Why I Love Teaching at California Yoga Center

Over the weekend someone asked me the name of the studio where I teach.

California Yoga Center,” I said with a smile.

“Huh,” he sniffed.  “I walk by there all the time and it’s always empty.”

I confess. Un-yogic thoughts overwhelmed me. I admit to being, from time to time, overly sensitive.  Perhaps even a bit defensive. But what I interpreted as a flippant dismissal stunned me and I missed my opportunity to reply with a witty retort as the conversation quickly moved on to other topics.

But his comment has buzzed around me like the nagging mosquito that finds your ear just after you crawl into bed.  And boy is it annoying.

I teach at California Yoga Center.  And I’m proud of the fact.  And here’s why:

  • California Yoga Center opened in 1980, making it not only the first yoga studio in Palo Alto but also one of the oldest studios in the Bay Area.  It now has two locations – the original studio at 541 Cowper Street in Palo Alto and the new studio in Mountain View at 1776 Miramonte Drive, in the Blossom Hill Shopping Center.
  • I attended my very first yoga class, with teacher Betsy McGuigan, at California Yoga Center in 1984.  When I returned to Palo Alto in 2005 after an eleven-year absence one of the first places I visited was the California Yoga Center.
  • We’re plain folk at CYC.  It’s about the yoga, pure and simple.  Plain wooden floors that have a distinctive squeak.  Plain and patched walls.  No giant Buddha or tented ceiling. No fancy retail area.  The most exciting indulgences are the dozen or so 8×10 framed black and white photographs of Mr. Iyengar hung above the mirrored wall at the Palo Alto studio.
  • While its focus remains on offering classes in the Iyengar tradition, CYC has mellowed somewhat over the years.  You’ll now find my Yin class on Monday evenings in Palo Alto.  Another instructor offers Anusara.  Plus, weekend workshops offered throughout the year at both locations help deepen your practice.
  • On top of that, CYC Mountain View is one of the few yoga studios on the Peninsula with a dedicated rope wall to offer support or facilitate stronger work.

Yes, I teach at California Yoga Center. My classes are filled with happy yoginis.  Of course, from time to time I teach at other local studios – Studio Rincon in Menlo Park comes to mind, as does the Page Mill YMCA – and while I embrace every opportunity to teach, CYC is my yoga home and I can’t imagine leaving.

So if my friend walked by CYC’s window and found the studio empty, he was walking by at the wrong time.

If you’re a teacher or a student at California Yoga Center, tell me, what makes it special for you?

Dharma: Look Before You Leap

The question of the day in the afternoon seminar I attended at the SYTAR (Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research) conference in Asilomar, Pacific Grove, California was, “how do we know the difference between dharma and wishful thinking?”  In Hinduism dharma refers to our personal obligations, callings and duties.  And wishful thinking?   Wishful thinking is…well…just that.

You’d think the answer would be pretty straightforward.  In fact when I sent the question via text to the friend I go to with all conundrums of the metaphysical sort his reply was  “If you have to ask…”

I suppose he’s right.  I shouldn’t have to ask.  I should know.

But here’s the thing:  how many times have I been swept up by an idea or an intention or a goal that I was convinced was my path?  My destiny. The reason for my existence.

And for a few weeks it is.  Until it isn’t.

So you can see why I’m a little hesitant to trust my instincts.

Then again, I’m one of those people who might on occasion leap before looking.  But when it comes to dharma blind leaping may not be such a good thing.

My friend has a point.  We probably shouldn’t have to ask if what we’re feeling is dharma calling or wishful thinking.  Instead of asking and then desperately grasping at any answer, perhaps it’s simple stillness that’s required.  A moment’s silence.  The space to meditate with a quiet spirit and a calm heart.  When we can temporarily vanquish the turbulence of life only then will we find the clarity to look our dharma in the eye.

Dancing with My Heart

Woman at left is painter Suzanne Valadon

Image via Wikipedia

“Open your heart.”

What does he mean, open my heart.  My heart is already open.  Isn’t it?

I would describe it as a modified version of the classic closed-eyed-swaying-amoeba dance from 1967.  I was definitely moving.  I was even managing a steady rhythm although I can’t be certain whether it was to the music flying through the air or the music in my head. All I know is that my body swayed. It might not qualify as ‘dancing’ but I was having fun in my own ‘I’m just fine where I am’ way.

My friend, on the other hand, arced across the room. I watched him shift from the cerebral to the intuitive as he left behind convention and expectations. He moved like a planet abandoning its orbit, half satyr, half nymph.  A shooting star.

