How to start practicing yoga

As a yoga teacher I’m often asked for advice on how to start a yoga practice.  Here are a few tips:

Try different styles of yoga.

The variety of yoga styles that exist (Bikram, Ashtanga, Jivamukti, Anusara, power yoga, restorative, yin, Iyengar, etc) can be staggering and difficult to navigate.  Try a variety of styles until you find one that you like. Each style has its own unique quality, but the most important thing is that you find a style that inspires you and motivates you to keep going back.

Try different yoga teachers, several times.

Just as a wide range of yoga styles exists, yoga instructors are all different, each with his/her own personality and qualities. If you take a class with an instructor and find that you don’t like his or her style, keep going to different classes until you find someone that you like.  You should feel a connection with your teacher, and your teacher should be someone that motivates and inspires you.

A good instructor will give students options in class to make their practice more accessible or more challenging, and will cue you so that you have proper alignment and attention to safety.  In my opinion, a good class should be balanced, with an appropriate mix of cardio, strength, flexibility, and agility training, and one that is comprehensive, with attention to core, the spine (moving the spine in all six directions:  forward, backward, twists right and left, and side stretches right and left), the shoulders, the hips, and major muscles (IT band, hamstrings, psoas, hip flexors, thighs, arms).

Also, keep in mind that as you grow your yoga practice, the same teachers that may not have been a fit for you at first may be great for you later.  I’ve experienced firsthand not liking a teacher initially and then that teacher later became my favorite teacher who inspired me to deepen my own yoga practice!

Don’t judge yourself.

When you first start your practice, it’s common to feel discouraged because the poses feel uncomfortable, or because one lacks flexibility or strength to do all the poses as beautifully as others in the class. Keep in mind that this is exactly why you are in class, so you can gain flexibility and strength. Remember that the practice of letting go of one’s own ego is also part of “doing yoga” (and is perhaps one of the biggest lessons to learn!).

Focus on the breath first.

In terms of the physical practice, if you do nothing at all, do this one thing: breathe mindfully. This means cultivating a long, slow, steady breath, and any time you feel stress or challenge, return back to that long slow steady breath. Learning to breathe is one of the greatest gifts yoga gives, along with helping you create more space in the body for more breath.

Consider private instruction.

If you feel really self-conscious about going into a yoga class for the first time, consider hiring a private instructor. Some beginners like having a few private sessions to understand the basics of stretching and fundamental poses. Others have to build up enough core strength in order to sustain a practice in class. Still others have very little “body awareness” and have a hard time moving their body according to verbal instructions, so a slower paced private class can help them get what they need out of a yoga practice.

Or, go online.

If private instruction is too expensive, you can also try some online yoga classes at home. Try any beginner Hatha class to start with.  Here are a few sites that have great videos:

Don’t buy a thing, unless you want to.

You don’t need to buy $100 yoga leggings to start a yoga practice (unless wearing sharp yoga clothes makes you more motivated and excited to go to class, in which case I am all for it).  You can wear a T-shirt and shorts.  You also don’t need a fancy yoga mat or any yoga mat at all; most studios and gyms have mats you can borrow or rent. Props are also usually available so you don’t have to bring them.  Sometimes chairs, sand bags, and bolsters are used as props for restorative and yin practices.

If you have started a yoga practice and want to invest in some gear, here are a few suggestions:

  • Buy a nice sticky mat that will last.  There is a huge difference between practicing on a cheap yoga mat and a nice yoga mat, and that could mean the difference between looking forward to your practice or not.  My personal favorite is the Manduka PROlite because it’s durable, sticky, and lightweight, but there are many others you can try.
  • Get blocks that are made of high density, durable foam.  Blocks that are made of foam that are too light are difficult to manage.  Blocks made of wood are uncomfortable.  I like these blocks from Hugger Mugger.  Blocks are often used in pairs so buy two.
  • Beyond a mat and blocks, other accessories are used depending on your interests and needs for a home practice.  Mexican cotton blankets can be folded and rolled to use as a prop for support.  Yoga straps help you extend your reach and can be used as resistance.  Bolsters and sandbags are nice for restorative practices.

A few related articles I’ve written about getting into yoga:

See you in class sometime?  Namaste!

Bringing Yoga to Schools: An Afternoon With the Non-Profit Organization Headstand

I spent the afternoon today in San Lorenzo visiting KIPP Summit Academy, where the non-profit organization Headstand has implemented a yoga program for its students.

