Ashtanga Yoga, Yoga Therapy, and My New Website Launch

Since February 2015, I have been studying yoga therapy in a rigorous course that has challenged my approach to practice and inspired me to reexamine my perceptions about what yoga is and what it should do. Meanwhile, as I have wrestled with these matters personally, there has been much conversation in recent months about the validity of teachers teaching ashtanga yoga without authorization from KPJAYI, and another, completely separate conversation between YA and IAYT about the nature of yoga therapy in relation to yoga in general. These conversations are complex and taking place in two completely different spheres. I stand in the sliver of overlap; the ashtanga chatter occupies my right ear, and the therapy discussion occupies my left.

While I have yet to voice an explicit opinion on either of these issues, I continue to teach ashtanga yoga despite never having been to Mysore and offer yoga therapy sessions for clients in need of a practice that does not adhere to the ashtanga method. All the while, I deny that ashtanga and yoga therapy are incompatible, or even essentially different practices. I recognize the potential incongruities of this assertion and, in light of the increasingly authoritative institutionalization of yoga practices nationally and internationally, I sense the need to navigate a clear(er) delineation of the role of yoga therapy in relation to ashtanga yoga, and the legitimacy I may or may not justifiably claim in teaching both.

As yet, I have not been to Mysore, and any inkling I might have to go to Mysore would be best described as a willingness, not as a desire. Though I am exceptionally grateful for this practice, I am admittedly averse to the idea of practicing in crowds of people who have elbowed their way into the building. The competitive social dynamic, the forceful adjustments, and the misogynistic harassment of female visitors in Mysore—not to mention the prohibitive cost and arguably elitist standards of admission—all further detract from the appeal. While I respect and admire the personal and financial investment some teachers put toward earning authorization, I have yet to see it as the best choice for myself.

Over the years, I have come to consider the egalitarian nature of ashtanga as one of the most appealing characteristics of the method: anyone who can learn the sequence (all or part) can do it anywhere, anytime, in a way that supports their physical, intellectual, and/or spiritual development. The impetus is placed upon the student to learn, and the teachings are inherent in the practice. Despite ashtanga's reputation as a "difficult practice," yoga doesn't get much more accessible than that. Furthermore, mastery comes through practice alone. While I have received important wisdom from teachers with whom I have studied over the years, most of what I have learned about ashtanga, I have learned by interfacing with the practice itself. In those countless hours alone on my mat, I have learned to breathe and persist through doubt and fear, to trust my intuition, and to listen to my body. These are the same skills that make me an effective teacher and that I work to pass on to my students.

One of my highest goals as a teacher is that my students will internalize my instruction, learn listen to their inner teacher, and ultimately become independent practitioners. If my students do not need me increasingly less over time, then I am not doing my job. Teachers of the ashtanga method are not gatekeepers to the ashtanga practice or dispensers of its wisdom; we are conduits, critical observers, cheerleaders, voices of reason, hint whisperers, and space holders. Mostly, we remind students to breathe until they do not need that reminder anymore. Sensitivity, experience, and aptitude are essential to this undertaking; authorization, while valuable, is not.

And what of yoga therapy vs. yoga generally? I cannot claim to think that they are different, or, perhaps more accurately, to think the ways they differ are important. Right practice is "therapy," in the sense that it regulates prana, promotes balance, and reveals ones true nature. My ashtanga practice, done appropriately, keeps me healthy and balanced; my ashtanga practice, done inappropriately, sends me spiraling into anger, aggression, and dis-ease caused by vata-pitta aggravation. The important piece here is that the form of "appropriate practice" is entirely dependent upon ones current state, and so each day that I step onto my mat, I must begin with two questions: What is my reality in this moment (vikriti)? And how can I respond to it in a way that cultivates clarity, purity, goodness, and balance (sattva) in such a way that my true nature (prakriti) is restored?

In truth, if I wish to live a balanced life, to fulfill my highest potential, I must always be asking these questions. Yoga therapy, then, as a distinct discipline, is merely the study of these questions and the specific application of appropriate yoga techniques in response to these questions. This is why the common structure of led group yoga classes is not therapeutic and is sometimes injurious, particularly for newcomers who do not know enough about the tools of yoga in order to make appropriate choices.

