Going Deeper in Yoga

Greetings, Nourish friends in the blogosphere.  Treea here.  How delighted I am that we have this forum for delving into yoga matters here with each other.  Lately I’ve been pondering what it means to deepen one’s yoga practice, since this theme often shows up in many areas of my life in yoga, personally and professionally.  going deeper image

Because there are eight limbs on the abundant tree of yoga, one could write a book or more on the topic of going deeper.  Here I’ll mainly explore going deeper in asana practice, and how our lives off the mat are more fulfilling because of doing so.

When we begin to practice yoga postures (asanas), we learn the basic foundations of placement of bones (alignment), muscular actions to support those bones (actions), and breathing with awareness.  We use simple postures with big movements, and we try to breathe gently through the sensations moving through the body in each pose.  We then start to notice the mind jumping from thought to thought, and how the  poses and breath help to calm and focus the mind.  In general, we build familiarity with some foundational postures, while practicing the art of settling into ourselves through the breath.

During this time (months or years) of sustaining a beginning level practice, some remarkable discoveries are made about the body, mind, breath, and emotional heart.  Our practice of the postures gets easier, some of our injuries quiet down, we find ourselves stronger and more flexible, and we feel the desire to practice regularly, based on how we are evolving through yoga.  Our awareness of ourselves on every level is growing, so our inner eyes are a little wider.  Because of this, everyday actions like walking, driving, bicycling, communicating, breathing, etc. are infused with our budding awareness, and so we do them with more mindfullness and open heartedness.

The next level of going deeper in asana may happen as you continue to practice in beginning and/or all levels classes, or may be triggered by your participation in intermediate level classes, where more challenging postures are offered, and poses are held longer.  Also, instructions get more detailed in these classes, perhaps drawing awareness to our skin, organs, energy body, and the deeper aspects of mind and emotions.    Alignments and actions also become more refined in these classes.  No matter what kind of class we’re participating in, the awareness of ourselves simply gets more sublime.  Instead of concentrating on one or two body parts at a time, we can hold more alignments and actions and breath in a sort of holistic awareness all at once, even if only for a few seconds.  We may find that in this holistic awareness, we notice a softening of our inner heart space, where spiritual and emotional upliftment are occuring.

As we go deeper in asana practice over time, we are able to fine-tune our alignments and actions, so that we don’t work so hard physically in the postures, even as the poses get more complicated.  This is also a function of sublime awareness.  When once upon a time we had to focus with all our might to create big muscular actions in the legs in warrior poses, for example, as we deepen our practice we are supported by the legs in a different, less muscular, more energetic way.  We notice a deep connection between the foundational legs and the uplifted crown of the head.  We can stabilize our postures muscularly, but we can also expand in all directions.  Our breath is like our inner best friend, welcoming us into our luminous true Self, where all is well.  We begin to notice, perhaps, that our outer life off the mat is more directed by this inner Presence in what we do, how we speak, how we give.

going deeperYesterday, April 21st, I was literally called outside by winds howling through the trees in my neighborhood.  I stepped out onto the front porch.  I heard loud, chaotic movement of air all around me, and watched the trees dance wildly as it blew right through their leaves and branches.  With strong, rooted foundation, the trees swayed with utmost flexibility as a powerful breath of life moved them.   I found myself in tadasana, my own inner breath awareness aligned with the breath of life in the wind.  All became still and quiet until the next wave of echoing wind moved through the valley once again.  I stood, aligned with the natural world, with breath and foundation.  I felt the aliveness of life within and around me.

IMG_3289Today I give thanks to yoga for awakening my awareness to life’s breath and beauty.  And I give thanks to the wind, for adding to my understanding of “going deeper”.

It’s Review Week

For the last couple of months we’ve been working with the Niyamas. Last week I defined Niyama as the collective practice of Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana. This week we’ll bring Niyama back into the context of the other limbs of yoga practice that we have already discussed over the past year or so. Here is the review list:

Yama: The collective practice of Nonviolence, Honesty, Acceptance of What You Already Have (or not covetting what you don’t), Mindful Use of Energy (your own life energy, but feel free to conserve electricity as well), and Non-attachement.

