Ahimsa, Veganism, and Yoga Sutra II:35

Ahimsa pratisthayam tat saminidhau vaira tyagah.
In the presence of one established in non-violence, all hostility ceases.
Yoga Sutra II:35

Nonviolence (or non-harming, as ahimsa is sometimes translated) became an important ideal for me when I got sober in 2009. I didn’t want to be the “tornado ripping through other people’s lives” anymore. For the first time, I began to consider the effects of my actions on others, and realized how harmful I could be, even unintentionally.

I had been vegetarian for some time but decided that I needed to become vegan to match my behavior to my ideals. Veganism is a major part of my ahimsa practice. It means much more than not eating dairy or meat.

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Book Review: Taylor Hunt’s A Way From Darkness

 

A Way From Darkness

In Taylor Hunt’s A Way From Darkness, the reader gets a first-person view of the author hitting bottom—hard—only to get up and find a new and meaningful way of life. Hunt’s decade-long journey from heroin addict to father, husband, and Level II Authorized Ashtanga Yoga teacher with hundreds of students is inspiring because of its honesty and appeal to tradition. He makes it very clear that he wouldn’t have found sobriety without the 12 steps and help of other recovering addicts and alcoholics, which is refreshing in a time when anti-institutionalism and self-help is in vogue.

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The Wisdom to Know the Difference

“Patanjali’s dictum in sutra II.16, ‘heyam dukham anagatam,’ means that we need to avoid creating future suffering. If you intuitively feel that the performance of a particular posture will be detrimental, then take the responsibility of your own body into your own hands and do not perform it…you may have heard that yoga looks at the body as a temple. How will you worship the Divine in this temple if you have defiled it through an injury because you wanted to live up to some ideal?”

-Gregor Maehle, Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series

This doesn’t give me license to skip or avoid postures that I don’t like or find uncomfortable, but it does empower me with discernment, one of the qualities invoked in the opening chant. The line “sankhacakrasi dharinam” provides an image of a conch, discus, and sword. The sword represents discrimination or discernment. I like to break the idea of discernment down into part of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

If I begin each practice by invoking discernment, the wisdom to know the difference, then choose to ignore the little voice in the back of my head saying, “you know, that pain in your low back is more stabby than achy at this point. This might be a good place to stop,” then I’m not practicing the very thing that I pray for.

We are allowed to stop when the body says stop. Sometimes, we have to scale back and rebuild. It’s so easy to let my ego get in the way of this.

Yoga and Creative Writing

I held a workshop on two of my favorite topics at Butler University last week. I’ve always suspected a connection between yoga and writing, but never formally explored it until Mindy, the MFA in Creative Writing program administrator at Butler, invited me to kick off this semester’s Conversations@Efro series.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not a fan of making a combo-pack out of yoga and something else. Chocolate Yoga, Wine and Yoga, PiYo/Yogalates, YogaFit, etc., are all classes that are probably great, but just not for me. I believe in both the purity of the Ashtanga lineage and the importance of time-honored traditions in writing (the writing workshop, learning to read like a writer, the process of editing and publishing). So why would I want to combine yoga and writing?

Because really, they’re not that different.

Writing, done mindfully, can be part of a yoga practice just like asanas are. Writing is the process of quieting and focusing the mind enough that meaningful language can be produced. According to Yoga Sutra 1.2-1.3, “Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind. Then the seer rests in its true nature.” Sounds similar, no?

Writing is also an act of self-study (svadhyaya). And it requires concentration and awareness (dharana). And it can be meditative (dhyana). It’s also all about telling the truth (satya), whether that truth is literal or emotional.

Honestly, my event last week was more of an experiment than a workshop. What happens if you do a little light asana (Surya Namaskar A and the three closing lotuses) to help writers focus, then give them some prompts? They write. And, unless they were lying to me, they write usefully. Whether or not they’ll ever use what they wrote in a poem, essay, or story doesn’t matter. What matters is that each of the participants gained some insight or processed an idea that had been circulating in the brain.

