Inside a Beginner's Mind


Inside a Beginner's Mind

Stacy is my wife of 26 years.  For ~20 of these, she has been practicing Ashtanga.  Eventually, she began teaching and even started her own program.  Originally out of our house but then into a dedicated space in Raleigh where she is now.

Stacy has always been willing to help me and offer instruction at any level I may be willing to try.  A few times I took up a self practice. But it never stuck. I have always played team sports and these have been my only source of regular exercise (Stacy says softball does not count as exercise and I must admit, she is probably right).  For many years I played basketball a couple of times a week, but in my late 40s, I decided to stop before a knee injury ended basketball for me. After this, I struggled to find a way to regularly exercise.

All of this time, Stacy has been there for me.  Not pressing me to start a practice, but always willing to share advice and support, when I asked.

This year, I turned 50.  Not a traumatic event for me, but did make me reconsider my (lack of) exercise habits.  Finally, in August of this year, I decided the only way I would truly practice Ashtanga was to commit to Stacy that I would come to mysore three mornings per week.  This could fit in my schedule (6am is not too early to get moving and I am able to get to work nice and early). Three days a week did not seem crazy. Maybe most importantly, I also figured, her expecting me to show up for mysore on specific days would be sufficient level of personal guilt to get me to the studio each morning.  She would never say anything to me, but I would know she noticed I was not there.

So, I committed to myself and to Stacy that I would be there.  Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings for the rest of August through the end of September.

Here we are at the end of September and I fully met my commitment.  I am very proud of this, but just knowing Stacy was expecting me was the extra motivation I needed to make this happen.

So, now what? It’s the first week in October and I am still practicing 3 days a week.  Currently, I am even with Stacy for a 4 day workshop she and Michelle Dorer are running - “Ashtoberfest” in the OBX.  I am only attending the daily mysore - but 4 days in a row! And I can fish the rest of the day.


How about my practice?  I have come a long way. I have become much stronger, especially in my core and shoulders.  My practice is still fairly short (all of standing, but only a few of the seated poses). But I feel stronger.  No longer are my legs like jelly at the end of practice. It feels good. I must admit I went into Mysore practice with some trepidation.  But I have found the personalized pace very rewarding. Building your strength while learning the practice matched to your own abilities makes for a sustainable way to build a practice.  Just as Stacy had assured me it would be.

Nothing has triggered in me (yet).  I don’t talk about looking forward to “getting on my mat” and I still despise backbending and shoulder stands.  From what I hear from Stacy and the other yogis, I think this is supposed to come. But maybe it never will for me and I am okay with that.  I do love that I get so many benefits from starting regular practice. Not only do I get exercise and to build strength and flexibility, but I can share in something that has been so important to Stacy and get the opportunity to experience her teaching for myself.


Aches and Pains? Practice is the Answer

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Aches and Pains? Practice is the Answer

Lately I've been seeing an uptick in students with aches, pains, tweaks and general obstacles to practice. My response, if you are one of them is twofold: 1 - Keep practicing, and 2 - LIsten to your body.  Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before. But here is what I mean:

Keep practicing: This is key to not only getting past this current obstacle, but avoiding future tweaks, injuries and general blocks. Practice is not meant just for special occasions. The more routine it is, the less pressure for each practice to be “perfect” or to accomplish something big and profound. We can let go of expectations because we know there will always be that next practice...tomorrow, or the next day or the next. This is the principle of Vairagya, as in yoga sutra 1.12:

Abhyasa-vairagyabhyam tan-nirodah
The ending of vrrti (disruptions of the mind) occurs by practice and non-attachment

Listen to your body: Obstacles in practice can be an opportunity to make a deeper study...of postures, of your body, your senses, reactions, etc. Pratyahara is the 4th limb of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga. It means mastery of the senses...a turning inward. On your mat it means paying closer attention to your body and mind and how it responds when you are in these postures...changing one small thing about how we do downward dog, for example. It may mean exploring different prop options to find a more attainable version and building from there, asking along the way: “is this moving me in a positive direction? Negative? Neutral?”

Obstacles are a natural part of the path of Yoga. Yoga Sutras 1.30 & 1.31 even list out the possible obstacles (disease, doubt, lethargy, lack of groundedness in practice, disruptions of the mind, etc) and the symptoms, in case you're not sure an obstacle is present (pain, depression, disruptions of the breath or body). The next sutra (1.32) says:

tat-pratisedhartham eka-tattvabhyasah
To prevent obstacles, practice one single truth/principle

It’s saying to keep it simple. Pick one thing and dig in. It could be breath. Or deep observation of a single position. Or making space in the body. Or getting out of bed when the alarm goes off ;-) Each single step in the process is important and should not be skipped over. Give yourself permission and space to be fully present for them all.

