We've had an odd winter, with fluctuating temperatures and not a lot of snow. (As much as some would want to deny it, climate change is real, and if you're tuned into the Earth, you'll sense something definitely feels out of whack.) According to Ayurveda, it's exactly when the weather fluctuates or seems "not right" for the season that our bodies get confused and lose equilibrium. Ayurveda - the "sister science of yoga" - believes that food is medicine. Thus, eating nourishing, grounding winter veggie soups right now is a great way to help maintain balance of mind and body.
I make this soup for lunch, at least once a week all year long, using seasonal produce so that it's appropriately balancing whatever time of year it might be. It’s quick, taking less than 20 minutes from start to finish, and perfect when you want to feel deeply nourished and satisfied, but not full or bloated.
This seasonal "Winter Warming" version is rich, hearty and stew-like, and helps to balance vata dosha, the air and space elements of our bodies, which are easily sent out of whack during this wildly fluctuating New England Winter weather. I’ve included chopped carrots and fennel, and chopped kale. The colors are lovely, sunny and bright. Served with or without basmati rice, it’s a perfectly satisfying, delicious meal!
Winter Warming Chick Pea & Red Lentil Soup
3 TBS olive oil (alternatively, you could use ghee if you’re not vegan)
1 1/2 Tsp fennel seeds
1 1/2 Tsp coriander seeds
1 1/2 Tsp cumin seeds
1 Tsp ground turmeric
Pinch of hing or asaphoetida
2 TBS tomato paste
2 carrots, cut into thin slices or 1/2 inch cubes
5-6 inches of leek, cleaned and chopped into short ribbons (omit if you’re avoiding alliums - but if so, double the hing!)
1/2 of a medium head of fennel (chop the delicate fennel fronds if you have them, to use as garnish!)
1 cup red lentils, rinsed well in several washes until the water runs clear, then drained
1 can chick peas, rinsed well and drained.
4-6 cups of water, depending upon how thick you like your soup.
1/2-1 tsp salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1 cup chopped fresh greens like spinach, chard or dino kale
1/2 a can of coconut milk
Dried unsweetened organic coconut, for garnish
In a warming dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot, add oil or ghee, then leeks, carrots, and fennel., and sweat for a bit until they take on a shine, 2-3 minutes. Heat should be medium-low, and make sure that the leeks (if using) don’t char. Meanwhile, place coriander, fennel and cumin seeds in a mortar and pestle, and grind until they’ve broken down considerably (they need not become a powder, but you want to break up the coriander seeds fairly well; if you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can use powdered versions of these spices, but reduce to 1 Tsp each.)
Add spices to the cooking veggies, along with the turmeric and hing. Stir for 2-3 minutes, then add tomato paste. Stir again for 2 minutes to coat veggies, then add rinsed red lentils and chick peas and salt. Stir to coat everything for 30 seconds, then add water, scraping the pot well to incorporate everything.
Bring to a low simmer, cover the pot and cook 20 minutes, or until the red lentils have begun to disintegrate. This soup is really hearty enough on it’s own, but if you want to make it even more rich, add up to a half a can of coconut milk about halfway through, and stir to combine.
Check to see that the soup is not getting dried out or boiling down too quickly—add more water as necessary to maintain a stew-like consistency. Root veggies should be cooked through, but not mushy. Once the red lentils and carrots are cooked, if desired, add a cup of chopped greens and stir.
Take the pot off the heat once they greens are bright and heated through. Adjust salt & pepper to taste, and serve topped with a scattering of the dried coconut (which in this picture looks a lot like parmesan, but truly isn't!) the fennel fronds if you’ve got them (I've added a big dash of Herbal Salt from Burlington, VT's excellent Railyard Apothecary) plus a tiny pinch of turmeric. Enjoy!
Simple Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Nadi shodhana (sometimes called "alternate nostril breathing", often called "nerve purification" but literally meaning "channel" or even "tube" cleansing) was highly recommended by the "root guru" of the yoga lineages I teach, the "Father of Modern Yoga" TKV Krishnamacharya, seen above practicing nadi shodhana at age 87. This is a safe, effective pranayama practice for mental clarity, for calming the mind and body, for dealing with stress, anxiety, fear. It is also a preparatory practice for deeper and more challenging pranayama practices. From my own experience as a dedicated daily nadi shodhana practitioner of about 20 years, and from teaching it to many students over the past decade, it is the easiest, gentlest and most effective form of pranayama, accessible to all, when done correctly. Folks with high blood pressure and who are pregnant may do this practice without any retentions/holding of the breath.
-To practice nadi shodhana, sit comfortably, and ideally, relax your shoulders, soften your jaw, breath gently, and make a mudra with your right hand, called vishnu mudra.
(If Vishnu Mudra doesn't work, simply use the thumb and forefinger of the right hand, or alternatively, place the middle and index fingers of the right hand on your third eye/brow, and use the thumb and ring/pinky from that angle.)
-Breathe in a relaxed way, fully and deeply through both nostrils, for a few breaths.
-Then, block your right nostril with the right thumb (not at the "hole" but further up closer to the place where the soft tissue meets the bone.) Inhale gently and slowly through the left nostril until comfortably "filled up", then block the left nostril as well with your right ring and pinky fingers.
-Softly retain the breath on the inhale for a brief moment, then release your thumb and exhale through the right nostril slowly and fully. Then, inhale through the right nostril, another soft, very brief inhale retention with both nostrils closed, and finally, exhale fully out the left. This is one round. Practice nadi shodhana for 3-6 rounds.
-Finish nadi shodhana by exhaling out of the left nostril on the last round, then drop your hand, breathe through both nostrils a few times, and notice how you feel. Then go about the rest of your day, ideally with more clarity and vitality.
Practice Notes & Tips: The inhales and exhales should be even in length and quality. Never force, don't strain: simply follow the prana as it flows, from one nostril to the next, back and forth, up and down, as you relax and breathe fully. Ideally, the breath length should be a minimum of 5 seconds for the inhale and 5 seconds exhale. The length of the breath can be extended as you become more proficient, but again, never strain to do so.
