The Heart of Community – Nonviolent Communication in Practice

Community is the space where most yoga practice, learning, and teaching takes place in the modern age. While one-on-one yoga therapeutic relationships are also growing as an approach, particularly in yoga therapy, the guru-student model of ancient yoga, and critiqued by VK Harber in her Yoga International article, Does the Guru-Student Model Work in Modern Yoga? (April 26, 2016), appears to be giving way to more contemporary, community-based perspectives.  One need only google ‘yoga community’ to quickly discover the countless options for yoga community that exist today across the globe—communities of practice with diverse self-inquiry intentions including, but not limited to, self-care, self-discovery, and self-empowerment for both individual and social justice. Participating in yoga communities as a student and teacher, as well as studying these communities as a yoga researcher, have led me to believe that community is the most common, and probably the most potent, context in which we learn and teach yoga in modern times.  Thus, having a better understanding of the nature of modern yoga community seems like a worthwhile goal for both students who are learning in community, and teachers who are working to build and teach within them.

If we embrace and apply a community-based model to yoga, such as Wenger-Trayner’s Community of Practice (CoP) which I outlined and advocated in my last blog post, then, the next question that arises is, how do we as yoga CoP members build and sustain them? And, while yoga practices and knowledge also help define and perpetuate these CoPs, the community aspect is probably the requisite feature for their emergence—the physical, psychological, and social space that is required to practice safe yoga and inspire greater self-knowledge and understanding. But how does this physical-psychological-social community-space become the protective, nourishing energetic container necessary to promote engagement in and experience of deep yogic self-inquiry?

As yoga practitioners, we intuitively sense when we have entered a yoga community that provides the energetic container for safety and growth.  But sensing and recognizing these communities is not the same as knowing how to establish and maintain them. As students and teachers, what specific techniques, skills, and understandings could we adopt and use to facilitate the emergence of these nourishing and enriching yoga communities?  As I recently reacquainted myself with the classic text, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg in preparation for The Essence of Yoga Center teacher training program, I was reminded of how the communication I use in my yoga classes has been shaped by his work on Nonviolent Communication (NVC)—an approach that fosters space for both ‘safe sharing’ between community members and ‘belief challenging’ for innovation and growth.

So what, specifically, does Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process offer in terms of the creation and maintenance of yoga CoPs?  First, the term nonviolent communication has always resonated with my yogic tendencies, reflecting the spirit of ahimsa, one of Patanjali’s first-limb yamas, or ethical rules for right living, laid out in the Yoga Sutras.  While nonviolence is the most obvious, yoga-relevant aspect of NVC, this approach embodies at least three additional features that may contribute to the formation of secure and nourishing community spaces, including: Honesty, Empathy and Self-Awareness. Honest NVC occurs when a speaker expresses their truth clearly and authentically from the heart.  The listener must also receive the speaker’s truth, by hearing the verbal message but listening through to the heart of the speaker and their intention.  This kind of ‘heart-connecting’ communication occurs when one shares their thoughts and feelings openly and accurately—in as precise and complete a manner as possible.  The idea of speaking truth, again, resonates with a yogic ethical principle, satya (truth), which asks the practitioner to be truthful in intention, word, and deed.  Honest communication sets clear boundaries for a safe and nurturing community container to form.  When we add trust to truth, confidentiality becomes an additional boundary-establishing element of the community space.

Empathetic NVC transpires when a listener receives a speaker’s truth with sensitivity to their feelings and needs.  For truly heart-connecting, empathetic communication to takes place, the speaker must also assume the challenging task of balancing both their own feelings, and the needs that give rise to them, as well as the feelings and needs of the listener.  Both listener and speaker share responsibility for expressing their feelings honestly and with compassion for the other.  Rosenberg suggests that empathy in communication emerges, “[w]hen we hear another person’s feelings and needs, [and] we recognize our common humanity.” One of the most valuable contributions of Rosenberg’s NVC work is the rich language he presents for describing emotions and feeling states.  His feeling vocabulary is both descriptive and extensive, but may seem somewhat unfamiliar to most of us due to the fact that our Western culture does not emphasize or encourage the skills of emotional identification, regulation, or (constructive) expression.  At times, we are in ‘cultural-denial’ of the very existence of our emotional inner world.  Learning to observe, recognize, label, accept and empathetically express feelings establishes a positive, nonjudgemental community space to conduct self-inquiry for healing self-care and personal transformation.

Finally, self-aware, reflexive NVC ensues when a speaker is fully-present and conscious of both their own emotions and needs as well as those of their listener.  As yogis, we cultivate this state of embodied mindfulness or ‘witness consciousness’ through regular asana, pranayama and meditation practice. The witness state, or direct observer sakshi (saa-kshe), refers to the capacity of awareness to detach itself from its identification with the shifting thoughts and feelings of an individual and rest in its own expansive and unifying nature. When we learn to stay consciously aware of thoughts and feelings that arise in our minds and hearts, which allows us to label, acknowledge, and embrace them in nonjudgmental and potentially healing ways, we can more easily extend this practice beyond ourselves and empower our communication with others. Thus, the first step in addressing how we as yoga practitioners can facilitate the emergence of nourishing and enriching community-heart spaces critical to the effective functioning of yoga CoPs, is to model and encourage the loving, heart-connecting practices of honest, empathetic, and mindful nonviolent-communication.

