The Body-Mind Disconnect: a cultural perspective

Comments Off on The Body-Mind Disconnect: a cultural perspective Written on March 10th, 2021 by
Categories: General

Before we define “body-mind connection”; how did we lose it in the first place? We think of our bodies as these vehicles we drive around in. We decorate them, we want people to admire them, and they are a reflection of us. But when they break down, we get pissed off, drag them to the mechanic to get fixed or at least quieted down until one day… the wheels fly off. Some of us drive them into the ground with zero maintenance, some never take them out of the garage, and some people do regular maintenance. But very few people actually consider their bodies as more than this nuisance to be dealt with (hopefully by someone else).

what our bodies feel like!

    So how did we get here? To this separation of our physical selves? Some people blame technology, but let’s back it up. In almost every religion, from sects in India to mainstream Christianity, the body is seen as a distraction or an impediment to obtaining a higher spiritual plane. It’s the other, whose annoying needs drag us down to this earthly plane. In fact, if you could beat up your own body, put it in pain, deny it food, sex, or sleep, you were really getting somewhere (ascetically speaking). Whether dragging a giant cross down a highway on your bloody knees, or never sitting or lying down for any reason for 40 years (as the standing babas did); more physical self-abuse equaled more holiness. 

    Intellectuals weren’t much better. The body to them was base, a mortal coil to finally be shuffled off. The pursuits of the mind was where it’s at. Of course, there were the hedonists and those that “celebrated” the body. But in truth, they only celebrated pleasure and the current culture of beauty, not the body itself. Pleasure is fine but often doesn’t actually involve connecting to one’s body. 

   Today, this leaves us in a place where people don’t trust or listen to their own bodies or even know what that would involve.

Through this avenue, I’d like to widen the scope, to first define what listening to one’s body looks like and then how to treat one’s body more like the living breathing animal rather than an object. And this doesn’t have to involve food journaling or necessarily yoga. This understanding opens up potential for personal growth and physical well-being that most of us barely realize is there. 

Stop the Fitness!

Comments Off on Stop the Fitness! Written on June 29th, 2016 by
Categories: General

We all know exercise is good, like eating vegetables or not smoking. Anyone who says says exercise isn’t important is just trying to be contrarian, seriously has their head in the sand, or has procrastination issues. That said…

Fitness is dumb.

There, I said it. Weird statement from someone who has dedicated her career to physical activity. What I mean by “fitness” is what people have started doing in just the last 45 years. And somewhere we’ve gone wrong. Very wrong. Once people stopped getting exercise through just living and working, we discovered we had to manufacture new ways to move. We began to aerobicise. Then came Jazzercise, Step, Slide, Zumba, Cardioboxing, Soul Cycle, whatever the flavor of the month until the next new hot thing came along. But sampling classes isn’t so convenient sometimes, so instead many just rotate their legs around on a bike or stick their bodies into machines and push weights around while planning their evening meal. Nothing ever changes (really). We do it to look a certain way or because we think it’s the healthy thing to do. We leave the gym with a general sense of doing something “right” like eating a salad with lemon juice or getting taxes done early. A little pat on the back, a righteous puff, and on to real life.

But the thing is, if you exercise regularly, say 3 hours a week, that is a heck of a lot of time and energy wasted literally running in place, checking another damn box. Our bodies have so so much more to offer us. Acquiring a physical skill, getting to understand how your body works mechanically, or achieving a physical goal is probably one of the most fulfilling endeavors a  person could ever undertake. There is a quote from a great book called Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe that sums it up, “Physical strength is the most important thing in life. This is true whether we want it to be or not….A weak man is not as happy as that same man would be if he were strong.”  We relegate the physical to the superficial. We think of it as not relevant to spiritual self-improvement, intellectual pursuits, or philanthropic interests. Working with your body is somehow self-involved and for women, dare I say it, weirdly, even a little anti-feminist?

But after 20 years of teaching everything from weightlifting to pilates to yoga, I’m continuously delighted by how giddy my clients get when they get something physically, either doing something they’ve never done or understanding something about their bodies they never understood before. Why do you think trainers rate so high in job satisfaction? We get to witness the most exciting (if unadvertised) moments in a person’s life.

People chase after things that they think matter, when joy is literally right at their own two feet. No career accolade or home renovation can compete with being able to hold a handstand in the middle of the room or knowing exactly how to free yourself of your back pain. And those that don’t buy this idea, have never completed a real physical challenge or had a profound physical epiphany, the kind that takes months or decades to achieve.

What programs are the most successful with at-risk youth? Circus programs, dance programs, sports programs. Kids start investing in these activities and suddenly they are doing better in school. Why would beating someone in a race or becoming the school’s merengue king have such a profound effect on everything else? It’s simple. You begin to realize you are capable of way more than you ever thought in a real flesh and blood kind of way. You surprise yourself. You become conscious of your body and when you do, you start to notice other things too. You become patient with process: with stagnation, with backsliding, with obstacles. And you realize that pain is just pain. You tap into mental fortitude you never knew you had. It’s possible that the best part about getting to your goal is that no one in the outside world is going to make a big deal about it (unless you happen to be 7 feet tall and great at basketball). You might get some people cheering for a day or a coach that smiles broadly or a high-five from a team mate, but for most amateur athletes, that’s it. The rest is just your own sense of understanding or accomplishment. To use a hackneyed phrase which in this case is actually true: it’s life changing.

I recently read an article that appeared in Slate criticizing the marathon as an inherently meaningless activity (unlike sonnet memorization, I kid you not and I’m not linking to click-bait!). Why someone, who has never run a marathon, feels qualified to judge with no data is perplexing, but also not uncommon. For me personally, running is like drumming or juggling, I’d never be able to concentrate on repetition for that long, BUT I respect people that do it, a lot. The dedication and discipline is tremendous. And I’ve never met anyone who regretted the time or money they spent doing the marathon. Is it the “healthiest” activity of all time? Heck no, but it isn’t the reason to do it.

