yoga

Teacher Spotlight: Terence Ollivierra on Rolfing + Yoga

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This teacher in Washington, DC, integrates Rolfing with yoga to help his students move more freely.

With his history of weightlifting, Terence Ollivierra had a tendency to overdo yoga poses, which led to thigh and hip pain. He found no relief from acupuncture or chiropractic therapy, and while he sought balance through his yoga practice, the process was slow, the discomfort worsening. Then, in 2005, an Iyengar Yoga teacher introduced Ollivierra to Rolfing, the hands-on bodywork designed to release tight fascia (connective tissue) so that the body can realign itself. Rolfing—combined with an integrative yoga practice—proved to be the solution. Ollivierra went on to complete his Iyengar Yoga teacher certification with John Schumacher in 2009, and trained to be a Rolfing/Structural Integration body worker so that he could better serve his yoga students. Today, Ollivierra is a perceptive teacher who aims to help students identify and modify movement patterns that cause them pain.

How does your Rolfing training inform your yoga teaching?

I have become much more sensitive to the subtle causes of major imbalances in people’s physical structures. Before a student tells me about an injury, I have already noticed how she stands and walks and have a good idea of issues she’s facing—and where to begin looking for solutions. For example, someone’s back may feel good in a particular yoga pose, such as a backbend, but her alignment could create an issue if she’s only moving from her lower back. She may feel a “release” while in the pose that might give temporary relief, yet she has problems later because a pattern of poorly performed asana is being repeated again and again.

What do you love most about your yoga students?

Their humility. The fact that they show up is humility. I am a relentless teacher. The purpose of a class is to experience another perspective on how this work can be done. I don’t let people rest in their habits. You have to be present or else you’ll get called out.

What is your practice like?

Most of my practice is Savasana and 
breathing, such as yoga nidra, the “yoga sleep” meditation in Savasana. I used to do a minimum of three hours of asana a day, not counting breathwork and meditation. Now I do just a few poses—they change depending on the day and my needs—beginning and ending with Savasana (with knees bent at 90 degrees, feet fist-distance apart, elbows wide with palms down or hands on the belly). It takes an hour or two at most because, after all my training, I’m sensitive to my own structure and its movements. And I’m not one to do things halfway.

In the Details: Ollivierra shares a few more of his favorite things.

  • Movie: I’m a Star Wars geek. I often fall into a Yoda voice while teaching. I’ll say, “Do or do not—there is no try!”

  • Music: I play electric bass and fool around on guitar and keyboard as well as double Native American flute and the hulusi, a Chinese flute.

  • TV Show: Avatar: The Last Airbender. This cartoon is deep, full of wisdom, and will leave you feeling good all around.

  • Signature Dish: Coconut curry lentils. I’ll add in kale, butternut squash, and sweet potato.

  • Books
: Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita, and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.


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.

Song: 
“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.

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

Color: 
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.”


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

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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.


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Sacred Sound: Book Review

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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!


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

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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.


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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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Flowing with the Kumbha Mela

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I always understood that I was coming on a pilgrimage when I signed up to come to the 2013 Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, India. I just didn’t know what part of this trip was going to be pilgrimage. Or even, perhaps, what a pilgrimage was.

On the road to the Kumbha Mela

On the road to the Kumbha Mela

I fantasized about meeting holy teachers who had descended from their reclusive, Himalayan caves—I had read about this in a newspaper article.

I dreamed of unexpected—but very enlightening—encounters with humanity on the dusty road to the great festival: After all, Parahamsa Yogananda famously met an incarnation of his teacher’s teacher at a Kumbha Mela in the early 20th century.

At the very least, I thought, the Himalayan Institute in Allahabad would invite some sages with whom they had personal connections to the campus for talks and maybe blessings, too. This was a long-awaited spiritual gathering  of up to 100 million people, and I was traveling from so far away, after so much preparation—something had to happen.

On the road

On the road

I’ve been in Allahabad for 2 1/2 days now. On the first day, we were hauled (literally) up the Ganges on wooden boats til we reached the most auspicious place, the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, as well as the mysterious Saraswati river that you can’t actually locate on any map.

Small, strong men rowed, punted (with long bamboo poles), and pulled us with string. The boat traveled against the current, under makeshift pontoon bridges,  dodging garbage and sand bars, until we reached the sangam, the meeting of the waters. There, we blessed ourselves by scooping up handfuls of the highly toxic river (E.coli levels at 100x what’s acceptable), saying a prayer, then sprinkling the auspiscious water over our heads—and liberally dousing with hand sanitizer afterwards.

