How yoga teaches us to live life and cope with death


“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


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


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

Mindfulness and Moderation in contemporary times


What do the Kardashians and the iPad have in common? The iconic and radical Kardashians series first aired on TV on October 14, 2007 and the magical and revolutionary iPad was first released on April 3, 2010. Both inform, engage and entertain. Heavily diversified, they are everywhere providing content for media consumption and limitless distraction with mindless material. The Kardashians, like the content of many apps available on the iPad, involve virtual people on a screen. They have amassed phenomenal fame and status and are global icons or brands. Both Apple and the Kardashians are brilliant business empires, successfully infiltrating millions of homes by selling a lifestyle and maintaining an incessant presence.

My son, however, believes that the Kardashians are a microcosm of what is wrong with society while his girlfriend shares her feelings about the allure that they hold for her. If indeed they may be considered to be the worst of what society offers, the iPad in this regard differs for it can provide some educational benefits. However, when observing toddlers and even young babies mesmerized by the scintillating imagery and sound on their own iPad (a virtual soother), I can’t help but question how we have arrived at this juncture of superficiality and one-dimensional communication and focus?

It has become commonplace to see extremely tech savvy young children totally captivated by the tablet or smartphone. I once observed across the aisle on a five-hour flight a very quiet two-year old (an anomaly). This little girl was completely hypnotized by her screen and sadly her parents did not engage with her at all. I found this situation with the “portable babysitter” to be very disconcerting and unnerving. Today it is wide spread to see parents in restaurants focused on their phones while their children play on their own devices. My one-year old great-nephew is adept at navigating the touchscreen, swiping and tapping it. The potential detriment to the social-emotional development of the child because of the limited sensory environment of the iPad combined with the frequency and duration of usage is concerning. Most disturbing is the potential for the disconnect from that which is truly of value: genuine face-to-face social interaction, direct human-to-human communication with others and true connection with one’s authentic Self.

If we don’t remain cognizant of how the Kardashians hook us with their false identities and how the iPad pulls our consciousness outward, we risk the separation from our essential nature and something precious may become lost from so much time devoted to these one-dimensional worlds. But when we connect with our authentic self that transcends the body and mind, we access that which is pure, unchanging, permanent, and perfect. We are calm, clear, and centered. Operating from our authentic self, we tap into our inner resources of deep joy and peace and are able to navigate life’s challenges with grace and equanimity. When we interact with others with full presence and honesty we are not only in union with our true nature but our hearts align and real connection is created. But how can we do this if we are so focused on “reality tv” (an oxymoron) or on our various devices?

Although the origins of yoga are speculated to date back to pre-Vedic Indian traditions, the actual date of its development is difficult to pinpoint. Suffice to say that yoga is at least several thousands of years old. If we choose to use the tools and practices of this age-old science, art and discipline, we learn how to access our inner authentic self and not be mindlessly influenced by the current novelties of our times. Yoga teaches how to use our own internal mechanism of self-regulation. For the young child, teen or adult, practising yoga, a hands-on activity, is key for the development of sensory-motor and visual motor skills and for learning to self-regulate.

Through the consistent practice of yoga, self-acceptance flourishes and self-esteem increases. We do not need to follow others obsessively on TV, Instagram and Facebook and become influenced or negatively affected by what we see. Instead, we can consciously choose to practice yoga and minimize the impact and possible side effects of too much TV or mobile devices. We can observe people like the Kardashians and reflect on the illusory nature of their brand, and we can use our iPads and other devices while also monitoring our children’s and our own usage. Then we can access all the riches and richness of our contemporary times – and our inner selves – as we practise mindfulness and moderation in all that we do.

“To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

A time for reflection


First day of summer and a crow’s screeching woke me at 6:30 a.m. It’s persistent annoying call felt like an unwelcome intruder, aggressively pulling me out from a deep sleep. My ears searched for it and there I found it – on the apex of the roof of my brother’s cottage right next door. After getting up I still felt very unsettled and couldn’t even focus on reading, my early morning ritual. On the dock with coffee in hand, I watched seventeen Canadian geese slide into the water from our property and glide away. I counted nine babies. Later in the early evening light, I noticed a heron standing absolutely motionless as if in meditation on the grass near the lake . After some time it simply lifted off with such grace. Sharing the very end of the day with my son, we sat together at the edge of the dock and watched a beaver leisurely swim along the shoreline and the quick startling movements of a fish surfacing for an instant on the water.

