Are you ready to grow up?

I think it’s time more of us chose to grow up.

As a culture, we are inundated with information. News media keeps us up to date on all the drama of our times. Our social media news feeds educate us on things we never knew we needed to learn. Podcasts offer a plethora of fantastic and less-than-fantastic conversations. Advertisements bombard us from billboards, magazines, radio, television. On the rare occasion when we’re not being plied with data from external sources, we can find almost anything we want to know with an internet connection and a decent command of Google.

What we seem to lack, however, is mature discernment.

Just because we find it on the internet, an ancient text said something, a “Gold Standard” scientific study proves it or a teacher offers it to us, does not necessarily make the information pertinent to us as individuals. So why do we allow ourselves to be baffled by conflicting stories and studies? Or worse, swallow these things, hook, line and sinker?

The conspiracy theorist in me reckons we have been conditioned out of the ability to think for ourselves to a very large degree. Well-meaning social support services offer us advice on how to raise our children and stay healthy (sometimes based on outdated studies of suspect methods, sponsorship and conclusions). Schools teach children to sit still to learn even though anyone who’s ever watched a child truly engaged with the process of learning, knows they need kinetic energy to support them. Homework conditions them to take work home so they’ll eventually be good employees and creating greater possibility of disrespecting their own boundaries to serve someone else’s agenda. Science is sometimes for sale and subject to manipulation of data. Popular media is controlled by interest groups. And don’t get me started on religion…

For centuries, practices that encouraged our own thinking were deemed dangerous by the powers that be. They were demonised to the extent that “good people” would eschew them in favour of widely approved practices and morality.


My own journey into better discernment has been a lifelong remembering process that has required me to turn inward time and again. It’s been, and continues to be, an ongoing process to learn to trust my own voice, my own bone-deep knowing and at times, to go against the world around me to honour it.

As a child, I was hauled to church, encouraged to accept Jesus as my saviour and taught to worship at the altar of God’s love.

Many things didn’t make sense to my young mind – why did we have to fund raise to send missionaries to “save” people in remote villages across the world? If someone had never heard of Jesus and died, I couldn’t fathom why a “loving God” would condemn them to Hell forever. Why did we have to give a tenth of our income to be part of a community of “unconditional” love and support? What about the poor people with no income? What was the point of arcane rituals that came with no explanation, no internal connection? Why so many rules from the outside?

While I never felt fully at home at the church, I persisted with church attendance and Sunday School teaching (!) until well after my wedding and into my 20’s. Leaving the church was not easy and my father was not happy with me but there came a point where I could do no other.

As a young, impressionable undergraduate, I was indoctrinated into the scientific lineage and taught to worship at the altar of randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled studies.

Again, many things didn’t make sense to me. So many of the studies that met the “Gold Standard” had logic gaps you could drive a truck through. How was a study of 150 undergraduates who were given credit for participating reflective of a whole population, as was often inferred? I was taught to make broad generalisations and to sweep outliers under the proverbial carpet. I became adept at using mathematical models to manipulate the findings of existing studies so that the exact same numbers could be made to show a totally different conclusion. I watched the media further manipulate the results of studies with suspect methodologies to create eye-catching headlines.

While I couldn’t bring myself to delve deeper into this dissonant world of academia by pursuing further study, there was nearly a decade where a huge proportion of my conversations began with the phrase “Studies have shown….”, as a means of establishing the veracity of my point of view.

Finally, as a disillusioned woman on the precipice of my Saturn return, I began investigating Traditional Chinese Medicine, Yoga, Meditation and Poetry – some of the very things deemed “dangerous” by the church elders of my youth and poo-pooed by my colleagues in the science lab.

Suddenly, I felt at home. No one was asking me to go against my internal voice, rather I was being handed tools for remembering the source of my innate wisdom. There was so much that made sense, so many ideas from disparate lineages that converged and ultimately, the encouragement to listen inwardly to test the veracity of what I was being told.

