by Alana Kessler
It was 2010. I was in Nicaragua with my friend, Janine, celebrating my 30th birthday. Being a yoga practitioner for over a decade, and relatively new Ashtangi of a little over a year, I was diligent about my early morning practice. The routine was this: We would get coffee delivered to the door, drink it leisurely on the balcony, watch the waves, and then practice.
I remember breaking my drishti and watching Janine with curiosity. While I was jumping back and jumping through, she was holding postures for minutes at a time in what appeared to be mini-naps. I judged it. It was a challenge to wrap my mind around this being a practice that supports the seriousness and attention that I identified my practice with.
Cut to five years later: I found myself in San Francisco eyeball deep in a 10-day Yin Yoga Intensive and Buddhist psychology training with Sarah Powers, and loving every second of it. How did I end up here, you ask? You see, somewhere along the way the yang element of Ashtanga Yoga opened me up to a deeper layer of interest. I began to listen to meditation teachers’ talks while doing my Mysore practice at home. I got quieter. I took notice of when I was pushing too hard. I asked myself if my motivations and actions were aligned with my higher intention. Did I even know what that was?
What happened was magical. I refined my attention to attune to deep physical and emotional injuries and unmet needs that were asking for some tenderness. I knew I needed something complementary to my current practice. Something slower, a practice where I could explore, engage, and enliven both the nature of my physical body but also my heart.
Years of “doing” had left me somewhat spiritually and physically exhausted, and Yin Yoga was the perfect medicine to restore and renew my resources. The long-held postures allowed a certain freedom to ask questions and wait for answers. They provided a composition through which I applied my breath and awareness in a new way and experienced the unfolding and uncovering of deeply held injuries of the body and the spirit. I began to heal them. I found a new world within the stillness that was so energizing it propelled me into new levels of creativity, courage, and compassion. My Ashtanga practice got stronger and softer at the same time, as did my approach to life in general.
So here I am now, eight years later, and I am so grateful for the circumstances that illuminated my path towards this practice. To share it with this community is a privilege, and I am honored by the opportunity.
What does your practice look like?
My practice of asana is generally a bit shorter than I fantasize about. I am on my mat by 4:45 a.m. and start teaching at 6 a.m. I still love the Ashtanga practice as given to me by the Jois family. I tend to split up Second Series so I have the time to fit in some of Third Series.
My practice includes my teaching, and for that I need to have a good amount of energy! The short time I am on the mat is appropriate for my work as a teacher. I do try to practice yoga all day long—I feel that is where and how I need it to fulfill my hopes of continuing realizations. Most days I practice formal pranayama and meditation later in the day.
How has your practice changed since you began?
I tend to practice a lot slower. I really enjoy going slow and deepening into the asanas to find more awareness and more freedom. This often means longer than the traditional five breaths that are given to most poses. I want to feel the pose manifesting inside of my body versus laying a pose onto the body or having my body perform a pose.
How has your teaching changed?
My teaching is constantly changing according to who is in front of me! My prayer is to help others heal through the practice. There are so many ages of students as well as varying interests that bring them to the mat. I usually start with more physical assists and migrate toward verbal suggestions of how they can find more awareness in their bodies and in the architecture of the asana. Over twenty-eight years of teaching Yoga I have investigated techniques to help students but I feel my intuition is the best guide. Sometimes my intuition may say, “Leave them alone for the time being,” and I think that is one of the more challenging feelings for me to follow.
How are you inspired in your practice at this point in your life?
I draw my inspiration from the ancient texts on Yoga, and I am really interested in Somatic healing. I usually read from one or two books every morning on some aspect of Yoga. This reading, prayers before leaving for the studio where I practice, and then the actual teaching—it is rare that I don’t find inspiration in these routines. There are a lot of challenges I see in my world and I try to use all of it—the good, bad, and ugly—as a voice pulling me to connect to something that is pure and timeless and part of myself. The students inspire me. I especially love teaching beginners in this method. I find their innocence, courage, and dedication to a regular early morning practice truly beautiful.
