Love:Mindfulness – Interview with guest teacher Cindy Reed

On a rainy afternoon few weeks ago, I got to sit down (read: sprawl on bolsters on the floor) with Cindy Reed. Cindy is a powerful presence in the Central Kentucky yoga community, and we are delighted to welcome her to our faculty.

CS: Talk to me a little bit about your initial experience with yoga. What was your first class like? When? What kind of environment? How did you feel? Just anything that comes to mind.

CR: So my journey with yoga started because, when I was in grad school, I met my bff, who is still my bff, who is named Julanne, who already had a relationship with Amanda. So I’m gonna put that right over there. So we were in grad school, and she had moved here from Pittsburgh. She stumbled over to the Wellness Center, which was a thing at the time, and the person who owned the Wellness Center said, ”Hey! You should probably go over and meet my friend Amanda.”

So Julanne became my bff. We were in grad school for being therapists. We both had bachelor’s degrees, and when I met her, we were both in an advanced standing program to be therapists, so we were on a fast-track–a program that would usually take two years, we were in a one-year program. So within that, we ended up, just by luck, being in this training called DBT–Dialectical Behavior Therapy. The story I’m telling you takes place in about 1999. So in 1999, we went to this training, and the specific therapy was to help people who have borderline personality disorder, but the premise of the therapy was mindfulness. So back in the late nineties, this was a thing that no one else was really doing, except for this one therapy, but at the time, everyone was getting trained in it because insurance providers had found that it was super effective, and so they wanted people to get trained in it because it’s effective and it moves people out of treatment faster. So just by luck, this thing happened that I didn’t know would change my life, but it did. So Jule and I, we’re young, it’s 2000 now, and we start doing this mindfulness based cognitive behavioral therapy with trauma survivors in rural Appalachia. And it was revolutionary. From that, I started looking for ways to deepen my understanding of mindfulness. In the meantime, my bff is hanging out with Amanda all the time, so I end up over at Amanda’s early on. So my first yoga class ever was with my bff, because it was free, and I was with her, and it was at Amanda’s. And I also took a class in this very building [Dudley Square], in a room across the hall with Cindy Hutchison.

So my first experience with yoga was–how blessed–with Amanda and Cindy Hutchison. And that was all I knew about yoga for the first couple of years. How amazing is that?

CS: That’s pretty awesome.

CR: I hear people tell stories about yoga, about how they ended up in gym yoga, and I’m like, that wasn’t my journey. I went straight in.

CS: It sounds like your introduction was through mindfulness first, rather than through asana. Which is sort of the reverse of how most people come into yoga.

CR: That’s exactly right.

CS: Do you think that had an affect on the evolution of your practice? Or where you see yourself today with yoga–coming at it from mindfulness rather than through asana first?

CR: Absolutely. That is my niche, mindfulness. For me, asana is a way to practice mindfulness. Period. I get it, it’s good for your body…I like to do a handstand, that’s fun, but it’s all about presence, and a way to deliver the message of mindfulness to people. That’s how I started. Julanne already knew about yoga. It was just natural for me to start looking for ways to expand people’s ability to implement mindfulness in their lives, and yoga is a way to do that.

CS: What are your thoughts on classes where there may be no mention of mindfulness at all? Do you think that “magic” is still there?

CR: It’s hard…I know this might be weird, but I’ve never been to that kind of yoga class. As weird as it is…this all started for me in 1999. I feel like I’ve led a charmed yoga life in some ways. I’ve been with Angela Farmer, I’ve been with Judith Lasater, I’ve spent TONS of time with Amanda, and a lot of time with Cindy Hutchison. So I don’t really know how to evaluate that. I can tell you that gym owners definitely do approach me, and have approached me. And if you know me, you know I don’t have the “yoga body”. I have a bigger body, so I even think that it has not been my experience with people who own gyms, that they don’t want this message, because they do. They come to my classes and they ask me to teach at their gym, and I don’t look like I even go to the gym! So I get what you’re saying, and I know that it exists, but it’s asking me to speculate on something I’ve never experienced. And maybe I’ve just internalized it so much that everything feels like mindfulness to me. Does that make sense?

CS: Absolutely, it does. Would you say that is perhaps the essence of yoga?

CR: To me, the essence of yoga is presence. Straight up. I’ve been hanging out with Amanda for a long time. I’ve been down with her essence of yoga language for a long time. For me, the essence of yoga is presence. We are present. Mindfulness is a presence practice. Yoga is presence practice. So for me that’s it. How can we be present in our lives? I think that mindfulness and yoga offer us a way to do that.

