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Mystical Journey: Smithsonian TV Documentary Explores Kumbh Mela


On October 22, a groundbreaking exhibition of yoga-related art and historical artifacts opened at the Smithsonian Institute’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. Yoga: The Art of Transformation brings together Indian sculptures, manuscripts and paintings, as well as posters, illustrations, photographs and films to showcase yoga's history over 2,000 years.

To coincide with the art exhibition, the Smithsonian Channel will show Mystical Journey: Kumbh Mela, a documentary that takes a rare insider’s look at the world’s largest devotional gathering.

Sanskrit scholar Dr. James Mallinson takes English actor, and childhood friend, Dominic West (best known for his role on The Wire) on a behind-the-scenes experience of the 2013 Kumbh Mela, which was attended by an estimated 100 million people during its two-month duration. The Maha Kumbh Mela is held every third year at one of four holy locations in India.

The hour-long documentary explores the relationship between West and Mallinson, as well as the relationship Mallinson has with his own mentor and guru. At Mallinson’s invitation, West gave up his comfortable lifestyle to spend two weeks living an ascetic life in sprawling temporary tent cities with the sadhus, or holy men. The film reveals some of the secrets of these yogis, including an incredible visual display of the various forms of yoga practiced among the sects. The documentary also presents Mallinson’s initiation as a Mahant, making him the first non-Hindu westerner to receive such high distinction in the sect he belongs to.

After leaving school in 1987 at the age of 17, Dr. James Mallinson traveled to India for seven months and has been back every year since, spending a total of ten years there. For much of that time, he has been wandering with holy men. The Oxford-schooled Sanskrit scholar attended his first Kumbh Mela in 1992, where he met Ram Balak Das, his guru, and perhaps one of the last remaining practitioners of vajroli, the ultimate practice of traditional yoga. His Oxford PhD was a translation of a previously hidden text - found only in ancient manuscripts - on Khecari, the yogic technique of cutting free the tongue so that it can be turned into the top of the skull to taste the nectar of immortality. In India, he found the few remaining yogis who continue the practice and he went as far as to learn it for himself.

In this clip from the documentary, Mallinson explains his thoughts on the origins of yoga. He disputes one Tantric sect’s claims of “inventing yoga,” and reveals how they’ve embraced asana practice in recent years. “So the yoga boom in the West has fueled a revival in India,” West observes.

A second clip gives insight into the holy Hindu warriors and portrays a fascinating sword fight ritual.


Mystical Journey: Kumbh Mela Airs Thursday, November 7 (2pm PST/EST)
Yoga: The Art of Transformation Arthur M. Sackler Gallery October 19, 2013 – January 26, 2014

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Yoga to Go: Judith Hanson Lasater on Keys to a Rewarding Home Yoga Practice

Judith Hanson Lasater yoga home practice

Looking for inspiration for your home practice? Check out our interview with Judith Hanson Lasater, which recently appeared on Huffington Post.

Most people practicing yoga have experienced the enormous benefits the practice confers. However, maintaining a regular yoga practice can be an enormous challenge. How does it fit into our busy modern lives? How do we "make time" to practice yoga? What do we do when it feels like a struggle to get on our mat every day?

In this interview, author and yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., P.T., offers some keys to a rewarding home practice, based on her experience as a longtime practitioner and teacher. She encourages us to look at why we don't practice.

Most importantly, Lasater emphasizes that we practice yoga to live a more fulfilled and enjoyable life. We don't live to practice. She says repeatedly that our practice should fit into our lives and respond to the changes happening within and around us.

A beloved and respected presence in the North American yoga community, Judith Hanson Lasater has taught yoga since 1971. She is also a physical therapist and holds a doctorate in East-West psychology. Lasater studies with B.K.S. Iyengar, and her teaching practice includes ongoing classes and teacher trainings in the San Francisco area. She teaches kinesiology, yoga therapeutics and yoga philosophy, and regularly gives workshops throughout the United States and the world.

YogaUOnline: You've been an active yoga teacher yourself for more than four decades with a very active travel schedule. How do you find time for practice?

Judith Hanson Lasater: I try to remember that there's an important integrity that comes with teaching. It is a huge responsibility and a humbling privilege to teach people yoga, because we are reflecting back their inner goodness and inherent divinity.

So when I remember that, I can't teach my students if I don't practice. Practicing opens the door of connection between you and every person who's taught yoga.

YogaUOnline: Why is it when we love yoga (as much as many of us do, at least) that it's still a struggle for many people to get to the mats?

Judith Hanson Lasater: I've heard this sentence, as you can imagine, many hundreds of times: "I don't have time for this." But I think that that's an excuse. I really don't think that's the issue. I think we're looking in the wrong places for why we don't practice. We need to look at our thoughts and our beliefs about ourselves.

It has to do with self-nurturing. It has to do with valuing yourself. I believe it's related to refusing on some level and used in the broadest sense of the word to see our own divinity.

One of the mantras that I like a lot is -- specially when things start getting busy or conflicted -- what is the most important thing right now? It's usually to remember myself and what I'm feeling. And that centers me.

YogaUOnline: Do you have an idea of what your practice will look like on a day-to-day basis?

