Your Practice is a Speed Train

On getting it moving.

Your practice is a speed train.

That train has come to a stop.

This is good. You don’t want to jump on a barreling train – i.e., do a practice of the same duration and intensity as before. You built your mind, musculature and nerves up to that. Before.

Your system remembers all that. But right now what it needs is the memory of that first day.

This is your second first day, same and different from the first. Just step inside the train.

Find a seat. A space in the mind. And also a physical space.

This is stepping onto the train. Into the mind, onto the mat, into that corner of the kitchen or wherever you’ll make body shapes in time.

Have a look around, maybe take a few asanas, rest consciously. Feeling it, with no physical expectations and five minutes of diamond clear intention – this is a serious practice.

You’re not being compulsive and don’t have anything to prove. Just opening up and curious. Being with the fear if it is there.

This is a moment for curiosity, courage and self study. Releasing any sense of entitlement to results. That’s what this yoga is. Honestly facing this moment. And it’s intuitive, because of that past self – that dear friend – who set this foundation to which you are returning.

No need now for committing willpower, concentration, or calories. Zero epiphanies required. Just find a seat for a few days at predictable times.

Practice is effort towards stability. That’s how you design it. One step at a time.

Set a tiny rhythm.

Little practices at predictable intervals. Like the same time of morning, MWF. Then maybe round out the ritual if and as the system responds well. The cumulative effects of a morning breath practice show up within days, but deeper effects can take years. Profound inner balance and peace are possible, but that is out there on the horizon two years down the track. The taste of it comes today.

The next step after the first week is to go back to the bespoke guide from your foundations course. Every day after class for two months, you got a personalized written review of our practice design and discussion topics for the week. I made that catalogue for one reason: so you can have it now. It was always intended for this future self. You know a lot.

Print out emails in a handbook or make a folder. Then read Week One and let all the bells ring.

Maybe take that Week 1 practice for two weeks or three. The train’s pulling out of the station…

After a month of steadying, people tend to find that they get it. They do know now, how to practice. Whereas they did not know in the first run of Week One.

There is no need to stoke this engine, but it is probably going to stoke itself if you keep stability as the intention. Effort towards stability.

Stability through rhythm, of all things.

Getting inertia on your side means not having to think much, or wrangle internally, to find the forward movement and the spinal fluidity and the big breath. And self knowledge, and actual luminosity.

Trains are fun. Nothing but nothing wrong with that.

  • Art by Kristen Drozdowski. Art on Merch is here. Order by Feb 14.
    All proceeds from merch orders go to Operation Shanti.


Lisa Kaufman died this week, peacefully in her sleep. She had turned 53 on August 9th. The medical report found no cause. She was in extraordinarily good health. Her heart stopped. She leaves so many of us who have been connected with her, most notably her husband, and sons ages 13 and 16.

But a lot of you didn’t know Lisa. She’s been practicing ashtanga since the 90s, but with us only three years. So part of me hesitates to ask you to focus on crystallizing a memory of Lisa, if she’s not already real for you. First, because we are so broadly networked across spacetime that maybe it’s best not to highlight individuals. Our community practices in 15 countries; you span learning relationships formed in different contexts since 1999. Second, I hesitate because 2020 is making landfall. Maybe your mind does not need to think extra about dying. Dominic and I asked each other five days ago: is this American mood a gathering of stormclouds, or are we in the actual storm? So much had not happened yet, five days ago. She was still here. And still right now, so much has not happened yet.

But I realized, sharing this wonderful human with you is the most nourishing possible move. Those who did know her remember light, gentle humor, utter stability, maturity, open curiosity, presence, joy. So just for a bit: silence, concentration, and Lisa’s spirit. And anyway I want to be the kind of person who stops on the field of practice to honor the lost, who places the attention and the emotions deliberately at times when this twittering world wants to monopolize them instead.

Lisa would stop me here. Every time I’d approach the topic of her mastery in the ashtanga practice, or that of the long historical memory she had to share with us because she’s been on this path longer than I have – that was when she’d shake me off, change the track, make her self evanescent. She did not want to teach. She was too dedicated for that; she knew how to protect her practice from such nonsense as what I do. She’d always cite Patanjali about the dirga kala – practice must be done for a long time and without interruption, then she’d say that taking time away from the mat when her boys were small constituted a break in her practice, and she started back at the beginning from then. Then we’d roll our eyes at each other and I’d find subtler ways to tell the others: you can learn from this one, a lot. She understands.

In August one of you came to my house for a long walk, to talk about the recent years of your sitting practice. Impermanence had emerged as a dominant characteristic of your experience. We discussed how the direct knowledge of the non-graspability of experience gets into your body. The carnal knowledge of impermanence. I shared how Shinzen taught me to perceive the “vibe” of a practitioner as a way to perceive their relationship with emptiness – spontaneity gets into the body, the energy “rides” through the tissues, emptiness pours out of the cells in the form of light. I mentioned Lisa, then, as the example of someone who embodies a direct knowledge of impermanence, such that it somehow rubs off on people she touches. I write this knowing that the impermanence, and emptiness, that coursed through Lisa’s system were at work when her heart stopped. But I have not yet accepted that her heart didn’t start again to make her stay with us. I’m not spiritually mature like that. She was.

Lisa had a brilliant mind, which she also voiced with spontaneity, curiosity and lightness. I only knew about it because she used her intellect to take care of me in difficult times. She figured out that my naive spirit thrives on art and writing and jokes about emptiness. At the shala you might have noticed we had a running in-joke. That was it, something utterly dark and deathly and morbid, and simultaneously full of light and tiny laughter. Nothing lasts Angela, not even cruelty. She gave me that because she saw it kept me bouncy. Lisa came into my life just as the revelations of Patthabi Jois’s sexual abuse were breaking. She was the first to tell me they were true, not on the basis of our feminist commitment to believing victims: on the basis of her own experience. She’d seen him grope a woman in the classroom two decades ago, and had never gone back. And for the duration of that slow revelation, she had my back: this was real; it was the reason women in her generation were silenced by men close to Jois; and now the truth could be in the open and the light. The same open, and same light, that were so much of her character. Nothing to defend or pretend. She gave me all that during the most difficult period of my own practice.

This spring, as work got weird she was DMing me little morsels of Rupert Spira – and we were sparring very darkly about the ways old men like Sasaki Roshi use their understanding of impermanence and emptiness specifically to get power over sincere women. Last month we had a funny exchange in which I said Ken McLeod loves capitalism too much to be taken seriously, she expected I’d say that so she pasted his most genuine passages on emptiness into our thread until I admitted their wonderfulness. This month on the road, I read Timothy Morton, so that I could share his work with her now – she would always read with me – I knew she would be tickled by the way this philosopher accidentally (beautifully) illuminates Zen metaphysics. During a period when there was so much reason for despair, Lisa over and over threw me a line on impermanence, to help me to stay in a state of effervescence. Being with the spiritual truths of emptiness and impermanence has fostered openness to change and to life even in times of isolation, endings and existential despair.

I know there is an Obi-Wan thing going on here, that the honoring of Lisa is done by keeping my foot in the breach of the void, into which she’s traveled. She lived like that, in a way everyone who encountered her describes in different ways: as light, pure sanity, radiant kindness, humility, humor. Long time practice in her system radiated a deeper-than-philosophy insight about the empty, impermanent, non-selfy nature of nature.

I know she is still throwing out the line. The pervasiveness of emptiness in our world of form is clear now like never before, with her gone. But it was easier when we could talk.

There’s one other teaching that feels important to share for the moment. Lisa could be with volatility, because she held lightly. As she grounded me in the truth of the women’s stories, she bore witness to the blistering misogyny and strategic erasure that ashtanga women (myself included) experienced in retaliation for shining a light on how our community had enabled abuse of women by worshipping masculine authority. She let me know she saw the intimidation that women in leadership were experiencing. She’d been around this practice longer than me; this was a sickness we could work through, and wait out. It wasn’t about individuals; misogyny was an old pattern in the process of dying. This attitude channeled a kind of integrity into me. I didn’t need to make a thing of the hard parts, didn’t need to turn them into gossip. It was enough to have one senior woman holding space, acting as my teacher. Her way was to acknowledge, grieve the harm done, learn, move on, do not make a thing of it. This made her the kind of person who you could ask to hold the emotional equivalent of dynamite. She was just cool, not fascinated by the thing. She did not need to make up a story about it for later. She didn’t think it was special to be in the know about my suffering. She’d just hold the fragile moment, put it down when it was done, and model for me how to let the experience go. This illustrates the impermanence that permeated her personality. Se how that quality in her being made her compassionate and trustworthy? Most of us can’t hold dynamite yet, because we cling.

