Interview: Yoga Practice at Zazen: On the Mat, in the World

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Tyler Krupp interviewed Sandy Lamerson, Yoga Teacher and Yoga Manager at Zazen.

Question: Why practice yoga at Zazen? 

Sandy: Yoga students in San Francisco may be overwhelmed, perhaps overjoyed, by the number of yoga studios in this city as well the number of yoga teachers and styles of yoga. For some new and seasoned students, it may be challenging to find a practice "home". What is important for every student, however, is finding a teacher they can trust: someone who inspires them and helps them grow -- not only in yoga poses, but as a person. 

I think Zazen is a unique yoga studio in San Francisco, in that we provide a warm, inviting "container" for students to explore yoga and explore themselves. Our teachers are trained in both traditional and modern yoga lineages including: Ashtanga, Iyengar, Hatha and Vinyasa Flow, Yin, Restorative, Gentle Yoga and Mindful Movement. Despite the range of yoga styles, all of our teachers work to uphold the principles of yoga and to cultivate the basic intentions of Zazen which are:

Presence - We are present and mindful in our work, practice and teaching

Gratitude - We are aware of the gift of life and look for ways to express gratitude

Care - Our work involves being with people who benefit from our care and attention. 

Mastery - We aspire to master our respective skill or discipline and offer its fullest expression

Zazen teachers recently met to discuss the overreaching intentions of Zazen and how to manifest the mission of Zazen in our yoga classes and everything that we do. Yoga students can expect our teachers to work to cultivate these basic intentions. 

At Zazen, yoga students can expect personal instruction, a meditative environment and teachers who are deeply interested in teaching yoga in its fullest sense. The atmosphere is supportive, non-competitive and community oriented with a focus on cultivating balance, health, wellbeing and growth.

Question: Can you say something about your personal experience teaching and practicing yoga and working at Zazen?

Sandy: I started teaching yoga at Zazen in the spring of 2013 at the old Hyde St. location. Zazen was the first place I started teaching public classes. Zazen has been a supportive place to grow and develop as a teacher. This support has allowed me to become more confident and pursue a path of yoga that feels like a trustworthy and noble path for a lifetime. What I am sharing in my classes now comes from my studies and training in Iyengar yoga. Some hallmarks of Iyengar's teachings are precision in alignment, timing and sequencing. The alignment begins with the outer physical body and leads one to the inner experience of mind and consciousness. So, you could say that yoga is a culturing of the body, but more importantly it is a culturing and maturing of the consciousness.  Last year I had good fortune to travel to India and study with some of BKS Iyengar's long time students. This deepened my faith in yoga practice and I experienced the effects of sustained and directed practiced under skillful teachers. So I feel that as I continue to learn, it becomes my job to share the gift of yoga with others.  BKS Iyengar said, "Teaching Yoga is difficult, but it is the best service you can give to humanity."  

I am also a practicing Buddhist and meditator and my main interest is exploring practices which lead to the cessation of suffering and the growth of wisdom. I feel blessed to live in San Francisco and have the opportunity to study with wise and experienced teachers. 

Working at Zazen in the management team has also been a blessing. I am continually amazed by the positive community space we are creating here. Not only are we a yoga studio, Zazen is also a wellness center and interfaith practice community, so we are a home for many disciplines. 

A unique and fulfilling part of working at Zazen is our daily meditation and check in. Everyday the staff and members sit together for meditation (the public is also welcome). After the meditation  we do a "check in" in which we can share whatever is arising for us that day: physically, mentally, emotionally, basically we can share whatever is arising. Then we state an intention for the shift: this is what we want to manifest in our time together. It can be a practical intention or sometime closer to the heart and spirit. Overall, this practice of meditation and check-in continues to strengthen our community and lead us on in our paths in manifesting what is important to us. 

Question: Teachers often use the phrase, "taking yoga off the mat". What does that mean to you?

Not only do we need community, teachers, teachings in the sacred space of the yoga room or meditation hall, church, mosque or temple, we also need to continue our practice all of the time in our daily life, otherwise there is a disconnect. Disconnection brings suffering. So, to realize yoga, spirituality, or religion you have to BE yoga, be spiritual, be religious. Not just some time, but all of the time. Yoga means union and this union is yoga. To forget even for a moment, to be pulled by desire, greed, hatred, or forgetfulness we are pulled out of this fundamental union. That is why the way we live our life is most important. Our choices, our lifestyle, our patterns our consumption all have a big effect --  but most fundamental is our mind and heart. 

