The Rhythm of Life

The drum master danced around the circle as he directed us — his face expressive, arms waving, hands so fast and furious on his own instrument that the term “smoking drum” came to mind.

I looked around at the gathering. Everyone’s eyes were locked on him as he walked the inner circle. He was the Pied Piper of Hamlin and we were the children, so captivated by the spell of the music that we would follow him anywhere.

An expert conductor, he whipped up the sound to a crescendo and then dulled it to a soft whisper — directing first one, then the other. Collectively we created a wave of sound that filled every inch of the studio. The rhythm was so intense that it not only surrounded us, it went through us. It was us.

Every now and then we would pause while he explained an exercise or shared a story. When the sound ceased in these moments, there was silence — and late into the evening during that suspended hush, he told this story:

He had been working with a group of women inmates. He’d taken pizza and Coca Cola to bribe their interest. They were sassy and full of back-chat but were playing, finding some joy in the rhythms.

One woman played with her head down very close to her drum. A black curtain of hair spilled around her face, creating a shield of sorts. She never looked up and was just tapping her drum quietly with her fingers. Tap, tap, pause. Tap, tap, pause.

In his attempt to include her, he approached, wanting her to be part of the group. Several women stood in front of her, creating a blockade.

“Sit your ass down and leave her alone,” the warrior women said.

So he backed off and left her playing to herself. Tap, tap, pause. Tap, tap, pause. It was almost as if she expected an answer, like the tapping was a question: “Anyone home?”

Gradually, the drumming session came to an end and as the circle broke up and drums were put away, the ribbon of hair was finally thrown back, revealing a tear-stained face.

She hadn’t been playing to herself. The rhythm had made her baby move inside her, a feeling she had not experienced for weeks. She’d been afraid that the baby had died, but the rhythm of the drumming had stirred the little soul and it kicked out a rhythm in response.

The rhythm of a drum, the rhythms of nature, the rhythm of our hearts and our breath … They all carry tremendous power to move our spirit.

Join our next gathering and connect to your own unique rhythm.

 

Image credit: dapple37 via Flickr (CC)

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Teacher Profile: Barbara Arens

October has arrived! Our featured teacher of the month is Barbara Arens, or “Barb,” as she is fondly known by many of her students and colleagues.

We checked in with Barb to learn more about her yoga practice, her unique teaching style, and the advice she’d give to students wanting to deepen their practice. Check out our Q&A below, then grab a buddy and drop in to any of her classes throughout October for just $10. That’s 50% off the drop-in rate!

Wednesday 5:45-7 pm (new!) | Core & Yoga (Fifth)
Sunday 9-10 am | Core & Yoga (Cochran)

Yoga Nook: What originally drew you to the practice of yoga? 

Barb: I had been to a few classes in my 20s, but it wasn’t until my 30s that I began practicing yoga more seriously. I picked it back up because of some mild issues I was having with my back, and it was “love at first class.” The asana practice called to me in a way that no other activity did. I was lucky that my instructor taught using Sanskrit and delved into the philosophy of yoga right from the beginning. I can truly say that yoga made my heart sing, and still does to this day.

How would you describe your teaching style? What makes your classes unique? 

My teaching style is very dynamic and challenging, and it can be either slow-paced or a bit faster. The slower the flow, the more time students have to perfect their alignment in the poses. I do prefer a flowing form of yoga because of the artistic beauty of the movement, which is different for every student.

What is your favorite pose and why? 

One of my favorite poses is Ardha Chandrasana because it is such a challenge for me. It makes me go deep inside my body and mind to cultivate the breath and work on my alignment. Some days the pose feels beautiful and serene; other days I feel lucky if I can balance at all. Yoga keeps me humble.

What advice would you share with a student looking to deepen their practice? 

Talk to teachers you admire and ask them questions. Most teachers love to mentor. Also, read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is the core text of yoga covering ethics, meditation, physical postures, and even dealing with situations in daily life.

There are many translations of the Yoga Sutras, and it’s important to find one that resonates with you. At this time, my favorite translation is by Sri Swami Satchidananda. There are stories you can relate to and a complete breakdown of the Sanskrit verses with the teacher’s explanation of their application.

