Yoga makes me feel…old. What's up with that?

The lady who asked the question I blogged about last week, “Yoga is meant to calm me, so why do I feel so nervous?” asked another great question yesterday.  Gosh, I love students who give honest reflections and ask questions!  Thanks, honey bunch.
After class I noticed that her face wasn’t 100% bliss.  Quite the opposite.  So, unlike a YouTube video would, I sat next to her and asked her what’s up.  She said:

“I couldn’t do some of the simplest poses.  It made me feel old.”

Ouch.  And yes, yoga does that.  You see, if you give someone a workout routine like Crossfit or marathon training, it is very normal that they will find, at first, themselves not able to do it.  But because it is hard, challenging, perhaps unattainable, they are quite happy to just thrust away at it for a long time until they reach the goal.  To not do something hard on the first go is quite normal and acceptable for the ego.
But when we are asked to do something simple like lie on our backs and stretch one side of the body and breathe deeply, and find that there is pain, discomfort, we say “hold on a second…what is happening here?”
What is happening here is that our bodies have aged, have adopted fixed patterns, have held onto thoughts and emotions and stored them in our abdominal muscles, our hips, our necks, and we have become unable to make those muscles do our bidding.  We try to move the ribs with the breath, and we can’t.  Upon finding that we can’t do something so seemingly simple, we reflect on how, once upon a time, we could.  As children, we were all free and loose and easy.  But time, and life, and blows, and ailments, and all that, steals our childhood from us and we become adults, then middle-aged and then, if we are lucky, old.  The body ages but so does the mind.  We swap physical agility for mental wisdom.  Or that is the idea, anyway.  There is concept that I love in yoga that goes like this:

Why do we do âsana?  We do âsana to  keep the body strong and supple and youthful so that we can live a long time.  And why do we want to live a long time?  So that we can gain wisdom.

Doing yoga is like holding a mirror up to our true selves and being forced to look.  Mostly, we won’t like all that we see.  The mirror as a symbol is powerful and appears all over in the popular culture.  In Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Movie Orphée, the mirror is the portal between two worlds, the living and the dead.  And in fact, a very eerie reflection uttered is :

“Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la Mort va et vient. Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans une glace et vous verrez la Mort travailler commes les abeilles dans une ruche de verre.” (Mirrors are the doors by which Death comes and goes. You have only to look at yourself in the mirror every day and you will see Death at work there, like bees in a glass hive.)

Yes indeed.  When we look at the mirror every day, we look at the face of Death.  Our own death.  This is getting heavy, but the Yoga Sutras are very clear about all this, in the first 5-10 aphorisms of the very first Yoga Sutras book, Patanjali identifies the Kleshas, the mental patterns that cause the vrittis, the mental fluctuations that assail us all.  And right up there in spot number five is fear, abhinidvesa.  Principle fear? Death.
We are all aware of our mortality but none of us wants to admit it, to face it.  When we do, we cringe and shudder.  This is normal.  I love to ruminate on the human being’s awareness of the passage of time.  We are, I believe, the only animal that marks time with such precision.  We are time-obsessed species.  Why?  Because we are all unconsciously counting down the seconds of our lives.  And this is wildly uncomfortable.  Because what this forces us to do is to admit that our time is limited, that we must live fully in the present and create from our meagre and humble little lives the best and brightest creation that we can.  And any abstention from this duty, whether through fear, intransigence, obstinance or fakery, is a negation of our duty to grow and gain wisdom and be the best person we can be.
Uff. All that at 8 in the morning.  I think a lot.  That is why I do yoga.  So, I will leave you with a Joy Division song with footage from Orphée.  Enjoy it, and live this day fully.  And get on your  mats, and breathe deeply and feel the love.  It is there, all the time, and there is enough for everyone.

Authenticity in teaching yoga: Why it took me so long to teach.

authentically ok
authentically ok

The first time I ever practised yoga was in January, 1999.  That is 19 years ago.  How time flies.  I knew from the very first class that I wanted to teach yoga, that it was my path.  So, why did it take me so long to start teaching?  One word:  Authenticity.
I had for the longest time the feeling of being an imposter.  Imposter syndrome is the persistent feeling that you are a fraud.  In the five types that are listed there, I would say I am a Natural Genius and a Rugged Individualist.  Oh, with a bit of Perfectionist thrown in, for good measure.  It’s a high bar I have set for myself.
In yoga, the stakes are high.  You are not playing with people.  You are doing serious work.  And lest we forget, you can only teach what you know, so the most serious work you are actually doing is on yourself.
It is not easy to start off with the Yamas and Niyamas, the codes of ethics that underpin all serious yoga practice.  Non-harming, purity, self-study, contention…it is a long list, and very hard to adhere to 100% of the time.  Add that to six-days-a-week practice, and an evolving practice at that, not stagnating, bringing new things to the mat.  Phew.
It is easy to fall into the idea that you are never good enough to teach yoga.  Or rather, for me it is.  Evidently, for others it is not so difficult.  There are plenty of people out there who, a year after discovering yogâsana are on a 200-hr course and then teaching a few months later.  This is not a criticism of such people, it is a reflection on my inner process, my evolution.
I could not allow myself to do such a thing.  Maybe it is simple enough to say that my baggage was too heavy, my inner world too murky, my compass skewed.  Who was I to teach anyone how to live happily?
And yet, slowly, progressively, I oriented myself, I shed my baggage, I shone my light.  The interesting thing was discovering that we don’t have to be 100% perfect and clean.  But, we need to love our own flaws, our own pain.  When you learn to love your pain, you become whole and when you are whole you can hold space for your students to learn to love themselves, in their entirety.  When I got that,  I started to teach in earnest.  Now, it is my passion, my absolute passion!
A lot of marketing in the holistic world centres on authenticity.  How can we tell the real from the false.  I dunno, I don’t have a simple answer.  I think it’s intuition, I think it’s a feeling.  All I can say is that I think I am authentically ok now, I think I am.  I hope I am cos goddarn I am not going back to that place where I was before!   So, if you feel like checking out my classes, meeting me to ask about how I teach, having a conversation, you’re already here on the blog.  Take the next step and get in touch.
Love, Rachel

