Thursday, August 7, 2014
We recently had an opportunity to sit down with the only Arizona-based, authorized teacher, Lisa Schrempp, about her twenty plus years of experience with Ashtanga yoga. Make sure you take advantage of the opportunity to practice with Lisa either in Tucson at The Movement Shala/AshtangaYoga Tucson or during her monthly visits to Phoenix with Ashtanga Arizona. We hope this interview will give you some insight into Lisa’s love, devotion and dedication for this practice. Her energy is infectious and we can’t wait to have her back from India in October!
AA: Many home practitioners go through phases of struggle and self-doubt with their practice. What are some tips you recommend for them to keep the practice going when feeling periods of doubt?
LS: First of all, let me say that I am really astounded by all the practitioners you have in Phoenix and there really seems to be a strong core of devoted practitioners. And that is pretty amazing considering that there is not a regular daily Ashtanga practice room. So I think you guys are amazing!
I practice mostly by myself. Sometimes my assistants give me a little lift here or pull there. But it is, generally, that a lot of my whole practice over the last twenty years has been by myself. I have had some great periods, sometimes years with some amazing teachers: Eddie Stern, Richard Freeman, David Life and the Jois’s. But how I inspire myself when I am alone is… ashta-anga, the eight limbs – learning where they come from, what they are, what they mean, how I can study them in a mental way, and studying Sanskrit. I just try to reflect upon that [background] because the asana limb is really the third limb. The limbs are all so intermixed. If you are practicing ahimsa (for example), it will change the way your body is, the way your voice is, the way you look at people. The drishtis and bandhas will arrive more fluidly and fully and completely when I have that in the background of my heart – that this is a nonviolent practice. I think that it is important to go through these different limbs and question myself as to whether my practice is supporting these or not. I think a lot of times we get discouraged when our practice gets selfish. It is easy to get discouraged because selfishly I want to just fly up into handstand and balance there for ten breathes every day. But that handstand being executed is a way to train in yoga only and should not be considered the goal; that is really not the point. The point is to place my body and my breath and my gaze in such a way that healing energy and nonviolent commitment come through and are strengthened by the practice.
Other than the eight limbs, which come from the yoga sutras, part of my practice is to study the other great books that SKPJ has taught and talked about like the Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, his book the Yoga Mala. And I love the Portrait of Guruji book with interviews of other high- level and long-time practitioners. I find these to be very inspiring - that kind of study element and reflection helps me to set up for a powerful practice. It is important to set your own intention and motivation. I think there may be some people are so pure that maybe they don’t need the yoga sutras because they are naturally nonviolent. But I need a daily dose of scripture! Every day when I get on the mat I ask myself ‘What is this for?’ Because it is easy for this practice to slip into just a routine and become just what I do. When it gets to be ‘what I do,’ like brushing my teeth, I could just do it unconsciously. It might not mean anything except decent hygiene. But the yoga practice can and should mean so much more than decent hygiene. And so intention and then motivation are important.
I am motivated to do this because I see the suffering in the world. For example, I listen to the news and might hear something dramatically painful, which you often do. I feel like it is good motivation - it can keep me from saying ‘Oh, what is the point?’ There IS a point. The point is to bring goodness into this world. I would like to offer up something good, kind, healing and non-violent. So the intention and motivation are important. Then once you start your practice, the intention and motivation become a backdrop to awareness. For example, if I am aware and I have hurt my knee and it keeps up and I keep doing the same thing, it might graduate to pain instead of hurt. If I have enough awareness, have studied the yamas and have the ahimsa principle, I may stop and realize that ‘Hey, I need to rework this.’ The awareness principle is so important to keep us doing Ashtanga on and off the mat without injuries. And that can happen without a teacher. It is possible to get aggressive or start with an emotional backdrop without intention and motivation, which can cause suffering and lead to less yoga.
AA: Speaking of having the correct intention, have you learned to be less goal-oriented in your practice over time? For example, there are little “markers” that we work with along the way with this practice. Have you learned to get rid of the goals?
