Respect and Permission in Yoga—Yamas and Niyamas

The first two of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs are the Yamas and the Niyamas.  Together, they set the stage for yoga practice. They form a comprehensive set of principles that govern moral and ethical action in relation to all spheres of life. An honest look at these all-encompassing precepts is enough to stop any thoughtful person in their tracks. Taken literally, they are unforgiving. To practice them requires great focus and is demanding on every level.

Are we actually being called upon to do and be these things? Yes, we are and as teachers or any kind of leader, it is even more critical that we take these precepts to heart.

At first glance, the Yamas and Niyamas are simple—and obviously challenging to live. As we explore and allow ourselves to inquire with depth and precision, they have the power to transform our personalities. They regulate our very thinking. They are checks on impulses and sculptors of right-action. They speak to containing the purpose and direction of our lives. They encourage—demand—that we stay true to the course of pursuing greater knowledge and clarity, and that we never cede to egoic desires for personal accomplishment and gain. These principles don’t lose importance, no matter how much or how long we practice. If anything, the yamas and niyamas increase in significance as our awareness broadens.

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As Teachers

The yamas go right to the heart of what is necessary to approach serious practice. Can we manage this? The niyamas add to the tall order, letting us know clearly the challenges ahead. They provide no outs.

Can we work together as a community to cultivate this?

We, the teachers, are invited to nurture our student’s growing yoga practice. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing today is that so many of the teachers who have been held in high esteem are not worthy of their status. I feel we need to look at this, not just “famous” teachers, and not only at the most egregious of abuse, but for the ways that we are all involved; culpable in silently promoting a system that subtly denigrates some and lifts others.

Who are we all in perpetuating a  system of thought where one person is allowed to have power over another? We are all in this together.

Who checks the teacher? Usually, it is only the teacher, and that’s a problem. As teachers, we are the most vulnerable to losing track of our own practice. As teachers, it is entirely on us to manage our own actions. It is our job to maintain complete respect for our students and to recognize, handle, and contain our own distorted egoic needs and unhealthy desires. We all have issues. They will come up. Expect them and prepare for them. Personal integrity is first and foremost for teachers.

Do no harm. Basic.

When we don’t actively embrace a willingness to take full responsibility for our inner challenges and our outer actions we are on the precipice of doing harm.  There are no excuses whatsoever for physical and sexual abuse. It is completely unacceptable in all situations.  And…we all need to be careful not to succumb to the minor abuses of power that are so seductive whenever we—even we the normal everyday yoga teachers—are looked up to because we are thought to have some greater spiritual connection and knowledge.

It’s true. This does happen.

The stronger the leader, the more important the Yamas and Niyamas. 

As awareness expands, our reach increases. People tend to see something in their teachers they wish they themselves had. They inevitably project their hopes and dreams onto them. They may see the teacher as wise, intelligent, or to have perceptual abilities that are beyond their own. Whether any of these projections are true or not is not the point. They often lead to a perceived power differential between the teacher and the student that almost always involves the student feeling lesser than the teacher.

As teachers and leaders, when we notice this phenomenon forming in our student/teacher relationships, we responsibly return to the yamas and niyamas. We are called upon by circumstances to go even deeper into our own practice and unearth the threads of egoic delight in power that are still embedded deep within our psyches.

This is a positive stimulus for the teacher. In the best of conditions, it helps to ripen the teacher’s wisdom. Seeing this phenomenon for what it is, is critical to our own, and our student’s well being.

Egos are tricky. We all know that much. We need to check our ego’s underlying rumblings and screams for attention. As teachers, it is our job to take our own practice seriously, and we know what that means. Importantly, it means returning over and over again to see how we are doing in reference to the yamas and niyamas. In the same ways that our practice is particularly challenging in our personal relationships, it is challenging with our adoring students as well. We all need to take the very real dynamics of student/teacher relationships seriously and attend to them carefully. As we have witnessed so often, not all teachers return to the yamas and niyamas as their power sphere grows. We cannot change what others have done, but we can take responsibility for ourselves now.

Permission and Touch—No Precedes Yes

The conversation about permission and touch in yoga is finally here. I think we are all relieved to have this discussion out of the shadows and into the open. The consent cards now available in studios are wonderful tools for students and teachers. I have found that I much prefer having them. 

Of course, we have to ask permission and be respectful about where, how, and if we touch. Consent cards are an important step in offering power to the students. But there are layers and mitigators to consent. As wise teachers, we need to recognize that even if we are given permission, permission may be granted out of the student’s own misunderstanding about when “no” is appropriate. Encourage your students to say no sometimes. Encourage them to look inside to see if they really do want you, the teacher, to touch or assist them on that day. They may be surprised by their own feelings and let them know that you really actually will not take it personally. Then you have to make sure you don’t.

