meditation

Former NFL Linebacker Keith Mitchell's Mindfulness Mission

NFL Linebacker Keith Mitchell Author Joelle Hann.png

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.”


Hip-Hop Yoga In South Jamaica, Queens

When I call Erica Ford she has almost has no time to talk. She and her team of volunteer peacekeepers in South Jamaica, Queens, were hustling to stop a retaliation killing after a 14-year-old girl was shot over the weekend while riding the Q6 city bus.

Life in the Straw Village: Basic Luxury in Kajuraho, India

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You Really Can Get Attached to Anything

It’s been an interesting process of getting used to living outside in India.

The huts are exactly the same

The huts are exactly the same

“Living” means: sleeping, changing, writing, reading, resting, bathing, and answering nature’s calls IN STRAW HUTS. We have real flush toilets (as opposed to squat toilets), buckets for “showering,” and outside sinks (which makes for chilly teeth brushing in the pre-dawn hours when we stumble off to meditation).

There was never any soap at the sinks

There was never any soap at the sinks

“Outside” means: we have the illusion of privacy as well as some real shelter. That illusion is worth a lot.

But the huts are not warm. And many leak. We’ve had several loud and violent storms to test out their waterproofness—and mudproofness and damproofness. I’d give them about 50/50.

Inside our straw castles. Four to a hut! Mosquito nets strung between bamboo poles; industrial green carpet (over straw over mud) keeps out the worst of the damp.

Inside our straw castles. Four to a hut! Mosquito nets strung between bamboo poles; industrial green carpet (over straw over mud) keeps out the worst of the damp.

You know a lot about your “eco hut”—and yourself— after two days of torrential rain in an area that is not supposed to have rain as the clay earth sluices down the paths and makes a mud dam in front of your hut.

A strip of yellow silk in the doorway brightens up our huts

A strip of yellow silk in the doorway brightens up our huts

And the huts definitely do not protect us from the sounds of neighbors. Who knew that SO many people snore so loudly?

For us middle class Westerners, this way of living is a practice of austerity.

But as we’ve been reminded, for locals in Allahabad and Kajuraho, the way we are living is luxurious.

Toilets and showers

Toilets and showers

I will admit that this is a step up from tent camping. I am writing this from inside my hut, for example, sitting at a metal table with a blue plastic tablecloth stretched over it. We have metal cots off the ground, and clothes lines, plus lawn-green carpeting to protect us from mud and dust.

And one thing I know: I can get attached to anything. Anything at all.

I got attached to the readily available WiFi in Kajuraho. Even the cold, cold nights, bathing outside from a bucket was bearable if I had WiFi to make Facebook updates and write blog entries (only slightly kidding).

You haul in hot water with one bucket, mix it with cold from the spigot, then pour over you with the cup provided. Bucket bath!

You haul in hot water with one bucket, mix it with cold from the spigot, then pour over you with the cup provided. Bucket bath!

That disappeared in Kajuraho. But the bucket baths and cold temperatures remained. Wah-wa.

In Kajuraho, I got attached to hut 7 where I weathered the interminable storms. Hut 7 almost flooded in the mud sluice, was crowded with 2 women from Duluth, another from Chicago, and me. It was damp and damp and damp. And damp. Then musty. My bed was both sloped downwards and tilted to the side like a permanent Tilt-a-Whirl.

Bucket bath set up–close up. Basic, basic, basic.

Bucket bath set up–close up. Basic, basic, basic.

And yet I felt anxiety when I had to move into hut 49.

(Now the question is: what do I care whether I’m in straw hut 7 or straw hut 49?! They are exactly the same, just positioned slightly differently towards the bathrooms. Still I got fixated for a few hours on how much worse hut 49 was going to be. I had established my patterns and I didn’t want to budge. This is the stuff I came to India to deal with?!?! Answer: yes.)

But after two or three days in hut 49, I had completely forgotten about the charms of hut 7.

So it goes.

Campus gets pretty after torrential rains

Campus gets pretty after torrential rains

Most of us have gotten comfortable with this quasi-camping set up.

Temperatures are getting warmer now and days are brighter. I don’t have to wear every single piece of clothing I brought to India when I go to bed. I don’t have to wait for a warm patch in the day to bathe (or just skip it for a few days until bathing is urgent).

