What defines a yoga therapist versus a skilled yoga teacher?

Many people assume yoga, in general, is therapeutic and therefore all yoga teachers with experience and training can call themselves a yoga therapist. But there is a big difference between teaching what might be an incredibly good yoga class or private lesson and being an authentic yoga therapist. In fact, the difference is so defined that any yoga teacher who is a member of Yoga Alliance must sign an affidavit that they will not call themselves a yoga therapist unless they have formal training in yoga therapy. Of course, that doesn’t stop many yoga teachers from claiming to be yoga therapists despite their agreement not to do so, even though, should they be turned in, the penalty is dismissal from the Yoga Alliance organization. So why do yoga teachers still claim to be yoga therapists even though they have agreed not to use the title? Usually, it is not because they are trying to pass themselves off as something they are not, but more a case where they themselves don’t know the difference between authentic yoga therapy and being a skilled yoga teacher.  Ignorant of the scope of a yoga therapist’s education and roles, they figure they deserve the title, with or without the training. Unfortunately, anyone claiming to be a yoga therapist who is not IAYT certified is most likely not aware of the intricacies of yoga therapy and are unlikely to be following the protocol or delivering authentic yoga therapy services.

A trained yoga therapist not only learns yoga asana, pranayama, meditation, philosophy, Ayurveda, and refined elements of classical yoga as all advanced yoga teachers do, but is trained to understand pathologies, common treatments and medications, psychological impacts, and have sensitivity training in many areas. They have spent hours reviewing case studies to learn how to approach health challenges in the most effective way, teaching them to see past the obvious injuries or disorders to recognize the complex issues that result from being in each particular state of ill health. It is almost as if a yoga therapist is a talk therapist, physical therapist, and occupational therapist rolled into one with the platform of yoga as their healing modality. In most cases, clients are working with one or more of the healing professionals mentioned above and the yoga therapist is not meant to replace any of these health professionals, but to support their work and be a part of a team assisting an individual on their healing journey. Because of this, a yoga therapist must also learn how to keep professional records which are maintained according to legal and ethical standards, ready to be shared with other health professionals at any time while protecting the client-therapist confidentiality.  This is why a certified yoga therapist can work in hospitals, health clinics, or care facilities, and the yoga therapy field is recognized by the medical community and many insurance providers. While many doctors will recommend yoga as a good option, the Mayo Clinic and other esteemed health clinics recommend yoga therapists (and they hire the same) on their site for people dealing with serious mental or physical ailments because, while the average person may not understand the difference between yoga classes and yoga therapy, health professionals recognize that these are indeed separate experiences. Yoga in general can be good for everyone, but yoga therapy is the better choice for someone dealing with serious or compound health issues.

This does not mean a seasoned yoga teacher can’t help people with a wide range of issues even if they are not an actual yoga therapist. A qualified yoga teacher with experience and expansive training may be able to help an individual with many ailments of body, mind, or spirit, such as depression, anxiety, a torn rotator cuff, hip or knee replacement, or cancer. But a yoga therapist is trained not to just understand pathology and pair yoga practices to the issue at hand to relieve pain or discomfort, but to treat the individual one on one with the aim not of “healing” the issue but helping to enhance the quality of life for someone living with debilitating diseases, ailments, or states of suffering.

For example, if a client named Betsy is dealing with cancer and seeking yoga privates to help her on a healing journey, a great yoga teacher can learn something about cancer and prepare a class that will be appropriate. But a yoga therapist will prepare a session not just for someone with cancer, but for Betsy, who happens to have cancer. Before the first session, the yoga therapist will do a full assessment that includes physical analysis, ayurvedic dosha test, and an interview that includes many questions about how Betsy is handling her cancer emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The treatment Betsy is going through, medications taken, how cancer is affecting her family life, work, and self-image will all be noted. The culmination of this diverse information is key to the development of a yoga treatment plan that will be truly effective.  The yoga therapist will know the different side effects and responses Betsy may have to radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, or medication therapy, and how these different treatment paths affect the body on every koshic level. Her sessions will be designed to help Betsy with the physical, mental and emotional issues connected to her particular cancer, including not only postures to address her physical pain or exhaustion, but other issues such as sleep disorders, fear for the future, loss of confidence in one’s body, anger, or a host of other issues that may result from living with cancer or going through treatment.  

While one person with cancer may have a feisty determination to “beat this thing,” and not want to be treated any differently than they were before their diagnosis, another may feel depression and fear. That said, depression manifests differently for different dosha types and as result must be addressed  in unique ways for each individual. Yoga for depression is not as simple as offering heart openers, restorative yoga, or self-love meditations. Yoga for depression is different for a kapha type for whom it manifests as lethargy verses a pitta who becomes angry or hyperactive or may be in denial. And inspiring a client to follow through and be committed to home practice or recommended exercises is a part of yoga therapy too. All of the factors which can be addressed with yoga are taken into consideration by a qualified yoga therapist, who would also be ready and able to discuss the treatment plan with Betsy’s oncologist, therapist, or anyone else involved with her healing journey.

As an accredited yoga training facility, Heartwood has students who often begin training with an eye toward becoming an IAYT certified yoga therapist even before they have a comprehensive understanding of what the field entails. Many students are  enthralled with the idea of becoming a yoga therapist because they assume the credential will separate them from the pack and assure they will be taken seriously. It is true that not all RYT-500 yoga teachers are equal and the title doesn’t guarantee a yoga teacher is qualified or even well educated, while an IAYT certification does guarantee a high standard of education and experience . Also, within the next year, there will be a standardized test worldwide that yoga therapists must take to validate their professional standing, just as chiropractors or massage therapists must pass a test to become licensed, further establishing a yoga therapist as a professional in the field of yoga.   But even with the qualifiers, yoga therapy is not the best path for all yoga teachers.

For many, being an advanced RYT-500 yoga teacher is enough to support their long-term career plans and for them to be an agent of healing and support for many, many people. For others, the path of yoga therapy is a calling. These teachers are likely suited to the professional demands of working with other health care professionals and often feel deeply inspired and committed to helping alleviate suffering at all levels. In many cases, people already in healing fields, such as therapists, nurses and counselors find yoga therapy a perfect complimentary service to add to their careers. There are also students who simply want to dive deeper and learn more about yoga as a healing path, and yoga therapy provides a deeper understanding and commitment to this process.  

At Heartwood, we try to guide students in career planning, reminding them their decisions should not be about having a fancy title or recognized credential, but about how they hope to be of service with their yoga. Whether one is simply a highly qualified yoga teacher with best intentions to help people heal and grow spiritually, or an IAYT yoga therapist who works one on one to enhance lives with yoga as the tool for personal transformation and healing, it is important that each student explore their personal dharma and spiritual calling to know what path they are meant to follow. Just as yoga therapy is highly individualized and based on the concept that there is no one size fits all practice or approach to healing, so does this mindset apply to yoga education. If you dream of being a yoga mentor and healer, the path of yoga education should unfold depending on your dharma, dosha, and dreams, not economics or perceived professional standing .  

