Thursday, December 24, 2009

Spirit of the Season

Lately, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what I wanted to say for my Karma Yoga class on Christmas day. I was not raised as a Christian but it seems to me, there is something to be remembered when we acknowledge Christmas. When I think of Christ, I think of love, not all the warped things done in his name or of the giant commercial holiday we so often associate with Christmas.

At the heart of Christ's teaching is the message that all beings are worthy in God's eyes. The humbleness of ones origins, ones profession and ones wealth having nothing to do with ones value in the universe. What really matters is what we make of our time on this earth and how we treat our fellow man. There is more to be gained in giving than in receiving. Christ said, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven," so why not give freely of what we have to offer? That is Karma Yoga at its core.

The story of Christ whether it be myth, legend or fact teaches us to love and value our fellow man. It teaches us to look beyond the outward packaging at the light shining from those around us. The word Namaste is loosely associated with the phrase, "The light within me acknowledges the light in you." I believe that this was part of Christ's message as well: look beyond the exterior to find the beauty in others. When I think of Christmas in this light, it brings a smile to my face and a longing to my heart to give something to others and to bring them some of the comfort and joy that giving and teaching brings to me.

On this day which is at its core is about love, think of someone in your life or in the world who is struggling. Fill your mind's eye and heart with this person and then offer up and dedicate your practice to them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Spirituality and Compassion

For me, the word "spirituality" means learning from our experiences. It's not about striving for ultimate perfection or achieving Nirvana or Samahdi. Spirituality is something much more concrete. It starts with compassion for self, forgiving oneself for real or imagined transgressions but then allowing oneself to learn and grow from the experience.

I had an experience today that gave me pause: somehow it fit the season. I was at Target getting chai at the in-house Starbuck's, when I sensed a man staring at me. I was annoyed. I wanted to say something rude like, "Take a picture it will last longer," but I refrained and glanced back at the man instead. I realized then that his mouth hung open slightly and his eyes were unfocused. I also realized that he was "special." I felt like a bitch for judging him and noted my own reactions.

I moment later, I turned and saw that he had fallen sideways in his chair and was sliding towards the floor. The man near him caught him and lowered him gently to the ground. I realized he was having a seizure and with a strange calm, I told the man next to him to help me roll him to a fetal position. Then I called the Barista to help and the three of us managed to move him. I was no longer needed but I was moved to watch the man who had helped me to turn the seized man stop to cradle the other man in his lap. The Barista also held and talked to him. Neither man panicked, or shied away, they just handled the situation with compassion and love.

I still am not sure what all I was meant to learn but I walked away, greatly impacted. What I did take from the experience was a renewed appreciation for the compassion humanity sometimes displays and the strong sense that we can never judge others by their packaging.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Karma Yoga for Christmas

Get your Karma Yoga on…

Give good karma for Christmas and enjoy a donation-based Hatha Yoga class with our beautiful yoga community.

What: hatha yoga class on Christmas day
When: 12:00 pm-1:15ish, Friday, December 25, 2009
Where: Harmony Yoga, 560 S. Holly Drive Denver
Why: Support Denver’s Urban Peak Shelter with cash and non-perishable food donations then enjoy a relaxing hatha yoga class

Join Nadja Tizer and the Harmony Yoga Community this Christmas day to help out Urban Peak. Urban Peak supports, shelters and educates homeless and struggling teens in the Denver area. All of your food and cash donations will go directly to the shelter in the name of Harmony Yoga. This is a great way to celebrate all we have and to help others in the process. Please join us Christmas day for this special karma yoga class. Reserve your spot today!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

You only live once so make it count!

I cannot trace,
I have not found mention
Of the notion in yoga,
That there is anything beyond this life.

This is unimportant--
Whatever you believe,
Why not make the most of each instant,
Each second you draw breathe upon this earth?

A life unlived seems wasted.
A life trapped by fear,
Seems irrelevant--
There is only this moment.

Our hearts beat
Our breathe flows
In and out
Like the tides.

There is beauty in this simple pleasure--
A pleasure we cannot capture in words.
A beauty purely sensory
That can only be felt and experienced by living each day as your last.

