#Yogi is a popular hashtag for yoga professionals and enthusiasts on instagram. In fact, the hashtag currently has nearly 8 million posts on instagram alone. But the term “yogi” existed long before social media.
So what exactly is a yogi?
A yogi is a person who is proficient in yoga. That’s it! Just a person practicing yoga-boom! The only equation you need to achieve yogi status is:
Human + a regular yoga practice= yogi
In contrast, a #yogi is the online version. The equation for a #yogi looks more like this:
Human + a regular yoga practice + access to social media + access to filters + access to quotes, stylish clothing, etc.= #yogi
As you can see, a #yogi can get a bit complicated. There are a few more variables, which is a key point here, as it is easy to confuse what a yogi really is to what a #yogi represents.
Think about it. What does a #yogi look like to you?Is it anyone who can reach a peak pose in a picturesque location? Is it a thin woman with designer yoga duds? Can it accurately represented by an image?
The Insta-Ethical Dilemma
I have an instagram account dedicated to yoga, and I’m still trying to find which path I walk in order to promote my appreciation for yoga, upholding my values and integrity, and provide an audience with what they want. I found that when I posted what I wanted, the “likes” and followers did not grow. When I started to fall into the “instayoga” mold of advanced positions with a beautiful backdrop, my followers and likes increased. Basically, I conformed to the instagram yoga culture because that is what, at least based on likes and followers, the audience wanted. In one way, I was winning at getting attention that social media allows, but what the hell am I really sharing?
I’m not sure, that as a yoga practitioner and teacher, this “instaculture” is what I want for myself or for yoga students. At the same time, I see its value. I guess you could call it an insta-ethical-dilemma! And insta-annoying-as-fuck.
The Power of Social Media
So why does it all matter? It basically boils down to the power of social media. Social media, such as instagram, is potentially a great marketing tool for yoga professionals. If you are just starting out in the yoga business, it can be a great way to reach new customers, advertise your brand and services, and just share your passion and interest. It is also a great way to conform to the “instanorm” and fall into the attention grabbing tactics that so often work quickly. But does it really matter? How harmful can social media be?
Well, pretty damn harmful, apparently. New research points to the fact that social media, especially instagram and snapchat, have a negative impact on mental health. When you think about this, this isn’t surprising. Many photos on instagram (perhaps in the majority) are staged, edited, and manipulated to tell a particular story that may or may not be rooted in reality. This gives the outside world that things are perfect- after all, people are showing off their elaborate, color-coordinated smoothie bowls without all of the hard work it takes to make them, and the challenging peak poses that take years of yoga practice to achieve.
A study by Cowan (2016) analyzed 100 yoga posts on instagram identified by the hashtag #yoga over the course of 10 days. Out of these posts, the researcher found that 80% were of advanced peak postures, 86% depicted a person with a thin body type, 76% were female, 72% were outside, and 65% had minimal clothing on. The author noted that this” self selective presentation” gives the viewer an image of yoga without flaws, and that “inspiration” was a common word in yoga posts. Let’s be real here. Yoga is full of flaws, farts and fat. This is reality and it is not a bad thing. Polishing it may look pretty and is a tool for marketing, but is it a fair representation of you? How about your yoga?
As a yoga teacher and student, I realize that I represent yoga to others. Not necessarily yoga on the whole, but my yoga. My experience. My story.
Every person who shares yoga online is telling the story of yoga in some way. The way we visually represent and share it online carries a lot of power. And to be honest, I don’t always know what this power means or where it will take us. And here is the thing: you can’t always worry about getting it right. You have to speak your truth, share your knowledge and experience, and let that be okay. Sure, it may be criticized or embarrassing at some points, but that is a part of life. It is also a part of growth.
Because of social media, most of us have two identities: your actually identity, and your online identity. Does your online #yogi identity match you actual identity? Reflect on this. How are the two similar? Are you telling the truth? And ultimately, where is your #yogi identity taking you?
I first began my yoga practice with a Rodney Yee DVD in my parent’s basement. It was 2008, and I had just graduated college with a degree in psychology, but unsure of future career prospects. Peppered with uncertainty, as well as the bleak reality of the 2008 economic downturn, I knew it was time to start exploring what my options were, and what path I ultimately wanted to take in my career. I had never done yoga before, and always assumed I would find it slow and boring. I was always into sports and fitness and relied on distance running and fast paced (Old school- think Tae Bo) workouts. I was quite literally stuck on the idea that fast-paced workouts were the only way forward. But I thought I would give yoga a try- it was trendy, cool, and touted as having both mental and physical benefits II purchased the Power Yoga DVD and began to learn the basic sun salutations. My relationship to fitness DVDs was straightforward-watch it, do the work out, and repeat. At first, this was my pattern with the yoga DVD as well. But after a few weeks of the practice, I started to become curious. My body and mind were feeling strong. Although I wasn’t focused on calorie burning, my body was feeling healthier. This marked some of the first steps into my yoga journey.
