Flirting With Yoga

Flirting is all about space. Give too much space and there is no opportunity for intimacy. Give not enough space and it is perceived as threatening. Flirtation involves moving closer, but not too close, in a way that is fun and friendly. A great flirt is one who gets away with saying and doing things that would normally be considered inappropriate.

 

For years I have been using this analogy in my yoga classes: You should be flirting with the postures.

 

elephant love

 

I have been teaching yoga full time for nearly twenty years and in that time I have seen so many different approaches to practicing postures. Some people really ‘hit’ the postures. They dive in and just go for it. Super deep and sometimes aggressive. And some people are extremely tentative. They dip their toe in the pool. They hesitate, doubt and question. And both these approaches to the postures can be, at times, appropriate.

 

But more often than not the best way is the middle way. Neither tentative nor forceful, but somewhere down the middle lies the way of the flirt. Flirting with the postures involves discovering the effort that will provide some juicy energy in the postures while maintaining the ease that will keep everything cool and safe.

 

The postures are like pick-up lines. They are tools that we can use to approach the body in order to become more intimate with ourselves.

 

Patanjali, the mythical author of the Yoga Sutras, was also a bit of a flirt. In some of the very few things he had to say about postures, he advised:

 

prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam (YS 2.47)

 

Because the above quote from the sutras contains no verbs it is difficult to produce a direct translation. Word-for-word it means “effort relaxation bliss coming together.” Fascinating, huh? We are left to try to piece together some kind of meaning for ourselves. I suspect that the old flirt was suggesting that when your efforts are relaxed enough that they start to feel effortless, the vibes get really nice.

 

This is a kind of effortless effort. There is an intention, and yet there is no sense of urgency. Things can move along at a natural pace.

 

So lets say you see this beautiful body. It is truly magnificent and will do anything for you. It is radiant, filled with life and love. It is honest, loyal, kind, and loves to touch and be touched. It is your body. So you know each other pretty well, but you have been neglecting it. You have been so busy with work, family, and obligations that you haven’t given it the attention it deserves. As a result, sometimes it feels a little cold and distant. But tonight is the night. It is time to rekindle the flame.

 

You don’t just mosey on over and say “lets get naked.” You don’t expect the body to just suddenly open itself in its fullest expression of vulnerability and tenderness at a moments notice. Just because you are ready does not mean the body is ready.

 

Try just making eye contact first. Start with a really gentle posture. Something totally non-threatening, but allows you to make a connection. See how the body responds. Does it relax into that opening? Does it smile? Did you make it nervous? You may need to stay at a safe distance for some time. Your body will let you know when it is safe to come closer. It will noticeably soften and relax into your advances.

 

Offer to buy it a drink. Do something kind and generous for your body. Get some bolsters and blankets and offer the body some support. Do the things your body loves to do. Move, stretch, and breathe in the ways that give your body a sense of enjoyment. Don’t push postures on your body. Offer them instead.

 

Dance with the body. Laugh with the body. Talk with the body. Ask the body what it likes. Take the time to listen. Bodies don’t speak English so you need to pay close attention and learn to speak body language. Feel the beating of the heart, and expansion and contraction of the lungs, the vascular pulsations, the neuronal currents, the open spaces and old wounds. It is so beautiful just to listen. Give the body all the time it needs.

 

The postures, these tools for physical self-intimacy, are not all created equal. Some of them are a big ask for a body that has been at a desk all day. Some of them are like foreplay. And some of them are playful little flirts. Learn to use these tools skilfully, and your body will be going home with you tonight.

Make a New Year’s Resolution that isn’t Stupid and Shitty

For most of my adult life I have hated New Year’s resolutions. I thought they were dumb. It seemed that if you want to make some changes in your life, you should just do it. Why wait for a particular time of year? But this year I have been thinking about making a couple resolutions. I just want to make ones that are not stupid and shitty.

 

New Year’s resolutions are super old school. January is named after the Roman god Janus, to whom promises would be made by Roman citizens about how good they would be in the New Year. Janus is often referred to as the ‘two-faced god’ because he is pictured with two faces, one facing forward and one facing back. Janus represents our capacity to look back at the past and to look forward to the future.

janus

When you think of it that way, making some resolutions could be useful and interesting. They provide an opportunity to look back at the previous year and consider making some changes for the year to come. But they can also be guilt-trip inducing downers that accomplish little but making you feel bad about yourself. We are encouraged to make resolutions that are geared toward making us better producers and consumers of goods, rather than making us better people.

