Grant to help prof link yoga, science (Daily Star, New York)

Dr. Ashok K. Malhotra, distinguished teaching professor at the State University College at Oneonta, has received a three-year grant from the Metanexus Institute to establish a group that will use yoga and meditation as a link between spirituality and science.

The Yoga and Meditation Society for the Scientific Study of Spirituality will bring together faculty, staff, students, community members and scholars in a series of annual events at the college to explore the interactions between science and spirituality.

The society plans to offer several types of events to promote the dialogue:

• Weekly guided yoga/meditation sessions for community members with occasional special sessions to address needs of specific groups such as students and professionals.

• Eight meetings annually at which members will discuss literature or research dealing with science and spirituality.

• Three annual seminars with presentations by visiting scholars who have conducted research on the relationship between science and spirituality.

• An annual lectureship featuring a distinguished national or international scientist or author in the area of science and spirituality.

Topics that will be explored include scientific research on yoga, meditation and spirituality; the meaning and significance of life; globalization; consciousness; the individual and society; and nature.

The society plans to share information through the creation of a resource library, videotapes of guided yoga and meditation sessions, and an annual publication of the proceedings.

A member of the SUCO philosophy department since 1967, Malhotra received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1994 and was promoted to SUNY’s highest rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor in 2001.

Malhotra is the founder of the Indo-International Schools, which provide educational opportunities for children in impoverished villages in India.

The grant to establish the Yoga and Meditation Society for the Scientific Study of Spirituality came from the Metanexus Institute, whose mission is to advance research, education and outreach on the constructive engagement of science and religion.

The institute, officials said, seeks to create an enduring intellectual and social movement by collaborating with persons and communities from diverse religious traditions and scientific disciplines to promote a balanced and exploratory dialogue between science and religion.

Malhotra will represent the Yoga and Meditation Society for the Scientific Study of Spirituality at the Metanexus Institute’s annual conference next month at the University of Pennsylvania.

More information about the society is available from Malhotra at 436-3220.

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Metta in Motion (Yoga Journal)

Anne Cushman, Yoga Journal: Learn how to infuse your hatha yoga practice with the meditative quality of metta, or "lovingkindness."

Early last year, in the heart of a stormy winter during which the country was hurtling toward war and my own life felt like it was falling apart, I decided to use yoga to dive into an extended investigation of the Buddha’s teachings on the four brahmaviharas—literally, the “divine abodes” of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, which are also extolled in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

At the time, I was worried and brokenhearted. A funky left knee, an inflamed wrist, and chronic exhaustion as a toddler’s mother kept me from taking refuge in a sweaty, endorphin-inducing yoga flow. The brahmaviharas seemed to be exactly what I needed to focus on in my spiritual practice.

They also seemed, quite frankly, as remote as Jupiter. But the teachings of both yoga and Buddhism assured me that these luminous qualities were my true nature, a heavenly inner realm into which I could be reborn at any moment, and that my job in my spiritual practice was simply to find my way back to them…

Hatha yoga has always been one of my primary tools for conjuring up the qualities I want more of in my life. So I asked the students at a class I co-lead (along with several other yoga teachers and vipassana teacher Anna Douglas) at the Buddhist meditation center Spirit Rock to join me in an exploration: Could we infuse our asana practice with the spirit of the brahmaviharas? Could yoga’s physical techniques, in turn, induce an embodied experience of these spiritual qualities, which we could then express in the world? Could the brahmaviharas be touched through bones and muscle, blood and prana, in the midst of our ordinary lives of e-mails and diapers and credit-card bills and listening to NPR in freeway traffic?

The Basics of Metta

In the oldest forms of Buddhism, the first brahmavihara that practitioners work to cultivate—the cornerstone of all the rest—is metta, a Pali word translated as “love” or, more often, “lovingkindness.” Metta is not the emotional train-wreck version of love celebrated in Danielle Steel novels or television shows like Married By America. It’s not passion or sentimentality; it’s not laced with desire or possessiveness. Rather, metta is a kind of unconditional well-wishing, an openhearted nurturing of ourselves and others just as we all are. And—most crucially—it’s a quality that can be methodically cultivated through formal practice.

In traditional metta meditation, we systematically offer lovingkindness to ourselves and others through the silent repetition of classic phrases. We begin by offering metta to ourselves: May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be joyful. May I be free. We then extend the same wishes to others: first a dear friend or benefactor; then a neutral person, such as a checkout clerk at our local supermarket; then someone we find extremely difficult. (According to Patanjali, difficult people are especially suitable recipients of lovingkindness.) Ultimately, we extend metta to all beings everywhere, in an expansive blessing that takes in everyone and everything from the mosquito buzzing around our head to space aliens in distant galaxies.

Practice Metta on the Mat

To invite more metta into our hatha yoga practice, my students and I began taking five or 10 minutes, when we first came to our mats, to hold ourselves in the embrace of loving awareness. We’d set ourselves up in a receptive, nurturing posture; my personal favorite was Supta Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), a reclining supported backbend that gently opened my heart and belly. Then we would take some time to notice—without judgment—the emotional weather in our hearts and the precise physical sensations that accompanied it. Did our hearts feel like clenched fists, budding orchids, buzzing bees, ice cubes? Did we have a hard time finding them at all?

Next we’d set an intention to move through our yoga with lovingkindness. Sometimes we’d focus this intention with metta phrases: May I be peaceful and joyful. May my body be well. One student said it helped her to synchronize these phrases with her breath—she’d visualize flooding her body with metta as each breath poured in. Sometimes I found it helpful to use an image instead, such as rocking myself in my own arms the way I rock my son Skye when he wakes up crying. Some days, we’d direct our metta to body parts that particularly needed attention. We’d wrap our attention around our aching hip joints, our throbbing knees, our exhausted eyes. Then we’d direct our good wishes there: May you find ease and well-being.

