Should Yoga Teachers Be Licensed?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The big thing in yoga studios over the last few years is the concept of teacher training. A few moments spent in research will reveal that there is no consistency in curriculum, no quality control and no assurance of competence upon completion in many of these trainings.

If we are concerned – and we should be – about the injuries happening in yoga classes, there needs to be more accountability from these “teacher trainings.”

Yoga Alliance has issued its opinion of guidelines that should be the basis of teacher training. The first problem with its guidelines is that they are rather tepid and fuzzy.  A further issue is that that guidelines can be interpreted in a number ways; it is all left up to the studio’s teacher trainer coordinator.

I find it a bit alarming how many people I meet who’ve completed a 200 hour teacher-training program who never practiced yoga before going into such a training, who don’t practice at all and don’t have the slightest idea how to construct a class. It is disturbing to hear that much of the time in these trainings is spent coloring pictures of Hindu deities, taking field trips to yoga studios, playing games and singing songs.

That doesn’t sound like yoga teacher training to me. That sounds like adult daycare.

Yes, meditation and mantra should be part of a teacher training program. But let’s face it, most people going for a teacher trainer program are not going for those things. They are going for the asana – the physical – practice. You’re not most likely going to get a yoga teacher job at the local YMCA, gym or most yoga studios teaching mantra or meditation.

And so, we have to get real about this. Basic level new instructors need to understand anatomy, alignment, health contraindications, and modifications for physical differences in the populations they teach. That should be a priority in these programs; the workshops where you color pictures of Shiva’s many manifestations can be saved for later on.

While I resist the idea of licensing of yoga teachers I am prone to agree that something needs to be done if we are serious about keeping integrity in yoga as a discipline and a health guide rather than a “hot”, trendy workout done by this year’s celebrity spokesperson. Unfortunately, it seems we cannot depend on ourselves because too many of us are more interested in making money than following any kind of ethics guidelines, which is kind of ironic considering that ethics is a pillar of yoga to begin with.

Yoga has been packaged, sexed up and made a marketable commodity, yet those of us who rail against nude, sexist yoga pictures (but with socks on, of course!) are called prudish. When I see a sock advertisement with a hairy, nude, 400-lb man in Crow pose, I will retract my statement that marketers are using sex to sell products.

P-90X has a Yoga Segment that I looked at one time and cannot look at again. And P-90X is not alone – most fitness tapes have stretching segment that they call yoga.

There is a recent video “Who Owns Yoga” which is really depressing. (“Voga”-really?)  Just add the word yoga to something and somehow it becomes something more…..even when it really isn’t.

And just about everyone apparently can become yoga teacher certified.

I was at a conference a few years back when a question from one of these quickie instructors (who had been working at a YMCA for three months) asked the presenter why it was a bad idea to put a woman in a headstand who’d recently had whiplash from a car accident. The presenter had made this comment earlier – “you wouldn’t put someone who had whiplash in a headstand, right?” To those us who had years of experience and practice that was obvious. Yet our newly-minted 200 hour lululemon-wearing instructor didn’t get it. Worse, she’d been doing just that in her class with a student. Sigh……..

On the one hand, this is what we’re up against and one reason why injuries are occurring at such a rapid rate.

On the other, there are earnest, sincere people who want to become yoga instructors and eventually teachers. They get it – they understand that teaching is education plus experience and practice. Where in the world do they start their journey?

Ideally, you should be able to begin that journey at a local yoga studio that states it conducts “teacher trainings.”  And there should be some consistent quality in that training whether it is in New York City or Peoria, Illinois.

Interestingly, a few years ago the idea of licensing came up in one of our East Coast states. Yoga Alliance gathered up their members and protested against it, of course. One statement in their argument caught my attention. It was this: “Many yoga teachers will lose their jobs if licensing requirements become law.”

Maybe be they should.  Maybe that’s the point. Someone should not be able to call themselves a yoga teacher just because they essentially bought a piece of paper. CPAs, massage therapists and hair stylists have to be licensed to show competence in their fields and they have less ability to inflict harm (at least physically!) than some poorly trained yoga instructor who wants to take his/her class into Wheel pose.

In my opinion, if we are not going to require licensing then the training really needs to be cleaned up:

1. First anyone who wants to do a yoga teacher training must be vetted. If you have no background in teaching and/or anatomy and movement you cannot go into teacher training.  So, training in these areas must be provided so that a prospective teacher can move forward. Call it pre-teacher training.

2. The prospective student should have the appropriate educational program for his/her goals. A student who wants to teach a class of mostly asana and a smaller amount of pranayama needs a different 200 hour program than someone who wants to teach meditation. Maybe some kind of independent study teacher training could be managed if group training is not feasible.

