Faking it Spiritually

When you’ve practiced yoga for a while, sooner or later, you come into contact with a whole variety of spiritual workshops, yoga retreats, Ayahuasca for the weekend, “red-tent“ events for women or silent meditation trainings. There’s an ever-growing number of groups you can join these days and trying to find the right fit, especially when you’re fairly new to the spiritual aspect of yoga, can be quite a challenge! Considering the hefty price tag some of these workshops come with, it may also be a financial question of whether we can afford to “advance“ our learning in this way at all!

I have been delving into some women’s history in the spiritual realm and due to this rising interest, have met some true woman warriors and mentors. These have been women who understand our historical role as medicine women and healers and how this tradition almost disappeared with the rise of organized religion and, of course, a shift to patriarchal societies. I have been guided, supported and truly honored to meet them and wouldn’t want to lose this connection to my tribe ever again. When women come together in acceptance, love and compassion, nothing can stop us and the real power we have, is palpable.

So, here’s me, the other day. I signed up for a women’s circle. I thought the price for two hours was a little on the expensive side but the person holding the workshop assured me this wasn’t “just another women’s circle, this was an initiation”. Well, that certainly sounded like something I might want and so, I signed up. After all, where good work is being done, it’s ok for good money to be spent.

When I got to the location, there was the usual dimmed lighting and candles as well as a few tarot decks to pick a card from. I liked the setting right away and felt happy to explore this women’s theme a little further, even if I didn’t really know much about these spheres or who these women were.

As we started to get into a “healing touch” exercise, I began to experience something resembling resistance. Three women would touch you all over (except, of course, private bits) and we each took turns doing so. When it was time to share the experience, the women –all seasoned vets of women’s circles– were very enthusiastic and genuinely touched (excuse the pun) by the experience. For me, it was more like the woman in the movie “A Chorus Line”, where she describes how in acting class they did an exercise where they pretended it was winter. Everybody felt the snow, the cold wind, the sleighs, when they were asked to do so. She, however, felt nothing! Alas, that was me. When it was my turn to share (I had tried to avoid saying anything at all), I said as much. I mentioned that I thought the touching bit was a little sudden for me and though I tried to lean into the experience, I just became more and more uncomfortable. I felt the room pull back immediately. This was not something people seemed to want to hear. It was the oddest moment where you move from being part of a group to being excluded from it. The shift was subtle, I’m not sure whether I imagined it or whether anybody else felt it. But to me, it was like I had dropped a loud singing bowl or something.

Before I get into the next part, a little side note: The woman holding the workshop struck me as pretty authentic, operating from a place of learned and experienced knowledge as well as something like, I don’t know, love? That feeling stayed with me fro the most part, even as things became a little more strange…

The next task was to go around the circle and each of us would say what they would like to “receive” from the group. Options were words of any kind, to be touched, maybe some essential oils on our hands and foreheads, anything really. The first woman to go for it had been to several of these sessions. Here was a woman who had spent significant time contemplating her role in this (spiritual) world. How did I know? The jargon.

The woman started to cry profusely, even hyperventilating at times. I felt really bad for her but wasn’t sure how to respond and also felt this was the job of the woman hosting the gathering. Maybe there was a reason, she just let her talk and talk, you know, get it all out there. Still wailing, she released a narrative of her working through tens of thousands of past lives. She also described her battle against her dying ego, and finally, there was a –partially inaudible– bit about her soul and how her director was being what sounded like a total jerk.

OK, confession time: I caught myself judging like a pro! My own ego raised its ugly head and I started to think, “why doesn’t somebody talk some sense right now, like, “stop confusing yourself with spiritual talk and empty catch phrases about ego!”” I know, harsh right? Sorry. But here’s my defense: I get tired sometimes, not because this lovely spirit was crying or laying bare major parts of her private life. So what! If it’s cathartic, let it out girl! Rather, it is the barrage of spiritual verbiage I don’t find helpful. The woman had all the words down, from Eckart Tolle’s ego talk to Gabby Bernstein’s spirit junkie advice (both teachers I absolutely treasure, by the way). Clearly she had read or studied a lot of spiritual literature and employed it to describe her experiences here on Earth. Nothing wrong with that, but…