Headstand aims to combat toxic stress in disadvantaged K-12 schools, through yoga, meditation, and character education. They do this by offering a training program for teachers who want to teach yoga in schools. The program includes a curriculum that offers a framework and toolset for teachers while giving them flexibility to adapt to the needs of the class.

San Lorenzo schools in general get a rating of 5 out of 10 on GreatSchools. But KIPP Summit Academy gets a rating of 10 out of 10, and when visiting the school, you can appreciate the gem that this school is. The students are well mannered, calm, and respectful. They walk from class to class in single file quietly. While it might sound like a military school, the environment is actually warm, supportive, and creative. The school’s support of the Headstand program is a reflection of how open-minded and innovative the adminstration is.

All students at this school attend yoga class at least once a week, and some attend twice a week, alternating with their Physical Education class. In addition to teaching mindfulness and yoga, Headstand’s curriculum also focuses on character education. I observed a fifth grade class in which the theme for the day was grit. The teacher opened the class by recounting two contrasting tales of people going through challenges: one who gave up and another who demonstrated grit. Throughout the class, the teacher returned to the intention for students to contemplate.

After the opening discussion about grit, the teacher led them through several movement exercises: first, a listening exercise in which they moved between child’s pose to tabletop to downward-facing dog; second, through a flow sequence and basic stretches; and third, with a game called “Yoga Benders” in which a classmate prompts the rest of the class with the name and number of body parts that are allowed to touch the floor (e.g. “two hands and two feet”, “one foot only”, “butt only”). The kids were engaged, happy, and had fun.

The class closed with simple floor stretches, followed by several rounds of long slow deep breaths, savasana, and meditation. Each student keeps a journal and was asked to write a few sentences describing what grit means to them.

The students took this intention to heart. Some referred to grit in the context of climbing a mountain, and that attending college was the highest mountain of all.

Headstand has gathered some compelling data that supports the success of the program: 98% of the entire student body reports feeling less stressed, less distracted, and more calm as a result of their regular yoga practice, and the detentions have dropped by over 60% since introducing yoga at the school. Researchers at UCSF recently received a grant to study the effects of this program on the students and school more deeply.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend time with founder/director Katherine Priore and observe Headstand in action. Learn more about this inspiring program and how to get involved at

Redefining "Advanced yoga"

“I’d like to get into yoga, but I just wish I were better at it.”  The notion that one can be “good” or “bad” at yoga is misguided; with yoga there is no beginning, middle, or end.  As I described in my post titled “I’m not good at yoga“, we all start wherever we are.  There is no destination; we don’t go into a pose with the intention of stretching so that we get to a “place” where there is no more discomforting sensation.  In any given yoga class, no matter how flexible one is, everyone in the class is feeling some sensation.  There is no “there”.  The intention is not the destination, but the journey itself.  When we explore the depths of any particular yoga pose, we are all on a journey, even though our bodies manifest themselves differently in that journey.  Some people don’t need to go as far to feel the benefits and sensation of the pose; others do.  It’s that simple.
The truth is, many “advanced” poses don’t actually make people more open or flexible.  Often the more complex poses are ways to contort the body by combining several poses into one, which looks impressive but doesn’t mean that people who can get into such poses are “better at yoga” than those who can’t. For example, an arm balance like Eka Pada Galavasana (One-Legged Balance) combines the arm strength and position exhibited in Chaturanga with the ability to balance the body’s weight with the arms as in Bakasana, and external rotation of the hip as in Pigeon.  Each of these component poses can be practiced separately to build strength and flexibility where needed, and arguably benefit the practitioner more than the combined pose because they can be held longer, and more and better attention can be paid to the areas of the body that need it the most.  

Eka Pada Galavasana
= Chaturanga + Bakasana + Pigeon

It’s actually much easier to focus the mind in poses like Eka Pada Galavasana because it demands so much attention, whereas in Savasana the mind wanders more freely and it can be harder to keep the mind quiet.  In this sense, Savasana is more of an “advanced” pose than Eka Pada Galavasana.
The biggest challenge most people have with practicing yoga is letting go of their ego and judgment of themselves and others.  Finding inner stillness so the inner critic stops judging you, now that’s “advanced yoga”.  

