Friday, December 11, 2015


Click here to read a piece entitled "Seek Your Balance" which I recently contributed to the Solid Roots Yoga "Live a Grounded Life" blog.

Many of us long-time students with established practices—favorite styles of practice, favorite (and least favorite) poses, favorite teachers, and favorite classes on the studio schedule—have developed on-the-mat habits and routines. That’s what happens when you practice yoga for a while: you learn what you like and dislike, and then seeking that out becomes habitual. That kind of repetition and routinization is part of how we come to have a steady, dedicated, and lasting relationship with yoga. Remember, Patanjali’s fourteenth Sutra says that one’s practice is most excellent when it is tended to consistently, continuously, and enthusiastically. Habit, in that sense, is very much a good thing. And without it, we run the risk of never fully committing or of failing to set an adequate foundation.

On the other hand, yoga was born from a deep, driving desire to be and act and think differently—to challenge the very norms and protocols which were being dictated to the ancient yogis. Those early practitioners were certain that the “rules” which they were told necessarily governed human behavior and consciousness could be bent, altered, broken, and even discarded. And to positive effect. Much of yogic literature and philosophy is the data recordings, journal entries, and memoirs of those who challenged their own habits and routines, and then wrote about what they experienced and observed. Yoga’s essence is steeped in change and transformation.

Again, we need those favorite and familiar parts of our practice. We need a relationship with a teacher we like and trust. We need a reliable schedule of classes which coordinates with our off-the-mat schedule. It is good to know that you are refreshed by restorative poses and irritated by flow sequences. It is good to know that your body responds best when you do low-to-the-ground hip-openers before Sun Salutations. It is good to know that you are a strong and flexible yogi who is capable of many beautiful postures, but you are still lousy at balancing on one leg no matter how much you prepare for it. That only comes from showing up to practice over and over and over again. Knowing those kinds of things about yourself and your practice means that you are in fact practicing which is fantastic.

Now that yoga is your habit—now that you are there dependably, you know the basics, you make good choices—it’s time to shake it up. Do something different. Challenge your habits.

I have had a few conversations with students about this recently. I led a class which focused on a fairly lengthy series of deep squatting shapes (Malasana and related variations) followed by a few long forward folds like Uttanasana and Paschimottanasana. Afterward a student approached me to say that she had never experienced those poses in that order before, and that she loved how limber and open her hips and legs felt during the forward folds. The squatting shapes weren’t unfamiliar to her, but using them as preparation for forward folding was new. She tried something different, and it worked quite well for her.

I also recently presented a class which focused specifically on Chaturanga Dandasana, but not as part of a vinyasa flow the way it is often practiced these days. Instead, we treated it in a form-based way for its own sake. Part of the point was to experience being in Chaturanga Dandasana for a period of time without using it as a transition into something else. One student in particular really struggled with this. Their Chaturangas are beautiful, and the challenge for them was not in getting into the pose. The challenge was staying in the pose, and not turning it into Upward-dog. As soon as they bent their elbows and lowered their trunk, they would immediately straighten their arms and lift their chest for the back bend which their body has been trained to assume comes next. After years of vinyasa flow, the habit of Down-dog—Chaturanga—Up-dog—Down-dog—Chaturanga—Up-dog—Down-dog—Chaturanga—Up-dog is thoroughly embedded in their muscle memory. It’s like a reflex now: such a strong routine that no matter how many times I told them not to, and no matter how many times they told themselves not to, they would lift immediately into Upward-dog without pausing to savor the beauty of Chaturanga all by itself. It was equal parts informative, frustrating, and amusing for both of us. And a perfect example of how habits act both positively and negatively within our practice—the fact that this person has been disciplined enough over some time to develop such strong skills of alignment and movement is commendable, but, on the other hand, it’s the sign of a kind of loss of control. In that particular circumstance, they are not acting mindfully and consciously. Instead, they have given over to rote grooves. To return to a state of abhyasa (practice in a strong sense, Practice with a capital P), they will have to challenge those habits.

We have been playing purposefully with this notion in the DK class recently by rearranging the typical sequence of poses into something less expected, and observing the effects it has on the body and mind. If you are used to a particular order of events—if your go-to sequence is either formally or partially choreographed—it can be shocking and disorienting to do otherwise. But I do recommend it once in the while.

If you are well-versed in the Ashtanga Primary Series, for instance, try practicing it in the reverse order: from the end of the sequence to the beginning. That’s an example of a type of very formal choreography. Maybe your practice habits aren’t that strict, but are predictable in their own way. If you always start with standing poses, try saving them until the end instead. Treat Sun Salutations as the peak rather than the warm-up. Or try getting through a whole practice without Down-dog, which can be deceptively challenging if it typically makes a frequent appearance in your practice.

