Dharma Talks

A Dharma Talk is used to open a yoga class. It’s used to set the theme of the class, share insights, teachings or philosophy. It is typically comprised of themes, subjects or issues the instructor is currently navigating or studying. Depending on how long the class is, the talking portion can last three and a half to five minutes. I have been in class with a very experienced, senior teacher and she spoke for about fifteen minutes. She had stuff to say. Anyone with sense in their head chose to listen.

Last weekend I went to a yoga event in Alabama. It was a celebration of a yoga teacher training graduation. Four gradates taught an hour and half yoga class to open the day’s events.

There were three women and one man. The man opens the class from behind a harmonium, a squeeze box type of instrument not unusual to yoga studios. He is sitting cross-legged behind the instrument. When he begins speaking on the theme of the day I really recognize he has something to say. He is practiced and prepared with the material.

The subject of the Dharma Talk is the Heart, the light of our being, the ability to be present and compassionate in the world without losing our bearings. He quotes his teacher, he uses poetry, personal stories and humor in his monologue. He talks for about twenty minutes, which are not part of the hour and a half class. There is a brief intermission when he is finished speaking.

The first five minutes the group of a hundred or more people are attentive and sitting with up-right posture. But then it happens; shoulders slump when it seems obvious this guy is talking for more than the unofficially acceptable three and a half minutes at the beginning of yoga class. I see heads lolling around, phones coming out, legs stretched out, bathroom breaks become contagious.

Most of the students present remain attentive, but I know that the majority of those who are twitching like Samantha’s nose are not reacting to the speaker or the topic. For the first ten or so years of practice it’s a struggle just to keep your ass still while you try to do the more quiet, reflective practices. I get it, any instructor whose been at it long enough understands it is hard to sit still. There is a whole practice devoted to just that!

What is interesting is that Dharma Talks as a topic have been on my mind lately. It intrigues me that I end up at a large scale gathering of practitioners and see the dynamics between speaker, topic and students magnified by such a large number and massive space (we were in a church gymnasium).

I could design a whole Dharma Talk around its very topic, which in a way is what blogs are anyway. So if you have a hard time sitting still or refraining from looking at your phone when you’re not wholly engaged with your body in headstand or crow pose, I have been thinking of you. This post is for you.

I know that sometimes when you arrive to a yoga class you may have just left an office where you sat at a desk for seven plus hours. I know your back might ache or your hips are tight or your mood is sour.

I know that sometimes, you have been standing behind a chair all day, curling, straightening, coloring and perming hair and smoothing wrinkles from crumpled personalities and sprinkling fabulous where you can. Perhaps you spent the day folding laundry or zooming around in your car in a lifestyle that is the complete opposite of #workfromhome. I know you need to stretch and move your muscles so you can remember what it feels like to move like an animal again, to breathe like the wind again, to flow like the river again.

I know this, these sometimes, because I have experienced feeling an urgency to get on with it, to begin movement, for the instructor to shut the hell up already! Because, as a student, I have felt itchy at the beginning of class, have been agitated and restless on my mat, I do not take it personally when I am leading a class and see you fidgeting, eyes rolling all over the room in desperation, your hand roving around for your phone.

I understand. Really, I do.

As a student, I have been in a class when the instructor was really on to something. They said something really pertinent to what was happening in my life even though they might not have known it. More than once an instructor has started class with an innocent reading or idea or by simply sharing something they heard on NPR and I suddenly felt less alone in whatever storm I was experiencing in my life.

When I am the one opening or leading a class I don’t know what is going on with everyone in the room. Rarely do I have the slightest indication of what is churning beneath the surface in the folks who come to my classes. I know they are there for a yoga practice and I just try to do a really good job. Part of that job is relating teachings to the best of my ability and sharing stories I think might be helpful. Part of my job is to say what arises and what comes from my heart, whether it’s funny, important or relatable remains to be seen. It is not my job to know if it lands anywhere.

You never know who that person is who needs to hear the thing, whatever it is that day. It might be you, but only later, after rolling your eyes back into your head like a wild horse crossing a craggy mountain in a lightening storm at the end of the world, do you realize that something you heard opened a dark space inside you and let a little light in.

