Nov 112014
 

These days I’m head-down in my second year of graduate school. The Maryland University of Integrative Health has established a Master of Science in Yoga Therapy degree program, and I’m in the first ever cohort. It has been an emotionally and cerebrally intense journey so far, and has enriched my knowledge and skills far beyond what I ever imagined.  What I didn’t expect was the amount of personal growth I would experience, not the least of which was discovering that there’s always room for more healing.

Month after month of meditation, studying yoga scriptures, the brain, physiology, as well as yoga practice on the mat, sharing, discussions, fears, insights, self-doubts and self-discoveries, I and my colleagues have opened into a new awareness of what it really means to live the human experience. I’ve learned more about myself, that I’ll always be navigating the turbulence of life’s unexpected curve balls.  That I can experience the full spectrum of emotions without being held hostage by any one of them.  I’ve experienced the re-opening of some of my wounds (which I discovered never really closed in the first place). But now, I can be with them in a safe place, and I can cultivate the Conscious Witness within and truly feel that I am more than my story, more than my pain. This journey has given me the tools to help keep me afloat.

“Healer, heal thyself.”

In order for us as mind-body practitioners to hold a safe space for our clients, we need to hold one for ourselves. I’ve learned to step out of ego and into awareness. I’ve learned that just because I’m still working through my grief doesn’t mean I can’t be present for the person who is sitting in front of me, needing to work through her grief. I’ve learned that there is a deep well of stillness and compassion that is always accessible.

Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you. (Rumi)

Underneath the pain, underneath the fear, underneath the anger, is a quiet place where I can meet my Self. This is a calm abiding place where the reigns that have long gripped my heart can be released.  Where I can rest my mind in stillness.

It is a beautiful place.

 

Apr 212014
 

I live in the south.  Technically, anyway.  Virginia is below the Mason-Dixon line and there are plenty of people around here who are still fighting the “war of Northern aggression.”  Growing up in New Jersey, it was made clear through the history books I was required to read that we Yankees were certainly on the side of righteousness.  And living close to a major metropolitan area allowed me the privilege of learning tolerance and acceptance for those who were different from me.

But I digress.  The Civil War is not the subject of today’s post.  I am a yoga teacher and a practicing yoga therapist (in the interest of disclosure, I have been teaching yoga classes for eight years, and working as a yoga therapist for six years, and am currently earning my Master’s degree in Yoga Therapy).  This career change happened after I moved to Virginia from the north.  I am also a member and deacon of my local Presbyterian church.  My husband (who practices yoga) is a church elder.  Our daughter volunteers in the nursery on Sundays and is a member of the church youth group.  We pray before each meal, and openly talk about God in our home.  So I personally don’t see any exclusivity between being a Christian and having yoga in my life.

Except for a very few encounters of opposition, I have been welcomed in my community as a yoga professional.  The opposition has come from those (in the south) who believe that practicing yoga is equivalent to worshipping a false god, or worse, Satan-worship.  This could not be further from the truth.  Sadie Nardini makes an excellent point in her post in today’s Elephant Journal about this very topic.  I’ve said it ad nauseum and will say it again: yoga is not a religion; it is a path.  It is a journey into oneself.  Gandhi practiced meditation, and he believed in God.  Because I respect the beliefs of everyone I encounter—in class and in private sessions—I purposely refrain from making any reference to any kind of religion.  This is because we are all pilgrims.  We are all on this journey, together and individually.  We can embrace our yoga and meditation practice at the same time as we embrace our spiritual beliefs.  One doesn’t cancel out the other, but rather, each can make the other stronger.  Read Sadie’s post here for more enlightenment.

Peace.

 

 

 

Apr 032014
 

Slide1Yes, it’s been forever since my last post.  I haven’t moved away or disappeared or fallen into a sink hole, just got very busy and very distracted.  Now that I’m in graduate school (something that’s been a goal for many years now), most of my waking hours, when not working with clients or teaching or carpooling kids to school, are spent head-down in the books.  I’m very fortunate and blessed and excited to be in the very first class offered by the Maryland University of Integrative Health for a Masters of Science degree in Yoga Therapy.  Along with 24 other amazing and talented yoga teachers, I’m learning the integration of both Eastern wisdom and healing, and Western medicine, to create a truly holistic, comprehensive approach to health and well-being.  I’ll be sure to write more (and more often!) as the year moves along.