We don’t normally pay a lot of attention to our breath, despite the fact that it literally gives us life. In any of the fast-paced workouts, I would rely on my breath, but I just didn’t think about it. Yoga’s breath to movement pairing was only of the first times I had ever thought about controlling my breath. The power of connecting your breath, your awareness, to movement in your body, was a huge step in my yoga journey.
I had to get over the idea that certain styles of yoga held power that others didn’t, when in fact, all were powerful.
Initially, I explored yoga styles that largely mirrored the fitness thinking I was indoctrinated with. Power yoga, hot yoga, and strong vinyasa flows were all styles I explored. I moved to Chicago where I started to clean a studio n in a trade for classes. This allowed me to experience other styles, and I was surprised by effectiveness and benefits of each. I had to get over the idea that certain styles of yoga held power that others didn’t, when in fact, all were powerful. I moved to the West Coast for graduate school and took my yoga practice with me. When I found a studio to practice in and used YouTube to explore online yoga teachers and classes. I took yoga wherever I travelled and relied on it to stay relaxed and healthy. I eventually found the opportunity to study yoga and become a qualified teacher. Even as a yoga teacher, I find that I am also a student. I learn from other teachers, from students, and from the ebb and flow of challenges in life. Yoga has become a tool that I will continue to carry with me.
Okay, so the take home point: Yoga became a part of my life, but it didn’t happen quickly. It is taken me years to realize many of the benefits. Although yoga gives you tools to use, you have to practice them. This is one of the biggest lessons I have learned: your yoga is up to you. You are your own guide, and at times, your own obstacle. Sometimes you have to trust the unknown, believe in yourself, and just take action.
Yoga does not change the way we see things. It transforms the person who sees.
When I first started practicing yoga, it is fair to say I didn’t know anything about yoga philosophy, or really what I was getting into. The year was 2008 and yoga was starting to get popular, and with the popularity came word of mouth that is was a pretty awesome thing to do for your body. My practice started slow, moving from yoga DVDs to studios to self-practice and eventually to yoga books explaining yoga history and philosophy. When I began to pay attention to the teachings of yoga beyond the physical asana, it completely changed how I applied practicing yoga to my life. It was no longer all about toning up my muscles, but instead more about how I could apply these yogi principles to my life. And for me, this is the true journey, because none if it happens fast. It takes time and patience, and most importantly, practice.
This year marks the 10th year of my yoga practice. It also marks the first year I have begun to appreciate eating pomegranates. What do the two have in common? In my eyes, everything.
This first time I saw a pomegranate, I didn’t know what the hell it was. I liked the taste of the juicy seeds, but found that the process of actually getting them, well, sucked.
If you have ever tried to harvest the seeds of the pomegranate, you may understand this frustration. Getting the seeds isn’t easy- It takes a fair amount of peeling and pulling the delicate inner layers of the fruit, with the addition of carefully moving around the delicate seeds surrounded by the nutritious and delicious red juice pouches. I found the process not worth my time and would opt for a POM juice if I ever wanted some of the sweet and tangy flavor. But most of the time, I just avoided them, as they seemed like a unnecessary challenge.
Recently, a few pomegranates were on sale at the grocery store. The price was enticing enough for me to step and buy a few and take on the challenge of eating one. It had been such a long time since I had actually eaten one, I had to stumble around getting into the outer layer. I opened the pomegranate and for the first time noticed how intricate and beautiful it was on the inside. I reflected on how this is something I had never noticed before, and now how it was so obvious I couldn’t not notice it. I was being more mindful, and perhaps a bit more grateful about the beauty of a pomegranate- something the I would have dismissed as a hassle before.
The next step was harvesting the seeds. I planned to save the seeds in a glad jar, and gently began plucking the seeds from the skin. I observed that curving the top layer helped to reveal new seeds, and how I could get multiple seeds out my removing them in a bunch. The whole process took me about 30-minutes, and at the end I had a full jar of pomegranate seeds and a new appreciation toward this seemingly difficult fruit.
So why the change? I have to credit yoga. Through my practice, I have learned to be more mindful, more grateful, and more willing to take on challenges without feeling overwhelmed. I believe this has also been a part of larger actions in my life than peeling a pomegranate, but the pomegranate provides the sweetest example. Yoga has helped me develop curiosity, patience and the ability to delay gratification to enjoy the process.
How has your yoga practice affected you off of the mat? Please let me know!
In 2016, I had the privilege of spending two weeks at a Sivananda yoga ashram in Western Australia. Although everyone who entered the ashram were initially strangers, we quickly formed a tight knit community based around morning meditations, shared meals and through daily karma yoga, or volunteering freely and without expectations. We were assigned daily karma yoga duties on a whiteboard in a common area. For five hours in the morning, we were required to take on these duties to serve the ashram, as well as the other people living there. Some of the duties felt like traditional chores: cleaning the rooms, bathrooms, and doing laundry. Others felt more freeing and joyful-cooking vegan food the ashram or working outside in the garden, weeding and staying warm in the sunshine. Even though I like certain tasks more than others, I found a similar feeling by the end- a sense a of connectedness, pride in fulfilling a duty that serves others, and a sense of flow in my actions. Karma yoga just felt good.
