Ghee, otherwise knowns as clarified butter, is traditionally revered in Indian culture, and has been used as part of the vast cuisines of Central Asia, and also in Ayurveda, for thousands of years. It is lactose-free, shelf stable, and has a high burning point.
From an Ayurvedic standpoint, ghee is considered a vital means of improving digestion, increasing the absorption of nutrients, enhancing the healing properties of herbs, lubricating the body inside and outside, boosting immunity—and provides many more benefits, too. Ghee nourishes the body and all the doshas, and it especially balances vata, which is so universally imbalanced in most of us these days*. Ghee can be used to provide internal and even external oleation, to help mitigate environmental and cultural toxins and stressors that provoke vata (air and space) dosha.
Yesterday, the 26th of December, was the Full Moon, and so I made ghee. The Full Moon is a day that the Vedas say is auspicious for making ghee because it increases the quality of Soma - a Vedic source of nourishment, nectar, and bliss - within this magical substance. Soma is associated with the moon, and soma "nectar" is often referred to in the ancient texts as a means to attain greater wellbeing - even immortality.
The Moon, like the Sun, enables Life as it has evolved to exist and thrive on our planet. Just as the gravitational pull of the Moon can draw upon the ocean tide, the essence of the milk used to make ghee is enhanced during this brief but powerful moment in the lunar cycle.
In fact, a local purveyor of Ghee, Full Moon Ghee, makes ghee on the full moon. If you don't feel like making ghee, I highly recommend their product. It's costly, but sublime, organic and local!
I use ghee mostly in cooking, not only for its high smoke point, but also to add richness to dishes, especially Ayurvedic ones! I also use it cosmetically at times, especially in the Winter when my skin and lips get really dry. I've also experienced Netra Basti, an amazing eye-restorative practice that's really helpful if you suffer from itchiness, redness or eye strain.
So, I try to honor the Moon’s ancient, mysterious, life-giving power by making ghee on the Full Moon, usually every few months when my ghee supply runs low. Traditional Vedic chanting and a reverent mindfulness of the special qualities of ghee, while you're making the ghee can add to is benefits, and from an Ayurvedic perspective, also help increase its nourishing, rejuvenating powers as you make it.
Here's how I make ghee:
What you'll need:
15-20 minutes at most.
Put the butter into your saucepan and bring up the heat to medium. The butter should slowly come to a simmer - you'll hear an increasing sound of water bubbles being evaporated off and solids separating as the ghee comes to its gentle roar.
Once it begins to bubble strongly and sounds fairly loud, turn the heat down to medium-low. Really watch and LISTEN to the ghee. Be mindful as you make it to its look, sound and smell. The clarified part will become more golden and the solids will change from white to tan or light brown over time. The sound of evaporation will decrease as the water dissipates and burns off. You'll start to smell the butterfat becoming more rich - it has a theater-popcorn-like smell that is heavenly.
Don't stir during all of this: just watch, smell and listen. You'll see foam rising to the top and whitish curds dropping to the bottom as the fat begins to separate from the solids. Some folks like to skim the foam off, but I let the ghee do its thing, and simply move the foam to one side to keep an eye on the color of the milk solids. Plus, I believe stirring tends to create a more "crystallized" ghee when it hardens afterwards. This crystallization doesn't effect the taste, just the look and consistency. (Plus, the Kerrygold butter never seems to have a foaming or a crystalizing issue.)
Eventually, the sound of evaporating will die down, to only a few tiny plops and plinks. It's now, in these last few minutes, that you must watch your ghee like a hawk! Don't let it overcook or burn: burning is indicated if the mild solids become dark brown or black! The solids should be at most caramel colored by the end, and the ghee a lovely golden color.
When the sound is almost nonexistent and the curds are lightly tanned, take the saucepan off the heat, and let the ghee cool to lukewarm. Again, don't stir, but do carefully pour the ghee into your jar through a fine meshed sieve or cheesecloth to strain out the foam and solids, which can be composted (some folks like to add these to baked goods for an increased "brown butter" flavor!)
Ghee is shelf stable and can be kept on the counter indefinitely - like honey, it is believed to be a product that only gets better with age, as long as no contaminents are in the jar, or put into the ghee with a utensil, so always use a clean spoon when taking ghee out of the jar!
