Category Archives: yoga sutras

What makes yoga postures so darn special?

Relaxing, watercolor, Amanda Green

Introduction: Is yoga the same as stretching?

For a long time, my yoga practice was about mastering certain postures.  I worked really hard to stick a handstand.  I went to vinyasa class and wanted so badly to be able to defy gravity and float my feet from downdog to that forward bend at the front of the mat.  Fancy arm balances? Yes, please.  Bend further? No problem. Big, dancer-like transitions between postures that took me high and then low? Bring it. I worked out. I got better at all of these things and even had moments of of feeling that particular kind of strength, balance and presence in my body that I was seeking. I also got increasingly more sensitive, an enduring shoulder injury, way too much flexibility in important joints, and the realization that this kind of practice was not sustainable.

Was I doing yoga? Does the ability to hold a handstand for 30 seconds make someone good at yoga? If I look at a yoga postures in a magazine and try to do the stuff I see, does that count? How we answer these questions depends on how we define yoga practice and what we think āsana (aaah-sun-uh, the practice of postures) is for. In the next few posts, we’ll look at several definitions of āsana, considerations for structuring a practice, and a few of Patañjali’s yoga sūtras that will give us a sense of what postural practice is all about and what we can look forward to when practice is well established.  

Seventeen years after my first yoga class, how I practce āsana is really different from those early years. With the guidance of my teacher and support of peers, my yoga practice is now slow, safe, and satisfying to me in very deep and essential ways. I practice at home, in the quiet. Breath is way more interesting that balancing on my hands. In times when I’ve been injured or in pain, I have ways to stay connected to my practice. And most interestingly, my mind operates much more attentively and peacefully.  I can imagine doing yoga like this for the rest of my life.

Here’s the sneak peak for the series…

Part 1: Āsana is about being and becoming

Part 2: What we do in āsana is not normal or ordinary

Part 3: For Āsana to help us operate in a new way, we have to be willing to have new experiences

Part 4: Āsana reaches all parts of our being

Part 5: Vinyāsa krāma: start where you are and take the necessary steps to reach your goal

Part 6: Prevent future suffering (Yoga Sūtra II.16)

Part 7: Āsana should be stable and comfortable (Yoga Sūtra II.46)

Part 8: Āsana helps us loosen the knots and reduce resistance (Yoga Sūtra II.47)

Part 9: The result of āsana practice: we will not be affected by extremes (Yoga Sūtra II.48)

9 solutions for difficult times

Girl reading, watercolor, Amanda Green
Girl Reading, Watercolor on paper, Amanda Green

Yoga practice isn’t about rising above or rejecting our humanness. Instead, yoga can help us learn to accept, heal and develop our human nature. An amazing guidebook for this process is the Yoga Sūtras, authored by the ancient sage, Patañjali. 

The first chapter of the yoga sūtras dives right into one of the universal and unavoidable experiences of being a person on this planet… each of us will have some really hard stuff happen in our lives. At times, we may be able to move through these difficulties. That doesn’t mean we won’t feel the feelings, grieve, get angry, suffer or realize something about ourselves in the process.  What it does mean is that we aren’t stuck.

There are other times when the hard stuff will stop us in our tracks leaving us heavy in the chest, stuck with a negative outlook, a shaky body, breathing that is short and shallow and with a mind that is unable to focus. When we see these symptoms (Yoga sūtra I.31), we need help. Patanjali provides us with nine ways that we can seek support and balance during these times.

  1. Connect to a belief or faith in a higher power.  Can we sense and be comforted by the possibility or even the knowing that something bigger than ourself is at work in our lives? In difficult times, we may not know how things will work out but if we trust that it will, this faith can help sustain us. Yoga sūtra I.23
  2. Go deep in one principle. Let your attention and your energy focus on one perspective or method for sorting through the stuff that’s coming up in your hard time. Yoga sutra I.32
  3. These attitudes will be very helpful in moving through the hard stuff: friendliness toward those who are happy, compassion for those who suffer, support for those doing good work in the world, and for those who are doing bad and upsetting stuff, maintain emotional distance. If that kind of emotional equanimity isn’t possible, then you may need to establish physical distance.  The point with this last one is for you to do your best to stay emotionally and mentally balanced. Yoga sūtra 1.33
  4. Practice breathing with a focus on exhale and pause after exhale Yoga sūtra I.34
  5. Notice how the senses are operating. Are they leading you or are you leading them? Yoga sūtra I.35
  6. There is a place inside of you that is full of light.  This place can’t be darkened by sadness or grief. If you know the feeling of this place and can connect to it during difficult times, it can be a relief and comfort. Yoga sūtra 1.36
  7. Someone who has come through hard stuff of her own can be a great support. Yoga sūtra 1.37
  8. Dreams can offer insight into a difficult situation. Yoga sūtra I.38
  9. Meditate on something that you like and that is appropriate for your difficult situation. Meditation is best guided by a teacher who you trust, and who knows you well. Yoga sūtra 1.39