It’s my job to share what I study. It is your job to pay attention.

Previously in this post I said how I know this and that about your day. The truth is I don’t know anything at all except that these practices work. I also know that they are not one dimensional, exclusively physical or easy. I know they are worth it. I urge you not to give up, especially on the stillness. It is there, it really is.

If you find yourself struggling with being able to settle into the beginning of your yoga class, here are a few things to consider.

If you feel frazzled or jangled when you arrive, consider taking a class later in the afternoon so you don’t feel frenzied leaving work or harried by afternoon traffic. Conversely, if the afternoon is a struggle, consider taking earlier classes like a lunch hour practice. Try different times and see if that effects your ability to show up mentally and emotionally as well as physically.

Be on time, or five minutes early. Settle down on your mat, make yourself a cup of tea, lie in Savasana. It’ll help ground you. Try arriving twenty minutes early and taking a nice walk around the block at a slow pace to center and ground the different facets of your being.

Eat light a couple of hours before practice. A heavy meal before practice can make you feel sluggish or drowsy. If you don’t eat enough it can make you feel un-grounded and focus can be a challenge. Experiment with what is right for your constitution. Try a smoothie or protein shake and see how that improves your practice.

Set an intention to bring all of yourself to practice. Ask the Universe to help unite your body, mind and spirit and see how this request changes your experience. Ask to learn something, ask to hear just the right inspiration that you need. And show up, bring all of you to the mat and shine.

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Slow Flow Is Not Old Lady Yoga

First, let me say that there is an eighty something year old woman who comes to my yoga class and she consistently makes the young and the nubile look weathered and worn, such is the grace of her practice. So “Old Lady” yoga by definition is a little bad ass which makes this blog title a misnomer.

When I began taking yoga classes I don’t think there was even that much of a class description on the schedule; it was Yoga at whatever time with whomever teaching. There was no distinction between newbie yoga and advanced burn your ass up flow, so in a way I was spoiled with the simplicity.

Slow Flow is a staple class description here in small town Florida. There is a little bit of a stigma attached to slow flow, namely that it is easy. It is the yoga class one chooses when they don’t want to work too hard or put forth too much effort.

Back before yoga teacher training was a flicker on the event horizon of my life, I went to Slow Flow weekly. I thought it was Just Yoga. The class had all the stuff one thinks of yoga class as having; opening and chant, sit, breathe, warm-up, sun salutation, standing poses, twisting poses, balance and back-bends, forward folds and inversions though not in that particular order. Things wrapped up with a nice relaxation period and some meditation. That’s a hell of a lot of stuff happening in an hour and a half. It was anything but easy.

I inherited two Slow Flow classes which I now teach at Uru Yoga and Beyond. Since Uru opened its doors and a whole new world of Yoga practitioners crossed its threshold let me tell you something, people act like slow flow yoga is the easy yoga. They act like it’s the yoga you go to when you’re recovering from an injury or sickness or childbirth.

This, my friends, is not the case.

I teach my Slow Flow classes the way I learned to practice, and then teach, yoga. We sit, breathe, warm-up and flow. What distinguishes these classes from what is typically considered an “advanced” or “strong” class is the pace at which the class moves. Hence, the slow flow.

The transitions between poses are given the same amount of importance as the postures themselves. Students spend more time in the postures, deepening their experience of the pose in relation to their own body and breath. This style of practice builds a strong body and a steady mind, neither of which is easily won.

Because it grows tiresome trying to change students’ ideas of what a Slow Flow class is, I have renamed my classes on the schedule. The new class title is Vital Yoga: The Principal Practices.

Here’s the clip from the class schedule –

“Vital means both “absolutely necessary, important and essential” but it also means to be vibrant and full of energy.

The Principal Practices of Yoga is predominately a flow yoga open to seasoned yogis as well as practitioners with minimal practice experience, as postures may be modified for challenging sequences. Flow practices emphasize the unity of breath, movement and intention which leads to increased physical strength, flexibility and mental acuity. In addition to the flowing class style, anatomy and postural alignment instruction is offered.

The classes are designed to strengthen and enhance flexibility of the body through movement and postures. Practices designed to bring stability to the mind through breath work, meditation and mindfulness are also included in the practice session. This hour and a half yoga practice is balanced to support the yoga student in their pursuit of health, wellness, strength and serenity.”

