collegeville yoga

Asana: psalm of the flesh

"Enter eagerly into the treasure house that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure house of heaven...The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you."  sixth century Christian mystic St. Issac the Syrian

handsI'm faced with this problem:

I teach, mostly, asana.

I tell people the asana don't really matter; yoga begins with a desire to wake up, with ethics and personal observance, with self study and commitment.

And I tell them the way is through asana.

You see the problem.  I'm contradicting myself.

We all walk into yoga knowing it has to do with postures.  A few of us figure out, along the way, that yoga has nothing to do with postures.  If we've made the commitment to a regular practice, if we keep knocking on that door of the body, if we practice when we are tired and when we've not slept well and when we don't want to, practice when we're too busy and when we're happy enough without it, eventually we feel joy come to answer the knocking.  Joy erupts as deeply as an orgasm and as incorrigibly as age.  Grace only ever happens in real time.

But those things - ethics, commitment, self study - remain abstract for most humans.  Asana offer a discipline, an opportunity, a path. Maybe a ladder.  They give a way in to meditation, to healing, and to the present moment.  Most of us wouldn't have the guts or the time to get there on our own.  Asana is the teacher, is the commitment.  Asana is the guru.

We show up and are prodded into the present moment.

The body lives in the present.  When you are aware of the body, you are connected.  To what I won't bother to say.  Maybe the global throb of life.  The on-goingness of it.  The truth of dailyness.  Eternity.  God.  An underlying okayness. The realization of how small and irreal your hang-ups are, considering reality.  How big they are, as hang-ups.  The present, via the body moving and the mind watching, will reveal the stories you tell yourself day in and day out.  If you manage to trace edges with your breath and your toes, the present will prove to you that these stories are untruths.  Half truths at best.  Signals of compromise.  Misunderstandings. vaparita dwi pada dandasana

The present, via the body, is the one place from which you can see reality.  Awareness of the body is our gateway into the truth of what is.

Pema Chodon writes "To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.  To live fully is to be always in no-man's land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.  To live is to be willing to die, over and over again."

Asana throw us directly into no-man's land.

I think that is where we need to be.

***

The simplest explanation for why, in the eight limbed path, there are asana is this: if you want to reach the inner self, you have to go through the self.  It is hard to feel alive, let alone awake, if you are stuck in a body that is unwell.  If you want to go the depths of who you are and what you are capable of, it helps if your most immediate and constant tool - ie flesh and blood - become resource rather than hindrance.

It is hard to find reality if you are unaware of your own heartbeat.

So the body itself becomes an object for meditation.  The body itself is medicinal, therapeutic.  Asana provide a genuine high and a refuge.  Asana gives us a place to go.  It lays out pathways and intricacies of mastery and skill.  They strengthen and sooth, open and release.

ardha padma uttanasanaBut there is something more than the simple explanations.

If we can manage to show up in the body, to drop in, we experience.  We feel something.  Something is known that wasn't known before.

Because it is body - or whatever it is that is real inside and outside the body -  it is not a thing of the mind.  Language can only approximate it.  Like love, asana is a thing that has to be experienced, rather than talked about.  Also like love, asana is expressed in metaphor and poetry.  It involves ecstatic release, profound rest, changed brainwaves.  Like love, the entirety of the experience can never be understood from the outside.

But we've touched something.  It's eerie at times.  The fact that there is something there.  To reality.  To body.  This isn't necessarily what we came looking for.

***

A deeper understanding reveals itself.  Our brain is everywhere the nerves go.  Heart is everywhere the blood is.  The practice of asana teaches fairly quickly that our bodies are much more complex, or perhaps more stiff, than we'd known.  What we took for granted, as reality, as limitation, proves to be conditioning or simply a  process we haven't completed, yet.  It also teaches, in little shivers of recognition, that we can know our bodies more profoundly.  Where body is, mind and heart and emotion can go.  Meditation and awareness can go deeper.  What was unconscious in us is brought closer.

If the simple reason for asana is clarification and refinement of the body, the more complex reason is the fact that bodies are our most direct route to reality and its depths.  Deep involvement and attention to asana brings us directly to (perhaps, perhaps...through...) mind and it's shadows.  You can't work physical patterns very long without banging smack up against psychological patterns.  namaste

You cannot practice asana for long without having to acknowledge that even mind and emotion, urge and insight, knowledge and clarity, are more profound and shadowy than you thought.  In the deep silence underlying your breath, you'll recognize you're facing a door.  To enter possibility, to to turn away.  The pose begins exactly as you most want to leave it.