As we began to move through our asana practice together, I’d invite my students to modify my suggested poses to cherish their own unique bodies, taking special care to support, not aggravate, any weaknesses or injuries. In my own practice, I tried to choose the postures and techniques that would nurture me most. This didn’t mean that I spent an hour just lolling around on the floor. If I came to my mat after a morning of answering e-mail, what felt kindest was a vigorous sequence of standing poses that wrung out the tension from my muscles and sent prana pulsing and coursing through my body. When Skye had kept me up all night with nightmares about dogs in his crib, it was kinder to drape myself over some bolsters and just breathe deeply.

To generate and intensify feelings of metta, my students and I found it particularly useful to explore poses that opened our heart chakras, such as backbends, side stretches, and twists. It was easier to send and receive love, we found, when our physical hearts were less constricted. Kindness came easier when our breaths were full and deep. We could come to our mats seething with resentment and yet leave after a vigorous vinyasa flow with our hearts singing.

As I focused on practicing with metta, I began to notice how much of my inner dialogue on the mat was subtly oriented toward critiquing what was wrong with my body and my practice: a subliminal commentary on my pooching belly, my wandering mind, the place where my hip froze during Revolved Triangle. I saw ways that my yoga practice had been reinforcing and refining my ability to criticize myself, rather than training my capacity to wish myself well.

Metta practice gave me a systematic way to shift this inner narrative.When I was struggling in a pose, I experimented with sending metta to the shoulder or hip or muscle that was squawking the loudest: May you be happy. Then I’d let the correct response arrive intuitively: whether to stay in the pose and continue to send metta, adjust it, or exit. One of the things I found useful about my metta exploration was that it was so nonprescriptive—it wasn’t dogma but an infinitely creative response to each situation.

Find Your Metta In Meditation

Cultivating lovingkindness in asanas felt like a good start, but I knew it was only scratching the surface of true metta practice, which aims to transform our relationship not just with ourselves but with the world. To build on the insights from our asana practice, my students and I would follow it with a period of seated metta meditation in which we practiced extending to others the lovingkindness we had been cultivating on the mat.

To link our meditation practice to our asana practice—and truly embody our insights—we tracked the effects of the metta meditation on our bodies. As we sent metta to ourselves and others, we observed the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our hearts contracted and released, the tightening or softening of our pelvic floors, the deepening or constriction of our breaths. As we explored sending metta to friends, acquaintances, and difficult people, we brought to mind how we responded to the pleasant, neutral, and difficult sensations in our asana practice. For instance, was there any similarity between the way I responded to my intransigent hip joint and the way I responded to the neighbor who was threatening to sue me for floodwater runoff into her yard?

Like many of my students, I quickly discovered that it was infinitely easier to generate a rush of warmth and tenderness toward a good friend than toward myself. One of the blessings of regular metta practice is that it puts me in touch with how many people I truly love—and feeling this love, I discovered, could be an immediate, somatic source of nourishment and joy, no matter how much stress I was under. Metta could connect me, in an instant, to people I cared about near and far—from my son, asleep in the next room, to his former baby-sitter, now volunteering on an organic mulberry farm in Laos. It could also connect me to people I’d never even met, like a child in Iraq whose face stared out at me from the front page of the Times. And this sense of connection flooded not just my heart but my whole body with positive sensations.

Certain days, my students and I discovered, our hearts felt full of lovingkindness; other days, we were anxious and agitated and angry, and doing metta seemed only to make us more upset. We tried not to use our metta practice as an excuse for beating ourselves up about not being more loving. As our vipassana teacher, Anna Douglas, noted, “Metta is a purification practice, so it often brings up its opposite.” Just as our attempts to focus on the breath illuminate, first of all, how unsteady our minds are, our attempts to contact our innate lovingkindness may immediately illuminate the ways in which we have been conditioned to be less than loving and kind. This does not mean that the practice is not working. On the contrary, it means it’s working perfectly.
The Meta of Metta

One of the delights of metta practice is that it’s so portable. I am finding it tailor-made to my current life as a mom, in which I spend more time reading Winnie-the-Pooh books and walking at a toddler’s pace to the park than I spend on the meditation cushion.

One of my students, a stay-at-home mom, told me she likes to send metta to her family while folding their laundry: May you be joyful, she says as she holds her daughter’s sock in one hand and vainly looks for its match. May you be safe.

Another friend tells me she pretends that her stationary bike at the gym is a Tibetan prayer wheel; instead of watching CNN, she pumps out metta to the recipient of her choice with every cycle of her legs. Someone else I know uses every stoplight or traffic jam as a signal to send metta to the person in the car in front of him.

One student reports she has been regularly practicing metta while watching various political leaders on the news. Instead of raging and arguing with the television set, she silently sends them metta: May you be happy. May you be well. “I figure that happy people rarely start wars,” she tells me.

And me? As I’m falling asleep, instead of retraveling the day’s peaks and swamps in my mind, I send metta to myself and the people I love. (I’ve found metta particularly helpful when struggling with insomnia at 2 in the morning.) Sending metta to strangers I read about in the paper has transformed the way I experience the headlines. And in the midst of an argument, I try to remember to take a few breaths and sense what’s going on in my heart and belly, just as I do on my yoga mat. I silently send metta to myself and the other person. Then I go on with the conversation and see if it proceeds differently.

Like most of the students in my class, I’ve found that consciously infusing my yoga practice with lovingkindness has given me greater access to it throughout my life—even when my life is not going precisely the way I’d like. Metta practice helps us not just understand but feel that we are woven into a great web of relationships, which we can light up through the power of our attention. And it helps us shift our focus from getting love to creating it, from improving our bodies to cherishing them, and from fixing life to embracing it.

See also Cultivate Goodness: How to Practice Lovingkindness

About our author

Anne Cushman is the author of Enlightenment for Idiots and From Here to Nirvana: A Guide to Spiritual India.
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Yoga, more popular than ever, flexes body and mind (Seattle Times)

Tyrone Beason, Seattle Times: Ever since Oprah featured a segment on yoga and Madonna beat back her nasty side with namastes, Americans can’t get enough of the ancient Indian practice.

Though 5,000 years old, yoga has boomed in recent years, with private instructors, gyms, community centers, even churches offering classes to help people wind down, focus, get limber and stay fit.

Yoga Journal magazine estimates that 15 million people in the United States practice yoga, twice as many as five years ago.

