Category: Unnata Teacher Wisdom

Deepen Your Understanding of Yoga Through a Reflection on the Yamas and Niyamas (Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras 2.30-2.45)

The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is a guide to the practice of Yoga. Compiled prior to 400 CE, it is still studied in depth today. In the text, Patañjali lists the Yamas and the Niyamas as the first two steps on the path of cultivating Yoga. Asana, or the postures we usually associate with Yoga classes, is the third step.

If we were to place a seed on a plate, water it and place it in the sun for warmth and energy, even with careful tending, the seed still will not develop far. Without soil to take root in, and draw nutrients from, how is a plant to grow?

The Yamas and Niyamas are the soil for the seed of our Yoga practice. If we do not “plant” our daily Asana practice in the rich and fertile soil of the Yamas and the Niyamas, then true health will not grow out of our efforts.

Dale Chihuly at the NY Botanical Gardens

What are the Yamas and the Niyamas?

The Yamas are commonly referred to as “restraints.” As humans, we have natural emotional and reactionary tendencies that do not help us live peacefully in society. Practicing the Yamas helps us to curb those tendencies. We could consider them ethics common to many cultures. The 5 Yamas are 1) non-violence (Ahimsa), 2) truthfulness, or restraint from dishonesty (Satya), 3) non-stealing (Asteya), 4) restraint from gluttony (Brahmacharya), and 5) non-hoarding (Aparigraha).

The Niyamas are attitudes to practice which help develop a positive attitude. Rather than hold back from our natural tendencies, which is the practice of the Yamas, the Niyamas help us develop helpful habits that may be unfamiliar to our psyches. You could consider them emotional training. The 5 Niyamas are: 1) cleanliness (Shaucha), 2) satisfaction with what already is (Santosha), 3) diligence and persistence (Tapas), 4) education and learning (Svadhyaya), and 5) belief in the interconnectedness of all beings and energy (Ishvara Pranidhana).

I have always found it fascinating and oddly comforting that within the Yamas and Niyamas, there is an underlying assumption that the attitudes we must practice are not natural to us. We must actually work at being content. We must make an effort to study ourselves in order to “learn from our mistakes,” no matter how intelligent we may be. We must choose to interrupt the aggressive impulse that arises when we feel wronged.

The Yamas and the Niyamas beautifully support one another: developing the attitudes of the Niyamas helps us to restrain from the harmful actions warned against in the Yamas; and, practicing the restraints on our actions through the Yamas helps us cultivate the attitudes of the Niyamas. For example, first in the list of the five Niyamas is Shaucha, or cleanliness. And, fifth in the list of the five Yamas is Aparigraha, or non-hoarding. If I take on the practice of Shaucha, it will inspire me to keep a tidy apartment free of clutter, which will make me think twice before acquiring unnecessary knick-knacks, which will help me practice Aparigraha. Likewise, if I take a vow of Aparigraha, I will practice giving away things I no longer need, giving me an emptier apartment, which will in turn be easier to maintain and clean, which will help me practice Shaucha.

It sounds simple, but frequently when we’re told DON’T do [insert anything here], our minds immediately want to DO [that very thing]. Sometimes our brains can be quite stubborn. Therefore, Patañjali brilliantly counterbalanced the list of DON’Ts embedded in the Yamas by the list of DOs in the Niyamas, to help us succeed at our endeavors. DO practice cleanliness and self-care, DO practice contentment and joy, DO practice persistence, DO practice curiosity and inquisitiveness, DO practice identifying with the part of you that is permanent and beyond the transient body and emotions. And, look for that same permanence in others. All of the DO’s can help us find the strength NOT to harm others, speak lies, steal, indulge the senses, or hoard.

In her book The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras, Nischala Joy Devi writes that the Yamas and Niyamas are forces of dynamic energy: Aparigraha is the start of a movement toward the pinnacle of Ahimsa in the Yamas, and Shaucha is the start of a movement toward the pinnacle of Ishvara Pranidhana in the Niyamas (Devi, 2007, pp. 167).

