Opening Your Heart … When It Wants To Close

Valentine’s Day is coming up! Most of the time many of us will relish the focus on love and romance, with all of the heart imagery that goes with it. But …what if– for whatever reason–your heart is broken? What if life’s up and downs have plunged you into a place where being open is the very last thing you are inclined to do? Life coach and fellow yoga Stephanie Lazzara has a few words for us on this topic.

Heart opening, opening to love and caring for a broken heart….

How do we keep going when the heart wants to close instead of open? How do we fully feel the pain of a love-loss or the intensity of a growing, deepening love and still stay open?

Instead of trying to resist, contract or pull away, what if, instead, we take this an another opportunity for opening further, deeper, wider to love? It means staying in the uncomfortable present moments. We feel our hearts break and swell and mourn and ache in all of the pain and beauty we hold inside. And then it happens, we crack open, release and push up against all of our edges so that every cell of us becomes love.

Each place we are pushed emotionally or physically out of our comfort zones brings us to a greater awareness of ourselves, to our infinite capacity to love and loving, and towards the radical acceptance of ourselves as the vehicle for this love-light to burst out of every pore of our beings, touching the hearts of all we meet. Our hearts may yearn for a deeper loving, a deeper knowing, a deeper being seen. When we are open, we can access parts of ourselves that are hidden or that we hide in the shadows that make us whole and wholly lovable–just as we are.

How can you gently push yourself to expand further into love? When your body is at a limit of a pose, when your heart is breaking, where can you go deeper? While you are there, notice all the parts that come alive, even the parts that are hurting, and then ask yourself:

What does your deepest heart yearn for? Then go in further into this yearning …

Stephanie Lazzara is a certified professional coach, dancer, dance educator, and a regular BYPS practitioner. She specializes in helping her clients navigate through difficult life and relationship transitions and find more ease, clarity, and possibilities in the process of change.


Student Story: Vivian

Why did you start practicing Bikram yoga and how long have you been practicing?
I started practicing yoga later in my life (in my 30s) for a number of reasons; my mom had taken me to a hatha yoga class when I was in grade school and while I was terrible at it, I loved the savasana at the end and it planted a seed in me that told me I would need and love yoga later on in my life. Later, in my 20s, I was living in Park Slope, swimming at the nearby branch of the Y for an hour a day which I loved, however when I moved to Prospect Heights in 2003, the Y was inconvenient to get to regularly. One day I walked into the Flatbush Bikram studio, and I just loved it immediately. I enjoy all kinds of yoga but at that time, my wrists were very weak and downward dog was painful; the Bikram method was great because it didn’t have that.  The Flatbush studio was close to where I lived and it’s always been important that my workout place be nearby otherwise, I know I won’t go.

How has your practice affected your life?
I like to say that it cures suicidal tendencies (and homicidal ones, too!).  But seriously, this yoga method really is wonderful for putting things in perspective and clearing your mind and body of interference, negative thoughts, and general worry.  Also, as a musician, I use my body a lot and I find the practice to be essential as a restorative therapy for holding your arms up asymmetrically with an instrument that weighs 8 pounds around your neck for 6 hours a day.

What keeps you coming back for more?
I always feel better after class, no matter how the class itself goes.  If I’m worried or confused about something in my life and I can’t stop worrying about it and trying to figure it out, I notice that after class, even though nothing has changed, I feel more confident and empowered to keep working to figure out a positive solution.  Also, I really like the community of people at the Lefferts studio, which I still go to even though now it’s a mile and a half away.

Do you have any advice/insight for new yogis?
The main advice I have for new yogis is to breathe, listen, and be patient.  Most importantly, do not force postures; if you cannot maintain your calm breath, then leave a posture out and stand in mountain savasana. Breathe and stay as still as possible.  Our tendency in this competitive world is to only hear the teacher when they say, “push”, but not hear them tell us to maintain calm and focused breath. I often see new students huffing and dramatically trying to make every pose and I want to tell them that I’ve “candy-assed” my way through some classes, only doing one set of every posture because I’m too tired or sick and at the end, as long as I maintained a calm focus on my breath, I will still feel as great as if I’d “kicked butt” on every posture.


The Mirror: A User’s Guide

From time to time I speak to folks who are reluctant to try a form of yoga that uses mirrors. Sometimes people assert that a class in which one is required to use a mirror sets up an environment that promotes aspects of vanity and encourages judgment, and that students should learn to feel whether their alignment is correct or not, without the alleged dangers one’s reflection may present. Yoga comes in many styles and forms these days, they all offer many benefits to the practitioner, and each and every one of these methods has its place.

As a lifelong dancer, teacher, and all-around movement person, I’ve had a great deal of experience and logged many hours in studios of various types, and I can’t help but feel that mirror usage and the reasons for it can be highly misunderstood. If you’ll allow me, I’m going to share my thoughts with you on this topic.  Although I am writing with the Bikram yoga enthusiast in mind, the same information could certainly be applied to any class situation in which mirrors are typically used. I’m going to focus on the actual process of learning to use the mirror as a tool, and less upon the ego, vanity, and judgement  angles of the issue, which while certainly related, is a huge topic that is well beyond the scope of this article.

Achieving the highly detailed level of structural body alignment that a Bikram class can give requires the visual feedback that a mirror provides, and that feedback needs to be ongoing. It’s just not realistic to feel like you are in perfect alignment (whatever you’re doing) and actually BE in correct alignment all the time without visual confirmation. Have you ever been on a bodywork table and have the practitioner straighten you out when you thought you were aligned? Ever had a coach or teacher tell you that a part of your body you can’t see is doing one thing while you feel  it doing something else? (You: “But my back leg was straight!” Teacher: “No it wasn’t!”) Yikes!

