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Light in Yoga, Light in You: 12 Sanskrit Words for Winter Meditations

yoga teachings on light and darkness

By Rowan Lommel  - 

Yoga sutra I.36: viśokā vā jyotimatī

“We can be free of suffering by paying attention to the light within.”

When we experience the long nights and short days of the winter season, we can benefit from a deeper look at yoga teachings on light and darkness and explore what they have to say about the inner and the outer, body and mind, the transient and the eternal. It may be difficult to remember during the darkness and cold of diminished light, yet yoga philosophy suggests there is a light within that never wanes.

First, let’s introduce two ancient Sanskrit words: The ancient yogis saw our being as spiritual creatures made up of (word #1) prakti [prak-rit-ee] and (#2)  purua [poo-roo-sha].

Prakti is our body (it is also a word used to mean “nature”). It is all that is changing in us, or, in other terms, and this is not always obvious: the body-brain system. It is not always obvious because we identify with something that is changing, thinking that it is something permanent.

Purua is all that is not changing within us, sometimes defined as the soul, or pure awareness, or in some other contexts, “consciousness.”

Purua is the light that never wanes. 

Now a third and fourth Sanskrit word: Patañjali (#3), who compiled the Yoga Sutra-s sometime around 350 CE, uses the word īśvara (#4) to mean a Higher Power.  Iśvara is the source of light, or pure awareness or consciousness; through purua (our individual light as experienced by us), we are connected to this one light, the source of all light, awareness, consciousness.

Now, the interesting question arises, if reality and our relation to reality is constructed like this, how is darkness possible? How can depression, wrong action, confusion, illness, a sense of disconnect from light and wholeness, arise? This is an ancient question, and a living one.

Here are some things to ponder from the yoga teachings and their related philosophies.  These are suggestions we can more than ponder, but test in our own life and in our yoga practice to discover for ourselves what they might mean.

Sanskrit word number 5 is prāa, or life force. The ancient yogis saw health as a smooth flow of prāa within the body-brain system. Since our body is made of matter, it has limitations or a conditioned nature. We experience that conditioning, yoga suggests, through the guas (#6), or tendencies. The guas influence matter very strongly. Just as electricity can’t pass through wood but it can pass through copper, the body’s receptivity to prāa will change. According to yoga, the guas govern this receptivity.

The guas are sattva (#7: balance, order, purity), rajas (#8: change, movement, dynamism) and tamas (#9: lethargy, dullness, slowness). 

Now, to bring this full circle and to see the interconnected, holistic view of reality to which yoga is inviting us, the guas also qualify the seasons. Sattva is the springtime, with it’s creative potential, and all that blossoms with it. Rajas is the summer, it is hot, people move around and travel. Tamas is associated with fall and winter, as it gets darker and colder.

The seasons are a reflection of the guas of the world. When people talk about nature or the environment, we usually understand it to be the external world.  However, according to yoga philosophy, the internal environment is just as or even more important than the external.

In the moments when we are feeling less receptive to the light within, it doesn’t mean the light is not there. Our receptivity is different in accordance with our state of mind. Yoga suggest that deep inside us there is always light. That is why Patañjali advises us in Yoga Sutra I.36 to meditate on the light within. 

YS I.36 viśokā vā jyotimatī

“We can be free of suffering by paying attention to the light within.”

Viśokā (#10) literally means “no despondency.” When grief is sustained it becomes despondency.  Everyone has bad experiences in their lives, but when we identify with those past experiences we negate our reception of light.  According to yoga philosophy there is always an inward resource.

Jyoti (#11) is our inner light, and jyotimatī (#12!) means “to focus on the light within.” So, there is no despondency when we pay attention to the light inside.

In times when we feel darkness or depressed, the yoga teachings suggest that we don’t need to search outside – we can be inspired by the source of light inside. The next time you are in a state that feels disconnected, try your yoga practice. Did that feeling turn out to be reality, or does it change when your body-breath-mind state changes?

The teachings of yoga seem to be suggesting something further as well, beyond helping us return to equilibrium. Here seems to be a key point: both suffering and joy are only possible in something that changes. When you begin to become sensitive to the changeable, transient nature of prakti, you might ask: What lies beyond all the changes, what is the source of both light and dark? What is there that never changes?

That may be the most eternal quest.

The original version of this article was posted on the Huffington Post.

Rowan Lommel teaches yoga to individuals with diverse backgrounds and conditions. She studied in India at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and has worked with TKV Desikachar and his most serious students. She did a teacher training at the Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco.  The work of J. Krishnamurti has been deeply inspirational to her. She has been teaching yoga since 2001 and now maintains a private yoga therapy practice in Ojai and Santa Barbara. Her work focuses on supporting individuals discover a sacred, still space through personal practice.  Learn more at She also blogs for the Huffington Post and teaches yoga at a mindfulness course at UCLA.

ChatterRunGirl: From Overweight to Yogini-Runner in Nine Years

yoga and exercise for wellbeing

 Nine years ago, Alice Toyonaga was told by her doctor that if she didn’t change her ways, she would “have a stroke by age 30.” At the time, Alice was an overweight smoker with an out-of-control diet. Many people in Alice’s situation might have felt it too much of an uphill battle, and opted for going into denial, rather that facing the health issues at hand.

But for Alice, her doctor’s words were a real wakeup call.

“I walked into old, no-frills, all women’s gym and signed up,” Alice told “I got on the scale and for the first time saw the number. It was 223 pounds. I was disappointed in my choices, but felt relieved that my doctor told me I could change.”

On the spot, Alice committed to working out at the gym regularly and stopped binge eating. Within two years, she had lost nearly 100 pounds.

But as successful as it might seem, her weight loss project had a dark side. Alice had become obsessed with losing weight: She was counting every calorie and charting every ingredient. And while she had lost the weight, her relationship with food and dieting was only becoming more and more unhealthy.

Finally, looking for a way to maintain a healthy and sustainable journey to health, she turned to running. She became part of a community of active, positive people at a local running store, and eventually became fit enough to train for races and half-marathons.

Then, her training came to an abrupt halt. She needed surgery, and for a period of time was unable to maintain her regular running routine.

This is when she discovered yoga.

Alice turned to yoga mainly because it was something she could do to keep herself active until she had recovered sufficiently from the surgery to start running again. But the mental peace that accompanies a regular yoga practice left her feeling healthier than she’d ever felt after a run or gym workout. And as an added bonus, as yoga transformed her relationship to her body, she found her relationship to eating improved as well.

When Alice finally returned to running she kept up her yoga practice as well. And, she had found her life’s mission: Sharing the benefits of an active lifestyle and the benefits that come with it—beyond ‘just’ losing weight.

Almost a decade after her fateful appointment with her doctor, Alice has a burgeoning career as a fitness and nutrition motivator. She runs her own blog and website, ChatterRunGirl, which is an online yoga resource for runners that offer support and community, and she travels around North America teaching yoga workshops for runners.

“I’ve often been told to share the story of my weight loss and life changes,” Alice notes on her blog in a reflective post about her journey. “Truth be told, I’ve never really wanted to share this story. I am not sure why. Perhaps, it’s because I am embarrassed of where I was. Perhaps it’s because I don’t think it’s that unique a story, nor that inspiring. Perhaps it’s because the story isn’t over, and likely never will be.”

