Life Lessons in Hair Pulling & Day 2!

Pulling-your-hair-out-girlOne early morning in Ana Forrest’s recent intensives, Ana related a story about a young girl, the daughter of a friend of hers.

The little girl was screaming and screaming while pulling her hair with her hands. She continued to cry and yell and wasn’t making the connection that she was causing her own pain by yanking on her hair. So the girl got more and more upset and increasingly frustrated, still crying out in pain.

Ana paused at this point in the story. “Yeah, there’s a life lesson.”

Where I think our yoga practice comes into the story is becoming aware that we’re pulling our hair. We may still be yelling away, but slowly we start to make the connection that we are causing our own frustration and pain.

The next part of the story? We quit pulling our hair. Maybe not right away, but we start yanking less often and let go sooner. And maybe stick our tongue out about it.

***

Day 2 of Forrest Yoga Handstand 365: Badha konasana with penguin.

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It’s On! Day One of Forrest Yoga Handstand 365 Challenge

I can’t balance in a handstand for long. That is without a wall behind me. This yoga pose has long eluded me and been an endless source of frustration. I watch people with envy as they gracefully find balance on their hands or gaze jealously at someone’s picturesque photo of their perfect handstand in some gorgeous outdoor setting.

It’s been a goal of mine this year to balance in handstand. The Grateful Yogi and I decided today to join in the Forrest Yoga Handstand 365 Challenge (#fyhandstand365). As you might guess from the name, this means doing a handstand every day (and take a picture of it), 365 days in a row for a whole year of handstands.

Besides getting in some daily practice towards my goal, this is also going to be a challenge for me to:

  • Learn how to set up a camera to take a picture of myself (after all, my hands will be a little busy)
  • Get more comfortable being photographed in yoga poses (something I almost never do)
  • Commit to a new daily habit, even when I’m feeling frustrated about the fact that I still can’t balance in handstand

You can check out some great pictures and follow the updates on the Forrest Yoga Handstand 365 Challenge blog.

Today is Day #1. For the first day, I thought I’d remind myself that while I can’t do handstand without the wall…yet…everyone can do some version of handstand.

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I’m On a Yoga Sequencing Roll!

onarollI think it must be the fact that Ana Forrest is in town that my head is going through yoga sequences!

Yes, I’ve been on a roll! I just added about eight new classes to my yoga sequences notebook. You can access the public notebook or the Google docs folder that contains a listing of different yoga classes.

Some of these sequences are classes that I created myself. Others are sequences from other teachers or from Ana. In the case where the class was from someone else, I credit the teacher who taught the class. For each class, I indicate the length of the class, class level, and the physical focus (backbends, arm balances, inversions, etc.), as well as the class theme (opening the heart, strength, delight, etc.). Most of these classes are Forrest Yoga classes, but I do try to note when the class is not Forrest Yoga or when a pose within a class is not a Forrest Yoga pose.

I like to think of these classes as the basic melody to a song. When I’m in need of inspiration, I’ll scroll through and pick a class. It’s rare that I stick to the exact melody, but the class gives me a foundation to get me started on what I want to practice or teach. From there I can riff off into different notes or re-work some of the basic melody to get the song I want to play and practice that day.

My hope is these classes can be a helpful melody for you when you’re not sure what “song” to play that day.

Want to add a class sequence to the folder? Send me an email and I will add in your sequence, crediting you.

Happy sequencing!

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Top 10 Yoga Books to Check Out