Shaucha could mean keeping a clean house and maintaining good grooming habits for the body. But it could also mean keeping a clean diet, eliminating junk food and other things that have no nutritional value. Cleanliness can be a practice for our more subtle aspects as well, such as our thoughts. For example, does surfing through Facebook cloud our thoughts with anger or despair? How much of the news we take in is used just for gossip? It’s not a coincidence that in the English language, we use the word “dirt” to mean “gossip.” Therefore, can we clean our news feed of certain images? Can we “unfollow” certain friends who only indulge in “dirt?” If we follow our practice of Shaucha diligently, according to Nischala Joy Devi, our practice should lead us toward Ishvara Pranidhana, an embracing of God. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is a concept common to many cultures and societies, including many in America.

Aparigraha could mean not taking in unnecessary items, but it could also mean being willing to let go of items we no longer need, or letting go of old belief patterns, old fears and old prejudices, so that we can allow for a “fresh, clean start” even with people we’ve had abrasive relations for years. In some ways, starting with Shauca helps us restrain from holding onto unnecessary items or friendships, which is Aparigraha. The Facebook “unfollow” example could easily be categorized as Aparigraha or Shauca. Non-indulgence in unnecessary talk (gossip) could be the same as being willing to “let go” of friendships that encourage anger or disdain. Is letting go of unhealthy discourse mentally and emotionally cleaning house (Saucha)? Or, is it refraining from the amount of entertainment we take in to stimulate our senses (Aparigraha)?

According to Nischala Joy Devi, following a diligent practice of Aparigraha leads us to Ahimsa, or non-violence. Thus, the key to finding external and internal peace is through letting go of excess. The more we give away items we don’t need to those who do need, and the more we refrain from acquiring unnecessary items that others could possibly use, the more we help our entire community prosper. When all feel prosperous, there is less discord both for individual members of a community, as well as between community members. More harmony equates to less violence.

In the end, does it really matter how we label the actions (and inactions) that result from practicing the Yamas and the Niyamas? The practice itself is more important than it’s name. Indeed, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet). No matter which Yama or Niyama you choose to start, the important thing is to practice! It is through the ten practices of Yama and Niyama that we create a fertile soil for the seeds of our Asana to grow.

Dale Chihuly at the NY Botanical Gardens

Body Weight, Modifications & Safety in Aerial Yoga

As both an aerial teacher trainer and aerial equipment retailer based in the Midwest, one of the most common questions I encounter from new students and studio owners alike is, “What’s the weight limit?” This is an incredibly important question, yet many teachers (depending on their training and experience) may not feel comfortable answering it, either because they don’t have a solid understanding of the equipment they are using, or because it touches upon one of the biggest taboos in our culture, the ‘F’ word: Fat.

So let’s talk about it.

You’ll often see a “weight limit” of around 250lbs listed for aerial yoga classes, but in my experience if you ask the studio how this number came about, they may not have a deeper answer other than “that’s what my instructor recommended.” What is the significance of this number? Will a 275lb student break the hammock? Will they not be able to perform some of the postures? Or, worse, could they somehow be injured by the hammock?

Aerial yoga’s popularity has soared in the past decade, and as acrobatic hammock photos decorate our social media feeds, it’s easy to assume that aerial yoga is for the daring, flexible, and… well…skinny. Aerial Yoga is simply yoga with a fancy prop meant to help you in certain postures, challenge you in others, and create deeper self-awareness. The experience is a very internal one, so these sensations and moments of deep connection are rarely conveyed through photos. So, in our excitement to share our experiences, we turn to the ‘flashy’ poses for photos. The unintended, cumulative effect is an advertisement for aerial yoga that is more shallow and less inclusive than the reality.

So let’s tackle the easy part first: How much weight should a hammock physically be able to hold?

In the system I trained in, Unnata Aerial Yoga, the teachers are trained to ensure each component of their hammocks (included the ceiling anchors) are rated for at least 3,000lbs. Why? Because an object (*you*) swinging or falling through space and caught by a hammock can easily generate 5 times your body weight (or more) depending on the movement. I have personally witnessed this with a force meter. This said, there are limits to the amount of force your body can withstand before suffering internal damage (usually over 1100 lbs). Simply put: You need equipment and ceiling anchors that are much stronger than the load you will repeatedly put on it. Your equipment is only as strong as its weakest link, so it’s important to know what each component of your hammock is rated for. If your seller doesn’t disclose this information, this is a red flag. Usually the fabric itself will be your weakest link. The highest-rated fabric out there usually tears around 2,000lbs (and doubled as a hammock, this means the loop has about 3,000-4,000lbs of strength when gathered like a rope).

