I've shared this quote in class several times over the past couple months, and received feedback that it's really hit home (pun intended) for a lot of students. I'm happy to share it with you here.
No matter how old we get or where we are, each of us at one time or another feels that twinge - that longing for home - the feeling that something is missing or lost. Sometimes we try to fill that emptiness or discomfort with other people, or activities, or food or drink or [insert your thing here].
Is it possible to decide, to choose, to be whole? To rest into and trust that you are lacking nothing in mind, body and spirit. To soften into that wholeness like a sweet, familiar song from long ago.
A student recently asked for recommendations on what to read to learn more about yoga and yoga philosophy. Here's a short list that includes some essentials and some other books that I've found truly helpful in my practice and teaching. There are more - but this is a good place to start! Enjoy!
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Bihar School of Yoga, Saraswati.
The Art of Pranayama, B.K.S. Iyengar
Light on Yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar
Atlas of Human Anatomy, Frank Netter
Living Your Yoga. Judith LaSater
Yoga for Wellness. Gary Kraftsow
Yoga for Pain Relief. Kelly McGonigal
Also, I'm highly anticipating the release of this book by my teacher, Tias Little: Yoga of the Subtle Body: A Guide to the Physical and Energetic Anatomy of Yoga.
I had a great exchange with a student today that seemed worth sharing. A new beginner student came to class today, whom we will call Joe. He came in with a friend that has been practicing for a long time. Both were a pleasure to work with - very sincere in their openness to learn. After class we chatted a bit:
Friend: Katie, do you have any advice for Joe?
Me: Well, Joe got lots of general and some personal instructions, though I'm sure those won't all be integrated in just one class! It will take some more frequent exposure and practice.
Joe: Yeah, it was good! But I kept having to look around every once and a while to make sure I was doing it right.
Me: Hmm. Did my words and instructions make sense to you? Were they understandable?
Joe: (paused) Yes, I think so. I was just unsure of myself. I wasn't sure if I was doing it right.
Me: You know, sometimes I will say the same thing three different ways because everybody hears differently. And I can see right away if my words are making sense -- but if they don't you can just give me a look ;)-- But, really, I think you've just answered the question. Yoga is really all about Listening. So we turn off the radio, the tv, the phone, outside voices, mind chatter, and ego stuff and we get really quiet. And then, maybe we can we hear our heart. The challenge for people that have been practicing asana for a long time is that they have an overlay of previously constructed dialog and expectations that can really challenge being present and fully experiencing. You have the advantage of freshness!
So for you, and pretty much anybody, the work is practicing being present, building your awareness, and learning to trust that you are hearing correctly. Then you do your best to incorporate it, or make wise choices based on that understanding. And it builds from there. You start to really listen to your body, to your breath, to your intuition, and to your spirit. You can get to a place where you can go deep into your experience and truly trust yourself. Does that makes sense? Does that sound too out there?"
Joe: "No, I think that sounds cool." :)
Katie: "OK cool!!"
Cheers to deep listening!
A student friend of mine recently shared that she had a breakthrough in a class when a teacher said "you can soften without collapsing." This concept - not just physically but psychologically was a huge realization for her. And I'm so glad she told me this because I think it's something worth teasing out a bit more. Many of us are conditioned to think that softness or vulnerability means weakness; that "not knowing" means that you are not confident or assertive or self-assured -- all those things that we think a "stable," "successful" person should be. That conditioning creates shame and fear around being exposed or trying something new. In order to avoid feeling the tough stuff, some of us get really good at avoiding vulnerability. We become bastions of judgment, covering a deep well of fear of the unknown. And after years of doing this, we may forget it's there. But if we never find the courage to dive into the darkness, we will miss the opportunity to rethink and change as life reveals itself - and we will miss out on the joy and contentment and peace our hearts crave.
In yoga, we talk about balancing sukha and sthira- effort and ease. We do this in all koshas - all layers of our experience - the physical, energetic, emotional, mental and spiritual. Often times we think of this as simply "the middle path." But what does that require, really? We look to the yamas and the niyamas to help guide us in developing the qualities and virtues needed on our path. But sometimes is doesn't feel so simple. It takes courage and humility and vigor to really face all of our humanness and stay hopeful when we find ourselves in the "valley of the void."