I’ve surfed, skied, snowboarded, ice skated, ice climbed, flyboarded, kayaked down fjords, water skiied, climbed the tallest mountains in four countries, and vaulted on horses. I got a little banged up, drank copious amounts of salt water, ate dust, felt like an ass, got scared, cried, got kicked, and hobbled to the bottom. In addition, I was a dancer for 20 years, yogi for 20 years, and a professional trapeze artist for 15. Now I powerlift, proud of my deadlift at 200 lbs. My physical journeys have all been worth the commitment they took to complete. And honestly, I’m not the most physically talented person in the world. I’m not in the top tier of any of these things I’ve done or even close. Now in my 40’s, I don’t expect to ever be, no matter how hard I work, but I don’t care.

What if you are too injured to do something like the marathon? I’ve worked with the blind, Parkinson’s patients, and people with severe back trouble, who worked their butts off just to be able to stand on one leg for 10 seconds straight. The physical goal itself doesn’t matter, it’s the work it takes to achieve it. Those clients are serious amateur athletes too, and the payoff is just as exhilirating.

It’s unfortunate that a bowl of cereal is too big a commitment these days. So many endeavors are judged as too much work, too hard, too inconvenient. It’s like our ability to spontaneously go out for margaritas at any moment should never be compromised. But talk to anyone who has ever taken a sport or physical practice seriously, who has gotten up early to row when they don’t feel like it, who has missed a social event to train, who has dragged their sorry sniffly butt to class in the middle of snow storm, and they will tell you it was worth it. Totally worth it.

When you feel your own strength, (and forgive me, yoda) but your very life force pulsing underneath your skin, that experience is the definition of being alive. But you can’t feel that if you are too busy watching tv, listening to a pod cast, checking Facebook, or chatting with a trainer. You can’t feel your life if what you are doing isn’t consuming you, if you a multi-tasking, if you aren’t summoning everything you got to try just a little bit harder, or to focus on what you are doing a little bit more clearly.

Do we have to check boxes and multitask sometimes to get through life? Of course! But why waste opportunities to learn, to grow, to be present if we are going to exercise anyway?  If you really have zero interest in ever even trying a physical challenge of any sort and memorizing sonnets really does get your rocks off, then I will cheer you on. I will, because at the end of the day, really only you know what will bring you joy, and if it is putting tiny ships in tiny bottles, then so be it. However, if you are resigning yourself to just fitting in that workout because you feel obligated, or because you ate a brownie… Free yourself from fitness! Stop clocking minutes or steps or calories, and commit your body to something you never considered it could do.

Letting Go- It’s not for Pansies

Comments Off on Letting Go- It’s not for Pansies Written on June 29th, 2014 by
Categories: General
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It’s not just six-year-olds who have beaten the phrase “Let it Go” into the bloody pulp it has become. For me, that statement actually makes me want to hold on very tightly.. to the neck of whoever is uttering this hackneyed phrase. It’s one of those new age cliches that you hear so often that is has become devoid of real meaning in yoga and in life. The problem with this friendly advice is the implication is that if you weren’t so tense and neurotic, life would be easy for you, that you are just being stupid or obstinate.

As a professional aerialist, I can tell you that letting go is the last thing (and would actually be the last thing) I’d ever want to do physically. That said, does all this “holding on” under the Big Top mean everyone who works in the circus is tense? Obviously not, or they would never get off the platform or climb a rope or hold a balance. So why is it so bad to hold on?

What does happen when you completely let go? I’ll tell you. It’s savasana or corpse pose. You end up in a puddle on the floor, lifeless. For many people it is the best part of doing yoga and it’s a healthy necessary part of the practice. It feels great. However, it is hard to do your taxes or grocery shop like that.

Clearly, we don’t want to let go of everything all at once at any other time (other than savasana) so what DO we hang on to then? What are we actually letting go? The obvious answer is that we are supposed to let go of unnecessary tension or thought patterns (duh, not helpful). Where are they, these tensions we don’t need? How do we know what is necessary and what isn’t? How do we let go of something that simply won’t? It’s hard to follow the instruction to “let go” when you don’t know what you are supposed to let go of or how to go about doing it. For me personally, anytime I heard this instruction, I’d essentially just disengage whatever I possibly could and sink into my joints (NOT freeing). Physically, it meant I collapsed on myself so I overstretched some places (that I should have been using to support myself) and crunched others.

Letting go is much more specific and complex. Sifting through what to engage as well as how to engage it and what to soften and how to soften it, takes years and years of building awareness. After 20 years of consistent practice, it is only starting to come together. But I can tell you it has been one of the best things I’ve done with my life. Does it take that long before you start to see progress? No, progress is constantly happening as long as you keep trying.

It isn’t much different with emotional processes. You can’t let go prematurely. It just won’t work and you’ll know because it won’t feel good. When you finally let go of something that is ready to, it feels glorious and freeing. But you have to wait until the thing you need to let go of is darn good and ready. It won’t be ready until a certain amount of time and processing has passed and the support systems are in place to allow it to let go. You can’t really do a backbend with any freedom if your legs are ungrounded and weak, just like you can’t let go of past abuse if you are in the middle of an abusive relationship.

I have spent a lot of time trying to force things to let go prematurely; trying to make my hamstrings stretch by just pulling as much as I could or forcing myself to forgive people that I was still actually angry at. The journey to ease in the body always starts with allowing whatever is there to be there. If you are angry, if your back hurts, nothing will change by wishing it away. Trying to trick your psyche into thinking you’ve really let go in order to make the pain go away is a poor strategy. I know, I’ve tried a lot. It has to be real.

The allowing things to be as they are is constant. You can’t just send your body and mind a memo once and expect it to be done. It’s a never ending dialogue. Only after a seeming unending while of allowing pain and anger to be there, truly sit there without judgment or action, do they begin to dissipate ON THEIR OWN.

So letting go is actually about engaging, really engaging, with things that are difficult physically and emotionally. In our bodies, it’s the dead parts, the weak parts. In our minds, it’s the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to know about, the parts whose existence we can’t see or deny are there. It is ongoing. Very rarely, is forgiveness or softening complete on the first go around. You may need to do it many times before it actually sticks.

The other important thing to know is that the patterns our body or mind have adopted to protect us at one point in our lives were NECESSARY tensions back then. Before I know what I know now, I am grateful my body tightened up certain spots preventing me from really backbending, otherwise my zeal probably would have damaged it. My back is thankfully in good shape. So no beating ourselves up just because these patterns have become unnecessary now. We can only know what we know when we know it and not before. That doesn’t mean we won’t get impatient and frustrated about where we feel we should be vs where we are, but that is part of it too. Sometimes it also means that it takes a destroyed relationship or a bad injury for us to begin real understanding. And all those places that we grip are suddenly in our face. Now we can see them and let these ideas about ourselves, our bodies fall away. Then and only then do you know what “it” is. And then you can bring some meaning to letting it go.

