Categories
emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) favorites what is yoga yoga practice

non-cheesy yoga = awesome

Or, How to Talk Intelligently About Yoga

bod050Is yoga spiritual? Is yoga religion? Is yoga science? What is yoga? These questions matter to me because it affects how I relate to students. I teach yoga in a university gym largely because I have the autonomy to do what I want, as I’ve yet to find a like-minded studio in NYC (great teachers, yes, but they all seem to be pretty autonomous as well). At Columbia, I’m not pressured to teach a certain way. For example, I don’t chant because most Columbia students aren’t comfortable with it. In fact, it can take them a few weeks to exhale with a sigh at the end of class (but once they do!..). The spirit is in the breath. Because I find that the subtler aspects of yoga happen through the experience of refined breath and focus rather than coaching (they certainly don’t happen on command), I don’t have a vocabulary for them. Wooey juicy-KrishnaLove-healing-chakra babble just does not describe my experience of the energetic experience of yoga. It’s not that I don’t believe. Genny Kapuler once explained that she doesn’t talk about the chakras much because there are entire libraries written about them. She doesn’t feel her knowledge, acquired in over thirty years as an Iyengar teacher, is adequate to teach them well. To boil down the fourth chakra to “My heart chakra was stuck so I really had trouble finding the right guy. But I took a workshop and could feel it open. I’m so excited about the possibilities!” is wanting, at best. I’m very hesitant to talk about energetic and emotional experiences in yoga not only because I don’t have the words, but because it’s important that we speak intelligently. Yoga practice is powerful and immediate. When energy and spirituality is discussed flippantly, it’s too easy to be thrown out as New Age nonsense. Horton conveys a “weirder experience” of yoga in her book Yoga PhD:

One day, during a deep hip opener (Pigeon pose, for those who know it), I had an intense, PTSD-like flashback of an emergency C-section that I’d undergone eight years previously. Holding the pose, laying forward with one leg bent under my torso, the other extended straight back behind me, eyes closed, breathing deeply, feeling inside, and suddenly, BOOM. I could see the operating room – smell it, even. It was intense, enveloping, vivid, real. But – and this is the crucial thing – it was not overwhelming. I was able to psychically revisit what had been a highly traumatic experience without panic or pain. On the contrary, I felt solidly anchored in that abiding, compassionate center that’s often called “witness consciousness”: that is, the part of the mind that is capable of staying calmly present in any storm.

(Yoga PhD, p. 9.)

This story is good because she communicates effectively. We all hold. And we all resist letting that go. What does that even mean, let go? It’s become a platitude. But when it means something, it’s a tricky thing. Here Horton “let go.” She wasn’t told to let go. She wasn’t looking to let go (at least not in that moment). But she did. I hold. In my chest and upper back, especially, and my lower right pelvis/hip. Sometimes I feel close to it. But I’m afraid, frankly, to be overwhelmed by the pain of it. That witness consciousness can take over in the experience is all very nice, but not everyone’s pain is as clinical as a C-section and this experience far more cleansed and tidy than the reality for many. In fact, according to neuroscientists like van der Kolk, such removed experience “psychically revisited” may not even help, as the healing is in processing the held, unfelt pain, rather than watching from a dissociated state. Unfortunately, facing and feeling this isn’t always as proper and removed as Horton suggests. This doesn’t mean we don’t have the strength to do it—simply that it might not be so sterile and detached as to keep a school marm comfortable.

A student wrote on an evaluation this semester “Non-cheesy Yoga = Awesome.” It’s true. Personally, I find it hard to focus, much less be open, if someone is telling me to let my shoulder blades kiss, or to enjoy a juicy hip opener. I also find it hard when someone is barking at me to open my chest. “Hey! Heartache! Be gentle!” I silently cry. This is where a personal practice can create a space you can explore in, taking time in poses when you feel something going on there, something that can be difficult in a class. It is hard, as a teacher, to make a space for this experience, especially in a gym-type environment. But the possibility is there. Horton:

When I first started practicing yoga, the idea that its psychological benefits could be just as, if not more beneficial than its physical ones wouldn’t have made any sense to me. It’s funny looking back. Because today, I take it for granted that one of the things I cherish most about my practice is that it weaves an organic process of psychologically healing and growth into my everyday life.

(Yoga PhD, p. 61.)

Because this is true for many practitioners, it’s time to work on my vocabulary for, and comfort with, talking about this aspect of yoga.

Categories
yoga practice

yoga practice in class and out

oldsite

This post is part of an integration of the info on the first yoga site I made for students back in 2007, as I’ll be taking it down soon. Enjoy!

Q: Is there a minimum amount of time that you should practice? Is it worth practicing 10 minutes if that’s all the time you have?    –M.M.

M.M.— This is a difficult question. The standby, “it depends on you, your needs, goals, and schedule” is true, but also frustrating, especially if you are new to yoga and just want some steadfast answers.

