Over the past two months, we have uprooted our lives, moving out of a house that's been in my family for decades and into a small apartment that will enable us to be more mobile. Throughout the process I have been reminded of 3 disparate teachings from 3 different sources that all point to the same idea: that a yogi becomes invisible.
We often talk about "drawing toward" and "pushing away," so much that it was even the topic of a blog last year. When we are compelled to draw things toward us, whether they are objects, money or the attention of others, we fortify the constructs of our personality and take ourselves further from liberation (the essential, non-constructed version of the self). These things make us bigger, sometimes literally and sometimes theoretically. As we remove these constructs, the yogi becomes "smaller" until she approaches invisibility.
Looking back into history, the yogasutras state that suffering comes from pairs of opposites (2:48), including hot and cold, good and bad, etc. When we adhere to the pairs of opposites, swinging from happy to sad and back again, we are like a tight-rope walker who is wobbling violently from side to side. As we reduce our movement from side to side, we approach stillness in the middle, which from the outside can seem like nothing is happening. But the stillness reveals deeper movement that was imperceptible when the action was bigger. The more centered the yogi becomes, the more still she is. She approaches invisibility through her lack of drastic shifts.
Most literally, this was said to us by Tony Sanchez, one of our teachers. During our time with him, he told us that "a yogi becomes transparent, almost invisible." This is contrary to our culture, in which we become more visible and famous as success increases. The yogi, on the other hand, does not pursue worldly gain or the admiration of others. Quite the opposite. As the yogi progresses, she has less and is attached to less.
So I ask you: Do you draw things toward yourself? Do you embrace the pairs of opposites? Do you pursue the admiration of others? Do you make yourself still? Are you invisible?
True forward bending of the spine can be a source of great physical benefit. There is some subtlety involved, as doing a forward bend is not the same as just using gravity to forward fold. However, once this practice is implemented, one can experience many benefits. Here are 5 reasons to practice forward bending:
5. Maintain range of motion: For many of us, we don’t struggle with simple actions like tying our shoes… yet! Without maintaining (or trying to increase) range of motion we may come to the point where we can’t bend over enough to pick something up off the floor or tie our own shoes. Regular practice of forward bending the spine can help!
4. Lower your heart rate: Forward bending stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Because of this, it can have a positive affect on lowering a high heart rate.
3. Strengthen your abdominal muscles: Many of us have very weak abdominal muscles. This is partially because we sit in chairs for so many hours a day. As we sit, we generally don’t maintain upright posture and our abdomen stays relaxed for hours on end. It doesn’t take long before our body forgets how to use it. Forward bending requires that you use your abdomen— specifically the rectus abdominis. By forward bending the spine, we can remind the body how to use this muscle and build the strength we all need.
2. Release your tight back: Many people live with a tight low back which can be very uncomfortable. Since the abdominal muscles act reciprocally to the back muscles, we can ease the back by strengthening and engaging the abs.
1. Calm down: When we forward bend, it has a calming effect on the body. Since many people are overstimulated, take in a lot of caffeine and have very high stress levels, forward bending is a great and simple way to feel calmer and more relaxed.
There is a fine line between teaching someone and insulting them.
It is no surprise that being a teacher involves telling people things that they don't know. This can range from a simple addition of new knowledge - by far the easiest for the student to integrate - to the shifting of concept or understanding, which is much harder for any student to do.
Anytime we have to reorganize our belief system or reconfigure how we look at a problem, it requires significant effort and faith from us. This is largely due to our "confirmation bias," a mental phenomenon which causes all of us to adopt beliefs that confirm what we already think and ignore anything that conflicts.
As teachers, we always have to tread lightly when correcting people, since they are doing the best they can, using every ounce of their intelligence to be all they can be. When we step in and tell them that they are doing something wrong, we can unknowingly tread on deep-held beliefs and long-held habits. Every time we correct a student, we are basically telling them they are wrong, which no one likes to hear. We can put our students on the defensive through the simple act of trying to help them.