Niyama: The collective practice of Clarity (or cleanliness), Contentment (reflexive of Asteya in the Yamas), Commitment and Dedication, Self Study (inquiry, exploration), Complete Surrender (giving yourself and your actions fully)

Asana: The Mindful Action of Your Body; Includes Yoga Postures

Pranayama: Mindful Breath; Intentional Breath; Focused Breath

Pratyahara: Turn Your External Senses Inward

Dharana: Concentrate; Focus Your Mind

Dhyana: Meditate; Be Present; Be As You Are

Some students of yoga will note the abscence of the 8th limb of Ashtanga. You may already be practicing it, but we’ll be addressing it directly in the weeks to come.

Yoga Unveiled

Yoga UnveiledWhile yoga continues to gain tremendous popularity, there is still often a veil of mystery within which it is shrouded. Particularly the history and variety of expressions that yoga takes are often unknown even to long time yoga practitioners. The film Yoga Unveiled does an excellent job of illuminating the past, present, and potential future of this powerfully dynamic system that we call yoga. From yoga’s roots in India nearly 50 centuries ago, to its spread to the west over the last 100 years, this film explores the depth and breadth of yoga in a clear, relevant, and insightful way. If you get a chance, check it out.



I found myself teaching  mula bandha, the root lock, in class a few weeks ago.   (It hadn’t really been a part of the plan that day.  It just sort of spontaneously emerged.)  I allowed myself to give some very specific physical instructions, which I don’t usually do.  You see, There are some schools of yoga that believe we shouldn’t teach the bandhas or ‘locks’ in the body.  The idea is that as one progresses in the asana practice the bandhas happen automatically, without one having to think about it.  Teaching the bandhas is at best unnecessary, and at worst confusing.   Because of this, I have resisted little more than a mention of  the locks  in an effort to remain true to  my own teachers, especially when I’ve felt I didn’t yet have enough information or experience to warrant making those choices on my own.  Lately I’ve been a little more…well…experimental.

What happened that day was that the class evolved to include the principles  of  muladhara chakra; and we continued work with the root chakra for the remainder of the week.   The following week we focused on the second chakra, and we’ve been climbing up the spine ever since.

A couple of weeks ago, when it became time to move on to vishuddha chakra, the energy center located at the throat,  something changed in me.  In the previous weeks leading up to the heart chakra I was feeling inspired, directed, and clear about what to bring into my chakra classes.  I had been looking forward to the classes, and even wished I had more time to delve more deeply into this work.   But this particular week, when I began thinking about vishuddha, I hit a wall.

The feelings that came up for me were not blaring and loud, in fact it took me a while to notice them.  But they were powerful.  When I thought about teaching, I felt lethargic and bored, as if the sound of my own voice was becoming tiresome…bla, bla, bla.  I was also experiencing a mild sense of dread at the idea of getting ready to teach.  I started to have the ‘Monday Blues’.  And found myself approaching my week with a ‘just make it to Friday’ kind of attitude’.   The feelings were so mild, that I could have easily dismissed them.  But I took notice, and went about preparing to teach about the energetic wheel at the throat anyway.

Later it occurred to me that until that week, I had been teaching about concepts I understood relatively well.  I have infinite work to do in my own practice; and by no means do I see myself as an expert in the subtle energies of the body.  However, up until the 5th chakra I was confident in my philosophical knowledge and experiential understanding.  I had what I felt was more than enough fodder to bring to a few hours of teaching on the subjects.  But the throat chakra...

I see myself knee deep in the mud of vishuddha. My everyday efforts as a teacher, a mother, a wife, a woman, and a human are centered in exploring my voice, living my truth, sharing and moving toward my dreams, trusting in our interconnectedness, and channeling the energy of a passionate heart for the good of my family —and ultimately all beings.  This is my daily work —the very seat of my triumphs and failures.  These are my challenges.  This energetic center is where it gets sticky interesting for me.

Caroline Shola Arewa, the author of Opening to Spirit,  explains, “when energy is allowed to remain in the lower chakras, limitation continues.  The beautiful body temple becomes a prison and we cannot see beyond earthly reality.  As energy ascends through the heart into the throat, our horizons broaden.  Our sense of awe and wonder increases, our path in life is illuminated and our direction becomes clear.”  When I read these words, I feel like she is describing my process.  However, I feel like a babe in the woods, at the very, very beginning of this opening.  Looking up towards the sun through the trees and blinking the sleep out of my eyes.  This is my chakra.