It is the work that counts, not the title.  So if you are an ERYT-500 or skilled yoga teacher, be proud of your gifts, but please don’t call yourself a yoga therapist. If you have chosen the path of yoga therapy, do so with humility and a commitment to your purpose.  As yoga teachers, we must embody the concepts of honesty, truth, and lack of ego if we ever hope to mentor others in an authentic way. What we have printed on our business card has nothing at all to do with the job we each strive to accomplish or our service to the world. Evidence of a truly evolved yogi is seeing that they understand and present themselves correctly and with integrity.

Ginny Shaddock is an ERYT-500 and C-IAYT Yoga therapist. She is the director of Heartwood Yoga Institute in Bradenton Florida, which offers RYS-200, RYS-300 and 800 hour yoga therapy certification programs.

Saving Wishes

A few years ago, while reading about shamanism I saw reference to an Irish shamanic wishing tree. The concept reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags, where prayers are written on silk flags and hung outside so that, as the winds blow, the prayers are carried energetically to the universe. The prayers written on the flags eventually fade and slowly the entire cloth flag turns weathered and disintegrates, but this eventuality is simply an example of how all things are impermanent. The powerful prayer within the practice is believed to live on indefinitely. In the case of a wishing tree, an individual sets an intention or makes a private prayer while tying a ribbon around a tree branch. In the days, weeks or months that the ribbon fades and disintegrates, the intention is blown in the wind to the heavens and beyond.

Of course, I thought such a tree would be right at home at Heartwood. The problem was, all the trees on this property are straight pines with only a wide trunk, or huge, twisting, gnarly oaks, none with reachable branches conducive to this project. And while I considered planting a tree just for this purpose, it would be a few years until a new tree would be substantial enough to support an onslaught of ribbons.  

“If only . . .” I said to David.

David took a walk around the property and came back with a suggestion. There was a small tree to the side of our drive filled with dead branches and Spanish moss. An old vine seemed determined  to kill off its branches. David believed he could trim it up, clean off the moss, remove the vine and create a decent enough tree for hosting wishes.

I wasn’t totally thrilled with the location, nor the look of this Charlie Brown version of a Wishing tree, but I figured I might as well wait to see what was underneath that overgrown mess before giving up the idea.

David did a beautiful job making the tree presentable, and if a tree could look happy, this one certainly seemed so, thanks to his loving attention. He leveled the ground to install a bench too, creating a nice place for visitors to sit or meditate. I created a river rock boundary at the base, removed the grass and mulched underneath, then added a wind-chime and a statue of a goddess that seemed to be looking up with inspiration to the branches. For the final touch, I placed a big crystal in the base to begin the transformation of our old weed to a place of energetic offering.

About this time, David and I took a vacation to Ireland, and one day while hiking, low and behold we came across a wishing tree. Dozens of small ribbons of all shapes and sizes were scattered over a wide area of the trail, left there by fellow walkers, I suppose. I loved witnessing an authentic Irish Shamanic wishing tree in the land of its origin. We returned home even more enamored of our project.

Knowing people rarely visit Heartwood with ribbons they can pull from their hair or shoelaces they are willing to leave behind, I set up a container filled with ribbons for our guests. Every few months, I buy dozens of ribbon spools, cut a variety of lengths, and fill up the container for people to use should they want to set and intention and perhaps meditate at the wishing tree.

And they have. For a year or so, the tree’s been slowly filling up, becoming a welcoming sight of explosive leaves and colorful ribbons gently swaying with the wind.

When Hurricane Irma hit, our property was severely damaged. We had 8 huge oaks fall. Branches and moss covered our flooded property. The medicine wheel was ruined, walkways were covered in mud, and the garden demolished. But the wishing tree was intact and had only lost about 5 ribbons, which we found in the pasture. I carefully returned these wandering wishes to the tree. What amazing resilience that little tree had.

But a year later, I started noticing branches of the wishing tree were dying. Thinking that our once clean and happy tree looked a bit stressed and tired, I trimmed up the tree and sprinkled some fertilizer at the base. I even a gave the little tree a pep talk, encouraging the leaves and roots to flourish as an act of service for all the future visitors who’d find moments of peace under the branches.

The wishing tree continued to fade. More branches died. Finally, I had to admit that our little tree was crumbling under the stress of too many wishes. While I love having a place for people to meditate and set intention, I also love trees. Something had to be done.

The first order of the day was to remove the weaker branches, but these dried, sagging branches were filled with ribbons, creating a moral dilemma. Do I just cut away the branches and toss them into the burn pile WITH everyone’s hopes and dreams attached? Seemed like quite a callous act.

I could try taking off the ribbons, but where would I put them, considering the tree was laboring under so many heartfelt longings and personal intentions?  Perhaps a fence surrounding the area would be a great solution. The tree could remain a symbol of inspiration, but the fence could handle the brunt of people’s collective hopes and dreams.

David had some metal gates behind the barn that were left behind when we purchased the property. He volunteered to clean them up, paint the bars a lovely copper and anchor them in place. We even added some colorful peace poles to establish a feeling of unity and soon the wishing tree area was more of a beacon of energetic promise than ever.

As I pruned the weak and dying branches, I carefully untied the knots of almost 300 ribbons and transplanted these wishes to the new fence. I added Tibetan prayer flags to the fence as well since we now had more space. The area was looking colorful and inviting again, and the tree seemed happy to know the burden of handling everyone’s deepest secrets and dreams would now be shared with the fence.

But try as I might to save wishes, there were many ribbons I just couldn’t get undone from the rotting branches. Apparently, people fervently committed to their wish had tied complicated knots to be sure their symbolic ribbon would stay on those branches for life, as if this would make their wishes more likely to come true. There was no way to rescue those wishes. I felt badly, carrying dead branches with lone wishes clinging to the bark to their fiery grave.

Luckily my studies of shamanism and ceremony had also taught me about the Peru shaman tradition of Despacho. I’ve made a few Despacho packets with students in Yoga Therapy, which is a tradition of creating a mandala of a variety of symbolic materials, such as sugar for sweetness, flowers for beauty, seeds & grain for sustenance, and a seashell and a cross for spirituality, and tying the packet in beautiful cloth or paper and burying or burning this offering to carry the prayers to the spirit world.

So, in the spirit of Despacho, I stood by and watched the ribboned branches burn, imagining those dozens of wishes not being destroyed, but being transformed as they rose in smoke to meld with the positive energy of the universe.

Our little wishing tree has a lovely little border now, and a container of ribbons is always at the ready for any visitor who is seeking an answer to their problems or has a silent prayer to share with the spirit world. A healthy, happy tree stands by, an ever-present witness to the complex lives of others.  Considering all that is going on in the world with the current pandemic, I will do my meditation out there today, and tie a ribbon on the fence for those who need protection or peace. The tree will hear my prayers, but not be burdened by them.

I think the Heartwood Wishing tree has a message for us all. While it is important to be present for those who depend on us for assurance and support in challenging times, we must remember there are limits to how much weight any individual can carry before health is compromised. So it goes a little tree, and so it goes for each of us.    


