Yoga Sūtra Study with John Casey at IYILA

Sat. Feb. 29th, 2:30-4:30 at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles. For more information, or to register online click here or call +1.310.558.8212.

In Conversation with the Yoga Sūtras

I will be assisting John in a series of six sessions throughout the year.  John has taught courses on World Religions, Sanskrit, Buddhism, and Yoga Studies at local colleges, while also helping to establish the MA program in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

John: There are few texts from classical India that have had such an long-running influence on the perspective of spiritual seekers than the one which bears the name of Yoga Sūtra. Written nearly two thousand years ago by the sage Patañjali, this text of less then two hundred pithy aphorisms may be read in its entirety in less than an hour. And yet, this elegant work, divided into four brief chapters, outlines a profound and effective contemplative path which can lead to radical spiritual enlightenment and freedom. In this series of presentations, we will open up the contents and deeper implications of the Yoga Sūtra, laying out the philosophy, psychology, practice, and consequences of the contemplative lifestyle that has inspired and edited countless generations of serious yoga practitioners.

John Thomas Casey has been a Yoga scholar-practitioner since 1971, and holds a doctorate in Asian and Comparative Philosophy from the University of Hawaii. I have known and studied with him for over ten years. Last year we taught together for the fist time and promised to do it again. John is a scholar with a sense of humor and respect for his students that makes studying with him a joy.  This is an excellent opportunity for our local community dive into the Yoga Sūtras. By stretching the course out over the year, students will be able to read, study and apply the practices in the Yoga Sūtras into daily life. Bring any version of the Sūtras that you like and John will distribute his own translation.

Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles (map)

1835 South La Cienega Blvd, Suite 240
Los Angeles, CA, 90035 USA

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Roots and Shoots, Standing Poses at IYILA

Sat. Feb. 29th, 11:30-2:00 and a Teacher’s class, Sun. Mar. 1st, 12:30-3:30 at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles. For more information, or to register online click here or call +1.310.558.8212.

In this workshop, I will introduce basic anatomy through handouts and asana practice to help you understand where you need stability and where you need mobility in the legs, back and arms. Come to learn, to practice, and to grow.

This body is a miracle of physical structures, physiological processes, psychological patterns and what I consider the metaphysical guide from an inner nobility of grace. Higher attributes like compassion, patience and equanimity are generally possible when we have some understanding and control over our lives. One of the most basic building blocks to wisdom is to embrace the relationship with our own structure, the body.

Standing poses are the foundation for all levels of our inner structure in Iyengar Yoga. Our legs propel us forward while our arms reach and grasp; both serve to enable us to live life fully. Standing poses free the shoulder and hip joints while they stabilize the core of the body. Each of us is unique, and the framework special. A teacher gives general instructions, and from there we each need to apply ourselves to understand what is helpful. Just as a gardener prunes each plant according to its shape, we each need to adapt the general practice for our knees, hips, backs and bodies.

A sound and informed practice both reinforces a balanced body and avoids potentially stressful practices. Come to learn, to practice and to grow.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles (map)

1835 South La Cienega Blvd
Suite 240
Los Angeles, CA, 90035 USA

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Reflecting the Iyengar way

Wendy Jacob visits Lisa at Triyoga in London and talks to her talks to about her commitment to Iyengar yoga.

Arriving at Triyoga in London’s Soho is an experience in itself. If anyone has any preconceived ideas of the ideal environment for yoga – this would not be it. The crowded streets, shops that open on Sunday late into the evening and the clatter and chatter from the courtyard restaurants beneath the studio, make the establishment of a successful yoga studio an unlikely proposition.

Inside the purple doors, there is a different vibe – wooden floors, a calming welcome and a feeling of peace and solace from the stresses and strains of the busy city.

Lisa Walford is presenting her final workshop in a series of three days of structured asana practice – ‘through the lens of sacred texts’. She is in London with her husband and will spend time in Europe before returning to her home in California.

Entering the studio, Lisa has presence; but when she stands alongside one of her students, you realise she is minute – a tiny frame beneath a defined, strong face and walnut tanned skin. Few will have faced the challenges or chosen the journey that has preceded Lisa’s invitation to teach at Triyoga. Author of The Longevity Diet and daughter of Dr Roy Walford – who pioneered research into a diet of calorie restriction – she was diagnosed HIV positive in 1985. By strengthening her immune system through the diet, practising yoga and adopting a positive outlook, Lisa continues to live a long, full life, inspiring others to nurture their minds and bodies.