In the meantime, I’m offering a workshop this month in Fredericksburg, VA on ways to prevent or minimize osteoporosis and osteopenia.  This workshop will be part education, part experiential.  You’ll learn what a DEXA scan is and what it measures, at what age you become at risk (you’ll be shocked!), what the limitations of current medications are, and of course, yoga poses that can help build bone density and strengthen muscles that support healthy joints.  Yoga teachers are eligible for Yoga Alliance continuing education credits, too!

If you live in the area, I’d love to see you there!  If you don’t, then make sure you get outside (Vitamin D helps build healthy bone) and walk (low-impact is good).  But make sure that you spend time stretching afterwards in order to keep those joints open and lubricated.  Yoga poses that are great for this are Kapotasana (pigeon), Paschimottanasana (forward fold), Danurasana (bow), Upavista Konasana (wide-legged stretch), and supine twist.

In Peace,

Suzanne

 

Apr 232013
 

I’ve just returned from a five-day workshop entitled “Writing From The Heart,” held by Nancy Slonim Aronie at Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts.  I had registered for a program in January that was more yoga-based and, afterwards, discovered that Nancy was holding her workshop during the same week.  I had taken a weekend writing workshop with her years ago in New York and distinctly remember how she was able to get me to reach into my heart and pull out stories.  She does this by creating a safe place for us to open.  Through her own narrative, we begin to trust her and ourselves.  It’s magic.

Lately, I’ve been feeling odd, like something is amiss.  There is a disquiet in me that I can’t shake.  My anxiety has been high and this is unusual.  I’m the type of person who follows my gut.  Or at least, I’d like to think I follow it.  Sometimes I just hear it yelling at me to get my attention while I carry on with whatever bad decision I’ve made that usually leads to trouble and regret.  But this time, I let it simmer.  And I waited.  For a sign.  Any sign.  Then it came.  When I was in my doctor’s office crying the blues about the menopause nightmare I’m in, she looked at me and said, “your throat chakra is closed.”  Aha!  That’s it!  That explains the tension in my voice, and how I have to literally force the breath out through my vocal cords to speak.  Since this particular chakra governs creativity and communication, I listened.  She was spot-on.

When I got home, I called Kripalu and switched workshops.  And felt completely sure of my decision.  No trouble, no regrets.  Although as my departure date drew near, my apprehension grew.  Not because of my decision, but because I knew what would be involved in writing.  Nancy gives prompts to jump-start the creative process, and for most of us they almost always involve some aspect of our personal experience.  Writers, I’ve been told, write about what they know.  And what I know is my history.  So threads of it came out in most of my pieces.  One in particular surprised me because instead of feeling like I was “creating” something, it felt more like I was “channeling” something.  The words came through me, not from me.  I made it into a video, and you can view it through this link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnaiCpSOIMc

It’s been said that memoir writers live twice.  For some of us, the first time was bad enough, so why do it again?  I’m learning something valuable—that when we are in a safe place, when we have support at home, when we have made our way out the other end of the gauntlet—we can look back, revisit, and not feel like we’re living our lives all over again.  We can see it from a new place, and can continue looking ahead with our sights set on that beautiful horizon.

In Peace,

Suzanne

 

Jun 242012
 

Recently my husband and I happened to be in New York City the same weekend Yoga Journal was holding their May conference.  I didn’t attend the conference this time around, but did take an opportunity to browse through the marketplace.  What was fascinating was the array of new innovative products that are now offered to the yoga community.  Aside from the normal collection of Indian-inspired jewelry, yoga pants, green teas and energy drinks, this year’s marketplace showcased some very unusual items.  I want to present to you what I consider to be the most innovative ones I saw there.  Here are just a few of them.