The nationally recognized instructor Aadil Palkhivala said when he opened Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Wash., 12 years ago, his was the only such facility in the area. Today there are dozens of yoga studios – “within walking distance,” he joked.

So what’s behind the yoga craze?

For starters, Americans are more passionate about fitness in general, instructors say. At the same time, yoga’s exotic image has transformed into one that appeals to mainstream, Western tastes.

More important, yoga seems to work.

Yoga emphasizes stretching, building core body strength, controlled breathing, enhanced circulation and deep relaxation.

For these reasons, doctors in this country have started to recommend yoga for their patients based on its value as a fitness routine alone. Coupled with meditation, it is also used to reduce stress and high blood pressure, bolster the immune system and even treat depression. Many cancer and AIDS patients, as well as pregnant women, practice yoga. More vigorous types of yoga – which induce increased heart rates and sweating – have become popular among people who want to lose weight.

“There are very few people, from kids on up to seniors, who wouldn’t benefit from it,” said Dr. Peter McGough, chief of the University of Washington Medicine Factoria Clinic.

McGough noted yoga’s positive effects on musculoskeletal disorders – such as arthritis – in particular.

But while studies in India, Europe and the United States point to yoga’s potential benefits in a number of areas, even some yoga supporters concede more research is needed to track its long-term effects.

Yoga has become so commonplace that it’s easy to lose sight of its roots and original purpose. The word itself is a Sanskrit expression that refers to a “yoke” or “union.” As both a philosophy for living and a physical exercise, yoga unites the mind, body and spirit, bringing mental clarity, health and balance, its adherents say.

The ultimate goal of a yoga student is to reach a state of enlightenment, or ecstasy, through disciplined meditation.

But most Americans practice some form of hatha yoga, which focuses on breathing exercises and striking complex poses, or “asanas,” that encourage flexibility, balance, strength and good energy flow through the body. Traditionally, hatha yoga serves as a foundation for other, more cerebral types.

“Hatha yoga is just the bait,” Palkhivala said in his soothing, breathy delivery. “The mind is much more subtle and the emotions even more subtle.” As students learn the physical techniques and begin to feel the benefits, he said, some may want to venture deeper.

Palkhivala says yoga has become popular as more and more people grapple to find a real purpose in their lives, something to aspire to. They’re seeking spiritual fitness, as well as elastic hamstrings. He believes it’s important for people to shop around for an instructor who can teach not just physical techniques but yoga’s deeper principles.

“There is an urge to find something greater than the humdrum repetition of an unfulfilling existence,” he insisted. “People are beginning to ask the question, ‘So what?’ ”

Whether or not people reach an end to spiritual suffering through yoga, its physical effects alone keep people coming back.

“What yoga does is it moves the body in all different directions,” without the repetitive motion of say, an aerobics routine, said Joseph Rodin, director of Northwest Yoga Festival, a four-day event featuring lectures, yoga classes and performances at Seattle Center that kicks off tomorrow. “It takes your body through its full range of motion.”

Doctors and physical therapists agree yoga benefits a variety of age groups, body types and physical conditions, but they are reluctant to rank it higher than other forms of exercise.

Some people get more pleasure from – and are therefore more likely to stick with – aerobics, pilates or sports, which also promote fitness and stress relief.

New yoga styles are springing up all the time to accommodate different needs, including some people’s desire for a routine that gets the blood pumping.

One of the hottest – literally and figuratively – is bikram yoga, which uses high room temperatures to loosen muscles and promote the release of toxins through sweat.

Whereas the iyengar style of yoga taught at Palkhivala’s studio emphasizes meditation and holding individual poses for long periods to perfect form, bikram yoga involves a set of 26 poses that flow from one to the other. The faster pace and saunalike conditions offer a stimulating cardiovascular workout.

At The Sweat Box on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, “Hot Yoga” instructors crank up the heat to 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit for each 90-minute class in the bikram style.

It may sound excruciating, but the studio’s co-founder, Frankie Oser, said more than 2,300 students have taken classes in 3 1/2 years of business, and many of those are repeat customers.

Oser said Hot Yoga helps deliver more blood to muscles, speeds the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids, improves coordination, makes muscles less prone to injury, reduces heart irregularities and burns fat.

It’s a total body experience, Oser said, “from head to toe, inside and out. … Your whole body is worked out every time you come in.”

McGough advises people with pre-existing medical conditions or who are on certain types of medication – blood-pressure drugs, for example – to consult a doctor before joining a particular yoga class, just to make sure the style is appropriate for them.

While yoga instructors usually ask students about medical concerns before classes begin, most are not equipped to do in-depth screenings. It’s up to the student to bring up any issues.

A person who has especially tight hamstrings, for example, may want to avoid yoga routines that call for strenuous forward bends, because this might lead to injury.

Another aspect of yoga classes that may attract people is the lack of competitiveness.

While yoga students strive to be more self-aware, they also work at being less self-conscious in relation to those around them.

But to eliminate the social pressure altogether, some yoga students prefer one-on-one sessions.

Many instructors offer classes in studios built onto their homes or in neighborhood storefronts. In settings like these, the feeling is more intimate and the embarrassment of making a mistake is minimal, since nobody’s watching.

Jo Leffingwell, a former Seattle theater actress, exercised patience and grace as she coached this reporter through a series of warm-up stretches, breathing exercises and iyengar poses, followed by 10 minutes of meditation and a lesson in yoga teachings, at her studio in Seattle.

Leffingwell explained that just as a person’s mind has tendencies and cravings that lead to an imbalanced life, that person’s body has tendencies that can lead to physical imbalance, discomfort and pain. It could be shortness of breath, an inability to twist in one direction, or simple tightness in the back or legs resulting from a lack of exercise, stress or a previous injury. Yoga, she said, “shows you what the tendencies are in your body and brings you back to a more balanced state.”

She encourages her students, as they bend and flex into position, to take their time and truly “experience the posture.” If you can’t bend over and touch your ankles on the first few visits, or balance your body on one leg, that’s fine.

“What you’re trying to do is be present in your body, moment by moment,” she said.

