De-mystifying the Guru: The Case of John Friend and Anusara Yoga


De-mystifying the Guru: The Case of John Friend and Anusara Yoga

Source: Huffington Post • Lauren Jacobs • February 23, 2012

How many times have we heard the story of the religious or socio-political guru outed for his failings involving sex, money and corruption? The community is shocked. The higher-ups resign. The rest of the members aren’t sure what to do: they either overturn the guru, instituting a democratic decision-making process, or they go down with him. In the case of Anusara Yoga founder John Friend, the jury’s out.

I’m sure the feeling was similar at Kripalu in 1999 when the yoga and wellness center’s guru-teacher-leader, Amrit Desai, was found to be having a number of extra-marital affairs:

Over the course of the next years, the community would go through a complete death and rebirth. Many of the senior members would leave … The entire organization was restructured… But… the guru had to leave, and the idealization had to be irreparably broken.

I am glad for their sake that their community sorted through the issue and came out whole on the other side.

As for John Friend, I’ve read the accusations and it certainly seems that he is a fallible man, and that his situation is very much like that of Desai: he is a man who was supposed to behave with great purity of intention, and did not. The Anusara community is certainly extremely disappointed in and angry with their leader, for good reason.

Alleged special (supposedly ‘Wiccan’) sexual circles with teachers and students, including married individuals whose partners were not aware or had not approved? Frozen pensions with no notice and backdated paperwork to cover it up? Allegations of personal marijuana deliveries received by his assistants all over town? What was he thinking? (As to his response that the freezing of pensions was just a mistake, Friend worked as a financial analyst until he began to teach yoga full time in 1986, so that excuse will not hold.)

Fortunately, the studio where I practice yoga was founded over 40 years ago, before Friend’s method was a twinkle in his own eye. So while it espouses the alignment principals of Anusara yoga, its spiritual practices go far deeper into the lineage of Muktananda and the gurus of India.

Now, who they were sleeping with, I don’t know!

Oh, wait. There it is:

In 1983 William Rodarmor wrote an article… charging that Muktananda had engaged in behavior at odds with his own teachings and with wider societal norms. In 1985, [his disciple] Nityananda stepped down… and started his own organization.”

Unfortunately it seems the ‘guru complex’ is indeed widespread.

It causes one to wonder: Do these leaders misuse their power because they have risen to such great heights that they have lost touch with reality, or have they risen to power because their egos knew no bounds in the first place?

Certainly, one factor in the ‘guru-ization’ of religious leaders, spiritual teachers, politicians, and even therapists who seem to be permitted to act above the rules that govern the rest of us, is that people are so beholden to them than no one will speak out against them. Another factor is that human beings are unfortunately often all too happy to be led into wherever they think they will be safe, loved, and taken care of.

We must be more discerning: It is always important to put our religious and spiritual leaders’ advice and behavior in perspective rather than losing ourselves within it… and to not be surprised when religious leaders are flawed and spiritual teachers are human.

Ideally, those leaders would also take greater responsibility for their behavior and their attitude toward their position of power, becoming more responsible and ethical within it.

I am curious to see what Vira Yoga and other Anusara-affiliated yoga centers will do with this information and its fallout. I suppose that if the teachings can be separated from the man as some have suggested, then the principles of Anusara yoga can still stand even as their articulator steps down (or at least moves slightly out of the picture).

I do have to wonder if most of the high-ranking and very involved teachers didn’t know what was going on, and if they resigned amidst the scandal because they were first learning of Friend’s alleged actions, or because it had suddenly became public knowledge. I suppose I can understand that under certain types of peer pressure, public outcry provides the reason for the exit that has not yet otherwise been made:

“It was my social life, my professional life and my practice life. Resigning felt like I was ripping apart the seams of my identity and yet I didn’t feel like I could…continue to work for change from within [the organization].” – From Christina Sell’s letter to her students as she left Anusara, parting ways with Friend

Most disturbing has been my discovery that there are “high-ranking yoga teachers'” at all! And that Anusara is not only a method for achieving physical alignment or spiritual peace but is actually a company and a brand with by-laws! I would never have thought of it that way, and hearing it described as such was a remedy for my naiveté.

Still, if I understand it correctly, yoga should not be something you ‘join’ or ‘leave.’ It should not be an organization or a company. It should be a seeking of insight, tranquility and inner contentment. So if this whole issue provides any silver lining, perhaps it is simply to remember that.

Art Of Attention: Misconduct In The (Yoga) World


Art Of Attention: Misconduct In The (Yoga) World

Source: Huffington Post • Elna Brower • February 20, 2012

2002. Inner Harmony Retreat, Southern Utah. Forty of us in the room. Amongst us were Desiree Rumbaugh, Deb Neubauer, Noah Maze, Christina Sell, Darren Rhodes, Ross Rayburn, Sianna Sherman, Mitchel Bleier, Todd and Ann Norian, Michelle Synnestvedt, Amy Ippoliti, Sue Elkind, Naime Jezzeny, Anthony Benenati. It was an unforgettable time; John Friend was at his finest, delivering the most crystalline teachings both physically and philosophically. Krishna Das played for our shavasanas, Benjy and Heather Wertheimer played during our classes. We were having consistent, deep experiences of our hearts and felt strong both individually and as a community on that mountaintop. Profoundly inspired, we brought those hours and pages of learnings home to our local communities and, without knowing it at the time, were shifting the landscape of yoga forever. We loved what we were learning, we cared deeply about our work as local teachers, and we respected and loved John.

Since then, John Friend created for himself an interestingly powerful seat, and amidst his stellar teaching, made some unfortunately destructive choices over the years. After his disgruntled I.T. guy recently posted his salacious electronic interactions for all the world to see, everything in the Anusara community began to crumble. Within the context of that disintegration, it’s become apparent that within the community of teachers, there were two discernible camps. As you’ll see, one of the “camps” knew less and were definitely more “in the dark” about the “real” John than others of us. Together, we were a dedicated group of assiduously studious teachers who chose to be there and truly did make an impact in the world of yoga. We received an incredibly rich and precise education, and in the language of the heart, we all found our voices and made real careers out of our work, and that felt so true for a long time.

