how losing control brings control

i have this one student who gives me what she calls “bonus animal noises” when she feels like she is losing control of a pose. as in, she thinks she’s about to fall out of a handstand and then monkey-like sounds emit from her mouth. that’s the first sign of impending doom.

then there is the slow-motion moment before the fall, where i can see her balance about to falter and then…

she doesn’t fall.

in fact, she often comes out of these semi-frantic moments with more control than she may have in her typical, no-freak-out attempts.


one way to maintain control…

why? because losing control brings control.

the way i see it, a lot of people get very complacent (read: lazy) in their practice and they don’t put in their full intention or focus when it’s really needed. let’s use the example of handstands…because you know how i love handstands.

many people attempt handstands with a wink and a nod. meaning, it sort of looks like they are trying on the outside, but on the inside they’re actually scared to death of handstanding and simply wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they actually nailed it one day.

and then one day…

instead of the usual half-hearted hop that takes them all of nowhere, they accidentally kick up hard enough to get somewhere. and that’s scary. and that’s where the fun begins. because the whole reason they hate handstands is not the handstands at all. it’s the deathly fear of falling.

so, when they get up, the fear sets in and they will do anything in their power not to fall. out come all the stops. the hands press, they look up, they do all the things that prevent them from falling and they do it with all of their might. and, as a result, they don’t fall.

odd…but it seems it was the very act of losing control that brought them control in the first place.

moral of the story: don’t be afraid to lose control every once in a while. that’s where the magic begins.

the greedy giver

aparigraha. non-greed. one of the basic precepts (yamas) of yoga. part of the moral code for living.

on the surface, this is an easy one. don’t take what you don’t need, and give what you can.


well, right-ish.

nothing in yoga (or life) is quite that simple.

any basically good human being knows that it’s a generally selfless act to give to others. whether you are offering charity or buying your friend dinner or even just giving of your limited free time, giving is good.

but here’s the problem: in order for one to be able to give, another must be willing to receive. and if we are all just givers, eventually no one will be able to give at all.

i call this the conundrum of the greedy giver.

there are some people who just want to give and give and give.

first they lend you money for a new home, then they break their back helping you move in, and then they give you the shirt off their broken back.

in return, they’ll accept…nothing. you can’t take them to dinner (they’ll secretly pay when you go to the restroom), you can’t make them dinner (you just moved in, they’ll say, you have enough on your plate), and when you buy them a thank you gift, they somehow convince you to take it back as it will look better on your own table/in your own wardrobe/next to your own bed.

and after a while it feels bad to receive from them.

if you want to practice true aparigraha, you need to learn to be both generous in your giving and gracious in your receiving.

the flipside is the greedy giver who also gives and gives and gives and only wants one thing in return: your lifeblood.

they lend you money for a new home and you hear about it for the rest of your life…well after the loan has been paid back, the debt has been paid off, and probably hell has already frozen over.

they help you move in and then every time they need help with anything until they are 103, you’ll be the first to know about it.

they give you the shirt off their back and you’ll never hear the end about how they’ve been unable to keep themselves warm since that one day they gave away their shirt.

giving is good. greed is bad. but greedy giving…that’s a whole new level of low.

so, practice your aparigraha. give, receive, be gracious. repeat.

you don’t need a yin practice.

so, i was working with a student–coincidentally named yin–and she was pontificating the value of a yin practice. her exact words (to the best of my recollection): “i really should start a yin practice, huh?”

honestly, my response: no.

let me preface this by saying these are my thoughts while i am still (relatively) young and invincible. my thoughts may change as i get older and wiser.

but to the best of my current wisdom, here’s what i truly believe…IE8N3792

first of all, i believe there are tremendous and irrefutable benefits to a very yang-y practice. it teaches you patience and perseverance. it tests your equanimity and challenges you on a physical, mental and often spiritual level. it makes you stronger.

however…even in a super-yang practice–think long holds, tricky balances, and cirque du soleil contortions–the yin is built in.

i think the real question isn’t whether you need to engage in a separate yin practice, to better access your feminine side (yes, men, you too)…but whether you have the ability to integrate the yin into your everyday practice. so, it’s not yin this day and yang the other, but the whole yin-yang all the live-long day.