Leffingwell explained that an essential part of yoga study is learning sutras, or words of wisdom about yoga, the self and the universe, many of which have been passed along for thousands of years.

One prominent idea embodied in both the physical and mental aspects of yoga is the belief that inside each person is a being that “sees” everything clearly. Some might think of it as the conscience, or intuition.

The problem for many people, Leffingwell said, is that they make decisions that contradict their own higher instincts. They get swept away by a jumble of thoughts, memories, fears, frustrations, expectations and desires, and life loses focus and meaning.

While many experts are pleased that people are introducing themselves to more physical types of yoga, they say the greatest path to a healthy life is connecting with that inner being.

“Yoga helps bring out what you are,” Palkhivala said. “You have to face it, and sometimes it’s not pleasant.”

But if mastering yoga poses and getting a good workout are all you’re looking for, that’s OK, too, he said.

“The house is huge,” Palkhivala said, referring to all the yoga choices people have available to them. “Where you want to live in it is your choice.”


– Shop around and find an instructor whose technique and teaching style suit you. This is very important, instructors say. Many yoga teachers are poorly trained or don’t work well with clients. If you don’t have a good feeling about the first class or two, move on.

-Take it easy. Yoga is about self-awareness, but also patience. You shouldn’t expect to be able to perform every asana, or yoga pose, after a couple of tries. Some require a high level of flexibility, so you may have to work your way up to them. Trying too hard at the beginning also may lead to muscle and joint injury. Focus instead on breathing deeply and understanding how your body moves and where the most tension occurs. Let the instructor know about any past injuries and health concerns before the class begins.

-Don’t worry about your neighbors. Yoga is not a competitive sport, so if the student next to you can fold himself in half while standing, don’t be discouraged. Focus on your own ability level and progress.

-Go with your emotions. Yoga is ultimately about transcendence and liberation – from pain, memories, anxiety, this month’s household budget, everything that keeps you from being at peace with yourself. Think of yoga as a way of identifying obstacles in the mind and body and working through them.


-Yoga (YOH ga) – Sanskrit for “yoke” or “union,” in this case, a union of mind, body and spirit. There are eight progressive “limbs” in yoga ranging from moral discipline, self-restraint, posture, breath control, sensory inhibition, concentration and meditation to ecstasy, all leading to “liberation.”

-Asana (AH suh nuh) – A physical posture, or yoga pose.

-Hatha (HAH thuh) – The method of yoga most practiced in the United States, focusing on asanas and breathing skills. Many styles of yoga fit under this umbrella, from slower-paced iyengar yoga to flowing ashtanga yoga to bikram or “Hot Yoga.”

-Ashtanga (Ahsh TONG guh) – A type of yoga that uses a fast-paced series of postures in a nonstop sequence, providing a solid workout. A variation is called “Power Yoga.”

-Bikram (BEE krum) – Another flowing style of yoga that incorporates temperatures over 100 degrees to help loosen muscles and cleanse the body through sweat. Also called “Hot Yoga.”

-Viniyoga (VEN ee yo guh) – A milder category of yoga that is tailored to the emotional and physical needs of the student.

-Iyengar (I YEN gar) – This popular yoga features a slower pace, focusing on precision and proper alignment. Students breathe methodically and hold each posture for extended periods, working to refine them over time. Students can use props, such as blocks and straps, to help achieve their postures.

-Ananda (Ah NAHN da) – A more spiritual form of hatha yoga that uses breathing, postures, silent affirmations and meditation.

-Namaste (Nah mas TAY) – A traditional yoga salutation meaning, “I bow to you.” It’s one person’s humble recognition of another’s soul. To give the greeting, press the hands together at the chest, as in prayer, close your eyes, and bow your head. It’s OK, but not customary, to say the word aloud.

-Pranayama (Prah nah YA ma) – Breath-control exercise.

-Mantra (MAHN trah) – A sacred sound that has a transforming effect on the person saying it.

-Om – A common mantra, just one syllable but spoken in a deep, resonant, elongated breath.

-Sources: Yoga Journal, Joseph Rodin, Aadil Palkhivala and Jo Leffingwell


-Yoga Journal has an online site with interviews and practical information on various types of yoga, as well a directory of yoga studios at


-“Autobiography of a Yogi” (Self-Realization Fellowship Publishers, $6), by Paramahansa Yogananda.

-“The Healing Path of Yoga: Time-Honored Wisdom and Scientifically Proven Methods That Alleviate Stress, Open Your Heart, and Enrich Your Life” (Three Rivers Press, $17), by Nischala Joy Devi, Dean Ornish and Shaye Areheart.

-“Yoga RX : A Step-by-Step Program to Promote Health, Wellness, and Healing for Common Ailments” (Broadway, $17.95) by Larry Payne, Richard Usatine, Merry Aronson.

-“The Tree of Yoga,” (Shambhala, $13.95) by B.K.S. Iyengar.

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Soulful stretch

Meghan Moran, The Cavalier Daily, Virginia: Yoga offers stress relief, wellness and ‘peace’ of mind to college students.

I was driving to my first yoga class ever. Visions of peace, balance and spiritual health danced in my head.Suddenly, I heard a bang, and my vision-filled noggin snapped toward the windshield. I’d been rear-ended on Rugby.

Although I left the scene unscathed, my heart was racing and my stress level had skyrocketed. Peace and balance seemed miles away. This yoga class had its work cut out for it.

I cautiously drove the last few blocks to Body-Mind-Spirit, Center for Life Enhancement, a Charlottesville yoga studio located just off of Preston Ave.

According to my yoga teacher, Surya Lipscombe, yoga is the “best stress management technique on the planet.”

I was ready to test this ringing endorsement out for myself.

The classroom was a small, windowless space with crème walls and wine-colored carpet. I entered, laid down my towel and tried not to look like the novice that I was.

Waiting for class to begin, I glanced over at the one wall that was not bare. Its decoration consisted of a small wooden shelf holding a candle and a crystal. Above hung two framed images.

