Yoga, Sex, and the Teacher-Student Relationship
Source: 90 Monkeys • Carol Horton, Ph.D. • September 24, 2013
Since I started tracking the steady stream of news, controversies, and online debates in today’s yoga world, I’ve had to struggle repeatedly with the challenge of confronting beliefs that are profoundly different from my own – both with regard to yoga, and many other issues as well.
On the whole, this has been a positive experience. Most of the time, when confronted with radically different sensibilities, I’ve been able to push the envelope of my own perspectives and find common ground. It’s been enlarging, and at times enlightening to discover ways of connecting with people who hold very different views on issues ranging from the advisability of “yoga for weight loss” to the foundational nature of the universe.
When I read Cameron Shayne’s recent post defending the righteousness of male yoga teachers who choose to pursue “hot, casual sex” with as many female students as they fancy, I knew that I’d hit a point where I didn’t want to bridge the divide separating our views. In this case, I believe that setting a clear boundary that says “NO” is more honest, clarifying, and potentially valuable than trying to find common ground.
The fact that Shayne’s post received a lot of enthusiastic support (including from the lead editor of Rebelle Society, which published it) suggests that a cultural rift has developed in the yoga community over the issue of whether teachers should enjoy open sexual access to their students, or respect long-standing norms requiring sexual restraint.
Considered in conjunction with the recent wave of high-profile yoga scandals, it’s clear that the issue of sex and the teacher-student relationship demands our attention – as well as an appropriate response.
Addressing the Conflict
To be clear, I’m not advocating some sort of war between the forces of sexual freedom and restraint. Nor am I in favor of issuing wholesale condemnation of any particular individuals or groups. The last thing we need is for the yoga community to replicate the same sort of hateful, vicious, polarized dynamic that infects so much of our culture and politics.
At the same time, I believe that the ethical standards and teaching protocols advocated in Shayne’s article should be unambiguously rejected.
How, then, to deal with the fact that Shayne and his supporters will undoubtedly think that it’s my views that are wrong, and not theirs? Is it possible to assert strong differences on the highly-charged issue of sex and the teacher-student relationship without falling into damaging negativity and conflict?
Only time will tell. But I’d suggest trying to accomplish this by:
- Acknowledging that the divide on this issue is too big and too important to ignore
- Working to depersonalize the conflict by debating ideas rather than attacking individuals
- Strengthening the role of a regulatory body (e.g., Yoga Alliance) capable of distinguishing teachers who support norms governing sexual restraint from those who reject them as outmoded “dogma.”
Analyzing the Argument
Shayne believes that yoga teachers should not be subject to ethical or regulatory restraints that limit free sexual access to their students. (Presumably, this means adults capable of giving formal consent, although these criteria aren’t stressed.) To my reading, his argument (which is echoed in many of the comments) reflects a mixture of two larger streams of thought that are quite influential in U.S. culture: hyper-individualist radical libertarianism, on the one hand, and irrational New Age spirituality, on the other.
This, in my view, is a toxic mix: capable of legitimating all sorts of power abuses, while at the same time advancing a twisted logic that “blames the victim” when they occur.
Here’s how I’d break it down most simply:
1) Hyper-individualism refuses to recognize the fact that systemic power differences really do exist. The idea that there are no power issues in play in the teacher-student relationship because we’re all free and equal individuals replicates the larger cultural logic which holds that it’s wrong to limit individual contributions to political campaigns because a billionaire and a homeless person have an equal right to “free speech.” (Yeah, right.) Any sort of more realistic understanding of how individuals are necessarily affected by the larger social context of which they’re a part is rejected out of hand in favor of a dogmatic adherence to the hyper-individualist view.
2) Hyper-individualism easily slides into self-serving “blame the victim”-style reasoning. For example, Shayne asserts that the “issue of vulnerable idealistic adult students being taken advantage of by egomaniacal male teachers for me is like the war on drugs: another completely corrupted strategy designed to deal with the symptom rather than the disease”:
The guru/students manipulation — like cocaine — is the symptom of a larger problem; the student’s lack of self worth, identify and voice. Clearly the corrupted guru is a problem, but the student, like the user, is the real disease.
By extension, it is solely up to the individual student to cure her personal “disease” of vulnerability to the predations of others, not least including the yoga teacher whom she may have turned to for guidance and support.
3) Radical libertarianism represents the logical extension of hyper-individualism into the social realm. If you believe that the only proper way to see people is as individuals divorced from any consideration of social context, then it makes sense to see all norms or regulations established for the collective good as illegitimate and oppressive.
Again, you see this sort of reasoning in American society frequently: for example, the belief that any sort of gun control laws – even limiting convicted felons from acquiring machine guns! – is an intolerable infringement of individual liberty.
4) Combine hyper-individualist radical libertarianism with New Age magical thinking, and unrestricted teacher-student sex is easy to justify. Anyone who’s spent any time in the yoga world is probably familiar with New Age spiritual platitudes such as “everything is exactly as it’s meant to be,” “everything happens for a reason,” and so on. In general, this pairs nicely with hyper-individualist radical libertarianism, as it provides a “spiritual” explanation of why we should never concern ourselves with pesky issues of abuse of power and exploitation – after all, everything’s perfect just as it is!
