Women’s Day

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Last year, in conference, Sharath Jois was answering a question about something a student should do–I can’t even remember what about, but he used the masculine pronoun in his response. A female student then asked why he decided to use said pronoun and whether the practice was meant for men. He laughed, his eyes shining, the way he does when he seems to be enjoying a joke to himself, and asked her to look around as he gestured with his hands and chin to the sea of people crammed into the shala, an overwhelming number of which were women.

We have come a long way from the early days when the first westerners had contact with Pattabhi Jois and his ashtanga yoga, where the room of 12 would accommodate mostly men. And while we can count the few remaining senior female teachers, the modern day practitioner base is becoming more and more overwhelmingly female. The modern female ashtangi has come a long way. There are more female teachers now than before. There is a strong movement to champion women’s rights and dignity on and off the mat. Advanced women practitioners used to be a novelty and now it seems a norm that women continue on towards the advanced series, building strength while maintaining flexibility.

It is important to note that our yoga lineage celebrates women practitioners and teachers. Pattabhi Jois taught not just his sons and his grandson, the current director of the school, Sharath, but also his wife Amma, his daughter Saraswathi (both pictured above) and his granddaughter Sharmila. Saraswathi Jois, at 76, continues to teach in Mysore, India  alongside her daughter who assists her. Sharath’s wife Shrutti likewise teaches the afternoon classes with Indian students.

I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I am proud to be a part of a modern tradition of yoga that honors women, that encourages householdership as much as the practice, and, for those who are inclined, teaching. It respects the cycle of women, and asks us to do the same by taking our “holidays” during the first three days of our menstrual cycle.

Beyond the ideas of men and women, the practice itself is an incredible tool for empowerment. I came to this practice ten years ago pretty much still a girl. The years of practice helped me come into my own wellspring of inner strength and flexibility, I had no idea that I could be this courageous human being, let alone woman. And so with gratitude, I thank the practice. I thank my teachers and my teachers’ teachers who had the good wit and grace to teach men AND women this great method. I thank the one woman I’ve studied under, you are an inspiration. I thank all the women who came before me, who were brave enough to go to India to study yoga when India was even more foreign and wild and far away than it is today. It is good to remember that women are a part of this great lineage.

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The Practice of Flight


Ashtanga has this gravity defying reputation. All over social media there’s a plethora of photos and videos of ashtanga practitioners displaying incredible aerodynamic feats, floating/levitating in and out of postures. All around there are workshops that focus on these technical aspects, of jumping forward and back, of engaging bandha to the point of slowing down time, of achieving this lightness of the body that mimics flight. And why not, it’s fun and looks amazing, and moreover it builds a particular awareness in the body.

I remember in my earlier years of practice, I loved it, I loved the feeling of height, and flight, that moment of suspension as I moved my body forward on the mat, before landing. I remember a fellow student once compared me to a grasshopper. And, if I remember correctly, I rather liked the comparison.

I’m not much of a “flyer” anymore. I’d probably still enjoy it, but over the years of studying with Sharath Jois in Mysore, India, that among other bits and pieces have dropped off the program.

I think for some strong practitioners this comes quite naturally. What I realized, however, for me, it did not. A lot of extra energy went into that one particular inhale, the effort was disproportionate, and practice is about an evenness of breath and effort. And extra effort in jumps, meant extra work for shoulders and arms which then resulted in tighter albeit stronger muscles.

Letting go of it, and for sure attachment was there, was just as much a part of me growing as a practitioner as it might be for someone else who chooses to develop these abilities.

Over recent years, practice has been more about streamlining, taking out the extra flourishes, those dramatic flares, which– when they are effectations–are simply distractions from the meditative flow of sadhana. It’s been about efficient use of mind and body (at 40, I am more concerned with being able to have a healthy and sustainable practice).

With a practice like ashtanga yoga, I think there is more than one way to fly. There’s the kind of flight that’s physical and really stunning to see. Then there’s another kind, and this is the one I find myself more and more impressed with, the practice that glides with such ease it barely registers. These belong to the super heroes in disguise practicing quietly beside you in the shala, so subtle until that one sliver of a moment you note with much surprise that they are doing something quite extraordinary. Likelihood is that there are even more practically invisible yogis who are totally going unnoticed, soaring above us all.