CS: That resonates, for sure. How do you see that presence as a transformative force in people’s lives?

CR: Oh my, how much time do we have? So the question is how is presence a transformative force in people’s lives.

CS: Yes, or why is that important? If that’s it, then what does it do for us?

CR: If you go back to where I started my yoga journey: I’m young, I’m fresh out of college, and there are underserved communities. If you’re a healthcare professional, they incentivize you to get into underserved communities. So me and Jule got out there, and it was all trauma. They could come and say this is ADHD, this is depression, this is anxiety. Nine times out of ten there was trauma underneath that diagnosis. The way my career unfolded, I got this training in mindfulness. Trauma by definition has people not present. Why? Because if traumatic things happen, whether it’s in your body, or verbally, you learn a way to disconnect from that situation, or not be present with what’s going on because you’re trying to plan the next thing to say or do to keep your ass out of trouble. There’s a lot of ways in which that’s useful, and I could get on a soapbox about post-traumatic stress not being a disorder. It is the brain trying to heal itself. Post-traumatic stress can look like depression, it can look like ADHD, it can look like anxiety, but it’s really the brain trying to make sense of the experience, associating that experience with triggers. An example would be, I worked for a time as a counselor at Berea College. Predictably at midterms, there would be this influx of students, referred to me by mandate, and the problem would be that they’d been hiding in their rooms since the first or second week of class. Inevitably when I would get them in my office, it would come out that something had happened in which their survival was to hide and not be present. So in other words, they got into a situation in which they did not have the skills to meet the needs of the situation. And their survival so far in life had been that when this happens, when something’s coming at you that you don’t have the skills for, you disappear. So if I can help people have a practice in which they are present for what’s happening right now, there’s a really good chance that whatever skill they developed in the past to save their life, is not applicable in the situation they’re dealing with right now. And if you’re present with the situation you’re dealing with now, you can–we can–develop together skills through presence that are adaptive to the situation that you’re in right now. In the meantime–soapbox alert–post-traumatic stress is the brain trying to heal itself. We wouldn’t take someone who’s a veteran from Afghanistan or Vietnam who, when a helicopter flies overhead, they hide under a table. Well, when the helicopter flies overhead in Vietnam, you needed to hide or you would die. If you hide under a table in Lexington in 2018, you look like you have a disorder. But really, if we can teach the brain to be present in Lexington in 2018, and you have a way to practice presence, then you can unlearn that coping skill, and that association with that particular stimulus.  Asana allows us to be present in our bodies and to feel our bodies.

So, to me, the essence of yoga is presence, the practice of yoga is a mindfulness practice. It allows us through breathwork and asana to be present in our bodies and to feel our bodies.

CS: By the way, feel free to soapbox-away! This is your opportunity to get on a soapbox about your passion!

CR: Ha! It’s terrible! I could soapbox all day. It’s hard that so many people are pathologized or pathologize themselves. Knowledge is power, and when you learn how the brain works, and that the things that we do are patterned behaviors which have saved our asses in the past, we can then choose to practice mindfulness and presence, and to make a different choice in this moment. If you say to a traumatized person, you must be present all the time, it’s a little much, but if you offer it as a choice, that’s much more manageable. The yoga mat allows us to have a symbol of practicing presence. We roll out the mat and that is the signal to our brains that this is the time to practice. I had a student in class last week who said, “Hey, you probably don’t remember me but I took one class with you ten years ago, and in that class, you suggested that we practice presence in line at the grocery store, and to use that as a cue like the yoga mat. And every time I’ve been to the grocery store in the past ten years, I’ve practiced mindfulness in line.” And she continued, “As a matter of fact, everyone in my family practices presence in line at the grocery store, because I loved it so much, I told them about it.”

So the yoga mat is a cue that we’re practicing, but you can identify other situations in your life to use as cues, whether it’s a difficult conversation with someone, or standing in line, or whatever it is you’re doing.

CS: Those are great tips! Those are all opportunities to practice, for sure. So I feel like we’ve covered how do you define yoga. For you personally, not necessarily in your professional life, but may be more in your personal life, what role does yoga play for you?

CR: First thing that pops into my head is that yoga keeps me HONEST. Yoga keeps me from being the expert. Yoga keeps me from being the know it all that I sometimes tell myself that I am. My personal practice of yoga keeps me in the role of beginner, student. So sometimes, I say that being a yoga teacher at first was something that kept me contractually obligated to keep up my personal practice, but I kinda don’t feel that way anymore. I am glad that I did that in the beginning, but really, everything is yoga. The eight limbs are there to give us a way to be present with what we’re doing here on this earth.

