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15 Feb

ImageMany yoga students are seduced by the popular images of yoga found in magazines, websites, blogs and videos: Beautiful yogis suspended in breathtaking asanas, their bodies lean and muscular, their countenance filled with spiritual enlightenment.

What these popular images fail to convey, however, is that at one point these yogis struggled as beginners to nail an Ardha Chandrasana or a beautiful Urdhva Dhanurasana. They did not step away from the toils of daily life and onto a mat to find instant bliss nor perfection.

It took hours, days, weeks, months, indeed years, for these yogis to achieve their inspiring poses — their state of focus.

If there is one thing that best captures the spirit of the Yoga Sutras, it’s the idea — the importance — of a daily practice.

You can buy the most expensive eco-friendly yoga mats and the most fashion-forward yoga pants and tops, but if you do not unroll your mat every day, you will not transform your practice — nor your life.

Yoga teachers say: Practice once a week, and you’ll get sore. Practice three times a week, and you’ll get FIT. Practice every day and you will transform your life.

Ashtanga master David Swenson said: “Practicing yoga is a constant evolution.”

Think about it: Your life is a constant evolution. You are not static. You do not wake every day with the same outlook — indeed the same physical state. Some days, you pop out of bed cheerful and chirpy; other days your worries and anxieties weigh you down. You may awaken one day confident you can run 10 miles; other days feeling sore, beaten down. You are a young person one day; an older person another day of your life.

A daily yoga practice gives you insight into your ever-changing body — and after all, we are embodied spiritual beings so what better way to tap those insights.

In the beginning, we may step onto the mat with little strength or flexibility, but over time — over the years of daily practice — yoga reveals what is possible within us. A once impossible pose suddenly becomes possible. In the process, we learn that the yoga mat reflects back on our lives. A long-held, stubborn perspective about someone or something suddenly changes under the lens of patience and kindness. A long-held grudge or anger suddenly melts in our hearts as we practice surrender, letting go.

A daily yoga practice teaches us that what we do on the mat is what we do off the mat. Our bodies — our attitudes as we approach a challenging pose — is a reflection of how we live our lives.

Do we attack the pose no holds-bar; or do we coward with fear and back away? Do we cultivate strength and flexibility trusting that when the time is right — poof we’ll be up in handstand or crow — the same way we will have faced the challenges that meet us away from the mat.

A daily yoga practice empowers us with the spiritual confidence gained from progressing through the asanas – from not being able to touch our toes, to touching our legs with our noses. We come to realize that we achieved that, not through brute strength, but through patience and compassion; through stepping back, honoring the knowledge that we are not ready for something, and through being present in that moment’s breath.

We create that every day on our yoga mats. Every day when you step onto your yoga mat, you are a different version of yourself. You can do the same yoga sequence day in and day out for years, but it will be different each time if you practice every day. That’s because every day, you step onto your mat a different person.

To subscribe to a regimented system of yoga would be to cheat yourself out of your own physical and spiritual journey. But yet, even in a regimented form, yoga breaks the constraints and leads to the truth.

Truth in yoga terms, that is. Satya.

In his seminal book “Yoga Beyond Belief,” yoga master Ganga White writes of the students who ask the age-old question heard by yoga teachers worldwide: How long will it take … long will it take before I can stand on my head or do a perfect Tittibhasana…you will in the blank.

White’s response: It will take the rest of your life.

That’s because yoga is not a destination. It’s a journey. We don’t master crow or downward facing dog and put the mat away. We unroll the mat each day and do the asanas over and over tapping into the person we are that moment. That means being present at that moment, not where were last week, last month, last year, but at that moment of the breath.

That mastery — maybe just a glimpse of — the true self comes about with practice –abhyasa —  and non-attachment –vairagya. These core tenets of yoga can only be experienced with a daily practice.

The Sutras tell us that to achieve a state of yoga, we must practice abhyasa — that persistent effort. But that is counter to the way many of us live our lives: we want instant gratification; we want to go up in a handstand now!

The Sutras (1.14) teach us that to become well established, yoga needs to be done for a long time, without a break…with a full heart.

The more we practice, the deeper we delve – to our potential, our core. We do that with vairagya — or non-attachment. We let go of our attachment to the goal; what we do on the mat is a result of our practice, not the goal. We let go of fears and desires and stay with the breath — gradually breaking through our obstacles, our preconceived notions of what we are capable of.