Ten minutes is enough to make a difference, believe it or not. If I have to squeeze in a bare minimum, I do a:
2-minute Uttanasana (standing forward bend)
2-minute Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog)
2-minute Sirsasana (headstand, or substitute L-pose, dolphin, handstand or your favorite)
2-minute Sarvangasana (shoulderstand)
2-minute Savasana (relaxation pose)

Though it’s tempting, don’t skip the Savasana. It is the most important pose.

If you have only 5 minutes, or even 2, take the time to do a forward bend or down dog, and gently bring yourself back to the breath each time you stray. These few moments can shift your awareness, and it may open up time for more. This is especially true when you feel like you don’t have time!

Q: Would it be better to practice twice a week for an hour instead of doing once a week for an hour and a half?    –M.M.

Yes. An hour-and-a-half class is great, but if you don’t practice more at home, one hour, twice a week is better.

Q: How do I find the discipline and inspiration to make my home practice an every day occurrence?    –B.J.

One teacher told me that if you want to change your habitual patterns, and therein your life, simply dedicate 5 minutes a day to something you love and believe in. This can be yoga, meditation, drawing, singing—whatever it is that lights you up. Give yourself to it fully for those 5 minutes and do it everyday (not 5m. today, 0m. tomorrow, and 15m. the next), no matter what comes up. We humans are so fond of our fixed ways that we will create resistance to even this small act of awareness. Somehow, we can watch that and move past it, and those 5 minutes develop into something much larger.

Q: I’ve begun to wonder a little bit (and this is strictly based upon my own idiosyncrasies) what a yoga class would be like conducted in silence. Is it possible to do? Is it done? I think that listening is a very good practice but I worry about how much privilege we give to the voice. What does yogic philosophy say about this?    –R.W.J.C.

Mysore-style Ashtanga is more or less conducted in silence, but for the Ujjayi breathing that fills the room. The teacher does walk around and make individual corrections (using voice and touch), but it’s directed to one person rather than the entire room.

Yogic philosophy has much to say about sound as well as voice, which can be used for creating sacred sound, or a scattered, unfocused state of mind, and everything in between. Read the Upanisads if you are interested. The Olivelle translation is direct and free from extensive figurative translation.


C: Yes, I have a personal practice. I sort of weave yoga into my day every day…I can’t seem to help it.    –R.W.J.C.

Excellent, R. That made me grin. Let’s hope we all get there—I must admit there are days I’d rather just stay in bed and read.

to close, a short video of John Cleese on the benefits of laughing yoga.

Categories
asana favorites yoga practice

stretching, science, & the wisdom of ‘boring’ yoga asana sequencing

Kg_2004-08-18_Oomoot_070In the last few years, it’s come to light that static stretching isn’t a great thing before activities requiring muscle power. Most recently the New York Times reported researchers have discovered stretching is bad. The article mentions only once that static stretching, as opposed to dynamic stretching, is problematic. The rest of the article states time and again that stretching is bad. A skimmer might well come away with the idea she should avoid all stretching at all times. But static stretching is only problematic before you weight lift or row or do some other arduous activity. What’s with the dodgy reporting, NYT?

Static stretching involves holding the muscles in a stretch for a long time. Dynamic stretching stretches the muscles while moving, e.g. butt kicks, leg lifts, walking lunges, and these dynamic toe touches at right. Or, Surya Namaskara, sun salutations.

When I first read this a few years ago (my masters is in health, so I try to keep up), I couldn’t help but observe this is exactly what we do in ashtanga, and exactly how I sequence my vinyasa classes. Kind of like the research that revealed exercise before breakfast is better for weight loss. Yogis knew that. While I’m all for well-conducted and well-reported research (difficult and thus rare when involving human behavior), I strongly reject the notion that empirical evidence is the only valuable knowledge. Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn (PhD in MCB from MIT) said, “Oh my god. There is an entirely different way of knowing. Why didn’t they tell us this in kindergarten? An entirely different way of knowing.” In other words, something doesn’t have to be “science” to be valuable. But I’ll rant about that and the “Science of Yoga/Yoga Science” meme another day.

Occasionally I hear students complain about boring sequencing. I try to avoid condescending comments like, “If you are bored in your yoga practice, you are missing the point. You will never know anything about your mind until it has been bored.” If you aren’t doing yoga to learn about your mind, that’s fine. Either deal with the boredom anyway or find another teacher who likes to “change things up.”

yogaUPd
Dynamic Stretching!

I do Ashtanga Yoga. This practice involves doing the same set of postures in the same order six days a week for years until they are mastered to the extent that one can move on. That you, my student, have to do pranayama followed by 5 Surya Namaskara As and Bs once or twice a week really gets no sympathy in these quarters.

After sun salutations come standing postures (sometimes within freestyle sun salutations), then back bends, then seated forward bends, sometimes seated twists, then closing inversions, then supine spinal twists, followed by pranayama and savasana. That is my recipe. It is neither secret nor trademarked. It is a combination of ashtanga sequencing and basic Integral Yoga sequencing, as my students are not ashtangis (most don’t practice more than a few times a week), and I am not an ashtanga teacher.

Occasionally I teach more than one pose in succession on each side, but if I do, they are usually all standing asana. None of this standing, bending, sitting, reclining on one side of the body, then back up to stand for the other side. It’s just not right. Why?

