Should There Be a Fee for Meditation Instruction?

Should learning to meditate be free? Should instructors be paid for sharing their expertise?

I’ve been thinking about these questions intensely since attending a recent meditation teacher training in which the answer was a resounding NO.

Without naming names, this training was offered for free by a local non-profit that has brought meditation into public schools, churches, the military, large corporations, prisons, hospitals–you name it. Although I already had formal training as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teacher and other forms of meditation, I wanted to learn more about best practices for working in the public sector.

But the day left me feeling very frustrated and discouraged. We were told that we were not being certified as representatives of the organization, that they did not want any volunteers, and if we wanted to teach meditation on our own, we should should still follow their provided script and not bring in any other wisdom or techniques. They reiterated again and again that we should not charge for meditation instruction, period.

I felt confused. While I feel that meditation should be made accessible to all, those sharing their skills also need to make a living. How to balance those issues?

At the lunch break I sat with a few participants and informally polled them about their reasons for attending and intentions to teach meditation. Everyone had noble aspirations, from teaching their grandchildren to meditate, to working with battered women’s shelters, to making meditation available to non-English speakers. Sharing the benefits of a meditation practice with others is a beautiful thing; with that I could not argue.

Yet I had invested $2500 in my training as an MBSR teacher, not to mention the money I had spent learning bodywork modalities, yoga teacher training, and personal enrichment, trying to make myself a well-rounded teacher. Was I wrong to want to be compensated for my hard-earned expertise and experience?

I decided to press the instructor further on his financial model. If his organization has no outside funding, there are no paid employees, he doesn’t charge for his services, and this is his full time career, how does he support himself? I asked him this pointedly in front of the group and he replied, “How do I live? I live peacefully and happily.” It was all I could do not to flip him the bird.

I felt insulted, frankly. I am serious about my meditation practice and about sharing its benefits with others. I am just as serious about paying my rent on time and wanting to secure a future for myself. Money is not a dirty word; it’s just energy. Exchanging money for instruction in meditation seems acceptable to me. I have always donated some of my time and services to underserved populations, which is my way of making them accessible to those who might not be able to afford them.

After this experience I began to wonder, should people charge for meditation instruction? I mean, what could be more simple than focusing the attention on the breath? It’s the birthright of everyone on this planet. Everyone has the tools, yet I hear from people all the time that they want help in developing the skills, and some are willing to pay for that expertise.

But not all. Twelve years after starting my massage practice, two years after my yoga teacher training, and a year after my MBSR training, I am barely getting by financially. I am in my mid-40s and have never made more than $20k per year. I’m over it! I don’t aspire to be rich and enjoy living simply, but I would like to feel secure, knowing that I can pay my bills and be planning for my old age. Mindfulness was recently on the cover of Time magazine, evidence that it has become mainstream, yet here I am.

I’m not sure what I want to do with all this. I am planning to go back to graduate school in the fall and finish my master’s degree in library and information science, hoping it might lead to a better job where I can still help people. I’m not sure what to do with this blog, or my website, whether to market my teaching or where to put my energy.

I would really like to hear from people about whether meditation instruction has value, and whether to charge a fee or not. If you are “making it” as a spiritual teacher, let me know how. Is there a model that you think works well (e.g. a corporation sponsoring meditation instruction made available for free to participants)? Teachers, students, I want to hear from everyone.

Thank you!


Do Yoga Because it’s Stressful

I’m puzzled when people say they can’t do yoga or meditate because they can’t relax, or they aren’t flexible enough. No one is born with the innate ability to relax; the practice itself is what brings increased focus and clarity. By meeting challenging situations again and again with conscious breath, you begin to develop relaxation and serenity. It takes time but research shows that after just six weeks of daily practice, the benefits of yoga and meditation are measurable.

The brain tends to react automatically to sensations of discomfort, triggering the physiological stress response. This might include increased heart and breathing rates, muscle tension, and higher levels of  cortisol and stress hormones. While some stress response is automatic and necessary, it has probably been reinforced by years of negative reactions to stressful situations. Your brain has developed a habit.