What inspires your teaching? 

The students inspire me. It is such a privilege to share this sacred practice with them. There is so much more to yoga than the asana practice. It dwells within you and becomes part of who you are.

 

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The Power of 8 Percent

As International Peace Day approaches, I find myself Googling a rather existential question: “Has the world ever been at peace?”

According to this New York Times article, humankind has only succeeded at avoiding conflict for 268 of the last 3,400 years — a mere 8 percent of recorded history. This initially struck me as a grim harbinger of the future. After further consideration, it also inspired hope. After all, many people believe there has never been a time without war.

What would happen, I wonder, if 8 percent of the time I was on the verge of snapping at a loved one, I regained my composure and responded with understanding instead? And what if that person, in turn, maintained their patience with another just 8 percent of the time?

When you consider that every action has a reaction, it becomes possible to imagine that 8 percent rippling outward and growing in magnitude. Perhaps it wouldn’t usher in world peace, but it would certainly diminish a significant degree of our suffering and that of those around us.

Indeed, small changes in the way we think, feel and act in our interpersonal relationships add up to larger shifts with practice. Especially when we see our outcomes improve — who doesn’t want to experience more harmony and understanding in their relationships?

I know of no better way to gain greater awareness and command of our thoughts, feelings and actions than the practice of meditation. Slowing down and creating space between thought, impulse and action offers us a chance to consciously choose peace — the kind of peace that can grow from, say, 8 percent of our lives to a peace that abides.

On International Peace Day, next Thursday, September 21, Yoga Nook teachers will incorporate a short meditation, chant or other offering in their classes to mark the day. By joining countless groups across the globe to practice peace for just a small percentage of the day, we intend to expand our personal, community and global “8 percent” into something much bigger. We hope you will join us.

Image credit: United Nations Photo via Flickr (CC)

 

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Terrified of Failing

I don’t watch much television, but my guilty secret is that I’m addicted to Project Runway. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, it’s a reality show that puts a group of fashion designers under unreasonable time constraints to create something beautiful, within a budget. The contestants are judged by several well-known designers and gradually kicked off the show until the finale.

I love the creativity of it, the making of something beautiful from nothing, the intense focus that it requires, and the way that each person must be willing to fail. Last week was the “unconventional materials challenge,” a test not just of design or construction but the ability to transform trash into treasure. One of the contestants, paralyzed by the enormity of the task, broke down and said, “I’m terrified of the shame of failing.”

This sentence struck me like a thunderbolt. I’ve been in that place, so I recognized it right away. I see it in the young when they are not motivated to try. I see it in the students who come through the teacher training program, and I see it in myself when I must find solutions to challenging personal or business problems.

The key here is to notice the part of you that is afraid of being vulnerable. Get to know that part, become curious. Can you identify why you are afraid? Is it because you don’t feel sufficiently prepared? Are you not able to trust your skill set? Or are you indulging in self-sabotage, imagining that the world is judging you and labeling you a failure?

Finding out that something isn’t working or didn’t go the way you had planned is an opportunity to learn, to change, to grow. Failing isn’t a step back; it’s sometimes a necessary step forward on the road to success. In life knowing what you don’t want is just as important as knowing what you do want.

Learn to trust the journey and experience the rich textures that this life experience offers you — not just the smooth easy-going moments but the rough, rugged and raw ones too. They are all part of your story.

For those of you wanting to know more, I recommend the book Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better by Pema Chödrön.

Image credit: airpix via Flickr (CC)

 

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How Often Should You Practice Yoga?

One of the most common questions that students ask me before or after class is, “How many times a week should I practice yoga?”

As the medical field increasingly recognizes the benefits of moving with awareness and improving posture, more and more doctors are recommending yoga as a gentle yet effective exercise system. Many students are drawn to yoga because they are looking for strategies to help relieve stress, pain and tightness. It’s no surprise then that students want to know: How often should you practice yoga to aid recovery and maintain a pain-free lifestyle?

The effectiveness of yoga for change and healing is dependent on the quality of the teaching and the ability of the student to move in and out of the poses with awareness. Change can begin after your first class. However, new students often find that the mind and body are a little disconnected. Reintegration through repetition and practice is necessary before real change can occur.