She says she has been gratified with her reception in London and has felt a deep connection with the students who have mostly attended the entire course. Talking to students as they leave the building, the feeling is reciprocated, praising her ability to communicate with each individual and encourage them to engage more deeply with their practice

Lengthy rigorous training

The teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar are largely credited for the popularity of yoga in the west – technique and rigorous training emphasising precision and alignment and using props such as straps and blocks, to improve the quality of the pose. Poses may be held for longer than in other styles, encouraging lengthening of muscles, stability and focus. Teachers undergo a rigorous training, lasting several years and producing teachers committed to teaching Iyengar yoga throughout the world.

BKS Iyengar said: “The practice of yogasana for the sake of health, to keep fit, or to maintain flexibility is the external practice of yoga. While this is a legitimate place to begin, it is not the end. Even in simple asanas, one is experiencing the three levels of quest: the external quest, which brings firmness of the body; the internal quest, which brings steadiness of intelligence; and the innermost quest, which brings benevolence of spirit.”

Lisa has been following this quest and teaching for 30 years. She has a BA in dance, but a professional career was thwarted when she tore an abductor muscle. Luckily, this led her to yoga and Iyengar, who gave a demonstration at a yoga convention in 1982. “His presence formidable – a sense of authenticity from practice and experience, which is contagious”, says Lisa. “Since then, I have been fortunate to watch him practice, develop and learn how to modify his mind.”

Cultivating the language

In the 80’s, very few people knew about Iyengar yoga, but Lisa was hooked. Asked why she was attracted, Lisa says there are a number of reasons and these remain true today. “There is a consistency of language between teachers and as I always loved poetry and the mystical, I found that this cultivation of language helps with the movement. Teachers are well trained and this makes it the safest, most consistent form of teaching, developing quality amongst the students.”

Lisa is highly articulate, emphasising muscular skeletal rhythm, coordinating with the breath and creating freedom in movement. Communication is not her only tool, as she explains that the power of observation is a skill that takes many years to cultivate. “It is important to observe what a person can do physically – their practice and how they approach themselves. I give a lot of physical instruction, but practice is not so much applying yourself to the pose. It is about discovering your capacity through the pose – the pose becomes one of action and reflection. We often don’t consider the emotional underpinning of the practice. If we are competitive and approach it in the wrong way it will affect our practice”, explains Lisa.

Throughout the workshop, Lisa encourages enquiry and reflection. “Where is there congestion? Where is there volume? Where is there stability?” she asks. “Use the breath to help you move more eloquently. Incorporate an intimate relationship with your breath,” she encourages.

Students respond by moving deeper into increasingly complex and demanding twists. After each pose she leaves time for enquiry; “What is the sensory impression (shadow) of the pose? Was it energetic/emotional/muscular? What does this mean?” A line of enquiry, which takes student beyond the physical challenge, into a deeper feeling of integration and reflection.

“My sequences are very progressive.” She explains. “We are not interested in ‘getting’ the pose but in finding mobility, stability and space. The sequences are progressive creating a sensed memory – an imprint – aimed at developing a discriminative, reflective capacity in the students.”

The workshop demonstrates not only Lisa’s commitment to Iyengar and her own teaching skills, but her personal compassion, which shines through the detailed physical instructions, encouraging students to develop a sense of enquiry and to bring ‘compassion’ into their yoga practice and the rest of their lives.

“With all the sensations that come to us from the physical body – such as walking into a new environment – it is important to consider how this evolves into our sensory system. Watch the process and the sequence of letting go and cultivate a quality of joy and honour.”

For those who have completed the full workshop, her final advice would have been welcome. “Find equanimity to practise, or not practise and welcome these qualities.” Wise advise from a committed teacher.

Following the death of BKS Iyengar, Lisa Walford wrote the following poem to her teacher:

To Guruji
The sky is great, vast
The sea is deep, and mighty
Guruji, your Sadhana was life itself
The thorns and roses
The fragile knees and sibilant exhalations
The cry of painful release and sighs of relief
Students leaving medical class
Playful and joyous with your great granddaughter
Amidst peals of laughter, gently taking her upside down
Sitting at your desk in the library, coffee in the afternoon
Dictating your advice and instructions to teachers worldwide
Politely receiving guests, graciously greeting friends
Accepting salutations and flowers in the lobby
So many coming from France, Israel, China … everywhere
And the moments of complete rapture
Listening to you explain the finer points of Tadasana
Your white dhoti, golden trim sweeping the asana floor
Preparing for practice, timer in place, Sirsasana
Wherever I positioned my mat, whether I could see you or not
You knew. The days to be kind, the days to be firm
Fearless in the face of my illness
You steered me through the fading of my health
To a practice that became my resurrection
Pranams Guruji. Once I found myself flat on my stomach
Outstretched with my hands touching your feet
Not sure how I got there, but it was tender
Your eyes (and eyebrows)!
Your feet!

