Friday, December 16, 2016

Yoga Practice in Turbulent Times

As the chaos of our world situation continues to reveal itself this season, many of us are struggling to understand our role in the events now unfolding.  As yoga practitioners, we may also be seeking to understand how a spiritual practice can aid us as we move forward.  For some, it is tempting to retreat to an inner landscape, where we have worked to gain some measure of control or peace.  Others may turn away from internal practice altogether in order to focus on action.  While the best strategy for moving forward in a changing world will be different for each of us, I suspect, as with most things in life, the answer for many of us will lie somewhere in the middle ground.

A yoga practice invites us into that middle place by helping us to see and make sense of the varied, sometimes paradoxical, aspects of embodied existence. By working with mindfulness and integration, we may have moments of knowing or feeling our essence, our connection to source or other beings, or whatever we might define as our "true self". We may experience moments of balance, strength, or clarity as we explore our individual identities through action on the mat. Insights or struggles around challenges in the external world could arise. Ideally, a yoga practice will serve as a bridge between the inner and outer experience, helping us to remember our responsibility to others when delving into internal terrain AND our essence or interconnection when engaging in action. In this convergence, true aim may arise and help lead us to appropriate action.

So, while a practice in yoga isn't going to create change in and of itself, it can, when practiced with these intentions in mind, support us by:

- Encouraging an internal balance that helps develop the clarity to know what we'd like to accomplish and the strength and resolve to actually do so.  (Self-care is still important!)

- Helping to develop skill in non-reactivity, allowing us time to assess before we respond.

- Fostering a sense of compassion for all beings through practicing non-judging awareness.

- Encouraging self-honesty and a willingness to both see what is taking place and acknowledge our role in it - a necessary act for those interested in understanding the impacts of privilege and complacency.

-  Building a greater capacity to bear witness as individuals and to foster a sense of shared awareness in community - an important skill in this "post-truth" era.

Yoga is a tool that can be used toward any end.  It will be up to each of us to determine what that end will be and what other skills we may need to develop in order to navigate this particular moment in time.  It is my greatest hope that our practice in this community will support us all in bringing into action whatever we most wish to offer to the world and to each other.
 
In peace,
Kate
 
~Kate Pousont Scarborough, E-RYT 500, 
Director Shelburne Falls Yoga

(illustration by Gayle Kabaker)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Some Ideas for Customizing and Enhancing your Practice



(The following comes from a recent series at the studio and explores some ways in which to tailor a practice to meet individual needs.)

-          -Remember the underlying aims of reducing suffering, discovering  your full potential, and learning to see what is truly happening AND the underlying technique of integrating body, breath, and attention with non-judging awareness.  You can bring any personal goals to the mat (flexibility, relaxation, clarity, strength etc.) to be explored through this lens. 

-         - Your teacher’s instructions are suggestions and guidelines for what works for many people much of the time.  You are the ultimate authority on what does and does not work for your body.

-          -Yoga is a preventive health tool.  Use caution and consult with your health care provider when working with injury or special circumstances.  Contrary to popular opinion, yoga is not universally “therapeutic” or relaxing.  Many techniques and postures are fairly intense practices designed to impact deeply held patterning in the body & mind, so it is important to bear this in mind and/or let your instructor know if you are working with any health conditions.

-         - Yoga should not hurt.  While some activities may produce moderate sensation and even a bit of muscle shaking, try to avoid intense sensation or working so hard that movement or breath becomes disorganized.  The body generally does not respond well to stretching or strengthening in the end range of motion.  The extreme flexibility we see in the yoga media is a holdover from a time when past generations were exploring the far reaches of energetic “freedom” or flow by working with extreme positions (activities that may have their roots in ascetic practices often intended to punish or “transcend” the body).  There is now a movement away from these extremes as the first western teachers of extreme posture work have begun to speak openly about the injuries many have experienced as a result. Working toward a normal, healthy range of motion that supports the activities you like to do in your daily life is usually a more sustainable, effective, and injury-free path.

-         - Yoga asks us to look into our habits and patterns, a process that can be uncomfortable.  It is as much about “how” we do things as “what” we do, and only you can know what is taking place internally.  If you catch yourself falling into familiar patterns (like working too hard, being self-critical, or shying away from a challenge), simply take note.  If you feel that you are getting off course or are experiencing pain or agitation, try asking  yourself “what I am actually doing?” and “what am I trying to create right now?”.


-          -Yoga asks us to consider that less can sometimes be more when it comes to creating lasting change.  Be on the lookout for subtle sensations and open to new patterns and perspectives.

~Kate Pousont Scarborough,
E-RYT 500, Director of Shelburne Falls Yoga
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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Finding Balance this Fall



Greetings students,

I hope you are well and enjoying this beautiful fall season!  As the cold weather moves in, we've been relishing the warm sunlight during our morning classes and the warm glow of candlelight once again in the evenings.  Our fall schedule includes all of your old favorites and some new favorites as well.  Please read below to see our full class schedule.