It seemed like cruel labor for the men until we were informed that their previous cargo had been SAND (sand from the Ganges is highly prized by cement factories).

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Still, nothing happened. But no worries, I thought, tomorrow we are going into the Kumbha Mela for real, finally reaching a destination that I have been thinking about for 3 years. With 8 square miles and countless sadhusprominently dressed in orange robes, something was bound to happen.

I set out with Stewart, my new Glaswegian friend. We were so deep in conversation about the pilgrimage itself that we hardly noticed the piles of fine white sand that our feet were kicking up. Soon our mouths were full of sand, and any exposed skin slathering in sunscreen was covered, too. I noticed local women were holding the ends of their saris over their mouths.

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Kumbha Mela road is dusty, muddy, and hot

It was the tremendous noise that stopped our conversation. Singers, chanters, proclaimers and lecturers projected at top volume through cheap loudspeakers. Meanwhile rickshaws, motorcyles, bicycles, and Mercedes Benz jeeps (full of sadhus in orange robes) honked and whistled and rang on either side of us. We couldn’t hear anything else.

We caught up with other people from the Himalayan Institute at a fork in the road: now we would go down into the mele, and maybe cross a pontoon bridge to the Kumbha Mela grounds on the other side of the Ganges.

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Anyway, anyhow

We added Ali and Mangesh from London, also Selina an English nurse transplanted to America to our two-some, and together headed down towards the sangam, the confluence. This time from the land.

Along the way, we browsed bangle shops, haggled for malas (since Mangesh speaks Hindi), took photos and generally wondered what was going on inside all the tent camps that lined the makeshift road. That’s where, supposedly, the sages held court.

Often, as we took our pictures, a small crowd would gather to take photos of us. It seemed fair, although it was weird. Or a sage would stop and, with a kindly expression, stand a little too close and stare at us with unblinking eyes.

A baba

A baba

After a packed lunch of potato chips, pakoras, and (fake) mango juice-boxes we  visited the bathing areas that faced the sangam. Here,  whole families and villages were bathing in the holy river, the Ma Ganga. Selina was excited to immerse herself, but I wasn’t interested in getting closer to the bacteria.

Bathing in the Ganges

Bathing in the Ganges

Mangesh did buy a boat of flowers and sent it out into the waters. (It flowed right back in, and Ali made fun of him.)

Flower boats

Flower boats

And then we had to admit that we were hot, still hungry, tired, and ready to go back to the campus. Which seemed a long ways away at that point. We were done and we still hadn’t really encountered that thing that was supposed to happen.

We were just tourists wandering in a fair ground, surrounded by thousands of people elaborately wrapped in gorgeous colors, or lining the roads trying desperately to eke out a living.

Entrance to a sadhu’s tent camp

Entrance to a sadhu’s tent camp

The language barrier made it so that we would never really understand whose tent camp we were passing, which ones to go in, and which ones to avoid. They all looked as if they could swallow us up whole, exotic as we were with our very pale skin. Even Mangesh, who is Indian, couldn’t understand what we were seeing.

Tired from the dust, the noise, the heat, and the more-or-less aimless wandering in search of the fulfillment of Our Pilgrimage, we turned back.

“Are you feeling the auspicious energy, or anything?” asked Ali, former IT guy for a London investment bank.

“Not really,” I said. “I mostly feel tired.”

There were some silent, tired nods around our little group.

At last, we picked a tent camp at random and stopped in. The less digestively-challenged of us  accepted the free meal being offered, sitting back to back on the ground with Indian pilgrims who presumably did know why they were here and what they were supposed to be doing.

On the way back, I suggested a rickshaw. Mangesh haggled a price and we dove in—Selina, Ali, Mangesh and me. We picked up Stewart who had booked it on ahead of us. He looked very pleased when we pulled up.

Stewart and Ali in the rickshaw

Stewart and Ali in the rickshaw

“The Ganges is inside you,” said a senior Himalayan Institute teacher. “Don’t get caught up in whether you immerse yourself or not. Notice her qualities, how the river flows, how constant and abundant she is. This is what you want to connect to. The vitality, the power.”

