Our breath carries with it our life force. Thoughts always flow with the breath,
indivisible. With fear, the heart races and breathe becomes shallow and quick. In triumph, we
raise our arms and take a grand, victorious breath, filling up our lungs with the air we confidently
claim as our own. In anger, our airways narrow and tighten, shooting breaths in defiance like fire
from a dragon’s nostrils. These expressions of inner states bring will through our bodies into the
physical realm. This manifestation of the mind begins deep in the core, at the solar plexus chakra
where our ego identity lives and where our breath transforms. Taking in what feeds us, letting go
of what no longer serves, this constant flux of life is so central to our being, yet so easy to take
for granted. However, the practices of yoga and meditation are ones of deep focus on the flow of
air and thoughts within us, using them as powerful tools of transformation.
Envisioned as an ideal preparation to extended meditation for children, Ashtanga yoga
incorporates acrobatics and high intensity poses to a greater extent than other practices. Every
movement flows with a precisely prescribed breath in a balance of tension and release that
“flosses out the body” (Cunningham-Ryan). Attention on the breath is universal to all yoga
practices. What distinguishes Ashtanga in my experience is the constant engagement of the core.
Consequently, it is an ideal practice for building an inner flame. As we will see, this flame is an
essential tool for releasing the ego and connecting with a higher self in deep, centered
Central to the Ashtanga practice is the activation of the Bandhas. By tensing the Mula
Bandha, located at the pelvic floor, and the Uddiyana Bandha, pulling the abdomen inwards and
up into the ribcage, breath is thought to be locked into the body, creating a powerful influx of air
(Cunningham-Ryan). One can imagine this air swirling in a frenzy as the body expands with
energetic potential. In concert with the Ujjayi breath, forcing the spine to lengthen, and using Jalandhara Bandha (tucking the chin into the chest), one might feel the potential. Ujjayi translates to “victorious breath.” With
its open airway and distinct “Hah” sound, focus is achieved, leading to a “victory over the mind”
With this fervent life force honed inside of us, we are primed for transformation. In the
language of the chakras, we have established our ground at the root chakra, bolstered through a
strong Mula Bandha, and mobilized our sacral chakra in attentive flow from pose to pose. With
vitalized breathing, our solar plexus chakra becomes the tempestuous breeding ground of
physical energy from these lower chakras and psychical energies from the upper chakras. In
other words, thoughts are bound to pop up. These may be events from the day, a fight still
brewing from last night, or even a childhood memory that seems entirely irrelevant to the
moment. It is tempting to shake off these ruminations in an effort to be more in the moment, but
in the spirit of mindfulness, thoughts should be attended to and released just like the breaths. In
the same way, this psychical material provides an opportunity for growth and release, allowing
us to change patterns that spin around in our heads throughout the day.
Judith Anodea sees the solar plexus chakra as not only the source of will and ego, but
where ideas can be rejected to the shadow of our personality (Anodea, p 175-180). By breathing
into this chakra, these ideas can be recovered, bubbling up from the unconscious, sometimes as
unpleasant mental imagery and unwanted thoughts. To repress such notions is to keep them alive as recurring feelings that influence our lives. Instead, we should seek to understand our thoughts,
find their roots in experience, and reincorporate the essential aspects of our ego that we wish to
keep alive. By breathing into feelings as they come up, we can integrate the unconscious
energies of the lower chakras with the spiritual vision of the upper chakras. This encourages a
conscious process of individuation, putting us in the driver’s seat of life (Anodea, p 175-180).
This was the goal of 17 th century alchemists. In tandem with their legendary efforts to
turn lead into gold, or more likely as a metaphorical equivalent, these proto psychologists
pursued the “sacrifice of the ego for a higher level of being” (Hauck, p. 175). Among their many
hermetical rituals, the exercise called “bellow’s breath” is identical to the breath of fire in yoga
practice. By inhaling and exhaling in a rhythmic, forceful fashion, a fire can be imagined, fanned
by the bellows in our belly. In addition to these breaths, dances and other aerobic exercises were
performed by alchemists in order to raise their metabolic rate. The focus of these acts was on the
“heat rising up within” (Hauck, p. 184-185). The goal of this process is “burning off the dross,”
or described without reference to chemistry procedures, doing away with the unnecessary
attachments of the ego. As feelings such as fear and anger appeared to them, alchemists would
imagine the fire of their essence engulfing them, casting away the failures of their ego to realize
a false self (Hauck, p 170-171).