***

Psalms, songs, beatitudes, and prayer are all words that come to mind when I try to write about asana.  There seems to be no more literal way to commune than to examine what it is we do with our hands, or to open our heart.  To touch gratitude, acceptance, dedication.  It is one thing to understand such concepts.  Another, deeper thing, to embody it.

sirsanaI teach asana.  Sometimes I can hear resistance and disbelief roaring out of my students bodies.  My foot, where?  The hell you say.  I practice asana, and I hear that same roar inside myself.  Here I am, lurching through no-man's land, all over again.  But it has been in asana, in that very place of disbelief and breath, that revelation comes.  There have been times I seem to break through in a pose I've done for years; the body shifts a millimeter, perception gets brighter, it seems there is bliss inside the hamstring. There have been other times, crumpled on the mat with my knee no where near where it's supposed to be, that fear has been revealed.  Or longing.  Absolute surrender and behind the surrender the sensations which are moody and pithy and cogent and altogether sweet.  There's the thought I didn't know I could feel this.  There are poses, too, that I have doggedly practiced - without success - for months and months and years on end without much believing I'll ever truly get there.  When suddenly, I am there.  The foot lifts.  The rib moves out of the way.  The heart stretches.

We have potential in our gristle.  The root truth is this: if we experience pleasure, pleasure is experienced through the body.  If we experience fear, grief, or longing, it is because our physicality has been shifted and touched in fine or blatant ways.  If we honestly desire health, wellbeing, contentment, it must involve the chemistry and patterns of hormones, digestive proteins, cellular structures.  If we have ever longed for god, or felt our heart clutch in some manner of loneliness, it has been a physical pang.  Therefore, we come closer by going through.  We bend back on our selves, attention revolved back toward itself, the body a mirror in which we can begin to see.

Asana is a dedicated form by which we turn the abuse and denial of the body back into humility, feeling, and meaningful gesture.  Asana is how we turn our bones to dancing, our wrinkles to poems.  Asana is a psalm made of flesh and bone.

of spirit

"There isn't anything except your own life that can be used as ground for your spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is your life, twenty-four hours a day." - Pema Chodron

flyer reach"And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." -Isaiah 30:21

"Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; rather, seek what they sought."  Guatama Buddha

"The whole way to heaven is heaven itself."  Teresa of Avila

This sunday, if you haven't signed up yet, do.

If, anyway, you wonder what yoga has to say about spirituality and heartwork.

What all this body stuff might have to do with healing the soul.

Or what ancient practices have to teach you about your own life.

It isn't for everyone.

But it is for you if you are tired of arguing about religion and politics, tired of reading about spirituality, tired of talk-talk-talking about change or better or goals or happiness.  Tired of talking about things that matter without doing a single thing that matters yourself.

My hope is that a few of those who are looking for things that matter, trying to figure out what really matters to them, or are sick of living with what doesn't will find yoga to be an exercise of spirit and a path of heart.  Come.  Sunday January 27, 9-noon.

Please register here and click the workshops tab.

The Strong Body, Quiet Mind Project

The Strong Body, Quiet Mind Project provides high quality yoga classes to veterans, first responders, at risk youth, and survivors of trauma.  All veterans and first responders are invited to participate - service and health providers are invited to collaborate with Return Yoga.  Participants are asked to pay $30 per month for unlimited yoga classes.  A veteran's i.d. card or first responder i.d. is all you need to sign up. Sign up must happen in-studio for Strong Body, Quiet Mind.  Every class on Return's schedule is open to project participants.

Participants are invited to all yoga classes rather than 'special' classes: there is no need for labels, anonymity is respected here, and all to often 'help' comes with stigma.  The truth is, we all need healing. Further, 'special' programs or classes are all to limited in time and scope, leaving participants after a few weeks rather than encouraging an on-going, life process of growth.

The Need:

Our society is rife with anxiety, stress, and trauma.

Studies have shown that PTSD and 'shock' in this generation of military will overshadow anything known to previous generations, costing billions. Veterans returning from service are finding a depressed economy, a dirth of future and career opportunities, and a shortage of services that answer their physical and psychological needs.

Research is showing that domestic violence and sexual assault survivors are just as likely to suffer trauma symptoms, with an even fewer sources of support and intervention.

Similarly, first responders are on the front lines of crisis situations day in and day out.  On going exposure to traumatic situations takes its toll on responders, who are under appreciated, under respected, and under protected.  Trauma, stress, and shock are status quo.  The private costs are often invisible, but no less deep.

These populations suffer in their own lives, and the effects of trauma are passed onto the next generation. These demographics are over-represented in the unemployed, the homeless, the incarcerated, those seeking emergency services, addiction services, and medical assistance. Their children struggle in education, health, and social connections. These kids are more likely to be involved in crime, high risk behaviors, and have inadequate medical and educational support.

HOPE

Trauma has proven to be one of the most difficult issues to 'treat'. However, current research has shown that the skills of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga promote autonomy, well being, and genuine healing in away medicine and traditional 'talk therapy' can't. 8 weeks of a yoga practice has proven to calm the sympathetic nervous system and increase activity in the areas of the brain associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, sense of safety and autonomy, and cognitive functioning. Further, yoga can be taught at very little cost, with no negative side effects, and is accessible to any level of ability/mobility.

The effects of trauma (or stress, for those who have been labeled too much already) are pernicious, at times devastating, at other times manifesting as a numbing sense of being 'damaged' or 'broken'. Many who have lived through trauma (from a car accident to the death of a loved one, a sexual assault to active duty)often describe it as a chronic state of hopelessness.

Yoga is a rediscovery of hope, and the lived experience of grace.

It was so for me.

