A Real Person’s Guide To A Home Yoga Practice

Though I am not new to offering yoga classes on Youtube, I know practicing at home virtually is new territory for some of my dedicated students.  The comment has come back to me that “ I just can’t practice at home”. Here are a few suggestions from my years of home practice trial and error that may help you.

Asana is the physical limb of yoga, so pay attention to what your physical body is saying. Sensation is communication. How loud it is your body talking?  You always control the volume dial. Depending on the posture modifications you choose, how long you hold a posture, etc, that volume dial can go up or down.  Getting the right volume is  part of tuning the station in your practice. It may not be “easy listening” but its not something so disdainful that you want to shut it off or tune out. Pain is not the only way our bodies talk to us. There is pleasure.  And there is absence of sensation. Notice when the station changes. And if you want easy listening to lighten the load right now, try a replenishing practice like yin or restorative yoga.

If you are concerned about the safety of practicing yoga at home without the teacher watching, write a body contract with yourself.  Create a corridor of safety and healing; be curious and explore within that space.  The yoga term for good sensation is sukha, which translates to sweetness.  Yoga can be intense at times, but it moves you in the direction of strength, greater mobility, and comfort in your body.  The sanskrit word for pain is dhuka; it means suffering or bad space. Bad space is typically felt as localized sharp pain, often in a joint.  It might restrict the breath, cause a flinching reaction or anxiousness. Instead of freedom, bad pain brings us closer to long term limitations.

You are not the same as anyone else and you are not the same today as you were yesterday. When we walk in a studio class, we see bodies that look somewhat similar on the outside. That changes the moment we come into a posture. Even though we may technically have the same bones, muscles, connective tissue etc, we are all put together differently and unique in our adaptation of the posture. In a home practice, you have no one else to compare yourself to – take advantage of that! Explore comfortable alignment for your body, or skip a pose altogether and do what your body is asking for. No one can see you!

Space invites you in.  Boundaries keep you out. Those can be both physical and mental.  Bump up to your boundaries but don’t go beyond them. Some days you are unstoppable, conquer the the yoga class curriculum and should hi-five yourself.  And other days, you may feel sluggish or even sad.  Be vulnerable.  Be strong. Cry. Sweat. Let whatever bubbles up on your mat float away and explode into non-existence.  But learn to know what boundaries are physical and which are mental.  Mental limitations are boundaries that may need to be explored when you are ready.

Distractions happen, especially at home.  We can’t all have sound proof, home studios with Himalayan salt block walls; maybe just a spiritual trinket or two in a community room without decaying plants. Some environmental factors can be controlled and others you need to absorb into your practice like a zen master. Birds chirp and dogs snore when I meditate, so I say hello to the birds and send love to the dogs. I have had students willfully attend goat yoga and tell me they didn’t like it because they found the goats to be too distracting and couldn’t take their practice seriously. Seriously???  Lighten up! If you vilify outside distractions as the bane of your mindfulness (particularity sweet furry animals), there is work to be done.  Because guess what? That’s the real world; its what we are training for, unless you plan to live in a cave. Have kids? Let them sit on you in a plank pose or crawl under your down dog.  I’m not kidding.  I used to do this with my twins. Now I just hip check 180 lbs of three dog lovin’ off my mat occasionally – or use them as props.  But don’t use distractions as an excuse not to practice.  The real yoga starts when distractions come knocking.  Just like in the actual world, you can let them stress you out, get angry or quit or let go of expectations and thrive.

Hold yourself accountable. As a yoga teacher who has had a regular home yoga practice for several decades, I know how easy it is to start emptying the dishwasher, or get side tracked into cleaning the sock drawer even when your mat is laid out. If you suddenly have so much time that you feel lost, sign up for classes ahead of time and put them on your calendar.

Please remember to take a savasana or relaxation pose at the end of your home practice to allow all of your systems to absorb and integrate the benefits of your practice.  The physical practice of yoga asana teaches us about how we interact with ourselves and the outer environment, and is hugely important.  But as spiritual beings, savasana gives us the opportunity to perceive our inner environment through the felt sense and the subtle body. Intuition is a source inside yourself that needs to be nourished with time and love. Notice what gets loud when you get quiet and still.

And most important right now, remember you are not alone. Contact a friend and sign up for a virtual class together. Intimacy comes in many forms; some as simple as sending a blessing to the other students who might normally be in your class.

Peace,
Megan

Mindfulness is Like Making Chicken Soup (and how to make the soup!)

We have a tradition in my family that when someone gets sick, a pot of chicken stock goes on. The art of making healing chicken soup was taught to me in college by my roommate from NYC who’s grandmother referred to it as Jewish Penicillin. The process starts with someone not feeling well; anything from sniffles, discomfort or suffering. Conscious cooking to the rescue! The prescription is liquid gold.

In order to make the broth for the soup, you only need a big sturdy stock pot that will fit an entire fresh chicken, two good handfuls of whole carrots, the top half of a whole stalk of celery, an onion, some peppercorns, kosher salt and a few bay leaves. Fill the pot with cold water until everything is covered. Stick around and be patient.