Post by Tanja Bisesi

Journeying Together – What is a Community of Practice?

Communities of Practice: a Brief Introduction by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayners (2015) introduces a concept that has resonated with me since I first encountered it during my graduate studies nearly 20 years ago.  Anyone who has ever practiced yoga in community intuitively understands its power to foster and inspire self-awareness, transformation, and empowered action.  As modern yoga practitioners we know the energizing sensation of a community practice that balances the body, expands the mind, and brings the blissful realization of life’s unity.  This embodied consciousness is our collective purpose, a path of yoga which spiritual seekers have followed for centuries.  And while practicing yoga in community is a relatively recent phenomenon, the Wenger-Trayners’ Community of Practice (CoP) model, borrowed from research on social organizations, challenges us to reflect on how it might further enrich our beloved yoga journey.

The Wenger-Trayers suggest that the primary intention of CoPs is to help “groups of people who share a…passion for something they do, learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”  They identify three elements that are essential to any CoP.  First, CoPs are made up of groups of people coming together, a community, around a common practice.  Second, CoPs take up a shared practice which includes common goals, dialogue and activity—intentions, words and deeds.  Third, the focus of CoPs is the generation of a knowledge domain, new knowledge in all its forms— information, concepts, understandings, beliefs, identities, insights, skills, and wisdom.  So, what do we have to gain by adopting this teaching-practice model in yoga?

The simple answer to this question is: we unleash the power of this ancient spiritual practice to support practitioners’ needs for embodied connection, through community participation, ownership and innovation.  The CoP model is highly responsive to modern yoga practitioners because it reorients us toward dedication to the practice, rather than to the teacher. At least three features of this model foster this reorientation: it is decentralized, collaborative, and generativeDecentralized means authority and expertise are not concentrated in the teacher or the lineage, but determined by the unique experiences and needs of the community members.  In other words, this models is inherently student (and teacher-as-student) and practice-centered.  CoPs are designed to support the individual yoga path, practice flexibility and innovation, and the yogi’s search to find the teacher within—instead of the mindless allegiance to a single yoga lineage or a teacher’s pre-determined goals.  Because new understandings and practice innovations emerge from student need, knowledge and, therefore, power are distributed among members of the community.  This fact makes CoPs highly resistant to the corrupting influences of ego, lineage-brand attachment, conflict of interest, and self-promotion.  The teacher, as founder of a yoga CoP (i.e, class), is a model for self-inquiry practice and becomes a container—a reservoir that collects and holds knowledge established through community practice over time as new members join and leave the community.  Furthermore, the teacher releases control of and shares responsibility for learning, becoming a resource and guide for dedicated students on the path. Emphasis on the unique journey of each member naturally fosters a safe space for physical exploration, emotional healing, intellectual curiosity, and spiritual expansion.  And because everyone is viewed as an active participant, with unique challenges and talents, each member is encouraged to take ownership of their practice and growth.  In CoPs, individual spiritual seekers, students and teachers alike, come together to support each other on their self-directed paths of self-care, self-discovery and self-empowerment, while simultaneously transforming community knowledge and identity.

CoPs are also collaborative, in the sense that individual growth is dependent on and takes place as a result of participation in a practice community. Community is considered both the means and source of new practices. From this perspective, all knowledge is negotiated through community dialogue and practice, rather than through direct transmission of teacher experience or lineage expertise. Not only does every member take responsibility for their own body-mind-spirit growth, regardless of experience level, but also, the transformation of the community is every bit as important as the individual.  Both teacher and students share ownership over their own learning and the development of the entire CoP.   The primary role of the teacher in CoPs shifts from power-authority expert to community-support builder.  In this context, the teacher watches students mindfully for opportunities—teachable moments—during group practice to offer direction, advice, and encouragement on their unique yoga paths.  In addition to facilitating the practice of self-inquiry, CoP teachers also encourage student-to-student collaborative dialogue that benefits the entire community.

Finally, the CoP model is generative in the sense that it recognizes the fluid nature of knowledge and supports innovation both for individuals and communities, rather than the strict adherence to a fixed lineage or teaching authority. Individual practitioners grows their expertise as the group practices together over time.  And because practitioners, both students and teacher, share as they gain new wisdom, the community practice is not fixed.  It also grows and changes as fresh techniques and insights become part of the community ‘treasure chest.’   Thus, CoPs continually generate new understandings and practices—shaped over time by the diverse needs, voices, and self-inquiry paths of all practitioners—while spurring growth and innovation at every level of the community.  In VK Harber article on the pitfalls of the traditional guru-student yoga model (Yoga International, April, 2016) she poses a critical question for modern yoga practitioners: “how do we reconfigure..[our] relationship toward dedication to the practice, rather than the teacher?”  I believe that embracing the CoP model in yoga, as we have here at The Essence of Yoga Center for Self Inquiry, may be one strong move toward this teaching-practice ideal.

Post by Tanja Bisesi

A Spiritual Map – Interview with guest teacher Matt Branstetter

Last week, I was lucky enough to sit down with Matt Branstetter, our meditation and philosophy teacher. Here are some of his thoughts on yoga, and the peace of the present moment.

