Sunday, October 30, 2011

Why is a church offering yoga classes? A glimpse into Northminister Presbyterian Church’s community perspective.

At first glance (and for many traditional Christians), it might seem incongruous for a church to be offering classes in yoga. The discipline of yoga began many, many centuries ago in India, and many aspects of yoga are linked with cultural references that seem far removed from Christianity. The asanas, or poses, in yoga require practice: in breathing, in movement, and in meditation. Meditation might seem part of Christian practice, but breathing? moving? Aren’t cultural lines beginning to blur when a church offers yoga? How can a Christian (or Jew, or Muslim, or agnostic for that matter) practice yoga and still maintain fidelity to a specific faith?

Good questions, every one of them. Here are some insights as to why Northminster Presbyterian Church offers a yoga class, free to the community.

It’s no surprise to anyone living within a 21st Century southern Californian suburb--life is hectic, rushed, crowded with “to-do” lists, and multiple obligations. Cellphones, text messages, and e-mails compete for our attention. Even when we are alone, we have the freedom to devote undivided attention to the larger aspects of our lives; becoming enmeshed in minute details has become the norm. Yoga offers an opportunity to turn down the competing demands on our attention and to focus on the simple human act of “being” instead of “doing.” Yoga is one place where we “practice” and accept our bodies; we don’t “perfect” and judge. There are enough high standards and judgments in our lives. For the hour of yoga practice, we suspend all distractions, all competition, all energy-draining noises. We recharge ourselves and discover new resources within ourselves.

Whatever a person's spiritual perspective (or even if there is none), there are benefits in taking time to enjoy being alive, noticing the small details that enrich living, and treasuring those moments with gratitude. Yoga presents a non-judgmental approach to accepting life's gifts and appreciating what every moment presents. This appreciation of life is part of who we are at Northminister. We would like to share that perspective with everyone, without reservation. An active yoga community such as the one at Northminister meets twice a week to breathe together, to practice together, and to encourage one another.

Diamond Bar is one of Los Angeles County’s more diverse communities with multiple faith traditions. Yoga is a spiritually-inclusive discipline that urges its practictioners to examine their own intentions, relationship with self, and with others. Whether it be setting an intention prior to beginning practice (a prayer, a psalm, a mantra, a personal goal) to honoring those at the end of the session--each person can use the practice time on the mat to focus on spirituality. Respecting and honoring each person’s perspective makes our practice together not only joyful and nonjudgmental, but a way to see how much more we have in common.

And we have much to learn from one another. Whatever we might call the practice--meditation, prayer, contemplation, breathing, mindfulness--we share together the benefits of a spiritual focus.

Northminster Presbyterian Church is active with the larger life of our community. Our facilities and campus are used by the Boy Scouts, a karate class, a community preschool, and the Red Cross, to name a few.  We believe that a church is more than a collection of members who meet every Sunday; We believe that a church is more than its facilities. We believe that a church is intended to extend beyond its property line and parking lot--to make positive changes in the community.

Yoga is one way that NPC offers spiritual growth, uniting body and mind in a nonjudgmental setting. Whether the benefits of yoga practice are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or all of the above--Northminister Presbyterian Church is pleased to have you.

At the end of every practice, the instructor says the word namaste. A Sanskrit word, namaste can be translated as “I recognize the divine within you.” As we conclude our sessions, this recognition could sum up the reason for Northminister’s commitment to offer yoga classes. We acknowledge that every one of us has a divine spark within us, and through our practice, we hope to cultivate and nuture our spirituality.

Until next week, namaste

Friday, October 21, 2011


Here are some thoughts about how drishti can improve not only our practice but also our larger perspective.

The Sanskrit word, drishti, can be translated as gaze, or vision. By selecting appropriate destinations for our gaze while we move through asanas, we can focus our attention and concentration on our practice. The drishti concentrates the energy and action of each asana, and also helps to focus our minds.

