Rebecca D'Onofrio Yoga
Vajra Moon Music
What does it mean to be an Advanced Yoga Student?
I was recently asked what it means to be an ‘advanced’ yoga student and I think that means different things to different people. But in my personal view, as a student and teacher, I prefer to use the term ‘mature’. I like this term because it implies an inner growth process and has nothing to do with how your poses appear on the outside: you can have perfect-looking poses but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a mature practitioner.
My definition of a mature practitioner is someone who, through their practice, has really come to know their body and mind. They know what their limits are, they know where their edges and boundaries are, and they honor those limits without judgement or aggression but with compassion and understanding. They know when intensifying is beneficial and they know when easing out is necessary all to keep their body safe. This practitioner may only be working with very simple and basic poses but I would definitely think of them as a mature practitioner.
For some people, this comes easily and for others it takes practice. I started with so much ambition - I wanted to appear ‘advanced’ and for those first couple of years I really pushed hard and ended up hurting myself more than once. This had nothing to do with the yoga poses themselves but everything to do with the mindset that I was bringing to them and the resulting injuries were a reflection of my state of mind; a mind of insecure arrogance. This didn’t make me a bad person and I learned how to nurture that insecurity with forgiveness and self-love, but it caused me to suffer. This type of ambition has to burn out and, eventually, when you’ve hurt yourself enough like me, you begin to develop the saving grace of humility.
Your practice becomes less about how fancy your poses look; less about how long or deeply you can hold them; less about comparing yourself to others or what others think; and more about how your mind and body feel and, based on that, knowing what it needs in order to feel balanced - maybe that means more effort some days and maybe that means less on others - no one else on the planet can tell you because no one else lives within your body. And a mature practitioner understands this.
Don't Bite the Hook
Disrupting Harmful Habits by not “Biting the Hook”
This is a form of meditation practice that helps a practitioner learn how to disrupt harmful habitual patterns and reactions by:
1. Recognizing the habit as it arises in our mind
2. Refraining from acting out the habit
3. Relaxing with the underlying urge to act the habit out
4. Resolving to continue to interrupt harmful habits whenever we recognize them
As we become more and more familiar with how we “bite the hook” of our habitual tendencies and thus get swept away by the speed and momentum of them, we start to experience more humility and patience toward ourselves because we realize how much we have been strengthening these habits over time in order to protect ourselves and ward off feelings of discomfort, fear, and vulnerability but ultimately they end up creating pain and suffering for ourselves and others.
It’s a gradual process and it will take time, patience, and resolve. In the beginning, just seeing this process - witnessing and observing it non-judgmentally - is the best place to start. Learning how to see our negative habits without condemning ourselves or beating ourselves up is absolutely necessary in order to do this work!! This is just another harmful habit of mind; another “hook”. So we need to develop loving-kindness and understanding toward ourselves in order to work with our minds in this way. If we use this as another way to punish or beat ourselves up, we won’t experience the benefits of this practice, so if we find we aren’t developing more kindness towards ourselves, it’s important to reassess our practice. This is where a trusted teacher/guide can be helpful.
The “hook” of habitual mind will show up in many different styles and ways but we tend to experience the underlying energy as a tightening up or contracting within ourselves - a sort of self-absorption - and it has varying degrees of intensity. My encouragement is to start small and see how that feels.
One place I like to work with this practice is while engaging on social media: when I find myself “triggered” or “stung” by a post or comment, I notice it arising in me and I usually feel it as a sharp tightening in my chest, as if my heart is trying to close itself up (this is typically the moment where our habitual patterns take over and get in the “driver’s seat”). So I notice this closing down process and feel the urge to react and I stay with this feeling, along with some deep rounds of breathing to help discharge the energy from my nervous system. This allows me to feel safely vulnerable and, when I’m ready, helps me engage the situation with authenticity from my heart, rather than from a closed-down reactive place.
While it is definitely a challenging practice and requires a lot of courage, resolve, and personal accountability, it is also extremely effective at helping us to release ourselves from creating further problems and painful situations that cause suffering for ourselves and those who are impacted by our actions. I have personally found it to be a deeply profound practice and if you find this practice compelling, I encourage you to please work with a qualified meditation instructor before engaging with it because having that trusted support can make all the difference. And for more reading on this practice, check out Pema Chödrön’s book ‘Don’t Bite The Hook’ from which this post was inspired.
