31 August 2017No Comments

Teaching yoga and selling honesty

Teaching yoga and selling honesty

Six months ago, I began writing a book about yoga, addiction and recovery. Since then I have been interviewing people in the international yoga world on the subject. I was thrilled when celebrity yoga teacher, author, meditation teacher and former tobacco and marijuana addict Francesca* agreed to answer some questions from me by email.

*not her real name

Francesca attributes her sobriety to the power of mindfulness and the process of becoming aware of one's own psychological make up. (The term sobriety originally denotes abstinence from alcohol, but is now loosely used to describe the recovery from substance abuse in general). Today, Francesca champions the self-healing effect yoga can have, which makes her a perfect fit for my book.

In recent years Francesca has given several interviews about her recovery from tobacco and marijuana addiction. But when I send my questions to her she tells me she can only answer four of them as she is extremely busy. She makes it clear that she wants final say on what will be printed. I feel like my hands are tied before I have even written the first line.

From yoga teacher to modern heroine

Francesca started out as a yoga teacher in the late nineties when, according to her, there were only three major studios in New York. (I assume she means only three with a strong reputation). Later on she co-owned a big studio in Manhattan for twelve years.

Over the last few years she has made a transition that most New York based yoga teachers would die for. Now she is and does so many things that I have trouble wrapping my head around them. She is a producer for an online meditation platform, business owner, mentor, online teacher and public speaker, as well as being a mother and an author.

Francesca is artistic, eloquent and graceful. It seems like there is nothing she can't do. She's a modern heroine. As I watch her videos and listen to her talks, I am struck by her perceptiveness and honesty. Her way of sharing is personal. She speaks like she's one of us.

Her answers to my questions have a different ring to them. She is concise and no fuss. But I get the feeling of being held at arm's length. And I wonder why.

Reconciling mindfulness and escape

When she became a yoga teacher, Francesca had already been smoking marijuana and tobacco for years. She says she used to smoke to escape, to hide, to celebrate, to be sad, to handle hard moments. It was, like so many addictions are, an attempt to run away. But Francesca was lucky enough to be surrounded by friends who, as she puts it, are leaders in the sober world.

At some point one of her mentors told Francesca she couldn't serve “God” if she was getting high every day. One day later she quit.

I cannot help being surprised that these two contradictory lives – the one of the yoga teacher and of the secret smoker – could co-exist for so long. What did it feel like to encourage clarity and self-awareness in her students while not telling the whole truth about herself?

Talking about recovery

Unlike other yoga leaders who have been in the media for this or that scandal, Francesca has been open in talking about her former addiction and the process of recovery. I wonder how she found the courage to go public with her story. Or was it a calculated move?

According to Francesca, discussing her own addiction story publicly has helped hundreds of people become clean. I don't doubt they feel empowered by her story. It's comforting to know that, whatever the issue at hand, we are not alone. Yes, Francesca has struggled with addiction, but she floated out on top. She found a way to turn her redemption into a engaging characteristic.

What is real?

If I compare Francesca's answers to my questions to her other interviews, I can't help but feel that they sound rehearsed. It feels to me like there is an image to be preserved and a story to protect. Which makes me ask the question: What is real about Francesca, her addiction and her story?

Francesca was one of the stars in a North American yoga community that emerged in the late nineties. Around fifteen years later the unethical behavior of its founder was exposed and the community started to decompose overnight. Francesca was one of the first to resign her teaching certification. At the time, she claimed she had been planning to leave and pursue her own path for a long time.

Ever since then Francesca has kept her record clean, even after admitting to her former addiction. However, I have an inkling that a lot of thought and effort goes into watching over how she is perceived. And that started me thinking.

Am I selling honesty?

Yoga helps us arrive at honesty by becoming still and observant. One of the big questions yoga asks is: Can we be honest with ourselves and still embrace the parts of us that we are not proud of? To me, that is the essence of spiritual, or just human, maturity.

At the same time we want to please, to shine, to be seen and appreciated. We have the impulse to cover up the ugly parts of us. Also, I'm sad to say, it has become essential for any yoga teacher to build some sort of public persona to make a living.

As I write this I am spending a week in Andalucia, teaching a yoga retreat. As I observe myself during the yoga sessions, I realize that it's almost impossible to teach without slipping into a role. I think about Francesca and my own work as a yoga teacher and I find myself considering whether even talking openly about our shortcomings has become a sales strategy for yoga teachers. Isn't that how we make people feel at ease and okay with who they are? And isn't that part of what makes them come back for more?

