In this exclusive excerpt from her new book Yoga Mind — Journey Beyond the Physical, 30 Days to Enhance your Practice and Revolutionize Your Life From the Inside Out , Suzanne Colón shares the inspiration that led her to become an Integral Yoga teacher, apply Yoga in her daily life, and share the insights she gleaned along the path. She includes an overview of the various sections of the new book.
Take a deep breath…
Okay, you can come in now.” I looked up at Francesco’s sister, her face pale and thin with worry, and I tried to set my own expression into something normal. I wasn’t sure what, exactly, normal might be, under the circumstances. A few weeks earlier, my friend Francesco Clark had taken a joyful dive into a pool and broken his neck. He’d gone from being an able-bodied person to being a quadriplegic in less than a breath. Somehow he’d survived the shattering of his vertebrae and nearly drowning, then being transported by medical helicopter to a trauma center—a lifesaving measure that also carried the risk of splintered bones severing more spinal nerves with even the slightest movement. As doctors raced Fran into surgery to stabilize his spine and relieve the pressure in his neck that was slowly suffocating him, they called his parents so he could say good-bye in case he didn’t live through the seven-hour operation. His mother, on vacation with his father and sister in Florida, told Fran he would be all right, hung up the phone, and collapsed.
But Francesco did survive the operation, and the trauma, both physical and emotional, that came with his accident. By surviving, he created a new plane of relativity: the blessings within a curse. Now, after weeks in the ICU, he was well enough to receive visitors other than a priest and next of kin. I not only wanted to see him; after his near-death experiences I felt a desperate need to see my friend in the flesh, to see for myself that he was truly alive. But now it felt as though I couldn’t move from the hospital waiting room chair. I knew he’d be changed; he would likely be in a wheelchair. But how else had this grave situation affected him? I was afraid of how different he’d be compared to the last time I’d seen him. Francesco and I met in 2001 while working at Mademoiselle magazine, where he was the assistant to the entertainment editor, Geri Richter Campbell. I was an editor-at-large, writing cover stories on celebrities. Geri had hired Fran straight out of college and spent the days leading up to his start date bragging about her new model-handsome assistant who spoke three languages. After he began working with us, Geri and I both proudly announced that we had a new best friend/little brother. Fran was a combination of well-traveled worldliness and wide-eyed-kid excitement. He could be sophisticated one minute and goofy the next, witty and clever while entirely unjaded. Everyone at the magazine predicted that he’d be running a major empire before he was thirty and yet would remain a total sweetheart. When Mademoiselle folded a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Geri, Fran, and I all pinky-swore that we’d stay in touch. Then, like everyone else, we got really busy. Catch-up dates were planned and rescheduled endlessly. (This was before Facebook, where keeping in touch would’ve meant liking one another’s posts.) Somehow a whole year went by. Then one afternoon I got a frantic call from Geri telling me Fran had nearly died. The details spilled out of her in a trembling ramble—he dove into a pool, it was dark, it was the shallow end, he couldn’t see, he broke his neck, he’s paralyzed—and I sank to the floor as I wept, thinking, Why didn’t I try harder to see him?
I’d learned when I was a child that life could pull a devastating vanishing act. During one of their nightly calls, my nana told my mother she’d see us that coming weekend as usual, signed off with love, and quietly had an aneurysm. One minute there, the next minute gone. The lesson was buried in my marrow. As I grew up, my feelings toward people close to me careened between intense gratitude for having them and numb terror over losing them. I resolved that I would see Francesco as soon as the hospital would allow it.
Now that I was finally able to see him, I couldn’t move, and the mild scent of hospital antiseptic was trapped in my held breath. What scared me was not imagining the physical changes Fran would have undergone after this catastrophic accident, but that he, his essence and core, might have been broken as well. After a moment I got to my feet and followed Fran’s sister, Charlotte, into his room. Their parents and grandmother stood in a huddle looking downward, which is what you do when a person is not on eye level because he’s sitting in a wheelchair. As Charlotte and I came into the room, the family turned toward us. Their faces were gray with the still-fresh shock of having nearly lost Francesco, ironically to a single carefree moment: at the start of a holiday weekend, with an exciting new job beginning the following week and the sense that the coming years would be as great as the previous twenty-four had been, Fran had taken a leap . . .
“Heyyyy!” Francesco gave me his usual huge grin, now incongruous in this fluorescent-lit hospital room so heavy with emotion. Normally he would’ve bounded over and given me one of his huge, happy-puppy hugs. But now he was motionless in the wheelchair, his arms and legs carefully arranged in resting positions. A thick brace encased his torso and held up his head, immobilizing his spine while his cracked vertebrae healed. His body was unnaturally still; my brain understood what had happened, but my visceral reaction was No, this isn’t right. As I took all this in, I felt my own legs becoming unstable.
