December 2013

Tapas is not just a Spanish appetizer

applyyourselfWhen I talk about the deeper teachings of yoga, I am not talking about increasing the stretch of your muscles.  And, your digging deep may never result in an intense awakening of any of your chakras.

My version of deep is even deeper than that.

To me, the deeper teachings of yoga refer to the most important and the very foundation of all that we practice.

I use the word “deep” to refer to what may be hidden from view but also essential to a person’s development.

These are the first stones laid in the building of a structure — as in the footers that are dug deep into the earth for the foundation. They form the base of of every aspect of the building that will appear above ground.

The Yoga Sutras tell us that yoga is a discipline requiring focus and determination. And that by practicing yoga, a person can live in a state of consciousness where agitations are resolved and there is a sense of steadiness and poise.While the study of yoga deals with liberation and freedom from obtsacles, yoga also has much to say about how to live well.I think of the personal practices of yoga as the footers for the pillars of the building. Actively practicing these 3 things can transform your life:
Apply yourself.  (tapas)
Investigate your experience.  (svadyaya)
Let go of the results of your practice. (isvara-pranidhana).

Today I want to focus on tapas.

The word I’m interpreting as “applying yourself” is tapas. The word comes from a root word that means “to burn.” Some have described this as a burning zeal or burning desire.

This is the oooomph that gets you off the couch.

This is what we need in order to get going. It is a summoning of our will-power. The thing that gets us to take some action.

With the new year coming, I am thinking a lot about what it means to apply myself. What does it take to get started?

It takes desire!

Each of us has to find our own motivation. I have often been motivated by pain — and the desire to eliminate emotional or physical pain.

The desire to get away from pain has inspired me many a time.

At this stage of my life I am wondering if it’s possible for me to find another type of motivation.

I’d like to move TOWARD something positive, rather than AWAY from something negative.

So the question for me is, “What do I want to create in my life?”

I won’t bore you with all my personal thoughts on this — because there are too many!

But I will give you the gist of it.  I want to create a place-situation-community where people can show up wholeheartedly as who they are without fear of being judged.  I want this place-situation-community to be a catalyst for transformation. Where people are seen, accepted, respected, loved, challenged and nurtured into their highest selves.

This is what I want. I see EYC as having the seeds of this. It’s up to me to show up wholeheartedly myself. I feel like it starts with me.

In order to do this, I have to be strong, focused and clear.

And this is what I’m moving toward this year.

I hope that people will join me at EYC this year for all of the above.

The concept of “applying ourselves” with a sense of burning desire reminds me of my high school football team. We were a small school with a lot of spirit. Our football players were scrappy and our team was dedicated.

Each Friday evening during the fall season, the whole community came out to support the team. There was excitement in the air, and whether you were a player on the field, a benchwarmer, a parent in the stands or an onlooker on the sidelines you could feel the energy of the game.

Everyone put forward their best effort. And the marching band played the “fight song.”

It was the 80’s and we were the Tigers. So the band played “Eye of the Tiger” as the cheerleaders waved their pom poms and the players broke through the “Go, fight, win” paper banner.

Sometimes it takes a little something extra to coax out the motivation to get going.  Every time I hear that song on the radio by the band Survivor it makes me want to jump and cheer and just MOVE.

This is what the concept of the Sanskrit word “tapas” means to me.

Click here to listen to Eye of the Tiger by Survivor.

There is no such thing as “not flexible enough for yoga”

Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 6.30.30 PMIf you can walk, you can do yoga.

And even if you can’t walk, you can do yoga.

I love this time of year because of all the holiday parties. My husband and I make the rounds to see friends and family, and an extended network of neighbors and acquaintances we’ve developed in our many years of living in Memphis.

There are some people that I see only at this time of year. It’s great to catch up and hear what people have been up to, and swap stories about the previous year.

Sometimes people want to talk about yoga.

There are several refrains that I commonly hear when I am out and about.

  • I wish I could do yoga but I’m not flexible at all.
  • I can’t even touch my toes.
  • I could never touch my toes.
  • My hands (or wrists) can’t bear weight so I can’t do yoga.
  • I went to a yoga class once and it was too hard.
  • Yoga is not enough of a workout for me. I like an intense workout where I sweat.
  • My doctor says I’m too flexible (or stiff or old or injured or blah blah blah) for yoga.
  • My mother told me I’d never have good posture.

None of these things have anything to do with your ability to do yoga.

If you want to practice yoga, you will find a way.

You will try teacher after teacher until you find the one who is the right fit for you.

When people talk to me about yoga when we are just hanging out, I take that to mean that they are interested in it.  Even when what they are saying is why they can’t do it.

If you have heard yourself (or a friend) saying any of the above, let’s talk.

Sometimes you have to overcome your “can’ts,” “nots,” and “never haves,” before you can find your “will, your “want to,” and your “must do.”

I’d love to help you find your way.

Email me.

Iyengar: Transforming darkness into light @ age 95

This weekend marks the 95th birthday of our beloved yoga teacher and guru, BKS Iyengar.

Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 7.44.55 AMI never thought I’d call anyone “guru.” But this man and his teachings have helped me in such a profound way, that he certainly qualifies for the title.

“Gu” means darkness. “Ru” means light. A guru is someone who helps bring you from darkness to light.

I’m certainly not the only one who uses the term guru when speaking of Mr. Iyengar.  Thousands of yoga students all over the world call this humble man from southern India “Guruji” — because of their depth of feeling for the man who has deeply affected their lives.

As a child, little BKS Iyengar’s frail body threatened to shut down on many occasions. He was born during a pandemic of influenza – an outbreak that affected millions in India and beyond. The youngest of 11 children, he remained sickly through-out his childhood.

Until he found yoga.