3. While the students are in teacher training, they should be required to teach small blocks of an established instructor’s class – say a 10-15 minute block. This provides them a type of apprenticeship, gets their feet wet by teaching students rather than their fellow trainees, builds their confidence and allows them critique. It also ensures that the trainees are likely doing a practice on their own since that is where the teaching will come from.

Teacher training should not be just a money-generator for studios and studios that offer teaching training should be held accountable for the product they are turning out. Studios owe it to the field of yoga itself to turn out competent instructors. It’s clear we cannot depend on Yoga Alliance to clean this mess up because they have too much invested on maintaining the status quo.

The states themselves have taken notice of the rise of yoga and yoga studios. Health clubs that are regulated are asking why yoga studios are not under the same scrutiny and regulation that they are; training programs for teachers of various skills are asking why yoga teacher trainings do not fall under the same governance that they do. So the possibility of licensing is not some far off idea and indeed may one day be the case.

Those students who start their journey well-trained and who have a practice will have nothing to fear if that should eventually be the case.  But I would hope that we in the yoga profession would clean up our house before any such government intervention is needed.

My Pilates Journey

Thursday, November 20, 2014

In 1991-1992, I’d finished the foundation work in Laban Movement Analysis in New York and was searching for my next challenge. It came at the Pilates Studio of New York, one location on  Broadway and the other on W. 57th Street where my teacher was Romana Kryzanowska.

Romana certified me in 1993. The 1993 class included Alycea Ungaro, and Mari Winsor.  Brooke Siler came a year later, I think.

The Pilates Studio of New York had a registered Pilates trademark remained the only certifying Pilates program until 2000 with a class action lawsuit brought by people who basically want to teach the method legally.  The trademark was rather weak, as it turned out and was easily, if expensively, defeated.  And I do understand the feelings of those persons who had been teaching Pilates for a long time and who felt no allegiance to the holder of that trademark who seemed to create divisiveness rather than encouraging a coming-together of ideas.

If it ended there, and those persons who’d been teaching just continued to teach, it would have been fine. But that’s not where the story ended.

With the loss of the trademark, the floodgates opened and every aerobics/fitness teacher who wanted to add to their resume was able to get some kind of Pilates “credentials” over the next weekend. Pilates DVDs glutted the markets; cheap certifications could be found everywhere.

Worse still, people began developing their own “take” on Pilates adding balls, wgts, music – whatever. Many of these people claim they are taking Pilates into the future, improving on Joseph Pilates’ original work.

Frankly, I don’t believe that most of them are smart enough to do that. At the very least, it is arrogant of them to assume that they know how the method should “evolve.”

I loved the Classical Pilates system from my very first class. I enjoyed the discipline and form of it. It reminded me of classical ballet and Iyengar yoga both of which are alignment based and foundational in their philosophies.

My love of Classical Pilates was fueled by Romana’s love for the work, too. She may have not known names of muscles but she had amazing instinct for what a body needed.  I have over ten years’ of notebooks full of notes taken during studio visits, conferences, workshops and private lessons with her.

When I moved to the St. Louis area in 1995, I was the only certified Pilates instructor in this area – St. Louis and the Metro East.

There was a woman in St. Louis who’d bought some reformers and called herself a Pilates teacher but she was not certified or trained. She called me to come work for her in her center but I wanted no part of being connected with anyone who wasn’t Romana-certified or otherwise intensively trained in the Pilates Method.

So, I started my own practice, first in the downstairs apartment where we lived then adding an Edwardsville location in 1996. I opened my Studio in Glen Carbon in 1997.

After 2000 with the loss of the trademark and other resulting fallout, it was rather sad to see Pilates beaten up, dumbed down and cheapened but that’s what it takes to appeal to the masses, I guess.

I don’t sell Pilates mixes whether it is adding ballet moves, kettlebells or balls. I don’t tell anyone they need special socks, music or gear.  I don’t teach yogilates or piyoga or whatever new hybrid comes around.  I keep it Classical because I believe that these new mixes will eventually fade away and classical Pilates – like classical music and classical ballet – will endure. It works.

I belong to the Authentic Pilates Union which includes people who were certified during my time and who wished to stay with the classical work. There were a few other groups including Romana’s Pilates which was formed a few years after the demise of the trademark. While the Romana’s Pilates (and True Pilates) are classical Pilates, they also have a weird tiered system; in other words, a Romana’s Pilates instructor is likely to identify him or herself as a “Level l” or “Level 2” etc.  I also found that most of the teaching done within this program was being done by people other than Romana. Since I had trained alongside them and in some cases even before them, I consider them my colleagues rather than my teachers.