You must be enlightened

Yoga teachers are in a tricky position. We are expected to teach by example. So we feel compelled to understand our own psyche and acknowledge our imperfections. At the same time, there's the undeniable pressure to present ourselves as the one who is already there, already enlightened. We think that to be seen as a leader we need to be flawless.

About five years ago I gained a lot of weight. I felt so ashamed. I was sure people would think: “That's not what a real yoga teacher is supposed to look like.” I finally lost the weight when I became a mother and the world stopped revolving around me, myself and I.

Why do we think taking the seat of the teacher means climbing on a pedestal? Because to some extent it's true. We do need to appear to be leaders to inspire. Over dinner tonight my students here in Andalucia discussed how they would never go to a yoga teacher who doesn't have a more advanced practice than their own. I involuntarily found myself questioning whether my practice is actually “better” than theirs.

This desire to be honest while also projecting a yoga teacher my students can trust creates an inner tension in me. In the yoga world and when more is at stake, the consequences can be terrible.

It breaks my heart to see how many internationally renowned yoga and meditation teachers have been hiding a secret. The recent death of Michael Stone, yoga and meditation teacher and author of eight brilliant books, such as “Awake in the world” and “Yoga for a world out of balance”, is one tragic example out of many.

All his life he had been suffering from bipolar disorder and only a handful of people knew. I think the most powerful thing he could have done for his community would have been to share that even he had a shadow. A recent article by his brother reveals that he was on the brink of revealing his condition. On top of all his suffering he chose to add the stress of hiding and living in fear of being found out. I can hardly imagine how desolate he must have felt.

I believe nothing gives us more credibility than being authentic and vulnerable but putting yourself out there takes courage.

My moral high horse

I have always been adamant that a true yogi shouldn't hide behind a facade. In my heart of hearts, I condemn people like Francesca who have sold their soul in order to appear on glossy magazine covers and be the talk of every Wanderlust yoga festival.

I've always thought that honesty should be rewarded. So deception should be punished right? All things being fair, how can someone who carefully choreographs their own appearance have so many followers? I have friends that I respect who consider Francesca their spiritual mentor. This perplexes me and leaves me with a sense of bitterness, and yes, maybe even envy.

From my moral high horse, I always felt that I have succeeded in being one hundred percent real. When I teach I try to sound like me. But yesterday, as I was listening to myself instructing pose after pose, I realized: It's not possible. I try to sound natural, but I still use a softer voice and more poetic language. I'm not being fake, but this is also not the way I talk to my friends over dinner.

The teacher's persona

All this time I have prided myself on my authenticity. But isn't presenting yourself as the real thing just another strategy in constructing an image as a yoga teacher? I have convinced myself that I am superior, but maybe I'm not. Perhaps none of us can completely help the impulse to control how we are perceived.

After the retreat, I asked a wise student of mine to share her view of the projected teacher's persona. She told me that as long as the yoga teacher isn't obviously putting on an act, the subtle role play makes her feel safe and guided. So perhaps the persona of the teacher is actually necessary for the transmission of knowledge.

I wonder if someone like Francesca has these thoughts too. I can't imagine that a yogi would go through life without questioning themselves time and again. There is only one thing that reassures me: The self-doubt I'm having is a sign that at least there is awareness. This is not so different from an addict shaking off the denial and recognizing his pattern of dependence. Outwardly nothing changes, but being conscious makes all the difference.

8 June 2017No Comments

The typical yoga teacher

The other day I was sitting on a park bench with a friend and fellow yoga teacher. She was thinking out loud and debating whether she should cut back on her part-time job and take on more yoga gigs. Then she turns to me and says: “I don't dare because, you know, I'm just not a typical yoga teacher. I don't feel legitimate.”

My jaw dropped. What on earth is a typical yoga teacher? Because I'm certainly not one of them.

Next thing I know, she tells me how some new yoga teacher moms are doing feverish research into vaccination. Because apparently they're on a mission to find the one correct yogic way to do this. Which is not to vaccinate at all or if you must, then only after age one and a half.

What it takes to be legit

A few moments passed and I started to grasp the deeper meaning of this. Indeed, there are many unspoken rules to being a yoga teacher. There's a lot of shoulding out there. You would think that these rules derive from what students expect from their yoga teacher. But come to think of it, it's the yoga teachers who have set the bar so vertiginously high for each other.