The good news is, habits can be changed! Neurons that fire together, wire together. Your thoughts and actions have an effect on the chemical composition of the brain, and the firing pattern of your neurons. A change in posture, relaxing the muscles of your face, and slowing your breathing all affect the brain in a positive, calming way.

In a yoga practice you might experience the stress response when you feel the buildup of lactic acid as muscles strain, or the restricted breathing while twisting your spine. Being upside down or feeling off balance can also produce anxious thoughts. You might suddenly think you’re going to overstretch, or that you’re not strong enough to hold the pose any longer. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to hold warrior pose for one more breath or running away from a sabre toothed tiger, the physiological response is the same: Your muscles tense and your brain reacts with negative thoughts.

But this works both ways. If you relax those muscles, especially in the face, the brain gets a message that says, “oh, time to relax”. Same with deliberately slowing your breathing. Yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It’s the practice of staying calm during those stressors that creates a neurobiological benefit. Yoga retrains the brain’s habit so it doesn’t produce the stress response so automatically.

So when you feel the stress response happening in your body, use slow and deep breathing, relax the face, clear your head of anxious thinking, and focus on what’s happening in the present. These are real skills you can apply to your life, on or off the mat.

Headstand: It’s Just a Matter of Perspective

Headstand. Sirsasana. The King of Asana.

This magnificent pose has a rightful place as king and its benefits are innumerable: it calms the nervous system, nourishes the brain cells, stimulates the heart and circulation, balances hormones, improves digestion, and strengthens the spirit.

Headstand against a wall

Headstand against a wall

For many years I considered this pose too advanced for me. I never even attempted it. Even as my practice grew, I always considered it something that would happen in the future.

Then I enrolled in yoga teacher training. I got a list of the asana we were going to cover and there it was: Sirsasana. Gulp.

I picked out a few poses that I knew were going to be a challenge for me and spent the year prior to training working them in to my daily practice. For headstand, that meant months of building up strength and flexibility in my shoulders. I spent a lot of time in plank with dolphin arms. When that became more comfortable, then I began to walk my toes in so I was in more of a downward dog shape, still on dolphin arms. I got to where I could walk my toes in pretty far.

But that’s where I plateaued. I still could not imagine where I would find the strength to hoist my legs up over my head. It didn’t help that I was going through a divorce and having menopausal night sweats that left me feeling depleted. I didn’t exactly feel like I had an inner reservoir of strength. I tried to simply accept where I was with the pose, and that maybe I’d be hanging out there for a few more years.

Then I enrolled in an inversions workshop, scheduled to take place the day before our Headstand class. I thought, “Why not? Maybe I’ll learn some tips to help me get to the next level.” I let go of the need to be able to do the full Headstand.

The time came. I knealt down in front of the wall and interlaced my fingers, put my head on the floor, pulled my shoulderblades together, and started walking my feet in, just like always. And then–it happened. I saw my own feet lift off the floor and disappear from view. It was like an unseen hand lifted me up and there I was–in the full pose (with the wall as a prop). I felt euphoric, awestruck by own abilities.

Something clicked that day. I was able to make some progress by getting out of my own way, by learning to accept where I was. When I found real contentment in a modification of the pose, then I was able to surrender the ego long enough to move forward.

For the next few months I was addicted to Headstand. I felt like I had to do it every day just to keep proving to myself that I could. My ego had not totally surrendered! The posture became a restorative staple, busting one out against a tree after a long walk, during massage breaks, or instead of a nap.

I’ve been actively practicing this posture for about two years. I’m still practicing this pose against a wall for support. Now I’m working on taking my feet away for longer and longer stretches. Rather than doing a few Headstands in a row, now I’m working on staying in for longer periods of time. Headstand has become one of my daily practice “essentials”.

You can do this pose, too. Here’s how:

Warm up with some sun salutations or downward dog first.

1. Fold a yoga blanket or mat and lay it against a wall. Kneel in front of the blanket and place your forearms on it, sphinx-style. The elbows should be  no wider than the shoulders. Form a triangle with your arms by interlacing your fingers. The fingers should be about 4 inches from the wall.