What is Karma Yoga?
Karma yoga is the yoga of unselfish action. In Hinduism, it is a spiritual practice along with Raja, Bhakti and Jnana yoga. Sometimes it is described as serving others, but it can be more widely considered as any action you become engrossed in (think similar to finding your flow). The concept of karma yoga highlighted in a section of the Indian Mahabharata epic known as the Bhagavad Gita, or simply “the Gita” in yogi slang.
The story focuses on Arjuna, a prince and warrior preparing for battle. As you can imagine, Arjuna was feeling conflicted about going to war, particularly because he was set to fight against friends and family. Just as Arjuna is set to give up, the God Vishnu in the form of Krishna, his chariot driver, begins to speak with him about the importance of action, of duty, and of karma yoga in Arjuna’s situation. This is only a small nutshell of this story- definitely take time to read and study it!
Now most people won’t have to go through the difficult choices that Arjuna had to face on the battlefield. But karma yoga has a place in our modern lives as well.
What does Karma Yoga Do?
Karma yoga satisfies an integral part of being a human-our need to be a functional member of a community. Humans are inherently social animals, and community is gives us the sense of belonging, support, and way to navigate the world that we have evolved for.
Karma yoga also helps you feel connected beyond yourself by turning your focus into the present moment through action. Have you ever felt like you are so in tune with the present activity that you are it? This feeling is similar to finding your flow or getting lost in your work, is a form of yoga through action by being completely and totally present.
Karma yoga also gives us a sense of balance. It helps you find your ultimate center and stasis in the body and mind by becoming action. Explore the tips below and reflect on the power karma yoga has in your life.
Karma Yoga: Tips to Try
Have the Right Attitude
To carry out karma yoga, you need to have the right attitude. Focus on making a difference and doing it we care and compassion. Give your focus to your work.
Check Your Motives
We all have motives or drives for doing something. When I was applying to universities, teachers advised me to volunteer to make my application look better. While this did get me involved in volunteering, it didn’t do it for the pure motive of helping others, but rather to enhance my university application. Reflect on your motives, and consider if you are looking to make yourself look better or actually serve others.
Do Your Best, Do Your Duty
When you think of your karma yoga as a duty, you tend to take it more seriously. Take responsibility for the actions and the duty it has to others. Do your best not to make yourself look good to others, but rather to serve others.
Karma yoga does not always come easy. It is important to discipline yourself to keep going once you have committed. Instead of looking toward the end goal, focus on the present and the actions you are taking. Our actions have effects on others, even when we don’t see them.
Find Your Flow
If I understood how to find my flow, I would be in it all the time. It is an elusive state that completely invests you in your work, your action. When you find your flow, reflect on what it felt like to be in it. Write down your thoughts. This reflection will help to understand the power of action, and of karma yoga.
One of my favorite quotes is the famous “actions speak louder than words”. Karma yoga embodies this quote, and the power it can truly bring into our lives.
Savasansa is one of the most powerful poses in a yoga sequence- do you practice it?
When I was living on the West coast in the US, I regularly attended a hot yoga class. The classes were challenging due to the heat of the room and the heat of the body brought on by a set sequence of yoga poses. At the end of every class, dripping with sweat while simultaneously feeling relaxed, the teacher suggested savasana as the end pose. She would then leave the room, allowing us to take the time, or no time, if we preferred. After the teacher left, I was always surprised by the bustling of the students rushing out of class- on to the next thing, with no time in savasana. They left like it was a waste of time, an annoying afterthought that was cutting into a schedule. Something not worthy of their time. This always struck me as odd, as savasana can help you relax and restore, while at the same time challenge your ability to stay calm. It is a time to reflect, relax, and just be.
Savasana can be a difficult pose to relate to, often because we are not taught to just “be”. At least in most Western countries, and particularly in the US, we are taught to schedule ourselves to a fault, overwork, and always stay busy. It is ingrained in our psyche that stillness is not productive and therefore not necessary. This explained the students literally walking away from savasana, as well as the teacher’s option to avoid it in the first place. We believe that what looks like doing noting isn’t beneficial to us. We may even feel guilty for taking time out. But this is a misunderstanding of what savasana is and what it is meant to offer you in practice. To get the most out of savasana, we must understand what it is.
What is Savasana?
Savasana is derived from the Sanskrit word for “corpse” and “asana” meaning seat or conscious position. The purpose of the pose is to help relax the body, observe yourself, your thoughts and start to recognize your true self. The other dynamic poses and flows that preceded savasana in practice are meant to help prepare you to release, observe and learn. When I first started practicing yoga, it tickled me that laying down was part of a fitness regime. After practicing and studying yoga more in depth, I now I know that yoga is focused on multiple types of fitness, including mental, physical, and overall wellbeing. Some people have told me they are creeped out by calling savasana corpse pose, but I like to think of it as a way to go inward, appear “dead” to the outside world and realize that we are interconnected to things far beyond the limits of the physical body.
I once had a teacher that called savasana that most challenging pose. I believe this to be true-after all, how often do we sit with and observe ourselves? It is all about taking the time to explore and learn.