This article was published in BWY Spectrum magazine, Winter 2014

Lisa Walford holds an Intermediate Senior Iyengar teaching certificate and has been teaching yoga in Los Angeles since 1982. Through yoga, she continues to explore the introspective process of balancing the physical with the energetic body while deepening her appreciation for the creative spirit. Lisa is on the Board of the not-for-profit organization Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics and the Iyengar Yoga Association of Los Angeles. She is on the advisory board of the International Association of Yoga Therapists and the Yoga Studies program at Loyola Marymount University. Lisa has a BA from UCLA and is co-author of The Longevity Diet, now in its second edition, and The Anti-Aging Plan.

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Arambhana Kriya, Commencement W/Prashant

The Commencement Act –

Prashant frequently says “well, anyway…” Many people are fascinated by his wisdom, many people are bewildered, some people are bored, and for a few, Prashant’s teachings have transformed the way they practice. When he says “well, anyway…”, it means that he has realized that he went off on a tangent, or what he thought was a tangent. He does this frequently, for he himself is delighted by and completely absorbed in the traditions of Yog. For example, he explains how the modern “yoga” culture is only invested in a “physiocracy” while what we should be studying is “Yog”, the essential yoga.

“Early on, they thought that being in good health and being able to do good poses meant that you would be a good teacher. Now, you must be a good student, this must not escape. You need conviction to be a good teacher, but you must always protect your own studentship… Studentship is forever an infant…”

“Yog” is the subject, the object, the fixation and the beloved for Prashant. Over the last fifty years he has developed his unique style that draws us into deeper dimensions of experiencing one’s Self and “Yog”. Although he would not say that his approach is unique at all. And some say that it is so unique that it is not even Iyengar yoga. Both Abhijata and Prashant reminded us that Guruji never called his yoga “Iyengar” yoga. We study Yoga, capital Y. Fluent in the Vedic texts, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras, Prashant weaves threads from these inspirations throughout his discourse while giving us practical instructions to help explore and reflect on the breath, sensations, thoughts and experience in practice.

“Describe, define, explain the process, consequences, effect, to cultivate literacy in your studentship.”

“Yoga has the possibilities to not only train you, you should be empowered, not just getting training and more training. It is an educational process, you get intelligence, or should decide what you should be doing, there is some logic, some reasoning behind it. Classes are not the place to learn yoga.”

“Arambhana Kriya, the commencement act – each must develop the literacy on how to identify where your focal point is. Inhalation connects the core to peripheral, exhalation connects periphery to core, ex: feel how the inhalation effects the shoulder blades, and what happens on exhalation, commentate, you will develop your vocabulary, literacy. Sensitize, perceive, the consequences of flushing out deeply and what happens to that area on inhalation. You must cultivate a good vocabulary to be a good commentator.” (refer to Yogasana: The 18 Maha Kriyas of Yogasana, Prashant Iyengar)

Each morning of the week began with a class with Prashant. He systematically and experientially took us through ways to introduce his scheme that would enable us to go deeper into “Yog”. Some of us were thrilled and found that the patience and penetration required to work this way yielded a rich dimensionality of being and becoming. Others were restless and to move. By the end of the week, everyone appreciated the rich tapestry of Prashant, the weave of his teachings, and the texture of his love for Guruji and for us.

“So this is not Prashant’s class, this is your head, face, brain class. Emotional, psychological processes. Understand your nature, you have so many teacher within you, understand what is proper for you”

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Sunrise in Iyengar Yoga, December in Pune, India

Whenever I watch a sunset I know that the same light will rise upon awakening friends somewhere else in the world, and a new day will begin. Over the last few years my community of Iyengar yoga has watched several sunsets. It is a tumultuous time in our world. On the global spectrum we are struggling for the waning resources of water and air. The political narrative of populism and nationalism seem like a resurgence from the dark ages, where feudal wars would decimate any opposition and crusades silenced free speech. My community at YogaWorks has likewise witnessed darkening skies of grief and change. Yes, we are living through the saga of a setting sun.

Where will the sun rise? Who is waking up to change? And to new light?

