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Yoga Yoga Teacher Training

Selling the Yoga Experience

Telling vs. Selling: reclaiming the jargon as an honest story

I’ve started my own Yoga Teacher Training brand. It’s exciting and I believe in the product, but I have to figure out how sell my product without being pushy or obnoxious. I have to describe the product in meaningful terms. Using vocabulary that is easily misconstrued as industry jargon, I have to relate a story that describes my yoga practice and my product.

recharge, rejuvenate, inspire

holistic, authentic

Have these words become meaningless industry jargon?

Self-promotion has to be loud enough to be heard over the noise of Instagram, Twitter and fourteen other platforms. But it can’t be so loud to the point of obnoxious arrogance. Furthermore, tweets and posts must have meaning attached to the jargon.

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The noise of social platforms is deafening

Instagram allows up to 2,200 characters, but optimal posts have no more than 150 characters. The allowable characters have become industry buzzword. And those buzzwords saturate the market and compromise the reliability of the products.

“Join me at yoga teacher training and #recharge your practice. Learn to teach #authentic yoga classes. Discover your #holistic approach to well-being.”

That statement has fewer than 150 characters and contains the right words. But the vocabulary barely registers. There is so much scrolling  through so much content that it’s all at risk of becoming meaningless jargon.

So how do I attach value to my teacher training? How do I give meaning to my product? Authenticity comes from the story behind the service. My goal is to teach prospective yoga teachers how to transmit their own belief in yoga. And to do this, I have to be truthful about my own yoga story. Not because I have anything to hide, but because it’s the difference between telling and selling that adds value to my product.

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The days of market trickery are over because everyone is selling themselves online. Everyone has curated an online persona and whether or not they’re selling a product, they all know that Instagram isn’t real. And that’s why telling the story behind the product is crucial. The authenticity and the meaning in my yoga teacher training comes from a flawed and vulnerable existence. That is what’s relatable.

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Can a yogi wear a fur hat? I’m vulnerable in my yogic beliefs because I don’t subscribe to all the trends. Like veganism.

Behind the promotional jargon is real experience. I constantly #recharge my yoga practice by being true to what I believe in. Pulling fish out of the lake and wearing locally-sourced fur is more important to me than importing lentils for a vegan diet or shivering in synthetic fabrics.

The classes I teach are #rejuvenating because I base themes around relevant topics for a specific community. I don’t discuss veganism when I know most of my students have moose meat in their freezer. Instead I’ll reference the value of taking only what’s necessary from the land.

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You can simultaneously believe in hunting moose and practicing yoga

Yoga Teacher Training will be #authentic because you’ll discern your personal reasons for practicing and learn to teach only what you know. If you’re an expert on knee anatomy because you’ve had three knee surgeries, you’ll incorporate that. If you have personal experience with yoga for post-traumatic stress, you’ll teach that. If a vegan diet supports YOUR lifestyle, you’ll describe that. The authenticity comes from your own experience.

Yoga is a #holistic approach to well-being because the practice insists that you listen to your emotions and body and understand what you really need. Extract what’s relevant from the philosophy of yoga and learn to teach what you know. The honest story behind the promotion will shine through and the jargon will be rightfully redeemed as useful vocabulary. Yoga is for everyone, regardless of lifestyle choices. The vocabulary, just like the yoga itself, can be tuned to fit every iteration of practice. Tune out the jargon, but tune into the meaning behind the vocabulary. The stories are what makes the promotion believable.

Land and Heart Practice
click here for information and registration details

 

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Yoga Yoga Teacher Training

Stand Up and Get Started: navasana to utkatasana

Getting up and out of it. Let go of your resolution and just get started. What is your dream project? What if the only thing holding you back was laziness and fear? Describe your project in 500 words or less, send me a two-minute video about the project and be entered to win a scholarship to Yoga Teacher Training, starting July 6, 2020. 

Click here for scholarship details

There’s a sequence that I teach in my power yoga classes that students laugh at. They giggle and chuckle when I demonstrate and I get the impression they are saying to themselves “I can’t do that….”

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From boat pose…

Navasana (boat pose) to Utkatasana (chair pose). Also known as up and off your butt and into action. The first step to achieving your dreams is getting up and off the couch. Boat pose to chair pose is a metaphor for getting started. Getting up and off the couch, in turn, is a metaphor for getting started on your dream project. 

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…to chair pose

It’s late March. Winter officially ended on March 21. Good-intentioned New Years resolutions have fallen by the wayside and here you are, slouched on the couch. You’re certain there is something you should be doing, but unsure how to get there.

The first step is to put both feet on the floor and stand up.

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-15,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y
get up off the couch and get started

The next step is to forget about your new years resolution. The premise behind new years resolutions is flawed and doesn’t offer the positive reinforcement required for fulfilling a dream. Resolutions imply that there is something wrong with you that needs to change. That’s a poor foundation for fulfilling goals.

Goals and dream projects are based on personal experience. Success is predicated on a fundamental belief that they are possible.

What is  your dream project? Did you scheme it up with the belief that you have to change who you are in order to see it through? Likely not. You know it exists in the realm of possibility and you are capable of doing the work required to achieve it. So, forget your new years resolution that you’ll change something about yourself. Reframe your goals in terms of projects that exist within your ability. Rather than focusing on what you need to change about yourself, focus on what you have done thus far and why you envisioned a particular dream. The dream is an extension of something you’ve already achieved and is within your ability.

Boat pose to chair pose. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, fire up your core strength and stand up! If it doesn’t work, try it again. Then try again. Do something, right now, that contributes to your dream. What is it? Do you want to run a marathon? Put on your running shoes. Do you want to finish your Masters thesis? Edit one paragraph. Do you want to find a partner? Leave your house and interact with someone new. Do you want to start a company? Draft a business proposal. Do you want to swim across Georgia Straight? Get to the pool. Do you want to get out of debt? Make a budget. Whatever you want, the first step is to stand up and get started. 

Get off your butt and step into the heat. The magic is in the hard work and if you can imagine your project, then you can do it. Stand up and get started. 

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stand up and get started

Yoga Teacher Training starts July 6, 2020 in Yellowknife

One scholarship available

What’s you dream project? What if the only thing holding you back was fear?