So where do ashtanga and yoga therapy overlap, and where do they diverge? In the sea of individuals and the myriad of situations, ashtanga yoga can often be an appropriate response—it cannot always be an appropriate response. This is what brought me to the study of yoga therapy, and is the reason that I offer "yoga therapy" as a service both independent from and integrated with Ashtanga. I teach my ashtanga students to practice therapeutically, and I teach my therapy clients to use the tools of ashtanga (breath, bandha, drishti, and repetition). Over the past two years, the two disciplines have informed each other in such a way that they have synthesized quite nicely into a unique and powerful offering that I have seen promote unprecedented sweetness and compassion in my students and their practice.

In light of the insight I have gained over the years, I have launched a new website that I hope reflects the ways in which my teaching philosophy has evolved and the ways in which my approach to both practices might differ from other ashtanga teachers and yoga therapists. In the spirit of ashtanga yoga as therapy, and yoga therapy as informed by ashtanga, I have called my new web space Yoga Chikitsa Austin. If you wish to learn more about my perspective and what I have to offer, please visit the new site and contact me with your questions or comments.

Visit yogachikitsaaustin.com 


Natural Health Hack #12: Simple Home Cleaning Solutions

Household cleaning products are some of the worst culprits of common exposure to dangerous chemicals.  According to EWG, many of the chemicals in popular cleaning products are can cause respiratory problems, chemical burns, hormonal disruption, certain cancers (including lung cancer and lymphoma), and increase the risk of birth defects (1).  With women performing over 70% of the cleaning duties in most households and holding down 90% of US jobs as housekeepers and maids, women are at particularly high risk of these negative effects (2).

Whether you do it domestically or professionally, cleaning may always be a chore, but it doesn't have to be bad for your health.  You can clean most objects in your home with just a few simple solutions that work just as well as, if not better than, conventional home cleaning products.

I clean everything in my home with a mixture of these 5 simple ingredients.
Here are a few of my favorite effective homemade solutions to keep my home sparkling and smelling great:

All-Purpose Surface Cleaner

This spray is perfect for cleaning kitchen and bathroom surfaces (even glass!), as well as random spills and carpet stains.   
  • Mix distilled white vinegar and water at a 1:1 ratio in a spray bottle.  Add a few drops of tea tree and lemon essential oil if you wish.  If the vinegar smell is too strong for your liking, you can reduce the ratio to 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water.  Shake well before each use and wipe dry with a clean cloth.  
  • For stubborn grime in the bathtub and sink, sprinkle the surface with baking soda first, then spray with vinegar solution.  Scrub with a brush or scrubbing sponge and wipe clean with a damp cloth.


Wood Cleaner and Polish

I have a real fetish for finely crafted wood furniture, and this wood polish keeps my big beauties clean and shining for weeks!
  • Mix 3 parts organic sunflower oil with 1 part distilled white vinegar in a small glass bottle or jar.  Add a few drops of tea tree and sweet orange essential oil (optional).  Shake well and pour a generous amount onto a clean cotton or microfiber cloth.  Wipe surface clean and get into all the nooks and crannies.  Rub remaining oil into wood for a gleaming finish.


Floor Mop Solution

This solution is perfect for cleaning faux wood, vinyl, and concrete floors.  Test the solution in an inconspicuous place before use on wood or tile.
  • Mix 1 tbsp of Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Soap for every 10 oz of water in your spray mop or spray bottle.  Add a few drops of lemon or sweet orange essential oil (optional).  Shake well before use.
  • If you find this solution leaves a slippery film on your floors, reduce the amount of soap to 1 tbsp per 20 oz of water.


Toilet Bowl Cleaner

Yes, even your toilet can be cleaned without harsh chemicals.
  • Pour 2-3 cups distilled white vinegar and 2-3 tbsp baking soda into the toilet bowl.  Stir with a toilet brush and let sit for 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes, scrub clean and flush.  Voila!


Final Thoughts

Always test cleaning solutions on a hidden area of the surface you intend to clean before going whole hog and spraying all over.  Though I have never experienced this in my home, some surfaces may react with the ingredients listed here.