One, Lipscombe explained, was a Yantra –- a design that serves as a meditation tool and is made up of, among other things, symbols of many different religions and a six-sided star representing the male and female energy. The other image was a photo of Satchidananda, the founder of Integral yoga — the form of yoga Lipscombe teaches — which combines several techniques, including pranayama (control of breath), meditation and postures.

Four other students arrived, mats or towels in hand, sporting comfortable cotton clothes and bare feet. We arranged ourselves in two seated, parallel lines facing each other. As the last student entered, Lipscombe dimmed the lights and began class with a set of chants.

Following along with the short chants was simple enough; keeping up with the next step of the class was a little more of a challenge.

Lipscombe proceeded to lead us through a series of poses that stretched the spine, lower back, legs and even stimulated the thyroid gland. As we manipulated our muscles into the cobra pose, bow pose and fish pose, among others, he spoke of the benefits and purposes of each position.

The back is one of the many parts of the body yoga can work wonders for. Lipscombe said many of his students suffer from back pain.

“Yoga is the cheapest and I think the best way to reduce back pain,” he said.

In fact, Lipscombe said one of his fellow teachers at Body-Mind-Spirit initially discovered his love for yoga while he was searching for an alternative to going to a chiropractor twice a week. Lipscombe reports that Yoga has helped this teacher’s back pain, as well as his golf game.

As class continued, the poses became more difficult, and I found myself falling into a deeper level of concentration as I worked harder to stay balanced and in correct form.My mind was forced to drop the worries it had been mulling over.

Lipscombe is familiar with this effect.

“No matter what’s going on [in your life], it’s pretty much impossible to hang on to it for the length of the class,” he said.

Lipscombe added that a regular yoga practice helps improve focus, noting that the Pittsburgh Steelers practice yoga and meditation together to improve their awareness and focus while on the football field.

“They say the Steelers used to know intuitively where everyone was on the field,” he said.

Athletes can also utilize yoga’s physical benefits. Along with relaxing the heart, lowering blood pressure, increasing metabolism and boosting the immune system, yoga lengthens muscles and prevents athletic injury, Lipscombe said.

Non-athletes, however, need also apply. “Yoga can be for people who are overweight or stiff,” Lipscombe said. “It’s a gentle exercise … we have a more spiritual element than any other yoga technique, more than just body, body, body.”

The spiritual element Lipscombe spoke of became very obvious as the class came to a close. After having stretched, reached and breathed for about 45 minutes, we moved into the corpse position for five minutes of silent meditation.

It may sound morbid, but the corpse position is simply a term to describe the comfortable pose of lying flat on one’s back, legs flat and about three feet apart and arms resting alongside the body with palms up. Lipscombe dimmed the lights even further, and the five restful minutes began.

I loved every second. Finally, a class in which closing your eyes was the assignment, not the unfortunate side-effect.

As the silent meditation (sadly) drew to a close, we were brought back to class with a quiet chant from Lipscombe –- a sound I found much easier to wake up to than the obnoxious “BEEP…BEEP” of my alarm clock.

Class ended, and I emerged feeling refreshed and energized. I had a bounce in my step and my back thanked me for having treated it to “half spinal twists” and “bow” poses. I hadn’t necessarily forgotten about the bumper bashing earlier that afternoon or tasks that stood between me and my bed, but these were now challenges I was ready and willing to take on, not looming worries. My schedule hadn’t changed, but my perspective had.

I felt the positive effects that Susanna Nicholson, yoga instructor and therapeutic yoga specialist, said yoga could produce.

Nicholson, who runs her own yoga studio, Union Yoga Loft, near the Water Street Parking Garage and the Downtown Mall, said that a student of yoga “should feel as though, yes, they’re becoming more aware of themselves; they feel more mentally and emotionally in control, that’s the goal.”

Many of the students Nicholson teaches come to her for therapeutic yoga, or yoga that is adapted to special conditions, she said. These conditions include anything from breast cancer to colds.

“I’m very careful to say that this is not a form of purely medical practice,” Nicholson said. “There’s always a spiritual aspect … we can’t say that it’s as simple as taking a pill.”

Still, Nicholson has had personal experiences with yoga as a path to improved physical health. In the mid-80s, she became severely ill with Lime and Epstein-Bar disease. She tried traditional western medicine to cure her illness, and doesn’t regret it, she said, but became panicked after a year-and-a-half of much pill-popping and missed work.

“I thought I’ve got to try something else,” she said. “Finally I did a combo of Chi Gung and Yoga, and I’m telling you that’s what got me well…I’d always loved yoga, and I’d always dug it but I never thought it would heal me on that level.”

Although Nicholson does use therapeutic yoga to deal with some serious illnesses, she said yoga practices are just as effective on students dealing with stress. She’s worked with University undergrads, and even Darden students who were in need of stress-reduction.

“We can deliver anything from better sleep, better digestion, to ‘I need to get more work done in a shorter amount of time’,” she said.

Before students head to a yoga studio, however, Nicholson has one piece of advice.

“The one thing I would say to a college student is…please do not try to turn these poses into competitive goals, because you’re losing the depth and the quality of your own experience in the pose,” she said.

An additional word for those seeking Jennifer Aniston-like litheness from yoga: “Try to make this an experience that’s about your heart and not about how you look.”

This advice might be tough to follow in a time where pop-culture is embracing yoga as fashionable fitness. Mainstream clothiers like J.Crew and Old Navy sell Yoga pants, and Christy Turlington has graced the covers of Vogue holding a yoga pose in couture.

Nicholson, however, sees promise in the newly established trend status of the practice she’s been doing since the age of 13.

“It’s really kind of exciting I guess.” she said, “To be in this situation where you trip over yoga teachers is sort of cool.”

But there’s still the worry that yoga as a fad will lead to fizzle, not a true public appreciation of the practice.

“I guess we’re all hoping, being the cunning old things that we are,” Nicholson said, speaking for herself and fellow yogis.”We’re concerned that in this marriage of yoga to fashion, that it doesn’t just become a fad, that we let yoga seep into our hearts and our minds.”