CS: Thinking about a teacher you enjoy taking classes with–yoga, or otherwise–what is their teaching like, and how does that inform your personal practice?

Matt: So, my main practice these days is taiji (tai chi), so I study with a master of the chen style of taiji, and I study with him 3 times a week. The thing that draws me to Master Ding is his joy in what he does. He moves with freedom and with joy, and that is infectious. It creates this kind of energy in class, where you’re driven to do that yourself. You’re driven to find that freedom and that joy of movement, without restrictions or inhibitions.

CS: It’s contagious joy.

Matt: Contagious joy, yes! Enthusiasm, and a pursuit of excellence…with joy. Not with stress. Excellence through joy rather than through have to or need to or must, but you have the opportunity to bring out what is best in you, and it is pleasant to do that. So here is one avenue for you to do that. So, I would say that he is a great inspiration to keep going deeper into the practice.

CS: And do you find yourself seeking out that joyfulness in your own practice, or does it arise naturally?

Matt: I find that it’s there. I find that when the body is in its natural state, joy is just kind of the essence of who we are.

CS: Thank goodness! And how does that then translate from your relationship with your teacher as a student, into your practice, and then from there for yourself as a teacher. Where do you find that joy?

Matt: Well, in all of the above. You know, when I have the time, I’m practicing. I love to do it. I love to explore. I love to do the same thing over and over and over again. For some reason I get great satisfaction out of that. And I feel like I’m pursuing something. You know, I’m pursuing a kind of wholeness. And that’s very appealing to me because it seems like if we’re living with less than whole, then it’s not time spent as fully as it could be otherwise. So the pursuit of that wholeness is also the pursuit of something true about life, and something true about living. So in my teaching, that’s it. The idea of the emotional quality and the feeling aspect of learning about qigong and taiji, it’s just so central to what it is. The felt quality of practice is the essence of it. I couldn’t conceive of movement or technique independent of the feeling that gives it life. They really are one. It’s a transmission of that joy of living.

CS: That direct experience.

Matt: That’s right, that direct experience. It’s an invitation not to mimic techniques, but to find yourself.

CS: Your focus and practice is taiji and qigong, but obviously you’re very steeped in the yogic tradition as well. How would you define yoga?

Matt: There are different levels that we can talk about. And I don’t want it to sound like the advanced levels exclude the more beginner’s level because you’re a beginner all the way through. Definitely I think there’s something about finding peace in this body; making a home in this body; finding comfort in this body, which is essential to every level of yoga. Dealing with our own discomfort; dealing with pain… It’s only by inhabiting this body that we really inhabit the present moment. So it’s kind of there, either as a barrier or as a means to being present in our lives.
That being said, I think when we start to make a home in the present moment, there’s a kind of spiritual map that’s there also, and that’s for me the essence of the yoga philosophy. It’s not concepts, it’s not the presentation of a world view, but it’s giving language to a process that happens as we go deeper into the present moment, and as we get more still, as we get more comfortable with being. So yoga would be…the art of being.

CS: Is that something that you found in your initial experience of yoga? That spiritual map?

Matt: For me, and I don’t think this is necessarily the normal pathway for people, but for me, philosophy came first. So I was a student of philosophy, Western philosophy, and then eventually Eastern philosophy. And then it became clear to me that to understand what these people were talking about, you had to be in the same or similar mental state to where they were when they were saying what they were saying. So the idea of meditation, that made sense to me. In order to understand what these philosophers were talking about, you need to meditate. So I found a meditation teacher who also ended up being a martial arts teacher. It was a quest for philosophical truth, for knowledge. And I think for a lot of philosophers, and this was definitely the case for me, it was looking for something stable. Because my early life as a child was unstable, so there was some quest for stability. Does the center hold? Is there something that abides through the changes in life? And the answers from the East were always couched in a mastery of meditation. So the answer was yes, but not one that’s going to be immediately accessible to you. In order to find this abiding place, you’re going to have to strip away various layers, and you’re going to have to make this inward journey. And that seemed fair. It seemed fair that if you were going to find something like that, you would have to make a journey to get there.
So my very first yoga class was after a martial arts training session. One of our students became interested in yoga, and started teaching yoga to the rest of us. It was the deepest relaxation I had ever felt. Ever. I was used to doing things with my body, but to really go in and relax everything, and to let things let go at their own pace. I can remember just driving home in a state of bliss. And relaxation. It was just like OH MAN. This is GREAT. We can just go in and chill ourselves out. And that was it. Ever since it has just become part of my life and part of my practice. And that initial hit, that initial hit of philosophy, the initial hit of insight into what these guys were talking about, and the initial experience of that yoga class, they continue to live. Those initial glimpses continue to live in my practice today and inform and inspire it.

CS: So for most people, we would probably agree they get to yoga through the asana, through the body, and you came at it from the other side of things. Do you find that that is something that sets you apart from other teachers?

