Practicing Empathy

So, Oprah called a few weeks back about an interview for magazine. When Oprah calls and wants to know about yoga, you answer. I was asked about my morning yoga ritual--I was excited to talk about the things that get me out of bed in the morning in a very real way--but it turns out what they really wanted to get was the basic "What are the 3-5 poses you do in the morning to prepare for your day, and why?" I gave what I thought was a richly textured interview, not totally thrilled with the idea of distilling my vital and personal practice into the ho-hum "3-5 poses for..." that dot the landscape of modern yoga media. Did I want to contribute to that vacuous level of conversation? I didn't think so, but I did the interview anyway, and thought that I would at least try to offer some substance to it by way of some experience with an authentic morning ritual. Predictably, they pulled one sentence from the entire interview to publish, and only one pose, and stripped out everything interesting that I offered beyond the most basic (and edited by them!)  instructions for how to do the pose itself. Because it felt cheap and disappointing (and its not my first experience being misquoted in a major publication--see the 2007 Yoga Journal article that still embarrasses me due to the gross misquotes they attribute to me, but I digress) and because I don't really like the press or the spotlight, I thought I would share the substance of what I offered in the interview here, where it might be met with a more receptive audience. And yes, along with those "3-5 Poses for..."  so that now you all know what I do in the morning.


1. In my personal life, the early morning is a sacred, precious time to deeply consider my walk in the world and how I wish to connect to myself and my community and beyond. As a yoga teacher and the owner of The Bhaktishop Yoga Center, it is vital that I spend time in deep self-inquiry, preparation for the day ahead, and connection to my own body and heart through the practice of empathy. Each morning, the first practice that I come to over and over is seated meditation, japa chanting and pranayama. These simple practices help me to preserve the liminal space of the dream-state, and allow my mind a quiet, controlled entry into the chaos of the day.

To practice seated meditation and pranayama: Fold two (or more) yoga blankets on top of each other to elevate the sitting bones above the knees. Place sitting bones on the edge of the folded blankets, cross one ankle in front of the other (or find any comfortable way to sit that suits you--even a chair works) and rest your hands lightly on your lap, thighs or knees. Close or lower your eyes and observe the natural rhythm of your breath for a few rounds without changing it. Observe all the places in the body that the breath fills easily, and any places that feel sticky, darkened, or just unavailable.

To practice the simple pranayama called sama vrtti, or "same fluctuation," begin to count the length of your inhale, and try to match it to the length of your exhale. Do this without straining or forcing your breathing in either direction, so that you find the most comfortable breathing pattern, which can change from day to day. This method can be tracked in many ways; you can silently count as you breathe, or use a mantra, the name of your beloved or your children, or silently say any sort of affirmation that matches your breath's "syllables." Do this for several minutes, and then let the counting or controlling slowly slip away until you are simply sitting and watching your breath rhythm. Continue to sit as long as you are able to keep your mind quiet, which may only be for a few moments. A few moments of mindful meditation are cumulative; eventually they will add up to many minutes. Be patient with your mind; it doesn't respond well at first to any attempts to control it, so it may feel restless and unruly. Just start somewhere.

My japa chanting practice involves my mala beads, made of Tulsi wood and gifted to me by my Spiritual teacher, Swami B.V. Tripurari, along with the Maha Mantra, also gifted to me by my teacher. After clearing mind and body with the prior practices, I set about attentively chanting the mantra on my mala, one bead at a time, feeling the texture of the wood in my fingers, the sound and vibration in my mouth and ears. I chant for about 30 minutes, the number of rounds agreed upon by my teacher and I in a private arrangement, and allow my focus to move to and remain on Krishna, the Lord of Love, as my source of love and empathy in the world. This helps me tune myself to the service that I engage in daily, both to others and to divinity.

2. The second practice I use involves what seem like simple, articulated spinal movement. One of the foundations of yoga is awakening connection and sensitivity to our own bodies at any level, be it bone, nerve, organ, or cell. This extends to an increased sensitivity to and consciousness of the larger whole of our world, both internally and externally. The increase in our ability to feel our own bodies increases our empathy, our opportunity to relate to and connect to each other. Movement is a necessity for our survival, and moving our own spine signals our neurons in such a way that when we witness another moving spine in any life-form, we feel that in our own neurological system. If its possible in you then it must also be possible in me, for better and for worse, and I try think of this biological basis for empathy as I practice these yoga poses and variations.

To practice cat/cow spinal movements: Come onto all 4's, with padding under the knees if necessary, to make it comfortable. Breathe all the way out. As you inhale, tilt your tailbone and back of your pelvis upwards, as though drawing a line from floor to ceiling on the wall behind you. Allow your spine to arch slowly, and isometrically drag your hands on the floor back toward your knees as your shoulder blades slide toward one another on your back. Lift the head and eyes last, looking forward or up as the neck allows. This is cow pose. As you breathe out, draw a line from the ceiling to the floor with the tailbone and sitting bones, initiating the movement from the pelvis as you round and curl under. Feel the movement travel up the spine and it begins to make a dome-shape; hollow your belly by drawing your navel in and up toward the ceiling. Press the hands down and forward isometrically on the mat to slide the shoulder blades apart, and let the chin curl down toward the chest. This is cat pose. Repeat this sequence slowly and mindfully for 10-20 repetitions, savoring every inch of movement with curiosity and respect for what your amazing spine and all its wiring allows for.

