Monday, March 24, 2014

12 tips for choosing a Yoga Teacher Training

If you’ve started shopping around for a yoga teacher training, you’ve already noticed the enormous range of styles, schools and content out there. A yoga instructor certification course is a considerable investment of your time and financial resources. You’ll want to choose carefully and deliberately. So how do you know which program is right for you? We’ve put together some tips to help you navigate the yoga training maze and move towards your certification with confidence.
Bali yoga shala 200 hour 500 hour yoga teacher training Bali intensive 2014 2015
Bali yoga shala
1. Where do you want to go?

Destination teacher trainings are a popular way to combine travel with continued education. If you want to explore an exotic (and probably tropical) country, yoga teacher trainings are being offered all over the globe. Have you always wanted to go to Bali? India? Costa Rica? Thailand? While the flight can be pricey, the cost of staying in these countries tends to be much lower than being at home or in another city in the Western world. Research the destination of your choice in regard to culture, best time to visit, logistics of getting there, and safety. 

Maybe this is not the best time for you to be traveling extensively, for whatever reason. Chances are, your local yoga studios are offering in-house teacher trainings. It may be easier to enroll in a program in your home town, especially if you’re juggling family, pets, a demanding career etc.

2. Which training format: standard vs intensive?

Most destination yoga teacher trainings are offered in an intensive format. That means you’ll complete your course in anywhere between 2 and 6 weeks. If it’s possible for you, job-wise and family-wise, to get away and completely immerse yourself, this format offers a huge advantage. Truly experiencing yoga goes a long way to an intellectual understanding of the practices. The deepest techniques of yoga demand uninterrupted and dedicated practice, in a way that is almost impossible when you’re trying to attend to your daily affairs on the side. The inward journey requires freedom and space. At most retreat centers, you’ll be completely taken care of. You don’t need to shop, cook, clean, do laundry, or run errands. Everything is pre-paid and you can focus on the yoga. And you only need to fork out the cash for one flight, rather than taking multiple trips for several separate modules.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of taking an extended vacation, you can still get certified. Standard formats allow you to keep your job while immersing yourself in a yoga teacher training from Friday evening through Sunday. These programs generally extend over several months. So you’ll be working your way slowly, but still surely towards your goal. This format also allows you more time to absorb the information intellectually. Ideally, you can enroll in program in your home town, as the cost of flying back and forth to another city for multiple sessions can really add up. 
3. What style of yoga?

With new styles of yoga being born every day, the variety of brands and philosophies can be overwhelming. This is where you really need to do your homework. Take as many different styles of classes with as many different teachers as you can. Read articles and blogs. Download online classes and courses. Try different guided meditations. Yoga styles range from very physical and vigorous (Power, Hot, Vinyasa, Ashtanga)  - to more gentle - (Restorative, Yin) - to more traditional, spiritual or meditative (Hatha, Tantra, Kundalini). 

You’re going to have a natural tendency to be drawn to one or more styles, depending on your personality and where you currently find yourself in your personal development.  It's common to fall in love with a style, and then stay in that comfort zone. Move out of the bubble and experiment with other techniques. Yoga is a big word, encompassing countless intentions and philosophies. The more diversity you expose yourself to, the more educated a decision you'll make for your yoga teacher training. 
200 hour 500 hour yoga teacher training Bali intensive 2014 2015
Teacher trainees at work
4. Is the school an RYS?

Check the Yoga Alliance school directory to confirm that the yoga teacher training is accredited. Registration by the school with YA assures that the training program meets standards for curriculum developed by Yoga Alliance and that training is conducted by experienced instructors. Only graduates of a registered yoga school are eligible to register with Yoga Alliance as RYTs®. You don’t want to spend a lot of money (not to mention blood, sweat and tears) only to find out your school isn’t legit and you can’t get your RYT certification. 

5. How experienced are the teachers?

Check the credentials of the primary instructors. How long have they been teaching? Where did they study? What other professional or educational background do they have that gives them perspective as a yoga teacher? The lead teacher training facilitator must be a Yoga Alliance certified ERYT (Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher). The highest level of certification possible is ERYT 500, which means the instructor has at least 2000 hours and a minimum of four years of teaching experience since graduating.