So many of you told me yesterday, you feel connected to Lisa through this practice and this community. Some of you enjoyed her friendship and her implicit teaching because you did practice with her in person. However this lands for you, I want to affirm that Lisa was a person entirely committed to on the spiritual path who had integrated a disciplined practice into a relaxed, peaceful family life. The grit and commitment of householder practice was so normal for her that you never sensed she was pushing, even when she was in the expression of full power. She got into ashtanga when it was a narrowband nerdy thing, and she practiced in a devotional manner for decades. The vitality she reflected back to you was real in her, and it’s real in you, and it’s just part of how the yoga works over time if we do it correctly. I feel sad for those of us who have lost her, but I feel deeply at peace for Lisa herself. She had this funny stability about her. The memory of her still does.

Our group talked last year about how yoga is preparation for a good death. Lisa recorded the class and was excited to see the shala go all existential and raw that day. I don’t even know anymore. The elders of Native communities everywhere are dying of Covid, democracy has fallen, climate change overtakes us. It’s hard to be present to so much loss, and celebrate life at the same time. In that class, we talked about being present with pain, and loss. That is what practice is – watching experience appear and disappear. Practicing on the knife edge of the present moment, even when we know yoga won’t save us from suddenly disappearing some day.

The last time I saw Lisa was Labor Day morning. I mentioned the day before that I’d like to finish up teaching at the tennis shala by 8:30, in order to drive to Lake Superior by dark. She stopped me, saying “Do you want me to hold the space until the last person is finished? I would love to do that.” She understood: we had to close that portal we created outside this summer with as much consciousness and gravitas as we had opened it and brought it to life each day. This is the structure of correct method: giving equal weight to the endings as to the beginnings.

So, the next day came, the last day of the experience we had in Summer 2020. Many of you brought herbs and vegetables from your gardens, there were actual raw food confections filled with love, and we all took from the fall harvest bounty on our way off the courts. When I left, arms full of your gifts and letters, I turned to touch the threshold of the tennis court where it meets the sidewalk. Lisa was practicing off to the north, deep in her concentration, not acknowledging me as I left for 4,000 miles alone on the road. The others were dispersed around her and I could see how she held them up and held them together with her practice. Holding space. I rarely have the confidence to slip out of class early, because I worry that the proper attention will not be placed on the ending. But that one I left with her. I knew she would close our Summer portal and bring the experience to an end better than the rest of us yet could.

Tennis Shala, Summer 2020

It is Safe to Criticize Patthabi Jois

My first job as a teacher is to establish, and hold, safe space. 

I am practiced in fostering the boundaries, rapport and accountability that enable a sense of bodily safety to emerge. However, I have not realized until today that a safety skillset is needed in our community now in a different way. 

We as a community of ashtanga practitioners need to feel safe to think rationally. We need to feel safe to question. We need to feel safe in our sense that our individual practices are our own, and cannot be destroyed by the critical thinking process.

For the last two years, I’ve felt empowered by my students to speak openly and non-defensively about the terrible harm Patthabi Jois did to some women in his care. Here’s why I do it. First, the trust we have built together is sacred to me. I have given it my life. I’m not going to give power to a ghost to stand between us. I have a responsibility to my students to model mental and intellectual confidence and safety. 

We all know that my work is to hold safe space for the body and the meditating mind. But I have learned that part of my job now is also to hold space for hard-thinking, hard-questioning minds. Good. I did not spend the past twenty years working on becoming a person who might perhaps become worthy of students’ trust just to compromise that by silencing them for the reputation of someone I never knew. Preventing my students from criticizing Patthabi Jois would be a dishonor to yoga, to our lineage, and indeed to all that was good and pure and brilliant in the man whose sins we have to acknowledge. My sense of devotion is the reason that, on the ground in my inter-personal relationships, I have been holding the hard question-space safe and open.

To those beyond our local context, I want to share that around here we have been learning that it is safe to think difficult thoughts. It is safe to ask difficult questions.

Here is what I am learning when it comes to holding space for people who are ready to enlarge their reality to include the testimony of Patthabi Jois’s victims. Such has been a major part of my daily life for the past two years.

  1. It is safe to be have been wrong. It is safe to change your mind.
  2. There is nothing to defend. 
  3. My practice and relationships are not at stake in this difficult time. 
  4. I do not have to sell my soul to keep the practice and relationships that give meaning to my life. 
  5. On the contrary, silence may indeed cost us our souls. If we regard truth as a threat, we must acknowledge we have lost the way. We must look inside and self-correct.
  6. It’s just true: love is more powerful than fear.

Over the last two years, I have learned that each of the following fears may be enough to prevent a person from turning the mind to this difficult topic. When these fears are examined and understood rationally, then a person often feels safe enough to step into the healing vibes that accompany a loving and non-defensive recognition that Patthabi Jois touched some women in traumatizing ways – and that a shared culture of silence around him kept this truth hidden until 2017.

Perceived risks:

  1. If I question Patthabi Jois, my teacher won’t have the tools to deal with that. Maybe my teacher will stop trusting me. We could lose our relationship.

Across the world there is this waiting game, teachers not wanting to offend students, students not wanting to offend teachers. Someone’s got to take the initiative here, and this CAN be savvy students who do the educating of the teachers. If you’re under 30 and conversant in the language of critique in a way those who came of age in more authoritarian, pro-capitalist times might not be, you have special skills to offer. My sense is basically everyone thinks Patthabi Jois and his enablers screwed up; but not everyone feels safe introducing this truth into relationships they hold sacred. Maybe the next brave move is yours, if you are (ironically) less afraid of this topic than your teacher? 

If you introduce this topic and hit a wall with your teacher, I ask you: do you want to be studying with someone who silences you, or whose mind is still not able to expand to include believing the women?  Yoga is flexible stability. If the mind has become especially rigid because of an identification with certain beliefs or emotions, to the exclusion of rational dialogue, that’s an indication we need to self-correct.

  • I will feel guilty and shameful looking at this.

Totally understandable. That is the weight of previous generations’ inability to own their stuff. It might feel heavy. Such are the feelings I’ve personally worked through with compassionate professional help, and might still be stuck in otherwise. Here is the thing. If you weren’t part of the culture of knowing silence around Patthabi Jois, you’re probably taking responsibility for stuff that isn’t yours. This is what care-givers do. It just means you’re the best of the best, and one of the people this world really needs now. Yet, taking responsibility for the issues of our elders deprives them of the chance to do their own work. It’s not actually compassionate.

What many of us, myself included, factually have to take responsibility for is believing a cultural narrative about the guru’s grace. For beliving our elders when they said that Patthabi Jois’s touch was only ever healing, and his presence was magical. For letting the older students quietly undermine the victims’ credibility. These are real things I did. I didn’t use my brain, when my brain was overwhelmed. I was wrong.

The rest is out of my hands. It’s probably even more out of your hands than mine. It’s not helpful to be defensive about any of it.

  •  If I deligitimate Patthabi Jois, I will in turn delegitimate my teacher who I love and trust. 

Ok. If your teacher is using a relationship with someone you don’t know as their reason for authority over you, that’s not cool. It’s authoritarian. The rational basis for a teacher’s credibility would be stuff like carefully built inter-personal rapport, gradually earned inter-personal trust, and the fact that the practice as they teach it truly works for you. 

In such a dynamic, when the practice is really yours and your relationship with your teacher is grounded in the reality of your excellent shared experience together, then opening up space for looking at Patthabi Jois’s issues can build even more trust. Because neither of you has to defend that.

  • If I ask the wrong questions in public, my friends will reject me

Your friends are smart though. If you’ve got something more than a shallow, internet-based mutual appreciation society. 

So your friends, who very likely also have brains, are probably thinking the exact same thing you are. What about choosing to be THEIR safe space, so that they are free to ask the hard questions in your company? That might take making the first move. Saying what’s on your mind.

  • If I open up about this, somehow I might get framed as a perpetrator or a victim. Someone will come at me and say my work isn’t woke enough. Or they will accuse me of having my own “stuff” that is coming out as identification with the vulnerable. I don’t want to be put in those roles!

Understood. This right here feels like the crux we are in. Discerning people see the drama triangle (victim-savior-perpetrator storylines) in action all over public life the last couple years. You may sense that the domination of this narrative structure is insane. 

But most of us don’t know exactly how not to get sucked in to the triangle. For me, there have been three key resources in this regard. 

