Sunday, February 26, 2006

Responses to fifteenth class...

Insight during the initial meditation led by Hansa:

I am cramming so much reading of yoga into my head that I am losing sight of my actual experience of my yoga practice, and it’s becoming difficult to separate out my experience from the second-hand experience and heavy glosses put on my experience by reference to others.

A couple of thoughts in this regard. First, Richard Epstein, one of my law professors, taught me one of the most important aspects of my legal practice when we were discussing a particular paper I was writing. He told me that I might consider his approach – before he goes to do any research or writing on a particular topic, he writes out his own ideas, thinking things through on his own. Once he has developed his own thoughts clearly, then he goes and reads what others have written on a subject, allowing those counterpoints to help him refine his thinking, and to note where his thinking diverges from them. But he doesn’t do that in the other order, as doing so only muddles his own thinking and prevents him from seeing clearly. In law, this is a marvelous practice, as it helps the lawyer, who can be overly steeped in precedent, minutiae, and jargon, to think clearly, then afterwards applying the statements by judges in deciding cases, and the like, to figure out a particular issue.

As a person, I have done religion in the opposite manner, and it has taken me much, much longer to sort out what I have experienced and what I think based on those experiences from the glosses and interpretations that have been put on those experiences, often even before I’ve had them -- notions of God, notions of spirituality, notions of community. Mind you, I love and value highly my religious tradition. But it has been more important for me in recent years to perceive clearly what I experience and to recognize the glosses and interpretations for what they are – at best, an effort at creating a community based upon common spirituality; at worst, an attempt to control the experience and independence of another. At some point in the not-too-distant-but-surely-after-teacher-training-is-done future, I’ll try to craft a post or series of posts that articulates my own experience with spirituality, and the extent to which I think those experiences fit and don’t fit with the spiritual paradigms I have encountered.

At any rate, given the nature of the insight during today’s meditation, I may lay off for the time being reading of yoga texts. I’ve never been good at reading just one book at a time. Right now, I’m on my second trip through Donna Farhi’s Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living, Harper, San Francisco, 2004; and I’m about 1/5th done with Sharon Gannon and David Life’s Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul, Ballantine Books, New York: 2002. I picked up the first when I happened to see it, as I had learned to trust Farhi’s insights from the first yoga book I ever found – her Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit (I don’t have the publisher information on it, as I gave away my last copy of it, and still need to replace it.) I picked up the second at Alanna’s recommendation. I’m also re-reading The Bhagavad Gita, which I suppose is a yoga text, as well.

Perhaps I should lay them all aside for a while to see if my own thinking and experience clarify any as a result. But wouldn’t that approach also suggest that I should avoid any external influence at all (such as teachers)? Not sure.


In response to Hansa's body-reading exercises:

We make our bodies into symbols and message bearers. There is no separation between body and mind, or between mind and spirit. Embodiment carries and is emotion. A posture is an expression and an embodiment of self. At a very simple level, a smile is not only a communication to others, it is a physical embodiment of an emotional experience. The power of asana practice, beyond its tendency to strengthen the body, derives from the nature of the poses. There is a specific and different emotional component to a standing backbend, for instance, and to a seated twist. Because of that, I can readily understand crafting a story that attributes the development of the various poses to Shiva (one of the Hindu tripartite godhead). They are remarkably powerful and complex expressions of feelings/ideas/embodiments. I haven't any real way of referring to a physical "idea," but that is what asana seem to be for me.

The process of "reading" aspects of another through the various asanas, is quite remarkable. When one is a "text," and another a "reader," something very curious and unifying occurs. It would be interesting to consider the teachings and musings of the semioticians and Reader Response theorists in this context.


Alanna’s sequence of applications of ahimsa from persons you like, to strangers, to those you don’t like, to all sentient beings can be implemented in a small way through the following practice I learned from a Buddhist yoga instructor, and which I have since learned is a variation of the lovingkindness meditation the Buddha taught:

May I be healthy,
May I be happy,
May I feel joy,
May I find peace.

May those I love be healthy,
May they be happy,
May they feel joy,
May they find peace.

May those I do not know be healthy,
May they be happy,
May they feel joy,
May they find peace.

May those I hate be healthy,
May they be happy,
May they feel joy,
May they find peace.

May all creatures be healthy,
May they be happy,
May they feel joy,
May they find peace.

May all life be healthy,
May it be happy,
May it feel joy,
May it find peace.

May Earth be healthy,
May she be happy,
May she feel joy,
May she find peace.

May all the cosoms be healthy,
May it be happy,
May it feel joy,
May it find peace.

I have found that reciting this meditation while extending compassion from myself to each of those persons or groups changes the way I feel about them. Usually, I think of individual people when I reach the second, third, and fourth "stanzas," as it changes the way I feel about those people, and makes the meditation more real for me.

For me, this meditation has become, effectually, a prayer.

Fifteenth Class

Fifteenth Class

Sunday Morning Session: Hansa (why do all these yoga teachers only have one name?)

Starting chant (in recognition of today being Shivarastri, a celebration of Shiva in India):

OM Namah Shivayah
Shiva Shiva Shiva Shiva
OM Namah Shivayah

Hansa started by telling the story of Brahma’s creation of the world. When he was done, Shiva looked at the world and found suffering in it. He asked Bramha why he’d created suffering. Bramha explained that he’d created the world to include consciousness and the ability to choose, and suffering was the result. Shiva goes to a mountaintop where he sits in meditation for thousands of years. In the process, Shiva discovers hundreds of thousands of postures, each embodying and refining some aspect of the nature of mankind. He returns and teaches it to men as the asana (physical postures) practice of yoga.

Starting meditation: How do I, through yoga, find my tools for transformation or is yoga about that for me?

[I found this meditation to open me to a couple of ideas I’ll explore in a subsequent response to this class.]

Hansa began with a discussion of the role of the Yoga Alliance, and the mechanics for membership, training requirements, dues, etc. The details can be found here:

She then presented a class on body reading and koshas.

Koshas are “sheaths” of the self. They are formally referred to as panchamayakoshas. “Pancha” = 5; “maya”=illusion; “kosha”=sheath

anamayakosha=the food body
pranamayakosha=the energy body
manomayakosha=the mental/emotional body
vijnamayakosha=the wisdom body
anandamayakosha=the bliss body

Exercise: Hansa guided us into Tree pose (, four different times, asking us to make notes of our experiences each time. Her instructions varied, each set applying to a drawing imagery from a particular kosha. I found that my experience of each pose varied in accordance with the respective kosha she was addressing. An interesting experience of a person affecting another’s experience quite directly by means of nothing more than words. The first set of instructions employed physical imagery and relatively stiff instructions. It led to questions of “am I doing it right?” and stiff attention to body form. Instructions like this can be useful to students who need to develop a sense of physical capability and limitations.

Energy body. Hansa brought four volunteers in front of the class to demonstrate energy reading, as they performed a standing backbend. The final effect of asana practice is to cease dualistic perception. Every pose has a bindi, or center spot. To some extent, we can change the bindis for poses, depending on the students’ needs. A pose can have more than one bindi– trikonasana, for example, has three: one at the pubic bone, one in the uplifted hand, one in the descending hand. Bindis are also associated with the chakras and marma points – spots where energy lines cross in and bring balance to the body. As you begin to understand these things, you can enhance students’ postures by assisting them to make the connection with the chakras and marmas. More important than the depth of a posture is its alignment to its bindi. The movement of prana in the pose will do the rest. Prana is the life force. It comes in form of Shiva/Shakhti – both meditative and energetic. As you read students’ bodies, you will learn to perceive where they hold their energy, parts of their bodies that are cut off from the energy flow. The body communicates silently each person’s fears and abilities. Yoga asks us to explore the hidden places of our own bodies.

The mental sheath sometimes manifests itself through emotional releases during practice, sometimes also through dreams related to or stemming from the practice. The body will work on these things as a student practices. But we can make use of intention and knowledge to work through some personal transformational issues, as well. We don’t have to wait for the unconscious. Usually, such experiences have a story behind them. That “story” is part of the mental sheath. It is the way the mental kosha engages with those experiences. Often enough in life, we have to learn to forgive twice – once in the head, and a second time when we confront the experience in the cellular body.

Vijna, the wisdom body, works by perceiving where we stand in the world. It is a creation of doubts, as it doubts all.

Teachers assist students by finding energy blocks in the body. Sometimes it requires nothing more than touching the spot on the body to draw the students’ attention to it. Then they can go at it as best they are able.

Exercise: reading partner’s body.

Exercise: walking while leading with the belly, then with the chest, then with the head, then with feet splayed, then with feet pigeon-toed. Notice in each case what it feels like to do so.

When you read others’ bodies, let the intuitive mind engage. Hansa then related her experience in a class led by Bikram Choudry. She was one of a hundred or so students, so he couldn’t have known much about any of the individual students in the class. Yet, when she was standing in a posture, he walked to her and said, “Find your own strength, and let go your reliance on your father.” Bikram correctly read in her posture important details of Hansa’s life, intuited the connection, and then was open enough to share what he perceived. The body can show the student’s spiritual challenges, as well. Observe a student in Warrior pose. Warrior is grounded to the earth, while lifting the heart. How a student lifts the heart can tell you much about the student.

Afternoon Session: Alanna, Dave and Ann.

We began with a review of the yamas and niyamas, quite similar to the presentation by Shannon last Sunday. Alanna walked us through three verses of the Yoga Sutras: 1.1-1.2, and 2.29. She noted that in the first chapter, Patanjali teaches the one-step plan to experiencing Yoga (union to the divine) – ishvara pranidhana – devotion to God. Since that is not an easy path, Patanjali articulated other alternatives. The second path he described is two steps: abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (detachment). The third path is three steps, and is known as kriya yoga: tapah (heat – burning one’s desires through a fire ceremony), svadhyaya (self-study), and the already mentioned ishvara pranidhana. Still, as that is not an easy path, he also articulates the ashtanga yoga path. Asht=8; -anga= limb. There are actually 16 steps, if each of the five yamas and five niyamas is understood as a separate element.

Yamas: ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy).