As a teacher, how do you feel when your student declines touch? Of course, you respect your student’s wishes, but do you ever take it personally? Do you think it is about you in some way? Are your feelings even hurt? Do you think perhaps it means you are not a good enough yoga teacher? Maybe you feel none of this. Maybe you feel all of it. It doesn’t matter what you feel. Just accept it. Do the personal work on your thoughts and feelings, and be sure not to make it your student’s problem.

Keep this in mind: When a student is able to say no to you you are offering them a true experience of personal power. They may or may not be willing or able to say no in their lives. That they can say no to you without being rejected by you can be a powerfully bonding experience.

No precedes yes. If you want something new you have to be able to say no to where you are. Without a clear no, there can be no clear yes. Being able to say no in yoga class is profoundly important for all of us. Being able to accept no is a learning and a deepening for yoga teachers.

Mutuality of Respect Breeds Deepening Respect

No one who is in form—has a body and takes a breath—is impervious to abusing power. Let’s resist being drawn into even the subtle projections of others. Know who you are. We can do this together. Continual questioning of ourselves is our ongoing duty. This is our practice.

Let us initiate the respect relationship. Our true respect for others is seen and felt by our students. They respect us back. Respect deepens on all sides. This is teaching.

Let’s allow and enjoy appropriate respect from our students and actively disavow other’s projections. Let’s respect our own teachers and the teachings of yoga. It is fine to let our students know, that yes, we have practiced long and consistently. And perhaps, if it is true, your practice continues to bear fruit. Let’s not even allow a glimmer of erroneous projection. Let’s happily accept the respect that is due and is appropriate to our dharmic endeavor. Respect is a beautiful and true offering…when it is earned and warranted.

Let’s accept the invitation to be leaders and guides.

May we become increasingly intelligent and careful observers of life.

May we endeavor to grow in our perceptual abilities and continue to share our deepening vision.

Let’s point the way and lead. 

We can do this.

Let’s do this together. 

The Teacher’s Responsibility—Abuse, Power, and Respect in the Yoga Community

PRACTICE IS FUNDAMENTAL

Yoga is practice and it is process. It involves fearless and determined inquiry into the nature of life. It involves deep commitment and willingness to observe yourself more clearly. Yoga requires true bravery to not know—no matter how much you think you know.

We all need teachers. As teachers, we need to have teachers and it is incumbent upon us to question and to choose wisely. Delving into the process of discriminating the personal from the universal and weaving it back together into the whole cloth of life is a delicate process. It takes continuity of inquiry and wisdom. Chose a direction wisely. Choose your teachers wisely.

RESPONSIBILITY OF TEACHERS

In teaching yoga, we lead people right to the heart of their deepest yearnings and difficult self-concepts. We help them clear a path to a fuller understanding of all layers of life. We help them to open their hearts and minds and gain access to self-acceptance, spontaneous joy, and a richer experience of love and life. This is tender work and we take it seriously. It is a sacred responsibility to hold the position of guiding people toward a more holistic and even enlightened view of life and self.

“That which has most Truth lasts longest.”

Much of what we see currently in western yoga has not stood the test of time at all. We are babies in this. There is a lot to learn.

Currently, nearly daily, we are witnessing revelations about the ways blind trust of teachers and lineages has been detrimental to ourselves and our students.

It is the natural tendency of serious students to trust their teachers. Of course it is. The student is looking for answers and help with life’s difficult questions. In choosing a teacher, the serious student comes to you in a vulnerable state. They want to know. They want to be led in a real direction toward relief of pain and suffering. They want to learn.

When a student accepts someone as their teacher, it is entirely the teacher’s responsibility to be respectful of the student in every way.

We teach our students the underlying principles of yoga. We guide them on what may arguably be the most important journey of their life. We do this with kindness and the utmost regard for our student’s process.

The teacher’s job is to guide and lead. Much of what we teach, we teach by example. As human beings, we are inherently susceptible to the praise and admiration we receive from our students. It is a challenging proposition to identify and tame our own desire for recognition and praise. No one who is alive is immune to being led astray by other people’s respect and adulation for them.

That is why it is so important that teachers have their own serious and dedicated practice. As teachers, we need to check ourselves constantly to make sure that we are still adhering to the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs grow in importance as we grow in our process.

As we have seen, some highly regarded teachers have been revealed to be abusers.