Yoga for Designers

Last week UXPA Magazine published my article on “Mindful Design: What the UX World Can Learn from Yoga” (also reprinted in a previous post on this blog). The article describes how mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can benefit designers throughout the lifecycle of design activities, from seeking inspiration to ideation and execution. I wrote about a few ways in which designers can put mindfulness principles into practice. Here are a few simple poses to start a basic yoga practice that benefits the creative process.

Open the heart and the mind prior to user interviews: Chest and shoulder openers

Chest and shoulder openers counteract the effects of being hunched over a computer or steering wheel. The opening of the chest also symbolizes the opening of the heart, enabling compassion and connection to others. Before engaging in user research, open the chest and shoulders and prime the body to be more receptive to others.

Interlace your hands behind your back, and pull the heels of your hands together as you roll the heads of your shoulders up, back, and down. Start to lift the gaze and the chest up as you pull the hands down behind your back. Tuck the pelvis in slightly to protect the lower back; you can help your body do this by lengthening the tailbone towards and heels and/or lifting the pubic bone up towards the chest.

Modified Standing Backbend (Anyvittasana)

At home, a restorative chest opener can be simple and relaxing. Roll up a blanket into a long, narrow log, and place it on the floor underneath your back, behind the heart. Drape yourself over the blanket and allow the shoulders to roll back. Your legs can be extended straight and relaxed, or you can passively open the hips by bringing the heels together and let the knees fall open to the sides.  (This is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for your chest and shoulders, and is especially restorative for people with respiratory problems such as asthma or getting over a cold.)

Supported Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

Boost your creative mind and playful energy: Hip openers

The psoas is the only muscle to connect the spine to the legs. It is also connected to the diaphragm through connective tissue (fascia) which affects our breath and fear reflex. For many of us, our fast paced modern lifestyle causes the psoas to be chronically triggered; this tightness can be a source of low back pain. Conversely, a relaxed psoas is the mark of play and creative expression. The relaxed and released psoas is ready to lengthen and open, to dance. Do these stretches before ideation and hackathons to boost your creative mind and playful energy.

Kneel on one knee and put the opposite foot in front (for the front foot, try to get the ankle directly under the knee on the same side leg to give the most structural support). Transfer your weight onto the front foot and push your hips forward and down until you feel a stretch along the front of your hip on the leg extended behind you.

Low crescent lunge (Anjaneyasana)

You can take this stretch further by employing a variety of options.  Raise the arm that is on the same side as the back leg, and lean diagonally towards the side of the front knee. Another option is to stretch the quadriceps by grabbing the ankle on the extended leg with the opposite hand and drawing the foot towards your sit bone.

Detox from the stress of negotiations and design reviews: Spinal twists

Seated twist poses can help relieve tension from deep within the body, which often shows itself as emotional stress. They also help mobilize the joints of your spine and squeeze internal organs, bringing oxygenated blood to your internal organs while eliminating toxins and metabolic waste products. Perform a twisting pose whenever you feel stress.

One spinal twist that is playful and fun to do before design brainstorms is a qigong spinal twist. Stand with your feet hip width distance apart, and make fists with your hands. Begin by moving the right arm in front and the left arm behind you as you twist from your standing body to the right. Switch directions and twist to the left, allowing the arms to switch sides. Gradually increase your speed, maybe gently massaging the acupressure point at the top of the chest under the shoulder with your opposite fist as you twist around.

Gentle spine twist, based on Qigong

Practice a more intense twist with a seated spinal twist. Sit with the legs extended from the hips. Cross the right foot over the left thigh and press it into the floor, to the left of the left thigh or knee. Place the right hand on the floor behind the right hip. As you inhale, reach the left arm towards the sky to lengthen the torso; as you exhale, twist to your right. Hook the left elbow outside the right knee to give more leverage in the twist. Alternatively, grab the outside of the right knee with your left hand if hooking the elbow outside the knee is too intense. With every inhale, lengthen the spine and grow taller; with every exhale, continue to twist to the right. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then switch sides.

Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyeandrasana)

Calm the mind for quiet design time: Forward folds

Forward folds have a detoxifying effect that can improve and stimulate digestion and help calm the mind and body. When you fold forward, you are turning inward physically, mentally, and emotionally, resulting in greater introspection and a sense of peace. Do forward folds at the end of the day and before quiet design time.