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Sweet Space


Sweet Space

Sukha...sweet space.  Literally, "su" means good and "kha" means space. In the Yoga Sutras (2.5-2.8) it is in contrast to dukha. "du" means bad, so sukha is happiness and dukha is pain.

And space is receptiveness.  A thing must be empty in order to receive. If you try to put more milk in a full glass, you just make a mess...spilled milk.

We must empty out in order to receive the gifts of practice and of life.

So we come to our mats empty...physically, mentally and emotionally.

Physically: we practice early in the morning, before we have eaten, before our bodies have taken on the burden of the day.

Mentally: no thoughts or expectations have been formed yet. 

Emotionally: sleep has washed away the struggles of yesterday, and today hasn't even begun.

We are neutral...colorless...empty...ready to receive:

knowledge, messages, gifts, breakfast :-)

But just in case, it can also work the other way. Our practice can be a way of emptying out...processing, digesting, burning off our emotions, our dinner from last night, our thoughts and expectations: RECEPTIVITY TRAINING

I watched a documentary last night about minimalism.  People telling stories about cleaning out their closets and healing themselves, overcoming depression, anxiety, even MS.  Sounds kind of woowoo, but who knows? Maybe there is something to it. Who am I to judge? My closets are FULL! My life is FULL!  And I am grateful for that. But there are gifts that I am ready to receive, if only I had SPACE!

Maybe I should clean out my closets...OR...

Keep coming back to my mat to breathe out...breathe in...empty out...



Sanyama Saturday July 23rd, 2016


Sanyama Saturday July 23rd, 2016

Work. Keep digging your well.

Don't think about getting off from work.

Water is there somewhere.

Submit to daily practice.

Your loyalty to that

Is a ring at the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside

Will eventually open a window

and look out to see who's there.



For Pattabhi Jois, the third and fourth limbs of yoga were not stages of yoga that the student passes through on the way to the further limbs. To him, the third and fourth limbs were the necessary, permanent foundation of the practice that needed to be reinforced on a life long daily basis. In mastering limbs three and four, the student masters all the limbs. To any question concerning other limbs of yoga, Pattabhi Jois would invariably urge students to take serious practice of asana and pranayama and then those types of questions would answer themselves  ~From an article by David Garrigues featured on Elephant Journal
Ashtanga (Vinyasa) Yoga is Patanjali yoga, ~Sri K Pattabhi Jois  


Ashtanga yoga is the study of the 8 limbs of yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), Samadhi.  The Sanskrit word Ashtanga translates to Eight (Ashtau) Limbs (Anga).  


So the goal, or end game is Samadhi - Ecstasy, peace, divine connection with self and all others, enlightenment, and the steps to get there are all laid out for us in the 8 limbs, each one leading or preparing us for the next...why didn’t Pattabhi Jois start with the first limb then?  


Well, for one thing, Ashtanga yoga is meant to be a “householder practice”, meaning it is meant to be practiced by regular folks, who have jobs and families, and worldly pursuits.  When Krishnamacharya’s teacher, Brahmachari, encouraged him to take a wife and raise a family and teach yoga to other householders, including women, he and Jois developed this concentrated approach to yoga practice (sadhana), meant to keep the body strong and mind/spirit peaceful so that the yogi could attend to all their householder duties (job, family, etc).


Jois felt that starting with the Asanas was best, as once the body began to become strong, and the practice began to purify the nervous system and calm the mind, the first two limbs would begin to fall into place.


The first two limbs are:

Yamas -  Ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha

Niyama - Saucha, santosha, tapas, swadyaya, ishwara pranidhana


Something magical happens with a regular daily physical practice of asana. As you begin to feel stronger, your mind becomes calmer and you find that you need less to feel happy and contented.  So there is no need for harming yourself or others (ahimsa), lying (satya), stealing (asteya), seeking physical pleasure (brahmacharya), or craving material things (aparigraha).  


You also find, once you commit and surrender to a daily practice, that it pays off on your mat when you keep yourself clean and organized and ready for practice each day (saucha), accept the results of your efforts without judgement (santosha), come to your mat regularly, even though you know it will not be easy (tapas), study yourself and your reactions, and maybe crack open an ancient yogic text (Svadyaya), and surrender to the process of knowing your true nature (ishwara pranidhana).

And so it goes...Asana practice begins the wheel spinning, begins the process of digging, leading us into our breath, our mind, and our true self.


Sanyama Saturday March 5, 2016


Sanyama Saturday March 5, 2016

One way to describe a  Mysore-Style class is to say that it is like receiving a private lesson in a group setting.  Go ahead - check my class descriptions...its there :-)  

But it occurs to me that this may not really paint a complete picture of what Mysore style practice or Self-practice is all about.  The term "Independent Study" comes to mind:

Philip Candy, the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Southern Queensland, in his classic text “Self-direction for lifelong learning” (1991, p 13), quotes Forster (1972, p ii) while defining independent learning/study.