book-loveThere’s a slew of yoga books out there, but there are a few standouts that have been deeply helpful or influential to my yoga practice. This is my list of yoga books that you should read and keep on your bookshelf to thumb through again and again*:
10. Living Your Yoga, Judith Hanson Lasater
I’ve written before about this great book, which was my first introduction into the deeper aspects of yoga. It’s a terrific dive into the philosophical principles behind yoga, but written in a way that’s very accessible, tying applicable examples to everyday life.
9. Bhagavad Gita (I’ve linked to the translation I have, but there are numerous translations out there).
I first read this classic text of Indian Spirituality in a college class on religious traditions and then again in my first yoga teacher training. It’s a simple, but beautiful story that is full of parables. It’s a tale you can re-read in its entirety or just a section or two, and continue to get new nuggets of wisdom.
8. Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness,Erich Schiffman
This one is a classic. Erich breaks down all aspects of yoga, from physical sequences to breathing to philosophy to what he considers the main practice: meditation. He has way of describing what can often be abstract concepts in a way that makes sense and gives you detailed practices for how you can begin with meditation and a physical practice of yoga.
7. Anatomy of Yoga, by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews
Beyond just anatomical terms, this book illustrates what muscles are at work in a variety of different yoga poses, so you are able to see how these muscles engage and interact in each pose.
6. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, T. K. V. Desikachar
If you want a good overview of how different styles of yoga emerged in the West, this book explains the teachings of the author’s father and renowned yogi, Krishnamacharya, and how other elements of his teachings came to the West through other major yogis who were students of Krishnamacharya.
5. Yoga as Medicine, Timothy McCall
As an MD, McCall blends his Western medicine background with a holistic approach to health and how yoga can help with healing with a variety of conditions, from back problems to depression.
4. Ashtanga Yoga Practice Manual, David Swenson
Not only is this book a fantastic introduction to ashtanga yoga, but it’s a very practical guide for learning many foundational poses in yoga. Each pose in the first and second series of ashtanga yoga is broken down to the components of its sanskrit name and instructions for each pose are illustrated with photos of the full version of each pose, as well as three modified stages of the pose. The book is spiral-bound so you can follow along from your mat as you practice.
3. Yoga for Pain Relief, Kelly McGonigal
Kelly is an amazing yoga teacher, psychologist, and Stanford University instructor. Her book is full of research about the mind/body connection with chronic pain and is full of meditation and movement exercises for relief from any kind of chronic pain.
2. Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, Claire Dederer
This is a compelling memoir of a young mother’s discovery and exploration of yoga through the challenges and issues in her own life. It’s told with a sense of humor, but also a deep respect for the power and support a yoga practice can provide.
1. Fierce Medicine, Ana Forrest
If you read no other yoga book, get this one. An inspiring, compelling story of Ana’s healing journey and her development of Forrest Yoga. It’s not just for reading though; this book is an experiential one, as Ana shares healing poses and guided processes that have helped her heal that you can use as tools in your own life.

*Note: I purposely omitted two big yoga philosophical texts: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Hatha Yoga Pradipka in favor of some books perhaps less widely known and not just philosophical in nature.

Got a favorite yoga book I missed? Add it to the comments!

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What It’s Like to Teach Yoga at Juvenile Hall


“Wow, really? Isn’t that dangerous?”

That was a common reaction when I told people I was volunteer teaching yoga at juvenile hall. They’d look slightly taken aback with the unspoken message, “What’s a petite woman like you doing teaching a bunch of thugs?” Ultimately people were positive, saying, “Good for you”, but underlying their initial response were some preconceived ideas about what juvenile hall and the kids sent there are like.

Indeed, as I started teaching at SF Juvenile Hall through the Lemonade Program, I had my own preconceptions of what the experience would be like. I had no idea that what I was in for, nor did I expect that after my volunteer hours were up, I would continue teaching there every week for nearly a year and a half. The experience not only taught me a lot, touched my heart, and challenged my teaching, but it also shattered the misconceptions before I starting teaching there. Such as:

It’s not safe You are quite protected when you are teaching. There’s never less than two counselors in the room at all times. In addition, the gym and unit doors all lock from the outside. I’ve never had a kid threaten, try to intimidate, or physically lash out at me. In fact, the most violent thing I’ve seen the boys do is to razz each other and playfully push and punch at each other, not unlike what you’d see other teenage boys do.

The kids are thugs. On the contrary, they’re just, well, kids. Some are big guys, others quite small and many in that in-between stage of not being fully grown into their lanky bodies yet. They make fun of each other, whine about being tired, and sometimes ask you personal questions out of the blue. Other times they are really thoughtful and cooperative and you don’t always know which one you’re going to get. I’m fully aware that all of them did some bad things to end up in juvvie in the first place, but they aren’t that different than you’re average kid. Gang-related tattoos abound and that seems to be one of the major ways kids there have taken a wrong turn.

