowing that leaves us with an imbalance that can’t be made right until we sit in that void and grieve. But in time the void closes, grief softens, balance is regained and surety in the journey forward is found.


The Cotswolds, Broken Cherubs and Choosing Autonomy

I remember a trip to the Cotswolds. It must be over thirty years ago. I was on a solo visit to Oxford and was scheduled to enjoy a day’s excursion to the green rolling hills with an unassuming tour company called Spires and Shires. We might have visited Chipping Camden in the morning and perhaps were on the way to Bibury. It doesn’t matter. What I remember is that we stopped to visit a tiny chapel. We were a small group, maybe ten altogether and that’s counting Ceri, our guide from Spires and Shires. Everyone’s attention was directed toward the altar but Ceri and I were standing at the back of the group and unable to see. So we turned to explore what was behind us. We found two broken cherubs resting on a thick stone windowsill. The mid-afternoon sunlight, made soft and languid by centuries of dust, filtered through the diamond shaped panes of glass and fell on the sleeping angels like a warm blanket. It was a serendipitous moment of peace and beauty impossible to forget even decades later. 

What does a trip to the Cotswolds have to do with leading a yoga class? When I’m guiding a group of students through a series of postures I’m a little like Ceri from Spires and Shires. I can see where we are and I know where we’re headed. I keep us on the intended path but what you choose to look at – how you choose to explore our yoga path – is up to you. 

To encourage your exploration I offer options. Lots and lots of options which, I’m certain, might be annoying to anyone who arrives at our Monday, Wednesday and Friday online yoga practices yearning to be told exactly what to do and how to do it.

The thing is, I stopped being that yoga teacher long ago. 

When I offer choices, I’m really offering autonomy. We move along our intended path…triangle…warrior I…extended side stretch…but how you follow that path is your choice because it’s your practice. Do you use a blocks? Do you raise your arms or keep them by your side? Do you rest your fingers on the back of a chair? Do you answer your body’s call to work at your own pace and to a depth that is appropriate for you in that moment and in that pose?

The invitational language I use, the choice making I offer, turns our practice together into a present-moment experience as our bodies move from form to form. Those of us trained in trauma-informed yoga recognize these ideas as the lens from which a trauma-informed practice flows. But shouldn’t all practices be viewed through this lens? How else can we learn to the listen for the story our body wants to tell?


Do More! Bend More! Twist More!

I facilitate yoga classes for people in chronic pain. In the decade that I’ve been doing this work my teaching has changed, my attitude has changed and my body has changed. I love this work. It’s beyond rewarding to witness the transformation in people as they discover their capacity for movement and learn to trust their bodies again.

Some aspects of the work, however, are challenging. For instance, it’s difficult sometimes to convince students to ‘start where you are’. To lean into the present moment experience, to feel what they are feeling right now and to allow those feelings to lead the practice. But this challenge is not unique to students in chronic pain.

At times we’ve all abandoned what our bodies need in the moment in favor of our deep rooted goal-oriented mindset. Who hasn’t, at some point, embraced an ego-driven yoga practice? Who hasn’t attempted to show off in front of their instructor or maybe the person on their left, the one with the fancy Manduka mat, struggling with ardha chandrasana? Who among us hasn’t judged their practice through the lens of ‘I have to do more, bend more, twist more, achieve more?’ 

The Sutras remind us that we practice in order to ‘still the fluctuations of the mind’. And in order to still those fluctuation – in order to self-regulate – we must maintain a dedicated practice with no attachment to the outcome. So there is no room for pushing ourselves beyond our limits, no room for unreasonable expectations. There is no room for competition with others and no room for competition with ourselves.

We know that our physical practice is just one limb of this beautiful thing we call ‘yoga’ and that together, all eight limbs of yoga create the yoke that unites the body, mind and spirit. In other words, the dedicated practice called for in the Sutras is not limited to perfecting trikonasana. The forms we create with our bodies, the poses we flow through in alignment with our breath, will build stamina and flexibility. But their true intention is to build the strength we need to find stillness in meditation. An asana practice does not refine our physical body through exercise so that it is capable of doing more. It refines our body so that it might do less.

