How does yoga tell a story? And what is your story?
My first career was in publishing as a book editor. I had been practicing yoga for a long time, I started when I was in college, and slowly I transferred out of publishing and started teaching yoga full time. I still work in editing and publishing in different capacities, but I really see my work now in teaching both yoga and ayurveda, our science of yoga. So for me, when I think about my career overall, the thing that connects those two paths—which seem very different on the surface—is storytelling.
To me, yoga tells a story in so many ways. It tells a story of lineage and ancestry. It's a way of connecting to the past, specifically with the ancient yoga traditions in India and how those stories have been passed down from teachers to students through not just the physical postures, but also the philosophical teachings and universal human story. When we think about the main yoga philosophy, it tells us that our minds are scattered, our minds are unreliable, or causing trouble all the time. We need to do a lot of work to bring ourselves back to center. That seems like a very modern problem with all of our technology, devices, and ability to know so many more things at the same time from around the world. At the time the Yoga Sutra were written, the scope of knowledge was much smaller, in terms of human activity. And yet, at the same time, the scope of knowledge was so much larger in a macro sense. I feel like that is one of the stories being passed down; that we have these human tendencies, and the more that we're reminded of it, it makes our modern condition a little bit more manageable.
I also feel that yoga practice really helps us to unwind and discover our individual story. The healing paths are the stories that we tell ourselves about our roles in our family, our roles in our world, our roles in our jobs. It provides these moments of pause and inner reflection, where we can disentangle ourselves from those stories. Maybe not totally remove ourselves, because we want to be part of that story. But it gives us a chance to say I am separate and individual in this way. That's a very powerful choice to be able to make.
A lot of times when we feel stressed, and we feel disempowered in different ways, it's because we have lost that sense of choice. I think yoga practice really revives that fundamental agency. We have to be part of a network and then also to be separate from the network. That's been a really big part of my own healing journey in terms of Karma Yoga practice, which has helped me to examine the stories that I have had in my own life, in relationships, my family, and my relationship to work, really not identifying with any of those external relationships, even though they're very influential and important and I want them to be part of my life, who I am. It helps to redefine the story that we're telling ourselves. We get down to the heart of this: the ultimate story is one. I will say it's a sort of immortality in a certain way, of constant re-invention of the self. That can also be really powerful in the scope of one's human life where we can constantly reinvent ourselves, tell new stories, and make different connections. That is not only a gift and a blessing, it's also a requirement if we want to be healthy in our bodies. It's a way of keeping the story constantly refreshed.
You have special training in therapeutic and restorative yoga. Can you tell us more about what that is?
Restorative and therapeutic yoga are both ways of working specifically with the nervous system. All yoga essentially works with the nervous system, because we're connecting the body and mind and your breath, and also through other techniques and practices. But in restorative yoga in particular, we're looking to regulate the nervous system. To move out of the stress response, the sympathetic nervous system, and move into the relaxation response, which is the parasympathetic nervous system.
This allows for a lot of the body's natural healing and maintenance processes, whether it's digestion or elimination, or immunity, cell repair, reproduction, all of those different things that keep us alive, to turn back on. Those practices and functions can't be on when we're in a state of stress, or when we're in survival mode. When stress is on, those processes turn off, and that can cause a whole cascade of different health ailments, including to mental health.
In restorative yoga we use a lot of props, and a lot of different setups and postures so that the body is not being asked to make an effort in any way. Even when we're in savasana, for example, we would use props so that there's no tension or effort in the muscles or ligaments or anywhere in the body. We can slowly start to retrain the nervous system to come back into the relaxation response more easily. And this is something that takes a lot of time, especially if someone has a lot of stress in their body.
The muscles are one of the places the body will pour more energy into when we're in a stress response, because the muscles are going to help us to fight off the enemy or run away. We're going to run into the freeze response. And so to unwind some of that habitual tension, which in our modern day comes up not only when we're sort of in a real threat to our body, but also from picking up our phone, or picking up on stressful conversations, or worrying about the world and climate change and war, political conflicts, all these different stressors we have can translate into physical stress in the body. So restorative practice is really a way to do the opposite of that and bring the body back into a place of homeostasis, which can cause a lot of healing on different levels in both the body and the mind.