Preventing violence and verbal abuse will be the biggest behavior issues. These were virtually non-existent, whether it was the security that prevented it from happening or that fact that most kids aren’t really naturally violent and abusive. The huge challenge is actually keeping the kids from getting distracted and keeping them focused. Once I thought about it, the reason seemed obvious. I actually went into one of the tiny cells in one of the empty units just to get a sense of where the boys were coming from. And boy did I get it. You’d have trouble keeping anyone’s attention who spends a sizable portion of their day in this cramped locked cell.

The kids will want to do yoga because they’ll jump at the chance to get out of their cells. Doing yoga with us every week is always an optional activity, but despite the alternative of staying locked in their cell, many kids still opt-out. I realized how much yoga can be intimidating. Yoga – especially Forrest Yoga – can bring up emotions as well as physical trauma and it takes a lot of courage for anyone to handle that when it arises. I also learned that these kids struggle with a lot of depression and apathy. It’s not uncommon for kids to stay in juvenile time for months, sometimes a year, until the court makes a decision about what happens to them next. A lot of the time the options don’t seem great and in the meantime, they’re living in the day-to-day monotony of being incarcerated with a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen to them. A big challenge in teaching is creating a safe environment so the kids feel encouraged, but not forced to participate and supported and praised with the efforts they make, even if they don’t do every pose.

There won’t be the amount of injuries that you’ll find in an adult class. In most kids and teen yoga classes, you definitely make sure to keep kids safe in class, but generally kids don’t have injuries or get injured often. However, a lot of the kids at juvenile hall are injured. Some of them have major gunshot and knife wounds and a large proportion of them have experienced (often severe) physical trauma. So giving lots of beginning options and educating kids about working at a place where they aren’t experiencing pain is particularly important. It’s also key to identify poses that are likely to be triggering. In the beginning, we avoided poses like abs or bridge where students were laying on their back where students were likely to feel more vulnerable. We often had students lined up against the wall so they more secure. Gradually as we built trust with the students, we slowly introduced these type of poses.

Staff will advocate for a dedicated yoga program. I just assumed that staff at juvenile hall would be just as passionate about yoga and see the benefits of a yoga program in the jail. The reality is that while some staff were very supportive from the get-go, many staff were indifferent or downright resistant to us teaching yoga to the kids. There’s definitely the feeling from some that the kids are there to be punished and therefore, they shouldn’t be getting something enjoyable like yoga as part of their punishment. And while I don’t agree with this view, I completely understand their feeling of the kids receiving serious consequences for often very serious crimes they’ve committed. Just like building trust and rapport with the kids is a process, it’s also been a process with the counselors and staff. Lots of them have really come to understand more about why we do the yoga in the way we do with the kids and how it’s important. It was amazing to see how many even become strong champions of the program. Sometimes we even had some of the counselors participate in the class itself.

If the kids aren’t really enthusiastic and receptive to the yoga, clearly I’m not doing a good job and wasting my time. You have to be happy with small successes. There were days where nothing seems to go right: the kids were all over the place, people acting out, complaining, etc. But then you would have that one moment. Maybe it was a kid getting excited about doing a pose he’d never been able to do before. Or the kid that grumbled about everything remarked how much better his neck felt after a pose. Those moments made it all worth it. After each class, we’d share what the win was and brainstorm how we could approach the challenges we had in a different way and what different approaches and poses we could try in our teaching.

The other big thing I’ve learned from the kids at juvvie: you never know what is going to sink in. We brought a stack of old Yoga Journal magazines for the kids to have in the units. One day out of the blue, one of the boys asked about doing a pose we’d never done before and described what it looked like. I realized the only way he would’ve know the pose would be if he saw it in one of the magazines. Similarly, one day we tried chanting w/ the kids with mixed success at best. Yet we noticed after some of the classes, the boys would start humming parts of it as they rolled up their mat.

You never know what impact you’re going to have. And that’s what makes the hard work worth it.

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What You Should Never Be To Busy To Do

The test of your yoga practice? When life is busy.