Matt: Maybe…I’ve taught philosophy in college, in the classroom, and I realize with these philosophies it’s about a lived experience. That’s what it’s about. And I really have that sense ingrained in my being at this point. I would say my teaching, when it’s effective, is a really open invitation to meet each other at a certain level of being. You know? And then the concepts that we use will make sense, because we’re kind of in the state that the people were when they started saying, “Hey, how can we talk about what we’re experiencing right now? Let’s put some words on this.” And so they put certain words on that, and as we get close to where they were when they had that idea, we can more easily assimilate the words because it’s not some foreign concept to us anymore. It’s a way of getting to the essence of what we’re experiencing in the moment of experience. So satsang is a shared experience of truth, where we are somehow kind of resonating with it together, and I recognize it in you and you recognize it in me. So when it’s explained that way it has very little to do with concepts, and I think the yogic philosophy, in the final analysis, has very little to do with concepts. It has to do with being. With a capital B.

CS: What role does yoga play in your life?

Matt: The practice of asana is still pretty central to what I do. Between movement, mindful movement (which is what I believe the internal martial arts are based on), and the practice of asana, the practice of breathing and the practice of meditation, I would say my practice these days is to try to get a sense of a continuum between all those. Even when you’re sitting in meditation, you’re breathing…most of the time. So the body is moving, the diaphragm is moving, the ribcage is expanding. So there’s always a sense of movement. There’s always a sense of meditative awareness, and there’s always a sense that sensation is never still. There’s something about the way our nervous system is arranged, so that in order for us to feel anything, that nerve has to fire, and fire again, and if it doesn’t fire, we’re not going to feel anything. So the fact that when we feel, it means that things are moving, things are changing, things are shifting, so that is the awareness that I think is common to all those practices. The awareness itself is quiet, still, but everything else is moving, changing, flowing. So being comfortable with that change, relaxing into that change, surrendering to that change, and even learning how to surf that change is how I would define yoga, and say how it’s playing a role in all these different practices right now.

CS: What would you say is the “essence of yoga”?

Matt: I like “peace”. There’s a lot of directions I could go with that question, but I like this idea of shanti. May there be peace in the world, may there be peace in our households, in our surroundings, and may there be peace in our own bodies and minds. I think that’s a very worthy goal. It’s definitely true in our time, but it’s been true of every time. It’s not an easy goal to achieve, but I think it’s a really meaningful one. I think we should continue to inspire ourselves and one another to continue to pursue this goal of peace. Let it go. Let it be, at least for this moment.

CS: What drew you to the practice of taiji, qigong and East/West philosophy?

Matt: When I was studying philosophy as a student, I really started with ancient Greek philosophy. I had been waiting for people to talk like this since I was born! That was my sensation, and I really wasn’t finding people, you know, my mom, my family, they were not using that kind of language. So just the fact that people were asking these fundamental questions. All of a sudden a light went on in me, and I very quickly learned that vocabulary of asking those questions and seeking the answers. It was a great awakening for me, but it was also kind of systematic. You know, I started with the Greeks, and then I got into European philosophy and after stewing in that, and the questions they were concerned with for a while, Eastern philosophy came. In a survey course, you usually get a smattering of traditions, so the Hindu tradition and their philosophy, the Daoist, so ancient Chinese, and Buddhist, and Zen. These all kind of hit me at the same time in this survey course, and they’ve all been constant companions throughout the whole process. And qigong is really just the yoga of China. Just as in India, there’s breathing techniques, there’s physical techniques of the body, there’s philosophical techniques, and they’re all intertwined with one another. In China it’s the exact same scenario, you have all these subtle techniques for the body and the breath, and they inform a certain way of looking at life and a certain way of experiencing life. And fundamental to the practice of yoga in India is the idea of Prana, or life force, and fundamental to the practice of taiji is Qi or life force. That is something that we kind of are always tasting. We’re always feeling that at some level, but I think the moment we really become conscious that, hey, I’m alive. Not because my doctor tells me, or because my fitbit say that I am. I’m alive because I feel alive. Because I feel these life processes happening inside of me, and I am somehow one with those life processes. I think when people get that initial sense of that, you naturally want more of that; you naturally want to explore that deeper; you naturally think, this has something to do, not just with a fleeting experience, but the meaning of what it is to be alive. And so this is the force that’s underneath all of that. This is the force that’s making that happen. And it’s more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. It’s closer to us than our own thoughts.

CS: This question is a little bit off the beaten path, but why do you think it is that the Western world created or imagined such a fragmentation, such a divide between the body and mind, while the East has these systems that are so mind-bogglingly simple and complex at the same time, and that work so beautifully?

Matt: That’s right…well, I think the ancient traditions of the West, you don’t see that quite as much. In the indigenous traditions of the West, you don’t see that as much. It’s a whole process, but I think you hit one of the key factors, and that is the separation between the mind and the body, which is just not the case in the East. It doesn’t tend to be the case in the East, it tends to be that these are obviously part of a single process. So beginning with Descartes and some of those European thinkers and the Enlightenment; and the separation of material pursuits from spiritual pursuits, so the material people kind of have their realm, and the spiritual people kind of have their realm; the process of beginning to see nature as a resource, rather than something that was living and valuable in its own right; the shift from “being” to “having” in all kinds of ways. All of that plays a role, and then science really seeming, in those early stages to create a world that could exist independently of our experience of it. It was solid, it was real, it was out there. So that’s one of the fascinating things about more contemporary science. The belief that the world is solid real and out there has crumbled from every direction that we’ve approached it. It’s crumbled from the neurological perspective, it’s crumbled from the perspective of physics, and this is an ancient concept, the idea of maya. Which is not that the world is a trick, it’s just not ultimately and totally real. I mean, a rainbow is real. We can see it! There it is! We can experience its beautiful colors. But the closer you get to it, the more it seems to recede, and that’s the same thing we could say with biology, chemistry–they’re real, from a certain level, but the closer we get to them, the more powerful our microscopes, the more they seem to dissolve and disappear. And I think that’s the fundamental idea of maya–don’t seek the eternal or the abiding in terms of these material processes, because they’re neither. In fact, they come from and are rooted in a more profound reality that you can’t own, you can’t store up, you can’t have it, like you can have material things, but ultimately, that’s what’s going to be fulfilling to you. That’s what’s going to give you a meaningful human life, and one that aligns you with the way things are.

