Monday, November 5, 2012

within you without you

'When you've seen beyond yourself,
Then you may find,
Peace of mind is waiting there,
In addition, the time will come,
When you see we are all one,
And life flows on within and without you' 

George Harrison- The Beatles 1967

 As Yoga continues to deeply transform concepts around body, physicality, exercise and self in the post-modern age, many people try to answer the question, "what is YOGA?" and struggle to qualify 'purpose' in the practice and articulation of this ancient ritual of self exploration.  For many, yoga remains a spiritual practice, existing in the spiritual realm of 'the self' with attachments to religion and dogma.  For just as many, yoga has become a form of exercise with dominant attachments to the body and to the physical self.  Where does yoga come from... within us or without us?

Hatha Yoga, a commonly practiced yoga in the studios of the west, uses the body as a ‘doorway’; where as Jnana Yoga (not as commonly practiced) uses the mind.  The idea with a Hatha practice, is that rather than 'forcing' yourself into uncomfortable postures that are not attainable (in this moment), one works to their 'edge' and views the 'message' the body is sending, without judgment of attachment.  The message is to be viewed 'in the moment' as reflective of the temporal state of the (multiple layers of) self.  The reflection can speak to the individual’s mental, emotional, physical states and both the physical and subtle 'self'.  This way we are looking at our limitations to define our true potential.  This is duality.  The western language (of understanding)  is one that exists and originates from a systemic binary; quite contrary to the idea that 'limitation' and 'potential' can come from the same place, or from the same energy.  Just as many eastern religions tend to find their philosophical root in multitheism; an appreciation of multiple deities for multiple reasons and the history of western Christianity is born out of an emergence of monotheism (from paganism), a devotion to one God only, the polarization of these concepts has effected the differing ways people 'view and perceive' themselves.  This 'perception' of self can easily be said to have been isolated by culture and nurture over time.  It is more difficult for people who have been raised on the strict diet of binaries that create strong 'self-schema' (healthy vs. sick, strong vs. weak, fat vs. skinny, etc) to embrace a flexible fluctuating awareness of 'the self'.

Jnana Yoga uses the mind to 'stretch' self-concept and perception.  The challenge here is that, in the post-modern age of 'the self', the role of body is decidedly physical and dominant.  Our body image is part of our self-schema.  The body image includes;
  • The perceptual experience of the body
  • The conceptual experience of the body—what we have been told and believe about our body, including scientific information, hearsay, myth, etc.
  • The emotional attitude towards the body
Our body schemata may transcend the realities of what our bodies actually are—or in other words, we may have a different mental picture of our bodies than what they physically are.  Concepts around 'exercising the body' as a 'mostly' (physical) being, defining the (physical) body  as 'an act of volition through space', 'forceful and with (self-prescribed) direction and pace', a notion that exercising the body is an act that involves 'movement'... all of these are attachments and schematics of a western-world perception of the body.  All of these would limit a Yoga practice; therefore, all of these should begin the process of potential.  Yoga is not a series of poses to 'acquire' or accumulate skill in practice.  You cannot get better, or be better at Yoga.  When we practice asana, we may find ourselves engaging in dialogue ( developed mental habits) where we 'judge' or analyze our practice, where we anticipate (look forward to the 'next' pose, the 'most challenging' pose), we are ambitious (look to the gains of the future), are competitive (wish we were better, stronger, faster... we think the instructor/the person in front/behind/beside us is 'better, stronger, faster') - Yoga is the positioning of all of the inquires, doubts and fears in front of you, so you will really 'look' at them. What you do with them is up to you.  Rumi wrote, "When the mirror of the heart becomes pure and clear, impressions of the other world will become manifest. The image and the image-maker will become visible, like the carpet and the carpet-spreader.”  If Hatha Yoga uses the body as the 'doorway' towards enlightenment and Jnana yoga uses the mind... perhaps the translator is the heart.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Yin of Winter

Do you ever imagine your winter day as follows; you, curled up in front of a roaring fire, sipping on something warm and delicious, with your favorite slippers on and your favorite book, quiet snow falling on the other side of the windowpane, and Thelonious Monk playing on the stereo... You have no place to go, there is no rush, you don't need to get in your car and drive into the tempest. Your soul's purpose is to rest and, despite a fallacy that suggests otherwise, regrowth is happening in the winter, deep beneath the snow and stillness... and deep under the wooly sweaters and socks, skin, bone and beating heart - There is regrowth.