Who is/are your teacher/teachers?
My main teacher is Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Though he left his body in 2009, I hear his teachings daily and they too are a great source of inspiration. I have been blessed to study with many great teachers of wisdom, and at times they return to urge me to go deeper into awareness. At this time I travel to study with R. Sharath Jois and Manouso Manos. I find that interesting because they are as different as night and day in their techniques and systems. I believe them both to be highly trained, and I feel they both understand how to teach me on a more personal level. They see where I am stuck and point the way in and through.
How do you teach younger yogis?
I want them to tap into something in themselves which they can rely on, which is not their youth or their skill at performing the poses. Social media has made Yoga asanas two-dimensional, and that is very harmful for a young mind. The asanas are cosmic maps for exploring our journey to the Self, but this can be destroyed by attempting to look like a photo of someone else posing for a pretty picture. It’s important to let them find their own discipline, dedication, and enthusiasm for the practice, and not try to feed them my meal of commitment.
How does the aging process inform your thinking about/approach to practicing yoga?
Ah, this has been an incredible process which is a great destroyer of my ego! Aging has taught me lots about how I am in misalignment—that goes not only for my postures in yoga but really my personality and my beliefs.
When I was in my twenties, thirties, and forties, I spent a lot of my time in extension of the spine. The arching of my spine was natural, it was comfortable and ultimately the pain I finally ended up with in my forties from chronic extension has been one of my secret teachers. I call it a secret because I really had to endure lots of pain and lots of struggle to learn the correct use of my spine in postures, and this is an ever-continuing process. I have had brilliant teachers but it was me that had to go through the pain and chart a course for my way out. This has been very eye-opening because it is easy to live in suffering and, of course, it is very uncomfortable. The moving away from suffering is so much harder than staying in it. It requires me to move away from attachment and stubborn ways of looking not only at the pose but at all of life in general. My studies and teachers have pointed the way, but I have to be brave enough and curious about seeing something new and unknown, or else I am stuck in the suffering. I owe it to my teachers who have demonstrated their joy, compassion, and skill in making me believe and have faith in a higher vision. I have healed from three debilitating chronic pains and those have taught me the most about suffering and the possibility of ending suffering.
How does the aging process inform your thinking about/approach to teaching yoga?
I offer my students a way to look at their practice which is sustainable and regenerating. Many people like to be told how to get the pose. I feel there is no getting in. Inhabiting a space within the geometry of the asana elicits openness and loss of tension. Patience and friendliness is what I always aim to uphold. Of course, there are as many ways of teaching as there are students. I hope to offer exactly what the student can hear at the place the student is at. I often mistake where they are at and what they need to get them free, and this keeps me awake and continuing my education. One of the most important practices I want to convey is a friendly attitude toward one’s body and the journey in. I am teaching a cooperation between body and mind, a union of friendship and kindness that is able to cross stormy seas because of that kind bond.
Why do you think it’s important to have some kind of practice?
I am a great lover of formal practice. It brings discipline. It helps us measure freedom from attachment. There is a great menu of things to be attached to and in this life I have found pleasure in most of them. The aftermath often leaves me feeling shallow or not exactly happy. The discipline to yoga practice never leaves me with a toxic build-up. In fact, I always feel cleaner and more complete from the practices of yoga. When I first started a formal practice in my twenties, it was difficult to get to a 10 a.m. class, it seemed so early! Now formal disciplined practice has illuminated the path that is always available. Formal practice has actually led me to a place where I maintain my practice to some degree all the time, consistently checking in. Questions arise: “What am I doing with my time?” What am I doing with my mind?” I am rereading S. Radhakrishnan’s introduction to the Upanishads and he says, “To evade discipline is to empty life of its significance.”
Ayurveda is a big part of your work. Please describe how this is integrated into your life and practice.
