Friday, January 24, 2020

A Very Brief History of Yoga

by Nina Zolotow

I believe that everyone who practices yoga should know a little about yoga history. My reason for feeling this way is because I’ve come to learn that there are many myths about yoga that get passed on from teacher to student and then to those student’s students and so on. These include myths such as that yoga is over 5,000 years old, that the Ashtanga primary series was discovered in an ancient manuscript, and that the Yoga Nidra relaxation technique practiced in modern times is an ancient practice that was passed down to us intact. 

In general, this whole habit of believing concepts and practices are ancient and, therefore, perfect can lead to a lack of questioning, which is never a good thing. And while some of these myths may have arisen from lack of understanding (the fact that there was an ancient term “yoga nidra” could have led people to become confused about how that term related to the modern Yoga Nidra practice), in other cases, some were intentionally fostered to make a practice appear more "legitimate" and possibly less open for debate. But more importantly the truth matters. In this era of “alternative facts,” I think it’s important not contribute to misinformation about yoga if we can avoid it.

Unfortunately, educating yourself about yoga history can feel like a daunting task. Some of the best books on the topic, such as The Yoga Tradition by Georg Feuerstein, are brilliant but challenging to read. I know because I have read them. So that’s why I was very excited to find a paper by Sean Feit Oakes, PhD called A Timeline of Yoga History with Primary Texts, which is short (22 pages), recently updated (2017), and quite accessible. It is a PDF that you can read online or download here

To make Sean Oakes’ history of yoga even more accessible to you, I put together a little timeline that summarizes this paper so you can get the feeling of the basic flow of yoga history as he portrays it. (I should say, however, there is some debate about the dates for the early yoga documents included here because they’ve been passed down orally and there is no precise way to date them. For example, I’ve commonly seen other dates indicating that the Bhagavad Gita is a couple of hundred years older than the Yoga Sutras.)

1000+ BCE: First Systematic Descriptions of Yoga 

The early Upanisads are the first texts that reference yoga and describe yoga practices. About this yoga, Oakes says, “The path of yoga was to seek the end of suffering through discovering the true nature of the self.”


Specifically, the Katha Upanisad contains the first known references to yoga and yoga practices. Oakes says that the Katha Upanisad “refers to pratyāhāra, or withdrawal of the practitioner’s attention from the objects of the physical senses” and that this practice “would become the basis of the central yogic practice of meditation.”

I’ll add that the other Upanisads composed during this era define yoga as it was practiced before Buddhism. We don’t see yoga asanas (poses) during this period other than those seated poses used for meditation.

563-483 BCE (possibly): Buddha’s Revolution

Because the Buddha was taught meditation and philosophy by two yoga teachers before he became enlightened, he is considered by many yoga scholars to be an influential yoga teacher himself.

Oakes says, “The Buddha taught a detailed yoga based on cultivating focused attention (samadhi) and mindfulness rooted in ethical action and embodied inquiry.”

200 BCE - 200 CE: Yoga Sutras

Of the Yoga Sutras, Oakes says, “Patañjali’s yoga, like the Buddha’s, is meditative, focusing on cultivating states of profound unification of mind (samadhi, or samyama: the combination of the last three limbs of dharana, dhyana, and samadhi) in postures of physical and mental stillness.”

I’ll add that even though this text contains a branch called “asana,” scholars agree that back then the asanas were seated poses used for meditation.

I also want to mention that this is the yoga text that in the West is now considered by many to be the most important book on yoga. However, this was not necessarily true in India during the time it was composed. In fact, I recently read that until the 13th century, the Yoga Yajnavalkya was considered the most important yoga text. Oakes explains how this text became popular in the West in the 20th century:

“Western yoga’s embrace of the Yoga-Sūtra is rooted in Krishnamacharya’s veneration of it, along with Swami Vivekananda’s, who published the first wide-spread English translation as Raja Yoga in 1896.”

200 CE (approx): Bhagavad Gita

Oakes says that this is “perhaps India’s most beloved spiritual text” and describes the yoga defined here as “the pathway by which one is liberated from karma and the round of endless birth (saṃsāra).”