I don’t mind doing laundry by hand. And every time I shower now, I’m sure to wash some undies. Life has become easier.

72-yr-old Sylvia does laundry by hand at the hot-water station

72-yr-old Sylvia does laundry by hand at the hot-water station

And there are some surprise boons. After all that rain, the desert campus has sprung into bloom. Ceramic pots of marigolds, cosmos, and asters line the paths and decorate the huts. The trees are sparkling green.

Birds have arrived in abundance: green parrots, eagles, sparrows, a large swallow-like bird, peacocks, neelkanth, and many many others that sing and chirp and whir. In fact, a pair of sparrows just flew into my hut!

After the rain

After the rain

At night the jackals howl their mysteriously poignant songs arching back and forth across the hills. The farmers answer them with their ghostly shrieks meant to scare away nilgai—the large antelope/deer/horse-like creature that tramples crops (the male is actually blue colored).

Himalayan Institute campus, Kajuraho

Himalayan Institute campus, Kajuraho

Most of us have forgotten our discomfort in the straw village, our Western privileges, proving that you really can get used to anything.

Even basic luxury can be luxurious.

Sherry, Sylvia and I go into town for lunch–breaking out!

Sherry, Sylvia and I go into town for lunch–breaking out!

And now some people don’t want to go back to their easy showers and toilets, central heating and A/C.

You really can get attached to anything.

Kunda (fire pit) at the special banyan tree

Kunda (fire pit) at the special banyan tree


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Carnival on the Ganga: The Kumbha Mela by Night

Allahabad, India

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The night before the massive influx of pilgrims to the Kumbha Mela, a massive, pop-up spiritual congregation in Allahabad, India, Ali, Stewart, Cathy and I snuck off the Himalayan Institute campus.  February 10th was going to be an “auspicious bathing day”—a very special day to take a dip in the Ganges—under a new moon, a time to let go of the past—habits, events, troubles—and inaugurate new beginnings. We wanted to see it up close, for ourselves.

In fact, ten MILLION people were expected. One million were already on site. We wanted to go into the Kumba at night, to see a different Mela.

We wanted to go before the swelling masses became impassable. Not to mention potentially hazardous. (post script: one of the makeshift pontoon bridges across the Ganges collapsed, and some pilgrims did die…)

We also wanted to escape what has come to feel like a very pleasant and highly scheduled summer camp on the H.I. Allahabad campus.

Why not? says Ali

Why not? says Ali

We set off at 5pm aftert signing out at the Himalayan Institute’s main gate, knowing that we would miss dinner. We walked the mile up the Ganges over uneven goat paths and piles of trash.

For the first time, my feet did not hurt in spite of my blisters. It was exciting to be out of the herd. We reached the first and second gates into the Mela in a buoyant mood.

First gates — advertising for holy men is everywhere

First gates — advertising for holy men is everywhere

We didn’t have to go far to encounter something spectacular: a steady line of pilgrims coming across the first bridge. They were  hunched under bags of bedding striving forward with their walking sticks.

It was sunset, and the sight of all those scarved heads and sandaled feet crossing the river at dusk with such purpose was pretty impressive.

It gave us all a deep feeling for the importance of the pilgrimage, the scale of it in people’s lives. There’s no way that other huge festivals—such as Burning Man or Brazil’s Carnaval—could have such a massive feeling of sweet purpose.

Setting sun illuminates pilgrims

Setting sun illuminates pilgrims

Past the second gate and down a side road we entered the main grounds of the Mela. People were walking, bathing, attending talks, but most were cooking over wood fires.

Those who weren’t already encamped in a tent camp, simply slept bundled up person to person on the side of the road. The sheer number of people was astounding, and the vibe—so different from a few days before, in the afternoon—was of purposeful excitement.

The air was burning with smoke

The air was burning with smoke

We walked pretty easily through the masses of people streaming past us, no jostling, no harassment, except for the very gentle delight of every single Indian (it seemed) to have their photos taken. Or to take photos of us, the impossibly light skinned people.

“Single photo! Single photo!” shrieked the children we passed, waving madly at us. “Tata! Tata!” (tata = goodbye)

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

We didn’t go into any of the makeshift palaces that lit up the main streets  like Las Vegas, but we window-shopped.