Take, for instance, YogaJellies (www.yogajellies.com).  These are funky disc-shaped items that are made of medical-grade silicon and have a multitude of uses.  According to the inventor, Anita Jarowenko, they are non-toxic and latex-free, so they are safe for everyone.  I was intrigued by them because I have students with serious knee problems and others with arthritis in their hands.  I bought a set (they come in pairs) to try them myself and was impressed with the cushioned support they provide.  If you have sensitive wrists, a boney butt, sore elbows, bad knees, collapsed arches, or basically any condition that makes holding traditional poses difficult, yoga jellies can help.  The only drawback I noticed was when I used them in Down Dog.  They stuck nicely to my mat and cushioned my hands, but after I removed them and placed my hands where the yoga jellies had been, it was a bit slippery.  Anita said to wash them with gentle soap to get rid of the film.  Their website has a photo gallery that illustrates many of their uses.

Next was a new design in seating called the Sukhasana chair (https://sukhasana.com).  It looks a little like a normal office chair with five wheeled legs on the bottom, but that’s where the similarity ends.  It is made for exactly what it sounds like—sitting in Sukhasana.  The back is tall and narrow, and the sides, which at first glance look like low arms, tilt inward to support the outer knees.  It’s available in three sizes and a variety of colors.  I sat in one and it truly was a treat.  The hefty price tag of $1,800 may discourage some buyers, but you have to ask yourself what the price of an open, relaxed, pelvic area is, especially if you sit for hours at a time.

The Kalso Earth shoe (www.planetshoes.com)  was a personal favorite.  It comes in different colors and styles, but what I really love about it is when I put them on, I felt like my sacrum opened.  I said “This is like standing in Mountain Pose!”, and that’s exactly what the shoe is intended for.  It was designed by a Danish yoga instructor, and the negative heel design sets the heel lower than the toe so you feel like you are upright and properly aligned.  I wore them around the city and they kept my feet comfortable and my back at ease.

And finally, the Loopasana (www.loopasana.com).   Corny name aside, this strap-like item is a fun little item that seems well-made.  As the name implies, it is one long continuous belt made of the same material as yoga straps.  It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out all the ways to use it, but they do offer a video on their website if your imagination gets stuck.

Check out any of these and let me know what you think.  In the interest of disclosure, I have not been paid for any endorsement of these products, nor has anyone asked me to review anything.  I chose these products because they seem unusual and quirky but useful.  However, the woman at the booth where I got my Kalso Earth shoe gave me a free pair because I am a yoga teacher, not because I am talking about them here.

Om shanti…

Mar 212012
 

I’m having parent challenges this week.  My 11-year-old daughter is extremely bright (no, really, she is) and early on was thought to have ADD.  Well, that diagnosis was thrown out right away when she was re-assessed based on the Myers-Briggs personality scale.  Her counselor and her teachers all determined that her mind moves so quickly that she has a hard time staying focused on the present moment.  Maybe that’s why we are sitting here at the kitchen table at 10:30 pm on a school night plowing through last night’s homework assignment.  The one she didn’t do because in her head, she was way passed the point of writing down the answers to her teacher’s questions.

I’ve been seeing this a lot lately.  And I can only determine that when she is being spoken to (by me, by her teachers), she has gone ahead to some place else.  She disengages.  She’ll be in the middle of telling me a story and suddenly, quietly, drift off.  She stops speaking.  I say, “Katie, where did you go?”  But she can’t answer.  She’s just gone somewhere else.  This obviously concerns me because I see a lifetime habit forming.  I realize I need to counsel her on staying present, staying with her thoughts, resisting the habit of drifting off to some other place because, in her mind, she’s done with the “now” moment.  But who am I to counsel?  Truth be told, I do the same thing.  I’ll be on my computer engaged in writing something, see a new batch of emails come in, and jump to my Inbox.  The Huffington Post, LinkedIn’s Yoga Therapy group, Yoga Alliance, Groupon, Studio Bamboo, Red Pearl Yoga, Facebook updates, a friend I haven’t emailed with in a while, it can go on and on.  A particular email will catch my attention and I’ll open it.  It may have a link to somewhere else and I’ll go there.  That new place may have its own link to yet another place, and I’ll go there.  After a while, I’ll find myself swimming in an endless sea of open emails and websites, with no direct attention being paid to any of them. Sound familiar?  Please tell me I’m not the only one who gets caught in this vortex of distractions.

