Walk the Path, Live the Practice

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Keeping my yoga and mindfulness practice fresh and inspiring has been very important while sustaining my practice for almost thirty-five years. People often remark about my apparent “discipline” but I don’t see myself as disciplined. Rather, yoga is simply a practice that I consistently return to with awe and devotion. It is a practice in consciousness fostering a deeper connection with our selves while promoting a sense of grounded calm over reactive chaos. Through persisting with yoga practice, self-awareness is increased and is expressed through our actions and behaviors.

During the past sixteen months I have managed many personal challenges and losses including supporting a very dear friend with a rare and terminal cancer. Witnessing the drastic and turbulent changes that are occurring in the U.S. and around the world at this time is anxiety provoking. Recently, I even had a very disturbing encounter with someone at Cosco and his actions included keying my car door. Thankfully, my yoga and mindfulness practice helps me to pacify the inner turmoil and to manage many strong, unsettled and unfamiliar states of being including feelings of anger, sadness and angst. Through my own process of trying to make peace with myself through the practice, I try to inspire others to do the same.

I feel very fortunate to be able to guide others and help them with their various issues and conditions in both my group classes and private yoga therapy sessions. The Eight Limbs of Yoga propose a gentler code for living soulfully. The yamas and niyamas remind us to connect with our true human nature, to try to live in peace, health, and loving harmony with everyone and everything. In actuality, the real benefits of the practice occur when we are off the mat when we can employ the tools that yoga teaches us. Today, as I observe the plethora of ailments that people of all ages suffer from, especially increased anxiety, stress and depression, I truly believe that the yoga and mindfulness path holds the key to so much.

Grateful to have received what I believe to be the highest quality instruction from many wonderful teachers with whom I have studied since 1982, including studying for a month at a time in India over a twenty-year time span, it is a privilege to carry on the legacy and the teachings. Studying at the source with the Iyengar family including the late B.K.S Iyengar, was incredible. I cherish the adjustments, instructions and feedback that Mr. Iyengar gave me when he chose to demonstrate on me or meet with me privately. In turn, I strive to provide my students with excellence in teaching, authentic connection, encouragement and safety.

The 13th –century Persian poet Rumi said, “When you start walking the way, the way appears.” I discovered meditation at age fourteen and taught myself how to meditate from a book while seated in a winged back chair in the family rec room. Drawn to yoga at age twenty-one, I experienced my first pose on an exercise pad at university long before yoga mats were available on the market. During four decades of study and teaching, my practice has accompanied and supported me through: adolescence, adulthood and middle age; three pregnancies and childbirth; raising my children while founding children’s yoga in Canada; and establishing YogaBuds, my yoga studio.

As we navigate the life cycle with a consistent yoga and mindfulness practice we are provided with so many tools to examine, surrender, accept and overcome our struggles and the unavoidable stressors that arise. Though we travel forward on this path, yoga simultaneously freezes time when going inward to tune in and experience a range of emotions and feel wholeness, clarity, self-acceptance, empathy and loving kindness. Similarly, saying Kaddish early each morning last year helped me to find acceptance and peace within as I grieved and missed my father. Approaching my daily yoga and mindfulness practice with an open mind and heart, I begin with the intention to joyfully greet the day with a recognition and sense of full abundance in my life. I also acknowledge and pacify whatever inner angst there is, feeling gratitude and contentment and becoming more wholehearted. To me, this is what it means to walk the path.

To stand steady and comfortable and face the horizon while feeling grounded whether in tadasana (mountain pose), or in sirsasana (headstand) or in a myriad of other asanas (or poses); to listen to, watch, feel and control my breath; to raise my arms as high as they can go…To bend and extend my body forward or backward; to turn and twist it, to lower my brain below my heart and feel humbled… To experience an incredible sense of inner spaciousness, internal peace and oneness with all things, nature, God and people…To practice awareness and mindfulness; to live guided by an inner moral compass; to feel gratitude, compassion and contentment, and to let go and find acceptance…To me, this is what it means to live the practice.

“Life means to be living. Problems will always be there. When they arise navigate through them with yoga – don’t take a break.” – BKS Iyengar

 

The YogaBuds Path towards Health, Wellness and Contentment

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Life can be challenging but we may also discover opportunity for personal growth as we learn to better manage hardships that we are confronted with. In my work as a yoga teacher and psychotherapist, over the past few years I have worked with a marked increase of individuals coping with various mental health issues including depression, anxiety and stress, and various physical conditions. This sadly includes an upsurge in the numbers of children and teens also suffering from anxiety and depression.

Seeking the healing powers of yoga and mindfulness, individuals of all ages come to YogaBuds for group classes or private yoga therapy sessions. By providing support and guidance and building trust with my students and clients, they are motivated to take risks to try new things; to open up to self-discovery and acquire greater self-awareness; to learn new skills, and to ultimately experience sustained change. I have actually been more excited than ever to observe both professionally and personally how yoga and mindfulness meditation has made such an incredible difference in people’s lives.

Long captivated by the precision of yoga in the Iyengar yoga system, I value how it is a perfect companion to mindfulness. These two practices merge with my creativity to inform my instruction, helping me to create an authentic teaching style and unique approach to the change process. When a child or teenager, a young father, middle-aged woman or an elderly person harnesses their desire for change with consistency and commitment, the work that we do together results in learning effective coping skills and tools necessary for solace and change. When my student or client experiences something new such as a wonderful, serene inner calmness and quietude, I liken it to tasting something delicious first-hand. Eventually this experience of accessing, tasting and savoring these tranquil moments becomes like a craving that needs to be satisfied with more of the same.

