Sunday, October 26, 2014

Yoga is Empowerment

by Jivana Heyman

Thanks for the positive feedback on my blog. I wanted to continue where I left off last time – with the statement that Yoga is ultimately about empowerment, independence and freedom. I’m particularly interested in using Yoga as a tool for empowerment. The teachings of Yoga are revolutionary in so many ways, including how they turn the tables on many of our daily assumptions.

For example, what about our assumption that the healthier we are the happier we are? Is it possible to be happy and not healthy? Sorry for throwing a wrench into your mind’s gears, but according to the Yoga teachings, we can be happy regardless of the state the body is in. My teacher, Swami Satchidananda, would say, “We are happiness personified. We are Mr. and Ms. Happy. “

Happiness – better yet, joy – is our essential nature. We don’t feel that joy when we are caught up in the business (and busy-ness) of the mind. Instead, we have identified with our thoughts (see Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book I Sutra 4), which limit our world to the body, the senses, and all the desires that flow through them into the mind.

There’s a great story about Ramana Maharshi, an Indian saint, who had a cancerous tumor on his arm. He had a number of surgeries to try to remove the tumor – always without anesthesia. During one surgery, he famously said, “Poor arm,” showing compassion for his body, and total non-attachment as well.

That level of non-attachment seems superhuman – and perhaps it is. It might even reflect an unhealthy lack of body/mind connection. Ironically, the Yogis weren’t that concerned with the body/mind connection, rather they were looking for the ultimate connection between the individual and the Divine.

If our happiness isn’t based on our health – or for that matter on any external thing – that means that we are the ultimate source of our own happiness. That is to say, our Divine essence is the source of our joy, and our job is to remember that it’s there.

Many years ago, I had a student named Zelda who taught me this lesson. Zelda had advanced Multiple Sclerosis, (M.S.), with only limited movement in her face and hands, yet she was a very joyful person. She used to come to a weekly Yoga for M.S. class that I taught even though it was very challenging for her to get there. She lived in a residential hospital, and had to wait long hours to get picked up by the public paratransit van.

She would often be waiting for me when I arrived for class, and would be waiting long after the class had ended. One day she approached me after class and asked for some advice with her meditation practice. We had been practicing meditation on the mantra, “Om Shanti,” which means peace. She said, “I can’t seem to keep my mind focused on ‘Om Shanti.’”

In my mind, I immediately jumped to my well-worn script about meditation for beginners. (Concentrate on one thing, if the mind wanders bring it back…) Then Zelda continued, “I try to repeat ‘Om Shanti’ but my mind keeps going back to the Lord’s Prayer, which I’m constantly repeating.” Needless to say, I was amazed. I gained my composure and said, “Don’t worry about ‘Om Shanti.’ You’re doing great.” Clearly Zelda’s meditation on a mantra – in this case the Lord’s Prayer – worked to keep her mind peaceful and allowed her to connect with her joy even in a very challenging body.

A few weeks later, Zelda’s doctor said she couldn’t come to class anymore because she was getting bedsores from sitting in a wheelchair for so many hours waiting to get picked up and dropped off. I told her that I would try to organize a Yoga class at the hospital where she was living, and although it took a few months, I did.

The students in this class at Zelda’s residential hospital had very limited movement, and challenged me to be creative and come up with new ways to practice. My assistant, Jai Bezaire, did a beautiful job teaching this group, and eventually took over the class. But, there was one problem: Zelda never came to class.

After each class, I would go visit her and ask why she hadn’t come. She always had one excuse or another. Finally, one day she said, “I don’t come because I just don’t want to be with all those sick people!”

Zelda didn’t identify as a sick person, and she wanted to be surrounded by other ‘healthy’ people who didn’t identify that way either. She taught me that sickness is a state of mind, and that no matter what condition the body is in, we have a choice in the condition of our mind.

Ultimately, the power to feel joy is in our own hands, and yet we don’t realize it. We’ve given our power away to anyone and anything that we become attached to. Yoga shows us a different way – rather than seeking joy and happiness outside – we can turn our awareness within and find what we are seeking. Yoga is empowerment.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Welcome to the Accessible Yoga blog

by Jivana Heyman

I've been thinking about starting this blog for a long time, so here we go....

The fact is, I have an ulterior motive for blogging: After teaching adaptive yoga for twenty years, and leading lots of teacher trainings, I really need to create an updated manual for my Accessible Yoga Teacher Trainings. The problem is that I don't have time to do it. So, here it is, the beginning of my new Accessible Yoga Teacher Training manual, written in weekly sections.

It will be a regular practice. Like my friend Barbara Hirsch, who always writes one article a week for her EcoFacts. That's impressive, and I hope I have the discipline for it.

Interestingly, discipline is really at the core of Yoga. Tapas is sometimes defined as discipline although it's usually referred to as accepting pain for purification...but I'm already off topic. I wanted to focus this blog on my motivation for creating the Accessible Yoga Conference, and the Accessible Yoga Teacher Trainings.

If you know me, you've probably heard me talk about my best friend, Kurt, who died of AIDS in 1995. That was the same year that I was certified as a yoga teacher (after four years of training by my mentor, Kazuko Onodera - which is a story for another day). Kurt inspired me to follow my heart, and to be fearless. He found joy in life, and somehow in death. He accepted his illness and death in a way that changed my view of the world, and the way I perceived the human condition.

Through illness Kurt kept a positive attitude, a kind heart, and open mind. I remember visiting him in the hospital on many occasions, and he would be surrounded by nurses and staff talking to him about their problems. It was revolutionary to see him retain his dignity and happiness through the pain and torture of his illness. In the process, Kurt showed me that illness can be a path to healing - deep spiritual healing that transcends the physical body.

These lessons stayed with me as I began teaching Yoga for Healing classes at the S.F. Integral Yoga Institute, and California Pacific Medical Center. I taught these classes for almost 15 years, learning from each of my students how to face illness and handle the challenges life gives you. My students inspired me to create the Accessible Yoga Teacher Training in 2007. I had been leading Basic Yoga Teacher Training programs for ten years, and I saw that many people coming to these programs had very little experience practicing Yoga. On the other hand, I had students with disabilities who had years of dedicated practice under their belts, but who felt that a Yoga teacher training program would be beyond their capacity.

In particular, Patrice Priya Wagner, inspired me to create this program by her sheer bravery and dedication to Yoga. With support from Ian Waisler, and moral support from Swami Vimalananda, we created a program designed to teach people with disabilities and chronic illness to become Yoga teachers. It was a roller coaster ride, but what a great group we graduated. 

It was also a graduation for me. I realized that I could give people the tools they need to heal themselves - not always on a physical level, but more importantly, on a spiritual one. Yoga offers these incredible opportunities for us; to bend gracefully when life tries to knock us down; to fill our own hearts with joy and love rather than waiting for someone else to do it for us. Yoga has given me all of this and more. I'm so happy that I get to share it with others. 

Simply put, the purpose of the Accessible Yoga programs - the Conference and Trainings - is to share yoga with people who feel like they can't get to a Yoga class, or who have been told that Yoga isn't for them. It's about empowerment, independence, and freedom.

° 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.