Photo credit: Philip Boag
We’ve reached the threshold of fall. The autumnal equinox will happen at 9:54 tomorrow evening here in NYC. I’ve mentioned this in my letters to you before, but it bears repeating: the equinoxes, the solstices, these moments when the season changes and the page turns, are excellent opportunities to pause and reflect.
Change is constant, continual, and eternally happening. We can actually see it now, all around us, in the fading flowers, the cooler temps, and the shorter nights.
Yet that continuous change is punctuated by moments like the equinox: turning points, pauses along the path. The equinox is in fact the precise moment when the Sun crosses over the Earth’s equator. During the hours surrounding this moment, we’ll experience equal periods of day and night, light and dark. There’s something to be noted, to be honored and observed.
This cyclical quality of the seasons and of nature itself mirrors that same quality in our own lives. I’ve been reflecting on this myself with the changes that have been occurring in my life – in particular, the closing of the door on a phase of my teaching.
For the past six years, I spent my Sunday mornings at Exhale on the Upper East Side, teaching two classes filled with lovely students. It was my Sunday ritual.
It was with sadness that I let these classes go at the end of the summer. I already miss those of you who practiced with me at Exhale, and I thank you for showing up and sharing your practice with me.
And yet – along with the sadness and nostalgia, I feel a sense of potentiality. With the closing of one door opens another. For me, in this moment, that means a focus on teaching yoga privately. More details on that in posts to come.
Please always feel free to reach out to me and tell me what’s going on with you. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, and musings on yoga and anything else under the sun.
In last month’s post, we explored how our yoga practice can help us to find a still point within the constant, ever-present motion of the Universe. This interplay between movement and stillness is inherent in one of the styles of yoga I teach: Vinyasa Flow.
Like many Sanskrit words, vinyasa can be defined in a variety of ways: “movement between positions,” “placement of limbs,” and “to place in a special way” are a few. In modern times, the term has come to mean a style of yoga in which the body flows from pose to pose in harmony with the breath.
Even in a Vinyasa practice, which is defined by its fluid nature, there are moments of movement and moments of stillness. There are parts of the sequence when my body is moving through space. Then comes the time when I put my foot here, I put my arm there, I “place my body in a special way”. And then I stay. I become still. I’ve flowed into stillness.
In the moments when I choose to be completely still in a pose and pare away all voluntary movement, I gradually become aware of the subtle, involuntary movement that’s always there. Within this “stillness,” I can feel my breath rippling through my body. I can feel my heart beating, the throb of the pulse at my throat and wrists, the blood coursing through my veins.
If I become very still, and very quiet, I begin to feel currents of energy within my body, almost like rivers of light that enliven my insides and radiate outwardly and inwardly.
That flow of energy within is what yogis practicing thousands of years ago identified as prana: the vital life force or life energy. This life force is acknowledged in most ancient cultures – the Chinese call it chi (as in tai chi), the Japanese ki (as in reiki), and the Native Americans refer to it as the Great Spirit.
Connecting with and feeling this vital energy is one of the reasons yoga developed as a practice. The ancient yogis believed that the same prana that animated their bodies animated everything in existence – animals, trees, rivers, flowers, mountains, stars, everything and anything imaginable. They developed the techniques of yoga to illuminate this interconnection between themselves and the energy of the Universe.
All these thousands of years later, we continue to practice these techniques. Although yoga has evolved and changed immensely over the millennia, it still has this same basic principle at its core – oneness, union, the merging of the small self with the big Self of the Universe.
It can be difficult to feel this oneness, or feel this prana, or feel the deeper parts of ourselves when we’re constantly moving from place to place, task to task, day to day, caught up in the busyness of everyday life. Motion and activity is necessary and important to get things done, to be effective and efficient, and to move forward in life; but stillness and quiet is just as valuable and vital.
The beauty of a Vinyasa practice is that by its very nature, it reveals that there’s a time to move, and a time to be still; a time for action, and a time for observation; a time to roam from place to place, and a time to park and take in the view.