Good is made out of Bad; Bad is made out of Good
“The world is a totality in itself. It has its own muscles, its own brain, its own limbs, and its own circulation. We are not talking about the totality of the world in the sense that everything should be good and perfect and fantastic, and nobody should acknowledge anything bad. We are talking about reality, in which good is made out of bad and bad is made out of good. Therefore, the world can exist in its own good/bad level, its self-existing level of dark and light, black and white, constantly. Whatever is there, favorable or unfavorable, is workable: it is the universe.” Chögyam Trungpa
From deeply examining my own life and experiences, I’ve come to realize the validity of this message: That light and dark/good and bad/creation and destruction are completely inseparable and made out of each other. Accepting reality as it is, in it’s tragic and glorious totality, has helped me let go of a lot of unnecessary struggling in my life. Not that I don’t experience the pain of loss, grief, or heartache, but more so that I can accommodate it and allow it to be part of what it is to be human. So I can feel those things deeply and fully without pushing them away and that allows me to discover the beauty of it. Embracing the darkness invites the light in; embracing the light invites the darkness in. Being open to all of it invites peace.
Let It Be
There really is no other way around it... we can’t dismiss our feelings away; we can’t dismiss our hurt away; we can’t dismiss our fear away; etc. I have always felt the instruction to “just let it go” to be very well-meaning but ultimately unskillful and unhelpful.
Our feelings require our attention and care and it is our responsibility to tend to them. My encouragement is to feel them: simply feel what you feel and allow it to be in your awareness; be present with it - without judgement, without bias, without aggression. Rather than “just let it go”, try simply letting it be, allow it to be - feel it, understand it, learn from it, and through this process, what was once a difficult experience can be transformed into insight and wisdom that we can apply to our lives.
So be with that shit, understand and care for that shit, and integrate that shit so you can arise with wisdom, love, and with more connection and understanding toward yourself rather than suppressing or bypassing yourself.
Not Every Yoga Cue is meant for Every Body
In group yoga class, the instructor is left with the challenge of offering cues to the class to help each practitioner understand how to do the asanas (or poses) and I find a skillful teacher will tend to stay away from highly individualized cues because these cues don’t apply to every body in the class. For example, I have often heard teachers instruct a class to “tuck their tailbone” in order to neutralize the spine but is tucking the tailbone really an effective cue?
Well, that depends on the individual body. Sometimes the “tucking tailbone” action can neutralize the spine of a person who tends to tilt their pelvis anteriorly. However, if the individual has a tendency to tilt posteriorly, this would not be an effective cue to neutralize their spine, in fact, it would exaggerate their tilt even more and compromise the integrity of their spine.
So rather than offer this cue consider offering a more exploratory cue such as: “Notice if you have a tendency to tilt your pelvis forward or back. Begin to explore what it feels like to gently adjust your pelvis so that it is in a neutral vertical position like how a bowl would sit on top of a table. How does that feel in your body?”
As a student, never blindly assume that every cue that you hear is meant for your body. Get into the habit of always verifying whether or not it is true for you, always trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to adjust your body (even if the instructor tells you to do something differently). Always trust what your body is communicating to you. This is how we develop the “inner teacher” of our own wisdom. Outer teachers, like myself, are more like guides who support and invite you to explore and discover for yourself what poses are right for you and what cues work best for your needs.
Our Minds are like Sponges
Our minds are like sponges and we soak in our environment and what we allow to come into our mind is also what comes out so this becomes our personal culture; the reality we create for ourselves. What kind of culture do you live in? Are you consistently soaking in uplifting energy that inspires you and aligns with your highest values and visions? With your motivations? With your passions, talents, and capabilities? With how you see yourself? With who you really are and who you want to be? Or are you consistently soaking in energy that brings you down or keeps you down? That makes you feel stuck? That makes you feel like you can’t accomplish all the things you are capable of? Are you soaking in people or content that lead you to believe you aren’t good enough, worthy, etc?
Keep in mind misery loves company and when you start making shifts in your life that reflect your higher callings, some folks might get irritated or jealous with that because it reflects back to them how they aren’t moving forward in their own lives. Don’t take this too personally and, at the same time, don’t put up with it!
I think it’s so important to surround yourself with good people and energy that brings out the best in you, people who are manifesting in ways that you want to manifest, in ways you know you are capable. I also think it’s important as you rise up, to be that person for other people who need inspiration in their lives and you will naturally magnetize them towards you because you are manifesting something that they know is also within them, lying dormant, and seeing you go for it creates a spark in them that ignites their journey! That’s how it works. As your light shines brighter and brighter, it always lights up others, the ones who are ready.
So other people’s energy is contagious and it can lift you up or it can take you down. Your energy does the same for others so be mindful of the energy that you are putting out there yourself. Remember to keep your eye on the prize! And weed out any energy that tries to destroy the beautiful garden of all your hopes, dreams, and aspirations (including your own!!).
To Stretch or Strengthen?
To stretch or strengthen? That is the question...
Most people have developed a pattern of weak lengthened muscles which need shortening and strong tight muscles which need lengthening. This depends on your personal activities and daily movement patterns and is very very individual. Learning what the specific imbalances are in your body is the only way to rebalance your body therefore generic group classes, yoga or otherwise, are not always the best approach and can actually end up exacerbating an issue rather than making it better.