I met my teacher Dr. Vasant Lad after practicing Yoga for almost a decade. He was teaching at a medical center in NYC and at that time I was teaching and practicing both Ashtanga and Jivamukti. When I heard him speak I thought, “That’s it, I found a faster route to freedom.” I frequently find myself mentally plotting my escape from suffering through the practices of Yoga. I felt a bit like if I was a good thief I could attain enlightenment faster and cheat unnecessary pain. This is exactly how I felt when I listened to Dr. Lad speak to an audience of mostly medical doctors that afternoon. Yoga and Ayurveda are Vedic sisters and the power of their wisdom together can propel the practitioner toward their goals more efficiently. This was my initial feeling, which led me to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to study with Dr. Lad for the next three years. The traditional disciplined self-care of Ayurveda is a preventative plan for health. Many of the practices of Ayurveda are simple, healing, and even fun to incorporate. I have learned more about myself and also learned the places where I stubbornly hold on to patterns which prevent my radiant health. I think many of us have levels and sub-levels that prevent our basic goodness from being ever-present to ourselves and our world. It is a work in progress. The added benefit of the knowledge and use of Ayurveda has benefited me and my clients/students who are also interested in practicing. It does take more time in one’s day and more discipline to engage in the practices, so the practitioner needs to be ready for that!
What are the other modalities and disciplines that you integrate into your thinking and teaching? How do you deal with the stressors?
The most valuable way to deal with stress for me is to practice. The practice means study, devotion, and gratitude that I have teachers in my life. At times a deep faith arises that I too can loosen the ties of samsara. When I feel a sense of failure my most important ally is compassion. I feel that recognizing the sense of failure or dejection of some sort is a fantastic wake-up. My work is turning that into compassion for self and others. Of course it seems logical that with enough suffering and living in a realm where the spiritual teachings/teachers are available to me, the whole planet will awaken.
How do you deal with injuries?
Modify! There are traditional times when we don’t practice asana. There are specific illnesses when we should not be moving our internal winds around. Other than those times I stand by the motto, through hard times and good times, in sickness and health. I have been healed in so many ways at so many times by this Ashtanga Yoga practice, and those experiences have gifted me with faith. I really can’t think of one teacher who ever said to me, just take some time off, your injury will heal. When I have modified poses or the way I am practicing in general I have learned something new. Most people have heard that my teacher, the great Sri K Pattabhi Jois, used to call injuries “openings.” I don’t think this means everything is all right! When we are having lots of bodily pain the ability to see through the storm and keep calm and move into it with curiosity gives one courage and possibly wisdom to understand the body from a new wider perspective.
How does one maintain energy after teaching for many years, or teaching frequently?
This is an area where the Ayurvedic practices have helped me sustain and revive. The daily oil bath in Ayurveda called abhyanga has been so important in my routine. Yes, I rub medicated oil into my body every day and take a hot shower or bath after. There is a protocol one needs to follow to get the proper benefits. Abhyanga offers loads of benefits, but removing fatigue and bodily pains is probably the number one benefit that I can count on.
I believe if I am coming from the correct place towards my students this keeps me from getting exhausted. I am constantly working on relationship with the students so that there is clarity, a commitment to set aside egos and maintain a feeling of camaraderie and joy of discovery. The practice belongs to everyone who puts faith and energy into it. One thing that has gotten me in a funk with students is when I help too much. The practice is theirs and it is important for me to step back and let the students be responsible for their own freedom. Devotion to and excitement about my own practices and learning has to be maintained. This is the easier part of the program for me. My own freedom, joy, and happiness is connected to my own practice and that is my responsibility. It is not connected to how many students I have.
What are you reading?
My dominant Dosha in the Ayurveda paradigm is Vata, which is the energy of movement. This shows up strongly is my reading protocol. I have about ten books on my reading table right now. Touching Enlightenment by Reginald Ray, Smile at Fear by Chogyam Trungpa, The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Hospice Nursing: An Intimate Guide by Margaret Crawford, BSN. I always have a copy of Swami Chinmayananda’s Bhagavad Gita. And I’ve recently started to re-read the principal Upanishads by S. Radhakrishnan.