2. Start pressing down through the elbows and bring the hips in closer to the shoulders. Press the wrists down.

3. Place the crown of the head between the wrists, with the back of the head cradled by the hands. The very top of the head is in contact with the floor and the neck is aligned.

4. Tuck the toes under and straighten the knees so you’re in an inverted V shape. Walk your feet toward your head, bringing the weight on to the top of the head.

5. When the feet can’t walk in any further, lift them off the floor and bring the heels toward the buttocks. ground down through the elbows and wrists.

6. Begin to straighten the legs and lift up through the shoulders. Tuck the shoulderblades on the back. There should be lots of space between the shoulders and ears. Lengthen the waist, drawing the belly in.

7. Stay for 5 breaths in the beginning, building up over many  months to 10 minutes of more. Come down by reversing the steps, and rest in Child’s Pose for a few breaths afterward.

Yoga as Nirodha

Lately I’ve been noticing a change in attitude toward my yoga. Somewhere over the years it moved away from being just a physical exercise and more toward a spiritual practice.

In high school and through my 20s I used yoga mainly as a way to switch gears, usually at the end of a work or school day as I prepared for an evening of different activity. I definitely noticed physical benefits like deeper breathing, longer muscles, and a sense of release of tension and fatigue. That was enough to keep me going.

The mental and spiritual benefits of yoga came sort of as an accident, or as a by-product of simply doing it. I found I could concentrate better and had more energy after doing my yoga. I felt at peace, at one with the world. Whatever worries or stresses I had arrived with seemed at least quieter after a practice.

Somewhere along the line I began to use yoga off the mat. I applied yogic breathing to situations where I needed to be patient, to work through physical pain, and to manage anxiety during stress. I found myself doing asana at the laundrymat, in the bathroom at work, and whenever I could get a spare moment. The feeling of at-one-ness began to seep out into my daily life and expanded my sense of inclusiveness.

But it wasn’t until I started studying Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras that I began to put words to concepts that I had experienced empirically in my practice.

Early in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras he provides a basic definition of yoga:

1.2 yogascittavrttinirodhah

yoga citta vrtti nirodah

Yoga is the process of calming down the mind.

Breaking this down, ‘yoga’ can be seen as ‘union’; ‘citta’ is the field of consciousness, the mental plane; ‘vrrti’ are the fluctuations in the field of consciousness, the monkey mind and incessant chatter we all have to contend with. ‘Nirodha’ is the calming and stilling of the chatter. Therefore yoga leads to the stilling of the mental fluctuations and a calm mind.

Yoga is both a means and an end. It is the practice of learning to stay focused amidst all of life’s sensory input and mental distractions, whether on or off the mat, and the state of calm attention that arises from the practice. In the resulting quiet we experience the presence of our inner light of awareness.

Santosha: Making Peace with Reality

I’ve been chasing rainbows again. I felt dissatisfied with my current housing, worried that it costs too much, and spent hours and hours online overwhelming myself with housing options. Apartments, houses, city, country, buy, rent… You know you’ve lost touch with reality when living in a storage unit seems reasonable. I felt discontented with everything, so I sat myself down and started a  list of what’s really important in my housing.

As I added items to my list, I began to realize that I already had a lot of what I thought I yearned for. Sure it would be nice to have a bigger kitchen, or less freeway noise. Maybe what I have doesn’t look exactly like my fantasy, but it certainly meets most of my needs. With this realization, I felt myself relax a little.

I sat quietly and tried to take in the present moment, the present circumstances, and my current environment. I was reminded of the concept of santosha, or contentment, one of the yamas, or ‘restraints’, listed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:

2.42  From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained. (Santosha anuttamah sukha labhah.)

Santosha comes from within. It’s a sense of freedom from attachment to the wants and desires of this world. When we are filled up with desire it increases our dependence on possessions and the senses. We think that ‘things’, or anything ‘more-better’– a better job, a better relationship, will make us happy. But no matter how things turn out materially, the result ultimately leads to a level of discontentment. You always want more and can never be satisfied. This is particularly true in the West and especially in America, where we’re constantly bombarded with the ‘more-better’ message.