Currently in the West the Bhagavad Gita is considered one of the most important texts on yoga, thought it has a different path and orientation than the Yoga Sutras. Oakes says:

“Seen as describing a single broad yogic path, the Bhagavad Gītā taught a yoga oriented to householders that emphasized fulfilling one’s caste duties and cultivating the discipline of vairagya, renunciation of the fruits of action, or Karma Yoga.”

500-1300 CE: Tantra Yoga

Oakes says that tantra yoga “arose as a radicalization of the classical yogas of inner fire, devotion, concentration, and the subtle body, replacing silent meditative concentration with ritual, visualization, mantra, guru yoga, and energetic practices to cultivate power (siddhi) and unfold a non-dual path leading to jivanmukti, “living liberation.”

This is when we see yogis doing physical practices that work with nadis, cakras, the sakti, and so on. (The asanas come next.)

13th Century: Hatha Yoga

Oakes says that that Haṭha Yoga “arose in the 13th century as a simplification of Śaiva Tantra, omitting ritual, mantra, and guru, but retaining and developing the physical and energetic practices.”

The physical practices he mentions include yoga poses (asanas), which were intended to purify and strengthen the body, including a few that we still do now. Oakes says:

“The practices of early Haṭha Yoga are the most immediate historical root of Modern Postural Yoga (MPY), emphasizing the use of poses and breath work leading to states of physical and energetic mastery.”

20th Century: Modern Postural Yoga

Because the type of yoga most of us practice in the 21st century, especially in the West, has such an emphasis on yoga asanas (yoga poses), this type of yoga is now commonly referred to as “Modern Postural Yoga” by yoga scholars. Of this type of yoga, Oakes says:

“Haṭha Yoga was revived in the early 20th century, and took root in two primary lineages, one “southern”, via Sri T. Krishnamacharya of Mysore, and one “northern”, via Swami Śivananda of Rishikesh.”

He explains:

“In both lineages, āsana was emphasized (more in Mysore than Rishikesh) and expanded, adapting exercises from European calisthenics and contortion. Krishnamacarya’s religious affiliation was Vaiśnava, and his teaching focused heavily on the philosophy of Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra, Śivananda, the guru of well-known teachers Satchidananda (founder of Integral Yoga) and Satyananda (founder of Bihar Yoga), was Śaiva, brought more bhakti (and mainstream Hindu) philosophy to the practice, and sourced his teachings from Vedānta, the Gītā, and both Classical and Tantric yogas."

Oakes' paper includes more details about how the asana practice changed during this period. And if you’re really interested in this history, you can read The Yoga Body by Mark Singleton.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors
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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Core Qualities of Yoga, Part 7: Enlighten Up With Laughter


This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).

by Beth Gibbs


“The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative and the second is disastrous.” - Margot Fonteyn



As yoga teachers, we take our work seriously, but we are also students. As students, we need to take the second part of Fonteyn’s quote to heart. Bringing in the quality of lightness will lead to enhanced awareness and understanding of our life experiences. Our ability to observe our experiences without judgment helps us avoid taking ourselves too seriously. One way to do that is to add laughter to our yoga practice and to our daily lives.

Laughter is being able to see the humor in life's absurdities. And with global warming and political storming, we have all the absurdities we can handle at the moment. 

Laughter, according to the Mayo Clinic, can enhance:
  • Intake of oxygen-rich air
  • Circulation
  • Muscle relaxation
  • The flow of endorphins
  • Your ability to manage stress

These are also benefits of yoga!

When laughter comes easily, it brings lightness into the body-mind when it is experiencing a difficulty, illness, or imbalance. According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, laughter, or humor therapy, helps promote overall health and wellness. Laughter therapy modalities use the physiological process of laughter to help relieve physical or emotional stress, distress, or discomfort. Surgeons used humor to distract patients from pain as early as the 13th century. In the 20th century, scientists studied the effect of humor on physical wellness.