“There are so many political factions at the Kumbha Mela,” said another teacher later over chai, “And in India politics and religions are completely mixed together, no separation. There are serious lobbyists working the Kumbha Mela. It’s all over our heads. Sure, there are some very accomplished holy teachers in there, but the chances of us figuring out who’s who are slim. Even so, we’re all here at an auspicious time, doing our own practice, and that’s the benefit. The Mela is not the benefit, it’s your own practice.”

The rickshaw ride back was wonderful. Back on campus, we bathed from buckets in straw huts equipped with clean water. I didn’t care how simple it was—the water, the quiet, and the afternoon breeze felt as “authentic” and “auspicious” as anything ever had.

The circus wasn’t the point: the point was—as it always is— all within.

Selina, JH, Mangesh

Selina, JH, Mangesh


 
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Letter from the Kumbha Mela

As published on Yoga City NYC

Thousands and thousands of people crossing makeshift pontoon bridges over the Ganges river became a familiar sight during my 10 day visit to Allahabad, India

The men carried walking sticks or pushed bicycles, while many women, dressed in dazzling saris, lead small children or elderly relatives. They walked in silence with a steady, quiet focus, their belongings bundled on their heads and backs because they were headed to the Kumbha Mela.

While there are small Melas every year throughout India, the one near Allahabad, where the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers meet, is the most important and the most auspicious. This grand gathering happens only once every 12 years, with a Maha—or great— Kumbha Mela every 144 years (the last one was 2001).

And of course, it is the largest. When I arrived, staying on the campus of theHimalayan Institute about a mile downstream from the main site, a million people had already taken up residence.

More problematic, it’s also the loudest, with countless PA systems blasting mantras, lectures, and “swa-has” for miles around, at all hours of the day and night. I got used to falling asleep to two or three of them chanting at top volume and completely at cross-purposes.

The incessant din added a very real challenge to my daily meditation practice. The banks of the Ganges were very noisy. Numbers swelled again on the auspicious bathing day of February 10th, that coincided with the new moon, a time of new beginnings.

In one day, 10 million people flooded the grounds. Over the month or so of the Mela, 100 million people were expected to visit, living in the makeshift tentcamps, or curled up at the side of the dusty dirt tracks, running shops, serving food to wandering sadhus, and policing the 8 square kilometer area.

For such an enormous “pop-up city” it was impressively peaceful. Saints, families, villagers poor and rich mingled. We never felt in danger, even in such huge throngs. In fact, our biggest hassle was Indian pilgrims taking photos of us Westerners, and even that was done in a very friendly way.

I had come to experience the energies of the crowds and the practices of the sages. But as I reckoned with my jet lag, the noise of the fair, and the exhaustingly huge gathering of people, I wondered what everyone was really coming for, and what it means to be a pilgrim.

Kumbha means “pot” and “mela” means fair: the story is that the demi gods, running out of the elixir of happiness, or amrit, joined with their enemies, the water demons, to churn the ocean and produce more of the heavenly nectar.

But when the nectar at last rose from the sea, the gods stole the amrit for themselves alone. A battle ensued until Vishnu intervened, whisking the valuable pot of nectar away. It took 12 days for Vishnu to escape—hence the 12 year lapse between Melas—hotly pursued by both angry parties.

The pilgrims crossing into the Kumbha Mela grounds were not concerned to hear the myth again—they already knew it. They might seek out a sage or take in a dance performance; but their main purpose was to bathe in the Ganges and be purified by her inexhaustible living waters.

And not just anywhere, but as close as possible to the Sangam—the confluence of three holy rivers, where auspicious energy is most concentrated at this time.

The Ganges, the mother and spiritual source, could not only wash away transgressions and karmic impediments, but also replenish the divine grace in our lives. The Yamuna river, representing worldly prosperity, helps to keep our home, work, and social lives to progress harmoniously.

Lastly, the mythical Saraswati river, important in Vedic times, but since disappeared underground, represents the  fortification of intuition and inner knowledge.

In other words, to bathe at the Sangam was like getting an extremely powerful recharge.

For Westerners, the massive number of people was undeniably exciting. Some in our group braved the highly toxic E. coli levels and dipped themselves in theSangam. Others just dipped their mala beads or sprinkled some of the holy water over their heads.

But the moment of highest spiritual buzz for me came outside of the official Melagrounds. On February 10th, the auspicious bathing day, senior teachers at the Himalayan Institute conducted a fire ceremony on campus, repeating a Durgamantra to help mitigate the fear and anger in ourselves—and in the world.