First is therapy. That’s a professional requirement for someone sustaining a large number of very real student-teacher relationships; you deserve a teacher with an intimate accountability system in which they systematically get called on their unconscious biases, and have space to process their emotions about their work. So that their work with you can be psychically clean. Yoga teachers are professionals. The teaching space isn’t there to be a dumping ground for our process; and our duty as service providers for our students is not an adequate vehicle to carry us through our own ongoing transformations. A lot of therapy is being forced to notice the patterns in habitual framing of experience. Having an unbiased professional hold space for you every week means getting to surface latent drama frameworks in safe space, defuse them, and analyze them rationally. This unflinching self-interrogation is badass. It cleans up the yoga like a dream. I suggest it, especially if you think you don’t have anything to work on.

Second, the brilliant work of Sarah Schulman. In Conflict is not Abuse she writes (p. 17) “[A]t many levels of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve…. [T]his dynamic, whether between two individuals, between groups of people, between governments and civilians, or between nations is a fundamental opportunity for either tragedy or peace. Conscious awareness of these political and emotional mechanisms gives us all a chance to face ourselves, to achieve recognition and understanding in order to avoid escalation towards unnecessary pain.”  In other words: this is some serious drama triangle transcendence, written with excellence at the cutting edge of queer theory. Read it in full for a fast ticket to a certain kind of liberation.

Third, there is a heart-key that has been shared with me by a student who spent much of her life with Thich Nhat Hanh. This is his teaching on emptiness, which he binds to infinite compassion in a concept he calls Interbeing. Some of us have read Charles Eisenstein’s good work on this topic, but the seedbed of it is extreme spiritual work in a warzone – a level of enlightenment and compassion I cannot comprehend. Systematically listening to Thick Nhat Hanh’s teachings on this topic, internalizing what I can of this perspective into my cells: this too has begun to deprogram my own fear-based conditioning towards blame, savior behavior, and playing the victim. 

When we can escape that triangle, it gives us the freedom to compassionately accept and learn from those who truly have been victimized. They are not a problem. None of this is. It’s just the learning process much of the world is in at this time.

Here’s the situation on the ground, in my daily work teaching yoga.

I am wary that the most patronizing, patriarchial thing I can do is give a dead man power to destroy my faith in yoga. Patthabi Jois is one among many in the lineage of ashtanga yoga teachers. Nobody owns this yoga, and nobody can pretend to have a final energetic imprint on a method that is in some ways ancient, and simultaneously one of the most cutting-edge methods on this planet. The practice is what we make it, each day with our bodies AND with our thinking.

Will it be rigid, a belief-system, a set of loyalties and horrid obligations? Or will it be art and science, openness and vulnerability, creativity and freedom?

Please hear this. Ashtanga was a guru culture for roughly 50 years. The architects of that culture were American men; just as those doubling down on guru worship now are westerners on the internet. Before this blip, T. Krishnamacharya disavowed the guru title. His own son, a contemporary of Patthabi Jois, did the same. The Indian tradition itself gives us the model for reforming the power dynamic responsible for abuse and silencing. Watch: as we integrate the lessons of power gone wrong on the battlefield of specific women’s bodies, the teachers whose hearts have broken over this will depedestalize themselves again and again. That’s how you’ll know who has gone through the fire and been changed by it: they will show up as vulnerable post-authoritarians.

The guru phase of this particular method came; it gave its gifts and it left its wounds; and soon again the guru phase will go away. This is how we deactivate habitual abuse of women within our cultural DNA – through nondefensive acknowledgement of the past. Through a sacrifice of the mental and emotional conditions that led to the harm. A specific legacy of abuse and silencing is there, like other past wounds are there. This is being human: our history includes harms done. Making that conscious is the healing move.

If you study Patanjali and see the Sutras as a real source of help for the practice, then you know, the purpose of yoga is to cultivate discernment. In relationships, in our minds, in the world. In a sense, if we’re serious about the yoga, we don’t have an out here. We have some obligation to face fears around this topic, to use discernment to support suppressed truth. And to speak from the place of having completed this hard part of the journey with our hearts more open than they were before. 

Alchemize Your Word

Prana. By Olivia Fraser. 2015.

                                    Prana. By Olivia Fraser. 2015.


Some thoughts here about freedom. Freedom from inner hangups, and freedom to do what we really mean to do in the world. For me, this has to do with asking hard questions of myself. Questions that put me in vulnerable positions.

Here are two of my questions for the first two limbs of yoga. Am I really working out my code of honor through study and reflection? Am I honestly living my principles?

Yoga’s not a super self-control trip. Moreover, I sense that the minute we start talking honor codes, we have to check for projection, self-congratulation and any drives to go out and fix the world. This is a disciplined path, and the more strength we bring to that, the greater the danger of losing the elements of not-doing, emptiness and playful curiosity. With these caveats, I submit that it is pretty well badass to live by your own code. Not a chiseled set of commandments, but a stable awareness that evolves over the years through experience and reflection.

Floating vinyasas and massive backbends are byproducts of a long term asana fascination. Its a weird hobby, and one I fully espouse. But that stuff is not necessarily shamanic, not Jedi, not Sam Spade. Integrity and self-trust that hold up under pressure… that is a quality of my heroes. It seems to be born of the long-term practice of a personal code under conditions of adversity. Among other lists of useful virtues, the first two limbs of yoga – the ten principles they comprise – are really good source material for practice on this level. They focus everything down.

The first principle of the path is nonharming. Big topic.

The second principle of the path is truthfulness. Satya. This has a internal and external expressions. Internally, it is seeking and telling the truth within oneself. I think this is tremendously hard for most of us humans. We tend to block out or explain away critical feedback. Often we tell ourselves that facing our hardest truths will compromise our identities, that there are certain truths that just must stay hidden.

External truthfulness is maybe a little easier. One very simple definition is speaking and acting consistently.

I have found that an excellent way in to this ideal of satya is to get the words and the actions lined up.

Imagine having no daylight between what you say you will do, and what you do.

Words are cheap. But they do not have to be. It is possible to turn your words from dross into gold. To alchemize your word.

I botch my alchemy regularly. Learning from this is practice; berating myself for it is a drag. To the degree I do have my words and actions lined up on the level of action, others find me to be worthy of trust. Because there is a difference between having trust-worthy intentions, and being trust worthy. There are people who “mean well.” And then there are those who demonstrably have it together.

The primary trust relationship satya creates is with yourself. If you say you’re going to do something – not smoke the cigarette, finish the project on time, show up for practice – and you know yourself to have satya, then there’s not an option of waffling. You’d sooner choose to keep your code clean than do the eazy thing.

So, if there’s surface resistance to something that on a deeper level you want to do, be alchemized in your word. Say what you will do. So let it be done.


Satya is practical. It’s a yama you can use. It is a tool for organizing energy.


Here is how this works at the shala.

First, you know that I have an eye out for students with a baseline level of words/actions correspondence. Again, this is not a western-puritanical thing. It’s that from a leadership standpoint, I want to be maximally useful. And it’s inefficient to work with individuals who lack follow-through.

Second, on an collective level, I have to keep this ship sailing right. People whose intentions are chaotic do not contribute to an environment of clarity. It’s so easy when “See you tomorrow” means, unequivocally, see you tomorrow. “I will manage my account religiously” means AJ does not need to spend time wondering if you’re good for it. Intention is a precious resource, and one I am not inclined to waste.

This is a lean operation. We recycle vritti back into the practice instead of following it aimlessly all over town.

Third and most exciting, people who do what they say they will do tend to have strong minds. Yoga is hazardous in a weak mind. It can become an addictive high; it can become degradingly hierarchical; it can lead to magical thinking; it can get culty. Teachers who are worshipped can lose their ethics, because for lots of humans, power does corrupt. We can all get in to chronic spiritual bypassing, hiding real personalities behind love and light. For these reasons, and because a strong spirit is a beautiful thing, I have an eye open for the alchemized.

Fourth, we all come to value relationships around the practice. Without being precious or sticky about it, we experience this transformative respect and devotion that is the energy signature of this yoga. I feel clearly that each of us in our own way wants to protect that, nourish it. Even when we have difficulty matching intentions and actions elsewhere in daily life (I have wrestled with this powerfully at times), we take care not to debase the student-teacher relationship. None of us wants to be the kind of person who would ever deceive our teacher, or our student. So to degree we value relationships around practice, they’re an awesome container for learning alchemy.


More reasons to alchemize your word:

It opens your world. If your word is gold, people who are great and real in relationship sense that and arrive in your life. Excellent experiences that require a steady mind – these also show up. In this sense, SHOW UP is a noun. You offer it to the world, and eventually it is also given to you.

It blesses your world. Modern life can be distracted, flighty, indecisive. Vata-deranged. Just knowing a person who is solid gold – knowing they exist – sometimes this can give a person hope when they are feeling lost, or doubting the good of humanity.