Categories
Yoga

Sanskrit: modern context for ancient practice

Sanskrit Foundation

Have you wondered why Sanskrit is used to describe yoga? Yes, it’s a dead language and might seem unnecessarily arcane in the yoga studio. But consider that Sanskrit contains a nuance that require several English words to express. Sanskrit terms are handy because yoga philosophy and ideas can be expressed in a concise way.

For example:

Yoga (derived from Sanskrit yuj): the union of the self with the divine. To yoke. In the Yoga Sutra 1.2, Patanjali defines yoga as “the restriction of the whirls of consciousness.” Yoga is slippery in its definition but describing the practice with its Sanskrit word captures the essence of yoga without needing excessive description.

Samadhi: placing, putting together. The putting together of consciousness and objectiveness. The understanding of the self in relation to the other. The existence within the self while simultaneously escaping the confines of the ego.

Samadhi is the eighth limb of yoga and is tricky to understand, much less articulate. Carl Jung took a stab at describing why the concept of Samadhi is best left in its root word. He said that it’s used without definite meaning but instead represents a concept that can only be understood through broad conception of theory. He compares it to asking a man in India what grass feels like. Rather than describing a blade of grass, the man will show you a meadow filled with different types of grass. The concept is articulated by a broad description. Samadhi is a single word that articulates the broad concept of transcendence.

Spiritual Geography

Sanskrit provides a spiritual geography for the practice. The use of the language manifests the ideas of the practice. By representing ideas rather than translating the words, the landscape of the practice is relevant and accessible to modern yogis.

Consider two Sanskrit words: virabhdrasana and avidya

virabhdrasana A, B and C (the warrior series) represent the battle against avidya (the ego).

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Warrior Two – Battling the ego

Avidya translates to ignorance, misunderstanding and incorrect knowledge. The warrior poses are an allegorical battle against fundamental misunderstanding of the self.

Yoga is the restriction of the whirls of consciousness. Samadhi (the “goal” of yoga) is existence while escaping the confines of the ego, avidya is misunderstanding of who you are and the warrior poses are your physical self, doggedly carrying on in spite of it all.

Mistaking passing thoughts and experiences as the totality of existence is an example of avidya. Believing that the abject misery of a romantic breakup is your true state is a misunderstanding of yourself. Thinking that the bliss of vacation will last forever is also avidya. It’s not that bliss and misery can’t consume you, it’s that your true self is a moment-to-moment awareness: experiences and thoughts are impermanent reflections of you.

Confusing sorrow with joy is another example of avidya. Convincing yourself that you’ll be happy when you get a promotion or when your husband cooks you dinner is failing to understand that happiness occurs now.  It’s not that these things don’t equate to joy, but their absence must not create sorrow.

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timeless

The warrior poses represent the complex and unending battle with your ego. You practice the warrior poses as a way to battle misunderstanding of your true self. Instead of that misunderstanding, you seek to understand yourself in the present moment of consciousness.

Practicing yoga seems simple in its execution, but complex in its description. The battle of misunderstanding is relevant for everyone, regardless of creed, religion or generation. Everyone struggles against the whirls of consciousness and strives for contentment in the present moment. The timeless nature of the battle is represented with Sanskrit. Universal concepts are summarized with concise words. Sanskrit words inform the practice as a representation of the collective struggle.

Sanskrit is no longer a living language, but its use lives on in the practice of yoga. Using Sanskrit to describe yoga provides enduring context to a modern practice. Understanding the concepts of yoga using the descriptive terms of Sanskrit is a tool to inform your understanding of yourself, your health and wellness and your relationship with the world around you. The greater your knowledge of Sanskrit words, the richer your practice will be.

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Land and Heart Practice: 200hr Yoga Teacher Training

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Yoga Yoga Teacher Training

Finding your voice at the front of the class

This is an excerpt from my upcoming textbook. Yoga Uttara: Land and Heart Practice is a compilation of ten years of teaching, practicing and writing about yoga. 

If you’re interested in more, sign up for my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training.

Land and Heart Practice: 200hr Yoga Teacher Training

Created by me. Interpreted by you.

Details here

Finding your teaching voice

Speaking in front of a group is daunting. You must compile what you know about yoga into concise phrase bytes that reflect the theme and pace of the class. You must speak clearly and skilfully about a topic that you don’t know everything about. You must gauge your student’s level of comprehension and tailor the instruction accordingly. And you must be trusted to impart some knowledge about yoga. All of this is overwhelming, especially when you are a new teacher.

Teach from your authentic voice.

Teach what you know and be honest that you don’t know everything (nobody does). You’ve attended hundreds of hours of yoga classes and the cues and ideas you’ve heard will influence your teaching voice. This is good, but remember that your own perspective and voice is good too! You offer a unique contribution to yoga. Honour this contribution by speaking honestly. Be authentic.

Yoga on the Taiga
Be authentically you! Your students will love you for it.

Speak clearly.

Your goal is to make instructions as easy as possible to follow. Consider what verb tense you are using. Are you speaking in declarative sentences “stand up and breathe in.” or are you employing gerunds “next you’ll be standing up and breathing in.” Are you speaking in your normal tone of voice or are you dragging out your vowels? “Now, slowly moooooove into chiiiiild’s pose…..” Imagine you’re having a conversation with the group, like a dinner party, and speak as you normally would. Students will appreciate your candor.

Try this: “exhale and jump back into chaturanga.” Instead of “next we’re going to be exhaling sloooowly and jumping the feet back into chaturanga.” The former phrase is a declarative sentence that clearly articulates your instruction. The latter is a narrative that describes the process. Neither is incorrect, but the first phrase uses fewer words and concisely declares your intention. Clear and concise speech will make the practice easier for students to follow.

The more clearly you speak, the more believable your teaching will be. As you learn to speak declaratively, your confidence will soar. Believe in your teaching and clearly communicate your instructions. This strategy will eliminate the feeling that you need to “perform” the yoga class.

Words have weight. Speak them wisely.

Taiga Class
Teaching isn’t a performance. You’re the guide. Your students are doing the work. @Taiga Yoga Studio, Yellowknife

Address the class as an entity: direct conversation and instruction

There are two types of speaking you’ll do during a yoga class. You’ll speak to the group when they are looking at you, usually at the beginning and end of class. We’ll call this direct conversation. You’ll also speak to the class while they are immersed in the sequence and not looking at you. We’ll call this instruction. Both demand the same type of speaking: speak with individuals within the group. You are speaking with (not at) your students. Their reaction is part of the conversation.