I started thinking about my own situation. The pressure to be and behave a certain way has definitely increased over the years, even though I have always refused to change in order to fit in. Since I have added “mother” to my job description, the dos and don'ts seems to have multiplied.

Here's a little taste of the high ideals we – the yoga teacher guild – impose:You should be at least a vegetarian, if not a vegan. You should eat lots of healthy meals, enriched with super foods, and ideally post photos of them on social media. You should show off your inversions and other contortions on Instagram. Don't forget the hashtags.

If you become a mom, you should breast feed your child for at least a year. After giving birth, you should stay home for as long as you possibly can. Daycare before age one is frowned upon.

You should know about herbal remedies and globuli, because God forbid the child should ingest any Western medicine. You should always be calm and collected. Even with a toddler going through the terrible two phase.

Truth time

I am not vegan. We refrain from eating meat at home. But if I'm a guest and someone offers me meat I won't turn it down. I am fond of the Ayurvedic idea that if someone prepares food for you, it's an offering made with love. So it will be healing.

I only nursed my son until he was four months old. I went back to work because I was self-employed back then. I had no paid maternity leave in Switzerland because I had previously been abroad for too long.

Also, I experienced intense surges of aggression that were directed at my husband. I was up nursing during the night and he was slumbering peacefully by my side. I will be honest, I couldn't handle the (biological) unfairness. I knew that if I didn't gradually start weaning my relationship would pay for it.

So I chose me. I chose the way that made me more relaxed about everything.

I'm not telling my story to make my choices sound good. I am telling it to make a point. If you look behind closed doors, you realize that every situation is different. We cannot apply the same rule to everyone out there.

Being a mother to yourself

Yes, the decisions I have made seem selfish, but were they? They have kept me healthy, balanced and sane. They enabled me to function. Physical and psychological well-being are essential to being a yoga teacher and a mother. Or to anyone who wants to be at service.

I am aware that many people may disagree with me. However, these were the right decisions at that time. I may opt for a different path today. And yet for another one tomorrow.

As yoga teachers, we encourage our students to become inquisitive and observant in order to respond to what they need. And how many times do we speak about the kind of compassion that begins with yourself? “Don't push in your Asana practice, respect your limits, be gentle with yourself.” Yet when it comes to our own decisions, we have the impulse to follow the guidebook. We think that there are some golden rules that can't be bent.

What yoga teaches

About a decade ago, yoga changed my life completely with one simple tool: It has taught me to gaze inwards, make out what is there and react appropriately. When I was newly pregnant, I was still a vegetarian. But one night, I was craving fish. I didn't even know I was pregnant yet. But a voice inside was telling me I needed animal protein.

Any mindfulness practice, not just yoga, gives us the chance to pause, listen and be honest about what would be beneficial at that particular moment. Not what made sense three months ago. Not what we believed in when we were going through the rebellious phase. Only what is wholesome right here, right now.

For me the phrase “typical yoga teacher” implies that there is a right and a wrong way to do things. I might be biased, but it feels to me like we have to fit into that category in order to be a good yoga teacher. Or a loving mom, or a respectable human being. This also means that anything outside of that spectrum is not okay and not good enough.

And how is that compassionate? How is that typical for a yoga teacher?

28 May 2017No Comments

Yoga and business – is it a paradox?

If you had told me a few years ago that I would be involved in running a yoga studio, I would have laughed. I never wanted that kind of responsibility. I have seen too many solid yoga teachers losing it when confronted with financial pressure. It messes with your head.

My naive former self

About five years ago I was teaching a regular class at a local yoga studio. One day the owner sat me down and told me she was going to cancel my class.

I was confused and disappointed because I knew the flimsy reasons she was giving me could not be the truth. I also took it too personally. I thought it was bad press for my teaching. Yes, it was true the attendance had been low, but wouldn't she give me a little more time than a few months to grow the class?

Today I understand that it was a pure business decision. She couldn't justify to keep paying with those numbers. From a business perspective it was only reasonable to take the class off the schedule.

Back then, of course, I couldn't see it that way. I was sullen and hurt. I protected myself by being condescending. I told myself and others that this person couldn't be a real yogi. A yogi would know that things need time to evolve. You need to trust and surrender and give people another chance.

Inner conflict

Today I understand that yes, you have to trust and surrender, but that's not enough to keep a yoga studio in business. Or have you ever tried telling your accountant they need to trust and surrender? I now regret this naive reaction of my younger self.

They say you should never judge until you have walked a mile in someone else's shoes. About a year ago I was handed these particular shoes. I became a partner in one of the largest yoga studios in town.