The Two “Camps” Within Anusara

There were the ones in John’s closer circle who “knew” of his penchant for women, partying and fun; I’m from that camp. None of us were shocked to see that evidence, although admittedly it was disturbingly graphic and veered from embarrassing to awful to deeply sad. I’ll offer some thoughts from that perspective in just a moment.

Then there were the ones who had absolutely no idea about any of it. Those folks are devastated at John’s breach of ethics and morals. To them, this whole situation feels like the earth-shattering discovery of the end of the sky on the Truman show. They’re talking about the failed power grab, the just-plain-icky “sex therapy” that looks eerily like sexual abuse within the context of the student-teacher paradigm, except that the “victim” seems to have been a willing participant. They’re understandably disappointed to hear that he cheated on his girlfriends repeatedly, lied to so many about his dealings and whereabouts as certain relationships ended and others began. For them, this is irreparably difficult, extremely sad, and truly the breakdown of a deeply-set paradigm in their lives both personally and professionally, with potentially far-reaching financial implications.

Even for us, the ones who knew some (but none of us really knew all of it), it felt terrible to see, from both sides: How could he? But then we realized, how could we? We were oftentimes complicit — some of us enabled the liar to lie by lying for him ourselves. There were these strangely uncomfortable, spooky moments in the past few years, to be sure; I was asked to help cover up one big personal lie for John, which ultimately needed to be cleaned up on my end. There was some fairly erratic teaching and seemingly incongruous commentaries as well. Shortly after the time that John unveiled his new philosophical model of “Shiva-Shakti Tantra,” there was also a shift in the business model, it seemed: We were notified that we’d all be obliged to give him first creative say in any products we made going forward and then 10 percent of any revenue we generate from said products. It felt strange; this wasn’t how it was when it began. It felt desperate and wrong.

When we explored the legality of it all, it was clearly flawed and didn’t stand up. And, with all due respect, I never felt connected to the Shiva-Shakti Tantra at all. It felt manufactured to me. I stayed because of the history, the quality of my education, and most of all, my fear about losing my standing in the yoga world. The night I called John to resign, back in October 2011, my first apology was for letting that fear rule my world, for staying for the wrong reasons, when true integrity would have had me leave long before.

John seemed threatened, sad, unsure and at times, unsteady. Several of us tried to talk to him about it, only to be met with denial and even sometimes anger, which in many cases drove us, in our own personal ways, into old patterns of wanting to please our “parents”: backtracking, questioning ourselves, adding to the mounting pile of lies, assuaging him so we could stay in his good graces, feel safe, and keep our lives in order. That part might be the saddest part, and the part about which I’m personally most sorry, this repeating of family patterns in this professional context.

Holding Out For Healing

I love the methodology of Anusara yoga. I’ve spent over a decade learning this graceful technology of the body and articulating the voice of my heart; both understandings are gifts for which I will always be grateful. Even though I resigned my certification those months ago as a means of separating from the aspects for which I don’t stand, now I stand for forgiveness, and the possibility that John can deliver, one by one, the necessary well-wrought apologies. That he can true up his past and truly heal — in honor of his family, his school, his teachers, and his students. May he become an example of burgeoning integrity for all the world to see.

Whether we left for fiduciary reasons, political reasons, or this misconduct; whether we felt constrained by the requirements of class sequence and content requirements or simply didn’t connect authentically to the new philosophy, all of which were true in part for me, the bottom line is that many of the finest teachers in the land have had a hand in this ever-evolving dialogue. There is so much possibility now; all of these well-trained teachers are fully empowered and amongst the best in their craft. We should all be proud of the education we’ve received, and commit to sharing it, collaborating and cultivating more spacious conversation.

A couple of final notes, thank you for reading this far:

YogaDork, with all due respect: That salacious, desperately sensationalized voice with which you wrote the article “breaking” the story about John was not amongst your relevant contributions to the yoga world thus far. It was painful to watch you make light of a man’s life like that, in the name of “news.” I will not be contributing any more to your page until you release a true apology — both to John and to the teachers who’ve spent years learning from him. He is another human being, albeit with some highly questionable choices, but your heartless articulation did nothing but harm your own credibility.

Finally, while this may seem elementary and too-sweet, the four-eyed dweeb in me really wants to share this. A dear friend compared the teachers John has trained to a handful of glitter. Imagine one big breeze, the glitter goes flying far and wide, thereby spreading all of those distinct, sparkling voices everywhere. Superbly trained teachers, these beautiful, fallible, dedicated humans are sharing potent understandings of alignment and attention all over the globe.

Find one, and take some time to study with them.

For more by Elena Brower, click here.


Yoga Expert Bends Giants players


Written just before the Giants won the Superbowl:

Yoga Expert Bends Giants players

Source: New York Post • Jennifer Gould Keil • February 5, 2012

STRIKE A POSE: Giants yoga instructor Gwen Lawrence works with offensive linemen Chris Snee.


She’s got the Giants all tied up in knots — and they’re paying her to do it.

The New York Giants‘ biggest bruisers may have a yoga instructor to thank if they manage to bend the events at Lucas Oil Stadium in their favor Sunday.

Gwen Lawrence, who has been on Big Blue’s payroll since 2004, has been whipping the players into shape for game day by coaxing them into pretzel-like positions, such as downward dog, tree and frog.

“It’s a very demanding form of exercise that includes balance strength, flexibility, mental toughness, focus, and proper breathing,” Lawrence said ahead of Super Bowl XLVI.

Yoga is also a key to preventing injuries and especially to protecting star quarterback Eli Manning on the field, she said.

“Pro athletes of all types see that it will improve their health and longevity on the field of play,” Lawrence said.

She was introduced to the team by gridiron great Frank Gifford after spending years as a personal yoga teacher for his feisty TV star wife, Kathie Lee Gifford, who still calls Lawrence, “a dear friend.”

Lawrence’s yoga classes are mandatory for Giants rookies, and optional for the vets, though many of them go regularly, including Manning, who she calls, “nice, smart, and really flexible.”

In her classes at the Giants’ Meadowlands facility, Lawrence focuses on teaching poses to help players recover after especially hard-hitting games, and offers yoga assignments for the players to take home and practice all week.