Therapeutic yoga is working on a similar sort of baseline principle, but it often uses the more specific strategies to help folks who have different musculoskeletal pains or injuries, where there are considerations that we would need to make and a typical asana or yoga posture would not be appropriate, because it might aggravate that person to injury. So the therapeutic practice is still prioritizing the relaxation response, because that's the place where any sort of healing is going to happen. Even on a physiological level, if there's an injury, we need to use the relaxation response to help turn off the inflammation of the immune system to help heal the issue to bring on the offense against whatever is going on.
So therapeutic practice is much more about working with different physical limitations, and allowing someone to have the full experience of a yoga practice without aggravating their existing conditions.
You're the co author of a woman's wellness cookbook, is there a connection between nutrition and yoga? And if so, what is it?
My book Root & Nourish definitely came out of both my yoga path and my studies of ayurveda, which are very intimately connected with yoga. Ayurveda is an ancient medical system (about 5000 years old) that came out of India. It's very similar to traditional Chinese medicine; there's a lot of overlap. It's a very holistic system; body, mind, and spirit are all taken into consideration when looking at someone's physical health. Yoga is often used as a sort of therapy, an ayurveda. If there's a physical thing going on, or even if there's a mental imbalance, we can use yoga to help to bring the mind back into a state of balance.
I was introduced to ayurveda through my teacher training, and was exploring different therapies for my own chronic health conditions. It was the first time that I described the symptoms I was having, and I had gone to many doctors before and they didn't know what I was talking about. My ayurveda practitioner totally understood what I was experiencing, and also had an explanation for it. With that, I was able to really improve my health in so many ways. It really deepened my yoga practice, because it helped me to understand why I was doing different postures, or why I was practicing a different style of yoga, or why maybe practicing a sort of fast paced vinyasa style class at night was affecting my sleep, because the energy was was too high at that time of day.
In my book, I draw on a lot of those concepts, along with my co-author who studies Western herbalism, who put together a very food focused approach to holistic health. So the book is a cookbook, and we have divided it into different sections based on digestive health, mental health, and reproductive health. All of those are different ways in which foods, particularly different herbs and spices, can affect those different systems of the body. But then also taking a larger yogic standpoint, not only yoga in the form of asanas and physical postures, but also yoga in that bigger sense of how am I connecting with my environment to allow for more integration of my whole life? How am I eating? How am I spending my time? How am I exercising, and letting food be one of the gateways into an examination of all the different ways that I’m living my life? It's very much connected, and the book has several sections that offer different yoga postures, yoga sequences, and yoga ideas that complement some of the ideas that we're sharing with regards to food.
So how can yoga help with digestion, mental health and female reproductive hormonal health challenges?
All of these things are, of course, very particular to what a person is dealing with. But I'll give you a couple of examples. In ayurveda, we talk about the digestive fire as a substance called agni, which is just the word for “fire” in Sanskrit. We can do a lot of different things in our yoga practice to support agni. We can stoke agni. With really any pranayama practices where we are really aware of pumping the belly and getting things. We can also use restorative practices. When there is a lot of indigestion going on, if we bring the body into a state of relaxation it can allow for digestion to happen more easily – because if we're overstressed, digestion can't happen at a fundamental level. So the more we can be relaxed, the more we can have improved digestive function. So this is how the mind can support digestion in the sense of mental health.
We talk about mental health in terms of two different qualities. One quality, which is the more severe – an agitated, restless, tends-towards-stress kind of mental state is called rajas, meaning activity and passion. The other, which is the opposite, is called tamas, which is more inert and lethargic, dark and stagnant. With yoga, we can remove those qualities in the mind, and also what remains in the physical body – if there's sort of a restless energy, where you constantly need to move, or you're fidgeting all the time, or you're feeling angry and experiencing heated emotions, yoga practice helps to bring us out of those states, and more towards the center.
Sattva is a state of clarity and harmony and composure, where you're not riled up and you're also not low and feeling blue, you're just clear and peaceful in the middle. The yoga texts describe it like the surface level of a lake, with not a lot of ways that you can see straight down to the bottom. It's very calm. So if you're in a state of rajas, where you're more agitated, doing a slower, controlled, grounded kind of yoga practice, where maybe you really work the muscles of the legs, and you find a lot of grounding, can help to calm that state of rajas. If you are in a state of tamas, where you need a little bit more activity, you can do more of an energizing practice, maybe some more sun salutations, inversions. All of that can stimulate tamas and help us move out of that dull state of mind. So that's how you can use the energies of a yoga practice to affect the mind.