Abhijata Iyengar is perhaps our Phoenix, rising from the ashes of our grief from losing both her grandfather Sri BKS Iygenar (Guruji) and most recently, her aunt Sri Geeta Iyengar (Geetaji). Abhijata (or as her students affectionately call her, Abhi) is bold, bright, gracious, welcoming, young, a mother, educated, and savvy in the ways of our international community. Abhi brings change. For the Europeans she hopes to bring some cohesion. In America, Australia and England, where assessment has become a goal oriented step ladder that has institutionalized what should be an organic process – that of studentship –  Abhi has asked for a very different structure that emphasizes mentoring, personal experience and subjectivity (I will elaborate in a future post). She is asking that we join her in a dialog to explore how we can make our studies more congenial, sophisticated, layered, and cooperative.

Abhi embodies and is embracing her heritage. Having been mentored for almost twenty years by her grandfather, Guruji, and having traveled internationally to conferences with her aunt, Geetaji, Abhi has seen how a dogmatic approach can create what she calls “cookie-cutter” teachers. Every family has its struggles, and our Iyengar “family” is no exception. Abhi has been listening and watching for a decade. Now she has ideas on how to address our “issues”, and she has invited us to join her in an open dialog.

For context, she explained that, in the mid-twentieth century, yoga was unknown. Guruji initially had to promote yoga and himself through public demonstrations. The original script for Light on Yoga included three times as much material, but the publishers told him that it was too esoteric and too long for the general public. Even so, the interest in integrated body/mind practices and in Indian spirituality along with Guruji’s infectious enthusiasm caught the imagination of people on every continent. His teachings inspired the creation of Associations worldwide. Fast forward to today when everyone studies yoga (Prashant: “every Tom, Dick and Harry” is a euphemism for the everyman). Yoga, in the sense of Yoga as a body/mind/spiritual practice, has been exploited and manipulated to fit many commercial ventures. It has become an industry. Iyengar yoga has been pigeon-holed and is defined in the Oxford dictionary as a yoga that uses furniture.

Our approach to teacher training is similar, she explained. We package teacher trainings. But “can you”, she said, “honestly package spiritual studies, Svadhyaya?” Prashant is very vocal about this. Teacher Trainings (TTCs) have become “money making ventures” he frequently says. Iyengar yoga must redefine itself.

“There are two types of education; formal education, which is a set pattern, predictable, replicate, rigid format, a ‘cookie cutter.’ And the second is an informal education; it is effective, iterative, contextual, and geared to the ‘individual.’ No set rules. There is a third way. It is a non-formal way; through direct experience. It is a life-long process where science, art, and philosophy come together. How do we learn yoga? It is not linear, we grow, and we fall,” Abhi said.

She continued, “In early days we adopted the formal way because it was easier to scale and to replicate. Even though early learners learned the informal way, with refined sensitivity, we understood that the linear way is not effective. We now want to create a world that encourages curiosity.” This third path attribute is that it is “pulsatizes” (beats), it is alive, a vibrating system in resonance with reality.”

We spent seven days exploring, experiencing, and discovering ways to expand the paradigm of Iyengar yoga. Rather than orienting our practice around the familiar actions or points of an asana, both Abhi and Prashant worked with cross-categories of poses, with breath dynamics, Uddyana Kriya and steered us away from identifying Iyengar yoga as asana centric. “The core of Iyengar yoga is Yoga” Abhi said.   “Connect your students and yourselves to the mother ship of Patanjali and yoga. For whatever reason a student comes to yoga, connect them to YOGA.”

How refreshing. How brave. How honest. How forward thinking. There is a sun rising, and light is upon our community.

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Maty Ezraty, A Life of Integrity

When I process deep emotions I either shut down or go manic. When I shut down it is because I am not ready to voyage into the abyss of my story. But when I go manic, I usually produce something. In the days prior to Maty Ezraty’s Celebration of Life, I burned the midnight oil in compiling a selection of photos, news articles and personal statements as a testimony to this amazing woman, titled “Maty Ezraty, A Life of Integrity.”

The Celebration, on November 9, 2019 was artful, heartful, healing and wondrous. People went to the flower market in downtown Los Angeles and crafted beautiful floral arrangements. A sound stage was assembled for Dave Stringer, Saul David Ray and Marla Meenashki Joy and Ron. The west room in the Montana YogaWorks, Maty’s Ashtanga room, the original YogaWorks, displayed a meditation alter that showcased a larger than life picture of those azul eyes glowing with joie de vie. Maty was a jewel of a lady, different, fiery, temperamental. And we loved her.