 

I am going to offer some suggestions that might help you to make better resolutions. If you are like me on most years and think that resolutions are stupid and shitty, good for you. I don’t want to try to convince you that they are not. This is for those of you thinking about making some promises to the two-faced god Janus.

 

My suggestions are pretty straightforward. Here it is: Resolutions need to be flexible, social, attainable, interesting, and rewarding.

  1.  Make flexible resolutions: We could all make some positive changes in our lives that will, most likely, actually contribute to making us happier and healthier. But life is unpredictable. Our ‘ups and downs’ often create diversions that end up taking us in unexpected directions. And sometimes those directions are not compatible with keeping our resolutions. We have to ask ourselves if we failed to keep a resolution, or successfully adapted to changing circumstances.There is no need to “write in” flexibility or opt-out clauses into your resolutions. Just realize that you are making these promises to yourself with the information you have right now. When circumstances change, you may need to alter your course. That is not a failure. That is successful adaptation.

 

  1. Make social resolutions: Find a way to rope in your friends and family. It is so much easier to remain true to a resolution if you are not the only one. This is particularly true for families and roommates. If you are resolving to keep a tidier house, that will be really difficult and frustrating if you are the only one of four people sharing a space to be making that effort. This is not so much about accountability, although I’m sure that plays a role to some extent. This is more about having people to talk with about your experience. Watching a great movie by your self is a little disappointing because we want to share our experiences with others. It is the same way with resolutions. Share for peak enjoyment.

 

  1. Make attainable resolutions: I am a yoga teacher, a studio owner, and a University lecturer. I am a husband and a father. All of those things require my time and all of them are so worth the time they require. I don’t want any of those things to change. So if I make a resolution to get my old band back to together, record an album and go on tour, one or more of those things may have to be abandoned in order to fulfill my promise. But I don’t want to abandon any of my current pursuits. So I would have made a resolution that is unattainable. That doesn’t mean I should throw it away altogether. It just means I need to scale it down a little. Maybe I should just write some songs with some friends this year. Maybe I need to get back to writing song lyrics in addition to yoga articles. Maybe more poetry would help get that part of my brain kick-started. There is an attainable goal that can be scaled up to a reunion tour at some point. Write more poetry in 2017.

 

  1. Make interesting resolutions: You need to be at least a little excited at the prospect of your resolution. It needs to put a little wind in your sails. If you don’t find your resolution to be interesting, you may need to re-work it. For example, rather than resolving to keep better financial records (yawn) you could make a resolution to learn some new accounting software or read a few books on book-keeping. Still not exciting? How about framing it in terms of a challenge? You could challenge yourself to finding money you are wasting on subscriptions you no longer use (your home phone or cable television, for example.) Rather than simply keeping better financial records, your resolution could be to find $100/month in savings.

 

  1. Make rewarding resolutions: Now what to do with that extra $100/month you just found? Make resolutions that pay off. Make resolutions that, when you succeed, end up improving your quality of life. There are so many good examples: Starting a vacation fund, committing to learning and practicing yoga, cooking at home more often, or even just going for a walk every day. You should be rewarded for your commitment. You should be training yourself to be stay true to your resolutions, not because you want to avoid the guilt that comes with failure, but because you want to earn that sweet reward.

 

Now sit down with some friends and family and talk it over. Make sure you are making promises that are flexible, social, attainable, interesting, and rewarding. Make sure your friends and family are doing the same thing. And enjoy yourself doing it. Recognize that life is weird. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we intended them to. But sometimes they do.

My Nutritious Movement Men’s Pelvic Health Retreat

We found a spot at the side of the ferry that wasn’t very windy. Up at the front of the boat the wind was out of control and I imagined my phone being whipped out of my hand and splashing into the calm waters of Puget Sound. Seattle has a Kaffel, Tim, Colnbeautiful skyline, especially for a prairie boy from a small city. Michael and Tim were in a bit of rush to make their flight, but it seemed like we would make it in time.

 

A few days before taking the ferry from Bainbridge Island into downtown Seattle, I walked into Katy Bowman’s Center for Nutritious Movement about two hours away in Sequim. They had our names on little placeholders on folded yoga mats with balls compliments of Jill Miller at Yoga Tune Up. A nice touch, I thought.