The yoga sūtras acknowledge that there will be times when life knocks you down. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. When these situations arise, it’s tempting to spend energy imagining the ways they could have been avoided, to feel like it isn’t fair, or to dwell on how much we don’t like what we are going through. If we stay in that mindset for too long, that is a signal that we need some help. In realizing this and seeking a new way of working through a situation we learn about ourselves– about fraility and strength.  Of what we can endure and of the forces that are in waiting to help us to keep going. This list from the yoga sūtras may seem simple at first glance, but when we need help like we may not have needed before, the profound nature of these solutions shines.

It’s easy to have faith when everything is going my way

Thomas Prior‘s heart-racing photographs from the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec. — Click image to check out more fireworks photos on wired.com

I’ve noticed that when things are going well, then I have no problem having faith in the order of the universe or believing that the direction of life is guided by a higher power. I can embrace the principle of Īśvara-pranidhana: we aren’t in control of everything that happens and yet we are held. The tapestry is bigger than the small part I’m seeing. I may not understand how things will work out, but they will. This is all very comforting during times in which I’m already quite comfortable.

When things aren’t working out the way I think they should, or something ‘bad’ is happening, then a very different mode kicks in. I become afraid. I start fretting and worrying. I read, read, read and think, think, think about whatever it is as if knowing more about the situation will change what’s happening. Then I begin to spin my wheels about what I am going to do about it. It reminds me of a time I was in Mexico and happened upon a saint’s festival in the town’s plaza. When it got dark, these young men put on what looked like back-packs made of twigs and then took a match to them. There were fireworks on these backpacks and once lit, they shot out blasts of sparkling white lights, causing parts of the backpack to spin furiously and for a few seconds, they lit up the whole plaza. The young men ran around, and we all screamed and cheered because it was exciting but also because we were afraid that they’d light themselves, or us, on fire. These were a glorious, emotional few seconds and then the fireworks were all used up and the show was over. That’s how it feels with me.

There’s no śraddhā or faith here. I forget all about universal goodness and comfort and the support I feel the rest of the time. I forget all about the bigger tapestry and I narrow in on the little part that doesn’t and can’t possibly fit in with anything else. I’m not plugged in to an infinite energy source, I’m burning through something limited and small. This shift makes hard times worse because even if I read and think and act out with every second of my day, some things aren’t within my power to change. Trying to change these things causes more grief and further extinguishes śraddhā.

Śraddhā and Īśvara-pranidhana, a sense of faith and trust, are comforting in the good and easy times. In order to connect with them during difficult times, I have to be willing to let go of this mode where I flail-around attempting to control things that are beyond me. There are certainly things I can do, but changing the outcome of an election, or curing someone’s cancer, or putting an end to a Syrian tragedy aren’t within my power. I have to be willing to accept that I’m not in control. But there’s more.  There’s also remembering that the power that is at work in the good and joyful moments is also working in the difficult ones as well. I’m finding that this takes a lot of trust to loosen my grip and find the feeling of faith in the order of the universe or believing that the direction of life is guided by a higher power even when things are difficult and scary.  It’s a different than something that burns fast and then burns out. It’s like moving into the flow of something that keeps offering light in a steady enduring way. Love. Faith. Trust.

We passed through the darkest night of the year and now welcome the growing light of the season. May we all bask in the enduring light.

Lots of love to each of you,

Amanda

Conversations with a tween

The girls are both delighted to be posing with their dad for the Christmas photo!

The girls are both delighted to be posing with their dad for the Christmas photo!