I wasn’t sure what to do next. Was it okay to hug him? That thick body brace said no. I took his hand and felt my stomach go cold when I realized he couldn’t feel my fingers grasping his. What do I do? Glowing coals of nervousness flared brighter, and the first thing that came into my mind fell out of my mouth.
“Stupid question,” I said, “but how are you?”
“Actually, I’m great,” Fran said immediately, and oh thank God, his usual optimism was intact. “Did you know I nearly died? I’m really lucky to be here.”
His surprising perspective gave the moment the quality of an exhalation of relief. The feeling was not unlike bracing for more turbulence in a plane and then finding the rough clouds have passed to allow for smooth travel. Either to avoid further awkwardness or because he didn’t want to talk about his accident, Fran said, “How are you doing? Wait, didn’t I hear you just graduated from a yoga teacher training course?”
Now I did have to sit down, not only to bring myself to eye level with Fran, but because a thought that had been lurking in the back of my mind suddenly attacked me. Yes, I had just graduated from yoga teacher training. For the past four months, I’d been immersed in all aspects of yoga—how to teach asana (the physical poses) and learning about yoga’s philosophy and spirituality. I could now instruct classrooms full of beginner-level students in poses ranging from simple cross-legged sitting positions to challenging twists, balances, and even shoulder stands. I’d taken this training so I could help people feel as good as I did when I practiced yoga. Now a friend whose place in my heart was impervious to time and distance needed help. But Francesco couldn’t move anything except his face, to smile with hope. How could I, a newly minted yoga teacher, possibly help him?
The spiritual tools of yoga provided the answer.
Like most people, I thought yoga was a form of exercise—those twisty, bendy, gymnastic postures performed by young, lithe women (and the occasional man). About a decade before the accident that left Francesco unable to move, I’d started looking into yoga because I really needed to move. As a longtime writer for magazines including O, The Oprah Magazine; Harper’s Bazaar; and Good Housekeeping, as well as the author of several books, I spent most of my days sitting at a desk. We’ve recently heard a great deal about the unhealthy effects of sitting for long periods of time, but back then, I was my own case study: everything hurt. I knew I needed exercise, as well as some form of stress reduction that would help me deal with the pressures of work and life in general. Yoga, I’d heard, offered both.
Integral Yoga Institute wasn’t far from where I lived, and I’d passed by the peach-colored building in New York City’s West Village hundreds of times over the years. One day I walked in, and just entering the reception area felt like taking a deep, relaxing breath. The people working there and the students checking in for classes all seemed so calm. Soothing pastel hues began on the walls of the bookstore; led upstairs to studios named Lavender, Aqua, Gold, Lotus, and Heaven; and continued throughout a building that was not just a yoga studio but an ashram, a place where people lived while they studied yoga.
The quiet, mellow environment helped relax muscles I didn’t realize were tense, even before the yoga class began. Once the teacher began leading us through a breathing exercise, during which I took fuller, more substantive breaths than I could recall taking in some time, I had an unexpected reaction: I began to weep with relief. I hadn’t realized how much stuff—stress, emotions, thoughts of the past, worries about the future—I’d been holding in, until yoga showed me how to safely release it.
The far more common reaction to being in an Integral Yoga class is a happy sigh and a soft smile. Shoulders loosen away from ears, eyes previously laser-focused on phones drift closed, and you can feel the students’ stress melting away. And that’s before they’ve done a single pose.
As a student at Integral Yoga, then as a teacher and eventually a teacher trainer, I’ve learned that yoga is much, much more than just the poses, or asana. This ancient Eastern practice has its own philosophy, ethical principles, and tools that form a design for living.
Yet here in the West, the primary focus is on yoga’s physical practice. That was my primary focus, too; it’s through the door of asana that most people discover yoga’s bigger picture. It wasn’t until Francesco’s accident that I began to truly understand that yoga is a wide and welcoming spiritual path, one that anybody, regardless of age, religion, or physical ability, can walk—even if they can’t walk at all.
In order to understand the tools of yoga and begin to see how useful they can be, it helps to have some background information. Yoga, like Buddhism, is not a religion. It can be compared in a general sense to philosophy or spirituality in that people of any religion can, and do, make use of yoga’s secular tools. Both yoga and Buddhism were born thousands of years ago in India, where the Sanskrit word yoga means “union”— union with something greater than ourselves, union of body and mind through breathing, union that comes when we release the false idea of aloneness that creates harmful feelings and habits and come to understand that we are all connected. Yogic sages, people who were dedicated to helping others attain a higher level of living, created a combination of breathing practices, accessible approaches to meditation, philosophy and ethics, physical exercise, and spiritual tools to navigate life with courage, serenity, joy, good health, compassion, and grace.