She said she adjusts her routines based on the players who show up — an offensive lineman has different needs and a different body type than an acrobatic, agile wide receiver.

Each of Big Blue’s stars have a different favorite pose, Lawrence said.

Antrel Rolle:
Facedown Shoulder Opener: “This pose opens the chest, the front of the deltoids (shoulders) and stretches the biceps,” Lawrence says. “Stretching the shoulders is important for a lot of the players, and this poses works on all the muscles that surround the joint, which will strengthen the joint.”

Ahmad Bradshaw:
Plank pose with wrists turned: Plank pose requires players to point their fingers down to 6 o’clock instead of the usual 12 o’clock to open up the wrists. “This is essential for core strength, and it’s great to help wrists absorb shock, which is important not only for linemen who are pushing, but also for a receiver who’s going to fall hard on his wrists,” she said.

Victor Cruz:
Hero pose with toes tucked under: “Tuck your toes under in heroes pose to stretch the Achilles tendon, calf, and foot,” she said. “This will help build supple, flexible ankles and help prevent foot pain.”

Hakeem Nicks:
Frog pose: “This poses stretches the groin and inner thighs,” Lawrence said. “When I do it with the Giants, it’s a 5-to-10 minute pose. It’s important to remember that your flexibility won’t improve unless you push yourself.”

Eli Manning:
Pigeon pose: The classic hip-opening pose, pigeon pose is a valuable stretch for any exerciser. “Studies show that the more open and flexible the hips are, the less stress you put on the body’s weakest joint — the knee,” Lawrence said.


30 Days of Gratitude – Day 9


30 Days of Gratitude – Day 9

Today I am grateful..:

  1. for the melody of wind and birdsong warming the edges of early morning’s chill.
  2. winter produce and organic grocers. We are so fortunate in California to have such abundant local produce in the winter.
  3. for friendship. This journey would be that much lonelier without bright souls to share it with.
  4. for that silent moment after the breath where thoughts are collected, emotions are processed and tongs can choose to lay still. Ahimsa and Satya.
  5. for my two beautiful calloused bare hobbit feet — they greet the earth daily and demand liberation from shoes.
  6. for the life of Paramahansa Yogananda. What a mark he has left on the planet. Thank you for writing Autobiography of a Yogi for future generations and inspiring the Self Realization Fellowship.
  7. for  grey whales and the wide-open mystery of the deep sea.
  8. for coastal skylines dotted with shore birds in flight. Their graceful ride on the wind’s currents remind me to go with the flow.
  9. for airplanes.  Sustainability conflicts aside, it is simply amazing a traveller can board a for enshrouded plane in San Francisco, CA and less than 24 hours later land in New Deli, India sunshine.
  10. for the visual representation of number 10. We are not alone. 1 = the individual  placed right beside 0. 0 = the cycle of the universe encompassing the whole of creation.

Asteya: The Practice of Non-Stealing


Asteya: The Practice of Non-Stealing
by: Artemisia Shine ♥ January 2011

“You are quaffing drink from a hundred fountains: whenever any of these hundred yields less, your pleasure is diminished. But when the sublime fountain gushes from within you, no longer need you steal from the other fountains.”  ~Jelal ad-Din Rumi


The Yamas and the Niyamas comprise two of the eight limbs of Classical Ashtanga Yoga as first written around 200CE by Patanjali Jois in the Yoga Sutras. Yama is the Sanskrit word for “abstinence” and the five Yamas are a set of external disciplines we can apply in our lives to help align more harmoniously with the Universe. Niyama translates as “observance” and the five Niyamas are a set of internal observances that help us align more fully with our highest Self.

The third Yama is Asteya, or non-stealing. We all can recognize the more palpable forms of theft and can easily refrain from pinching our neighbor’s bicycle seat or taking lunch money from the kid down the street.  It is the more intangible ways we rob from others and ourselves that require active discipline.

Stealing may not crop up in the more obvious forms of shoplifting or credit card fraud but may lurk in the deeper recesses of our minds. Do you secretly long for another’s job, lifestyle, relationship or physical form? These lusts are stealing your happiness and sense of contentment not to mention pilfering the present moment. Look within for riches and find fulfillment in your internal wealth rather than looking beyond yourself for satisfaction. This will moderate excessive desire for objects coveted by the senses — ideas, effects, energetic attention from others, status, power, or recognition. Practice asteya by recognizing the gifts you already possess. As Carl Jung asserts, “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” Cultivate the patience, strength and courage to bring your inner dreams to life!

Do you sometimes wish you had the hamstrings of the girl on the mat next to you when her forehead gently kisses her ankles in Paschimottanasana? Where the mind goes, the attention flows. Practice Asteya in every asana. Focusing on your limitations robs you from reveling in the beauty of the divine manifestation of life that is expressed through your unique form.

Are you regularly behind schedule for appointments or commitments? Do you arrive after class has already started or hold your yoga students for a few extra minutes of savasana?  When we are late we are stealing time from others.  Take a critical look at what is behind this chronic lateness. Could you be clinging to every moment, trying to wring all that you can from life? Are you packing too much into your day? This is a form of hoarding – insatiability collecting stolen moments for the fear of being in lack.  Hoarding is a form of theft. Asteya proscribes respect for the time and energy of others.

Have you taken a look at your ecological footprint lately? Granted we live in an industrialized nation, but do your consumption patterns border on over-indulgence? What is your fair share? Take a moment to bring mindfulness to your next shopping trip, be it at the local grocery store or retail center. Is that purchase extracting clean water, livable wages, health or ecological diversity from another? Can you meet your needs without deleteriously impacting the needs of others?

There is no need to steal.  Trust that all you truly need is present in the universe and available to you.  It is written in Yoga Sutra 2.37 “When one is established in refrainment from stealing, all jewels manifest.”