In one, an allegorical play was underway (we understood nothing, but the costumes were fab).

In another much more modest one, a man with long wooden earrings was dancing a very feminine dance on a stage lined with male  musicians.

KM spectacles

KM spectacles

In yet another, a group of very pale Westerners sat around a ceremonial fire (kund) with zombie expressions on their faces throwing offerings of herbs and flowers into the flames. We looked, but we didn’t taste.

Ali was eager for snacks since we’d missed dinner back on campus. Truth be told, we were eating so much (3 very good meals a day) that I was not hungry at all.

But the snack stand was interesting. Ali bought dried and spiced chick-pea sticks mixed with dried peas, served in little cones of Indian newspaper. Yummy.

Night snacks

Night snacks

Finally, our eyes were streaming from the fire smoke and the wandering around began to be painful. We were coughing and a wee bit concerned to get back to campus not too late after our agreed-on time.

For a disorienting 1o minutes we argued about directions and took a few wrong turns (to some dark and smelly corners of the Mela)—but then Stewart expertly guided us back to the road we needed.

We arrived back—smokey and tired, but exhilerated—just before 10pm. And it seemed that back in the Mela many of the more energetic and vocal camps were just getting their kirtans started.

The chanting, singing, preaching, and “swa-ha”s went on all night, as usual. They were loud and fervent and clashing and wonderfully chaotic.

Ah, KM, so much to offer, so hard to decipher.

Sunset downstream from the Mela

Sunset downstream from the Mela


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In the Beginning, I am a Tourist

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Gateway to the Taj Mahal

Gateway to the Taj Mahal

was a 23 hour journey from Newark, NJ to Agra, India (13 hour flight, 4 hour wait at the Delhi airport to join my group, agonizingly slow bus ride through the “fog”). Left Feb 1 and arrived Feb 3. Feb 2 just disappeared.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Here are a few photos from initial landing in India. Fleeting first impressions.

Spent a blurry Sunday afternoon at the Taj Mahal. Glad to see that the Indian tourists outnumbered the Westerners.

Sunday pilgrims to Taj Mahal

Sunday pilgrims to Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal, a mausoleum to a Muslim king’s favorite wife, sits on the Yamuna River which is perpetually misty.

Loving the mesmerizing colors of women’s saris.

Great color

Great color

We were taken to a carpet maker in Agra. Beautiful, hand-knotted silk and wool carpets. Then out came the chai and the hard-soft sell.

Hand-knotted carpets

Hand-knotted carpets

And that was about enough sight-seeing for me. The next day, a 10-hour bus ride to Allahabad, where we are now. Slowly getting introduced to the Kumbha Mela.

Now that the travel is over, the journey begins.


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Yoga Is: Film Review

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A Film About the Transformational Power of Yoga, written and directed by Suzanne Bryant

Yoga Is is Suzanne Bryant’s paean to yoga, an homage to the practice that held her together while her mother was dying of breast cancer. In gratitude, the former journalist explores yoga’s mysterious power—to engender love, happiness, and transformation—through interviews with such yoga world celebrities as Sharon Gannon and David Life, Alan Finger, Baron Baptiste, Seane Corn, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, and Shiva Rea. She also travels to India (though we see her there mostly with American teachers). Skillfully produced, the film charts similar territory to Kate Churchill’s thornier 2008 film Enlighten Up! but with a much less critical eye. Still, this is a good documentary for newcomers unfamiliar with yoga’s higher purpose, showing without a doubt that yoga is more than a sweaty workout.


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Yoga Woman: Film Review

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“Women have made yoga an international phenomenon and a multi-billion dollar industry,” observes Yoga Woman, a documentary from sisters Kate and Saraswati Clere. While yoga benefits both genders, Western women now dominate the practice, and they’re bringing issues such as body image, fertility, and family/work balance to the forefront. The film attempts to spotlight women of every age, race, situation, and nationality (though it remains U.S.-centered), and includes moving footage of pioneer teachers Patricia Walden and Angela Farmer, Seane Corn’s crew of yoginis building a birthing center in Uganda, and Indra Devi, “First Lady of Yoga,” who pestered paterfamilias T. Krishnamacharya until he accepted her as his student. In the end, Yoga Woman is a testimony to yoga’s transcendent power to calm, heal, challenge, and transform both individuals and societies.