LS: I have always had an incredible love for the practice. Somebody at the Confluence said ‘As soon as you get on your mat, that is the goal… you have achieved it.’ I love that! When we get goal-oriented we can confuse ourselves about what the practice is ultimately for. Another sideline is that I was a dancer so I have always been a natural person in my body. My body has never been a foreign thing and [practice] is mostly this really fun thing for me. There are always periods or days where I would rather be lying down or actually doing anything but what I am doing and that is the challenge of yoga. Being here in this moment, non-judgmentally approaching the practice is the goal. And I do have goals in the way that you have mentioned. But I know that they are not important. The disappointment in not performing something in the way my mind previously decided how it should be done still gets me. But I see that there is a lot of ego involved in it. And I learn so much from that. I don’t get upset with myself because I have an ego; we have to have egos because they have important functions. But I feel that I learn from it instead of being ruled by the disappointment of not reaching my goal (I wasn’t able to come up from karandavasana after 15 years of practicing it!). It is just remembering that, for example, some people don’t have arms and that their practice is going to look different. We are so blessed to have this lineage in our lives and to be able to practice it in whatever way we can. And so I don’t let those things bother me.
AA: Intellectually what you are saying makes sense. But emotionally that is a really hard thing for most practitioners because they aren’t naturally flexible or feel comfortable in their bodies…
LS: Yes, many people come to the practice without a background in body art. And their progress looks, externally, a lot slower. The thing is, when we start to judge ourselves for slew of things (not binding in a pose, my looks, my belly fat) we need to remember that the judgments are the vrittis. And, yoga is when the vrittis are settled – the thoughts, the mind waves are not disturbing us and our mind is not moving. One of the reasons that Guruji was such an excellent teacher is that he was able to annihilate people’s judgments about themselves. If you studied with him for any amount of time, you would see that he had a mastery at getting peoples’ minds to be quiet. That is really the goal – yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ. When the mind stops moving, we experience yoga. So when we see ourselves in this pattern of judgment, either a sense of success (‘I did it today’) or defeat (‘I did it yesterday’), we are just perpetuating more suffering. As students and teachers and serious practitioners that is what we must get to – that it is not in the binding but it is in the state of our mind. So when those judgments come up, we can’t judge the judgments. We just have to recognize ‘Oh, there is my mind.’ I think it was Ram Dass that said, ‘I still have all the psychological perversions that I had 20 years ago of jealously, hatred, or bizarre sexual tendencies. But instead of getting upset at them, I just invite them for a cup of tea.’ That is another way of saying that the sun is always shining. There may be periods of clouds. To recognize that underneath this judgment or disappoint or even times of thinking ‘Wow, I am great… that was a amazing pose’ – this is all movement of thoughts – and underneath this thought is the sun. When you study the yoga scriptures that [recognition] gets strong in the practitioner. There are some people that are really talented in the poses but none of their personal relationships work out. And yoga is really about our relationship to others, to the earth, to our aging process, to our bodies, to our judgments. The practice is to inform and heal these relationships – not to get our leg behind our head.
AA: What does your personal practice look like? Are there ever days when you take it a bit easier?
LS: Definitely there are days where my own personal practice is modified. Study, meditation, asana, teaching are all parts of my practice. I do consider my own practice to be teaching. Some days I teach for five hours. If I did my full asana practice I would not be able to do all the hours of this teaching. In Tucson, I have to consider what energy my life requires. Many people have to work and there is a skill to pacing oneself. Through the study of yoga and Ayurveda, we learn that our practice should make us more enthusiastic and energetic for the rest of the day. We have to be careful and think about the fact that maybe we have been given all these poses, but can we realistically do all of them and then be nice for the rest of the day? So, I definitely modify. There are only two or three days a week when I get my full practice. The other days I practice an hour or an hour-and-fifteen, which is not enough time to do all the poses I have been given. But, I feel like this is pretty good. It is what I can get and then it gives me more strength to help others. And that is the goal. If I push the practice too much, I’ll be too tired to help.
AA: What is your guide for home practitioners to advance through their practice? In other words, if you don’t have a regular teacher, what should be your guide for moving forward?