When you first turn the pot on not much happens. After awhile, things begin to move and this icky gray and white foamy stuff floats to the top. Technically, its just protein, but you look at it and know its is not something you want to put in your body; extremely unappetizing and a good way to ruin the clarity of your broth. So you have to get rid of the impurities. The lid is left off the pot and you play witness to the transition. A long handled skimmer with fine mesh is the best tool for the job. Intermittently skim the top of the stock then rinse the skimmer in some water to start clean. Before the broth comes to the boiling point, you have to decrease the heat, but still keep it hot enough for the scum to surface. Scoop and dump. Repeat. The trick is to make sure the stove is not too hot or the scuzzy contaminants redistribute themselves back into the stock before you can get rid of them. This is the patience part. And please don’t stir it up. The stock is best when it cooks slowly and gently. Once the skimming is done, turn it down even more to a soothing simmer. I like my stock to cook for 8-12 hours before straining it so that the collagen and minerals leach out of the bones. If you don’t have the luxury of letting it cook that long, work within the space you have. Once all the cooked items are removed, you get to put whatever you want in the stock. In my house, it is fresh carrots and celery, matzo balls and fresh dill. Share it! Give from your overflow. Word of warning: keep some Kleenex handy because it will also open your lungs and make your nose run!

Thanks for reading about one of my favorite healing traditions. Now try making some and consider the process a philosophy for life. How often do we recognize that our thoughts are creating scum? And what do we do when they surface in the form of impure language or actions?

Making chicken soup is a recipe for mindfulness. We all experience unpleasantness and have the ability to create and heal through contemplative practices. Roughly 90% of thoughts are below the conscious level. When we practice mindfulness, we become aware of some of that 90% and icky stuff surfaces. When we are uncomfortable, physically sick or emotionally upset, things turn cloudy and gray. Like clear broth, clean thoughts don’t come in a neat package. It takes patience and love to turn water into to nourishing food and it takes the same to uncloud your thoughts. The practice of mindfulness lets us skim the undesirable mental fragments. Scoop and dump. Repeat. Sometimes we need a tool! A yoga or meditation practice is the fine sieve of the soup stock of life. Dip and delete. Skim and purge. My morning recipe, or sadhana as its called in yoga, allows for an hour to simmer in my subconscious. Maybe you only have or want 10-15 minutes. Sometimes that is all it takes to see who or what is bringing you to your boiling point.

The process of mindfulness makes us connoisseurs of our own consciousness. We learn to separate our thoughts, which are always changing, from the Self, which is unshakable. That which is always changing is called prakriti – thoughts, emotions, our physical bodies, the environment outside us. Think of prakriti in terms of the process of the stock cooking; when we have the right ingredients and process in place, water transforms into a magical medicine – that’s dharma baby! But first the waste surfaces and sometimes prakriti causes suffering. Yet, we keep eating it until all we can identify with and taste is prakriti. Purusha is another philosophical force to dine on. As the conscious cook, you can thoughtfully observe the broth cooking. Purusha allows us to watch the experience without putting ourselves in the pot. The healing begins when we see the Self as separate from prakriti and look beyond the displeasing scum at the whole process.

Prakriti shows itself through 3 forces called the gunas. Change is represented in the rajas guna. Rajas is experienced as agitation, anger or anxiety when we don’t continually attempt to remove the grubby thoughts. But if we keep skimming the undesirables, rajas becomes the creative force of change. Heat, or tapas in yoga, provides that agent of change. It is the force that burns impurities when you are disciplined in your practice. Just like making healing broth, tapas has to cook from a place of love; include acceptance and leave out judgement in the recipe. Other undesirable ingredients include expectations of how things will turn out, denial of what our awareness shows us and guilt about “bad thoughts”.  If we hit the boiling point or let the scum keep cooking, it will redistribute itself somewhere in your life. If we never even turn the heat on the pot, we experience tamas guna – nothing changes and life, like the stock, will be tasteless and unfulfilling. When we balance rajas and tamas, the third guna – sattva, makes chicken soup out of our suffering.

In the end, cooking chicken stock and your conscious awareness are both about not letting the scum ruin your day. And maybe sharing some of your liquid gold…

Happy, Healthy Cooking,

Megan

MindBodyRadio Interview – What I Wish I Said

I did a twelve minute interview on mindbodyradio.com today and you can listen HERE.  Since I am more comfortable writing than public speaking, after the interview, I wrote down what I wish I would have said.

What do you do?
I offer a variety of accessible weekly classes at my studio, teach individuals meditation and work privately with clients to co-create a daily yoga therapy practice that best meets their needs and goals.  To find a yoga therapist near you, visit the International Association of Yoga Therapists. ​ Or you can visit Yoga Therapy and Meditation on my website. I also offer energy medicine by appointment to enhance healing and increase well being and am certified through the Healing Touch Program and California College of Ayurveda.

Why are you passionate about this line of work?
It’s an exciting time in my field of yoga therapy! Our western culture has opened the doors wide to yoga and meditation. When I moved to Wisconsin 20 years ago, there was no yoga within 30 miles. We will soon have 3 studios in my small town. When I was introduced to meditation in Boulder, CO in the 1980’s, it was for the Buddhist students at Naropa, the long hairs and the granola’s (like me!). Now there are apps with thousands of meditations where you can see who is meditating with you across the globe. I’m thrilled to have my meditations available on the Insight Timer app for free. Science continues to line up with wisdom traditions. Everything from anxiety to pain care are being explored through the bio-psycho-social-spiritual model which is congruent with yoga therapy. Medicine is embracing yoga, but there is a lack of information about appropriate yoga for heath challenges, chronic pain and mental wellness. A disastrous over-emphasis on the physical aspects of yoga and misunderstanding about mindfulness leaves yoga outside of the reach of many who could greatly benefit from the practice.