We must approach our practice — our mats — with zeal — the tapas the Sutras tell us is necessary to sustain a practice over a lifetime.

Ivey DeJesus is a yoga teacher and daily yoga practitioner. Follow her on Twitter @iveydejesus and on her blog


QUICKLY: Five lessons I learned on my yoga mat last year.

5 Jan



The start of a new year calls for new beginnings and retrospection. Without further ado: Five lessons I learned last year on my yoga mat.

1. LITTLE MOVEMENTS ARE SOMETIMES MORE IMPORTANT THAN BIG MOVEMENTS: Years ago, as a yoga newbie, I thought sweeping, large movements were the keys to yoga; the large muscular steps and upward sweeps that got me into any one of the Warrior asanas, or at the very least, left me drenched in sweat, the definition of “yoga.” Last year, I finally learned that the minute, imperceptible shifts in my muscular, skeletal, and indeed, emotional systems, put me on the inward path towards santosha — one of the Yoga nimayas, or joy — faster than any handstand or crow. A tiny outward rotation of my shoulder, my hip, even my hand, has taught me a lot about my yoga path. Don’t get me wrong, I love my crows and handstands, but a lot of insight is to be found in tiny movements.

2. THE ROOT OF IT ALL: You’ll tire fast of hearing your yoga teacher telling you to root through your heel, your index finger, the ball of your big toe. But until you are deeply rooted down to your mat, the Earth, you won’t be able to find expansion, spaciousness. And after all, we come to yoga…to our mats…to make space. To make room in our bodies – sometimes for new postures – sometimes for new attitudes.

3. SOMETIMES YOGA HAPPENS IN THE PARK: I used to be quite compulsive — maybe obsessed — with the need to get on my yoga mat every morning. Days were ruined if I was unable to spend at least 90 minutes on my mat. Last year, I learned that yoga sometimes just happens — sometimes it happens in the park with a lovely four-legged friend, or as I lift my arms up to inhale and fill my lungs with fresh morning air, winter’s sun rising weakly over the horizon. Yoga sometimes just happen during a walk. Yoga sages have said it best: the poses never end. It doesn’t matter where we are: yoga is happening. Right now.

4. STOP PEDDLING YOGA! I get it! I get it! I’m boring everyone with yoga. My daughters have threatened mutiny if I don’t stop talking about yoga. My friends feign interest, but eventually roll their eyes. OK. So not everyone is into yoga; not everyone is ready. I will be an ambassador and continue my unabashed love for this ancient science/art and just hope that all will come around to this great elixir. We should ban assault weapons. You don’t hear anyone saying we should ban yoga mats!

5. 1 PERCENT THEORY; 99 PERCENT PRACTICE: Sri K. Pattabhi Jois left all yogis with such a profound yoga lesson, it can be applied to all matters in life. Yoga is 1 percent theory, the rest is practice. I can talk about yoga ad nauseam. I can read copious amounts of articles and books; and I can watch all the inspiring videos from Kino McGregor and David Garrigues. But it is in the act of walking onto my mat, inhaling and exhaling mindfully and seeking presence with intention, that I begin to experience my practice of yoga.

(Ivey DeJesus is a yoga teacher, student and daily yoga practitioner who lives in York, Pa. She’s trying hard to talk about something other than yoga.)

Finding bliss in bare, naked feet

26 Dec

In my earliest childhood memories I am running out of the house headed for the backyard, my bare feet slapping a scorching ground. Inside the house, a pair of white-patent leather MaryJanes have been discarded.

My grandmother yells after me to put on my shoes. Young ladies with any decorum and education always wear shoes, I am constantly reminded. Bare feet are for the poor or those lacking social manners and upbringing.

I fight this battle for years. I long to walk with bare feet, but I am scolded for doing so. My feet are wide and not happy in shoes fashioned for narrow feet.

I lose the battle. A lifetime is spent squeezing my feet into unhappy circumstances: platforms, wedgies, spikey heels, narrow-toed mules, boots that crunch my achilles and torture my toes. Blisters and callouses come and go; and the end of work days is marked by the glorious removal of too-tight shoes — the intake and release of breath coordinated to that moment when leg muscles and ankle tendons return to natural states.

Formal affairs feature the obligatory exchange: “Can you walk any faster?”  my husband asks, enjoying the stroll from the car in his sensible men shoes. I limp along, summoning the words of Carrie Bradshaw:  These shoes pinch my feet but I love them.