I have a tendency, these days, to talk less. I really value quiet. I like the pauses in conversation to be with what was just said. I like to listen to where people go with their thoughts when given the time. I enjoy being around people and noticing what that feels like, seeing what they do and what I do– maybe listening to breathing.

Though this has been really nice in a lot of relationships, I’m starting to see that it may not be the best strategy with my tween daughter. Hazel doesn’t ask me what I think very often. She’ll tell me something about a friendship or something that makes her laugh, but it’s usually brief and it comes when her mind is there, still with her friend or connected to the funny thing she saw on pinterest. In these moments, I don’t get the feeling that she really wants to talk with me and that leaves me unsure of what to do. If I just sit there quietly, then she’ll eventually wander off. Though she’s not engaging me in conversation with her comments or passing thoughts, she is talking to me. In order to help get a conversation going, I have to push past my enjoyment of quiet and the awkwardness of not knowing exactly what to say and I need to make the effort to engage her. It seems so obvious now that I’m writing it down, which is good. There isn’t much that’s obvious in parenting a tween.

This weekend, I tried it out. Whenever Hazel said something, I thought of it as an invitation to connect. I’d ask her a question or talk about what I thought or a time I felt that way. It rained all weekend, so we spent a lot of time in the house together and I had many opportunities to practice. I’m pretty sure I talked more in one weekend than I average most weeks. It was a different way to be together. I felt closer to her and I could see that this way of connecting was working for her, too. On Sunday night at bedtime, I bent down to kiss her goodnight and give her a big squeeze. She didn’t let go right away, and so we stayed there, quietly hugging, feeling each other breathe. And then, she told me she’d had a really nice weekend. I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that my heart swelled and I felt grateful for her, for the time we spent talking and for all the quiet moments in between.


True or False? Something outside of me can make me unhappy

 

This is my grandpa, Henry.

This is my grandpa, Henry.

The kleśas are afflictions—things that cause us suffering. The five kleśas suggest that the root of our suffering is misperception. If we misperceive or understand something incorrectly, we take action based on this bad intel. When action is based on a kleśa or misperception, our action isn’t correct. This causes a lot of problems for ourselves.

Two of the kleśas I’d like to highlight today are raga and dveṣa. When raga is at work, I act from an incorrect belief that something outside of me can make me happy. Dveṣa is the belief that something outside of me can make me unhappy.

Take that in for a moment. The implications are huge.

Sure, our circumstances can cause us problems. There are some pretty horrible situations at work right now and it’s okay and very human to have emotional reactions to those things. But here’s the thing. Patañjali teaches that even when circumstances or experiences are very difficult, we don’t have to be happy or unhappy because of them. Our sense of peace or upset doesn’t depend on things going on around us. There’s something within us that can be steady, clear, and with peace all of the time. No matter what.

Even though I’m not in a constant state of equilibrium and peace, I have a lot of faith in the practice of yoga. So much of what’s presented in the yoga sūtras has been right on, describing my experiences and the growth I’ve had as a result of practice. So I’m holding on to this possibility, too. And I’m hopeful that as I continue to embrace this perspective I can be at peace even when I have to take action that’s difficult. I can be at peace even if I strongly disagree with someone’s ideas. I can be at peace and show up for my family, students, friends, community and country in that way. And this peace can spread.

The rewards of yoga practice (It’s not what you think)

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When asked to chose her fav’ Austin destinations, this burger joint was at the top of her list. Extra pickles, two ketchups, please.

My husband makes me laugh harder and certainly more often than anyone else I know. He’s clever and light hearted. He can improvise a catchy song at the drop of a hat and has a knack for an Australian accent. He’s good for a deep belly laugh, but he’ll go for a chuckle, too. He’s good for some word play. Puns make our 12-year-old roll her eyes which makes the whole thing even funnier. This special kind of wit isn’t it’s reserved for the girls. When I come into the room after 20 minutes of Vedic chant practice, Dave finds a way to slip in how en-chanting he finds me. And after my yoga practice, he’s fond of asking, Did you get it right this time? I always smile but that one makes me think…

Why do we practice yoga? Are we doing yoga to get it right or to achieve some level of mastery? Are we going through the steps and ‘climbing the ladder’ because we believe there’s a reward wating for us at the top? Will yoga make us more deserving or more loveable? Is there something magic about the techniques that if we just get them right, they will transform us?

