Saturday, July 30, 2011

Balancing Act

Black/white. Hot/cold. In/out. On/off. We live in a bipolar world, much of it our own creation (though Nature herself has been known to pull some pretty extreme moves). At the most basic level, our technology from Morse code to computer programs encrypts the universe as dot/dash, zero/one.

 We seem drawn to extremes, happy to swing from the end of the pendulum like monkeys from trees, passing through the middle ground with time for no more than a backward glance.

I don’t know why this is so.  It does make the world a simpler place to live: if we can divide people, as a grad-school friend of mine did, into angels and devils, it’s easy to choose sides. If we are blue or red, we always know how to vote—we don’t have to ponder, to reconsider, to examine the many shades of purple. We know who is right and who is wrong.

But extremes also cause great suffering. Ask anybody who lives in the desert, where days are scorching hot and nights frigid. Watch a small child: giddy with joy one moment, wailing as though her whole small world were crashing down around her in the next. Remember what it feels like when you have a fever, the strenuous oscillation between overheated and chilled. Look what climate change has wrought:  a world of dramatic tsunamis and earthquakes and floods, as our planet tries desperately to regain equilibrium.

And yet we persist—overworking, then collapsing; overeating, then fasting; frenetically socializing, then hiding out. Exhausting beyond all reason. And of course, we bring this same imbalance into our yoga. Many of us dip our toes into practice, then dive in, get hooked, get fanatical about a class/teacher/practice, and either injure ourselves or suck the joy out of it all with our sheer intensity. We practice when we are sick, tired, jetlagged or just plain old distracted. We push our bodies to do things they were not yet meant to do. We self-combust, we burn out. And then we lapse out.

Despite appearances, yoga is not about extremes—at least not the “householder” yoga practiced by those of us with kids, jobs, mortgages and other paraphernalia of earthly existence. The austerities of renunciate life (celibacy, restrictive diet, rigorous cleansing practices, standing all day on one foot or with one arm raised, onerous rituals) are reserved for swamis (monks or nuns) who devote their entire existence to the path.

Yoga for ordinary humans should restore us to balance, not throw us further off course. Anusara Yoga’s Universal Principles of Alignment make this possible throughout our material and energetic body-fields. Each principle has a counter-principle or complement: rolling the upper inner thighs in, back, and apart paired with scooping the tailbone; “puffing the kidneys” (filling out the back waist) with drawing the shoulder blades more onto the back to open the chest; drawing legs and arms into sockets while also extending back out.

The canon of postures also returns us to center. Backbends counteract our tendency to stoop and round forward, while forward bends stretch tight hamstrings and buttocks and relieve compression in the lower back.  Twisting right and left ensures that we don’t indulge our personal inner-body rotations (tendency to turn one way and not the other). Inversions flip us upside-down, taking a load off our legs and feet and challenging our arms and upper back to join the game.

Yoga, essentially a solitary and inward-turning endeavor, also counteracts our overextended, extroverted, chronically plugged-in lifestyle. Disconnected from Ibook/pod/pad, from Facebook and Twitter and Googleplus, we confront ourselves. I often tell my students that they can learn everything they need to know about themselves within the confines of their sticky mats. Cheaper if not easier than therapy, this self-scrutiny separates us from the onslaught of images and opinions coming at us from outside and invites us to explore those that arise from within. (Take note: if you are new, or even newish, to practice, it’s going to take awhile for the true inner voices to be heard beneath the hubbub of recorded messages you’ve been absorbing from outside throughout your life. Twenty years into my practice, I’m still struggling to distinguish the two.)

And how much practice is “balanced” for any one person? I reached a point with my Ashtanga practice where I had bent my whole life around practice, going to bed at 9:00 so I could awaken predawn, plough through a two-and-a-half-hour practice that left me limp as a noodle by mid-afternoon. I lost touch with friends who kept more “normal” New York schedules. I practiced so hard I probably created more tension than I dispelled.  On the other hand, too many hours/days away from my mat and, well, suffice it to say I’m not good company! Edgy, contracted, rigid, disconsolate are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind. These days I try to get some yoga in every day, but “some” can mean 15 minutes or four hours. I’m no longer rigid about when and where. I’ve come to trust my inner gauge of when I’m level, on beam, and when I’m off. And this balancing act has translated into my life off the mat. I’ve found happiness (yes!) in the middle ground. Come join me—there’s plenty of space! It’s only at the edges where things get crowded.

Friday, July 15, 2011


If you grew up (yogawise) using props, you may be surprised to learn that the props we know and love are less than 50 years old. For many, yoga would not be yoga without: mats, straps, blocks, blankets, chairs, sand bags, bolsters, and other more elaborate paraphernalia (think: the wall or ropes and rings, resembling medieval torture implements) installed in some studios).

