Tuesday, July 31, 2012


For W.

There is no end,
southward, on an exhale,
we descend, our path carved
into the tender bones of our unborn

We surrender, every breath,
renders us conscious, worthy of each
lingering gaze, and softened, opened,
you melt
me, and against the resistance of
memory’s insistent tug
we weave this morning’s shocking newness, its
many-hued richness fading
of our collective vision.

You render me, (strength comes in waves), and
we are guided, propelled: southward, in-
where courage comes
on an
inhale, and resistance
fades. There is no
end, only this moment’s luminous start
as it ends, another
blooming beneath the awning of our gaze.

There is no end, only the path
itself, meandering, we merge bone with bone,
desire with desire,
and as we descend,
you become my north, the compass rendered useless
against the steady rhythm of our breath.

Monday, July 30, 2012


In graduate school, when my writing professors told me to dig deep, to go to where it was uncomfortable, to let it be messy, to allow for the ‘hurling’ on the page before the cleaning up phase, to not only believe in the process, but to invite it, revel in it, be in it, because there is only the process and nothing else, I jumped at the chance. Writing in this way, in a language that was not my own was liberating. As a child growing up in Iran, striving for perfection in a highly structured and disciplined school system, there had never been any room for error. At the end of each term, the entire school would be gathered in neat, sing-file rows, shortest to tallest, kindergartners to blooming highschoolers, at the foot of the concrete stage, and the pot-bellied school principle with the permanent grimace would summon the top three students in each class to the stage, the megaphone booming the names of the chosen girls beyond the walls of the school. The neat sea of the girls, clad in their state-prescribed navy blue overcoats and headscarves, would tilt their faces up to the stairs, and clap obligingly, even as the seeds of envy and shame for not being called to the stage were planted inside them.

I was the girl who was always called to the top of the stairs.

In graduate school, in America, in a language that was not my own, I worked to release the ghost of my girlhood. I wanted to be free from the games of my own mind whenever I sat to write. The untruths of: it has to be perfect, it has to be the best, it has to be presented at the top of the stairs, it has to be clap-worthy, envy-inspiring, flawless.

 From Vivekenanda:

‘So with all lives; so with all existence that we can see, feel, hear, or imagine. Everything that is in the bounds of our knowledge is proceeding in the same way, like breathing in and breathing out in the human body. Everything in creation goes on in this form, one wave rising, another falling, rising again, falling again. Each wave has its hollow; each hollow has its wave.’

And with writing, I hit many waves and many hollows. My teachers, like the Virgils that they were, sent to me as I descended the rings of my past, unraveling bit by bit the contents of my carefully packed luggage, urged me to be ruthless. To stare the beast down. To be unflinching in my gaze and in my resolve to tell the truth.

To ride the waves of inspiration, and to not get off them when they turned hollow and smashed me against the rocks of illusion, of doubt, of despair.

Sound like anything else? Oh, yes, Yoga!

‘There is one fact more to learn about this rising and falling. The seed does not immediately become a tree, but has a period of inactivity, or rather, a period of very fine unmanifested action. The seed has to work for some time beneath the soil. It breaks into pieces, degenerates, as it were, and regeneration comes out of that degeneration. In the beginning the whole of this universe has to work likewise, for a period, in that subtle from, unseen and unmanifested, which is called chaos; and out of that comes a new projection. The whole period of one manifestation of this universe—its going back to the finer form, remaining there for some time, and coming out again—is, in Sanskrit, called a kalpa, or cycle.’

At the time when I was learning to love the chaos, as Rilke urged in his letters to a young poet, which I read like a sacred mantra, Yoga was a physical practice that helped with the physical pains in my body. I had never been athletic, nor a dancer. I walked out of several yoga classes, mid sun salutes, because I felt like my heart was going to literally explode in my chest. But I went back.  Week after week, I went back. With the same writing teacher who had urged me to be ruthless. We both suffered from sciatica, and decided that we would hold each other to it, that we would show up to class because the other was going to be there. I went, mostly because, I didn’t want to let her down.