This is why I prefer to work privately with people and keep my group classes small so I can see how each individual is moving their body and tune into where their imbalances are and offer a movement sequence that addresses those specific issues so that the person is learning to move and correct their body for the better - not for the worse, which is something I see so often in big cookie-cutter group classes.
Sure, they may be cheaper than taking a private, but you always get what you pay for. I think the optimal approach is to take private classes with a qualified teacher who understands movement principles and as you understand your own body and what it needs, then attend the group classes and modify the sequence appropriately for your body’s individual needs - learn to become your own teacher.
In Buddhism, we refer to it as “renunciation”. A lot of folks misinterpret this as denying personal pleasure or living a squeaky clean life, but that’s not what this is about... Genuine renunciation is about recognizing the self-imposed beliefs and habits of mind that we force upon ourselves, having compassion and understanding toward these habits, and then cutting through them, moving pass the limitations they impose upon our abilities and existence. Then we open ourselves out to the freshness of the moment or situation, free from self-limiting conceptualizations, and engage from there.
In other words, what we are renouncing is the type of self-doubt that causes us to close down and hide from our life and what we are opening ourselves out to through the process of renunciation is confidence and open-heartedness. But it isn’t an egotistical arrogant “pumped up” type of confidence - it is a self-existing primordial confidence based on the understanding that we already are and always have been good, worthy, wholesome, and fundamentally capable beings, from the very beginning, therefore we can afford to let go and open ourselves further because our sense of value or worth is no longer based upon conditions or conventional notions of success or failure. It is like claiming a birthright that we didn’t realize we always had
Vulnerability is simply being honest. It’s taking off our masks, it’s putting down our shields, it’s removing our armor, and becoming utterly genuine. This is not weakness. It takes strength and courage because we are willing to expose our truest self and allow ourselves to be seen through. It’s tender, raw, painful, and sometimes scary because we don’t know what’s going to happen. The first step is to reveal ourselves to ourselves. To self-reflect with truth and honesty. If we can’t be vulnerable with ourselves, we can’t be vulnerable with anyone else. This space of being vulnerable is where true magic occurs because it’s the only way to realize that you are already worthy as you are
The practice of meditation gives the ego no room to hide which is why it feels so threatening and difficult to do. Within the sphere of unbiased awareness, it can’t hide and it doesn’t have any place to run away to and, therefore, can no longer play it’s games. If the practitioner’s allegiance aligns with seeing the ego plainly and clearly for what it is, then it begins to fall apart because the ego can only be sustained with self-deception.
With that said, ego can certainly highjack the practice of meditation to serve itself and in my tradition we refer to that as “spiritual materialism”. If there is the slightest notion of using meditation as a means to make oneself better, smarter, superior, cleaner, purer, etc. then that’s a strong indication that the ego is driving the practice as ego is always trying to prove itself.
But if a practitioner can learn to see the ego for what it is, just simply see this process clearly without any judgement, then the ego begins to lose it’s power and hold. Not that we see our ego as an enemy - if we examine it, we come to understand that it genuinely means well and is only trying to protect itself from feeling exposed and vulnerable. We can extend our empathy and maybe even a little appreciation for it’s intentions.
But when the ego no longer feels so compelled to defend itself anymore through doing this practice, one no longer sees the necessity of basing their value or worth on what games the ego wins or loses - the battle mentality that ego conjures up to protect itself is seen as frivolous and tiresome, and in it’s place a natural relaxation begins to occur. The more comfortable and familiar we become with the process of exposing our vulnerability to ourselves, the less we need to employ the ego to fight for us. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what kind of freedom is possible with the practice of meditation.
Something that has been coming up lately in a lot of different situations is the concept of ‘leaving space’ and I wanted to share a few thoughts on this. For many of us, we are very attached to a sense of resolution, a sense of harmony, a sense of covering our bases, filling up all the space. We do this because it makes us feel safe, secure, and comfortable. There is nothing wrong with this
However, sometimes our urge to say everything all at once or rush to a sense of things being “fixed” or “complete” can often make things worse because this is only one side of the coin... conflict and disharmony is on the other side and it’s necessary; it’s part of the process.
Leaving space, allowing things to sit as they are - which may mean that things are sitting unresolved, disharmonious, and incomplete - quite simply makes us uncomfortable. But in my experience, it is precisely this process that allows us to really feel ourselves: to be with our emotions and feelings, to self-reflect, to genuinely discover what’s really at the root of an issue and to see the other person or situation more clearly, without all of our projections.
And it’s from this space, this gap between reactions, that real understanding and real wisdom can arise, a wisdom that comes from a deeper place within us, rather than the rush-job-fix-it-quickly mentality, because of the speed and momentum of that mentality, it never has a chance to feel more deeply.
It’s powerful to give ourselves time and space it’s even more powerful to give others time and space. It is a gift that takes courage and discipline. Wisdom can’t be forced or conjured up - it only arises when we are willing to let go of all the habits that keep us from experiencing it.