Whatever our mode of flight (I think different ways suit different people), ashtanga simply inspires us to take off to greater heights–and to greater heights we must go, no matter what that looks like.

āsana and the yoga of cairo

It’s been a spell since leaving Cairo, but this piece inspired by the old city and its people has long been stewing. People often ask me why I keep coming back to Cairo. There are many reasons but one of the big ones is this: it inspires a level of sadhana that is well beyond the body. It’s a place that reminds me to live my yoga practice.

There’s this chair in a room. It’s a small receiving room in an old apartment in Downtown Cairo. The square room is painted red, and despite its tiny floor size, it stretches up and up with high ceilings. The chair is the only real furniture in the room. There’s a desk lamp, that sits on the ground and the three walls of the room are filled with artworks of varying sizes that reaches up the wall.

The seat, a wooden antique reclining chair with white cushions, feels lonely to me, partially lit by the lamp. Framed against the bits of modern art crawling up the red, it feels stoic, but solitary.

Later, my friend, to whom this space belongs, tells me about his life in Cairo. The struggles of ordinary life filled with victory and loss; he speaks of caring for a parent dying of cancer; of the failed revolution; of life in Tahir Square; of the many crazy things he witnessed during that crazy time; he shares the oddness and disparity between the different social stratas which he straddles, because Cairo, the world he lives in, constantly vacillates between extremes.

In yoga, “āsana” is often referred to as the postures we take while we practice. It is the “seat” of yoga.

These days, we mistake āsana as taking shapes in space. There is a proliferation of this on the internet with photos and videos of beautifully performed handstands and human pretzels… The day I started writing this article, a funny spoof on the yoga video phenomenon went viral among my yoga circles. The following day, a number of the same people who shared it online were once again liking yogāsana snap shots on social media. There’s nothing wrong with that, we can, of course, appreciate all sides. But it had me thinking, once again, what it means to be sitting in yoga.

It is truly something awesome to see a human being defy the limits and gravity with his/her body. They definitely inspire. But I wonder, are they accurate representations of āsana?

I do not offer any photos for this post, though originally I wanted to share one of the chair itself. My friend asked that I refrain from doing even that, such things are, after all, private and the delicate practice of our lives is sacred.

My friend and his chair (neither pictured here) move me in a way that I do not feel when seeing some popular representations of yoga. My friend and his chair, his seat, remind me that the essence of yoga cannot fully be captured in a polished physical posture, however amazing, however artistically articulated.

My friend, he’s no expert at Cairo life, certainly not at yoga. He’s simply doing his best to just sit in all the crazy, all the joy and all the disappointment, striving to find peace with all of it. And that feels like yoga practice to me.

When we practice, we are practicing our ability to sit in yoga, to find equanimity in the body, mind, heart. The greater practice is life itself, the challenge of which is to find equanimity in the body, mind and heart amidst the chaos of an ever changing world.

I think one of the reasons I continue to be drawn to Cairo is that the city’s version of the ebb and flow of life is on some serious kind of overdrive: it is a vortex of living, of varying energies, sweet and terrible (political, economic, cultural, social, individual) all swirling rapidly together in this thick soup of a city, layered with modern and ancient civilizations, and with them their countless innovations, numerous mistakes and unfathomable mysteries.

To sit in it, to stand, to walk, to move, to work, to be there, to be well–let alone, thrive there–takes a special kind of practice.

That’s not to say that everyone in Cairo is sitting in yoga, with every challenge there’s a good amount of avoidance or numbing–but the opportunity to practice yoga exists at every turn, every interaction, every bit of gridlock and difficulty. It is easy to see this in the lives of many of the city’s inhabitants, most of whom don’t know what the inside of a yoga studio looks like. Practice is alive in the struggle. It’s inhabitants must simply do what they can, working to find some stillness in all this whirlpool of energy; Cairo is their yoga.

The search for softness or grace or space or peace in the whirlpool of life is both challenging and sublime. I suppose it’s like this everywhere, though the extreme energies of a place like Cairo accentuates the experience. It is the same experience in a mysore room, where practice is alive and well, gritty and difficult, at the edge of some seemingly insurmountable odds, which we learn to overcome little by little.

