Free Spirits: Yoga Therapy and Girls

Vintage Yoga (6)

“Girls are largely raised without a sense of their own divinity…their worth in the world is tied to their looks, grades, and gifts – not the amazing miracle of mere existence“…Courtney E. Martin, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

It’s no secret that rates of body image disorders, anxiety and depression are epidemic, or that parents and healthcare professionals are scrambling for solutions, usually pharmaceutical. But what does seem secret (or at least ignored) are the nearly three decades of research demonstrating that when it comes to teens at risk – a dose of “spirituality” may be really good medicine.

That’s why for my upcoming yoga therapy practicum I’ve decided to create a class with one focus – enhancing the spiritual well-being of teen girls. Because after reviewing countless studies suggesting girls with some sort of spiritual focus in their life (no matter their cultural background, ethnicity or religious affiliation) are healthier, happier, and have better academic scores that the norm, I’ve come to a conclusion. I’ve decided the best way to utilize yoga as a therapeutic tool is not just in releasing stress from a girl’s body or in calming her mind, but in nurturing her spirit.

Studies conducted on tens of thousands of teens from the US to Australia, show high levels of spiritual involvement are correlated with “ positive psychological and social functioning” and offer protective factors against “preoccupation with physical appearance and unrealistic standards of thinness” not to mention substance abuse, anti-social and self-destructive behaviors.

And isn’t this good news? Because while yoga may or may not be a religion, it certainly provides a spiritual focus. And doesn’t this suggest that yoga’s ability to foster spiritual awareness could provide a host of therapeutic benefits for girls and young women?

Problem is, as the recent Encinitas court case made clear, to teach yoga as a method of spiritual development is to head into dangerous waters. This means if I choose to offer my class within educational or health care settings, I will most likely be free to explore physiological calming techniques for my students body and mind, but if I mention her immortal soul, well, it starts to get dicey. I’m now in danger of impinging upon her religious freedoms.


I’m not sure if defining ‘spirit’ to my students as that greater part of themselves that exists beyond the material world and their physical bodies – is crossing the line. Or if teaching their bodies are a manifestation of the divine feminine energy of the universe called Shakti – is going too far. But in looking for guidance, I didn’t find much. Seems that most educators and health care professionals are comfortable discussing a girls physical or educational goals, but when it comes to her spirit (if it can be agreed she even has one) –that’s the domain of religion, so there wasn’t much said.

And while it’s a promotional cliché to say that yoga will relax and energize the body, calm the mind, and lift the spirit, the last part is often censored in materials addressing teens and young women. In fact, many  yoga programs targeting young women feature a lot of talk about the importance of  “self- love”, “going inward” and “mindfulness” but few make direct mention of the word – spirit. And I find it odd that while many treatment programs for eating disorders are utilizing spirituality and yoga as healing modalities, preventative programs promoting “body positivity”  in yoga rarely address spiritual development directly.

Is this because yoga is increasingly under fire as a religion? Or is it because yoga has worked hard to distance itself from new agey woo-woo concepts that undermine it’s seriousness as a health care modality? Whatever the reason, I worry by removing the word “Namaste” from the yogic curriculum (as the Judge ruled at Encinitas) or reducing yoga to physical fitness or techniques for “calming anxiety”and “releasing stress” is to leave young women vulnerable to the very illnesses we are attempting to prevent and treat in the first place.

Is our secular discomfort with  religion and spirituality so great that we are willing to leave young women at risk of what author Courtney Martin calls a “deadly, often destructive, lack of faith”?

saxLeonard Sax M.D., Ph.D is the author of book Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, and he writes “For girls puberty is often the years of  spiritual awakening- when they struggle to figure out what they really care about”. Sax warns if “ girls are not healthy spiritually, they may find themselves not so much living as performing …. the technology of social networking sites, instant messaging, and texting makes it easy for girls to think they are living their own lives when in fact they are really putting on a show for their peers.

And this is where the rubber meets the road because as Sax states “academics and athletics only take you so far when it comes to the dark night of the soul”… “even if a girl has top marks, and is in great physical health, those achievements will count for nothing when a crisis hits…life doesn’t always go smoothly, divorce, loss even death can happen.”

Researchers at Columbia University attribute growing rates of depression among young women to the “broad cultural lack of support or validation for spirituality”. Dr.Lisa Miller is the director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University and writes, “Denying or ignoring the spiritual need of adolescents may end up creating a void in their lives that either devolves into depression or is filled by other forms of questing and challenge, such as drinking, unbridled consumerism, petty crime, sexual precocity, or flirtations with violence”.

But here is the kicker – as Sax states- “it seems if she has nurtured her spirit, she is bettered prepared.” Sax has chosen to define spirituality “as a way of connecting with your inner self…this is not about how you look or what kind of grades you get or who your friends with…it’s what you’re left with if you take all these things away.”

To that end Sax suggests we begin by asking girls open-ended questions -does she believe in God? How come? If yes, is God male or female? Or both or neither? What makes her think so?…“we need to help girls understand who they are and who they want to become regardless of the pressures from the society and popular culture to conform to certain ideals”.

girlsyoga8So while I’m not sure how to go about it, my goal  is to create a therapeutic  class that connects young women with their spirits. I want to figure out how nurturing spirituality differs from lets say, religious indoctrination, and I want to find a way to deal with whatever taboo lies behind our inability to deal with what the research is telling us. Sociologists have known since the 90’s that religious or spiritual involvement offers protective benefits for girls and young women that it doesn’t offer boys or men. 

That’s why it seems vital at a time when spirituality is almost entirely absent from educational discourse or popular culture that yoga class remain a place where young women are asked to find the “still center within “or “honour the light in her” or experience her body as “sacred space”. Yoga offers a unique invitation to a young woman to experience herself as a spiritual being -and this experience can be profound in a culture where she is encouraged to value herself for her physical appearance and accomplishments alone.