What inspires your practice and teaching that isn’t explicitly yoga-related?
My negative response to life. Whenever I feel that I have been short changed in some way and feeling low, I stop and observe and question my understanding of life in general. I feel that this malfunction of the spirit is a very juicy time to get reacquainted with how I see myself and the world. It is the most valuable and difficult time to dig deeper. Generally, if I can practice patience, I come out on the other side of the experience with a small but perceptibly keener and softer gaze.
a series by Maria Margolies
Autumn is a beautiful time of year, characterized by vibrant colors, blue skies, and crisp air. According to Ayurverda, it’s also Vata season. Other qualities of Vata are windy, erratic, and dry. Although these can be wonderful qualities that shape the landscape dramatically, they can bring challenges and imbalances for our inner and outer bodies. Our skin especially has a tendency to become dry, dull, and crocodile-like. In order to maintain balance and transition into the new season with radiance, it is important to adapt our daily rituals accordingly.
Summer is changing into Fall, and Ayurveda suggests that we should change, too. This 5,000-year-old science of health and healing makes lifestyle and dietary recommendations according to the season. Each season has particular qualities, and the way these qualities are combined and balanced define that season’s dosha. There are three doshas: vata (air, movement), pitta (fire, heat, transformation), and kapha (structure, density, cohesion). It is recommended that we eat foods that have the opposite qualities of the dominant seasonal dosha.
The first few chilly days at the end of summer inspire a renewed look at daily routine . To encourage and promote general well-being, Ayurveda suggests instituting seasonal modifications that both reduce excess dosha from the previous season and balance the incoming season’s predominant qualities. August and September in New York is essentially a pitta/vata-season yielding gradually to vata-predominant fall. While many of the essential routines for summer continue, such as sun protection, midday activity modification, and reduction of pita aggravating foods, knowledge of the effects of pitta overload can help in negotiating the seasonal change. Continue reading
shala teacher jenny campbell reflects on her recent west coast vacation, and provides helpful advice on how to practice self-care on the road.
by Jenny Campbell
If you have been practicing yoga for a while, there is a good chance you have heard the yoga cue to “breathe into your heart.” The verbal assist is meant to energize the inner body of the chest, as well as open the physiological body by making more space in the sternum, widening the collar bones, creating a sense of lightness, promoting good posture, and a developing a feeling of freedom in the upper body. While this verbal cue might sound abstract, it is actually an anatomically sound instruction. When we breathe in, the diaphragm (the dome-shaped muscle primarily responsible for the act of respiration) contracts downward, creating more space for air entering the body. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes upwards, assisting our bodies in the release of air. This not only allows for our full, deep yoga breathing, but the pumping action of the diaphragm also massages the heart. Therefore, we can literally breathe into our hearts!
Between the winter cold and daily stress, we could all use some self-care techniques in our back pocket. Practice this exercise anytime you need to connect with your breath and de-stress. This pranayama can be practiced in any pose with a long spine and a free abdomen, such as an upright seated position, savasana, or supta baddha konasana.
3-Part Breath (Dirga Swasam Pranayama)
Find your seated or supine pose and bring your attention to your breath. Allow the breath to be continuous as you initiate your inhale from the low belly, lift the breath into the rib cage/diaphragm, and then the chest. Once you reach the top of your inhale and your chest, take a long, continuous exhale, following the same path in reverse. If helpful, you can use your hands to guide your breath as you move up and down the torso.
Inhale: one long breath into the low belly, rib cage, chest
Exhale: one long breath out through the chest, rib cage, low belly
Repeat 5-10 rounds. You may slowly start to lengthen the breath as you feel ready.