In her poem “Wild Geese”, Mary Oliver eloquently summed up the relief I felt at this homecoming into awareness:


Ultimately we are unique creatures with so many factors at play that no one outside of us can possibly track them all to determine what’s best for us in any context. We abdicate authority in our own lives when we hand over discernment to others. At best, other people, including well-studied experts can only be our guides, offering suggestions for experimentation. We must take responsibility for observing the results of those experiments and making skillful decisions about how we proceed in the current season of our lives.

It’s an ongoing commitment. For example, what you learn about how to manage yourself in the winter in your 30’s might might bear no resemblance to what you need in the summer of your 50’s or the autumn of your 70’s. To truly own our capacity to thrive, we must take nothing for granted and stay wide awake to our lived reality as it evolves.

These days, it’s my mission to help people conduct n=1 studies to learn how they think, feel and respond to something. Everything else is actually irrelevant. Even the frameworks of yoga, meditation and lifestyle techniques that I use are just that – frameworks. They give us a jumping off point for the investigation and ensuing conversation.

Taking ownership of the investigation of ourselves, what the yogis called svadhyaya, and the decision making at the very deepest level of our lives is not for the faint of heart. Make no mistake, the challenge can be immense and it is tempting to hand back authority when the going gets rough. But the potential payoff is incredible – developing the skill of discernment opens up vistas of possibility in every sphere of our lives, including how we can serve the people around us and our planet.

Now that’s what I call being a grown up.


If you’d like to join me for a journey into remembering how to discern subtleties for yourself, let’s have a conversation about how we could do that and what tools we could use. There are options – from in-person private sessions, to group processes, to distance learning and incorporating techniques that range from yoga to meditation to lifestyle habits to deciphering scientific findings as well as many other things. 

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How to create a home practice

For me, the point of practicing yoga is to get to know and appreciate yourself better and to facilitate your ability to connect and celebrate life. Going to a public class is a great experience particularly for the connecting and celebration but but spending time on your own, exploring your own practice is where some of the juiciest experiences of yoga can happen. Yoga class is great for gathering information about the practices and poses, for connecting with like minded people and for consulting with a teacher about questions you might have so that you can build confidence in creating your own practice.

Ideally, yoga is a practice that meets you where you are, no matter what. When you practice on your own at home, you get a chance to tune into exactly what your body, mind and spirit need at that particular moment. It helps you to cultivate the aspect of the yoga practice where you get to know yourself better.

Yes, practicing on your own can be daunting, particularly at the beginning but the obstacles are the path. Facing and dealing with the obstacles are part of maturing into yourself. Figuring out how to deal with all of those obstacles is part of the yoga. Getting really honest with yourself about what you are and are not willing to do to make it happen for yourself will help you prioritise in the most appropriate manner for you.

I think there are two main things you need to consider to do a practice at home:

1. What do you really need from your practice on a given day?

Ideally, practice is an expression of what is alive in you on that day and what needs to be balanced or taken care of. Home practice isn’t necessarily about doing all the fancy poses or “staying in shape”. It’s about increasing your self-awareness – noticing your patterns of attraction and aversion, your reaction to challenges and easefulness, to constancy and change. As you learn more about yourself, you can learn to use your home practice to  enhance your overall wellbeing so that you can address all of the other things in your life the way they need to be addressed. Using your yoga practice to serve your life, not the other way around.

The practice has to be satisfying at a deeper level than ego or intellect or you won’t want to stay with it. The key to getting that satisfaction comes from cultivating a deep level of listening to yourself. The only way to do that is to spend regular time with yourself. Yoga is not the only way to develop this relationship but for some of us, the physical aspect helps us to access parts of ourselves that are otherwise difficult to access.

2. How to decide what to do, sequence wise.

There are many theories about how to go about this. While I will give you a light framework for deciding your sequence, I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore and experiment to find the alchemy that works for you.

Before you start:

Decide on a regular place to practice. You may be able to dedicate a whole room for your practice space but it isn’t necessary. In fact, when I first started practicing in my “own yoga room”, I felt almost like I was being punished. Being in this austere room meant to be kept only for yoga and meditation felt really awful to me. More often than not, I would pull my mat out into my favorite sun spot in the lounge or outside on the patio.

