Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

2015 saw me teaching in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. It also saw my worldly goods put into storage in Harlem. With all that travel, I've given up a schedule of regular classes, but I continue to teach trainings and workshops all over the place. Keep an eye on the calendar here and on Facebook (JennieCohenYoga) for events.

Upcoming Workshops/Series

LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL! Therapy-Ball Self-Massage

Ritual Yoga, Denver, CO, May 14, 1:00-3:00

Vital Yoga, Denver, CO, June 11, 2:30-4:30

Moov, Louisville, CO, June 18, 1:00-3:00

A head-to-toe roll-out to release physical tension, relieve stress, and free breathing. This self-care modality will also help deepen your asana practice and awaken awareness of your body and your self. Best of all, you'll take a set of balls home with you, so you can roll whenever you wish!

GET HIP TO YOUR HIPS: Therapy-Ball Self-Massage to Release the Hips
The Yoga Place, Bennington, VT
July 15, 6:00-8:00

How in tune are you with the bony and muscular structures that make up your hip region? Why does pigeon pose continue to challenge you after all these years? Why does lotus posture seem an absolute impossibility? (Because, as you'll learn, maybe for your hip structure it is!)

In this workshop you'll learn ways to open up your hips beyond just stretching. You'll gain a new understanding of your unique hip structure and how to modify your yoga practice accordingly. You'll glean insights into assuaging pain in regions uptown (lower back) and downtown (knees) of your hips.

***FREE*** Class and Teacher Training Info Session

Inner Heat Yoga, Brattleboro, VT

July 16, 2:00-4:00

Curious about teacher training? Considering joining our YogaWorks TT at Inner Heat October-December 2016? Come get all your questions answered. Oh, and did I mention there will be a FREE class?

Upcoming Trainings

YogaWorks 200-hour Teacher Training

August 2016

Inner Heat Yoga
October-December, 2016
**FREE** Class and Info Session July 16, 2:00-4:00

YogaWorks 300-hour Teacher Training

Fall 2016

Watch this video for more insight on YW Teacher Training: http://www.yogaworks.com/teacher_training/video/

Teacher Training Video--Beijing Intensive

Here's a video compilation of footage shot during the May 2013 200-hour teacher training in Beijing: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNTYyMzMxODI0.html

Teacher Training Slideshow


Video: How To Recruit the Legs in Plank Pose

Check out this video filmed at Dance New Amsterdam. Many of my students there have an abundance of mobility, but they struggle to support poses that require upper body strength. This video shows how flexible bodies can recruit the power of the legs to make plank pose more accessible.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Standing Up Is Easier than Sitting Down

Standing up is easier than sitting down.

And I don’t mean that standing poses are more accessible than seated ones. I mean that applying effort—even strenuous effort undertaken consistently over a long period of time—is less challenging than accepting the results of our efforts, whatever those may be.

The Yoga Sutras address these two concepts: abhyasa or effortful practice and vairagya or nonattachment. Abhyasa is something you can actively do. If ustrasana, camel pose, is challenging, for example, you can hit the mat daily (that is, consistently) for as long as it takes, and with earnest exertion until your efforts yield improvement. Many of us are pretty good at putting in this type of assiduous work. Vairagya demands a different, quieter type of sustained perseverance. As you monitor your progress (or seeming lack thereof) in camel pose, you’ll have to repeatedly admonish yourself to detach from the end result and to accept—to really, truly embrace—the present expression of the pose. The contentment that arises from nonattachment is far more elusive than your heels.

In the pursuit of an objective, both practice and nonattachment are requisite. In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, B. K. S. Iyengar asserts the importance of both: “A bird cannot fly with one wing. It needs two wings to fly. To reach the highest spiritual goal, the two wings of yoga, abhyasa and vairagya are essential.” That practice entails work seems self-evident. Mr. Iyengar reminds us that adopting an attitude of nonattachment—simply sitting with things as they are—is equally vital.

The Sacred Way at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing is a splendidly serene, tree-lined stroll. On either side of the pathway animal statues are arranged Noah’s ark style—two by two. And, notably, every featured animal has a standing representation and a seated one. Statues exemplify the characteristics usually associated with abhyasa: consistent perseverance assumed indefinitely. But doesn’t the seated camel exhibit those traits just as much as the standing one? Sitting down isn’t passive; letting go—repose—requires sustained diligence. And that endeavor can be even more effortful than the more obvious work of standing erect.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fear, Fortitude, and Faith

Bakasana (crow pose) on a boulder in the middle of a running river? Folly or flight?