In less that two days, I’m flying off to Minneapolis for the week for non-yoga work. My organization puts on an annual conference and next week is the week. It promises to be a lot of fun, as I get really excited to meet up in person with so many people that I only know online. It is also is guaranteed to be many long hours of work, lots of logistics to coordinate, plus the inevitable problems that arise when you run an event.

If you’ve ever planned a big event, especially with a very small staff or group of people, you can imagine that the past few weeks have been a bit busy to say the least. It’s really been a challenge for me to keep up my yoga practice amidst work, teaching, volunteering and trying to get a decent amount of sleep in there too.

I think this is a pretty universal challenge in for our culture as a whole. Whether you’re trying to keep up an exercise routine or consistent yoga practice or anything that is important for you to prioritize in your life, it is a constant puzzle to try to piece together time to do it while also taking care of your responsibilities (work, family, etc.).

So this has been a time for me to really test how I can keep up my yoga practice in the face of a long to-do list. I’ve become more aware of the traps I can easily fall into. One is to tell myself to just work harder. I hunker down over the laptop determined to just keep cranking. Turns out, taking time to relax instead of working harder actually increases your productivity.

The other trap is sleep. Or rather, lack of it. At night, I’ll be determined to get something or other done and then suddenly realize the time. That means being more tired the next day or not getting up as early as I’d hoped, and then feeling all the more behind. You can probably see how this circle continues. When I let myself get overly tired, I have less motivation to unroll my mat and feel uninspired when it comes to planning a class to teach. Being exhausted leaves me without the energy to enjoy when I do have those periods of free time, and thus, enjoying life less.

I’ve come up with a number of ways that are helping me avoid these potential pitfalls. One is making a yoga date every week for at least one time that I am going to either go to practice with a friend or go to a yoga class. Having a wonderful buddy who I know I won’t bail on is key to keeping me to my commitment. It also gives me a fun part of my day to look forward to and that motivates me to focus and complete the work at hand.

Taking small breaks is my other new behavior. If there’s “no time” to practice that day, I try to take 15-30 minutes to do a short practice or a ten minute walk around the neighborhood. Instead of berating myself up about not getting it together enough to do a more advanced practice or longer walk,  I have to take the different approach of, “Well, what practice can I do today?”, and congratulate myself when I make time to include yoga and movement into my day, however short the time.

Another way around my traps is do let go of doing everything I want to do. I’ve accepted that my house will not be clean until after the conference. I took a break from managing any volunteer events this month. Yes, these are things that I feel like I should be able to handle along with everything else, but the reality is temporarily pulling back from activities that are not as important gives me more time and energy to devote to the things that are more of a priority.

But however busy I am, I know the one thing that I never want to be too busy to do: taking that moment to make a connection to something outside of myself. I can give a friend a call or text just to say hi. When I have a big inbox of emails to respond to, that still means I can take the extra minute to add a “thank you” or “hope you had fun skiing last weekend” to the message. When one of my cats decides to sit on top of me, effectively making it impossible for me to type, I can take that as a sign that I do have time to spend a few minutes doing some kitty cuddling.

Is there still a long way for me? Yes. Case in point: it is almost 11:30pm when I’m typing this and I really needed to be in bed sleeping already. Yet every time I side-step one of my traps, my practice gets that much stronger.

I’d love to hear from you! What pitfalls do you run into when life gets busy and how do you avoid them?

 

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Small Things Make the Biggest Gifts

Today as I sit down to blog, I feel myself getting a little choked up. I’m a little overwhelmed by how much kindness I received this weekend for my birthday. Birthdays are not always the easiest occasion for me. As the day approaches, I usually start feeling old and begin listing in my head all the ways in which I haven’t accomplished enough at this point in my life and all the ways I don’t have it together yet. Then that makes me feel like I don’t want to celebrate at all and then that makes me feel old because I am the kind of person who loves an excuse to get together with people for a shin-dig.

When you’re in this state of mind about your birthday, what’s the best thing to hear from your best friend?

“We’ve reserved this day just for your birthday and we’re coming over with everything.”

And did they mean everything. My friends, Kat and Steve, came with their daughter, Tasha, along with snacks and fixings for a tasty taco dinner and made me a birthday cake. If that weren’t enough, I got a beautiful handmade knitted purse made by Kat and a card, proudly hand-drawn by Tasha.