In his book Finding Inner Courage, Mark Nepo writes about the Greek concept of Thumos, which can be translated as "spirit of fight." It is the concept that every human being has an innate power to fight. Nepo writes: "Whether it [thumos] becomes a destructive or healing energy in the world depends largely on whether that spirit of fight or struggle is directed in self-centered ways or in deeper, self-transforming ways. If that spirit of fight is not directed at what distances us from God/Spirit (our isolation and illusions), then it will be directed at others....Our spirit of fight or struggle, has been a timeless source of war, evil, and unnecessary woundedness in the world."
I can't express to you how much I LOVE this concept. We strive to be gentle and kind. But we are also FIERCE people, y'all. We've got a lot of natural power. And some of us have tempers. And grief. And pain. And disappointment. And injustice. And those things are not untrue in our world and our experience. But if, when we are feeling depleted, "pissed off," low in confidence, sad about destruction in our world or pain in our relationships, and not feeling as hopeful as we might wish to be, is it possible to pause and say - how am I directing my "spirit of fight?" Is that fierceness being discharged at something or someone else in my life? Is it useful, or is it perpetuating more pain and keeping me in illusion and pattern? Is it possible that I could soften around those things and people in the material world, and redirect that fierceness to do battle with those things in the shadows that separate me from truth, from spirit, from joy? Does it make it a little easier to believe that we have an inner warrior, ready to fight -- that we have that strength, innately, to confront what needs confronting?
Just as we work with our energetic body when we practice asana -- balancing effort and ease, building awareness, and releasing tension in order to gain strength, comfort and vitality -- so too can we do this in our spiritual and psychological work.
When we are in the void, struggling with our
samskaras, remember -- each of us already has the light and the fight inside. We are wired for it. We need to hone our skills: peaceful, yet vigilant in our interior space -- and trust our inner wisdom to decide when to observe and when to do battle.
I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.
To the right is a photograph of me in a Virabhadrasana II variation, also called "Shulapani - Holder of the Spear" in Shadow Yoga. It seemed an appropriate image for this.
Courage, my friends! I need it too!
Hi Friends! In thinking about little tidbits I can offer online, it occurred to me that there are a few poses that I recommend to nearly every student, and that I practice myself, that are super duper awesome.
Here's one for today: A supported backbend, sometimes called supported fish pose.
Most people spend time with their head forward of their shoulders a good part of the day -- driving, talking, working on the computer, looking at a cell phone, focusing on a task at hand. This posture brings the head forward in space and causes the shoulders to round forward as well. Not only does this cause strain on the neck and shoulders (knotty traps, anyone?) but it also reduces the ability to breathe fully. And we know what happens then, right? Reduce breath= reduce life force/ energy-- it makes us feel sluggish. Ugh.
So! We counter pose! I recommend doing this pose for 5 min to start your day and 5 min to end your day. You'll love it and you'll want to do it longer and more often. If you are just getting started with an asana practice, it is a good idea to do this pose for shorter periods of time and build up. Maybe start with a minute or two, building up to 5 minutes. If you feel restricted in the upper chest, it might be wise to start with the blocks on their lowest level. For those that are more active or flexible, you can go for the medium height.
Here's how to set up:
· Place one block on the floor, width-wise and lean back so that it supports your body toward the base of your shoulder blades.
· Place the second block under your head. Make sure the block is stable on the floor so that you feel supported. If your chin is higher than your forehead, place the block on its taller end and see if that feels more comfortable. (You'll want the forehead to be level with the chin or slightly higher.)
· Extend your arms out to the side, and draw your shoulder blades together and down your back so that your chest feels broad and open. Let your shoulders and chest soften.
· You can keep the knees bent with your feet on the floor, or, if it doesn't bother your low back, extend your legs straight along the floor.
· Once you've made your adjustments and feel comfortable, close your eyes, and allow your breath to slow down.
· Let this be a time just for you to enjoy your breath, clear your mind, and invite energy and grace into your experience.
· When you are ready to come out of the pose, bring your arms alongside your body, and press into your hands and forearms just enough to move the blocks out from underneath you. Do this slowly and mindfully. Lower all the way down to rest on the floor. Enjoy the sensation and openness in your body.
· Give yourself some time to adjust on your back before rolling to one side to sit up. Now is a great time to practice asana or meditation, or move on with your day.
Here's a photo of what this pose looks like. If you'd like to have me take a look at your block placement, please don't hesitate to ask me in person. Feel free to ask another teacher too!
Once you get your blocks just right, this will feel amazing. And if you practice this consistently over time, this will change your life. ;) Enjoy!!!