You know how the rest of this story goes, no? That’s the funny thing about yoga: you go in for one thing, and you think, wow, look at me: I’m doing yoga. Meanwhile, yoga, is stretching its limbs inside you, and I mean deep inside you, just as you are stretching your physical limbs, and before you know it, yoga is doing you, it’s changing you, it’s transforming you.

The seed becomes the tree; the tree becomes the seed.

A lot happened in my life because of yoga in those first years: I left a marriage that was not right for me. Fears were replaced by taking action. I finally felt my own strength. It wasn’t that I got stronger, I simply felt the strength that was already there, and was able to tap into it. I became less interested in the past: the years in Iran stopped haunting me; the pull of memory became weaker. All of this before I had read a single book on philosophy of yoga or a sacred text. And, yes, the sciatica was, also, a thing of the past.

But what of my desire for perfection? The small girl in the navy blue, Islamic garb, waiting in line to hear her name called so she can float to the top of the stairs, proud of her achievements? What happened to her?

       ‘Samskara is perhaps best described as a memory trace that has the dynamic quality of a seed constantly ready to sprout.’ 

She is still in me: she is inside me as I give it my all in every posture, in every class that I teach, in everything that I do on and off the mat. To deny her existence, is to deny myself the process. To deny her existence is to not see her, to not love her. And despite her over-enthusiasm, and the burden of her striving nature, there are many things about her that are worthy of love: she is not afraid of chaos, she is not afraid of the periods of germination, of degeneration, of falling apart. She knows that they are necessary for the cycle to be complete.

in the shadow of bliss

The over-emphasis of the blissful aspects of yoga, in an attempt to ‘sell’ the practice appeals to our basest needs for pleasure. Yes, yoga can make you feel good, euphoric even, but reducing it to a mere feel-good drug robs us of the transformational benefits of the practice, and it can often set us up for failure. Yoga is a relationship. Expecting it to only be easy and full of pleasure is like expecting a relationship to be an easy ride, one that requires no work or effort on our part. Like all relationships, yoga asks us to work, to show up and be present, and to stick with it even when we feel like no progress is being made, when we feel that we are ‘no good’ at it, or when its sheer repetitiveness and routine bores us to death. When I say yoga is difficult, I don’t mean physically challenging, though coming face to face with a stubborn hamstring or an aching shoulder can bring about feelings of frustration, insecurity, and anger to the forefront. This practice can be difficult at times, no matter the level or the style of the class, because the shadow side of bliss is, well, not so blissful; the shadow side of bliss is grief and discomfort. The shadow side of grace is clumsiness. Yoga is a process of transcending pairs of opposites: bliss and grief, grace and clumsiness, the good and the bad. We cannot pick and choose the fun and exciting parts of the practice over its more mundane and frustrating aspects, any more than a parent can choose only the easy and sweet moments with their child.

Things to keep in mind:

-Plateaus are part of the practice, an essential part that tests our patience and our faith in the process of yoga. Like any learning process, after periods of rapid acceleration, there is a period of integration. And this period can make you feel like nothing is happening, that you are not making progress. At times, it even feels like you might be regressing. It happens to all of us, and the most important thing to remember is to keep practicing. It helps to change something in the way that you practice: change something about the way you breathe, how you move in and out of the poses, a fresh look at your alignment perhaps. Do not become so attached to the way that you practice that you are no longer open to learning. 

-The practice is a process. The ‘goals’—be they learning Ujjayi, doing a handstand, or simply sitting with no pain in the hips and knees--are much less interesting than what is happening daily, practice by practice, on your path to your chosen goals. What is your mind doing? What fluctuates inside as that handstand seems far from your reach? Paying attention IS the practice.

-Stillness wins out every time. When frustration rears its head, and you pay attention and notice what your mind is telling you, being still without trying to do anything with the feeling, pausing, will help you see that frustration is an energy that moves in, and just as swiftly, will move out. The same is true of bliss. If we try to hold on to that wonderful sense of buoyancy at the end of our practice, it will, surely, slip away from us. This, too, is part of the process. 

Your bliss

"You follow [your bliss] and doors will open where there were no doors before, where you would not have thought there'd be doors, and where there wouldn't be a door for anybody else. There's something about the integrity of a life. And the world moves in and helps. It really does.

