In House: Lavinia Plonka on Healing Back Pain
The truth is out. There is no quick fix for your back pain — not in the way you have been conditioned to think of it. Back surgery has been shown to be ineffective most of the time, and often makes things worse. Epidurals and cortisone shots are temporary. And by now, everyone knows what happens when painkillers become a regular part of your life.
The mystery of back pain
Back pain is a mystery. Research has shown that many people with bulging discs, degeneration, structural anomalies, or tears, have no pain and lead active lives. Conversely, many people who have no structural damage suffer from chronic pain. The late Dr. John Sarno, best-selling author of Healing Back Pain, stated that most back pain was emotionally based. Pilates people will tell you it’s your core. Physical therapists will say it’s your posture. But what if it’s a little bit of everything, with age and old injuries thrown in?
A mindful approach to back pain
In Cathryn Jacobson Ramin’s book, Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry, Ramin tried everything to relieve her back pain, even submitting herself to surgery at the infamous Laser Spine Institute. After years of frustration, she found two approaches that helped: Back Pain Boot Camp and mindful movement. I don’t know about you, but given the choice, I’m not going for Boot Camp! In her list of mindful approaches, she credits the Feldenkrais Method as a useful approach for back pain.
From pain to pleasure
Unlike traditional exercise, Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lessons use mindful movement to re-train your brain and nervous system. The movements are luxuriously slow and offer your body the opportunity to untangle pain patterns without stress. Most of the lessons are done lying down, often with eyes closed. It’s like giving your nervous system a spa treatment from the inside out.
Once you learn the movements, you can do them at home to maintain your spinal health. No doctors, no surgery, no drugs. Just a commitment to your own well-being. Try a free sample, and if you scroll down the page, there’s even a lesson for your spine.
And if you’d like to experience the benefits of Awareness Through Movement lessons in a beautiful retreat environment, please join me August 23-26 for From Pain to Pleasure at the Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, NC. We’ll take good care of you!
Lavinia Plonka healed her own back pain using The Feldenkrais Method®. This inspired her to become a certified practitioner. Lavinia is considered a master teacher, as well as an internationally recognized expert in body language, offering workshops around the world. She is also the author of several bestselling books, including What Are You Afraid Of? A Body/Mind Approach to Courageous Living. Lavinia is director of Asheville Movement Center in NC, former Vice President of The North American Feldenkrais Guild and loves every opportunity to awaken people’s potential for joy. Lavinia lives by Moshe Feldenkrais’ maxim, “Movement is life. Without movement, life is unthinkable.”
Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
In House: Jurian Hughes on Practicing Blessing
A few years ago, my beloved David Wallace and I taught a program together for the first time. We spent the week leading up to New Year’s with a tribe of like-minded souls, diving into ‘Practicing Blessing’. And what an incredible blessing it was! Though I confess I had some trepidation about our teaching together – we are soooo different! – it turned out to be, of course, the great gift.
While David is a thoughtful scholar, minister, and poet, I’m a body-feeling dancer, chanter, and yogi. Together, with our distinctive/complementary styles, we literally practiced blessing together. For five days, we practiced actively cultivating ways in which to live in the space of embodied connection to spirit. It was, by turns, surprising, humbling, inspiring, delightful, empowering, raw, and beautiful.
The blessing of dance prayer
The highlight for me was New Year’s Eve, when we offered what may be the first-ever flash mob dance prayer in the middle of Kripalu Yoga Center’s busy lunchtime dining hall. Amidst hundreds of guests and their chatter, Simon de Voil’s beautiful song “Deep Peace” rang out. A hush came over the room as twenty, thirty, then perhaps forty of us rose from various points throughout the hall, to silently, in a simple dance, bless the throng. People stopped eating to receive our wordless offering. Better yet, some stood, or sat, and joined us. It was one of the most moving events I’ve witnessed in quite some time.
I had to try to capture some of that. Sean Nackoul helped me make this video of the dance prayer in the snow, so you can practice it, too…
I, too, am a dancer
Dance prayer teaches me something I am always forgetting–the power of simplicity. I am so thankful to my teacher, mentor, and friend, Megha Nancy Buttenheim, creator of Let Your Yoga Dance®, who introduced me to dance prayer over a decade ago and reminds me that ‘less is, so often, more’. My goal at this stage of life is not to perfect my dance technique, but rather to make the beauty, the joy, the sacred practice of dance so simple, so accessible that everyone who comes into the room has the experience of “I, too, am a dancer.”
The simplest, most helpful practice I’ve taken on since our ‘Practicing Blessing’ program is to write down daily the blessings of the day. It’s been quite eye-opening to observe my inner landscape as I do this; to witness myself on the days when it’s difficult vs. the days when I could go on forever. It’s teaching me what I value by highlighting the things that show up over and over – David, Smitty, health, friendship, work that feels worthwhile, a momentary connection with a stranger that infuses my day with meaning… This practice of taking time to remember and record the ways in which I have been blessed helps me to feel like I can then, in turn, be a blessing to others. Simple, yes.
Today, may you feel your blessings overflowing, and know that you, too, are worthy and capable of being a blessing in the world.