6. What is the school’s focus?

Carefully read the school’s syllabus. The Yoga Alliance defines minimum hours and loose content requirements. Each school is free to place emphasis wherever they choose, as long as they meet YA minimum hours. For example, “anatomy” could mean bones, muscles and joints, or it should mean subtle body anatomy (chakras and nadis). The same school might work with a variety of teachers, each with their own specializations. Read the program facilitator's blogs to get a better feel of who's leading the training.

Also, check the training program’s required reading list. Go to amazon and read the descriptions and previews of the books. This will give you a good indication of the focus of the training.

7. Will you get practical teaching experience?

Some yoga teacher training programs provide students with excellent academic content while falling short in offering practical learning. We personally know of teacher trainings where students don’t get any practice teaching at all. You’ll want as much experience as you get in the safe, supportive group environment of a teacher training before being unleashed into the world. 

8. What is the class size?

If it’s not clearly stated on their website, as the school what is the maximum number of students who will be enrolled in the teacher training. The numbers vary greatly, and can have a big impact on your experience. Ask about the teacher to student ratio. The more personal attention you get, the more you’ll learn.

9. What level of practice is required?

Yoga teacher trainings are not appropriate for beginners. Period. You will not benefit from learning yoga basics while trying to learn to teach at the same time. Would you try to become a Spanish teacher while taking beginner Spanish classes? No you wouldn’t. 

Make sure the school requires applicants to have a solid foundation in the basic and fundamental yoga postures. You don’t need to be an expert yogi with a perfect practice, but you and your fellow teacher trainees should have solid footing and a level of maturity and body awareness. Any beginners in the mix would not be able to keep up with the group, which would ultimately depreciate the experience for everyone.

Bali beach sunset 200 hour 500 hour yoga teacher training Bali intensive 2014 2015

Bali sunset

10. How much does it cost?

Yoga teacher trainings may be a dime a dozen, but they’re still not cheap. Expect to pay anywhere between $2500 and $10,000 for a 200 or 300 hour certification course. As with any product or service, a big price tag does not necessarily equate to a better training. Big brands command higher prices, even in the world of yoga. Some schools will offer payment plans, work exchanges or scholarships. 

11. What do graduates say?

Read blogs, testimonials and reviews of previous graduates. With the rise of social media, student feedback is published on a variety of different platforms, including Facebook, Yelp, Yoga Trail, and the Yoga Alliance website. You can also ask the yoga school to connect you with their training graduates for additional assurance.

12. Does the school offer continued education?

Investigate all the training programs being offered by the school. What classes, workshops, retreats, and advanced trainings are on offer? A school that also offers 300 hour, 500 hour programs and beyond will tend to have more experienced facilitators and a stronger community than those only offering 200 hour programs. Satisfied 200 hour graduates want to continue on to their 300 hour program with the same school. 300 hour graduates are looking for other advanced training opportunities.  Also, more program offerings means more opportunities for graduates to assist and gain valuable teaching experience in a training environment. If the road ends after the 200 hour program, the community can never really build.

Put it all together

Once you've done the research and have all the facts, let your intuition play a supporting role. Some yoga teacher trainings and teachers will simply speak to you more than others, for reasons you may not yet be able to define. A regular practice of yoga connects us with our truest self, and allows us to tune in and listen to what our soul longs for. 

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” -Rumi

Friday, March 14, 2014

Recharging the creative batteries: an Art interlude in Missoula, MT

This week, while on a teaching tour through the US, I made a 1000 mile driving detour through Montana. This was uncharted territory for me, and Big Sky Country beckoned. The moniker is well-deserved, by the way. People and places are a constant source of inspiration for my "life above the neck," as a late beloved college professor used to call it. 

Checking out the neighborhood on Google maps, I saw that the well-reputed Missoula Art Museum (MAM) was just around the corner from my hotel. On a bright and crisp winter morning, I set out on foot to explore. The museum is a tiny jewel, tucked away in a modern downtown building. MAM’s mission is “to engage audiences and artists in the exploration of contemporary art relevant to the community, state and region.” The friendly staff explained the exhibit layouts, and I headed up to the third floor to begin an excellent cell-phone guided tour. On a random Wednesday morning, I was one of just a handful of visitors, not counting the gaggle of fifth graders who were taking a tour with their teachers. Where else do you hear the word “dodecahedron” these days? 