Remember, don't abuse yourself or compete with yourself with any yoga practice. Be gentle, and care for the temple of your mind and body by taking it slow and easy, never forcing. Do 3-6 rounds with a 10 second breath (5/5) every day for a month and develop a good habit. Then perhaps try to increase as you feel ready to longer breaths for the next month, increasing until your breathing is slow, steady and easy. Our ancestors had much slower breaths than we modern domesticated humans do, and so perhaps one way for you to help our planet as an individual is to slow down and be mindful about your own breathing in this simple way! The slow and steady approach is better than blasting yourself with many, many rounds a few days, and then never doing it again. Dedicated, daily practice and repetition is key to learning and key to proficiency in ANYTHING. Give it a try.
You might have noticed that I don't have any initials or credentials noted after my name - i.e. "Michelle Ryan, E-RYT500". Please note that, although it's sometimes helpful to have those hours listed after a yoga teacher's last name, those initials are not an indications of how many years an individual has spent practicing yoga - nor are they an indication that the teacher has studied with veteran/highly-qualified teachers.
While I've dedicated at least a thousand hours over the past 20 years of yoga practice and study to learning how to teach asana from senior teachers in the modality known as Ashtanga Yoga (and more recently, Supreme Release Yoga) I've also simultaneously sustained a consistent study of other Vedic systems of knowledge over those years, too, with a variety of highly qualified teachers of Yoga, Ayurveda, Sankrit and Mantra, too. YA letters after my name don't clearly point to the extent of my studies.
All of the teachers I've studied consistently with demonstrated a dedication to teaching traditional yoga or Vedic traditions, and all have decades of experience and scholarship within South Asian/Indian (SA) lineages of yogic knowledge - lineages that all pre-date the American Yoga Alliance (YA).
While the YA was created back in the 90's to ostensibly make the teaching of yoga "safer" through "qualification" standards here in the US, the YA has a history of ignoring and even actively denying the legitimacy of both living and deceased Indian yoga teachers and/or students of those teachers. Case in point: when I first sought to gain my E-RYT 500 credentials a decade ago after accruing over 500 hours of teacher study, I was told that because one of my teachers, Nancy Gilgoff (a gifted, qualified, wise teacher with decades of experience) was not affiliated with the YA, my hours studying with the first Western female student of Pattabhi Jois were essentially worthless in their eyes. Because Nancy Gilgoff didn't register with the YA (that is, pay them their annual dues) the YA refused to recognize her as a "legitimate" teacher. And thus, they wouldn't recognize my study with her as "legitimate", either.
As well: the teaching standards the YA have set historically for studios desiring a teacher training program have often been criticized as less rigorous, and in fact, dilutions of yoga. They are arguably culturually appropriative of Indian yoga traditions because of this dilution. The YA lowered the bar for studios wanting to create a YTT (Yoga Teacher Training) and thus, lowered the level of proficiency and education needed to teach yoga, too. The lowering of standards created both a proliferation of YTTs and a proliferation of yoga teachers, too. One sad result of so many inexperienced "yoga teachers" trying to attract students is the reliance upon gimmicks (i.e. beer yoga and goat yoga) as a means of marketing one's yoga classes.
Here's the thing: while I can't knock anyone for wanting to teach yoga, it takes mch more than 200 hours of study over the course of a year to become a really good, well rounded, informed and wise yoga teacher. It took me at least a decade of teaching yoga to become a good "yoga teacher" - and I still don't consider my self a "yoga teacher" so much as a student of yoga and a teacher of asana.
In truth, the YA is not an entirely legitimate authority on a particular person's ability to effectively and safely teach yoga. It is simply a teacher registry, one that teachers must pay dues to each year in order to remain on said registry.
So, I boycott the YA; I ended my affiliation with the organization in 2012 when they refused to honor the hours I studied with Nancy Gilgoff. You will not see a series of letters after my name, as these initials are not an indication of the ability to effectively and safely share traditional yoga or yoga practices.*
What underlies the proliferaton of YTTs here is an onerous economy which makes it nary impossible to sustain a yoga studio on the proceeds of yoga classes alone. The main problem/cost of doing business lies in the skyrocketing cost of rent in most urban areas. And so, to keep their doors open, many studios are reduced to enticing earnest, wellmeaning, and unsuspecting students with comparatively little yoga experience, onto a premature pathway towards "teaching."
Now, I know first-hand how hard it is to keep your doors open when you are running a yoga studio, so I don't want my studio-owning friends who run YTTs to think I'm a huge jerk that doesn't understand the situation (especially when you are trying to both keep your studio doors open AND a roof over your head and food in your belly teaching yoga.) I owned two different studios in ten years, and it was a struggle to keep our doors open most of the time. Rent went up every year, competition was fierce, and what money I did earn went right back into my own studies. It was a labor of love, but like most studio owners, I got fairly burnt out after a few years - so depleted by studio ownership that all the yoga in the world could not replenish me. But, I am stubborn, and kept going "for the students" and my fellow teachers (and, mea culpa, I did have another income source that made it possible for me to keep my doors open without resorting to a YTT - and we teachers ran the studio as a collective, too, which made the strain easier to bear.)
But, it was month to month, always. I got very burnt out to the point that it affected my health, but struggled on regardless. It only took a global pandemic to force me to close down!
The model of the Western Yoga studio simply does not work, for a variety of reasons, including:
-the folly of monetizing the very thing that brings you joy;
-the questionable ethics of commodifying a sacred indigenous knowledge system that has not been a part of your own ancestral heritage and/or your long term personal history;
-capitalizing on said system prematurely simply because it seems more fulfilling than a 9-5 job in corporate America. ("Follow your bliss" does not mean it's a good idea to commodify that bliss.)
It is far more lucrative to open up your studio one weekend a month for 10 months and provide a "teacher training" charging (last time I checked) an average of $3,000 for 200 hours of yoga teacher training. Register ten or so students, and that's $30,000, which really takes the pressure off.
And, it is the YA that has made the YTT as cash cow model possible for struggling studios, through endorsing a very basic 200 hours of teacher training as constituting "qualification" for the enormous responsibility of teaching "yoga" (really, what most of us teach is asana or yoga fitness, but that's another rant.) Read the YA's 200 hour standards here.