Over time, alchemizing your word gives a lot of power. Every time you see yourself doing what you said you would do, you gather a little bit more energy to your being. This is a kind of siddhi, and probably all the caveats about ego going crazy on it apply. But, yoga does involve building up the energy stores within the system. Thought by thought, and action by action.

Alchemizing your word sets the stage for emotional transparency, a subtler form of satya. Pretending to feel things that we do not, or pushing down feelings, is a form of inner division. Many of us are taught to do this from very early in life. But having a long-term practice can set the stage for unusual levels of authenticity. Imagine not being divided into multiple people inside, but instead just being one whole person all of the time. This too is energy efficiency.

Alchemy turns words themselves into a resource. Language is a gift. Using it deliberately is a way of recognizing and giving energy to what we already have.

Here is where this idea of alchemy is headed: Study of yourself. Radical acceptance of what is. These are the last two of the ten principles in the honor code. Satya clarifies them and all the others.

You will start navigating this stuff faster than I did. I guess it’s right to say something on my slow learning. To my later (yet still forgivable) embarrassment, I practiced asana first thing in the morning daily for maybe four years before I  began to be able to look at my patterning with non-defensive curiosity. Although I had very strong concentration from early on, I lacked reflective space within consciousness to see my thoughts, words or actions as objects. For practical purposes, I had no direct idea what svadhyaya might be. Maybe in 20 years I’ll look back on myself now and say the same thing.

Perhaps my initial lack of working knowledge with self-study was partly due to lack of modeling. It took a while before I got to be around senior teachers. These were the people who showed me what it looked like to speak, and to take bold action, from a place of big awareness. They gave me a feeling for their own inner spaciousness, fallibility, curiosity, humor, courage and self-forgiveness. Practice, especially taking the constant risk of bold action in the world, had left these marks on them.

I am finding that living by principles gets more fascinating as the field of practice opens. There is a lot of freedom available within a peaceful, gentle relationship to structure. Gradually I’m becoming less afraid of who I am, and less likely to hide out in pre-scripted identities or rules. The alchemy thing is getting easier, which makes me gradually more dependable in character, and more efficient in energy.

On the best days, my actions are centered around study of, playfulness within, and care for, consciousness. Clarity, happiness, service. For me personally, this happens when I am stabilized in truthfulness of word and deed.

Home Retreat

Taking home retreat is a very good thing. It’s also pretty radical. I do a lot of 4-6 hour home retreats, and see this practice as the foundation of my equanimity in the teaching practice.

If this is your first home retreat, start with a half day. If that goes well, you might get in to a routine of doing this annually or quarterly. If you practice Ayurvedic cleansing, you might take a structured half-day retreat with each purgation. After a few short retreats, it would not be unusual to take a full day retreat. If, later, you want to design a multi-day solo retreat, I can help. As of this writing, I have taken 9 highly structured retreats of 6-12 days’ duration.

It’s important to start small because this is a learning process. It does not work very well to re-condition consciousness in a dramatic or abrupt way. Think homeopathy. You want to be able to move in to, and out of, the experience with grace. If your retreat design is “hard core,” or abrupt, then the day after you may feel disoriented. But we’re going for long-term nurturance of our inherent clarity, concentration and equanimity. I think of this as giving mother nature a little extra push in the process of evolving through the medium of our minds.

I’ll distinguish two kinds of home retreat.

First is a “Zen” approach that balances periods of contemplation with sensory nourishment and creativity. The most obvious effect of this program is mental, emotional and digital detoxification. Think of it as de-fragmenting your hard drive. It’s cleansing. Do this style self-retreat first.

Second is a “Pratyhara” style retreat that places more emphasis on silence, stillness and determination. In this approach, we minimize sensory stimulation, and gently increase the duration of the sits to the degree concentration can be maintained. Think of this as pushing back the veil of unconsciousness just a little further than ever before, so that new parts of previously unconscious experience become available to the conscious mind. If you sit a little bit every day after your Ashtanga practice, eventually you may need this kind of retreat in order to open up new territory and dive a little deeper. This kind of retreat benefits from psychic support, and from having a buddy to compassionately tell you if you lose your grounding in ensuing days. Let me and any accountability partners know what’s up.


– Start by planning everything well in advance. When the mind knows that it has retreat coming days or weeks in advance, it takes subtle (possibly subconscious) measures to settle and open up for it.

– Choose your date. Block off 4 hours, starting 1-2 hours after a meal. (You could also start at 4-6 am and conclude your retreat with breakfast; this is a great way to go if it works with your sleep requirements.)

– Ensure there will be no large to-do items on your agenda the entire day. A big to-do list waiting for you can create psychic tension.

 – Ask for the support of family and friends. They probably won’t do anything, unless you live with them and they truly get on board with helping you create silence and stillness for those 4 key hours. In any case, for most of us, it helps the mind concentrate when we feel specially supported in an endeavor of any kind. This also clarifies that contemplative practice isn’t purely selfish if contextualized in the right way. One of the most important uses of contemplative practice is that it makes us both less selfish, and more self-aware, in relationships.

- If you live with people or talkative, super cuddly, pets, explain to them about Noble Silence. Ask them to honor your silence both during your retreat and in the hour or two after – especially during your meal.

In this planning period, do anything else you can to pre-emptively simplify your environment on retreat day. Plan to turn off your wifi at the source if at all possible. Eliminate any scents you can from your retreat space and clean it thoroughly. Shop for simple, sattvic foods.

– Choose your space. Less is more in this regard. One room or even corner of a room will probably be sufficient for a 4-hour retreat. Keeping the space small will focus your energy. For a Zen retreat, I suggest including outdoors space for walking – even if it’s very cold or hot outside, or if there is precipitation.

If it’s a Zen retreat, choose a creative activity. Something that allows for chaos, like drawing, writing or dancing.

– Remind yourself of an idea that inspires you. Look to the foundational content of the Dharana course, or bring in some contemplative writings or imagery that connect you to your most idealistic reasons for practicing.

– In the days before retreat, eat simple and light to the degree possible. A day or two of kitchari would not be a bad idea, and kitchari the day of your retreat is also great.

At least 24 hours before you start retreat, finalize your exact schedule. The schedule should begin with a dedication of your intention, using the inspirational content you’ve already gathered. The point of this is to clarify intention and purpose.

For a Zen style retreat, follow the setting of the intention with 30-60 minute sit, with extra care to the element of concentration. Open the sit with your hatha yoga practices, then stay on your technique. For the remaining four hours, schedule alternating periods of formal sitting practice (including 5-15 minutes of hatha yoga techniques per sit, as appropriate), walking, and creative practice. Sitting periods are 30, 45 or 60 minutes long. Walking periods are 15-30 minutes long and should be outside unless you would be very disturbed by your city’s chaos. (When you’re walking, do not ruminate. Pay attention to your sensory experience only. If you’re believing instead of witnessing your thoughts, remember, it’s not practice.) Add one creative period of 30 minutes, to take place directly after sitting. The last thing you do will be a 30-60 minute sit.

[For a Pratyhara style retreat, do the same as above but take extra steps to ensure relative silence and simplicity in your environment. Eliminate the creative period and the outdoor walking period. As desired, add some 15-minute periods of gentle yoga asana between your sits. Include one sit of at least 90 minutes, increasing to 2, 3 and finally a full 4 hours. Be very careful with the physical body as you increase the duration of your sits. Elevate your cushion higher than usual if needed and give yourself permission to make occasional, non-reactive shifts in the posture.]

– The morning of your retreat, clean your space again and put your kitchari to soak if that will be the meal with which you conclude the retreat.

– DO NOT ALTER THE SCHEDULE. It’s there to support you so that you don’t have to expend most of your energy debating over what to do next. It’s the schedule that you yourself chose. One of the most important things on your first few retreats is learning to rest within the schedule.

During your retreat, it’s fine to drink decaf tea or water between sits. But be careful, because you won’t interrupt a sit to pee; wait for your bell each time. When your final bell rings at the end of the day, there’s a moment take time to notice the effects of the practice and to remind yourself briefly why you did this. Finally, go prepare your meal. Your senses will be sharp and your movements clear and equanimous. Sit down and eat in silence, noticing the sensory experience of eating. [For a Pratyhara style retreat, don’t restrict awareness to sensory experience, but also use the witnessing awareness to gather new information on previously unconscious mental and patterning present when you eat.]

– Use the meal to digest the experience of the retreat. Savor the whole and welcome it into your tissues, into your being.

Finally, here is a concluding mental vinyasa for strengthening resolve. Think of who (or what) besides your small self benefits from your taking practice, and consider offering the new benefits of the day’s practice to that entity or ideal. (This is sometimes called “dedicating the merit” of one’s practice, and it’s done to prevent the buildup of the idea that one is some sort of spiritual superhero.) Think of a resource, being or coincidence that inspires gratitude. Then, as a result of that thought, possibly experience gratitude. 😉 Finally, again notice the effects of the practice on a physical, emotional, energetic, mental and psychic level. Is it working? Decide now if you want to do this again some time in the future.