At the Celebration, I spoke of how Maty and I would practice together. Comparing how her bow legs and my knock knees effected different poses made for lively yoga discussions! Should the back leg turn out, or in, in Parvritta Parsvkonasana? Draw the outer shins in, and she would tie her legs up. “Will they ever be straight?” she asked pensively. Maty disliked her feet, she found them big and basic, and yet she taught how to build “shapely” ankles by lifting the inner arch and drawing the outer ankle in. Whatever she approached was important. She was an “in your face” kind of person, honest to a fault, yet tough as nails.

As I sat with the memories and the inexplicable reality that she was gone, gone at 55, young, in her prime… I realized that, for me, she embodied true discipleship. One who sought out the best teachers for her own studies and who drew out the most impassioned practice from her students.

The Yoga Sutras mention eight ways to build a contemplative practice and maintain equanimity. Nischala Joy Devi interprets them as follows:

1.27. Repeating the sacred sound OM manifests Divine Consciousness.
1.33. To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes: Kindness to those who are happy; Compassion for those who are less fortunate; Honor for those who embody noble qualities; Equanimity to those who actions oppose your values.
1.34. Slow, easeful exhalations can be used to restore and preserve balance.
1.35. Or engage the focus on an inspiring object.
1.36. Or cultivate devotion to the supreme, ever-blissful Light within.
1.37. Or receive grace from a great soul, who exudes Divine qualities.
1.38. Or reflect on a peaceful feeling from an experience, a dream or deep sleep.
1.39. Or dedicate yourself to anything that elevates and embraces your heart.

I found myself saying that Maty was an enlightened being, one whom I would hold dear in my heart. 1.37; To receive grace from a great soul, who exudes Divine qualities. What I meant is that her devotion to her subject, her students, the practice, and her quest for an honest and loving life is her legacy. Those qualities are worthy of reflection, and she lived those qualities. She was not perfect, but neither is life. Her quest was sincere… Her picture now rests on my own alter alongside Guruji Iyengar and Geetaji.

And what a funny girl; different, curious, fiery, temperamental. Maty Ezraty fell into her destiny at a young age. In her early twenties, she took a Yoga class at the Center for Yoga in Los Angeles. Not only did that class change the future of yoga, but it ignited a passion in Maty that led her to surround herself with all facets of the yoga culture. The asana practice, the business of yoga, yoga attire, teacher training, kirtan, mentoring, writing, contemplative practices and finally, international leadership.

My time with Maty started in the 1980s. We were all babies in yoga. If I told someone that I taught yoga, they would ask; “Do you mean that you burn incense and chant?” Well, no, not exactly, I would respond. Now, thirty years later, when I tell someone that I teach yoga, they either ask; “Will I get a good sweat?” or, “I couldn’t possibly do yoga, I am too stiff”. And I respond: “Anyone can do yoga. Yoga can be adapted to whatever your needs are.” Then I refine my response by telling them that they will probably not sweat bullets in my class, rather, that I will request from them a quality of focus that is not possible when they jump around a lot. We practice a “work-in” rather than a “work-out”.

In her classes, Maty managed to do both; sweat and demand complete focus. In her later years, she traveled extensively teaching workshops. She attended several silent meditation retreats. She used the basic sequences in the Ashtanga Vinyasa of Pattabhi Jois, and honed them to such a fine degree that a simple sun salutation became a moving meditation of a fully embodied eco-system. All parts are necessary and connect to the whole, and every part plays it tune. The lift of the chest connected to the length of the back informing the abdominal wall to enable the arms to rise while anchoring down into the legs, feet, arches, ankles, and all of it, including the breath. Artistry at its finest. Being in one of her classes was like being in an orchestra, each of us playing our own instrument as she modulated the pace and intensity.

I first met Maty when she opened YogaWorks in 1987. I was already a certified Iyengar teacher, and teaching full time. I had dissolved my two dance companies, the Sacred Dancers and the Stardust Dancers, in 1983, and completed three years of programming funded by the California Arts Council. With fifteen years of daily devoted dance studies and a Bachelors degree in choreography, I loved the synchronization of movement into asana that had been a hallmark in the early years of Iyengar yoga. By the time I traveled to Pune to study with the Iyengar family, the emphasis was on building intelligence through detail and precision in each asana. I loved that as well, but I sought a sangha, a study group..