It is important to know how to access one’s center, remaining anchored and grounded with a strong feeling of core strength and stability. We need this not only for physical health but also to best navigate the small and difficult everyday experiences and interactions, face the bigger trials and demands that life presents, or cope with stress, anxiety, physical pain or a myriad of many other ailments or issues. Core stability is a key element in a healthy asana practice. Breathing is also the center part of the yoga practice. The invaluable learning that occurs on the mat and is felt in a deeply interconnected or holistic way is what repeatedly draws us back to the practice. We hone our ability to be mindful, centered and calm by embracing the eight limbs of yoga, including the practice of focusing to stay fully present moment-to-moment and breath-by-breath. We also cultivate a sense of softness and a capacity to remain in stillness. A wonderful sensation of inner spaciousness opens up and we are there for it. The craving for this endures and we know that with regular practice we are able to satisfy it. Healing and health triumphs!

For almost 35 years, yoga and mindfulness has formed the fabric of my life and has been my footpath. In fact, I often encourage my children to trust that their pathways will become apparent and I urge them to remain open-minded and flexible to notice and follow the markers along the way. I feel especially fortunate to have discovered not only my path but to also be able to connect with and guide others towards awakening their wellness. It is my belief that my personal journey of helping to facilitate change through the timeless traditions of yoga, creativity and mindfulness is my dharma and a gift. It has been a privilege to both participate in and to witness the potency and success of this work. Following my path has truly humbled, stirred and inspired me.

Temmi Ungerman Sears

“Yoga is meditation in action.” –B.K.S. Iyengar

Bridging the past to the future

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My father was one of the founding fathers of Beth Sholom. As a young girl, year after year on the High Holy Days, I sat in my seat in our row with my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, embraced in the bond of family and cemented in tradition. On Kol Nidre, immersed in the magic atmosphere of the night and the communal bond, I would watch with pride as my father climbed the steps to the bimah with his head held high to hold the Torah. Staring at him swathed in his tallit, I revered the beauty of the Torah, and admired the shining breastplate and crown.

As I matured into young adulthood and then middle age, the essence of Kol Nidre continued to stir my soul; however, feelings of frustration grew as I longed for women to share in these special moments as full participants, not merely as spectators. No doubt I was not the only one. Today I am very grateful to Beth Sholom for becoming more progressive, enabling women to more fully engage with our meaningful and ancient rituals. On this Kol Nidre, almost exactly one year since my father’s passing and weeks after concluding Kaddish, I was given the opportunity to have an active part in the service. I excitedly ascended the bimah and had the powerful experience of holding the Torah during the holiest of days.

Steady and balanced with equal weight on both feet, I wrapped my arms lovingly around the Torah and felt the immeasurable, powerful and spiritual weight of it against my chest. My heart was full as it opened to the beauty of tradition and the potency of change. I felt both humbled and empowered. Memories of my father ran deep and I felt very connected to him, to the past and to the circle of Jewish time and tradition. Touching the Torah also triggered another meaningful connection as I thought about its beautiful script. When I was twenty years old, I learned how to write the Torah Script in calligraphy and this been a significant part of the many Ketubbot and Jewish art pieces I have created over the years.

Standing on the bimah, I breathed deeply and stayed mindful of the sanctity of the service. The overwhelming emotion that comes from the soul-penetrating renditions of Kol Nidre were made even more poignant by my recent loss. As Cantor Moses passionately shared with us the mysterious and magnificent chants and daunting melodies from a very inward place, I was profoundly moved. I humbly stood before the judgment of God. I naturally looked down, gently closing my eyes as I moved inward in stillness. Occasionally, I looked up at the lights wondering if my father was a star in the sky or if his spirit was present with us in the sanctuary.

As I held the Torah, I felt truly honoured with the privilege to be the first woman to break the gender barrier in our synagogue. Standing in my fathers’ place on the bimah, I felt the meaning of l’dor v’dor and was touched deeply by it. I saw myself on a bridge connecting the past with the future. Gratitude flowed through me. Looking outward to the congregation, my eye caught the beautiful faces of my mother and daughter. I gazed lovingly at them and shared warm smiles with each.

 

 

 

DO YOU WANT A WORKOUT OR MORE? YOU CHOOSE.

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Everything is timing. This September marks my 30th year anniversary of teaching yoga. I recently had the good fortune of celebrating this milestone by taking yoga classes with several different teachers in a trendy studio in Venice, California. Armed with years of devotion and practise, I attended class daily and couldn’t help but reflect on the changes in the yoga scene in the same studio that I have gone to for many years when visiting family in L.A. When I first began teaching back in 1986, yoga was not a mainstream practice in North America and most people were not familiar with it but it has since become an integral part of our culture.

Wishing for my practice to be freshly inspired, I happily toted my yoga mat over my shoulder and open-mindedly went to different kinds of yoga classes from the system that I study and teach. Three of the classes I attended were filled to capacity with almost ninety students strong. And strong and fit they were. There was a very high demand; classes were crowded even on an early Sunday morning. In India at the Iyengar Yoga Institute where I have studied several times, well over a hundred students are in attendance. The hall is an open-air pavilion and there are many operational ceiling fans which helps with the intense natural heat; in this studio, the door to the outside remained closed and the fans were not on. Although I found this to be unpleasant, I was still very appreciative of the opportunity to practice and did thoroughly enjoy my classes. However, the discovery of how diluted this popular practice has become from the rich and multilayered practice of traditional yoga was troubling.