Hence, Shayne assures us that “you cannot have sex with the wrong person — only a person that provides you with another intrinsic part of the whole that becomes your story”:
As with all action, its meaning is assigned by us, created by us, experienced by us and remembered by us . . . the very idea that you can project onto sex a special quality that may exist for you, but not for another, is arrogant, assuming and stepped in antiquated dogmatic ideology.
5) Logically, then, if a student ends up feeling sexually exploited by a yoga teacher, that is simply because she is “choosing” this negative perception. Notably, there are also many “Tantric” variations on this sort of irrational New Age thinking, which I won’t go into there as they weren’t featured in Shayne’s post. They do, however, come up in some related comments – and, I’m sure, are quite familiar to those who remember the recent Anusara debacle.
The Teacher’s Responsibility: Zero
Illogically, Shayne’s argument that exploited students “chose” their negative perceptions is presented in conjunction with an explanation that the reason that yoga teachers “sexually misbehave” today is “because they finally can”:
The majority of all yoga sex scandals involve one or more desperate devotes and a teacher who figures out, maybe for the first time in his or her hopelessly hip-less life, that they can get laid . . . They are doing what any male or female given sudden persuasive license would do when bombarded with adoring energy — engage it. Only the naive and emotionally underdeveloped would fall prey to it.
There is a horribly circular logic at work here: the exploited student is the “real disease” because she is “naïve and emotionally underdeveloped” – yet, when she is exploited by a power-hungry teacher, she is faulted for “assigning” a negative meaning to the encounter, rather than embracing it as an independent choice that she made to support her own self-development and spiritual growth!
Meanwhile, the teacher is conveniently off the ethical hook and gets a pass – and, no matter what his abuses of power, should presumably remain so to prevent oppression by dogmatic social norms.
Ethics, Community, and Tradition
Personally, I find Shayne’s argument so shallow that it would be laughable were it not for the fact that many yoga practitioners apparently embrace it quite fiercely.
Initially, I was shocked to see how much support his post was generating. Quickly, however, I realized that given its resonance with influential currents in the larger culture, its popularity is not so surprising.
Yoga, like any other tradition, necessarily evolves in interaction with the larger society of which it’s a part. If it didn’t, it would quickly lose its relevance and meaning to most people. Therefore, we can expect that variations of the cultural divides that we experience in the larger society will continue to replicate themselves within the yoga community.
As noted above, however, one dynamic that I’d really like to avoid is the establishment of mutually hostile camps that are constantly hurling hate at one another. Right now, I think we are pretty far from that point. But things can change quickly. And there’s no question that the tone in the yoga blogosphere has become frequently meaner in the past few years.
I’ve tried to avoid gratuitous meanness in this post by critiquing what I see as the central ideas in Shayne’s post, rather than attacking him as an individual. For all I know, he could be a great guy in other ways. On the issue of teacher-student sex, however, I believe that the views he’s advocating are dead wrong and need to be forcefully countered.
The contemporary yoga community needs to honor the historic yoga tradition by adapting it to speak to today’s needs and concerns. The Yama of Brahmacharya has informed the yoga tradition for thousands of years. Given the materialism, hedonism, and sexual confusion that trouble our society today, this is a particularly bad time to simply throw it out as antiquated “dogma.”
Instead, we need to reflect on how best to interpret and adapt this restraint to support the meaningful transmission of yoga in our time. Considering the profusion of recent scandals involving teacher-student sex in the yoga community and the incalculable suffering they have caused, the need to do so is urgent. Shayne’s provocative post is helpful to the extent that it spurs those of us who believe we must uphold sexual norms that protect vulnerable students in the yoga classroom – and, by extension, support and elevate the practice for everyone – to reflect on what we can do, and take action.
* * *
Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. She holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. For more information visit her website.
Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend
Source: TED: Ideas Worth Spreading • Kelly McGonigal • September 2013
Pearls of wisdom gleaned from Kelly McGonigal’s talk:
- Oxytocin is a stress hormone.
- When oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support.
- When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.
- When you change your mind about stress, you change your bodies response to stress.
- When you reach out to others under stress either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier and your recover faster from stress.
- Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience and that mechanism is human connection.
- How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.
- When you choose to connect with others you can create resilience.
- When you choose to view stress this way…you are saying you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges and you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.
- Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort … Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.
Try these three simple practices to reduce stress, quiet your mind, and connect to your inner Self.
By Kate Holcombe
A few weeks ago, my seven-year-old son, Hayes, told me he was having trouble falling asleep. He said that he was having “many thoughts” at night and couldn’t stop his mind from thinking. I told him about a breathing practice that I had taught his older brother, Calder, a few years earlier, and I suggested that Hayes could try it while lying in bed at night to help him relax and fall asleep. The practice was simple: a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing followed by a few minutes of consciously and gently extending each exhalation.