Last year, I proclaimed 2013 the Year of the Bath. I made a conscious decision to take long, luxurious baths often. I made time for it, and it was good. It was the practice of self-care that needed to be named and honored in an albeit humorous and seemingly self-indulgent way. It made my friends and students laugh and shrug – “that’s nice!” It was indeed! Along with this bath ritual came a greater inclination to take quiet nights in, to order the books I’ve been wanting to explore and actually enjoy them, taking my time, alone. It was the year I donated and did not replace my television set. It was the year that I kept monthly appointments with a massage therapist. It was the year that restorative yoga and a simple pattern of forward folds became not an occasional balm, but an essential part of my bedtime ritual. It was the year I recognized and started the heartwork of unraveling some deep samskaras. It was good and necessary and ultimately revealing of opportunities for greater healing. The Year of the Bath was POWERFUL. I highly recommend it.
I have named 2014 the year of “Don’t Should Yourself.” I hear my friends, students, and my own inner voice saying things like “I guess I should ____” It’s anything and everything from marriage, finances, jobs, relationships, body image, housekeeping, to feelings and emotions like happiness and emotional and spiritual healing. “I should be happy. I should be having fun. I should be thinner. I should have known better. I should practice every morning. I should apply for that job. I should just get over it.” “Should-ing” yourself to be something other than what you are? Not so helpful, my friends. Ever notice that when you don’t do a “should,” there are icky feelings like guilt, self-doubt and self-criticism not far behind?
I’m not suggesting that healthy striving and goal-setting isn’t helpful. It’s an important part of growing as a person. What I’m suggesting is an opportunity to put lid on the judgment and check your assumptions and the roots of those thoughts. To be more aware of the self-talk and self-criticism. To build enough awareness to look at those thoughts and say - “Hey – do I really believe that? Where did this idea come from? Is it mine? Do I really want that?” If it is a legitimate and heartfelt desire, consider changing your “should” to “want to,” and take mindful steps to achieve it. And if not – if it’s some leftover construct that you don’t choose to embrace, if it's someone else's values and not yours, if it’s comparing or competing, throw it out, stat. Because it’s taking up space, and holding you back from your “want to” and “need to.” It is sucking energy from your heartfelt intentions, your self-compassion (which is essential to being compassionate toward others!) and your own growth and wholeness.
So that’s it, friends. This year, let’s practice this way: Don’t Should Yourself! I’m on this journey with you.
We now believe 80 percent of illness is stress-related, that whatever your genetic weak link, stress will trigger it.
Going to a spa is wonderful, but until you teach yourself ways to achieve peace of mind from the inside, you'll remain
vulnerable to stress.-- Richard Brown, M.D.
Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. For a lot of adults today, stress has become the norm – a lifestyle.
Have you ever experienced a back ache when you are stressed at work or after a fight with your spouse? This is real, and it can be damaging, but you can change it.
Stress and chronic pain are mind-body processes. Repeated experiences of specific emotions, thoughts, and stress make it more likely that you will experience these in the future. We are stressed! We are fatigued! We are fed up! So what can be done? Yoga. Mindfulness practices. Relaxation. Meditation.
In western modern science, we use the word neuroplasticity to describe the process of learning from past experiences; yoga uses the word samskara.
Samskaras are the memories of the body and mind that influence how we experience the present moment
and make you more likely to repeat your past experiences and actions and more likely to interpret the
world through the filter of your past experiences. These habits keep you stuck, feeling the same emotions, thinking
the same thoughts, and even experiencing the same pain.
Samskaras are formed through repetition – every thought, experience, action and behavior counts! These make marks in your brain and nervous system that lead to and shape future actions, feelings and experiences. The good thing about neuroplasticity or samskaras is that it if you can “get good” at a thought process or stress response, you can do the same with healing responses. The key is to retrain the mind and the body to unlearn the stress or pain responses and offer the mind and body healthier responses. This takes practice, but it is totally worth it!
Why Yoga: Mind, Body + Spirit
Yoga gives us tools to work with the body and the breath – effecting the physical and energetic body – the mind – effecting our mood, psychology – and the heart and spirit – which touches us at our deepest and most divine self, the place of joy and hope.
Yoga offers a straightforward approach to transform samskaras or patterns of any kind:
-- practice awareness of habitual thoughts, emotions, and behaviors,
-- understand how those patterns lead to suffering,
-- and then practice the opposite and notice if that reduces your suffering.
