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Artist Robert Sturman on Yoga and The Poetry of the Body

Robert Sturman


Robert Sturman, an artist from Santa Monica, Calif., recently traveled to Kenya to document the work of the Africa Yoga Project, a nonprofit organization that teaches and employs more than 70 local yoga teachers and conducts up to 300 free yoga classes for more than 5,000 people weekly in orphanages, prisons and other locales throughout the country. 

The result? A series of stunning photos that capture just how universal a language yoga has become.
“Yoga is a beautiful, poetic expression of the body,” Sturman tells the New York Times in this interview, which also displays a sampling of his stunning photos. “I wanted to go to Africa to celebrate human beings aspiring to reach their full potential.” 
More than perhaps any artist before him, Sturman has made it his mission in life to capture the poetry of the body via yoga asanas.
"It is the study of yoga that has triggered one of the most creative periods of Sturman's career, resulting in a series of stunning portraits that capture the beauty and poetry of asana, the repertory of postures included in the practice of yoga." says Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times.
The visit to document the wok of the Africa Yoga Project proved memorable. Sturman traveled to orphanages, prisons, and remote villages.

“Visiting the Kenyan prison brought me unexpected joy,” says Sturman to The New York Times. The inmates, some of whom are H.I.V.-positive, told me that yoga has become a rare source of happiness in their daily lives. After a yoga class, I looked at the people in the class and I saw the hope in their eyes that they could become a part of something positive."
For more on Sturman and his beautiful photography of yoga asana, visit his website at



Yoga in Encinitas Schools – Trial on Hold till Late June


The trial challenging the teaching of yoga in the PE program of the Encinitas Union School District has been put on hold till June 24, pending the testimony of more witnesses before closing arguments.

“This is 21st century P.E. (physical education) for our schools. It’s physical. It’s strength-building. It increases flexibility but it also deals with stress reduction and focusing, which kickball doesn't do,” says Superintendent of EUSD, Timothy Baird, who testified at the trial. 
At the heart of the issue is the attempt to define yoga narrowly as either religious or not. 
As author Philip Goldberg points out in a blog post on Huffpost, entitled, The Encinitas Yoga Case: Yoga Is Religious, Only It's Not.
“Yoga" means different things to different people, has a broad spectrum of applications and can legitimately be presented in a variety of formats, contexts and rubrics. In fact, its adaptability is among its greatest strengths.
If yoga is interpreted as religious, it must be the most nonsectarian, nondenominational, trans-traditional, interspiritual, universal expression of religion imaginable. It would also be the least religious of religions, since it demands neither allegiance to a specific tradition, nor faith, nor the acceptance of any doctrine. Few Americans for whom yoga is central to their spiritual lives call themselves religious, and even fewer think of themselves as Hindus. Indeed, none of the gurus and yoga masters who brought yoga to the West ever asked anyone to convert or to accept their teachings on faith. To them, yoga is a practical science that has value for people of any religion.
As blogger Carol Horton points out in this blog post on the Encinitas yoga law suit, the basic issue with the case is trying to narrowly define yoga as either religious or not. Yoga as taught in the U.S. today is a varied as the American culture itself. If we try to box it into concepts narrowly defined by prevailing culture wars, everyone loses out. 
Watch a brief recap of the case here and stay tuned for more updates when the trial resumes in June:

No More Excuses—The Gift of Yoga


Reasons people give saying they can’t do yoga:

–I’m too stiff.
–I have arthritis.
–I’m overweight.
–I have a bad back.
–I’m too old.
–I’m a guy.
Let me describe the people in one of my recent classes: 
-Their ages range from 42 to 82. 
-One is blind. 
-One has scoliosis and deals with chronic pain from post-polio syndrome. One has fibromyalgia. 
-One’s a guy. 
-Half of them can’t touch their toes. 
Let me describe their teacher:
I am 54. I took my first yoga class in 1995, shortly after I learned I had advanced osteoarthritis in my left hip. I had been told at age 25 that I suffered from early-onset joint and disc degeneration and that I had the knees of an 80-year-old. I had my first joint surgery a few months later. It left me more crippled in the knees than before. I had suffered from crippling back pain since I was 18.
By the time I took that first yoga class, I could walk about a quarter mile. I could go up and down stairs only with assistance. I had to use my hands to move my feet onto the gas pedal and brake to drive to that first class. I sat on the floor and burst into tears from the pain. My teacher gave me a stack of towels to sit on and I could stop crying. 
An hour and 15 minutes later, the back pain was gone.
I began studying how to teach and then began teaching yoga in 1997.  Fifteen months later, I had to have that left hip replaced. The doctor told me I would have been there much sooner if it hadn’t been for the yoga. Three months later, I had the second hip replaced. 
My recovery period: five weeks. At week four after each replacement, I was walking up and down Mt. Rubidoux, a 3.5-mile round trip on a big hill in my hometown. My doctor also attributed that recovery pace to the yoga. The doctor also noted that my entire spine was degenerating, as were all my joints.
In 2004, although my back pain was mostly gone, I was aware that damage existed and I had sharp pain in my neck. I had X-rays and then an MRI done. The lowest disc in my spine was completely gone; next one up was half gone; I had ground bone away from my lowest vertebra; I had bulging discs and bone spurs in my neck. I set to work on the neck problems in my yoga practice, and the pain was gone in about two weeks.
When I started practicing yoga, and for years after I started teaching, I couldn’t come anywhere close to touching my toes. I couldn’t do backbends, I couldn’t do forward bends, my standing poses were narrow and wobbly. Even as a teacher, I felt frightened in most poses all the time. I still do.
What got me going in yoga: pain.
What kept me there: Hope. Hope and inspiration, deriving from the constant, small, but steady progress in dealing with the challenges I have been dealt in life. And ultimately, this is the gift of yoga, and this is what keeps us all coming back to the mat again and again.


Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O'Bannon and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: Her Web site is



Yoga on Trial: Encinitas and the Need for a New Paradigm


By Carol Horton, Ph.D. - 

The legal battle unfolding in Encinitas over the constitutionality of teaching yoga in public schools is now on hiatus; the San Diego Superior Court will resume hearings in late June. At this point, it’s impossible to predict the outcome of the trial. It’s a good time, however, to pause and reflect on what we may or may not be learning in the course of this historically unprecedented case. 
The Encinitas lawsuit against yoga in schools is a complex mélange of legal, political, historical, educational, cultural, and religious issues. While the long-term impact of the case remains to be seen, it will likely frame the debate over yoga in schools going forward. Beyond the status of the Encinitas program itself, the question of whether yoga can be successfully integrated into important social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons is extremely timely, as the movement to do so has been growing exponentially in recent years. 
Yet as this trial demonstrates, critical questions about the nature of yoga and its legitimate place in public institutions are only starting to be asked. And unfortunately, the most important issues raised in the Encinitas case have been very poorly addressed to date. 
Rather than acknowledging the complexity of the legal, educational, cultural, and religious issues in play, the opposing parties have squared off into narrowly defined and sharply polarized camps. Each is equally committed to defending an overly simplistic, one-dimensional paradigm that leaves little, if any room for nuance, compromise, or finding a much-needed middle ground. 
Hopefully, the presiding judge will decide the case in a way that parses the issues presented much more finely. Because if he sticks with the paradigms presented so far, it won’t be good either for yoga, public education, or our collective health and well-being. 
Exercise or Religion?
As it stands, the plaintiffs in the case – a group of aggrieved parents led by Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock – have been arguing that yoga is inherently religious, and consequently unconstitutional to teach in public schools. In response, the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) is insisting that yoga is exercise, pure and simple. 
And that (ridiculous as it may seem to anyone who knows anything about yoga) is essentially it: Yoga is either religion or exercise! Take your pick. 
When presented with such one-dimensional positions, anyone with a reasonably informed understanding of contemporary American yoga would immediately respond that yoga is neither simply exercise, nor inherently religious. For most regular yoga practitioners, it’s beyond obvious that yoga is a multidimensional practice that’s much more complex, nuanced, and adaptable than either of these simplistic (not to mention, profoundly polarized and polarizing) positions permits. 
In our culture, yoga is commonly described as a “mind-body-spirit” practice. True, this phrase is used very casually, and lacks clear definition. Nonetheless, it communicates the fact that yoga as we know it today is a richly multidimensional practice.
Yoga in America is alternately understood and experienced as exercise, fashion trend, self-improvement technique, physical therapy, stress reducer and/or spiritual practice. There’s a huge variety of yoga methods, classes, teachers, and practitioners. There are radically different – and in many cases, sharply opposing – approaches to the practice. To boil such a remarkable degree of diversity down into an argument over whether yoga is “exercise or religion” would seem ridiculous, if it weren’t already being taken seriously in a court of law. 
Mind, Body – and Spirit?
Of course, it’s the “spiritual” part of this mind-body-spirit picture that presents the problem. In this case, the EUSD wants to deny it exists (or equate it with something akin to a “runner’s high”). Meanwhile, the Sedlocks and their supporters want to subsume this vague term of  “spirit” into a made-up category of “yoga religion” that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. 

