Category Archives: Philosophy

The beauty in our flaws

Some stereotypes of a yoga teacher:

–She has a tranquil demeanor.

–He is graceful.

–She has conquered the demons, or at least has moved on.

–He has a clear belief in God or an obvious spiritualism.

This might describe my first two yoga teachers, whom I admired while despairing of ever emulating. One of them, Karin O’Bannon, encouraged me to teach; she helped me struggle with philosophical questions; her faith was the foundation of my faith in myself. So, when she died June 10, 2013, 16 years after we first met, my world faltered.

Now for a superficial description of my teacher for the past 12 years, Manouso Manos:

Manouso Manos

Manouso Manos

–He curses. He yells. He gets angry, even furious.

–When demonstrating poses, he is somewhat famous for moving his shorts around until much of his buttocks or even tailbone is visible, so that we might see subtle actions not evident through fabric.

–He will risk physical injury to himself to help his students.

–He exhausts himself exhorting us to understand how to help ourselves.

–He laughs, mostly at himself.

Less obvious is that he is one of the most compassionate people I have ever met. Whatever his spiritualism or beliefs in a higher power, he pretty much keeps them to himself.

Having just spent a week-long intensive with him, I have much more of an idea of where his compassion comes from. I know better why I was drawn to his classes even during the first several years that I was so terrified of the challenges I would face in his weekend workshops. At first I thought it was the physical challenges that sent me out of the room in tears. Over time, I realized that it was coming face-to-face with my weakness of will.

Karin once told one of my students that my student and I were made of the same “clay dust.” Manouso has said that we are attracted to teachers who are like us. I now know that is certainly the case with Manouso, at least in terms of attitudes. Clearly not in terms of teaching abilities.

After 16 years of teaching, I still approach each class and student with a feeling of “I am not worthy.”

It was a shock the first time I heard Manouso tell us that he approaches each class terrified.  He tells teachers that if we ever feel competent, quit. By that yardstick, I have permanent job safety.

Over time I’ve gleaned a bit of information from Manouso himself and from other students about his childhood traumas. I have enough of my own that I’ve come to realize that it is something I can draw on to reach out to students suffering from heartache.

This past week, he described his first experience in pranayama in India with his teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar. He related a tale of a disaster, of a feeling that he was so damaged that he couldn’t possibly do this thing.

This story and others that morning had a moral: That, from a certain perspective, damage adds value. I realized that this very damage is the foundation of his compassion, of his determination to help others find emancipation from our sorrows, our damage, through yoga, just as he is doing.

I do not have the strength and inquisitiveness that Manouso has demonstrated in reaching the point not of overcoming his demons, but of living with them.

I do have another asset. I am stubborn. I don’t know how to quit.

I finally have an understanding of why some of my students have said I am inspiring. I never really got it until I realized how inspired I am by Manouso. Maybe it’s because I am so deeply flawed, and those flaws are so visible, both in my poses and in my attempts to live yogically, that I am inspiring.

At the end of our week’s classes. Manouso grinned and announced that he was the luckiest man on earth. I understand the feeling. All of my flaws have brought me to this place where I am so fortunate as to be a yoga teacher.

Manouso left us with several pithy pieces of advice:

He egged us on in our practice. We’re SUPPOSED to make mistakes.

Try waking up every morning with a sense of “Wow!”

Be in it for the journey.

Keep a sense of wonder at what might happen next.





Never, never, never give up

Eighteen years ago Lesley was assistant director of student affairs for the Cal State University chancellor’s office. She left work a bit early for a family gathering. She never showed up. Her car had been broadsided by another driver after a hit-and-run driver set her car spinning into traffic.

Lesley uses a strap to keep her arms elevated and a wall for a bit of extra support as she does a wheelchair version of jathara parivartanasana.

Lesley uses a strap to keep her arms elevated and a wall for a bit of extra support as she does a wheelchair version of jathara parivartanasana.

By the time her family found her unconscious in a hospital hours later, doctors told them she would never survive and even if she did, she had suffered such severe brain damage she would be a vegetable.

