Musings from The Fascial Dissection and Movement Workshop with Tom Myers, Elizabeth Larkam and Todd Garcia.

 

by Jeffrey Shoaf, E-RYT-500, LMBT

As both a student and teacher of yoga, anatomy, and bodywork, you might imagine my enthusiasm when I learned about an opportunity this past winter to participate with forty three other movement and bodywork therapists from around the world in a five day anatomy lab on myofascial dissection.

The entire program was so brilliantly choreographed, our mornings beginning with Elizabeth Larkham, renowned dance, yoga, and Pilates instructor for two hours of movement, focusing on particular areas of the body that would soon connect us viscerally to our lab work each day. Combining these three modalities, the classes were always a beautiful hybrid of largely unfamiliar movements (no Virabhadrasana here folks). How refreshing! Following that initiation into the program with Elizabeth’s skilled and poised direction, we then took a brief journey over to The Lab of Anatomical Enlightenment (love the name) and met Todd Garcia, master dissector and director of this unique research institution. (Todd trains medical students, scientists, yoga teachers, personal trainers, Pilates instructors, and other movement based therapists in anatomy and dissection).

This dissection lab is most unique in that these cadavers, who in life donated themselves for this research were, in point of fact, “live-tissue” cadavers. Even though this may seem like an oxymoron, the term refers to the fact the these donors were not embalmed; which means their tissues are not injected with latex or formaldehyde, a very common and unfortunate habit, but instead came to us “ as is”. Other than no longer being animated with the spark of life, their bodies’ tissues looked, felt, and responded to this “surgical” procedure they passively accepted exactly like you or I might, were we merely unconscious. To preserve these bodies for the duration of our work, they were sent to us freshly frozen from a lab in Utah, and then kept cool for three days before we all showed up for the first day’s session. Each evening after our work was complete we carefully wrapped them one by one in a layer of large thick, plastic sheeting, the ends twist tied, and stored overnight in a large refrigerated chest, where we began anew the next day.

The organization of the laboratory experience was brilliant. Rather than beginning this odyssey with lab coats and scalpels in hand, we all convened around the large sterile room as a group to offer a few moments of reverent meditation and gratitude for these generous human beings and their families. Then under Todd’s direction, proceeded to unwrap the cadavers, and take ample time to view (connect with) each one, as a way of determining which of these eight individuals we would spend then next very intimate five days with. After choosing the person with whom we resonated the most, we then listened as Todd carefully explained how to go about the skill of dissection. One of his most profound statements was “Don’t try to do too much, rather try and do one project really well”.

Joining together with the common theme of exploring fascia as it applies to movement, the art of dissection was executed quite differently than you would likely see in most anatomy labs.

And then…, well…, there was Tom Myers( bodyworker, Rolfer, fascial researcher, and author of the best seller Anatomy Trains). I have been a long time fan and student of Tom’s work. His presence and expertise on the subject was key to the success of this program. having previously worked with Todd on numerous projects to prove to the medical community that these myofascial “trains” are continuous, and how we can no longer define movement of our skeleton just from one muscle’s origin, insertion, and action on a bone.. (Tom got his start back in the 1970’s as a direct student of Drs. Ida Rolf and Mosche Feldenkrais).

Rather than isolating and removing individual muscles, we worked tediously to keep the myofascial chains or myofascial meridians as intact as possible, no small feat for the novices we mostly were. As Tom was clear in pointing out, eager students of anatomy are quick to want to dissect away tissues that were once thought of as merely inert packaging materials ( fascia and connective tissues) and get to the “good stuff”, the tissues we can easily identify and more readily understand and comprehend , like muscles, bones, and organs. However, when tissue is dissected parallel to the skeleton, rather than the old school method of our times as hunter gatherers, the myofascial chains are kept intact. In fact, Todd and Tom have demonstrated you can remove a continuous myofascial layer along many planes, one example being from the plantar fascia at the sole of the foot all the way up the posterior body, and ending at the eyebrow. This fascia, in all it’s forms and layers, forms a unitard, or biological fabric, creating the shape that is self sustaining ( for better or worse, depending upon our vocation, lifestyle, and postural “learning” from our mentors).

Six of the group ( including me) of forty three students found a collective interest, both from intuitive resonance with “Martha*”, and commonality in our anatomical leanings. Each of us intrigued by the myofascial connections of the diaphragms of, as they relate to breathing; these being the pelvic, respiratory, and vocal membranes, and their direct (and in some cases indirect) and continuous connection to the pericardium, spinal ligaments, and iliopsoas complex. (Being a student of Yoganand Michael Carroll, this stroll into the anatomy of the tissues of breathing and bandhas was just my thing!)

One of my fellow students in the lab, “Brea” offered this beautiful blog to all of us in an email about a month after the training. Here are those words, from the heart about how this experience affected, her. I can’t imagine how those words could have been crafted any better….