The season provokes many attachments; to fears of the cold, to fears of dying, departure, solitude. We often find ourselves rushing into the wild winds and sleet to 'produce' the same energy we would on any other day, any other season, in contrast with nature, as usual. Do you, like me, languish in the months of January through March, pining for the spring, thinking of nothing else? Winter gets a bum wrap, and here is why. We do winter all wrong. "Instead of having fun, we often end up feeling ill, anxious, or depressed. The reason, according to Taoist philosophy and traditional Chinese medicine, is that the action-packed schedules we keep at this time of year fall out of sync with the earth's natural cycles." - We need to replenish in winter; take time to nurture a different part of the self and sustain by eating a different diet and doing different things with our bodies, with time, with space; all elements of a well-rounded yoga practice.

"Taoist philosophy conceptualizes universal balance in terms of yin and yang, complementary forces that govern the universe. Yin characteristics are cool, wet, slow, feminine, and quiet, whereas yang is the opposite: warm, dry, fast, masculine, extroverted. Winter, the yin season, is a time for storing and conserving energy in the way a bear retains fat by hibernating, or a farmer stores food for the cold months ahead."

Eat warm, slow-cooked, nourishing foods. GET a slow-cooker, use it in the winter. Turn off the t.v. and the computer (well, after you've check this blog, of course!) and read more. Write in a journal. Turn off the lights and light scented candles with rich aromas of cinnamon and vanilla and MEDITATE. Stare at the flame and watch it dance. Let go (or be dragged).

"The incongruity between winter's restful, introspective, yin nature and the frenetic way many Americans spend their holidays can contribute to seasonal affective disorder, depression, exhaustion, and other manifestations of what is known in TCM as shen (or spiritual) disharmony"

3 or 4 days before Christmas, when everyone else is frantically racing from mall to mall, invite your friends and family over for a different kind of party. Celebrate the shortest day of the year with crafts, warm food and drink and laughter. For Wiccans, the holiday of Yule (or Yuletide) is about bidding farewell  to the old, and celebrating the new things yet to come. As the sun returns to the earth, and days get longer again, life begins once again. Have your own Yule celebration or create a ritual. Abandon the commercialism of this holiday and pay homage to the longest night of the year by  nurturing the yin nature of winter and bringing the light; to your home, to your Yoga and to your spirit. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hot Yoga and cold toes in the Winter.