The image of a person who claims—even implicitly—to be more highly evolved carries a lot of power in spiritual circles. Who wouldn’t want to surrender to a higher power that is right in front of you every day? Who wouldn’t want simple answers to life’s perplexing questions? Who wouldn’t give themselves over to a person who claims to know the answers?

There are no supreme teachers, only people—some of whom have genuine channels to universal intelligence. However, as human beings, all of us are susceptible to the insidiously destructive effects of having power over others. Power is very difficult for humans to handle in the best of circumstances. But when psychologically immature people are held up to be spiritually mature—many of the gurus about whom we read—it is a prescription for emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse.

As teachers, we must cultivate our own wisdom and apply it first and foremost to ourselves. This is called practice.

The wise teacher must resist any tendency to take advantage of the excessive attention and praise that is offered them. Teachers need to be strong and clear within themselves. They need to be wise enough to recognize their own underlying desires for power and be brave enough not to act on their own impulses and neediness. It is reasonable enough to ask our yoga teachers and spiritual leaders to act with the highest integrity.

Being a respected yoga teacher comes with serious responsibilities. People adoring and deferring their own wisdom to yours is a very seductive business for the ego-mind. Having power over people is the breeding ground of abuse. Only a mature and wise teacher can resist the adulation and power that comes with the projections our students may send our way.

We have seen many gurus fall—as they should. They were never super human and hopefully we are all learning to understand this. Only that clarity will free us from being vulnerable to the abuses of power that have been surfacing on a nearly daily basis.

Any ego is vulnerable to self-aggrandizing—especially when people are fawning over them. Fame and adoration are particularly hard to give up. If the teacher starts to believe their students, their own self-importance is in danger of inflating.

In this dynamic, all the responsibility lies squarely with the teacher.

If a teacher’s self-image becomes inflated or overblown it is always detrimental to their students. It is super easy, even for the most enlightened, to be enticed by self-importance. Diligent teachers understand this. They figure out ways to limit their self-aggrandizing thoughts. They use techniques to protect themselves from this tendency. They offer thanks and praise back to their own teachers and the lineages from which they come. They avoid taking credit for their inspiration and knowledge, by reminding themselves and their students that the truth is no one person’s domain. Truth and expanded awareness are equally available to everyone.

The teacher has the trickiest role of all and the highest of responsibilities.

This is not just for the teachers on the larger stage. It is for all of us. How we educate our beginning students shapes how they will observe and respond to other teachers as the years go by. We need to let our students know about power dynamics, especially within the spiritual and yogic communities.

Damage has been done. Now it is time to clarify and to act.

As teachers and guides, it is our responsibility to look our personal demons in the eye. If we yield to our ego’s tricks and desires—to the detriment of our student’s well-being—we abdicate our precious responsibility to nourish our students in selfless ways. We must do more to build our own discernment and intelligent questioning. We must pass the same discerning awareness onto our students. And we must never take more credit than we are due.

Personal agency is central in determining how we navigate our own spiritual process. Without questioning, we can become subject to illusions of grandeur, susceptible to someone else’s power, or both. Personal agency and critical thinking are important assurances of safety in a tricky world. As teachers, it is even more important for us to look these issues in the eye. Stare them down. We are responsible to educate our students and take heed ourselves.

Let’s recognize our own complicity. Because we are complicit.

We are intelligent beings and we need to remember to use our discrimination in all the choices we make. In learning to protect ourselves from our own delusions we become more capable of helping others.

Learn to embody all that you are with humility and grace. Learn to respect yourself for the diligence you have brought to your practice. Learn not to perceive yourself as better or worse than anyone else. Be a guiding light to others.

HOW WE THINK ABOUT IT MATTERS

Danger lies within the hierarchical thinking so many people bring to yoga. Hierarchical systems organize people above or below one another based on status and authority. They often involve situations where a single person holds power over the actions and lives of others. This is particularly true in many religious organizations.

Spiritual systems of all kinds consistently raise people to positions of power over others. This is risky business. In embracing this principle in our yoga communities we encourage the tendency for students to think the teacher is better than they are. The yoga community at large runs the danger of perpetuating a hierarchical structure that is ripe for abuse. Power does corrupt. It is the teacher’s job to clarify the misconception.

In our unspoken acceptance of hierarchy, we become complicit in a structure that breeds the abuse we have seen in the yoga community.

We must unearth and excavate, bringing to the light of day our complicity in a system that consistently raises people to positions of power over others.

Organic structures are not hierarchically formed. We are organic structures with every cell awake, alive, and self-aware. That means we are all in this together and need to take conscious responsibility for who we are, what we teach with our actions and words, and who we consciously take ourselves to be.