~ Artemisia Shine

Neuroscience, Hatha Yoga and Creativity: A New Paradigm for Teaching


Neuroscience, Hatha Yoga and Creativity: A New Paradigm for Teaching

Source: Yoga Chicago Magazine • Michael McColly •January 2010

The Brain–is wider than the Sky —
For–put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease–and You–beside —
~ Emily Dickenson

Advances in imaging technology, neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and a host of converging fields have brought us to the brink of unlocking the biological basis of consciousness itself. Neuroscience is discovering that the brain is an evolving organ that matures as we respond to our environment, our genes, and our physical, emotional and mental experiences. Scientists have learned that patients with brain injury or sensory impairment can recover brain function with sustained retraining regimens, facilitating the brain’s natural capacity to adapt and compensate–not only creating neural pathways that circumvent damaged areas of the brain, but also triggering the growth of new neurons. In other words, the brain, when confronted with challenge, becomes creative.

Sustained mind/body disciplines such as Hatha yoga, Buddhist mindfulness practices, and contemplative prayer focus and entrain the mind in ways that are helpful in cultivating this natural plasticity in the brain. As a result of this increasingly clear link between the benefits of mind/body practices and recent discoveries in neuroscience, many psychiatrists, psychologists, and educators are studying the applications of meditative practices in classrooms, therapy, and correctional institutions. Some of the key parallels that mind/body disciplines share with these recent discoveries in neuroscience include the concepts of awareness, focus, imagination, and empathy. This article will explore each of these concepts with regard to their relationship to corresponding discoveries in neuroscience and their application through mind/body practices.

Attitude, agency, and information

Attitude is everything. Framing the mind with a positive intention and staying focused are not just clichés you hear in sports advertisements; they’re how the brain works most effectively. For instance, Richard Nesbitt, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, gave an experimental group of middle school students a special tutorial on how their brains worked, reinforcing the basic idea that it was their own work habits and ability to learn–not their family income or parents’ educational background–that determined their academic success. Testing showed that the students given the tutorial not only outperformed other students in their school, but also exceeded national averages for their age.

Daniel Siegel, interpersonal neurobiologist and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is exploring the same basic techniques used on the middle school students, but instead with psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and their patients. Siegel advises therapists to use actual models of the brain in therapy sessions to help patients visualize and understand what is happening in their brains when they are depressed or emotionally troubled. Patients are relieved to know that their frustrations are a brain processing problem rather than a lack of will or emotional strength. Afterwards, the therapist teaches patients an easy mindfulness exercise to calm them down when these frustrations and emotions emerge. Educating people on how their brain works and offering them tools to change attitudes make a difference. Why? Because those people are then actively and consciously involved in changing the wiring of neural pathways in their brains.

The phenomenon is similar in mind/body practices such as Hatha yoga. The framing and focusing of the mind begin with calming the mind. Patanjali begins the Yoga Sutras with the famous basic premise to guide the yogi: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuating patterns of the mind.” In Hatha yoga and Buddhist meditation practices, the practitioner first learns to observe the mind as it cycles through patterns of thought and emotions. When the waves of thought begin to subside, a positive intention is then introduced. I always begin my yoga classes with breathing exercises and a short mediation; but before I do, I ask students to think of an intention for their practice. This ritual of quieting the mind and then framing it helps students to focus and engage emotionally. Throughout their practice I ask the students to consider this intention–reminding them that the poses they are practicing are strengthening and challenging not just their bodies, but their nervous systems and brains as well.

Awareness and perception

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, is also interested in how meditation affects brain function. He wired several Tibetan monks and novice practitioners to compare the activity within their brains as they meditated. What he discovered was that the monks could reach unprecedented low levels of brain activity (i.e., quieting the mind), and meditation enabled their brains to synchronize brain waves so as to attain efficient and balanced states from which to integrate information.

What the monks revealed so beautifully was the limitless potential we have to train the mind to affect states of consciousness and well-being. But their skill came from a long series of learning experiences in which interconnecting groups of neurons were forged as newly formed neural pathways were used over and over again. The first step in this process, which occurs through the development of a meditative practice, is to actually calm the mind in order to focus. Once the mind is calm, the real work of meditation begins, as practitioners begin to first observe and then feel what it means to influence their own thoughts.

When we are focused, we enable the brain to carry out its primary function: to process or integrate information into the various centers in the brain necessary in order to learn. The stronger the signals, the stronger the memory for the next time we practice. Awareness is registered in both the conscious and unconscious mind. As we practice yoga, we begin to cultivate deeper and deeper levels of sense perception.

World-renowned yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar speaks of involution when he describes the learning process of yoga; in other words, we develop our practice by working from the outside of the body, learning from our five senses (particularly touch and balance) and progressively moving deeper into muscles, organs, and energy centers in the core of our body. When we practice, we use several layers of perception: the exteroceptors (the five senses and balance), the interoceptors (the feeling of the organs as they function), and proprioceptors, which regulate effort and the feeling of muscles and joints as we move or hold a pose. Perception is a feedback mechanism–the brain processes each experience to create more elaborate sets of maps in the brain. It is important, then, in a yoga class to remind people that what they are learning is not just how to perform a pose, but how to feel it.

This same process occurs in meditation. As we sit, we are not only psychologically challenged as we observe countless patterns of repetitive thoughts and emotions, but also learning to pay close attention to sensations coming from the body. In particular, when we are first learning, we are focusing on the feeling of our lungs and the muscles associated with breath. But as we develop the skill and stamina to sit for longer periods, we can begin to notice our awareness dropping from the buzzing in the mind downward to the core and energy centers of the body. The frequent practice of meditation allows practitioners to repeat this process with greater speed and efficacy as they progress, as Davidson’s monks demonstrated.

Imagination, visualization, and metaphor

As a writer and teacher of writing, I’ve found that one of the most compelling findings of neuroscience has been in the area of imagination and language. I’ve long suspected that the creative work of an artist provides pleasure in a profound way, not only because it simply inspires us emotionally and intellectually, but also because the work engages our imaginations deep within the unconscious. And this is exactly the case, as many brain researchers are discovering. Imagery and metaphors trigger a complex process in the brain as memory, emotion, cognition, and the imagination collectively recreate what we read from our own experience. When readers remark that they were so involved with a book that it felt as if the events described were happening to them, they may be surprised to know that, according to their minds, it actually did happen to them. They must work to translate what they read into some semblance of it with their own mind. Artful expressions and imagery not only prime and expand the imagination, they also demand that we become artists ourselves as we appreciate and process what artists present to us.

