Raves, reviews and writings about yoga and the yogic lifestyle.
August 16, 2012
Dude Yoga Ain’t My Thing – Is It?
Recently I had a brand new yoga experience. For the first time in over 16 years of practicing yoga, I found myself one out of two women in a class full of men! And despite the historicity of the moment – I was not pleased. Lets just say, I was sure the Zen like sanctuary of my morning class was about to take on the ambiance of a weight room.
Ladies you know what I’m talking about. The guttural grunting of over-straining dude on the mat beside you. The one who red-faced and barely breathing has contorted himself into something resembling a posture. The one who will surely snap a hamstring if he doesn’t just let up for one moment and take a breath.
Of course this doesn’t describe the behavior of every single man in a yoga class, but sadly, it describes too many. So its an understatement to say I wasn’t exactly thrilled to find myself surrounded by all this testosterone.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m an ardent fan of the male sex and I’ve had some perfectly lovely men in my classes. But as a teacher my main goal is often to just get men through class without hurting themselves. And it is a delicate art, too much attention embarrasses, too many corrections only seems to cause them to try ‘harder’.
Obviously it takes a brave man willing to enter the female yogic domain in the first place. That’s why I find it ironic that women become more self-conscious (even inhibited in their movements) when there are men in the class. Because the men aren’t looking, not at all. They are far more preoccupied with ‘performing’ than in sneaking a peek at the Lululemon clad butts around them – as if we women had secret scorecards evaluating manly prowess in each posture.
Of course its not just men who view yoga as a competitive sport, plenty of women do the same. Surreptitiously eying our more bendy neighbors during class, we are equally guilty of driving ever harder to measure up – and God knows I’ve been there myself. But still, making the worst possible generalization, I’d have to say that men en mass, still just don’t get yoga. They just don’t get the yoga “experience”.
So that’s why on this morning, instead of embracing the historic occasion, I was watching the door looking for an opportunity to slink discreetly out. Should I pretend to go to the bathroom and never come back? Feign illness? Just roll up my mat and flounce directly out? Yet as I plotted methods of escape, I began to notice something new, something different about the men in the room.
I observed how these mostly youngish men, bike couriers, tech geeks, sleek tattooed hipsters – oh so seriously – took their places in the studio. Gently unrolling their yoga mats with ceremonial deliberation, they moved slowly, easily, exuding a calm, peaceful, even grounded energy. And so, I decided to take a chill pill and give the guys a chance.
And I’m glad I did. Not only did this class blow away my preconceptions about yoga and men, I actually enjoyed myself. There was nary a grunter in the bunch. As they moved through their practice with ease and athletic grace, they were actually breathing. They were practicing deliberately, with awareness, with meaning, for practicing sake. They were doing yoga!
Yes, practicing in a room full of men did feel different. More charged somehow – not surprising considering the plethora of masculine pheromones and hormones in the air. But the bottom line is I experienced something new. And it gave me some much needed insight as a teacher. A reminder to remain open, not to make assumptions about the man in the class beside or in front of me, not let my preconceptions shape my – or his – experience.
Because on that morning I underwent something that I have only previously experienced in groups of women. That magical sense of clarity and heightened physical energy that is created when a trusting group practises yoga together. Because that morning we agreed, both men and the women, to trust each other. To let down defenses, to leave ego’s behind and allow the experience of our bodies – of yoga – to happen.
And so I’m happy to announce that a new breed of male yogi arrived. Where he came from, how he evolved, I’m not sure, but he has given me hope for the future. Because I think once men really get it – yoga will be unstoppable. And lets face it, yoga, at least in it’s most commercialized forms, is already taking on a whiff of the passe. Maybe men might just be the breath of fresh energy necessary to save yoga from taking its place on the dusty DVD shelf of past fitness fads?
While yoga may have for thousands of years been an exclusively male practice (well at least the yoga we hear about) it is women in the past century who ‘grew’ yoga into the female centric cultural juggernaut it has become. And as the documentary YogaWoman proudly proclaims, women-power has today overhauled yoga over into its own image. But maybe it’s time for a make-over?
Yoga, to a large degree, involves the balancing of energies, of the male (active) energies and the receptive (female). In the Taoist view when there is too much Yin (female energy) things can stagnate. Yang (male energy) is necessary to revitalize, keep things moving. So I am inspired by the idea that maybe men and women, by practicing yoga side by side, can create a new transmutation, a new alchemy, a new balancing of female and male energies, that will keep yoga vital and evolving.
So in closing, I want to say that it is estimated that men make up barely one third of the millions of yoga practitioners around the world – but on that morning in a yoga class in a small neighborhood studio, there was a shift in the zeitgeist. A new generation of men finally making yoga their own. And I’m grateful I was there.
June 27, 2012
The Yoga of Food: Spring Nettle Pie
“Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.” Michael Pollan, The Omnivores Dilemma
I am standing on the edge of a forest, my gumboots wedged in mud, the sun dappling the ground before me. There, standing in a warm mist, is the object of my foraging quest – spring nettles. Packed with nutrients our overworked domesticated soil can no longer provide, these graceful ‘weeds’ are a literal medicine – and I don’t just mean the kind sold (for a fortune!) in herbalist remedies.