Ahimsa – non-violence, non-harming
Not simply “don’t kill.” Assume that Patanjali knew his audience was likely composed of people who have already taken the path of yoga and the development of the mind and spirit. He wasn’t trying to convey solely “don’t engage in violence on others.” The instruction can apply to all of our relationships with all sentient beings. In that sense, it becomes an active practice, an active form of kindness. But there is a process of development involved. You wouldn’t ask a first-time student to move into revolved, bound angle pose. You start where you are. But the key is to avoid being complacent and comfortable where you are. Go to your edge. The same principle holds true in how you live the yamas and niyamas as how you practice asana.

You may start by being kind to your friends. This isn’t hard. Next, try being kind to strangers – persons whom you have no particular reason to like. Once you accomplish that, try being kind to those you affirmatively don’t like. This is harder because we usually have what we think are pretty good reasons for not liking someone. Even so, offer love, and not judgment in engaging with them. Then, take on extending your kindness to beings that are not the same as you – animal life. Picking and choosing what you are willing to practice and what you aren’t just reinforces the small “self.” Find your point of discomfort with these teachings and explore it. Patanjali offers this promise: “One who is established in ahimsa ceases to experience violence.” By becoming saturated with ahimsa, you change the world around you. Chris offered this insight from a Dyer address he heard recently: a study has found that the person engaging in an act of kindness experiences elevated serotonin levels in the brain. The person receiving the kindness also experiences elevated serotonin levels. But most curiously, even a person witnessing the act of kindness experiences elevated serotonin levels, as well. The act of kindness affects all three. Gina noted that some people are inclined to take advantage of expressions of kindness. Alanna responded by noting that there had to be lots of people who took advantage of Mother Theresa’s kindness, as well. But she didn’t let it bother her, nor did she let it interfere with her work to extend kindness to those in need. Alanna suggested that there were ways that we, too, could allow others to receive kindness from us, even at the risk of them wanting more. She noted, though, that kindness does not always equate to giving a person specifically what the person is seeking. We should use our understanding to sort out what the best response is to a situation.

If we were to see everyone as ourselves, we would cease to do harm to them. (Note, I’m not so sure of this, depending on what we understand “harm” to mean. There have been plenty of times in my life that I benefited from an action that, if viewed superficially, might have seemed “harmful.”) It is because we see others as different than ourselves that we’re able to harm them. Alanna stated that the principle is one to be applied to those not ourselves, rather than to ourselves. When we conclude that we should avoid harming ourselves, we end up giving ourselves permission to harm others for our own good. She stated that the most therapeutic thing for someone who is harming herself is to get her to be kind to someone or something else. She referenced the practice of sending dogs to prisons for obedience training, and the significant improvement in the lives of the prisoners who cared for the dogs. Note, thought, that being unkind to yourself is not at all a good thing. You can lock up nerve channels by doing so. Westerners tend to be rather self-destructive, so finding a way to reduce that is helpful. But we should not allow the principle of ahimsa to become a justification for inflicting harm or suffering upon others to justify ourselves. Anne suggested that we take the process in steps and try to be realistic about what we can do today. If strict vegetarianism is too much to contemplate right now, try following it at lunchtime. Alanna concurred, noting that extreme actions seldom produce long-term results, as they almost never last. Make changes because (and when) you believe in the principle directing the change, not because someone else told you to do so. Life doesn’t get any easier when you start to explore and practice yoga. In some respects, it gets decidedly harder.

Satya – Truth
How to make this an active principle: don’t apply this to “self” truth, which is invariably subjective, and equally certain to change over time. Apply it to the one truth – God. There are many ways to talk about the Truth, to experience it, to move toward it, but you can’t pretend to know how to speak about it. Even so, you’ve got to try. Any action, whether speech or otherwise, should be directing others toward that One Truth. Any communication should do nothing but uplift another person. Consider the effect of gossip or speaking ill of another person. Even if the other person has asked you for your thoughts, be cautious in stating negative impressions, as doing so will bring “down” the thoughts of the person to whom you are speaking. It may be that your subjective impressions of the yoga teacher you have been asked about will serve the other person very well, even if they did not serve you well. You can gain enlightenment through any relationship, since any expression of the other can become a vehicle for enabling you to perceive the fundamental unity of all beings. Patanjali promises that for one who is firmly established in satya, everything the person says comes true. Alanna advised that satya should be a function of ahmisa, or non-harming, and that any truth-speaking should be subject to the non-harming principle.

Asteya – Non-stealing
What are you not stealing? Steal as little as possible. Are you chronically late, stealing the time of others? Do you steal from the Earth? What can you give back? What can you stop stealing? Beth noted that this principle has led her to vegetarianism. Aminda provided a summary of facts relating to consumption in our society. Beth recommended The Food Revolution, by John Robbins, as worth reading on this score.

Brahmacharya – Celibacy
Alanna noted that some have suggested that the translation (or recording, not sure) of this was a function of a bunch of frustrated monks. One way of understanding this is that it applies to a particular phase of life, as one goes about learning the principles of yoga. She noted that you can extend that phase for long periods of time. It just depends on how badly you want the objective. Sex is an activity that can truly unite or divide people. If you’re going to do it, do it only to unite. Not doing so with that intention can create all kinds of trauma. Also, the fluids of sex can be important for giving you the strength needed as you seek to live the other parts of the 8-limbed path.

Aparigraha – non-hoarding
How much can you give back of what you own? How much stuff do you have in your basement?


Saucha – purity and cleanliness. Includes treatment of physical body. Cleaning your body makes you aware of all the things that you are not. It is a way to begin to realize that you are not your body. It is also helpful to listen to good music and to keep your mind elevated.

Santosha – contentment/equanimity. We can practice this by remaining centered when confronted by car accidents, experiences of extreme happiness or sadness. Note that this is different from repressing an emotional experience. Santosha is remaining centered while fully experiencing the happiness or sadness of a particular emotion-charged experience.

Tapa – heat; give up your desires to the fire.

Svadhyaya- self-study. Find a teacher

Ishvara pranidhana – give your efforts to God.

Asana – your seat, relative to the earth. You take on the form of the pose, whether a Tree, a Crow, a Warrior, or a Plank. Become the asana – become the world.

Pranayama, energy-restraint/ breath control. Breath is the one function of the autonomic nervous system that we can bring readily under the control of the intention of the mind. Because of that, it provides a direct link between the conscious and the unconscious minds. That is the first step in pratyahara – the beginning of meditation.

Dharana- attempt to meditate. Trying to use tools to focus the mind. The tools can include mantra, mala beads, vipassana techniques, the Tibetan Tonglen practice or others.

Dhyana- the ultimate meditation practice in which the mind becomes steady. When you are able to maintain the focus of the mind.

Samadhi- the experience of blissful union with all existence, the result of meditative practice, though it can arise spontaneously from other activities, as well.

We then moved to a practice of the corepower yoga series of poses from the integration postures through the Crescent Lunge/Crow series.

Following that, we began review of the Balancing series – Eagle, Dancer’s Pose, and Tree

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Artificial Distinctions

Sometimes you can find in the Congressional Record tallies of votes on various legislative agenda items. Most votes are 'yeas' or 'nays.' But not all of them. Sometimes, rather than yea or nay, a legislator votes "present." For a long time that seemed to me to be a cop out that meant, basically, this: "I haven't been paying enough attention to have the slightest idea of whether I should be saying 'yes' or 'no,' but I want to prove that I was actually here in case anyone cares about attendance."

With that general (and uncharitable) view, I have lived life for a while. And the longer I live, the less I'm inclined to think that voting "present" is a cop out, after all.

Because sometimes, exercising judgment entails no particular merit.

A number of yoga teachers have reminded me from time to time that if you pick up one end of a stick, you also pick up the other, whether you want to, or not. This is a concept that is central to my tradition of Mormon thought, as well, presented in passages of The Book of Mormon such as this one:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not
so...righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither
holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a
compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as
dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness
nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

2 Nephi 2:11

You can't apply the concept of “good” to judge something to be good, without simultaneously defining “bad.” You can’t seek to create “beauty” without, at the same time, creating “ugliness.” No more can you “be honest” without becoming “dishonest.”

In a dualistic world, the dualism traps you. “Wait,” goes my mind when confronted with such teaching, “you’re saying I shouldn’t do anything.” No, I’m not. I’m saying that it can be useful to lay aside judgment and simply to live without regard to being right and opposing wrong, seeking good and eschewing evil, supporting allies and opposing enemies. The way you live, even without exercising those judgments, may look exactly the same from the outside. You may get up at the same time of day, shower, and go to work. You may perform the same work, eat the same lunch, drive the same commute, and sleep in the same bed without those judgments as you do with them. The issue isn’t one of changing your actions per se. Instead it is discovering how your actions are controlled by those judgments, and how your actions, even those aimed at “doing good” are as involved in doing evil. And how unnecessary striving to “do good” actually is. What would happen if you were to discover that you do as much “good” without trying as you manage when you strive for it?

The Sufi mystic Rumi once wrote: “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”


I’ve gotten into intricate arguments and discussions at times with people whose intellect I respect much more highly than my own about the dualistic (on/off, yes/no, right/wrong, good/bad) nature of existence. They tell compelling stories of how any exercise of intellect is an exercise of distinguishing “this” from “that.” They argue that even when I argue for the opposite – for monism – I’m really formulating arguments in dualistic terms. My efforts to prove them wrong actually prove them right. They’ve persuaded me that they’re right. I’ve come to agree with them: intellect is dualistic. Language is dualistic.

But here’s the thing: there are ways of living that allow the intellect to engage in its strivings and discriminations, but that enable me to experience something unified beneath or beyond or past or through or inside or outside (pick your preferred preposition – words don’t really work in this context) the dualism of the intellect. Sometimes it happens in vipassana meditation: by assigning my mind the “naming” task, I give my intellect a bone to gnaw – it is tasked with identifying each thought as it arises, labeling it according to its nature (“judgment,” “fantasy,” “memory,” “imagination,” “sensation,” “emotion,” etc.) and then waiting for the next one. After a while of this (literally) busy work, the mind becomes aware of the experience of awareness, of the background to the vagaries of thought. Sometimes it happens spontaneously when I hike in red rock canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Once it happened during a mundane breakfast of Grape Nuts and raisins. Occasionally it has happened in the middle of a yoga asana practice, as I connect not just to the motions and breathing, but to the field of space and time in which those things occur, finding that space and time, too, are a part of One thing. The Tao Te Ching calls that background “the Way.” Zen teaches that it is the “No-Self.” Yoga calls the experience of such perception of union samadhi.