The Difficult Art of Being a Yoga Student

Comments Off on The Difficult Art of Being a Yoga Student Written on April 8th, 2014 by
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The yoga journey is as maddening as it is hilarious. I can tell you though that it seriously has taught me everything I know. As many times as I’ve declared “I quit!! I’m done!”, I’ve had moments of real understanding. As I reread this blog, I’m sensitive to the fact that the list (grammatically speaking anyway) is mainly one of commands which might seem, well, irritatingly didactic. As a teacher, it’s unavoidable to not get into the “you should”‘s. However, I ask you to think of the list below as helpful guidelines which I think could have helped someone like me out and saved me some tears if I’d seen them or realized them sooner. I think they also apply to students at every level. If you are in a state of frustration with yoga, just skip to number 8.

So here goes:

1. Don’t take your teachers too seriously
The more I teach, the more I realize that I don’t know diddly squat. And I knew less than diddly ten years ago. I cringe at things I taught then and I’d been teaching for eight years before that! I thought at that time I really knew what I was talking about. I spoke with authority, perhaps even a tad bit condescending at times (sorry old students, wish I could take that crap back! Thank goodness, NYC is a big place). Now it’s obvious to me that the way I teach will constantly change and learning is as much about unlearning what you thought you knew as about acquiring new knowledge.
If your teacher is extremely confident and gives off that yogier-than-thou-treat-me-like-a-guru aura, it is more than likely that their attitude is not caused by extreme awesomeness. It is because they are new and trying to cover their real lack of confidence or they are a little self-involved. A good teacher might be very sure about something, but also knows that being totally wrong is also in the possibility tree and acknowledges that. I’ve had really smart teachers teach me some ass-backwards ways of doing things, but they made sense at the time to both of us. So a little doubt and questioning on both ends of the teaching equation is healthy.

2. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Oy, if I could count how many times that I have been a student in class and literally twisted myself into an anger ball ( I do mean literally not figuratively). I would be sitting with legs all folded up and arms wrapped everywhere berating myself for thinking too much and not thinking enough, not being able to let go and not engaging enough etc. I had the exceptional talent of being able to turn every class into an existential crisis, and of making a tight hip personal.
Hello self?! It’s yoga. Does your ability to do an arm balance affect anything In the world in any way? Don’t even pause before answering that. You can still put your absolute all into doing arm balances without all the accompanying judgment. If you get all fight club with yourself in yoga of all places, perhaps it is time to look at where else that is happening? And maybe even take a break from yoga altogether and just surf, letting the ocean instead of your psyche pummel you for a change.

3. Respect your own boundaries physical and emotional.
Remember you are taking class for you, not to please someone else. Most yoga teachers that I know don’t carry guns, so they can’t put one to your head to make you obey them. If they bully you (and new agey people can be maddeningly subtle!), just remember you can always say no or walk away. You have options. Ultimately, you know your body best. Also, tell your instructor ahead of time what you are dealing with or what modifications you might need to make so they can help you.

4. Go at your own pace.
Group classes are a blessing and curse. What a teacher can mean as encouragement “yeah, you can do it!!” while everyone else around you is doing it too, can be the final push you need. It can also feel like peer pressure and make a new pose very scary. Stay grounded if you know for sure you aren’t quite ready for the challenge yet.
If you feel your pace is ahead of the class and you want to do a pose that is harder than what the teacher is doing, ask first. It’s fine if you want a spot for handstand in the middle of the room, as it is hard to do that on your own. However, don’t do something that you could practice at home alone just to prove yourself and the class that you can.
One tip from a friend who wears glasses… She always goes for no contacts or glasses during class. Having everyone in soft focus helps her tune them out a bit.

5. Don’t let your yoga teacher’s instructions drown out your own inner voice.
If you are working on something physically like breathing or engaging your core, then keep working on it. You don’t have to follow a class on your insides. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If everyone is working on flattening out their triangle pose and you know what you need is more stretch through your spine. Do triangle, but do it your way. Also move away from strain and pain. That seems obvious but for a long time I didn’t realize how much certain common ways of doing certain poses were causing me pain. At one point I began to try doing the exact opposite of the corrections the teacher was giving and see what happened. And it sometimes yielded very interesting results.

6. Try something foreign on for size.
And now for the complete opposite instruction than the one above because yoga is annoying like that. Even though you want to keep hearing your own body, it is also a good idea to let a teacher take you for a ride. Obviously if something feels really bad, don’t do it or don’t do it yet. However, I’ve had my doubts about certain instructions, only to find out later that actually they were exactly what I needed to hear at the time. Great teachers have introduced me to radical new ideas that got my hackles up only to be surprised to see that they worked. If after a college try, the instruction doesn’t work for you, toss it later, but in the mean time, listen and try it out.

7. Remember that yoga is an ongoing process.
You will never “get it”. You will never “be balanced”. BUT you will come into greater balance and greater freedom. You will understand more and more things about how your own body and mind work, but there is no end point. You will never arrive and neither have those who teach you. We are all in this together just at different points in the process. My mother always told me a simple German idiom whenever I got frustrated which is “No master has ever fallen from heaven.” At the same time, it is important to remember that if you feel like you have finally really have gotten something, enjoy it, because that too will pass.
Sometimes you spend class crying, or angry, or hopeless, or bored. It’s not necessarily a problem, just an (incredibly annoying) part of the process. A process that for better or worse will never truly end, and one that is worth sticking with for the long haul even if sometimes you need a break from all the relentless learning.