Jurian Hughs, E-RYT 500, MFA, is founder of the Yoga of Voice; co-founder of A Wild Life Sanctuary™; co-creator of The Yoga of Yes; a Let Your Yoga Dance® teacher trainer; voice coach; personal mentor; writer; speaker; and theatre performer known for her passionate, playful, and engaging teaching style. As a senior faculty member of the Kripalu School of Yoga since 2006, Hughes has led thousands of workshops and programs and trained more than 1,000 Kripalu yoga teachers.
Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
In House: Neil Kagan on his Reiki Journey
Why might somebody feel called to take a Reiki class? In my experience, there are generally four categories:
- You have a need for yourself
- You have a need for someone else
- You are in the Healing business (massage therapy, chiropractic, etc)
- You love the subject of energy work and other similar modalities
Taking healing into your own hands
The common theme through all of these is that you can learn how to take healing into your own hands — literally — with Reiki. By tapping into the unlimited supply of universal or Reiki energy, you can administer the energy to yourself, a loved one, an animal, or even a situation.
A holistic approach with Reiki
In my case, I fit into the second category. My firstborn son was getting ready to have a liver transplant at the age of 10 months. While I knew he had to undergo major surgery, I was still searching for ways and modalities that I could do to help facilitate his healing.
Approximately one month before his transplant, I took my first Reiki class. I still remember the energy I felt the first time I put my hands over him, just hours after his transplant. The energy I felt in my hand was very powerful, but yet I was not aware of just how powerful.
The beginning of a lifelong practice
The doctors told us that he would be in the hospital for a month — he was out in two weeks. His mother, his donor, also being treated with Reiki, had one of the fastest returns back to normal liver functions that they had seen from a donor. We couldn’t believe how well he was doing.
As he continued to recover extremely well from his transplant, I thought my days of using Reiki would soon be over. But as fate would have it, and as time went on, I would get sick with colds and later with a knee energy. I found myself using Reiki for myself, moving over to the first category.
A powerful tool for healing
I have been in this category for over 22 years, and have seen thousands of people using Reiki for all sorts of ailments, illnesses, and various other concerns. Reiki is very powerful on healing the physical body, it it is equally effective on the other parts of our being — mental, emotional, spiritual, etc. Still, to this day, I am amazed at how powerful and effective this energy is and how it can literally change peoples lives for the better.
Reiki Master Neil Kagan’s diverse background started with martial arts in 1981. This prompted a life-long study and practice of various martial and healing arts, including Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Kung. In 1995, he earned the title of Kung Fu Master (8th degree black belt). He has been teaching classes since 1997.
Learn how to support yourself and your loved ones with energetic healing with Neil and Tobi Gold at the Art of Living Retreat Center from July 13th to July 15th, 2018 at their retreat, Become a Reiki Master.
Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
In House: How Tobi Gold Discovered Reiki
I came to Reiki through teaching Yoga. For years, as I ended a class and people were resting in Savasana, I would place my pointer fingers in the center of my student’s foreheads and spread a little oil. Student’s would often remark, “I really liked the energy I felt from your hands!” I was not a Reiki practitioner then, but hearing those words led me to pursue it.
Finding the right Reiki teacher
In May of 2016, I took Reiki Level I at a lovely Holistic Center in Florida. I’d heard many stories about finding the right teacher, and didn’t understand why that was important. But that was before I had Neil Kagan as my teacher — I knew right away that he was the right teacher for me. In addition to making us feel comfortable with his relaxed approach and great stories, he was not “woo-woo” at all. In fact, he was very grounded, organized, and clear in his communication. I ended up taking all three Levels with him.
Healing from a distance
At Level I, I could practice Reiki on myself. At Level II, I could use Reiki for distance healing. I was telling my old friends from New England all about my newly acquired skill, and as they talked about their various illnesses, I offered to send Reiki to them long-distance. They would “recieve” this energy in a variety of ways, some with relief from pain, some with relaxation and better sleep.
I was so happy that I could help.
Now, as a Level III practitioner, I often use Reiki when I work with clients one-on-one. Reiki, the ability to use universal energy as it comes through my palms, is simple and effective.
Experiences with Reiki
I have one client who experiences chronic pain in his hips and lower back. All I have to do is bring in the Reiki energy and rest my hands in those areas, and he feels relief. Sometimes he falls alseep — a sign of complete relaxation and the absence of pain.
Another client experiences occasional pain from anxiety and tension. For her, I combine Reiki with restorative Yoga. I simply help her get into a comfortable, supported pose and apply the Reiki energy where she is feeling distress. She does experience the heat from my hands, and a deep relaxation with the treatment, which leads to reducing pain: a great gift.
Tobi Gold has been practicing Yoga and Meditation since 2001. She completed her first certification at Kripalu in 2007, and has been teaching Hatha and Vinyasa Flow ever since. In 2016, she took a Reiki Master Program in Florida, taught by Neil Kagan.
Learn how to support yourself and your loved ones with energetic healing with Tobi and Neil Kagan at the Art of Living Retreat Center from July 13th to July 15th, 2018 at their retreat, Become a Reiki Master.