I try to live simply, live with few desires. But it is more than that. There is an active component too. We must actively resist the negative forces and habits in the mind. This transformation is the most difficult thing we can do as human beings, first to transform negative habits into positive ones, and move to a place beyond "good and bad" to a wisdom which sees things as they are and responds appropriately in the moment. This is the essence of Zen and Yoga in my understanding: to never be apart from that fundamental connection. That is what I aspire to.  

Om, shanti, shanti, shanti...

A warm embrace and release

Min, Float Ambassador, Experiential Artist, Zazen Manager

Min, Float Ambassador, Experiential Artist, Zazen Manager

I find room to breathe in floating, away from the external voices, logical narratives, and societal pressures in my daily consciousness, and find some space for grounding and exploring within.

When I first heard about floating, I was curious about the darkness. I had heard it could be a strange secular initiation of sorts. My first float was actually quite uncomfortable, with my neck hurting, hair feeling heavy, and my body reluctant to give itself to the unknown water. As with any practice, I decided to try it for a bit, at least more than once. Upon entering, the tank is very dark and moist every time. After a few more floats, accustomed to the walls and space in between, my breaths started to melt me into the warm darkness, the green screen for an alternate existence.

The reflections that follow come from my journal. These experiences have each only happened once.

“I can’t tell whether my eyes are open or not. It’s darker than the night. I feel nothing. I am nothing. I lie between subconscious and conscious levels. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be dead. I wonder where I would be in death. Something transitions. I get the sense of being truly here in this space, beyond any land I can travel to. In this plane of existence, I feel an amorphous love for humanity. I remember where I happen to be in all this - isolated in the deep, dark tanks of the Marina, and laugh.”

“I enter and feel nothing. I sway from side to side to feel the water, then start breathing and waiting. The sadness I’ve been neglecting for a while comes back. I continue to feel anxious and sad. I start crying and decide to give myself permission to cry more. It feels heavy for a while. I then remember where I am, in a box that resembles a safe, away from my mom. I make the choice to be brave and let myself go deeper. In traveling toward the dark knot of my emotions, sadness and sympathy opens into love, a bright unraveling of my fear. I wonder if my brain is trying to relax me as I start to see my mom, actually happy, a sight I’m sure I have yet to see in real life. I suddenly feel nauseous and sit up for a while.”

“This time, I fell back and felt immediate release. I was excited to see where I would end up. I fell… deep into the dark blue end of an ocean, as I used to imagine beyond the cliffs of Guam, where I grew up. One by one, my tense body was washed away of layers of armors I didn’t know I had been wearing. Why had I been wearing so many? I wondered if I would like dying in the ocean and whether death excited me and whether that’s why I loved the ocean. Like the ocean, I remembered how vast I loved being yet how I wasn’t allowed to be. I had such few places where I could be, even in my own home. My memories cradled me to the surprise of feeling truly loved and seen for the first time and the space for release I felt. My body melted. I felt my brain lighting up. I FELT JOY! I wished for everyone, this sense of release and safety even for one sweet moment in their lives. I felt tears, warm on my face. I remembered when I couldn’t find trust; I couldn’t allow myself to love. I remembered I can be here now with the gift of this memory that’s lasted beyond our relationship.”

Dispatches from the Float Ambassadors: Jane Chen

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Jane Chen, co-founder and CEO of Embrace

Why I float:

Floating is amazing because it really helps to put my mind at ease and bring me stillness, in a way that even meditation cannot at times. My deepest periods of being in a meditative state have been during my floats. I have found that during my most stressful moments, only floating helps to completely clear my mind and bring it to state of thinking about nothing, which is quite remarkable. I highly recommend it for anyone who has never done it, and has found that is has helped to deepen my meditation practice. For those new to meditation or who want to try it, floating is a great way to to know the desired state you want to achieve.