So in deciding how to define spirituality for my practicum class I will take a cue from teens themselves. A University of Missouri researcher is examining responses to the question “What does it mean to be a spiritual young person?”And  so far answers reveal that spirituality means:

  • To have purpose
  • To have the bond of connections, including those to a higher power (typically God), people and nature.
  • To have a foundation of well-being, including joy and fulfillment, energy and peace

And  I think girlsyoga6it worth remembering that word spirituality derives from the Latin Spiritus or Spirare – to breathe. And the breath, of course, defines the very essence of yoga – it is the unifying link between the body and the divine.

Yoga therapy is defined by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) as “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the philosophy and practice of yoga. That’s why for my yoga therapy practicum class I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m just going to come out and say it. Through Yoga we discover our Spirit. And that’s good medicine.


The Yoga of Time: Chronobiology and Your Inner Plant

Travis Bedel, Anatomical Collage

Travis Bedel, Anatomical Collage

“We share so much in common with plants that we have to reconsider what characterizes us as human.” Plant geneticist Prof. Daniel Chamovitz

Recently a lovely little article appeared in my Facebook feed which invited me to cultivate my inner plant. This was not to be an exercise in anthropomorphism, stated its author, but an opportunity to “vegetalize your already more than human body”. And as I read these words, I realized I had finally found a way to contextualize (and put into practice) my growing fascination with the yoga of time.

Not grand cycles of time like the Yugas, but the monthly, daily, even hourly cycles that regulate our biological clock. Like plants, our cells contain cryptochromes (light-sensitive proteins) which respond to the rising and setting sun and changing moon phases. And plant geneticists and biologists speculate that these genes are why the same cycles of time that regulate the growth, rest and reproduction of lettuce, trees and flowers, govern our metabolic processes as well.

Was this I wondered, why ancient Vedic and Ayurveda texts put so much emphasis on harmonizing human activity with the cycles of the sun, moon and solar system? Today their teachings on propitious hours, days and moon phases for meditation, sadana and asana has largely been washed out of modern yoga practice as irrelevant superstition – yet the new science of Chronobiology increasingly confirms that within every moon phase and daily cycle – there are peak times for everything.

Chronobiology (meaning biology and time) suggests that solar and lunar cycles DO create real fluctuations in our bodies and brains, regulating physiological processes such as sleep wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature, neurotransmitter activity and other important bodily functions.

CircadianRhythmsIndeed research compiled in Michael Smolensky’s book The Body Clock Guide To Better Health lends support toVedic texts which tell us that when it comes to maximizing our full potential, timing is everything. Smolensky is the director of the Hermann Hospital Center for Chronobiology and Chronotherapeutic Studies, and he asserts that fluctuations in our circadian rhythm, a roughly 24 hour period (following the earth’s rotational cycle) leaves us better performing certain tasks at certain times. For example, morning are best for tackling mental tasks because mental alertness and concentration peak from 9am and midday and wane in the early afternoon (best time for taking a nap). And because our muscular strength, pain tolerance and physical strength peak at about 3pm to 6pm Smolensky suggests this is the time to perform strength and agility based exercise.

Does this lend support to ancient Vedic texts which divide each of the 24 hours into kapha, pitta, and vata periods during which the predominating qualities of those doshas are prevalent? The three doshas are said to be the equivalent of Sun, Moon and Air energies of our body. And in the great healing tradition of Ayurveda, aligning ourselves with these energetic qualities starts with getting up in the morning.


The period before sunrise is related to Vatta, and is known as the Brahma Muharta or “ambroisal hours. And one of the very first Ayurvedic texts advises :”One should wake up in the Brahma Muhurta for sustaining perfect health and for achieving a long life span, as desired.” Conversely waking later was believed to contribute to lethargy, fatigue and a host of physical disorders. So could waking up during Brahma Muhurta actually help synchronize our natural clock?

Each morning when the earth rotates into sunlight the geomagnetic field recoils from the impact of the solar wind. This creates a surge in the fields lines of magnetic force that run throughout the earth -and our bodies and brains- releasing the hormones and neurochemicals which shift our physiology from sleeping to waking. And as Dharma Sing Khalsa MD, author of Meditation as Medicine: Activate the Power of Your Healing Force suggests – if this transition between sleep and waking does not occur in tandem with our natural circadian rhythm, it can “diminish the production of stimulating neurochemicals, and leave people groggy and depressed all day. Or it can cause the opposite effect, the overproduction of the stress hormonal cortisol, which can cause agitation, immune dysfunction, memory loss and premature aging. “


Ancient Vedic texts are also full of instructions on observing the cycles of the moon. Different phases of the moon were believed to have different energetic forces that could be harnessed through appropriate breathing exercises or meditations. And again, while we regard these idea’s as folklore, studies referenced by Douglas Rushkoff in Present Shock, When Everything Happens NOW suggest that our brain is dominated by a different neurotransmitter during each moon phase.

And while this research is still far from definitive, there is evidence that at the beginning of the new moon acetylcholine (associated with heightened attention) is predominant, nearer to the full moon a uptake in serotonin occurs (the feel good chemical that gets boosted by anti depressants) and as the moon wanes our dopamine (responsible for reward driven learning) increases. Finally in the last moon phase we are dominated by norepinephrine (an arousal chemical that regulates the flight or fight response, anxiety and other instinctual behaviors).

So is it so far-fetched to consider that guided by the moon phases, the yogi’s various rituals, sadhanas, and proscriptions, might have indeed intensified states of consciousness or even altered their biology?

I’ve given only a few of the examples of research which supports ancient contentions that living in sync with daily, monthly and hourly cycles benefits us physically, emotionally and mentally. And this is important, as Rushkoff points out, because most of us live, work and sleep in artificial environments oblivious to the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution that have cued “everything from our thyroids to our spleens to store, cleanse and metabolize at appropriate intervals.”And as chronobiologists have found, this is directly linked to epidemic problems as sleep disorders, depression, dementia , diabetes, and obesity – to name but a few.

As a yoga teacher and practitioner this concerns me because most of us also practice yoga this way. We perform the same routines and sequence of postures day in and day out – paying little attention to the effects on our physiology of the changing hours, days and moon phases. And to me it suggests that we’re missing out on a vital component of Hatha Yoga (the mother of modern practice), one that emphasizes the importance of  “yoking” our being to solar (Ha) and lunar (tha) cycles.

