Monday, September 30, 2013

Yoga 4 Cancer Teacher Training

"Don't you already teach yoga to people with cancer?" My son asked me when I told him I was leaving for the weekend to attend the Y4C training.

"Yes," I replied, and added with a cavalier attitude, "I'm going just to get the certificate, so that I can say that I'm trained; I'm not expecting to get much out of it."

Ha. What arrogance!

This program is founded and led by Tari Prinster, a yoga instructor (and cancer survivor) who you may have seen in the movie, Yogawoman. The first thing Tari did was ask us to examine our biases about cancer, those who have cancer and yoga. At the end of our training, she asked us to revisit these beliefs and notice if any of them changed.

She went on to explain how the body naturally defends itself against cancer, what cancer is, and specifically what our yoga practices are doing to the body. She does this in a way that is easy to understand, but with enough information that even the scientists in the group learned something new.

Once we had a clue and could visualize what was happening in our bodies with cancer cells and our yoga practices, Tari went into greater detail about treatments and side effects that might be experienced.

I spent a lot of time remembering students who had set down their mats in my class with the hope of feeling some sense of normalcy and relief. I nodded along with the discussions and offered what I knew, still thinking of myself as an authority.

That all changed on the second weekend of the training...

Tari had us step into the role of a cancer survivor, using various everyday items to help us feel what it is like to have extra weight, tightness from surgery, limited range of motion from reconstruction, swelling loss of sensation, or other short and long-term side effects. After we giggled at how silly we all looked, we began to practice yoga in a class that she led.

From the very first cue to raise my now-limited-arm, I felt a difference. I struggled to make my body move as I expected, but it was like swimming through cake batter; my movements were slow, difficult and my depth perception felt off. My mind ordered my arm to a certain place in space, but when I looked at it, my limb was in a different spot.

Within the first 10 minutes, I noticed how much harder it was to breathe and I was very warm, even though we had only done some gentle movements on the floor.

As we moved through the class, more students came to mind. I thought of the students who show up, week after week, even though their limitations are formidable. I thought of the ones who no longer come - some because they are no long here, and others I assume because they have moved on.

I sent my wishes for the well being of all of them with every labored exhale. By the end of the class, I was in awe of them. We were all speechless.

You can't really understand another person's experience until you've walked a mile in their shoes.

I knew their experiences with my head, but I didn't understand with my heart until I took this training. I'm so happy that I did, and will be ever grateful to Tari for handing me this particular pair of shoes.


  • Share my blog with others, and invite them to sign up. This is one of the best ways I have to get news out to you all!
  • Starting THIS WEEK: Thursday 9am Yoga for Cancer Survivorship classes with Linda Toenskoetter at Cancer CAREpoint Resource Center. This is the latest of their 3 weekly yoga classes for cancer survivors!
  • Remember, if you can't make it to class, you can always pop in my DVD, Healing Yoga for Wellness, available online at and, and in stores at Breathe Los Gatos, Pacific Healing Arts, Cancer CAREpoint resource center, East West Bookshop and Kaiser Mind-Body-Wellness center.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I Need a New Verb Tense

This is what I discovered this week: present and past tense no longer work for me; I need a new verb tense...

I awoke one morning with a feeling of heaviness around my heart and shoulders. After a shorter asana practice, I sat down to meditate, with the idea that I could "fix" the situation through concentration. I pushed, scratched and attempted to negotiate the feelings away, but couldn’t shake them. After a few minutes, I decided to embrace them. As I took the sadness in, I noticed some space around my heart and my breath came a little easier, but it still felt labored. I set my intention to softly hold the sadness, to look for the joy in the small spaces that day, and to expand into any that I might find. I went about my morning and found little bits of humor here and there, and did my best to shake off the challenging emotions. I had a conversation with one of the most upbeat, contagiously happy people I know, and I found myself smiling.

Around 11 am I found out that a friend had passed away, and all the sadness that I had sat with began to pour out of me. I was no longer heavy. I was floating on a river of grief. 

When I tried to communicate to people about losing my friend, I realized that the current options of verb tenses no longer worked.

My heart didn’t resonate with the idea that she no long was. 

I love her still; therefore, she still exists. 

How can I speak of her in the past tense?

I spoke to someone who lost her father over 10 years ago. She still catches herself using present tense when speaking of him. She still reaches for the phone to talk to him. Our hearts do not know past or present.

I want a verb tense that describes the in-between state, the gray mist that fills the gap until I am ready to speak about my loved ones in the past tense.

20 years ago, my grandmother left this world. She was a big influence on me, larger than I could possibly impart with my limited words. She continues to meet me in my dreams. I hear her in my daughter’s voice sometimes. How can she be gone, my heart asks my head? If I still feel her, remember her, learn from her, is she really gone?

