Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Day With A Master

This was written a few months ago after working with Aadil Palkhivala:

The two hour drive from Milwaukee to Chicago took closer to three hours on a Tuesday morning in September. Fortunately I had left early with the idea of getting to Aadil Palkhivala’s workshop with plenty of time to set up my mat and release any tension from the city traffic. I envisioned calmly entering the room and creating a sacred place with my mat while slowly transitioning my mind from stop-and-go traveling to gaining a deeper understanding of yoga. Instead I stumbled in with literally two minutes to pee, toss down a mat, and grab a pencil for note taking. But this article is not about me, it’s about Aadil.

Picture a tall, large, and bald man, with a voice that can fill the room with tone, depth, and grandeur all at once. He always manages to maintain a sweet odor about him even when he sweats. As Aadil took his place at the teacher’s seat, the room of approximately fifty yogis grew respectfully quiet. As he sat on a foam block in virasana, his eyes closed and his breath steady and expansive. An energy lingered in the room that told me, this was not for show. He was going within to speak from a more meaningful place than the mind. He spoke from the heart.

We began with warming up our breath and joining the energy of the mind and pelvis to the heart center. The Gayatri mantra set the tone for higher truth to be a focal point of the practice.

Throughout this two hour workshop and then a three hour class several days later, Aadil did a fine job of intermixing lecture and asana. The first class included the use of the five vayus in standing poses. What amazed me was that we only did four standing postures and yet I felt the work in my legs and core for two or three days. It was not the quantity or difficulty of the poses that made this experience so unique. The poses were quite basic: trikonasana, parsvakonasana, virabhadrasana I, and virabhadrasana II. It was the quality and awareness that he skillfully guided the students to realize.
The vayus, or subsets of Prana, are directly related to the five elements: earth, air, ether, water, and fire. As Aadil encourages us to connect our bones to the earth with solidity and to lift from the arches through the perineum with fire, my body came alive and brought a new energy to the entire pose, which by the way I’ve been doing for almost a decade now. He showed how water gave the spreading action in parsvakonasana and virabhdrasana II contained all elements at once.
With a booming tone and zeal in his eyes as he curled his fingers and commanded, “Feel the fire!” My energy blazed and the connection of the body and environment was readily apparent.

Unlike dozens of other teachers I have worked with, Mr. Palkhivala does not just give lip service to the steps he outlines for asanas: mindful awareness, breath, and light. Plenty of yogis say something similar, but then focus mainly on taking the postures deeper and deeper with no real focus on what the mind or spirit are doing. As Aadil shared during our third, or so, time into a pose, “If you do not intend come into this asana with joy, you have no business doing it!” How very true and how frequently overlooked. One of the fundamental principles provided to us by Pantanjali is that of non-violence. If you cannot come into a pose with joy, violence comes all too easily. With joy, there is no violence.

Although these workshops provided a wonderful and articulate way of experiencing energy, breath, and life in the body, the real gem of working with Aadil is his life wisdom. Pearls of truth were released all throughout the class; constantly reminding the students of how asana is only a small part of yoga. “Yoga must use asana—if at all—to uncover and then live dharma. Otherwise asana is at best an exercise and at worst a means off your path.” All too often, I have seen popular yoga teachers lost in their own egos claiming that if we chant om a few times, their classes are spiritual.

Classes with this unique man include a reminder that asana is only a small part of yoga. Perhaps in an attempt to balance an asana-loving nation, I felt he downplayed the postures to the point that one might wonder why do them at all. (This is something I question with frequency in my own practice.) As if he read the question in my mind, during the opening of the second class, he shared, Asana is done to connect to the energy all around us…. The purpose of asana is not to do more and more asana. It’s to do more and more life!” His voice rose with emphasis on the word life and I could feel a zest to be more, to live more fully growing inside of me.

