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.


Jul 14 2010

The Heart of Yoga: A Young Yogi’s Perspective

Matthew Foley

As I’ve begun my journey as a new yoga teacher over the past year, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the essence or heart of yoga. What is it exactly about yoga that makes me passionate both as a student and now a teacher?

It’s difficult of course to talk about THE heart of yoga, since yoga means many different things to many different people. One of the most noticeable aspects of the modern-day yoga community here in the States is the incredible diversity of reasons why people come to a yoga class. If you were to conduct a poll of people entering any given yoga studio and ask “Why did you come today?”, I think you would be amazed at the variety of responses.

Some are coming simply for a good workout. Some are coming for a personal oasis during the day – a chance to get away from the job, the to do list, the day-to-day grind. Some are coming to recover from injuries and wounds, both physical and psychological. And some come seeking the more spiritual aspects of the yoga tradition – to discover their true selves and perhaps find a little bliss along the way.

I think it’s quite a positive thing that many people are coming to a yoga practice from so many different perspectives. I think it actually speaks to (if you will excuse the pun) the flexibility of yoga in meeting a wide-range of needs of the modern person. Not bad for a tradition that’s been around for several millennia.

As I go into this question of the heart of a yoga practice, I realize that I can only really speak for myself and from my own experiences along the path. I am also a firm believer in the maxim “One Truth, Many Paths” – that there is a multitude of ways to express the same perennial truth. I realize that my words are, at best , mere fingers pointing at the moon.

Even though I can only speak of the heart of my yoga practice, I still think these thoughts may be helpful to someone at the beginning of their yoga path or someone interested in seeing things from a different perspective.

So, I come to this question: when I am teaching a yoga class to a group of students, what am I really trying to get across, what am I really hoping to share with them?

The heart of what I hope to cultivate in a yoga class – whether as teacher or student – is essentially an inner experience. It isn’t so important to me that I or anyone else perfects any one particular posture. I don’t think there is anything magical about an asana in and of itself – as if doing a perfect Virabhadrasana II is the mysterious ticket to everlasting nirvana. I think some people were born to do the uber-flexible advanced postures of yoga – but many of us aren’t.

I’m also not particularly interested in advancing a particular belief system. I think yoga’s current appeal in the West in terms of spiritual matters is that it offers a way of relating to spirituality – of connecting to the sacred, to the divine, to God – that isn’t about believing one particular way or subscribing to a specific dogma.

I believe yoga’s true gift (though it obviously doesn’t belong exclusively to yoga) is an inner experience of transformed awareness. In other words, yoga provides a radically new way of feeling our connection to the world and a transformed way of experiencing ourselves.

As we relax, expand, and open both the body and mind throughout the course of a yoga class, we clear a space within ourselves that is ordinarily cluttered by all the anxieties, fears, tensions, and doubts of our fast-paced lives. Within this cleared, open space, something else, something deeper, something more profound finally has the chance to speak.

If we are bold enough to listen, we find that it is our true selves – a self not exclusively rooted, however, to the narrow confines of me and mine, my story and my wants. This open, expanded self doesn’t necessarily reject what we feel we need and want in life, but it puts it all in a fresh, expanded perspective. I personally don’t subscribe to the notion that a spiritual practice is meant to help us transcend our earthly existence, as if there is something wrong with being a living, breathing human being on planet earth. In fact, my experience has been that a yoga practice helps us reconnect to the splendor of just being who we are, in a gorgeously interdependent world of plants, animals, sunshine, mountains, and all the wonders of life.

This newfound connection to life, brought about by the transformation of our consciousness, offers not just a solution to our modern sense of alienation and dissatisfaction, but also offers a blueprint for relating in a more ethical and responsible way to our fellow human beings and our ecological environment.

At this point, you may be asking: isn’t this a tall order for an hour-long asana class, often scheduled between one student’s business meeting and another’s commute to pick the kids up from school? Well, in my opinion, the heart of yoga doesn’t reside within the walls of any one yoga studio, nor does it always involve a yoga mat. Yoga is a transformative way of living one’s life, right here and now, whether you are attempting a headstand or folding the laundry, whether in deep meditation or looking into the eyes of your loved one.

I hope these thoughts bring some new inspiration and insight to your practice, whether you are just beginning or have been at it for many, many years. Yoga can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, so I share this not to convince you of the “right” way to do yoga, but to hopefully inspire you to find the heart of your yoga practice.


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


May 11 2010

Yoga & The Art of Listening

Matthew Foley

One of the classic texts of the Yoga tradition, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Within these teachings, Patanjali lays down a quintessential definition of “yoga” that has become a bedrock of modern Yoga practice. In Verse 2, the Sutras read:

YOGAS CITTA VRTTI NIRODHAH

Which can translated in various ways:
“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of consciousness”
“Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff.”
“Yoga is the stopping of the turnings of the mind.”