So an obvious question arises, could aligning with natural cycles actually enhance the effectiveness of our yoga practice? Since mental concentration is high in the morning does it make it a good time for mediation? And because muscular strength and concentration fall in early afternoon- is it an ideal time for restorative yoga? And is late afternoon (when physical performance peaks and the risk of injury drops) the best time for a more energetic power yoga workout?

Now I want to acknowledge that it’s really not as simple as all that. The changing moon phases affect the appropriate times for differing activities each day. For example in the new moon phase, people will be most alert during the early morning hours, while in the second phase leading up to the full moon, people function best in the afternoon. Further complicating matters is the fact that everyone’s body clock isn’t the same. Chronobiological research demonstrates people operate on either of two distinctive chronotypes, morning people tend to wake up and go to sleep earlier and to be most productive early in the day. Evening people tend to wake up later, start more slowly and peak in the evening.

So I wondered, beyond someone inventing an App that meshes our chronotype with moon phases and circadian rhythms was there a simple way to put the yoga of time into practice?And this brings me back to the lovely plant embodiment exercise with which I introduced this post – because it granted me a clarifying epiphany. The answer was within the body – as always.


Utilizing the great yogic metaphor of body as tree, this meditation instructs us to “ Find a patch of sunlight. Stand tall, let your feet sink into the ground below you, and close your eyes. Reach your bare arms outward and feel the sun warm your skin…feel the lift and lilt as your leaves and stems reach for more sunlight…”

Now considering that the same cryptochromes responsible for a plant “knowing” whether it is in the light or the dark are the same group of genes that keep humans in tune with their biological clock, this meditation aptly asks: “Can you feel the energetic shift when the far-red light of the rising and setting sun cues your body in to the earth’s rotational rhythms?”

I love this because it encourages us to sink deep down into the innate wisdom of our cells. It invites us to “acquire a bodily memory of the play of light and colour as they change over the seasons”. And it suggests that by cultivating our inner plant we can reconnect with our nature as beings in time, we can begin to instinctively sense and move in harmony with the cycles of time that regulate all life on the planet.

Yoga Body: The Backlash


Two years ago I wrote a popular post titled Yoga Body: The Conspiracy. At the time it was very warmly received, generating thousands of hits, hundreds of shares and loads of positive comments. But lately the commentary hasn’t been very affirmative. In fact, its been making people pretty angry. One yoga teacher was enraged enough to call me an ignorant, lazy, pissed off “fat chick”. Nice. So what I wondered, was suddenly getting people so upset?

A lot of commentators disagreed with my claim that the ‘perfect’ yoga body used to sell yoga mats, clothes, DVDs, books, workshops, festivals, retreats, studio memberships, etc. was not a healthy ideal, that it was a body overworked and underfed. They saw it as a glowing icon of inspiration, the natural outcome of a wholesome yogic lifestyle (i.e. self-discipline and dietary control). And as one person pointed out, if I didn’t have a yoga body- well, clearly I was doing yoga wrong.

Others were distressed because they felt I was making assumptions prejudicial to the naturally thin. (Just because a women is skinny doesn’t mean that she diets or has a narcissistic obsession with working out.) All bodies, fat or thin, are just fine as they are, and it was hypocritical of me to talk about body positivity while being part of the body hating problem.

Now I admit I see their points, I am far too pleasure-loving to attend butt burning yoga boot-camp, and whenever I see a yogini devoid of body fat I suspect her of working hard to attain that physique. But it’s important to acknowledge that my post speaks for the large majority of women, women who carry a little more adipose tissue than the models of Lululemon, women for whom achieving the ‘yoga body” does involve constant work and dietary restraint. (Its whether we’re willing to pay the price, that is the million dollar question.)

This doesn’t mean I’m dissing women on the low-end of the body fat spectrum. I recognize that for some women (as one of my naturally thin friends pointed out) the yoga body is equally unattainable. Because while it may be girlishly slender in the waist and thigh, it’s definitely womanly in the breast and buttock department. Yoga Barbie anyone?backlashyogabarbie

And I’m not being facetious. Just google “yoga body” and you’ll find your screen flooded with young, white, beautiful women whose lithe bodies are either executing some advanced posture requiring the strength and bendiness of an Olympic Gymnast or  are sitting in Lotus, hands in prayer, eyes closed, their enraptured faces evoking beatific female saints who denied the flesh in search of transcendence.

backlashyogabody15Most of these women appear against blurred minimalist backdrops of sea, tropical greenery or spartan studio walls. They do not exist in relation – to either people or their environment, their bodies are the sole and dominating focus of the photograph.

And whether these images originate in corporate advertising, stock photography, or the ubiquitous yoga “selfie”, their taut torsos, rippling muscles and cellulite free thighs, testify to one thing. That the yoga body is a body brought virtuously under control. It is the physical manifestation of the inner strength, willpower, discipline and moral fortitude necessary to achieve it.backlashyogabody 13

And isn’t this why the yoga body flourishes as an icon of yoga culture? Because haven’t we all, bought in to the ideology, as yogi J.Brown writes “ that pushing our physical capabilities is how we utilize practice to grow as people”. That working harder to be better, more healthy and spiritually pure means taking “ the body just past the limit usually thought possible”?

The booming popularity of 30 Day Yoga Challenges certainly exemplifies this conflation of fitness and spiritual development. Here is a collection of copy promoting various challenges currently offered by studios across North America : Strive to complete 30 classes in 30 days! Completing your challenge will require self-control and sacrifice. You can create a whole new way of being. Be Better Than You Were Yesterday. Empower yourself and transform your body and mind in 30 days.

yogachallengeThis gets at the reason I think my post has been getting people so riled up lately, it calls into question that great sacred cow of 21st century yoga -that challenging and controlling our bodies is how we grow our souls.

