Studio Interview

I was recently interviewed for a blog through one of the beautiful studios at which I am grateful to be teaching: Yoga Long Beach in Long Beach, NY. Here is a link to the interview for all of you to check out! Thanks for reading and come practice with me soon at Yoga Long Beach! See you on the mat :-)

http://yogalongbeach.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/a-five-minute-savasana-with-joanna-asher/

“Nobody Looking at Nothing” or The Egoless Gaze

"Nobody Looking at Nothing"

I was recently blessed with the opportunity to take a public class with Richard Freeman, one of the most influential yoga teachers in the world and my teacher’s teacher. Richard’s teaching is intensely focused on connecting to the internal practice of yoga by way of the breath, the bandhas, and the drishti. Of the multitude of inspirational tidbits offered during the class, the one that has stuck with me the most was regarding the drishti, the gaze. In the practice, when we set the gaze at a particular point be it the thumb, the big toe, the navel, or elsewhere, we are not our small selves gazing at this specific point, but rather we are “nobody looking at nothing”. I think there are several ideas implied by this statement that I hope to flesh out in the following paragraphs.

The first and most directly applicable implication is that the gazing point itself is of little to no importance to the practice or the practitioner. In other words, when we choose a gazing point, we are merely choosing a direction for the eyes to look so that they can remain still. Once the eyes are settled, the point upon which they are settled ceases to matter. We are not looking to examine or intellectualize the thing upon which we gaze. Instead, it is more like we looking through the gazing point to a place that is inwardly focused and not based in the external environment around us. When we steady the eyes, we have a real chance at steadying the mind, which is what we are ultimately looking to do through the practice of yoga.

If we approach the postures with the notion of looking through the gazing point instead of looking at the gazing point, we begin to move toward the notion of surrendering the self. In other words, the ‘gaze’ ceases to be ‘ours’ and instead moves toward being its own entity. We are then better able to drop the ego and the small self because we can start to recognize that it is not “me” who is doing the practice, but we can see ourselves as a vessel in which the balancing of energy can take place. The most fascinating and sometimes the most intimidating thing about starting a yoga practice lies in this notion of detaching from the ego. When are truly present to the shifting energies of the practice, when we truly surrender to the breath and the flow, our small self ceases to exist and we reside in the seat of pure awareness, pure consciousness. We are neither subject nor object, but rather a witness to all.

I sometimes liken this sensation to witnessing a great work of art or, as I more directly relate to it, an astounding musical performance. When we are in the presence of something that truly amazes us, something that moves us emotionally and energetically, we can become so deeply involved in observing the beauty of this presence that we often “lose ourselves” in the process. This is a commonly used expression, but perhaps there is more to it than simply another cliché. We spend so much of our time caught up with our own thoughts and preferences that when we happen to find ourselves in the presence of something truly majestic, these thoughts and judgments melt away, our own minds stop examining, and instead we become the uninvolved witness to greatness. What a well-intentioned yoga practice can do, is allow us to observe this overwhelming beauty, love, and greatness right here right now. We no longer exist as a human being participating in a tradition; we become the very tradition itself. We transform from the mere mortals we always thought we were into the infinite energies of love, compassion, and peace that are revealed through the practice. Through the selfless gaze of the dedicated practitioner, we connect to the energy within and around us because we finally get a glimpse of the Truth: this energy is all the same. This energy is who we are and who we always were; we simply have not been utilizing the appropriate gaze necessary to see it.

Is This Yoga?

What is this "Yoga" Stuff?

Over the past few weeks, there have been several articles coming out in esteemed publications regarding the high rate of injury caused by yoga despite the claims that it is meant to be a gentle and restorative practice for the body. In just about every one of these articles, the term ‘yoga’ is used as a replacement for the term ‘asana’, which means ‘posture’ and is just one small aspect of ‘yoga’ as a whole. ‘Yoga’ is a system that is not limited to any one realm of experience, but instead has the unique ability to permeate every moment and every experience in the lives of its practitioners. It is at once a very specific and very broad term as it can refer to many things, but ultimately refers to one thing: the cessation of the modifications of the mind.

As with most other traditions that come over to the West from another culture, bits and pieces of the tradition have been extracted and hyperbolically selected to represent a whole system. I like to remind myself sometimes that the practice of yoga is not about what the practitioner is doing, but about how he/she is doing it. The intention behind an action, a word, or a thought is more of a determining factor in deciding whether or not one is practicing yoga than the actual nature of the action, word, or thought. Someone washing the dishes mindfully, with full awareness of every moment of the dish-washing process both externally and internally may be practicing yoga. Conversely, the person jumping from Downward Facing Dog into an arm balance after putting on their makeup, setting up their webcam, and planning the follow-up youtube viewing party, may not. As long as the actions in which we partake and the words we speak and write are free from ego and selfish motives, connect us more deeply to our inner self and therefore to the people around us, and are in line with the yamas and niyamas, we can say we are practicing yoga.

