23 August 2017No Comments

Potty yoga

Rip off the bandaid

A little over a month ago we started potty training our son. A friend had just gone through the process with her slightly younger boy. She lent me a book by the (obviously American) expert potty trainer and author, Andrea Olson. It came highly recommended and was said to offer “non-coercive wisdom from first-hand experience teaching infant potty training for the past 5 years.”

My friend's words to me were: “It makes a lot of sense to me. When I quit smoking, I had to go cold turkey as well. It doesn't work if you gradually taper off to zero cigarettes. You just have to get it over with and rip off the bandaid.”

That's the strategy Andrea Olson promotes. Once you've taken the child out of his or her diapers, that option is no longer available (except maybe during the night). So one fine day, you tell your child that he or she is a big boy or girl now. Like all grown ups he or she will from now on sit on the potty to pee or poop, which you are to encourage playfully and cheerfully.

The potty journey

So the three of us embarked on the potty journey, excited that we would soon no longer have to change diapers several times a day. The book promises that every child older than eighteen month is ready to be potty trained. The statistics are indeed interesting: Until the fifties every child there were hardly any children still in diapers by the age of eighteen months. That's not surprising considering that was the era before washing machines and pampers, when you still had to boil and wash cloth diapers in your kitchen sink.

Andrea Olson guarantees that if you stick to the three-part plan – namely naked training at home first, then small outings with clothes, then normal life with clothes – the child will be fully potty trained in one month tops. Some children may even get the hang of it in a week or ten days.

So much for the pep talk.

Naked training was not a problem. We were spending a few days on a remote alp and mostly outdoors anyway. I have to admit that I was surprised how quickly my son understood that peepee was to go into the potty. But after more than a week, when we were already putting the naked training behind us, there was no progress with the poop. Every single time it went into his pants. Try washing poop out of toddler pants when your sense of smell is heightened due to prenatal hormones. A true test of a mother's love.

Like the book admonishes, we tried not to be annoyed or reprimand the child. But honestly, it's hard to keep your composure and compassion when dealing with a whole lot of shit. (Pardon my French).

Take the pressure off

After two weeks my husband and I were frustrated and somewhat clueless. I decided to call a friend who works as a parental advisor and has helped us out several times before. She listened to my detailed report and then said: “Why don't you just take the pressure off a bit?”

I felt a pang of guilt. My son is an extremely easy-going child. He rarely makes a fuss and adapts well in every situation. But if there's one thing he doesn't respond well to it's being forced to adapt too quickly. He needs time. Even when he arrived in this world, it took him a few weeks to find his bearings. He needed time to establish his sleeping and eating rhythms and settle in. After that, he was fine.

I knew he doesn't respond well to pressure. And after all, who can go when they're being rushed? Didn't Freud already connect the anal phase to the ability of letting go? I felt embarrassed that I hadn't thought of it.

So we eased up. We let him wear a diaper in the morning until he had done his number two. We asked him if he wanted the diaper whenever he felt the tummy ache that means he has to go. And within a few days, poop started going into the potty.

I think of all the yoga teachers I have met on my path who think that sometimes students need a little push. That may be true. It can be helpful to have your boundaries pushed a bit and try something new, like an arm balance or an inversion. However, I don't think that it works for every type of personality. Like my son, I don't like to be forced when I don't feel safe.

Is it possible to let go under pressure? I'm not sure. Sometimes we need to be eased in. Sometimes, all pressure does is achieve the opposite result.

There's no golden rule

Our culture teaches us that it's always advisable to rip off the bandaid. Quick and painless. But is it really? Is that strategy taking into account that we are not all made of the same stuff? Does that consider what we might be going through at any given time and that we all have a different history?

Or put in into the context of yoga class: Encouraging someone to overcome their fear of headstand by just doing it can be empowering for the student. But it can also cause them to be re-traumatized.

This is not the first time I liken being a mature adult to being a good parent (also to yourself). A good parent knows their child. They assess the situation and do what is called for and beneficial under the circumstances.

Unfortunately, this may mean that we can't rely on the same golden rule all the time. We have to stay awake and observant to gauge the right dosage. It has a lot to do with taking responsibility for ourselves, instead of applying what we heard is supposed to work. Ripping off the bandaid is not always the way to go.

I believe that yoga hands us all the tools to evaluate what the best treatment plan is. If we are willing to listen and respond appropriately, we may well discover that what was stuck will start to flow again.

18 August 2017No Comments

It’s about the experience

*one of my favorite ways to feel sensation these days: warrior two with a forward fold, keeping the right knee from falling inwards.

Forced to my knees

I haven't been able to practice much for weeks now. The first trimester of pregnancy is a bitch. I'm sorry, there's no other way to say it. At least, it seems to be for me. Morning sickness, also known as nausea that lasts all day, coupled with fatigue have forced me to my knees. But there's a silver lining. Because after more than one year of working non-stop and rarely taking a breather, I was finally forced to slow down.

Having reached week fourteen, the other day I was finally able to practice for a luxurious half hour. I enjoyed the feeling of stretching my muscles after a prolonged period of forced Savasana (corpse pose). I could feel my connective tissue creaking like a door that hasn't been opened in a while.

I thought to myself: Where have I been? And I didn't mean these last weeks of low blood pressure and retching. I was thinking of all these months of throwing my work-life-balance to the winds. How many times have I just rushed through poses, hardly able to stay for five breaths? How many times have I practiced just to get it over with? How many times have I been physically in a pose but elsewhere with my thoughts?

There are times when I doubt that yoga can still capture my attention: Maybe I should find something else to do recreationally. Teaching yoga is what I do for a living. It's almost everywhere, every waking moment. Maybe I need something new in order to be fully absorbed by it.

