“The Stillness That Comes from the Practice of Yoga Allows You to Become Enlivened and Vibrant. It is a Practice.” – Birgitte Kristen

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Q: In the last 5 years, yoga has become wildly popular in the mainstream – nationally and internationally. What do you attribute this rapid and expansive growth to?

I think that a lot of people get drawn to yoga because of the physical aspects of “Oh, I can get in shape, sweat, and get a good workout – and tone this muscle and that part of my body….”

I also think that it’s been a little bit of a fad. People are looking at celebrities doing yoga – and they’re looking at people who look really fit – and they want to be able to do yoga so that they can look a certain way – and that they see that people really benefit. They get stronger, more flexible.

I think that’s okay that they’re coming to class to get a workout. Many have started out as strictly a physical practice, then they realize, “There’s more to yoga: not only does my body feel better, but I feel happier – a connection of mind, body, and spirit.” I don’t think it’s bad that they came to yoga because it was a physical exercise, or that’s what they thought it was. Having said that, as a teacher, I feel like we have a responsibility to insert little gems here and there that people can eventually take in, and realize that there’s something more to this. It’s about the spirit…going more deeply inside.

I think that yoga is a tool to where people can go more deeply inside – and instead of feeling separate from God, or Spirit – they feel a connection – they feel that God Spirit as a part of them.

There’s a big movement, and I think that it’s incredibly positive that there are so many people who are on a spiritual journey, but they’re not necessarily attracted to a particular religion. Or, if they are religious, maybe they just feel that something is missing, they want to deepen their experience of that religion.

Perhaps also, they see that people who do yoga, many times, they come out of a class and they seem much happier – and I think that people are attracted to that.

So, I think it’s both. I think it’s been ‘the thing to get into,’ which is great, and then another part of it is that I think there is a deep longing for us to connect with Spirit, with God – but at a more authentic level – a very personal connection.

I think that a lot of people have become very separate from their soul and spirit, and I think there’s a longing to connect with their soul, their spirit – of really being able to go beyond the ego, and find a place of stillness.

I incorporate this into the 300-hour teacher-training course that I participate in teaching at YogaWorks.

I notice that there are a lot of teachers who don’t do that, because a lot of teachers get addicted to “I have to have certain number of people in my classes, and if I teach (a) really hard class and make it only about the body, I’ll attract more people.”

Q: You use the word “Ego,” and the word ego is thrown around a lot in the world, and sometimes misused. Or people use it, but they don’t really know the meaning behind it. When you talk about “Ego” – how do you define ego?

Ego is made up of your thoughts, feelings, emotions – and everyone has an ego. If you don’t have an ego, you couldn’t exist. We need our ego so we can navigate this world.

We all have to have an ego, but it’s whether or not ‘is your ego the domineering part of you?’ Or, can you make it so your ego is your servant?

For most of us, including me, it’s very easy for my ego to take over or take dominion, – and then you’re kind of lost in that – you lose yourself in that.

Over the years, with the more work that I’ve done in my yoga practice and on my spiritual journey, I’m just much more aware of when my ego is “the leader.” I can see it.

Q: Can you give an example of that?

I can see myself when I’m taking a yoga class – doing my practice and a pose – and I’m pushing and pushing because I have this vision, this image of how this pose is going to look. So, if I am just [operating] from my ego, that’s what I’ll experience.

But then if I go more deeply inside, and I connect with my Spirit, or sometimes I refer to it as ‘your authentic self.’ Going into that place of acceptance and stillness, it’s just an experience. I can say ‘Okay, this is where I am now, and this is where I am supposed to be right now.’ Having this image of this perfect pose doesn’t fit right now. If I can just bring myself into the moment, and enjoy the moment, than the ego no longer has dominion over my Spirit.

People say it all the time – it’s so easy to say, just “be in the present moment” (laughs), and you think “Oh no, here they go again.” But what they really mean is to see if you can take yourself into right now, and not being in the past where you’re stuck in the “Argh,” of “Well five years ago I could do this deep backbend. Why can’t I do it now?!” Or even living in the future where you say to yourself: “I really want to do that pose, I saw it in the Yoga Journal, it’s beautiful, and I think I’ll be happier if I can do it. Then you’re in the future – you’re not in the present moment.