Imagination has become one of the areas I have begun to explore in my practice and teaching. I have often employed metaphors referring to nature such as flowering and rooting to help guide me in a pose. Boulder, Colorado-based Richard Freeman, one of America’s most respected scholars and teacher of yoga, often uses “flowering,” “rooting,” and other metaphors of classic poetry that refer to nature. But, as I’ve come to understand, metaphors aren’t just pleasing figurative language; they are like mandalas, or symbols, that engage the imagination in order to entrain the mind and cultivate deeper states of awareness. By telling students to imagine the bottoms of their feet spreading and setting down roots into the earth in the mountain pose, the teacher encourages the students to direct their focus to their feet; the students, through this focus, will feel the sensations more intensely within their feet and thus develop a deeper sense of balance.

Empathy and mirror neurons

Finally, one of the more fascinating discoveries over the past few years is the neurobiological explanation for how we are affected by the movement and sensations of other bodies around us. Have you ever wondered how a flock of birds instantaneously sets off in flight because of one bird’s response to a predator? Or why we unconsciously yawn or smile when we witness someone else doing the same? Italian neuroscientists Rizzolati Giacomo and Vittorio Gallese have found that animals and humans are equipped with an adaptive mechanism in their nervous system called mirror neurons. They wired macaque monkeys and watched where neurons fired in their brains when they engaged in complex motor movements such as reaching for food, pulling a lever, pushing a door. What was incredible to the scientists was that these same neurons fired precisely in the same areas of the brain when these monkeys watched other monkeys perform the same actions. Mirror neurons are triggered in the body unconsciously as we perceive not only the actions of others but also their facial gestures and emotions.

Students in a yoga class attune to one another’s focus and physical awareness, thereby heightening the therapeutic effect for everyone in the class. This phenomenon occurs in a variety of group interactions where there is a collective focus on a goal or shared purpose. As social animals, we have evolved to be highly sensitive to the needs and emotions of others in our group. Researchers are beginning to understand the profound capabilities we have to feel empathy and how important interpersonal skills are to our health and survival.

In his studies of interpersonal neurobiology, Daniel Siegel recognizes that humans often cannot access deep emotional patterns alone but require the presence of another witnessing and actively feeling the emotion along with them. He trains therapists to develop a keen awareness of both the body of their patient as well as their own body as they listen and offer feedback. Siegel believes that therapeutic skill is both a verbal and nonverbal art. By teaching therapists to use mindfulness and breathing techniques, Siegel hopes therapists can in turn help patients to trust their own bodily sensations as they relate narratives or speak about difficult emotional issues in their lives.

It’s not surprising that we are seeing a renewed interest in the benefits of mindfulness, yoga, and other practices that involve integrating the mind and body. Our times are fraught with anxieties that we feel we have little control over, be they the world economy, war and terrorism, global warming, or the fecklessness of government. The scientific exploration into the mysteries of how the brain functions comes at a crucial time. We cannot continue to act as if our brains and bodies can increasingly absorb or process empty bits of information without thinking they have an effect on our health or that of the earth. Mind/body practices are real pragmatic applications for cultivating the potential of all of the body’s many forms of intelligence. The excitement of these new scientific discoveries, however, will mean little if the billions of dollars given to research institutes do not translate into the ability for people to learn how to cultivate the wisdom they already possess. It is my hope that, together, these ancient and modern systems of knowledge can learn from each other to help us all unlock the potentials of the human mind.


Michael McColly teaches creative writing at Northwestern and Columbia Universities. He offers workshops and teaches at Yoga Now. You can read more about his work on his blog: His last book, The After-Death Room: Journey Into Spiritual Activism , chronicled his reporting and reflections on the creative and compassionate work being done by people working at the epicenters of the AIDS pandemic in Asia, Africa, and  in Chicago.

B.K.S. Iyengar celebrates his 93rd birthday


B.K.S. Iyengar celebrates his 93rd birthday

Photo: Courtesy IYNAUS


Source: Las Vegas Yoga Examiner • DK Howe • December 14, 2011

In 1934, when the famed yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar was 14 years old, he moved in with his sister and her husband Sri. T. Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India, and soon thereafter began his studies in yoga asana with his brother-in-law, a yoga teacher and revered scholar of philosophy and Sanskrit. Four years later, at age 18, Krishnamacharya dispatched him to Pune, India, to help spread the teachings of yoga. To this day, which just happens to be Mr. Iyengar’s 93rd birthday, he is still instructing students in the art of yogasana.  He has been teaching for 75 years and is, without a doubt, the most respected living yoga master.

Mr. Iyengar is a recognizable man.  His eyebrows are bushier and wilder than Andy Rooney’s and his white and gray hair is combed back off his forehead and cascades softly to his shoulders. His chest is large and open and his shoulders fall comfortably back, further than imaginable. His hands are graceful and his fingers are long. In his ninth decade, he walks straight and tall.

Mr. Iyengar is known for the precise instructions he belts out when he teaches.  He has students hold poses for minutes while he tells them how to place their toes, their heels, their shins, their knees, their skin…every inch of their body.

Mr. Iyengar’s way of teaching is just the opposite of how he was taught. Krishnamacharya may have been a scholar, but he left his students to figure out on their own how to accomplish poses. When the young Mr. Iyengar asked his guru for help, he was told, “Rectify it yourself.”  “It took me a long time to correct it,” said Mr. Iyengar who in his youth spent hours each day navigating his way through the poses he had been assigned.

As much as Mr. Iyengar is known for his lessons in precise alignment that open and move energy through every cell in the body and mind, he is infamous for his harsh temper.  Fire and fiery are words often used to describe the manner in which he teaches.  Do a pose wrong and the volcano will erupt.  In his latest book Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom (Rodale; 2005), Mr. Iyengar defends his volatile actions. “I am strict but I am not harsh.  I use my anger to free a student from his pattern.”  He told a room filled with Iyengar students at the Iyengar Intensive at Estes Park presented by Yoga Journal, “I lose my temper when people do wrong in order to see that they don’t waste their time.”

