Abhyasa, Vairagya My Ass

That was just to get your attention. And it was indeed my intention to write a funny/snarky essay about not being rewarded for my good deeds.

Which I still may do.

I started practicing in 1990 at Crunch (it was a gym) when my knees couldn’t take bench aerobics anymore. The yoga teachers were Sharon Gannon, Cyndi Lee, and a few years later, Dana Flynn. Nobody mentioned abhyasa or vairagya. There was little mention of philosophy. It was a GYM. I went every other day. Then I started going twice a day every other day. But Sharon Gannon passed out a free class card for her studio on 2nd Avenue so I also went to Jivamukti. It was a REAL yoga studio and I was a little intimidated. (I went to kirtan not knowing what it was. It was the first time both my legs fell asleep at the same time.)

It took two years of hopping at the wall to do a handstand. I tell my students who are struggling that eventually boredom will overcome fear. That’s how it was for me. After about three years, I did my first crow pose in Sharon’s class. I actually shouted, “I DID IT!”  Her response? “Well, it’s about time.”  Bummer. So I figured I wasn’t working HARD enough, OFTEN enough, blah blah blah. That may have been true but somebody should have mentioned that vairagya part.

Descartes once said: “Happiness does not consist in acquiring the things we think will make us happy, but in learning to like doing the things we have to do anyway.”

There are many interpretations or translations of Patanjali’s Sutra 1.12-14:

From Barbara Stoller Miller: 1.12- “Cessation of the turnings of thought comes through practice and dispassion.”  1.13- “Practice is the effort to maintain the cessation of thought.”  1.14- “This practice is firmly grounded when it is performed for a long time without interruption and with zeal.”

OK. Thirty years later I have never maintained the cessation of thought. While I am spreading my breath through my spine to the soles of my feet, there is a WHOLE LOT of thinking going on. Sigh.

From Satchidinanda: “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness.”

Oh, I am earnest. BUT I HAVE A LIFE! What is “well attended”? What is “without break”? What about my wonderful students who can only come to class once a week? They are earnest. They are thoughtful. They show up regularly.

Doesn’t that count? I sure as hell think it does.

From Vimala Thakar: “If you persevere, if you persist, then even when you are working throughout the day the mind will remain steady, because it has learned steadiness.”

I like that one. So maybe I should stop feeling like a fake because I don’t practice four hours a day every day. I am doing the best I can. On the mat. But what about OFF the mat?

I had the interior of the Plum House at Heathen Hill Retreat Center painted recently. I packed everything that could move. I boxed up the dishes and emptied the china hutch. I took down every picture and removed the nails. I took all the ceiling fixtures down. I removed every switch plate and outlet cover. The rugs were rolled up in the bathtubs. Anything I could carry went into the basement. The painters (Chad and Nate. and yes, they did look like they could moonlight at Chippendales) arrived and said NOT A WORD. No, “Hey! This is the best prep job we’ve ever seen. Thanks! We know it was a shit ton of work for you but you made our jobs SO much easier.”  Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Just a perfect smile and a quick twist of a muscled torso before getting to work. I WAS CRUSHED.

Vairagya. I did the work. I did a fine job. It should have been enough.

And yet…

No one needs to applaud my effort on the mat in any pose. I am OK with “retiring” some of the stuff I used to be able to do. Now if I could just take that equanimity off the mat. Apparently 30 years is only the beginning.


Have courage.

The Gift of Surrender

In June, I signed on to do a 10-day yoga retreat in Ladakh, India, led by Nikki Costello. This was to be my very first retreat, and the days leading up to it were fraught: I hadn’t been away from my three daughters for more than a couple of nights since they were born, and now I was about to jump on a plane, cross a few times zones, and park myself on a mountaintop in the Himalayas.

I wanted to back out.

About a week before I was set to leave, I was working at the front desk at Yogi Shanti, thoughts swirling around my head, when Nikki appeared. My reaction? CRY. Nikki said, “Yes, this is big. Your feelings are valid. I’ll be there for you when your plane lands in India.” So I breathed again, trusting.

I know it takes an act of God to change the course of your life. Sometimes these acts are baby steps, and other times they’re grand gestures. India for me was that grand gesture.