It seemed like a good time in my life to take on more responsibility, but I still had no idea what it involved.

In the past I had always observed the inner conflict of teachers who own the place in which they teach. I didn't want that. I was afraid I would end up sitting at the front of the class counting bodies and figuring out how much money the studio was making with that particular class. Not exactly what you'd want your yoga teacher with the welcoming smile to think while you roll out your mat, right?

A fine line

But that's the sticking point: Yoga teachers are expected to always be calm, serene and compassionate. Business, however, may require you to be outspoken and to have your own best interest at heart. Sometimes you have to draw a line. Sometimes you have to say to a student: “I'm sorry your class package expired three months ago. I can't renew it, you will have to get a new one.”

Having to be a business person can mess with a yoga teacher's head. One minute you're accepting money for your class and the next minute you take the teacher's seat and deliver a nice dharma talk on life's abundance and selfless service.

And yet, as a business you have to have rules and you have to ask people to kindly respect these rules. Otherwise you eventually will have to shut down the place because you couldn't pay rent. And that won't make anyone happy either.

The thing is, I don't think there is actually a paradox. I refuse to believe that yoga and business don't go together. Why shouldn't it be possible to reconcile being kind-hearted and business-minded at the same time? Why can't we be outspoken and compassionate at the same time? It is my deep inner conviction that you can say and do anything with love.

Running a business is a bit like being head of the family. You want to take care of your employees and clients, as if they were your children. You want to see them happy.

Sometimes you have to be strict and you have to say no. As any parent knows, that won't make you popular. But in hindsight, it may make sense.

And yes, it is a fine line. When you try to balance, you're bound to fall. That doesn't mean I will stop trying.

20 May 2017No Comments

The Change in The World

Teaching is talking

As I was subbing for a friend, I was asked to talk about the famous Gandhi quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
As I thought about I'd want change about myself, the answer came fast from within: I want to talk less. Which is funny, considering that I talk for a living. Teaching yoga is mostly talking.

This may well be what attracted me to it in the first place. Teaching yoga includes weaving a web of words to describe movement, sensation and thought patterns. I love finding the ideal image for a specific coordination, so that the body just falls into place.

The way we measure and intonate with our voice creates a rhythm for the practice. It is so much like writing poetry, or even like writing in general. Which obviously is another thing I am drawn to.

Different teachers have different qualities and use their skills differently. I like to make the most of my verbal cues. I feel that it carries the room, and it also carries me.

Words are my gift and also my curse. Sometimes I'm too enamored with words and I end up talking too much. Teaching becomes over-teaching and over-explaining.

It is not about information, it's about experience

If you are a teacher yourself – any kind of teacher – this will sound familiar: At the end of the day, it is less about the information or the knowledge you impart. It is more about the atmosphere you create for people. It is about the experience they are taking away.

If you keep talking at people, there's not a lot of space left for self-exploration. They never get the chance to just feel for themselves. Too much information takes away from direct personal experience.

One of my most influential teachers says very little. His classes are almost eerily quiet. And also always, always packed. It seems that most of us appreciate a little bit of silence. A short break from the constant overwhelm of information out there. We have so little time to just feel.

The world throws so much information at us: We are told what and what not to eat, how to be a good mother, which therapies for what ailment, what a fulfilled sex life looks like, which gemstone is going to balance our mood swings, we are told how to speak in the politically correct way, how to handle our finances, which shoes with which lipstick... We need a break.

Only in the gap does change occur

Very rarely do we take the time to sit quietly and take note of what we feel inside. We override our emotions with our intellect, editing them until they fit some lofty expectation. How are we supposed to know how we feel and how to react if we are always chewing on some information or other?

I think this is why a lot of people try yoga or meditation. It is simply a quiet space where we can feel whatever we are feeling right now. As the yogis like to say, we can just sit with whatever arises. Once we know what's going on, we also know what we need and how to answer.

Ayurvedic psychologists say that a skilful yoga practice should be one third about the body, one third about the information or the knowledge, and one third should be silence. For only in the silence can the soul unfold. Only in the stillness of a deep Savasana do true shifts in consciousness occur.

In my experience, moments of clarity that arise during silent reflection slowly add up to bigger changes. They draw circles. They affect not only us, but gradually also the way we behave with our family, our friends, our co-workers, people on the bus. And so we become a change in the world. Maybe the one we wanted to see.

But there's no point in me telling you, really. You have to experience it for yourself.