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Himalayan Masters Awaken New York – But to What?

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How often does the New York Times offer critique-free write-ups of enlightened gurus from the Himalayas? In early January, their Cityroom blog ran a cute buzz piece on Mahayogi Pilot Baba and his teaching companion Yogmata Keiko Aikawa.

Wondering what was up, YogaCity NYC asked me to check them out. Were they for real? I am not a stranger to working with masters. I’ve been attending the Living Tantra series with Rajmani Tigumait, a Vedic scholar; received hugs from Amma, and had a daily meditation practice created for me by Gary Kraftsow, a senior teacher in Desikachar’s lineage.

Even so. . . Research told me that Pilot Baba was often a headlining saddhu at the Kumbh Mela, India’s enormous, once-every-three-years spiritual festival. As a pilot in the Indian Air Force, the story goes, he had been rescued from certain death by the sudden apparition of Hari Baba, a Himalayan master, in his cockpit, who guided the out-of-control plane to safety. Pilot Baba has since attained supernatural powers.

His teaching companion and fellow Himalayan master, Yogmata Keiko Aikawa, is the daughter of politically well-placed Japanese family. Yogmata is the first non-Indian woman to attain samadhi, something she’s done 18 times before huge crowds (!)

About 50 people had gathered on the 44th floor of the mid-town Hilton Hotel for morning darshan. In the afternoon, the masters would instruct us in pranayama, and extend powerful blessings. So far, so good.

“There is too much intellectuality here,” said Baba, who has been known for feats such as remaining buried for 7 days, or making himself disappear. “The mind here is super mind. Mind is too hyper. Mind wants to know everything with science. It is hard to teach to this audience. You are not your mind. Need to bring you back to the heart.”

Yogmata insisted that America needed these teachings, and so the two have appeared in New York and Los Angeles in the fall of 2010 and January 2011 as a part of their World Peace Campaign to help people let go of anxieties, doubts, and fears that prevent their spiritual growth. But the hefty price-tag associated with the afternoon workshops raised some doubts in my mind: $200 for Saturday and $300 for Sunday? Steep for enlightenment.

According to their New York contact person, the masters use their supernatural powers, known as siddhis, to publicly transcend time, space, and metabolic function, as a way to motivate normal humans to change their perception, and embrace spiritual practices. In other words, this shape-shifting is not intended as entertainment.

The audience sat cross-legged on white sheets. While everyone was respectful, participants didn’t always know what to expect from the masters. Two women I talked to briefly said they’d signed up without understanding what was going to happen. “I’m just going with the flow,” said Carol, who sat beside me on Sunday. Only one or two attendees were long-time students of the gurus. The rest had heard about it on Facebook or on South Asian public access TV channels.

But from such famous masters everyone did expect to trust that whatever was going to happen would be for their highest good.

“We have to get back to our Godly nature,” said Yogmata in her heavily accented English. We don’t know who we are, what we have inside us. Too much knowledge is confused. We want shining body, shining mind.”

Great – in theory – but how were we supposed to go about this mental spring-cleaning? Was the key information lost in translation? Or was I using my mind too much to try to understand what the masters were saying? It seemed very abstract, something a patchouli-wearing hipster might spout at a party.

I was more hopeful for the afternoon intensives. On Saturday, we were instructed in the practice of anughraha kriya, a sequence of purifying pranayama practices that began with a form of alternate nostril breathing and ended with thumping up and down on our sit bones to prepare us for meditation. After practicing the long breathing patterns a few times, we laid down in a 40-min savasana and were dismissed early.

Had we gotten our money’s worth? Or would we only know much later?

I debated attending the Sunday afternoon workshop. We would be receiving diksha, or initiation, that—they said—would clear our past karmas and project us forward on the path of self-realization. (In one afternoon – this was a fast process.) Yet no information was given as to what might follow after the blessing. Would I be responsible to the masters for the rest of my life? What were my responsibilities to them? What practices should I follow? What was their commitment to me? I was wary of entering into such a heavy relationship without really understanding it.

After consulting a friend who had once been a monk in India, I decided to attend. The diskha was intimate and ritualistic, with curtains drawn and lights lowered. Mahayogi Baba blessed participants one-by-one—including several children—using rose petals, rice, and secret mantras and yantras. Then, Yogmata came around and whispered a mantra in everyone’s ear.