"And I think the best thing I can say is to follow your bliss. If your bliss is just your fun and your excitement, you're on the wrong track. I mean, you need instruction. Know where your bliss is. And that involves coming down to a deep place in yourself."

-Joseph Campbell

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Maria Villella on Rooting your hands

I love the distinction that she makes between the fruits of a dedicated practice and the goals of a dedicated practice. Abhyasa vairagyam tan Nirodha.


My knowledge of Chuck, like most, comes from those wonderful grainy Encinitas videos of Pattabhi Jois leading the now senior teachers through the Ashtanga series. In the videos, aside from his impressive and otherworldly postures, he appears as if deeply absorbed in the process of Yoga: intense, steady, the epitome of yogic concentration. Watching these videos to ready myself for what was to come, I made the mistake of assuming that we would be led through the practice much like he was led through the practice by Jois. I was preparing myself mentally for the ‘big’ postures, the supta kurmasanas and fancy lifts and jump throughs.

Instead, the intensity came from a different source. It came from the very root of this practice, it came from the first word, the first posture, and if practiced in the full vinyasic way, the very last posture: Samastithi.

On the first day of practice, we stood in samstithi for what felt like hours, while Chuck told us about the importance of this word, sama, and how it had risen to the top of his yogic chart, giving a directionality to all the postures, a place to move towards. He explained, as our legs began to burn and our shoulders involuntarily hunched up only to be pulled back down by his firm reminders of maintaining samastithi, that sama, same-ness, non-separateness is the goal; that yoga is the process of waking up to the realization of non-separation. That there is no separation between the feet and the earth that they press against; the earth gives back as much as we give her. We pressed our feet and grew taller; we swayed a bit, but returned to our core using the breath. Our fingertips grew heavy towards the earth. Our sacrum broadened. He placed a deity inside our bodies, her feet on our pelvic floor, her palms pressing against the inside of our breastbones. Our collective hearts expanded, and we grew roots that connected us to our core.

We stood in this way, or, we attempted to stand in this way as we moved through the postures of Surya Namaskara A. He applauded the ‘approach’ to samastithi, and challenged our conditioned bodyminds: ‘where are you driving from? so what if you get your face to your shins in uttanasana?’ He reminded us that we are here to raise our consciousness, to increase the prana, our life force; we weren’t there to reinforce the egoic habits of striving and comparing, of pushing and grasping.

In asana practice, we make sure that the container is strong enough to handle this increased engery flow, he reminded us; that asana practice is like pigeons pecking at crumbs on the sidewalk, it’s small stuff in the huge universe of yoga. He urged us to go toward that which is expansive and permanent, rather than the mundane. The tangible aspect of the postures drove his point home: mundane is striving to bring the heels down in downward facing dog, to let the ego run the show. We felt silly, some giggled knowingly, and we walked our feet back and surrendered to the difficult work of driving from our roots: the palms of our hands became the earth that aided the lengthening of our spines. We breathed deeper.

As we struggled to hold the far too difficult half-chuttarangas without collapsing our shoulders, he reminded us (warned us?) that practice alone does not make perfect. That practice makes permanent: the good and the bad. That there is nothing that we cannot do if we move slowly enough. As some of us resisted the urge to pull into up dog and straighten the arms out of habit, he implored us to use the mirror of yoga as we would use a literal mirror: to acknowledge what we see, and without judgment, correct it. ‘Take that piece of spinach out of your teeth, don’t just leave it there!’ The practice is strong enough to withstand scrutiny; take the time to polish it. Practice is not another thing you check on your list; it’s never done, there is no end...

The teacher intensive started earlier today. He told a small group of us that we could all go teach tricks and flips, and that our classes would be full; we could hand out fancy postures like candy to kids, and our students would love us for it. But, he urged us to teach authentically, and to teach a advanced classes with simple postures. To ask ourselves what drives us. To go into the roots of our own practice.

  I cannot quite wrap my mind around how the past four days have altered me as a teacher and a student of this practice. It is incredibly simple, in some ways, boring even, as he jokingly said, once you see that all the postures are the same, sama, but simple does not mean easy.

