Thoracic outlet syndrome. TMJ. Frozen shoulder. Tingling fingers. All these conditions, and many more, have to do with the shoulder joint. Yoga teaches me that using arm balances helps bring the shoulder joint into alignment. There is a group of muscles known as the rotator cuff. Put simply, these muscles stabilise the shoulder. They are usually pretty weak. Modern life doesn’t encourage us to develop them. Most people can’t even detect the rotator cuff muscles, when prompted. Arm balances can be symmetric or asymmetric postures. Symmetric postures, like plank or downward dog, or handstand are more easily maintained because it’s easier to balance. Beware bad habits, like rotating the shoulders upwards and inwards, hyperextending the shoulder and/or elbow joints. The feeling I seek is like rolling the arms down and inwards from beneath the armpits. If you aren’t feeling that, you are not engaging the rotator cuff. Yoga teaches me to ignore the rotator cuff at my peril. I will only get neck ache and head ache. Asymmetric arm balances are harder, but as with all asymmetric postures, they teach me about imbalances between the two hemispheres of my body. Yoga teaches me to ask why I balance better on my right arm than my left? Why do I rotate more on the left than the right? Why does one shoulder click and the other lock or hurt. I watch my imbalances, keep practising, and over time they correct. Or they are less pronounced. Yoga teaches me to love my body anyway, just cuz. My osteopath adjusts my diaphragm, pericardium and hyoid and reminds me that seeking help is good. When the yoga gets deep, things shift around. Professionals are there to help keep us aligned and to reflect back at us what we are projecting. I tend to overwork spinal extensions. My osteopath reminds me that this tends to put my T10-T12 out of alignment. So, I hold back. Yoga teaches me to listen to the opinions of others, to let go of my egotistical all-knowing and to surrender. Yoga suggests to me that when I finally align my shoulders, my heart will feel freer. All I want to do in this world is learn to love. My armour comes off piece by piece. Yoga teaches me not to fear my nakedness.
I don’t teach yoga. Yoga teaches me.
For the past few months, I have maintained mostly silence. All the amazing and transformative experiences brought to me by constant practice, I have kept to myself. I lost the impulse to share, to blog or post about my feelings or openings or closings or understandings. It…just went.
I stopped caring about capturing yoga students. I stopped caring about adding a fresh voice to the yoga blogosphere. I stopped trying to be clever, new or insightful. I guess that I went inside. It felt good. It feels good. My inner voice is loudly private. What bearing has my experience of yoga on yours? Very little.
For this reason, out of the silence came this phrase: I don’t teach yoga. Yoga teaches me.
Say it to yourself. Repeat it a few times. Change the intonation. You will see what I mean.
Yoga teaches me to be patient.
Yoga teaches me to listen.
Yoga teaches me the value of constancy and dedication.
Yoga teaches me that pain is a signal to stop.
Yoga teaches me to listen to my intuition, to stop when it says stop and to pay little heed to what others are doing.
Yoga teaches me that when people are ready, they will arrive.
Yoga teaches me that some people are never going to be ready for yoga, in this lifetime, or perhaps in the bit of a lifetime that you may know them.
Yoga teaches me to love those who don’t practice with equal intensity and without judgement.
Yoga teaches me that people’s bad behaviour is a sign of their inner suffering and they need compassion, not criticism. But you don’t need to be their best friend, either.
Yoga teaches me that being alone and maintaining silence is often the only remedy.
Yoga teaches me to delay gratification.
Yoga teaches me to communicate clearly and non-violently, verbally and non-verbally.
Yoga teaches me to look within, assess clinically what I find, undo the knots and find out that I too have a lovely, gentle, kind, open, accepting soul.
Yoga teaches me that what I thought to be “me”, what I mistook for “who I am”, those things people call character, is all an illusion, an armour that I made while trying to protect myself.
Yoga teaches me to remember this armour for when I need it, but to shed it most of the time.
Yoga teaches me to relax.
Yoga teaches me to be, and in being, to do good, while remaining detached from the fruits of the actions.
I don’t teach yoga. Yoga teaches me.
Most of us spend a lot of time worrying. Worry is perhaps the most futile mental activity imaginable. Worrying, sometimes called excessive rumination, is when we sit there turning the same thoughts over in our heads, envisioning all possible outcomes, all possible reasons, abstracting and having imaginary conversations and doing absolutely nothing – NOTHING – about the problem at hand.