CS: Is there anything that you would like your future students to know about you? Or about the world? Or about the practice of yoga?

Matt: I would say this is a common thing, because I approach things, in a way, backwards. Because the philosophical way of speaking is so second nature to me, that I feel like that can be intimidating to some students. I guess the primary thing is don’t be intimidated. The kind of knowledge that I’m interested in is really just an invitation for us to be together, which means both–we’re being and we’re together. So both of those have to be there. Because we can be together, but not be being. Or we can be being, but we are either on our own cushion, doing our own thing, or we’re out on a mountaintop somewhere, and this is neither. This kind of philosophy is about being together. And one of the things that humans do when we’re together is we speak to one another. And this is not to say the ancient yogis had the best vocabulary for our day, but they did really go deeply into the questions. So the essence of what they were saying I think will remain the same, but the words that we put it in? I think those have to evolve. Because traditions just get created around particular words. And it’s very easy in that scenario…you can master the whole system, but not know what the hell it was really about, and that’s our goal. Our goal is not to be the master of some ancient vocabulary, our goal is to try to tap into the essence of what they were talking about…why they felt compelled to bring forth these words in the first place. And I think people will find that that it’s very pleasant to feel like you’re sharing with somebody at a deep, fundamental and essential level. And I think that’s what satsang was all about. You know, having people talking and meditating at the same time. We’re being and speaking and interacting at the same time. Somehow when those things become separate from one another, we have the scenario you were just talking about with the Western world. We end up with fragmentation. Ultimately, I don’t want to know anything that you can’t also participate in at the moment I know it. The knowledge I’m interested in is where we meet together…in peace.

CS: In peace–the essence of yoga.


Post by Cara Sparkman

What We’re Reading – All About Love, by bell hooks

LOVE…what is it exactly?  Is it an outdated archaic idea, a fundamental force of the universe, or an individual act of will? As bell hooks points out in, All About Love (2000), “most people find it hard to define what they mean when they use the word ‘love,’” although we seem to know intuitively how important it is to our wellbeing—to our very survival.  Human beings generally know love as feeling sensations or relationships, but are these experiences the entirety or even the essence of love… or is there more?  hooks’ discussion of this cherished yet complicated concept challenged me, as a yoga practitioner and teacher trainer, to critically examine how I think about and experience love, and how I might bring more of it into the world.

hooks first invited me to, “imagine how much easier it would be…to learn to love if we began with a shared definition.” She then shared the self-aware definition proposed by Dr. Peck in The Road Less Traveled (1978);  he defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  This definition immediately struck me as truly unique, making no direct reference to physical-emotional attraction or sentimental feelings. And, it resonated powerfully with my yogic tendencies, not only as a way to recognize love in its infinite manifestations, but as an act of will for spiritual purposes.  I realized at that point, I had often mistaken the experience of love as a strong, spontaneous state of attraction or “cathexis,” with a dedicated loving practice—in much the same way a momentary bliss sensation during yogic meditation may convince us that we have attained Samadhi. Envisioning love as a verb and a choice—involving conscious will and discernment in the service of spiritual intentions—helped me disentangle the notion of love as simply sensation and an active loving practice.

Defining love as a spiritual practice also opened up greater awareness on how I might bring more of it into the world. From this new perspective, love, like yoga, takes the form of disciplined, intentioned action: a series of conscious acts that take us to higher ground. Abuse, violence, manipulation, neglect, and other acts of, what hooks calls, “lovelessness,” can never be part of a loving practice. And feelings of attraction, which may be present, should never be confused with a dedicated practice of love. I can choose to act lovingly. All human beings can consciously choose to practice love. 

By embracing this definition, the idea and experience of love can be transformed: from a feeling that happens to us, to which we may become mindlessly attached, leading us to act in unloving ways; to a potentially healing and uplifting practice that we choose to take up with deliberate and mindful presence in order to foster our own and other’s spiritual Selves.  Love as a self-conscious, disciplined, spiritual practice:  What could be more nourishing, transforming, and empowering for our lives and our world—or more yogic?

Post by Tanja Bisesi

Sweetness and Light – Interview with guest teacher Romi Kalova

Yesterday, I sat down over a couple of mugs of hot chocolate with Romi Kalova, one of the extraordinary guest teachers in both the 200 and 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training Programs. Here’s what she had to say about yoga, and the sweetness of life.

CS: Thinking about a teacher you enjoy taking classes with–what is their teaching like, and how does it inform your personal practice?