The Final Party at Loka Yoga Whistler
Your students are a group of individuals. Address them as such! Mark Teasdale photo

Direct conversation

When you are engaged in direct conversation, make eye contact with someone in the group and notice their reaction. Are they nodding, smiling and considering your statements? Or are they frowning, fidgeting and appear confused? Respond appropriately to those cues. Then direct your words to another person. Note the reaction and adjust your delivery accordingly. In this way, you’re using individuals to represent the group and you are able to tailor your talk to the entire group.

For example, you’re discussing karma yoga in your introduction and suggesting your students participate in some type of selfless service. Are you teaching this concept at a 90-minute Saturday morning class? Or are you teaching the concept at a 12pm weekday class where everyone is on their lunch break? It’s not that either group is more interested in the concept of karma yoga. It’s that you will amend your detailed instruction to appropriately fit your audience. The 50 minute lunchtime crew isn’t not interested in karma yoga, but they are primarily there to get a quick stretch before going back to work. The Saturday morning people have a little more time on their hands to consider the philosophical offerings of yoga. When you note reactions to your words, you’re able to tailor your instruction to the group as a whole.

inner peace
The 50-minute lunchtime crew

Instruction

When you are instructing a sequence, pay attention to how one person is responding to your verbal cues. If you have instructed warrior two and someone is in warrior one, specifically instruct that student to extend their arms into warrior two. It’s possible that other students misunderstood you as well; by directing your instruction to an individual, you are acknowledging that person as a representative of the group. By tailoring your instruction to something that is relevant to at least one person in the group, you are avoiding the trap of saying generic instruction that aren’t useful to anyone. Furthermore, you are contributing to the conversation by noticing one person’s non-verbal reaction to your instruction and adjusting accordingly.

Speak clearly, tailor your words to suit the current class and only teach what you know. By following these three instructions, you’ll be confident and honest in front of your students. This authenticity will shine through and yoga students will appreciate your knowledge. Accept your humanity and all your imperfections and your students will trust you to lead them through a yoga class.

Rogers Pass
Be free to be you! Your students will love your honesty, candor and authenticity
Spruceman skintrack
And one of Spruceman. Because he’s always free to be himself.
Categories
Yoga Yoga Teacher Training

I’m teaching a Yoga Teacher Training. Here’s why:

(featured picture from the very first yoga class I ever taught. Thank you to supportive friends and family who stumbled along with me in that first practice)

Why am I teaching a yoga teacher training?

Simply – because I want to share the experience of yoga. Yoga can’t be captured in images of lithe women doing poses;

Side Crow

it can’t be captured in swirling platitudes set against backgrounds apropos of nothing;

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Yoga can barely be described. But it can be experienced. It can be felt in a visceral way that defies description. I practiced for five years before I started teaching and then I decided to teach because I believed in the power of the practice.

And now, in my tenth year of teaching, I’ve amassed some experience and curated my personal practice into a 200-hour perspective.

Land and Heart Practice
click on the image for information and registration details

Am I ready to share what I know about the practice? Yes.

Am I intimidated at the prospect of inviting students into my weird little yogic world? Yes.

Do I believe that I can make a difference by describing my version of yoga? Yes.

Truthfully, the amount of knowledge I have about yoga (or life) is laughably little. I don’t know what life feels like for anyone but myself. But I do know about the positive effect of yoga on my life.

Side crow? My version of the poses isn’t the prescribed recipe for advertising the practice.

So if I know next to nothing about yoga, what the heck are we going to talk about in teacher training?

We’ll talk about the different types of yoga (karma, jnana, bhakti, hatha, raja); we’ll talk about the eight limbs of yoga (yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratayahara, dharana, samadi); we’ll talk about the subtle anatomy of yoga (chakras, nadis) as well as the physical anatomy of yoga (muscles, joints); we’ll talk about poses and alignment; we’ll talk about meditation; we’ll talk about yoga as therapy and finally we’ll figure out the methodology for teaching all this stuff.

I have a well-researched curriculum that I’m ready to share. But prior to writing the curriculum, the first step was to experience it. I’ve practiced in dozens of countries, I’ve practiced every lineage I could find, I’ve practiced through the thrill of falling in love and the subsequent crush of breakup. I’ve practiced as a teenager and as a 35-year-old.

I’ve practiced to show off…

I’ve practiced with and without anti-depressants, I’ve practiced with back pain and, most recently, I’ve practiced in the days and weeks following knee surgery.

…and I’ve practiced to stretch

And of course, there have been times when I didn’t practice at all. But through it all; the pain, the joy, the ecstasy and the ignorance, yoga has always saved me from suffering. And that’s why I believe in it.

Across the lineages and through the centuries, yoga is about surviving without suffering. Pain is mandatory; suffering is optional. Yoga takes you by the scruff of the neck and helps you survive maladies and disease. It forces you to look within and ask the tough questions about what you really need. Relationships, jobs, injury, medical intervention…it all comes and goes, but yoga is constant. 

Yoga is the foundation for knowing yourself in spite of the tragedies and triumphs.

The point is that nothing makes the journey easy. Even with yoga, it’s still up to you to get up, get dressed and show up – to everything. But your yoga practice will ease the way. And that’s what we’ll examine. This teacher training isn’t about my practice, but it is about the practice. And it’s about what the practice means to you. There isn’t a correct way to do yoga, only that you do it.

One of my favourite studios – Loka Yoga

Along the way, I’ve practiced at countless studios and with hundreds of teachers. Each teacher had an original interpretation of yoga. But all the teachers are unified in their unwavering belief in the practice. Whatever they say, wherever they were, whether I agree with their instruction or not, every single teacher presented an unshakeable opinion that the practice is worth it.

So if you believe in this elaborate practice, join me to examine your yoga and refine your ability to describe its value.

That’s what we’ll be doing in teacher training: figuring out how to articulate this exquisite practice. We’ll examine its history, lineage and philosophy and we’ll discuss descriptive techniques. You already believe in the power of the practice. Yoga teacher training will provide the tools to inspire that same belief in your future students. You know the potency of the practice. Now come and learn how to convey that power and pass it forward.