I still can hear my friend’s voice. See her perfectly manicured nails. Feel her very tight hugs. I smile now, remembering when I asked her to hug me a little less tightly because she was cracking my neck each time. Even during her weaker days, when she was bed-ridden, she could  still crack my neck! How can that strength be gone from this world? My heart tells my brain that her strength is still here. 

She still is. 
She will continue to be.

The picture to the right is from my 40th birthday party celebration, a memorable day for many reasons. Karen (on the right in the picture) and I had a silly greeting that included bending forward and wagging our "tails", like how happy dogs great their beloveds. When Karen showed up to the party, we greeted each other that way, not realizing that her "tail" was pointed directly at the band, and mine was pointed directly at the audience. Once we realized what a show we gave everyone, it made us laugh even more.

How blessed I am to know someone who shows that much enthusiasm and joy in everyday life.

Shows... showed...

I need a new verb tense. Something between is, continues and was. Maybe once I find that proper term, the heaviness in my heart and head will let up.

Still wagging for you, Karen. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Pranayama, More Than Breathing In and Out

Unconscious breathing is like eating iceberg lettuce, which is good for survival. 
Conscious breathing is like eating kale, which offers you what you need to survive and so much more!

A while ago I posted this status update on Facebook, because I felt it was one of the easiest answers to the question, "why should I practice pranayama?" Just as some foods can make dramatic changes in your chemical makeup, so can breathing practices.

Pranayama is like a nutritional supplement, working on your mental, emotional,  and spiritual health.

My knowledge of this branch of yoga is limited to my own experiences and research. The following are how I use these practices, which may or may not work for you. There are many texts out there that describe the benefits of breathing practices, if you are interested in diving into these subjects with more detail. As always, working directly with a live teacher is best in order to tailor these practices for your needs.

Mental Supplement

What happens when you sit down to meditate? If you're like me, your mind-stuff begins to pile up and your will to sit with it diminishes. I teach a Sunday night free breath and meditation class; some nights I include more breath and some nights it's more meditation. On the nights when I teach a solid 20 minutes of pranayama, the students report to me that they were able to settle into the meditation that followed with much more ease. Here are some techniques, if you interested in using breath as a means to meditation:

All techniques begin by finding an alert, relaxed physical position. On days when I need to recline to relieve pain, I will keep my eyes open in order to avoid falling asleep. Next, I will practice pranavidya, or observing my breath. I watch my breath for a few cycles, noting my depth, rhythm, sound and texture, before I move into the technique.

Ujayyi is an audible breath that I use when I need to feel warmth or stimulation (great for when I practice in the early, sleepy hours of the morning!). I begin by using ujayyi on both inhale and exhale, also noticing the quiet pauses at the top and bottom of the breath. After a few cycles of breath and when I feel comfortable with it, I will begin to quiet my exhales, so that only the inhale is audible. Whenever I catch myself make sound on my exhale, that's when I know that I've drifted in my attention.

Samavrtti is an equal-sided breath practice that has many layers and generations. Over the last 3 years, I've worked into a pattern of 6 second inhale, 6 second pause and 6 second exhale. I have not yet added the exhale, but that will be my next step over the next several months, beginning with a 2 second pause, then gradually increasing. Some days I can only manage 4 seconds for all sides of my breath. Whatever length my inhale is during my checkin, that's where I will set the length for the other parts. This is a subtler practice that requires more patience to build, and one that I like to use during times when my mind is particularly agitated.

Emotional Supplement

People who only know me from yoga classes have a hard time believing that I have a quick temper, but if you ask my family, they will confirm it. I spent years rejecting my temper, punishing myself and others around me for when it was triggered. I attempted to push it away, to sublimate it, but in the past few years, I've made a study of my temper to learn more about what happens when I'm triggered. I began to notice my tension, my energy, my thoughts and my breath. My temper is triggered by fear. Fear shows up in me as a tightening in my low back, my gut, my throat and my forehead. The path of my energy is similar to a tsunami's mysterious recession, followed by its catastrophic advance; my vital force free-falls downward for a split second (my face will usually drain of blood and turn white), then erupts upward with a forceful explosion (my face then turns bright red). During that initial recession, I suspend my breath; the eruption occurs simultaneous with a violent exhale, and the volume of my voice rises to ear drum - shattering volume. The is what my kids call the "mean mommy voice". Be grateful you've never experienced it.

Another emotion that I work with in my pranayama practice is grief, something I've had the opportunity to experience more of lately. For me, grief is actually fear combined with attachment, but it arises completely differently in me than fear.

If I were to describe my experience of grief using a grammatical analogy, I would say that it is a long list of depressing adjectives that get heavier, darker and more pressurized as the list goes on, punctuated occasionally with bouts of sobs that only mildly relieve the tension. It's hard to breathe in, and when I do inhale, it may catch or stutter. Grief lives on my shoulders, around my heart and down my arms. At times, I may feel like my wrists are handcuffed by it.

