Monday night’s class is “Begin Here Now.” No experience, no knowledge, no special gear is necessary. Everyone is welcome. The class is designed for curious practitioners, absolute beginners and people of all shapes and sizes. In this class I put yoga in context. A little more explanation than normal allows easy transition on to regular classes. I cover a brief history, broad philosophy, basic anatomical principles and stock use of props. We learn seated, standing, prone poses, inversions, sun salutes and twists.
Yoga may be four thousand years old, or two thousand, or 500 years old. The studio style is about 50 years old. The style where the teacher performs and the class mimics, 60 minutes to pop music without any actual instruction? About ten years old. That doesn’t make it “bad.” Just not traditional. Four thousand years ago there were no apps. No latex, no spandex. The original yogis weren’t worried about beach season. They were reacting to this fresh new idea called government. When government is young, fragile and easy replaceable retreat is a reasonable response to uncertainty.
These men (and the original yogis were all men) cared about the universe. About resonating with reality. They cared about The Oh God with a big G, not the “oh god – how many more sun salutes – god of modern day yoga studios. Big G who creates the mystical perfection of the periodic table. These yoga masters cared very deeply about attuning with nature, about organic balance, about leaving a small carbon footprint. What they didn’t give a shit about were the social norms of getting married, having children and moving up the corporate ladder. These guys were hoping to reincarnate off the corporeal scheme.
These guys were not mad about competition because there was no one around to impress. Far off in caves, far from the madding crowd – the point to physical practice was the basic practicality of staying healthy without a pharmacy nearby. Put into context the yoga diet of fruit and nuts reminds me of the time I lived in West Virginia, a two hour drive from the nearest large grocery store. (We shopped once every other month.) The yama and niyama of contentment, cleanliness and austerity are less challenging when one lives far from temptation, luxury and excessive opportunity.
Yoga is designed to increase vitality. Healthy pure vitality, not based on chemicals, hormone replacement treatments or pharmaceutical pain relief. Ten years ago when I injured my hip and had no access to insurance my friends chided me for not paying out of pocket to see an MD. I observe the AMA treats pain with pain killers. Pain killers work by making the body (my body) sensitive requiring higher and higher doses. When the dosage becomes too high surgery is recommended. Ten years ago I chose the less traveled path. I tend my ailment with sweeping lifestyle changes. I lose weight, practice yoga daily, meditate, read, research and change my profession for self-preservation.
The road not taken would have certainly led to a surgery. Fifty percent of back surgeries are successful. I might have been pain free completely five years ago, had I taken that route. And I also might have been in that other group: overweight, over tired, over stressed. I can clearly remember having too much pain to sleep. At my weight then surgery and pills would have made me fatter not thinner, fatter than I am even now – and I’ve gained a few pounds with menopause. I shudder to imagine what I would have looked like in that event.
The great thing about starting with a home practice like I did is the chances of getting injured are close to zero. Because nothing I ever did in yoga hurt me I teach to that effect. “Ahimsa” is the first yama. Both preventative care and therapeutic care are woven into the belief system of yoga. Pranayama – the fourth arm of yoga, refers to the extension of “prana,” vibrant vitality. Bandha are engaged to trap, send or increase prana in body areas of need. Without bandha prana rather naturally seeks to exit the body downwardly (as skin and muscle tissue sag.) Or outwardly through sweat, mucus and blood.
Pain is prana on high alert. There are other sensations besides pain but for most Western practitioners pain is the gateway sensation. If pain is sending you a message, don’t be a dummy. Listen up! If you don’t, pains will multiply. Pain signals dysfunction. If the root cause of pain is not searched, not discovered then further systemic breakdown ensues. Consider for example if your car was making noises. Would you try to fix it by drowning out the clunk by turning up the stereo? That’s kind of what you’re doing when you try to fix pain with narcotics.
For most people pain is caused by a blend of problems. Prana is out of whack. Prana is effected by nutrition, sleep, hormones, stress, information, environment, past history, all sorts o’things. For example too much sugar can unbalance hormones to a point of discomfort. This uncomfortable feeling is interpreted as “stress” by the body and “irritation” by the brain. You can change your diet or change your mind, the choice is purely personal. Some people have higher stress tolerance than others – but that is not necessarily a good thing. Anyone who routinely works past comfort is cruising for a bruising. That ain’t right.
The first two arms of yoga Yama and Niyama seek to address these prana issues in global concepts, abstentions and observances. Don’t waste psychic energy with energy vampires. Lose the drama by cutting bad people loose. Erase them from your phone. (yes even if they are blood related.) Learn the fine art of being emotionally drained for the right reasons. Worthwhile work not Facebook memes. It may seem a small thing to sit with a person who is dying, not game changing, not earth shattering – but that may be the most important thing you do.
This unassuming photo of a Woolworths store from is actually the entrance of the International Civil Rights Museum in downtown Greensboro. If you ever have the chance to go, you must go. You must learn for yourself what happened, and what will. Some of the lessons to be learned are hard. That is the yogic path: not avoiding discomfort nor courting it for the sake of false humility. To be emotionally drained (the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind) for the sake of being filled with deeper appreciation, is one of the stated goals of yoga. Don’t check out, check in.
A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:
In some circumstances, the refusal to be defeated is a refusal to be educated. -Margaret Halsey, novelist (1910-1997)