Living the Yogic Life

The latest yoga convo is here. Mona, Virginie and Cathy discuss what it means to live the yogic life, specifically in reference to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Take a listen and let us know what you think.

 

The Role of Chanting – part 2

The continuing conversation about the role of chanting in yoga classes. Take a listen!

 

Yoga Convo – The Role of Chanting

What do you think about chanting at the beginning or end of a yoga class? Ever wonder why we do it or why not all teachers do?  In the latest Yoga Convo, we discuss these questions. The first part of the conversation is here. Part two comes tomorrow and then stayed tuned for the continuing discussion.

 

In Front of the Class

9c9dd782-3026-47e5-93aa-f2924b500799The practice of yoga is a commitment on the part of the yogi to challenge established patterns of behaviour while delving into a process of self-inquiry. Learning to teach yoga asks for the same dedicated process. As we begin to teach yoga in teacher training programs, our engrained tendencies are being displayed, we are exposed and raw — just as we are when we move deeply into our asana practice. The asana practice is designed to remove the layers of covering, of protection and the practice of teaching does the same thing. While the eye of the teacher-trainer is monitoring the student’s progress, it is never as harsh, in my experience, as the eye we turn on ourselves. We too easily become fixated on our shortcomings, our inadequacies and our mistakes.  It is of crucial importance for the holder of knowledge and authority in that scenario to express these aspects of teaching with gentleness and compassion in the face of students who are willing the make themselves bare in the teaching arena and in front of their peer group.

Good teaching, like good asana, is much less about the outcome and more about the process. As the second weekend of teacher training has wrapped up, I am so impressed by the dedication and commitment this group of trainees showed to the process of learning to teach yoga. They dove into teaching each other with a courage that overcame the fear of what it meant to be standing at the front of the room.

As a process, over the last two weekends, student teachers were asked to immediately teach each other simple movements, followed by poses, building up to  2-3 poses and then to teach these same 2-3 poses in front of the whole group. There was no notice, little preparation outside of their own asana practice and no teaching theory.  To dive right into the teaching is not to intimidate but rather to create a growing feeling of familiarity, connection and ease as the holder of  knowledge.  The focus of teaching the broad strokes of presence and basic instructions needed to form the shapes of the various poses allow for a layered acclimatization.   As yoga teachers, we do not correct the raw beginner in the first Trikonasana. Instead, we give them enough guidelines to not create harm and we allow the pose and the repetition of the pose to work on them. Corrections and feedback are secondary to fostering a safe, comfortable and encouraging environment in which the inexperienced student  is able to feel his/her way into the beginnings of a form. Refinement, in all aspects, come later.

The experience of teaching this early builds confidence in the sense that it shakes the student’s belief that they do not know enough to stand in front of the room.  Suddenly the mind’s whispers of “i don’t have enough information, i don’t know what i am doing” are relegated to the background and a spontaneous prompting is transformed into personalized instructions that arise from the student teacher own intuitive intelligence.  What was inaccessible a minute ago is accessed, what was generic becomes personalized.  By capitalizing on this intangible, the student teacher discovers something about his/her self—a knowledge that cannot be lost and that can be built on. This is a dynamic process where the process of teaching changes the student and the student changes the process of teaching.

My initial role as teacher-trainer is to give each student enough time and space to develop his / her personal relationship to yoga, to build an integrated practice of yoga, to provide form and structure for the art of teaching and to direct and refine the forays into practice and teaching. Between the first and second weekends, teacher trainees were asked to pick a pose and do it every day. On one level this is to have the trainee memorize the pose but more importantly it is to create a relationship between him/her and the pose. It is this relationship between practice and self, that drives the teaching of yoga. We do not become great asana teachers without personal inquiry into the practice of yoga. When we do a pose every day regardless of mood, outside of regular classes and formalized practice, the pose begins to work on us in various ways. We start a dialogue between our body, our mind and the pose. It is this dialogue that then speaks through us when we teach. It is how we then “know” how to build a sequence, what to say when instructing a particular pose and when asked a question by a student. The practice reveals all the necessary knowledge if we are receptive, interested and engaged in the dialogue.

We know the source of yoga is greater than any one pose, than any one teacher. As teacher trainers, then, we help the student touch this source and make it his/her own — in his/her practice and in his/her teaching. It is the connection to this source that is the ultimate desire fuelling our practice of yoga and our practice of learning to teach yoga.