Ok. The point is not what linguistic label we slap on it to help the intellect. In fact, it isn’t distinct from all of the rest of existence – rather it IS all the rest of existence. My mind, though, doesn’t notice it most of the time, as it tends to be entranced by the dancing lights and sounds projected onto the screen. Intellect and discrimination rule. But as my mind delights in knowing This from That, I try to remember the Upanishad’s instruction: Tat twam asi.

That thou art


So when I think of my duly elected legislative representatives voting neither "yea" nor "nay," but rather "present," I now hope that they really are present, mindfully choosing not to be enmeshed in artifice of minds.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Thirteenth Class

Wednesday Night: Anatomy, Pt. 2

Follow up on question about broken ribs that don't heal back together. Sometimes they don't. In some instances, the body will build up around the breaks a fiberous tissue impregnated with calcium, stiffening the supporting tissues in the area to make up for the loss of bone support. The body will also lay down adhesions in response to muscle strain. Those, too, can have the effect of stiffening the tissues to make up for some of the loss of bone support.

Nervous System
-- controls the body
-- composed of sensory and motor nerves

Control -- how?
The body has to coordinate hundreds of different kinds of muscle movements even for the simplest of gestures. Most of those movements are habituated to occur together. Somtimes they occur smoothly and gracefully, sometimes not.

Nerve cells are shot through all muscles. The nerve cell fires, the muscle cell contracts. Nerves connect to muscle cells in two important places -- at the belly of the muscle cell fiber, where it measures and controls the length and speed of contraction, and at the musculotendonous junction where they monitor the force of a contraction, relaxing the entire muscle cell in order to prevent muscle tears and other harm from too great a strain.

Yoga uses slow, smooth movements in order to enhance proprioception, diminish fast, harsh strains on muscles that would trigger auto-releases or spasms.

Proprioception: how you know where you are. Nerve cells monitor the position of your arms and deliver that information to your mind, even if your eyes are closed.

Ex: Standing poses, eyes closed. Note and feel the sensory input from your body.

Q: Is there a difference between conscious mind's instructions to a body part and the subconscious instructions from the autonomic nervous system?

A: One approach to yoga is an effort to bring all functions to conscious awareness. [I think my notes don't accurately reflect the Q and A here.]

The body can create holding patterns without our knowledge. Unless we stop to notice, we could be working within artificially constrained postures. One aspect of physical yoga postures is to get the students to experience the full range of a joint or muscle. As soon as they do that, they begin to "reset" their idea of what is possible and what a "neutral" position is for that joint or muscle. Consider how many people in the world spend their lives hunched over a computer or a desk or a work table. For them, lifting their shoulders to their ears, rolling their shoulders back, and sliding the shoulder blades down the spine and toward one another presents a range of motion that many of them never experience. By doing that motion, though, their minds discover greater range, and they begin to 'reset' their expectations of what is normal.

Partial paralysis: Dave talked about patients he has worked with who found they could develop new nerve pathways to accomplish actions that they were initially unable to do following injury or stroke. Sometimes the process of visualization can, itself, help reformulate those nerve pathways.

Key body concepts:

All is connected
All is moving

Do range of motion resets early in a class so the student can use that perception of additional potential throughout the rest of the class. Encourage them to work their stretches not from the familiar range of motion, but from their complete range of motion, whatever that may be for the individual. One reason power yoga uses half-lifts before and after jumps is to reset the mid-point of a forward bend.

Backbends: internal rotation of thighs is key. Relax glutes. Ideally, you should be able to perform the hot yoga locust poses without stiffening glutes, relying, instead, on hamstrings to lift the legs off the floor. By rotating your thighs inward, you'll take pressure off of the sacrum, protecting the lower spinal joints and making the pose much more comfortable and extendable for the student than if they roll their knees and thighs outward. If you have trouble conveying this idea, simply put a yoga block between the student's knees, and tell the student to keep rotating the thighs in tightly enough to hold the block in place. Doing that will automatically rotate thighs inward.

Overstretching: when the student feels the stretch more in the joints and at the tendon attachment locations than in the belly of the muscle, they're overstretching, and should back off.

Active breathing can engage the entire torso and abdomen. We can also ask students to extend their perception, while breathing, to more remote areas. Which area to direct a student to breathe into depends on what you want to accomplish. Some need to practice thoracic breathing to stretch the inter-costal muscles and fascia. Some need to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing to massage abdominal organs. Some need to practice breathing into their backs to create space between vertebrae. There's no "one" way to breathe.

Almost all postures start from the core muscles -- psoas, abodominals, and spinals.

(Please refer to notebook outlines for the remainder of class -- my note-taking declined with my energy levels on Wednesday night.)

Meditation on a city street

Parked diagonally on Wazee.

The sky above is lavender. To the east, it's bright.

The meter flashes Expired, on and off and on and off and on and off, steady and fast as a marathoner's heartbeat.

Buses shuttle past. Delivery trucks rumble and clatter.

Buildings' windows conceal their contents, reflecting only the lavender sky.

Ice dams from last week's snow still lurk in the north-facing gutters.

The sloping sidewalk lies at the edge of the street,
beneath the buildings' front steps.

Silent and solid.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Pain in the existence

Despite (because of?) all the nice yogic principles and teachings we picked up on Sunday, I injured my back in the process, and spent the last fifteen minutes of Shiva Rea’s Dancing Warrior series in Child’s Pose.

I have had back problems for years. This episode didn’t feel a lot different than previous ones, so it isn’t like I didn’t know I would heal (or, rather, “will heal,” since I’m still not back to normal yet). It was probably exacerbated by dehydration from too much yoga and not enough water during the day. But by the time it forced me to pay attention to it, I was something of a wreck. I felt claustrophobic in the too-crowded, too-hot, too-humid, not-oxygenated-enough room. My flight impulse was reaching a pretty high level, compounded by my mind which was angry about the injury and disappointed that all of the high rhetoric of yoga during the day led to such a mess of a situation in the evening.

At that point, I remembered Dave suggesting that injuries can be some of our best teachers, so rather than leaving class, I knelt in Child’s Pose and breathed. There still didn’t seem to be enough air in the room. But I felt that, too, and breathed. Soon, the class ended, and I limped my way to my car. I was in wet yoga clothes, and outside temperatures were in single digits. I started to drive home, only to realize that I was nearly out of gas – literally, as well as metaphorically. I stopped at a gas station, and filled the tank, standing in the wind, and shivering uncontrollably.

When I finally got home, I was a mess. My wife, bless her, ran a hot bath for me, nipping the incipient hypothermia; filled me with several liters of water, fixing the dehydration; and generally sympathized with my pathetic state. At that point, I could focus on my back injury. I concluded that it wasn’t likely to get better very quickly, so I cancelled a professional engagement the next morning, took gobs of ibuprofen, accepted a Ziploc bag of ice for my spine that my wife proffered, and hunkered into bed.

The next day, I kept thinking about Dave’s injury-teacher connection. And I learned this: if I feel back pain not as some massive, recurring curse on my existence, but as simply an element of what I’m feeling at this very instant, even bad pain isn’t too bad. It’s as if pain is really just one more sensation to be experienced. Mind you, I’m not advocating intentional self-infliction of pain. But I began to realize the Buddhist distinction between pain (a temporary sensation) and suffering (a state of mind).

In this regard, one more dip into the archives, to provide more context to the experience of pain:

May 26, 2005

I go into my dermatologist's office to have a mole removed. (I'm a speckled critter.) I lie down on the table, as the mole is on the back of my left shoulder. The doctor injects my shoulder with Lidocaine, which promptly numbs up the work site. The doctor begins her work with a scalpel, digging out the mole. That only takes a few seconds, but the hole is relatively big and deep, so the next ten minutes are spent stitching up the hole.

Like most doctors, this one is careful with her stitches, and wants them to hold very tightly, so there's a fair amount of pushing and pulling: pushing to get the wound open enough to get the stitches into the deep part, pulling to get the suture tight, pulling to tie the knot, pushing to open the shallower part of the wound to get in the next stitch, and so on. No pain. Just pressure, pushing and pulling.

But my reptile brain is totally at work.

First, I can feel my hands and feet going cold as my autonomic nervous system cuts of the supply of blood to them.

Next, I can feel a cold sweat break out on my scalp and forehead.

Then I can feel something decidedly odd occuring in my heart space and belly. No way to describe the feeling but "awful." I'm breathing through this, but I can't manage to concentrate on anything -- it's like my higher brain functions are foolishly scrambling around on the deck of a ship while my lower brain is causing a tidal wave from beneath.

The surgery, of course, was entirely uneventful. The doctor and I chat through it. Soon, the doctor finishes, bandages the site, gives me instructions on wound care, and leaves for her next patient.

I'm left in the room to re-dress. I take a few more breaths and roll over. I feel better than during the procedure, but far from great. I get up and go to pick up my shirt.

I black out almost completely, and promptly sit down on the table. My vision comes back, I breathe a few more times, feel better, dress and leave. I'm learning not to underestimate the power of that reptile brain of mine.


May 31, 2005:

I need to fill in the parts of the last story that I left out originally -- in part because I wasn't sure that they informed the story, perhaps in part because I hadn't finished digesting them, though another unexpected and fortuitous solo session with a favorite yoga instructor on Saturday changed my perceptions more than a little.

To tell the whole story, I have to go back a couple of years to a dental appointment.

I go in to have my annual (which occurs only about ever three years or so) dental exam. The x-rays show that I've got a bit of decay in a tooth where I'd previously had a filling, so the earlier filling needs to be drilled out, and then the decay, then a new filling.

The dentist shoots me with Lidocaine and starts drilling. The tooth isn't, in the slightest, numb, but the drilling out of the old filling isn't too painful until the dentist gets through to nerve. I stop him and point out the problem.

He injects me with more. We wait a couple of minutes. No effect. He injects me with more. We wait a couple more minutes. No effect.

He tells me that on rare occasions with teeth positioned as mine are, external injections of Lidocaine can't actually reach the nerve. He also tells me that he's now given me all the Lidocaine that he can lawfully administer, and he asks me what I want him to do.

The tooth is open to the nerve. The decay remains in place.