Embracing Dharma

Since Heartwood closed on March 16 due to Coronavirus, the center has been very peaceful and quiet. David and I are getting along fine, applying ourselves to projects and study we’ve long wanted to attend to, but I must say, the dog, doesn’t like this sabbatical one bit. He misses his job of greeting people, walking with them around the property ever alert and ready to pounce on diabolical squirrels and lizards, or laying at the feet of someone meditating when he senses they need a friend. Like everyone else who is currently out of work, his identity is shaken, and he misses his job. He’s clingy, lethargic and downright bored. He hovers so close I keep tripping over him when I’m outside, even though I ruffle his hair and assure him that this too will pass.  

Our work, like all the roles we play in life (parent, spouse, sibling, friend) defines us in so many ways. Not becoming attached to temporary identities is difficult.  We are naturally devoted to our role when we are parenting, but kids grow up and become self-sufficient and as result we suffer the loss of our purpose (the empty nest syndrome). People spend years craving retirement only to find they don’t know what to do with themselves when they are finally relieved from their job. It’s nice sleeping in and not having to deal with management or a commute, but the feeling that you are replaceable or that you no longer contribute something valuable to society makes filling your day with leisure activities seem frivolous and way less satisfying than you imagined. During the enforced pause of our normal activity due to a pandemic, I’ve heard more than one-person comment that just because there is a virus harming older or high risk populations, it’s unfair to expect them to stop living their life. This self-serving view is yet another sign of how people identify with the roles they play instead of understanding the deeper meaning of “Self” as a spiritual energy that is present and permanent in us all.  Staying home is not about the needs of “others” cramping your style. There are no “others” if we are all connected.

The study of Dharma in yoga teaches us that our path unfolds on several levels. Dharma is the law of the universe, and there is much more to it than the common interpretation that Dharma is a choice for mankind to make about what he or she is meant to do for a living to be personally fulfilled.   We align with our dharma when we live in harmony with the earth or protect society recognizing that all things are connected, and it is our “duty” to honor and protect the earth and all creatures on it. Bhagavat Dharma, is fulfilling our spiritual duty and living a life devoted to something much bigger than ourselves and our petty little desires. Our entire life is meant to be devoted to much more than our personal roles, identities and personal dreams.

Svadharma is a different level of Dharma, our personal duty, which changes as we evolve. Roles like parenting or contributing to society through work are a part of our Dharma from ages 18-65, but as we grow older, our Dharma evolves from less worldly pursuits towards spiritual advancement. We don’t all achieve true wisdom as we age, but we are meant to. We are meant to have a purpose and to contribute at all stages of life, whether we are aiding society by earning, providing, or assisting family, friends, employees or strangers, or in later years through sharing the wisdom and material wealth we have gained, all of which is meant to be offered back to the world as we mature. What we are not meant to do is work hard in early years for the goal of funding a leisure, selfish life later, feeling entitled because we “earned it ”.  

Adharma is living out of accordance with natural law. This is when a parent does not meet the demands of protecting or providing for their children or family members during the years they are meant to do so. It is when people choose not to work and contribute to society for personal and selfish reasons and instead are a drain on others. It is when we abuse our role, such as being a leader, and making choices for personal gain rather than public good. It is doing our work resentfully for a superficial purpose- money, rather than as an act of service to others. We must recognize that our karma is directly related to our dharma and every act of sacrifice or effort for the greater good rather than self-serving interest is how we live in grace and connect to the divine.

There was a time in my past when I lived with someone who spent more time trying to avoid work than the average person spends showing up to do their part for family and society. The reasons given was, “I don’t want waste my life by working. I want to really LIVE!”

At a time when this choice affected me, the constant push and pull between our interpretation of “work” was torture. Constantly faced with the “I Deserve a Life!” mentality made it very difficult to meet responsibilities or adhere to the natural duty to care for a family and contribute to society. Worse was the guilt I felt. I was accused of being a workaholic and the one who stood in the way of loved ones living the life of their design. My expectation that everyone should contribute was seen as my not allowing them to be their true selves – as if we can only be true to ourselves by turning our back on others.

For years, I pondered what was wrong with me and my relationship with work. When life was particularly difficult, I questioned if I had it all wrong.  The “I Deserve a Life!” mentality made sense too, on some level. I was tired and didn’t exactly feel fulfilled, buried in the worry of paying bills, doing laundry and generating revenue since if I didn’t do this, no one would. Did these people know some secret to happiness and the easy life that evaded me? They didn’t have to deal with the stress and drama of being productive or caring for the needs of others, because they simply chose not to. They put their own happiness at the forefront of every decision. Would I be happier if I did the same?

I listened to more than one long diatribe about the strength it takes for a person to “follow their heart” and not give in to society’s expectations.  And sure enough, these free spirits kept falling into situations where their own needs were provided for by “the universe”, be it because they bankrupted debt, started lawsuits, filed insurance claims for payouts, took advantage of social services, or finding some other a way to live off the tole of others who chose to care for their needs because true love involves sacrificing for others. (been there and did that) . All of this further supported the self-server’s belief that living a life devoted to their personal wishes and dreams was the “right path” because the universe supported their lifestyle.

Was I a dupe, killing myself with all this hard work and sacrifice for nothing? Did they have it all right?

Then my studies of yoga deepened to the subject of Dharma and everything came into perspective.

To work hard and sacrifice IS to live your best life. Not only is the sense of accomplishment lovely, but knowing you made a difference in the world and truly impacted others through your service is the yoga definition of a life well lived. Service is how we enrich our karma and settle the spirit. the more I contemplated my dharma the more I noticed how deeply fulfilled and happy I am, even though I work harder than many other people.  

I no longer buy into the idea that living the good life is being able to sleep in, go where you want when you want, and not having to answer to anyone or anything as you pursue your own interests and desires. I love gardening, being creative, reading, and taking walks. But the preciousness of this down time is made more poignant because I understand these endeavors are not the end but the means – they fuel my energy and health so I can be of greater service to others when I am at “work”. The idea that being free of responsibility is the good life is an illusion. Such self-serving is said to be rooted in selfishness, fear, laziness, and ego, a big basket of the Kleshas (which in yoga, is the definition of the obstacles to true enlightenment.) Those who maneuver their way out of work and get by may think the universe is providing, but according to the wisdom teachings, everyone has a duty in life and we will never spiritually evolve unless we fulfill that duty (the entire theme of the Bhagavad Gita!)   

We are all connected and what we do makes a difference in the lives of others. Our work, effort, sacrifice and commitment is an offering to the world and this is how we honor the divine. True spirituality demands we stop worrying about whether we have to do more than others or whether our work makes us giddy with joy.We have to stop measuring success by money or power, and stop focusing on what life is doing for us personally, and start focusing on what we are doing for life.

Work has been put on hold for many of us with the current Coronavirus situation. Many of us are preoccupied with the financial fallout, and how could we not be concerned when our livelihood is at stake and we want to meet our responsibilities. But whether we are missing our work, or embracing a long overdue pause to rest, balance and put priorities back in order, we must not forget how important our work is and it’s connection to our spiritual path.

