New Publication in MindBodyGreen: “What I learned while teaching yoga in a women’s jail”

Here is an essay I published in MindBody Green: http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-27409/what-i-learned-while-teaching-yoga-in-a-womens-jail.html

Savasana Hand (1 of 1).jpgAs we wait for the guard to escort the six inmates back to their dorms, one of the woman says, “They wake us up at five.” She has tattoos up her arms and brown stringy hair.

“Five?” I ask, “Why so early?” During my orientation to teach yoga in the jails, I was told not to divulge any personal information about myself, in case an inmate was freed and looked me up. I’m relieved for the opening to talk about something as innocuous as wake-up times.

Another inmate chimes in, “We have chores, they fill us will jail cake, and then we head back to bed and get fat.” She lifts up her maroon-colored shirt and pinches her pale belly.

“I need to get fat,” interjects another inmate. She has dirty blonde hair, clear white skin, and only upon this comment, do I notice that she’s more slender than the other girls.

“How much do you think I weigh?” she asks.

I have no idea, I tell her.

“When I came in, I was 97 pounds,” she says. “It was the meth.” She shares this without any shame, as if telling me her favorite cupcake flavor.

As a married, college writing professor, who’s only exposure to meth is watching five seasons of Breaking Bad, I’m surprised by my first thought: but this girl’s so beautiful? How could she be addicted to meth?

She shares that she was shocked by how intense meth was. She took her first hit and never stopped being high for seven months. She lost weight, she lost her teeth, she prayed to get arrested, and then she did. She found herself on the floor in a maximum security prison, in and out of consciousness, sobering up for the first time that year.

“Why were you on the floor instead of a bed?” I ask.

She shrugs her shoulders. “I guess they were worried I might die.”

Two male guards interrupt our conversation. One tells the girls to line up in a single file, which they do immediately and obediently. These women don’t like rules, but they know that in this place, they must follow them.

“Bye,” the pretty girl says with a youthful wave. “That was really cool.”

When the girls leave, I take a seat. I’m relieved. Truth is: being in here scares me. When I think of women’s jails, I imagine Piper in Orange is the New Black being burned a swastika sign by a Hispanic gang. This is partly why I’m here. It bothers me that there’s a huge population of Americans that I only know through dramatized entertainment. When I first learned about our broken criminal justice system, I was plagued by the statistics: 716 people out of 100,000 are incarcerated; five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, and yet, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. I am fully aware that volunteering in a jail once a month will not improve this systemic problem, but I have this strong desire to make a connection with the people behind these statistics, to turn the numbers into real faces.

Prior to this, I shadowed another yoga teacher in a sequence that didn’t resemble any class I’d ever taken in my twelve year practice. She repeated, “breath in, breath out,” moving her arms up and down. Afterwards, we walked to our cars, and she explained to me that it was a specific style of yoga for women who had undergone trauma. The simple repetition was a way to repair the lost connection between the left and right brain. She said that instructing these women with too many directions was often alienating to them.

In my studio classes, I have the tendency to focus on anatomy and proper alignment, and share scientific studies on mindfulness. When my mom took my class, she said, “Nobody talks as much as you.” I’m a sharer. I’m a talker. That’s why I teach.  But in this jail, where I’m not even allowed to divulge my last name, I find myself awkwardly tongue-tied.

Two guards escort the next class in. Six girls dressed in the same maroon-colored suits immediately stare me down.

“Hey,” says a young African-American with long braids.

“Hey,” I say back.

Another inmate cringes. “I’ve never done this yoga-thing.”

Typically, in a yoga studio, I’d tell the new practitioner to listen to their body, focus on their breath, everything in a yoga class is optional, and the only reason to be here is to treat themselves and have fun. This advice doesn’t seem relevant in this concrete room with no windows.

“Don’t worry,” I say, “You’ll be fine.”

The inmates practice yoga in the carpeted activities room with large white erase boards,  and long plastic tables and metal chairs stacked against the wall. The room is on the second floor. A narrow stairway separates us from the closest available guard.

After the women sign in, spray their mats, and stagger for space, I instruct them to lay on their backs and close their eyes. I lead them through a pranayama exercise, encouraging them to slow down their breaths, inhale and exhale consciously, fill their bellies, lungs and ribs completely. Most follow my instructions, but a girl in the corner lays on her back with her eyes wide open. She doesn’t look around, which is common among the fidgety. She looks up at the halogen lights, deep in her own thoughts. Her hands open and close into fists.