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“Sitting on a plane on my way to Phoenix back in January this year, casually chatting with my seat mates, the inevitable question arises: “So, what will you be doing in Phoenix”? I take a moment to decide if I should tell him the truth, if I want to open that “can of worms”. I go ahead anyway. “I am taking a cadaver dissection course, said with a slight smile. He pauses and looks at me again. “Really? are you a forensic scientist”? No, not at all, I am a yoga teacher. I’ve been asked many times; Why would a yoga teacher want to do something like that? Do I have some perverse Dexter-like curiosity about the human body? Curious about the human body, oh yes! Serial killer potential? No..…

After five intensive days both on the body and the mind, and yet it was one of the best experiences of my life, I quickly realized this was a rite of passage, one that forever changes all who go through it. We went from skin to bone, head to toe on eight un-embalmed, or “live- tissue” cadavers, people who graciously donated their bodies so that we (mostly novice dissectors) might learn. There were about six of us per cadaver doing the dissections. I won’t go into all the details out of respect for the donors and for those of you who are squeamish, but I wanted to share with you the deeper lessons that I’ve received .

They were our silent teachers, an immeasurable gift, one they chose while living. The anatomical understanding and learning was incomparable.
As a visual and hands on learner, this was a wonderful opportunity to enhance my learning. On the other hand, there was no way this was going to be just another anatomy course. Just as we cut through the layers of the cadaver to uncover the whole, so too was the layering of my experience. There was a dynamic transfer of information happening on all levels; kinesthetic, intellectual emotional, and spiritual. All the questions, all my painfully human wonderings, were laid there bare on the table before me. As I cut away each layer of tissue, I was cutting too, into my own awareness, cutting into my own assumptions about this human life. The human form before me was everything and everyone. That was “me” lying on that table. that was “me” offering myself up for greater exploration, offering up my secrets for further excavation, for the great unveiling. There was no separation between me and that knife, cutting away…, cutting away, to the bone, to the core of it all. Inside the body I found treasures, discovered nuances, patterns, and repetitions.

In many spiritual traditions they say, we are not this body. But how can we be anything else while we are in it? It is through this body that I am me, all of me. It is through the offering of another human that I found the deepest sense of the layers of who I am, what I am capable of, and most importantly all that I do not know. Who are we if not this body; this vessel, this storyteller, the keeper of secrets and recorder of life. Who am I if not this body; this mover this heart, heart feeler, and sensual receiver. Who are you if you are not this body; this teacher, this offering laid down in simple supplication. Every cell in our body tells a story, every layer has something to say. The offering from these eight silent teachers has granted me access to the simplest and complex of miracles, and I can’t wait to do it again”!

(used and printed with the kind permission of Brea Johnson @ Heart and Bones Yoga, Calgary Canada). www.heartandbonesyoga.com
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This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career as a yoga teacher, therapist, and bodyworker. And Elizabeth was phenomenal, using movement to connect what we had discovered the day before to the one ahead. This way what we saw in “Martha’s*” body landed fully into our own.

The experience was overwhelming, in all the best ways. So Tom and Todd’s advice to wait a couple of years before taking another training was well advised. Each day since, that five day experience continues to color my world, both professionally and personally, allowing me to see, feel, and understand the human form in ways I never would otherwise. I am forever grateful for this opportunity, as this learning continues to both enhance and inform my yoga teaching and bodywork practice in immeasurably positive and wondrous ways.

Martha was the name we chose for our beloved anonymous donor. The real names and histories of these eight generous human beings were never revealed to us, nor should they have been.

Exploring the practice of Yin Yoga- Tracey Sondik Psy.D. ERYT

 “With its quiet atmosphere unstained by striving,the Yin practice in particular allows us to fully metabolize emotionswe often ingest but cannot completely digest”.  – Sarah Powers – Insight Yoga

 

“Why would anyone do Yin yoga?”  This is a question I asked myself over and over again during my first Yin yoga class in 2009.  I was midway through a 5-minute holding of Dragon (a deep knee down lunge) and prayed for the meditation bell to ring so I could escape the uncomfortable physical and emotional experiences I was feeling in the pose.  Yet, somewhere deep inside of me, I recognized that my reactivity in this moment was chalana (sanskrit term for ‘churning’) just as I had experienced in my  Tantric Hath Yoga practice.   By churning the body, mind, and heart, the external personae slowly soften and melt, revealing our true identities. I thought this only could occur during intense physical practice or doing lengthy sessions of pranayama.  Could this happen in the “quiet practice” of Yin yoga as well?
The bell rang and I came out of the pose and a flood of energy moved through my body.  It was at that moment, although I did not know it then, that I found my true yoga path.  For the next five years, I went on to study with Yin pioneers Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley, completing approximately 1,000 hours of training in Yin Yoga and developing my own practice and teaching style that utilizes yin yoga, mindfulness, and psychological methods to promote healing and transformation.

The actual practice of Yin Yoga is not new.  Yoga books dating back to the 1950’s describe holding poses for up to 15 minutes in a relaxed and static position.  The term “Yin” was a descriptive term that was coined by my teacher, Sarah Powers, in the early 1990’s to differentiate between this gentle system of static poses and the modern vinyasa styles of yoga which are considered “Yang”.  Using the terms Yin/Yang, Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley incorporated Taoist philosophy centering around the idea that Yin and Yang are relative terms, describing two sides of one coin.  Yin and not exist without yang; yang cannot exist without yin.  They are complements to one another, always changing, and rebalancing toward wholeness.