Contentment is really about accepting life as it is. It’s not about creating perfection. Life can and will throw whatever it wants at you, and ultimately you have little control. Your own measure for santosha is how you respond to the changes in all the circumstances of life.

Yoga is a great venue for exploring this because yoga is skill in action. It requires a balance between the effort you put out and how much you allow or surrender. We don’t have to wait for more growth or a higher experience of yoga, because it will never come. Welcome whatever shows up. It may be a tricky asana, a difficulty at work, or a challenge in your relationship.

I haven’t mastered santosha. I still lust for a big, beautiful kitchen. But I can practice some contentment with the kitchen I have right now. And maybe later, I can release the desire for any sort of kitchen at all. If you release your mind from constantly wanting your situation to be different, you’ll find more ease. This is not to say you can’t change your reality, but just for a moment, see if you can let go of the war with reality. If you do, you’ll be able to think more clearly and be more effective in making a difference.


Yoga as Meditation in Motion

I’m moving through my Sun Salutations, inhaling and exhaling with the movement, or so I think, when I can’t remember which leg to step back into lunge. Wait, did I already do this side? Have I already flowed through Upward Dog? How many rounds have I done? My body is in the room, going through the motions of yoga, but my mind is far, far away. How did I get here?images

It’s so easy to get swept away in thoughts and mind chatter. After all, the mind is doing what it does best–analyzing and problem solving and planning. But when we are just going through the motions of yoga without engaging the mind in the process, then we’re not really doing yoga, which at its essence is stilling the fluctuations of the mind.

When I find myself getting disconnected from the present moment, I like to slow it down. Way down. I’ll start moving through the postures as if in slow motion. Then when I get into the full expression, I take several breaths. I take a few moments to really experience the pose, to feel the directional flow of energy and my connection to the earth. This gives my mind something to do. Then with my mind fully intent on the next step, I breathe and move into the next posture.

Yoga practiced in such a way can be like a meditation in motion. Use the breath as your anchor, moving consciously as you inhale and exhale. The breath can be your reminder to the brain to pay attention to what’s happening right now. Take as many breaths as you need to move in a way that allows you to stay connected to the present movement.

Soon you’ll be able to take this practice off the yoga mat and into the world. We’ve all found ourselves driving along without realizing how we got there, or showering on auto pilot while the mind works overtime. You can apply the same “meditation in motion” principles to every day tasks.

Use the breath to engage in the present moment, and focus the mind on the task at hand.  When you find your mind wandering off into other lands, gently invite it back with kindness, the way you would with a beloved pet. With practice, you’ll be able to move through all of life with more presence and consciousness.

It’s 10pm. Do you know where your vagus nerve is?

The vagus nerve…sounds vaguely familiar, right? What is it and why should you care? The vagus nerve is the primary communicator of the brain to the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the relaxation response, and to the sympathetic nervous system, the fight, flight, or freeze response. And the vagus nerve is emerging as one of the key components in the science of how yoga works.

A team at Boston University School of Medicine recently published a report hypothesizing that yoga works by regulating the nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve. The tonality of the vagus nerve affects how we take in, process, and make sense of our experiences. By increasing vagal tone, we change how the body responds to stress.

The vagus nerve is the largest cranial nerve in the body, beginning at the base of the skull and extending throughout the body, regulating all major bodily functions.

The vagus nerve and its associated systems

The vagus nerve and its associated systems

We take the vagus nerve for granted when we’re feeling balanced; it’s when it’s not functioning that we notice the effects: feelings of depletion, sluggish digestion, increased heart rate, erratic moods. A poorly functioning vagus nerve can be part of depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and epilepsy.

New studies are suggesting that the vagus might work with oxytocin receptors, the neutotransmitter of bonding feelings. People with higher levels of oxytocin are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism – compassion, gratitude, love, and happiness. A happy vagus is a happy human; a happy human is a happy world.