In Hindu mythology, Shiva, the god of the physical realm, encompassing both order and
destruction, can be thought of as a downward force through the chakras (in balance with Shakti’s
creative, upward kundalini energy), that “destroys ignorance, attachment, and illusion” (Anodea,
p. 454-455). Similarly, in Buddhist mythology, Fudo, pictured below, is imagined trampling
“obstructions to an enlightened mind” under his fiery feet (University of Pennsylvania). The common thread here is that there are parts of the ego that need to be shed before meditative contemplation of the transpersonal can be achieved. Whether that is done by imagining feeding
an inner flame, praying for the aid of a wrathful higher entity, or even releasing in compassionate
surrender, is up to you. What Ashtanga yoga provides is a structured flow of energy that
facilitates such powerful transformation.
In the series of poses that creates tension and release while cultivating a fiery dragon’s
breath, we can watch as our mental and physical form moves in rhythm, listening as our soul
speaks to us, choosing what we wish to manifest and casting into the fire what no longer serves
us. At the end of our practice, we should find ourselves humbled (Cunningham-Ryan), having
“gained respect for the powerful hidden forces within us” (Hauck, p 186), ready to connect with
our spirit in meditation. That is why we thank those that have passed this practice down to us
(Cunningham-Ryan), grateful for the opportunity to strengthen the core that holds us upright
(Anodea, p 180), helping us breathe our will into manifestation, on and off of the mat.
Anodea, J. (1996). Eastern Body Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to
the Self. New York, NY: Celestial Arts.
Brewer, J. M. (photograph). (2019, October). Photo from Fudo Exhibit. Philadelphia, PA:
University of Pennsylvania Museum of History.
Cunningham-Ryan, J. (2019, October). Ashtanga Modified Primary Series. PE 1428. Lecture at
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
Hauck, D. W. (1999). The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation. New York,
NY: Penguin Arkana.
Recently, a friend and I were mulling over the differences between self-love and self-care. I think there can be so many ways to describe the differences and similarities between the two concepts, and I'd love to hear from you.
Personally, SELF LOVE for me has underlying notes and resonance of self-respect, self-advocacy, self-awareness, self-confidence, identity, self-worth, self-connection. The constant will to put in the work to make sure I'm not sliding down a slippery slope. The consistent check-in to make sure I'm forgiving myself when things are hard, and I make mistakes. I hope this makes sense.
SELF CARE is a little different. It covers things that are more emotional, perhaps subjective: like cleanliness, undertaking holistic practices, eating habits, creating balance so I don't feel like I'm missing out on something (like ice cream!). It's getting a pedicure, practicing yoga, singing at the top of my lungs when my favorite songs come on the radio. It's dancing with joy because it feels good. It's wanting my house to look nice (well, as nice as a construction zone can look, lol). It's splurging a little to enjoy life - taking my daughter to see a theatre performance, and going with my husband to see live music together. It's slowing down and taking the time to look around, take in the world. It's what might bring me joy in the present moment.
As you can see, there's lots of cross-over for me, but I liken self-love with the inner world, where self-care might address the needs of the outer world. The outer world's focus for me is finding JOY, and joy feeds my inner world. I think that's where the two converge.
Anyhow, these are my thoughts. I'd love to hear yours. :)
As summer settles in, I've been busy as always getting caught up on projects and business endeavors (like blog posts!). I recently had a research organization - Consumersadvocate.org - contact me in regards to their findings about yoga mats on the market. It's fascinating stuff, to say the least. In it they compiled information about price, environmental-friendliness, durability, longevity, etc. These are all things I HAD TO LEARN THE HARD WAY. I wish this research had been around when I was first figuring things out - I would have saved so much money.
Before you dive into the details, here's my two cents: I have always loved Jade Mats for their low environmental impact, a focus on social advocacy, overall sustainability. Their grip is fantastic in heat and with loads of sweat; Jade color choices are beautiful, and they always just felt like a solid mat. That is, until I began practicing at home 4-6 days a week... I honestly don't remember how many Jade Mats I've gone through over the years but I can tell you I've likely spent thousands of dollars. Ugh. I justified it because I've got to admit - I love a new mat. But when my last Jade started falling apart - literally disintegrating into millions of little rubber pieces 6 months in, and sliding all over the floor when I practiced jumping forward and back (because, Ashtanga) - I knew I needed to break off my obsession. I'm sorry to Jade Mats - I truly am - but I simply cannot endorse them at this point, at least as a practitioner who uses the mat daily.
