Yoga Journal

Rock Out with Teacher Mary Clare Sweet (+ Get Her Playlist)

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A Nebraska-based yogini finds her groove bringing rock ‘n’ roll to yoga.

A Nebraska-based yogini finds her groove bringing rock ‘n’ roll to yoga.

From a musical family (her uncle is Matthew Sweet), Mary Clare Sweet followed her passion for rhythm and dance to New York City, where she became a student of the venerable Sri Dharma Mittra, founder of the Dharma Yoga Center. From there, Sweet’s yoga career has taken off. At age 26, she opened her first vinyasa studio in Omaha, Nebraska: Lotus House of Yoga. Five years later, she is the owner of five Lotus House locations and a regular teacher at yoga festivals nationwide.

What does your practice look like?

My day starts with meditation and breathwork. It’s not easy, since I want to check my phone first thing when I get up, but I try to resist, sitting for about 10 minutes and then doing Kundalini exercises, including the Ego Eradicator. In total, I try to practice yoga for an hour a day. Some days, I’ll just let my body move, like when I was a ballet and jazz dancer.

How were you introduced to yoga?

When I was growing up, my mom practiced in a basement studio with tapestries on the walls. And I grew up dancing around the house with my parents and rock-musician uncle. There was always a token yoga class at dance camp. But it wasn’t until I moved to New York City and met Dharma Mittra that I thought, ‘This is what I want to feel all the time’—the way I felt when I looked into his eyes and saw the spark inside his heart. There was undeniable compassion.

Music is big for you and for Lotus House of Yoga. How is it incorporated into your classes?

Making a yoga playlist requires intention. I base mine on the chakras, starting with grounding music that brings you into the moment. Then I move into rhythmic sounds that you can feel around the second [svadhisthana] chakra. Next, I bring in music that is fiery for the third [manipura] chakra. For the heart chakra, I use music that helps students tap into collective consciousness. Near the end of class, the songs get more poetic to help students center on self-expression and the fifth [visuddha] chakra. In the final moments, I want angelic sounds that can activate the third eye and crown chakra. I’m looking for vibrations that dissolve your ego.

Sweet shares a few more of her favorite things:

Pose: Navasana [Boat Pose] lights a fire in me to speak my truth—to say what I mean and mean what I say—without feeling afraid.

“You Make Loving Fun,” by Fleetwood Mac. It reminds me not to take things too seriously.

Practice Space: 
I feel safe and stable at my mom’s house and dad’s house. There’s a root-chakra energy there; this is where I came from.

: I eat seaweed in everything: seaweed salads, wraps, sushi. It offers phytonutrients; it’s salty, savory, and so versatile.

Since I was a little girl, yellow has been my favorite color. It means life, sustenance, growth, sunshine, and courage.

Practice to Mary Clare Sweet's Yoga Playlist

Former NFL Linebacker Keith Mitchell's Mindfulness Mission

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How former NFL player Keith Mitchell found healing through yoga and mindfulness. Now, he wants to share that experience with others.

A spinal injury ended Keith Mitchell's football career in the NFL, but it also led him to find healing through yoga and mindfulness. Now, he wants to share that with others.

When a midgame spinal injury rendered NFL linebacker Keith Mitchell immobile in 2003, a physical therapist introduced him to the concept of conscious breathing to bring more oxygen to his partially paralyzed body. He started to notice changes, mentally and physically, and six months after his fateful tackle, Mitchell could move again. Within a year and a half, he was practicing asana.

Yoga Breathing + Meditation for Injury Recovery

Today, he credits breathwork and the study and practice of yoga and meditation with his ongoing recovery. And while he still battles fatigue, anxiety, and migraines, Mitchell no longer dreams of a return to a football career. Instead, he now dedicates his time and energy to teaching veterans, athletes, kids, and families who may not otherwise have exposure to mind-body practices.

“Yoga and meditation help build a relationship with the Self,” Mitchell says. “They help us listen to ourselves and unlock the intelligence of the body.”

As part of his mission, on January 31, Mitchell will host a landmark yoga and meditation event and 5K run and walk at the LA Coliseum, called the Mindful Living Health Expo and AltaMed 5K. “We want to get 10,000 people on their mats,” Mitchell says. “Yoga and mindfulness are not just for yoga people. They’re for everyone.”

