Jul 5 2010

The Yoga of Social Action

Matthew Foley

I came to yoga with a strong interest in social activism. As a college student, I was active in campus campaigns, attended anti-war rallies, helped start three organizations, and spent most of my weekend volunteering. In fact, the person who invited me to my first yoga class was a man I met not at a meditation retreat, but at a campus dialogue about race relations.

As I started going to yoga classes more often and learning more about the philosophy behind yoga, I immediately starting asking questions about how yoga related to the world I was dealing with as an activist: politics, poverty, race, gender, environmental destruction, violence, and injustice. I heard my teachers speak about peace and compassion, tolerance and openness, but I wondered about the ability of yoga to be completely relevant in the messy and often tragic events of our world.

Like many people, it took me a while to shake off my conception of yoga as something otherworldly. Our image of a yogi is still often shaped by images of lonely men in caves, meditating for hours on end, their focus set on God, with no contact with communities or people. This otherworldliness still infuses the Western perceptions of many of the spiritual traditions of India & Asia, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.

I sought to learn about individuals who have bridged this apparent gap between social action and spirituality. I read more about familiar names like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, but also learned about heroic individuals like Thich Nhat Hanh, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Cesar Chavez. All of them saw a spiritual practice as the foundation for a life dedicated to serving others.

As I learned about these figures, I also dug into my own experience of walking these two paths. My path of social awareness deeply influenced my yoga practice. Instead of staying stuck in that otherworldliness of yoga, my practice has become a more down-to-earth path over the years. I don’t look for enlightenment or samadhi as some blissed-out haze of detachment from the things of this earth. Instead, I see my practice as being mindful and grateful for the day-to-day – even seemingly mundane – events and people of my everyday life: the brilliance of a blue sky, the sound of my cat purring while I rub his belly, the sound of beautiful music, the joy of being with the people I love.

My yoga practice has also deeply influenced my path as an activist. One thing I’ve learned is how the world of politics and social change can be filled with a strong sense of duality – a mentality of us vs. them, of absolute right vs. absolute wrong. Yoga has constantly reminded me to remember the humanity of the people I may disagree with and to treat them with respect and compassion even as we may debate or argue over what is the right thing to do. Yoga has sustained me personally, helping me keep burn-out at bay, and keeping me from getting too cynical about the world’s problems. I realized that to truly love humanity and this planet was not just to care and worry about its problems, but also to appreciate and take joy in its beauty. It is just as important to stop and smell fresh flowers as it is to attend the next big peace rally.

These interconnections have led me to see that the path of spirituality and the path of social action are not separate. They can merge together as a powerful tool for both personal and global transformation. This is because, according to yogic philosophy, the individual and the universe are not separate.

The physical practice of yoga (asana) allows us to experience ourselves as a whole organism – mind, body, and spirit. The larger philosophy and path of yoga allows us experience ourselves – ordinarily believed to be separate from what lies beyond our skin – as inherently inseparable from the entire organism of existence. This is the true meaning of yoga: union.

This united organism of existence includes our natural environment, our social environment, our political environment, and the environment of our own bodies and psyches. All of them need our attention and our compassion if we are to experience peace, both personally and globally.

I think the yoga community would benefit from a more vibrant and engaged conversation about the connections between practices of yoga and meditation and the interconnected world outside of our yoga studios and meditation halls. I’m not suggesting that yoga classes become soapboxes or group meditations become political action meetings. I simply believe that yoga and other meditative practices can be powerful forces for good on this planet if we seek ways to more deeply practice peace and compassion – both on and off the yoga mat.

~ Matthew Foley

May 25 2010

Mind/Body Harmony

Matthew Foley

I had a really phenomenal experience this past Sunday morning teaching a yoga class to a dance group at the College of Charleston. About a dozen people showed up for the class, which took place in a beautiful dance room located inside the brand new Cato Arts Center on the CofC campus. In preparing for the class, I did a lot of thinking about what a yoga practice might offer people who are passionate about dance and creative movement.

