Books I’m reading: Stephen Cope, Thich Nhat Hanh

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self

About a year ago, my yoga teacher Tanya Greve suggested I read Stephen Cope’s book.

A little digression about Tanya Greve: She is the Director of Shakta Teacher Training, owner of LA Yoga Garage, and has been teaching for over ten years. She teaches Kundalini yoga, Hatha yoga, Prenatal yoga, and Mommy and me yoga. She is also a yoga therapist. She is an inspiring teacher, person and one of the best mothers I know. Also, she just had her second child! I’m thrilled for her and her newborn son. He is so fortunate to have such a loving mother!

OK. I’m back.

“America’s love affair with yoga is just beginning,” Stephen Cope writes in the introduction of his book published in 1999. At that point, he notes that recent surveys showed eleven million Americans practice yoga. More than a decade later, Mark Stephen’s  Teaching Yoga notes, “Yoga is $5.7 billion industry, up eighty-seven percent since 2004 and shows no signs of slowing. More than sixteen million people are regularly practicing in the United States alone (another eighteen million have dabbled).” Cope was right.

Currently there are plenty of  narratives–yoga memoirs, personal essays–and they are widely available, online, in magazines, in libraries and bookstores.  I’m pretty sure this was not the case when Cope decided to write his book. He explains, “When I first began inquiring more deeply into yoga, I lamented that there were so few books about the real experience of the transformation wrought by the practice.” In Yoga and The Quest for the True Self, he writes the book he would’ve wanted to read.

I think his book is also the kind of book I would’ve wanted to read when I first began my practice. At that time I was not successful in finding a book on the subject. Which seems strange because many existed at the time. Since I could not locate (for whatever reason) books on the personal experience of yoga, I began to read Thich Nhat Hanh.

Peace is Every Step

A few years ago, I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Power and Anger. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk who teaches about mindfulness practice. He’s also a bit of a badass as the introduction in Peace is Every Step reminded me.In 1964, he founded the School of Youth for Social Service, “in which teams of young people went into the countryside to establish schools and health clinics, and later to rebuild villages that had been bombed.” In 1966 Martin Luther King Jr nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize and he evidentially inspired King to come out against the Vietnam War. In 1969 he organized the Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks. Peace Accords were signed and he was not allowed back into Vietnam.

Years ago, when I purchased his book, I did not realize that he was engaged in activism, rooted always in his commitment to nonviolence, his dedication to peace. Years ago, I only noticed I felt an internal shift that caused me to take interest in his books and what he wrote in his books made sense to me. I looked at the back of the book and realized he had founded Deer Park Monastery in Escondido. I felt so inspired by his writing and registered a weekend stay at the monastery with an acquaintance. I had never meditated before in my life and meditating for days in a monastic setting was challenging, among other things.

Years later, I’m returning to Deer Park for a solo five day, four night stay. In preparation, I decided to read Peace is Every Step, an older book  composed of tiny vignettes. They’re short and succinct and probably most enjoyable if you’re familiar with his teachings. I would not recommend the book to people who are interested in reading Thich Nhat Hanh for the first time. His more recently published books are broken down into chapters that clearly and fully develop his ideas, complete with analogies and anecdotes.

As someone who is feeling a little nervous about my long stay, I found this question in the book to hit home:

Are you frightened of solitude–the emptiness and the loneliness you may find when you face yourself alone?

I found that this paragraph affirming:

Often we tell ourselves, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something!’ But when we practice awareness, we discover something unusual. We discover that the opposite may be more helpful. ‘Don’t just do something, sit there.’ We must learn to stop from time to time in order to see clearly…’Stopping’ is not only to stop the negative, but to allow positive healing to take place. That is the purpose of our practice–not to avoid life, but to experience and demonstrate that happiness in life is possible now and also in the future. 