In 15 years of practice, as well as several spent studying contemporary yoga in the course of researching my recent book, the only striking pattern I’ve seen with regard to the “spiritual” side of yoga is that it’s extremely variable and undefined.
I’ve met many people who take their practice very seriously who would never describe it as “spiritual.” Alternatively, I’ve found that those who do see yoga as “spiritual” can’t really explain what they mean by that well. Most significantly for the purposes of this case, I’ve also become convinced that a solid majority of American practitioners simply aren’t interested in the spiritual side of yoga at all. 
Yoga Journal’s 2012 market study, which offers the best data available on the American yoga “industry,” backs up this observation. When asked to report the top reasons they practice yoga, a representative sample of the American population replied as follows: “increase flexibility” (68%), “stress relief” (62%), “improve physical health” (61%), “enjoy class” (“57%), “improve mental health” (51%), “increase strength” (50%), “physical fitness” (50%), “weight loss” (31%), and – last but not least – “spiritual development” (30%). 
Particularly given that the term “spiritual” is extremely elastic and vague, the fact that only 30% of American practitioners cite “spiritual development” as a reason to practice belies the claim that yoga is “inherently religious.” However, it also counters the assertion that yoga is “simply exercise.” As these data indicate, American yoga is a diverse phenomenon. While most commonly prized for its physical benefits, it’s also valued for its psychological effects – and, in a solid minority of cases, as some sort of undefined “spiritual practice.” 
Finding a Middle Ground
If it’s understandable why the conflict in Encinitas arose, the fact that it’s polarized into the two simplistic positions of “yoga is religious” versus “yoga is exercise” is problematic. Both are grossly inaccurate ways of describing the variety and complexity of American yoga. Plus, they are polarizing positions that encourage people to dismiss each other’s concerns out of hand, torpedoing potential conversation and compromise. 
To stick with the polarizing paradigms presented in the Encinitas case could potentially undercut the growing trend toward teaching yoga in schools and other publically funded institutions. This would be terrible, as it’s an important movement that offers much of value to not only to our children, but society at large.
It’s particularly stupid to stick with these simplistic positions given that both parties agree that the public schools have no business directing kids’ spiritual and/or religious development. Rather than fighting over one-dimensional definitions of what yoga supposedly is or is not, they should be working together to develop classes that are appropriate for a public school setting. As such, the yoga taught should not only enhance children’s physical and psychological health and well-being, but also respect the diverse religious commitments of a multicultural society. 
Hopefully, Judge Meyer will write an opinion that recognizes the legitimate concerns of both parties, but rejects the one-dimensional nature of their positions. Ideally, the Encinitas case will contribute to a productive conversation about how best to adapt the ever-evolving practice of yoga to meet the needs and concerns of our troubled and unhealthy society. Rather than reigniting the culture wars, we need to reach across the fault-lines of our deeply divided body politic, finding ways to continually re-create yoga as the healing, unifying, and empowering practice that it can and should be.  
Many thanks to Gary Warth, reporter for the U-T San Diego, for being so generous with his time in answering my questions about the case. All views expressed in this article represent those of the author alone.  


Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at



Could GMOs Potentially Cause Leukemia in Humans?


By Susan Olshuff - 

The widespread use of foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has long been a cause of concern for health-conscious consumers. Sixty-four countries around the world now require foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such. Despite numerous consumer initiatives in the United States to introduce GMO labeling, the Food and Drug Administration so far has resisted enforcing the labeling of genetically altered foods.

If you’re wondering about the safety of GMOs, a new study may provide yet another reason to stay cautious. The study indicates that biopesticides engineered into GMO crops to make the crops resistant to pests, may be contributing to blood abnormalities ranging from simple anemia to blood cancers like leukemia. The study was published by the Department of Genetics and Morphology at the University of Brazil in the Journal of Hematology & Thromboembolic Diseases.

Bt spore-crystals have been in use in US agriculture since the late 1960’s as an insecticide applied to crops. However, with the advent of recombinant DNA biotechnology, Bt toxin-producing genes have become inserted into the plants themselves. Genertically engineered plants containing Bt toxins have been commercially produced in the U.S. since the mid-90s, and they are now ubiquitous in the US food supply.

In September, 2012, a link between genetically modified food and cancer was confirmed in a French study on rats. The current study goes further and reveals that different binary combinations and doses of Bt toxins can target mammalian cells, in particular, red blood cells, resulting in cell changes that indicate significant damage, such as anemia. The study also found that Bt toxins suppress bone marrow proliferation, resulting in abnormal lymphocyte patterns found in some types of leukemia.

Researchers in this study fed mice various doses of GMO toxins called Cry proteins or Cry toxins. After only one dose, the toxins caused a number of blood abnormalities, which continued to worsen until the seventh day after that single exposure. Damage was seen in the bone marrow cells, ranging from anemia at the lowest dose tested, to higher counts of white blood cells, which are associated with leukemia.

These results, according to researchers Mezzomo and Miranda-Vilela at the University of Brazil, indicate the need for further studies to clarify the mechanism involved in the hematotoxicity found in mice, and to establish the toxicological risks to mammals – before concluding that these GMO control agents are indeed safe for human health.

In short, the jury is still out when it comes to the safety of GMOs for human consumption. If you prefer to play it safe until the health effects of GMOs are more fully ascertained, a little bit of smart shopping can help you stay clear of most of the foods currently containing GMOs. 

Source: Hematotoxicity of Bacillus thuringiensis as Spore-crystal Strains Cry1Aa, 
Cry1Ab, Cry1Ac or Cry2Aa in Swiss Albino Mice. Journal of Hematology & Thromboembolic Diseases, Volume 1, Issue 1.



Savasana Under Lockdown: Teaching Yoga in Jail


By Carol Horton, Ph.D. - 

I taught yoga in jail for the first time yesterday
Or, more accurately, I got my first intro to teaching there by assisting the beautiful Jenny Boeder, who teaches at Yogaview, one of the best studios in Chicago.

I met Jenny through Yoga for Recovery (YFR), which is expanding into a full-fledged nonprofit from a small core of volunteers who’ve been teaching yoga in the Cook Country Women’s Detention Center for three years. I connected with YFR through Street Yoga, whose excellent training I took earlier this year.

“How was it?,” my husband asked when I came home. Good question.