I found a community of fellow yoga practitioners in the Ashtanga classes that Chuck Miller taught. Arising before daybreak, I would warm up at home before showing up for the ritual 5 Surya Namaskar A and B’s that were the signature of the system at the time. Practice began around 7 AM. Maty and I were both supple, spunky, and short. We loved cajoling and encouraging one another through the series. Maty said that I was the only one she could look down on, by a half inch! She was four foot eleven with a voice and presence that commanded attention and respect. Everyone loved seeing one another in those early morning sessions, as Chuck kept a mature and even emotional temper on the fiery practice.

Maty frequently invited teachers to her house for potluck dinners. Those were the macrobiotic days, and she generally served rice dishes, greens, and vegetables, introducing many of us to the benefits of healthy and delicious eating. She cooked with pressure cookers, lots of olive oil, and ate with chop sticks. She loved having people around. And the community grew.

The history of the first decade at YogaWorks remains in the hearts and lives of many of yoga’s most influential teachers today. Maty would invite teachers from many traditions, Viniyoga with Gary Kraftstow; Iyengar yoga with Gabriella Giubilaro, Patricia Walden, Eddie Modestini among others; Yin Yoga with Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley; Richard Freeman, Tias Little and John Friend all frequented the workshop schedule. Erich Shiffman, Rod Striker, and later Shiva Rey and Sean Korn were on daily class schedules. It was a fertile era, and many of these yogis showed up for Maty’s Celebration of Life.

Jack Kornfield gave a moving eulogy and meditation. At one point he asked us all to imagine that Maty was speaking to each of us, and what would she say. I found Maty saying to me: “You have arrived.” I continue my practices, studies, teaching, reflecting, praying.

I am forever grateful for the early years, creative years, seminal years, my holy years.

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Summer sabbatical – thoughts on life and practice

Ross and Sita at Cape LookoutThe page has turned once more and, as I enter the fall season, my thoughts center around my summer sabbatical. I took three months away from teaching, away from my yoga community, and entered a quiet life alongside an estuary in a small town on the coast of Oregon. It is beautiful here, with herons, pelicans, sandpipers, hawks and bald eagles circling through the air space. The rhythm of the tides leave fresh discoveries every morning along the half mile beach front where we walk. Sita, our very fluffy American Eskimo, scampers after the birds and digs for clams. She is free, I feel free, and my husband comes to life in his floppy white hat, shorts, and sandals. It is cooler here then in Santa Monica, and I generally don my scarf and down jacket.

What is practice? How would I invest my time here? What would I discover? What was I willing to let go of? Who am I without the trappings of “teacher”? Or is “teacher” an integral part of my own process of exploration?

My husband’s father moved here thirty years ago. Over a decade he and Ross, my husband purchased a few properties. When my father-in-law passed away, we found ourselves managing rentals from a thousand miles away. Ross is well known to many locals so we already had a footprint and a reputation for driving a car with California plates that say “Yoga007”. We were both insiders, from Ross’ years of political engagement supporting the local mayor, and outsiders as “those Californians” part-time locals. Yet this year we were invited to block parties and played trivia weekly at the local brew bar. Small town living big time. It was fun!

Now, re-entry. I turn sixty-five in three months. This is a good time for reflection. Practice, reflection. How was my asana practice this year?

I practiced daily. I began with Savasana, a real active savasana. First stage is to let go the pull of gravity and let my body relax. Next, I find that my mind goes on a commercial break and drifts around various inconsequential events. Coming back, I invite my attention to return the touch point of my body on the earth, to the softness of my back body, the skin, flesh, and rhythm of the breath. I would then feel my mind shift into a wider, quieter state. Slightly deeper breaths, and from these breaths I would begin to awaken the animal body. When I watch my puppy stretch, downward doggie, every fiber enjoys the elongation from her tongue to her tail! I let myself enjoy and slow down.

Sita watching for sealsOver the months I explored all variations of incorporating the breath into my practice. Sometimes it was through staying in a pose and feeling how my back lungs might widen at end of the inhalation and how the flesh beneath the skin could move freely at the end of exhalation. Or how the breath could initiate movement and guide the transitions between poses. How the natural shape of the inhalation and exhalation effects my body and each pose. Forward bends, props, long timings, back arches, slow and fast, with and without support. How luxurious to explore!

In Santa Monica, where I teach, I find that I coordinate most of my practice around what I might teach. It is a process of discovery to figure out an effective way to introduce an concept, or to help student approach a complex pose, or to address individual needs in class. Practice coerces me beyond my own natural proclivities and into service for others. I love this. And, I love my sabbatical.