Truth be told, the journey towards a healthy(ier) lifestyle is never over for anyone. However, Alice’s story is an inspiring example of someone who has been at both extremes of the personal health spectrum – from out-of-shape smoker to calorie-counting obsessive – and finally found greater balance in her life. Her story is a great reminder for everyone of just how rewarding and life-transforming that journey can be.


What to Eat?: Breaking Through the Confusion to Reconnect with Instinctual Eating

a balanced diet featuring vegetables for optimum health

By Dr. Jennifer L. Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE - 

Following the excess and indulgences of the holiday season, many of us may be trying to change our eating habits. We set unrealistic standards and unattainable resolutions. Then when we don’t reach them, we blame ourselves and a vicious cycle begins.

Nutrition is Confusing

There are so many theories, fad diets, nutrition books and ways of eating. It seems like every day there is a new eating philosophy in the headlines that has shown to heal this ailment or lead to miraculous weight loss. Yet if you have experimented with some of these various diets, you may have found that they are not one size fits all solutions for everyone’s woes.

Many people turn to an approach of counting calories or following one of the many diet plans purported by so-called “experts” or commercial chains in an attempt to lose weight or get healthier. But if these theories were right, than we would all be the healthiest people in the world! Instead, sadly, we have an epidemic of obesity, metabolic dysfunction and chronic diseases.

So What Should We Eat?

What to eat? That is a loaded and often confusing question.

Given all the strong, mixed messages around nutrition and health in our society, the confusion about true nutrition comes as no surprise. People are confused about health and nutrition for a variety of reasons. Marketing and product labels can be unclear and even deceptive. There are thousands of proposed diet plans in the media and many offer conflicting advice. And most importantly amongst these reasons that we struggle to find that perfect way of eating is that there actually is no one right way of eating that works for everyone!

I am frequently asked by patients, clients, friends and family, “What should I eat?” or “What is the right way to eat?” Sometimes clients want a list of “healthy” foods or desire to know what I eat so that they can mimic it exactly.

But the true key to sustainablewellness is that each of us is unique, and this biological individuality allows one person to thrive on foods which can be harmful to someone else. There is no one correct answer to the question, “What is the right way to eat?” There is no one-size-fits-all diet plan that fits everybody since we each have a unique genetic makeup and nutritional needs and this can even evolve and change throughout our lives.

Discover What Works For You

It is so important to find the way of eating and living that is right for you! This means figuring out how various foods make you feel physically, mentally and emotionally and not just mimicking what works for your best friend or your favorite celebrity.

While this is often much more challenging than simply following the latest media-hyped fad, in the end it will be far more rewarding when you uncover and understand your own nutritional needs and find sustainable health and well-being.

    •   Experiment: Tune into your body and learn to listen to its messages. By taking the time to slow down and listen to what your body truly needs, you will more deeply satisfy your desires!

    •   Educate Yourself: As you figure out your unique needs and desires, you may find yourself naturally drawn towards a lifestyle that works best for you. Try to find out as much as you can about foods, physical activity and other forms of nourishment. Explore your options, expand your knowledge and experience what it feels like to you to eat certain foods and nourish yourself in different ways but do not feel bogged down with needing to learn everything or adhere to a specific dogma or set of rules. Remember, this is about you discovering your unique way of nourishment and not about trying to fit yourself into a certain category, label or diet.

    •   Cook Simple, Whole, Natural Foods: Many products you find in a modern supermarket do not resemble anything you would ever find growing in a field or on a tree. These chemicals and artificial ingredients can confuse our hunger signals and throw off our metabolism. A great way to increase the quality of the food you eat and have greater control over its contents is to cook your own meals. Try to focus on eating simple, natural organic ingredients in their whole forms instead of eating less or counting calories. 

Jumpstart your New Year, conquer cravings and return to instinctive eating by starting with these powerful steps!


Dr. Jennifer Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE is a preventive and lifestyle medicine physician and the Founder of the
|Pure|WholeTM Wellness Method. She offers innovative online wellness and education programs for individuals looking for sustainable optimal health and non-toxic living as well as health care providers seeking to embrace a transformative approach to health care and corporations wanting to integrate a holistic approach to corporate wellness. She also provides a comprehensive All-Natural virtual Recharge Experience for those ready to rejuvenate and build a strong foundation for sustainable life-long wellness! For more information vist her webpage and connect with her on her Facebook page







How Does Yoga Work? Study Sheds Light on Mechanisms of Change

the mechanisms of change in yoga

By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT - 

Have you ever wondered what was behind the magic that you feel at the end of a yoga practice? There are over 2,000 articles related to yoga and health listed on PubMed, a database managed by the National Institutes of Health. These studies suggest that yoga is good for your health, but rarely address how yoga works.

A new review of the yoga literature, published in the Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy, aims to cast light on how yoga affects the primary systems in your body to keep you healthy. Eighteen peer-reviewed articles studying the underlying effects of practicing yoga were identified and thoroughly examined.

Of the 18 articles identified, five contained original research, and all but one was of fairly low quality. The remaining 13 were clinical reports or reviews of the literature, which provide little detail regarding the methodology used.

Based on the literature provided, physical mechanisms related to the endocrine system and nervous system, as well as metabolism and cardiovascular, respiratory and physical parameters of health were reviewed. The following is a brief synopsis of the results.

Endocrine System
“The strongest evidence in both quality and quantity suggests yoga has a positive impact on hormone regulation,” the authors concluded. Levels of salivary cortisol decreased significantly in a number of the studies and reviews examined. Lower cortisol levels are related to decreases in perceived stress and anxiety, increases in feelings of well-being and improved pain management.

Other effects of yoga practice cited included elevated serotonin production, the release of oxytocin during visualization, and higher levels of melatonin, which are related to improved sleep quality and immunity.

The metabolic effects of yoga have been most intensely studied for diabetes management in general, and glycemic control in particular. Studies suggest that regular asana practice is linked with improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, and clinically significant changes in fasting plasma glucose (FPG) and postprandial plasma glucose (PPPG) levels.  Each of these is an important indicator of diabetes management.

Nervous System
Yoga is commonly believed to directly influence sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity. Evidence suggests that pranayama, visualization and calming techniques, and physical movement (asanas) increase parasympathetic activation. In addition, they elevate levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The latter are related to decreased stress, anxiety and depression and improved subjective well-being.

Circulatory System
Two general mechanisms related to the circulatory system were identified in this review: Lowering blood pressure and improving arterial function. Three studies provided evidence of a number of specific benefits to circulatory health. These benefits included lowering blood pressure, enhancing cardiovagal function, slowing atherosclerosis (hardening of blood vessels) to prevent cardiovascular disease, increasing blood flow, and restoring baroreceptor sensitivity. These are all indicators of heart health and efficiency.

Overall Physical Health
General measures of physical health typically examined in yoga studies include cardiorespiratory fitness, biomechanic indicators like balance and flexibility, and anthropometric indicators such as body mass index (BMI). Yoga interventions designed to increase strength and balance are linked to a decreased risk of fall-related injury in the elderly. Interventions using yoga postures have been found to yield exercise training effects such as lowered resting heart rate and oxygen consumption rate, decreased basal metabolic rate (BMR), and decreased body mass index (BMI) and fat mass. Each of these suggests that yoga may be related to preventing heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

We’ve long known that yoga is mind-body “medicine”, and that its effects are systemic rather than isolated to one or two clinical outcomes. This review suggests that your yoga practice can benefit your overall physical health and well-being in myriad ways. 