Despite our pretensions that the yoga body is the natural outcome of yogic discipline and ‘ healthy’ lifestyle, it is certainly not the body ‘au natural’. It is achieved through hours of pure labor, hours spent transforming the dross matter of our flesh into something higher, more refined, something beautiful and spiritually pure. Has the proverbial bed of nails become today the penitent daily workout, as we overcome our weakness, our laziness, our unruly appetites?

It’s an obvious point that whether the yoga body is being sold to us to by big corporations or our local yoga studios, it’s purpose is to keep us striving. Because the more we keep striving, the more we keep buying. Into books, DVD’s, workshops and challenges that tell us with this program or celebrity teacher, we can up pull our bootstraps and finally get it right, be right.

Roseanne Harvey

Roseanne Harvey

I agree with popular blogger Roseanne Harvey that its high time the yoga body “ be reclaimed from Google, reclaimed from marketers, reclaimed from a fragmented culture that has mixed messages and ideas about the human body.” And during her recent quest to achieve her own yoga body in 21 days, Harvey attempted to do exactly that. Because between her glowing accounts of new healthy eating habits and core strengthening routines, Harvey did something really subversive. She posted pictures of herself looking FAT – online – for all the world to see.

Harvey's Shadow Body

Harvey’s Shadow Body

backlashyoga12 Harvey publicly exposed what she calls the shadow body, the pictures of our shame and self loathing, the images quickly and furtively deleted, the images we hide. Harvey writes “Documenting my “shadow body” and posting it all over Facebook took a tremendous amount of courage, and left me feeling vulnerable, yet empowered.” And here lies a valuable cue – because until we make peace with this “shadow body” we will never be free of the fear that we are grotesque and unlovable just as we are.

I have to admit, as enlightened as I may feel myself to be about body image issues, I would rather submit to a dentist drill than publicly post fat pictures of myself on the internet. And when it comes to relentless self-improvement, I’m addicted as anyone to the possibility that with just a little more discipline and elbow grease, the right diet and the right derrière flattering yoga pants, l can bring forth into existence that, super-together, uber-organized, blissed out, svelte yogini version of myself. In short, my yoga body will prove I am in control of my life. Yet I well know the price I pay. Self–acceptance. Being present with gratitude and reverence for the life and the body I have now.

This is why the questions I asked in Yoga Body: The Conspiracy, still need answering. Does the yoga body (and it’s shadow) take root in a backlash against a female body that has become increasingly liberated from patriarchal authority? Why, as yoga helped women develop a new sense of positive embodiment, did the yoga body ( and all that it implies) become enshrined as an ideal of feminine virtue? Why do so many western women of privilege, women who enjoy the first world ‘rights’ denied to so many, spend so much free time, energy and money simply keeping their bodies under control?

So to my posts detractors I say this. No matter our opinions on what the yoga body is or should be, lets drop the judgement, of ourselves and each other. I agree with Harvey in her post Thin Shaming The Body Beautiful Will Get Us Nowhere as she quotes writer Lindy West “ Thin-shaming and fat-shaming are not separate, opposing issues—they are stratification’s of the same issue: Patriarchal culture’s need to demoralize, distract, and pit women against one another. To keep women shackled by shame and hunger. To keep us obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential. “

And finally in closing, I ask you this. What will the future make of this endless media parade of perfect bodies executing perfect poses? What will they conclude about the practice of 21st century yoga? Why do so many respected yoga teachers portray themselves in advanced, awe inducing postures? Why do we have no other visual language to communicate what yoga is or means – than just the yoga body? Maybe its time we find something more meaningful to convey.

Halloween: Shedding Light On The Shadow


“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~ Carl Jung

It’s the time of the year when the veil between the ordinary world and the supernatural thins. A time when children dress as goblins, pumpkins flicker, plastic skeletons rattle, and talk at late night party’s turns to all things woo-woo. A time we raise the hairs on our necks and scatter goose bumps across our skin, and make room for what normally has no place in the daylight of our daily lives – things that go bump in the night.

We love Halloween; in fact our enthusiasm has grown positively obsessional. Today it rivals Christmas in popularity and consumer spending, and retailers eager to cash in on the Halloween spirit roll out costumes, candy and merchandise earlier and earlier. (In WalMart “Spooky Central” makes it debut in mid-August).

So, I’m curious, why have we gone whole hog celebrating something that every other night of the year (as we patiently explain to our wide-eyed children at bedtime) –does not exist?

bettygrableObviously Halloween puts a benign face on what we usually fear. We indulge our fascination with magic and mystery, ghosts and witches – with the proviso it’s all make-believe. There is no monster under the bed. But maybe there is?

Now I’m not talking about literal ghouls and goblins – but about something psychological. A denied part of ourselves that has grown monstrous, below the dark basement stairs.

The great psychologist Carl Jung believed that what we consciously repress or deny becomes the parts of ourselves that operate beneath conscious awareness, what he called the shadow aspect our psyche. He argued that the overly rationalistic scientific paradigm of the 20th century, was suppressing spirituality, and he warned, if the spiritual aspects of our psyche were not recognized consciously our longing for transcendence – would meet our deepest fears.

zombieWas he right? Have we demonized the transcendent because it is demonized in ourselves? Take a look at our popular media; you’ll see a dark face indeed. The electronic hearth positively burbles with zombies, teen vampires, demonic visitations, hellish hauntings, dismembering ghouls, angels, time-travelers and alien invasions. Could it be that these zombies, demons, vampires, are reflections of our souls?

There is little point in denying that despite our secular scientific world – the ‘ghost in the machine’ still haunts us – and maybe as never before? Statistics reveal that whether it’s an encounter with the dearly departed, UFO or spooky prophetic dream, more people than ever are experiencing supernatural events. Gallup polls show that belief in the paranormal is rising, doubling in the past two decades alone.

According to Paul Kurtz, chairman of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, statistics like these indicate a regressive trend in superstitious thinking and point to the urgent need for teaching critical thinking in schools and colleges.

To believe in the supernatural is to be suffering from magical thinking and/or deviant biochemical processes of the brain. (And for those who choose to go against the grain of consensual reality, there can be some pretty dire consequences, ridicule, ostracism, not to mention hospitalization.)