Another way to challenge your practice habits is to attend a class that features a style you don’t know or think you don’t like. If you’re a vinyasa junkie, try a Yin or Restorative class. If the mere thought of perpetual motion exhausts you, grab a water bottle and a towel and get to a flow class. Go to a studio across town and try a new teacher. Or find a studio to visit when you’re traveling that offers a style you can’t get locally. There are endless variations on this theme.

The point is that, in some ways, “yoga” and “habit” fit perfectly well together. Our yoga should be a habit in the sense that we choose it over and over again, that we prioritize it, that we never drift too far away from it, and that it always sits just beneath the surface of our thoughts and actions even when the mat or cushion isn’t literally under our feet. But when enthusiastic dedication shifts into inattentive and involuntary performance, then yoga and habit have uncoupled. That is the time to challenge your habits.

Below is the sequence of postures we are exploring on Sunday mornings for a few weeks. I didn’t create this sequence; it is part of the course we are (pseudo) following in the back of Light on Yoga. I have, however, modified it to reflect those poses which are appropriate for our group of students. If you are interested in exploring the sequence in its entirety (or in modifying it in some other way), then feel free to look it up (pagse 464-65).

It is fairly typical to save inverted postures (here I namely mean Sirsasana and Sarvangasana variations) for the end of a practice. Commonly, standing poses (including Sun Salutation variations), some back bends, hip openers, and maybe arm balances precede these poses. There is good reason for that, which I am not going to elaborate on here, but have in the past and surely will again in the future.

Note, however, that this particular sequence opens with inversions. It starts with a long series of Sarvangasana poses. In fact, part of what I left out, but which you can see and try for yourself if you follow along in the book, is that the sequence actually starts with a series of Sirsasana poses. If you are not accustomed to beginning your practice upside down, and/or your inverted postures are most familiar to you only following a long “warm-up” or preparation period, then this will be very different to you. It will be weird, it will feel awkward and tight, and it will be eye-opening. It has been my experience as both a student and a teacher of this sequence that it will reveal things to you about your body, your breath, and your mind that you have never been aware of before.

It is not just about opening with inversions. This sequence puts several poses in unconventional places and orders, and does not necessarily “prepare” you for them in the way that you may be used to. For example, there is a series of strong core-focused poses very early before much has been done to wake up the trunk, which calls upon an even healthier does of effort on your part than these poses tend toward ordinarily. Then, in a way that feels odd and abrupt, you stand for Fierce pose and then kneel for Camel pose. The legs, which have been almost entirely in the air up to this point, feel wobbly. And the shoulders and upper-back feel toned and sturdy after the inversions, which isn’t a bad thing by any means, except that these back bended shapes need a kind of openness and mobility which you may not have.

It is challenging, but the novelty and rawness is exhilarating. And it just may be the perfect antidote for a practice drowning in habit. Move mindfully, act conservatively, and pay attention. Everyone’s practice is unique, and this particular series of events may not be the kind of habit-challenging experience you need. That’s fine. Find something that is. Confront yourself. Challenge your habits.

*Modified* version of the 19th to 21st Weeks sequence of Course I as presented by B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga

Salamba Sarvangasana I – Supported Shoulderstand first variation

Salamba Sarvangasana II – Supported Shoulderstand second variation

Halasana – Plow pose

Karnapidasana – Ear-pressing pose

Supta Konasana – Supine Angle pose

Parsva Halasana – Side Plow pose

Ekapada Sarvangasana – One-legged Shoulderstand

Parsvaikapada Sarvangasana – One-legged Side Shoulderstand

Urdhva Prasarita Padasana – Supine Leg Lifts pose

Jathara Parivartanasana – Supine Twist pose

Paripurna Navasana – Full Boat pose

Ardha Navasana – Half Boat pose

Utkatasana – Fierce pose

Ustrasana – Camel pose

Virasana – Hero pose

Salabhasana – Locust pose

Dhanurasana – Bow pose

Chaturanga Dandasana

Bhujangasana – Cobra pose

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana – Upward-facing Dog pose

Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward-facing Dog pose

Janu Sirsasana – Head-toward-knee Forward fold

Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana – One-leg Hero Forward fold

Paschimottanasana - Seated Forward fold

Marichyasana I – Marichi’s Forward fold first variation

Bharadvajasana I – Bharadvaja’s twist first variation

Baddha Konasana – Bound Angle pose


Siddhasana with Ujjayi

Thursday, October 15, 2015


"The importance of having a healthy lower back can be realised if we watch old people when they sit down, get up and walk, for consciously or unconsciously they support their backs with their hands. This indicates that the back is weak and cannot withstand the strain. As long as it is strong and needs no support, one feels young though advanced in age. [Core strengthening] āsanas bring life and vigour to the back and enable us to grow old gracefully and comfortably." (LoY 114)

It has just occurred to me that I have been teaching a lot of core-focused classes recently. It’s not been on purpose or part of a plan, just coincidence. Our DK classes on Sunday mornings have included a lot of core work in light of introducing Salamba Sarvangasana II (Supported Shoulderstand II) into our sequence. The newer-to-yoga students who attend my basics class have been working on understanding “core strength” as being more than just hard abs, while the more experienced students took on the challenge of Navasana (Boat) and Lolasana (Pendant) variations as preparation for jump-backs in the most recent level-two practice. Similar material was also a main point in this last weekend’s teacher training session where we talked about the correlation between mid-section stability and successful hip-opening.