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 Gets into Med School - Students learn to relax patients, and themselves

yoga can transform lives

Emily Holick thought yoga was for sissies. But as a graduate student hoping to reduce stress, she gave it a try. And hated it. What irked the former college tennis player most was her inability to do a move that everyone else had perfected—the wheel, a complex pose that contorts the body into an upside down bridge. Holick says it was only her competitive spirit that kept her going.

Four years later, Holick (MED’14) believes that yoga has transformed her life. Although her first year of medical school was brutal, leaving her stressed and questioning whether she had what it takes to be a doctor, her yoga practice helped her cope. Then a curious string of events pulled her out of the abyss.

Holick took a healing arts class with Robert Saper, a School of Medicine associate professor of family medicine and director of integrative medicine, known for his research involving yoga and lower back pain relief. He recommended that she meet Heather Mason, a yoga therapist and trainer interested in creating a class for medical students, an idea Holick had toyed with herself.

“We met in a coffee shop in Cambridge and started dreaming,” Holick says. “It was amazing to meet someone who independently said this is something that medical students need.”

That java-infused dream has become a reality since, as Mason, Holick, and a team of medical students lobbied for its creation. Starting spring semester, MED will offer an elective called Embodied Health: Mind-Body Approaches to Well-Being. Mason will lead a weekly hour-long yoga session, followed by a half hour discussion of the practice’s medical benefits. The class will also be part of a research study led by Saper, Mason, and Allison Bond (MED’14) that will attempt to document changes in the students’ mental health. A pilot of the elective, called MED Yoga, or Mind-Body Education and Development Yoga, ran this semester, quickly attracting a following of 30-plus students.

While yoga sessions for med students are not unique (the University of Connecticut Medical Center and Georgetown Medical School both offer them), teaching students about yoga’s physiological and neurological effects is. Saper, who will be one of several guest speakers addressing issues from positive thinking to the neurobiology of stress over the 11 weeks of class, says the class “targets the unique challenges and stressors medical students face as well as offers a fairly advanced level of intellectual content appropriate for the medical students.”

And there are stressors: according to a 2009 study in Academic Medicine, nearly 25 percent of medical school students will be depressed at some point during their education. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2010 showing that the empathy medical students feel decreases as they progress through their four years.

BU MED yoga, Heather Mason, Embodied Health: Mind-Body Approaches to Well-Being

Yoga therapist Heather Mason leads a breathing exercise before a yoga session designed for medical students at the School of Medicine.

Mason believes that yoga can be a powerful antidote. On a recent Wednesday late afternoon, she tinkered with speakers that send a low chime through the airy space of the MED student lounge where the class was meeting. While she adjusted the sound, nearly three dozen students unfurled yoga mats toward a bank of windows facing the setting sun. Some had come directly from cramming at the library for a pulmonology exam the next day.

Mason, a petite 35-year-old brunette, spent three years in Southeast Asian monasteries as an out-of-the box method of battling chronic depression. That experience led her to earn master’s degrees in Buddhist studies and psychotherapy, and another now in progress in neuroscience.

The New York native paces methodically as she leads the class into a rhythmic ujjayi breath, a diaphragmatic breathing technique. “The chime is like an anchor bringing you back to the breath,” she says. “Inhale, lift, and open your heart center.”

Some students stumble from move to move; others slide into position as if into a second skin, eyes forward, bodies steady. After an hour, Mason directs them to close their eyes, lie down, and relax. Their limp bodies rest on a rainbow of yoga mats.

Mason asks them to count their breaths per minute. She knows that the ideal count of five or six has been shown to increase heart rate variability, which can ameliorate problems like depression, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cardiac disease.

Breaths counted, Mason segues from the practice of yoga to a short dissertation on the neuroscience of yoga, something that has been studied by Chris Streeter, a MED associate professor of psychiatry and neurology. In one study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Streeter used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to explain why yoga practitioners report a greater improvement in mood and a decrease in anxiety than people who simply walked for relaxation. Streeter found that the yoga group had higher levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA, the likely cause of positive mood changes.

Mason explains to the class how the ujjayi breath and the chiming work together, medically, to bring about a healthful biological balance of breath, heartbeat, and other functions. When the lecture ends, Mason bows, and thanks her class with a namaste, a customary gesture on parting.

Mason says the first goal of MED Yoga was to let doctors know how yoga could help their patients, but then she realized how it could help the doctors themselves.

That message resonates with Holick, who feels refreshed by yoga and has renewed faith in her career choice. The past year has “made me realize that I can make medicine my own thing,” she says. “It’s an amazing profession that I really can help people in. Sometimes I really lose sight of these bigger things.”


Originally published on BU Today

Can Yoga Help Preserve Freedom of Movement? An Interview with Yoga Therapists Dr. Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall

“Osteoarthritis is a heart attack of the joint,” which some are calling a ‘joint death.’ Considering there were 600,000 ‘joint deaths’ in the U.S. in 2002 (94 percent because of osteoarthritis), compared with 451,326 coronary heart deaths in 2004, the focus has to be on how we identify the onset of osteoarthristic compared with how the onset of other diseases are identified.”  ~ U.S. Bone and Joint Decade – Global Network Conference, 2009

We hear a lot about heart health and the prevention of heart disease, but here’s a little known fact that may give you pause: Musculoskeletal diseases, including back pain and osteoarthritis, are now the second greatest cause of disability in all regions of the world, according to the Global Burden of Disease 2010 Study.

Everyone loses range of motion as they get older. And while that may seem like an insignificant shift, loss of range of motion is to musculoskeletal disorders what high blood pressure is to heart disease. Joint health is the first step in a causal relationship towards disease and disability. If it hurts to move, we move less, and thus go from limiting joint pain, to painful mobility, inactivity, obesity, comorbidity and finally disability.

Maintaining joint health is key to preserving freedom of movement and preventing this vicious cycle of growing fragility and disability. In this interview, yoga therapists Dr. Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall discuss keys to maintaining joint health and how yoga can help keeps our joints mobile and fluid throughout life.

Q: We take it for granted that we will lose range of motion (ROM) as we get older, and most people don’t even think twice about it. But there are some serious health implications associated with loss of ROM?

Dr. Loren Fishman: People with limited ROM can’t bend down, they’re not able to move around the way other people are. That’s the most fundamental aspect of losing range of motion: Once you lose it, there are things you can’t do. You can’t reach for things, there are cars you can’t get into, there is even clothes you can’t get into.

And then, there are the more serious medical aspects of it. The loss of range of motion is also accompanied by loss of coordination and a loss of strength. When you lose range of motion, your muscles get flaccid and stiff because they’re not being utilized fully. With muscles, the slogan is really quite true: You use it or you lose it. Muscles atrophy. That’s what can happen with the joints and the consequences of it.

Other consequences include reduced ability to right yourself when you’re about to fall. No matter who you are and no matter where you happen to walk, there are times when your balance is less stable. If you have a good range of motion, you can slide your hip out. You can thrust your body to the other side. You can twist and do all kinds of things to avoid falling.

Ellen Saltonstall: There’s also a lack of motivation because if you have less range of motion and have pain when you move, you don’t want to move. So it could lead to total immobility and other health issues that come from that – loss of vitality altogether.

Dr. Loren Fishman: When you talk about loss of vitality, you bring something that is really very poorly recognized in the medical or the yoga literature: that moving your joints is one of the strongest stimuli to breathing properly and deeply. There are little movement receptors inside all of our joints, and they send signals that go directly and indirectly to the apneustic center, one of the centers in the brain that regulate breathing.