What is your background?
I was raised Catholic and attended 12 years of Catholic school including an all girls high school. When I was in grade school, I told my Irish grandma that I wanted to be a priest and she assured me that could happen by the time I was her age. I have always been spiritual and introspective and somehow that dharma found me through yoga.

I dealt with panic attacks in college and my holistic doctor put me on imipramine and xanex and encouraged me to find a long term solution to a healthy mind. I registered for a class called S.M.A.R.T – Stress Management and Relaxation Technique – which was yoga in disguise. As awkward as learning alternate nostril breathing was, it was better than breathing into a paper bag. At that time, I had mountain biking and skiing to keep my body fit. There was no need for the physical practice of yoga. Short meditations and breath awareness helped me to make friends with my anxious mind. Once I had kids and got locked into Wisconsin’s brutal negative temperatures, yoga was something I could do at home to move and beat the winter blues. It kept my body fit. With twins, I would also dampen the emotional stress of sleep deprivation by doing mini-meditations. Now I get up early and look forward to awakening with pranayama, chanting and luxuriating in a long meditation. Some mornings, the timer goes off way too soon. Other mornings, I’m thinking about my oatmeal cooking as I struggle to stay present, or tears come to cleanse my emotions.

What is your focus?
The juxtaposition as a yoga teacher is to teach a balanced class for mind and body; The mind needs stillness and the body needs movement to heal. As a teacher, I try to weave in stories and themes to bring my students beyond posture and show them that their awareness is a precious gift. Awareness is what yoga gives me. It is a gift I have to keep giving myself and no one else can do it for me – or take it away. We have so much potential to influence our own outcome. To this end, some or all postures may not be necessary or appropriate.

In yoga, there are two teachings I often think about for my students. The first is “everything is medicine and everything is poison”. We need to get to know ourselves on an intimate level and work with a practically trained teacher who can guide us to find our practice of yoga. The other idea I teach is that embodiment can lead to a peaceful place and it can also lead to feeling like you are locked in a bathroom stall with a lunatic talking to you. If you are comfortable, its my job to stir you. Those who are suffering get soothed. Yoga is not all blooming lotus flowers. The lotus grows in the mud. Part of the yoga ride is to find comfort in the uncomfortable. Philosophically, yoga teaches that pain and suffering are a result of forgetting who we are. We can learn a lot about ourselves when we are challenged in a posture – everything from the crazed monkey mind to physical limitations show us our boundaries. We learn to make space within those boundaries.

It is easy to forget who we are. Over-stimulation is the accepted norm. Just as we digest our food, our bodies have to “digest” everything our senses experience. We are constantly exposed to negative images globally through TV, movies news etc. We also unconsciously compare and judge ourselves and what we have or don’t have to others on social media. Our own thoughts expand or contract us. The body is hard wired for survival; it reacts negatively to physical and emotional “enemies” – the lion chasing us might be our own thoughts. Chronic pain is contraction in the body, and it can be of physical or emotional origin.​

What are you working on?
In the past decade, I have been blending my training and personal exploration in yoga and energy healing. The result is a somatic yoga practice which I lovingly call “Body Prayer in Motion”. It is therapeutic movement that blends neuromuscular re-education, emotional self-regulation and pranic (life force energy) enhancement. It is in keeping with my current educational focus on yoga for chronic pain and self-regulating energy therapy. I want people to be empowered to fix themselves.

Where can we find you?
At the studio! Speaking of empowering, if you want to change yourself, consider a retreat. My daily practice supports me, but going on retreats transformed me. My studio schedule limits me to offering one week long retreat to Ireland. We hike and do yoga to move the body. The spiritual mysticism of Ireland is palpable. There are lots of laughs and joy getting to know each other. But we also practice silence, meditation and “time off the grid” (nothing that plugs in) to get to know ourselves more intimately. It will change you. The energy of your new tribe is there to support you in remembering who you are on retreat and to remind you who you found when you leave. I am not a big fan of traveling a lot, so my dream is to have a small retreat center somewhere, someday. Environment is important but we don’t all have the time or money to live “Eat, Pray, Love”. The retreat should mirror your lifestyle so you can recreate some of it at home. If you live a lavish life, then go five stars. But a retreat just needs to be far enough to get away from the daily roles, requirements, drama and stores for an extended period of time.

In addition to offering free meditation recordings on Insight Timer and my website, I have practice videos on YouTube.

If you are a teacher, body worker or mental health professional, I have a six hour Somatic Movement – Body Prayer in Motion training coming up on December 8. If you would like to bring  my somatic movement course to your studio, I am willing to travel for two day trainings.

Who is someone you admire?
Dr. Richard Davidson, ​ a Neuroscientist and the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin. I respect his insight and dedication to researching the neuroscience of contemplative practices and appreciate his desire to educate medical professionals, teachers and our veteran population. I have no interest in research to prove what I already know intuitively and am so thankful for people like him.

