Yoga is Not Diet Culture

Here we are again.

It’s January. The time when news feeds, commercials and billboards are all flooded with ways to improve ourselves. “New Year, New You” messages inundate the airwaves of our subconscious and most of these messages allude to the fact that the best way to improve our miserable lives is to make drastic changes to our bodies. Couple this with a 2-year COVID landscape and the messages of undoing our depression and isolation induced weight gain are even louder and more difficult to ignore.

It saddens me that even as a member of the yoga community, surrounded by individuals and corporations who are jumping on the body positivity bandwagon (and profiting from it) I’m still seeing messages about how to “eat Ayurvedically to lose weight” or how to “tone your arms and tighten your core with inversions.”

At Heartwood Yoga institute where I teach, we often refer to the philosophical concepts of yoga as “Big Yoga.” What we mean by this is that there is so much more to yoga than just postures. Luckily here in the west we seem to finally be catching up to this idea (albeit rather slowly). What does this mean exactly though? What exactly is the deeper meaning of yoga? And how to we utilize postures in a way that isn’t detrimental to our mental and physical health when all we can see on Instagram are thin, white, female bendy bodies upside down in crop tops?

I have found so many students arriving at yoga Teacher Training with a mistaken idea of yoga, not even aware that the physical practice is only 1/8th of what we consider Hatha yoga. Even less often do we start this journey with an understanding of the magnitude of impact that our subtle body energies have on our physical body. “The issues are in the tissues,” as they say. What I love about the health and wellness community is that more and more often I am hearing these ideas come directly from the mouths of doctors and therapists (mine included), giving Yoga Therapists like myself more credibility than we have ever had before.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to explore where yoga might fit in the western world of body-obsessed individuals and what yoga teachers could be “Selling” instead of new year’s body goals.

Promise – “Yoga promotes physical change or improvement”

Reality – Yoga promotes Self-awareness which brings about a decision to be our best self

Yoga Asana (or the physical practice) is one of 8 limbs of the practice of Hatha yoga. Many lineages believe that the only reason yoga practitioners ever practiced postures is to prepare the body to sit for extended periods of time in meditation. That Meditation itself is the actual, ultimate goal of yoga. If this is the case, then it doesn’t matter if we can balance in Tree pose and stick our toe up our nose. If we cannot be still and go inward in reflection, then we aren’t practicing “yoga” at all. We are simply exercising. We may as well go find a spin class instead. There is a time and a place for asana to be of importance and for many students, this is a way to begin channeling our energy to discipline and growth, but the answer to weather or not we are actually doing this is in our intention. If we can be completely honest with ourselves and notice when our ego is guiding our practice, we should never have a problem knowing if our asana practice is legitimate or not. How do we start to recognize our ego? Meditation! To truly be an advanced yoga practitioner, it is said we must be able to be still and listen inward. Openly, honestly, without fear. If our goals are driven by ego, by the desire to be better, look better or win against ourselves or others then we are missing the whole point of yoga.

Promise – “Yoga promotes weight loss or management”

Reality – Yoga regulates our nervous system and this keeps our bodies in their optimal state

In addition to the self-awareness that yoga gives us, the stress relief of yoga is what mostly leads to a healthier body. When we feel a sense of inner balance and peace in savasana or meditation, our bodies move out of the sympathetic nervous system stress response and into a parasympathetic nervous response where we lower blood sugar, stress hormones and improve digestion and organ functions. Heart health is improved and our bodies return to a natural homeostasis. This does often lead us back to whatever shape our bodies were naturally intended for and hopefully along the way we find acceptance of what that shape is as well. Surprisingly enough however, physical movements can have very little to do with this change.