That must be why I teach yoga.  We teach what we need to learn, and my goodness, I need to learn the fine art of focus and attention.  I have no problem with focus when I’m on my mat.  Balancing in Vrksasana, or moving through a series of Sun Salutations (with my eyes closed), I can be totally and completely on my mat–all of me–body, mind, and breath.  Sadly, life off the mat is another story.  There are simply too many interests pulling me in various directions.  No wonder most of the projects I plan don’t ever see completion.  Do you find yourself in this same situation?  Have you mastered the art of complete attention?  Even for a brief moment during the day?  Do you realize the spiral you’re in after it’s too late, or have you found ways to redirect, slow down, and focus?  Please share.

 

Dec 012011
 

I turned on the car radio this morning and tuned into a music station that was playing holiday tunes.  Oh yeah, that’s right.  It’s officially Christmas season.  Since I wasn’t in the mood, I switched stations.  More of the same.  And more on other stations.  Ok, I give up.  Or rather, should I give in?  And to what?  I’m not ready for the holiday fanfare, I want it to be quiet and slow for a while.  But like I say when things don’t go my way, “it is what it is.”  I teach my students to be in the present, not dwell in the past or fear for the future.  I should at least follow my own teaching.  Thich Nhat Hanh puts it perfectly when he says “breathing in, there is only the present moment.  Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.” I find that if I can work really hard (and it is hard work) to whittle away any segments in the continuum of time before this moment ever arrived and stay away from the unknown of the future, that this moment actually is a wonderful moment.  For instance, I’m looking out of my window right now at the early December morning sun, the shadows of what leaves are left on the trees dancing on my curtains, soft music drifting from my yoga room.  My soul tells me that right at this moment, there really is nothing more perfect than Now.

For today only, think of what is going on in your daily life, notice how you are breathing, how you are standing (or sitting).  Notice your thoughts.  Are they moving through your mind so rapidly that it feels impossible to harness them?  Wherever you are right now, be still.  Stop moving.  Open your ears to the sounds around you.  Say to yourself as you inhale, “Peace grows in my heart.”  As you breathe out, say “I am letting go of what does not serve me.”  You may have to do this a few times, but with repetition, you can train your mind to jump the track of negative mental chatter onto one of compassion, stillness, and acceptance to what is happening right here, right now.  After all, we only have this moment.  There are no promises of five minutes from now.  Anger and fear seem to rule our lives—the decisions we make, the reactions we have, the emotions we hold onto.  But if anger and fear are the emotions we live with because of what has happened in the past or might happen in the future, we can more easily let go of them if we realize we are not in the past nor in the future.  We are in the Now.  And all is good, even if just for a moment.

Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.

Sep 262011
 

It’s been way too long since my last post.  The summer has gotten away from me, but not without imprinting wonderful memories in my soul.  On July 22nd, my boyfriend Charlie, the man of my dreams, my best friend, love of my life, proposed to me.  It was wonderfully romantic, but I won’t bore you with details that are special only to me.  And then on August 19th, we got married.  We decided on a Saturday morning that we were just going to go ahead and do it, making our union legal and figuring out the details later (like, moving in together, having a “real” wedding, etc.).  My daughters and a few of our very close friends were with us.  The setting was simple yet beautiful, on a horse farm that is owned by an older couple (the husband officiated, the wife took pictures). The alter where the ceremony took place was just behind a small stone cottage that had an old bell hanging from a post nearby (which apparently had a custom attached to it that the bride and groom would ring it after the vows).  Tiki torches were burning along the wooden steps we descended as we walked arm in arm towards the alter, and the late afternoon light allowed the warm Virginia air to glisten.  My bouquet was made by my friend Juli, and it was a brilliant display of reddish-orange-gold calla lillies. Juli helps run the horticulture department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and if you’ve been there, you know what goes into the landscaping and floral displays.  You just have to visit the Rotunda at Christmas to appreciate her work.  We celebrated with dinner at a little French restaurant downtown, where our friends surprised us with a wedding cake and table favors.  We celebrated, we laughed, we cried happy tears, and my heart expanded that night like it’s never done before.

