Friday, January 27, 2012


After our amazing week in Tucson, Kelly and I drove up to Prescott, Arizona for a few days to visit the ashram there. Kelly has a lot of patients in the sangha and local community so he did some consultations and treatments while I spent lots of time talking to my friends and generally being in the seat of "friend and sangha mate" as opposed to the seat of "yoga teacher." As usual, the time there was rich, multi-layered and provided lots of food for me. I will be digesting for a while, I think.

I have lots on my mind and heart just percolating around and none of it feels exactly reading for public consumption right now. I spent some time online following a bit of the wake of my friend Amy Ippoliti's decision to stop using the Anusara trademark to describe her work which gave me a lot to chew on as well.  I feel inspired, saddened, reassured, etc. by the outpouring of commentary on her blog and others. Amy and I have been friends for over ten years but fell in love with each other a few years ago and I count her now as one of my closest friends and colleagues. She is visionary, hard working, sincere, funny, irreverent at times (which we know I love and enjoy),  smart and courageous.  Like me, Darren, and Elena, she has chosen to formally withdraw her legal affiliation with Anusara yoga and follow her heart in both similar and different directions.

What I am mulling over is the very interesting times we live in where the boundaries between our professional and personal lives are often blurred, where private lives are often made public,  and how much commentary and sharing of all kinds is made possible through the conventions of social media. I am also really interested in exploring how the themes of authenticity, vulnerability, and transparency interact with elegance, dignity,  obligation and the multi-layered truths of duty to self and others. 

One thing I know for certain is that there is no rule book for any of this. I think living and teaching is, in many ways like asana. We study the forms of the postures, we study the actions required to perform the pose, we study the common misalignments associated with the position, we practice the component parts, we train ourselves in right action, we do these things over and over again and  we practice.  And, the thing is, then there is the pose. Even knowing all that we know, we will find that when we get in the pose, we still need to make adjustments. Even if we have performed  everything as best we can we still need to adjust and respond. Mr. Iyengar calls this reposing. Finding repose in the pose so that we can, at some point, learn to reflect on the experience of being in the pose and respond to what the pose is telling us directly. And then we will need to adjust. And we may even need to raise our hands and say, "I know something is off and I can't see my own pose clearly. Help me!!"

I could go on about this idea forever because the asana practice is always such rich metaphoric soil to till. But in the asana of living, I think study and practice is key. We need to study ourselves to know where our misalignments are likely to come. Are we greedy, selfish, self-hating, too critical, undisciplined, too casual, too trusting, blind in our faith,  etc. We need to study who has travelled the path before us and see if we can learn from their experience. 

And yet, no matter what, we are going to have to actually do it. We are going to have to get into the messy business of life, make our choices and then listen, respond and chose again how best to proceed. Our truths and their resultant actions are going to affect others. They are going to have their feelings about it. That is only lawful since we are in the business of personal relationships. I think  its a learn-as-you-go process, no matter how careful, cautious or sincere we are. I am convinced these days that Life is the Teacher and while we have help, guides, teachings, teachers, and practices to help us see clearly, we are, as yogis on the path of direct experience. Our moment to moment experience, when met with repose and skillful responses in alignment with our values is what we have.  

So, in a day and age where so many folks are scared and worried and playing it safe, I love to see bold acts of courage in the name of vision and high aim.  

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." 
-Theodore Roosevelt

Today I am on my way to Minneapolis for the weekend to hang out with Laurel von Matre and her gang at Yoga Garden. I have never taught there before and we have been planning this for quite some time and I am really looking forward to it.  

more soon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

School of Yoga Week One

Well, it was a pretty amazing first week all in all.