As I took my time to thoroughly absorb this small yet excellent collection of contemporary American works, a few pieces stood out for their message or technique. Many of the artists were unfamiliar to me, so I looked them up afterward, and found some pretty amazing biographical facts. Below, I discuss both the art that struck me, and then the fun facts about the artists I discovered later. 

1. Throwing Three Balls in The Air to get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts), by John Baldessari

The Art
That's a pretty straight line.
This was a series of 12 offset lithographs depicting three pink balls suspended against a bright blue sky. Sometimes, treetops were visible. In other photos, just the three balls and sky. The viewer never sees who's throwing the balls, or what's happening on the ground. The balls were always captured in a slightly different formation. I loved the message here: chop wood, carry water. Try, try again. Practice makes perfect. I appreciated the dedication to the goal, and the rigid documentation of the process. What made me smile was the actual task the artist chose to pursue: trying to get the three balls to line up in a straight line in the air. I thought about a few instances in my own life, where I tried and tried to do something that maybe, in retrospect, didn’t make a lot of sense, or didn't really serve me. If I'm going to do something, I want to do it well. With a limited amount of time and energy in this life, it's important to spend it on something meaningful. 

Not so straight.
The Artist

John Baldessari is a conceptual artist working in photography, film, video, billboards, and public works. In his early career, he was a painter. Quite dramatically, Baldessari burned all of the work he produced between 1953 and 1966 in a ceremony in 1970 to mark his transition from abstract painting to text-based art. Subsequently, he focused on photographic work. While we can’t comment on the scale of the loss to humanity that the destruction of his work caused, we admire his courage and audacity in such a bold new start. 
2. Self-Portrait, by Chuck Close
The Art
From a distance, this print looks like a vivid photograph of a man with a striking similarity to Walter White from Breaking Bad. When viewed close up, however, the painting is a wild agglomeration of colorful circles and squares. The collector who loaned the work to the museum said it reminded him of the complexity of people, at how a first glance can be deceiving, and there’s so much going on we don’t know about. These words rang in my ears when I looked up Mr. Close later that day.
Self-portrait from afar
Mr. Close, up close
The Artist
Charles Thomas "Chuck" Close is an American painter and photographer who made his mark in the art world as a photorealist, creating massive-scale portraits. A catastrophic spinal artery collapse in 1988 left him severely paralyzed, but that didn't stop him. He continues to paint and produce work in high demand by collectors and museums. 
Interestingly, Close also suffers from prosopagnosia, aka face blindness. He is absolutely unable to recognize faces. Painting portraits serves as a memory aid for him. Talking about this disorder, Close has said, "I was not conscious of making a decision to paint portraits because I have difficulty recognizing faces. That occurred to me twenty years after the fact when I looked at why I was still painting portraits, why that still had urgency for me.” Talk about an a-ha moment. Another prime example of how strongly our minds shape our experience in the world. Had he not suffered from this disorder, what would his art have looked like? 

3. Debwe exhibition, by Karen Goulet
The Art
Debwe is the title of the current exhibition at MAM of recent works by the artist Karen Goulet. Debwe in the Ojibwe language means “speaks the truth honestly," a concept  that is a strong driving force for Goulet. The exhibition features a series of star quilts and paper weavings. We were reminded of the word courage, derived from the Latin root cor, or heart: “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” Acting and speaking from a place of authenticity, a place of truth, is something that resonates strongly with me. I tip my hat to Goulet's ability to tell stories through these beautiful handmade pieces. 
Star quilt
Labrynth to the stars
The Artist
Goulet is a Native American - more specifically, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation. She is a professional artist, poet, and educator. In an interview with the artist (made available as a cell-phone tour of the exhibit), she explains how she learned the craft from her parents, who in turn learned it from their parents. The knowledge is handed down through the generations, and she feels very connected to her family, her tribe, when she’s creating her works. She says, “Weaving and quilting are my way of talking about culture, weaving past and present together in a way that I aspire to keep stories new. In every piece of art I make is my admiration for the people I am from.” I appreciated the homage to tradition and to ancient knowledge kept alive. It was a reminder to pay respect to the millennia old lessons of yogic tradition that has, miraculously, made its way from India into my life, thousands of years later and thousands of miles away.
Finding inspiration
I don't claim to be a scholar of art, just a curious person who has visited more museums all over the world than I can recall. There is always something new to learn. I find inspiration for my practice and teaching in unexpected places and times, not just in a yoga studio. Yoga is so much more to me than a practice “on the mat.” It’s a way of thinking, a way of viewing the world, a way of connecting, a way of being. It's a cultivation of the core vibration we carry. I know that my soul longs for beauty, art, and intelligence, and I try to feed it often, from a wide variety of sources.

