Inspiring the yoga passion

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When I run into someone whom I haven’t seen for a long time, I am often asked “Are you still doing your yoga?” Fortunate to have discovered it at a young age, I have never swayed from my commitment to my yoga and mindfulness practice for 36 years. In the early days of my teaching career, my husband commented that I was different from others because the majority of people will generally try new things but eventually move on to the next trend. Yet this incredible multilayered eight-limbed approach with its multiple benefits has kept me hooked for almost four decades! My yoga practice has been the foundation from which I live my life. But what exactly is it that keeps me coming to the mat? How has my learning curve been maintained and how has my passion been sustained over the years?

Although this practice is 5,000 years old, it is only in the past fifteen or twenty years that yoga has become an integral part of mainstream society. In the early 90’s I was invited to audition, and was hired for a spot in a car commercial that included a few yoga practitioners in a yoga posture. This was one of the first ads to use yoga as a marketing tool; today yoga is a billion dollar industry. Because my understanding of yoga and the myriad of its benefits runs deep, I often cringe at the commercialization of yoga and the dilution of its essence. For it is the essence of the practice and its value that has drawn me to it over and over again and which relates directly to and informs my life.

The essence of the practice is the single-pointed focus that spreads through one’s entire being and into one’s life experience. Richard Rosen speaks about this in his CD “Pranayama: Beyond the Fundamentals” and I find his words to be very inspiring. He says, “Yoga is simply about attention training, and the goal of all such training is presence. Presence is the essence of what the yogis call the juice, the rasa. Presence and essence arrive from the same Latin word, to be. Simple being is our true nature.” Rasa, a Sanskrit term that means “sap”, “essence” or “fluid” is the juice of the practice, the nourishing energy that infuses us with life. Remaining mindful of the rasa during the practice helps me to keep the spark alive. But to stay present for any length of time is a challenge. Using the breath, focusing on the rasa, and attuning to the alignment, precision and detailed execution of the posture helps to anchor our presence in the moment.

Every time I step on the mat I have the opportunity to ask myself: What do I want to see more of in my life? I can then set an intention to use the energy of the practise to help make it real. And then, the relevance of the practice shows up long after I have stepped off the yoga mat. This is in part what keeps me wanting more and returning to the mat. I have always shared with my students my belief that consistency is key for it is one of the pillars of a strong practise. In spite of the busyness of life and the many challenges that it presents, I have discovered that once committed to yoga, cultivating inner life and mindfulness unfolds. And as these benefits permeate my life, enthusiasm for the practice is naturally ignited. Through learning the philosophies of yoga and practising the 8-limbs of yoga, yoga values such as gratitude, contentment, non-harming, and non-attachment become ingrained. The tenets of yoga create the lens through which I view life and ultimately how life is lived.

The effects of the practice has a direct impact on how you feel, perceive, understand, and interact with yourself, with others and in the world. The amount of postures and breathing or pranayama techniques to learn is truly staggering; I try to approach each practice with an enthusiastic beginner’s mind and infuse the practice with a new level of curiosity. It is as if I am studying and experiencing each posture for the first time because I come at the pose from the inside out, feeling the pose and experiencing sensations all over. Each time I practice the posture, I learn more about myself and experience something different. Self-study or Svadyaya is a Niyama meaning rule or laws and svadyaya is one of the five internal observances or tools. It connotes introspection and “study of self” which results in increased self-awareness and self-understanding. The learning is constant and I am simply never bored with the poses nor the practise.

Creating change in body and mind in order to execute the more advanced postures and breathing or pranayama techniques is an ongoing challenge and process. Learning and refining old or new poses, providing my body mind and spirit with what is needed on any given day, or learning what is needed to facilitate the healing of a specific issue, injury or condition further maintains the learning curve and sustains my interest. Over time, I develop an intense and refined alertness to states of being and to the subtle body, and I experience a greater understanding of how the poses or asanas or poses deeply affect me. Each cycle of breath is different as are the many distracting thoughts that pull me away from my practice. Witnessing these differences and distractions provides an opportunity to refocus my attention and maintain my presence in the moment. Regularity of practice done with intention and focus supports my understanding of myself and the practise continues to deepen and replenish me like a well that is never emptied of its water.