Both Darren and I shared with the group and each other that we had our own variations of anxiety during the week prior to the intensive. I suppose the reality that we were stepping more fully into our seat and into the project we have taken on began to land in reality and not so much in theory. And like I have been writing about a lot lately, many times these kinds of thresholds are accompanied with emotions of fear and inner messages of doubt, like gargoyles that make us face ourselves and pay the price of honest self-scrunity and self-examination before experiencing the gifts and opportunities that live on the other side of the threshold. In facing fear, we develop courage. In hearing our own doubts and yet forging ahead, we develop perseverance. Like so many qualities of heart, the virtue we need lives in seed form in its opposite expression. And in these cases the only way out is through and the only way to the higher virtue is through the threshold itself.

The cool thing is that for both me and Darren, it was obvious that once we stepped into the work of the week we found ourselves enjoying the teaching, the group and each other more than ever. For me, I have always loved the work of the intensives and immersions but this week was really something different in both content and context. I did not expect the quality of my experience to be so radically different but I have to say I have never felt so at home in my skin, so relaxed in what I was presenting, so curious about the group I was teaching and so aligned with myself. In many ways, the week was both a culmination of my cumulative experience and training as well as a new beginning.

I think the thing that I loved so much about the week had to do with our aim of making the teachings relevant to the people in the room and keeping all of the larger concepts grounded in experiential exercises. I felt like we gave manageable chunks of theory and practice and provided what could actually be absorbed and digested. I watched the group have profound inner shifts and insights with relatively little breakdown in the process.

We used a model of self called the Quadrinity Model to identify the different aspects of who we are. We talked about how the School of Yoga is aiming its work on the harmony between the parts of the being-the physical, the intellectual, the emotional and the spiritual. We worked on clarifying aims for each quadrant of being and how an aim in one part should not be at the expense of the other. The conversation was rich, full of texture, grey areas and the tacit understanding that being human is not easy and that finding a way to live authentically in harmony with ourselves is a life's work. Yoga asana is one tool of integration and we worked with that while incorporating other pragmatic tools and methods as well.

We talked a fair amount about the power of ritual and ceremony and we started each day with an invocation to Ganesh, the singing of the Guru Chant which we are using as an invocation in School of Yoga and the Gayatri Mantra and a puja. It was amazing to me what taking 10 minutes to do formal ritual can do for me personally and for bonding a group. We closed every day with the offering of our prayers through a convocation or closing mantras. Many people shared that the puja was one of the most meaningful parts of the training for them.

We kept the asana focused on the level 1 syllabus and in the "hard work in the basics" which was awesome. We didn't push to big poses at all but we went very deep in the alignment and the relationships between the postures. We explored the outer alignment a lot and covered very simple unifying actions of inner alignment. We worked a lot with the shapes of the postures and how much gets accomplished in skillfully executing the shapes relative to one's actual capacity. We spent a lot of time building for work in inversions and the whole week laid a tremendous foundation for the physical practice.

The students did lots of journal writing, some art work with mandalas, small and large group sharing, learned mantra, pranayama, basic meditation techniques all with emphasis of developing a life of practice relative to one's true and authentic aim. The thing is there is no School of Yoga prescribed way to be. There are techniques we can teach and community we can share but really, the School is about offering a place to connect to one's Light and to explore ways to uncover it more fully and to express it more radiantly. That is going to look very different from person to person and it starts by having a place to come and just tell the truth about where we are at with ourselves and each other.

And all in all it was an incredible week.

Enjoy the pics.

Live the Light of Yoga: Lineage

Check out Meg's Post on Day 4 and 5.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012

As It Is and the Messy Glory of It

I am on my way from Athens, GA to Tucson, AZ for a few days before we begin the very first School of Yoga Intensive. I am pretty excited about this program because it is the first program that did not begin as an Anusara yoga program and get converted to a School of Yoga program. I have had no problem with that either and I have been immensely touched and moved by so many people's unwavering support of my shift out of Anusara Yoga but this program is the first full program we have scheduled that will begin under the School of Yoga banner with its own unique curriculum. AND- it is is SOLD OUT.  So that is very cool.