If you practice Vinyasa yoga, you have the opportunity to experience these periods of stillness. It can also be helpful (and very enjoyable) to carve out some time during your day to practice being absolutely still. You could do this in a comfortable seated position, with the spine tall and erect. You could lie on the floor in Savasana or your favorite restorative pose. You could even do this in bed at night before you drift off to sleep, or in the morning before you fully awaken.
Since you’re taking the time, you might as well make it feel really good! Maybe put on your favorite piece of relaxing music, light a few candles, place an eye pillow over your eyes, or rub a drop of essential oil between your palms and inhale the scent.
But most importantly - become very still, without holding yourself still or becoming rigid. Relax into stillness, and allow the aliveness of your inner landscape to reveal itself to you.
Happy first day of autumn! Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox happened today, Friday September 22, at 4:02pm EDT. This turning point between summer and fall is a natural time of transition. The weather is changing, the leaves are changing, the pace of our lives is changing as we return back to school, back to work, back to our normal routines.
The equinox represents a midpoint between summer and winter. On the summer and winter solstices (around June 21 and December 21 respectively), the sun reaches its most southerly or most northerly point relative to the equator. At these solstices, the sun appears to briefly come to a standstill; it seems to pause before reversing its direction.
So the equinox is the midpoint between these two extremes of the solstices. Today we flow through this midpoint between the radiating heat of summer and the frigid cold of winter; between the longest days and longest nights; between the lush greenery of summer and the bare branches of winter.
This autumnal time of change can sometimes breed feelings of instability, imbalance, unsteadiness, or restlessness. It can be difficult to feel grounded when everything around us is in a state of flux.
But when are we not in flux, really? Even the times of the solstices, those ends of the spectrum, those moments of apparent stillness, are merely an illusion. The sun appears to pause at its highest or lowest point in the sky and then reverse direction – but in reality, the sun never stands still. It’s in constant motion, as is the earth, which continually orbits around the sun. It’s only because of the shifting tilt of the earth’s axis that the sun ever seems to stand still.
The earth’s motion is constant; the sun’s motion is constant; our entire solar system is constantly in motion. All of us on this earth are continually moving, ever changing, ever shifting from one season, one phase, one moment to the next.
I find each turn of the season a welcome reminder of this. It’s also a reminder that amidst this perpetual motion, I need to stay connected to what helps me feel grounded, that which stabilizes and steadies me amidst the constantly swirling winds of change.
For me, my yoga practice is what grounds me. Setting aside time each day to turn my attention inward, to connect with that part of myself that is timeless, unchanging, eternal – that’s what helps me to feel steady and sure even in times of transition.
Because if I look really closely – if I take the time and make the effort to be quiet, to be still, and to look deep within myself - I find something that’s not moving or shifting or changing. I find the part of me that never loses or gains weight. It doesn’t have abs that get stronger or weaker. Fine lines don’t appear on its face and its skin doesn’t sag as time marches on. It’s something way beyond all of that.
When I practice yoga, I connect with the part of myself that is timeless, eternal – the deepest part of myself that always was and always will be.
Yoga philosophy identifies this part as Atman, a Sanskrit word that means “inner self” or “soul.” Some people think of it as the God within, or a divine spark, or light, or maybe just the energy that makes up everything.
All the practices of yoga – the poses, breath work, concentration, meditation – have this as their ultimate intention: to unveil this Atman, this unchanging essence at our cores. They help us to realize that this unchanging essence is not just in us, but in everyone and everything around us, and that this oneness unites us with everything else in the Universe.
The literal translation of the word “yoga” is "union". It is derived from the Sanskrit root "yuj," meaning "to join" or "to unite."
Among all the other benefits which yoga touts, from stronger arms to more flexible hamstrings to greater peace of mind, at its core the practice is intended to reveal this union. It empowers us to feel, to actually experience the connection between ourselves and every other thing in the Universe – so we can recognize that there is no separation, that we are all one, and that this oneness has always been and always will be.