Interested in trying it? The handout I created for the workshop is below. It includes a step-by-step process for practicing mindfulness while writing, but if you’re an Ashtangi (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably are), do some sun salutations and the three closing lotuses before you try it. Following those instructions are some writing prompts that ask the writer to delve deep into the well of the self.

Enjoy.

Wordbending: The Yoga of Writing

Yoga is mastery of the activities of the mind. Then the seer rests in its true nature.

Yoga Sutra 1.2-1.3

According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yoga is the process of finding the focus necessary to master the chattering mind and arrive at a steady truth, which is exactly what we do when we write. When your brain is simultaneously planning dinner, checking Twitter alerts, writing the next great American novel, and figuring out whether or not that spot on your arm is a Sharpie mark or a cancerous mole, it probably isn’t going to be successful at any of those items.

Yoga ignites a mind-body connection that cultivates mindfulness and produces a clutter-free mental landscape. Have you ever lost yourself in your own writing? That unbroken focus and loss of self is part of yoga. If we consider the act of creation to be divine, and many cultures do, then when we lose ourselves in the creative process we are achieving an outcome of yoga: union with the divine.

Consciously practicing mindfulness can help make a creative flow arrive when you want it to, rather than waiting until the Muse stops in, which she usually does only at 2:00 a.m. or while you’re in the shower. Try turning your writing practice into a mindfulness practice by doing the following:

  • Put away all other distractions. Yes, including your iPad.
  • Before you sit down to write, take time to notice your body and consciously connect with it.
  • Before you write a word, take note of the sensations you’re experiencing: the hardness of the chair, the smoothness of the keyboard, the feeling of your wrists against your desk.
  • Hopefully you’re doing this anyways, but do it deeply, and pay attention to what it feels like as you’re breathing. Take five deep breaths, then begin your writing practice.
  • When you get distracted, return to 3-5 and repeat as often as necessary.

Prompts:

One of yoga’s principles is Svadhyaya, which means self-study. Practice some Svadhyaya using one or more of the following prompts, which all focus on delving into the inner self.

  1. Write about a fitting punishment. -Sarah Frye
  2. What is the worst thing you’ve ever done, and never been caught? -Heidi Czerwiec
  3. Write a story or essay that undermines something you believe in. -Alex Madison
  4. Write about a challenging moment you faced this week and what insights you took away from it. -Clare Meeker
  5. Write about a memory that you (the real or a fictive you) carry alone. -Elizabeth Alexander
  6. What did you always know, or sense, without ever having learned? -Elizabeth Alexander
  7. When working with students who are trying to create narratives out of something very traumatic I give the prompt to write instead about the before or the after. Often times it’s through context and who we’ve become since that helps us find the story. Before the event I: looked like, walked like, thought things like; After the event I: looked like, walked like, thought things like. -Corinne Manning

Writing prompts were borrowed and slightly adapted from the fabulous Ploughshares blog. Find more of them here: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/all-time-favorite-writing-prompts/

 

 

On Injury and Practice

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I’m injured right now, which is only fair. I’ve written about injury often enough in an abstract sense, so now it’s my turn to experience the very literal effects that being hurt have on my practice. It’s my turn to learn about injury, equanimity, and compassion.

My practice has been compromised since the end of October. Around that time, I had been catching my ankles with assistance and had just learned Kapotasana. All seemed well, but then I felt low back pain, something that troubles 31 million Americans. Now I’m one of them.

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Sometimes Green Smoothies and Yoga Aren’t Enough

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After my last post, I feel like I should be writing about how brightly I rebounded from depression by replacing refined sugar with green smoothies, or how receiving some second-series backbends re-energized me.

But I didn’t. And they didn’t. Cutting out sugar has saved me from spending too much money on cashew-milk ice cream, but I don’t think it’s radically changed my emotional state. And those deep backbends only made my deficits, both physical and emotional, so much clearer. Thanks, Kapotasana.

I needed more than naturopathy this time. I got back on antidepressants.

Continue reading “Sometimes Green Smoothies and Yoga Aren’t Enough” »

Depreshtanga

I suffer from depression. Maybe it came with the alcoholism. Maybe it led to the alcoholism. Either way, it’s part of my life and sometimes, like recently, it’s all-consuming.