Finally, Aadil quoted Mikhail Gorbachev as he prompted us all to discover and live our life’s purpose now, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

Love Much,


Today is the first day of the rest of your life!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Individual Career Planning - What Am I Good At

I've always thought someone's strengths were something they were good at--even if they hated doing it. That's why I get stuck cleaning the bathroom every week. It's definitely not a love affair with the bathroom--remember that's with the kitchen floor. I just do a more thorough job than anyone else in the family.

This view may not be a big deal when it comes to divying up household chores, but when selecting a career this view is a great way to really mess things up!

Marcus Buckingham, author of Go Put Your Strengths to Work and presenter on Oprah and a PBS special on strengths, has a different take on the definition of a personal strength:

"A strength is an activity that makes you feel strong."

Not necessarily something that you're good at. To help us realize what our strengths are Marcus has some suggestions: Keep a notebook with you at all times and write down things that make you feel strong. Don't do this at the end of the day. In order to maintain the details and a vivid description, write it down right away. When you do this the underlying likes and dislikes become more evident than just a generic quick description at the end of the day. For example, "talking on the phone with Mary" is not anywhere near as insighful as "calling Mary to discuss the school policies and brainstorming on ideas of how we can get them to consider the needs of the students more." For more details on this, check out Marcus's work (via book or videos).

In your stength notebook, create two columns: "I loved it" and "I loathed it". Things that made you feel empowered go in the loved it list and ones that left you disempowered go on the loathed it side. There are some rules to follow (again I'm just overviewing here, but Marcus's work with Oprah and PBS--and I imagine his book--provide more thorough suggestions). One "rule" is to only write down events that you did--not something that someone did to you. For example, being complimented by your mom might feel nice, but you didn't do it. However, helping out your family and giving your time may make you feel wonderful inside. Only the latter of these two scenarios would go on the list.

Here are the four SIGNs to help you determine if something is worthy of the loved it list. Look for all four before adding to the loved it side.

S - Success. If you think you’re good (being effective and in control) at it, then you’re a success at it.

I – Instinct. This includes things you look forward to doing; you can’t help but to do them.

G – Growth. Time stands still and you’re completely focused on the activity; if you’re distracted easily then it goes in the loathed column.

N – Needs. It fulfills a need. You feel fulfilled by it.

When I did this for a week, what I thought were my strengths originally were not always empowering for me and things I used to classify as not important enough to spend time on left me feeling wonderful inside. This has shifted how I make decisions on where to put my time and energy every day.

Once you've identified your strengths, Mr. Buckingham suggests starting every day with the question:

"How can I volunteer my strengths today?"

Focusing and devoting more time to my real strengths has brought more joy and meaning to every day of my life. I truly believe that this exercise has helped me to give more and contribute more of what I was meant to in this world.

Thank you, Mr. Buckingham!


Today is the first day of the rest of your life!

Friday, November 14, 2008

What is Prayer?

I used to think meditation was listening and prayer was talking to some higher force. As a child, prayer was a part of my evening ritual; I had even made up a bedtime prayer to use along with the Lord's Prayer. This "home made" one had more meaning to me as the church's version of the Lord's Prayer was not very relatable for a 7 year old.

As time passed, I came to realize that the prayers felt completely empty and void of any meaning. I could recite them backwards, forwards, and sideways while not actually paying any attention to the words. By high school, the ritual had become worthless; so I stopped.

Almost 20 years later, I became interested in meditation. After struggling all day to control everything around me, this practice of letting go was just what I needed. Prayer felt like one more attempt at controlling and meditation was being quiet and allowing things to be.

Now after a relatively consistent meditation practice for 5-10 years, I'm ready to check out this prayer-thing once again.

Just as there are many definitions or viewpoint of what meditation is, there are different mindsets regarding prayer. Gary Kraftsow lists prayer as one of the important elements of yoga. When I asked him how prayer was differed from meditation, he said, "It's a subset of meditation."

After doing a little research, I'm beginning to see what he meant.

In his book, Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das describes prayer as "sacred speech." "In non-theistic Buddhism, as we pray, we are not petitioning for something so much as we are reaffirming our intentions and asserting our vows," (page 183).