While Yang yoga focuses on rhythmic stretching of the muscular system (think vinyasa), yin yoga targets the connective tissue in the body.  Paul Grilley describes, “every organ, muscle, and bone in our bodies is formed by a framework of sponge-like material called connective tissue”.  Connective tissue includes tendons, ligaments, and fascia that covers wide areas of the muscular-skeletal system including the tissues around joints that are crucial for maintaining range of motion and flexibility.  Yin yoga, with its emphasis on non-rhythmic longer holds influences the organ and energy systems of our body (sometimes described as accupucture without needles) that can create a feeling of ease and relaxation.   On a psychological level, yin yoga creates an inner atmosphere of acceptance and understanding of one’s self.

There are three basic tenants or elements to practicing yin yoga.  The first is to come to an appropriate edge by going into the pose in a nonaggressive manner, carefully adjusting to the sensations, allowing the breath to remain steady, and assessing whether the shape is targeting the specific area of the body intended in a safe way without injuring or going too deep into fragile tissue areas.  The second element is to become still and relax muscles .  In order to stress connective tissue around a joint, the muscles must be relaxed or the connective tissue simply won’t take the stress because the muscles are resisting the pull.  Not all muscles can be relaxed, but the muscles in the target area must be relaxed to get the full benefit of the pose.  For example, in a forward fold, you can gently pull your feet with your arms or contract your abdomen to deepen the fold, but the muscles along the spine should be relaxed or the connective tissue will not be impacted.  The third element is to stay in the pose for a while.  The length of time varies from person to person and pose to pose.  Typically yin poses are held between 2-5 minutes to allow the connective tissue to be stressed appropriately, to allow the meridians to fully be nourished, and to have the space and time to explore the inner landscape of our feeling and emotion bodies.

As a psychologist and meditation and  yoga teacher, I became fascinated with the therapeutic aspects of yin yoga.  I began to explore how to incorporate mindfulness, psychological inquiry, and Buddhist and yoga philosophy while using the container of yin yoga.  I started to introduce mind training activities in the pose, inviting students to engage in breath awareness throughout a pose.  I used inquiry language as well, asking students to reflect on “what is happening now?” and “how is it notice that?”.  I often lead specific Buddhist practices including “metta” or “loving-kindness” meditations while in different yin poses.  Students report that they feel relaxed, more open, and present.  More importantly, they report that they feel the benefits of the practice, later that night, the next day, or during the course of the week when they practice some of the mindfulness or psychological methods introduced in class.  Yin yoga classes can be individualized to target the physical, energetic, and/or emotional body that requires healing for the yoga student.  For example, a student who is feeling depleted and anxious, might benefit from a series of poses that target the kidneys and urinary bladder series.  This series would include poses such as bound angle, sphinx, forward bends, and legs up on the wall.  While doing these poses, the student might be instructed to engage in breath awareness and cultivate an atmosphere of kindness.

Yin yoga is not easy.   The sensations can be quite intense and there is often “inevitable discomfort” as we move toward further ranges of motion.  As teachers, we can help our students discern what is safe  from what is risky pain (sharp, electrical, stinging, nerve pain).  Staying with discomfort is a new experience for many yin students.  That was my experience as well, wanting to pack up my mat and get the hell out of the class as quickly as I could.  However, there was a deeper longing inside of me that allowed me to stay.  If we can help our students stay:  stay  with the discomfort in their bodies, stay with the discomfort of sometimes painful and difficult emotions while cultivating an inner atmosphere of kindness, we are giving them the tools to become more trusting and attuned to themselves.  This begins the path toward embodied presence for all seasons of life.

 

—–Tracey Sondik is a licensed doctoral level clinical psychologist with an expertise in neuropsychology and integrative medicine.  For the past 11 years, she has served as a psychologist in an inpatient public psychiatric hospital serving both civil and forensic clients with severe and persistent mental illness and brain dysfunction. She has demonstrated a strong commitment to integrative medicine, specifically the utilization of yoga and mindfulness to treat complex mental health and behavioral problems.  She developed a yoga therapy program at her hospital utilizing restorative yoga therapy for patients with extreme self-harm and aggressive behaviors and has lead mindfulness-based stress reduction programs for patients that are suffering from extreme anxiety, depression, and thought disorders.  As a yoga instructor, Tracey is an E-RYT 500 hour yoga teacher and has interests in both Tantric Hatha yoga along with yin and restorative yoga.  She teaches weekly yoga classes and workshops at Samadhi Yoga, a yoga studio located in Manchester, CT as well as co-directing a therapeutic meditation retreat with Marlysa Sullivan for the Center of Integrative Yoga Studies (August 2015).  She has co-directed a 200-hour Yoga Alliance-registered yoga teacher training program at Samadhi studio and continue to serve as a core faculty for this training.  She is now co-directing a 75-hour Yin/Meditation teacher training program in 2015 for yoga teachers and yoga therapists  and mental health professionals.  To find out more about this yin training visit:  http://allthatmatters.com/workshops
Dates for this Yin training are:

March 26-March 30 Immersion I:  Foundations (35 hours)
April 23-April 27 Immersion 2:  Integration (35 hours)
Both Yoga Alliance and counseling CEU’s available

 

Dates for the Therapeutic meditation retreat are August 13-16- visit http://integrativeyogastudies.com/workshops/ for more information

Trauma, Yoga and the Journey to the Self- by Holle Black

“Yoga is the Journey of the Self,
Through the Self,
To the Self”~ Bhagavad Gita

When we talk about the transformative power of a yoga practice, “the Journey of the Self, Through the Self ,to the Self” what are we really talking about?