30 April 2017No Comments

The Language of Yoga


When I was in university I studied with famous sociolinguist, Professor Peter Trudgill. He was anything but a dry scholar. His lectures would fly by while he entertained us with phonetic variations of African tribal dialects and British accents.

He always used to say that language was alive as long as it was spoken. If a language is used, it changes all the time. And the more it is spoken, the more variations, new words, slangs, idioms are constantly created. Once a language ceases to be actively used, it stops evolving and starts to die.

If you want to squeeze a language into a standardized set of rules, you are strapping it into a corset and suffocating it. You can write your grammar books and dictionaries, but in a few years, they will be obsolete. Language as we knew it will have moved on.

Of course we do need a few rules, just to understand and be able to write to each other. But what was wrong a few years ago, is no longer agrammatical today. New words pop up like mushrooms. Ever heard the word “woke?” Exactly.

Yoga is a language like any other. More and more people all over the world speak it fluently. Vinyasa stlye, so to speak. And yes, alignment-based rules and approximate class skeletons are not a bad idea. But you can't stop people from playing with it. New ways to phrase a yoga sequence will develop all over the world.

It's still yoga. Just like Iberian Spanish, Cuban Spanish and Argentinian Spanish all sound different. But they're all still Spanish.

Teaching and even practicing yoga means becoming a channel through which this language is expressed. In the words of Sting: “I don't think you write songs. They come through you.” We are all unique individuals, shaped by our personal experienes, influences and predispositions. We rub off on the language as we speak. What trickles out of my individual channel will sound different from what comes through yours.

We may color yoga in our own way, but it is still yoga. Just with a different accent and different cadence. Personally, I like the fact that there can be no right and wrong. Simply different channels and different colorings.

I am always baffled when teachers want to freeze their thing into a lineage or brand or style. That means they label it and create set of rules that need to be upheld. It paralyzes the language. I feel gagged just thinking about it.

There is no such thing as keeping a lineage pure. The lineage became what it is today, because of constant change. If it is kept alive by practitioners, it is also bound to keep changing.

Just last night my husband said to me: Knowledge and love are the only things that are not reduced by sharing. The more we speak and exchange, the more refined language becomes. This is how we learn new words and ways that will benefit us all.

I believe we all want permission to play with it and to find our own way into yoga. Granted, it takes more courage to investigate, tune in and carve our own path. It's more work than following the standard grammar.

When you learn a new language, you want to be able to eventually joke in it right? You want to be yourself in this foreign syntax. When you slip into yoga, you want it to feel like a second skin. Otherwise it's not natural, it's just another corset.

17 April 2017No Comments

The Courage To Be Frail

Today I went to see my godchild. She is 6 days old – a little snip of a tiny human. A little bundle, utterly helpless, yet with the power to make me speechless (that doesn't happen often). I was touched to see the little family – now of four – and honored to be one of the first visitors. I've never been a godmother before. I never dreamed it would make me feel so special, to know a dear friend wants me to be a significant part of her daugher's life.

And yet, I came away with a sense of sadness and longing. I didn't understand. Could it be that I was jealous? But I didn't feel jealous. My heart is full to the brim with happiness for them and gratitude for my own family. Could it be that, my son being two and a half years old now, I was starting to sense the pressure of society's dictate that a family is incomplete with less than two children? I'm happy to admit that this dictate may be a product of my imagination. But seriously, people always ask whether you're thinking of a second. And if they don't ask with words, they ask with their interrogating looks. But I have never felt rushed before. Our son was anything but planned, and I have always felt it was only natural for me to take my time before I might potentially decide to do this again. Or is it just my biological clock ticking? It has never ticked before. Some women have always known that they wanted children. I never knew. It just happened to me. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, but honestly, I never heard a tick tock.

So then why was I sad? I felt somehow deficient. Like there was something I should have done, but I missed my boat. Then I realized what I felt. The very thing I keep going on and on about in my prenatal yoga classes: We need to allow ourselves to soften and become vulnerable. We need to give ourselves time and space, because it is an incredibly delicate transition. And we need to be frail, to open up and let that little being get under our skin. And how long has it been since I have allowed myself to be anything but strong and on top of things? Ages.

Again, maybe this is my imagination, and I just keep blaming it on society. But I do feel like the world expects a young working mom to perform and keep all the balls up in the air. In Switzerland, the time that is legally set for maternity leave is 14 weeks. (There is no legal obligation for an employer to offer paternity leave, by the way). So we get a couple of weeks before delivery and a few weeks after that to rest and nurse and – you know – do the warm and mushy thing called mothering. For that time, the world will cut us some slack. Then you put your tough shell back on and go back out.