When I was studying with Romana, there was no such thing as “Levels.” You were just told to get your butt in the studio and you’d work with whoever Romana told you to – which covered a wide variety of fitness levels and ages. That was your “levels” right there!

In my opinion, the only reason to have levels is to be able to charge much more for training.

I have been lucky enough to clock many hours in New York with Romana, Edwina Fontaine, Bob Liekens, and Carol Dodge to name a few. I was lucky to be part of the first class of Romana-certified instructors in 1993. I set up studios first in Pittsburgh and here in the Midwest – both times I began at such a basic level that most people coming to me pronounced it PIE-lates (two syllables). I’ve taught at University of Pittsburgh, Dickinson College, Oberlin College, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and Washington University.

I have worked with dancers, athletes, physical eduation students, and actors as well as folks of all physical abilites.

Many people, many experiences, many levels.

Toxic Fear- 1, Me – 0 (But Not For Long)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fear is a funny thing. You can have the kind of fear when you are alone in bed at night and are awakened by a strange sound.  You can feel fear when you’re at work and your boss says “I need to see you in my office.” You can fear going to the doctor or the dentist.

And then there is the kind of fear that feels as if it’s coming from your bones it’s so deep. It shakes you to the core and messes with your head. You can’t think straight and all you want to do is hide in the corner and make everything and everyone go away.

That is the kind of fear I’ve been wrestling with.  I have often been visited by this emotion during some very dark times in my life and in my earlier years it was my constant companion.

It only comes to me in the present when a big change is happening in my life.

The most recent big change happened the moment I signed on with a marketing firm to do work on my website and to help me promote my business.

This is a huge step for me.  Signing a contract with a commitment this big feels that it should be happening to someone else – not me. I feel sometimes that I am too small, too undeserving for all of this attention. What I say means nothing, that inner gremlin tells me.  And yet, signing on to this commitment is a refusal to believe all of that. The action says I am worth it, what I have to say may be no better or worse than what someone else says but I still have a voice.

Cowering under the blankets and alone, I believe in myself.  When the light shines on me, I am weaker and too often have surrendered myself to the opinions of others. Many times, I have been treated like a doormat rather than stand up for myself. So to shake that blanket off, stand up and face life is really big thing to do.

It was the same fear that befell me when I decided to attend ACOA because life as I had lived it up to then wasn’t working for me; it was the same fear when I decided to invest in a new career; it was the same fear when I had to begin that career all over again in the Midwest.

And it has visited me once again with this latest venture.

It’s not that I do not trust this marketing firm; in fact, I believe in them fully. Rather it is the meaning behind the choice. By signing this contract with them, I am standing up for myself. I believe in this firm and am delighted that they seem to have good grasp not just of Internet workings but also how a public relations firm works – which is rare in this climate where it seems that just about anyone who knows how to post pictures of monkeys onto Facebook calls themself a marketing firm.

It would be perfectly understandable if someone asked me why he/she should practice meditation when I meditate daily and am still plagued by such fear from time to time.  It would be understandable if they used my story to say that meditation didn’t work at all and therefore was not worth trying at all.

The unhappy truth is that meditation is not going to take the pain of life events away. It is not going to numb your mind. It is not a fairy godmother who makes all the bad things go poof! If that’s what you believe then you are reading the wrong books.

What meditation does for me in times like these is this:

1. It allows me to see that a process is going on.

When life events happen that trigger deep fear, they seem to flow along with a process: 1) the event, 2) the “what-ifs”, 3) the physical manifestations from perceiving a threat of survival, 4) the weakening of my body, and 5) tears, thrashing and/or screaming whereupon I end up in a tangled heap on the floor.

After the expenditure of all of that energy, I am cleaned and my thoughts are clear. I can move on (until the next time of course!). It’s simply a process – a digestion – of events.

This process happens in this way, in this order, every time that deep fear is triggered.  While the process is still painful, I recognize that it will end which in itself provides a sense of peace.

2. The triggering events happen with less frequency over time.

As I experience more days with an even temperament and less fluctuation of emotions, I can tolerate more fear before I get triggered.

3. Birth is usually accompanied by pain. Meditation reminds me of this and encourages me to breathe through the birthing pains.

Every deeply significant positive life event for me has been accompanied by pain. Painful choices, physical pain, emotional pain – all kinds; but to stay in the status quo was worse.

One of my favorite quotes is by Anais Nin – “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Once I get to the “tangled heap” phase of my deep fear experience, I know that life is about to take an exciting turn. I know that there is a part of me that wants to expand and experience more of what life has to offer.

Every new life or significant life event begins with the pain of birth. There is no other way. Meditation allows me to breathe through the birthing pain of fear.