In the modern world where our nervous system is inundated with noise and stimulation and stress  – the most healthy activity we can do for our bodies, hearts and immunity is to simply relax. In addition, the concept of non-attachment or Aparigraha teaches us to accept that life will not always be perfect and our job is to stay grounded and present even when things totally suck. This allows us to regulate our own nervous systems even when there is chaos, because we have practiced it time and time again on the mat in a controlled environment. Weather you’re working toward 108 sun salutations or laying on a bolster for 30 minutes, whatever activates that parasympathetic response in your body is helping you win at health and longevity. How do you know you got there? One benefit is improved circulation to your digestive system = stomach growling during savasana is a great thing!

Promise – “Cleanses are part of yoga”

Reality – Your body cleans itself every day. Yoga DOES help you get rid of the mental gunk.

Ayurveda is the sister science to yoga. One element of this practice is eating in accordance with your given constitution. This means that some of us are built to eat meat, others are not. Some crave spicy foods and others crave sweets, etc. When we add like to like, it throws our bodies and energy out of balance. Firey people + firey food = inflammation and anger, for example. By practicing self-awareness and knowing what our natural tendencies are it is said that we will be able to stay in balance in part through the foods we eat. When we find ourselves out of balance, Ayurveda recommends a “cleanse” that involves natural elements such as oiling the body inside and out or eating a simple mono-diet of rice and mung beans etc. These types of cleanses are recommended based on the individual’s constitution and spoiler alert: NONE of them involve living off of lemon water, tea or mushroom milk for a month. The purpose is to reset the digestive system in a way that is soft and kind to the body under the care of a licensed or certified ayurvedic counselor with thousands of hours of schooling. Watch out for diet culture creeping into yoga spaces. Real Ayurveda will never come in the form of a one size fits all advertisement. It is always curated for the individual after careful one on one counsel.

IN ADDITION – The concept of “removal of toxins” is NOT a reality. Your body has specific mechanisms in place to remove wastes (digestive, lymphatic, sweating and more) and yoga postures do not “squeeze” wastes out of you. Movement can improve the function of your organs but speaking about the body as if it were “toxic” creates an unhealthy relationship with it for many of us living with body image issues. (More on language in yoga classes in another blogpost) The best cleanse that yoga can provide is the one where we release our expectations, our judgements, triggers and our self-deprecating thoughts.

Promise & Reality – Yoga is life.

So the next time you or someone you know mistakenly touts yoga as a way to “get rid” of the undesirable parts of themselves (physical or otherwise) perhaps you can gently remind them of all the wonderful things true yoga can add to our lives instead, such as:

– self-awareness
– acceptance
– compassion
– love
– inquiry into the subconscious
– empowerment
– stress relief
– mindfulness
– energetic awareness
– Ayurvedic education

– freedom from our thoughts and emotions

– union

After all, yoga isn’t about changing.

It’s about connecting to our innermost, untouchable, radiant self.

And we are perfect as we are.

What is Ayurveda, Anyway?

Denver Clark, LMT#89198, C-IAYT

Ayurveda is often referred to as “the sister science to Yoga.” It has been used as a system of health in India for well over 5,000 years and is deeply focused on not only healing the individual but teaching them how to use knowledge of the cycles of nature to stay in balance and avoid illness whenever possible.

The word Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit roots of “Ayur” meaning “life” and “Veda” which is a deep, inherent knowledge when one truly understands. This knowledge cannot be taught, only experienced.

Now, the ancient practices from Ayurveda are spreading across the world as people experience the benefits of techniques such as dry skin brushing, oil pulling, cooking with turmeric and eating seasonally from locally grown produce.

One ayurvedic principle that pervades all the practices is that of the Doshas.

These are the 3 elemental energies that create and drive all of nature – including us.

These energies are created from the 5 great elements.

Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether (or space)

These elements are inherent in all natural things in various combinations. Even inside our own bodies, we see their qualities in different physiological processes. They are also in the foods we eat and the activities we engage in and can therefore increase or decrease depending on how we interact with the world, the season and even the time of day.

Kapha – Earth and Water create the Dosha of Kapha – useful for stability, steadiness and grounding but potentially sticky, dry and heavy or depressed when in excess.

Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

Pitta – Water and Fire create the Dosha of Pitta – Transformative, full of energy and power but potentially destructive, hot and angry in excess.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Vata – Air and Ether create the Dosha of Vata – light, free moving and circulates energy, but in excess can be disconnected, cold and restless or anxious.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

We come into this world with a specific tendency toward one or two of these 3 doshas. You may already be able to think of a person you know as very “earthy,” stable, reliable, nurturing and maybe even sometimes slow to change and may be prone to depression. This is Kapha energy. Someone who is “fiery” with high Pitta energy may often be described as  “Type A.” These individuals have a tremendous amount of energy and stamina to do all the things but may also be quick to anger or plagued with inflammatory issues in their body. “Airy” Vata people will naturally be more prone to move from project to project, easily letting go of grudges and always spouting out new creative ideas. They may also find it difficult or even impossible to complete any of these projects and be prone to forgetfulness, poor circulation, and anxiety. ALL of us have all 3 energies but as we look over our lifetime, we can see patterns of behavior that alert us to our primary “Prakriti” – which is the dosha balance we are meant to have when we are our best selves.

Life experiences, seasonal changes, foods and more call all bring us out of balance. This is referred to as or “Vikriti” or current imbalance. For example, as we age, we enter a period of “Vata” when we retire, become empty nesters and our bodies produce less fluid and become dryer. Those with high Vata tendencies already can easily be thrown out of balance and suffer from poor circulation, anxiety, insomnia, arthritis, osteoporosis and more. These are all light, dry, airy conditions filled with wind-like movement. Add to this, the dryness and cold weather in Fall and early winter and it’s no wonder why we are running to Florida when things cool down up North!

Once we determine our prakriti we can begin to see the way in which we help or hinder our sense of balance. Each of us has a unique constitution and will need a unique list of lifestyle choices that are best for us. Fad diets such as the keto or the raw food diet are perfect examples of ways in which we try to box ourselves into a way of eating that may work for others but will not work at all for us. This isn’t because we aren’t good at eating right, it just means that our constitution is different. The same can be said about the place where we choose to live or our job choice and how it affects our mood. Pittas make excellent lawyers, Kaphas are born to take care of others, Vatas are the creative geniuses.

Yoga teaches us that the ultimate goal in life is knowledge of the self. Ayurveda uses this knowledge to help us live our best lives.

If you’d like to take a simple dosha quiz to start your exploration of self, you can follow the link here.

If you are interested in learning more about Ayurveda, please join us at Heartwood for our “Intro to Ayurveda” weekend or try an Ayurvedic bodywork session with one of our Licensed and Certified Massage Therapists. You can read more about our offerings on our website at http://www.rytcertification.com & http://www.heartwoodyogainstitute.com.

Finding Pockets of Silence in a Busy World

By Stephanie Engebretson, 500-RYT, RCYT and Yoga Therapist in Training

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

After bustling through the holidays with family and friends, schedules and meals to plan, laughter and long nights, it may seem out of reach to accomplish just a few moments of conscious silence throughout our days. We set our lives in motion in such a way that we encourage our hours to be filled with more buying, more dining, more planning, which in turn leads to less mindfulness, less time in nature, and certainly less access to silence. Sound is constantly around us filling our minds with memories, thoughts, and emotion.

Take a moment right now, as you read this post, to become aware of just how many sounds you can hear around you. Is there a radio on? Can you hear the air conditioner or fan? Are there pets or children in the space you are in? Can you hear the cars on the road nearby, or the microwave beeping with your pizza? What about a television, a power tool, a washing machine?

All around us we are experiencing sensation stimulation; unconsciously receiving constant vibration in the form of individual influence on the natural world. There is no question that to live in this human world is to interact with sound in every moment, but the question is, how do we as humans find pockets of silence in our busy lives?