If you train as a yogi, dancer, athlete, or what-have-you, your body awareness and spatial sense gets much, much better, and it can become incredibly reliable over time. This skill, however, takes constant, ongoing practice to develop and maintain.  As a beginning student –in any discipline requiring precise placement–one internalizes the cognitive command chain that trains a person in visual/internal self-evaluation: You look in the mirror, assess what you see, make the corrections necessary, turn the focus inward and try to memorize the feeling of what spatial relationships in the body create the desired result, verify the result visually, and then start over. It’s a constant subconscious, split-second “look, assess, correct, verify, start over” cycle. If there is a teacher or demonstrator, there is an additional “compare-and-contrast” segment to the cycle. Of course you get better at it, but as your skill level advances, the fine tuning necessary gets progressively finer as well. After your class, off you go into the world where life happens, your body responds and adapts to it, and all sorts of crazy, misaligned things feel “straight.” Later, you return to yoga, dance, bodywork, (or whatever alignment-focused method you choose) and work on coaxing things back into a neutral, aligned state again. It seems as if it’s a “three steps forward, two steps back” process, and it is, but one does improve over time.

This is why dancers and other “body folks” who may have trained for decades still spend hours in the studio refining, feeling, adjusting, and refining some more.

If this repeating cognitive cycle sounds like a lot of focus, it is, and that is also why it can serve as a tool for your meditation. This is the reason why losing oneself in a task for a length of time with no distractions can be so relaxing and enjoyable … because it’s actually a meditative state.

It’s true that for some people the mirror can become a crutch, they are unable to function without it. It is certainly possible to become more alienated from your body or your practice, and so therefore it’s your responsibility to be conscious of how this feedback process works and fine-tune your personal version of it,  getting the most from this valuable asset. Periodically, you can deliberately not look in the mirror for a second or two, take a sensory snapshot from the inside, and then play the game of “let’s see if this looks the way it feels.” Another technique is to maintain your gaze enough for balance, but unfocus the eyes just a tad so that the awareness can be turned inward for short periods of time.

We frequently hear the teacher say at the beginning of class a phrase something to the effect of “look into the eyes of your own best teacher.” A tool this powerful should be approached with an attitude of great responsibility. In the end, it’s up to you, completely.

photo: Monica Felix

Teacher of the Month: Karli McGuiness

I started practicing Ashtanga yoga on a mat next to my older brother’s when I was a toddler and I giggled through my first several years of practice because we thought the chanting of “Om Shanti” was hysterical. My mother and grandmother belonged to an ashram in Long Island, so we were around yogis often. I practiced sparsely throughout my childhood and teens, but mostly took up equestrian riding and other sports.

I returned to (Bikram) yoga in high school and college but really began my daily practice in 2009 when I moved back to the States from a year abroad. The philosophy of yoga is one that has been a familiar thread throughout my life, but no other practice has transformed my mind (and as a result, my body) like Bikram yoga. My athletically disciplined mind became more determined than ever. My self love and artistic creativity expanded 100 times over. Compassion for others had always been important to me and I loved that my Bikram practice fed that. I physically felt like I could do anything. I started canceling social plans so I could take class… I was hooked!

Becoming a Bikram teacher has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest lessons and gifts Bikram Yoga has given me. I continue to learn and be inspired through teaching. Making note of how this yoga has changed my life would be an extremely long list, which would definitely lose the attention of those reading this! What I believe to be more powerful is how I have seen this yoga transform my students. I have seen those who have been disempowered by traumatic physical and emotional circumstances in their life take their power back, literally by the sweat of their brow. I have seen self esteem blossom and kindness grow where resentment once was. I have seen tremendous efforts and strides made towards patience, empathy, understanding, and acceptance of not only individuals, but of the group.

Our Bikram Yoga Park Slope community is incredibly special and the only proof you need is right in the locker rooms! The encouragement that happens from veteran students to newcomers over a shower after a killer classes is heartwarming. The bonds made over students navigating through tough personal issues while having their yogi friends to encourage them and their practice to ground them has been among the most special things to witness as a teacher.

BYPS has become home to so many, and I am SO proud to call it my yoga home. The only advice I have for new students is to drink plenty of water in preparation for class and just get to class! Then come back, even if it’s hard! Oh, and please don’t wear cotton, it makes you feel sooo much hotter. We have that part taken care of for you 😉 My last tip is paraphrased from Bikram himself: Let nothing steal your peace. You are infinitely stronger than you think you are. Never, ever give up.

photo: Monica Felix



Student Story: Katie Wilt

Why did you start practicing Bikram yoga and how long have you been practicing?

I did a handful of classes a few years ago but came back to the practice in November 2014. As an avid runner, I was looking for ways to take care of and preserve my body so I could continue running in the most healthy manner possible.

Bikram also offered the challenge of practicing something that I was not an expert at with instructors who could help me improve my skill. It appealed to me that my mind and spirit would benefit as well, which is important to me.

How has your practice affected your life?

I am more flexible. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve when it comes to relaxing. I believe I walk a little taller; I haven’t measured myself, but perhaps more importantly, I feel taller.

What keeps you coming back for more?

Seeing progress is motivating! I value the practice of strength, concentration, and letting go. I find the work you do in class stays with your body and I love that feeling.

Do you have any advice/insight for new yogis?

They call it “practice” for a reason. Think of the teachers as coaches. They provide insight into things you can’t see or are not yet aware of in your body. Their voices serve as an anchor for your mind during class.

The teacher says, “Take the opportunity to focus your eyes on your own in the mirror.” Typically, when I look in a mirror it is in a more calm state for information and assurance. In this yoga, the mirror also can provide a source of power. It is not often we take the time to look directly at ourselves when our determination and concentration is so present on the surface and raw.

You are with people of different strengths and we are all doing the best we can and we do better together.