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,

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


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!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

As The Means, So the End

It has been a busy summer here in Shelburne Falls.  In addition to teaching our ongoing daily classes, I enjoyed hosting the Clay, Yoga, and Art Camp students, beginning a certification training in Thai Yoga Massage (more info about this coming soon!), and traveling with my son before sending him off to a new school for his sophomore year.  It was a pleasure to work with so many new and familiar faces in recent months, and, for those of you who have been traveling or otherwise occupied of late, we very much look forward to welcoming you back this fall!

You may have noticed that you haven't received a letter from us is a while...  I was taking a marketing break for several months while meeting and speaking with colleagues from around the globe to discuss potential changes in yoga teaching, training, and the marketplace.  As always, these ongoing discussions are invaluable in helping me continue to refine the services offered to you here in the village.

In this setting, I recalled a piece of widely circulated business advice to yoga studio owners I encountered when I had recently taken ownership here at Shelburne Falls Yoga.  The advice:  
Don't care too much. And don't integrate the philosophy that underlies your teaching into your business practice.  These should be separate.


These words speak to an all too common perception that we can create such artificial separations, between our actions and their outcomes, between that which we do for money and what we truly believe, between such a mindset and the suffering it so often causes.  They explain why it is so prevalent to find yoga studios defying the supposed aims of the practice with subtle and not so subtle messages about perfection, sexuality, and endless youth in their advertising.  They explain why it is common to find teachers attempting to use criticism, striving, or even veiled aggression as a means of achieving opposite qualities like balance, health, and peace of mind. 

In the end, will this ever really work?

When I look at these dichotomies, I am reminded of some simple words from Gandhi that have been on my through recent months:  
As the means, so the end. 
No further explanation needed!  And these words continue to define our activities here at Shelburne Falls Yoga within the studio walls and beyond. 

So, as we work to create clarity, compassion, and integrity through our practice this fall, be assured that these qualities will also be present in the teaching and other activities you encounter here.  It is my aim that, in this way, each of us will continue to practice together and enjoy the radiance of good health and balanced strength for many decades to come.

As always, please feel free to be in touch with any questions or comments you may have, and I look forward to seeing you all soon!

best wishes,

Friday, August 1, 2014

Look Up: We've Been Exposed

Have we yoga teachers fallen asleep while riding the momentum of the growing popularity of yoga in recent decades?  Perhaps we had, but no longer.  It appears the scholars have arrived on the scene to pull our bed sheets down and awaken us with a shock of cold air.  Have you felt the breeze yet? 

While the popular blogs, publications, and social media forums pump out seemingly endless quantities of self-help advice, top 10 lists, and, what writer and yoga teacher Matthew Remski aptly describes as the “commodification of private fantasies marketed through parodies of self-expression” for the yoga masses, scholars like David Gordon White and Mark Singleton have been asking the questions that have the potential to overturn our accepted versions of the story and applications of yoga.  They steer us toward critical questions about how we practice, teach, and train our teachers, and why.

Though these and other scholars’ works are presented through a particular lens, and also perhaps with a particular agenda, it’s hard to ignore their message: The origins of our asana practice, our history, even our motivations are proving to be quite different from what we may once have believed.

Despite Mark Singleton’s advice, in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, to avoid the tempting trap, I read the initial criticism with a bit of relief.  The surprising revelations about the questionable origins of modern asana practice focused  heavily on the practices coming from the tradition of Krishnamacharya. Not my lineage, phew!  But, with closer inspection and the passage of time, it becomes all the more clear that not one of us is absolved of the responsibility of taking a closer look. 

Sean Feit, in a recent a recent commentary discussing the changing understanding of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and David Gordon White’s new book on the topic, says a few words that hit close to home when stating this of the the popular trends in “American self-help yoga”:  “I see Affirmational Non-dualism as reflecting a quite delusional recent strain of spiritual practice, in which a privileged class uses yogic-sounding ideas to affirm their self-absorption rather than deconstruct the tendencies of mind that cause division and suffering, both individually and socially”.  Ouch.  But I can’t help but think that the recent explosion of yoga selfies, among other yoga culture oddities, is proving his point quite nicely.

All schools, all teachers, all students of yoga are subject to this radical reframe of our “Tradition” toward an understanding of a complex web of contradictory small “t” traditions, some of them recent, some ancient, some helpful, some beautiful, and many outmoded and shown to be injurious or ineffective by the practitioners who have lovingly upheld them through the past generations of western yoga.