And then the yoga journey takes hold.

Each morning, I step onto my mat, feet bare to the world, and ground them down into the Earth. I close my eyes and feel the monumental weight of my being bearing down on the heels and mounds of my feet. I lift the toes and spread them wide, a span immeasurable separates the big toe from the little toe and I stand firm. I feel the energy rising from under my mat, up my legs and through my being. I stand tall and strong, unwavering.

A few years ago, a colleague told me she had never in her life walked barefooted. She passed away not long after that and to this day, I am saddened thinking she never felt sand or cool wet grass, or the spring of hardwood floors under her feet.

These days, I have a  stack of shoe boxes in my basement, their contents the shoes I collected over the years in search for a misguided sense of fashion and decorum. I intend to give them away — although, frankly, I don’t wish them on anyone.

It has taken a lifetime to once again relish the feel of bare soles against wood, tile, earth. I tell my yoga students that every standing pose begins with the feet. We walk up to the tops of our mats, our feet bare, and draw that powerful energy from underneath. We stand with bare feet at the top of our mountains, proudly. The integrity of our triangles, tree poses and half moons depend on the strength and resolve of our arches, toe mounds, heels.

The girl who once ran out of house without shoes laughs again.

Practice Interrupted: Only at the end is where we begin

7 Aug

Sometimes we take a journey and only when we get to our destination do we realize we’ve traveled from one place to another.

This spring, I went to my edge — my yoga edge, that elusive place teachers encourage us to climb to, peer over it, then climb down before we plunge. I had been practicing faithfully the entire winter, almost without a break, on top of the rigorous teacher training course, which consumed all weekends. When not on my mat, I would lace up the old running shoes and hit the pavement for that runner’s fix that has sustained me for more than two decades.

Mid-winter, I realized something was off. My back hurt. Constantly. Even at night while I laid in bed trying to sleep, I could feel an uncomfortable pinch. But every  morning, I unrolled my mat and did my asanas. Frankly, the yoga made the back feel better. Holding poses in their full extension, I felt a wonderful expanse in my back and the fire in the legs and glutes as they fulfilled their supporting role.

But stubborn is as stubborn does and I just kept going. I had begun to walk a little bit like an octogenarian, taking my good old time to get up from a sitting position or grimacing whenever I had to bend over to pick up something.

Tired of hearing my husband scolding me to get to the doctor, I dragged myself to the orthopedic specialist, whom I had visited years ago for a stress fracture in my foot (running injury). An x-ray and MRI later, I learned I had a bulging disc that would require rest, painkillers and weeks of physical therapy.

What about yoga, I asked him? He smiled. Don’t do anything that hurts, he said.

Week 6 of therapy dawns tomorrow as I write this. My back is better. I feel almost like my old self again. Last week, I unrolled my mat. The smell of rubber took me back to some of my happiest moments. I honored the journey I had been through this past few weeks and did not push myself. It wasn’t easy. I wanted to do a Wheel and an Uttanasana. But held back, gently exploring Child’s Poses and Cobras, Warriors, and various other asanas that rekindled my strength without placing great demands on my back.

I’ve learned to walk again, and climb stairs and bend over — after a lifetime of doing it incorrectly. My therapist said that 99 percent of all people she sees walking and moving do so incorrectly. Body mechanics — how we move our skeletal and muscular bodies — is such a critical part of our health and wellness, and for me, my yoga.

As  I near the end of my therapy, I feel as if I’m starting a new journey. The chorus of one of my favorite  yoga songs goes, “Only at the end is where we begin….”

Off I go.

Seeking contentment in the garden, on the mat and in life

30 May

Few things can challenge me to practice santosha than a day off from work. A day unencumbered by the obligations of work dawns with a long list of goals: This is the day, I tell myself, I finally get around to ticking off all those chores that have been nagging me for months.

Steeled with determination, energy, a sunny outlook and a hearty breakfast, I set off, much like the thoroughbreds leaving the gates at the sound of the bell, only ever less gracefully. Out come a myriad tools, gadgets and widgets designed to help me complete the tasks. I find myself creating weigh stations as I go along — rest stops for things that I need haul upstairs or downstairs, temporary work stations for yet even more tasks.