Secrecy was important. Pictures were not allowed and I was asked to stop taking notes. We were warned not to tell the mantra to anyone. Not only would the mantra lose its power, it might bring us harm.

I left early, with their permission. As I scurried down from the Himalayan heights of the 44th floor, and across 6th Avenue to Starbucks to compile my notes, I noticed that the tingling at the top of my head—where Yogamata had recently tapped it 3 times—had not diminished. In fact, it was pulsing energetically.

My vision had changed, too. I saw the doormen, taxi drivers, pedestrians—and participants in the VogueKnitting International conference who were milling around the Hilton lobby—looking radiantly happy. I felt jubilant and energized. In fact, I could barely focus on the writing I needed to do. The mantra continued to resound in my mind. And to tell the truth, suddenly it was all I wanted to listen to.

It’s true that in the week following my encounter with the gurus none of my day-to-day worries vanished. It was still bitterly cold out, and my day job still frustrated me. I didn’t feel as if I’d reached a sustained place of enlightenment.

But I had to admit that something had shifted. The masters had transmitted their hard-won clarity through me so that I didn’t have to go sit silently in the Himalayas myself. Perhaps if I lived in a culture that was not so outright dismissive or as unquestioningly accepting—as the NYTimes was—of masters such as these, I might better know what to do with them when they come to town.


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Lotus of the Heart: How Meditation Led Me to True Love

Brooklyn Book Writing Coach Author Joelle Hann NYC Meditation.jpg

An Essay for Valentine’s Day

The way Francesco broke up with me was as simple as it was shocking. It was a Saturday afternoon in July and we’d just seen a movie at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Riding the subway back downtown, we sat side by side, him in an inexplicable and smoldering silence. Then he got up and walked out of the train. I never saw him again.

Dumbfounded, I was left to fill in the blanks myself. We’d only been dating for three months, seeing each other about once a week. Steady and sweet, he was the first guy in long while who seemed to enjoy being in a relationship rather than fighting it. He called me, took me out, complimented me. For more than a year, I’d dated men whom, I’d realize too late, were playing the field. Francesco’s availability was refreshing—in fact, it was a relief.

Until that fateful Saturday. Nothing had gone wrong as far as I could tell. Had something bothered him about the movie? Had he met someone else? Was it me?

After a week, I swallowed my pride and texted him. Nothing. After a few more days, I called. Still nothing. Then, my insides churning, I emailed a plea for any kind of explanation, no strings attached. Dead silence.

Francesco’s behavior made no sense, and, a month later, I was still struggling to accept it. On a friend’s suggestion, I went to a yoga center to check out a Tantric meditation class (which contrary to popular Western thought is not all about sex).

As a yoga teacher and yoga writer, I’d made many attempts to make meditation part of my practice, but nothing had stuck. I thought I could give it another try, but I had low expectations.

As I discovered, this yogic approach was different. Rather than simply closing our eyes and sitting there pestered by thoughts, the instructor had us trace our chakras, or energy centers, up and down the spine. We chanted their associated sounds (called bija mantras or seed sounds) and made the hand gestures or mudras. It was powerful and absorbing, and I found myself effortlessly transported. By the time it was over, some of the bewilderment and disappointment I’d been lugging around had lifted.

I was intrigued by the method and the teacher. His insights into love startled me—in a good way. When we got to the heart, he said, “Here we cultivate a feeling of loving for no reason at all.”

For no reason at all. The way the teacher put it struck me like a thunder clap. Most of the loving I did had an agenda. With Francesco I had been defensive and cautious. I’d expected him to pass a series of tests: to call, to take me out, to consider my needs. I wanted him to prove he liked me. I’d been constantly judging him, assessing whether he and his efforts were good enough.

But what about inviting love in by giving it out first? And with no purpose at all? As corny as that idea sounded, I could feel it was true: I had to give love in order to get it.

The heart chakra is called anahata, which means “that which cannot be destroyed.” Its element is air, which governs the sense of touch. Its quality addresses our ability to connect with or touch others. It’s often symbolized by a lotus, which, when open, drinks up the power of the sun but, when closed, droops down and withdraws.