My journey in developing a daily practice for myself has been unpredictable in it’s setbacks, but truthful in it’s difficulty. I am frequently reminding myself that a practice is something that grows with us, changes as we need it to, and adjusts to our current circumstances. So many times, we shy away from things that we know will be good for us because we don’t think we can do it perfectly.

But if we consider that it is better to brush our teeth imperfectly every day, than to wash them perfectly once per month, then we might be able to take the logical step in knowing that the same would be true for meditating, finding silence, and mindfully living.

  1. Consider, what is something that you do every day? Is it making a cup of coffee in the morning? Is it walking your dog every evening after work? Is it brushing your teeth before bed? Take a few days to observe your daily habits and find the one thing that you do each day.
  2. Then, once your daily habit is acknowledged, we can place a pocket of silence before the habit is enacted daily. For example, on your way into the bathroom to brush your teeth each evening you can find a strong mountain pose facing your sink. Standing tall and powerful, close off your eyes and become mindful of the experience your body is having in that exact moment. Notice your breath and then invite in an easy count: 1 with the inhale, 2 with the exhale; all the way up to 10. If you become distracted by a thought, or a feeling try to notice whatever it is without attachment, and then return again to 1. Once you have finished your 10th mindful breath, release your focus and continue on to brush your teeth. Or perhaps you take 10 breaths after you’ve poured your morning coffee or tea; inhaling in through your nose as your smell the warmth and robust flavor of your bean water, and as you exhale you slowly breath your through your pursed lips to cool off the steaming drink.

Whatever these moments are for you, the point is not to achieve them perfectly, but instead to just allow yourself a few moments to slow down and become more aware of the present moment. Allowing the sounds to fall away as your focus your attention away from the vibrations they create, and instead onto whatever it is that you choose to set your mind to. Your breath, the smell of your coffee, a guided meditation on Youtube, whatever it is that allows you take a few moments to yourself will be worth it.

As we enter the New Year, I want to encourage you to find these simple moments. Allow yourself the time to try it out imperfectly, and with awareness that it is hard for everyone who tries it, and still committing to doing it anyway.

There is no perfect silence in this world, but there are little pockets of imperfect moments in which we can slow down, become more aware, and just “be”. 

8 Things your massage therapist wants you to know

Here are 8 things I used to waste time worrying about and questioning that I have learned since becoming a massage therapist. These tips will help you get the most out of every massage you get.

Growing up in a dance studio, owning one as an adult and then becoming a yoga teacher and massage therapist; the body has always (and I mean always) been the focus of my life. In many ways, this has been a tremendous blessing. My fascination with the human body has led to years of study, teaching and helping others understand their own bodies and heal them proactively. I’ve been able to understand the changes my body has undergone as I’ve grown and had a child of my own. In some ways however, the body as the focus of my life has left me with obsessive thoughts and fears about mine being “undesirable,” or “offensive.” Of course, this topic is for another blog post altogether but one thing that massage school and bodywork has helped me heal is my belief that my body needs to be apologized for. (For a fantastic reference on this issue, please buy yourself the book “The Body is Not an Apology” By Sonya Renee Taylor ASAP!)

Here are 8 things I used to waste time worrying about and questioning that I have learned since becoming a massage therapist. These tips will help you get the most out of every massage you get.