Even though I couldn’t have put these words to it before, this approximates my attitude. I’ve been bartering with my yoga practice. I put in my time, and yoga will repay me with more peace, ease in my body, more insight. The harder I try, the further I’ll go. Even though I know it doesn’t really work that way, it’s hard to give up the belief that I’m in control of yoga and what it does for me. It’s hard to let go of the sense that I can make it happen.

Lately, I can feel myself wanting something even more from my yoga practice. Through yoga, I can have feelings of profound connection to some deep essential part within me –a part that’s inextricably linked to the special thing inside of everyone else. This experience is an antidote to my long-time attachment to loneliness. I want more of that connected feeling. I want to remember that essential part. And, even though I don’t know exactly what it looks like, I want whatever comes next…on a tray… with pickles and two packets of ketchup.

Because I’ve been wanting more, I can feel myself trying harder. There’s a quiet urgency as I come to my mat in the morning. I’m reading books in hopes of uncovering a secret key hidden between the lines. I’m doing the stuff that I think I’m supposed to do, because I want to receive something in exchange. But there’s tension. I can know the motivation isn’t correct. There’s wisdom inside nudging me to remember that trying harder hasn’t been the way I’ve experienced personal growth in the past. It isn’t the way I’ve made strides in my self-understanding or my relationships. That growth always happens when I do less. It comes when I’m not begging for it. It sneaks in when I finally accept something about my life or myself, I soften and I let go of the struggle. When I make space and open to what is, that’s when something shifts. I don’t make it happen. It’s offered. Grace.

My practice is essential, not because it’s what’s required for spiritual advancement, but because it prepares me to recognize grace when it’s offered. Daily practice readies my system — body, breath, mind, personality and emotions, to function well and to be content and balanced through the dramatic ups and downs or while I wait. Īśvara pranidhana encompasses this notion of grace. I can do what’s best, not because I’m are striving for a particular result, but because it’s the right thing to do. It isn’t service performed in exchange for goods or reward.  It’s action without attachment to the outcome (Bhagavad Gita Ch 2:47).

We don’t have to work hard for it, but I think it is hard work to consistently see ourselves with a loving and honest lens. At least it is for me. But that’s exactly what practice can help us to find. Less effort or striving can nurture an internal environment that’s suited for this gentle, patient, compassionate work. It requires dedication, not because we’ll get kicked out of the club if we slack, but because having structure and regular committed time supports us along the way. It supports us while we wait.  It helps us know our true nature (YS I.3) and this mystery of receiving gifts of grace.

***I offer individual yoga sessions and support for those who would like to begin or deepen a personal practice.  You can read more about the process on this website or contact me  to learn more.  I’d be happy to hear from you!

Abhyāsa Vairāgyam: Effort and Relinquishing

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I’m not sure what happened, but I forgot about blogging until 8:38pm on Thursday night. This is surprising because I’ve written and published something every single Thursday since June of 2011.

I’ve given up some old habits recently and I’ve found that this requires much discipline and causes a surprising amount of unrest and upset to my system. I didn’t expect it, really. I’ve been making my way to this point for several years, now – trying out quitting… coming back.  But I think I’m really ready to actually let these things go. This time, the letting go has happened without much fanfare. I decided that it was time and I stopped without much conversation or buildup. But I find it does require energy. The energy that I’m putting towards these efforts means I have less for the other things I need to do. Like remember things.

I’ve heard from my teachers that Mr. Desikachar would say that you can measure the strength of a person’s practice not on what they can do, but on what they can give up. I don’t think he was talking about forcing a change onto ourself as a measure of how much ascetic and painful torture we can endure without whining, but as an exercise to see how attached we are to the things that we enjoy. Or how much our balance and sense of peace depends on the weekly chocolate bar we get at the check out line, the evening run we have to take to unwind, or the glass of wine before dinner. Maybe giving something up that we enjoy is something that lets us see if we have our attention, our sense of self, or maybe even our joy anchored in the right place.

