Monday, June 28, 2010

Celebrating the Fullness of the Guru

"Whether you practice the dynamic series of Pattabhi Jois, the refined alignment of B.K.S. Iyengar or the customized vinyasa of viniyoga, your practice stems from one source: a five foot two inch Brahmin born more than one hundred years ago in a small South Indian village."

The full moon in July is traditionally Guru Poornima, the celebration of the fullness of the teacher. It is a time to formally honor special teachers. This July, we will honor Sri Krishnamacharya.
A lineage of Yoga teachers is called Guru Parampara, literally "one after the other". A lineage is access to an unbroken line of energy. Our lineage in the studio is Vinyasa Yoga in the tradition of Sri Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), a legendary Yoga teacher, healer and scholar. Krishnamacharya is credited with the creation of the Vinyasa system, intelligent sequences of asanas combined with steady gaze (Dhrishti), manipulated breath (Ujjayi Pranayama) and core emphasis (Bandhas).

Krishanamacharya had 3 students who also went on to become very famous Yoga teachers in the their own right- B.KS. Iyengar, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar, his son. Iyengar's vigorous style of Yoga is known for an emphasis on alignment and the use of props like blocks, straps and sand bags. Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has an emphasis on repetition and structure. Practitioners perform nearly the same practice 6 days a week. Pattabhi Jois has said that the three key words that describe his style are strength, stamina and sweat. The Yoga of T.K.V. Desikachar is customized individually for each practitioner according to their specific needs and goals. These three students, who all studied with the same teacher, created three very different styles of Yoga. Yet, the one aspect of practice that all three of these teachers agreed on was the importance of meditation in a Yoga practice.
"Let us set aside as much time for meditation as possible."
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

I began my journey into Yoga with a meditation practice. I had practiced meditation for years before I did my first down dog. When I started teaching, I taught in the way that most teachers teach led classes- instructing asanas combined with pranayama (conscious breathing) for the bulk of the duration of the class and then finishing with a short Yogic sleep meditation and maybe a very brief seated pranayama and/or meditation. The heart of the class is asana work with the subtle practices just thrown in very briefly at the end. Part of the reason for this is because students have a difficult time with meditation and often, initially, they simply do not see the benefit. Also, unfortunately, many Yoga teachers do not practice meditation themselves, so do not see the benefit of teaching it to others. For teachers like me, who do practice meditation, we often teach classes speaking of the importance of meditation, giving students a short taste of meditation at the end of each class and then hope beyond hope that maybe we have inspired practitioners to commit to a home practice of meditation. Yet, I found that after years of teaching serious, regular students Yoga, there were only a handful of students who were meditating at home.
About six months ago, I decided that I could no longer live with myself teaching in this way. If I really thought meditation was so important, then I had to give students a real experience of it in each practice. The change that is possible from a Yoga practice is profound, but most teachers agree that the miracles that are possible only happen with a full Yoga practice- asana, pranayama and meditation. Asanas with pranayama cultivate fire and devotional practices like chanting and meditation cultivate the sap of vitality that protects daily practitioners from getting burned by the fire.
Nowadays, when I teach, I draw from the wisdom of all the root gurus from this tradition. I teach poses with some emphasis on physical alignment honoring Iyengar, tempered with the energetics of the pose, "feeling" our way toward optimal alignment and enhanced energy flow. I like to work with repetition and structure in sequencing honoring Pattabhi Jois, yet allowing some wiggle room for a sprinkling of creativity. Form and freedom are nice. And I teach with the idea of using Yoga as therapy honoring T.K.V. Desikachar, instructing students how to tweak poses, breath and sequencing to best suit their own anatomies and nervous systems. It is possible for students to practice the very same sequence of poses with very different bhavanas, intentions. Honoring Krishnamacharya and all of his students, each practice ends now with an extended experience of Yogic Sleep Meditation, Yoga Nidra.
"Silence is not silent. Silence speaks. Silence is not still. Silence leads."
Sri Chinmoy

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Art of Sleeping and the Cultivation of Awareness

Coffee beans are the second most widely traded world commodity, second only to oil.

"When someone says they need only five hours of sleep, I tell them they're delusional," says Thomas Roth, Ph.D., of the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. "It's very important to differentiate between how much people sleep and how much sleep they need."

Because of the invention of electricity, we get on average 90 minutes less sleep per night than our ancestors. Add to that overworking and overplaying, and what we end up with is a sleep restricted and/or sleep deprived modern society. For many, sleep is simply not a priority. Sleep, however, is just as integral to the building and maintaining of health as exercise, diet and stress management. The body rejuvenates itself each night when we sleep and sends its resources to nonessential tasks like cellular repair, antiaging, enhancing the immune system and healing itself. Charles Czeisler, Ph.D., M.D., professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the country's leading sleep experts, calls lack of sleep "a huge, pervasive problem, the elephant in the room."

I teach a Yoga class at 6 am two days a week and need to get up those mornings at 430 am. 10 years ago, this simply would not have been possible. In fact, back then getting somewhere at 9 am seemed arduous. Even 7 or 8 years ago, my preference for Yoga asana practice time was in the afternoon or early evening. Practicing asana first thing in the morning seemed foreign to my body. Over the years, naturally and gradually, my rising time and my choice for asana practice time has grown earlier and earlier. I love getting up early now and my body really enjoys physical activity around the time that the sun rises. This is the traditional time for Yoga practice. That time right before the sun rises is auspicious, it is special, because it is one of the tween times- not quite day but not quite night either. The energy then is quite balanced and perfect for the task of creating balance physically, mentally and energetically. Universally, all of the ancient medical texts from all of the ancient medical systems, teach us that getting to bed early and rising early is what is most healthy for us. The body, mind, energy complex, the living matrix, likes to be in harmony with the sun. The more we can rise when the sun rises and go to bed when the sun goes to bed, the better we feel. Many Yogis traditionally, have risen before the sun rises and the morning practice ends with a puja to greet the morning sun and a prayer of gratitude for one more day with the precious gift of a human body is offered.