We cannot know what the future holds,
We cannot know what life will bring,
But we always have this--
The present, so make it count!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gratitude Part 2: Karma Yoga

We receive so much in our lives; constantly. Sometimes it is easy to lose track of the ways we are blessed but most of the yoga students who attend my classes are truly blessed. When we acknowledge what we have to be grateful for, we can become more whole. We become even more whole, when we take the time to give to others.

One of my favorite prayers is one attributed to Saint Francis beginning, "Lord make me an instrument of thy peace." The prayer ends with the words, "It is in giving that we receive and in death to self that we are born to eternal life." This provides for me a rationale for Karma Yoga. In Karma Yoga, we give freely of ourselves with no thought for reward, save those to our spirit.

I find that personally, I gain far more joy from giving than from receiving. Giving can mean little things. It can mean listening to a friend. It can mean giving someone a wave, a smile or a hug. Little acts of giving can make a huge difference in the lives of others. Even these small things are Karma Yoga.

Take a moment right now to think of someone in your life who could use a little love. Then, set the intention to dedicate your practice today to someone else. As you practice Karma Yoga in your life, think about what you have and offer it to others.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Aerial Yoga Teacher Training

Here are the pictures from my Aerial Yoga Teacher Training. I now am qualified to teach level one students. Yeah!

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I’m fascinated by the gentle and terrible depiction of Shiva, known as Nataraja. This God is also referred to as “The Lord of the Dance.” When I think of Vinyasa Yoga (flowing with breath and movement), I think of the graceful dance of Nataraja, poised on one leg as though coiled to leap into a whirling cosmic dance at any moment.

When people think of Shiva or Indian mythology, they often think of the image of Shiva, balanced on one leg, multiple arms spread wide, surrounded in flames and wrapped in a snake. This image is Nataraja. There are two dances performed by Nataraja, “Lasya (the gentle form of dance)” and “the Tandava (the violent and dangerous dance), associated with the destruction of the world. In essence, the Lasya and the Tandava are just two aspects of Shiva's nature; for he destroys in order to create, tearing down to build again."

I find great allure in the idea of a divine destruction in order to create new beginnings. I believe yoga often takes us through this process. We focus our mind and breath on the present, seeking deep within in order to grow but this is not enough--we also must learn to defeat our ego. This ego is also often part of the representation of Nataraja. It exists in the form of the dwarf, "(Apasmara) who symbolizes ignorance." In yoga, we are eternally at battle with this dwarf, this lesser, more petty part of ourselves. For me, Nataraja is the force that transcends this tiny inner demon.

To create, we also must destroy. We must let go of the things that do not serve us. We must let go of our insecurities and intolerances. May we all take a page from the book of Nataraja and destroy that within us that is destructive to our growth. In our yoga, let us embrace the lightness and joy of the dance as we free ourselves of the things we no longer need. Embrace the breath, embrace the dance and become something greater than you are at this moment.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Gratitude: Part 1

It can be so easy to become overly focused on what is not working in our lives. We fixate on what is lacking, how we are not fulfilled, how it seems so hard to get our basic needs met. Sometimes it is important to just stop and reflect on everything that is working in our lives, everything we do "have." When we stop to truly count our blessings, we remember that our lives are not all trial and challenges.

When we remember what we have, we can begin to fill our hearts with gratitude. About a year ago, I could only seem to think about what was wrong in my life. Then, someone suggested I spend some time meditating on what I had to be grateful for. At first it was hard but every day I dutifully wrote out one thing I felt grateful for. As I continued to do this, I began to remember that my life was not so bad after all. In fact, the more I reflected, the greater it seemed.

This time of year is a perfect one for beginning your own mediations on gratitude. Every day, spend five minutes thinking of one things you are grateful for. If you can, write it down and look back on it in hard times. Today, fill your heart and mind with one thing you are grateful for and celebrate that thing during your practice, whatever it may be.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Push in Yoga?

When I first started yoga I went for the challenges to my flexibility and strength. I did Power Vinyasa and I was all about the "butt-kicking" workout. Then, in April of 2008, I was diagnosed with MS. At first, I could barely stand. My balance was shot. This changed my perspective on yoga.

I started taking therapeutic yoga designed people with auto-immune disorders. I backed off on my practice and focused on breath and meditation.