I must reiterate that there are many, many excellent, highly qualified yoga schools and yoga teachers offering YTTs here in the US, and I have partaken of them! But, Caveat Emptor. Because of the YA's lower standards, (which have only in recent years been updated to be a tad more stringent) there are also many schools that are NOT excellent. And with the pandemic came the rush to online YTTs, so the situation became much worse, with offerings abounding of 200 hour YTTs that provided little to no hands-on practicum, being advertised widely on social media by teachers looking to cash in. (I know of one online 200 hour Yoga Alliance Certified virtual YTT during 2020 that was billed at only $200! You get what you pay for, people. It was a money grab, plain and simple.)
Here's the thing: I get it, you want to teach yoga. That's great! My advice:
-Be a student for a long time. With one or two teachers who resonate with you. Go to their classes every week, multiple times a week, for several years. Support them as teachers, with your attention and money, for several years BEFORE you take their YTTs, if they do offer one. If you can, study with their teachers, too!
-Cultivate discernment. Seek out the highest quality schools with compassionate, veteran teachers within one lineage or modality of yoga, not several styles. Dig your well in one place.
-Be patient and make a committment to a consistent and reverent daily yoga practice, for years. Learn how to look within, self inquire into true motives for teaching, and ask someone whose opinion you trust to be honest for their advice, preferably someone objective within the yoga world who has also studied for a long time.
*More information on the YA and this who issue can be found here in the WSJ, here in The NY Times, and here on Ideafit.
Spring Cleansing Kitchari Recipe
I cleanse my body every Spring the Ayurvedic way, following a simple monodiet protocol of kitchari, daily abhyanga, gentle yoga, and an earlier bedtime for 5-7 days! Never done a cleanse? A plethora of Spring cleanse options are available online, and I endorse these trusted ones: be guided by or cleanse collectively with Alicia Hunter, Kate O’Donnell, or Dr. Vasant Lad.
And if you just don’t feel like doing a cleanse, but want to eat a little cleaner, try my favorite kitchari recipe for a couple of days, along with yoga and bed time, for a mini reset.
Michelle’s Kitchari Recipe (adapted from the Ayurvedic Center of Vermont's One Pot Kitchari Recipe)
This is a great recipe that I've done dozens of times and really love. It can be made all in one pot by skipping the tempering of the ghee with the ground spices in a separate pan by simply adding these all to the pot instead.
The thing we have all been conditioned to believe about menopause is that once we are no longer fertile, we are nothing, worthless, in this society. It's just not true! (Die patriarchy.) Meanwhile, I will share are story that, when I first heard it, gave me a sense of empowerment and hope. Even if you find it to be a tad too "woo woo," it is nevertheless a good way of explaining our reality, or rather, a good story to help understand a woman’s body at each of its stages - and to heal your relationship with it, perhaps. It's shared with that goal. Here goes:
Women are blessed by the bodies they are born into because those bodies have the *potential* for transformation into distinct stages, bodily forms, not just once, but several times during the life of that body. With each transformation comes the ability to also transform and evolve/grow the mind - in wisdom, compassion and power
The body/mind of a child evolves into the body/mind of the *potentially* fertile woman upon onset of menses. The body that experiences menses and chooses to sensitize itself to that experience fully can become attuned to the movements of the moon - hence menses, which means “month” ultimately “moon.” Because the blood flows downwards each month, naturally without our mentally willing it, the body can become attuned to and connected to the earth, too. Hence, the fertile body has the potential to connect deeply with its biome. So, menses is a wonderful thing, the blood is not dirty but cleanses, and is a great blessing, it is not a "curse" as we have been told (again, Die Patriarchy), but I won't go into why here.
The fertile young body can become a new body before menopause, as it sometimes may become pregnant with new life. Pregnancy, in other words, creates a new body, another stage to inhabit and explore for a time, experiencing the sacred and mysterious sharing of the body with another human, intimately, as well as becoming the portal for new life and the experience of labor and delivery. Not all obtain a fertile body, nor do all explore the opportunity of the pregnancy body - either through choice or circumstance. Nor does the life-bearing body signify that the identity associated with that body is somehow "more of a woman". Not at all. It is just a body (besides, the soul housed in it is genderless, ultimately.) If it is someone’s fate to bring new life into this plane of existence, great - but the pregnant body is just another potential body/form - that is all. Still, this form is also abused by patriarchy, as the control and management of the pregnant body has been ripped from those who experience it, although I sense lately a positive shift towards the sovereignty of the pregnant body. (Again, Die, die Patriarchy.)
Meanwhile, the body of the fertile young woman is most valued in modern culture, if “value” is even a good term for it. Still, we can all sense that we are conditioned by patriarchy to admire and desire that stage of the body most of all - and conversely, to judge and even hate our bodies if they do not fit this “ideal.” Yet this body cannot escape patriarchy, either, because it is objectified by its admiration—that is, it may be admired, but its sovereignty and autonomy is not respected. Yes, it is the body that is most often sought to fulfill desire, or even “love” - but I suspect rather, that the form of love or desire is wrapped up in “ownership” far too often. If that body resists ownership, then that body is sometimes destroyed by those who cannot handle being told, “No.”
Still, it is the ideal of our forms, and thus, far too many of us try to sustain this youthful body well beyond its shelf life, and we exhaust and deplete ourselves when we do so - which is why when we finally hit menopause, the “change” becomes so very difficult for many of us. Mostly because we approach it with anxiety, dread, fear, grief and loathing born of conditioning, and we enter it depleted and exhausted because our society usually puts the greatest burdens and responsibilities upon us during the time of life just before menopause, too. All of us are expected to work very hard to sustain our own lives, careers, families, homes, fearful of not “having it all” - and in the West at least, women at this stage do not enjoy the aid and comfort of the wise woman elders of our society, which historically up until very recently helped shoulder these great burdens.
Not only are most of us alone in managing this responsibilities during this very busy time, we are also conditioned to punish, abuse, starve, sculpt, stretch, shape, abrade, and generally do violence upon our bodies in order to sustain the idealized "fertile maiden" body for as long as possible. (I did this, too, for too long.) When, in fact, we should be resting as much as we can *whenever* we feel tired, in order to sustain/build resiliency to manage the next change: menopause.