Blogging Housewives

There were six students and four teachers. When we introduced ourselves one of the guys said he heard about Katy through her podcast and thought it was just another ‘blogging housewife’ before taking some of her advice and realizing this blogging housewife had masters degree in biomechanics and a rare talent for communicating complex concepts in straightforward language.

 

Frequency and Magnitude

 

When she was introducing the retreat, Katy said that she was working with pelvic floor disorder not as a localized issue but rather as a global, whole-body issue. It is all about forces. Pressure is exerted on our bodies in a number of ways and this pressure pushes up against our tissues, which respond by changing their tension and shape.

 

For example, if we stand with our hips forward the contents of our abdomen are pushed forward toward the abdominal wall and downward by gravity. As a result the abdomen can get distended and occasionally weakened to the point of hernia by the inguinal ligaments. The contents of the abdomen can herniate through the abdominal wall. Ouch. When somebody gets a hernia we might ask what happened?

 

Me and KatyWhat causes the hernia? In some cases it may be an event of magnitude, as in a tremendous amount of force is applied on the abdomen through some kind of blunt force trauma. But usually that is not the case. More often than not these are disorders of frequency, not magnitude.

 

Extended periods of forces being applied to the body results in mechanical adaptations that may or may not be beneficial to the rest of the system. Like wearing the knees in your favorite jeans, it is usually not through some traumatic incident but happens slowly over a long period of time. Pelvic floor disorders are often an adaptation to highly pressurized environment arising from a combination of forces like sitting and standing posture, breathing patterns, and stress responses. They are products of frequency.

 

Is Yoga Nutritious?

 

Katy’s center is Sequim is called the Centre for Nutritious Movement. The idea is that our bodies have movement requirements not unlike nutritional requirements. If you don’t get enough of a particular nutrient, that deficiency will start to manifest as an issue. There is a “use it or lose it” style of economy to the body. If you never lift your arms over your head (like when your arm is in a sling because you hurt your shoulder), you will lose the ability to put your arm over your head. If you don’t use a particular movement, your body will adapt by eliminating the capacity for that movement.

kitchen-dick and woodcock

By studying the ways in which humans move, we can start to get a clearer picture of our movement diet and to see our deficiencies. We sit too much and use machines to move us around, so we end up with a walking deficiency. As a result we not only do not get the exercise we need from walking, we are actually starting to lose the capacity for biomechanically sound walking. Foot, knee, hip, and back problems plague so many of us because these areas are not getting the movement nutrition they require.

 

Can yoga help as a balanced part of our movement diet? I believe so. But yoga has some movement issues of its own. The sun salutation requires that people put their hands on the floor, but most of our hamstrings are too tight to allow for such a move. Even with the knees bent most yogis are stretching their lower backs more so then their hamstrings in forward bends.

 

The tendency is toward prioritizing the form of the posture over the function, feeling, and biomechanical integrity of the posture. Since the publication of BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga in 1966 yoga has been a highly visual culture. The postures are imagined as photographs or video sequences. They are performative. When you think of Extended Side Angle pose you probably imagine a photograph of that posture, rather than imagining a particular sensation or set of biomechanical actions that together constitute the pose. To make matters worse, the walls of many studios are covered in mirrors that even further encourage a visual vigilance rather than relaxing into the feeling of the posture.

 

The result of this visual-performative bias in modern yoga is that yogis are often setting up repetitive patterns of movement that are visually appealing but biomechanically poor. It can end up being, as Katy says, junk food movement.

Below the Belt poster

Junk food is better than no food. But while there is caloric value in Doritos that could save your life if you were starving, there are also all kinds of crap in there that will accumulate over time and produce issues if you eat Doritos every day. Am I calling Sun Salutations movement Doritos? Well, kinda. The rib-protruding, lower back rounding, shoulder-hunching, jaw-clenching actions of a poorly instructed or poorly aligned sun salute might do more harm than good. The same could be said of any posture or sequence.

 

And that is where most yoga instructors will puff their chests and wag their fingers at somebody else that “just doesn’t get it” or “is too superficial to understand” or “isn’t doing real yoga.” Rather than taking responsibility for the proliferation of junk food yoga, carefully re-thinking our own practice and teaching, we circle the wagons and dig in our heels to defend our own teaching and traditions.

 

A Humble Suggestion for Yoga Teachers and Students

 

Katy is just working with research. She is a brilliant researcher and an excellent communicator. But really her whole thing is just evidence-based biomechanics. My suggestion would to simply be open to evidence.