It is worth nothing that these natural cleaning solutions are not just better for your health, they are also better for the environment.  You can up the ecological ante by using washable cloths instead of paper towels and buying your ingredients in bulk quantities to reduce packaging waste.  Everybody wins when we make natural, sustainable choices.  And when it's this easy, why not?

1-http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners/content/cleaners_and_health#, 2-http://www.womensvoices.org/issues/fact-sheets/basic/


New Video! Therapeutic Yoga for Low Back Pain

Do this 30 minute practice to ease discomfort in your neck and lower back.  This practice is appropriate for all levels.  Please leave your comments and questions in the comments section below.

(Please excuse the sound of the voice over, it is not good despite my best efforts to adjust it.  If I figure out how to fix the sound, I will re-post the video.)


3 Good Reasons to Learn the Sanskrit Posture Names

Vasisthasana, aka "the one where you balance on your 
hand and foot and catch your toe and look up"
Often, there is a surprising resistance to Sanskrit terms among even long-time practitioners of yoga.  While there is little need to truly learn the language unless one hopes to study ancient yoga texts in their original form, learning the names of yoga postures and basic concepts in Sanskrit is a good idea for any student. The following are three good reasons you should make the effort.

1.  Communicate Succinctly with your Teacher

All too often when I am teaching in a Mysore setting, a student will ask questions about the postures that give them the most difficulty, or need to be reminded which posture follows which in the order of the sequence.  These conversations usually go something like this:
Student:  I forgot what comes next.
Me:  Which posture did you do last?
Student:  Uh... the one where you're on your back with your feet up.
Me:  Supta Konasana?
Student:  Yeah!  Um, no.  The one where you're on your back and then you roll up.  What's that one called?
Me:  Ubhaya Padangusthasana?
Student:  Is that one with the toes or feet?
Me:  Toes.  Any postures with "Padangusthasana" in the name indicates you'll be holding your toes.
Student:  Oh.  What comes after that one?
Me:  Urdhva Muka Paschimottanasana.
Student:  Which one is that again?
And so on.  As you can see, had the student learned the names of the postures he or she had been given, this hypothetical dialogue would have been two lines long instead of eleven. While I definitely don't mind answering these sorts of questions, they can serve as an obstacle to deeper study and a distraction to other students.

Help your teacher help you.  Make an effort to retain the names of postures as you acquire them and your teacher and fellow students will be grateful.

2.  Inform the Form and Function of your Practice

As indicated in the dialogue above, the Sanskrit names of postures are descriptive.  This is particularly true of the postures in the standing sequence and first series.  The standing posture Prasarita Padottanasana, for example, means "feet spread intense stretch posture," with "intense stretch" derived from the Sanskrit uttana suggesting a forward bend.  Janu Sirsasana of first series translates to "head-to-knee pose" in English, which describes the general shape and intention of the pose.  Similarly, the first series arm balance Bhujapidasana means "arm pressure pose," which identifies the primary action--pressing the legs into the arms--required to perform the posture well.

As one progresses into second series, the names of postures generally become less literal, though no less descriptive.  Postures named for animals or elements in nature, such as Ustrasana (Camel Pose) and Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose) call to mind the prominent features of these creatures--the round hump of the camel and the puffed breast of the pigeon--which we emulate with our bodies as we lift the upper chest.

Studying the Sanskrit and learning how the posture names break down is an easy way to ensure you are doing your postures with correct form and intention. Also, having a logical and/or visual association with the names of postures will help you remember the order of the sequence. 

3.  Preserve the Energetic Origins of Yoga

Sanskrit is the language of yoga and one of the many gems produced by the Vedic culture from which yoga emerged.  According to Nicolai Bachman, author of The Language of Yoga, "the [Sanskrit] alphabet is perfectly designed for the human vocal apparatus, and the sound of each word represents the subtle energy of its meaning.  Because each syllable is either one or two beats, pronouncing correctly allows one to feel the natural rhythm of the language and imbibe the true essence of the word" (1).  To put it another way, Sanskrit conveys not just a literal meaning but also evokes the energetic qualities inherent in the sound of the word which mirror the energetic qualities inherent in the concept or object to which the word refers.