I had to leave the intensive early today to rush over the hill to teach my class. On the way to the studio, Chuck’s words echoed in my mind: Samastithi is standing authentically. The class that I taught was a poor imitation, I’m sure, of what I’ve experienced and learned in the past few days. A child playing dress up. But imitation is how we learn until we integrate and assimilate the information. I slowed the sun salutations down, and implored my students to be patient, to use the practice to go deeper and polish their postures. In the beginning I felt scared, felt like they may be hating this, that they may be hating me, that they might never come back.

Then I breathed along with them, and let the fears go; we are all vulnerable in this practice, whether we realize it or not. Teaching in this way takes a whole lot of courage. 

Notes to a Teacher: Inspired by Chuck Miller

You are a teacher. You are born into privilege; your struggle is not for survival. You have the opportunity to practice yoga. Use this time, this birth, and the gift of this lifetime to do the work. All around you see people living and dying, yet you live your life as if it will go on forever.

Your role, as a teacher, is to orient the student back to their authentic self. Dismantle the wall that separates us from experiencing what IS. Help them deal with their issues rather than feeding them hard postures to kick in their endorphins. If you don’t see the value of this work, do not start on this path; if you do, then it’s already too late. Show your students that complete presence is possible; and reflect back the mental blocks that keep them from being present. You must ONLY be concerned with your students’ growth and awakening. And, your student must know this. Just as the body needs to trust you in asana practice to open, the student needs to trust you. Catalyze a perceptible change in your student, and if your approach is not working, try a different route (just like in asana practice). You have a responsibility to remind your students of the miracle and the beauty of the human body. The body is a gift. Can you learn/teach to take care of this gift?

You have to use resistance to open: challenge what you hold to be true. You are not that, not that. You are not the body, not your mind. You are not your thoughts, not your feelings. Neti Neti. Challenge what you thought you knew. What is the natural posture you are trying to get back to? What is the deepest You that you are trying to find? Do not look for the worms; aim for that which is permanent, not the ephemeral.

Say hello to yourself, on your mat, in this practice; show up! Where have you been your whole life? Start with your feet. Ground yourself. Start with your asana: sit your ass on the earth, and don’t float up into the ether. There is work to be done in the earthly realm. Where have your feet been your whole life?

Samskaras leave deep grooves, marks like scars. It takes unlearning the patterns to learn the correct way of being, without the ego driving the posture, running your life. What are the stories that you keep repeating? What stories have you fed yourself? Notice how the stress gets transferred always to the weakest link. Share the stress, so the stronger parts of you help heal that which is carrying the burden. Turn your gaze to that which calms the mind. Stop looking outside yourself: for support, for validation, for approval, for adoration. Turn your gaze within. Find a sense of home within yourself; find support inside. You are good at finding the easy way. The easy way out. There is no out, only in. Go inside, go deep within.

Do not halt; do not struggle. Do not halt the attempts at undoing the conditioned state; do not struggle when the task seems impossible; do not struggle and do not harm yourself; your yogic contract begins with ahimsa. Do not halt and do not struggle: a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step…

(Recognize the symbolism in asana. When, in bhujapidasana we place the weight of the legs on the shoulders, the work is to heroically lift the chest and keep the heart open. In Navasana, when the tendency is to want to wilt and droop, we smile softly, and find sama; we abide in the state of equanimity rather than getting swayed by the difficulty.)

And lastly, do YOUR practice, and all is coming. But you’ve got to make sure that it is YOUR practice that you are doing. Do not impose the practice onto your body. The body responds to kindness

Schedule of Classes

Ashtanga Vinyasa Classes at Breathe Los Gatos:

Mysore Practice: Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 6-8:45 a.m.
Full Led Primary: Fridays at 7:00 a.m.

Vinyasa Flow Level 1/2 Classes: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 5:30 p.m.
Vinyasa Flow Level 2/3 Classes:
Fridays at 4 p.m.
Sundays at 9:15 a.m.

All Vinyasa classes at Santa Cruz Yoga.

*Private and semi-private sessions available. Please contact me thorough email for rates: erikaabrahamian@gmail.com