As we offered the samagri—the offering—to the sacred fire we chanted together in common purpose,  propitiating the forces of transformation and new growth, planting seeds of change. It was not an empty ritual; I could feel the energy we were creating.

One important element of meditation or spiritual practice is trustful surrender to the mysterious forces at work in our world. And feeling that palpably around me was worth all the effort of getting to India, the disturbance of the loud nights, the hot, dusty and exhausting Mela, and my initial bewilderment over what it meant to be a pilgrim. I felt fortified, and that, I believe, was the whole point.


As published on Yoga City NYC

I Wanted to Know What Would Happen if I Spent My Last Centavo…

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HSBC, “the world’s bank”: EXCEPT WHEN THEY’RE CLOSED

I wanted to know what would happen if I spent my last centavo. I’m the kind of person who likes to be prepared. Having not even a cent to my name is anathema to me. I wanted to test my limits.

Uh-oh!!!

(In fact, I’d tried to get money out on the weekend but the HSBC machine at the Santos Dumont airport was not dispensing money.)

I’d been living on my last R$50 ($25US) since Saturday, and by Monday was down to R$4 ($2US).

That included R$1 that I pinched from my  friend Vinicius. Things were getting tight.

Still, I stayed at home, ate lunch there and went to the Canadian Consulate in the afternoon to return some poor sod’s driver’s licence and beat up wallet—the remains of a mugging in my neighborhood over the weekend.

I then spent R$2.75 getting the bus from Copacabana to Ipanema.

I was down to R$1 and 20 centavos. That’s sixty cents, folks.

Throwing the rest of my caution to the wind, I asked the pipoca man (popcorn guy) if he’d sell me a half portion, usually R$2, for my spare change. He did—in fact, he gave me a full portion.

I was looking forward to a more robust snack once I’d gone to the bank.

So there I was for about 4 blocks with not a scrap of money on me. Not even one centavo. Liberty? Wasn’t sure.

Then, as if fate decided to inject some incontrovertible certainty into the situation, my sandal snap broke with a sudden snap and crash, twisting my ankle and wrenching my back.

I was now limping to the HSBC bank. How I was going to get my shoe fixed before leaving for the Amazon, two days away?? But first, to fix my shoe, I needed money.

A pack of young Australians at the bank were having bank-card issues.

Probably didn’t pre-authorize their cards before they left home, I thought smugly as I dipped my white card into the machine. I had.

Then the machine spat out a slip at me. Then another. No money, just a grubby little dirty yellow slip telling me to ‘call my institution.’

The guard behind the now-locked glass doors of the closed-to-the-public (but not actually closed) bank told me to wait a second and try again.

That sounded cockamamie: there was clearly a problem. That damned airport ATM: Not only had it not given me any cash, it has also locked up my card in some incomprehensible security maneuver.

Unlike the Australians, I didn’t have an international cell phone to call my US bank. But I did have some Portuguese. The guard got an official looking woman to come talk to me.

Me speaking in the Portuguese of a 7-year old: My card doesn’t work, I’m totally out of money, and the free phone here in the lobby won’t connect to international call centers.

Official-looking Bank Lady: Your card doesn’t work? We can’t do anything until tomorrow at 10 a.m. We are closed.

Me: I can’t wait til tomorrow. I have not even one penny on me.

Official-looking Bank Lady: We do not serve anyone after we are closed.

Me: All I need is to use the phone.

Now distinctly a Bureaucratic Bank Lady: You can use the phones on the street.

Me: I did.  They didn’t accept the collect call that the bank operator told me to make.

BBL, handing me a pamphlet through the glass door: Call this number.

Me: I can’t! I have no money!

BBL: I cannot help you. It’s after hours.

Me, getting irate: YOU are here!! Those people behind you are there! You are surrounded by phones!  You want me to sleep on the street waiting for you to come back tomorrow to make a one minute phone call???

BBL: You can still use your [blocked!!] card at shops.

Me: I don’t think so! That’s the nature of a *blocked* card!

BBL: Well I cannot open the door to the public now.

Me: But all I need is a phone. I don’t even know if I can get back to my house to make the call myself! You are supposed to be MY bank!

BBL: Wait a second here.

—-long minutes pass. Then another Official-looking Bank Lady comes out. We go through the same thing all over again. To no avail.

I leave with no money.