For the next forty-five minutes, I lead the girls through a gentle sequence of twists, forward folds and heart openers. Immersed in the language of yoga, I’m not anxious or afraid.

At 37, my yoga ambitions are no longer about floating into the perfect handstand, or folding my body backwards into a question mark. Instead I’m happy to have a consistent practice that’s injury-free. I teach one to five yoga classes a week, depending on my college grading schedule. Yoga students ask me when I’ll be added to the schedule, but I like being a sub. When I sub, I stay humble. Instead of owning a class that’s popular and full of students, or developing an Instagram feed full of “likes,” I’m merely a messenger of a practice that has long supported me.

In the women’s jail, the girl who had stared at the ceiling, can’t stop twitching. She makes a joke with the girl next to her. She sits up and crosses her arms, then releases a frustrated sigh. Finding stillness is challenging enough among regular practitioners, and I think about how impossible it must be for someone with a substance abuse problem. Not that this girls does, I remind myself. Being in here is a practice on not assuming to know anybody’s story.

I remind the girls to slow down their breaths. I tell them that scientific studies have proven that meditation and yoga can improve their ability to stay focused, feel less anxious, and increase their empathy towards others. I’m probably talking too much. I’m not as knowledgeable about trauma therapy as the teacher I had shadowed. But I want these women to know that what they’re doing right now is really good for them. Through the language of yoga, I’m telling them there’s hope.

After the class ends, the girls help me put the activities room back in order. They roll up their donated mats. We unfold the tables and chairs, and place them underneath their color-coordinated arrows. One inmate says that everything, even the tables, have rules to follow in here. Two guards pick up the six girls, who line up in single-file.

I follow them down the stairs. They walk down the gray hallway with their fingers interlaced behind their backs. They don’t speak. They don’t laugh. They’re about to turn the corner, and I wonder if one of them will look back and smile at me.

If this were the end of a television show, the inmate who couldn’t stop twitching, would look back at me and mouth the words, “thank you.” I’d see her disappear behind the corner, feeling a sense of fulfillment, completeness and an appreciation for a philanthropic job well done. I’d share this message with the world, and, in turn, a massive following of teachers would volunteer to teach yoga in the jails.

But this is not a TV show. This is not a movie. None of the girls turn around to thank me or smile at me. They turn the corner and retreat to a mysterious corner of the cement building where they eat jail cake and count down the days.

I turn in my paper work. The guards take their time letting me out of the main gate. I exit into the parking lot, blinded by the intensity of the sun after three hours in a room lit by halogen bulbs. I get into my car and think about how it’s 4:00 on a Friday afternoon, and I have the option, the freedom, the inalienable privilege to do anything I please. If I did anything today, I hope I gave those women just a hint of this feeling.

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Oprah Asks: What Yoga Teachers Eat for Breakfast

After much insistence, I said, fine, Oprah, this is what I eat for breakfast. Actually, that’s not entirely true. The talented Lynn Andriani, who edited a couple of essays I wrote about the Beijing Book Fair for Publisher’s Weekly, found me on LinkedIn and asked me if I taught yoga and what I ate for breakfast. She also mentioned that my last yoga blog post was over a year ago. My apologies. I’ve been busy teaching yoga and writing, working on a larger piece of fiction, which I’m not going to detail here out of superstition, and enjoying the companionship of my wonderful husband. He is actually a large part of my breakfast ritual. We wake up at 6:20 every morning, and although we don’t need to be at work until 8, we always take the time to eat a nourishing breakfast and partake in surprisingly interesting conversation.

Here’s what I told Oprah about my favorite breakfast:

http://www.oprah.com/food/What-Yoga-Teachers-Eat-for-Breakfast

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How to Live Longer

At 35, I find myself wondering if there are things that I can’t do now that I could do in my youth. My knees don’t track down steep declines; My left hip aches in certain hip flexor poses; and recently I was hit with the flu that knocked me out for three days. It’s going to take me two weeks to get back into shape, I complain. But then I hear stories about people like Ernestine, the 77 year old competitive body builder.  Since mythological times, people have been looking for the fountain of youth  Immortality is a source of vulnerability. Yet, scientists say that the only way to extend longevity is through controlled moments of stress, such as exercise, which pushes the body at a cellular level. Ernestine, a 77 year old woman from Baltimore, runs, lifts weights, teaches group exercise classes, eats healthy, all with the most positive attitude.  She inspires me more than a collegiate athlete.