1) “Independent study is a process, a method and a philosophy of education: in which a student acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for inquiry and critical evaluation; 2) it includes freedom of choice in determining those objectives, within the limits of a given project or program and with the aid of a faculty advisor; 3) it requires freedom of process to carry out the objectives; 4) it places increased educational responsibility on the student for achieving the objectives and for the value of the goals”.

Sounds familiar right?  All the time I have new and prospective students interested in learning Ashtanga, but are resistant to attending a Mysore class as a beginner.  They want to be led through the series, thinking that they will memorize the sequence by being guided through it repeatedly.  Here's what happens...they get bored...OR they get hurt...and they don't come back.

I've seen very fit athletes and experienced vinyasa yoga practitioners daunted by the Primary Series in its entirety the first time they do it.  There is a lot of repetition of movement (chaturanga/up dog/down dog) -- challenging for the body --  and long strings of postures that are similar but incrementally deeper -- challenging for the mind/ego.

I say this not to scare anyone away - quite the opposite!  Come to class!  Learn the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice!  

BUT PLEASE! (pretty please with sugar on top...just consider it...really...please?)

Start in a Mysore style setting.  Take it in slowly, in sips, not gulps, so that your body and mind can fully absorb the benefits.  This practice is strong medicine, but not the kind to pinch your nose closed and swallow without tasting.  This is the slow-release kind of medicine...its all in there, but the full benefits are absorbed over time, with practice and devotion and enjoyment! 

Since opening AYSR, I've been offering Intro to Ashtanga courses each month, and several people have completed the course, and continued on to attend regularly (YAY!).  This is in such stark contrast to what I saw all the previous years I've been teaching in this area.  What is the difference?  I believe its the expectation from the beginning that students are responsible for much of the learning, within the set curriculum (See #4 above). Also the consistent schedule helps...students can get used to coming regularly when they know it will be at the same time every day...even 6am :-) or they can practice at home on their own schedule (see #3 above). Everyone begins the practice at the same place, with the same movements, but each person progresses at their own pace, and some with variations as the teacher and student see fit (See #2 above).  Being actively involved in setting the course for their own practice sets students up for deeper personal inquiry and discernment in practice (see #1 above). So...yes...I would say:

Ashtanga Mysore practice is Independent Study of the Eight Limbs of Yoga

I was a home practitioner for several years before I went to a class.  I had been led through portions of the practice when I initially learned it, and then was expected to practice on my own between sessions.  So I was nervous entering my first Mysore class - didn't know what to expect, etc...but I'll tell you - once I went Mysore-style, I never went back!  

There is something so moving about being in a room with others - each of us working independently, but all feeling connected by our common struggles.  I remember distinctly one day at the end of class, Kathy Hallen came up to introduce herself to me and asked me about my practice, where I had learned, etc.  I couldn't speak...I burst into tears! Ha!! I was just feeling so full of love and grateful to be there and to have found this group of people who were as crazy as I was about this practice!!  Its such a strange connection, really.  Those of you who have been in a Mysore setting know...its such an intimate relationship to practice next to someone, but you may not even know their name!

Now...I will admit that I have not historically been the kind of person who does well with independent study scenarios.  My college had, as its only option for College Algebra (required for graduation), a self-paced, independent study did not go well for me...I'll tell that story another time...maybe...BUT I believe it was the subject matter that tripped me up.  I have no passion for algebra.  It's not that I can't do it, or can't learn it...I just have no interest...sorry to all the math lovers out there ;-)  I've also not traditionally been the most self-motivated, self-starter kind of person...on most subjects that is...

So I feel like its a strange thing that I've become so immersed and obsessed with Ashtanga yoga...a decidedly independent study of yoga for the strongly self-motivated, and when I look around in a gathering of Ashtangis, I often feel like the misfit...I'm usually quite content with how my practice is going.  I'm not usually the one asking how to perfect a pose or if there are "supplemental workouts" that could enhance my abilities on the mat.  I don't say that to brag, its just how I feel about it.  But I've been fortunate to have found a teacher  in David Garrigues that sees I am capable of more and asks it of me.  Otherwise I probably would have stopped doing this a long time ago. 

But immersed and obsessed I have become! And for me the hook is definitely the physicality of it...the movement, the breath, the feeling of my whole body WAKING UP!  Learning that I actually AM a self-motivated, independent learner, continuously curious about what I am capable of...continuously testing my own personal boundaries, and expanding those boundaries.


I just feel so lucky to have found the thing that, for me, keeps me curious, engaged and wanting more every day.  Have you found yours?

