Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ashtanga Yoga with Bobbi Misiti

Last weekend I had the pleasure of exploring the Ashtanga Primary and Intermediate series with Bobbi Misiti at the Lewisburg Yoga Center, practicing the postures and the breath as they were intended by Pattabhi Jois to be practiced. I absorbed every moment -- traveling up and back between sides, getting into the pose without tallying, receiving the intuitive adjustments that only the skilled hands of a long-practicing yogi are able to give.

Over the years, I've subjected myself to much struggling in my relationship to Ashtanga. Part of me adores the practice and is continually amazed at its undeniable subtle power...the physicality, the focus both required by and produced by the practice, the repetition, the breath. The other part of me bristles with rebellion against the rigidity of Ashtanga. Why do we have to take the toe in utthita trikonasana? Why? My inner rule breaker is busting at the seams, silently screaming, Don't fence me in, Pattabhi Jois!

While the workshop did not offer any solace for me in this struggle, what it did do was confirm and further bolster my commitment to keep on keeping on, to rolling out the mat each day and stepping to the front of it. I understand that my continual questions, my inability to fully commit to a particular "angle," and my resistance to imposed rules are all facets of myself that I can safely explore through yoga, and I intend to do so.

I will nonetheless likely continue to do it in my own way, maybe binding in parsvakonasana (look out!) or playing with handstand rather than headstand during finishing sequence (the nerve!), I will nonetheless keep exploring this many-faceted jewel and linking my breath to my body with mindfulness and awe.

The fellow yogis and yoginis -- like Bobbi Misiti, and all my yoga friends poised on their mats in the room like pearls on a life string linking us together in our yoga journey -- they are the constant quiet reminders and the silent support offered through the presence of fellow seekers. It is in these moments of true union, of taking ourselves within through our practice, as well as connecting to one another through the vehicle of shared experience, blessed by the wisdom of countless generations before us, that we become transformed.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Yoga Journal Conference

When I landed in San Francisco for the annual Yoga Journal Conference, the agenda for the days ahead was like a gem of perfection: visit family not seen for 10 years, explore a fabulous city, and absorb as much yoga as possible. My friend Jennifer met me at the airport just before noon, whisked me into the city where we had lunch in the Mission, then for a lush hike in the redwoods, sunset at Muir beach overlook, and finally dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant in Berkley with our mutual friend Jeff. Off to a good start!

Jeff delivered me to BART early Thursday morning, loaning me a yoga mat (I forgot to bring one!), and a cell phone charger (god bless that Jeff). I spent the first two days of the conference absorbing solid and relevant information regarding the business of yoga, but what I was truly excited about were the asana workshops I'd be attending over the weekend. Ah, the asana!

I literally could not wipe the smile from my face as I floated into my first workshop of the morning, an energy-focused class with David Life, and settled my borrowed mat inside the borders of a rectangle masking-taped to the floor. As a devoted yogi and seeker, believer in energy, and lover of life, moments like these are golden. We began with chanting, offered intentions, and proceeded to explore the infinitely deepening effect of connecting to the energetic body through asana practice.

Ana Forrest taught us to fly. Titled Gravity Surfing, this workshop challenged the borders of the yogi's edge, tangling our perceptions (and misperceptions) of what we can and cannot do. I marveled at the intense life emanating from Ana and her assistants, confident women with muscular thighs and a sharp eye for the weak spot in a pose. I left tired and happy, grateful for the opportunity to fly, but even more grateful for the invitation to try.

Seane Corn took us beyond the boundaries of our bodies, into the realm where spirit meets flesh, where breath spans the boundary from physical to ethereal, and yoga becomes so much more than what happens on the mat. I noticed David Swenson tucked away in a back corner, participating with the rest of us in the magic of group practice.

It is this constant evening out -- this understanding that even the most exalted teachers on the yoga circuit must continue to practice and then practice some more -- that binds us all together as a group and unifies us as one spirit. I'm anchored by this comforting truth, and return home from the conference high from all the yoga, blissfully thankful for these gifts, and eager to share them with others.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ah, the well-intentioned New Year’s resolution. We’ve all made them; we’ve all broken them. After spending more than a month indulging in the season’s abundance, bellies full of holiday cookies and minds foggy from celebratory champagne, we find ourselves forming idealistic visions of the complete personal overhaul. Topping the list are better eating, sleeping, and exercise habits, refined personal finance skills, and robust community involvement. Too often, though, we fall victim to the sheer enormity of sculpting the perfect self out of a lumpy couch potato. Once the New Year’s buzz wears off and we re-enter the real world, that fairy dust vision has a way of disappearing behind the constant daily clutter of our workaday lives. Traffic jams and to-do lists, screaming kids and broken washing machines… Who has time, after all, to exercise everyday? Much less to organize the bread shelf in the pantry or donate time in a soup kitchen?