Well, for one thing, as the NYT tells us, static stretching before using the muscles strenuously is not a good idea. It weakens them in the short term. For example: lying on the floor for ten minutes in hip openers and quad stretches then hoisting back up for a standing sequence culminating in Svarga Dvidasana (Bird of Paradise). It’s hell on the hips and quads. You might not notice this at age 22, or if you lean toward strength over flexibility, but the rest of us do.

More traditional sequencing understands this (by traditional, I mean it’s been around more than fifty years. Not 5,000. Fifty). How do we begin class? At least ten Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations). What are Sun Salutations? Dynamic stretching. Followed by standing poses and back bends (usually on the abdomen), which are the most strenuous and strengthening for the muscles, and as the research of the last few years indicates, should not be done after static stretching. Finally, seated forward bends, and other supine (lying around) asana, which we hold for a minute or two. These are static stretches, and we do them last.

armCirc
Mabel Todd’s The Thinking Body, 1937

At a party recently, I overheard one yoga instructor telling another, “Yeah, she has really creative sequencing.” They teach in another tradition, which apparently values funky choreography and changing things up. This tradition is in the hatha-vinyasa family, so it can be very confusing to the dabbling practitioner. You can really never be sure what you’re going to get in such classes, as my classes, too, are hatha-vinyasa. This is why it’s a good idea to find one tradition and one or two teachers and stay there. While funky sequencing can certainly be fun, I’ve found that at best, it isn’t much different than a work out and at worst, my muscles are ruined for days or I feel jacked up from lack of calming asana toward the finish.

More important than stretching trends are the energetic properties of the asanas. Wha? I usually spare you such discourse, but not today. Moving around has a certain effect on the body-mind. As do standing asanas, backbends, forward bends, and so on. Good sequencing is organized with this in mind. A gross simplification: Standing poses ground, energize, and focus the body-mind. Back bends stimulate and energize. Forward bends calm and soothe. Inversions, once mastered, are both stimulating and soothing. Hopefully you get the idea. It’s an important one.

A related aside: If you wonder if you should workout before or after yoga, the answer is before. Apply lessons learned above.

Categories
asana favorites slider yoga practice

how to work toward padmasana: lotus pose

NewYork_02-12-11_YogaAnastasia_094So you want to do padmasana. Because like headstand, lotus pose is an asana that comes to mind when people think of yoga. And for good reason. It’s one of the fifteen poses mentioned in the 15th century text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which makes it one of the few asanas with a history. There is no shortage of stock photos of blissed out ladies sitting in lotus whilst meditating on the beach. And you want that. I must warn that while I’m something of a beachcomber, I have never once come across such a lady in a natural habitat. Or gentleman. Perhaps with a little work we can change that.

But my knees!

While padmasana can injure the knees and ankles, the knees aren’t the problem, unless you’ve already forced yourself into the position and hurt them. It’s the hips. Lotus requires a dramatic external rotation of the hip joints, and this is easier for some bodies than others. Some hip joints are happier in external rotation, and others internal rotation (e.g. virasana). It’s rare that a body is equally happy in both.

My hips seem externally rotated at the joint themselves, to the point that my internal rotation is laughable. I have to accept that atri-mu-pand work with it. Triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana is easily my worst pose in primary series, and it’s easy for me to forget that while it’s still bad, it wasn’t that long ago I couldn’t bind without falling on my side. I had to ground my elbows on the floor by my extended leg to keep upright. With practice, I eventually learned to stay upright and bind. I say this because there are limitations and there are gifts. External hip rotation is easy for me. I have no memory of ever not being able to do lotus easily. If that is not the case for you, go slowly and be patient with yourself, as I must in internal hip rotations. If you practice daily, you don’t even notice the progress. But it eventually happens.

How to Get the Hip Flexibility Needed for Padmasana

Most of the Padmasana how to’s out there (e.g. image below left) are helpful only if you need some help going into the pose, but can pretty much do it. If you can’t do it, they are only frustrating. What you need help with is opening the hips. Folding your legs properly just isn’t the issue. Yet.

a_28Joints aside, the biggest culprit in difficult external hip rotation are tight piriformis muscles. This happens when you sit at a desk all day. Your gluts get lazy and your hip flexors fierce (also why you hate Utthan Pristhasana, aka lizard, but we’ll talk about that another day). This training article has an excellent overview and includes some exercises for external hip rotation.

The very best way to get yourself into padmasana shape? It’s the answer I give to 97% of questions. Practice frequently. Like headstand, you don’t have to do specific poses day after day to prepare yourself for lotus. A well-rounded class will open your hips. I include poses like Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle), Trikonasana (Triangle), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Ardha Matsyandrasana (Seated Twist), and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon) in every class so that your hips are regularly coaxed into flexibility.