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Jay Co’s TT Program at Yogaraj

Jay Co​’s Teacher Training program begins March 8th at yogaraj​.  There are a lot of teacher training programs out there, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one as comprehensive as his. His curriculum focuses on anatomy, reading tons of supplementary material, lots and lots of hands-on yoga with the best teachers around Santa Monica, and all in an intimate, small group setting. When I began Jay Co’s program, I had been practicing yoga for eight years and my practice had become stagnant. Through Jay Co’s course, my internal and external practice shifted– I started holding arm balances, I stopped being competitive with myself, and, to my surprise, practicing yoga thoughtfully healed my wrist tendinitis. 10420062_400776536762442_3372357766865316831_n-1

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Beauty in All Sizes

I love this post of curvy yogis proving that strength and beauty comes in all different sizes. So often we are inundated with yoga photos of former gymnasts, dancers, or bikini-clad babes contorting their perfect, photoshopped bodies. But what is perfect? The answer: we all are.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolynkylstra/curvy-yoga

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New Publication: OhmMG, is this Mic on? The Importance of Laughter in a Yoga Class

laughter, yoga, girls

I walk into the studio and am greeted by unfamiliar faces.

I’m a new teacher at Smiling Dog and am subbing for a class with a regular following.

I ask, “Does anybody have any requests?”

The students stare at me with blank faces and furrowed brows. They don’t know me. They don’t trust me. For all they know, I lead a boot camp, militaristic, body-shaming flow that will leave them all crying in one-legged pigeon.

“What about hips?” I ask, “Hamstrings? Core?”

A girl in the front row says, “Core.”

“Great,” I say. “What’s your name?”

She tells me it’s Molly. I love the name Molly. Molly is the name of my favorite person from college. I say to the class, “Molly wants to do core, so if anybody’s upset with the core sequence, you can blame her.”

The energy in the room shifts. Soft chuckles. Hesitant grins. Their shields slowly melt.

Skip ahead to the next class and it’s a whole new group of students, but the same situation. They know each other; they love their regular teacher, and who is this freakishly tall Chinese girl standing in the front of the room? I ask the same question and a girl named Brianna says, “Core.”

I say, since the joke worked so well last time, “Brianna wants to do core, so if anybody’s upset with the core sequence, you can blame her.”

Silence.

Followed by more silence.

A student unrolls her mat.

Another stands up to gather a block.

One lies down and closes her eyes.

Brianna looks away in an expression that resembles eye rolling.

Sometimes you nail it. Sometimes you don’t. But lucky for me, and this class of tough nuts, we have 90 more minutes to soften their guards.

For my final in my yoga teacher training with Jay Co, from Santa Monica’s Yogaraj, I led my first, full-length class. I meticulously crafted a sequence that incorporated Breath of Fire that led to the peak pose, Tittibasana, firefly. (Get it? Fire.)

I created a compilation of music that involved songs that referred to fire or burning (Arcade Fire, Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” Ben Harper, “Burn One Down.” You get the picture.)

Then I taught the class and was feeling pretty good about myself. I was prepared. I didn’t stumble with my cues, and I had gotten creative with my fire theme.

When the class ended, I expected Jay to say, “Man, Chellis, you nailed it. In all my years of teaching teachers, I’ve never experienced such a well-rounded, complete sequence. In fact, you taught me things that I’ll start using in my class. Bravo!” He would start a slow clap that would escalate into group applause and eventually, tears of cathartic joy.

Instead, he said, “That didn’t really feel like your class.”

I was taken aback. Didn’t he notice that every part of that hour had been intricately and carefully planned? Fire. Get it?!

He said, “You like to make jokes.” That was a gentle way of putting it. I was having such a fun time in his course that I was borderline disruptive with the other students’ education. “And you just taught a very serious class. When you gain more teaching experience, let your personality come through.”

At the time, this was confusing feedback. How do you teach anything other than alignment cues? How are you supposed to make jokes when you’re making sure that nobody falls on their face? How do you let your personality show while teaching a yoga class?

Years later, I’ve processed Jay’s feedback. And he, I hope is reading this, was right. As I’ve become more comfortable with cues and sequencing, I’ve started to insert my personality into my classes, which means more jokes.