*Ghee is a wonderful source of healthy fat for almost everyone - but, as with most fats, should be used sparingly, nevertheless. It is not recommended for folks with high cholesterol levels, nor for those with heart disease, fatty liver issues, obesity, and some pregnant women with digestive issues. Consult with me or with an Ayurvedic Health Counselor in your area. While its lactose content is very low to nonexistent, and folks with lactose intolerance issues should be able to use it - it's not dairy free, In fact, ghee is the soma nectar, the nes plus ultra, ultimate form of dairy, and thus, in Indian culture where the cow is considered Holy, most highly revered and honored.
Peri-menopause marks a natural transition into the wise woman/wisdom keeper stage, the Autumn of our life, the vata stage of life. This transition signals a need for reassessment and very likely, requires big changes in both lifestyle and daily habits--especially those habits that have long aggravated our doshas—to manage with grace and ease.
Things that we have long been disassociating from or avoiding come up into our consciousness during peri-menopause, demanding to be addressed--and anger is common for many women at this time! One of my menopause teachers, Jane Hardwicke Collings, likes to call estrogen “the veil of accommodation". Estrogen softens our edges during our menstruating years, allowing us to navigate stressful situations (like building a home and/or a family, growing a business, birthing and tending a fulfilling career) with greater ease.
For many women, challenges in family, work, and life are often addressed with accommodation, rather than confrontation. Most of us in bodies that menstruate and have higher levels of estrogen naturally tend to pick our battles, in other words, vs. expending energy that’s needed during this busy, hectic Summertime “growing” season of life.
Again, this is because estrogen is mṛdu (soft), it’s brahmana (building, nourishing) —and it’s yin as opposed to yang, according to a brilliant approach to the endocrine system and menopause, explained here by Dr. Claudia Welch.
But, as estrogen levels decrease during peri-menopause, the veil of accommodation lifts, reducing our willingness to "suffer fools"--to tolerate or accommodate. This often leads to increased irritation and anger, emotions that we may have long been repressing, not merely because of higher estrogen, but also because of a lifetime of gender-based conditioning to repress or hide our anger and frustration, too.
But, I suggest that peri-menopause is a great time to actually embrace the untapped power that has been hidden in one's anger; use it to both discern and digest repressed emotions and experiences that haven’t yet been processed, along with restrictive, gender based conditioning (samskara) that limits your full potential.
The resulting energy released through this processing can be channeled directly into yoga practices that bring us through peri-menopause with greater ease, and provide insights and greater clarity on what serves us best—and what doesn’t—for the life ahead.
Finally, though it may feel like an ending, and that, too can understandably bring up feelings of both grief and anger, menopause (when it is not chemically or surgically induced) is really the natural next season in the progression of life, one accompanied by a radical transformation into a new body, just like puberty!
As one of my teachers, Nancy Gilgoff, joyfully proclaimed when I anxiously asked her what to expect when menopause came, "Don't fear it! You get a NEW body!"
So, rather than clinging or remaining attached to the former body ("attachment" raga, is one of the kleshas or obstacles, as expounded in Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2.7)--rather than holding on to the passing of "Summer", consider that this transformation leads us naturally into the third season of life—one that is enriched with a lifetime of compounding knowledge and experience.
Consider figures like Maya Angelou, Georgia O’Keefe, Joy Harjo, Vandana Shiva, Ursula K. LeGuin—all of them wise creatrixes of brilliance, dignity, grace and power—who flourished most after menopause.
Menopause holds the potential of a full gathering, or harvest time, of the female body’s innate, natural power and our hard earned intelligence. I feel it may be the most profound culmination of a female body’s natural rhythms--Ṛtam--as we pass through all four seasons of our lives—Spring (Childhood), Summer (Adulthood), Autumn (Wisdom keeper/Wise Woman) and Winter (Great Elder).
This natural transformation of the female body is deeply rooted in and connected to the Earth's Ṛtams as well. In Ayurveda, every seasonal transition encourages, even demands, deeper self-reflection to identify sensible changes and adjustments--every seasonal change demands we listen to the wisdom of our bodies and adapt habits and lifestyle, to maintain or improve our wellbeing. Menopause is no different!
This process cultivates even greater wisdom each time we do it, and ideally promotes greater emotional well-being as we age. It also empowers us to deepen our spiritual practices, so that we may walk with greater courage and compassion upon a more joyful life path—one that follows dharma and deepens our connection to Source.