Perhaps the very focus on our shortcomings makes them bigger than they deserve to be. “People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong...Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” Thich Nhat Hahn, celebrated Buddhist philosopher and writer, posits this question. As we invite the best within ourselves to come forth, balancing the “bad” is a more manageable task. It is in this sense that honoring our sacred inner space becomes imminently relevant to improving all that which seems to comprise and encompass our bodies, our families, and ultimately our whole community and planetary environment.

How to achieve the personal goals, then, that we perceive will lead us to that perfectly balanced life? First by simply understanding that “balance” begins with a well-defined center. If we have lost touch with our center -- or for that matter never taken the time to introduce ourselves to that bright inner light – no amount of outward effort will make a hill of beans’ worth of difference. What good is skinny, after all, when it’s accompanied by a sense of emptiness or achieved by unhealthy means? Flabby thighs, addiction issues, laziness, and disorganization are not distinct, independent problems that can be addressed in vacuums all by themselves. First things first in the personal revolution. Inner layer before outer layer.

This is not to suggest that “enlightened” beings or those who are more spiritually “evolved” enjoy problem-free lives or are inherently any better than the rest of us. Courteous attention to our inner lives, though -- whether through prayer, meditation, contemplation, or practiced mindfulness -- allows us to first gain enough perspective to put personal shortcomings in their rightful places. A fat butt is just that and nothing else, but the underlying issues that allowed the booty to blossom into fruition are where the real seeds of the matter lie, waiting to emerge again and again. Unearthing those seeds is the key to success. Or perhaps the whole problem is really an illusion propelled by unrealistic media images, a truth the inner self understands and is waiting patiently to share.

All we have to do is listen, to tend the inner garden while honoring the inescapable goodness surrounding each and every one of us. G.K. Chesterton sums it up well: “The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.” To this end I suggest all other resolutions be abandoned for this one: Tend the inner garden, and enjoy its nourishing fruit. The rest of the details will take care of themselves.


Monday, January 19, 2009


I’ve been focusing a lot on energy this past year: creating good energy, trying not to absorb the bad, energy and space clearing, energy channels, energy blocks… . All the talk of late in pop culture and beyond about quantum physics and metaphysics points us in the direction of acknowledging that everything, even our thoughts, are merely different forms of energy. This may all be news to Oprah, but Patanjali recognized the importance of the energetic world thousands of years ago when he wrote the Yoga Sutras, laying out the ancient, yet still-viable approach to achieving the even-toned state of Samadhi to which this practice can bring us. And to harnessing the light contained within the practice. These are the truths which provide so many of us a roadmap to contentment as well as creativity.

And still, with all this focus, sometimes it seems the balance will not come to rest in the middle. Sometimes despite our best efforts and intentions the balance falls left of center, hanging heavy and low, seeming to actually absorb the lightness of our thoughts before they have a chance to penetrate the veil of illusion from which we long to escape.

This is where I’ve been for months. Plodding along in my meditation, in my personal belief system, in my practice. Knowing the creative spark I’ve come to enjoy so easily will re-emerge any second now. And waiting some more. It finally occurred to me on a hike a few days ago that maybe this apparent “blockage” is necessary, that rather than an actual blockage it’s more like an energy log-jam that’s amassing enough vibrancy to ultimately bust through and tumble forth into the present moment. Before finally sitting my butt down to resume this blog, for weeks I’ve felt movement within the other realms of my life. Places that were stagnant began to take motion again. My meditation became lighter and happier. I began to get signs.

And now I really do think I’m ready to write again. I could indulge in an entire autobiographical narrative about specific events in my life that have caused me to engage in such strange wrangling with my writer-self, but all those are color-by-number details. You have yours and I have mine. The revelation, for me anyway, is that the flow depends on the ebb. It seems so obvious, intellectually, until the tide goes out and feels for all the world like it’s never coming back. If we keep breathing into our intentions we will continue to build up energy around them. It’s that simple.

At times, the physical practice is all we have to maintain us. When meditation turns into an unstoppable loopy tape of some surreal verbal montage, when engaging positively with the world around us is virtually impossible, when all the other obvious tools fail to bring understanding, the physical poses open us up from the inside out, creating channels for energy to freely flow despite our current spiritual or emotional status. “Just do the practice,” said Pathabi Jois, “and all else is coming.” Yoga, in the very basic sense, is energy work. It keeps us connected, and it keeps us going. Sometimes the space between points A and B is vast, and for me, it has been the practice that has time and again allowed me to progress from one place to another, even when I didn’t know which way I was going.