From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali comes the idea that the true self is like a clear lake.  Our true nature, our true self, abides within,untouched by experience, untouched by circumstance. The center of ourselves is this clear, calm lake. Our experiences and thought patterns create disturbances upon the surface of this lake, like creating waves, clouding the clarity of the water. Sometimes the disturbances create such waves that the lake is in constant turmoil, the surface so choppy you cannot see what is beneath the surface. Sometimes the lake has been this way for so long, the disturbance is what we identify with, not with the calm at the center. These waves are the distortion from the true self, and our true nature. Still, the calm water exists and abides beneath the surface distortion.

“Yoga is the Journey of the Self, Through the Self, to the Self”. We use our yoga practice to journey through the distortions of our mind to come to the clarity within. We practice to develop a strong witness to notice what are the distortions . We practice to notice what we identify with, our story, our thoughts of identity and if we are holding on to the disturbances instead of the journey to clarity. Releasing what can be released, physically , emotionally and intellectually as well. After a yoga practice that sense of calm that resonates from within is the access to the calm water beneath the roiled surface of the lake; it is the feeling of connection with one’s true nature.

“I feel like the sunshine after a thunderstorm” ~ a youth detained in Georgia juvenile detention after a yoga class.

I have been teaching a weekly yoga class in the Georgia juvenile detention system for nearly a year. I have had the same core group of participants for the duration. These young men are 13-17 years of age, and all are charged with felony crimes. I do not mention this to discuss the crimes, but rather to mention, or consider, what might have had to happen to these young men in their lives, what experiences, trauma, life event or exposure to events occurred to form
these young men into serious criminals at such a young age? How disturbed is their sense of Self? More importantly can they find that sense of calm within, can the practice of yoga benefit them? I find it particularly interesting and effective to apply this Yoga Sutra model of the calm water beneath the roiled lake being the true nature of the Self, and disturbances of thought or experience distort this calm, to young people who have not only experienced trauma, but have also perpetuated trauma themselves.

There is considerable body of literature that documents the relationship between trauma and childhood abuse, and subsequent aggressive and criminal acts. Among the most common risk factors for post-traumatic reactions, aggression, and antisocial behaviour are childhood abuse and neglect, poverty, sexual molestation, and witnessing violence. Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. The common denominator of all traumatic experiences is that they involve some sort of threat to our physical,emotional, and/or psychological safety.

When we are faced with a potentially threatening situation our own body’s survival response activates. We know this as our fight, flight or freeze response. It is important to understand that this response is not an intellectual process, nor is it a choice. When the brain perceives a threat the survival response of both the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system are activated. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to mobilize the body’s resources to prepare the body to respond to threat. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system triggers increased heart rate and blood pressure, and accelerated respiration, all of which prepare the muscles for action. The physical stress response also involves the activation of the neuroendocrine response system, releasing hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that prepare the body for action.

When people are exposed to intense, chronic, or repeated traumatic events, their threat response system may become altered. Research has indicated that people with post traumatic stress disorder show a sensitization of several biological systems, including a more reactive autonomic nervous system and neuroendocrine system. These alterations in the biological threat response system show up as trauma-related symptoms, including anxiety, intrusive memories, triggered reactions, concentration problems, and nightmares among others. In other words, the traumatized person is stuck in the fight, flight or freeze response. They are continually living in the traumatic event.

Trauma hijacks the body and the mind. There is much research on the powerful benefits of yoga on those who suffer from PTSD and the effects of trauma. The practice of yoga can help us calm our autonomic nervous system response and bring it back to a healthy state of homeostasis. As we use mindful movement to physically release the tension of being in a hypersensitized mode, we also use breathing techniques to help calm the nervous system. Deep, conscious breathing has a physiological effect on the nervous system that relieves stress and anxiety. Slow, mindful breathing activates the neuroendocrine system to send out neurohormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body. When the body is released from the hold of the physiological effects of trauma, the distortions upon the surface of the lake begin the calm. The true nature of the Self, the vast calm that abides within is accessible. Maybe for the first time, the true nature of Self is revealed and felt.

The potential to no longer be simply what we have done or what has been done to us, the potential to become more than our stories, and to not identify with the distortions, is achieved through perceiving the calm that resonates from within, the calm water beneath the roiled surface of the lake. With practice we gain greater and greater access to the true nature of Self, and learn to notice what is distortion.The journey of Self, through the Self, to the Self, is sensing the calm waters beneath the surface of the lake. And feeling like the sunshine after a thunderstorm.

Samskara of Thought

The New Year is often a time to reflect on where we have been and where we want to be. It is always interesting to look at this spiritual journey that we create and to notice where we are in this moment and our intention on this path.