There is nothing necessarily easy about pursuing health, wellness, strength and serenity. However, it is vitally important to do so.

While I’m doing up-dates and all, my Monday 6 pm class is now Kali Natha Yoga so we can practice it together twice a week now. The main difference between the Saturday and Monday class is that on the weekend we will work with the same sequence for a month whereas on Monday the offerings will vary week to week. I love this style of yoga like no other.

The class description from the website says, “Like the dance of Shiva and Shakti keeping the Universe in perfect equilibrium, a balanced and consistent yoga practice balances body, mind and spirit. Kali Natha Yoga brings the exotic and essential elements of yoga to all levels of experience so practitioners can safely and effectively deepen their yoga practice.

Kali Natha Yoga is a series of flowing yoga movements. It is suitable for students of all levels and abilities. The instructor will guide you through movement accompanied by breath techniques. Together, these practices enhance your energy system, energize you, calm the nervous system and leave you feeling refreshed and rejuvenated on all levels. Founded by Ma Jaya at Kashi Ashram, Kali Natha yoga allows the student to feel Yoga’s deep essence and meaning.

At the end of the practice, you will feel a deep quiet as you restore in final relaxation. Kali Natha Yoga is a moving meditation, a prayer in motion and the unspoken poetry of the soul. Prana Devi cannot wait to practice with you.”

I used information from the Kashi website to make sure I represented Kali Natha yoga well on my own teaching schedule. I love the language used to express the practice but really, you’ve got to experience it for yourself. I hope you can join me.

Lastly, for those of you who have been taking my Slow Flow and suddenly see a new description, don’t worry. Nothing is changing in the actual class, just the language used to describe it so people who might benefit won’t stay away just because they equate slow with infirm. Yoga is unity and effort for the good. Most importantly, Yoga is for everyone.

See you on the mat. xo

 

 

Chain Linked Mala Connects

As a non-Catholic attending Saint Pius the Tenth elementary school, I was constantly on edge. I did not grow up in a religious family. I have aunts on my father’s side who are Baptists. My great-grandmother was a Baptist but never acted like one. On my mother’s side my grandmother went to the Methodist church on occasion; we were the Easter Christians who took up parking spaces so people who went every Sunday of the world had to park in Egypt. That was us.

My great-grandmother on my mother’s side, Honey, read the National Inquirer like it was her bible. We were both intrigued with Bat Boy, she and I with fifty years between us. She had a rosary, but to my knowledge had no religious affiliation. I still have that black matte rosary with its rusted chain linked beads.

At Saint Pius, much to my dismay, we had a crucifix in every classroom. I spent my entire first grade year just getting used to looking at it. I much preferred the bronze or otherwise once removed from reality medium as opposed to the very lifelike version that lolled above Mrs. Jordan’s head while she tried her level best to get me to pronounce the word pen without the colloquially southern “Y” addition; as in “give me that damn pey-un.”

In the second grade Mrs. Alverez, with her blond mullet and insistence on art class, announced there was a small contingent of children from across the street – where the middle and high school is located – who take their entire lunch hour to recite the rosary in the grotto. I hadn’t heard much of this grotto, but I knew I walked outside its gate once when I was dressed as Betsy Ross for our school wide American history parade.

I felt intrigued with this rosary, though I never learned it. I saw glimpses and sparkling hints of jewels stashed within book bag pockets and silvery crucifixes that were molded in the shape of the Christ without the blood that made me look away.

As a student at Saint Pius, I attend all of the religious functions my class must rehearse as part of their school day. I remember the “first confession” rehearsal and the horror of it. I was standing on the red carpet looking down at my scuffed saddle shoes, which never made it past the first week of school unscathed, wondering what in the hell I was supposed to do next.

Much to my relief someone remembered I’m not Catholic, and unbaptized at that, and ought to be left alone. I did get ushered into a makeshift confessional where I looked briefly at the priest. I admitted to having fought with my sister. He excused me with a pardon of my sins.

There was “first communion”, which I also participated in on the periphery. I got to taste un-blessed wafers with Sister Therese, my third grade teacher. She also took us to where the nuns lived. There was a great crucifix in there and I wondered if it made it hard for them to sleep.