This summer I went to a "Strength and Flexibility" workshop with one of my favorite teachers. During the class, I found myself questioning the emphasis on strength, flexibility and speed. "Why would a teacher ask us to push?" I questioned.

One of my friends then explained it to me. A rigorous practice is designed to help us learn to push through challenges. It teaches us to overcome obstacles. it teaches us to deal with the tough stuff in life. It shows us how to use breath and focus to take on the hurdles life places before us. So sometimes you must embrace the challenge to learn what you are truly capable of.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Controlling Suffering

To react is to suffer. To react is often to become frustrated and irritated. I know these things and yet I find myself coiled to react. Why am I coiled? Perhaps it is my modus operandi, and old pattern and set of conditioning I find it difficult to break. Why am I so frustrated? Frankly, I am frustrated for ridiculous reasons. I am frustrated by the excuses. I am frustrated by the failure of others to take responsibility. I am frustrated by a bunch of whining and complaining with no active attempts at solutions but the bottom line is; why am I even letting this affect me?

Why do the actions of others even bother me? Why must I always be in control?

To practice yoga completely is to let go. Let go of outcome. Let go of expectation. Let go of ego and self. Just be. Just be. Live and let live. Keep your inner light alive. Keep shining still and pure. Keep your personal integrity and center, that you might truly know peace, love and compassion. See others with the soft light of empathy. You are not perfect, so don’t expect others to be. Love and accept others even with all their flaws. Seek your own peace that you might lend it to the world in peace.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ahimsa and Love for Self

One meaning associated with the sanskrit word "Ahimsa" is the word "Love." Love can mean so many things. We can love our families. We can love our friends. We can even love our pets.

When we hear the word love, we often think of romance but there is also love for humanity. This can manifest as a goodwill toward our fellow man, or in a deeper sense when we are moved by the desire to give our love to others in service. This is called "Karma yoga." Ultimately we cannot truly practice love for anyone else until we can learn to successfully love ourselves.

Loving oneself can also mean many things. It means compassion for yourself, forgiving our own weaknesses or errors. It means finding those things about ourselves that are loveable and then cherishing those things.

Today I want you to look inside and think of at least one thing about yourself that is beautiful and loveable. Sometimes this is hard. We are conditioned that there is grace in humility and that it is not positive to applaud ourselves but the truth is; sometimes we need to applaud ourselves. So find that beautiful thing inside of you, place your hands over your heart and be with it. Then take a moment to love yourself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ahimsa and Compassion for Self

At the heart of yoga, is the idea of Ahimsa. While this sanskrit word has many connotations, it is commonly associated with the ideas of non-harming and non-violence. At its core, Ahimsa signifies love and compassion. In order to truly practice Ahimsa, one must first learn to love oneself.

Central to the hatha or physical practice, is the notion of compassion for self. You must learn to love and take care of yourself before you can offer your love to the world. It is only through the practice of loving oneself, that we can become whole enough to practice ahimsa in our interactions with others. Today I encourage you to have compassion on yourself when you practice, to back off and to give yourself the love you deserve. You are your own best teacher!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Beyond Suffering

I was reminded the other day of the important teachings regarding suffering. We need not suffer. Suffering comes from our reactions to external stimuli. When we do not allow ourselves to become reactive, we do not suffer. Pain comes from allowing things outside ourselves to stir our internal flame.

I like to imagine that at my core is a candle. The fire is forever steady and calm until some wind is allowed to stir it. If I do not allow the wind to blow in my sanctuary, then my candle burns steadily and without fail. The candle fills me with warmth and light. It gives me all the glow and strength I need to feel peaceful and happy.

When I notice my flame being swayed by a breeze, I need to take control of my mind and my reactions. The best way I have found to do this is to focus on my breath. When I feel myself becoming agitated or wound up, I just need to stop and slow my breathing. It helps to close my eyes and to focus only on the breath for a time. Eventually, I feel my heart rate decrease and my mind begins to slow. The breath takes me back to a state of equilibrium. Since I began this practice to overcome suffering, I have only become minimally agitated. Even those feelings pass quickly with each breath.