“He [has been] an intense and fiery individual his whole life,” Manouso Manos, one of only two Advanced Senior Iyengar teachers, told last year. Manos met Mr. Iyengar when the teacher was in his 50s. “He was…a ball of fire then, as he is still today…”

“I have never met anyone more intensely fiery than Mr. Iyengar,” states senior Iyengar teacher John Friend in Kofi Busia’s book Iyengar: The Yoga Master (Shambala; 2007). “When instructing students to give their full effort in a pose, his eyes often spark and his words are hot like lightning.”

But Mr. Iyengar loves his students.  You can see it in his eyes and hear it in his breathy hardy-har-har laugh.  “My attachment to my students is so much,” said Mr. Iyengar at Estes Park.

Mr. Iyengar is also known for his use of props.  He uses blocks, belts, ropes, bolsters, blankets, chairs and benches to help the body open into areas that are blocked.  When going into paschimottanasana, a belt strapped around a students thighs prevents their legs from falling out of alignment and a backbend done over a chair while holding onto a strap with the arms extended overhead opens the chest and shoulders in a way a person couldn’t do without assistance. Mr. Iyengar tells students the props are their gurus.

Iyengar has been criticized by some for being too physical, more concerned with asana and alignment than with the spiritual.  But Iyengar was a sickly child who suffered with malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis and he used yogasana to build his body.  It was only after he gained his strength that yoga became a spiritual quest. It is Mr. Iyengar’s belief that one cannot meditate or achieve greater heights in yoga until the body is made strong. “Technically speaking, true meditation in the yogic sense cannot be done by a person who is under stress or who has a weak body, weak lungs, hard muscles, collapsed spine, fluctuating mind, mental agitation, or timidity,” states Iyengar.

At the ripe age of 93—an age that finds most Americans in wheelchairs or slowly ambulating with the support of a walker—Mr. Iyengar travels less than he used to. His last, and probably final, visit to the U.S. was in 2005 for a five-city tour to promote Light on Life and to teach at the Estes Park Intensive. (His first visit to the U.S. was in 1954.) But he still teaches at his Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, albeit it’s usually from the sidelines.

“He still teaches every Wednesday and every Saturday.  He’s conducting the women’s class,” said Manos.  It’s been called ladies’ class or women’s class for decades. It was that way when I first got to India in ’77. He is conducting. Although he’s not standing in front of the class shouting out instructions like he did years ago, he’s in his own practice, he’s doing asana and describing to the students in the class what they should be doing and it’s brilliant.  It is still with the same kind of intensity and layering of instruction that I’ve seen him do for nearly 40 years now.”

Tonight, according to the Daily News & Analysis, Mr. Iyengar will address his students at RIMYI between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m.  Unfortunately, the man who was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2004, hasn’t caught up technologically with the rest of the world, as has the Dalai Lama, and there will be no live broadcast available on the internet.  Only those fortunate enough to be in attendance in Pune will be able to hear the magical words he has to impart.

Yoga’s Stress Relief: An Aid for Infertility?


Yoga’s Stress Relief: An Aid for Infertility?

Source: The New York Times • Catherine Saint Louis • February 4, 2011
Tracy Toon Spencer teaches yoga to Jessica Tabibnia, left, and Kimberly Soranno, at the N.Y.U. Fertility Center.

KIMBERLY SORANNO, a 39-year-old Brooklynite undergoing an in vitro fertilization cycle as part of her quest to become pregnant, had gone to her share of yoga classes, but never one like that held on a recent Tuesday night in a reception area of the New York University Fertility Center. There were no deep twists or headstands; just easy “restorative” poses as the teacher, Tracy Toon Spencer, guided the participants — most of them women struggling to conceive — to let go of their worries.

“Verbally, she brings you to a relaxation place in your mind,” Mrs. Soranno said, adding, “It’s great to do the poses, get energy out and feel strong. But the most important part for me was the connection to the other women.”

Besides taxing the mind, body and wallet, infertility can be lonely. Support groups have long existed for infertile couples, but in recent years, “yoga for fertility” classes have become increasingly popular. They are the latest in a succession of holistic approaches to fertility treatment that have included acupuncture and mind-body programs (whose effectiveness for infertility patients is backed by research); massage (which doesn’t have specific data to support it); and Chinese herbs (which some say may be detrimental).

No study has proved that yoga has increased pregnancy rates in infertility patients. But students of yoga-for-fertility classes say that the coping skills they learn help reduce stress on and off the mat. For many, it’s a support group in motion (or lotus).

“As important as the yoga postures was the idea that women could come out of the closet with their infertility and be supported in a group,” said Tami Quinn, the founder, with Beth Heller, of Pulling Down the Moon, a company with holistic fertility centers in Chicago and the Washington area. “If you say come to my support group, women going through infertility are like, ‘I don’t need some hokey support group’ or ‘I’m not that bad.’ But with yoga they are getting support and they don’t even realize it.”

Holly Dougherty, 42, didn’t want to talk about her drug-infused slog through fertility treatment that began seven years ago. “I didn’t tell anyone,” said Ms. Dougherty, with the exception of her parents.

This changed after she started going to yoga-for-fertility classes taught by Ms. Spencer at World Yoga Center in Manhattan in 2005. The gentle poses helped take her mind off her setbacks, and each week, she found the community that she hadn’t realized she needed.

“Being able to open up in a safe environment with support and encouragement of others on the journey, everyone became each other’s cheerleader,” said Ms. Dougherty, now a mother of two who still socializes with students from Ms. Spencer’s class. “I learned to become so open about it.”

SMOKING, alcohol, caffeine and some medications can hurt fertility, as can being overweight or underweight, said Dr. William Schoolcraft, a medical director of theColorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, whose main branch is in Lone Tree. As for improving one’s chances with massage, diet or yoga? “That’s where the data gets murkier,” he said.

“We will never promise that you will get pregnant by doing yoga,” Ms. Quinn said. “We can tell you many women who have done yoga have gotten pregnant. But there’s no clinical data supporting the fact that yoga increases conception rates. The last thing we would want to do is give false hope.”

Stress, however, has been shown to reduce the probability of conception. Alice Domar, who has a Ph.D. in health psychology and is the director of mind-body services at the Harvard-affiliated center Boston IVF, said of yoga: “It’s a very effective relaxation technique, and a great way to get women in the door to get support. It’s a way to get them to like their bodies again.”