Savasana Under Lock-Down

The first word that came to mind was “bittersweet.”

Both of the two back-to-back classes that Jenny and I taught went exceptionally well. They were at capacity (10) and the students were really engaged. By the time everyone was lying in Savasana, I sensed that same palpable magic that I always feel at the end of a really good yoga class.  As I closed my eyes and breathed together with everyone else, I surfed the powerful wave of peace and spaciousness that we’d created.

But then, the students left – as a group, under guard. Jenny and I collected our I.D.s and walked outside. Through the thicket of security guards, many of whom seemed slightly startled, pleased, and curious to see the two of us – who looked like we’d dropped in from a parallel universe (which, effectively, we had) – passing by.

We walked through a bleak courtyard with high walls topped with menacing spirals of barbed wire cyclone fencing.

And it cut my psyche, just a bit.

I got just a little, tiny glimpse of the reality of incarceration. And that was painful enough. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have that be my everyday world.

During the break between classes, Jenny and I had talked about how most of these women were likely in jail because of nonviolent offenses like drug possession. (And statistically, it’s true: about 80% of women in Cook County Jail have been charged with non-violent crimes.) “Like nothing that we didn’t do in high school,” said Jenny intently, wearily, indignantly. “I mean, did you feel like any of those women seemed like they needed to be locked up?”

Risk and Hope

No – I didn’t. There’d been no vibe that felt threatening whatsoever. Quite the contrary: Instead, what I’d felt was a degree of openness to the deeper dimensions of yoga that far exceeded what I’d experienced teaching most of my studio classes.

Which didn’t surprise me. It was very much the same as when I’d taught yoga at Sarah’s Circle, a drop-in center for homeless women, last year. In part, I think this is true because these women are willing to take a risk. They’re stepping out of their usual routines and doing something that for them is radically new (not surprisingly, most have never done yoga before). And they’re taking that risk in the hope that it’ll prove worthwhile – who knows, maybe even bring them something positive.

As an over-educated white girl from the suburbs who’s never been in serious trouble with the law, never been homeless, and never had any close friends or family imprisoned, I feel like I’m making something of a parallel move from the other side when I teach in a jail or homeless shelter. Because I, too, am choosing to step out of my usual world and into a radically different one in the hopes it’ll prove worthwhile – and, who knows, maybe even be really positive.

And I can honestly say that in my experience, it is.

To me, teaching yoga to under-served, socially marginalized populations such as women in homeless centers or jails feels very worthwhile. And, in a weird, bittersweet, and paradoxical way, it also makes me feel more peaceful and centered, and less fearful and anxious.

Experiencing Yoga

Of course, it’s important not to romanticize “serving the poor.” We also need to be thoughtful about where we can truly be helpful. A certain amount of training and life experience is necessary to work sensitively with groups of students that will undoubtedly have much higher levels of trauma than those of us from more privileged backgrounds are used to.

At the same time, however, I think it’s important to celebrate the fact that teaching yoga in a jail or homeless shelter can be positive and uplifting.

“Really, you’ll see, it’s fun,” Jenny and the other experienced teachers told us newbies at our first Yoga for Recovery meeting. “While there’s always issues, the students are great.”

And it’s true. Though for me, “fun” and “great” are just placeholders for an experience that’s much more meaningful.

That bittersweet experience of feeling embedded in a collectively generated magic of positivity and peace, and then walking out through that barbed wire fence back to the reality of a society in which those same women and I are radically divided by race, class, education, and culture – that, for me, is yoga.

Much as I wish that it were not the case, it’s simply true that there’s a huge social chasm separating me from the women in Chicago’s jails and homeless centers.

At the same time, it’s also true that when we both step out of our everyday worlds and meet in the neutral space of a yoga class, we can co-create an experience that transcends those differences, generating an energy that I believe – or at least hope – is healing and energizing for us all.

This post was originally featured on Yoga Modern (September 27, 2011).

Barbed wire photo credit: geezaweezer

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at




Yoga as a Universal Journey: Iyengar Teacher Birjoo Mehta on the True Meaning of Yoga


By Christie Hall 

Christie Hall is a writer, yoga teacher, and long-term Iyengar yoga practitioner. In this article, she describes some important lessons learned at the recent national Iyengar yoga conference in San Diego, titled Yoga, Universal to All, or Sarvabhauma Yog. Particularly noteworthy were the sessions headed up by Birjoo Mehta, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher and increasingly, a leading force within Iyengar yoga. 

Birjoo Mehta lept lightly to the stage the first evening of the Iyengar Yoga conference and convention in San Diego, May 10-15. He was to spend the next several days showing us how to create steadiness and balance as a means of bringing consciousness into our poses. 

He was a child when he began studying with BKS Iyengar in 1974. As a young man, he traveled with his teacher through Europe, the United States and Australia, demonstrating poses. An engineer by profession, he has led Iyengar yoga conventions in the United Kingdom since 2001, and he traveled to China in June 2011 with Iyengar, teaching the evening sessions with guidance from his teacher. 

My teacher, Manouso Manos, had urged us all to get to the conference to experience Birjoo’s teaching, but I achieved far more comprehension of the purpose of yoga than I ever dreamed I might.