So, the body of the child and the body of the pregnant woman are not as valued as the fertile young woman here. But, the body of the elder woman is the least valued, if at all, in our culture. Many of us in society, regardless of how we identify ourselves, perceive the body of the old woman as abhorrent. Many of us don’t even acknowledge it at all: the menopausal woman becomes invisible - and thus, unseen, nothing, worthless. The menopausal body is thus feared and looked upon with disgust, dismay and grief by those who are fated to inhabit it. Die die die die patriarchy.
But, the menopausal body is the body of the wise woman elder. The body that has experienced loss and joy, grief and happiness, the body that has learned lessons and experienced shocks and sufferings and gained resilience, patience, compassion, empathy and yes, wisdom - deep, deep wisdom - and with those life experiences, great power, too. Menopause, the stage of the wise woman elder, is something to be celebrated, not feared. We come into our own.
Dismantling this old story of oppression and negation, a false and evil story that tells us that the ONLY the body afforded a questionable “value” is the one we inhabit when we are young, fertile and beautiful, is a truly vital part of dismantling and ending the oppression of ourselves as individuals, oppression of women, and the hierarchy of domination and control that mostly men have over women and children on this planet, too, and all the systems upon which this domination have been built.
I heard this story a decade ago, albeit, my teacher, Nancy Gilgoff, just touched upon the stages for me, and shared the idea of the different "bodies" and the blessings of each body; the rest here are my words, born of a decade of ruminating upon the story and digesting it. But, it shifted something in me when I heard it; before it, I had been afraid of menopause, sensed it looming ahead of me with dread and anxiety. But, once heard, I thought long and hard about this story, and it was the beginning of an emancipation that literally changed who I was, changed my relationships with my husband and children, made them more healthy and whole. And, it changed how I experienced menopause, too. Once I digested this story, I found I no longer feared menopause, and actually looked forward to what was coming. And, I had an easier time than most. I entered into it finally this past year: my last menses was in February. I am so happy and proud to be a wise woman elder now.
In short, it's important that we understand how we've been conditioned to fear menopause. And I tell you, dear friends, even if you are in the midst of it now (and if you are, Congratulations, I am happy for you, and you are most welcome to this stage, my sister!) it is never too late to embrace your menopausal body: the beautiful body of the wise woman elder. And, it’s never too late to embrace and embody your inherent power—a power which goes beyond all forms.
I love this new body, this stage of life, and the wisdom and power it holds. This body is beautiful and strong and rooted in awareness of its true value and its rightful place in the consensus reality we share. This body gives NO fucks. This body is unafraid to speak truth to power. This body is wise and wonderful, and sweet and soft if it wants to be, but underneath, is as strong and resilient as the roots of a strong, tall, majestic and dignified tree or mountain.
If what happened in our nation's capitol this past Wednesday angered, saddened and disturbed you, and made you feel helpless, then I offer this story to you for your emancipation and empowerment, regardless of your gender identity. Digest it, and perhaps some day you will embrace it, too, or not. It's just a story. But, we need new stories to help free ourselves from the old, limiting, oppressive stories of a weary world which keep us enslaved and hating our bodies, perhaps addicted to the gaze of objectification, in thrall to society’s judgment of our bodies, or suffering from self-loathing, at every stage of our lives.
This story freed me; I hope it frees you, too. May we all find our way.
I know how frustrating knee pain is, and am so sorry for anyone coming here seeking advice for it's alleviation. I had pain in lotus/padmasana with my inner left knee for about two years, a decade or so ago. And, while it was frustrating as hell, I learned a lot about the practice - and myself - through this injury. (Injuries can be the best teachers!)
When I was teaching Mysore style Ashtanga from 2010-2020, I often saw this issue in students who had experience in asana before coming to study with me, that is, those who had gotten to the point of the practice where they were doing lotus/padmasana multiple times during every practice. Generally, their knees had began taking on too much torque from the hips during the posture for a variety of reasons, and that longterm micro-trauma ultimately resulted in knee pain.
I'd been practicing for about ten years before my own knee pain manifested, and it hurt and it was really frustrating. To have to "back off" was something that my assertive, pitta personality refused to even consider. And, for months, like a good pitta predominant person, I scoured the internet and complained to my teachers, and tried everything to "fix" the problem - from daily deep hip opening sequences on top of my Ashtanga practice, to glute and thigh strengthening PT movements, to deep tissue massage, cranio sacral therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments. You name it, I tried it ALL for about six months in my desire (attachment, raga, one of the kleshas or obstacles to enlightenment) to regain the progress I'd seemingly "lost."
Alas, no amount of hip opening, no PT exercises, nor strengthening the muscles in my legs, nor bodywork helped. My knee still really hurt every time I tried padmasana.
Eventually, acceptance (or maybe wisdom) kicked in, and I gave up trying to fix it. In other words, I backed off, and cultivated non-attachment/vairagya around any results or "progress" in my asana practice, and simply rested my knee and tried to just enjoy and nourish myself with my practice. I did do my full practice, and wouldn't skip the posture, but simply modified for about 6-9 months, so that the inflammation could subside fully. (I also did full body abhyanga almost daily, and recommend you do, too, with an oil that is cooling; coconut is good in the summer months as I write this, but ask an experienced Ayurvedic practitioner in your circle for a consult and recommendation of what oil you should use for your particular body type and season. Abhyanga is something most of us should be doing each day regardless of injury, imho.)
As the knee got less inflamed, I began slowly trying to bring my leg into lotus during the practice, but would never go "into" pain - because that would only bring back the inflammation, after all. Modify modify modify - and be patient. Padmasana may come back. Or, it may not. Let go. Really. Let go of the fruits of your actions and simply do your practice at a deeper level, with empathy for your body, and listening to the deep wisdom of the body, that works so hard to keep you in this plane of existence! Treat your body like a puppy that is trying to learn, and loves you unconditionally, too. In other words, don't kick or abuse it when it's not doing what you want it to do. And, I know from my own experience as a practitioner, that is something many of us tend to do in this practice.
Meanwhile. After the inflammation went down, which took about 6 months of completely backing off, I still couldn't get it beyond a certain point without feeling pain. But, one thing had changed: I began to notice that when I did urdva padmasana, it was much easier to bring my leg fully into lotus, and that there was literally NO pain when I did that posture. A mystery - why?!?