To me, one of the beauties of yoga, and one of its greatest draws, is the fact that it doesn’t require special equipment, special clothes, specific weather conditions, mountains, waters, plains, or trails, flights or drives, hotels or resorts. It doesn’t require a backyard or even a roof over your head. But people like stuff, and they like to go places to do stuff with other people, and companies like to make money by producing and selling stuff and by moving people around and charging them for doing so. So, we now have not only props with legitimate uses in the studio, but also designer mats (last I heard, which was a while ago, Gucci was offering a $1500 yoga mat), fancy mat bags, calendars and posters and statues. Seventh Avenue yogi-fashionistas have contributed designer yoga clothes; a store in the West Village sells yoga-inspired jewelry.

But to get back to the beginning. B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the premier yogis of the twentieth century, is the genius behind yoga props—though I don’t think he had a product line in mind when he first experimented with bricks and blankets. As Iyengar labored to bring his contortionist yogic prowess down to the level of mere humans, he realized that most of us don’t just bend in half (forward or backwards) like flexi-straws. He saw broad-brush patterns: tight hamstrings, rounded shoulders, creaky joints, cobwebs in the hip sockets. To make certain poses possible for students, he invented simple props: straps to loop around the feet in seated forward bends, when touching the toes was out of reach. Bricks and books to place under a hand in triangle pose. Blankets to tip the pelvis forward in seated poses. Bolsters to lie back on to open the chest. The yoga mat itself was reputedly “invented” by Angela Farmer. Studying with the Iyengars in Pune, India, she found the slippery concrete floor challenging in the warm, humid studio. So, she cut a piece of industrial rubber to her size and voila! The sticky mat was born.

Research confirms that drinking gives you the same benefits yoga does!!!

The evolution of props from these humble beginnings has not kept pace with the progress of other arenas, such as technology and medical research. In fact, props look pretty much the same now as they did 50 years ago. We still have mats made of environmentally suspect blends of rubber, plastic, and petroleum by-products, coated at the factory with noxious, slippery glaze that mitigates their ability to be “sticky” until run through the wash. Bikram students have mat-sized towels to absorb the skid in 105-degree studios; students practicing in Mysore, India favor rough-weave cotton blankets given to prison inmates, and Yoga Paws has created little socks and gloves with nonskid treads that eliminate the need for mats at all. In a latter-day effort to recoup eco-sensitive integrity, Gaiam and others are making “organic” mats from jute and other bio-sustainable plants. Bricks and books have morphed first into solid wood blocks, then hollow wood blocks, and finally foam blocks (once again of dubious environmental value). Straps have metal C-rings and D-rings and plastic buckles that only a NASA scientist could maneuver into place. Chairs are still chairs. Blankets are still blankets (though, at least in the Iyengar tradition, the amount of attention given to how students are to fold the blankets borders on the insane/compulsive).

Given that props are here to stay, who needs them? We all do, at some point. Props extend our limbs (blocks under hands or feet, straps to join hands or loop around feet), provide traction (sticky mats), enhance alignment (blankets under the butt) and awareness (having a block to extend a foot toward can remind us to extend evenly through the four corners of the foot), provide support (under the thighs in hip openers, reclining on bolsters). Recently I’ve been inventing and cataloging ways to use props to make poses harder—thus lifting the stigma of props as remedial.

But they can also hold us back. Students get inexplicably attached to props. This probably stems from our innate resistance to change; we tend to cling to what we know and to assume that what we heard first is good for all time. I know this because, as a teacher who views props as training wheels, as temporary solutions until a student gains the flexibility/stability/awareness to sustain good alignment prop-free, my frequent attempts to remove students’ props invariably meet with scowls and distrustful glares. I have disturbed homeostasis, I have not let well enough alone. I have tacitly asked someone to step into the unknown. They don’t feel ready, and can’t understand why I think they are.

Nonetheless, I persevere. Because props used beyond their use are worse than training wheels: they are like asking a growing child to wearing shoes they’ve outgrown. They can make you contort and compensate in ways that cause more problems. It’s as bad as contorting to hold a pose without props when you really need them.

Props also hold you at a certain plateau, in a certain geometrical configuration—and maybe not even one that’s right for your size and proportions. Because in the world of mass-produced props, one size fits all. You can’t order a 6B or a 34L, a P or an M or an XL. But even if you got the size right in the first place, your body is going to outgrow it as you gain strength, flexibility, and balance. BKS Iyengar realized this early on. In teaching himself to do back handsprings (vipariti chakrasana), he began by lifting his feet up off the ground on two telephone books. He then removed a page from each telephone book each day, until he could make the jump without any artificial lift.