Ellen Saltonstall: Better breath leads to more mental alertness, a better attitude, and more ability to manage stress. All kinds of things come from better breathing, of course.

Q: Which are the factors that predispose us for losing range of motion as we get older? I mean, it’s remarkably universal. Is it both the joints and the muscles or is it like a chicken and egg kind of thing?

Dr. Loren Fishman: Inactivity is a really good way of losing range of motion.

Ellen Saltonstall: You also get adhesions in the soft tissue, the fascia that surrounds every muscle gets tighter and thicker, gets tight without movement.

Dr. Loren Fishman: That is certainly true. Inactivity leads to loss of range of motion; if you do too little, you’re going to get adhesions. But if you do too much, you’re going to get overuse syndrome.

In the case of the joints, that often means something like running too much. And of course, you could be doing too much yoga of a certain kind as well, and taxing your joints beyond their natural limits.

Q: How does yoga affect joint health? Can it both increase range of motion and prevent arthritis, as well?

Ellen Saltonstall: As we age, we’re going to lose some range of motion. It’s kind of inevitable. But yoga gives us the perfect way to maintain as much as we can and maintain it safely and maintain it in a way that suits our particular needs and maintain it in a way that’s varied and enjoyable. We feel empowered because we know what to do and how to start. Most people start to feel greater range of motion immediately.

Hatha yoga, the physical exercise branch of yoga, gets the body moving to stretch all those soft tissues and move the joints through their normal range of motion. The fascia needs to be stretched which goes along with muscle stretching, and yoga does an excellent job at that too.

To get the best results, however, you do need to cater the practice to your age, to your level of fitness, to your body type, to your previous history of injuries or other body difficulties, and to really know your body. This is a key thing for safety in developing range of motion.

Dr. Loren Fishman: A good teacher will emphasize that you should only go as far as Mother Nature will permit you. Mother Nature has provided you with a wonderful alarm bell, a monitoring system known as pain! You don’t have to be a sadomasochist to find a little pain rather interesting. But there is a point beyond which the pain is overwhelming the gain. That’s when the ratio of risk versus benefit is too high, and you have to stop. So that’s one wonderful thing about yoga: it’s self-administered, so you know when to stop.

Dr. Loren Fishman: If you have loss of range of motion from whatever cause, yoga is likely to be able to help you get back a normal range. And in that respect, it conquers whatever’s wrong with you to a certain extent, sometimes completely, sometimes very partially, but in my experience, usually quite a bit.

Q: There has been a recent debate in the media about whether or not yoga can sometimes hurt the joints. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Loren Fishman: Well, of course, yoga can hurt you. Wonderbread can hurt you. Anything can hurt you if you do it wrong, if you use it wrong. But that doesn’t mean that yoga is a particularly risky activity. In the overall picture, it is extremely helpful for the joints.

Ellen Saltonstall: Yoga can be tremendously beneficial as long as you work within your limits. Teachers need to help students learn to listen to their own signals and learn the language of their particular body. There are different kinds of soreness. It’s like the Eskimos have all the words for snow. I think we, as yogis, should have lots of different words for pain and discomfort.

Sometimes pain and discomfort is the body calling you to move and calling you to do something specifically for that part of your body, because it’s become immobilized. Either because you’re sitting at your desk too long or doing something strenuous that’s out of balance with the rest of your activities.

So, the body calls for movement with certain sensations, and those sensations might not be comfortable ones. They might not be, “Oh, whoopee! Let me go do some yoga!” They might be, “Oh, wow. My ankle is really stiff,” or, “Oh, wow. When I bend my knees, it feels weird,” or, “My lower back is stiff after sitting by my desk.” But those are the times when a careful, intelligent moderate yoga practice that is well suited to what you are able to do can make a big difference.

Dr. Loren Fishman: It’s a valuable distinction to be made, I think. You don’t want to say “There’s a really good place beyond that pain, so get past the pain.” That’s a real formula for hurting yourself.

Q: You two have a course coming up on Yoga U about “Yoga for Joint Health – Keys to Staying Mobile and Agile All Life Long.” Tell us about the course and what you will be covering.

Ellen Saltonstall: We will look at what happens in the joints when we do the different yoga poses, and how coming in to certain end ranges of motion is healthy for the joints, because it circulates the fluids and keeps the cartilage healthy.

We’ll also cover the importance of alignment, because how you do your yoga is just as important as what you do and how much you do. Correct alignment will keep the joints healthy by making the pressures more even around the joint in any given pose and by using all the different components of the joint in your whole practice. We’ll talk about how the teacher can help prevent risks in the student by watching closely and knowing your students well enough to know how to spot when they’re working too hard or forcing themselves into poses that they’re not ready.

Dr. Loren Fishman: We’ll talk about recognizing and avoiding the risks for other people and for yourself, too, and setting realistic goals. We’ll discuss the different inner aspects of yoga and its effect on joints – the fluids, what’s in the fluids, the circulation of the fluids, the cartilage. We’ll also talk about how to protect yourself, your joints, your muscles, your nerves, your sinews, your ligaments, and how to use them to make yourself happy.

Dr. Loren Fishman is a medical doctor and lifelong student of yoga, including extensive studies with B.K.S. Iyengar in India. As a practicing MD, Dr. Fishman has become known as a leading pioneer in the integration of yoga in rehabilitative medicine. Dr. Fishman is the author of several books in addition to the books co-authored with Ellen Saltonstall.

Ellen Saltonstall is a certified yoga instructor at the ERYT 500 level. She is a movement educator, author and yoga therapist based in New York City with over thirty years of teaching experience.

For more information on Loren and Ellen's course on joint health see here:

Yoga for Joint Health – Keys to Staying Mobile and Agile All Life Long




Yoga Teacher’s Scope of Service: Knowing Your Limits

a yoga teacher's scope of service

By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT - 

A large proportion of yoga students come to the mat with some sort of physical problem, be it an injury or illness, chronic pain, a tight neck and shoulders, bad knees, a hip replacement, or a sore back. Many have heard that yoga can help to relieve physical issues like back pain, or help with stress or emotional problems.

Yoga teachers are called upon to provide a safe context for those undergoing personal challenges. They also may be asked questions regarding how yoga may help or hinder physical or emotional wellbeing. While it is natural to want to help, it is also important for teachers to know their limits, and to be aware of the scope of service that yoga teacher training prepares them to provide.

Scope of service (sometimes called scope of practice), refers to the procedures and actions that are appropriate for an individual to engage in when working in a given context. It is based on a person’s education, experience and demonstrated competencies.

Most yoga teachers do not have the skills or training to properly evaluate physical or psychological complaints, or to recommend a course of treatment. When working with students it is important to discriminate between teaching yoga and offering helpful suggestions that can be construed as medical advice.

Teachers can provide support and encouragement for those facing challenges, and share yogic teachings and philosophy that will aid students in their journey. This service is invaluable.

They can also serve as models of acceptance and grace as they navigate life’s obstacles and pitfalls. This may be as simple as getting up and laughing after a face plant during a demonstration, or offering a smile or a gesture of caring. The scope of service that yoga teachers provide is like no other, and it is important to stay within it.

Navigating emotional and psychological issues

Most if not all yoga teachers take up the call to teach out of a need to be of service. They tend to be empathic, compassionate, and are typically good listeners. They are also often dedicated to wellness and healing in some capacity, and are motivated by a desire to assist others on the yogic path.

