New Year’s Wish for 2019

May we experience peace, joy, solidarity and lots of laughter.

snow and stillness

Peaceful wishes

May our  eyes be open to all the small, and not so small, acts of care and love everyday.  May we notice the love in our friends’ quirky jokes, relentless listening, shared farts and smiles from strangers on a bus.   Random acts of love are the network that sustain us in our lives.  They are the juice that fuels our healing, our hope, and our connection.

May our eyes be open to both our own and the world’s suffering. Open like a mother’s embrace, awake like a vigil at midnight.  May solidarity warm our bones and give us strength to do the work that needs to be done.

May 2019 provide a place for change, healing, deep understanding and sustainability for the whole world.

With love,

English Yoga Berlin

Sit up straight

 

“Sit up straight” is a phrase we often use as yoga teachers. The very premise of the asanas in Hatha yoga is to create a body that is comfortable enough to sit still, with a straight back in order to meditate. That is why we practice asanas: to reduce the dis-ease in our body, so that our minds can quiet, and that we can experience Existence beyond our body and mind.

But what exactly does “sitting up straight” mean.  In my ten years as yoga teacher, I have seen that this instruction is up for a myriad of interpretations. Everyone tries to do what their perception of straight is. However, the perception is created from deeply ingrained patterns and beliefs and does not always end up bringing you to a more balanced posture. Many interpret “sit up straight” to mean that you should concave your back and look like a ballerina. Others interpret it as pushing your hips forward and lean back, like swaying in the wind. Often people use a lot of muscular energy to try and hold their perception of straight.

Now, the fact that this instruction can be interpreted so widely constitutes an actual problem for asanas. Sitting up straight is the pose that all other poses stem from. One could interpret it as the mother pose that gives birth to all other poses. So when we are confused with what this means, and see our students use immense amounts of energy to execute it, it distorts the rest of the practice. There is an important link missing in our teaching.

But unfortunately, most yoga teacher trainings do not prepare you for this kind of analysis. Mine included.

This is where the Alexander Technique can help immensely in modern day yoga.

Last July, I had the pleasure to host David Moore and Rossella Buono, in a six hour workshop at our studio in English Yoga Berlin. They brought the Alexander Technique into yoga and into my life. They provided me with the “missing link” I was needing in order to take my yoga teaching to the next level. I understood that certain students were getting stuck in yoga poses because they were losing sight of the overall process of coordination. The “missing link” was in understanding and coordinating the basic posture from which all other poses rise…. or in other words, understanding what “sit up straight” really means.

In a merely six hour workshop, I learned so much as a yoga teacher! I was so inspired by this workshop that I immediately starting applying my new knowledge to my every day yoga classes, seeing a real difference in students. Since then, I have been working on getting David and Rossella back to teach Berlin yoga teachers more about how these two practices can work together. I am delighted that in July 2018, practitioners and yoga teachers from all over the world will come to attend a six day workshop doing just that!

 For more information about the workshop please click here.

 

Pinelopi specializes in Hatha Yoga. Her yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. She offers Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes for people struggling with chronic pain. In mid-September she will be offering her first English speaking yoga and mindfulness retreat dedicated to presence.

Is there such a thing as Accessible Yoga?

What is NOT accessible yoga?

accessible yoga

Do we all have to look the same?

You know the story. You’ve hurt your back and a friend says “you should do yoga!” And then you go with your friend to their favourite weekly yoga flow class. You put down 20€ and hope for the best. It’s fast, sweaty, the music’s hip, everyone’s dressed in the latest yoga fashion trend and almost everyone looks like a ‘yoga journal’ or ‘sein’ cover model. You find yourself struggling to keep up. You try your best, but somehow your body just won’t let you contort itself into those poses. The next day, your back hurts more than it did before, along with your wrists. And you swear you’re never trying yoga again.

Okay, it’s perhaps an exaggerated stereotype of what an accessible yoga class is NOT. But it does represent a rather broad view of what contemporary westernized capitalized yoga is all about. One of the problems is that most western people (both lovers and haters of yoga) believe that yoga is only that which is written above. I am not the first to say #notallyoga. But like all #notall hashtags, it tries to absolve the writer of responsibility that we should all be taking. Yoga is a 5000 year old practice stemming from South Asia. By believing that yoga is only that one thing that has been exploited by sporty opportunistic Californians erases its history and invisibilizes the decolonial work done by contemporary yogis such as nisha ahuja and Be Scofield. As yoga practitioners in a western world, we should all be working towards decolonizing our practice, promoting the diversity of yoga styles (eg; restorative) and practices (yoga nidra, pranayama, bhakti, etc.), and making yoga more accessible to everyone. Cultural appropriation does not make yoga classes at all comfortable or accessible to people who experience racism. Nor do expensive fees to lower-income folks, body-image and ‘healthy-living’ marketing campaigns to people who look different than what the mainstream expects healthy yogis to look like, nor to those with dis/abilities (physical or mental). Yes, I say “we,” but it means “I” and perhaps you too. What can I do as a non-South Asian yoga practitioner who teaches classes?