LS: There are guidelines. For example, I have been lucky enough to go to Mysore once every two or three years. I never felt it necessary to teach myself the next pose. If you do the drishtis and the breathing and you practice the bandhas, then surya namaskar A is incredibly interesting! And if that is all my teacher had given me, I don’t feel like it is a huge necessity to move myself forward. But there are these markers. The most important thing that Guruji ever taught me is the vinyasa – that the vinyasa is correct and that you know what the vinyasa is, you know when you are supposed to be inhaling and exhaling, when you are supposed to be binding, where you are supposed to be looking. If you have all those things, generally he would use this as the marker [for moving someone forward]. Sometimes I have been moved forward without being able to completely execute the poses perfectly. One could count on Guruji opening their bodies and minds, and it wasn’t usually gently. Often students would get injured practicing and they would come to Mysore and get healed. This happened to me. One moment I was telling Guruji about my knee injury and he kept saying ‘No problem’ and I kept saying ‘No, there is a problem!’ Then without one more day of pain, the knee and I supposed my mind were healed. To him, nothing was wrong. Everything was directly on course. When you are not with a master, you don’t have this luxury, so definitely modify so you don’t have pain. As far as teaching yourself new poses, it is pretty dangerous. There are so many YouTube videos out there. But the point of having a physical teacher and this beautiful system of parampara is the relationship between the student and teacher. The student learns the system and is given poses when the teacher feels that the student is prepared for the pose without the student asking for it. It is a beautiful system of trust, faith and lineage. It is not necessary (and potentially dangerous) to teach yourself new poses. So if students want to dabble in danger they can go ahead. They might be fine and do beautifully. It is not impossible but it is a lot safer and a lot more traditional to believe in your teacher. Believe that your teacher knows you well enough to have faith that when they hold you back, they have a good reason.
AA: We love having you up in Phoenix once a month and many students travel down to Tucson to see you when possible. What are your thoughts on the benefits of traveling to work with an authorized teacher? How will an authorized teacher help you advance your home practice?
LS: I feel very strongly about Ashtanga yoga as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Sharath and Saraswathi have and are teaching it. I feel they have incredible talent, blessings, abilities, and it’s a source of protection. And for the student, there are lots of wonderful people out there that can do lots of incredible asanas. But do these teachers have the devotion to take a good amount of money, a portion of their life and a good amount of time to go to India and find out where this comes from and find out about the lineage? Who was before Guruji? Where did Guruji get these movements? To be personally physically, mentally and emotionally adjusted by the hands of the lineage? Do they have the commitment to really spend time with the mother of the practice? Mothers are protective. Some people practice some Ashtanga, then some vinyasa practice and then are doing acroyoga next year – and, there is nothing wrong with that. However, I wouldn’t want to study this system with someone like that. To me there is this lineage that is a source of goodness and a time proven healing practice and that is what I am interested in. Now, a lot of westerner don’t love that part of the yoga practice. That is not their cup of tea and there is nothing wrong with that. Their cup of tea might be ‘I love to sweat hard… this really makes my body feel good… it is helping all my organs.’ And there is really nothing wrong with that either. But I want to go deeper.
The Ashtanga lineage is such an incredible thing and keeps one safe. We have these karmas that can reach out and grab us at any time. I feel like the practice, parampara and sticking with the lineage helps you move through your challenging karmas a lot safer and healthier. We will still feel bad karmas; but maybe instead of breaking our leg, we will get a headache for two days. In that way, I really believe in the system. Sharath and Saraswathi are teaching in India and abroad and giving authorization, trainings and certifications. I have faith that if you received a blessing like these, at whatever level, then there is a great amount of love and protection that you will be passing on.
AA: Can you talk a little about what you feel the importance of visiting India is, and really learning it first hand through one of the members of the Jois family?
LS: When I go to India and Sharath sees my practice – and before him Guruji and throughout the whole thing Saraswathi – it means something. When we first got authorized, it wasn’t called authorization; it was called ‘Blessing.’ And I really feel that the Blessing is something so powerful and so meaningful and it keeps me safe. Before I teach, I always chant the prayer and invoke the lineage into the room so that it protects my students. And so I feel like it is such a beautiful part of the practice, that who wouldn’t want that? I highly recommend that if you love this practice, even if you don’t know why, that means that you are supposed to be there and really invest your life to it.
AA: How do you feel when you see the practice change over time? For example, some poses have been moved or removed compared to the original method Guruji created. Do you accept it and understand why it is done, or is it somewhat unsettling for you?