8. I’m stuck. Now what?!
What if you feel like nothing is changing in your practice or worse yet everything is totally falling apart? First, when in doubt, refer to guidelines 1 and 2. Also remember 7, that this practice isn’t a linear process; backslides and plateaus are part of the game.
Second, you know the old definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Yogis can be quite good at that. And it usually indicates it is time to step away from the asana. But, you might think, this class or style has been so great for me until now. Yes, it’s great until it isn’t. A class can be life changing for a while and then feel empty and meaningless. If you’ve given it a shot in one place for four years or more. Maybe change it up. If you do Iyengar, try kundalini or aerial yoga or acro yoga. If you do ashtanga try some pranayama. Try a style you poo poo. The regular studio where we attend classes may indoctrinate us with the idea that they are the end-all-be-all, but the truth is that every style is a different bundle of goods, good and bad. And different styles will be what we need at different stages in our life and yoga experience.
Getting stuck physically can also be caused by different things at different times. At 30, you shouldn’t suddenly feel arthritic and like you can’t even walk (which happened to me). Something just ain’t right in your body or practice and it’s time to take a closer look. At 60 though, your body might start to change a little. Yoga promises us eternal youth and infinite possibilities. And I actually believe greater freedom is possible with age. It just may not look like how we want it to. BKS Iyengar once said something in class to the effect of “In my 90’s, I can’t do the poses I did at 40. The poses I can still do? I do better than I have ever done them.”
It’s true that the range of what we can do may start to shrink, but we can FEEL greater freedom within that range. I know when I was in my 20’s I could go deeper in my backbends, but boy, they felt like I was shoehorning my entire body into a pair of cheap stilettos. Now backbends feel great and are much more even, if slightly less impressive. What might be required of us as we age is that we let go of what we think we should be able to do. There is a great quote by David Foster Wallace, “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.” Of course it is hard to let go of things we’ve really invested in (that’s the nature of investment), but then we have to decide if what we are sacrificing to the fight is worth it. My best and hardest yoga classes are often the simplest. There is sweating and shaking, but no straining. So if you have to go back to the basics, it can actually be quite humbling but also incredibly freeing (isn’t that why you did yoga in the first place?).
I know this sounds totally cheesy but every stuck place for me has always precipitated a really profound epiphany. So while you are whining and harrumphing, remember that you are on the edge of something very interesting that is about to happen, but you have to stew in your own juices a bit first, frustrating as that is.

I think the biggest thing I’ve finally gotten after twenty years as a student is that you aren’t doing anything wrong even when it feels that way. It’s a messy beautiful process. And everyone involved is a fortunately and unfortunately a human. Except when they are a dog.

The Biggest Mistake made in Yoga and Possibly in Life

Comments Off on The Biggest Mistake made in Yoga and Possibly in Life Written on January 28th, 2014 by
Categories: General, Yoga mistakes
What we think yoga should like

What we think yoga should like

In yoga sessions, people ask me all the time, “How do I look?!” My general response these days is “Great, but how do you feel?”  I’ve come to realize that in yoga, even with all the emphasis on self-awareness and nurturing spirit, blah blah, we still get caught up in our own unexamined desires to please, to get the carrot, to achieve, to finish. We take time out of our busy days to ostensibly take care of ourselves, to listen to ourselves. We then actually spend it very subtly (or not so subtly) punishing ourselves and imposing someone else’s ideals on ourselves.  We ask ourselves: Why can’t I touch my toes yet? Why is my balance so bad on this awkward left leg? My abdominals are so weak! I’ll never get this pose. etc.  Underlying all these questions and statements is the real thought, “What is wrong with me?”  We try to fix our problems by over stretching and straining. Does this mean all discomfort is bad? Of course not. But the attitude by which we struggle makes all the difference.

Most of the time, we want someone else to tell us we are doing it “right”. We want approval, assurance from the outside. We want our poses to look a certain way.  Even if we are not obviously comparing ourselves directly to another person, we still heed the internal judge about where we are in relationship to where we are supposed to be. This constant judging and measuring impedes learning.  We impose instead of approach with curiosity. We try one thing instead of many. Yes, we want to sweat, to really engage every muscle, to shake, to feel our own tightness but all in the pursuit of feeling great. You know when you ‘ve done it, because you come out of a pose and your body tingles. And you feel joyful and freer.

Of course, for a while most of us don’t know what we feel or even what is even possible to feel. There is nothing wrong with seeking guidance from another more experienced person on the outside, a teacher. Going down this path of physical self-discovery alone can be confusing. However, at some point we have to start learning what freedom actually feels like in our bodies and to begin to trust and listen to what they are telling us.  At some point you have to start tuning out a bit and start tuning in.

I know, because I have personal experience with being goal obsessed in yoga.  I’ve always wanted a deep backbend. Why? If I look closely, my assumptions are that it would make me appear truly adept and graceful, would prove I’m a good yoga teacher (that I really know “how to let go”) and increase my economic value as an aerialist. And yet I know from my own experience that the deepest backbenders don’t necessarily make good teachers and bendy aerialists are more often than not boring to watch. And yet I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get my ass and head closer together behind me (we all have weird hobbies). Part of me wants to just continue to bang away at bending my back in a linear fashion, because it thinks I don’t really “get” something, and one day I will get it if I just keep pushing in the same way. I’ve made getting a good back bend mean something about me as a person.

The only trouble is that for twenty years that hasn’t worked out so well. It hasn’t helped that my personal attitude has often been supported by the larger yoga community unconsciously. Physical flexibility seems to be inextricably tied to personal emotional evolution. In some senses, it is true as physical and emotional epiphanies often go hand in hand.  However, if you are looking just at  increasing range of motion, this idea makes little sense. The younger you are, generally the more flexible you are, but you are not emotionally evolved at all. And the super flexible are not necessarily great sages. In addition, when you really get honest with yourself and keep integrity and freedom in your body, your poses actually look actually less impressive from the outside, even if they are freer on the inside.

I have pushed and fought and tried for a long time.  Instead of focusing on how I felt doing a backbend, both my teachers and myself focused on getting the backbend to look good. But I didn’t leave class feeling good, I left sometimes feeling accomplished if in pain, but often just like a failure. I focused so hard on “letting go” that I collapsed into my back then would compensate by gripping my abdominals. No wonder I felt so bound up. My whole core went into protection mode against my will that was trying to force a change my body had no interest in.

What yoga should feel like.

What yoga should feel like.

After 20 years, I have started to really focus on my breath, my muscle engagement, and my energy flow. And of course what happened?! I don’t dread backbends, I actually love them, and they make me happy because I feel more and more free every time I do one. I know the fairy tale ending here would be to tell you I got a deeper backbend. Nope, not in real life, and I actually don’t care (most of the time).  I still find myself here and there checking to see how far my foot is from my head and then of course, the moment that thought passes through my head, my pose goes cold and static and I feel dry and crunchy again. I have to go back to reminding myself to stop with the measurements.

Now, with my clients too, I measure progress in how much they can sense what their own bodies are actually doing. Progress to me has zero relationship to how long one can hold a headstand or how easily you can touch your toes.  I watch breath, muscle engagement, and energy flow. I make different suggestions on how to make something feel freer or more stable and check in with what seems to work best. I try to get super honest feedback if what we are doing is actually relieving pain or tension or not. What is most important to me now is that both my students and I keep one eye always on the bigger picture. The “how” is so much more important than the “what”.


iphone vs sky- What a difference your chin can make

Comments Off on iphone vs sky- What a difference your chin can make Written on January 15th, 2014 by
Categories: General

Our language often hints at how we really see the world in relationship to our body. It’s borderline cheesy. We tell people if they are “down” to keep their “chin up”. Or if things are going better than they have been, “they are looking up”.   Even the word “depression” conjures up a sinkhole which we descend into. And for the most obvious metaphor, heaven is up and hell is down. Okay, so what?
We use this language because as humans we universally feel certain emotions when our body is in certain positions, we associate certain postures both in observing other people and ourselves with specific states of being. We know what sadness and depression looks and feels like in our bodies on an intuitive level. And yet when we try to find happiness, we do exactly that… “try to find it” as if it were out there somewhere instead of starting in the most obvious place. That place is within ourselves and how our own bodies interact with the world.
My job, as weird as it seems sometimes, is really one of body mechanic. I help people tune up their necks and backs which have become clunky and inefficient (sometimes even noisy). I try to grease the wheels. I teach ergonomic ways of sitting and walking and physically performing whatever a person does better and pain-free, whether it be golf or writing or standing on one’s hands. And while having no physical pain is a great starting place on the way to feeling good, there is so much more to our postural habits than just mechanics. Our bodies are information feedback mechanisms. We feel good and we open and lift our chests, but also when we open and lift our chests, we feel good.
I was on vacation for two weeks recently in a place with little or no wifi (don’t hate me). So for two weeks, I did not stare at a screen in the direction of my own navel. I didn’t sit and look down a foot away at strings of disembodied words. I spent most of my mornings and evenings watching the sun rise and watching it set again. Then I watched the stars. Or I watched birds teasing the ocean. If we passed through a city, we went to a museum and looked at art or walked through plazas and admired architecture. My head tilted up a lot more than normal and my sensory action was one of absorbing, letting details come to me rather than hunting them down (ah, that direction again).  What I realized was that this simple action of looking up and out rather than down and in, affected my whole being in real, subtle, and profound ways.

Here are some effects I noticed:
-Looking up instead of down made my upper back feel better. I sometimes get a knot under my right shoulder blade, and that cleared up.
-I needed my glasses less. While I still won’t drive without them, the world out there was not as fuzzy. My eyes felt less darty.
-My thoughts were less rapid. I feel almost like my brain waves slowed. Gaps of time were not awkward holes to be filled with whatever I could get my hands on.
-My brain was less self-involved. My thoughts that are all about me became a little exhausting to listen to, so I naturally switched to thinking a little bigger and broader (some of the time at least).
-My senses felt more receptive. I could see more, smell more, notice more.
-I was more in touch with the things that truly make me happy.
-I felt less rushed and anxious.
-I could focus more. Didn’t feel like I should constantly be doing something else.

I am lucky because my life in NYC happens to be more physical than the average person. I train myself every day in addition to running around the city and teaching others about their bodies. However, I still have a constant relationship to my iPhone. In between every client, I always check email and messages, then Facebook, then Words with friends, or I play a numbers game called Drop 7 or a stupid game that involves virtual fish (that’s the most embarrassing one, really?! You feed and breed fish that don’t exist in your few spare moments?! It’s vaguely like Farmville which makes it even more uncool.) When I get home, I take care of things on the computer I can’t do on my phone. Basically, my lifestyle makes little difference as I reflexively stare at a screen as much as anyone.
I fully realize that life is not a vacation. In NYC, I couldn’t really see the sunset if I wanted to. I am not about to walk to the east river every or any morning to see the sun rise especially if it is five degrees out. What is available at any moment? My phone. The problem is that smartphones, with their constant availability and never-ending sources of edutainment, make looking down hard to avoid. Your phone or iPad create the illusion that we are connected to the world, and we get a little anxious when we are away from them too long as we might be missing something. The reality is that you’re actually missing something by the constant iPhone usage. You quite literally aren’t seeing the larger picture around you.
I believe that looking in the directions of our own navels makes us become a little deflated. It’s not just the position of our necks which is bad on a physical level, but the short-sighted seeing. We are also feeding our nervous systems with the idea that our lives are small. We put our bodies into a position with shoulders forward, head down, eyes looking rapidly. If you saw an animal doing this, you would think it is scared or depressed. Enough times in a day and eventually our bodies convince us we are indeed anxious and depressed.
Too simple? Maybe. We are complex beings and again we have a chicken and egg problem. But you will never see a truly content person, one who has cultivated real happiness regardless of outer circumstances crouching all day long. We may not be able to convince our brains we are happy through positive thought alone, but need to integrate how we actually physically look at the world in the everyday.
So now if you’ll excuse me, I have been looking down for two hours. Time to look up.

Learning from a Fallen Guru While Finding my Inner Booty

Comments Off on Learning from a Fallen Guru While Finding my Inner Booty Written on November 26th, 2013 by
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Fresh from an exciting if intense yoga weekend, I enthusiastically strode forth to teach my yoga clients some of “The Roots” (or Sridaiva as this new method is called) Monday morning. One called me a crackpot and another a whack job. Despite all the trepidation, they were definitely very interested if a little confused by what I was telling them to do. That was frankly also my initial reaction to John Friend and Desi Springer’s new system because, well, it is pretty radical. It doesn’t even look like yoga and get this.. There is no stretching!! I know..crazy, right? How can this be? Does not compute.

As many of you know, the burgeoning Anusara community was rocked by the John Friend scandal a couple years ago. It tore the whole community apart beyond repair. And John was ripped off his pedestal in a dramatic Us-magazine kind of way. People were angry. Understandably so. There is even a Facebook page dedicated to hating on him. Many lost a significant amount of income, as well as a whole community, identity, and sense of direction.

The best way to describe Friend now is that he is less puffy. His body is leaner, his hair isn’t shooting out of his head in every direction, and he is a person rather than a persona. He still has his sense of humor, but he isn’t trying to entertain everyone with verbal tap dancing. He is more gracious. He also didn’t invent this new system, Desi Springer did. He gives her credit for helping him to let go of absolutely everything, including the yoga system he invented and all that he thought he knew about how the body and spirit worked. He admits it was a very difficult and humbling process, both physically and emotionally. But he believes in it, because of what it did for him on many levels. His role now is to help Desi refine, develop, and spread it.

Okay, blah blah blah, what is it, already? Well, the main thing is that it starts with a anterior pelvic tilt. Now I know for many of us in the biz, this action in and of itself isn’t a big deal because many have been teaching about neutral spine for years. And PT’s (and your mother) have always told you to bend your knees when picking up heavy objects and for chrissake not to slouch.

Here is what makes it radical:
1. The lower back curve that you train in is VERY extreme. (But even seniors can do it)
2. We learn to draw the gluteals up…way up…in fact, up and over the mound of the butt and into the sacrum. I can guarantee you that if you stick your butt way, way, way out with the pubic bone totally behind you and try to fire the glutes, really fire them, you won’t be able to…at first. It took me 9 months of my teacher, Robin, grabbing my ass to get even a spark. My ample posterior was on an extended lunch break with no intent to return to work. Everyone thinks they can do it, but when you go to actually touch your butt, there is always only some sad jiggling instead of a palpable firmness or your pubic bone has slid forward. And the butt doesn’t just squeeze and grip. It is like the underneath side of it or inside of it slides up and hugs your sacrum.

Every pose is done with very bent knees with your legs firing like you are a tiger coiling to strike or on the starting blocks about to run for a race. You are actually creating a spring-like force in your body like never before. Every finger and every toe is working like mad, resisting against each other. Your new goal in yoga class is to now create an incredible amount of tension. I’m serious. This kind of engagement is hard and you will run into every resistance you have. It will stress you out. The practice isn’t for pussies. There was a wind chill of 10 degrees outside over the weekend and we had all the windows by the river open. Try spending four hours in a deep squat like you are about to jump in the air and see if you don’t sweat profusely and want to cry.

Now why on earth would anyone ever want to do this? This does not sound fun or relaxing. We want to release tension not create it. Weirdly enough though, it IS fun. It is also incredibly healing and you do end up releasing all kinds of unnecessary tension while keep the necessary. Now, for my story. Being a dancer, aerialist, and yogi has done a job on my hip joints. I was pretty sure I was headed for at least one replacement. I tore my labrum on my left side about ten years ago doing an aerial trick and have had chronically torn hamstring attachments on both sides for the last ten years. I have not been able to run or hike downhill without unbelievable hip pain (which then goes down my ITB’s into my knees) for at least 12 years. If I tried to sprint, my hip would pop out. I didn’t think too much about it, and was just grateful I could still be a professional aerialist and teach yoga without pain. Hell, I didn’t like running anyway.

After 9 months of training in “The Roots” through Robin Janis, I can run again even on highly unstable surfaces like trails with no issues. I can also climb down mountains with zero pain and complete confidence that my body will finally really hold me. My husband was shocked to see me recently jump from one foot to another, from rock to rock, down a steep slope. He thinks I’m more courageous, but that is simply because I can now trust me. The inner and the outer go hand in hand.

I can do aerial tricks that I’ve not been able to do for the last 15 years. At 41, my back bends are getting deeper and feel good again. The rapid progress has been shocking. Now, even with all that, this weekend made it clear that I have only barely begun to “mound up.” I have a lot of work to still do. And Hanuman asana (getting my splits back) is still a long way off.

What is super interesting is that I have actually danced around this method for years without knowing it. I knew that pointe work and doing yoga with springs or therabands attached to my feet and hands felt great and really opened me up, but I just never did those exercises regularly enough. The set-up itself was hard and finding the time to get to a place where I could do it wasn’t easy. Plus, toe shoes killed my toes, even if my hips felt good. I also had no idea how to translate that real springy feeling into my body without all the crap, which is what I really wanted.

Culturally, this stuff is interesting because in part, it is a celebration of the female form. We are no longer trying to make our lovely lady lumps disappear. We are quite literally finding power in them. No more knitting the ribs together or bringing the tailbone down in any way. It also has very non-western quality, because it has the feel of African dance, the athleticism and animalism of Capoeira, and the slowness of tai chi. It has none of the straight lines of traditional Pilates, yoga, or ballet. Frankly, it is a little ugly to watch. But yoga was never meant to please the eye. It was always meant to be about building awareness starting with the physical form and going to deeper and deeper levels. It is about embracing your strength and your vulnerability and all the grace and ickiness that is a part of that. When you truly feel your own humanity on a deep level, you can then clearly embrace the humanity of others.

I am even coming to a place where I can start to say (on pain-free days of course) that I am grateful for my pain. I know that without it, like John, I would never have changed my patterns. I would never have departed from what I thought I knew. Floating in unconscious comfortable bliss is quite nice and I enjoy it when it is there, but it won’t make you grow. Most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming into growing. Pain has brought me radical paradigm shifts before, and by now you’d think I would learn to expect them. While it is still a struggle, I’m listening better each time, resisting less, and embracing more easily. I will probably be forced to let go of “The Roots” system at some point in the future as well. But right now, there is real opening.

What I like most about this system is that it can be for everyone. There are extremely remedial versions that will still push every button you have without harming you, except maybe your ego. It is wild that something can be tedious and nitty gritty and utterly magical all at the same time. I could have stayed angry at John or I could run down mountains. Really, in retrospect, the choice was easy.

Here is what it looks like: See the beginner explanation

Now here is Desi doing the very advanced sequence. It looks extreme and contortionistic, but what is remarkable actually is that she can fire her legs like she does when they are straight even.

Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. It just all starts with getting your butt the hell up.