Hey, I’m Just The Messenger

November 14, 2014

She looked at me with barely disguised defensiveness.  “Well, you could always do that! You were a dancer!”  Even though this event happened months ago, I remember it as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.

I will describe the scenario:

I was sitting in Dandasana, a yogic pose where the legs are stretched forward and you sit tall.  What makes this pose so difficult is that it requires flexibility and strength both in the torso and the legs. The torso is tall and lifted but with its natural lumbar curve and with the legs straight and active.

It is difficult and mostly unsatisfying pose, unless you can appreciate the strength and grace of it. Dandasana is a great pose for those who want a stronger core, better posture and an integrated body where all parts learn how to play nicely with each other.

But it is not a pose of ego-gratification. If you do a good Dandasana in class no one is probably going to be admiring your form because it looks deceptively simple. Those admiring looks often go to the people doing splits.

Dandasana is one of the poses I practice regularly. I don’t much care about who admires my practice as I choose those asanas that serve my needs best rather than those that serve my ego.  I need a strong body, good posture and good biomechanics for all the activities I do including sports, exercise and just working with clients at the studio.

I believe that Dandasana is especially important for those of us north of forty years of age, as those phasic muscles on the front of the body tend to exert a stronger pull on our posture and we find our spines rounding over more often.  While Dandasana can be modified with props to make it more palatable, it will still require effort to do and maintain the pose.

Now back to the above story.

I often give Dandasana to my clients as part of their prescriptive program. Usually, I assume that if someone is paying me to help her, she will take my advice with enthusiasm because, after all, I am trying to help her. Now, here was this woman whom I’d know for years almost angry with me because I said that there was no easy way to get what she wanted – she would have to work through the pose to get to the “juice” of it.

To say that because I am a trained dancer that the poses come easily to me is an ignorant thing to say but I recognized that this woman’s comment was most likely a knee-jerk reaction because her self-identity had been threatened somehow. The comment simply made no sense. Besides, Dandasana had been part of her prescriptive practice for years but like so many of her other poses, they’d begun to look weak and tired. I knew something else was going on so I let her comment go.

There are numbers of dancers – and yogis and athletes – over the age of fifty who have trouble moving not because of lack of proper dance training but because of a lack of consistent discipline.I also think that in our later years we can become a bit mentally “cushy” and bypass poses that make us work in favor of those that just make us feel good. There is a high price to pay for such a choice.

Having a human body requires daily attention and care. I practice every day and so the truth of it is that Dandasana comes easier to me than someone else primarily because I practice and they don’t.

That’s the truth. Practice and all is coming, as Pattabhi Jois said. It’s really that simple and that hard.  You can accept it or walk away from it.

But shooting the messenger gets you nowhere.

JP and the Man-Card

November 28, 2014

As I was getting ready for work the other day, I heard a commercial from a hair-cutting establishment that caters to “men.”   Or shall I say “real” men since their schtick is to make a connection between “real” men and “faux men” by presenting images that no “real” man would do or participate in, thus risking the loss of their “man card.” Their commercials end with the obvious – that “real” men would go to their hair-cutting establishment.

This is one silly commercial in a procession of a long list of silly commercials that I usually ignore but this one day the connection the commercial made was that if you were “on your way to Pilates?  Lifetime revocation!” (Revocation of your “man card” – whatever that means).

Did I really hear what I think I heard?  Do the people who created this advertisement know anything about the Pilates Method or Joseph Pilates?

My brain, being of the analytical kind, immediately went into factoid mode, complete with hypothesis and summarization of this advertisement, the type of person who would design such an ad and the type of people who would buy into this image of what a “real man” does.

Hypothesis #1: The person(s) who designed this did no research on Joseph Pilates.

Joseph Pilates was a product of the German turnplatz rage. Germany was big into physical fitness and encouraged its population to engage in all types of fitness activities. The Germans believed that a strong, healthy, fit population was good for the nation.

Over the course of his life, Joe was a boxer, circus performer, wrestler and all-around athlete. His method was first based on mat work and was a combination of Swedish calisthenics and yoga. His first students were soldiers and police officers who – and I think I can speak for most well functioning people – would qualify as “real” men.

Pictures of Joe in his twenties and thirties – and even his sixties – reveal a very fit man with a physique that would be admired today with its six-pack abs and sculpted muscles – and certainly equal to the models you would see on any men’s fitness magazine.

Summary #1:  The person(s) who designed the ad were too lazy or careless to do this research since it is easily found in the library and yes, even the Internet.

Hypothesis #2: The person(s) who designed this ad know nothing about the Pilates Method itself.

The Classical Pilates Method was first developed as mat work and was a combination of Swedish calisthenics and yoga. Later on, as Joseph Pilates began to work with larger populations, he created various apparatus to accommodate the needs of those populations.