Remember, you alone can control your suffering so turn inward, breath and watch your reactions.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Aerial Yoga

My newest passion. Here are some pictures from today's class. The other ladies pictured were kind enough to let me take their photos.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Beyond Fear

The last year and a half of my life has been wrought with almost paralyzing fear. In April of 2007 I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. It completely changed my life.
Learning that you have a chronic, degenerative illness can be very disheartening and also very scary. At first I was completely terrified. Would I be able to teach and do yoga? Would I lose my primary career as a public school teacher? Would I lose my health insurance? Would I lose my home?
In addition to my fears about what I would lose, there were the initial, serious health issues. The first symptoms I experienced included vertigo and double vision. I was so sick at first that I could not stop vomiting. With the help of a variety of medications, I managed to get balanced enough to continue working but every day was a living hell. I was so afraid. At the time, I didn’t even know what was wrong with me. Then, two weeks after the first symptoms of vertigo I started vomiting blood and was rushed to the ER. My best friend later told me I could have died.
When I first faced the prospect of my own death I was filled with calm. All of my fear disappeared, and for the first time I looked out on the world without the veil of terror that clouded my life. I awoke every day, thankful for my life. Every day after that moment became a gift.
After a few months of living with MS, my fears began to reemerge. In fact, they almost submerged me completely. The only thing that brought me back to myself was my breath. My breath and the idea that I must stay entirely present. I would tell myself, “Just get through the next ten minutes,” and then I would. I lived a minute at a time for a very long time. I kept doing yoga, meditation and breathe work and in time, I could look at my life more than ten minutes at a time.
Why do I tell you this? Yoga has the power to heal even our worst wounds. Breath grounds us. Being present helps us focus only on the things right in front of us. It helps us shed past and future. I have found that by not focusing on these things, staying grounded in each precious moment, we can survive anything. So use your yoga to combat your fears and anxieties and in the release of fear, find your freedom!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Personal Yoga Prayer

Oh divine spirit within,
Fill me with serenity.
Show me the difference
Between the real
And the unreal,
The contrast between darkness
And light.
Lead me from the shadow of death
To an immortality of the soul.

Help me yield to my destiny
Let me surrender self,
That I might know peace
Give me strength of conviction.
Fill me with certainty
About who I am
So that I might know my purpose.
Bolster me,
So that I might best
Serve my world in love.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


I am a river,
I aim for the sea,
In my path
I encounter
The sand.

I rush at the sand
When I reach it,
My momentum fails
I am lost.

It is then the sand speaks;
It tells me
“You must lose yourself in the wind
If you wish to pass.”

I argue, “I wish to remain as I am.”

The sand replies,
“If you don’t let go you will become a puddle
Never to fulfill your potential.”

It is then I let go,
I join the wind.
I am free!

I transform.
Landing again,
A collection of giant raindrops.

I land and am once again a river.
This time headed for the sea unobstructed.

I thank the sand.
And the sand replies,
“If you had trusted you would have been here long ago.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Yoga Meditation

Start your meditation by pulling the sit bones out from underneath you to create a solid foundation. Lengthen your spine and reach through the crown of your head, neck is long. Let your lids soften. Become aware of your breath. Notice the sensation of it in your body. Use the breath to anchor you in the present moment. Forget everything that came before this, any expectations you have about your practice and set the intention to be entirely present on your mat. Don't worry about what is coming after your practice.

Focus on your breath. Seal your lips and take a deep inhale through your nose. Exhale through your nose. Continue to breathe like this throughout your practice, returning to your breath any time you need to slow your heart. Use the breath to anchor you in the present moment.

Fill your mind with something beautiful. Take a moment to reflect on the beautiful image that comes to mind. Then, place your hands over your heart for a moment, focusing on that thought. Inhale your arms high to lotus mudra, letting the hands blosssom open. Offer something up as you come into your practice.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Sadguru

Yogic philosophy states that if you can just find your "true self," you will find peace and joy. Inside each of us is the spark of the divine, called Atman. Inside each of us is a pure self, a true teacher-- The Sadguru who always intuitively knows what's best for us.