It’s been a long time since I had a go at a yoga pose that scared me, but I’ll admit to a bit of a heart flutter here. (It didn’t help that the only even outcroppings on the rock—the only level placements for my hands—were too far apart and required me to turn my hands and arms in a bit.)

Often in the context of an asana practice we’re asked to attempt a physical challenge that inspires fear. How do we discern whether it’s wisest to heed the fear and back off or whether it’s appropriate to forge ahead?

In sutra I.20 Patanjali advocates the application of faith, fortitude, keen memory, and discernment in the pursuit of a goal. (Of course, the specific objective Patanjali addresses is that of quieting the mind’s constant chatter. But by engaging with these principles in a readily tangible practice—asana—we can begin to grasp their utility in the less easily accessible realm of a meditation practice.)

The very act of self-assessment—Should I back off or proceed with the pose?—is an exercise in prajna, or discernment. We base our evaluations on how we acquitted ourselves in similar but easier postures. Before attempting a challenging pose, we prepare the actions in simpler poses. We train the body to recreate a learned movement pattern. This muscle memory, it can be argued, is the physical adaptation of the concept of smrti, the keen memory referenced in sutra I.20. Confidence that the body will access and apply the previously practiced patterns inspires sraddha, faith, in our ability to attain the goal. Virya, fortitude, lends the courage and persistence required to initiate an attempt and then to pursue achievement—however long the endeavor may take.

Accepting the process requires a detachment from the results of our labors. Here we have recourse to a fifth tool cited by Patanjali in sutra 1.20: surrendering the fruits of one’s efforts. Again, it should be acknowledged that I’m recontextualizing Patanjali’s lessons here. He advocates surrendering the fruits of one’s efforts to a higher source and that might rankle many modern asana practitioners. But the concept holds: the more active approaches to achieving an objective (cultivating discernment, muscle memory, faith, and fortitude) must be tempered by an acceptance of whatever result the efforts engender. And often, the letting go is by far the more arduous task.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Listen to Your Sole

Even the sacred requires the levity of a profane pun. And, no, I can’t claim credit for this one.

I found this statue in a park across from the studio where I taught in Beijing. I don’t know the statue’s story—the Chinese likely wouldn’t identify the subject’s posture as a yoga pose—but the shape was, to me, instantly recognizable as akarna dhanurasana.

Akarna dhanurasana means “bow to the ear”; it’s a shape where one foot is pulled back by the ear as one would draw a bow. Since the physical objective involves connecting the sole of the foot with the aural orifice, the listen to your sole/soul pun becomes just irresistible.

And the play on words raises a question: How do we shift from contorting the body into odd physical shapes to yoga’s deeper project, the examination of the self or soul? Edwin Bryant, in his commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, allows that asana can be a suitable channel to self-awareness, provided it is performed with the objective of using it to fix the mind on a single point and thereby quiet the incessant mental chatter that obscures one’s ability to see the self or soul. In other words, it’s the intention behind the action that makes yoga more than mere physical pursuit. If we’re concerned only to make sole meet ear, the undertaking remains an exercise in corporeal flexibility. If, on the other hand, we actively observe our reactions to the attempt—Are our efforts driven or lackadaisical? Do we respond to the results with smug satisfaction or with frustration?—building the shape becomes a vehicle for acutely tuning into the machinations of the deeper self. It becomes, in essence, an exercise in listening to the soul.

Monday, May 23, 2011

When an Earthquake Can't Rock the Boat

The Yoga Sutras devote only three aphorisms—less than 1% of the text—to asana, to posture practice. These three tell us that posture should be stable and easeful, that stability and ease is to be gained by consistent effort, and that practicing postures in this manner brings about “the strength to resist the shocks” of life’s vicissitudes. (I quote here from Charles Johnston’s 1912 translation.)

Truly, we use asana to hone the skill of remaining undisturbed in destabilizing situations. This point was driven home during a recent morning practice in Tokyo. I was holding navasana, boat pose, when suddenly I experienced a physical trembling. My first thought was of sutra I.31: trembling of the body or the breath indicates that a distraction has taken hold in the consciousness. Well that’s nothing new—I get distracted during asana practice all the time. Who doesn’t? But physical trembling so severe it feels like the room is rocking back and forth? Oh, right . . . I’m in Tokyo. This is an aftershock. In a flippant challenge to Mother Nature, I vowed to stay in the pose until the shaking subsided. This could be a matter of seconds or more than a minute. (I’m guessing it was some forty-five seconds or so.)

I can report that body and breath remained fairly even throughout the experience. The mind on the other hand? It was—as usual—beset by a torrential cascade of thoughts and impressions, some relevant to the incident and others seemingly unrelated . . . all while holding a yoga pose for a mere forty-five seconds on the eighth floor of a building during a freaking earthquake.