Today, an estimated thirty-six million people in America engage in some form of yoga. Because it is so effective at reducing stress, it is constantly being adapted for different populations and different needs. Yoga has gone from studios to corporate boardrooms, schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and more. The CEOs and employees of Fortune 500 companies do it, as do children in high-crime areas, veterans returning from wars, seniors in elder-care centers . . . And the list of those who are experiencing the stress-relieving, health-giving benefits of yoga is growing all the time.
Yet this is still not all that yoga is, or can be. Yoga goes well beyond a form of physical exercise; it’s a spiritual toolkit we can use in all areas of our lives, every day—and not just for the hour or so we’re on the mat. You can think of yoga as an ancient spiritual technology for wellness and well-being. It has survived for thousands of years and has become more widespread and popular in our modern times for one reason: it works. Its tools are not only relevant today, they’re more necessary than ever in our constantly changing, stress-filled times. And you don’t have to do the physical asana practice in order to gain incredible benefit from using yoga’s tools. My friend Francesco, who couldn’t move at all, was one of the best yoga students I ever had.
He was also one of the greatest yoga teachers I will ever have. Through Francesco, the tools of yoga and their potential for subtle but powerful life shifts came vividly alive, and I came to understand that yoga isn’t something you do. It’s something you live, practicing each day, so that you can become the best version of yourself.
This was the vision of Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga, where I studied and became a yoga teacher. Born in India in 1914, Swami Satchidananda (whose name translates from Sanskrit as “truth, knowledge, bliss”) was asked by artist Peter Max and filmmaker Conrad Rooks to come to America in the late 1960s, a time of deep social turmoil—protests, rioting, racism, rampant drug use. It doesn’t sound all that different from today.
The swami spoke about yoga’s tools to people hungry for positive change, for themselves and for the world. Swami Satchidananda’s message of peace had such a profound impact on people that he was brought by helicopter to the Woodstock music festival to give an opening address that would calm the swelling crowds. The event, attended by over four hundred thousand, continued peacefully over four days.
The swami, affectionately called Gurudev (“beloved teacher”), made world peace his life’s work, and his message of “Easeful body, peaceful mind, useful life” had wide-ranging influence. He met with Pope Paul VI, the Dalai Lama, President George H. W. Bush, and President Bill Clinton. He was a guest speaker at the international religious assembly for the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament. His whole-life teachings of yoga influenced the groundbreaking heart-disease reversal work of Dean Ornish, MD; the Commonweal Cancer Help Program formulated by Michael Lerner, MD; and other current whole-being health care systems. Dr. Wayne Dyer said of Swami Satchidananda, “He helped me to raise my consciousness to a place of being more peaceful, more loving.” Swami Satchidananda’s interpretation of yoga, designed to be as accessible as possible to all who need it, has touched the lives of countless people, including me and Francesco. And now, you.
We know why we should practice physical yoga—to have a healthy, flexible body. But why do we need a flexible Yoga Mind? Why has yoga been a predominantly spiritual practice for thousands of years, and why is it so necessary for our lives right now? Yoga gives us the opportunity to live our lives more fully, deeply, authentically, and organically. Its spiritual tools teach us to recognize and get past obstacles that hold us back. They make broad concepts like mindfulness and meditation simpler, able to fit into our busy days and lives. They help us deal with long-standing issues that cause suffering, and enhance the present moment. They help us make subtle shifts that lead to lasting change. And because, simply put, sometimes everything is not going to be okay.
Life challenges happen to everyone. There are a multitude of different types—illness, job loss, divorce, you name it. In these situations, it’s just not “all good,” and if some well-meaning person says, “Everything happens for a reason,” our reaction is less soothed and maybe even more upset, wondering what kind of world we live in if that could be true.
At the time I found Integral Yoga, I was not aware that I was reaching for an ideal of life where everything was perfect— when, someday, I’d have the perfect job, the perfect home, the perfect relationship, the perfect body, and on and on. Yoga, and particularly Integral Yoga, offered something far more realistic and attainable: balance.
This ashram full of vibrant people of all kinds, including those with injuries, illnesses, frailties that come with age, and varying abilities, even a teacher in a wheelchair and a vision impaired student (Integral was the only yoga studio that would allow her service dog in the building), was an example of real life. Things happen, and we can work with them. Swami Satchidananda knew that yoga could help us achieve balance. “You can’t stop the waves,” he said, “but you can learn how to surf.” After I heard that, I was finally able to release unattainable ideals of perfection and begin to truly live my life.
Yoga’s spiritual tools address the waves of life, from the smooth, happy times to those very not-okay times when we fall ill, when someone we love leaves or dies, when our lives turn inside out and our most vulnerable parts are exposed. Developing a Yoga Mind can help us find our own natural reserves of strength and resilience, and make them stronger. It does the same for the best parts of ourselves, showing us how to cultivate the habits and traits we aspire to embody. The spiritual practice of yoga helps us to shine brightly by helping us see the divine light already within us. With a yoga body, you can do impressive poses; with a Yoga Mind, you can do anything.