I’d always thought that my most meaningful connection in life would come from romance, but now my daily meditation practice often feels better even than that—steadier, deeper, and more abiding. As I run through the chakras, I often linger at the heart center. It’s here that the possibility of romantic love blossoms, yes, but so does the love that I can share in a smile with a stranger or a friendly word on a crowded subway. It’s love that lets me help a blind old man walk to the corner and that sends me on an errand for a friend in need. It’s love that pushes me to share with my yoga students what I’m learning.

I know now that love is mine for the taking. I don’t need to wait for the other person to prove his love to me.

Today I keep fresh flowers in my house to remind me of the uplifting life of an open heart. And when I think of Francesco, I no longer feel bad about his silent departure, I only regret silently judging his every move.


Continuing Education: Yoga Philosophy

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Look down any yoga class schedule and usually you won’t find many offerings for yoga philosophy. Mostly reserved for teacher training programs—and then crammed into a weekend or two—philosophy is usually dwarfed by the popularity of asana, which is just one of yoga’s eight “limbs.” I went on a search to find who is offering philosophy classes in New York this year and was pleasantly surprised. It’s not just reserved for the hard-core student practicing svadyiya—self study—anymore. Yes, it can seem mysterious, but yoga’s deeper ideas offer inspiration for teaching and practicing, and – perhaps most importantly – for life.

More and more students are finding that foundational texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Samkhya Karika are best studied with an experienced teacher who can explain the nuances of Eastern ideas and the trickiness of the translations. Self-study, of course, is a good habit to develop, but it also means persevering without help of a guide or the the morale of a discussion group. Since it’s worthwile to find a sangha to study with, we’ve put together a list of great classes. Considering how ambitious and cerebral New Yorkers generally are, it’s not surprising that this gap in our continued yoga education is starting to close.

Ongoing Groups and Classes
The Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York, Manhattan
212 691 YOGA
The Iyengar Institute offers a free weekly sutra study group taught by their faculty on Fridays from 1:30-2:45pm. This might just be the best deal in town.

Also, February 26 – 28, 2010, Edwin Bryant, professor of Ph.D. in Indic languages and cultures at Rutgers University, will offer a weekend workshop on first chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Full weekend or drop in (prices vary).

Jaya Yoga Center, Brooklyn
718 788 8788
The Jaya Book Club / Study Group will begin Saturday January 16 at 5:45 pm with an in-depth look at the Bhagavad Gita. From the web site, “Our guide will be Eknath Easwaran’s three volume set The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living: The End of Sorrow Vol. 1. Chapters 1–3.”

Jivamukti Yoga School, Manhattan
212 353 0214
Beginning Tuesday January 26th 8 – 9:30 pm and running through June 8th, Joshua M. Greene, Professor of Religion at Hofstra University, will offer readings, analysis, and verse recitations of the Bhagavad Gita. $18 drop-in, $290 for series

The Shala, Manhattan
212 979 9988
The Shala near Union Square offers a weekly Bhagavad Gita study group at 6:15pm on Thursdays led by Kaustubha Das, ashtanga yoga teacher and director of the Bhakti Collective. Free.

Sivanada Yoga Vedanta Center, Manhattan
212 255 4560
The Sivananda Center on W24th Street, one of New York’s oldest yoga centers, offers ongoing workshops in Vedanta philosophy and its practical application, as well as the laws of karma, and the Bhagavad Gita.

Vira Yoga, Manhattan
212 334 9960
“Kali in the Twelve Processions of Light and Darkness: A Tantric Practice of Body, Heart, and Voice.” Dr. Douglas Brooks of Rajanaka Yoga will discuss aspects of Kali as a powerful force in Tantric teaching. With chanting. Saturday and Sunday, February 13-14th, 2010.

Yoga Sutra, Manhattan
212 490 1443
Yoga Sutra offers regular ongoing classes in yoga studies so check their calendar. Last fall they offered “Chanting the Yoga Sutras” with Kimberly Flynn, a student of Sanskrit recitation with Dr. M.A. Jayashree in Mysore, India, since 1998.

Wandering Sages
Manorma, founder the School of Sanskrit Studies, holds courses on Sanskrit, chanting, and yoga philosophy at various locations around the country, but often in New York City.
At Vira Yoga January 26, 2- 3:30, February 23, March 23, May 25; at Jivamukti every 3rd Wednesday of the month beginning January 20th. Check her schedule for updates at http://www.sanskritstudies.org/.

