How yoga is teaching me to love myself – even on days when I don’t

Denver Clark – CIAYT, ERYT-500, LMT #89197

Yoga has so much more depth than most of us (even those who teach) can even begin to comprehend. In a world full of filters and impossible standards of beauty, hearing that self-love is as easy as “getting a pedicure and deciding to love yourself” can leave us feeling frustrated and depressed. So, I decided to share a little bit about how yoga has shaken me out of the trap of self-loathing and into a place of self-awareness and compassion. Some days I still struggle to reach even a moment of self-acceptance, let alone self-love. But the magic of Yoga has been the true catalyst for me.

I was raised in front of a mirror. My mother was a dance teacher at Steps on Broadway and traveled all over the country as a master jazz teacher. My stepfather was my ballet instructor. My mom opened a dance school when I was just a year old, and some of my earliest memories are of bouncing my walker into the mirrors of the studio while she taught. I used to spend hours making faces at myself as a child and was even caught lip syncing the songs from the musical “Miss Saigon” in the bathtub, while watching myself in the mirror when my parents listened to new music to use for their dance company concerts. I grew up with a love for music and performance and decided at a very early age, that I was content to become a starving artist in New York City if it meant I could be on Broadway and inspire others from the stage.

            I was born to be a naturally larger bodied person. I learned to channel my anxiety into hiding food and eating it excessively to help myself feel calmer. The problem was, I was never thin enough to be up front dancing or singing or acting. I didn’t “look right for the part” and this became my internal narrative – not just on stage but in every moment of life. I punished myself as a teenager by hiding in my room and excessively picking at my face – even covering it with scrubbing bubbles bathroom cleaner once in an attempt to wash away the things I didn’t like. I obsessively stared at myself in mirrors, pinching and pulling on my flesh and fantasizing about cutting off my extra girth with scissors. My mind had taken the corrections from my dance teachers, my own parents and twisted them into corrections for myself. My mind had heard “wrong for the part” as just “wrong.” I decided I was the problem, and I did not love myself.

            Even when I was admitted to a prestigious BFA program for Musical Theatre, I found ways to internalize this “not good enough” monologue and managed to sabotage my experience, eventually removing myself from the program and dropping out of college entirely. I made every choice in my life based on the idea that I deserved the bare minimum, from who I chose to date to the way I communicated with others to the activities I engaged in and the meals I ate.

            In my 20’s I found myself working in a fast-food drive-through and looking for a way to re-connect with my body after losing my college dance classes which led me into the upstairs room of a chiropractor’s office in Rural Georgia where I met – Yoga.

            My first experience in a yoga class was simple and to this day I’ll never be able to tell you if the teacher was a “good one” or not. What I can remember is that for the first time in my entire life, I was moving with my body in harmony. I was connected to my deepest self. I was completely at peace and there wasn’t a mirror in sight. I cried during savasana.

            This began my journey into Yoga. Starting with my 200-hour training and navigating the new yoga and dance studio I inherited during the program, I was frantically trying to learn enough to be worthy of my student’s trust. Born with “imposter syndrome,” my desire to know all the answers led me to my 300-hour certification and eventually to become both a massage and yoga therapist. Along the way I learned a myriad of helpful information about anatomy, physiology and how to be a compassionate listener and strong communicator. But the most important lessons came once I started practicing yoga experientially.

I learned about the energetic subtle body and the theory of how our thoughts and emotions manifest in physical pain. I started noticing that when I felt sad and unworthy, my body changed composition – literally padding itself to protect me from my negative thoughts and the outside world. I would experience physical pain in my joints and even gain weight just by thinking negatively about myself.  As a yoga therapist (and someone actively in therapy for body image and disordered eating) there is a proven connection of our physical body to our subtle body. We are what we think. So now, at 35 I am actively working to re-direct my negative thought patterns to compassionate ones. By showing myself love mentally and emotionally, I have begun to feel more worthy, and I treat myself better. I get out of bed to practice or meditate, and I spend the time nourishing my body and enjoying what I eat instead of punishing myself with food.