Although yoga asana (posture-focused) practices may resemble exercise, most students will attest to the fact that their experience on the mat transcends stretching, strengthening, and a cardiovascular boost.

This may be due to the fact that mindful attention to the breath that typically occurs during asana, pranayama, meditation or other yoga practices directly impacts the autonomic nervous system. (See Yoga and the Breath: Antidotes for a Stressful Life for more on how the ANS works). Whereas activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) mobilizes our body’s systems for action, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) tends to elicit calm, receptivity and space for introspection.  This can tap deeply into emotional states that may otherwise be inaccessible in our daily lives.

Somatic Experiencing pioneer, Peter Levine, (see Somatic Experiencing: Free Your Body to Free Your Mind, and Tom Myers, integrative manual therapist and author of the acclaimed, Anatomy Trains, concur that the body’s physical structures are often the repository for unexpressed emotions including traumatic experiences.

Dr. Levine, founder of the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute and one of the foremost experts on healing trauma believes that, “painful symptoms associated with trauma are the result of ‘fragments of sensory body memory’ that become trapped”. Both experts agree that yoga practices can, and often do, release emotional energy that has been stored in our tissues.

Yoga practices may elicit a breadth of affect and sensation. This can range from intense anger, frustration or irritability after falling repeatedly out of a pose, to sadness or grief during savasana - and all points in between. 

When difficult sensations or emotions arise, it is essential that yoga teachers clearly understand the scope of what they are able to provide. A compassionate ear is not equivalent to appropriate mental health care. Most yoga teachers lack training regarding how to evaluate and treat psychological problems, and should never attempt to do so.

What yoga teachers do have is the ability to provide support and encouragement for those facing emotional challenges, and the wisdom to impart yogic teachings and philosophy that will aid students in their journey. Once again, this service is invaluable.

Know your scope

The process of svadhyaya, or self- reflection is a critical component of teaching and practicing yoga. It involves being aware of your limits, and the scope of service that you are able to provide.

Svadhyaya also involves examining the behaviors, motivations and habitual thoughts and actions that influence our self-image.   We may see ourselves as healers, karma yogis, or the like, and our actions will reinforce this ideal. But these beliefs may not be in the service of the students.

It is important to engage in this process to assure that the next time you are called upon to be of help, you will have a clear understanding of how you can be of service as well as your limits.

When approached with a situation ask yourself the following:

-  Am I sufficiently trained and qualified to address this student’s needs?

-  Would an experienced professional be better qualified to serve this student?

-  Am I responding in a way that serves the best interest of my student or am I responding from a place of ego? 

It is good practice to maintain a referral list of trusted professionals in your community. That list may include physicians, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, mental health professionals, Ayurvedic practitioners and others who may be able to address the specific needs of your students. This list is an invaluable tool, and allows the teacher to be a resource to students in the context of their scope of service.

It is important to engage in self-reflection to assure that you have a clear understanding of how to best serve the needs of your students when called upon. That is, after all, the essence of teaching 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

Next Level: Maryland University of Integrative Health Launches Masters in Yoga Therapy Program

yoga therapy

Yoga therapy is still a new and evolving professional practice. Yet interest in the medical and therapeutic applications of yoga is rapidly growing and making headway into the academic world.

Potential practitioners of therapeutic yoga can take their skills to the next level in Maryland University of Integrative Health’s (MUIH) newly developed Master of Science in Yoga Therapy, one of the first graduate degree programs in this developing field.

The MUIH program started in Fall 2013, originally planning for 20 students in the first year. However, the interest was so strong that admittance was expanded to 27 and a second cohort will start in April 2014.

While the university environment may seem like an unlikely setting for advanced studies in the therapeutic application of yoga, the university’s visionary leadership saw the potential.

“Our provost has an interest in yoga and yoga therapy, and she is a yoga practitioner herself,” says program director, Mary Lauttamus. “When she saw the International Association of Yoga Therapy standards, she realized that an 800-hour program was perfectly suited to a Masters in Yoga Therapy.”

IAYT is a professional organization for yoga teachers and therapists that supports research and education in yoga. Their mission is to “establish yoga as a recognized and respected therapy,” the first step of which is developing educational and accreditation standards.

There is little difference between the 1,000 hours required in current IAYT standards and the MUIH Masters program. Both have similar admission requirements, requiring that applicants have a minimum 200-hour training. However, as an accredited university, MUIH also requires a bachelor’s degree and every hour spent in the classroom is matched by two hours of practical applications.

The MUIH program includes foundational knowledge in yoga therapy, the theories of health and disease, and evidence-based practices in the field, while incorporating a broad base of perspectives and experiences in yoga therapy. The two-year weekend program is intended to accommodate professionals and people with busy lives.

Given this level of seriousness and professionalism, the emerging profession of yoga therapy is a good fit for a university degree.

“The university setting is ideal for this kind of program,” says Lauttamus. “The level of academic rigor is very high. Having a Masters degree is typically the minimum it takes to get into a Western medical setting. It sends the message that there’s been a certain level of study.”

The training includes the basics of therapeutic yoga, physiology, anatomy and mind-body research, with a strong emphasis on students learning and speaking medical language. What sets this apart from studio-based yoga therapy trainings is the terminology and language of Western medicine, so yoga therapists can effectively communicate with medical professionals.

“Critical thinking skills are vital, because we are not lineage-based,” Lauttamus adds. “We have people coming from multiple backgrounds and in this setting, we’re asking students to develop strong information literacy. That way they can apply their knowledge to figure out what’s right for that client in that moment.”

The MUIH Masters program bodes well for the future of yoga therapy as a profession. The university administration, program faculty, and students are actively involved in cocreating highly professional yoga therapists. Lauttamus adds, “We are all working really hard to more clearly define the scope of work of a yoga therapist.”

It also points to an interface of yoga and physical therapy. The program enables students to become familiar with the physiology and pathology of joint conditions, and speak the language of physical therapy. However, Lauttamus emphasizes what sets the two modalities apart, and how they can complement each other.

“Yoga therapy is a completely relationship-centered practice. What we’re really asking is: How does this impact the person’s life? What is the client’s relationship to the disease? Because we’re never teaching the disease, we’re always teaching the person around it.”

Taking Stock: Set Realistic Health Goals for 2014

New Years's goals

By Bernadette Birney -

A new year is a good time to take stock. I’m not doing New Year’s Resolutions this year. Instead, I’m setting some time aside to evaluate and re-evaluate my priorities at this particular juncture in time. Maybe it’s just semantics but giving myself an opportunity to review and prioritize feels gentler, more loving and ultimately more empowering than inflicting resolutions on myself.

All life coaching is based around willingness to take stock, to make conscious choices based on the vulnerability of our own authenticity rather than fear-based choices, to prioritize, and to take action. To make it easy to take stock, I’ve created a worksheet to help me set goals for the coming year.

This worksheet is my gift to you. Honor the dying of the old year and the birth of a new one by making time to reflect on your health goals for 2014. Rather than make it chore, see this process as a ritual. Journal, contemplate and articulate what matters most to you.

Please be honest but kind. Treat the exercise as an empowerment that frees you up and creates movement rather than a harsh judgment you pass on yourself that defines you for all time. Use what we’ve got to work with to design our lives in a purposeful way – not to crush our self-esteem, perpetrate shame, or justify self-loathing.

