Feb 1 2011

Staying Balanced

Natasha Alexandra Akery

One of the biggest difficulties people face when going to a yoga class is balance. We often spend a lot of the time trying not to topple over, which takes away from our ability to be present and really enjoy the full benefit of the class. A helpful tip for staying sure on your feet is using the force of opposite directions. Let’s look at a couple different poses to see how this works.

Warrior I

Keep your right foot planted and step the left foot back, turning it to a forty-five degree angle while bending into the front knee. Square the hips and lift the arms up above the head, setting your gaze forward. Your central opposites are the left foot behind you and the right foot in front of you. Bend deeply into the right knee while grounding through the outer edge of the left foot into the floor. The force of going forward and also backward is what sets the balance and keeps the stance strong.

Tree Pose

Keep your left foot planted and lift the right, setting the sole of the foot on either the side of the left calf or inner thigh above the knee. Press the palms together at heart center. Your central opposites are the left foot on the floor and the crown of your head. Ground down through your left foot. You can better feel the sensation if you temporarily lift your toes off the floor. Reach the crown of the head up toward the ceiling, lengthening the spine and lifting your torso from sitting heavy on your hips. The force of pressing down and lifting up sets your balance and reduces instability.

All poses have upward and downward directions and most have a forward and backward directions or right to left. Whether you are at a yoga class or practicing at home, explore the opposites of various poses. Instead of fighting them, use their momentum to further your practice and increase the integrity of the poses.


Dec 19 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).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAVM_Xk_o9E&feature=related

“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 ourselves and our place in the world. 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


Dec 15 2010

Family Yoga!

Willis Tant

There is a class at Jivamukti Yoga on Sundays at noon that is called Family Yoga.  It is intended to be for all people of all ages and can be shared by any and all family members.  The teachings are simple and useful, there is a sense of fun, and songs that help students easily learn the movements.

It is my favorite class that I have the honor of teaching.  I am often so touched by family togetherness that I am moved to tears.  There have been students who bring in their sisters who visit from out of town, there have been father-son moments, and grandparents and small children who delight us all.  But most regular has been one family, who, come almost every Sunday, because they make it THEIR Family time.  Their time to BE and grow together!  Their time to stretch, and breathe, and SEE each other.  Often they go on a picnic or to the beach or even to the grocery store together afterwards.  But for that one hour, every Sunday, they practice together.   I revel in their beauty every week. 

Last Sunday they were telling me how they invite other families to join them, how they spread the word because they have experienced such value from the practice together.  They inspire me and I am so grateful to their dedication and enthusiasm.  They humble me and are a living example of light.  So may this, my first blog, be a sincere offering to this family who has shown me so much love.  Thank you. 

And thank you for coming to practice yoga together in my presence so many times over.  We invite more Charleston yoga families to join us! And look forward to growing, being, and seeing you more often.


Aug 9 2010

Banana?

Mark Knowles

This may upset you.  Or you may have never heard of any of this before.  You may not believe any of this.  You may not like any of this.

Good

There is a story in India about how they catch monkeys.  It seems they would take a coconut, cut a small hole in it and nail it to a tree, with the hole pointing out, parallel to the earth.  Inside it they would put a tasty treat.  A monkey comes along, sees the nice delight and sticks his hand inside, closing his fist around the morsel.  The hole is large enough only for the hand, not the closed fist, the monkey is trapped!!  He’ll remain there for days perhaps thoroughly baffled as to how he’s not able to have both this treat and his freedom.  Soon some trappers will come along, release the coconut from the tree and take our simian friend off to be sold into a circus or some other such fate.

See something here?  Sound like you?  Well it is, it’s all of us.  This idea of enlightenment we’ve been sold sounds great.  But can someone tell me exactly how tree pose will lead me to enlightenment?  And better yet, show me someone who it has worked for.  Come on, any idiot in a white coat can sell this acne cream, where are those 9 out of ten dentists, and why do lawyers use paid actors dressed up as lawyers to tell us we need them.

Ya want to know why.  They’re selling us something.  Yoga classes, books, prayer beads, peace of mind, all this stuff to lead us to non-attachment!

 ”Take it off the mat” they say.  Take what off the mat?  Exactly what?  And why?  And where did I get this, did I not have it before?  And where am I going to keep it in these little tight yoga shorts?

The minute we decide to take something off the mat (I’ll say apply a “Spiritual Concept”) we invest an interest in it, we have an expectation of the outcome an ATTACHMENT.  Practice, let things play themselves through without orchestrating every little aspect.  Quit TRYING to be enlightened, you’ll miss it when it happens.

We have an amazing knack of accessorizing the practice of Yoga.

Not too long ago I was subbing a class for another teacher.  A student came barging up to me and demanded, “Where’s—–, is she not teaching this class?”  “No”, I said.  She stormed out.

I stayed, taught the class and got paid.  I don’t know what she did, I know I didn’t suffer any.

Do you want to know how addicted you are to your attachments?  Use the other hand for a day, brush your teeth in the opposite direction, put your keys in the opposite pocket. 

I taught a class recently to illustrate this point.  I had the students, many of them dedicated regulars, switch sides of the room, and then switch rows!!  There was definitely some tension.  But, many of them almost immediately recognized the purpose of the exercise (remember, they are dedicated regulars) and laughed at their own discomfort.  I was ecstatic.  I encourage everyone to try this, it can change your life.

We have an amazing knack of turning a liberating practice into a binding one.

Yoga teaches that without practicing non-harming (अहिंसा ahiṁsā) realizing the goal of Yoga (samādhi समाधि) is much more difficult.  Notice I didn’t say “Jivamukti” or “Anusara” or some other style?  It’s because the idea is a fundamental and universal one, not particular to a certain style.  It’s expounded upon, made into sutra, verse, chapter, story, allegory, and even the qualities of God Himself are associated with it, it forms the BASIS of Yoga fundamentals and yet…. Don’t like it?  Shop around, you’ll find a teacher/class that will re-enforce your attachment.  A good example is if a student says “What about this vegetarian thing?”, the teacher may say “Well, I think it’s a personal decision, so I don’t teach it.”

Go to a driving instructor and see if when asked about the need to use a turn indicator they say the same.  When you put two of us together with our attachments-LOOK OUT!! 

We have an amazing knack of re-enforcing and justifying our attachments.

Darwin tells us we’re evolved from primates.

I think that may be true, bigger bodies and brains-more advanced thought capacity.  Bigger more complex attachments.

If our simian friend had it to do again from a different perspective, do you think that little scrap of food is worth more to him than his freedom, he had alot of time to think about it while he stood there.  All he had to do was let go, though.  Not analyze the hell out of it.

We have an amazing knack of complicating simple matters.

लोकः समस्तः सुखिनो भवन्तुः

lokaḥ samastaḥ sukhino bhavantuḥ


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