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!

Like A Flame In A Windless Place: Ekagrata

The attainment of the Samadhi state involves the elimination of all-pointedness [i.e. wandering] of the mind and the rise of one-pointedness [i.e. concentration].

Yoga Sutra 3.11, trans. Edwin Bryant

Under the appearance of thought, there is really an indefinite and disordered flickering, fed by sensations words, and memory. The first duty of the yogin is to think-that is, not to let himself think. This is why Yoga practice begins with ekagrata, which darns the mental stream and thus constitutes a ‘psychic mass,’ a solid and unified continuum.

Mircea Eliade

When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place.

Bhagavad Gita, 6.19-20

Ekagrata, one-pointedness, is yoga’s solution to taming the restlessness of the wandering mind. Closely related to the practice of dharana (concentration), it is the practice of focusing the mind into a single stream of perception.

Just as the mind has the ability to go outward in a centrifugal movement (away from the center), it also has the power to turn inward in a centripetal direction (toward the center). The latter is what we develop through practicing ekagrata.

Its not so much about trying to stop the mind, but rather directing the flow of attention inward and fixing the continuous stream of our awareness on a chosen object.  In this way, all the various mental energies, including thoughts, feelings and sense perceptions, converge on a singular inner focus and stay there for a while.

One-pointedness brings joy and a sense of freedom. Recognizing that the term yoga refers both to the journey and the destination, we understand that becoming fully absorbed in the process of performing asana IS the yoga .Ekagrata allows us to be in each stage of our pose from start to finish, breathing, feeling, sensing, noticing, responding, and even relishing.

Holding poses for longer timings develops our capacity to hold a one-pointed focus.

For those with a regular inversion practice, here is a sequence I worked with recently to witness and reign in the wanderings of my mind:

Opening Postures

Adho Mukha Svanasana with forehead support (2 minutes)

Adho Mukha Svanasana pedaling the feet

Adho Mukha Svanasana- Lunge – Adho Mukha Svanasana – Uttanasana – Ardha Uttanasana – Uttansana – Urdhva Hastasana – Tadasana

Surya Namaskar A

Surya Namaskar B

Urdha Prasarita Padasana 20x       

Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)

Uttanasana

Pincha Mayurasana

Balasana

Standing Poses 

Tadasana

Parsvakonasana

Trikonasana

Parsvottanasana

Parivrtta Trikonasana

Prasarita Padottanasana hands clasped behind back

Supported Backbends                                                                                            

Block Paryankasana

Block Supta Virasana

Sirsasana 1 and variations                                                                        

Hold for 3-5 minutes before beginning variations. Hold variations for 20-30 seconds each.

·      Parsva

·      Eka Pada

·      Parsvaikapada

·      Upavistha Konasana in Sirsasana

·      Baddha Konasana in Sirsasana

Balasana

Setu Bandha with block under sacrum                                      

Salamba Sarvangasana and variations                                                  

·      Eka Pada

·      Parsvaikapada

·      Halasana

·      Parsva Halasana

·      Supta Konasana

·      Karna Pidasana

·      Sarvangasana

·      Parsva

·      Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (use blocks under feet as needed)

·      Sarvangasana

·      Niralamba Sarvangasana

·      Halasana

Finishing Postures                                                                                     

Jathara Parivartanasana with bent knees 2x each side

Supta Padangusthasana 1

Supta Balasana

Savasana 

The Wisdom of Equanimity: Teachings and a Sequence

That devotee who looks upon friend and foe with equal regard, 
Who is not buoyed up by praise nor cast down by blame,
Alike in heat and cold, pleasure and pain, 
free from selfish attachments,
The same in honor and dishonor, 
quiet, ever full, in harmony everywhere
,firm in faith – such a one is dear to me. 

Bhagavad Gita 12.18-19

Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or in failure. Yoga is evenness of mind — a peace that is ever the same.

Bhagavad Gita 2.48

 

You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

Equanimity, or Upeksha, is evenness of mind. Like the = sign, it denotes sameness. It is the ability to hold a vision of life’s ups and downs on equal footing.

Derived from “aequus,” a Latin adjective meaning “level” or “equal”, the word comes from the combination of “aequus” and “animus” (“soul” or “mind”).

Part of the very definition of the state of yoga, equanimity is one of the most essential attitudes we cultivate in yogic life.

I experience it as a spacious inner stance where the various dramas of my life are held within a larger, over-arching and all-encompassing oneness. There is a calmness and a serenity in it. It put things in perspective.

Padmasana, Lotus poseis a posture that helps to bring about this state of equanimity for me. Perhaps it is the hip opening it requires, the sense of symmetry it creates, or the inward, self-contained quality it engenders.

Being naturally flexible, I’ve always loved this pose. Granted, you might very well have a different relationship with it, in which case this sequence might lead you to an experience of equanimity in a very different way from my own. And that’s perfect, because our approach is: 1. Receive the teaching.  2. Filter it through your own experience. 3. See what happens and most importantly, what you can learn from it.

Here’s an intermediate sequence working toward Padamasana to explore equanimity:

Supta Baddha Konasa with bolster support, blocks or belt

Adho Mukha Svanasana

Ardha Uttanasana

Uttanasana

Vrksasana

Parighasana

Trikonasana

Virabhadrasana II

Ardha Chandrasana

At wall:

Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana

Parsvottanasana

Parivrtta Trikonasana

Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana

Uttanasana with hips at wall

Supta Virasana

Supta Padangusthasana 1 and 3

Baddha Konasana with feet on block

Janu Sirsasana

Upa Vista Konasana

Agni Stambhasana

Supine Ardha Padmasana

Ardha Padmasana

Padmasana

Sarvangasana

Savasasana

Sculpting The Mind With The Body

We all know that the mind affects body, for example, “You look down in the dumps,” or “He was crestfallen.” Why not, suggests yoga, try the other way round…we are going to try to use asana to sculpt the mind.”

BKS Iyengar, Light on Life, page 11

Using asana to sculpt the mind, a brilliant observation and a powerful understanding that adds infinite depth to our practice.

It’s the idea that not only do asanas have certain inherent qualities that are revealed when we practice them, but that we can actually choose to cultivate what we want to experience more in our selves.

We can choose to sculpt courage in the face of vulnerability (i.e. backbends), one-pointed focus in the face of distraction (i.e. longer holdings), or resilience in the face of challenge (i.e. arm balances).

When we consciously join our experience of the asana with a chosen attitude, alchemy happens.

Here’s how it works: Each time we meet resistance in practice (in the form of vulnerability, distraction or challenge, to use the examples above) with a chosen attitude (like courage, one-pointed focus, or resilience), we chip away at our habitual mental reaction and forge a new pattern, this time one of our choosing. In this way we reshape our internal landscape. With time and practice, it results in our becoming more of who and how we wish to be.

How we do this, in what poses, for how long we hold them for and in what way we perform them is entirely up to us.

We can practice Adho Mukha Svanasana with the forehead supported to promote peace, with the hands elevated for upliftment or hold it for a 3-minutes to cultivate resolve.

Transformative, fun, and infinitely varied, the art of using the body to mold the mind is a creative process. It involves tailoring the practice to lead our unique manifestation of body-mind to toward a particular goal, in this case a chosen inner attitude.

I’ll be sharing some of sequences and ideas to explore this process in the next few weeks.