Sadly, the Classical Method has been watered down and mixed with everything from kettlebells to boxing to ballet barre because, well, the Classical Method is just simply too hard for anyone who lacks the discipline to work with control, precision and concentration. My opinion.

This Pilates stuff that you find in so many local community health clubs and centers would be unrecognizable to Joe himself, I think.

My guess is that the ad designers for this men’s hair-cutting place are more familiar with these foo-foo styles of Pilates. Which says a lot about the amount of energy they put into their research.

Summary #2: The person(s) who designed the ad were ignorant of the original Classical Pilates Method itself and made assumptions.

So – was the ad team playing into stereotypes of what is stored in their limited mindsets?  Or…….

Was the ad team made up of lazy, careless people who made big, broad general assumptions and who didn’t bother to do any research?

Hmmm…it would have been interesting to have been in the meeting when they developed the description of their target market.

IAYT Announces Certification Programs – Gulp

Sunday, October 5, 2014

As someone who has practiced Yoga Therapy for almost twelve years now, I am greeting this announcement with some apprehension. I am not sure how IAYT is going to determine the necessary criteria for someone who wishes to become a Yoga Therapist and who will be making the final decisions on this.

And how will those of us who have been practicing yoga therapy for years and learned our craft from our own practice as well as books, teachers and travelling to meet and work with other teachers be recognized by IAYT?

My hope is that when the IAYT arrives at the final decisions it does so with an enlightened mind and a heartfelt desire toward inclusion. My hope is that the board of IAYT is full of open minds towards those of various approaches to treatment rather than a group of people operating as a clique.

I have seen organizations come into being under the auspices of  “furthering the growth of our passion” but instead become focused on power-grabbing for a select group of individuals. I have seen organizations come into existence and demand dues from its members solely to continue the life of the organization, rather than serve its members as organizations are supposed to do.

I was trained in the early 1990s at the Pilates Studio of New York. At that time, there was a trademark on the Pilates name and only those associated with that school could call themselves Pilates teachers. The trademark was tossed out in 2000 and Pilates is now in a rather sloppy mess due to the greed of the fitness industry and its need to dumb things down for mass consumption. Who knows really what Pilates is these days?  (In the span of fourteen years, I have heard the word “pilates” used as a catch-all word or as part of a combo-hybrid fitness class. Pilates has been combined with yoga, kettlebells, bands and balls to name just a few of these combo-type classes. The creators of these hybrids claim they are evolving the method when the reality is that these hybrids are just more weak and flat exercise programs guaranteed to be forgotten within a year).

Eventually out of the ruins, an organization called the Pilates Method Alliance arose in response to all those people who heretofore were prevented from calling themselves Pilates teachers but who were chomping at the bit to get into the Pilates action. The members of the PMA board included teachers who worked with Joe (who began calling themselves the “Elders”) as well as several others who represented themselves as those who would lead the way into the future of Pilates.

No one seemed to notice or question how many of those board members were equipment manufacturers.

Today, the Elders who have not died by now or left on their own have been essentially pushed aside by the remaining members. The remaining members that were not equipment manufacturers now work for those equipment manufacturers.

The PMA now touts a certification but what does that mean? There are so many different approaches I am left wondering as to who gets to decide what is there to be certified about?

Pilates certifications these days are often conducted by the equipment manufacturers themselves – Balanced Body, Peak, Stott – thereby making the chances of most of today’s Pilates instructors nothing more than employees and/or representatives of the company they bought their equipment from, rather than teachers of the method itself. There are a few exceptions – Romana’s Pilates is one example.

To further dumb down the teacher, the product and, unfortunately, the end result, these corporations offer franchises for purchase. That’s right – just like your local Curves.  How much education do you really think is required when a corporation is eager to sell one of its franchises?

This is what the PMA organization has done. Not bettered the Pilates method. Not promoted Joseph Pilates’ vision of his work. Not secured the integrity of the method.

Who really has been served by the PMA?

To that end, I defy anyone to tell me that yoga is better off today with the formation of Yoga Alliance.  Yoga has been going along nicely for thousands of years without any help from meddling, power-hungry people, thank you very much. People who wanted to be yoga teachers travelled to study, practiced diligently and after years of this decided to become teachers often with their teachers’ encouragement.  It is a noble practice and profession but it has been turned into a corporate, materialistic, elitist stretch program complete with a sexed-up image.

When one of these “teachers” suggests a teacher-training program to a student, it is often motivated by financial need, rather than whether the student is ready. Hell, by today’s standards the only “readiness” a student needs is that he/she’s 1) gone to class for two weeks, 2) she really likes the whole yoga image thingy and 3) she’s got money to blow.