Stand with your feet hip width apart, with the outside edges of the feet parallel to each other. Fold forward at the hip crease, bringing the top of the pelvis forward. Lengthen the front of the body as you fold, keeping the neck and jaw relaxed. Engage the quadriceps to allow the hamstrings to lengthen. Let the weight be more on the balls of the feet, as opposed to the heels, to help align the hips over the ankles. As an option, you can choose to grab onto opposite elbows or forearms and just hang, noticing what you experience when you don’t have the goal of having to “get somewhere”. Remember that forward folds are not about how deep you can go but rather how deeply you can release.

Standing forward fold (Uttanasana)

Have Fun

Yoga is serious work, but don’t take the practice too seriously.  Adopt a playful attitude, know that “failures” are part of learning and growing, and have fun.  It’s during moments of joy and flow that we get the best, most creative work out of ourselves.  Namaste!
Laughter (Laughasana)
Photos courtesy of the creative, multi-talented (and fellow yogi) James Witt.

Mindful Design: What the UX World Can Learn from Yoga

This article is reprinted from the September 2013 issue of UXPA Magazine.

“Yoga will change your life.” I will never forget these words that my husband, who has practiced a tradition of meditation for 25 years, said to me when I told him I was signing up for yoga teacher training. My intention was not to become a yoga teacher, but to deepen my practice. I had practiced yoga at various times since I was a teenager, but it was only after I sought refuge from my hectic stressful life as an executive at Google and mother of two that I realized the benefits of yoga extended well beyond gaining flexibility and avoiding injury. Indeed, deepening my understanding of yogic philosophy and adopting a daily mindfulness practice were transformative in ways beyond my expectations. Most importantly, I gained a perspective that guides my ability to tend to what is ahead of me. Soon, I started to appreciate how this perspective permeates into everything I do in life. In this article, I will describe how mindfulness practices benefit designers, based on my firsthand experience as a design executive, mentor and yoga teacher.

Mindfulness Defined

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to, and seeing clearly whatever is happening in our lives. The attention paid is purposeful, in the moment, without judgment. To those unfamiliar with mindfulness practices, consider what it feels like to be “not present,” perhaps when you’re on autopilot or multitasking. When we are “not present”, we fail to notice the good things about our lives, fail to hear what our bodies are telling us, or we poison ourselves with toxic criticism. Mindfulness is the opposite of that: it’s about having the time and space to attend to what is ahead of us, in spite of distractions competing for our attention and our past history that shapes how we think and perceive the world. This focused attention is a tremendous asset to designers throughout the design process and all its activities: from inspiration and ideation, to design and implementation.

Being Mindful When Seeking Inspiration

Design is for people; if you cannot understand people you cannot design. During early stages of design, designers often seek inspiration and stimulate innovation by building empathy with users. The act of combining empathy to understand a problem with creativity during the generation of insights and solutions is at the core of “design thinking.” By uncovering people’s latent needs, we can gain insight into ways our interactions with objects or surroundings can be made joyful.

The methods used to gain empathy in user experience work are by now well established. Field research, contextual inquiry, and usability studies are frequently used to bring attention and awareness to the actions we otherwise take for granted. These unconscious but ordinary acts reveal subtle but crucial ways we adapt to a world not perfectly tailored for our needs. The designer’s work as observer, not participant or judge, epitomizes the work of an empathic mind, not an analytical mind.

Empathic thinking is often easier said than done. Anthony Jack of Case Western University found that analytical thinking suppresses empathic thinking, and vice versa.  There is a brain divide, so to speak, that prevents us from invoking the analytical mind and the empathic mind at the same time. As we are constantly surrounded by computers and immersed in company cultures increasingly focused on making decisions based on data, empathic thinking can become even harder to come by. Mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation, which have been shown to increase empathy for others, offer a practical way for designers and team members to boost their ability to delve deeper into the mind, body, intuition, and feelings and integrate them into a creative expression that can be shared with the world.  While mindfulness practices can be effective when engaging in design research and interacting with users, the best outcomes arise when there is a regular practice, as empathic thinking becomes a muscle that can be flexed when needed.

Being Mindful When Ideating

During the ideation phase, designers must embrace a divergent thinking mindset. The main goal during this phase is to generate as many ideas as possible, and we give ourselves permission to come up with a lot of bad ideas in order to generate a few good ones. Mindful design during this phase is about abandoning judgment and fear: letting go of judging ideas as “good” or “bad” while brainstorming, and letting go of the need to achieve the One Big Idea.

