Tag Archives: julian walker

A Modern Yoga Philosophy for an Awakened Heart and an Embodied Mind

AHEMI recently read Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind (A.H.E.M.) by Julian Walker. It’s an expanded version of the manual Walker and Hala Khouri use in their yoga teacher training by the same name.

Having just recently finished yoga teacher training myself and keen to learn more about leading people through an experience of yoga and not just yoga poses, I knew this book was for me. While an understanding of anatomy and alignment are foundational cornerstones for teaching yoga safely, I wanted to learn about the sometimes intangible and energetic experience we can tap into through our yoga practice.

Having felt this in my own body through yoga, I wanted to know how to make this accessible to my students. I was particularly interested in how to weave the holistic form of therapy known as somatic psychology into a yoga class. Yoga by its very nature connects, honors and respects the mind, body, and spirit. Balancing this mind-body-spirit approach with the fascinating and respected field of neuroscience was sure to be a powerful combination.

A.H.E.M. almost seems to come to life, with its asana and pranayama practices sprinkled throughout, as well as the introspective questions and suggested writing practices. It felt like I was stepping into the book more than just reading it. As I read and practiced the movements or contemplated the questions from both the perspective of a teacher and a student, I could feel an inner shift happen.

A.H.E.M. spells out a modern yoga philosophy that is not bound by the yoga sutras while staying true to the heart of yoga. The mind, body, and spirit are all players in this approach to modern yoga, and all are honored and embraced.

In the exchange below Walker answers a few of my questions on his background, experience, and unique approach to yoga.

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Monique: Julian, how long have you been teaching yoga and what experience do you have in the fields of neuroscience, neurobiology, and somatic psychology?

Julian: I have been teaching yoga since 1993. I came to the USA alone as an immigrant/refugee when I was 19 from South Africa and have largely educated myself whilst initially working minimum wage jobs. I have been fascinated with finding ways to understand and experience the relationships between spirituality, psychology, and science both in my own process and practice and in the work I have created to share with my students and bodywork clients over the years.

My initial deep yoga training (5 years as a student and 11 years teaching at her school) was with Ana Forrest, who has pioneered work in yoga and psychology. I went to a massage school called the Institute of Psycho-Structural Balancing, and have studied with various mentors along the way. Mostly I have studied the history and theory of body-based psychology as well as the burgeoning field of neuroscience through extensive reading and immersing myself in lectures online.

392244_326277700735072_451275225_n-194x300Monique: I found your section on the chakras especially interesting. You refer to them as “embodied and psychological experiences that most likely have their basis in our neurobiology.” For those of us unfamiliar with neurobiology, can you expand briefly on how mind­-body energy might have its roots in the nervous system?

Julian: Ah, great question! I think an elegant way to describe my theory here is that subjective experience – consciousness and our feeling of energy – are all expressions of our biology. For example, when we feel scared we know that there is adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our bodies, our heart rate is elevated and blood is rushing into our large fight-or-flight muscles.

Likewise, when in deep states of meditation there is a correlation between the quieting down of brain areas that track the boundaries of our bodies and location in time and space on the one hand, and a beautiful experiential sense of being at one with all things as we rest in the eternal void, on the other.

I became fascinated with how the chakras correlate with key nerve plexi (bundles of nerves that branch off the spinal cord to communicate with muscles, organs and glands) and with how we experience life through our bodies. For me, the chakras are a kind of map of how the mind lives in the body; and the nervous system (as well as the endocrine system, which secretes our powerful hormones and neurotransmitters) is a key component of this.

What if the chakras are a heightened awareness of our capacity to experience the neuro-endocrine system from the inside? What if our lived emotional experience is a whole body phenomenon involving the brain, nervous system and musculature?

Monique: Throughout A.H.E.M. you refer to both “mindfulness” and “embodiment.” I’ve seen the two placed into separate categories, and I wonder if you can comment on whether you see them as separate processes or if they can coexist and/or contribute to each other?