Many credit this modern use of laughter as a wellness tool to Norman Cousins. Remember him? He was a political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate who suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, a painful connective tissue disease. In addition to medical treatments, he added laughing, long, loud, and often to his healing regimen. He found that ten minutes of hearty laughter would reduce his pain and help him sleep.

The best part of incorporating liberal doses of laughter in your life and your yoga practice is that laughing doesn’t cost a dime and it is calorie free! As matter of fact, research published in the International Journal of Obesity found just 15 minutes of laughter a day will burn 10-40 calories, depending on a person's weight and the intensity of the laughter. That is enough to lose between one to four pounds a year!
 https://www.sharecare.com/health/calories/how-many-calories-burn-laugh

Here’s a quote from Gordon Allport, psychologist and educator that points to laughter as a life enhancing quality, “So many tangles in life are ultimately hopeless that we have no appropriate sword other than laughter.”

Personally, I make it a point to laugh every day. It always makes me feel better no matter what absurdity might be present or looming – and there is always something! I’ve even created and performed stand-up comedy in a couple of local venues––it’s terrifying and gratifying at the same time, and when the audience laughs, it feels as good as Savasana! I also try to infuse my writing with a bit of humor when I can. You can find a sample of my humorous take on perfectionism here: www.bethgibbs.com/nobodylovesperfect.html

Ways to Include Laughter in Your Yoga Practice

1. Try a laughter yoga class if laughter doesn’t come easily to you. Laughter Yoga was created in India in the mid-1990s. It promotes the ideal of a non-political, non-religious, non-racial, non-threatening, and non-competitive approach to laughter. Its core premise is that your body is able to and knows how to laugh, regardless of what your mind has to say. Because it follows a body-mind approach to laughter, participants do not need to have a sense of humor, know jokes, or even be happy. The invitation is to “laugh for no reason.“

2. Try Yoga Dance. Broad smiles and laughter have been an integral part of every yoga dance class I’ve taken over the years. Megha Nancy Buttenheim, the founding director of Let Your Yoga Dance at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, says, “The mission of Let Your Yoga Dance is to spread joy and consciousness throughout the world by transmitting body health, brain health, heart health, and soul health to all populations.”

It’s a practice that combines, yoga, dance, and music. Everyone can participate, because ‘chair dancing’ is a real thing. Megha has been teaching yoga dance to people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. “Some of them say, ‘Let Your Yoga Dance is like a drug for Parkinson’s, but the only side effect is joy!”

3. Google yoga humor and share some jokes with your students. Here are two samples:

“Is it OK for a yogi to use email? Sure, as long as there are no attachments.” --Author unknown

“Corpse Pose is the hardest pose to master. You only get it right once.” --Author unknown

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras do not mention the power of laughter per se, but this quote by Swami Satchidananda referencing Sutra 1:36 does.

“We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy. If we are to die in a minute, why not die happily, laughing?” ― Swami Satchidananda

V. S. Ramachandran, in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness reminds us that, “Laughter is nature’s okay signal.” So, as yogis, lets ‘enlighten up,’ and enjoy a laugh or two on our path through life.


Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a guest faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children. For more information please visit her website at: bethgibbs.com

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube

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° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.


To order Jivana Heyman's book Accessible Yoga in the U.S., go to Shambhala PublicationsAmazonBarnes and NobleIndie Bound (for independent bookstores), or your local bookstore. People in other countries who want the order the book see How to Order "Accessible Yoga" from Countries Outside the U.S.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Ask the Yoga Doctor: Should You Flex Your Feet in Seated Poses?

In this video, Dr. Timothy McCall answers a question from a student who was told to always flex the feet in seated positions. He demonstrates various foot positions, and shows which foot position he recommends and explains why. 


If you want to submit a question to Timothy, email it to AskTheYogaDoctor@gmail.com.



Timothy McCall, MD is a board-certified internist, Yoga Journal's medical editor since 2002 and the author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. He practiced medicine in the Boston area for a dozen years before devoting himself full-time in the late 1990s to yoga therapy. He has studied with many of the world's leading yoga teachers, including BKS Iyengar and TKV Desikachar. In 2005, Timothy began his studies with a traditional Ayurvedic doctor, Chandukutty Vaidyar, and spent more than a year at his clinic in Kerala, India. His latest book is Saving My Neck: A Doctor’s East/West Journey through Cancer. For more information see DrMcCall.com.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog.

° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube

° REGISTER here for our next conference. 

° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.

To order Jivana Heyman's book Accessible Yoga in the U.S., go to Shambhala PublicationsAmazonBarnes and NobleIndie Bound (for independent bookstores), or your local bookstore. People in other countries who want the order the book see How to Order "Accessible Yoga" from Countries Outside the U.S.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Fear and Faith Don't Go Together: Liver Disease, Organ Transplant, and Yoga

I and the Village by Marc Chagall
by Carole Kalyani Baral

In 1987, when I was 40 years old, I was diagnosed with a rare, hereditary autoimmune disease called primary biliary cirrhosis, which attacked the liver. I was informed that I probably had 10 years to live and there was little that could be done to heal this condition. My husband, son, and I were devastated to hear this dire prediction. And I felt compelled to learn all that I could about this puzzling disease and to try to ameliorate the effects of this dreaded sentence. 


Fortunately for us, I had already established some skills to help me cope with this stressful prediction. I had become a certified yoga teacher in 1976 at the New York City Integral Yoga Institute. I was trained to instruct students in physical postures (asana), deep relaxation (Savasana), breathing practices (pranayama), and meditation techniques. Not only did I practice at home, I taught these skills in various classes first at a men’s prison, in an adult education program in my town, and at an after-school yoga course in the local high school where I taught English. I also taught at a summer camp for vegans, teaching cooking and yoga classes for 35 years. 

As my disease progressed, I had to concentrate on the disabilities that were then plaguing me more of the time. Specifically, I took my doctors recommendations for dietary restrictions more seriously, such as eliminating nuts and nut butters and reducing the amount of oil in my food as these burdened my liver’s ability to digest fats. I was already a vegetarian for years and was on my way to becoming a strict vegan. I became more attentive to raising my legs above my heart (with pillows and also using a wall) to eliminate the swelling in my ankles. Meditation became a more regular practice with the use of mala beads and mantra repetition.

During this time I travelled extensively during vacations from school taking yoga instruction from many experts all over the world. I visited Bali, New Zealand, Mexico, Guatemala and several European sites like The Isle of Skye in Scotland and Austria’s Sivananda Ashram, Italy and France. I never let my liver issues thwart my adventurous spirit or invade my mind. I would live fully even with some careful limitations. 

In 2006, my doctors said I was now within one year of death and after maintaining my condition for almost 20 years, the blood numbers indicated that I needed to replace my liver in order to survive. I had been on the transplant list for over nina years but I never was sick enough to be a priority. Now my health was rapidly declining, my tummy and legs were swollen with fluid, my skin was dark brown, and my eyes were a brilliant shade of yellow. Luckily, within just a few weeks, a match for me was found in a woman who had died from a stroke. Only 1% of all cadavers are capable of donating their organs. This woman had the right blood type for me as well as the size organ that was compatible with my structure. So, with this “gift of life” from an unknown donor, I was reborn after an eight-hour surgery with a “previously enjoyed” liver. That was now 13 years ago! 

My secret weapons were my faith in the Integral Yoga teachings, a positive attitude, and a supportive family environment. I used the breathing techniques of three-part deep breathing and alternate nostril breath to calm my mind and to prepare me for meditation daily. I worked with the neurovascular points of holding my forehead to elicit a relaxation response as well as neck and shoulder rolls. I “thumped” my thymus gland to activate the immune system. I enjoyed employing many different positive visualizations to calm my mind and focus the healing. 

I now live in Southern California, surrounded by uplifting friends who share my vegan lifestyle and the abundant natural beauty of the ocean and mountains. I devote myself to maintaining a healthy lifestyle so that I can give back the many blessings I have received during my life. I am fortunate to have been a yoga teacher for over 40 years and now teach a free weekly mixed-level Accessible Yoga class to senior citizens at the local Jewish Federation center. I firmly believe that living a dedicated life of service has many rewards. 