"’Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of consciousness’ (Yoga Sutras I,2] Yoga is seen as the study of the workings of the mind. The way the mind interacts with the senses, the breath and lays down emotional imprints. It is a study of consciousness.”  ~ Alan Goode

The message from BKS Iyengar has always been twofold: Find the correct alignment in the pose and let consciousness spread until the pose itself felt whole. For some such as me, however, learning alignment has been such a task that spiritual accomplishment has been even more elusive than the turn of a femur. At some point, I mostly gave up trying.

Birjoo brought us a simple how-to message, however, a map any individual can follow to find that stillness in a pose. We should worry less about making alignment corrections in a pose, he taught. Instead, we have to use our minds even more than we use our bodies. As Manouso often notes: Finding resolution with the physical body is considerably less threatening.

Rather than focusing on the fine points of alignment, Birjoo put much more emphasis on the meaning of yoga – stilling the fluctuations of the mind to reach an awareness of our true, unchanging self. He set out the process in a pragmatic fashion, likening it to a corporate initiative, outlining the steps from vision to accomplishment:

1. What is the vision of yoga? Developing the ability to perceive our permanent form.

2. What is the mission of yoga practitioners? Stilling the fluctuations of thought – in order to perceive our true, unchanging self.

3. What is the strategy for accomplishing our mission? Practicing yoga asana.

4. What tactics shall we use in our strategy? Finding alignment in yoga postures.

Like his teacher, Birjoo brought joy to his teachings. He made us laugh with implied threats of long holds of Kapotasana. His hands wove like birds as he spoke. He smiled, he coaxed, he reached for analogies to help us understand how to perceive consciousness within yoga postures and, once perceived, to command its use. By the second day, his voice was a bit hoarse.

I began to understand some writings that had long been obscure to me:

"From fluctuation to stillness, stillness to silence, and silence to sight of the soul is the journey of yoga." BKS Iyengar in Tree of Life p. 121 

As much as I longed for the state described in Yoga Sutra 1.3, that having stilled the mind, “The seer resides in his own true splendour,” I was very much stuck in 1.4: “At other times, the seer identifies with the fluctuating consciousness.” (Iyengar, pp. 52-3.)

Birjoo's theme of awareness and consciousness in the pose vs. physical actions proved disconcerting until I had the faith to actually try it. Here are some reflections from Birjoo’s sessions on how this principle applies to the practice of yoga asanas.

Finding Tadasana in Every Pose – Samasthiti

This pose is like the unchanging self at the center of all our fluctuations. It is the touchstone, the place of quiet at the center of a practice. The other poses all become variations. The key to envisioning this is in the name Samasthiti: sama – same; sthiti – steadiness.

To find the quiet within fluctuations of other poses, Birjoo directed us to bring an element of Tadasana to each pose. In Utthita trikonasana, Birjoo suggested we maintain the back leg actions of Tadasana in both front and back legs as we slowly lowered into the pose.

I kept the back leg and buttock in the neutrality of Tadasana, and connected the front leg buttock bone firmly toward the heel. Although physically exhausted after a challenging day of standing poses, I found that a surprising kind of steadiness resulted; a quiet, unfluctuating mind translated to a pose that felt grounded.

The next afternoon, he brought Tadasana to the practice of Bharadvajasana 1. Once we had turned the abdomen and chest, Birjoo asked us to recreate the torso of Tadasana. One side of my body had become noticeably shorter. Once I opened and lengthened it, again quietness descended. 

We touch back to universality when we bring Samasthiti to other poses.

Balancing consciousness

For any other physical activity, the movement itself is the point. In yoga, the asana starts when the activity and movement of creation stops. We pay attention to the details of the pose as we create it, then, once in the pose, we let awareness move to where consciousness is. Then we seek to balance the consciousness throughout the pose.

The second day of the conference, Birjoo asked us to add another layer of awareness to our poses. In all the asymmetrical standing poses, consciousness concentrates in one leg or the other, he noted. He described it this way: activity, the movement itself is the point. In yoga, the asana starts when the activity and movement of creation stops. We pay attention to the details of the pose as we create it, then, once in the pose, we let awareness move to where consciousness is. Then we seek to balance the consciousness throughout the pose.

Where there is excess consciousness, the pose is more dense. Where there is less consciousness, the pose becomes light.

Birjoo outlined this process in Utthita trikonasana, where the back leg becomes light, with consciousness concentrated in the front leg. He suggested moving the bones where consciousness, density remained, and to move from the flesh to bring consciousness to the pose where it was light, such as the back leg. 

Another consciousness-balancing technique works through awareness of opposites. He suggested that where the flesh was puffed out or extended, excess consciousness existed. He also equated this with ahamkara, sense of self. On the opposite side was an interruption of consciousness. To balance consciousness, we had to reopen that interruption. For example, a locked elbow produces excess consciousness along the inner elbow, and we must release the back side of the elbow to create evenness. In Uttanasana, the puffiness of the upper or lower back requires an opening of the front chest or abdomen.

These modifications required something much different than what he termed the beginner’s approach of paying attention to aligning the pose. Instead he invited us to arrive in a pose and explore, to be open to the areas calling for our awareness.

