I began teaching yoga classes at a local fitness club in 1997. I had not spent much time in a gym since high school and the fitness club’s equipment and amenities were far better than I had anticipated. There were rows of gleaming weights, treadmills, exercise bikes and lots of machines. What surprised me was how audibly and visually overwhelmed I felt. On top of the bright lights, clanking weights and whirring treadmills, there was loud music echoing off the walls and rows of televisions hanging from the ceiling. It was a relief to go to the relatively quieter and calmer room where the yoga classes were held.

Since then I have become increasingly aware of how much noise and visual activity we have around us. My car dealership has a huge television in the waiting room. Airports have monitors hanging from the ceilings usually showing CNN. I may be getting older and more sensitive or just cranky, but the music in many of the clothing stores seems to be getting louder. I left one recently because I could feel the floor vibrating beneath my feet and my clothes shook in time with the bass.

This constant and often intrusive stimulation is different than a little background music that sets a mood and can be ignored or using music with a strong beat to accompany an exercise routine. These are sounds and images we do not choose and are hard to block out; they make it difficult to think our own thoughts and to concentrate.

Finding times and places to enjoy peace and quiet seems to be increasingly elusive. We have all seen pictures of people sitting on porches just watching the world go by. In some ways this seems rather quaint in our busy society today. With cell phones, Blackberries and a host of small mobile gadgets, we can be and are often expected to be accessible anywhere at anytime.

Interestingly, when some people are given a few minutes of peace and quiet, they do not know what to do with themselves. Every yoga class at our studio ends with final relaxation which is about five to ten minutes where everyone lies down and relaxes. I often see people in the first few classes fidgeting impatiently and some have admitted they feel uncomfortable being idle. It is so simple to go through an entire day without a moment of silence or time to reflect that unoccupied time can be unsettling. After a few weeks of adjustment, most people look forward to the end of the class where they can just let go.

In the last few years, I have had many requests for more inwardly focused classes. In fact one person suggested more silent classes specifically because there is so much noise in our lives. Her email resulted in the Silent Practice short course. The Learn to Meditate short course and the Movement, Breath, and Meditation classes soon followed. All of these classes allow people to turn away from outside distractions so they have a calm, quiet time for themselves.

Thinking back on the past week, did you have any time to be alone with your thoughts? Is it possible for you to enjoy a little uninterrupted time without distractions? Are you willing to try?


In August 2000 I was rear-ended while stopped in traffic on the beltway. I was hit so hard that the grill of the pickup truck left an impression on the back of my minivan. Besides the expected whiplash, I had other serious, though not crippling, musculoskeletal injuries. For several years after the accident, I was constantly aware of how I moved, sat, and positioned myself for sleep. Bad posture and wrong movements exacerbated the discomfort.

At the time of the accident, I was taking a yoga class or two a week plus the occasional workshop and was teaching eleven classes. Yoga was a huge part of my life and I refused to allow the accident to take it away from me. In the past three or four years, the discomfort has subsided and I credit most of the improvement to a regular yoga practice.

When we are injured, the common and normal reaction is to protect ourselves from further pain. It is very easy to stop moving in the ways that hurt and stay with movements that cause no discomfort. Though the short term effect is a decrease in pain, the long term effect is the opposite. Muscles that are not used become weak and less flexible. We compensate by recruiting other body parts, moving them in ways they are not designed to move, which over time causes those muscles and joints to become achy and sore.

Yoga postures challenge us to move outside of our normal patterns. They also require us to balance strength and flexibility by strengthening areas that are too mobile and creating flexibility in areas that are stiff and tight. After the accident, I could immediately feel when I was doing a yoga pose incorrectly because I had instantaneous feedback. Either the area where I was injured became uncomfortable or whatever I was using to compensate for my injuries would feel overstretched or fatigued. At first I could only do the beginning level poses, but over the years, I regained most of my flexibility and strength and in some areas exceeded where I had been before as my body became better aligned. Although I will always have to be careful in some poses, I am doing far better than the medical community predicted. In talking with other yoga practitioners, I am not alone in experiencing these benefits of a regular yoga practice.

Whenever we suffer an injury, physically or emotionally, we want to protect ourselves from additional harm. It is natural to create all types of shields and compensations and to avoid situations where we could be hurt again. Though we may have no control over an injury’s occurrence, we do have a choice in how we react. We can allow the injury to define us, becoming part of the way we picture and describe ourselves, which at the beginning is understandable as we find a new normal. However, over time, we can either keep our protective shells or stretch beyond them. Though staying protected is easy and comfortable, it limits us in the long run. To stretch beyond our comfort zone is difficult but the long term rewards are worth the challenge.