Today I woke up to sleeping in and snuggling up with the husband to a “Top 10″ birthday email from a dear friend of mine which immediately made my day. Easter celebration with family followed today, but my mom was sure to have a birthday cake for me, the kind I always asked for growing up: angel food cake with whipped cream and strawberries.

Say what you will about Facebook, but the icing on the cake (pun intended) was to read all of the “Happy Birthday” messages on my Facebook wall. Yes, I know Facebook tells you when it’s someone’s birthday. But I’m incredibly touched by people who took the time to write me a birthday message, be it old friends, work colleagues, former classmates, family, or close friends. It’s these little things that make someone feel like a million bucks on their birthday.

tashaheart

Special birthday artwork

Reflecting on all of the love I received today, I realize how lucky I am. What are accomplishments or appearance or items checked off a to-do list when it comes to people? To have lived this far and have my world full of so many people that make me happy, well, that’s quite the best measure of life.

 

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2 Inspiring Yoga Blog Posts You Must Read

Every so often when I read a piece of writing, I am completely taken aback. I feel my breath catch, physically struck by the raw vulnerability and honesty of the author and inspired by the eloquence in which the writer expressed their experience.
Inspiration Point
This week that happened twice.

And I feel so honored to know both of the authors. Forrest Yoga Teacher and Pole Dance Instructor, Michelle Cordero, has a piece up in Elephant Journal that will not only strike your heart, but completely blow away any preconceived ideas you have about pole dancing. Over on A Grateful Yogi, Abbie Dutterer touches me again, this time with a deeply powerful post about the transformative power of a simple yoga prop.

Go read these posts. Do not pass go. But do be inspired. If you are moved by their writing, be sure to drop them a comment.

 

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

When you’re 3/4ths Irish, your middle name is “Erin”, and St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday, well, spending time with your very close (and quite huge) extended family just makes sense.

leprechaunsLeprechauns old and young and in-between gathered today to watch my cousin’s college baseball game. The ball player’s name? You guessed it…Patrick.

I was dragging a bit today, feeling tired and a little overwhelmed by all there was to try to get done in the weekend and lamenting that there weren’t enough hours to do it all. Yet outside of my head, it was a beautiful sunny day, green mustaches and Irish swag abounded, and our family chatted and crowded the bleachers. In spite of myself, I had to marvel at my luck ‘o the Irish to be a part of such a crazy, wonderful clan.

And speaking of being cheered up, this little bit of Irish Yoga humor never fails to make me chuckle. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

irish yoga

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An Interview with Yoga for Peace Founder, Sowmya Ayyar

Recently, I had the great pleasure of getting connecting to Sowmya Ayyar, founder of the Yoga for Peace Program. I found her work so inspiring and I am thrilled to share more about it through my interview with Sowmya.

Megan: How did you first get started doing yoga?

Sowmya: Yoga and peace must be in my family blood. My grandparents stayed with Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh in the Himalayas long before he became famous. My grandmother’s aunts (who raised her) have been pictured with Sri Ramana Maharishi in an age when photography was rare.

So it was only natural for my mother to take us to see various gurus and ashrams as children, even in the United States. We pretty much know all the “Hindu” swamis and saints around. I became attached to one and learned from him. Though I may not have known that at the time, what I was taught was the philosophy of yoga through Bhagavad Gita. My mom also taught us the Gita while driving us on road trips or to the ashrams. Later, I took regular asana classes, and really enjoyed it. As a teen, I always felt so relaxed after class and on the way home.

Megan: What drew you into the yoga practice and into teaching? What kind of style(s) and/or related modalities do you teach?

Sowmya: As an adult, I would practice, and perhaps teach a bit here or there without really thinking about it. Then I had a personal trauma, and turned to yoga for relief from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was going to classes 8-10 times a week and realized the institute I was going to had a teacher training program. So I signed up and got some systematic teaching that focused primarily on asanas [physical poses]. This complimented my knowledge of Gita and other worldwide spiritual concepts. While I was learning under an Anusara instructor, our school was a holistic model beyond just yoga, so I actually was taking more Yin and Restorative yoga, a bit of Power and Vinyasa yoga, and dipping my feet into other holistic practices. I continue to do the same now.