In the past, I’ve ‘let things go’ but I haven’t really. I must not have been ready. I’d decide to give it up and then thought about whatever it was constantly. My body might not have been indulging in the behavior, the substance or the distraction, but my mind was totally linked to it. This time, it’s less dramatic. It feels like I’m waiting for the old stuff to flush out of my deepest tissue layers. I’ve noticed these occasional pangs of wanting, but I’m not obsessing. Even so, I’m a little thrown off. I get confused about the timing of things and my dreams have a different quality. I’m likening the new patterns to a transplanted organ. Right now, I’m still recovering from the surgery. I’ll have to remember to take the anti-rejection medicine for a while. Then, maybe after a long time, it will be more normal and the new thing that I’ve taken in will be a part of me.

Yoga Sutra 1.12 abhyāsavairāgyābhyāṁ tannirodhaḥ

Make some efforts (abhyāsa) then relinquish what is getting in the way of your effort or goal (vairāgyām) so that you can reach a state of yoga (nirodha)

RAGA: The Kleśa that has us going back for more

I'm now enjoying chai in the mornings...

I’m now enjoying chai in the mornings…

Coffee is one of my favorite things but when I drink it, over time it starts to have this cumulative effect of gradually increasing my anxiety. I’ve tried to will this side-effect away, to ignore it, or to pretend that it isn’t all that bad, but after a few months steady coffee intake, the anxiety reaches a point where I can no longer deny the problems it causes me and I resolve to quit. Again.

The kleśas are five ‘afflictions’ or ways that our perception can cause us problems. In a nutshell? We suffer because we don’t see things as they are but instead, misperceive. This isn’t ignorance. If I’m unsure what time the appointment is, then I’ll open up the calendar and see that it is scheduled for 10:00am. But if I know that the appointment is at 1:00, then I leave the house at 12:15 and drive to the office. I miss the appointment because of my avidyā, misperception. We knew incorrectly. Because we believe that the way we see it is the right way, we take action based on that misperception. This causes us all sorts of problems.

Patañjali describes particular ways in which we misperceive.

  • We misidentify, confusing what is happening in the mind.  We say, “I am angry.”  “I am sad” etc.  We think we are these emotions and if we act from this place, this is Asmitā.  It would be better expressed if we said, I feel angry or I feel sad, giving space to observe the experience rather than identify with it. (*Edited 8/28/16 see below)
  • We have a positive or pleasant experience and want to repeat that experience of pleasure so we go after it even if it may no longer be appropriate or helpful. I think of this as also misidentifying what it is that will be truly satisfying. Raga!!!!
  • We have an unpleasant or negative experience so we avoid the thing that we associate with the problem. Dveṣa
  • Fear makes us see things in ways that may not be accurate or correct. We all know that when we are afraid, many things can seem threatening or dangerous even when they may not be. Abhiniveśā.

Why do I struggle with coffee, so? .

Patañjali nails it with raga. When I’m out of balance, underslept, or over-committed, then the attraction to the morning bev can overwhelm the more practical voice in my head. “I waaaaant it” is the beginning of the story I start to tell myself. “I like it. I like the routine. I like the little jolt and I want to repeat it every morning of every day. Why not? My parents drink coffee. My husband drinks coffee. It’s for sale everywhere.“

This is how I’ve known it to start. It seems good at first, but inevitably, unpleasant effects show themselves. If we see a kleśa at the foundation of any action, Patañjali advises that we take action early when they are small. If we don’t, the suffering may eventually be great enough, and provides motivation to change.

 

** read more about the Kleśas in the second chapter of the yoga Sutras or join us NEXT WEEK in Ojai, CA for our women’s retreat and get in on some great discussions on how this applies to daily living. http://handson-retreats.com!

Edit 8/28/16: When I originally published this post, I confused asmita and moha YS.II.32 “We think we are “wife” or “mother” or “yoga teacher” but then something changes and that role is no more or needs to adapt in some way and this can be very painful.” This is moha.  Asmita is something that happens with how we are thinking… confusion in the mind with how we are perceiving. (see above)

How to do yoga āsana

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The yoga sūtras doesn’t give us a lot about how to do āsana. There aren’t any descriptions of postures and no instagram worthy pictures. But there are two sūtras specifically about the qualities that should be in every āsana and these include the following ideas: sthiram sukham or steadiness and ease (2.46) and prayatna śaitilya (2.47).

A common working definition of prayatna śaitilya is “appropriate effort to loosen.” Sure. Yogis should be flexible, but not too flexible. We should work toward those qualities, but still with sthira sukham. Makes sense.