  1. The issue of underwear – Take em’ off! – Massage therapists spend hundreds of hours learning all about the anatomy of the musculoskeletal system. We are trained to learn how poor posture and lifestyle choices equal chronic lower back and hip pain for most of the world. We see client after client come in suffering from years of chronic discomfort in these areas and of course, we want to help! Most lower back pain comes from the area of the hips and buttock muscles. This means we need to access them as easily as possible! We can help you more efficiently if we can massage your glutes. So please don’t feel strange about removing your undergarments. We spend hours in school learning how to drape you securely with the sheet and your massage will be so much better if you just take em’ off. When we look at your rear, all we see are muscles that need help. Promise.
  2. Showering before your session – DO! – And speaking of butts, although our job is to massage yours, we don’t necessarily enjoy smelling them. It’s definitely helpful and respectful to us if you find time to bathe before your massage session. Please remember, we are humans with all 5 senses. Coming to your massage straight from the gym or beach may seem like an amazing way to spend the day but think of your therapist and rinse off on the way over please or if you cannot do so, stick a packet of body wipes in your car and wipe the smelly bits (and your dirty flip flop feet) before you jump on the table.
  3. Your hairy legs – we don’t even notice them – So bathing is nice but shaving? Eh, we don’t even notice! There’s no need to come out of your relaxed state to explain how sorry you are that you didn’t get a chance to shave your legs. It doesn’t hinder that massage or gross us out at all. Again, legs are muscles that need to be treated. That’s all we see.
  4. Eating before your session – In massage school, on my first big full body massage I decided it was an excellent idea to practice the abdominal work we had just learned…. Within the first 10 minutes of my 90 minute session…. And you guessed it… soon my poor client yelled “I’ve gotta go!” As they wrapped the sheet around themselves and ran through a room filled with 20 tables and 40 therapists/clients to relieve themselves. I learned a lesson that day to always leave abdominal work for the end of the session. In addition, massage puts your body into parasympathetic response, or “rest and digest,” which vastly improves your digestive function. This means growling belies and potentially, gas and other things moving along your GI tract. With that in mind, keep food and drink light before your bodywork to avoid any bathroom interruptions that will take away from your time on the table. Also – use the bathroom before you go in!
  5. The issue of “Deep Tissue” – Your muscles have a memory. They get used to the tension they’re under and think that the need to stay that way to protect themselves. This default mode has sometimes been in place for years! It’s hard to imagine we can erase all those years of repetitive tension in 60 minutes once every year. The best way to relieve chronic pain is to set up regular sessions, every 2-4 weeks. Your body will respond more and more quickly each session as it remembers the benefits of the massage. In addition – If your massage therapist comes at any muscle in your body with an elbow right away, your muscle tissues will tighten even more to protect themselves from injury. It takes time to warm up the muscle and let it know that we aren’t going to hurt it. So leave a few minutes for your therapist to work into the layers of tissue before requesting more pressure. We are most often working up to this by warming up the body layer by layer to get deeper inward. In addition, steamrolling muscles tends to be less effective that a single point of pressure. So before you judge the technique of your therapist, ask questions about their approach. A finger or thumb is often way more helpful than our entire forearm. When we tell you to let us know if you want more or less pressure, we mean it! Don’t shy away from asking what you want during your session. We prefer it. And the age old “you can go deeper if you want,” comment is kinda lost on us. Your massage is about what you want, not us. We don’t come to work with the intention of hurting people so we will work your muscles in the way that is most effective to relaxing them. Being sore after a massage doesn’t mean the massage was better. It means the pressure was probably a bit too much for your body. And please note that requesting a male therapist isn’t the most effective way to get the deep pressure you want. Plenty of us ladies can rock the deep tissue work too.
  6. Talking is optional – When you pay for a massage, this is your time. Please don’t feel the need to talk to us during your session. Personally, I prefer when my clients are quiet. I can focus on what I’m doing and usually do better work. When I’m on the table as a client, I also notice that I feel like my massage is better if I’ve focused on what I am feeling instead of chatting it up with my therapist. Feel free to let out anything you wish if it comes up though. If my studio walls could talk, they’d tell you that massage therapy is definitely “therapy” and often as our bodies let go of tension, the issues that caused the tension come up. People share a lot with me and that’s ok. Ethically, I made a promise to leave those things in the room and never repeat them. But you don’t have to make small talk with us. We are just happy to be helping you.
  7. Drinking water afterward – Here’s the thing. You should always be drinking water. Your body needs water to heal and thrive. In addition, after a massage (just like after a yoga or exercise class) your circulation and digestion have been greatly improved and this means you need to hydrate! I keep an “emergency water” in my car and my 6-year-old will even remind me sometimes to drink it. Dehydration leads to headaches, irritability, constipation, mood swings and more. Ps. Your coffee (although made with water) is not enough. Caffeine acts as a dietetic and drains fluid form the body faster. So, skip the joke “does my Starbucks latte count?” and just guzzle some good ole’ H2O.
  8. Rest after your session!!!! – Bodywork is serious. When we reset your physical body, muscles and joints are letting go of sometimes years of repetitive stress and pain. Please, oh please don’t leave thinking “I feel so good I’m going to go home and weed my entire yard!” Your body needs time to integrate these changes and hopefully reset so they stick. Placing yourself in physical or mental strain just after your massage is a bad idea and can lead to soreness, injury, and emotional distress. Let yourself heal and enjoy the reverberations of your treatment. Take it slow, drink your water, eat healthy foods, and nourish your body for the rest of the day. You’ll get much more for your money if you take the healing home with you.