For example, hearing the words "Utthita Trikonasana," one hardly needs to see the pose to feel the long lines of energy and the pointedness of its shape.  In fact, new students frequently take this pose instinctively when they hear these words called out in a led class.  The student may not grab his or her toe or straighten both legs without correction, but the dynamic energetic interplay inherent in the pose is there. To substitute the English term "Triangle Pose" might convey the gross shape of the posture more clearly, but the subtle energetics of the pose are lost.

Learn the Sanskrit names of your postures, listen to your teacher speak them, and feel the truth of your practice begin to emerge from the language in which it was conceived.

Further Reading

Ready to begin your Sanskrit study?  Great!  Here are a few resources to get you started.


Hooded Eyes & Shedding Weight

I recently learned via a series of makeup tutorials on Youtube that the shape of my eyes, or more precisely my eyelids, is considered to be a difficult misfortune in the makeup world.  There's even a special term for them: they are "hooded eyes."

Hooded eyes are eyes which have a very deep eyelid crease, sometimes to the extent that the fold of the eyelid comes all the way down to the lash line when the eyes are fully open.  Hooded eyes can look small or puffy because there is so much skin from lash line to brow (think Renee Zellweger).  Also, because the crease of the lid is so deep, eye shadows and eyeliners tend to be concealed, or "hooded," by the eyelid, making it difficult for people with hooded eyes to wear eye makeup well.

Before I saw these videos three weeks ago, the concept of hooded eyes--the very fact that there is a hooded eye delineation--was completely unknown to me.  I had no idea that, all my life, makeup artists and perhaps others had been looking at me and my hooded eyes with pity, possibly scorn.  Since this realization, I am having great difficulty seeing myself without also seeing "hooded eyes." Suddenly, this term is occupying far more of my cognitive space than I think it warrants or deserves.

When I was in the second grade, I sat beside a boy named Jeremy.  One day, without warning, Jeremy looked down into my lap and remarked on the girth of my thighs.  I don't remember his exact words, but I remember my reaction well.  At first, I was stunned.  At eight years old, it had not occurred to me to be concerned about the size or shape of my thighs.  All I knew then was that I was strong--as strong as all the boys, and just as fast.  I always held my own in wrestling matches or fights on the playground, and often won the footraces at recess.  As the idea that the size of my thighs somehow mattered and that mine were too big began to sink in, I felt myself begin to fill with red-faced shame.  Desperately, I placed a notebook over my lap to conceal my thighs before anyone else could have a chance to marvel at their enormity.  When the time came to go home that afternoon, I tried to pulled my jacket down over my legs to cover up.

Jeremy's insensitive proclamation, however innocent it might have been, changed my life forever.  Through this first tender wound, ideas like "wear dark colors because they're slimming" and "only thin girls look good in shorts" began to seep into my consciousness.  Gradually, I began to scrutinize and question the attractiveness of every square inch of my body.  My breasts were too small.  My belly was too big.  My arms were too thick and my hair was too curly.  It became clear rather quickly that I was not pretty enough and that being an attractive person would require a lot of work--I would need to eat very little or purge somehow if I didn't have the self control.  I would have to wear makeup every day to conceal the imperfections on my skin, and dress in carefully selected clothing to create the illusion of an attractive figure.

As I progressed through junior high and high school, the message that my value as an individual hung on these details became louder and more distinct.  With so much of my mental energy swarming around my insecurities and appearance, there was little remaining at this important developmental stage to recognize the things that I was good at, to practice the things I truly loved, or experience the things that made me feel human.  My growth was stunted by the burden of needing to be beautiful, my spirit crushed by the weight of worrying that I was not. Sadly, I would not be able to shed this weight for many years to come.  Even more sadly, perhaps I never will.  Here I am at nearly thirty years of age, stumbling upon new ways in which I am not good enough.  Somehow, through all the years of paralyzing judgment, I had never found cause to dislike my facial features.  Now, there's a term for my eyes. 

Of course, the yoga has been a force of truth in my relationship to self and body.  Through practice, I have shed so much illusion; I have learned that I am so much infinitely more than shape and size because I have observed within.  In time, I will forget about my hooded eyes, but I will always remember this: The body is soil to the seed of my consciousness.  I am reborn in the sweetness of body over and over again.