What a journey!


Thursday, June 19, 2008

New WV from the Inside Out

It’s no secret the prevailing West Virginia stereotypes do very little to paint an attractive picture of our state. From the jokes about inbreeding – for which Dick Cheney, our own Vice President, recently apologized – to our appalling statistics related to obesity, smoking, and overall health, West Virginia isn’t shining so bright from the outside looking in.

What is it we’re lacking that places like Asheville, NC have tapped into as a source of social fertility and economic growth? Our state is just as beautiful as theirs, just as fraught with natural wonders and the potential for limitless adventure. Why are Colorado’s mountains crawling with a population of fitness fanatics, topping the nation’s statistical health charts, while in WV an unhealthy lot of us stay rooted like stumps in the shadows of the mountains that surround us, fast food gurgling in our bellies? In 2007, West Virginia surpassed Alabama as the country’s second fattest state, with 67% of our population either overweight or obese. This is a health crisis, physical and otherwise, and until our population as a whole begins to pull its collective body into a state of equilibrium, its mind and spirit will suffer as well, and its potential will lie dormant as a seed in frozen winter soil.

As a yoga devotee I understand the unavoidable, symbiotic connection between the different components of ourselves, both individually and collectively. On the individual level, we will often suffer physically from the result of emotional wounds, and vice versa. Spiritually, a shoddy foundation frequently diminishes the emotional timbre of life, continuing the circle of one thing making, forging, and creating the other. Yoga knows that the mind, body, and spirit must come together in one unified effort to continually grow into a brighter tomorrow, to always follow the light. Yoga does not stagnate. It does not tarry in complacency. It does not sit its butt on the couch and watch twenty hours of drivel a week while the world whispers past in its peripheral vision. Instead, it persists in always trying to be better.

Just as each person requires the proper balance of a healthy mind, body, and spirit, so too do populations. If the majority of any given group (such as the 67% of West Virginians who are overweight or obese) is suffering physically, odds are pretty good the society is suffering in general. Bad juju is like mold on bread, it just grows and grows into the space around it. The good news is that positive energy does too.

And in the world I live, here in West Virginia, I’m surrounded by forward-thinking, spiritually-focused, dedicated life-mongers. People who believe in West Virginia and its potential to begin a new life at the top of all the right national lists, happily owning its inherent goodness. In yoga, we strive to uncover the enlightenment glowing in our core – not to become enlightened, but to reveal that within which is already enlightened. As West Virginians we understand the compelling value of our land and people, and in my little yogic corner of the state we are striving to bring West Virginia to the light, because we are doing the same for ourselves.

The answer, then, to creating a new West Virginia stereotype, ultimately resides in the lap of each individual resident of the state. If we want to quit being the butt of every national joke, then we must take responsibility and seek to find our highest selves. We can’t do this very well sitting slack-jawed in front of the television or gawking at People magazine. Or while eating one toxic meal after another, or squeezing our lives into stress-filled shoe boxes. The happiness we so long for is here. We just have to commit ourselves to finding it, right there within the core of ourselves and the heart of our state, where it has always been, patiently waiting.

Saturday, May 31, 2008


The soft breath of evening opens over me as I take the first steps down the path in the forest I’ve come to think of as my own. I rarely see other people here, even on the most gorgeous, welcoming days of the year, days when the leaves wave rainbows and drop themselves like delicate angels onto the ground below, days when the air is bright with the spring-tipsy flutter of forest critters, days when the world is mellow, and the slow hollow suck of the mud-soft path pulls my shoes away from my feet as I walk. The curt welcome of winter is especially solitary, when the path is often frosty or slippery or slathered in ice-cold water, glittering with the hard, undeniable beauty of a quiet frozen landscape. Countless times now, maybe thousands of times, I’ve stepped from the lair of my car into this real world so drenched in beauty and life it amazes me the whole city hasn’t flocked here to taste just a morsel of it.

But they haven’t. Usually I’m here alone, the way I like it.

My relationship to the forest has evolved, the way most everything in my life has over the past few years, most keenly the relationships I share -- with people, with trees and hills, mud-slicked paths, with myself. Years ago, before yoga, before I had reclaimed my body, before I chose to allow so many of my fear-based perspectives to take their own hike somewhere else, I discovered the forest as a convenient place to get exercise. As a novice runner mid-way through an 80-pound battle, I navigated a three-mile course on the paved road that rambled through the woods. In those days I did usually see people. Cars would drive past, moms with baby strollers, other runners leaving me in their dust, cyclists… The deep tangle of trees and hills that spread out from the road and around me for seeming infinity represented a world I never stepped foot in, not by myself at least.