Anatomically speaking, the core is the section of bones, tissues, and muscles which wrap like a corset all the way around the body (front, back, and sides) just beneath the floating ribs and just above the pubis/pelvic crests/sacrum. More generally yet still grossly speaking, core means the middle or innermost of something. And more figuratively, it is the heart (coeur in French) or essence of one’s being, the point of concentration for all that is most important.

Following the vigorous nature of that recent level two class, we were wrapping up with a few front-body openers to counter-stretch all the deep abdominal contraction before heading into Savasana. It felt good to stretch and then soften that part of the body which had worked so hard throughout practice. I commented something along the lines of now that you’ve established and felt the strong supportiveness of your core, you will know how to find it more easily in the future, but, for now, rest contentedly in the release of its grip knowing it’s there when you need it. I meant both the strength of the actual core muscles which physically support our uprightness as well as the erectness of our inner posture, one which is more attitudinal than physical.

There are so many times like that, in fact, when we have just a brief encounter within the scope of a yoga practice with some component of character development. We experience it through the embodiment of external postures, of āsana, and then internalize it and draw on it at a later time. To me, that seems analogous to the difference between knowledge and understanding. To be knowledgeable is something a little more superficial; it is the state of being acquainted with information. Information is obviously important, but by itself isn’t necessarily significant. Understanding, on the other hand, is a thorough comprehension of the information in a way that makes it useful and meaningful.

The roots of the word understand can actually be traced back to Sanskrit wherein the word antarasthā means “situated inside of”. The word antar, which means either “external to” or “inside of” depending on the accent mark, morphed through Latin, then Greek, then German, and finally into English where it became the prefix inter- (among, between, within). The word sthā means “to stand”. In this sense, to stand doesn’t just mean on one’s literal feet, although that is part of it. Here, to stand also means to hold one’s own figurative ground; to abide, to be substantive, to exist. Thus, to understand means to be among that which exists, not just to know information. It means to perceive, to comprehend, through the vantage point of your establishment, the significance of what is real and true. And to be surrounded by truth and to feel the firm supportiveness of that truth is what it means to bring yoga to the core of your being.

The whole standing pose syllabus, for example, with its various positions of bending, folding, twisting, reaching, gazing, and shifting, reminds us that we can confidently stand on our own two feet, even in the midst of frequently changing circumstances. From poses such as Vrksasana (Tree) and Sirsasana (Headstand) we know ourselves to be capable of staying focused while trying to remain balanced, even when we feel a little uncertain. Inversions teach us the value of altering our perspective in order to see our world from a different angle. Forward bends and back bends can each be instances of embracing vulnerability, either through the quietly private introspection of the former or the bold openness of the latter. And twists train us to occasionally look over our shoulder, not with discontent or paranoia, but rather in an act of eye-opening awareness. Through our time on the mat, we also come to understand things like patience, compassion, sensitivity, courage, insightfulness, and self-preservation, first by physically acquainting ourselves with their contributions to our postural practice, and then by carrying them with us in service to our attitudinal essence.

In these brief snippets of time, an hour here, an hour there, mere momentary blinks in the span of a life, in which we are conditioning outward well-being, we are also stockpiling a catalog of intrinsic capacities which can be called upon off-the-mat. Through our practice, we come to hold at the core of ourselves experiential understanding of those things which are essential to our inner well-being. We have served as witness to our very own moments of extraordinariness, and that cannot be taken away. In fact, it only begets more of the same.

The following is a sequence whose opening poses should provide suitable preparation for the Shoulderstand Cycle, and the sequence as a whole should set you up for decent seated forward bends nearer the end. Of course, exclude or modify anything as is necessary to fit your needs, even add additional poses if you like. Each of these poses is in Light on Yoga, so if something is unfamiliar to you, look it up.

AMS (Down-dog) to Plank x3

Salabhasana with hands clasped behind the back x2

Surya Namaskar A x2

Surya Namaskar B variations which include Parsvottanasana with clasped hands and Prasarita Padottanasana with clasped hands after each Warrior I

Supta Padangusthasana I & II (II = forehead to shin stage); then practice 3-5 rounds of U.P.P. and Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana before repeating each of these poses a second time

Salamba Sarvangasana I

Salamba Sarvangasana II



Supta Konasana

Parsva Halasana

Ekapada Sarvangasana

Parsvaikapada Sarvangasana

Matsyasana with straight legs

Janu Sirsasana

Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana



Succirandhrasana (Eye-of-the-Needle)

Garuda’s twist (Eagle-legs twist)

hug both your knees


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015


We all know the popular adage that says if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. What we get when we heed that sound advice are lessons in the value of perseverance, commitment, and respect. All worthwhile virtues. What it fails to address, however, at least on the surface, are the equally important components of character development known as discernment, non-attachment, and preparedness.

