Thursday, May 30, 2013

Working With Vets

I am honored that I get to work with an amazing teacher, Joanne Varni. She is dedicated, professional, compassionate and fearless. I'm sharing her recent blog post that describes her experience working with veterans, how people view pain and what it's like to live without the ego. You can learn more about Joanne from her website:

"Each week, I look forward to Fridays, when I get to spend a good portion of my day at the VA in Palo
Alto, teaching yoga.  I teach at the in-patient part of the hospital to mostly men and, sometimes, a few women veterans who have substance abuse issues as well as other emotional and mental health challenges.  I get a range of people of all ages, genders, and physical abilities.  Sometimes the classes are quiet and the attendees simply listen to my instruction and sometimes there is playful banter between the vets in the class and between them and me as well (and maybe some colorful language from time to time).

There are many reasons why I am grateful to be teaching to this audience.  For starters, the vets who are in this part of the hospital go there voluntarily, meaning that they know they are not well, so they go to the hospital and check themselves in.  Once there, they stay until they are told it's time to leave (which can be five weeks or more).  For some, staying is difficult.  For others, the leaving is difficult, because they thrive on the structure that is offered to them in this setting.

A few weeks ago, I was telling the group, as I do every week, that I would rather they not be in pain during class (we all suffer enough), and if something didn't feel right to please tell me so that I could give them an alternative posture.  As I was suggesting this at the beginning of a session, one of the vets said,

"pain is weakness leaving the body."

I was kind of speechless (yes, unusual for me) and humbled because I came face to face with their vulnerability. And I realized, it takes a lot for these men to attend a class taught by a woman doing a modality that isn't considered tough (at least when you compare it the boot camp they had to go through when they enlisted), and that it must take an enormous amount of courage to show up at all.  All of them are in some sort of physical, emotional, or mental pain.  There are those who can barely sit still and those who can barely move.  The vets who think yoga is for the weak rib some of the guys, but they come anyway. Why do they come?

Many of them are simply tired of being sick and tired and really just want to feel better.  So they are willing to try anything.  

Knowing this, my intention every week is to offer them something, anything, to make them feel better - even if just for a moment.  I do my best to let them know that I see them and that they matter.  The vets don't have to attend, but the ones who do usually come back.  And sometimes vets come and go throughout the class.

It doesn't matter to me if they stay for a few minutes or the entire time.  I am there to serve them.  

I get so much out of this experience, and feel fortunate that I get to start my weekend this way… I am honored that I get to work with them and maybe give them a sense of peace if only for one breath."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Living With Cancer, Without Fear

This week, I'm sharing an email from a student who is a breast cancer survivor; she wrote this as a response to the New York Times op-ed piece of Angelina Jolie's that describes her double mastectomy, a course of action the actress chose to take to reduce her risks of getting breast cancer (she currently does not have breast cancer).

Please read this, even if you don't have cancer, even if you don't have breasts, because her underlying theme is universal: intention matters.

"Caving into our fears and living a life in their shadows, feeling afraid, alone and powerless is the festering wound that all women are asked to heal. How we do that, is different for every one of us. For some of us it may mean letting go of our breasts, for others it may mean keeping our breasts and talking to them every day, or employing an infinite number of alternative healing practices.

There really is no salvation in following one approach over the other.

There is no guarantee in any particular choice. As always, it is what we do with it that makes the difference. 

If we cut off a piece of our bodies, bargaining to be somehow made less vulnerable, to be 'in control', to not ever need to fear anymore, we miss the mark. But if we make the same choice with the intent of facing our fear, and coming out of the shadows that have been haunting us, maybe for years, if we use the same surgery to confront our mortality, with the intent to die TO the fear (instead of from it), the same choice can be an incredibly self-empowering marking and initiation.

The same is true for other, more alternative choices. We can diet and exercise all we want, as long as we do it out of fear of developing cancer or having a recurrence,

we are still acting out of the same fear, and suffering. 

(Mis)using any healing tools to try to separate and insulate us from our fear, simply won't do. Fear is a fierce force and unless it is met at a deeper level of ourselves, it won't budge and we will continue to worry and obsess - whether it is about the cookie we ate or the day we missed our run…. And needless to say, fear, and stress (and worry about being stressed!) only keep the wheel of our suffering spinning.

The bottom line is, whatever choices we make, on any given day,

the healing lies in facing our fear AND surrendering at the same time. 