What I realized starting in that moment, and many times since, is that pattern recognition is key to much of this practice, and to moving beyond the inevitable plateaus - and injuries. What's nice about doing the sequence regularly and in a specific order is that you can really begin to see these patterns - and also their anomalies. Like my being able to do lotus upside down, but not right side up: that was an anomaly, and I noticed it because my mind had quieted enough around padmasana (finally!) - especially because I wasn't bringing myself into pain each time I did the posture. I'd accepted my current limitations, accepted what was and wasn't really trying to change anything. Vairagya. It's much harder to recognize patterns if your mind is occupied with thoughts about pain and injury, and with the raga/desire to "do the practice like I used to do it." Once I stopped striving, once I let go of trying to "get" the posture, I was able to settle my mind, its vrttis, enough to actually discover the path to healing.
And, so, from this place of curious openness, I observed what was happening when I was in urdva padmasana, and noticed that MANY things were happening in it that weren't happening when I was seated:
#1 I noticed my spine was VERY straight and engaged. No slumping or rounding of the spine at all, beyond the necessary bend at the cervical spine.* Not only was my spiny VERY straight, it was fully activated, and flowingly dynamic along the main nerve channel now at the end of my practice. To sustain the inversion sequence, my bandhas were also alive and engaged - not clenched or stiff, just awakened. And, I noticed this activation and dynamism within the spinal column/shushumna nadi, changed my relationship with my pelvis, too. I could feel more stable at my base and all along my spine, even though I was inverted, and with that stability, my hips were more....open. All because I was upside-down.
#2 I was breathing more slowly in the inversion sequence/closing than in the flowing vinyasa portion of the practice - thus, calming my mind more. When I'd do the posture seated, my breathing would unconsciously begin to speed up...I'd go into fight or flight mode in response to the pain.
#3 My drishti was down my nose and soft, quieted in the inversion sequence, and this drishti had been unchanging for many asana in a row, too. This calmed my mind further, which settled or alleviated residual anxiety within my body, too, avoiding fight or flight response. When I would do padmasana seated, I noticed I'd be staring at my knee in anticipation, willing it to feel better - generally not focused on drishti at all, but preoccupied with my thoughts. Seated, my back would hunch in anticipation of the pain, my eyes would lose focus, my breath would speed up....and like Pavlov's dog, I'd be in fight/flight/freeze even before attempting to try the posture - that is, the stimulus of the memory of the posture would create a conditioned fear response that actually changed the way I built the posture!
#4 This combination of very erect, straight spine, very calm, steady breath, very focused drishti in the inverted padmasana posture ensured that my mind was not as involved as when I did padmasana seated. My mind was, in other words, not caught up in the vrttis, the repetitive feedback loop/memory of "oh my knee hurt last time, will it hurt this time? I am afraid it will! And what a bummer if it still hurts! I'll just try it and see.... Nope, still hurts. Damn, I wish it would get better! I am bad at this, not really a good Ashtangi... How can I fix this?!" Yada yada yada, which triggered fight/flight/freeze.
(I don't like to quote him these days, because KP Jois was a teacher who hurt many students, but I must acknowledge, he did get some things right - and this statement is one of them: "The asana is correct when the mind is quiet." )
When I realized this epiphany around my fear response, the very next morning in practice, in the first seated padmasana, I came through to sit and sat very very very straight through my spine in dandasana in preparation, engaging gently through my legs, rooting within my pelvis from the crests of my sitting bones, and letting my spine rise up and hold itself up from inside with mula and uddhiyana bandha - vs tightening my hips and external rotators to keep myself erect (which is the propensity of anyone who doesn't regularly sit on the floor from childhood.) I settled my gaze softly onto a nether region a few inches from my nose. Immediately, I noticed that my hips relaxed a little bit, and my low back released some tension. Curious, and maintaining focus, and breathing slowly and steadily for several breaths, I tried to remain calm, and brought the foot into lotus...and could see that I had "gained" about 2 inches closer to my opposite hip/abdomen than the day before. Eureka!
Each day, I approached padmasana this way, gently going a hair or two closer in with my foot without pain. I still kept up with a few preliminary hip opening/PT stretches that really helped release residual hip tightness from daily living (and if you'd like to learn these, and more about my technique of rebuilding your feedback loop around injury in asana, I offer FREE virtual consulting to students who wish to learn more about my teaching methodology and who wish to study formally with me, in 30 minute increments during my upcoming "Office Hours", starting later this month.)
I set about rebuilding the feedback loop around the posture so that my fear response to pain didn't kick in - a fear response which would make me hunch my back in anticipation. Rounding my spine in fear, closing off the flow of energy which kept it erect, would subtly cause my my hips to contract in order keep myself upright! I also slowed my breath and actively calmed myself with a soft drishti down my nose in lotus each time, so as not to stir up the the fear vrttis.
After about a month of this, my lotus "came back" fully - in fact, even better than before. I came to realize what I'd been doing that was causing me to inflame the knee joint in the first place, and I used this method in a variety of other asana that were problematic to resolve those issues, too. And, this is how I ultimately taught lotus to students, too, taking the time with each one in the Mysore space to break down the specifics of prana management (because that is what we are doing when we are doing this practice) and the importance of spinal integrity in their asana practice. In fact, when our shala was open, we had very few students who experienced pain in their knees, and if they did, most folks would be able to resolve it with this method.
BUT. We must be able to accept that maybe some of us are not meant to do padmasana, through no other issue than the way our bodies are formed. Some folks femurs go naturally into internal rotation within the pelvis, making padmasana a challenge, and some have femurs whose propensity for external rotation makes the posture easier. (Note, in about 99% of people who experience ease in padmasana, triyangamukha ekapada paschimottanasana is much harder, and you will notice a similar patterning around the relationship between baddhakonasana and upavishta konasana, too. Very few practitioners can do both postures within these posture groups with ease - that is, ONE of them will always be harder - because the femurs are brought to the limits of both external and internal rotation therein, and we cannot get past the way our bones are made and integrate within our bodies. Or....
abhyasa-vairagya-abhyam tan-nirodhah Y.S 1.12
Finally, it's how we approach these so-called "limitations" that are the mark of a wise and seasoned Ashtanga practitioner - not how many spectacular asana one can do. Just enjoy your practice, and try to let it nourish you!