In House: Stacey Vann & Pamela Hunter on Walking Through the Door
Walking through the door
I remember walking through the door to my very first yoga class, and then my first workshop, and finally, not soon enough, my first retreat. The progression of being ready to walk through the door for the different intensities of my yoga journey was all-life giving.
What has yoga given you?
Yoga gave me a home to come to within myself and within community. What has yoga given you? How does yoga feel for you? Do you remember when you first walked through the door? Sometimes we need to free ourselves from our typical daily life in order to sit in the rhythms of our soul.
The magic of awareness
We invite you to sit for a moment here and now and observe your rhythm. Feel your feet and the earth you touch. Notice the motion of your breath. Follow your heartbeat. Sense what you taste in your mouth. Does the taste match what you are smelling? Allow the noises you hear around you to be included. Envision your essence pulsating from within. Our vibrational rhythms support us as we awaken our awareness to feel our essence where we can embrace our innate wisdom, truth, consciousness, and bliss.
An invitation to self-care
Is your heart calling you to interweave your yoga with essential oils, sound, nature, and community? Can you give yourself time and space to walk through the door? Join us for self-care, self-love, and self-reflection at our Awakening Your Essence retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center, from September 21 to 24, 2018.
Find the inner mind you’ve waited so long to.” — Wah
Stacey Vann, E-RYT 500, and Pamela Hunter, E-RYT 500, are the Aloha Sistas. Stacey is a mother of five, Soul-Centered Life Coach, Doula, Reflexologist, and the Founder of the Mahabhuta Yoga Festival and Galactic Child Yoga. Pamela is a mother of two, an Integrated Health Coach, an Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Certified trainer, and the owner of Fun Lovin’ Wellness.
In House: Wendy Swanson on the Nature of Pain
Some of you may know that I was in a small plane crash in December 2007. As we were crashing I braced myself, trying desperately to “put on the brakes”. Obviously, I lived to tell the tale and I was left with some pretty profound right side low back and hip pain as a result. Now, almost ten years after the crash, my pain is substantially less. In fact, most days I’m unaware of the pain unless something brings it back to the surface.
Before I go into what brings my pain to the surface and my opinion on pain, I want to clarify a few things. I have worked with thousands of people as an acupuncturist and yoga teacher and I KNOW that pain is very, very real. Sometimes pain stems from emotional trauma and manifests in the physical body, and it hurts all the same.
I find that it is absolutely necessary to have a baseline of self-care when trying to heal the body naturally. It is vital to eat healthy foods low in sugar, pesticides and other chemicals, have an exercise routine, and get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night. If we are NOT doing these things our pain will be worse. This is where we need to clean up our act first, in order to successfully allow our bodies to heal.
A deep dive into my own pain
February 2017 my mom, at the young age of 73, passed from Alzheimer’s. In many ways I was prepared and even praying for her passing since she no longer knew herself or anyone else close to her. We had lost her long before her physical body left this earth. Even so, I went into a period of deep mourning and grief.
My emotional anguish showed up a few ways in my body. The first week after my Mom died I got a terrible, hundred tissue a day type of cold. After the cold subsided I was then left with that old, familiar right side back and hip pain. The pain rested mostly at my sacrum and was so severe that I contemplated finally going for a MRI to see what the heck was wrong with me. To know once and for all what had happened to my back after the crash. You see, I never got an x-ray or MRI, because at the time of the crash I was 5 weeks pregnant and did not want to do anything that would harm my growing baby.
The only way out is through
My pain kept intensifying as the weeks passed after my Mom died. I saw my gifted network chiropractor. I saw my therapist. I went to yoga classes. I meditated. I gave myself acupuncture. I rested. In short, I did everything right and yet my low back would not release. What I have come to believe is that my back was literally FEELING the intensity of my emotional loss and pain. There was no getting around it. There was only going through it.
Of course, my emotional pain landed where there had been physical trauma. The instability of my low back and hip are completely real. The pain, though, for ME (and for many, many people that I have worked with) is directly correlated with the stress of my life. My mom’s death = BIG STRESS, BIG SADNESS, BIG GRIEF.
About 5 weeks later I attended a spiritual day long retreat with Dr. Matt Lyon. It was there that I had a profound vision of my Mom. In this vision I saw my Mom happy, dancing and free in a way that she had never been in her earthly life. She clearly communicated with me that she was still with me and always would be. It was almost exactly at that moment that my pain completely disappeared. I had gone from excruciating pain to zero pain in a moment of emotional release.
The emotional and physical body
In the months since that profound emotional healing I’ve had twinges of pain in my back but nothing like it was immediately following her death. I also know that there is a good chance that I will again feel that terrible pain at my sacrum, low back and hip. It will be at a time of great stress. I’m open to NOT feeling that pain, but I will not be surprised if my body once again manifests my emotional state in my body.
I could tell you countless similar stories. I could tell the tale of how I ended up at the urgent care thinking that I had a severe neck issue only to realize that it was my body’s way of dealing with the fact that I was about to let someone go from their job. Or share stories I have heard from my patients. I’m guessing you have your own story or two of pain in the emotional and physical body.
Get into feeling
My solution to our collective pain is one that is probably not all that popular. It is important, though, for us all to hear it.