If you don’t have a fully dedicated space, it’s a good idea to have a very short set up ritual, which helps you to transition into your practice mode. It could be as simple as being very quiet and mindful as you clear the space for your practice, gather your props, journal, tea and roll out your mat.

Quite often, we can look at the set up as a hassle, an obstacle to practice but you can actually make it part of the practice itself, by choosing your attitude. You might like to bring meaningful objects into your practice space, like sacred symbols or beautiful flowers. Lighting  a candle can be nice as well, kind of like the OM at the beginning of a class.

Decide how much time you have to practice. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5 minutes or 5 hours. Deciding a minimum will help you honor your commitment to yourself. You might even like to set a timer that will go off a few minutes before the time is up so you have time for savasana or meditation.

To start your practice:

It’s super important to make a couple of minutes to check in. You might like to sit up, lie down or even stand up to check in. Do a body scan, noticing what feels good, what doesn’t. Observe what’s on your mind. Notice your breath. You may like to write down your observances in a journal. Those observances are going to help you to know what to do in your practice.

Once you’ve checked in, you may like to deepen your breath in your “check in” posture or you might like to go to child’s pose or down dog. Ujjayi is a great breath for focusing your mind and for smoothing, heating the breath. From there, you can begin to build your sequence, either by simply starting with some general warm-ups to see where your body takes you or by planning which kinds of postures you want to work towards. If you have a specific set of peak poses in mind, it pays to plan accordingly.

Suggested sequence of poses:

Warm – ups

Most of the time, a general warm up will be suitable for any kind of practice you’re about to do. It can also be helpful for determining what kind of practice is appropriate. There are a couple of ways to tackle home practice – either targeting a specific thing or kind of practice no matter what or a deep listening practice where how you’re feeling determines where you’ll take your practice. Both types have great value to them – sometimes at the beginning of a home practice, it can be useful to have a target, a goal. But I’d just caution that sometimes being too rigid with a plan can take the juice and the joy out of the practice and thereby defeat the purpose.

Examples of warm ups: cat/cow; wrist vinyasa; foot massage; lunges/pulsations; shoulder openers; gentle twists; supine ab work – good idea to move with the breath to begin with, rather than to hold anything static at this early point in the practice.

Namaskars (salutations)

These are heat building sequences designed to increase the energy in the body and loosen everything up. They are great for building strength and flexibility. Common salutations include Sun and Moon salutations.

Core Cultivation

Simple core strengtheners early on in the practice serve to prepare the body for the deeper work to come. Boat poses, planks, side planks and reclined core work are great optins.

Heating Inversions

It’s a good idea to do the preparation for and practice of heating inversions early in the practice while you’re still fresh and your energy is high. These poses require lots of strength and stamina so if you’re feeling a little off, it’s best to leave them till another day particularly if you’re not overly familiar with them.

Heating inversions include things like handstand, headstand and forearm balance. If you’re not overly comfortable with these types of poses, dolphins and box-poses at the wall will serve to build your toolkit for eventually practicing these poses.

Standing poses

Standing poses are hugely useful for just about any type of practice. They help to build strength, stamina and opening in a very safe manner. Depending on which class of peak poses you may be working towards, you can pick and choose the postures that will create the best opening. Even if you’re not sure what poses open up what, a general practice of standing poses tends to cover a lot of basis. And if you’re not sure what each pose is useful for, I highly recommend getting into the poses and trying to feel what muscles are working, which ones are stretching and generally what’s going on in your body. As I’ve said, yoga is about listening. Getting on the mat to listen to what’s happening in your body is a great way to learn to sequence like a pro.

Twists

There are variations of twists from light, gentle ones (good for the beginning and the end of practice) to intense, deep ones within various classes of poses. Twists are a great way to prepare the spine for backbending but the deeper ones could be your peak postures all on their own.

Arm balances

You may choose this class of poses as your peak. Lots of hip and shoulder opening are key for getting ready for these poses and a good smattering of core work will help too.