The next stop is a yoga class where the owner, Coaracy Nunes, cheerfully hears me out and says: Don’t worry, darling, it’s all happening for a reason, maybe not so obvious right now. You don’t have to pay for class. No worries! Just roll with things, it’s gonna be fine. Don’t take it personally. These things happen! This is Brazil!

Class helps me focus on something other than how I wanted to strangle BBL. But how am I going to get home?

After, I meet up with Marcus, a fellow Canadian I met at a dinner party last week. He was going to give me his apartment keys–and a free apartment in the Flamengo neighborhood for July.

Breathlessly (and some what ravenously) I told him what had happened at the bank.  I’m still hobbling along in my broken sandal.

I even tried, I told him, even after the bank incident to buy a snack at a lanchonette (open-air snack stand) but of course AS I ALREADY KNEW, my card wouldn’t work.

Marcus showed me his one room apartment, with one burner, one window and one saggy couch-bed. Then he took pity on me and we went out for a beer and some aipim fries (like yucca) and frango de passarinho, a plate of small pieces of fried chicken. We talked a lot. We’d overlapped at college. We had lots of stories about Brazil.

When the choppe (draft beer) was drunk, he paid the bill and put R$20 in my pocket. That meant I could take a taxi when I reached my subway stop and wouldn’t have to clamber up the hill to Santa Teresa late at night in my broken shoe.

I’d arrived at yoga with nothing except massive frustration and a dose of fear. I’d all but forgotten my challenge to the powers-that-be: let’s see what happens when me, little miss organized, walks into a no-security-net situation.

And in fact, I already had everything I needed: near-strangers willing to help out, fill my belly and my pockets, as needed. Even give their apartments.

Okay, universe, that was a good one. You got me.


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The Path to the Yoga Sutras: Book Review

Many serious yoga practitioners pore over Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and any reputable yoga teacher training will require this foundational text for its students. But just as many people find the mysterious aphorisms, Sanskrit, and multitude of commentaries intimidating. Nicolai Bachman, a Santa Fe-based Sanskritist and yoga teacher, has compiled The Path of the Yoga Sutras to address this issue.

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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Neal Pollack: Interview and Book Review

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Stoner yoga memoirist reflects on health, wealth, happiness – and a year on the charts

It’s almost a year since Neal Pollack published his hilarious yoga memoir, Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude. I was late to the game, but caught up with him when I was out in LA for work this May. Pollack is wry, unapologetic and completely smitten with yoga, which made for an entertaining hour at the Casbah Cafe in Silverlake. Under the bougainvillea, Pollack held forth on the fate of the book, his yoga life, Richard Freeman, semi-ironic namastes, and his new project, Jewball, a novel.

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Yoga Nation: How did the book do?

Neal Pollack: It wasn’t a best seller except for a couple of random weeks in a couple of random cities, and it hasn’t sold massive quantities, but it’s found an audience. The people who like it seem to have a lot of enthusiasm for it. So as much as I would have liked to have been a massive best seller that hasn’t really happened and I don’t see that happening.

YN: There’s always Russia. [Stretch came out in Russia, June 2011.]

NP: There’s always Russia. But I’m not going to count on that. It’s done as well as you can really expect a comic yoga memoir by a stoner guy to do.

And I’m being asked to go to other cities to do workshops. I’m going to New Orleans and Portland.

YN: What kind of workshops?

NP: I don’t know yet. That’s the thing, see: I’m a certified yoga instructor, through Richard Freeman last summer, but I haven’t taught a lot and I don’t have a ton of confidence in my ability as an asana instructor.

I certainly can’t talk about pranayama for three hours. Nor would anyone want me to. So I have to figure out what to teach.

I could barely stay awake during my teacher training because I was so tired from all the exercise. The physical stuff doesn’t come easy to me. I have a lot of alignment problems.

I’ll just have to be as honest with people as possible, say, listen, I’m not a master. I can’t do an entire 3-hour workshop on floating, you know what I mean?

YN: Teach to your strength right?

NP: Well let’s put it this way: when I assist my teacher in class, I drop people sometimes.

YN: There is a tradition of that.

NP: I can never figure out where to stand. No matter how many times people tell me, I can’t remember. And I’m sober when I’m getting the instruction.

YN: How was it studying with Richard Freeman?

NP: I have so much respect for him I can barely even begin to discuss it. He’s such a well-rounded human, so intelligent, and such physical ability. He seems inapproachable at first, but if you spend a month with him you realize that he’s sweet and kind. He just exists on a different plane some times.