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This week: More Muir & YI Yoga Mag

More Muir

I’m making very slow progress with John Muir’s The Mountains of California. It’s all descriptions of trees and squirrels and meadows. He rarely inserts himself into the book. As a reader who loves personal essays and memoir, I’m struggling. It’s as though I’m addicted to story line, to some narrative, plot. I’m left with reading descriptions, which are long and beautiful and try my patience.

John Muir seems committed to only provide descriptions about the mountains of California. I suppose when I have been out in nature, there’s a certain letting go of my story line, which is why I like hiking and being out there, why I want to be out there more. I’ve also learned how impatient I am when I’ve gone camping. What I’m trying to say is that my response to nature and my response to Muir’s writing about nature is pretty much the same. Since he can illicit that same response through his writing, I now admire his writing and have a reverence for him and his closeness to the wild.

To be honest: I also have made up a story in my mind about how he meets a love of his life and the two of them make endless love on Red Fir boughs (He describes that “two rows of the plushy branches overlapping along the middle, and a crescent of smaller plumes mixed with ferns and flowers for a pillow form the very best bed imaginable”),  fuck constantly when snow bound in his cabin, and fight and forgive continually.

My favorite part of the book this week:

I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death; barring accidents they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all the diseases that afflict and kill other trees. Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground on which they stand.

YI Mag

One of the lovely ladies from my 2011 yoga teacher training signed me up for a subscription to Yoga International and now issues arrive in my mailbox. The most recent issue includes well-written articles about health, meditation, psychology, and yogic philosophy. I’ve never read this magazine before and really loved this issue.

I’m going to share a little bit about the articles inside the issue, starting by sharing sentences that resonated with me.

In “A Posture of Courage,” Christina Sell writes about a stage  “where we discover that direct lessons about faith will come through the doorway of doubt, where compassion is taught through pain, where true beauty is revealed only after facing what is ugly, and where courage is found in the dark recesses of what scares us most.”

In “Facing Emotional Turmoil,” Angela Wilson writes:

“Perhaps real freedom comes from being totally okay with whatever inner conditions emerge, rather than total freedom from all unpleasant experience.”

“Beneath Still Waters” is an article excerpted from Essence of the Bhagavad Ghita: A Contemporary Guide to Yoga, Meditation, and Indian Philosophy. Eknath Easwaran carefully and descriptively takes the reader through various stages of meditation.  He believes true healing involves both meditation and deliberate behavior. Realizing the depths of yourself is one thing, acting against a conditioned response or compulsion is another, and both are essential for “complete healing.” He writes that kind of mindful action is not easy and “that it can be done at all is a miracle.” My local library has three of his books available so I’m going to read at least one of them. The Undiscovered Country: Exploring the Promise of Death appeals the most to me. Of course it does.

Sara Gottfried writes an article about her personal experience, research, and integrative approach with treating thyroid problems. She states that “we may very well have an epidemic of borderline-to low-function on our hands” and offers a three-step holistic plan supposed to rebalance the thyroid. Personally I’m skeptical of these kinds of plans in magazines because they seem so simplistic. Skepticism aside, the article includes a thyroid quiz, explains how the T4 and T3 levels functions, provides instruction on how to personally asses your thyroid function, and refers to new normal levels.  If you have any thyroid issues, suspect you may have one, or are just interested in learning more about a health problem that is becoming all too common, the article is a concise and interesting read.

Speaking of yoga, I’m still teaching a gentle class on Sunday mornings. I always warn people my classes are very slow and meditative. Less like a work out and more like nap time!

In these last two weeks, I started practicing asana (physical postures) again. I took a break because I underwent a lot of surgery this year. The positive of not being able to have a rigorous physical practice is that I rediscovered how helpful vipassana meditation practice is.

This week, one of my favorite yoga studios awarded me a yoga summer scholarship.  (Who knew there was such things as yoga scholarships? ) I feel really grateful!