In this reflection, and in preparing for some of my courses for the year, I am constantly amazed and inspired by how much we can learn through this path of Yoga.  I am particularly fascinated right now with the idea of Samskara. Samskara, or subliminal impressions, or habits are latent tendencies of thought that often underlie our actions in the world. These habits of thought often lead to action even before we realize what is happening.  We can often trace our actions back to a thought which can be traced back to a belief about ourselves and ultimately to a habit of ways and conditioning around how we feel about our place and existence in the world.

So much of what we create in our world is a result of these habits or Samskaras. Our beliefs and conditioning are powerful influences to how we think, live, interact, connect within and connect with others.  As we develop a sense of who we are in the world we begin to live our whole life within a fortress of validation of that belief.  We begin to only let in experiences that support that view of who we are and push away anything that threatens it.  Over time this creates greater and greater distortion until it becomes more difficult to connect with the spaciousness and bliss of our being within and even more so the space of connection within all beings.

In both the Sankhya Karika and the Yoga Sutras we learn that our experience of the world is here to teach us and show us the difference between material nature and Self. Each experience in life has the capacity to help us dive deep into connection with the essence of who we are as well as the connection between all of us.  Each thought that arises or action that occurs can be seen in this light of awareness to show us the difference between nature and Self, to show us and connect us to the essence of our being.

The Sankhya Karika has two metaphors that really embody this capacity to see nature and spirit and to see our Samskaras. One is that nature is like a dancer that when seen by the spectator, or spirit, ceases to dance. There is nothing left to be seen or known. When we see our actions and thoughts simply as these impressions or play of nature, we can become free of the attachment and expectations created around them and we can come back to the essence of who we really are underneath these patterns. In our everyday awareness as Nature dances, as thoughts arise, we often run to them and act from them before we realize it. This action can often create separation as we become so busy acting on these impulses we forget to sit back and feel whether these actions and thoughts are creations of nature or experiences that connect us and show us the truth of being within.  When we build discernment we can allow these impulses and samskaras of thoughts and actions to rise up, to move through our awareness unencumbered and through the differentiation between truth of Self and Nature, we experience freedom, peace and connection as we allow ourselves to move from the space of Self instead of the pullings of Nature.

The second metaphor that the Sankhya Karika likens the realization of the difference between nature and Self to is that of a potters wheel that will continue to revolve after the potter ceases their effort.  Once we are situated in the Self, our samskaras or habits of thoughts, sensations, emotions and pull to action will continue to rise up and move about in our awareness but we are no longer pulled by them. The knowledge and connection to the Self as distinct from Nature allow us to change our relationship to these samskaras. It is a powerful experience to sit back and to watch and feel Nature moving around the essence of who you are without following these impulses.  It is powerful to allow every thought that is followed to be the one you choose, to be the ones that lead you to connection within and connection within all.

As it says in the Yoga Sutras: “ individual thoughts are constructed from a measure of egoism. A single thought produces the diverse activities of many thoughts. A thought born of meditation leaves no trace of subliminal intention” 4.4-4.6

The thoughts and actions that arise from meditation, from the knowledge and light of our essence of being, leave no samskara. This way of being in the world is built on deepening the awareness of truth, light, love, compassion, connection within all beings.

 

Thank you for reading. We have many exciting new programs and workshops on our website. You can also find the information for the Therapeutic Meditation Retreat with Tracey Sondik and I under workshops coming this August!

http://integrativeyogastudies.com/workshops/

Shape-Shifting: A Journey of Change Through Yoga- By Tra Kirkpatrick

To a nice, sweet, fat girl.

Your friend,

Victor Pelt

Those words had become engrained in my heart and soul in the very way they had been penned onto the front page of my 7th grade yearbook. As an overweight child put on my first diet at the tender age of 9 years old, the story of “fatness” (and therefore unworthiness) carried me well into my adulthood, leading me to decades of self-abusive behaviors and self-loathing. Until I was found by yoga. On the mat I was someone else ~ a young woman who appreciated her body, who felt love and tenderness towards herself, who was able to let go, if even for one hour, of the distaste and distrust I had in my willpower, strength, and ability to change. And that’s when the transformation began.

Let us be silent that we may hear the whispers of the gods.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

The Truth I experienced of myself on the mat was unmatched by any experience I had of myself in the world. I quickly found that yoga asana, pranayama, and meditation consistently led me to a place of quiet contemplation where I could dismantle the armor I had worn for so many years. Through this peeling away of patterned thinking and limiting beliefs, the true nature of who I was was revealed. That woman was neither fat nor skinny; disarming nor discouraged; helpless nor hopeful. Most importantly, “she” was not separate from me – “we” were united, open, and filled with unending love.

But that was only on the mat, at least in my early years of self-discovery. The studio I frequented back in those days was in a shopping center so invariably, the path leading back to my car became my very own “walk of shame.” Filled with self-acceptance and love as I exited the studio door, each step down the sidewalk and past window after window reflected a different truth. And as much as I tried to maintain the peaceful, compassionate feelings that arose during class, eventually the “fat girl” would peer back at me from the glass-lined sidewalk in disgust. Filled with judgments, disparaging remarks, and the pain of feeling unloved and unlovable, the yogi girl standing proud just minutes before shrunk away from the reflection of who stood outside.