What IS accessible yoga?

I don’t have all the answers to this. But I have some ideas and would be happy to hear from you about what you feel that means. At English Yoga Berlin, we strive to offer accessible yoga classes. But we recognize that there are many things we cannot offer as well, and our studio is not accessible to just ‘everyone.’ Our Kreuzberg yoga studio is up one flight of stairs – this does not allow those who cannot take the stairs to even attend our classes. We also do not provide sign-language interpretation or any other language that we ourselves do not know (Greek, Spanish, German and English). We run our small back house yoga studio in a city with people from all over the world, with many different languages, and with a lower-income average than most bigger European cities. Our regular rates are significantly lower than bigger studios in Berlin, and we offer our classes in simple English, making it more economically and linguistically-accessible to newcomers. Pinelopi‘s injury conscious and gentle Hatha Yoga classes are especially suitable for participants who suffer from chronic pain. Juli‘s community yoga classes have at their focus the creation of an intentional space for people who feel marginalized or excluded in mainstream yoga classes, eg. queer and trans* folks, abundant bodied, bpoc. As well as an additional sliding-scale reduction for lower- / no-income folks who make Berlin their home (this reduction is not for tourists). Both of us include a 15-20 minute guided relaxation, based on yoga nidra techniques, at the end of all of our classes. Yoga Nidra is a proven method to help reduce stress, insomnia and anxiety. These are just some of the ways that I try to counter the dominant culture’s exploitation of yoga. But it’s a continual learning process and there are many more strategies that I continue to learn about and adopt through reading articles and discussing with others. There are other yoga practitioners who I’ve met in my Berlin community and in other places, who are also exploring various strategies. This movement is growing. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on it, and appreciate links to articles and other yoga spaces! Thank you.

 

Spiritual Sunglasses

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

There is no doubt to me that 2016 was a bad year for the world. The Syrian war, Brexit, Trump, 34000 people forced daily from their homes as a result of conflict or persecution, thousands of children at risk of starvation in Nigeria are only SOME of the things last year had in store for us.

It is hard to really feel the pain of this world. So we don’t. We turn away. We try to focus on our smaller scaled- seemingly more controllable lives. And understandably so… who could allow themselves to feel it? What if our heart simply breaks? We do our yoga. We visualize light around us and in us. And, often as a result, we distance ourselves more and more from the reality of this world.

But was that the point of yoga?

Does forming a spiritual understanding of the world -one where Light and souls exist- mean distancing ourselves from suffering?

When I asked my teacher this during my training, he said that we must learn to wear spiritual sunglasses. I liked the metaphor in that. He said that we have to be able to see a spiritual world where souls walk this Earth and Light is in everything AND to be able to put the sunglasses on and see the world that is in front of us, to feel the suffering and the reality that comes through. One would be a deeper reality and another would be a manifestation of reality. Both equally important to be able to see and feel as a yoga practitioner.  We are to practice putting the glasses on and off.

Tara Brach talks about the Tonglen meditation from the Tibetan Tradition. This meditation is about listening to the cries of the world and responding to it. As you breathe in, you feel the pain of this world, as you breathe out you respond with love and care for it.

Now many would rightfully wonder what good would breathing in and out do to the suffering of the world? When seen as just a breathing in and out, I would say that this will do no good at all. But, as mentioned above, feeling the world’s suffering can be so overwhelming for most of us, that we shelter ourselves from it and become more self-centered and apathetic. So being able to feel and connect with both the suffering of other people and the love you have for this world, I believe can do a lot. We first must be able to connect with our reality, feel the pain and love in our hearts before we can respond by taking action.

We must know how to put these spiritual sunglasses on and off many times a day, keeping both realities close to heart, caring for both our human condition as our spiritual one.

 

 Pinelopi specializes in Hatha Yoga. Her yoga Berlin Kreuzberg classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. She is a sivananda yoga teacher that also offers Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes for people struggling with chronic pain. All her yoga classes end in deep relaxation using yoga Nidra techniques.  In her Berlin Chakra course, she uses the chakras as a base line to self-explore concepts such as forgiveness, group thought, letting go, and becoming self-aware of limiting beliefs.

8 tips to reduce menstrual pain

Queer yoga in Berlin

Goddess Pose

A little while ago, I wrote a blog about my experiences with endometriosis. And as a result, some of the participants in my yoga classes have asked me how to reduce their own menstrual pain. Not all folks with menstrual cramps have endometriosis, but perhaps some of the things I’ve found that work for me to reduce menstrual pain could potentially work for you too!