Sometimes finding our true self is harder than expected. It can be like peeling an onion. Each layer must be carefully removed to reveal the purest self that lies beneath. So today, pull back those layers to discover your Sadguru, you might be surprised what you find.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Restorative yoga sequence

Start out in a seated meditation position. Find a position that works for you. It is ok to lean against the wall. Hands come to knees, either face down or face up. Put them face-down if you need to ground out or face up if you need to receive energy. Find a nice straight spine, reaching through the crown of the head. Close your eyes and focus on your breath for about five minutes. Slow everything down and clear your mind. This entire sequence can be done by almost anyone. If you are in a wheelchair, have a caregiver assist you into the postures while on a bed or the floor. Enjoy your practice!

Inhale arms high, gazing up and taking a mini-back-bend.

Take a gentle foward fold, only working at your level. With each inhale, lengthen, with each exhale fold deeper. Work your way down after this to lay on your back with legs up the wall.

Slide your legs down the wall into suptabadakanasana. Hands come to inner thighs to increase the stretch.

Draw your knees into your chest and give them a big hug.

Inhale slowly to a comfortable, fetal position. Let the earth hold you.

Inhale up to a comfortable seated meditation position, hands come to heart center.

Inhale thumbs to third eye center.

Bowing forward, Namaste.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

From the Ashes

I started firebird yoga because when I think of my life over the last year and a half, it has been composed of a series of ego decimations. Each time my ego has been destroyed I have found a way to scrap together the remaining pieces of myself and to find a way to go on. In my mind I am the mythical Pheonix, continually obliterated and then reborn from the ashes. I was raised on Russian folklore so when I think of the phoenix, an image of the firebird always comes to my mind. With yoga, this seems apt. While the firebird looks much like the Phoenix, the tale of the firebird as one involving a quest. In yoga, we continually quest.

In yoga, our quest is the search for Atman, the divine within. I spent most of the last year kicking and screeching along my quest. I kept asking, "Since I am a yoga teacher, why is this so hard?" I beat myself up, each time letting the ego take the front seat. I kept fighting to restore order to my life. I kept beating myself up for failing to do so.

At a certain point, the disparity between my quest and my reality became apparent. The harder I fought to maintain a facade, the harder I struggled to remain the person I had created in my mind. it was only when I stepped back and finally asked, "Is this really me?" that I found I had long been denying my true self, rather than finding it.

It was with relief that I realized that I could part with the self I had fabricated. Nowdays, people often don't know quite what to make of me. I am continually singing and dancing. I act on the fringe and some folks look at me like I am crazy. That no longer matters. At last, I am my authentic self.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reprint of Yoga and MS

Many of you may have already seen this info on my other site as a series of different posts. Here it is again all compiled for your reading pleasure.

Yoga and MS

Part 1
Since I first started blogging, readers have been asking me periodically if yoga helps my MS. In a word, "Yes." Recently I bought a book called Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis: A Journey to Health and Healing by Loren M. Fishman and Eric L. Small. According to this book, "Gentle, low-impact yoga is the perfect exercise for people living with multiple sclerosis." Luckily for me, I already sensed this and have been relying on yoga for health and sanity since my diagnosis. I am excited to read and study this book so I can write and do more to help others with MS access yoga. The great news is that there is a video available from the NMSS, Southern California Chapter. The video is entitled Yoga with Eric Small: Adapted for People with Multiple Sclerosis and Other Disabilities. At this juncture, I have little further information to offer except my own experiences and those I begin to detail below.

I first started yoga almost four years ago during my first year as a classroom teacher. Several things brought me to the mat the first time. Work was stressful and I needed an outlet. I wanted to renew my flexibility. I was out of shape and above my ideal weight and I wanted to feel better about my body. Deep down, I think I was also hungering for a place where I could slow my mind and calm my anxieties.

