Friday, February 8, 2013

Yesterday was my favorite so far. Instead of heading into the throngs of the Mela, we went in the other direction. We walked along the Ganges for a while then veered off into a large prairie and walked along a path toward a village. Here we saw sheepherders with large flocks, and herds of an antelope-type animal. It was so nice after the heat, dust and noise of the Mela.

The village we were walking through was expecting us. As Westerners only walk through a couple times a year, generally with the Himalayan Institute, HI went there the day before to tell them we'd be coming. That way they could stay in and out of sight if they wanted. However, a lot of villagers were out, and it was wonderful.

This village is a "healthy" village, meaning not a poor one. They do have electricity, although from what I could see it looked like maybe a bare bulb or two per household. Houses are clay or brick with thatch roofs. Each house has several  cattle, usually tied to a ground post in the yard. I think I heard some goats inside the structures, but I didn't see any chickens, as Hindus generally do not eat eggs as well as meat. 

It definitely felt awkward taking photos; on one hand I don't want to leave without something  to remember this walk, on the other it feels intrusive. However, again, the curiosity seems to go both ways. Several women and I made eye contact and smiled at each other; I think if I spoke Hindi or they English it would have been wonderful, but not so exotic. One woman spoke enthusiastically at Doug and I as we were admiring her cow; we had no idea what she was saying, but it seemed to be encouraging us to take a picture. So, we did, and right on cue as we snapped the shutter it let out a huge bellow. We jumped back and she laughed hysterically. I think she had that cow well trained.

Kids, of course, are the great equalizer, and they LOVE having their picture taken. They run up saying "hello!" "hello!" "hi!" and ask for a picture, which you then show to them on the screen and they laugh. They shake hands and generally love visitors.

My favorite was a boy who met us on the road with his camel. He let me pet it, and then asked if we wanted to see it lie down. Our guide spoke Hindi and everyone said, no, because it looks like so much effort for a camel to get up and down. But the boy really wanted to show off for us, so finally he ignored us and started saying "sit!" "sit!" and the camel with much effort lied down on the road. Then he got up and the two of them ran off, camel on a leash like a dog, into the field.

While I'm loving the cultural part of this trip, there are also lectures in the ashram on the symbolism of this place, visits to temples, and lectures on meditation. I am particularly enjoying Rolf Sovik's lectures on meditation and mantra.

Finally, weather has its highs and lows. Daytime temperatures are beautiful, sunny, high 70s. But nighttime has been quite cold, high 40s. As Sunday is an auspicious bathing day at the Mela, crowds are growing, and the fervor is building. This means that any hour of the night I wake because of cold, it'll be equally tough to go back to sleep due to noise. 2:00, 4:00am, the Mela never sleeps, and from 4 kilometers away, the din is consistent.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yoga is a Spiritual Practice

Most of us that practice yoga seriously know this is true: Yoga is first and foremost a spiritual practice. If we don't know it through our classes and our studies, we certainly may have experienced it during a yoga class; that feeling of wholeness, one-pointed focus, and vibrating awareness that happens when the pranic energy is flowing freely through the body and the mind is focused and calm.

This feeling is what keeps many students returning to their mats, even though their real interest is the physical benefits of the practice. But, there is something about yoga that transcends the physical freedom created.

Over the next few weeks I'll be visiting India to dive into the spiritual component of this ancient practice. Yes, I anticipate spending plenty of time on the mat at the Himalayan Institute "ashrams" where I'll be staying. But, the emphasis here will be highly spiritual, as myself and fellow students are embarking on a "pilgrimage" to the Maha Kumbha Mela in Allahabad.

"Maha" means great. "Kumbha" means container or vessel. This title refers to the vessel that holds the elixir of life. Ancient Indian legends tell that every 12 years at this time, this elixir of life pours down from the heavens to a point near Allahabad where three rivers meet: the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mystical Sarasvati. This creates a powerful vortex of strong spiritual intensity at this location, where millions of pilgrims, yogis, saints, and sages have joined to practice during this event for over 5000 years.

I'm excited to see the culture of India, to practice at the birthplace of yoga, to listen to lectures by esteemed teachers, sages and saints, and to be a part of this event. I'll be joined by my husband and two daughters. They are not practicing yogis, but they know down dog from plank and even can belt out a chant or two. Who knows? Maybe they'll feel the buzz??

I plan to blog as often as our schedule and internet access will allow, so keep an eye on the Focus Yoga studio blog here for updates, as that will be my primary posting point.

When I return the end of February, I'll be hard at work planning our next Focus Yoga Immersion and Teacher Training, so stay posted for news.



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The empty teacup and the learning mind

Judi Harvin

So this man goes to see this zen teacher. He says (demandingly, as he is a very busy man) "Teach me everything you know!"