As one receptionist said to me, “It’s all about feeling everyone’s sweat and all breathing together.” Is this really what yoga has been reduced to? Indeed, sweat was everywhere (mine as well) and I had great fitness workouts because in most of the classes that I attended the demanding physical practice was the primary focus. Moving swiftly through the vinyasa, the sequential movement that interlinks postures to form a continuous flow, I noticed that many students were able to sustain poses or asanas for fairly long holdings, including balancing poses. Yet in spite of physical strength, I also witnessed a lot of shaking in postures and realized that stability was lacking for many. It appeared that for some students endurance was strength-based without any softness of breath, quietness in the facial expression or quality of mindfulness or ease of any sort. Occasionally, a teacher would instill good messaging but I was skeptical if the valuable ideas offered were truly integrated. For example, stillness was a concept mentioned by many of the teachers but with the constant movement or flow of the practice, time for reflection or resting poses were not given in order to actually taste or access the stillness within. Nor was there an opportunity to feel the sensations of the body in a pose which is such a fine part of the practice.

As much as I personally enjoyed these practices for the physical benefits, some of what I observed triggered concern if this practice was the only kind of exposure to yoga that these students experienced. I was somewhat perturbed because of what I perceived to be the absence of conscious attention or intention as well as some of the missing essential teaching skills that are so much a part of the Iyengar methodology (including its vigorous teacher training and certification process) which ensures a safe practice. Ultimately, I fear that the combination of the sheer volume of students practicing without safe guidance may result in some students being at risk for injury, and also that their overall health may become compromised over time.

Some teachers had a really wonderful teaching presence and offered great ideas and even played great music but during the practice I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a lack of deeper understanding to ensure the safe execution of a posture or asana, or a smooth and safe transition between postures because of some of the sequencing. In some classes, the teacher rarely left the platform from which he or she taught and there were no demonstrations given of any pose. Alignment is very important to me but the information provided was more about moving through the flow of postures rather than knowledgeable instructions for creating correct alignment in a posture or asana. On one or two occasions, I even heard a teacher downplay the importance of alignment. The instructions were generally very clean and simple but more often than not, it seemed that the teacher was not really observing the students’ bodies in the poses to see how the poses were and as such, mistakes were not addressed.

In part because of my training in yoga therapeutics and psychotherapy combined with my intuitive responses, providing individualized modifications for my students and especially those with special conditions or needs is very important to me. Interestingly, there were a few pregnant students and likely many others with unique requirements but suggested modifications were rarely given. When students were left to their own discretion to choose between various options for the advanced inversions and backbends without even one word of guidance from the teacher, I was surprised. The final resting pose in class, Corpse or Savasana, is an integral part of yoga for it is when relaxation and stillness are experienced and when the entire practice and its many benefits are assimilated into one’s being. I really enjoy guiding students into this place of quietude and stillness but verbal guidance into Savasana was not a part of the teaching in most of the classes that I attended.

With the focus solely on the physical body and the trend being more about a workout, much of the inherent value and transformative potential of practicing the eight limbs of yoga and studying Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is lost. The exciting and expansive reach of the traditional practice of yoga remains evasive as the opportunity for stillness, calming and stabilizing the nervous system, self-reflection and personal growth is not provided. Without the fullness of the practice including mindful awareness, I believe that the true essence of yoga is simply not experienced. Yet in fairness, the students that I practiced with were also very engaged, fit and focused on their routine. Although it is different from my belief system, perhaps it simply comes down to what one desires from one’s yoga: a physical workout or a more mindful and deep practice? It is like selecting what to eat. One can choose to go to a fast food restaurant and get one’s fill even with a diet empty of good nutrition, or one can select to make time for a balanced approach to eating and skillfully cook a nutritious meal with all the elements that combine together to ensure good health and support a balanced mind, body and spirit.

I experienced many positive outcomes from my L.A. yoga experience for I really enjoyed being a student without having any concurrent teaching responsibilities. I continued to feel my strong connection to and gratitude for the pure and organic yoga that I practice and teach. I was also very happy to observe the increasing popularity of yoga albeit my angst about the issue of safety and the lack of any spirituality or traditional and meaningful elements in most of the classes that I attended. But perhaps the most important consequence of my experience was to yet again have a heightened awareness and appreciation for the purity, clarity, richness and depth of the Iyengar methodology which is so very different from the current teachings so popular today. I believe that the brilliance and longevity of the traditional yoga practice and its potential for fostering personal transformation will continue to remain long after the current yoga “fitness faze” fizzles out.

In the final minutes of my final class in L.A., we settled into Corpse or Savasana pose and the teacher said to the class, “Find your stillness now.” He then proceeded to play very loudly “Message in a Bottle” by The Police. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry for in this land of sunshine, palm trees and very fit bodies, I believe that what is really needed is to somehow put the soul back into yoga. I realized that the message in the song had a double entendre for all I could think about during my time in Savasana and afterwards was that it is yoga that needs the SOS sent out to the world.