Of course, there are certain prescribed physical movements designated as ‘asanas’, which are part of ‘yoga’. However, it is not only the external, observable aspects of these postures that make them ‘asanas’. As part of the 8-limbed path of Ashtanga yoga set forth in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, ‘asana’ practice is one tool designed to help rid the body of toxins and disease and prepare the physical self for a state of meditation and realization of the inherent oneness of all living things. If postures are used as tools to enlarge the ego and serve to further separate ourselves as “superior”, “stronger”, “leaner” than those around us, we have misused the tool and cannot therefore refer to this practice as ‘yoga’. The ‘asanas’ are designed to restore balance to the physical body and its systems as well as to the mind and the psyche. The balance between steadiness and comfort that is sought after in the physical practice is ultimately a metaphor for the balance sought after in life between work and play, effort and ease, stability and unpredictability. If we start utilizing this part of the practice for purposes that fully uproot the intended use, we sacrifice our right to call this ‘yoga’.

It seems to me that a few things are currently happening in the so-called “yoga” community of the West that are leading to the aforementioned phenomenon.

The first, which I have already touched on quite a bit, is that the term ‘yoga’ is being used to describe the most superficial and compartmentalized understanding of what yoga is. When we hear ‘yoga’, most of us now think ‘flexibility’ instead of ‘contentment’; ‘sweat’ instead of ‘peace’.

The second factor is that some of the people who adhere to the definition of ‘yoga’ as strictly ‘asana’ are now teaching their version of ‘yoga’ to hundreds and thousands of curious, innocent students who come to their teachers with trust and naivety, ready to eat up whatever is given to them for the sake of what they now believe is a ‘yoga practice’. Fortunately, one of the most fascinating things about the practice of yoga is that it is designed to be self-revealing, so many of these students who are able to develop a consistent and well-intentioned practice will learn the true meaning of ‘yoga’ through the practice itself. Unfortunately, it oftentimes requires the guidance of a seasoned and knowledgeable teacher in order to understand how one must practice in order to someday realize the true meaning of the word.

I have faith in the practice itself to guide the well-intentioned practitioner to a state of yoga despite the misleading information being fed to them through multiple channels. However, without the guidance of a well-intentioned, practiced, and educated teacher, I fear this process may take significantly longer to develop. As someone who entered a teacher training knowing nothing about yoga except for the physical aspect, I am eternally grateful to have found a teacher who was able to guide me towards discovering the true essence of the practice. Without this guidance, I believe I would have eventually come to this realization on my own, but the gift of an ego-less teacher is an invaluable one.

So, what is yoga? It is not Downward-Facing Dog Pose (though it could be). It might be washing the dishes (though it may not be). Yoga is a state of being. Yoga is a practice designed to quiet the thoughts of the mind so that we might recognize the inherent oneness of all beings and live in harmony with the world around us. The next time you find yourself asking, “Is this yoga?”, look not from a superficial, exterior view, but from a deeper, internal standpoint. Look not at the action itself, but at the intention behind it. At the end of the day, the only one in a position to determine whether or not you are practicing yoga is you.

A Recipe For Yoga

Warning: Cook fully before consumption

A yoga practice is like a recipe for baking a cake: there are a certain number of ingredients used in specific quantities, mixed together in a specific way to produce a desired result. In an Ashtanga yoga practice, there are several ingredients required: physical postures (asana), Ujjayi breathing, dristi, and bandhas. When mixed together in a very particular way, these ingredients can bring the practitioner into the state of yoga. This state is different for each person, but ultimately it is a place where the inner workings of the mind have become still and there is a sense of inner sanctity and peace. This state is attainable by all who follow the “recipe”, but like baking a cake, there are many things that need to happen in order to insure that the recipe is followed correctly.