Yoga teaches us a lot about how to be playful and abandon judgment and fear, and illustrates how mindfulness practices impact outcomes in the physical body. When we stay in the present moment, we stop comparing ourselves to others. Without the ego in the way, we are able to be with ourselves without judgment and can more effectively sink into the poses that stretch the body. When we allow ourselves to be playful and not worry about falling or reaching for a goal, we allow ourselves to experiment and try things we didn’t think we could do. When the mind is present, the shapes we make with our bodies are beautiful. If we stress ourselves to contort into various shapes, the shapes would not be beautiful, but alarming. Similarly with brainstorming, when we let go of our ego and let go of judgment and fear, we become more playful and creative.

Stanford psychologists Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd found that people with an orientation toward the process of making — that is, staying focused on the act of creating, rather than the end product — develop more creative outcomes. “When we are concerned about the product of the process in which we are engaged, we worry about how it will be evaluated, judged, accepted, and rejected. Our ego is put on the line. Worries can then feed back and distort the process of creating new ideas, new visions, new products.”

Mindfulness practices help us focus on the present. When we’re not worried about judgment of ideas, which comes later in the process, we can more easily relax and the creative mind can flow. As ideation becomes fun, joyful, and playful, ideas generated are similarly creative and fun. Thus it’s extremely important for designers to recognize what kind of mindset is appropriate for the stage of design they’re in. During brainstorming and ideation, where divergent thinking dominates, designers should adopt a playful, non-judging mindset.

Being Mindful When Designing Solutions

The thinking mind is not the creative mind. When designers are co-located with cross-functional team members to collaborate on a project, the team benefits from increased camaraderie, rapport, and trust built through frequent informal interactions. Yet, when designers are interacting with team members, conversation and negotiation invoke the thinking mind. In addition to co-locating designers with development teams, providing separate studio space for designers is an ideal way for designers to achieve the quiet contemplation necessary to connect with their creative minds, which is equally important.

Designers need not only different physical space but also separate mental space to design. While engineering and marketing counterparts often seek ways to add more functionality and features into a product, designers need to strike the right balance between features and functionality without overwhelming the user. The secret of good design is knowing what to leave out. Thus mindful design during this phase is about achieving a Zen-like quality of not being particularly attached to anything, whether a feature, a specific design element or solution, or a desired outcome. Ironically, by distancing yourself from the outcome, it becomes more possible to create a great design. This notion of “non-attachment” is a fundamental yogic principle: it is a mindset where you do the best you can and what you think is right, but not allow your happiness to depend on the outcome. As a designer, when your happiness does not depend on whether a pet feature or design solution gets included or not, or whether it’s your idea or someone else’s idea that gets embraced, less is at stake, and the mind is free to be more creative, more open, and more apt to explore.

Once ideation is over and it’s time to design, convergent thinking replaces divergent thinking, and attention shifts towards prototyping a few ideas to test. Mindfulness practices give us the strength to let go of the need to be perfect. Striving for perfection, after all, is about ego: perfectionism comes from the need to avoid shame and blame from creating a less-than-perfect solution. The rise of agile development practices has proven that it’s far better to invest time and energy into prototyping, testing, and iterating, than to take a waterfall approach in which plenty of time is invested in planning and designing a solution that might not actually be what works best. Be OK with testing a less than perfect design, but commit to gathering feedback and iterating to continuously improve.

The Mind-Body Connection: Putting Into Practice

Practicing yoga teaches you to notice what is happening in the body and respond to those cues. Subtle shifts in the mind can lead to changes in posture, energy flow, and the way one carries oneself in the body. Conversely, physical postures impact the mind as well; specific poses can induce surges of hormones that increase confidence, joy, assertiveness, etc. The next time you run a design meeting, consider doing some yoga:

  • Help people shed their ego by having them be in the present moment. At the beginning of a design review or brainstorm, have everyone pause for a few moments to practice focusing their attention and awareness on the breath. It may seem daunting and odd to ask people to do this, but in my experience, having a few moments to pause and declutter the mind is always well received!
  • Movement and cognition are highly related. Get people to move during meetings. Have them stand and gather around to review design mockups. Give them pens to scribble on printouts when they give feedback.
  • When facilitating brainstorms, clearly delineate space for divergent thinking and allow all ideas to flow through, regardless of judgment. Help others overcome their fear of rejection by responding with “Yes” or “Yes, AND” instead of “Yes BUT” or “No”.
Adopting a regular personal practice can help boost your design skills:
  • Consider a daily practice of meditation to boost empathic thinking, adopt a playful attitude, and practice letting go of attachment and letting go of the fear of being judged by yourself and others. Meditation can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be. Choose to meditate anywhere from 2 minutes to 1 hour per day. You can do this while lying down, walking, or sitting upright with the hips elevated above the knees. To help focus the mind, you can employ a variety of techniques: bring the attention back to the breath when the mind wanders; stare at a mandala, candle, or object of meditation; repeat a mantra. With practice, it becomes easier to quiet the mind and reach a calm, centered state.
  • It is not uncommon for people to report increased creativity when they practice yoga. When there is more openness in the body, there is more openness in the mind. Do a few stretches to open the chest and shoulders at the beginning of design sprints or hackathons; this helps prime the body and mind for receiving new ideas. The hips and psoas are often tight from too much sitting and standing, resulting in having us in a constant “fight or flight” posture; open this part of the body to enter a playful state of mind. Forward folds are introspective poses that are helpful for getting to a place of quiet contemplation.
  • We are most creative when we achieve a “relaxed but alert state”. A daily mindfulness practice, whether yoga or meditation or both, helps us practice putting the body and mind into such a state.

Most important of all is to recognize that you can choose your intention and to actively make that choice. In yoga, we begin each practice by setting an intention for how we are “being” in the present moment. Set your intentions based on what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values. As you gain insight from meditation and reflection, your ability to act from your intentions blossoms.

Similarly with design, be clear about what your intentions are with your offering, whether a product or service. Internalize your mission and values and let design be the expression of your intent. When your intentions are clear, so too are the fruits of your labor.


1. Anthony I. Jack, Abigail Dawson, Katelyn Begany, Regina L. Leckie, Kevin Barry, Angela Ciccia, Abraham Snyder. fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains. NeuroImage, 2012; DOI:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.10.061

2. Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, et al. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise.PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(3):e1897.

3. Jennifer S. Mascaro, James K. Rilling, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, and Charles L. Raison. Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci first published online September 5, 2012 doi:10.1093/scan/nss095

4. Zimbardo,P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (2008). The Time Paradox. New York: Free Press, Simon & Schuster.

The Nectar of Chanting

We just returned from a family trip to the ashram in upstate NY.  Our visit was profound, powerful, and uplifting, in ways that are too deep, personal, and difficult to explain with words.  As is typically the case when taking the kids to a new, unfamiliar place, they were uncomfortable at first, but by the end of the week they loved it.  Much to my surprise and delight, the kids have really taken to chanting.

Chanting at the ashram can be quite challenging.  We sit for almost two hours, chanting in Sansrkit, where the words can be as long as 30+ characters.  Sometimes the chants are repetitive, but the longest, most challenging chant is 183 verses, lasting 45 minutes, and is not repetitive at all, which is more difficult to chant than a repetitive chant because you have to stay focused and present.  The first time the girls went through it they thought it was immensely boring but politely sat through the entire program.  One or two days later, something clicked, and their whole attitude changed.  “Chanting makes me feel good,” said Charlotte.

Chanting can be wonderfully euphoric and grounding.  At the most basic, physiological level, chanting is about breath control.  Chanting requires a relatively short inhale followed by a long, sustained exhale during which the notes are vocalized.  It is yoga for the vocal chords and tongue!  The control of breathing is a useful tool for reducing anxiety and stress and increasing feelings of gratitude.  

Singing offers similar benefits as chanting but there are features unique to chanting that contribute further to one’s well-being.  Chanting features a highly regular cadence and has an even range of tone.  Thus, it is much simpler and more accessible than singing and more energizing than regular speech.  Not everyone can sing, but everyone can chant.  

When chanting is done in Sanskrit, most students only have a loose association with the words.  As a result, the words are said in a more emotional than analytical way.  Making sounds with feeling creates a release which helps people feel better and breathe in a more balanced way.  The repetitive chants at our ashram often progress through a range of cadences and tones, which results in a journey through varied moods and emotions.  

