Register now for Jen’s Mulabandha Workshop on 11/18!

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MULABANDHA

Registration is now open through Ashtanga Yoga Denver:  Mulabandha, the “root bond,” is an essential yet elusive facet of the ashtanga vinyasa system. Yoga scriptures favored by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois describe Mulabandha as a goddess whom we may learn to serve with sensitivity and devotion. Practicing in that spirit, we prepare an altar in our body-heart-minds and constantly invite Mulabandha to manifest if she is so inclined. This requires the fine-tuning and balancing of many opposing patterns throughout the body. In this workshop, we will do a variety of cleansing, breathing and asana exercises that will draw our focus inwards towards delicious detail. Warning: you may be flooded with nectar and fall in love with the goddess! This workshop will not involve acrobatics and is suitable for all levels of inquisitive ashtanga students. Investment: $45 in advance/ $50 at the door (space permitting).

Moving “authentically” in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

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“An authentic movement is in and of the Self at the moment it is done.  Nothing is in it that is not inevitable, simple.  When it is authentic, I can almost tell you what is coming next.  When I see somebody move authentically, it is so real that it is undiluted by any pretense or any appearance or images.  Often, it can be the movement of just one hand turning over, or it can be the whole body.  To get to this authenticity sacrifice is involved.  At first it is a discovery of all of the tricks, needs and demands that separate you from what would be genuine in yourself.  Then after you have discovered what this trick is and what it prevents, it must be sacrificed, as must each subsequent one as it is discovered.  The reality of impulse and movement come from such a different place in oneself that when it is experienced, the person comes to know when it is there and when it isn’t, and then she can stop cheating.  What I call ‘cheating’ would be the personal arrangement of movement on many levels…”  Mary Starks Whitehouse in Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow

MSW is speaking about a therapeutic form in which a client is witnessed as he or she begins to move in whatever manner feels right at that moment, a conscious exploration of sensations and impulses.  The form is thus intended to be completely free and unfabricated, at times highly idiosyncratic and steeped in layers of emotion.  Much more would need to be said to do this kind of practice justice, but what I would like to address here is how much we need this kind of attitude even within a seemingly prescribed movement sequence such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

The polarity often discussed in Authentic Movement is that of moving and being moved.  Any of us who have tried yoga have worked on the moving part, the purposeful arrangement of the body and use of various techniques and theories.  Only the most elite masters seem to have grasped the being moved part, which is evident when you see them practice, though many of us have no doubt had at least some moments where we become possessed in this way.  Like Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, you are not the Doer.  However, most of us on some level feel we are and we look like we are when we get down on the mat…  No, it is not about looks in the end, however, we can also feel that something is missing when we are not completely attuned to the deepest aspects of our being.

Many Ashtangis will jump to say, “Yes, that is why we have always said Iyengar yoga (focused on alignment) sucks,” but this is not at all what I mean (I love it).  The body actually wants to move in an organic way, yet unless we sense into every split-second of the movement, we lose this flow and replace it with top-down or automated dictatorship.  You cannot really have one side without the other, also talked about in the 2-fold yoga path described by Patanjali as abhyasa-vairagya.  If we do not get the body in the vicinity of brilliant alignment where natural impulses can actually function, they are unable to work efficiently for us, (and these inner impulses seem to involve a great deal more than simply squeezing the anus, which is all the glory internal form is given in some circles…)  Likewise, deity visualizations and anatomical/kinesiological understanding can help our body to start to move in the ways that will feel most liberating.  We may try to understand what it means to allow the pelvic floor or “mula bandha” organize the pose, or let the breath do the work, but in order for this to happen, we need to listen so deeply and carefully (and continuously), setting the stage and sending the invitations, and finally allowing those impulses to direct us or perform for us when they actually show up.

For me, and I think for most of us, this involves relinquishing a great deal of cognitive control.  So many of us are in lock-down, totally wedded to a form we have imagined or seen in a book or another practitioner.  My teacher always jokes that it’s like he’s teaching in a morgue!  Our minds have gotten the body so stuck that the breath and life are choked right out of us.  We are not likely to look for the authentic movement going into poses or staying in poses, where so much magic can take place.  There are infinite numbers of transformations possible for however long we are in a pose.  This might simply involve micro movements and fine tuning, finding more dignity within a contortion, or at times becoming more contorted in order to feel certain other polarities.  Sometimes it might be stillness, which reveals its opposite and background.  It’s a dance, though it might not look like any kind of dance we have ever seen, nor will it ever happen in the same way again.  Just as we are all composed of waves and spirals, so too the body enjoys moving, which is strangely alien to the ego, who wants us to have a solid identity and just stick the pose “right” and move on to the next victory without feeling into the vast and groundless reality that there is no end to any pose, nor to us for that matter.