I’ve trudged for nearly an hour over bracken and fallen logs because I’m seeking a nourishment that goes way beyond the mechanistics of nutritional components. By hunting, harvesting, preparing, cooking and serving these nettles, I plan to engage in a practice of conscious eating, to reconnect with my first relationship to nature.
Truth is, I’ve become so dulled by a steady diet of mono-crops, processed pseudo foods, and the rhetoric of “nutritionism” – I’ve lost touch with what is truly life sustaining. Case in point. I recently discovered the weeds I have been tirelessly toiling to eradicate from my garden (Lambs quarter and Purslane) are amongst the most nutritious plants we know of – far more ‘healthy’ than the domesticated salad greens I replaced them with.
And this is only a microcosm of the bigger agricultural picture. Sad fact is, as we’ve tilled the soil, we destroyed the original humus and eliminated away whole bio regional food systems. Today it’s estimated we’ve lost 75 percent of plant diversity to a handful of genetically uniform, high-yielding monocrops ( i.e. rice, corn, soy and wheat).
So I’m here in this dankly redolent forest grove to bypass thousands of years of agricultural conditioning. As I put on my gloves and begin to gingerly clip the top velvety leaves (which conceal a thicket of spiny stingers) I am seeking to remember a time when we roamed in tandem with seasons to gather the food freely provided by fields, trees, rivers and oceans. A time before ‘weeds,’ before the ownership of land and crop, a time when the food we consumed actually nourished us.
The Birth of Agri-Business
While farming seems enshrined as a golden ideal, a given, a pastoral archetype of communion with mother earth, we forget that it subdued, subdivided, stripped and slash burned her. It required us to settle in one place, to develop cycles of cultivation and harvest, create tools and even develop whole new food stuffs (grain into flour). And slowly the natural diversity of foods provided seasonally by our regional landscapes disappeared.
But perhaps the biggest change that occurs in our transition from hunter gatherer to farmer, is that food is no longer seen as a gift of nature but becomes a ‘product’ of human knowledge, craft and labor. It becomes a commodity to be earned by the sweat of our brow.
And it’s clear; some vital nutritive element was lost in the process. Archeological records show the introduction of agriculture marked not only a general decline in height, weight, bone density, and dental health but an increase in birth defects, malnutrition, and “diseases of civilization”–such as cancer, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance), heart disease, to name but a few.
It is obvious that this trade-off of health for wealth remains the basis of our food system. Agriculture may have fed more of us but it left control of the food supply in ever fewer hands. Soon big business will own all the seed patents (maybe even the patent to life itself) and their genetically modified products (whose seeds are engineered to self destruct) will all there will be available for consumption.
According to agribusiness and their food experts, it doesn’t matter if our food ‘ is grown, processed, preserved and fumigated with hundreds of toxic chemicals, then nuked with radiation. These interventions, we are assured, are necessary for food productivity and ‘safety’ but fact is, they just make the system more profitable by granting maximum shelf life. Food that is ‘dead’ can’t rot.
Meanwhile food corporations receive government subsidy to churn out junk food so depleted of nutrients (that as food activist Raj Patel points out) even if we stuffed ourselves with it, we could literally starve. Fact is, our food supply is no longer the product of nature but of food science – and it may be labeled “all natural” – but it is anything but.
So I ask you –finally – the big question. If the food we consume isn’t real – how can it possibly sustain us?
The Yoga Of Eating
Which brings me back to the dank black earth beneath my feet. To why I’m here hunting nettles, with my scissors and basket in hand. I’m here because I believe in the old adage – we are what we eat. Where our food comes from, how it’s made and what’s in it, does matter.
I subscribe to the yoga philosophy which tells us we are composed of layers of energy sheaths, the densest of which is the Annamaya Kosha, food sheath – our material body. In other words – the food we eat literally becomes our flesh.
A pretty scary idea when you consider how processed and irradiated ‘food’ in the light of Kirlian photography possess no ‘aura’ – the ghostly emanation of light energy (bio-photons) that normally surrounds living food, like raw carrots or broccoli. Now while food scientists cannot agree these Kirlian photographs mean anything, I nonetheless ask you to envision for a moment, how an auric picture of these nettles might reveal them ablaze with light and energy.
I am grateful that this small patch of nettles in a Vancouver Island rainforest provides me a rare opportunity to eat outside a system in which food is produced not for nourishment – but for profit. Because if growing your own food is today considered the most radical of acts, one that can and will overturn the powers that be (as a popular food activist slogan states) – isn’t foraging truly subversive?
So by filling my basket with free abundant produce, I reclaim my right to pure unadulterated food – and who knows, maybe even some vital force (whether it be chemical, photonic or energetic) no longer available (alive?) in the food supply.