Now, this is no easy task! But even on those days when this union, this connection, feels miles away from my grasp, I’m still grateful that I can turn to my yoga practice as a place of calm amidst the storm, as a resting place, as my still point in this ever-changing universe.
I hope that your yoga practice allows you to find your still point too. As always, I’m here to help, in whatever way I can.
Yesterday morning I looked out my frosty windows at the stark-naked trees and felt the 19-degree air that snuck through the cracks in the window sashes. This morning, I looked out those same windows at rooftops and sidewalks blanketed with snow. It’s hard to believe it’s not even winter yet!
The official first day of winter this year falls on Wednesday, December 21. There will be a moment on this day (5:44am here in the Northern Hemisphere) when the Earth’s axial tilt will be farthest from the sun. That one moment is the Winter Solstice, and it represents a turning point: the juncture where the seasons change and autumn turns into winter.
The winter season that is about to unfold brings with it frigid temperatures and long hours of darkness. Nature stops its outward growth. Without the colorful blossoms of spring, the leafy greenness of summer, and the vibrant foliage of fall, it may look like the earth has shut down and closed up shop. But beneath the barren stillness of the frozen ground, the earth is restoring its internal energy reserves.
Our own bodies reflect this cyclical slowing and turning inward of the natural world. On a purely physical level, the darkness and cold force us to spend time indoors. Snug in our homes, we seek warmth, shelter, and comfort.
On a more subtle level, the winter season is a time for us to restore ourselves energetically. This is the time to pause, to breathe, to draw our attention deep within. It’s a time to let the body be still and replenish itself.
Unfortunately, the winter solstice occurs each year smack dab in the middle of a very busy holiday season. We may find ourselves moving at a frenetic pace: shopping, partying, decorating, socializing, and traveling.
When our hectic schedules fall out of sync with the cycles of the earth, we end up feeling stressed, anxious, and worn out. We become vulnerable to illness and injury.
It’s vital at this time of year to counterbalance the busyness by taking the time to be quiet, calm, and self-reflective. Our yoga practice gives us the space to honor the natural energy of the winter season by practicing poses that ground us and invite introspection and inward reflection.
In my classes this coming week, I’ll offer a practice that acknowledges the turning point of the Winter Solstice. We’ll move slowly and hold strong poses for longer periods to build internal heat and counteract the cold. We’ll practice inversions, turning ourselves upside down to shift our perspective. Finally, we’ll move into some longer held supported forward folds, which invite introspection and reflection.
Even if you can’t make it to class, give yourself some time to slow down…to be quiet…to listen.
Wishing you and yours a very happy and healthy holiday season!
This isn’t the November post that I expected to write, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write about avoiding neck pain during your asana practice when the attention of our nation and the entire globe has been arrested by the events of the past few days.
While I have strong opinions about the outcome of the election, this post is not about my opinions, or your opinions, or the opinions of the millions of Americans who turned out to vote this past Tuesday. Each and every one of us is entitled to our own opinion. I fully respect your right to have yours, even if it’s radically different from mine.
Regardless of your political affiliation and your feelings about the election results, it’s unlikely that you’ve been immune to the stress of the last few weeks and months. You may feel like you’ve been riding an emotional roller coaster – steep climbs, sudden drops, sharp turns, little bursts of exhilaration and dark moments of fear.
As yoga practitioners, how lucky we are to have the opportunity to come together and share a practice that is specifically designed to bring us back to balance in an unbalanced world.
The various practices of yoga – pranayama (breath control), asana (postures), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) – weave together to form a discipline that leads us towards equanimity. These practices allow us to experience peace, even when we’re hanging on, white-knuckled, as we ride the roller coaster of our ever-changing emotions.
You don’t have to do anything fancy or complicated to reap the benefits of yoga. Something as simple as a breathing exercise is one of the most potent tools for dealing with stress.