In asana, as in life, we follow the prescription, do the forms as obedient little students, and miss out on the real juice.  If we managed to tune in for even a few moments, we would start to feel the emotional and archetypal energy in our bodies and simultaneously feel the immense relief and freedom of total embodiment.  My teacher always says that if we could pay attention for even 2 seconds, we would fall into the central channel (Sushumna Nadi) and experience great insight.  It is humbling to truly inquire into whether we have ever managed to pay close attention for any amount of time at all in our practices.

If the central channel opens, it is said that core sensations are unleashed at an intensity our distraction usually keeps at bay.  Our protective ego structure would rather keep us out of this experience of the Self.  It would rather keep us in our reductive stories and limited beliefs and behaviors, which are safer and far less gratifying.  However, somehow we know we are missing something.  We naturally seek out intense experiences that will allow us to get a taste for this true absorption, anything short of which leaves us feeling like phony shells of our true potential.

Later in the same chapter, MSW speaks about simply becoming more aware of our tendencies, constrictions and ways of posturing ourselves, how we sit, shake hands, etc.  All of this will be reflected in our asana practice.  We move as the mass of habits we have become over the years, in most cases far more inhibited than when we came into this world as children.  As soon as we start to truly tune in to whatever we are doing, we will start to feel something asking us to adjust, or leading our attention to some aspect that was previously being kept out of our awareness.  In fact we might be shocked to find that we have been slouching in an incredibly uncomfortable position for hours!  Many of us torture ourselves throughout our practice as well, zoned out to the sensations until they become intolerably excruciating.

Of course, so many spiritual paths converge on the view that future suffering can and should be avoided.  Looking into our being and discovering needless restrictions, rules, layers of conditioning, shame, guilt, whatever else keeps us feeling stuck, allows us moments of relief when we can let go of some of the needless tensions, involuntary recoiling and brainy rigidity that make certain we have to keep striving and struggling rather than just being and actually letting so many things take care of themselves, as they truly will when we are alert enough to get out of the way.  At the same time, when we notice we are suffering and no easy solution appears, we do not take the attitude of whitewashing over it without listening.  We hold it as we would a baby who has begun to cry and needs our tenderness.  We start to discover who we really are, far more capable and vulnerable than we may ever have realized.

I find it extremely helpful personally to do Authentic Movement practices with their apparent lack of form.  They have helped me to begin to see how even within form, there is so much openness and freedom.  (The Heart Sutra comes to mind…)  In addition, allowing the body to go where it wants without censorship quickly throws up in one’s face all kinds of repressed shadow material.  Suddenly I might find myself acting out some kind of sequence that feels highly willful, primitive, seductive, furious or whatever else I might hide from polite society.  Repression will show up in yoga and inhibit everything from the breath to range of motion and might even cause pain and illness.

Making friends with those aspects of myself that nobody else is befriending allows for an experience of unconditional love that we rarely find in our daily life (and it is particularly powerful, not to mention healing, if there is a witness in Authentic Movement or a teacher in yoga who has explored her own depths and who is comfortable with the irreducibility of the self and awesome complexity of the universes, to be there with you as you explore in this intimate way).  The practice has helped me to start to crack my own heart open and have some self-compassion for all of the components that seem to make up “me” at any given time, and to give them what they need when I can and be with them when I can’t.  Slowly I start to see that being with myself this way helps me to be with others.

Shankaracharya has said that true yogis serve (rather than “do”) mula bandha.  On some level, in an Authentic Movement practice or and authentic Ashtanga practice, we are always asking how we can best serve our bodies and other aspects of our being.  In that way, we are continuously confronted with whatever we might have overlooked, be it physical, emotional, or on some other plane.  Ultimately we can see limitless freedom even within the boundaries of a certain yoga pose or transition, and in acknowledging this mystery, we are naturally drawn to look closely again and again and feel into each crevice of our being, allowing very profound feelings and sensations to emerge and meet our warm and kind acceptance.  This is how the practice is becoming increasingly meaningful for me.  It requires a very different attitude than I was used to, so much sensitivity and love, but it’s rewarding immediately, even in the earliest phases of implementation.