Examples: crow, side crow, elephant trunk

Backbends

Backbends are great for waking you up and making you feel great. Ideally, they should be practiced earlier in the day so that they don’t interfere with your sleep. Anyone who’s ever done huge backbends at 8pm at night will probably have a tale to tell about a challenging night’s sleep afterwards.

Lots of heating and preparation is required for the deeper backbends like upward facing bow, bow pose and camel. Thigh stretches, shoulder opening, leg strengthening, twisting. Ideally these big poses belong toward the end of a longer practice. There are no shortcuts to a safe backbend. The preparation has got to be done.

Forward bends

Heating the body & warming the hips & legs is important to being able to find good arch in low back to do the deeper work of seated forward bends. It might be best to work with standing poses for many months until you develop sufficient strength in the legs to keep them active while seated (supports low back curve). Grounding femurs. Very good for night time, calming, cooling. Examples: seated forward bend, easy cross legs, head to knee pose.

Inversions (cooling)

By this I mean shoulderstand and it’s variations. Ensure your upper back & neck are sufficiently warmed up and use blankets to elevate your shoulders if need be.

Restorative postures

This class of poses can make up your entire practice on some days when you just can’t face a full sequence of asanas. They can also be a nice way to wind down towards relaxation and meditation. For these poses, you set them up so that the minimal amount of effort is required to maintain good alignment. You may opt to hold these poses for 2-15 minutes but stay aware of what’s going on in your body. You’re not looking for stretch sensation or any fatigue at all. If you begin to feel uncomfortable, make whatever changes necessary to feel completely supported. Examples include reclined bound angle, legs up the wall, supported twist, supported backbends.

Pranayama and/or Meditation

Breathwork is a great way to prepare for meditation and savasana. Choose calming breaths rather than hugely stimulating breaths like kapalabhati at this late stage in the practice. Alternate nostril breathing and ratio breathing are good options.

At this stage in the practice, you might find you effortlessly slip into a meditative state. It can be nice to just sit for a few minutes, basking inside yourself.

Savasana

No matter what kind of practice you’ve done, always plan to have at least 5 minutes (and ideally 15 minutes) in relaxation pose. This is where everything you’ve done settles into your body mind and becomes part of you. Ensuring you take proper relaxation will be incredibly nourishing for you at all levels and facilitate your progress on the path. I’ve seen people struggle to gain any ground with their postures and sense of wellbeing when they skip this most important part of the yoga practice. It’s the difference between walking the path and running it.

As I’ve mentioned all of these are my suggestions for approaching your own home practice. There are numerous other valid ways to go about it. The most important factor is whether it’s sustainable and beneficial to you.

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Simple Reminder

Yogis on Mats
Yogis on Mats (novel concept)

Just a gentle reminder that the tools and practices of yoga – of any style of yoga – are so much bigger than any one person or persona. There has been so much noise in the media; first about the poorly performed asana and related injuries, then about a supposedly sexually provacative yoga video, then about highly visible yoga leader’s behaviour that I think the whole point of yoga is largely being missed by the mainstream. Focusing on the drama means we miss out on the real value of a sincere yoga practice. As yogis, we must come back to the reason why we practice rather than allowing the chorus of external voices dissuade us from our own path or to create doubt and disharmony.

From my persepective, a yoga practice is ultimately meant to help us to a greater sense of self-trust and self-reliance so that we can weather any challenge we meet. The practice of yoga does not demand that we pledge allegiance or abdicate our own authority to any person or system. As we deepen into the practice, we can see the fruits of the practice in a great many ways – not the least of which is that we consult others less about what is good for us and trust ourselves more.

That path of yoga points us back inward to the source of our own strength. Yoga is not about any one person or method or lineage. We are moving from an era where we abdicate our personal autonomy to some external “leader” or organisation to an era of heart-centered collaboration. Heart-centered collaboration isn’t reliant on a brand or a single person. It is about getting so close to ourselves that we can get close to other people and be of service without fear. To trust that if we get hurt, we can handle it, we can re-group and go on.