Aaahaaa.  The source of my resistance.  My disinterest.  The doldrums of my spiritual ascension.  I am stalled out!  And then I Remembered (with a capital ‘R’):  Slow down, go in, dig deeper.  Because it’s all in there.  This I really do believe.  The answers are inside of us.  We are whole.  And we are wholly connected to every being that came before.  Even, perhaps especially, the ones who spent their lives sitting in caves contemplating the nature of the universe, mapping the chakras and the nadis, practicing coming into full being-ness.  All this comes from within.

Wednesday morning we slowed down.  I knew it was the right thing.  We began class with three oms, we breathed, we held, we focused, we rested, and we ended with om.  Dear students, I’m not sure what your experience was, but the chanting of om at the end of that class was ethereal (get it? throat chakra?  Ether?).  It was as if we were all vibrating together, like tuning forks resonating to the waves of energy enveloping us.  I can’t know how it was for you, but my own experience was of deep peace and complete wonder at the very extraordinary, almost visible energy in the room.  A palpable sense of connectedness, and a delicious,  deep, lingering shift seemed to be present in all of us.  For me, it was one of those magical moments upon which years of practice and a renewed desire to share yoga can rest.  Another layer fell away.  Inspiration.

The purpose of this post?  It doesn’t really matter what is known, practiced, taught, thought about, learned.  Slow down and bring awareness into your body.  Tune into the sensations there, and all the other things that drift into your awareness.  Allow all thoughts, feelings, and sensations to have relevance.  Let nothing go unnoticed, and the nature of that which is within, the fabric that holds us together: bone, fiber, blood, breath, space, light, light, light…. becomes known.  That knowing, sometimes fleeting, sometimes brief, is…Radiant (with a capital ‘R’).

Keep with the practice.  Practice is good.

In Gratitude, Valerie

Everyone needs to watch: The Cove

After watching The Cove I was immediately compelled to do something. To get the word out. It’s that good! So here’s my attempt to help out…

Animal rights are not usually something I spend a lot of time on. It’s not that I don’t think we should treat animals respectfully or that that animal rights campaigns are not a worthy cause; it’s just that I think  if I am going to spend my energy, time or money on an injustice, I would prefer for it to be one that affects humans. However, the sensitive and compelling story this film tells about the plight of the dolphins in Taiji, Japan has certainly made me reconsider this stand point.

I love dolphins, whales, mammals of the sea. It all started after my first trip to SeaWorld when I was 11. It was amazing to see these wonderful animals and humans play together so happily. How wrong that sounds now, after watching The Cove; a film that explicitly explains how dolphins are not happy in captivity. In fact they are so stressed out that the trainers feed them antibiotics with their food to stop them getting ulcers.

This is what The Cove does so expertly; it seeks to peel back the glossy veneer of the smiling dolphin, doing tricks and flips, and reveal the true horrors of a conscience being that is exploited and trapped. It does so through the protagonist, Ric O’Barry; a man that spent 10 years building up the dolphin performance industry on the television series, Flipper, only to realize it was all a grave mistake. He has spent the last 35 years trying to undo this wrong.

Ric O’Barry calls on the documentary film-makers to bring to light the shocking and senseless slaughter of dolphins the in the small side town of Taiji. They are killing 23,000 dolphins a year. Yet this task is one that is clothed in danger as the town’s police, fishermen and mayor seek to cover it up. What follows is an intensely entertaining, yet sad, journey of Ric O’Barry and the documentary team’s efforts to capture evidence to show the world. Along the way they highlight the various reasons why the dolphin slaughter is not only pointless and cruel, but also how it fits into a larger conspiracy of government secrecy.

I could continue to tell you all the facts and shocking truths that this films brings to light but I think that it is important that you discover it for yourself. One thing that did stand out, which perhaps makes this injustice all the more shocking, is that there is a strong case to say that dolphins are self-aware. We already know they are the second-most intelligent mammal on the plant, but this documentary really makes you think about these creatures as more than just animals, but as equals.