by Katherine Girling
The MAM is located at 335 N. Pattee St. Admission is free.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Spring cleaning of the mind: Diary of a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat

Last fall, riding a wave of keen intellectual curiosity, I applied for a ten day silent Vipassana retreat. I had been reading a lot about all the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and wanted to explore it more thoroughly. After promising to renounce all other spiritual practices (including yoga meditation), I was accepted to an intensive course in February.  Although I had read all the information on the website, as well as a few blog posts by past participants, I was completely unprepared for the havoc I was about to wreak on my psyche. This is a true account of my experience on this meditation course. If I can’t be a good example, then I’d at least like to serve as a horrible warning. Some of it is a blur, as hours stretched into days and I became increasingly unhinged. I’ll do my best to recall the retreat accurately and without bias. It does have a happy ending. After all, I’m not writing this from inside a padded cell. 

The lovely woods
Day 0: I roll up to the lovely rustic retreat center in Northern California for registration on the eve of the retreat. I may or may not be slightly hungover from the previous day’s champagne tasting in Napa. The air is cool, damp and redolent with pine. It’s heaven. It’s my first time on an intense immersion like this, and I’m giddy like a fourth grader on the first day of school. My husband drops me off, warning me that I’ll probably be running naked in the woods and howling at the moon by the time he returns to collect me. I scoff, and we bid adieu. I get busy with unpacking and settling into my cozy corner at the back of a six person cabin. It is clean and comfortable, and the window opens, offering a view of the dark forest rising up behind the camp. Later, when all the students have arrived, we chat, enjoy a simple vegetarian dinner, and exchange predictions on what cravings will cause us the most suffering. I think the hardest part will be going without dinner. Looking back, I chuckle at the naivety. We have no idea what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
During the orientation meeting, the rules are explained: 
  • Abstain from killing (Easy. Already got over my fear of spiders after a year in Indonesia.)
  • Abstain from stealing (Ditto. Not an issue I struggle with.)
  • Abstain from all sexual activity (No biggie. I’m not a sex addict.)
  • Abstain from all telling lies (Even to myself? I’ll try.)
  • Abstain from all intoxicants (Thankfully, caffeine does not qualify.)
From that moment onward, we observe what’s referred to as Noble Silence, which is silence of body, speech and mind. No eye contact or gestures with other students. No communication with the outside world. No journaling or post-it jotting. No reading. No cell phones or iPads. 
Also, no exercise - not, allegedly, because it would excite the mind, but rather because it would distract fellow meditators. So no yoga and no running. I can handle that for 10 days. I’ve been sloth-like for that amount of time before, for both noble and ignoble reasons.

We go over the schedule. Only two meals a day, only fruit for “dinner”. For informational purposes, I’m providing the theoretical activity as designated by the retreat organizers, as well as a preview of my own actual activity during that time:

On that first evening, we’re given instructions for a simple meditation of breath awareness at the nostrils. I’ve done this before, and am undaunted. We try it out for maybe half an hour, then head to bed. That night, I don’t sleep much. I toss and turn, and continually dream that I’m in the wrong place and I have to pack and leave and go somewhere else. Over and over again. The mental torment has already begun and I haven’t even really gotten my hands dirty yet. Hoo boy.
Day 1: The morning wake up gong rings. It’s 4am and pitch black outside. I brush my teeth, splash cold water on my face, get bundled up in comfy layers and trudge up to the meditation hall. I take my seat as everyone files in. I soon realize that the teachers aren’t there, and they’re not coming. There is no instruction or guidance. We just sit. Around me, newbie meditators are fidgeting wildly, trying to find a comfortable position that doesn’t cause their back to ache or their legs to fall asleep. I tire of the unguided technique after about an hour and go back to my cabin, to nap discreetly behind my closed curtain.
During breaks, I greatly appreciate the well-maintained trails in the woods, and walk them three times a day to stave off my restless legs syndrome. Also, I hate feeling like a slug.  In these quiet moments, my memory is a wellspring of 19th & 20th century poetry. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. My mind is unloading. Some of it is quite beautiful, and a lot of it is just sinister.