I tell him I would like a couple of minutes by myself. I practice ujjayi breathing and find myself rather quickly in a clear meditative state. The dentist comes back in, and I ask him to go ahead with the procedure.

He drills. I feel the pain. I am 100% aware of the pain.

And I am also aware of the difference between my awareness and the part of my mind that is experiencing the pain.

And I hold still, watching the observer observing the pain. A couple of times, I feel my mind sliding back to becoming only the experience of pain, but I keep doing ujjayi breathing.

The dentist finishes the drilling and then fills the cavity, shapes the top, polishes it, and we're done.

Since that experience, on occasions when I've experienced significant amounts of pain, I've found it useful to practice ujjayi breathing techniques -- not to reduce the pain, as it doesn't, but rather to experience the pain without allowing it to overcome and take control of my mind.

Ok, that's the backdrop. Now the dermatologist -- I've reflected a number of times on my experience with the dentist, and I've wondered whether what happened that day was simply a "moment of grace" that I shouldn't expect to repeat, or whether it was just the way minds and ujjayi work.

So I started thinking along these lines, "Isn't a minor surgery like this a good opportunity to see what the experience of pain is like? It's a very minor procedure. If things start to become unmanageable, I can always ask them to stop and inject Lidocaine."

The dermatologist is a acquaintance of mine -- a social, but not really personal, friend. So when we get into the procedure room, I say, "I'd like to propose something a little unusual in this procedure." She stops and asks what. I tell her I'd like her to do it without anesthesia. She looks startled, then flustered. She asks if I'm allergic to anesthesia, I say no, I'm just interested in experiencing the procedure without anesthesia, as I think that my meditation practice would enable me to do so.

She ultimately says she isn't willing to go that route this time. She notes that she'd be willing to consider it further next time around. I tell her that she's missing an opportunity that doctors worldwide have always sought -- a chance to perform surgery on a lawyer without anesthesia.

She chuckles and injects the Lidocaine. As she works, I realize -- and mention to her and she confirms -- that the anesthesia of the patient actually makes the surgeon's job easier, as it allows the surgeon to act without empathetic regard to the pain associated with a procedure. So though I'm the one drugged, it isn't for my benefit alone, even assuming I can hold stock-still during the procedure.

When I wrote the prior post, I started to describe that experience in more detail, but I hadn't figured out whether it was simply a function of an odd kind of machismo, an over-inflated sense of my own meditative abilities or naive curiosity or simply something that ultimately didn't really happen and so wasn't worth retelling.

But, as I noted above, Saturday, I happened to be (again) the only participant who showed up for a class taught by my favorite yoga instructor (whom I'd tracked to a new yoga studio near my home). Since we were the only two there, we promptly abandoned the standard 52-pose Bikram series and spent about an hour talking and a half hour working on integrating Iyengar practices into navasana -- boat pose.

During the talking portion, I mentioned the interesting but rather negative experience with the dermatologist and my prior experience with the dentist. My yoga teacher suggested that perhaps the difference in experience was a function of part of my body experiencing the pain, but my mind lacking the consciousness of pain. I have wondered to myself whether the experience I did have was perhaps worse without conscious awareness of the pain that "should" have been there than it would have been with it.

There is, perhaps, an integrity to experience that includes physical pain that is absent from such experiences where pain transmission is dulled or blocked. The mechanical and scientific part of my brain keeps saying that the Lidocaine prevented the nerve signals from being transmitted to my brain, and so, effectively, there was no pain. But I've come to trust the yogic view of the world when it speaks of individual cells perceiving and experiencing reality.

Part of me experienced cutting and removal and stitching. My conscious mind was impeded from that understanding. Next time, I think, I'd rather have the whole experience. Not just a part of it.

Twelfth Class

Sunday – quadruple play.

Morning: Restorative yoga practice with Shannon. She showed us an icon of Siva Nataraj. Here is the typical presentation of the image:

In this image, Siva is the image of God, creating existence through the dance, while wielding the destroying fire in one of his left hands. One of his hands gestures to his lifted foot, symbolizing freedom from earthly bondage, the other foot stands on a demon symbolizing ignorance. Another of his right hands is raised to the “stop” position, bearing a jewel, reminding us of the value of stopping the mind chatter and replacing it with single-point focus. He is also the destroyer God, one of his left hands bearing the flame of fire that puts an end to all things. He is ringed by fire, symbolizing the endless cycle of creation and destruction, from the occurrence, sustenance, and end of a single sound – OM – to the arising, existing, and subsiding of a single thought – to the life of a person, the existence of a civilization, and the arising of all creation.

The image of dancing Siva that Shannon brought to class was unusual – instead of merely lifting one foot from the ground, he lifted it all the way to the back of his head, showing the connection of the basest part of the body – the sole of the foot – to the highest. Her image also held in one right hand a drum to symbolize creation and music, countered by the flame in the left hand, symbolizing ending.

Shannon then led a discussion of the yamas and niyamas – the ethical principles set forth in the Yoga Sutras.

The yamas are ethical principles for interacting with others – ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truth-saying), asteya (not stealing), brahmacharya (sexual restraint or abstinence), aparigraha (not coveting). The niyamas are principles for conducting and relating to oneself – saucha (purity), samtosha (contentment, equanimity), tapas (heat, spiritual austerities), svadhyaya (study of scripture and of one's self), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender or connection to the divine).

I wasn’t taking notes during this session, so I can’t sketch out Shannon’s presentation. I did find this on the web that seems to approximate the yama discussion:

I haven’t found a reasonably good summary of the niyamas. If others do, please post a link.

Lunch time – lecture on stress management, with an emphasis on nutrition. A couple of highlights: (1) not surprisingly, yoga and meditation are high on the list of ways to deal with stress; (2) interestingly (to me, at least), a study showed that brain activity in those who regularly practice yoga/meditation when under stress behaves quite differently than those who do not. The meditator group appeared to respond to stress in the same ways that they responded to meditation, while the non-meditators tended to shut down those parts of the brain entirely when under stress. The presentation used at the session looked somewhat canned, so if someone remembers the name and website of the company, the presentation might be available on line, which would allow you to check the footnotes on the academic studies it referenced.

Afternoon: shortened posture clinic and practice on the Crescent Lunge series of poses.

Starting in downward dog, first, call the next pose:

Low Lunge. Cues: Inhale, raising your right leg to the sky; exhale and sweep your foot forward, placing it between your hands; square hips forward;

Crescent Lunge: Inhale, raise your torso and arms to the sky.

If you have a group of beginners who just aren’t getting it, put them on their knees and demonstrate these poses for them.

5x breaths in Crescent Lunge.

Next: Revolving Crescent Lunge: Inhale, reach up; bring hands together at heart center; revolve right, keeping hands together; put left elbow on right knee; forearms forming a vertical line; hands to heart center.

Next: Runner’s Lunge: Place hands to mat inside of lunged foot; turn out front foot 30 degrees; stay on hands or lower to forearms; stay on back foot or lower to knee.

Next: Extended Side Angle: Inhale back foot flat; place right elbow on right knee; lift left arm to sky; open hips to the side.

In teaching beginning classes hesitate before coaching students into advanced versions of the postures. Egos are very hard to avoid even in beginning classes, and if you coach one student into a more advanced form, you’ll be suggesting to the others that they should go there, too. If they’re not ready for it, you can frustrate them. Also, going for a pose you’re not ready for can lead to injury. Better to let beginners opt for intermediate classes than to let the beginner sequence creep up.

Next: Side Plank: hands to mat and step forward foot back into High Plank; feet together; drop heels to the right, lift left arm to the sky.

Next: Chaturanga dandasana.

Next: Upward Dog

Next: Downward Dog

Next: Utkatasana

Next: Prayer Twist to the right: lower hands to heart center; knees bent; spine extended; left elbow to right knee; forearms in straight line; hands at heart center.

Next: Utkatasana

Next: Prayer Twist to the left

Next: Crow: release to center; feet together; hands to mat; drop hips to squat; knees to forearms above elbows; lift one foot; lift second foot; bring toes together; look 6-8” forward; play with the pose.

Crow is hard. Notice and verbally acknowledge when students get it – even when they get the very beginning of it. The acknowledgement makes a tremendous difference in their experience.

Next: Child’s pose.

We then practiced this sequence.

The last ten minutes of the afternoon session was a brief meeting with Shiva Rea. She described herself as less of a teacher and more of a river guide, pointing things out to others on the river with her. She noted that there are different kinds of spirituality and categorized them loosely as cultural, genetic, and native. She suggested that yoga accesses native spiritual elements common to all.

She then led us in a visualization: we were sitting in a half circle two or three deep around her. She asked us to close our eyes and imagine that we were sitting in meditation under a huge banyan tree. The roots of the tree, deep in the earth, are those who have practiced yoga before us, for thousands of years. The branches of the tree above us are all of the various yoga practices that have developed today. One of the characteristics of banyan trees is that once the branches extend, they drop down their own roots, back into the soil. We, meditating beneath the tree, become the roots dropping from the branches, back into the earth.

From there, she suggested that teaching yoga should be a natural outgrowth of the yoga that we have individually internalized. As we had only a short time together, she suggested that we think of each moment having a fiber that runs through it into the next. She suggested that where we were in our teacher training was like the “ah” stage of OM, the beginning of a new experience. She said that yoga was like a great ocean that no one has fully explored, nor could fully explore, as it changes daily, renewing itself.

She related that fifteen years ago, she almost didn’t sign up for teacher training herself, but she recognized that something inside of her was in an evolving phase. She could ignore the feeling for a while, but then answered the call. She said that any background can be valuable, as yoga is an open system. If students are open even to nothing more than the physical experience of yoga, don’t judge them for it. Yoga cannot be separated into physical and spiritual. It is inherently spiritual.

Relax insistence or metrics to judge a yoga practice. It is not hierarchically dependent, nor measured by outer accomplishment. It is a state of being. Students will come to classes to gain a glimpse of being who they are. How we live should not show only ideals, but also who we are as individuals.

Evening: Shiva Rea. She began by introducing us to three or four kriya yoga practices, emphasizing rhythmic, dance-like movements. Once the basic motion was established, she encouraged us to find our own internal rhythms and to follow them.