Romi: The teacher that comes to mind, I would say, is my dear teacher Kim Schwartz in Chicago. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he is ordained as a Swami. He was one of the directors of the teacher training there at the Temple of Kriya Yoga, where I took my initial training. He is very steeped in the Iyengar tradition, but what I really love about his teaching–not only the depth and how deep he can go when it comes to the physical body, and the whole organization and all the systems in yoga, but how he incorporates that, and how he’s able to connect the physical to the energetics and the whole thing.

What I love about his classes is also the humor that he brings in, and that in the depth that he is trying to pass on, there is also a sense of lightness. That balance that we always strive for. He does that beautifully. His authenticity and gentleness, you can see it radiating from him. To me, when it comes to my own personal practice it’s about just staying authentic and connected to what’s really deep inside. The knowledge and the facts we learn in yoga is part of it, but that connection really gets to the essence of yoga. Very much for me it is experiential. I believe that it’s hard to be authentic and connected to ourselves if we don’t experience deeply the direct experience of what yoga really is. And then it translates into life. Each one of us has a different experience of that depending on where we are. That essence of yoga to me is just the expression of how we live our lives, and how we are able to make that connection. Yoga to me is about that connection, and that was the experience I had the first time, and it is constantly evolving and informing my personal practice. Making that never-ending connection with my core, with who I am. Seeing that, reflecting that, and taking that into the world. Implementing the Yamas and Niyamas, and all the facts. But the question is how do we really take it in, and live it? And that is why yoga is so unique. Sometimes it’s really hard to teach that!

CS: It’s hard to live it; it’s hard to be there; it’s hard to make that connection, and then be present with what you’re connecting with.

Romi: Yes, yes! And so teaching it has such a delicate balance in it. Because it’s individual experience. It’s different for every person. So I would say it’s more of just sharing rather, what my experience was, and if it resonates with someone who might be at the same time and the same moment in their life that that situation might apply. Basically we’re just sharing it

CS: You never know…whatever we give…how it might land with someone else. We think, this is what I have to offer today. And it might land, and it might not.

Romi: Yes, and that is what I treasure so much. If we can keep it fun, with humor and lightness, because at the end, that is what yoga is, that essence. It can become really hard and difficult. As they say, yoga is a discipline, but we can get too serious. Really, yoga is about balance, and in order to be able to bring about the balance, it is asking for the constant connection, that continuous connection and reflection and going back and being there with myself in my inner universe, and discovering everything there is. So I can see what I need, what I can do. And then it just translates to the outer universe.

CS: It seems like when we can continue to show up for ourselves, that the rest falls into place.

Romi: Yes, yes!

CS: So what was your first experience of yoga? What was your introduction to yoga?

Romi: It was very interesting. I was going through a really hard time. I was living in Chicago, and going through a very difficult time. My physical body was not feeling well; I was working three jobs, and my injury from when I was younger and doing track and field came back. One day I couldn’t get up from bed. I had to go to the doctor, and when I asked them if this could be fixed, he said, “Well…no, but you could TRY yoga”. So I did. But what was so interesting was that in my very first yoga class, I almost threw up. Even though I was physically very fit from track and field. You know, I got the postures: the lunges…it was very familiar. But we did the practice on the floor and then we got up into standing. Right when I got up into Tadasana, I couldn’t stand up straight; I almost vomited. I had to fold forward, and I was like whaaats happening? And so after class I asked my first teacher, Meg, “you know I had this interesting experience. Can you tell me what this is?” So she first just told me to step against the wall and lean my back against the wall, and then just as if I was doing my Tadasana, lift up and stand up straight. And then she touched my belly, my solar plexus. And I couldn’t breath, standing there. Then she asked me a question: “Are you going through some tough time in your life?” And I said, “how do you know that? What does it have to do with all this?” And she explained to me in my very first yoga class how it’s not just the physical practice. She explained what yoga is about, and how it moves the energy and the breath, and how on the physical or energetic level if there are blocks, the practice makes it all move and the sensations come up, and everything comes up. To me, that was the first AHA moment. That moment when I thought, how does she know this about me when she just met me? She had no idea what I was going through. That clicked. From the very first moment, I knew. So that was my first yoga class that completely blew me away with its profoundness, and it’s profound power and the gift that it is. Within 3 months I was enrolled in the yoga teacher training, and that was it.

CS: Wow. How many years ago was that?

Romi: That was in 2005. Eleven years ago. It’s one of those moments that just stays with me forever. I will never forget that moment.

CS: It had an impact on your life, for sure. Thank goodness for that doctor.

Romi: [laughing] And just like that. Although, I would say the way I actually got into that yoga class, was this. After I was at the doctor, my friend was actually going to this center–the Mystical Sciences Institute. Every Friday, they would do a loving-kindness meditation. So my first step into this realm, this world of yoga and meditation, was attending the loving-kindness meditation. I knew nothing about anything. I knew nothing. I just went there open to experience whatever there was to experience, because what I was experiencing in my life didn’t feel good. I went there to be open to all of that. I remember after the 30 minute meditation, when I even didn’t know what I was doing, sitting and listening and woooooo [gesturing]. The beauty of it was what I experienced afterwards. It was very profound, because I sat in my car, and I was driving home in the crazy Chicago traffic, and I was looking around me thinking, something is different. And you know? Everything was different: the colors were different,  the drivers and the cars didn’t bother me, the craziness on the street didn’t bother me, and I thought, hunh this is interesting…ok! That was my very very first experience of the benefits of yoga…the essence of everything.