Get on your mat! Yoga to ease the symptoms of menopause

I came across this article about the benefits of yoga for peri-menopausal and post-menopausal women.  I just had to share!
The study was done by researchers in Germany,  and examined groups of women in the USA, India, Brazil, China, South Korea and Germany.  What is really interesting about the breadth of the study groups is that the women would have had vastly different lifestyle and diet habits.  So, the observed positive effect must come from something outside of existing diet and lifestyle.  In this case, the researchers conclude that yoga helps specifically with night sweats and hot flashes.
I worked for twelve years in rehabilitation of women who have had breast cancer.  As you may know, many breast cancers are sensitive to oestrogen, so one of the therapeutic strategies is to provoke a chemical menopause.  This may sound harsh, and it is, for the ladies.  Later, the woman may take a hormone disruptor (aromatase inhibitor or similar) like Tamoxifen for a period of five to ten years.  So, I have seen my share of ladies going through the menopause, believe me. The hot flashes and night sweats are very disruptive.
I myself have been crossing this particular juncture in the past two years and the night sweats thing comes and goes.  But, as a practising yogi, I will say that my transition has been smooth, and I am not overly bothered by the symptoms.  If anything, I feel lighter in my body and more stable in my mind.  I did not expect to have a relatively early menopause (I am only 45), but I did expect that my symptoms should be bearable.  And in fact, yes, they are.
It is worth noting that the positive effect of yoga might also lie in the way the women perceive the symptoms.  It is now known that the intensity of pain or physical discomfort is partly an issue of perception.  “A study from the University of Colorado at Boulder released on Jan. 12, 2015, reports that the ability to use your thoughts to modulate perceptions of pain utilizes a completely separate brain pathway than the pathway used to send the physical pain signal to your brain. This discovery is a breakthrough”
So, let’s just sum up, shall we?  Yoga seems to be effective at easing symptoms of menopause, even adjusting for diet and lifestyle difference.  Yoga is a safe and practical solution.  Viniyoga, which adapts the practice to the individual, not the individual to the practice, is a style that can help women who might have co-pathologies like osteoporosis/osteopenia, overweight/obesity, arthritis, and so on.
Have I convinced you yet?  Don’t worry, I will keep trying if not.  Why?  Because I care about your health, even if I don’t know you (yet).
Love, Rachel

Why heal?

It can seem to be a bit navel-gazing, all this personal healing that we do.  Your journey within is completely unique, mysterious and exciting.  One can easily get distracted by the phenomena and surprises along the way.
We had the opportunity to examine this question in great depth, this past week.  Some 27 students and 7 instructors gathered in Dénia to study the yoga sutras.  I am privileged to be amongst that group.  We turned over and around sutras 3:1-38, delving into the siddhis that appear when one practises samyama upon different points in the body.  This is pretty esoteric stuff, and it is also information that is privy to the study group.  But, it suffices to say that

, with the regular yet detached practice of yoga principles (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara), one develops the capacity to perform dharana, one-pointed concentration on an object.  Dharana leads to dhyana, and dhyana to samadhi.  The practice of one-pointedness is called samyama.  Our relationship with linear time is altered and we become able to understand the past and the future. (3:1-15)

Along the way, as the nervous system becomes purified and the sensibility heightened, whilst preserving detachment from the information sent to the brain by the sense organs, hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and seeing, we become more sensitive to other information being subtly transmitted by the person or thing in front of us.  This subtle information is unspoken, but it manifests in thought, action, deed and reaction.  We find ourselves with the ability to see things that are hidden, or in the past or future.  We find our intuition honed and receptive.  We may perceive luminosity, sweet tastes and fragrances, murmurs of sound reverberate and are heard.  These delights are real and reproducible – as is everything that Patanjali has thus far described.  Practice makes perfect balance and union.
But! Beware.  Do not identify with these powers.  If the ego grabs hold of them, it only becomes stronger.  Even the most purified mind, if there are still vrittis of rajas in there, is prone to fall into the trap of identification, exultation and emptiness.  If you feel these powers manifesting in you, by all means use them.  but use them for the good of man and womankind.
Which brings me to the topic of my post.  Why heal? What is the point of all this consciousness-raising? What changes if we are healthier, suppler and more emotionally and mentally balanced?  Well, everything.
There is only one way that humankind is going to get itself out of this eco-econo-fear-based decadence and back onto the path of the soul:  join together, working for peace and understanding and harmony and an end to war, forever. How do we do this?  By understanding, accepting and healing ourselves, we create space in our energetic field for the joys and sorrows of the other.  By loving our neighbour as ourselves, by shining our divine light out and letting it meld with the divine light of the other, humankind unites in fraternity and sorority.  We heal so that we can love.  We love so that we can grow and throw off our shackles.  We grow because there is no other way.  If you don’t grow, you shrivel.
Heal yourself, heal the world.
The guru is in you.
cabeza morada

Musings on Meditation

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”.  (
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.