In your practice this week, what can you do to remain present with your body in this moment? What shift in thinking do you need to make in order to do less?


Are Alignment Cues About Safety or Aesthetics?

Ten years ago I was in my second decade of teaching alignment informed yoga classes heavily influenced by my years of practicing with teachers who had studied with BKS Iyengar. 

Trees come in all shapes and sizes. So do bodies.

So when a student described a workshop she had attended – a workshop about something called ‘yin yoga’ where poses were held for minutes at a time and any thought of alignment was tossed out the window – I’ll admit to feeling annoyed. No alignment cues? Impossible! Unsafe! Ridiculous! But I was also intrigued and when the opportunity presented itself I hauled my yin-curious self to the nearest Paul Grilley workshop. 

Midway through the first day, from the back of the room I called out, “But what about alignment?” He looked at me, smiled, and then gazed out across his rapt audience. It was the yoga equivalent to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Grilley’s first beatitude might as well have been: ‘Blessed are those who study yin and forgo alignment, for they shall learn that alignment is about aesthetics’.

The moment blew my little yoga brain into pieces and was the catalyst that changed forever how I teach.

Until that moment I had never considered the obvious. That although we are all made up of the same components – bones, muscle, connective tissue and so on – those components will differ in length, width, tensile strength, yield strength, efficiency and power depending on the gene pool in which we swim and our lifestyle. We’re sort of like cars, I guess. A Maserati does not drive like a Mini Cooper. A car that has its oil changed and tires checked does not drive like a car that hasn’t seen the inside of a garage for fifty thousand miles.

In other words, we are all different. 

In other words, alignment is about aesthetics. Kinda. Some alignment cues are about safety, too, and that’s something we shouldn’t forget.

A decade ago I returned home from that weekend workshop questioning if everything I’d ever believed about asana was wrong. The answer, of course, was ‘no’, but maybe it was time to reevaluate my attachment to the philosophy around alignment I’d studied for so long. I had never considered that there might be another way to move through an asana practice. To move through space. For so many years on my yoga journey there was only one ‘right’ way to practice.

But that’s not true.

Every beautiful human moving through a series of yoga postures is having an experience unique to their body, their mind set, their belief system.

As teachers, we should remember that. 


Holding Space for Others in a Virtual Yoga World

When we made the shift from in-person to online yoga classes in 2020, our hearts were full of gratitude that the technology existed for us to continue to gather together, if not in real life then at least virtually. Nineteen months in, however, and our online yoga classes are no longer a novelty we are thankful for. They are what we do. They are the routine.

As a yoga teacher, I find building an authentic sense of community in the virtual classroom challenging. The fact that we are communing together from different locations means it is necessary for me to mute participants to eliminate dog barks, background conversations and the errant ring of a telephone. Pressing ‘mute’ puts us each into our own separate, soundless vacuum. Added to the challenge is connectivity. When bandwidth falters – fortunately a rare occurrence – there is a break in continuity and we are reminded again of our separateness. 

Sharing our yoga practice in a virtual world can never match the camaraderie we feel in the studio space but, with all of us working together we might experience camaraderie in a new and unique way.

Because when we practice yoga as an online community we are together energetically even as city streets, miles and time zones keep us apart. The absurdity of our physical distance, even as we practice together, is itself a distraction. The fact that each one of us is in the familiar environment of our own home makes it more so.

What would happen if we began to acknowledge that the energetic space we create when we come together to practice yoga is a sacred space? Something special. Would our practice deepen? Would it become less an hour of exercise and more an hour of self-care and reflection that we share with others?

Maybe I’m a fool for believing that can happen. How can it when we’re practicing trikonasana in our kitchen or living room? When the dog wants to go for a walk, the cat wants to curl up on our yoga mat, the phone rings or the people we share our homes with can’t find the coffee? Sometimes, on some days, it seems impossible.

Or maybe I need to remind myself of how yoga came into my life and why I practice. Maybe I need to remember the gifts that yoga offers to me each day I’m alive.  If I can do that then maybe I can, as the facilitator of our group practice, create the conditions that allow us all to be present not only for ourselves but for everyone else in our virtual world.

What else is possible?