Any last thoughts?
In the end, we can master yoga postures like a collection of trophies, but the highest goal of yoga is spiritual awakening – remembering you are Divine. That’s what I want for my students.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Love,

Megan

The Breath Blog

For most westerners, the word “yoga” conjures up something that looks like Cirque du Soleil auditions. In truth, you can only use the excuse that you are not flexible or strong enough to do yoga 1/8 of the time, (and that doesn’t really float since yoga postures are a way to gain flexibility safely). Let me explain the 1/8 comment. The yoga postures, contorted or comfortable, function as “Asana” which is the third of eight facets in the yogic system. The purpose of Asana is to get your body into shape to sit still in meditation with as little fidgeting and discomfort as possible. Can you believe that? The goal is not to put your hands below your toes, drench yourself with sweat or increase endurance. The body is the vehicle for the spirit. Asana is not what this blog is about though, and it doesn’t even have to be part of your yoga. It wasn’t part of mine for many years since I was introduced to yoga to alleviate anxiety.

A common phrase in the yoga community is that if you can breathe, you can do yoga. This is only partially accurate. Philosophically speaking, breathing IS yoga. In the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga), yogic breathing practices (Pranayama in Sanskrit) are so important that they claim their very own limb #4.  Pranayama is an essential part of a complete yoga practice. It involves regulating the breath to control the mind. Pranayama is also it’s own practice (no pretzel-like postures needed!). Pranayama is used to prepare for meditation; its an invitation into limb #5 Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), the first stage of meditation.

Most yoga traditions would tell you that Pranayama is much more important than Asana when it comes to heath and happiness. If we subscribe to the philosophy that the goal of yoga is to decrease suffering, develop inner peace and feel our aliveness, it is typically Pranayama, not Asana, that awakens us to our highest potential.

The classic teaching of all wisdom traditions is that humans suffer because we forget who we are – Divine beings. We forget who we are because as humans we are hard-wired pleasure seeking survivalist. We seek enjoyment and relief from agitation and pain from things outside of ourselves – drugs (both the prescription kind and the ones that will get you in jail), alcohol, food, working too much, and in our relationships with others. The yogic path reveals that who we seek and what we need is buried inside of us under all of our human roles and repetitions of self-defeating stories.

It is just one yoga teacher’s opinion that many American yoga classes are another form of exercise. What is missing is the link of movement to a reasonable breath pace. Asana is supposed to introduce the student to regulating the breath. When the practice is too physical or choreographed like the Jimmy Fallon History of Music Video Dancing (recommended if you need to laugh after this!) the breath is strained or forgotten about all together. You may as well be hitting a punching bag or doing crossfit; nothing wrong with that – strenuous sweaty stuff can be a release valve. Additionally, a gymnast or high-endurance athlete may one up you and excel quickly at Asana practice; it is beautiful to watch the flexibility and strength of the physical body. But can that fit body sit still in meditation? That takes a fit mind! Admittedly, if what you want is a good looking exterior, any exercise may work. What about exercising the mind? Do you do something that increases awareness and brings inner peace? Sleeping does not count – unless you have mastered lucid dreaming. We are multi-layered beings with a physical body, mental body and spiritual origin. Pranayama is experienced on the physical level as the breath, but it takes us beyond into the mental and spiritual layers of ourself. Pranayama is a fitness program for all the layers of our being.

On the physical level, Pranayama positively influences the systems of the body including respiratory, immune, cardiac and nervous system. Typically, our breath is automatic and involuntary. It is continuous and we do not have to think about it, but we only use about 20% of our breathing capability. The mechanics of your default breath might include chest breathing, which is too shallow to bring in maximum oxygen and does not allow the lungs to be fully expelled. The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration but it is is often under utilized. The chest muscles are considered accessory muscles in breathing. When we maximize the role of the diaphragm in respiration, our breathing is slower, fuller and more powerful. We increase our oxygen consumption and the ability to release carbon dioxide. We also exercise the often tight respiratory muscles.

The pattern of your breath is intimately connected to the mind. There is a breath pattern for every emotion. By learning to control the breath, we control the mind and emotions as well. Our involuntary breath responds to fatigue, stress or fear unconsciously by being incomplete or unbalanced. This auto-response ranges from the more obvious hyperventilation, shallow rapid breathing or to a simple reflexive sigh. The breath is the bridge between the brain (what your thinking) and body (what you feel). A starting point to control emotions is to simply observe the breath as it is. You could even close your eyes and do that right now for 1 minute…

Breath observation makes us more sensitive. Observation takes us into the present moment were we notice when the mind runs off to ruminate over the past or worry about the future. Our breath is a built in mindfulness teacher. But put your phone down – it doesn’t require money or meditation apps. We learn to block outer distractions and uncover what is especially present inside us. This is not for everybody and contrary to popular belief, it can be unpleasant. We may learn what troubles or agitates us; a bit like being stuck sitting with a blabbermouth stranger on a small airplane. You just want to put your headphones in and block her/him out, but the stranger is you. Instead of escaping physical or mental pain, we embrace it and lessen it with acceptance.

Once breath observation reveals what we are hiding from, we learn to safely and consciously lengthen and control the inhale (puraka) and exhale (rechaka). This practice alters the brain’s information processing. When we breath voluntarily, we actually change the region of the brain that we breathe from – unconscious breathing is controlled by the lower brain or brain stem and conscious breathing is function of the upper brain. We also balance the heart rate; the inhale slightly increases heart rate and the exhale relaxes the heart. By controlling the breath, we can listen to the chatty stranger in our mind with kindness, and redirect the story when it is not serving us. Pranayama is a free companion fair where you get to pick the person you want to sit with (you) and tell them when they are being irrational.