Somewhere in the midst of losing almost half my body weight, I discovered yoga and unwittingly began to transform my interior landscape. For quite some time, a number of years, I continued to exercise vigorously while struggling to find enough time to enjoy the yoga I intuitively knew I needed. I ran in the forest, attended umpteen thousand aerobics classes, I did yoga. I adhered to a specific schedule each day, enjoying my yoga practice only on allotted days, partially ruled by the fear that if I sacrificed any aerobic activity I would re-gain an ounce of weight, which would immediately snowball into 80 pounds, and I’d be back where I started. So I weighed myself morning, noon, and night, wrote down every tidbit of food I put into my mouth, and struggled with how to fit more yoga into my schedule. I didn’t know how to put my decisions into this context then, but now I know I was driven by fear, that sneaky devil. The fear of becoming who I didn’t want to be.

Eventually I took my run to the woods. I don’t remember the transition, I just know it happened, and I know it was the yoga in me that made me do it. One day I was on the road, and then one day I wasn’t, I had disappeared into the leaves to begin a different journey, and I haven’t looked back since.

Now I take it slow. My running feet have stopped running. I’m back to walking in the woods. Sometimes I’ll stop dead still in the middle of the trail and look around in sheer wonder. I see things back here I never once, in all the years I trod the pavement, saw. Five feet from a deer bigger than me, the two of us locked in a thick moment of respectful cross-species communication, she finally turns and saddles off to rejoin the wood’s salient hum. I’m so grateful to be a part of this scenario I could cry, and sometimes I do. Sometimes it’s birds dancing on the breeze, sometimes it’s a beaver slamming his tail at me, sometimes the noise is a mystery I can only guess at, a twittering reminder that I am of this world and not above it, that we are all of us – the birds and salamanders, moss-covered rocks and chirping squirrels – participating in a dance, whether we realize it or not.

People have expressed concern to me about the safety of hitting the woods alone. Part of me used to worry about this as well. My father, bless his heart, gave me this thing called an “executive ice-scraper,” this tool that could very legitimately be used to scrape ice, as well as gouge eyeballs or otherwise inflict harm on a would-be attacker. It fit snug and warm in my palm, and I gripped it while I darted through the woods, constantly aware of its presence, of the imminent threat of attack. It made perfect sense to me at the time. After all, I also used to tell my husband that I felt like we were all walking around with loaded guns aimed at our heads, I worried so incessantly about the well-being and safety of my family. I used to constantly feel as though all of us were just a hair’s breadth away from disaster, that really the list of potential tragedies was infinite so I therefore had to worry extra hard and extra long to make sure I covered every single one of them. It was hell, and I created it. The executive ice-scraper was my friend, its presence helped me to not forget the never-ending parade of disasters that were tottering on the brink of reality, poised to ruin my life. I was ready, dammit, I could hardly wait to show off my impressive self-defense skills.

So again with the fear. Eventually, as I deepened my practice, as I learned to focus more on my breaths than my thoughts, more on what is than what might ruin it, the executive ice-scraper got left behind, and slowly, so slowly I didn’t even notice it happening, the torrid parade of scary images that seemed to me just a natural constituent of being a mother, a wife, a woman alone in the big breathing world, the torrid parade faded into oblivion where it belongs and left an open space I could begin to fill with gratitude and appreciation. I can’t remember the last time I entertained a twisted fantasy about how exactly I would kick a man coming at me, how fast I would run, would a car be on the road for me to wave over? If I was going to go down, would it last long, would I suffer much? How exactly would my children react when they learned they’d never see their mother again? Would my husband remarry? All this as I took one step after another through god’s growing green earth, shining all around me in full-on lustrous glory, while I shirked inside my useless worry like a turtle in a shell. It’s as though I was insane, just like a lot of us, worry worry worry, wasting all those precious moments on figments of our imaginations, breathing life into our worst nightmares.

Now at least I know I have an option. I can walk in the woods, my arms swinging a careless rhythm, allowing myself to absorb the sheer limitless goodness offered by one foot after another on a long forest path, the woodsong happy and the leafwind smooth, my heart open and my mind free. Or I can walk with the executive ice-scraper tucked like a burdensome shadow in the hollow of my hand. What the heck, I’ll risk it. The scraper can stay in the glovebox of the car where it belongs, waiting for winter and hard cold ice.

I’ll take the woodsong and leafwind.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Ahimsa and Lifestyle

We started the discussion of ahimsa last week, but one little page isn’t enough to even introduce the topic, much less explore it. The importance of ahimsa (non-violence in thought, word, and deed) to yogis as well as other peace-loving folks is bound to transfer to daily life, but the issue of diet is one which can philosophically segregate even those devoted to a non-violent existence.