One of the central aspects of yoga is cultivating a harmonious relationship between mind and body. Such harmony is of course essential to creating beautiful and graceful movement in dance. In many Eastern spiritual paths, the mind and the body are seen as equal halves of an integral whole. This is the philosophy of yin and yang: things that appear to be opposites – light and dark, tall and short, earth and sky, spirit and flesh – are in fact inseparably connected with one another.

In Western culture, however, there is a very rigid division between mind and body. In the last year, I’ve stumbled upon a number of brilliant Western thinkers who have addressed this division and the disharmony is creates in individuals.

The first is Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on human creativity, who gave a brilliant address at the 2006 TED Conference on creativity in children and whether or not educational systems around the world do an adequate job of fostering that creativity. (The whole talk is worth watching, but the part I’ll be focusing on begins around the 9:00 minute mark).

During his talk, he spoke about the fact that almost all schools around the world tend to place a great emphasis on language and mathematics over the arts, particularly drama and dance. He says: “As children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist-up. Then we focus on their heads – and slightly to one side.”

He goes on to describe what type of person this emphasis on head-only education creates, particularly in the form of the stereotypical academic professor: “They live in their heads. They live up there – and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads. It’s a way of getting their heads to meetings.”

Another brilliant thinker I’ve come across in the past year is Alan Watts, who came to popular attention during the 1960’s as an interpreter of Eastern spiritual traditions (especially Zen Buddhism) for Western audiences. In one of his talks featured on YouTube, delightfully illustrated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, he addresses this split between mind and body that exists in the West and how it shapes our sense of self.

“I’ve always been tremendously interested in what people mean by the word “I” – because it comes out in curious lapses of speech. We don’t say: “I am a body.” We say: “I have a body.” Somehow we don’t seem to identify ourselves with all of ourselves. We say “my feet,” “my hands,” “my teeth,” as if they were something outside me. As far as I can make out, most people feel that they are something or other about halfway between the ears and a little ways behind the eyes, inside the head. That’s what you call the “ego.” That’s not what you are at all, because it gives you the idea that you are a chauffeur inside your own body – as if you your body were an automobile and you are the chauffeur principle inside it.”

The point that both Robinson and Watts are making is that when we identify primarily with our mind and our thoughts, we disconnect ourselves from our bodily existence. The results are usually disastrous, particularly in our modern culture. We stuff food into our mouths that are deeply gratifying to the mind (products high in fat and processed sugar) but which are nutritionally disastrous to the body. On the opposite extreme, we flock to gyms in order to sculpt our bodies into an idealized mental image of what we should like like – usually based on digitalized media images of the super skinny or ultra buff.

What is lacking is a deep listening to the wisdom of the body. Oftentimes, we only start to listen when we are forced to, usually as a result of an illness or life-threatening condition. Many people then realize that they must flip their entire life-style upside down and start living from a more holistic understanding of themselves.

Many of these people, of course, find their way to yoga classes and meditation retreats. A great deal of the popularity of such practices as yoga, tai chi, and seated meditation are found in the fact that they help cultivate a holistic way of looking at the world and our place in it. These practices are based on the realization that the mind and body form an inseparable wholeness – just as each individual human being, animal, or plant is an integral part of the interdependent environment in which they live. The process of yoga, in my mind, is a process of extending the feeling of identity outwards, away from the narrow confines of our egos, and connecting with our bodies, our communities, the planet, and the universe.

In the yoga class I taught to the dance group, I continually encouraged the participants to focus on their breath. The breath is an incredible tool for helping us cultivate mind/body harmony. Mindful breathing helps us turn down the volume on our mental noise so that the wisdom of the body may begin to be heard. A yogi or dancer can then begin to truly feel his or her body. They can begin to discover where they are tight or sore, where they hold anxiety or stress, in what movements they feel confident or terrified. This deep listening to the body can give us insight into the ways we live and in what ways we may need to change.

When the body and mind begin to move and function as one, we become more effective in what we do, we become more graceful and effortless in our actions, we become less worried and anxious in our inner lives. This is obviously helpful not just on the yoga mat or on the dance stage, but in all aspects of our lives.