Fifteen hours after taking off, our plane landed in Delhi and my heart cracked open. We spent three days in that city, which was a good transition for me. I had cell service to talk to my husband and daughters, great food, Balinese massage, and a king-size bed—all the comforts.

BUT. The night before our 6am flight to Ladakh, the “I cannot do this” set back in. It was as if I were standing in a line I couldn’t get out of. Nor did I want to: I want to cultivate individuality in my lifetime. I want to be authentic. But spiritual growth, for me, is scary most of the time. I can’t determine if it’s pain-filled joy or joy-filled pain.

Ladakh is 12,000 feet above sea level, and it takes several days to acclimate. In the first 24 hours of this retreat, I cried, laughed, panicked, and prayed. But I was there, and I was in it a hundred percent.

When I woke up each day after that, my heart was filled with gratitude. I’d look out my window at the clear view of a monastery built on the side of the mountain. I’d hear the engine of the local school bus start up outside. (The bus driver lived with his family behind my building). The majestic mountains surrounded me as I walked to the temple for morning puja with the monks. Their chanting pulsated my heart. The novice children in the monastary pouring tea, banging the drums, looking up at their elders, rebirthed me. That sacred place welcomed me fully.

I surrendered, and felt free. I had nothing to hide. Those mountains could handle and protect me even in the darkest of nights. It was magical and amazing. Each day was filled with community, asana, and refuge.

As we neared the end of our time together, we were told that a rare meeting with His Holiness the Dali Lama was organized for our group. When His Holiness spoke with us, his first words were, “We are all the same.”

I’m sure I’ll be unpacking this experience for many days, weeks, months, and years. But I leave you with this, from His Holiness: “We are visitors on this planet. We are here for 90 or 100 years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something useful with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true meaning of life.”

Reflections of Winter

Winter is a time when nature loses its fall colors and exposes the bones and highlights the roots. It is a time for hibernation and deep sleep and a different use of energy. The sun rises late and sets early. We are part of this great cycle of seasons and change and for us to deny it puts us in a state of isolation, confusion, and exhaustion. Consider the world before electric lights – as humans we had time before sleep that was filled with reflection, quiet time, intimate family and village interactions, and listening to our inner voices and our breath and body. These relationships within our inner realms substantiated an orientation and a foundation.

What serves this role in our present day lives? Does our cell phone and all of its communication apps serve as our new earth?  My five senses desire full usage and with the present technology my senses feel starved and much of my connectivity is shut down.

In comes Modern Yoga to save the day? Take off your shoes. Let the body take on every possible shape. Revitalize your sense of touch. Become aware of your breathing and be conscious of smelling the nuances of the moment. Eyes, ears, and even tongue wake up when the mind is honed to return to the present.  Being this awake and vital relies on training the mind in meditation and on resting and balancing the body through asana.

As winter reminds us every year to change our focus to our inner world, let’s take note and get to our mats for restorative poses, pranayama, and sitting meditation. Set up for a different season. Take out those winter jackets and the snow boots but also get a new book, dust off your meditation cushion, and set up your props for your favorite restorative pose.

Om Shanti,

200 Hours

Colleen and I both look back at the first teacher trainings that we took (she at Jivamukti and myself at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco), and remember that we each went in wanting to learn more about yoga with no intentions to teach. A common trajectory of yoga learning in this country goes from taking public classes or doing video programs, to attending yoga retreats, and then right into a 200-hour teacher training program. Often the teacher training is the spark that ignites a genuine home practice or a launching pad for taking more classes per week. This is a fine evolution of a yogi, but it doesn’t really qualify one to hang up a shingle and start a teaching career. Two hundred hours in any subject is a drop in the bucket – an introduction, a pillar to a foundation.

The long time yogis in this country are recognizing this and are setting up continued education and looking toward creating more stringent certification processes. We all love teacher training programs and love how practitioners get turned on and set on fire. We love when students begin to see the rich history and the infinite body of knowledge and the unlimited realms of exploration that are possible in this beautiful art of yoga. The only difficulty is when the 200-hour teacher training is seen as a completion or a sign of mastery.

