Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Anyone with a Jeep can skip this post, because the one word title conveys everything and more the following 500 words will explain.  It’s a Jeep thing. For everyone else, here we go…

A winch gets you out of a jam.  You are in a jam because, let’s face it, you were trying to push your machine beyond your skill level as a driver or the capabilities of the machine (read “you didn’t know what the hell you were doing otherwise you wouldn’t have done it”).  You try every other imaginable way to get out of the jam.  With no other option, you call “Winch!” and you are dragged out.

It’s a humbling experience to admit that you can’t / don’t know how to move forward.  You think everyone is looking at you and laughing. 

Truth is, a winch is on call for a reason—you aren’t the first to get stuck, and you will not be the last.  The people that are looking at you and laughing, they are laughing because they remember being stuck.  And they learned how not to get stuck there again.  And they will be happy to share their advice if you ask.

There are times when we feel stuck in our practice.  Like what you have been doing is no longer working.  To be clear, this is not because you have gotten lax; there has been a change.  Something that you can’t identify.  Thoughts such as: “I’ve been doing this everyday for x time, how come I’m just now feeling sore/getting injured?”  “I used to have clarity/calmness/joy/etc., now it’s a struggle to get to the mat?” or “Something just isn’t right anymore.”   You try to work through it, and the harder you work, the louder these thoughts become.


Maybe you are pushing your machine too hard, or have failed to adapt to changes in your life/body.  Maybe you have reached a level of understanding and something is trying to push you forward, but you don’t know what to do. 

But someone does.  And when you yell WINCH! you will get a response.  Whether it’s in the form of someone handing you a book of teachings because they thought you might find them interesting, someone introducing you (in person of via their teachings) to a teacher who will guide you in just the right direction, or an opportunity arises for you to help someone else which, in turn, helps you, that winch will come.  If something seems like a coincidence, roll with it.  It’s no coincidence, it’s a conspiracy, but the good kind.

This story doesn’t really apply here, but I’m going to relate it anyway:

A peasant once asked Ramakrishna (Swami Vivekananda’s Guru) “I am a simple villager.  Please give me in one sentence a method by which I can obtain happiness.”  Ramakrishna replied: “Totally accept the fact that you are a machine operated upon by God.” (Adapted from Gregor Maehle’s account in Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy)

Student Training Session 2: “How to tell your ASANA from your BANDHA,” A primer on Hatha Yoga directly from The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. SEPTEMBER 17th from 1:30-3:30 @ Hudson River Yoga.  
Contact me for details. 

See you on the mat!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When You've Got So Much To Say It's Called Gratitude

Our practice does not happen in a vacuum.  We think of it as “our” practice, as if it belongs to us.  It does not.  Not a single one of us would have the ability to practice without the generosity of others.  Certainly we need to be thankful for those teachers who share their knowledge with us through direct contact or through books, videos, and the internet (see, Patanjali was not kidding when he said yogis can be in several places at once and instantaneously over long distances).  In order to pay for these classes, books, and videos, we should be thankful for our employers, and for those who trained us to work at the jobs which provide us income.  We need to be thankful for those who watch over responsibilities (watch the kids, cook dinner, wash the dishes, quietly ignore the alarm at pre-dawn hours like my wonderful wife) while we go to classes or do our practice. 

Some are able to go to retreats or foreign lands to directly study with masters; be thankful for the sacrifice of others which allows you this freedom.  Be thankful for the pilots, engineers, and taxi drivers who get you there.  Be thankful for the plumbers and grounds people who keep the physical locations running so there is a place to practice. 

Some of us are unable to study directly with masters.  Do not despair!  Cultivate a satsanga, a group of like minded students who will benefit from the knowledge of the collective.  Be thankful there are others out there who are also on this path.  Develop friendships with those who are able to study with masters, they will certainly share what they have heard.  Be thankful this knowledge is meant to be spread.

For teachers, be thankful for your students.  If you have no students in your class or a room overflowing, teach.  Be thankful that you can share what you have learned.  Be thankful that you have the opportunity to put the teachings into practice.

Be thankful that there are so many ways to practice, and that our practice can and should evolve over time.  Contortions are not for everyone.  We can breathe mindfully, sit for meditation, study the scriptures and the lives of saints, help those in need, be nice to one another, do our duty/work because it needs to be done rather than for expectation of reward.  There are many ways to quiet the noise.  The correct one is the one which works for you.

Remember to cultivate the Four Virtues (PYS I.33):  Friendliness (maitri) towards those who are happier than yourself, Compassion (karuna) toward those who are suffering, Joyfulness (mudita) with those doing praiseworthy things, and Indifference (upeksanam) to the wicked.  This is a tremendously difficult practice, but, thankfully, we have so many opportunities every day to try. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Laboratory of the Mat

I had the wonderful opportunity to give an overview and introduction to the science and practice of Hatha Yoga to a generous colleague’s History and Cultures of Asias classes last week.  The students were amazing sports—they came with open minds and tried the practice with incredible effort. 

