Information for those curious about trying this style of yoga or for current students who want to know more about the experience they’ve had in class. So many thanks to all of you who share breath with me.
The yoga industry worldwide is estimated now to be close to $16 billion per year. There is a yoga studio on every corner, offering an incredible diversity of practices, offerings and outright entertainment experiences. In our small rural community of under 20,000 there are at least 5 dedicated yoga studios and countless other venues where you can find a yoga class. How in the world is a new student to know where to begin?
Lately I’ve been contemplating how lucky I was to walk into the studio that I did so many years ago. I’ve spent the last year and a half here in Arcata teaching and watching—and trying to find the most appropriate way to share from my authentic practice. I see that there were three core principles present in the studio where I learned, that allowed for me to drop deep into yoga, and allowed for me to find incredible tools for healing and transformation through diligent practice. The practices I have been given and which I share with students did not materialize out of the blue. Our teacher studied directly with Krishnamacharya, the father of modern physical yoga practice and an unprecedented innovator. Krishnamacharya's unique approach to teaching traditional himalayan yogic practices to large numbers of people led to the world wide spread of almost all of what we know of as yoga today. After practicing in this lineage for over 10 years, I believe these are the most important aspects of the breath centered approach to yoga practice, and so they are the pillars of my classes. My goal is to use these core principles to offer clear and down-to-earth instruction on how to develop an authentic and effective yoga practice from the ground up and to build a cohesive and uplifting community of practitioners.
Ritual and Acknowledgment of Teachers
Ritual includes actions, spoken mantras or affirmations, and anything which is done as a matter of rule, each time we practice together. Before I lead a group into physical practice and concentration, we take three deep breaths synchronized and I say the mantra of my teacher as a way to acknowledge and appreciate that we have access to these tools. I believe that yoga practices are shamanic in nature, that individuals across cultures can develop the ability to directly perceive how to heal themselves and others AND that this can be done in a variety of ways. It is outside of religion, dogma, fashion and cultural boundaries. If there is truth, its everywhere and in everything, and we can find it by earnest looking in any direction.
However, just as a child needs clear boundaries and routine to feel free and safe enough in their bodies to explore and play, we can use ritual as a way to structure our practice so that creativity, insight and play can be incorporated and explored without losing ones meditation and intention. We can come to our mats even in great distress and we have a simple starting point, we can grope toward more peace and balance by simply beginning the way we always do, even if we aren’t sure if we can go any further that day.
In a breath centered class we use a set sequence of postures, and certain breathing exercises which are done the same way each time. As we learn to ‘dance’ in this way as a group, we can use it as a jumping off point to explore and heal the body with innovative therapies and asymmetrical practices for healing imbalances. In time we can learn to sit and move energy effectively and efficiently using only the breath. The simplicity of even rhythmic breathing while moving the body in different ways (methodically) in time leads to a profound philosophical understanding of the mechanics of the body’s movement, of the effects of our actions on our well-being and our capacity to heal ourselves. We learn a set sequence (or two) so that down the line, we may develop our own individualized sequences to address our unique challenges and support us as we move through the varying seasons of life and health.
One Mind Room: Community Support and Intentional Breath
The single most powerful part of the breath centered room is the hypnotic, rhythmic sound of deep and intentional breathing. As we move through the sequences together, we match our breath in time and strive to create a perfect harmony between in-breath and out-breath. As a result, heat is built within the body, and within the room. This controlled breathing actually takes quite a bit of concentration, and when we practice as a group, many practitioners are surprised to find that they can find euphoria and endurance, even trance, in a way that they have never achieved at home on the mat.
We are joining our presence together to aid one another in this effort toward concentration and stillness. As we breath in and out, the moment comes when we feel a sensation, are triggered by a cue or simply have an unexpected thought which causes us to lose our breath and our concentration on what we are doing. But our neighbor is breathing in time, the sound is clear and steady and we easily latch back onto it with our own. In this way we keep bringing the mind back to the present moment, which has a powerful healing effect on us.
I do my best to encourage those who are practicing with me to use an internal practice of counting breaths to help bring a continuity to their sequence. Using an internally repeated mantra such as OM decreases the effects of conditioned belief systems on the tissues as we practice. This powerful tool of simple counting and repeating OM as I move through postures changed my life. It is an efficient way to learn to meditate and reduce our reactivity while also bringing exceptional health to the body, all in as little as a 20-90 minute practice a few times a week. Combining physical conditioning, breathing exercises and meditation into one practice makes complete sense in the over-scheduled modern world.
Open and Respectful Space
Something that takes great strength and balance to achieve as a teacher is to be comfortable being silent. Sometimes we feel like we need to control others as they take the journey toward better health or spiritual evolution, as if the experiences that a yogi has while practicing has something to do with us personally as their teacher. Breath centered vinyasa practice uses very simple ‘alignment’ principles and cues, very limited guidelines on how to work with and grow in the physical postures and otherwise the room is held silent so that a student can actually have the experience we are asking them to have. It is really about having mutual respect for the Yogi. We come with humility with a set of tools that have helped us, and we do our best to share those tools with others…..THEN we absolutely must give a student the space and time to learn and have an authentic experience with them. We don’t necessarily need to preach to them about it, we certainly don’t need to explain and expound on the mysteries that may occur when you start to practice yoga in earnest. As teachers and practitioners, we don’t need to look a certain way, or eat a certain way, or speak in a certain way, or even have a practice that looks a certain way—we want to be a solid in our space and avoid casting our personal tastes and opinions onto our students’ practice. If our goal is to get people into a state of yoga, using every moment as an opportunity to cue someone to lift their tailbone, ground their back foot, open their heart and let go of fear, engage their core, stick out their tongue, cross their eyes or whatever you think is going to help them, kind of misses the point.
I encourage students to be curious about these poses, to apply a few simple principles to each one and then get really still, wherever they are, from advanced student to completely new beginner. You keep coming, you start to get interested, you look in a book, you look online, you attend a workshop or alignment based class. But in class, you just practice. You take your best shot at it, try to make yourself as still as you can, and breath. Easy.
We just show up for each other and ourselves. We breath together and we have fun together. We honor the cultural heritage of yoga as best we can. You can come see for yourself Tuesday and Thursday Evenings 5:30-7 for forward folding and twisting sequence and Sunday Evenings 5-6:20pm for the backward bending and deep hips sequence.