If you can just take a moment, go to your breath, go to how what you’re doing feels – and having a moment of gratitude for what you’re able to do – the ego has lost its hold over you.

That doesn’t mean you can’t hope for something more in your practice, but at least you’re not coming from the place of desperation or feeling greedy…so that’s what they mean with “The Now.” Coming into the present moment, and the present moment, the now, is pretty much all there is, really.

Q/C: Unless you’re living the past, or the future, in your head?

Exactly. The ego does not like to live in the moment. It’s not interesting enough to the ego. There’s not enough drama in that place.

Q/C: It can’t have its way with you as well?

Right!

Q: This is actually a two-part question. In some sectors, there appears to be a growing focus on Yoga primarily as a form of physical exercise- in certain cases, with a breed of teachers creating a sort of “boot camp” approach to the pace, intensity, and even verbal form of instruction. Is this a healthy approach – how do you perceive and evaluate this type of Yoga from the standpoint of kinetics and kinesiology?

Like any sport, Yoga can be dangerous if not done properly because you’re utilizing your spine, neck, and every part of your body. There’s a form of physical practice growing popular now, where you’re actually cycling while doing pushups, abdominal twists, crunches, and other core muscle exercises (like) lifting weights, all while on the bike, a kind of hybrid Tour de France / Yoga / Muscle Beach approach. From the standpoint of a teacher who facilitates 200-hour teaching certification courses, how does this form of practice measure up with respect to kinesiology?

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times in November of 2011 that interviewed several people with a lot of knowledge that pointed out that it wasn’t safe. To me, it doesn’t sound safe – but I can’t talk more about that specific exercise because I don’t know enough about it yet.

You can take that question into the Yoga world. There are a lot of practices, and some teachers who I find are irresponsible in how they’re teaching. You have responsibility as a teacher. Some of these practices are really hard on the body, and people get injured all the time.

Having said that, you can get injured in a quote “safe” class where the teacher teaches with a lot of alignment and focus. It’s important to emphasize how you can practice today, so that you can practice tomorrow, and many years from now. I’ve taught for 20 years now, and the longer I teach, the more responsible I am – because I’m seeing what’s going on out there. I want my classes to be a place where people can come and get good instruction and alignment points – they’ll work hard – but it’s not about “I have to make them sweat and make them do 30-40 Chaturangas.

It’s really about having integrity as a teacher, and being responsible. A lot of people will be impacted and influenced by your class. So it’s really important to teach a safe class – not so safe that “you don’t do anything.” You want to be able to teach a class where people leave and they feel that they worked hard.

Q: Speaking of that – what are the elements of the traditional practice of Yoga that you feel are essential to a well-balanced Yoga practice?

For one, it would consist of standing poses – which create a lot of strength and solid alignment. These poses take patience, and when practiced properly, connect students to their foundation. These poses are the foundation of much of what you do in yoga – and in life.

There are also things I like to do in beginning of class, while you’re on your back to stretch out your lower back safely – especially if you have tight hamstrings.

It’s said in many books that the “King” of poses is the headstand, and the “Queen” is the shoulder stand. Those two poses are actually quite difficult to do right, and there are a lot of risks involved. The neck is not terribly strong, and if you have some tightness in your shoulders and upper back, and you’re asked to go upside down, the chances are, that you’re going to put most of the weight on your neck, which will compromise it.

With shoulder stand, you put your neck into flexion, and a lot of people don’t have enough flexion in their neck. So, when they get up into shoulder stand, they’re bending their neck way too much, and their neck becomes more weight-bearing, which is very dangerous.

So these are poses you have to be really careful about – you have to have a lot of respect for them. I think that headstand and the shoulder stand are poses that are good to teach one-on-one, or with a small group because you have to be able to watch students while they’re in the pose.

There are a lot of good things about inversions, but there are ways that you can do inversions that are much more safe.

Q: Why are they referred to as the “King” and “Queen” of Yoga? Is it because they are such feats to achieve, or are they very important to a practice?