Since not all ‘aerial yoga’ hammocks sold online meet the generally accepted safety minimums of the aerial industry, it IS important to ask about weight limits. Just because someone hangs a sign saying they are an aerial expert… ’it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’

So, if a studio’s hammocks and ceiling anchors are strong enough to hold a person well over 250lbs, why did people pick 250 as the weight limit?

The first time you try aerial yoga and begin to transfer all of your weight into the hammock, it’s much like a hot bathtub. Your body begins a dialogue with the brain: “WHAT is that? Is it in the right place? Is it supposed to feel like that? Am I in pain? Am I receiving a massage? Am I in danger?”

Your nervous system continuously alerts your brain that something might be wrong, and the brain does its best to figure out how to respond to all the unfamiliar and potentially intense sensations. As you may have experienced, in your first class it can be confusing to figure out which muscles to relax and which to use. Luckily, the body learns at light speed. After about 3 classes you’ll witness a dramatic change in the body’s response to the fabric. As the sensations become familiar, the nervous system relaxes and what was once an intense sensation now feels like a “massage” you crave.

For many years I taught at a studio in Minneapolis that was the creator of “Big A#%! Yoga” (a cheeky name for yoga classes that modified postures to accommodate larger body parts and various body shapes). Because of this, and because aerial yoga was almost completely unknown back then, I decided not to set a weight limit for my classes, since my rigging was plenty strong. Thus, I ended up working with individuals who weighed over 250lbs on a regular basis. I also ended up working with many people with Rheumatoid arthritis and other joint issues.

Both populations found the hammock helpful for decompression of joints and accessing a larger range of motion. However, the pressure normally shouldered by the joints is simply transferred to something else: the places where the fabric makes contact with your body… Thus, the more weight a person has, the more pressure on the tissue and bones there will be.

While more weight and larger limbs can make certain hammock asanas less comfortable, over the years, I’ve observed that a person’s comfort level has less to do with weight and more to do with an individual’s (a) body awareness, (b) skin sensitivity, (c) fascial tightness, and (d) ability to breathe through confusion or discomfort.

I have taught 300lb students that don’t report (and don’t visibly show) any more discomfort than the 150lb students next to them. On the other end, I’ve had 100lb students report that inverting without padding was so uncomfortable for them they could barely breathe. I’ve heard self-described “wimpy” students absolutely love the sensations of the hammock, while I once had a bodybuilder tear up because of the intense sensation. Some students with Fibromyalgia just love the hammock for the joint relief it offers… while others cannot handle the skin sensation. Point being, you just never know until you try it. YES, extra weight will cause increased pressure at the point the hammock touches you, but there are so many other factors that contribute to a person’s safety, comfort, and well-being.

While some studios may set a 250lb limit, I generally advise students between 250-300lbs that there will be additional pressure from the hammock and thus I’ll be there to help them make modifications or add padding. I suggest this based on the feedback I’ve received from students over the years as well as observing how it is often necessary to maneuver differently and be aware of joint angles when your body parts have more mass. And, sure, muscle weighs more than fat. So tight muscles and fascia will definitely make the hammock feel like a foam roller in some postures (remember the crying bodybuilder?)

Since I never know how someone will react to the hammock, I teach ALL new students how to pad and how to enter the posture slowly (incrementally) so they can be extra comfortable as they enter into an asana that might be intense. As I mentioned, there are many other factors aside from weight. The Unnata Aerial Yoga method focuses around releasing tension and creating space in the body before moving into deeper stretching or strengthening. Since that was my training, I do everything in my power to prevent students from tensing/hardening up against the hammock.

While not all Unnata Aerial Yoga teachers specialize in modifying for larger bodies, all have been trained to observe body tension, pad, notice correct fabric placement, and creative problem-solve to help students access postures in a way that is healthy for them.

So, in the spirit of creating a fun and positive experience in your first aerial yoga classes, here are 10 tips for anyone with sensitive skin, tight fascia, or more body weight:

1) Padding is smart. Just do it. There are no extra points for bruising or nerve damage. No matter what your physical size or sensitivity level, using blankets and folded yoga mats in creative ways will help distribute the pressure from the “rope” of the hammock out onto a softer, broader surface. Simply folding the fabric in half or quarters can completely change the support as well.

My favorites are: a quartered mat for rib hang and back straddle postures; a folded mexican blanket saddled wide for hip hang postures.