Get off the pain meds and get into feeling. Get off being a victim to our traumas and get into owning our own stuff. Pain is a reality of life. There is no medication that erases all the pain. There is no self-help book, no guru, no doctor that can make it all better. It might sound overly simplistic and trust me I know it is not always easy.
The answer is about every single day choosing a path of love, forgiveness and healing. If you are living in the United States, reading this blog, then most likely YOU DO have the ability to choose. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s pain because I see real pain every single day with the people I serve. We still can actively choose our path, to choose love, healing and to seek out help as needed. You are your own answer. You are the solution. And most importantly you CAN choose a path of LOVE & AUTHENTICITY.
Wendy Swanson, L.Ac, E-RYT 200, is a healer, transformational leader, yoga teacher and licensed acupuncturist. Wendy has been leading groups for over 15 years both domestically and internationally. She is an open hearted yoga instructor who is currently studying at Kripalu to obtain her 500 hour yoga certification. As a licensed acupuncturist for over ten years, Wendy’s strives to help people live a life filled with greater ease, joy, well-being and balance. Wendy owns Be Yoga & Wellness in Charlotte, NC.
In House: Cyndi Lee on The Complete Package of Meditation and Yoga
It came without warning right at the beginning of the day trip down the river. I really don’t like water and I am a weak, underconfident swimmer at best. But people I trusted said it was fun and not scary at all. If you did fall out, you would land on a little rock and immediately be picked up in the next boat.
So I went and on the very first bend in the river, I slid out. There was no warning and no big inhale before plunging into icy cold, wildly churning water. And then there I was, trapped under a rubber boat in the whitewater rapids of the Pacuare River in Costa Rica.
No breath in my lungs and nobody can see where I am. I thought, “Wow, this is how it happens,” and I visualized a small obit in The New York Times: “Yoga Teacher Drowns Leading Retreat in Costa Rica.” My mind raced and my lungs tightened, but somehow I didn’t panic.
I never fully realized it before, but the yoga, breathing and meditation practices I had been doing for years had prepared me for this very moment. Practicing awareness, manipulation and retention of the breath allowed me to know intuitively that I could go without breathing for way longer than was comfortable. My daily twisting and inverting enabled me know what was up and down and to maintain a highly fluid sense of balance. Meditation had trained me to stay focused on the task at hand even while thoughts of my own death ran rampant through my head. I groped my way along the bottom of the boat and popped up into the rapids.
A very long minute later, a body-builder/yoga student of mine grabbed me by the collar and plopped me into his boat. My Buddhist teacher, Gelek Rinpoche, had taught me that to meet the dharma in your lifetime is as fortunate and rare as a tortoise’s head popping up into an inner tube in the middle of the ocean. In that moment I felt just like that tortoise. Sitting in the haven of boat #2, my heart hammering, my adrenaline rushing, my lungs gasping, I was as scared as I’ve ever been. But when I was under the boat I had not been scared. I was wide awake, balanced and steady. Mindfulness meditation, yoga asanas and pranayama are each powerful practices that can affect our lives deeply. But there is no doubt in my mind that in this life-threatening moment, it was the combination of the three that saved my life.
What do I do with this body and this mind?
As a yoga teacher, I am passionate about yoga and have been fortunate to share this passion with many students over the past 20 years. I have been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for more than 10 years and it has been a natural evolution for the two lineages to merge in my teaching. Yoga and Buddhism offer insights and experiences that complement each other and together complete a basic homework assignment for human beings: What do I do with this body and this mind?
Back in 1972 I started taking yoga classes for an easy P.E. credit in college. The feeling of being cleansed-like taking a shower from the inside out-was unmatched any other kind of exercise I had experienced. My teachers were inspiring and I was highly motivated. It didn’t take long for me to be able to hold my breath for over a minute or to stand on my head for five minutes. I was hooked.
I got left behind, though, when it came to the “spiritual” part. I just didn’t get it when my teachers quoted Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra, who wrote, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” They closed their eyes and somehow seemed plugged into a big bliss cloud of happiness. I tried to feel blissful, but then the class was over. Walking down the street, my body was strong, clean, juicy and open, but I felt inadequate and cranky.
Yoga is a mirror
It turns out that my experience wasn’t that unusual. While most people do walk out of yoga class in better physical shape than when they walked in, personal awakening may still elude them. Yoga is an unparalleled method of strengthening muscles, enhancing breathing, cleansing toxins and soothing the nervous system, but the sense of harmonious rejuvenation that arises by the end of the class may dissipate once our feet hit the pavement in front of the yoga studio door. A person’s body may change but their mind will still be jumping, their heart still buried under layers of tension and fear.
As a teacher I have seen again and again that if you are a Type A personality, you will do your yoga practice with the same aggression and competitiveness that shapes the rest of your life. If you are sloppy, your posture will reflect that. If you are easily frustrated, the challenges of yoga may magnify that tendency. It has been my experience that the physical practice of hatha yoga alone is not strong enough medicine to alter those patterns-particularly in the maelstrom of today’s world.