The great news is that its easy to stimulate the vagus nerve. Just breathe! When you take a deep, conscious breath and expand your diaphragm, it stimulates your vagus system. You instantly turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, cortisol (the stress hormone) levels drop, and your body relaxes. Various yoga asana will also help stimulate the vagus, as you can see all the related organs that would be worked through postures.

Tone Up Your Vagus Nerve!

  • Breathe slowly in and out through the nose. Gradually slow the pace down, then begin make the exhale longer than the inhale.
  • Practice asana! Many yoga postures stimulate the VN.
  • Practice resistance breathing such as ujjayi. Breathing this way increases the relaxation response but also helps with heart rate variability (resiliance).
  • Chanting OM out loud increased vagal tone, according to one study.
  • Placing an eye pillow on the forehead can help to stimulate the vagus nerve in restorative yoga.

Receiving Support Through Props

Props such as blankets, blocks, straps, and mats that are commonplace in yoga studios today are relatively new tools for me. When I first started practicing (in the 1970s, egad!), there were no yoga studios, let alone props. For many years I just moved the coffee table aside and practiced on the living room floor. There were no yoga mats, as such, so I’d sometimes use a beach towel.

Props to props!

Props to props!

And so when I entered yoga teacher training in 2011 I found myself resistant to the idea of using props. They weren’t familiar to me, and I resisted change. In fact I had to let go of a lot of old ideas about my practice and be open to new ways of doing things.

One day we were practicing balasana, child’s pose, supported by folded blankets. I folded one blanket into the teeniest, tiniest rectangle and draped my torso over it. My teacher came over and said to the other students, “Look, see how her spine is collapsing. It’s like this one blanket is the only support she’s giving herself.” That struck a chord. Where else in my life was I not giving myself enough support?

We refolded the blanket into a larger rectangle, and stacked another one on top of that. I folded over into the pose. Immediately I felt broader across the back. My heart felt truly supported. I felt a noticeable shift in my ability to relax deeper. Ahhh…

This lady has the right idea!

This lady has the right idea!

During my teacher training I was also separated from my husband (now divorced) and struggling with a lot of emotional upheaval, depression, and anxiety. Many days I just didn’t feel up to movement, yet I craved the benefits of my yoga practice. I began to explore restorative yoga more deeply as a way to keep my practice going but honoring my current needs.

I started using props more often. A lot of props. Stacks of blankets under and over me. Blocks under my forehead in down dog, under my knees in supta baddha konasana. Eye pillows over my forehead and also under my wrists and hands in savasana. Like the Princess and the Pea, I even stacked mats on top of each other for extra cushioning. Sandbags, chairs, bolsters, and lots of pillows filled my yoga room.

At first, restorative work seemed like a “break” from what I considered my regular practice, which was more active. It didn’t seem like “real” yoga. But as I progressed I came to see just how powerful restorative yoga can be. I was learning to meet myself where I was, rather than trying to be someplace else. I was able to stay present with my breath and my feelings more easily in stillness. I came out of my restorative sessions feeling noticeably different, my anxiety and depression lifted, my mind clear. Restorative yoga became an essential part of my self-care.

And I came to love props! I’ve begun to incorporate them more into my total practice, giving myself permission to receive their support. This has translated into my daily life, too. Giving and receiving are flowing more naturally. Using props can help you learn more self-compassion. Life is hard enough–give yourself a loving hand.

Love yourself and others will see the way in you.

Find Your Footing in Tadasana

I was at my chiropractor’s office a few weeks ago for my “tune-up”. I’ve been busier with massage lately and wanted to keep myself primed and ready for work. Dr. Dave suggested maybe it was time to consider orthotics, as most of his massage therapist patients and people who are on their feet all day seem to benefit from them at one point or another.

He asked me to step up on a scanner barefoot and to stand “normally”. For me that meant assuming the stance of Tadasana, Mountain Pose. I quickly sensed different points of contact between my feet and the scale, and energetically lifted the arches. My thighs rolled in and my whole posture lifted and straightened. Then we scanned my feet.