Don't get me wrong. I very much enjoyed going back to work. It was wonderful to slip back into the skin of the yoga teacher. I'm so grateful for the stimuli my work offers me. And yet, I can't help resent that we are not allowed more time to soften, to prepare for the biggest change in a person's life and to just be for a while. Experts say, it takes as long as the pregnancy lasted for a full recovery. Yes, that would be nine months to a year. In Taiwan, many women quit the moment the stick turns blue. The process of transformation starts then. Not two weeks before giving birth when you can no longer sleep and have to pee every half hour. And I believe it is a process that deserves more than just five minutes of our attention.

So, I am sad. I didn't cut myself enough slack. I was self-employed. Six weeks after giving birth I was teaching again. And you know what? I cannot blame society. Being a mom means being a lionness as well. While we may feel vulnerable during pregnancy and shortly after giving birth, we also develop some fierce protective instincts. We simply have to gather the courage to say: “I want this time off. I don't have a problem being the opposite of a superwoman for once in my life. I want time to settle into this new life situation, to be there for my family.” I cannot blame anyone else for not cutting myself more slack. I have a voice. I could have roared.

And maybe I'm afraid there won't be another chance.

15 April 2017No Comments

Becoming Spacious Again

Have you ever watched a baby breathe? Their bellies are so soft and round and they bulge even more with every inhale. Then the belly drops slightly with the exhale, like a parachute as it lands. Floop. For most of us, the breath pattern changes as we get older. Somewhere around adolescence, we start to breathe more superficially, higher up in the thorax. We just take in a little sip of air to fill the upper part of the lungs and then expel it again. As if we were saying: “I don't have time to breathe, let's get this over with quickly.” Some people also develop what's called reverse breathing. They suck in the belly as they inhale, hollowing it out, and push it out when they exhale. That's the way I used to breathe when I first came to yoga. I believe I developed the habit because I was dancing during all of my teenage years. Of course, when you're standing at the ballett barre with mirrors covering most of the wall space, you don't want your belly to stick out. So they teach you to breathe only into the side ribs while keeping your belly flat and in.

That is not inherently wrong. In some martial arts it's actually the indicated way to breathe. It's simply a different way to use (or not use) our diaphragm. For deep abdominal (also called natural or diaphragmatic) breath we engage the diaphragm, which is our primary breathing muscle. The diaphragm is dome-shaped when it's relaxed and its circular rim is attached to our bottom ribs and lower spine. When we contract the diaphragm it flattens out, thereby pushing down on the abdominal organs (that's why the sack of organs bulges forward) and creating a negative pressure in the chest cavity. To even out the pressure in the thorax, we reflexively let the air stream in, i.e. we inhale fully.

When we use the reverse technique, we put the cart in front of the horse. We suck in the abdomnial organs, so the diaphragm has more space and the pressure in the chest cavity drops, so we can fill the lungs with air. Like I said, just a different technique. Both are valid, but we need to be aware that each of the patterns sends a different message to the brain. Superficial, quick breathing is connected with stress or the famous fight or flight response. Deep, full breathing is associated with the relaxation response in the nervous system. And here's what's really important to know: The breath and the nervous system (or the brain) mutually influence each other!

When we are mentally stressed our breath speeds up. If we consciously slow down our breath, we trigger the relaxation response in the nervous system. This makes the breath a unique tool to stay calm even when things get hectic.

Chest breathing or reverse breathing is very prominent in men or athletes, people who are supposed to be competitive, very A-type, and alas, stressed out. People who are consumed with the need to be good enough. If we get used to breathing in a way that signals stress to the body – yes, you guessed right – we will permanently be in stress response, even when there is absolutely no need. Over time, that can be harmful to our overall health.

One night, as I was teaching Pranayama, it dawned on me that chest and reverse breathing patterns arise out of fear. And what are our fears in this incredibly priviledged life? We are afraid of not meeting a deadline, of being late for a meeting or of freezing during a presentation. We are afraid of not being attractive or smart enough. We are afraid to show our wounds and our insecurities. It just recently occurred to me that many of those fall under the category of “being afraid to take up too much space.” Because if we were too conspicuous in one way or another, we would fill out most of the stage, we would draw attention to ourselves. If we were too honest or too loud in some way, we would use up too much space.