“Maybe you’d like to try it?” I said to Hayes. “I think it was helpful for your brother sometimes, and maybe it will help you, too.” Just then, Calder, who had been passing through the room, announced: “You’re wrong, Mom.” I held my breath, wondering if he’d tell Hayes that my advice wasn’t going to work. “It doesn’t help me sometimes,” he said matter-of-factly. “It helps me all the time.”
I was pleasantly stunned. I hadn’t realized that Calder was still using the practice I had taught him three years earlier. As I knelt on the living room floor to teach Hayes the same practice, I was reminded that pPranayama, the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, does not have to be complicated.
Pranayama, which literally means “to extend the vital life force,” or prana, is an incredibly rich practice made up of many breathing techniques that vary in complexity from ones simple enough for a child to do to those appropriate only for advanced practitioners. While the best way to practice pranayama is under the guidance of an experienced teacher, there are simple techniques—such as gentle diaphragmatic breathing and comfortably lengthening the exhalation—that can be used at any time to transform not only your breath but also your state of mind.
In my work as a yoga therapist, I treat people struggling with a variety of issues, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, chronic pain, and even life-threatening illness. Time and time again, I’ve seen simple pranayama practices reduce stress and anxiety; promote restful sleep; ease pain; increase attention and focus; and, on a more subtle level, help people connect to a calm, quiet place within so that they experience greater clarity and well-being on every level.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes pranayama as a process by which you can break your unconscious breathing pattern and make the breath long, easeful, and smooth. Most people’s unconscious breathing patterns are anything but easeful and smooth; they tend to be tense, shallow, and erratic. When we are afraid or hear bad news, we often gasp—inhaling and then holding the breath. These breathing patterns can activate the sympathetic nervous system (often referred to as the “fight or flight response”).
One of the primary reasons that pranayama techniques that foster a long, smooth exhale (like the ones presented here) are so beneficial is because, when practiced correctly, they can support the parasympathetic nervous system and activate what is commonly known as the “relaxation response,” reducing stress and its effects on your body and mind. As a result, your resilience in the face of challenge or adversity increases, and your mind becomes more focused and still.
A Quiet Mind
The eight limbs of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutra are a path to help you reach a state of Yoga, or focused concentration. But this focused concentration is not the end goal. As Patanjali tells us, the result of reaching this state of attention is that you experience clearer perception and a greater connection with your true Self.
When you’re connected with your true Self, it becomes easier to see what is not your true Self—your mind, body, thoughts, feelings, job, and essentially all of the changing circumstances around you. This discernment allows you to act from a place of the Self, and when you do that, you experience less suffering.
Pranayama is an important tool to get you to this state of more focused concentration, leading you to clearer perception, a greater connection with the Self, and ultimately a happier life. In Yoga Sutra 2.52, Patanjali writes, “As a result [of pranayama], the covering that blocks our own inner light is reduced.” In other words, through the practice of pranayama, you can reduce all of the mental noise—the agitation, distractions, and self-doubt—that prevents you from connecting with your own inner light, your true Self. In this way, pranayama can have a profound effect on your life.
Though practice of pranayama is safest and most effective when guided by an experienced teacher who knows your needs and capabilities, there are several simple techniques you can try at home as long as you’re in good health and you don’t push beyond your capacity.
The three breathing practices that follow—relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing; Sitali (or Sitkari) Pranayama; and gentle “extended exhale” breathing—are a good introduction to pranayama. Each supports the parasympathetic nervous system, quiets the mind, and helps to bring about a state of more focused attention. As you continue to practice these techniques over time, you may start to notice when you are unintentionally holding your breath or breathing shallowly. You also may begin to associate patterns of the breath with your moods or states of mind. This self awareness is the first step toward using the practices of pranayama to help shift your patterns and, through regular practice, create positive change in your life.
Try each practice daily for a week and observe how it affects your body, breath, and mind in order to figure out which is best for you. You can do them at just about any time of day, though preferably not immediately following a large meal.
Basic Breath Awareness
This gentle introduction to diaphragmatic breathing teaches you how to breathe more fully and consciously.
Benefits: Quiets and calms the entire nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety and improving self-awareness.
Try it: At least once a day, at any time.
How to: Lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor about hip-distance apart. Place a palm on your abdomen and breathe comfortably for a few moments, noticing the quality of your breath. Does the breath feel tense? strained? uneven? shallow? Simply observe the breath without any judgment. Then gradually begin to make your breathing as relaxed and smooth as possible, introducing a slight pause after each inbreath and outbreath.
Once the breath feels relaxed and comfortable, notice the movement of the body. As you inhale, the abdomen naturally expands; as you exhale, feel the slight contraction of the abdomen. In a gentle way, try to actively expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of the diaphragm and experience the pleasure of giving yourself a full, relaxed breath. Continue the practice for 6 to 12 breaths.
The Cooling Breath
Sitali Pranayama is often translated as “the cooling breath” because the act of drawing the air across the tongue and into the mouth is said to have a cooling and calming effect on the nervous system. To practice Sitali, you need to be able to curl the sides of your tongue inward so that it looks like a straw. The ability to curl the tongue is a genetic trait. If you can’t, try an alternative technique called Sitkari Pranayama, which offers the same effects.