you see, no matter how physically trying your practice, within every pose there should be the yin element. that’s what most people are missing. it’s so obvious where the yang comes in. just push and push and push, right? (wrong)

but where is the yin when struggling through a handstand? where is it when your leg feels like it will break off if you spend one more nanosecond in half moon?

the answer is two-fold.

first and foremost, the yin is in your mind. your body may be struggling at its edges, but your mind is like a cool pond on a warm summer day. a sea of tranquility. asana. stillness. a quiet seat.

second: there is a physical element of yin, too, of course. within every pose, there is the force, the effort…and then there is the release, the relenting. it may not always be so obvious. you may have to search for it. but your job as a practitioner is to find the softness in every pose. to discover what in your body doesn’t have work so hard to create the pose. to find the unnecessary tension and let it go.

one comment i hear over and over again–particularly in arm balance and inversion workshops is: “you make it look so easy.”

and i do.

but not because i’m this superhero rockstar yoga goddess.

i make it look easy, because i work hard (yang) to ease into every pose (yin).

i work with patience (yin) and intelligence (yang) to create fluidity and, dare i say it, even grace (though i am far from the most graceful yogini alive…).

in my estimable opinion, mastery of a yang-based practice means that you have found the energetic efficiency and economy of movement which allows you to work (hard!) on any pose or transition with the least amount of effort necessary while still maintaining the integrity of the practice.

that’s a mouthful.

let me try that again. what is the least amount of effort you need to put into a pose (without getting lazy) and still face up to the full challenge that it presents? that is the yin.

and then, of course, there’s always savasana…yin yin yin yin yin…

get smart

’tis the season.

christmas. the time of year where i have to explain over and over again why i–a jew–do not celebrate christmas. the conversation usually goes something like this:

them: merry christmas.

me: thanks, but i’m jewish. i don’t celebrate christmas. :)

them: really? why not?

me: because i’m jewish.

them: but why don’t you celebrate christmas?

me: because jewish people don’t worship christ. it’s not a jewish holiday.

them: but why not celebrate anyway?

me: why don’t you celebrate rosh hashana?

them: why would i do that? i’m christian.

and so it goes…

but, alas, this is not actually a blog about religious observances. it’s about intelligence. the ability to understand something beyond the surface, intellectualize it, and be able to deal with it logically.

it’s about yoga. mental clarity that dictates mindful, rational thought and action.

this week i made a video that pissed off some people–as i knew it would–as i poked a huge obvious hole in a much beloved (asinine) warrior one adjustment.

but, alas, this is not actually a blog about warrior one. it’s about not being a lemming.

i remember a conversation i was having once with a very, very famous yogi. he is what one might call a guru–and many do–though i don’t believe in gurus…so let me just call him a very, very famous yogi.

he had given me a chant and suggested i sing it every day, before and after my practice. and when i asked him what the words meant…he said he didn’t know. that the chant was given to him and he would not question a guru, but just accept.

then he went on to say that it was a form of aparigraha to seek too much knowledge. even at yoga.

now, who am i to question a guru.

but question i must.

this is a lifelong quest. i want to know as much as i can, explore it, revel in it, devour it, make it my own.

but, alas, this is not actually a blog about gurus. it’s about intelligence.

there are so many yoga practitioners out there who will do anything that they are told. no matter how non-sensical, no matter how inane. because they don’t ask why. they just do.

and you can only blame the inexperienced practitioner so much. they’re just doing what they are told….by yoga instructors who are just doing what they are told…but yoga instructors who are just doing what they are told…

people don’t stop to ask “why would i do this?” before doing it and passing it along to the world. it’s why they can’t remember which leg goes back in the transition from side crow to eka pada koundinyasana. or which way the head turns in a spinal twist. or how to align the feet in a particular warrior pose.

the answers are all logical…if only you take the time to understand the poses.

and since it’s christmas, let’s go back to a quick christmas-y analogy.

so many teachers these days operate on what i call the “wwjd” model of teaching. but you can substitute the “j” for any initial of any favorite teacher.

what would bryan do? i’ll do that.

what would kathryn do? i’ll do that.

what would iyengar do? i’ll do that.

what would shana do? i’ll do that. :D

and i’m here to say, don’t do that! do your own thing. find your own logic. create your own intelligence.

people always marvel to me that i present poses that they’ve been taught a million times before in a way they’ve never heard before.

why is that? because i find my own way. if it doesn’t make sense to me, then i sure as hell can’t make it make sense to you…says the jew as she works on christmas eve…

a simple test to find out if you are ready for level 2/3 yoga classes…

So, some people think they are ready for a 2/3 yoga class…until they actually take one and the truth becomes readily apparent.