When I was little, my family had the same dinner every Sunday evening: steak, baked potatoes, peas, salad, and then ice cream with strawberries for dessert. It was such a constant in my life that I never thought to question it. Sunday was Steak Night.

One Sunday when I was five or six years old, my best friend asked what I was going to have for supper. I did not understand his question because I had never considered it was possible for anyone to have anything besides my family’s regular Sunday meal. We got into a fight when he said his family was having chicken and I refused to believe him.

I have not forgotten this argument because until my friend’s dinner question, it had never occurred to me that other families were not the same as mine. I was stunned and it shook my view of the world. I had assumed that everyone was like me and in those few minutes the world became a much more uncertain place. If you cannot be sure about Sunday dinner, what can you trust?

Looking back on it now, I am slightly surprised this upset me as much as it did. I knew that everybody was not the same. My friend was in a different class at school, he had older sisters and I did not, and we ate different lunches. Yet when one of the constants in my life was threatened, I was ready to fight for it rather than concede that it was not a constant after all.

Everything changes; we move to different houses, find new jobs, and grow older. Day becomes night, the earth spins around the sun and, over centuries, rocks erode and mountains form. Ironically, change is one of our few constants.

How we handle a change often depends upon how attached we are to whatever it is that is changing. If we alter something relatively inconsequential, like our dish soap or brand of paper towel, we quickly forget about it because there is no emotional impact. When there is a significant change, like moving to a different part of the county, the associated emotions can be quite mixed. We may enjoy our new surroundings, but also miss the friends we left behind. It may take us some time to adjust.

When a basic belief or an understanding of how the world works is questioned or threatened, often our response is to hang on to that belief with everything that we have. It is much easier to continue in the way in which we have become accustomed than to accommodate changes to our views of the world.

Sometimes, when the evidence against a long held belief is too great, we have no choice but to change; it is impossible to do otherwise. We remember these moments because they transform us and we see the world in a new way. The catalyst may be something as simple as a steak dinner, but the results last a lifetime.


Years ago I traveled to the mountains of Utah to take classes with a popular yoga teacher. The classes started early in the morning when it was cool, and I found I felt better when I got to the yoga room early and stretched for a few minutes before the workshop began. One morning I arrived just as a woman was lighting the candles in the room. Something about the way she was holding the match seemed a little odd, but I could not figure out exactly what it was.

However we move, our bodies tend to be extremely accommodating. We can sit poorly in front of computers for hours not realizing until we log off that our wrists and fingers are cramped and our shoulders are sore. We can slouch in front of the television all evening completely unaware that our lower backs ache until we stand up. If our minds are absorbed in whatever we are doing while we hold ourselves or move in a way that is unhealthy, we rarely notice until we become less focused on the activity or we start to experience pain.

If we move in the same way for a period of time, our bodies adapt to our patterns and these patterns become habits. We often do not recognize these habits; it just becomes easier or more comfortable to move in one way than another.

Sometimes our physical habits are of no consequence, but some postural habits can affect our wellbeing. Two common examples are standing with most of our weight on one foot or sitting with our legs crossed the same way every time. Both create imbalances in our hips and legs that we compensate for with our spines and upper bodies. If we stand or sit improperly for decades, some muscles become chronically tight and others chronically stretched which commonly causes those muscles to become achy and sore.

In the Utah workshop at a group dinner later in the week, the woman who lit the morning candles proudly announced that it was the fifteenth anniversary of the day she had quit smoking. As I watched her light the candles the follow morning, I could clearly see that instead of holding the long match between her index finger and thumb, she was holding it between her index and middle fingers the way many people hold cigarettes.

How we hold a match does not really matter, but it illustrates how easily and unconsciously habits are formed. In the physical form of yoga, Hatha Yoga, we move our bodies in ways most of us would not move otherwise. Though we have all seen pictures of yoga poses that require remarkable flexibility and strength, the basic yoga poses are accessible to almost anyone. When these basic poses are practiced with alignment, they strengthen and stretch our muscles. Over time bring them into better balance. For some, aches and pains diminish and quality of life improves. Also, since Hatha Yoga causes us to focus on our bodies, we often begin to notice our habits and imbalances which we might otherwise not be aware of when our attention is focused on our everyday activities. With this awareness, we may start to change the habits that are not healthy, feeling better now and avoiding future discomfort.


In the past few years I have become interested in cooking. I have always enjoyed baking cookies and cakes, but now I am starting to play with combinations of grains, vegetables and spices, as well as mixtures of colors and textures.