No, worrying achieves nothing. Action achieves results. Planning your action is healthy. Worrying is not planning, though. It is worrying. My mother was a champion worrier. I learned from the best and spent many years perfecting my craft. The only thing I can say all this worrying gave me was the concrete and iron-clad desire to change the way my mind worked. To stop worrying. Don’t worry, be happy, y’know?
I had the good fortune to find yoga at the age of 27 and the good sense to keep practising. I was good at the postures from the start. Most ex-gymnasts can do most yoga postures, it’s true. But, despite appearing to practise yoga, I wasn’t really. I was doing “yogâsana” – yoga postures – but my mind was everywhere but on the mat. Shopping lists…things to do…arguments unresolved…oh wait…time to breathe.
Only once I got in touch with my diaphragm and my breath did I develop the ability to be present in my practice. With presence comes concentration and with concentration, meditation. And with meditation, peace. Yes, dear readers. I no longer worry. Would you believe it possible? I would not have, if someone had told me just like that. But, yoga is an experiential science. The sutras say “here is the road, go walk it, see what you find.” No spoon feeding here.
Here’s the magic part. When we stop worrying, we become brave. You see, with inner stillness one finds one’s purpose. And with purpose, one finds one’s personal power. From frailty we grow resilient and we will take on all adversaries. This is not combat mode like in capitalist echelons and hierarchies. This is about your mission. I have this unshakable faith in humanity and my experience is that when people find their purpose, it is very often much more altruistic than anything they had done before. We become a kind of spiritual warrior.
So, worrier (->yoga)->warrior. Wanna join in?
My personal practice has been suffering of late. Time, but also boredom, has kept me off the mat. Granted, I have been practising a lot of yoga of daily life, being aware, present, joyful, honest and patient. Well, most of the time.
Then I read this article, about how to be an inspiring yoga teacher, in which the author says:
When you give yourself permission to abandon the rules, to listen and truly explore and celebrate your body through the shapes and then share what you discover with your students, the movement becomes medicine. My partner and Laughing Lotus co-founder, Jasmine Tarkeshi, always says that to be a good teacher you’ve got to be a soul scientist. You truly must go into a laboratory and investigate your sacred self through your body, every single day.
Heck yeah! I need to remember that sometimes.
The system I know and teach is called Viniyoga. The central tenet of this system is “the yoga adapts to the person, not the person to the yoga”. It is a system that can be considered the peak of Krishnamacharya’s life’s work and investigation. I believe wholeheartedly in that core message and have iron faith in my teacher, Carmen, and my lineage (Krishnamacharya -> TKV Desikachar -> Claude Maréchal -> Christina S. de Ynestrillas -> Carmen Sánchez Segura). And yet, and yet…lately something hadn’t been quite right.
I embarked on the second phase of my teacher training, the “Post-Formation” last autumn. The format was different than the first part (once every two months, a residential weekend away) but the content built solidly on the earlier teachings. Perhaps a bit too solidly…more sutras? more posture analysis? etc…Boredom has always been my bugbear, so I knew I need not heed that little voice inside saying “something new…something new…go and find something new…”
What was putting me off? Boredom, yes. But more than anything, a distinct lack of joy was bringing the whole tone down. I felt the need to knuckle down for the seminars rather than blossom out. In the meantime, I had enjoyed the wonders of Stretch Therapy and the deep relaxation of Yin Yoga.
I began to doubt…was Viniyoga too limited? Are the postural compensations too often, too indulgent, not challenging enough? Why is it that those who practice Viniyoga seem to do so for a very long time without ever developing the stunning and deep flexibility that other lineages develop? Why do my teachers, who evidently know a lot about yoga and have practised for years not seem to smile, not seem joyful (with the exception of Claude) ? The questions rolled round my head and I found no answers.
The second, then the third seminars dragged on. One of the group dropped out. Doubt, head-scratching, the decision to stay.
Then, I read this article and realised something both simple and profound. Having completed the teacher training, having practised solidly since 1999, I had earned the right to innovate, create, both in my personal practice and in my classes. Of course, I had always done this, I know that I am creative when it comes to sequencing, bhavanas, important details. But, still, I limited myself.
I think I will grant myself a little more leeway from now on, find out how Viniyoga adapts to Rachel, not Rachel to Viniyoga.
I still believe that the training I am pursuing is the highest quality teaching I can receive here and now. It is I who needs to transform. OM. May you find your own path, too. The Guru is in you.