The first part of the program is obviously modeled after the Immersion but will not follow the Immersion curriculum. the emphasis will be on direct, personal relationship to practice with an emphasis on asana but with an introduction to mantra, pranayama and puja. As time goes by we will be incorporating teachings from the Vaisnava bhakti traditions of India as well as relevant teachings from tantra with an emphasis on tenets of Baul sadhana and what Lee called Enlightened Duality. I have been consulting with my mentors and teachers and we have some cool things in store. I am excited about it and so excited to reunite with so many students who have already been in our trainings as well as meet the students who felt called to begin the journey of this new iteration of my teaching work and our journey together.

I had an amazing week in Athens, Georgia with the teacher trainees. This training, like I mentioned in a previous entry began as an Anusara Teacher Training and had the unique distinction of being my last training as an Anusara Yoga  teacher.  It was great to continue the work and to take it directions that connected more to my own teaching methods and ideas- all of which can be applied to Anusara- but not all of which I learned directly in Anusara. In general, I am enjoying the creative freedom and the Possibility it all holds.

Of course, its not all unicorns and rainbows. I have found this transition to be a mixed bag of emotions, with clarity coming at a cost and gain sitting right beside loss. It's also a bit of uncharted territory to examine for myself my own thoughts, feelings, observations, criticisms and ideas and to know when, what and how best to communicate them, if at all. I find the current yoga climate at times a bit daunting to interface with at times. Continually I am struck by the irony of how "identified" we become with our various methods and non-methods of yoga, all of which is ostensibly about dissolving the hold that such identifications have on us.  For instance I have experience a kind of identitity-death now that I am no longer defining my work by the same name, culture, group, etc. that I did for the last 12 years. I have started almost every class I have taught for over 12 years saying the same thing- "My name is Christina Sell. I practice, study and teach a method of yoga called Anusara Yoga..." Somewhere along the way, that became part of my identity.

When I realized that I was going to resign my formal affiliation with the Anusara system and surrender my legal right to use the trademark to describe my teaching, I felt as though I went through a very real tunnel or portal or threshold where I could feel those identifications tugging on me like psychic but actual tentacles. Some even had voices that sounded a lot like "You are nobody without that", etc. It was one of those most powerful initiatory experience I think I have ever had because while I was feeling the pull of the identifications in full effect,  I was also aware of them acting on me and I could see them for what they were and I was able to offer a response from a Higher Perspective of knowing. I knew that in my truth, I am much more than those labels and associations and so is my yoga. And weirdly, something inside me was born,  or perhaps honed, in the fire of that portal, that interestingly enough, is absolutey required for life on the other side of the portal, for life free of those identifying labels. A great reminder that, once again, the process makes us ready for what it has in store for us.

When I was writing Yoga From the Inside Out, I interviewed Lee. My first question was about what role a positive body image played in spiritual work or in sadhana. Lee was remarkably astute about psychology and in general wanted all of us to be well-adjusted with healthy functioning egos. So I expected him to launch into something about how important it was to have a positive self- image and he surprised me. He said, "Nothing. Positive body image has nothing to do with spiritual life whatsoever. Spiritual practice is aimed at Reality and not images. Now, if you want to ask me what a healthy body has to do with sadhana, that I could talk a bit more about."

And he did. He went on to say that having a healthy body was advantageous because sadhana is rigorous, demanding and when the kundalini shakti is activated, it is helpful to have a strong vessel to contain and channel  its force. (Be clear, he said, helpful and advantageous. He did not say required.  It is not required, nor did he teach that we should be body and health-obsessed or anything remotely like that. And he was always railing against the folks in the community who thought another cleanse would help their sadhana when generally greater self-honesty, deeper compassion for self and others and/or unrelenting service was what would actually be of the most assistance to one's awakening.  He encouraged us to care for our bodies mostly so they were strong, bright and non-problematic. But I digress.)