The great Vanda Scaravelli once said, “Be careful, very careful about organizations. Yoga cannot be organized, must not be organized. Organizations kill work.”  She was right.

It is somewhat amusing to contact the YA for some kind of member service question. The answer I usually get is that “well, we haven’t resolved that issue yet.” The issue I had is one I’ve had for three years. Now, they can’t resolve member issues but they can sell you the latest Richard Karpel online video on how to make more money by selling stuff and whatever and it only costs a couple hundred dollars! (As of this writing, Karpel has resigned but I am sure a like-minded individual will replace him).

So again, I ask – who is really being served here?

That is why I greet the announcement from the IAYT with some trepidation. I have hope but I also have realism.

But if it’s just another way for another clique to get control of something, I won’t be too surprised.


Dear Swami Sensei

September 19, 2014

Dear Swami Sensei -

I am a 48-year-old woman whose last child just went off to college. I am feeling lonely and without a purpose. I cannot decide what I should do with my life. My friend Tiffani from my “sometimes book, always booze”-club has lingerie parties where she sells edible panties and my other friend Britni from my bunko group has a Pampered Chef gig.

I was watching Oprah and I saw that she’s decided to become a “spiritual” coach. And I thought – hey, that sounds pretty cool. Maybe I could do that, too.

My question is: how would I go about being my community’s “spiritual coach”?

Would I have to start going to church or something? Would I have to read a book?

Is there just a Facebook page I could look at instead – preferably one with pictures?

Thanks bunches!  :) :) :)


Dear Missy –

Namaste. You’re letter is very intriguing. And perplexing. Please understand that I am all truth and sometimes, well, truth hurts.

I admire your desire to become a spiritual guide and while I would not wish to put a sardhaka on your dreams, I feel I must tell you that, contrary to the popular belief that we are all equal, there are, in fact, many types of beings in the world.

In other words, you are one type of being and Oprah is another. Or, as we say in my neck of the ashram, she is “the” Oprah.

She is one of only the few beings that “become” just by uttering the words. No education necessary. Her experience alone has validated her superior spirituality over others.  She is one of a special group of people known as the “Maha Shirshas” or “Big Heads.” Some of my friends here in Pushpat say it’s just another rich American with hubris but I remind them that such cynicism would be frowned on by our beloved Patanjali.  Then I tell them that they are just jealous.

Of course, you may try to become a spiritual coach just by your words, too. Try this on your next trip to Starbucks: when you get to the front of the line, turn around to the folks and pronounce “I just had an AHA moment!”  If someone doesn’t then hand you a Depends, you might just be onto something.

Do not despair, Missy, if this spiritual coaching thing doesn’t pan out for you. There are many quick and easy things for you to try to find purpose in your life. I think teaching stretching classes are real big in your country right now but I think in America, they are called yoga certifications.

And if that doesn’t work out, maybe you can get a pilates barre franchise from any number of corporations willing to sell one to you.

Sat Nam,

Swami Sensei

P.S. – What is Facebook?

Present-Moment Living and the Authentic Life

August 30, 2014

I think that most people live in the past, the future or in fantasy. In all of those cases, we are creating some memory of greatness that we either were or will be despite evidence that may indicate otherwise.

When we live in the past, we often believe that somehow life was perfect then. We knew everything, had everything. But somehow, in the present, all of that has been taken away. Usually some greater power (usually God) is blamed for taking it all away.

When we live in the future, we believe that our wanting it badly enough and putting it on a list will make it so.  We imagine that, one day, we will reach perfection and everything will make sense in our lives. We will make the right choices, live the right way and be happy. (It is interesting to me that we are not ready to make the right choices now but we truly believe that something in the future will change all of that).

When we live in fantasy, we tend to cook up an image for ourselves that is not aligned with our truth, but rather with the truth of others – whether it is what the media or our peers tell us is the truth.

The trouble is that none of these options work out well for our lives. Living in the past suggests that you are not good enough now; the future depends on a list of “to-dos” and not the now; and fantasy is well, just a fantasy. It is unachievable if it is not aligned with your true self.

The woman of sixty-three who dresses in leggings and midriffs and starves herself because she wants to weigh the same as when she was eighteen and the most popular girl in school; the overweight person who chronically stuffs himself with junk food after a stressful workweek promises himself on Friday that he will start a stringent diet – on the following Monday; the person who acts hard and tough in her career (because that’s what strong women do according to Cosmo) but who really would like to be a housewife and take care of kids – all of these people are doomed to frozen lives, unless something happens to bring them to present-moment living.

Very few of us embrace the present moment although all the yogic texts, Buddhism and great spiritual teachers tell us that this is where happiness and peace are to be found.