Awakening to Buddhist meditation as a companion for yoga
My dissatisfaction with yoga left me with a longing for something more, a sad empty feeling. Remembering that my dad’s prescription for loneliness or depression was always to do something helpful for someone else, I began to search for a way to take the focus off myself and still be myself. I read about maitri, the loving-kindness aspect of Buddhism, and was drawn to explore that. So when a friend of mine invited me to attend teachings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I signed on for two weeks worth of teachings.
The first week was slow going, what with translators explaining to us Westerners the teachings of these great lamas. Some of the teachers wore business suits, some wore elaborate robes and exotic hair-dos. I didn’t have a clue who they were or what they were saying, but I liked being there. The second week His Holiness explained what it meant to be a bodhisattva, and without hesitation I signed on with a bodhisattva vow.
Through a friend I met the Tibetan teacher Gelek Rinpoche. For at least the first year I studied with him I struggled to follow the teachings, and even to stay awake during his all-day talks. But although I didn’t exactly know what he was talking about, I always felt that he was talking right to me. It seemed like he always knew exactly what was problematic in my life and would frame his talks just to help me. I noticed that I was becoming more grounded, more patient and more conscious of others, and over time, inspired by the kindness of my teacher, I began to share what I learned from him with my yoga students. The teachings and techniques were a natural fit with yoga asana practice.
As my Buddhist practice developed I learned to watch my thoughts come and go like watching birds playing in the sky. This mindfulness training began to seep into my yoga practice. Rather than looking for bliss by dropping out, I dropped in, taking notice of my physical sensations and the thoughts that arose in connection to them. I realized I had the same thought every time the teacher said, “Let’s do backbending.” I thought I didn’t like backbends, but my relationship to backbends changed when I recognized that thinking pattern.
Applying Buddhist meditation instruction to how I did yoga postures slowed me down enough to feel my breath, my heart and my mind. My sense organs softened and opened, allowing me to experience each individual new backbend. I discovered that my backbends were different all the time and that was interesting to me. In fact, meditation gave me license to just let that happen, instead of trying to stifle my thoughts and become something different than who I am.
My Buddhist teachers said mindfulness meditation was “synchronizing body and mind” and I understood that conceptually. But after sitting on the cushion for a whole weekend I thought, “What body?” Didn’t the Buddha ever walk, stand or climb stairs? History tells us that he did engage in extreme yogic practices and ultimately found them unsatisfactory. Finally, after sitting still under the Bodhi tree he became enlightened, and then got up and began to move through the world again.
The Eight-Limbed Path
Patanjali is credited with writing the Yoga Sutra about 150 years later. Although yoga is often associated with Hinduism, it is most closely aligned with Sankhya, one of the six classical Indian darsanas, or “ways to see.” Sankhya is an attempt to explain the nature of all existence by dividing it into purusha, that which is unchanging, and prakrti, or matter. It tells us that the separation of these two states is the cause of our suffering and that the path to liberation is through repression of our thoughts, withdrawal of our senses, and denial of our body in order to reconnect with our true Self. This re-union is the state of yoga, from the verb yuj; to yoke or bind.
The practices of introverted concentration associated with this state are described in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali as an eight-limbed path: yamas (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). The limbs begin by refining our behavior in the outer world and then lead us more and more inward until we reach samadhi. Most people doing yoga today are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of immobility.
Buddhism begins with the premise that life is suffering but ultimately leads us outward, rather than only inward. We start the Buddhist path by sitting still and stabilizing our mind. From the spaciousness that arises during this practice of calm abiding, we naturally begin to feel our heart. Combining the practice of non-grasping wakefulness with exercises that generate compassion gives us a recipe for how to interact intelligently, soulfully and spontaneously with ourselves, each other, our family and the world.
These teachings invite us to open up to who we already are, rather than look elsewhere for connection, because the seed of awakened heart is within all of us already. It’s our heritage as human beings. It’s just that we can’t always feel our beautiful lotus heart blooming because we get stuck on ideas of fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, greed.
Remaining in the immediacy of everything
But Buddhist meditation techniques reveal that none of these emotions are solid and with practice we learn how to watch them arise and fade away and still stay steady on our seat or on our feet. We learn how to remain in the immediacy of everything, for example, backbending, rather than what we are thinking about backbending. Then loving-kindness invites us to approach our backbends with at least an inner smile and a little less crabbiness.
At OM Yoga Center in New York we practice a form of yoga called vinyasa, which is a series of flowing movement sequences coordinated with rhythmic breathing. We approach the vinyasa style with great attention to detail, especially regarding alignment, to ensure that students do not get injured and get the most benefit from their practice.
The other element of OM yoga is meditation in action, which invites the yogi to observe and become familiar with mental and physical habits, to relax the grip of thought activity, and kindly abide in the asana. All this is done while maintaining a sense of vipassana, or clear seeing, which opens the yogi to the world around them and creates a healthy balance to the refined inner vision of yoga practice. The flow, precision and mindfulness of our yoga practice are all supported by Buddhist principles.
The flowing form is the physical manifestation of path without a goal: each pose is connected by a transitional movement that has as much value as the pose itself. This approach relates to equanimity, not knowing when our actions will bear fruit, and helps us break through the goal-oriented mentality we know so well and which is so prevalent in our relationship to our bodies.