Can you explain what the practice of spot HIA is and how it's helped you?
HIA is a leader in the Yoga Sutra, in the set of Ashtanga Yoga, which is the eight limbs path of yoga. There are different sorts of steps or categories of practice that we can consider an asana, physical practices being only one of them. The first two are the limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas. The yamas are practices we do externally, how we engage with the world and what we are willing to say, and then the niyamas are like personal restrictions, where we give ourselves rules for behavior that allow for our individual flourishing. It translates to self study.
This is one of the core tenets of my practice and my offerings as a teacher and as an educator. Yoga practice really helps us to understand our personal stories, and helps us to understand where we are in the world, how we're operating, and where we can make changes through observation, through experimentation, and through this honest, clear perspective. Self study is really what allows us to personalize our yoga practice whenever we come to the mat. If the teacher is giving an instruction, we use self study to say, Is this pose going to be serving me, or do I need a modification? Because I understand where I am in my body, or I have an injury, or I don't have the energy to do this pose; maybe I need something different, maybe the teacher’s cueing something really slow and mellow and I need something that's going to energize me a little bit more. So I might change the focus of my breath, or change the pace in which I'm moving.
It allows for a much more individualized state of practice, but it is also a governing principle for your whole life; studying yourself helps you understand what kinds of choices to make in your day to day life. It removes some of that external pressure that all of us feel in varying degrees to do the right thing. You know; Should I go to this college? Should I take this job? Should I be in a relationship with this person? Should I live in this place? All of these different decisions that we make can be influenced by so many different external factors; What's going to look good to people? What do my parents expect? What might this opportunity lead to in the future? When we practice svadhyaya (self study), we study ourselves so we can make choices that are aligned with where we are in our life right now. At any moment, you can say with confidence that you’re choosing something with your whole heart and with no doubt. The heart is so much more connected to the body and the body's needs and the body's wisdom. Tapping into that intelligence can allow for a series of events to unfold in your life that might not be what you expected, or what other people expected, and it’s not going to be free of problems, but it can help you move through the road bumps or the stressors with a little bit more ease, because you can make those decisions with more competence along the way.
My last question is, sometimes holistic healing can be daunting to get into because there are so many offerings out there and lots of contrasting advice. Where would you recommend someone interested in holistic healing to start?
That is very true, and it's one of the things that I experienced myself when I first started learning about these different traditions and practices. There's so many different things to know about, especially when it comes to herbal medicine, which is one of my really big areas of passion and study that I'm continuing to pursue. The first thing I would suggest is meeting with some sort of practitioner; an ayurvedic practitioner, or Chinese medicine practitioner, or Western herbalist, someone in a tradition who can give you some personal guidelines, because you can read all the information out there and think that everything is something that you need; this syrup and that practice and this treatment. An individual practitioner can really help to clarify what your individual situation is, and therefore the kinds of treatment can be useful to you.
If working with a practitioner is not possible for you at this point, for whatever reason, I would say to first stick with your diet. And rather than thinking about fancy or trendy diets like keto or paleo or even plant based diets, really sit down and think about how you are eating your food rather than what you are eating. How do you prioritize eating in a calm, focused place? Where you're not multitasking? Are you giving yourself 20 minutes to eat your meal and then be done? Can you focus on eating when you're hungry, and not when you're not hungry? Can you distinguish when you're having an emotional craving versus a physical craving, and really allow yourself to come into that state of harmony with your digestive system? Because if your body is being nourished by your food, then you don't need a lot of these different herbal remedies and herbal products. Food is really where we are supposed to be getting all of our nourishment, not supplements. So if we can simplify our meals, so that our digestive system is working properly and in a calm, relaxed manner, just like you would get from a restorative yoga practice, all you need is to sort of take a few breaths, focus on your food, and be with a meal. You don't need all these external distractions. If you're able to do that on a regular basis, a lot of people see a lot of powerful results.
The other thing is getting good quality sleep, which is something else that can be really challenging for folks today because of all the distractions of screens, and all of the demands on our time. If you can eat your food and get good, uninterrupted sleep, and wake up feeling rested, then a lot of these sorts of problems and worries and concerns start to fall away and get a lot simpler to deal with.
Then, if there are things that are remaining, we can see that there may be issues that are underlying, and then they're much easier to target and work with because we're not also working with a super stressed out body. So those are the two basics, I would say: food and sleep. They're not very sexy, or fancy, but they're really the key to everything.