I think that yoga teachers are all just guides. They are not moral compasses. For me, I do my best to point each student inward, into more direct contact with their own experience. At the end of the day, it’s really not about me. Ultimately, it’s about the student and their deepening relationship with themselves. I’m merely a guidepost on their path.

I’m on my own path too. I seek out individuals and situations that help me raise my vibration, rather than lower it. In the current climate of media maelstrom, getting on the mat, rather than on the internet to read more controversy, is a way we can move forward as individuals and as a community in the highest way.

“We are all just walking each other home”  ~Ram Dass

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Meditation Journal Entry

When I studied with Tara Judelle in Bali last year, she encouraged us to journal immediately after our practices, meditation as well as asana. When I’ve actually taken the time to do it, I’ve found it to be a tremendously valuable way to process and integrate whatever I’ve experienced in the practice. There is something about writing longhand immediately after a practice that infuses the experience into my cells. And it’s great to be able to look back on both the highs and lows as encouragement to persist.

Here’s my journal entry from the other day about my meditation experience. May it be of some use to you.

Today was one of those days where I closed my eyes and immediately arrived into a parallel universe. It felt like landing into a miraculous, bright clearing in the forest with no memory of having travelled there. I felt as though I had arrived in a very familiar place, but one that keeps changing location – like in Lost or some other sci-fi drama. Shards of sunlight stream down through the tall trees. My clearing is warm enough to expose bare skin, yet cool enough so that the breeze’s sweet caress enlivens the skin that it touches. The air feels clean, cool and crisp in my nostrils. My body feels light and spacious and tall. There is a feeling of utter calm wellbeing and expansive focus. It is effortless awareness, restful, invigorating, and healing. Every cell is vibrating, sparkling, scintillating with life, with potential, with passion yet to be expressed.

When I noticed the edges of my awareness darkening or a vague sense of unease creeping in, I checked my posture. Immediately aligning to my vertical axis and grounding myself, snapped everything back into that lovely gift of effortless boundlessness.

There are many ways to get to this ‘clearing’. Some days, I search without finding it.  Other days, it may take some time to find a brief glimpse of it. Some days as I sit in the clearing, there is a parade of thoughts that streams past. And then there are days like today. While all experience in meditation is valauble, it feels almost as if Mother Universe is rewarding me for taking the time and space to sit. Today’s blissful sit was a kind of luxuriant reminder of why I bother in the first place.

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On Courage

Inaugural Off the Mat crew, Sydney

Often, I will teach a class with a theme on courage and the way that yoga prepares us to hold enough space for ourselves so that face up to the tough stuff in our lives, even when we want to run away. When we have sensitivity and courage, we can be of great service to the people in our lives. This past weekend, I was going to teach such a class again. But I was about to learn a deeper level of the very lesson I was there to teach. Continue reading “On Courage”

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Choose your company

Choose to spend your time with people who make you feel happy, energised and well. – In yoga practice, we often check in with ourselves to notice body, mind, emotion and breath. Using the skills you’ve cultivated on your yoga mat, pay attention to how you feel before, during and after spending time with the people in your life. Your body is constantly giving you messages – listen in to them. Do you feel easy in your skin? If there’s tension gathering, where is it gathering? What is the nature of it?

In addition, notice how easy it is to get the attention of the people in your life, how balanced the relationship feels and whether you feel empowered in their presence. When you discern which people make you feel best, choose their company more often. Where possible, limit the time you spend with people who diminish you or deplete your energy.

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What’s the big idea? (or meltdown emergency care)

Have you ever had a meltdown? You know, when a fear or anxiety takes over and you just get caught in a little rut. You may rant and rave or cry or just shut down entirely…Did you know that when you focus on negative things for just 30 seconds, the neurochemical response in your nervous system is actually more than your body-mind can handle? Studies have shown that it literally begins to damage cells in the limbic system part of your brain responsible for processing emotion. Which makes you less resilient over the long haul. Youch.