Benefits: Can improve focus; reduce agitation, anger, and anxiety; and pacify excess heat in the system.
Try it: Twice a day, or as needed during stressful times. Sitali and Sitkari Pranayama are particularly supportive when you’re feeling drowsy in the morning or during an afternoon slump when you need to improve your focus.
How to: Sitali Pranayama: Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor, with your shoulders relaxed and your spine naturally erect. Slightly lower the chin, curl the tongue lengthwise, and project it out of the mouth to a comfortable distance. Inhale gently through the “straw” formed by your curled tongue as you slowly lift your chin toward the ceiling, lifting only as far as the neck is comfortable. At the end of the inhalation, with your chin comfortably raised, retract the tongue and close the mouth. Exhale slowly through the nostrils as you gently lower your chin back to a neutral position. Repeat for 8 to 12 breaths.
Sitkari Pranayama: Open the mouth slightly with your tongue just behind the teeth. Inhale slowly through the space between the upper and lower teeth, letting the air wash over your tongue as you raise your chin toward the ceiling. At the end of the inhalation, close the mouth and exhale through the nostrils as you slowly lower your chin back to neutral. Repeat for 8 to 12 breaths.
The Long Exhale
This 1:2 breathing practice, which involves gradually increasing your exhalation until it is twice the length of your inhalation, relaxes the nervous system.
Benefits: Can reduce insomnia, sleep disturbances, and anxiety.
Try it: Before bedtime to help support sleep, in the middle of the night when you’re struggling with insomnia, or at any time of the day to calm stress or anxiety. (In general, it’s best to avoid practicing 1:2 breathing first thing in the morning unless you’re experiencing anxiety. The relaxing effects of the practice tend to make it more difficult to get up and go on with your day.)
How to: Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Place a palm on the abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths, feeling the abdomen expand on the inhalation and gently contract on the exhalation. With your palm on your abdomen, mentally count the length of each inhalation and exhalation for several more breaths. If the inhalation is longer than the exhalation, you can begin to make them the same length over the next few breaths.
Once your inhalation and exhalation are equal, gradually increase the length of your exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds by gently contracting the abdomen. As long as the breath feels smooth and relaxed, continue to gradually increase the exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds once every few breaths. Make sure you experience no strain as the exhalation increases and keep going until your exhalation is up to twice the length of the inhalation, but not beyond. For example, if your inhalation is comfortably 4 seconds, do not increase the length of your exhalation to more than 8 seconds.
Keep in mind that even an exhalation that is only slightly longer than the inhalation can induce a calming effect, so take care that you don’t push yourself beyond your capacity. (If you do, you’ll likely activate the sympathetic nervous system, or stress response, and feel agitated rather than calm.)
If your breath feels uncomfortable or short, or if you’re gasping on the next inhalation, back off to a ratio that is more comfortable for 8 to 12 breaths. Then finish your practice with 6 to 8 natural, relaxed breaths.
Kate Holcombe is the founder and president of the nonprofit Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco
Awe: by Jason Silva
Take a moment to remember that child-like quality of wonder that lives in you. When’s the last time you let awe out to play? Check out this short (0:2:45) inspiring video by Jason Silva on awe.
If you love this (as I did) you can subscribe to Jason’s weekly Shots of Awe: where science, philosophy, and inspiration collide.
Transcript of video:
Awe: “an experience of such perceptual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it.”
So I think a lot about the contrast between banality and wonder,
between disengagement and radiant ecstasy,
between being unaffected by the here and now,
and being absolutely ravished emotionally by it.
And I think one of the problems for human beings is mental habits.
Once we create a comfort zone, we rarely step outside of that comfort zone, but the consequence of that is a phenomenon known hedonic adaptation.
Over stimulation to the same kind of thing, the same stimuli again and again and again renders said stimuli invisible. Your brain has already mapped it in it’s own head and you no longer literally have to be engaged by that. We have eyes, yet see naught, ears that hear naught and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
There’s a great book called The Wondering Brain*.
It says that one of the ways that we elicit wonder is by scrambling the self temporarily so that the world can seep in.
You know Henry Miller says, “even a blade of grass when given proper attention becomes an infinitely magnificent world in itself.”** You know, Darwin said “attention, if sudden and close, graduates into surprise; and this into astonishment; and this into stupefied amazement.“
That’s what rapture is.
That’s what illumination is.
That’s what that sort of infinite comprehending awe that human beings love so much. And so how we do that? How do we mess with our perceptual apparatus in order to have the kind of emotional and esthetic experience from life that we render most meaningful? ‘Cause we all know those moments are there. Those are the moments that will make final cut.
Only in these moments, we experience afresh, the hardly bearable ecstasy of direct energy exploding on our nerve endings.This is the
bursting forth of awe that expands our perceptual parameters beyond all previous limits, and we literally have to reconfigure our mental models of the world in order to assimilate the beauty of that download!
That is what it means to be inspired! The Greek root of the term means “to breath in.” (aaaaahhhhh!)To take-it-in!
