An Ashtangi teaches yoga to the blind

If you’re ever in Orange County, California, you should stop by Diana Christinson‘s shala, Pacific Ashtanga, in Dana Point. Diana has close ties with Tim Miller–in fact, we ran into Diana last Thursday at Tim’s!

It was at Diana’s that I met VSA (Very Special Ashtangi), Pam Jeter. Pam and I were roomies at Tim’s Tulum teacher training; Pam was getting her doctorate in some incredibly complicated field of psychology (read: I am too dense to understand it) at UC Irvine, where I teach, so we had a lot in common and hit it off right away.

Flash forward a few years. Pam’s now doing post-doctorate work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. What’s more, Pam is both teaching and researching in a fascinating field, and was brought in by JHU just for it: Yoga for the blind. I’ll let Pam explain it:

The field of conventional medicine is changing. Like many of you, I take inspiration from the Dalai Lama who reminds us to “keep searching for reality by empirical means and be willing to discard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds the truth is different.” I believe this applies to our ideas about conventional healthcare. To demonstrate this, we soon launched a Yoga for the Blind Research Project and conducted a pilot study. The results showed what we already knew in our hearts…yoga helped participants with relaxation, sleep, stress, anxiety and balance. 

This is one of those genius ideas that seem obvious once you think about it: of course the blind would benefit from the deep focus and balance of yoga. Pam is leading the research in this field, as well as teaching Ashtanga-based yoga to the blind, at The Wilmer Eye Institute at JHU. It’s fascinating to hear her talk about it. But I invite you to take a second to ponder how difficult it would be for you to practice without sight, and take that a step further and think about how you would teach it to the blind. The benefits may be obvious, but the method…well, that requires research.

The Wilmer Eye Institute in Baltimore

Unfortunately, conventional medicine is, as usual, behind the power curve here and is not supporting yoga as a therapy for those who would so obviously benefit from it (among them, Pam’s mother, who is slowly losing her sight to Retinitus Pigmentosa). So, The Confluence Countdown is asking you to consider giving to The Wilmer Eye Institute in support of this research.

You can donate online here. In order for your gift to end up in the right place, you must designate your contribution as “Other” and type in Yoga for the Blind Research Project

You can also contact Pam directly: pamela.jeter@gmail.com, call her at 410-502-6434; or by calling 410-955-2020 to reach Molly Dolan, assistant director of development.

Posted by Bobbie

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Mt. Shasta: one guy’s awakening

In a few hours, our little car will be packed full of a week’s worth of yoga outfits; hiking clothes and gear; multiple yoga rugs and mats; and bottles of wine to share at dinner.

Then we’ll hit the road for the 600-mile trip to Mt. Shasta for our week with Tim Miller.

That means it’s been a year since we last made that trek. And while I’ll admit I’m as excited as can be about the coming week, it’s really because of that week a year ago.

Mt. Shasta. Doesn't do it justice--go see for yourself.

For me, Mt. Shasta in August of 2010 was when “it” all clicked.

At the risk of showing my hand too much as a “newbie,” I’m not hard pressed to trace my Ashtanga timeline. Dabbling with some classes (as well as some flow ones) for a few years as part of the overall exercise program, a couple of days of workshops with Tim (I’ll share my first Tim story at some point, I’m sure) during that … and then a slow, but inevitable move toward more and more yoga, less and less running and lifting weights.

In March of 2010, David Swenson came to Los Angeles for a two-day workshop. I just did the first day (I mean, second series, come on, get real!), and some of the seeds he tossed my way clearly sprouted. But I don’t think they ever were going to grow into mighty trees on their own.

Two months later, Danny Paradise swung through town. That definitely watered what David had left (especially the pranayama). And it was about that time that the local yoga studio began offering a morning Mysore program that I actually could get to, and not just one from 4 to 6 p.m.

Things are starting to click at this point.

And then Bobbie throws the eephus ball. “We should go to Shasta.”

We’d heard about Shasta from various friends and teachers, and Bobbie by now had gone through both Tim’s Tulum retreat and his two-week first series training. She was familiar with Tim. Me? Not so much.

But, as they say, the teacher comes when the student is ready. And everything was conspiring to make me ready.

So… I was game. What was the worst thing that could happen, right? (I actually had a pretty thorough list.)

Tim Miller
Tim at a recent teacher training.

This is where I think I have to step back and add some more details: I’m pretty pragmatic, pretty regular, pretty mainstream. In Tulum, Tim referred to me, nicely I’m sure, as the “archetypical stiff white guy.” You probably can hold that image with you for reference; just give me the benefit of the doubt that the worst 10%, maybe 20%, of what that means to you doesn’t apply to me. I don’t hunt or spend all my fall Sundays watching football, for instance.

But going off for a week to a yoga retreat? That doesn’t really fit my profile.

But off I went, anyway. Sometimes you just have to go, right?

Here’s the second spot where I need to step back. This is where it gets difficult to put into words the “yoga experience,” in part because I’m loathe to do so in the terminology you often see – how something manifested, descriptions of bliss, talk of chakras, you know what I mean. Again, this is just me – there’s nothing wrong with any of that (I kind of wish I could use those words, but those words still don’t come naturally for me). One of the things that attract me to Tim is how he is able to talk about yoga, yoga philosophy and his experiences in such plain, simple terms. Swenson is that way, too.

How then, do I describe the Shasta experience?

I’m still, honestly, working on that. (Another intent behind this blog; help put “it” all into concrete words.) Something, definitely, “moved,” though. I’m mean, I’m there singing the Hanuman Chalisa, I’m hanging on every word of the Mahabharata, I’m working my butt off on my mat. Something’s happening, right?

And we get to Saturday morning, the week’s end. It is time for what Tim calls – obviously jokingly – “the circle of tears.” Everyone gathers to sum up their week.

And it’s going fine. People are sliding what amounts to a “talking stick” across the floor and taking their turns. (That “talking stick?” A box of tissue, but totally unused.)

Then, to not give anything personal away about someone else, the person before me goes, and the story is incredible. Really moving. Scary even. (Those there last year will remember who I’m talking about, I’m sure.)

So, of course, I think this is the perfect time for me to talk.

That decision may prove that along with being an “archetypical stiff white guy,” I’m not too bright.

I am sure I don’t make it 20 seconds before I’m the one to start blubbering. Me. We’re a quarter, maybe a third of the way through the “circle of tears” and I’m the one to help it live up to its name.

Great.

The goodbyes and farewells stay more teary after that, although a lot of people hold it together. (Maybe the ones who keep coming back!)

After it was all over, I think I went up to Tim with every intent of apologizing. How could I do otherwise?

And what does he say? “Well, now we know that Steve has gooey insides.”

Again, I’ll repeat: Great.

So, how do I describe the Shasta experience? It was a constant, painless (maybe even delightful) tap, tap, tapping on my hard, outer shell, an attempt to break that away and let the “gooey insides” out.

These fissures on my shell only got significantly more apparent and wide and gapping during my week with Tim in Tulum. There’s a certain “coming apart” that easily can happen during practice. Maybe in surya namaskara. Perhaps in supta kurmasana. Almost for sure in urdhva dhanurasana.

How and why, I’m still not sure. I just know it is happening. And because I won’t have to go into work after I’m done practicing – or do anything other than nurture what happens on the mat, and hike, and drink wine with dinner and friends – there’s no telling what might happen in Shasta this time.

So for those with us, friends and people we are about to meet, my apologies in advance.

Posted by Steve