It might have been my third grade year in which I learned, still up to their old tricks in the prayer grotto, that those older children had received a commendation for their devotional efforts during lunch. Someone higher up in the church, a bishop or knight, sent them a special rosary. I imagine the card attached reading, “Keep up the good work!”

Let me tell you something, I felt white hot jealously when I heard those kids got a rosary. Let me clarify, I never learned the rosary. I still don’t know it. And let me tell you something else, too – I wouldn’t skip lunch. There was just something too delicious about that octagonal shaped pizza I liked to fold in half like a burrito. I wouldn’t miss out on that for an afternoon of starvation and heat stroke in the prayer grotto, I’m just saying.

There was a longing that stretched out beneath the surface of my eight year old thoughts. There was a secret wish to join the older kids in the grotto and look up at that large statue of Mary with Her outstretched hands, all white and glowing in the hot Alabama sun. I had an occasion to see inside the grotto once. There was a cement bench I just knew was hot in the summer and bone chilling in the winter. There was also green in varying shades everywhere and birds that sang like they’d just come in from my great-grandmother’s rose garden.

By the fourth grade I found myself in public school and rosaries, frightful crucifixes and octagonal pizza were the least of my worries. I had real concerns by then, like how to fit in without a uniform.

About eighteen years later I pick up one of the threads that wove through my heart. I found it to be chain linked and not quite what I initially thought it might be. I’d been practicing yoga for a while by now but hadn’t gotten too far beneath the surface.

Like lightening in my life I felt overcome, like when you have to sneeze and can’t hold it back because something might bust. The internet was still new to me, as far as shopping goes, but I took to its waters navigating sites and stores with deft skill, as though I wasn’t sailing those capricious winds alone.

My first mala is silver chain linked Rudraksha beads. It is a half mala, made of 54 beads, so if I wanted to practice an entire round I would have to go twice. I thought it would be the only mala I ever needed or wanted. I remember when it arrived in the mail, all shiny and light brown with its zip closure peacock blue storage bag (sold separately). I cherish this mala! I wore it under my clothes and around my wrist. The silver smell mingled with an essential oil and was faintly familiar.

The beads are dark brown now and the silver is the color of a well loved teddy bear with shocks of metallic light peaking through. That mala drapes over a picture, though sometimes I still pull it off my meditation table and chant with it in love.

This mala came in the mail so many years ago; before I knew who or where my Teacher was or had any idea where this path might or could lead, much less what I expected from it. I don’t necessarily have answers to all of those questions now, but I know where I belong and with whom.

I don’t want to credit how much I enjoy working with malas on my three years in Catholic school, but something there made an impression on me. I don’t think its a coincidence that Honey’s black rosary is held together with silvery links like my very first Rudraksha mala, to which I added a very small dog tag embossed with Shiva in meditation.

It is with this nostalgia for the half mala and the season of Easter, in which my Catholic-y tendencies surface, that I made a few half malas for my store, The Electric Mala. There isn’t anything traditional about them, but they’re colorful and beautiful and unique. The same can be said for each  one of us.

Woobie Mala

When I was in teacher training I found a place in India from which I could order all sorts of malas. There is one in particular I still wear all the time. It has Rudraksha, crystal beads, Tulsi, Sandalwood and Lotus seeds all strung like popcorn ’round a Christmas tree. It has a blue tassel, which I am not sure is traditional but what I asked for and what they sent me.

When I ordered these malas I ordered a 27 bead Rudraksha, which is a brown seed sacred to Shiva. I ordered other stuff, too, but these items are what I want to talk about now.

I’ve been making malas since February. Making malas began out of necessity; I had one in mind and couldn’t find it anywhere so I made it. It is awesome, too, and I took it directly to Atlanta and asked Swami to bless it. Since then, it has been broken, re-strung, re-blessed and held with love in the silence of my meditation space.

I don’t take this mala out too much. It is quiet and dark much like the space in which I meditate. I like to feel the subtle energy between the beads and the soft drape of the black tassel. It’s my praying mala.