Julian: When I talk about embodiment, I am referring to a sense of being really aware of our bodies. Feeling grounded, empowered and in touch with our emotions and sensations, are all aspects of body awareness. We come to this awareness of the body via mindful attention. In essence, it is a brain function we can train ourselves to access more deeply. If our mindfulness does not include embodiment, then we feel like a floating head! Ungrounded, disempowered, out of touch. If our embodiment does not include mindfulness we can be reactive, impulsive or negatively self-indulgent.

With yoga, we can use mindfulness to facilitate a more integrated sense of being alive in our bodies and in touch with our emotional and intuitive wisdom

Monique: In another of your published writings you say, in reference to modern yoga, “We get to define what yoga means for us in the 21st century. This is Enlightenment 2.0.” Where do you see A.H.E.M. fitting into the dynamic picture of modern yoga as it continues to evolve?

Julian: Looking at the history of yoga, it has always been in a dynamic process of evolution. Always influencing and being influenced by the various cultures with which it has come into contact. Yoga is deeply concerned with psychology, science and ethics, and our human understanding of these fields keeps evolving. For me, any field of knowledge, practice and inquiry has to be open to the progress of human understanding.

We maintain yoga as a living tradition that serves our current needs and reflects our current knowledge when we keep it open. I see yoga more as a methodology, a mode of inquiry, than as a dogmatic belief system set in stone. For me, whatever is really true about what yoga is and what yoga does for human beings can only be more deeply revealed by looking at it through the lens of science, philosophy and psychology. It is an exciting process!

My book is the culmination of 20 years reflecting on the relationships between ancient and modern, spiritual and psychological, experiential and scientific. It is an expression of what I have found and how I teach and offers teachers and students a modern and integrated way to think about and experience yoga. I hope it can be of service.

Photo credit: Julian Walker

3 Ways Yoga Can Solve The U.S. Military’s Mental Health Crisis

With recent shootings and deaths involving military or former military personnel, as well as the many reports of depression and suicide amongst soldiers,  yoga can help address what appears to be a military mental health crisis.

While effective psychotherapy for soldiers is important and yoga by itself can be very good, having a more integrated understanding of the relationships between body and mind may be a missing piece.  The experiential component that happens in yoga can retrain the brain and nervous system while providing an environment for integrated healing to occur.

A non-clinical practice like yoga can also aid in shifting the perception of PTSD and the need for therapeutic work to being an ordinary part of maintaining mental health for every soldier.

1) Let’s acknowledge that military training and combat are inherently traumatizing, both physiologically and psychologically.

Yoga practice can be used as an ongoing way to calm the nervous system, process overwhelming experiences and spend a little time each day re-balancing body and mind. Having this be an integral part of basic military mental health would make soldiers better able to cope with the high-stress experiences that are part of the job.

2) Understand PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) through the lens of somatic (or body-based) psychology.

It is fantastic for soldiers and their families that the military is seeking to acknowledge and clearly define PTSD, and reduce the stigma.

A next step would be to include a more mind-body research-based understanding of what is going on in the nervous system and brains of soldiers suffering from the condition —as a way to address the problem more comprehensively.

3) Let’s train a group of yoga teachers to serve the military in two specific ways:

a) With an understanding of somatic psychology and the basic neuroanatomy of trauma, and in how to use yoga to support discharge of unresolved nervous system energy, safe integration of traumatic memories and using breath and body awareness to become more self-regulated and “resourced.”

b) With basic knowledge of the warning signs that will assist in identifying soldiers who have been pushed into extreme states of depression, paranoia, or delusions that would indicate the need for psychiatric assistance. It is no the fault of these men that they become a danger to themselves and others, and the sooner this can be recognized the safer it will be for all concerned.

It is essential that we take better care of our soldiers and their communities. The above suggestions could make a significant difference by using a science-informed, psychologically aware model of yoga to resolve, heal, and integrate PTSD more effectively.

The The Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind yoga teacher training provides a good grounding in the relationships between somatic psychology, neuroscience, yoga and healing trauma. For more information, click here

photo by: dctim1

Does “Truth” Matter in Spirituality?

In conversations about spirituality, I often encounter the perspective that truth is entirely relative and that there is no such thing as “reality,” because everything is perception. Some people also like to talk about certain proposed “absolute truths” that are beyond the mind or the material plane and have to either be accepted on faith or experienced directly during say, meditation.