So now I’m a married lady.  Not a big deal in the grand scheme of life, but I’m living my life, and it is a big deal.  Roll back 10, 20, 30 years and I would have never, ever conceived that the life I have today would be possible.  I was living at the bottom of an abyss, darkness consumed my soul, depression defined me, I saw no other possible life except the one I was living then.  And I would hardly even call it “living.”  I was just barely surviving, waiting for the end.  But the end didn’t come.  And the days passed.  Then weeks, then months.  And I was still alive.  I’m not sure how I got from wanting it all to be over to deciding that since I was still on this earth I might as well do something with my time, but little by little, taking baby steps, I got myself to another place.  Not a physical location, but a place in my mind where it  wasn’t so scary to be awake.  It wasn’t a smooth uphill by any means.  There were incredible challenges, tests, obstacles.  But just as I believe you can will yourself to die, you can also will yourself to live.  That’s where I feel yoga helps.  Yoga can take away the fear of tomorrow, the anger of yesterday.  It can keep you Here-And-Now.  And that’s all we have.

I see people individually for yoga lessons, but often times our sessions include life lessons as well.  I can honestly say to them that their depression, their illness, their situation “doesn’t have to define” them, because in hindsight I realize that I allowed my depression, my situation, to define me.  I was a “sick person.”  I was reduced to a series of diagnostic numbers in the DSM III.  My clients can learn how to empower themselves through mindfulness, moving their bodies, controlling their breath.  The idea seems simple, and yet I’ve witnessed the power that yoga has to take someone from barely being able to tread the waters of life to being able to stand on terra firma.  “Feel your feet grounded in the earth” is something we hear all the time in a yoga class, and yet we need to remember that we can be grounded in the earth.  Stand up right now and take your shoes off.  Feel it.  We can tell ourselves that the slings and arrows that are hurling toward us don’t have to knock us down.  As long as we feel the earth under our feet, as long as we can draw the breath into our lungs, we have hope.  We must never give up.  All I have to do is look at my new husband, and I’m glad I didn’t give up.

May 282011
 

I feel like I could be a poster child for yoga’s magical ability to reduce stress.  Since the age of 12, I’ve suffered from panic attacks.  I still remember where I was sitting in my 7th grade classroom when the first one hit.  I thought I was dying, literally.  My voice was shaking, I couldn’t get air into my lungs, it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, my palms were dripping, and then there was the tunnel vision.  This was the beginning of 25+ years of struggling and suffering with a force I didn’t understand.  I would spend the rest of my school years–and tailor my career choices–to avoid situations where a panic attack would occur.  Years went by where I would experiment with counseling, biofeedback, and medication (often abusing it) to try hope against hope to make these attacks go away.  But not only did they NOT go away, they got worse.  They came more often.  I saw my future as one of those people who would be a prisoner in their own house, growing old by myself, no one to love me.  How sad, even as I write this, to think that this how I saw my future.  Treatments and years both came and went, and nothing seemed to help.

Now if you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I started my yoga practice in the hopes that it would make me physically fit.  What I couldn’t realize at first–and wouldn’t discover for another year–was that my panic attacks would disappear.  I would be in a situation that would normally bring on an attack, but it didn’t come.  The anxiety had become so familiar to me that being able to draw a full breath into my body felt unfamiliar.  Each class would begin with a wide-legged Balasana (child’s pose), and the teacher would tell us to breath deeply into our side and back body as we extended our arms forward on the mat.  I couldn’t.  Nothing would go in.  My breath went as far as my top ribs (so it seemed) and stopped.  But over time and with much practice, it got better.  And went deeper.  After a year of doing this and practicing other techniques such as Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breath), the panic attacks were gone!  Oh, and let me also mention that I grew 1.25 inches in height–really!

I mention Nadi Shodhana because I feel it’s a particularly effective technique for stress and anxiety.  I’d use it every time I had to go to court during my contentious divorce a few years back.  I also teach it to my clients who have anxiety.  Nadi refers to the energy channels throughout the body, Shodhana refers to the cleansing process.  I’ll forego further explanation about the energy channels because I want to give you a sample of it.