This is a phenomenon so omnipresent in the yoga scene, it could really turn you off when you’re starting out on this path. In fact, as a teacher, I’m constantly monitoring myself for empty catch-all phrases or stuff I heard some smart teacher say and I’m sure I’ve gotten it wrong sometimes too. The truth is, it’s rather tempting to substitute the experience with proverbs, books or motivational talks on youTube. It’s quicker too! It seems, we want to stop our suffering and to move on with our lives so badly, we don’t want to get down and dirty with it. But to get there, you guessed it, is a long, winding, annoying, sobering, humbling, often painful path. Many times we will feel things, we don’t like, reveal aspects of ourselves we find deplorable. And then there’s all the times it just ain’t working! We do the work, we put in the meditation hours and next thing we know, we’re yelling at this guy for cutting us off in traffic. This whole spiritual thing is hard! But that’s the path. Bummer, I know, I’m not there yet either.

The alternative of “faking it”, though, well, as women, I think we can agree…it’s just not a solution when you want the real deal, is it? If we want to experience life in its totality, we’ll have to go through it for real. Workshops, traveling, our tribe can help us, yes. Using well-said quotes and jargon without honoring our very own experience, however, will stunt our spiritual growth eventually. It’ll get confusing too. Is my ego dying, or is my soul soaring? Am I feeling this pain from a past life or is it this one? Useful questions, surely, when the time is right. But first maybe: what is going on, here, now? What’s my learning?

So how do we know which workshops are right and what experiences are truly ours? Maybe it’s different for you but I’m guessing, we simply feel it. We know when somebody is authentic, when they speak from a place of wisdom rather than pure intellect. We also recognize authenticity in ourselves, don’t we? When I wasn’t sure, like in this workshop, I asked myself, “does this resonate with me? Do I feel the words are connected to some deeper inner source or are they just, sort of, spilling out?” Asking friends and fellow yoginis was also a great way to find something more suitable to my own journey.

The important learning for me was, not to hide behind spiritual feel-good messages or to incorporate certain words that make me “fit in” with what is spiritually en vogue but to continually explore a path of my own learning and stick to those circles that feel nurturing and authentic to me.

Have you been to any women’s circles and had some great experiences? Would love to hear about them in your comments below!

Don’t Listen To Your Yoga Teacher!

(c) Grit Siwonia

There are thousands of gifted yoga teachers out there! Whether we take a class in New York, Cape Town or Berlin, there are plenty of opportunities to meet some truly inspirational and knowledgeable teachers. Sometimes, their approaches are so different, we feel like we’re doing a normally familiar asana for the first time. Isn’t that just the greatest feeling? But regardless of how „great“ a teacher is, or how experienced, or how motivating, here are 3 reasons why you shouldn’t listen to your teacher.

1. Anatomy
Yup, you and I may have similar body types but we have very different needs, don’t we? Just because a teacher says, go through your Catturanga, doesn’t mean it’s right for you! Even if you’re doing exactly what she says, the movement may not help build strength but instead really hurt your shoulder joint. Am I saying stop trying? NO. But if you notice that the 10th Catturanga is doing a number on your shoulders or elbows, by all means stop and settle for good old chest, knees and chin to the ground, coming up in Cobra instead. Same journey, less wear and tear.
2. Breath
In Yoga we often talk about the body’s own intelligence and how to tune into it. One fast lane to doing so is, of course, your breath! But what do you do when the teacher actually walks you through entire sequences telling you when to breathe in and when to breathe out? Tough one, since a certain synchronicity helps the class community, right? However, whenever I noticed I was actually shortening my breath to, well, “get with the program”, I first thought I have to try to keep up, or it’ll be disruptive to the class. I was wrong again. Simply “skip” a round by coming into child pose instead or take an extra breath, if it is what is called for. Same sequence, less hectic.
3. Alignment
As teachers, we have learned about alignment cues to help students reap the benefits of the pose. One of those cues might be to look up in triangle pose, to lift your gaze skyward. Anybody with neck pain will attest, looking up in this pose can cause quite some tension in the neck muscles. In these cases, looking straight ahead or down makes more sense. So, with all due respect to Iyengar and correct yoga anatomy, making sure you enjoy practicing vs. trying to obey or fit in will not only keep you safe, it will also keep you coming back! Same pose, less tension.