He was not alone.  The large studio was filled with men and women giving their bodies like offerings to the music.  There was nothing pre-ordained in how they moved.  It was a pure call and response.

I had yet to pick my feet off the floor or move my arms or walk more than two feet away from the safety of the sturdy wall at the back of the studio. I was happy near the protection of the wall. I was safe and content to continue my swaying amoeba dance.  I figured it was a miracle I was moving at all.

So I don’t know how it happened that I was suddenly in the middle of the room with my friend.  We were spinning and I was trying not to fall over and praying I wouldn’t stomp on his toes.  We whirled around one another, ducked under arms, turned forward and then back again.  A few minutes passed and then he leaned toward me and said,

“Open your heart.”

And when the track ended, my friend moved on and I moved back to the consolation of the wall.

What did he mean – ‘open your heart’?  Wasn’t my heart already open?  Just because he can leap around a room and not care who’s watching and I can’t doesn’t mean my heart isn’t open.

A chance encounter a few days later helped me understand what my friend meant.

I was at the Cal Train Station in San Francisco on Sunday with an hour to kill.  A family with a young boy of about four walked into the station and sat on the bench beside me.  The boy and I made eye contact and I asked him about his souvenir cable car filled with chocolate.  His brown eyes were lit with adventure.  He could not sit still.  He wanted to chase pigeons.  I watched him race back and forth with his dad, arms outstretched, laughing louder and happier on each pass.  His contagious joy echoed through the station. We all smiled as he ran with his shoulders rolled back and his spine arched.

And then I had the “aha moment.”  The little boy chasing pigeons at the train station was doing what my friend had hoped I might do. The boy was running with his heart leading the way.

It wasn’t the mythic heart my friend was imploring me to open.  He knows me well enough to know I have a seeker’s heart. What he wanted was for my body to help my seeking heart on its journey.  My friend simply wanted me to create space in my heart center so the mythic heart would have room to breathe.  Room to grow.  Room to laugh.

So this week I’m making a promise – to give myself space and to move through life just like that little boy at the train station who danced with an open heart.

My Weekend with Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha (novel)

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When someone is seeking … it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything … because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.

I have a stubborn streak.  I took me ten years before I saw the movie ET the Extraterrestrial.

And I knew only one thing about Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha:  It was the paperback tucked into the back pocket of anyone attempting to look more enlightened than the rest of us fumbling saps when I was beginning college in Nebraska.  Sure I wanted to hang with that clique, but I refused to fall for the hype.

So when a friend asked incredulously, “You haven’t read Siddhartha?” I had to sheepishly admit my literary and yogic faux pas.  He pulled the book from his shelf.  “Here.”

I took the book from his hands and thumbed the pages.  It looked thin enough.  Even though I had several books ‘on the go’, what harm would it do to take the weekend to read this one?

I opened the book and a bottle of Hefeweizen that afternoon.  Beautiful, lyrical prose.  I kept reading, the beer grew too warm to drink and the truth began to reveal itself.  Somewhere in the final pages I recognized my clinging, grasping nature.  More than that, I realized that what I was trying to grab hold of was an illusion.

There’s a part of me that regrets not tackling Siddhartha when it was suggested reading for my Philosophy 101 class.  But there’s another part of me that believes the book fell into my hands at the perfect moment.  My advice?  If the last time you read Siddhartha the Beatles were still together, consider reading it again.  And if, like me, you were waiting?  All I can say is, for what?

The Healing Power of Yoga. Any Yoga.

I taught my first Yin Basics Workshop yesterday at the California Yoga Center, my home studio.  One hour of theory followed by an hour of practice.  Nine beautiful yogis joined me.

Teaching a workshop requires a different skill set to teaching a class.  I felt challenged by the task of explaining the theory and practice of Yin in sixty minutes and then further challenged by the questions raised by students coupled with my self-doubt.

It was a great afternoon.

And yet, this morning I’m convinced that despite the training I’ve completed, the workshops I’ve attended and the books I’ve read I really know nothing about Yoga.  After thirty years of practice, my knowledge only scratches the surface of everything there is to know about how Yoga affects the body on a spiritual and cellular level.

It was a wake-up call.

Meanwhile, labels are beginning to irk me.  I’m beginning to get the feeling that we’re all making it up as we go along.

During our workshop the question that is always asked was asked yet again:  What is the difference between Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga?  I tried to answer by explaining my experience with the restorative class I attended two weeks ago (read about it here).  The student asking the question – who is a yogi for whom I have great admiration – replied:  “That wasn’t restorative.  In my restorative classes we do eight to ten poses in an hour and hold them like we’re holding them today.”