Santosha is the second observance or niyama in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Santosha means contentment, and that speaks to a whole lot of peace of mind and serenity with what we have and what we’ve accomplished; our situation, our lot. It’s easy to lose our grasp of santosha, after all we live in a world that is always reminding us we need more, new, better, bigger, faster, shinier. What we have, what we acquired yesterday, last week, last year is no longer good enough.

So that by midafternoon — having long wilted from the heat and the labor — I pause to take stock of what I’ve accomplished. What? All that, and I’ve only just barely made a dent in the front garden? What about the back, I begin to complain internally. I’m never going to get to the back. And just like that, the thoughts begin to spin out of control: disappointment that I haven’t done more; resentment that tomorrow is a work day and that means I can’t spend it in the garden; throw in a little garden envy as I peer across to my neighbor’s meticulously manicured garden.

Then I check myself: santosha. I remind myself to be grateful for the wonderful day in the garden, for all I accomplished, for the plants I committed to the soil, the birds that serenaded me, the breeze that cooled my back. This simple meditation immediately brings me back to the peace and harmony of the moment. I find contentment in my affirmation that what I accomplished today is good enough. I am content.

Taking the plunge to ground with yoga

13 Apr

I stood at the edge, my feet under the wobbly board, beneath me a sea of deep blue water distorting the surface at the bottom. To the frightened child in me, that dark blue bottom seemed  endless.

But it was just the deep end of the pool, and that summer, as I confronted my paralyzing fears about jumping off the diving board  for the first time, I found myself in a state of panic.

What if my feet didn’t reach the bottom after I jumped, propelling me back to the surface, where I could gasp for breath. What if swallowed water….or worse, could not make my way back up?

For days, I walked on the board, taking the few steps needed to get to the edge, a journey started on solid footing but ending on that last stretch that undulates with your weight, and really, nerves. Each time, I turned around, too scared to jump.

All my friends were jumping off, some doing bombshells, others diving head on. I was too gripped by the fear of jumping into an unfamiliar depth. I walked to the edge, looked down into the depth, stomach turning, then steeled myself to retrace my steps back to the ladder. I was too scared to jump.

I’ve relived those feelings in yoga, stepping up to a pose, going to the edge, peering over….then letting fear get the best of me as I back away. What am I afraid of, I ask myself. Of falling? All four inches to the ground?

Fear is such a powerful force. That preoccupation with the unknown and uncertainty can take such hold of us that we lose sight of what’s in front of us and the richness and bounty we stand to seize if we give in to that fear.

I love that  yoga offers me opportunities to face my fears — whether in a pose or a challenge to practice a yoga principle. I think of my mat as the diving board that summer in my youth: a place I trembled with fear, but once I take the plunge, conquer my fears and just do the task, find profound stillness and grounding.

I jumped off the deep end that summer — and I’m jumping still.

How yoga answers a weighty question

5 Apr

A prospective student wanted to know if yoga had anything to do with weight loss. Could doing yoga help her lose weight? Or maybe she meant: Did she have to lose weight first in order to do yoga?

The answer on both counts is no. Well, maybe no.

Yoga is all about going inwards. About shutting out the world and coming into our presence, our breath, our true essence. It has nothing to do with the size of our jeans.

We are so preoccupied with the external world —  our looks, our weight, how we come across to others that we judge ourselves — without mercy — by standards that take into account only the fleeting: Supple skin, firm muscle tone, taut tummies, hard-rock quads. Trees age and wither; our dogs age, slow down and go blind. And yet, we hold ourselves up to impossible standards.

We go to class, get on our mats and the first thing we do is look around the room and compare ourselves to others. Do our hips, thighs and tummies pass muster? Will our jiggly bits jiggle so much more in downward facing dog, forgetting yet again the true gifts of yoga.

Yoga teaches powerful lessons in honor — honoring yourself in everything you do. That includes eating. It teaches patience, kindness and moderation — not only in the postures, but in our lives. So when you step off the mat and walk into the kitchen, you can tap into those lessons. You reach for food that will nourish you; and you consume just enough to nourish and sustain — not insult with greed.

Yoga meets you where you are. That could be in a wheelchair — or in a body that is maybe dragged down by excess — unnecessary — weight. The gift of yoga is that as you come to honor and respect yourself, you come to a place where you want to do no harm to yourself: And that includes eating unhealthy foods and, in unhealthy quantities.

So unlike popular TV series…yoga won’t make you into the biggest loser – only the biggest gainer.