So, in the case of stress or chronic pain, we try to become aware of our stress-pain response and how that perpetuates more suffering. Then we also practice the opposite – like being relaxed, comfortable, kind to ourselves – and see if that reduces our suffering. As we do more of these healing practices, we will start to create new habits of the mind and the body, and we will in fact experience less pain and suffering, and more comfort and joy.
“Every yoga practice is an opportunity to leave a new, positive trace on the body, mind and spirit.” 
Breathwork: Breathwork or pranayama is a powerful tool for reducing anxiety, stress, and managing pain. “Small
changes in your breathing can lead to big changes in how the mind and body function, including lowering stress
hormones and reducing your sensitivity to pain.”
Gentle asana: The physical postures are important to maintain strength, flexibility, and overall health of the body. Stress
hormones are best moved through your systems with the help of physical activity and exercise. In addition to walking, or
any exercise you enjoy, practice asanas mindfully. Move the body every day, balance effort and ease, and be consistent
with your practice.
Relaxation: In order to properly care for yourself, it is important to take time to relax – not only to heal a current
condition, but to get to a place of stillness, of calm, where you can more easily hear what your body and heart are
telling you so that you can make intelligent, compassionate choices for yourself, instead of running the same patterns.
Our samskaras are like railroad tracks. It’s easy for our mind-body to just run them. If we take the time for relaxation
and silence, we can choose to step off the tracks, and start a new, healthier path. Let’s get good at being relaxed!
Meditation: Meditation can be a really powerful tool to combat stress and stop the cycle of suffering. The more you
experience a particular thought pattern, the more likely you are to repeat it. Meditating gives us the opportunity to create
some space in order to see our patterns more clearly, and then, with practice, choose something different. If you practice
meditation regularly, you will be less at the mercy of your old thought patterns and samskaras and enjoy the freedom to
choose something different, perhaps more in line with your highest self.
Life is mysterious, and it can be stressful, but sometimes our pain and suffering can be our greatest teachers. If we can build our awareness, learn to treat ourselves with compassion and kindness, honoring our divinity, the potential for health, joy, and abundance is unlimited.
I wish for each of you peace, joy, and freedom from all unnecessary suffering. BKS Iyengar wrote “The body is the child of the soul.” Please take care of yourself as though your body and mind where a small child – one that needs both love and positive example, nurturing and discipline. If you care for yourself in this way, your child will grow and blossom, and the divine gifts of
your heart will be revealed to you.
For more information about this kind of research, check out Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. and Timothy McCall, M.D. for their work on yoga therapy. References for this article are listed below.
McGonigal,Kelly. Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Chronic Pain. (The New Harbinger Whole-Body Healing Series) New Harbinger Publications. 2009.
McCall,Timothy, M.D. “Yoga for Chronic Pain” Parts 1,2 &3 Yoga Journal.
McCall, Timothy, M.D. “Your Brain on Yoga.” Yoga + Joyful Living. Fall 2009.
McCall, Timothy, M.D. “The Scientific Basis of Yoga Therapy” Yoga Journal.
NurrieStearns,Mary. Yoga for Anxiety: Meditations and Practices for Calming the Body and Mind. New Harbinger Publications. 2010.
 Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Chronic Pain. p.20
 Ibid. p 21
 Ibid. p 23
In an effort to balance out my last post, I want to talk about sangha, or community. We come together in group classes, workshops, we build relationships, we look to friends and teachers for examples, support, guidance, and reinforcement. It can be really inspiring, and this is so important!
In some communities, people say Namaste. This translates to "I bow to you." It's a greeting. In the yoga community in the West, we've used this to mean something more: "The divine in me recognizes the divine in you, and we are all one." We are all One. This is a values statement. This changes our orientation to one another in a profound way. If I walked up to you and said, "Sister, I am divine, and you are awesomely divine, and we are ONE!" Some people might think I'm a little coo coo, right? But this is the ground upon which we are to do our work. As corporal beings, embodied spirit, our work is here and now, amongst others who are also on their path. Everyone works differently, and some people are more or less social, but everyone benefits from community. Everyone.
This word sangha is traditionally used to describe a community of buddhists. There is a word with similar etymology, satsung, which in Sanskrit means "a community of highest truth." The group gathers together to either study or work in service in order to fulfill spiritual practices or acts of devotion, and ultimately achieve higher understanding or enlightenment. A lot of cultures, faiths and communities have varying levels of formality around such groups.