For more information about massage, yoga or Ayurvedic bodywork treatments feel free to visit me at Heartwood Yoga Institute in Bradenton, FL any time! Stay happy and healthy and go book yourself a massage with your local therapist right now.

RCYT- the designation that makes a registered children’s yoga teacher trustworthy.

Adventures in movement & mindfulness

 Instilling the values of kindness, respect for the environment, self-confidence and tolerance, are vital tools for living a responsible, enriching life in today’s fast paced world. Helping kids learn these mindsets has become ever more important to parents frustrated with the task of raising conscientious kids in a culture that leans more and more towards an instant gratification mentality.  Over-exposure to the media continues to set an ever-higher standard of perfection on young developing minds, so it’s no wonder kid’s today struggle with feelings of inadequacy and/or depression. Add to this the fact that children today have also become increasingly dependent upon technology to stay connected, a method of communication that enhances feelings of alienation while stunting the development of basic social skills, makes raising healthy and balanced children harder than ever . But rather than turning to therapy or medications to help children handle their confusion and stress, many parents are turning to yoga. The practice is non-competitive, gender neutral, and filled with positive benefits. Yoga gives children a sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, and worthiness. Thanks to the fact that yoga doesn’t require special clothes, shoes, or equipment, the classes are often more affordable than alternate afterschool enrichment activities too.

The problem is just any yoga class will not suffice. Yoga classes designed for adults require a certain maturity, and as such they are not appealing to younger students who come to the mat with shorter attention spans and excessive energy, nor do they address the unique challenges facing kids today. Youth orientated yoga needs to approach the subject differently, with yoga postures and principals taught through intriguing games, stories, and exercises designed to build self awareness, respect for others and the interconnectedness of all beings.  For this reason, franchised programs such as Radiant child, Yogakids, Karmakids and others, have experienced unprecedented growth as teachers and yoga professionals flock to seminars to learn how to introduce children appropriately and successfully to yoga to keep them engaged and excited by yoga’s poignant lessons.   

 For the last few years, youth yoga has been hovering on the outskirts of mainstream activities with classes popping up in preschools, gym classes, YMCA’s, daycares and at local yoga studios. Parents looking to find a yoga class for their child can begin by searching the internet for programs, but it is best to seek out Yoga Alliance Certified Children instructor’s with the RCYT designation.

To become a RCYT, a yoga teacher must first have an RYT-200 designation. The children’s training is considered continuing education and not a substitute for the formal training every yoga teacher is meant to have. The standards set by Yoga Alliance for RCYT prepares teachers to use games, creative movement, focused activities, art, and stories to teach not only the postures of yoga, but personal ethics, breath techniques, and compassion for the environment and more while also enhancing health and emotional balance.  RCYT programs (Registerd Children Yoga Teacher) also address trauma informed work for kids and how to address hyperactivity, ADD and more.   With themes such as recycling, endangered species, non-judgement and other key concepts, an RCYT instructor approaches each class as an opportunity for an enriched understanding of the individual’s role in connecting to the natural world, community, and personal spirit. A powerful youth yoga class will venture far beyond the teaching of postures named after animals or basic yoga games and address the full individual in a koshic (mind, body, spirit) context.     