Since most of us don’t know Sanskrit, chanting also becomes an exercise in setting aside one’s ego and approaching an activity with a beginner’s mind.  In addition to the health benefits, chanting cultivates increased concentration and mindfulness.  

Watching a beautiful music or dance performance can be extremely moving.  The performers are  united, mindful, filled with love for what they do, and sharing it with the world.  Chanting provides a similar sense of unity, with the difference being that you are also a participant.  That unity is our yoga. 

"I’m not good at yoga."

Now that I’m teaching yoga, the topic of yoga comes up in conversation from time to time.  A comment I hear often is “I don’t do yoga.  I’m not good at it.”  The irony of this comment fascinates me.  How come one rarely says, “I don’t go to strength training classes, because I’m not strong,” yet people say they don’t do yoga because they’re not flexible?

Perhaps what lies behind that statement is the perception that yoga is pretzel poses that only contortionists can do.  In fact, such poses are not part of the ancient tradition of yoga, and if one wants to better understand the history of yoga and its relationship to Western women’s gymnastics, I highly recommend “Yoga Body” by Mark Singleton.  Ancient yogic texts actually refer to only a few postures, intended for people to build strength and stamina to sit and meditate for long periods of time.

The term “yoga” means different things to different people.  The physical practice (referred to as “asana” which means “seat”) is one of eight limbs of the spiritual practice of yoga.  And yet to many, the term “yoga” is commonly associated with the physical practice.  Now there is a growing community of teachers and practitioners specializing in the discipline of yoga therapy.  While the definition of yoga therapy continues to evolve, to me it represents the integration of traditional yogic concepts and techniques with Western medical, physiological, and psychological knowledge.  In this emerging tradition, there is recognition of the human being as an integrated mind-body system, and yogic techniques are used both as preventative measures to keep the body functioning optimally as well as to treat spiritual, physical, or mental ailments.

With these perspectives, what exactly does it mean to be “good” at yoga?  There is no “good” or “bad”,  no judgment to be made.  In yoga, there are just three rules to guide the practice:

  1. Start where you are.  It doesn’t matter how flexible you are or whether you are or are not flexible.  If you can breathe, you can do yoga.  There is always something for everyone to do, and there is always somewhere to go, more to learn.
  2. Join movement and breath.  There is no posture without breath.
  3. Observe yourself.  Through self-study and observation we gain awareness and presence of mind.  We notice changes over time, understand cause-effect, and use that feedback to inform the future.
Ultimately the comment “I’m not good at yoga” comes down to ego.  Just making it to the mat requires surrender and letting go of the inner critic that judges oneself and worries about being judged by others.  And that is what yoga is about.  (As an aside, this is also a necessary step for any creative endeavor!)

Contemplating non-attachment

Book I, Sutra 15, “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”
Drstanusravika visaya vitrsnasya vasikara samjna vairagyam
The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.

This sutra asserts that non-attachment is essential to the practice of yoga.  Attachment is derived from the things the mind is attracted to through the body’s senses (drishta = seen; anursravika = heard), a metaphorical way to describe worldly things that we perceive.  Rather than go for things the mind wants, one should be able to discriminate whether the things we perceive are actually good for the self or not.

When the mind is attached to worldly things, the practice of yoga cannot be fulfilled because the mind is distracted.  When the mind is distracted by desires, the mind cannot rest and be at peace.  Meditation is only possible when the mind is free from attachment.  

The absence of attachment is related to the lack of expectation of outcomes.  When one is free from expectation, one cannot experience disappointment no matter what the result.  When we remove attachment and expectation from any endeavor, the pursuit of that endeavor becomes intrinsically rewarding, as opposed to extrinsically rewarding.  Thus we are more able to enjoy the journey (e.g. the process), rather than be focused on the outcome itself (e.g. the product).  When the mind is free from personal interest, we do our work well and feel joyful, because we are enjoying the work for experience itself, not the outcome.

Attachment and lack thereof has considerable impact on creativity and innovation, beyond meditation and yogic practice.  Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo found that we are the most creative when we’re focused on the process and being in the present, and least when we’re focused on the product or outcome1.  “When we are concerned about the product, we worry about how it will be judged, evaluated, accepted, and rejected.  Our ego is put on the line.  Worries can then feed back and distort the process of creating new ideas, new visions, and new products.”  One who is process-oriented is intrinsically motivated, engaged in the creative endeavor for the joy of doing it, while a product-orientation is by definition extrinsically motivated.

