Gary Kraftsow: Viniyoga weekend intensive

I spent this weekend learning from a master teacher who wrote one of our required books for the Moksha teacher training program: “Yoga for Wellness.”

Gary Kraftsow is an unassuming yogi.  A self-proclaimed “hippie from Maui,” he looks like a wimpy middle-aged man.  He doesn’t wear mala beads; he wore khakis and a t-shirt.  His voice isn’t loud and commanding; it’s actually pretty soft-spoken considering his stature in the yoga community.  You wouldn’t look at him and immediately think, “Oh, that guy has got to be a yoga master.”  He actually looks like the grown-up version of someone who would get picked on in the high school cafeteria.

But, in Gary’s 40 years as a yogi, he has learned from some of the world’s most revered master yogis — T.K.V. Desikachar among them — and founded the American Viniyoga Institute.  In other words, he’s the real deal, despite what outward appearances might suggest.

According to the Institute’s website, Viniyoga is “an approach to yoga that adapts the various means and methods of practice to the unique condition, needs and interests of each individual — giving each practitioner the tools to individualize and actualize the process of self-discovery and personal transformation.”  At its basic core, Viniyoga recognizes that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all to yoga practice, and crafts the pranayama, meditation and asana into a prescription for the individual.  It’s yoga therapy.

The topics for this weekend’s workshop revolved around stress, anxiety and depression.  The course was sold out — which says a lot about our culture, and how yoga is primed to provide a complementary healing to the Western healing of medicine, psychology, psychiatry, etc.

“Science is qualifying what the yogis already knew,” said Gary during one of his many lectures this weekend.  Recent statistics and reports were referenced, to bolster what Patanjali’s Sutras proclaimed thousands of years ago.  (I.E. Work with the breath to clear the mind and identify the triggers to stress, anxiety, depression.)  In order for yoga therapists to be welcomed into the medical community, however, they need to understand that language — and speak it without sacrificing what makes them yogis in the first place.  There’s still some more evolution that needs to happen before yogis will be fully embraced in that community, I think.

Some stand-out notes from this weekend’s intensive:

  • Use postures as tools to understand what’s happening with the body and breath.  Yoga is about mastery of the mind, not mastery of the hamstrings.
  • You are not your condition.  (I.E.  If you have cancer, that doesn’t identify who you are.)
  • “Giving up what’s bad for you is intelligent.  Giving up what you enjoy is giving up attachment.”  (By giving up something to which you are attached, you build willpower and make the intention stronger than the habit.)
  • With an alpha person, or someone who is hot-tempered, exercise them to a point that relaxes them into meditation.  You cannot just tell that person to meditate, or close their eyes and breath.
  • A meditation on death will put things into perspective very quickly.
  • Mantra transforms the mind by impacting mood and thought.  (We did a lot of mantra work on the exhale in simple asana sequences.)
  • “The beginning of yoga practice is the determination to change.”  (I.E. Why am I doing this practice?)
  • “Yoga is not an alternative to psychiatry; it is complementary.”  (Unlike so many yogis, Gary doesn’t immediately dismiss pharmaceuticals.  He only cautions their use appropriately.)
  • For the physically sedentary (frozen) + mentally anxious: langhana to bramana to langhana
  • For the physically active + mentally anxious: brahman to langhana
  • The right/left alternative movement in vinyasa sequences help with focus and integration of left/right brain hemispheres
  • For a person with depression, try to re-kindle interest in life, start small; track their eyes and notice what provokes a spark.
  • “Eat the bear, don’t let the bear eat you.”  (Don’t let fear or news of a bad condition trump your spirit; find a way to reframe it and have it work for you.)
  • Start small with yoga therapy students.  A beautiful analogy: When you give a child a plate full of food, they can be overwhelmed and not eat anything at all.  If you give them a little food, they will eat and ask for more.
  • Chest inhale = appropriate for depression (to build energy, confidence).  Belly inhale = appropriate for anxiety (grounding).
  • One of the parts of his practice I enjoyed most was when he guided us on a meditation of the inner channel and we placed attention on each chakra, it was like “skipping stones” up and down the sushumna nadi.

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