This becomes most evident during our culminating Season of life (if we are lucky to live so long!) and ultimately, when we come to the end of this life, too--passing from this impermanent reality into the mysterious and immortal permanence beyond the veil, from which we first arrived here, and which is our true essence.
May we all find our way!
(OR: Why Yoga Classes May Actually Engender a Kind of Collective Beneficial Trance State.)
If we are being truthful, one reason I don't post photos of myself, as much as I'm comfortable in my own skin most of the time (especially when I am doing yoga) is when I see a photo of myself in an asana/posture, I get a little uncomfortable and self-conscious.
A self-critical, cynical voice in my head says something like, "Your knees are hyperextended! And there's a little bit of stiffness in your neck! AND you look thick around the middle. AND you look old!!"
(And, btw, I would never judge another student as I judge myself: we are our own worst critics.)
In fact, it's a perfectly good execution of this posture: I experienced free breathing, and a real sense of lightness and connection when I was experiencing it - a kind of trance state was happening in this moment.
Thing is, ALL of us are conditioned to fit into a rigid cultural paradigm about what is "correct" or "proper" or "acceptable" about how we should "look" (and not just when we are doing yoga, but, well, all the time.)
And we are all heavily influenced by digital media and representations of the human body, and how ours "stacks up" in comparison. All. The. Time.
Not to mention, the bodies we see in the ethereal realm of the internet are not always as they appear to be! These lies of omission and fakery are causing us and our children a lot of mental and emotional damage.
So, I also don't post pictures of myself doing postures that often, because:
The tendency for both yoga (and now, "mindfulness") to be fully focused on physical improvement only reinforces the roots of the cultural discontent most of us feel about our bodies.
And, as long as yoga being marketed and practiced by primarily focusing on the physical, we miss out. Utilizing the gifts of yoga to help shift and clear our veiled ideas about ourself and our world, can help us change the very conditions that are making us unhappy - otherwise, it only exacerbates our uber-competitive, individualistic culture that separates and alienates.
In short, perpetuating these myths does a huge disservice to the real freedom that yoga practices bring to the dedicated student - and from that more clear and present student, to our shared, collective, consensus Reality that we are co-creating together right now.
Yoga is not postures: it is a state of being, one that is intrinsic to our lifelong wellbeing, to our ability to become truly human, and I suggest, to our ability to become a better and more highly evolved species collectively, too. Yoga may be potentially experienced by anyone, regardless of how they look, or how well or "poorly" their body works, or where and how they exist within the socio-economic strata of our world. And, yoga done in community, when everyone in the space is breathing and moving in synchrony, has the potential to create a deeper and more profound experience of merging and connection within a group or community, inspiring evolution on more than just an individualistic level.
So, yoga is both an individally and culturally beneficial trance state that arises through a series of spiritually oriented repetitive practices, which do include a somatic component (because we can only experience this state within the body.) But, the physical component of asana is of far less importance to the ultimate goal of yoga practice, which is intended to ultimately bring the practitioner into a state of kaivalya, liberation, freedom - or Sat-Chit-Ānanda - truth-consciousness-bliss.
So, although I use the frame of postural practice as a method or lens, my goal as a teacher is to help students hone and move their awareness inwards, to become quiet and yes, entranced - to find the fullness of freedom within - regardless of how it "looks" on the outside - while in non-judgemental community with one another.
There is a freedom to be found and experienced in yoga classes that is beyond cultural baggage, beyond the cynical, judging, conditioned voice in our heads that too often tells us grumpily what our bodies "should" do and how they "should" look. This freedom is vairagya, dispassion, letting go of constraints and conditions and fears - and it needs to be part and parcel of yoga practice so that we can attain, through yoga, the heights of what it means to be truly human.
But then, you can't take a picture of that feeling, you can only experience it. So, come to class!
Abhyasa vairagyabyam tannirodhah - "Practice and dispassion lead to the quelling of the mind-stuff." Yoga Sutra 1.12
But, the model just doesn't work. :/
Every month or so, I get an email from a person who's looking for a Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga program in the Northampton area (I used to teach one for about a decade) and I have to give them the sad news that our program at Ashtanga Yoga Northampton ended in the Summer of 2020, and that there's no Mysore program in the Noho area, or really, at all in Western Mass.*
Well before the pandemic hit, I had come to terms with the fact that the Mysore program I ran was an unsustainable business model. (See this article from 2013 by Peg Mulqueen outlining why it's not as lucrative as teaching group classes.)