How to Fail Up: 5 Steps to Cope with (and Conquer) Failure

It was a powerful moment when a teary-eyed David Damberger of Engineers Without Borders admitted from the TEDx conference stage in Calgary, Alberta, that the nonprofit project he’d been working on for five years to bring clean water to poor villages in India had failed. Yet as hard as it was for him to publicly announce defeat, it triggered a critical realization for…

Meet Yoga Teacher Dana Walters


This vinyasa teacher's nonprofit brings yoga to the people of Richmond, VA. Here's the scoop on her practice.

After a friend’s death five years ago, Dana Walters manifested her late friend’s dream by co-founding Project Yoga Richmond. Walters studied with yoga greats including Rolf Gates, Noah Levine, Judith Lasater, Nikki Myers, Kathryn Budig, and Seane Corn, and she keeps her practice mindful and steady. She offers the project’s donation-based classes to people who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Yoga for all? That’s a mantra worth repeating.

Yoga Journal: You were called an agent of positive community change by Style Weekly. Why?

Dana Walters: Probably because I caught their eye through Project Yoga Richmond, which I launched with five friends. We offer donation-based studio classes, plus free and low-cost yoga to children with autism, adults with developmental challenges, youth in juvenile-detention facilities, people in addiction recovery, seniors, and teens in city schools. We roll out about 1,300 mats each month through our classes.

YJ: What’s a key takeaway from your practice?

DW: I used to have a more-is-more mentality: If a twist feels good, more twist must feel a lot better. But I learned that just because you can move deeper doesn’t mean you should in that moment. Now I teach that more is sometimes fun, but not necessarily the best choice every time.

YJ: What’s your favorite yoga pose?

DW: Up Dog. Typically, it’s a transitional pose, but I pause in it. It’s super grounding, requires core strength and inner consciousness, and requires me to open up and soften.

YJ: What moved you from being merely interested in yoga to being passionate about yoga?

DW: That tipping point came when I shifted from teaching poses to teaching people. I credit Rolf Gates for that. He showed me that an understanding of and balance within the chakras ultimately informs how we are in the world. That was a powerful teaching. So now I try to encourage individual inquiry. I try to help others learn that knowing the poses is merely a path toward knowing themselves.

5 More of Dana's Favorite Things:

I pop the top off an avo­­cado, take out the pit, add a bit of sea salt, and scoop it out like ice cream.

Our front door at home is turquoise. My mat is turquoise. My watch is, too.

Elena Brower told me about Garth Stevenson. For class, his music is both grounding and soaring.

I have three senior rescue dogs: two poodles and a Maltese. They remind me to breathe.

Running or walking on the eight-plus miles of Richmond’s city trails that surround the James River.

Easy Seat: How to Sit With Less Pain: Book Review


Given how ubiquitous hatha yoga is today, it might be surprising to learn that just a few decades ago it was frowned upon by many Buddhist practitioners. In his forward to Jean Erlbaum’s well-informed book Sit With Less Pain: Gentle Yoga for Meditators and Everyone Else, Buddhist teacher Frank Jude Boccio confesses that at one time he did postures secretively at Buddhist retreats, afraid to be chastised for stretching his body between long sits.

Today, it’s clear that asana has many benefits, among them preparing practitioners’ bodies for meditation. Yet we haven’t seen an onslaught of books like Erlbaum’s that can help us learn to sit in contemplative practice longer while also showing us how simple yoga movements can ease tightness from routine tasks like sitting at a desk all day.

Erlbaum’s presentation is straightforward and clear, with just enough detail for non-experts to understand how to do the simple poses she outlines. She helpfully categorizes the offerings into upper body, mid-body, and lower body. Chair-based postures are included for those whose lack of mobility limits them from getting up and down from the floor.

In the least, Erlbaum’s gentle stretches and well-designed sequences can help people with chronic pain, stiffness, or a limited range of motion. At most, hatha yogis who do her suggested poses mindfully over time will understand how to cultivate their asana practice to establish a lasting easy seat.