Then go do the dishes.

In a little while, find an awesome way to break your silence. With some gravitas, and with some grace.




You taught yourself to wake up for yoga. And how to wake up for yoga again. Maybe the nervous system needed a month or so to repattern. And maybe, by now, your body has forgotten what it felt like when that was really hard.

Now that you can be wired in the morning, is it just as easy to be tired at night? In a culture where rest is something we pay to experience in artificial (spa) or far-flung (vacation) environments, the winding down skills aren’t so obvious. So it may take more clarity and subtlety to learn deep relaxation than it took to learn to wake up for yoga. If you choose to accept this mission, it might take an explicit commitment, and deliberate placement of the attention, over and over again.

One Ayurvedic definition of health is ability to maintain a balanced environment both within and around the body. I use this as a lens for examining my actual behaviors. Looking at the matter clinically, am I balanced in my inner being and in my actions? To clarify that question, my physicians have offered 15 points of daily self-assessment. The first pair is waking up easily/going to sleep easily.

Waking up, check. Around here, we like intensity, sharp focus, and fire. Life on the razor’s edge is sweet and clear. But if you only practice getting up strong, and do not practice going to bed soft, then imbalances can form in the nervous system over the long term. Some of the first indicators of lack of deep rest may be: fuzzy mind, emotional unavailability or reactivity, and susceptibility to illness. In this light, deep rest enables creativity, meaningful relationships, and vibrancy.

Conscious relaxation shows in a person’s bodily tissues, in the personality, and in how she relates with time and with the earth. It is the foundation of Jedi mind training. Here are some practical ways in.

First, a note for those of you with young kids. You may be tired often; maybe for years. I have not been through this, but I sense what you’re going through. Possibly this article can inspire you to take deep rest if and when you can, and to cradle yourselves sometimes with the same comforts you give to the little ones. Also, in case it helps, here’s one very strange piece of information. Some of the most intense spiritual warriors across the world, and across generations, have pursued insight in part with a long term schedule that deprives them of sleep. I do not understand this, but Shinzen Young lectures often on the ways that sleep deprivation can enable a person to let go of her in-born clinging to the small self. (On retreat, I have gone without sleep and experienced subtle pain, astonishing clarity and a kind of self-transcendence as a result.) I have no clue if lack of sleep plays some role in the self-transcendence you sometimes describe when raising children. In any case, if accepting some tiredness is part of your parenting, then it’s the path. And… when you can…. deep rest is a good idea.


  1. Decide to care. Sleep hygiene is a thing.
  1. Screens off two hours before your intended sleep time.

Deal breaker? I disagree. That might be a push notification dopamine addiction talking. Or a tendency to simulate productivity by keeping up with the feeds. The highly stimulated and rapid activity associated with screen life is itself usually not conscious or relaxed, but there’s a simpler problem here.

Screens flicker. The blips land on the permeable, glassy surfaces to each side of the nose and from there fall right in the center of the brain. We don’t fully know what mysteries go down in the command-and-serenity center around the third ventricle, but it’s probably safe to say your pineal gland abhors screens. It’s not fair to expect a melatonin brain-marinade on demand as soon as you close your laptop. Even if you can get away with pushing your screen right up until bed time, it’ll probably result in relatively tense sleep.

Personally, I read at night. Because I teach, I feel it’s important to read from the wisdom traditions daily. Either that or sci-fi novels. Whatever content I take in the last two hours before sleep invariably shapes the content of my dreams.

  1. Build a practice of directing the mind as you fall asleep.

Here’s what I do. I lie down either in bed with the head on a Therapeudica pillow (recommended), or on the wood floor in our yoga room. I briefly review my day, think and feel how grateful I am for several specific aspects of my life, and see myself waking up refreshed and on fire to practice very early the next morning. I give thanks for the space to extend my whole body to rest. I notice the quiet, the fact that there is no violence or conflict around me – only peace. This is really humbling. It is rare as a human to enjoy this safety, ample space, peace, and quiet. Then I take note of the feeling of my head on the floor or on the pillow, and I relax my face. This takes time, and is so pleasant that it holds my attention. Then I relax the head, and then a set series of locations around the physical body, and so on until I transition in to sleep.

Developing this practice took discipline at first. In the book Yoga Nidra, Satyananda wrote: Most people do not know how to sleep. They fall asleep while thinking over some problem or while prey to some anxiety. In sleep their mind runs on and their body is tense. I hear from a lot of people that they have a stock of fantasies or anxiety scenarios they go to before sleep. Before building a more conscious way to go to sleep, notice the default patterns and ask if they truly express the person you want to be. Because again, the last things you do with your mind before sleep strongly impact the quality of your rest.

  1. Insomnia? If you’re stuck awake, that’s not a problem. No kidding. If you can consciously relax, while awake, you will still be fine the next day. This is common on meditation retreat, where there is some pull in consciousness away from sleep. Conscious relaxation is sufficient, but to stay with it for hours requires dedication.

Yoga tricks for insomnia: inhale gently through the mouth, exhale through the nose. This slows down the exhalation, privileging its calming effects on the nervous system. Or roll to the right side and rest the head on the right bicep until the left nostril clears. It’s not just that you’re stuffed up – there is erectile tissue in the nose that usually keeps one nostril relatively less clear. For restful states, it’s best to have the left nostril more open and the right nostril less open.

  1. Self quantification is a slippery slope. This is not a vote for bringing a fit bit to Mysore practice, but using a sleep app for a little while might generate some useful self-knowledge. I like Sleep Cycle.
  1. Floor sleeping. Weird but great. If you’re a pro at conscious relaxation at the shala, but cannot find the same depth of rest in bed, reconstruct savasana. I got in to the habit of sleeping on the cool marble floors in India. It’s a strange habit, and one your family may not appreciate for the long term, but I’m telling you about it because a long-term student shared that he does it too and finds it beneficial for his lumbar spine.
  1. Yoga Nidra. I first listened to a Yoga Nidra cassette about 10 years ago. This brilliant practice has changed my consciousness and my life. Yoga Nidra is not sleep – it’s deliberate re-patterning and gentle self-hypnosis. Over time, what I have learned in Yoga Nidra has shaped the personal practice I gestured to above for taking myself over the threshold from the waking to the sleeping state.
  1. But I’m a night owl. I have to stay up late for my creativity. (Insert image of Angela not buying it.) Yes, maybe you do have trouble switching off at night. Because of screens.

Here’s how a lot of people around here have finished the book, prepared for the trial, taken 5 finals in three days, and so on. They place a tourniquet around the creative mind. When they get up, they learn to float in the space of don’t-know-mind, in the space of felt sense, in the long-term marriage with their breath. When they are finished, they make their tea, sit down, and un-kink the hose. Against that slight restriction, so much discursive, creative, useful content has accumulated. Morning productivity is sharp, and it’s consistent.

You don’t have to be a victim of the muse. Dance with her and give her down time she can depend on. Put routines in place, and do your creative practice every day. Year in, year out. Life-long creativity is a practice.

  1. Food. I don’t have much to say on food, because I think your practice can sort this out over time if you really listen.

But… eating late really messes people up. I have a feeling that much of the dis-ease in western culture comes from our lack of relaxation skills and resulting tendency to rely either on (a) total exhaustion or (b) late, carb-heavy meals in order to get to sleep.

Eating late (especially carb-heavy meals) strongly affects sleep. (It also makes it hard to wake up refreshed.) If you get in the habit of eating large breakfasts and lunches with light activity after each meal, then it’s possible to learn to enjoy the feeling of going to bed with the stomach fairly empty. Your digestive system will thank you.

  1. Some of us have the option to ride the hormonal cycle.

Mother nature serves cocktails once a month. If yours fatigues you for a day or two, is that a problem? What if rest days were your feminine entitlement? Some cultures see it that way – it’s just us westerners that believe we have to hide or fight the cycle. (I have come to see our western, capitalist approach to menstruation as not very feminist.)

Some people tell me you want to practice right at the start of your cycle – even though you’re tired – because there’s sudden relief as your energy moves downward. The body opens again. Ok. But where is that openness? Is it in the connective tissues around joints, perhaps due to sudden hormonal shifts? If this were the case in your body, the very start of the menstrual cycle would be the most important time to back off the bending.

On the other hand, if you give your system serious rest when it asks for rest time, it can give you serious activity when it’s action time. It might be useful in this regard to check out what western science says about the effects of a consistent hormonal cycle for metabolism, bone density and emotional stability. There are esoteric reasons we put so much attention into the 28-day moon cycle around here.