 

Notice when a defensive posture gets triggered and you find yourself mentally shaking your head in disagreement and digging up a counter-argument before you have even considered the evidence. Respect your teachers and traditions. They are the reason you are here. Love your teachers. But don’t treat the postures as sacred objects.

Nutrimove Sculpture

The postures are not sacred. The postures are your body expressing a variety of shapes. If you look at early photos of Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar practicing asana in the early 20th century you will notice that the postures have changed over the past 80 years. The postures have been adapted and modified to become more nutritious. This adaptation and modification is not something that happens and then stops. It is ongoing. The postures are literally evolving along with us. They are not relics from ancient history to be preserved as is. They are food. We digest the postures. They transform our bodies and we in turn, transform them.

 

Yoga is not broken. We have not ruined it. Despite what you read from religious fanatics clinging to an idealized past or cynical yoga teachers burned out and frustrated from a tradition they believed to be whole…

 

Yoga can be delicious, healthy, and offer a wide variety of movement nutrients. It is not complete, though. Yoga does not offer a fix or solution. You cannot simply practice a sequence of postures and believe that all your movement needs will be met. You still need to walk. You need to play. You need to jump, hang, roll, flop, crawl, push, pull, tussle, run, climb, swing, shake and do everything else that a traditional yoga practice might leave out.

Am I Doing This Right?

**This article was originally published on ElephantJournal.com back in 2011**

Yoga teachers are notorious for debating the finer points of alignment in postures and encouraging their students to correct their alignment. Stacking joints, lines of energy, lengthening the spine—all of these phrases are common in yoga classes around the world. We could get into a discussion of what defines good alignment, or how to get better alignment in postures, but I think a more interesting question is: “why does alignment matter at all?”

Beforeyoga-day getting into why alignment matters, I think it would be wise to define exactly what I mean by“alignment”. Teachers who concern themselves primarily with alignment are generally looking for the relationship of bones, joints, and muscles as they interact to produce particular postures. For example, students in tadasana(mountain pose) often have weak upper backs and tight chests, which results in a slouchy-mountain. Teachers of these students will encourage them to “open their chest” which requires more energy in the upper back and produces better alignment. From a functional perspective, this adjustment improves breathing and generally enhances the mood of the student.

But here is the rub—if the instruction to “open the chest” is given to a student without the structural problem mentioned above (i.e. a student who already has good posture), it will produce excessively tight muscles in the back and create new structural imbalances (and a puffy, Mary-Lou Retton-esque posture). Like continuing to prescribe a medication well after a medical condition has been resolved, yoga teachers can create problems for their students by adhering to alignment “rules” rather than applying their knowledge of postures to students on a case-by-case basis.

Alignment is important. If you do trikonasana (triangle pose) without good alignment of your shin and thigh, you are likely to either hyperextend or apply an unhealthy lateral torque to the knee joint that is potentially injurious. There are many other examples of how poor alignment can lead to yoga injuries, and there is no question that good alignment prevents injuries.

But what about instances where no injury is being prevented? What is the point of being properly aligned in that case? If a student is perfectly comfortable in a trikonasana and at no risk for injury, why would a teacher continue to make adjustments?

Why does alignment matter?

Different teachers will give you different reasons for doing poses in different ways—to get the “energy” flowing, to make poses more efficient, or even because that is the way they learned it from their teacher. Proper alignment is not a given. Consult five different teachers on any given pose and you are likely to get five different alignments. So the question is not “what alignment is best” but rather “what does the alignment accomplish?”

On a surface level, one can align trikonasana to accomplish particular results. A wider stance will get your hand closer to the floor, for example. More often than not, however, alignment adjustments are based on the appearance of the pose. In most instances, students are instructed to make their postures look more like their teacher’s postures (or their teacher’s teacher’s postures).

Many teachers, perhaps without realizing they are doing so, hold Iyengar’s photos in Light on Yoga as a gold-standard by which they judge and re-align their students. As a teaching methodology, this is not helpful for students.

There is no perfect pose because the poses do not exist as entities independent of a human body in which they are performed.  Every pose is entirely dependent on the body in which that that pose is performed as well as the context in which the pose is performed. For example, an offensive lineman in the NFL will not perform postures like an Olympic gymnast. Not only that but somebody who just woke up on a January morning in Saskatchewan will perform postures much differently than somebody who just got off their surf board in Hawaii. The “perfect pose” is the pose that best suits the person doing the pose at that moment.