Feeling my muscles, drive, and ego slowly dissolve into the floor was a welcome way to invite a deep receptivity that opened up a beginner’s mind. No expectations, no plans. As my nervous system relaxed, my breath moved into the foreground. Watching the end of exhalation, the quiet suspended moment before the next beginning, the next cycle. Funny how I lose time when I practice, I really forget when I start my practice so I don’t know how long I am on the mat.

I would often vary my practice. One day, with breath centered movements through asanas and salutations. I have sequences or vinyasas for all categories of poses. Other days, I would stay in each pose, eyes closed, feeling how the breath could shape the pose, skin moving away from flesh, where the shape was hollow, round, long. Standing poses are always home base. If I was fatigued or sore somewhere then that first Utthita Trikoṇāsana was like a corporal sigh; the legs, back and shoulders all radiating relief. As I get older, I value the backbending practice for how it strengthens my will and animates everything. Ross picking organic blueberries near TillamookBut I also find that when I begin with supports – blocks, ropes, stools – to release the grip in the back, groin and shoulder muscles and cultivate a quiet relationship with the exquisite sense of expansion, the back arches themselves come more easily.

Now, how will the re-entry be? Teaching, practicing, community, friends. On sabbatical, my practice, husband, dog and cooking are priorities. The rest of the year, the classes I teach, my practice, husband, dog and friends are priorities. But perhaps this order will change as I approach this threshold which includes Social Security. Perhaps practice, husband, dog and friends will surface, while teaching becomes less central. I rest in the not-knowing and let all things evolve.

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Workshop on Iyengar Yoga Convention Highlights: Sat. 4/27 at IYILA

Convention Highlights: Exploring the Path of Practice

Saturday, April 27, 2019
11:30 AM – 1:30 PM
Register online

Join me at IYILA in Los Angeles for a taste of the remarkable feast of inspiration and knowledge that came through Abhijta Iyengar, Guruji’s granddaughter.

Abhijata Iyengar is the future of Iyengar yoga. For six days she captivated, challenged, inspired and made us laugh throughout the practice as she wove threads of the yoga shastras (precepts) into her teaching.

“The mind rationalizes, the heart knows when it knows. When the fluctuations come to rest, the heart knows.” -Abhijata Iyengar

The Dharma-kshetra is in the heart, she explained, while the kurukshetra is in the head. For those of you familiar with the Bhagavad Gita, you will remember the Gita takes place on a battlefield. Arjuna is despondent, paralyzed with the fear of having to face a battle. The story, for many, is a metaphor for the battles we all face inside our heads. The mind, she continued, is full of anguish with its infatuation and threads of identity. These threads, based on our conditioning, preferences, prejudices, insecurities and fears remove us from experiencing any one situation from a pristine and pure state. The heart, however, is honest and humble. When we can silence the mind, even for just a moment before reacting, we have a chance to be completely in the present.

As I reflect on these ideas, I realize that our vocabulary lacks a word for the state I believe yoga refers to, this heightened state that we might call intuition, virtue, when the heart knows. How interesting, to even refer to this state of deep knowing is difficult, for as soon as we “name” it, we already have a preconception of it.

I look forward to following this remarkable teacher and to sharing her insights with our community.

Click here to register online, or for more information, visit here, or call IYILA at 310-558-8212.


1835 South La Cienega Blvd
Suite 240
Los Angeles, CA, 90035 USA

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Taittiriya Upanishad, Why Study the Wisdom Writings?

Pancha-Kośa: The Five Sheaths in Theory & Practice

Sat. Mar. 9 & 16
11:30 AM – 2:45 PM
All levels – Register online

Why do you practice Yoga?

Really! Ask yourself. I know, it is like asking yourself, why do

I eat? Because I have to, or because I feel better about myself when I practice. All the pains seem to subside. Is that why?

When I first started, almost forty years ago, I was interested in “Samadhi”, in this implied transcendent state, in feeling peaceful inside, and in “finding” my authentic self. That was the pitch at that time, when I was in my 20s and 30s. Through practice, I realized how wild my mind was and how filled I was with desire to get “better” at whatever I was doing. I wanted to perfect each pose; then, once I realized that there was no such thing as a “perfect” pose, I sought to refine my ability to enter into each pose, to become more sensitive to the feedback from the muscles, connective tissue, breath, and, through this process, I learned how to become deeply absorbed into each moment. Is this what the “Samadhi” moment is?