My Tadasana Feet

My Tadasana Feet

Brightly colored images of my feet appeared on the screen, like they’d been tie-dyed. Dr. Dave then turned to me with a very serious look on his face. He said, “In 15 years of practicing, I’ve never seen feet like this.” OMG! My hypochondriac mind was steeling itself for the worst and started over thinking: I’ve massaged barefoot for too long. I’m falling apart. That’s it, it’s all over.

“These are the best feet I’ve ever seen!” was the next sentence out of the doctor’s mouth. “There’s hardly any collapsing in the arches. They look great.”


Tadasana, Mountain Pose

Ah, thank you, Tadasana! It’s one of those humble poses that we tend to zip through as a transition, rather than really spending time engaged in the pose. But the principles of alignment we learn in Tadasana form the foundation of every pose to follow, and the foundation of Tadasana is the feet.

Find Your Tadasana Feet:

  • Stand with your feet under the hips. Bring your awareness to your feet and take a breath into them, feeling them contact the floor.

  • Pick up the toes, wiggle them, spread them out, then set them back down.

  • Now ground down through four points around the foot: base of the big toe, base of the pinkie toe, inner heel, and outer heel, and feel the arches lift in response.

  • The toes find more length and freedom.

All this lifting transfers up the legs into the pelvis, allowing the sacrum to lengthen down and the belly to lift. The sides lengthen and you get more space to breathe and for your organs to function. And who doesn’t want that?

Tadasana is the first posture I ever learned, although I think the instructions were pretty basic: Stand tall like a mountain. I later learned the subtleties of the feet and how profoundly they can affect your posture.

You can practice Tadasana virtually anywhere you find yourself standing: in line at the post office, at a concert, at the grocery store…notice how changing your posture can change your mood and energy levels. Over time you’ll get used to standing in Tadasana and it will become your default posture. And it all starts with the feet.

When Your Hair (or Life) Doesn’t Turn Out the Way You Expected

I’ve been dying my hair on and off since my early teens. Then it was for fun; now it’s to cover the grey. In earlier days I favored bright Manic Panic hair colors that you could buy at the record store, shades like “Cyclamen”, “Wild Orchid”, and “Fire Engine Red”; these days it’s more about making it look “natural”, as if I can even remember what that is.

I decided to try a new shade that promised a “warm auburn glow”. But I was quite surprised when I combed it out. Instead of a warm glow, it looked like beets on fire. I washed it nine times in three days, but it would not tone down it’s fiery brass notes.

A few days later I was in a yoga class. “Oh! I like your hair!” lots of people said, except that instead of taking in the compliment I had to tell the story about how it hadn’t turned out as I’d expected. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” I’d say. “It didn’t look like this on the box.” How many times could we say that about events in our lives that don’t turn out the way we’d hoped? Lots.

Throughout my class I began to think about my attachment to my hair. “Geez, it’s just hair. It will grow. The color will wash out,” I’d say to myself. I realized it wasn’t very yogi-like to be attached to the physical body, or to any sense of permanence. I felt caught out in my own ego.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.6 reads:

Drgdarsana saktyoh ekatmata iva asmita.

False identification is confusing the nature of the seer or Self with the nature of the instrument of perception. In other words, false identification happens when we mistake the mind, body, or senses for the true Self.

Asmita happens when you identify with the parts of yourself that change–your beet-red hair, your aging body, your marital status, your job, even the style of yoga you practice–instead of recognizing that your true core, your inner Self, is unchanging.

We can appreciate and value all the different aspects of ourselves that make us unique, but connecting with the part of yourself that is unchanging, true, and authentic, means that you’ll be less likely to be bothered by physical changes, or any life changes, that are beyond your control.

You can nurture this sense of connection by spending time with yourself, doing yoga, singing, running, or any activity you enjoy can help you focus beyond the physical body. Over time, pose after pose on the mat, you cultivate that relationship with Self, and your yoga, or your hair-coloring ritual, becomes truly a practice in action.

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