3. Losing neurological detail through atrophy or disuse in our culture of sitting and typing or texting is something I am concerned about both in my own life (I sit a lot, believe it or not, doing administrative work for the yoga center and for my acupuncture practice!) and in the lives of the students that we serve. Range of motion in multiple directions, strengthening joint spaces, decreasing capsular restrictions, increasing balance in general while moving the body with an eye toward longevity and durability is vital to my daily work as well as my teaching. The following poses help me feel stronger in my body, notably in my legs and hips, as well as help with mobility and stability throughout my day. Morning is not the only time that I practice these: I am known to use anything around me at any time as a prop or tool for mobility and stability, as I have observed that changing up the way we load the tissues in traditional yoga poses can produce amazing changes and gains in strength, balance and flexibility.

To practice anjenayasana, the low lunge dedicated to the Indian diety Hanuman's mother: step into a low lunge position, with the front knee directly over the front ankle, and the weight placed evenly on the ball-mound of the back foot's big toe. Place a blanket under the back knee before you lower it to the ground. Once the knee is lowered comfortably, bring the hands off the floor and onto the front knee and press the spine and chest to an upright position. Allow a few moments to feel the breath soften the tension at the front of the body before raising your arms up alongside your head and reaching upwards. Try to keep the weight of the pelvis even from front to back, so there isn't a sense of "emptying" into the front hip crease with the full weight of the pelvis. Take 3-5 full breaths there before switching sides.

Second variation: place the front foot on a yoga block or a stack of books that won't slide. Repeat the previous steps, but this time keep the hands just on the hips or front knee rather than reaching upright. This changes the load in the front leg, allowing the connective tissues there to soften, strengthen and release a bit more. Again, take care to keep the weight of the pelvis centered and even front to back in the hip joints.

4. Finally, I love downward-facing dog pose for its capacity to involve all of me; my joints, my mind, my strength and my breathing. In the same way that I like to change the variations for other poses, I do several forms of this pose as well, changing the flavor and physical load with each one.

To practice downward-facing dog pose and its variations: place a folding chair (any chair will do, really) against the wall on your yoga mat to prevent the chair from sliding. Bring your hands to the front corners of the chair. If the chair seat is slippery you can use a second mat to place your hands on. Walk your feet back until your chest and torso/spine are parallel with the floor. The heels need not touch the ground, nor do the legs need to be straight. Try to bring the weight of the body to rest evenly between the front and back of the torso; in other words avoid dropping or sagging into the armpits or chest toward the floor. You can do this by pressing the chair away from you, lengthening the arms and their reach out of the shoulder area and elongating your spine and pelvis away from that reach. Allow the head to be positioned with ears level with upper arm bones, so it doesn't just hang down. Breathe 3-5 full breaths, and then walk forward to return to standing in mountain pose. This is a nice modification for folks with tighter hamstrings or some range of motion restriction in the shoulders. Its also great for long-time practitioners of yoga as it surprises the body into a new state of awareness in a time-honored pose they know.

Second variation: come to all fours and place two blocks on their medium setting, holding them with both hands like suitcases as you lift your knees and walk your feet back into downward facing dog pose. Again, heels need not touch the floor here, nor do the legs need to be perfectly straight. In fact, often bending the knees slightly allows for more mobility and strength in the shoulders in a gainful way. Use the awareness from the chair variation to bring the body weight evenly across the shoulders and torso, so there is no sagging or dropping down of the body weight toward the floor or thighs. Allow the head to rest between the upper arm bones, and sense the way the breath against your upside-down diaphragm asks for a different quality of attention and changes its load as well. Be here for 3-5 breaths, and then lower your knees to the floor, move the blocks to the sides and come into child's pose to rest.

The more we move and repeat an action, the more we are awakening to feeling more subtle sensations in our body. Like japa chanting, yoga asana is about repetition, but in no way does this mean that we always must do the same things over and over again in exactly the same ways. Variety allows for variation, and that depth of feeling brings me into new ways of seeing myself and seeing the world. These particular practices and postures are just a sampling of what I like to do, and a very small part of my complete practice in the morning. Most importantly, the practice of yoga asana, meditation and chanting are just some of the ways I help myself each morning to grow my sense of empathy in the world, connect myself to God, and to help me connect to myself and my community of loved ones and beyond, so that whatever I am raising my hand to do in my day and my life, I can do it with my whole heart.

I am always curious about what other people include in their morning asana, rituals and practices, so please do share or comment, because I would love to hear from you. And thanks Oprah! Even though the article was disappointing, it was a great chance to get to articulate these answers and get clear about (and see firsthand) why I don't love the idea of "3-5 poses for ..." because what I really love is complexity, nuance and the messy wholeness of being human.

See the article here, if you haven't yet. And get out there and be awesome.