I have a number of cookbooks and regularly search for recipes on the Internet. Most of the new recipes are accompanied by pictures. With the picture and list of ingredients, I can usually imagine what the dish will look and taste like, but there have been some notable exceptions. Although my ability to envision dishes is improving, my imagination can never match smelling, tasting, and feeling the texture of a meal.

In addition, I learn something with every meal I cook. When experimenting with new techniques, blends of spices, and combinations of ingredients, I find methods and tastes that I like, and some that I will never repeat. While I occasionally watch cooking shows for enjoyment, I usually have to practice what I have seen to gain the full benefit.

As the owner of the yoga studio, I am typically asked a few times a year by people who have never done yoga whether they can observe a class. I always direct them to try a free sample class instead. The sample classes are representative of the regular classes, but very basic. The teacher explains what yoga is about and leads the students through a class.

All classes begin with centering where one focuses the mind on the flow and rhythm of the breath. As thoughts of the day fade, the mind and body calm. Next, the class moves into a series of basic poses. Moving and stretching in the various postures often creates a feeling of openness, strength, and wellbeing. The class ends with final relaxation where the instructor guides the class in softening and releasing each part of the body. As one relaxes, the limbs begin to feel heavy and the mind quiets. Focusing and calming your mind, then feeling your body move and finally settle is entirely different than watching a roomful of people and imagining what it would be like. Observation falls far short of the experience.

Even after twenty years of practicing yoga, whenever I take a class or workshop, including those at beginning levels, or when I practice at home, I learn. Sometimes it is a new way of doing a pose or a better understanding of my body. Occasionally there is a flash of understanding, a “light bulb moment”, where something I have read or heard about before suddenly makes sense. These realizations would never occur if I was not actively doing the practice. It has to be lived.

Yoga is considered an experiential discipline, and one cannot get the full experience by simply watching or reading about it. Similarly, looking at pictures of food may make your mouth water, but it is much more pleasurable to eat the meal. Life is richer for the experiences we have. Although it is often easier to sit back and watch, we miss so much when we do. Instead of being an observer of life, participate, experience and enjoy.

Living Ethically

I just finished reading a book about Enron. I have a friend who worked there, but before reading this book I never understood how California’s energy crisis, shell companies, and deals with banking institutions fit together to cause the failure of this large energy company. It came down to greed by a few people at the top eager to enrich themselves with little thought for their employees, their stockholders, or those, like the people in California, who were indirectly affected by the Enron executives’ single-minded focus on the next profitable, if unethical, deal.

The Vedas, ancient philosophical texts, divide human lives into four stages: student, householder, forest dweller, and renunciate. In the first two stages, one lives in the world, first learning from a teacher and then managing a household which includes having and supporting a family. Once the second stage is complete, the next two stages focus on withdrawal from the world. First one separates from the attachments of family and society, and then one withdraws completely to focus on spiritual practices.

The householder stage is important because it supports the other three stages. In this phase of life, one has a career, provides for a family, and meets social responsibilities. Wealth is not viewed negatively; in fact, money and material possessions are necessary to support and sustain a family. However, it is essential that wealth is ethically obtained and used.

The Yoga Sutras, another philosophical text, describes how to live an ethical life in relation to others with practices called Yamas. Though entire books have been written on the subject, in short, the Yamas are:

  • Nonviolence or non-harming towards others and ourselves.
  • Truthfulness in word, thought, and deed.
  • Non-stealing of physical objects and intangibles such as taking credit for the ideas of others.
  • Moderation of the senses. Not allowing the senses to control one’s actions either by overindulgence or over-restraint. This includes one’s relationship to food, what one chooses to listen to, watch, and read, and remaining faithful to a partner in a monogamous relationship.
  • Non-possessiveness. Not being too attached to possessions or acquiring more than is needed. Also, not being overly controlling in relationships with others.

The Enron executives and those involved in the more recent banking scandals clearly did not live by the Yamas. They harmed others, lied to and stole from investors and stockholders, used the resulting income to live lavishly, and some used their money and standing in the business community to influence politicians and regulators. Though these top executives lived the high life for years, many ended up disgraced, powerless, and incarcerated.

If we choose to practice the Yamas, not only will we make the people around us happier, but in the long run, we will live happier lives ourselves. Each situation presents its own difficulties and it is challenging to apply all five Yamas in all situations. Nevertheless, remembering the Yamas and setting an intention to attempt to follow them when dealing with others is a good first step. Are you willing to try?