Once we find heightened perception in one area, we next draw that awareness to the opposite region of the body to balance awareness, consciousness throughout the pose. All in all, the conference gave me a whole different level of understanding of the subtler levels of experience in yoga asana and of the amazing depth of the teachings of BK. Iyengar.


Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O'Bannon and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: Her Web site is



Here’s to Your Health: 8 Great Reasons to Drink Tea

top health benefits of tea

By Kristin Muckerheide, AADP, CHHC

While you’re likely to find a coffee shop around nearly every street corner in America, our beloved cuppa Joe is beginning to face more competition from its mellower counterpart, tea.

And there are some good reasons why. Tea has numerous health benefits, and barely a month goes by without a new study coming out touting the benefits of this subtly flavored beverage. Scientists link the benefits to tea’s polyphenol antioxidants, known as catechins, which protect against oxidative stress and the ill effects of free radicals accumulated through everyday life. But the benefits don’t stop there.

All types of tea come from the same warm-weather evergreen plant known as Camellia sinensis. How the tealeaves are processed is what determines its classification as a green, black, white, oolong or Pu-erh tea. Each of these types has its own set of benefits, but the Camellia sinensis plant offers bountiful health benefits no matter the processing method. Here are some highlights of the health effects of tea, and why you might want to change out that Joe for a cuppa tea.

1. Black tea helps maintain healthy blood pressure.

A 2004 paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine looked at blood pressure rates of Taiwanese people that drank tea for at least a year. The study found that those who drank 4 to 20 ounces of tea per day had a 46 percent lower risk of developing hypertension than people who didn’t drink tea on a regular basis.

A more recent study, conducted in Italy at the Department of Internal Medicine and Public Health at the University of L’Aquila, found that black tea reduced blood pressure in all participants and counteracted the negative effects of a high-fat meal in people with hypertension. Study researchers concluded that black tea’s flavanols, or antioxidants, were likely responsible for the beneficial effects.

2. Tea prevents heart attack, heart disease and cardiovascular disease.

Another paper, published in 2002 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at the results of a large study on chronic disease and found that those that drank the highest amount of tea, more than 12 ounces a day, had less than half the risk of heart attack than people that didn’t drink tea.

A review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that drinking three or more cups of tea per day was linked with a lower risk of coronary heart disease.

The University of Maryland Medical Center also reported that research has shown that green and black teas may prevent atherosclerosis, or, hardening of the arteries. The Food and Drug Administration, however, has yet to allow tea makers to claim that green tea can affect heart disease risk.

3. Tea promotes healthy digestion.

Gerry Mullin, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of “The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health,” told the Washington Post that tea may help control glucose and insulin and keep the digestive systems running smoothly.

Pu-erh tea is especially helpful for digestion, as the leaves are fermented during processing. Fermented foods and beverages are helpful for building and maintaining healthy gut flora, which is important for immune and overall health.

4. Tea consumption boosts the immune system and prevents disease.

Healthy digestion plays a large role in immune health, but studies tie tea consumption to improvements in immune strength in other ways as well. According to research from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, tea supports the immune system by boosting the number of “regulatory T cells” in the body, which are important for immune function.

Study researcher Emily Ho said in a statement, “When fully understood, this could provide an easy and safe way to help control autoimmune problems and address various diseases.” The research was published in the journal Immunology Letters.

The researchers focused their studies on a compound in green tea epigallocatechin gallate, also known as EGCG, which is a powerful polyphenol. Ho said that its effectiveness may lie in the way it impacts how genes are expressed—also known as epigenetics—instead of changing the actual coding of DNA.

5. Green tea promotes healthy weight loss.

According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, those who drank three to five cups of green tea per day lost 5% of their body weight, particularly belly fat, in 3 months.

6. Green tea may help prevent or shrink cancers.

Scottish researchers discovered that applying the EGCG found in green tea shrank tumors in lab tests. Dr. Christine Dufés, the lead researcher of the study and senior lecturer at the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, said in a statement that when the researchers used their method of delivering the treatment “specifically” to the tumors after intravenous administration, “the green tea extract reduced the size of many of the tumors every day, in some cases removing them altogether.”

Nearly two-thirds of the tumors it was delivered to shrank or disappeared after one month, and according to the researchers, they saw no side effects to normal tissues. Dufés noted that while their method was highly effective in shrinking the tumors, the extract didn’t have any effect if delivered using conventional intravenous methods.

7. Helps fight prostate cancer.

Researchers at the University of Missouri found that green tea and radioactive gold nanoparticles worked together to fight prostate cancer tumor cells. Green tea compounds were used as the delivery mechanism, bringing the gold nanoparticles to the tumor, where they were able to kill the cancer cells.

The research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, showed that the same method was able to reduce tumor size in mice by 80%.

8. Green tea promotes healthier aging.

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that drinking green tea can help people function better as they age, meaning less help needed doing basic activities like bathing or dressing.

The study, which looked at 14,000 adults ages 65 and older for a three-year period, showed that those that drank the most green tea had the best functioning in old age compared with those that drank the least.

In the published study, researchers concluded, “Green tea consumption is significantly associated with a lower risk of incident functional disability, even after adjustment for possible cofounding factors.”