When a student lets you know how great they think you are, tell them they are looking at themselves. Tell them you are just like them, equally flawed and equally spectacular. Let them see who you are, for their sake—and for your own.

Respect your students. Respect yourself. Embody the possibility.

Let’s learn together to respect ourselves for who we are and not who we think we should be. Let’s respect ourselves for our ongoing and concerted commitment to practice. Let’s own the knowledge we have gained from our diligence, and yes, allow our students to respect us. Let’s happily and generously offer guidance when it is requested. Encourage them to inquire and to read, to think for themselves, to study, and to delve into what is truth and what is fiction. 

May we all continue to think very carefully about what is of value, what is useful, and what is not. As our student’s guides, we need to be beacons of strong practice and resolve. That includes all of the eight limbs. It includes every breath we take, every word, and every action.

It is an incredible gift to be able to be a yoga teacher and we mustn’t take it lightly. When we don’t do the work, the whole work, and nothing but the work, we lessen the integrity of the path we walk and the philosophy we teach.

Let’s allow our students to question us freely. Let’s resist the temptation to step onto the pedestal that is offered.

May we all work together to assure we do not—even unconsciously—enable or become the perpetrators of emotional, psychological, spiritual, or physical abuse.

Ever.

ASHTANGA VINYASA—A PERSONAL STORY

Healing, Discernment, and Resolution

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HEALING

It’s 1985 and I’m living and working at Center for Yoga in the Larchmont District of Los Angeles, CA. Ganga White was the owner and director and Ana Forrest was the very young primary teacher. Ganga was, as he clarified at the time, “The keeper of the dream” supporting the very existence of the Center and Ana was well…Ana—the wild, wonderful, also iconoclastic, creative, exciting, and driving explorer and teacher of asana. Good times. Yoga was saving my life and I was in love with the practice, my teachers, the community, and the shared explorations.

My asana studies with Ana during this time had taken my practice to a place where basically I could do most of the postures. And I could do them pretty well. The shapes were easy, felt graceful, still felt nurturant to my body, and washed depression from my mind. I was a bit fanatical, but not about a certain system or way of practice. Ana, Ganga and all of us as a group were open minded. We were explorers. We were serious.

A friend of Ganga’s, Danny Paradise came to the yoga center. A traveling Ashtanga teacher, Danny presented a class to a group of us at the Center for Yoga.

I was already a strong and able practitioner, as were many of us, and we were able to go through the entire Primary Series in that session that must have lasted about two and half hours.

I was completely blown away by the practice, the seamlessness of it, its power, and the sequence itself. I had heard that part of the power of Ashtanga was the sequence of the postures. As we went through the postures I was able to feel the movement of pranic forces progressively toning, pulsing, and balancing, especially in my pelvic region. As we progressed through the janusirsasanas and the marichiasanas, I could feel the sequence of postures balance and shift the pranic and sensational realities of my pelvis. Muscle by muscle, posture by posture, small precise inner touch—very much like a key making its way fully into a lock. It was a fascinating and deeply satisfying process to observe.

The ten breaths seated at the finish of practice seemed to take 10 minutes to do. Lying on the floor in savasana my body began to shake wildly. I wasn’t completely sure, so I opened my eyes, lifted my head and looked at it. It wasn’t moving. I lay back down and surrendered to the vibration. A huge glow developed in my second chakra area and spread. It was pleasant and intriguing.

Prior to that class I had been trying to become pregnant for nine years. That very month I conceived my first child. Putting everything together, I feel this was definitely not coincidence, but the direct result of that very first Primary Series practice.

I gave birth to my son, James and continued Ashtanga Vinyasa as my primary practice for another ten years. Although Pattabhi was the leader of the tradition, I chose one Ashtanga teacher, Richard Freeman. He was clearly brilliant and I trusted him. I felt that Richard was teaching the very cutting edge of everything I thought was about to happen with yoga in the West. Richard brought the poetry and beauty into the physical practice that was beyond anything I had experienced. My excitement about the practice, as presented  by Richard, was very strong. I was utterly committed.

I was a great fan of Second Series and not at all a fan of Third. I remember thinking after practicing Third Series a couple of times that I didn’t even want to be that physically strong. It just didn’t seem to correlate with my aims in yoga. Besides, I had already begun to question the continuing validity of the system for me.

DISCERNMENT AND DISCRIMINATION— WHEN ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

Around 1988, I was beginning to question my practice. I noticed that the practice didn’t change how I felt anymore and wasn’t really doing much for the clarity of awareness I was looking for either. I could suspend my breath for a long time. That seemed like a good thing based on what I read, but what was it doing for me? It clearly had helped at one time, but it just didn’t seem to be offering tangible results anymore.