Judith Hanson Lasater: I don't have a rigid view of what my practice is going to be. My practice needs to listen to my life. We're trying to make our life listen to our practice. So let your practice conform to your life. Don't make it something outside the boundaries of where you are and what you're feeling and what you're needing.

YogaUOnline: What are some practical ideas for people who are developing a home yoga practice?

Judith Hanson Lasater: Number one, get a yoga mat. If you have a yoga mat, you're more likely to use it. I know that sounds funny but you'd be surprised how many people don't have a yoga mat. Find a corner in your house and put your mat there, with your blocks, your bolster and whatever you use. Put it someplace where you can begin to develop it as a little retreat. We all need refuge every day. I think that refuge is more important in the world now than it's ever been.

Some people like to make a little altar and put flowers or a deity or a picture of someone who inspires them. But you don't need to do that. Just have a place where your mat lives, make that corner and that space your refuge.

Pick a regular time. That doesn't mean at exactly 7 a.m. every day, but it means before work or after work. Pick a time that works in your life. Don't try to make yourself do it in the morning if you're not a morning person.

Another idea is make a commitment to practicing every day. It creates a habit, and habits are extraordinarily powerful. But it's harder to say, "I'm going to practice three times a week." So if you say to yourself, "I want to practice every day." Once in a while you don't because you've got to get up early to get to the airplane or whatever, but it's not bad.

YogaUOnline: I think your point about creating a habit is a really powerful one because it also becomes a physiological rhythm that your body gets used to. Then your body starts reminding you if you don't do your practice or you skimp on your practice. You can feel the difference.

Judith Hanson Lasater: Absolutely. So another point is to do one pose you love every day. During a difficult period personally for me, I would do at least one pose I loved and one I hated every day. And it just got to where I didn't really care anymore. It just was a pose, you know?

Another way to develop the daily habit of practice is to just set a timer for 20 minutes and get on your mat. I don't care what you do. Maybe you just lie there for 20 minutes. You're going to feel better. Lie there and breathe. People are going to like to be around you more. You'll be more mellow. Just get on the mat. And whatever you do for those 20 minutes, just do it.

YogaUOnline: Do you have the same practice every day or do you vary up the emphasis?

Judith Hanson Lasater: I have done every different approach to practice. Like, I've done a pretty standard series. I've done, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I do this. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I do that. I had a very sort of organized practice that way.

But your practice evolves so much with aging and life circumstance. Now I'm much more willing and unafraid to go to the mat with a question rather than an answer. I go to the mat and I kind of feel what I need. Oh, my lower back's bothering me. Let me try this. Or, I need courage. Let me do some backbends. After you've done handstands, elbow stands, and backbends, nothing is going to bother you the rest of the day. In other words, I let my life lead my practice in that way.

Butting Out: Can Yoga and Meditation Help People Quit Smoking?


By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT - 

If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, you know how difficult it is to break the habit. Tobacco use has been cited as a major risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory disease, cancer, and premature death. But nicotine is a highly addictive stimulant and relaxant, and most smokers find it hard to quit.

Can yoga and meditation practices assist in smoking cessation? A group of researchers at Oregon Health and Sciences University conducted a systematic review of the research studies on smoking cessation involving mind-body practices to find out.

A total of fourteen studies met the criteria for inclusion in the review: Three studies used yoga to help people quit smoking, 3 focused on breathing techniques, and 8 emphasized meditation.

There were considerable differences among the studies in regards to the sample sizes, types of practices used, their duration, and the length of follow up of participants after the conclusion of each program.  Of the 3 yoga studies reviewed, two reported using a “slow paced”, hatha style, while the third used a “dynamic” vinyasa style. Five of 8 meditation studies used mindfulness techniques, 2 employed body scan practices, and one focused on the effects of Transcendental Meditation. There were also marked differences in the studies that focused on breathing techniques.

As often with research on the effects of yoga as therapy, the different treatment approaches, varied populations, and disparate research strategies made it difficult for investigators to make definitive conclusions or recommendations when comparing studies.  Still, the researchers concluded that, “Mind-body practices could be beneficial for improving smoking cessation”. They continued to note that “due to the scarcity and limitations of the studies available, more clinical trials with larger sample sizes, adequate control conditions, measures of adherence and compliance, and objective standardized outcomes, are needed…”

Current primary treatments for smoking cessation, including cognitive and behavioral therapies, as well as pharmacological treatments including nicotine replacement therapies and atypical antidepressants have moderate effects. In view of this fact, the results of the research review on the effects of yoga and meditation in smoking cessation are encouraging.

While traditional smoking cessation treatments help many to quit smoking in the short term, long-term abstinence poses a considerable challenge for most tobacco users. Including complementary therapies like yoga and mindfulness practices as part of smoking cessation programs may help to increase mind-body awareness, and to cultivate greater emotional control and behavioral restraint.

There is general agreement that mind-body practices including yoga, breath exercises, meditation, and others are tremendously useful for stress relief. It is likely that those trying to break the tobacco habit might benefit from adding such practices to their repertoire, particularly during the stressful process of dealing with cravings and desire. It may make the task of butting out just a little bit easier.


B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.comor see


How Some Of The World's Most Successful People Discovered Their Spiritual Side


by Carolyn Gregoire –

In a 1967 interview, "What I Believe," John Lennon opened up to the world about how he discovered God.