By working with our breath through pranayama, we can regulate our emotions, enhance the activity of our nervous systems, and optimize our bodies’ response to stress. The stressors we encounter may be the physical trials we intentionally create for ourselves on our mat, or the challenges that are unexpectedly hurled at as us as we navigate our daily lives.
Below this post is a breathing exercise you can practice anytime, anywhere. All you need is a little space in which to sit or lie down, and the desire and discipline to turn your attention inward.
Whatever you’re feeling this week, remember: you can turn to your yoga practice. I’d love to see you in class! I’m offering free passes to anyone who’d like to take my Friday night 6:15 Open Flow at Sacred Sounds or my Sunday morning 10:45 Vinyasa Basics at Exhale for the rest of November. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a pass.
If you can’t make it to class, clear a space on your bedroom or living room floor and lie down, breathe, maybe move. Remember that whatever winds may toss you this way and that, there is a place deep inside of you – a place of stillness, of peace, of calm. When you breathe, and move, and pay attention, you get little glimpses of that place. You can return to it whenever you feel surrounded by darkness or when you’re tempted to give into despair. That place is always within you. You just have to give yourself the space to find it.
I’m not saying that yoga can solve the problems of the world. That kind of thinking is too simplistic. But it can help you to find a few moments of peace. It can calm your mind. It can soften your heart.
By turning inward and connecting with that quiet, still, peaceful place within, we gather the strength to move forward with a clear mind and an open heart; to continue to fight for what we believe is right; and to hold on to hope and love, come what may.
A Breathing Practice
This simple pranayama is called sama vritti in Sanskrit – in English, “equal breathing”. Those of you who take my class regularly are very familiar with it! It’s something I include in virtually every class I teach, because it’s so simple, yet its benefits are profound.
• Sit or lie down in a comfortable, relaxed position.
• Become aware of your breathing. Notice that you’re breathing in, and notice that you’re breathing out.
• Little by little, begin to breathe more deeply.
• Let your breath gradually settle into a steady rhythm. Breathe in for the same amount of time that you breathe out, matching the length of your inhale with the length of your exhale. It might help to count as you breathe, inhaling for a count of perhaps five, then exhaling for five. Find a length of breath that feels deep but comfortable.
• Spend anywhere from one to several minutes breathing in this way.
• When you’re finished, let go of the equal breath and allow your breath to resume its natural pace and rhythm.
• Notice how you feel.
Deep, steady, even breathing reverses the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, or “fight or flight” response, which is the body’s habitual reaction to stress. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the “relaxation response,” which slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and calms the body and mind.
Happy New Year’s Eve! Once again we find ourselves on the precipice between the year that has been and the year to be. New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing, but I do usually find myself more contemplative and reflective on this day. It feels like the perfect juncture to look at my life with clear eyes and an open mind and heart.
This morning I found a beautiful meditation online by mindfulness teacher Melli O’Brien. In it, she guides us towards discovering what really, truly matters to us as we move forward into 2016. This is not a meditation about self-improvement, or creating resolutions, or becoming stronger or richer or thinner or better in the year to come. It’s about digging down to the essence of our lives, to that which is most meaningful and most important. If you’re looking for some inspiration as you prepare yourself for the new year, then settle into your meditation seat and click here to listen.
I wish you much love, peace and happiness in the year to come.
“If the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, that would suffice.” — Meister Eckhart
When I was twenty-one and fresh out of college, I had no clue what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I took advantage of my lack of direction and responsibilities and hopped on a plane to Morocco.
I lived in Marrakesh with a few young Moroccans around my age. There were six of us sharing a small two-room flat. It was a pretty standard apartment for Marrakesh, which meant there was no hot running water.
There were many wonderful and enjoyable aspects of daily life in Marrakesh. There were also many challenging ones, and not having a hot shower whenever I needed one was among these. By the time I arrived back in New York half a year later, I felt incredibly thankful every time I turned on the faucet and warm water came gushing out. I told myself I would never take a shower for granted again.