There is nothing wrong with establishing intentions and goals for yourself within your yoga practice. In fact, so long as they are reasonable and healthy, it is generally encouraged to do so. Because our bodies are so easily affected—meaning that they adapt quickly, and we can see and feel that happening—our āsana practice allows us (relatively) easy access to the kinds of attitudes associated with goal-setting such as patience and dedication. Embodying the try try again mentality by staying focused in the midst of setbacks is one of the first stages of successful goal-setting, because, as you know, if you give up too soon you will never accomplish anything.

But, like most things, there is more to it than that. All trying and no yielding does not typically help you reach your goals; it is more likely that you’ll be left feeling more exhausted and frustrated than satisfied. That is because the qualities of steadfastness which make up the early stages of goal-setting must be tempered by more refined stages which include qualities of awareness and honesty.

Cultivating discernment on the mat means, among other things, knowing the importance of right and proper timing. There are right times and less right times to be determined. Sometimes determination turns into something more like stubbornness, or relentlessness to the point of vice rather than virtue. You must be able to pause and reflect on the propriety of what you are seeking—Is this the right time for me to work toward this goal? Am I in the best place mentally, energetically, and emotionally? Do I have sufficient time to devote toward the hard work required as well as adequate time for rest in order to rejuvenate? Do my reasons for wanting to achieve this goal match my current values as a person and a practitioner? Does this goal fit into my personal vision of practice—the way I want and need my practice to look and feel right now? Answering No or I Don’t Know to any of those questions may indicate that now is not the right time for that particular goal. That is not to say that it is an outright poor or wrong goal for you to have; only that some other time down the road, given a different set of circumstances, may prove to be much more fruitful. A good goal isn’t by itself sufficient; it has to be the right one at the right time.

Acting from a state of mindful non-attachment is something we have been introduced to already. (See previous post: "Non-attachment, or How to Practice Without Practicing"). It is a difficult part of yoga practice, indeed of life in general, so it is definitely worth repeating. Sometimes we come to think that some yoga pose is vital to our practice; that our practice is in some way defined or measured by our ability to perform the pose. For varied reasons, we may have decided that achieving it somehow indicates an important personal victory, or that it means we have graduated beyond the “beginner” stage of practice, or that it will help us to get our teacher’s attention, or that it is the mark of a true yogi. But those are all superficial feelings attached to the materiality of the object you are seeking. To be non-attached means to set aside the superficial pleasure of achievement or the displeasure of defeat, and instead to abide in a deep sense of inner fulfillment and in recognition of an essential human capacity that radiates from your core. Knowing why you want or need the achievement of some goal in your practice is crucial, and it is only when you practice for the right reasons that you will receive that which is truly worthwhile to have.

Goals are much simpler to achieve when they have been properly prepared for. Preparedness refers to both the present moment as well as to the recent and distant past. Present moment preparedness means showing up to practice. You have to actually be on the mat in order to experience growth and progress within your practice. That seems so obvious, yet we all need explicit reminding of it sometimes. It also means showing up on time and staying until the end. If you cannot be at your practice for the entirety of it (whether it is a personal practice at home or a public class), it means you have not properly prepared your schedule, your agenda, in such a way as to make practice a priority. And that will make progress more difficult. Present moment preparedness also includes things like arranging your practice space neatly—practicing in a clean, warm, well-lit room, and using clean props which are in good condition and which are kept tidy when not in use. That kind of thoughtful organization helps to ensure that your practice goes smoothly and leaves you feeling rejuvenated rather than frazzled.

Another element of preparedness in regards to your physical practice includes proper warm-ups. If you plan to include a difficult or challenging āsana in your practice, you must have completed the prerequisite work. That includes both presently and in the past. During this practice, during this class time, during this sequence of poses, have I properly prepared by body so that it is ready to try this pose? Also, over the course of several practices, throughout the span of my yogic lifetime, as part of an ongoing series of developments and achievements, have I properly prepared by body so that it is ready to try this pose? And keep in mind the ways in which you must be properly prepared other than physically. You must have also done the necessary work so as to be emotionally, psychologically, and energetically ready. Preparedness does not guarantee success; there are other contingencies involved. However, lack thereof will almost always leave you bested.

So it isn’t just try, try again. It’s more like if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again IF that’s the best choice for you; and if it’s not, then consider doing something else, and maybe try again later.

More could be said about all of these things. But my point is to say that our focus in our DK class is shifting again. We have spent many recent weeks (maybe a couple or few months?) diligently working on upright hip-openers and seated forward folds. It has gone quite well. But it seems as though progress has reached a kind of plateau, and now is the time to direct our attention elsewhere for a while.