Practicing in this way we cannot avoid our humanity, aloneness and interconnectedness.  Sometimes what we feel is not at all pleasant, and sometimes it is pure bliss.  At any rate, it’s prana, and when we feel this pulsation, life becomes more lively.

Ashtanga can cultivate 2 very different kinds of power…

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screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-22-04-05“Remember, it is the patterns of Prana and the thoughts that ride upon them that are of interest.  The mindful, meditative step-by-counterstep process of intelligent vinyasa is the actual practice.  The achievement games that the mind constructs are to be observed by an unbiased intelligence,” Richard Freeman & Mary Taylor in their new release, The Art of Vinyasa.

When Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is seen largely as an acrobatic pose-vanquishing crusade, it strongly resembles the overblown ego-mania we are seeing with Trump & Co. all over the world.  It’s all about accumulating poses and teachings, trampling whatever stands in the way (often our own bodies), and rushing towards death with all-too-little awareness of ourselves and those around us.  Meanwhile, teachers take full license to insist that others do with their bodies whatever the prevailing rulebook prescribes, without holding themselves accountable for the consequences or consulting their own intelligence to determine a skillful course of action that could be truly beneficial.  We lose track of the subtleties of relationship that make life meaningful, and sacrifice the sacred in the present moment running after the cheap and very temporary thrill of a shiny new bind or trick.  We mistake suffering for pleasure and impermanence for permanence, which according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is the very definition of ignorance.

Over the past 10 years of my study with Richard & Mary, they have begun to interrupt my strongly-engrained ego habit by dropping me in to the endlessly fascinating universe within.  Rather than yelling “mula bandha” and cranking me deeper into some contortion, they describe what I might focus on and eventually become awestruck by for a very different kind of depth.  Their assists gently call attention to where more energy might be able to flow, or encourage me to breathe, relax, laugh and let go.  For our whole lives, society rewards our outward successes, which we then equate with our self-worth and identity.  We can hardly even imagine why we would try anymore if this pressure of our own inadequacy were to be suspended, which is why teachers who prey on this are so popular, always implying in various ways that we need to be stronger, or more flexible or steadfast…  We feel we get our money’s worth when we’re belittled and get what we’re used to, somebody judging us on what we can do and how well we do it.  Paradoxically it is precisely at the moment when there is some small relief from the hell of our own self-improvement compulsion that we can act without the slightest care about the result and savor whatever is arising.  Richard & Mary convey a sense of peace that touches us in that tender spot where we know we are not just ok, but utterly beyond any conception.  This powerful truth builds the kind of legitimate self-confidence that allows us to be of service to others rather than breeding the self-conceit that causes us to miss out not only on the best parts of our practice but on life itself.  In these times, more than ever, it is up to us to devote our practice time to developing our best Selves, fully capable and willing to help others do the same.

Meditation & Gathering for Peace

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Hi Friends, I’d like to invite you to an intentional peace & community gathering tomorrow morning, Sunday November 13th, at 11:15am (after Mysore practice 9-11am) at Ashtanga Yoga Denver. We will learn and practice metta meditation (loving kindness) and chant a mala of lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu‘s (roughly translated as “may all beings be happy/free”). Afterwards we will have time to discuss our hopes, fears and plans for action, perhaps opting to head out into the neighborhood for coffee or lunch together. Looking forward to seeing you there and embracing our obligation to change the course of history for the better. Families welcome!  Bring your friends and your favorite cushion to sit on.  The event is free, however, I’m thinking it would be nice to choose an organization such as the ACLU in case anybody feels moved to donate.

Ashtanga 3rd & 4th Series Video

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Hi friends, hope you enjoy this video of my shoot with Liana Romulo assisted by Regina Cannon at Ashtanga Yoga Denver. These two series have a very special place in my heart as they have been very healing for me. One often sees this kind of practice implicated in injury and I’d like to share a different kind of experience. I learned 3rd & 4th during the past three years while recovering from a chronic inflammatory condition brought about by excessive and prolonged biotoxin exposure that began several years before. Although I have had to employ every means available to get well, including prescription medications and every ancient and new-age remedy I could get my hands on, this practice has been at the root of my desire to heal and has supported me on that journey, which continues to this day. 