 Heartwood Yoga Institute offers a RCYT program called Yoga for the Balanced Child. The course is designed by Ginny East Shaddock, not only the founder of Heartwood but also the creator of Kiddance, a nationally recognized children’s creative dance program that lead the way in children’s dance education for over 30 years. Yoga for the Balanced Child is appropriate for teachers, childcare givers, yoga teachers and anyone who is interested in engaging children in yoga in a manner that puts creativity and positive reinforcement at the heart of every lesson (but to earn the RCYT designation participants must also be an RYT-200. The two certifications can be attained in any order). Teachers learn creative approaches to teaching yoga by incorporating laughter yoga, cooperative partner games, music inspired movement games, imagination meditations and more. Traditional yoga techniques, such as Pranayama (breath techniques) are taught with pinwheels, feathers, and ping pong balls, while story-time yoga opens discussions on personal ethics and the teachings of the yoga sutras.  With a comprehensive syllabus filled with hours of yoga concepts, sequencing ideas, and class themes, the graduates learn to make classes as fun as they are educational. The training also includes lectures on youth anatomy and mental health issues facing young people today, enhancing a yoga teacher’s understanding and sensitivity to social issues, rauma informed youth classes, medications, and physical challenges children ages 3 to teen deal with.

 All yoga alliance certification programs include 95 hours of comprehensive training to prepare future yoga teachers with theme based and targeted material that will reinforce positive goals for young people while also addressing anatomy, physiology, methodology and appropriate postures for young students. This includes 42 hours of in-person training with qualified trainers and 30 hours of practicum teaching, and additional time devoted to mentorship and studies.

Heartwood schedules their one-week youth yoga camp overlapping this certification program, a creative way to provide RCYT teachers hands on experience working with kids as well as opportunities to fulfill their practicum hours as well.  Not only does this combined scheduling give new children’s yoga teachers a great platform to practice what they are learning under the guidance of mentors, but it results in an amazing summer camp experience for the kids too, who enjoy a ratio of 2 adult, certified teachers to every 4 or 5 kids.

Kids today face complex issues. They deserve teachers who understand and are willing to devote their own time and energy to being the best youth yoga mentors they can be. Whether a teacher takes a formal Yoga Alliance Children’s certification program locally, hops into an online offering (only available now for a short time due to Covid) or travels to one of the national franchise schools for their specialized education, the willingness of a yoga teacher to put in the effort, time, and financial investment that is part of earning an RCYT is a wonderful indication of their commitment to becoming a skilled mentor to a new generation of yogis.  

YTT: The road to someplace new

Yoga has a way of touching people in the deepest recesses of their heart and mind. It calls to individuals in need of internal peace, a softer way of living, and to those carrying the burden of unresolved issues. Many students begin a yoga practice hoping to conjure up a bit of health and fitness, and indeed gain some flexibility or a lighter body.   People don’t always know why yoga feels good, but they know there must be something special about the practice because in addition to the physical benefits, yoga leaves them feeling stirred up emotionally, deeply calm or surprisingly at peace. 

When yoga students begin to recognize the poignant side effects beyond the physical benefits of stretching, they become seekers. A seeker is someone who looks beyond the mat to understand the physiological, emotional and energetic benefits of yoga, elements which open doorways to deeper connections that forever shift the way one interacts with others, the environment and their own sense of self. 

Once a student discovers yoga as a path to personal growth and wellness, the typical hour long class on the mat can feel limiting. There is a sense that there is more to yoga, but what exactly and how does one learn the deeper elements of the practice?