First, all the ingredients must be used, even if we don’t see how they ultimately contribute to the finished product. I remember one of the first times I tried to bake banana bread from scratch. I had almost all of the ingredients in my pantry, but was missing the baking soda. Since the recipe only called for 1 teaspoon of the ingredient, I deemed it unnecessary to go to the store and decided to make my banana bread baking-soda free. When it came out of the oven almost an hour later, all my hard work had only partially paid off. I baked some sort of banana bread, but it was very dense and not the desired texture. While it still tasted decent, I was hoping for something that tasted magnificent! If we ignore one ingredient in our yoga practice, we will still see results of some sort from our practice: we may still get the physical benefits, maybe even the benefits of pranayama, but we will not receive all of the “sweetness” the practice has to offer. It usually comes down to putting in a little more effort and dedication in order to experience drastically more inspiring (and yummy) results.

Second, the ingredients must have time to come together to bake for a long enough period of time. In a standard cake recipe, there is of course a recommended amount of time to bake the ingredients before they officially become “cake”. If a cake is only baked for 10 minutes, it will be too gooey and raw. If it is baked for 10 hours, it will be dry, burnt, and inedible. There are similarities to this in our yoga practice. We must first practice long enough to build tapas (purifying heat) in the body so that we can begin to burn away the impurities that keep us from residing in the state of yoga. We must then rest the body in savasana long enough for the “ingredients” of the physical practice to settle into the unmoved, uncontrolled Self. If we do not give ourselves enough time for both of these things, our yoga “cake” will not be fully baked.

On the other hand, if we practice for 10 hours every day, 7 days a week, we will literally “burn” ourselves out and any glimpse of a meditative state we may have received will be overshadowed by fatigue. (Of course, there are yogis who meditate and practice for hours, days, even weeks on end, but these are typically very seasoned practitioners who have conditioned themselves to withstand these practices. For the average practitioner, 1 – 4 hours a day is plenty.) The duration of the practice is not as indicative of the result as the use of the correct ingredients, but it is still an important factor to keep in mind.

Finally, there is always room for error. There are still times when we follow a recipe exactly, mix the ingredients perfectly, bake them for the recommended amount of time, and we still do not achieve the desired result. The same is true with yoga to some degree. Be it the events of the day, the position of the moon, the seasons, or some other uncontrollable factor, we sometimes simply cannot find peace in our practice that day. We follow a sequence, we breathe deeply, we engage the bandhas, we maintain dristi in every posture and still that “bliss” state of yoga eludes us. While this is rare, it is still a possibility that all of us are most likely bound to experience sooner or later.

The most important thing to remember is that this practice is designed in a very meticulous way. In order to receive all of the benefits of a yoga practice, you must at least adhere to these practices diligently and be willing to do the work. Pattabhi Jois is famous for saying “do your practice and all is coming”, but you must do the practice the way it is intended to be done. You will see results from any practice, but to receive the benefits particular to an Ashtanga yoga practice, you must participate in it the way it is designed to be practiced. Otherwise, you risk selling yourself short and depriving yourself of the truly life-changing benefits that this practice can offer you. There are no shortcuts in yoga, so be patient, be compassionate, be kind, and follow the recipe closely… all is truly coming.

“Sthira Sukham Asanam” or Balance, Balance, Balance

As human beings, we tend to think in terms of absolutes. Perhaps more as American human beings, but in general I find a lot of this “all or nothing” attitude pervading the minds of the people around me. We either want it all or nothing at all. Why? One immediate reason that comes to mind is that anything in between leaves too much room for error. In other words, there is no way to measure the in between. The maintenance of perfect balance between too much and too little, too hard and too soft, not enough and too much, is one to which we must constantly tend lest it tip the scales too much in one direction or the other. There is no definitive stopping point.

Around New Years Day, I find this to be the chosen attitude adopted by resolution-makers and the one that eventually leads to the inevitable breaking of resolutions sometime around mid-March (if you even make it that far). We resolve to start exercising every single day for at least 1 hour starting January 1. We get a cold on February 4, skip the gym, and the rest of the year is officially shot to shit. By setting absolute goals for ourselves, we essentially set ourselves up perfectly for failure.

The tendency to lean toward absolutes is exactly the reason we need to practice yoga. Yoga is balance. Hatha Yoga means “Sun” “Moon” “Union”. It is a balance between these two opposing forces. In the one sutra that addresses Asana (Physical Postures) in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states “Sthira Sukham Asanam”: Asana is a steady, comfortable posture. So, not only is the entirety of yoga based around this idea of balance, but each asana within the physical practice is also meant to bring about a sense of balance to the body and mind. Too much sthira (steadiness/strength), we become too rigid and grounded; too much sukham (comfort/bliss), we become too heady, flighty, and lose touch with the physical world. We must always seek this balance and because it is so challenging to find this in the body and mind, we must constantly and consistently practice. This is what brings us to the mat to sometimes practice the same physical asanas for ten, twenty, thirty years straight without getting “bored”. Every time we come to our mat, every time we enter into an asana, it is new because we are seeking once again that perfect balance between strength and comfort, effort and ease. Maybe we get a glimpse of it for one breath in one posture in one practice, but as soon as we get the glimpse, the scales tilt to one side or the other and we must work once again to rebalance the Self.