Later that day, I learn that it is, in fact, possible to hurt yourself while meditating. Trying to relieve the numbness in my left leg, I switch positions. Hours later, when the bell rings, I stand up and make for the exit, without realizing that my leg has now fallen completely asleep. My foot hits the floor with a sickening crack. I hear it, but I can’t feel it. Yet. I wonder if I have broken my big toe. There’s no swelling, but it continues to hurt enough for the remainder of my stay to remind me of the injury, every time I sit cross legged.

I also learn that the teachers here are not actually going to teach. We get our information from voice and video recordings of the technique’s main ambassador, the late S.N. Goenka. Apparently, the way he taught it is to be carved in stone. The personalities of any teachers after him, even if extensively trained by him personally, are not to color the clear waters of the teachings. I try to imagine applying this philosophy to Zuna Yoga teacher trainings, and the outcome is totally ridiculous. Ok, students, you just spent a lot of money and time on this training, now here’s a CD and DVD set of my voice and instruction videos for you to play to your students. You can operate the remote control, but you can’t actually teach. Huh? I try not to be too judgmental.

Day 2: More people discover the walking paths in the woods. We’re required to be modestly dressed, and it’s chilly. This results in a dozen or so ladies wandering dazedly around, swathed in blankets and shawls and hats and gloves. Lumpy and frumpy. More poetry flits up: Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert. Hailing is not permitted. There are "Course Boundary" signs all along the perimeter of the paths, presumably to keep people from disappearing into the woods, never to return. It's tempting. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.

The Meditation Hall
Meditating with the group in the hall is extremely irritating to me. All the coughing, sneezing, sniffling, fidgeting is maddening. You can’t tell if everyone has a bad cold, or they’re crying. Probably both. Why can’t everyone sit still and be quiet? I realize my capacity for compassion may be somewhat lacking. At the lunch break, I ask the teacher about this. She tells me we are here to learn not just meditation, but also tolerance. She suggests I focus on my work at the end of my nose. This is actually helpful advice. If I get distracted by the sounds of my neighbors, I imagine it's my best friend sniffling, not a stranger. I wouldn't get mad at her. I would recognize she's having a hard time, and mentally wish her well. So why get annoyed with a stranger, just because they're not my friend yet, or haven't passed some kind of acceptability test? Why do I assume the people I know and care about are more worthy of compassion than people I don't yet know or care about? Hm. I believe that was an a-ha moment.
Hours and hours spent trying to tame the wild mind. The stillness is a vacuum, the mind wants to fill it with all kinds of garbage. I start making parallels to zombie movies. I feel like an undead version of myself, with oily gunk oozing out of my mouth. If you cut me open, my blood would run black. I am smaller, meaner than I thought. I did not know I held so much ugliness.

Oh sweet Jesus, help me.  It’s only Day 2. 

Day 3: We are still concentrating on the breath at the nostrils. All. Day. Long. For 12 hours. If I had a car here, or even roller-skates or a bicycle, I would take off in a heartbeat. I think about how I could escape in the middle of the night without someone hearing me. I know they deliberately spread gravel all over the campground so they can detect runaways. I longingly eye the front gate, which remains closed except for food deliveries. I think i could clear it with my 5th grade high jump technique. It’s too high to hurdle straight on.

The process of cleansing the mind is like vomiting, observing myself vomit, and then sitting in a pool of my own vomit. I hate this.