I also noticed that it took a lot of time, energy, and focus. Quite often it made me tired. I strongly suspected that it wasn’t useful anymore. I continued to practice, for years. It is difficult to say no and to let go of something that almost works and even more so, serves one’s ego very well. What if I was no longer recognized to be “good” at yoga?  What if I didn’t know how to define myself anymore? What if I got FAT?

It was not an easy process to let go of the lure of Ashtanga practice. Long story short, I did it. It was around 2002 by now. For me, more than anything else it was the ego hook of the whole game. In my case my entire self concept was built around my yoga abilities. But, as a serious practitioner of yoga, I knew that if I wanted to go deeper, I would have to be willing to take the leap.

RESOLUTION

I suffered through the trials of giving up the ego gratification that had defined me for so many years. The worst of all possible things for me happened; I gained weight. My yoga practice became more rolling around on the floor than traditional asana. Very hard times for me, but my sense was that powerful new doors were opening based on my willingness to let go of who I thought I was in order to become more of who I actually might be.

By giving up the known, we open ourselves to something more rewarding.

It’s the old adage, one may be afraid to leave the dingy shack because of one’s inability to see the beauty that is waiting just out of vision, beyond the hill.

I am grateful for all of the developmental processes in my life. I am grateful for my years of Ashtanga, the great yoga teachers of differing traditions that have helped shape my understanding and practice of yoga, and to the woman who changed my path in yoga forever and showed me what is possible, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.

There’s a lot I would like to share about all of this and more, but this is enough for now. thank you for reading.

WHO AM I?—YOGA’S CALL TO ACTION

WHO AM I?
Who am I? is considered to be one of the core inquiries in yoga practice. Am I composed of divine radiance manifesting into form or am I primarily this compilation of qualities and traits that feel to be thick, dark, and dense? Why is radiance obscured from my vision? If I am divine, why do I still suffer?

Who am I in this? Am I universal awareness, individual consciousness, or both?

From which layer of conscious awareness do I choose to perceive? Do I have choice in this? What does my choice have to do with how I experience life?

If the divine radiance propels manifestation in the first place, why does it mire the personal into the depths of form so that the universal source is missed by the individual’s perception?

Why even in serious and committed practice do we need to aspire so constantly to witness the source of who we are? Why is it not immediately evident to all? Variations on these questions have led many to deny the existence of God and completely denounce spiritual practice altogether.

NEVER NOT BROKEN—AND ALWAYS WHOLE
What if the universal design is just not what we think? What if the design is to create a seemingly chaotic explosion of structure and events in order to play? What if the design is for the vastness of universal creativity and intelligence to play and enjoy its own ability to create and manifest? Wouldn’t a nearly limitless intelligence want to throw the pieces asunder in order to challenge and entertain herself? What if, like a creative and intelligent child with a huge bin of Legos, the divine radiance has joyfully dumped them out on the floor, and with focus, determination, and love, is assembling them together into rich and varied forms? What if that is the game?

Would it be alright to simply be one of the disjointed pieces, that when woven together can make a whole?

The manifest world, as we experience it through our intelligence and perceptual abilities, is an intricately woven field of awareness and form. It is always fragmented and broken, and it is always whole. Nearly infinite creative possibilities are inherent in the pieces, and the pieces are always in flux. Everything that is alive is moving. If it is moving it is infused with prana, and prana is the creative partner and vehicle for divine awareness. Continue reading

DEVELOPING A PERSONAL PRACTICE— Active Relationship with the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

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The Yoga Sutra, the preeminent text on yoga consists of four padas—or sections—each containing a number of individual sutras. In his Yoga Sutra, the sage Patanjali sheds light onto the workings of the human mind, the specific and particular brands of suffering that we unwittingly impose upon ourselves, and the full picture of healing and resolution for our suffering. Patanjali has offered a codification and thorough description of the practice of yoga, and the means for relieving the inevitable suffering of the human mind that is not aware of its inherent depth of intelligence and power—Pure Unmanifest Awareness.  Patanjali provides us with a precise outline for practice.

I. Samadhi Pada defines yoga and puts the practice in perspective. We are introduced to the ways that our individual minds cloud our experience of the true nature of life.

II. Sadhana Pada covers the yamas, niyamas, asana, and pranayama. It provides the necessary framework for effective practice. Pranayama is the gateway to the inner world.