  1. Cultivate positive triggers. Babies often learn to understand bath time as the cue to switch over into rest mode. For me it is shutting off email and settling in to my reading chair. Find a whole-body experience you can give yourself every night as an initiation into down time. Brush your teeth, and then brush your brain. It’s not time for sleep per se; it’s just the time to turn in that direction and let the different functions of the body gently power down. So that when sleep comes, it can be truly restful.


Jungle Doctors

Greetings from the ayurveda ashram in Tamil Nadu.

It’s a jungle out there, as expected, but I haven’t seen it. What is visible is the rise of a massive half-dome formation in the haze – a rock-mountain of captivating severity – and the outbuildings of the Happy Valley Business School beyond the ashram’s gardens.

Feline update: you may know I spent the week before departure making mental contact with the leopards Makarand says live around here, in hopes of encountering one directly. As if a little remote mind-melding could summon my muse. Well, the biggest cat I’ve seen has been a yowling, prowling mama cat so skinny she makes Mysore Carlos look like my fluffy housecats. (Carlos is the street cat who I thought I’d merely over-fed when he grew fat in 2012, but then she birthed two kittens in my suitcase three days before I was set to leave India. Long story short, Carlos turned into that season’s Slumcat Millionaire/ internet ashtanga celebrity and, despite my landlord’s view of kittens as rats with especially large scat, the babies lived happily ever after.) Now, as usual, there is a pair of kittens about, easy to find at play in the hibiscus bushes. If mama were more of a leopard, maybe she would figure that out. But instead she wanders the gardens hour by hour, calling for her babies. She, and the jungle doctors’ mantras, are always in the background.

I am here for understanding, not for a health complaint. Krishnamacharya was an expert in ayurveda, and in almost all the Asian embodied or “martial” arts it is folk medicine and healing practice that is the wellspring of the strong bodily disciplines. No matter my intention: this learning is not academic. It takes place through experience. There is a full course of treatment, and a pair of doctors come find me twice daily for a chat. They are present without complication — unrushed, undivided —and want to chat about everything from my bowel movements (always an interesting topic here), to gemology, to my dreams. The meta-theme throughout is how do we cultivate sattva? – a kind of luminosity, insight, aand deep balance and creativity of personality that affects the world for good.

The place is laid out according to Vastu (Vedic Feng Shui – the library has Swoboda’s book on the topic if you’re interested). Straight lines in cardinal directions, careful attention to the expression of the natural elements and the intra-relatedness of differently purposed spaces – cooking space, relational space, sleeping space, and so on. The buildings are terra cotta blocks pressed from local mud; and an overflowing of plants and the most beautifully directed light brings life to the structures. I stay within these walls mostly, internal and quiet, discovering what my mindbody does when it has minimal stimulation and zero stress. Doctors’ instructions. Keep calm. Do not go running about.

But one day, the abhyanga and elakkazhi treatments were a tiny bit rushed. The two therapists, who feel bad for me that I don’t speak at least Hindi, communicated that they had to get to a wedding. Over the course of the treatment, while the therapists thought about weddings, my blood pressure increased, as did the vata in my pulse. (These touch-based indicators of health are monitored many times each day.) So there was more agitation in my system after treatment than before. What an important, embodied teaching for me: the kind of awareness one keeps when holding space for others could have direct and objective effects on them. Anyway, this time I was still grateful to have been rhythmically oiled and lightly pounded with steaming herb poultices, and the vata and BP came back down to barely there by watching the kittens in the hibiscus.

Tuesday was the climax of the treatment.

The experience created a ripple in my extremely reverential and receptive frame of mind where ayurveda is concerned, and with that ripple an opening to share with you about my time here in a relatable way. Before I go there, I want to say what you’ve heard from me so often regarding the yoga. The revolution can not be televised. And post-game recaps are a bit suspect. To the degree that a person can refrain from projection – from seeking outside the experience for some kind of reference point or conceptual grounding, from performing the practices for effect or reducing them to punch lines, or from generating internal experience through reactions to an imagined other – to that degree only, pratyhara is happening. Pratyhara is the fifth limb, and the last one that can be deliberately practiced. The others can be caught but not taught, as they say. With withdrawal of projections through pratyhara, and a setting aside of the mental concepts to which we are kind of addicted, then only can the methods take us into the mystery. Into that which we previously did not know – be that our tissues, deep emotional realms, energetic patterns, a self beneath all of the habits, or (if you suppose something like this exists) a realm of spirit.

So, later I’ll forget I ever passed through this jaunty state of mind and will reply to requests for more information about my experience by saying something like, well it was kind of deep and I don’t know what to say about it._But for today, for your amusement I’ll say a bit about the formal treatment of panchakarma. Read at your own risk. Really. If imagining me in a bathroom moment is too much for you, you have to stop right here.

Tuesday morning one of the jungle doctors came to my room at six, a concerning two hours before his shift should start, and a lucky one minute after I finished ashtanga practice on the bare slate floor. (Learning to practice for real without a mat – and without pants for that matter – has been one of the several benefits of Air France having sent my suitcase to Mumbai rather than Mysore; one might say that lost luggage is just part of the vinyasa when flying on a new moon. The same person might also say you study the planets to become aware and eventually free of their influences, not to fear them.)

“You have to come with me now. I have special medicines for you today.” These Doctors have the bedside manner of Ram Dass – equanimous in the extreme, but radiating adoration as if you were their own child – so the severity in his face sent my heart pounding. Hello, fear in the body. Not a mind-modification I get to work with often at all. It was interesting to witness the limits of my ability to keep my physiology in check in the ayurvedic face of doom. Clearly more practice is needed.

He takes me in a back room, sits me down on a chair in front of an altar, and gestures to a mug waiting next to a burning ghee lamp. “Today you take purgation. Virechana.” Then we chant together and he hands me the mug.

I am braced for castor oil, which is the customary purgative for seasonal cleansing. Though I promise that castor oil is the unguent of the gods, by mouth it can be a bit disgusting. Taking it back home goes like this: fill two shot glasses, chant to Vakratunda (which, when you learn what that means, might strike you as adorable), paste a phony smile on the face and toss the the shots back, immediately to be chased by orange juice. Mmmmmm. You can do that with us come April, no problem. But by contrast, Tuesday’s purgative was delicious– more or less a warm cup of chili powder and dirt, maybe a touch of jaggery.

After the first sip, my thoughts went to you all, and how we really must replace the castor oil with this stuff for the next cleanse. I tell the Doctor how much I like this purgative, and the stern look returns. “This is… more deep… than what you are used to. It is a lot.”

Two hours later, when I’d had only nine gentle “movements,” he frowns. “You have miles and miles to go.” Impatience arises.

Next thing I’m in the bathroom, getting on with it, when roiling pain fills my abdomen and cold sweat starts to seep from my thighs and pour from my head. I simultaneously throw up and begin to black out, filling with gratitude that Indian bathrooms are covered floor to ceiling in tile (no cloth or paper anywhere). Blackness roaring in my head and a bright piercing in my belly, I intend to fall backwards. This all happens in super-slow-mo, leaving opportunity to savor the full palate of the pain and remember this is practice for meeting future pain. Which is inevitable. Future suffering can be avoided (that’s in the second pada, worth memorizing; if I remember correctly, Iyengar’s translation – which is in our library – is “future grief can and should be avoided.”). Specifically, one way to avoid future suffering is through studying empirical pain. Because the suffering is what can be avoided, not the pain.

Last thing before I lost consciousness and tipped over, I hallucinated an American rishi who may be related to Vakratunda. There’s a scene in Back to the Future where Doc Brown looks Marty McFly full in the face, just before McFly’s first ride in the flux-capacitated Delorian. He forebodes, “Where we’re going, we don’t need… (flips down sunglasses) roads.” And in the second before consciousness checked out I was McFly, staring at Doc agog as he said, “Where we’re going, we don’t need… toilet paper.”

Saturday I’m off to Mysore, possibly to be reunited with my pants. And toothpaste. Chewing neem twigs has its limits. However, the jungle doctors’ fulminations against chemical shampoo have done their work. If, as they promise, a little green gram powder can sort of get two weeks’ of daily oil treatments out of this hair, I’ll toss out the Kiehl’s and go natural that way too.

Truth and Method. AY:A2 Summer Retreat.

Stone Arch, Summer 2012

Stone Arch, Summer 2012


What is honest practice?

What is the relationship of strong method and insight that goes beyond technique? Is it even possible to stay devoted to a practice for many years without a break?