I urge those with serious health concerns to align themselves with excellent medical advisors and capable yoga and relaxation classes for example restorative yoga sessions. This alignment will allow true healing to take effect and put their issues into proper perspective. As my teacher said, “Fear and faith don’t go together!” 

At 72, I have survived a liver transplant, a rare blood disorder, a broken hip that put me in a wheelchair for four months, and most recently breast cancer. And, as Maya Angelou said, “Still I’ll rise!” Peace can be yours with courage and applied fortitude. May you be as blessed as I am! 

With gratitude, Carole Kalyani Baral

Carole Kalyani Baral has been a yoga teacher since graduating from the Integral Yoga Institute in NYC in 1976. She taught Yoga and Relaxation Techniques in the Adult Education Programs in upstate NY for 35 years. She is a current Board Member of the North American Vegan Society. She was given the privilege to convert all the recipes and information for the book from vegetarian to vegan for The Yoga Way: Food for Body, Mind and Spirit published in 2017. See pawlingpublicradio.org for 35+ free articles about vegan cooking, vegan recipes, and photos of vegan dishes. Kalyani  now teaches a free Accessible Yoga class at the Santa Barbara Jewish Community Center for all ages and abilities. As a liver transplant recipient, she is eternally grateful for the “gift of life” she received in 2006. “Service with compassion” is her motto!


This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube

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° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.

To order Jivana Heyman's book Accessible Yoga in the U.S., go to Shambhala PublicationsAmazonBarnes and NobleIndie Bound (for independent bookstores), or your local bookstore. People in other countries who want the order the book see How to Order "Accessible Yoga" from Countries Outside the U.S.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

What Do Goat Yoga and Iyengar Yoga Have In Common?


by Patrice Priya Wagner

I used to laugh about all the different types of yoga classes that tried to fit under the umbrella term of Modern Postural Yoga (MPY), especially Beer Yoga and Goat Yoga. Certain ones I nicknamed "yogaerobics" because they emphasized the work-out aspect of the class. I didn’t speak the same way about classes taking place in religious ashrams because, although they were modern and postural, they adhered to an understanding of yoga specific to those denominations.

All that has changed nowadays because as I have been trying to pull apart the web of dense and divergent meanings of yoga practice, lineage traditions, belief in or repudiation of gurus, and translations of yogic texts, one simple phrase kept popping into my mind. I heard professor Andrea R. Jain, PhD, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University–Purdue University in Indianapolis say in a podcast that yoga is entirely context dependent, and it made perfect sense to me. Such a short sentence but it packed a huge wallop.

When I came to accept this as my mantra when thinking on the current state of Modern Postural Yoga I immediately felt like a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders. I finally understood why there can be so many extremely different activities taking place under the same Yoga umbrella although they have little in common. Those who like beer are happy with their Beer Yoga and people who are fond of goats can do yoga alongside friendly four-legged creatures. Who am I say it's not yoga when yoga is entirely context dependent?

For a while I felt foolish explaining my new discovery to people who have studied with me, expecting them to have known this all along and wonder if I was losing my mind. I was curious if they were just smiling politely at me, and when out of earshot saying "Duuuh." But I don't think any of them did that. We had spent hours trying to cobble together a common understanding of the link between an Iyengar class, for example, and a Goat Yoga class. We didn't reach a conclusion but had a lot of fun experimenting with how we might create an Iyengar-like Tree pose with a goat and a human for a Goat Yoga class. Not one of them had said that Goat Yoga doesn't need any link to Iyengar to call itself yoga.

Today's society is so multifaceted that we would expect nothing less than a panoply of yoga practices, each looking and sounding different than the next. We've come to embrace a rainbow of types and I, for one, appreciate the freedom that allows for expressing our individuality. As a person with a disability, I modify my practice according to my body's abilities and feel appreciation for Accessible Yoga teaching me poses that I can actually do. For example, doing Tree pose with one hand on the wall to help with balance works great for me!