And as I begin the long muddy trudge back to civilization, I am already imagining how after steaming, chopping and sautéing these nettles (like fresh baby spinach in flavor and texture ) with leeks, mushrooms and pasture raised butter, I will bake them into a crispy golden pie. And tonight at the Sunday dinner table when my family tastes the wildness of this green forest grove, they will be fed with more than nutrients.
So in the yoga of spring nettle pie, I will make flesh out of everything these wild nettles represent. And as I eat, I will remember the tall forests and abundant fields that once covered this land. I will hold on my tongue and my heart the temple of blue sky, the birdsong filled trees, the trickling stream of spring run off.
And I will remember how, despite standing so tall and so supple, their heart shaped leaves trembled in the wind as I bent down before them. And to that deeper mystery which drives life from the ground miraculously fusing sunlight, water and stardust into sustenance – I will remember to give thanks.
March 10, 2012
Why Yoga Shouldn’t be “Hard”: The Really Good News
If you missed the recent furore regarding William Broad’s book The Science of Yoga — you’ve been hiding under a rock. The excerpt published in January in the New York Times, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” was the subject of international media attention and caused a MAJOR hoopla in the yoga world, eliciting outraged cries of misrepresentation and a flurry of blogger posts still raging today.
Broad proclaimed that behind yoga’s benign façade was a veritable trail of dislocated joints, ruptured lungs, popped ribs, strokes, and torn Achilles tendons. So it’s no wonder that yoga aficionados around the world came out of their studios to protest- and loudly. They trounced Broad’s penchant for sensationalistic detail as misleading fear-mongering.
While I do agree, I also think that most of the rebuttal to date has missed a critical point. That’s why I feel compelled to add this post to the already robust fracas. I think the most important message of Broad’s book is being obscured by the media circus surrounding it – and I’ll get to that later.
I must say I was surprised by the vehemence of negative response to Broad’s article. My first reaction was relief. Finally, here was some solid evidence supporting my well worn mantra – yoga shouldn’t be hard. Proof positive I could hold out to my students, a grim warning that they’d better forget “finding their edge” and just relax.
Broad wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know —except grisly specifics and gruesome case studies. The way I read it, Broad wasn’t saying that asana is dangerous, he was simply pointing out that “urbanites who sit in chairs all day” and try to “twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures” is a recipe for disaster. And like any well trained teacher I well understand asking my students to do Headstand or Wheel is a risky proposition.
Much commentary on Broad’s article has laid the blame for injury at the feet of inexperienced teachers and incorrect alignment. But as one my favourite yoga bloggers J. Brown pointed out (and as anyone who practised more than one style/school of yoga knows) the concept of “technically correct” is still open to interpretation. And besides I agree with his assessment that “it is possible to have perfect alignment and still hurt yourself”.
It seems obvious that the real culprit behind yoga injury is attitude. The problem (as I’ve written about so many times) is that despite mouthing a few ‘ohms’ here and there, we’ve embraced yoga like a competitive sport.
We judge our progress by the difficulty of poses we are able to execute. And the air brushed images brought to us, in Broad’s words, by the “yoga industrial complex” inspire us to work ever harder to achieve asana perfection. So is it any surprise that we’ve set the stage for the kind of injuries Broad outlines? No not really.
Of course, the major media outlets have spun Broad’s story without any of this context. From coast to coast, hyperbolic headlines continue to blare that yoga is sure to maim us.
That’s why; when I finally picked up Broad’s book I was so surprised. When I read the excerpted chapter in context I was amazed to discover that despite our continuing fixation on the negative – there was waaay more good news in its pages than potential drawbacks. Because after Broad’s valiant attempts to poke holes in yoga’s reputation as virtual panacea, he finally concedes that yoga may well be the closest thing to a ‘cure all’ that science has discovered too date.
Broad’s research conclusively demonstrates that yoga slows ageing, boosts our immune system, improves our emotional outlook and contributes to a sense of positive well-being. He positively burbles “The science is astonishing…yoga lifts moods, it enhances health, it zips up your sex life, it fosters creativity, it cuts stress, it counteracts ageing, it fights disease…” etc. etc.
So why isn’t any of this being trumpeted by major media outlets? And more than that, why is the really important research in “The Science of Yoga” being ignored?
Because what’s been overlooked in this media brouhaha, is not just the overwhelming evidence that yoga can make us healthier and happier, but the fact these benefits have nothing to do with athletic prowess or twisting ourselves into pretzels.
Page after page of Broad’s book details research exploring yoga’s impact on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. What scientists have found is that unlike most physically challenging activity which triggers the sympathetic nervous system (and a full-fledged stress response in the body) yoga does the opposite.
While were still unsure of exactly of how and why it works, yoga seems to actively support physiological healing and regenerative function by activating the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.
Study after study reveal that yoga’s emphasis on relaxation, mindfulness and slow deep breathing in posture brings the parasympathetic system back online – and this may well be the real key to its powers of rejuvenation. (Could this be why the Hatha Yoga Pradipika warns; “over-exertion” is one of the great “destroyers of yoga.”)