CS: So your current focus is the yoga of sound, Nada Yoga. Were you a musician before you started practicing yoga? Have you always played the guitar? How did you get into nada yoga?

Romi: So I played guitar when I was younger, but then I moved away from it because there was too much…I don’t know if order is the right word. I tried playing classical guitar, and it just drove me crazy because it was too stiff. So I moved away from it. But when I entered the yoga therapy program with Joseph Lepage at Kripalu in 2009, he opened up the program by playing guitar and chanting, and it just blew me away. He would take the chants and traditional mantras, and he wrote his own music to it, and it never occurred to me that one could do that! I mean, that’s allowed??

So back in 2009 that was the first reconnection for me with the guitar and music. So, I started just playing with it. There was something really amazing–I would just sit down, and I would start playing just whatever came up, and then, hunh! I would hear a chant or a mantra with that music. And that’s how it started. The music came to me. It was not me sitting there and trying to write the music, you know, the tones and chords. No. I was just playing and then the words started flowing, and there it was. And this was not the traditional style of chanting we hear and experience in India, but to me that’s the beauty of yoga. It brings me back to that essence that I discovered through the music and the sound. It is our direct experience expressing through us the essence of the universe. And yoga is the vehicle to me to bring that experience in and feel it. So there’s this creativity. I would play for an hour just repeating the words and the sounds I was hearing, and I would have no idea it was an hour. And then I would stop and there was this experience that in yoga we can call nothingness–this amazing stillness and the silence within. And that was another of those AHA moments. What power! Oh my. Wow. How come and how is this possible?

So that experience was really just deepened with the playing of the guitar, and it started to bring about so much more awareness because it was leading me and guiding me to that essence of yoga, to that source of creation, and that direct experience that is beyond words. And when someone would ask me about the chants, and ask how did you come up with it. I would say, “I don’t know! This just came through me.”

When I saw the training being offered in India, it was a calling I couldn’t resist. It was always my dream to go to India, to the birthplace of yoga. I had no idea what I was about to experience. Being in India, and getting to learn the essence of yoga, the essence of life. That is to me is yoga. The expression of life itself. That essence is one of love. I had no idea that connection that we really make is within us is just this beautiful circle. The circle where we return back home from where we came, again and again.

Being in India where there are unbelievably high vibrations is just beyond words. It’s experiential, and can be experienced only if we are ready for it. It will either scare us and we have to run away, or we stay with it and go deeper. Learning about Sanskrit and the pronunciation, and how actually with yoga in India, the physical practice is such a little part of it. It’s all about the mind, and how we can find that place of stillness and come back to the center and to our essence. How we can come back home. The creation and this circle, how to come back home, is embedded in every single Sanskrit vowel, every consonant in the alphabet. It’s right there. And the sound is the creation. To me it was so profound, and it was that direct connection, that direct experience of the creation and of the essence that translates through the sound. It is vibration, and it is frequency. It’s either the silence, or the inaudible sound. Another step deeper, another dive in that I had no idea I was taking. We have no idea how much further we can go.

CS: We always think we’ve reached the peak, but really it’s not true. It’s not true at all.

Romi: Yeah, and that’s the fun part to me, it’s “OH! Wait a minute.” Right at that moment when I think I’ve reached that point, the universe is about to kick my butt. [laughing]

So that’s why Nada Yoga is my passion, and why actually my whole journey has led me to this place. I was always striving, I was led, I was guided to go to that essence, to find the essence, to find what this is all about. So that’s where it led me. By listening and by being open to it. And it never ends, it never stops, and there is so much more and so much more. As complex as we are as human beings, and with everything we carry with us from past lifetimes. It’s all there for us to reconnect to it. That continuous reconnection. Again. Yoga. It’s the good stuff. The sweetness of life itself. Like chocolate! [lifting her mug]

CS: [laughing] Yes! Exactly.

So you’re going back to India in a few weeks, and if i’m not mistaken, you’ve completed the training there?

Romi: Yes

CS: So what are you going back to do this time?

Romi: It is the teacher’s assistant mentorship. Some of the graduates from this training were invited to become teachers of this type of training. It’s the only teacher training in the whole world that’s based entirely on sound, so there are not many people who share it, partly because it was so sacred in India. And really, you have to learn Sanskrit, you have to learn mantra. You have to have that experience. And it’s not here in the West yet. There is the history and ancientness in India. There is a need to be able to share it more. The time has come, I think. It’s needed. So, we were invited to come back, and be part of each module again as teacher’s assistants. To be a part of the training, but on the other side. So in a few years, depending on how often I can go back to India, I will be able to share it from the position of the teacher. I feel so strongly just like I did all those years ago in Chicago, that this is it. This is my calling.

CS: What a gift. Let me see if I’m missing any questions here. I think we’ve defined yoga. [laughing]

Romi: So many times, and yet there’s still so much more! That’s why it is challenging for me to even come up with one sentence or one answer, because to me it translates to everything and every single moment, and so the essence of life is the essence of yoga.

CS: And it’s undefinable except through that direct experience.