CS: I think it’s really helpful to have those, on the one hand, things like contractual obligation, but on the other hand, those small opportunities, like the grocery store line. That’s lovely.

So, one of your focuses for the last few years has been the work of Brené Brown. Could you say just a little bit about that just in case people aren’t familiar, and also talk about what drew you to this work, and how it has influenced your yoga practice?

CR: So, Brené Brown’s work is…oh if Cindy Hutchison reads this [chuckling]…it’s a very elaborate cognitive behavioral therapy. So cognitive behavioral therapy is cognitive–the way you think, behavioral–the way you behave–and behavior can be an anxiety response, avoidance, whatever. So the idea is, that if you change the way you perceive something, you change the way you relate to that thing. So that’s, in a nutshell, what cognitive behavioral therapy is, and mindfulness is the space between perception and reaction, and trying to change reactions into responses. So that’s another way that yoga and mindfulness is a thing in my life

So it started out with Brené Brown in 2013…2014, when Cindy Hutchison, who owns The Massage Center, suggested that I start doing private practice work.

So Cindy is a person, like Amanda, who has been a really big part of my life and my development. So it wasn’t like somebody off the street going, “Hey you’d be really good at this thing.” It’s someone who has spent a lot of time, watched my whole practice develop, and said, “I think that you would be really good at this. And I want to offer you a way to deliver this, just the way I’ve offered you a way to deliver your yoga practice to students. These are my clients, these are our customers here at The Massage Center, and I feel like you have something that could benefit my clientele.” So, we decided that I needed some kind of certification. Clearly, I’m certified as a clinician, but she wanted me to do airquotes “life coaching”. So I just started looking. So up until that moment, I had no knowledge of Brené Brown, but what got me into her is that she has a clear focus on mindfulness. So that’s how that started segueing. Back in 2013/2014 is when she was all hooked up with Oprah. Oprah had picked her book and there was an ecourse, so it wasn’t that hard to find her. Like she popped up at the top of the google list when I started looking. So, because Cindy is not someone who messes around at all, she said that in February, and by April I was doing the training with Brené Brown. Within 6 months it was happening. That certification involved a training in Texas in which Brené Brown was the lead trainer. We would break up into small groups. The training lasted a week and you walked out with a certification. It was so intense, I cannot even tell you.

So, if you’re unfamiliar with Brené Brown, her certification work takes her research, which began with a research question on shame a long time ago. She wanted to know, why is that some people have hard things happen to them and they bounce back, and other people don’t? So way back when she developed this theory called the Shame Resilience Theory, which then operationalized what it is that people actually do. What practices do they have? Is it all just luck? Or do people actually do things that cause them to be resilient? So she was able to operationalize resilience, and she called it shame resilience. As a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator, I can deliver these strategies to clients in a way that really help them deal with shame and the hard things that come up, which have resulted in them maybe having behaviors that take them away from authenticity.

So, what drew me to Brené Brown’s work was mindfulness and luck. Total luck, like a lot of things in my life. It was a good fit because of the mindfulness and because of it being a very elaborate cognitive behavioral therapy, which is something I’ve been doing my whole career. So since then, we’ve done a lot of workshops, I was a featured presenter at the National Association of Social Workers Conference. People really resonate with Brené’s work. It’s very approachable. She has a really authentic way of delivering, which is not an accident, since one of her goals is authenticity. It’s not yoga, at all, but it’s mindfulness. It’s not asana, but it’s mindfulness. It’s not yoga, but it’s the yamas and niyamas and everything wrapped up in a way that allows us to recognize how hard times and hurtful things shape our responses. And mindfulness is the key to changing that response.

CS: Clearly you enjoyed the training with Brené Brown, and I know you’ve had a lot of teachers–Amanda, Angela Farmer, Judith Lasater, Cindy Hutchison–of all of those teachers, and I’m sure many I haven’t mentioned, think about someone you really enjoy. What is their teaching like, and how does that inform your own teaching practice and personal practice?

CR: Ooh, hard.

CS It’s tough! It’s a tough question.