So isn’t this the real story we’re not being told? We need to stop trying so hard and chill. We can enjoy the spectacular life enhancing boons of yoga without being bendy, fit or strong. We don’t need to achieve advanced postures, as much as we need to master a new attitude – an attitude not of ‘trying’ but of ‘letting go’.
That little voice in our head that wants us to push further, try harder, perfect our alignment – is wrong. And until we confront the deeply ingrained assumption that there is no gain without pain – yoga injuries will continue.
I am not alone in this view. Today many researchers, writers and yoga teachers are pointing out that Broad’s book highlights necessity of revaluating our current approach to yoga. As J. Brown suggests “Instead of looking to alignment and anatomy as a panacea for what ails the yoga profession, perhaps we would do better to foster a different mentality around the physical work of yoga practice.”
Brown quotes Neil Pearson, chair of the Pain Science Division of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association who states “In the end, it is not Western scientific knowledge of the human body that will make Yoga safer. Changing the students approach to the discipline of yoga and the practice of asana will create the greatest shift.”
So in all the kerfuffle over Broad’s book, let’s not shoot the messenger – or lose sight of the big picture. It is our attitude, not yoga that needs a major overhaul. By re-framing the idea that yoga needs to be hard, we not only avoid injury, we activate our innate capacities for repair and regeneration. Now that’s some really good news.
February 7, 2012
The Sacred Heart: A Valentine
“I have little doubt that the heart is not only the major energy center of the body, but that it also has its own intelligence, an intelligence superior to the brain’s and its cells hold memories that influence only every other cell in our bodies but also every cell in the bodies of those close to us, and even those faraway, in both space and time” – Paul Pearsall Ph.D.
Lately there is a lot of talk in new age circles about the importance of the heart in a coming shift or expansion of consciousness. The gist of the talk is this, if we can get out of our ego driven heads and begin living in our hearts; ‘heaven on earth’ is possible.
This idea isn’t new. Nearly all religious and spiritual traditions acknowledge the heart as the gateway to higher consciousness. According to ancient yogic tradition love awakens the energy center of the heart opening the “gate of heaven” where we experience hridaya, “the whole” a place of unity, oneness.
But what is news is research suggesting both the new agers and ancient yogis are right. Having a loving heart not only connects us to a higher dimensional field of energy, it grants us the power to reach past the boundaries of the material world and positively affect the well-being of others.
Sound a little airy fairy? Maybe even far-fetched? Well let me explain.
The heart is more than a simple pump; it is an electronic organ which produces the greatest electro-magnetic field in the body, radiating outwards from 12 to 15 feet. Cardiology has established the heart is broadcasting electrical information, not only to every single cell in our own bodies, but also into space.
Since 1991, The HeartMath Institute has conducted hundreds of studies (published in established and respected publications such as the Harvard Business Review and the American Journal of Cardiology) measuring the effect of emotion on the electromagnetic field of the heart.
By converting electrocardiograms into frequency diagrams they discovered that positive emotions such as love, appreciation and gratitude generate strong, orderly coherent heart rhythms while emotions such as unhappiness, anger, hatred and jealousy generated incoherent, chaotic, weak, heart rhythms.
While coherence results in a host of physical benefits (reduced stress and levels of cortisol, balanced hormones, lowered blood pressure and enhanced immune system function) negative emotions do the opposite, raising stress and dampening immune system function.
But here’s the good part. Not only do coherent heart rhythms make us happier and healthier, they can actually entrain other people in close proximity – to come into coherence.
Entrainment is the process by which oscillators come into synch with each other. Rollin McCraty, PhD., Mike Atkinson and William A. Tiller, PhD. in their study on head/heart entrainment demonstrated when two people were at a conversational distance, it was the more “coherent” heart rhythms of the two that began to entrain the other.
McCraty is the Director of Research at the HeartMath Institute and he theorizes the ability of the heart to ‘synch’ people up is sourced in its ability not just to generate signals but receive them. He reminds us that the heart is constantly receiving information from the great sea of electromagnetic energy that surrounds and penetrates us. Generated by every living and inanimate thing including us, animals, plants, rocks, the earth, sun, moons, and stars, this field not only shapes our bodies, affecting our health, emotions and circadian rhythms, it ultimately composes us.
McCraty makes the astonishing speculation that coherence makes us more receptive to the subtle electromagnetic information encoded in the field around us. The electromagnetic field of the heart is shaped like a toroid (a donut). In physics this shape is often referred to as a subtle energy transducer because it converts one form of energy to another. In other words a loving heart not only allows us to ‘download’ higher dimensional information, it allows us to retransmit this energy to others.
This idea certainly runs in accord with the ancient yogic view of the heart. The Vedas describe the heart chakra as a lotus flower hanging downward with its petals closed. When activated by love, the lotus lifts its head and opens its petals and a spontaneous expansion of consciousness occurs. In yogic tradition, this rising above the third chakra of power and ego awakens the fourth chakra of the heart, opening the ‘gate of heaven’ on earth.