Tips to Explore Your Savasana
- To explore your savasana, lay down in a comfortable position, allowing the entire body to relax with the eyes closed.
- Notice the sensations in your body. Observe pulsations and rhythms that you feel as your body begins to rest and recover.
- Notice your thoughts. What are you thinking and feeling while in the pose? Notice if you feel frustrated and distracted, of if you are able to let yourself go. What is challenging? What comes easily?
- After observing your thoughts, allow yourself to relax and surrender, releasing the body completely into the mat. Sometimes, we don’t like asking for support, but in savasana, the ground is your biggest support that you must trust in. Focus your attention inward, and spend 5 to 20 minutes in the pose.
- After your savasana, gently “wake” yourself by adding small movements in the fingers, toes, and rest of the body. Gently roll to one side and sit up, only opening the eyes when you feel ready. Reflect on how the experience affected you, and take notes in a journal. Keep track of your observations of savasana, and explore what the pose means to your yoga practice and your life.
Savasana is a time to balance the busy with the calm, the rest with the action, and listen to your body, your mind, and what it needs. It has a lot to teach us, as long as we allow it to. So lay back, allow yourself to be, and see what happens.
We all have yoga poses that challenge us a bit more than others. For me, it is virabhadrasana I. The pose sometimes feels like a struggle to me, like my mind gets in the way of what my body wants to do. I second guess myself and struggle with alignment. Entering the pose is almost always uncomfortable, but this discomfort is not in my physical body, but in my mind. I’ve noticed that over time, with awareness and practice, my ability to move into the pose is improving. In other words, my awareness of my body movements is improving, but not without a bit of practice. This is an example of the role proprioception plays into the way we move both on and off the mat.
What is Proprioception?
Proprioception is a combination of the words “perception” and the Latin word proprius meaning “one’s own”. It is the ability to sense your body in relation to other body parts, including movement and placement in space. We are equipped with senses to help us explore and make sense of our environment, our body and our place in it. Sense are divided into three categories: exteroceptive, interoceptive and proprioceptive. Exteroceptive refers to the way take in our environment, and includes the sense of taste, sight, touch, hearing, smell and balance. Interoceptive relates to how we experience our internal world, and includes our perception of pain and ability to feel our internal organs. Proprioception is related to the awareness and feedback of how the body is internally moving. It is the sense you have of your body and its interconnected parts. Proprioception is the ability to move the body without looking, say in a dark room or with your eyes closed.
Exploring your Proprioception
Do you ever have days where you feel clumsy, like you lose control or are unable to get your body parts to work together? This is an example of your proprioception not being very sharp. Different people have different degrees of proprioception, and this is largely determined by how often you are required to use it in your daily life. Although we all have proprioception, we often do not notice it is there. Our body is equipped to react to movements effortlessly, and it is easy to overlook proprioception because we become habituated to specific movements.
Impairment of proprioception can happen at various times in life, especially during growth spurts in adolescence or from simply being tired.
When you become imbalanced, your body contracts muscles to restabilize. An example of this is the wobble or unease you may feel in vrkasana or tree pose. With practice, you begin to feel more stable in the pose, and build an awareness of which muscles can help you stabilize. At first this takes practice, but over time, you find this balance naturally.
Interested in exploring your proprioception? Try these simple movements with eyes closed to challenge and assess your awareness.
- Sit in sukhasana and close your eyes. Bring your right pointer finger to your nose without opening the eyes. Notice if this is challenging for you, and how quickly or slowly you make the movement. Practice 3-5 rounds, and repeat on the left side. Monitor your ability to do this over a 1-week period. Does the movement become easier or more fluid? Monitor any change and note your observations.
- Lie in savasana and close your eyes. Point the right toes and bend the knee, guiding the toes to touch the left shin. Practice this movement 3-5 times, and repeat on the other side. Note the challenges and ease of each side, and if this changes over time.
- Stand in tadasana and close your eyes. Bring the sole of your right foot to your left ankle. If this feels comfortable, move it to your calf, and then your inner thigh into vrkasana. Find your balance and hold the pose. Release and repeat on the other side, observing challenges and differences on each side.
How was exploring these movements? Did you learn anything new? Keep your mind open- proprioception improves with practice!
Bandha translates to lock, to hold, or to tighten. I was first introduced to the concept in a Forrest yoga class, where the teacher instructed us to engage the uddiyana bandha, a lock located in the abdominals and extending to the diaphragm. As a fairly novice yogi, I interpreted this action as simply “sucking in” my belly- not a bad start. But I missed the concept of what a bandha really is doing, and how it should feel. The best definition of a bandha I have come across was described by Jennilee Toner as “The activation and engagement of muscle fibers, in strategic areas in the body, that support in the toning and lifting of the systems of the body against the natural laws of gravity,”. Bandhas help you create energetic lifts in the body, and can be beneficial in inversions as well as add power to standing poses. They also help to develop awareness and turn your sense inward.
