Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

It’s unusual for me to get into yoga diatribes very often. Most people I know do not practice yoga regularly and I don’t generally talk about my teaching philosophy unless I’m talking about classes. When most of the people you know don’t practice, it doesn’t come up in conversation that frequently.  This weekend, though, my mom and I were talking about the move and whether or not I’d teach yoga in Colorado.

I’d love to keep teaching. I enjoy it SO much and it would be great if I could keep on doing it. At the same time, I’m going to be in a new place setting up a new life and starting out is hard. As evidence, it’s taken me two years to get a serious following of students.

I teach to all levels and there are a few reasons for that. Most importantly, it’s because you never REALLY know what kind of limitations people are working with. Sometimes they’ll tell you if they’ve got an injury, more often than not they don’t. Second, people need to feel like they can choose their own workout. Providing modifications lets them do that. Third, when I’m doing my own asana practice I run through a checklist of things – foot placement, which muscles are active and how, how I can change the position. If it’s valuable to me after my years of practice, I’ve got to believe it’s valuable to others.

When I teach, I typically use the modified asana. It’s simple – given an option a) or harder option b), most people feel pressure to go with the harder option. By taking the modified version a) myself, I’m eliminating a competitive element in the class. It’s not about MY workout, it’s about the students. And the fact is that most students feel more comfortable using a modification if the instructor does.

This is all apropos, by the way, of my classes this week. In every single class this week, my students made their own modifications. Students who were relatively new and students who have been in my class for a while, relative beginners and folks with prior experience. In every. Single. Class. someone (or more than one someone) modified down to where they needed to be.

I don’t get all new-age catchphrase about yoga. I’m pretty pragmatic about practicing and its benefits. I don’t utilize chanting in my classes. But I’m going to tell you that it actually gladdened my heart to see my students do their own thing. It was like it filled me up with light each time. I thought, “I’ve done my job.” Because with yoga, you’re SUPPOSED to go at your own pace. You’re supposed to listen to your body and adjust your concentration. And by listening to your body you IMPROVE your concentration. You improve the connection between your body and your brain.

I’m incredibly sad to be leaving my students. I feel guilty about leaving them with limited options to find instruction. But this week, I thought “They can do this. I’ve done a good enough job. They can adjust in any classes they take.” My shoulders felt lighter. I felt accomplished.


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Tonight’s class was awesome.

Warrior III (Virbadrasana III) is a challenging position because it involves balancing on one leg, bending so that the length of the body is parallel to the floor (hamstrings! glutes!), and extending the arms forward to lengthen the spine and open the chest. Keeping the hips parallel to the floor (as though you were going to balance a tray on the buttocks) makes it even more work. The toes, feet, and ankles have to compensate for fluctuations in your balance. Squeezing the thighs together activates the gluteus minimus and draws strength into the core – as does engaging the shoulders and hands.

With a lot of asanas, the internal voice takes over. “I’m not flexible enough. My balance isn’t good. I don’t look like s/he does. I’m not doing this right. I’m going to hurt myself. I look ridiculous.” It’s a classic fear of not fitting in or not being ‘good’ enough. It’s the biggest challenge in any exercise class but (it seems) especially in yoga because people are trying to tune into their bodies.

For that reason, I like to balance a challenging position with a *more* challenging position. I use blocks and any additional props to help facilitate the work, but in my experience it’s most effective to face the fear than to modify away from it.

In tonight’s case, We started with the normal breathing and hamstring stretching. Then we walked through sun salutations. Cat and cow stretch, flying angels, dolphin, seated spinal twists, and standing side stretches. Once everyone was sufficiently warm, I introduced Warrior III. Everyone got two blocks – one for the front of the mat and one to hold. We placed the block on the mat by doing a forward fold and lining the block up with the shoulder for the best support.

To start, we came into the position without the arms. Hinge forward, extend the back leg.

The second time, we came into it and engaged the arms by squeezing the block – either under the chest or with the arms extended forward.

The third time, we did the modified version – hands on the blocks (use the block you’re holding to balance on the floor block if necessary – and focused on extending the back leg while keeping the hips parallel to the floor.

Then we switched to Half Moon. There are any number of ways to come into the position, but we started by folding forward, placing a hand (or two) on the block and extending the back leg. Then we opened the front of the body toward the long end of the mat (as though your back is pressed against a wall). It’s balance work, core work, hip stretch, and arm work. It’s tough for a lot of people and the most common reason is fear.