Do you believe in the power of the practice? If you’re still unconvinced, click on the image for a blog post on why you might as well believe in it.

Ready to sign up for teacher training this summer?

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Schedule – June & July 2019

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Categories
Skiing Yoga

Meditation and Rehabilitation

Meditation is the art of freeing yourself from life’s annoying circumstances. Life’s ups and downs happen all around. Highs and lows. Pain and ecstasy. Love and loss. Meditation is the tool to free yourself from suffering and feel at ease in your circumstances.

A couple of weeks ago, I tore my ACL. Behind me is the foolishness of my pre-injured youthful self. Now I’m a grim-faced gimp. In a moment of inattention, I metamorphosed from an egotistical and childish skier who didn’t know the debilitation of injury into a sedate and crippled adult humbled by the limits of my own body.

Slalok
Since I can’t ski right now, I’ve illustrated this article with gratuitous shots of my friends skiing.

Where formerly I would roll my eyes at friend’s descriptions of injuries to meniscus and patella, now I understand the anatomy of the knee with the same clinical accuracy that Jordan Peterson defends gendered pronouns. I hadn’t heard the sickening pop of a torn ligament and I was blissfully uninformed of the difference between MCL, ACL and PCL. They were just acronyms and I was just skiing. “No more conversation about knees…” I’d plead and loudly sigh as yet another friend detailed ACL injury and subsequent rehabilitation.

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This is actually a conference on knees and skis. More than one person is bored listening to his friend talk about knee surgery.

But those days are over. Skiing and normal activities stripped away in a moment of complacency; the road to recovery lies ahead. The banality of a knee injury is not lost on me. For skiers, it’s as common as a cold. The tedium of thinking about my knee is oppressive. I’m obsessed with it’s healing, I’m terrified of slipping on the sidewalk and I can’t fathom the elasticity it’s going to take to get back in my ski boots, let alone on to my skis.

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Here’s a bored snowboarder unable to withstand the tedium of her skiing counterparts talking about their knees.

So what to do? So far, I’ve made it up and down a few flights of stairs and done some step-ups onto a 4-inch box. Those feats are a significant departure from bootpacking a 500-metre couloir or even doing consecutive box jumps.

Keyhole - Chamonix
First – walking up the stairs. Then – back to bootpacking

But it doesn’t matter what I could do before. All that matters is what I can do right now. Circumstances can’t be changed, regret is a waste of time and the only thing to do is whatever it takes to heal and get back to the mountain. And that includes yoga.

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The road to recovery – one step at a time

I’ve told countless injured friends over the years that they should get on the yoga mat. Regardless of injury, regardless of perceived inability to “do” yoga. “I can’t go to yoga because my back/neck/knee hurts.” Well, you should go to yoga because your back/neck/knee hurts. I’ve said this to injured friends, with tyrannical authority, but I didn’t have any first-hand experience on the logistics of getting an injured body onto the mat and into the practice. Until now. Bitterly tasting my own medicine.

Waves
It’s a deep season that I chose to miss. Cayoosh – January 2019

On the day after the injury, I went to yoga. I wanted to stay home and watch Netflix. I was unhappy about being hurt. It was all so predictable. Skier injures knee. How typical, how prosaic. I was despondent and defeated by my circumstances. Yoga, meditation and the accompanying introspection was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t want to accept my circumstances; I didn’t want to be free from suffering. I was furious. This was the strongest I’d felt in years. This season was going to be mine. But that strength and confidence was gone. And I wanted to wallow in self-pity, not meditate on the gift of the present moment.

Japow
Shredding the present moment

But on crutches, in pain and feeling sorry for myself, I wobbled into the yoga studio. And at risk of sounding imperious, I’m here to emphasize that yoga is, indeed, the thing. Logistically, I couldn’t do many of the poses. In fact, doing any poses was out of the question. But I could lie there and quietly breathe, do a few knee bends and focus on cultivating a positive attitude. And as cliche and over-stated a positive attitude is, it really is all we’ve got. A positive attitude, unshakeable by circumstances, is the means to survive all of life’s disagreeable circumstances. Yoga and the accompanying meditation teaches comfort with discomfort.

DOA + Whistler
Keeping your skis going fall-line is the best strategy against knee injury

Yoga is so much more than the poses. The poses are only 12.5 percent of the practice. I’ve said this before, but I don’t think I truly got it until I was lying there unable to do any of the asana, but still participating in the class just by being present. The other 87.5 percent of the practice exists in the mind. Concentration, discipline, meditation, freedom from suffering.

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Freedom from suffering in perfect pow

It’s the freedom from suffering that is central to yoga and the tool to manage life’s circumstances. A knee injury is not the worst tragedy to befall anyone. It’s not really even a crisis, but it’s a temporarily debilitating detail in my story. We all have debilitating details in our stories. Whether it’s the unanticipated loss of a job, illness of a parent, being a victim of burglary, paralysis following a car accident. These are all tragic circumstances. The hard truth though is everything could always be worse. But it could also be better. The point is that good and bad things happen with equal regularity.  Meditation teaches that surviving the ups and downs is possible. By meditating on the present moment, you teach yourself that the collection of experiences that populate your life’s story are not the totality of your existence. Furthermore, the collection of experiences that cause pain and difficulty do not need to equate to suffering.

Spruceman on skintrack
The wise (spruce)man on top of a mountain.

The myth of the wise man sitting on top of the mountain is an archetype of someone escaping the confines of life experience in order to seek enlightenment and avoid suffering. It’s a story to illustrate meditation as a transcendent and literal state of being. But glorifying meditation in this unlikely scenario is a hyperbolic way of viewing the practice. Literally escaping the trappings of society and its accompanying pain and sorrows isn’t necessary because meditation provides an avenue to metaphorically escape the confines of difficult circumstances. The trick is to use meditation to pay attention to the present moment, cultivate a positive outlook and refuse to suffer from unfortunate circumstances.

On the skintrack
Forward locomotion – still doable with a torn ACL (apparently)

Experiences and circumstances are sometimes beyond control. Events that cause pain are unavoidable. But choosing to suffer (or not) is definitely within your control.  Practice meditation as a strategy for accepting and coping with difficult circumstances. Learn to be comfortable with discomfort and maintain a sense of ease through all life’s injuries.