Equally important, if padmasana is a goal: Sit in ardha padmasana (half lotus) at your desk as often as you can. This will not only support your spine better than sitting with your feet on the floor, it will prepare you for full lotus. I’m writing this from a friend’s place, sitting in a fancy chair. But I’m much more comfortable at home, where I sit at my desk cross-legged on a flat, wooden kitchen chair with a pillow for lumbar support. This ergo-dynamic contraption I’m on now is all contoured out of proportion to a lotus seat, and the arms get in the way of my feet. I’m pretty much just squashed in, as I find it impossible to sit upright with my feet on the floor. I slouch. So get your feet up and cross your legs. When that’s tolerable for an hour or so at a time, move into half lotus (with one foot up on the hip instead of two) for as long as possible. Sitting like this daily will bring you to full padmasana much faster than just practicing in class.

Benefits of Padmasana
mushinpa
couldn’t find image credit on this one

Once you’re comfortable (and that could take years), lotus is incredibly supportive of the spine and your posture, because the pelvis sits very upright. It stretches the hips, knees and ankles. It’s also said to calm the brain and nervous system, stimulate abdominal organs, soothe menstrual cramps and sciatica, and if done during pregnancy, ease childbirth. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it also destroys all disease and awakens kundalini. And like the gentleman in the photo, you will become hairless. Maybe.

Personal Note

When I started doing lotus daily, my shins felt as if they were grinding into one another. It was painful. Why I cannot explain, but with daily practice, it just went away. Because I practice ashtanga, I always draw the right leg up first. If I draw up the left side first, I have the grinding pain. I imagine I’d have to do left side first every day to even this out. Perhaps it’s some remaining tightness in the hips that causes the sharp bones to press to firmly together, which eventually eases. Regardless, know that it will go away with regular practice.

Categories
favorites slider the yoga consumer yoga habits yoga practice

yoga mats: the good, the bad, and the crumbly

The yoga mat. It is very good to have your own if you practice yoga regularly. You can contract some pretty gross stuff from communal mats. What kind of mat you want will largely depend on your yoga. If you practice a few times a week and don’t mind PVCs, a cheap mat from Gaiam or anywhere will do the trick. Expect it to be slippery until you break it in. My teacher recently gave me the best advice ever on breaking in a mat: “Don’t cut your toenails for awhile. Then they’ll chip into the mat and it will have more traction.” Amazing. I usually just tell people to machine wash it and air dry. This is an upside to the cheap mats—but don’t try it with a fancy mat. Anything but the cheap, common mat will probably not survive a machine wash.

If you practice more seriously, or don’t want a PVC mat, there are better, but more expensive options. If you practice ashtanga, you will shred a cheap mat in a week, and the little mat bubbles will stick all over you. There are two solutions to this. The first is a towel (or mysore rug), most popular in Ashtanga and Bikram, which heavy sweaters will need anyway. You use the mat for standing poses, then unfurl the towel over it for the rest. I really don’t know one brand from another, as I don’t sweat that much and don’t use one. The next solution is a good mat. Ashtangis pretty much swear by Manduka because they don’t shred, and their PRO mats are guaranteed for life. Take note: the Manduka eKO®  collection are not. I bought one, expecting it to preform like my PROlite. Instead it shredded in just a few uses. It was also much more grippy—too grippy for my taste.

leaf bug on mat

It took me no less than 25 emails with their customer service to convince them that a $76 yoga mat should not shred after a few uses, even if it was natural tree rubber. They finally sent me a PROLite to replace it for a $12 shipping fee. Their rep was helpful, if a times a bit absurd, suggesting that a wipe down with apple cider vinegar would stop the shredding and offering to send a “slightly used mat” to replace it (see “gross stuff” above). This was, I acknowledge, after they ran out of the sale mats they’d originally offered because Hurricane Sandy delayed my reply. I am sure they found me equally absurd.

So, yes, I recommend the PRO/PROlite mats. The PROs are extremely cushy and durable, but heavy. Not for walking about town, but great for home, studio, or I suppose, people with cars. They are cushier than the PROlite, which I’ve read some people find hard. I don’t. I also don’t find them slippery, after a break in. I heard a teacher explain that mats are slippery when dry, but stick when you’re sweaty.

I don’t find that to be the case, but maybe for some. While they are expensive, they last forever. They are made of “an eco-certified PVC material and manufactured emissions free” (their site). It’s quite awesome to have a mat you’ve spent thousands of hours on. If you get a cheaper mat and have to buy a new one every week, month, or year, that’s much more expensive than getting a good one to begin with, and harder on the planet. While I don’t adore my manduka mat, I can’t really imagine getting that excited about a mat. It’s a good mat, and it doesn’t fall apart or shed into my hair or clothes. I got mine on sale at Gilt, so they were more like $55 than $85.

Another recommended mat, less expensive but less durable, is the eco-friendly Jade Yoga Mat. They have more traction than Manduka PROs and are made of PVC-free biodegradable tree rubber. I have a few students who like them, but I’m not sure how they’d hold up to an ashtanga practice. I see them shred within a year. They are super-grippy and you can catch on it if your jump-throughs don’t clear. Judging from web reviews, they are popular with vinyasa practitioners. I recommend them for people concerned about slippage who are not ashtangis. I’m also told this hugger mugger is cheap, not-slippery, and good.