CR: Well, it’s Amanda all the time, and Cindy Hutchison. It’s Amanda all the time, because even with Judith and Angela, who I spent a lot of time in training with, I got to both of those people because of Amanda. Especially with Angela. Again, I’ve been around other teachers…it’s like the gym yoga question…like, I know that other teachers exist, but at almost 50 years old, and practicing since 1999, I can’t…I don’t even know how to answer the question, because Amanda and Cindy. I just…I’ll get emotional…they’re part of who I am. This isn’t me being dramatic, it might sound like it, but it isn’t. Everything I am, everything I deliver…there are days I teach 4 or 5 classes a day. It doesn’t matter if I teach 4 or 5 classes every day. Every class is a little bit of Amanda and a little bit of Cindy. Without a doubt. Obviously, if I’m teaching a restorative class, there’s a lot of Judith Lasater, and a lot of blanket tucking and whatever.

How does that influence who I am?…It’s so hard for me to know anymore, because it’s like it’s so close. It’s who I am as a person, and Amanda will tell you that this is true–I will randomly on a Tuesday afternoon, send her a text that’s like, I know this might be too much, but I love you and everything I have is because of you. Now, I get it, it’s my work, and it’s my thing, but if it had not been Amanda in the beginning, I don’t know what would have happened. And if it hadn’t been for Cindy, the first time I ever MET Cindy. I can remember the first moment that she came over and looked at me. I think I was in Parsvakonasana, because she like, bent over, and looked me in the face, and she was like, “I can tell you’re working really hard in your practice, would you be willing to move your block?” [laughing] You know…something like that. I don’t know, it’s just so much choice, and presence in the body, inner body work. Like inner body work as opposed to what the asana looks like. I could get really emotional about how blessed I am that I got to spend as much time with the two of them at the very beginning of my career. There’s hardly anything that comes out of my mouth on a day to day basis or working with clients that doesn’t come from them. I work with clients at the Rape Crisis Center a couple of days a week, and even there, Amanda is with me, even there, Cindy is with me. There’s so much. They are my teachers, and I can’t pick one of them.

CS We’re not asking you too, don’t worry!

CR: Haha, don’t make me pick one! It’s a tie. There’s not enough gratitude in the world. It wells up in me often, and I let them know all the time, because how they influenced me has now influenced LOTS of other people, including people they may never ever meet or know about. So, I’m passionate about both of their work and their influences on my life.

CS: What I hear you saying is that their teaching has influenced you in many ways. Is there one characteristic of their teaching that really comes forward for you as paramount?

CR: Trust yourself. Listen to your voice. Practice presence. Love yourself. And that’s exactly what I needed to hear at the moment I met them both.

CS: What I have experienced in the couple of classes I’ve taken from you, and what I hear from other students of yours is that your teaching is so very heart centered. And that so strongly resonates with people. And I think, from an outside perspective, I think those two influences kind of combined to really bring that out.

CR: Thank you!

CS: So you’re coming into our training programs, and we’re so excited to have you. Is there anything you’d like prospective students to know about you? Anything about you, your teaching, or the world at large?

CR: So I think what I bring or what I have to offer that is unique, which I hope to bring to your students, would be the trauma-informed piece. How big and little trauma’s in our lives, all of these things influence us in ways that we might not have thought of. It’s really easy to say, “oh other people have it worse, or other people have had harder things happen.” My work now brings a perspective on yoga to give your students an understanding of how the brain works and how that relates to emotions and mindfulness. And how mindfulness works as the space between perception and reaction, and how we might change reactions into responses. So I think I want to be clear that if students have an interest in that that I’m really passionate about that, and I want to get the word out to them so that they can carry that forward in their lives. Brené Brown will be the curriculum, and what I use to deliver this message, but ultimately, it’s about mindfulness and presence.

CS: That is the heart of the work, for sure.

CR: Yeah…asana is a way to deliver it, but that is it. Love you Amanda!

Knowing and Not-knowing – Interview with The Essence of Yoga Center partner Tanja Bisesi

Over the 4th of July weekend, I sat down with my partner, Dr. Tanja Bisesi, to ask her the “essential” questions. Tanja helms our Integration, Reflective Practices and Yoga Lifestyle module in the 200 and 300 hour yoga teacher training programs, and while my chocolate labrador snoozed in the next room, we discussed everything from love to theoretical physics. Check it out!