The role of gaze, or drishti, in yoga is just as important as alignment. Newer students, who are often anxious as to where/how/when to move, might find their eyes traveling throughout the room. Not only do the students find the poses to be difficult, their lack of focus distracts them from getting into the essence of yoga: uniting body and mind with the breath.

Why should we keep drishti in mind throughout each session? The best answer to that question would be to discuss what happens, visibly and mentally, when we lose focus during our practice.
There is always a self-consciousness that comes as we evaluate our bodies in a mirror. Luckily, our usual practice room has no mirrors, so we aren't distracted (or discouraged) by how we "look" as we move into and out of our asanas!

Even when I am not demonstrating, sometimes new students look to me as "the"guide for alignment. That's not helpful, as my body's alignment has its own quirks and should never be a basis for comparison. It's far better to listen to verbal cues and place our bodies in the space around us. Remember, each practice is as unique as the individual.

Looking around the room to compare one asana to another leads to judgment and competition. Both of those outcomes are counterproductive. Accept your body as it is that day, in that moment. Maintain curiosity and wonder. Listen to your body. My job as instructor is to monitor your practice to keep you from overextending yourself, but you know your body better than anyone else. If our eyes are roving and comparing, we aren't centered on our own practice.

Watching the clock or checking cellphones for messages is a clear sign that focus has shifted from our practice and into the distractions and demands of our lives. For many of us, one of the primary reasons for yoga is to discipline ourselves to take a firm "time out" from competing demands. Staying in the here and now throughout the session will keep us from getting short-changed of all that yoga can offer.

As we practice, our gaze shifts according to the asana: from an outstreatched hand, to a foot, to our fingertips, even (in down dog) to our navels. Each asana has a drishti, a place to gain energy and focus while maintaining the pose. Here are some general guidelines:

In standing yoga poses in which the spine is neutral, the gaze follows the action of the arms. In chair pose (utkatasana) and warrior I (virabhadrasana I), the gaze moves up with the energy of the lifted arms. In warrior II (virabhadrasana II), look toward the front hand. During a vinyasa sequence, move the arms back to center (for example, to namasté position at the heart) on each exhale, letting the gaze follow, and reach the arms back into the pose on each inhale, letting the gaze follow. Keep the rest of the body steady.

In poses that include side bending and spine twisting, for example, in triangle pose (utthita trikonasana), revolving triangle (parivritta trikonasana), side angle lunge (utthita parsvakonasana) and revolving lunge (parivritta parsvakonasana), gaze toward the top hand, which reaches in the direction of the side bend or spinal twist.

In challenging balance yoga poses such as tree pose (vrkasana), use the gaze to assist stability. Generally, gazing slightly forward and toward the floor makes balancing yoga poses easier. Looking up to the ceiling tends to make the pose more challenging. 

Forward bends, such as seated forward fold (paschimottonasana) and bound angle (baddha konasana), have two common variations: with the spine straight and rounded. If the spine is straight, the gaze is at the feet or in front of the body; if the spine flexes into a full forward bend, the gaze moves to the legs. Try a vinyasa moving between the two expressions of a forward bend (inhale as spine straightens and gaze lifts; exhale as spine rounds and gaze move to legs). 

Savasana is a time to withdraw the senses, including vision. Turn the gaze within. Use this time to recharge your mental batteries. With closed eyes, imagine looking down into the lower eye sockets and become attentive to calm, even breathing.

Enjoy your practice! See you next week. Namaste,

Monday, October 17, 2011

Santosha--Cultivating Gratitide

As we end every practice together, we pause for a moment of reflection and gratitude. This tradition is not merely an opportunity to thank our fellow yogis and yoginis, it's an intentional discipline: awareness of the shared world around us.
We are all interconnected; our lives are touched and even enhanced by those connections. Choosing to be grateful for all the threads that weave through our mutual experience is one of yoga's benefits.

Cultivation of gratitude, santosha, can lift our hearts beyond the daily aggravations and inconveniences. When one of us shares a story or gift; when we encourage one another; when we pause to smell the roses outside; when we make a selfless and generous gesture--we receive the benefits of santosha.