I'd like to thank you all for your well wishes and understanding during my illness and
subsequent studio closure at the end of the summer.  Two months later, I am in the final phases of healing and beginning to feel fully well again.  During this time, I've had many opportunities to reflect on yoga, its strengths and its possible pitfalls, and the ways in which the practice can help us to achieve our aims on a number of levels while building lasting health and well-being.

Each of us comes to yoga for different reasons and with different goals in mind.  We could be seeking physical strength, increased mobility, relaxation, clarity, healing, or any combination of these things.  And the range of practices available allows us to explore whether we prefer a vigorous class or a gentle one, a detail oriented class or a more experiential one, an exploration of movement or one of stillness, or something in between.

If you've been to any of my classes in recent years, we've also explored how these practices might influence those with whom we share our world through our actions off the mat, actions that are, ideally, rooted in the clarity and power we've cultivated through our practice.  My recent reflections have led me to another and equally important emphasis: self-care.

The transition to cooler weather and the busyness of fall make this a perfect time to focus on self-care and balance in our practice and beyond. They provide an opportunity to recognize the necessity of caring for ourselves while also preparing to share our gifts and strengths with others.  Toward this end, you'll have a chance to work with healing and calming breathing practices, movements and postures to stimulate the flow of energy while balancing the nervous system, and some extra integration time on the mat this fall.

While there is no one right method or reason for practicing yoga, it can be helpful to bear in mind yoga's call to union, its invitation to look at both sides of whatever coin we happen to have in our hands. And this can be a reminder to us that a love of giving is most effective when balanced by self-care, a desire for strength is most powerful when balanced by an ability to soften, and a quest for increased mobility is healthiest when balanced by a respect for stability and the tissues that hold us together. 

In calling us into balance, yoga asks us to reconsider the stories of our time.  It gives us a chance to experiment with the pervasive message that being in constant action and pushing ever harder forward is the best path to success.  It asks us to reside, if even for a moment, at the center of things, to see without reacting, to experience stillness, to listen.  Those who reside often in this place tell us that such grounding allows us to reach farther and to know ourselves better in the process. 

What will be the outcome for you?  
I hope you will join us this fall to find out!  

~ Kate Pousont Scarborough, E-RYT 500, 
Director of Shelburne Falls Yoga

Tai Chi at Shelburne Falls Yoga

by Steven Howland

One of the questions I get frequently is about the different Tai Chi Styles. There are three main schools of Tai Chi; Yang, Sun and Chen. Yang style is the most common form practiced, but Chen and Sun Styles have increased in popularity in recent years. All the styles are named after the family
or person that developed a particular form.

Yang style, named after Yang Lu Chon (1799-1872) is was brought to the US by Cheng Man Ching, the subject of the upcoming documentary at Amherst Cinema, and it’s popularity spread from there. It’s what most people think of when they hear the word Tai Chi and it is a wonderful form with endless learning possibilities, including the solo form, two person forms, cane form, sword form, and long stick from. There is too much to say here, so if you want you can find more reading at http://www.beginnerstaichi.com/yang-tai-chi.html

All Tai Chi is, of course, characterized by the slow, fluid movements and meditative energy. The differences brought to the form by Chen Style, from General Chen Wanting, are the balance of fast and slow, hard and fast movements that make the self-defence aspects of Tai Chi more visible. It is a more demanding physical style.

Sun Style, from Sun Lu-tang, moves Tai Chi more toward the internal and health related aspects. It is done with a higher stance, less kicking and punching, and more built in QiGong (more on that later). More reading about Chen and Sun style is at http://taichiforhealthinstitute.org/comparing-chen-and-sun-styles/

In our classes at the Shelburne Falls Yoga studio we are practicing a modified Sun Style that is design to get at the core health benefits of Tai Chi and be simple and fun to learn. But a nice thing about this form as an introduction as it is just the opening to a whole big world of Tai Chi. I began with this style and have gone on to study both Yang and Chen styles. They are all fascinating and endless pools of learning.

Join us anytime and at any level
Steve Howland (showland@me.com)
Tai Chi for Health Shelburne Falls Yoga Studio
Thursdays: noon to 1

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Power Behind the Posture:
A Reflection for Experienced Practitioners

The ancient practice of yoga has evolved through many forms and expressions through the long years of its existence.  As with any human activity, its shape has been determined, at least to some extent, by the view and norms of the cultures that contain it, for better or for worse.  Modern postural yoga has enjoyed tremendous growth and popularity in recent years.  That’s great news for the millions of people who have enjoyed its many benefits.  But, as yoga is being incorporated into the mainstream culture and marketplace at a breathtaking rate, it becomes increasingly important for teachers and students to keep a keen eye on the ways in which commodification and codification have the power to undermine our beloved practice.