He understands the practice deeply on many different levels. He’s the only person who’s explained yoga in a way that makes full sense to me. His language is so elevated and poetic. And he also mocks yoga culture in a very subtle and intelligent way that I appreciate. It was like I went to yoga college.

I went there with a blown out hamstring. Everyone kept saying you’re learning all these important lessons right now, and I was like, what the fuck are you talking about? I just want to bend forward.

YN: Is your hamstring better?

NP: Richard and his wife Mary when they saw that I couldn’t walk and saw that I had to go to the emergency room one day because I was so injured they came up with a strengthening program for me. It involved a lot of squatting and campers pose, you know you look like a camper taking a dump.

So I did a lot of that while other people were throwing their legs behind their heads.

They showed me a great kindness in doing that. I knew I was kind of a problem child for them, but I was injured. I’m always injured. I’m injured right now.

YN: What do you have?

NP: I got an SI joint thing on my right side. It pops in and out. It’s kind of a constant nagging thing. I should really just go to acupuncture or something but money’s tight. I lost my health insurance in December so…you know. Gotta try to heal it through yoga.

YN: That sounds precarious.

NP: A lot of people have it a lot worse.

YN: Are you still practice at same studios as when you were writing Stretch?

NP: Yeah, not the same spaces but the same community. A lot of the people I was practicing with when I first moved to Los Angeles 5 1/2 years ago are still around and they are still my community.

I’ve tried fancier studios and fancier people and I always end up going back to where I started. People are nice and the teachers are good but Yoga Journal ain’t going to do a story on it—unless I write one!

I think that’s good because yoga should be practiced with friends in a trusted space where you feel like you’re cared for to some extent—but not over cared for. You don’t want to be smothered.

YN: So you still have a really regular practice.

NP: Oh, yeah. I practice 5 days a week, and then I try to meditate on the days I’m not doing asana.

YN: Why not do it every day?

NP: I figure if I do an asana practice then that’s my meditation, you know? I do it when I feel like it. I know that’s not really what you’re supposed to do but—who cares?!?! I want to keep the meditation channel of my mind open, but some days it gets past me.

I’m definitely committed to it because I know that if I stop doing it my body would break down and so would my mind. I remember what my life was like before I did it. Actually, my life was exactly the same before I did it but the way I perceived my life was much different.

YN: And that’s everything.

NP: And that’s everything because my life was actually exactly the same. Ups and downs, goods and bads, sickness and health, but everything was clouded by this film of crazy. Not eccentricity—and I’ve got bags of that in my personality—but the crazies are kinda much more under control.

YN: That’s what got you in trouble with McSweeney’s?

NP: What happened was my ego was driving the ship, and it caused me to say and do stupid things. I had certain expectations and when they wouldn’t get met Id’ lash out in various ways. I over relied on drugs. I still do drugs, but I put them in their proper place. I wasn’t skillful in the way I handled that success.

I was not happy with the way I was comporting myself in the world. I feel better about that now and I think yoga has a lot to do with it. Middle age might also have something to do with it, but I know a lot of middle-aged people who behave very badly.

YN: How would you characterize the LA yoga world? What’s the insider perspective?

NP: The city is so big you can’t really generalize. Yes, of course you have the trendy yoga studios on the west side that are a little over-reliant on the bhakti perhaps. Those are the ones that get a lot of attention in press and the big crowds.

YN: What’s the west side?

NP: Venice, Santa Monica. But there’s also a nice community of yoga intellectuals here. There’s Loyola Marymount. There are people who are studying the tradition in intelligent ways here. And I would characterize the scene here as not particularly toxic, pretty laid back.

I avoid the elements of it that are trendy and celebrity oriented and competitive. It’s like Paris in the 20s for yoga—there’s so much talent and so much hard work and great yoga history here. Indra Devi taught here in the 40s, I live 5-minute drive from the original Self-Realization Fellowship. If you’re looking for it, you can still find it.

YN: Is there anywhere else on your travels that you thought was a cool yoga place?

NP: Not really. Austin has some fun stuff going on but I have a soft spot for Austin. The yoga scene in New York although there’s a lot of good stuff going on is too rushed and too competitive for me. San Francisco suffers a bit from excessive bougie-ness.

But again every place I go I meet intelligent thoughtful people who are trying their best. And then sometimes I’ll run into a stupid trendy yoga class. But in some ways yoga self selects. And the people within yoga self select. I have no trouble finding those people.