We are going to bring Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and its variations back to the forefront of our class time for the next several weeks. The intention is two-fold: (1) experience the Shoulderstand cycle in light of all the hip-opening, core-stabilizing, and upper-back mobilizing which has been such a big part of our recent practices, and (2) use the Shoulderstand cycle to continue to improve that same hip-opening, core-stabilizing, and upper-back mobilizing we need to get over the plateau and into deeper seated forward bend work.

In other words, our original Shoulderstand work set some of the foundation for the initial seated floor work, and now that introduction to seated floor work is going to prove fruitful toward deeper Shoulderstand work, which should likewise feed back into deeper seated floor work in the near(-ish) future. Something like that.

So, with a variety of poses beforehand and afterward, the following is the sequence of events we will be strongly focused on for the coming weeks:

Salamba Sarvangasana I (Supported Shoulderstand first variation) [223]

Salamba Sarvangasana II (Supported Shoulderstand second variation) [235]

Halasana (Plow pose) [244]

Karnapidasana (Ear-pressing pose) [246]

Supta Konasana (Reclined Angle pose) [247]

Parsva Halasana (Side Plow pose) [249]

Ekapada Sarvangasana (One-legged Shoulderstand) [250]

Parsvaikapada Sarvangasana (Side One-legged Shoulderstand) [251]

Matsyasana variation (Fish) [112-14]

Saturday, September 5, 2015


I taught my first yoga class on September 6, 2005, and I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t actually remember the content of what I taught in that first class, but things which I do remember well include where it was (the YWCA), how I felt (anxious, as in both scared and eager), and the names of all three students in the room that day (Robin, Mei, and Cyndi).

The beginnings of my teaching career were not glamorous, and, looking back, it’s a little surprising that I made it this far considering how it all got started. That classroom was upstairs at my local Y in a room that had originally been designed for ballet. It was a long, narrow rectangle with carpet, mirrors, and a barre. The music came from a CD boom box, and we had to keep it turned up throughout class in order to drown out the noise coming from the water-aerobics class happening directly beneath us. We also had to supply all of our own props; I lugged around a big tub of blocks and blankets, and we used old neck ties as straps.

It wasn’t ideal, but neither was it the worst environment I taught in during that time period (one in particular involved a cafeteria wherein I had to move the tables and chairs and sweep up the remains of lunch before my students arrived). However, those accommodations were probably about on par with my teaching skills at the time, so I was grateful for all of it. But every class I led felt better than the one before; every time I took my seat at the front of the room, I fell more and more in love with the practice and the craft. And some of my most devoted students and good friends came from those classes at the Y.

I didn’t know then how important teaching yoga would be for me. I didn’t know then that I would eventually open my own studio, or that I would teach others how to teach, or that it would help me move more than a thousand miles away from home to practice with a whole new community. I only knew that it felt good, so I kept doing it. And I wanted to do it well, so I kept learning.

Genuineness trumps excellence

I think more than anything else, teaching yoga has taught me the necessity of being genuine. By that I mean, my best moments happen when I am simply being myself in the classroom. Of course, being genuinely comfortable with yourself in the world is one of life’s most important (and hardest) lessons regardless of being a yogi. For teachers and public speakers, it is natural to want to please the people in front of you. You want them to like and appreciate you, and you want them to come back. You want to say and do all the right things, you want to impress and inspire, and you want be to excellent. It took me a long time to understand that it isn’t just about qualifications or proficiency. And it takes more than just the coincidence of my being a teacher (even if I’m good at it) and their being a student (even if they desire to learn) to form a meaningful teacher/student relationship.

Like most new teachers, it took me a long time to find my own personality and presentation style. Only after a lot of trying to be something or someone which I wasn’t in an effort to be attractive to everyone, did I realize that it works best when I am comfortable and natural. Now I teach the way I want to practice; I teach the way I want to be taught. I have learned that those students who enjoy the experience, who resonate with the material, who also feel comfortable and natural in that space—those are my students and they will come back. And the ones who don’t feel that way will find someone else to guide them, and that is good.

(Un)changing for the better

It’s not only my teaching style which has changed throughout the last ten years. My personal practice and my non-professional life have both as well. Yoga provokes change. It changes its students physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically. It changes you on the mat and it follows you off the mat. It has helped me become stronger and healthier as it is my form of physical exercise. I am more patient and less self-critical from embarking on its endless challenges and difficulties. And the diversity of people I practice with has fostered in me resilience and compassion. It also helped me to embrace minimalism, and to shed those things which no longer serve me.

On the other hand, yoga also promotes not changing; it keeps you exactly the same, unchanged, in the best possible ways. It highlights and embellishes the best parts of what and who you are. And it helps you learn how to share those virtues with the world around you. My practice, for example, nurtures my inclinations for introspective curiosity—I am philosophically minded, and yoga helps me to feel good about constantly asking “how” and “why.” And I have the privilege of helping others answer those questions for themselves. I also work best when I am allowed to be independent, self-responsible, and self-motivated. And yoga has given me the opportunity to prove to myself and to others that I am capable of making really good choices, and of following through with the commitments which I make.