Winter is my favorite time to engage in a hot yoga practice. My experience with teaching yoga is closing in on it's 11th year, yet, I only discovered hot yoga about 4 years ago. To be honest, prior to taking my first class, I thought it to be a bit of a mystery. I was not unlike many students who now approach me asking me questions around the validity of the hot room as a setting that will foster a healthy body and lifestyle. let me first state, I am no doctor. I can only base my answer to this question on research and personal experience (leaning strongly towards the latter as it is the most sincere response!). I did not love hot yoga when I first came to it. I am pink by nature. I do not sweat, though I get uncomfortably hot in the summer at times, and I am anemic, and prone to fainting if my iron is low. My first couple hot classes were beyond uncomfortable, bordering on sheer panic. I left the first one (which was Bikram Yoga - I do not suggest this practice for a first-timer hot Yogi or Yogini;  it's 90 mins and it's HOT - most Bikram studio's are sitting at about 40 degrees on a good day!). I did go back, and over the course of a week or two, I adjusted. It doesn't take long to adjust tot he heat, despite the initial over-whelming experience. As for hot yoga's ability to increase over-all health and wellness, I can say that since I started doing hot yoga, I do not get sick as often as I used to. I also used to suffer from regular sinus problems, and have not had even one sinus infection since I began a regular hot yoga practice. I do not practice a rigorous yoga practice in the heat. I participate in gentle, flowing classes only due to my own hyper-mobility. The claims attached to the benefits of hot yoga are; improved flexibility, improved immunity, detoxification, stress reduction. "As a scientist, I wouldn't say there's a huge stock in sweating out your toxins," says Stephen Cheung, the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Ergonomics, whose area of expertise is heat stress. The body only releases them through sweat to a very limited extent, he says. The extreme temperature and humidity in Bikram yoga and its less regimented spinoff Moksha yoga can be risky for those with heart conditions, as well as for those with low or high blood pressure in the normal range, says Nieca Goldberg, medical director of New York University's Women's Heart Program. (excerpt from If a participant is practicing with already established hyper-mobility, there is an incresed risk of tearing muscle and ligament. Individuals should always speak to their doctor prior to beginning any new exercise routines, particularly an extreme practice like hot yoga. That said, I have come to love it and have found it to assist in my over-all sense of well-being! Also, its great for cold toes in the winter ;)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pratyahara - Water in stillness.

 " We need to spend time outside the realm of volitional or willful activity in a place outside our attempts to consciously control life. "

Pratyahara is the softening of sensory awareness; the fifth limb of Yoga. Students of Yoga can build a foundation for more physically active practices by working with the subtle body in a yoga practice, and by becoming attune to meditative states of awareness.

Beginner yoga students benefit from asana (the physical practice of Yoga) that draws attention to the subtle movement inside the body. I like to think of this state as the water on the surface of a lake at dawn on a calm summer day. You can visualize the mist rising from the surface of the lake, which seems frozen in time and space. The sky mirrored backwards on the surface of the water. The contents of this water also visible if you were to gaze into its depth. The sounds are muted and precise, and few and far between.

Practice a Yoga that allows you to listen and tune in to the subtle body. Tuning in to the sensations of the quiet Self within you is the foundation from which we can make a connection with the subtle body. Yoga asana is mindful work with attention paid to sensation.

 In Pratyahara, one can begin to experience real spaciousness (an element in the practice of Yoga) and stillness; this is like a fourth dimension. Step outside of control in you Yoga practice! Learn to let go of what you have come to know as 'experience'. This too is Yoga.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

GO to soup stock because it tastes good and you do good!

Just a short one today in order to promote a creative, fun-loving event tomorrow in Toronto - Soup Stock! Hosted by the David Suzuki Foundation (incidentally, the Foundation also partially responsible for my soon-to-be new solar panels! That's another story though) this event is happening at Ashbridges Bay in the Toronto Beaches. The idea is as follows; You bring yourself and a bowl (ceramic is best!) a spoon and ten bucks; this gets you entry to the event and 4 bowls of warm and delicious soup cooked by some of North America's culinary masters ;) While being at this event is cool because it brings people together, it fosters community, it is about eating well and taking care of yourself... It is also a chance to slip a little dharma into your week. Service is an essential part of living a Yogic lifestyle and this event is a fundraiser for a cause called Stop the Mega Quarry. If you do not know what this means, check this web site.

In a nut shell, The Mega Quarry is a BIG money venture that aims to put a giant pit of rock right smack dab in the middle of some of southern Ontario's prime farm land. This is (of course) another bright idea from the Harper administration. Rug up and warm up at Soup Stock! More information can be found here.