My study of grief has led me to the conclusion that I suffer because I reject it. The initial feelings of grief are good for me to experience, but because I try to stuff them down, they burst up through me, along with my opinions about them.

Grief, like, fear, needs a channel. My conscious breath opens that channel and relieves me of the extraneous suffering.

In order to reduce the effects of fear / anger, I use a technique I call the Tension Drain, which I learned from Tias Little in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As soon as I feel that tsunami-like recession, I look for a way to drain it downward. Like opening a valve, giving this energy a place to go usually helps me mitigate the rest of the response. To do this, I establish my connection with my feet (or seat, if I'm sitting). I focus of my exhales, attempting to make them as long or longer than my inhales. I visualize a drain at the bottoms of my feet and imagine I am rinsing the tension down and out. Usually, I feel the difference within a few breaths.

Grief constricts. To respond to grief, I use the following technique to connect with my Heart Chakra. In order to experience grief as a pure emotion and be able to then let it go, I have to first establish the best posture for it. If I am rounded inward, compressing the space around my heart and lungs, it will be harder to disengage from the heavy, seductive feelings of grief. Sitting upright or reclining with support along my spine are my typical postures. I then focus my attention to the space around my heart, imagining that the tightening softens with each breath and that my breath themselves originate from my heart. I see my breaths as a wave, rushing in and out in all directions. After a few moments of this, I begin to notice a feeling of spaciousness around my heart; often, I have to imagine this spacious quality before I notice it. Sometimes, I have to hack my way out of the comforting jungle of grief that has grown around my heart; each breath is a machete strike that clears away the space.

Spiritual Supplement

Prana is our life force, our spirit. Pranayama is the practice of studying, touching, channeling that life force. There are many written examples of the breath as a gift from our creator. My favorite is this one by Kabir:

Are you looking for me?
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but
When you really look for me, you will see me
instantly --
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
The breath inside the breath. Subtle, powerful, connected and with us all the time. Whatever your emotional, mental, physical states, your breath is always there, always part of the fabric of reality.

The So Hum mantra is perfectly suited to honoring that connection. So Hum is translated to mean I am That. I am a part of all of creation. Think about it: as you breathe in now, there are air molecules that may have been here for lifetimes, even eons. As you breathe out, notice what you are leaving in this world. Inhale and hear your breath quietly, organically whisper the word So. As you exhale, hear your breath make the sound of Hum. Over and over, I connect with my breath, with my community near me through my breath, and my larger community of humans through this mantra. So Hum.


  • Share my blog with others, and invite them to sign up. This is one of the best ways I have to get news out to you all!
  • Remember, if you can't make it to class, you can always pop in my DVD, Healing Yoga for Wellness, available online at and, and in stores at Breathe Los Gatos, Pacific Healing Arts, Cancer CAREpoint resource center, East West Bookshop and Kaiser Mind-Body-Wellness center.

Friday, September 6, 2013

All is Not What it Seems

This is the story of how I lie to myself.

First, a little background. For the last month, I have set a goal to get to the studio early enough for a Mysore practice, a self-led sequence that requires both physical and mental stamina. Because I teach in the mornings at locations all over the Bay Area, I need to be there by 6:00 am in order to meet this goal.

Lorien in a pose called
Marichyasana C
This particular morning, I woke up before the sun, dressed, drank a glass of water, gathered my belongings for the day ahead (I planned to be out of the house until evening, so there were several things to gather) and left the house. It was especially important for me to be on time this specific day, because I needed to be done with enough time to shower, eat and get to Sunnyvale in heavy traffic by 8:30 am.

I pulled into the studio's parking lot at 6:30 am, grumpy that I couldn't get myself out sooner on an already limited practice day. As I was collecting my items from my car, I noticed that my phone wasn't among them. I remembered to bring my charger, but no phone. I was frustrated with myself, because I didn't have time during the day to run home to get it, and I had planned to do several things using my phone. With time slipping away, I silently cursed my forgetfulness and walked into the studio.

The next hour was a struggle - the toughest one since beginning this Mysore practice. I couldn't let go of my inner critic. I kept thinking of all the things I wasn't going to be able to do because I forgot my phone: emails I was too tired to send the night before, wishing my high school friend a happy birthday, texting my noon appointment to be sure we met in the right place, texting my daughter to be sure she knew I was picking her up, playing music for my new class, locating my new class, etc...

Stop me if any of this internal dialogue sounds familiar.

There are many poses to remember in the Mysore sequence, and I'm a newbie who's trying to keep my chronic pain at bay, so I practice only half of the sequence. Even still, I couldn't remember the order. My mind was elsewhere. I went through the motions and only occasionally grounded my awareness inside my body. When I noticed I had drifted, I berated myself even more, and the negative thoughts poured out of the dark corners of my mind like water from a leaky boat on rough surf.
The Ship by Salvador Dali

Crash! went a wave, and I remembered how I had hurt myself doing this practice before.