I took my first class with one of the owners of a local studio called Core Power (now the largest yoga franchise around). The yoga at Core Power is not for the faint-hearted. Most of the people who attend the studio where I took my first class have rock hard bodies and little fat. I imagine that for most of these people, yoga is not their sole form of excercise. The classes generally involve a brisk vinyasa workout(flowing from pose to pose)and the majority of the classes are heated. My first class fit this model and I was terrified of the heat. At the time, I had yet to be diagnosed with MS but I had always struggled when I was hot. Despite the heat, I made it through my first class. Near the end of the practice we did a pose called "Camel", made by standing on the knees and arching your upper torso backward while your hands rest on your lower back or reach for your feet. This pose exposes our heart and soft underbelly and it can bring up a lot of emotion and intense physical sensations. When I did my first camel, I had no idea about the potential e/affects of the pose. As I arched back I felt like I was going to vomit. When I pulled out of the pose and sat down (light-headed and dizzy) I knew I was going to keep coming back to yoga for a long time. A week later I brought my husband and he also became hooked.

I was initially drawn to yoga because of the physical challenge. I liked the feeling of power and strength I got in the tough, Core Power classes. Within about a month, I shed 10 pounds. I liked the way I looked and the way I felt. As I practiced more, I found something else too-- The way we were encouraged to breath in yoga calmed me. I also found that I was able to meditate as I moved through the asana (physical) practice. It was easier to stay centered and focused on the present when I was immersed in the yoga. This was especially true during a hard practice but over time, I found I could do it during the mellower moments in class as well. Yoga became my sanity. I knew within about three months of starting to practice that I wanted to become a yoga teacher.

I spent 3-5 days a week at the yoga studio for about 3 years. We even went on our honeymoon to a place called "Yoga Oasis" in Hawaii. The whole time I sensed that yoga was improving my life. I felt calmer, happier and a little more slowed down. It was not until I got really sick that I fully experienced the benefit of my yoga practice.

Yoga and MS: Part 2
I remember the day I was diagnosed in rather a blur. Two days before, I had been hospitalized after spending hours vomiting blood because of a Mallory Weiss Tear in my esophagus. Fortunately, much of that event still remains a blur. I do know that I spent the night in the ER and that I was released the next day once they determined that my internal bleeding had stopped. The night of my release I got my first brain MRI. The next day at 2:00 p.m. my doctor called to give me my diagnoses. His news barely registered but I remember thinking, “Will I still be able to walk?”

After several moments, my husband actually articulated the real question on my mind. “Can she still become a yoga teacher?” My doctor assured us that I could. While I reeled with the news of my diagnoses and tried to process what my doctor was saying, I reassured myself by thinking that I still had about six weeks to get healthy for yoga teacher training. Ironically, when we left for Kaiser to have tests run, I could not even walk without support. At the office, I gratefully allowed myself to be wheeled in.

Even after four days on 500mg of Prednisone a day, I could barely walk. I staggered from couch and bed to bathroom and back to couch and bed, clinging to the walls for support or crawling along the floor. I had never been so sick but still I dreamed about doing yoga. It was several weeks before I could get into any poses.

Asana (physical poses) have always come easily to me. Try as I might, I never could master the yogic breath though. It was only when I began to deal with the pain locking my entire body that the breath began to come. One night, I went to bed and found my body so tight and my vertigo so intense that I wanted to scream. Rather than screaming, I started breathing deeply through my nose like I had practiced in yoga. As I breathed, the pain began to lessen and my muscles relaxed slightly. Each breath brought more relief. I kept breathing, keeping my eyes open to orient myself in space. Finally, I forced myself to move around in bed and breathe into the vertigo.

For hours I breathed, moved and prayed, rubbing my aching limbs at every turn. At the end of two hours the vertigo was gone and most of the pain. During the night I healed. It was probably the steroids that finally brought me back towards health, but it was the yoga that brought me into the light.

Part 3: Yoga and MS
“Good morning sun it’s good to be alive,” intoned Hayward, our yoga guide at Hawaii’s Yoga Oasis. Every day for years he has faced the sun and said this. I found myself repeating these words shortly after my diagnoses. I think I started welcoming the sun once I could stand on my own two feet again. The longer and better I could stand, the greater my joy. I think that once I could balance on one foot again that I knew I was going to be ok.

It was actual light that brought me toward healing from my first exacerbation. I remember that when I first was diagnosed, many people kept telling me about the candles they had lit for me. During the night I wrote about in part 2, I used those candles as a guide.

