How Three Top Yoga Masters Find Balance, Both On and Off the Mat

I know that living our yoga both on and off the mat is challenging. After all, I based my entire novel around that idea. But my recent self-flagellation got me to wondering how more adept yoga masters triumph over such trials -- and if they even have them in the first place.
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The other day in yoga class I was pretty pleased with my bound triangle pose when the teacher suggested we scooch our back foot forward and then raise the front leg into the air. I pushed my leg closer and found what I thought was my balancing point, but let's just say trying to lift my other leg was a very humbling experience.

Balance has always been my strong suit, so I wasn't totally surprised by the negative, self-judging commentary that quickly ran through my mind. What was unexpected was how long it stayed in there -- quite a few hours, I'm reluctant to admit -- until I was finally able to disconnect my awkward center of gravity from my self-worth.

I know that living our yoga both on and off the mat is challenging. After all, I based my entire novel around that idea. But my recent self-flagellation got me to wondering how more adept yoga masters triumph over such trials -- and if they even have them in the first place.

To find out, I called three top-flight yogis: Seane Corn, John Friend, and Ana T. Forrest. What I discovered is that they do indeed sometimes struggle like the rest of us, but they find their emotional balance much quicker than I did that day.

Here is my edited version of their response:

Seane Corn
Featured in Detox Flow Yoga and numerous DVDs
Cofounder of nonprofit activist group Off the Mat, Into the World
Practicing yoga since 1987

On-the-mat challenge: "I was always very flexible, but I have slight scoliosis, so my body moves naturally when twisting to the left, but is much more limited to the right. In the past, I hated triangle and other twisting poses, and never wanted to do them. Now, though, I'm able to respect my body's limitations. I don't try to force it, like I used to. And I don't have an attachment in the same way. The frustration of the restriction and limitation still comes up, but now I recognize it and don't indulge it, and within moments I can shift. I actually like the triangle pose now, because it becomes a mirror for how I'm going to show up for any challenge."

Off-the-mat challenge: "I used to feel envious of people I felt were living their lives fully in ease and integrity. Now I recognize that no matter how I might perceive them, everyone is dealing with issues that I can't begin to understand. If a shadow of judgment towards others comes up, I'll immediately come back to me: What's coming up for me, what does it remind me of, how can I heal it in myself?

Also, when we were making the Detox Flow Yoga DVD, I had a strong commitment to the vision of it being organic, local, sustainable and in no way toxic to the environment. But we were on a budget, so I knew I couldn't reach perfection. As a youth, I got irritated with myself if I didn't live up to my high expectations. And my perfectionism did come up as an issue here, as I tried to dig in my heels in certain areas. But I realized I had to let that go, to accept the realities -- such as using plastic packaging -- without it causing me stress. I'm pleased that we were able to honor the idea of sustainability and be respectful to the vision, and maybe in the future we'll be able to go even further."

John Friend
Founder of Anusara Yoga
The Center, in Encinitas, Calif., opening this spring
Practicing yoga since 1972

On-the-mat challenge: "In some ways, I'm stiffer and weaker than when I was younger. Some super-deep backbends that I could easily do at 18 would be very painful today. But my first principle is to open to what is: I can't do that deep bend, but it's not a problem. Because of this acceptance, I've experienced incredible energy movement in my body while doing a backbend that's only half as deep as one 30 years ago. Someone might think, 'He's not doing this as deeply as he used to.' But if you look closely, the distribution of the bend is more uniform, and every part of my body has more harmony, creating more energetic freedom -- physically, mentally and spiritually."

Off-the-mat challenge: "Over the course of my life I've had every category of physical, emotional, mental, relationship and financial difficulties. One big one was when my bookkeeper embezzled all my money (I literally lost all of it) about a dozen years ago. I felt violated that a person I trusted had betrayed me.

Immediately, I applied the 'three As' from Anusara yoga to the situation. Attitude, in terms of first opening myself to the pain without denying what I was feeling, but then being optimistic that I had the capacity to get everything back. Alignment, by, instead of putting all the blame on her, taking responsibility that I had put myself in that situation by turning my finances over to another person; this calms the mind because by taking back control I knew I was reducing the likelihood it could happen again. And action, by creating a plan to get money in the bank to pay the bills. The betrayal probably still hurts inside me, but I don't have any suffering about it. Keeping my heart open is key; a skillful yoga practice is maintaining harmony with life, so the love flows."

Ana T. Forrest
Creator of Forrest Yoga
Author, Fierce Medicine: Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit
Practicing yoga since 1973

On-the-mat challenge: "I recently created a new public yoga demo as the centerpiece for a fundraiser for a group near to my heart: yogaHOPE, which helps women dealing with addiction or abuse. The demo was exhilarating, but also physically challenging, requiring all the strength and balance I have. When I first began choreographing it, I fell on my ass over and over. At first, I journeyed through anxiety, upset, failure. Then I decided to use the demo as a physical metaphor for rebuilding my life after my painful divorce. The demo became the dance of my Spirit emerging. After that, falls didn't degrade me; they became part of my Spirit work.

One of the Forrest Yoga principles is getting skillful at stopping the internal judgment of where you think you 'should' be versus where you are. In the end, the demo turned out beautifully. I get a kick out of creating and practicing these intensely difficult demos; I couldn't have done them in my 30s. It's taken me a lifetime to develop this strength, condition and concentration."

Off-the-mat challenge: "We have a saying in Forrest Yoga: Never waste a good trigger. Triggers -- something someone says that gets you white-hot angry or terrified out of proportion -- are horribly uncomfortable, yet they can teach you so much. My own childhood abuse led to two key triggers: my quickness to anger and my tendency to plummet instantaneously into an emotional abyss. It used to happen a lot more than now, but I still have moments of reactivity. For example, my ex left wood, pieces of equipment and trash around my tool shed and motorcycle house. Seeing 'The Mess' retriggers my 'unable to deal' feelings and avoidance and heart stress. He left in March 2008, but I was retriggered by this again just the other day. I walk away, closing down around the mess of feelings. I've finally hired my godchild to clear it out. It's exciting to contemplate is what will I feel like to have the physical mess cleaned up. I intend to also clear any and all emotional trash that I find connected to this. I am okay with being a work in progress. My philosophy encompasses growing, making mistakes and learning from them as a lifelong process."

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Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the spiritual women's novel Downward Dog, Upward Fog, which was recommended by the Yoga Journal, YogaDork and Elephant Journal blogs. ForeWord Reviews calls the novel "an inspirational gem that will appeal to introspective, evolving women." Read excerpts at Meryl also writes for O: the Oprah Magazine, Whole Living, Reader's Digest and other national magazines.

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