The Role of Myth

For over 27 000 years, starting at the time of the first cave paintings, myths and the telling of myths have been one of most fundamental ways we communicate. The universal questions inherent in myth and the art of storytelling transcend time, culture and social status. They are a prominent link between individuals and a powerful way to deepen understanding.

The myths themselves define and examine the notion of being. They demand that the listener enter a particular state of awareness. This awareness is built by creating a sense of connection between the individual listening and the universe being described in the form of an archetype.They attempt to make the universe and the self come into coherence. As a result, there is a magnification of the universal questions of what can be known, what can be felt and what can be done about it. This type of awareness, just like asana, demands practice. To be immersed in the universe of myth requires rigorous attentiveness – a skill which must be honed. Through the practice, the mind is then able to hold great sweeps of emotion, ideas and concepts beyond the relative or material. While listening to the myth, the mind wanders between the real and the imagined. If successful, the myth is a way to create new thinking and new feeling and, through the conduit of daydreaming (in a way), lays the seed for a honing of ourselves at a deeper level. As we find aspects of ourselves in each of the myth’s characters, the myth lays the groundwork for our consciousness to be imbued with empathy. When the image of the myth is apt, our knowledge of our humanity expands. It allows for our dream-mind’s unconscious knowledge to penetrate our waking consciousness. Myth-telling feeds our desire to know what happens and answers our hope that we will make sense to ourselves and our function within the universe. It is a way for us to deepen the coherence with the world at large and within our layered self.

The yoga tradition is built on the collection of Gods and Goddesses that make up the Hindu pantheon. Unlike Greek mythology which is built on a polytheistic vision of the universe, Hindu mythology is build around the idea of one universal consciousness. Various God and Goddesses in the pantheon momentarily take on separate identities for the purpose of illustrating a particular aspect of Consciousness. There is, however, the fundamental understanding that all Gods and Goddesses are expressing this one overarching energy.

The recent weekend yoga retreat used myths of Shakti to examine the idea that there is a fundamental creative energy that desires to be known. The Universe is then created from this desire. This esoteric concept becomes more understandable through the personification of this energy as Malini, in one myth and as Parvarti in another. Take a listen to the beginning of the myth of Shakti as Malini.

Next retreat: Mexico February 2017

 

Beyond a Weekend Workshop

fullsizerender-11As a yoga teacher, it is a deeply enriching experience to spend time as a student of a master teacher. A week ago, I did just that in a weekend workshop with senior Iyengar teacher, Father Joe Pereira. Father Joe is a skilled teacher with many years in devoted service and study both as a yogi and as a Jesuit priest. His devotion to his teachers, Mother Teresa and BKS Iyengar, inform the core of his teaching. His commitment and obvious love for his teachers and his practice inspired me to revisit what it means to be a student of yoga.

It might be slightly shocking but being a student is not always as simple as it seems. It could be argued that being a student is a skill and therefore like any skill it can be developed. Above and beyond the particulars of any class or course, what a master teacher truly addresses is the development of that skill. It will be of no surprise, then, that the experience of the student coincides with his or her ability to receive, be open to be instructed and have a receptive attitude towards the teacher. The plain truth is that no one can be taught if unprepared to really sit in the role of student. Miracles, however, can happen when the sincere student encounters a dedicated teacher. Inherent, of course, in the dedicated teacher is the receptive student. Father Joe is clearly such a student and, as a consequence, such a teacher. As a result, students are liable to leave his courses transformed.

Being of a certain tradition and lineage, Father Joe’s expectations of his audience is not to be underestimated. I would venture to say that Father Joe’s expectations of the student’s attributes go back to the classics of yoga where humility, equanimity, perseverance in the face of hardship were part and parcel of the teacher – student relationship. Having said that, one expectation on the part of the teacher stands above the rest. That is the willingness of the student to surrender to the teacher’s authority and the recognition of the teacher as the holder of yogic attainment. In the inability to side step the ego, it is hard to believe that the student could benefit from the full scope of the teacher’s subtle knowledge.