I hope this helps. I offer it freely as one of the many gifts that came to me from my own practice. Remember, there is no guarantee that it will work for you, but all you can do is try it, without getting too attached to the results. If you need more guidance, feel free to check in during my Office Hours, too. May we all find our way!
*Please note that not one vertebrae of your spine, including the cervical, should be on the floor in any of the closing/inversion sequence! You must be on the back of the skull and on your shoulder bones in urdva padmasana. NOT on your neck. If you do not have a solid inversion, if any part of your cervical spine is on the floor, do not try to build lotus inverted. Simply work on creating a straight and dynamic spine, breathing mindfully, slowly and deeply, and setting your drishti with strong intention and peacefulness in seated padmasana postures.
Almost four years ago, I invited a young Black woman, who I "met" through a fb group devoted to the study of Charles Eisenstein's writing, to participate in a four month Immersion Program I was teaching. She stayed with me each month during the long weekends of the program, and we came to know each other pretty well. I look upon her as one of my greatest teachers about racism and white fragility.
One day, over dinner after a long day of studying Ashtanga with me and about a dozen other white yoga students, we began to talk about social media, and I mentioned how “toxic” it had become in the era of Trump - the virulence, the hatred, the horrors I witnessed on it were so disturbing, I had to get off facebook, I told her.
She looked at me sadly and said, “You can get off facebook any time because it’s toxic, because the hate and racism distresses you. Do you realize, I can never “Get off”? Because I am Black, and for the rest of my life, I have to deal with the toxicity of being Black here in America." And, well, she let me have it. Because I needed to have it.
And, I told her I truly wanted to talk with her about it, if she was willing to help me. That I wanted to understand and learn from her. And so, she gave me a great gift, and we talked about “race” together for a long time.
She poured out to me her very justified frustration, anger and grief. She began to talk of her discomfort at being the only Black person in the studio during the program. She described to me some of the micro and macro aggressions of white people she'd experienced in her short life. She told me many things that, at the time, made me feel “triggered” and defensive. But, I remained silent, and quelled my white identity’s need to defend itself, and simply listened to her with empathy, nodding and encouraging her to continue. Finally, when she was finished, and quiet, I said, "I am so, so sorry. I thought I understood about this, but clearly, I never really have. I understand more now, and thank you for sharing this with me and helping me. I thought I’d be teaching you during this weekend, but you ended up teaching me. I want to learn more, and I want to help—what can I do to help?"
I know now this was not really a fair question to ask of her, because, although I truly wanted to help, part of me was maybe looking for a little bit of (white) absolution, too. (It’s only natural to want to “fix” problems you’ve had a hand in creating—or benefiting from. Alas, I ultimately learned that feeling of “wanting to help” - and I know many of my white friends want to help now - is just an initial step on a long road.) But, I realized my efforts at dismantling racism in America up to that point had been merely “being kind to everyone, regardless of their race” had never been enough. Not even close.
She patiently, wearily answered, "You have more power than I have, because you are a white woman. You have a privilege that I do not. You run a yoga studio. You have a following on social media. People respect you. Can you please use *your* voice and *your* power to help educate the other white people you know, and help awaken them to the suffering Black people experience every day?"
I said, simply, “Yes, I will do this.” So, I did. I began actively speaking out when I saw or heard micro aggressions and macro aggressions, too - making my fellow white people feel at the very least uncomfortable, and probably angry, too—both IRL and out here on social media. As part of that vow to her, I started learning about the necessary work of dismantling my own whiteness, too.
I am sure that a lot of people unfollowed me on social media when I started posting about racism and white supremacy. In fact, the lack of response to my agitating made me feel very lonely at times. I'd post photos of my dogs or kids, and people would respond. But, photos or essays about BIPOC/social justice issues? Mostly silence. Outside of the fellow teachers at my studio who supported my efforts, and the students who did too, most of the yoga teachers I knew did NOT show support. Most of the yoga teachers I knew remained silent when I shared something like a story about police yet again murdering a Black person. I was tone policed and subtly shamed by folks close to me—once even by one of my teachers, who laughingly referred to my “passion about these issues.”
But, I felt that it was part of the process, and knew that the loneliness, sense of ostracism and feeling of exhaustion was something Black people had to deal with every day, as my friend who’d started me on this path told me during that pivotal conversation: “I can never escape this.”
I made sure to ask other BIPOC people I knew what and how to do this work, listened to them and learned from their guidance how to educate myself more about racism. I read a lot of great books that helped me understand more. I offered a book club, where the studio read the beautiful, brilliant and raw "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin (highly recommended) and I began giving and raising money regularly to groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU. I watched movies like “13th" “12 Years a Slave” “Get Out” “I Am Not Your Negro”. And, to feel less lonely in this work, I made friends out here with other yoga folks who also were working at educating themselves and becoming more outspoken about racism and social justice. In other words, I began to really walk the talk of ahimsa that yoga teachers have been blathering on about in our yoga classes all these years.*
Practicing ahimsa - true empathy - I like to say, doesn't always come with a cookie and a pat on the head, people. Sometimes you have to suffer, too.
What I am trying to tell my fellow white yoga friends who are really feeling a deep sense of shame, sadness, remorse, and empathy right now about systemic racism and the murders of Black people in the hands of the police, to the folks who are finally using their voices of white privilege to foment justice and needed change, is thank you, but also this: the real work of deconstructing racism lies in dismantling it in yourselves FIRST. We have a long way to go. It is work which will never, ever end, because our whiteness has been imbued in us since our births here in this country—it is generational. But, until we begin to deal with our fears, delusions and own trauma around racism as white individuals, and express that process as teachers, as white people of influence and privilege, we will never see it end in our nation.
As James Baldwin wrote, “The white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being…the price of the liberation of white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.”
So, my fellow yoga teachers, in this time of COVID, when we are learning new ways of teaching and creating community, we must also learn this vital work, too. It will be part of your sadhana now. Ultimately, it is much more fulfilling than yoga practices - as long as you let go of the fruits of your efforts that is...because we may never see the real shift we need in this country for many generations. But, it starts with us, my friends, to work to create this healing, seven generations back, and seven generations ahead. Welcome to the work which you have been preparing for all of your life.