My senses open. And I reflect. It is believed that sometimes animals and birds may choose people and I laughingly wondered if perhaps the crow had chosen me for its presence remained all the day, screeching away intermittently. This seemed strange for I had never previously experienced this. Always open and aware of whatever messages the universe may be sending my way, I briefly read about the symbolic meaning of the crow. I learned that the crow may choose someone to become that individual’s spirit or totem animal. That chosen individual is then supported in developing the power of sight, transformation, and connection with life’s magic and mysteries. So this carries the power for deep inner transformation.

What are the lessons and transformations that this summer will deliver? Summer is generally a time of reflection for me. My four-hour kayak rides provide me with solitude while surrounded by such natural beauty. I exercise, and experience exquisite quietude and repose. Then my yoga practice which sustains and teaches me so much is practised in the same exact spot that I have spread my mat on daily for thirty-two summers. Here I practice to the reflection of the sky and trees on the water, with life pulsing all around me. The presence of the Divine is felt, and each day is sacred and savored. Here, on this simple dock, truth and beauty surround me. Perhaps the crow will join me.

“The still waters of a lake reflect the beauty around it. When the mind is still, the beauty of the Self is seen reflected in it.”            – B.K.S. Iyengar



What is your experience of pain? Where do you feel it? And how do you express it? In the past week a close friend, a yogi and very skilled yoga teacher shared her recent diagnosis of glaucoma. My son, an avid athlete and talented pianist had a second cast put on his arm post-surgery for his wrist. I learned about my cousin’s 10-year old daughter, a national level gymnast, who re-fractured her knee, and her resultant inability to bear any weight nor walk without aid. For several weeks, I have also had to manage a very painful and partially torn tendon in my arm.

We all have a different way of managing injuries, conditions and pain. Everyone’s path to health – and to healing – is different. How we deal with injuries, conditions and pain and approach the short and long-term impact on our lives varies greatly. How we grieve our losses, cope with and adapt to the new realities and norms, and handle our pain greatly differs and reflects our individual abilities to accept change. Sometimes all we need is a change of perspective.

My friend has demonstrated her usual aplomb, positive spirit and spirituality during her process of accepting her glaucoma even though it means that her yoga practice will be forever changed. Her love for inversions will remain but only in her memory. My son has managed his pain by not focusing on it, consciously choosing to redirect his focus elsewhere and without any complaint. My elderly parents with a multitude of health issues continue to push through it all with such remarkable resilience and inner strength. They have never allowed their issue to define or confine them.

Yet in spite of the inspiration from others and my general positive outlook, I have actually had a difficult time coping with my injury, the pain and the limitations from it. Even as I tried to apply the knowledge and lessons from years of yoga practice – in that it meets me where I am teaching self-acceptance and being in the present moment – it was still several weeks before I could finally make peace with my injury and see it simply for what it is. Recognizing that until I completely stopped struggling against this circumstance, I would not be free and would continue to suffer, I finally accepted this new reality and understood that it is what it is. With the right dose of positive attitude, trust and patience, I would get through it. Yet the truth is that even while trying to cultivate acceptance, the challenge remains in trying to develop patience with the recovery process! This is evident through my continual monitoring of the pain, and endless ponderings about whether it will be okay to participate in my many beloved summer activities and sports.

But I also recognize that life throws us curve balls all the time and forces us to face all kinds of challenges while coping with different sources of physical, emotional and mental pain. Years ago, I planted the seed of yoga in my life and have since watched it grow in beautiful and meaningful ways. Right in front of me I observe the continual growth of the plants, trees, grasses and flowers in our garden. Through my yoga and from nature, I have learned that nothing remains the same, even seeming to blossom in a matter of hours if not minutes. Then, something new occurs for change is ever present. This is simply the way it is. In Canada, we have four seasons, and as we accept the changes between the seasons, we try to find the best in each one.