III. Vibhuti Pada takes over where Sadhana Pads leaves off, honing in on the more subtle aspects of practice. Beginning with pratyahara, it addresses the ways to continue to refine our awareness, addressing, dharana, dhyana, samadhi. This pada moves into the realm of samyama—the integration of the three.

IV. Kaivalya Pada: In the final Pada, Patanjali brings together many of the more esoteric and sometimes difficult to understand teachings of the practicality of practice. Although it may read as densely philosophical, it is rich with subtle practices of inquiry. Patanjali invites us in even deeper. When awareness has been mostly cleared these inquiries can bear fruitful knowledge and the inquiry itself continues to refine and hone the individual consciousness—making it a more and more radiant and open receptacle of Divine Light.

At the beginning of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lays out the context for practice. He encapsulates his entire message in the first three sutras, immediately addressing the need for practice, what the process requires, and the goal. If the first three sutras are intriguing enough, one will practice. If they are not, there will be little motivation to continue.

Sutra 1:1
atha yoganuśhāsanam
Now begins the instruction on the practice of yoga.

Atha communicates the auspicious nature of the teachings that are about to be elucidated.  Most commonly translated as “now”, atha is also the expression of the self-luminous guiding Intelligence that resides within the heart and mind of every human being. By using the term atah to initiate his treatise on yoga, Patanjali sets the stage for the comprehensive message that will follow: we are all radiant beings, our very nature is manifesting into form with brilliance and power, and it is possible to recognize this directly. The meaning of “now” is in itself auspicious. Now is the present moment, the place of no future, no past, only this exact unmoving place of presence and radiance. Now describes the unified state of mind. In the first sutra, Patanjali has created an inclusive container for all the teachings that are to come.

He continues to say that “now”, perhaps you may be open to undertaking the inquiry that will reveal the core of being to your conscious awareness. The implication is that now one may actually be ready to practice yoga. One has tried everything else, and finally understands the futility of looking for satisfaction within the arena of the solely personal field of individual mind. Having seen and tried every machination of effort to gain contentment in a life perceived through the most superficial layers of consciousness, one is now ready to seriously embark on the study of yoga.

With the term anuśhāsanam, Patanjali is stating emphatically that yoga means practice. Patanjali lets us know right away that the Yoga Sutra is not simply a philosophical text. Patanjali is stating right at the start that yoga requires practice and the strong implication is that practice will require commitment and fortitude. Continue reading

Embodying Transitional Space, Time and Movement

By Molly Stamell

Gravitational Waves As movers and practitioners of yoga, we know that the way we transition between poses is important to the ease and comfort of our practice. Off the mat, the transitions in our daily lives can likewise provide opportunities to tune into the way we embody our human form. The embodiment of transitions is also highly relevant to the time we live in. With so many unpredictable elements in our futures, it sometimes feels to me as though we are all living in a constant state of flux. Yoga offers us a tool for understanding the links between Us and what we perceive to be Other, between past, present and future, and our physical practice within the larger contexts of our lives. How do we embody transitional space and time? How does this embodiment manifest in our movement patterns?

As a teacher, the opportunity to offer seamless and comfortable transitions to my students is an important priority. This has real implications on a persons’ experience in my class. As my interest in transitions grew, and the more notice I took of my teaching habits and my students’ responses to them, the more the physical transitions between movements started to stand out to me. I teach both dance and yoga, and in both cases I was noticing transitions as a place of difficulty for many of my students. Whenever I notice a common thread where people are struggling, across physical disciplines and age differences, that is an immediate red flag for me. What was it about my teaching that was not communicating the physicality and mental state of being ‘in transition’?

As I began a new inquiry into how I embody transitions in my own movement practice, I was struck by something a parent of one of my young students said to me. She was explaining to me why they arrived late to a rehearsal, and as the story of their busy day unfolded, she said, “my daughter was just exhausted by that point in the day, so I took her home for some transition time before we came here.” At the time, I was so focused on ushering her daughter into the rehearsal she was late for that her comment about transition time didn’t even sink in until much later. But once it did, the significance of time became a focal point in my explorations. For example, children are sometimes allowed ‘transition time’ to shift from one activity to another. What they do with this time may differ significantly from child to child, but the objective is to give them time to process the experience they just had, and prepare them for whatever is coming next. As adults, we are allowed less and less of this kind of time. Not only that, we are expected not to need transition time at all. Whether those expectations are established by the people around us or by ourselves, they impose an urgency on how we function in our daily lives that does not allow for transitional time or space in which to process our lived experiences.