My husband, who is a very wise and successful businessman, would shake his head ruefully whenever I shared what I earned after expenses each month. I generally only shared what I made if it had been a good month - it was that disheartening for him. But, I'd laugh at his silent consternation, and gently give him a kiss of gratitude on the cheek, while saying, "Just consider that I'm running the nonprofit wing of the Ryan Family."
Admittedly, teaching Mysore style was exhausting: getting up 4 or 5 mornings a week in the dark, and driving 30-40 minutes to open the studio for the early students. On our busiest mornings, there'd be about 20 people who'd show up during the three hour window of practice time. On the slow days, only 8-10 people would come to class. We sold a lot of very reasonably priced unlimited monthly passes, which were very affordable - a steal really, if you came to class at least 3 times a week. And we had several scholarship students. Not profitable, not sustainable. But, very sweet, nonetheless. Oh well. Capitalism.
We soldiered on until the pandemic shut us down, finally. And I must admit, I was grateful for it: I was knackered out, exhausted from a decade of trying to make it work. But, I loved to teach Mysore, up until the very end, and really didn't want to quit. It took a global pandemic to shut us down: I am that stubborn.
James never quite understood that it wasn't about earning money for me, but rather, the "payment" came through the intense fulfillment of real human connections I made as a Mysore teacher, and especially, the dear, sweet sense of strong community - one built during quiet, silent moments of deep concentration, in instances of stress-relieving, lighthearted, shared humor, and in heartfelt groupwide appreciations or murmurs of support or encouragement. We gloried in our fellow practitioners overcoming a longstanding challenge, whether it be physical or emotional. And, we all "knew" each other's Ashtanga practices: the ways our bodies and minds were eased and challenged and molded over many months and years by the yoga. We were all in it together. Very sweet. True community.
All of this was possible only because it happened in a container of deep trust and commitment to each other, and because of our mutual love of the Ashtanga modality of yoga - really, of vinyasa, that glorious innovation of Krishnamacharya's: breath and movement melded in a grand and glorious unity, to create something sublime, to birth the state of yoga.
Yes, the postures were spectacularly challenging sometimes, but ultimately, the focus wasn't so much on "doing the postures", but rather, doing the postures *while* purposefully focusing more on the simple but profoundly transformative practice of breathing "freely, with sound".
(The word I said most in that room was "Breathe!")
But, alas, there is a tendency towards egoic hierarchies of domination that can potentially manifest in these same spaces, and the ableist and ageist pitfalls one can fall into, especially if one is a newer Ashtanga teacher, too. Nothing is perfect, if humans are involved, after all! But, these pitfalls can be easily avoided if we let our egos dissolve, and it's such a brilliant system, Ashtanga can and will do that for you, if you surrender to it, that is - ishvarapranidhanad va!
Sadly, this method of learning yoga, which is really quite traditional to how it's taught in India, pre-capitalist as it were, was soooo hard to explain to prospective students. It's almost impossible to help folks understand how the Mysore Ashtanga was absolutely so much better for those learning it or new to yoga, than an Ashtanga class that went through the full series all at once - that it slowed the learning process down into smaller chunks that most folks could grock more easily and safely - so much that it was a brilliant method for everyone, no matter how old, no matter how fit or not. "Semi-private yoga geared to YOU in a group setting" is as close as I got to explaining it -and still people would look at me in a pleased confusion when asked what it is I "did" for "work."
"Why not come to a class and watch?" I'd say, and the rare person who came to watch would be blown away by the sheer beauty of breath and human bodies of all kinds in motion - so unlike any other yoga class they'd ever been too - but, still, so intimidated they would be afraid to return.
No, most folks need sound bites and bullet points and pictures, and the anonymity of being lost in a group of practitioners all doing the same thing simultaneously, maybe with a little hip-hop groove added to numb the mind a bit, too. Nuance is lost in bullet points. Even what I am describing right now doesn't actually describe the deep, subtle, intense, lovely and profound experience of being in a committed and longstanding Mysore room with steady veteran practitioners and earnest newbies, all being shepherded by a wise, kind and sensible teacher/practitioner holding the space. Hence, why I still get emails from hopeful students, and while I still feel a bit brokenhearted when I have to tell them, "No, I don't teach a Mysore program any more."
*I think, but am not sure, that Sruti Yoga in Great Barrington, still offers a session once or twice a week. Go support them, if you can!
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!
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.
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.