She offered the following remarks before moving into the physical practice:

The quantum view of existence recognizes no difference between matter and energy. If it helps to think of this as pure science, please do so. Energy is the entire universe in motion. Yogic worldview is that energy put in motion creates a unified consciousness. In any state of nature, yoga teaches that if you attune, you can sense vibrations, whether that’s in the wilderness or in your grandfather’s chair.

Energy in motion moves in waves, whether sound or EMF. The principal ground of reality is that all is in motion and moves in waves. In the womb, we are surrounded by and filled with fluid. Some estimate that when born, we are 90% water. As we age, that can decline to 60%. Seek fluid power in your yoga practice. Rather than assuming a “solid” or static yoga pose (she modeled Warrior II), try moving into and through it fluidly.

We’ll start tonight with the kriyas. Only focus on the experience of a body in motion. Become the motion. Feel the fluidity of the body. If you are feeling stiff, move fluidly. Feel your own pules. Avoid tissue habituation. Don’t let yoga make you feel less flexible than you really are. And there are no tickets for non-compliance. No one has authority to make us feel so strange in our own bodies. Second – notice what it feels like to perceive and attend to the motion of the body. I’ll teach you a Dancing Warrior series.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Archival notes: December 2004

In yoga practice several days ago, the teacher called, as she has often done, for natarajasana ( Dancer's Pose. After cueing the pose, she encouraged us to let the pose create the perfect balance of stretching forward into the future and stretching backwards into the past. When she mentioned the past, I toppled out of the pose, as it was perfectly clear to me that to some extent, I have tried to put my past behind me.

In reflecting a bit on what I've written here, it occurs to me that while I want to use this website as a journal of today, sometimes what I experience is not accurately described without reference to the the context of the past.

From that thought, I jump to thinking of the right context to frame my experience with the cadvaer lab.

From there, it occurs to me that I should share with you the following items -- notes I wrote in December 2004:

December 1, 2004

It seems strange to think that sitting with what’s left of a woman who second-mothered me most summers and for two school years of my life is yoga, but it was the most heart-opening practice I’ve done.

What’s left? A bag of bones, draped with a thin and mottled fabric of skin. Bits and pieces of the sharp-tongued intellect, the manipulative middle sister, the telecom executive mind, the loving aunt to a dozen or so nieces and nephews.


She’s stuck in the middle of a word, intoning it until the breath of the word runs out. She looks at me, confused – unsure of whether it’s the word or her mind or my presence that is out of place, not right.

Eyes look out from deep hollows in her skull, the upper lip drawn up, exposing the greyed and yellowed front teeth. The eyes seem to have shrunk, eyelid skin disappearing under the ocular orbits of her skull, a bottomless crevasse, reappearing hugging the round eye.

How can an eye look uncertainly? Is it the shape of the eyelids? The brows? Hers never moved.

A sentence about the dogs she cared for 30 years ago comes out clearly, intoned with the wry sense she used when managing us as kids, telling me of a white dog trying to hide in the greenery of her backyard.


She gets stuck on another word; runs out of breath. Stops to inhale.

Yesterday, the daylight from the window at the head of her bed cast artists’ shadows across her face, framing her skeleton head in a silver halo of clean, frizzy hair. Despite her complaints, the room is clean, the temperature is pleasant, she's only ten steps from the nurses’ station.

She tried to get out and about on her own a week ago and fell. The scabs and bruises mottle her skin even more than age. She’s got a clear adhesive bandage on a wound on her wrist, too tempting a target for the hen’s pecking instinct, the unwatched fingernails’ primate-picking-grooming instinct.

Yesterday, she was sleepy, drifting off, startling awake when a door closes in the corridor. The light was really perfect for drawing. I had a sketch book in my bag, but I was seated beside her bed, her cool fingers holding my hand. Once when she drifted off, I thought to slip my hand from hers and retrieve my sketchbook. But even a millimeter of movement brings her back awake in a moment. I resisted the sketching urge and hold still. I was the one posed.

Today, the light is more muted, as the advance guard of a snowstorm moves into the valley. I can still see the bone shapes in her face, the drooping cloth of her skin lying across the skull, her front teeth protruding from aging, drawn back lips, the weight of her skin draping toward her ears. With a sketch today, I think I could capture the light I saw yesterday.

What’s with this urge to sketch? Just to free my hand, my self from this diminishing biome? Create distance from her, to turn her into an abstraction of darkness and light? Or maybe a desire for the intimacy of drawing someone, my eye touching each edge, each curve, probing each shadow of her face, an intimacy we once shared through words, an intimacy that too many strokes, each cutting off blood to a different fragment of mind, now deny us?

She reaches for my hand again. I receive hers.

She articulates as carefully as she can, “I would find it quite pleasant if you would remove this bandage,” lifting her bandaged wrist. I tell her that the doctor would be unhappy with me if I did that. We repeat this conversation five or six times during the hour. Sometimes I defer to medical expertise. Sometimes I lie about doing it later. Sometimes I look her in the eye and tell her that I think she’d pick it raw without a bandage. My responses seem to matter more for the sound of my voice than the content of the words. Do I mislead myself that the actual words don’t matter?

I pause to take a breath myself. It doesn’t bring me back to center, but it does stretch, then relax more deeply the intercostal muscles. I’m reminded that I’m the mind of a body. I rest, holding her cool fingers in mine.

Walking back to my car in the parking lot, my heart feels strange, entangled, alive.

December 15, 2004:

One event, one thought, though a grisly one.

Yesterday, my mother-in-law died, 18 months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

My brother-in-law, unable to reach my wife, called me in my office to advise me. I returned home, as my wife would likely be there shortly. In the meantime, I thought for a minute, and decided that I ought to eat something, in case the rest of the day and the unmade contingent plans that were doubtless forming would prevent it later.

So I went to the fridge to see what there was. I found a ziploc bag with some chunks of steak that my youngest son and I had grilled the day before. I opened the bag, sprinkled the meat with salt. As I speared one of them, I had an odd feeling of equivalence between the beef muscle before me, and my mother-in-law's body, now meat.

I finished eating the leftover steak, never quite shaking off the feeling of relationship.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

It's ok -- he's already dead

I've not fully processed this afternoon's experience, so this is more an assemblage of impressions.

We worked with five cadavers. They were already dissected. All old people -- 70s or 80s.

Formaldehyde has a sweetish smell. It penetrates everything -- clothes, notebook, my sinus cavities. When I got home and ate something, I discovered that it had bound to the moisture at the back of my throat. Blech.

Formaldehyde turns all the flesh a sort of muted tan-grey color.

Amazing things: how large the chest cavity is, once the organs are removed; how large the spinal muscles (longissimus dorsi, psoas, etc.) are; how complicated the musculature of the neck is; how much muscle lies along the back of the neck; how many nerves extend through the abdominal organs; that the pituitary gland is really at the brow chakra, just behind the sinuses; how large the salivary glands are; how small the brain is; how intricate the tissue inside the heart ventricles is, and how it affects the fluid dynamics of blood flow; the round, smooth knob at the top of the femur fitting into the socket at the pelvis; that everything is really ONE until we decide to separate it to talk about the pieces; how similar cadavers and those of us examining cadavers; the potential for way more body awareness than I have at present; the weird sense I have now of eating meat; how similar the structure of a cadaver and the chickens that I routinely roast, butcher, and turn into sandwiches and soup; the indecipherable relationship between life and flesh; how intricate the device of a body; that eating is just running food through a series of processes; the generosity of those who donate their bodies to others' educations; how little of a body is bone; the aorta is enormous -- 1 1/2" in diameter; the kidneys are located in their own little containers that shift and move against the inside of the abdominal spine musculature; spinal discs are fatter than I thought; men and women aren't really all that different; skin is leather; one of the cadavers has gold fillings, one has no teeth at all; it's odd to look at a rhomboid muscle beneath a dissected trapezius and touch the analogous spot where I get knots in mine; how everyone in the mall this evening looked to me like meat; how inane TV is; how much more body there is beneath the skin; how the presenter went out of his way to accustom us to the place and the idea before he opened the tables holding the cadavers; how they are wrapped in damp towels; how much time he must spend reassembling the cadavers after dis-assembling them in each class -- sliding the skins back over the grey flesh of preserved organs; how much I value the group of people I am with for teacher training.

Perhaps I'll process some of that at some point. It surely is an experience that will continue to affect perception for some time to come.

One brief episode: Min and I are standing on opposite sides of a dissection table that holds about 5' of connected tissues, beginning with the tongue, running down the esophagus, the digestive system organs, the psoas musculature to which they are linked, that to the fascia of the hamstring, through the calf to the plantar fascia of the arch of the foot. We are discussing the extent to which some aspect of life continues after death. I'm dubious. We talk about the possible relationships between consciousness and flesh, whether it's a function of something about bodies, or independent of them. I believe that consciousness exists -- in me, in molecules, in the cosmos even after the last person dies -- and that I am a manifestation of that consciousness. Reincarnation? Perhaps, if it is understood to be a transformation from one assemblage of molecules into patterns that are aware into another assemblage. Any hope of continuity between lifetimes for a consciousness? I don't have any experiences to suggest so, but others seem to have.

I'm not crazy about second-hand epiphanies.

Eleventh Class

Cadaver Lab -- not many notes, and the ones that I have are inauspiciously smeared. (ook.)

Knowing the inside of the body is an exercise in reducing density and replacing it with light. After you examine cadavers, no longer will the inside of your own body be a relative unknown.

Examining cadavers is an exercise in learning yourself.

Complete learning cycle: Take in information; interpret the information; re-create the information.

The structure of the inside of the body can be understood as a series of nesting cylinders -- from the sheath of the epidermis to the dermis, the hypodermis, fascia, muscle, bone, marrow. The various organ groups are sheathed, as well, and each cylinder is bound to the next with greater or lesser connections. For muscle groups, from the outside in, the various cylinders of flesh start tightly bound, becoming more mobile and less tightly bound as you move in toward the bone.

The next time you perform a twist, consider the various cylinders that must move relative to one another. Keep in mind that a student with skin that binds may not be able to move into the twist deeply, and so may experience the entire edge of the pose at the skin level.

When performing twists yourself, consider the very elements of your body -- how it affects your abdominal organs, your diaphragm, how it twists your rib bones, compresses the nerve cluster near your spine, pressures the aorta, tensions the bindings between fascia and obliques. Think small.