So the question is… What might your body be trying to tell you? And if you start to really listen, what changes would begin to happen in your life?

~ Matthew Foley

Feb 10 2010

Yoga and Music: To Crank Up or Mellow Out

Harry Dinwiddie

Recently, I received a complaint from a student about the music choice I had chosen for savasana. I had never received a complaint before about my playlists, but this one had said it was not yogic. The song, granted, could be seen as offensive (which I warned the class prior to playing it) but the message was positive and needed, in my opinion, to be shared with the class. The songs I play in my classes are not the soft music with Tibetan bowls or anything played by Krishna Das. My music is typically music I like and associate with. Currently this is a lot of indie rock and a lot of these songs are loud and fast. Occasionally I will throw in some hip hop or a playlist dedicated to 90′s alternative music. But the idea that a song is not yogic to me is ludicrous. Its not the music, the beat or the meaning that is important. Its the focus one has toward the music.

This brought up an interesting topic that is usually overlooked in our practice. That is music’s place in yoga classes. Traditionalists could say that there shouldn’t be any music. Contemporaries could say use it as it adds to the flow of the class. When I started out teaching, I believed in the former and that music deserved no place. Yoga needed a place to be sacred and nature is the most sacred sound. Today though, I see it completely different. Music should be used as it enhances our practice and actually challenges us further.

Yoga has the ability to allow our minds to focus. This actually is a much harder task than even the hardest of poses or sequences. Think of your mind as a muscle and focusing on one object for a certain time requires constant practice. This exercise is often in combat with our monkey mind and any thoughts that pop up to interrupt our practice. An hour yoga class becomes rather difficult to focus the entire time but constant effort and practice allow this focus to sharpen itself.

There are two ways to focus during a class. The first is to focus on one thing. This could be an intention, your breath or your movement in your poses. The idea is to never leave your mat and allow all other distractions to not even be a concern. The second way to focus is to accept and welcome the entire environment around you and allow yourself to move freely through it. It may seem like a farce to say to focus on your environment, but allowing yourself to use all five senses to equally take in everything and be amazed by your surroundings is a way to shift your attention to the present. All distractions than are natural and cease to become distractions. Focus itself than is either attention on one thing or all things.

Music itself than becomes a way to hone your focus. Whichever focus is chosen, music can play a part. If the chosen focus is to concentrate on one point, music is a challenge to not focus on it. Think of meditating. Meditating is great when it is completely silent but a struggle when there are tons of outside noises that can distract. Is life silent? Does the world stop making noises when you want to sit? The answers are no. Meditation and focus require a challenge of sorts to keep us strong in what we want to focus on. Music than becomes a challenge to maintain we keep our focus, so that it may make us stronger in our practice. On the other hand if the focus is drawn to the equality of five senses and the present, music becomes part of our environment. When this occurs, the beat gets into our head and the music takes us. We become a part of the song and it lifts us to whatever feeling it is giving us, whether it is slow or fast.

Usually, I offer a choice of songs for savasana. I ask the class “Happy or beautiful?” These refer to two songs I absolutely love and fit perfectly for final relaxation. They are Sigur Ros’ Festival and Ara Batur. These songs emit the wonderful feelings for finishing a great class. It was these two songs that made me want to use music the way I do and without apology. Songs can lift us, move us and put us in places we are uncomfortable with. It seems like yoga and music are similar in that fashion. Why wouldn’t they be shared together?


Harry Dinwiddie will be exploring mixing music, yoga and art as he will be teaching a new class at Eye Level Art at 103 Spring St. Tuesday nights at 6:30 starting Feb 16.

Dec 7 2009

Reflection, Discovery, and Empowering the Consciousness


On Saturday, November 21, I attended a yoga workshop at Atmah Ja’s, The Art of Core Consciousness, yoga/massage studio and art gallery.   The workshop was titled “The Alchemy of Silk,” and was designed to inspire the potential to experience the abundant and ever infinite dream texture in which we exist.