Yoga teaches us that no matter what you do for a living, all service is an act of grace. We must be fully present and generous with our time and effort for purposes beyond a paycheck. Work is not something we do to nurture our ego or satisfying our desires. We are not designed to do what we enjoy rather than what might really make a difference in the lives of others. We are born with certain energies and gifts that determine how we can best be of service.  Hard work is an act of giving, be it stacking a grocery shelf, laying tile, or teaching meditation to stressed out cancer patients. Whether you are the dog whose job is to greet visitors with a wagging welcome, or a nurse who shows up for work daily despite the risk to self and family because you recognize your skill set is desperately important during this public crisis, living our dharma is fulfilling our duty to others.

I know many of us have extra time on our hands, and some of us are even reevaluating what we do for a living, wondering if this pause in our life is the perfect time to make changes. Our Dharma does evolve, and change is inevitable. It may indeed be time for adjustments to your career or lifestyle. But whatever you do for a living or however you fill your time, understanding the sacred nature of living a life of service can change your entire definition of “Work”.

Perhaps by contemplating Dharma, the four-letter word we often associate to work will become L o v e.

Interested in learning more about Dharma? I recommend these great books.

Dharma for Awakening and Social change by Maetreyii Ma Nolan, PH.d

The Book of Dharma, Making Enlightened Choices by Simon Haas

And if you want to consider your personal dharma and how to find your purpose:

The Five Dharma Types: Vedic Wisdom for Discovering Your Purpose and Destiny, by Simon Chokoisky

If You Build It – they may or may not get it.

The other day, a yoga teacher visited Heartwood, toured the grounds with my daughter and said, “What a gorgeous and unusual place, I’d love to buy a center like this one day.”

Denver smiled and replied, “You can’t buy a place like this. You have to build one from scratch. Nothing was here until my Mom got an inkling to make a yoga center out of an old piece of agriculture property. Only vision and hard work leads to owning this kind of place.”

She didn’t get the feeling that the woman fully believed her.

Later Denver said to me, “Everyone loves the idea of Heartwood, but I don’t think many understand how much work and ingenuity was required for you and David to create this place. And they have no clue about how much work this little 7 acres is to maintain. Some yogis may think they want a Heartwood of their own, but they’d change their mind once they realized that the work is never ending and most of what they love out here cost money and demands ongoing effort, but doesn’t support paying the bills.”    

That is certainly true, but David and I don’t mind the effort because we look at Heartwood as “living art”. Sometimes, hard work has a purpose unrelated to the equation people so often make of calculating a measurable return on investment for their time and money. Art for art’s sake fuels something deep inside. For the creator, there is an alignment of creative energies that makes the artist feel connected to self and the divine. For those witnessing and enjoying the creation, there is pleasure and the reminder that beauty & inspiration can provide us with opportunities for insight and inner connections.   

David and I design spaces that meld with nature and celebrate our love of Yoga and spiritual studies. We seek utility with each project – a view or place to sit, dream, meditate or practice. We imagine people visiting and being called to pause, breathe and convene with the natural world. Considering we started the idea of Heartwood with just a run down, overgrown agricultural property and scant resources to devote to development, what we have done thus far feels satisfying. We know we won’t have the stamina to keep at this forever, and our limitless dreams for this place will never be fully realized (at least by us). We have inspiration for dozens of projects that most likely will never manifest due to our age and limited resources. But for now, Heartwood still calls to our creative spirits.

Our favorite pastime is walking the grounds with a cup of coffee after hours, looking at what is blooming or enjoying evidence that people are using our spaces. We take stock of all the work needed to be done to maintain our projects, then share ideas for upgrades or new spaces that start with “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if . . .”

We call Heartwood “Living” art because, like life, our creations often grow, thrive, then decline and die. (For the Yogis, I’d say the gunas are truly represented here-  Rajas, Sattva, and Tamas in all stages around the property.)  

We once had a beautiful bottle garden gracing the property. Dozens of reclaimed colored bottles hung from trees and surged up out of the ferns. I scoured Goodwill looking for colored bottles and dragged dozens of huge bottles home from Homegoods. The bottle garden turned out so beautiful Country Garden’s Magazine featured it along with our Chakra garden in an 8 page spread. Our bottle garden became a signature area of Heartwood. David designed all kinds of contraptions for keeping frogs out of the bottles and to stop the dog from knocking them down. He designed a variety of caps for the tops, landscape lighting to illuminate the bottles at night and mounts so that when the ferns grew too robust the bottles would be elevated for display. I had to clean the bottles every few months and took charge of replacing those that broke or wore out. Again and again I sealed the tops and changed the wires to hang them so they would catch the light.

Despite our efforts to maintain this pretty area, time and the Florida sun slowly deteriorated the bottles.  Hurricane Irma took down several of the trees holding up the bottles. Slowly our bottle garden grew tired and old.  I tried moving the bottles, but the new location just wasn’t the same. Eventually, that lovely little work of landscape art became history. Am I sorry we put so much time and effort, not to mention money into all those bottles, considering they are now history? Not at all. Because that bottle garden was not only fun to create but left us with memories of Heartwood’s early stages of development that will be with me forever. And how is missing the bottles any different than my missing the tulips that boom for only a few days each year? All things are impermanent. What is important is to appreciate what you have while you have it, and not grasp onto what is meant to die or no longer be present for you.    

The law of the universe reveals that while something fades, something new comes into existence.  Creative inspiration usually starts with an innocent comment, like, “Gee Dave, look at this cool labyrinth picture on this journal therapy e-mail I received. Wouldn’t it be fun to have something like that out front where those dang trees keep dropping limbs and nothing will grow? Of course, that would be a huge undertaking, and who knows if anyone would ever walk a labyrinth way out there. We certainly couldn’t afford to make a big old labyrinth when there are so many practical things we need . . . but dang, doesn’t that look fascinating . . . ”  and thus, the seed of an ongoing conversation has been planted.  

For fun we start talking about what kind of labyrinth we would make and how big, if only . . .. We next start reading about labyrinths, sharing history, folklore, and other tidbits of information over dinner (which is a much nicer conversation than talking about bills or politics). We start noticing Labyrinths in our travels or around town.  In time, our random comment has blown into a loose plan that if ever we can spare the time and money, we will certainly build one.”

Before you know it, our random idea has become a quest, and we skip taking a vacation one more year and instead, David is out there mathing it up, plotting out a labyrinth with engineering precision and I end up spending what would have been my vacation time that season and the next 2 laboriously and painstakingly painting the dang thing over and over to keep the path from fading. Just like when you buy a couch and suddenly feel you have to paint the living room and buy new rugs because they now seem shabby, we start landscaping the area and adding additional details. Up comes a “before I die” board, and a river rock path. This spills out to a bamboo grove with meditation benches. And since it is so lovely out there now, why not build a pavilion so we can practice yoga near the energy of the labyrinth? Voila! Who can miss a bottle garden when there is a whole labyrinth to maintain!

For many people, building a labyrinth would seem a frivolous or wasteful use of limited resources, but every time I spy someone walking the labyrinth, I’m convinced that what was at first an unlikely idea was meant all along to be a collaborative project bringing purpose and meaning into our marriage and our world. No, I never regret any of the time or effort devoted to the artistic unfolding of Heartwood. Building Heartwood fulfills our Dharma.