Always, muscles change bones. Wolf's Law.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Tenth Class

[Most of the class was a combination of visuals and related discussion, so my notes are pretty thin.]

Readings from Job’s Body, by Deane Juhan, and The Alexander Technique, by John Gray.

Be aware of tensions – a skeleton wouldn’t hold together without the tensions and connections created by soft tissue.

Bodies – bones, muscles, and all – adapt to form and posture. Don’t expect an adjustment to feel right the first time. The body will accommodate stresses, whether the stresses come from proper alignment or not.

Get students into an aligned position a few times, and they’ll remember it from long ago when they were more flexible.

Start with small adjustments in the right direction, and that will open the doorway to further changes down the road.

The most work is done by the largest muscles, and the largest muscles connect to the largest bones – the pelvis, the femurs, the spine. From that core of large muscles, both muscles and bone extend out, getting increasingly smaller, enabling finer movements.

Yoga aims to create efficient body structure. Erosion of bone can happen through life, but so, too, can bone growth happen.

Bones only go where muscles pull them. Muscles pull in response to nerve signals.

In postures, seek to minimize muscle effort. One muscle relaxes when its opposite pulls.

Yoga seeks to make life a conscious habit, rather than an unconscious one.

A pose shouldn’t start at the “end point” and work back. There is no end point. Try stepping back from the end, and work alignment in safer, less extended positions.
Get the alignment right first. Extension can come later. Convey that to students.

Congenital body structure issues exist. So, too, do age issues, and lots of injury issues. But that needn’t be the end of the thinking. Don’t agree with your students’ belief that it will just get worse over time. Some conditions can be overcome, others managed.

Bones can be affected by movement and positioning – to erosion of bone tissue or the growth of new bone tissue. Stress and resistance strengthen bones. Stress to any tissues makes them stronger. Going to the edge increases stress and development.

Books to consider: Anatomy of Movement and Anatomy of Hatha Yoga.

Consider opposing muscle groups in working or adjusting a pose. Usually, one set of muscles needs to relax so the other can flex.

Work each pose meticulously – holding it for from several minutes to an hour. Notice which muscles work at the beginning of the pose. Notice which muscles become involved as the initial ones become exhausted.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Mala breaths

Although I spent more than a dozen hours this past weekend studying Sanskrit, the idea that has most affected me today was Manorama's explanation of mala beads.

For those not inclined to plow through yesterday's notes, Manorama used a string of mala beads to show why the Yoga Sutras are named for thread (sutra="thread," like "suture" in English). Mala beads are for meditators and mantra chanters the equivalent of rosary beads for Catholics. In a string of mala beads, there are 108 beads, and one uses them to keep track of repetitions of mantras, holding a bead between finger and thumb while chanting the mantra, then moving to the next bead for the next mantra repetition.

Listening to Manorama's explanation, my mind wandered a bit (as it always wanders), thinking about beads on strings, rather than the specific connection to the etymology of the name of the "Yoga Sutras." Later she compared mantra practice to asana practice (asana = physical posture -- what typically gets called a "yoga pose"). My wandering mind noted at that point that I practice a form of asana yoga that links postures to in-breaths and out-breaths. (Not a momentous insight -- what I practice is called vinyasa yoga, and in all the varieties of vinyasa practice, every one of them links each posture with a particular in-breath or out-breath.)

From there it wasn't too much of a leap, today, to thinking of each breath I take -- in asana practice or sitting at my desk in my office -- as a bead on a mala string. In-breath, out-breath, next bead. In-breath, out breath, next bead. In breath, out-breath, next bead. (You get the picture.)

So in this afternoon's asana practice, instead of focusing on a sequence of specific postures (Warrior 2, Warrior 1, Warrior 2, Reverse Warrior, Reverse Triangle, High Plank, Low Plank), I was thinking "In-breath (posture), out-breath (posture), in-breath (posture), out-breath (posture).

I readily acknowledge that there is absolutely nothing revolutionary -- or even remarkable -- about this change of mind-set. Indeed, I've been practicing asanas for years under the instruction of dozens of teachers, almost every one of them insisting that the breath was primary, the pose secondary. But today, I think I finally got it -- or, rather, I finally wanted the breaths strung together on a mala string more than I wanted a series of perfect poses.

As fate would have it, the teacher in today's class wasn't particularly careful to instruct on breaths, nor to time them usefully -- so poses that I could only hold for a moment or two on an in-breath, she kept us in for long enough that if I'd kept inhaling, I could have exploded one of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. But perhaps that irregularity in the practice actually helped. Because instead of worrying about staying with the teacher's erratic breath calls, I thought, "in-breath, out-breath, next bead." If they coincided with the posture movements the teacher was calling, so much the better, but I stuck with my breath pattern, first and foremost, whether in or out of synch with the teacher and the class.

Of course, paying attention to my practice in this way, I found it really hard to focus on breathing in certain poses. The backbend of wheel pose ( (and, just for clarity, I don't do wheel pose with anything like the grace of the linked image) leaves my breathing shortened, the back of my rib cage constricted. Each breath is labored in and out. The tightness of my abdominal muscles in peacock pose ( prevents me from breathing in anything other than tiny sips in and out. But gentle or strong, tiny or deep, today, I linked some of those breaths into beads on a string. I noticed a couple of times, especially after the abdominal crunch work that power yoga practice uniquely injects into the middle of an asana practice, that I had completely forgotten my mala beads and was holding my breath. And once, I even noticed that my body wanted to pant out some accumulated fear. At that point, I thought, rather more rapidly than I had during calmer parts of the practice: "in-breath, out-breath, next bead."

And my mind calmed.

Cool enough. The best part, though, was realizing on the way home that I was linking my breathing then. And at my desk, later.

And even now.

In-breath and out-breath are obvious in chanting mantras. They can't really be ignored, as a mantra stops when the out-breath is done, and it can only resume after the in-breath is done. While other activities are not as overtly dependent upon the breath as mantra, they are just as dependent covertly.

Note to Dear Readers

In talking with some of you in recent days, I've become more aware of how much the esoterica of yoga is getting in the way of communication here. The problem with esoterica, is not its difficulty per se -- lots of things are difficult or complex, but still worth considering. The problem with esoterica its tendency to become a kind of shorthand or abbreviation (or, in some perverse instances, intentional obfuscation). Lawyers indulge such bad manners frequently in their own profession, and I seem to have done so here, too. My apologies.

If you choose to continue reading here, please know that in the posts that are not labeled "Xth Class" materials, I'll work harder to avoid jargon and esoterica -- or at least I'll try to define my terms when I think that the esoteric terms or ideas are the best vehicles for conveying meaning. Those posts may be of greater interest to some of you.

The posts that are labeled "Xth Class" probably will continue to be filled with esoterica and jargon, as that is the way much of the subject matter is presented in class, and those posts do nothing more than capture and present my class notes. I do this in part for my own benefit, as the exercise of restating my notes helps me internalize what I've learned, and I do it in part for the benefit of other students, in the class or elsewhere, who might find the notes to be of some use.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ninth Class

Second day of Manorama's instruction. Fewer notes, as more of the day was spent working on pronunciation, recitation, and expansion of the text of the first 14 Yoga Sutras. Even so -- I present what I recorded in my notebook. As I attended to some of the intervening stories closely enough to forget to take notes, I'd welcome other class members' recollections here.

Sanskrit Workshop

welcome = svahgatam
good morning = suprepratham (sp?)
Review of first day.
Yesterday we covered vowel positions inside the mouth. Prana comes through the throat by the power of intention and strikes the palate at a particular point, creating various kinds resonance. In Sanskrit tradition, sound is understood to invoke meaning. Sanskrit is a phonetic alphabet -- the name of the letter is the sound of the letter pronounced. A-U-M + silence/nadam. The yoga of sound. Pronunciation of different vowels vibrates in different parts of the head and body. In this way, at least, Sanskrit does directly affect the body, literally embodying both meaning and sound. Sounds produce certain kinds of vibrations and feelings in the singer. Some focus in the forehead, an area that includes what some neurologists call "the divine center." So chanting mantras produces a pleasing, mesmerizing, relaxed, tranquil feeling.

Sanskrit consonants are dependent upon vowels for their pronunciation -- they interrupt or restrict the pronunciation of the vowels. Sanskrit mantras are continuous. Vowels are needed to give voice to the consonantal contact points. In Sanskrit, the name of every consonant is the consonant's phonetic effect followed by "a."
Review of Sanskrit Alphabet

Yoga Sutras - attributed to Patanjali
-- holistic way of living
--sutras (shares the root with the word "suture")
-- literally "thread"
-- style of text
-- lots of different kinds of sutras

Manorama borrowed a string of mala beads from a student and explained that mala strings contain 108 beads, and one "godhead" bead. One uses the mala beads to keep track of recitations of mantras, one recitation for each bead. When one gets to the godhead bead, one reverses course, and recites in the other direction. The string holding the beads together is the metaphor of the "thread" or sutra. Each piece of the sutras depends upon and builds upon the previous beads.

The Yoga Sutras are very concise -- so concise that they need, or at least encourage, detailed unpacking and exegesis. Guruji taught Manorama that to understand the Yoga Sutras, she first must come to understand her own text or sutras first.

"Patanjali" = when two hands are placed together at the heart, we call that the "anjali" mudra. It is also performed by placing the hands together in cupping shape, and drawing them - joined - to the forehead, palms open to the sky in offering. It is a showing of reverence.

The story of Patanjali's origin goes this way: Patanjali's mother had borne no children. She very much wanted a baby. She was worshipping Surya, the Sun. In this mythology, the Sun is the symbol of constancy, and is contrasted with the moon, which waxes and wanes, and is understood symbolically to be like the mind, ever fluctuating. But Patanjali's mother worshipped the sun. In doing so, she entered the water, praying to Surya. She held her hands in the anjali mudra, palms open, supplicating. She heard the sound "Pat", and she looked to see what had fallen into her palms. It was an egg. When the egg hatched, Patanjali was born, half serpent, half man.

Patanjali is also referred to as "Ananta" and "Adi-sesa" - first serpent. Recall the symbolism of serpents -- the symbol of two serpents intertwined is a representation of kundalini rising through the body, the crossing points being the principal chakras -- this is also where we get the cadeuseus, the symbol of health. Recall also that Shiva wears serpents as adornments in representation of his power. Also recall that Vishnu resides on a bed of serpents.