It's not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, and it's certainly not about ignoring what in our world needs improvement or correction. Rather, santosha is about saving every gift that comes our way, everyday, and taking the time to acknowledge that gift.

We all have had at least one person in our lives for whom this principle is seriously missing: the chronic complainer. The self-absorption of what is wrong in his or her life is physically fatiguing, not only for the whiner, but for the listener! In the same way, looking beyond our personal selves and connecting with others can be contagious, and a great deal more uplifting.

What is particularly blissful about the concept of santosha is the cycle of positivity that emanates from the smallest action. Whether it's enjoying the free figs that were offered this summer, or delicious granola, or coffee and cookies to replenish Northminster's generousity--the open spirit of gratitude extends into our relationships with one another. It feels wonderful to share, to enjoy our interconnectedness, and to take the time to enjoy the little "goodies" that come our way everyday. And being grateful for all those in our lives, past and present, who contribute to our world.

Here's an excerpt from Yoga Journal, written by Frank Jude Boccio, with a brief and eloquent explanation of santosha.
"At the grocery store, a friend was bowled over by the simplest act of kindness: A stranger let her step ahead of him in the checkout line. It was such a little thing, and yet it swelled her heart with happiness. What she experienced, she ultimately realized, was more than just gratitude for a chance to check out faster—it was an affirmation of her connection to a stranger and, therefore, to all beings.
"On the surface, gratitude appears to arise from a sense that you're indebted to another person for taking care of you in some way, but looking deeper, you'll see that the feeling is actually a heightened awareness of your connection to everything else. Gratitude flows when you break out of the small, self-centered point of view—with its ferocious expectations and demands—and appreciate that through the labors and intentions and even the simple existence of an inconceivably large number of people, weather patterns, chemical reactions, and the like, you have been given the miracle of your life, with all the goodness in it today.
"It is easy, as Roger L'Estrange, the 17th-century author and pamphleteer, said, to 'mistake the gratuitous blessings of heaven for the fruits of our own industry.' The truth is, you are supported in countless ways through each moment of your life. You awaken on schedule when your alarm clock beeps—thanks to the engineers, designers, assembly workers, salespeople, and others who brought you the clock; by the power-company workers who manage your electricity supply; and many others. Your morning yoga practice is the gift of generations of yogis who observed the truth and shared what they knew; of your local teacher and of her teacher; of the authors of books or videos you use to practice; of your body (for which you could thank your parents, the food that helps you maintain your good health, doctors, healers, and the "you" who cares for that body every day)—the list goes on.
"When you awaken to the truth of this incredible interconnectedness, you are spontaneously filled with joy and appreciation. It is for this reason that one of the most transformative practices you can engage in is the cultivation of gratitude. Patanjali wrote that santosha (contentment, or appreciation for what you have) leads to unexcelled joy, while other yogic texts say that this sense of appreciation is the "supreme joy" that naturally leads to the realization of the Absolute. Thankfully, gratitude can be cultivated. It simply takes practice."

And, that's what we do at NPC Yoga Community--we practice. 

Until next week, namaste,

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mindfulness--Finding a Little Space in a Hectic Life

When does a full and busy life become overcrowded and hectic? When do the distractions, demands, and "to-do" lists become more important than our own peace of mind? When was the last time that "being" was more important than "doing?" In our up-to-the-minute, latest update society, there isn't much time to breathe. Text messages and e-mails demand quick, almost instantaneous responses. Schedules are compressed even tighter, as many of us shuttle from school, to practice, to the gym, to the market, to get household chores down, the tires rotated, and make all our appointments on time. Let's face it--twenty-first century life is crazy-busy.

Multi-tasking would appear to be the answer. After all, if we can accomplish more than one thing at once, we could make our way that much faster through the "to-do" list for the day. BUT . . . multi-tasking is ineffective at best. Looking that this Border Collie's attempts to accomplish it all, multi-tasking seems almost laughable.