A bad bout of tuberculosis at age 16 was the catalyst that moved him toward yoga — the path that he would follow for the remaining several decades of his life. While living with his sister and brother-in-law, the esteemed yoga teacher Krishnamacarya,  he was required to practice and study yoga.

Yoga changed him. It was his own hard work and persisting with the asana practice that strengthened his body. His teacher demanded discipline and devotion — with daily practice starting very early in the morning. Pranayama strengthened his lungs and nervous system. He experienced good health for the first time in his life.

Then, he set out to share his experience of yoga with the world.

And he has.

Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 7.43.57 AMIn 2004, Time magazine named him among the 100 most influential people in the world.

From his institute in Pune in southern India, he teaches hundreds of thousands of yoga practitioners through-out the world. Many students travel to India for month-long intensives, and return year after year. Most learn from his books — treatises on using yoga to transform mind, body and spirit.

Nearly every yoga teacher who stands in front of a class to teach has learned the most vital elements of yoga through BKS Iyengar’s work.

His humble lifestyle and his supreme dedication to his life’s work stand as examples for all of us. We are inspired by his powerful example that change through yoga is not only possible, but also probable — if we practice.

In January of this year, photographer and writer Andy Richter visited with Mr. Iyengar in India. He photographed and interviewed him as part of an ongoing photographic exploration of yoga.

Mr. Richter is kind enough to allow me to share his work with you here (his pictures above). He describes his experience sitting across from Iyengar — looking into his “expressive eyes,” hearing Iyengar’s “assuring laugh.”

Iyengar is known for his direct manner — fiercely dedicated to the discipline of yoga and demanding the same from his students in class. He is also known to have a keen sense of humor and playfulness.

In my early days as a yoga student, I was struck by the way he corrected his students. At times his manner seemed harsh to me.  In time, I was able to see his sharp wit. And then, it became clear to me that every interaction with a student is motivated by a fierce and abiding kind of love.

He genuinely wants each person to “get it” — to experience the gifts that yoga offers each one of us.

At times that type of love is demonstrated through laughter and warmth. And at other times, he gets a student’s attention with a sharp word or what we might call “tough love.”

Now I realize that a good teacher or mentor must be willing to call his/her student into accountability. The teacher must be devoted to the students’ development and potential. And a good teacher will see that potential in a student — no matter how deeply buried under defenses and bad habits.

Richter’s blog post on his meeting with Iyengar is so worth checking into — if for the pictures alone. A gifted photographer who clearly understands his subject.

A quote from Richter’s blog on his meeting with Iyengar:

“You know what yoga has given me, I can tell you. At the age of 95, I’m still a fresh mind. It’s not a nagging mind. It’s not a nagging body. That’s enough for me. And, whether emancipation comes from that is immaterial…So I want everybody to have that fresh mind, that fresh way of thinking, freshness in them, moment to moment. And that is life. And to experience that fresh life, the methodology is only yoga.” — BKS Iyengar

Andy Richter’s article in the magazine Namarupa appears here.

Photos above appear courtesy of photographer Andy Richter. Copyright 2013.


Precision & practice

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 3.33.29 PMLast week in class, a student asked me if I had been a Girl Scout growing up.  She said she wondered this because of the precise instructions I use when I’m teaching yoga.

Her question made me chuckle — because unless you count eating an entire box of Thin Mints by myself in one sitting, I never even came close to becoming a Girl Scout!

But I was a G.A. The G.A.’s were our religious community’s version of the Girl Scouts. G.A. stands for “Girls in Action” — and a precisely accurate description of this busy girl (more about the ins & outs of G.A.’s another time).

The question concerning precision reminded me of my first Iyengar Yoga class – and my own teacher’s exacting instruction. I arrived at the classes ready to charge ahead and push through my limits.

But the classes stretched me in ways I had never considered.  When I forged ahead in a frenzy from pose to pose, my teacher insisted that I stay at the pace she set for the class. I still hear her voice saying, “Leah, stay with us.”

I thought she was holding me back. But over time I learned that was not her intention at all. She was keeping me from getting ahead of myself.

Boy did this go against my grain!

Didn’t she know that I’m the one who put the whirling in the dervish?  I had built a whole identity around earning gold stars by working fast and furious through school and beyond, wearing myself out, and moving on to the next thing.

With my teacher’s insistence and encouragement, I became open to trying a new way.

It eventually occured to me that my entire life I had met myself coming and going, but I had no idea how to stay with myself.

This realization had implications way beyond my yoga mat.

I knew how to set my sights on a goal. I’d start out with gusto — burning bright like a fiery comet. But I was always subject to the fizzle factor. I’d abandon myself at the first sign of trouble. Over-doing led to overwhelm led to over over-the-top anxiety levels, chronic stress-related illness and often some sort of burnout.

I had to learn how to pace myself so I could stay observant of my thoughts and actions. I had to learn how to listen to my body (still working on that one). I had to respect my limitations and uncover their hidden lessons.

The mention of the Girl Scouts piqued my curiousity, so I visited the Girl Scouts of America website.

Turns out that the Yoga Sutras are not that different in concept from the Girl Scouts’ values. Junior Girl Scouts even earn a special badge called “Practice With Purpose.” The award is earned by “setting a goal, increasing endurance, building strength, and practice, practice practice!”

The Girl Scout Promise is worth reading, and below are a few highlights from it.

I will “do my best to stay courageous and strong…and to take responsibility for what I say and do…to respect myself and others and to use my resources wisely.”

My time, attention and energy are among my most valued resources. Practicing yoga at a pace that allows for discipline, critical thinking and understanding is one of the many ways I stay with myself.

It isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s almost never easy – most things that contribute to our positive change aren’t.

The excitement of reaching for the stars might get me going. But it’s yoga’s exploration of inner space that keeps me moving toward true and lasting transformation.