Alignment is important—but not alignment for alignment’s sake. Alignment is a tool that we use to produce particular results. However, the results are what we value, not the tool.  Spending our time trying to “get it right” confuses the ends and means of yoga practice.

Alignment is like prescription medication—you use it to address a need and then stop taking it.  Because one person’s condition has improved by taking a medication, there is no justifiable reason for that person to recommend that medication to anybody else. In the same way, you may well have had a powerful experience or resolved a postural issue as a result of aligning a pose in a particular way, but we should not assume that we have found the “right” alignment or that it will be beneficial for anybody else. Yoga is, after all, a path of personal discovery.

Secure Your Own Mask Before Assisting Others

I was fascinated by the safety demonstrations before flights ever since I was a kid. Not the actual demonstration, but the ritual. I would pretend to follow along with the little cartoon safety manual in the seatback thing because not paying attention made me feel kind of guilty. Some of the attendants just seemed to be trying so hard, their eyes scanning the rows of bored travellers while everybody averts their eyes, reading magazines and newspapers.

westjet

 

So when I was on a plane recently I decided to give the safety demonstration my full attention. I sat upright and took out the cartoon safety guide to follow along. I even held eye contact with the flight attendant for a good 30 seconds or so. It got a little awkward there for a little while.

 

The flight attendant looked to be in his early thirties. He was impeccably groomed and seemed full of confidence. He pulled out the ‘sudden loss of cabin pressure’ mask with the bag that may not inflate when oxygen is flowing. And the flight attendant on the microphone said

 

secure your own mask before assisting others

 

I might have made an audible noise of some kind as I pondered over that statement. The Delta guy became a momentary Zen master. I’m pretty sure he was not a full time Zen master because later in the flight I saw him hitting on some girls in a really clumsy and self-conscious way. But he held that mask and demonstrated putting it on his face with such certainty and authority. It really got me thinking, but not about airplane safety.

 

Are yoga teachers assisting others before securing their own mask?

 

Securing your own mask is taking responsibility for your own safety. Not because you do not care about the lives of those around you, but because of how much you care about the lives of those around you. You intend on being alive and able to respond in some intelligent way. So you take care of yourself first.

 

In yoga this means healing yourself with yoga. Heal yourself before you start messing with anybody else. I’m not saying you have to be perfect. There is no perfect teacher. Adyashanti says “if you want a perfect teacher, pick a dead one.” So I am not saying you need to be perfected in yoga before you start to teach, only that you need to secure your own mask first.

 

There is no metric by which we can know how much healing is ideal to play the role of yoga teacher. But you must have been transformed to some extent or another by yoga. You should have experienced the transformative power of yoga in a number of different ways.

 

The healing can be physical, emotional, or whatever else in us that we need to feel more integrated and awake. Healing in one area of our life leads to more healing in another. There is no reason to prioritize or speculate that healing physically is more or less significant than healing emotionally.

 

David McAmmond posted a great piece called “Few people think more than two or three times a week.” You should read it. In the article he points out that hairdressers regularly receive over 1000 hours of training. That number stands in stark contrast to the 200 hour average for yoga teachers. It would seem that hairdressers take their education more seriously than yoga teachers.

 

There are plenty of yoga teachers around with well over 1000 hours of training. When you consider all the classes, workshops, and retreats it would not be unusual for a keen student to get 200 hours of yoga training in a year. Being in class twice a week and doing 4 workshops a year for four years would accumulate 800 hours. Then a 200-hour teacher training would produce teachers with 1000 hours of training.

 

That was not what happened to me. My story is, I suspect, not too different from many other young (ish) yoga teachers. I have been teaching for about 15 years, but I started teaching even before I finished my teacher training. I had a yoga practice for just over a year when I started my teacher training program.

 

Like most yoga teachers, I had a background that complimented yoga teaching nicely. I had a degree in Religious Studies and researched primarily in eastern religions and mysticism. I was also in a punk band that toured across the Canada, giving me an opportunity to get comfortable in front of a crowd. That background has helped me a great deal in building a career as a yoga teacher.

 

But hairdressers don’t get to count all the hours they practiced doing their hair, or their friend’s hair, or all the magazines and websites they have studied along the way before starting their career as a stylist. I may have started helping people with their masks before securing my own.