She told me her story a few months after she began coming to my yoga class in 2012. A Dial-A-Ride bus drops her off more or less in time for class, and she rolls in with a motorized wheelchair, always dressed to the nines.  She came the first time at the urging of a friend who knows how much more yoga is than physical movement. She came the first time, hesitant, unsure how it might all work out.

I wasn’t sure she would be back, she seemed so sad.  Her friend assured me, though, that Lesley had loved the class.

In fact, Lesley has become a regular. The brain stem damage has left her with little control of the left side of her body. The muscles have become very tight from disuse. Even the right side is tight after years spent in a wheelchair. She says she started yoga to try a form of physical movement she could enjoy.

Lesley uses the back of a chair open her front and side chest and to stretch her shoulders.

Lesley uses the back of a chair open her front and side chest and to stretch her shoulders.

We keep working on variations on poses. Bharadvajasana, a seated twist, gets extra power with the help of a wall. A wall helps her bring her arms upward into urdhva hastasana, from there she can gaze upward. A strap can help her extend her arms out to the side. A chair in front helps her into a version of child’s pose. Her chair back can recline back somewhat, and a mat rolled up behind her spine helps lift her chest. For garudasana, eagle pose, she entwines arms and legs.

I pick poses that might help lift her chest and so lift her mood, or that might get the left and right sides of body and brain cooperating.

It was when she came to a pranayama workshop that I learned why she was so sad. She had never seemed like someone who felt sorry for herself. It turns out she felt such sorrow for her husband, that he had to take care of her.

I know, though, that he must take strength from her beauty of spirit. It is so evident.

A sticky mat rolled up behind her spine, Lesley works on a version of upward arms in supine mountain pose.

A sticky mat rolled up behind her spine, Lesley works on a version of upward arms in supine mountain pose.

The pranayama workshop also helped Lesley figure something out. As she learned more about the spiritual and philosophical aspects of yoga that day, she said, “I realized that God was letting me know this was where I was meant to be.”

Alignment and consciousness

The message from BKS Iyengar has always been twofold: align the pose and let consciousness come. For some such as me, however, learning alignment has been such a task that finding awareness of consciousness has been even more elusive than the turn of a femur. At some point, I gave up even trying.

birjoo-mehtaTo the San Diego yoga conference named for the universality of yoga, senior Iyengar teacher Birjoo Mehta brought us a how-to message, a map any individual can follow to find that consciousness in a pose.

The good news: We should worry less about making corrections in a pose. The bad news: We have to use our minds even more than we use our bodies. As another senior Iyengar teacher, Manouso Manos, often notes: Finding resolution with the physical body is considerably less threatening.

Birjoo sets out the process in a pragmatic fashion, likening it to a corporative initiative.

What is the vision of yoga? Perceiving our permanent form.

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

What is the strategy for accomplishing our mission? Asana.

What tactics shall we use in our strategy? Alignment.

Birjoo Mehta

Birjoo lept lightly to the stage the first evening of the conference, Sarvabhauma Yog, which ran June 10-15, including the teachers convention.

A student of BKS Iyengar’s since childhood, starting in 1974, as a young man he traveled with his teacher through Europe, the United States and Australia, demonstrating poses. Now an engineer by profession, he has led conventions in the United Kingdom since 2001. When BKS Iyengar traveled to China in June 2011, Birjoo Mehta taught the evening sessions, though often with further guidance from his teacher.

Like his teacher, he brings joy to his teaching. In San Diegl, 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 that he wanted us to concentrate on consciousness, not the turn of a thigh.

With precision, he demonstrated the subtle actions he sought, wearing the banded shorts popular among Iyengar teachers and a polo-collared shirt also common among the male teachers.

Tadasana – 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. A surprising kind of steadiness resulted; a quiet, unfluctuating mind translated to a pose that felt grounded.

In bharadvajasana, once we had turned the torso, Birjoo asked us to recreate the evenness of torso found in tadasana. Once 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.

In all the asymmetrical standing poses, consciousness concentrates in one leg or the other. 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. 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.

It all seemed accessible while he explained these concepts, which other teachers echoed in many other sessions. The trick is going to be in carrying it home with us, to apply his clarity of purpose to our practice.


Satya, what is

(I first posted this in February 2013. Two months later I learned that Karin has lung cancer and soon will be gone. I will miss her deeply.)