Cosmiques
Comfort with discomfort in the mountains

Lying on my yoga mat with a swollen knee, I didn’t feel prepared to accept my circumstances. But recovery will follow a specific trajectory and there isn’t any way to expedite the healing. I can’t change what happened and my ski season is over. So many details in my life are different now: the inability to walk the dog, waking up to searing pain because my knee twisted in the sheets, boredom with the only cardiovascular exercise I can currently do (swimming). But my ability to tolerate these frustrating changes and to thrive as a contributing member of society is predicated on making the conscious choice not to suffer.

Sprucedude
Suffering is optional

 

Suffering from these circumstances is easy. Using meditation to alleviate suffering and to understand my intrinsic worth is hard. Living a worldly existence populated by experiences and injuries is easy. When something as consuming as injury happens, it can be hard not to obsess with the story and the healing. But circumstance does not represent the totality of existence. Meditation is freedom from preoccupation with circumstances. Pain and difficulty is mandatory. Suffering is not.

Black dusk + skiers
Three pairs of knees functioning at full range-of-motion

 

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Yoga YTT Blog

Yoga, weight loss and the search for compassion.

Weight issues are epidemic in our culture. Obesity as a medical problem is widespread, and overweight patients are often prescribed “weight loss” as a solution to any medical problem.  People with the particular physical characteristic of excessive body fat are given only one prescription for health. They feel constant pressure to conform, change and shrink.  They’re barely given much more advice than “exercise more. eat less.” This “solution” does nothing to depict health as a psychological and physiological system. Yoga can help patients reframe their sense of self with compassion and acceptance.

Recently, a student dropped out of my beginner yoga class because she was doing too many “exercise classes” and didn’t have time for all of them. She said her doctor had prescribed exercise as a weight loss strategy, but she was tired and didn’t want to attend all the classes she’d signed up for. In spite of my best effort, I couldn’t convince her that yoga is more than exercise and is actually a complete system for health. She said she felt frustrated in exercise classes, conspicuously different from everyone else and “fat.”  She had been told too many times to “just get more exercise” and she viewed classes as evil and unwelcoming and yet another domain for the “thin” people.

People with weight issues often apply a reductionist attitude to their health. “If I go to HIIT/ yoga/ crossfit, then I’ll be fitter.” “If I eat less, then I’ll lose weight.” These statements are true, but they don’t do an adequate job of framing health as a physiological and psychological system. It’s possible that exercise and calorie reduction will result in better health and weight loss, but there are much larger systems at play. Yoga offers a perspective beyond the “if/then” approach to improving health.

Obesity is such a prevalent problem in society and there is a lot of literature devoted to how the medical system treats obese individuals. Anecdotally, it appears that the system can be dismissive of obese patients and even go so far as to blame any ailment on their weight. For example, the New York Times refers to stories of overweight patients with non-weight related conditions like scoliosis or Crohn’s disease being prescribed weight loss in lieu of further examination. Patients who feel discredited by the medical system experience stress, shame and frustration.  Yoga can be part of the prescription, but the power of the practice might surprise obese patients.

These patients know the basics of getting and staying healthy; they know that processed food is bad, eating fruit and vegetables is good, regular exercise is imperative and that it’s critical to keep stress at bay. But the medical system sometimes confuses habits and lifestyle and instructs patients to “better” their habits, “get” healthier and “change” something with the expectation of “improvement.” Paradoxically, this desire to improve  creates stress. As an alternative to the desire to improve, yoga is a strategy to observe what’s happening with health and wellness. By doing a regular yoga practice, students are able to check in with their own physical and emotional self and understand their constitution from a point of view of acceptance rather than change.

By accepting themselves for who they are and not constantly being prescribed change and improvement, obese patients may be able to find wellness on the yoga mat – from a different perspective than they’re used to.

Obese students face many challenges in society, the worst of which is feeling the constant pressure to change their habits, overhaul their lifestyle and shrink. The pressure to change a physical characteristic is overwhelming but with weight loss being the only prescription, if they don’t succeed, obese patients are left feeling they’ve failed.

Yoga can give patients a new perspective on their health. By focusing on a meditation, they find acceptance and appreciation for who they are and remove themselves from the pass/fail outcome of results-oriented weight loss. Obese patients suffer from extreme attachment to a particular outcome. They are striving to lose weight and if they don’t succeed, they suffer because they are so attached to the outcome of their actions. The yogic perspective of non-attachment to outcome is a refreshing new perspective for a demographic who is being coerced by society to make changes to their appearance.

Yoga, meditation and a new perspective on “results” may help obese students love themselves in the face of society constantly telling them to change. From this love, a sense of wellbeing will start to bloom. Yoga teaches everyone to be compassionate to themselves. Obese students who struggle against society’s prescription of weight loss for health will find compassion towards themselves particularly useful. Weight loss is not the only prescription for health. Practicing yoga offers a consistent and steady approach to health that is not based on results. It’s a healthy lifestyle that is predicated on compassion.

 

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Yoga Yoga Teacher Training Yoga Therapy YTT Blog

Thoughts for Yoga Teachers – explaining yoga as therapy

The practice of yoga is therapeutic. Anyone who has practiced yoga will agree with this statement, but the idea of “yoga therapy” is contentious. In January 2016, the Yoga Alliance requested that any yoga school remove the terms “yoga therapy” and “yoga therapist” from their title. This instruction was a precaution against misleading the public that yoga teachers are diagnosticians. The point was not that yoga isn’t therapeutic, but rather that yoga is not a strategy for diagnosing or curing ailments. The therapeutic potential of yoga comes from its consistent practice. Yoga is a complete system for maintaining health and wellbeing, but it is not a prescriptive solution to specific ailments.

As a yoga teacher, you will receive a lot of inquiries about how to “cure” a variety of ailments, or “treat” a specific population. Some examples include depression/anxiety, back pain, pregnancy, injuries, asthma, arthritis, insomnia and obesity. Your role as a yoga professional is to guide students to treat themselves for whatever they are suffering from. Yoga is not a replacement for other medical care, but it is a useful tool in healthcare. Consistent yoga practice offers students autonomy and awareness in their own healthcare journey.