I hadn’t slept in days. Days without sleep and large doses of steroids do strange things to people. The night before my healing began, I stayed up almost all night surfing the net and reading strange stories about the Nadja who is my namesake. In my heightened state it was as though we connected across time. When I closed my lap top to sleep, I began to drift off for the first time in a while and then I felt her beside me. My heart raced as for a minute, I thought I beheld her ghost. Then I startled fully awake to find this specter an image of my overactive imagination. That night as I struggled with the pain in my body, she visited again briefly. It was a dark and stormy night (literally) but I banished her from my room and set to healing myself with breathe.

I breathed, moving in circles through my vertigo but when I closed my eyes I felt as though I was tumbling. At this point, I focused on my breath, deepening it through the pain. The breath alone was not enough to stop my tumble so I began to imagine the candle my mother had lit for me at the Notre Dame cathedral. I followed the light of that candle in the dark place behind my eyes and for the first time in a long time, I was not afraid. I breathed and breathed. All the candles people had lit for me surrounded me and I was reassured by the voices of every teacher I ever knew. Perhaps everything that happened that night was the result of sleep deprivation and steroid psychosis, but whatever actually occurred, like Hayward, I came to embrace the sun.

I awoke with the feeling that I had just experienced months of yoga teacher training in one night. I had more clarity than ever before. Things are murkier now but in yoga we take about a “practice”, so I guess these days I do a lot of practicing. I still practice breath, patience, meditation and compassion for myself and when I teach, I try to practice karma yoga (giving). My desire as a teacher is to give some of what I have received, to share the joy and pleasure of yoga and to promote peace within myself and others. I truly receive more than I give but the practice itself brings me light.

“Enlighten Up”
Recently, I had the opportunity to go see the new yoga movie, "Enlighten Up" with one of my fellow yoga teachers. I think we both found the film very thought-provoking. Now I feel compelled to write out some of my own thoughts about both yoga and the movie.

The film was a documentary that focused on the yogic journey of a man named Nick. The filmmaker (Kate) wanted to see what would happen when a non-yogi immersed themselves in yoga so she followed Nick around the world as he met and practiced with various yoga teachers. It seemed that both Kate and Nick hoped he would have some deep, spiritual revelations and that he would also be led to some life-altering changes. During most of the film, both seemed frustrated that this was not happening. The ironic part is that Nick's journey lasted less than a year, although he traveled as far as India. I found this ironic because each of the teachers (gurus) he met along the way told him that yoga was a "practice." Each one questioned what he wanted from his yogic journey and each one said that for the most part, there is no quick path to enlightenment.

There were times during the film when I wanted to leap into the film to talk to both Nick and Kate. Nick's approach actually made more sense to me than Kate's at times. Nick wanted spiritual revelation, even though he maintained that he was not a believer and needed to experience things for himself. Kate seemed to insist that if Nick would just embrace the process, he would be transformed. In both cases, it often seemed they were missing the point and never fully observing the wisdom of the teachers they visited.

If I could boil down what each teacher in the film was saying, it seemed that they felt there was validity in Nick's idea that he must experience the divine himself before he could believe. It also seemed that each teacher was saying that there is no one, right path in yoga. They emphasized the importance of each individual, suggesting that every man or woman must find the yoga that is right for them.

I think that part of both Nick and Kate's trap was the idea that yoga is the practice of "asana" or physical posture. They seemed to think that by practicing with different masters, they would eventually find a form of asana that would lead to enlightenment. Interestingly, Nick did not really make any big spiritual or life breakthroughs until near the end of the film. At that point, he met a Bhakti yogi (one who practices the yoga of devotion that often involves chanting but no physical asana at all) and he asked this master about what yoga was "right" for him. The Bhakti master basically said that this was for Nick to decide. He said that Nick needed to find his true self and that self would know. Nick objected that he did not know how to find himself. In fact, it seemed that's what Nick's quest was really about. The master told him that it is not easy to know oneself but that it was a process that often meant sifting out who we are not, before we can really know who we are. After this encounter, Nick was left speechless. He dreamed about his mother. It suddenly became clear to him that he was conflicted about the yoga partly because of the dichotomy between her beliefs and those of his father. She is a Shamanic healer and his father is a lawyer. After meeting with the Bhakti guru, Nick realized that he now had much greater acceptance for his mother and that he was no longer ashamed of her beliefs. He also found he had greater compassion and tolerance for his fellow human beings.