This traditional model of teacher – student relationship is one that Father Joe has been able to mould into a more modern form. He weaves precise physical instruction to bring the mind and the body in alignment together with subtle energetic concepts, and a deep understanding of the ultimate purpose of yoga. Through his recurring use of elements like Mula Bandha and Uddhiyana Bandha, Father Joe allows for an internalizing of the specific physical instruction to transcend the limitations of the body and come to rest in the divine spark of the Heart. Beyond the poses, the work with subtle energetic patterns increases the student’s ability to be present. The emphasis on pranayama opens a space of vibrating presence within the student’s essence and also within the room.

The scope of Father Joe’s expectations for the weekend will remain a mystery to me. However, what I found particularly appealing was that within the rigor of his teaching, Father Joe allowed for the possibility that not all students were the same and would benefit in the same manner. The maturity of that approach made a point-by-point instruction obsolete in favour of a more spacious technique that demanded of the student commitment, openness and the willingness to face fear. He asked the student to come to the teacher rather than the teacher to search out the student – a classical characteristic of the teacher-student relationship.

On the concrete level, Father Joe taught from a very basic syllabus of poses. Introduced on Friday, these were then repeated on Saturday and Sunday. The objective was not physical ability; it was nuance. Nuance in sensation, nuance in effort, nuance in mental state. I would venture to say that through the long holds, it was not the body that rebelled against the strain; it was the mind. When the mind was screaming for distraction or for an end to the pose, Father Joe dared us to identify ourselves with Iyengar and forced us to differentiate between pain as an escape and pain as transformation.

Father Joe’s mastery is steeped with his vary potent humanity and lyrical approach to life. His lyricism shone in his delight at sharing selections from the Upanishads as well as Christian and Hindu mystical verses. His renditions, chanted or spoken, were shared without inhibition and clearly made one feel his studentship and the developed connection to the transcendent. In Father Joe, teacher and student come together as one. And possibly the ultimate mark of the master teacher is the ability to remain an eternal student.

 

Sequence from Friday evening:

  • Opening + chant
  • Supta Virasana or Supta Baddha Konasana
  • Adho Mukha Virasana – over a bolster
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana – head supported by bolster
  • Uttanasana
  • Trikonasana – block for the bottom hand, top arm thumb on sacrum to turn the chest up and then arm straight
  • Parshvakonasana – same as above
  • Virabhadrasana I – back heel raised on block, lift ball of front foot up
  • Parshvottanasana – hands in Paschima Namaskar, hands to floor, walk around to the second side, come up
  • Prasarita Padottanasana – head supported, hold ankles and then place hands between feet
  • Viparita Dandasana – on the chair
  • Bharadvajasana I – on the chair
  • Navasana – belt at shoulder blades and around heels, calves on the chair edge
  • Janu Sirsasana
  • Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana
  • Paschimottanasana
  • Chatush Padasana on block – hold ankles / Setu Bandha Sarvangasana on block – walk legs straight and interlace fingers
  • Pranayama – torso on bolster – Ujayii
  • Pranayama – bolster at knees so calves touch – interrupted exhale
  • Savasana – head supported

Anatomy of a Program: YTT 2016-17

img_0688I started teaching my first solo teacher training this past weekend and welcomed a group of dedicated yogis interested in deepening their knowledge and experience of yoga. The preparation for it got me to review my own experiences in teacher training programs.

Over my twenty years of yoga practice, I have taken five different teacher training programs. Each one  began with a similar feeling of excitement tinted with a hint of trepidation. Each one ended with an acknowledgement of the vastness of the tradition and a deepening desire for study and practice. Each one gave me unique experiences, particular insights and was rich in opportunity for personal reflection and growth. Each one was valuable beyond measure. The preparation for this course involved the distillation of learnings from these other trainings, from my own practice and from my study of yoga philosophy. It was augmented with insights arising from conversations with others yogis and yoga teachers.

Driving my preparation and delivery of the teacher training program is a deep desire to share my approach to practice and teaching. It is the same desire that fuels participation in teacher training programs. It is a fundamental human impulse to awaken to our true nature, to learn, to know and to grow. It is this fervour that moves us to square our front leg in Virabhadrasana II, to push into Urdhva Danurasana and to sit in meditation. This desire takes us into places of vulnerability and discomfort that yield personal transformation. It forces us to confront our fears on an abstract level and, on a tangible level, it compels us to submit our application for yoga teacher trainings. When we know our passion and follow its impulse, we engage in a creative process that takes the conceptual, filters it through our lived experience, and makes it personal. It is a practice of becoming more and more aligned with our core reality. As a result, teacher training is not a process of augmentation, rather, it is a process of creatively revealing what is already present within each one of us. We are brought to life through this alchemy. This is yoga.