Romi: Yes, so depending on where each one of us is, that’s how we will describe it, and put it in words. And sometimes as we learn in Nada Yoga it’s really the sound, and if we can express that essence of yoga is the inaudible sound. Sometimes the language of love requires no words.

CS: True enough. Well, thank you Romi.

Romi: Thank you!


Post by Cara Sparkman



It’s a beautiful crisp morning here in the jungle, by the ocean…and I am feeling more settled in some significant ways after 5 days here. Then there are ways that I feel quite unsettled in my mind, particularly while watching the news on my laptop each evening. I told myself that I would take a break from it, but it draws me, the actions of this new president…the frightening possibilities that threaten to separate us from the rest of the world and from each other. And then I remember…
I remember the unchanging presence that underlies this world of change, and I see that others are standing up, speaking out, from an awareness of this presence, whether consciously or not. This presence is the connecting force that draws us together when outer forces threaten to pull us apart, and one could give it many names…Love is the word that comes to mind at this time.
For 25 years I have been teaching a winter retreat in this lovely little village of Puerto Morelos, between the ocean and the jungle. Each year, I come early to prepare, to work out the many details of the workshop and to give myself time to open to the experience of creating space for, and guiding the group through a journey of self-inquiry and exploration in breath-inspired movement. Each year, I spend this time in contemplation of their needs, hopes, dreams, wishes, concerns, and anticipate a wonderful week for them as they decompress from their daily lives and open to all that this generous environment offers. This year, another feeling keeps creeping in…a sense of the anxiety and helplessness that they will be bringing…and my own sense of helplessness in being able to lift them out of that shadow state. And then I remember…
I remember what I have come to understand at a very deep level over my 40 years as a teacher, and continually remind the teacher trainees of to lessen their fears of teaching… the challenges that they face in feeling responsible for the students and their experience. I remind them to trust the practice, and that we as teachers are mere guides and facilitators of these ancient techniques that have been evolving through the years to meet the needs of our modern world. I remind them that our responsibility level is high, yes, but that the responsibility lies in our staying in the practice ourselves, to keep coming back to that unchanging presence that connects us all and reestablishing the balance between our outer and inner worlds in such a way that we can better serve our higher purpose. I remind myself, and them,that awareness is the key, practice is the tool, and Love is the answer. This is the Essence of Yoga.
Now…having remembered, I rest in the  knowledge that our week together will be a reminder for them, the students, of this awareness that the practice of yoga opens us to. And I am flooded with gratitude for the practice, for the opportunity to share the practice, and for life itself.

Postcard From the Jungle

Our director and lead trainer, Amanda McMaine, just arrived in Mexico for her annual week-long yoga retreat. While she’s there, we’re all continuing to work together to refine our plans for the 200 and 300 hour yoga teacher training programs. Amanda sends this message of gratitude…

“I am sitting outside in the jungle , at our little table on the porch where we have our meals. The sounds are of the jungle birds and animals, the breeze through the trees which have magnificent huge foliage, and the ocean breeze in the distance. The papaya is amazing and the Mexican coffee divine…Michael has gone to the open air fruit and veggie market where the local farmers bring in their produce…a weekly shopping expedition. We will buy fresh fish from the dock this afternoon…It is warm and breezy and the air so very fresh. All of this makes the list of challenges about being here rather pale, or at least the scales tip toward bliss much of the time. I will not list the challenges! I am grateful…”

Allow, by Danna Faulds

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide…
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.

What We’re Reading – Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

“Writing as a practice.” When I first read this in the pages of Natalie Goldberg’s classic text, Writing Down the Bones (1986), I could not have imagined how profoundly it would impact my future yoga practice. The book was recommended for ‘perfecting my craft’—writing. As a writer, I searched for advice on creating more beautiful and meaningful written text, communicating effectively with my target audiences, inspiring creativity in my readers but…I hadn’t anticipated the life-transforming gift of this new and deep meditative, self-inquiry practice.

At the time, I was completing a 300 hour yoga teacher training with Amanda McMaine and exploring the physical body—bones, joints, muscles—and their essential role in the body’s form, the felt sense of energetic embodiment, and the safe practice of alignment-oriented, therapeutic asana. With ‘bones’ on my mind, the title captured my imagination. When I opened to the chapter on Writing as Practice, I realized, this was not a typical book on writing technique—I was holding in my hands the key to a whole new way to practice yogic presence, self-exploration and reflection, a practice that has become a powerful tool in my yoga toolbox.

Revisiting this book to prepare for the 200 and 300 hour yoga teacher trainings at The Essence of Yoga Center, I have been (re)inspired by the power of Goldberg’s descriptions of writing as practice. As a longtime, Zen meditation practitioner, she believes “that writing practice is learning to trust your own mind and body,” “to grow patient and nonaggressive,” to “stay present with whatever comes up and to “[e]mbrace your whole life.” This description is, in a nutshell, the essence of my personal yoga practice.

Now, with beginner’s mind, I dive back into this self-aware text, guided in my writing practice by Goldberg’s own words, “sit down right now,” “give [yourself] this moment,” “write whatever’s running through you. Don’t try to control it,” just “keep your hand moving.” Through disciplined yogic writing practice, I am able to “burn through” to what Goldberg calls “first thoughts,” the intersection between heart and mind, where my true Self resides and I find the teacher within.

post by Tanja Bisesi