Yoga is transforming the fabric of our society and making an impact on the health and well-being of so many. It is a journey of authentic self-exploration and self-discovery that can truly have life-changing benefits. Initially, my intention was to take classes for the benefit of gleaning a fresh inspiration to my practice. Yet from my recent exposure to yoga in L.A., I am now even more motivated to evolve my teaching in order to share the true essence and soul of yoga with my students. It is my hope and aim to continue to share the vast, beautiful and authentic tradition of yoga, with all being well, over the next thirty years!

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“Yoga is an art, a science and a philosophy. It touches the life of man at every level: physical, mental, spiritual. It is a practical method for making one’s life purposeful, useful and noble.” -B.K.S. Iyengar


Message In A Bottle by The Police

Just a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh
Another lonely day, with no one here but me, oh
More loneliness than any man could bear
Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh

I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world
I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah

A year has passed since I wrote my note
But I should have known this right from the start
Only hope can keep me together
Love can mend your life but
Love can break your heart
I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world
I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah

Walked out this morning, don’t believe what I saw
Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore
Seems I’m not alone at being alone
Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home
I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world
I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah

Sending out at an S.O.S.
Sending out at an S.O.S.
Sending out at an S.O.S.
Sending out at an S.O.S.
Sending out at an S.O.S.
Sending out at an S.O.S…

Change – The Choice is Yours

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I often say that I am in the business of change because my work as a yoga teacher and therapist involves transformative processes. As we navigate our lives, it may be hard for some people to not be caught up in the race to accumulate things and to not get caught in the web of measuring ourselves based on material success. But when we stay connected to what is of real value, and remain open to even the small subtle every day things that present opportunities to grow, we enhance our self-awareness and demonstrate a willingness to change. Consciously paying attention to theses hidden opportunities for change each day, we journey towards transformation and awaken our wellness. Something different unfolds even within the sameness.

For seven months I have begun my day in precisely the same way: I have recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father in synagogue. This is a part of the mourning rituals in Judaism that shows that despite the loss, the mourner still praises God and this proclamation is believed to increase God’s light into the world. Each day the service begins at the exact same time. On specific days of the week or the month, additional prayers are included but otherwise we sit, we stand, we read silently, and we chant as a group following the exact same sequence day-by-day. Yet I find it fascinating that in spite of the consistency and repetition of the same service, each day I observe that inwardly I may be in a totally different place and small changes are continually occurring for me. One morning my focus may be strong as I remain alert, grounded and connected, or I may be completely distracted, tired, and perhaps even disengaged from the process. And the process itself also helps to facilitate change. I have discovered that grieving is a challenging and meandering journey comprised of frequent hills and valleys and changes.

Each time I unfold my yoga mat and practice the same asanas or postures, a similar realization occurs for even though the posture may be the exact same one I have practiced literally thousands of times, my experience of each execution or repetition of it is totally different from the previous one. Something shifts. It might be an awakening in a muscle or joint, it might be a change in the texture of my skin or breath or in the breathing pattern or on the cellular level. I may be putting my body into the asana or posture but my mind may not be in the present moment. Regardless, the change process is naturally occurring and it is my choice to welcome and accept the change or not.

When our children were young, we encouraged them to change things up in their rooms as often as they liked, rearranging furniture, redecorating their walls and even repainting them a different colour. However, for many people there is a pull and a tendency to remain within one’s inner walls of familiarity rather than consciously choosing to embrace change even when confronted with changes that are beyond our control. For change can be scary, tiring and frustrating and there may also be many obstacles that hinder change including both conscious and unconscious habits, baggage, emotions and defenses.

Change may also mean something different for each individual. For some, change is a positive thing and actively pursued by developing self-awareness, spending time in self-reflection, engaging in new thoughts and behaviors and moving towards personal growth. Igniting even a tiny flame of light to spread over the darkness and to illuminate one’s blind spots is desirable on the path towards wholeness and wellness. A simple spark may actually change one’s world. And interestingly, oftentimes the very things that we don’t want to change nor can change end up changing us.

When we practice yoga, we create tension in our bodies which also creates extension which then also creates change. When we meditate daily, whether it is a mindfulness practice or daily prayers or some other practice, we also create chemical changes in our brains. Thus, when we are engaged in mind body practices, our yoga and meditation becomes an awareness practice and transforms our moment-to-moment experience of life (and death). When we choose to remain open to observing the subtle daily changes both on and off the mat, and to embrace the change process, we cultivate a relationship with ourselves and explore our feelings and thoughts. With curiosity and receptivity, we can then experience the many fascinating differences inherent within the sameness. Recognizing the potential for change and its multitude of benefits, perhaps we might then choose to embrace it.

“Don’t be carried away by others’ words. Be carried away by your own experiences. I’m not doing the asana for some purpose like being physically fit and mentally poised, I’m doing the asana to see myself.”   – B.K.S. Iyengar

Navigating the Shifting Currents of Life

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Five years ago my cousin Larry thanked me for a blog post that I had just written. It was about the value of grounding, remaining present in each moment, and how to access one’s inner point of stillness within the heart during unwelcome change. He told me that he had found it very helpful in processing an extremely challenging situation that he was dealing with. I was touched by his sentiments and very gratified that my words had helped him.

Today, I continue to seek solace from my yoga practice and the writing process to help me handle many sorrows including the recent and sudden death of Larry. During my morning yoga practice, vague images and ideas from last night’s dream surfaced and I recalled that in my dream, I was insistent on driving two relatives home from somewhere. My cousins were Larry’s daughter and his sister.

