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!