Sit in a comfortable position–on the floor or in a chair–and be sure you can sit straight to allow the chest to open.  With your eyes closed, relax your left hand in your lap and hold the right hand up with your palm facing up (like you’re holding something in the palm of your hand).  Fold down the index and middle fingers toward the palm but keep the thumb, ring, and pinky fingers extended.  Take a deep breath in and then gently place the thumb against the side of your nose, closing off the right nostril.  Exhale, then inhale, through the left nostril.  Release the thumb and place your ring finger against the side of your nose, closing off the left nostril.  Exhale, then inhale, through the right nostril.  Repeat this, exhaling and inhaling deeply, for several breaths.  (I sometimes go for 10 minutes if I’m really stressed).  Here it is again:

 

(close off right nostril)  exhale-inhale left side
(close off left nostril)  exhale-inhale right side
(close off right nostril)  exhale-inhale left side
(close off left nostril)  exhale-inhale right side
(close off right nostril)  exhale-inhale left side
(close off left nostril)  exhale-inhale right side

It will feel awkward in the beginning, but give it a chance.  It’s powerful stuff and I swear by it!  As soon as I get video up and running, I’ll demonstrate it again.  In the meantime, breath deep and enjoy how your body feels!

 

 

May 122011
 

Have you ever been in a yoga class and just can’t disconnect your mind from the surrounding noise?  I don’t mean the instructor’s voice, I mean the cars passing outside, the vibration of a cell phone in someone’s purse, or even the sound of what’s going on in the room next door.  My first yoga studio I attended was upstairs from a furniture store.  In the evenings it was quiet.  But then the store closed and a martial arts school moved in.  Classes were mostly in the evening, and we were always bombarded with the shouts of the students.  I didn’t know about re-directing my awareness back then, and sometimes it really got to me.

One of the places I teach now is at a fitness center.  I wouldn’t normally want to teach yoga at a gym, but this particular fitness center is different.  And what sold me on it was the fact that it had a Mind/Body room dedicated to yoga, pilates, and tai chi.  Wow, these people are enlightened! It’s a great room—ceiling fans, adjustable lighting, stereo system, plenty of yoga blankets, straps, blocks, and bolsters (but I do wish they’d take all those mirrors out), and plenty of people who are eager to bend, stretch, breathe, sweat.   But the one thing it doesn’t have is sound-proof walls.  Just outside the room is where the personal trainers work with their clients.  They do bench-pressing, floor work, ab work, and even have a large ball.  Yes, that ubiquitous exercise ball that fitness fanatics find all sorts of uses for.  I know about this ball because I sometimes hear it being bounced against the Mind/Body room wall while I’m teaching.  And to make matters worse, the only time it gets used is when I have my students in Savasana.  Or so it seems anyway.  At first it bothered me.  I even considered poking my head out the door and asking whoever was throwing the ball to please cease and desist until my class was done.  But I knew that wouldn’t have been respectful of their time, so instead I thought about how this is a perfect time to practice pratyahara.  Prata-what?  Let me explain.

This word, pronounced “prat-yah-hara”, is found in the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” and is the fifth element in the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga (not to be confused with the fast-paced, physically-challenging Ashtanga style of yoga developed by K. Pattabhi Jois).  It literally means sense withdrawal, or gaining mastery over the senses.  When you have a comfortable position (i.e., one that does not cause discomfort and distraction) and a steady inhale/exhale of the breath, you can “tune out” external stimuli and rest your awareness on your breath.  This exercise brings you into a deep, quiet place inside that is free of thought, free of chasing the senses (sound and sight in particular), and most of all, peaceful.  I thought of the few times in my life when preparing for a meditation, I would start with pratyahara.  Once I was in the meditation, I would no longer feel my body.  I didn’t feel my butt on the floor, nor my hands on my thighs.  The only sound I heard was the echoing of my breath inside my head.  It sounded like wind traveling deep in a tunnel.  I had gone so very deep within that all sense of my immediate surroundings disappeared.  This was pratyahara at its best.

So, could I teach my students to go there?  Or at least, to become aware enough of only their breath that they could experience an inner quietness that literally “drowns out” the nearby noise?  I can only hope, and teach, and teach some more.  And have faith that over time and with continued practice, each one of us in that room can hear nothing but the sound of our breath inside our heads, and allow it to deliver us to that realm of inner lightness that feels oh so good.

Have you ever tried—again and again—to tune out the noise?  Have you felt that it was just impossible?  I’d love to hear your story, your comments, your thoughts.  Until later, Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.