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

TB: I guess right now I’m in a place where I’m sort of searching for a new teacher. You know we go through those places where we’re really connected to somebody, and then go through places where we’re changing enough that we’re always searching and seeking something new. But I would have to say the person I keep coming back to, and have come back to for many years, is Diane Thayer. She started the program at the Y [in Bloomington, IN] in the mid-70’s, pretty much all by herself, when nobody really knew much about yoga, and she’s the one who encouraged me to teach. She was sort of my first not only teacher, but mentor. She trained me. The thing about Diane that sticks with me, and why I keep going back to her, and will continue to, is that there’s always a freshness, a curiosity, that beginner’s mind. She’s really able to keep that freshness, herself, and then also open it up to you. She’s been teaching for around 40 years, but it’s always new, and it’s always focused on the student and the student’s experience. She came up in the Iyengar tradition, and there’s always focus on alignment and what’s safe and what’s not, but it really ultimately is about this freshness, these new eyes, this new way of looking at your practice and your life. Trying to get new insights. She keeps opening new horizons in very subtle ways, and she keeps learning. She is always going to classes of those she’s trained, and she has her own mentors. She provides a good model of continuing to grow and learn.

CS: Is that what you take most from her in terms of your own approach to teaching? That openness?

TB: Oh yeah, definitely. And I think that’s what always attracted me, because I’ve always felt very resistant to lineages and traditions. There’s this rebel in me, that’s like yeah, that’s interesting and I want to know about it, but I want it to be my own–I want to make it my own. She shows you how to do that in terms of taking concepts and saying this is how I use these concepts in my practice and in my life.

CS: How would you define yoga, and what role would you say that yoga plays in your life?

TB: Yoga is a moving target, both as a practice in our culture as well as for me. I think it has been many things for me over the years. If I had to define what it is for me right now, I would say it is an approach to life, or a lens to self-knowledge. A set of beliefs and practices that frame how I look at the world and how I move in the world, and how I go about getting information about who I am, what I want, and who I’m becoming.

CS: Can you give an example? I think what people think about when you say “yoga” is the practice on the mat. What I’m hearing from you is that it’s not just that. Can you say more about that?

TB: Oh, definitely. You know, when I first started yoga, it WAS the practice on the mat, but what I love about it is that it has become a way of life for me. It has become my spiritual center, a paradigm, a worldview, a way of looking at the world and interacting with it. It goes well beyond what I practice on the mat. Absolutely. Matter of fact, that way-of-life part is the part that’s more important for me right now.

CS: So that pretty much covers the role that yoga plays in your life right now…it is everything.

TB: YES! It’s like anyone who identifies with any spiritual or lifestyle practice–Christianity being one example–it becomes a lens for looking at the world and making sense of it, and making choices and decisions. At a conceptual level, what it is…we talk about being after peace or a sense of calm. It’s love. Unconditional love–for the self, for the world, for the universe. Practicing that love in every possible way, in every decision you make in life, and being very conscious about that. It’s a practice.

CS: That mindfulness piece becomes both essential and difficult in that practice of love.

TB: Yes, but it is the gift. It’s hard, but ultimately the biggest gift of this practice is that ability to just accept and be and acknowledge yourself and everyone around you for their uniqueness and what they contribute. It gives a hope for what we can all do together. If we all have a role to play and we’re all accepting each other and helping each other grow, to me that’s what yoga’s about.

CS: We have those moments or brief glimpses of connectedness, and it gives that hope, that sense that we are all in this together, and in fact, we’re not even we.

TB: Right, we’re one. I think that’s the part I sometimes get lost in when I go to classes now is that there seems to be this feeling of a need to go inside and almost escape what’s out there because it feels almost toxic–the “out there” in the world. But ultimately what gives us that sense of unconditional love and safety is the feeling of connectedness, whether it’s to other people, or to the universe, or to something beyond. That’s really where this sense of groundedness and safety and love comes from. From the one.

CS: Describe your initial experience with yoga, and, if you would be willing, describe the first time you experienced that “oneness”.

TB: The very first time I felt that one-ness, I was 9 or 10 years old. I had a lot communion with my grandmother. She was a real spiritual seeker, and she gave me that model. I didn’t have a strong sort of religious grounding or centering in my life, but my grandmother was always looking across religions for these commonalities and themes. I would sit and talk to her all the time. That’s where I started with yoga, because it was always one of the themes and strands in our discussions. I would go and visit her in the summers for a couple or three weeks, and every morning we would watch “Lilias, Yoga and You” on PBS. Six thirty in the morning she would be out there practicing. I was fascinated by the postural stuff I saw, plus these conversations we had. Being there with her, it was very peaceful. I didn’t have the drama of my life, the drama of my teenage friends. So that first moment of oneness for me, was being with her.