Well, part of it is physiologically, that it’s a way to balance hormones, and stimulate more blood flow into the heart and brain. Inversions are also very calming and soothing for the nervous system. Then there’s also a more spiritual part of going upside down.

Q: Sun Salutations seem to be a big part of the practice of Yoga. They’re done a lot. Why is that? What is so important about them?

It’s really to create heat. You’re also opening up the front and back of the body while stretching your hamstrings and thighs. You’re learning to synchronize movement with breath. Sun Salutations are not really for beginners, either. If it’s for a beginner’s class, you really have to break it down. Almost every class I teach, I take a moment and break down one Sun Salutation.

If you’ve been sitting all day, and come to yoga class, it’s really nice for you to be able to move through the routine of the Sun Salutation. It’s also a way to get out of your head.

Q: Creating more strength and flexibility are two major motivations for people to do Yoga. The term “developing strength and flexibility” has much broader and deeper meaning in the practice of Yoga, than other “sports.” Can you elaborate?

Yes. You can have a “flexible” person who’s not really flexible in their thinking. You can have a strong body, but not necessarily be strong in the life you are living.

As a teacher, when you’re teaching the class, you can talk about flexibility in the pose. You can also talk about the flexibility in the way that you are looking at yourself or the world. So you can continue making the practice more spiritual – about your inner work – the place within you that feels like home – where you always want to be. When you’re in that place, you have a way of perceiving yourself and the outside world from a much more flexible point of view. You can see without judgment. You can feel this huge expansion of energy.

During the times when I achieve arriving at that place, I feel like my thoughts are opening up. I can’t be contracted. My mind is expanded and I am just embracing what it sees. It’s like you come into this place of acceptance. It’s beautiful. That doesn’t mean you don’t get up and start doing things with respect to what’s going on in your life. But from this frame of being, you make more conscious choices. I talk about that when people are in Shavasana – the final relaxation pose.

Q/C: It sounds like from the way you describe yoga practice, it’s really a paradigm for how a person lives life – that what you do in your practice as an individual – and how you grow – how you treat yourself – and how you respond in practice is almost a paradigm for how you act in the outside world – or can act – and that if you’re trying to muscle through your poses, perhaps you’re going to have an accident. Just as if you’re muscling through traffic, you’re going to have an accident.

Yes, I think if you’re in a class, and you’re being really hard on yourself in the poses, you’re probably going through a period of time in your life where you’re being really hard on yourself in other aspects of your life. When you’re really hard on yourself, you’re often not the nicest person to be around – because you also have the potential to be really hard on other people.

Personally, I really try to use my practice as a sanctuary. Once I arrive on the mat, it really doesn’t matter at that point what I do in my practice – it doesn’t matter whether it’s an easy or hard practice – it’s just a way for me to go more inside and feel who I really am, apart from “What I do.”

Q/C: It sounds like you became acquainted with your body as a form of person rather than treating it like a machine?

I was introduced to spirituality early in life, but never really had a spiritual practice until I began studying yoga. I was also a gymnast and had very challenging self- image issues. I’d had a lot of anxiety. All of that resulted in an eating disorder. When I was invited to take a yoga class for the first time, I left not remembering any of the poses, I just remember a sense of peace and being comfortable in my body in a way that I’d never felt before.

I felt that yoga was really the thing that helped me recover – because I could feel my body from the inside out. I could be with myself, feeling good, from the inside out.

People are so distracted and under great stress now – they walk down the street and they’re texting – it’s almost like quiet time, or not doing – there’s no room for it.

Everyone can get a hold of us whenever – texting – email – cell phones – there’s no escaping, because so many people have become impatient or feel slighted when there is not an instant “response.”

You just kind of lose yourself in the world around you easily because there are so many of these and other distractions. I think it’s really important to have quiet time. I think that it is in the stillness, where I have the most direct perception or experience of the Essence, God, Spirit, or just that feeling of – oh there I Am.

Q/C: So, while many people treat business as the most essential focus in their life, quiet time is as essential as business?

Yes, I don’t want to be multi-tasking all day long. That’s not how I want to live. In those moments when you move into poses in your practice, you can really see “what tape is playing in your head.” The stillness that comes from the practice of Yoga allows you to become enlivened and vibrant. It is a practice.

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