Mats to avoid? Anything made out of jute (a word that comes from Bangla: “name of a plant fiber used in making coarse fabrics and paper, and the plant which produces it, 1746, from Bengali jhuto, ultimately from Sanskrit juta-s “twisted hair, matted hair”*) I got one on amazon years ago and it was a disaster from the get go, shedding its juteness all over me, the studio, and the practitioners after me. It is also hard and sand papery, and literally cut my feet open. There are blood stains on that mat. I’ve had similar issues with the super-thin travel mats, made by assorted companies. They are way too thin to practice on unless you’re on carpet or grass, and that’s not ideal anyway. I suppose better than nothing, and I still travel with mine, had for $12 on amazon. Buy a cheap one though, because the pricey travel mats are no better.

Categories
asana favorites how to find yoga teacher/school yoga practice

ashtanga in new york :: finding a teacher

How to find a mysore ashtanga teacher in new york? LMGTFY. Because honestly, that’s how I found Lori. An internet search. I then asked two ashtangi friends if they knew her and heard good things about both her and her assistant, as well as a little gossip. I had a feeling that’s where I’d end up, but since I was searching I thought I’d check a few others out, first. Elephant Beans has a helpful list of Mysore and Led classes in NYC. It’s out-of-date, but it’s a more thorough listing than this. Definitely check the shala’s current schedule before you show up. I found that most led classes are really half primary, not full, even if they schedule doesn’t list it as half. That can be frustrating, but it’s due to the fact that many drop-in students just can’t do full primary. Half is more than enough.

Of the ashtanga shalas in NYC, the major contenders are: Ashtanga Yoga New York, Ashtanga Yoga Shala NYC with Guy Donahaye, and Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana with Lori Brungard. That’s a subjective list of places where I actually know people who practice. There are other studios with Mysore programs in the city as well, like Kula Yoga, Pure Yoga, and The Shala Yoga House, as well as studios that offer led classes.

Boulder 2002 by Dominic Corigliano
P. Jois Teaching in Boulder 2002
by Dominic Corigliano

I tried a few of these at Greenhouse Holistic in Williamsburg with Carla Waldron and John Schneider. Both were excellent, especially for led classes, which can be hard to teach. I found them both gentle and respectful of everyone in the room, which was full of people at different levels. I overheard Carla tell a student to press into his elbows to help takeoff in chakrasana. This turned into a major gem for me. I tried it later and it gave me a new confidence in the maneuver. I was quite pleased. The Roebling studio is pretty basic, with nice brick walls. It’s close to the L train, but still way too far for me to travel every day, though they are growing their ashtanga program.

Definitely a must try for Williamsburgers is daily mysore at Kula Yoga with Augustine Kim (pictured at top). I practiced in the lovely space once, and would happily practice there daily if it fit into my space-time continuum even slightly more easily. Augustine is a gifted teacher who truly cares about his students’ practices, which you may have noticed can be sadly rare in ego-maniacal NYC.

The East Village is the epicenter of Ashtanga in NYC, but I thought I’d try some teachers on the Upper West Side. There was a dreadful experience at a shala in Harlem and many spammy gems like this from Pure: “Autumn-that crisp trans-formative season where the evergreens become inflamed by Nature’s radiant change has truly manifested. In New York City no tree, flower, meadow or hill will go untouched by the bright colors of change. That is the allure of October, which brings to mind through the power of Yoga you can be apart of that change too. Pure Yoga, rated “Best Yoga” 2009 through 2011 encourages this type of transformation through our 130 classes taught by the best teachers in the city! [sic]” Wow. As hard as it was to pass up the BEST TEACHERS!! and OCTOBER FREE!! on October 31st, when we were all licking our hurricane wounds and unable to get uptown anyway, I gave it a miss. Any studio that has to rope you in with gym-style enrollment fees (they are owned by Equinox) is not the power of yoga I seek. Perhaps the teachers are great, but I was less than impressed with their management and “yoga advisor.”

buy localI had planned to try The Shala Yoga House, as it is the closest and most convenient for me, but I’d had enough roaming around, and I’d always avoided the place, as I’d heard the author of eat, pray, wank practiced there. Instead, I went to Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana with Lori Brungard in the East Village. A small shala with wood floors and brick walls, no spammy marketing (in fact, later, the teacher actually texted when she changed the schedule to be sure it would work for me), perfect schedule, amazing co-teacher (male, to balance), beautiful website, old school ashtangi (Lori studied with P. Jois), and a small, woman-owned business. What more could I ask? My friend Angela, an ashtanga teacher in Ann Arbor, had practiced with once her years back and found her present and helpful. I liked her immediately. The studio has great energy and is walking distance from home. It is a great find. Like the reviews on google+ report, Lori pushes you to your limits, but is gentle and compassionate at the same time. She’s also fun. The shala has some definite romper room moments, and both Lori and Augustine Kim, who teachers the 7am class (he’s since left for Williamsburg), have the twinkle in the eye that you look for in your yoga teacher. My practice is more fun, nuanced, and challenging than it’s ever been.

[Update: Summer ’13: I changed shalas because of a schedule conflict, and now practice at AYNY. But I still wholeheartedly endorse AYS!]