"You don't have to have a great faith or anything. The whole thing is so simple -- as though it's too marvelous to be true," Lennon said of discovering Transcendental Meditation in India with guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, during the interview with The Daily Sketch. "I don't and never did imagine God as one thing. But now I can see God as a power source, or as an energy."

Lennon went on to say, "It's all like one big jelly. We're all in the big jelly." Now, with nearly one in five Americans identifying as "spiritual but not religious," and countless successful people in a range of professions saying that meditation is their greatest secret to success, some of America's most beloved public figures and successful business leaders are following suit, opening up about their first "big jelly" moments of spiritual awakening -- and telling the world why they believe.

Here are 10 amazing spiritual "coming out" stories from successful thinkers, performers and business leaders.

Jim Carrey

In 2009, Jim Carrey gave a heartfelt talk about the first time he realized that his self was something bigger than his mind, body or thoughts. Carrey said of his spiritual awakening:

"I understood suddenly how thought was just an illusory thing, and how thought is responsible for, if not all, most of the suffering we experience. And then I suddenly felt that I was looking at these thoughts from another perspective, and I thought, 'Who is it that is aware that I'm thinking?' Suddenly, I was thrown into this expansive, amazing feeling of freedom -- from myself, from my problems. I saw that I was bigger than what I do, bigger than my body, everything and everyone. I was no longer a fragment of the universe. I was the universe."

In a 2006 "60 Minutes" segment, Carrey also said that spirituality has helped him through bouts of depression, and helped him to engage with the world from a more loving place.

Gabrielle Bernstein

New York Times best-selling author and guru to young professional women Gabrielle Bernstein was a hard-partying New York City PR girl (and cocaine addict) when she "hit bottom" -- and turned inward to find a new way. Bernstein said in a TEDxFiDiWomen talk that she woke up one morning and heard a voice tell her: "Get your life together, girl, and you will live beyond your wildest dreams." 

After 25 years of looking for direction and happiness "in all the wrong places," Bernstein got clean, began following the metaphysical text "A Course in Miracles" -- which she says helped her move from a place of fear to one of love -- and soon afterward wrote her ultra-successful self-help book, "May Cause Miracles."

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was a practicing Zen Buddhist. At 18 years old, the tech visionary dropped out of Reed College and went to India to find himself -- and came home with Buddhist values that would shape the rest of his life and career. At his memorial in 2011, Jobs had arranged for guests to be given copies of "Autobiography of a Yogi," the classic spiritual memoir on the power of self-realization.

"That was the message: Actualize yourself," friend and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who attended the funeral, said at the 2013 TechCrunch Disrupt SF conference. "If you look back at the history of Steve and that early trip to India ... He had this incredible realization that his intuition was his greatest gift. He needed to look at world from inside out ... His message was to look inside yourself and realize yourself."

Ellen DeGeneres

When "Ellen" host Ellen Degeneres first came out as a lesbian in 1997, the reaction from Hollywood was devastating: Advertisers pulled their funding and she was forced to cancel her show for three years. During that period, Degeneres told TODAY's Ann Curry in 2012, she began to look for happiness and wholeness within herself.

"I don’t think it was a failure, but it certainly gave me a lot of time to sit still and go, ‘Who am I?’" Degeneres said.

During that period, Degeneres found her center and created a spiritual lifestyle by becoming a vegan, yogi and, in 2011, a Transcendental Meditation practitioner. "[TM] just gives me this peaceful feeling and I love it so much," Degeneres said at a David Lynch Foundation event.


Oprah Winfrey has become a guru for modern Americans, doling out self-help, spiritual guidance and meditation tips. Winfrey has said that the only life is a spiritual one -- something she knows because she has "lived in the space of spirit [her] whole life." Oprah knew this truth even when she was four years old, she claims, when she profoundly felt the truth of her favorite Bible verse, Acts 17:28 ("For in him we live and move and have our being").

"There is a force/energy/consciousness/divine thread that connects us all spiritually to something greater than ourselves," Oprah said during an Oprah's Life Class program in 2012, defining spirituality as "living your life with an open heart through love."

Tina Turner

Tina Turner turned on to Buddhism in the 1970s when she was struggling to put an end to her abusive relationship with husband and fellow musician Ike Turner. Turner now follows a sub-sect of Buddhism known as Soka Gakkai, which emphasizes chanting and follows the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Beyond, an album of Buddhist and Christian music, features Turner chanting the Lotus Sutra ("Nam Myoho Renge Kyo".

"I feel that chanting for 35 years has opened a door inside me, and that even if I never chanted again, that door would still be there," Turner told Shambhala Sun in 2011. "I feel at peace with myself. I feel happier than I have ever been, and it is not from material things. Material things make me happy, but I am already happy before I acquire these things. I have a nature within myself now that’s happy."

Tim Ryan

Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), author of "A Mindful Nation: How A Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance and Recapture the American Spirit," has been instrumental in bringing mindfulness to the nation's capital -- and into schools and communities across the U.S. Since last December, he's led a silent meditation time on Mondays for members of Congress, the "Quiet Time Caucus."