In our personal lives we need to also develop a trust in the universe and an acceptance that everything, including our dharma or truth, happens for reasons that are far beyond our comprehension. Like the weather, our healing process is also one of change. We have to have faith in what will be and accept what is for change is truly the only constant. When confronted with personal struggles including health issues, we are challenged to cultivate acceptance, maintain a positive attitude, nurture our patience and remain open to the many lessons that can be learned through adversity or change. And it is through embracing the challenges and the process of transformation that the opportunity for personal growth arises. When I become thankful for the hard times then I know that I will change and become stronger.
“Don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing is gonna be alright.” – Bob Marley

“Embrace Change. Change is not something that we should fear. Rather, it is something that we should welcome. For without change, nothing in this word would ever grow or blossom, and no one in this world would ever move forward to become the person they’re meant to be.” – BKS Iyengar

My inner compass: Experiencing new perspectives while finding true north

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Last summer I was very fortunate to join my friend in his two-seater plane on a flight over the many lakes surrounding our cottages including our own Pine Lake. From this unique aerial perspective, we had a very different vantage point to view the land that my parents had purchased and built a cottage on almost sixty years ago. The light was beautiful and the colours of the sky, trees and water were magnificent and calming. With a combination of awe and excitement, my eyes took in everything and I captured many beautiful images with my camera. Like in sirsasana or headstand, my perspective was changed and the view was quite spectacular.

When Mark dropped me off, I gave him a quick kiss and hurried down to my kayak. Drawn to be out on the water against the backdrop of the setting sun, I wanted to encounter my lake again in the intimate manner that I was familiar with. I reflected on the fact I had actually been in the water enjoying my early morning swim almost twelve hours earlier. I was excited to once more appreciate the lake by riding in my kayak, and thought it especially interesting to do so immediately after having just seen it from such a different perspective. The strong images from the flight endured and I carried these and my camera with me. As I kayaked around the bay suffused in the translucent early evening light, I was fully connected to the moment. I enjoyed the landscape and continued to photograph the stunning scenery. Eventually, when darkness came I returned to the cottage.


The next day I created a slideshow from the photos I had taken from the plane and from the kayak – two very different viewpoints. With a quick glance, I randomly selected a song from a playlist that my friend Annette had just given me. Interestingly, the song was absolutely perfect for the imagery even though I wasn’t familiar with it and had spontaneously chosen it. It was as if an inner sense functioned as a guide, like the needle of a compass. Deciding to present the slideshow as a gift to my parents, I invited them to watch it on our TV later that evening. Our cottage is situated at the entrance to a bay and there is a protruding rock on the shoreline that we call The Point. I called the slideshow “A natural point of view.” My parents watched it a few times and appeared to be intrigued and very happy from such a different perspective. I believe that there isn’t any object that I could have possibly purchased that would have provided them with as much pleasure as this presentation of imagery, music and meaning.

When my friend flies his plane or I ride in my kayak, we travel in a forward direction. Mark uses his simple and not so simple instruments, including a compass with its northward facing needle a true indicator of physical direction while I simply kayak towards whatever captures my interest. But in life, we are often challenged with many unexpected detours from the path we think we are safely traveling on. Very recently, I needed to ascertain and trust where my moral compass was guiding me. I also had to draw upon the strength of my convictions to remain connected to my compass and follow this particular course despite facing strong resistance from two others. At the same time, one of our daughters had been struggling with a decision about choosing between two top-ranked international graduate schools. Although I supported the process of gathering the facts to help make an informed decision, I strongly advocated for her to also access her inner compass so that she could ultimately be guided towards her intuition, feelings, and the right path. She wanted to know my husband’s and my opinion but we wouldn’t share these with her until she successfully navigated with her own compass towards the destination that is right for her.

One year ago, I was a chaperone on a two-week teen Holocaust education experience that took place in Poland and Israel. This experience was truly life transforming. Standing at the horrifying sites of mass graves in forests and at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and several other death camps, I could not help but reflect upon the spiritual and moral questions raised by the events of the Holocaust and question how humanity had gone to such depths? Never has there been a rational answer to how this could have happened because there are no answers. Regarding the failure of institutions and nations and the consequences of personal choice and of indifference, Elie Weisel says that the Holocaust is a lesson about responsibility.

At the center of the unprecedented tragedy of the Holocaust is the murder of European Jews. In Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, nine out of ten Jews perished but in Denmark, nine out of ten Jews survived. What enabled the Danish government and its people to express public outcry and uphold human values? What allowed other non-Jews elsewhere to risk their lives during to Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis? These individuals followed their moral compass at immense personal risk and have been awarded the honor of the Righteous Among the Nations. They teach us that every person can make a difference. As I ponder how I would have acted in those times, I also dedicate myself to take responsibility today to never remain indifferent to injustice and to always try to be guided by my moral compass.