            My yoga journey has brought me to the alter of Ayurveda. This 3,000-year-old system of medicine coming from India introduced me to the study of the Doshas and how everything in the universe is made up of a combination of the 5 elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether). I’ve learned to accept that I was brought into this world with a lot of fire and instead of allowing this energy to consume me with anger and self-destructiveness, I’ve decided to treat it as my superpower. I’m actively trying to reshape my narrative as a “Type A, anxiety ridden, short, fused person” into “a passionate, transformative and hardworking induvial” and self-awareness helps me see the moments when I’m beginning to tip out of balance. The practices I’ve learned – mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, postures and eating in accordance with my energies – have shown me how to bring myself back when life throws me a curveball instead of taking to my bed for days on end or acting out of self-loathing, mistreating my body and binge eating. I find I recover from stress much more quickly now and can acknowledge my missteps and apologize when that fire comes out sideways instead of hiding behind self-defensiveness. This has completely changed my relationships and my parenting.

Philosophically, the Yoga Sutras have shown me that all of us have fears and aversions. We call these the Kleshas. That our monkey mind and our ego will constantly be grasping, and our job is to stay the course and keep doing the work of spiritual growth. To get back up even when we trip and fall into old habits.

The most important thing yoga has taught me is that healing is not linear and self-compassion is the end to suffering.

Do I remember this every day? Of course not! Honestly, the best way for me to live my yoga has been to teach it. Not on a yoga mat in a “yoga class” but by sharing with others the gems that I’ve discovered. I have these conversations with my daughter, with my husband, with my friends over lunch and I find I’m beginning to live my yoga. After all, it’s yoga “practice,” not yoga “perfect.

My friend and teacher Donna shared a beautiful quote in class just this morning from Brene Brown: “True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our self-acceptance.”

Self-awareness is the gift of yoga. This leads to self-acceptance and for me, is the doorway to the long and winding journey of self-love.

For further contemplation:

  • In subtle body studies, the concept of the 5 koshas teaches us that we have increasingly subtle layers of existence. Our physical layer sends messages to our energetic layer and creates changes in the physiology of our body. This creates a shift in our mental layer. Also, our thoughts change our physiology and nervous system in the energy body and create measured physical changes. We can in fact, make ourselves sick.
  • In Ayurveda we learn about the 3 doshas, Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire and water) and Kapha (water and earth). All things in the universe are made up of a different combination of these elements. Therefore, to stay in balance, it’s important to recognize your constitution and apply the opposite energies in your food and activities to keep from falling into an excess of one element over the other.
  • The 5 Kleshas or “causes of suffering” are ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear of death. All people fall victim to these sensations and yoga teaches us to ride the wave instead of allowing these feelings to rule our lives and our decisions.

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.

Looking Back on the Year

by David Shaddock

So many times we say hindsight is 20/20.  It is with great relief that I realize that 2020 is now only hindsight.  As the year fades into the rear view mirror of memory, I feel the momentary need to pause and consider what we’re so gladly putting behind us.  It wasn’t all bad. 

I’m reminded today of Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, which famously begins It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  A Tale of 2020 could start the same way, for Heartwood at least.  The year began with horrible wildfires in Australia, burning away much of the bush and imperiling millions of wild animals.  Some of those were the world’s most dangerous snakes, but others were koala bears.  We made contributions to a fund to save the koalas (and the snakes, I guess), during the month of January when every indicator told us we were going to have our very best financial year ever, with every course we offered that month bursting at the seams and boasting a waiting list.  February was equally busy and we couldn’t wait to catch our breath in March, when our last spring students would leave and my massage therapy training at Manatee Technical College began its spring break. 

March 10 saw us sleeping in until the unheard-of time of 6 am, and then getting up to start our ten-day juice fast.  I was determined to go back to school with six-pack abs showing, so every day I worked out and we made juice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  After the fourth day Ginny cracked and looked up research that told us it was much healthier to break the juice fast each evening with a protein meal.  And she decided that making the juice into smoothies by adding bananas and whey powder made for a more survivable beverage.  So we didn’t quite make the ten day pledge, but I lost 11 pounds and she cut out six.  And I felt great, especially after kicking my caffeine habit.  I haven’t had a cup of coffee since. 