I think the yogi’s were definitely on to something. They definitely foreshadowed the view of esteemed neuroscientist Paul Maclean who stated (I paraphrase) – that individual ego translates through the brain, but universal consciousness translates through the heart.
I also think the new agers have a valid point too – our most powerful tool for achieving ‘heaven on earth’ may well be a shift into a more loving state of consciousness.
So how then do we “change our hearts?” According to HeartMath research, it’s much easier than we think. By consciously shifting our attention to positive feelings like joy, appreciation or love, we can create synchronization in heart rhythm in seconds.
So take heart, be happy, and rejoice. This Valentine’s Day remember YOU can be greatest gift for those you hold dear. Yes Virginia, put on your rose coloured glasses. Through love, we can BE the change we want to see in the world.
More information: on Science of the Heart, http://www.heartmath.se/img/the_coherent_heart.pdf
January 18, 2012
I’m No Skinny Minnie Yoga Teacher – But, Oh, How I Want To Be
As much as I want to ripple with muscle and sinew, and sport teeny-tiny rock hard buns, I have to face it; it’s never going to happen. It’s time to grow up. I spent my twenties dieting because I wanted to be as desirable and fashionable as the models in magazines, and in my thirties I dieted because I wanted to be seen as successful, toned, thin and in control.
Now as old age and the fear of infirmity looms, my priorities need to be less about thinness and more about health. So after decades spent struggling to banish my adipose tissue, I’ve decided to give up the fight.
The problem is that yoga as an uber trend has filled the media landscape with glowing, lithe, muscular women clad in the tightest apparel imaginable. The rise of the super thin superstar yoga teacher to celebrity status compounds my dilemma. I worry that the gentle bump of my belly and the generous curve of my thighs will cause my students to see me as undisciplined and not a very serious yogi.
They may be right in a way. I’m no longer willing to submit my body to punishing routines or deny myself the pleasure of ‘gourmandizing’. I see the pleasure of a creamy smelly cheese or a nice glass of Syrah as good for soul. I take heed of what author and molecular biologist Bruce Lipton suggests in his book The Biology of Belief — that our cells respond to feelings of pleasure and joy with regenerative growth, while fear, hatred or anger causes them to shrink and retreat, allowing disease to take hold.
But nonetheless, every once in a while, overcome by the latest vision of washboard abs on the cover of Yoga Journal, I find myself wallowing in anxiety and recriminations. No more chocolate cake, no more sweet potato fries.
I realize this continuing preoccupation with weight is shallow and narcissistic – but is it really my fault? Aren’t these the traits the corporate world has spent billions to deeply inculcate into my psyche? By constantly feeding me, all of us, images of already anorexic models, airbrushed to appear even thinner; doesn’t the cog of consumerism keep turning?
One can never be too rich or too thin
As feminist author Naomi Wolf pointed out nearly twenty years ago in her book The Beauty Myth, the beauty industry is in the business of stoking our insecurities for profit. They well know the fatter we can be made to feel, the more likely we are to purchase fat-free ice cream or the latest back fat erasing girdle.
At the time Wolf wrote the book, 90 percent of American women considered themselves overweight, and almost half of them were dieting. Now two decades later, little has changed. With every wait at a supermarket checkout, I am surrounded by magazine headlines telling me how to walk, run, flush and fast away those 10 lbs – in a week. Recently one tabloid cover exposed mounds of dimpled celebrity cellulite, the shame!
But it isn’t really funny. Study after study show this media exposure is linked to growing rates of depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in girls. This is the biggest reason I want to finally to leave this entire obsession with body image behind.
It grieves me that I’ve personally wasted so much precious energy over a perfectly normal belly and it grieves me even more to see this continue in another generation of women.
And now, it angers me that yoga, something that should make us feel good in our skin, is being sold as a product to lure us into yet another cycle of consumption, built around yet another set of impossible standards.
Yoga and The Beauty Myth
This year fashion week in New York, included its first ever yoga fashion show. Footage taken backstage showed the models (all yoga teachers) being directed to look tranquil and serene and to remember that above all – this was fashion.
As I watched the impeccably groomed, incredibly lithe, and overwhelmingly beautiful women, clad in their designer yoga duds, showing off the perfection of their downward dogs, it was clear I was witnessing another tentacle of Wolf’s beauty myth emerging.
Yoga today, as writer and blogger Carol Horton so aptly observes, is being sold as a brand that “ promises to remodel you to fit a prefabricated image as someone who’s not only thin, fit, bendy, and attractive, but also empowered, serene, smiling, and – most of all – happy.”
Horton writes “Of course, yoga can confer such benefits, and it’s only natural to want them.” The problem is this manufacture of a seemingly fabulous, but ultimately false pseudo self “undermines the most important gifts the practice has to offer.”
That’s what makes it all, to use Horton’s words “so powerful – and so insidious”. The more we buy into the images that we’re being sold – the more we become alienated from our authentic selves.