LS: I feel like it is incredibly intelligent. When I first arrived in Mysore, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois called his School the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. Tim Miller talks about and works off of this focus. The research is ‘Let’s research this… is this still appropriate for everybody in our day with the kind of food that we eat, the kind of work we do, with the way the family lives now?’ I think it is incredibly intelligent to say ‘This isn’t working out.’ For example with prasarita padottanasana C, Sharath started working with the hands in a different direction to protect the rotator cuff. It was never ‘You have to do it this way.’ It was more ‘If this is not working, try this.’ If pain and discomfort is coming out of a practitioner, it is good to research it. Another example is that there used to be trivikormasana after utthita hasta padagusthasana where we used to take our leg forward and take the foot with both hands and pull the foot up and put our chin under our shin and look up at the sky. One year I was doing that and Sharath says loudly across the room ‘Lisa, that’s not even in the practice anymore. What are you just showing off?’ I felt silly because I knew the pose had been x’ed from the first series but I loved it and I had attachment towards that pose. So my attachment was guiding me in the practice versus the practice guiding me. So it is really a beautiful thing. Just let go. It is practice AND non-attachment. From the yoga sutras: abhyāsa-vairāgya-ābhyāṁtan-nirodhaḥ. If you only have practice, you can get easily get crazy and if you only have attachment, you can get lazy. So having both the practice and the non-attachment together is the appropriate way. When people get really hard-headed and stubborn, they don’t want to let go of certain things. And, hey, that is sometime in the past. Wake up to the present moment because that is the only place we are ultimately going to wake up. So when people get all upset about the practice changing, I think its kind of obvious that it is the way we create suffering and it show us our attachments and our hard-headedness. We’ve invested so much. Even if you have only practiced for a year, you have devoted a lot of time and hard work. It is not a simple thing. It is like death. When somebody that we love goes, it is not a nice thing. It’s really intense. We are very sad. But it is a yoga practice – non-attachment.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Don't forget to come and enjoy adjustments and guidance from Arizona's only Level 2 Authorized ashtanga teacher. The first Sunday of each month at The Elevation Institute in downtown Phoenix. The next class in on August 3, 2015 at 10:15am. Please contact us for details and to register.
Practice and all is coming!
Monday, May 19, 2014
I love to talk about my yoga practice. If asked, I will give all the information anyone could want. But, I know that once I start talking about the technical details, like breathing, Drishti, etc., eyes begin to glaze over. So instead, I talk about the benefits. I tell people that I haven’t felt this healthy since I was a child. I tell them that I’ve lost 25 pounds since starting a regular Ashtanga practice about a year ago. At the mention of weight loss especially, ears begin to perk up. That is, until I tell them why I've seen so many benefits from my practice. I've seen so many benefits from my practice because I get up at around 4:30 or 5:00 AM, at least three times a week, and practice for about an hour and a half. I typically practice Sundays as well, and as of late, I've been adding Tuesdays and Thursdays too. So all together, I strive to practice 5 to 6 days weekly. I lose 100% of people at this point. This sounds to most like an impossible level of commitment. When I was a personal trainer I’d meet with similar resistance. When I told people what sort of effort and time it would take to lose weight with a “traditional” western exercise program, many seemed to give up before even beginning. I would tell people that by exercising an hour each day, weight training and cardio, they could expect to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week, over a long period of time--perhaps years. What many people don’t want to hear is that to achieve any worthwhile goal, you must be dedicated. You need a consistency of effort. That is the only way. There are no shortcuts and no easy answers. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
I don’t mean to come across as preachy, however. I know how difficult it can be to stick to an exercise program. Running and lifting weights is dull, hard work. In fact, when I went through a period of depression in my early 20s, and gained that excess 25 pounds or so, I wasn't able to find the will to lose it, despite knowing exactly what to do, until I discovered Ashtanga. And that leads me to the secret I've been forgetting to share when I tell people what a large commitment practicing Ashtanga is—committing to an Ashtanga practice is easy. Well, I shouldn't say that it’s easy. It is hard work, and it does take a lot of willpower. But, committing to Ashtanga is far easier than committing to a boring weight training and cardio routine, and there are several reasons why.