The Catholic former high school football player turned to meditation (which he now practices for 45 minutes every morning) when he was feeling stressed and overwhelmed with campaigning and constant work travel. So he went on a five-day mindfulness retreat in the Catskills with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction -- and the trip changed his life.

“I had two BlackBerrys,” Ryan told the Washington Times. “I checked them at the door. You learn to follow your breathing, appreciate how your mind works. When it starts to wander off, you come back to your body."

“By the middle of the retreat I felt my mind and body sync up. Like being in the zone."

John Mackey 

In 2008, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was going through a rough patch in his life. Whole Foods was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission after acquiring its largest competitor, Wild Oats, and Mackey himself was caught in the middle of a stock market scandal. It was then that the "Conscious Capitalism" author turned to spirituality.

Mackey found solace in the practice of holotropic breathing, which led him to several important epiphanies and acted as something of a spiritual awakening.

“I had this very powerful session, very powerful. It lasted about two hours,” Mackey said in a CD released with his "Conscious Capitalism." “I was having a dialogue with what I would define as my deeper self, or my higher self.”

Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna

Like Mackey, Bertolini turned inward and explored alternative healing remedies in the wake of a traumatic event. After the Aetna CEO broke his neck in a skiing accident, he was hooked on painkillers for a year. But then he found natural pain relief through mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation. Now, he's been practicing viniyoga for nearly seven years.

Bertolini has become an outspoken advocate of mindfulness, which he credits with improving decision-making skills in the workplace. At Aetna, he introduced a 12-week mindfulness and yoga program for employees, and according to Bertolini, it's resulted in dramatically lower stress levels and increased productivity among its 34,000 participants.

"Every morning I get up and I do my asana, pranayama, meditation, and Vedic chanting before work," Bertolini said in an interview with yoga website Alignyo in May. "It’s helped me be more centered, more present."

Paul & Sonia Jones

In 2012, Tudor Investments fonder Paul Jones and his wife Sonia donated $12 million to establish the Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia. The exploration of contemplative and yogic practices is close to both of their hearts.

"We both started practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 2000 and it changed our lives," the couple said when they announced the gift. "Our hope is that every person that goes into the Contemplative Sciences Center can have the same great experience that my wife and I and our family and all our friends have had."


Originally published on Huffington Post

Pranayama Primer


By Christine Malossi - 

Have you ever wondered why we make sounds with the breath when we hold a yoga pose? Or what’s the purpose of the strange breathing exercises we do in the beginning of a yoga class? What is prana and why should it matter to you? 

Working with the breath is a vital component of yoga practice. Without this focus on breath, a yoga class is nothing more than a stretching session. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with stretching or becoming more flexible, but by incorporating an awareness of the breath you open yourself to a much deeper, richer, more profound experience. It is through the exploration of pranayama that we tap into the energetic and spiritual aspects of yoga practice. 

Pranayama is the fourth limb on the eightfold path of yoga delineated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. These eight limbs are guidelines for leading a life with meaning, purpose, and authenticity. Prana is a Sanskrit term for the vital life force that animates all things; ayama translates as extension or elongation.

Pranic energy flows through nadis (Sanskrit for rivers), the energy channels of the subtle body. Prana is analogous to chi or qi in Chinese medicine and martial arts, and lung in Tibetan Buddhism. Yoga teaches us to access prana by controlling and playing with the flow of breath. Pranayama enables us to connect with the vast energetic network of the subtle body through the breath. 

If you’ve been to even just a few yoga classes you’re probably familiar with Ujjayi pranayama. Ujjayi means “victoriously uprising” which refers to the upward movement of pranic energy through the central channel running along the front of the spine known as the sushumna nadi. This is the audible breath that is engaged throughout a Vinyasa yoga class. Ujjayi breathing is the foundation of pranayama. It has 2 defining qualities:

1. A soft whispering sound performed by slightly constricting the muscles of the throat. This action activates the diaphragm and shifts the sensation of the breath from the nose and chest to the back body, creating a more expansive, less strained breath.

2. Steady, even flow of inhalation and exhalation as the breath enters and leaves the nose. Usually our breath begins quickly and then tapers off towards the end of the inhale or exhale; in Ujjayi the volume of the breath remains the same from beginning to end.

It is the soft, steady, sibilant sound of the Ujjayi breath that we bring our mind to rest upon as we flow into and out of each posture. It is the connecting thread that strings together each asana. It is the catalyst for the union of the body, mind and breath that is the ultimate purpose of yoga.

Another common form of pranayama is Nadi Shodhana, which literally translates as “channel cleansing” but is usually referred to as alternate nostril breath. As we manipulate the flow of breath through the nostrils, we access the Surya (sun) or pingala nadi through the right nostril and the Chandra (moon) or ida nadi through the left. At any given time, one nostril is more active than the other. When breath flows dominantly through one of these two nostrils, prana predominates in the related nadi and there is an effect on the nervous system corresponding to the energetic quality of that nadi:

-  Right nostril, Surya or pingala: breath is heating and energizing; when this side is overly dominant anger, hyperactivity, aggression, or elevated blood pressure may result.

-  Left nostril, Chandra or ida: breath is cooling, quieting; depression, fatigue, weak digestion or sleepiness may result.