Paschimottanasana

Photo by Michelle Craig

Lately, my mat has felt like a life raft. Not in a “yoga is saving my life” way. Not even in a “my practice is the only thing keeping me sane” way. It’s a life raft because I feel like I’ve been shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean, and if I don’t hang on to my raft, I’m going to drown.

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Recipe: Garbanzo Kale Bonanza

The weather has just started getting cooler, but I’m already itching for soup season. Here’s one of my favorite fall soups. It is, of course, vegan.

This is not my soup. My soup isn’t nearly this photogenic.

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Tapas: Not Just Delicious Food in Small Portions

In the culinary world, tapas means a selection of small plates in Spanish cuisine.

 

In the yoga world, it’s something else entirely. It’s one of the niyamas, or personal observances. In Sanskrit, tapas is literally translated as “heat.” Ashtangis often consider it the heat that is generated during daily practice. Tapas also means discipline, something that daily practice definitely requires.

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Self Practice is HARD

It’s been exactly one week since I started my at-home practice. That’s right. I’m taking a break from the Mysore room at CITYOGA, which has sustained me and my practice for almost three years.

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So I Thought I Wanted to be a Yoga Teacher, Part 2

Remember when I said I wasn’t going to quit my day job and teach yoga full time?Remember when I did it anyway?

Well, I’m back to my original stance. I’m not ready to be a teacher.

I tried. Really, I tried. At first, I thought I’d teach mostly Vinyasa because I lacked the experience to teach Ashtanga. I made playlists (that no one liked) and sequences (that looked like the Primary Series). I taught Hot Yoga, Yoga for Runners, Yoga for Athletes, and Yoga for Writers.

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Leave Kino’s Hip Alone

Yes, Kino’s injured. The yoga-lebrity of the Ashtanga world, the seemingly invincible asana goddess, the Instagram queen, the 4th-series practitioner…is injured.

Matthew Remski used her injury to spark a much-needed discussion about extreme asana practices and the role that social media may play in encouraging practitioners to contortionist extremes.

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No Comparison.

A few weeks ago, a local yoga studio owner posted a comment on social media that made me think. Until today, I haven’t had time to revisit the film she mentioned, Breath of the Gods, which is a documentary about Krishnamacharya and the origins of modern yoga.

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Correct method, SCOTUS

I know, I know. What does the recent SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage have to do with Ashtanga?

Maybe not a lot with the physical practice, which is what you usually see here, but it sure ties in with the whole eight-limbed path us Ashtangis walk.

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This is not about love and light.

Taylor Hunt, an authorized Ashtanga teacher in Columbus, Ohio, wrote a Facebook post this week that really clicked.

“Yoga for me has always been hard work. From the very beginning I have struggled to change and stood in my own way. So often in the yoga community I hear the words love and light get tossed around with such ease. I never understood what that meant. Yoga was never pretty for me and it required that I was determined to change and be a better human being. I understand the reference of love and light but do you understand the struggle.”

Yes, Taylor, I do.

Continue reading “This is not about love and light.” »

Ducking my Instincts

Yesterday, I touched ducklings. A mama duck was leading her flock across the street and jumped up on a median that was too high for her babies to follow. Eight ducklings hopped at the edge of the curb, cheeping and flapping useless little triangle wings. They looked like popcorn. Mama quacked and paced, but couldn’t figure out how to help them.

This is not my photo. I didn’t stop to take pictures of the ducklings’ distress.

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The Funky Jiva

In a few days, I’ll be attending my first non-Ashtanga workshop ever. Gasp.

Giselle Mari, the Funky Jiva, is coming to Indianapolis for a weekend, and I’ll be taking classes with her like “Break through without Breaking: Backbends” and “Fire in the Soul: Twists.” I’m sure it will be a good time.

Don’t worry, I’m not abandoning my dedication to Guruji’s practice. This is just a fun little side trip on my Ashtanga path. A few weeks ago, CITYOGA asked me to interview Giselle Mari prior to her workshop there this weekend, and they gave me full access to her workshops. Who am I to turn down a free class or two?