The idea is that through consistent, effortful practice, the mind too learns to keep its equilibrium despite external circumstances. So that nothing—not even a shaking of the very foundations below us—can rock the proverbial boat.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Steady Gaze

Why is there a focus (pun intended) on the drishti, the gaze, during asana practice?

In yoga, we use the physical postures as a tool to quiet the mind. The connection between the gaze and the mind is, of course, figurative—we focus the gaze to direct our attention. But there’s a physiological connection, too. The “eye is actually a part of the brain which grows outward to the surface of [the] body during embryological development” (Irene Dowd, Dynamic Dancing 43). In other words, when you look at someone’s eye, you’re actually looking at their brain. Talk about a window to the soul!

Thought waves, the fluctuations of the mind that we learn about in the Yoga Sutras, are productions of the brain. (At least, according to modern science. Traditional texts on yoga locate both the mind and—for want of a better translation—the soul in the heart, but that’s another discussion.) We can’t still the fluctuations of the mind at will but we can voluntarily fix the eyes on a gazing point. That is, we can physically stabilize a part of the brain. In so doing, we employ drishti as a method of quieting the mind.

Try this during your next asana practice: each time you come to down dog, latch your gaze to a point between your shins or up at your navel. How does committing to the drishti in just this one pose impact the overall effects of your practice?

Friday, September 10, 2010

What is core stability?

What do we mean when we talk about “core stability”? We mean the use of the muscles in the trunk to eliminate excessive movement of the spine and pelvis. When these bony structures are stabilized, we can move the limbs and head more efficiently.

For example, try this: come into vasisthasana (side plank). Lift your top leg a few inches above your bottom leg. Look up at your top hand, then down at your bottom hand. Repeat a few times. The muscles of your core had to prevent your spine and pelvis from moving around and knocking you off balance. If they successfully stabilized the center of your body, you were able to move your head and appendages freely without falling over. (You can get really funky with this experiment: try whipping your top arm around as if you were about to throw a lasso . . .)

We practice yoga, the Sutras tell us, to stabilize the fluctuations of the mind. For now, let’s view the mind as the core of consciousness. Yoga philosophy discusses organs of perception, through which we take in information about the world around us, and organs of action, through which we interact with the world around us. The organs of perception and the organs of action are essentially the mind’s “appendages.” Building stability in the mind, the core of consciousness, allows the appendages, the organs of perception and the organs of action, to function more efficiently. We then perceive the world from a place of improved steadiness and operate in it with more grace.

Of course, it’s easier to build core strength than it is to stabilize the fluctuations of the mind, so we start there.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Anatomy/Looking at Bodies Quiz

Take a look at the photo at the right. Where in my spine is the backbend most pronounced? What about the anatomy of the spine makes this possible?

Extension (bending backward) is much more readily available in the lumbar spine (the lower back) than in the thoracic spine (the upper back). This is due to the orientation of the spinous processes (the bony protrusions you feel when you touch someone's spine). The spinous processes in the lumbar region are short and are oriented posteriorly (toward the back). Those in the thoracic region are longer and are oriented downward. When you move into spinal extension (a backbend), each thoracic spinous process butts up against the one below it, limiting your range of motion. This explains why my thoracic spine looks kind of flat, rather than arced, in the photo.

Now, the law of compensation says that when mobility is limited in one area, a movement will express itself in the next available area. Usually in backbends that’s the lumbar spine, since it arches backward readily. I’m doing a darn good job here of elongating my lumbar. So what’s bending sharply?

Look at the image (from Judith Hanson Lasater's Yoga Body) to the right of the photo. Note that the spinous processes of the lowest three thoracic vertebrae (labeled T10, T11, and T12 in anatomical terms) aren’t as long as and don’t slope down as far as the other thoracic spinous processes. Their exact shape and orientation vary from individual to individual, but the shorter they are and the less they slope down the more hyper-mobile this region will be. As you can see in the photo, like most human spines, my thoracic spine doesn’t bend backward very much. Like most trained yoga practitioners, I've learned to elongate my lumbar spine in a backbend. HOWEVER, I am fairly mobile in the region of T10-T12 (we can infer that those spinous processes are short and don’t curve down much) and my mobility there manifests as a sharp angle in my backbends. (Notice also that my ribcage is displaced to make room—my lower front ribs are a bit “puffy.” If I knitted them together, I’d have a more even arc in my backbend.)

For a really extreme demonstration of this phenomenon, go to http://esutra.blogspot.com/2006/01/yoga-girl-video.html. (And, no, I CANNOT do that. Not even close.)


Please drop a line: jenniecohenyoga@gmail.com