Sometimes we can become obsessed with how to be better, different, improved, or more-than; always striving to be something we think we should be but are not. And at other times we can be too stubborn and shortsighted to recognize that we are desperately overdue for an adjustment. I love that I am more patient than I used to be, and I love that I am still as heartily determined as I always have been. Ten years of personal and professional ups and downs has taught me that yoga can change you in ways you cannot imagine, and it can leave you utterly unaffected.

Ready or not, here it comes

One of the keys to success is starting with a clear and reasonable intention. You must know what you are doing and why you are doing it in order to accomplish anything. There are innumerable factors and contingencies in life which you cannot control and which just happen around you whether you like or not. But something which is within your scope of management is answering this pair of questions: What do you want? and what are you willing to do to get it?

Making the big decisions in life is not easy. For me, the day to day choices inspired by my practice gave me a solid foundation of decision-making capabilities. I regularly ask myself what I want and what I am willing to do to get it. I am willing to practice even if I am tired or distracted, because I want the feelings of revitalization and clear-mindedness that I know I will have when it is over. I want physical health and longevity, so I am willing to practice poses I detest in order to receive the benefits which they provide. I want my asana practice to develop and advance, so I challenge myself to try new and ever harder poses knowing that I might fall or fail.

Falling and failing are risks you have to be willing to take on the mat. It is not reasonable to expect yourself to only practice those poses you know with certainty you can perform masterfully. Sometimes you just have to go for it, trust your ability to take good care of yourself, and make the best out of whatever happens.

Those little choices—the choice to show up no matter what, to pay careful attention, to try and try again, and to do so boldly—give me confidence with which to set good intentions for myself off the mat. My yoga practice helped me to garner the courage and discipline I needed to quit my job in order to attend teacher training, to decide I wanted to study philosophy more than I wanted to be a business owner, and to start over in a state I had never visited before. I had no way of predicting the outcome of any of those decisions; I just had to make the choice, trust myself, and adjust accordingly.

I am not in control of life’s curveballs, and sometimes the parameters within which I am asked to perform exceed my readiness. But I am always going to stand up on my own two feet and take one thoughtful step after another. Yoga has not only taught me how to recognize what I most want, it has also taught me how to think critically about my willingness to strive, and it has given me many of the tools I need to succeed.

And more…

I have learned so much more than that, of course; about myself, about others, and about yoga. For instance, yoga isn’t likely to fix your problems, but it might help you to avoid making them worse. Also, the only way to truly know what is right or best for you is through consistent and nonjudgmental experimentation.

I am certain that the lessons aren’t over for me yet. Those early days at the Y seem like a lifetime ago; experiences I would never wish to repeat but hope I never forget. Because of them, and because of everything that has happened since then, yoga is firmly established in my life. I need it as much as I need air to breathe and friends to love. My practice is a priority and a compulsion. It’s my fountain of youth, my play date, and my scholarship. The same way I encourage my students to do for themselves, I treat it quite seriously. But not too seriously, because it’s just yoga! :-) I am excited about continuing to learn, and honored to be able to bear witness as others learn.

Cheers to ten years and counting…

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


The quote above comes from a series of lectures given by the German philosopher Theodore Adorno in 1965. Here Adorno was speaking about the relationships between society, culture, and consciousness; not yoga. But he was—as is yoga—very much concerned with reality: what is real, and what is the relationship between thought and everything which is not thought. For Adorno, not only is neither theory nor practice alone sufficient, but “an act of thought about reality is – whether consciously or not – always a practical act” (48).

One word for “theory” in Sanskrit is siddhānta. The beginning of the word, siddha, has the same root as in the yoga pose called Siddhasana (Adept’s Seat). It is one of the few poses described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita, two of the oldest and most revered yogasana texts, and Iyengar quotes passages from each book in his explanation of the pose in Light on Yoga (116-20). Siddha means a pure being or one who is celebrated. It also means to make ready, to prove, and to be adept. The end of the word, ānta, means conclusive. So siddhānta means to arrive at a truth. It denotes a kind of journey toward truth insofar as an adept is one who has proven themselves capable and proficient. In this sense, theory is not passive doctrine; it is not blind rules or conjecture. It is active inquiry which is preparation for decisiveness and discernment.

Abhyasa, which means to be established in intense repetition, is one way to translate “practice” from Sanskrit; it’s the word Patanjali uses in the Yoga Sutra (verses I.12-14). Another is vyayahāra. The beginning of this word, vyaya, means expense and sacrifice while the end of the word, ahāra, means to procure and to seize. So practice translated in this way means to both give and take, to offer and receive. Yoga asks a lot of us, but it also gives a lot in return.