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things I’m reading

John Muir

I’ve been reading John Muir’s The Mountains of California for what seems like a very long time. I think it’s because there’s really no plot and only long descriptions of nature. The chapters are divided into sections like “The Glacier Lakes,” “The Glacier Meadows,” and “The Forests.” He really can go on and on about trees with such enthusiasm. His enthusiasm almost makes me feel a little guilty when his long sentences lull me to sleep or when I thumb ahead and think, Really? A whole chapter on squirrels? Is that really necessary?

For the most part, the book makes me want to see all these trees and meadows and snow and snow banners. There’s so much to be learned in nature that I miss by living in the city and a smoggy, billboard blasted, sometimes plastic, and too fast moving city at that. Which is why I’m reading Muir. Because if I read about nature, it’s almost like I’m experiencing nature. Almost and not at all.

Legs Get Led Astray

This week, Chloe Caldwell’s Legs Get Led Astray arrived in my mailbox. I arrived home late at night and figured I would read the book from start to finish but that did not happen. Her first essay was so full of energy and her voice came out so clear that the book inspired me. The rest of the night I was writing. You can purchase her book on her site. You also have an option of receiving a signed copy and personal letter with her collection of essays.

The Rumpus

Speaking of personal letters, did you know The Rumpus is killing it?

Dear Sugar is back from what seemed to me a very long hiatus. It seemed that way because, like many, I love her column. This time she writes about Monsters and Ghosts. I recommended this most recent column to my friend because it’s good one for someone in active recovery or who is healing. I told him I cried during the butter part and he said he cried during that part and before it and after it. My friend says he is a crybaby and I say I am a sap. We’re a good match.

Steve Almond has an amazing series of essays titled This Week in Greed. He has a beautiful way of interweaving the personal with the political. Heart wrenching, heartfelt, combining indignation and tenderness, the column provides me with relief.  The most recent essay is the Money Shot and a must must read of the series is To Behave Like the Fallen World.

Three recently Rumpus published personal essays: Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying, What They See, and Flesh and Bones. I enjoyed reading Flesh and Bones because there’s a lot of denial in my life about the body and there’s a lot of healing and personal work that I do and am doing to not delude myself, to create clarity. There’s a particular dark humor to the essay as well. The language is lyrical in Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying and almost feels to me like a personal essay and prose poem. It explores themes of death and rebirth as well as motherhood.

Jason Novak often illustrates Rumpus essays and I loved his artwork for Isaac Fitzgerald’s piece “In Love in San Francisco.”


I’m also reading random essays from The Essential Feminist Reader. The book was sitting on my shelf. I bought it at Stories a while ago. I’m kind of starved for feminist literature right now. I had a dream I was texting Bettina Aptheker about grandchildren. Which is supposed to show you how I need more feminism in my life.

Ben Marcus in Recommended Reading.

I’m rereading Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Power.

I also loved this post from Early Recovery Blog. The post reminds me that sometimes the people we love and grew up with, the people we first knew and knew so intimately become strangers. The process of them becoming strangers, the present time happening of the distance and the awareness of the distance as it is happening can cause an ache, even when there’s acceptance and love for the relationship as it is.

The latest issue of Yoga International arrived in my mailbox. I just finished an essay about thyroid disease by Sara Gottfried, a doctor and yoga teacher, who offers an integrative approach to thyroid issues.

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New Year’s Eve 2011

This afternoon I taught a free class for the community to celebrate the new year. Last night I was rereading The Heart of Yoga and read  “to receive that which is new (fresh energy), we must release what is old and no longer benefits us.”   The more we release, the more we let go, the more we allow space for what is new and what will benefit us.

This sentence inspired my sequence for the new year’s class. In yoga, the exhale is one way we release that which is old, that which no longer benefits us, and the inhale can be considered what is new and fresh.  In the beginning of class, I asked students to inhale for four counts and exhale for eight counts.  Toward the end of class, I instructed them to practice a yoga therapy version of Nadi Shodhana, which tends to lengthen the exhale. I wanted them to release more so they could receive more. That was my intention for the class.