And you know I did yoga a lot because it was a big part of dance culture, and I’ve been a dancer most of my life. The physical part became a bigger piece in my adolescence, but I always went back to the meditative piece because I was a highly anxious kid, and I needed to keep that in my life.

Then I went into the academic world and I dropped it. I developed totally my intellectual mind for a long time, and then later, I had kids and was in my mid thirties. My body was not well. I hadn’t taken care of myself, and my mind felt totally disconnected. I saw a meditation class at my local Unitarian church, and I went and I was just amazed at how I could go into a group with people I didn’t really know and just sit quietly for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. We would take breaks and chat and then go back into it. I was amazed how connected and grounded I could feel by just sitting with other people–that feeling of acceptance, no expectations from the people around me. Just being together. That sucked me back in and got me reconnected. The rest is history. That’s the feeling. That feeling of unconditional love and groundedness and peace. I’ve only really ever experienced it at that level in the presence of others. In community. I think that’s why the community aspect is so important to me.

CS: So, that leads us into one of your focuses as an academic and an educator: this idea of a community of practice. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Was it from that moment of connectedness, sitting in that first meditation class that that seed was planted?

TB: Yes. It is the way I teach and have always taught. I have always been a teacher; I was always tutoring kids, growing up. There’s always been this drive in me to help others see their value, and help them to bring it out. When I see that , I feel it. It becomes us. I feel that one-ness, that us-ness. That’s why having kids was such a beautiful thing. You see these beings who are totally dependent on you, and there’s the constant reflection back and forth. I can’t separate that sense of spirit or mystery with who I am as a teacher and why I teach the way I do. I think teaching in an authoritarian way–someone being the knower–that’s not how knowledge is generated. I think it’s a creative process between people, and in that experience both parties, the whole community is able to learn and grow. The authoritarian model is the anti-community model of learning. In that model there’s no honoring of what the student already knows and could bring to the experience, and how the student could enhance the experience for everyone in the room.

CS: Has it been only in yoga that you’ve found that community style of education, or have you experienced it elsewhere as well?

TB: It’s everywhere. This idea of social learning and the idea that there’s this cycle of knowledge as  a cultural practice –we take it in, we appropriate it, we transform it, and then we publish it in the world in some way. And then it slowly starts to transform the conventional knowledge. Lineages over time evolve whole cultures of learning, in this case, yoga and what we believe about it and think about it. That process of how we learn as human beings applies across all contexts.

CS: I’m curious about what your take is on the idea of cultural appropriation in the yoga world and the yoga community.

TB: That’s tricky. That’s a great question. I think that the old cliché is somewhat true: imitation is the highest form of flattery. And because of the way we learn and process, there is no such thing as “new knowledge”. We’re always appropriating. That’s part of the process. Where I have a problem is when we don’t acknowledge the gifts and where we got them. It’s always a conversation. While we may not always know the source of our inspiration, we must at least acknowledge. I think it’s naive to think we’ll never appropriate anything, because that’s how knowledge works.

CS: And it goes both ways.

TB: It absolutely does, and we give it back to culture, and that’s how the culture evolves. So I think people’s desire to go back and be just like such and such lineage in India…well that lineage in india isn’t like that anymore anyway, but going back and respecting what it was and the fact that the culture was different and what it was like and understanding it from a historical perspective can tell us a lot about how those concepts are relevant now. Or how they’re not. And it also honors. It’s important to honor.

CS: I think you’re such a renaissance woman, in the sense that your interests and your knowledge-base are so broad. If I made you pin yourself down, what would you say that your focus has been over the last few years?

TB: I’m really interested in ways of knowing, ways of understanding. I think one reason I got out of academia, not just because of the politics and the drama–the obvious things that make it difficult when you’re raising kids and being a woman in this culture. One reason is that I felt limited. I love science and the fact that there are rules, and it’s objective, and there’s reason involved. But what bothered me was that alternative ways of knowing were excluded. The rules and reason and what we can see together were privileged. But here’s the rub, as a psychologist, the internal experience, what we know, we can’t see in that way, the scientific reasoning way. The only way we can see the inner experience is to use our inner experience. This has been a conflict in psychology: do we use introspective methods? Or do we only use what we can look at outside together. So I’m very interested in how we can respect multiple ways of knowing, and then how do we bring those together in a way that enhances our self-knowledge and enhances our practice on the mat, and our experience in the world. I can know by faith, and intuition, and science. How do I balance these ways of knowing at any given time? And how do I integrate them in a way that makes me feel a sense of aliveness?

CS: I think that’s one of the things we’re after–that aliveness, that presence.