2) Experiment to find a comfortable hammock placement on your body. Come in and out of the posture until it starts to feel normal. Ask your teacher for advice!

3) Take more frequent breaks off the hammock to let the skin and muscles decompress for a few breaths.

4) Move into postures incrementally, taking time to breathe and check-in with the sensations of the body each step along the way. For example, when entering rib hang “chair” pose, you don’t need to walk all the way forward with your hips under your shoulders to experience the benefits. Keep yourself leaned back behind plumb line, release your tail, and protect your knees by keeping them at a shallower angle.

5) Understand that if you are 250lbs, you have to be much stronger to achieve many of the strengthening postures than your 120lbs neighbor. Aerial yoga is a practice that sends you on a journey inward. Forget about what it looks like on the outside and focus on your own strength and what it feels like.

6) How much sensation is too much? The goal in many postures that utilize gravity’s pull is to find release and create more space in the body. If the sensation is too intense and it feels like you are being “pulled apart”, you’ve gone too far. Your body will actually open more when you step back from that place of intensity. You’ll feel less sensation but you’ll be able to relax and bring in more breath.

7) If you’re angry, everyone around you will seem angry. If you’re peaceful, you’ll see the peace around you. Bring this realization to your physical experience of the hammock: If you deeply soften your body at the places you make contact with the hammock, the hammock will magically feel softer. Once you feel safe, direct your focus to the physical qualities that feel good, and they will expand. (You can use this trick with mat postures that press your bones into the hard floor as well!)

8) Be mindful of your knees! This advice goes for everyone, but if you feel any instability or pain in your knees, stop the posture, and take the traditional mat variation of the posture instead. Ask your teacher after class to help you determine if you need a modification or whether you simply need to change your alignment, fabric placement/angle or muscular engagement.

9) If you have larger thighs, here are some inversion tips:
** Seated back straddle (from bucket seat):
(a) Don’t let the fabric ride down the thigh – keep it up by the base of the butt.

(b) Make sure more of the fabric is at your low back (as opposed to under your legs), since this is what will support you in the inversion. If you fold the fabric in half for extra support, this is especially important.

(c) Externally rotate your legs AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE so the knees point outward to the walls. Then bend the knees around the fabric into a “spiderman”/diamond shape. Keeping the legs clipped will ease the pressure on your low back and prevent you from sliding out.

** Hip Hang: Hanging with legs straight may create too much pressure at the hip, or can pull you back so far your feet touch the ground, preventing you from hanging. Instead, bend your knees, cross your ankle, and relax your inner thighs. Keep your knees heavy and rotate your pelvis forward until you feel your low back start to flatten out (versus rounding).
**Inversion “underwire”: For any inversion, cinch a yoga strap comfortably around your torso at top of your pecs. This chest support will help you breathe easier and stay comfortable.

10) If you are shopping for an aerial hammock, get “non-stretch” fabric BUT make sure it is the type of nylon that actually stretches “width-wise” (not length-wise). Cheaper aerial hammocks sold online are made of parachute material that does not stretch in either direction and can cut badly and cause severe bruising.

As an Unnata Aerial Yoga course leader, I equip trainees with as many tools as possible to address individual students’ needs. When the teacher knows how to help a student pad & fold fabric, how to modify inversions based on body shape (apple, carrot, deep lumbar curve, etc), how to modify for larger limbs, tricky knees, overly loose or tight joints, and the potential contraindications for each posture, their teaching becomes infinitely more safe, efficient, and satisfying for both themselves and the students.

10 Tips – How Aerial Yoga Can Help You Get Grounded

Yoga has always been a very grounding experience for me. Something about feeling the ground underneath my feet, feeling every bit of connection to the floor, and experiencing the play of inhale and exhale… I have always left a yoga practice feeling very centered. I wasn’t sure what to make of aerial yoga when I first heard about it. I figured it would just be a fun novelty practice, worth trying because it looked like fun. I was surprised to find that using the hammock for yoga actually enhanced my connection to the earth and to my breath in new and interesting ways that carried forward.

As someone who spends a great deal of time working against gravity in my everyday life as an aerial instructor and performer, the way we use the hammock in aerial yoga provides a nice balance. When the hammock is used to its full advantage, the upward pull of the aerial yoga hammock enhances our appreciation for the downward pull of gravity.