Where does mindfulness and yoga fit in with all of this? First of all, we can’t always be in perfect alignment in our asanas or postures, nor with our compass points. But we can check our selves, our course, and change direction when we know which way is the best to go. As we age, we physically move away from our center; however, in our practice, we can lie down over blocks or bolsters on the mat or sit on them in a meditation, encouraging the heart to naturally open thus enabling us to access our epicenter. We breathe in quietly and breathe out softly, and learn to listen. With closed eyes, we move inward and try to lessen the internal noise, distractions, defenses or external influences. Then the inner compass may be illuminated and clarity arises; at other times we can just simply enjoy the practice. Ultimately, yoga practice is an adventure that we go on bringing with us our courage but not any expectations. Then gems and pearls will come for something will surface from the depths like a scuba diver who slowly breathes her way back to the surface bringing with her the treasures and insights she has experienced.

My August day in flight and on the water provided me with incredible new perspectives on the land that has great meaning and history for my parents and family. Wherever we are we can always try to access our moral compass to guide us towards our true north and to enlighten us with new perspectives. Land the plane, disembark from the boat, lie, sit or stand steady on or off the yoga mat and explore your internal landscape to access and navigate life from your own inner guide. When you live in satya or truthfulness, you will live the life that you are meant to and live a life of love.

The Spirit of the Snake – It’s meaning, metaphor and message

photoWhen one looks out at the ocean, a natural horizon line is seen. The water meets the sky and the colours are contrasted one against the other. During my practice this morning, I observed the beauty of the ocean’s aqua-green against the blue-grey sky. Then the white sailboat came into view as it coasted into the thin horizontal line that had been my focus. In the same moment, I began to hear the person to my right speaking Russian loudly on her phone while the couple to my left was Face Timing with their friend on speakerphone. I tried to apply my yoga and mindfulness skills in order to stay with my practice and sustain my quiet inner focus. To pretend that this was easily accessible or without frustration would be untrue for it was a daunting task! I knew that it was attainable but was I up for the challenge? Could I move out of my own way and resist the tendency towards attaching to the external sensory distractions?

In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali – the most ancient and revered sourcebook for yoga practice – the fifth limb is called Pratyahara and it means “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses.” The practice of pratyahara remains elusive but in this stage we make an attempt to draw our awareness away from the external world without completely losing contact with it and direct our attention internally. Keenly aware of my senses while simultaneously trying to draw my awareness from the external world and cultivate a detachment from my senses, I struggled with wanting to watch the boat across the horizon and appreciate the spectacular contrast between its whiteness and the warm colours of the ocean and sky or the birds in their magnificent v-formation overhead. I heard the conversations nearby but kept returning to my breath, counting up to sixty cycles at a time in order to not to allow the input from my sense organs to create disturbance in my body or mind. And as I tried to bring the awareness to reside deep within myself I also tried to remain in a state of non-reaction in order to still the feelings of annoyance that were arising.

The practice of mindfulness provided me with the opportunity to also observe my thoughts, judgments and frustrations without attachment. Thankfully, I persevered and was able to complete my yoga practice in a satisfying way. As with everything, life on the mat is simply a microcosm of our greater experience. On the mat we practice the eight limbs of yoga, experiment and try new things and hopefully reach to our potential. As we practice pratyahara and withdraw, we can objectively observe our habits that are the ones most likely to interfere with inner growth. Deep down I know that my old habits are deeply ingrained but I also know that if I stay with the practise and commit to all that I need, new ways become clearer to see and slowly slowly, they replace the old.

Yoga has formed the fabric of my life and includes my working philosophy. It is simply a vehicle for the process of transformation. And as my practise unfolds and evolves, I continually discover more about my self and what transformation really means. Several weeks ago my teachings included bhujangasana, or cobra pose and many of the teaching points that I presented pertained to the meaning or symbolism of a snake shedding its skin. The fact that snakes can shed their skin to allow for continued growth has always fascinated me. When a snake outgrows the skin it’s in because its skin has a limited capacity for growth and enlargement, it simply sheds the outer layer and starts fresh. Encouraging my students both young and old to embody the essence of a snake, my instructions focused on helping them to execute the pose safely and to feel the essence of a snake as it slithers along the ground, rises up or sheds is skin. My intention in fostering experiential learning and facilitating group discussion about the snake and its shedding process as a metaphor and a narrative is to inspire a personal connection to the snake. In this way, increased self-awareness can occur and a deeper idiosyncratic meaning of yoga can unfold for each individual.