In a recent class, a group of dedicated students was exploring a powerful physical practice with great attention not only upon the postures and actions themselves, but also on their motivations and responses to these actions.  This is not an uncommon theme in a yoga class, but one that we are wise to revisit regularly, particularly in a world in which commercial interests have begun to erode the meaning, and the power, behind the postures. As was discovered yet again in our practice that morning, there is an essence to the practice of yoga that belies any attempts to standardize or own it.  There is an essence to the practice that transcends the activities themselves, finding instead its purpose and potency in the intentions that underlie them.  Let me explain...

Our initial experiments with yoga often begin with the mastery of new skills.  These skills vary from one style to the next, but generally include some type of motions of the body, breath awareness, and meditative focus.  Quite often, the acquisition of these new skills brings very dramatic changes as beginning practitioners often experience new levels physical ease, emotional calmn, or mental clarity.  In this phase of practice, it is quite appropriate to place much importance on replicating the skills on offer as we are in the process of forming new, and hopefully deliberate and healthful, habits in body in mind.  But what happens once we master the replication of the forms?  This is where the fun, and the true work, begins!

The beautiful, and perhaps slightly inconvenient, truth of the matter is that our more mature explorations in the practice of yoga are only ever as beneficial as the motivations behind them.  And once the practice itself becomes ingrained in us, unconscious behavior has a way of creeping in, carrying with it the what is perhaps the biggest gift of our practice- the opportunity to see and reshape the internal landscape that drives us.  This is also the moment at which many students leave the practice or seek another teacher with whom to recreate the initial phase of learning. It is, as we all know, challenging and humbling to make room for the truths hidden within us.  It can be terrifying to change our stories.  So why do it?

This is where another truth reveals itself, one that is also rather inconvenient for the yoga marketplace or anyone offering classes in a traditional setting (including me!).  Because, despite what the yoga publications of the time would have us believe, yoga is not a “thing”.  It is not a posture.  And it is certainly not a product.  Yoga might be better understood as a relationship with self and others that is explored through a range of activities- activities that have shifted dramatically through time (often very appropriately as a result of a growing body of knowledge about what is safe and effective, both physically and beyond).  There is not a single practice or form in yoga that can be held in time, owned, or mastered in the traditional sense of the word.  There is no “right” answer about how a pose should look or feel. This practice is an ever shifting target, but one that has the power to bring us into contact with the part of ourselves that is not, one that has the power to change us from the inside out if we are willing to look at what lies within us as we work with the very potent tools the world of yoga has offered to us.

There are of course, very real benefits to the physical practice of yoga.  The gains in strength, flexibility, energy, overall well-being, calm, and clarity are well documented and have had significant impacts on many lives.  But continuing to build upon these benefits as an experienced practitioner of yoga requires us to be mindful of the moments in which our habits begin to undermine them.  Are we pushing beyond our physical capacity?  Repeating a movement without adequate strength or understanding?  Responding to internal pressure to act when our bodies need rest?  Buying into the outmoded notion that endless flexibility is universally healthy or can be equated with emotional openness? These questions lie at the heart of the relationship that is yoga.  They ask us to make peace with the fact our practice will never be “mastered” but will ever shift along with us to create new growing edges throughout our lives.


On that cool morning in the studio as we practiced what looked like a form of sun salutations, we brought some of those edges to the surfaces. I had asked a particular question that day about what it would be like to practice without any effort to force the body, without judgement, and without a need to look or feel as though we are “good”.  Each of us, in our own way, had a chance to explore the questions through a familiar physical form. Each of us had a different answer.  And, though our studio practices are generally not interactive in the verbal sense, a direct question was posed that particular day. “When we let go striving, forcing, and judging, what is left?”.  

The answers arose spontaneously from the group: Spaciousness, Authenticity, Joy, Freedom, Gratitude. Fun. Those answers represent the potential that lies behind the posture.  Those answers bring yoga to life, allowing the grace and fluidity of an ever shifting practice to inspire the same in us.  

~Kate Pousont Scarborough

Shelburne Falls Yoga Director Kate Pousont Scarborough 
(E-RYT 500 and B.A. Dance) has been leading groups and individuals in movement practices for nearly eighteen years. Her studies inevitably lead her to yoga, which she has been practicing since 1998 and actively teaching since 2009. She is a Professional Level Kripalu Yoga instructor with additional training in movement, anatomy, kinesiology, meditation, and pranayama.  Kate recently completed training for Thai Yoga Bodywork with the Lotus Palm School of Montreal and is currently completing an Anatomy and Kinesiology intensive with renowned yoga anatomy instructor Amy Matthews.  An avid practitioner in body, breath, mind, and lifestyle, Kate is dedicated to helping students of all ages and levels of ability experience ongoing vibrancy and wellness through an exploration of the many facets of the yoga tradition. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

On the Right Track?