I constantly have students tell me how surprised they are that they can feel so grounded after an aerial yoga class. There are a few things I incorporate into every aerial yoga practice that allow for this groundedness to occur. For anyone who’s ever practiced aerial yoga and felt a little too floaty, or even dizzy, I recommend trying these tips for grounding the next time you practice.

Tip #1
Use your breath! Concentrate on feeling the upward pull of the hammock as you inhale, and the downward pull of gravity every time you exhale.

Tip #2
Find places to relax and let gravity provide a nice downward pull to your body while you are hanging in the hammock. In many postures, the more you are able to relax in the right places, the more grounded and extended you will feel.

Tip #3
Find ways to use different parts of your body to pull the hammock down toward the floor, to enhance the sense of grounding. For example, when in a warrior pose with the leg suspended in the hammock, really pull that leg down toward the floor. You will be amazed at how grounded this makes you feel!

Tip #4
Explore the similarities and differences between aerial postures and their floor equivalents throughout your practice. Notice what aspects of each posture the hammock enhances, or challenges. Use the actual floor to provide relief and balance after hanging or inverting in the hammock.

Tip #5
Be aware of where you are in space when using the hammock. If you position yourself directly underneath the rig point, the upward pull will feel very different then if you position yourself in front of, behind, or to the side of the rig point. Be aware of your dimensions and use them to enhance your alignment in each posture.

Tip #6
Do not overdue the inversions, and be sure to balance them out with grounded and right-side up postures. Many people think of aerial yoga as an inversion-heavy practice, but it does not need to be. In fact, it is possible to practice aerial yoga without any inversions at all if that’s your wish!

Tip #7
End your practice by taking a few moments to be on the floor. Of course you can take final relaxation inside the hammock if you like, but when you come out take a little time to either sit, lie, or stand on the floor and really feel your connection to it. Take a few deep breaths to cement in the new feelings you experienced by using the aerial yoga hammock.

Tip #8
Remember that just because something can be done with the hammock, does not necessarily mean it will be useful for yoga. As someone who also teaches and performs aerial hammock acrobatics, I can tell you that there are many things I do with the hammock for acrobatics that I would never include in an aerial yoga session or class. Use the hammock in ways that will enhance yogic alignment and breath.

Tip #9
Find your center! In aerial yoga we are often grounding from our core. This includes pulling energy into the core of the body to counteract the outward pull of the hammock, breathing from as deep as we can, and sometimes squeezing into the midline as the hammock tries to pull us away in all directions. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and when using an inherently unstable/floating prop, we have the opportunity to become even more stable and grounded as a result.

Tip #10
Enjoy your time in the hammock, but remember that it is simply a (very fun) prop to help you experience how each posture should feel in yoga. The more you learn to translate that to your ground practice, the more you will benefit from aerial yoga!

Happy flying (and stay grounded)!

My Favorite Yoga Sutra (1.33) As Seen Through a Mirror


As Yogis, our wisest leaders tell us that we must embrace unconditional love for each other if we are to find true transformation. And yet, many of us feel fear, sadness and anger more often than we feel peace and serenity. It’s not easy to simply drop an emotion and change our thoughts on a dime, so how can we navigate our way to that place of Yoga in our minds?

When I am confused and my mind only feels and sees chaos, I often look to Yoga Sutra 1.33 to give me guidance in how to find this unconditional love: “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” (translation Swami Satchidananda)

Usually I read this Sutra as a guideline for how I can shape my own attitude, and as a goal for which I can strive. After all, change begins from within. Today, though, I am reminded that we do not live our lives in a bubble, and I can help change myself through what I hear echoed back to me from family, friends and community. My insight today is that this Sutra can help me learn how I should behave towards others, and it can also help me determine which people in my circles are assistants or detractors to my own personal transformation.

For example, when I experience mental disturbance like anger or even rage, I can recognize that the friends and family who ignore the mental disturbance are true assistants in helping me find Yoga. I will listen to them more closely than to those who engage with the anger and try to fuel it. When I experience sadness, I will receive more help to find mental peace by listening to the friends and family who give me solace, and disregard comments from well meaning but misguided friends who say, “toughen up,” “get over it,” or “you’re being too sensitive.” When I am happy, the friends who celebrate with me will be most helpful. And, when I am trying in the way I feel best to move our society in the direction of positive change, those friends who give words of encouragement, as opposed to cynicism or despair, will be the best allies towards my own personal growth.

