Master Teacher Roundtable: James Fox, Prison Yoga Project

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“Everybody is worthy of redemption.” ~ James Fox, founder of the Prison Yoga Project In my twenties, I worked as a reporter-producer-writer for a documentary series called “Cold Case Files.”  My job often took me to jails and prisons across … Continue reading

Master Teacher Roundtable: Wendy Doniger

According to Wendy Doniger, there is an ancient Hindu text that offers a rather colorful explanation of how a soul enters “rebirth” into a next life.  The soul hovers over the bed — or wherever your parents are doing the deed — and chooses life as son or daughter right there.  If the soul desires the woman and hates the man, it enters the womb as a male.  If the soul desires the man and hates the woman, it enters the womb as a female.  It’s an explanation that even Sigmund Freud would enjoy analyzing.

It’s pretty remarkable that of all the topics discussed during her two-and-a-half hour lecture titled “Death and Rebirth in the History of Hinduism” — this is the anecdote that captivated me (and humored me) most.

Wendy is not a traditional yogi.  In fact, she’s not a master yoga teacher at all.  She is an academic with Ph.D.s in Sanskrit and Indian studies from Harvard and has been teaching at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago since 1978.  Hence, her talk was highly intellectual and reminded me of some of the hard-to-stay-awake lectures I used to attend as a student at Northwestern University.  The flow of the discussion was tough to follow, especially since questions from the floor jumped around on all sorts of topics related to karma and death — highly esoteric topics unto themselves — and Wendy’s answers weren’t very straightforward.  In the end, the information dispensed left me more confused than when I entered.

I’m quickly learning that that’s a theme with yoga education, however: Each new door I walk through reminds me just how little I know.  And that’s OK.  In fact, it’s great.

Aside from the idea that souls watch people fornicate, here are two other gems I took away from Wendy’s lecture:

1.

The concept of lila (“lee-lah”).  Lila is a Sanskrit word that means playfulness or the act of putting on a performance.  According to ancient Hindu texts, this is the spirit in which the Divine (God) created the universe.  Wikipedia explains it this way: “Lila is a way of describing all reality, including the cosmos, as the outcome of creative play by the divine absolute (Brahman).”

I immediately conjured up an image of God — the male God with the white beard, as described in my CCD classes — having a good chuckle as he unfolds a storyboard featuring the universe in perpetuity.  He then sprinkles billions of game pieces — or souls — on the storyboard and sits back to watch as these pieces begin interacting with one another on the storyboard.  Life becomes one giant game of, well … Life.If the universe is truly the result of “creative play,” and we’re all just bit players on this global stage, then why the hell do we take everything so seriously?  If this is all “play,” then nothing is “real” … shouldn’t this make life immensely easier to live?

Lila reminded me of the line from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’: “All the world’s a stage / And all men and women merely players.”

2.

Karma is different from fate.  Wendy said that many misinterpret karma as a fatalistic concept — in other words, it’s something about your life that you cannot change.  Not so.  “Karma explains the hand you’re dealt, but not how to play it,” she said.

She provided this hypothetical: If you’re born into the world blind, it’s your karma.  But that doesn’t mean you accept your blindness and do nothing about it.  You go to doctors, you seek out treatments, you pray, you inspire other blind people to live vibrant lives.  You exert free will to try and change the situation.  You work through your karma.

I will continue working through mine, that’s for sure.

Getting ready to listen to Wendy Doniger’s lecture. All spots of this floor were ultimately taken — the studio was packed.

Master Teacher Roundtable: Ana Forrest

Tonight I attended a talk by Ana Forrest.  I didn’t know much about Ana, other than her brand of yoga was, in part, conceived in her quest to work through sexual abuse.  I’ve taken a few Forrest yoga classes over the years — and only remember that they kicked my ass.  Really kicked my ass.

With little background, I attended with no expectations or preconceived notions of what to expect or what she might say.  I simply brought my curiosity, plus a bottle of water.  It’s exciting — and rare! — to walk into a situation so virginal.