Yoga Studies Institute, teaches yoga texts and traditions also at various locations around the country and often in New York City. The Classics of Yoga are interpreted by Geshe Michael Roach, Christie McNally, and YSI staff.

For classes in Sanskrit, try Columbia University or NYU’s continuing education programs.

If you really want a solid grounding in all the yoga texts, and are willing to travel, Loyola Marymount University in LA offers a comprehensive certificate program in Yoga Philosophy through their extension program. But you have to go to the left coast.


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Off the Couch and Onto the Mat

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At the Intersection of Yoga and Psychology

IN EARLY August 2008, Margot Andersen’s newly-married, 29-year-old son was hit and killed by a car while crossing a busy highway in Chicago. For Margot, a social worker in Chicago schools for more than 13 years, the pain of the sudden, tragic loss was overwhelming. Enrolled in a yoga teacher-training program, and recently trained in LifeForce Yoga, a type of yoga focused on mood management, Andersen turned to methods she knew would have an immediate affect on her emotional stamina — yogic breathing, visualizations and mantras.

“It’s what’s gotten me through this past month,” says Andersen, 56. “Otherwise I’d be in bed, I’d be horrible.”

When she felt too exhausted to complete daily tasks, Margot used LifeForce’s breath of joy to access untapped energy. To calm down enough to sleep she practiced nadi shodahna (alternate nostril breathing); San kalpas (intentions) and mantras (chants) gave her the strength to leave the house.

“When I had no energy, and could feel myself sinking, I used the breath,” says Andersen.

Andersen also underwent a phone session with Amy Weintraub, the Arizona-based founder of LifeForce Yoga and an international leader in the field of yoga and mental health. Weintraub designed LifeForce to train psychotherapists, social workers and yoga teachers to use classical Hatha yoga methods with their clients. She says the methods work because, “The sense of separation, which is the literal source of depression, is diminished and the sense of connection to oneself and others is enhanced.”

At a time when the practice of physical yoga poses, or asanas, is at an all-time-high (with 15.8 million practitioners nationally, according to Yoga Journal’s most recent survey), psychotherapists and yoga teachers are discovering — or rediscovering — how yogic tools might apply to therapeutic settings. At the same time, many yoga teachers, wanting to be of more service to their students, are borrowing methods from traditional Western psychotherapy. For both sides the goal is the same: integrate these practices to help people help themselves.

Teach Them To Fish

“We’re giving people tools they can use for the rest of their lives,” says Bo Forbes, founder and director of the Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics (CIYT) in Boston. “It’s a modality of healing that comes from within the client themselves — it’s not therapist based.”

Lauren, a high school teacher in Queens, NY, entered into “yoga psychotherapy” five months ago, because she felt she needed to talk to someone about the stresses of her job and life. “I was getting weighed down with negativity,” says Lauren.

Working with Joan Stenzler, a licensed social worker and Kripalu-trained yoga teacher, Lauren has tamed her anxiety using meditation, visualization and precepts from yoga philosophy.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the universe and how people react to you and you react to them,” Lauren explains, adding she prefers this process to the traditional talk therapy she had experienced in the past. “These are things my yoga teachers also talk about in regular classes.”

Lauren often applies her newfound coping skills on the job at school. “One of the biggest things to remember in dealing with teenagers is don’t take it personally. Deflecting what’s aimed at me allows me not to carry it through the rest of my day.”

For example, when a tardy child makes a scene about having to sign a late card, Lauren imagines surrounding herself in a white light that bounces back negativity. “It sounds corny, but even if it doesn’t completely work, it definitely puts you in the mindset of analyzing what’s going on and why they are reacting to you that way.”

In-Body Experience

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, has noted a recent shift in psychotherapy as therapists, such as Stenzler, turn to yoga for more effective ways to treat clients, especially those with long-standing issues. “What psychotherapists are beginning to realize is that the body has been left out,” says McGonigal.