So then, what is being taught in these 200 hours and what is possible in such a curriculum? A good introduction and some essential foundational aspects can be covered. Some essential questions that can last a lifetime can be served up. But let us not demean a 2500-year old art form that includes some of the most brilliant human thought and experimentation by thinking you can become a yoga teacher after 200 hours. Instead come and have your mind blown open, your heart cranked wide, and your liver cleansed, and get introduced to your new life as a curious and beautiful sentient being.

The Still Point

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance.
—T. S. Eliot

S. Eliot’s poem, which has haunted my yoga practice for decades, came to mind recently at a London dance performance called Dust, Akram Khan’s contribution to Lest We Forget, a collaborative tribute to those who had suffered the pain of World War One. There was a moment in Dust when all the dancers moved as one body, and it created one of those magical seconds of intense hush in the audience where there is no past and future, no dancer no audience—just breath.

As yoga practitioners we know these moments, when stillness becomes movement and movement stillness, the ego mysteriously evaporating. But we also know times when no matter how adept our craft of asana is, it can become limiting, externally oriented, and performance-based, losing the quality of our original intention to practice.

How do we cultivate this quietness in movement, this presence? Fortunately, in yoga we don’t need massive orchestras and the grueling regime of rehearsal to bow to the sacred! Instead, in the middle of an asana, we pause, and come back to the breath—to the moment of being rather than becoming. Yoga helps us in the everyday of our mundane realities: walking down a busy street, doing the laundry, engaging in a challenging conversation, we come into the center of our bodies and experience ourselves from an embodied, compassionate place.

Most of the time, we live on the rim of the wheel of existence, getting battered by the rocks and mud of the road on which we travel. But through a meditative approach, we can come to the center of the hub of this wheel. Ajahn Chah, a well-known Buddhist teacher in the Thai Forest tradition, talks about “still, flowing water”—the place where nothing moves, but everything happens! For me, this image, remembered in asana, reconnects me to my breath, my core, the reason I came to yoga in the first place. It allows me to access the center of my physical being—my belly, my hara, my womb—and invites the movement to arise from a fecund, fluid reality, beyond my dry left-brain-dominant universe.

Did you ever as a child play with the light switch, trying to find the place between off and on? Perhaps not, but I did, and probably drove my parents crazy in the process! I see now that I am still playing with that notion, curious and enchanted by moments on the mat, in nature, in both deep trauma and the nuttier details of life, in great art, and the simple cyclical rounds of being, where the world stops and yet keeps moving—moments that are neither off nor on, neither flesh nor fleshless, neither from nor toward, reminding me that I am part of something so much bigger than that little “I,” where there is only dance.

An Interview with Richard Rosen

What brings you to Yoga Shanti?

Well, you invited me. I enjoy coming to Yoga Shanti. It’s a beautiful place. I find the students very receptive, which makes teaching much easier. I’m already looking forward to my upcoming trip.

This year you’re going to be teaching an introduction to pranayama. What is the relationship between asana and pranayama?

Well, of course, this is modern yoga that we’re doing, but in the traditional practice, asana was always a preparation for pranayama. Pranayama was, for a very long time, an essential practice of hatha yoga. Not that asana was unimportant, but it was a preparation—it wasn’t an end in itself like it is today. Asana is a means of opening the body, and strengthening the body, for sitting and breathing. It is a very important prelude, but the real practice was, at one time, pranayama.

What is pranayama and why would someone want to start a pranayama practice?

Well, do your students breathe? (That’s a joke.) People nowadays are very concerned about their diet, and what they drink. People can go without food and liquid for a pretty long time. But you can’t go without breath for more than a few minutes—maybe 5 or 6 minutes, tops. It’s ironic then that people watch their food and their diet intake, but they don’t really watch their breath very often. The breath is really what keeps you alive from moment to moment.

I think what’s important about beginning a pranayama practice is to become aware of your own breathing. It’s important for people in general—but for a yoga practitioner in particular—to be conscious of their breathing, and to use it as a means of focusing or centering the self in the present moment. That’s how I would start the conversation about why pranayama is important.

Can you speak more to some of the benefits of pranayama?

