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.


Feb 1 2010

Giving Everything, Because it Takes Everything

Amy Jo Gengler

The alarm rings and I barely stir.  My muscles are sore, still tired and though the sun is starting to come out all I want to do is bury my head in the covers.  I am instantly faced with a choice and this decision will determine the course of everything. 
I have come to realize that choosing ‘comfort’ rarely leads to it, but only makes me more uncomfortable.  As I unroll my mat I start to wonder what the next hour and ½ will bring.  Will I be able to do it?  Will they ask me to do something difficult, or worse yet something that I don’t want to do?  And then I smile, knowing that choosing authentic development is a harsh mistress, indeed.  The things I fear will always be hurled right in my path and I know the answer is ‘yes’ to all of the above.  I will again be faced with a choice and this decision will determine the course of everything.  
We have been in warrior II for at least a minute.  My legs are starting to shake, I want to give up, and then he says ‘are you breathing?’….oh, right I forgot about that part.  The minute I inhale that sweet dose of oxygen, I feel everything release and I move into a place of ease.  He walks up behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders, moving them down a few inches.  My neck and shoulder blades begin to release and I wonder how I didn’t even realize how hard they were working?  Why is it that trying so hard is, well…so hard?  It was only four years ago in this very class that I began to discover that resistance is so much more difficult than surrender.  That trying to be perfect at every asana was so much more difficult than allowing myself to melt into it with ease.  Many of us consistently move through our day with absolute confidence that we are actually in charge.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we consciously know what ‘perfection’ is and that we can attain it whenever we want. 
This practice is based on the premise of cultivating awareness of where we are in relation to time, space, and the continuum of development.  I am always grateful to reach that perfect balance in class when I am pushed far enough to be uncomfortable, while simultaneously given enough time to be present inside of my head, alone with my thoughts even for just a few seconds.  In the middle of this struggle I am challenged to be still in the face of the internal chaos.  As I am confronted with the limits of my abilities, I am also given the opportunity to witness how interested I truly am in development.  When I focus on where I am and where I want to be, I know I have to ‘mind the gap’ between what I know and how I am living.  The practice isn’t over when I roll up my mat and walk out of the studio.  It is only just beginning.  I know that I will be given hundreds of opportunities to close the gap between what I know and how I am walking my talk, and the choice that I make in that moment will determine everything.

 
Amy Jo Gengler, LAc
Re-Soul Acupuncture & Chinese Herbal Medicine

843.566.2855

www.re-soul.com


Jan 19 2010

Benefit Yoga Class for Haiti Earthquake Relief

Rae

All of us have been shocked and saddened by the news of a devastating earthquake that struck the nation of Haiti on Tuesday, January 12th. Reports estimate that 3 million people have been affected, with as many as 100,000 feared dead. Many people have been wondering how they can help respond to this tragedy and ease the suffering of Haiti.

On Wednesday, January 20th from 6 to 8 PM, a benefit yoga class will be offered at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. A $10 donation at the door is suggested. All proceeds from the class will go to Partners in Health, an agency that has been working on the ground in Haiti for over 20 years. Your donations will go towards vital medical care desperately needed by those impacted by the earthquake.

Yoga, more than just a form of exercise, is a tool for creating harmony, compassion, and peace – both within ourselves and in the world we share. No prior yoga experience is necessary. There will also be a time for quiet meditation and prayer for those affected by this tragedy.

The class will be taught by Matthew Foley, a Yoga Alliance Certified Instructor. Music will be provided by DJ Anwar Staggers.

For more information, please contact Matthew Foley at (803)361-3842 or foleym@cofc.edu.

$10 Donation Suggested

Type: CausesFundraiser
Network:  Global
Date: Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Time: 6:00pm – 8:00pm
Location: Avery Research Center Ball Room
Street: 125 Bull Street
City/Town: Charleston, SC

Jan 11 2010

Yoga As It Applies To Me

Sarah Finn

For me, yoga is a practice.  It is not a performance, not an on-again-off-again thing, nor is it perfect. In this practice I have found a lifestyle–a way of moving and flowing and being that keeps me and my ego in checkity-check mode! 

We all have them–egos that is.  But what do we do with them?  To me, humility is huge.  Humility is being brought to my knees after falling down a time or twenty in handstand and getting back up.  It is coming right back to my mat with a smile and tear after my mother’s death, expressing that loss in the form of movement and receiving energy from the practice.  It’s moving deeper into my faith after many sleepless nights, on hands and knees in deep prayer and meditation after a longtime relationship fell apart, then picking up the pieces (or lessons) from it all, understanding and taking what I need from that moment, inhaling a deep breath, then moving on.  Most can relate…right? 

I believe yoga should be accessible to all types of hearts, souls, bodies, and minds.  Many of us start our yoga journey on the mat…we then take the choice of conscious movement and intention and apply it to other areas of life–eating, socializing, sharing, speaking, loving, and connecting.  On the mat, we deepen our understanding of compassion for ourselves and then dedicate that same expression of compassion to the rest of the world as a whole.  Personally, if I come to class and take care of myself, then once I roll my mat up and go back out onto the street and see someone who needs a hand, a dollar, a ride, or a meal, I feel more open to give.  And in turn, when I am down, I feel deserving of receiving that same love. 

Power Yoga also pushes me to my edge, takes me right out of my comfort zone and challenges me. This too is a HUGE help in my life off the mat.  When I am in a situation that is uncomfortable or challenging, I no longer run away or get pissed off, but rather breath and see the lesson in it all.

The practice of yoga is so humbling and beautiful and whole.  Yoga can touch all areas of our lives, leading to a greater understanding of liberation from attachment, faith, connectedness, love, and so much more.  I believe a strong dedication to the physical practice–every day on the mat, moving energy and cleaning out the body–is a huge tool in creating a sense of balance and well being.  I really could go on and on, however, I have a class to get too so with that being said… I hope to see you on the mat soon or on the street for a chat and hug! 

 

Namaste People!

Sarah Finn

Charleston Power Yoga

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