Most of us feel loved and supported by our friends, because we can choose our friends. But family members are a different story. We may not be able to escape the family members with whom we profoundly disagree. It’s important to remember that as family, we may even have internalized some of their attitudes as we were growing, learning, and developing as children into the adults we are now. This may be one of the reasons why it can be difficult to adopt new attitudes: family members have a profound influence on us.

Many of us are headed into a holiday season that brings us to interact (or purposefully not interact) with our families. Keep in mind that we are all at different places on our journey towards personal transformation, and we all have different “triggers” that misguide us. Remember to use the lessons from Yoga Sutra 1.33 to help discern between helpful and unhelpful attitudes – both your own, and those of those around you. And then, when you find yourself in that peaceful place of loving, no matter which actions emerge, you will be able to trust you are on the right path towards peace for all.

Om Shanti,

Taking Classes With a Master Yogi (Reflection of Yoga Sutra 2.5)

img_1998I am lucky to live in the same city as Master Yogi Dharma Mittra. Dharma is one of the few Yoga teachers alive today who has received traditional teachings directly from a guru, and practiced those teachings for over 50 years. An authentic Yoga practice is not limited to the physical exercises of asana. It includes dietary guidelines, ethics, breathing techniques, meditation techniques, and more. These limbs of an authentic Yoga practice help us transition from a small, limited perception of life to a larger perspective of wholeness, which inspires a sense of internal calm. Anyone who studies with Dharma can see his authenticity; and for those of us who wish to pursue Yoga studies beyond physical fitness, we cherish our opportunities to study with this Master Yogi.

But I’m not writing this message to convince you to take classes with Sri Dharma Mittra. Instead, I want to inspire you to take classes with teachers in addition to Dharma Mittra.

Over the years, I have noticed a bizarre phenomenon with many students at Dharma Mittra’s center. On days when Dharma is not teaching, many students do not attend class. I have even seen students arrive to the studio unaware of Dharma’s absence, and then turn around and leave when they hear that a different teacher will lead that day’s class.


Yes, Dharma is a living legend. But that doesn’t mean other teachers have nothing to offer. Dharma’s years of devoted practice have instilled the wisdom that his being is not limited to the body. Dharma Mittra identifies with the spirit, and spirit is not limited to time and space. Dharma frequently teaches, “You are not the body.” The students who truly learn from Dharma listen to him, and believe him. Dharma’s spirit is everywhere at the Dharma Yoga center, even when his body is not there.

Every time I arrive at the center to take class, I think, “this center is a gift, this class is a gift.” My thought doesn’t change simply because someone else will be teaching on any given day.

In addition, I always receive an exceptional asana class whenever a teacher substitutes for Dharma. Keep in mind: Dharma’s substitutes also adhere to the same serious track of study as Dharma. They didn’t just complete a teacher training yesterday! Not only do Dharma’s teachers have the knowledge and experience to lead an amazing class, they also use Dharma’s basic sequence while highlighting the unique insights they have gleaned along the way.

Dharma’s teachers are translators of an intricate language that takes years of study to fully comprehend. The language of Yoga seems simple at first, but continues to unfold its wisdom over a lifetime as we practice and study. Listening to each teacher, we begin to hear the layers of teachings being translated, and we develop fluency with the language of Yoga. Like instruments in an orchestra, each Yoga teacher voices a part of the same, multi-layered composition. The violin is not more important than the cello, nor the conductor more important than the instruments; all work in harmony so we can hear the whole symphony.

When I go to the Dharma Yoga center, I am not a teacher. I am a student. And part of my role as student is to follow instructions, perhaps try something I would not do in my home practice, sing a chant I don’t know, or contemplate a belief that wasn’t a part of my childhood education and doesn’t feel natural at first. Part of being a student is having trust and faith in the teacher. Dharma has selected the teachers who can substitute teach his classes. If he believes a teacher is satisfactory to cover for him, then I trust Dharma’s wisdom.

I believe in Dharma’s authenticity, and I want to support him and the work he does.

Part of the support I can offer is to help continue the existence of the Yoga studio he established through remaining a consistent student. This is not charity! I only benefit in the end. The healthy financial existence of the Yoga studio means that Dharma will continue to have a place to teach, and I will continue to have a place to study.