EDIT: Now, I wrote all this a couple of days ago, knowing that it was an act of "centering myself" - but I did so in that knowledge to prove a point to the folks who are only now starting to "wake up", which is: I thought I was "awake" then when I started doing this work. I WASN'T. You think you are "awake" now. You are NOT. Again, what you are experiencing in these past few days is just another step on the path.
Do not feel you have done your job because you are kneeling at protests, or posting about racial injustice for the very first time out on social media, and other white folks are responding to you positively (and fulfilling a mutual need for exoneration.)
We white folks, ALL OF US, including me, have a VERY long way to go. Besides using google to locate the exploding plethora of anti-racist resources (and there are thousands available, from books to movies, to essays, to free online courses created by BIPOC fols) I offer this excellent essay on how yoga teachers specifically can "Convert Hidden Spiritual Racism into Activism" .
Finally, I highly suggest that white folks de-center themselves now, while simultaneously putting their money where their mouth is, because change requires organization and organization requires money. DONATE to Black Lives Matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, or any number of organizations bent on dismantling racism and white supremacy, organizations that want a more just world for all of us. At the risk of virtue signaling, I will share that I donate to all three; I share this because I want white folks to see my example and FOLLOW IT, not just admire it. If you're a local student or teacher who knows me IRL, in Western Mass, DONATE to WMSURJ, which provides direct reparations to Black Americans in Western Massachusetts. Learn how to amplify the voices of BIPOC leaders, artists, writers, and most importantly for the culture of Western Yoga, BIPOC yoga teachers.
There's so much more that you can do about racism that doesn't involve making your own limited egoic self stronger, which, after all, is the point of our yoga practice: to dismantle that which veils our truest Self and causes suffering.
May we all find our way.
I watched a documentary about 10 years ago, Gasland, which blew open my mind and simultaneously filled me with despair, as it told the true story of venal, greedy energy corporations destroying lives and whole towns indiscriminately, using methods to invoke fear and mistrust amongst once united communities, to divide and conquer. It radicalized me, and yes, I have had a lot of anger since, as it woke me up, made me stop averting my eyes, made me shift, a little and a lot. After, I began the process of bearing witness to the suffering of too many human beings and the destruction of our planet, working to dismantle my own internalized adherence to systems that cause suffering too many have experienced for millennia, and all because of a fearful striving for control, money and power.
There's gotta be another way, right? But how?! ALL of us have this conditioning: to do the most expedient, money-making thing to survive, and in the process, to be a tad negligent about our planet and all the beings that live upon it, too. "Survival of the fittest" was an egregious misinterpretation that conveniently enabled us to wend our collective way towards greed and oppression, genocide and ruin. It's enough to make you despair and feel hopeless, powerless, once you finally SEE - despair that anything could ever reverse such reckless, seemingly unstoppable negligence and cruelty. (And, I think that's the intent of much of what we see out here and on MSM: to plant in us a seed of despair, to divide and conquer us, to make us fall into apathy. Because a frightened populace is not only controllable, it also spends and consumes more, too, to fill the hole that despair creates.)
When I read an article, watch a documentary, see a news story that expounds something really awful happening - hell, when I see Bud Light cans or Dunkin' Donuts cups laying along the edge of our roadways - I get really discouraged about my fellow humans. I feel angry. And, I know I am not alone in this feeling, my friends.
But, lately, I have been practicing something when I get triggered into this despair and anger: I actively choose to think instead of all the other people who drive with trash in their cars, but instead, simply chose to do the right thing with it. "Trash" exists, and most of us make it, and we have to learn how to make a lot less. But, I remember: there's a lot more of that sort of mindful person in our world, and that group is growing, waking up, doing the right thing.
Remember THOSE folks, the ones who didn't litter, when you see the trash on the roadways, not the ones who think the world is a garbage can. The practice is that simple.
And, then I extend this practice, and I think with gratitude of the folks who choose NOT to buy a disposable cup in the first place - or folks who go out on their daily walks with a bag and pick up the trash and litter. And, I think of all are working hard right now to come up with more sensible, efficient ways to reduce, reuse, recycle, or create products and services that DON'T destroy the planet. I think of folks who are growing their own food, or supporting local farmers. I think of folks putting their lives on the line right now during pandemic doing essential, generally thankless work - from those whose job it is to pick our food, those who pick up our trash for their living, and yes, those caring for those who are ill and dying in our hospitals. I think, too, of all those who have helped educate us and wake us up to a better way of being and acting in our world, and finally, I think of all who have realized that practicing a little more austerity, sacrificing, letting go of what doesn’t ultimately serve us, is an act that serves the greater good of all.
There are more of THESE folks in our country, and in our world - and you know them and I know them, and their life force is POWERFUL - more powerful than the pain behind the acts of sad, deluded folks who at this stage are unable to let go of the conditioning to consume and discard mindlessly, because of their fear and need for control, because of their despair or unwillingness to consider that there is another way to live and be free from fear.
This power towards being better is growing and shifting all of us collectively towards a different existence. And, these are growing pains as we shed the ways that do not serve us any longer, as we rid ourselves of the conditioned identity that leads us to acts of thoughtless greed and over consumption. Beneath that limiting identity, there's a great big, beautiful loving nobility at the heart of every human, which seeks to lift itself beyond the ignorant, petty, terrified, hateful need for control that leads some of us, sometimes, to acts of evil, both petty and enormous. Although it's deeply veiled in far too many of us right now, although a lot of us are feeling fearful, there is something greater than our fear, and we need to remember: no matter how veiled a person may seem, there is infinite, generous love, nobility and honor, inside of each and every one of us.
Find it in yourself, whether through practice, or prayer, or through simply being quiet, even right now as you sit still and know a truth that is with you every moment of your life: "I AM." That's the power that ultimately changes the world. We have that power. We are that power.
Sutra 2.33: vitarka-bādhane pratipakṣa-bhāvanam
When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana (Swami Satchidananda translation). When doubt or wayward thoughts disturb the cultivation of the yamas and niyamas, generate the opposite: a counterforce of thoughts, images, or feelings that have the power to uplift, invigorate, inspire, and steady the mind. This is pratipaksha bhavana (Rev. Jaganath translation).
Yes, you can still practice challenging asana if you have Diastasis Recti!