One of the challenges in preparing for these classes, and any group class really, is how to present a system which, at its core, is a devotional system, without a specific religious connotation. 

We know that yoga is the science of joining the individual to the greater; realizing that there is no independent existence; recognizing and absorbing with that which is permanent.  Gets pretty verbose when trying not to say “God”.  “Divine” works well, but still connotes “God.”  Use Ganesha, Krishna, Shiva and you run the risk of being accused of trying to convert someone into a cult.  “Dancing Elephants?  Flying Monkeys!?!? Who is this nut job?  Get me outta here!”

So, as teachers, we need to place this core into a context which is accessible to our students.  We can’t and shouldn’t ignore it completely—that would be a gymnastics class.  By definition, any practice calling itself yoga must deal with the mind, its fluctuations, and the means to still those fluctuations. 

In one of the classes I took with Ray, he said: “’Divine’ for our purposes, means nothing more than ‘I am a small part of something bigger.’”  I really like and appreciate that definition. In fact, I use it quite often as a starting point.  Basically, if we are to join with something greater, the first thing to do is admit we are not that greater thing.  This involves first acknowledgement (intellectual understanding) then surrender (acceptance).

That’s nice and lofty.  I’m sure my students will love that one.  Ron’s been watching Celebrity Rehab again…

But wait.  Let’s bring this to the Laboratory of the Mat.  Yoga is a science, we can test hypotheses and examine results.  On the mat, we are asked to do many things.  Like a 2 year old, we often want to know why.  Inquiry is a good thing, because it can make something even more meaningful:  Why do we sit cross legged with the right leg in front, and padmasana with the right leg on to the left thigh first?  Because it balances out the imbalance in the thoracic cavity and stimulates insulin production.  Why does it do that?  Because it alters the flow of energy within the body to purposefully effect this area.  Why does it effect that area? [Ready….] I don’t know.  There, ladies and gentlemen, is acknowledgement.  Great first step.  But ask any parent and they will tell you that “I don’t know” does not end the question of “Why?”  Just not knowing is not good enough. 

What does stop “Why?” 

Because that’s the way it is.  Because I said so. Because this is what is going to happen.

And it always, ALWAYS does. Just ask your Mom. 

Now we accept that we don’t have to know, we only have to do. And when we do it, it works out perfectly.

“Why do we do it like this when so-and-so taught me to do it that way?” “Why do you use Sanskrit?” “Why do we say OM?” “Why do you always talk about flying monkeys?” “Why are you making me do headstand in the center of the room?”

Because that’s the way it is.  And that’s what we’re doing.  Because I’m teaching you from my practice, directly from the Laboratory of My Mat.  Not a theory.  Not something I made up on the way in.  I have learned through my own practice that the act and discipline of doing a practice is much more important that the internal rotation of this or the placement of the foot on some imaginary grid to line up with that.  Show up and do what you are told is the practice.

The mind has a great habit of STFU when we do what we are told.   In the kitchen, we say “Oui Chef!” In the military they say “Sir, Yes Sir!” In yoga we say “OM.”  They all mean the same thing: I am a small part of something bigger. 

See you in the Lab!

The First Ever Student Training Program at Hudson River Yoga!
1:30-3:30 Knowledge and movement.
Check out the “Student Training Tab” above for more details or contact me.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Back to School Time / Schedule Change

We are about a week and a half away from my inaugural Student Training Program.  Session 1 is Saturday, August 20th from 1:30-3:30 at Hudson River Yoga. History, biology, chemistry, and physics taught through stories about flying monkeys and dancing elephants!   I would have paid much more attention in physics if there was a flying monkey involved, but that is just me…

This series is your opportunity to find greater depth in your practice. Yes, I have a framework for the sessions, however, this is ultimately your practice, your opportunity to ask questions and discuss aspects of the practice, things which we so often do not have the time to do during a regular group class.  I am truly looking forward to this opportunity to discuss and help create a more enjoyable practice for you.

Before you hit the sales at Penny’s and Staples (and Lululemon), let’s break down what would be beneficial to bring:
  • Your mat.  There are mats at the studio, however, having a personal mat helps your overall practice by providing you with a personal, transportable space. Having a mat also cuts away the excuse: “I can’t practice at home, I don’t even have a mat.” Read:  Home practice will be part of the homework.
  • Something to write with and something to write on.  If you are the note taking type.  There is no test, and I will distribute the visual presentation via e-mail.  If note taking works for you, I encourage you to do it.
  • Clothing for sitting and physical practice.  The first half of the session will be knowledge based, the second half will be movement based. Physical comfort is important because it eliminates some distractions.   
  • Water to hydrate before and after physical practice.  Drinking is contraindicated during practice. Why shouldn’t students drink during practice?  Well, we’ll discuss that at the session.
  • Yourself.  Ok, that’s a bit cheesy, but it is true.  Showing up both physically and mentally is the first, and most important, element of this whole practice. 