Slosh! went the water, and I thought that maybe this practice isn't meant for me.

Down the other side of the surf and up the next crest I went, feeling worse with each pose. It reminded me of the time I was aboard a boat in the Mediterranean, heaving over the side and we rose and fell, caught in a storm that had almost everyone aboard suffering with seasickness.

I didn't want help from the teacher or her assistant. I wanted to wallow in my inadequacies, to swim in those dark waters.

I ended my practice with enough time to get me to the next thing. Once on the road, I reflected on what had just happened. I missed feeling blissful and proud. I missed the distraction that my phone provided. As I sat in traffic, I examined my thoughts. I had recently been working with the concept that "life is made up of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows", and noticed that I got caught up more in the sorrows than in the joys.

Well, this certainly was a morning that described that pattern of behavior. Once I realized this, I decided to embrace the joys. I listed the items that I did remember to bring with me, all of the things that I needed for the day. I reframed the day as an "old-school" day, knowing that I had once lived without the aid of a smart phone, and - gasp!- even a cell phone.

I can do this, I told myself.

As I reframed things, I noticed that traffic became less annoying. I focused on the interesting bird (was it a Chicken Hawk or a Turkey Vulture?) that sat above me on a wire, watching the commuters below with intense interest. I remained tuned in to my surroundings as I taught my morning class, ran my first errand and made my way to my next meeting. Somehow I found my way, all without the technology that I thought I needed.

I was just parking my car when my phone rang. From my purse.

What I thought I needed to make it though my day was with me all along.

I had lied to myself in the morning, and continued the lies as I practiced. If I had continued to believe those lies, I might not have made it through my day, whether or not I found my phone. Once I realized all of this, I heard my Mysore teacher's voice telling us one of her wise phrases:

"All is not what it seems."

The next time you tune in to your thoughts, see if you notice any of these patterns, and ask yourself what is true about your thoughts. As the lies drop away, remind yourself that things are not always as they initially appear.


  • Please see my schedule page for updates; 3 NEW classes for cancer survivors, and new locations!
  • Sunday, September 15: Basics of Pranayama and Chanting; this 1-day workshop is at Mind-Body Zone in Fremont; see the Events page for more information.
  • Share my blog with others, and invite them to sign up. This is one of the best ways I have to get news out to you all!
  • Remember, if you can't make it to class, you can always pop in my DVD, Healing Yoga for Wellness, available online at and, and in stores at Breathe Los Gatos, Pacific Healing Arts, Cancer CAREpoint resource center, East West Bookshop and Kaiser Mind-Body-Wellness center.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

September Offerings

Greetings, September! Did this month sneak up on anyone else? Ready or not, here it is.

School is back in session, the earth is showing her dry spots and many of us are noticing the changes in our schedules and in our lives.

I'm no exception.

This week marks several new classes, times and locations for classes for people with cancer. As some of you know, teaching people with cancer is my calling and my privilege. I am incredibly honored to add these new classes to my schedule. I hope to see some of you there, if it is appropriate for you to be there. Please help me spread the word to those who need these practices during some of their most challenging times.


Stanford Cancer Supportive Care Program has moved its yoga classes to a new location! 

We are now holding yoga classes 3 days a week at Samyama Yoga Center, located at 2995 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. This new center is very luxurious and has welcomed our program with open arms. On Mondays, Denise Wendler (my first yoga teacher) will lead the Restorative Yoga class, which is open to students in any stage of their cancer journey. On Wednesdays, I will lead a Gentle Yoga for Cancer Recovery class, which is the next step from restorative and invites movement and includes some (optional) standing poses; this class is designed for those through their more active phase of treatment through recovery. On Thursdays, I will lead a Yoga Basic for Cancer Survivors class, which offers a bridge for those students who are through treatment and would like to eventually step into any other yoga class with confidence and safety. All classes meet 1:30-2:45pm and are open to survivors as well as caregivers and are offered free through Stanford's generous donations.

Cancer CAREpoint has a newly remodeled space and yoga classes!

The Cancer CAREpoint resource center, located at 2505 Samaritan Dr., Suite 402, in San Jose, has expanded to include a space for yoga classes. In addition to the weekly Tuesday classes held at Breathe Los Gatos Yoga Studio, we are now offering a weekly Wednesday evening class at the resource center. This class is designed for students who are working during their cancer treatment, or those who are through their active treatment and returning to work. The class meets Wednesday 6:00-7:00pm and will include breathing, stretching and some standing work. In October, there will be an additional Thursday morning class, taught by Linda Toenisketter. Classes are meant for survivors and are free (but we will gladly accept donations).