Patanjali = that which falls into supplicating hands.

Three texts are attributed to Patanjali: Ayurveda (ayur = life, veda = science); Maha-Bhasya - a grammatical text on the science of speech and grammar for healing the mind; and Yoga Sutra -- for healing the mind and spirit.

Manorama has provided us with a word-for-word translation of the Yoga Sutra. We may want to listen to guruji's recitation of the Yoga Sutra. Also, we might listen to

Before reciting the Yoga Sutra, traditionally, the chanters recite an invocation to Patanjali.

Sutra 1: Auspicious beginning. Note that Patanjali describes this as a compilation, effectively showing that lineage is being passed along. Tradition tells that Patanjali's students wrote down Patanjali's words.

Yoga = union - the kind that cannot be separated, though we may forget that it cannot -- it is the union of the self with the self.

samadhi = consciousness.

Wise men and women come and go, but the Self is only One.

There are not many enlightened -- there is only One Self, and we are all that One.

Q: Some are happy just playing tennis, without regard to these things.
A: True, but who knows about tomorrow? Tomorrow always comes.

Guruji: People always ask me, "how much should I meditate?" How can I tell them "24 hours a day, 365 days a year"?

Yoga is the entry point to a living that we can follow always.

Any moment can be an entry point.

If your life is a meditation, every point is an entry point.

Pray for more problems. They'll keep you close -- guide you in and in and in.

Yoga should not be a weekend God. It should be life.

When we withdraw the sakti from the circle and send it into the center point - siva - we're focused.

Two books to consider: Be As You Are, and I Am That.

One drop of reality and you'll spend the rest of your life seeking more. It can be found through chant, asana, and pranayama.

Robert Thurman -- Columbia professor of Buddhism: It is something to know you are free, but knowing is not enough. You have to feel, and feeling changes everything.

Yoga is a way to enter reality and perceive it directly. For those who are physically inclined, asana can be an entry point.

Notice the small things. They'll lead to noticing silence itself.

Any practice that does not use reverence is less powerful.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Eighth Class

Week 3: Day 2
Sanskrit Workshop – Manorama D’alvia

guru: gu (heaviness) – ru (remover)

Manorama began with an introduction of her guru, outlining his accomplishments, his background, and his emphasis on Sanskrit. She then described her experience with him. She described him as intellectual and accomplished in the sciences, including medicine. She recounted his humor and “juiciness.”

Yoga= union. Her guru defined it as “the state where you are missing nothing”

Manorama studied at Columbia, and now teaches Sanskrit. In her teaching, she emphasizes sound as an awareness, light, relative to yoga.

Kirtan= to call out
=repetition – practice
-each time we come to a repeated phrase in a mantra, we perceive it both in the present and as a part of the past.

Sanskrit – said to be the language where sound and meaning are united. In such a language, by creating the sound, you invoke the presence of the subject of the word.

What is the difference between prayer, visualization, and meditation?

Prayer is a kind of reverent talking to God. God must be silent to hear the prayer.
Visualization – whether a flame, the sky, or a mantra – is imagining something to the exclusion of other things.
Meditation – when God (or the divine or the universe, as it may be called) talks to us. And as silent as we are, so much the meaning and interpretations are correct.

Silence – not merely the absence of speaking – it includes the absence of thinking. It is then that we hear that which is meant for us.

Patanjali: we are all the time with the spinning of the mind.

So we practice.

In yoga, as you extend out, you are also pulling in. Prana is not something of which we have certain amounts to allocate to others.

Exercise: Chant and meditation

Sanskrit (flip your “r”) is the language of yoga – recall that yoga is the state where you are missing nothing. It is a language of vibration.

Root: kr = “to do” or “to make”

Where does language come from?

Different languages arose out of different needs:

Cuneiform – language of accounting of mine and yours
Chinese – language derived from divination
Sanskrit – the original language of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism – also of yoga philosophy
Side note: Buddhism began using Sanskrit, but the Buddha eliminated the caste system from his circle. As Sanskrit was the language of the higher caste, Buddhist writings are now traditionally recounted in Pali or one of various vernaculars.

Sanskrit = “Sam” (absolutely or fully) + “kr” (done or made)

Letters are like people. When two come into contact, sometimes they become one. Sometimes they come together and fight. Sometimes they require harmony between them to come together. As it is difficult to stop and start the prana of sound constantly, the breath fluidly connects sounds. Adding an “s” between Sam and kr eases the pronunciation.

Devanagari = deva (god) + nagari (script)
Devavani= deva (god) + vani (language).

English is the native language of rock and roll. Wherever you go in the world, the rock and roll music is in English. The language easily conveys the notion of freedom, personal energy, and independence. English has a start/stop characteristic to it that lends itself to the ideal of rock and roll.

Language = vibration

Behind every word is an intention.
- It is silence you hear first
- It is the foundation of sound
- It is the medium of sound

As much silence as you have, so much you can share with another.

[Manorama then sketched out a large circle with a single point at its center.]

Siva is the point at the center. Sakti is the energy that emanates from the point.
Chant: Ram citta, citta ram.
Sakti is often represented in statue as a woman with many arms. The arms do not represent a physical being – rather they symbolize her many abilities. When siva unites with sakti… You understand, right, that siva and sakti are metaphors for what goes on inside of us, right? They are inside us, not outside. The represent cosmic energies manifest in us. Siva and sakti together are the conscious engagement of prana. Yoga asanas embody the same thing. Because I (Manorama) don’t practice asana much, I have to be reminded to align the pose and to breathe. But once I do align the pose with the breath, life becomes like a prayer.

Sanskrit chant energizes the room and the spaces outside as well as inside our bodies. Whenever we can in a phrase, we try to avoid breaking the energy flow. We try to link words to a single breath.

Prana = life force, energy, breath, spirit

Both speech and sound rest on the out-breath.

Where we stand with respect to an object gives us a particular, and limited, perspective of it. When we can move inside it, we can perceive it from all sides.

Sanskrit is a language that doesn’t rely on faith or belief.

Vowels are prana coming to a point in the mouth and resonating at a particular place.

[Manorama sketched a side view of the palate and mouth, placing certain Sanskrit vowels at certain focal points inside the mouth. ]

In pronouncing these vowels, energy/breath is projected to a particular point, but the resonance expands from that point.

Deep sleep – meditation is similar, but with consciousness.

You are something more than the thoughts of your mind.

Meditation can be very scary because you are alone with a stranger.

Get to know yourself. You’re the only one going all the way with you.

Life is an unknown journey that involves aloneness – not necessarily loneliness. Aloneness can enable us to perceive the interconnections between all things. If we never allow ourselves to be alone, we may never discover what it is like to come into contact with ourselves.

Whether or not guru-ji was enlightened? Swaha. But he was happy, a happiness not mitigated by the difficulties he experienced.

Fall in love with the details of your subject.

OM is a composite of three sounds: Ah – Uu – M In yoga traditions, the three sounds represent Brahma (the creator) – Vishnu (the sustainer) and Siva (the destroyer). Also, as the positioning of pronunciation of Ah is at the focal point at the back of the mouth and Uu is formed at the focal point at the very front of the mouth, OM represents all sounds, as making the OM sound, you shift your mouth through each other focal point where the other sounds are made.

Sanskrit is described as the mother of all languages. Why?
Proto-Indo-European is the source language from which Indo-European language was created, and Indo-European is the language that has given rise to the largest number of languages in the world.

The basic outgrowths of PIE – Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Gaelic.

Sanskrit has more ways to refer to the divine than the other languages. This may explain in part how Hinduism has 33,000,000 gods, to say nothing of their consorts, offspring, and the like.

Samadhi = Sam (sameness, balance) + a (completeness) + dhi (consciousness)

When you pick up one end of a stick, you also pick up the other.

How does form give rise to meaning? Structure. Meaning gives rise to form equally. This works in asana structures as well as in breath structures.

Godfather cinematic elements: chiaroscuro, presentation in shadows and colors of red and black, delayed presentation of the Don. Then presented him talking quietly and stroking a cat. The form of the movie gives rise to meaning. The meaning gives rise to the form.

Mantra = man (to think) + tra (protect) – invoking sound to protect the mind. Anything can be a mantra if it brings quiet to your mind, though English is not the best choice for mantras because of its construction.
Exercise chanting
As soon as prana stops, sound stops. Sound is entirely dependent upon the breath.

Sound is associated with “ether” – the first element. Ether is space and energy. Sound penetrates the environment and the body.
One day Manorama told guru-ji she was feeling miserable. He responded, “Good – feel more miserable. See how long it lasts. What has a beginning, also has a middle and an end.”

I Love Lucy episode in the chocolate factory with the conveyor belt. If we live life only to fix the next problem, life will be filled with problems. There is always a new one on the horizon.

Perceive the cycle. Awareness changes everything – body, speech, and interactions.

Fourth element: sound of silence. Silence, itself, has a resonance.

Nadam = vibration of energy.

In theory, we chant the mantra. But initation comes with the realization that it is the universe that is chanting the sound of silence – of the void.

Nada Yoga article reading.

If you feel a slight scratching, follow it.

OM – adult lullaby. But it captures attention.

Guruji saw the highest in everyone he came into contact with. He saw their potential.

A teacher can only till the soil and plant a seed. There is nothing that hasn’t been said before. But you can embody it. Be open to the moment.

You are awareness.

Patanjali: you are not just the mind.

An entry point is always available to you. Be as fluid as the wind. Don’t hold anything too tightly.

Embody experience, and then speak from experience.

Namaste = Namah (reverence/salutation) + te (thee)

All other definitions are the expression of intentions and commentary.

“rama” = to sport – god’s view of existence.

When adopting the styles and habits of a culture, we do so not for the purposes of acculturation. Rather, it’s about learning who you are. Take and adopt what appeals to you. Discard what doesn’t.

Guru-ji sought to eliminate the true cause of suffering in life, which is to believe that you are something you are not.

Before you engage with another – or even with yourself – connect with the cosmos, and then with the other person’s energy, and then with the other person.

Exercise: chanting mantra with hand placed on the heart of another person who is also chanting with her/his hand placed on your heart.

Homework: listen to a recorded mantra chant, and write up why it is in the language of yoga.