Intention flows out of that current; from the atmosphere I wanted to build as the group came together, from the tone I wanted to set, to the balance I wanted to strike between sensitivity and  rigour and to space I wanted to create for students to explore the inner dimension of their being. The yoga tradition speaks about the value of intention. Sankalpa is the core intention of the seeker; it is desire stripped of pretence. Here, various aspects of the self merge into one seamless whole, free from the tension of conflicting and competing false selves.

At the beginning of this initial weekend, trainees were asked to set a Sankalpa for the training. This intention was to clarify and affirm the direction of their effort toward self-realization. Their intentions and mine were then honoured in an opening ritual. As the weekend unfolded, it became clear that teacher and students were co-creating a reality rooted in mutually informed commitments and intentions. The seed of a new paradigm had been planted – one that would come to fruition in the months ahead. Glimpses in practical terms over this weekend were seen when questions about asana and anatomy referenced yoga philosophy and the subtle (energetic) body. As the teacher, this was very exciting!

And what better way to plant the seed of intention than with standing poses! Our asana practices and discussions revolved around the standing pose syllabus, giving a voice to their qualities and the impact of their practice. We acknowledged how these poses form the foundation of the asana practice and how struggles in advanced poses can often be traced back to a lack of assiduousness in these foundational ones. We discussed how the intensity of the revolved standing poses can bring up our inner tendencies to strive or to give up in an effort to avoid the present moment.The asana practice as a whole is designed to highlight our tendencies and show us how these tendencies may interfere with the deeper desire for wholeness. The standing poses lay the groundwork for an inner stability that roots us in the moment to moment experience of life’s expressions. What better way to start the teacher training!

108 Contemplations: Devotion & Ritual

ShriMona-11As you read this, I am leading a two-week yoga retreat at the fabulous Samata Holistic Retreat Centre in Goa, India (www.samatagoa.com). Throughout the two weeks of the retreat, we are reading the Bhagavad Gita, a classic India text, and exploring the rich themes found in the recounting of a conversation between a young warrior, Arjuna and his wise chariot driver, Krishna. At its heart, the Gita is a tale of devotion as Krishna, who is a god in human form, lays out a path of practice (yoga) to address Arjuna’s confusion and doubt. Krishna suggests that selfless acts of devotion directed toward an ever-deepening understanding of our truest Self allays our fears and concerns. He goes on to suggest we make every act an offering of love.

Devotion is defied by the Google dictionary as love for a particular cause or person, rituals or observances often religious in nature and prayer. Interestingly, the use of word has been significantly declining over the last hundred years.

Just before leaving for India, my spouse emailed me a link to a Flipboard article from Time Magazine on ritual (http://time.com/4086909/daily-ritual/). The article suggests that the number one ritual to increase overall happiness is more ritual. Rituals, as the article notes, increase our presence or mindfulness and as a result, our enjoyment in an experience. Our ability to savour each moment increases and that has a direct correlation with our levels of happiness.

I love ritual. I love the way it unites a group, generates a collective experience and channels or amasses energy. I love the grounding and the presence within myself ritual can create. I have experienced how specific acts done with intent, devotion and love have impacted me and those around me. And I also understand how difficult it is to maintain.

Returning from Bali several months ago, I made a decision to pause and say grace before eating. Even more recently, I have set a few moments aside as I settle for sleep to pray. I have watched how both rituals brought me into presence when I honoured them … and I have observed how quickly and easily they are forgotten. Many times, I have fallen asleep without a thought of prayer and I have unconsciously been partway through a meal before remembering to think of those who energy went into what I am eating. These moments of inattentive action remind me of a yoga teacher’s suggestion, “Don’t make yoga your life. Make your life yoga.” This is similar to what Krishna says to Arjuna in the Gita. Conscious, selfless, devoted action brings us closer to ourselves, into presence and as the article says impacts our happiness.