A handful of prominent medical centers have partnered with yoga teachers to offer classes. Pulling Down the Moon now holds its $210 six-week Yoga for Fertility programs at Fertility Centers of Illinois in Chicago (since 2002), and Shady Grove Fertility in the Washington area (since 2008.)

Recently, Dr. Domar, a psychologist whose research has shown that participation in a mind-body program can positively affect fertility, joined with Ms. Quinn and Ms. Heller to take wellness programs, including yoga and acupuncture, to infertility clinics nationwide. They have formed a new company, Integrative Care for Fertility: A Domar Center, and plan to open seven branches this year.

In 2009, the New York University Fertility Center in Manhattan brought in two yoga instructors to help patients. “We really do push it,” Dr. Frederick Licciardi, a founding partner of the center, said of its wellness programs that include mind-body work and acupuncture along with yoga. “We put it up front. We know they are doing it anyway. We want to show we are supportive that they are doing it.”

Some infertility clinics advise patients not to do vigorous exercise like running for fear of twisting their drug-stimulated enlarged ovaries. (This excruciating condition, called torsion, is rare, but surgery is often required if it happens with the possibility of losing the ovary, said Dr. Brian Kaplan, a partner at the Fertility Centers of Illinois, who advises his patients to limit exercise while taking stimulating drugs.)

But Dr. Domar, the executive director of a namesake center for mind-body health in Waltham, Mass., has found that some women are loath to give up their daily anxiety-relieving run during infertility treatments, or are “freaked out about gaining weight on fertility drugs.” In some cases, yoga is her bargaining chip. She tells those patients, “you can do hatha yoga and stay fit and toned, and give up your run.”

Ms. Spencer explained in an e-mail that for many patients, “There is a feeling of walking on eggshells and also that one false move may throw off the chances of success.” A class like hers lets them move and blow off steam, students said. “It’s like a can of worms,” she said in an interview. “You can’t stop women from talking to one another.”

But the relief can be quiet as well. Elaine Keating-Brown, 38, an elementary-school teacher in Manhattan who is in her last trimester after in vitro fertilization, found the yoga classes she took with Laura O’Brien, then at N.Y.U., helped her silence a tireless negative voice in her head. Her fertility-related worries felt endless, from “What happens if it doesn’t work?” to “financially, it’s not exactly cheap,” Mrs. Keating-Brown said.

But “once you’re in the yoga room, you haven’t got all that anymore,” she said, “you’re concentrating on you, and put those thoughts aside, put your body in a good place, and come out of class feeling a real feeling of relaxation and it’s going to be O.K. If it isn’t, it isn’t.”

Lori, a 32-year-old management consultant who asked that only her first name be used for privacy, lived with “the chatter in the back of her mind” so constantly after losing twins and suffering two miscarriages that she named that voice Constance in a yoga class she took at Pulling Down the Moon. After learning meditation techniques in class, Lori, the mother of a newborn, said she could observe, but not succumb to her negative thoughts. “I’m aware I feel that way,” she can tell herself when an anxious thought surfaces, “but I’m not going to let it overwhelm me right now.”

Ms. O’Brien summed up the infertility roller coaster this way: “You have to get screened all the time. You have to take certain drugs. You’re at the mercy of everyone telling you what to do and when to do it.” Now teaching $72 four-week fertility and flexibility workshops at Devotion Yoga in Hoboken, N.J., Ms. O’Brien added that loss of control is challenging, “especially for people in this part of the country, if they have a goal and work hard, they get it.”

“This throws that whole mentality out of whack,” she said. But yoga, she contended, helps type-A’s to learn that “you cannot control what’s happening to your body, but you can control how you feel about it.”

In 1998, when Brenda Strong first starting teaching fertility-focused yoga at the Mind Body Institute in Southern California, she said, “people were so ashamed and so isolated because no one else was talking about it.” In her classes, she facilitates conversation among yogis. “In yoga, suffering is caused by attachment to a result or by resistance,” said Ms. Strong, the actress who is the narrator on “Desperate Housewives” and herself has struggled with infertility. “There’s nothing that brings up these two things more: you’re attached to wanting to get pregnant and you’re resistant to the fact that you can’t.”

Medical acceptance of yoga as a stress reliever for infertility patients is slowly growing. In 1990, when Dr. Domar first published research advocating a role for stress reduction in infertility treatment, “I wasn’t just laughed at by physicians,” she said. “I was laughed at by Resolve, the national infertility organization. They all said I was perpetuating a myth of ‘Just relax, and you’ll get pregnant.’ ” At the last meeting for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Dr. Domar, now on the national board of Resolve, gave multiple talks, including one about how to help the mind and body work together in infertile couples.

On March 17, Resolve will host a tele-seminar on “Yoga for Fertility” led by Jill Petigara, who teaches in the Philadelphia area. “A lot of people want to boil it down to ‘If you relax, it will happen,’ ” Ms. Petigara, a former in vitro fertilization patient who adopted a son, wrote in an e-mail. “I absolutely feel that yoga can have a very positive impact on infertility, but infertility is a lot more than ‘just relaxing.’ ”

Yoga Gets into Med School


Yoga Gets into Med School

Students learn to relax patients, and themselves

Source: BU Today • Leslie Friday 12.08.2011
BU medical students hold a position called downward dog. Photos by Vernon Doucette


Emily Holick thought yoga was for sissies. But as a graduate student hoping to reduce stress, she gave it a try. And hated it. What irked the former college tennis player most was her inability to do a move that everyone else had perfected—the wheel, a complex pose that contorts the body into an upside down bridge. Holick says it was only her competitive spirit that kept her going.

Four years later, Holick (MED’14) believes that yoga has transformed her life. Although her first year of medical school was brutal, leaving her depressed and questioning whether she wanted to be a doctor, her yoga practice helped her cope. Then a curious string of events pulled her out of the abyss.

Holick took a healing arts class with Robert Saper, a School of Medicine associate professor of family medicine and director of integrative medicine, known for his research involving yoga and lower back pain relief. He recommended that she meet Heather Mason, a yoga therapist and trainer interested in creating a class for medical students, an idea Holick had toyed with herself.