We may think we would feel better if we could only get rid of our fear, cut it off, squish it down, tie it up, box it up, control it, if only we could be safe from it. And yet, paradoxically, all these attempts only do what wind does to the flames. Truly, our salvation lies in turning toward it, in facing our fear, not fighting it, not even fixing it, but surrendering it.

It has been said, that true courage only comes in the face of great fear. So let us USE the fear we all share, the BIG fear of our untimely dying (is it ever timely?), that for many women comes in the face of breast cancer, to FIND our courage, to die to all that hurts or hinders our healing and wholeness, to let go of all that no longer serves and step into the uniquely precious life that has been waiting for each one of us since before we can remember.

Life is vulnerable.
Life in this body is terminal.
Everything is impermanent.
Don't waste another day (or hour or breath) in the shadows of your fears. 

Instead, use whatever tools are calling out to you, to step into meeting your fear and finding the COURAGE that is your birthright. Step out into the bright light of your daring, as the heroine that you are, bold and empowered by responding TO and not from your fears, and held and supported by the community of our brave hearts beating, honoring those that have come and gone before us and inspiring those that will follow in our footsteps to live this one precious, wild life with courage, compassion and grace."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Why I Won't Be Lopping off My Healthy Breasts

Recently, actress Angelina Jolie wrote an op-ed piece for the New Yoga Times about undergoing a preventative double mastectomy. You can read it HERE. She lays out her reasons with such painful openness and details her own statistics battle; it is a great piece to read. Honestly, I didn't look at the author's name until I read the entire piece (I was thinking how funny that this woman has a husband named Brad Pitt, and how confusing that might be in everyday situations). When I realized who wrote it, I read it again with the perspective that this woman's career is based on outward image, which makes her actions even more profound.

I was moved by her situation. I recognized the fear and the strong desire to do everything and anything to keep her family intact and away from the pain of losing someone to cancer. And, I really and truly hope it does. But...

Genetics are not the only player in the cancer game.

The medical party line is that cancer is a disease of the genes. I don't buy this entirely. Certain races report less death by cancer instances than others, but once they immigrate to the US, their cancer incidences rise.

The holistic party line is that cancer is a disease of the environment. I don't buy this entirely, either. People who live "clean" lives by removing toxins from their clothing, skin, food, water, thoughts, breath, spirit, work and play can still develop cancer.

I believe it's both genes and environment. 

Some of us are more predisposed to genetic mutations than others, and this can be tested, so people will flock to the tests with religious fervor. But just because you test positive for a genetic mutation, does not mean you will die from cancer. The environment has to be ideal for the cancer cells to continue to mutate to a point of danger. That is where environmental factors play a part, and the hard choices that we need to make every day in order to reduce our risks. These lifelong choices can be equally as difficult as deciding to remove a healthy part of our bodies.

Has Angelina Jolie avoided a cancer diagnosis? Maybe. Does it mean that she can now riddle herself with toxins? Definitely not! She still must watch all that she eats, drinks, breathes, washes with, paints on herself, wears, thinks, prays and participates in. I'm sure she already does all of these things. I'm sure that her preventative mastectomy was yet another in a long list of hard choices that she has made in order to beat the odds.

I would say the same to anyone else faced with this choice:

there are no guarantees, so do everything that you can, but please, do not be rash about losing a healthy body part.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Fascia, Our Body’s Infrastructure

As a yoga teacher, I get asked many questions about pain. A common one is:

Why does an injury in one part of my body present pain in an entirely different part?

Logic would dictate that the area where you feel pain is the site of the injury or issue, but that doesn't always occur. 

If you’ve never experienced sensation that originates far from where it presents, then try this: open your mouth and place your right hand on your lower jaw bone; slide your jaw into your hand, but resist against it with your hand… and notice where you feel the sensation. Yes, there’s some feeling around the connection of your hand and jaw, but mostly you’ll feel this along the left side – the side where your hand isn’t. Why is that?

To answer that, think of Spider-Man’s costume, a tight second skin with a web design all over it. When he moves, the lines of the webs shift and move with him. Now, picture that web design under your skin, not on top of it. Each line of the webs are connected to each other, so when one spot tightens, tangles or is knotted (as in scar tissue), the rest of the web is affected - and the web is extremely sensitive. 

That web is called fascia, which is a type of connective tissue. These tissues range from light, easily affected “fuzz” to ropey, dense fibers. The following video shows some of the fascia in the forearm.