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It’s Cool to Be Grounded (Yoga Journal)

Colleen Morton Busch, Yoga Journal: At a San Francisco home for drug-addicted adolescent girls, yoga class is not optional. Ten minutes before teacher Natasha Zaslove begins her class on this damp January afternoon, most of the girls are gathered around a jukebox blaring an Alicia Keys tune, eager for the only exercise that is a regular part of their recovery program. A few of the girls need to be recruited from the TV room, where they are snuggled under some afghans. Zaslove makes no threats. She simply pokes her head into the room, smiles and says hello, and reminds the girls that it’s time for yoga.

As the sun descends in the sky, the girls begin with Suryanamaskar–one briskly paced Sun Salutation right after another. Zaslove keeps them constantly moving–lowering into Chaturanga Dandasana, swooping into Upward Dog, and jumping from Downward Dog to Uttanasana–but with intention, focused on the breath. The vigor of Sun Salutations took many of these girls by surprise at first. “I didn’t realize I would sweat during yoga or that it would be work,” says Tonya (not her real name). “I thought we would be asleep or chanting for half the class.”…

Tonya, who stood at the front of the room with her arms crossed in front of her chest and her back to Zaslove for the first yoga class, is now one of Zaslove’s most eager students. “When I’m in yoga,” she says, “I’m only focused on yoga.” Her favorite part of class is Savasana (Corpse Pose), and she is not alone in this. When it comes time for relaxation, the girls lie down gratefully to relish the stillness. “I can sometimes feel the emotion welling up in the room during Savasana,” says Zaslove, who was once a prosecutor in juvenile court. “These girls have access to counselors, but the yoga gives them another medium to work things through.”

In fact, it seems that it’s rest they need more than anything–the concentrated movement of a vinyasa is just a way of getting them there. Tired enough already, one girl unfurls her sticky mat at the start of class, lies down with her eyes closed, and stays there until Zaslove asks everyone to come out of Savasana.

Reviving Adolescence

Adolescence can be exhausting. It’s a time, writes Mary Pipher in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Souls of Adolescent Girls (Putnam, 1994), when teens “put aside their authentic selves and…display only a small portion of their gifts.” Though Pipher is referring specifically to young women, the same could be said of young men. According to many who work with adolescents, Pipher included, the world that teens face today is exponentially more difficult than the world their parents faced as teens. School shootings. Gun violence. Date rape. Sexually transmitted diseases. Divorce. Adolescence, it seems, has become a kind of preterm adulthood, a time when kids face adult issues and concerns but with the emotional intelligence and coping skills of children–and with little societal support for making the transition.

One in 10 adolescents suffers from a debilitating mental health problem, of which anxiety disorders are the most common. According to a University of Maryland study published in January in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the number of adolescents being prescribed psychiatric medications more than doubled from 1987 to 1996. And from 1980 to 1997, the rate of suicide increased by 11 percent for 15- to 19-year-olds, and by 109 percent for those between the ages of 10 and 14.

Such statistics are frightening, but our tendency to regard adolescence with fear and to brand it as a time of struggle and alienation may be preventing us from seeing it as a time of sacred transition and spiritual possibility. It is during our teen years that we begin to explore and define our identity, to carve out a path for ourselves, to practice the skill of making life choices. During these tender years, we face challenges that often accompany us into adulthood–of self-acceptance, adjusting to change, and dealing with conflict. “Adolescents, above all else, are trying to define who they are, even though their parents, peers, and the media create strong stories about who they are supposed to be,” says Kim Tanzer, a Palo Alto, California, yoga teacher who works with teens.

More and more adolescents are doing yoga these days–in high schools, juvenile halls, churches, yoga studios, homes for pregnant girls, and even at Girl Scout meetings. The diversity of environments can present challenges for teachers, but the gift of yoga for adolescents is precisely that it helps them move beyond the differences that define and limit their experience of themselves.

Yoga is both an individual and a universal practice, a form of self-study and a mode of social education, as well as a stabilizing force in the presence of change. So it’s hard to imagine a teen who wouldn’t benefit from it. “Yoga awakens their most basic nature of being alive, of caring for their bodies and relaxing into the space of mental freedom,” says Christy Brock, a teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, who recently produced the DVD Yoga for Teens and created a Web-based network for yoga teachers who work with teens (

Under Pressure

“There is always the pressure, no matter how good your self-esteem is, to be more beautiful and thinner,” says Makendra Silverman, an 18-year-old high school student in Ashland, Oregon, who started yoga at age 16 when her cross-country-track coach introduced her to it. Perhaps at no other time in our lives are we as invested in what others think of us as in our teenage years, when the painful habits of comparing ourselves with others and responding to peer pressure take hold. “I try not to let what people think bug me, but I do,” says 13-year-old Devin Clancy, a student in Holiday Johnson’s Standing on Your Own Two Feet teen yoga program in Portland, Oregon. “I don’t care what people who don’t know me think, but my friends are another story.”

The instability of a teenager’s self-image is a normal developmental stage, though it can make the average teenager seem crazy to an adult, notes Pipher in Reviving Ophelia. In fact, there may be a biological explanation for the inability of teens and adults to see eye-to-eye. A research team led by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital has documented a significant difference between the teen brain and the adult brain. In the team’s study, teens who were asked to identify emotions on faces on a computer screen activated the amygdala, the part of the brain that mediates fear and gut reactions, more often than the frontal lobe, which governs reason. As teens mature and their perceptions become based more on reason than on feeling, the brain activity in such a task shifts to the frontal lobe.

This malleability of self-image and weakness of reason can be a liability. “Teens are just beginning to find out who they are, and they will try many things–some risky–to find out,” says Mary Lynn Fitton, creator of the Art of Yoga Project, which collected yoga-inspired writings, paintings, and photographs by young women around the world to be published as a book (see Exploring and testing boundaries, adolescents often start experimenting with sex and drugs long before they have the confidence and judgment to do so safely and responsibly. Some develop addictions or make fatal mistakes while under the influence; others find themselves pregnant before their 16th birthday. Johnson herself was a teenage mother, an experience that fuels her mission to help young women “develop the self-confidence and courage they need so desperately.” Because teens care most about what other teens think, both Johnson and Fitton actively recruit their adolescent students to become peer mentors and teach yoga to other teens.