The difference between yoga and other types of healthcare is that yoga does not apply a reductionist style of therapy. It requires commitment from the student and it is not a quick solution. For example, consider the following statements:

“If I meditate, then I’ll be calmer.”

“If I don’t smoke, then I’ll be able to run faster.”

“If I eat less, then I’ll be thinner.”

These statements are true, but they fail to capture health as a complete psychological and physiological system. Yoga affords a point of view that goes beyond the reductionist if/then approach to health. For example, the primary series of Ashtanga yoga is called yoga chikitsa. Translated, this means yoga therapy. The therapeutic application of Ashtanga is its systematic approach towards wellness rather than a prescription to cure/treat an ailment.

The therapeutic quality of the yoga is its attention to discipline, devotion and patience. Yoga chikitsa is intended to be practiced daily. Practitioners are to do each pose in sequence and follow the other suggestions for a well-rounded lifestyle.

First, you have to practice for a long period of time; second, your practice must not be interrupted—you must do it regularly; and third, you must do your practice with love and respect.
-Yoga Sutra 1.14

It is these qualities of the practice – discipline, devotion and patience – that students can apply to other therapeutic requirements.

How to teach therapeutic yoga

First, you must provide a nurturing and welcoming environment for every student that comes to your classes or even who asks you a question. Yoga is therapeutic in its consistent application. But suggesting this to a student who has recently been diagnosed with arthritis or asthma or depression and who is looking for a prescriptive “fix” may be counterproductive. Students who have recently been diagnosed with an ailment, particularly if they are new to yoga, will not initially be receptive to your suggestion that yoga must be practiced regularly and consistently. Incorporating a yoga practice into a healthcare regime is fundamentally different than taking a pill or getting surgery. Informing students that they must practice “forever” will be overwhelming. Furthermore, with insidious problems that require therapy such as obesity or back pain, students might be reluctant to embrace the lifestyle changes that are necessary to change their circumstances. So, it’s important to be compassionate and welcoming to each student, regardless of their previous yoga experience and regardless of their current expectations of the practice.

Next, be patient and creative in your approach. Encourage students as they develop a regular practice. Although it might be obvious to you how yoga is therapeutic for many ailments, the yogic approach of a mind-body connection might be foreign to new students. Assess each student by asking questions about their experience, their perception of yoga and what aspects of yoga make them feel better. Elaborate on this by making yoga appealing. For example, an injured athlete with a lot of energy may not stick with a seated meditation practice. She might find it boring and annoying. Propose to her instead that she try walking meditation. Instruct her to set a mantra before she walks and then to repeat the mantra during the walk. Just as yoga is an overarching solution for almost any ailment, there are infinite ways to incorporate yoga into a lifestyle.

Finally, even though yoga therapy is not a replacement for medical intervention, it is a valuable companion to medicine. As a yoga teacher, you have the time to discuss with students what is ailing them and together, you can evaluate lifestyle changes, such as work environment, leisure activities and emotional circumstances. Together, you and your student can determine an effective and useful application of yoga. Furthermore, by consulting with your student, and putting them in charge of their own health via yoga, you are giving them the autonomy to take charge of their personal wellbeing.

Yoga may not be a prescriptive tool to cure ailments, but it does provide a therapeutic elixir of which students have control over the dosage.

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Yoga

The Wheel of Yoga

What is yoga, anyway? This week marks nine years since I started teaching yoga. And I still have only a vague idea what the practice is all about. It’s somewhere between renouncing all worldly possessions in the pursuit of a higher understanding of the universe and ensuring that you aren’t overinflating your ego as you admire your ability to do hatha yoga poses. I’ve been examining the practice and chronicling my observations for more than a decade. Here’s a sample.

On and Off the Mat

Yoga is a complete system of living.  I, like many of my students, started yoga because I wanted to “stretch.” Yoga is a good physical activity, but the practice has been around for millenia; there must be more to it. Indeed, as I delve into the more esoteric aspects of the practice, I’ve discovered there’s a lot more to it than just stretching.

There’s several types of yoga. The wheel of yoga represents the unity between disciplines. The techniques for practicing are diverse, but every discipline agrees the intention is freedom from suffering. Students return to the practice again and again with the aim of reducing suffering by shedding the habits of the ego.

Pain is an inevitable part of the human condition. Heartbreak, loss, failure, rejection…are just a few examples of experiential suffering. The attachment to this suffering is optional. As children, our personality structure is based on seeking love. Seeking and finding love is a strategy of the ego and children must pursue acceptance as a survival technique. As we reach adulthood, however, the pursuit of love, acceptance and pleasure creates a false sense of self. Constantly seeking approval and love from external sources represents the inherent idea that we are “not enough” as we are and thus suffering ensues when external circumstances of love change or disappear.

The intention of yoga is to understand the Self in relation to the self. The Self is the underlying nature of bliss and shared with all living beings. The self is the personality and ego unique to each person. The strategy for navigating difficult emotions and suffering less is to train the mind to be free of misunderstanding of the true Self. Yoga addresses this freedom from misunderstanding through six different disciplines: Raja, Karma, Jnana, Bhakti, Hatha and Mantra Yoga.

Raja Yoga

Called the king of yoga, Raja yoga is inclusive of all yoga brands. It’s a goal rather than a technique and teaches that the intention of yoga is to unite the self with the oneness of the universe.

Raja yoga can be practiced in any way and at any time and does not require any particular poses or rituals. The absence of “process” means that this type of yoga is accessible to anyone, regardless of training or knowledge. Raja yoga devotees teach themselves to find harmony between themselves and the universe as a whole. They practice self-mastery by turning inwards towards love and light and eschewing external stimuli.

Try…

Right now, without changing anything in your surroundings, close your eyes and listen to your breathing. Withdraw from the sounds, smells and external stimuli around you. Without judgement, observe yourself. No blame if your mind doesn’t settle right away. Thoughts will come to you, but regardless of what they are or what circumstances they represent, repeat the following: “my well-being and my freedom is not attached to any outcome.”

Raja yoga is the ability to withdraw your senses from your circumstances and find freedom within.