5.) Ashtanga is fun:
Ashtanga is way more fun than a modern exercise program could ever be. Each day you’re practicing postures that challenge your focus, balance, strength and flexibility. Our led practices are filled with as much laughter and smiling as grimaces and grunts. Progress in a yoga practice is far more rewarding than adding another 10 pounds to your leg press. The feeling of achievement when first lay your hands flat behind your heels, or jump through your hands without rubbing your feet on the floor, is incomparable. Practicing Ashtanga is much closer to playing a sport, or dancing, than it is to an exercise routine.
4.) The Ashtanga community keeps you coming:
Unless you practice by yourself, which I don’t recommend, when you practice Ashtanga, you are never alone. The community of yogis around you, all breathing and sweating in unison, creates a synergy which is impossible to recreate by exercising alone. Even when doing a Mysore style practice, which is somewhat self-led, the teacher is there, guiding you, and like a good coach, she or he will instill in you the will power you need to push yourself that day.
3.) Ashtanga is forgiving:
Your practice is yours. It differs day to day. And, although you should give your best each day, it’s understandable that some days won’t be as good as others, and that’s okay. Bring what you have to the mat, that day, and at that point in your life. Each day it gets better, and each day progress will get made. Even when it feels like you’re falling back, you’re always moving forward. All you need to do is show up. No one is judging you, and you shouldn't judge yourself. Do what you can. Strive to get better. That is enough.
2.) Ashtanga gives you an opportunity to focus on something other than your body:
With modern exercise programs vanity runs amok. Far too much focus is on what the body looks like, reversing aging, etc. This, as we all know, is extremely unhealthy. The body ages, and you cannot be young forever. Ashtanga allows you to forget the image of your body. Your yoga practice should never be about what your body looks like; your yoga practice should be what you can do with your body (and mind). Sure, a regular practice will give you a beautiful body, but that’s not why you are there. And that leads me to the last reason...
1.) Ashtanga is a spiritual system:
The most important reason why committing to Ashtanga is so easy is because it’s about more than fitness. Committing to Ashtanga means you’re giving yourself the opportunity to participate in a beautiful spiritual practice, the rewards of which go far beyond your physical body. I’m not truly qualified to talk about the finer points of the Ashtanga spiritual system. That requires a lifetime of scholarly work. Suffice it to say that Ashtanga is transformative. You can’t really know what I mean until you experience it for yourself.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Tomorrow is a moon day and I will be taking rest. According to the Ashtanga tradition, we don’t practice on Saturdays or moon days. But I have always been skeptical of this tradition. Maybe it was my childhood rebellion against anything too “hippy dippy.” Or my inability to find any scientific, peer-reviewed literature to support the scientific basis behind this reasoning.
But after the last 24 months of observing my body as I move through my practice, day after day after day, I have found that the amount of injury that I sustain is increased on the full moon. I actually sat down with a calendar and tried to recall my injuries – there seemed to be a correlation. Again, I went to the medical literature and found… NOTHING. There is not a single case-controlled, double-blind study on this topic (that I could find). Yet, I don’t want to use the moon cycles as an excuse for my injuries… that just seems like a slippery slope. I acknowledge that I am absolutely 100% accountable for not listening to my body or for letting my ego take the wheel.
Yet, I am going to take a leap of faith. My body is my lab and I have enough evidence in my own injuries to say, “Tomorrow is a moon day and I will be taking rest.” So even if you choose to practice on the moon days, listen to your body and maybe you will find some basis to honor this tradition. Or maybe, just maybe, you will enjoy having an extra two days of rest each month!
If you still want another explanation, maybe this one from Tim Miller will help:
Both sun and moon exert a gravitational pull on the earth. Their relative positions create different energetic experiences that can be compared to the breath cycle. The full moon energy corresponds to the end of inhalation when the force of prana is greatest. This is an expansive, upward moving force that makes us feel energetic and emotional, but not well grounded. The Upanishads state that the main prana lives in the head. During the full moon we tend to be more headstrong.The new moon energy corresponds to the end of exhalation when the force of apana is greatest. Apana is a contracting, downward moving force that makes us feel calm and grounded, but dense and disinclined towards physical exertion.