However, what they did not know was how different our world is than when they wrote their guidelines.  In our adrenaline-jacked, 100 mph, multi-tasking world, being in the present moment is well, boring and often frustrating. Our world is a “just add water and stir” kind of world where everything is to be had right now whether it is the purchase of a cup of coffee or a fitness certification.  Beating ourselves up with work, or exercise, or multi-tasking is often admired in our culture. What is not addressed is that, in time, that “beating up” mentality leads to outcomes we don’t address: addictions, depression, fatigue, breaking down.

There is a delusion about “striving.” Striving is working toward a goal, not straining or forcing toward a goal. It requires focus, persistence and consistency – all to be found in the present moment. A successful diet program requires small steps done consistently and takes time. A crash or fad diet can result in weight loss – if you’re able to stick with it – but the results are usually not long lasting in which case I would suggest that that diet is not successful at all. In addition, there is no way of knowing what the deeper physiological costs of such a diet is until later on.  In much the same way, it is impossible to work out for three hours straight one day to make up for the last five days without working out and expect the same results. Doing fifty leg lifts instead of ten focused ones is not better and the only result is that you get really good at doing leg lifts.

So, if we are not used to present-moment living, how do we acquire the skill to not only live in those moments but to be comfortable with them?

Classical yoga gives us the opportunity to be healthy in our minds and spirits by addressing these very issues.  Since classical yoga does not follow a rote set of asanas, the student is somewhat compelled to be in the moment physically since they do not know what’s coming next.  A good teacher – one with proper education as well as the wisdom that comes from experience – guides the student from one asana to the next based on what that student needs now (which may be different tomorrow).

In a classical yoga session, the student will come into moments where they are uncomfortable.  They may be asked to be still for a longer time than they are used to; they may be asked to do an asana that they don’t like because it doesn’t come easily. In these moments, a teacher can be there to encourage you but it is you who must become your own voice of strength.

What goes through your mind in these very moments? If it is anything other than being at peace and steadiness then there is your work. This is where you work on being steady in those uncomfortable places.  This is where you work on present-moment being.

Notice the messages that flood your mind. Most of the time they are there to distract you; the mind can be stimulated by external or internal factors but it really prefers the external so that’s where it will try to take you. If all you’ve ever done is react every time an external stimulant flags your attention then why would you expect something different?  You will have to train yourself to not react.

So, why is this important?  Well, better decisions are made from a place of centeredness and calmness. Those qualities can only be found in the present moment. I don’t know one person who wouldn’t like to make better decisions whether they involve personal, business or social choices.

Focus becomes laser-like in the present moment. Think of the last health crisis that you or a loved one faced.  I’ll bet there was no monkey mind to distract you then but where was it?  Did you make a conscious effort to get rid of the monkey mind? No. You just didn’t give it the attention that it wanted.  Sure, maybe it was by default but now you have proof that you can do it – whether you are in crisis or not.

Present-moment living deepens relationships and experiences. Imagine meeting a friend for lunch and she spends the whole time checking her smartphone, greeting other people or interrupting your chatter to tell you all about her exciting experiences?  These are the people who, in later years, will regret not being in the present moment. I often hear from older people that they wished they had been more aware of others and appreciative of their lives in their younger days. This type of regret may be something that you yourself have experienced. Recognize that it is only by living in the present moment can we experience the full joy of being with those that we love or truly absorb what it is we have to learn.

Casting Off The Cloak

August 23, 2014

True story #1: I was teaching a yoga vinyasa when a small voice in the back asked: “Can I do this other pose instead of the one you’re asking for? I do this other one much better.”

True story #2: In another class, I had a student who made a habit of asking others in the class what they were feeling. This student was particularly limber and she asked a rather stiff girl this question while they were in a straddle pose. It was clear that this limber student had a need for attention.

Both stories are examples of what Classical Yoga identifies as the poisonous Ego identity.  The Ego is false and needy. It does not act in your best interest; it acts in its own best interest.

When a student indicates that they are at an Advanced level, it is understood that one is advanced at a mental, spiritual and physical level and of those, the physical is the least important. While it is common for a beginner yogi to ask others “what they are feeling, anyone with a year or more of practice would – and should – know better.

Likewise, substitution of one pose for another that you “do better” suggests that this student lacks the fortitude to tackle what is hard for her – or to even try. She would rather do something that is easy for her. (Interestingly enough, this student often complained that her own practice had become boring. Hmm, wonder why?)

In both cases, we can see that Ego played a big role. The term “ego” carries a lot of baggage in our culture and when you say someone has a big ego, you’d better be prepared for a fight. So, let me see if I can clarify ego from the perspective of Classical Yoga.

Certainly, there is your identity. You may be a mother, a father, a stay-at-home caretaker or an entrepreneur. It is who you are in your daily life.