So do you think that now, fifteen years later, I still say a small prayer of thanks each time I step under a stream of steaming hot water? I wish I could say that I do, but I’d be lying. For a few months after I returned I still felt that appreciation, but gradually it faded. Hot water became just another one of the many things that I paid little attention to as I went about my everyday life.
Every so often I remember what it was like to not have it. That experience was priceless for me because when it does come to mind, it’s a reminder of how much I take for granted every single day that I could be giving thanks for.
It’s so easy to forget to appreciate the simple things. We tend to focus instead on what we want that we don’t have. We wish that we could be stronger, smarter, sexier, prettier, or richer. If people or situations don’t live up to our expectations, we feel disappointed and dissatisfied.
It’s worth taking a step back occasionally to acknowledge and appreciate what we do have, just as it is. Pressing pause on the ceaseless wants and worries of life's unfolding drama, even for just a minute or two, can be liberating and invigorating.
The cultivation of gratitude goes hand in hand with santosha, or contentment, which is the second of the five niyamas (personal observances) that Patanjali outlined in the Yoga Sutras: “From an attitude of contentment, unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.” Santosha is essentially the opposite of desire, or lack, or feeling that we need things to be different before we can be happy.
The Yoga Sutras were written approximately two thousand years ago. Science is now proving what Patanjali taught way back then: the more people appreciate what they have, the happier they are. Study after study has shown that if people actively work towards being more grateful in their day-to-day lives, they become happier and healthier as a result.
Recent research has provided evidence that feeling grateful increases feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, and enthusiasm; reduces anxiety and depression; strengthens the immune system; lowers blood pressure; improves sleep quality; strengthens relationships; promotes forgiveness; and makes people more helpful, altruistic and compassionate. [Visit the Greater Good Science Center to learn more about these studies and more.]
It’s all too obvious these days that our world is in turmoil. Right now we desperately need the optimism that thankfulness has been proven to promote! When we’re constantly confronted with the darkness, hatred and violence that blare from the headlines, it’s not hard to be sucked into a downward spiral of sadness and hopelessness.
Practicing gratitude is a powerful antidote to this despair. We don’t need to put blinders on in order to shut out all negativity; rather we can recognize that for every heinous act of violence and terrorism that occurs, there are many small acts of kindness and love between friends, family and neighbors to feel thankful for.
We mustn’t lose sight of all the goodness in the world. Taking a few moments every day to remember this goodness and give thanks for it increases our own happiness, which then impacts every life that we touch and enables us all to work towards positive change around and within us.
This month we continue our limb-by-limb exploration of the eight limbs of yoga as delineated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. It’s appropriate that on this last day of 2014 we’ve reached the fifth of the yamas (universal ethical observances), aparigraha. Sometimes translated as greedlessness, aparigraha encompasses the concepts of non-hoarding, non-possessiveness and non-attachment.
This precipice on which we stand between the old year and the new is the perfect point at which to practice aparigraha: to notice where we can let go and where we should hold on. It’s an opportunity to pause and reflect on what the past year has wrought and what we wish to see the new year bring. This practice can be done on multiple levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
On a physical level, aparigraha encourages us to not covet objects or possessions that we don’t have. It can be a useful practice to look at one’s material possessions and determine what really needs to stay and what can go. In this way we can reduce clutter, organize and simplify our lives.
This same practice is useful on mental, emotional, and spiritual levels as well. Particularly as we approach the new year, we might take the time to sit quietly and take stock of what’s working and what’s not…to notice where we can soften and relax, and where we should focus more attention and energy…to observe what emotions, thoughts, and actions we want to bring with us into the new year, and which we can let go.
Sally Kempton describes a beautiful ritual for releasing the mistakes and regrets of the past year and setting your intention for the new year in this article from Yoga Journal: http://www.yogajournal.com/article/yoga-101/old/
Wishing you so much happiness and health in the year to come!