The developmental processes that shape our adult forms are time-based, just as the physical act of transitioning from one thing to another, whether it be an activity or two different asana poses, also occurs over a span of time. Certainly, we could look at the human life span as one long process of transition, from the rapid growth that occurs in utero, to the early movement patterns in the first year of life that lead us to standing upright, the infinite possibilities for movement thereafter and the eventual slowing of regeneration and return to the universal fabric from which we all originated. With this in mind, the embodiment of transitional space and time from a developmental perspective offers us a way in. In the same way that we can learn to embody specific aspects of our development, so too can we learn to embody the ongoing transitions that shape who and what we are.

Where do transitions live in the body? In other words, is there a specific place from which to explore the action of transitioning between poses? The consciousness of a transition, of being “in between” two or more things, suggests that space itself may be a good place to enter into transitional embodiment. The concept of space in the body can be misleading. On the one hand, as yoga practitioners we know that at the atomic level the human body contains vast amounts of space, but on the other, the body’s structures are not neatly positioned in close proximity with one another. Our body’s tissues and different anatomical structures touch and slide on each other. There aren’t pockets of emptiness that differentiate one thing from another. But as Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen has said, “The information is in the space.”

Using the developmental patterns as a template, the cells themselves provide a simple entry point for understanding transitional space in the body. Every cell has a bi-layer membrane surrounding it, comprised of two layers of lipid cells, in which proteins are embedded. The presence of two membranous layers is important. The inner wrapping of the cell interfaces with the internal world contained therein, while the exterior wrapping interfaces with the external environment surrounding the cell. This is very similar to the way our skin contains our entire body, with the inner surface receiving information from the inside, and the outer surface relaying sensory information from the outside. While these two layers of cellular membranes and their functions are fascinating on their own, it is the space between these layers that has implications for embodying transitions.

phospholipid-bilayer

Each cell in the body is equipped with its own intelligence. It knows exactly what it is supposed to do, without us having to tell it so. Each cell takes in nourishment, oxygen, and sensory information, and excretes waste and feedback to the system of which it is a part. The substance and information passing through each cell is contained very briefly in the space between the two cellular membranes – it has to be, if it passes from the interior of the cell to the exterior, and vice versa. This process roots the act of transitioning in both space and time. The passage of information and substance through the layers of the cellular membranes occurs over a measurable span of time, and occurs in the space that differentiates these layers. Once we understand this on the micro levels of the cells, we can apply it to any structure in the body during transitional movement.

Placing transitions within our anatomical structures gives us a context for exploring them as a physical action. But directing our awareness to a particular structure or even a quality or sensation within the body is not enough. We must have a means of achieving transitional embodiment. In this case, I believe the breath provides the answer. The breath is truly the easiest way in, the simplest route to uncovering deeper layers of awareness. Yoga is a clear example of how the breath can be integrated with movement to balance the flow of prana, through the body. But it is not only the inhale and the exhale that are important. The consciousness of a transitional state offers us a clue here. In yoga, we practice the breath in four stages, not two. The pauses at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale are of equal importance as the inhaling and exhaling breaths themselves. Pranayama practice includes many exercises in retaining the breath in or out to encourage longer pauses between inhalation and exhalation. Moving the body in transition during the pauses between breaths provided the missing link. Here is a concrete physical action and tool for accessing the consciousness of existing, however briefly, “in between” things. Although breathing is an involuntary action most of the time, we have the means to control it whenever we choose. By emphasizing the pauses between inhale and exhale during transitional movement, the body exists in harmony with the action it is performing.

Transitional movement involves a balance between control and yield to momentum, gravity, and ground reaction force. These three forces are responsible for the body’s movement, the primary difference between them being that the body is always at the mercy of gravity and ground reaction force, while momentum is initiated by us. It is the only one of the three forces that govern the body in motion of which we are in complete control. We can allow or arrest the force of momentum at any time. During an embodied act of transition, there is an act of surrender to these three forces, but there is also an act of will that enables the body-mind to either allow these forces to take over, or to sustain and control a transition if that is what is necessary or desired. At the level of the cells, the sensation of transition feels to me like a wash through the membrane layers, similar to an ocean wave. In every moment, there is a choice about how to navigate the forces moving through the body. To me, this feels like a diffusion of awareness throughout the entirety of the body’s form, rather than a pointed attention to one specific place.

Where does the support for the movement come from? What are the systems in play? What is the intention behind the movement, and how does the transition relate to what came before and what will come after? Exploring transitions in movement is one possibility for embodying the constant shifts of our lives. Transitions are happening all around us, from seasonal change, to the larger issue of climate change, to people transitioning between genders and the changing landscape of an increasingly developed world population. We live in a time of unpredictability, and learning how to balance the body with the changes occurring outside its boundaries is part of cultivating a deeper awareness of what it means to be embodied in the face of transition. Developing the tools and techniques to practice embodiment is all well and good, but how we apply this knowledge in our daily lives is where the information has real value.