Energetically or spiritually (choose the term you like), Pranayama is how we begin to direct our Prana, Chi or life force (again – pick the term that works for you). On the subtle level, inhalation increases our focus, energy and vitality; the breathe out is an opportunity to purge, purify and relax more deeply. Eventually, you can learn to add a breath retention (kumbaka) which culminates in a balanced mind and provides a “peaceful pause” in energy body. The power of controlled breathing leads to a fusing of the complimentary opposites of solar/lunar and expand/contract. In this state of balance, the pleasure seeking senses and physical cravings are controlled.

Yogis believe we are all given a particular number of breaths in each karmic cycle. A lifespan is only limited by the number of breaths you breathe. Listen to the sound of breath in your own body as the argument of being alive.

Namaste,

Megan

PS – If you are looking for a place to get started with a Pranayama practice at home, visit the Breath Meditation Series in the free meditation library. BFY also offers free meditations the second Wednesday of each month or a private Pranayama and Meditation session with Megan can address your unique needs.

Eight Limbs of Yoga: Ashtanga in The Honey Jar

Do you want to know what meditation is?  If you practice yoga, did you know that yoga postures and meditation are inextricably linked? Meditation is the highest form of yoga.  There are common misconceptions around the terms meditation and mindfulness, and dare I say liberation.  This is the definition of meditation from the point of the Yoga Sutras, a classic yogic text.  Ashtanga, which refers to the 8 limbs of yoga (ashta – eight, anga – limbs), is the foundational text for anyone who wants to bring more of the benefits of their yoga practice into daily life.

#1 Yamas – Why are you buying the honey in the first place? Who are you going to feed it to? Will it in some way bring joy or harmony to others? Yamas are the social ethics of yoga. Feed others only what you would want to eat yourself.

#2 Niyamas – Take the time to read the label before you buy the honey; for your own good.  Buy locally to support your unique geography. The main ingredient in the Niyamas is your own true nature flavored with self-discipline (tapas – the flame of purification). Observe the inner self and be aware of what you put in your body, mind and spirit.  You are what you eat.

#3 Asana – In order to get that thick, golden honey out of the jar, you may need to stir it around a bit first.  But not so much that the jar breaks. Asana refers to the physical practice of yoga, (what is often mistaken as yoga itself.) Just as the honey dipper moves the viscous liquid with both determination and vigilance, yoga postures are done with alertness and ease. Even if the shape of the glass jar does not change, there is movement on the inside. You are creating stability and freedom in the body that will allow it to sit comfortably in meditation .

#4 Pranayama – Have you noticed how air fills the empty spaces in the honey jar? It is like prana in the body.  The jar represents our body of “matter” as we stabilize it in posture. The prana, or life force energy that fills the body in the form of the breath floods and mobilizes those spaces.  Pranayama (prana -life force, ayama – to extend or draw out) is using awareness and technique to regulate the physical and energetic breath. You are balancing the flow of prana in the body.

#5 Pratyahara – The honey slowly begins to trickle down.  You can hear it, see it, smell it, touch it and maybe even imagine the taste.  This is pratyhara, the beginning stage of meditation, which is often confused with meditation itself.  Our mind is active, and something stimulates the senses; we turn them inward to cultivate the experience.  Think of techniques such as guided imagery, yoga nidra, use of mantra or chanting, and pranayama techniques; or zen-like activities like running or surfing can feel meditative.  But we are still doing.

#6 Dharana and #7 Dhyana – The honey comes out at first in spontaneous drips (dharana) and eventually in an even flow (dhyana).  Both of these limbs are states of being as opposed to doing. The difference between the two is quantity vs. quality.  Dharana gives you small tastes of the bliss of meditation as the mind comes and goes.  In a state of Dhyana, your world is nothing but an even flow of honey and you have let go completely into the sukha (sweetness or joy of life).

#8 Samadhi – The full stream of honey is coming out continuously.  We are no longer aware of this though.  We are the honey (liberation to our Divine being-ness and oneness).

Just as eating local honey brings amazing health benefits to your body, meditation drips sweetness into all aspects of our lives.  It is liquid gold for the mind and spirit. You don’t have to be a bee keeper to make 2019 the year to open the honey jar!

Peace and Light,

Megan

From Mat to Mind

Bear Foot Yoga and Bodhi the yoga dog featured in the 2018 summer issue of  Lake & Country magazine! Read the full article here: From Mat to Mind

Megan MacCarthy, owner of Bear Foot Yoga in Burlington, aims to make yoga welcoming and accessible to all, through a focus on yoga therapy. At her studio you can find a delicate balance and assortment of classes from yoga as a physical exercise, to restorative classes. Bear Foot Yoga offers one vinyasa flow per week, as well as cancer and cardio rehab classes where mindfulness is the core of the practice. Megan cherishes the community and relationships she’s built. “Twenty years ago, health clubs and yoga studios in this area were few and far between. Now, they are becoming more prevalent and for me, it’s really great to be able to know all my students by name and see familiar faces in my classes,” she told us.

From Mat to Mind

 

5 Year Anniversary

Dear BFY Students,

This week quietly marked the 5 year anniversary of my yoga studio. 9 years of teaching, almost 30 years of practicing, and my overwhelming thought is that none of what I do is about me. It is about you, what you give and the community you create. That is an odd conclusion for someone who savors the privacy of her home practice. But I realize how much I need you all; to see your faces and remind me who I am and that I am serving my highest purpose. Your vulnerabilities and willingness to share your stories are the mirrors that reflect the space I hold for you. You also do this for yourselves. With each posture, and each encounter with your bodies, you bravely sew the thread between thought, sensation and emotion. Holding space requires raw reality and radical acceptance. There is no room for “what do others expect of me”, egos or hiding behind our protective shields of perfection. When we connect with our own reality, we connect with the Universal Source. Our wounds heal faster when we expose them to each other’s Light.

I recently read a twisted definition of the word alchemist – an imperfect, beautiful being who instinctively uses his or her pain to create something exquisite. I would add that pain can be a part of what creates community. It is in touching vulnerabilities and hardships, yours and mine, that our commonalities exist. In a good way, I see myself as pandora’s box, filled with the grief and troubled secrets of all my students. The box always stays shut wrapped in prayer and hope, but sometimes I wish it could open so you could see each other through my lens. Then you would know how magnificently strong and courageous you all are. Scars and all.

Thank you for being alchemists with me and beaming your own unique beauty. Keep supporting one another, shifting and raising the vibration.

Love and Light,

Megan


Everything Is Waiting for You

Your greatest mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone. As if life were a progressive and cunning crime with no witness to the tiny hidden transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surrounding. Surely, even you, at times, have felt the grand array; the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding out your solo voice. You must note the way the soap dish enables you, or the window latch grants you freedom. Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity. The stairs are you mentor of things to come, the doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you, and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you. – David Whyte

Helping Clients Overcome Challenges

Helping Clients Overcome Practice Challenges through Somatic Space

This article was originally published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, Yoga Therapy Today, Winter 2018, Yoga Therapy in Practice, www.iayt.org 

Increased interoceptive awareness—the deep knowledge of what’s occurring in the physical body, the soma—can be a negative experience for some. Notwithstanding the long-term benefits clients gain through heightened self-awareness, we yoga therapists may find ourselves needing to help clients navigate uncomfortable sensations and emotions that arise from yogic inquiry. Yoga, perhaps initially perceived as a purely physical activity, can move students through the three psychic layers of the gunas (qualities). I use somatic yoga and the pancha kosha (five-sheaths) model to guide people toward sattva (balance); here I offer practical ideas to help others to do the same.

When muscles fail to perform, it is not necessarily because they are strong or weak. Muscle inhibition occurs in athletes and armchair quarterbacks alike. The ability to control muscles comes partly from nervous system communication. Somatic Yoga was developed to increase communication among the nervous system, brain, and pranic body. My eyes opened to the benefits of a regular Somatic Yoga practice as a result of experiencing chronic pain in the sacroiliac joint (nervous system), post-concussion syndrome (brain), and energy-body consciousness (pranic body).

I liken the journey through the somatic space to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey; separation, initiation, and return. In yogic terms, The Hero’s Journey translates as the gunas, or subtle basic components of life. Tamas (often translated as “darkness”) is the road of separation—appearing wide and easy, it represents ignorance and inertia. Innumerable people are breathing a lackluster survival breath and walking the black road of tamas without even knowing it. Perhaps they cannot or chose not to be present in the body. Often in the depths of physical or mental despair, they receive the call to action. Rajas (passion) is the winding, uphill road of action/initiation.

Yoga practices, particularly Somatic Yoga, in my experience, can delicately guide clients through rajas when they feel agitated (or, for some, when they feel anything at all) and when they face off with the things they fear the most—the kleshas (obstacles). Students who view this awareness as a negative may be scared, sad, angry, or in denial. They may discontinue the practice and go back to tamas because it is safe and familiar. Initially, rajas requires surrender. With guidance and regular practice, rajas is where we start to see we have control of our lives. Tamas is the victim mentality. The discomfort of rajas is where you learn to love yourSelf, dragons and all, to get to the purity of the sattvic state. Yogic philosophy doesn’t see the journey as acquiring a new strength, as Campbell does; rather, in Somatic Yoga the superpower is something that was always there. Remembering and returning to awareness of the Self is the steady state of sattva.

 

Demystify the Somatic Space

A starting point for somatic inquiry may be to take the mystery out of movement with a brief overview of the nervous system. The somatic system, or voluntary nervous system, includes both sensory and motor neurons, allowing communication to flow freely to and from the muscles, sensory organs, and skin. What we call muscle memory is really one of the jobs of the nervous system. Habitual movement, aging, and trauma (conditioned reflexes) can cause the nervous system to “forget” how to move with fluidity and freedom. We should explain to our students that both physical and emotional trauma can result in the inability to feel ourselves. Psychological trauma is held in the brain, but we also hold trauma in the body in the form of unconscious contractions. Despite being voluntary, much of our somatic movement takes place below the level of conscious awareness; the fact that this does not always have to be so is a tremendous asset that we can use to empower our students.

How do you guide those who encounter difficulty doing what on the surface appears to be a simple practice? Let the goal be to stay present. Teach them that they have the tools within themselves to heal; they need only to listen to their bodies. When physical or mental challenges arise, normalize movement and emotional response. Give such clients veto power. “Veto” means “I forbid” in Latin and can be absolute or limited.

Working with a sensation scale rather than a pain scale teaches clients that it is safe to be present in their bodies, even in discomfort. The body communicates through sensation. Discuss pain as a complex communicator that is about structure and emotional response, much of which is attached to previous experience and fear. Don’t make the scale all about difficulty. Encourage them to remember the sensation of pleasure: massage, eating something delicious, petting a furry friend, sexual satisfaction, or a simple hug. The traditional ayurvedic techniques of garshana (gentle dry-brushing of the skin) or abhyanga (warm oil massage) can be intimate gateways to reintroduce the nervous system to the sensation of pleasure through the skin.