Today I asked friends and family, Did you set intentions for 2012? One woman told me that she writes a list of what she wants to release from 2011 and what she wants to receive from 2012. Then she burns the lists in the backyard and lights a candle and the candle remains lit throughout the night. There’s beauty in ritual.

I’m going to be chanting with a yoga friend from 11:30 p.m. until after midnight, which seems like the best way to end 2011 and bring in 2012. It’s the best way because in 2011, I committed to a yoga teacher training and finished in early December and the training changed my life. I completed a 20 hour weekend of yoga once a month for several months and along the way realized what about myself and what about my life I needed to release. Yoga has been described as a spiritual psychology and I see how that is true.

In any case, I’m not done with the release. What is old and no longer benefits me? There are several aspects of myself that I see in a clear light, not a harsh light but a clear one, and I know I have to let go of those parts of myself, too. This kind of clarity is humbling. Sometimes the release takes years.

I hope you celebrate the arrival of new year in a way that is best for you. I hope the celebration brings you joy. I wish you the best. I wish always the best for you.


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It’s just that for a long time, I would say yes to fear

On Wednesday morning, I taught my first gentle yoga class at Anatomy in Highland Park. The studio was cold when I arrived at 8:45 a.m. and  since I don’t teach a class that builds up much heat in the body, I asked the owner if I could open the studio. She said yes. She gave me extra keys and I arrived around 7 a.m. to open the studio and turn on the heat. I wanted the studio to be warm so my students could feel comfortable. The owner wanted the studio to be warm, too, so she bought extra heating fans and I put those on as well.

I put Kundalini music on and listened to the sound on the speakers, listened to how it filled the room. My friend made me a mixed CD which is several tracks of a woman with a beautiful and soothing voice singing Kundalini mantras. Some mantras she sings, I know. Others I don’t know. When I don’t know the mantras, her voice and the instruments are just sounds that wash over me and wash over the space surrounding me and I feel a sense of calm. I spent two hours in the studio, meditating and going over the sequence for the class.

I teach a gentle yoga class but I’ve noticed there are moments when the class can feel hard for students. Sometimes it’s hard to slow down and stay present. Staying present with something as subtle as the inhale and the exhale can be hard. Slowly moving through abdominal exercises can be hard.

A gentle yoga class is not always an easy class. I think what makes the class always gentle but not always easy is that we do the work slowly, one step at a time. We do the work softly (the breath, continuing to be long and smooth), with effort but without strain. We accept the work is hard, we accept where we are, we rest if we need.

After my class, I drove over to Los Feliz to practice yoga with my teacher Patty Pierce. She studied Iyengar and teaches a Hatha Flow – Level 2 class. Her class is hard for me. Mostly, everything about the class is hard but that’s why I do it. It’s humbling, it reminds me of the work I need to do.

Patty knows me. I observe and assist her Tuesday classes. I watch her teach, I watch the students, and sometimes, I adjust the students with verbal cues. In her Friday classes, she says, Now Zoë will demonstrate the next pose.

Every time she says I’m going to demonstrate the next pose I am filled with a sense of dread. For most of my life I’ve been afraid. I’m still afraid a lot of the times. It’s just that for a long time, I would say yes to the fear, let fear dictate my decisions. I would avoid adversity and my avoidance harmed me.

As soon as I start demonstrating the pose, the fear leaves me.  As soon as I start, the fear is just gone. I stay present, listen to her verbal cues to move my shoulder this way, to move my toes that way, people watch me find my way into the pose. I’m confident I’ll get there and I always do. Each time, I find the pose and they find my demonstration helpful. I feel good, sometimes great, always grateful. Always grateful that I found a teacher who helps me say no to fear, grateful that I showed up and did the work.

Last night I set my intentions for the year ahead. I had been thinking about the next year but last night, I really set them. This is what I know: I have a hard road ahead of me. The work is going to be hard and it’s going to require all my effort and it’s going to be worth it. If I succeed–and I have to believe I will–then I will feel pretty great and grateful.