I started Ashtanga 23 years ago, four months after the birth of my third child, my son. He was a big baby, as all of my babies were, close to 9lbs, with a big head, 95th percentile! I was in perhaps the worst shape of my life when I started the practice. But, I loved it, and became a fairly consistent practitioner, considering that I had three children under six when I started, beginning with one day a week in the studio (it was all I could afford and had time for, with three little ones!) and working up to six days of practice, in about three years time.
Back then, postpartum care was not really focused on the mother's overall return to fitness (is it any better today?) and so I really didn't know that I had diastasis recti (DR). No one told me; I only knew that the tissue between my rectus abdominus was split, mostly around the navel, three-four inches from top to bottom, and fairly deep; I could shove my middle finger into the split past the first knuckle! I knew this was an issue, but there was little guidance as to how to "fix" it back then (no youtube videos 23 years ago to give us tips and tricks for "gaining a firm stomach"! ) My doc told me to "do crunches," and that was that. I'd always had a bit of a belly, and so, it was just something that I thought was normal, too, part of having babies.
I'd been told by my first teacher that uddhiyana bandha (UB) should only be engaged "below the navel," so as to not impede the breath, and like some things that you hear when you first start doing an asana practice, you do it without thinking "Does this apply to me and to my body? Is it detrimental or beneficial?" I don't believe in questioning everything, but the linear nature of Ashtanga, along with a tradition which fostered a hierarchy of domination - "never question the teacher!" - made me do as I was told! I have since shifted my perspective on this adage of Ashtanga, realizing that while the teacher may know more than me about the practice, they do not know my body better than me. (And as a teacher, I bear this truth in mind, too, with my own students. A sensible, healthy respect for the teacher must be mirrored by an equal level of respect for the student. That is, the respect must run both ways! This approach to the dynamic of learning can help dismantle hierarchies of control, that as we well know, all too often lead to abusive or harmful teacher/student relationships.)
Unfortunately, the result of only engaging UB below the navel was that I would not engage muscles where I actually needed to to help resolve and heal the DR, which specifically WAS at my navel center, where the split was the worst. Still, I would work hard in navasana to ensure that my abs were engaged, with my navel pulled in, too, chest out, in order to rebuild my core and strive not do the posture entirely with my hip flexors (which is incorrect.) This helped me gain strength and not worsen the DR, along with strong engagement of UB in down dog, too. I was able to bring the UB up to my navel and still breath fully and deeply, because that softened and split tissue needed to be toned, and DR was not something anyone developing the practice (generations of Brahmin men) had ever considered.
So, the DR improved through my Ashtanga practice, but I still had a bit of a split at the navel. And we have to remember, now, this was perhaps 18-20 years ago, and literally NO ONE talked about DR two decades ago, so there were no resources within the yoga world addressing this issue. I was on my own.
So, how did I heal it? Well, in the third year of my practice, I was taught uddhiyana kriya (UK), as a means of cleansing (since that is what kriyas are for!) but not as a means for fixing diastasis recti. So, earnest student that I was, I began to do UK on a daily basis because a clean digestive tract meant lighter practice! After a few weeks, however, I began to notice that the DR was improving, even healing: the seam between the muscles was being "sewn" up from the inside through this kriya, which actively engages the entire abdominal musculature quite vigorously on an exhale retention, drawing the navel back to the spine and holding it in as part of the kriya process. I realized UK was vital for my healing of the DR, and began to do it in earnest ad hoc whenever I had a chance, which was a couple of times a day, on an empty stomach.
As well, flying in the face of what teachers had taught me, I began to bring the engagement of uddhiyana bandhu up to my navel during my practice, and not simply below it as I'd been told to do, so that the DR could be repaired during and throughout my whole practice, too, and so that I would not worsen it! I did this intuitively, again, no one talked about DR back then. This adaptation of UB really helped accelerate the healing, and the seam was almost completely repaired after about 18 months of daily practice with stronger, longer UB, and daily UK.
About a year after I'd healed, with the seam almost fully repaired (around year six of my practice life) I'd began working on second series, and was attending a second series workshop with a senior teacher. During the led class, the assistant teacher lifted me off the floor* when I was in dhanurasana. It shocked me to be lifted off the floor by my ankles, and I lost my breath for a moment....and I felt my DS split again at the navel, although I wasn't quite sure what happened. I just knew it felt weird, like tearing.
I developed an umbilical hernia less than a week later, about 1/2" long. Instead of getting surgery, I decided to climb the mountain of repairing *this* tear with taping, bodywork, oiling of the area to prevent scar tissue, and lots more daily work with UB and UK. It took me about 18 months to repair the hernia.
This was about a decade or so ago, and it is fine now, or as fine as it will ever be. I no longer have a hernia and the DR is negligible, mostly a shallow area around my navel about an inch in diameter, that indicates a thinner abdominal wall. I still do UB up to my navel area to maintain its integrity, and I do UK a few times a week, but for strictly cleansing nowadays.
Still, I am very careful in all my backbends; I don't push it, no grabbing ankles for me in this lifetime (not that I had any desire to do so) and sometimes I've strapped a yoga belt around myself at the navel to ensure that there is no further damage when I do deeper backbends like kapotasana. I also notice things shift around my core/abdominal strength depending upon where I am in my cycle, and adjust my practice accordingly.
One thing we must consider as both teachers and practitioners: the practice is highly adaptable, and can help heal us, as well as hurt us if we are doing it incorrectly. Incorrect means many things, and often it's flung at us by folks who want to legitimize their own actions by insisting everyone does as they do. I contend, we must be willing to look outside of the box, and remember that Ashtanga Yoga is not "one size fits all" but rather, a sadhana that must take into account the individual student and their needs vs. the needs of a culture that has a tendency to reward conformity, and decry iconoclasm and heresy.
*(This was a showboat move on the part of the assistant, and unnecessary and dangerous assist, really. I have often found assistant teachers to be more prone to doing less mindful assists that have the potential to injure students. Perhaps this is because they are nervous about being seen as worthy for such an honor? For those who are assisting a senior teacher, or for anyone teaching, really: consider that less is more, and that there is no need to prove you are worthy by doing fancy adjustments, especially on students you have never met!)
Michelle Ryan, yoga practitioner and teacher.