Yoga soon taught me that the script I had been repeating over and again throughout the years bound my entire identity to my body. Fat=lack of self control=lack of worth. The equation seemed logical and simple enough. The dynamic of our human experience, however, is not. We are a complex web of thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that are based on past experiences and which inform future ones. In yogic terms, these binding experiences come from the ahamkara (ego mind), the self shaped by the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that validate (or threaten) who we believe we are. Until we learn to discriminate between Truth and ego/stories, our relationship to our self and hence our actions, will lead us to suffering and unhappiness. When we use the discriminative mind (Buddhi or witness mind) to observe ourselves, change begins to occur.

Transformation rarely comes in one fair swoop, but rather slowly eases its way in without much fanfare. Similarly, each time I came to the mat my stories dissipated a little more and the voice of my true self arose in a whisper. The practice taught me how to feel without reacting, to watch without the commentary, to lean in to the joyful bliss that was possible and apparent on the mat. As written in the Bhagavad Gita, “when the mind comes to rest, restrained by the practice of yoga, and when beholding the self by the self, [she] is content in the self” (6:20). Through the practice, and over time, my true voice spoke louder and more clearly.

When the personality comes to serve the energy of the soul, that is authentic power.

(Gary Zukav, The Seat of the Soul)

As seen through Western-world eyes, present day yoga has primarily become a practice of postures, diluting yoga’s deep and transformative benefits. In it’s oldest and truest form however, yoga has always been therapeutic. The technologies of yoga (pranayama, bhanda, mudra, meditation, asana) written about in ancient texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika lay a path to end suffering and dis-ease and lead us back to our place of wholeness.  We might think of these technologies as a window through which to watch – they allow us to see inside. Through that opening, we grow in our ability to cultivate compassion, self-acceptance and change.

The yoga didn’t necessarily change my body; it changed my heart and mind by creating a wider spectrum of who I thought I was and helped the stories (samskara) dissolve. On the mat, my breath moved into the darker places where normally I would hide; I could feel the light inside; I could finally see myself for the fullness and wholeness that I was, not just the stories that defined me. The transformation I experienced as a result of yoga worked on and through me without me even understanding the philosophical or academic principles of the practice. Yet it happened!

So, how did it happen?

The Yoga Sutras state that, “The practical means for attaining higher consciousness consist of three components: self-discipline and purification (tapas), self study (svadhyaya), and devotion (Isvara-pranidhana). These practices cultivate an attitude conducive to being absorbed in Spirit and minimize the power of primal causes of suffering” (II 1 and II 2). As most of us can attest to, just coming to the mat some days takes discipline; the various yoga technologies each require a tenacious attitude to practice and watch what happens. Through the course of exploration and discovery on the mat, yoga strengthens our ability to be with what we see and feel and teaches us to open and soften to what is seen without pushing it away or suppressing it. In short, the practice teaches us to lean into trust and Truth.

Practicing yoga – and living – deeply means to understand the depth of our choices and align our actions with the Truth of our nature; to use the witness consciousness derived out of the practice as a guidepost on the path of transformation. The practices on the mat teach the yogi how to experience surface and depth; to learn to watch the fluctuations inside without reacting; to allow the energies to rise and fall over and over without attaching story; to experience ourselves in a much deeper and powerful way. From the place of ego, seeing only what’s on the surface, we see and feel pain, fear, angst, suffering. When we view the surface from a place of depth (witness), we can see – and accept – the whole spectrum.

Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception. When this happens, the Seer is revealed, resting in its own essential nature, and one realizes the True Self.

(Yoga Sutras, I,1-3).

With another new year just weeks away, it’s easy for most of us to fall back into habitual thinking of guilt, shame, and fear that we think we will dissolve our inner demons and resolve us to change. We zealously join the gym and promise to work out, eat healthier, end harmful relationships, stop additive behaviors, take more time for ourselves, lower stressors in our lives, the resolution list goes on and on. And while these are admirable and worthwhile goals, the fact is that most people give up on their resolutions and themselves within six weeks of January 1st. And so the cycle of self-doubt and low self-esteem continues. Rather than outwardly focusing our attention on what we want, we can use yoga to direct our attention inside, to cultivate a compassionate and loving relationship to ourselves, to explore the nature of our true being. In this way, yoga is not about gurus on some far off Indian mountaintop – it’s a path that leads us back to our True Self. And from that place, transformation happens.

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Tra Kirkpatrick and Marlysa Sullivan are offering a Revolution & Renewal Urban Yoga Retreat on Jan 3rd and 4th at Decatur Yoga & Pilates in Decatur. Join them for this 1.5 day yoga immersion and experience the transformational path of yoga.

Tra also teaches the Seeds of Change module, a 5-day training that interweaves the teachings of Tantra Hatha Yoga, psychological and emotional aspects of change, and empowering dialog to create life-long transformation. Check the calendar at www.integrativeyogastudies.com for the 2015 schedule.