It feels unnatural. It feels wobbly and sometimes unsafe. And the internal voice takes over.

This is why I emphasize props. Everyone has structural differences and structural limitations. No one’s stretch looks exactly like someone else’s. Props help you feel more comfortable trying to get where you’re going and help you do it safely.

One of my students said, “I can’t do this.” While I never want someone to feel that limited in a class, I love that she felt comfortable saying so. And then I got to help her fly.

By providing support at her hip, I kept her from feeling like she was going to topple over (for the same effect at home, do this with your hips pressed against the wall). The first time, she was tentative – not wanting to release and open up her chest. Once she realized that she had support and could feel safe, she let go. And when we switched to the other side, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation before she opened right up. It was completely awesome.

But that’s not the best part.

After Half Moon I talked about how one of the best things about yoga is that it keeps you humble. If your concentration is off, balance is more difficult. You have to recognize the limitations of your body in each asana. Yoga is process oriented rather than goal oriented – and your process changes each time you try something.

We went back to Warrior III. And everyone came up immediately, very little wobble and great extension. And they HELD it. Not indefinitely, obviously, but long enough to not just balance, not just lift, but also lengthen their bodies. I told them not to think about lifting themselves up – think about it like flying. And when we got done with both sides, everyone had HUGE smiles on their faces. What seemed really challenging five minutes ago wasn’t NEARLY as hard as they’d thought it was. They had huge confidence because they’d just faced a bigger challenge. Confidence makes all the difference.

Pushing your boundaries can be good. Trying new things makes your brains work in new ways, but it also gives you a different view of yourself when you’re done. And even though Half Moon seemed really difficult today, there’s something you can do tomorrow that will make you think differently about it. 

It’s an amazing feeling to be able to convey the ‘journey’ part of yoga in a class and see that everyone left the room lighter.

The woman I assisted came up to me after class and we had a conversation about the fear of flying. She left feeling better about how she practices and about her own abilities.

That’s what I’m here for. 


I also used the mix I posted yesterday in class and it was really well received. A pretty great blend of upbeat and mellow tunes that led to JUST enough dancing and smiling.

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I hate running. Normally I wouldn’t run unless someone was chasing me with a weapon. Unfortunately, running is the best way to wear out Piper. Yesterday we did a 3 mile interval (running/walking) and finished up at the pond on campus. Piper was worn out enough that she got into the water, waded and swam around, and then laid down in the water. This is spectacularly unusual because Piper is 100% mutt, but enough lab that she can’t resist a stick or a ball.

Oprah’s doing this thing with Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. And watching Piper in the water, halfheartedly holding a stick in her mouth but lying down in the water so I can’t make her fetch it, I started thinking about this need people have for a Life’s Purpose.

Piper is not a complicated animal. In fact, most animals aren’t that complicated. Piper likes to chase sticks (and balls, and rabbits). When there’s a stick or a frisbee nearby, Piper is completely and totally focused on it. That is the center of her existence. But when there isn’t a fetching tool around, she’s not MISERABLE. She doesn’t lie down and heave enormous sighs, feeling bad because there’s no frisbee or all. She clearly doesn’t spend all of her time thinking that she needs a frisbee. She finds other things to do with her time. She enjoys having people pet her as much as she likes fetching. She likes to look out our front door and windows. She likes to lie in our bed. She loves truck surfing.

Animals don’t need a Life Purpose. They are drawn to certain activities, biologically or not, but in the absence of those activities aren’t depressed or unable to do other things. People are animals. I mean, a lot of people don’t like to admit it but that’s what we are. Mammals. Not all that different from dogs and pigs and monkeys. But people are obsessed with having this One Reason to exist. A Life’s Purpose which will make everything else in life more relevant and enjoyable.

My dad was a very wise man. As with most very wise men, you don’t realize how wise they are until many years after they’ve been wise around you. He always told me that, “No one and nothing can MAKE you happy. You have to choose to be happy because if you’re not happy with yourself, no one else can be happy with you.” The other wise guy in my life has this to say: “I don’t go to work to get fulfilled. I go to work to make the money I need to do OTHER things I enjoy. I get my fulfillment in other places.”