Lessons from floating:

I am generally very claustrophobic and have horrible night vision, so being in the float tank has always been a little scary for me. I usually leave the door ajar just a little bit to let some light in. A few months ago, while I was floating, the door closed completely without my realizing it. Because I was a bit disoriented and my body had shifted position a bit, it was unclear to me which way the exit was. I started to panic: what if I was locked in the float chamber? In my state of panic, I started to tell myself to calm down, which was only serving to make me even more panicked. I finally said to myself instead, "it's ok to be scared." By accepting the fear, rather than judging myself for it, or forcing myself to feel any differently than I did in that moment, I was finally able to calm down. I found my way to the exit and pushed the door open, relieved to see the light flooding into the chamber. While this is certainly not the point of floating, I think it was a good reminder of mindfulness, which to me, is being aware and accepting how you are feeling in each moment, and treating these feelings with peace and equanimity - rather than casting judgement or trying to force them to be any different than what they are.

 

ADVENTURES IN THE TANK

ADVENTURES IN THE TANK

Micha Peled, Director / Producer / Independent Film Maker, Teddy Bear Films

How do you describe NOTHINGNESS? Words fail. At least they do me.

But that’s the premise of floating. Eliminate all sensory stimulation, even gravity, and lsee what happens when you physically feel nothing at all.  

It was with this notion that lowered myself into the lukewarm waters of Zazen’s floatation tank. 

At first, the water is cold. Actually, it’s the air that’s cold. The parts that are not submerged are caressed by the wisp of a cool current. My head bumps lightly against the soft wall a few times as I’m swayed back and forth in the water. 

In “Altered States,” Ken Russell’s 1980 sci-fi cult movie, William Hurt plays a mad scientist who self-experiments in a flotation tank. But he goes in fully loaded on psychedelic substances. I, perhaps overzealously, deny myself any pharmacological assistance in the name of scientific integrity. In the movie, Hurt comes out of the tank completely bonkers,  Hollywood, as usual, offering no insightsinto real life situations. So I’m on my own on this.

In the meantime, things are getting more comfy. My body has adjusted and now the temperature is perfect. I settle in, laying still, my limbs stretched out but not touching anything. It’s effortless. My body is fully relaxed. Now, I have to deal only with my mind, which is racing. Here comes a review of the day. Then the familiar To Do list, ravenously claiming items into its fat belly. Who, what, when. Is this what happens to the minds of the few people who get to float up in space? I hope not. 

One theory goes that in eliminating our sense of gravity, the floatation tank frees our mind.  Much of our brain activity is tied up with constantly performing gazillions of calculations for muscular activity required to negotiate our gravity-burdened universe. Since we don’t need to do this heavy mental lifting in the tank, we become aware of a deeper layer of minute and subtle muscular tensions, knots and hot spots in our body. 

Flotation takes me somewhere else. Focusing on the physical aspect of no-sensation allows the frenzied list-making in my mind to dissolve into a weave of relaxed daydreams. They are very vivid and my eyes remain open, staring into the vast darkness. I touch nothing and nothing touches me. I hear nothing till a loud knock signals that my hour is up.

Back in my street clothes, I feel strangely calm, but I also have a distinct sensation of walking taller, more upward, like after a very good massage. Living for years with chronic back pain and related neuropathic issues, this feeling of a relaxed and straight spine is heaven-sent. On a physical level, I feel wonderfully transformed. The rest will have to wait till the next time.

 

Dispatches from the Float Ambassadors

Frank E., Float Ambassador, CIIS Graduate Student, Zazen Manager

Things just didn't feel right and I didn't know what was wrong with me. I had all the usual trappings of modern life held together with one of those painfully fake smiles, yet I couldn't ignore the fact that I constantly felt empty inside. While this is probably how every self help author beings, this time it was happening to me. With no one in my family willing to have a real conversation about what was wrong, I turned to talk therapy for help. 

Harboring a harsh inner critic, I initially felt a great deal of self judgment around the idea of sharing my deepest and most personal feelings with a complete stranger. Yet I later realized that a psychotherapist was the perfect person to do that with. Who better to explore the depths of my mind with than someone who has traveled into the darkest regions of their own psyche and made it back. I felt comforted by the idea of having a sherpa to walk with me down the windy and unknown path of my inner life.