1. Painkillers

I try to limit the amount of over-the-counter pharmaceutical painkillers that I use, because I’d prefer to not feed into the pharmaceutical industry. But sometimes I just don’t have time for anything else, and they can be a quick and easy fix. Medicinally-herbed cookies can do the trick just as well, but they’re not so ideal if I have to work that day! 😉

2. Menstrual Yoga

I like to do a slow flow with lots of deep breathing, skipping abdominal exercises, mula bandha and inversions, and focusing on hip openers. Poses like Goddess (above) and Lion help me to release tension that I’m holding because of the pain. I find that my jaw and shoulders also get tight during menstrual cramping, and these poses open up the jaws and the throat. I also find that growling and hissing loudly also helps to reduce anxiety, which I sometimes get when I’m PMSing or during heavy periods.

3. Stress Reduction Sitting Exercises

Menstrual cramps arrive at the least opportune moments – at work or in social situations. Stress aggravates menstrual cramps and can either bring them on or make them worse. I have created an exercise routine that I can do while sitting with other people that’s not so obvious. I take slow deep breaths and sit up tall with a neutral spine, as if meditating. I press my thighs down against the chair, so my lower abdomen lengthens away from the chair, creating more space for all the painful bits to relax and do their thing – shed menstrual blood and tissue. In addition to that, I also do short pushes down, as if ‘bearing down’ – what they tell folks to do when they’re pushing a baby out. I make sure I’m wearing enough protection to catch everything that comes out – and it does! And the cramps go away.

4. Riding a bike on cobblestone

Most cyclists in this city think it’s annoying to ride on those bumpy cobblestones, but I find it actually helps my cramps to loosen up! Instead of fighting the bumping, I just bump along with it and works like magic. 😉

5. Dancing / Hip shaking

Speaking of which, any movement of the hips can be great to help reduce menstrual pain. I used to attend an Osho Kundalini Meditation class at the Osho Centre here in Berlin. It was a wonderful practice to shake out those tense hips and pelvis, loosening the whole region. I don’t go out dancing very much anymore, it’s hard to find the music I like to dance to here! But, if it’s something you like to do, some hip-shaking dancing could definitely be what the doctor ordered.

6. Masturbation / Sex

Loosening of the pelvis and all the muscles around it, is a great way to let go of menstrual tension. In my experience, a good vibrator does the trick nicely. If you don’t want to get messy, or can’t stand the smell or the blood, then the shower is always a good place! And who knows? Your partner might even think it’s hot!

7. Hot water bottle

I don’t often resort to the tried-and-true hot water bottle, but when I do, it’s very soothing. In my experience, it doesn’t work as well to relax my pelvic muscles as some of the other items above.

8. Limiting coffee / alcohol

Whenever I drink coffee when I’m cramping, it always makes it worse. So I try to limit the coffee to when I’m not cramping as much. I also find that when I drink alcohol during menstruation, my tolerance is severely reduced. Not only do I get tipsier faster, but it also causes more menstrual cramping in the morning, and has sometimes lead to a hangover after only a couple of drinks. Drinking tea is often a good substitute for me.

So! I hope some of my experiences can help you to experiment and find your own solutions to reducing menstrual pain. And if you’re in Berlin sometime, drop by one of my classes! I teach Vinyasa Flow and Queer Yoga at English Yoga Berlin.

 

What is your definition of healing?

Photo by Gabriel Barletta

Photo by Gabriel Barletta

“Many of us define healed as the opposite of needy. Therefore to be healed means to be fully self contained, always positive, always happy, always sure of oneself, and never needing anyone. No wonder few ever consider themselves “healed”.”

  • Caroline Myss

 

In today’s western world where trauma and wounds have taken a significant place in our society, we hear a lot of the word “healing”. This is a common word used in a very wide spectrum from yoga classes to psychology to random talks between friends. Healing has taken an important place in our lives, both as a concept and as a reality we strive to achieve.

So what is emotional healing?

I think this is an important question to ask. Is healing about no longer being affected by an event of the past? Is it about the event no longer holding power over you? Is healing about being well and not ever needing anything again? When can someone consider themselves healed? Or is it an ever going process that we can never attain?

I believe that for all of us using this word, it is important to take some time and give our own personal definition to it. And once we have defined it, to look at it again and decide if this is an attainable goal or a never ending process that we are setting too high standards for.

I personally define healing as letting go of the power that a wound holds over me. I don’t need to always be happy, I can be needy, I still have the scars of the wound… but the wound no longer defines me or directs my actions in my life.

 Pinelopi specializes in Hatha Yoga. Her yoga Berlin Kreuzberg classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. She is a sivananda yoga teacher that also offers Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes for people struggling with chronic pain. All her yoga classes end in deep relaxation using yoga Nidra techniques.  In her Berlin Chakra course, she uses the chakras as a base line to self-explore concepts such as forgiveness, group thought, letting go, and becoming self-aware of limiting beliefs.