Karma Yoga

The yoga of action is karma yoga. It is participation in selfless service without expectation of receiving anything in return. True karma is diligently doing your work without feeling attachment to any outcome. Participating in karma yoga teaches kindness and compassion without expectation. It is selfless generosity of spirit without needing payment in kind. As with all types of yoga, the intention is freedom from selfishness and release of the self-serving ego. According to the Bhagavad Gita, life gives infinite opportunities to act, but you must never allow yourself to be affected by the results. Karmic action is a selfless contribution to the world without expectation.

Try…

It’s difficult to find volunteer opportunities that do not offer anything in return. There’s always parties or gifts for people who volunteer their time. But most volunteers don’t do it for the gifts. What are other ways to provide selfless service? Picking up garbage? Shoveling your neighbour’s sidewalk?

Practicing karma yoga provides freedom in the form of selfless service. It’s an active reminder that everyone is equal.

Jnana Yoga

The yoga of knowledge. Practitioners of jnana yoga use the mind to understand the greater truth within the mind. The premise is that all knowledge and truth already exists in the mind. Just like an ice sculpture artist who finds a shape within a block of ice, students of jnana yoga learn how to access knowledge and truth within their own mind. Practicing jnana yoga demands great concentration and strength of will – you must figure out how to transcend your own thoughts and ego.

The process of jnana yoga is to consistently question the self and reflect on the limits of the ego. Through this process, you arrive at a place of yearning for freedom from suffering. The process of jnana is a six-step process. Patience is the key to success in the process.

Try…

The Six Steps of Jnana Yoga:

Tranquility The perseverance to maintain peacefulness in spite of external stimuli.

Control Ongoing mental fortitude against the senses. Train the senses to be used only as instruments of the mind, rather than the other way round.

Withdrawal Renounce everything not directly related to your duty. Jnana requires a lifestyle of simplicity where there are no distractions from the spiritual path.

Endurance Hardiness in the face of external forces that create suffering. Success/failure, pain/pleasure are examples of these forces. Endure all forces and resist the urge to suffer.

Faith Be confident that this is the correct path and that the teachings of jnana will guide the way.

Concentration Complete focus and attention on the greater truth of the universe. Abandon all attachment to thoughts and perceptions of the world.

Bhakti Yoga

The practice of bhakti is union through devotion and love to a personal god. Bhakti is also described as “love for love’s sake,” and includes ceremonial offerings, devotional meditations and reminders of gratitude.

Bhakti yoga includes references to “the lord,” “the divine,” and “god,” but note the lowercase letter. For the secular, bhakti is the belief that love is all around, available in abundance to be given and received. Bhakti Yoga teaches that the divine exists in whatever form you choose; the yogic divine is formless.

The intention of bhakti is to create love and gratitude outside of the self. Recognize that  attachment to relationships and possessions is fleeting, but receiving and giving love to a divine energy is absolute and permanent. Bhakti devotees describe their practice as “romance with life itself, rather than a specific person or object.”

People come to bhakti yoga as a remedy for heartache due to loss of love. In the face of extreme loss, people seek to understand how to love again. Bhakti teaches that love is abundant and that by spreading love and receiving love from all sources, suffering from heartache can be alleviated.

Sufferers of heartache feel heavy because they’re carrying around a feeling of love and loss. Bhakti yoga is the practice of finding an outlet for that love – regardless of which relationships or possessions are present. Bhakti yogis give love to the earth and the sky and everything in between.

The practice of Bhakti includes devotional meditations such as Kirtan chanting, ceremonial offerings such as flowers or sand represent love for the earth, and offerings of gratitude such as giving thanks before a meal.

Try…

Remember a time that you were consumed by grief. As a tool to focus on the abundance of love, ask yourself the following: If the world around you – the trees, the stars, the moon, the sun, the earth, the water – could speak to you to console you, what would they say? What would you say to them?

Practice bhakti yoga as a reminder that love is formless and abundant.

Hatha Yoga

Alternately referred to as “forceful yoga,” Hatha yoga is focused on developing strength and tenacity in the physical body. Like every yoga practice, hatha aims to transcend consciousness and find freedom by understanding a divine reality. The practice of hatha is a physical pursuit that prepares the body for the rigours of transcendence. Transcendence must not be mistaken for a purely mental achievement. Arriving at a mystical state of consciousness has profound effects on the nervous system and other bodily systems. Hatha yoga is the tool to prepare for these effects.

Hatha yoga is the technology to realize transcendence. Tread cautiously though. Due to the intense physical nature of hatha, practitioners are susceptible to body-focused egocentrism. The intention of yoga is to transcend the ego. Be careful not to inadvertently inflate the ego through admiration of yourself in the postures of hatha yoga.

Use hatha yoga as a tool to prepare the body for the rigours of the finite life and the infinite reality. Be cautious though. The poses are a tool to transcend the ego. Don’t admire yourself in the poses. Don’t overinflate your ego on the path to freedom.

Mantra Yoga

Mantra is a tool to focus meditation. Mantra yoga is the use of a phrase or a sound in the practice and its use protects the person who is using it! Traditionally, Mantra is passed from teacher to student when the teacher clearly sees what the student needs. In a moment of revelation, the teacher knows exactly which mantra to provide. The student receives the mantra and repeats it over and over in meditation. Its use creates a shield and protects the user whenever protection is needed.

If you haven’t been offered a mantra yet, start with OM. With practice and patience, a personal mantra will be revealed to you, either from a teacher of from your own intuition (the teacher within).

So what is yoga?

Yoga is a multi-faceted technique for existing in a mindful state. To do yoga is to adhere to a set of guidelines for coexisting with the world around you. Life is full of challenges, surprises, victories and moments of euphoria and sorrow. Doing yoga is allowing the moments to happen around you, but not being reactive to their outcomes. Also, life includes possessions. Things, relationships, jobs, friends, experiences. All of these possessions contribute to a rich and fulfilled life, but their presence is temporary. Doing yoga is observing those things and experiences as they gracefully come in and out of your life but not allowing their absence to cause you suffering. Pain from their loss is inevitable, but suffering due to that pain is optional. Doing yoga is peacefully accepting that everything is impermanent. Yoga is the template for freedom in the face of all worldly experiences, whether they be exhilarating or debilitating.