Categories
asana how to find yoga teacher/school yoga practice

the search for a new yoga teacher/studio

Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Fukuoka, Japan, September 3, 2010
Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Japan (c) Govindakai

It took me about a month of heavy searching to find my yoga teacher. How you do it depends largely on what you look for. Instead of making a list for you: location, teacher’s experience, price, style, schedule…which I touched on in the last few posts.  I will tell you my story, and you can suss out how to go about it from there in a way that works for you.

I knew I wanted a Mysore-style ashtanga shala (school), so I asked my ashtanga friends for recommendations. I read about the teachers, schedules, locations, and prices online, and I had an inking about where I’d end up. In the weeks I researched this, I hit a few studios in my neighborhood I’d never tried. They weren’t ashtanga schools, but the convenience of a studio but few blocks from home was too ideal not to try, even if I knew I wouldn’t end up there.

The first, Yogamaya, is a gorgeous studio in Chelsea. I’d taken classes from the founders years back at Laughing Lotus, a vinyasa studio also in Chelsea, and the yoga is the same. I tried a $28/week newcomers’ unlimited pass and went to three classes. Two, taught by Bryn, were very good. I’m just not into their wild choreographic sequencing. I suppose that it’s good for people who feel bored with traditional yoga sequences, but being bored is part of the practice. I find it impossible to go into my body when I’m waiting to hear what unknown, awkward transition will come next. I also don’t like spending 10 minutes on one side of the body standing, sitting, arm balancing, inverting, and then getting back up to do it all over again on the other. This is not how it’s meant to be. In traditional styles like ashtanga and Iyengar, we do the right side and then the left for each and every pose before we move on to the next. I will not bore you with the art and reasoning of yoga sequencing and the energetic properties of different poses. But many years ago, I noticed that classes with unpredictable posturing make me feel high strung. Sometimes good, like I had a nice work out, but not balanced and in my body, like more traditional styles of yoga do. Plus the work-out effect.

Metrowest Yoga Studio
Metrowest Yoga Studio (c) Antonio Viva

The third class I took there was with a very young teacher. It featured the most questionable sun salutation sequencing I’ve ever encountered. From standing forward bend, we sat down into a squat, and then jumped back. At the end, we jumped forward into a squat, then came up to forward bend. This is hell on the knees. In a squat, the toes are pointing out, in the direction of the knees. In the other poses they are straight forward. The was no safe way to transition this sequence, and the fact that it was totally awkward and unpleasant was not even addressed by the teacher. Ouch. It was enough to keep me from trying other classes there during my paid week. That said, it is a beautiful studio and I’m sure they have some amazing teachers. If you like funky sequencing, chanting to a harmonium, heavy appropriation of Indian culture, and inspirational, personal talks by your teacher at the start of class, Yogamaya (or Laughing Lotus) might be just your thing.

Because I am frequently asked about both Bikram and Yoga to the People, I also went to the YTTP on W26th Street. Yes, I took a hot yoga class. As expected, it was hot, and because I like to be warm, I enjoyed it more or less. I’m not into locking out the joints, which is a hot yoga specialty. In all the types of yoga I’ve done, they all pretty much agree that locking out the joints is not a good thing. Further, there’s a lot of pushing to go further, and who can really feel her limits at 4pm in a 100+ degree room? The muscles are like rubber. It’s certainly not a not-quite-heated, 6am ashtanga shala, where coaxing the muscles to open of their own accord is the name of the game. There are also some poses that aren’t great for the masses, like supta virasana and a weird whipping up to paschimottanasana from lying flat on the back, which is done numerous times. I’m partial to the jump backs and jump throughs of ashtanga to strengthen the mid-region. But I’m obviously biased. The studio was fine. I didn’t find it any less posh than the Bikram studio I tried for a week years back in San Francisco. The teacher was nice enough. I don’t remember his name, and that’s likely because YTTP don’t emphasize teachers or even put their names on the schedules, I assume to avoid the cult of personality that can form around teachers. I get that, though I don’t agree with it. I want know to whom I’m subjecting myself for an hour and a half.

Further, In early December, Bikram and YTTP came to a settlement (Bikram sued them for using his copyrighted sequence of poses) and YTTP will stop teaching that sequence as of Feb 15, 2013. “So what?” I say. It’s hardly a brilliant sequence. Change it up a bit, make some improvements, and maybe I drop by on a moon day or two.

So, hopefully it’s evident that this is a process of trial and error. Because I’m not partial to these studios doesn’t mean you might not be. I went to Laughing Lotus for a year or two when I was moving from integral hatha to vinyasa. I enjoyed the work out and it’s what I wanted at the time. Then I found the amazing, must-be-experienced Iyengar teacher Genny Kapular. She instilled in me a love for mindful sequencing and I’ve had a hard time with overly creative sequencing ever since.

The next post will be about the ashtanga teachers I tried, their studios, and those I didn’t get to because I found what I was looking for first.