Not all malas are meant to be kept in the dark. The one from India with all the different seeds on it goes out in public, gets left in the baby’s bed and dropped into my purse when I’m about to teach headstands and don’t want it to fall unceremoniously over my head onto the floor. It’s my teaching mala.

Then there’s the woobie mala. You DO know what a woobie is, don’t you? A woobie is typically a blanket one uses not for warmth or cover necessarily but as something to cling to and rub for emotional support. Woobie.

On the topic of malas and also woobie, I should add for those who don’t know that malas are prayer beads, typically used to count mantras or prayers so a practitioner can keep track of their practices. You know, chant this mantra for 108 times for 40 days and see what happens. See if you can’t transcribe the meaning onto your bones in the process.

Sometimes when chanting it’s a relief to get to the 108th bead, especially if it’s a longer mantra. Sometimes the practice is so grand and sweeping you’ll want to go another round, and another and another. But there comes a time when the mantra doesn’t really stop, but your practice begins to encompass your entire life. Eventually, hopefully, you don’t stop the mantra and the mantra doesn’t stop you. (For more on chanting and kirtan I suggest you listen to anything Krishna Das has to say on the subject.)

If this is so, then why in the hell have a mala to count anything? If 108 times ’round the mala is only the beginning, why bother counting?

This leads me back to the Theory of Woobie. The mala, much like a woobie blanket, is something we can cling to. There is something beyond even the chanting of the mantra, though. After a time of practice I think these malas hold the current of our practices so we can draw on them when we can’t seem to find the resources within.

I’ve found that the mala doesn’t even have to be one on which mantras have been said very much at all. The small hand mala I mentioned earlier, the one made of Rudraksha and with only 27 beads, stays in the same place most of the time. This mala has been known to make it to the top of a harmonium during kirtan, but for the most part it remains draped over a photo.

This mala made it to my upper arm a few nights ago. I wrapped it ’round my bicep and got in bed. I could feel the round grainy texture of those beads pressed gently into my ribs and there it remained all night. Why? I cannot say, but with tender awareness of its presence I drifted into sound sleep.

Counting mantras has been around a long time and they’ve been doing it all over the world. But I wonder if counting mantras is only part of the reason to use malas. I wonder if the malas don’t become some sort of containment unit for Shakti, like She hides in there as an act of Grace. For in our moments of forgetting we may draw on it when our energy is low and when we need sustenance Papa John’s simply cannot provide. Inherent in the design, are malas simultaneously the lasso that ropes us back onto our path and also a conduit for the current we dive into again and again?

 

 

Your Labor Day Homework

RuPaul-You-better-work

I like to  follow the weekly posts on the Kabbalah Center. Of course, the information and language is wrapped in a culture I’m not entirely familiar with, so there are somethings I don’t all the way understand. That doesn’t matter, necessarily – Many paths, one God and all…

On Labor Day I’m teaching a special class. I normally guide two classes, the first at 4:30 is an open level class and the second at 6 pm is a grab bag class. Sometimes we’ll clear the chakras while moving into and out of yoga poses and sometimes we practice restorative yoga. I have been known to teach handstands in there, where even the most reluctant yogi gets a little lift off!

It’s a holiday schedule this week on Monday, so I’ll teach one class at 5:30 pm, preceding Tara’s bon voyage class at 7 pm. If you’ve never had a class with her, this is your chance before she moves away!

I was thinking in what way I might make this Labor Day class a little different. I thought about a play list that started with Working in the Coalmine and ends with RuPaul’s You Betta Work! (which is the inspiration for the class title, anyway).

While I’m thinking of fun stuff to do in yoga I catch a glimpse of the news. A great heaviness drapes round my shoulders and it’s a sad sick feeling. In that moment I felt a little weak and very ineffective. I had to sit down and breathe deeply for a few minutes.

In this breathing I had an idea. It’s small and simple and I can’t take credit for it; it totally came from The Kabbalah Center. But it’s good. It’s Reinforcing the Good!

Our assignment is to list talents and abilities that we’ve been given to do good in the world. Talents and abilities we’ve been given to do our WORK! What gifts do you have that make you an effective instrument of the Divine right this second in your small corner of the world?