So, in the same way that  a healthy body image and a healthy body are different things, so too yoga, while it may improve our self-image, is not actually aimed there. Or it is not aimed there only.  It  is, I believe, most traditionally aimed at what lives beyond those kinds definitions and images of who we are, even definitions such as  "I am a ______ yogi, not a __________ yogi" and "I am a _______ yoga teacher not a __________ yoga teacher." I suppose, we are even aiming beyond being identified with being "yogi's" at all, although these labels, like everything have their uses and benefits.

For instance, sometimes claiming a certain label for a period of time can help shift us considerably. For instance, when we are stuck in an addictive process, claiming the reality of being in addictive cycle by identifying ourselves as addicts and saying "I am an addict" actually helps us engage the recovery process. Until that point, there is no hope of recovery for most. So, in that way, the label is very useful. The identification serves. However, if 10 years down the road being an addict is all we feel like we are, what was initally helpful may actually have become problematic.

Also, I believe that  clarity around one's clan is very helpful. I believe many of us have spiritual families and have certain karma to fulfill with one another and a certain dharma that exists relative to a lineage and to a Teaching and to the community that is constellated around certain ideals. No problem there. We are all going to have preferences and likes and dislikes and places where we feel at home more than others. All that is as it should be.

I even have no problem with insular communities. Lee always said our community was  an insular community. And he offered absolutely no apology about it. It was by design. He never wanted the community so big that he didn't know everyone's name. Plenty of new people would visit the ashram and be like, "What is wrong with these people? They are so rude and unwelcoming." The truth is, its just that most folks weren't friendly according to conventional rules of social interaction. Spiritual community is a spiritual contract and not a social contract,  after all. And because we all understand the connection to one another as eternal, we are fairly conservative about who joins the club! My point is, none of that is a problem in and of itself. Its more problematic, I think, to say you are friendly and open when you are not because all kinds of issues arise based on the  expectations such a claim implies.

And I do think that we have self-esteem issue galore in our country and many of us come to yoga to get some help with that and I am all for that. Like sadhana needs a strong body, it also requires a strong and stable sense of self in order to sustain the necessary efforts over time. I am not anti-ego or anything like that. Honestly, it takes a strong ego to admit fault, to examine our shortcomings, to claim our weaknesses and to compromise, to sacrifice, to serve others and to claim our place in a lineage, within a community and the more we feel we deserve the dignity the path offers, the more naturally we will align ourselves in those ways.

Anyway, I had a point when I started writing, but mostly, this is more like a plea for us to  lighten up a bit and check in to see if our yoga- no matter what we call it even if we are actually actively NOT calling it anything- is building walls or breaking them down. True practice does not isolate us. True practice will make us more tolerant, more forbearing and more accepting of ourselves and each other. And that does not mean we have to agree or to not ever criticize or see everything the same way or even think everything is good. Looking for the good (in my world at least) is an affirmation of non-duality and can exist in the midst of scrutiny, discernment and the realities of what is as it is, here and now in all the complicated and many-times messy glory that that implies.

Jai guru!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Athens, Georgia

I have had a lovely few days of down time here in Athens, Georgia. I decided to come here straight from St. Louis mostly to save money since the round trip tickets for one weekend was more than half of what it cost to put 5 legs on one ticket. However, once I thought about it, I realized by doing a month-long trip instead of individual round trips, I would be able to have some time off before each teaching engagement. So I took a few days to rest, catch up on some writing and  indulge my new found obsession with Grey's Anatomy. Seriously, I had no idea about how good that show is until I stayed a Brigette's house in St. Louis and watch a few episodes. Highly addictive. 

So, I found out today that the 200-hour and the 500-hour program curriculums I submitted to Yoga Alliance were approved. So that is exciting news. Look for some program listings in 2012 and 2013. I am very excited about the programs and about moving forward into this next phase of creative expression and sharing. We are a registered school that teaches Hatha  Yoga. On the application I defined School of Yoga Hatha Yoga as a "precise approach to asana with a heart-centered approach to spirituality that incorporates pranayama, mantra, meditation and contemplation." So there you have it. 