Categories
favorites practice at home yoga habits yoga practice

yoga at home for the holidays

Last week I was commiserating with a student who’d missed class about how difficult it is to establish a home practice. It took me about two years of consistent classes to really get into practice on my own. Establishing a daily home practice took not only dedication, but concentration. It’s much easier to make yourself go to a class than to maintain focus amidst the endless distractions of your home. But once you’ve got it going, it’s really harder just to do yoga once in awhile when you can’t make class because it’s not habit and you have so many (pitiful) reasons not to do it.

It took a little trickery to get me started. If I thought of the whole 1.5 hour series, I wouldn’t do it. I was too hungry or tired or pressed for time. So I told myself I’d do one pose (which was usually the lazyman’s legs up the wall. It’s the best pose ever. We need, most of us, to be lazier), then I could relax. After the one pose, I was relaxed, and liking it, so I did one more. This went on through the whole series, often ending in seated mediation two hours later. No way? Believe me, it will happen.

Whether you are looking to keep the hamstrings happy until you get back to class next week, or you’re trying to establish or motivate a personal practice, a few minutes of yoga a day are enough to shift things into habit. As Ethan likes to say about meditation, “You wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth for a few days, then brush for an hour on the weekend, would you?” And so it is with yoga.

So here’s a 10-minute home practice that my Iyengar teacher Genny Kapuler gave me as a daily minimum of sorts years ago. Tomorrow or Friday I’ll post another that is more Ashtanga influenced.

So go get your mat (though you don’t really need one) and do some yoga.

Don’t even think of skipping savasana.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Categories
asana favorites how to find yoga teacher/school yoga practice

how to find a yoga teacher/studio


Students frequently ask me upon graduation or a university break “Do you recommend a good yoga studio around here?”

Unfortunately, I don’t. Finding a yoga studio, or as you become more advanced, finding a teacher, is an extremely personal endeavor. It’s a mix of solid logistics, such as location, cost, and schedule, and an indescribable something, an intuitive ‘yes’ that cannot be reduced to a how-to list.

These comments are for a New York crowd, or an urban center with many options. If you have few options near you, well, try them all—a few times. You might not like a style or teacher one day, but another day realize it was just a mood. Keep trying until you find something. You will.

If you know what style of yoga you want to practice, that will narrow down your search. But if your only exposure has been at the gym, or the studio closest to your last address, you might want to see what is out there. Lifehacker has a list of what they call the nine internationally recognized styles of hatha (physical) yoga. I’m not sure where they got the nine from, but it’s worth a read if you don’t know the difference between Iyengar and Bikram. It’s also worth trying styles out, as you may think you want a demanding practice, but are pleasantly surprised by the energy you have after a restorative class.

Location, cost, and schedule are extremely important. If it’s out of your way or the schedule doesn’t fit yours, you might not go, or you might feel stressed getting there. If it’s more than you can handle financially, you might be put out by the cost. Keep in mind that expensive studios with mega-marketing aren’t usually where the best teachers are. And even if you’ve found an amazing teacher, you need to be honest about the logistics so you are sure to show up on their mat. Once you have that sorted, you can start worrying about the feel of it all.

I’ve wanted different things from my yoga studios and teachers over the years. I started doing very basic hatha yoga. The teachers were okay, but I was new enough not to be picky. The pranayama and basic asanas were what I needed to come into my body, and the set sequence of their level one class was very intelligent. A year later, I did vinyasa at a studio that energized me and built my strength, but their funky sequences and harmonium-induced chanting did nothing to center me. Then I heard about Genny Kapuler, an Iyengar teacher in SoHo who is still the top teacher on my list. I studied with her for a few years and learned anatomy and alignment in a very integral way. She is tremendously graceful, patient, and kind, especially among Iyengar teachers, who can be known for an authoritarian style. My schedule in grad school took me away from her studio to a home practice. I took some privates with her for guidance, and found a new depth by practicing at my own pace, at home. When it was time to studio shop again, I did some ashtanga while trying YogaWorks with a Groupon. I’d done ashtanga a few times in the past, and though I liked it, it never stuck. This time it did, and I started a Mysore-style practice, not least because I didn’t have to listen to the inane comments of an instructor leading a class. Two years later, location and schedule became a problem, and I had to shop for a new shala.

Categories
art & yoga emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) favorites slider what is yoga yoga practice

the thing about gurus: a kumaré review

Gurus have always been problem for me, perhaps my biggest in the yoga and meditation worlds. Though perhaps it’s the strange and often appropriated spirituality that bothers me, and gurus are an offshoot of that. The reason I’ve left most sanghas (communities) is because there comes a point that if you aren’t into the guru, you just aren’t going to be accepted or go further. It’s kind of sad.

I teach at a university rather than a studio because most studios require their teachers to drink the kool aid, so to speak. Even studios and meditation centers without gurus tend to have very strong head-teacher personalities and a doctrine to which their teachers must subscribe. Take just a few classes somewhere and you get the idea. If you don’t, take their teacher training. Corporate studios are usually an exception, but they’re corporate. It’s a shame, because a community of like minded yogis or meditators is an amazing thing.