But March 23, when I was supposed to go back to classes, we were told to stay home and hunker down.  We started zoom classes to keep our training going, and Heartwood began online work as well.  Denver and Ginny began putting huge amounts of effort into filming training sessions we’d always wanted to do, but never found the time.  Denver poured herself into anatomy and posture focus work, with help from other teachers and students who were willing to come to Heartwood, and Ginny dove deep into philosophy and marketing work.  We held ourselves to high standards in terms of video quality, investing in light boxes and better microphones to go with our broadcast-quality camcorder and tripod. 

The upshot was that, although we weren’t able to hold many of our normal courses, we were able to serve our community of teacher trainees using online tools, Zoom, and Thinkific.  We actually were able to graduate several groups of very engaged and highly competent teachers from allover the world after holding 200 and 300 level courses with the blessing of Yoga Alliance. 

I say we…  honestly, this was Ginny and Denver, and also Rachel Belle, who had come to work for us in the spring to help out in the office, teach some coursework, host some Zoom sessions, and generally fill in the gaps.  What was I doing? 

Well, in March during what I thought was my 13 days of spring break, I tore apart the old office and lobby and turned it all around, with Ginny’s advice and suggestions.  We now have a secure area for three people to work the office, more privacy for the bathroom, and a lovely boutique area that Ginny keeps stocked with amazing merchandise at bargain prices.  This all seems to be a favorite with our crowds of customers—but we don’t get crowds anymore.  Covid has changed all that.  No overlapping classes, no simultaneous trainings, no overflow students.  Everything is limited, and so far, due to all that caution, we have yet to see a case of Covid here.

So with all the bad comes a lot of good.  If we pay attention, we have a balance—sometimes shifting in one direction and other times coming back in a more positive way.  We watch the plight of black people in now-publicized peril, and feel their anguish, but we are heartened as more and more Americans and those in other countries become more aware and more active.  We are dismayed at the loss of our beloved country’s standing amongst the nations of the world, but we see the moves we’re making toward getting back on track.  We are heartsick as we hear stories of people taking online trainings that teach them little or nothing, but then we still have would-be teachers seeking quality education and willing to do the work to find us. 

I passed my medical board exam for massage therapy on my first attempt, which was an incredible relief, and then graduated my course and was licensed, right in the middle of a ban on massage work.  So it was hard getting started, but that freed me up to make more improvements on the property.  We now have blacktopped driveways all over Heartwood except for our gravel parking lots, a hefty expense by our standards but a long time coming and this will keep down our dust levels and make the property neater and cleaner year round.  And I have an excuse to dig out my size 14 Rollerblades. And we installed a new, bigger septic and upgraded the electricity to keep up with our growing needs.

We lost our beloved India, the best Heartwood dog ever, but within a short time Ginny had found a puppy replacement, an adorable little Australian shepherd.  We named him Shiva as a reminder to our yoga students that Shiva is the name for the male energy & supreme consciousness in the Hindu tradition.  He has a lot more male energy than we’d like at the moment, but day by day he’s settling into a more mature groove.  At four months, he’s over 30 pounds and he just loves people.  We have high hopes that he’ll grow into a great Heartwood greeter and protector.  Wish we had some sheep to keep him busy, though.

Along the course of this year, Denver and I both were able to return to massage work under safe circumstances.  Some truly wonderful people have come into my life this year, some through massage and others through trainings, but some through business relationships.  I feel truly blessed that so many remarkable friends appear at Heartwood, and so many appreciate the calm and peace that seems to envelop anyone who enters the front gate. 