I’m grateful to have practiced these series in an atmosphere of non-judgmental respect for the body as well as my true nature. Whereas I see many naive teachers placing undue emphasis on striving, perfection and athleticism, I was extremely lucky to learn from Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, who helped me to focus on internal forms and gradually let go of some of the driven attitudes that had propelled me up to that point.  When I practice, I have warm memories of them being there for me, and that has made it easier for me to do the same for myself.  It is nearly impossible to move forward without accepting where we are first…  We had so many occasions to joke about the awkwardness of some of these poses, and at times, when all I could do was lay over a bolster and cry or sleep, I felt a tremendous dose of compassion from them that made me certain that I needed to pull through and begin to develop that sacred presence for the sake of others.

I feel fortunate that I have always done a variety of styles of yoga and had creative teachers who have encouraged me to find optimal alignment, organic movement and the right outlook, all of which are indispensible for a safe and enjoyable practice that can last a lifetime. There are plenty of sources of injury in life, so we do not need asana to fulfill that role! Of course there will be the inevitable tweaks and soreness, and we’ll get banged up from going about our daily business and have to deal with it on the mat (I have had tons of pain due to inflammation from diet and disease that required extensive modifications of my practice), but pathological pain from cranking ourselves aggressively in yoga feels different, and I hope all practitioners will hone their intuition and that teachers will respect that. We have the potential to discover so much of value about ourselves and others through this practice. May we continue to explore what matters most and act on it!

Exciting new classes begin 9/4!

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Samanasana

I’m thrilled to be offering a weekly mini-workshop followed by satsang as well as 2 new Mysore classes!  I’ve been looking forward to sharing in this kind of teaching format for years and feel so grateful for the opportunity.  Please see Group Classes for schedules.  See you there — Ashtanga Yoga Denver  🙂  Class descriptions:

Ashtanga Smorgasbord is a detail- and fun-oriented mini-workshop with a unique focus every week featuring postures with relevant variations drawn from the traditional series for exploration and adventure.  Each well-rounded session will delve into breath, bandha, alignment and attitude that together open the door to an asana practice that increasingly encompasses all 8 limbs of the Ashtanga system.  Ancient yoga scriptures assert that when we keep our attention in the core of the body mixing technique and counter-technique “to taste,” we unleash nothing short of a flood of nectar, so come on an empty stomach, ready for feasting!  This is a perfect way to reinvigorate and intensify your existing Mysore or other vinyasa practice while tailoring it intelligently and compassionately to your body and life circumstances.  Some experience recommended.

Satsang is a gathering intended to foster a sense of community and provide space for inquiry into contemplative practices, their contexts and their integration into our everyday lives.  We will begin each session with some silence followed by chanting, kirtan and/or instruction and discussion based on pertinent texts and topics brought up by the group.  Practice takes us into realms where interdisciplinary study can be enriching, venturing anywhere from Neuroscience to Psychotherapy to the Arts.  Keeping good company is said to be one of the most powerful means to deepen spiritual practice.  By sharing our enthusiasm as well as our challenges, we will build skills and discover support to access our most authentic Self and bring that realization into the world.  All are welcome, free of charge.

Mysore combines the very best aspects of private instruction (individualized attention and customization of the practice to meet your needs and goals), group classes (energy and inspiration gained from practicing in the companionship of others), and home practice (focused attention and personal accountability for your own path).  Students go at their own pace under the supervision of the instructor, arriving when they wish and finishing by the end time listed.  Six series entice us with unending challenges glimmering on the horizon while real life intervenes with plenty of opportunities to let go and learn to work with the inevitable obstacles and beautiful realities of embodiment.  No experience necessary.

SIGN UP ONLINE for Jen’s Workshop on 8/20/16!

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Arm Balances & Transitions

Saturday, August 20th 2:00-5:00pm at Ashtanga Yoga Denver

 In this workshop we will unveil the radiant potential of our arms, liberating ourselves from tragic misconceptions that prevent us from tasting some of the most delicious aspects of yoga practice. Too often ridiculed for being too short or too weak, our arms are just waiting for the opportunity to connect us with the breath and help us to do the impossible! We will tackle arm balances from a number of perspectives, fully integrating our arms into a variety of poses and transitions. Some experience with vinyasa yoga is recommended.

Jen has been a student of yoga since 2003 and enjoys making it accessible to everyone as she has learned it from her principal teacher, Richard Freeman.