Sounds nice but what if I’m new to yoga or just not much of an alignment buff? Here are some good questions to ask yourself: Do I feel stable? How is my breathing coming in and out of a pose? Is there any pain beyond that of a muscle being lengthened? Respecting your yoga teachers is one thing and we are grateful when you do but we love it even more when you respect your own body because it means you’ve understood one of the key principles of yoga: Love your Self.

My Favorite Top 10 Yoga Books


As a teacher, it’s important to have some idea about the eight limbs of Yoga and a few details from the Bhagavat Gita. It’s even better, when we’ve got our Yamas and Niyamas memorized, even implemented to a certain degree.

To learn about all things yoga, there are numerous fantastic and inspiring yoga books out there by Patanjali, Iyengar, Gurmukh, to name just a few. Nevertheless, I’m always hunting for new inspiration for my classes. That, and I have the odd talent for finding tiny bookstores with out-of-print editions of all sorts of wonderful literature. So here is my treasured list, some of which is a little off the beaten Yoga-book path. These gems are suitable for beginners AND advanced Yogis and I keep coming back to them frequently. I bet you will too:

1. Stephen Levine: Healing into Life and Death
Why I love it: Levine does not shy away from the really big stuff in life of which terminal illness and death certainly are a part. At the same time, he teaches us that healing can happen, even if our physical bodies do not recover from illness. Truly powerful and worth reading over and over.
2. Hugh Prather: I touch the Earth and the Earth touches me
Why I love it: Prather writes, sort of stream-of-consciousness poetry or snipits on spirituality, sexuality, really just daily thoughts that we can all relate to and that make us human first, maybe enlightened second.
3. Ana Forrest: Fierce Medicine
Why I love it: The woman warrior among the yoginis of our time, Ana offers a very honest perspective, whether she talks about her own battle with addiction or a specific asana. She encourages us to take a good, hard look at what isn’t working for us and invites us to commit to transforming trauma or bad stuff until it becomes a thing of beauty.
4. Josephine Fairley: Yoga for Life
Why I love it: This book was a completely coincidental find on an overloaded sale table. Even though it addresses women in their 40s and up, I think it is great book for any aspiring yogi. I’m not sure it is still in print but Fairley’s unpretentious and down-to-earth recommendations make it so terribly easy to start your own home yoga practice, you should try to get it anyway!
5. Stephen Bodian: Meditation for Dummies
Why I love it: That’s right, one from the …for Dummies series. It’s an oldie but goodie because it features so many techniques to get you started and even if you have meditated for a long time, you’ll probably still find inspiring ideas or ways to look at meditation in a new way.
6. Thich Nath Hanh: Peace is Every Step
Why I love it: Having grown up with many bibles in the house (and never really enjoying the reading that much), this book became my chosen bible. I take it everywhere I go because the words are very simple and comforting and I always seem to open it up exactly on the page I need that day-magic!
7. John Mundahl: Soul to Soul
Why I love it: This one is especially great for yoga teachers, offering little stories, intentions and inspiration to begin or end your class. You’ll want to finish reading it in one go, then start again right away.
8. Paramahansa Yogananda: Autobiography of a Yogi
Why I love it: Even if this one is a little more obvious than the other books on this list, it belongs here because once you’ve gotten through the sometimes slightly awkward writing style, the pearls of wisdom by one of yoga top wisemen, are indispensable and at times, even mystical.
9. Liz Lark: 1001 Pearls of Yoga Wisdom
Why I love it: This is a beautifully illustrated tiny book to take along with you anywhere or maybe keep it close to your altar for spontaneous pick-up. There are literally 1001 useful and inspired teaching and learning moments in there. Great gift idea too!
10. Timothy Mc Call, M.D.: Yoga as Medicine
Why I love it: Here’s a real go-to manual for some serious conditions that students come to yoga with all the time. Anything from back pain to fibromyalgia to depression and cancer. This book gives you the scientific insights as well as asanas to try out with students or by yourself. I’ve referred back to it over and over, especially for my private classes.

I hope you enjoy these books as much as I did and still do. What are some of your secret best yoga books? Lemme know in the comments below!