A bright and sunny day. But during the lunch break, the woods are empty. Where are my fellow walkers? Has a neutron bomb gone off? Has this all been just a bad dream? I stop to soak in a pool of sunlight. Sunbathing is not permitted. I decide that if it’s just my upturned face, it doesn’t count. Not breaking the rules, no sir, not me. I am a rock. I meander around the paths, and later find the missing ladies sprawled across the camp in plastic lawn chairs, basking in the sun. It’s a heartwarming sight, and I smile. Everyone is taking their comfort where they can get it.
Day 4: Finally, we learn Vipassana. I thought we were doing Vipassana all along, but I was mistaken. We move awareness through the body: top of the head to the tip of the toes, and back up again. With equanimity and detachment, we observe any sensations we notice in those parts of the body. The theory goes something like this: attachment, craving and aversion are the cause of all suffering. A pleasant sensation or experience - be it material, emotional or spiritual - becomes something we want to repeat. We’re no longer happy without it. In contrast, an unpleasant sensation becomes something we want to avoid. This develops into fear, anger, and disappointment. By charging our past experiences with strong emotions, we are writing a mental program of automatic responses to whatever comes next.  The classic "if this, then that" algorithm. And our reaction often is far stronger than the current situation warrants. I get it. 

Consistently, the "sensation" I feel most is sheer boredom. I've found a posture and props with which I can sit at length, without difficulty. But after so many hours of sitting and trying to reign in the unruly mind, any technique would become tiresome. So now I have to deal equanimously with boredom. Interestingly, the tedium during sittings is followed by painful revelations during breaks. So many slights, hurts, people and places I haven’t thought of in decades come bubbling up.

Out of doors, the women start to leave each other life-affirming messages in the woods, written in stones and sticks and leaves. This is breaking the noble silence, but it’s hard to remain in total isolation when you’re falling apart. Someone starts doing step aerobics on a meditation platform. Bad! That is clearly a down dog I see on platform 2. Forbidden! 

The yoga girls can’t help themselves. We furtively stretch after the hour long meditation sessions, seeing how much we can get away with before someone scolds us. This is a calf or quad stretch I learned as a runner, so it doesn’t count. As the days wear on, our stretches turn into straight-up yoga poses, in full view of everyone else. 

That night, I dream that a Malaysian customs agent finds weed in my bags. She’s a small, severe woman, with dark nerdy glasses and her black hair pulled back into a tight bun. She’s angry. She is shouting, calling me by my former married name that I haven’t used in 15 years. I know it’s over. She presses the gun to my left temple. I brace myself, and accept that death is imminent. She pulls the trigger. Click. Nothing happens. Another click. I see my opportunity and wrestle the gun out of her hand. She decides to let me go. I feel relief.

The camp and cabins
Day 5:  I understand that this meditation technique is really doing something, releasing stored emotions and memories that have been buried for decades. The teacher keeps mentioning the science of the method. The wave-particle duality theory is thrown around. In a lunch break, I ask the assistant teacher what is meant by science, in this case. She doesn’t have an answer. I am offended. Nobody should take the name of Science in vain.
Day 6: Misery. Unmitigated suffering.

I ask the teacher how to process all the pain and torment that is boiling up from the depths of my being. She says to observe it, but not get lost in the story of it. Don’t roll around in it. This makes sense, as I do tend to grind and grind on problems and worries, which serves nothing and no one. I try it out, and manage to become marginally more detached from the visions of doom and gloom.

At the lunch break (nap time!), in a flash of brilliance, I remember I have earplugs in my suitcase that will muffle the distracting sounds in the meditation hall. I am saved. I will get through this.

Maybe it’s today that I hear sobbing from across the aisle, in the men’s section. Someone is bawling like a baby. At some point, he leaves. I glance over and notice a handful of empty spots in the gentlemen’s area.

The teacher’s words ring in my ears: you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.

Day 7: I dream i’m holding my newborn baby girl. She’s hungry, but i’m so so tired, I can’t stay awake. I clutch her to my breast and pass out. In reality, I have no children. Motherhood is something I feel somewhat conflicted about, and probably I will die childless, never having resolved that conflict. Oh my God, I am going to die. We’re all going to die. I am trying not to roll around in it but this is all so sad.

The silence wasn’t a problem for me. It appealed to my sliver of a misanthropic side, and turned out to be a blessing, as I would have bitched and moaned nonstop for the first 9 days. The inability to write down all the crazy, horrible and brilliant things that were springing from my subconscious was a bummer. 

Day 8: By now, in the woods we have full-on, unabashed displays of yoga. I observe an interesting display of interpretive dance. The electric boogaloo is enjoying a revival is this shady grove.