 

David once said that yoga teachers should recharge their batteries at least once a year. It is important that we get away, become students, learn new things, practice and re-think old things, and give ourselves a chance to grow in our practice. So that even if we did start help helping others before ‘securing our own mask’ it is not too late.

 

I looked over at the guy sitting beside me. He was playing Yahtzee on his phone and either didn’t notice me looking or did a good job of making it seem that way. Normally I can talk about this stuff with Sarah. But I was flying solo and Yahtzee guy seemed dedicated to not interacting with me. I spent the rest of the flight staring out the window thinking about air masks.

 

Zen master flight attendant had a blank-eyed smiled waiting for me as I exited the plane. I thanked him for his safety demonstration. He cocked his head slightly sideways like a confused puppy and squinted as though he might be able to see what I meant if he tried hard enough. I shrugged my shoulders and thanked him again.

 

We need to secure our own masks. We need to take responsibility for our own health and well-being. We cannot teach yoga effectively if we are struggling. But we cannot teach yoga genuinely if we have not struggled. This is putting on our mask. Having struggled through our challenges, having healed ourselves with our practice, we are now in a much better position to be able to help others.

 

And just like those safety demonstrations, learning it once is not enough. Safety demonstrations ensure that every new comer gets the same information, and every travel expert gets constant reminders.

 

Are You Practicing Yoga Religiously?

*an earlier incarnation of this article was published by elephantjournal.com

 

People get nervous when the word “religion” is written too close to the word “yoga.” For many contemporary yoga practitioners, religion opens an uncomfortable conversation that we would rather just overlook. Religion is the black sheep of the yoga family. It is the thing we quietly acknowledge and then deftly defer and ignore.

 

There has already been plenty written on the question of whether or not yoga is a religion. It makes for good navel-gazing, but ultimately just comes down to how you define religion (and yoga.)

 

Early Christian churches defined religion etymologically by finding its source in the Latin word ligare, which means to bind or to tie – as in ligature. The idea resonates with many yogis today who are familiar with the definition of yoga including the idea of yoking, connecting, or union.

 

The etymology is not quite so simple though. Prior to those early Christians proclaiming that religion was a process of binding oneself to divinity, the Romans had other ideas. Cicero, for example, famously suggested that the root of the word religio was actually relegare – which means to carefully re-read a text. This suggests a very different understanding of religion. It suggests vigilant observation of ritual as opposed to an experience of one-ness or connection.

 

It is not hard to conjure up images of yoga being practiced in a way that is carefully repetitive and places value on “getting it right.” At this point, it is almost the caricature of a yogi, daily waking with the sun and meditatively unrolling their mat in order to proceed with great care and attention to their prescribed assortment of yoga postures. Obsessively concerned with the right alignment in the postures, the correct pronunciation of arcane mantras, or with the arrangement of the postures into particular sequences, contemporary yoga is flush with religiosity.

 

And that is not such a bad thing. The mindful and fastidious performance of yoga asanas can be a tonic to poor posture, back pain, stress, depression, and so many other of the diseases of captivity imposed upon the urbanized, domesticated, and desk-bound humans of 21st Century industrialized societies.

 

But yoga is not a habit. Yoga is a means of getting out of habits. Yoga is a liberatory practice designed to facilitate freedom from the deep ruts that prevent us from facing the fullness of physical, emotional, and social life.

 

The tendency towards getting ourselves wedged into ritual forms of practice that devolve into obsessiveness and neurosis has been noted for centuries in yogic literature. In the Mundaka Upanishad a householder approaches a great sage and asks, “What is that by knowing which all is known?” The sage responds:

 

The illumined sages say knowledge is twofold, higher and lower. The study of the Vedas, linguistics, ritual, astronomy, and all the arts can be called lower knowledge. The higher is that which leads to self-realization…

The rituals and sacrifices described in the Vedas deal with lower knowledge. The sages ignored these rituals and went in search of higher knowledge…

Such rituals are unsafe rafts for crossing the sea of samsara, of birth and death. Doomed to shipwreck are those who try to cross the sea of samsara on these poor rafts. Ignorant of their ignorance, yet wise in their own esteem, these deluded men proud of their vain learning go round and round like the blind led by the blind.[1]

 

Substitute Vedic rituals for the sequences prescribed by the gurus of modern postural yoga, and this ancient passage comes alive with contemporary relevance. And we don’t need to dig back into the Upanishads to find similar advice for yogis.

