A question I am often asked as a yoga retreat leader is, “How do you decide on where your next yoga retreat will be?” Of course, it is exciting to travel to new places that I have never been before, but more importantly it broadens my perspective and offers valuable lessons. In my role as a yoga teacher, experiencing different cultures reinforces what yoga means, "to yoke" or "connect." My students and I get to see first-hand that even if there are cultural differences, deep down inside we are connected because we are the same. We forget this.
I was born and raised in the South Bay of Los Angeles. So, for most of my life, aside from a year of college in New York, I have always lived and worked in the bubble of the South Bay. If you are from Los Angeles, you know for traffic reasons that you probably don’t venture outside of your bubble often. Because of this, we can become desensitized to the world around us.
I am finally settled back in my bubble after nearly 3 weeks in Greece. For the first half of my trip my fiancé and I explored Athens, Mykonos and Santorini. The last 8 days were spent on the island of Amorgos where I lead my yoga retreat. In this time, I learned several things about the customs and culture. The plumbing system isn’t as advanced as in the U.S. Let’s just say that you can’t flush toilet paper in the toilet. The people say, “no problem at all,” even if it might be big problem. And according to our tour guide, the sharks are vegetarian. But jokes aside, traveling to Greece reinforced why I lead yoga retreats in the first place. By trying different foods, exploring a new culture, meeting new people, and experiencing new sights, we expand our perspective.
On one of the guided tours with my retreat group, we went to a monastery called Agios Georgios Valsamitis. The nun who lives there opened her home to us and even served homemade cake. She was an interesting woman who had a family and children in Athens and decided to stay on Amorgos and inhabit that monastery after visiting the island on vacation. She has been living in the monastery as a nun for 9 years. Prior to her the last nun to live there died in the 19th century. As she explained the history and art of the monastery she left us with a few words. She said that animals in the world kill to survive, but that humans can kill for much worse. So, she asked us to pray for peace in the world. This brought tears to my eyes and opened my heart to the idea of praying even though it is not something I normally do.
After traveling halfway around the world to the small island of Amorgos with a population of only 2,000. A nun living in her own bubble (the monastery) reminded us that no matter where you come from, what you do or where you live, we all ultimately want the same things. To be happy, healthy, safe, and free. This is a learning lesson we can all be reminded of.
After my wedding in August I am heading off to another retreat. This time in Bali, Indonesia, part of the world that I have never been to. Another culture to experience and new people to meet and make connections with. That is why I am calling it Bali Yoga and Culture Retreat. Perhaps this retreat is the perfect way to get out of your bubble and reinforce your yoga practice through the educational experience of travel and cultural immersion.
In my yoga classes, I give my students freedom to explore in their practice and permission to move their bodies in untraditional ways. Recently when teaching Warrior II in class, I encouraged my students to discover what felt right for their bodies instead of looking at the alignment of their feet or knee over their ankle. I asked, “Do you feel pain or stress in your inner back knee? If the answer is yes, see what it feels like to step your back foot wider towards the side of the mat." I then asked, “Do you feel too much torque on your front hip or lower back? If so, try stepping your front foot wider towards the side edge of the mat or allow your front leg to rotate less externally." I encouraged my students to ask how they felt and to deviate from the "normal" alignment in favor of what felt better in their body. I saw glimmers of “aha” moments where students looked at me with excitement for being given permission to color outside the lines.
However, one student decided to say out loud, “but that is not right.” Her remark triggered something inside me. It reminded me of guru-like teachers not allowing for open conversation. It was as if a child asked, “why” and the teacher or parent said, “because, I said so.” Not a good enough answer for me. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to start a full-on conversation with her, but I did have the space to continue to show her what I meant. I said, “Instead of taking my word, try it for yourself. Ask questions, critically think, and be with each process.
We forget that we aren’t robots. We are constantly reminded by magazines and social media about what the “norm” should be. It has gotten better over the years, but we still see ideals of what our bodies “should” look like and in yoga land we see pictures of how our bodies should line up perfectly. So of course, it is easy to believe that narrative.
But remember, asana is just one tool to help us become more self-aware and to be present with what is. So, if we get caught up on the specifics of how the asana looks, we are missing the point of the practice all together.
My question is, if the traditional alignment of asana is causing pain, injury, or a lack of connection, perhaps we should try another alternative. Otherwise we are just being insane. One of my teachers said, “Instead of using the body to get into the pose, use the pose to get into the body.” In other words, the pose is just an idea. So why not take the idea and find ways to implement it in your own unique structure knowing every day is different?