Sacred Sound: Book Review


Seeing that contemporary yogis and yoginis have had no single source to explain the meanings of popular mantras or kirtan chants, Alanna Kaivalya has stepped in with Sacred Sounds: Discovering the Myth and meaning of Mantra and Kirtan. The book, divided into two sections—one covering 11 mantras and one 10 kirtan chants--devotes a chapter to each, explaining its significance, its governing deity and associated myths (if any), as well as giving suggestions for practice. No doubt you’ve already heard many of these—such as Om Namah Shivaya and the beloved and ubiquitous Om—either chanted in class or as a part of your class soundtrack. If you’ve ever wondered what they really mean, this book will begin to light the way.

Kaivalya, who is a touring kirtan musician herself, encourages practitioners to try mantras or participate in the uplifting group call-and-response of kirtan as a part of their regular yoga practice. In fact, her intention is to make what may seem like more esoteric parts of yoga more approachable to everyone, spreading the higher vibrations they inherently embody. While it’s not traditional—or in some cases, safe—for mantras to be practiced, as Kaivalya says, “in any way you like,” the ones she presents here will do no harm. For certain, the explanations of the Sanskrit and the myths help provide deeper context to the sounds—whether you are chanting the, or listening in—making kirtan an accessible way to attune to the joyful divine. So go forth, yogis, and sing!


7 Ways to Create A Yoga Staycation


Feeling frazzled and in need of a yoga retreat—but an exotic getaway is not in the budget? Here’s how to design your own thrifty yoga staycation.

Clear Your Schedule

Plan a weekend and preferably 3-4 days for your at-home retreat, and clear your schedule of other commitments, just as if you were leaving town. “Taking a day or two out of your usual routine to commit yourself to a practice can help give you per- mission to be where you are, instead of worrying about where you’re going,” says Dana Courtney, creator of affordable weekend yoga “urban retreats” in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey.

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Practice Morning and Night

Buy a class card or pass from a local studio, and choose two classes to take each day. If you prefer practicing at home, dedicate two sessions to your practice: an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. “Practicing twice a day ultimately takes you deeper into your practice,” says Kino Macgregor, founder and owner of Miami Life center. “If you have one really active practice in the morning, then you can be more meditative and introspective in the afternoon, working on alignment and therapeutics. It creates a holistic program.”

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Get a Cooking Buddy

Have a friend join you, and share the shopping and prep for a weekend of healthful, simple-to-prepare meals, drinks, and snacks.

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Tune In

In between your yoga sessions, read, meditate, draw, write, take naps, or do other restorative activities. If you’re not a regular meditator, or just want to try something new, check out these techniques and audio practices.

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Treat Yourself

Make time for at-home spa treatments, too, like a steam facial or a foot massage. Click herefor tips on maintaining healthy, lustrous skin.

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Switch off your phone, resist checking your email, keep online time brief, and get outside! Levi Felix, co-founder of Digital Detox, says, “When we disconnect from devices, we reconnect to ourselves, to nature, culture, and the community around us. The data shows the health benefits of unplugging: It lowers blood pressure, lowers heart rate, lowers cortisol, and helps us sleep better.”

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Early to Bed

Plan to get sufficient rest, at least 7 hours a night, so that you’re truly refreshed when you emerge from your home retreat.

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Pick Your Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga: Book Review


Grown out of a Master’s thesis in professional writing from USC, Pick Your Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga, is 500-ERYT instructor Meagan McCrary’s helpful guide to 17 styles of yoga as currently practiced in the US today. The book starts with three foundational chapter—“Yoga Explained,” “America’s Yoga History,” and “Philosophical Foundations”—before diving into the nuts and bolts of Ashtanga-vinysasa, Iyengar, Bikram, Jivamukti and three other widely practiced American yoga styles. Ten more schools—perhaps considered specialty styles—such as Viniyoga, Anusara Yoga, and Forrest Yoga are overviewed in one further chapter.

Methodical and thorough, this book will be especially helpful to the advanced beginner who has practiced enough to want to branch out, but does not yet know what her options are. The book sheds light on the founders of each yoga style, the early days of the practice, as well as what’s distinctive about a particular approach and how it’s typically sequenced. Boxed call-outs showcase interesting factoids and key bits of history of philosophy.