 

Understanding the Nature of Self as the Strength of the Container

Brihadaranyaka:

4.7: The Self, pure awareness, shines as the light within the heart, surrounded by the senses. Only seeming to think, seeming to move, the Self neither sleeps nor wakes nor dreams. When the Self takes on a body, he seems to assume the body’s frailties and limitations, but when he sheds the body at the time of death, the Self leaves all these behind.

Mundaka:

2.2.1-2: Bright but hidden, the Self dwells in the heart. Everything that moves, breathes, opens and closes lives in the Self.  He is the source of Love and may be known through love, but not through thought. He is the goal of life. Attain this Goal!  The shining self dwells hidden in the heart. Everything in the cosmos great and small, lives in the Self. He is the source of life,

Taittiriya:

2.1.1: They have attained the goal who realize Brahman as the supreme reality, the source of truth, wisdom and boundless joy. They see the Lord in the cave of the heart and are granted all the blessings of life.

2.7.1: the self is the source of abiding joy. Our hearts are filled with joy in seeing him enshrined in the depths of our consciousness. If he were not there, who would breathe, who live? He it is who fills every heart with joy. When one realizes the Self, in whom all life is one, changeless, nameless, formless, then one fears no more. Until we realize the unity of life, we live in fear.

 

These passages from the Upanishads express the nature of Self in such a beautiful and profound way.  They speak of the Self as Pure awareness, it is within the heart, the source of love, known through love and not through thought, the source of truth, wisdom and boundless joy.

The Koshas are a model of understanding the path of yoga as well as a model to understand our own selves that tells us we are made of 5 sheaths- body, energy, mind, wisdom and bliss ( Anna Maya, Prana Maya, Mano Maya, Vijnana Maya and Ananda Maya respectively).  The state of being that these Upanishads speak of is the state of bliss, of Ananda Maya Kosha. This Sheath of Ananda Maya Kosha  forms the foundation of our being, our unchanging essence as love and boundless joy.  In the path of yoga we develop the Wisdom Sheath- discriminative awareness so that we can pierce through the obstacles of thought, belief and experience that comes from the body, energy and mind so that we can come into contact with the foundation of our being- Ananda Maya Kosha.  The experience of Ananda Maya Kosha allows us to see the light within, to understand our nature beyond our limited experience in the body and mind.

In my studies, I have often come across the idea of creating mindfulness, discrimination, the capacity to witness all that arises without judgment and had considered that to be the strength of the container. I was taught that developing this would help me see my patterns and to help release the experience of suffering.  As I practiced this- in my own practice as well as with clients- I began to see and experience a limitation of this idea. Just seeing the patterns, habits and stories of my body and mind were not enough to undo the knots that kept me and my clients in pain and suffering.  As I studied and contemplated the Upanishads I began to understand that the strength of the container may be something else. When we touch on Ananda Maya Kosha and begin to grow in our understanding of the nature of the Self underneath and beyond as this source of love and joy we change. The beliefs, thoughts and emotions that keep us in pain, worried, anxious, and in fear begin to lose their hold on us as we look at them side by side with the experience of Ananda Maya Kosa.  The strength of the container seems to be something else- the stronger my experience of Ananda Maya Kosha, the more able I am to come outside of patterns that keep me in pain and suffering. The more I realize and understand my capacity for love, kindness, goodness, wisdom and joy, the more I am able to see my suffering and create a change in the relationship and reaction to thoughts, emotions, beliefs and interactions with others.

In many traditions in yoga and in Buddhism it is important to first understand and  find this space of being before we dive into the darkness of our beliefs, emotions, and conditioning. When we are not situated strongly in the experience of our own goodness, love and joy, we can often become lost in our habitual reactions and beliefs in the mind and body.  It is through the cultivation and strengthening of experiencing our own basic goodness that we can sit with our patterns of mind, energy and body and cultivate change. We notice we are something else besides these patterns, that there is an option and another way of being in relationship to our own body, mind and energy as well as with others.

 

 

 

 

Musings on the Myofascial System and Yoga- Jeffrey Shoaf

“You see….., I believe in shapes. I believe everything good has a shape. Shapes are the way in which we know who we are and where we are in our universe. Show me the shapes and forms a person gives to her or his life, and I will tell you whether she/he is a master or victim of that life”.  ( paraphrased from Stanley Keleman’s quote from Gail Goodwin’s “Glass People”.)

Our bodies, minds, and spirits, born of our DNA, life experiences, and individual life experiences are perpetually shaping our form.The fascia ( connective tissue, myofascaie, or neuromyofascial web) is the substance that ultimately creates our form, both seen and unseen. Like the Koshas,as described in yoga texts, these many-layered sheathes are all independent and yet interdependent matrices, ones which nourish and support all of “us”. Its network interconnects and maintains the shape we’ve come to know, the material that is home to our entire essence. To understand this vital network is to practice with the foundation of body movement; a knowledge of this foundation deepens our practice and our ability to work with others’ forms.

Our myofascial system is ALIVE!  And…, with knowledge of how to properly care for and maintain this biological fabric, it will sustain all our systems in a state of health and longevity. Until this decade, very little research has been devoted to understanding this tissue.

To paraphrase what Tom Myers speaks about, most of our understanding of and approach to human anatomy ( literal meaning is “to cut”) has been done with a blade, a throw back to our days as hunters. Our survivalist skills caused us to remove what we could use for food, and discard the rest. With the exception of those researchers of fascia and connective tissue, this is still the scene in most dissection labs around the world.