There are a lot of new homes in my family this year.  Neva bought herself a house in Baltimore, since she’ll be stationed at Fort Meade for most of her work in the Air Force.  Her significant other moved in with her several months later and they got to enjoy the Covid shutdown under the same roof.  I didn’t get to see my mother from March until the end of the summer when I helped her move up to Amelia Island near Jacksonville, where she now lives in the downstairs master suite at my older sister Laurie’s gorgeous new home.  And Denver and her fiancé Nick bought a house together about ten minutes from Heartwood, a lovely two-story place in a gated community.  All seem happy and content with their new digs.

We are here at Heartwood, utterly grateful that during the time of the shutdown we were quartered in a place with seven acres, gardens and pathways, and a pavilion for exercise.  We had cases of bamboo toilet paper that had arrived on a delivery schedule but were unused because we didn’t have customers.  We had three refrigerators and a freezer full of food which we dove into and prepared hundreds of great meals, at home, and finding ourselves saving thousands of dollars because we weren’t running off to restaurants to grab a quick meal or get away from work for an hour here or there.  Ginny has continued to exercise and shed weight, and I’ve been working hard and staying in shape by hauling materials, digging trenches, and working around the place.  And our biggest project yet is still underway but almost completed at this point—a total teardown and renovation of our house kitchen.  I’ve added two feet to the old kitchen layout, and we bought custom cabinets that give us an embarrassing amount of storage.  All the old 1983 appliances are now replaced, and we love the new look and increased utility. 

So it was a hard year in many ways but it was a rich and rewarding year in many others.  Yes, I’m very glad to see the end of the 2020, with its destructive wildfires and horrid weather and political turmoil and rampant illness and utter isolation.  But I am grateful—grateful that I’m Buddhist enough to live in the present, not fearful of the future and always forgiving of the past, and grateful that so many good things happened last year to make us appreciate what we do have here in Heartwood and those who come here to share our lives. 

Taken By Surprise

And what really surprises me is how much I love doing the work!

This isn’t the first time that I’ve been utterly taken by surprise with an educational course, and I hope it won’t be the last.  I remember entering the first yoga teacher training that my wife, Ginny, held ten years ago when she had finally registered ReFlex Arts as a Registered Yoga School with Yoga Alliance.  She wanted me in her class to provide feedback on her teaching and to help her remember the names of the 19 enrollees.  I wanted to take the class to become more flexible. 

I got so much more than I bargained for.  Yoga helps with physical flexibility, of course, but it’s so much more than that.  I gained mental, emotional, and spiritual flexibility.  I learned breath control and meditation techniques, but more importantly, I learned what to use them for—to pursue self-examination, detachment from distractions, focus on the true Self, honest and enlightened awareness of how I see myself and how I interact with others. 

Along my path since then, I’ve gotten 500-level training, and become a Reiki master, and taught more than a thousand students some of what I know and have learned.  I get better as a yogi with time, because I’m paying attention and doing the work.  So recently I decided to move forward with another aspect of training and get schooled in massage therapy. 

Honestly, I did this so that I could legally perform Reiki (for compensation) in the State of Florida.  Florida is one of the only states that does not allow Reiki practitioners to perform treatments unless they hold a license to do bodywork (massage therapy, physical therapy, or occupational therapy).  As a founding member of the Florida Reiki Association, and as a person who has attuned and trained well over a thousand students of Reiki in the past seven years here at Heartwood, it seemed unconscionable that I had to turn down the many requests I’ve had from people who wanted me to work with them to help them heal problems.  So I began Massage Therapy training at Manatee Technical College.  And that’s where the surprises began.

First of all, the facility was incredible.  The staff, the building, the programs, the students, and the teachers were wonderful in various ways.  My instructor, Nancie Yonker, is a handful of years younger than I am but she’s devoted most of her life to massage.  She used to instruct at Sarasota School of Massage, teaching there for seven years, and then did a couple year stint at Keiser, and finally got brought in to MTC to help them develop their program there.  Denver got her training at Sarasota School of Massage, and I can attest to how much skill she has due to that wonderful education, but I feel I got at least as much for much, much less tuition. 