The medicine wheel was another project fueled by curiosity and inspiration. David and I have been long interested in Indian history, spirituality and Shamanism and one day we started a random conversation about medicine wheels which turned into our both doing some research (not many pictures of formal medicine wheels for public use out there, so we didn’t have much to go on). We addressed the issue of a medicine wheel being of a different tradition than yoga, and perhaps no one would want to go out there even if we built one. We debated designs and different regional and cultural versions and then found a tradition that spoke to us. Once the concept of building a medicine wheel was a go, we had to figure out how to do so affordably. Of course, we agreed grudgingly that the best place to put this medicine wheel was an overgrown thorny area filled with tree stumps (clearing the area cost more than the actual project!) But before we laid the first stone, I could see it there in my mind.

We had a formal Medicine Wheel ceremony, laying the stones in the rain since nature chose not to make this easy, and later, completed the project with more colored stones totally blowing the budget. David built a huge bench around the entire ring inviting students to sit wherever energy called to them and made a 6-foot hoop for a dream catcher to enhance the décor of the area. To display this, we cut down some carefully chosen trees on the side of our property and dragged them over to the area to cement into the ground like goalposts. The dead trees deteriorated over time and a hurricane came a year later and knocked them down. That same storm flooded the medicine wheel so it all but floated into the ferns. Generous students arrived to help us clean up that mess and rebuild the wheel and months later, David built a more solid structure out of timber which he planted true north to hold the dreamcatcher and new windchimes. Next, he planted a shamanic garden with sage, sweetgrass, Indian Tobacco and cedar trees (all native plants used for shamanic ceremony) and we added small stone statues of animals to represent spirit guides for fun. The native herbs didn’t make it in the harsh Florida climate, but two of the three Cedar trees survived.

The medicine wheel is probably my favorite area of Heartwood. I teach a nature yoga class out at the wheel involving a semi-seated practice on the benches. The meditation and poses are steeped in shamanic themes. Unfortunately, this area can get uncomfortably sunny midday so some seasons the heat prohibits me from bringing students out to the wheel.  But never fear, David and I purchased two metal gazebo roofs some time ago at an end-of-season close out sale, and for more than a year we talked about making a few covered decks by the Medicine Wheel area so people (mostly me) could practice out there or meditate and have a shady, protected space to journal or hang out. The idea circled between us long enough that recently, we both felt it was time to act.

So David built two staggered, 12 foot covered decks. As is the case with almost every project we’ve done, people didn’t “get it” at first. They just didn’t see the vision we saw in our heads. David had several conversations with students that went something like this . . .

“What are you building out there?”

“Decks for people to practice on.”

“Where are you moving them to?”

“Um…. They’re decks. I’m building them where I want them to be. They are right where they will go.”

“Hummmm….. interesting. Don’t you think they are rather obvious, two big decks out there by the medicine wheel?”

“No more obvious than the 24 foot Medicine Wheel and 6 foot dream catcher, I suppose.”   

More than one person took me aside to say, “How do you feel about what David is building? Are you OK with that?” (As if I wasn’t the one nagging him to build those decks for two years and hadn’t given him my opinion about exactly where I wanted them. Ha.)

This week David put fans and lights in the ceilings of those newly finished decks so they will be more inviting. We are now planning some nice landscaping to keep the practice area partially hidden when you drive in and to add ambiance to the natural setting. Strategic planting will create a “room” feel for this space, but new plantings will require a watering system too. That means more work for a project that will not generate revenue, but man, what a beautiful and unique area this will be for visitors (and us) to practice. Like everything we’ve built here, it takes times for new spaces to “settle in”. Nature fills in the blanks left from construction, a few fun details will be added and soon it seems the medicine wheel had always magically just been a part of the landscape here.

I’m aware that building something like a Medicine wheel and practice decks seems an odd and unnecessary choice to those who don’t see a practical point in art for art’s sake. But if David and I didn’t find meaning and joy in Heartwood’s “living art” and instead focused only on practical projects that supported the revenue operations of this business, Heartwood wouldn’t have the charm or uniqueness it has. And I certainly wouldn’t feel as fulfilled as I do, dreaming up the next artistic project and marveling at David’s talent in making a vision manifest.  

About a week after David finished the decks, he went out to get the mail. When he returned, he handed me a cup of coffee and said, “There are two students out at the medicine wheel practicing on the decks. We both knew they had many places to drop a mat to practice, but they chose that one.

We looked at each other knowingly and smiled.

A vacation – inside and out.

Last week, David and I took advantage of a week off and took a cruise to the Bahamas to celebrate his birthday. David has never been on a cruise and even though I knew floating along in a vessel packed with hundreds of strangers was unlikely to be his ideal trip, we agreed everyone should experience this floating resort type of travel at least once. The sailing date and the timing was perfect for us, which made it a practical choice for our short sabbatical.  

As expected, we enjoyed our time together surrounded by water, sunsets and breezes. We read and slept and listened to violin players every afternoon and ate a four-course lobster dinner with wine pairings that felt indulgent and romantic. We went to the comedy club a few times, laughing at the crass standup acts, admiring the boldness required to crossed politically correct barriers. We especially loved an excursion to snorkel and sail. We held hands while floating in the cold seawater, watching a squid for the longest time. The world slipped away as we viewed coral reefs and watched brilliantly colored fish silently going about their business. We purchased souvenirs from outdoor vendors in colorful tents, trying to support the locals as we struck up conversations to learn about their lives in the Bahamas.  


But despite these lovely moments, we experienced dissatisfaction too, and we agree we are unlikely to choose such a vacation again because we are quiet people and a cruise of this nature is filled with people and partying and activity that we find more overstimulating than soothing. Perhaps we are getting old, but the kids running around, intoxicated spring breakers working too hard to impress, and the loud announcements and even louder patrons on the boat was a bit much. Luckily, the activity going on around us was not enough to disturb what was going on within us, which was taking a pause from our day to day life to just spend time together. We no doubt appeared a dull, older couple to others, but the thrill of exterior amusements or a need to be entertained has long since passed us in this “seasoned” stage of life.

At Freeport, we took an excursion to see the Garden of the Groves, a tropical garden. David and I always try to see regional gardens when traveling. In Ireland, our favorite moments were visiting the Japanese gardens or the garden of exotic trees from around the world. We were as delighted and enthralled by Ireland’s overgrown hedges that span the edges of roads miles on end and the rolling hills of deep, lush green as we were by castles, museums, or pubs. We both agreed that exploring gardens was the favorite part of that vacation.

As gardeners and nature lovers we enjoy seeing different designs and displays of gardens and we are fascinated by the unique flora and fauna of different regions. I am always jealous when I see thriving plants I cannot grow myself in Florida, and I deeply appreciate the fountains, waterfalls and other majestic landscaping of great gardens that supersede anything we can do with our meek budget.