One of the most useful ideas was uncovered in The Energy of Prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh. He points out that "in prayer there has to be mindfulness, concentration, insight, loving kindness, and compassion," (page 40). This points to the uselessness of "worry prayers." You know when you bargain with the divine while in a state of panic to have things go a certain way. Thich goes on to suggest the two most important elements in "effective prayer." "The first is to establish a relationship between ourselves and the one we are praying to. It is the equivalent of connecting the electrical wire when we want to communicate by telephone.... When we meditate on [the connection between ourself and the one we are praying for], communication is realized.... The second element we need for prayer is energy. We have connected the telephone wire, now we need to send an electric current through it. In prayer, the electric current is love, mindfulness, and right concentration," (page 41-43).

Finally, I would be remiss to talk about prayer without mentioning Dr. Larry Dossey. His books, Healing Words and Prayer is Good Medicine, can be used as a foundation to understanding and inspiring a regular practice of prayer.

I pray you are well and filled with love, compassion, and peace.


Today is the first day of the rest of your life!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Self Awareness - - Forward bends and How do you view the world?

Last week, a friend and I were having coffee when she shared her dismay at couples shopping together. "The men are so controlling. I watch them walk around the market dominating their wives and pushing them around."

Now this is interesting to me; I tend to have a great time grocery shopping with or without my partner/husband. A matter of fact, when Mike and I go together we operate like a well-oiled machine cutting the time spent gathering goods in half (or almost half), and it's nice to chat about upcoming dinners and "plan as we go." Other couples in the store appear to get along just fine. If anything, the women tend to run the show with lists in hands--which is exactly what happens in our family.

So how can two women shopping notice such different couples? I really doubt they differ that much from store to store. The hint lies in the fact that my friend is in the midst of serious marital troubles: her husband is very controlling and is attempting to manipulate her so that it stays that way.

Since I currently see relationships as comfortable and overall agreeable, that's what I experience while out and about. In my friends present situation, she sees men as controlling and bossy; this is what is brought out when she is shopping.

Our present state of mind determines what we notice. If you see the world as basically good and peaceful, you'll pay more attention to what is good and peaceful. On the other hand, if you believe the world is a scary and gloomy place, then that's what you'll find around every corner.

Don't believe me? Take a look around your room and just observe what's there. Now pause and close your eyes. Think of the color brown. Look around again. Now think white and check out your environment. Odds are what stands out is based on the thought you just had. It's like when you get married, get pregnant, or get a dog. Suddenly it seems like everyone is getting married, having babies, or hanging out with their dogs!

When we do forward bends in yoga, from an emotional standpoint, we are looking within. If your intention is to learn more about yourself and thought patterns--which is a huge part of yoga--then you can take advantage of the surrendering and pensive nature of forward bends to understand and witness what comes up for you in times of silence and drawing inward.

This is all well and fine, but knowing how to bend forward in a safe and effective manner is important as well. Here are some tips according to the Viniyoga tradition:

1-Prior to bending forward, inhale and lift the chest away from the belly. This prevents the chest from collapsing over the belly.

2-Align the head so the ears are over the shoulders and the chin is slightly down to omit any additional tension in the shoulder and neck region.

3-As you begin to bend on an exhale, you need to know something about your hips. If they are tight (see clues for this below*), then emphasize tilting the pelvic bowl forward and lifting the sit bones away from the legs. If the hips are flexible, then start all forward bends by engaging the insertion of the rectus abdominis --which is located at the pubic bone. This will align the lumbar (low) back area.

4-As you continue to come forward, tone the low belly from the pubis to the navel keeping the low back long and supported.

5-Come out of the pose on an inhale by lifting the chest and keeping some tone in the low belly. This supports the back and prevents over-rounding in the upper back.

*To test for hip flexibility, sit against a wall with the sacrum and upper back touching the wall. Straighten the legs our in front of you into staff (dandasana). It's easy to "cheat" and let the sacrum slide away from the wall. If you need to keep the knees bent (even a little) in order to maintain the sacrum and upper back at the wall, then follow the guidelines for tight hips in step 3 above. Otherwise go for the flexible hip directions.