$40 Early Bird Online Special / $50 at the door space permitting

When a Teacher isn’t Right for Us

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Buddha garden at Upaya Zen Center. Photo by Jen

“It’s a simple answer, truly. If a teacher’s behavior causes you more conflict than you’re capable of practicing with, it’s better to leave. It’s better to leave. There has to be a fit between a teacher’s behavior and your capacity to handle and negotiate that behavior while still seeing it as a transformative tool.” Georg Feuerstein in The Guru Question: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher by Mariana Caplan

This is a very important point.  So often we are told that we should cultivate equanimity in yoga, and it can seem as if sticking it out in a bad situation is heroic or character-building.  We may believe the situation will improve with our devotion or that our karma bank will be filled up by our efforts.  We may badly want to remain a part of a certain spiritual community.  We may have a hundred good things to say about the teacher and only a few bad ones.  It all depends how aversive the situation becomes and whether we have the internal and external support to take something positive from the circumstances.

In my own opinion based on a few previous experiences of mine and stories shared by other students and teachers, this attitude that we should take whatever comes as a teaching can be quite dangerous.  Ultimately, yes.  However, while we are practicing we are especially vulnerable, or at least, we should be.  We have the incredibly precious opportunity to become intimate with the breath and to open up the core of the body and nervous system, bringing up our conditioning, memories, and sometimes very powerful sensations, feelings and emotions.  If we are constantly tensing in a state of hyper-vigilance due to negativity or some other kind of instability in the relationship with the teacher or others in the room, we can easily exacerbate patterns of fear and reactivity.  Sometimes this is just not worth it…  The practice is supposed to be liberating!

There are dozens of tales of people making monumental strides on the path with very controversial or even apparently unethical teachers.  These people must somehow have been thoroughly convinced of their path and the teacher’s importance in their lives.  Personally, I would have to admit that studying with an incompatible teacher and benefitting from it is more of an advanced practice than I am capable of at this point on my journey.  For incompatibilities to arise, it is not at all necessary that the teacher be a psychopathic demon.  In fact, the teacher may be very well-intentioned, knowledgeable, and adored by throngs of students, or even greatly loved and admired by you.  If you, however, feel there is a mis-match that is severely interfering with your practice, please do not suppress or disregard your intuition.  It’s your life and practice!

The recent talk of trauma-informed yoga is a nice start (see also a previous post about relational healing), but no teaching environment is safe for the student unless the student can, at least to some extent, trust the teacher.  This does not mean blindly doing everything the teacher says, nor is this simply a cognitive decision.  You may convince yourself that everything is just fine (and outwardly there may be no danger at all), but if you feel strongly otherwise on another level to the point of being distracted and distressed, it’s time to consider other options.

Both the teacher and student are involved in this process of trusting.  More important than the teacher’s technical prowess, I would say, is his or her ability to be open and honest, putting ego and desire to use the student for personal gain as far aside as possible, listening and observing with care, taking feedback from the student seriously and not invalidating his or her experience.  The student is the one inhabiting the body, and pain (mental, spiritual or physical) should not be dismissed as lightly as it often is.  It can come up for many reasons, and we must work with students to discover its nature and what if anything can be done about it and first and foremost, how we can best be with things as they are.  A little presence (without trying to manipulate the situation or turning yoga into a self-improvement farce) goes a long way!  As teachers, we need to be a great deal more humble and recognize the great variety of personality types and backgrounds that come through the shala door, while still doing our best to point out students’ inevitable blind spots and encouraging them to live up to their highest potentials even when they lose faith in themselves or endure trying times.

As students, we should also remain open and refrain from shunning those experiences in relationship with the teacher that are truly transformative, even if embarrassing or difficult.  We will eventually come up against our edges with any teacher, and we can learn to discern when the experience transgresses boundaries that we need to respect in ourselves.  If a teacher repeatedly grates on a weakness that you are not yet able to deal with or wears you down in ways you cannot recover from, making you feel less capable or worthwhile in your life in a way that feels wrong, consider taking a break and practicing at home or elsewhere.  Indeed some of our old patterns need to be broken down, but this too requires great vulnerability, and should be done with somebody we do feel has our back in whatever ways we feel are essential.

It is too much to ask of the great majority of us to face all situations as if they are Brahman, or whatever those people say who pretend to live in the Absolute realm.  Most of us need to accept that we inhabit the relative world.  We need to embrace our humanity and recognize and accept our limitations while allowing the practice to work on us on an often unseen level.  Greater communication between students and teachers could also help greatly!  It is a relationship like any other where both parties need to keep waking up to stay with the reality of the moment.