To this end, I offer you a time to contemplate the role of ritual in your daily life. Most of us have rituals around bigger moments (holidays, birthdays and new years), but what of the smaller daily rituals. Consider:

  • What does devotion mean to me? To what or whom am I devoted? How do I enact that devotion on a daily basis?
  • What is the role of ritual in my life?
  • What daily rituals bring me into a deepening connection with myself?

108 Contemplations: Intention

MK-329I was always reluctant to set goals. I was much more interested in going with the flow of life and seeing where I ended up. And then a few things happened to impact this idea. In my late 20s I considered taking a professional development course laid out in a number of modules over three years. I chose not to take it, thinking that I would not know what could happen over the time of the course. Would I change jobs or move, for example. Then, three years (and maybe more) passed, anyway and I did not have the designation the course would have provided. This was an interesting lesson. Time passes regardless of the decisions one makes.

Next, in my early 30s a friend challenged me to layout a 10-year plan. Ten years, I remember thinking, how can I possibly know what will happen in ten years! With much resistance, I did however sit down to create a picture of what I would like my life to look like 10 years in the future. When the plan was finished, I found it surprisingly exciting to have this idea of what I wanted life to look like in the future. It was a road map that had room for detours but it directed and focused my attention in an unexpected way.

The yoga philosophy talks about intention in two specific ways. One is the san kalpa and it means a concept or idea formed in the heart or mind. It is a definite intention, a one-pointed resolve to do or achieve. It is often used during a deep relaxation process called Yoga Nidra and many teachers may suggest students set this intention at the beginning of a practice or class.

Drishti is the focusing of the gaze for the means of concentration. It is where the eyes are directed to settle in a yoga pose. This calm focus for the eyes is related to pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses from the outer world to the inner world and concentrating the awareness there. It may also be a reference to the way that we clarify and direct our attention or gaze when setting goals.

In both concepts, there is a call to direct consciousness for the specific purpose of awakening.

So, at the beginning of a new phase, or project, or year, or season or day or asana / meditation / pranayama practice, there is an opportunity to focus or re-focus our gaze and direct our action toward a specific purpose. The beginning of this contemplation process is a appropriate time to clarify our vision and how we will direct our energy forward. Here are some questions to sit with or to free write around or to hold in your heart.

 

Intention:

  • What is my relationship to intention setting and the directing of energy or effort toward a particular end point?
  • What is the intention for my spiritual practices and how do we measure progress on the path?
  • How do I want my life to look in two, five or ten years?

 

108 Contemplations: an invitation

IMG_3333I have been a bit absent in blog-land lately. In the last while, I have been contemplating how to use the blog as a forum for a deepening contemplative practice. I have a desire to be part of a community of individuals wishing to live authentically, to seek out truth and to delve into their shadows in service of the Light. I want to share the teachings and philosophy of yoga in a way that invites meaningful change and transforms the mundane into the extraordinary. I want a dialogue with others who are investigating, examining and engaging their lives in order to live with more freedom, joy and truth.

How does insight into our self develop? Insight is a flash of understanding that turns on with the flip of a switch that lights the light bulb. Insight is the slow arising of understanding that builds as water rises with the melting of ice. Either way, insight develops with care and attention to it.

To that end, I am inviting you to join me in active contemplation and to share your ideas, reflections and insights with the intention to deepening our individual experience and to inspire others to connect with their inner wisdom.

There are no rules for this venture. I will regularly post short vignettes that include personal experiences, yoga philosophy and questions with which to engage. The idea is to spark an interaction of you with yourself and of individuals within a community of like-minded others. You may sit with the questions and wait to responses to arise from within (either informally or in a more structured meditation sit). You might choose to write or use the questions as themes to focus on throughout asana practice or over the day in general. You may choose to keep your reflections private, share with close friends or summarize your thoughts on Facebook.

You may choose to join for one or two reflections, commit to work with all 108 contemplations or find a place in between these examples. I do suggest that you make this a conscious decision as best you can (recognizing that life happens). This is mainly because there will be contemplations that you immediately connect to and others that you think are pointless. Both may offer rich grounds for growth and increased understanding which is the purpose. By not clarifying the way in which you will participate, it will be easier to check out from the moments that may be helpful.
It is my hope that we come together as a community interested in developing self-awareness and understanding and together evolve the collective consciousness. Care to join?