During my yoga practice, I reflected on my dream as the bridge to my unconscious, and the potential meaning of its metaphors. Its message slowly became clearer to me as I also recalled my exchange with Larry about my blog which further linked the past with the present. I recognized that the dream was a reminder for me of the importance of sustaining one’s yoga practice and how it enables one to anchor and center oneself. My family has experienced five family deaths in the past five months as well as other serious illnesses of loved ones. This has naturally taken its toll on me but I know with certainty that my yoga has greatly helped me cope with the many recent losses and challenges.

Each time I return to my mat, my yoga takes me to my center. The outer container that is my physical body remains firm (even though at times I have a sense of things seeping in or out) and there is softness and yielding within. Between these two aspects of my being, I am able to access the inner stillness and my strength. By watching and riding my breath, feeling the length of my spine in each pose, grounding through my foundation while drawing into my heart center to access the inner point of stillness and experience the range of feelings that rests within it, I experience the acute presence of each moment and I feel anchored. From this anchoring, I experience my stability, my steadfastness, my core and my acceptance.

Oftentimes, students ask for guidance in learning mindfulness and meditation. I often joke with them that I am like the GPS lady, simply providing directions. For example, in my yoga teaching and in my own personal practise, I first draw attention to the foundation of the pose and then identify the source of the action and its direction in the asana or posture while also connecting to the spine from its root to the crown of the head. Yoga teaches us how to focus, gain perspective, and compose one’s self in order to move forward. And as the mind-body integration unfolds, I am able to quiet my mind, feel grounded in my body and become more equipped to be able to steer through the turbulence. In fact, yoga is my personal GPS, ultimately guiding me home to my center.

Naturally, we each have our own personal process of grieving and manner of navigating our healing and our lives. Whether it is through the practice of yoga, walking or running, coloring or any other mindful, physical or creative process, one can release what needs to be let go of, reach inward to the core grounding or rooting in order to be less scattered, and find one’s center which is always in the present moment. Like flowing with the rip tide rather than resisting it, one can then rise to the surface and endure.

The connections and healing that I have experienced through anchoring to my foundation, spine and breath in the present moment and through my dreams and writing have been profound. Undoubtedly, yoga provides us with the invaluable facility to safely and soundly anchor and center ourselves. I recognize that in my dream my underlying fervent hope was to help guide my dear cousins – like my yoga students and my self – to find their way back to their home.

“Life’s roughest storms prove the strength of our anchor.”

 

Words from my earlier blog called Finding the Stillness: “…The path leads home to one’s own inner point of stillness. This is found inside of the heart. When change arrives, in its simplest or grandest form, what is constant remains.”

 

The Magic of the Yoga Mat

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Recently, several friends and students have shared with me their impressions, excitement and passionate praise about a book that has sold over 4 million copies worldwide. It is called “The life-changing magic of tidying up.” It offers practical advice for cleaning out your home and delivers a philosophy of owning things. I have pondered about its relevance today and have questioned why so many people seek inspiration and direction from a book to help de-clutter, discard and simplify. Always open to learning new things, I bought the book and though I read many interesting points, I found myself resistant to some of the ideas presented.

I believe that in the pursuit for minimalism, the value of the book is in learning about how to let go of your things which in turn is supposed to result in being happier. The concept is great but in my skepticism I couldn’t help but link the writer’s premises and techniques to the many values and lessons gleaned from yoga. For yoga practice enlightens us to many of the same teachings that the book advocates: letting go, detachment, gratitude, a sense of spaciousness and ultimately how to experience greater contentment and joy. In fact, the primary technique provided in the book for letting go is ask yourself if the object in hand truly sparks joy for you.

Both the tidying up process and yoga practice have the potential to be dramatically life-changing and transformative. The writer suggests that people should focus only on the present if they are unable to separate from their possessions. She further implies that the inability to let go of possessions is because one suffers from attachment to the past or has anxiety about the future. In fact, this is one of the main causes of stress. Yoga brings us smack dab in the middle of the moment in the present time and teaches us how to practice mindfulness of the moment and remain in it and also how to manage stress. The cleansing process (of our closet or outer world) is also like the inner cleansing of one’s mind and body arrived at through yoga, and each create an attitude shift and provide peace of mind. Both processes provide a path to a more serene home (the tangible one we live in and our own physical bodymind) and both result in a potentially calmer inner experience. So whether it is a clutter detox or a body cleanse of toxins, the tidying up process and the yoga practice can lead us to experience a greater sense of contentment and well-being.

Undoubtedly, the techniques provided in the book can assist someone in their pursuit for organization and happiness and help them to successfully reach their objectives; therein lies its value and the likely reason for the popularity of the book. Although it is interesting to observe the parallels between the tidying up and yoga processes, I can’t help but continually question why so many individuals feel such a strong desire and even a pressing need to create complete perfect order and orderliness in their environments? And why is it that for some individuals, feelings of calm and contentment are so dependent on one’s outer world?