During our practice let’s treat the space where we roll out our mats as we would our studio space. I don’t think we’d have our phone with us in the studio so why would we during our home practice? Is it alright for us to be unavailable to others for sixty minutes?

I think we can limit other distractions, too. We can orient our mat away from the dishes that need washing or the books we want to read. The cobweb on the ceiling fan and the dust kitties under the bookshelf (my personal distractions) can wait. When setting up our device for class we can choose ‘Gallery View’ rather than ‘Speaker View’ as a reminder that we are part of a whole. If we need to take a phone call, or leave the virtual space, or have a conversation with someone or for heaven’s sake TEXT (you have no idea what my eyes have seen in nineteen months of Zoom yoga) we can turn off our camera as a courtesy to the community.

It’s easy to think we have two choices: the studio space or the virtual space. But what about the space in between? What about the liminal space between apartness and togetherness? Let’s meet there.


Will Western Yoga Change When We Return to the Studio?

What makes a yoga teacher? Pieces of paper? Letters behind a name? I’ve plenty of both and yet I hesitate to call myself a ‘teacher’. A facilitator? Sure. A guide? Maybe. But twenty-eight years – almost to the day – of standing at the front of the studio for the first time I recoil at the thought of using the word ‘teacher’ to describe what I do when I roll open my mat.

A conundrum forms when we try to codify unregulated practices like yoga. Codification helps set standards the consumer should trust but it also transforms a time-honored practice into an industry. It binds yoga to an unnatural list of rules and expectations that, the longer I lead classes, the more I want to push against.

The post that follows is little more than a frustrated vent. I know I have a point in there somewhere. I mean, I really do believe we need to question the current system. What I don’t know is how those questions take shape and what are the answers they reveal?

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an online advertisement for a new yoga teacher training program created by a well-known leader in the yoga therapy community. Since then one question has been simmering in the back of my brain. Why does this training exist? And why does its existence vex me so?

I think it’s because I’ve over-stretched my tolerance for the Western Yoga Industrial Complex (WYIC). Does the world need another yoga teacher training program? Instead of trainings maybe what the world needs are yoga teachers who are dedicated to serving their students, and the yoga tradition, more than they serve themselves. I know they exist, but they’re hard to find in all the noise and bustle it takes to transform a tradition thousands of years old into a billion dollar industry.

That’s why I hope one of the silver linings of these extraordinary times is a forced reckoning in the WYIC studio system.

The Western Yoga Industrial Complex is a system that forces a surfeit of studios to design 200-hour yoga teacher trainings in order to keep their coffers filled and their doors open. Some of those trainings, in turn, become human puppy mills. Every few months they produce a new litter of smiling faces posing for photographs with pride and holding teaching certificates fresh from the printer. They send a copy of these certificates and their hard earned cash to Yoga Alliance (YA) who then allows them to add the designation RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) after their name. These eager graduate RYTs are giddy with excitement about their future. But after investing thousands of dollars in their training, most graduates will not go on to teach. And the ones that do often feel they’re in over their heads because the three months of training they received did not provide the experience they needed to feel competent. 

Doesn’t it seem odd and a little arbitrary that two hundred hours of study is all one needs to call themselves a yoga teacher? Ludicrous, actually. How did this happen? In an attempt to codify teacher trainings, and with what I believe was good intention, a YA committee created a list of competencies and sub-competencies deemed important for yoga instructors to understand. These are the recently revised competencies:

  1. Techniques, Training, Practice
  2. Anatomy & Physiology
  3. Yoga Humanities (formerly Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyle, & Ethics)
  4. Professional Essentials (includes merged Educational Categories of Teaching Methodology and Practicum)

Each competency has a minimum number of hours in which it must be taught. There is a heavy emphasis on the first two. Studios create a training program based on these hours and competencies, submit the written program to YA – along with payment, of course – and wait for approval. Once that approval is received YA allows the studio to use the designation ‘RYS 200’.

Given the absence of accountability – meaning there is no check to see if the studio’s program is following the curriculum submitted to Yoga Alliance or, for that matter, if the lead trainers meet Yoga Alliance’s approval – the studio is somewhat free to do whatever they like. Unless, of course, an enrollee in the teacher training is dedicated enough to look at the YA standards for RYS 200 trainings and to call the studio on it if the training they are receiving has strayed.