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What a shame

There was a time when we gathered around the counter of the bar. That’s what it felt like, a gathering. I say we gathered at the counter of the bar but mostly I sat in the back, reading “The Heart of Yoga” and drinking one IPA, and then another, on the house. The second one was always free. The first one was waiting for me at the bar by the time I walked to the counter.

Sometimes she’d call me over because everyone was having a shot of something at the same time. I never asked what we were drinking or why. I just smiled and said thanks. I took the shot and walked back to my book and read. I needed the noise and the beer and I needed her and her customers. They liked me and I liked that they liked me, even though I mostly talked to no one.

Sometimes I’d drink too much, sometimes friends would come and then her customers would talk more to us or they’d buy us drinks. They would ask me what exactly I was studying and then tell me what they knew about yoga. Sometimes we’d all sit at the bar and eat take out and she’d tell us we were not in a bar but in a living room. There’d be the day she’d arm wrestle my friend, if my friend lost we’d have stay for another. There was the door man who told me about the comics he loved and the video games he’d played. He was a big man that could kick your ass but gently told me there wasn’t enough light to read. There was looking up from my book and meeting someone, then there was making out with him at the jukebox and bringing  him into the bathroom and then pushing him out of the bathroom, then taking him out through the emergency exit door. I could break the rules without consequence.

Then there was the day I walked into the bar and it was too dark and the music was too loud and the IPA didn’t taste the way it always had tasted and I thought, Has her voice always been so high-pitched. Almost squeaky? Because the craving was gone, because I didn’t need the gathering anymore. Because, in fact, this place bored me. I’m thinking about the gathering for a specific reason.  There’s a man I desired, just a day ago. But the boredom came in and yanked my desire away and now I miss my desire for it all.

What a shame I don’t want him like I used to want him. What a shame I don’t gather with them every evening. What a shame I’m not like them: they don’t leave because they want to stay. What a shame I ever started studying yoga. What a shame I didn’t believe them when they said yoga would change me.  What a shame I’m happier than I ever been. I say shame. I mean, blessing. Of course, I mean blessing.

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Get Your Hopes Up

WITH YOU, I BREATHE: A forty day yoga column

#40: Get Your Hopes Up

Today I called a friend and he answered and we met up at a diner in Echo Park. He’s a good friend. What I like most about him is that he laughs really loud and he is honest. He’s pretty good at calling me out on my bullshit. In this way, he helps me feel grounded.

He told me about a recent woman he was dating, how it ended, and how he was dating another woman. He asked me about my dating hiatus, I told him it was great, it was going strong. He said it would be hard for me to meet someone because I wanted specific things, because I wouldn’t settle. I nodded. I’m not getting to my point.

I told him about a man and he advised me, Don’t get your hopes up.

I looked at him. Why not?

He looked at me, You don’t want to be disappointed.

I said, So what if I am. I love getting my hopes up.

I told him about operating on a baseline, down below and always staying there because what? Because you don’t want to be disappointed. I told him I was going to visualize the best possible situation.

I said, Not getting your hopes up is like constantly being disappointed. And, I said. Go with me on this. I just thought about this.

He said, OK. I’m with you.

I said, Getting your hopes us builds resilience. You get your hopes up, you get disappointed, you pick yourself up again and you get your hopes up again, you get disappointed. Get your hopes up and discover your resilience.

He said, I like that.

Me too.

I’m going to try and remember that. I’m going to get my hopes up.

I’m getting hopes up about you getting your hopes up.

We finished the vegetarian nachos. He worked on his grad school applications, I read Mark Stephens Teaching Yoga. We went to the library and I saw a book with the title Learning to Live with Life’s Disappointments and brought to our table. A little book for the coffee table, the library coffee table.

He looked up and noticed the book. Did you put that here?

Mmhmm. As a joke, I made a funny.

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