 Of course, there is truth in the idea that material goods alone won’t bring us happiness. In actuality, the value is in learning how to let go of things which will result in being happier. And letting go is something that we can also learn through the practice of yoga whether it is through a physical release of tension or detaching from a sticky emotional issue or a mental construct. Santosha is the experience of unconditional happiness, a state that allows us to find contentment in any situation. We don’t have to search outside of ourselves for happiness or contentment is independent from external conditions. And yoga teaches us how to practice contentment and access the joy from within, not from something outside of ourselves such as from extreme organization or a totally de-cluttered room. For yoga ultimately guides us inward towards our own inner locus of control. Through remaining on the yoga path and staying present and committed to our practice, over time we learn to connect with our center, and experience clarity and calmness, quietude and true happiness and contentment. And to be really honest, I would much rather direct my focus on my yoga and spend my time with my yoga mat than on de-cluttering, discarding and tidying up!

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“From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness.” – Yoga Sutra of Patanjali II.42

How yoga teaches us to live life and cope with death

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“The one thing that stood out the most for me was that he said he worried about everything and worried about things he couldn’t control (I can relate).  I thought how fitting it is that you have chosen to take control by living a life of devotion to yoga. To me, this says everything about combatting those things that are out of our control and living everyday in the moment. What a gift he perhaps unknowingly gave you.”

My student shared with me these sentiments in an email after she had read the recent Globe and Mail’s obituary about my father, Irving Ungerman. Her words touched me deeply. They have also helped me as I continue to process the final intense days of my father’s life.

When I first saw my father only moments after his stroke, I remained very calm. I kept my hand firmly upon his head in the ambulance and spoke gently to him as I tried to mitigate his anxiety and fear about what was happening (and perhaps also my own). The next hour was characterized by a sense of urgency as the hospital staff took immediate control. A team was called in and within thirty minutes my father was wheeled off for a procedure which was sadly unsuccessful. During the night my father had a second event, a hemorrhagic bleed.

At 4:30 a.m. my husband and I were shown cat scans of my father’s brain before and after the hemorrhagic stroke and the doctor’s words were direct, honest and compassionate. Standing straight and somehow grounding myself in emotional stability and clarity, I sadly accepted the truth about my father’s situation. I trusted that what was unfolding was simply the natural order of things and it was as it was meant to be. Over the coming days as family members held onto hope for something to change or weren’t yet able to separate from my father, it became clear to me that there were many different ways of processing what was happening.

Two weeks later during the Shiva, my Cantor and his wife were very supportive when I shared that I was trying to glean greater understanding about the intensity of the hospital days, my involvement in it and how I navigated this very challenging experience. My experience with my father was not unique for eventually we all face the death of loved ones, perhaps without years of yoga practice. But my friends helped me to connect the dots between my sustained yoga and mindfulness practice and my ability to calmly accept whatever is happening in the moment with the facility to be anchored in stability, stay centered and remain fully present. From my yoga I have learned how to cultivate a quality of mind that is focused and present and how to move through life – and death – with greater ease, calm and grace.

During my father’s hospitalization, I stayed at his side through the acute nighttime hours, alone with the nurses and his soul essence. As I sat quietly with him in the dark, sometimes speaking softly or else resting in silence, I felt the profound sacredness of the moment. Although my father was now a different man than he had been because of the injuries and damage, I believed that he was also the same for his inner essence remained and I felt that he was truly present. His understanding that the people who cared for him were by his side might not have come from his cognition but I have no doubt that he sensed and knew us and felt our loving presence.

Even though people encouraged me to take some personal time and space, there was nothing that I really needed. To support my father by remaining at his side so that he wouldn’t die alone if that were to happen and to honour him by bearing witness to the many painful things that his body mind and spirit endured in the quiet and haunting nights was really all that mattered to me at that time. In addition to feeling despair and sorrow for his suffering, I was experiencing something very profound.

Being present as I was with my father while he transitioned on his final journey was one of the hardest and most gratifying experiences of my life. During those long hospital nights of pain and medical interventions I tried to remain fully immersed or absorbed in the moment. I communicated with him through touch, often holding his hand or placing mine on his head, arm or chest. Occasionally, he would hold my hand with an incredibly strong grip and I was shocked by his tremendous strength. I will never know for sure if his actions were simply involuntary or intentional.

In his final night, my father’s breathing pattern included a kumbhaka, a breath retention or pause at the end of each inhalation and exhalation. This pause is like a place of rest, perhaps preparing for the final resting place that we reach. During pranayama, (a yogic discipline concerned with breath control) I practice the kumbhaka technique to increase the pause by ceasing the breath routinely and continuously. As my father’s prana or life force was ebbing away, I observed how this breathing pattern naturally established itself. At times, this state of suspended breath lasted for up to thirty seconds and in the quietness of the pause, I experienced the profound sensation of deep stillness and awareness. As I mirrored my father’s breathing pattern, my yoga became our yoga and together we shared the sanctity of life, breath-by-breath, moment-to-moment.

I feel very blessed and privileged for the opportunity to have experienced many precious moments of time with my father. I am also very fortunate to have the benefit of lingering effects from these poignant days and nights. My yoga practise also continues to assist me now as I begin to experience the loss and try to remain present for whatever arises in the moment. Each time that I go on the mat, I open up my heart, my skin stretches, I release my defenses and my grip just a little, and experience my emotions and sensations just as they are. I trust that my yoga will continue to support me in my healing journey as it supported me in being able to face my father’s truth with equanimity and brave his death with gratitude and humility.