I’ve made some dear, dear friends through yoga who—I know I can’t always count on them to show up on time, or to be available to hang out all the time—but I can always count on them as emotional or intellectual support. And I can’t say that for all friends from all walks of my life at all times.

YN: Reading the book it sounds like you had a lot of fun writing it.

NP: I was like a kid at a soda fountain. It was all new to me.

YN: That was probably the perfect perspective.

NP: I was gimlet-eyed. I had no preconceived notions about what I was going to encounter at all. And now I do. I try to retain some of that innocence every time I get on the mat, but it’s not always easy to do. But that’s what you’re trying to do—to see reality as it really is, every moment should seem like you’re a newborn opening his eyes for the first time. But for the purpose of the book I was having a blast. I was trying to write the book as much in real time as I could. And as authentically as I could.

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YN: You finished writing Stretch a while ago, right? You now have another book coming out.

NP: I finished it in November 2009. And now I’m almost finished with a novel. And I’m publishing it myself through the Kindle store. [Read a sample chapter from Jewball here.]

YN: Cool. Why did you decide to do it that way?

NP: A novel about Jewish basketball players in the 1930s, that’s more of a hit or miss proposition. There are ways to market these things but it requires more of a subtle touch. I think I have that audience and know how to reach them myself. My last novel sold poorly and I don’t have a track record as someone who sells a lot of fiction. Even though I’m happy with all the books I’ve written and I’m very happy with the one I’m about to finish.

YN: Have you been writing fiction consistently?

NP: I’ve written maybe a dozen or 15 short stories since Never Mind the Pollacks came out in 2003, but I mostly got on the memoir train because that’s what was paying, honestly. But my dream was never to be a confessional memoirist since I don’t have a lot of trauma in my life. The dream was always to be a fiction writer and it’s harder and harder to do if you’re not an established name. But I’m just putting this out there and seeing what happens. I might as well try.

YN: Might as well.

NP: What is it that LuluLemon says, “do something every day that scares you”?

YN: Right.

NP: Well, I don’t usually take my advice from a clothing company, but I suppose in it’s own way it makes sense as advice, right? I’m jumping into the void with this. But I’m used to that. My whole life is void jumping. Or chasm jumping. It’s nice to be writing something that has nothing to do with myself.  Characters a story and I can just write whatever the hell I want.

YN: It’s like wearing different shoes, not wearing the same shoes every day.

NP: It’s definitely a different pair of shoes. Cheap gym shoes from the 1930s. Historical novel set in the late depression era…

And, I tend to be a bit of a technophile and I see that this is where the world is going. I don’t know where it’s going to stop-–when a meteor hits it probably—but this is how the business is evolving and I’d like to be a part of it. I don’t want to be the last person to buy and iPad. Although I haven’t bought one yet.

YN: You don’t want to be a Luddite.

NP: I’m not a Luddite. I’m not afraid of —Richard, my yoga teacher, teaches that change is the only constant and your job as yogi is to know that change and act upon it skillfully. I’d like to think that my decision to self publish falls under that category.

Part of the problem with marketing Stretch was that it had to find its audience. Now it has, but I think it’s one of those things that’s going to have to gradually find its way into people’s hands. Some people are going to say this guy’s a fucking idiot. It’s happened before. And other people will read it and find a little bit of their own experience in there. You know?

I’ve come to realize my book represents the experience of a certain kind of yoga practitioner.

YN: Definitely. I think that’s also what makes it distinctive.

NP: The regular schmuck bumbling through it. Male and female.

YN: The hairy sweaty Jew?

NP: Okay, well first of all there are some hairy women, but I think I’ve had just as many female readers tell me they liked it.

YN: I loved it. But what I’m trying to say is the yoga comes through, but you come through, too, and that’s what makes it different because you have this distinct take.

NP: I just called it like I saw it. Like, what the fuck is this thing we are all doing.

YN: That’s the question we need to ask more!

NP: I think I know now why a lot better than I did then, even from when I published the book I know more now.

YN: What do you think the answer is?

NP: It’s the best system every devised to get people through life sanely. Our minds are so crazy and yoga was developed by many thousands of people for many thousands of years as a useful system for helping them live a sane, happy, and healthy life. It’s not a perfect cure for anything: you’re still going to have suffering, illness, and death, sadness. But it will affect you a lot less if you have a regular practice. I’m pretty certain of that.