The gardens in the Bahamas, however, were not very exciting to us, mostly because the islands share the basic growing climate and soil type of Florida. The gardens were filled with the very same plants we have all around Heartwood, and frankly, ours are better maintained.  Our conversation turned to what we would do to improve the garden, rather than appreciating the attraction’s accomplishment or creativity. We didn’t want to say it out loud, but both of us thought the simple, barely groomed garden barely qualified as an “attraction” compared to others we have visited.

Then, in the midst of this mishmash of bromeliads and tropical palms, there was a labyrinth. This perked me up quite a bit. I am always fascinated to find labyrinths. I like to see how organizations set them up, what they are made of, and how people respond to them. Our guide tried to explain what a labyrinth is and how one walks the path to find peace, but she didn’t know much about the practice or history. I caught eyes with David, and his look reminded me that the proper thing to do was to not hijack the tour to give my own lecture about labyrinths. So, I kept my labyrinth knowledge to myself, silently giving my own lecture to the group in my head.

We were not afforded time to walk the path, but I didn’t feel a need to. I just liked knowing someone had bothered to raise money and organize the effort required to build a labyrinth in a quiet garden that otherwise, was not very original. There was a large statue plaque nearby carved with the names of the many patrons who had contributed to the project.  David’s one comment was, “Do you see how many people paid money to build this thing? And to think, we did ours by ourselves.”  

 Naturally, we began comparing this labyrinth to our own. The size was the same. Both are copies of the 11 circuit Chartres Cathedral in France. We are planning to redo our labyrinth soon because the design is getting weathered and worn, so we checked to see how this well-funded project affixed the design to the concrete slab. We touched the surface, kicked a bit at the edges, and contemplated what materials were used in case we could follow suit. This slid into the typical judgmental conversation about whether or not the landscaping around the labyrinth was all it could be, and we ended with a bit of self-congratulations on just how lovely our own lowly labyrinth, made by our own hands with little resources, stood up to this one.

Heartwood Labyrinth
Heartwood Labyrinth

Funny, how we (meaning people in general) do that. We see something, pausing because we admire the basic element of it’s existence. Then we start comparing that person, place or thing to our own experience or state. Our gut reaction is a glimmer of competitiveness because we all want to meet, or exceed, the standard set by others. So, instead of enjoying external things, we automatically start to measure up, contemplating whether we are better or worse. We wonder if we should up our game if we feel slacking by comparison, or in some cases, we feel validated if, in our assessment, we are in the “lead” of the unspoken competition. Of course, if what we encounter is way beyond our reach, we don’t feel the pull of competition. In that case, we chalk up the vast distance between us and them as “inspiration”. These grand people, places or things show us what is possible “if only” (we had the luck, resources, money or time).  Perhaps competition is a good thing. Witnessing greater possibilities  certainly keeps us on our toes, striving to evolve and grow. But constantly trying to one up others distracts as well, keeping us feeling as if we are in an endless race against an invisible opponent.

My deep appreciation for yoga hinges on the awareness I’ve developed, not because yoga makes me so profoundly enlightened that I don’t feel or think in ways that are rooted in my “small selfish self.” Of course, I still get urges of competitiveness or judgement as most people do, but when I feel these urges, the witness within recognized them for what they are. I can then do the personal work necessary to tamp down any drives to behave in less than a respectful or honorable way to others (or self or planet.) I can recognize  and fight off ego or intimidation or attitude, and any other energy that stands in the way of feeling balanced and in harmony with the world beyond my skin.

Yoga doesn’t make any of us perfect. But is sure does allow us to see ourselves more clearly. Thanks to yoga I recognize that I may not like a cruise today as much as yesterday due to my age and changing energies (rather than blaming the cruise line or the patrons on the cruise because I am attached to some expectation of what my time off should look and feel like and how dare others ruin it for me!) Thanks to yoga, I can see a garden that doesn’t excite me, and rather than think of this little swatch of nature as a lousy garden, I recognize that this garden is simply too similar to my own for me to feel that deep awe I might feel at a garden that is filled with a different ambiance. If I see a labyrinth and I start comparing this path to my own, I recognize that my competitive streak is pushing to the surface, and I have to watch that baby, for she interferes with me living in a state of acceptance and harmony with others. My own inner peace would certainly be upset if I allowed myself to feel “less than” what I can or should be every time I came across any person, place, or thing and believed a gauntlet had been thrown at my feet demanding I prove my own worth.

Thanks to yoga, I can say my vacation was perfect in every way. Not only did I relax and enjoy time with my husband, but each experience, whether the moment was what I expected or something I was not hoping for, gave me opportunity to flex my yoga muscles (NOT the ones used for postures, I’m talking about the yoga of the mind) because all the different emotions and reactions unfolding at each leg of the trip provided me with a chance to explore how I am wired. This journey of self-knowing is by far a more exciting adventure than any place a plane, boat or car can take me. In this way, my vacation was a meaningful trip inward, as well as outward.

I came home grateful for the change of pace, but also grateful for the lessons infused in every experience. Each hour of our lives is a precious blank slate onto which we can ponder, write about, and embrace softly the world with the open ideals of yoga. And what we learn gives life a new, positive perspective, no matter how things unfold around us.

Let go and let be

In my forties, I decided to reinvent my life to carve out more time for things that were meaningful. I was over saturated with the stress of parenting, working, running a business, keeping a home, and living with a partner who was perpetually discontent with all of the above. I sold my business and my home to fund an early retirement and set off on the grand adventure of a lifetime. We were going to live an organic, simple lifestyle in the mountains where, at long last, those I lived with would be happy, fulfilled and grateful for our abundant life. Anyone who knows my story knows that the plan didn’t turn out well. I lost everything in my attempt to gain something. But the story has a happy ending, because while I set off to reinvent my life in a way I thought I could control, I actually ended up reinventing my life through a totally unexpected series of choices and events that would fall under the category of “the best I could do under the circumstances.”

The road was not easy or fun but led me to that coveted reinvented life. My world is now filled with all the things that have meaning to me, such as deeper connections to the world and self, work that has profound purpose and fulfillment, and a partner who is fulfilled and deeply happy with our business, home, grand-parenting and most importantly, me.  I actually did get everything I was aiming for when I began seeking change. It just came in a package different than I had imagined.

For everything lost, something is gained, and the reverse is also true. For everything gained, something must be retired or left behind to make room for whatever abundance you are making space for. You just can’t keep adding to a life indefinitely and not eventually drown in the layers of responsibilities that come with having, being, or doing “more”.  The law of diminishing returns isn’t just a business construct, but a theory that applies to all of life.

One of the things I mourned losing when I moved away from Georgia and my 50-acre dream, was my newfound relationship to the land. My time in the garden, exploring animal husbandry, and just spending time in nature was blissful and fed my soul in profound ways. When I moved back to Florida out of practical necessity, I found myself trying to hang on to some of the wondrous joy I found in farming, caring for livestock, walking the mountains and exploring nature. The fact that bad choices had forced me to return to the suburban life I originally left was devastating, because returning to my old life felt like a setback, spiritually and personally. I had been changed from my mountain adventure and assuming life could go back to what once was, clearly was impossible. In subtle ways I began preserving what little I could of my Georgia lifestyle, just to prove to myself that what I had learned and loved in my brief stint of freedom in Georgia was still a part of me.