One of the studios I work for sells Manduka Mats. For the longest time I wasn't willing to give them a try. Though out of desperation I purchased one, after one serious practice where I felt like I was sliding all over the place and had little purple Jade Mat pieces attached to my sweaty body. I got the new mat online in a rush, and was super excited when it came to my door. I chose a turquoise Manduka Pro-lite for their self-proclaimed 'lifetime guarantee' (and awesome color!) and haven't looked back since. It was reasonably priced, about $65. (Jades are usually $70-$90, by comparison.)
I've had this Manduka Pro-lite for a little over two years now and it's my favorite mat. I use it almost every day and it still looks AND feels brand new. The only thing that took some time was the wearing down of an initial finish that made my hands slide a little. I'm not particularly sweaty, but I imagine this would be a problem for students who tend to sweat a lot during practice. I haven't taken this mat outside of my house - it is my designated house mat - so I can't say how good it is at a hot vinyasa practice.
Here's the link about the research on yoga mats through Consumer Advocates. It's not just limited to information on Jade and Manduka - there's also Lifeforme, Suga, Tranquility Essentials, and more. Reading through it made me realize there's so many preferences out there, and just as many mats being created. I'm now curious about the Suga mats, although I'd love to try it before buying one. (Suga, I'd LOVE to try one, hint hint.)
Enjoy, and let me know what you think.
Ahhh, it's that time of year again! The birds are chirping so early in the morning, the sun is bright, and the days are long. I'm so grateful for the summer season.
About four years ago I moved from the north side of Ithaca to the south side, and my yard went from a large, fenced-in, sunshine-filled landscape to a corner lot that no one took care of. According to my way of thinking there wasn't enough sun to fill the seasons in my little corner of the city. Luckily there is a creek across the street so I quickly took solace in heading down by the creekside and playing in the water.
Here in Ithaca we are blessed to have glorious waterfalls and creeks all over the city. At any given time you might see a family splashing in the ripples, a dog wading around; you might hear a great blue heron sailing overhead, or experience a duck family paddling their way through the waves. There's also deer - lots of deer: a doe an her babies are frequently walking up and down the creek drinking from the flow. It's truly a beautiful sight, and one I'm so grateful to take advantage of as frequently as I do.
Needing more fresh air and sunshine, I began taking my daily yoga practice to the creek. There's a fabulous leveled spot filled with a floor of concrete right along the creek bed, perfect for yoga. I spent a full season outside, even taking my work there to finish instead of being indoors each day. My family also started having picnics there more routinely. From that season on I became inspired to bring this special place to others and began what's known today as Creekside Yoga.
Creekside Yoga is seasonal, and weather-dependent; if it's raining or the creek is flooded we don't hold class. However, for the last few years of classes we've only had to cancel a few times due to poor weather. This year we will be holding Ashtanga-inspired flow classes at the creek: Saturdays, 11:30-12:45pm. I anticipate a great number of students joining us again this year - after all, this is the ONLY outdoor yoga class each week in downtown Ithaca.
Please join us - it's a great way to build your yoga practice and reconnect with the outdoors.
In recent years, yoga has become one of the most popular forms of exercise in the United
States and the trend is only growing. As an industry, yoga generated a revenue of 6.9 billion
USD in 2012, 9.09 billion in 2015, and is projected to grow steadily to 11.56 billion in 2020.
Similarly, the number of people who practice yoga is also on the rise, from 18 million in 2008 to
a projected 55 million in 2020. The benefits of yoga are manifold: physical, mental, and spiritual,
but as the practice becomes more widespread, a conversation about the potential cultural
appropriation that occurs in the practice of yoga in Western countries has emerged. Shreena
Gandhi, a Religious Studies professor at Michigan State University, and Lillie Wolff, an
organizer for the foundation Crossroads Anti-Racism, co-penned a controversial article in 2017
titled “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation” which received much backlash on social
media and in the news for its radical standpoint that the Western “cultural appropriation of yoga
is a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism” (Gandhi & Wolff). While much of the
criticism of the article was based on quotes taken out of context in order to portray the article as
an anti-white message which condemns white practitioners of yoga, the first sentence of the
article is a personal appeal: “To the so many white people who practice yoga, please don’t stop.”
The article presents an interesting perspective on how yoga in the United States is undeniably a
form of cultural appropriation, especially in the context of the history of yoga’s spread to the
West, the lack of diversity present in certain yoga communities, and the commodification of
religious symbols and ideas. The article also provides ways for individuals to question whether
their practice may be culturally insensitive or appropriative and ways to be a more considerate
practitioner of yoga.