Nobody wakes up and thinks, “I am destined to be a telemarketer.”* But for some reason, people are obsessed with finding this One Thing. I’m more likely to combine the wisdom of my guys and the lessons Piper provides. Find things you enjoy. Enjoy them. Those things will probably change over time. Don’t get too worked up about those things changing. And it’s okay to not love your job. It’s okay not to get any fulfillment from your job. That’s what the other things you enjoy are for.

The truth of the matter is that, like dogs, we don’t HAVE One Purpose. Each of us is different and gets fulfillment from different things at different stages in our lives. I like practicing yoga because 1. It makes my body feel good, 2. It helps keep me in the moment, which reminds me how unimportant a lot of other things are, and 3. It calms me down and makes me feel happy. I will endeavor to keep TEACHING yoga for the rest of my life because I love being able to share those things with other people. I will probably never make a living at it and that’s okay. I would also probably never have become a yoga teacher if my father hadn’t died. There are things that change your path, sometimes dramatically, so to think that there’s just One Thing that you’re meant to do isn’t just unrealistic – it’s kind of silly.

Holding on to the idea that “I’m meant to do this One Thing” is a guarantee for disappointment with your life – and how much fun is that? Accept that there are things you do because you need to, there are things you do because you want to, and neither has to have some Bigger Purpose in your life.

Do what you like.

Enjoy your life because it’s far too short to do anything else.

*Okay, I WAS telemarketer and I’m telling you for real that NO ONE thinks its a great job. Especially not the people who have to do it.

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Not yoga itself, but the perceptions assocaited with it – for example, Christians can’t do yoga because it’s worshipping other gods. Whenever someone says that to me, the top of my head blows off. I can’t help it.

First – yoga is nontheistic. It is a series of stretches and breathing exercises designed to help you become a better person (click “8 Limbs” above). The sutras acknowledge a ‘higher power’ or ‘higher consciousness’ but if you’re part of a monotheistic tradition, insert your deity here. If you’re an atheist, stick with the higher consciousness part. Everyone can find a spot to fit here.

Second – yoga classes are as individual as their teachers. So to say that doing yoga means you have to pray in Hindi is like saying “I don’t like Captain Crunch, so there is no cereal that I will ever like.”

There are absolutely classes which involve chanting (typically in sanskrit and not necessarily as deity prayer though -again – you can insert the deity of your choice). There are classes that have a more spiritual bent. I’m a big believer that if those are the kind of classes you’re teaching, you need to advertise it clearly. That’s true of just about anything – no one wants to walk in expecting A and get D instead. Of course that would be disappointing.

But for example, I don’t even use the word ‘meditation’ in my class. Is that what savasana is? Pretty much. But if it makes you feel better to call it ‘relaxation,’ it’s that too. My classes focus on breath and asana, stretching and strength building. So do most other yoga classes.

I make myself available for students if they want to talk about incorporating a spiritual aspect into their practice, but I don’t make it a part of my classes. I don’t talk about religion, ever. I don’t lecture about the sutras, even though there are koans of wisdom I may use. It’s my goal to help each student have the practice that they want, I’m just the guide to get them there.

So yes, Christians, you can absolutely practice yoga. Stretching and breathing isn’t a conversion process or proselytization. I guarantee that no teacher is trying to make you uncomfortable, so if one class or teacher doesn’t work for you, check around (especially at gyms). There are so many great benefits of yoga that it would be a shame not to try it because of a misconception.

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Alas, I did not post an asana yesterday. I generally take one day off of practice per week and last week it was Saturday. I did practice, just not my ‘typical’ practice. Which is what brings me to the blog.

I’m always telling students that, even more than practicing for an hour a day, if you practice 10 minutes at a time a couple times a day you’ll get the same benefits. I actually believe this to be true because (aside from physical benefits) the mental benefits are even greater. Taking several breaks during the day to refocus your attention interally, think about your breath, and do some nice gentle stretches means you’ll be less likely to fly off the handle, or get impatient and frustrated.

So why is it so hard to listen to my own advice?

It’s rare for me NOT to take many mini breaks during the day. First of all, forward folds just FEEL GOOD. So I’m the weird person in the grocery store who, rather than crouching down to grab a can of black beans, bends in half, takes a couple of deep breaths, and then stands up – can in hand – much happier. Uttanasana is GREAT.