Through my studies of the history of yoga, I've come to understand that there is no one tradition that is yoga, even if we still mistakenly refer to a single "ancient tradition of yoga." It should be plural: "ancient traditions of yoga." In centuries past, there never was just one yoga recognized by all, but rather many types that co-existed simultaneously in various regions of Asia. For example, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2 states, “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind,” whereas the Bhagavadgita 2.50 says, “Yoga is skill in action.” The Vaiśeṣika Sūtra 5.2.17 (likely compiled sometime between 6th and 2nd century BCE), reads,”When the mind is established in the Self, there is an absence of pleasure and pain for an embodied one. That is Yoga.” While the reason to practice yoga may have been shared, that is, to end suffering as a living human being, the definition of what constituted “yoga” varied amongst groups.

So it's not a new phenomenon that yoga has many differing styles that all go by the same name: yoga. I exhaled a great sigh of relief when I realized that I wasn't losing my mind but making an accurate comparison regarding the past and present based on textual evidence, just as many historians do. However, that doesn't mean I plan to try Goat Yoga anytime soon.



Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and Kitchen Sink. She is Managing Editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a founding member of the Accessible Yoga Board of Directors. 


This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube

° REGISTER here for our next conference. 

° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.


To order Jivana Heyman's book Accessible Yoga in the U.S., go to Shambhala PublicationsAmazonBarnes and NobleIndie Bound (for independent bookstores), or your local bookstore. People in other countries who want the order the book see How to Order "Accessible Yoga" from Countries Outside the U.S.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Ask the Yoga Doctor: Why Did You Put a Blanket Under My Head in Savasana?

Who should be practicing Savasana (Relaxation pose) with a folded blanket under their heads and why? In this video, Dr. Timothy McCall explains when this type of support is recommended and what the benefits are from using it.


If you want to submit a question to Timothy, email it to AskTheYogaDoctor@gmail.com.



Timothy McCall, MD is a board-certified internist, Yoga Journal's medical editor since 2002 and the author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. He practiced medicine in the Boston area for a dozen years before devoting himself full-time in the late 1990s to yoga therapy. He has studied with many of the world's leading yoga teachers, including BKS Iyengar and TKV Desikachar. In 2005, Timothy began his studies with a traditional Ayurvedic doctor, Chandukutty Vaidyar, and spent more than a year at his clinic in Kerala, India. His latest book is Saving My Neck: A Doctor’s East/West Journey through Cancer. For more information see DrMcCall.com.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog.

° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube

° REGISTER here for our next conference. 

° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.

To order Jivana Heyman's book Accessible Yoga in the U.S., go to Shambhala PublicationsAmazonBarnes and NobleIndie Bound (for independent bookstores), or your local bookstore. People in other countries who want the order the book see How to Order "Accessible Yoga" from Countries Outside the U.S.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Reflecting on My Teacher Swami Satchidananda



by Jivana Heyman

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother practicing yoga each morning. She would do a series of asanas every day, including Headstand, which really made an impression on me. It was even more remarkable because she must have already been in her 60s by that time. I remember her patiently teaching me Alternate Nostril Breathing to a one-two count: inhale one and exhale two. Mostly, I just loved spending time with her, and that made yoga seem so much more compelling. She would often practice with a book next to her that had a mesmerizing cover; it was the face of Swami Satchidananda in gold on his book Integral Yoga Hatha.

That image of his gold face must have stayed with me because decades later, in 1990, I found myself getting a massage to help me deal with my stress and the massage therapist, Kazuko Onodera, had a picture of Swami Satchidananda on her wall. I remember saying to her, “I think I know that guy.” And she said, “Yes, he’s my yoga teacher. You should come to my yoga classes and meet him when he comes to town.” So I did. I began taking classes with her religiously, and she started training me to be a yoga teacher.

Kazuko eventually brought me to meet Swami Satchidananda in person when he was speaking in San Francisco in 1991. When I first met him, I was impressed with his tremendous knowledge of yoga and yogic scriptures. I enjoyed his humor, especially his endless puns. But I was confused by the reactions of the people around him, by their devotion and the religious feeling of the gathering.