And I’m certain that consistent practice over a long period of time without excessive expectations will yield excellent results. Even when I finished the book 2 years ago I didn’t really understand that so much.

YN: That’s a good answer. Does your son do yoga?

NP: He’s a grade-school kid in Los Angeles so yoga enters his life occasionally. But you know, who wants to do what their dad does?

YN: He’s not curious?

NP: Nah. When I say goodnight to him I semi-ironically bow to him and say ‘namaste.’ And he does the same thing to me and then he goes to sleep. And his teacher said, “You know, when Elijah’s done giving presentations he bows to the class and says, ‘namaste’ ironically.” I’m like, that’s my legacy: Ironic namaste.

YN: That’s perfect.

NP: I guess. There goes Alternadad asshole again.

YN: What’s up now for you and Stretch?

NP: I’m continuing down my yoga path for sure and I haven’t stopped trying to sell Stretch. I like the idea of going to other cities and meeting new people, and eating food and drinking beer, but I’m not the guy who is trying to pimp his yoga DVDs. I have no desire to be part of that corner of yoga culture. I’ve been tempted to try but I think it would be a disaster and a failure.

So instead I’m going to keep practicing and take opportunities as they come and enjoy whatever happens. I’ve only been practicing for 8 years. It’s not that long in the scheme of things. I’ll talk to you when I’m 60 and see where things are.


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Fierce Medicine: Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit: Book Review

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This generous and straight-talking book showcases Ana Forrest’s intelligence and creativity as a healer, while dipping into memoir to detail the extreme abuse she suffered as a child. Born crippled, Forrest (the creator of Forrest Yoga) was imprisoned, drugged, starved, and raped from the age of two, and started drinking alcohol at four. At six, she began working in a nearby stable to escape her sadistic family, and, at 17, while working as a horse trainer, she attempted suicide by jumping off a cliff. As remarkable as her recovery from these soul-crushing experiences is her perspective—rebellious, inquisitive, and clear-eyed.

The exercises in Fierce Medicine are drawn from Native American and yogic traditions, and are designed to help readers step up their own healing practices and step into their intuitive powers. Forrest’s uncompromising approach to herself and compassionate approach to others declares that we can all overcome life’s trials, whatever they may be, and find radical joy in our existence.


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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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Field Notes: Developing Educational Standards for Yoga Therapists

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What is a yoga therapist versus a yoga teacher? Is yoga therapy clinical or relational or both? Should training standards start low (200 hours) to be more accessible, or start high (1,000 hours) so that they are rigorous and safe?

These are some of the hard questions that the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) has been debating since the fall of 2009 in an effort to establish minimum standards for yoga therapists-in-training.

Yoga therapists work with clients whose issues can range from low back pain to cancer to schizophrenia. Along with client safety, which is paramount, the other issue here is credibility. In the last five years, the IAYT has been striving to achieve a level of professionalism for the field, establishing a peer-reviewed journal, annual conferences, and academic-level research. Standards are one of the final steps in this process.

The call for input will close in July 2011 after which the educational standards will be formally drafted. But even then the process won’t be over Member schools will get to comment on the draft, and the committee will make any necessary revisions.

Standards are intended to protect the public and promote yoga therapy as a professional field, but not everyone is happy. Some yoga therapists worry that conforming to rules will lead to bureaucracy, rigidity, and homogeneity.

John Kepnes, executive director of IAYT, acknowledges this issue, saying that it’s everyone’s worst fear. “We want to keep the yoga in yoga therapy. I will walk away from anything that does not do that.”


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Yoga Anatomy Online Course

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Yoga Anatomy Online Course by Leslie Kaminoff, yogaanatomy.net

With 25 years’ experience teaching anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff launched his popular Yoga Anatomy course in an online format this fall. The nine-month intensive covers three major areas—breathing, the spine, and the articular body—and inlcudes instructional videos, weekly online chats, and homework. Even better, it counts as 144 non-contact credit hours with Yoga Alliance.


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The Guru in You: A Personalized Program for Rejuvenating Your Body and Soul: Book Review

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Former male supermodel Cameron Alborzian has written a compulsively readable book on yoga and ayurveda, littered with stories from his modeling career, personal life, and therapeutic work with clients. The Guru in Yoga aims to get people on the path of health and healing by helping them set clear intentions, work with breath and asanas, and apply ayurvedic techniques. For those who can’t afford Alborzian’s handsome services, this book is a helpful alternative.

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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.