We fit the universe through our brains and it comes out in the form of nothing less than poetry. We have a responsibility to awe.
* Bulkeley, Kelly. The Wondering Brain: Thinking about Religion with and beyond Cognitive Neuroscience. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
** Miller, Henry. Henry Miller on Writing. [New York]: New Directions, 1964. 37. Print.
*** Darwin, Charles. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. New York: D. Appleton, 1886. 278. Print.
Progress on the Spiritual Path: Krishna Das ◦ Interview in New York
Come celebrate progress (not perfection!) every Tuesday and Thursday with me at Hatha Flow 11-12:30pm at Om Shala Yoga!
“If you want to know if your making progress on the so called “spiritual path,” then see if you’re kinder to people. See if you’re a little easier on yourself. See if you obsess about your own self and all the stuff in your life a little bit less. See if you’re happier during the day in a simple way, more content. And see if you’re treating people more like you would like to be treated. That means it’s working.”~ Krishna Das
Ram Dass: Fierce Grace
I love this man. This beautiful movie is about Ram Dass’s experiences aging and the radically life changing event of getting “stroked.”
“Healing does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather of allowing what is now to move us closer to god.” –Ram Dass
Eight Pearls of Wisdom from Rod Stryker’s Tradition Talk
Rod Stryker shares some compelling and controversial thoughts on the role of lineage and tradition in the study and practice of yoga. Below are eight peals of wisdom I gathered from the 1 hour dharma talk. Watch the video below to gather your own favorite insights!
- yoga is waking to the essence of being, the essence of life – the hight of becoming
- you can do asana and not be established in yoga and you can be in yoga and not do asana…
- asana is the adjunct, a tool that we use to achieve a greater freedom but we can have the freedom without the asana
- you can only go so far as the quality of the thing you’re paying attention to
- if you have that hunger then do the work of getting ready – when you are prepared the teacher will come
- mentor-ship is an extraordinary model based on mutual love and respect
- your teacher’s job is to turn you to your inner guru to give you the boat to get to the island that is your teacher
- for those of us who have been practicing yoga for a while, we can’t ultimately reach the destination if we’re practicing in a one dimensional way
Enjoy the video!
~ artemisia shine
To schedule a private yoga session contact Artemisia Shine at 707.234.5411 or firstname.lastname@example.org / www.artemisiashine.com
p.s. Also check out this sweet short video “Is Tantra a Religion?” from Rod Stryker’s teacher and founder of The Himalayan Institute, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD – “Find freedom in the world, not freedom from the world.”
Taking a moment to answer a few questions received from facebook and Twitter, Pandit Tigunait discusses some interesting topics, such as:
- Is tantra a religion?
- What is tantra?
- How does yoga intersect with tantra, and how does tantra differ from yoga?
- What advice do you (Panditji) have for yoga practitioners interested in studying authentic tantra?
- What do you (Panditji) mean when you say: “Find freedom in the world, not freedom from the world”?
If you are interested in learning more about the Living Tantra Series, visit http://www.LivingTantra.com
Tradition: Modern Yoga’s Missing Treasure or Obsolete Relic?
Rod Stryker at the Wanderlust Festival Speakeasy – Colorado 2012
Source: Wanderlust Festival You Tube Channel • Rod Stryker • March 2013
Published on Mar 11, 2013
The sacred teachings of yoga have thrived from time immemorial thanks entirely on lineage—-the unique relationship between master and student. Yet, modern yoga is practically devoid of it. Why was this ancient paradigm for study considered so precious? Moreover, can the most elevated understanding of yoga (in the modern age) be realized without it?
Join Rod Stryker as he explores the concept of “Tradition: Modern Yoga’s Missing Treasure or Obsolete Relic?” at the Wanderlust Festival Speakeasy in Colorado 2012.
Rod Stryker is the founder of ParaYoga and the author of The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Happiness, Prosperity, and Freedom. Rod is widely recognized as one of the West’s leading authorities on yoga, Tantra, and meditation. His teaching weaves a profound breadth of knowledge and experience, along with his unique ability to make the deepest of the ancient teachings accessible to students of all levels. Rod has taught for more than 30 years and leads retreats, workshops, and ParaYoga Master trainings worldwide.
For more information on Rod, you can visit his website athttp://www.parayoga.com/. You can also dig deeper on his writings by exploring his book “The Four Desires” or his meditation CD’s, “Meditations for Life” and “Relax into Greatness”, available in his online store here: http://parayoga.com/store/. Follow Rod on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/RodStryker and keep up with his tweets here: https://twitter.com/RodStryker108.
Wanderlust Festival is also endebted to Hay House (http://www.hayhouse.com) who helped us realize the entire 2012 Speakeasy Lecture Series across all four festivals (Stratton, VT in June 2012; Copper Mountain, CO in July; Squaw Valley, CA in late July; and Whistler, BC, Canada in August). With Hay House’s amazing roster of speakers (which you can witness in person at their incredible “I Can Do It” events), it’s no wonder that they helped elevate the conversation at Wanderlust’s Speakeasy this summer. We encourage you to stay tuned to the Hay House FB feed to make sure you know the next time one of their authors is speaking near you (https://www.facebook.com/hayhouse).