The equation for change is Intensity (I) x Duration (D) = Force (F). In other words, the more frequently you practice yoga with focus (intensity), the quicker you will see results. Once a week is considered a maintenance level — not ideal if you are wanting change. Practice twice weekly over a 10-week period and you will see and feel a difference. Three times weekly over a 10-week period will provide the maximum benefit.

It is also best to mix and match your routine. Attend classes with a variety of teachers and different styles. If your time is limited, practice at home. A 20-minute practice will still help affirm the movements you learn in class. Add some restorative classes to your program too, as a decrease in stress can reduce your perception of pain.

Our bodies adapt to the way we move in gravity, and it is easy to fall into poor movement habits as we age. With so much focus on external stimulation in our society, we become disconnected from our body and mind. Yoga means “to yoke” — to join or reunite mind and body. With that union, anything is possible.

 

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The Summit That Changed My Life

Last week I was going through old papers and articles, sorting them into piles: keep and toss away. The toss pile was winning, along with the constant question, “Why on earth did I keep that?”

The task was taking longer than anticipated, as it was a walk down memory lane. I found old schedules I had created back when I taught yoga at local gyms; newsletters that were cut and pasted before computers were in daily use; and articles with titles like “Why Smoking Is Bad for You.”

Then I came across a newspaper clipping from October 17, 1996. “Peak of Courage,” read the headline in Simi Valley Daily News. “Climbing Mount Whitney puts 19 on top of the world.” I smiled as I read, for now — 21 years later — I can fully appreciate that event (though at the time it was the hardest thing I’d ever done).

Inspiration comes in many forms, and one Sunday afternoon 22 years ago it came to me as I was watching a PBS special. It was a documentary about a group of women who were recovering from breast cancer and had climbed a mountain in South America. This film was to become a catalyst for a fitness program my husband Rob and I created.

At the time, I worked for a women’s gym here in Simi and watched women exercise in my classes and in the weight room — but to what end? They never used the fitness they developed, never put it to task. So why not give them a goal and hike up the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney?

“How many women do you think will attend the first hike?” asked my boss as I presented the idea.

“Oh, I don’t know, probably about 20.” My estimate was hopelessly low. By the time we set off on our first hike up Rocky Peak, 84 women had signed up — and Rob and I got our first taste of what the next 10 months would bring.

Every month we designed and led hikes in the local mountains, each hike longer and harder than the last. We also offered classes under the banner, “Get fit for Whitney, get fit for life” and awarded points for events attended. Participants had to accumulate points to qualify for the trip.

Ten months later, in October 1996, 17 women were ready for Whitney. They all made it to the top, and I watched them celebrate after struggling and achieving so much in those 10 months. But Rob and I couldn’t celebrate yet — we still needed to get them back down the mountain safely.

I can remember feeling unfulfilled in that moment. I was surrounded by elation and joyous abandon, but I couldn’t feel that in myself. Instead the responsibility of getting everyone home safely loomed large.

Now, I look at the smiling faces in the summit photo, and I’m filled with pride for them. We all got to know each other so well in that 10-month program. It was life-changing for most, and an affirmation of fitness and dedication for all.

As for me — well, a few weeks after our climb, I turned in my notice at the gym and became a full-time yoga teacher. Whitney changed my life, too, and now 21 years later I can celebrate.

 

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The Sound of Life

This week, as I was sitting in the Yoga Nook garden between clients, I was filled with gratitude for all those who have helped keep the plants alive and added to the bounty with new shrubs and trees.

Light filtered in through the lacelike structure of the pepper tree leaves, creating a soft green hue. The scent of jasmine and pepper filled the air. In the distance, I could hear the roar of the freeway.

Suddenly a flutter of wings brought me back to the garden as a sparrow came to the fountain for a drink. Then I was aware of water trickling and listened to its music for a while, till I was drawn away again by the sound of the train as it blew its horn across Tapo St.

A mockingbird sitting in the branches above my head abruptly launched into joyful song, and I began to smile as I saw a rhythm in the sounds surrounding me. Then our neighbors arrived home and children’s voices were first loud, then soft as they emptied out of a vehicle and were ushered inside. Our resident cat strolled into my view, sat down and meowed to be fed.