As I said, don’t take it from me. Try it for yourself. I am leading a workshop on July 28th called Adapting Poses for Your Body. I would love for you to join me. Together we will break down the mechanics behind common yoga poses that are practiced in yoga asana classes and find fun and unique ways to apply it to you.
Every retreat that I have led had a unique group dynamic. However, my most recent one felt extremely special, because it was my first all-female retreat. Upon arrival last Thursday, I could tell that everyone was a bit hesitant and nervous. I was a little nervous too. I distinctly remember thinking, “Why are you nervous? This isn’t your first retreat.” However, at the time, I couldn’t figure out why.
As we sat down for our meet and greet at dinner, the energy was a bit reserved and polite. During introductions, I asked everyone to go around the table and tell us how long they have been practicing yoga, what they are looking forward to from the retreat, and finish it off with a signature move to remember their name by. I kicked it off and slowly the energy in the room shifted and we warmed up to each other. Our first dinner was light-hearted, yet conversation remained at surface level.
However, as the days went on we dove deeper and deeper into the work of the yoga practice. Sure, we did asana and movement, but I asked my students and myself some challenging questions not just to practice yoga, but to live it. I posed questions like, “Who do you think you are? What do you believe in that is bigger than you? What challenges your ego and makes you feel like the biggest failure? What are your harmful patterns? What do you love that you like to hold on to? What do you hate that you try to avoid?” After all, this is the work of the yoga practice; self-study (Svadyaya).
During the available free-time I did a little self-studying of my own. I took walks by myself, laid in my hammock and read, meditated, and sat and watched the sunset. Things I realize I don’t do enough of. I reflected on why I was nervous the first day and perhaps why the energy of the other women was a bit nervous as well.
I realized that somewhere inside of me I created a narrative of women judging, competing, and comparing. I can only speak for myself, but I am sure that I am not alone in this. Even if there is no actual threat, I realized that this was a mental pattern that I had formed perhaps from micro-traumas of past experiences.
We all have our work to do and the yoga practice simply shines a light on where it is. Through the practice of yoga and meditation, we can do some self-study to notice our patterns, attachments, expectations, and aversions. We can be aware of all of this without being in it. We can be with things as they come knowing that it is all temporary and that we are not alone in these temporary experiences.
On the last night, we went around the table again. But this time, we weren’t polite or reserved. We were vulnerable, raw, and real. We laughed, cried, embraced, and shared stories. This was the practice working. No walls, preconceived notions, or doubts necessary. Just women supporting other women.
My relationship with yoga began about 8 years ago. I wasn’t looking for anything serious, just a casual thing I could do to work out, get toned, and relieve stress. I would say for the first couple of classes it was purely physical. I was initially attracted to the practice for aesthetic reasons and instant gratification. What can I say? It was exciting and new. I was obsessed with the physical challenge, the sweat, the heat, the fancy arm balances and dance-like flow.
After only a year of my relationship with yoga, I decided to take the next step by enrolling in teacher training. That was when I really got to know the practice for what it was, which led to a deeper relationship. However, just like with any other relationship, the practice held a mirror up to my imperfections, challenges, attachments, fears and insecurities. But it wasn’t until I got hurt did I realize that my dependency on the practice to solve my problems, make me feel whole, and reinforce bad habits was not sustainable. From that moment, I changed the way I practiced, and I changed the way I taught. I began meditating, living my yoga, and using the poses to understand myself versus trying to force my body to be in a pose. For me, this was a game changer because my purpose was no longer about short-term results. Instead, it was about building a long-lasting and sustainable relationship with my practice.
With the increasing popularity of yoga, with various styles and schools advertising that their yoga is the best yoga, perhaps you may be questioning the validity of your relationship with the practice. But the truth is, that there isn’t one yoga that is universally better or more valid than another. Just like all relationships, they are just different from one another. So, whether your current relationship with yoga is flashy and exciting or simple and slow, the biggest question to ask yourself is, “Why am I here?” The answer may change from day to day, but as long as you find meaning in your practice, your relationship with yoga will go the distance.
I am currently in full wedding planning mode as my fiancé, Xavier and I prep for our wedding in August of this year. And boy oh boy, do I have my work cut out for me. Of course, it is an exciting time, but a very stressful one at that. Being the organized person that I am, I always thought planning my wedding would be fun and easy. I built high expectations of the process through my perfectly curated Pinterest boards. Of course, I am being brought back down to reality and realizing that it isn’t as easy as it seems. I am having to ditch Plan A for a more budget-friendly Plan B, something that I am not very good at.
