25 August 2012
This blog is a process not of deconstructing yoga, as much as deconstructing myself through the practice of yoga. Yoga means “union” or “to yoke.” Through yoga we try to strengthen our physical body as well find that calm, centered place.
Through my 27-year practice I have experienced as much break down as I have building up. Challenging myself not just with the physical asanas but also with the philosophical and spiritual sides of the practice, I have realized I am a work in progress and will continue to be as long as I am on this path. And it is said that once on this path, once the mind begins to truly open and realize the self and the actual world it lives in, there is no turning off the path.
When I have been out of my practice I have felt disconnected, lost and weak, physically, spiritually and mentally. Not that my yoga practice is the be-all or end-all of my contentment, but it sure does help. Either through the asana practice or study of yoga, I have felt part of a community that endorses the self expression of life.
My first yoga class was in 1986 in a house basement turned studio. The instructor was a true yogi. I showed up wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. I had no idea what I was getting into. By the end of my second class the instructor told me I was a reincarnated yoga and that I was to teach. “Um… yeah. Exit please.” A few more months with this guy and I had I grasped the idea of the practice but really had no true understanding of what a practicing yogi was. I started reading. I moved to another state and didn’t find a yoga class that spoke to me. Even though I didn’t know what I was looking for, I knew what I didn’t want.This journey would last 17 years. After a 5 month Zen meditation practice in a Buddhist monastery, I began to get a notion of what a yogi could be and how I might attain that state of mind that would embrace that deep of a practice in yoga.
Yoga and Zen have similar mindsets. Do no harm, selflessness, responsible action and mindful living are the main goals in and of the practices.
I did my yoga asanas during the day and meditated twice a day in 45 minute sittings. Combining the two practices, I began to find a center and a balance that allowed me to finally feel at home within my self.
Years later I would befriend an aspiring yoga instructor and the door completely opened. I stepped through and the path to becoming a true yogi began, as true as one can attain in the life- style that our society can allow. It felt like a new beginning and that sensation would be repeated for many years through many different experiences.
1 September 2012
Opening a Yoga StudioUpon graduating from Yoga Teacher Training in 2000, I set out to begin my practice. Like most new yoga instructors, having to teach a class at various studios, at gyms and the occasional private class is normal. It can also be challenging and more labor intensive than need to be. But, by 2000 the practice of yoga had become completely mainstream as a work out regime mainly for women. Yoga studios were popping up as fast as Starbucks. Different styles of yoga were being created. Rock star yoga instructors were finding name and notoriety. Because I lacked finances and a following, I did not have the notion of opening my own studio. As such, I was relegated to teaching at someone else’s studio, and following their practice protocol. I even taught at a few gyms, which I detested. Gym yoga is nothing like studio yoga. In a gym setting the “students” were looking at me like I had no idea what I was doing. And the feeling was mutual. It just wasn’t a good match. Since I did not have the marketing skills to promote myself, I decided to step out of the practice.
Three years later, more financially sound and better focused, the opportunity arose to embrace a teaching practice and open a studio for men.
Years prior I had a few challenging moments that made me question my yoga practice and my ability as an instructor. But nothing has been more challenging than opening my own studio. It made sense to open an all male facility as females mainly attended all the neighboring studios. For some reason, when yoga hit the mainstream it was embraced mostly by women.
Despite the star athletes, male movie stars and other media worthy men that have embraced the practice of yoga, it has stayed mainly a female dominated practice. It did not help that the Americanized yoga became fashion conscious and somewhat materialistic with its accouterments. Yoga was also viewed as part of the “self help” movement and that in itself detracted men from jumping on the mat. Not that men are deterred from engaging in self-help, but that and the “stretchy” part of yoga with the limber females may not be the most enticing aspect of the practice.
Years ago a friend and I joked about teaching a naked yoga retreat. Shortly after, during a workshop we were approached by a fellow student and were asked if we would be interested in assisting him in teaching a naked yoga class that he had started a few months prior. The classes were growing, and he felt the need to expand. We accepted, and I ended up teaching for a few months. Unfortunately I had to drop out as the classes and the space had too much of an erotic over tone. Not that I was teaching that but the original instructor allowed that essence, and I did not want to teach yoga with an erotic or sensual approach. Quite the contrary, I wanted to teach a naked yoga class without the essence of eroticism or sexual energy.