More meditation. Brief flashes of elation interspersed through dark, melancholy days. I will get through this. Clearly I need this radical spring cleaning. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

Buddha meditating
Day 9: I awake in the middle of the night, sobbing. In my dream, my husband and I have gotten ourselves into a serious pickle. We are hanging on for life on the edge of a tall building. His left hand is crushed.  We agree the best course of action is to die.  Right there, together. We let go. He hits the ground and dies. I bounce off the pavement and survive. I am bereft. This is not how we planned it.
Meanwhile, back in reality, we’ve been informed that tomorrow we break silence. I wonder what the kitchen crew will whip up for our last celebratory day. I visualize chocolate cake - how wonderful it would taste. There’s no freakin’ way they’ll make chocolate cake, that would be too awesome. I reminisce wistfully about chocolate cakes of yore. 

Day 10:  At breakfast, I scope out the lunch menu. Much to my amusement, chocolate cake is on the menu. Clearly I have developed the ability to manifest chocolate cake. This is a most auspicious sign.

After the morning meditation, we are permitted to speak again. This is more of a soothing balm to me than the loving kindness meditation we’ve added to our practice. We immediately seek connection to each other, these silent companions through the difficult days. We compare horror stories, and they are all quite laughably similar. Everyone hated it, everyone wanted to run away, everyone was relieved to no longer be battling their demons all day. By mid-afternoon, I’m hoarse from talking non-stop. Whew. The worst is over.

So what lessons do I take away from these intense and grueling ten days? 

1. Don’t fear the darkness. I consider myself to be someone without too much emotional baggage or deep-seated issues. I also have some experience meditating. But man, was this retreat tough. I was astounded by all the junk in my trunk. And I was so impressed by the strength and fortitude of the thirty-odd women who stuck it out. None of the women gave up. Interestingly, five men dropped out that week. Maybe because women are more practiced in navigating the dark waters. We tend to talk about stuff, cry about stuff, share our fears and our pain. That’s where the real work lies. If you back off when things get ugly, you’ll never get through it or over it. "Until we have seen someone’s darkness we don’t really know who they are. Until we have forgiven someone’s darkness, we don’t really know what love is." - Marianne Williamson. That applies to the self as well as others.

2. Regular meditation is key. The mind/body construct is constantly being sullied by the insults, disappointments and even the joys of life.  The more you let the emotional attachments build up, the less clearly you can think. Certain meditative techniques, like Vipassana, do an excellent job of washing away the dirt and garbage. Like housecleaning, you don’t want to do it just once a year. You need to be scrubbing toilets, doing dishes, and taking out the trash frequently. A little cleaning every day is best. 

3. Silence is golden. I understand now why they insist on total silence and take our phones away. I would have called my husband and asked for a divorce on Day 2, suggested baby names on day 3, and asked for a divorce again on day 4. If I had been employed, I would have called my boss and quit. If I had been able to speak with my fellow meditators, I would have complained incessantly about how difficult and boring and tormenting this was. Observing silence not only focused my energy inward, where the work needed to be done, it also shielded those around me from a whole lot of nonsense.

4. I am, fundamentally, not a Buddhist. While there are parts of this philosophy and technique that are very valid and useful to me, the system feels incomplete to me. I don’t believe that all passion is harmful and should be discouraged. I don’t believe that the absence of suffering is equivalent to joy. I don’t believe that our journey ends with ending our suffering. I believe that this is the starting point for the real work we need to be doing: living a life of purpose, empowered and free. This is Tantra, and I’m happy to have found a type of yoga that embodies these values.

5. Pick a spot for your well, and keep digging. In his closing discourse, Goenka tells students to choose whichever spiritual path resonates with them, and to really go for it. If you dig a little here and little there, and never really dig deep, you’ll never find the water. You’ll never get to the source. As a life-long dilettante who enjoys trying some of this and some of that, I understand that there are some things we really need to master. Self-mastery is one of them.

They were the best of days, they were the worst of days. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight with myself. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, assuming they don’t have any serious mental health issues. It was very cleansing, and I left feeling a hundred pounds lighter. Will I keep practicing Vipassana for two hours a day, as recommended? No, as there are pieces missing for me that I get through yoga meditation and asana practice. Would I do it again? Absolutely not. Anyway, I wouldn’t be allowed to, unless I renounce teaching other types of meditation. And that, I believe, would not be authentic, running counter to my purpose and my passions.

Information on Vipassana retreats can be found at

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What does it mean to be authentic?