According to Oxford University’s study, “Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold,” “In a study of physical exercise, synchronized activity ramped up endorphin production (as indexed by change in pain threshold) by a factor of two over that generated by exercise alone.”

In other words, laughter combined with yoga facilitates a deeper physiological experience. When we laugh, we release anxiety reducing hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, and we create endorphins that reduce the body’s response to pain. The inner lining of our blood vessels dilate causing an increase in circulation and blood flow. And the act of laughing itself includes the exhalation of forced breaths from the lungs, which is why when you laugh for a sustained period of time, it actually hurts, as if you ran a flight of stadium stairs. This is why laughing makes you feel good.

In addition to this, laughter creates a bonding experience in social settings. When we laugh in a yoga class, we feel the positive energy of our peers. We are less competitive, less ego-driven, and less comparative with others. The reason we practice yoga in a studio and not online in our living rooms is to flow, breath, challenge and laugh as a collective.

I’ve taken a lot of yoga classes in my decade long practice, ranging from gym yoga to kirtan yoga to hot yoga. And one thing I’ve noticed is that teachers in the yoga community often take themselves too seriously. The belief is that in order to achieve a deep, meditative state, you must maintain a deep, meditative composure. Focusing on a posture requires complete attention, which often means no smiling or laughing. But for me, spirituality and playfulness are not opposing forces. Laughter and healing can occur at the same time, and often laughter can be the act that leads to further healing.

I’m back to this class of tough nuts and demonstrating boat pose in the front of the room. “You can have straight or bent legs, yogis’ choice, but maintain a straight back.”

The room is silent. Of course, it is. Boat pose is frickin’ hard.

“Now halfway down.”

The class follows. It’s kind of amazing that you can tell a bunch of yoga students to do something tortuous and they just follow.

“And back up to boat.”

A girl in the front row grunts. The guy next to her frowns as if about to cry.

We do this five more times. Our bodies build heat. There are strained sounds coming from every direction.

“I know how you’re all feeling,” I say, “I bet you all wish Brianna hadn’t showed up to class today.”

Some students laugh; others smile. But no matter their outward expression, for a moment, their boats float a little lighter.

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World Record for Plank Pose: 4 hrs and 30 secs

Chinese police officer Mao Weidong sets the World record for plank pose at four hours and 26 minutes. Wowzas! I’ll make sure to tell my students this the next time we hold plank pose.

Students, you’ve been warned.

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My Yoga Goals

This video of former NFL star Keith Mitchell has me thinking about how we all come to the mat from different backgrounds. I started competitively swimming when I was five years old. Being an athlete taught me to how to make goals, work hard, and be a part of a team. Winning races was the best feeling in the world, but losing was devastating; my confidence was intertwined with my performance. When I started practicing yoga ten years ago, I came to the mat with the same approach: the harder I worked, the more I’d improve; the more I practiced, the longer I could hold a handstand. But, as I’ve aged, I’ve found this mentality, not only exhausting, but irrelevant to my lifestyle. Nobody cares if I can do an advance pose, including myself. Yoga, for me, isn’t an activity with ambitions.  It’s a way of maintaining my health and supporting the activities that I love. If I’m happy then all my yoga goals have been met.

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Yoga Social

Although yoga is an introspective experience, practicing with others allows us to collaborate and diversify our education and art. There are always new things to learn, new poses to share, and with a buddy, it’s just more fun.

In SLO, I’ve been practicing with Leslie St. John, poet, teacher at Cal Poly, yoga colleague, neighbor and friend. @posesandproses

Here are some recent photos of us practicing and challenging one another:

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New Publication: Teaching Yoga to the Toughest Alpine Climbers in the World

This article was published today in Elephant Journal. Thanks for reading!

 

Teaching Yoga to the Toughest Alpine Climbers in the World

The climbers drawn to El Chaltén, Argentina are, to say the least, unique creatures.

This part of Patagonia is not known for its friendly weather. It offers violent winds, torrential rains and temperatures that can fluctuate suddenly from 60 degrees to freezing. To reach the base of a route, a climbermust walk eight to ten hours on precarious trails, frozen glaciers, and across raging streams.

They’ll stay in El Chaltén for two to five months, and spend most of their time in town waiting for weather windows. They’ll have their climbing gear, food and tent stashed near the route, and when the weather is amicable (the strong winds less ferocious) they’ll hurry in, utilizing the summer’s long days, to heave their bodies up 10,000 foot cliffs in a 20 to 30 hour push.