Do you have a beloved Yoga teacher? You may think you are showing loyalty to your favorite teachers by only attending their classes, but let’s not forget the lessons learned in Yoga Sutra 2.5: “Through not appreciating the nature of the transient, the impure, the painful, and the non-holy appear pure, holy, pleasurable and permanent. (translation Kofi Busia)”

Remember that your time with any given teacher is impermanent, and although you can use that fact to help you appreciate the classes and the knowledge you receive from your favorite teacher, don’t let a teacher’s absence prevent you from seeking the true goal of Yoga: self-realization. Worship of the teacher is not the goal. I encourage you to keep practicing in whichever way you can, no matter what the external circumstances, because you are also not your body. The real you is your spirit.

Om Shanti,

Michelle Dortignac


IMG_0027I recently had the misfortune of experiencing a severe allergic reaction. My skin erupted in all-over itching and burning, aggravated by all elements – heat, water, wind, and touch. Within a few days, my entire existence became intolerably irritated.

Up until that moment, my skin had been a guardian angel – a shield from external assaults, and a safe-keeper of my internal vitals. This time, however, the skin was being attacked from the inside, not the outside, and quite understandably, it reacted dramatically.

Once the reaction had downgraded from a potential life-threat of windpipe closure to just miserably uncomfortable, I knew all I could do was wait for my body to complete its stages of allergic response. I then reflected on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.30: “These are the obstacles that bring disturbance to the mind: disease, lack of effort, loss of interest, inapplication, attraction to things physical, false perceptions, lack of concentration, inability to maintain any achievements gained.” (Translation: Kofi Busia 1998)

Two things strike me as I read that sutra. The first is this: disease doesn’t allow one to be at rest mentally. When one is literally struggling to do basic activities like eat, breathe and sleep, it takes not only physical energy, but also immense mental concentration. The second insight from sutra 1.30, however, is this: disease can be defined as being generated from within the individual.

When I look at the long list Patanjali gives for disturbances to the mind, we usually attribute most of them to inner qualities like laziness, inability to focus, or lack of desire. Because these attitudes and behaviors come from within, we believe we can control them and create mental change. Physical disease, on the other hand, appears to come from outside of us – a foreign invasion of microbes and germs. We assume disease happens to us, and is not caused by us.

Yes, of course disease inflicts upon us from outside sources such as viruses and bacteria; but the outside sources are matched by inside sources, too. As many wise Yoga teachers say, “As below, so above.” Yoga is a blurring of the line between inside and outside, them and us. It is a unification of within and without, of yin with yang. And the more one studies Yoga, the more one realizes nothing needs to be done to create this unification. It is already here. All our physical and meditation practices are simply meant to make us aware of this fact.

My stresses at the moment of the allergic reaction were about trying to appease dissatisfied people, devoting considerable amounts of time and even some personal finance to help ensure success for those individuals. Quite honestly, I think my inner annoyance and irritation just decided to show itself through my skin, as I grew increasingly tired of working towards a goal that I believed would go unappreciated. Inflamed and impassable, my skin would no longer allow me to give any more of my internal energy away.

And so, how to heal?

At some point I remembered the strong connection between the skin and lungs. As the rash was always worst when I wanted to go to bed, I sat down for an evening meditation session. I watched the breath as it entered the nose, and felt it travel up the bridge into the sinuses. I focused on the cool sensation of the air as it entered, and worked its way into my lungs. I encouraged the lungs to keep expanding more and more, and as they inflated, I felt the lungs press down towards the floor, gently pressing against the abdominal cavity, like the roots of a tree fanning out into the ground. The deeper I breathed, and the more intent I focused on the cool air entering my lungs, the more my skin calmed down, and stopped angrily demanding my attention. I could then transition from the meditation cushion to the bed for some much-needed rest.

To completely heal, I’ll continue to practice the techniques taught to me by many amazing Yoga healers over the years. Because nothing will change outside, until I can change inside.

Om shanti.
Michelle Dortignac

Being an Unnata® Aerial Yoga Teacher by Stephanie Paz

Stephanie Paz was a teacher at Sacred Sounds Yoga in Manhattan up until its closure in 2020. She received her 200 hour Yoga certification in June of 2014 at Sacred Sounds Yoga, and received her Unnata® Aerial Yoga certification in February of 2015. Stephanie is also a practicing visual artist.