 

The Yoga Sutras suggest that yoga requires more than religious devotion to practice. The first chapter of the sutras indicates that yoga is stilling the movement of the mind. These movements are referred to as vrittis, which can mean something like your lifestyle, conduct, or actions. These vrttis can be stilled though what Patanjali calls practice and non-attachment.

 

Practice (abhyasa), the repeated effort, is resting in stillness as a result of will power. The absence of desire for things (vairagya) – whether seen directly or learnt through hearing – which comes about by subjecting such things to the will, is the sign of non-attachment.[2]

 

Practice is half of yoga. We need to establish new patterns of thinking and movement in order to break free of the grooves into which the wheels of the bodymind are so firmly entrenched. The other half is letting go of even these new patterns.

 

Our earthly bodymind vehicles find themselves stuck in sometimes painful, uncomfortable, unfulfilling, or sometimes just boring ruts. Through yoga we are treated to a momentary experience of freedom as our tires are lifted from those ruts into new, exciting, and uncharted territory. And then we fast find ourselves channeling new ruts into which we begin habitually thinking and moving.

 

Practicing yoga religiously means defending the integrity and importance of those new, 2nd order ruts. I am not suggesting that we immediately stop practicing any pre-packaged sequences taught from laminated, spiral bound books tucked neatly behind the mats of eager young yoga teachers. What I am suggesting is that we take a cue from Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginners Mind:

 

If your practice is good, you may become proud of it. What you do is good, but something more is added to it. Pride is extra. Right effort is to get rid of something extra… Our effort in our practice should be directed from achievement to non-achievement.

Beginners mind in yoga practice is learning and re-learning each pose over and over. Beginner’s mind means not being the expert and having all the answers. It challenges our all our preconceived notions. It is inventing and exposing our selves to new postures, sequences, bio-mechanical principles, texts, techniques and teachers. Ultimately beginners mind means no orthodoxy.

 

There is no such thing as the “right way” to practice. There are safer and more dangerous ways. There are conservative and more adventurous ways. But we will only know which is which by exploring the territory that is our bodies and minds in a way that is liberated from the conservatism of ritual repetition.

 

 

[1] This translation is from Eknath Easwarans’ “The Upanishads.” They are simple, poetic and so lovely to read time and time again.

[2] I used Shyam Ranganathans’ translation and commentary of the sutras. We use his translation for our teacher training course because it is a thorough, academic treatment of the text without becoming unnecessarily dense and unpleasant. This is the text I recommend to any and all students interested in learning studying the sutras.

Lost in Translation: Is Mulabandha Relevant for Modern Yogis? | Yoga International

“This is not a conversation about what is right and what is wrong. This is a conversation about what is most appropriate to any particular context. It would be unreasonable to suggest that every technique that was relevant and useful 300 years ago must still be relevant and useful today.”

Does mulabandha lead to muscular imbalance?

Check out the full article here:

Source: Lost in Translation: Is Mulabandha Relevant for Modern Yogis? | Yoga International

Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

Sarah and I have been going hard building our store on 13th Ave (grand opening party soon!!), and I am WAY behind marking this semester, so I don’t have time to write about this the way I normally would. So here is an audio clip from an interview on the subject I did on a talk radio this morning:

CJME MainStreet: Is Yoga Cultural Appropriation? (this is a download link – you can play the file with Itunes or whatever media player you normally use)

The interview starts at around 8 minutes and goes to around 18 minutes. There are some callers after the interview if that floats your boat, although nothing particularly spicy happens.

 

I have come across a few good articles on the subject, so if this is giving you an appetite for a little yoga geekery, dig in!

There is No Such Thing as Cultural Appropriation – Pathos

Where the Whole World Meets in a Single Nest – Slate

The Confused Thinking Behind the Kimono Protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts – HyperAllergic

Of Course Yoga is Cultural Appropriation: All Culture Is – Reason

How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice – Decolonizing Yoga

 

 

A Yogic Perspective on the 2015 Canadian Federal Election

A friend tagged me on a Facebook post last week. The author was wondering if local yoga teachers were talking about the election in their classes – particularly wondering if local yoga teachers were using their classes to campaign against the Harper Conservatives.

In my imagination… downward dog at the barricades, waving flags of resistance in mountain pose as we stand on guard for trees.

the-liberty-leading-the-people-1830

What do we want?

AUM

When do we want it?