Ultimately, the āsana of Cairo is that of everyplace, it is the practice of every man. It is about how we sit, stand, move, interact with our environment, with the people we meet, it’s how we rise up to our challenges and it’s how we live up to our victories.

 

Catching Wind, Empowering Practice


So many times I have found myself blown in certain directions. Mostly, though not exclusively, with incredible positive outcomes. Even gale force-like winds and maelstroms, which might have moored me into isolation or thrown me into some catastrophic disaster, would eventually abate and I would land wherever with the softness of a feather. I consider myself blessed to have had such good luck to be propelled so. I also know, that in many ways, I called for it, that I invited the elements myself to move me. Time and time again, I’ve taken myself to some peak, opened my arms in surrender, and like wings unfurled, I would get picked up and thus be transported.

I wondered, however, what would it be like if I participated more in this act of flight? The last year in particular has been about recognizing the difference between flowing with things and flying myself.

It’s been an amazing process, coming to a deeper understanding that all this raw energy can be transformed and directed. That I am not prey or play thing to the forces I perceived to be much greater than myself, but, instead, an active player, instigator, herder of energy.

There is so much in this; the world at large is packed with potential energy, raw, unharnessed. In the microcosm of us, we are likewise full of unrealized vitality and force. When we learn to access this, when we learn to use it skillfully, to move it in certain directions, something huge shifts. We are empowered.

This naturally happens when we practice. There’s this wealth of untapped energy in our bones, our connective tissues, our muscles, our breath, our thoughts and hearts. Our practice helps us soften the gross layers, physical and subtle, emotional and mental, that keep us from connecting with our own physical/metaphysical body.

When we practice with consistency over a long period of time, we start tapping into these energies, which then become apparent in the practice itself. We extract energy from the practice and it fuels us. Our bodies become efficient, so does our breath, we develop an economy of thought and effort and before we know it, we are no longer consuming energy but creating it, so ample that it overflows and drips into our lives causing all sorts of creative bounty /mayhem.

This is my tenth year of yoga practice. It’s not a very long time–I continue to feel like a babe in the woods–but it’s not a short time either. Whatever length it is, it is long enough to observe the effects of practice, how it’s changed, how it’s changed me, how my life has changed because of it.

These days in Cairo’s Nūn Center, there are a number of beginners and some students returning to practice after a substantial break. And naturally the struggles that come with starting an ashtanga practice begin to appear: the body gets tired, the mind wavers, the internal debate on whether to go to class starts when the alarm rings in the morning.

I remember my teacher saying that if you never leave your practice, it will never leave you. I still have those days where doing my own practice is like going to battle with myself. What he said, though, it’s true, and it gets me on my mat, it gets me through the first sticky sun salutation, and, eventually, the practice helps me catch wind.

Mysore Classes here at Nūn continue. Sunday to Thursday, 7:30-10am. This week, we are adding Ashtanga Basic classes Monday and Wednesday at 7pm. These classes can be used as an introduction to the morning Mysore program. Drop ins and all levels are welcome! 

Mysore Sunday, Final Session

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So much of my most precious interactions happen on a rubber mat with students while teaching in a Mysore space. Where else do you get to meet someone in this way, slowly over time, whilst they quietly cook in the juices of their own humanity, turning over with each deliberate breath and movement the fluctuations of the mind and heart.

It’s like getting to know someone without any context other than what plays out in the half-hour, hour, hour and forty-five minutes that one practices. Story-telling is minimized, so is the drama. The body is so intelligent. The practice is so precise. I love meeting in this way. It is so raw and real… and honest.

As a mysore teacher, the challenge is to meet as honestly as well. To cut out the superfluous, the desire to people please, the need to teach, so that the practice can do it’s thing. I often have to remind myself that the best thing that I can do is to get out of the way. The opposite is also true, when it arrises; it’s important to recognize when it’s a good time to get involved, when support is necessary.

Meeting in this way, in mysore-style classes, it is looking into a mirror and seeing who you are at that one moment. Sometimes, what I see is glorious. Other times, I see that I am one hot mess. All of it is ok and also, none of it matters. By meeting, we submit to an alchemical process, a world of change.

It has been incredibly special to lead the Mysore Sunday classes here in Mysore SF twice a month. Please come to class, I love to meet with you. I will also continue to assist Magnolia Zuniga in Mysore SF until December 10, 2015 before heading back to Asia to prepare to study with my own teacher in Mysore, India.