It makes breathing more efficient. The average person’s breathing is labored in various ways because of tension or misalignment, so they use a lot of the energy they generate from breathing just on breathing, and they don’t have a lot of energy left over for much else. So with a breathing practice (which, of course, involves asana), you become more efficient as a breather, and therefore you generate more energy with less effort, and have more energy left over for other pursuits. Breathing becomes easier and more efficient. Breath is life. Pranayama brings in more life.

So the question to ask myself when starting a practice is, “Is this practice helping me to breathe more efficiently so I have more energy for my life?”

Yes, more efficiently, with more awareness—which is a good thing, because it keeps you focused on the present (because you are always breathing in the present). Having a sense of being present wherever you are, and watching yourself in that present situation, is a great benefit. It’s worth it just to get that much out of it.

What are you working on in your practice?

Lying down and breathing. You know, my Parkinson’s has had a huge impact on my practice. I have to adjust my expectations to accommodate the loss of flexibility, strength,and balance. So I’m experimenting with different ways of using props, and compensating for the loss of my former abilities. I’m trying to find ways to create a reasonable way to practice. And not only that, but how to apply that to my teaching, and helping students.

What are your daily rituals or routines?

I get up early. I study something. For a long while I studied Sanskrit every morning. Now I’m working on a book. (And right now I’m studying Toki Pona, which is a language that has 120 words. I’m trying to keep my brain active.) This book is getting down towards the end—I’m nearing the deadline. So, yeah, writing, studying, and I have a house out here in sunny California, so I work in the garden everyday, and I teach, and I travel. My favorite place in the whole world to travel is Sag Harbor. I really look forward to hanging out with Rodney and Colleen.

How does yoga show up for you when you travel?

Well, you know, Shri Aurobindo says, “All life is yoga.” There is no separation. All movement is asana. All breathing is pranayama. All perception is meditation. It’s just seamless. There is no…. I can’t differentiate. I don’t believe in practice anymore. Practice to me sounds like you are doing something for the future. You want to get somewhere. I decided I don’t want to get somewhere anymore. My feeling is that we are already all there.

Just two more questions: one philosophical and one more fun.

Great. Let’s hear them.

The Ego. What is it?

Think of the ego as a little human being—a little person—who helps you out in your life, and who often becomes a little bit selfish about things, and wants to be the boss. You have to assure it that it can help you to live your life happily, without it having to be the boss everyday. I feel my ego pretty clearly these days as a gripping in different parts of my body—mostly in my throat—and I just breathe into it and reassure it all the time that everything is fine. We’ll get along OK together without having to push things away or get angry or frustrated. I’m getting too old to be negative—although I am a pretty negative person.

That’s funny—I feel too young to be negative or angry, although I often find myself feeling that way.

Well, wait till you get to be my age. My feeling now is that you’re supposed to feel emotions. The whole thing about yogis having to be levelheaded, and feel the same in all situations—I don’t really go along with that much anymore. I think you need to feel what you need to feel, and that you need to let it go.

I don’t believe in God or the soul or anything like that. I believe consciousness permeates the universe, and that each of us is an agent of that consciousness. Consciousness wants us to live fully, and to feel everything completely, because it’s looking to us to supply it with experience. The reason the universe is here is so it can answer the question, “Who am I?” So I don’t think it’s useful to be calm all the time. If I feel like I am going to be angry then I just get angry, and I get over it as quickly as I can.

So the ego. I’m aware of my ego a lot. I feel it. I acknowledge it. And then it’s done. I get over it. We want to be respected, loved. Reactions to that are from the ego. But we don’t need to hold onto it. Everyone needs to be who they are.

So what’s the funny question?

Oh, it’s not a funny question. I’m not funny—I’m very serious. (That’s Jenny’s job to come up with funny questions, and she’s on vacation.) My lighthearted question is simply, “Who is your favorite writer, or poet or musician?”

Oh, here we go. Writer: Jose Sarmago. Poet: Wislawa Szynborska. Musician: Dwight Yoakam.

Now, can we take this off the record so I can ask you for advice on running a yoga studio?

Ha! I don’t know if I have much of that. I look forward to seeing everyone in August.