For the student, it is rarely as simple as just changing what they do and how they think, which is why students often adjust to our instruction in the moment and then go right back to doing what they were doing. In these instances, we have not made any progress in instructing the student, since they have not made any progress in their understanding.
The way around this is not to avoid correcting our students, but to approach them like we are on their team instead of a superior who is "fixing" them. We must keep in mind that they are doing what they think is right. If they knew they were doing something wrong, they would change it immediately. We are not "correcting" them, but giving them an opportunity to improve. And who doesn't readily accept an opportunity to improve?
We are all happy when our practice seems to be progressing nicely: We learn quickly, our understanding evolves, our abilities increase. On the other hand, we all have periods of frustration, when our efforts seem to bear no fruit, either physically or mentally. Even more infuriating can be periods when we are unable to practice at all due to busyness, injury or some other force.
During these periods of frustration, it is important to remember: yoga practice is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint. In the scheme of our whole practice and our whole life, having a bad week, month or even year is a small thing. What is significant is that we regain our determination and continue.
Believe it or not, yogis burn out as often as they fizzle. We begin with such passion and vigor that we practice too much and too hard. At first this leads to tremendous progress in a short period of time, but it is unsustainable. We trim our practice back to an ordinary amount and become frustrated by the slowness of the progress. Practice loses its excitement, and we are too worn out to continue.
We recently asked one of our teachers (Swami Shambhudevananda) about this. He reminded us that yogic burnout is common. The remedy is to rest, recover and revisit your inspirations. Don't be derailed by the ebbs and flows in your practice. If we practice long enough, ups and downs are to be expected. They are simply a sign of a mature practice.
Don't lose hope, and certainly don't stop the practice!
It may seem like a simple and obvious question: what are we really teaching? But if we look a little deeper, we may find that our intentions can conflict with what we are teaching our students.
The simplest answer to this question for modern Western yogis is: asana, postures. We teach physical practices for the health benefits of mobility and flexibility, strength, balance and inversion. We also teach breathing, which can slow the heart rate, lower the blood pressure and reduce stress. The physical, mental and nervous system benefits of yoga practice are real, and they are increasingly central to the yoga culture.
This only creates an ideological conflict when we claim to be teaching anything like traditional yoga. The systems of yoga are many, but prior to a few hundred years ago most were dedicated to the subordination of the body and senses in favor of the realization of the true nature of the self.
Do you see the conflict between these two ideas? When we practice modern physical yoga, it is often alongside confidence-building rhetoric that values personal experience. "Have faith in yourself," "You are your own best teacher," we may tell our students. These things build our identification with our bodies and the physical practices, working against the progress of dis-identifying with the body. So, in a traditional sense, a physically-focused practice centered on accomplishing postures, and even health, can work against the ideals of yoga.
Admittedly, this is complicated. We are not suggesting that you change the way you teach or the way you approach your practice. But it is worth noting some of the little conflicts and paradoxes that arise in our yoga. These conflicts shed light on our assumptions and allow us to refine our view of ourselves and the world.
Bending the spine backward, or "backbending," has myriad benefits to the body and mind. You can do it standing, kneeling, lying on your belly or even on your back. In our culture of sitting in chairs and hunching over a computer or phone, backbending is more important than ever for simple, functional health. Here are 5 reasons to backbend:
5. Improve your posture: Most of us spend the day sitting and hunching to some degree. Our back arches forward, the chest collapses and the head juts forward. The back muscles get longer and weaker and lose their ability to hold the body upright. Over time this can lead to shallower breath, digestive issues and pain in the chest and back. Doing backbends, especially ones that encourage strength like Cobra, Bow or Full Locust (pictured above), will straighten the spine, lift the chest and head. This goes a long way to preventing all the problems listed above.
4. Energize your nervous system: Bending the spine backward exposes the chest and throat, stimulating our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). For those of us who are lethargic or sluggish, this stimulation has the ability to energize the mind and body.
3. Increase confidence: As explained above, backbending stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing our alertness. If we do backbends while lying on our bellies, we also push the pelvis into the ground, which stimulates the secretion of testosterone. Combining these two---alertness and testosterone---has the general effect of boosting self-esteem and confidence.