The Problem with Epiphanies- Tales of a Recovering Epiphany Addict

Comments Off on The Problem with Epiphanies- Tales of a Recovering Epiphany Addict Written on March 25th, 2013 by
Categories: General

I am a recovering epiphany addict.  I know that sounds dirty and dramatic, but it’s the squalid truth. I can’t get enough of them. Until recently, if a new insight wasn’t setting my life on fire in some new and fabulous direction, I’d be lost, desperately groping around in the dark, praying for some new understanding to expose itself.

In my 20’s, I had a new one every other day. It was a revolving door of epiphanies.  I had epiphanies in Pilates, in the bathroom at the Guggenheim, even while reading the Celestine Prophecy on the subway. (Okay, that was an embarrassing admission. My standards were low and I had a sheltered suburban childhood, what can I say.)

I love the high, the moment of discovering everything I’d ever known was utter crap.  My thirst for revelations was insatiable. I’d take whatever came along, physical, mental, and emotional.  I’d be in yoga, and I’d discover, “Oh, THAT is what they really mean by get your upper arm bone back. Holy crap, this completely changes my practice!!”. Then I’d start shoving my upper arm bone to the back plane of my body with the force and excitement of a new cult member prosthelytizing for the first time.

Epiphanies, by definition, always involve things one already knows on some level, but rediscovers in a real or profound way. They feel utterly life changing.  They are the reason I keep teaching and taking yoga. I love watching that opening happen in my students as much as I enjoy experiencing it myself, “Well, for pete’s sake, You mean PUSH in the handstand. Not push, but PUSH! OOOOHHHHHH! Why didn’t you say so??” You wouldn’t think handstands are life changing, but they affect people more than one thinks they would.

  So what is my problem with these  fantastical phenomena?

The problem comes when you live for them, when everything else seems like a waste of time, when only the epiphany matters and not the in-between times.  The problem also comes when you get attached either to specific ones or to the idea of constant uninterrupted inspiration.  I am an expert in hanging onto and trying to perpetuate them.  Again, to use a physical example, I’d have moment where I would think “Aha! That is why my hamstrings keep getting pulled. I need to use my glutes more.” And then I’d work my butt like my life depended on it.  After a couple of weeks, my body would rebel and the action just wouldn’t work anymore.  The magic would stop. Tendons and joints would start to hurt again. I’d think there was something wrong with me or maybe it wasn’t truth that was revealed, that I was mistaken.

And yet, I was so sure at that moment that my practice was going to transform if I just repeated this one action over and over until I got it perfect. I’d get frustrated, wonder what I could do to get that feeling back, the feeling that I finally understood something, that feeling that I was on the right course.  But, there is no liberated ever after, like there is no happily ever after.  And yet I keep believing that the right understanding or set of circumstances will make everything clear. If everything would just STOP CHANGING FOR ONE DARN SECOND! I could get a handle on all this and get it right.

My practice actually works best when I start with the thought, “I am stuck and I have no idea what to do now.” I repeat that to myself over and over, then let my body and my mind tell me what to do. Sometimes it takes quite a while until anything actually happens. I might end up in down dog for ten minutes before any sense of what to do or where to go becomes apparent. Some days nothing at all really happens. I just stay stuck.  But eventually, with kindness and patience, something loosens and then something else bubbles up. The trick is to keep listening.

I’m getting better at it on the mat, but in life it is even harder. I don’t have the space and quiet I desperately need to hear. People are noisy and I am reactionary. I think I’ve understood something and then whoops! Nope, there I go again. And I’m back into being a hard ball. Okay, start over again. And again, and again. Moment by moment.

The Pain of Pain

Comments Off on The Pain of Pain Written on August 8th, 2012 by
Categories: General

Pain Sucks. I know some say they like it. These folks might enjoy finishing a marathon or getting something pierced, but absolutely nobody gets all excited about elbow tendonitis. Why? Because those other types of pains are temporary and a result of something we do like. We create them and we can stop them. Hurt from injury is difficult not only because of the pain itself, but because of the frustration and hopelessness that accompanies it. Will this thing ever go away? Why does it seem to go away and then keep coming back? Is this how life is going to be from now on? Pain leads us to feel victimized and powerless. It makes us feel old, and we find ourselves saying dramatic things like, “This is the beginning of the end! Now begins the slow slog to Death.”

Some injuries occur in an instant and turn our lives upside down, and some bubble up slowly, from some misalignment or overuse. However the damage happens, it usually leaves us a little flummoxed wondering, “Why this? Why now?”   In the beginning of the injury cycle, most of us can learn to accept what has happened. We realize we have to be careful and make some room for this inconvenience in our lives. We might need physical therapy, a brace, possible surgery, or a life style change. Some don’t want to make any accommodations for their injury, but ignoring it completely is hardly ever a useful strategy. However, rarely does the hurt disappear immediately as a result of our efforts. Then the frustration starts, “But I’m doing everything I can for this damn thing, why won’t it heal already?!!” This part of the process is when everything starts to suck and the actual work begins. It is at this point that we learn real patience, understanding that we aren’t in control, and our own physical and emotional patterns that are helping or hurting us.

I’ll be honest here. Yoga has probably caused me as much hurt as it has healed. Logically, one might ask why I would be such a glutton for punishment. I keep doing it because every injury has taught me more. I used to have an aggressive yoga practice, and I didn’t understand my body well. Over the years, patterns started to manifest which caused me issues. I could have blamed my teachers or the practice or myself for not listening, but I only knew what I knew when I knew it. How could I know what I was doing wrong unless my body stopped me? Every bit of harm has lead to another epiphany. Only now do I know when my body is truly ready to do a pose and when it is not regardless of what anyone else says. I am truly grateful for each bit of knowledge that makes more sense out of this incredible puzzle that is our physical being.

However, describing what you have learned from pain is a very different experience from being in pain right now. You don’t get excited about what you are going to learn as you throw back another painkiller because you just can’t take it anymore. When I have asked my yoga teachers about what to do in that moment, the moment when you are really hurting, the answers are never quite satisfying. Some say one should just learn acceptance and simply let the pain in. This however, feels dangerously close to resignation, just learning to live with it. Plus real constant pain is an incredibly powerful distraction. Most of us don’t have the power to have pain and live a normal life too. Others will tell you to keep trying different things until something works. This attitude can lead to incessant futzing and thinking of your injury as a problem that can be solved by just trying hard enough. This can lead to a emotional face off with your injury and built up anger. So what to do?

