The healing and transformative power of yoga

Often when looking to yoga from the outside people think it is all about being flexible and attaining beautiful postures with the body. It follows then that beginner students often make the mistake of placing importance on attaining the shape they think the pose (‘asana’) should be, rather than really exploring the feeling of their body in the pose throughout their practice (awareness of breath, entering the pose, holding that pose, and exiting it). This habit can continue for a long time if left unchecked.
However, when we truly embrace yoga, we begin to realise, that we are not so much teaching our bodies what to do as we are discovering the hidden habits of our mind, body and emotions, and how to transform the negative into the positive!

‘Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel like you are constantly trying to fit broken pieces together.’~ B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life

Of course there is, by necessity, a focus on the correct alignment, as this is important for the safeguarding of our bodies from injury. However the real deepening comes from within, as the body begins to teach the mind, and the mind in turn, teaches the body.
As Baron Baptiste says, the pose only begins when you want to get out of it! So, if we come out of the pose as soon as we want to, we haven’t even begun our yoga practice yet! Probably not what the beginning yogi wants to hear, but bear with me, there are rewards here too.
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class and had the teacher lead you into a difficult posture (for you!) and then say something along the lines of: “breathe deeply, really connect with your breath” and inwardly you notice yourself saying, “Come on! Get me out of this pose already!”, then you’re in the perfect place to begin your real yoga practice, and to allow yoga to teach you.
Yoga has a funny way of connecting mind and body, and if you listen, you can learn a lot about yourself and how you respond when things get tough. The beauty is that your spiritual practice on the mat begins to transform all aspects of your life off the mat.
Next time you’re in a class, simply notice your internal dialogue at all times (as much as you can, anyway!). What do you say to yourself when things get tough? Do you back right off? Curse yourself? Push on through? What’s your default response?
When we allow ourselves to experience an asana, instead of responding to our immediate tendency either to get out of the pose as quickly as possible, or to just grin and bear it (the ego likes to ‘win’ no matter what the cost), we begin to recognise body sensations, the ‘stories’ our mind makes up begin to come to light, and we allow yoga to really start teaching us.
Our focus and awareness in a yoga class determine what we get out of it. As a beginner (or even an advanced student), if we hear the teacher saying “step the right foot to the right, bend the knee, tuck the tailbone, lift the chest, knit the ribs, root through the feet, lift up through the torso, relax the shoulders and breathe…”, there’s a very good chance we may just overlook that “breathe” bit at the end, in favour of trying to follow some of the other instructions!
This is one reason I really recommend slower paced, or yin/passive classes alongside more ‘yang/active’ classes to all yoga students (yes, even you adrenaline junkie!) as these classes give all of us a more rounded approach, and the opportunity and time to explore the asanas more fully to really connect to our breath and body-mind awareness.
However, even in a fast-paced class, if our awareness and intention for the class is focussed on really feeling the postures and nurturing our breath, then we are much more likely to tune into the instructions “relax and breathe”, no matter what yoga class we go to.
Yoga is about finding balance from the inside out, so next time you practice, notice what your habits are, and see if you can choose to do things a little differently…
Jennifer Tanna
Co-founder and Director of Energy Therapy Reiki Master, Conscious Coach, Reflexologist and Yoga Teacher 

practice opening your heart

by amy defilippi
Practice Yoga | Personal Story
Many of us resolve to take better care of ourselves and exercise more, practice more regularly, eat healthier, etc. What if we looked at taking care of our hearts as a resolution that all other resolutions can grow from? What if we had made our new year’s resolution to practice opening our hearts a little more every day?
Many of us live as if our love is a finite resource rather than a renewable energy. Sometimes life is so stressful that we are left to feel emotionally and spiritually drained. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about love and how we share and receive this resource with each other and with our loved ones.
I have come to find that with dedicated practice we can all live in a more loving and receptive way. I once heard Krishna Das say something along the lines of “Open the dark rooms of your heart and there you will find more love”. It takes courage to love without seeking anything in return. To be focused on the process of loving rather than the outcome of being loved.
Asana is an excellent place to begin this practice. If we practice with physical goals like touching the floor or our toes as the outcome, and neglect the mindful and diligent process we risk injury. When we are curious about how our body opens and breathe with encouragement and love we find that our hands eventually reach the earth and beyond. When we give love for the sake of loving, with no thought of its return then we are creating this renewable energy ourselves. When we have the courage to share love the dark rooms of our heart open and we let more light in. Resolve not to be afraid to show your love. Your love for yourself is the love from which all other love grows, so begin there.
Here are 5 ways to develop love
1. Notice how you talk to yourself. Is it filled with criticism and insult? Can you replace that voice with a more compassionate and encouraging one?
2. Meditate on gratitude. You will find that when you spend time actively conjuring thoughts of gratitude your heart begins to expand.
3. Smile more. Smiling has actually been proven to lift one’s mood and it is easier to give and receive love in a positive mood.
4. Send loving kindness to strangers. When you are walking down the street, in the subway or in a café, look at different people and make a wish for their happiness.
5. Practice mudita, or sympathetic joy. When something good happens to someone you know (or don’t know) practice being sincerely happy for them without reflecting on how their happiness affects you or doesn’t.
May all of the above help you be safe, free from suffering, filled with happiness and loving kindness.
“I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” – Mother Teresa