I had the great pleasure of returning to the stage this Thursday past. Yes, dear yogis, in my spare time I am a singer-songwriter.
I began this odyssey years ago. In fact, I could say that I have always been a musician. As child I played the oboe, and the recorder. I used to sit there with my tape recorder, registering a harmony to then play the melody on top. Too bad I only had one track! I gave up classical music, as most teens do, only to then buy a red Yamaha bass at the age of 18. I played in a band, and enjoyed mild local success, before shyness and nerves forced me off the stage. Life continued apace. I began writing more and more, diaries, poetry, laments, and soon, songs. It took me 10 years to buy a guitar and another four before I could tune by ear and play with some fluency. At this point, I bought my lovely Taylor 414CE cutaway and began composing the songs that I still play today.
How does this relate to yoga?
Vishuddah chakra and overcoming fear.
Singing is related to the throat (vishuddha) chakra. Mine was most definitely blocked. I used to speak in a whisper and was plagued by the sensation of something in my throat. (In TCM, this is called plum-pit throat and is related to the Liver Qi). I bought a couple of books (Finding Your Voice, Zen Guitar), took a workshop (The Healing Voice with Jill Purce), but, mostly, I just sang. Over and over, through smiles and tears. Overcoming my incredible fear, I took to stage in open mic nights and small gigs in and around London. It was terrifying but I knew it did me good. Still, the fear was being pushed down, not truly overcome. But, I think that in yoga we have to push past our fear, be brave and have great faith, in order to grow. So, that was one phase of my growth.
Control of the diaphragm
Another phase of my work was taking control of my diaphragm muscle. The diaphragm is fundamental to the singer. My yoga teacher gave me a short personalized practice in which I did krama in the exhale. This means, the exhale was broken up into two or more parts, and then the breath retained with the lungs empty. For the first time in my life, I could actually locate my own diaphragm. My colleague Santi, a fantastic osteopath, adjusted my diaphragm and pericardium, loosening the tendons and leaving my breath much freer.
Control of the perineum
By now, my voice was vibrating nicely in my chest and abdomen. It was mellower and sweeter and easier to control. But, still, on the high notes, something was missing. In my ongoing reading – I am voracious, and practically only read on theme – I came across a few lines in The Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H. David Coulter.
A famous conductor…once shouted…”No! No! Squeeze it in – push it up!” He may not have known it, but he was telling them to seal off and control the anatomical perineum – the base of the pelvis -and thereby cultivate what we have been calling abdominopelvic energy. All trained singers have learned that the purest and richest sound originates from this region. In the language of singers, the base of the body “supports” the voice.
Wa-hey! that’s the secret. On the high notes, all that perineum work I’d been doing in yoga would pay in by holding my voice up in a clean, sweet note. Hallelujah!
Believing in myself
Yoga teaches us that within each and every human being there is a tiny spark of Divinity. We don’t need any mediators when we talk to God because God is within. When we first learn, then internalize this, our faith in ourselves grows and grows and we begin to value ourselves for who we are instead of what we do. Through yoga, I realized that my music, my words, my beliefs and my message are not only valid but beautiful and even Divine. And having that behind me, I take the stage with courage and honesty, and never try to emulate the music or sound of anyone else. This is freedom. And now, the fear is not being suppressed. It is no longer there. I offer it all to God with the simple mantra, Ishvara Pranidanah.
There is karmic cleansing here. My grandfather went down to London in the 1920’s and played his clarinet in the earliest SoHo jazz clubs. From my limited research, there was only a handful of jazz clubs in the UK at that time, so both he and my grandmother – they met on the jazz scene – were well ahead of their time. They married, and moved up to Yorkshire where dreams of jazz music were replaced by granite houses and the family woolens mill. A frustrated musician to the end of his days, Grandsir, as well called him, would get drunk on G&Ts and pull out the clarinet at Christmas, even as his dentures popped from his gums. My mum sang. In the choir, in Gilbert and Sullivan productions, in the singalong Messiah every Ottawa Christmas. My father was the greatest music fan. He wept and danced and collected music. His LP collection filled the basement of a huge Saskatchewan house by the time he died. I come by it in honestly. Music is in my blood. But yoga helped – and helps – me realise it in a sane and safe way.