In January 2009, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) sent letters to over twenty yoga studios in the state informing them that because they had teacher training programs they were considered postsecondary vocational schools and as such they needed to obtain a Certificate to Operate. The paperwork required for the Certificate is extensive and the fees are beyond what many yoga studios can afford. My lawyer and I thought the law did not support SCHEV’s position since yoga studios are more focused on personal development than vocation, so we sent a letter back to SCHEV stating our case.

Because I was one of the first people to disagree with SCHEV, by default, I ended up spearheading the effort for the Virginia yoga studios. As the result of a tremendous amount of support from yoga studios, teachers, and students from all over the state, there was a petition drive and two letter writing campaigns. Delegate David Bulova and Senator Mark Herring introduced bills in Virginia’s House and Senate that redefined vocation, and as we go to press, the bills are awaiting final votes in the General Assembly.

At the beginning, as I was coordinating the effort by contacting and organizing studios around the state, I knew what everyone was doing and had a basic expectation of what the next step would be.

Most of us, when given the choice of being in control or out of control, would choose to be in control. The helplessness that comes from being out of control can be quite scary or depressing. However, with control comes responsibility. For me, this created an obligation to the other Virginia yoga studios.

As the bills were written and introduced in Richmond, the legislative process took over and though my input was requested and accepted, my influence was limited from that time forward. At one point we ran into a problem with the House bill, and there was nothing the yoga studios could do to move it along. I was discouraged that we had come so far only to have our effort grind to a halt, but there was also a sense of relief that I had done everything I could, and my obligation was lifted. Fortunately, Delegate Bulova worked with SCHEV and other delegates to get the bill moving again.

There is freedom in not being in control and not being accountable for every detail. You can just flow along with the tide and let whatever happens happen. Some of the most exciting and memorable events in our lives come about when we are not in charge: a surprise gift or an unexpected adventure. If we are in total control, we would never have the joy of accomplishing something new because the result would be predetermined and there would be no excitement in reaching a goal. Sometimes it is uncertainty that makes life interesting.

There is so much in life we cannot control like Mother Nature and other peoples’ actions, but all of us must exercise some self-control for society to work. Managing our emotions and actions gives us stability and creates a feeling of safety and security. However, the line between being in and out of control can be thin, and when we control too much, we lose spontaneity and miss many of the simple joys in life.

When you are anxious, angry, or overwhelmed, are you attempting to direct something that is beyond your control? If the power to shape the result is not in your hands, you may feel a sense of peace and relief if you can recognize this, do your best, and then let go.

New Habits

A few months ago while I was washing dishes after dinner, my sink began to fill. I flicked the switch for the garbage disposal and heard the electric hum of the motor trying to start. I turned it off, and then tried again. This time it hummed and clicked off. And that was the end of it.

After looking on the Internet and talking with a salesman at Home Depot, I thought it could not be too hard to replace the disposal on my own, so I bought one and brought it home.

The first step was to take the old disposal out which involved disconnecting it from the dishwasher and drain pipes. It was only one step in the instructions, but it took almost an hour of twisting in and out from under the sink. The previous owners of my house did a lot of their own repairs too. Unfortunately, it appears that when they could not fix something immediately, they improvised and added parts until it worked. The plumbing under my sink is no exception and instead of one obvious bolt to loosen, there were several to choose from. I had to take the whole mess apart to get the disposal out.

When I started to install the new one, it became apparent that the instructions were intended for someone physically bigger than I am. One step involved balancing the twenty pound disposal in the outstretched palm of one hand while locking the unit into place under the sink with the other. I am just too small for that, so I lifted it in and out several times before I found a combination of milk crates and phonebooks to support it. By the time the disposal was installed, it had required over twice as long as the instructions said it should take beginners.

Although I expected to be sore the following day, I was surprised to find that my arms, shoulders, and back were fine. My stomach muscles, on the other hand, hurt for days afterwards. I was relieved it was only my stomach because there had been a lot of opportunities to twist or lift improperly and to pull or overuse my shoulder, arm, or back muscles. Instead, I had used my core and kept my joints safe. I attribute this to yoga; not only the strength and flexibility, but the ability to move safely.

In yoga poses we are putting ourselves into positions that are not our normal everyday movements while focusing on alignment. Some of the poses can look rather challenging at first glance. However, as you study them, you begin to see that one body part is twisting, another is stretching, and yet another is toning to provide stability. People who are very flexible or strong can do some poses fairly easily, though how deeply one moves into a pose is not as important as awareness of one’s body.

Usually at some point everyone discovers they have imbalances. For example one shoulder does not move as readily through its range of motion as the other, twisting one direction is more difficult than twisting the opposite way, or one hip is tight compared to the other. By working with these areas over a period of time, they can be brought into better balance. In areas that cannot be changed, we learn to move safely in a variety of positions. In time these new movements become habits, replacing old patterns, so when presented with a new situation, our new habits protect us.