Once you develop enough openness in the low back to come into deeper forward bends, the inward journey deepens. This is not the only path to self-reflection, but it's a mobilizing and enjoyable one for many people.

Best of luck and love much,


Today is the first day of the rest of your life!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Viniyoga - One size does NOT fit all

Nadine Fawell recently wrote a fantastic post regarding injuries and yoga. This has been a subject of great interest to me for four years now--since injuring my back through various means and then going downhill from there. I am a devoted yoga practitioner and yet have experienced back pain, neck tension, joint inflammation, insomnia, constipation, and knee difficulties. Oh yeah, there was foot pain as well. I even wrote an article about this topic that the International Association of Yoga Therapist was kind enough to publish.

For the longest time I thought I was alone; as Nadine alluded to some teachers may not be admitting their aches and pains. But when Gary Kraftsow shared at a workshop in Indiana this year that, "All the well-known yoga teachers in the US have had injuries and most have had surgery" I suddenly felt that I wasn't alone in this "dilemma." I don't know how much truth there was to that statement, but Gary struck me as a honest guy and that was his assessment after 30 years involvement with yoga.

The question is: How many injuries are due to the asanas, ego, or being a teacher? I think it depends on the person. In my own case I think a lot of my injuries are related to "experimenting" with various alignments in order to be a better teacher, demonstrating in classes, and from some personal challenges this body was born with.

Regardless of the cause, the sense of integration and peace yoga brings keeps me coming back. Over time my focus has shifted more heavily towards pranayama, meditation, and way of life. Asana is still there, but with a different emphasis.

There are so many styles of asanas--hundreds--and theories on alignment and sequencing; the one thing I know for sure is that no one really knows the right way. Perhaps this is because yoga is not a "one-size-fits-all" methodology. Maybe it's because yoga is meant to grow with you--not to keep you the same. So when you mature, so does the practice.

I used to think that asana involved mastering (or at least moving towards) more and more challenging postures. It wasn't an ego thing, it was an honest presumption that this would mean a deeper release of blocks, a strength of discipline, and a focused mind. This may be true, but does it make sense to even ask the body to become stronger and more flexible in your 40's, 50's, 60's, etc compared to the 20's and 30's?

Viniyoga has a strong foundation in respecting (and accepting) what stage of life one is in. Traditionally this style of yoga suggested a more intense and challenging asana practice for folks up to about age 25--the sunrise of life. Then from 25 to 70 or so, the midday of life, asanas were really to service pranayama, or the breathing practices. Finally comes sunset after 70 years old. This focused mainly on meditation. With that said all three stages may include all three elements: postures, breathing, and meditation. However the drive that is so frequently seen in western yoga classes to do the "next pose" and push further each time was (and is) definitely not what yoga was meant to be.

I admit to thinking in the past that if I was a "good" yogini I must be able to do more and more complex postures or I must be failing somehow. How ironic is that? To feel like a failure in a modality that is all about accepting who you are!

It's all a journey and the key is to "do better, when you know better." In my desire to "do better", I've been reading Yoga for Transformation by Kraftsow and here are just a couple of quotes that lead me to believe he's on to something and my practice is going to change again:

"...the transformational potential of practice is furthered by progressively adding other elements --such as pranayama, chanting, meditation, prayer, and ritual--to do the same or similar core postures, without having to master progressively more complex or difficult postures." (page xxi)
"And just as our bodies change through time, the ancients suggested that the purpose and methods of asana practice must also change." (page 5)
"...if we are the high-paced, hyperactive type, we might be drawn toward a very active practice--one that makes us sweat and that generates lots of heat--whereas what we may really need is a more soothing and calming practice. Or, if we are the slow-moving, sluggish type, we might be drawn to a very gentle and relaxing practice, whereas what we may really need is a more active and stimulating one." (page 26)

Love Much,


Today is the first day of the rest of your life!