The breath reflects our fears: Could it be that babies breathe so fully because they have not had as many scary and scarring experiences (and they forget quite easily at the beginning)? Taking up space, also known as, screaming at the top of their (yes) lungs, is crucial for a baby's survival. But something happens along the way. We are taught that it's rude and inconsiderate to be too loud. We are taught – like I was at the ballett barre – not to take up too much space, breathing and otherwise. We become more hesitant when it comes to expanding and expressing. And naturally our breath will reflect that.

This is one of the many reasons why working with the breath or the formal practice of Pranayama can be so therapeutic and transformative. We learn the technique of deep abdominal breathing again. We train our diaphragm. And literally and figuratively, we begin to fill out the space again. We allow ourselves to be spacious without being apologetic about it.

As we learn to calm the breath we also signal to the brain that the whole system can relax. No need to fight or flee. We create a calm and serene inner environment. From such a place of clarity and security it is much easier not to be afraid.


Lie on your back or sit comfortably. Relax the abdomen to the point of letting it plop out. Place a flat hand or just a finger a few centimeters away from the wall of your abdomen. Inhale and try to let the abdomen inflate so it reaches your hand. Exhale, observe the wall of the abdomen dropping gently drawing in towards the spine and away from your fingers.
It's easier lying on your back, because the abdominal muscles can be more relaxed here. So this is a good place to start.
(Click to watch the gif)

Tip: Relax your jaw as you breathe. This will also influence the nervous system.

4 April 2017No Comments

Never Good Enough

Only recently, I looked around and realized: many people who come to yoga – and I am one of them – are A-type personalities. They are quick-thinking, efficient, ambitious, often successful, and used to being good at what they do. I have often wondered whether this personality type stems from nature or nurture? Some of us are naturally fiery, outgoing and have an unquenchable thirst for life. But I can't deny that being brought up in a society where hard work and successful performance are highly commended and recommended has molded us all a certain way. Is the said personality type attracted by yoga? Yes and no. We have all heard that yoga relaxes you, puts things into perspective and teaches you to let go, little by little. It is exactly what the doctor prescribes for the overly ambitious. It is also true that yoga is about turning your gaze inwards. It is not about looking around to check what the person next to you is doing, and certainly not about comparing. But guess what happens when a lot of A-type personalities practice together in the same room? Exactly. The very thing we thought ought to put some distance between ourselves and our hamster wheel, becomes yet another thing we have to be good at – even excel at.

As I took my first steps into the world of yoga, the practice itself was a revelation to me. With 20 years of dancing literally on my back (because my back was hurting), it was the first time I heard a teacher say: “Listen to your body. If you are tired today, there is option 1. If you feel that you can go deeper, this is option 2. If you feel that this is plenty, maybe backpedal a bit. If you can't breathe fully, then you may have asked too much of yourself today.” Revelation. I felt like I wanted to put up my hand and ask for clarification: “Really? I don't have to push myself and ignore the pain? I can ask myself what I need and then follow that intuition?” I could hardly believe it. I came from a black-and-white world where it was all about reaching the one ideal or die trying. Everything else was worth nothing. In yoga, it was no longer about fitting in or being good enough. It was simply about listening, giving an honest answer and then reacting with compassion.

I guess it is not surprising that once I started teaching, this became one of the one message I really wanted to convey. My classes can be vigorous and heat-building, but they are never about ignoring your limit. To this day I am suspicious of methods and teachers that tell students there is only one proper way to do a particular asana, practice or sequence. It is a valuable way, but it is not for me, as I believe it perpetuates the patterns of the A-type personality. Dangle a carrot in front of our nose and we will run full out until we get to that piece of vegetable. Even if we break our hind legs in the process. I can only speak for myself, but learning to slow down and observe, to recognize my limit has probably kept me healthy and injury-free all these years. And I'm certainly not one who asks little of herself.

I do have to admit that I am slightly two-faced here. You may hear me tell students to pace themselves, to respect the signals the body is giving them. I encourage them to investigate this feeling of inadequacy that spurs most of us on. And yet, I often don't walk the talk. While I have no interest in pushing myself in my physical practice, my inner dialogue is still shaped by the urge to be good enough. Still motivated by the inner child that wants to be seen, accepted and loved, and thus will go to great lengths to achieve and stand out.

It is easy to compartmentalize here, easy to think: “Oh, I've truly absorbed this into my yoga practice. I have developed compassion for myself. Check. Done.” But what about outside your yoga practice? In my experience the feeling of never being good enough is almost ineradicable. And maybe not just for A-type personalities. You may think you have softened and ushered it out the front door, but it will come back and sneak in through the backyard.