On a side note, Tuesday, August 16th will be my last Tuesday night class at Hudson River Yoga.  Starting Monday August 22nd, I will be taking over the Monday 7 PM class.  There will still be class on Tuesday evenings at 7:15 with Monique—warm Vinyasa.

Speaking of Vinyasa, you may have noticed that I have changed the name of my classes at HRY to “Hatha Yoga.”  I have done this to more accurately reflect the evolution of my own practice and teaching style.  “Vinyasa” refers to (or should refer to, unfortunately it has become a catch all term with very little relation to the true meaning) a very specific set of poses practiced in a very specific way as taught by Krishnamacharya.  Out of respect for the lineage I am altering how I identify my classes.  “Hatha” yoga refers to any yogic practice which focuses on training and cleansing the body and manipulating the flow of breath in order to move energy within the body. Vinyasa is a specific form of Hatha.  Don’t worry, I’m still going to challenge you, just in slightly different arrangement.
See you on the mat!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

BASS How low can you go?

For all of you who are spending time at David Life and Sharon Gannon’s house in Woodstock this summer, a little Public Enemy (and Anthrax) to get you primed, ‘cause this is what you are going to hear.  To my students, don’t worry, no PE in class, although I can’t promise not to slip in a little Gorilla Biscuits or Minor Threat between Krishna Das cuts (but no Shelter or Youth of Today.  Never.  Ever.).
 Public Enemy and Anthrax, "Bring the Noise"

An advanced practice found deep in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is Nada Yoga, listening for the unstruck sound.  At its most basic, the practice is listening for and attuning to the natural vibratory sound of OM in nature.  The problem is, we are constantly assailed by a lot of noise.  Some of this noise is external:  cars honking during savasana, people talking during class (inside and outside the space), music which does not agree with you, the constant yammer of the instructor, etc. These cause perpetual distraction—the noise is bothersome and we can’t do anything about it so we are bothered further.  Soon the focus has shifted from practice to distraction.  Other noise is internal.  The mind runs wild.  I’ve got to do this, that, and the other today, I don’t wanna, I can’t.  Usually the negative opinion is the loudest.  Sometimes the worst offender is “I can.”

Before the e-mails start coming in, let me explain a bit.  I fully agree with every guru, mental health professional, and lifestyle coach that a positive mental attitude equals success and longevity.  I often quote Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are correct.”  What we have to be watchful of is the origin of “I can.”  All too often it comes from the ego, which is what leads us into trouble.

Just because you can, does not mean that you should.   Going lower, deeper, faster, more because you can, does not mean it is always the right thing to do.   This practice is not a contest.

If practice and detachment are the means to still the fluctuations of the mind (PYS I.12), then discrimination (viveka) is the barometer, the scale against which we measure our practice .  In order to establish what is to be practiced and what is to be detached from, we must approach our practice with scientific inquiry (yoga is, after all, a SCIENCE).  As we progress in practice we discover that what was once inaccessible has become accessible—contortions, sitting still, holding the breath, some clarity of mind.  We have to be vigilant against attaching to and defining our practice by these items.  The line of inquiry becomes:  Yes I can push up from navasana to headstand.  Am I doing it to be awesome, or am I doing it as an offering? Is it moving me toward stillness of the fluctuations of the mind or is it a way to show that my practice is better than yours?  I learned a lesson once trying to be awesome and lowering from handstand to chin balance at the encouragement of the teacher.  Almost broke my neck.  Was it the teacher’s fault?  Absolutely not.  Mine entirely.  Teacher laughed (hence no Shelter or Youth of Today will ever be played in my class).  I did not, as Swami Sivananda advises, listen to “the shrill inner voice of [my] soul” which was telling me I was being a dumb a__, rather I was listening to all the noise I was bringing in my quest for awesomeness.

The challenge is to cut through all the noise to be able to hear the true inner voice which will guide you correctly.  Initially viveka comes from hindsight.  I did this, I injured myself or created further obstacles, therefore it does not work for me and I should not practice in that way.  (I have been there with you, when the louder voice then says, well do it again.  And the same injury happens).  Ask yourself: How do you feel after your practice?  Calm?  Happy?  Looking forward to the next session? Or Tired? Leaden?  Aggressive?  and ready for the shower? 

Think about your practice.  Let that inner voice guide you.  Your body and mind actually do know what is right for you, if you pay attention, listen, observe, and inquire, you will find the practice which is correct for you. 

Student Training Program, Session 1 is coming up soon!  Check out the “Student Training” Tab above or contact me for details.