I say this to say we are so much more than a collection of parts. We are not “built”, or put together like a machine, but are more like a plant, grown from a single seed, with all the information intact to evolve, to become the perfection of who we are to become. So, applied to movement, the old paradigm was to isolate and work with ( exercise/strengthen) our “parts” as a way of bringing health to the “whole”. Now if some instances this may be a worthwhile approach, but in general, we need to be thinking of this body, this mind, these emotions, not separate, but constantly connecting, connected, interrelated, and sharing information globally throughout our essence. When we are called to move into shape, it is the whole of our being doing so, not simply a contraction “here”, or a counter move of stabilization “there”, but a matrix, a chain of communications highways, pathways, relating, reacting, merging with one another.

The practice of Tantric Hatha Yoga is one paradigm we can utilize to create holistic health in our neuro-myo-fascial web ( think uni-tard here, to quote Robert Schleip). This network is the container, the medium on our palate, where we get to explore the global self, our gestalt. By exploring asana with pranayams, we are actively “juicing up” the myofascial net by flushing our systems of stale fluids, older cellular structures, and adhesions which create dysfunctional patterning in our form. And, by then including the practice of engaging the bandhas, (which travel along the deeper myofascial meridian lines), the combined effect is like a dance, an interplay of energies, creating intentional structural shifts to remove old habits that no longer serve us, to become gateways for personal transformation. (If we hope to change our psychology, we must change our physiology! ) We discover this first through our own practice, to place this in our own being. Then, as teachers, therapists, observers, we can use these tools, this knowledge to help our students, our clients, or significant others (which includes everyone we encounter in this lifetime) to experience it, to place in their own beings

 

Jeffrey Shoaf is teaching our next module on Myofascia, Prana and Bandhas: Merging Anatomy with Spirit November 7-11 at Decatur Yoga and Pilates: www.decaturyogaandpilates.com

Free Webinar on Yoga and Migraines

I will be doing a free webinar at Maryland University of Integrative Health on Monday October 20th at 4 pm. I will be discussing the integration of yoga philosophy, principles and practices into the biomedical understanding and treatment of migraines. You can find out more and sign up here: http://www.muih.edu/webinar-case-study-yoga-therapy-migraine-headaches

Aparigraha and Isvara Pranidhana: Exploring the Connection between Non-grasping and Surrender

The Bhagavad Gita: Winthrop Sargeant

3.25: While those who are unwise act from attachment to action, so the wise should act without attachment intending to maintain the welfare of the world

4.33 Better than the sacrifice of material possessions is the wisdom sacrifice, arjuna; all action without exception arjuna is fully comprehended in wisdom

5.10 offering his actions to brahman having abandoned attachment he who acts is not tainted by evil any more than a lotus leaf by water

9.27… whatever you do… do that as an offering to Me

 

The concepts of nongrasping/nonattachment and surrender to the divine gives an interesting way to understand right action and how to live in the world practicing yoga in every moment.

One meaning of Aparigraha or non-grasping that I have been exploring is the idea of what it means to be in the present moment without expecting or wanting it to be different than it is. What does it mean to be in relationship with others and not expect or want them to be different than they are? If we met every moment and every person from a space of non-grasping, what would happen? What would happen if we stopped trying to control or make situations different than they presented themselves?  In our daily awareness our ego mind works so quickly to assess a situation and tell us the meaning and help us determine what we need to do to continue to validate and feel good about our situation.  In the idea of the wisdom sacrifice, we would be able to see each situation, each person from the space of wisdom- beyond the ego structures of our personal beliefs, emotions, and thoughts.  We would be able to meet the present moment as it is.  I recently read a definition of yoga as union with the present moment. Nongrasping for the moment to be different than it is this practice  of yoga as union, acceptance, and allowing the present moment to be seen as it is.  This practice of non-grasping can help us to see the present moment in the light of discriminative awareness, otherwise our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and reactions don’t allow that truth of the moment to be seen.

How do we find this nongrasping and allowing or union with meeting the present moment as it is? Isvara Pranidhana helps us in finding the space inside ourselves to meet the moment as it is. When we practice surrender to the divine we are practicing trust in the divine within us and in the universe. The development of this trust and surrender within and in the universe shifts our perspective and helps us move from the small ego self to the connection with a deeper Self in us and others and trust in the moment.  In the Gita, it speaks of offering all actions to the divine to not incur harm.  In the wisdom sacrifice, if we sat in the seat of discriminative awareness not grasping or trying to see things other than how they were and trusted in the divine within we could look at all of our actions, beliefs and thoughts to determine how action in the moment either takes us into deeper connection with the divine or separates us from that connection.

The Gita even tells us if we try not to act- action will happen anyway from the movement of material nature. So if action is to happen as we walk in the world, these two concepts ask us how we can meet each moment as it is, develop trust in the divine within ourselves, others and the universe so that each action can come from a space of clarity and for the maintenance or betterment of the world around us.  If we can remember these concepts continually as we walk in the world we have the ability to practice yoga in every moment and in every interaction