The physical practice of yoga is a metaphor for life, but it takes a guru or powerful teacher to help a student see that and to understand how to use the tools of yoga to enhance their life and perhaps the lives of others. This, more than any other reason, is why so many people choose to enroll in RYS-200 yoga teacher training programs.  It is exciting to imagine a career as a yoga teacher (or even a part time job to pay for your own yoga classes and workshops if nothing else) but it is even more enticing to dive deeper into the self-discovery of yoga as a path to empowerment and self-actualization. 

Yoga teacher training does exactly that. It teaches people the hows and whys of sharing yoga with others, but more importantly, it unveils the less obvious elements of yoga that leads to transformation and personal enlightenment. Yoga Teacher Training is an unfolding that begins with the familiar – learning the correct way to do poses. Anatomy, sequencing, hands on adjustments and corrections are an important part of learning to be a teacher, but the physical practice of yoga is only one of the eight limbs that make up a viable yoga practice, so a great deal more must be introduced, explored and practiced to become an authentic yogi. RYS-200 courses venture beyond the mat to explore pranayama (breath work) meditation, concentration, philosophy and the difference between western attitudes and eastern approaches to health and wellness. Studying the energy systems, such as quantum healing, chakra theory, and marma points, opens a practioner’s eyes to a whole new level of physical, mental and spiritual understanding.  People who have studied yoga for years and years participate and most will agree – the more you learn about yoga, the more you realize you don’t know. That makes the entire YTT process a great adventure. Expanding awareness is like seeing the world anew. One should not worry about how much they don’t know, and instead be excited for all there is to learn.

At Heartwood the most important part of YTT comes after students have studied the basics of the eight limbs.  Students are guided through intention setting sessions where they begin exploring their own lives, experiences, and relationships in a yogic context. Applying the tools of yoga often leads to a softening of their outlooks and attitudes and they begin healing themselves.  This is not only important so that each individual feels more whole and enriched by yoga training, but so future teachers learn firsthand how deeply powerful yoga can be. When a teacher experiences the healing aspects of yoga personally, they become passionate healers themselves and they go on to teach with conviction and purpose.

Heartwood does not focus on one lineage or style of yoga, and instead exposes the students to a variety of the most popular yoga techniques in America today. By comparing, contrasting and considering yoga beyond its commercial form students uncover the authentic core of yoga beyond the ego, hype and preconceived assumptions associated to defined methods. A diverse foundation is vital to preparing teachers for a variety of employment opportunities too.  A broad-based approach also gives students a wider understanding of yoga’s endless diversity and helps them serve different populations while also discovering and evolving their own voice and style. Just as a college student often receives a liberal arts education before committing to a major in grad school, a broad-based yoga foundation prepares a student to consider the many directions they can take their career or future studies.  

A competent yoga teacher must learn more than how to guide a class through a series of postures. They must learn to integrate all the teachings into the practice. This is the difference between teaching authentic yoga and teaching calisthenics with yoga poses.

A competent yoga teacher must learn more than how to guide a class through a series of postures. They must learn to integrate all the teachings into the practice. this is the difference between teaching authentic yoga and At Heartwood, we encourage teachers to embrace their creativity, instinct, and draw on life experiences to teach people, not poses. A great teacher does more than regurgitate concepts or words that have been programed in by someone else. They must live their yoga and be an example for others.

At Heartwood, we encourage teachers to embrace their creativity, instinct, and draw on life experiences to teach people, not poses. A great teacher does more than regurgitate concepts or words that have been programed in by someone else. They must live their yoga and be an example for others.

Students’ come to yoga teacher training thinking they know exactly what they want from the course, but they often leave with an entirely different idea of yoga and their place in the bigger scheme.  That is what transformation is all about. You just have to begin the journey with non-attachment, because you never know what you will find or where yoga will lead. All you can be sure of is that a deeper study of yoga will lead you someplace new and different. That is the foundation of every great adventure.   

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.