It’s not always clear what criteria McCrary used to prioritize styles—why confine the ubiquitous vinyasa style, for example, to a mere side-note of Ashtanga yoga, or privilege the somewhat passé Integral yoga in the same breath as Iyengar? But it is apparent that McCrary made a good-faith effort to research schools extensively. At root her even-handed presentation acknowledges that no matter how different American yoga styles are, they are joined by one purpose: to help people attain a degree of self-awareness that comes only from devoted practice.


Yogi, Take Me to a Higher Place


When Raquel Prieto moved from Northampton, Mass., to Boston in January, there was one thing she sought as urgently as an affordable living situation and a job: an advanced yoga class.

As a dedicated yogi, she wanted to work on meditation and on poses, or asanas, requiring a lot of strength and flexibility and a deep mental focus.

Even after spending $700 and two months trying out studios, she still hadn’t found a place she could build on the advanced practice she developed in a Northampton studio. So she patched together a combination of home practice, classes at a nearby yoga center, visits to a meditation center and trips back to Northampton.

“I’m not thrilled,” said Ms. Prieto, 23. “It’s hit or miss.” Her search for satisfaction, she said, “was a huge emotional thing. I got depressed.”

With a yoga studio seemingly on every corner, it might appear counterintuitive for any yoga class to be in short supply. But Ms. Prieto’s experience is not unique; many seasoned practitioners report having a hard time finding challenging classes.

The reason is simple. Yoga has evolved from a passion for the few into a mainstream pursuit. There are 15.8 million adults practicing yoga, according to Yoga Journal’s recent “Yoga in America” study, with almost one third of them practicing for a year or less. The study also found that the number of people interested in trying yoga tripled from 2004 to 2008 to an estimated 18.3 million.

Since catering to the legions of more novice practitioners makes the most business sense, most of the classes at yoga centers are geared toward the basic and intermediate levels.

“Things have swayed backward from very advanced asana practice,” said Jasmine Tarkeshi, a director of Laughing Lotus Yoga Center, which has studios in New York and San Francisco.

Prime-time offerings must cater to the largest group of students, she added. “We have to make it accessible for everyone, especially those evening slots when most people can come.” Smaller advanced classes are typically relegated to less-desirable midday slots.

Part of the problem, say many teachers and practitioners, is a scarcity of instructors capable of guiding students into a more-advanced practice. These days, they say, many master teachers travel around the world giving workshops, another result of the profitable explosion in yoga’s popularity. Americans spend $5.7 billion a year on yoga classes, products, equipment, clothing and media, up 87 percent from 2004, the Yoga Journal study found.

While it is hard to accurately tell how many people have advanced practices, especially given the range of what constitutes “advanced,” a survey by the chain Yoga Works this year showed that 10 percent of its students self-identified as advanced. Further, the Yoga Journal study estimated that almost 12 percent of those practicing yoga have been doing so for 10 years or more, which at least demonstrates a strong commitment.

There are some generally accepted markers for what makes a student advanced. Barring injury, they are comfortable holding a headstand (considered an advanced beginner’s pose) for several minutes or more. They work on free-standing handstands, and attempt deep backbends, forward bends, twists and other arm balances. If they’re truly advanced, they don’t radiate smugness as they practice difficult postures.

“Lots of young strong people want crazy tricks, and that’s fun and part of it, but in my view that’s not advanced at all,” said Annie Carpenter, 50, a senior teacher at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, Calif.

Advanced yogis work on breathing techniques and focus, since mental acuity eventually helps them transition into meditation, considered the ultimate goal of yoga. Even if advanced students can’t find the fullest expression of a pose, they will try it with concentration and a sense of humor.

“You go to advanced to have that same feeling you had as a beginner, that sense of wonder that no one would believe what you did today,” said Liz Buehler, 34, a director of the new Yoga High studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Cyndi Lee, the founder and director of OM Yoga Center in Manhattan, said that just the notion of an advanced class can scare some people off, but that her studio emphasizes the process, not the end point. “Advanced does not mean you are already advanced,” said Ms. Lee, 54. “It means you are ready to learn and practice advanced asanas.”

OM recently added advanced-level classes to prime-time spots on the schedule after students began requesting more of them.

Many students who are determined to keep progressing have enough knowledge to practice on their own. But they are also looking for skilled guidance and a community of like-minded practitioners. Others might work privately with a teacher, but the cost (from $75 to $150 an hour) can be prohibitive over time. Many take extra workshops, including teacher-training programs, to satisfy the craving for more knowledge and the chance to practice deeper poses.