Why are gurus a problem? Because they pretend to have something you don’t. This is Vikram Gandhi’s point in the documentary, Kumaré, playing now at IFC. Because their willingness to be deified is problematic. Because more often than not, they abuse their power. Because they often take advantage of their disciples, sexually and otherwise. Because anyone worthy of being your guru won’t let you deify her. Good teachers encourage personal agency rather than usurp it. That’s what yoga and meditation communities need, amazing teachers.

So Vikram Gandhi’s documentary was poignant. He’s a Jersey-born Hindu who was frustrated by religion. So he studied it at Columbia and was frustrated further (sounds familiar). He didn’t like the YogaGuru madness blossoming in America, and didn’t find them to be more authentic in his motherland of India. So he set out to become a fake guru, to prove that gurus have nothing you don’t. You don’t need anyone but yourself. The answers are within.

Okay. I agree. But what I don’t quite follow is why Gandhi so strongly needed to tell others what they do or don’t need. I’m never terribly comfortable with that. That’s what gurus do, right?

Regardless, the results were great. The first impression I had of the film (full disclosure) was from anecdotes of a student of mine who played Kumare’s assistant. It seemed that its initial intent was to ridicule those who will believe and worship anyone, even a complete fraud from Jersey. But if that was the original intent, it didn’t pan out. What clearly happens along the way is that Vikram falls in love with these people. It changes him. Temporarily, anyway.

I discussed the film with two friends, Surya, who saw it, and Orit, who did not. Orit said “He fell in love with the power, you mean.”

Surya was raised by European parents who followed a Hindu guru. She was part of a spiritual sangha until she was 12. She is incredibly cynical about the experience, yet she agreed. “No, he fell in love with the people. He did.”

And that’s what makes the movie. But it also, for me, disproved his point. The followers needed Gandhi and he needed them, though not as a guru but as a teacher. Because of the circumstances of the documentary, Gandhi was more of a really good teacher than a guru, in the western sense of the word. In Sanskrit, guru generally means teacher, but has a spiritual context which tends to add some baggage. Teachers also learn from their students, at least as much as they teach. The guru tradition is more unidirectional. Knowledge is imparted by teacher to student.

identGandhi was being filmed while he played the role of guru, and not simply filmed, but filmed by close friends and creative partners. He had checks on his power, and he knew the plot: he was going to reveal himself, which forced a certain responsibility and humility, especially when he began to care about his disciples. Instead of behaving like a typical guru, with omnipotence and hubris, he behaved himself while he communicated his message. Because of this he was a powerful teacher. And because he cared.

I’m not sure that Vikram expected the transformation that came about. I’d guess that he was out of prove his point, not be transformed by his role of the master. But transform he did. As many yoga teachers can tell you, the projections of goodness that students can place on you are powerful. So is the joy of simply helping people feel good. When Vikram Gandhi’s disciples loved him and thought he was great, he felt it, and loved them back. And because his friends were around to film him and keep him in line, and he had to reveal himself in the end, it didn’t go to his head. Instead, he became great, helpful, loving, and caring. And as Gandhi says pretty frequently, “Ask my friends. I am not that kind of guy. I think people miss Kumaré (read: prefer him to me).”

When he said this on stage in a Q&A with cast and crew after the screening, there was a resounding, “Yeah!” from his friends.

The film provokes two questions for me. Do people need gurus? Why wasn’t Gandhi’s transformation long lasting? Or, why does he wish he could always be Kumaré, instead of somehow incorporating Kumaré into himself? Why did he return to his cynical, judgmental self after the filming? That for me is a large question. Did he require the constant projection to be (and feel) loving, open and helpful? Or does he just miss feeling needed and useful?

Do people need gurus? These people clearly needed someone to reflect their goodness and inner guidance back to them, just as Gandhi needed people to reflect his. While I prefer teachers, who am I to tell someone not to seek a guru? I have friends whom I respect, amazing and intelligent people, who believe in a guru. The disciples in the film clearly face difficult problems, issues well beyond existential cynicism, and likely lack solid, understanding relationships in their lives, now and as well as in their tender, developing years.

At one point in the movie, Gandhi talks with a woman who’d been sexually abused by a family member. Just after her interview, he states (I believe as the camera shows her walking off), “We are all really the same” in a very we-are-one guru-y kind of way. I suppose it was meant to make us relate to her, to feel with her, but said at that moment, after that interview, I questioned if Gandhi really gets it. If he gets what it’s like to be someone without a comfortable life, without parents waiting with friends and supporters in the restaurant next door to celebrate his most recent success, with problems larger than showing up to his ten-year Columbia University reunion to face his more successful friends. A personal history filled with trauma and lack of support creates a psyche that aches to be seen and to believe in something more grand than the pain thrown one’s way. Does he get that? Or does he really think they can just find their inner truth on their own? Because, clearly, these people needed to be seen. They needed what Gandhi gave them as much as he needed them. No one can just do it on his own.

Who knows? Maybe he does get it. It’s not clear. I guess that is my question for him. How did making the film change his perception of needing a guru and finding truth on one’s own? Especially in light of his post-filming difficulty finding the same joy in himself as he was able to find in Kumaré.

That said, teachers able to help you believe in your own voice are far far better guides than gurus. In Kumaré, Gandhi is almost as good as they get.