Feel free to play with and personalize the worksheet in any way that speaks to you.

Reprinted with permission from

Inner and Outer Balance: Ayurveda as a Practice of Economic Justice


By Matthew Remski -

Who is Ayurveda for?

I was recently facilitating a seminar on the subject of Ayurvedic dinacharya – often translated as “daily routine”, but which literally means “to follow the sun”. I presented the math for determining solar noon, at which digestive power is said to peak. I carefully built the old argument for the benefits of regularity in waking, cleansing, eating, working, exercising, resting, and sleeping. I lauded the sweetness of brahma muhurta – the two hours before dawn said to be ideal for contemplation. I said that an extended midday mealtime is excellent for digestion. I said that digestive fire is a reflection of well-timed food and the robustness of appetite is inseparable from steadily progressing towards self-actualization.

A woman sitting quietly at the edge of the room finally had enough. (I later found out she works as a welfare counselor.) She raised her hand and vocalized the questions that have been nagging me for years and informing the subtext of each Ayurvedic consultation I perform. “Who can do this for themselves?” she asked. “Who has this kind of time? How can a person on minimum wage or doing shift work possibly follow this advice? Who exactly is this stuff for?”

Indeed. The real benefits of Ayurvedic therapy only unfold under the blessing of time. And time, as they say, is money. Looking back over the past eight years, it’s clear that my clients who have had the hardest go at implementing my suggestions have often been those who have been battling the stresses of poverty. Single mothers, students, artists and writers, adjunct professors on term-to-term contracts, the unemployed – none of whom would have been able to afford an uncovered health care expenditure like Ayurvedic consultation if I didn’t offer a sliding scale.

A sliding scale is the absolute least we can do. To practice Ayurveda with integrity, we also have to be activists for economic justice. We have to work to equally distribute the most precious resource we have when it comes to the quiet contemplation at the root of preventative health: time.

It used to take several appointments with a client for me to begin to see how their finances were impacting their capacity to change their care choices. Even though I’m just old enough to have been brought up with a pre-Reaganite sense of class-consciousness, I started out pretty shy about letting this influence my practice. I certainly wasn’t trained to ask after the client’s income, dependents, and housing expenses to scan the stresses of each against their constitutional vulnerabilities. But now it’s standard procedure for me. As I examine hands and tongue and eyes, listen to the pulse, ask about menstrual cycles, libido, bowel habits and sleep hygiene, I also slip in questions about whether they are self-supporting, how much money they make, how much debt they carry, what percentage of it they spend upon necessities, and how they feel about the whole thing.

Many are taken aback, which is understandable. After all, they didn’t come to apply for a loan. So the gears grind a bit to accommodate the thought that these questions are not simply intrusive, but may reveal a hidden imbalance. To the general question “How are you doing economically?”, there’s often a shrug and the mumbling of “Well, you know, I don’t know, things are okay” This is usually a red flag. So I’ll press the question by suggesting that Ayurveda is about learning to negotiate environmental stress and its relation to internal balance, and the economy is a core aspect of our environment. After all, what’s the difference between how a person metabolizes food and exchanges carbon with the natural world and how they metabolize work and exchange labour for value within their society? How can we ignore the obvious health connection between how a person works and is valued in the world, and how they feel themselves to be?

Kapha, pitta, and vata as capital, labour, and value?

Do economies and bodies mirror each other? Could it be that the logic and pressures of an economy are expressed within the bodies of those who participate in it, willfully or otherwise?

In both the body and the body politic, vitality and value circulate, ideally seeking a rhythmic equilibrium. In the body, this equilibrium consists of the harmonious blending of the energies of resistance (kapha), compulsion (pitta), and creativity (vata). In the body politic, it consists of the equitable exchange of capital (kapha), labour (pitta), and value (vata). A pooling or stagnation of energies in any one place leads to both macro and micro illness.

From an Ayurvedic perspective, we could say that capitalism embodies a kind of congestion-pathology in favouring wealth accumulation over resource distribution. Capitalism stockpiles profits to leverage ever-greater strategies of extraction. This perverts the natural wish of the bodies of those it entraps to circulate the fruit of labour (ojas) for the equal benefit of all tissues. Wherever the energy of natural distribution has been siphoned towards the accumulation of profit, privation or wasting (vata-ama) appears in the siphoned regions. General immunity is degraded.

A compressed accumulation of potential energy or capital made meaningless because it is unshared might be a good metaphor for the logic of cancer. A small group of cells hordes nutrition for itself alone, slowly succumbing to the illusion that its vitality is independent of the whole. It parasitizes the body politic – and the body – to death. As above, so below.

The only thing new about my analysis here is the vocabulary. Here’s John McMurtry, in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism (Plume, 1999):

There are seven defining properties of a cancer invasion which medical diagnosis recognizes at the level of the individual organism. These seven properties can now be recognized for the first time at the level of global life-organization as well. And this is the pathological core of our current disease condition.

That is, there is: uncontrolled and unregulated reproduction and multiplication of an agent in a host body; that not committed to any life function of its life-host; that

3.aggressively and opportunistically appropriates nutriments and resources from its social and natural hosts in uninhibited growth and reproduction; that not effectively recognized or responded to by the immune system of its hosts; that

5.possesses the ability to transfer or to metastasize its growth and uncontrolled reproduction to sites across the host body; that

6.progressively infiltrates and invades contiguous and distant sites of its life-hosts until it obstructs, damages and/or destroys successive organs of their life-systems; and that

7.without effective immune-system recognition and response eventually destroys the host bodies it has invaded.


(Of course I do my best to suppress such theoretical digressions when I’m practicing.)

“Do you feel poor?”

Once a non-privileged client has warmed up to the idea of contextualizing their health imbalances within their experience of economy, there’s a better chance that they’ll be willing to free-associate with a very subjective question: “Do you feel poor?” If the answer is yes, I may follow with “How does that feel in your flesh?” Responses range from the melancholic (kapha) to the frustrated (pitta) to the anxious-despondent (vata). Often there’s a mixture of the three. I know that my Ayurvedic counseling must explore ways of addressing these feelings, up to and including changing the conditions that give rise to them. I’m not trained as a career counselor, but I’ve learned over time how to dialogue with clients about the health implications of poverty. And I’ve tried to build some knowledge of local educational resources across a broad spectrum of pursuits: finding a dharma that pays justly often requires a bump in learning. But most of all, I try to foster comradeship with the client, and to depersonalize the isolation and oppression that financial stress brings by contextualizing it within a system within which there might be other modes of participation, and dignity.

It’s the purpose of capitalism to make all but the extremely few feel poor, so positive answers to “Do you feel poor?” express a wide range of interpretation and self-identification. So I need to make distinctions. I have clients who are positioned quite firmly within what we used to call the “middle class” in terms of income and opportunity (even though many of the middle class support structures built by New Deal values have virtually disappeared). When these folks say they feel poor they’re really saying that they are tired of the pressures of consumerism that impoverish self-regard. When many of these folks say they don’t have time to care for themselves in more balanced ways, they’re really saying that their time has been stolen by a paradigm of anxiety. With these folks, a psychotherapeutic approach can be helpful, along with side-helpings of herbs and such.