2. Improve your digestion: We usually sit or stand with a slight hunch, our ribs pressing down on our bellies. Unless we move around a lot, the intestines (in our bellies) become somewhat stagnant and lose some of their ability to move food through the digestive system and waste out. When we bend backward, this whole area gets stretched, drastically changing the shape of the intestines and abdominal viscera. This often has the effect of unsticking stagnant areas in the gut.
1. Reduce stress: When we backbend, we compress the back of the body where the kidneys and adrenal glands are located. This has the effect of reducing cortisol in the blood, lowering our stress on the chemical level. Several scientific have shown this to be true, one of the great "medical" benefits of practicing yoga and backbending.
When taken altogether, these benefits make backbending a powerful tool for mental and physical health.
As we deepen our practice and study of yoga, the sheer volume of practices and traditions can be overwhelming. One solution is to stick to the teachings of one tradition and explore them deeply. Even so, I am often curious about why different traditions may have such disparate teachings, all called yoga.
Looking back in history can help clarify the purpose of many practices. We were recently asked if there was ever a point when all yoga was unified around a single set of teachings. Not to my knowledge, unless we go all the way back to the first documented explanation of yoga in the Katha Upanishad, from about 2,500 years ago:
"When the five senses are stilled, when the mind
Is stilled, when the intellect is stilled,
That is called the highest state by the wise.
They say yoga is this complete stillness
In which one enters the unitive state,
Never to become separate again.
If one is not established in this state,
The sense of unity will come and go."
No mention of postures, health, nutrition, stress or flexibility. Only the senses, the mind, the intellect, and a unitive state that arises when they are still.
The Katha Upanishad, Part 2, Chapter 2, Verse 10-11.
(This post originally published 2/9/2017)
We are moving, ridding ourselves of many possessions that we've accumulated over the years, including the house we've lived in for a decade.
It is surreal to gather all of our belongings into one room, one duffel bag, one truck. To look into the back of a moving truck and see all of our worldly possessions...there are our books, packed away in boxes; there is our bed, wrapped in plastic; there are the lamps that sit by the bed, awkwardly resting on top so they don't break. It is a powerful reminder of how separate we are from the things we own, even though we often think of those things as inherent to our identity.
The yogis would say, quite simply, "possessions are not the self." It seems obvious when you say it like that. Of course my possessions are not who I am. But when my possessions are separated from their usual place in my life, I feel their pull acutely. Especially the house itself.
The house has given me a place to sleep, study, think, write, read, relax and play with our dogs. It has gradually become inextricable from the way I live and even the person I am. It may be inevitable, but as a yogi I see the danger there. And as we pack up our belongings and wave goodbye to the house, I feel the uncertainty within me: "who am I now?"
Of course, on the deepest levels I am no different than I was a day ago or a month ago or, depending on your beliefs, since the beginning of time. But my worldly, human life is undergoing a huge change. It is a challenge for me as a yogi, to navigate this with at least part of my mind on my unchanging, deepest, truest self even as my entire outer world transforms.
Most of us know that our breath functions automatically most of the time. This function---breathing without thinking---is controlled by the autonomic nervous system in one of the oldest parts of our brain: the brain stem, located at the base, where the spinal chord turns into the brain.
Most of us also know that we can control our breath consciously, choosing the speed at which we breathe and even stopping it altogether, for a short while at least. This conscious control of our breath is done by the somatic nervous system, the part that controls voluntary functions like walking, writing or playing baseball. It is located on the surface of the brain at the very back of the frontal lobe, in a place called the motor cortex.
Whenever we consciously control our breathing, the motor cortex overrides the brain stem. This process takes a lot of effort from the brain, which is why it has the effect of focusing us. As an experiment, try to control your breath while doing a math problem in your head. It is difficult. When we consciously control the breath, the brain becomes still.
This phenomenon is one of the key principles of pranayama (breath control) and even the most simple breathing exercises. Even for a true beginner, counting the breath or trying to control it at all calms the mind and leaves them feeling very focused.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth