intention.

intention.

I firmly believe that the most powerful way to deepen your yoga practice is to confidently set an intention before the class begins.  In the Ashtanga tradition, we set this intention while standing in samastitihi (equal attention pose) which grounds us in the space before we begin moving.  Standing tall, pressing equally into the four corners of our feet, we listen for the sound of our breath to experience present moment awareness.  Your intention, or sankalpa, can be set while you are seated, while you are lying down, or while you are parking your car on the street before even entering the studio.  It is important to set an intention for each practice that is deeper than ‘I’d like to tone my inner thighs, please,’ or ‘Today I will master handstands.’

The Buddha is attributed with saying, “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.”  This is meant to remind us that our bodies are a physical manifestation of our thought energy.  Your practice is only as deep as your intention for it.  If your mind is busy planning your grocery shopping list (like mine often is on Thursday mornings before I head to Trader Joe’s that evening) then your practice will be superficial as well.  If all it took was a strong handstand to achieve enlightenment, then every college mascot would be living the high life.  My undergrad mascot happened to be played by a very close friend of mine, and I would absolutely attribute Zac as being (top 10) one of the funniest people I know, but perhaps his ability to walk down a flight of stairs on his hands (true story) didn’t ultimately lead him to a state of blissful Union.  In other words: our practice is intimately influenced by the quality of our thoughts. 

I ask students to choose one word that represents a quality they would like to cultivate in their lives.  Patience.  Kindness.  Healing.  Energy.  Strength.  This thought can be your intention.  After a few months of practicing with me, my friend Adelaide confided in me that her recent move back to the Midwest and recent job change in the competitive world of advertising had resulted in a sense of insecurity.  For several years she’d practiced yoga on and off, but now had re-committed to daily practice, and this had changed everything.  She sent me this e-mail:

“You have honestly made a difference in my life and helped me restore confidence and self-acceptance that I had let wane during recent tense life moments.

 I feel immensely better about myself and my surroundings since I’ve chosen to incorporate yoga and your teachings into the flow of how I live.”

 The movement of your practice is not what is special: what is special is your intention behind the movement.  Yoga designed to develop faith, grace, and reconciliation with your own body.  Yoga is designed to heal. 

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Set an intention at the beginning of every class.  Every practice.  Every time.  It may be helpful to repeat a personal script that firmly sets an intention.  You can write your own, or you can just use mine.  I think it works pretty well.  (I mean, I’m not enlightened yet, but I’m working on it!)

“With my breath, I set my intention for this practice.  I renew my commitment to practice with integrity and with passion.

With my breath, I set aside this time for me.  Everything that happened before this practice and everything that will happen after this practice can wait outside.  I dedicate this time to healing myself so that I can bring healing and hope to my community. 

May I breathe for myself and also for my neighbors.  May I be a vessel of Divine Love and Grace.  May this practice be a blessing of health, happiness, and wholeness.”

 

Happy practicing,  with love,

-lisa

tunes

tunes.

The two most common questions asked of me:

Q: Can I pet your adorable dog?

A: YES! Because Russell Clive is the most joyful, cuddliest dog in the whole wide world.

AND

Q: Who was on your playlist for that class?  (Followed by: I loved your music!)

A: While I can’t provide you with the rights to any of these songs (or the cash to buy them on iTunes), here are some of my favorite artists who make their way onto my Tunes Lists:

Artist, Album

City and Colour, Bring Me Your Love

Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal

Scott Matthews, Passing Stranger

Damien Rice, 9

Alexi Murdoch, Time Without Consequences

Vampire Weekend, Contra

Ben Lee, Awake is the New Sleep

All of these albums boast songs that inspire conscious movement.  Music can be a powerful tool to synchronize your mind with your movement.  However, music during your yoga practice can also be a distraction.  First and foremost: the tempo of your practice should be led by your inhale and your exhale.  Let the breath be the soundtrack to your practice… but if you want some background music… enjoy these tunes.

-lisa

(Thanks to Ciara for providing these kind words and reminding me to post some music suggestions!)

“Everything clicks for me when I practice yoga with Lisa.  Lisa is so full of life!  Her energy is positive and joyful.  When she speaks during class, her words are genuine, encouraging, and peaceful.  I especially love the music she plays in her classes.  I am so grateful to Lisa for helping me to take charge of my physical and mental health through practicing yoga.” – Ciara

 

n.b.d.

n.b.d.

Recently, over a soup and salad lunch at my favorite within-walking-distance café, a friend jokingly said to me, “So, what’s the deal with yoga?”

Me: “Oh, yeah. I teach yoga full time, now.  No big deal, really.  I love yoga and I love teaching, so my life is pretty much the best.”

Him: “So, no big deal, you just tell people how to stretch and relax…?”

Me: “Yeah, n.b.d.” <btw, n.b.d. is the only text-talk acronym that I condone in spoken conversation. It’s hilarious.>  “You just stretch, and learn to relax into yourself and eventually… improve everything in your entire life and begin to transform the way you perceive and react in the world to become more conscious and aware, more compassionate and whole, more happy and continuously healthy… n.b.d.”

Him: “Right. Everything in your entire life changes. And you can also put your legs behind your head. No big deal.”

Me: “Right.”

When someone relatively new to yoga conjures a mental image of a yoga class, he imagines a candlelit room filled with people in home-spun wool socks and tie-dyed bell bottoms sprawled on the floor in utterly impossible body configurations.  Or he imagines a mirror-lined multi-purpose gym room packed with sweaty guys in neon shorts and hott girls in spandex leotards spotting each other in handstands.  He may think that doing yoga will help him lose a few extra pounds or stretch out his shoulders from years of lifting and plyo exercises.  It probably will.  Come on in.  If you take enough yoga classes, you probably have a six-pack, a good butt, and flexible shoulders.  If you work hard enough, your body will let go of years of tension in the hips, recover from stress in the low back, and become reasonably flexible.  But you’ll be missing the point.

Yoga may appear to be merely (or impressively) stretching the muscles in the body; it is so much more than that. Yoga is actually a stretch of the mind, the breath, and the spirit.

 Why do I practice and teach yoga?  Because I’m captivated by the idea of healing my body in order to heal my mind, my heart, and my community.   Because I simply love the way my body feels after practicing yoga.  Because I crave the promised moment of stillness that is undeniably healing after a yoga practice.  Because I admire the communities within the walls of yoga studios, created by people of all sizes and ages who wish to create peace within their own hearts.

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photo cred EMA

Yoga invites the practitioner to undertake a beautiful journey to discover self-knowledge.  World-renowned yoga instructor Seane Corn reminded me that, as a yoga teacher, my job is not to teach anything at all.

My job is to create a space within a yoga class for my students to uncover what is already within their hearts: pure, divine light and love. 

So in some ways, yes, yoga is no big deal. Any person of any age and any shape can do it.  One of my favorite students, Shalimar, started her practice with me when she was six weeks old.  She wasn’t fit or toned; she didn’t even wear yoga clothes, just a diaper and onesie. Another one of my favorite students, Dale, is 72 and arthritic, so he definitely doesn’t put his legs behind his head or do handstands.  Any person, any time, any place: if you are breathing then you are reaching out with your Spirit, invoking healing and grace into our body.  If you are moving with awareness, which is what we practice in a yoga class by taking shapes with our body, then you are consciously transforming your experience with your life.

The deal with yoga is this: because you are alive, you are blessed.  Because you are breathing, you are blessed.  Because you are moving, you are blessed.  You are entitled to a life that is filled with compassion, with health, and with happiness simply because at your core you are nothing but pure, divine light and love.

Come take a class with me.  Go take a class with anyone.  No Big Deal: Just Breathe.  Heal.  Transform.

photo cred: SFA

~lisa

light and Om for this year.

light and Om this year.

Chanting, which is merely a vocalization of prayer, has long been a significant part of the yoga tradition.  Likewise, singing and chanting are hallmarks of worship rituals in many world religions. Because our modern-day American society is (more than slightly) disconnected from the ancient Indian culture that birthed the practice of yoga, my students are often initially uncomfortable with chanting in yoga class.  However, the reverberation of sacred sounds does not need to be daunting.  It can be a profoundly moving experience if approached with an open mind and willing breath.

Modern day science substantiates that sound can be a healing modality.  Neurobiologists are currently experimenting with sound as therapy for healing cancer (google search Dr. Fabian Maman, this is really incredible) and cardiac specialists will agree that the heart is the largest electromagnetic transmitter in the human body.  Science also substantiates that all matter contains movement: electrons are constantly in motion even within particles that appear still and solid.  Living beings, then, each resonate at their own movement and sound frequency.  To paraphrase Dr. Jay Kumar of Loyola Marymount University, when the biological body is in harmony with the resonance of the emotional body, then the whole body is in health. “If we begin to heal as individuals, the planet begins to heal as whole,” Kumar explains, “Union within self manifests as union out into the world.”  Harmony = Health.  Harmony = The aspiration of yoga.  Chanting is one way that we can attune our vibrational frequency to the frequency of health.

To examine our relationship with chanting, we approach first the sound of Om, which is used at the beginning of class to set the tone for the yoga asana practice.

Chanting Om is chanting the sound of creation.  All living beings resonate at a specific vibration, but the vibrational frequency of the sound Om is the underlying frequency of  ALL creation.  You may think of it as the hum of the universe before matter was created from First Light.

Most of us have seen the Sanskrit symbol for this sound, but know little about its meaning.  I have this image of Om tattooed on my right foot:

om-symbol

When I was teaching first grade, during story time I’d cross my knees in my ‘teacher chair,’ leaving my foot dangling precariously close to the face of my front row student.  Two or three times a week, my story was interrupted:  “What’s on your foot?  Are you 30?!  Ms. Ash, you’re OLD!”

Me: “No, it’s a different word. It’s not written in English.  It’s a special sound in a language called Sanksrit. It’s another word for God.”

My first grade friend: “Oh. So are you 30? I’m only 6. My mom is 31, she tells me not to tell anyone that, but I don’t think she’ll care that I tell you.  When I have a birthday I’m going to ask for a PlayStation and then I’ll be 7!….<and on and on and on>”

Eventually we’d get back to the story.  (Eventually.)

The Om symbol, written in Sanskrit, which is the language of the ancient Yogic Texts, does look like the number 30 written in Hindu-Arabic numerals, but each stroke of the Om symbol has a specific meaning.  There are three main strokes, or arcs, in the symbol.  Each stroke represents a state of consciousness (thought pattern) which is explained in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  The first stroke represents waking consciousness, the second represents dream consciousness, and the third represents the deep-sleep consciousness.  The sound of Om combines the vibration from all three states of consciousness in order to realize the potential of the fourth state of consciousness, which is beyond words and concepts—it is true unity with all creation and with the God of your own understanding.  I don’t have this symbol tattooed on my foot because I’m 30 years young (30 isn’t old, Jen).  It is tattooed on my foot as a permanent and gentle reminder that every moment of waking consciousness (or every moment of sleeping consciousness, for that matter) can be spent tuning into the frequency of love.  The resonance of unity always manifests as love and healing.

Chanting Om is acknowledging that you are one tiny-yet-important drop in the ocean of humanity, and that you can overcome the illusion of separation (often manifested as desperation) from an infinite source of healing. Chanting Om is a Sacred gift of health and unity.

 

“When you come to chant Om, then, believe and know that you are chanting the most sacred syllable, one that corresponds to the most intimate and holy sound of the cosmos.  Believe and know that you are chanting at once the sound of your own inmost Divine Consciousness, the sound that the entire creation is always resonating to, and the sound that the Godhead makes as it creates reality… Rest in the great joy and peace that this recognition brings.” -a. harvey, The Hope

 When you need a moment of ease in your life, savor the sound of Om.   Chanting it (even once) will ‘tune’ your thoughts into a state of health and happiness.  Vocalizing a prayer for health, happiness and wholeness is a powerful practice to embrace.   We will continue to uncover the power of Sanksrit chanting and vocalized prayers over the next several weeks in these blog posts.  For now,

 Light and Om to you.

-lisa

Harvey, A.  (2009.) The hope: A guide to sacred activism.  Carlsbad, CA: HayHouse Publishing  available from http://www.andrewharvey.net/

2014 svadhyaya reading list (as promised!)

Here it is:  2014 reading list

The niyama svadhyaya implores yoga practitioners to seek wisdom through self-study.  This has two implications:

  1. First, svadhyaya asks you to seek wisdom in written texts.  They should be texts that are personally meaningful to you; anything that is inspiring is appropriate.  The list could include: the Yoga Sutras, texts of world religions such as the Christian Bible or the Hindu Upanishads, ancient poetry of the mystics or contemporary prose of modern poets, self-help books written by respected cultural critics, yoga practice manuals, vegetarian cook-books, or even your own journal.  Any text that inspires introspection will increase your momentum on your spiritual path.
  2. Second, svadhyaya asks you to use your asana (physical) practice as a setting for self-study.  This means that every pose on your mat is an opportunity to find and meet your physical edge, without moving beyond it.  For example, the ability to focus your eyes on your thumbs in utkatasana (chair pose) is a study of your personal will to ‘stick with it even when the going gets tough.’ The avoidance of urdhva dhanurasana (backbending) may disclose deep seated fears which you thought you had previously conquered.  Basically, every time your feet find the mat, you are engaging in self-study.

I challenge you to engage in svadhyaya in 2014 and to dedicate yourself anew to embracing your own spiritual growth.

Many of my students have asked for book recommendations.  So, here’s my 2014 svadhyaya list for you (alphabetical by author), including one favorite quote from each book:

 1.  The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga by Deepak Chopra

“Yoga encourages you to be as familiar with your inner world of thoughts, feelings, memories, desires, and imagination as you are with the outer world of time, space, and causality.  When you can move through both the inner and the outer domains of life with freedom and finesse, you fulfill the highest purpose of yoga.” (p. 97)

 2.  Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates

“We show up, we burn brightly in the moment, live passionately, and when the moment is over, when our work is done, we step back and let go.”  (p. 416)

3. Heart Yoga: The Sacred Marriage of Yoga and Mysticism by Andrew Harvey and Karuna Erickson

“The foundation of yoga rests in non-violence (ahimsa) and truth (satya).  Honor yourself by being fully present with compassion and joy, and this will prepare you to enter the deep meditative and transformative states that the practices are designed to engender.  Compassion is the beginning, the means, and the end of heart Yoga…” (p. 18)

 4.  The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners by Jack Hawley

“When [the mind] can rest steady and undistracted in contemplation of the True Self Within, you will be enlightened and completely united in love with the Divine.  This is where yoga reaches its culmination: the merging of individual consciousness in Cosmic Consciousness.  This is nothing less than the goal of life!” (p. 23)

 5. A Life Worth Breathing by Max Strom

“Your spirituality, however you define it, can be infused into your body so that you radiate who you are from your soul—and what you stand for in this world… I am referring to your life purpose, the vision of your soul’s desire.  Once you do this, your mind will begin to see the world in a way that supports that vision.” (p. 28).  

Have another recommendation? I’d love to hear from you!  (My bookcases are pretty full, but I’ve got Christmas gift cards ready to be put to good use.)  Your thoughts are always welcome.

~lisa

blessing for tomorrow

IMG_0691 Happy New Year.

a blessing for tomorrow

by John O’Donahue

“may you recognize in your life

the presence,

power, and light of your soul.

may you realize that you are never alone,

that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.

may you have respect for your individuality and difference.

may you realize that the shape of your soul is unique,

that you have a special destiny here,

that behind the façade of your life

there is something beautiful and eternal happening.

may you learn to see yourself

with the same delight, pride, and expectation

with which God sees you in every moment.

 

may you invest in your own spiritual journey and

pursue a life of health, happiness, and wholeness in 2014.

Happy New Year!

~lisa

dwelling in the light

Quote

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“We are to think of ourselves as immortals, dwelling in the light, encompassed and sustained by spiritual powers.  The steady effort to hold this thought will awaken dormant and unrealized powers, which will unveil to us the nearness of the eternal.”                           – Charles Johnston 

This says it all: the life of a yogi is sustained and encompassed by Light.  The holiday season begs me to dedicate (even a few) minutes of silence in nearness to the Eternal. It hardly matters if you are religious, if you are non-religious, if you have never practiced yoga, or if you practice every day: the Eternal is always near. During the holidays, I am very aware of the mystic, magical quality of life.  Amid the twinkle lights and the holiday decorations, every moment becomes magical.  The Eternal is near to us in the effervescent joys, the promises of love, and the moments of witnessed compassion.

Yogi’s are born mystics and born seekers: always looking for a way to discover more light and joy in this world.  Mysticism is the belief that union with the Absolute may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender. It is the belief that the Eternal is near enough to touch.  It is the Light. May you dwell in the Light this Holiday Season.

behind your heart there is courage

This article was originally published on lisaashyoga.worpress.com “articles and insights page” October 2013.

“Behind your heart there is courage and behind your heart there is fear. 

You choose.”

Last week, seven teenage girls in state-issued baggy sweatpants unrolled borrowed mats haphazardly in a conference room-turned-yoga-studio and flopped themselves down on the floor, looking at me with skeptical anticipation.  Their looks said to me: “I might do what you tell me to, but I’m probably not going to enjoy it.”  One girl groaned dramatically at the effort it took to sit down on her mat, the whole room laughed nervously; that was my cue to begin.

We chatted for a few minutes about the history of yoga.  I expected questions about the physical benefits, the psychological gains, or the philosophical underpinnings of this great tradition.  They asked me: “You got any kids?” and “How old are you?”  I could tell I was really getting through to them.

 Tadasana.  Mountain Pose.  I asked them to stand tall on two feet, close down their eyes, and bring their hands down by their sides.  I explained that the stillness within the asana practice is often the most difficult part of the practice: being still takes courage.  Being still takes trust.  When I peeked up, one of my ‘students’ was standing in front of me, arms crossed, hip cocked to the side, lips pursed and eyes challenging my every statement. Her guarded heart told me she felt too vulnerable to close her eyes.  Being still takes trust.

These girls, aged thirteen to sixteen, are residents in a rehabilitation program for youth exiting the juvenile criminal justice system.  Sometimes a dozen girls live here, hoping to re-enter the public education system and rejoin their families when their probation period ends.  While these ladies are criminals in the eyes of the law, they are not deviant; they are young souls trapped in fear and surrounded by unhealthy influences in their home communities.  Many of the girls were arrested while following their boyfriend’s prerogative.

I led the girls through beginner level asanas, trying desperately to convince them with every breath to take this practice seriously.  They weren’t convinced.  In utkatasana (chair pose), I reminded them that sometimes life gets difficult: we practice difficult, strenuous asanas on the mat so that when life gets challenging off the mat, we react with courage and strength, not fear and desperation.  One girl nodded, clenched her teeth and bent her knees a little deeper.  One girl gave up and rolled her eyes.  Another girl sighed loudly in relief when we stood tall out of the pose; her reward was a courtesy laugh from the others.

I then led the class through a Warrior Series, digging deeply into their foundation of strength.  I asked them to practice being present on their mat, even if they’d rather be somewhere else.  All of them would rather have been somewhere else.  And I realized: these girls don’t have a choice.  In this program, they are told when sleep, what to eat, where to go, and how to dress.  At home, they are told they aren’t good enough, that they will never be anything better than their crime, that they won’t ‘make it’ in life, and that they will never be a member of a healthy community which sees them as an individual of worth.  Where can they base their foundation of strength?

So we sat down.

And I introduced Durga.  Immediately, all eyes were glued to the illustration of this untamed goddess riding a lion, fierce hair blowing wildly, wielding a weapon in each of her eight hands.  Durga is the Warrior Goddess of Protection and Inner Strength.  She is the contemporary icon of liberation and power; she is what these girls need.

durga ladyy

I told the myth of Durga and her epic entrance into the cosmic battle between two armies of men who wanted to control the heavens and the earth.  The armies were led by two demon brothers who had (stealthily) struck a deal with Brahman earning themselves invincibility.  The deal was that no man or god could defeat them in battle.  These demon brothers took over.  Everything.  The ‘good guys’ (called devas in this mythological system) didn’t have a chance for several thousand years.  Until a wise yogi visited the court of the devas and pointed out a loophole in the demons’ deal: no one said anything about a woman.

Enter: Durga.

Sally Kempton writes that Durga is, “Not just a battle goddess…She is also the power behind spiritual awakening, the inner force that unleashes spiritual power within.”  Durga is the accumulation of all that is admirable in the feminine force: strength, empowerment, compassion, capacity for caretaking, and unwarranted wisdom.  She kicks butts and takes names.

She challenges the demon brothers and their armies in battle and crushes their egotistic perceptions about goddesses.  She wins.

She wins because she recognizes that she has a duty to always stand up for what is right, not just what is easy.  She wins because she is a strong woman with strong convictions.  She wins because she chooses courage over fear.  Durga is exactly what these girls need.

durga eye

I challenged the girls to stand back up, but this time, to stand in power.  To stand tall with courage.  To stand up for what is right.  To stand up like they are worth something.

We took the Warrior Series on the second side, and this time, the girls were transformed.  Instead of sullen, self-conscious teenagers, I saw women cultivating the strength to choose between fear and courage.  We practiced Vrksasana (tree pose) and I reminded them that life is not about giving up, it’s about giving in to the force of God that loves and sustains us, even when everyone else leaves us out to dry.  Every girl fell out of her balance pose.  Every girl got back in. This practice was a success.  

I left the ladies with this thought:

“Behind your heart there is courage and behind your heart there is fear.  You choose.”

I leave you with this thought, and encourage you always to choose wisely.

Sally Kempton.  Awakening Shakti: The transformative power of the goddesses of yoga. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Publishing, 2013.