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Q&A: Sarah Powers on Insight Yoga and a Complete Path

By on March 19th, 2011 — Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

Sarah Powers is the creator of Insight Yoga, a multidisciplinary practice that is inspired by her extensive studies in Buddhism, Chinese Medicine, and transpersonal psychology. In 2010, Sarah and her husband Ty created the Insight Yoga Institute. She has a DVD called Insight Yoga, and authored a book by the same name. She talked to The Sacred Cow about Insight Yoga, and the importance of going beyond the body with one’s yoga practice.

Sacred Cow: What is Insight Yoga?

Sarah Powers: Insight Yoga is a path that creates a vehicle for self-transformation and insight. It involves four main aspects of development in our yoga practice: body, heart, mind, and interpersonal relationships. It draws on the traditional yoga path, the Buddhist meditation path, Taoism, and transpersonal psychology. The result is living with awareness in all dimensions of one’s experience, within and without.

SC: Why is it important that we extend our practices to include aspects beyond the body?

SP: In most yoga practices, we see the body as a vehicle for conscious living through which we can also explore the breath and the subtle body. While this is an essential aspect of living with awareness, it is only one piece of a complete practice. To really sit in a totality of a path, these other three layers are also essential for sustaining a connection to our lives and ourselves.

SC: How did you incorporate aspects of the mind into the Insight Yoga practice?

SP: I integrated the methods of mind training that I had learned in my Buddhism practice—such as contemplation and visualization, concentration, mindfulness, and open awareness—into a yoga practice. We often don’t get to do much mind training in yoga classes. We have Sivasana, but it’s not always long enough, and is too easy to fall asleep in. Sometimes yoga practitioners meditate after Sivasana, when there is an endorphin high from the physical practice, but then end the meditation once that endorphin high wears off. To truly develop mind training, we should also meditate in circumstances where we are not feeling comfortable, in order to access–and work with–our deeper material. Once I added mind training to my practice, it dramatically changed my relationship to myself and how I responded to life the rest of the day. Incorporating a formal practice of mindfulness, for a half hour or more in the morning, can set us up to meet our life with awareness.

SC: It seems to me like many people in the yoga world are becoming more engaged with mindfulness practice.

SP: Mindfulness is getting a lot of press in mainstream media and the yoga world has been exposed to that, too. It’s wonderful when yoga teachers can offer genuine mindfulness teachings, and students don’t necessarily have to find a Buddhist group or Zen center to get this type of training.

SC: How has mindfulness affected your yoga practice?

SP: I am less likely to judge my practice based on performance or whether I feel healthy or well. This brings more natural ease of being. But also, while I am in my body throughout the day, there’s more of a bridge between the body and mind as a way of living. It’s not just a separate practice for a little while in the morning. I have a renewed commitment to meeting all of myself and everything that arises in my life wholeheartedly.

SC: What about the heart? How do we make that part of our yoga practice?

SP: One way we can explore the heart is by looking at our emotions while we practice in long-held yin poses. For example, if you are in pigeon pose, there might be a moment in your practice where your hip hurts and you start to feel some frustration. But this frustration is often more than just an attitude toward your hip. It may be a habit that arises whenever challenges emerge. So now, the feeling of frustration can be held in awareness. Then, you may begin to notice helplessness under the frustration, especially if you’ve been working on that hip for a few years and it doesn’t seem to be changing. While resting in bare attention, these  feelings can now all be seen and felt consciously in the body, and an interesting shift occurs. Your struggle softens, and you have less reactivity. You gain insights about yourself and about the nature of emotions, which then become less oppressive and daunting and more transparent and workable. These are principles that come from mindfulness teachings and depth psychology. Through this lens, any issue that arises during our practice becomes an invitation to develop insight and compassion.

SC: This sounds like we are using Western Therapy within the practice.

SP: Yes, it is a bit like that. On a path of integration, we need to honor both the personality self, often highlighted in therapy, and what the Buddhists would call the empty self, which we explore in yoga and meditation. If we attempt to transcend the personality self in our spiritual practice, and not heal the wounds of the heart, we may start living from a contrived or idealized version of who we really are. As one of my teachers often says: That’s not self-realization, that’s self-fabrication.

SC: How do you incorporate interpersonal relationship training into Insight Yoga?