My ongoing exploration of the pelvic area and increased understanding of the lumbar spine, sacroiliac joints and tailbone stoked my interest in teaching bhujangasana or cobra pose. When teaching bhujangasana, many of my instructions addressed the necessary actions to engage the correct muscles in the area as well as the inner more subtle work that involved the sacrum and tailbone. While having a massage at the end of the week, my massage therapist worked deeply in the lower back area and spoke about how strong my tailbone is. I inquired if she meant the muscles surrounding it and she agreed but also stressed that my tailbone itself was strong. She reminded me that it is my base, my truth and my stabilizer, my rudder and my guide. When I clued in on Miriam’s focus, I realized the synchronicity and underlying connection between all things! With amazement and joy, I shared with her that the snake had held intrigue and fascination for me all week.

The horizon line remains even as day transforms into night. My asana or posture may be static even as my inhalation dovetails into an exhalation. Whether we focus on a symbol such as a snake shedding it’s old skin, or identify our tendency to hold onto old habits that no longer work for us, we can recognize that the change process is not simple nor is change easy. Every moment that we are awake and aware, we can observe the ongoing process of change. We can then consciously choose to remain rigid or to embrace the opportunities for change that we are presented with. For just as the snake by natural cause sheds its skin and replaces it with a new one, we too are constantly replenishing our cells in an ongoing unnoticed process in which dead cells are continuously coming off. Even if we resist the idea of change and accept that the change process has many stages and is hard, we are indeed constantly changing. And as we practice yoga and mindfulness and learn to incorporate yoga practice including the fifth limb of Pratyahara into daily life, we embrace the truth that these processes and the various challenges that we are given are truly transformative ones and give meaning and direction to our life.

Temmi Ungerman Sears

December, 2014

Sutra 2.55 
”Tatah parama vashyata indriyanam.”

“Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.”

Seated in the Light

Would you choose to buy two lovely used leather chairs if you knew that an elderly couple committed a double suicide in them? This is a question that I have asked numerous times this fall as the opportunity to purchase these chairs became available. Family, friends and students’ immediate responses have been overwhelmingly negative. I have found this to be of great interest. From these strong responses, it appears that people are completely spooked and unnerved by the idea of occupying the seat that someone has passed away in. Yoga teaches us about the impermanence of all things, and that death is just another aspect of life; however, in our western culture we do not to have an easy acceptance of death. We fear it and perceive it as dark and scary. Hence, the common resistance to even sitting in a chair that had an appointment with death.

Fear of death is a major cause of human suffering. Thousands of years ago Sage Patanjali wrote in his text, the Yoga Sutra, that the basic causes of human suffering are fivefold: avidya (spiritual ignorance), asmita (egoism), raga (desire or attachment), dwesha (denial or aversion) and abhinivesha (fear of death or clinging to life). We can gain a deeper understanding of our own death and insight into that which is deathless by gaining insight into these five aspects of suffering.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, death is viewed as just one minor event in a cyclic process of rebirth and transmigration. From a Yogic perspective, death is regarded as an integral part of Life and emphasizes the importance of facing death before we die in order to not be overwhelmed by extreme fear. Yoga helps us to refine our perception and encourage a process of discovering what we are as human beings on a deeper level including gaining insight into the nature of death and what is beyond. By going deeper into the nature of death we are provided with an invaluable opportunity of realizing that aspect of our Being which is deathless and we can begin to see life beyond the ego. Yoga can further give us glimpses into that aspect of ourselves which is unchanging, or undying.

In our four-season climate, the seasons do change. Death, decay and dormancy within our natural environment can be observed as we transition from fall into winter. In turn, we also prepare for greater cocooning in our homes during the pending winter months. As darkness and cooler days begin to descend upon us, some people anticipate our potentially harsh conditions of winter with trepidation rather that with an attitude of receptivity and acceptance for the unknown and the inevitable changes that lie ahead.

Last week, Deepavali, the festival of lights, was celebrated in India. This festival celebrates the light and abundance of life. In the west when we fear the darkness we can remember Deepavali, turn inward and rejoice in the inner light that is our true divine nature. By opening our hearts through yoga practise, and accessing spirit, we can choose to spread the light to those we care about. Through the very powerful tools of yoga, we can experience our energy, find joy in the longer days of darkness and choose to resist our reactive tendencies towards fearfulness or negativity. During these fall and winter months, why not commit to a regular yoga practise and bring to it an intention of sharing your inner luminosity with others by embracing change and finding peace and acceptance within the darkness?

“The heart chakra is the seat of the soul.”

-BKS Iyengar