This year, allow your yoga practice to overflow into your life in just this way. Take a hint from the Yoga Sutras and seek balance in everything. Do a physical practice 5 or 6 days a week and devote some time the other 1 or 2 days to relax in a restorative pose, take a bath, let yourself nap or read a book. Devote time to your career, but devote at least half that amount of time to your personal life. Get serious, but have fun! Buckle down and let loose… because if we can be balanced in our lives off the mat, we have attained the true yoga.

Infinite Energy: Oneness

We all practice yoga for different reasons: to decrease stress, increase physical strength and flexibility, quiet the thoughts of the mind, and countless others. Ultimately, though, what all of these aspirations have in common is the shifting of energy within the body. A large part of the original reason people practiced yoga asana (physical postures) was to prepare the body for sitting still for many hours in silent meditation. So, we condition our bodies to decrease tension and discomfort in the muscles and bones so we can better access the energies to which we are trying to connect through yogic meditation. On a deeper level, yoga asana allows us to manipulate and shift this energy throughout our bodies. By moving our gross (physical) bodies into various positions, we allow the energy that is constantly flowing within it to travel through new and unique channels. But what is this energy? Where does it come from and how does it end up in our bodies?

Energy waves are all around us

I recently read a book written by Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh in which he likens the energy inside of us to radio and television waves. In this technological age, there are constantly television, radio, and internet waves traveling around us almost everywhere. Until these waves have somewhere to manifest by turning on a TV, a radio, or a computer, though, we cannot see them. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but rather that they are harder to perceive because we cannot observe them with our 5 bodily senses. The same is true of the energy that is housed inside of us. As long as we occupy a healthy living body, this energy manifests within this body. When our physical bodies die, this energy still exists, but no longer with the ability to manifest in a living body, so it swirls around in our atmosphere until it finds another suitable temporary home. This is why, when we are very much in tune with the energies of those who have passed, we can sometimes feel like the deceased is with us long after their bodies have died. These are not ghosts, but the unmanifest energies of once living bodies.

The extraordinary thing that happens when we begin to practice yoga on a regular basis is that we are able to shift our awareness beyond that of the senses and can actually feel and observe this energy despite its lack of manifestation in a physical body. The extraordinary experience continues when we realize that this energy is everywhere, in every living being, and although the physical forms it occupies may differ greatly from each other, the energy itself is all the same. This is what is meant when we greet each other with “namaste” at the end of a yoga class: the divine light that shines within me honors the divine light that shines within you. Our lights honor each other because they are each other. When we begin to observe the continuity and consistency of this energy that is a part of every living being, we begin to feel truly connected to every living being, and therefore become more caring, appreciative, and compassionate towards every living being. Most of us would not wish harm on ourselves because we are ourselves; we would not wish harm on our families because we share a common bond through heritage and genetics; we would not wish harm on our close friends because we share a history and secrets; we would not wish harm on any other human beings because we all share the common thread of being human. The same thought process can then be applied to all living beings: we do not wish harm on any living beings because we all share the same energy… not just in theory, but in truth. This is the concept of interbeing: every living thing has every other living thing inherently inside of it.

Interbeing: we are all one

The question of “who am I?” ultimately boils down to one answer: I am energy. I am the energy that happens to be occupying this body that I call “mine” at this time that I call “now” and you are the energy that happens to occupy “your” body “now”, but these energies are interchangeable because they are one. They make up a small portion of the energy that is shared by all living beings who have ever lived and who have yet to live as physical manifestations of this energy on this earth. We are all one.

A Prescription for Yoga

Treats: Stiff Muscles/Joints, Obesity, Nasal Congestion, Headaches, Poor Digestion, TMJ, OCD, ADD, Poor Circulation, Shortness of Breath, Anxiety, Tension, Depression, Fear, Anger

Replaces: Personal Trainers, Ear Nose Throat Doctors, Therapists, Anti-Depressants, Anti-Anxiety Medications, Mouth-guards, Allergy Medications, Motivational Speakers, Hallucinogenic Drugs, Sleep Medications

Dosage: To be taken daily as needed. Discontinue usage if you are not happier and kinder after one week. 

Found: Wherever and whenever you choose.

Cost: One Ego.

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