- Teaches one to breath fully and deeply
- Can calm and ground the mind
- Can help to decrease stress and anxiety
- Can help one to focus on the present moment
*Proceed with caution with this and all breathing exercises, especially if you have a respiratory condition. As with all pranayama, stop if you feel light headed.
by Bibi Lorenzetti
One of my favorite winter foods is dhal. Dhal is a type of legume, usually split yellow or orange lentil. There are many different ways of making dhal soup, which tends to be nourishing and balancing for all doshas, depending on preparation.
I learned the following recipe from my cooking teacher in India, who is known to Westerners as Tina. She works on a camping stove set on a big rock in her living room. We gather around as she talks us through each step of cooking traditional Indian food. When the meal is ready, we—Tina, her students, family, and dogs—go outside to sit and eat together on big floor pillows in the shade of colorful fabrics.
For a while, I was making Tina’s dhal for special order at the Shala. I would pack a cart full of jars and wheel it from my Greenpoint apartment to the Bedford L, all the way to the Shala fridge. It was fun, but a lot of work! For those of you who enjoyed it and ordered it weekly, follow these steps.
You will need:
- A Dutch oven, otherwise known as a cast-iron pot
- A wooden spoon
- Measuring cups
- Pan or small pot
- 1 1/3 cups of yellow or orange dhal
- 3 1/2 tbsp ghee
- 1 tsp turmeric (I like to buy it fresh and grate, so I do 2 tsp turmeric; if you use powder then 1 tsp is enough)
- 1 tsp coriander, ground
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
- 5 cups water
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 2 cloves
- 1 tsp cardamom seeds
- Pinch of asafoetida
- 1 garlic cloves, mashed
- 4 dried red chili peppers (broken up)
- A few stems of cilantro (to be chopped and added at the end)
Soak the dhal in a bowl with cold water for an hour. Drain and wash under cold water until water runs clear.
Transfer the dhal to the pot together with water, and turmeric. Cover and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, remove the residue that rises to the top. Reduce heat. Add salt. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until you see the dhal is getting mushy and soft, a paste-like consistency. Stir frequently throughout this process.
In a separate pan, melt ghee over medium heat. Add dried chilis, garlic, mustard and coriander seeds, grated turmeric and ginger. Stir seeds pop, then add the rest of powdered spices and fry for a few more minutes, stirring. Make sure the flame is low enough that seeds don’t burn and ghee does not dry up. You can always add a little more ghee if needed!
When dhal is ready (mushy, and water has been nearly completely absorbed), add the ghee and spice mixture to dhal and cook for a few minutes on low flame. Cover and let sit. Add cilantro as garnish upon serving.
Depending on your predominant dosha, you may want to add more or less of the following:
Grounding spices for vata: cardamom, fennel, nutmeg, asafoetida, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, black pepper, cayenne, mustard seeds, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chilis.
Cooling spices for pitta: cardamom, coriander, cilantro, fennel, cumin, turmeric, mint, parsley.
Warming spices for kapha: black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, cloves, garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, turmeric, asafoetida, cilantro, coriander, cumin, parsley, cinnamon.
By Julie Peacock
Are you using essential oils for your health and wellness yet? It’s amazing how healing and beneficial essential oils can be for your body, mind, and spirit. They have the power to lift the spirits, conjure up powerful memories, boost your energy, calm your nervous system, assist in healing the body, clean your home, and so much more.
I’ve been using essential oils for years, but once I discovered the certified pure therapeutic oils (CPTG) that doTERRA makes, I have experienced their many benefits—in my practice, with my kids, and with my clients. Consider peppermint. Peppermint not only freshens the breath, but can be used to soothe digestion, cool the body, help with focus, and relieve various aches and pains.
The other day, right before my Mysore practice, I was experiencing a tension headache. Instead of popping a couple of Advil, I dabbed a drop of peppermint on each of my temples and at the base of my skull. My headache was gone within minutes. And that’s just one way to use peppermint—there are so many others!
Check out my November 5th workshop (12pm-2:30pm at The Shala Union Square), where we’ll practice getting grounded using yoga, nutrition, and essential oils. See more information here.