While there is of course something valid and important in recognizing subjective perception and persepctive, and while I value contemplative experience very deeply, I have a different perspective on “truth.”

Truth matters. It is not only of central importance in how we think and act in the world, but also a principle to strive for in our spiritual lives. But we forget this —and it is easy to see why.

Truth exists in different ways in different domains of human knowledge and experience, and this can sometimes be confusing. We can tease these domains apart, but it is important to remember that they are always aspects of an integrated whole.

For example, if I said that water was made of two parts sulfur and one part helium, anyone with a middle school science education would know that this was not true. But not all truths are reducible to the domain of scientific evidence.

Many people stop there, saying that some things are scientifically demonstrable (like the composition of water) and everything else (like the meaning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, what happens after we die) is just belief, opinion and mystery. But let’s slow that down and look more carefully.

One step removed from scientific evidence, there is also logical reasoning.

If I said:

All men are mortal. Hillary Clinton is mortal. Therefore Hillary Clinton is a man.

It should be obvious that my conclusion was not true. Now we are in the domain of reason and logic — and whether we are aware of it or not, we all practice using our capacity to reason as a way of evaluating truth.

So we have discovered that one kind of truth has to do with established scientific knowledge and another (which may rely upon, but does not require scientific evidence) has to do with reason. If a statement or belief is contrary to evidence and reason, then we should be comfortable saying it is false.

To continue: If I told you that I was writing this article from the stable of my pet unicorn, you would be quite entitled not to believe me unless I provided evidence of this highly unlikely claim.

We enter now a related domain, which has to do with how we think about what is most likely to be true. Based on what we know about the world we live in, it is unlikely enough to be almost impossible for me to have a pet unicorn. If I claimed a pet of any species that was known to exist, no matter how exotic, this would be more likely by an order of magnitude to be true. If I said I had a pet tiger you might still demand to see a photo or video of me with it, but your level of incredulity would not even come close to that for the claim of a pet unicorn.

A common mistake here would be to think that unless someone could prove that I didn’t have a pet unicorn, that we should on principle be open to the possibility. But this is impractical, and none of us actually live our lives this way. It also goes against the famous observation credited to Carl Sagan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

In other words, if you claim something highly unusual, the burden of proof is on you to show that your claim is true, otherwise why should anyone believe that you could walk on the ceiling?

But what about art or philosophy, surely these are entirely subjective, right?

If I told you that Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” was about a family outing to the beach in the south of Spain it would not take much research to find out that this was factually incorrect. If I told you the play dealt with issues of race and power, you might read the play, as well as some respected analysis of it and come to the conclusion that this too was an incorrect interpretation.

So even with regard to something that seems ultra subjective like “meaning,” we have ways of ascertaining truth. In fact millions of people spend many years qualifying for doctorate degrees in interpreting meaning in philosophy, literature and other fields. They may not be able to agree with one another very often —but their opinions are generally more interesting, well-informed, and contain more truth than those of high school students who have barely read the text at hand.

While not objective in the strict sense, we can all agree that there are better and worse, superficial and profound, correct and incorrect ways of interpreting art and philosophy.

So much for claims about what is true in the outside world, in logical reasoning, or when interpreting language and images – spirituality focuses to a large extent on our inner worlds, and surely here there is no such thing as objective truth, right?

Sure. But we are still on the continuum of truth. The claims are becoming less objective, but this does not mean that absolutely anything goes! It also does not mean that our interior experiences are not still related to both the objective outer world and our capacity to reason and interpret meaning – in fact I suggest healthy, sustainable spirituality requires this level of integration.

Psychology is the study of the mind and feelings. It doesn’t get any more subjective. We know from basic psychology that all of us have ways of distorting reality in order to protect ourselves from feelings with which we would rather not deal. These defenses include denial, rationalization, dissociation, compensation -all of which are ways of not being truthful with ourselves.

We all know the phenomenon of someone who is scared but pretending to be brave. Or of someone smiling through the tears, or hardening their face and body in resistance to letting their vulnerability be visible to others and perhaps even conscious to themselves.

A good counselor can guide us into being more truthful with ourselves about how we actually feel emotionally, and help us to gain insight into what those feelings mean. A good friend can listen and empathize and reflect back what may be true within a confused tangle of events, interpretations and feelings. Feelings have meaning and have to do with our relationships and our experiences in the outside world.