For me, as a devoted teacher of yoga, and a recent one at that, these revelations inspired more than a moment of disillusionment.  How could our beliefs be so out of line with the reality of yoga’s past?  But this disillusionment gave way to a freeing perspective, one that acknowledges our most influential teachers as beautiful, brilliant and fallible artists shaping and delivering the practices they have learned and grown.  This view allows us to unhook from blind devotion, mystique, and fundamentalism, it allows us to evolve.  We might see our masters, founders and gurus not as purveyors of an ancient truth (or fallacy, depending on our perspective) but as artists who, much like us, shaped the strands of tradition into dynamic relationship with themselves and with their students.  We could choose to say they “made it up”.  But we can also choose to say “as do we all”, and then follow suit, incorporating the changing understanding of the physical body and exploring our rapidly evolving social and cultural needs.  We have the opportunity to offer the best of our tools by redefining our goals and our methods, and, perhaps, by stepping away from the camera and its accurate portrayal of our enthrallment with our own admittedly lovely images and turning our attention instead to those people and places in the world who need it most.  One might even say we have an obligation to ourselves and to our students to do so.

So while we have grown, in recent years, to turn the lenses of our cameras back on ourselves, is it possible that we may not be so readily turning our gaze back onto our own behaviors, alliances, and aims?  Is it possible that some yoga teachers have become, as Matthew Remski suggests in a response to a recent blog post, “unwitting mouthpieces for the forces of sexualization and objectification that are always already going on around them”.  Is it possible that our understanding of the history, mechanics, and outcomes of our practices needs an extensive overhaul?  

Acknowledging the possiblity raises some important questions. I won’t pretend to have the answers, but I have many questions about how we as teachers should communicate about and act upon the shifting sands on which many of our practices have been built. Do we dare question our stories? Our methods? The scope of our training? I hope so.  And I look forward to the conversations that result. 

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

(Interested? Check out Matthew Remski's  thought provoking new project. WAWADIA- What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?)

Monday, June 9, 2014

defining who we are

The practice of Yoga is both ancient and broad.  Given the wide variety of interpretations of yoga teachings and the range of skill and intentions amongst teachers and studios, it can be hard to know what to expect when entering a yoga class setting.

As director of Shelburne Falls Yoga, the process of defining and redefining the practice, aims, and tools of yoga is ongoing.  My aim is to provide a nurturing and challenging environment in which you will learn the skills for discovering and sustaining long-term health and vitality. 

Listed below are just a few of the practices you will have an opportunity to explore as a member of our unique yoga community:

Safe and Efficient Movement PatternsLearn to identify how muscles are in use in a given posture, how the spine, pelvis, and limbs relate to one another, and where to initiate motion for efficient, safe, and easeful movement.

Non- Judging Awareness- Practice suspending judgment while anchoring attention to the present moment, cultivating a more meaningful and realistic relationship with your body and your surroundings

Stability and Mobility- Find a functional and safe balance between strength and flexibility, allowing for optimal range of motion while avoiding the potential dangers of hypermobility.

Balance- Promote balance in thought, in motion, in breath, and in the systems of the body to create a strong foundation from which to choose your next course of action both on and off the mat.

We look forward to welcoming you to Shelburne Falls Yoga this spring!

E-RYT 500, 
Director Shelburne Falls Yoga, 
Co-Founder and Director Living World Yoga School 

Saturday, April 26, 2014





Mindfulness in thought and deed is an important topic for many of us who take up the practice of yoga.  But what is it?  A wise teacher of mine, Jonathan Foust, once defined mindfulness very simply as non-judging awareness, a definition which continues to resonate for me.

Non-judging awareness, or compassionate observation of self and others, is deeply embedded in many branches of the yoga tradition.  Those of us interested in the undertaking return to our practice each day with an intention of calmly observing and making room for each experience that presents itself.

Non-judging awareness is a simple practice, and also one that can take a lifetime to master as it continually brings us into contact with those parts of ourselves that we may prefer to keep hidden from our own and others' view.  But it also has a lighter, gentler side in its ability to invite us into the joy and fullness present in each moment with no need to change, judge, or achieve.  It presents an opportunity to celebrate our lives as they are right now.

In the practice of non-judging awareness, we cultivate the ability to see beneath the patterns and habits of the rational mind, allowing a deeper wisdom and intuition to be revealed.  Through this intuitive wisdom we may begin to see ourselves and our surroundings with a little more clarity, we may begin to live our lives a bit more boldly.

The practice of non-judging awareness is available to any of us at any time.  All that is required is a willingness to try suspending judgement and striving, if even for a moment, to rest in the convergence of breath and sensation, and to observe the results of your experiment.  You may be surprised to discover that a consistent practice of mindfulness in your relationships and daily activities has the ability to change your world! 
-Kate Pousont Scarborough 
E-RYT 500, 
Director Shelburne Falls Yoga, 
Co-Founder and Director Living World Yoga School 

handstand 2