Well, virginity be damned.  At one point tonight, Ana had us on our feet, grabbing our genitals with one hand, ass with the other.  No time for modesty.  It was time to confront fear.   And that was the theme woven throughout tonight’s talk: fear.

Ana Forrest told us to “stalk” our fear.  On and off the mat.  She didn’t encourage us to simply confront it.  She carefully chose the word “stalk.”  This implies tracking it in the same way a hunter would track its prey.  Expanding upon this metaphor: Ana told us to stop being a victim of our fear, living in it, reacting to it without question.  And instead be a hunter of it, exploring it, questioning it, getting to the root of it.  Do the poses on the mat that scare the shit out of you.  Embrace the sensation that comes with that emotion, rather than let it control you.  Off the mat, disobey — don’t let fear dictate what you think you should do.  Sometimes you need to do the exact opposite.  Disobey fear.

It was an empowering message, coming from her mouth.  Ana carries a wild medicine woman intensity.  In fact, she called herself a “medicine woman” at one point during the night.  She’s lived an uneasy life — including in her talk references to sexual abuse, broken family, drugs and violent binge drinking — and you can see traces of this “hard” life on her face.  But she found her strength through it, and because of it.  And now she channels this strength to help others.  I so admire that.

Her honesty was intense and incredibly raw, too.  She shared with us the trigger she experienced while on the mat that led her to “stalk” the abuse she experienced while young — something she apparently buried deep, deep, deep.  While in dolphin pose, Ana said, she had flashbacks to someone grabbing her hips and violently raping her.  What a highly charged thing to experience on that mat!  I cannot even begin to imagine …

Note: It seems like the most profoundly empowering yogis have endured tortured early lives!  I suppose it’s part of what makes them a living example of how yoga can save even the most seemingly down-and-out-and-confused soul.  I’ve had such a blessed life so far; what does that mean for the impact I may have?

… Attending this talk piqued my curiosity about Forrest yoga.  While it scares me a little, especially knowing it was born of this holy-shit-she’s-tough-as-nails woman, I wouldn’t be taking Ana’s advice to “stalk” my fear.  Why am I scared of it?  I need to take a class and find out.

Master Teacher Roundtable: Seane Corn

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is part of that weekly assignment.

Even the most celebrated yoga teachers admit to feeling overwhelmed and inadequate when they first started out.  Thank goodness it’s not just me.

Seane Corn is the latest seasoned yogi to reveal this.  After spending an invigorating two days in her yoga chakra workshop (which I’ll write about separately), my fellow teacher trainees and I got to sit down with the renowned yoga instructor and listen to her story.

Seane has been practicing yoga since the late 1980s, having discovered the practice while living in New York City.  She credits yoga with helping her kick her drug, alcohol and smoking habits.  Yoga made her feel so consistently happy that she realized these vices weren’t desirable anymore.  After moving to Los Angeles and getting involved in its growing yoga scene, a few teachers encouraged her to sign up for a teacher training program — both felt she was destined to teach.

Here is where it gets interesting.  Seane went through her entire 200-hour teacher training program without teaching once.  Not once!  Somehow, she was able to go through the program without getting called on.  How this energetic being faded into the background is beyond me.  But, as Seane says, she was happy about this because she was terrified to teach.

She compared her initial struggles with teacher training to learning algebra: If you don’t understand the first few equations, you’re going to have a tough time keeping up.  Forget about building upon them to learn more complex equations.  And definitely forget about moving onto geometry and advanced algebra.  While the rest of her teacher trainee peers were onto “geometry,” Seane says she was still trying to figure out the “basic algebra” of teaching yoga.

When it came time for her final exam, and teaching a pose on the spot to her classmates, she froze.  Seane used this moment as catalyst — and went on to take four additional 200-hour teacher training programs before she felt comfortable teaching yoga.  She holds no formal yoga certification (since that wasn’t around when she trained), but she is able to certify new yoga teachers.  I love this irony.  And today, Seane Corn is one of the most famous yoga teachers in the world.

However, she dislikes the word “teacher” — thinks that it’s arrogant.  She says her job is to remind and facilitate an opening for people, to help them reveal to themselves what they already know to be true.  (Personally, I like the term “guide.”)