I began my life recovery (and my financial recovery) in a small apartment. Though I had no lawn to walk barefoot in, I visited local farmer’s markets and dragged home flats of strawberries. I filled my kitchen with dozens of jars of organic, homemade jam even though I no longer had a family to feed them to.  Once life got a bit more stable, I moved to a small house, and I started growing herbs and tomatoes in the backyard. Eventually, as my business prospered, I moved to 7 acres to begin the journey of Heartwood. In the first five years, while planting yoga roots to develop a business, My new husband and I also planted a chakra garden and a permaculture garden filled with tropical produce. We now grow papayas, starfruit, oranges and limes, herbs and other eatables. I’ve had over 100 chickens here too. Before even moving in, I ordered chicks from a poultry company, so excited was I to own agricultural land again. I raised a crop of chicks, decided they were too much work and sold them, then bought more chicks (which meant David had to build us a better chicken house) but then decided the flock was too much work and sold them again, only to buy some fancy chicks the next season and, as you might guess, months later, decided to let them go. I am now presently chickenless.

Let go and let be

Adjusting to change is never easy, and often, we do so in stages. It took time, but eventually I came to understand that I wanted chickens for the wrong reasons. I was attached to them for what they symbolized (I lost the farm but wanted to prove that I could keep the joy of farming in my life) rather than for the fact that they added pleasure, entertainment, or meaning to my life now. I loved chickens in Georgia because they were a part of the grand adventure of building a more intimate relationship with nature, but they are not a good fit for me as owner of a retreat center in steamy hot Florida. In Georgia, taking care of the land was the only work I had on my agenda other than raising a family and writing. Chickens were a part of my country education. Now my work is teaching and running a business again, (plus caring for a family, and writing when and if I can possibly carve out time) so taking care of chickens demands time that might be better allocated in the new configuration of my world. Florida is filled with opportunity to explore life in new ways intellectually and experientially. Here, the act of keeping chickens isn’t as stimulating. Actually, it pales in comparison to the many opportunities for growth and entertainment available in my holistic, creative community. If I want the freedom to step away from Heartwood for occasional trips or have a day off that doesn’t include the drudgery of chicken maintenance or if I just want time to devote to a new interest, I have to let the chicken responsibility go.

Learning to let go is a process and one I been working on a great deal of late. It took several years for me to let go of teaching dance totally because being engaged in music, movement and choreography was a part of my identity and I didn’t know how to redefine myself without dance humming in the background of my life.  But Oh, how freeing it was to let go and retire that engrossing role. Not that I don’t miss dance. I do. But I realize that what was a perfect fit for me for the first 50 years of life, is now meant to be something I can be grateful to have had (past tense), rather than something I must cling to because I am unable or unwilling to admit that time and circumstance changes your relationship to all things, even the art you’ve devoted your life to.

All things change. Life changes. I change. The world changes. Being adaptable and flowing with change is necessary to live in harmony with the ever-unfolding shifts of our world.  This simple truth is easy to grasp intellectually, but practicing non-attachment is much harder, not because of our unwillingness to do so, but because we are so often blind to our own patterns and the deep levels of conditioning life designs. Chickens are a good start, but I plan to continue flexing my “letting go muscles” to build the strength required to be liberated from the boundaries of mind, habit, and self-identity in this, and every, stage of life. As space opens up from the removal of each non-serving element, I feel the thrill of new beginnings.  

The Happiness Jar

A new year often inspires us to take stock, get organized, and make positive changes.  For me, a New Year calls for a clean desk. The clutter and piles of “to do” stacks all about my workstation make me feel as if I’m drowning, and if I am to accomplish anything on my resolution list, a clean desk is necessary to set the stage for productivity. I began by cleaning drawers and tossing flyers, notes and coupons that were obsolete. I collected technology gadgets, extra mouses and staplers and carted them to David’s office. Eventually I moved on to the surface of the desk where an extra monitor, printer and other devices fight for prime-time space.

On one corner of the desk sat a dusty, large yellow jar that I assigned my “happiness jar” on Jan. 1, 2017. We made Happiness jars as an art project in a New Year’s Day retreat and I decided to practice what I preach and placed mine prominently on my then clean desk. When inspired, I’d write on a note pad a quick message to acknowledge a moment in time that brought me happiness, then fold and drop the little secret into the jar. As the months rolled by, the jar filled with dozens of little folded notes expressing positive waves of emotion. But the jar has been long since forgotten because I stopped adding content somewhere in early 2018. Over time, my happiness jar stopped serving as a beacon to remind me of my full and satisfying life and the little yellow jar became just one more thing that was taking up space on my desk, detracting from my functionality.

Glancing at that dusty glass vase, I decided to toss the thing, but considering the time I devoted to writing each of those little notes stuffed inside, unceremoniously dumping it in the trash felt wrong. And how inauthentic would a teacher be who lectured students about the value of a happiness jar, telling them that revisiting the messages was as important as the affirmation of writing them, yet too lazy to fulfill the intention of the project herself? Feeling duty bound to check at least a few of the notes within, I unfolded one message and smiled. I’d written about the day I received my first phone call from my daughter in Air force boot camp. She had gushed about her feelings of accomplishment and pride, and I was so relieved and delighted that she was happy with her choice of career path, I honored the moment with a “happiness note”.

Might as well check out another note, I thought. Now, a bit more eagerly, I unfolded another paper. This one was penned on the day I made reservations to take my husband to Key West for a much-needed short vacation. I wowed in that note to change our life and put “us” in priority more often. That little weekend away was symbolic of my resolution to try to travel a bit to escape the constant on-call duty that is a part of running a retreat center. I smiled, remembering the romance and relaxation we enjoyed on that trip, and reveled in the fact that we’ve taken several other vacations since then– to Ireland, to Texas, to San Francisco with all my children, and even a few quiet, nature filled RV camping trips. I actually stuck to the intention I made that day, and here in my hand was testament to the exact moment I made the commitment to bring more balance into our world. Cool.

I would never get to my desk if I just sat here fooling with little notes, but I decided to read just one more and then throw the dang jar out and continue my cleaning project. The next personal message discussed my deep appreciation and gratitude for our yoga community, inspired by individuals who came to aid us in cleanup after Hurricane Irma. There were other notes following that described moments of love and appreciation for my staff, customers and what I do for a living. I had captured memories of visitors walking the labyrinth, sharing poignant personal stories of healing, or thanking us for creating a Chakra garden. Here I was, feeling put out and drained by the endless drudgery of running Heartwood, with nothing but a messy desk to show for it, yet proof that moments of joy and a deepening of my purpose were embedded in every day. I had proof right at my fingertips in the form of little notes jotted down in a hurry and stuffed unceremoniously into a jar.

My messy desk looked differently to me suddenly. Perhaps what at first appears to be chaos is less a sign of someone drowning in work and more a testament to an active life. I work hard, yet I live my purpose and my world is filled with endless diversity and unexpected connections that are a part of this place of healing and learning.

At this point, I couldn’t resist revisiting every single note just to look back and recall last season’s small pleasures. The notes served as inspiration and opportunity to realign my attitude. For an hour, I unfolded notes, reliving moments of happiness or poignant joy that had long since been forgotten.