I agree with Horton who writes that “If we want to have a practice that’s stronger than the powerful new “brand magic” that suffuses contemporary yoga culture, we’re going to need to step up our own, alternative game – and invite others to play along with us.”
So where to begin? Well, doesn’t ‘authenticity’ begin with the body? And I don’t mean the body we see in the mirror, but the body we experience through sensation.
Back to the basics: Being in our skin
I believe that the more we use our yoga practice
to connect with the real life pleasure
of being in our bodies,
the less likely we are to buy into
the media messaging that wants us to
judge ourselves from the outside.
Our image-orientated culture asks that we ignore our body’s needs and desires in order to look a certain way. But yoga reconnects us to our bodies; we learn not to ‘see’ the body from outside in, but to feel it from the inside out. And we discover with this shift of perception, that being in the body can feel good. It can make us feel healthy, energetic and strong.
That’s why I want my students to lighten up, and I don’t mean in the thighs. I want them to stop fretting about whether they’re working hard enough to lose weight and bring to their practice some gratitude for being healthy and alive. I want them to experience the strength of their limbs and the joy of breathing life-sustaining oxygen deeply into their lungs.
I believe that the more we use our yoga practice to connect with the real life pleasure of being in our bodies, the less likely we are to buy into the media messaging that wants us to judge ourselves from the outside.
A study conducted by California’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute at the University of California supports this idea. They found that women who practice yoga “reported less self-objectification, greater satisfaction with physical appearance, and fewer disordered eating attitudes compared to non-yoga practitioners”
Through yoga, the study suggests “women may have intuitively discovered a way to buffer themselves against messages that tell them that only a thin and ‘beautiful’ body will lead to happiness and success.”
So it gives me comfort that the ultimate power of yoga lays in its ability to transcend the disempowering advertising by which it is being sold.
The Last Word
We all fear being judged. I’m no different. But as a yoga teacher, I feel an urgency to settle this urgency within myself. Can I help my students with self acceptance if I can’t make peace with my muffin top? Perhaps the best thing I can do, according to Anna Guest Jelly, founder of Curvy Yoga, is stop pretending that I’ve got it all under control. She believes the most important thing yoga teachers can do is “name their own experience.”
In an recent interview in The Magazine of Yoga Anna states “I think admitting that sometimes you hate your body or sometimes you’re eying the person next to you to see who’s fatter isn’t something we want to admit in yoga. We’re all supposed to be above that somehow—or at least be polite enough not to talk about it!”
Anna suggests maybe that this is where yoga teachers can start. “We can start with ourselves, in our small sphere of influence, and really be a force for good in both our own lives and in the lives of those with whom we are in relation.” I like Anna’s suggestion that we begin every yoga class by asking students to find five things they like about their bodies. “Over time, this will become a healthy habit for them.” She reminds us, “there is no magic solution except for this – practice.”
The final word I want to leave to Naomi Wolf who twenty years ago, asked questions that have become even more relevant today. What if all the cumulative energy and time women spent on their bodies were spent solving world hunger or finding the cure to cancer? What if all the self hatred and recriminations engendered by comparing ourselves to airbrushed images evaporated? How might women’s lives be different?
So I invite you to begin to imagine. Whether you’re a student or a teacher I want to hear from you. How can we find a way to achieve something more meaningful with our lives than just a better body? How can we stop wasting our precious time with self-hatred and serve our highest state of well being? I believe it boils down to this, we must practice feeling good in our skin, and we must practice substituting love for fear.
December 11, 2011
Honouring Lakshmi: The Yoga of Money
When Lakshmi first rose on a lotus from the sea, she was
immediately be-decked and be-jeweled by all the gods
and sages who prayed she would grant them riches and
If you’re feeling a little strapped during this season of giving, rejoice I bring glad tidings. Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth and prosperity can help.
According to the Vedic science of Vastu (Indian Feng Shui) all you need to do is set up a shrine in her honour, light a few candles, intone a few mantras, offer a few treats, and voila, Lakshmi will pour financial blessings upon you.
If this sounds well, a little materialistic – don’t worry. While most of us envision half-starved half-naked Sadhus smeared with ashes as embodying the yogic tradition, Lakshmi assures us asceticism is not the only path. While her two front hands stream with gold coins and material blessings, her back hands offer the lotus, symbol of spiritual realization.
So relax, we don’t need to don loincloths or renounce worldly pleasures to be enlightened – Lakshmi wants us to have our cake and eat it too! Lest you doubt her gospel, I assure you Lakshmi is no obscure goddess – her spiritual pedigree is impeccable.
According to the sacred Hindu text, The Rig Veda, Lakshmi’s name is derived from the Sanskrit word “Laksya”, meaning ‘aim’ or ‘goal’. Her four arms signify her power to grant the four goals (purushartha) of a successful human life; prosperity and wealth (artha) worldly pleasure (kama) harmonious or righteous living (dharma) and spiritual liberation (moksha).
These four purushartha are “for the purpose of the soul” and all four must be achieved to realize a fulfilled life. In other words, our desire for cold hard cash and creature comforts are not sins, they are part of achieving our highest potential.
