Ease First, Always; The InnerYoga Journey
[NOTE: This is the first in an ongoing series of articles exploring the rich culture of Yoga Tree, and highlighting the work of some great yoga teachers. This first piece focuses on Dina Amsterdam’s InnerYoga Teacher Training program; it includes both a personal perspective and an interview with Dina herself. – Richard Power]
Dina Amsterdam taught the alignment component of Yoga Tree’s 200 Hour Certification Yoga Teacher Training (YYT) in Summer 2012; so in the course of that one month intensive, we not only got a strong foundation in alignment, we also got a taste of InnerYoga, Dina’s own contribution to global yoga evolution.
For example, early on, Dina shared what she dubbed the “InnerYoga Quickie” –
1. Open to what is
2. Invite ease and relaxation amidst what is
3. Align w/ your highest intention amidst what it
Having gone deeply into the study and practice of Buddha Dharma, I resonated with Dina’s skillful integration of select elements of Buddhist psychology and meditation into her vision of yoga. Having gone deeply into Somatic Psycho-Therapy, I also resonated with the powerful language that Dina uses to communicate her “Standing Alignment Blueprint,” e.g.: in Tadasana, opening the heart and allowing “your shoulder blades to waterfall down your back,” feeling “a gentle river current at the back of your knees”, gently releasing the tailbone toward the earth, inviting your frontal hip bones and ribs to be drawn towards each other “like lovers” with only the belly (their chaperone) keeping them apart. So I signed up for InnerYoga Teachers Training, Part I following the completion of my 200 Hour YTT. After all, not only would I get to come away with strategies and techniques to both deepen my own practice and share with others, I would also be accruing 100 hours toward the 200 hours of electives needed for my 500 Hour Certification. As I write this post, we are about to start the third week of our training; we come together for one weekend a month for six months.
We spend the better part of two days, in the dark, moving through deep breathing exercises from the Taoist, Buddhist and Jin Shin Jitsu traditions, and then into an intense series of Yin Yoga poses; all the while, tracing the Chi meridians in our minds, following the flow of the Life Force Energy, through the physical and subtle bodies, from the crown to the root, from the belly up the spine, from the heart to the finger tips, and on and on into lushness.
Before our lunch break, there is a brief but vigorous Yang practice; following these deep dives into the internal organs, the flow of Chi, and the cultivation of prana, etc., these standing, moving sequences offer new insights of their own. The afternoon is spent sharing the psychological and interpersonal dimensions of the work, in a big circle (there are a lot of us).
This training packs a wallop. Consider some examples from my own life.
Soon after the first weekend, InnerYoga started taking over my daily practice. I reflexively expanded the time dedicated to deep breathing exercises, such as the Taoist Breath, the Main Central, the Ancestral River Breath (a.k.a. Microcosmic Orbit), etc. And also I shifted away from my usual Ashtanga-based sequencing and into the tender intensity of Yin poses. But that was just the beginning.
In my professional life, I write and speak about security, risk and intelligence, and I travel a lot. One particularly grueling dimension of my work-related travel is a monthly trip from the West Coast to the East Coast. I get in late at night on a Sunday, have two days of meetings, and then fly home at dawn on Wednesday.
Every month for four years, I have brought my mat with me. And every night, I would intend to practice. When I succeeded I was always rewarded with renewed vigor and inner calm. But more often then not I could not psyche myself up into it. As I mentioned, my background is in Ashtanga, and so was my solo practice. For me, yoga meant rigorous, Ujjayi-drenched Vinyasas, with double-dip Chatarangas, not only between asanas, but also between both sides of an asana, etc.
But on my last two monthly journeys into jetlag, I had an alternative strategy, an InnerYoga strategy; one that met me where I was in my circumstances, and helped me get to where I needed to go energetically.
Instead of reaching down deeper into depleted resources to draw on the power to enter in my Ashtanga practice, I was able to ease into 10 or 15 minutes of deep breathing, followed by five or six Yin poses targeting certain meridians and internal organs, and then finish up w/ a gentle Hatha flow. Which meant, yes, I could relax and drift, and sleep, and awaken in a calm space.
“Ease first, always,” Dina Amsterdam declares. And if you take nothing else away from this post, take that and integrate it into your approach to both yoga and life, and it will soon reinforce and expand your understanding of yoga as life and life as yoga.
“Aware with Care” – Foundation of InnerYoga Approach
In this brief interview, Dina shares some invaluable insights on her own journey, and on her vision of InnerYoga.
Any insights or perspectives you want to share on your journey from Amrit Desai’s ashram at 20 to developing InnerYoga? How your understanding of yoga has evolved? Or perhaps ways in which it has surprised you?