Speakeasy Series Realized in co-operation with Hay House
Speakeasy Video Production by C3 Presents & Greenheart Creative
Speakeasy Series produced by Karina Mackenzie
Makeup services provided by Dr. Hauschka
Music in introduction by MC Yogi “Sita Ram”
Motion Graphics by Victoria Nece
Emotions in Motion
Source: Yoga Journal • Donna Raskin
You reach up and back, your chest opening into a supported backbend. Then, suddenly, you’re in tears. How did you move from serenity to intensity in just one moment?
By Donna Raskin
Last summer, Danielle Pagano hurried to her favorite yoga class feeling rushed but happy. Everything was fine until it came time to relax into Child’s Pose just before the end of class. With her head bowed and attention focused inward, Pagano, a 33-year-old vice president of an international investment company, began to cry. She spent the next few minutes struggling to contain herself, and wrote the experience off to exhaustion. When it happened again the following week—this time earlier in the asana progression—she was stunned.
What had at first been a relaxing hour for Pagano had become a stressful obligation. She realized that something significant had happened, but she refused to return to class until she felt confident that an emotional upheaval wouldn’t occur again. Not comfortable talking with her yoga teacher about it, Pagano skipped class for a couple of weeks, choosing instead to discuss the incident with her therapist.
Though Pagano didn’t know it, her experience is a common one, as are the concerns it raised for her: Was something wrong with her? When would she be able to stop crying? What did the people around her think? And why did this happen in yoga class and not, say, while she was eating lunch or taking a walk?
It’s a Good Thing
“The holistic system of yoga was designed so that these emotional breakthroughs can occur safely,” says Joan Shivarpita Harrigan, Ph.D., a psychologist and the director of PatanjaliKundalini Yoga Care in Knoxville, Tennessee, which provides guidance to spiritual seekers. “Yoga is not merely an athletic system; it is a spiritual system. The asanas are designed to affect the subtle body for the purpose of spiritual transformation. People enter into the practice of yoga asana for physical fitness or physical health, or even because they’ve heard it’s good for relaxation, but ultimately the purpose of yoga practice is spiritual development.”
This development depends on breaking through places in the subtle body that are blocked with unresolved issues and energy. “Anytime you work with the body, you are also working with the mind and the energy system—which is the bridge between body and mind,” Harrigan explains. And since that means working with emotions, emotional breakthroughs can be seen as markers of progress on the road to personal and spiritual growth.
That was certainly the case for Hilary Lindsay, founder of Active Yoga in Nashville, Tennessee. As a teacher, Lindsay has witnessed many emotional breakthroughs; as a student, she’s experienced several herself. One of the most significant occurred during a hip-opening class. She left the class feeling normal, but during the drive home became extremely upset and emotional. She also felt she’d experienced a significant shift in her psyche—something akin to a clearing of her spirit. Lindsay felt, as she puts it, released. “There is no question that the emotion came out of my past,” she says.
By the next day, her opinion of herself had taken a 180-degree turn. She realized she was a person who needed to constantly prove herself to be strong and capable, and saw that this was partly the result of an image instilled by her parents. Her spirit actually needed to recognize and accept that she was a proficient person and ease off the internal pressure. This realization, Lindsay says, was life-changing.
Not every spontaneous emotional event is quite so clear-cut, however. Difficult and stressful breakthroughs occur most often when the release involves long-held feelings of sadness, grief, confusion, or another strong emotion that a person has carried unconsciously throughout his or her life.
“Whenever something happens to us as a kid, our body is involved,” says Michael Lee, founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, which is headquartered in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts(see “Therapy on the Mat,” below). “This is particularly true of trauma. The body comes to the defense of the whole being. In defending it, the body does things to stop the pain from being fully experienced.
“Emotional pain is overwhelming for small children, because they don’t have the resources to deal with it,” he continues. “So the body shuts it off; if it didn’t, the body would die from emotional pain. But then the body keeps doing the physical protection even long after the situation has ended.”
Painful experiences, Lee adds, can range from small, acute ones to intense, chronic problems. Still, the mechanism at play is unclear: “We really don’t understand the body-memory thing,” he says, “at least in Western terms.”
The Body-Mind Connection
In yogic terms, however, there is no separation between mind, body, and spirit. The three exist as a union (one definition of the word yoga); what happens to the mind also happens to the body and spirit, and so on. In other words, if something is bothering you spiritually, emotionally, or mentally, it is likely to show up in your body. And as you work deeply with your body in yoga, emotional issues will likely come to the fore.
In the yogic view, we all hold within our bodies emotions and misguided thoughts that keep us from reaching samadhi, defined by some as “conscious enlightenment.” Any sense of unease or dis-ease in the body keeps us from reaching and experiencing this state. Asanas are one path to blissful contentment, working to bring us closer by focusing our minds and releasing any emotional or inner tension in our bodies.