These questions have been floating around. We will take the mental conditions they create (like curiosity, and doubt, and faith) and let them dissolve in raw experience, just by hanging out together. This retreat doesn’t offer answers, but strong inspiration for practice is a very good bet.


July 6, 2014. 10-4. (Mysore practice from 8-9:30.)

May 30-July 5. Many ashtangis will come to Ann Arbor for the whole Fourth of July weekend or longer, so a series of spontaneous gatherings the first week of July is likely. A potluck on Friday evening, the Fourth, is likely. Let me know you’re around and I will put you on the mailing list for the whole week.


Open now to all regular Mysore practitioners at AY:A2. And to home practitioners around the country who work with me.

Retreat opens May 15 to anyone with a daily practice in the yoga tradition: drop a line now for the wait list.


July 6. (1) Regular morning Mysore practice (for AY:A2 members, and others by permission), (2) Break for drinks (Ashtangis take over the Drowsy Parrot), (3) Technique class on deep alignment – that of awareness, intention, body and energy (4) simple breathwork, guided pratyhara on working with the in-drawn senses, maybe a little chanting (5) Lunch (6) Party favors as usual.

First week of July: drop-in Mysore practice for daily practitioners who are visiting. Daily meditation group for those with an established sitting practice. Random technique discussions with AJ if the need arises. Farmers markets. Walks in the Arboretum. River kayaking. Picnics. Sparklers. Spontaneous hanging out. Whatever community you want to create with others on the same path of daily practice.


July 6 is at Stone Arch, a decommissioned church in downtown Saline. (Pictured above.) Carpool available.

If you need accommodation for multiple nights in Ann Arbor, let AJ know, or check Craigslist. Many university students and professors leave town for the summer, so accommodation close to downtown is easy to find.

       TO PREPARE.

(1) Register by email, and pay now to confirm.

(2) Practice your head off. If there is ever a day you don’t “want” to practice, that’s an opportunity to burn off an old habit. Take it. If you run in to trouble, use the anticipation of this retreat as motivation.

(3) Do not actually read the book Truth and Method. If you want to read something, go for the 2013 edition of The Yoga Makaranda, by TKV Krishnamacharya; Chip Hartranft’s translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Steven Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Solid gold yoga texts.


Sliding scale for July 6: (1) Full-time academic students or those in financial need: 65. (Talk with AJ if you have financial concerns.) (2) Middle class people: 115. (3) Support a diverse student body: 145.

Regular Mysore practice is $20 for the day or $100 for the week. Talk with AJ if you have an unbroken daily practice and are in financial need.


What is honest practice? Does my mind have to be 100% concentrated? Do my intentions have to be 100% pure? Do I have to practice with no attachment to results?


Faith helps, but sometimes it goes away. Consciousness awareness really helps, but sometimes consciousness gets weird. We can still practice.

This retreat is named for Hans-Georg Gadamer’s 1960 opus, Truth and Method. Those of you who have read it will have experienced the same re-recognition that rocked through me in considering the question of honest practice: Truth is a feature of conscious experience. That’s it. It is not outside of us. Moreover, our practice is given life  (and given the possibility for integrity) through really engaging with our life’s context – with our history, community, and body-mind activity.

And practice is given life by the way we talk when we talk about yoga. It has to be done some times, but it is a good idea to be careful with language, both the words in our heads and the ones that are spoken. Words create a lot of reality – sometimes too much.

But when the ashtanga practice really catches fire in us, that happens in the belly. Below the threshold of language. There is an honesty in this. A truth.

Pattabhi Jois was a textual scholar who often taught with tiny scraps of language. You take practice. You do. Small words. Modest ideas. More than modest transformation. With SKPJ’s way of being at the forefront, all AY:A2 can really offer is a chance to come together to breathe and laugh and sigh as a group. Questions that have been lurking will get some space to breathe as well.

We’ll get a chance to be around many people whose gritty, gentle sadhana isn’t a belief system, or something to prove. It is just a condition of their unfolding being. I don’t know of something more honest than the way a devoted practitioner moves through her life. Chances are you already embody more of that honesty than you think.

Retreat space is limited.

The Unknown

The Pilgrimage by Olivia Fraser

The Pilgrimage by Olivia Fraser

When you do your pilgrimage it’s not easy. Nothing will disturb you. Your aim is to see God. If it becomes easy it is not a pilgrimage. -Sharath Jois, January 2014


There are structures of experience so deep that it’s sort of wrong to talk about them. Wrong or ridiculous. Taboo either way.

Let’s see if I can find a light touch for this.

So in the fall, there was this question around the shala, of why I won’t help people plan their first trips to Mysore. Why I won’t help you game the system at the big shala here, so that you don’t have to go through the same awkward learning process as everyone else. Why Mysore is not a place for us to hang out.

Or – more to the point – why I don’t say much or try to fix things when a person has big questions about Janu B or Marichy C, or kapotasana, or kurmasana or urdhva dhanurasana – any one of the postures that’s bringing up emotion or confusion. Bringing up pain patterns that may be energetic or emotional in nature.

I just don’t want to get in your way.

Ok, now and then I can toss out practical information so you don’t waste time or do something dangerous. Ahimsa, always. But if I get in the way of your going through awkward or scary learning processes, you might not realize how smart and strong you are. If I hold your hand every time you come up against the unknown, then you’ll never realize how skillful you can be when the chips are down.

Besides the matter of your own growth, there’s the matter of the collective. If the majority of you don’t become Jedis who can play and create at the edge of what is not known, how is our method –how is consciousness—going to evolve?

Here’s the thing. There is a structure of transformation semi-hidden below the threshold of awareness. This is myth – not in the sense of fantasy stories, but in the sense of structures in consciousness that our nervous systems recognize and use for inner journeys. One of these structures is what’s sometimes called (we probably need a better term) the hero’s journey.

Kung Fu movies, D&D, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Eminem, Murakami, Obama, the Dalai Lama… straight up hero’s journey mythos, all of it. If you think I’m talking Joseph Cambell, well you’re sort of right. But consciousness is changing, and fast. There have been 3 more waves of humanity, plus a raft of new role playing games and Hollywood-Bollywood epics, since Campbell put clothes on the ghost.

Here are some pieces of this vinyasa that I think have been common for figures from Arjuna to Catness Everdine. If you want your nervous system, your unconscious, your edge, to be summoned, then it might be a good idea let something like this structure of experience envelop you. You don’t need to force it. Conscioness is already patterned like this; it knows how to unfold.

There is usually a call of some sort. A tug. And usually we start by saying no. But there are guides who champion us, and who make stagnation begin to feel unbearable. If we accept the call to self discovery, there is a crossing of the threshold into the unknown. In that realm there are helpers who represent grace, and nemeses who represent our own inner BS. Dark nights are weathered and dragons are slain – therein the ego has been drawn out of the shadows, directly confronted, and a little bit of mastery has graced us as a result. Eventually there is a denoument, when we ache for the people and places that represent home. So we return to “normal” life. Which, we finally see, has all the same treasures as the adventure realm. Normality becomes illuminated with sparks of the unknown, everywhere. Reality is enchanted. And our work becomes, always, offering whatever it was we found in the unknown realm as a gift to our communities. Making what has been given to us available to those who ask. And waiting for the next call.

The main thing in this is that it is beneficial, at key times, to step in to the unknown. Actions that scare us even though they’re not actually harmful, or anything representing danger to the ego – these things are FULL of potential or blocked energy. They are your vehicle forward, on key occasions, when the timing is right.

Some of us tough cases have to go all the way to far-off lands to shore up the myth. That was the story of my 20s, whereas my last three years have been an epic of getting grounded in the most mundane possible circumstance, so that its normalcy will be eroded and enchanted by the natural/supernatural appearance of a yoga shala. Smarter people can find it in the grit of a daily morning yoga practice (I see you: you can do it), in quitting smoking, or in a commitment to make every movement from the intelligence of the heart. You all all found it last week in the Polar Vortex, practicing in conditions in some ways more revealing and deepening than those I encountered the same week here in Mysore.

But about India. I’m going to make a bold statement about ashtangis who tell you to stay away, the same way they told me to stay away for many years. Westerners who have been here and back and lived to resent it may, just perhaps, have a special hatred for losing control. I could be wrong here. But for those of us with a perfectionist streak (which I sincerely admire, because I know intimately how sloppy and lazy one can be when born without it), Ashtanga can feel like a program for getting the minutae of life under control. Even if you know, on some level, that you have to die.