Dina Amsterdam: At age 20 I found yoga. I found it in an ashram in Lenox, MA – Kripalu. On the wall of the temple where we practiced everyday written in huge letters was – “The highest spiritual practice is self-observation without judgment.” At the time, I was attending a highly competitive university in Connecticut. I was number 1 on the tennis team as a sophomore. And I was voraciously studying the great philosophical minds of western civilization. I was neck deep in judgment and analysis. The statement on the wall of the inner sanctum of the ashram struck me as being radical… and vitally true. It stayed with me like a precious medicinal remedy. I’ve spent over 2 decades with this spiritual practice. Amidst all of my studies – in Iyengar Yoga, neuropsychology, Buddhism, Yin Yoga, Qi Gong, and more – it has been there at the core. In InnerYoga we describe this practice succinctly as “Aware with Care,” and it is the foundation of the InnerYoga approach. During 20 years of teaching yoga I found that without this gem at the center of a physical yoga practice my students too easily were pulled into unsavory habits of mind and heart. Aware with Care is needed at every stage of development in a yoga practice. How we talk to ourselves… how we breathe ourselves… how we support ourselves has a huge impact on the benefits we gain from our yoga practice whether we are a beginner or a teacher.
Could you articulate what distinguishes InnerYoga from Yin Yoga, or perhaps how they compliment each other, or serve each other?
Dina Amsterdam: InnerYoga is an approach to yoga (& life) rather than a particular form of yoga. InnerYoga simply emphasizes that, regardless of the style of yoga we are doing, awareness, kindness, breath, and ease are at the center of our practice moment by moment. InnerYoga also highlights the development of harmony and balance in the subtle body. A Yin pose is like a little 3 – 10 minute laboratory in which you get to really go inside and cultivate all of these various elements. The Yin Yoga pose, because it is uncomfortable and held for a sustained amount of time, provides a wonderful opportunity to observe and practice relating with the conditions that arise in body, mind and heart that can be challenging to be with. In real time, in the pose, we notice how applying awareness, breath, kindness, and ease shift our experience dramatically. For this reason, Yin Yoga is very seductive and illuminating in terms of trusting our capacity to cultivate well-being in body and mind. In addition, when we come out of a Yin pose we feel the strain of it in the body, but as we relax we feel a shift of sensations internally from discomfort into a delicious harmony. The increased harmony in the subtle body can be felt very overtly. This unseen aspect of our being, the subtle energy, becomes more tangible and accessible through the practice of Yin Yoga… and stays with us more and more off the mat.
How does someone whose practice is predominantly, Vinyasa or Annusara, integrate InnerYoga into their practice? Of course it is not an either/or? Or perhaps it is? For example, on a daily basis how would it impact a yogi’s solo practice? Is it a matter of alternating styles or integrating the two or …?
Dina Amsterdam: InnerYoga supports the development of awareness, kindness, breath, and ease in relationship to the physical, mental, emotional, and subtle bodies. There is nothing new in this in terms of the ancient history of yoga, but over the last 25 years in the U.S. these core principles, as well as a dedicated cultivation of the subtle body, have been greatly de-emphasized in the popularized styles of yoga. To really develop this inner support it is necessary that we understand its value and dedicate time to developing these inner capacities. This is what we do in InnerYoga. As InnerYoga skills become habitual they are naturally integrated into whatever activity is happening – vinyasa, rock-climbing, parenting, etc.
Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of what those who are participating in InnerYoga Part I and Part II can expect in terms of structure, e.g., what is emphasized in Part I, and what is emphasized in Part II?
Dina Amsterdam: InnerYoga Part 1 is an immersion in deepening your home practice –on and off the mat. It is a personal journey of Self-discovery and Self-care into how to more skillfully support ease and well being in body, mind, and heart with the particular challenges that exist within you. Over the course of the 6 months students develop a heightened attunement to their inner landscape – sensations, emotions, thoughts, and subtle body energy – through a variety of approaches. These include Yin Yoga, Yang Yoga, pranayama, meditation, subtle body healing practices, Buddhist and yogic philosophy, psycho-spiritual inquiry and more. In InnerYoga Part 1 the InnerYogi develops the ability to support herself from the inside out day to day on and off the mat. The focus is on cultivating the skills and practices for your own well being. In InnerYoga Part II this personal journey will continue, however, the emphasis will be on developing the knowledge and skills to effectively share the InnerYoga approach. Part II invites students to explore and develop themselves as InnerYoga teachers.
Richard Power is the author of eight books, including Humanifesto: A Guide to Primal Reality in An Age of Global Peril, and blogs on 21st Century spirituality at http://primalwordsofpower.blogspot.com. He is also a graduate of the Yoga Tree 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training, and currently studying in the Advanced 500 Hour Certification program.