The zen master looks at him, then slowly goes to the cupboard to get a cup, which he places on the table. He picks up his tea pot, and begins to pour. Soon the cup is filled, but he continues to pour. Water begins to run over the sides of the cup and on the table.

The man watches this, confused, then yells, "Stop! Can't you see the cup is filled? Stop pouring, the water is spilling all over the table!"

The teacher stops pouring and sets down the pot. Then, he looks at the blustering man. "You come to me asking for knowledge, but your mind is like this cup, already full. Anything I add will simply pour out; there's no room for more."

I love telling students this story, and my trainees have heard it more than once. As they are embarking on a learning path, it becomes so important to learn to clear, to empty the mind.

The terms "information overload", "decision fatigue", and "TMI" are bouncing about for good reason. We have access to more information and more choices than every before. Well managed, this can be a benefit. But, poorly managed, it can lead to confusion, poor focus, and an inability to absorb and digest information.

A teacher training offers so much information that the student can feel overwhelmed. And, that's even before popping open the laptop and looking for more information to satisfy that insatiable sweet tooth that inspired students have for learning everything yoga! How does a motivated, and very busy, student handle this desire to learn more? Here are some tips:

Stay on topic.  Look back at your notes for your previous training class. List the topics that were discussed, the asanas, philosophy, etc. Study these notes. If the class left you burning with excitement, look for more information on those topics. If you have limited time for your studies, focus it here.

Resist studying ahead of topic. Just like the rest of the world, the yogic world is full of opinions and often-conflicting methods. Come to class with an clear mind. Allow your instructor to present their teachings. There will be plenty of time to learn other methods. Study one first.

Develop your personal practice. You may feel this is a ripe time to try every style of yoga, and with as many teachers as possible. This can lead to confusion when in a training. Stay on one path. Reduce the number of classes you take and the exposure to different teachers and styles. Instead, get on your own mat at home and pull out your notes. Start to study, dissect and personally experience the alignment, pranayama and meditation techniques you learned in training.

Teach it! Speak it! Share it!  While I was attending my first teacher training, the instructor of the yoga class I was attending at the YMCA decided to leave and asked me if I wanted to take over his class. I thought this would be a great opportunity, so I said yes.

My training met on a Saturday. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I studied relentlessly, solidifying the alignment and cueing I had learned. Wednesday nights I showed up in class and taught those poses. I'll tell you, it was the best way to ingest, digest and process information.

Find a willing friend or family member and start teaching them what you are learning. So many people want to learn yoga, this should not be difficult to do. Set up something regular, so you have a rhythm and commitment. Over time, this experience will not only help old the lessons solidify, but will direct your focus toward the most pertinent information in future lessons.

In only a few short months you will complete your training, and have a good understanding of the foundational principles of yoga. But, perhaps the most important skill you will learn in your training is how to empty your cup, again and again, allowing space for the next bit of wisdom.

To learn more about Focus Yoga's Yoga Immersion and Teaching Skills Training, visit our website,, call Judi at 708 471 0487, or email

Monday, December 3, 2012

Keeping balance in a body that resists change

As a practicing yogi, I have special powers. I can see into the future. If I wonder where I will be and what I'll be doing 5 minutes from now, I simply take a look around me. Chances are I'll be exactly in the same place as I am right now.

I heard that nugget somewhere and it stuck with me. The more I observed my actions, I saw it was true. If I am lying in bed in the morning, trying to talk myself into getting up, there is a good chance in 5 minutes I'll still be having the same conversation. If I am sitting on the couch, contemplating getting up and doing dishes, there is a good chance I'll still be there in 5 minutes, dishes congealing on the counter. The truth is, our bodies and our minds like to stay right where they are. They don't like change.

This may sound discouraging, since we all would like to be productive and active. We all have something we want to change, and discovering that we are battling nature, human and otherwise, is not helpful. Or is it?

In Ayurveda, there is a saying "Like attracts Like". In Ayurvedic terms, this means the elements that are strongest in our systems tend to absorb those same elements from our environment. If you're a light, airy, dry, cold Vatta-type, you'll feel especially cold and stiff on a windy, frigid winter day. A hot, fiery Pitta-type might feel uncomfortably hot and aggravated after a spicy meal. And, a sweet, solid, relaxed Kapha-type might never get off the sofa after consuming a heavy hot fudge sundae!

When our elements are in proper balance for us, all is well. We follow healthy routines. We can compensate for small environmental shifts. And, because the body and mind doesn't like change, we crave foods that will keep us in this balance. We have the energy to create healthy meals and exercise appropriately. We feel strong and happy!