Here’s an easy test to determine whether you are 2/3 caliber:

Go to a Level 2/3 yoga class. If you can’t wait for the next one, you’re ready. If you can’t bear the thought, you’re not.

Simple as that.

Notice there’s no mention of “If you can do a handstand” or “If you can touch your toes” or even “If you can hold a plank for five minutes.” Because, ultimately none of that matters.

The real tests are “If you can try a handstand…even if it’s scary” and “If you can stretch towards your toes…until you can really feel it” and “If you can hold a plank to your edge…and maybe a breath past it.”

If you go to a Level 2/3 class and feel totally overwhelmed, paralyzed with fear, intimidated by everyone else’s skill set…not ready.

If you go and feel inspired by the possibilities, always try your best (even if you fall…a lot), and can even laugh at yourself a little (or a lot)…ready.

In my teaching, I come across so many people who want to do the fabulous stuff, they are entranced and enthralled by it, but they make two fatal errors that predetermine their failure.

1. They come to class and just sit there. They assume they can’t do any of the challenging stuff…and they’re right. FACT: you actually can’t do any of the hard stuff if you don’t even try. You want to prove yourself worthy of the 2/3 badge? Try everything. And try it hard. Baby steps, Mama Bear steps, or Papa Bears, it doesn’t matter. The only step that matters is the one that takes you out of  your comfort zone. No one ever got stronger by hiding in a comfort zone.

2. They decide they aren’t ready for 2/3, and so return to 1/2 to “get stronger” first. I put that in quotes for a reason. See #1. Going to a Level 1/2 class to get stronger for 2/3 is like going back to kindergarten to prepare for college. It just doesn’t make sense.

And the worst offenders of all…those who take 2/3 for a while, get stronger and stronger, more and more flexible, greater and greater balance and control…and then hit a wall. And instead of busting through it, they retreat away from it. They march back to 1/2 to regroup, fully expecting to return to 2/3 sooner than later. And then they get comfortable. And the very thought of returning to 2/3 is–well–overwhelming, paralyzing, and intimidating all over again. Maybe they come back to test the 2/3 waters once and realize just how much they lost…maybe they never come back at all. Ultimately, they probably were never ready for 2/3 in the first place–and never will be again.

Ultimately, all 2/3 means is ready for anything and never, ever giving up.

The real 2/3 Mama Bear…always ready for anything!

how to go to an awesome yoga workshop and get absolutely nothing out of it

one lovely day many years ago, i was lucky enough to attend an amazing, exclusive, private workshop with a world famous yogi who offered to teach a handful of people how to press into handstand.

for a few hours, the group of us pushed and pressed our way through the material. everyone in the room was hopping and jumping just to get off the $%&@# floor. except me. i was trying my damnedest just to press up.

as a result everyone in the room got off the floor. except me. my toes might as well have been glued to the earth at that point.

now, given the title of this post, you probably think i’m going to say that i went to an awesome yoga workshop and got absolutely nothing out of it.


i’m going to say the exact opposite.

i went to an awesome yoga workshop and was the only one to get anything out of it.

you see, you can’t learn to press by jumping any more than you can learn to ride a bike by sewing.

but, people in general are stubborn. and impatient. the fine folks in the workshop didn’t want to learn how to press, they wanted to stroke their egos. hell if they were going to spend three hours standing in uttanasana, futilely pressing their hands into the floor and getting absolutely nowhere. hell if they were going to put in the actual work of the workshop. hell if they were going to admit “their way” just wasn’t working.

now, you know how this press into handstand story ends. these days i can press up in my sleep…but that skill was years in the making. years spent as a landlubber, getting pretty much nowhere. until…i got somewhere.