From Boxing to Yoga: Finding My Inner Warrior


What was there in my life before yoga? There was seated meditation. And there was boxing. Both these activities were attempts to solve the same problem, though I didn’t realize it then. It’s taken yoga to give me a clearer perspective.
Boxing came first. It made me feel strong and able to do anything. I used to have a personal trainer who would push me until I was almost at the point of throwing up as I worked the heavy bag with relentless jab-cross combos. By the time we were finished working with the hook and jab pads, I could barely muster the energy to shuffle toward my trainer, let alone throw a convincing right hook! Brushing my hair for two days following was an impossibility. My muscles were so sore I could barely raise my arms. And the split knuckles were not exactly a cool look either.
I thought maybe through interval training on the heavy bag, I could beat my body into being the strong vehicle I so wanted it to be.
Looking back on it, it seems terribly brutal, but I confess I’m still just a bit wistful about those days. That was my first experience in using my energy to work out, rather than merely survive each working day. I totally loved all the new physical and emotional feelings this vigorous activity brought up in me. Cleaning out a cupboard recently, I found my hand wraps and gloves, and I sat holding them a while, remembering all that. I smiled, because on one level it felt good, wild, and adventurous. But my smile became a bit rueful as I also remembered the anger and frustration I felt then. In truth, it actually was masochistic. I wanted to punish my body for not being good enough or healthy enough for so many years. I thought maybe through interval training on the heavy bag I could beat my body into being the strong vehicle I so wanted it to be.
I was still beating myself up when I was introduced to my meditation teacher. I felt like an unlikely disciple as we first sat together. She asked me what I was seeking in the practice. She was so gentle and calm, I was completely unnerved. In the end, I surprised us both by telling her that I was looking for my inner warrior. A peaceful warrior that would grant me strength derived from confidence and quiet faith in myself, rather than aggression and anger—a steadiness rather than an unconscious lashing out. I recall us sitting in silence for some moments (you can’t hurry a meditation teacher!) before she thanked me for my beautiful words. I looked at her to see if she was joking. I don’t think anyone had ever thanked me for what I’d said or told me my words were beautiful! I was quite struck by this gentleness, intimidated even. Where was the opposition, the counter-question…the rejection?
Meditation brought many benefits and soon led me to yoga asana as a form of moving meditation, where breath and flowing shapes encouraged a similar inner stillness. Although I still have my gloves, I haven’t used them since I started yoga. Now two years into my yoga journey, my hook and uppercuts would probably land weakly, but I’m just starting to find my peace in warrior II. Sometimes—just sometimes—I can feel a quiet strength that comes from the heart of me and radiates out through my fingertips and down through my legs. My stance is proud, but my shoulders relax and my breath deepens. And I am a yoga warrior.