Yoga can strengthen character by challenging teens to trust themselves and to stay present through difficulty. As author and teen teacher Thia Luby points out in Yoga for Teens (Clear Light, 2000), yoga has been used for centuries “to build character and compassion and is a basis for learning unconditional love of oneself and others.” Not surprisingly, many teens report that yoga endows them with patience and tolerance, which helps them get along with their families. It can also help them hear their inherent inner wisdom above the loud voices of their peers.

“Yoga’s something you can’t be good or bad at. Everyone’s got their own way of doing it,” says 13-year-old Diane Grewe, who is new to Johnson’s Wednesday-evening class. As for Silverman, yoga has helped her face high school’s inevitable cliques and popularity contests with “slight amusement” rather than frustration. “When I practice yoga,” she says, “I feel whole. I feel nothing is beyond my reach.”

An Age of Anxiety

The summer before starting high school, when Risa was 13, she went on a family vacation to Peru and lost a lot of weight, ostensibly because she didn’t like the food. When she returned from vacation and started her freshman year, her dramatic weight loss got a lot of positive attention from her peers. Then Risa stopped eating altogether. Just a few weeks into her freshman year, she was admitted to Stanford University’s residential clinic for eating disorders and confined to bed for six weeks, until she was no longer at risk for heart failure.

Anorexia is about more than a desire to be thin. Those being treated for it, and their loved ones, learn that underneath the external goal of weight loss, anorexics are often desperate to gain some measure of control in what feels like a chaotic and unpredictable world. Not coincidentally, 86 percent of anorexics develop the disease before they are out of their teens.

Risa, who turned 14 while lying in a hospital bed, says that girls with eating disorders feel split into two separate people: “the girl who wants to get better and the really anorexic, obsessive-compulsive, frail little girl who gets stronger every time you don’t eat, every time your pants get baggier, every time someone says you look thin.” The irony, she observes, is that although her anorexia made her feel willful and disciplined, it “was actually running me.” In fact, recent research suggests a correlation between eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). According to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, 20 to 40 percent of children with OCD develop one or more eating disorders.

It’s hard enough to live in a body that is undergoing puberty. Many teens also have to deal with big changes in their parents’ lives–divorce, remarriage, or frequent moves. Matt Harris, 19, suffered from anxiety so profound that he couldn’t even walk into a restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, before yoga helped him cope. There are some practitioners in the field of adolescent anxiety disorders concerned that because adults are habituated to a high degree of anxiety, they may be “normalizing” an unhealthy level of anxiety in their children. “A significant number of kids really do have distressing, impairing anxiety,” says John Piacentini, director of the UCLA Child OCD, Anxiety, and Tic Disorders Program.

Whether or not teens suffer from disabling anxiety, yoga and meditation can help them feel grounded and centered while the world spins around them. When a recent study at the Medical College of Georgia set out to show that meditation could lower high blood pressure in teens, the results confirmed the researchers’ physiological theories, but they also indicated that meditation benefited teens in many other areas of their lives–positively influencing their ability to concentrate at school, for example, and decreasing absenteeism and behavior problems. Students also reported that meditation helped them to better handle interpersonal relationships, get sounder sleep, reduce stress, alleviate headaches, and increase their energy.

Survival Skills

Yoga teachers like the Los Angeles-based Seane Corn are convinced by their experience teaching teens that the practice can help adolescents deal more skillfully with an unbalanced and sometimes unsafe world. Corn teaches yoga at Children of the Night, a nonprofit organization in Van Nuys, California, dedicated to helping teenage prostitutes; she also offers private sessions to girls who suffer from OCD, eating disorders, and self-esteem issues.

Corn observes that across sociocultural and racial lines,the kids she works with “don’t know how to define themselves. They are inundated with information, but there is crucial info that’s missing. They are ‘supposed’ to be sexy, smart, and confident, but they can’t reconcile who they are ‘supposed’ to be with who they really are.” Corn, who struggled with OCD herself in her teenage years, sees OCD as an acute manifestation of an understandable attempt by teens to run their own lives. “Their obsessions are a way of getting focus; it makes them feel they’re in control,” she says. “But yoga teaches them how to recognize anxiety in the moment and challenge the obsessive behavior. They learn to stay in their bodies and breathe deeply–and trust that if they stay long enough, the anxiety feeling will change.”

Risa nicknamed the anorexic inside her “Annie” so that she might talk back when Annie was telling her not to eat. She now reflects back on her time in the hospital with gratitude for her health and what her illness taught her: “We need to nourish our bodies–with food, with discipline, but also with freedom.” She regularly accompanies her mother to yoga class as part of her newfound commitment to appreciate the little things and keep the connection between her mind and her body clear.

When Corn initially started teaching yoga at Children of the Night, she was forbidden from touching the students for fear of triggering traumatic body memories. Eventually, Corn got the organization’s leadership to agree that she could touch her students if she first asked for and received their permission to do so. Now the students line up to get hugged before and after class. Given the choice, they choose love.

One 13-year-old girl Corn worked with created her own self-soothing meditation as part of her healing process. First, she imagines a hollow purple tree decorated with her favorite things. Then, one by one, she invites those she loves into the tree. Only when her first guest leaves does she invite the next loved one in. “In her imagination,” marvels Corn, “she’s arranged it so that she has the power to invite them in and ask them to leave. She initiates everything.”

Acting Out

When Miguel Gonzales was 15 years old, he was sent to juvenile hall in New York state for armed robbery, joining the ranks of more than 100,000 delinquent American teens. Gonzales spent the next five years doing time for various offenses ranging from robbery to assault. Now 21 years old and a proud father of a son, Elijah, he is a youth advocate at the Lineage Project, a New York-based organization that brings meditation and yoga to incarcerated and at-risk youth.

Any parent of a teenager can tell you that adolescents test the boundaries of authority; it’s just part of the process of growing up. Teens who lack supervision, who have been neglected by their parents, or who are disadvantaged due to societal and racial prejudices are often at special risk for having trouble with the rules of society and thus running afoul of the law. “Mr. Extravagant was my nickname,” Gonzales recalls. “Since I wanted everyone to respect and know me, I would rob people and spend my money on pot or alcohol to share. It made me feel big and rich, but I was chasing something.”