Nadi Shodhana calms, centers and stills the mind by balancing the flow of energy between these two channels and discouraging the predominance of one side over the other. Other benefits include:

-  Lowered heart rate

-  Reduced stress and anxiety

-  Synchronization of the right and left hemispheres of the brain 

-  Purification of the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body so theprana flows more easily during pranayama and asana practice.



Christine Malossi is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice. Based in NYC, she offers creative, alignment-focused Vinyasa classes in a calm, open-minded, judgment-free environment where students can discover a sense of balance, peace and serenity. Find her at, on Twitter, or Facebook.






Source: Originally published on


New Study Suggests Yoga May Help Curb Silent Killer: Loss of Balance in Elderly


By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT - 

The last time you found yourself stepping onto a slippery surface there is a good chance that you used some creative balance strategies. People often slow their pace, adopt a rigid posture, shorten their stride, or drag their feet to compensate for balance challenges.

But as ice skaters can willingly attest, each of these strategies undermines balance control and increases the likelihood of falling. Unfortunately, for elderly with compromised balance, it doesn’t take a slippery surface to induce this response. Most adults notice that their joints and related supporting structures (muscles, ligaments, and tendons) stiffen and become less pliable and that muscles weaken as they age. With the loss of strength and range of motion, the ability to balance is often compromised, and fear of falling becomes a constant companion for many as they enter the later years of life.

Fear of falling is one of the top health concerns among the elderly adults. Fear generally results in postural rigidity, and the lack of flexibility needed to accommodate walking on any surface. Falls and fractures often result. Fall-related fractures pose a considerable risk for long-term disability and even death, particularly for those who are frail or have osteoporosis or osteopenia. Nearly half of elderly adults who incur a hip fracture end up in nursing homes, and as many as 37% die within a year.

Can yoga help slow or reverse the progressive loss of balance most people experience as they get older? This was the question asked by researchers at The George Institute for Global Health, in Australia, who set out to test whether regular Iyengar yoga classes may help to improve balance and mobility in elderly adults.

Fifty-four individuals in the community with an average age of 68 years (SD 7.1) who were not participating in yoga or Tai Chi, were randomly assigned to receive either twice weekly, Iyengar yoga classes focusing on standing poses for balance for 12 weeks, as well as an education booklet, (n=27), or an educational booklet only.

Researchers assessed both groups of participants before and after the 12-week yoga program. Their outcomes of interest included 1-legged standing balance time, as well as a sit-to-stand task, a timed 4-min walk, a one-legged balance posed with eyes closed, and the self-reported Short Falls Efficacy Scale-International. Average class attendance was 20 of 24 classes or 83%, which is impressive for a yoga therapy study.

At the end of the study period, those who participated in 12-weeks of yoga instruction demonstrated significant improvements in standing balance, the sit-to-stand test, 4-minute timed walk, and balance test with eyes closed. Since this was a pilot study with a low number of participants, the authors were cautious in their interpretation of these results, however their findings suggest that an Iyengar yoga intervention that is appropriately tailored to the needs of aging adults is both feasible and effective.

If you’re considering a yoga program to improve balance, this study may provide you with some incentive to get on the mat and work on your balance skills with a qualified instructor. The wonderful gift about the practice of yoga, is that the sooner you begin, the sooner you will experience a more balanced approach to life.


B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at or see


Yoga Therapy, Krishnamacharya and Desikachar: An Interview With Sonia Nelson


Yoga U contributing writer, Rowan Lommel recently interviewed Sonia Nelson, founder of the Vedic Chant Center in Santa Fe, N.M. She was Rowan’s first yoga teacher and is one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world today, and is looked to as an authoritative source in the fields of yoga therapy and Vedic Chant.

Rowan Lommel: How did you become interested in yoga?

Sonia Nelson: I accompanied my husband to India, where he was to study with T.K.V. Desikachar. Fortunately, I was able to study with Desikachar also, and that was the beginning of my sustained involvement in yoga and yoga teaching. Subsequently, the study and teaching of Vedic Chant became the focal point of my interest.

Rowan Lommel: For someone unfamiliar with T. Krishnamacharya, how would you summarize his role in modern yoga?

Sonia Nelson: Professor T. Krishnamacharya had an amazing depth and breadth of knowledge, not only of yoga but of many of the ancient teachings which are its source. Along with his own high standards and knowledge of many classical disciplines, he always insisted that the practice of yoga needed to be adapted to the individual and not the other way around. This perspective made it possible for yoga to be experienced by a wide spectrum of practitioners who would otherwise not have access to its many benefits.

[Note from Rowan: For more information about T. Krishnamacharya, see The Yoga of the Yogi by Kausthub Desikachar.]

Rowan Lommel: How would you describe the contributions of T.K.V. Desikachar to the practice of yoga today?

Sonia Nelson: Mr. Desikachar's teaching has always reflected this same perspective on yoga practice, which he combined with authoritative knowledge, a creative spirit and care for and interest in the student. One of his main contributions has been in the area of healing, or what some now call yoga therapy, where consideration of the individual's needs is of the utmost importance. Also, his emphasis on the use of the breath at every level of practice has been a major influence in bringing the possibility of profound experience to the use of even the simplest techniques.