What happens when a student discovers structural imbalance or an inability to feel a muscle? For instance, when working with the quadratus lumborum, a client may feel an immediate muscle response on one side of the back and think the muscle doesn’t exist on the other. Similarly, Somatic Yoga is a recommended postpartum practice to reconnect to the pelvic floor and transversus abdominis, but these muscles may be difficult to locate kinetically. Guide the students to bringing their awareness into the area with the intention to visualize it; visual aids such as a photograph of a particular muscle and thoughtfully placed props can accentuate cognitive connection. In the case of movement disorders where there is an inability to move or movement cannot be controlled, guide clients to imagine the experience of the movement.

Give people ample time to “mind their Ps”: pause, present, precious perception. Allow them to experience how much sensation can exist in stillness. When doing asymmetrical movements, take a full minute of inactivity between the two sides. The mind loves to entertain contrast in the body. The first side can communicate the experience to the brain to prepare the second side for the movement. Learn from the experience but don’t anticipate how the second side will respond. When both sides of the body are done, pause again, noticing the similarities and differences.

Ask clients to describe recurring and unfamiliar sensations as fantastically as they can and to label perceptions as something other than “good,” “bad,” or “okay.” Remind them occasionally that you are the DJ choosing the song, but they control the volume knob of bodily sensation.

Work within the Kosha Model

What door would enable a client to enter the body: spanda, shakti or grace?

Spanda: Annamaya Kosha

Spanda is play and spontaneous expression of aliveness! Let the practice be “sloppy yoga.” This often works with those who are more physically oriented, like to overdo movements, and have difficulty stepping away from the bigger, stronger, faster philosophy. Sitting too much, rigidity, and habitual movement patterns are what get us into trouble in the first place, so play! One approach is to ask students to invoke their inner child and do the practice as if just learning to move. Suggest they give themselves permission to approach the movements like their favorite animal would. Ask them to continually notice when bodily sensations move, increase, dull, or subside.

Even when the practice is familiar, invoke the beginner’s mind; don’t just go through the motions. The practice may at times appear uneventful, but fascinating things are happening at the subtle-
body level. Enthusiastically encourage curiosity and amazement. Freedom of expression in the body inspires creative thinking. If it adds to the creative pulse, somatic yoga can be a breath-centered practice. The inhalation deepens the student’s experience of expansion and elongation; the exhalation allows release. As Carl Jung said, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity.”

Shakti: Pranamaya Kosha

The vital force of prana shakti makes itself tangible though the breath. This approach is for those who are more devotional, spiritual, or who enjoy meditation. A healthy dose of skepticism works, and yoga nidra can be used to develop conscious awareness of the pranic body. A goal of yoga therapy is to create energy and distribute it to all parts of the body. It can be valuable to offer your client a simplified explanation of the subtle body that may include nadis (energetic channels), chakras, vayus (“winds,” or functions of prana), and/or marma points. When the students can sense where their breath originates or can connect to their spiritual heart, they are ready to explore the power of creating energy through awareness and intention. Explain that pain can be thought of as congested energy. Ask them to breathe into the body, noticing where they feel tension or discomfort. Then on the next inhale, breathe into the tension; exhale the energy out. If a specific point in the body needs healing or release, the student can use all their senses to create an active image in their mind and fill the particular part of their body with the image.

As prana is experienced on the subtle level as touch, placement of hands can result in clearer communication. This is different from manual manipulation, which may fall outside the scope of your practice and can be interpreted by the students as “doing it wrong,” “not doing enough,” or that you are fixing them. Use your hands to teach them to use their own hands as feelers for the nervous system, transmitting their own life force from their heart (the seat of prana) through their hands. When finished, have them ask the subtle body if it has any messages.

Grace: Manomaya Kosha

One aspect of grace is the ability to surrender all limiting beliefs and previous experiences. Make the practice about self-acceptance over self-improvement. This is best received by those who feel more emotional, those who present with low self-esteem, or those for whom healing needs to triumph over curing. Two influential words are “allow” and “trust.” You may also want them to start by creating an affirmation or sankalpa (heartfelt intention) and to keep repeating it. Teach them to let go of self-judgment. In a society that rewards “perfection,” teach that it is okay to make mistakes! Stay away from language that leads to what the movement should look or feel like. Offer the understanding that the senses are intended to bring joy. Explain imagery as the language of the mind: it listens to what is outside us through our senses, then speaks in images that can turn into words. We decide to attach a positive or negative association to the words, and therein lies the difference between pain and suffering.

Hold Space: Vijnanamaya Kosha

Always hold space for your clients. We hold sacred space for them by asking for their highest good and offering unconditional love. The greatest gift we give our students is to teach them to cultivate that same sacred space for themselves outside the safety of our guidance and to continually stay present and objective when experiencing signals within the body. Witnessing consciousness of self and experiencing this awakening through yoga gives the client a glimpse of the illumination of pure consciousness.

Sukha: Anandamaya Kosha

Yoga teaches that we need to have sweetness (sukha) in our lives to bring us closer to our Source—bliss. Recognize and praise the joy of small successes with your students. A benefit of a traditional asana practice is that we purposely challenge ourselves, stress the physical body, and consciously watch the mind’s response. In Somatic Yoga, we undo by underdoing; there is personal accountability in recognizing and doing only what makes us feel good. The more we experience joy, the more it becomes our natural state of being.