Here are a few other key points I gleaned from Seane Corn’s Master Teacher Roundtable:

  • Say “yes” to new opportunities, even if you’re scared.  (Sean didn’t want to teach her first class or do her first media interview, but forced herself to say “yes” because she knew if she didn’t seize the opportunity then, she might never seize it.)
  • There is no such thing as a “bad” yoga class.  You’ll find a new piece of information within each class — either an interesting take-away from the teacher, or an intriguing revelation about yourself.
  • When teaching, be yourself.  Find your own voice.  Try not to mimic your favorite teachers.  Although, this is likely inevitable when you first start out.  (Seane admits that it was for her.)
  • A “danger” to avoid: Transforming into an insecure teacher trying to give students what they want — so that they’ll either like you or continue coming to your class.
  • Take the yoga teacher vocation seriously.  As seriously as you would any other job.  (Seane was able to build a following, in part, because her students could always count on her to show up for each class.)
  • Be careful fraternizing with or dating yoga students.  You don’t want to exploit or potentially traumatize a student’s healing process — yoga being that healing process.
  • Take risks and bring change into the yoga room.  I loved how Seane considered herself an “artist.”  (Yoga room = blank canvas.  Yoga instruction + sequencing = the colors.)

Thanks, Seane!

Master Teacher Roundtable: Daylene Christensen

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is part of that weekly assignment.

I attended a Master Teacher Roundtable this weekend.  The featured yogi speaker: Daylene Christensen.

Daylene practices and teaches Ashtanga yoga, a style of yoga with which I’m familiar.  It’s just not my favorite discipline — when it’s a pure Ashtanga practice, anyway.  Perhaps it’s because it’s so disciplined and structured.  There’s none of that free-flowing connection to the breath that I adore about a vinyasa practice.  In Ashtanga, it’s very staccato and systematic.  It’s the same sequencing every time, with no wiggle room for creativity.  The program has already been mapped out, like a runner’s training program for a marathon.  I find this predictability boring, and a little scary.  But, to each their own.

While it was wonderful to hear Daylene’s backstory – especially how she initially hated yoga, and hated Ashtanga yoga even more – I was slightly turned off by subtle body cues revealed when she’d discuss vinyasa.  It was almost a mocking of those who practiced it.  Perhaps she wasn’t aware of the little eye rolls and loosey-goosey rocking of the torso and arms that accompanied her vinyasa anecdotes.  Or, perhaps I was just hyper-analyzing, taking it the wrong way.  While I tried not to judge, I couldn’t shake this observation – and that perhaps there was a small judgment coming from her, seeping into her body cues.

I did very much appreciate Daylene’s honesty, however.  Her matter-of-fact-take-it-or-leave-it style is refreshing, even when it can be hard to swallow.  As long as it stimulates growth.  I asked her, “How do you balance your personal practice and teaching?”  Her response didn’t miss a beat: “I schedule it in my iCal.  Personal practice comes first, and I schedule everything else around it.”  Boom.  No half-answer or something along the lines of, “Find a balance that works for you.”  (Those sorts of answers wouldn’t have been helpful anyway.)  This girl means business.  And she knows her stuff.

A clear advocate of hard work and not taking any short-cuts, Daylene got me second-guessing my aversion to a pure Ashtanga practice.  She said one Ashtanga class isn’t enough.  A few weeks aren’t enough.  Give it at least one month before deciding that it’s not for you.  And commit to that month with regular practice and integrity.

Hmmm.  This got me thinking about all of the other things I’ve stopped over the years, following one bad or so-so experience.  (This certainly applies to men and first dates, too.)  Am I too quick to pull the trigger and say no upon an immediate aversion?  Should I hush my first instinct, and what I believe to be my intuition … to see what may blossom, with extra effort and integrity?  Do I take Daylene’s advice when it comes to practicing Ashtanga and work through the preliminary bitter taste, in the hopes that it will turn into a drink I’ll want again and again?  This is how things jelled with her, after all.  This approach has certainly worked wonders with me, too, in regards to specific poses, such as crow and side crow — poses I used to hate and avoid, but now embrace and seek to improve.