Though the ancient yogis understood that emotional turmoil is carried in the mind, the body, and the spirit, Western medicine has been slow to accept this. But new research has verified empirically that mental and emotional condition can affect the state of the physical body, and that the mind-body connection is real. (Newsweek and Time both dedicated issues to the topic last year.)
Many doctors, psychotherapists, and chiropractors are embracing these findings, and are now recommending yoga to help patients deal with problems that only a few years ago would have been viewed and treated solely in biomechanical terms.
Hilary Lindsay recently experienced this firsthand. “I woke up one morning with my body completely distorted,” she remembers. “I went to see a chiropractor, who told me plainly, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you physically.'” The doctor suggested she try a Phoenix Rising session, which she did. The practitioner put Lindsay into some supported yogalike positions on the floor. “He did not focus on anything more than, ‘Here’s this pose and how does it feel?’ I would say something; he would repeat my word and say, ‘What else?’ until I would say there was finally nothing else.” The therapist never analyzed or discussed what Lindsay said, but still, she felt he helped her to see her problem.
“When I drove off on my own, I realized my words had just painted a clear picture of my approach to life,” she says. “I saw a power-driven maniac who was probably in the process of driving herself nuts.”
As the day went on, she felt physically healed, and attributes that to the emotional outcome of the session, which the asanas helped her access. In other words, she was able to release the distortion in her body only by releasing her inner tension.
“I did not have any repeat of the symptoms,” Lindsay adds, “and I felt the calm that comes with knowing yourself a little more than you did before. The awareness does not occur like the lightbulb over the cartoon guy’s head. It doesn’t come ahead of its time. The student has to be ready to receive it.”
Forcing the Issue
Teachers are divided as to whether it’s productive to actually try to raise difficult emotions on the mat. “One shouldn’t really try to have an emotional release during asana, but if it happens, that’s fine,” Harrigan says, voicing what seems to be the majority opinion.
Ana Forrest, founder of the Forrest Yoga Circle studio in Santa Monica, California, is an experienced yoga teacher who has had her own emotional breakthroughs both on and off the mat. She is proud of her intention to push her students toward—and through—their own emotional blockages (see “Poses That Push You,” below). “It’s not that I push with my hands,” Forrest explains. “But when I work with people, I really ask them to go deep, and I educate them along the way. I tell them, ‘You’re going to hit what’s stored in there. Let it come up and be cleansed out of your cell tissue. It’s a gift of the yoga.'”
At the beginning of each class, Forrest asks her students to “pick a spot that needs extra attention, so you can connect to that spot and then feel what emotion is connected to it.” For example, when a student tells Forrest she’s just had her heart broken, Forrest offers this advice: “Challenge yourself to make every pose about moving energy into your heart.”
Her approach has worked well for many students, she says, but it’s not without controversy. “People challenge me on this all the time,” Forrest says.
Richard Miller, Ph.D., a yogi and licensed psychologist, says trying to cause an emotional release is a subtle form of violence, because it suggests that “you need to be other than you are.” A true yogic view focuses not on change, he argues, but on self-acceptance on the student’s part. “In that way, change and spiritual growth will unfold naturally,” he says.
Miller, who is also a contributor to The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy(Paragon, 2003), a collection of essays by meditation practitioners and psychotherapists, stresses that it’s important for teachers to neither comment on nor try to “help” a student through any release. “The moment we become helpers, we become hinderers,” he says.
Forrest, however, believes that “most people need help with this, as our culture doesn’t educate us on how to work in a healthy way with our emotions,” and that without assistance, many people will remain stuck. Students trust her, she says, because of her own traumatic past (which includes sexual abuse, she openly shares) and her experiences working through emotions. “I’ve had years and years of therapy,” she says. “I’ve still got twisty places inside of me, but I know how to accept and work with whatever memories need to come up.”
Forrest tells her students, “I’ve walked the road you’re on; I’m just about 10 miles ahead of you. But I still have a road to walk. I’m not enlightened, but I know what it is to have my spirit directing my actions.”
And it’s not just the student who learns from the teacher. Forrest says that through her students, she has grown from having “an emotional range of about four inches to a larger capacity—but there’s always a lot of room for breakthrough.”
Teardrops on the Mat
When a breakthrough does occur—even if it’s much-needed—it can be hard for a person to cope with it. “If there is a release of emotion in a particular asana, according to Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra[II.46–49], the thing to do is relax into the pose, regulate the breathing, and focus on the infinite to become centered in the deepest aspect of one’s self,” Harrigan advises.
Harrigan thinks teachers should encourage their students to find a comforting and inspiring word or mantra to turn to anytime during class and to correlate with their breathing. “This is a centering device that is always at the student’s disposal, no matter how or when the emotional release occurs,” she says.
“I also recommend that people taking a hatha yoga asana class keep a journal of not just the physical experience but what goes through their minds and their emotional states,” Harrigan adds. “This way, they can consider the spiritual aspect of their lives very consciously.”
When a student is facing a welling-up of emotion, the most powerful action teachers can take is to simply offer him or her quiet support. “I would teach the teacher not to judge the event but to observe it with the discriminate buddhi [wisdom] faculty,” Harrigan says. In this way, teachers can help their students disidentify with the feeling but use it later for self-study, either in yoga class or out—as Danielle Pagano did with her therapist. It is always wise, Harrigan adds, for teachers to be on the lookout for students who might benefit from a referral to a psychotherapist.