Plenty of people who eat meat would never dream of committing a violent act against a person or an animal, but the hard fact remains that meat cannot land on a plate without an act of violence having been committed, an act in which the carnivore is ultimately complicit when enjoying meat. At the same time, many spiritually dedicated and conscientious people do choose to eat meat, and I’m definitely not here to admonish anyone’s particular lifestyle choices. I’m the only vegetarian member of my family, and it’s only been 2 ½ years since I gave up meat myself. So I’m not on a high horse here. Nonetheless, this is a salient topic in the world of yoga, and one I believe worthy of exploration.

The evolution of my own dietary habits definitely mirrored the integration of yogic principles into my daily life. I was always one of those “don’t tell me, I don’t want to know” meat eaters with a stronger affinity for vegetarian rather than flesh dishes. Once I exposed myself, however, to the realities involved with not only the production of, but also the peripheral effects, of the meat industry, I gave it up. Happily. The decision has actually made me feel lighter, and has made my life easier. Rather than burying (and therefore on some level struggling with) the harsh truths represented by my diet, I’m now free from that burden.

Except for the fish issue, which I discussed last week, and which I am currently re-evaluating. One of the “justifications” I use for occasionally eating fish is that at least the animal has been afforded an opportunity to live life, to swim freely, and to, well, be a fish. As opposed to industrially-raised cattle and chickens, who live horrific lives and die horrific deaths, suffering through their entire existence without the opportunity to experience even one moment of freedom, of happiness, of being as they’re “meant” to be. Everything dies, everything transitions from earthly form, so the death itself is not as bothersome to me as the denial of life.

Many people believe that since we have “dominion” over animals, we have the right to do with them as we please. My personal response to this is that dominion does not equate a lack of responsibility. Parents have dominion over their children, but that does not mean they have the right to treat them any way they want. It actually means they are obligated to steadfastly nurture them.

The debate over the morality of meat eating could go back and forth forever, but I think the debate about the best production practices is more easily won. Massive, industrial meat producing operations are devastating to the animals, the land they inhabit, and the people who eat them, simple as that. Polluted farm runoff, overuse of antibiotics (which ultimately travel through the food chain and into human bodies), the direct support of monoculture megafarms, and the general dismal pall permeating the industry from feedlot to table can be avoided by kind-hearted meat eaters who alter their buying habits.

We do this first by eating less meat. It’s no secret, even within the mainstream American health community, that our culture tends to consume an unhealthy amount of meat, especially red meat, and for pete’s sake especially too much heart-stopping pretend food like hot dogs and chicken nuggets. Our beautiful state is a supreme example of a population that could benefit immensely from going veg a couple of days a week. Implementing the self-study required (another yogic prescription for the good life) to bring oneself to the realization that something might need to be changed in order to take a step further in living our healthiest, happiest lives, is in itself worthwhile. Nothing in the world wrong with a little self-discipline; just because we might want to eat hamburgers for dinner every night and bacon with breakfast every morning (or poptarts or macaroni and cheese), doesn’t mean we should. So less is more, in lots of realms. Easy enough.

Beyond this we can lessen our impact by choosing local, organically-raised meat. And produce too, if we can find it. Smaller operations tend to treat their animals more kindly, and the animals are more likely to die humanely. If you are interested in finding locally-raised meat, I’m aware of a couple options in the area. Feel free to contact me for information if you’re curious.

The environmental impact of the mega-meat world is too vast a topic for me to try to broach, but I can recommend some books that will enlighten you better than I:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. This book is incredibly well-researched and even-handed. It’s written by a meat-eater, and he won’t try to convince you to give it up. Entertaining and highly informative. I couldn’t put it down.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. Learn more than you ever wanted to know about America’s favorite meal, the burger and fries. Yum.

The Hundred-Year Lie by Randall Fitzgerald. Not really a book about meat, but a book about all the stuff we put into our bodies that we might want to think about a little more thoroughly.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Explore the life of a family that goes local for a whole year. No trucked-in food allowed. http://animalvegetablemiracle.comt/

Most of these books, as well as some yoga cookbooks, are in the library at The Folded Leaf. Help yourself!

I think more important than our specific choices regarding diet or other habits in our lives, is our devotion to exploring the motivation and purpose behind the choices we do make. It is only through our own self-study and desire to grow that we might get from Here to There in our effort to progress -- even when that journey is a spiraling from wonderful to more wonderful, for yoga understands that our potential is infinite. What a great practice.