I left Daylene’s Master Teacher Roundtable with this children’s quote ringing in my ears: When at first you don’t succeed .. try, try again.

Aadil Palkhivala: Dharma and the heart

Definition of DHARMA (according to Merriam-Webster)
1.   Hinduism : an individual’s duty fulfilled by observance of custom or law
2.   Hinduism & Buddhism
a : the basic principles of cosmic or individual existence : divine law
b : conformity to one’s duty and nature

Oh, how I hate this definition.  For me, it doesn’t capture the beautiful essence of what dharma is.  I get hung up on a word used twice: “duty.”  The connotation of that word implies a hardship, action that may lack passion, even a potential dislike for what you’re doing.  I’m sure the word doesn’t resonate with everyone in this way.  Unfortunately, my maternal grandparents, who were always characterized as “duty-driven” by my own parents, never seemed happy.  And dharma, to me, is a positive mission.  Therein lies my perspective thanks to childhood conditioning.  So it goes.

A definition that I do love comes from Aadil Palkhivala, a respected master teacher with oodles of yogi accolades.  In his book “Fire of Love,” he says dharma is “my unique mission, the intention of my individual spirit, my soul’s purpose for choosing my body.”

A much lovelier descriptive, no?

Tonight I attended a talk given by Aadil.  I didn’t go expecting to find any answers to help me immediately unlock my own dharma; it was pure curiosity coupled with an open heart.  The same poetic prose found in that book, I witnessed in person with its author.  Aadil is a stocky bald man with a gentle demeanor and lovely Indian accent.  He didn’t sport crimson robes, wear mala beads or project an arrogant, holier-than-thou attitude.  He wore a button-down shirt, slacks and a smile.  He chose his words thoughtfully.  And in true yogi form, he opened and closed the talk with three AUMs.  I love the immediately calming effect of that ritual.

The talk drifted into esoteric territory at times — that, or I didn’t consume enough caffeine to keep me alert after a long day at work.  However, when the subject matter is “dharma,” it’s not going to be as mindlessly straightforward as an US Weekly story.

Of everything that was discussed, my biggest take-away was Aadil’s guidance on decisions — and how to choose the “right” decision suited to your dharma.  When at a crossroad, his instructions are simple: 1) Find a quiet place to meditate; 2) Spend time with the fingers of your right hand at the heart center; and 3) Go inside yourself, hush the brain and ask the Question.  When you feel an opening and expansion in the heart based on a choice being considered, that is the direction you take.  When a possible choice causes your heart to contract and close, that is not the right decision.

In short: Follow your heart.

How often have I heard this!  From my parents, in movies, on Hallmark cards.  It’s such a simple piece of advice, yet so hard to take — and sometimes difficult to reveal, given the often-times deafening chatter of the brain.  Trying to answer the question “What is your heart’s desire?” can be complicated by pragmatism, societal norms and expectations, family conditioning, guilt, fear.  Too much thinking, in other words.

Follow the heart.  Duh.

I liken this advice to following your first instinct.  Does something make you immediately cringe with disgust or fear or (negative) anxiety?  Or, does it make your heart sing?  Make you feel energized?  At least for me, my first instinct is usually “right” — even though I inevitably will draw out the decision-making process by listing the pros/cons and weighing every conceivable, possible, hypothetical angle.  (It’s tough to completely let go of the Type A.  I’m working at it.  Baby steps!)  Ironically, I do recognize the practical nature of that first instinct.  When a friend of mine was considering a job shift recently, I asked him: “What was your first reaction to the offer?”  He paused and made a face.  Before he could verbalize an answer, I told him that I saw the answer in his body language.

Listen to your heart.

I vow to hush the mind and do that more often.  After all, decisions made with the heart, not necessarily the mind, have led me to amazing life milestones …

My heart led me to India. It wasn’t “wise” to spend the money or take a month off work. But it was the most rewarding experience of my life so far.