NO BEGINNERS HERE  Aarona Pichinson performing a move at the Kula Yoga Project in TriBeCa during a two-hour advanced yoga class.  Credit: Christian Hansen for The New York Times

NO BEGINNERS HERE Aarona Pichinson performing a move at the Kula Yoga Project in TriBeCa during a two-hour advanced yoga class. Credit: Christian Hansen for The New York Times

Things weren’t always so arduous. Alan Brown of Manhattan began practicing yoga in the 1990s, when classes were smaller and there were fewer inexperienced teachers. Yoga enthusiasts were a small group striving to see what they could do next. “The classes were very advanced,” Mr. Brown said, and the people were devoted.

Though he has managed to find classes that he looks forward to, Mr. Brown, a film director and writer, believes that over time he has slid backward to a more intermediate-level practice. “We talk about it,” he said of his classmates from years past. “How great classes are so much harder to find now.”

Jamie Bishton, 47, who recently returned to his native Los Angeles after more than 20 years in New York, has felt a similar frustration. “I ended up going to general, open-level classes and always doing the same 14 poses,” Mr. Bishton said.

He enrolled in a teacher-training program without intending to teach. Once he graduated, he found that he knew more than many teachers leading open-level classes.

Mr. Bishton, who had a dance career in New York and is now an executive in his family’s auto business, cobbles together a practice from classes at several Los Angeles studios. But with commuting time a concern, he often ends up at Century City Equinox, the gym near his house. He has been lucky: the gym is fairly new and allowed him to design a yoga class advanced enough for his needs.

Ultimately, for those who want to learn difficult poses, breathing techniques, and subtle work with body energies, a senior teacher is an important guide. “If you’re going to do really challenging postures that ask a lot of your body, you need someone you trust to take you there,” said Kino MacGregor, who, at 30, is one of the youngest certified teachers in the demanding Ashtanga yoga tradition.

Ms. Buehler of Yoga High cautions that it its not just advanced students who will suffer from a lack of higher-level classes. “If people who were beginners five years ago continue to practice,” said Ms. Buehler, who teaches a weekly two-hour master class, “we will need to be able to offer them something more than just a midlevel challenge.”

Seeking a deeper yoga practice? Here are a range of advanced classes that are favorites among high-level students.

NEW YORK Kula Yoga Project, 28 Warren Street, Fourth Floor (212) 945-4460

Advanced flow yoga by Schuyler Grant, Fridays at 4:15 p.m.

Ms. Grant teaches several creative Vinyasa classes in TriBeCa. Emphasis is on strength, stamina and breath work.

CALIFORNIA Yoga Works, 2215 Main Street, Santa Monica (310) 664-6470 Level 2-3 class with Annie Carpenter, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays at 10:45 a.m.

Known as a teacher’s teacher, Ms. Carpenter uses a style that blends asana with exploration of subtle muscular and skeletal movements, breath work (pranayama) within movements and meditation.

MASSACHUSETTS BKS Iyengar Yogamala of Cambridge,

St. Mary’s Church, 8 Inman Street, Cambridge, (781) 648-3455

Level 5 with Patricia Walden, Wednesdays at 1:30, by permission.

Ms. Walden, a highly accredited Iyengar yoga instructor, teaches a Level 5 class, the highest in the Iyengar system. Emphasis is on alignment, poses, healing and discovering one’s true nature.

FLORIDA Miami Life Center,

736 Sixth Street, Miami Beach

(305) 534-8988

Mysore-style Ashtanga with Kino MacGregor, Monday to Friday at 10 a.m.

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Ms. MacGregor leads Mysore, or traditional-style practice, up to the fourth series. The highest level in Ashtanga is the sixth series. Many people don’t make it to the second series.

ILLINOIS Yoga View, 2211 North Elston Avenue, Suite 200, Chicago

(773) 342-9642 Level 3 with Jim Bennitt, Mondays at 12:30 p.m.

Mr. Bennitt, a former clerk at the Chicago Board Options Exchange, teaches at Yoga View and two other studios.

This class, the highest level he teaches, weaves breathing and meditation techniques into a demanding physical practice.