The lessons of a forward bend
This shows up a lot in forward bending. Many people have a desire to be able to bend forward and touch their toes. But guess what-I can do it and can definitely tell you that touching your toes does not make you happier. I do enjoy the lengthened feeling in the back of my legs and the openness in my spine-most of the time. But just like everything else that is transitory and conditional; sometimes it feels stressful or boring. So in our yoga practice we pay attention to how we get into the pose, what happens in our body, mind and breathing while there, and how it is to move out of the pose and on to the next thing.
You can try this without even bending over. The next time you decide to go from the couch to the refrigerator, feel yourself moving through space. You can go slow or at an ordinary pace, but feel the floor beneath your feet, look and really see everything along the way, feel the swinging of your arms and what your breathing is like today, right now. If you are going to the kitchen because you are hungry, feel that. If you are going because you’re thirsty, feel that. How many times have you opened the refrigerator door and realized you forgot what you went for? This time feel the coolness when you open the door, and feel the softness of the sofa cushion as you sit back down. We take lots of little journeys like this every day, driving in our car or rolling over in bed. Try to actively participate as you travel through your world, rather than making only about your end point.
Cultivating physical precision
Precision is a way to develop clarity of mind at the same time that we develop accuracy in our physical placement. Applying specificity to where you put your hands and feet creates a wakeful mental attitude. You simply can’t think clearly if your alignment is sloppy. For example, what is your posture right now as you are reading this? Try changing your position, or even walking around and see if you feel sleepy or clear.
It is also difficult to feel openhearted or uplifted if your chest is sunk and your spine is sagging. Not only are your cardiovascular functions diminished, but your body is a cage. This curling in creates dukha, suffering, which is the opposite of sukha, joy, and can relate to the physical and emotional space created through good posture. Hatha yoga aligns skin, muscles and bones so that each can support each other with more ease than effort. Proper alignment opens energetic blockages which can be caused by diet, stress, illness and emotions, or even tight belts, wristwatches and fabrics wrapped around our bodies. Physical precision extends to your clothing, environment and personal hygiene.
We are also attentive to how we arrange our practice space. Each person at OM Yoga has a mat and organizes their yoga props-blankets, blocks, straps-in a neat and orderly fashion, because a jumbled heap of stuff in your line of sight creates an obstacle as well. Everybody who has a messy desk knows this to be true. The spacious discipline of precision gives the yogi a sense of open heart, open mind and open agenda.
Opening to Prana
We apply meditation instruction to our yoga practice by using the breath as a reference point for resting the mind. But in yoga we also manipulate the breath in various ways that soothe our nervous system, cleanse our sinuses and oxygenate our entire body. Prana, which means “to bring forth mystical vibration,” exists in sunlight, water, earth and all beings. For human beings, the most direct way to feel this universal life force is through the wave-like nature of our breathing, which reminds us that even though everything is changing all the time we can still feel peaceful as long as we keep in rhythm. Whenever you feel out of sync, take a moment to lengthen and equalize your inhale and exhale, and right away you will feel more balanced.
Try this. Stand with your feet firmly planted on the floor with your arms down by your sides. Close your eyes. Don’t do anything. Just stand there. You will soon begin to notice quite a lot of movement within the stillness of simply standing. You will feel the movement of your body, expanding and contracting as you breathe; you will feel the pulse of your own heartbeat; you will feel your entire body swaying slightly in order to stay balanced on this big round ball we live on. In fact, if you were truly static, the earth’s movement would eventually tip you over. Can you relax and let your body, breath and heart do this dance of balance?
All of these exercises sit on a bed called ahimsa , non-violence, in yoga, or compassion in Buddhism. What’s the good of being awake if you can’t let your heart be like your lungs, giving and receiving with every pulse? Mindfulness helps us recognize when we have habits that are harsh, and creates a gap between an impulse and the action that usually follows. It creates a space for us to dip into our hearts and come back up with a pearl of kindness.
Since for most of us a major part of our self-identity is tied to the appearance and health of our physicality, our body is an excellent reflective surface for getting to know our habits and applying ahimsa to what comes up. In the wordless conversation between our body and our mind, everything that happens in all our relationships-frustration, aggression, love, tenderness, boredom-will arise while doing downward facing dog. Yoga and meditation help us recognize our form of effort, whether it is too tight or too loose. Either way, effort is related to goals. So instead, with sensitivity, we apply exactly the right amount of action. Right action is a balance of body, breath and mind using the ingredients of rhythm, movement, direction, energy and intention, but never aggression.
When you apply this mind/heart training to the process of doing yoga asanas it becomes a way to understand the whole world in the form of you. It provides the means for working with all of those relationships right there on the yoga mat while you become fit at the same time. And for us busy people who are both meditators and yogis it is helpful to be able to combine practices.
Yoga helps Buddhists embody their meditation. As the meditator’s body becomes more mobile, strong and functional, it becomes a support for meditation practice rather than the more familiar and painful distraction of creaking knees and whining spines. Similarly, the specific focus of Buddhist mindfulness and compassion helps the yogi’s mind become unbiased, wakeful and connected in whatever physical shape they assume and demonsrates the transient nature of all things, including mastery over body.