Of course a good psychiatrist can also diagnose the very extreme distortions of reality or wildly inappropriate feelings that are symptoms of severe mental illness. In fact, I would suggest that the complex and nuanced relationship between our inner truths and the truths of outer reality defines the continuum we all exist along with regard to relative levels of mental health.

When it comes to psychiatry, we are also talking about the intersection of the objective science of brain function and neurochemistry with the subjective domain of consciousness, sense of self, and interpretation of meaning. Remember, it is all connected…

Now what about something even more to do with the interior domain of spirituality – say, meditation? Aren’t the experiences that individuals have while in meditation, yoga or prayer, on vision quest or under the influence of psychedelic sacraments exempt from any of the more ordinary ways of ascertaining truth?

Well, what if I told you that while meditating I realized that all of external reality was actually my dream — that you who are reading this in fact do not exist except as a figment of my imagination, and that I in fact am an immortal being who has forgotten how to wake up out of my sleep?

What if I said I was going to sell all my possessions, stop working and meditate all day long sitting in the middle of the street earnestly seeking to wake up to my true identity beyond the dream?

Would the fact that I claimed this was true based on my experience in meditation somehow make you take it more seriously than my claim to be writing this from my unicorn’s stable?

If we are being grounded, surely we should consider all claims about external reality in the same way, and test them using the same methods.

Consider that I told you the following:

While meditating I realized that the tension I often feel in my shoulder area relaxed when I got in touch with how afraid I had been about my financial situation, and that as I sat with that fear, imagining breathing compassion into it, I remembered being a small boy and feeling afraid that my parents were going to get divorced, and that after shedding a few tears I felt ready to try some new business strategies that I had been procrastinating.

Then my mind shifted into a place of extraordinary peace and self-acceptance, I felt at one with all things and it seemed I sat there for a great while, even though I saw that the whole meditation had lasted just 20 minutes when I opened my eyes.

This account of an experience in meditation not only sounds basically sane and beneficial, it also makes no extraordinary claims about external reality. Rather, it expresses an integrated relationship between my external financial struggles, some underlying emotions, and how those are held as tension in my body. It also describes a brain state of meditative absorption that in fact correlates nicely with findings from neuroscience.

Many people who have never meditated would be skeptical about these claims, but there is nothing about them that sounds crazy or out of step with everyday accounts of both objective and subjective reality.

In short, you probably would have no reason to doubt the truth of this account.

When we hold ourselves to a standard of truth across all domains of reality, spirituality can be integrated, sane and beneficial. I think we run into trouble when we buy into the idea that spiritual experiences and beliefs are beyond evidence, reason, logic, or inter-subjective analysis.

Claims of an “ultimate truth”  beyond the mind and beyond material reality are a staple of many forms of spirituality. By definition, these claims are impossible to evaluate – a feature that for many would make them meaningless. But let’s say we remain open to the possibility of these kinds of ultimate metaphysical truths existing. We would still have to be honest about the fact that if they affect anything about the world we actually live in, those effects could be evaluated.

I hope this exploration of truth as it shows up in our inner and outer lives has been thought provoking and useful. Please let me know your thoughts on the subject!

Intent Video of the Day: 2 Minute Meditation with Julian Walker

It’s Friday, and if your week has been anything like ours here at Intent, taking a couple moments to slow down and breathe will be a much needed reset! That’s why we’re starting our day with this short meditation from Los Angeles-based yoga teacher Julian Walker. In this video, Julian shares a short (less than two minutes) meditation to focus the mind, calm the nervous system and come back to the present moment. Try it and let us know what you think.

BigHappyDay posts fun, engaging daily videos of teachers talking about yoga, spirituality, sustainability, and many other interesting topics. We’re also loving the recent videos from Hemalayaa, Kerri Kelly, Felicia Tomasko, Tommy Rosen, and more. You can watch them on the BigHappyDay YouTube channel.

Everyday we spotlight one remarkable video to inspire you to fulfill your intentions and improve your life. Do you have a video you’d like to suggest? Send it to us at editor [at] intent.com.

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