[Note from Rowan: Desikachar wrote a book exploring the meaning of yoga and on developing a personal practice, The Heart of Yoga.]

Rowan Lommel: Why is yoga particularly relevant to the world now?

Sonia Nelson: We all need a means to help us access an inner intelligence that is clear and calm and from which we can relate to and function in this world where there is so much confusion and agitation.

Rowan Lommel: What is something new you have learned about yoga recently?

Sonia Nelson: This morning I could do an old practice as if it were new.

Rowan Lommel: What are four things people should look for in a prospective yoga teacher?

Sonia Nelson:

  • Sincere interest in and care for the student
  • An ability to listen
  • A desire and ability to teach what is appropriate for the student
  • Confidence balanced with a sense of humility

Rowan Lommel: What titles are on your "yoga" bookshelf?

Sonia Nelson: Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, Heart of Yoga

Rowan Lommel: How can a person know if they have developed the right personal practice?

Sonia Nelson: Right practice needs to be developed in relationship to a specific context. As I change and my life situations change, my yoga practice needs to adapt. It is not something static. This evolution of practice is ideally done in the context of relationship with a teacher. But whether you are practicing on your own or with guidance, it is important to notice any changes in your usual physical, energetic, mental and emotional patterns of functioning not only during the practice but throughout the day as well.

Rowan Lommel: Vedic chanting can seem esoteric to a lot of people, even inside the yoga community. What kinds of conversations do you have with people about chanting and its benefits?

Sonia Nelson: Vedic Chant is something that needs to be experienced to be understood. Prior to any conversation, I would introduce an experience of listening and chanting. Then, I would ask the person what effects they noticed and answer any question that came from their experience. Vedic Chanting is a discipline and requires sustained effort and focus to do well. After some time, students seem to notice effects such as greater ability to focus, more attention to detail, increased breath capacity, uplifted mood, increased energy, etc. But there is always a mysterious component as to how and why these effects occur. I find this to be true for myself even after years of practice.

Rowan Lommel: How do you describe what differentiates yoga therapy from the yoga someone might experience in a group class at a local yoga studio or gym?

Sonia Nelson: From my observation, most of the yoga being taught in a group setting has two goals. One is to maintain or improve an existing state of wellness and the other is to achieve a certain proficiency in performing yoga postures and breathing techniques. The goal of yoga therapy, however, is to use principles and practices to address an existing imbalance in the student's system. This includes addressing the way in which the imbalance is impacting the person's life.

Rowan Lommel: How is yoga therapy evolving? What lies ahead?

In the West, there is a growing awareness of the contribution yoga can make in relationship to healing. Yoga as a tool for healing has existed perhaps as long as yoga itself, but in recent times, this application has come to be known as yoga therapy. The use of this term facilitates the growth of the field as a complementary modality that will gradually be accepted by the medical community as well as the general population. Currently, this seems to be the predominant goal for yoga therapy in the West. For this to be achieved, a standard of education and supervision, that is only now being developed, needs to become established.

[Note from Rowan: For more on yoga therapy, its roots and applications, and Krishnamacharya's contributions to the field, you can read Health, Healing and Beyond.]

Rowan Lommel: How does pranayama integrate into your teaching and therapy practice?

Sonia Nelson: My goal for the student is to become comfortable connecting with the subtle activity of breathing and to eventually be able to influence their own breath in a positive direction both in length and quality. There are many tools to accomplish this based on each student's capacity and ability to sustain a consistent practice. But to be effective, a degree of patience and the ability to go step by step is required. A good first step is using conscious breathing while doing some form of asana.

Rowan Lommel: If you were granted a wish, what would you wish for the yoga community?

A growing appreciation of the fact that yoga practice is not simply a variety of techniques for self improvement but is also a highly refined means of discovering that which, in all of us, needs no improvement.


Rowan Octavia Frederick Lommel (ROFL -- hee hee) has been teaching yoga since 2001 and is certified as an E-RYT by the Yoga Alliance. She trained at the Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco and at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India. She has worked in-depth with Mekhala Desikachar and TKV Desikachar and his students. She has a yoga therapy practice working privately with individuals in Ojai and Santa Barbara; her website is



Originally published on Huffington Post

When Hamstrings Wreak Havoc—Yoga’s Bad Boy Muscle Group

Julie Gudmestad

In this interview, certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and physical therapist Julie Gudmestad discusses why hamstring issues are so important to pay attention to in our yoga practice. While tight hamstrings are the most common issue, overstretched and weak hamstrings can be a problem as well, especially for experienced yoga practitioners, Julie notes.

YogaUOnline: Julie, you have long pointed out that healthy hamstrings are a central part of a well-rounded yoga practice. Why are the hamstrings so important in our practice?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, the hamstrings are central to so many poses, not just in terms of flexibility, but also strength. We draw on the hamstrings for strength in standing poses and backbends. We need the hamstrings to be flexible for forward bends. If the hamstrings are weak, it will limit our abilities and our endurance in many of the standing poses and backbends. If they’re tight, it will limit our abilities in forward bends and possibly contribute to some serious injuries that can happen in forward bends.

YogaUOnline: Most people know that tight hamstrings affect alignment in forward bends but fewer people are aware of the range of poses that tight hamstrings can affect. Could you talk about that?