But when the client is living from paycheck to paycheck, or drilling down further into debt by the month, teas and psychotherapeutics may be unethical consolations, no matter how attractive they are to the client or how adept they make the practitioner feel. Individualist neo-liberalism reaches so deep into the psyche that many non-privileged clients actually blame themselves for their economic struggles, and come looking for strategies of “acceptance” and “self-forgiveness”. It would be easy to instruct these clients in the kinds of mindfulness techniques by which they could spiritually bypass their feelings, but I refuse the bait. I ask them instead to find and respect their anger and dignity and nurture the fires of appetite and justice that emerge. I try to help them find a meaningful place in the struggle for equality, while trying to envision with them the long-term effects, based upon present symptoms and patterns, that continued stress may bring.

Another way of Ayurvedically assessing both the feeling and materiality of poverty might be to invoke the old distinction between artha and dharma: two of four “purposes of life” from Vedic lore (the other two being kama and moksha, very roughly translated as “pleasure” and “freedom”). Artha translates as “wealth” and implies “work you do to secure your survival”. Dharma translates into a thousand idioms, but in this case suggests “contribution” and implies “the work you do to create connection and meaning.”

A common therapeutic axiom in Ayurveda suggests that the closeness of artha to dharma is a predictor of psychological, and then organic health. In this vein, economic wellness is not simply an index of income, but of meaning and fulfillment. Poverty is not just a lack of cash, but the stress of having one’s time stuffed up the hole in our culture, as Leonard Cohen sings. And as Barbara Ehrenreich describes in Nickle-and-Dimed, her late-90s low-wage tour through the heartland of neoliberal “welfare reform”, it’s the worst-paying jobs that can be the most meaningless. (A similarly searing report comes from Mae McLelland in another undercover journalism essay that everyone should read called “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave”.) It’s not that low-wage jobs don’t require intensive skills and high learning curves (and carry higher risks of stress-related injuries), but that the acquired skills and effort can never express the worker’s heart, because they are the instruments of someone else’s dream. Poverty is the state of being robbed of not only money and time, but of meaning. This triple theft is a primary obstacle to the baseline of hopefulness and adequate relaxed time that contemplative self-care requires.

Ayurveda and privilege

While Ayurveda is often presented as a simple and inexpensive preventative naturopathy available to everyone (and certain parts of it surely can be) its current global marketing, which drives sales of exotic herbal compounds and entices affluent consumers to spa retreats, runs on a kind of privilege-blindness that tacitly assumes that everyone has equal portions of leisure and resource. With 22% of human beings (1.2 billion, according to the WHO) living in extreme poverty (earning 1.25 USD per day or less), and as much as one-third living at or below their national poverty lines, this assumption is unconscionable, and Ayurvedic practitioners must not continue to work under its shadow. What we can do is to work as hard as we can to turn that assumption into a reality. This means being as passionate about the most revolutionary blends of progressive policy initiatives as we are about our blends of herbs.

It also means recognizing that the economic inequalities that prevent access to Ayurvedic practice from being universal are an ancient problem within certain streams of the practice itself. I remember being nauseated to realize when wading through Caraka Samhita (one of the root-texts of Ayurveda, circa 400 CE) that the sections describing strategies for building sexual potency – involving the elaborate roasting of particular songbirds in exotic herbs and spices – could only be exploited by those with affluenza. Patients were to be attended by physicians, nurses, masseurs, cooks, and surely needed exclusive access to the produce of rich farmlands and gardens.

The fantasy of the Ayurvedic high-life lives on. If you can scrape it together, you can pay over $4000 dollars (“New Year, New You” special pricing) to luxuriate in Deepak Chopra’s 10-day spa-ritual retreat with the overly-enthusiastic name of “Perfect Health”, plus $2000 for accommodation in the adjacent Omni Resort, plus airfare to San Diego. In subtler ways, exclusive Ayurvedic luxury is also alive in well in the literature of even the most sensitive of Ayurvedic practitioners. Ayurveda: A Life of Balance by Maya Tiwari (Healing Arts Press, 1995) is an artful compendium of dietary and herbal lore, but following on Caraka’s lead, it features daily regimes attainable only by the Real Housewives of Mumbai, on vacation to rural Goa.

Consider that for an agenda running from 6am to 10pm, Tiwari advises the vata-spectrum person to apply themselves to “activity and work time” consisting of “attending meetings and communicating with others in general”, and “doing chores and errands of the day” from 10am to 2pm, broken up by an hour-long lunch break starting at noon. The rest of the strenuous day features “a warm bath with bath oils”, “massage body gently with sesame oil or natural body lotion”, “perform morning pranayama and gentle yoga asanas”, “rest; enjoy the stillness and pleasant sounds” (presumably of the house help doing their work), “take a nap”, “do gentle yoga stretches”, “meditate or chant”, “garner thoughts in stillness”, “listen to nature’s sounds (rivers, brooks, wind, leaves) or to beautiful music” (provided by the house minstrels). After such busyness, there’s a break for tea, “time to reflect on the day, wind down; plan ahead” (what shall we delegate to the maids tomorrow?), “take a nurturing evening brew”, “wind down” (I know – it’s all too much!), “take gentle after-dinner walks or perform other relaxing activity”, “do evening pranayama”, “meditate or do aromatherapy”, and then, “retire”. (p. 187) Phew! I thought she’d never get a break.

The pitta-spectrum person – not such a delicate flower! – is given a little more work to deal with. She’s advised to work from 9 to 10am, and then from 2 to 4pm, feisty as she is. But when we get to the kapha-spectrum person, a stranger layer of classism seems to emerge. A bucolic line-drawing of a stolid peasant picking apples accompanies instructions that suggests he should work from 9am to 2pm, and then from 3pm to 6pm. What a dependable, hard-working guy! Still – only a third of the population is working an 8-hour day, in a world strangely devoid of landlords, and children.

In other news, the US Congress reduced food stamp benefits to 47 million citizens in November, with the Republicans arguing for $10 billion in deeper cuts to follow. And the welfare counselor who asked me those questions just threw up a little in her mouth.

There’s also this: excessive self-care can be fruitless and exhausting, precisely because it misses a key target of our malaise, which is that we live in a deeply wounded and chaotic world.

Poverty fetish, Luddite fantasies, Impossible Ideals

How does Tiwari’s advice even make it into print? I can think of multiple factors. An apparently independently wealthy writer suffering from acute privilege-blindness tops the list. More subtle is the general sheen of fantasy that surrounds Ayurvedic marketing, in which health is seamlessly intertwined with the exoticism of endless leisure in a place very much unlike home, and in which daily life is conceived of as a kind of holiday from existential fact. Perhaps for the privileged, a fantastical practice of Ayurveda is a way of traveling to India without getting all the shots, where a 4-hour work day would be financed by one’s ability to hire basic house labour at impossibly low rates.

There’s also a Luddite fetish lurking in the background: a wish for life to return to the low-tech and lower population densities of pre-urban and pre-Industrial Revolution eras. It’s a world of unlimited time and expansive nostalgia. Tiwari advises ridding our kitchens of electric stoves and appliances, to which she claims we sacrifice the “cognitive memory” of our ancestors. This is a recurrent and often compelling theme within the book: that manual intimacy with the textures of life will re-awaken the child-like wonder that will be required for us to at least begin to make more ecological choices. My heart-strings are pulled, but the Arctic ice needs more than poetry. And climatologists will be unimpressed with her suggestion that we should all cook with wood. And feminists will notice that the utopian line drawings displaying the sadhanas of “carrying water”, “preparing grain”, “rolling chapatis”, etc., feature women doing all the work. As they always have.