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Considering the act of transitioning from an embodied perspective, one of the questions we may ask ourselves is whether people retain the same behavioral habits during the transitions they encounter out in the world as in their movement practices? Do those of us who rush through the transitions between yoga poses also bypass the transitions in our lives as places to spend time in? Do those of us who collapse physically during movement transitions lose our sense of support when we find ourselves in the middle of a life transition? Possibly. Transitioning can be uncomfortable, and perhaps this is part of what it means to sit in the feeling of discomfort. If you stay in it for long enough, odds are it won’t be uncomfortable forever. It seems possible to me that if we have the capacity to embody transitional time and space, that we likely approach the uncertainty of these circumstances in habitual ways. If something works for us once, we are more likely to repeat it, and it becomes a pattern. Perhaps the key to cultivating an embodied movement practice in the midst of transition requires no more than an awareness of how the body-mind is responding to changing circumstances.

As a teacher, I am conscious of the process of arrival. There is a process of coming into the building, into the room, into the space. We arrive in the studio, or at the top of the mat, and there is a state of readiness that settles over us, if we allow it time to manifest, and don’t rush into action too quickly. For this to happen, we must also arrive in our own bodies and minds, before we enter a practice that engages the trinity of our beings: mind-body-spirit. As I write this I am engulfed in a transitional time in my life. I am completing, wrapping up and moving on from one thing, while the next chapter is unfolding before me. I stand with one foot on each side of the divide. And perhaps this is the true essence of this inquiry. Do we ever truly arrive? Or do we simply transition, seamlessly between two sides of something, existing always in the spaces and time in between the constructs that compartmentalize our experiences?

 

 

Happy Knees in Yoga

bodhisattvas knees copyOur most basic pranic flows are laid down in the early days of our gestation. In the very first few weeks of life, our limb buds grew outward from our tiny bodies. The direction of their flow was clear and simple. There were no complications or great articulations at this point—just simple presence and potential—and this initial flow of life force is still present and underlies the healthy movement of all of our limbs. The underlying pranic flows in the body are always present within, and are supportive of healthy movement. Even when we have injured ourselves, torn and shredded structures, the healthy flow remains—as if dormant—underneath the injured tissues. In Embodyoga®, as in Body-Mind-Centering® we explore these initial movements of life force to understand, embody, and maintain health in all the body tissues. (We study embryological growth, and its importance in embodiment and yoga practice, in our training programs and workshops.)

Maintaining the continuity of the embryological spirals is organizing and supportive of the knee joints. The underlying spiral of the lower limb supports the knee and provides simplicity of flow through the limb that is balancing and healing to knee issues. All of the articulations that we go through in the knee, foreleg, ankle, and foot in our yoga postures are much later developments. By returning to the simplicity of the embryological spiral we allow the prana to flow as it naturally wants to, without laying on all sorts of ideas about what we think is right. Once prana is flowing, it will be much easier to address specific imbalances.

Front view of knee joint anatomy

Knee Anatomy
Understanding healthy rotations at the musculoskeletal level in the hip, foreleg, ankle, and foot are also critical for maintaining knee health. Improper rotations put excessive stress on the knee joint. The knee joints are unstable, true, but they are beautifully articulable when used wholesomely. When any of the joints above or below the knee are restricted (or hyper mobile) the knee will suffer. The knee needs an environment of good support without restriction. Because it is so mobile, if joints on either side are compromised the knee is very likely to take a major amount of stress.

In yoga practice we do many postures that require a lot of “knee rotation”. This requires integration and wholesome movement through the entire lower limb. What that means, is we need to figure out how to have rotational forces going through the knee without torqueing it and disturbing its delicate balance. It is never safe to allow forces to get caught in the knee joints. Forces must flow seamlessly through the knees at all times. Most people practice rotational movements without the benefit of understanding what needs to take place here and how to honor one’s own healthy range of motion.

Knee Rotations—Rotation is perhaps the trickiest of the knee’s articulations. Anatomists still often refer to the knee as a “hinge joint”. It is far from being a hinge. Rotations in the knee along with those of the foot and the foreleg provide the structural possibilities for so many different movements, making it possible to even walk comfortably on uneven surfaces. Our rotational abilities give a sense of freedom and ease in the knees. The menisci—one on each side of the tibial plateau— are responsible for assuring that these rotations move through the joints and feel good and free. They shouldn’t be painful, as is so often the case, especially in yoga practice. Continue reading