But, what if a strong environmental shift comes along? What if we are hit with a big change, such as a move, job loss, heat wave, hectic schedule, disturbing argument, etc? What if the forces around us are so intense they bring out out of balance?

Well, same thing, only worse. If the heat in a fiery person is aggravated, they will become even hotter, maybe looking for conflict or craving heated physical exercise. An sad experience can cause a person struggling with heaviness and lethargy to crave a lie-in on the couch with a tub of Ben and Jerry's. And a major change can cause a disorganized, airy type to resist any attempts at routine and organization, puttering aimlessly while any real production ceases, wondering where the keys are.

Yes, this is nature. This is to be expected. Yet, knowledge is power. This leads me to my final, most exciting point:

Opposites create balance.

If Like qualities increase Like qualities, then Opposite qualities decrease Like qualities. (Catchy, huh?) So, when you are feeling out of balance, (and rest-assured, you know when that is), take a look at your cravings. Ask yourself, is indulging in this activity or food-type stuff going to make me feel better? Or, will it aggravate my imbalance? Can I put off indulging in XYZ, and try something totally opposite? At least for a few minutes?

This does require detachment and discipline. You need to recognize the imbalance, and look at it for what it is; too much of something in your system. Too much heat, cold, heaviness, airiness. Then, you need to determine what the opposite quality might be, and apply.

If you are feeling scattered and unfocused, resist indulging in mindless internet surfing. Try 10 minutes of meditation. Organize a drawer that you can later look at in pride and feel more grounded.

If you feel heavy and lethargic, eat a lighter meal, such as leafy greens or fruit. Go for a brisk walk.

If you are hot and irritable, resist the cardio-boxing class. Instead, pull out your bolster. Indulge in some restorative yoga and deep breathing. Then, make yourself a decadent ice cream cone.

Yep, someone has to get the treat.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Keeping Strong and Sharp with Agni

Judi Harvin

Last post we talked about agni, the "digestive fire" that aids in transformation.

The really cool thing about agni is that is relates not only to food, but also to thoughts, ideas and knowledge. Are you a student, trying to learn? An artist, brainstorming? Trying to master a new language or instrument? Solving a perplexing problem? This is agni at work.

Anything we bring into our body goes through a process of transformation. Then, it may become a part of us, such as a healthy food or a new idea. It may also be eliminated, like un-utilized food, ideas or knowledge. That healthy veggie stew you ate for dinner? Of course you want those super-vitamins transforming into your vibrant cells and tissues. That great quote from the Gita that your instructor offered in class? With healthy agni, you can digest it in a way that might open your mind to a new dimension.
Ayurveda looks at qualities, and the qualities of agni include:

Kind of like fire...or an engaged, active, focused mind, perhaps?

So, if we want our digestion strong so we feel physically and mentally nourished, strong, active and sharp, we need to cultivate healthy agni.

The last blog looked at the characteristics of poor agni; bloat, lethargy, heaviness (mental or weight), etc. You certainly know if these apply to you, but you may not have thought of it in terms of poor digestion. Let's do an experiment. If you suspect your agni needs a little stoking, try to incorporate several of the following steps for the next couple of weeks, and observe the effects.

Eat three meals at the about the same time each day. Allow 3 hours between meals to rekindle agni. "Foraging", or eating smaller amounts frequently, depletes agni. It takes three hours to fully digest a meal and let the system rest a bit.

Eat your biggest meal at noon. Agni is strongest at this point.

Eat until you are 3/4 full. Overeating suffocates agni. Feed your fire an appropriate amount of quality food.

Do not partake in long fasts. You need to feed your digestive fire fuel to keep it burning. Fasting starves agni.

However, you can rest agni by skipping an occasional meal. The most appropriate meal to skip to rest digestion is dinner.

Eat cooked, nourishing food. Cooking food initiates the first digestive stop. Digesting raw food may be fine if agni is strong, but will be asking too much from depleted agni. And, of course, good quality food will best regulate the digestive fire.

Focus, chew and breath. Chew completely. This is the first step of digestion. Try not to read or watch TV. Avoid agitation; stress depletes agni.

Avoid cold foods and drinks. Take the ice out of your drinks at dinner. Small sips wouldn't douse a fire with water and expect it to burn, would you? Drink plenty of water, sure, just not when you're eating.

Increase heat through movement. Stimulating exercise; jogging, walking, biking, vinyasa yoga create body heat, enkindling agni.

Make meals tasty with herbs. Lots of herbs are known for cultivating agniGinger, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, asafoetida, pepper, and more add flavor variety to food. This makes it more satisfying, and stimulates digestion.