This month we continue our limb-by-limb exploration of the eight limbs of yoga as delineated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
The first limb consists of the five yamas, or universal ethical observances. The fourth of these, brahmacharya, may be the most confusing of the yamas in the context of our modern world. The word brahmacharya literally translates from Sanskrit as “being established in divine consciousness”. This has been interpreted in many different ways. At one end of the spectrum, it’s considered complete celibacy. On the other end, it’s a moderation of one’s indulgence in sensory pleasures.
Patanjali favored a very strict interpretation of brahmacharya as total abstinence. The Yoga Sutras reflect his opinion that not engaging in sex and retaining this energy increases vigor, vitality, and stamina. Patanjali explained that celibacy engenders disgust for the human body and for intimate contact with others, which he considered positive developments in one’s spiritual progress.
This interpretation may have been appropriate in the time of Patanjali. Over two thousand years ago when the Sutras were written, many yoga practitioners were sannyasins (renunciates) living in India who shunned the material world and dedicated themselves entirely to a spiritual life. But where does it leave us today, when the practice of yoga has spread to all corners of the globe and to people of all walks of life engaged in many kinds of pursuits?
BKS Iyengar, who died this past August at the age of 95, was one of the most highly respected and revered modern yoga gurus. He wrote in his seminal book Light on Yoga, “Brahmacharya has little to do with whether one is a bachelor or married and living the life of a householder. One has to translate the higher aspects of brahmacharya in one’s daily living. It is not necessary for one’s salvation to stay unmarried and without a house…Without experiencing human love and happiness, it is not possible to know divine love.”
Iyengar, TKV Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois are three teachers who were instrumental in transmitting the practices of yoga from India to the West during the twentieth century. Desikachar himself was the son of Krishnamacharya, who was the guru of all three men and is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Yoga”. None of these men were sannyasins, but instead were householders who married and had several children. They lived and practiced yoga in the world rather than turning away from it. They did not share Patanjali’s strict interpretation of brahmacharya as abstinence.
These and other modern yoga scholars believe that the practice of brahmacharya does not rule out responsible sex. They interpret it as moderation, monogamy or restraint. They advocate using one’s sexual energy with mindfulness, clarity and a sense of respect for oneself and others.
Yoga is a practice of awareness. The steps we take along the path of yoga should lead us to a clearer understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Whether you choose celibacy or partnership, renunciation or immersion in the world of sensory pleasures, awareness is key. Are you aware of why you made these choices? Are you clear on how they affect you and those around you? Are you mindful of how these choices align with the previous three yamas: ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness) and asteya (non-stealing)? When brahmacharya is practiced with this awareness it becomes, in the words of Iyengar, “the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom”.
This month we continue our limb-by-limb exploration of the eight limbs of yoga as delineated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. These eight precepts are intended as guidelines to living a life with meaning and purpose. They may be seen as a kind of map for seekers of greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
The first limb consists of the yamas, or universal ethical observances. The third of the five yamas is asteya, or non-stealing. On a superficial level this means abstaining from taking things that are not yours. But asteya’s deeper meaning is far beyond this. It also means not taking that which is not offered, including not just material objects but also time, thoughts, energy, emotions, and ideas. Its fundamental implication is that we should refrain from looking outside ourselves to other people, things, and situations to make us happy and fulfilled.
The urge to steal, whether material things or otherwise, often comes from the subconscious belief that there’s not enough to go around. This fear of lack or scarcity leads to greed or hoarding.
How does asteya come into play in our asana practice? You may keep it in mind when you’re practicing in a room full of advanced yogis gracefully flowing from asana to asana with perfect form and you find yourself wishing you could look just like the practitioner in front of you. You may turn to it when you find yourself holding back from really finding your edge in a pose because you’re afraid you won’t have enough energy to get through the class if you do.
We can practice asteya on the mat by honoring our bodies as they are here and now even while we work towards goals and aspirations. We can acknowledge that coveting what another has only leads to suffering and works against us in our practice and our lives. We can shift from a mindset of lack and scarcity to one of abundance and gratitude. We can act based upon the belief that the source of happiness and fulfillment lies not outside us but within us.
Christine Malossi is a yoga teacher and writer based in Manhattan.