The foundation of Gandhi and Wolff’s argument that yoga is cultural appropriation
focuses on the history of the spread of yoga from India to the West during the period of India’s
colonization. Yoga spread towards England and the U.S. in the late 19 th and early 20 th century as
yogis traveled to bring the knowledge of yoga to the West to demonstrate the immense wealth of
Hindu knowledge on religion, the mind, and the body. While this knowledge should enrich the
wealth of knowledge of the West, yogis were often coerced into adopting the position that the
West is scientifically superior and the east as spiritual but scientifically (and thus empirically)
inferior. During this time, the British also suppressed the culture and religion of the Indian
people — even the concept of a “Hindu people” or Hinduism as a singular tradition is a
homogenization of many distinct groups in response to British occupation and involvement in
the study of the Indian religions.
Contemporary consumerism further distances the practice of yoga from its religious roots
as yoga—and its branching industries: clothing, technology, studios, etc.—is Westernized in
order to sell it more easily to white audiences. For example, on the opposite end of the spectrum,
there is another debate on whether practicing yoga as a Christian is sinful because of engagement
with the Hindu religion. To mitigate this problem, instructors may remove traces of Hinduism in
order to placate anxious Christians, even leading to a tendency of secularizing or Christianizing
yoga. This erasure of the meaning of the yogic practice is particularly concerning as the West
continues to profit off the teachings and progress of the East in a structural relationship similar to
the relationship of colonization as the memory of the oppressive and painful colonial period is
pushed into the distant and forgettable past.
The introductory-level yoga taught in most Western studios only focuses on asanas,
which make up only one of the eight branches of yoga. Additionally, many yoga instructors,
especially those who have received training only in the United States or other Western countries
from white instructors, do not have any instruction in the other branches, all of which are
important in a holistic yoga practice. They also may not be educated in the history of the spread
of yoga to the West and may be ignorant of India’s culture and history in general, but also
specifically the period of colonization. Even more concerning is the fact that instructors of Indian
descent find themselves in a minority demographic when teaching in the West, yet their attempts
to address the cultural appropriation of the Western practice are often silenced by the majority or
ignored. Since most instructors and practitioners in the West are white, it becomes their
responsibility to hold a space and an environment where minority voices are heard and
While these debates about cultural appropriation are nuanced and complex, certain
aspects of Western yoga are undeniably offensive to the Hindu culture. For example, the use of
the images of deities on fast fashion yoga clothing is a clear insult to their deep religious
meaning and symbolism. Additionally, Western studios which do not place an emphasis on the
Indian culture often use ‘decorative’ interior design elements such as scriptures, crystals, and
statues of deities without respect to how these are used in the Eastern tradition are insensitive.
Gandhi and Wolff recommend that yoga instructors and practitioners educate themselves
on the history of yoga, of colonization, and of the non-physical branches of yoga, as well as
encourage conversations about cultural appropriation and accountability. After all, yoga is a
living tradition which continues to evolve. But just as you would visit a Hindu place of worship
as a tourist or attend a Jewish bat/bar mitzvah as a guest with mindful respect for the religious
intentions of the space and its people, entering a yoga studio should be treated with the same
respect, curiosity, and intentionality, rather than simply seeing it as a practice to benefit the self
or the physical body. Above all, white people must stop responding to accusations of cultural
appropriation with the reaction of becoming defensive or dismissive, but accept that
appropriation occurs almost inevitably in a multicultural world while recognizing the real
negative effects cultural appropriation perpetuates. Every culture appropriates, but we should
attempt to mitigate the harm inherent in appropriation while treating the opportunity of being
able to participate in the practices of another culture with immense reverence and gratitude.
I've been reading so much about Ashtanga Yoga lately and I'm always inspired by everything I read. Here's what I uncovered today by David Garrigues:
"Ashtanga Yoga is a complete Yoga method based on Bhakti (devotion) to a breathing and movement system called Vinyasa. Through Ashtanga yoga you come to realize your Self and your purpose by learning to systematically combine several internal and external techniques including: breathing, internal locks, meditation, posture, conscious movement and gazing.
When these basic techniques are applied with discipline, subtlety and skill, they are excellent tools for becoming physically and mentally strong and perceptive. When you've developed your practice, you learn to 'inhabit' your body like a animal moving freely in the wild and at the same time your mind becomes strong and fit for meditation.
Practicing to create this combination of physical grace and power and mental clarity and openness leads to spiritual awakening. The method consists of learning a rigorous, well balanced sets of postures and the vinyasa positions that form the set sequences. The alternating, opposing movement and breathing patterns within the given sequences help you to internalize your mind and to gain depth and wisdom by observing the true nature of what is happening within you."
Tell me your thoughts below. As always, Namaste!