Hands-on adjustments are my preferred alternative to proppage. When I touch a student to enhance flexibility, I can feel the innate degree of resistance in their muscles on any given day, and adjust accordingly. As a student gets stronger or steadier in a balance, I can loosen my hold. Touch also allows for energetic transmission, that intangible “hit” or slow, steady increase in well-being you experience during massage or in a loved one’s embrace. And it creates a connection between student and teacher that goes way beyond words. That said, many teachers hesitate to touch, or avoid touch altogether—either because they doubt their own ability to adjust intelligently, or because they have never received great adjustments themselves, or both. For the gift of giving and receiving confident and effect physical adjustments, I remain grateful for my ten years of Ashtanga practice, where the only communication between teacher and student came through touch. Woe be to yogis who miss this bliss.

Everything we do on the mat has repercussions off the mat. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. When we cling to a prop beyond its use, it conveys something else to our internal wiring: the signal “I’m stuck, and I choose to be.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


We all grapple with space and time—we feel crowded, we feel exposed, we’re rushed, time drags. These apparently inexorable forces shape our days and offer the seemingly fixed ground of our lives. They rule, we follow.

I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately, especially here in the lovely Hamptons summer. Not only do I cherish this time of year and the privilege of immersing myself in one of the most spectacular corners of the planet; I look forward to summer as I time to catch up on writing (hence, this blog!), reading, and planning the best for the busy “school year” to come. Alas, it is already July and I have done precious little of any of this. Where did the time “go?”

Alternately, when I am on one of my extended teaching tours in China, with seven- or eight-hour working days running four or five weeks straight, time can drag. I start feeling homesick, counting the days till I board the final plane home. As a kid, my ever-restless mind (yes, it started early!) would reach states of near-panic on long car trips: “Are we there yet, Daddy, huh, Daddy huh?” I’d wail, my nose pressed to the glass of the station wagon’s rear window. Each schoolday brought the excruciating clock-watching countdown, which dragged every slower toward 3:00 release. To this day, I cannot teach in a room with clocks, whose presence seems to mete out my time as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons. Depending on what’s going on in the room, time alternately drags and rushes, pushing and pulling me off course and trifling with my game plan. Visit my home: you will see that when I am fast at work, all clocks are turned backwards and all electronic devices with LED clocks unplugged. I need to slip into “non-time,” or slide out of time to be fully present where I am and completely engrossed in what I am doing.

Space can mess with us too. My New York City apartment seems quite spacious until I return to East Hampton, where I expand into square footage way beyond my needs. For the record, my Manhattan shoebox is shorter than my dad’s Suburban: stretching a mere 17 feet at its longitude while the monster SUV consumes a generous 18! Then I visit Tokyo, where hotel “rooms” can consist of mere shelves (think the couchettes or sleeping berths on old-fashioned trains): domestic living reduced to the space required to lie down. One of the reasons I like the Hamptons (and Manhattan) is the small scale: within a stone’s throw of here are ocean beaches, farmland, marinas, bay beaches, nature preserves, slick retail villages, aimless highway drive-bys, and even our token shopping center (quaintly titled Bridgehampton Commons—as though it were truly a place where all could gather). In the city you can traverse an astounding range of neighborhoods and cultures within a few square miles. When wanderlust seizes me, I often do a loop from my West Village studio across to the East Village (1980s hipsters supplanting Eastern European immigrants) down to the Lower East Side (90s hipsters edging out old-time Jewish dairy restaurants and deep-discount retail),Little Italy (getting littler every day), Chinatown (spilling over to engulf the Italians), Soho (Disney-fied high-end retail having replaced art and artists having replaced sweatshop factories and warehouses and the tenements of those who worked in them). Thus, I get to enjoy the passage of time as well as the clash of spaces. Beats going through security screenings and transferring your beloved toiletries to 3-oz bottles in search of the exotic.

Conversely, beam me down onto the Utah desert and I succumb to agoraphobia. Too much space, not enough markers. You can’t even tell how fast you’re driving, as endless expanses warp our sense of time. As Einstein said, it’s all relative. And even amid the massive mountains of the American West it’s possible to feel claustrophobic: unless you at the top of the highest peak, you’re basically in an enormous salad bowl with opaque sides. You can look up but never out the way we ocean-lovers do. Last year I visited Tiananmen Square, infamous now as the site of the 1989 massacre of student protesters. What strikes the eye, however, is how it’s really possible for a grand public space to be too big. In erecting this massive plaza (or razing whatever was there before to create the square), Mao inadvertently dis-integrated the collection of government (read: power) structures framing the space. They’re just too far apart to hold any collective impact. The designers of the extensive “Forbidden City” proved much more adept at the sliding scale game: this ingenious sequence of palaces and courtyards contracts and expands in ways that take your breath away at each new vista.