Something that I've found so nurturing about the yoga community that I am so fortunate to be a part of here in Chicago, is that there are groups of friends, teachers and students who come together not just around common interest in this system called yoga, but in common interest in the well being and growth of each individual. In June of 2011, when I started the teacher training program at Moksha Yoga Center in Chicago, I met 7 individuals that to this day inspire me and who continue to be incredibly important in my journey. For me, a recovering perfectionist, achiever, with a competitive background, I didn't know what it was like to have a group of people that could come together with absolutely no sense of competition, judgement, personal agenda or expectation. I didn't even really know that was a "thing."
And two years later, here I am writing to share with all of you this concept of sangha, not because I want you to find a community and be a "joiner," but because I want to express to you what a great joy it is to be in relationship, to be in connection, to be vulnerable, to be a mirror, to be in a state of love, without the threat of over-investment, loss of self, or risk of disappointment. So many of us have lots of friends --1000 facebook friends! -- and we still crave authentic connection. We date, maybe we have that special someone, maybe we have a couple close friends or family members, but a lot of us also have baggage around those relationships. Especially spouses or partners, right? Because we rely on them to DO STUFF for us: be financially stable, be the best lover, be the best friend, be EVERYTHING. It doesn't have to be this way, but for a lot of us, it is. It's conditioned, and it's practical, and we think it's going to make life easier. We have expectations, and those expectations can keep us from being present, being the best version of ourselves, and having a truly loving relationship.
So balancing out Sola with Sangha (a funny language mix, but let's flow with it), the connection with your authentic self happens first -- its fundamental. But in community, in connection, we can learn techniques, study the sutras, share wisdom and experiences, and deepen our understanding of what it means to be human. Learning to be present, witnessing your own breath, or witnessing the presence of another being is ultimately the same skill. Learning to love and fully accept yourself and drop your own self-imposed limitations leads to, hopefully, the ability to drop your agenda for others. Then we can witness in complete love the presence of another human being. That's a kind of moksha (freedom!) that's truly excellent.
“And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth,
"You owe me."
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.”
I participated in a lovely workshop tonight with Jennifer Alexander and Gina Marotta called Redesign and Align. I've been doing this kind of work personally for a while, but that doesn't mean I'm any more advanced than anyone else!
What I heard tonight, and I often hear from my friends, and in my own head, are fears or conditioned ways of thinking, that hold us back and keep us from hearing the wisdom of our hearts or from making courageous heart-driven choices.
The phrase that kept repeating in my head after listening and sharing with this group was this: "You are never going to be any more or less alone than you already are right now." You come in alone, you leave alone. So what's holding you back? You fail. Will you be more or less alone? No. You are wildly successful. More or less alone now? No. If the truth is that you could be working a job you hate or struggling in a stagnant relationship, or doing what your heart/spirit loves, and at the end of the day you still pass from waking to dream time alone (and you always will), then the answer seems pretty simple. Let it go. Move on. Forget about all that stuff that isn't supporting the essence of who you truly are. Opinions, pride, reputation, expectation, obligation - these are all incredibly powerful things. But if it's holding you back from being your best self, shining your light, sharing your love and gifts with the world, what's it good for? Not a whole lot.
So that's my thought for the day. Let's get good at being alone. No thing or person can make you truly happy but yourself. We put so much energy into accomplishing things, getting stuff, checking the list of marriage, family, kids, whatever. And some of us are so uncomfortable - terrified even - of being alone. Guess what - you already are. This is it. It's on you. And that's freeing. You don't need to wait for your "big break," or "Mr or Miss Right," or that perfect amount of cash in the bank to be happy AND you can't blame your spouse or worklife or outside situations for not fulfilling you -- because they can't do that! Only you can do that.
Meditate. Practice asana. Read. Walk. Cook a nice dinner for one. Get good at being alone. Enjoy it! I bet it's homecoming that's long overdue.
Love After Love by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
I'll see you on the mat.
Hi! Thank you for visiting! For my first blog post I want to share a quote from one of my favorite books:
"This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals…give alms to everyone that asks… argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward people…go freely with the young and with the mothers of families,
read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,
reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul,
and your very flesh shall be a great poem
and have the richest fluency not only in its words
but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes
and in every motion and joint of your body."
Excerpt from the Preface to Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman, 1855