Graduates  would be certified by School of Yoga to teach Hatha Yoga, which is a fairly wide-open designation to work within. I am sure as time goes by there will be all kinds of details to sort out regarding how to manage the whole thing but for now, we are maintaining our stance that we do not want to create a method that needs to be trademarked, managed or defined. We want our graduates to be well-trained and empowered to offer classes, workshops, trainings of their own-informed by their studies with us but not limited to the curriculum we design. 

I have lots on my mind these days and it's a bit tough to really know where, how and if to dive into it. I have been feeling a bit exasperated by certain streams of conversation around and about yoga these days and I am not so sure that ranting about any or all of it would be al, that useful.  And I have this sneaking and suspicious feeling that my views are not necessarily going to be loved by all. Ah well, that seems to be my dharma these days.

One current thread that several people have asked me to chime in on has been the recent New York Times article on yoga being injurious. I actually find it shocking that it got so much press. But then I remember that we are talking about a mass media piece, not a piece that goes out to an audience that is educated about yoga. So in the name of education, I do have a few comments.

The first piece of education I have is for the new yoga teachers who feel  worried about what people are thinking as a result of an article. Typically, as a result of their worry, these folks are rushing in to defend, explain and justify and reassure people- not just about yoga and how safe it is, but about their own involvement with yoga and their own credibility- lest people doubt them personally because New York Times induced general doubt about yoga. 

Let's be clear- we do what we do as teachers because we believe in yoga's efficacy and it's  transformational power. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NBC, CBS, Oprah, Sting or any other mainstream endorsement won't make it more powerful nor will their  criticism make it less so. Yoga, as a path, has stood the test of time and that is what we are representing, in my opinion- the tradition. Yoga is riding a bit of a popularity high right now and it's is easy to get a bit addicted to that. It's all the rage and everyone loves it and therefore loves us as teachers. Chances are, this popularity high will fade, maybe in part, because of injuries like NY Times described and because there  are consequences to taking an esoteric, specialized set of skills into mainstream applications. That is not about yoga, that is about the modern culture of mainstream yoga. 

I am about to say a few things that may sound cavalier and that is not how I mean them. I am not cavalier about injury and I take safety seriously. I am into it. Big time. And having said that,  before we talk much more about injury though yoga we have to remember that inactivity is probably the greatest source of chronic pain we have as a culture. Lay around all day for years and you better believe that your body is going to break down and  be in pain. Also, not one physical activity we do is risk free. Runners have joint pain, tennis players have elbow problems, cyclists get back pain, gymnasts have bone fractures, swimmers have shoulder issues, and so on. 

And the more extreme we get in the pursuit the riskier the activity. For instance, many fitness runners have no problems with their knees until they decide to train for a marathon. And the same goes for yoga. The further we travel down the syllabus into the advanced postures, the riskier the postures can become. So if you are going to go for advanced poses, make peace with the fact they have risk. Major risks. They are not inherently safe and just because we can do some things, does not always mean that we should. And while alignment is essential for mitigating the dangers inherent in the risky forms- and risky depends on who is doing what pose since for some touching the floor is a danger zone and for others nothing started to get challenging until much later-- we have to remember that  alignment has several aspects to it.

In  Anusara John talks about the 3 As- attitude, alignment and action which were the 3 A's of Anusara and also referred metaphorically to the three domains of  the being as well as the three domains of practice: heart and will,  mind, knowledge and understanding, and body which includes ones actual capacity to perform the posture and the required actions of alignment. We may want to do the alignment (attitude) and we may know the "right" way to do the pose (alignment) and lack the strength and ability to execute it (action). Or we can do it physically, we have the will and desire, but we haven't actually learned how to turn the key in the lock of the pose. And so on. The variations are endless and while alignment is the answer in a sense, knowing how to apply alignment is not easy, takes a long time, requires a lot of study, practice, trial and error.