Nick left the whole experience uncertain about what he had learned. He claimed that the experiment was a "failure" and yet after his experience, he restructured his entire life. He left his home in New York and moved to Colorado. He got a new job writing for climbing magazines ( a job I think is in tune with his nature). He reconnected with his mother. The film ended by stating that Nick no longer practices yoga but I found that claim a misnomer. Nick may no longer practice asana, but his experiences with yoga have fundamentally changed him. In my experience, one does not have to practice asana in order to practice yoga. Asana is how we often view yoga in the western world but asana is not "yoga."

One of the most important patterns I have found in the yogic literature and in the words of the masters is that yoga is a very individual practice. It is primarily about finding the "true self" or "Atman" (the divine within each of us). The Bhakti's may emphasize devotion to "God" but God is not necessarily defined in one way. It seems to me that the one thing all the yogic masters seem to have in common is the idea that in each of us is the spark of the divine. When we practice yoga (in whatever form) we are seeking to find that divinity within. In many ways, this may sound very selfish-- yoga is all about you. On the other hand, if each individual strives to find and be their best self, they may find happiness. If the world is full of complete, secure, happy people, it might be a better place. No one would feel jealousy. Many of the things that lead to conflict and war would be eliminated. We would not grasp for what others have. We would not compete for recognition or resources. Sharing and compassion might become the status quo. I am not positing a world where everyone can stand on their head but I am suggesting a world where we acknowledge the worth of each individual, a world where we acknowledge our own worth, without outside validation.

I find that yoga (not my asana practice alone) is changing me fundamentally. I myself have focused on the process of sorting out all the things that I am not, in order to find who I truly am. The more I engage in this process, the more I am finding who I am. The closer I get to my true self, the healthier and happier I feel. Almost all of my stress comes from trying to meet a set of expectations. Although I set many of these expectations, it is my ego that has created them. I imagine what others expect from me, what is the good and "virtuous" way to do things in this society and then I try to live up to this set of expectations that are based purely on perceptions rather than reality. When I stop worrying about all these false expectations and focus on what feels most right for me, I feel better.

Today I am grateful for the clarity given to me by my own mental interactions with this film.

Part 4: Yoga and MS
My attitude about exercise and stretching is deeply rooted in my philosophy as a yoga teacher and practitioner. I was raised as a competitive runner and gymnast but after a time, all the pressure of competing took its toll and those activities lost a great deal of their charm. In yoga we promote a non-competitive environment and I love that. Practicing yoga means being free of judgment about yourself and the others around you. It is ok to challenge yourself but first and foremost, in any exercise, you must listen to your body. You are your own best teacher.

I think it is important for people with MS to stay active and exercise regularly to detoxify the body and mind. Just moving can lift a lot of anxiety and depression. Even those in a wheelchair can do small amounts of exercise. Yoga is one of the ideal activities for MSers because it offers something for every level.

In yoga you should never feel real pain so if you are in pain or overheated you need to back off. The same is true for any exercise, especially for those with MS. Whatever stretches you do, it is important to work into them slowly and fill the pose with breath. Start easy and build as you go. I like a top to bottom approach. First, gentle folds, then neck, shoulders and torso. No matter what your condition, remember to give your feet some love. If you can't reach them, get a friend to work with you."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

For my yoga students

When I teach yoga I like to give freely of myself, to nurture my students and to help bring them closer to their true selves. Nevertheless, I get as much out of my teaching as they do. Teaching yoga gives me a home, a place of sanity to stand when all I want to do is howl at the moon. It reminds me to breath. It reminds me of my favorite prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi:

"Lord make me an instrument of thy peace
Where there is hatred, let there be love
Where there there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light.
Oh divine master--
Grant that I might not so much seek to be consoled, as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive,
And it is in death to self
That we are born to eternal life."

My heart is filled with gratitude for the things I receive from teaching yoga. I bow to my students. I bow to the teacher in all things. I prostrate myself to the divine with the faith that I will find a way no matter what.

Let yoga be your candle in the dark.
Let it lift you and fill you.
Let it in inspire you
Take what you discover on your mat into the world
And create peace, love and harmony.