When our karma (work) and our dharma (lifepath) unite, we find liberation (Kaivalya). Let yoga guide you towards Self-realization. And don’t think for a moment that Self-realization means isolation in an ashram. For some, maybe, but not for everyone. Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to modern yogic thought was the idea that liberation can be found here and now, in daily life, not only when the soul leaves the body. Be happy here and now. Bless y’all.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the path of yoga is very clearly laid out. Book 1 talks about the kind of person who undertakes to stay on the path, and the pitfalls that may arise whilst there. Book 2 talks about the practical part of yoga. It is here that you will find the first mention of hatha yoga – the postural part that we are now familiar with – and the other 7 branches of Astanga Yoga (there are eight limbs in total).
We start with character-building, as Swami Radha calls it in her brilliant book “Kundalini Yoga for the West”. These are the yamas and niyamas. Once this is established, the yogi can then confidently practice asana (postures) and pranayama, (breathwork) leading to pratyahara, or retraction of the senses. I found the concept of pratyahara difficult to understand before directly experiencing its effects. Your path and my path of yoga are each distinct and unique, so I won’t elaborate too much here. But, in my case, pratyahara meant a softening of the impact of external influences – loud noises make me jump less, bright lights don’t annoy, strong smells…well strong smells still bug me. Okay, but you might get the point.
The next limb of Astanga Yoga is dharana, or concentration. This is not, note, meditation, which is dhyana. Dharana is the ability to focus the mind on a single object for increasingly long periods of time. Eventually, one become “one” with the object, and enters into samana with it. This is the beginning of Book 3 of the sutras. The object can be something external like an icon or candle, or it can be more subtle, like the breath or the heartbeat.
Still, the point I want to make here is that dharana, and eventually dhyana, are the fruits of previous practice. I was a terribly meditator. For years I fidgeted on my zafu, wondering where all the mental peace was. Well, the answer is it’s coming…be patient. Practice and all is coming, said Sri Pattabhi Jois. I use the spinal breathing method described in the book “Advanced Yoga Practices”. (http://www.aypsite.org/)
My advice is: don’t jump straight into meditation without toning the body and breath first. Some people can – hey, we’re all different – but many people can’t. And don’t give up. Propel yourself forward on wings of faith. Look up at the sky and realise that the Universe is boundless and you are a speck and rejoice in all the incredible freedom that gives you. OM.
The only way to get on in this craaaazy world is to adapt. When we resist we harden. Have you ever noticed how many diseases of ageing have to do with hardening? Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), arthrosis (hardening of the joints), spondylitis (in all its delightful forms), bones spurs, bunions, corns and calluses…to be aged is to be stiff. Little children are wonderfully malleable. So are those who eat properly and do yoga. In the midst of the hard-core, half-baked world, I choose LiFe!
I choose to celebrate life through yoga, friends and movement. Tomorrow, I am hosting my first ever “Dancing From Within”, an event inspired by the goings-on over the pond and conceived to combine green juice, yoga, mantra and free movement. I invited eight yoga teachers from the ‘hood. Only one replied. I spent the day feeling rejected. It was interesting to observe my tried and true reflex – have a drink – kicking in and kicking me about. I observed it, stayed with the feeling of rejection, and it passed. I considered never talking to them again. Then I decided that isn’t the best decision I could make. The best decision I could make is to …not worry about it! Go ahead with my plans, make the most of it, even if it’s just me, Simone and Sandra. Who’s making that judgement “just”? Is it valid? NO!
A ver que pasa mañana…
If we are united by any one thing, it is suffering. Suffering is the most universal of human experiences. It touches us all, rich, poor, young, old, beautiful and plain. We are united by grief and cruelty and random injustice. We are united by our reactions to these things – anguish, guilt, rejection and disbelief. None of us expects anything bad to befall us, and we almost all manifest pure surprise when a loved one dies or a partner mistreats us.
When we take time to listen to others, we hear first the stories of suffering. Aches and pains and deceptions are cast about and compared. It can be tiring to listen to such words. In situations such as these, it is important to remember where your personal boundaries lie. You can protect your energetic field from contamination by practising yoga, meditation t’ai chi or qi gong. You can project compassion through the eyes without offering a word. In fact, silent compassion, true listening, usually helps cease the flow while reassuring the speaker that they have been heard. Remember, most people feel that no one listens to them. This is the gateway to complaint. When we carry our burdens alone, they feel much heavier. When we share them, they weight less. By actively listening, without offering advice or, worse, belittling the complaint (“Oh, that’s terrible, but think of how much worse it could be…”) we give space for grievances while neither accepting them as ours to resolve, nor rejecting them as insignificant.