This concept of replacing habits with ones that are better for us can be applied to all aspects of our lives. If we notice when we begin an unproductive series of thoughts and consciously replace them with more productive thoughts, or if we intentionally change an attitude that does not serve us, we can change our moods, our reactions to those around us, and our view of the world. As with the body, the first few steps may be slow and require work, but eventually the more productive habits take hold and you may find that your reaction is entirely different and more to your liking than in the past.


If you have ever seen a statue or picture of a Hindu god, the first thing you may notice is that it has multiple arms and legs and sometimes even multiple heads.  From a Western point of view, it looks a little odd and is very different than the Greek and Roman statues and European artwork with which we are more familiar.

The representations of Hindu gods are complex in their symbolism and there is meaning in their clothing, hair styles, gestures, and poses.  When there are multiple arms, often each hand holds an object, such as a book to symbolize wisdom, or an axe to represent liberation by overcoming darkness and ignorance.  Sometimes a hand makes a gesture that represents an intention, like a blessing or reassurance; it may also indicate a quality such as pure judgment or that the god is in a meditative state. The multiple pairs of arms show more aspects of the god than is possible with a single pair.

Though the symbolism of the statues may not be familiar to many westerners, the concept of having multiple aspects to our personalities and lives should be. If you think about your normal day, there is a good chance you naturally and unthinkingly switch between several roles. You may be a breadwinner, stay-at-home parent, wife, husband, sister, brother, yoga student, runner, biker, shopper, and so on.

If you are curious, write down all the titles and words you can think of to describe yourself. Do a few words or the entire list completely explain who you truly are?  It is unlikely that a single title, or even a list, can fully characterize all that you are, all that you do, all your thoughts, hopes, and dreams.

When I was young, for a few years, I was slightly disappointed on my birthday because I did not feel any different than I had the day before.  A birthday was such an exciting day, and I expected there to be some type of spectacular change because I was a year older. At some point I figured out that though it was a notable day for me, changing a number did not change me.

It is easy to get stuck in viewing ourselves as just one or two labels rather than recognizing ourselves as multifaceted individuals. Often the key ways in which we see ourselves relate to our job and family status, though as with everything else in life, these are impermanent. If we change careers or retire, get married or divorced, have children or become empty-nesters, our lives change, and often so does our view of ourselves. However, who we are underneath those labels is not altered.

Each label describes a part of us, but at some point, words and descriptions fall short. Can you step back from your labels and appreciate all that you are?


In the movie Broadcast News, Holly Hunter plays a stressed-out Washington D.C. network news producer. Her job is fast-paced and she is under constant pressure. As an outlet, every morning unplugs her phone, sobs for two or three minutes, plugs in her phone again, and begins working. This emotional release leaves her ready to handle the intense demands of her day.

I thought this was interesting when I saw the movie, but I could not imagine anyone intentionally crying in real life until I went on a ten day hiking trip several years ago. All of us knew hiking in the mountains would not be easy, but the daily hikes were far more rigorous than we expected. We had an altitude change of at least 3,000 feet most days and one day we went over a 15,000 foot peak with little time to acclimate. By the end of the first week, everyone was cranky from sore muscles, lack of sleep, and altitude problems. In the middle of a particularly miserable part of the trail, one woman stopped and burst into tears. She said she needed to get her anger and frustration out of her system and this was her way of doing it. She sent us ahead and caught up with us about 15 minutes later. Subsequently, she was more cheerful than the rest of us for the remainder of the trip.

When we are stressed, our tension expresses itself in some way. We may be grumpy and unpleasant to those around us, overeat, or have tension headaches, insomnia, or some other set of symptoms. In one of my first jobs, I was not exercising very often and did not have any tools for managing stress, so it manifested itself as illness; a lingering cold that lasted for six months. It magically vanished within a few days of leaving the company.

Tears are not for everyone. One man I worked for said that when he was in college he would go out into the woods near his apartment and yell as loudly as he could. I have friends who run, swim, and practice martial arts. They do these activities for exercise and because they enjoy them, but also as a means of blowing off steam. For me, walks and a daily yoga practice provide an outlet.

The Washington area tends to be very intense and even more so now with the current economic pressures. It is very easy to let our worries and fears build up inside of us. Most of us cannot just stop and burst into tears, though some days we may feel like it. However, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to find some way to release the stress accumulating inside. We may not have a daily cry like Holly Hunter’s character, but if we can find a way to create little releases in our lives, we may feel better and be healthier.