The eternal now

Then I thought about it some more. Would a yoga teacher lose students if they started talking about Bill C-51, the narc on your Muslim neighbor hotline, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, or the TPP trade agreement in their classes? Would it offend conservative students? Would it bore apolitical students? Or would it, like almost everything else yoga teachers say in their classes, swirl around in the minds of students for a short while before floating off into mind-space in the depths of relaxation?

Personally, I suspect most of my students would simply nod and agree and that there would be no noticeable change in the size of my classes. So does that mean I am officially on the yogic campaign trail?

No.

I will not be talking about the election in my classes.

I am a socialist. I will, most likely, vote for the NDP not because I am aligned with their politics but because their candidate seems most likely to unseat the Conservatives in my riding. But that will not be finding its way into my classes.

If a student is curious about how I plan to vote, I will happily share that information with them just as I have shared it with you. But I will not attempt to persuade anybody to vote any particular way.

This is not a “yoga is not political” statement. That statement is not only historically inaccurate but pretends that spirituality and health can be divorced or separated from the social and economic contexts in which they are encountered. No such separation is possible, nor has it been possible in the past.

yoga-day

For centuries yogis have maintained close relationships with the ruling class. Yogis were well known for influencing social policy through sometimes nefarious dealings and trickery. The royal family in Mysore employed the originator of contemporary postural yoga, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. It is well known that BKS Iyengar was a supporter of the BJP – a nationalist political party in India. Swami Sivananda received a great deal of patronage from the Shiv Sena, another right wing Indian political party. And today one of the biggest supporters of the Modi government is the famous televangeliyogi (I just invented a word!) Baba Ramdev.

Yoga is political

One might imagine yoga as a form of activism that functions quite differently than typical political activism. Yoga class should be a welcoming, inclusive environment where a (hopefully) diverse group of people can enjoy the simple pleasures of breath, movement, and stillness. As we melt into the bliss of the present moment, it dawns on us that we are permeable. We are not separate from our environment. Our minds are as porous as our skin.

It begins as a simple realization. What we do to others we are doing to ourselves. What we do to our environment we are doing to ourselves. It is a slow transformative process that requires patience and understanding. We start to observe our thoughts and consider why we think the way we think. We realize that the way we move and think is the product of years of conditioning.

Autonomy as an Essential Yogic Virtue

Yoga changes how we think of our world and ourselves. It doesn’t change in a predictable way. It doesn’t change in such a way that it reflects the thinking of the teacher. It is entirely organic, spontaneous, and self-directed.

The autonomy of the student should be the goal of the teacher. Yoga teachers should be teaching themselves right out of a job. We create some space in which students Autonomy-N-Gavininvestigate their patterns and make decisions about if, how, when, and to what extent they should make conscious changes to those patterns. Any changes that take place happen autonomously.

Students of yoga very often begin with some simple stretching and relaxation and end up making significant life changes. But those life changes need to arise as a result of a complex, contemplative and intimate process – not because somebody told you so.

A yoga teacher’s primary responsibility is to create a safe and intelligent environment in which students can explore the bodymind in search of the imagined boundaries that delineate this thing called a “me” in relationship to “the outside.” That is an inherently social, and therefore political process.

Selfish Empathy and Expanding our Circle of Care

If you believe that who you are is contained within and defined by your skin, your selfishness leads you to benefit yourself at the expense of others. There is only so much pizza to go around, you know? Watching me eat pizza only means less pizza for you.

If you believe that who you are is contained within and defined by your family, your selfishness leads to you protect your family at the expense of others. The same could be said of any identifying your self with a particular nationality or with a particular class. But what happens when you start to experience your “self” as part of an integrated whole that include all life on the planet?

wave from oceanI believe yoga is revolutionary because it can cause a shift in identity. Especially when integrated with a regular meditation practice, yoga can lead to a massively expanded notion of who we are. As Alan Watts said, we do not come into this world – we come out of it. Like waves on the surface on the ocean or blades of grass on the lawn, we literally part of the world. This is not a new insight. As early as the Chandogya Upanishad (approximately 2500 years ago!) seers have been saying this very thing.

tat tvam asi – you are that

I am not without cynicism. I realize that yoga can also deepen narcissistic delusions and act as a tonic to temporary relieve the guilt and tension of first world living so that we can make more bearable a lifestyle that we all know is unsustainable. But I practice and teach with optimism. I am optimistic that we can change ourselves for the better and as a result co-create a world that is based on compassion, mutual aid, solidarity, and understanding.

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