Accidents and deaths occur every year.

At the base of Supercanaleta, a popular route on Cerro Fitz Roy, the body of Belgian climber Frank Van Herreghewe has lain frozen since 2002. A grim reminder of the dangers of these mountains.

I was down in El Chaltén for three weeks in December 2013, teaching yoga, hiking and sport climbing on short cliffs. The mountains of Patagonia were too wild for me, but I had a deep admiration for the climbers who braved nature’s most aggressive elements.

These were the toughest guys I knew, yet to my surprise, many found yoga to be “scary” or “too hard.”

One climber nicknamed “Troutman,” a skinny but bold climber who had helped set a new ice route, said I can’t do yoga. Yoga’s like doing a 5.13. This comment was followed by chuckles from other climbers, since a 5.13 is a challenging grade. Even for these dedicated vertical ascenders. In another instance, I was teaching bakasana, crow’s pose, which requires balancing the knees against the backs of the arms, leaning forward so that the face is a foot off the ground.

One climber, who often looked off of cliffs thousands of feet in the air, said I’m scared. What if I fall?

In El Chaltén, I taught at Tai Attwell’s apartment turned yoga studio. I never advertised the classes or posted any signage on storefronts; the satellite Internet was dreadfully slow in this small village of a few thousand. Yet every class was full simply from word of mouth. The message Yoga at 3, Tai’s place behind the laundromatcircled the town so quickly that one time, a climber told this to me not knowing that I was the teacher.

This group was relatively new to yoga, but not new to their bodies.

They were high functioning athletes, but not the kind that competed with one another on the mats or were insecure about not being able to do a certain pose. These guys were confident in their physical abilities, but had egos that were constantly humbled by nature’s grandeur. They practiced pranayama exercises on the rock to calm their nerves. They were familiar with hard work and perseverance. All of this led to massive improvements in their yoga practice in a short amount of time.

Condensation dripped down Tai’s windows as we flowed and built heat, protected from the winds that whipped down the streets and the fresh snow that iced the towering peaks.

What surprised me the most about teaching yoga to climbers was the parallel between the two activities.

In yoga, we breathe through challenging poses in order to retrain our brains to relax when in distress. Climbers do the same thing. When crossing a precarious section of rock or ice, they calm their breaths in order to calm their nerves. While I taught them, they taught me. In particular, I learned the muscles that are most active among traditional climbers.

Here is my list of must-do poses for alpine climbers:

1. Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)

Crampons, tents, sleeping bags, ropes, ice axes, harnesses, quick draws, cams, water and food all add up in weight when thrown in a bag and carried up a mountain.

Climbers have to carry 50-80 pound packs up a glacier for hours on end. As their bodies tire, their shoulders roll inward, their lumbar vertebrae curves under pressure, and the quality of their posture decreases. Heart openers open up their shoulders, stretch out their pectoralis muscles, and increase the space between their front ribs, offering a counter balance to their long days of trekking with gear.

Often climbers have tight shoulders, but limber lower backs and strong arms. To help them move into full wheel, stand next to their ears and allow them to press up while holding your ankles; assist them by pulling their hearts closer to your shins.

Wheel Pose

2. Chaturanga Dandasana (Four Limbed Staff Pose)

Everybody gains strength through pressing down in chaturanga, the yoga push-up, but nobody needs it more than climbers who spend a disproportionate amount of time using their shoulders to pull up their bodies.

Their shoulders are exceptionally strong, but limited in range due to the repetition of this pulling motion. Unlike knees or elbows, the shoulder joint can move up, down, back and forward, which makes it more susceptible to injury. Through balancing out the pulling motion with pushing, a climber can prevent shoulder injuries, a common ailment in the sport, and increase their range of motion for a further, more stable reach.

Chaturanga

3. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose)

The hip flexors, which help bring the thighs to the stomach, are the thickest muscles in the body.

These muscles are notoriously tight among runners and hikers, which can cause a pelvic anterior tilt that moves the butt outwards, arching the lower back. This tightness can also cause the hamstrings, quadriceps and calves to strengthen, while the glutes weaken.

This is why it’s especially important for runners, climbers and hikers to do hip openers in order to maintain balanced muscles and flexibility in the legs and lower back. Another unique quality among climbers is that they have open adductor muscles, which allow them to stem across rocks and reach their legs for spaced out footing.