However, this is where I can use my yoga practice the most. I can tap into the philosophy and principles of the practice to make smart choices, I can use the tools of meditation to notice when I waist time and energy wishing things are different, I can adapt and set aside perfection just as I do in my asana practice, and through it all I can understand my habits and patterns that may be harmful. For what good is my yoga if I don’t know how to use it when I need it most?
Just as I discovered so much more to wedding planning than meets the eye, there is also so much more to yoga than the poses you see advertised on Instagram and done in classes. After all, yoga stems back over 5,000 years. Therefore, I have teamed up with my Yoga Harbor family to create a workshop series to help demystify yoga, so you can understand how to use your practice when you need it most in your life whether it be on or off the mat.
So, its day 10 of the new year and perhaps you’re in, “New Year, New You” mode. While, well- intentioned, this phrase can create a culture of perfection, obsession, attachment, and expectation. Why drop so many great lessons that you learned from 2018 when you can take them with you?
Here are some great lessons I learned last year that I am putting to practice this year:
What lessons did you learn in 2018 that you would like to bring forward for this year?
Just like it’s easy to get caught up in the commercialism of the holiday season, the same goes for the practice of yoga. I mean, how can you not? The flashy poses all over Instagram, alignment OCD, and pressure in yoga classes to perform or keep up. Trust me, I got caught up in all that too, until I looked deeper into the philosophy of the practice.
As a teacher, it is especially hard to strike a balance between offering something fun and interesting yet teaching valuable tools that can be used in everyday life. Before I teach a class, I ask myself, “What do you want your students to learn?” It is my way of checking in to make sure that I actually teach my students yoga, not just movement or asana.
I recently took a couple of yoga classes at studios I don’t normally practice at. One class was at a studio in Texas when visiting family for Thanksgiving and another at a studio in Los Angeles. Both classes where your typical Vinyasa flow style: asana with a heavy emphasis on alignment and breath. However, I walked away feeling as though there was a missed opportunity. There was absolutely no mention of any yoga philosophy or principals of the practice. Sure, I stretched and moved my body, but was that yoga?
It is certainly possible to do yoga without asana and my experience held testament that asana can be done without practicing yoga. So, how can we use asana effectively to act as a tool for the practice of yoga instead of allowing it to override the point of the entire practice? Perhaps, we can consider any form of smart and efficient movement as asana and then apply that to the practice of yoga. Since yoga means union, we can use asana as a means to find union with what is and learn from those present moment experiences to make choices without attaching to expectations, past experiences, or particular results.
So, instead of stressing about buying the perfect gift or nailing some fancy asana, perhaps we stop and ask, “What is the point?” Because sometimes all we need is to remind ourselves of the true nature of their origin to ground us in its purpose.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text that became a respected resource for yoga, there are four main paths of yoga. Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, Jnana (pronounced “Gnyaan”) Yoga, and Karma Yoga. Bhakti Yoga is the path of loving-devotion to God. Raja Yoga often referred to as the mental yoga, is the path of meditation. Jnana Yoga is the path of wisdom and study to realize the divine oneness inherent in all beings. Karma Yoga is the path of action. In life, we can feel in the path of Bhakti Yoga, think in the path of Jnana Yoga, do nothing completely – the final step in the path of Raja Yoga, but today in particular is a wonderful opportunity to practice action in the path of Karma Yoga. Today is the after all, the midterm elections.
If you are at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen, it is your civic right to vote. A civic right to be proud of. To put things in perspective, in 1776 only white men age 21 and older who owned land could vote. In 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote nationwide. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted Native Americans citizenship and voting rights. In 1964, the federal Civil Rights Act was passed to ensure that all men and women age 21 and older, regardless of race, religion, or education have the right to vote. In 1965, the federal Voting Rights Act suspended voter literacy tests. In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. In 1984, the polling places were federally required to be accessible to people with disabilities. (For a more extensive timeline click HERE.) Looking back at a span of over 200 years there have been quite a bit of changes, but that will only continue to happen if we lead with our actions.
Of course, there are many things in life that we have no control over, but today we can put our thoughts, feelings, and wisdom into action through our votes. And, just like the four paths of yoga, every voter has a right to their own path. Therefore, the Karmic path of self-less service is only complete when we can do the work without any attachment or expectation to an end result. If there is any resolve, know that it may have taken over 200 years for the changes in the voter timeline to occur, but nonetheless, they happened.
In honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10th, I want to share this with you:
I am a recovering perfectionist, there I said it. Growing up as a perfectionist, I treated everything as competition of how to be better, prettier, smarter, thinner, cooler, more successful… etc. I put so much pressure on myself be perfect until it was no longer sustainable.
I was probably 20 years old when a pretty intense bout of depression hit me like a wall. Within a month, I had dropped out of college in New York, quit my job, moved back home with my parents and my serious boyfriend at the time broke things off with me. After years and years of perfecting, planning, goal-setting, and dream chasing, it all just stopped. So naturally, I freaked out, said some really mean things to myself, and assumed other people were saying mean things about me as well. This took me down a really long and dark tunnel filled with self-pity.
Thankfully, with the help of really amazing friends, supportive family, and various forms of therapy I found the light at the end. One of the biggest resources for mental therapy was yoga. After a friend suggested I try it, I began a home practice while watching YouTube videos. But of course, in my default perfectionist mode, I attended my first public yoga class only once I felt
proficient enough in the poses. So, for months, I practiced like I would a competitive sport, just in a different uniform. I always opted for the most physically challenging version of a pose, made sure to keep up with the rest of the class, and considered class more or less successful by how much of it I actually could do. After only 6 months of practice, I stepped into my first 200-hour teacher training to I find that there was more to the practice than fancy poses and stretching. And that is when the light bulb went off.
After living through the lens of yes vs no, right vs wrong, and better vs worse, yoga taught me that I don’t need to hold a higher value to one over the other. Instead, I can experience happiness, sadness, excitement, frustration, anger and every other emotion while I am with them.
One Sanskrit saying comes to mind, “Mana eva manusyanam karanam bandha moksayoh.” This translates to, “As the mind, so the person; bondage or liberation are in your own mind.” If we can remember that we are not our temporary emotions and thoughts, we can simply be a witness to every experience without feeling bound to them. In that, we can find liberation from our own minds just by changing our perspective towards it.
It has been about three months since my shoulder tendinitis began to flare up. It is slowly healing, with lots of patience, body-awareness, and to be quite honest more yoga than I have ever practiced before. You might be thinking, “but how?” The truth is, you don’t necessarily need yoga asana to practice yoga. So, whether you are injured like me or are lacking time in your schedule to get to the yoga studio, you can still practice yoga.
According to the guiding text on yoga, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali written over 1700 years ago, the definition of asana is, “The posture that brings comfort and steadiness.” Nowhere in the Yoga Sutras does it say that you need to sweat, do core strengthening exercises, stretch until you can place your foot behind your head, or work towards the “goal” of the full expression of a yoga pose. I know, it can be misleading, especially if you see yoga being advertised as a way to be fit, toned, or achieve the “perfect” version of yourself. Trust me, I bought into that too, until I didn’t. I would show up to a yoga class ready to perform based on what I thought my practice should be, and in the end, I was left feeling disappointed, hurt, and confused.
So, if yoga isn’t the yoga postures that are broadcasted on Instagram or sequenced in a yoga flow, what is its purpose? It is simply a means to experience what it is like to be in the body and access the mind through each present moment experience. You can think of asana as a screwdriver in a tool box. Sure, there are different types of screwdrivers and they are useful for certain things, but it’s not the answer for everything. So, in order to use your toolbox wisely you will have to add other tools and then decide which ones to use according to whatever is presented in front of you.
Now, everyone’s toolbox is going to be unique. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what it looks like or how it’s used. After all, the practice of yoga is about accepting what is and learning from the present moment experience to make skillful choices in action. Seems easy enough right? Well, the problem is that we don’t spend enough time there, because we wish things were different. We either like things so much that we don’t want them to end or we hate something so much that we avoid it all together. We are constantly trying to change what is, and as a result, we are either living in the past or trying to anticipate the future. To put it bluntly, we think way too much.
Perhaps, all we need is to pause and be with what is. Be with the sounds around you, be with the breath, be with the sensory experience of touch, be with what is around you, be with your thoughts, be with your body. Simply be with it as it truly is, without needing to change it, attach to it, or identify with it. Be with yoga, as yoga is now.
Hi, I'm Lauren and I am here to support people to find freedom in being authentic and the power to carry that out in their lives and community. Writing is one way I like to explore that for myself. Here is my archive of reflections.