And yet, at the end of my Restorative Yoga experience two weeks ago, I felt restored.  So who’s to say it wasn’t restorative yoga?  And maybe what she’s calling Restorative is really Yin?  And does it really, really matter?

The truth is I want to feel restored at the end of any yoga practice.  I want to feel connected.  Grounded.  Free of doubt and fear.  I want to feel my blood moving and warm, living muscle tissue.  I want to experience an ease of movement in my body, my spirit and my soul – as though I’ve come home to something I longed for.

That’s how yoga heals.

An Old Dog Learns a New Trick

I may have mentioned once or twice that in Chinese Astrology I am a Yellow Dog.  Not only am I prone to drooling in my sleep but I can also catch a Frisbee between my teeth, forgive instantaneously and love unconditionally.  I am also fiercely loyal.  Loyalty is, at times, a curse.  It makes it difficult for me to try new things without feeling as though I’m being unfaithful.

But on Sunday I overcame those feelings and attended my first ever Restorative Yoga Class.  I was on a quest. I needed calm.  I wanted my mind to clear and my nervous system to unwind.   I didn’t need to break a sweat.  I didn’t need to feel the burn.  I didn’t need my heart pumping within 85% of its maximum rate.

I considered a Yin session at home, but I’ve been making an effort to get out more.  And so that’s how I found myself at my local JCC at 5:15 on a sunny afternoon.

Chihiro is a lovely teacher.  Confident and quiet, she demonstrated all three poses we completed in the hour-long class.  Yes, that’s right.  THREE poses:  the first was a supported chest opener, the second took our legs up the wall and the third was supported relaxation.  As my body melted into the work, Chihiro observed, corrected and comforted students with a whisper.

In my Yin class on Monday, I mentioned the Restorative class.  Several students wanted to know the difference between to two styles of yoga.

Here it is:

The Difference Between Restorative Yoga and Yin Yoga

Restorative Yoga uses props to create support and reduce stress on the body. 

Yin purposely places stress on the connective tissue.

Yin requires that the practitioner open to discomfort rather than requiring comfort in order to open.

It was important for me to allow my inner Yellow Dog to run off leash.  Chihiro’s restorative class offered the support I needed and I learned a valuable lesson.  Even though my yoga loves are Yin and Iyengar, there are times when other schools of yoga are better able to heal my body, mind and spirit.

The Gil Hedley Experience


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Last Monday morning I picked up a scalpel for the first time since seventh grade biology class and made a tentative incision.  Six days later at 3:00 in the afternoon I saw a brain that had been meticulously dissected with the spinal cord intact.  I touched the bundle of nerves in our lower back we call Cauda Equina and watched as the white filament in the middle of it all – the filum terminale – was teased into view.  It was like looking into the center of universe.  It was the Source.  It was what I came to see.

When we meet our cadaver for the first time we begin by lifting a fitted rubber sheet.  This exposes her form, covered in layers of white gauze.  Each layer of the shroud is a long veil.

As the days progress we continue to remove layers. Skin, fat, tissue, viscera, bone, brain.  Each layer is another beautiful veil and each time a layer is eased away, a new secret is revealed.

And as the veils on our form are drawn back, so our own veils are, too.  How we perceive, our beliefs, our longing, our pain – it all floats to the surface, is taken up and the next layer revealed.

Gil Hedley is an unconventional teacher.  For six days we did clinical work, named muscles, found ligaments, traced nerve paths and looked inside the brain.  And while we were doing that, we were listening, too.

On death:

“We are walking in the land of taboo.”

On life:

“We resist the life that we’re given.”

On the body:

“The spine is a string.  It’s not an instrument of compression but an instrument of levity.”

“We don’t need to choose between the heart and brain.  The body is the shape of the heart.  The body is the shape of the brain.  And they’re braided together.”

“How do we feel about the body?  Sometimes we feel we’re a victim of the body.  Sometimes we’re taught to be disgusted by the body.  Sometimes we’re taught to love the body.”

“Instead of thinking ‘look at the body I’ve been given’ why don’t we think ‘look at the body I’ve chosen’.  And aren’t some folks incredibly brave and courageous for making the choices they make?”

On learning and teaching:

“If you’re afraid of making a mistake – of hitting the ball into the net – put down the tennis racket and don’t play.”

“You attract a different crowd of people by being vague.”

“Will you dare to embrace your power?  Dance through all your layers.  Is your heart free to dance?”

So today, after everything I’ve seen this past week, it’s time to ask myself:

“Is my heart free to dance?”