Decodifying Forgiveness

Photo by David Schap

Photo by David Schap

What is forgiveness? One can apologize, say sorry, ask forgiveness. But what do these words actually mean? Are they all the same? And does this distinction even matter?

When I get lost with the meanings of words, I often go back to their etymology. I like to see what the original meaning of the word was, when the need for that word to be created arose. I also find it very telling to see how far we’ve strayed from that meaning.

When I looked up the word to forgive on the online etymological dictionary I was particularly impressed at the word meaning “to give up”. To give up what exactly? In old English it meant “to give up desire or power to punish”. Sorry, on the other hand, comes from the word sorrow. So when I say, I’m sorry to someone what I am actually saying is “I can feel your sorrow.” Apology comes from Greek, meaning “to use speech in defense”.

Interestingly, in Greek there are two more words used interchangeably for the word forgive. One is signomi (sin+ gnomi), which means I am now of the same opinion as you”. The other one is me-sighoreis which could be translated as “Can you make space for me to also be?”

I find the meaning of these words to be quite different to one another, and yet we use them all interchangeably and indiscriminately. No wonder we are all confused about what it means to forgive! Is it to give up the will to punish, to feel one’s sorrow without changing our actions, to hear someone defend themselves through speech, to tell the other person they were right all along, or to give the other person permission to also be as he/she is?

Before we even consider forgiving anything, we must at least know what we mean by it. Which is the forgiving that so many people say will liberate the heart and let it find peace?

Tara Brach tells this beautiful story in order to explain the process of forgiveness that resonates deeply with me:

“Imagine you are in the woods and you see a dog under a tree. You smile and go to pet this dog and it lurches at you, fangs bared and growling. You become angry at the dog and then you see its leg is caught in a trap. You shift again and go from being angry at the dog to having compassion for it.”

The shift from anger to compassion is when the forgiveness happens. I guess in a way you are doing all of the above: you give up the will to punish the dog (forgive) because you feel his sorrow (sorry). You can explain through speech what just occurred (apology), you are now of the same opinion – you would be angry too if you were trapped – (signomi) and you make space for the dog to also exist in his pain (me sighoreis).

Forgiveness occurs when anger turns to compassion.

Does this mean that because you forgave the dog, you should now go pet him and get bit? No way! It means that if you choose to help the dog, you need to approach him in a way that has clear boundaries that won’t damage you. And if that is not possible because the dog is so deep in his own pain and too dangerous for you to deal with, then you need to leave – and let someone with more experience help the dog out of his trap.

 Pinelopi specializes in Hatha Yoga. Her yoga Kreuzberg classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. She  also offers Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes for people struggling with chronic pain. All her yoga classes end in deep relaxation using yoga Nidra techniques.  In her Berlin Chakra course, she uses the chakras as a base line to self-explore concepts such as forgiveness, group thought, letting go, and becoming self-aware of limiting beliefs.

Understanding Sun Salutations

If you have practiced any kind of yoga before, you are probably familiar with the Sun Salutation sequence. Many teachers begin their classes with a series of sun salutations, so it is one of the first things that most students learn.

But, what is a Sun Salutation?

Here is a bit of information about the history and practice of the Sun Salutation:

sun salutations in yoga kreuzberg

photo by Fern

The Sun Salutation (in Sanskrit, the Surya Namaskara–literally, the salute to the sun) is composed of 8 different asana, and 12 posture changes. Some asana are repeated in the sequence. The postures are performed with specific breath sequencing, which gives the sequence a rhythmic and meditative quality. In some traditions, students pause to chant a mantra in between Sun Salutations. The amount of Sun Salutations in a yoga class varies from teacher to teacher, but, for some, the ´daily limit´ is 108! In the Ashtanga tradition, solstices and equinoxes are celebrated with 108 Sun Salutations.

It is said that the sun salutations sequence was incorporated into yoga by yogis who were distressed by how their bodies atrophied during hours and hours of meditation. The Sun Salutation was discovered as an extremely efficient and meditative way of keeping the physical body healthy, which would allow the yogi to meditate with ease. This is because the sequence hits all of the major muscle groups in the body, stretching and strengthening the upper and lower body while simultaneously lengthening the spine.

If you are new to yoga in Berlin, or anywhere else for that matter, the sun salutation is a great asana sequence to begin practising at home. If you start performing three or four of them each morning, first thing after you get out of bed, you will see your flexibility improve significantly. This is also a great way to start the day quietly and touch base with your body and emotions. You can make the practice more challenging for yourself by slowing down your breathing and your movement. As always in yoga, practising with concentration and intention is the most important piece–try to keep your senses ´in ´ your body and you will be amazed at what benefits you feel from this ancient practice.