All of my friends think it strange but it makes sense to me. My body needs a stretch, so I do it. I do the same thing with side stretches (standing up, legs strong, curving to right or left) pretty much at any time in any place. Occasionally I believe it embarrasses my husband. I say, “Hey- it’s not like I’m waving my arms overhead. Or using Ujayi breath. I’m not making a SCENE! I’m just stretching in the middle of Home Depot!”

What happens, though, is that I get so used to doing those little things at various points that I don’t think of them as practice. So when I don’t do a full hour or hour and a half, I feel like I haven’t DONE anything. Even though I know logically that it’s not the case.

Yesterday I did some stretches in the morning (spinal twists while lying in bed are one of my faves), some stretches during the afternoon, some three part breathing when my husband was making me CRAZY while we fixed our flooring, and more little stretches before bed. And even though it doesn’t add up to an hour, it still counts – you can ask my husband, who noticed a dramatic change in my frustration level during our project. ;)

There is no competition in yoga. No competition with others, no competition with yourself. Whiile things like WoYoPracMo are great to help people refocus their practice, they can also bring that competitive nature to the forefront, or a tendency to think negatively about one’s ability to meet the goal.

Smile. Breathe. It still counts.

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I like the idea of WoYoPracMo (World Yoga Practice Month) but I already do yoga almost every day. I love the idea of encouraging people to ramp up their practice, be it frequency or intensity, and especially to engage people who are maybe a little intimidated by yoga.

My WoYoPracMo plan? I’m going to use July as another type of motivation – one, to lengthen my practice and two, to blog a yoga asana every day. As with any explanation of asana, Your Mileage May Vary. Keep what you like, discard what you don’t. ;)

Since it’s day one, I’m going to start with an exercise that I frequently use in classes to illustrate that you have control of your practice.

I tell each and every class that you can make each asana, in each class, as easy or as difficult as you want. It’s all about muscles. Engaging more muscle makes the asana more active, more work. Engaging less muscle makes the asana more passive, more relaxing. Active and passive are not judgment terms, simply a reflection of the amount of work your body does.

Our studio typically starts classes with legs up the wall (Viparita Karani).** By its definition, it is a very relaxed and relaxing posture. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how:

Begin with legs, arms, abdominal muscles relaxed. Flex feet. Point your toes and then flex the foot as though you’d stand on it. Press out through the heels, try to draw the toes back toward the body. Keep the feet flexed and active, try to keep the heels pressing into the wall. Notice that it makes your calves work. Imagine you’re going to lift your legs away from the wall, flexing the quadriceps (front of thighs) as though to make that motion, and keep the thighs active. You can do the kneecap test to see if it’s working.***

Engage the abdominal muscles. Adjust your pelvic position- tilt the pelvis backward, trying to draw the tops of the hipbones toward the bottom of the ribcage. This lets your lower back press more firmly into the floor. You can also reverse this- tilt the pelvis forward. This recreates a natural arch in the lower back and changes how the stretch in the back of the legs feels. Keep the feet, legs, and abs active.

Extend the arms out into a T position, palms facing up. Keep the shoulderblades flat on the floor. You can engage the shoulders by trying to draw the shoulderblades toward one another- not a squeeze, just making them active. Reach out through the fingertips, stretching and widening the gaps between the fingers. If you want to make it more work, lift the backs of the hands slightly away from the floor. Keep the feet, legs, abs, arms, and hands active for a couple of breaths.

Then, with an exhale, relax all those muscles.

That is the difference. That’s how you control your practice. That’s how you decide to work. From the bottom up, every single time. I run through this exercise in each class because it doesn’t seem to occur to a lot of folks. When a student tells me that they don’t get anything out of a class, it tells me a lot about the student. If something isn’t working for you, speak up- that’s what we’re here for. If something is painful, DON’T DO IT. Ask us for other options. We’ve got them. We practice ourselves *and* we got training, for that express reason.

One of the things I love about yoga is that it is a constant learning process. Every single day I learn something new about my body and how it works, or how I can make it work. I love that it is process oriented rather than goal oriented because I like the nuts and bolts of things. I also like that it helps you change how you think about things (see above asana) because that means you’re not just learning but you’re also learning about yourself and how you have limited your paradigms. That kind of learning makes us better people.

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From the Positivity Blog

Gandhi’s Top 10 Fundamentals for Changing the World.

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