Tawanna Kane, executive director of the Lineage Project, observes that many of the children she works with “are filled with so much suffering that it overwhelms their ability to make clear choices or connect with the consequences of their choices.” But Soren Gordhamer, the project’s creator and author of a book about meditation for teens, Just Say Om! (Adams Media, 2001), detects a silver lining: “In many ways, youth in more challenging situations are more receptive to the possibility and power of awakening.”

When faced with disciplinary problems in teens, adults often react punitively, by clamping down to control behavior and claiming to be the final arbiter of right and wrong. But Gordhamer takes a more yogic approach: “So much of the effort with teens seems to be focused on changing or correcting them. What comes across is that there’s something wrong with them, an idea they will usually fiercely resist.” Rather than correcting and critiquing, the teachers at the Lineage Project aim to help teens look more deeply at “what is true for them.” Explains Gonzales, who co-teaches Lineage’s yoga and meditation classes, “Kids may seem hostile, but responding by just getting firmer is a big mistake.”

Mixed messages about drugs, as well as the fact that they are illicit, make them incredibly alluring to the teenage sensibility, in which experimentation and exploration are highly valued. What drives kids to abuse drugs is no different from what motivates adults with addictions: When life is too painful or intense, a high can take the edge off. While Gordhamer doesn’t condone drug use, he doesn’t condemn the users. “When kids talk about what it is like to be on drugs,” he notes, “they often say, ‘My body is relaxed, and my mind is not worried about anything.’ When I tell them that this is what spiritual seekers through the ages have sought, they can’t believe it. They no longer have to think they are bad or problematic just because they have this desire. In fact, they are expressing a desire for something very profound.”

Most teens who get into one type of trouble or another are reacting to thwarted desires–for money, respect, safety, or love. “They sense something greater than themselves that is not being acknowledged,” says Krishna Kaur, founder of Yoga for Youth, an L.A.-based national juvenile outreach program. Indeed, Jamie (not her real name), a 17-year-old resident of the same San Francisco halfway house as Tonya, says she did drugs “because I didn’t care about myself. I didn’t believe anybody cared about me.”

Gonzales is living proof that yoga and mindfulness can reach deeply into the hearts of disenchanted youths and help them find a freedom greater than they had dreamed possible. “I had a lot of problems, and they diminished when I was practicing,” he says. “Of course they still existed, but I didn’t feel like I had to cling to them.” Jamie acknowledges that a tendency toward addiction may be a permanent part of her character, “but if addiction is how you live, you can at least be addicted to something positive, like yoga. When I do yoga, I don’t have the need to use. My body tells me what I need, and I am learning how to listen.”

Positive Risks

The term “at risk” usually refers to disadvantaged children, who are prone to dropping into delinquency, but it might well apply to all teenagers, fundamentally unstable, vulnerable, and impressionable. And yet, where there is risk, there is possibility. Knowing that adolescence is a time when kids form the attitudes and habits that will shape their adulthood, we can endeavor to reach out to teens with yoga–not to eliminate all risk (an impossible task), but rather to cultivate the positive risks that define a conscious life, like loving and trusting one another.

This can be hard to do. Teenagers don’t easily trust adults, and for adults, “teens are often hard to read–they can appear aloof and dramatic and be pierced all over,” as Mary Lynn Fitton says. “However, we need to remember how scary it was to be a teen. They are even more confused and afraid than those of us working with them.” Like Fitton, Kane believes that we, as adults, should look to our own youth, “in all its glorious awkwardness, to begin to understand where young adults are coming from.”

Without a doubt, remembering our own youth once we have passed through the turmoil of adolescence and steadied ourselves in adulthood can help us understand young people. But an even better bridge may be found in recognizing our enduring awkwardness as adults and practicing our belief as students of yoga that we are never finished learning–and that the beginner has much to teach us, if we’re willing to listen.

“As a teacher of teens,” says Gordhamer, “I need to care about them more than I care about them doing yoga or meditation. If I care about them doing the practices more than as people, then I’m just another salesman in their life, one other person not to be trusted. But if the focus is on what is real, what is true, what is sustaining, then what comes across is the challenge to live a whole life. To me, this is the challenge teens are looking for.”

Colleen Morton Busch is a senior editor at Yoga Journal.

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Coping with anxiety

There’s Cipro, potassium iodide and the smallpox vaccine to ward off biological agents. But is there an antidote to anxiety? “I’m very frightened,” said Julie White, as she exited Manhattan’s Sonic Yoga last week. But she has a remedy: the stretching and deep breathing of yoga. The practice is so calming that after the terror upgrade, White made an upgrade of her own–from one class a day to two. Yoga, she says, “is my tranquilizer.”

You may find the lotus pose hopelessly warm and fuzzy in the face of terror. But there are a host of activities, from working out to going for a massage, that can temper the anxiety. Many of these techniques have been used for decades, if not centuries; now advances in science are showing they can reduce the hormones associated with stress and even affect brain activity. The common trait among all: maintaining control and recognizing that our concerns are a natural response to the world we live in. “We’re justified in having this fear,” says Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Boston. “Life was stressful before 9-11. It’s gotten progressively worse.”

The first step toward combating fear is identifying it…

Newsweek: Read the rest of this article…

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Meditate your way to success

Teachers across the UK are searching for ways to tackle classroom discipline. One experiment in California is having significant results.

Typical school rituals like recess and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance are being joined by something that has been dubbed “om schooling” in establishments in California.

But for a growing number of youngsters at state schools in San Francisco, yoga is helping bring inner peace to inner city establishments.

At Phyllis Camp’s physical education class at the city’s James Lick School , the noise level as the children line up outside class is deafening. They tumble into the gym a raw bundle of energy.

In normal circumstances it would take a teacher several minutes to calm this lot down. For Phyllis it takes no time at all as she quickly gets them lined up in four rows and under her control….

BBC Americas: Read more

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