these days, i teach people all over the world how to handstand and in every workshop we have huge breakthroughs. we break barriers and demystify the process while still having a fun, fabulous time.

but just about every handstand workshop, i also have that one person who already “knows it all”. typically, it’s someone who can kick up to the wall and sort of pull their feet off the wall…but can’t actually balance.

s/he comes to my workshop (not sure why) and while i break down the pose step-by-step, building from the foundational baby steps up, that person is just doing his or her own thing. the same old trick over and over and over again. kick up, feet off wall, fall down. kick up, feet off wall, fall down. kick up…

i guess my first question is why would anyone bother coming to (and paying for) a workshop only to practice the same technique that hasn’t worked for them for the past however many years? they could do that in their bedroom.

ultimately, a lot of people come to workshops, but don’t want to do the baby steps. they don’t get the concept that unless you have a strong foundation, you can’t build a house. they think they are too advanced or maybe just too cool.

but here’s what happens…

at the end of the workshop everyone in the class has learned to be confident practicing handstand in the middle of the room. except one person. because s/he’s still stuck, kicking up to the wall, feet off the wall, falling down, kicking up to the wall, feet off the wall, falling down…

because i said you can…that’s why….

it’s funny. i mean not ha-ha funny, but funny nonetheless.

i work with a lot of special needs yoga students (that’s not the funny part), of every age and every challenge, be it mental, physical, or emotional. most of the time, i make tremendous strides. i’ve had a student come to me in a wheelchair because he didn’t feel comfortable walking…and we got him out of the chair. for good. i had a girl with add/adhd who could not get through ten seconds of meditation when we started…but eventually got up to a full hour. i had a mentally disabled woman who could only walk on the balls of her feet learn to balance on one foot…flat. and then–now here’s the funny part–i worked with a textbook.

well, he wasn’t literally a textbook, but his mother and entourage thought he was.

he had therapists and nutritionists and shadows galore…and a yoga teacher. and all but one treated him like a textbook.

although he was already in his late 20s, everyone coddled him because that’s what the textbooks said to do. despite struggling with his weight, his nutritionist thought that replacing his soda with fruit juice and sparkling water would be too jarring for him. so he stuck with big gulps and doritos as his snacks of choice. his therapist thought that challenge was too disruptive for him, so he kept him in his comfort zone…always. and then there was me. i don’t believe in comfort zones and i don’t believe in limitations.

even though this young man was fully physically capacitated, he suffered from asperger’s syndrome, which caused him to mentally function differently than most. every pose i offered him, he would back off, telling me he couldn’t do it. simple poses like cat/cow or tree with his hand on the wall. but i don’t allow the word “can’t”…just “i’ll try.” and i pressed on and guess what? he could do the poses. in fact, he could do every pose i asked him to. after i asked a few times.

first down dog i asked him to do, his mother jumped in to intervene that he absolutely can’t do that one! wonder where he got his ideas from. ’cause, guess what. he could do down dog, too. and he could do it for ten breaths. and through all the poses i gave him, nothing ever broke, nothing ever tore. we just worked on frustration tolerance. because with people with asperger’s, the real work in life is learning to work through life without stressing out. actually…i guess that’s everyone’s work, really…

anyway, as my student got more proficient, i challenged him more…and, by golly, he got stronger. and stronger.

but his team didn’t want him strong. they wanted their textbook. the book said that he is not capable of working beyond his comfort zone and he is not capable of change. his psychologist came down on me for pushing him too hard and said that i would need to cut out all challenging poses…which, according to my student, was every pose. and let me state an aside that this student loved coming to yoga and called it his “happy place”. so it wasn’t that he didn’t want to practice yoga. he just didn’t want to practice frustration tolerance.

anyway, despite what the textbooks may say, i disagree. i think that everyone grows through challenge. i’ve seen remarkable transformations through challenge. and i believe that without challenge we would all just die on the vine.

yes…the student quit yoga because his psychologist didn’t like my approach. and that’s the funny thing. my approach is that i push people because i believe in people. i believe people are capable of amazing things. i believe they can break boundaries and expectations and move beyond the studies and the means. i believe that all people of all needs can be remarkable. but they have to believe it, too.

funny, huh?


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