Firstly, I must tell you how significant and life changing this style of yoga has been for me and others I am close with.  Michelle’s class was the first group yoga class I’d ever gone to, back in 2009. Prior to that, I did yoga along with videos to help my chronic low back pain. The asanas in the silks, along with the chanting, meditation and pranayama Michelle integrated into this class changed everything for me. It healed me in so many ways. Without the physical release from pain I would not have been able to open my heart, soul, and mind in the ways I have. Unnata has been a true blessing in my life.

The impetus for me to teach came out of a feeling that I’ve felt for some time, that this practice is too significant to be deemed a ‘trend’ or ‘fad’. I wanted to teach and spread the Unnata style of yoga to show others its yogic integrity. An integrity which is often lost in most aerial yoga classes out there today. I truly believe it is my dharma to share what Michelle has so lovingly taught me over the years.

The 200 hr. YTT prerequisite that Michelle has placed on this course is brilliant. Even though I had taken so many of her classes and knew how to get in/out of the aerial asanas quite expertly, without it, I could have never been able to teach in the informed way in which yoga is to be taught. As well, the emphasis on the chakra system enlightened everything about the sequencing in the silk. I started to realize, “Oh, that’s why that feels so good!”.


As Unnata teachers we are able to be dynamic because we are Yoga teachers first, paired with an amazing prop that holds and supports our students through their practice so they can achieve release. Release which can be daunting and often take a very long time to find in a floor practice. But once experienced, helps unlock many floor asanas.

As a teacher you understand and honor that every-body is different. So actually seeing people move through the silk and watching their subtle energies bubble to the surface (because they probably have never moved that way in their life) is profound and your understanding of humanity infinitely grows. I appreciate that safety always comes first in Unnata and that the training course really prepares you for that experience. Whether it is the: rigging, assisting, alignment queues, or fearful / tense energy, you learn what to look for, what that may mean, and how you can shift the energy of the room to help people relax and be safe.

Learning the intricacies of what goes into teaching this style blew me away. I wouldn’t have known it just from taking class. That, coupled with the experience of teaching brought me full circle and has greatly illuminated my personal life and practice.

I am looking forward to teaching this style for the rest of my days. Thank you, Michelle!

Om shanti ~ Stephanie Paz

Yoga Sutra 2.22 -Time passes continually – even when you aren’t watching.

“The existence of all objects of perception and their appearance is independent of the needs of the individual perceiver. They exist without individual reference to cater for the different needs of different individuals.”

— T.K.V. Desikachar

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This Yoga Sutra defines what we all intuitively know, and it may seem obvious at first. An example would be: whenever you leave your kitchen, and you are no longer looking at or thinking of your kitchen table, the table does in fact, still exist.

And yet, even though this is a seemingly obvious statement, how many times have you been surprised by your niece’s/nephew’s seemingly “sudden” growth spurt since you last saw them? Have you ever been taken aback by the choice of your ex-boyfriend’s/ex-girlfriend’s new partner? Have you ever visited an old workplace and discovered they in fact actually are doing fine without you, despite how much they relied on you to keep the place running?

These kinds of surprises are usually easy to absorb, and don’t throw us mentally off-track too much, but they do highlight a fact common to all of us that is not as easy to absorb: the world continues to move and change without our involvement. Inevitably, in our fast-paced lives this is something that we frequently forget. And at some point we experience the rather negative feeling of having been “left behind” or “left out of the loop,” whether it be feeling “old and out of touch,” or “not needed,” or “useless” or “unimportant.”

Many surprises we experience in life can unsettle us: we are laid-off from a job, a relationship suddenly ends, some part of our home breaks and needs repair, etc. These types of surprises are niggling reminders that we cannot control our environment and/or situation as much as we would like. We cannot protect ourselves 100% from “bad” things happening to us. If we can just hold the words of wisdom from Yoga Sutra 2.22 as the backdrop for whenever we look out at the world, we can mitigate these feelings of helplessness and/or loneliness that sometimes arise. If we can remember during those times of unpleasant surprises that we in fact, were never completely in control of our destiny even when “good” luck had come our way, then we won’t be left with feelings such as guilt or shame for not having been able to predict what was about to happen in the hopes of averting bad luck. The universe does not revolve around our actions and us. It keeps running even when we aren’t paying attention. And this can be good news for us! For we don’t need guilt and/or shame to make traumatic events that happen to us more disruptive than they already are. We may be able to choose our actions, but we cannot choose the actions of others or of the elements, especially since they keep changing and shifting when we aren’t able to look.