Opening the way for yoga-based therapeutics are the mindfulness practices of the Buddhist traditions that, over the past 10 years, have been increasingly accepted into clinical settings and taught in American medical schools. According to Paul Fulton, president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy based in Newton, Massachusetts, empirical trials such as those conducted by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center have helped establish mindfulness as a viable treatment in the eyes of the medical establishment. In September 2008, Fulton’s own organization launched a new 9-month certificate program in mindfulness and psychotherapy for mental health care providers.

No Touching, Please

However, integrating yoga-based methods into psychotherapeutic work presents inherent challenges. More than just watching the thoughts or the breath, clients and therapists may also be working with the body. Strict licensing standards today protect clients against physical abuses from their psychotherapists, which unfortunately were all too common in the past. The body is taboo.

Ann Friedenheim, a psychotherapist, drug and alcohol counselor and yoga teacher in Allentown, Pennsylvania, gets around this restriction by using very simple yoga-based techniques with her clients, ones that don’t involve touching.

One woman who had a long history of abuse both as a child and as a spouse, came to Friedenheim in physical and psychological pain, barely able to cope with daily tasks. Friedenheim used breath and hands-off bodywork to ease her client’s emotional paralysis. “Every session began with just breathing for five or ten minutes. She always refers back to it. She says, ‘Remember when we started breathing?’ It had a big impact.”

Other practitioners have kept their yoga therapy distinct from their clinical practices, sometimes having separate offices or studios for the two techniques. Boston-based Bo Forbes — who has nearly 20 years experience as a psychotherapist and over 10 years as a yoga teacher — has found yoga-based techniques so effective, she has closed her private practice in order to teach integrative yoga therapeutics, and to supervise the Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics in Boston.

“Talking can almost activate and rehearse issues that you’re trying to work through,” says Forbes, whose Elemental Yoga Mind-Body Teacher Training Program has been approved by the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers as ongoing training for psychotherapists and social workers. “Some people have done 15-20 years of therapy, are motivated and insightful, but they can’t change because their nervous system is holding and retaining its pattern.”

That’s certainly been true for Maria Ray, a Chicago-based flight attendant. When she got out of rehab for alcohol abuse, she knew she didn’t want to go back to traditional therapy. “All of the therapists suggested taking medications or talking about stuff that happened in the past but they could never really solve it,” says Ray.

That was until she stumbled on a Kundalini yoga center whose director, Shabad Kaur Khalsa, was also a licensed counselor. They began their sessions talking through what was happening in the moment and spent the second half doing breathing and meditation exercises, and a few simple poses. “Talking helps with the release, and the meditation brings me full circle,” says Ray. “The relaxation therapy helps to integrate it.”

Ray says friends and colleagues have observed the change. “My friends noticed that my face has gotten more relaxed and there’s a sense of calmness to me from how I used to be.”

“Shabad taught me how to be in control of my own mood,” says Ray, who is now off medications altogether. “It’s been a miracle.”

Down Dog Processing

On the other end of the spectrum, a growing number of yoga teachers who are not licensed to diagnose or prescribe treatments are bringing more traditional Western psychological insights — and training — to bear on their clients’ practices and issues. Ashley Turner of Los Angeles, who recently completed her MA in Counseling Psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, uses tools from her academic work, techniques from her yoga teaching, as well as images, sounds and insights drawn from yoga’s built-in psychology to guide her clients to greater self-awareness.

Stephen Lewis in New York also brings a psychological orientation into individual yoga sessions. Trained in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, a form of yoga therapy that incorporates witnessing, dialoguing and reflecting in client-centered sessions, Lewis has also enrolled in an MA program in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness at NYU’s Steinhart School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. For his clinical internship, he is providing yoga therapy to the psychiatry inpatient unit of New York’s Bellevue hospital. “There’s so much demand, they are hungry for it. I just go where I’m needed,” says Lewis, 31. In a separate project at Bronx Psychiatric Center, Lewis is collaborating with psychiatrist and yoga-practitioner Dr. Elizabeth Visceglia on a two-month trial assessing how yoga helps people with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia.

For some, “yoga psychotherapy” could become a one-stop shop for addressing physical and emotional issues in the same session. Leah Metzger, a client working with Ashley Turner, likes the integrative nature of the sessions. “I can see Ashley for everything,” says the LA-native. “For other things I’m going through like relationships, career, health things. It’s a well-rounded way to grow myself.”


AS PUBLISHED IN COMMON GROUND MAGAZINE