“We met in a coffee shop in Cambridge and started dreaming,” Holick says. “It was amazing to meet someone who independently said this is something that medical students need.”

That java-infused dream has become a reality since, as Mason, Holick, and a team of medical students lobbied for its creation. Starting spring semester, MED will offer an elective called Embodied Health: Mind-Body Approaches to Well-Being. Mason will lead a weekly hour-long yoga session, followed by a half hour discussion of the practice’s medical benefits. The class will also be part of a research study led by Saper, Mason, and Allison Bond (MED’14) that will attempt to document changes in the students’ mental health. A pilot of the elective, called MED Yoga, or Mind-Body Education and Development Yoga, ran this semester, quickly attracting a following of 30-plus students.

While yoga sessions for med students are not unique (the University of Connecticut Medical Center and Georgetown Medical School both offer them), teaching students about yoga’s physiological and neurological effects is. Saper, who will be one of several guest speakers addressing issues from positive thinking to the neurobiology of stress over the 11 weeks of class, says the class “targets the unique challenges and stressors medical students face as well as offers a fairly advanced level of intellectual content appropriate for the medical students.”

And there are stressors: according to a 2009 study in Academic Medicine, nearly 25 percent of medical school students will be depressed at some point during their education. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2010 showing that the empathy medical students feel decreases as they progress through their four years.

Yoga therapist Heather Mason leads a breathing exercise before a yoga session designed for medical students at the School of Medicine.


Mason believes that yoga can be a powerful antidote. On a recent Wednesday late afternoon, she tinkered with speakers that send a low chime through the airy space of the MED student lounge where the class was meeting. While she adjusted the sound, nearly three dozen students unfurled yoga mats toward a bank of windows facing the setting sun. Some had come directly from cramming at the library for a pulmonology exam the next day.

Mason, a petite 35-year-old brunette, spent three years in Southeast Asian monasteries as an out-of-the box method of battling chronic depression. That experience led her to earn master’s degrees in Buddhist studies and psychotherapy, and another now in progress in neuroscience.

The New York native paces methodically as she leads the class into a rhythmic ujjayi breath, a diaphragmatic breathing technique. “The chime is like an anchor bringing you back to the breath,” she says. “Inhale, lift, and open your heart center.”

Some students stumble from move to move; others slide into position as if into a second skin, eyes forward, bodies steady. After an hour, Mason directs them to close their eyes, lie down, and relax. Their limp bodies rest on a rainbow of yoga mats.

Mason asks them to count their breaths per minute. She knows that the ideal count of five or six has been shown to increase heart rate variability, which can ameliorate problems like depression, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cardiac disease.

Breaths counted, Mason segues from the practice of yoga to a short dissertation on the neuroscience of yoga, something that has been studied by Chris Streeter, a MED associate professor of psychiatry and neurology. In one study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Streeter used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to explain why yoga practitioners report a greater improvement in mood and a decrease in anxiety than people who simply walked for relaxation. Streeter found that the yoga group had higher levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA, the likely cause of positive mood changes.

Mason explains to the class how the ujjayi breath and the chiming work together, medically, to bring about a healthful biological balance of breath, heartbeat, and other functions. When the lecture ends, Mason bows, and thanks her class with a namaste, a customary gesture on parting.

Mason says the first goal of MED Yoga was to let doctors know how yoga could help their patients, but then she realized how it could help the doctors themselves.

That message resonates with Holick, who says she is no longer depressed and has renewed faith in her career choice. The past year has “made me realize that I can make medicine my own thing,” she says. “It’s an amazing profession that I really can help people in. Sometimes I really lose sight of these bigger things.”

Satya: The Art of Truth


Satya: The Art of Truth
by: Artemisia Shine ♥ November 2011

“I AM IGNORANT of absolute truth. But I am humble before my ignorance and therein lies my honor and my reward.”  – Khalil Gibran


The Yamas and the Niyamas comprise two of the eight limbs of Classical Ashtanga Yoga as first written around 200CE by Patanjali Jois in the Yoga Sutras. Yama is the Sanskrit word for “abstinence” and the five Yamas are a set of external disciplines we can apply in our lives to help align more harmoniously with the Universe. Niyama translates as “observance” and the five Niyamas are a set of internal observances that help us align more fully with our highest Self.

The second Yama is Satya. Sat is the sansrit root word for “being” or “existence.”   Satya is the observance of truthfulness – with ourselves, with others, in our thoughts, words and actions.  To practice Satya is to place oneself in alignment with reality as it truly is, beyond the illusions of our ego-mind, desires, biases and false perceptions.

Satya is a practice of speaking the truth and abstaining from non-truths.  Non-truths encompass slanderous comments, gossip, and malicious thoughts or actions. When we act in ways untruthful, we are shrouding our divine nature.  When a friend acts in a way you don’t enjoy do you flippantly claim, “I don’t care. It’s cool.”  Do you play strong, cool and detached while harboring resentment for quite some time? When a baby is upset, it shares an instant and honest reaction and then moves on.  We could learn much about Satya by observing an infant.

Satya challenges us to seek out the essential truth of our being-ness; to reveal the essence of who we really are.  Who are you when you cease identifying with titles that only exist in the physical world? Who are you when you dispense of thoughts such as “I am a student, a single mother, a teacher, a farmer, a wildlife biologist, a child?” Who is left when you are no longer  “skilled” in one arena or “not good enough” in another?  We are each radiant expressions of the divine, the central luminous essence that is the inner-connected fabric of life. Our consciousness is way beyond our physical forms. Unhappiness comes from forgetting this fact.

Are you living in alignment with your true spiritual nature? Satya calls us to evolve our actions to bring us into harmony with our fundamental Self. Do you allow time to silence the mind and uncover your unique path of growth? Although this honest observation cause discomfort, when we practice Satya we see through “strengths” and “limitations” as simply what is, free from judgment.

When you are on the mat do you force yourself beyond the limits of your body? Does your ego throw a party when you’re in the “perfect pigeon pose?”  Albert Einstein once said, “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” Our yoga practice serves as an opportunity to honestly dive within.

– Artemisia Shine