Understand & Explore
To explore the bandhas, we must understand the concept of prana and gravity. Gravity is a force that pulls us downward, and defines a pull between all objects in the universe. Think about it: things go up, and must come down. Bandhas help us acknowledge this force, and work against it by pulling upward against gravitational pull. Prana is known as the life force, and has both physical and subtle qualities. When we breathe in, we are activating the flow of prana in the body. This breath brings life into the entire body, and connects the physical body to the mental body. The way in which we utilize our prana affects us physically and mentally. Bandhas help you harness and control the movement of prana by “locking specific areas, allowing prana to build up, and releasing it to flush throughout the body.
There are 6 types of bandhas: three primary bandhas, one combination of the three primary bandhas, and 2 minor bandhas.
The Mula Bandha
Also called the “root lock”, this bandha is a group of muscles located between the pubic, coccyx and sitting (ischium) bones. The muscles form part of the pelvic floor muscles. Activating this bandha helps to bring awareness to the pelvis area and can release tension in the low back.
The Uddiyana Bandha
This bandha is often interpreted as “sucking in the stomach” and engages your abdominals. The bandhas ii located in the abdominals and extends up to the diaphragm, and is entered after exhaling, allowing space to engage the abdominal muscles upward. This bandha tones the abdominal muscles, as well as the diaphragm. In balance postures such as bakasana, it can help you lift upward, finding lightness and balance.
The Jalandhara Bandha
This bandha involves the tucking of the chin in toward the chest, creating a lock in the throat. The lock stimulates muscles in the neck and the thyroid. This bandha is seen is some yoga poses like shoulder stand, but it mainly activated in pranayama practices.
The Maha Bandha
Maha translates to “great”, and this bandha is the combination of all three of the previous bandhas. It is done after an exhalation, and stimulates each of the three body systems activated by the three bandhas. Maha bandha also helps you bring your senses inward, usually accessed through the seated Easy Pose and relaxing the nervous system.
The Minor Bandhas: Pada & Hasta
“Pada” translates to foot, and “hasta” translates to hands, describing the two areas of the body the minor bandhas are located. In pada bandha, our feet should be engaged into the ground, pressing through the big mounds and lifting the arch of the foot. A good way to explore this is in tadasana, pressing through the feet and feeling the way this bandha adds more energy to the pose. In hasta bandha, our fingers and palms are activated, pressing through the mounds of the fingers and thumbs, creating a suction in the palm. This bandha is especially good for protecting your wrists in plank pose. Like the primary bandhas, the minor bandhas help us to add an energetic element that energizes the pose and helps stabilize and protect us as well.
Bandhas bring awareness to your body in every yoga pose, and can help you harness the energy needed to lift up, root down, and ultimately feel stable and keep the body safe. They take time and patience to practice and develop the necessary awareness to master. Try them out and notice how they provide tools to empower you on and off the mat.
Mantras, or repeated phrases or words, are a great way to focus the mind and calm the sympathetic nervous system. They are often utilized in meditation practices, though can be inserted into yoga practices as well. Some mantras are ancient, such as the prolific mantra Om. Others can be generated based on what you need in your life, saying, for example, “I am” followed by an adjective that you would like to embody. They work by physically creating a vibration in the body, and affirming an idea in the mind. In a group setting, mantras can unify social groups and create a sense of community and connectedness. In this way, mantras are both subtle and powerful.
Exploring mantras and their effect on you requires concentration, observation and a bit of time. Choose a mantra that works for you, and explore it using the following steps.
What are the characteristics of your voice?
Your voice reveals your state of mind. For example, when you’re nervous your voice my sound weak or shaky. When you are confident, it may sound strong and steady. And when you are afraid, it may get loud to draw attention. Say your mantra and notice what happens in your voice, your mind and the body. Does this feeling go away over time? What is consistent and what is different? Take time to observe the effect a mantra has on your voice, and consider what the effect is caused by.
What area of the body is being affected?
Different sounds relate to different areas of the body. Mantras also have different connections to different areas of the body. If this sounds far-fetched, just take a moment to practice reflect on where the following three sounds come from. Sit or stand in comfortable position, and practice by exploring these sounds. Using the mantra you previously chose, change and observe it based on these guidelines.
- Say “Ahhh” like when you are surprised. Where does the sound resonate?
- Say the mantra in a deep voice.
- Say the mantra in a high voice.
- Reflect on where each sound resides in the body, and color in or circle the areas using this simple body chart.
Explore Sounds and Vibrations with the chakras
Chakras are wheels of energy located are various points in the body. The seven large chakras that run along the spine are the most commonly used in yoga. Each chakra also has a sound associated with it. Focus on each chakra, moving from the bottom up. Repeat each noise and see where it resides in the body and start observing.
Vocalization is movement, but we don’t always think of it in this way.
The larynx (sometimes called the “voicebox”) houses the vocal cords, and the way in which they move produces sound. Vocalization also requires fine and gross motor skills, as well as a muscular system. Like all physical movements in the body, we need to be mindful of the vocalizations we create. We can make sounds that can overexert, creating tension in the neck, throat and glottis, or under utilize the full range of the vocal chords, allowing some muscles to weaken.
