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WHAT IS YOGA?

with Carol Krucoff and Kimberly Carson

Yoga is coming into union, being united with what is. Through this union, this relationship, we become more intimate with ourselves, with each other, with the natural world. Ultimately, and with grace, we unify with the Essential Truth of Things.

HOW DO YOU WEAVE THAT DEFINITION INTO YOUR TEACHING?

Our teaching centers on finding ease and union in body and mind. One of our Principles of Practice is that we teach people, not poses or conditions—which is central to our work with older adults and people with health challenges.    This population can be extremely receptive to the profound benefits yoga offers on all levels—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Unlike younger practitioners, who can become distracted by the desire for a shapelier body, older adults typically have a ripeness for the experience of ease and union.   Rather than focusing on “getting a posture right,” our teaching centers on cultivating awareness and self-discovery and inviting an experience of connection and joyHOW DO YOU BRING IT INTO YOUR OWN PRACTICE?

Kimberly: In my own practice, I am focused on listening deeply to not only the needs and requests of my physical body, but also the movements of energy and guidance from the quieter dimensions.  My practice is fundamentally an exploration of who and what I am internally, externally, and transactionally. With regards to the postures, I am primarily focused on maintaining functional ability in my body so that I can comfortably turn my attention to subtler processes of the inner and outer landscapes. Many years ago, I lost interest in pursuing optimal function of the musculature in service of pursuing optimal functioning of attention and awareness. As a result, my posture practice is relatively simple but balanced and is only one aspect of the activities I engage to maintain physical health.

 

Carol:  My practice is not limited to the time I spend on the mat. Rather than “doing yoga,” I’m much more interested in “living yoga,” which means bringing yogic principles—such as kshama (patience) and daya (compassion) into my life on and off the mat.   I’ve found that interweaving “micro-practices” into my day – which I call “Yoga Sparks” — can be transformative, making ordinary activities into sacred rituals and continually bringing awareness to the precious gifts of body and breath.

And as I approach my 60th birthday, my posture practice has also changed.   Honoring the principle of truth (satya), I humbly acknowledge that I am no longer able to comfortably do some postures that I once found easy –such as Tolasana–and that some other postures—such as headstand—are not appropriate for me anymore.   Back in my 20s, my idea of progress in yoga was measured by the ability to do complicated arm balances. Now I view being an advanced yogi as the ability to move through the world with kindness, generosity and wisdom. Having done my share of pretzely “party poses,” my asana practice is no longer a journey toward mastery of harder, cooler postures. Instead, it’s a welcome opportunity to nurture my body, quiet my mind and connect with the divine.HOW HAS YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF YOGA’S TRUE MEANING EVOLVED SINCE YOU BEGAN TEACHING?

Kimberly: During the first yoga class I ever attended, a brief and profound awakening of what I would call “witness consciousness” occurred. The last 20 years of my practice has been in service of exploring, understanding and stabilizing that experience. Over the years of this exploration, my practice and teaching has increasingly been drawn towards simplicity and subtlety.

Carol:  Like many people, I thought yoga was a form of exercise back when I first started taking classes nearly 40 years ago. I was a runner looking to stretch out my tight hamstrings and to relieve neck pain and deadline stress from my job as a reporter for The Washington Post.   Over time, however, I began to realize that yoga offered much more than flexibility and stress relief.   I discovered that yoga was a journey of self-discovery and found the lessons I’d learned in tackling challenging postures on the yoga mat helped me navigate more skillfully through challenging situations at work and at home. In addition to stretching my hamstrings and relieving my neck pain, yoga helped me become happier, healthier and better able to welcome whatever arose in my life.

As my physical body has changed with age—through two pregnancies in my early 30s, earning a second-degree black belt in karate in my 40s, then facing some health crises in my 50s—my practice has changed as well. A serious bout of hyponatremia, brought on by drinking too much water during a marathon in Jamaica in 2003, landed me in a four-day coma and gave me a new appreciation for the deeper practices of yoga—particularly breathing and meditation. This near-death experience taught me something I’d known intellectually yet never truly understood: Yoga’s true power lies in its ability to harness the mind for healing and spiritual development.

Then, in 2008, I had open-heart surgery to replace a congenitally-abnormal heart valve and repair a resulting aneurysm in my aorta. My yoga practice proved extremely powerful in preparing for and recovering from my surgery, and it changed according to my needs—some days it was dynamic and energizing, other days calming and restorative.   I discovered that I could even practice yoga in the Intensive Care Unit—although the only posture I could do was Savasana, the “Corpse Pose,” lying still and surrendering completely. Meditation, prayer, listening to chanting on my iPod and visualizing a positive outcome were all useful yoga practices that helped me through this difficult experience and restore me to full health.

 

  1. WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOGA THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO CHANGE?

Yoga is not about the form.   Although the various forms of postures, breathing and meditation practices are helpful guides, the deepest teachings and realizations of the yoga tradition are what we discover through and behind the exploration of the forms. Hence, any moment is potentially an asana, a seat of consciousness, rendering life wildly free and inviting.

Another misconception about yoga that we would like to change is that you need to be flexible to practice.   Unfortunately, this misunderstanding keeps many older adults and people with health challenges from trying yoga because they think they are too old, too stiff, too limited—they can’t get on the floor, they can’t get out of a chair. . .etc.

 Physical ability (or inability) does not need to be a barrier to practice!

     The only requirement for practicing yoga is the ability to breathe. 

     It’s a common misconception that yoga requires people to twist themselves into pretzels.  But while advanced postures like headstand may be part of the yoga practice for some people, they are by no means required.  Yoga poses should be selected to fit each individual’s abilities and needs.  For many people, yoga practice involves easy, yet powerful, meditative movements that anyone can do.   “Relax into Yoga” is designed so that anyone can do at least some of the practices.   For example, there is a sequence that can be done in bed, and another that can be done sitting in a chair.

 

Kimberly is a leading contributor to research establishing the therapeutic benefits of yoga and meditation for people with serious health issues. She has developed and taught numerous yoga and meditation programs at Duke University Medical Center and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) for patients with chronic pain and cancer. Kimberly co-directs both the Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors and the Yoga of Awareness teacher trainings for Cancer and Chronic Pain offered through Duke Integrative Medicine and OHSU. Her work has been published in journals such as Pain, Supportive Care in Cancer, Journal of Pain & Symptom Management, and Behavior Therapy.

Carol is a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, where she creates individualized yoga practices for people with health challenges and co-directs the Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors teacher training. A frequent contributor to Yoga Journal, Carol is an award-winning journalist and fitness expert. She served as founding editor of the Health section of The Washington Post, where her syndicated column, Bodyworks, appeared for 12 years. She is author of the book Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain; co-author with her cardiologist husband Mitchell Krucoff, MD, of Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise; and creator of the home practice CD, Healing Moves Yoga.

Find our more about Relax into Yoga the DVD and the new book release Relax into Yoga at www.relaxintoyoga.com