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Runner starts fundraiser, practices yoga

My friend Scott takes my led Ashtanga classes at White Pine Wilderness Academy. He’s been a hardcore competitive runner his entire life, even through his battle with cancer. Prior to his diagnosis, he was working on qualifying for the Olympic Trials. 100-mile weeks and two-a-days were considered normal.

So yeah, he’s that type of runner.

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Going raw, and a recipe

I started experimenting with raw foods after my first trip to practice with Maia in Venice, California. I found myself on the flip-side of a conversation I’ve had far too often with non-vegans, saying phrases that I hear non-vegans say when they talk to me about my diet.

“I would love to go raw, but I don’t have enough time.”
“Raw foods are too expensive for me right now.”
“I don’t really eat a whole lot of non-raw foods, anyways.”

Replace “raw” with “vegan” in those above three quotes, and they’re the exact same phrases I’ve debunked countless times.

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Back to the Beginning

Practice has been hard lately. Really hard. Almost as hard as it was in the beginning.

ugly-utpliti

An early attempt at Utpluthih in a scenic setting.

I didn’t come to Ashtanga yoga with a background in gymnastics, dance, or martial arts. I didn’t even come with a strong yoga background. I did Rodney Yee DVD’s and the occasional studio class off and on for thirteen years. My heels didn’t touch the ground in down dog, I couldn’t hold Navasana for five full breaths, and I certainly couldn’t jump through or jump back.

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Twelve Steps for Ashtanga Yoga

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It’s not a huge secret that I’m a sober Ashtangi. My sobriety date is April 1, 2009, and I’m still active in the program that helped me change from a suicidal drunk to a human being of service. My life hinges on me being free from drugs and alcohol.

How I feel hinges on the diligence of my practice. Being sober makes practice possible for me, and practice makes daily life possible. Ever seen the “If you think I’m bitchy now, you should see me when I don’t do yoga!” e-cards, or the “I do yoga to keep the crazy away” sweatshirts? They’re pretty accurate.

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“Yoga’s not about following a path of feeling good.” An Interview with Maia Heiss…Part 2

maia-heiss-dwi-padaLast weekend, I booked my flight to go practice with Maia for the first week of January 2015. I’m beyond excited. My practice is more fluid and focused thanks to the changes we implemented together. It’s also become easier and steadier. Sthira sukham asanam, right?

But this post isn’t about me, so let’s get on to the good stuff. Continue reading ““Yoga’s not about following a path of feeling good.” An Interview with Maia Heiss…Part 2” »

“The resistance of the earth in your hands…” (an interview with Maia Heiss, part 1)

When I first saw Maia Heiss, I thought, “There is no way this woman will be able to drop up all 140 pounds of me back, much less get me into Supta Kurmasana.” She was all sinew and sweet smile, not an ounce of body fat.

Maia_HeissMaia_HeissMaia_Heiss_Smile

Boy, was I wrong. Not only did she drop me back, she held my body six inches from the ground on the way up, urging me to root into my feet and lift into the chest, and only letting me come back up when she finally felt that shift happen. She also got me into the first comfortable Supta K I’ve ever been in. For the first time, that posture felt right. There was all openness and space where there’d been nothing but constriction and compression. I could breathe. My brain…popped. All was well. It only happened the first time she put me in it, but it was crazy. It was connection. It was union. It was yoga.

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A (second) Conversation with Kino MacGregor

Kino-macgregor-karen-yeomans

Sadly, the Indianapolis Star didn’t post my interview with the fantastic Kino MacGregor online. I’ll have to scan a hard copy and post it here. Until then, let me share our post-workshop conversation with you.

After flying into Indianapolis from Miami (on the day of the Monumental Marathon, AKA Crazy Traffic Day) teaching two two-hour workshops, practicing, signing dozens of books and posing for dozens of pictures, Kino MacGregor was still smiling and full of energy.  Continue reading “A (second) Conversation with Kino MacGregor” »

Coming soon…

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I spent a wonderful week on the West Coast and I’m still playing catch-up.

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Stay tuned for interviews with Maia Heiss and Kino MacGregor. Continue reading “Coming soon…” »