And then there is this cloak of persona that most of us tend to wear. I suspect we develop these cloaks because we don’t feel that we are enough as we are. Our cloaks make us feel bigger, better and more important than other people.  This cloak is the Ego that Yoga warns us about.

We know that the cloak is a phony. What we don’t realize is that the cloak is also a prison.  When we are wearing our cloaks, we can’t make a mistake or do something silly or – God forbid – fall out of our Crow Pose. What would people think?  So we choose what we are good at. Every. Time.

And yet, every successful person – yoga practitioners included – will tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes. A “safe” life, inside your cloak, is barely any life at all. There is no growth, no maturity, and certainly no liberation.

It is said that how you do your yoga reflects how you approach your life. Imagine if you chose to live your life as if you’d stayed in First Grade in elementary school. Certainly, you’d have fun; after all, it’s First Grade!  You’d know everything because it was the same stuff you’ve been doing for the last thirty years. Think of how impressed all the new kids would be to see you master First Grade poses!

Maybe that’s enough for you. And that’s okay. Those yoga Stretch and Tone classes are just fine.

But isn’t there a small part of you that looks at those people who are beyond First Grade, struggling in their practices with new ideas and concepts and says, “I want to be there!” It probably won’t be fun at first but something inside you recognizes it as a chance for growth.

Classical Yoga asks us to face these growth challenges not just as learning new gymnastics or a great stretch for the body but also stretches for the mind and the soul. It asks you to face fears, feel small sometimes, and fail other times. But you will grow into a more realized person and free human being.

And you can’t truly do that without throwing off the cloak.

Blind Faith

False Prophets and Blind Faith

July 20, 2014

I was raised Catholic but, like many Catholics, distanced myself from my religion as I became more aware of the “we know best” attitude of the Church. I was taught to obey without question, to accept without question and to repress any feelings that ran incongruous to the Catholic teachings.

This attitude of complete obeisance also pervaded my home environment, even when it conflicted with my gut instincts. So I grew up feeling one way on the inside (which I was told was not right) and acting differently on the outside (which I was told was the right way). The conflict between these two choices caused me years of mental anguish and emotional pain.

So, after much work, I freed myself from any restrictions placed on me by someone who suggests that they “know” and I do not. They may indeed “know” but I am entitled to question to see if it is authentic in my own life-or determine if they are just to sell me some b—s—.

Yoga philosophy is all about this level of freedom. I believe that level of freedom is what all of us want. What we are seemingly unwilling to accept, however, is that that level of freedom requires a great deal self-responsibility.

I suggest that even though yoga is more popular now than it has ever been at any other time in this country (although Amrit Desai would say that what is popular is not yoga), too many American-style yoga participants (I hesitate to use the term “student” as students study on their own as well as participate in the classroom) gladly turn over their mental and emotional care to those who profess to “know.”

There is no need for Yoga “life coaches,” for example. The study of Classical yoga is in itself a life coaching.  My favorite ad of the week came in an email offering a yoga “get-away” to a Caribbean resort where you can sail the sea with a certified “Dolphin Energy Healer.” Not a regular dolphin energy healer, mind you, but a certified one.

That term implies that they “know” and you do not. As if you were to take a boat out into the sea, came across some dolphins swimming alongside you and felt something deeply connected to Nature, it would not mean as much as if you’d taken a certified dolphin energy healer along.

How about the wealthier yoga teachers among us who, while excoriating Monsanto and other corporations for environmental destruction, will turn around and offer us yoga “enlightenment” trips to the Swiss Alps?  How do you suppose one gets from the USA to the Europe?  Hmmm?

Can you say “carbon footprint”?

And yet, these trips and get-aways will be well-attended because we want what these people say they can give us: peace, contentment, and connection and we will pay whatever we can for as long as we can to try to get that.

All of our lives we are told what to wear, what to say, how to act. Our socio-economic class and mindsets determine whether we vacation in Panama City or St. Thomas, whether we drink beer or wine, whether we shop at Kohl’s or Niemann-Marcus. We turn over our self-esteem to anyone who looks like they are in the class we aspire to be in. We turn to celebrities we’d like to be friends with for anything from their political views to their favorite iPod tunes.

And now we’re doing the same thing in yoga and other types of mind-body modes- at least in this country. We’re turning to celebrity yogis or “certified” healers to show us the way to happiness and freedom, instead of spending time with ourselves. Yet the yogic texts are very clear on this – they tell us that no one can show you your way to happiness; only you can show you.

It is amusing, in a sad sort of way, that so many people who will scoff at religion and the church – any church – because of a perceived repression of their rights will blindly follow some skinny tattooed guy in tights because he just looks the right part.