Sitting cross-legged at the end of yoga class, I feel elemental. My breath is the wind and my mind is a raft floating on the oceanic tide of prana. The fire in my belly radiates out and makes the sweat on my skin feel like rain and earth mixed together. My heart rests in a big, big space.
Then I get up off the mat and go back to running the yoga center. Hopefully, today I won’t have a life-threatening experience but still I’m grateful for my practices. Life might not be a bliss cloud, but through the wisdom and compassion of yoga and Buddhism, it has become supremely workable.
Join Cyndi Lee on a journey to invite your body and mind back into balance at the Yoga Body, Buddha Mind retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center from May 18th to May 20th.
Cyndi Lee is the first female Western yoga teacher to fully integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and teaching. Founder of NYC’s OM yoga Center (1998-2012) she now teaches yoga, meditation and resiliency workshops worldwide. Cyndi is a formally trained Buddhist Chaplain, and has been teaching yoga for 40 years.
This article first appeared on lionsroar.com and has been republished with permission from the author.
In House: Wah! on Slowing Down
Slowing down seems like it’s the opposite of what you might want — to move forward. But when you slow down and reconnect to the energies of nature and divinity, you have enough flexibility and openness to move forward with a greater clarity of intention and a wealth of grace.
When things are going great, that’s when you can move fast. We all love to move fast, moving here, going there, getting it all done. But when it’s time to regroup, moving fast is the absolute worst thing you can do. Moving fast when you’re injured, sick, or in a bad mood only sends you down the wrong road faster.
Don’t miss the view
Anger comes from trying to force something into existence. Every one of us has felt that illusion: thinking we’re in charge, that we make our life happen. Life choices help us steer the boat, but we didn’t make the boat or create the water. If you want to make something happen, if you want to rise to the top, it’s actually an indication of aggression. Aggression moves against the flow. Aggression is unable to regroup and find a different way. My teacher Amma says, “You’re riding on a train, and you want to get to your destination faster, so you jog back and forth on the train.” You don’t get there faster, of course. But you do miss the view.
Your breath will tell you everything
Where are you going, that you have to get there so fast? Are you sure you can maximize your success? Or, let me ask you this — are you breathing? Can you take a fresh, clean breath right now? If you can, you’re in the flow. If you can’t, you need to regroup. Your breath will tell you everything, because it holds the same information as the rest of your cells. What is in your consciousness is also in your cells; what is in your cells is in your field. What is in your field is in your life. So what’s your intention? What do you want to discover and feel? And are you feeling it only as you get there? If you feel it all along the way as you take your journey, you inform your body and mind as to why you’re going this way in the first place.
Move with the waves
A surfer doesn’t create the wave; it’s provided by the Universe. You don’t create a trend, you simply move with the energy that’s already there. You don’t influence opinions or change people’s minds; you remain true to your own purpose and work cooperatively with those in your life. Every day there is an energy provided for you — when the sun comes up, there’s energy; when the wind blows, there’s energy. You can acknowledge what’s there for you and choose to move with it.
What are you grateful for? Gratitude gives you motivation. Grace gives you the softness to allow it to happen. Being flexible and malleable allows you to recognize what’s happening and change your course if you need to.
In with the new
The Qi Renewal Retreat James Leary and I offer is a chance to regroup, an opportunity to access the cells that prioritize your life and match it to your current hopes and aspirations. Most clients and students we work with are having trouble moving forward in their lives because an old pattern is not finished or resolved. Through the techniques of Life Qi Renewal, outdated life patterns can be released so the new can begin. Our favourite saying is, “Out with the old! In with the new!”
Wah! has been working in the field of personal development for 25 years and published books on yoga and healing. Her self-healing techniques, toning and QiDance are synthesized from a lifetime of study in yoga and meditation traditions.
Join Wah! and Dr. James Leary from April 18th to April 22nd at their Life Qi Renewal Retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center.
In House: Healing Osteoporosis with the Fishman Method
When I started doing research into yoga and osteoporosis in 2006, I suspected it might have good results for my patients, many of whom were frightened and searching for holistic ways to improve their bone health. At that time it didn’t occur to me that I would publish startlingly positive results in peer-reviewed medical journals, or that my method could help in significant ways.
This work with osteoporosis has been tremendously gratifying for me. I hope it has possibilities for the 55 million people who have osteopenia and osteoporosis in the United states alone, and who are prone to breaking or fracturing bones, putting their lives and mobility in danger.
A history of the Fishman Method
My first pilot study of only 20 patients showed that participants gained .76 and .94 points on their T scores for spine and hips, respectively when compared with controls, which was statistically significant.
Those results heartened me, and I embarked on a second, bigger study. There were 741 participants in that study, and they did my 12-pose yoga sequence daily for at least two years. Monthly gains were reported for the spine, the hip and the femur. There were no serious injuries of any kind in over 100,000 hours of practice. More than 80% of these participants had osteoporosis, or bone density verging on osteoporosis – osteopenia.
Because of these fantastic results for these men and women who gained bone density and strength, I decided to create a program to teach yoga teachers, yoga therapists and students of yoga my method. That successful program has now been running for two years.