I was a young, gay, AIDS activist fighting against a system of oppression that was killing my friends and lovers. I couldn’t easily accept another authority figure because I felt that this kind of hierarchical thinking was at the basis of our problems. I even found some homophobic quotes from Swami Satchidananda, which totally turned me off.

But I soon found myself surrounded by an amazing community of yoga teachers who touched me with the passion they felt for yoga. I learned that Swami Satchidananda had changed his mind about the homophobic remarks, and I was even invited to help edit one of his books to take out those sections and make the language more inclusive. 

I slowly got involved at the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute and there I found a family of yogis to support me in my practice. I felt so drawn to yoga, and it was the support of this community that propelled me forward through study, intensive practice, shared conversations, and general comradery.

In 1997, my partner, Matt, and I started talking about having a commitment ceremony. I was excited by the idea of having this ceremony at my spiritual home, the Integral Yoga Institute. This was way before anyone was talking about gay marriage, so it was still unusual. I was told to ask Swami Satchidananda in person when he next visited.

When the time came, I was very nervous. I had spoken to him only on a few occasions, and he was this very intense old man. I stood in line to speak to him, and when it was my turn, I asked him if Matt and I could get married at the Institute. He responded by simply asking me, “When?” I said, “August 31,” embarrassed that we had already scheduled a date before we got his approval. He said, “Of course.” Then about half an hour later, after talking to a long line of people, he approached me and said, “I’ll be thinking of you on August 31.” He even wrote us a note that was read at the ceremony, which said, “Have a blessed matrimonial life.”

This acceptance was exactly what I needed to assuage any of my concerns about getting more involved and making a personal commitment to him and his teachings. I now see how that commitment was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it supported my personal growth by helping me stay focused on my practice. But it also got me caught up in an organization that seemed more dedicated to protecting his name rather than always following the right ethical action.

As I got more involved, I would ask a lot of questions about Swami Satchidananda and often the answers were vague. I heard that there was a group of women protesting at one of his talks in New York City. They accused him of a pattern of sexual misconduct and of silencing their voices. When I inquired more about it, I was told that these women were basically projecting their own problems onto him. The sad part is that I believed that story at the time. It was only after I left the organization a few years ago, that I began to see what was going on.

The #MeToo movement helped me understand the way that sexual abuse works and how these women’s voices were silenced. I now trust that there was truth to what they were saying, and I’m devastated that I wasn’t able to help make their voices heard. As I have more time to reflect on my relationship with Swami Satchidananda, I see his brilliance and also his flaws. I realize now that there probably was misconduct, which should have been addressed more openly.

For a long time, I struggled with how to reconcile my gratitude for what I learned from Swami Satchidananda, and for the way he treated me personally with what I heard about the way he treated these women. I also struggled with the way this was all handled. I’m so happy to hear that Integral Yoga is now taking steps to address ethics in a more direct way so that this type of abuse can’t happen again.

I know there is tremendous power in the guru-student relationship. It offers a sense of security to the student, who otherwise may feel lost or confused as they move along their path. There is also power in the devotional aspect of the relationship. Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion, is such a profound system of yoga practices because it allows the practitioner to engage their emotions in the practice. But the risks of this type of devotion to any single, fallible person may outweigh the benefits.

I don’t think we need to discard these practices altogether, however. Instead, we need to find a healthy form of Bhakti. Rather than focus our Bhakti love toward the human form of the guru, we can focus that energy toward the teachings themselves. In fact, I specifically remember Swami Satchidananda telling us not to look to him, but to look to the teachings, as the guru.

Ideally, we can transform the energy of Bhakti Yoga into service by focusing on loving the people and community around us. The relationship between Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga, service, is profound. It’s really impossible to be of service if love isn’t your motivating factor.

As we move into a time of post-lineage yoga, I think we should celebrate our independence from traditional gurus, who were so often abusive. But we can keep in mind that there were benefits to the guru relationship that we can continue to cultivate in other ways: the focused attention, the individual support, and the mentorship. Within yoga communities, we can replace the power of the guru with the support of the collective, and explore the benefits of devotion, service, and dedication to each other rather than to a guru.


This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog.

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