Flexible adductors with tight hips are an interesting combination, for when they release into pigeon pose, it’s a very deep release. To facilitate this, hold pigeon pose or other hip openers at the end of class for three to five minutes.

Half Pigeon Pose

4. Vajrasana (Thuderbolt Pose) on Toes

If you’ve ever walked in plastic boots for eight hours, then you know how important it is to protect your feet.

For this toe strengthening variation, tuck your toes and sit on the back of your heels with your weight on the balls of the feet. Lengthen through the spine, by bringing the belly button in, then soften the shoulders and collarbones. Hold this pose for five to ten breaths.

Breathe through the deep stretch, allowing blood to gather in the joints of the toes.

Thunderbolt Pose on Toes

5. Salamba Sirsasana and Pincha Mayurasana (Headstand and Forearm Balance)

Inversions have a number of physical benefits specific to climbers.

They reverse the direction of blood flow to increase circulation (frigid temperatures and high altitude cause circulation to slow down). They activate the lymphatic system, which prevents illness (coughing, sneezing and runny noses are frequent symptoms when exposed to below freezing weather). They strengthen the shoulders, arms and core muscles (the stronger theses muscles are, the better climbers are at preventing fatal accidents). They also improve balance (climbers are on their toes as often as ballerinas).

Most of all, inversions are fun and build confidence. Climbers have tremendous upper body and core strength, so inversions are accessible to them even as beginner yogis. Plus, as people who see the world from the highest points on earth, they appreciate seeing things from a new perspective.

Forearm Balance

I’m new to climbing, but find myself having similar reactions on the rocks to those I do on the mat.

I look up at a vertical cliff and think, there’s no way I’ll make it up that. It’s just too high, too steep. My fingers aren’t strong enough; I can’t do enough pull ups.

I give it my best shot, and I fall. My stomach drops to my knees. I nearly piss in my pants. But the rope catches me and I’m safe. I try again. I fall again. I repeatedly fall until I’m frustrated and wiped out.

I’m just about to give up, when I realize that I’m climbing up the wall. I’ve moved passed the difficult section.

Over the last ten years in my yoga practice, I’ve often thought that there’s no way I can do an arm balance, or move into a difficult transition. Yet before my doubts have a chance to become true, I’m doing it.

In yoga, climbing and in life, we often fall. We learn from these moments. We learn to not give up.

And something transformative happens every time we pick ourselves up and overcome our fears.

We learn that anything is possible.

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Introducing… Yogaraj!

What more can I say about the lovely Jay Co? With a myriad of options to do my teacher training, I went with Jay Co Yoga — LA’s little secret. But the secret is out now! Jay is the new owner of Yogaraj in Santa Monica, and he’s already convinced the best teachers in town to teach at his studio. His leadership, teaching ability, business sense and all around radness on and off the mat will surely make Yogaraj a monstrous success. $10 yoga always. How cool is that? 

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Strength and Balance

Now here’s a chaturanga to shoot for– a bend in the arms with the legs off the ground. Respect.

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More Yoga from July 5-20

In addition to my Tues & Thurs 5:15-6:30 p.m. class at mBODY, I’ll be subbing for Tawny Sterios from July 5-19, 2014, Wed & Sat 9-10:30 a.m. Tawny’s classes consists of a lovely community of ladies with a strong feminine energy. I’m excited to be a part of that, and in fact, will be adding to this energy on July 5th with a very special guest: my mom.

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Mind-Body-Tree Yoking

We practice yoga barefoot to feel the earth, to root into the ground like trees. We practice yoga with the focus on breath, even though our bodies automatically inhale and exhale. The result: connection.

Yoga means to yoke, to bring together the mind and body. This also brings us closer to nature. We connect to the floor with our bare feet and we connect with one another through matched breaths.

In my class, I challenge the students physically in order to challenge the mind spiritually. Recently a student said, “Your class is too hard,” but she wasn’t speaking about the physicality of the practice. She was talking about the mental challenge of moving her body into a new pose. Yoga is yoga. It’s what you put into it. If you’re exerting too much energy in a class then that means you overestimated your personal edge.

With that said, here are some photos of me practicing yoga with a tree. I took these with fellow yoga teacher and poet Leslie St.John during a hike up Madonna Peak. We hadn’t set out to practice yoga, but it felt natural to flow among the trees and mountains (even with shoes on.)

See you on that mat. This week, I’ll be teaching at mBODY on Tues @ 5:15 -6:30 p.m., Wed @ 9-10:30 a.m. and Thurs @ 6:30-8 a.m. and 5:15-6 p.m.