Manorama chant - a reponse before the notes

I should be typing up my notes from today's class, taught by Manorama. And I will do so later this evening or tomorrow morning before I return to the second day of her teaching. But for now, I simply want to remark on how alarming it is to find such a direct route to my own soul as chanting Sanskrit, following her lead.

This is a place where words completely fail. I can speak in metaphors and analogies, but they are nothing more than a finger pointing at the moon or stars.

In clinical terms, Manorama has a nuanced voice, and the contrast between her joking and light hearted English explanations of Sanskrit are interspersed with reverent and sonorous Sanskrit mantra chants. The contrast between the two modes is distinctive, but hardly enough to explain why or how her mantra chanting inspires in me power, energy, vibration, connection, embodiment.

For me shedding tears in yoga is nothing new. Being largely unaware of the tears until the chant ends -- perhaps that's the new thing for today.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Seventh Class

Week 3, Day 1

Adjustment Clinic

There are different layers of teaching objectives. The first objective is to teach even breath through the practice. The second is to teach the details of the specific pose, making sure the students are performing the poses safely. The third is to adjust students’ poses. In any teaching situation, there is nothing wrong with working on the first and second layers. Adjusting poses is a third-level objective. That said, David Life has written that “touch is powerful communication.”

Love, we touch our friends
Powerful connection to students
Massage – healing touch
Tickle – you can only tickle someone else, not yourself

Touch conveys more than words. It can convey attention. If you are distracted by anything other than your student while touching the student, you convey unintended meaning. Before you begin to touch or adjust, you should see the whole person first, then decide whether and how to adjust. There is no “standard” adjustment. Everyone will respond differently to an adjustment. You must notice how a student responds to an adjustment to guide the adjustment. It is absolutely critical that the student you are adjusting have 100% of your attention. So what do you do with the rest of the class while you are adjusting a student? Put them into a pose they can hold.

In teaching, it is important to establish a relationship of trust with them, and they with you. Convey confidence in interacting with students. Your credibility matters to them. As a part of that relationship, touch becomes increasingly important and powerful. If you’re not 100% attuned to the student, they’ll be harmed or lost.


All intention is transferred through touch. If you’re Mother Theresa, that comes through. If you’re feeling anger or self-serving motives, don’t adjust. If you have a student who creeps you out, don’t touch the student – otherwise you’ll convey your own issues via your touch. If you have the hots for a student, the same rule applies. If you can’t leave your own issues at the door of the studio, don’t touch. Students will pick up your intention, whether you want them to or not, whether it’s pity, a power trip, or just uncertainty. Seek to serve the highest good of your students.

Q: Should you ask before adjusting?
A: (Alanna) I don’t. For many beginning students, everything about yoga is uncomfortable. If you ask them whether you can adjust them before class starts, they may respond that they’d prefer you not to, and as soon as they do that, a wall has been formed between you and them. You can read the indications from students about whether an adjustment would be threatening or unwanted. And keep in mind that an adjustment may be nothing more than patting the mat where you want the student to place a hand. It needn’t be as enveloping as laying your entire torso onto the student’s back in paschimotanasana.
A: (Dave): Also, in response to a question like that, people don’t like to bring up their injuries or other conditions in front of other students, so you may not get the information you seek with the question. You should be trained well enough to know what you are doing. If you have any doubt about an adjustment, don’t make it. With practice and experience, you’ll perceive the students’ energy, and that will guide you.

Adjustments are right if your intention is right. What if your intention is right and the worst case happens anyway – a student gets injured? An injury is not the worst thing in the world. It is the body’s way of telling you something. And if it doesn’t happen on the yoga mat, it may happen somewhere else, but conveying the same issue. Most of the time, if your intention is right, your adjustments will serve your students. Note, though, that when you do get good at adjustments, you can find yourself on an ego power trip for that reason.

In making adjustments, keep in mind that touch is distinctively different than verbal cues. You can make a mistake in a verbal cue, and correct it without any harm: “Left foot, rather, make that right foot…” But incorrect adjustments can’t be so easily remedied.

Q: Gender specific concerns. Are there rules about how to make adjustments when the teacher is one gender and the student another?
A: Really it all depends on the teacher, the student, and what’s going on. If you get the wrong vibes, don’t go there. As you progress, you’ll learn to read people better. Sometimes there can be ego issues with adjusting guys, as they tend to have more ego and competition issues. But it really depends.

Be honest with yourself.

Try to get to everyone in the class in some way – even if it is simply verbally cueing them while making a touch adjustment on a single student. It is very important not to lose track of what’s going on with the rest of the class in order to adjust a single student. Always keep the class moving ahead. When you adjust, some students will start to ask questions, as if they are your only responsibility. If you set the right tone as the teacher, using shakti/power and presence, you should be able to avoid having a student try to monopolize your attention. If the student persists, just indicate that you’ll discuss it with the student after class.

Breathing. When making an adjustment, bring your breath into synch with the student’s. Keep your own back strong, and engage your mula bandha. The most important thing of yoga practice is the breath. The most potent adjustment you can make is to adjust breathing. One way is to stand next to the student, and breathe with them, audibly. When making touch adjustments, you deepen the pose on the student’s exhale. Connecting with the student’s breath is powerful – you are connecting prana – life force.

(Alanna) In years of work as a yoga teacher, I’ve never been injured by a pose, but I have been injured by adjusting others. When you adjust, you give the student what the student needs – not what you need, as it isn’t about you. If your dog died right before class, leave your tears at the door. Your students want you to be the perfect yogi. You want to give them as much as possible, so in every adjustment, put yourself second. If you’re in a yoga pose and breathing, you won’t be injured so long as you’re checking in and aware.

Connection to the Earth.

Before making any adjustment, notice how the student is connected to earth. Spine should always be lengthening. If you see a firm connection with earth, look to spine. If you see gridlock there, evaluate how to dispel it. When you start adjusting a pose, start at the bottom and work your way up, just as you do when cueing a pose verbally. Frequently, if you fix the foundation, many of the other problems will fix themselves. “Asana” means seat – relationship to the earth. Patanjali: seat should be stable and joyful.

The spine is also a good place to start. Make sure the spine is not gridlocked. Adjust as close as possible to the joint you are trying to affect.

Have direction.

Know where you’re going and how to get there before you start. If you’ve never experienced a particular adjustment, no matter what you think, you don’t know how to do it, because you don’t know what it feels like to be adjusted in that fashion. It is also impossible to be taught all adjustments in a teacher training class. If you see a teacher perform an adjustment you have not experienced, ask about it after class, have them perform the adjustment on you, you perform it on them, and then you find someone who will give you 100% honest feedback and you practice on that person until you get it right. Most students in class settings won’t tell you if you hurt them, in part because of the structure of the teacher/student relationship, in part, sometimes, because the students simply lack the body awareness they would need to be able to provide feedback. So it is very important that you give each other accurate and complete feedback as you practice on one another.

Art of invisibility.

In teaching and in adjusting, you don’t want the students relying on you for answers – that’s why we encourage you to avoid demonstrations of poses. The class is not about you. You want your students to get inside themselves. It is an art to becoming invisible – they can hear you and know that you’re in the room, but they know the practice is about them. For this reason, it is often better not to make eye contact with students while adjusting them. Besides, there are very few face-to-face adjustments. Even so, you should almost always be positioned so you can see the student’s face while you make the adjustment, as faces convey a great deal of information. Also, eye contact tends to feel judgmental to some students. It is better for the student to have the teacher’s presence, but not the teacher’s judgment.

Honor and acknowledge student’s pain.

If you perceive a student is in pain, respond by shifting position. But be aware of the relationship between fear and pain. Change of any kind is uncomfortable and creates fear, and sometimes that can translate into the experience of pain. Note, of course, that pain can be real, and it can indicate the potential for danger. But it can also be an indicator of fear. We’re always happy to stay in our comfort zones – but the zone of comfort tends to get smaller and smaller over time. We introduce controlled stress and discomfort to our students’ lives. Their minds will kick in and resist change when we do that. Discomfort causes fear; fear causes pain.

Pain responses:

Stopping breath
Going limp
Pushing back
Scared look
Breath rhythm changes

You have to be open to receptivity through your touch. You have to be skilled enough to guide students on a case-by-case basis. As you take them into a pose, breathe with them. As you back them out of a pose, breathe with them. All depends on the student. Don’t let students get away with stuff. Try not to coddle egos. Why might you do such a thing? To insure your own status as their teacher. To get repeat customers. To reinforce your own sense of belonging. It is ok to challenge a student, to take the student to her edge. People like challenges. Do you pop out of a pose because you are too tired physically or because you fear change? There is a fine line between allowing a student to back off and to push. The same ego will both push too far and back out too soon. Don’t ever lose faith in your students. That said, students can be incredibly difficult. Do everything you can to make them successful – but not your own measure of success – theirs. Always expand your comfort zone. Learn to lean up against sharp edges. When you do, you’ll find your comfort zone expanding. Lie on a bed of nails.

Regularity, Enthusiasm, Caution

When you’re regular, to your students, you’ll feel like an extra limb. Don’t move quickly, or you’ll scare the students. Don’t walk away from them once you have them in a pose – stay with them and support them in it. Too much enthusiasm will lead you to push students too far. When you are too cautious? Nothing is worse than a frivolous adjustment. Always adjust both sides of a posture that has left and right versions. NO FRIVOLOUS ADJUSTMENTS.

Taking Responsibility

You want to lead your students to the “aha!” experience. Each of you can tell your own stories about a good adjustment you received. They are memorable. It’s not just the pose involved – it’s Yoga. Those experiences build a relationship to a teacher, increases a student’s faith. We should do what we can to develop those experiences in our students. Touch will accelerate the learning process. You can convey so much more through touch than through verbal cues. Pattabhi Jois: “Progress is much slower without touch.”

When making an adjustment, visualize what you want the student to know from your touch. You must see in your mind what the highest potential is for that student on the particular day. Maybe it is just an inch higher lift. Your visualization will transfer to your student.

Sevah means service – it is the path of a yoga teacher to serve the student’s highest needs.

There are no rules to adjustments. Only exceptions. Yoga is for the individual.

Use a towel to dry off your hands between students. Wear appropriate clothing, and be sure your students are wearing clothing appropriate to the adjustment you are making. Be aware of the potential to pick up skin rashes from students. Wash your hands immediately following class.