 If 200-hour teacher trainings weren’t necessary to keep a studio open and if we understood that the Yoga Alliance seal of approval holds no weight, what would happen? Would we forget about trainings and certificates altogether and transition to a mentoring protocol, where those who might feel a flickering call to teach study under a mentor until the flicker becomes a flame?

Or what if we flipped the yoga teacher training model around and instead of placing an emphasis on the physicality of yoga began trainings with a deep dive into the philosophy of yoga?  What if entrance exams were required? Or proof of a personal practice? Should personal practice – something difficult to define – be a requirement? 

My guess is that there would be fewer teacher trainings, fewer individuals wanting to train in the art of teaching yoga and, ultimately, fewer studios. 

Am I wrong to think that would be a good thing?

I guess maybe I’ve seen too much of the bad and ugly. Like the studio that boasts about the number of students it pushes through the trainings it hosts multiple times per year, taught by teachers flown in for the weekend and never seen again. And too little of the good. Like the pre-natal yoga teacher training that will hold back a certificate from a trainee until all assignments have been received and passed.

The yoga industry needs less of the former and more of the latter. Maybe, as we begin to return to our studios, that will happen.


Business as Usual?

I returned to live teaching at a local pain clinic two weeks ago and it’s been joyous. The only ‘connectivity issue’ is attempting to teach while wearing a face mask. Other than that it has been a joy to see people from the waist down, no longer backlit, and with the clarity that can only come from being face-to-face. It’s been a joy to hear them breath. A joy to hear them complain when I ask them to stand up.

But my community classes on Zoom will continue because Zoom classes are joyful, too, for a different set of reasons. 

Over the past sixteen months we’ve built a community on Zoom and at the same time we’ve built a practice that is truly our own. The privacy we’re gifted by COVID’s forced isolation means competition with others has been eliminated. All we’re left with is how our body feels in the moment, the guidance of our teacher and the space we’ve created for our practice.

Pre-pandemic, and acknowledging that space in my home is a limited commodity, creating room for yoga was far down the list of priorities. But COVID has forced us to do just that and, in a rapidly approaching post-COVID world, why would we give that up?

When I practice at home the practice stays with me. In my body, in my bones and in my heart. As soon as I click ‘end meeting’ I sit back for a bit. There is no urgency to race off. I’m content to let my body and my mind rest for a few more minutes.

But the moment my teacher ends a studio class – and I’m pretty certain I am not the only one who does this – I’m rolling up my mat, stacking my props and racing out to my car to beat the traffic on my way to the next thing on my ‘to do’ list. Along the way I might check my phone for important texts or gossip with a friend about what happened the night before. Where is my practice then? Did I practice at all?

In my little corner of the world we enjoy a very high vaccination rate – 72% of adults have at least one dose – and that has returned to us some of the life we enjoyed before March, 2020. The Delta variant is waving a yellow caution flag but that hasn’t stopped us from moving toward our New Normal with open restaurants, gyms, hair salons and yes – even a few open yoga studios.

I wonder, in these sixteen months of practice, how we can hold onto what we’ve learned about ourselves? Can we carry it with us when we return to studio classes? 

Here’s something else to think about. How has the studio system changed? Have studio owners adapted their business model to the New Normal or is it business as usual?


A Sacred Space

I’m often reminded of my yoga ‘origin story’ – how, for years, I studied with Iyengar instructors. How, back then, my practice was informed by hard-edged alignment principles and yoga mats placed in perfect rows on the studio floor. I loved it.

But things change. My body changed. My practice changed. I changed. Over the years those hard edges have softened. I’ve even been known to teach a class with mats placed in a circle like the petals of a flower. Gasp! Quelle horreur!

But have I left all of my Iyengar sensibilities behind? I don’t think so. It’s true that I traded hands-on adjustments for precise verbal cues a decade ago. And I stopped expecting cookie cutter correctness once I gained a greater understanding of human anatomy. My hope for students is that when they step on their mat they let go of expectation, judgement and agenda. When a student steps on their mat I hope they are also stepping into the present moment and meeting their body where it stands.

The yogasana I’m interested in practicing now – the yogasana I’m interested in teaching – is not about doing. It’s about sensing. The yogasana I’m interested in is not about pushing through forms. It’s about noticing the sensations that rise in my body as I move through those forms. It’s about noticing my breath, my thoughts, the attitude I bring to my practice. The yogasana I’m interested in is about paying attention. It’s about discipline.

But then again, it has always been about discipline. I learned that studying Iyengar yoga all those years ago.

Discipline is not my strong suit. Except when I am on my mat. When I am on my mat I am in the practice whether I’m teaching, practicing on my own or attending a class. 

I think Zoom challenges our ability to remain present and focused on our practice. I think it makes sustained discipline difficult. We have the challenge of finding dust kitties under the bookshelf in downward dog, the aroma of coffee as our partner prepares breakfast for the kids and our animal companions demanding a morning cuddle. At the same time we don’t have the energy of a purpose built studio that feels like a sacred space. We don’t have the energy of a living, breathing community gathered together for one purpose. 

In the best of times it takes effort to sustain a yogasana practice with diligence, discernment and discipline. But now, when our yoga community consists of tiny, flat rectangles on a laptop screen, it can feel impossible.

But it isn’t impossible. 

Practice with intention. Remember why you practice in the first place. For the hour you are on your mat, find the strength to maintain your focus. Treat that little rectangle on the floor – your yoga mat – like the sacred space it is.


Karma Yoga in the Age of Zoom

When the world shut down last March, like so many other yoga teachers, I turned to Zoom. Unlike most teachers, I wore my pajamas and led a 30-minute chair class from my desk. That was eight months ago. It feels like eight weeks. Or maybe eighty years.

Now my classes are an hour long and have moved to a light filled corner of my home every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. And, to the relief of all, I’ve changed from my pajamas to my yoga duds which, truth be told, feel a lot like pajamas.

I’ve come to realize, after all these long COVID months, that my reasons for holding Zoom classes were never about maintaining an asana practice. I began the classes to hold the community together. To keep those who chose to attend energetically connected. I began the classes so we might breathe together. Move together. So that we could have one thing that felt almost normal. 

Asana is what brings us together three times a week but it’s not what holds us together. Yoga holds us together.

When I first began leading classes 27 years ago it was all about asana. I taught the same sequences and told the same jokes as my beloved teachers, who were students of BKS Iyengar and who studied with the Iyengar family in Pune. It took several years before I began to trust my own voice, my own intuition. It’s only now, in these past few years, that I’ve learned who I am – and who I am not – as a teacher.

In these extraordinary times it doesn’t feel right to root the classes I teach in strong, challenging work. Now feels like the right time to root ourselves in healing, restorative practices. Practices that are more about how the body feels and less about what it can do. 

Now feels like the right time to root ourselves in truth. 

What do I mean by that? Beats me. I think what I mean is that in this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year we would do well to think less about ourselves and more about others. Maybe what I mean is that we need to move beyond just thinking about others to doing for others with no expectation of what we might receive in return. What I am trying to express is that we need to practice Karma Yoga.

Karma Yoga is one of four schools of yoga. The other three are Jnana (self-study), Raja (meditation) and Bhakti (devotion). Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. It is selfless service towards others. That means cultivating the correct attitude and right motives. To release, as one text explained, ‘selfish desires’.

We should always be prepared to practice Karma Yoga but it seems more important than ever right now. 

Two things happened this morning to bring that point home to me and to bring this post to a close (thank goodness!).

Fareed Zacaria had Jose Andres, a chef and founder of World Central Kitchen. His organization is shining a light on food scarcity and the hunger crises in part caused by the economic challenges created by the pandemic. He spoke so eloquently and with so much passion that even the stoic Zacaria was verkelmpt. Andres is practicing Karma Yoga. Selfless service.

And then Sunday’s Brain Pickings landed in my inbox featuring poet Robinson Jeffers and his thoughts on ‘moral beauty’. It included several quotes but this one, I think, speaks to the practice of Karma Yoga.

“I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy,

and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole.”

If Jeffers is right, and we are all connected, then selfless service does not serve one person, or one group or one cause. It serves us all.