Julie Gudmestad: There are many standing poses that are affected by hamstring flexibility, but one that comes to mind immediately is Trikonasana, Triangle Pose. If the hamstrings are tight, people can’t get their hand down on to their ankle or even their shin without side bending their spine. This in turn means that they will compress one side of their back and overstretch the top side of their back in Triangle pose. Another example is Downward Dog, one of the most ubiquitous yoga postures. In this posture, tight hamstrings will pull down on the sitting bones when people go into the pose, causing the back to round.

There’s also an interesting effect of going into and coming down out of inversions. People that have tighter hamstrings have a much harder time kicking up into a handstand or getting their legs up in a headstand. And some of the arm balances are affected as well. So really, it’s not just the forward bends that tight hamstrings are going to cause limitations in, it’s a wide, wide variety of yoga postures.

YogaUOnline: Tight hamstrings are surprisingly common – why is that?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, there are a couple of factors involved. Firstly, if you sit a lot, especially if you sit with your pelvis, your sitting bones slid forward on the chair with the knees bent, it puts the hamstrings in a really short position. And the more time you spend leaving the hamstrings or any muscle in a shortened position, the more the length of the muscle will begin to adapt to the position that you’re leaving it.

People don’t know that they can counterbalance the amount of sitting by doing some hamstring stretching every day. So in a sedentary society, this means that a good proportion of people coming to a yoga class have not been stretching enough to counter the amount of sitting they do every day, and the muscles have just gotten shorter and shorter over the years. And, of course, some sports like running or weight lifting will also shorten the hamstrings, if they’re not being stretched regularly.

In addition, women have a hormonal advantage towards flexibility. In women, the hormone relaxin is released in small amount with every menstrual period and a lot as the body prepares for childbirth. Relaxin helps loosen up the ligaments so the pelvis can expand for childbirth, and it also loosens up all of the connective tissue through the whole body. And the hamstrings are full of connective tissue. In contrast, men have more testosterone, which tends to build bulk. So if men are not stretching enough, the tendency is for the muscles to get shorter, tighter and bulkier. There are always exceptions, but that’s the general rule.

YogaUOnline: Tight hamstrings are not just an issue for alignment in yoga postures, it’s often involved in low back pain. Is that correct?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, it is. It’s not just how pretty is your yoga pose, but it’s a health issue whether people do yoga or not. As physical therapists, when somebody comes in with a low back problem, one of the first things we usually check for is the flexibility of the hamstrings and the hip flexors. Tight hamstrings are often a factor in chronic nagging low back pain, and even significant injuries that might require surgery.

It’s hard to diagnose, because it doesn’t show up on an x-ray, there’s no wound, no blood. There’s nothing that people can see. We call it mechanical pain: There’s some kind of soft tissue that’s either being overstretched or overworked, so it sends up a red flag, and that red flag is pain.

Unfortunately, this is often overlooked, because a lot of medical people, surgeons in particular, are trained to evaluate whether a condition needs surgery. If it doesn’t need surgery, they don’t have a lot to offer. So this is where we as physical therapists and yoga teachers have a lot to offer in terms of getting people to do a variety of healthy movements for their hips and backs. Unfortunately, most Westerners want a quick fix—one exercise to do or a pill that they can take to get rid of the problem.

YogaUOnline: Tight hamstrings is one of the most common reasons that people who are new to yoga get discouraged and don’t continue their practice.

Julie Gudmestad: Yep, that’s very, very true.

YogaUOnline: In your studio, how do you approach this issue to make sure that new students don’t get discouraged and give up?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, first you have to figure out who in your class struggles with hamstring issues. One of the ways yoga teachers can notice in a classroom setting who has tight hamstrings is by having people do Supta Padangusthasana. When people lie on their back and leave one leg straight out on the floor and hold the other leg up with a belt, you can get a pretty good idea just by scanning the room, who can’t hold their leg very high off the floor. Those are, of course, the tight hamstring folks. So to know what you’re working with, you have to scan the room and see how high people can hold that leg up off the floor.

From there, we have a whole series of modifications we put people through to gradually build flexibility. With our beginners, we often don’t show them the finished position, because there are always a certain number of people who just want to go straight to the hardest possible thing, irrespective of whether their body is ready for it or not. We grade our classes according to people’s level and we just show them modified or supported positions where they can’t try to push too far into it. There’s whole series of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana with your foot up on a chair or a window ledge and Supta Padangusthasana with the support of the leg in a doorway, and so on. The emphasis is on yoga postures where the hamstrings get a good light stretch, but they do not get their low back torqued out of position.

YogaUOnline: Now, we have spent a lot of time on tight hamstrings, but this isn’t the only problem yoga practitioners run into, is that correct?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, indeed. One of my concerns for the yoga community and experienced yoga practitioners is that people who have been doing yoga for a long time, with all the forward bends they do, tend to get very flexible hamstrings. But if the hamstrings also happen to be weak, if they have not worked to keep the hamstrings strong, people get vulnerable to hamstring-origin strains or tears at the sitting bone. I see or hear about way too many of those strains when I teach yoga workshops across the country. And a contributing factor most of the time is that the hamstrings are weak and overstretched.