TB: Yes! And it expands that lens.

CS: I’m thinking of my dad right now, who’s also a psychologist. He and I had a conversation a couple weeks ago about faith, which really I think comes down to these ways of knowing, because for me, and I think maybe you would agree, it’s just there. It’s in me; I feel it; I just know.

TB: It’s your ground!

CS: Yes, and for him, he not only does not believe that, but to a certain extent, rejects it. And he holds fast to that logic and the things we can see and quantify and measure. How would you approach a student like that?

TB : I have lots of students like that.

CS: And not that we want or need to convert them…that’s not the point.

TB: No no, not at all. That’s something that I struggle with–in a good way. I think that’s why I’m so interested right now in theoretical physics, and the Akashic Field Theory and String Theory. This research brings some of these bigger ideas that we FEEL and makes them concrete for people. So explaining for instance the Akashic Field, which Vivekananda wrote about at the end of the 19th century when he came over to the United States. Now it’s been taken up by some theoretical physicists as this Field that underlies the whole universe, and we’re just these sort of ripples–ripples in the field of these manifestations. So our physical bodies are just physical manifestations out of this field. Finding effective ways to fit that into the practice…I’m not sure I’ve been completely successful at that yet, but I think those are the ways people will start to feel more grounding to their beliefs, to that connectedness. The physical knowing is confirmed by the faith-knowing. It’s all sort of the same knowing. It’s just different evidence, different ways of judging. More evidence and opening to more ways of knowing. And that’s not easy.

That’s why the teacher part is so important. I don’t think going in there and taking people through a series of poses is where it is. This cosmic, bigger mystery is just one of the ways of knowing.

We think of mindfulness as being this anchor and this key–we’re in the present, in the now, that’s all we have. We hear that all the time. But our mind, like our body, is meant to move, so there must be some power in it there. So while we anchor in the present, we can explore going back, reflecting on the past, reframing it, making sense of it now. We can go to the future, imagine what could be, use manifestations and affirmations. And even taking photographs of our thinking now, maybe in the form of a journal, so we can go back and look at how we thought about the world at that moment. We can be in the present, we can expand it to include the past and the future, we can expand it to include all of humanity, all of the cosmos. Different lenses on our own mindfulness and reflection. That’s the power of the mind. Yoga needs to expand and understand the mind in new ways that go beyond “can we train it and control it.” Our mind is so powerful, and as long as we keep it connected to the fact that we are living in this body in this time, the power comes from using it in different ways to open our field, to clear our lens, to see wider vistas.

CS: You know, I’m thinking of Patanjali, and the beginning of the sutras: “yoga is the stilling of the revolutions of the mind.” Something I think about often, is that the Sutras is just one piece of literature that survived. For whatever reason, probably because Patanjali was a gifted marketer, it’s the thing that survived. And it is kind of the one that is latched onto by most practices, most schools as THE yoga text, but it’s not at all the only yoga text. At any point in time, there are people writing about their experiences, about their practice, and about their lives, but because of the way literature works, and because of the way history works, it just doesn’t make it to us here in the present.

TB: And I think we latch onto that one because of the ways of knowing that are privileged in our society. The Yoga Sutras are a very scientific, external, almost formulaic text. Science is that way, it has nice neat rules, so we can all compare our work. There are reasons for the rules, but some people have taken that really literally. A lot of yoga I see being done now has gone so far down the hatha path. The physical practice has become all-important. But in this sort of mental way, we’ve taken that text and interpreted it to mean that all we have is the present, and we need to just shut the mind up.

CS: And if it doesn’t shut up, then I’m broken.

TB: Right, or I’m not doing it right. And harnessing that power of our mind, that’s how we’re different than, bless her heart, your puppy laying there in the next room. But the mind needs practice at it. It needs practice putting itself in different mindsets, imagining what it’s like to be the dog. That’s how we expand our consciousness, or help clean the lens to see how god-like we are. To see what God would see, which is, what it looks like from the dog’s eyes, what it looks like from this table’s eyes, what it looks like from your eyes. So I guess when I say multiple ways of knowing and multiple lenses, that’s what the mind needs to expand, but always grounded in the body and in the present moment.

CS: And science is beginning to catch up to this.

TB: Science wants to reduce everything to its pieces, but it’s always emergent. Just like you and me, our knowledge emerges from our experiences, and it’s the same here. It emerges from that internal knowing.

I do wonder sometimes if we’re not born with that internal knowing.

CS: Do you think it goes the other way as well–that some people are born without it, or that it’s not as strong?