Mantras are Good for the Mind
Mantras can be especially good for the mind. Mantras allow us to cultivate focus and stay aware, ultimately allowing us to be more mindful. Mantras also influence the creation neural pathways, allowing for new connections to form in the brain. This helps to create neural plasticity, or flexibility in the neural networks of the brain. Mantas also help you create a focus in your life, similar to weaving an underlying thread to connect your inner thoughts and outer actions.
How do you use mantras in your life and in your yoga practice?
“I don’t really care if you can chant the vedas or if you can get your foot to the back of your head or blow vapor out of your bottom. I don’t really care unless through your practice you have managed to become a decent human being.”
I recently watch Donna Farhi’s keynote speech at the 50th anniversary conference for the International Yoga Teachers Association in Australia. Farhi is a yoga hero to me, primarily because she is deeply reflective, intelligent, and doesn’t alter herself to fit a yoga prototype. She is a world-renowned teacher that doesn’t own an Instagram account or anchor herself to a yoga brand. She keeps an open mind to yoga, and speaks eloquently about the issues it faces and where it is going. A self-described “maverick”, she explores and questions yoga in a refreshing manner that places her in a leadership role in the yoga community. In her recent address to yoga teachers at the IYTA conference, she made some points that really stuck with me.
One thing that I find interesting about yoga is how prolific it is, and also how few people are willing to discuss it critically. Farhi addresses the things that need to be talked about in a calm, clear way.
After I listened to her talk, I found myself pondering three points she brought up concerning the current state of yoga and what it is reflecting not of yoga, but of ourselves.
Modern Yoga is Embodying our Cultural Pathologies
Farhi begins her talk by weaving in and out of the variations of entertainment yoga becoming popular: goat yoga, beer yoga, and nude yoga. She does not talk down about any of these variations, but does question if yoga is catering toward pathologies in our society. A pathology is symptomatic of the culture and if left untreated, leads to unhappiness, stress and disease. These pathologies may consist of multitasking, looking busy, stress, drinking vs. dealing with issues, etc. Yoga adapts to the culture and society it is in, and changes are nothing new. Personally, I think these yoga innovations are what you make of them. You can get something out of each class, but it may not be something you consistently do- a sort of novelty yoga. The question is, what does having a beer in plank while a goat is standing square on your back say about ourselves and our culture?
Our consumerism leads to endless craving.
I had made peace with the idea that yoga was a commodity in our consumerist society, as everything is. People acting as consumers have the choice to choose and purchase items; this choice allows for new ideas and businesses to spring up, hence the invention of trendy yoga events with beer and live animals. Farhi notes that that consumerism results in a craving, which separates people from being connected and dissociating and competing. This lack of threshold from simply being to mutating so that competition and self-aggrandizement is now a part of yoga.
The question is, what does having a beer in plank while a goat is standing square on your back say about ourselves and our culture?
We want attention.
Flaunting and objectifying yoga to gain attention, especially in social media, is rewarded. But do these forms a fair representation of yoga? As Farhi puts it, “the map does not represent the territory”. I often feel this way, advertising yoga poses on social media that don’t have much to do with how yoga influences my life. The issue is, getting an accurate pictoral representation of yoga eludes me; how can you take a picture of a complex practice that conveys what you want to an audience? The task may sound simple, but it is irritatingly hard to pin down. I suspect this is why yoga is presented as a series of advanced postures in front of beautiful scenery- it doesn’t sum up what yoga is, but it looks good, and we want people to look.
Two Yoga Paths: One of inquiry, One of Acquisition
Although we may try to find a visual representation of yoga, it is ultimately only understood in the context of practice. While the expression of yoga is diverse, the ultimate outcome is usually the same, coming to the realization that, as Farhi puts is,“the little you is an expression of a larger whole”. Farhi describes yoga as occurring in two paths: one of inquiry, and one of acquisition. Investigation, curiosity, life-long learning, adaptation, deductive reasoning and critical thinking characterize the path of inquiry. It is a path that ultimately leads to self-knowledge and is a process of evolution. In contrast, the path of acquisition is characterized by acquiring things, striving to obtain thing, assumption, accumulating status and focuses on questions like “what do I look like? How famous am I?’ this path ultimately leads to self aggrandizement and is essentially a product of survival. This path also fits seamlessly into consumerism, as it is always looking for more. Is one path wrong? Not necessarily. As Farhi points out, each path leads you to a different destination. The path of inquiry leads to community and collaboration and being loving, while the path of acquisition leads to competition and fear.
As a yoga teacher and student, I try to reflect on how my teaching reflects not just on me, but on the larger yoga community. Sometimes I think I balance this pretty well, and other times, I don’t. It is challenging to market the benefits of yoga when an advanced pose on Instagram appears to garner more attention.
Although one path may not be wrong, Farhi ultimately sums up my feelings by saying “ I know what party I want to go to”. The question is, which party would you choose?