But this week, I learned of another way of thinking about this sūtra. Prayatna is defined as the intention that comes before a movement or the energy that precedes an action. It’s fascinating to wonder and attempt to feel what is behind a conscious thought that leads to movement. Śaitilya is ‘loosening’, but what is it that needs loosening? If we think about prayatna as the quality of connecting to something more subtle and something behind even the intention of our movement, then perhaps the loosening that happens is on the level of our identity. Can I let go of the idea that I am in charge of everything my body does.  Is it possible that I am not the illy force that allows my body and breath to move.

This sutra feels like a beautiful invitation to slow down, be quiet and listen to the subtle force within.

+++++

Deep gratitude to my YATNA teachers who make it possible for me to have these kinds of ongoing conversations in the company of amazing colleagues.

Thank you Amy Wheeler, Dolphi Wertenbaker, and Chase Bossart.

equanimity

Fall Obedient Plant in my front yard

Fall Obedient Plant in my front yard

 

I’ve been thinking about equanimity, mostly because I had a situation this week where I was not that. I was totally and unreasonably pissed off. I heard some upsetting news, started stomping around and then catastrophic thinking took over. I could see into the future… how generations of people would be affected by the incident and how the people involved were fraught with wrong thinking. They were wrong. They are wrong. Totally. Their. Fault.

It took several hours, but eventually I cooled off enough to consider my reaction. Everything I felt still seemed absolutely true –the whole part about them being totally wrong and generations of people affected, but I was very unhappy and uneasy. This motivated me to look a little closer. I thought of a similar situation that happened with a family friend in which I was able to dispassionately consider the feelings of the people on both sides of the matter. Yes, there was this unfortunate incident…and the very strong response by those involved. Yes, both people had a right to their feelings. It went on like this and I found that I felt compassion for them all. I wished them well, no matter how it turned out. and I didn’t worry about the generations to come.

This helped me to see that, perhaps, in my situation, it isn’t the incident itself that upsets me, but my relationship to the persons involved. This admission is difficult because in a relationship, all sides play a part and each person contributes something. This means I have to take responsibility for my part and that part happens to touch on deep insecurities and the some things about myself that I would rather avoid. The real (and very painful) work has to do with what’s inside of me.

How do I want it to all turn out? Eventually, I’d like to be able to come to this relationship with the kind of equanimity that allows me to see the difficult stuff clearly without all my triggers getting in the way and clogging up the glass. Clear understanding can help me to identify my role  (What can I actually do here?) so I can lovingly respond even when hit with news of crazy stuff. I think of yoga sūtra 4.7 that describes a yogi who is neither black nor white. *There’s transparency… because the yogin has no personal agenda. I won’t try to work any angle… either for my own good at the expense of another (black) nor trying to help or support so that I can feel better about myself and avoid my own suffering later (white). I’ll. Be. Clear. And ultimately, that clarity will make it easier to simply love.

 

Yoga sūtra 4.7 karma-aśukla-akṛṣṇaṁ yoginaḥ-trividham-itareṣām

The yogin’s action is neither white nor black; for the others, it is of three kinds

Patañjali emphasizes the transparency… because the yogin has no personal agenda.

 

*From Franz Moors, Liberating Isolation, The Yogasutra of Patañjali, Media Garuda 2012

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Practice with me in Ojai, CA this summer!

AUGUST 31ST TO SEPT. 5TH, 2016 ** Peppertree Retreat Center

I’ve been invited to participate in this year’s Hands-On Retreat.   This is truly a unique 5-day experience, designed especially for women in beautiful Ojai, Ca. This retreat will focus on Practical Transformation: Healing Your Life from the Inside Out. You’ll work with 3 systems of transformation to heal and learn to age with grace, vitality and restore our body’s innate balance. We have an extraordinary group of teachers who each have decades of experience in their field and our committed to helping women flourish and grow in Body, Mind and Spirit.

Take advantage of Early bird registration until July 11th. It takes a deposit of $500 to hold the space. For as little as $1475, enjoy 5 days of gourmet ayurvedic food, beautiful accommodations, plus full days of working with these amazing disciplines!

Contact me with any questions or visit www. hands-onretreats.com for more information.