Yesterday my mother handed me an old Globe and Mail magazine called Weekend to look at. This was the Globe’s old syndicated weekend magazine and it was dated December 28, 1974, interestingly the same day that my husband had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. I found myself reading an article that had been written about my father who at age 51 was so ambitious, driven, compassionate and smart. Not only was I reading this on the same day 41 years later from its original publication but this national newspaper was the same one to have recently featured a full page beautifully written obituary about my father… articles that bridged a man’s lifetime and were bridged by decades. I faced this huge span of time and felt as if I smashed into its passage.

My father’s presence was a large one and many have said that he was larger than life. Life, however, includes death and in this case my father was not larger than life. But even in his death, in his absence, and in the darkness of my loss, the light of the connection I shared with him will illuminate the way and especially since I feel that his light shines upon me ever so brightly. Even as I write these words, the sun is coming through the thick clouds and the light is penetrating the window under which I am sitting.

Here at the cottage, I feel my father’s absence. Yet at the same time I feel his presence everywhere. I hope that in the future I will continue to be mindful of my father’s presence, in whatever form it is in and wherever I feel it, and that I will always experience such appreciation and abundance for all that he has given me and for all that yoga teaches me.

 

 

 

 

Discovering your dharma at YogaBuds

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From my very first yoga class at age 21, I intuitively knew that something potent and meaningful was speaking to me. My body and mind were awakened to this tradition and the path opened up for me. I was young, and as I learned about myself I was discovering my dharma. As I enter into my 30th year of teaching, I reflect upon many things including the idea of dharma. What is dharma? Are you are living and fulfilling your dharma or truth? And why is this important?

It is my belief that we have our own stories to write in our lifetimes, our own dharma to follow. Dharma is a word without direct translation, is nearly indefinable and like many Sanskrit terms, the word dharma has various meanings. “Living one’s dharma” implies that one is living in a way this is in accordance with the laws of nature and destiny or simply doing one’s duty or what one is meant to do. For some, it may be a struggle to define oneself without allowing that power to be held by others. As we mature, we seek the truth and desire to live a life that feels genuine and meets our unique life purpose.

As parents and teachers, it is very important to help young people develop self-awareness and self-acceptance while teaching them to listen to the messages of the heart. This supports them in following their authentic path. By pursuing my interests and passions, my three university degrees and various jobs have been interconnected and the stepping-stones of my career path have aligned leading me towards my true north. Sporadic, strong and sometimes startling realizations occasionally occur that reinforce for me the understanding that thankfully I am truly living my dharma.

My intention is to continue to actualize what I believe is my dharma: to help and inspire others on their path by healing, teaching and empowering them to live their dharma. However, the more that I study and teach, the more I realize how very little I actually know. So I maintain my ongoing yoga, mindfulness and creative practices, studies and research to support my learning, and to teach yoga and provide therapy with as much knowledge and understanding as possible. As an artist, yogi, teacher and therapist, I am very grateful to share the wisdom from these timeless traditions with my students.

My studio is small and intimate. Desiring to embody yogic values, I made the decision years ago to sustain this kind of studio in order to live my yoga and follow my dharma as best I could. The experience in my studio is personal, authentic, safe and supportive. Most importantly, small classes enable me to really know my students personally and to develop a trusting relationship with each one thus supporting their journey in the best possible manner.

Very recently a young boy of ten years made the difficult decision to transition into the teen class in spite of the fact that he would be leaving the familiarity and comfort of the kids class and become the youngest student in his new environment. It is my belief that the confidence that he has demonstrated reflects in part what his yoga practice has given him since he began practicing at five years of age. I have witnessed this kind of self-assurance and poise in many students over the years from young to old. I have also seen how yoga has empowered many students to make very important and life-altering decisions.

The practices of yoga and private yoga therapy within the matrix of a supportive relationship provide the means to bring out the best in each practitioner. A student who is a university professor and has been attending my classes for over fifteen years attended the Art of Transformation Intensive that I facilitated this past July. She shared with me that she was so inspired by it that she has since created a new space in her home filled with canvases and paints and is very excited to be developing and expressing her creativity.

Assisting in the Medical classes in India over the years has greatly enhanced my learning and this combined with my training and experience as a psychotherapist has further enabled me to actualize my dharma. In my private yoga therapy practice many individuals have been deeply touched by the transformative power of yoga to help heal various issues encompassing the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual realms. I had been working privately with one woman for several years in her home. She had suffered a brain injury seven years previously and hadn’t driven in all that time. One week she surprised me and drove for the first time in all those years – to attend a class in the studio!

In addition to loving my adult classes and private yoga therapy work, I am very proud to have pioneered children’s yoga in Canada eighteen years ago, including teen yoga and parent child yoga. Sharing yoga with a very young child and remaining her teacher as she transitions through teenage years and into adulthood is nothing less than a magnificent gift. In my current kids class, I realized that a young girl was the third generation in a family to study with me. I had first taught her grandmother years ago and then her mother as a young unmarried woman and again when she came back for prenatal yoga to support her through two pregnancies.

Herein lies the testament that I am actualizing my dharma for I have been so fortunate to be able to share yoga and touch the lives of people ranging in age from four to eighty-eight years. Several of my adult students have stayed the path with me for years enabling me to teach them across decades and through their different life stages. Teaching and providing yoga therapy with students covering such a vast age or life span is definitely one of the many blessings of living my dharma, or following my path and I am so grateful for this.