It’s only been recently that the physical aspects of yoga have taken precedence over its philosophies. Even when the contemporary yoga luminaries of our lifetime; namely, B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, were studying yoga as young men less than a hundred years ago, yoga meant philosophy, scripture, language, literature, history, and culture as much or more than it meant asana. The practice of asana was—and still is—meant to prepare the body as well as the mind for philosophical studies. The Yoga Sutra even describes intellectual inquiry (svadhyaya, II.32, 44) as a type of practice which mirrors the idea above about thinking being a practical act. Adorno also says—and I suspect the ancient yogi’s might agree—that we owe it to ourselves, that it is a kind of moral obligation, to “give serious attention to thought” and reflection whenever possible (58). By that he means that whenever the narrow parameters of our hectic everyday-ness as well as the broader global climate allows, we have a duty to think carefully. We don’t always have the luxury of time and space within which to stop doing, acting, moving, consuming, going, going, going. But when we do, we can—and arguably should—use those moments to contemplate the unfolding of positive acts.

Our yogic ancestors warned against practice without philosophy. They said that practice not properly aligned with its higher purpose—going through the motions without truly understanding why or how—intensifies the ego and weakens the heart. In yoga, the image of the heart represents your emotional center, the place within from which you feel ups and downs, pleasure and pain. But it is also knowledge; not just facts stored in your brain, but Knowledge as in intuition and wisdom. To have a healthy and open heart means to align yourself with that which is most important, most essential. It is said that practice without theory suffocates the heart by fostering the six enemies of consciousness: desire (kama), selfishness (lobha), hatred (krobha), arrogance (mada), delusion (moha), and jealousy (matsarya). When practice is balanced with acts of both giving (vyaya) and taking (ahāra), then the six enemies die. That requires devotion of time and energy, physically and intellectually, acting and thinking. In return, you are made ready to receive vitality, longevity, happiness, freedom, and intelligence. Only practice grounded in sincere introspection leads to real understanding.

Mere theory, on the other hand, has its own dangers; it is a kind of ignorance. An exclusively scholarly study of philosophy without acting out its ideas fails to affect positive change. Lack of thoughtfulness does not prevent activity, because acts happen regardless of conscious awareness. The six enemies which the yoga sages warn us about are natural occurrences of human consciousness. Thinking about their existence may lead to recognition, but won’t in and of itself cause them any change. It is only by confronting them and challenging them through deliberate practice, through establishing yourself in the eight stages of practical living espoused in the Yoga Sutra, for instance, that you learn how to diminish that which is harmful and cultivate that which is wholesome. And therein you come to truly experience and embody reality.

The word yoga means to unite. For yoga to be successful, there cannot exist any separation of theory and practice. They are eternally married. They inform each other. Theory draws the path under our feet; it tells us where we’ve come from, where we stand, and where we want to end up. Practice moves us forward in the direction we most need to go. Only from their cohesive continuity can yoga be what it is meant to be: an affirmation of pure Self Consciousness.

All Adorno citations refer to the following text:
Adorno, Theodor W. Lectures of Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. English ed. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008. Print.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


“I was doing too many backbends…; one day I made up my mind to do forward bends like Janu Sirsasana—I could not stay in it even for a few minutes. My spine and back muscles became sore and I couldn’t bear the soreness… It was as if somebody was using a sledgehammer on my back. Then I determined that if I could do backbends, I should learn to do forward bends too.”
B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga Wisdom & Practice, 16

Whereas back bending postures create broad and expansive arches, forward bends are more about precise edges and crisp creases. That’s not to say that forward bends are severe or unpleasant. The opposite, in fact, is true. When performed well, forward bends are soothing and rejuvenating; they also provide their own kind of expansive softness. They just require a different kind of action, and they create a different kind of shape for the body to experience. Back bends bring to mind Roman architecture and orbiting planets. Forward bends are more reminiscent of origami.

The key to successful forward bending, or to making origami art, is knowing how to apply the right balance of commitment plus suppleness in order to fold in the right places with the right amount of pressure. Also like origami, forward bending poses require beginning with simple and basic folds. And the more intricate the fold is, the higher the risk that something could go wrong.

Seated forward bends always have their foundation in Dandasana (Staff, 112). Its 90-degree bend at the hips makes it the first and most basic fold. From there it would seem like the least complex and most straightforward next step would be to fold the body over the legs into what is known as Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward-fold, literally “intense stretch for the back-body pose”, 166). This asana has been called the king of all forward bends, and its potential positive effects are abundant, including improved cardiovascular health, rest for the nervous system, and stimulation for the circulatory system. But it’s a mistake to confuse its apparent simplicity for easiness to perform. While it primarily consists of just one crisp fold at the hips, it is actually a more intricate shape to achieve than it appears. In fact, Light on Yoga states that this pose is only truly accessible after mastering the complex and asymmetrical seated folds.