20596_322667407846531_200159193_nBut Jung would have disagreed. Each of us, he argued, is destined to have a supernatural encounter, not because they constituted the remnants of a more primitive mentality, but because they reflected the growth of our consciousness as it expanded to higher levels of awareness.

Jung predicted that the 21st century would begin to see increasing reports of signs in the skies, of people being carried off in wondrous crafts, and increased paranormal phenomena because taken as a whole, these encounters are a shadow projection of our denied spiritual selves.

Stanislav Grof, Ph. D. founder of  Transpersonal Psychology, believes that rising accounts of supernatural encounters (what he calls Spiritually Transformative Experiences) do not betray a trend of delusional thinking but reflect instead our evolving comic awareness of deeper realities. And according to Dr. Michael Grosso, author of Frontiers of The Soul : Exploring Psychic Evolution these statistics suggest “we’re confronting a biological transformation – this is an evolutionary process that we’re witnessing” .

superheroToday learning to grapple with emerging psychic powers is a popular theme in films, books and video games. From the blockbuster film X Factor and spinoffs, Harry Potter franchise, to TV series like Buffy, Heroes and True Blood, all feature ‘mutants’ accepting and dealing with -the challenge of their superhuman potential. Is this growing fascination with paranormal powers reflective of an evolutionary change occurring in consciousness?

We should remember the significance of the supernatural in our religions, myths, fairy-tales, literature, art, film and popular culture. Because whether it’s the midnight knock on the door, the invitation down the rabbit hole, the decision between the red and the blue pill, this experience takes us to the edge of the ordinary world. Where we are left with two choices: stay to the straight and narrow, or take the yellow brick road. It is the moment that initiates what mythologist Joseph Campbell has famously dubbed the “hero’s call to adventure”.

sweatlodgeI think we should pay closer attention to the attitudes of our indigenous cultures. Their traditions of vision quest and sweat-lodge, actively sought an experience of the supernatural as an honour, an acquisition of knowledge, a lifelong guide. Supernatural experiences were understood to be glimpses into a higher reality, of which material world is only a reflection, like shadows seen through the glass darkly. And these cultures understood what we have long forgotten – ignoring the spirit world portends disaster for the entire tribe.

So I see Halloween as a necessary crack in the door, a safety valve, a time when we let the monsters out and see that they are not so frightful after all. Jung stressed the importance of externalizing shadow material through socially acceptable channels to bring its inherent darkness to light.

And isn’t that what Halloween is about? When we don Dracula’s cape, dress our children as superheroes and string big scary spider-webs across our front porches, aren’t we shedding light and love on our ‘shadow’ – the repressed magical, supernatural and mysterious aspects of own psyche?

halloween-eveThe etymology of the word “Halloween” means “hallowed evening” or “holy evening” and Celtic cultures saw it as time when fairies and the dead could walk in our world. And when I think back to my own childhood memories, it’s not the costumes or the candy that I remember most. It was the thrill of night; trees illuminated in street-lamps, stretching shadows, the danger of being out past dark, the presence of something other -out there. Yes it was scary. And yet, in the presence of the excited happy faces of parents and other children, the communal celebration – I felt safe. It was okay after all.

Coming To Grips With The Divine: The Sacred Language of the Hand

handofgod1“Our ability to grasp, to build, and to make our thoughts real lies inside this complex of bones, nerves, and vessels”…“The hand is a signature for who we are and what we can attain.” Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body.

 In the past year my hands have taken on a life of their own. During yogic and meditative states, an external/internal energy begins to pour into my palms, compelling my hands to form basic shapes and gestures. Sometimes it feels like my hands and fingers are being pulled by a force, other times it feels as if they are seeking to express something, embody something – but what?

So in a quest to better understand what was happening- I began to research everything I could find about the hand. And what I discovered was revelatory.

Today mysticism and science are converging to tell us that not only do our hands receive, transmit and even project energy – they are a vehicle by which we transform consciousness into the world of form. (Is this why the Latin word for manifestation, Manus, is also the Latin world forhandicon hand?)

That’s why I’ve come to understand , as Sir Charles Bell wrote in his classic anatomy handbook The Hand, Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design – that the designed perfection of the hand “could only have a divine origin.”

The Sacred Hand

According to Gertud Hirschi, author of Mudras: Yoga in Your Hands, the idea of the hand as containing and expressing divine energy is found in nearly all spiritual traditions. Hand gestures are depicted in cave art, indigenous art, Christian and eastern religious iconography.

The traditions of Tantra and Hatha Yoga, Buddhism and Taoism, agree that the palms of the hand contain energy vortices (chakras or power-points) that connect the physical body (brain, organs, glands, veins, tendons) with the subtle or energetic body (chakras, nadis, meridians). The thumb and each of the fingers are imbued with specific metaphysical powers, and offer channels for the flow of Prana or Qi (life force or divine energy) through the energy body.

In Tantra and Buddhism, holdihandmudrang the hand in specific positions is called a mudra. When prana begins to flow through the energy body, the hands can begin to form spontaneous mudras – on their own. (Was this the phenomenon I was experiencing?)

While mudras can happen without conscious volition, they can also be used deliberately. By utilizing certain hand postures and pressing the fingers together in particular positions, prana can be channeled intentionally along differing energy pathways (nadis or meridians).

Of course, the existence of these “spiritual energies “and “energetic bodies” is still up for debate. In the modern scientific paradigm, using hand gesticulations to engage with our chakras and meridians is pointless – there is no hard evidence documenting they actually exist. 

But what I do find compelling is that science is coming up with evidence that mudras DO create real physiological effects in the body and brain.

The Hand & Bio-Energetic Phenomenon

homuncToday we know that every area of hand forms a reflex zone for an associated part of the brain. And the hands, with their multitudes of nerve endings, occupy a significant portion of this neural tissue. Neural imaging experiments on mudras have demonstrated not only their ability to activate specific portions of the brain, but alter brainwaves and create specific physiological states.

Research conducted by Albert Roy Davis and Walter C. Rawls found activating the right palm and inner fingers promote strength and confidence while the left hand palm and fingers have a “sedating soothing calming effect.”