Here at Zuna Yoga, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about authenticity. So what exactly is authenticity, and why is it so important? And what does any of this have to do with yoga?

For those of you who are just joining us, Zuna is a sanskrit word meaning to grow and prosper.  Zuna Yoga is a modern scientific view of traditional yoga and Tantra whose aim to is develop our capacity to thrive led by the authenticity that lives within us all. 

Yoga in its most profound sense is and has always been a science of living that carries in its promise the realization of both spiritual and worldly fulfillment.  It does this by endowing its followers with the wisdom, perseverance and capacity to live boldly and authentically.
Each one of us has visions of a beautiful life of fulfillment and accomplishment.  We often experience great challenge bringing these visions to the canvas of our lives.  The teachings of Vedic and Tantric traditions tell us these challenges are largely a product of visions not born from or supported by our true authenticity. In other words, we’re wishing for the wrong things. These traditions also state that once we have created a relationship with this authentic self and enlist its wisdom, the obstacles to our achievements are tremendously depreciated, if not completely eliminated.

So let’s investigate one of Yoga's most important and relevant texts in support of this life science.

About 2000 years ago, Patanjali created his philosophical masterpiece known as the Yoga Sutras, 196 very concise verses with which every yogi or yogini should be well acquainted.  Patanjali clearly defines what yoga is, the obstacles to its attainment, the road signs of its achievement, and what we get from it when we do achieve it.  The foundation of this understanding can be seen in Pantanjali's first four sutras.
In fact, these four verses are considered by many scholars throughout history to be the most concise definition of yoga ever written.

Let’s take a look at these four sutras:
1.  Atha yoga anushasanam  - Be prepared,  as the truest lesson of yoga follows. 
2. Yogas chitta vritti Nirodah  - “Yoga is the restraint (control, mastery, cessation) of mental modifications” 
This sutra is considered the most fundamental of all.  In fact, this definition has become  unilaterally accepted by nearly every yoga tradition. He's saying that yoga is literally shutting down the thinking mind.  This is key: Patanjali defines yoga as an experience, rather than an intellectual understanding.  
3. Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam - Then the seer abides (or rests) in its own true essence 
Patanjali is now defining what happens when we have experienced yoga. The part of you witnessing or observing this moment is the true or authentic self.  Again, when the thinking mind is no longer active, what remains is our pure and unadulterated authenticity.  Experience is free from any modifications or misconceptions of the mind.  You reside in the the purity of your own consciousness.  In the Tantric tradition, this experience is beautifully referred to as self remembrance and is called smarana. Smarana is a key element of Zuna Yoga.
4. Vritti sarupyam itaratra: or, the seer identifies with (or is lost in) the modifications (thought-forms) of the mind field. 
When we are not residing in the state of our authentic self, we are either lost or under the control of the modifications the mind creates of reality and are unconscious of our true self.  Furthermore, when consciousness is not aware of itself, it is subject to illusion, even delusion.  It even takes on the form of its own deceptive creations and mistakenly believes itself to be something other than what it is. 
This is why the question:"Who am I?" plays such an important role in the journey towards Self Realization. Once we solve the riddle of who we are by realizing it within, we are capable of creating a powerfully authentic masterpiece of life.  It is connecting to this authenticity and attempting to give it an opportunity to reveal a glimpse of its wisdom that is our goal when we practice yoga. That may sound like a tall order to fill, but its not as difficult as you might think.  We can learn to allow the conscious, thinking mind to just step aside, even if just for a brief moment.

So again, in what is considered one of the most import scriptures of yogic tradition, Patanjali clearly spells out that yoga is a systematic science that delivers us powerfully into a state of authenticity. When we do not live in this authentic expression, we are enslaved or lost in the  fluctuating field of the mind and its obsessions.  It is also very important to understand that Patanjali's yoga was devoted entirely to the sciences of meditation and psychology.  It contained very little reference to asana, the postures of yoga.  Not that postural proficiency is unimportant, but that harnessing the power of the mind is significantly more important, as it is fundamental in how we create relationships and maneuver through our reality in a manner that is not only successful but fulfilling.
When we practice, we embody the intention to connect with this authenticity. We tap into our true self to create a beautiful, empowered life. That is the promise and the purpose of yoga.