Yoga Against Bad News

Lately, it seems, there is even more negativity and crisis in the news. The more we read or watch, the more we might get the idea, the world is turning into Dante’s Inferno. Not surprisingly, I noticed myself avoiding the news altogether. As much as I wanted to stay in touch with what is going on in Washington, Aleppo, or Standing Rock, I started to only listen to the very minimum of headlines on the radio. If I read longer articles or let myself watch some sort of amateur video of scenes from Aleppo, it would just turn my stomach and leave me feeling hopeless, powerless and utterly disappointed that we are seemingly so unable to leave our children a better planet.

But of course, we cannot turn a blind eye, not forever at least. For most of us, I’m guessing, it’s also important to be sensitive to what is going on in the world around us. So how do we process bad headlines, threatening speeches, disturbing images? How can we stay connected to what feels true and joyful and whole when the news offers nothing but a hateful and fragmented world? I mean, watching a puppy video can be nice but it’s not exactly a long-term strategy for any of this, is it?

Here are some of my go-to practices that I began to establish when I felt there had to be a way to stay conscious of what is happening around me while maintaining hope and joy in my own life.

1. Focusing on what CAN be done
This, I find is the toughest one. After all, what can we possibly do to alleviate the suffering around the world? That’s kind of a tall order isn’t it? I’m getting deflated just thinking about it! Depending on our standard of living, we may not be able to take in a refugee, donate tons of money, or travel to Standing Rock and protest. If you can do any of those things, great and thank you for being you! If, however, those are not viable options, what is it that can be done in our immediate vicinity?

I’m not talking about getting rid of clothes we didn’t need anyway or picking up a gum wrapper on the street. Those are helpful too, for sure. What I am talking about, is picking a targeted mission, however small, something that’s doable for us, that fits into our schedule, and that requires exactly our talents and skills. But what can I do by myself? The answer is, there’s always something, i.e. are there any single moms who need just an hour or two of tutoring for their children? Is there a charity that focuses on a cause close to your heart? Love crafting, reading, painting? Maybe take that to a local organization that helps kids! Something probably came up for you while you read this. Run with that!

Of course, I know, this won’t help people in crises around the world but getting involved never ever fails to have a ripple effect. Heck, you might find a new calling, a new friend, a message just for you! If we can be kind in our immediate life, the abundance that follows is nothing less than miraculous in its reach. Try it! If nothing else, that feeling of being powerless and hopeless will fade, I promise!

2. Sticking to or Creating Rituals
Whether you meditate, read, play the guitar, swim, yodel, dance the Rumba, don’t stop! Not only are rituals and hobbies important to maintain a traceable and meaningful daily life, they also keep us sane. Making sure we carve out time in our lives to focus on the things that bring us joy is increasingly important especially as we get older (and dare I say a little more cynical?). There are no rules really but for me two things are important. The first is, don’t feel guilty that you’re doing something for yourself when the world is apparently falling apart and deserves your every minute of support. We are no use to anybody, if we cannot keep ourselves sane. In an online class with Amy Ippoliti today, Amy said something at the end of class that stuck with me: We need to be consistent for ourselves as much as we are consistent for others. Simple but not always easy, I know.
The second aspect is, let that activity be without an agenda. It doesn’t have to be perfect or done a certain way. The main goal, if there is one, is to feel joy! I don’t mean “nice” or “entertaining”. I mean really LOVE what you’re doing and raise that heart energy! You know you have it when you forget about time altogether. THAT energy has the potential to heal the world in ways, we cannot always imagine.

3. Expand your Tribe
Those of you who have read previous articles of mine will know this sounds familiar. I’m big on tribal bonds, I admit it! But here’s the thing. Tribes give comfort, support, energy. When we spend our time with girlfriends who know us, partners who support us, children, who mean the world to us, we feel safe. We don’t just get a warm, fuzzy feeling, which is lovely. We also grow more confident that not all is lost! There are still people out there who are inspiring and doing amazing things…and they want to spend time with us! Hurray!

Beyond taking care of your existing tribe though, maybe find new members. If you feel strongly about taking conscious action, find likeminded people. I mean, what good is facebook, if it cannot generate events near you that are based on the pages you have liked on the darn platform! I have found so many workshops, circles or small events just in my facebook newsfeed! Not on facebook? Find those local free papers, if they still print them in your area, or check out the message board in your local organic food store, yoga studio, coffee shop or bar. If it’s in your heart, it’s in your neighborhood.

I hope some of these practices are useful to you! How do you deal with bad news? Feel free to share your strategies in the comments below!