As the video shows, this web of fascia provides a container for nerves, blood and lymph vessels. When the fascial web contracts, we experience constriction on the nerves, in the blood vessels and the lymphatic system. Too much of this contraction may affect our systems in the following way:

  • pain response and coordination
  • circulation
  • immune system
How do we loosen, untangle or release the adhesions in the fascial body? Massage is one method. Passive resistance through gentle yoga poses can also help, as well as tools that reduce overall stress, such as mindfulness and breathing exercises.

The next time you feel a pain response, ask yourself,

Where does this really come from?

You may be surprised by the answer, or you may not if your "Spidey-sense" is alert!


  • Hear Lorien's interview on the Transformational Power of Yoga Telesummit.
  • Next Kaiser Restorative Yoga for Cancer Survivorship 6-week series begins June 12 (ends July 24, no class July 3). Call 408-366-4284 to register.
  • Tuesday, June 4th: Lorien will be offering gentle yoga demonstrations as part of Stanford's Cancer Survivor Celebration week. See Events page for info.
  • Sunday, June 23rd: Lorien will be offering restorative yoga demonstrations as part of Kaiser's Seeds of Hope Cancer Survivor Day. See Events page for info.
  • Stay tuned: Lorien's Healing Yoga for Wellness DVD will be out in June...

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What Yoga is...

I have practiced yoga for 14 years. Early on, I was introduced to shalabhasana, or the locust pose, as a means to help my back. In every attempt to practice this pose, my legs were heavily earthbound, no matter how much flexibility I gained in my back or strength in my legs. After a while, I began to tell myself stories about this pose:

My arms are too short.
I'm not strong enough.
This pose is not for me.

I began to modify the pose whenever a teacher would offer it in class. I avoided teaching the full pose. I identified with what my mind told me, and embraced the justifications for rejecting the pose.

Last week, I stepped into a yoga class that changed so much for me. The teacher was visiting from India, and he and his wife taught several classes at the studio where I teach. I had heard great things, but had little expectations as I began this journey with him. He asked us to use our breath in a very different way, and then to explain why it was challenging to us. We all had stories about why we couldn't do what he was asking us to do; he neatly and succinctly exposed these stories as false - like removing training wheels, then pushed us to try more.

And then came shalabhasana.

He asked me why I wasn't lifting my legs. I gave him my stories, and he - kindly - refused to believe them. He then explained how I needed an experience to prove it to myself, and that I would then be able to practice the pose forever after that. By adding a small prop, I was able to lift my legs skyward with minimal effort. And so I tried it again. And again, but without the prop. My legs joyfully rose. I tried it the next day, and had the same experience, as well as the days after. So, what happened?

Did he magically transform my arm length, my strength or change the pose so that it was "for me" now?

No. He reminded me what yoga is. From Yoga Sutra 1.2 (Gary Kissiah's The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali),

"Yoga citta vrtti nirodhah: Yoga is the cessation of the misidentification with the modifications of the mind."

My mind had modified reality to fit a concept of my ego: this pose is not for me. I misidentified with this story; I believed it... for a long time, too. By pushing us with our breath, and then giving me an experience that I was convinced I couldn't have, I realized how much I was believing that wasn't necessarily true.

This all happened just 2 days before my Kickstarter campaign was scheduled to end, when I wasn't sure that I could raise the $18K to make the video project a reality. After the class, though, 

I started to doubt my doubts. 

Maybe they, like my thoughts about locust pose, were wrong.

It turns out I was right about being wrong. We reached our Kickstarter goal, raising over $18K, thanks to all of you!!! Since then I've now been wondering, 

What else have I been modifying and misidentifying? 
What have you?


  • Hear Lorien's interview on the Transformational Power of Yoga Telesummit.
  • Next Kaiser Restorative Yoga for Cancer Survivorship 6-week series begins June 12 (ends July 24, no class July 3). Call 408-366-4284 to register.
  • Tuesday, June 4th: Lorien will be offering gentle yoga demonstrations as part of Stanford's Cancer Survivor Celebration week. See Events page for info.
  • Sunday, June 23rd: Lorien will be offering restorative yoga demonstrations as part of Kaiser's Seeds of Hope Cancer Survivor Day. See Events page for info.
  • Stay tuned: Lorien's Healing Yoga for Wellness DVD will be out in June...