Tradition Should not be Blindly Followed
Has traditional yoga always been a path of inquiry? Farhi makes the point that following “traditional” yoga paths does not necessarily mean you are being fair to the alterations the field of yoga has. As Farhi points out, if inquiry is ultimately met with limiting pressures to serve the ideology of one teacher, a student never graduates to be an individual thinker. Students instead are taught obedience to power, not obedience to truth. This leads to a hierarchy of teacher-student, where the student never moves beyond. And let’s face it- things change. Society and the cultures that guide them and the people in them change and adapt over time- they have to survive. Incorporating the shifts we see in medical science, neuroscience, somatic, and research ultimately helps us understand yoga on a deeper level. When such knowledge is ignored and not included in a yoga ideology, it is no longer serving the people, but rather the larger organization.
So what is the solution? From my own experience and the perspectives in Farhi’s talk, as teachers, we need to understand how yoga works and improve what we do. We have to be willing to discuss, debate and debunk ideas in yoga that are not true and not carry them on blindly in the name of tradition. We also have to keep discussing, addressing and adapting what we know. Informed discussion about practices we have assumed are sound, and some of the newer practices that are trendy, are key to reflecting on ourselves and the larger yoga culture. Only then will we see not only the path we are on, but the potential end destination.
We have to be willing to discuss, debate and debunk ideas in yoga that are not true and not carry them on blindly in the name of tradition. We also have to keep discussing, addressing and adapting what we know.
Watch Donna Farhi’s keynote address below.
Okay, I’ve admittedly been on the New Year resolution, change your life, goal setting bandwagon. What the hell is a yogi doing there anyway?
First, let’s start with why yoga and goal setting, sometimes even self-help, are often lumped together. Let me be very clear here: yoga will not solve all of our problems. What it will do is make you more aware of your mind, body, and environment. While this technically propel you forward, it does provide you with a strong platform to know yourself better and take chances. For me, this is the primary reason yoga is often lumped with life changes and self-help. It makes you physically and mentally stronger but allowing you to be more aware.
So why am I on the New Year bandwagon? Well, it is culturally a good time of the year to start promoting stuff. People are more willing to listen about good habits, goals, and ways to make their life better. I suspect this is due to the calendar change for the New Year, which in its own way symbolizes a change. And with that change, a new sense of hope sets it, focused on ideal ways of living vs. reality. Which brings me to my next point: our culture is obsessed with productivity, and goals give you something to be productive for. In this way, goals play to a pathology in our cultural of always achieving, always producing, always pushing, always stressing, always working, and never resting. You need to find balance of producing and resting- otherwise, what is left? Where does it end? Shifting your focus may be what you need to start the new year in a healthy way.
If you want a change in your life, set goals. If you are looking to feel better in your life, try shifting your focus, which may translate to doing less.
Shifting Your Focus to Gocus
I like goals. They help guide you and clarify muddy waters that you may otherwise be floundering in. However, goals will not necessarily make your life better. They simply clarify a path to an achievement. In this way, setting goals a way better than setting resolutions. Resolutions are simply deciding you are going to do something, but they aren’t always rooted in reality. For example, I may decide that I want to change careers. Fabulous- how they hell do you start? You need goals, the stepping stones, to reach the resolution. But these goals also need to have characteristics that are realistic. My favorite way of assessing a goal is to use the RIGHT method, developed by Dr. Jeff Spencer. The aim of this method is to assess if your goal is realistic and achievable, as well as give help you clarify it. Spencer refers to this as Gocus (Goal + Focus), a hyper focus where we can focus on what is in front of us to get something done. A specific objective is important, or a tight, singular point. Our peripheral vision is a landing pad for ideas to see another path, but can also create blindsides. When you see them starting to form, take action to reduce them.
Test you goal against the RIGHT goal criteria. Does it align? If not, how can you reassess and make it align?
R: Relevant (real time, immediate value and defines the contribution we will make to our legacy and for others)
I: Indicators of progress (milestones that help us create a path; help us decide if we should pursue the goal or not)
G : Gravity (magnetism between us and the goal; you should feel some pull or excitement toward a goal)
H: Height (goal needs to have an elevation or value and needs to be in a place where our mind, body and soul feel connected to it). If the goal is too big, we may fear vs. enjoying the action.
T: Time It is the right time to pursue the goal, ad well as the time to execute it, and the time the goal is though of to the end- does it work for you?
Shift Your Focus to Being
I recently read a great Washington Post article about trying less and feeling more human. Perhaps it is the ultimate challenge to just be- not worry about goals, not worry about the future, the past, but just be in the present
Sometimes, doing more in our life isn’t the answer. Being productive does not equate to satisfaction or happiness. If you want a change in your life, set goals. If you are looking to feel better in your life, try shifting your focus, which may translate to doing less. You may be surprised at what you find when you buck the cultural expectation of achieving more and more.
A new year marks a change of calendars and a change of outlook. To match the shift in calendar dates, people often like to give themselves a new challenge. The new year can mark a time to try new things, start new habits, and change your perspective. But we also know the stereotype of starting your New Year resolution, and giving up on it by February. The newness wears off, reality sets in, and old habits resurface. And nothing changes, even if you want it to.