SP: This typically happens when we are on retreat or in a longer workshop. We use Buddhist practices like karuna and metta (lovingkindness and compassion), as well as Western psychology practices, to develop deep listening within ourselves, and between participants. We may sit with a partner, and practice mindfulness together, sharing our moment to moment experience out loud. From this, a kind of shared humanity develops where we realize that what tends to separate us can also be what bonds us in the human predicament. This brings up a quality of connection and humility that help us forge pathways to a better understanding of ourselves and each other.

SC: What type of yoga asana is taught as part of the Insight Yoga model?

SP: It varies. It can be a slow alignment-based flow practice or a more Taoist style of holding standing poses to develop strength in our legs and connection to the Earth center, or hara. I am also very fond of yin yoga. Yin yoga is a meditative physical practice that uses floor postures to develop greater suppleness mainly in the hips and lower back. These poses are meant to lubricate joints and trigger circulation into the invisible energetic pathways housed in the connective tissues (the meridians) as well as helping us maintain natural ranges of motion as we age. These stable floor postures can also become a domain for mind training. They provide a quiet and still atmosphere for receiving teachings—and practicing them. For instance, the sensations in the body might start as interesting and then become challenging or overwhelming. If we practice mindfulness, we can experience these sensations mindfully, by neither turning away from nor embellishing them, but simply meeting them with kindness and clarity.

SC: Is there any conflict between combining aspects of Yoga and Buddhism together into one practice?

SP: I often feel like a mediator between these two worlds. With an insight yoga practice, Buddhists and yogis can practice together and see that they have similar motivations toward intentional living and freedom from suffering. For the yogis, I hope they will begin to see the mindfulness element as a way to deepen their yoga practice and insights. For the Buddhist practitioners, they can begin to see that the body-based teachings are not superficial, but rather as an extension of and support for a seated mindfulness practice. The practices are most useful when paired. If we don’t bring them together simply because we are afraid of bucking tradition, we lose sight of the real aim of practice: to discover an authentic experience of true freedom.

To learn more about Sarah Powers, visit www.sarahpowers.com and check out her DVDs from Pranamaya. Two new DVDs on Insight Yoga will be available in late summer 2011.

For more of Karen Macklin’s work, visit her website at www.karenmacklin.com.

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4 Reader Comments

  1. Posted By: Kate Wester 3/29/2011 @ 2:44 pm

    Sarah is such an amazing teacher! It is because of her workshops that I have seen the value in incorporating mindfulness meditation into my practice daily. It’s really beginning to shift things. I see my asana practice through new eyes.

  2. Posted By: Utpala 4/6/2011 @ 5:20 pm

    She is indeed a person who has the power to inspire people and makes one realize that there is a simple option available to each and everyone of us, to lead a more meaningful life.

  3. Posted By: Erica 12/8/2011 @ 6:18 am

    Sarah is such a skillful teacher-I always look forward to studying with her

  4. Posted By: Dh Sadhita 5/15/2012 @ 12:47 pm

    All sounds good initially, but Buddhism is really not just about meditation. Unfortunately we are starting to see a dilution rather than a development of the Buddhist teaching in the west.
    If there is to be a genuine Spiritual Path, then surley ethics has to come into the equation. If ethics is there, then mindfulness is also present, but one cannot have mindulness and no ethics or teaching on ethics. This seems often to be missing from the American yoga/buddhist scene. I am not saying that Sarah is not good teacher etc.

    But I am concerned that we are reducing the teachings down to our size so that they fit nice and comfy, sort of supporting our world view rather than radically undermining our confusion which is what the Buddhist path is about. Once you have gone so far with that, then you can start talking about compassion and working for the benefit of others. Vipassna (Insight) as it is collaquially known actually should leave you feeling as if you are ‘dying spiritually’ That process is sometimes richly rewarding and at others, deeply disturbing if not taught well, or the conditions for practice are not right. Yet, I see very few western yoga teachers, if any that are qualified to guide people in this way.

    The Buddhist path is ethics, meditation and wisdom. No ethical life (in terms of Buddhis ethics) no meditation, no concentration and no real waking up to wisdom. No ethics, then I think what we have at best is a therapy style yoga that makes our lives a little bit more comfortable, but nothing really changes. All said with love and the desire or all beings to wake to their fullest potential.