Well, what on earth are the “fluctuations of consciousness,” “modifications of the mind-stuff,” or “turnings of the mind”? And why should we be concerned with them coming to an end?

The turnings of the mind are our habitual mental chatter, the interior monologue running through our brains almost every moment of every day. It is the voice that constantly proclaims its like, its dislikes, its judgments, and its comparisons. It is what carries on our inner autobiography; our feelings of being a good or a bad person, beautiful or ugly, a success or failure, worthy of love or deserving of contempt. It is what worries and obsesses about the future, as well as lives in pride or shame over the past.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this mental chatter. But it tends to create a problem when we habitually identity ourselves with this stream of thought.

Ask yourself this question: where do you most strongly experience your sense of “I”? If you were to say “I exist”, where do you most feel that coming from? Your big toe? Your arteries? Or perhaps your spleen? No, most people (at least in our culture) would answer that “I” is most strongly located somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears. Located ourselves primarily in the head, we connect our identity with the stream of thoughts passing through the mind. This forms our most basic sense of who we are.

From the time of some of our earliest records of human history, human beings have sought through various contemplative practices to bring this mental stream to a stop. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, ascetic practices, drumming, dancing, and singing can all become paths towards turning down the volume of our inner chatter so that something else, something deeper, might be heard. Why? Is it a form of intellectual suicide? Does it mean becoming a mindless bump on a log? No, not at all. By such an attempt, human beings have sought a way to peace, profound happiness, and liberation from suffering.

They realized that the reflective nature of our thoughts – our ability to think about our thinking, and even think about our thinking about our thinking – leaves us in perpetual anxiety about our lives and actually creates an illusory barrier between ourselves and the world around us.

When we give all our attention to this constantly critiquing voice in the head, we subtly disconnect ourselves from what is happening right in front of us. If you are in the midst of an experience and are busy the entire time judging and commenting to yourself on everything – the warmth or coldness of the room, the quality of the company around you, other things you could be doing at this moment – then you aren’t really living in that present moment. You are “stuck up in the head,” too self-conscious to fully be engaged with the experience you are having. It is a little like constantly checking your phone for missed calls or texts while on a first date – it shows you aren’t really interested.

There are days when, feeling a little blue or tired, I can walk through the entire day in a sort of “blah” feeling, wrapped up in whatever crummy feelings I’m going through. If someone were to ask me later how my day went or what I did or saw, I might draw a blank on the contents of the day. I was so wrapped up in my mental “stuff” that I didn’t really notice the beautiful park I drove by on my way to work, or the smell of the rain during the afternoon, or the way my cat stretched himself as I opened the door coming home. This mental chatter keeps us from, in the words of Ram Dass, “being here now.”

Awakening to life therefore involves turning down the volume on this inner noise and instead listening more deeply to what is really going on.

For instance, if you are in a conversation with someone and you’re the one doing all the talking, you aren’t really connecting at all with the other person. You aren’t really having a conversation; you are having a monologue in someone else’s presence. It also means that you probably won’t learn or grow much from that conversation, because you’re just repeating what you already know. But when you become silent and listen, allowing the other person to speak, you expose yourself to new perspective and points of view. You grow, you evolve, you expand.

Well, life is the same way. We could think of our every day lives as a conversation with the world. If we are the ones doing all the talking, by means of our constant internal judgments, comparison, and commentary, then we aren’t really listening to what life may be trying to tell us. Even in prayer, when we are supposed to be seeking answers from God, most people in our culture pray by talking the whole time. Thus it has been said that whereas prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening to God.

So, let us try a meditation of deep listening. You may want to read this first and then go and experiment.

Find a comfortable seat, whether in a chair or sitting in meditation on the floor. Close your eyes and place your hands comfortably in the lap or on the knees.

Bring all of your attention to your sense of hearing. Imagine that you are one giant ear and your only purpose is to hear. Listen to the sounds around you. Maybe you hear a bird chirping outside, or cars driving some distance away, or the sound of faint music in the background.

Whatever it is, just listen, with no judgment, commentary, or interpretation. As Alan Watts once said, “The sound of the rain needs no translation.”

When thoughts begin to arise in the mind, treat them as just another thing to listen to. There is just a deep listening.

What you may begin to notice is that within the quietness of mind, the most ordinary sounds of every day life take on a staggering quality of beauty. The sound of the wind becomes a music just as beautiful as those played by orchestras. The flowing sounds of ocean waves become poems for the ear.

If you listen deeply enough, you may notice that in the midst of such beautiful sound, there is no sound of one listening. That is because there is no real separation between the knower and the known, the experience and the one having the experience. This lack of separation, which was only an illusion in the first place, is the experience of “yoga,” which literally means “yoke” or “union.”

Yoga is a practice of deep listening, turning down the volume of our mental noise, so that we may hear the wisdom of the Universe more clearly.

~ Matthew Foley