I have a respectable medical background, having worked five years as a paramedic and I also was one of the first five certified Emergency Cardiac Technicians in Illinois.  But I learned so much about anatomy—not just the muscles and bones and tissues, but about cell operations and subtle energy and chemical reactions and how and why we do what we do as we move through life—that I not only passed my medical board exam on the first try, I now have a ton of material I feed into Heartwood’s newly accredited yoga therapy training.  Before this, I knew what muscles and bones were moving and operating throughout each yoga posture.  Now I know exactly what is going on under the skin as I touch and move and manipulate all the tissues of the body.  I know the names of virtually every obscure little muscle, but more importantly, I know how to relax them, or make them stronger, or make a client more aware of them. 

And what really surprises me is how much I love doing the work!  To feel a client’s resistance to movement melt away under my touch, or to see the relaxation grow into a client’s features, or to sense the body’s internal rhythms slow and relax or quicken and strengthen as I work become amazing affirmations of what properly-done techniques can mean to help another human being become better at living in their skin. 

And some of the adjunct therapies took me by surprise as well.  Debi Kleer, a fellow student, is an old friend of mine who was trained in reflexology when she lived in South Africa.  She needed a massage therapy license to pursue that career here in the USA.  I never much cared for reflexology since my feet are really sensitive to touch—my only ticklish spot, and I find walking barefoot on gravel or shell excruciating—but we had a visitor to class, Sam Belyea, who is known as the foot whisperer.  He opened our eyes to the way reflex points on the feet and hands can actually be used to diagnose conditions and suggest treatments.  He and Debi speak the same language, so she was a step ahead of all of us, but we got a chance to experience what reflexology can do.  I’m not inclined to pursue this therapy myself; I’ll leave it to Denver, who does it here, and Debi, who does it elsewhere.  But it was fascinating to see it in action.

And then I love Thai massage.  We had gotten some training previously in Thai massage by Joni Masse, and it whetted my appetite, but I knew we couldn’t legally do it here with a license, even if we were going to call it Thai Yoga or something like that.  We have too much at stake to risk losing Heartwood over trying to skirt the law.  So Ginny set up a plan to ship Denver and me to Thailand, enrolling us in their famous massage institute at Chiang Mai, one of the few that are fully accredited in the USA.  We were planning to go in September and stay long enough to get certified to teach massage and herbal applications, and then come back to set up a legitimate teaching system here at Heartwood and add another skill set to our practices.  But, Covid…  Those plans are on hold until next year.

The adjunct therapy that really did speak to me, however, was craniosacral therapy.  We had a guest teacher come in and demonstrate for us, and let us work on each other a tiny bit, and that was enough to whet my appetite to learn more.  All that time doing Reiki shares and attunements and demonstrations have given my hands a wonderful sensitivity and I was easily able to feel the delicate craniosacral rhythms in a client’s head and feet.  I decided to enroll in training with the Upledger Institute, founded by Dr. John Upledger, an orthopedic surgeon, and become certified in CST.  The training was so much more than I had anticipated.  Not only did I learn the science behind this gentle practice—involving pressures on parts of the body that are never more than 5 grams, about the weight of a common nickel, that coax the body into helping itself resolve issues on all different levels—I learned techniques to make this work very effectively for clients. 

When I took the training, my massage partner, Bernadette Brelsford, a fellow student and a practicing esthetician, performed a practice 10-step protocol on me, with particular attention to my right shoulder, which had been quite painful for almost nine months after a fall from a ladder while working on my barn roof.  Shortly after the session concluded, I discovered that my shoulder pain was totally gone.  “I’m a healer!”, Bernadette responded happily.  Well, along the way, I’ve been discovering that I can help clients achieve similar results for themselves.  It amazes me each time these ever-so-subtle pressures can wreak such remarkable results, but as time goes on and I gain more experience, I am starting to expect these things rather than be surprised by them. 

I didn’t become an overnight convert to yoga, and neither did I dive passionately headlong into massage for its own sake.  Both surprised me with how much they have affected my life.  Yoga has turned into a lifelong learning path.  I fully expect massage will be the same for me.  I welcome the future with open arms and willing hands.