I first discovered The Art of Core Consciousness in early October during one of my favorite Charleston events, the French Quarter Art Walk.  When I stepped into the studio for the first time, I immediately felt a striking presence spinning about the room.  The studio is a fantastic space, and features the beautiful artwork of Iamikan.  In many of his pieces, Iamikan uses oil and acrylics in such a way that the material seems to remain in its liquid form, surging with energy behind its glass coat.  His pieces are quite unique to the Charleston area–or to anything I’ve ever seen, for that matter–and possess an immense amount of livelihood.

In speaking with Atmah Ja, the creator of The Art of Core Consciousness, I discovered that in addition to art and massage, the studio offers yoga.  Atmah Ja created the space to share her passion for these three mediums and to offer courses from a rich and varied yoga practice, stemming from her world travel and intermingling with many awakened beings.  Now as a seasoned art enthusiast, and a somewhat new (but so eager to grow) yogi, I was thrilled by this opportunity to experience the two at once, where I imagined one could thrive and expand through the other, enhancing the experience of each. 

Early into Saturday morning’s “Alchemy” experience, Atmah Ja made sure that all of the participants got to know each other and went on to say, “What happens in the alchemy of a yoga workshop is the opportunity to experience oneself in a collective-connective consciousness. We are all linked through a unified force as we come together with an intention and just as it takes a mere thread to hold together silk, there is a thread that connects all beings.   She shared, “It is not the yoga itself that is the catalyst… but rather what the yoga opens inside of us to explore and expand.  It is in that place of silence in the meditative mind, that the infinite lies.”

Now every yogi has their niche in yoga, and over the past 6 months I have come to find mine in power vinyasa flow.  But what I discovered on Saturday is the importance of venturing out of your “box” and changing your pace; your routine.  In Atmah Ja’s class, we moved at a slower pace, but held poses for much longer than I’m used to.  We did so in order to observe the energy as it travels through the body.  I was able to find a strength in familiar poses that I didn’t know existed.  And of course, I was introduced to new movements that I am happy to add to my practice.

But Atmah Ja’s experience is not souly about the movement, but emphasizes reflection, discovery, and empowering the consciousness.

Atmah Ja has a beautiful way with words and meditation, and I would like to share with you some of the reflection she shared with us:

“Our thoughts are like radio waves.”  Though people cannot hear our thoughts, our thoughts, attitudes and intentions are vibrations that can be felt by others and are always being sent and received through our “antenna”.  It is through each thought transmission that we create our reality.

“We were birthed by our own desire to live, love and play and by that desire, or thought, we created ourselves into existence and continue to rebirth ourselves based on that which is unfulfilled.”

“This is your canvas, your life, use the brush of imagination to paint it as you will.  Express yourself with passion and purpose, thereby nourishing in the substantive well of infinite creative bliss, that is your birth right..

In addition to the internal reflection and self-discovery I found during Atmah Ja’s workshop, I found connection between yoga and art–the thread I had hoped to discover in this particular space on that beautiful Southern fall morning.  Just as in art, yoga is imaginative.  It pulls from a deep place within you. Both practices challenge you to pull this beauty and energy you find in your heart and mind and bring it into the physical world through movement or creation, which can then be shared with others. 

If you missed out on The Alchemy of Silk, it’s not too late–Atmah Ja will lead a follow-up workshop on Saturday, December 12 at 9:30 am.  Registration is required, so check out www.atmahjas.com for more information.

Oct 9 2009

A Blending of Disciplines: Non-Traditional Yoga

Jordan Anderson

The practice of yoga is over 5,000 years old. It was traditionally handed down from teacher directly to student, one on one. In order to practice yoga, a student first had to prove their worth in the eyes of the teacher, by showing up every day before the crack of dawn, performing menial tasks or backbreaking work. Once the teacher decided the student was serious, he would be accepted as a student and taught yoga philosophy, lifestyle, breathing, postures, and meditation techniques. Today anyone can try yoga, no prerequisites required. As a result, yoga draws students from a variety or backgrounds for a variety of reasons, and the teaching has evolved to meet each new student right where they are.