Davis and Walter also found the natural energy in the palms was similar to the two different energies that exist in all magnets. By clasping the hands together in prayer or Anjali mudra as it is known in yoga, forms a “closed loop” or a “closed circuit.” Energy flows through this circuit from right hand palm (positive) to left hand palm (negative) enhancing the flow of electrical energy within the body”. Interestingly, this is similar to the Taoist view of the left hand as conducting yin energy and the right hand, yang energy. 

In Taoism the palm is believed to contain a power point called Lao Gong – Pericardium 8  which can be used to enhance the flow of Qi into the body. According to modern Taoist Master D. Baolin Wu, our hands are “sensitive tools” to “interpret and direct the constant flow of Qi circulating taosit handthroughout the universe”. It is through the hands that we direct Qi towards the fulfillment of our will and intention.

Okay so this idea that we can manifest our desires through the power of our hands may seem just a little woo-woo. But bio-imaging studies demonstrate that the hand, palm and fingers emit an bio-magnetic energy that has measurable effects on the physical world.

Research conducted in Japan demonstrated that practitioners of healing and martial arts techniques (Qigong, yoga, meditation, Zen etc.) were capable of emanating extraordinarily large strong pulsating magnetic fields from the palms of their hands, about 1,000 times stronger than normal human bio-magnetic fields

Experiments by John Zimmermann with highly sensitive SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) detectors measured increased magnetic field emission from the hands of psychic healers hundreds of times stronger than normal body activity.

But most amazing are the countless experiments demonstrating that this “field emission” is capable of altering enzyme activity in cells, changing the Ph level in water, and increasing the growth rate of plants. Dr. William Bengston has conducted numerous clinical trials demonstrating that “hands-on healing” consistently reduced tumors in mice and led to “the increased health of the sick organism.”

Is this pseudo-science as the skeptical minded contend? Or are we slowly beginning to rediscover what the Tantric and Taoist mystics already understood, the energetic power of the hand to shape reality itself?

Biology & Gesture & Embodied Cognition

On this question, I find the hand’s evolutionary history most telling.Research published in the National Academy of Sciences revealed that hand gestures stimulate the same regions in the brain as language.
Research in the field of l
handokanguage evolution suggests that this is because gesture is hardwired into our physiology and may well be the oldest form of communication. That’s why we all understand that hands held high in the air means victory or that two pairs of hands clasped together means love.

Studies conducted in the emerging field of ‘embodied cognition” demonstrate how the simplest of hand gestures affect our psychology i.e. reaching upward makes it easier to recall happy memories, while reaching downward brings negative memories to mind.

Researchers theorize this phenomenon may have something to do with dominant and submissive body postures, which are deeply wired into our most primeval instincts and internal structures – and take place at a realm beyond conscious awareness.

David McNeill, has spent the greater part of his career studying body language and gestures and he believes our hands are doing much more than simply expressing our inner states.  McNeill concludes that gestures do not simply form a part of what is said and meant – but have an impact on thought itself.

He writes “When we speak, we shape our thoughts for language, and when we gesture, we shape them in the space in front of us…by putting our thoughts in our hand_gestureshands we learn and remember better, speak more fluently and find the right words.” McNeill theorizes that gestures directly transfer mental images to visible forms, conveying ideas that language cannot always express.

So is it by talking with our hands, that we discover what we want to say?  By helping us verbalize, give name to what was previously unconscious (inchoate emotion or sensation) are our hands helping to shape self-consciousness itself?  And so I wonder (when my hands are spontaneously forming mudras) – what knowledge are they attempting to express?

Love & Mirror Neurons

In the end, what resonates most in my exploration of the hand, is its connection to the greatest and mysterious energy of all, love. Because, all the traditions of yoga agree, the hand chakra connects directly to the greater chakra of the heart. Which seems so obvious, after all? Because it is through the physical expression of touching, stroking, holding, that we give and receive love.holding-hands-love-passion

Neuro-imaging also shows us the area of the brain called Broca’s area (where language is believed to originate) lights up when people grasp an object and when they watched someone else grasp the object. This is theorized to be the work of ‘mirror neurons’ – meaning when we watch each other gestures – we literally “feel” them in our body. So could witnessing a mudra be as powerful as experiencing it?

I find this question intriguing considering that Anjali mudra (hands clasped over the heart) has today become practically synonymous with all things “spiritual”. According to the great yogi sage Krishnamacharya, this gesture “seals” our relationship with the Divine, and “signifies the potential for an intention to progress to the greatest spiritual awakening”.

yogamen3Could this image, gracing nearly every new age, meditation and yoga website/magazine/product, actually be capable of affecting us spiritually? Did ancient mystics already understand this? Is this why images of sacred hand postures are so ubiquitous in spiritual art? Who knows? But it’s an interesting question to contemplate.

In yoga tradition the heart chakra is seen as the gateway to higher consciousness. Awakening the energy center of the heart opens the “gate of heaven” where we experience hridaya, “the whole” a place of unity, oneness. And most fascinatingly, science does confirms that our heart connect us to a higher dimensional field of energy beyond time and space. (See my post The Sacred Heart: Gateway to Higher Consciousness)

So it makes sense then, that our hands are the “flow-ers” of the cosmic energy of the heart. And that’s why while I’m still not exactly sure what my hands are doing or why, I’ve decided to go with the flow and trust them to lead the way. Because whether it’s through “spontaneous mudras” or reaching out with a caress, I trust that my hands are transmuting divine energy -love- into the world of form.

The Body Divine: Our Metaphysical Meat

blog2I have written many times with dismay about the “I am not my body” ideology that permeates contemporary yoga. To view the body, as so many spiritual seekers seem to do, as a vehicle or ‘meat-suit’ – whilst our true self lies ‘elsewhere’ is to fall victim to what author Philip Shepherd calls the “great wound of our culture” – the mind/body split. Because “if you are divided from your body you are divided from…the living continuum to which you belong.”