Last year, researchers at Stanford University published a study which firmly established that multi-tasking reduces cognitive capacity. Even if you multi-task during routine chores, you run the risk of overlooking creative insights for improvement. If you multi-task while interacting with other, instead of being admired as super-productice, you may be perceived as uninterested during the conversation. (Have you ever tried to talk to someone else while she checks her e-mail and text messages? If so, did you feel a twinge of regret that you were of less importance that whatever might be so critical on the screen?) And if you multi-task during complex tasks (for example, texting while driving), you are risking not only your life, but also the lives of others in the vehicle and on the road around your vehicle. Seriously, is multi-tasking so vital that it takes precedence over your relationships and lives?

And multi-tasking isn't that effective anyway. While the frenetic pace of doing several things at once seems to be a way to eliminate many chores at once, the Stanford study demonstrated that doing one task at a time, then moving to another, then the next actually was a more effective use of time. The many tasks were completed sooner and with fewer errors.

None of us would multi-task to the extent that we'd damage others in either an emotional or a physical way. Nevertheless, we fall into our multi-tasking habits so easily. Our society rewards those of us who are effective, who accomplish the most, who over-achieve, who never refuse a request, no matter how unreasonable.

Our yoga practice can be a place to step of the multi-tasking merry-go-round. The mindfulness that is yoga is a remedy to the common causes of daily stress, time pressures, distractions, agitation, and even personal conflicts. Our practice isn't about accomplishment, nor is it about perfection or technique. Yoga isn't about turning your body into a pretzel. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, "mindful yoga is a lifetime engagement--not to get somewhere else, but to be where and as we actually are in this very moment, with this very breath, whether the experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral."

What do yogis mean when they mention mindfulness? It is a nonjudgmental, present-centered, uncomplicated awareness of thought, sensation, and feeling. There are two inter-related concepts to the principle of mindfulness. First, one's attention strives to focus on immediate experience, staying in the present moment. Secondly, one attempts to maintain an attitude of openness, curiosity, and acceptance.

Staying mindful during your practice isn't easy. At the beginning of class, while we set our personal intentions and practice our breathing exercises, mindfulness isn't as difficult as when we are working on standing poses or balancing. But if your mindfulness slips a bit, there's no shame, just return back to the present. Be gentle with yourself--you are fighting an uphill battle against years of conditioning that pushes you to "be your best, work harder, work faster, do more." At the end of class, Savasana is the best opportunity for you to become truly mindful, to enjoy your breath, to relax in the moment, and to accept your body's efforts with gratitude.

Enjoying the sensation of breathing is the very essence of being. Connecting your breath and reveling in being alive and aware--that is mindfulness.

Until next week, namaste


Monday, October 10, 2011

NPC Yoga Community--Navasana

Paripurna Navasana--Full Boat Pose
We're all in the same boat: practicing,
learning, and growing together in community
Welcome to the NPC Yoga Community blog. Our site is found under the name Nasavana, as we are all in the same boat--growing in our practice together. Whether you are a practiced yogi or yogini, or perhaps only had a few hours on your mat, we are pleased to have you.

We meet regularly at Northminster Presbyterian Church's Fellowship Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, from 9:00 until 10:00. Coffee and snacks are available both before and after class. Feel free to linger, to chat with us, and ask questions.

Our practice is an extension of living in community and thanks to the generosity of NPC, we have a beautiful facility at our disposal.

All you need is to come to Northminister Presbyterian Church at 400 Rancheria Road in Diamond Bar (here's a link:, dressed in comfortable clothes with a bottle of water and a towel. If you don't have a sticky mat, no problem! We have spare mats that you can use.

Classes are designed to accommodate all levels of fitness and expertise. Modifications and alternate poses are always allowed. Several variations of most asanas are demonstrated, so that practiced yogis and yoginis can be challenged, and relative newcomers can still feel successful.

If you are interested in finding some quiet time and space, improved posture, more core strength, better balance, and connections within the larger world--both inside and outside yourself, we offer our NPC Yoga Community with an open heart.

Hope to see you soon. Contributions and comments are always welcome. We hope to continue our dialogue beyond the mat. Keep in touch.

Nancy Sassaman