YogaUOnline: So it shows up as a pain in the sitting bones?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes. The muscle doesn’t have enough strength to keep its integrity, and it gets these little microscopic tears. And then it hurts to sit on it, hurts to stretch it, it hurts to do just about anything.

Among experienced practitioners, this is a problem that is far too common. So in my course on Yoga U, I really want to focus on what you need to do in your practice, and how to balance your practice so that you’re not setting yourself up for that problem, and what to do if you have already developed the problem.

In the course, we will review the anatomy of the hamstring, and what is considered normal range of motion. Then we’ll look at the problems that can ensue from hamstrings that are flexible, but weak, as I mentioned. In part two, we will look at what tight hamstrings look like and the tools yoga teachers can use to help students progress, and what the steps you can take yourself to improve. So we’ll look at what it takes to actually improve hamstring flexibility. People need accessible tools that are appropriate for their level of flexibility—just modifying a pose by bending the knees or using a block is often not enough. So we will look at which stretches are appropriate to help somebody with really tight hamstrings progress. We will have pictures that really illustrate how the anatomy is affecting the position of the pelvis and back, and why it’s so important to pay attention to this issue.

Julie Gudmestad is the founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, Oregon, where she also works as a physical therapist specializing in orthopedic problems, chronic pain, and stress-related problems. Julie has worked for many years to integrate the healing powers of yoga with her Western medical knowledge. She has created a unique teaching style and teaches workshops including Anatomy Awareness in Asana and yoga for physical therapists throughout the US, Canada, and in Europe. And she is particularly well-known for the series of columns she wrote for Yoga Journal on the Anatomy of a Yogi for seven years.

Catholic University Launches First Yoga Masters Degree in the U.S.


By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT - 

If a Masters program in yoga studies at a Catholic university sounds like a radical idea, think again. That is exactly what is being offered starting this fall at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles.

The recent debate about the integration of hatha yoga practice as part of the P.E. classes in the Encinitas school system in Southern California raised the issue of whether or not yoga promotes Hindu spirituality. However, according to Christopher Key Chapple, Ph.D., Director of the Master of Arts in Yoga Studies program at LMU, the yoga tradition is non-dogmatic and not founded on a specific belief system.

"By remaining deliberately ambiguous and non-dogmatic about ultimate theological issues, the yoga tradition establishes itself as a positive proponent for individual spiritual development for persons of all religious backgrounds and creeds,” says Chapple.

The overarching intent of the yoga studies masters program is not to replace students’ beliefs with another religious belief system, says Chapple, but rather to allow students to delve into their religious and spiritual foundation.

Although there has been some controversy regarding the program, the undercurrent of dissent is far less than one might expect. “Yoga has emerged as a technology for spirituality,” says Chapple.  It is “certainly [consistent with] with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”

“What we’re doing here is actually quite conservative. Teachings under the religious dialogue do not replace the tradition of the Trinity,” says Chapple. The yoga studies program is consistent with the Nostra Aetate, or the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council (1965), Chapple points out.

Not everyone agrees with Chapple, however. Father John Hardon, S.J., the late Catholic theological stated emphatically that, “Yoga is incompatible with Catholicism, because the best known practice of Hindu spirituality is yoga.” Others have suggested that eastern methods of yoga and meditation are “dangerous”, and that the fusion of yoga and Christian practice threatens the very fabric of Christianity.

Dr. Chappel disagrees. Having a yoga studies graduate program does not compromise the religious values of LMU, he notes.  In fact, “support from the religious community at LMU has actually been quite stalwart,” he states.

The graduate program in yoga studies is rigorous, and involves a great deal more than yoga postures. Students are immersed in yoga history, philosophy, and physical practice, and are required to learn the Sanskrit language. Course requirements include independent research in India.

According to LMU’s website, “the program produces knowledgeable leaders in the field of yoga, equipped to teach the academic component of yoga, its history and philosophy, as well as to open centers and studios for the study and practice of yoga, and to conduct trainings for yoga teachers”.  Students also have the option of incorporating their master’s studies into PhD programs in a number of disciplines.  The yoga studies graduate program is separate from the certificate training programs offered at LMU, which include Prime of Life Yoga, Yoga Philosophy, Yoga and Ecology, Yoga Therapy Rx, Vinyasa Karma Yoga, and Yoga and the Healing Sciences (Teacher Training).

The LMU program is likely to appeal to a growing subset of Americans who consider themselves to be ‘spiritual but not religious’.  Modern day spirituality is characterized by a search for personal development and wellbeing; a quest to reach one’s essence or true self. It is heavily influenced by Carl Rogers’ and Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology, as well as depth psychology, theosophy, and Eastern philosophy (Buddhist, Taoist, Vendantic, Tantric etc.).

The LMU program is a heartening example of how the global spiritual community could benefit from focusing its attention on the commonalities of spiritual and religious traditions and practices rather than attending to their differences.

What is often neglected in the philosophical debate is the ways in these programs benefit the community. Interns of LMU’s yoga programs provide free yoga therapy sessions to underserved populations at the Venice Clinic. This selfless service is at the heart of most spiritual belief systems, and most certainly embedded in the teachings of Jesus and the 8 limbs of yoga.


B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.comor see



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