So while it’s clear that teatime may boost your health in a variety of ways, experts disagree on the recommended daily amount. Some say two to eight cups, while others say more than four. We say: Any amount is better than nothing!

If you’re sensitive to caffeine, switch to decaf or simply reduce your intake of the caffeinated versions. But unlike coffee, tea delivers the calming amino acid theanine, or L-Theanine, so it will keep you calm as well as alert. Drink on!

kristin muckerheide body + soul wellness, llcKristin Muckerheide is an AADP Board Certified Holistic Health Counselor and owner of the holistic health counseling practice Body + Soul Wellness, LLC. For questions and to learn more,

Letting Go: The Practice of Vairagya


By: Christine Malossi


Last week in yoga class, just as we settled ourselves on our mats, the teacher announced, “Today we’ll focus on strengthening our arms.”

Inwardly, I groaned. The internal monologue began: Arms! Why do we have to do arms? All day I’ve been dying for some nice stretchy hip openers, and now I’ll probably have to do a million Chaturangas?! This is not fair.

After I’d whined to myself a bit longer, the teacher said it was time to set our intentions for our practice. As I closed my eyes and searched for my intention, I realized how ensnarled in judgment and negativity I had become in just a few short moments. How quickly that happens!

Just three simple words—“strengthening our arms”—had set off a litany of gripes, grumbles and groans in my head. I could easily have been sucked into this downward spiral for the entire class or even the rest of the day.

I decided to use vairagya (non-attachment) as my intention.

It is the human condition to cling to what we like and push away what we don’t like. We all want to feel as good as possible for as long as possible. While this is human nature, it is also the root of most of our suffering. Strive as we may to cling to comfort and get rid of discomfort, there inevitably comes a time when we have to deal with the stuff we don’t like. And when we get what we do like, no matter how hard we hold on, it will eventually slip away.

In our yoga practice, we learn to deal with these habits of grasping and aversion by noticing our immediate reactions, our clinging and our pushing away. We take a step back to just watch, unattached, observant, still and silent, without judgment.  Then we let these feelings go.

This is the practice of vairagya that Patanjali refers to in Yoga Sutra 1.12: Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah (identification with the fluctuations of the mind is stopped by practice and non-attachment). By resisting attachment to our reactions and feelings, we realize that we are so much more than these fleeting, transitory emotions and thoughts. By letting go of grasping and aversion, we open ourselves to a complete and authentic experience of the present.

In the grand scheme of things, the fact that I had to do some push-ups when I really wanted to do pigeon pose is not a big deal.

Worse things have happened. But by cultivating and practicing an attitude of non-attachment towards a small disturbance such as this, I prepare myself for those moments when life hits me hard. Through yoga, we practice being present without judgment towards the minor annoyances and inconveniences of everyday life so that, in times of greater adversity, we cultivate an inner strength and have a way to deal with our problems.

The next time you catch yourself getting wrapped up in judgment, try to pause, take a deep breath and tap into your core. Not your physical core, but your spiritual core, a.k.a. the soul, spirit, essential nature, authentic self, atman. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the place deep down inside that is eternal, timeless, unchanging, everlasting. This core is not your thoughts, not your feelings, not your emotions. It is beyond attachments, likes, dislikes and opinions. It is vast, limitless and free.

Notice when you start to judge; when you come up against reluctance, discomfort, hostility, or—on the flip side—pleasure, comfort, bliss. Tap into your core and just watch these feelings as they come, then watch them as they go. Allow yourself to rest calmly within your core, free from grasping, free from aversion. Let go in order to open fully to the here and now in all its vivid detail: splendor, pain, delight, despair.

Let go in order to be free.

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.



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How Yoga Can Help Build Functional Core Strength

Julie Gudmestad

Julie Gudmestad is a long-term Iyengar Yoga teacher and founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, Oregon. She is a licensed physical therapist and widely known for her Anatomy of a Yogi column that she wrote for Yoga Journal for nearly a decade. 

Core strengthening has long been a buzzword in the fitness world, and there is great emphasis particularly on abdominal strengthening in most fitness programs. Why is core strengthening considered to be so important?

Julie Gudmestad: Core strengthening has to do with building proper support for the pelvis and the spine. In thirty-five years of working with people with back, pelvis, and hip problems I’ve repeatedly observed the importance of strengthening the muscles that are supposed to be supporting the spine and pelvis. Countless studies too have shown that core strengthening is an important component in relieving and pain and restoring healthy movement.  I could relate dozens of cases with people whose sometimes chronic, severe back pain was greatly improved or even eliminated by strengthening the support system of the core, including the abs. 

YogaUOnline: When most people do core strengthening, they focus on crunches and abdominal work. But you have been saying in your writings that excessive abdominal strengthening can actually be counterproductive?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, it can be counterproductive on a couple of important fronts. Firstly, if you strengthen the front, you also need to strengthen the back. If you only focus on working the front of the body, the abdominals and the chest get shorter and shorter, and at the same time, the back muscles get weak and overstretched. The result is often that the person gets pulled over by short abdominals into a slumped position. 