Somatic Yoga is highly adaptable and achievable, but needs to be structured for the individual. Yoga therapy clients have often tried several modalities before they find you. They are familiar with the failure of checking out mentally and the unfulfilled expectation that someone else would “fix” them. Start with a thorough and thoughtful intake, which may hint at the client’s current level of self-awareness. The intake should include a discussion of any history of physical or emotional trauma, even when the trauma does not have any obvious correlation to the issue the client is presenting with. Ascertain the mental and spiritual state of your client using the qualities of the three gunas. Let the client do the talking with words and body language. To the best of your ability, give the client a voice in creating their yoga therapy plan. Continually adjust the plan based on feedback. Using the kosha model, ask them what door they are most comfortable with: the body, the breath, or the mind. As the client gradually increases her or his awareness of internal body sensations in your presence and in the rest of life, the practice is no longer about overcoming pain or dis-ease, and joy can be developed in the purity of the sattvic state.

Peace and Light,

Megan

Access a printable PDF copy of the article here: YTT_Winter 2018_MacCarthy

Setting Intention in Yoga

The Significance of Setting Intention in Yoga

The word yoga has 2 meanings in Sanskrit: one definition is to yoke or union, as in the way we bring together the physical body and mind with postures and breathing. We also use the word yoga to describe a state of being where we do everything in life with more awareness. What we do and say to ourselves in class becomes a mirror into who we are and our self talk in life.  How do we respond when we are challenged in a pose? Do we painfully push our way through, degrade ourselves, get angry, or compare ourselves to others? When the practice appears easy or uneventful, do we mistake relaxation for boredom, have difficulty surrendering or does our mind wander off?

An important component of yoga as a state of awareness is setting an intention.  An intention can help guide us through the physical poses and choose the modifications that are right for our body and mind that day. Heartfelt intention also brings positive energy like gratitude, acceptance, peace or unconditional love to ourselves and others. The teacher will typically ask you to set an intention at the beginning of class. It is your responsibility to bring the mind back to your personal purpose throughout class.  When the intention is made from the heart, it is simple, pure and feels expansive, as if it is already a part of us that maybe we just forgot about or misplaced. Intention may be the same for days, weeks, or even years, and comes out of a commitment to support our highest self.  Where there is nothing wrong with doing yoga just for the exercise and physical benefits, setting an intention helps to make yoga part of your life!

A few suggestions if you are new to setting intention:

Sometimes an intention doesn’t come up right away.  Don’t pressure yourself.  Keep the space open for something to formulate any time during or after class.

Simply ask yourself any of these questions: what brought you to your mat today? What does grace mean to you? What makes you feel strong?  How do you find calmness?  What can you let go of today?

Think of something or someone you are grateful for; or think of the idea of gratitude.

If you come up with several purposes for your practice and have a difficult time choosing one, politely ask your heart what it wants.

When you are experiencing physical discomfort or disease in your body, set your intention to continually send healing thoughts and energy into that place.

Ayurveda sees the Self as a 3 legged stool; one leg is the physical body, one is the mental/emotional body, and one is the spiritual body.  If one leg of your stool has been neglected, set your intention to focus on that leg!

Feeling exceptionally joyful? Consider dedicating your practice to someone else who could benefit from your practice like a prayer. Imagine them watching you and send them your blessings at the end of class.

If the spiritual, esoteric and philosophical components of yoga do not appeal to you, set an intention purely for the physical body.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being completely easeful and 10 being extremely challenging, pick a number for your practice and honor that.

And if you don’t practice yoga, you can still benefit from the daily mindfulness of intention.

Namaste, Megan

Breaking Through the Self

I celebrate Earth Day coming from the inside out.  Like the hatchling, I break out first.  You may see it as a crack or a hole.

My specialized egg tooth is meditation; well equipped on the inside. Breathing the air deeply I ready myself to break free; the air that is within the egg.  Like the egg tooth itself, all dissolves.

Then I have to peck to break out. This takes consistent effort. Rajas – passion, energy and motion. Not just when my butt is on the cushion or the mat is rolled out; daily with self-love and discipline; striving toward my goal. The yolk that sustains me is tapas – the fire of desire.

Working in circles, using its wings for propulsion and feet to kick, the chick takes rest in between pipping. Permission to spend more time on the inside to strengthen when what is outside is hard. I cannot break out until I land.

Some chicks are preoccupied with the pecking itself…always trying to do, learn, expectations, accumulations, letting busy be a distraction.  Mistaking grace for boredom. Release and allow.

My tendency is to let the shell become armor for the Self. I will not let it harden ever again. Rest and peck the way nature intended. Too much substance breeds self-doubt. Tamas – complete darkness holding and limiting me.  Engage in outer activity. Break that shell.

Be open to the forces coming from the outside. Who breaks into me? Teachers? Loved ones? Difficult neighbors? View them all with a non-rejecting mind. They are here to help me find freedom. Agitations and affirmations coax me out equally. They peck in as I peck out.

My pecking out.  Their pecking in. They lead to the same place – life history, experiences, stories, all that is in my shell. In me, but not me.  I will break out.

Mother Earth supports transformation in spring. This chick will decide for herself when she is ready. My only goal is to break out. The final push, with no urgency to fly.

Love and Light,
Megan