P.S. I ordered the book by Philip Candy quoted above...gotta love Amazon one-click ;-)


Sanyama Saturday January 23rd, 2016

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Sanyama Saturday January 23rd, 2016

2015 was a tumultuous year for me.  I spent February in India with my teacher, David Garrigues, which I am immensely grateful for.  Turns out I needed that time to step away from “regular life”, step deeper into my practice, and get strong in preparation for what was to come.  A year filled with tragedy and loss, pride and joy, and an inspiring new endeavor.  


One thing that I think helped steady me for this year - TAPAS


What exactly is TAPAS?  It is defined as discipline, fire, commitment to the study of the self, intensity enough to burn off the obstacles that keep us from seeing our true nature.

So yes, that has happened over the past few years - an intensity to my practice, and dedication - sometimes even when it doesn’t make sense or isn’t easy.  Making the effort to travel to India to immerse in the practice and in teaching, and fitting in another trip to Germany to refine that learning, even in the midst of deep family drama and obligations - both sad and joyful.  

It would seem as though this would be a time to let go of the practice a bit, back off, place it lower on my list, maybe give up practicing 3rd series for a time...but NO!!  That is what has kept me inspired, engaged, and energized, so that I have a solid base with which to support those I care about.  

It would seem that with all the challenges in the past year - losing my brother to suicide and settling his estate, watching my oldest son graduate High School and go off to college - it might not be the best time to open my own yoga school.  I could have easily put it off until “things calmed down”.  On the contrary, it has been invigorating, inspiring, and given me a full well from which to share what I have learned.

I was in Outer Banks, North Carolina in September for David’s annual In-Depth Study, and would be opening Ashtanga Yoga School of Raleigh the following week.  I asked David for any final words of advice.  He didn’t answer me then, but on the last day, after a week of intense study and practice, looked at me across the mysore room, and said

“Work harder”  I didn’t know what he meant…”you asked for any final advice...that’s all of it...teaching, practicing...all of it...”  I started to cry.  

What?! Work HARDER?!  Isn’t that what I’ve been doing all year?!  Busting my ass to make it all happen, and keep it all together?!  “It’s so easy for you...”  David said.  What?!  EASY?!  I felt exhausted and raw, and unable to respond…

So I went home and opened AYS Raleigh, and wrote to David about a week later...I understood what he was saying.  There is a lot of the practice that I am at ease with, and I’ve been teaching for a while, and have been apprenticing with David, so I feel at ease with much of that as well.  I have probably the most supportive family and network of friends to help with the nuts and bolts of running a yoga school.  So yes, there is room for me to up the ante, ask more of harder.  

And that work over the past few months has made me more focused in practice and teaching, taken me closer to my authentic path, and rewarded me with strength and the warm feeling that I have had an accomplished year, rather than a rough one.  I feel ready to take on more - bring it on 2016 :-)

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Sanyama Saturday January 9, 2016

Happy New Year!

This first part of the new year is traditionally a time for resolutions.  The Google definition of resolution? 

a firm decision to do or not to do something.
"she kept her resolution not to see Anne any more"
synonyms: intention, resolve, decision, intent, aim, plan; More
the action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter.
"the peaceful resolution of all disputes"
synonyms: solution to, answer to, end to, ending to, settlement of, conclusion to
"a satisfactory resolution of the problem"

So...a firm decision to do or not do something...Ok...that's easy. I have lots of ideas of things I should and should not do in the new year.  More writing is here I am...writing.  And I'd like to do this regularly, so I'll resolve to write about the week each Saturday...ideas and thoughts that come up during practice and teaching, and inspirations I draw from my teacher and fellow students and teachers.  And maybe I'll include some writing around the second definition - the action of solving a problem, dispute or contentious matter. That seems completely appropriate, seeing how most of what we are doing on our mats is just that :-) 

Now for a name, or theme for this weekly writing...well...Saturday Sanyama comes to mind, so I looked that up as well:

Samyama (from Sanskrit संयम saṃ-yama—holding together, tying up, binding, integration). Combined simultaneous practice of Dhāraṇā (concentration), Dhyāna (meditation) & Samādhi (union). A tool to receive deeper knowledge of qualities of the object.

Ok...this seems to fit as well.  The above definition is from Wikipedia, and fits with what I know of the practice from my teacher, David Garrigues.  At the end of each day of his In-Depth Studies he gives us time to reflect on and practice the techniques he has given us throughout the day and week.  It really does help to integrate it all, so that it doesn't just fade away once I am back to my same old routine.  

So Saturday Sanyama it is...I'm looking forward to sharing what I am able to grasp from my practice and each week.  It may not always be profound or deep, but something :-)

Cheers to a new year, and to all there is to learn over the coming months!