That’s why I was so thrilled to read Matthews Remski’s brilliant and insightful article If We Erase “I Am Not My Body” What Is Left of Yoga Philosophy? Remski urges us to stop looking ‘out there’ for transcendence and he questions the idea so prevalent in many streams of yogic tradition, that the body is to be sloughed off like an old suit when we ‘ascend’ and reach Nirvana. Remski is not, as he writes “ in sympathy with this dualist portrayal” of an “immaterial mind trapped inside an alien body.” He goes right for the jugular of the mind/body split when he asks – what if there is no post body state to work towards, no body to overcome? Right on Matthew!

Photo by Flora Borsi

Photo by Flora Borsi

But sadly, it is with his materialist hardline, that we must part ways. And while I am oversimplifying Remski’s complex analysis, lets just say he sees our experience of “I am not my body” as simply a trick of perception, a biological glitch, “a temporary experiential response to developmental patterning or phenomenological conditions”.  It implies no greater truth, only “a common experience we would do better to integrate rather than reify.”

Remski’s opinion takes root in the dominant paradigm of neuroscience that mind derives from matter – so let’s jubodydiivine1079907-001st deal with the matter – please. But does that necessarily make the “I am not my body” experience illusory? Because, lets face it, we won’t really know the answer to that question until the hard problem (how our matter, our meat produces mind-stuff, qualia, the experience of consciousness) is solved.

I don’t disagree with Remski that consciousness is an artifact of the body, it’s why in fact, I believe the body CAN know or apprehend a metaphysical reality. Because it is the bodies very nature.

This idea of a metaphysical body (defined as that which transcends or goes beyond the physical) goes to the heart of why I started writing this blog. I wanted to respond to my yoga students requests to work on their abs, butts or shoulders, as if the body was just a mechanistic collection of parts to be kept in ‘shape’. I wanted them not to see their body as inert meat, cut off from the greater “I’ or self that was driving their ‘vehicle’ but as part of, or “one with” their consciousness.

Now I know that statement makes some people very upset , because to claim consciousness extends beyond the brain, is to disregard the hard cold facts of science. Yet what proof  is there that the body (or the mind for that matter) is separate from – anything?  In fact, the more we zero in, looking for the hard edges between this and that, between body and mind, between consciousness and matter, the more they dissolve into the proverbial vanishing point. Our minds may seem immaterial and our bodies may seem like solid flesh and bone, but both flow together (into everything and each other) as interconnected energy fields encompassed in larger interconnected energy fields – ad infinitum.

davidbohmThis is why the great quantum physicist David Bohm postulated that there is both an implicate and explicate order to things. The “implicate order” was the unseen realm of complete unity in which everything, including consciousness, is enfolded together and in contact with everything else. And it was from this realm that the seemingly isolated things and events of the world unfold in the “explicate order”, the material day-to-day reality in which we live.

So can we really seal the body off from this ‘greater’ energetic continuum as a strictly material phenomenon, any more than we can seal consciousness solely into the flesh? Despite our dualistic penchant for dividing you from me, me from that, body from mind, we must acknowledge that there exists a higher/deeper/ greater(?) metaphysical reality in which both are united.

This is why (as I have also written so copiously about in this blog) I resonate so deeply with Tantric philosophy. In my view Tantra, unlike the later ascetic schools that derived from it, sought not transcendence but immanence, the “felt” perception of this greater unified reality.

This experience of the flesh, that we are more than JUST our bodies, was not, as Remski suggests, a teleological process which progresses, “towards a higher state than the body can offer on its own”. Because the Tantrics didn’t seek to ‘go’ anywhere, they ‘surrendered’  to their true nature, the experience that  “everything is one”. And it is no small point that when this gnosis happens, it happens in the body. It infuses our cells, skin, and heart, with ecstasy, and we know (egad, dare I say it) ‘god-stuff’ as ourselves.

brainvatThis idea of a divine body of “metaphysical meat” flies in face of the mind/body split as upheld by Cartesian science, and it flies in the face of our technological posthuman ideals. Our search for transcendence “out there” has led to a mechanical model of our brains as nothing more than computers, with consciousness as a running program. And it is thus, with Transhumanists at the fore, we make ready to download the mind. But what we will achieve (or lose) if we succeed in leaving the body behind?

That’s why spiritual seekers who see the body as a kind of suitcase we tote about on the path to enlightenment are so dangerously missing the point. Nature spent eons creating ever more complex and conscious forms of life, from one-celled organisms into plant and animal life, to the individually unique bodies we seem so eager to dispossess. Our bodies are not meaningless in the ‘greater’ scheme of things – they are why we are here at all.

So this is the dualistic paradox I seek to explore in this blog – that we are finite flesh in the “here and now” AND part of an infinite metaphysical reality. It’s why I disagree with Remski’s assertion that our bodily experience of  ” I am not my body” is just an epiphenomenon of our meat – because it implies we are JUST our bodies. But when you boil it down, we can’t shivastrip the body of metaphysics because the body is about as metaphysical as it gets. And isn’t this what yoga, or at least what Tantra yoga,  sought to help us understand? Yoga consciously “yokes” the inner world of our thought emotions and imagination to the physical world of our body, fingers, and toes because the body IS a microcosm of the macrocosm. And as such, it is a mystery of metaphysical proportions.

So like Matthew, I ask the question – what are we left with when we subtract “I am not my body’ from yoga philosophy? As he so beautifully writes, “We are left with the very flesh of yoga”. “We are left with the mystery of insides and outsides, selves and others, and other selves…We are left with knowing that all we have ever learned has come through this flesh that we are right now. We are left, not with “I am my body” but I, body: something I may not always want to be, but a matter I have no say in. This matter, to which the “I” must surrender.”

Now to that, Matthew, I can wholeheartedly agree.

Why I’m (still) a Feminist: The Goddess and Yoga

Man is master by divine right; the fear of God will therefore repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex 1949



It astonishes me that a well respected yoga radio show recently spent a whole segment discussing whether God exists without utilizing the feminine pronoun. (Okay – perhaps not so surprising considering the topic was Brad Warner’s book There is No God and Why He is Always With You.)