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Teaching Week June 16

If you forgot to book your Iceland trip with superstar Yoga Teacher, Peter Sterios, then you’re stuck with me at mBODY.  I’ll be subbing for Peter, Tawney and Al this week. Come flow and stretch. 

Tuesday: 6:30-8:00 a.m. Dynamic & 5:15-6:30 p.m. Power Yoga

Wednesday: 9:00 to 10:30 AM & 5:30-7:00 p.m. All levels Hatha Yoga 

Thursday: 6:30-8:00 a.m. Dynamic & 5:15-6:30 p.m. Power YogaImage

 

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The Beauty and Dangers of Stretching

I often hear, “I can’t do yoga. I’m not flexible.” They’ll look at me doing the full splits and say, “Woah, you’re amazing.” But here’s a little secret: I am not amazing. I took ballet when I was six and my right hamstring has always been flexible.  Even if I don’t stretch, even if I don’t try, I can do the splits on the right side.

Now my left splits is a different story.  Five years ago, I was annoyed with my less flexible left hamstring, and I over-stretched it for months thinking I was “challenging myself.” It would ache, but I didn’t listen, and eventually,  I strained it. If anybody has strained a hamstring before, it sucks. The hamstrings are a huge muscle and they take a long time to recover. For months I rested and limped.  I don’t feel any pain on my left side anymore, but my reckless ambition caused me to lose three to four inches of flexibility.

When you’re bendy, it’s much easier to hurt yourself.  The muscle spindle stretch receptor is located in the belly of the muscle and tells the spinal chord when there is a change in tension. This tells the muscle to contract in order to prevent over-stretching and straining. It’s our bodies way of telling us to stop.  When yoga teachers talk about “pushing to your edge,” be aware that “your edge” is not the furthest your body can go, but that sweet spot where you’re challenging your muscles, but not straining them.

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I am a bendy person in some ways and not in others. Right hamstring, sure. But my hips are tight, and it takes me a long time to warm up in order to enter lotus.  I once spent 20-40 minutes a day for six month doing the center splits to see if I could open in my adductors, but I didn’t see much of a change. I can do a full wheel, but my back flexibility is pretty average.

I list these details about my body’s flexibility not to brag, or humble brag, or show how self-deprecating I am. I list these things to show you that none of it matters. Flexibility is not something to be impressed by, because everybody’s body is different.  Are you impressed by wealthy people born into money? Or tall people simply for being born tall? The most important lesson I’ve learned from yoga and stretching is to let go of ego driven ambitions. Thoughts like, “I can’t touch my toes,” or “I’ll never be able to do the splits,” mean you’re placing value in these actions. But it doesn’t matter. Your body is your body. We all begin from a different starting line.

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Yoga Inside and Out

Here is a very cool video that shows how the bones move in asana.

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Yoga Moment at mBODY

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Yoga = to Yolk

Yoga means to yolk, to union, to bring together the divine spirit.

There are many layers to yoga’s yolking, but my favorite is how yoga brings people together. Last December, I was down in El ChalténArgentina, near the bottom of Patagonia, where I met a wonderful community of climbers and yogis. Most were American and British travelers, but some were local Argentines, too. Their English was strong, but my cues in English were specific. They probably couldn’t understand every word I said, and yet we all flowed as one in class.  Yoga has the ability to bring people together despite cultural and language barriers.

Thank you to Tai Attwell for letting me use her yoga studio while I was down there and for sending me these photos of us practicing acro yoga amidst the trees. ¡Qué divertido!

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Look Up

There were many things I learned on my six month trip through South America, but one was extracting myself away from the addictions of social media. My Apple products were stolen one month in and my WiFi connection was spotty at best.  I checked Facebook once a week or less. And it felt great. I was more absorbed in my surroundings and less influenced by the affirmation of others. I was hoping that this habit would continue when I returned back to the States, but I have, truth be told, fallen back into my old ways– checking Facebook when there’s no real news to check.

Yoga teaches us to focus on the present moment. The irony is that to be a yoga teacher, we must market and self-promote ourselves on social media devices. How do we promote our classes while not over nurturing our egos? How do we plan for the future while focusing on the present?  This is a test. It lies with balance. This is a challenge that I’m still working on. Here’s a video that’s a nice reminder to put away our devices and Look Up:

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