I live my life in growing orbits,
Which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
But that will be my attempt.  -Rainer Maria Rilke, 1899

This last weekend I went to the desert. I forget how much energy it takes to filter out the noise of excess stimulation from the city. The to-do list, the traffic, the choices, classes, people. I knew that I had this workshop to prepare for, on the Upanishads. The Taittiriyopanishad in particular. I love the Upanishads for they address the heart of the practice: May I come to know that from which all else is known. –Mundaka Upanishad.  The desert seems stripped of “stuff” and lies bare; not barren, but like a blank canvas. I sat on the cool earth, felt the wind, the sun, heard the distance, and waited.

The elements rose up within me; my body became the sensory tool to monitor experience

The earth below me, seemingly firm,
the earth within me, my bones seemingly firm,
the earth all around me, seemingly established in its cyclical
nature of coming and going.

The sky above me, seemingly vast,
the sky within me, when the mind’s itch and the heart’s desire is silent,
seemingly vast,
the sky all around me, seemingly timeless in its immensity.

Cast between the rhythm of becoming and the presence of being.

I love the Upanishads and the Vedas because they speak in metaphor and point the way toward something that cannot and perhaps should not be analyzed, the very personal process of becoming more aware. Yet here, in the Taittiriyopanishad, the student and teacher share a process. I read more, and sat with the desert.

Why do I practice yoga? In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar (Guruji) says: “The sadhaka’s aim is to bring the consciousness to a state of purity and translucence.” He goes on refer to the elements and the Kośas. In order to help man understand himself, the sages analyzed humans as being composed of five sheaths, or kośas. In Light on Life, Guruji further refines and applies these five sheaths with a path inward.

Anatomical Earth Stability
Physiological Water Vitality
Mental Fire Clarity
Intellectual Air Discernment
Blissful Either Bliss

“The first three sheaths are within the elements of nature. The intellectual sheath is said to be the layer of the individual soul and the blissful sheath is said to be the layer of the universal soul”. -LOY

Clearly, I am in good company as Guruji studied and applied these same teachings. “In effect, all five sheaths have to be penetrated to reach emancipation”. While Guruji’s process was one of moving from the elemental toward the spiritual, or, as he might say, from the gross to the subtle, perhaps attuning first to what is most immediate, the earth. As Rilke said, “I live my life in growing orbits”. Then, what lies beneath begins to reveal itself as a new foundation, and what lies beneath that, again, until the most fundamental foundation emerges.

May I come to know that from which all else is known. -Manduka Upanishad

The Taittiriyopanishad is the source material for the Kośas. It is the first time that the word Yoga is used in the wisdom literature. These teachings are ripe with inquiry and with meditative material. Join us for this workshop to study and apply these teachings.

SahaNaVavatu chant is the peace chant that introduces the Bhrahmananda Valli. In translation: Om! May It protect us both (teacher and pupil). May It cause us both to enjoy the bliss of Mukti (liberation). May we both exert to find out the true meaning of the scriptures. May our studies be fruitful. May we never quarrel with each other. Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

I live my life in growing orbits,
Which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
But that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
And I have been circling for a thousand years.
And I still don’t know if I am a falcon,
Or a storm, or a great song. –Rilke

Register online

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Pancha-Kośa: The Five Sheaths in Theory & Practice

2 Saturdays
March 9 & 16

11:30 AM – 2:45 PM

All levels

Register online

Sat, March 9  $75 – $85 after Mar  1
Sat, March 16  $75 – $85 after Mar  1
Both sessions  $140 – $170 after Mar  1

Join us to read, discuss, and practice the wisdom of the Bliss of Brahman chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad. In his spiritual masterpiece, Light on Life, Sri Iyengar chose to organize his thoughts along the lines of this brilliant paradigm. As he wrote in Astadala Yogamala“This Upanishad is the first scripture which reveals the five sheaths or envelopes that cover the light of the Self.”

For the serious yoga practitioner, the pancha (five) – kośa model is as relevant today as it was twenty-five centuries ago, skillfully weaving the inner connections linking body, breath, mind, consciousness, and spirit. The Taittiriya is the earliest classical text which introduces the term “yoga” in a spiritual context. In this mini-seminar, John will distribute and introduce the root text and Lisa will translate this into an asana practice.

We will all then together transcend the physical and conceptual realms and attune to the spiritual essence of life revealed in silent meditation.

John Thomas Casey has been a Yoga scholar-practitioner since 1971, and holds a doctorate in Asian and Comparative Philosophy from the University of Hawai’i. John has taught courses on World Religions, Sanskrit language, Buddhism, and Yoga Studies at local colleges, while also helping to establish the MA program in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Lisa WalfordLisa Walford teaches internationally and has taught in the Los Angeles area for over thirty years. She is certified Intermediate Senior II.


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