Join the healing revolution
Today 118 certified practitioners are qualified to teach my method to strengthen bones, and they are working thirty-five states and eight countries!
Training to become certified (or just to learn how to increase your own bone strength) includes on-line education that provides scientific background about bones, how they are formed, how they lose strength, how they can regain density and strength. We review standard drugs given for osteopenia and osteoporosis – their effects and their side effects.
Once students have this scientific/medical background, it’s time to put it to use. At the beautiful, restful, spiritually satisfying Art of Living Retreat Center, we go into the perfectly appointed, spotlessly clean studio, with its polished wood floors, its wide array of props and its atmosphere of peace and calm. There we practice the yoga poses that lead up to my sequence of yoga asana proven to arrest and reverse bone loss. After that we learn the sequence and how to effectively teach it to others. There are two tests – one on the scientific material (for non-scientists) and a practical test of actually teaching one or two poses. So far, 9 out of 10 people pass these tests. Those who don’t pass can arrange to be retested.
The beauty of this is that once certified, participants can teach others and can join the dose-response study that is continuing. I am working on a second series of poses and plan to continually expand this program to help all those who are at risk for fractures or breaks to protect themselves.
Unlike the medicines, the side effects of yoga are better balance, better posture, wider range of motion, greater strength, enhanced coordination and lower anxiety.
“I am a 68 year old retired physician who took yoga up seriously about 4 years ago. I made great improvements in my bone densities, pulling back from osteoporosis to osteopenia – my bone density test last year was more like it had been 10 years ago.” – Judith E.
“Amazing results possible! I went from severe osteoporosis (told to stop weight-bearing exercise) to no osteoporosis in 9 yearswith a daily yoga practice. My increase in bone density over these 9 years? 38.6%.” – Eric M.
If you’re a yoga teacher professional, you’re invited to join Loren Fishman for his upcoming healing and teaching reatreat, Yoga vs. Osteoporosis, from May 30th to June 3rd.
Loren Fishman, MD, B. Phil., and author, is one of the few physicians practicing medicine who incorporates yoga into his regular treatment protocols and offers patients individual yoga therapy. He has completed peer-reviewed studies into the efficacy of yoga for medical conditions including osteoporosis, rotator cuff tear, scoliosis, ocular pressure and other conditions.
In House: Why Should I Go on a Retreat?
Reconnect to the deepest part of you at a meditation retreat
Being on a meditation retreat for a day or a week can be a unique opportunity to unplug, spend time exploring your own inner world, and to find more appreciation for your life.
A meditation retreat can be a reset button and can even create a new normal: one where you are more present to what matters to you, responsive rather than reactive, and have a deep inner peace.
Some of our meditation and mindfulness retreats focus on cultivating creativity, others give you the opportunity to dive deep into your meditation practice, and there are those that offer the opportunity to explore and heal a particular emotional issue.
Techniques, not traditions
All of the retreats that Sarah McLean facilitates are secular in nature, yet are deeply spiritual. She says she teaches techniques, not traditions.
Sarah creates a safe and open atmosphere designed to encourage participants to find out who they are, what they really want, and be more intimate with their lives. Each retreat includes instruction in meditation and mindfulness, deep meditation practices, interactive exercises, mindfulness experiences, time in nature, and some offer an opportunity to explore gentle yoga.
Meditation is an undeniably powerful practice to create more balance in the body, spaciousness in the mind, and a new appreciation for everything and everyone in your life.
Each retreat is designed to create a touchstone of feeling whole and good—and a new perspective. It’s a meditation vacation!
A sustainable practice of meditation
In a meditation retreat with Sarah McLean, you’ll discover the secrets to how and why meditation works, and whether you are new at it or are a seasoned meditator, you’ll learn a sustainable practice of meditation.
When you return home you can bring the practices with you, so you can create a mini-retreat every single day. You also might notice that you are experiencing some subtle changes. Perhaps you order something different on a menu, or have more patience with your children, or you are less concerned about what people think.
You might sleep better, feel more balanced and energized, or find more creativity or confidence. With a continued meditation practice, more profound changes might follow as you explore your relationship to your job, or where you live, or you find a renewed purpose or passion in life.
The Power of Attention
Join Sarah McLean for her upcoming retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center, The Power of Attention, from May 10th to May 13th. The Power of Attention retreat will take you on a journey into mindfulness and meditation to increase your understanding of the value of attention. A value Sarah calls your superpower: the most important ingredient for living a powerful, purposeful, love-filled life.
Sarah McLean considers herself an American Transcendentalist. She’s dedicated her life to exploring meditation: living as a resident of both a Zen Buddhist monastery and a traditional ashram in India, as well as living and working in a Transcendental Meditation center. She headed up the education programs at Deepak Chopra’s center in California and Byron Katie’s School for the Work. Sarah is a best-selling Hay House author of the books Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation and The Power of Attention: Awaken to Love and its Unlimited Potential with Meditation. She’s also a sought-after speaker who is determined to create more peace on this planet by helping people wake up to the wonder and beauty of their lives and the world around them through the practice of meditation.
This article first appeared on mcleanmeditation.com.