I do not identify as a nudist, but I enjoy being naked, and I have always scoffed at the belief that nudity is erotic or sexual. Yes, of course it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Such a view of nudity can create insecurity and self-loathing. We are barraged by the media with pictures of the “perfect” body and socially worship them. With naked yoga I wanted to approach the idea of being naked in a communal setting and have the attention drawn to something other than where the eye is drawn. I wanted to prove that people could be naked together, engaging in a physical, mental and spiritual practice and putting aside any insecurities and inhibitions. And to date, it has been successful.
Of course I offer clothed classes as well. Yoga is yoga with or with out clothes.
So why practice yoga? Why men’s yoga? Why naked Yoga?
I began yoga 27 years ago looking for something that would help me get in touch with my body and spiritual growth. At the time I had enjoyed working out at a gym but it seemed to lack something. A few books I had read introduced yoga to me so I looked for a class. Throughout the years the practice was many different things to me. At times I felt it was breaking me down, other times I felt it was building me up. With more study I realized that was what the practice was all about. Similar to the practice of Zen Buddhism, in order to fully realize ones self, one needs to release preconceptions and accept that everything and everyone is connected. Despite my personal insecurities and self-imposed limitations, through my yoga practice I began to “lighten up” and began to accept others and myself. Of course this is still a process and always will be as long as I draw breath.
Being a gay man or, as I usually put it, “a man who happens to be gay.” I never found my place in the male society. I didn’t feel that I fit in with the gay community and even though at times my social circles were mainly heterosexuals, I didn’t feel at home there either. I was confused for a long time. I felt like I was supposed to be on one side of the fence or the other but, I didn’t want to choose just one. I didn’t see why I had to.
Opening a yoga studio gave me the opportunity to embrace that challenge and combine the differences. I had experienced so much growth through my yoga practice, and I wanted to share that with as many men as I could.
Many men use sports or weight lifting as means of identification. There is this machismo that comes along with that definitely serving a purpose but it doesn’t need to be the end all to our identification. Most of us were raised with media portrayal of what a man is. We could be a businessman, a military man, a policeman, a cowboy, a sports “hero” or even The President. Take any male character from any movie and we had a blueprint of what we could be. But the one thing we were not taught was to embrace our selves. Yoga worked for me to bring all that together and through trial, error and success, I have fully embraced myself as a man. Not as a gay man, but as a man.
The yoga I teach is not for just gay men, nor is it just for straight men. It’s for all men and the main intention behind the naked classes as well as the clothed classes is for the students to embrace just that. Shed your clothes, or not, but shed your ego, embrace yourself in a community of men where there is no social challenge or bravado that needs to be won.
Breathing, Communication and Letting Go
Heavy sigh. A release. The body calms for a moment and the mind empties.
Our breath is one way we communicate with our body and mind. Our emotions and the physical self are preempted by breath. If we breathe shallow, not allowing enough oxygen to actually connect with our movements we become sluggish and weak. Our thought process slows, our muscles do not benefit from proper oxygenated blood flow.
In the practice of yoga we engage in Ujjayi breath. Ujjayi means “Victory”. It is the internal sigh at the back of the throat that we draw deep down into our solar plexus stoking the fires of prana (energy). Ujjayi is used throughout the entire Ashtanga practice and usually used only intermittently during a ‘regular’ yoga class.
My very first yoga instructor stressed the importance of breath work and how the mind and body would respond to long, slow deep breathing. He encouraged Ujjayi breath to carry out the old, used stale air to be followed by rampant thoughts and feelings. Inhaling, new clean fresh air to purify the mind and the body.
With focus on Ujjayi breath, we allow the sound of the internal sigh to fill our head, not allowing random thoughts to invade and take over. Following the breath, our mind becomes still and we can get a better perspective on the posture we are working with. And with a longer breath we can also move deeper into the posture.
Breathing can be a way of communication with the body. I often instruct my students to breath into a tired, sore or stiff muscle. “Allow the breath to internally massage the muscle”.
The more we breathe into a posture we can also experience a sense of letting go. That is after we unclench our jaw and relax the muscles we are working. Relax the muscle? Yes, relax in deed. The muscle can be active and still relax. It’s this relaxation that can allow us to experience a lengthening when we are holding a posture.
In lengthening a muscle we are allowing the muscle to release its tension. Releasing musculature tension also allows the mind and emotions to relax. I believe the more we allow ourselves to release, the stronger we become. Our mind and body work more efficiently when we are in a clear relaxed state.