Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Yoga Sutra II.46 states "Sthirasukhamasanam", meaning an asana must have dual qualities of alertness and relaxation to be considered an asana at all, let alone an effective one.

This is a principle to be practiced in any tradition of Hatha Yoga. In order to engage in poses and receive their complete benefit we must be alert but not tense, and relaxed without being dull or heavy. In my practice and teaching of Ashtanga Yoga I find this to be crucial. Unfortunately, it seems this unforgettable part of all asana practices is being forgotten in Ashtanga's beloved lineage, by both practitioners and teachers alike.

I live in Long Island, New York, and recently many students and colleagues of mine have given up Ashtanga Yoga for more "gentle" traditions. When I ask what has brought about the change the response is often, "Ashtanga is too hard on my body" or "I don't have the energy". While I don't deny that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga can be a challenge, isn't it our own responsibility to find a peaceful place within that challenge? Sure, our teachers can lead us and guide us with their own knowledge but they do not inhabit our bodies and minds. It is OUR duty to be conscious during practice and know when to respect our limitations. If you aren't ok setting limits for yourself it is high time for an ego check! If we are experiencing physical pain from our practice then what is most likely the case: The practice is to blame for hurting our bodies......or WE are approaching our practice with a forceful, all or nothing mindset? 

If we abandon Ashtanga Yoga (or any method for that matter) because it isn't giving us what we want is it really fair to blame the yoga? Isn't yoga just a mirror to show us what is deep within us anyway? Furthermore, how can we learn Sthirasukhamasanam slowly and patiently if we just stop doing the things we need to make peace with? One of the most beautiful pieces of the Ashtanga method is that it encourages self study. Practicing with sthira and sukham requires us to constantly see ourselves objectively and to adapt to what is needed in the present moment. If we are truly present without ego we can make any asana a place of steadiness and peace.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Yesterday a student confided in me that she is having challenges with her teenage sons, which often leave her incensed. "That's bad, right?" She asked. "I do yoga so I shouldn't feel angry, right?"

I knew what she was facing. For years now whenever I mention to someone that I feel drained, overwhelmed, or angry the typical response is, "But you're a YOGA teacher". As if teaching yoga is equivalent to being high on happy pills 24 hours per day. Make no mistake, I estimate that I do feel content, happy, peaceful, and joyful probably 90% of the time. That doesn't make me immune to feeling grief when a loved one is ill or dying, nor does it prevent me from feeling overwhelmed when I have a zillion things on my to-do list. What it does do is make me more aware of what I am actually feeling in that moment. I no longer feel the need to put on the faux smile and tell others I am "great" when I'm not. I have become more accepting of the present moment in whatever it brings. I encouraged my student to acknowledge her anger the next time it comes up and to take as much time alone as she needs to process it. Pretending it doesn't exist and scolding ourselves for not being the picture of calm will only push those feelings down. The further down they go the more they become the poison that is resentment. As Dr. Wayne Dyer says, "resentment is like drinking the poison you intend for someone else". Enough said.

Our yoga practice becomes our dress rehearsal for these situations. A classic overachiever for most of my life, I was quickly humbled when I began practicing Ashtanga yoga. Headstand was rough for me. Scary, difficult, intimidating, frustrating, etc. I spent weeks if not months pretending to not feel those things. Eventually it became impossible for me to wear the facade of "no big deal" on the outside while the fire of all those nasty feelings burned brighter inside. On the brink of giving up, I finally admitted to myself that I was scared and frustrated. Upon acknowledging those things I was able to see deeper into the root of WHY I felt that way. Headstand was just the catalyst for old, dingy fears and judgements to bubble to the surface. I made peace with how I felt. The pose was no longer the end of the line for me. I realized that even if I never achieved the pose itself it had been cause for exploration into my higher self. And that was certainly worth it. In hindsight I came to see that if I could overcome an obstacle such as this maybe I could face challenges off the mat as well.

Only when we accept what IS can we find peace. Not what we want it to be, not what it had been yesterday, but what is here, now, in the present. If acceptance is challenging remember the golden rule: When in doubt, remind yourself that this too is impermanent. It will pass. Knowing that it will not last forever makes the pill of acceptance easier to swallow.