Now when you’re living right on the edge of your comfort zone, meltdowns can happen. They are a wake up call. It means you’ve lost connection with yourself. The practice of yoga can be a means of reconnecting with yourself, with what is most important to you. Consider for a moment, what gets you out of bed in the morning. What drives you? What is your deepest value? See if you can connect with one word. The word form can literally start to shift the patterning of the cells.

Recent studies have also shown when you meditate on what the researchers have called “a big idea” for a few minutes every day consistently, your brain literally gets shifted. In the moment of meditation, the activity in your parietal lobe (your sense of your individual self, small self) goes down as more dendrites are formed, connecting frontal lobe (planner), through thalamus (reality perceiver) to the centers of the brain that help you to manifest big ideas in the world. After just 8 weeks of this, the thalamus is reshaped by 10%. So literally, your perception of reality is changed forever. Which means your capacity to manifest is changed forever.

A yoga practice can be a moving form of meditation. So if you take your one word from earlier with you into and throughout the practice, you can literally start to re-pattern your brain for the better. Which, if you’re anything like I’ve been over the last little while, will be helpful for undoing any damage a meltdown may have caused.

Special thanks to Tara Judelle for the link to the TEDx talk and the inspiration for taking this into practice. Watch more about the research behind this article here: What’s your big idea?

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Yoga and the Elements

Mahabhutas

As creatures of the natural world, we are surrounded by, subject to and even composed of five basic elements. These elements are recognised by many schools of philosophy and are referred to by various names. Within the philosophical schools from which yoga as I teach it arose, the elements are known as Mahabhutas. The Mahabhutas are Earth (Prithivi), Water (Apas), Fire (Agni), Air (Vayu) and Space or Ether (Akasha).

As we deepen into yoga practice, we become increasingly aware of the power and influence that aligning with these natural elements can yield, both on the yoga mat as well as in our daily lives. Yoga practice can help us more fully understand these elements as they affect us physically, mentally and spiritually.

The Earth element (Prithivi). Earth is the very ground upon which we live. The particles of energy in Earth are tightly packed and vibrate at a low frequency, thus we experience earth as dense, solid and heavy. Within our own bodies, the Earth element is experienced as the solid cellular structures of our bones and organs. Our sense of smell is associated with Earth. Within our minds, Prithivi brings qualities of steadfast commitment, patience and humility. Spiritually, our Earth experiences will relate to annamaya kosha, or the physical body. The chakra associated with Earth is the Root Chakra (Mooladhara). Continue reading “Yoga and the Elements”

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Happy 11-11-11!

Today is thought to mark the shift from the time in the world where we sought to dominate other each other, to acquire power, money and status to a time in the world where we seek to know ourselves as innately strong, wise and knowledgeable. Our challenge is to find our way inward to that truth, rather than taking the path our ancestors took outward – looking for answers from “out there” and seeking power over each other.

Meditation is one of the key practices we can use to get to know ourselves better so that as the world changes around us, we remember our own eternal, bright auspicious nature and hold to that light so that we can help others to do the same.  No matter what you do for a job, where you go in the world, when you have mastery over your own power, even just a little bit, your presence becomes a blessing and a beacon for others who are seeking to reconnect with their own power. Continue reading “Happy 11-11-11!”

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Power walking prowess

Wellington's Stunning Oriental Bay
Wellington's Stunning Oriental Bay

I think I have reached a new level of yoga geekdom. This morning while I was out on my “power” walk around Wellington’s stunning Oriental Bay, I had a breakthrough due in no small part to the loops of Anusara yoga.

In recent years, my tendency to be a speed demon has abated somewhat. As much as there are times when blasting around town is tempting and necessary, by and large I find myself much slower than I used to be. I’ve turned into more of a plodder than a power walker, truth be told. This is not great when you want to get your blood zooming around and bring a rosy flush of life to your face.

This morning within seconds of deciding to pick up the pace a bit, I realised why I’m reluctant to walk too fast these days. It’s not laziness, old age, the shoes that I’m wearing or the type of walking surface I happen to be on. It’s because when I try to achieve greater speed, I automatically go into hyper-extension mode. A-HA! Continue reading “Power walking prowess”

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