Yoga. The full body movements, core work and twists in a yoga class target the organs of digestion. Yoga also has techniques, such as Kappalabhati and Bastrika pranayama, and agni sara that sound complicated, but are not that tough to learn, and easy to bring into your day. Ask your instructor about teaching these in class so you can learn with guidance, and practice at home.

This is quite a punch list. Some of these changes may require effort, so don't try to implement too many at once. But, as you experiment, observe, and add more, notice the results. Do you feel lighter? More energized? Even tempered? Mentally focused? Less cravings? This is the result of healthy agni.

If you'd like to learn more about agni, ama, Ayurveda, as well as some of the herbs, foods, yoga techniques and routines that complement strong digestion, consider our workshop Cultivating Healthy Digestion with Ayurveda. I'll be presenting it this Wednesday from 1:00 - 2:30pm. Register here. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

A ho-hum practice leads to a new passion

I just discovered something new to love, brought to me in an unusual way by my yoga practice.

Saturday night my daughter and I arrived to our farmhouse late. The house had been baking in 90 degree weather all week. It didn't seem the wall AC unit would cool down the bedrooms in time for any sort of happy sleep, so we decided to suck it up and just opened the windows.

I grabbed my mat and headed outside for what I thought would be an amazing practice under the stars. We have an expansive yard (a couple of acres) so I found a spot in the open, and laid my mat down.

I like practicing in dimmer light, but by this time it was pretty black out, and I found my balance to be off. And, although I have seen the encrusted starry country sky many times before, this time I found it really distracting. I just wanted to lie on my back and stare up. I couldn't concentrate.

So, I left my mat where it was, went inside and grabbed a beach towel, sleeping bags and my daughter. That night we slept under the stars.

I had wanted to do this for a while, but something kept me from it: too much trouble to set up? bugs? Fear that something would eat me? Who knows. However, I lived to tell about it, and even have some revelations:

There are no bugs later at night. Apparently, even bugs get tired and go to sleep. They do at my farm and my farm is pretty much a Woodstock for bugs.

The stars are better than TV.  I even saw a huge shooting star, with an amazing tail that glowed before fading away.

Sleeping outside, you don't miss any cool animal sounds. Coyote, bullfrogs, owls. There's a party going on at night, and it's much more pleasant to fall asleep to than the one the neighbors teenagers had last week.

Wake up to entertainment. In the morning, the birds are pretty darn interesting. I love lying for a bit upon waking up, and sleeping outside gave me the perfect excuse, watching birds socializing and showing off right above my head.

If you ever have the urge to grab your mat and head for the forest preserve, your backyard, anywhere outdoors, don't pass it up. Instead, pick it up, lay it out, and move and breath outdoors. Have you ever had an amazing experience practicing in an unusual place? did it lead to new insights? Please, post a comment below. I'd really love to hear about it.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Your Tongue is Telling You

Over the past couple of blogs I’ve discussed digestion, ama (that toxic goo that is a byproduct of poor digestion,) and appetite. Perhaps you are beginning to suspect that your digestion isn’t buzzing along as well as you’d like. Maybe you feel a little fatigued, bloating, and irregular. Maybe you are wondering: "Could I have ama?"
There’s one efficient way to tell. Tomorrow morning, immediately after hopping out of bed, shuffle over to the mirror and stick out your tongue. Look hard. What is that? A thick white coating? Especially at the back of the tongue? Take the edge of a stainless steel spoon and scrape. Is your reaction “Ewww!” Yep. That’s ama
If that isn’t enough to get you bounding out of bed tomorrow morning, think about this. As I outlined in my November blog, Ayurveda believes much disease begins in the digestive system. The toxic product of poorly digested food, ama, is sort of like an undesirable neighbor. It coats our digestive system and then travels our body searching for a home, settling in our bodies weakest tissues. Our lifestyle and/or heredity can determine what these weak tissues are; heart, lungs, skin, joints. Once ama settles in, disease is soon to follow.
Achy joints, dull skin and eyes, bad breath and a sluggish mind are further indicators of ama. If you suspect the presence of ama, check out my blog “Tips to Keep the Digestive System Perking”. Then, take a few extra steps:
  • Brush your teeth and scrape your tongue immediately upon awakening
  • Avoid old, processed, artificial and fast food
  • Avoid cold, icy foods and drinks
  • Make lunch the largest meal of the day, when digestion is strongest
  • Eat light foods in large quantities, heavy foods in light quantities
  • Skip a meal occasionally to let your digestion rekindle
  • Fill a thermos with very warm water and sip throughout the day
These are good tips even if your tongue is squeaky-clean in morning. Why ruin a good thing? If you enjoy good digestion and your body is a clean machine, keep it that way. And if not, a few extra steps can have you enjoying good digestion, better energy, and vibrant health.