Outside of creative and artistic endeavors, the absence of non-attachment in the business world has perhaps had dire consequences.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted experiments in which he looked at the performance of subjects in situations where their compensation was directly tied to how well they performed on a variety of cognitive skills and mechanical tasks.  By connecting compensation to performance, he created conditions in which subjects became extrinsically motivated instead of intrinsically motivated.  Higher bonuses successfully motivated subjects to perform better on mechanical tasks, but actually led to poorer performance on tasks that required even rudimentary cognitive skills. Ariely and his team found similar results from experiments conducted in the U.S., Britain, and India.  “If our tests mimic the real world, then massive bonuses clearly don’t work. They may not only cost employers more but also discourage executives from working to the best of their abilities. The financial crisis, perhaps, didn’t happen in spite of the bonuses, but because of them.”2

In the context of education, the emphasis on grades and testing introduces unhealthy attachment and creates an environment that is antithetical to the point of education:  learning for the pursuit of understanding and knowledge and then wisdom.  The consequences of our test-oriented education system is devastating for our children:  less interest in learning for learning’s sake, less interest in taking on challenging tasks (since they are motivated to get good results, not to take intellectual risks), and more superficial thinking.  Research by Eric Anderman and his colleagues have found in a 1998 study of middle school students, those who “perceived that their schools emphasized performance [as opposed to learning] goals were more likely to report engaging in cheating behaviors.”3

Zimbardo, Ariely, and Anderman’s research are evidence that non-attachment is essential for creativity, performance, happiness, and intellectual well being.  Interpreted broadly, Sutra 15 Book I has significant implications for every aspect of our lives.


1 Zimbardo, P. and Boyd, J.  The Time Paradox (Free Press, 2008), p. 122.

2 “Dan Ariely:  Bonuses boost activity, not quality”, (1 Feb 2010),

3 Eric M. Anderman, Tripp Griesinger, and Gloria Westerfield, “Motivation and Cheating During Early Adolescence,” Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (1998): 84-93; and Eric M. Anderman and Carol Midgley, “Changes in Self-Reported Academic Cheating Across the Transition from Middle School to High School,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 29 (2004): 499-517.

Why do we roll to the right in Savasana?

A question came up in yoga class about why we always roll to the right after Savasana. It turns out there are a variety of reasons why we roll to the right:

The right side is auspicious
Rolling to the right has a symbolic basis. In India, it is considered more auspicious to enter a holy place with the right foot, and in many parts of the world, we extend our right hand in greeting (in grade school, I remember being taught that we use our right hands to greet others partly because most of us are right-handed, but also because we are exposing our hearts to others). The right side also represents the east; rolling toward the east, or the rising sun, symbolizes asking for blessings, grace, and bliss.

There are physiological reasons for rolling on the right
Since the heart is on the left, rolling to the right puts less pressure on the heart and helps allow the blood pressure reach homeostasis.

Some believe that the right side corresponds to the cooling channel (ida nadi) which would keep the body in a state of calmness as it comes into a sitting position.  Physiologically, the sympathetic (active) nervous system is thought to be associated with the right side of the body, and the theory is that by rolling to the right, the meridians associated with the sympathetic nervous system helps stimulate wakefulness when coming out of Savasana.  But I believe this is an oversimplifcation of what is really going on in the body (otherwise how does anyone sleep on their right side?).

The most important thing to keep in mind about coming out of Savasana is this:  an appropriate Savasana provides the room for the student’s nervous system to shift to a state of ease (lower heart rate and blood pressure, stimulation of the digestive processes, lower body temperature, release of endorphins). Students should come out of Savasana gradually, slowly, with no hurry or jarring action. Additionally, rolling to the side and pressing the floor helps prevent tension in the neck and lower back.

… but it depends!
So, we roll to the right after Savasana. But like everything, it depends. Pregnant women should lie on their left because it makes the heart’s job easier as it keeps the baby’s weight from applying pressure to the large vein (called the inferior vena cava) that carries blood back to the heart from the feet and legs. Lying on the left improves circulation to the heart and allows for the best blood flow to the fetus, uterus, and kidneys. Since the liver is on the right side of the abdomen, lying on the left side helps keep the uterus off that large organ.