Having observed the proliferation of yoga and the varied yoga landscape in mainstream society over the years, I have been both amazed and dismayed by the varied presentations or styles of yoga, the crass commercialization and marketing of it and the lack of quality teacher training or experienced instruction. To become a certified Iyengar yoga teacher, teacher training is a minimum of three to five years yet I frequently hear about someone opening a studio with only two hundred hours of yoga training. I often joke that my first yoga mat was the black rubber under padding of the carpet for cars. Yoga clothes had not yet entered the fashion industry, and the women that I was studying with then were the age I am now.

Although Thanksgiving is a day of giving thanks for the harvest, it is also an opportunity to give thanks for the blessings in our lives. What if we treated every day as a day to give thanks? Having developed a daily practice of yoga, mindfulness, creativity and sitting in gratitude or a mindful reflection of appreciation, I quite often engage in reflection, introspection and self-expression. This includes expressions of gratitude which happen much more frequently than on the one day set aside for it. Even if you are still seeking your true path, yoga is an amazing practice in which we learn to develop awareness, sensitivity, stability, self-compassion, intuition and many other positive benefits. Through the practice of yoga we learn to be truly present and in the moment, to open an armored heart and receive its messages, to focus on the gifts in our life, and then perhaps become better aligned with our dharma.

“My karma is my dharma.” – Ram Dass

A fresh start and a new you

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My family loves to play a wonderful interactive board game in which each player anonymously writes their answer to statements read out loud from a card. The reader then shares all the answers, and each player has a turn at guessing who wrote which response. My parents recently played this game with my daughter, her friend and myself (a first for my 92 year old father). His answer to “Things… I dream about” was both funny and poignant. He wrote, “I dream about waking up.” Why is it that in our complacency we generally fail to awake to each new day with an acute awareness and appreciation for it? Sadly, it sometimes takes learning about a loved one’s terminal, observing a horrific car accident or attending a funeral to be nudged and reminded of the exquisiteness of life.

Many opportunities to harvest this appreciation and to make a fresh start each day are available to us from the minutiae of daily life to grander life events. Interestingly, in the span of one year, our body mass is recreated with new cells as we produce approximately fifty to seventy billion cells each day. So in essence, we continually experience a fresh new reproduction of our old self and our new cells have a fresh start. Autumn is a transitional season changing from summer to winter defined by new beginnings. We observe the summer’s green hues fade, replaced by the vibrant colours of red, yellow and orange. The magnificent colorful leaves eventually fall from deciduous trees and the new cool feeling of winter arrives. We are also keenly aware of the transformation from the easier summer manner of living to the more hectic pace of September as kids return to school, we sign up for new programs and our calendars fill up.

The Jewish New Year which takes place in September, is a time of reflection providing us with a renewed opportunity to unlock more of our potential for Jewish tradition teaches that God began with one person to teach us about the potential inherent in each of us. And as the year begins with focusing on that, we realize that we have the ability to have an impact on the world. We can ponder the simple questions: How can I actualize more of my potential? How can I contribute, even in a small way, to make a difference in someone else’s life or to make the world a better place?” As we reflect on these significant questions we can also recall that each new day provides us with a fresh start to implement change.

If awareness is what is desired, one can choose to consciously greet each morning as a new beginning and carry out morning rituals to foster this awakening. To fully relish the experience of a favorite morning ritual, I often close my eyes as I take the first sip of coffee, enjoying its warmth, the taste and aroma. My sigh, like the purring of a cat, is one of pure contentment. Regardless of what lies ahead, I welcome the new day with a simple pleasure and with appreciation for it. In these times I am fully focused on the existing moment. When we are cognizant of the importance of remaining aware and being present we are more able to experience the fullness of the moment. And as we become more proficient at noticing when we zone out, we become better at developing our ability to return to the moment, and to restarting all day long. In fact, yoga and mindfulness is about beginning again and again.

When we notice and savor the preciousness of each moment or as many as we remember to, we are realizing the Latin aphorism, “carpe diem” or to “seize the day” and/or a certain moment in time. A more literal translation of “carpe diem” would be “Pluck the day as it is ripe.” When we pluck it or enjoy the moment, we are seizing it bit-by-bit or bite-by-bite, and as we practice the bites become bigger and more frequent. We feel alive. What we do in life we bring to the mat and what we learn on the mat we carry into our life.

Yoga practice takes us to a place of inner calm and stillness and leaves us with a sense of wellbeing. During practice, authentic heartfelt experiences may occur for the asanas or postures help to ground us in the present and soften our heart while the breath anchors us in the moment and each cycle of breath begins anew. Staying with the asana or pose or with the breath is difficult and as I meet the challenges of practice, I either succeed or fail. It is difficult but not too difficult and it does get better.

Each and every time on the mat is a truly different experience as is each repetition of an asana or pose. Thus each practice is absolutely new at each moment with present, mindful awareness. As I practice santosha, or contentment, happiness flows. As I sit in gratitude, I feel a sense of abundance. And as I honour the yoga lineage, my teachers, and my yoga by remaining committed to my practice throughout my lifetime – in spite of the unexpected – I develop my ability to remain in the moment, start fresh, seize the day and embrace and appreciate the beauty of life.

“Dream as if you will live forever; Live as if you will die today.”
― 
James Dean

 “Our true home is in the present moment. To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the Green Earth in the present moment. To appreciate the peace and the Beauty that are available now. Peace is all around us, in the world and in nature. And within us — in our bodies and our spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed. It is not a matter of faith; It is a matter of practice.”

— Thich Nhat Han