The ideal of course is to find acceptance while still working on different things to heal it. You put in the work without any attachment to the fruits of your labor. Hah!  Usually, you just remain stuck for a while. The pain comes and goes, and you wax and wane between acceptance and activity. This period can last a week or a year. What I can say from experience is not to speak to your body like it is alien to you. If you treat your wounded part like a frightened child rather than like a backstabbing bitch, it’s easier to be kinder to it. You can’t drag your body kicking and screaming back to health; you have to coax it there. Even the language you use to describe your injury matters. I know it sounds crazy, but if you allow resentment to creep in to your voice, it will hear you and punish you for it. Pain is not a simple stimulus/response mechanism. Your emotions and stress have everything to do with how much pain you feel and how fast you heal. Your patterns of thought around physical pain are usually reflected in other area of life as well.

For many of us, our doctors often just tell us to take a pain killer. You don’t want to numb it unless it is truly making you not function, then do what is necessary. The key is to keep listening to it. The pain is a guide and sooner or later your body will tell you how this happened, “Hey buddy, you let the inner thighs slack off for about ten years. Maybe they could help us out a bit with this knee here?” or “Do you realize every time Joe calls you get a pain in the right side of your neck?”

Very few people get through life without pain of any sort. It is part of being human. And yet when it actually occurs, we are always caught by surprise. But pain is not senseless, and almost always has the capacity to soften us instead of harden us if we give it the chance. Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is a choice. And I know, I hate when someone says that too.

The Wrath of the Yoga- getting mad and getting even

Comments Off on The Wrath of the Yoga- getting mad and getting even Written on June 10th, 2012 by
Categories: General

Have you ever worked yourself into a snit in a yoga class, and then wondered, what the heck am I doing? Anger supposedly doesn’t belong in yoga.  We are supposed to “let go”. Anger gets the cold shoulder because it does create tension and stress, wreaking havoc on our health.  It produces the belly fat increasing hormone cortisol, making us fat on top of pissed off.  With seemingly good reason, anger is to be gotten rid of the moment you notice it, like bed bugs. As yogis, we put inner peace on a pedestal, shunting anger off into a back room somewhere to be gotten over on our way to better things. The question is, is anger really always all bad? What is its place in yoga and stress reduction?

Anger has gotten a bad rap. We shouldn’t just shove it off like an unwanted solicitor and pretend we are better than that, because we aren’t.  I would even venture to say that people who claim to never get angry are either in deep denial, or are pretending they are more evolved than they are. When we deny anger, we lose some important benefits and opportunities for growth and discovery.

Yoga is about making the unconscious conscious and discovering our own patterns. Anger does a good job at pointing to those deeply ingrained patterns that might be hurting us. Take a good hard look at what really gets your goat. For me, it’s false accusations or perceived false accusations. If someone even suggests I may have perhaps been a little negligent about something, I find my breath quickening, and my mind obsessing. If I push anger away immediately or go on the defensive, I don’t get a good look at what those patterns are.  Anger also gets us in touch with our own humanity. When we feel our own uncomfortable emotions, we hopefully have more empathy when we see someone else wrestling with their crap. It’s hard to feel yogier than thou, when you’ve just snapped at someone or are grumbling to yourself.

Anger can be empowering. It gives us a voice and the strength to be heard when we might be afraid to do so. It calls us to action. Sometimes, an immediate violent reaction is exactly what is needed. I remember one time I was walking late at night out of a subway station in Queens and some guy reached under my skirt as I was walking up stairs. I spun around grabbed him by the collar threw him up against a wall and screamed every expletive I could think of in his face (lucky that I had the physical strength to do that!).  The guy clearly got freaked out by the sheer velocity of my emotions and tried to squirm away as fast as possible. I was proud of myself for finding my anger at that moment and acting on it. I didn’t really think I had it in me until it happened. Also, injustice in the world doesn’t often end until enough people get really angry about it. Well directed anger has the power to save lives and make the world a better place.

Thankfully, the vast majority of our daily interactions do not call for ninja-anger. We do not want to end up putting someone in a head lock every time we get a little upset. For every day conflicts, we don’t need to act or speak every time we feel angry. In an ideal world, we’d be able to pause, feel our anger, acknowledge it, perhaps make a little joke about it, look into the real reason why we are angry, and then calmly inform the person who made us angry about our feelings and see if the conflict can be resolved. Even that last run-on sentence is exhausting.

And unfortunately, humans are way messier than that. Usually anger causes raw reaction which either then has to be followed up with some damage control or causes an angry counter-reaction which escalates until someone ends up getting shot over a parking place or HR gets involved. Or we just carry it around with us, screaming at the person in our heads or complaining to our close friends and never giving it any other outlet. Somewhere in the middle, we have to forgive ourselves for getting carried away by our anger and realize that anger also has its own cycle and needs to run its course. If it isn’t finished doing its thing, it will likely crop up under another guise much sooner. This doesn’t mean we continue to add fuel to the fire, creating a self-righteous court in our heads lining up all the arguments of why we are right and the other person is wrong. That isn’t it either. If we focus more on the feeling or the pattern rather than the specific circumstance, we can find the distance necessary to realize, “Wow, that thing is still upsetting me, why really am I still carrying that around? What does it remind me of? What about it on a fundamental level is getting to me?” Then maybe after it happens another thousand or so times, you might find yourself not as upset by a certain circumstance.

In many spiritual practices, they speak of breathing anger out, exhaling it away. Pema Chondron, an articulate and experienced Buddhist teacher, however suggests that when we are angry, we breathe anger IN. By fully feeling it, by holding it within us, in a weird way even savoring it, we allow it to be a part of who we are. Like everything in yoga, this practice is much easier said than done. Also, it is important to remind ourselves that just because we get really furious in a yoga class, it does not necessarily mean there is something wrong with us or with the class. I have left countless yoga classes in a cloud of real rage and often tears, but I kept going back. Although it still happens occasionally, I understand so much better what pushes me to that place.  The next time you find yourself cursing, don’t focus so hard on letting the irritation go, try breathing it in and just see what happens. Whatever you do, just remember that you are not a bad yogi, just because you feel like stabbing someone in the eye (just don’t act on it!). Just use it before you lose it.

Repressed yogi anger

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