The extremely happy Ayur-folk featured in the drawings of Tiwari’s book haven’t made it out of the 19th century. They’re using hand tools, kneading dough with their feet, washing clothes in the river, and grinding flour by hand, using stones, all within the very relaxed rhythm of their 4-hour work days. This gives an overall impression of romanticizing and aestheticizing poverty while ignoring the actual time and labour dynamics that produce value. Part of me is angry at the blind privilege on display, while another part of me is charmed by the melancholy that desires for the return of something that never existed. Such is the way with many modern Hindutva reconstructions of the Golden Age, filtered through the promises of happy doshas.

Jean Langford notes in Fluent Bodies: Ayurvedic Remedies for Postcolonial Imbalance (Duke 2002), “…the promises of 20th century Ayurveda extend from calming the overexcited dosha to easing the excessiveness of industrial lifestyles and from curing illness to healing modernity itself.” (17) In the Hindutva discourse echoed in Tiwari’s vision, modernity carries the legacy of colonial oppression and cultural amnesia. Tiwari isn’t just fantasizing about restoring the gracious aspects of her Indian-diaspora childhood in Guyana, or ruing the constant white noise of a technologized culture. I think she is also trying to re-invent an untouched motherland, purified of the colonial horrors of the past two hundred years. On top of this, she is trying to re-invent pre-industrial culture. The former is a fight that global practitioners of Ayurveda can understand and honour in their hearts, even if participating in it seems unclear. The latter is an impossible project. In my opinion, the gifts of Ayurveda will not be best served through mythical reconstruction, but through mindful, creative, and progressive adaptation.

On the therapeutic side, perhaps the most debilitating aspect of Tiwari’s suggestions is that they are literally impossible to execute, because they are not about food and herbs and bowel movements and time, but rather about inhabiting a “newly fashioned antiquity” (Langford). Is it only the lonely Trustafarian, so confused, so wracked with guilt, who is able to piously forswear unnecessary employment and time-saving appliances to pursue a life of Ayurvedic pureness? Let her grind her flour with a stone: it may be consoling for while. But for the rest of the population, sweating amidst the concrete and steel, Tiwari’s advice is myopic to the reality of not only time and work, but to where and how people must actually live. It places her adherents in a position, familiar to many lifelong spiritual seekers, of never being good enough, never being in the right place, never living up to the teachings, the teacher, the tradition, the untouchable past. I’m sure this is not her intention, but in Tiwari’s book, an integrated Ayurvedic way of life becomes as unattainable as enlightenment itself. The perfect Ayurvedic practitioner and the enlightened master become as rare and unapproachable as the 1%.

From the privatizations of self and wellness towards a pro-social Ayurveda

As a consumer product in a capitalist marketplace, Ayurveda dovetails with the privatization of the self that unconsciously contributes to global inequality. But it wasn’t always this way.

In Asceticism & Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery (Motilal Banarsidass, 2010), Kenneth Zysk shows that the roots of Ayurveda are not inextricably linked to the wealth of kings and priests, and not as enmeshed with the individualism we see today. According to Zysk, the earliest recorded textual formulations of Ayurvedic theory emerge in the medical advices of the Pali Canon, and were practiced in a very democratic (and therefore revolutionary) way by wandering Buddhist monks who offered their accumulated herbal and dietary knowledge to villagers in exchange for alms. In this pro-social and pragmatic form, Ayurvedic practice posed a direct challenge to the dominant paradigm of medicine, in which healing power was only accessible through temples, religious bureaucracies, and complex rituals. A naturalistic and empirical approach, honed by nomadic study, focused on a few selected remedies and procedures that common people could easily learn, governed by an ethics that rejected caste: this is the heart of the Buddhist Ayurvedic story. It’s a story that continues to pulse in the quieter streams of non-professionalized Ayur-rooted healing practice in India: the matrilineal whisperings of teas, masalas, stews, salves, and massage oils.

So Ayurveda wasn’t – and isn’t – always so flash. Nor has it always been seamless with the individualism that can become blind to privilege. To this day, many Indian practitioners and clients of Ayurveda are disarmingly unconcerned with the ultimate commodity of the globalized consumer version of the practice: one’s unique constitution. As Langford reports:

“…Westerners want to be predominant in some dosha…they want to be categorized as a particular prakriti. I never observed an Indian patient voicing curiosity, let alone desire [to know] about his or her prakriti. In his remark Dr. Upadhyay [one of Langford’s interlocutors] seemed to be commenting on a specific North American craving for individuality served up in an Ayurvedic recipe.” (57)

The problem is that the genuine Ayurvedic commitment to investigating constitutional uniqueness is easily fetishized by an individualistic wellness-ethos in which health is conceived of as primary a personal quest, an inner journey that can pretend to have little to do with social or political realities, so long as the quester is well-heeled. The search for what is particularly healthful for one’s own constitution can too easily blur with the general consumerist exercise, in which you display both virtue and personality through the refinement of your spa-menu or cookbook purchases. In capitalism, knowing what to uniquely seek out and buy is dependent upon the establishment of consumer selfhood. If Ayurveda blurs itself with this, how different can it be from the Google or Facebook algorithms that gather data about desires and self-perceptions, in order to better market to us?

At root, Ayurveda is about interdependence. Therefore, a consumerist approach constitutes the cruelest irony. The deal is: you are a unique blending of elemental energies that have very subjective physiological and psychic meanings. But those meanings are not privately generated or directed, any more than the unfolding of your genome can be isolated from environmental conditioning. Your constitutional meanings are created in relation to the meanings that evolve from qualities of your relationships. Your blend isn’t an exclusive brand that only you and your boutique therapist can understand and provide for.

In my own practice, I resist letting ideas about constitution crystallize. When asked “Can you tell me my dosha?”, I’ll discuss it a bit, but then try to change the subject to the granular study of what it feels like to be alive from day to day. Instead of sending the client away with a definition that will unlock the Ayurvedic cookbook-code, I want to provide a language for reading the delicate and changing sensations of their appetites and discomforts. Over time and several visits, a very malleable story of constitution begins to emerge – a general way of understanding how the client is and is likely to be in the world. But it’s never fixed. I don’t want to assign distinct constitutions to people, because I’ve never met anyone who needs another identity to shop for.

Moving forward, Ayurveda needs to be attentive to the ways in which the old values of individualized care and honouring the healing bounty of the simple earth can so easily be confused with individualism and the neoliberal fantasies of limitless “abundance” and equal access. Practitioners have to become as active in their ministry to the social constitution as they are to the individual constitution. They can contemplate the words of MacKenzie Wark, in The Beach Beneath the Street, criticizing another institution of self-care that can become myopic with individualism: “If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them.” (Verso, 2012, p.93)

Most of all, and finally, Ayurvedic practitioners must come to grips with a very promising paradox. We as human beings are constitutionally different from each other. But it is only social, political, and economic equality that can give us the time it takes, in a world so short on time, to explore and enjoy the mystery, together, of just how uniquely different we all are.

Originally published on


Matthew Remski is a writer in the morning, therapist in the day, and teacher in the evening. He writes about yoga, ayurveda, and evolution. He writes books, articles, and poetry. He teaches courses in ayurveda and yoga philosophy based upon the ongoing research of writing, and the ongoing experience of practical therapy. His approach is student-centered, example-focused, and Socratic. He also teaches asana, mostly in a therapeutic context.


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