Other ways that I have kept the spark and fire alive have included regular month-long studies with the Iyengar family in India over a span of twenty years, and with other teachers around the world. While on vacation, I will take classes in different systems of yoga to learn both what I like and don’t like and what I might bring from that learning to my practice and to my teaching. When I return home, I happily immerse myself back in my own practice of Iyengar yoga with a renewed sense of freshness and gratitude. Even though the discipline of yoga is serious, it is important to me to ensure that I am enjoying myself and having fun. Other ways I create inspiration may include adding different elements to my practice such as changing the environment or adding something to it. Weather permitting, I will unfold my mat outdoors or I may choose to play music, light incense or candles, enjoy related readings including Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, or explore yoga photos from BKS Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga” or other books. Undoubtedly, Guruji’s life – his practice, teachings, writings, and profound influence in the dissemination of yoga worldwide – continues to be one of the best inspirations for my own lifelong practice. But ultimately, the greatest inspiration for my yoga is my actual practice! This is what truly keeps the flame alive.

Investment advisors will tell you that you have to accept fluctuations in the market and maintain your focus on the distant horizon line in order to realize the long-term benefits of the investment. The yoga process is the same for when we keep showing up on the mat and continue to make our deposits in our practice, over time our investment grows. Like the market, there may be downturns or occasions when we crash but if we trust in the process and maintain our commitment to it, inevitably even a single spark of passion will stay ignited. We feel its impact as it spreads within us and then outwardly into the world. Passion can be slow burning or intense but when we practice yoga on a consistent basis over the years, the benefits will manifest into our day and we will feel nourished. It simply keeps us wanting more.

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” -Confucius

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Celebrating the small and big moments

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When I recently commended my very dear friend on her incredible valiant spirit and positive outlook, she responded with: “Life is just too short.” Her poignant words were as sharp as a glass shard as she fights desperately for more time. I am truly in awe of her for how she has maintained her hope, positivity and strength as she copes with her failing health. She is simply unwilling and unable to stop loving her three daughters and husband as she remains surrounded by light, the support and love of her family and friends. I want to tell her how much I will miss her but I know to do so would mean that I would not be in the moment with her and I don’t want to miss that. For moments are all we have.

We so often become bogged down in the mire of petty disputes, old dramas and current perceived hurts and crises. But it sadly takes a tragedy, either of a personal nature or such as the current onslaught of terrorist acts, to be piercingly reminded of the precariousness of life and its preciousness. It is our challenge – and our responsibility – to remain fully present: aware, attuned and appreciative of each moment, moment-to moment. It is very important to remain cognizant of the importance of cherishing our loved ones, and to experience joy, sanctity and celebration in all the mundane and celebratory aspects of our lives. Yoga and mindfulness provide us with the roadmap for our journey and the skills and tools needed to stay present-focused with the understanding that there is something greater than our individual selves.

For years I had a long-held desire to become a Bat Mitzvah, to earn the right to read from the Torah scroll. On April 22, 2017, I crossed a significant threshold of adult Jewish life and became Bat Mitzvah, reclaiming my rightful place as a full adult member of the Jewish community. As I cemented my Jewish identity more deeply and embraced the totality of my Jewish self, I connected to my congregation, with the historical and current Jewish communities, and contributed to making Canadian Judaism more vibrant.

Standing in front of the congregation, I gazed at the beautiful Torah script and felt these special moments touch my soul. The intense shaking of my hand as it moved the yad or pointer over the Torah surprised me. Yet my mind was completely focused on chanting the words of our ancient text. I chanted from a very inward and centered place, and experienced how history and the present moment merged. I truly felt the strength of the Torah within me and was profoundly moved by the sanctity of the moment.

Of course, this milestone in my journey as a learner was one of the bigger and more celebratory moments in my life. But equally important are the quiet simple ones such as my resent visit with my girlfriend; playing Scrabble with my elderly mother and consistently losing to her; having brunch with my husband and kids, or just relaxing with a coffee and my purring cat. Indeed, life is mostly comprised of the small moments. And it is up to us to choose to experience the sanctity and meaning in all of our minute daily experiences as we also consciously decide how best to react to the lesser things that challenge our balance and equilibrium. Refocusing our attention on our blessings and the abundance in our lives will help to preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind. Over and over I find myself rising to the challenge to embrace all that life presents while staying connected to what is truly meaningful and remaining as fully present as possible.

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.