The Yoga of Prosperity
Known as Shri, the female energy of the Supreme Being, it
is Lakshmi who provides Vishnu with wealth for the
maintenance and preservation of creation.
Sound too good to be true? Well I have it on the highest authority. According to the Rig Veda the Upanishads and the Puranas, Lakshmi is the goddess in charge of an older less familiar form of yoga, the yoga of attracting wealth and abundance.
While many mantras, meditations, and ritual techniques of this yogic tradition remain carefully guarded secrets (lest they fall into the wrong hands) author Linda Johnson has managed to unearth specific instructions from the Padmini Vidya on how you can fatten your wallet.
Padmini means ‘lady of the lotus’ which refers to Lakshmi, and Vidya means yogic science. In the practice of Padmini Vidya one works to develop special powers called Nidhis (meaning container of treasure) to attract wealth. Nidhis are accomplished through the active and willful manipulation of Shakti, the feminine energy of consciousness, and directing it to one’s benefit.
Similarly, Lakshmi’s sacred text The Lakshmi Tantra also teaches that prosperity is achieved by aligning our consciousness with the energy of the goddess. Author and scholar Constantina Rhodes has compiled hundreds Sanskrit verses, mantras, visualizations, and ceremonies from Lakshmi’s Tantra used to invoke Lakshmi and her blessings. She writes “Prayers to Lakshmi ask for material abundance and at the same time for the conscious awareness to dwell in that state of prosperity, which is a state of consciousness, a state of engagement with the wealth-energy of the goddess.”
But this isn’t the kind of ‘prosperity consciousness’ found in The Secret. It involves a lot more than just ‘positive thinking’ – and there are a few caveats. Both the Padmini Vidya and Lakshmi Tantra warn that Shakti is a powerful stream of energy can reshape reality in either positive or negative ways, depending on how you use it. In short, wealth can bestow great power to do well, while misuse of wealth is sure to make a person suffer.
Aligning with the consciousness of Lakshmi means understanding that material possessions are not just things to be enjoyed; they are manifestations of a divine energy that must also be honored. And honouring Lakshmi means we must live ethically, respect our family responsibilities and attend to the welfare of our communities. True prosperity cannot be achieved when we have more than our share at the expense of others.
But the bottom line is this and Lakshmi’s Tantra spells it out directly. If we wish to never suffer from a lack of resources, “we should respect the living energy of the earth, which is the concrete form of Lakshmi herself.” Those who disregard this wisdom are sure to fall on evil days….
Live Well That You May Live Well
So I ask you, is it any surprise that our modern economies are on the verge of going off the rails? That’s why in this world of debt crisis and environmental debasement, I think we could all take a lesson from Lakshmi. She returns us to an older, more humane view of the world, one in which the earth was sacred and her abundance to be shared by all.
Worship of a mother goddess
has been a part of Indian tradition since
its earliest times. Lakshmi is one of the
mother goddesses and is addressed as
“mata” (mother) instead of just “devi” (goddess).
Lakshmi is the direct descendent of the great mother deities who were worshiped across India, the Middle East and Europe for thousands of years. These ancient goddess worshiping societies were often defined as “Gift giving” economies, meaning all one needed was freely given.
These cultures cared for all people within their communities – no one had to ‘earn’ a living. (Could this be one reason why for thousands of years in these early Goddess worshiping cultures, war was virtually unknown?)
It was with the arrival of patriarchal gods approximately two thousand years ago, that the Goddess and her nurturing ways were vanquished. And slowly the material world began to be seen not as holy, but as something that must be transcended in order to access the divine.
Today this division between the sacred and the secular continues. And in this modern view of the world it’s okay to become rich no matter what the cost. It doesn’t matter if we pillage a few trees (okay a lot) or blow up a few mountains, or suffuse the earth (not to mention our bodies) with toxic chemicals.
But we better beware. According to many sacred texts like the Vedas such disrespect, disorder and bad hygiene, invites Lakshmi’s evil sister, Alakshmi, the bestower of poverty, misfortune and evil winds to set up house.
Isn’t this why we could all benefit from setting up a home altar for Lakshmi? As a reminder that if we want to keep the good times rolling in, we better clean up our act? While Lakshmi wants the food on our tables to be abundant and our material possessions to be plentiful, she also wants us to ask – have they honoured the earth? Have we taken without giving back?
So this season, engage in a little old fashioned prosperity consciousness, and remember while Lakshmi wants us to rejoice in her bounty, she is also all about the golden rule. And in this spirit, I leave the final word to The Vedas who call Lakshmi Lakshyayidhi Lakshmihi, the one who has the object and aim of uplifting mankind.
October 24, 2011
“I AM YOGINI HEAR ME ROAR!”
Yoga is about being peaceful, healthy and strong. It’s about empowerment. It’s about transcending the many expectations of who we should be, super successful, super slim, and finding our center, our authentic self.