Thanks David Suzuki! You are the greatest :)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Yoga is not about culling out spirits or surrendering one’s individual will power to a teacher who assumes the role of a yoga-sorcerer. No teacher in the world has a right to demand authority over others. The goal of yoga is Kaivalya, independency and not wrong devotion.
- S.Sriram

I am a teacher; by trade and by nature. I have worked and continue to work with some of the most vulnerable; children. I teach people about the Visual Arts and I teach people about Yoga. I teach to what I know, and I am sincere in my actions. I work in different settings, along side others who call themselves 'teacher' frequently, in multiple settings. Incidentally, I prefer the word mentor, or ambassador, or guide... Teacher suits me at times and not at others. I shy away from the stigma involved with this word, which is sort of sad, really. In North America, in the public sector (of education), teacher means a lot of things I think it should not. In many ways, I am not comfortable with my status as teacher, even in my day job, employed by the Government to teach youth. For example, I don't know if I think teachers should be conducting structured standardized lessons on character (as they do in some school boards across Canada). I think a good teacher embodies character, and this is enough. Defining character and teaching it to the masses can be difficult, and that is an understatement. My moral compass is defined by my experiences, and I am wise enough to know that my experiences are not those of all of my students. I also think that any good teacher, who's heart is in the right place, aims to empower his/her students and in doing so, offers them autonomy. 

I recently have heard of a grievance involving one of my original principal influences in the area of Yoga, one of my original teachers, whom I briefly studied with in 2002/03 in my first 200 hour YTT.  This grievance involves accusations of sexual harassment and abuse; sexual, emotional and mental. I am saddened by this news. I am angered by this news. I am reserving the right to talk about the larger issue at hand, and not the man immediately involved, as the point I am making belongs to the big picture and not a myopic assessment of a particular situation. 

Under no circumstances, do I feel it is appropriate to assume power over another person. Teaching is not and should never become authoritative. teaching should be a humble offering, sharing. An individual may have pursued a course of study that allows him/her insight into a specific realm of knowledge, and what happens afterwards, would ideally be an artful sharing or dissemination of that knowledge, outside of Ego.

I am humiliated and disgraced to hear the unraveling of these numerous charges against this man in mention. As more information surfaces, I find myself shifting between feeling angry and insulted towards feeling sad and a little lost. I am defensive on behalf of the women involved in this case and saddened that such violations could happen within my extended sanga (community) and saddened again to think of the damage this has done and continues to do. 

I remind myself of a primary question from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, pertaining to suffering and the cause and result of it... 'Where do I fit in to this? Who, or what, am I?

Lately, in my mid thirties of life I find myself more consistently able to challenge my ability to 'identify with' all living beings, and ultimately, the Universe (some people call this God) and the formless, the non-dual view. I've developed meditations and practices to challenge the Ego. To do this, I tend to meditate more. I draw more. When I do, I meditate on my subject. Whether it is a vase of flowers, the flame of the candle in front of me, or a human subject, I draw and meditate with the intention of capturing the essence of the subject, of feeling what the subject feels, of knowing the subjects experiences, of becoming the subject. For a brief moment, we are one. Or perhaps we are always one? As I continue to evolve through this journey called life, I am committed to challenging my mindset to expand my sense of self beyond the 'other'. Through meditation and practice, the 'other' fades into the dewy mist (into the veil) and almost becomes forgotten and from this, compassion is born. Bliss is found. In my continued efforts to practice this sort of non-dual thinking, I am liberated.

-Awakening, enlightenment, or the end of suffering, according to the Buddhists, is the belief that nothing but a full realization that I, the 'self', is a fiction and that I am the non-dual wholeness, the formless, boundless, can lead to the end of suffering.

In this vein, I am also saddened when I think of the suffering of a teacher, an individual, who has lost his path and direction so much so that he would violate the essential and holistic focus of the practice of Yoga that he/she prescribes to. The same focus that will eventually bring completeness to the individual as the find their connectivity to the divine. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Yoga - A Right-Brained Liberal Art!

Yoga is a right-brain dominant practice.

Here is why...

1) You need to feel it, not think it.

2) Yoga is creativity in motion. You are telling the tale of your wide life in gestures.

3) Yoga draws greatly from your spatial intelligence. The right brain is also responsible for your spatial
awareness--for instance, understanding how your body moves through space.