It's about the experience within

But one of my teachers often used to say: Don't go horizontal, go vertical. When you think you've seen it all, don't look around you, go deeper. I was reminded of his words during this first practice after some time. Even though my son was playing next to me and chattering away, I was in it, not next to it. I was immersed in the experience. I enjoyed every breath, even if the poses were strenuous after this time of lethargy.

I'm amazed that this could happen to me. Most yogis are sensation junkies, and I'm no exception. We love to experience the stretch, the pull, the opening. Letting ourselves feel sensation has the power to stop the thoughts from going in circles. It's the most recreative thing. I'm surprised that I've lost touch with that. And it's not the first time either.

Even though I came to yoga after twenty years of dancing and already had the coordination and flexibility, it was still a challenge. I had to work hard on building core and upper body strength and stability. Yoga is quiet, sutble work. I learned to focus on the inner workings of the body and mind. Learning to truly listen was a revelation to me.

And because it was so life-changing, I am surprised that connecting with the body can sometimes move into the background. Especially when I have always advocated that yoga is about the experience on the inside, not about getting better and bendier on the outside.

Why do we lose sight of the experience?

Something tells me that this can happen to all of us. Sometimes we turn into a yoga-robot and just go through the motions. We all lead busy lives or become lazy or distracted. It is easy for our yoga practice to become just another item to check off on our to do list.

For most of this year I was working non-stop and feeling weighed down by responsibility. Because yoga is what I do for a living I had to do a little bit, just to prep for classes. But my heart wasn't in it. Which now feels like a loss. Responsibility takes away from creativity or simply from the experience.

So I find myself being grateful for the nausea and my limbs that feel like lead. In a way, it was lucky there was something to slow me down. Now I can take in the world again. Particularly the microcosm that helps me cope with the macrocosm around me.

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.

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?

28 February 2017No Comments

The Voice Within – Yoga Becomes The Medicine Against All Odds

Six months ago, the mother of a student emailed me asking for private classes. The opening line of the message said “Dear Miss Malinverni, I have been looking... I have been looking for healing...” She told me about her diagnosis: She has a degenerative eye disease, which according to Western medicine cannot be cured and eventually leads to blindness. I replied that I didn't think I was the right person to help her. After all, I was only a yoga teacher, not a therapist, never mind a healer. However, this lady, let's call her Anja, would not take no for an answer. Eventually I agreed to setting up a few sessions.

For the last six months we have been working together. The first time I saw her, I had to hold back my tears. I was so touched by her trust in me and her willingness to be here. Strangely, even though I had no idea where I was going, I somehow knew where to start. I worked intuitively and created a practice that combines yin poses with different Pranayamas to soothe the nervous system. I created meditations around themes like taking refuge, accepting what is, trusting the process and allowing ourselves to be okay with only 50% of what we think is barely good enough. One Kriya particularly resonates with Anja: She loves Brahma Mudra because it is directly connected to the sense of sight. She says she feels a difference since she has been doing it regularly, which is now every night.

Anja's eyesight really is a handycap. There have been several occasions where her whole body was temporarily paralyzed in shock because out of the blue she could no longer see. Still she goes everywhere and tries to do as much as she can on her own. She is incredibly courageous and humble. Even though the work we do together is quiet and somewhat repetitive, I feel uplifted every time, and still as touched as I was the first time we met.

When we sit down together, I always ask her for an update on her health. She often tells me about her daunting doctor's appointments. Most of the experts she has seen either play her condition down or are flat out patronizing and tactless. There is one eye doctor who basically told her to get a grip and a white cane with a pair of dark sunglasses. But Anja is not the kind of person who gives up. Just a couple of weeks ago, she went to see a very special optologist. The optologist told her that due to a long ago car accident her pupils have shifted their position and are facing slightly outward. It is thus more difficult for the brain to create one single image from two slightly dislocated sources of information. Because of that difficulty Anja's nervous system is in constant fight or flight mode and the glands are constantly emitting stress hormones into her blood stream. Which also explains her chronic acidity and insomnia.

When she said this my eyes widened! Everything we have been doing over the last six months was aimed at calming and centering. I had intuitively chosen that approach because it seemed a no brainer that when the nervous system is more relaxed, all the resources needed for healing will be replenished. When we breathe deeply and relax our muscles, it tricks the body into what we call rest and digest mode (as opposed to fight or flight). In other words the parasympathetic nervous system responds and creates overall balance in the body. When we do something to relax us – and that could be as simple as going for a walk or reading a book – the brain assumes that there is no immediate danger and everything can let go: The heart rate decreases, the blood pressure drops, the blood flow is directed into the digestive tract. All bodily functions work harmoniously.

All Anja and I have been doing together is aimed at relaxing and regenarating the system. And in a flash we found out that this is the precise antidote for Anja's constant emission of Cortisol and Adrenaline.

I am realizing, however, that Anja knew. Not in an intellectual way. But she was so sure she wanted to see me and only me. I'm not saying this because I think I am particularly good or special. I am saying this because it reminds me of a miraculous thing: We know. We always do. If only we have the courage to elbow our intellect out of the way, another type of wisdom can get through. We begin to listen inwards and hear our inner voice. Call it intuition, gut feeling, inner guru, guidance. But it usually takes us down the right path.

Inspite of all the doctors talking down at her and ignoring her instincts, exhorting her to give up hope and settle for invalidity, Anja has never given up. She has listened to her inner voice and she has gone where that voice led her. Now, many months later, there is even a scientific explanation for what she immediately felt was the way to go. She was imperturbable. And she was right to be so.

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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