Health Care Reforms: An Englishman’s Perspective

After months of debate and controversy, President Obama’s landmark Health Reforms have finally passed. I thought  it might be interesting to give you my take on the whole thing, being a foreigner in this part of the world, and in the process hopefully encourage a discussion in the NOURISH community.

Coming from England, I have grown up with the safety net of a national health service (NHS) and fortunately I have never had to directly pay for health care (although I have paid my fair share of National Insurance taxes).

Having lived in California for over a year now, without health insurance, I have been monitoring the development of the health reforms pretty closely. When they were finally signed off and phrases like “landmark deal” and “new day” were thrown around I found it quite amusing… because when you compare the reforms to what has been going on at NOURISH for the last year, they suddenly do not seem so revolutionary.

In a roundabout way, the reforms will, hopefully, make medical care more affordable, and easier to access, for millions more people. While this is certainly a cause for celebration, NOURISH has been doing this since they opened! It is one of Victor and Jocelyn’s core beliefs… that they will make services affordable, because no one should have to choose between their health and their finances.

In lobbying for the reforms, Obama and the White House administration asked us to support them in their commitment to the nation’s health and wellness by getting behind the bill. The fact that the bill will force everyone to sign up for medical insurance, or face a hefty fine, could also be viewed as a commitment to the health and well being of the American people… even if it is forced one. Once again, commitment to clients health has been a cornerstone of NOURISH’s core values since they opened. Check out the website and  you will find a mission statement that states NOURISH will always seek to encourage “students, clients, and customers to join us in our commitment to their health and wellness.”

However, the reforms differ greatly to NOURISH’s approach to health and wellness when it comes the compromises made to get them to the people. Obviously NOURISH and the federal government operate on very different levels, but I cannot but help feel that the repeated concessions Obama and Co. had to make to finally get the bill passed has, for now, tainted the sense of accomplishment.

While to some extent the notion that ‘it is better to have something than nothing at all’ rings true, I know that NOURISH would never accept such terms. While compromises on logistical, administrative or material elements are often considered, they would never compromise the health and wellness elements of the center. This is evident in things like the time Victor puts into organizing his classes, the attention the massage therapists give to each client so that they are not just relaxing them but also healing them, and the notes Jocelyn takes in every consultation so that nothing is overlooked and everything is available for consideration.

I suppose ultimately, while the reforms are not particularly innovative, we have to hope that they represent a first step forward. So the cliche goes, Rome was not built in a day, and similarly America’s health concerns cannot be solved with one new bill… they are too deeply ingrained. But the positive change and momentum this bill brings will hopefully encourage more people and officials to think like NOURISH and make health and wellness and even bigger priority.

At the risk of wedging myself into the middle of the great debate over whether a US national health care service would be un-America (whatever that means), I will say, for it’s worth, that while the English  NHS is far from perfect, it is absolutely worth it! I do not think that a government ensuring that it’s people are safe and healthy crosses any privacy lines. It is a necessary intervention. What’s more, for those people in England who do not want to use the NHS, and are prepared to pay for a premium service, there is also the option of private health care. I see no reason why you could not operate the same system here.



Now, NOURISH member, Susan Stuart, who has a masters in Public Health, has been kind enough to continue the discussion and, for those of you who are still as confused as me about what it all means, provide a summary of the reforms:

“Although I have personally worked for the single payer bill in California, I am happy that congress is about to pass the senate health reform bill. President Obama has called it a middle of the road bill, which it is, but it has many good things in it. Insurance companies will not be able refuse coverage for pre-existing conditions or drop coverage. Young people will be able to stay on their parents insurance until age 26. Small businesses will get tax credits for covering workers and will be able to purchase more reasonable plans through insurance exchanges or pools. Medicare prescription coverage will be improved. More money will be put into prevention and into the Medicaid program. It will provide grants for small employers that establish wellness programs. It will also begin to lower health care costs, which is absolutely necessary given that health care is something like 16% of our GDP.

I’m hopeful that this is a signal that American society is beginning to believe that health care is a right; because I’m certain that a more egalitarian society is a healthier society for everyone. I recommend that people read the new book, “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, British social epidemiologists.

I’ll end with a quote from MLK: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”