I don’t know exactly when or why I stopped filling the happiness jar. Joyful moments didn’t disappear from my life, but busy with the daily drudgery of tasks, I think I simply felt too overwhelmed to take even the few seconds needed to jot a sentence down to stuff in a jar. I now began imagining all the wonderful moments I didn’t capture just because I got too busy to reflect, even in a small “happiness jar” project sort of way.

Crouched at my messy desk on a cold afternoon with students passing to and fro behind me as they went about their training, I finished reading all the notes. Perhaps I should have made more of a ceremonial event out of the reading endeavor, going over them with a glass of wine on New Year’s eve sitting in the center of the labyrinth or something.  Nowadays, the big reveal of the contents of a happiness jar is the fodder of an Instagram worthy event, romanticized and captured with a selfie to show the world how very spiritually evolved one is. But rather than trying to capture the moment as it occurred, I just experienced it, quietly, alone in my thoughts at a messy desk, learning something about myself.

I never did throw the jar away. I didn’t get around to cleaning my desk either. At this time, my desk is still a mess, and lo and behold, the empty jar has been placed back in the corner. I must be making progress, because I did manage to dust it off. The jar sits empty, awaiting another round of captured moments which I am ready and willing to collect once again. We all need reminders that life is filled with blessings big and small. All we need is to acknowledge them now and again, mindfully and with an understanding that sometimes we are truly aware and awake. At other times our awareness slips away as distractions separate us from our true nature. What is important is to acknowledge our slips and get back on the path. Happiness doesn’t really live in little notes in a jar, but in our hearts, always at the ready for another unfolding.        

The gift of pages to be filled.

As a new year crests, I find myself preparing for upcoming programs and new students, wondering how I might enhance the yoga experience to make each individual’s personal journey at Heartwood more poignant and everlasting.  While the programs evolve and get better and better, I can’t help but notice that the students still wrestle with obstacles and mental obstructions that keep them interacting with yoga on the surface level, rather than really soaking themselves in the deeper dimensions of the practice. Perhaps I am too ambitious with what I hope to accomplish in only 200 or 300 hours, but I can’t help but notice that eager students arrive for formal yoga trainings with a preconceived idea of what yoga is, how they will implement a YA certification into their lives, and a huge attachment to yoga as practiced in the standard one hour class. This very understandable enthusiasm makes introducing a new perspective difficult as I attempt to shift the trajectory of their studies to a more authentic version of yoga.

Leading eager yogis in a new direction without snuffing out their passion for the practice is difficult, because frankly, growing stronger as you master arm balances or complicated sequences feels like such an accomplishment. The non-performance part of yoga is dull and unsatisfactory compared to the gratification of mastering physical challenges and feeling so alive in your skin as you practice. That said, somehow students must learn that the uneventful archaic approaches to yoga is what sets the stage for really remarkable things to happen. Looking at life under the surface and facing yourself be scary and sad, but liberation begins here.

In a world of instant feedback, short attention spans and life unfolding quickly, how does one sell the importance of putting off short term “yoga advancement” and the fun stuff for a painfully slow unfolding relationship with our spiritual potential that can only be found in stillness, solitude & honest contemplation?

Of course, with all the lectures, slideshows, practices, visual aids, and formal building blocks of yoga education we squeeze into our trainings, its no wonder students get stuck in the intellect. There is so much information to grasp to feel competent sharing yoga with others.  They must worry about testing, and teaching, and being able to retain all this dense information. They have to consider the details of starting a business as an independent yoga teacher to pay off this yoga teacher training investment. They also want more of what inspired them to come in the first place – that great high you get when doing yoga asana class. Why would they want to take their yoga another direction, when physical yoga was the inspiration that brought them to teacher’s training in the first place?

I see huge transformations and a broadening of knowledge in every student after 200 hours of study. We all start the journey at the beginning, and these yoga practitioners are exactly where they are meant to be at this stage so I don’t mean to imply there is anything missing in the students. The problem is, I worry that when my graduates leave Heartwood, they may continue to add to their experience and understanding outwardly (more certifications, more workshops, more yoga retreat experiences) and not continue to grow inwardly (a deeper understanding of core concepts and a poignant self-knowing that comes with a commitment to exploring yoga’s full potential in quiet introspection.) They don’t know what they don’t know, and frankly, nether did I when I first completed my 200 hour certification. I keep trying to pinpoint how and why I evolved beyond those early stages of yoga infatuation, because the answer will no doubt help me guide others.

I find myself pondering the question: How can I respect a student’s understandable focus on the practical application of yoga education, such as who, what and where they will teach this stuff and at the same time instill a desire to sit with themselves in a quiet way to move towards a heart-based understanding of the element of yoga that can’t be measured or used to support a teaching career? True spiritual evolution isn’t Instagram worthy, and for some people, if something can’t be shared on social media, it never happened. In a world where people seem to need an audience for their lives, how can I encourage them to not be seduced by a yoga culture that is in some ways a distraction from yoga?

I suppose I can continue to lecture, bemoan the decline of commercialized yoga, and throw the gauntlet of “serious yoga” to their feet, hoping ego or a drive to be the real deal will get students to slow down and sit with themselves – not just as homework in meditation or formal practices to  “out-yoga” the next guy, but in a true state of curiosity and sincere desire to make space for a deeper sense of self-knowing. But you can’t force a student to embrace spirituality any more than you can force a flower to bloom.

Wait a minute. I am a gardener, and the fact is, when you create the right circumstances, you CAN get a flower to bloom – even out of season. All you need is the right environmental conditions, a little work and careful planning.

The fact is, there are no bad students – only bad teachers, and if I truly believe yoga students are missing something as we race to memorize the history, practices, theory, anatomy and technical elements of yoga , I dang well better figure out how to make the “non-doing” part of yoga interesting enough that aspiring yoga teachers will embrace the quiet, immeasurable, time consuming process of learning who they are and what makes them tick to unfold their relationship with self, earth, and God.

For me, writing has always been a way to deepen my awareness and learn personal truths. Writing is a conversation with self (or something higher than self) that is private, personal and deeply engaging. You sit with the blank page and let it speak to you and once that conversation begins, get lost in words that seem to come from a place of honesty and knowing.

Considering this, I recently ordered dozens of beautiful, hand tooled and hand bound leather journals from India embossed with symbols such as Om, Ganesh, Dancing Shiva, the Buddha and the Tree of Life on the cover. Each journal is filled with pages and pages of hand made paper infused with flower petals and natural fibers. No lines – just blank space. I plan to give these books to my students with writing prompts designed to help them process the yoga sutras and other concepts we introduce in our yoga trainings. Anyone who is “into yoga” will appreciate both the look and the representative utility of the journals, but my true hope is that these books will serve as an invitation to seek  introspection and bring joy to the process of Svadhyaya (self study). What begins as “homework” will hopefully become habit.

The gift from me will be a journal, but the gift each student can give themselves is actually the potential that lies within the blank pages.

If you’ve never tried journaling, perhaps you too should try writing as a yoga practice beyond the mat.