Around the same time I discovered isolation float tanks through an online documentary. Two hours after doing a quick google search I walked into Zazen's front door. I entered the tank for the first time without any idea of what to expect. A dark room, no lights, a sound proof tank, what was I thinking? Pushing past my fears I dove into the experience and entered into what felt like a warm hug from the salty ocean. Emerging on the other side, my entire body melted into relaxation as I finally experience what life without anxiety felt like.

After about my third float I quickly realized how useful the tank was for introspection and meditation. The difficult work of exploring my psyche with a talk therapist often brought up hard emotions that regularly thew me into a tailspin. Floating grounded me by allowing a spaciousness and clarity to surround the difficult feelings, while also allowing my nervous system to settle down. Sometimes I opted to float before my therapy sessions, creating a unique opportunity to move my awareness from the outer world into my inner experience. This process helped me witness the torrent of thoughts, worries, fears, beliefs and feelings that I often bypasses in life.

Over the year of floating and therapy I came to better know myself through exploring the conditioning, belief systems and "shoulds" I was handed down by older generations. Week after week I developed an awareness around my emotional states, growing my ability to hold boundaries and tell people how I felt in the moment. My life didn't exactly become a happily ever after story through this process, but now I have gained an awareness to choose a new way of being in the world. One that isn't preprogramed and entirely run by habit, rather now I can choose to relate to myself and others in an intentional and meaningful way.

The healing potential of combining therapy and float tanks are as close to magic as you can get. Having both available at Zazen has been one of the greatest gifts I have come across on my healing journey. There are few places in the world that offer this unique combination and that's one of the many reasons Zazen is a special place.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxuZiqY5ypU

Dispatches from the Float Ambassadors

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Mirabai, Yoga Instructor and Kirtan Leader

I am a yoga instructor and teach a dozen group classes/week as well as maintain my own yoga practice.  I also play tennis, hike, swing dance, etc. so I'm very physical.  Floating helps me release muscular and emotional tension.

There's this concept called "Pratyhara" in yoga, where one withdrawals their senses to move closer to a meditative state.  The flotation tank is pitch dark, which calms my mind, and cuts out all sensory input and takes me there.  I get to be fully with myself, it's a gift for myself.  It takes courage to go deep within, and floating supports that.  

I find when I do it more regularly, it helps relieve deep layers of stress I didn't even know were there.  I find more peace within. There's a deeper letting go and a feeling of surrender when I float that I do not get anywhere else.  I was a regular receiver of Watsu at Harbin Hot Springs, and find Zazen to be a safe, clean substitute.  There's a healing atmosphere there and conscious community.

Blessings, Mirabai

Dispatches from the Float Ambassadors

Brittany B. , Zazen Float Ambassador, President & Co-Founder of Ritual Hot Yoga

"Six months ago I floated for the very first time. At this point in my life I was practicing yoga and meditation almost daily and was teaching anywhere from 10-12 yoga classes a week. One day after class a student of mine mentioned that they had been wanting to try floating and asked if I knew anything about it. At the time I had heard a bit about it, but had never actually tried it for myself. 

This conversation peaked my curiosity and I decided to do a bit of my own research on floating shortly after. Turns out there is a lot of research and literature around the topic and I became fascinated by what I believed could be the next wave of meditation. Interestingly enough my business partner and best friend beat me to the tank and came back raving about his experience with a gift certificate in hand for me to sign up for my very first float. 

Within the week I booked my first float. When you float, you are submerged in a pool of water filled with pounds of epsom salts that make your body feel weightless. As a result your body floats just above water. The water is warm, 93-95 degrees, and the tank is pitch black. You can’t hear, you can’t see, and there really is nothing to smell. With almost all of your senses deprived you have no choice but to concentrate on you and that is where the magic really begins. 

Within a few minutes of floating I became very aware of what the things that were racing in my mind. I could hear the way I talked to myself. The way my thoughts flowed rapidly from one topic to the next. My mind felt messy and busy. It was no wonder in my life outside of the tank I often felt stressed and overwhelmed. 

After 30 minutes inside of the tank I felt as if 3 days had gone by. I was very ready for this experience to be over and to distract myself again from all that was swirling around in my mind. It was right around this time that I noticed my mind softened and a sense of ease started to takeover my entire body. My mind didn’t feel so crazy and my body felt relaxed. “Is this what peace feels like?” I thought. I let go. I felt held. I felt calm. I felt connected. I felt like me. Oh how I had missed me. "