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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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

 

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…

Finding the Stillness

Life doesn’t wait for nor consult with anyone. Change can occur in any moment. So practise. Be present. Learn where your center is and how to access it for when you need to go there. My sweet fifteen year old, a strong athletic intelligent beauty had a sports injury a few months ago. An emergency room doctor’s use of the wrong splint on her fracture resulted in a hospitalization and two serious infections, one life threatening. Thankfully, antibiotics and time facilitated the healing and we averted having to face anything worse than a terrible interruption in our lives and a scare.

The second time in a year and a half staying in a hospital advocating for loved ones, I again had to know where to go inwardly in order to remain grounded, calm and focused while still occasionally moving at a frenetic pace. In the first situation, my parents were both hospitalized at the same time. This past February, the work was endless supporting our daughter while trying to prevent her from slipping through the cracks in the system, unsuccessfully. However, I am grateful beyond measure for the many years of yoga practise that helps to weave together the fabric of my life. From this practice and the acquired skills and lessons learned, I was again able to tap into the source of my stability when needed, and for this, I am most grateful.

When life is spinning fast, and stress penetrates the skin, when change is in every moment and time just marches by, I try to move through the concentric circles that protect my heart. This is done symbolically while standing still in Tadasana (mountain pose). As I breathe, I ground through the soles of my feet, engaging muscles while quieting the mind, and I move in to access inner stillness. I am thus able to stand inside of the stillness for postures are tools to help reach deeply into yourself. I remain on my yoga mat, literally and figuratively, for as long as I need to.

The yoga mat is a symbol of the practise. It is a concrete manifestation that delineates the sacred space that one goes to when practising. It is a living mandala. For standing in the centre of the mat, 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 consistency of the practise, the strength of the connection with the Divine, and the rhythm and mystery of the breath… this is what remains constant and what pulls you towards where you need to be.

It really is simple. It is committing to remaining present and aware, awakened in each moment – breath by breath, moment to moment. Life passes. Time moves in one direction. But my yoga has taught me to stand still in the fullness of each moment. When I tune into this place, my reality has meaning. My practise has taught me to keep coming to the mat, year in and year out, to keep learning and to live my life with the understanding of what it means to be alive and to be present. My practise has taught me what yoga really is.

I don’t know what curve ball will be heading in my direction next. But I do know without a doubt that there will be one. And with humility and gratitude, I will continue to step onto my mat, to pause long enough to breathe with awareness and serenity, and to remain present in the Now. I will be standing still to catch the ball.

From Injury to Alignment, Winter 2010

At the end of a full week lived with my usual fast pace, I strained a muscle in my lower back. All plans for the day came to a halt and I immediately put myself into yoga postures as part of a specialized back recovery yoga practise that would help facilitate the healing. One of the stressors that contributed to my injury was visiting with my uncle the previous day, and observing his rapid loss of quality of life, descent into dementia and inability to get out of bed. Saddened by this and also focused on other family issues while managing all aspects of home life and work, my body was containing many intense feelings. I was primed for it to respond as it did. No matter that I have studied and practiced yoga for more than half of my life, my own vulnerability and susceptibility to stress still occasionally manifests itself in familiar yet painful ways.

I felt intense pain in my lumbar spine but knew that I would be able to ride through it over the course of a few days if I trusted the yoga therapy process. I needed to continue to honour the pain as my teacher in order to learn what I needed to at this time. Iyengar yoga is so powerful in all ways and especially in its therapeutic application. My friend, (not a yoga practitioner) dropped in just as I was working through the correct sequence of poses coupled with the necessary usage of props and adaptations, and was amazed at how I knew what to do for my injury, and at the yoga postures themselves.

Iyengar yoga is different from other systems of yoga in many ways. Though not everyone is drawn to this fantastic methodology developed over a lifetime of devotion and work by BKS Iyengar, it cannot be disputed that Iyengar yoga is a gem for everyone. There likely isn’t much that Mr. Iyengar’s brilliance hasn’t addressed and healed in over seventy-five years of experience. During my ordeal with pack pain, I was so gratified to have been taught how to work in an integrated way with limitations, injuries, conditions and pain. When I apply the potent therapeutic application of Iyengar yoga to work through my own issues, I am then more able to support the process of my students and clients. For this opportunity, to heal and to learn for myself and for others, I am most grateful.

The lesson is given to me, yet again, on how the body speaks out loud. It carries and conveys the stress, the emotions, and the challenges of our lives. Our inherent areas of weakness react. Listening to what my body has to say, and working with it, offers an opportunity for personal and professional transformation. As I listen and respond both intuitively and intellectually to the needs of my body, I offer it what it needs to heal through the specialized sequence of yoga postures, conscious breathing, and mindfulness. Again, I live my life in tandem with my yoga. After my injury, my practise was refined to meet the needs of the day. I simply adjust my practise, and apply my yoga in a way that is health promoting in order to bring my mind, body and spirit back into balance. As I work to realign my Self, I bring alignment to my life.