And so to really learn how to do a lot of the yoga safely requires a kind of learning environment conducive to the challenge an investment of time and money is required. And it's going to be boring to many. I mean seriously, I've  watch a lot of boring demos to learn a lot of what I know. So, it's not that compassionate sounding, I know, but to expect to learn, to be safe, to never be injured and to also expect an entertaining  workout that gives you your personal space to express yourself, is kind of unrealistic in my opinion. 

I mean, really,  As much as I love a good, crowded and sweaty flow class with the music going and all that, not for one minute do I think that particular  environment provides the optimal situation to really understand the postures, the alignment, the nuances. (not grinding an axe about flow, not at all. After all, alignment-oriented, demo-based classes do not always provide the same conditioning effect or the same kind of mythic, ritualistic means for  self-expression. Not better than or worse than just examining different learning environments.) To  have a keen understanding requires keen study and to expect and "doing" environment to provide a "knowing" relationship to the art and science of asana practice. 

All right I could say more,  but my two cents is spent for now.

Friday, January 6, 2012

St Louis

I am attempting to wind down a bit after teaching tonight here at Southtown Yoga.  It was a great night with a full house and many awesome yogis in attendance. The Friday night class is always such an odd thing for because it is a bit of a "getting to know you" kind of class. The students are new to me and my teaching style and I am new to them and what their abilities and knowledge. So, even though I am always really excited to be in town teaching a new group and I am always thrilled to have the opportunity to serve in this particular way, I never feel at my best on Friday night.

Over the years, I have talked to several of my friends who also travel and teach and they have told me they generally feel the same way. And over time I have gotten more accustomed to the circumstance and less affected by the fact I find it a bit awkward. Anyway, tonight I mentioned it to the group while we were in the middle of the class-- kind of without thinking about it-- and one of the students asked me why I felt that way.  So I gave the whole rap and then it was the end of class before I knew it and any feeling of "getting to know you" weirdness had long disappeared. The group was warm, welcoming, attentive, well- trained and a pleasure to teach.

The title of my class tonight was Friday Night Lights and I worked with hip opening and we did some major  leg stretching and we ended with pranayama and meditation. One of my favorite topics in teaching is this consideration of Light. I never tire of talking about how we might access our own inner light and establish ourselves, through practice, in the truth that is already, ever-present within us. It's kind of an ironic and paradoxical situation we are dealing with in yoga. On the one hand, the teachings tell us that the light of our heart is always shining brightly, it cannot be affected by circumstance, it can never be diminished or extinguished and so forth. And yet, paradoxically, we need to practice in order to recognize that, in order to stabilize our relationship to what has been true all along.

Lee talked a lot about his over the years. He said that enlightenment was essentially an accident. All practice did was make us accident prone. He said enlightenment was a gift of grace and we couldn't actually earn it through practices although we could and should practice to increase our resonance with its Influence.

And on a more personal note, if we bring these teachings down to earth and even to a  psychological level, we can consider that no matter what has happened to us or no matter what we have done to others, no matter what harm has been done to us, and no matter what harm we have caused others, nothing separates us from the Light of the Heart and from the spark of divinity that resides within us. And yet, truly, in now  way should we take that teaching to mean that anything goes and that our actions have no consequences. That would be ignorance. Someone recently used the example of money- you can take a dollar bill, crumple it up, stomp on it and even send it through the washer, and still that dollar bill maintains its value. So, too, as we examine our own history and the ways we may have been crumpled, stomped on and put through the rinse cycle more than a few times and still we remain valuable.

My dad's favorite and oft-quoted Bible verse comes from the book of Romans. In Paul's letter to the Romans, he gives  a similar message and telling the Romans that nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Jesus Christ. Again and again, various traditions are pointing to these central truths that who we most truly are, where we most truly reside is not affected by circumstance, cannot be destroyed, is not ours to give away nor is it anyone's to take.

So, like I said, I never tire of this topic.