It’s important for students to use their buddha minds too, and to get help when they need it. Whereas Lindsay felt released and was easily able to process her feelings on her own, Pagano knew she needed to talk with someone. There are times when a good therapist—as opposed to a good yoga teacher—is the right choice, agree all the teachers interviewed for this article.
Better yet, says Richard Miller, is a combination of the two approaches. “Some therapists don’t have an understanding of the universe as a oneness; instead, they often believe they are helping their clients to have better lives by supporting them in achieving certain goals or resolving specific issues,” he says. “Meanwhile, yoga teachers who speak only of hamstrings or Pigeon Pose are not communicating a true yogic view of enlightenment or inner equanimity.” The truth, Miller concludes, is that “we are not here to try to change ourselves. We are here to meet ourselves where we are.”
Asanas are not prescriptive for emotional issues in the same way they can be for issues in the physical body. But most of the yoga teachers interviewed for this story agree that some poses seem to initiate emotional responses more than others.
“Camel, hip openers, and lunges” Ana Forrest suggests. “Camel because of its immediate impact in exposing the heart, hip openers because they tap into the vital feelings stored in the area, and lunges because there’s a lot of unchanneled potential and power in the thighs.” Twists and backbends can also trigger an emotional release.
However, what works for one person may not work for another. You cannot demand release and expect a response, although you can certainly, as Forrest asks of her students, listen to your body and discover where it needs to untie an emotional knot. If your heart feels heavy, if your stomach is constantly in turmoil, if your inner child needs comforting, you can create an asana and pPranayama program specifically for your condition, the same way you might practice inversions or balancing poses if you want to challenge yourself physically.
As a longtime devotee of both the therapy couch and the yoga mat, I was curious how the two blend together in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy.
Michael Lee created Phoenix Rising specifically to help students cope with emotions. It combines assisted yoga postures, breath awareness, and nondirective dialogue based on the work of Carl Rogers, in which the therapist acts as a sounding board, repeating much of what the student says to allow her to stay with her own train of thought.
Lee drew inspiration from his own encounter with emotions on the mat in the early 1980s. He was living in an ashram where morning practice took place each day at 5:30. “Every day for a year and a half, the guy on the mat next to me would get about one-third of the way through class and begin to sob profusely,” Lee remembers. “Some people found it disturbing. One day, I said to him, ‘What’s going on?'”
“I don’t know,” the man answered. “I just get overwhelmed by sadness. I try to hold back a little so I don’t bother people.” It turns out that he had been experiencing these intense outbursts every morning for 10 years.
“The guru had previously instructed the man to just stay with his practice, because he believed his emotions would work themselves out through asana alone,” Lee recalls. “But even back then, I thought the experience required a more integrated approach.”
Lee talked with the man extensively about his experience and, in helping him, created Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. He launched the program at the DeSisto School for emotionally troubled teens in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1986, building on his background in group dynamics from the psychology movements of the 1970s. (Lee is not a licensed psychotherapist.) Practiced by yoga teachers, bodyworkers, physical therapists, and psychologists, the method aims to bridge the gap between body and mind. Unlike traditional therapy—which might focus on eliminating a phobia or improving a skill, such as communication between spouses—Phoenix Rising sessions focus on helping people recognize their own body’s wisdom and get to the source of emotions that may be causing aches and pains, physical or otherwise.
I wanted to experience the method for myself, so I turned to Carol S. James, one of 1,012 Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioners around the world. We began by talking on a couch, where James asked me about my health, state of mind, and background. After telling her about a few things that were troubling my mind on that particular day, we moved to another area in the softly lit room, where we sat facing each other on a large, puffy mat. James asked me to focus on my breath, which brought me into the moment and allowed me to begin to talk.
Throughout the session, she moved me into very gentle supported poses (backbends, forward bends, and leg stretches), almost the way a personal trainer might stretch a client at the end of a workout. She asked me to tell her more about my thoughts, and repeated many of my words. The session sounded something like this:
“I feel sad that I’m 40 and alone.”
“You’re sad that you’re 40 and alone.”
“It’s surprising. I didn’t expect this to happen.”
“You’re surprised. Tell me more about that.”
And so on, until I found myself leaning back, physically, directly onto Carol and telling her more—a “more” I had never gotten to before.
The experience of physically leaning on someone while revealing myself to the person was one of the most profound I have ever had. During my session, I felt a connection to my deepest self, the self that is at peace. The combination of discussion and touch was sweet and deep.
At the end of the session, my heart was as open with love toward myself as it had ever been. The emotional breakthrough was not traumatic but physically and spiritually enlightening. I hate to glibly paraphrase Bob Dylan, but I truly felt released, and as Richard Miller said, I met myself right where I was, with love.
Donna Raskin is a yoga teacher and writer in Rockport, Massachusetts, and author ofYoga Beats the Blues (Fair Winds, 2003).