This being said, I follow the belief that “All Life is Yoga” – and that there is no form for the formless. Each individual has to find their own path to self-realization and that means every person’s yoga must be catered for their own needs, according to their karma and this yoga becomes their dharma.

Therefore, I am not really into “styles” of yoga. When I teach, I listen to and observe each student and guide them in order to empower them to reach their own potential.

Megan:
Can you tell us about Yoga for Peace program and how you developed it? What kinds of results have you seen from this program?

Sowmya: Pretty soon after finishing my yoga teacher training, I moved to Austria to pursue an MA degree in Peace Studies. The moment I landed, other students asked me if I was the yoga teacher. I said yes, and they all wanted to learn. I thought it would be fun to teach a different concept of yoga during the ten weeks of each school term focusing on yamas and niyamas. Then I thought it would be useful if the reflection and introspection we would do in class would be about the course we took the week before. Thus, my class became my term project, and my term project led the way to creating a full syllabus that I call “Yoga for Peace”.

I now offer this course in various venues. The main places are graduate schools in Peace Studies. I will be teaching the course in Rajasthan, India, later this year, through Go Inspired.

This course is useful because it helps practitioners of peace and conflict transformation use the philosophies and practices of yoga in their field work, teaching them how the different systems within yoga can affect individuals, communities, and even the world. Previous students of mine from the peace field have found it helpful in de-stressing after being in difficult situations for the day or working in foreign regions assisting people and places for a long period of time. Yoga helps you navigate the universe in a peaceful manner.

Megan: You’ve taught all around the world and are now working in India. How have you been led to various places? What challenges and rewards have you found in different locations?

Sowmya: Ahhh…. you cannot go just anywhere. Every place calls you to it, and every opportunity comes up for a reason. The yoga is in accepting all gifts from the universe with grace, with equipoise, and with a smile, knowing that this is just a part of the journey called Life, a small speck in the entire universe for all its time.

There are difficulties in adjusting to local environments, cultures, and lifestyles. In addition, there’s the difficulty of scheduling and organizing. And of course, the tough part is the language barrier! I’ve taught to people who only speak Spanish, Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, and German, and somehow, yoga has no language barriers! I think if I spoke the languages of the people, I could convey a lot more of what is happening in my body and mind. Which means it’s actually good if I can’t speak, because it allows me just to express, and students understand. They focus more on their own inner self and what happens in their own body, mind, and soul.

Megan: Looking forward, what do you envision for your teaching and work with Yoga for Peace in the future?

Sowmya: Yoga for Peace is about using yoga around the world to help transform conflicts. I hope to work with people and places from all walks of life: diplomats and CEOs; Gurus and atheists, students and professionals.

I also hope to start a company that sells eco-friendly yoga products made by Non-government Organization (NGOs) in India. I believe that carefully thought out products that are useful for yoga practice and relaxation should return back to people who need the funds.

Megan: How can others support Yoga for Peace?

Sowmya: There are several different ways! I am currently looking for a business partner. I’m always happy to get substitute teachers and interns to teach some classes, work on organizational development, and help with research. My home is to expand the program to teach peace-building in university-level programs, as well conflict zones, so I would love assistance with any connections to make this happen!

As with many social benefit programs, donations are a big help. Additional funds would help support various projects I am currently developing, especially work with special needs children. I’m also seeking funding to conduct further research in this field. I love to be to be active in the world caring for others, and am excited to connect with others who share similar passions and want to get involved.

Sowmya Ayyar is the founder of the Yoga for Peace program. She has BS in Sociology, MA in Peace and Conflict Studies, and MA in Environmental Security. Sowmya has lived, worked, and studied around the world and currently resides in Bangalore, India. Besides starting her own ventures, Sowmya has worked for large corporations and small NGOs alike. Her diverse background of studies and experiences has opened her eyes to different perspectives and grow in gratitude for the gifts of the universe. She loves to be active in the world and care for others and finds joy in cooking, gardening, and Indian spiritual-devotional music.

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