Shelburne Falls Yoga


Yoga offers a powerful blend of physical, spiritual, and lifestyle practices that includes a diverse and adaptable range of exercises and activities.  One component of a practice in yoga involves strengthening the capacity to observe ourselves in stillness and in action through various forms of meditation, helping to create more clarity and discernment (and limit reactivity and destructive habits) both on and off the mat. 

When we combine the practice of observation with body and breath based activities, we create an additional opportunity to integrate and align our systems, promoting a stronger and more resilient physical container that functions with greater ease and efficacy.  Add to this the very potent blend of self-compassion and self-honesty that underlies many forms of yoga and a growing ability to adapt life choices based on our newfound clarity and understanding, and we discover a practice that does indeed have the ability to transform us (and possibly those around us as well).

At the same time (and as any practitioner of physical or spiritual disciplines has likely already discovered) the road can be arduous and laden with obstacles and pitfalls.  Even with a steady practice, it can be hard to know when we are on the right track.  At such moments, I often turn to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (a two thousand or so year old text  with somewhat mysterious origins) as a guidepost.  In particular, the Yamas and Niyamas, or restraints and observances, provide a clarifying lens through which to observe and measure our progress and our challenges.

The Yamas and Niyamas are interpreted by some as guidelines for seated meditation and by others as guiding principles for day-to-day life and relationship.  There is, in fact, much debate about this (and the authorship, historical applications, and modern-day relevance of the text as well).  While I follow this debate with interest, and continue to refine my understanding and practice of these principles, generations of yoga practitioners, myself included, have found these very simple precepts to be a powerful and illuminating companion to an ongoing practice regardless of origin. 

When working with the Yamas and Niyamas, you might choose to focus on one or several of these as an active practice over a period of time, or to revisit the concepts every few weeks (or months, or years) and note your progress.  In either case, working with the Yamas and Niyamas can provide some riverbanks for your practice, helping you to stay on track through all of the fluctuations and challenges life may offer.

In Yoga,
Kate


The Yamas
Ahimsa- protection from harm (self and others)
Aparigraha-creating one's own inner fulfillment
Asteya- not coveting the skills or possessions of others
Bramacharya- management of pleasure seeking
Satya- honesty
 
The Niyamas
Santosha- contentment with what is
Svadhyaya- self study
Saucha- living in balance
Tapas- endurance & commitment
Ishvara-Pranidhana- surrender to the flow of the universe

 

Shelburne Falls Yoga Director Kate Pousont Scarborough (E-RYT 500 and B.A. Dance) is a Professional Level Kripalu Yoga instructor with significant additional training in movement, anatomy, kinesiology, meditation, and pranayama.  Kate recently completed training for Thai Yoga Bodywork with the Lotus Palm School based in Montreal and is currently completing a nine- month Anatomy and Kinesiology intensive with renowned yoga anatomy instructor Amy Matthews.  An avid practitioner in body, breath, mind, and lifestyle, Kate is dedicated to helping students of all ages and levels of ability experience ongoing vibrancy and wellness through an exploration of the many facets of the yoga tradition.

(The translations above have been gathered from many sources, chosen through my own study and personal practice. Interpretations are plentiful and varied.  Thanks to Matthew Remski, Stephen Cope, Devarshi Steven Hartman, and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health for providing some of my favorites.)
Choosing the Class 

that Works for You

sfy2

In this rapidly expanding world of yoga, it can be hard to choose a safe, effective, and enjoyable practice from the sea of  available options.  While there are many teachers who have devoted years or a lifetime to study and practice,  there are others who gain "certification" with only a weekend or week-long training behind them. This distinction can be difficult to discern in an unregulated market.

The good news: As yoga is increasing in popularity, it is also coming of age.  Recent shifts in our understanding of biomechanics, the origins and aims of "classical" practice, and the long-term effects of emphasizing extreme range of motion or unsupported "power" movements have given rise to a much more sophisticated practice of yoga, and one that is, in many cases, more closely aligned to the ancient practices that have been the distant cousins to modern yoga. 

But how to choose a class that works in the short-term and over time? As a student, asking a few key questions can help you to navigate this challenging terrain:

~What are the aims of your teacher and are they a match for your own needs?  (If you are not sure what your teacher is trying to create or achieve for you through the practice, ask! )

~What is your teacher's level of training  and do they allow 
you to feel safe and in good hands?

~How do you feel just after yoga class AND the following day? 
Do you frequently feel exhaustion, injuries, or discomfort arising as the heat of the practice wears off? 


At Shelburne Falls Yoga, we are deeply committed to creating a safe and impactful practice for every age and level of experience.  If you have any questions, I will be happy to discuss any or all of these topics with you.  Please feel free to be in touch and I look forward to seeing you soon!