4) The right brain is interested in language and speech as prosody--that is, the intonation of speech and how the words are expressed. Yoga draws on the ancient art of sounding, chanting in tone, breathing into space, and primordial sound.
5) The right brain is responsible for emotion. Yoga is emotion and compassion in action.
6) The right brain searches for meaning. Yoga is meaning, it is feeling in comprehension.
7) The right brain in not analytical. Yoga poses should not be analyzed in the moment. Feel it, don't think it.
8) The right brain is concerned with understanding the 'big picture'. Yoga is the Universe. It is the big picture.
9) The right brain is intuitive. Yoga hones the intuitive self as you work through the art of mindfulness. 
10) The right brain is holistic, and integrative. Yoga draws you towards movement or stillness, guided by the constant presence of the breath. The breath draws body, mind and soul together into one.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What does fitness have to do with Yoga?

So, I work for a Yoga studio and recently I was asked to change the format/style of my teaching to better suit the general philosophy of the studio. After much reflection and discourse, I came to the conclusion that this was a request I was a) comfortable with for now and also, that some of my classes were considerably different than most others on the schedule. Until this request was made of me, I was not fully aware that I was doing something very different. Some simple qualifiers that could accurately describe the class style might include; slower, quieter (meditative), grounded (on the mat for most of the class). I was being encouraged to create more consistency in my class by following a formula that had the class build to a apex 'build up to a peak and wind down', thereby increasing the energy, providing an 'experience that is physical enough to create energy in the body and allow a good sweat'. Nothing I am not familiar with, as this formula seems to be commonplace in the studio's have I taught/taken in past, present in three different countries now (U.S.A. Chicago, Illinois & various cities in Canada, as well as various cities in Australia).

 Recently, (as in over the past 6 years), I have begun a discovery of some of the 'quieter' Yoga disciplines (namely Restorative and Yin) and, in studying and practicing these disciplines had a little bit of a revelation... slowing things down was good for my muscle-bound body (namely upper-body and shoulders). The soldiers that are (dare I say were?) my shoulders had begun to release and relax, my heart had begun to pour open (this is a BIG deal!) and my hips broke like a levy one fine day! I walked through space as though I had a new pair of moon boots on, a bounce to my step that was never released fully prior to this, despite years of firey, heat-inducing yoga practices; like ashtanga and dynamic vinyasa flow. No relentless number of suyra namaskar had been able to do for my body what some quiet but determined and very very deep work had done in less time. For the first time ever, I could enter into poses like headstand and full-wheel without feeling 'clenched' or locked up in certain muscle groups. These deep, slow, meditative practices had taught me to let go (or be dragged). They allowed me time to 'look at myself' and figure some stuff out, and after hating it for awhile, I had really started to dig it.

So I taught it, and people liked it, or so I thought as the class in mention was always full and the faces were regular. I felt good about allowing others the time to look deeply at themselves, and to look deeply at the asana or gesture they were in, as it is an expression of the self also. I liked that they seemed to like it too. Until the bubble popped. I was reminded of what I already knew, which is that the collective WE in North America (The West) have this idea of the body that as an object (and object in the West means consumable - a product) and that energy means movement, at a certain pace and vigor, through space. There is a destination (the end of the class?) and while on the journey (on your mat?) there is an apex (the literary crisis/climax); a mountain to climb, something to obtain. A goal. I guess in all my blissful surrender to the Yin, I had simply forgotten where I was. That producing energy means moving quickly, from point a to point b. OUR science tells us this... An object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion at constant velocity, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Should Yoga be a class, and should the journey begin 'as a wave, warming up to a crest and then winding down' as it was describe to me. Should Yoga exist outside of the walls of a studio and perhaps, if you are lucky Yoga may enter into your practice while you breath, in a moment, in a gesture, whether in movement or not, whether in the studio or driving in your car one sunny afternoon on your way home from work? If that later is relevant, than I ask you, what does fitness have to do with Yoga? My unbalanced force was the reminder that my Yoga is not fitness and that this concept of 'fitness' as purely physical is yet another way of consuming 'body' as a product or object to be obtained.