Into the Horizon

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We do not always know where we are going and we certainly don’t know where we’ll end up, but we look out anyway into the horizon, our eyes trying to make out that fine line between the knowable world and that which is totally uncertain. The meeting of the two can inspire so many feelings: anxiety, sorrow, trepidation, joy, excitement…

We want to know if swimming into the ocean of life, hitting against its backwater, navigating its swells, we want to know that it’s worth it, that there’s going to be something on the other side.

In our practice and with life, we are told not to reach so much, that our task is to simply be in the present moment. And, still, we can’t help but to look out beyond the now, often wanting to quantify the great unknown. We want to know that practice, that doing our thing, that living our lives will be worth it–in the end. So fixated at the big what next, we often fail to see what is before us: a whole ocean of life, teeming with possibility, and that there is actually enough mystery here to keep us busy. There is just so much, so much to explore, to learn, so much depth to dive into, to experience.

I often pray these days that I simply enjoy all that is in front of me, that I enjoy practice for what it is, not what it can be, that I savor living life for the sake of simply living it, to recognize its vast greatness, rather than overlooking it.

PHOTO: Mural in Mission District, San Francisco. Teaching at Mysore SF throughout November. http://www.mysoresf.com

One with World and Practice

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Sunset at Fort Bragg’s coastline in Mendocino, California.

How many times have we looked out into the great big world, taking in one of those breathtaking views, and are awed by all that we are not? We are inspired, our imagination stirred, we are humbled, but these feelings also put us in different places–us and the world.

What would it be like to look out at the greatness that is and see a reflection of ourselves? What would it be like if we saw sameness instead of separation? If we looked out and instead of noting difference, we say: “wow, I’m a part of that,” or “that’s me, too!”

What if we looked at everything, big and small, every person we meet, no matter what the circumstance, every interaction we have in the same manner? Imagine how different life might be.

In the microcosm, this is a challenge we meet in daily practice–at least, I know I do. There’s me and then there’s the room and the people in the room. There’s my practice, and then the practice of others and my idea of an ideal practice. How many times does our drishti (point of focus) slide and we take in through our periphery some excellent (or sometimes, less than excellent) posturing and we compare ourselves to another?

There was a time when I looked upon these thoughts with a great deal of shame; I wanted  to be above it all, thinking that would make me a good yoga practitioner.

When these thoughts come up nowadays, I find more humor in them and more gratefulness for them. For the function of practice is to tease these reflections of the ego up to the surface where they can be seen in the full light of day–that they come up is not a problem but a part of a solution. As we observe them, they come up less and less and they subtly loose their power.

More and more, I have different kinds of moments when I’m teaching  or when I am practicing. Sometimes, I perceive someone who may be dissimilar in practice, body type, everything, and still I think: yup, that’s me! Maybe the current me, or 7-years-ago me, or the me I might be in a few years, but that’s me, that’s my experience also, that’s my challenge, that’s my strongpoint too, that’s my fear–and in these incredibly precious moments, I see sameness, I feel compassion.

There are other times when I see someone doing just the most impossible, gravity-defying, beautiful thing, which I cannot even imagine getting close to, and I feel beyond envy this great sense of incalculable possibility. I am inspired by our shared potentiality, though it will, no doubt, express itself differently for me.

And then, there’s the practice, which is so very personal. Yet, over time, it starts to feel quite impersonal also. Especially in a mysore space, there’s the practice that I feel is mine, (my mat, my body, my motions) and then there’s the practice that is ours, that is shared in the room, and beyond that, a practice that is shared by a global community that is still connected from teacher to student, teacher to student, all the way back to Mysore, India, the way it has been since the beginning. Then there’s the practice that is shared by everyone, which is life…

I know this looking at unity instead of difference is hard to sustain, so conditioned are we to compare or to see our own smallness.

But the photo above had me thinking about this man looking at the sunset. I imagine his awe at the scene before him, the sun setting into the Pacific coloring the Northern Californian coastline. I wonder, is he thinking: “wow, that’s a sight” or “aren’t we just amazing!” From where I’m sitting, I am also in awe and he is as much a part of the magnificent landscape, his presence completes the scene–and I am also a part of it, even though, from where I’m sitting, I might not see it.