Sounds were arriving like waves, first taking my attention away then bringing it back to the garden. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the idea of deep listening and meditation. The sound of life surrounds us, and directing our focus to what we hear in the present moment is a deeply grounding practice.

Listen right now in this moment. Notice how the brain likes to label sound. What if you just allowed sound to move through your awareness, becoming acutely aware of the quality of the sound without labeling it?

Sound changes all the time, each wave unique and rich with life. Can you let your awareness float on the waves of sound? No judgment or story – just sound.

If you catch yourself thinking, return to pure listening. Let the sound of life become a tool for spiritual practice.

 

Image credit: John Baer via Flickr (CC)

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Making My Way Back

It hardly seems possible, but I have now been away from the studios for 12 weeks. It’s an unusual feeling, as it’s the longest break from work that I’ve ever had in my life.

This has been a time of reflection as well as healing, and I have been grateful for it even though it’s been emotionally and physically challenging.

I want to thank everyone for the support you have shown me, especially my staff who have worked with passion and dedication to maintain the exacting standards that our students have come to expect at Yoga Nook.

I start back to some of my yoga classes next week, and I’m beginning to see a few clients again for private AIM sessions. Self-care is my priority right now, so keeping my schedule more open than full and building time into my day for my own practice are key.

I hope to see you in class or around the studios soon.

With gratitude and love,

Jeni

 

Image credit: HD_Vision via Flickr (CC)

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Running Away to the Circus

As a kid, I always wanted to go to the circus. If I saw a poster on the street or an ad in the newspaper, I would whine to my parents, “Can we go to the circus, pleeeease?” They would always reply, “If you’re a good girl.” They got miles of leverage from this strategy but never paid up, and I was an adult before I had my first experience of a big top at Cirque du Soleil in Santa Monica.

By then, the idea of a circus to celebrate music, movement, flexibility and strength both intrigued and inspired my curiosity. The performance remains one of the most profound experiences of my life. I was astonished and amazed. It was as if a group of alien beings had made a friendly visit to Earth for the evening and invited a few humans along to observe their culture. I was transported.

A decade or so later at a Somatics course in northern California, I met Caroline Wright, an aerial artist who not only qualified for Cirque du Soleil in 2008 but is a teacher of aerial and circus arts. We became fast friends, and I got an inside view of circus lore from the stories and experiences she shared with me.

A gifted somatic educator and bodyworker, Caroline is playful in the presentation of her craft, yet her experience and confidence inspires trust. We welcome her return to our Yoga Source Conference next weekend, where she will present Foundations, Fulcrums and Fun on Saturday, March 11 from 1:30-3:30 p.m.

In Caroline’s workshop, you’ll connect with your inner child and find new ways to use your body in relation to gravity, building body awareness and perception. You won’t want to miss this chance to run away to the circus for an afternoon, and enjoy an exploration of trust, partner work and somatic movement. Sign up here today to reserve your spot.

 

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Stress Less

For most animals stress is episodic, the short, sharp response to a predator. An array of hormones cascade through the body, increasing blood flow, focusing attention and mobilizing energy systems to prepare for action. This hormone array includes adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol and is the organism’s response to an immediate, alarming change in the environment. Once the danger has passed, hormone levels will return to normal and homeostasis will resume.

Sadly, as humans, few of our stressors are episodic. While we are all likely to experience short-term grief and pain, the everyday stressors of life on earth are abundant, chronic and acute. Each time the body/mind perceives stress, hormones are released and the “fight or flight” cycle is activated. Over time the immune system is depleted, and the body’s ability to repair, renew and restore is compromised.

How our brain perceives stress, threats or changes in the environment will have an impact on the release of hormones. Over the last two decades, several studies have linked chronic stress with increased pain, digestive disorders and disease onset.

But what can we do? How do we handle it? These are some of the questions that we will address at this year’s Yoga Source Conference. Stress, it seems, is inevitable but with tools to recognize it and strategies to manage it, we can decrease its effect on our mind and body.

Check out this year’s workshop schedule at yoganook.net and choose your workshops, then register on Eventbrite. See you there!

 

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