 

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Yoga

Integrating yoga philosophy: the Koshas

Understanding yogic philosophy is daunting! It can be difficult to convince yourself that there is more to yoga than physical poses. Yoga classes are so focused on doing the poses, that practitioners might wonder what else there is to yoga besides stretching and balancing in awkward poses.

Most people who come to a yoga class really do want the vigorous part of the practice – they want to stretch, work their muscles and get the blood flowing in their bodies. It’s the physical asana that tends to calm people and satisfy their craving for movement. In the warmth of that calm, philosophical teachings become meaningful and relevant.

The koshas are a way to explain the layers of yoga. By envisioning the self as a series of layers, yogis can start to understand their true purpose. Furthermore, understanding the koshas in harmony with other philosophical aspects of the practice gives yoga meaning beyond a physical workout.

Studying yoga reveals that the central intention of yoga is to understand and have knowledge of the self. “Knowledge” is the emphatic belief that there is only the present moment and that the self is inextricably united with the present moment and nothing more.

The quest to understand the self is as timeless as humanity itself. Modern yogis are no different from their predecessors in their search to understand who they are, what their purpose is and what it’s all for. Without a sense of clarity, the daily drudgery of activities can seem toxic, pointless and without merit. By examining the five koshas, the layers of the self, yogis can arrive at a state of bliss and understanding about who they are in relation to the world.

Annamaya kosha, Physical sheath

Awareness of physical sensations. The physical body is the most obvious part of the self. It’s the part the world sees first. Awareness of annamaya kosha brings attention to how the body reacts to external force such as exercise, accidents or substances. Reluctance to truly feel the physical body and to understand its needs can result in feeling unwell. Yoga poses draw attention to the physical body and instruct you how to treat your body to avoid injury. Awareness of what you eat and how you move will instruct you on how to take care of your body. Becoming aware of annamaya kosha teaches you how to nurture and honour your physical self. This awareness contributes to ease and a sense of peace to your life.

Exercise: Physical awareness. Think about your skin. Visualize how it protects your organs, bones and muscles. Think about your muscles. Visualize how they work together to propel your body. Visualize your organs. Heart, liver, kidney…. Envision how these organs take care of your body. How they work together. Now focus on one organ. Hold it in your attention. If other thoughts pop into your head, label them (“thought”), and bring your attention back to one organ. Notice the appreciation you feel for the physical body as a system. Understanding annamaya kosha gives you an appreciation for how your body works and how you take care of it.

Pranamaya kosha, life force sheath

Awareness of the breath. Pranamaya kosha is the breath and the life force that flows through and around the body. It’s an energy that you can feel within yourself and that can be felt by others around you. Energetic, dull, lethargic, buoyant, excited, calm…these are all descriptions that describe your energetic life force.

Exercise: Breath control. Notice how your breath flows in and out of your lungs without you consciously needing to do it. The breath is one of the only subconscious needs that can also be harnessed and controlled. Observe how you can control your breath and that you can calm yourself down or energize yourself by changing the pattern of your breath.

Manomaya kosha, mental sheath

Awareness of ideas and behaviour. Emotions and thoughts punctuate your day. Manomaya kosha is the layer of thoughts and ideas that make sense of the world around. This is a layer of feelings and emotions that arise in response to external stimuli. Noticing this layer of mental awareness is necessary; reacting to every thought is not necessary. Manomaya kosha contains thought patterns that have been created by absorbing information from family, culture and perceptions of the world. These thought patterns are worth noticing because they describe the world around you and create a running narrative. The trick is to notice the thought pattern, be non-reactive to it and realize that thought patterns can be modified.

Exercise: Self-inquiry. Write down a situation in your life that has recently changed. Write down three thoughts about it. Now, one at a time, examine each thought. Ask: “how would I feel without this thought?” Notice a change in breath and awareness of self. Now consciously replace each thought with “I have the freedom to choose my reactions,” “There are numerous ways to examine this situation.”

Vijnamaya kosha, the wisdom sheath

The ability to observe the body and mind without judgement. Vijnamaya kosha is wisdom, intuition and knowledge of self. Awareness of this layer will provide insight into who you are. It’s like finding the flow state in work or sports or art. A feeling of transcendence where purpose and intention become clear. Access to vijnamaya kosha arrives when the first three koshas (body, breath, emotions) are peeled away and you can access the intuitive self.

A yoga practice for this is to focus on the third eye (spot in between the eyebrows). This is where intuition is housed. By quietly focusing on that spot, true information about the self can be revealed. For some, access to vijnamaya kosha will be revealed through a vigorous vinyasa practice. For others, a quiet introspective pose of forward folds like supported paschimottanasana or child’s pose will provide access to intuition.

Exercise: Complete concentration. Choose an activity that you love and that challenges you. Whether it’s work, making art, playing sports, writing, reading. Give yourself time to focus wholly on the activity and continue to do it even if you feel the desire for distraction. Distractions abound – social media, chores, pets – but you have the power to ignore the distractions so you can lose yourself in the flow state of the activity. Observe how that feeling of transcendence guides you to a greater purpose.

The next time you practice yoga, recall the absorbing feeling of being in a flow state. See if you can find that transcendence in your practice. From that transcendence, patiently wait to see what your true self, your intuition, reveals to you.

Anandamaya kosha, the bliss sheath

Awareness of the true self. This most hidden sheath is acutely felt through the instinct that life itself is good; that being alive is worth it. Revealing this sheath is to understand that life is its own reward. Mantra and meditation are a tool to connect with anandamaya kosha. The information that reveals itself is that love is the ultimate state of being.

These statements aren’t to mean that emotional ups and downs are not going to happen, rather that contentment and acceptance of all moods is possible.

Peeling back the layers to reveal anandamaya kosha and finding yourself in the bliss body is more of a visceral feeling than an intellectual one. It’s a subtle awareness that everything is as it should be, that love and joy are the foundation of the universe and that happiness is possible for all.

Exercise: Meditation. Practice sitting quietly, alone and without distraction. Practice acceptance of your physical body, of your breath and of your emotions. Some days it won’t work and you won’t be able to find bliss and contentment. But some days it will work. You’ll feel simultaneously grounded and buoyant and content with who you are. With practice, this awareness of bliss, of anandamaya kosha, will be increasingly easy to remember and you’ll be able to tackle life’s challenges with acceptance and compassion, and understand that the present moment is really all there is.