But then the person in control comes to India and the expectations game goes to crap. Society won’t cooperate. Objects won’t cooperate. Your body won’t cooperate. So you have to work with your immediate intelligence. You have to trust your gut, and trust other people. You have to let go of your way of doing things. If that’s your dragon, then India is a great place to find her. And with her, your entitlement, your hard-heartedness, the dark and light sides of your survival drives, your relaxed stability, and possibly your love. And maybe you also find something else… a particular energy that comes out of this particular vortex and seeps into you and becomes the gift you take with you when you go. That energy comes in and really makes its mark if you intend to pick up on it and let it change you on a cellular level. Spending all energy collecting other keep-sakes (stuff, asana porn-shots, or even experiences) can distract from this.

For me, India has been a different sort of journey – one of an observing/exploring introvert learning to be in community and in deep friendships. And one of a hard-headed academic + rebellious preacher’s kid surrendering to a lineage, and to her love for a teacher and a community. The study-trips here have called me out in different ways, time and again.

In any case, India is spiritually intelligent in the extreme– intelligent in a way westerners don’t even believe exists. The understanding of individual and collective and (yes) cosmic consciousness that this society has developed reveals in contrast the special backwardness of the western mind. India is also violent in the extreme. The obvious, somehow normalized mass suffering and inequality here could shake you to the core, break you, show you just what are the limits of your compassion and then push those limits a mile or three. But here is the thing. Unlike almost all other beings in India, if you are my student and you visit, you will have a hidden support system. You will never, unlike many other beings here, have to sleep in a gutter. You will never be sick without access to care and love and the best of western and eastern medicine. Somebody has got your back.

But forget about that. If this particular strange trip is one you’re called to, you’ll get the best mileage if you take the big steps alone.

How to practice by yourself.

Basement practice. Montana. March 2012.

This post is a response to questions from AY:A2 practitioners who are leaving Ann Arbor for the holidays in 2013. Anyone else is welcome to make use of it, with the caveat that the content is inspired by students I work with directly in this particular place and time.

1. Boundaries help.

Create a tight container. In the words of Iyengar teacher Paul Cabanis, the mind loves to be bound. Give yourself 90% of the time you think you need, and 90% of the space you think you need. Use these constraints to press your energy into a more concentrated stream.

Now, do not faff around. You don’t have the time and you don’t have the space. If you’re noticing the dry skin on your toes, you still have too much time and too much space. Also, do abhyanga later.

Ask companions or family to respect the bounded time-space of your practice. More on this below.

 2. Create ritual.

Part of my work is structuring experience so that participants will enter into acute yet spacious states of consciousness, and so that experiences will take on clear meaning that registers deeply with the nervous system.

Most teachers like to keep this a secret, but there are certain vinyasas – ways of putting things together – that help generate transformational space-time. Here’s a good one for self practice, taken from the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism and articulated recently by a wonderful writer, my friend Susan Piver. The effect of this particular vinyasa is to create a ritual or sacred space-time around a certain activity.

        (A) Make offerings.     (B) Ask for blessings.     (C)  Dedicate the merit.

For (A), I suggest just offering your self. Your mental state, your body, your resistance, your striving, your excitement, your badassery, your whatever. Offer this self – give it away as fuel for your practice fire – in the ritual space of the mat.

Then (B) say the opening mantra. This is a thanks and a request for support from the whole lineage of teachers’ teachers’ teachers. You name-check Patanjali and tip your hat to your whole community of practice. Let them all bless you.

Finally (C), say the closing mantra. It concludes with the statement may all beings in all worlds be blessed followed by a benediction for peace within you, in your environment, and in the forces that act on you. So, the effects of the practice are not for the small ego-self. Dedicate the ease in your body, the relaxed mental state, the openness of the heart, the balance in the breath… to any one or any thing that is not the acquisitive self. Give it to your immediate companions this day, or maybe to the strangers or animals around you everywhere, or—if you are a real Jedi knight—give it to the assholes in your life. (One might want to take advantage of the assholes now, because they may soon neutralize or disappear.)

3. Start early.

Start your practice before you start your practice. When do you need to start? The night before? How about right now, two weeks in advance? See those practices. Feel them. Be thankful for them now, already.

Future suffering can be eliminated. Future wellbeing can be cultivated. Karma is just the law of cause and effect. Thoughts are causal forces.

If you haven’t tried morning practice after little to no dinner the night before, self-practice may be the time. For 2 in 3 practitioners, scaling back on dinner will make you sleep better and wake up more energized with much stronger bandhas. (For some, however, you will find that a substantial dinner is exactly what you need for strong practice the next morning. Depends on your constitution.)

As for putting practice off until after breakfast, or after errands, or after a nice talk with family, no. I do not suggest giving yourself this out. Instead, get up a little early, brush your teeth, and then brush your brain. Do not make practice the main event of the day. The mind will be even weirder if you wait until afternoon, especially during holidays. This is a morning practice.

4. Gear.

Build a mat stash. This holiday, take the cheap-o mat you used the first month of practice (before you invested in a long term mat) and leave it in the attic at your family’s house. Next year, it’ll be waiting for you.

Otherwise, get a little manduka travel mat. If you’re flying, you can fold it in a square and put it at the bottom of your carry-on. Or count your mat-bag as your personal item.

Take some tealights and maybe a couple of other ritual objects. (Personally, I like rocks.) Once the candle flame is lit, it represents your awareness. Guard your awareness.

5. Breathe.

Initiate movement with breath. That’s it. Do not allow your limbs to move unless the breath is there a microsecond beforehand. This technique is huge. If it’s the ONLY thing on this list you do, you’ll be fine.

The one concern I have about you practicing alone is that you’ll teach yourself to breathe incorrectly (including the potential loss of bandha). Students breathing wrong in self-practice is one of the four things I worry about in this life. (The others are fracking, factory farms, and Coca-Cola). So please have compassion. Don’t join the ranks of fracking and Coke. Breathe correctly.

6. Relationships.

Let your companions know you’re teaching yourself to do something that is very important to you. Most likely they’ll support this in a way you can feel on the mat. Not only will companions respect your boundaries – they’ll give energy to your practice simply through their love and respect of what you’re doing. The energy from loving relationships is VERY real and it shows up strongly on the mat.

One way to garner the respect and support of loved ones is to be low maintenance. DO NOT MAKE YOUR PRACTICE THE MAIN EVENT OF THE DAY. Get it done, and don’t ruminate or talk about it. People care about the effects of our practice, not our thoughts about it.

When I left academia, I feared that my romantic partner since 1998 (who is now a Sociology professor) would find me boring if I lost touch with the cutting edge of intellectual life. But he told me that my relationship with the yoga displayed far more integrity than my relationship with my research (as an academic, I got hung up in cleverness and in sophomoric applications of my hyper-analytical mind, and was easily distracted by shiny informational objects). Rob actually liked the devotion and discipline the practice brought out in me over time.

My guess: your loved ones really can relate with your highest self, and on some level they admire your intention to practice. On some level, they want you to be grounded and loving and healthy and awake. I suggest relating with your practice in a sort of humble way, that minimizes self-obsessed dramas and brings a sense of the sacred to your side of your relationships. Ironically, the more genuine and modest you are about personal practice, the more energy you’re likely to get for it from the people in your life.

Not recommended: performing your practice. Don’t do it for a crowd. Don’t record it for the internet. Yes, performing it will give you all kinds of energy and focus. That’s how attention works – performers take energy from people watching us. (If this doesn’t make sense, try thinking of daily life as an energy awareness classroom for a while. Notice what sorts of activities give or take energy, and the different qualities energy takes on. Once this makes some sense, consider these energy economies from the point of view of your personal ethics.) Here’s the issue: is there an egoic by-product of doing your so-called self-inquiry as a performance piece? Please factor that one into the equation in deciding whether mainlining the attention of others is worth it for you in the long term.

7. Music.

Possible life raft. It may save you a few times if you’re drowning on the mat.

I used music for the first few self-practices after I landed in Michigan in 2010, and somehow it created a cushion around the intense grief over leaving my community and home in Los Angeles. It got me through the very difficult phase of establishing a new habit, in the presence of a hardcore delusion-fest (i.e., self-pity and longing for another situation).

If you use music, know that it will likely push parts of your real experience deeper into unconsciousness. The more variable the music, and the more words it has, the more it will push you around. So choose something with an energy you really want to match with your nervous system, and keep the lyrics to a minimum.

If you rely on music for the long term, some deeper long-term transformations may get buffered out. Obviously, you can do gymnastic yoga all day long while listening to music, and you will progress in the physical practice and also achieve some nicely adrenalized mental states. That is not the method.

That said, if this is a music sort of a day, so it is. Let the assistance do its work of shifting your mind-body state. Don’t fight it or regret it. Go with the flow.

Over time, you’ll generate the flow just by stepping on the mat.

Yes, you will.

Blessings, love and respect to you this holiday. It’s your practice and you know exactly what to do.