List these talents and attributes, shine the light of your awareness on them, and bring forth that radiance and share it with folks. They will shine more brightly because of you, and the ripple of goodness that starts small can carry its currents of Grace on directly to those who will most benefit from it, maybe circling all the way back to you.

We’ll talk about this tomorrow, it being a homework assignment and all. You won’t get graded on it, of course, but we can talk about it if you want to. I figured homework on Labor Day is acceptable.

I asked Google what Labor Day is about, and it told me that it’s a holiday held in honor of working people. Well whatdya know? A Yogi’s work is never done! This class title is going to fit in nicely, after all. We’ll work on moving with the breath’s current during yoga practice, even when the practice is hard, you’re up-side-down and rolled neatly into a salty pretzel. This will be great practice for remembering all your special talents and abilities in those moments in which it is so easy to forget, so your Light will shine even under pressure.

“We are all pieces cut from the same cloth.” We all have similar desires, similar hopes, and dreams. And we are all looking for the same Light. – Karen Berg

Back From Outer Space

My weekend in Atlanta was amazing. Normally I get subs to cover my Monday classes when I return from a trip to Atlanta, and when I say “trip” I mean both travel and that sense of tripp’in. Ya’ll, I was up and drinking coffee before the sun came up, and yes, I’d been to bed.

I decided to do something a little differently this trip. I resolved to teach my classes on Monday, for good or ill. I return from Kashi (the ashram in Atlanta) on Sunday evening. This particular Sunday evening when I returned I ate my weight in noodles and, somehow also biscuits. I’m not sure what happened. Eventually I fall into my own bed, which feels nearly as divine as the weekend, and sleep for twelve hours.

Upon waking, I crack one eye and look around. I am not sure where I am, as my room has almost as many images of god adorning almost every wall so I can’t tell if I slept in the ashram lobby or if I am, in fact, in my own sacred chamber. I feel a couple of heavy warm patches on me. It must be the cats. Certainly I am home. To my knowledge there are no temple cats in Kashi.

I make coffee in my own coffee pot and am relieved to find I remembered to restock the coconut peanut-butter. If you’ve never tried it I highly recommend it with your coffee. Eat it right off the spoon for full effect and nutritional benefits (I might have made that last part up).

I realize pretty fast I don’t even know if my ipod is charged (yes, old school ipod) and I think I’ve used the same three or four playlists for five or six weeks. I also have no idea what I’m wearing, I should have washed my hair yesterday and my toenail polish might be chipped.

Given the reality of my situation I try to get me together. I am not sure how this whole teaching right off an intensive weekend is going to go. I arrive at the studio in time to be alone there for an entire four minutes. This is enough time to place the new Shiva statue on the yoga center’s altar. He will sit there for at least a week, maybe longer. If you stop by tell Him hello.

Let me tell you something – teaching yoga the day after returning from an intensive yoga weekend retreat ain’t no joke. It is, in fact, one of the most exhilarating things a person can do. I felt almost manic by the time the last class was over.

I certainly used concepts in anatomy and language I learned over the weekend. There was a whole lot more to it than that and I wish I could tell you what it is. Maybe it’s the investing myself in something and then getting to turn right ’round and do the thing I’m so totally stoked about. Also, I spent time with this Teacher who shows the way on a path that is subtle and challenging and rich with potential for growth. Engaging directly with the Teacher of my heart gives that heart of mine great courage.

Feeling inspired by the weekend I decided to put a workshop on the schedule. Before this trip I made a mala. A mala is a garland of beads on which one says prayers, mantras or affirmations. I know a woman, she’s probably reading this right now, who thinks a girl can’t have enough shoes. My dog thinks she can’t get enough kibble and I don’t think a yogi can ever have enough malas.

I so enjoyed making and then wearing my mala that I decided to offer a workshop teaching folks who want to learn how to make traditional prayer beads with tassel. The workshop is on Sunday March 22 at 2 pm. You’ve got to buy the stuff because I have no idea what you’d like. I suggest you buy something in your favorite color. If you’d like to know more go to the Mala Workshop here where you’ll find your shopping list and more details on the afternoon.

I’m really glad to be back home with the cats. I am grateful to have Uru Yoga and Beyond where I get to teach and participate in the instructional side of these magnificent practices. Also, I am already planning my next trip to Kashi.