But nonetheless, it drives me nuts that neither the show host or Warner, two obviously enlightened men in our post feminist age, bothered to take a moment to acknowledge that God was not necessarily a HE.

Have we finally abandoned that old trope of feminism – that language matters? Seems so. Because how can it be, despite our intentions of ending social injustice and genGoddess_Parashakthi_in_the_Templeder oppression, of ‘decolonizing yoga’, that our yoga media consistently reinforces the ultimate gender inequity of all – without a second thought? And while it isn’t surprising that Christian commentators on the lawsuit against Encinitas Union School District in California (charging that yoga was religion) never use “She” when referencing the “Deity”  – can we say the same for yoga authors and bloggers?  Especially considering  the pivotal role the divine feminine and the Goddess plays in yogic traditions ?

Despite the fact that our books, popular and intellectual media use the term God as an all-encompassing definition of the divine, we’ve forgotten that God is not a gender neutral term – and we’ve forgotten that it carries a whole lot of historical  baggage.  We say that we understand that the supreme deity goes beyond gender, that it enfolds both feminine and masculine, that it doesn’t bear mentioning, that it’s a matter of semantics. And if the word Goddess was more frequently used, this might be true, but it’s not.

Of course I realize that substituting the word Goddess in any theological discussion changes the whole tenor of the debate. But that’s the whole point isn’t it? Women may have come a long way (at least in the west) in gaining the rights that come with personhood – but isn’t this “God Bias” evidence of the ultimate glass ceiling?

And here’s the million dollar question. Could this absence of a feminine role model occupying the ‘top spot’ have anything to do with the fact that women today are grossly under-represented in positions of power? That they compose the largest majority of people who are abused and live below the poverty line?

Goddess_WillendorfI think so. We’ve forgotten the word God is predicated on a paradigm of male superiority. And it stands in direct opposition to the fact that from the beginnings of the Paleolithic Age (25,000 BC ) to closing of the last Goddess temples in 500 AD, there existed religions across Europe, India and the Middle East, which honoured “The Great Mother of All” as supreme creator.

My point is this. What might have life been like for women in a society which worshiped a “Lady of Life” or “Queen of Heaven”? Well, the record shows that these women enjoyed much more freedom than their patriarchal Judeo-Christian counterparts, for a start.

Women occupied high positions such as priestesses and lawmakers, had the right to divorce, to hold and manage their own estates, buy and sell property, trade in the marketplace, and pass the inheritance of title and property from mother to daughter. And in Babylonia, any sin against the mother, was a sin against the community, punishable by banishment.

According to Merlin Stone, author of When God Was a Woman this women friendly way of life ended nearly three thousand years ago.“Archaeological, mythological and historical evidence all reveal that far from fading away, this female religion the was the victim of centuries of continual persecution and suppression by the advocates of the new religions which held male deities as supreme.”

And Stone makes their legacy clear. Women who live in the same regions of the Middle East where the Goddess once flourished, are today the property of their husbands without any rights of their own. And they are routinely stoned to death for trespass against God’s laws.

eveAnd all this is permitted because it was Eve’s apple eating transgression that caused God to give man the divine authority to rule over women. So its pretty hard to deny that, “God” as Stone points out, has played a pretty big role in “the initial and continual oppression and subjugation of women.”

Whether we believe in the existence of a literal God (or Goddess) doesn’t matter, the idea of God still shapes society. As Stone writes “Our ethics, morals,conduct, values, sense of duty and even sense of human are often developed from religious ideas, from them we learn what is socially acceptable, what is good and bad, right and wrong, natural and unnatural.”

Perhaps this is why my quest for “God” never amounted to much. While I yearned for spiritual connection, the severe judgmental patriarch of the Old Testament never warmed my heart. It just never occurred to me that there might be an alternative.

But what I have come to see is this. It isn’t the literal sex of God/Goddess that’s important, as much as the values the gender biases embody. And while God demands obedience to earn his love- the Goddess has nothing to say about salvation. As a mother, the Goddess loves all her children – without reservation.mother

Perhaps this is why one of the leading characteristics of goddess centric cultures is that they are often defined as “Gift giving” , meaning all people, no matter age, class or gender, were cared for by the community.

In contrast, patriarchy brought a new ethic of Scarcity, a world in which one had to ‘earn’ a living, where food and property were hoarded by the wealthy through imperialistic conquest. And as the archeological record shows, it brought an end to cultures  in which war was virtually unknown.

That’s why I ask again, how might life be different if God was a woman? Might “The Mother of the World” be more supportive of more equitable value system? Might “she” help young women growing up today to see themselves as equals, in possession of authority, as deserving of a violence free existence, of having the divine right to create change?

That’s why it is so important in our discourse and debate on spirituality, yoga and the new age, that we make the effort once in a while to just break with the dominant paradigm and say She instead of He. Because it pops us out of a whole mindset for a moment, it makes us conscious of all that is implied or omitted in the word God. Lets say, specifically female empowerment?

So fellow yogis, let’s be truly progressive. Lets be at the forefront of a movement that takes the word Goddess out of the closet. Lets us acknowledge the great “She” of our yogic tradition -the primordial cosmic energy, the divine Shakti .

shiva_shakti_lingamShe is the sacred force which brings the cosmos into manifestation and without her – Shiva has no power. Their union is a necessary partnership, balancing principles of masculine and feminine, of consciousness and embodiment.

And it offers, as author Sally Kempton writes, “a profound metaphor for integration—for the union of mind and heart, of love and wisdom, that has to take place before we can be fully whole.”

And ain’t that the point.

So that’s why I’m still a feminist – and why saying the word Goddess matters. It is why as a yogini, I take heed of what the great yogi sage Patanjali’s Sutra’s had to say on Satya or truthfulness. That language is power. Our words are talismanic forces that shape reality and call the world into being.

And so I close with some words from ‘Devímáhátmya’ (The Glory of the Goddesses) a text composed approximately some 1,600 years ago in India.

“We bow to her who is auspicious beauty. Who is gracious. We make salutations again and again to her who is prosperity and attainment…Salutation to her who is the primordial cause”… With minds intent, we bow down to her.”

Om Shanti Om.