There is a profound difference between trying to 'get over it', and feeling oneself okay from the soles of the feet to the deepest parts of the brain.

Yoga allows us to experience ourselves not as 'wounded' or getting over it, but as powerfully alive and worthy human beings.

How the Program Works:

Return subsidizes costs directly, in such a way that every class dollar spent by students goes to funding the Strong Body, Quiet Mind Project.  Return is incorporated as a non-profit.

Additional funding may come from community or private donations or grants.

If your program is interested in accessing yoga classes for your demographic, please contact Karin Burke at karinlburke@gmail.com.  All support, whether by participating in class or donating directly, is greatly appreciated and provides a demonstrable good.

Fertility yoga

Now and again people ask if I teach or would teach a prenatal yoga class. The short answer is no.  The long answer is yes; always, of course.

I do not host a specifically prenatal class; such classes are hard to maintain fiscally, hard to hold class numbers high enough, and it is impossible to randomly pick one time during the week when all the interested pregnant women could make class.  It doesn’t help much if I do offer a class Wednesday mornings, if four out of five people can’t make that time slot.  In my experience, holding a prenatal class is too small for too big a need.

I do, however, teach pre, post, and fertility yoga.  I also know that fertility and health often times include loss of a child, aging, and sexuality issues that a ‘prenatal class’ doesn’t touch.  While pregnancy certainly does have specific practices in the yoga tradition, I also believe that fertility touches men’s health as well as women’s, that bio, psycho, and social aspects of gender, identity, self esteem, health and wellness span relationships and life cycles, and yoga has specific tools and suggestions for ALL of these things.  The question is not what prenatal yoga is, but what your process is and where you are.

My recommendation is this: take a private session to discuss your own needs, goals, and circumstances.  You will learn in a private or two the poses that will help and the way to avoid or modify poses that are contraindicated for pregnancy.  Once you have done this, you can attend ANY yoga class, anywhere, safely and effectively.  Of course, you can continue taking a private sessions as you need and want the individual feedback and support.  I believe that individual feedback and support is crucial; pregnancy, sexuality, and fertility issues are profound embodied and psychological experiences, felt individually and existentially.  You deserve such support.

Once you have that foundation, I strongly recommend attending the healing classes.  Unlike a once a week, hard to get to prenatal class, healing classes are held five nights a week.  Classes are small and tailored specifically to who shows up for class.  Each class explores specific healing postures and meditative traditions for our own unique needs.

Those who have a long yoga practice behind them can absolutely attend strong classes the full term of pregnancy, provided they are willing to make appropriate modifications.

CLASSES IN ST CLOUD START TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

Return is ready to open the doors at 6:30 am this Tuesday.  I am eager, and I am afraid, but I have figured out that the two usually go together.  That if it is really happiness, if you are really growing, there will be an element of poignant, gut grabbing panic.  It doesn't mean stop.  It means you're on to something important. There have been a few questions sent along.  About what kind of yoga I teach, what classes will be like, whether yoga is right for all the various 'me's out there.

The short answer is this:  our medicine, our psychology, and our culture have accepted yoga as mainstream.  We know that it improves health and deters decline associated with aging.  We know that it works to combat cardio-vascular disease (America's big number one); mitigate stress, depression, and anxiety (the numbers two and three); improve concentration and sense of wellbeing; heighten performance and reduce rates of injury and illness.  It is not a religion, although it has aspects of spirituality.  It is not a workout nor a diet and fitness plan, although there are elements of those things as well.  Yoga is, at it's heart, a proven set of practices designed to make human beings find and follow their own highest potential and step into their authenticity.

Return practices that, over the currently popular 'power yoga' classes that are very much like jazzercise and will, sooner or later, lose it's fad appeal.

Because I teach that, my classes start from the belief that any body can practice yoga.  You do not need to be in shape nor have a super healthy body.  You do not need to have any experience.  You don't need balance or flexibility and you do not need to know a thing.  The 'healing' classes, in particular, are intended to be open to bodies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities.

Also because I teach a yoga of authenticity, I teach 'strong' classes that are challenging and demanding.  More demanding, probably, than the power yoga class taught at the gym.  You will not do crunches and we will not talk about your abs.  But I will provide a framework for you to chisel out your own relationship with your body, figure out what you are capable of, and be more healthy five years from now than you are today.  Keep practicing, and you will be more healthy 25 years from now than you are today.  I will teach you inversions and arm balances and deep backbends.  I will push and you will sweat.  If you're an athlete, you'll learn how to detoxify your body post work-out and bring more proprioceptive facility to your time off the mat.

The practices are deeply healing and a private experience of accountability, growth, and self revolution.  They go deep.  But they also can be taken small, tiny small pieces at a time.  You take what you want.  You practice when you can.  If what you want is an hour to yourself, it is that.  If you want to sweat and stretch and literally change the edges of what you are capable of, it will be that.  It will help heal what is wounded and bring your body to its most alive expression, most productive state.  It will be both inspiring and soothing.  A yoga practice is both solace and new challenge.

That is the yoga I teach.  And I am excited to teach it in St. Cloud.