Because yoga has such a rich tradition, there are many physical styles suitable for different students. Iyengar yoga, for example, focuses on very refined alignment and encourages the use of props to make a pose accessible for any body. Ashtanga yoga includes the same postures, but is performed in a flowing manner with a focus on the breath. Interestingly, the founder of Iyengar yoga and the founder of Ashtanga yoga both had the same teacher! They each took what they learned and then adapted it for their own specific needs and the needs of their students.

Today, many yoga teachers are doing the same. In the past decade, some interesting hybrid styles of yoga have emerged. These styles are not intended to replace a more traditional yoga practice, but to open it up in some way. Each emphasizes the lighthearted side of yoga, or Leela (playfulness). Here is a short list of some of my favorites:

Aerial Yoga: Aerial Yoga (a style that I teach) is a blending of traditional yoga postures and low-to-the-ground aerial work. This style is practiced using the support of a soft fabric “trapeze” (similar to the silks used in Cirque du Soleil) that hangs at waist height. Body weight is distributed between the fabric and the floor, and traditional yoga poses are practiced using the aid of gravity’s pull to elongate the spine and create space in the joints of the body. This practice can be deeply restorative as you relax into gravity’s pull, or highly energetic as you learn to use new muscle groups. Unlike an aerial class, it is not about learning tricks but rather about using the fabric and gravity to gain new insight into your body and breath. It is appropriate for all levels of yoga student, including those new to the practice. The philosophy behind it is about learning to let go and trust, reversing the flow of energy in your body by flipping your relationship to gravity, and having fun with what is often a very serious practice. This is a class where laughter and interaction are encouraged.

Acroyoga: Acroyoga is a blending of yoga, acrobatics, and thai massage. It is practiced with one or more partners, and the philosophy behind it is building a sense of community and the practice of “metta” (loving-kindness). Much (but not all) of this practice is meant for intermediate or advanced level yoga students, and many traditional yoga postures are performed with one partner lying face-up on the ground with their legs in the air, and the second partner balancing in a yoga pose on that person’s feet. Much of the practice involves learning to trust your partner and yourself, and practicing ahimsa (non-harming) toward another person as you practice. Mindfulness is key, and learning to give and receive support. This practice can deepen a students awareness about how they approach relationships, with friends, family, and loved ones.

Doga: Doga is yoga that you do with your dog! It can be practiced in a studio setting or outdoors. Typically a group of students come together with their dogs and learn techniques such as dog massage and assisted stretches. It is a style of yoga where you will laugh a lot and definitely have fun. If you have a big dog, you might practice a warrior pose while lifting the front feet off the floor. The same pose would be practiced with a small dog by lifting the dog up over your head. In every class I’ve seen, most dogs were instantly calmed by the chanting of “Om”, and all were incredibly well-behaved. If yoga is all about being present, then practicing with a dog can be a natural extension, since dogs naturally live in the present!

Slackasana: Slackasana (slackline yoga) is a style of yoga developed by rock-climbers. A slackline (a flat material similar to a tightrope) is suspended anywhere from a couple of feet to a couple dozen feet off the ground, and yoga postures are practiced balancing on the line. This style of yoga is very difficult to learn, as simply standing on the slackline takes considerable practice. But for the dedicated it can be a great way to build strength, balance, and most of all, focus. The philosophy is that you must stay present at every moment, because if your focus wanders even for a second you will fall out of the pose. It can be seen as an extreme form of concentration, which in the 8 limbs of yoga, leads to a state of meditation and eventually enlightenment.

At first glance some of these styles may seem far removed from traditional yoga practice. But the foundation of any yoga practice is the yamas and niyamas (moral precepts like non-harming, truthfulness, etc, and personal observances like self-study, devotion, etc), and each of these hybrid practices takes these concepts at the core. Yoga is about union, and while uniting yoga with disciplines like acrobatics or aerials may not resonate with everyone, there can be real value in taking the practice of yoga out of the traditional studio, off of the traditional mat, and giving yourself freedom to explore. Any serious yoga student can benefit by trying something different, and these blends are attracting new students as well, many who become interested in yoga for the first time and then go on to explore a more traditional practice.


Jordan Anderson

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