The action of the abdominals is to flex the spine or forward bend the spine, and if they get overly short and tight, the person gets permanent trapped in this flexed position. And that creates all sorts of problems. Some people get neck pain, headaches, or jaw problems, because if you’re slumped forward you end up with a forward head posture, which puts a lot of stress on the neck and the muscles that support the neck. When people get rounded over, it also limits the movement of the diaphragm, and that has implications for your ability to breathe normally and take a full breath, which of course has huge health implications. 

An overly flexed position can also contribute to low back problems as well, because it can take the normal curve out of the low back. This flattening of the normal lumbar curve can contribute to disc injuries, because the person’s movement patterns are organized around that rounded-over flat back position. And that puts pressure on the intervertebral discs and sets the stage for serious disc injuries. 
So one of the first things that you have to do with many of those people is train them how to lengthen the front body to help restore the normal curve of the low back and allow the back to heal.

YogaUOnline: So people don’t get chronically locked in that position?

Julie Gudmestad: No, they can definitely reverse it. That’s the message that I find myself saying often to people. Even you’ve had a serious injury, you can restore normal alignment, unless the bones are fused. But you have to work at it. You have to change your movement habits. You have to change your muscle balance. It doesn’t have to be odious, but you have to be persistent and work at it regularly. I’ve seen tremendous changes in thirty-five years of working with people with these kinds of issues. That’s the good news.

YogaUOnline: What about our yoga practice, do overly tight abs impact our practice?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, if the abs are tight, it will limit your ability to do any kind of back bending poses. The most obvious example is when the mid-back, the thoracic spine is stuck in flexion. If a person with a flexed upper back is trying to do Bridge Pose, he or she just can’t get their back lifted up very much off the floor. 

Similarly, if a student like that tries to lift up to do a Cobra pose, he or she won’t be able to come up very high off the floor, because the front body is short and holds the chest close to the pelvis in the front. So they can’t go into any or very much extension at all. 
YogaUOnline: How can teachers spot these people in class?

Julie Gudmestad: If you line up people on hands and knees and look at how much the spine can move  in a simple Cat-Cow pose, you can see which people have very little extension of the spine. Extension is supposed to be a normal movement of the spine, but if they’re very short in the front body, even on hands and knees, they won’t have very much extension.

It can and will change over time, but there are a lot of layers of muscle in the abdomen and in the chest, including the pectorals and the intercostals, the muscles between the ribs. If that’s all short in the front, it won’t change overnight. It takes time.

YogaUOnline: Does yoga strengthen the core and if so, how do yoga postures are best at accomplishing that?

Julie Gudmestad: There’s a great variety of core strengthening that we do in yoga poses. In yoga, the strengthening comes from supporting the weight of our body parts in various orientations to gravity. Sometimes we’re standing, sometimes we’re upside down, sometimes we’re sideways, sometimes we’re face down on the floor, sometimes face up on the floor. Lifting different body parts, be it arm, leg, torso, and so on, in these different positions is going to strengthen a huge variety of muscle groups, according to how gravity is pulling on the body part. 

That is how a lot of abdominal strengthening happens in yoga, and people aren’t even aware of it. Standing poses are a great example. In the sideways standing poses, like Triangle, Extended Side Angle pose, and Half Moon pose, your torso muscles including the obliques and the transversus abdominus are contracting to hold up the weight of your torso, which is parallel to the floor. The side abdomen flank muscles are contracting to hold up the weight of your torso. 

If you also are rotating your torso, which we are doing in those sideways poses, you get a double whammy. It’s fabulous strengthening of the obliques in particular, as they hold up the weight of the body as you go sideways and rotating the torso at the same time. 

One of the things that I love about core strengthening in yoga is that we’re training muscle patterns. Lots of times, when you go to the weight room, you’re isolating a particular muscle. If you’re sitting in a machine and everything is supported and you’re isolating one muscle, e.g. the biceps, that’s fine if you lack strength in that muscle and you’re trying to build it up towards normal strength. But in yoga, we’re actually training muscles to work together in functional patterns, which is really valuable for basically, life on this planet! 

If you just have an extremely strong, but isolated bicep, you haven’t necessarily strengthened the other muscles that you need to strengthen, that is, the muscles that stabilize the scapula and the spine. So you’ve got this big, strong bicep but the rest of the muscle patterning that you need to actually do a functional activity isn’t there. I’ve seen a fair number of injuries in weight lifters, because they had isolated certain muscles and gotten them really strong, but not the rest of the team. 

YogaUOnline: Right. Very interesting. You have a course coming up on Yoga U Online called “Freeing the Breath: Keys to Releasing and Retraining the Abdominals.” Could you tell us about that and you will be covering?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, the focus is on balancing the abdominal muscles, but I will be placing almost as much focus on the breathing muscles, and especially the diaphragm. We will look at how overly short and tight and strong abdominals can affect our breathing negatively. And breathing, of course, is the central part of yoga practice. 

We will learn some simple ways of strengthening the abdominals, because they do need to be strong. But I will show how to set up your practice to help keep the abdominals strong, without having a negative impact on breathing. You will learn how to assess whether if there are limitations in terms of abdominal tightening in your own body and for yoga teachers, how to observe it in your yoga students. We will then look at how people, who already have too short or tight abs, can open them back up and restore more normal breathing patterns. 



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