I learned this over twenty-five years of practicing yoga and working with individual clients, classes of students and groups of teacher trainees, executives in corporate boardrooms, educators in seminars, and hospital staff, and by working with Francesco every week for over a year after his accident. The program in this book is an interpretation of the yoga tools used on my own spiritual path, Francesco’s, and that of others (whom I’ve written as composite characters to respect their privacy).
I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from monks living in yoga ashrams, but I’m an average woman living in the everyday world. Therefore, my interpretations of these ancient concepts may be somewhat nontraditional. But I know that using these tools to develop a Yoga Mind works because they’ve gotten me through challenging situations and taught me how to live a happier life.
There are many tools in yoga, but I’ve chosen the ones that I’ve found most adaptable to our daily lives, and most helpful for achieving the goals of living authentically and fully; being more mindful; getting through the things that can fragment us with grace; finding a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives; and being happier.
These thirty yoga tools are organized into sections based on how they complement one another. The order they’re in is modeled after the gentle, gradual process of an Integral Yoga class, starting with learning how to breathe your way to a more relaxed, receptive state of being in which you can do interior spiritual work. (Don’t worry, it’s much easier than it sounds!)
Each day, a new yoga tool will be introduced. You’ll learn how to apply it through a real-life experience, and then you’ll find an exercise so you can try the tool out. These exercises are simple and won’t take much time, but their effects are palpable.
In Integral Yoga classes, there are brief periods of rest in a relaxed pose called Savasana. Between each group of yoga tools and their exercises, you will find a Savasana, a pause with a short overview of the upcoming tools and the kind of work that you will be doing:
Part 1: Grounding and Centering, where we begin with simple practices that give you the foundation of the Yoga Mind program.
Part 2: Mindful Shifts, where the seeds of positive change are subtle but noticeable.
Part 3: Finding Your Balance, where you maintain equilibrium while seeing and feeling the effects of the work you’re doing.
Part 4: Steadiness and Easefulness, where you add to your established practice with tools to take it out into the world.
The point of yoga is to be and feel your best not just for an hour on the mat when you can get to class, but throughout your day, throughout your life. We just need a guide, some practical examples, and the occasional reminder. This book was designed to travel with you, to be there on your desk at work or in your bag. Think of it as your constant companion on your spiritual path.
After you work the program in order, you can use the yoga tools again in a variety of ways. Choose tools at random each day. Pick a tool and make it your focus for a week. When you have a particular need, meditate on a mantra; you’ll find a number of these affirmations throughout the program. The yoga tools are also listed by category in the appendix, so if you need a certain type of tool, you’ll have a quick reference guide.
For this kind of yoga, you don’t need any fancy clothing, a mat, or big chunks of time. You don’t need to be physically fit or particularly flexible, other than having an open mind. All you need are a simple notebook to keep track of feelings and changes along the way, and a desire to create positive shifts in your life. You don’t have to wait for those shifts to maybe, hopefully happen someday. The yoga tools show you how to create them.
When I found yoga, the asana practice felt like a physical form of prayer. My only problem was how to take that prayer beyond the mat. I found the answer by using the yoga tools to help me develop a Yoga Mind. They taught me how to live life fully, see meaning and value in experiences of all kinds, and find sweet richness in simple moments. They gave me strength and resilience. They can do this for you, too.
The desire to help is something every being has within, to the point that it’s more of an instinct than a choice. Initially I didn’t know how I could help Francesco. But it is in absolute darkness that stars shine most brightly. It is from tremendous pressure that diamonds are formed. And so it was that in a very challenging time for him, and for me, the true gifts of yoga were revealed. It is a great gift to be able to share them with you now.
Namaste, the traditional yoga greeting, means, “I see the divine light in you.” May this book help you see the divine light that burns so brightly within you.
~From: Yoga Mind — Journey Beyond the Physical, 30 Days to Enhance your Practice and Revolutionize Your Life From the Inside Out by Suzanne Colón. Excerpted with kind permission of Scribner (Simon & Schuster).
Suzanne Colón (Saraswati) is a former senior editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, and has written ten books, including the inspirational memoir Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times. Suzan has been practicing yoga for twenty-five years and teaching since 2002, with certificates in basic and intermediate Hatha Yoga, Therapeutic Yoga, and Yoga for Arthritis. Her writing has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Jane, Latina, Details, Harper’s Bazaar, and Rolling Stone, and on Oprah.com and Huffington Post. She has appeared on the Today show, The Early Show, NPR, and other media outlets.
(photo credit: Nathan Tweti)