Mindfulness – We’re Doing it Wrong

Lama Surya Das, the “Buddha from Brooklyn,” is one of the handful of Westerners who have been teaching meditation for decades. And yet, he says we’re doing it wrong.
“So many people seem to be moving narcissistically — conditioned by our culture, doubtless — into self-centered happiness-seeking and quietism, not to mention the use of mindfulness for mere effectiveness,” he said. True meditation, he said, generates wisdom and compassion, which may be very disquieting, at least in the short term.
Born Jeffrey Miller, Surya Das has had a spiritual journey that is remarkable in its breadth. He was given the name “Surya Das” by the Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba, made famous by Ram Dass more than 40 years ago. But Surya Das shifted gears in the early 1970s to Tibetan Buddhism, subsequently completing two three-year silent meditation retreats and becoming one of the first Westerners to be authorized as a Tibetan lama.
At the time, meditation was still considered pretty weird: foreign, exotic, hippie-ish. Now it’s everywhere. Meditation — especially mindfulness, which trains the mind to observe nonjudgmentally and attentively — has gone mainstream. In secular forms, it’s now widespread in health care, education, the corporate world, even the military. Each year, 1 million Americans take up the practice for the first time.
Surya Das is not entirely happy about that. “Mindful divorce, mindful parenting, mindful TV,” he complained. “Why not mindful sniping, poaching, or mindful waiting to find the opportunity to take advantage of and exploit someone when there’s a chink in their armor?”
Moreover, he said, because of the way meditation is taught, many people think they can’t do it. “’Quiet your mind’ or ‘calm and clear your mind’ are instructions I hear way too much. Some teachers actually encourage people to try to stop thinking, when in fact meditative awareness means being mindful of thoughts and feelings, not simply trying to reduce, alter or white them out and achieve some kind of oblivion.”
What’s missing? In his new book, “Make Me One With Everything” (the answer to a well-worn Buddhist joke: “What did the Zen monk say to the hot dog vendor?”), Surya Das argues for a return to the original purpose of Buddhist meditation: not relaxation, but liberation. The goal, he said, is “to genuinely learn how to gain direct access to Oneness, wholeness, completeness, integration with all the parts of themselves and life.”
“All the parts” is a crucial ingredient. In “Make Me One,” he proposes what he calls “co-meditation” — not trying to find a quiet “moment of Zen” apart from the messy, noisy world of work, family and children, but inviting all of the noise into meditation. That is indeed unorthodox in a contemporary context. But it is also part of the ancient Tibetan tradition known as Lojong, which often features elaborate visualizations — not quieting down and following the breath. Indeed, many of the book’s unusual meditation practices — sky-gazing, gardening, meditation for couples, and wild neologisms including Presencing, Convergitation and Momitation — are based on Surya Das’ years of studying and translating esoteric Tibetan teaching tales.
“It’s the same transformative and liberating essence, yet I think it’s pretty new for almost everyone today,” he said. “The anti-intellectual meditators, thought-swatters and imagination-suppressors have long ruled meditation-oriented circles in the West. But authentic meditative practices can enhance and even unleash the creativity and imagination.”
One benefit of these practices is that you don’t have to quiet the mind to do them. “It’s helpful for people who think they can’t meditate because they can’t sit still and think less. That ain’t the point.”
Still, bringing more noise into one’s meditation practice is diametrically opposed to the popular conception of meditation as calming and quieting. Surya Das calls that “the old New Age, self-growth, self-development, self-improvement emphasis — trying to use meditation to get away from it all. We need to erode the Grand Canyon-like gulf we see today between self and other, us and them, inner and outer, and even body and mind, body and soul, heaven and hell, liking and disliking, to realize the great equanimity of what is called in Tibetan Buddhism One Taste, and what others call unity vision, oneness, third-eye vision and the like.”
You may have already noticed that Surya Das speaks in long, often hilarious sentences, filled with puns and jokes. This rhetorical style is of a piece with his conceptual point — that awakening isn’t some calm, blissed-out state but is being at home with every state of mind, including the rapid-fire speech of a born-and-bred New Yorker.
For example, here’s how he summarizes the key teaching of the book, complete with 13 adjectives, 10 nouns and 11 verbs: “Can I say that this book presents, elucidates, rationalizes and instructs, in the extraordinary American-Buddhism’s fresh and newly minted, jargon-free, straight talkin’, practical and flexible, adaptable, personal and integratable, nonsectarian organic ways for a whole new way of meditating, with tips and pointers to find your own way and authentic practice style, thus avoiding many, if not most, of the obstacles and hindrances, doubts and distractions practitioners so often face and stumble upon?”
Sure you can.
There’s a refreshing honesty in this iconoclastic approach. Whatever awakening is, surely it has something to do with authenticity. And for some of us, authenticity is fast-talking, free-associating and full of sound and fury.
Or as Surya Das himself put it, “It can become obnoxious, I know, but I’m a folksy, campy, backyard bodhisattva-from-Brooklyn kinda guy, what can I say?”

Jay Michaelson is a columnist for The Daily Beast and author of the 2013 report “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights.” Photo courtesy of Jay Michaelson