These are the messages found in the new documentary YogaWoman, which explores the many ways women have co-opted what was once an exclusively male practice to serve their own bodies and needs. And I resonated with them all.
Made by filmmaker Kate Clere McIntyre, in collaboration with her husband Michael McIntyre and sister Saraswati Clere, the film celebrates how women “from the streets of Manhattan to the dusty slums of Kenya” are discovering their own strength, vitality, peace, and power through yoga. Narrated by Oscar-winning actress and yoga devotee Annette Bening, the film is now available on DVD.
Essentially, the film is one long commercial for yoga, encouraging women who haven’t yet taken up the practice to do so. The filmmakers want us to know that yoga is for every woman, no matter her age, social status, or ethnicity. And as one plug used to promote the film states YogaWoman will help you “feel your own strength and make you want to get on the mat.”
But sadly I found some dissonance with this message. From the super thin, superstar yoga teachers interviewed, to the visual sequences featuring thin muscular women flowing effortlessly through difficult poses, there was nary a ‘real’ body in sight. And by real bodies I mean bodies that look a little more ahem, like mine. Bodies with bellies and a little jiggle in the behind.
As a yoga teacher, it’s been my experience that images featuring incredibly lithe bendy women actually discourage those who aren’t young, thin and flexible (the majority of the population) from trying yoga in the first place. I’ve done a lot of explaining that yoga isn’t about pretzel poses, anyone can do yoga, despite their size or fitness level. Yeah, right.
Now maybe I’m being a bit sensitive, but by not depicting a few more women with a little “junk in the trunk” doesn’t the film reinforce the same old dis-empowering strictures telling women what they should look like? And while no one actually says thinner is better, don’t images speak a thousand words?
While the documentary credits ‘women power’ for making yoga a multimillion dollar business I wish it had taken more time exploring how it’s com-modification is also perpetuating unrealistic body images. Fact is, as yoga has become big business it has also become the latest tool in the corporate arsenal to make us feel like we don’t measure up. Ads featuring incredibly slim young women clad in beatific smiles and skin tight yoga pants are being used to hawk everything from tea to cereal, vitamins to vacations.
While the film delves into the societal pressure women feel to be thin, and toots yoga as the antidote, nearly all the yoga icons featured in the film, teachers like Seane Corn, Patrica Walden and Shiva Rea were practically devoid of body fat.
Is this really a healthy ideal? Research reveals that underweight women face issues with menstrual regularity, fertility and bone density, and get this, even die younger than their moderately overweight peers. According to Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health, despite our notion that thinner is healthier, studies have found that moderately overweight women have lower incidence of lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, anemia, osteoporosis, just for a start.
But Yogawoman never mentions any of this. Which is strange, considering that the film spends so much time detailing the many health benefits of yoga?
The film does a beautiful job of illustrating how, from motherhood to menopause; yoga enhances women’s reproductive health, even their sex life. It explores how yoga has helped women deal with cancer, infertility, anxiety, depression, and given them strength to recover from substance abuse and eating disorders. As one young woman states, yoga will save your life, change your life, make you more accepting of yourself than you ever thought possible.
And I agree- yoga does all these things and more. But where YogaWoman falls short is in exploring the ‘why’. In one portion of the film, illustrated by a class of upside down women in headstand, we are told how yoga helps us “tune in” to ourselves. The film seems to imply by becoming physically stronger, we become more confident, and this confidence makes us more ‘real’. But does the transformative aspect of yoga really lie in the fact that postures exercise our pelvic wall or help our lymph fluids flow more easily? I think it goes way beyond that.
I believe yoga’s power lies in the spiritual aspects of practice. Our image-orientated culture, by demanding we look a certain way, disconnects us from our body’s desires and needs. But yoga draws our attention towards what the body is feeling. And the more we practice and listen to these sensations, the more we connect with what is authentic – our experience in present moment.
I believe that one of the reasons women resonate so powerfully with yoga is they discover something we don’t have a name for in our culture, something we don’t even know were missing – until we experience it. We forge a spiritual connection to our own bodies.
That’s why I was a little disappointed that the filmmakers, perhaps in the interest making yoga more accessible, decided to skirt its metaphysical aspects. Barely 7 minutes of an hour and half film are given over to talk of inner peace and achieving lightness of mind. For a film that explores how women are changing one of the oldest spiritual practices in the world, there was little, if any, direct mention of spirituality at all.
But all that said – please go see the film.
Despite my griping, the film is well worth the price of admission, its chock full of sisterhood bonding, good feelings and Oprah lump in throat moments. I loved that. And the best part is the way the filmmakers made yoga’s true spiritual veracity shine through the yoga women they featured in this film.
From all ages and walks of life, they truly are the heart of yoga.
Embodying the tradition of the Bodhisattva, enlightened beings who remain on earth to help alleviate humanity’s suffering, we see “yogawomen” from around the globe caring for others.
Whether they are teaching incarcerated teens, building a birth center in Kenya, or creating classes for cancer survivors, they are awesome.
Go yogini’s go!