It took me years to learn to do a handstand, and now, again, I’m too afraid to do it.

It took me years to learn to do a handstand, and now, again, I’m too afraid to do it.

Behind all the physical excuses, the true excuses hide.


Fear of looking silly in front of other people.

Fear of not being as good as other people.

Fear of the unknown.

Fear of trying and failing.

Fear of not having any more excuses.

Seven years after I took my first yoga teacher training classes, I told my teacher I was considering quitting my management job as a low-level editor at a newspaper with a good paycheck to become a full-time yoga teacher. Karin O’Bannon no longer lived in the area, not even in the country, and I had tried to discuss this with her two weeks earlier and had not found the courage. I knew she would give me an answer in the best interest of yoga students. I trusted her honesty, and feared it.

Given my last chance before she left again, I hesitantly brought up my, not dream, driving impulse. She gave me her direct gaze, referred to in a magazine article as the “eye of the tiger”, and said a bit witheringly, “I’m surprised it took you this long to figure it out.”

I told her I just hadn’t had the courage. She gave me another withering gaze and said she knew few who acted with such courage. I was shocked. How could I be considered courageous when I was afraid of everything? She delivered a message that I have encountered many times since. It was new to me then. Now it has a sort of “duh” quality. Being courageous isn’t being without fear, it’s acting in the face of fear.

When I quit my job, it meant walking away from all the “if onlys” of my life, walking away from the obstacles to santosa, contentment, accepting complete responsibility for my joy and my sorrow.

Defined as acting in the face of fear, I had to admit, I had courage.

So do we all, truth to be told.

No more excuses

Students here range in age from 42 to 82. One is blind. One is a guy. One has fibromyalgia. One has post-polio syndrome.

Students here range in age from 42 to 82. One is blind. One is a guy. One has fibromyalgia. One has post-polio syndrome.

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 the picture here. 

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.

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 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 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 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. And that’s what keeps us all coming back.


Detaching from pain

(I wrote and originally posted this item in March 2011.)

Much is written relative to Yoga Sutras 1.12, on practice and detachment, and 1.15, on renunciation as detachment from desires.  Most writings deal with how to detach from pleasure. Perhaps this is because commentators view that as the harder thing to do. I don’t agree and I wish more had been written about detaching from pain. I could use some help on that. Pleasure is fleeting, and most of us know that. Pain seems so much more enveloping and hard to escape. And maybe that is the problem, that we try to escape pain. This is far from trying to detach.

This topic came up while e-mailing about a yoga workshop on grieving that was to include a discussion on “embracing change”. My correspondent felt this meant accepting change “happily or willingly”. There is a place between being happy about change or hating it. Neither is detachment. I think that the trick, the pratipaksa, contrary thought, to hating change is not to embrace it, but to find equanimity within it. That seems like a good thing to aim for, given change happens, no matter our will.

I think back to some things Manouso Manos said during a workshop in March 2011 in Los Angeles about luck and free will and our lives’ involving both. That to do yoga, we must “show up”. This is our act of free will. In the midst of luck, good or bad, or change, good or bad, we can act from free will. This seems to me to say not that we are embracing change or pain or pleasure, but that we exercise the will to exist within ourselves in the midst of it. This is the path tosantosa.

What is paksha pratipaksha?

Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar describes the process of paksa pratipaksa (spelled phonetically above): “Paksa means to take one side (in an argument), to espouse one view: while pratipaksa conveys the idea of taking the opposite position.” (From Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, B.K.S. Iyengar.) Iyengar advises studying “opposite forces with calmness and patience.”

“Purva-paksa: The opposing point of view.” That’s the glossary definition provided by Edwin F. Bryant in his book, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary.

Who is Sadhaka?

Christie walks up the wall for her handstand, full arm balance, adho mukha vrksasana.

Christie walks up the wall for her handstand, full arm balance, adho mukha vrksasana.

I’m a yogi with no woo-woo. Just Christie Hall, a yoga practitioner – yoga sadhaka – with both her feet on the ground (except when I’m in one of my favorite inversions). My students and my teachers inspire me in my life as a full-time yoga teacher. Step-by-step, I propose to tell their stories and a few of mine.