There are a few tips you can implement to develop and keep your resolutions for the new year: develop a mantra, categorize your goals, write them down, and be accountable. These simple steps can help guide you into the new year with purpose and focus.
Mantras help us clarify our purpose. They are similar to a theme in your life, or a thread that helps to connect the various pieces. It is subtle, yet omnipresent. When you feel lost or being to falter, remind yourself of your mantra to refocus and inspire you to make a good choice or being you back to your initial purpose. Generating a mantra may sound easy, but it is a surprisingly challenging process that requires
Categorize Your Goals
Life is complex, and it is fair to say that not all aspects easily fit into categories. If you are trying to generate goals to achieve in the new year, focus on dividing your goals up into four categories:
- Personal Growth – Physical, emotional, psychological wellbeing; fulfilment, balance, contentment, consciousness of self.
- Social Growth – Interpersonal, leadership, group participation; confidence, communication, compassion, collaboration, preservation of self.
- Growth as a Learner – Academic, experiential, analytical; observation, effective questioning, curiosity, articulation.
- Professional Growth – Educational, managerial, mentoring; communication, problem solving, supporting learners, anticipation of challenges.
Setting 1-2 goals in each of these categories will help guide you through multiple pathways in your life. Use the mantra to tie each of these categories together.
Write them down
The power of writing can help drive you to your goals. So write them down. Journal if you feel like it. But make sure that you are able to check back and see your goals. Put them in a place you will see them, every day.
Writing down your mantra and goals may help give you a reminder and drive, but what about sticking to it? Be sure you hold yourself accountable, or grab a friend to set goals with. You can work together to make sure you stay on track. Plus everything is better with friends, right? Also give yourself checkup points. You can adjust these depending on your own preference, but I like doing checkups every 3 months. In the checkups, remind yourself of your mantra and your goals. Are you achieving them, or on a path to achieve them? How? Are you holding on to habits or beliefs that are getting in your way? How can you refocus to start achieving your goals? Basically, this is a checkup to keep you on track, in the zone, a reassess your situation. Change what you need to, but keep yourself accountable for your actions.
These tips are a great start to setting your intentions and goals to start the new year on a strong, focused path. They also help you adjust to the varying challenges that life throws your way. Start the new year with a clear mindset, and adapt it as you go. You will learn a lot along the way!
Our hands help us say a lot. We use them to explore our environment, and they help has translate a sensory experience from the outside, and as well as interpret what is happening on the inside. Mudras, or hand gestures, connect our hand movements to our brain, energy, and deeper sense of self. Mudras are all about awareness, and connect various concepts of yoga philosophy, including the five vayus, the five koshas, and the chakras. As with all things that require practice, you will sense and develop this awareness as you develop your mudra practice.
Mudras help you understand the subtle energy of your body, and are fairly straightforward to practice. You can easily insert them into you postural or meditative yoga practices, or simply enter one whilst sitting in the desk at work, waiting in line, or on your daily commute. Despite their simplicity, little is known about the mudras in Western science. Understanding why they are effective, however can be still be explored.
Why are our Hands so Important?
To start exploring why mudras are influential from a Western perspective, we need to start at square one. All humans are primates, a Linnaean order of mammals that encompass humans and our closest relatives, like the great apes and monkeys. All primates share similar features, including forward facing eyes with stereoscopic vision, several kinds of teeth, collarbones, and specialized hands. So why are hands so important? Primates have nails instead of claws to allow for manipulation of objects or giving your friend a groom. We also have thumb mobility, which allows us to, you, guessed, explore and manipulate our environment. Primates also have grasping feet, allowing them to climb. Humans have lost this ability, as we use are feet for walking upright. Based on this evidence, hands are important to explore, sense and manipulate our environment, and are based in our evolutionary roots that we share with our primate relatives.
Humans house a distinct feature: a large brain, the largest of all of the primates. The brain is the control center to how we see and interact with the world. Our hands, the ultimate sensors, connect to the brain. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that mudras have some influence on our sensory input, as well as on the brain. The primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, located in the brain, receive sensory information throughout the body. Approximately 1/3 of the sensory cortices are in the hands. What does this mean? When you engage in the hands, you are engaging a decent sized part of the brain.
Neurobiologist Bud Craig studies the insular cortex, a part of the brain that houses the interoceptive system, which that processes how we feel pain, sensation such as itching, vibration and temperature. This area is also linked to how we perceive and experience emotions. Craig found that the perception created in this area creates the subjective impression of the material self. This area neurologically shapes our sense of self. By bring attention to the subtle self-comprised of subjective sensation like temperature, itching, etc, we can tune into the sense of self. This goes hand and hand with mudras, as they allow us to focus on a shape of the body (usually the hands) that we can use to focus and develop this awareness.
Begin to develop awareness of how mudras affect you. What hand movements do you naturally default to when you are feeling nervous? How about when you are speaking with someone and trying to make a point? Observing these simple movements is a great place to start to understand mudras and how they affect the body. Hopefully, in the future, more science will be done to shed even more light on the benefits of mudras in yoga practice and our daily lives.