"Yogis get up early."
Yogarupa Rod Stryker

The intention of getting up early begins with the necessary intention of also going to bed early. This part of the plan is what requires discipline and regularity. The body begins to know what is expected of it if we go to bed around the same time each night. In the pranic system, there are 5 major currents of energy in the human body- the 5 prana vayus. One of these currents, is called pran vayu- names often overlap and mean different things in Yoga. Pran vayu is located in the head and heart region and its main job is to create vitality in the living matrix. It governs the sense organs in the body and is depleted when we overstimulate the senses. Stimulation of an electronic nature is the most devastating on the senses and watching tv and spending too time on the computer and cell phone are recipes for depletion of energy. Deep sleep is the time when we revitalize the living matrix and counter the damage done from so much time spent exposing the senses to electronics.

The newest sleep studies show a link now with sleep deprivation and health problems as varied as diabetes, heart disease, miscarriage, preterm birth, ADHD in children, clinical depression and obesity. If you chart how sleep has declined over the past 50 years, it exactly parallels the increase in our waistlines. Lack of sleep alters our metabolism so that we crave carbs and eat more. The brain sends us signals when we are tired that make us think we are hungry. Some of the first symptoms from lack of sleep are declining mental moods and a slowing of cognitive functioning (cranky and foggy- sound familiar?). We make 10 times more mistakes when we are tired and 1 in 5 of all workplace accidents are caused by lack of sleep. Patients with clinical depression are 5 times more likely to suffer from a temporary bout of depression when they are tired. There is a 50% increase in irregular insulin production by the pancreas when we are sleep deprived.

Yoga is a science that facilitates change. Physical change, mental/emotional change, energetic change, change in life and ultimately, change in the world. As Yoga teacher, my goal is to create as much change as possible in each student in each class. Modern psychology tells us that if we want to change a person, then we must change that person's awareness of themselves. Yoga wholeheartedly agrees- introspection will create change most effectively. Swami Kripalananda writes, "If a seeker can relax the body and mind at will, then introspection is cultivated." The Yogic Sleep Meditation, Yoga Nidra, is a beautiful way for seekers to learn and practice to relax the body and mind at will. My goal with the practice of an extended Yoga Nidra at the end of each practice is to save Yogis time- to create change as quickly as possible. The scriptures tell us that Yoga Nidra is incredibly nourishing to the living matrix as well. Yogic Sleep is 4 times more revitalizing than regular sleep so at the end of each practice, Yogis catch up on some much needed sleep time too. Yoga Nidra is a window of healing opportunity- your job is to say yes.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Circular Sequencing: Cultivating the Mandala

This morning in the shala we began our theme for this week of Mandala Vinyasa, or circular sequencing. Archetypal symbols penetrate the psyche and the circle is universally pleasing to the human eye and nervous system. Circles call to mind a coming back full circle, a sense of completion and wholeness. In Pagan ritual, honoring all the directions in a ceremony is called calling quarters and purifies the space, setting the stage for sacred work.

I grew up in a small community in Virginia. In fact, if you ever watched the 70s family show, The Waltons, then you are already familiar with my hometown, Walton's Mountain. About 15 minutes from my house was a place called Yogaville. Word on the street was that it was a cult and my parents would not let me go there. I moved away from my hometown in my early 20s, but in 1999, I took Yoga teacher training through the "cult". I found out it was not a cult at all, but a Yoga school and hotel and retreat center where people could stay as long as they liked to study Yoga and to be immersed in a Yogic lifestyle. The point of my story is that I came full circle with my dharma. There was a reason that I grew up so close to a Yogic community. It just took me 35 years or so to figure that out.

A part of you remembers the first 9 months of your life, that time spent in your mother's womb. This was a time when we were certain of our dharma- our purpose. Our purpose for the first 9 months of life was to grow and expand. We never worried about where our next meal was coming from- this was a time of complete safety, security, comfort and peace. Use the circles this week to come back full circle to that time of wholeness. It is possible to live life with absolute certainty about our dharma and to live life knowing that everything is perfect just as it is right now and even to feel an intimacy with the Divine Mother as we fulfill our obligations and learn our lessons.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Skin: The Open Barrier

This week in the studio we will be working with the sheath of skin.
of Cultivation of sensation at the level of the skin is beneficial because:

  • The skin is the largest organ of elimination in the body and working with the skin promotes the removal of waste product from the body.

  • The skin is a metabolic organ as well- it aids in the metabolism of fat.

  • The skin helps to regulate blood pressure: the opening and closing of capillaries helps to promote the healthy flow of blood.

  • The skin is an integral part of the immune system by way of the large network of lymph vessels.

  • The skin is part of the respiration process- there is some gas exchange at the level of skin.

  • There is a strong connection in the way we feel emotionally and what we feel at the level of skin: we blush when we are embarrassed, we get goosebumps when we are scared or excited. When we work with the skin, we affect and benefit the nervous system.

Massaging the skin is an incredibly healing technique, whether we have a therapist massage us or we practice Ayurvedic self massage. Yogis are picky about what we put on the open barrier of the skin- it is best to use culinary grade oils. Working at the level of skin reminds us about appropriate barriers in life- be picky about who you spend time with, which foods and/or drugs you take in and the environments that you choose to spend time in.

In class, we work with the skin practically by stretching and squeezing the skin through muscular contraction and expansion and by promoting the exchange of fluids through perspiration.