So where am I going with all this? Back to yoga, of course, or at least to the Tantric philosophy behind Anusara Yoga. The Tantrikas figured out centuries ago that space and time are elastic—if not physically, then at least in our experience of them. They grouped space and time under the “psychic” category of the kunchikas, and reminded seekers that basically, it’s all in your head. I think we all know this intuitively: time flies when you’re having fun. Hours on the beach zip by, minutes doing my taxes craawwwwl. We know this culturally: “social space”—the distance between two strangers deemed acceptable—varies widely around the globe. In public places—bars and restaurants, planes, and yes, beaches--Americans tend to be loud, colonizing more than their share of the communal turf. It’s no wonder we have foreign wars going on in places we don’t belong—our culture seems to think, as the Brits once did, that we and our ways of doing things are welcome anywhere.

Then there’s “cyber-space”, that intangible, immeasurable realm where most of us spend way too much of our precious time. Listen to the words computer geeks and Internet maestros have come up with to create the feeling that we are somehow reaching others across this no man’s land: we “link,”, we “friend,” we “connect,”, we “follow.” Whereas in fact the only actual contact is between our fingers and the keyboard (sorry, touchpad), the true space that between our eyeballs and the screen.

The good news (and in Tantra, there is always a bright side!): you can shift how you experience space and time, and this is a key part of our yoga. Jammed into a crowded subway car at rush hour? Close your eyes and explore the inner terrain.

Feeling rushed? Put down the to-do list and focus on the task at hand. Time dragging? Reconsider the people you hang with and the work you do. In my experience, boredom triggers the slowdown, so chances are you’re just not fully engaged in whatever’s going on.

As my teacher Douglas Brooks says, become a master of time (and I would add space)—don’t let them master you. Tantra has no patience for victimhood, but instead asks how you can make the most of what you’ve got. The clock is ticking . . . don’t let me keep you from what you love!



Monday, July 11, 2011


Okay, I get it—there’s a ton of blogs out there. I know because I read through dozens before launching my own, just to be sure I had something to add to the virtual multi-logue. Everyone’s a writer these days, and everyone clearly believes they have something to say.

Does anyone pay professional writers anymore? or has the Internet outlet leveled the playing field and made everyone a writer?

As they say, talk is cheap. Except it’s not: I invested 11 years of my life and thousands of dollars (well, my parents’ thousands of dollars) in Ivy League higher education in the belief that some talk is just better. I thank the numerous professors who shed light on dark corners of our world, whose words taught me not just how to listen but how to see and to think—and eventually how to write.

Way back before I devoted myself to teaching yoga, specifically from the ages of 19 to 34 or so, I wrote articles on art, architecture, design, and literature for dozens of magazines, books, and exhibition catalogues. Lots of editors pored over and revised my work, adding the humbling reminder that not everything I turned out was solid gold. Lacking a personal staff these days, I do my best to weed out the dross and only go public things that hold together and make a point.

Probably the most valuable training I gleaned from my experience was a clear vision of what makes good writing worth reading:

1.INFORMATION: People really do want to learn new stuff! We are curious creatures who want to expand our horizons. It makes life sizzle and makes you the most enticing company at social gatherings!

2. INSIGHT: This is more than just personal opinions and preferences (I like this, I can’t stand that). Skillful writing plumbs the depths, explaining why something matters and what’s at stake by positioning it in our shared social and cultural world, where a cacophony of voices and a dizzying parade of images besieges us daily. Good writers have to know the big picture as well as the little details of their field. They need to be grounded in the past, in history, as well as be adept at zooming in on the present. Each of us has a point of view, and obviously this gets personal, but writers who can’t see beyond their own experience can’t make the bridge to stir deeper awakenings in their readers. Astute chroniclers also filter out the insignificant, trivial, and downright pointless stuff swirling around out there, so you don’t have to, saving you precious time.

3. AVOID “I” AND “ME.” I admit this is going to be a challenge as I roll out these blog entries, but if I ever start to sound self-absorbed, self-satisfied, confessional, or anything purely personal, please call me on it! The blogosphere is already dense with people doing just that, sharing the intimate and sometimes trivial details of their daily inner and outer lives. Let them carry on—I’m aiming for a different, and hopefully higher!—ground.

My promise: every blog entry here will be infused with knowledge culled from my rich educational background and continuing perusal of the world around us. I’ll choose what matters most and run it through the mill of my ever-active mind, rifling through my mental filing cabinets, scanning my internal hard drive for context and relevance. I will strive to be the attentive observer less interested in herself and more committed to what we share.

And of course, I welcome responses from all of you. I’m starting the conversation, but it goes nowhere without your input. There’s genius in each of you, and I look forward to seeing it shine!