Four poses are said to be the “preparatory poses for the correct Paschimottanasana.” They are Janu Sirsasana (Head-toward-knee, 148), Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Forward fold, 155), Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana (Three Parts Facing West Forward fold, 156), and Marichyasana I (Marichi’s Twist first variation, 160). While these four poses certainly have more components involved, more folds to manage, they also “give one sufficient elasticity in the back and legs so that one gradually achieves the correct Paschimottanasana” (161).

We worked on Janu Sirsasana in class together last week, so let’s start there. It is an intricate shape wherein the necessity for precision is great, but if we carefully unfold the posture, we can see that it is just a series of much more basic shapes and folds bundled together.

There are three important basic shapes to recognize in the legs and hips. First, the foundation is, of course, Dandasana, and the front leg maintains that shape throughout—straight, strong, and anchored. The back leg is a little more complex as it is a combination of two different basic shapes. So the second important thing to recognize is that the back leg is externally rotated at the hip as well as bent deeply at the knee in a shape which mimics Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle, 128) or, maybe more accurately, Siddhasana (Adept’s Seat, 120). Finally, the distance between the two legs is important and often gets overlooked. The instructions are to “push the [back] knee as far back as possible” so that the “angle between the two legs [is] obtuse” (149). That means the position of the thighs is like that of Upavistha Konasana (Wide-angle Forward fold, 164). Take a look at those poses next to each other, and see if you recognize the repetition of shape.

The upper-body includes familiar shapes as well. The asymmetrical work of poses such as Parsvakonasana (Side Angle, 67) and Parighasana (Gate, 86) prepare the trunk, shoulders, and hips for Janu Sirsasana by concentrating on just one side of the body at a time. But the full form of Janu Sirsasana aims to eliminate any asymmetry above the hips, which means it definitely has threads of relationship to poses such as Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I, 71) and Vrksasana (Tree, 63).

Mr. Iyengar and Light on Yoga are not the only sources of high praise for Janu Sirsasana and its closely related postural cousin, Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana. That’s a lot of Sanskrit, I know. It sounds something like tree-AHNG-mook-eye-kuh-PA-duh POSH-chee-moh-tan-AHS-uh-nuh. And the English translation is not any better—“three parts facing west seated forward fold.” It’s a tongue-twister, for sure, and, unfortunately, practicing the pose can feel as awkward and foreign as trying to pronounce its name. If you were in class with me this week, you got a sense of that for yourself as this was our focus for practice.

They are challenging, yes, but I promise that these poses are worth learning—posturally and linguistically. Both of them are part of the Ashtanga Primary Series as well as Light on Yoga’s “Course One.” One of my favorite texts which expounds on the Ashtanga system of practice is called Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy by Gregor Maehle. Even if you don’t practice Ashtanga Yoga, it is a fantastic manual. And it is my go-to resource second only to LoY.

In it, Maehle says that, other than the jump-backs and jump-throughs which are a pivotal part of the Ashtanga practice, Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana is one of the “main producers of abdominal strength” in the Primary Series. That is because it is abdominal strength which keeps the sitting-bone of the bent leg anchored against the ground. He says that a student first learning this pose “often makes the mistake of focusing too much on the forward-bending aspect of the posture. It is much more important to ground the [buttock of the bent leg], which works directly on the hip and develops abdominal strength” (77). He calls it a “humble posture” which is “one of the most underestimated” (78).

Light on Yoga also comments on the abdominal strengthening aspect of this pose. It says that “this asana tones the abdominal organs and keeps them free from sluggishness,” and then goes on to say that we often “abuse our abdominal organs by over-indulgence and by conforming to social etiquette” which causes disease. We can gain “longevity, happiness and peace of mind” by practicing these two essential postures (157).

About Janu Sirsasana, Maehle says that it, “like no other posture, combines the two main themes of the Primary Series—forward bending and hip rotation.” That also happens to be a primary theme of LoY’s Course One. Maehle describes Janu Sirsasana as being identical to performing Paschimottanasana with one leg and Baddha Konasana with the other, and that “there may be more exhilarating postures in the sequence, but it is [this pose] that most lets us experience the underlying principles of the [Primary Series]” (79).

Maehle also emphasizes the benefit of patiently practicing the “back bended stages” of these two poses as well as other seated forward folds. He says that, while it might make you look or feel stiff, it is more elegant, and, more importantly, knowing how to maintain “the inner integrity of the postures makes the practice far more effective” (78).

Creating the proper elongation, precise edges, and crisp folds which these poses require is not easy. It takes time, patience, and humility, among other things. It is an art form, and your body is your medium. Like an origami artist with her paper, there must be both precision and yielding. With attention to the details, you fold and bend and twist to create something beautiful and affirming from the inside out.

We will continue to explore these poses, and similar ones, in the weeks ahead.

Iyengar, B.K.S. Yoga Wisdom & Practice: For health, happiness, and a better world. London: DK Publishing, 2009. Print.
Maehle, Gregor. Ashtanga Yoga Practice & Philosophy. Novato: New World Library, 2006. Print.