Why am I telling you this? I'm telling you just in case you have heard me phrase instructions in class and thought that I have really integrated this lesson. Just in case you thought that I am really so relaxed and chill about life. Just in case you thought I was able to stand in front of the mirror and say to myself: “I am okay. I am good enough. I deserve love without working hard to deserve it.” Well, I am not able to say that. I constantly feel like I still need to work harder to deserve. Over the years, working with so many people, teachers and students, I have learned that this is one of our deep innate fears: not to be good enough. And I am telling you this, so you will believe me when I say: We are all in the same boat here. And it is safe for me to assume that the work never ends. “Much of spiritual life is self-accpetance, maybe all of it.” (Jack Kornfield)

15 March 2017No Comments

The Go-To Emotion – From The Meditation Diaries

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

One night after showering and before bed I felt the spontaneous need to meditate after a long day. So I sat down on the bed, recited a mantra and then settled in for a moment of silence with my eyes closed.

Only seconds after that, my husband came in and slipped into bed next to me. He started fumbling for his phone and soon a lot of clicking and whooshing noises were reaching my left ear. I felt that this was extremely irritating, not to mention rude. My reaction was strong, probably because I am quite addicted to and enslaved by the phone myself. But isn't that a meditation classic? The first moments, when we have to get accustomed to stillness, we encounter resistance and we start looking for an excuse to escape. So there I was, getting irritated. I got so angry that I was on the brink of telling my husband – very brusquely and in no unclear terms – to please take his phone somewhere else. Right before I did, I remembered that meditation doesn't mean being still in the perfect silent environment. It means finding a little bit of stillness no matter what.

I also became aware of my returning visitor, as Jack Kornfield likes to call them: Most of us have one go-to emotion when things get rough or tricky. An emotion we immediately resort to when we stand with our back against the wall. For me, it's anger or irritability. You could say it's my Italian temper or my Ayurvedic constitution, called Dosha, which is quite fiery. The element of fire (called Pitta, in Ayurveda) has certain qualities also reflected in  our personalities: It is easily enflamed, flaring out, it devours and unfurls. It rages. Other people are more airy (Vata, for air/ether) or down to earth (Kapha, for water and earth together), so they are more unrooted or melancholy. Their tendency may be to react with sadness, depression, cofusion and indecision (for Vata) or stubbornness and inflexibibility (for Kapha). No matter what our go-to emotion is, meditation (especially difficult meditation) usually brings it out and offers a great opportunity to investigate it. Meditation is also a safe environment to quietly observe how emotion evolves.

In every day life, emotion often prompts us to act or react. For me, that usually means that I snap and someone ends up baffled or hurt. That evening, because I was meditating, I was a bit more observant and I could see that pattern unfold. I also could stop short of reacting and focus on me being a sealed container for my emotion. Instead of directing it outwards, I turned my gaze inwards.

I literally imagined myself as a closed glass container with a fire burning inside. And what happens to fire after a while when it is not fed with enough oxygen or fuel or wood? Correct. First it burns low, then it dies out. The same happens with any emotion, when it is not fed. This may sound like we are swallowing emotion and holding it in, but that's just a pessimistic way to phrase it. What I mean is quite the opposite: We can experience every fibre of our emotion without acting upon it. If you wait long enough, the emotion transforms or subsides. Even if it takes years, the emotion will change eventually. Or, as my teacher used to say: “If you give it space, it also has room to transform.”

This is why, especially to someone as impulsive as I am, meditation is a true gift. I'm still angry, I still get upset, but I now know ways to contain the fire. Sometimes I manage, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I still lash out, sometimes I can control my combustible being. Whatever happens, though, I am aware. I see it happen or I can at least say: “Oh here I go with my go-to emotion again!”

That is very different from blaming it on someone else, from looking for reasons to escape and the chance to look away. Meditation gives us a closed container so that we can stop to watch before we go on autopilot. That right there is the gift of meditation. We get to consciously decide: Which wolf are we going to feed?

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© Copyrights 2022-2023 | Elisa Malinverni |
All rights reserved | AGB| Kontakt & Newsletter

© Copyrights 2022-2023 | Elisa Malinverni | All rights reserved | AGB | Kontakt & Newsletter

© Copyrights 2022-2023 | Elisa Malinverni
All rights reserved | AGB | Kontakt & Newsletter