TB: Sure, I think we all come into the world with strengths and weaknesses, and with things we have to learn. I think that knowing can probably emerge and develop through interactions. I have to have faith that that’s possible. We all have the potential to let go of those samskaras, those things we’ve come into the world with. Maybe that belief is why I have the desire as a teacher to help people feel that. To be able to reflect it for someone and have them say, “Oh yes, I sense that I have this deep ground of being that I can always fall back on.”

CS: Would you say that that is “the essence of yoga,” that ground of being?

TB: Oh yeah, I would. I said love at the beginning, but it is also that ground. They are the same. It’s the sense that I know there’s something there holding me. I know that. No matter what I do. No matter what our politicians do. I think it is that sense of faith-knowing. That is the essence.

CS: Is there anything else that you would like us or our students or the world at large to know about you, about your practice, about your teaching, or about the world?

TB: I want people to know that things are always changing. I’m going through a period of time right now where I feel less like I know things. I’m going through a period where I’m confused, and not knowing, and that’s hard for somebody for whom being competent and knowing a lot is so important. I would really encourage students and practitioners and teachers to know that the not-knowing is ok. That that’s honestly where the juice is. Talking and rambling like I’m doing right now is a huge way to try to figure things out. That’s what we’re all here for. Those periods of not-knowing just spur you to grow. Don’t be afraid of them.

CS: There’s that story of the kidnapped selkie woman whose son, stumbling around in the dark, finds his mother’s lost seal-skin. That metaphor that we have to stumble around in the dark, in the not-knowing, to find our true treasure.

TB: Yes, challenge is the only way to growth. You know, if we lived in “perfect” we would just be all sitting still and not growing. Getting on the mat and wanting this escape is problematic. Feeling like you can’t go beyond those “good-feelings” because it’s hard is problematic. It’s the challenge and the feeling that it’s hard that brings growth. As long as we care for ourselves and continue to restore when we need it, it is those moments of challenge, of hard-ness, of not-knowing that show us what we’re made of. And yoga is one way to challenge ourselves.

CS: We think of the word “yoga” which means union or yoking–it’s challenging to be yoked to something, or to someone.

TB: Ha, is it ever. Because it requires integration and strength.

CS: Oh yeah–those ox pulling the cart.

TB: Yes, the push-pull. The opposite energies and the continuum in between, but staying in balance at the center. Finding that center. In the present moment, in this body, in this time so that we feel safe to explore other lenses. That is the practice.

 

Post by Cara Sparkman; edited for clarity and content.

You’re unique–shouldn’t your yoga be?

Yoga has a dirty secret: it’s not perfect, it’s not a panacea, and it’s not one-size fits all.

When I began a regular yoga practice over a decade ago, I was amazed at the benefits–my body felt better, my mind clearer, my heart lighter. I wanted to share this practice with EVERYONE. But when I began to try teaching to obliging family and friends, it immediately became clear to me that a few of my favorite poses just weren’t accessible to everyone. Not only that, but I began to feel the niggling sense that something was missing. Luckily, in 2011 I began yoga teacher training with our lead-trainer, Amanda McMaine.

Amanda has spent decades as a dancer, a trained kinesiologist, an Iyengar yogi, a Level III Yoga Nidra teacher, a practitioner of Body-Mind Centering, Alexander Technique, tai chi, and qi gong, a hiker, climber, swimmer and hula-hooper. In my years of study with Amanda and a community of like-minded practitioners, I’ve been able to cultivate the understanding that body and mind are meant to MOVE, and thrive on variability of demand. We can’t practice the same 26 (or 30…or 50) postures every day or week and expect to avoid injury, much less to flourish. While yoga certainly offers some diversity of movement, it doesn’t offer everything – for the body OR the mind.

Our  yoga teacher trainers come from diverse backgrounds, both in life and in yoga. We believe being open to exploring the breadth of styles and knowledge that the yoga tradition has to offer, while learning the kinesiology and safe practice of asana, AND being open to experiencing other modalities, allows us to teach the yoga we want to teach. 

Check out this article from Yoga International on Cross-Training. What are your thoughts?

And enroll today if you’re ready to begin your exploration into all that yoga has to offer, without limiting yourself to that rectangular yoga mat! You’re unique–shouldn’t your yoga be?

Post by Cara Sparkman

Yowza!

Our lead trainer, Amanda McMaine, has been hard at work transforming her studio into a supportive environment for our Community of Practice. Check out these gorgeous photos!

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