FEATURED TEACHER OF THE MONTH
Interview by Sarah McElwain
James Cancienne completed 200-hour Level I training at IYI in May 2014. He is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Manhattan. He also practices zazen regularly and is considering becoming a formal student of Zen Buddhism. More information about him can be found on his website: jamescancienne.wordpress.com.
What is your definition of Yoga?
My view is that Yoga is a comprehensive system that has as a primary objective the calming and concentrating of the mind with an ultimate goal of one-pointed mind. The asana of Yoga enhance strength, flexibility, and general health of the physical body in service to that ultimate goal.
What do you love about Yoga?
I love that Yoga has introduced me to paying close attention to my body and mind. The ripple effects are such that after a few years of practice I have become much more aware of what I put into my body; I eat more healthful foods and drink much less alcohol than I did before my practice. Often, but not always, I follow a vegan diet, which is directly influenced by people I have met at IYI, as well as through my study of Yoga. Also, having greatly increased my meditation practice, I find that my mind is tremendously calmer than just a few years ago, and I am more content than I have ever been in my life. I have also been able to share enthusiastically the tools that I have learned with patients I see in my psychotherapy practice. Especially at IYI, and in other places as well, Yoga has introduced me to a group of like-minded individuals so that I have become part of a community, which has led to greater happiness in my life.
Why do you teach Yoga?
I teach Yoga because Kali and Rashmi invited me to teach! I’m sure that if I had not been asked to teach at IYI, I would not be teaching Yoga and would have been trained solely to enhance my own practice. How fortunate for me that I was asked. It has been a real pleasure to help others experience all the benefits of Yoga. Also, through teaching, my practice grows deeper and the sense of community grows. Thank you, Kali and Rashmi, and thanks to all the administrative and support staff at IYI who, through their work, allow me such a wonderful, ongoing opportunity that enriches my life.
What are the particular areas of Yoga you are teaching in now or in which you have created your own, special offerings? What attracted you to those areas?
As a teacher, I am careful to offer verbal cues, which I hope increase students’ sense of conscious awareness, strengthen, and focus that awareness. In Yoga, an efficient way to do that is to invite the student, subtly or directly, to use his or her awareness throughout the class. Yoga is particularly well suited to this experience with its emphasis on the physical body. Simple cues, like “Press your clasped hands toward the wall behind you,” for example, or “Feel your belly pushing into the mat as you inhale,” have the effect of helping the student sharpen his or her awareness by concentrating the mind on different parts of the body and particular movements in space and time. In the Yoga Nidra and meditation portion of class, I make sure to focus on awareness of the mind directly, or thoughts in particular, and use cues to help the students calm their thoughts. I try to introduce these cues throughout the class. For example, after netra vyayamam, in the early part of class, when the students have their palms over their closed eyelids, I make a point of saying something about the brain’s beginning to relax more. This has the effect of highlighting for the student the importance of calming the mind.
I think my interest in calming the mind is magnified by my training and work as a psychologist. There is a strong mutual relationship between a calm and steady mind and psychological well-being. A calm mind is capable of being an attentive mind, and attention is fundamental to both internal and external awareness. Healthy decision making and behavioral change require focused attention. The psychic muscles exercised in Yoga that increase our attention can be put to great use as efforts are made to control conditioned thought patterns. It seldom occurs to most people that their conditioned experience, with corresponding beliefs and attitudes, often strongly held, are nothing more than psychic phenomena. Sensations are perceived, feelings are established around that perception, and a psychic position, often rigid, is taken up. Most of this complex process is automatic. Thus, a great deal of attention is required to change this process. At a certain point in some people’s lives, it becomes understood that these positions that have been taken up are no longer working, and an inward search is ignited. It is often at this time that a spiritual path, like Yoga, is embarked upon. This is where, as teachers, we meet our students, so the responsibility is great in terms of aiding them on their path. So it is that students and teachers alike, through Yoga, work to develop the “Buddha mind,” an awake, calm, and discerning mind.
What do you hope students will receive from you as a teacher, and what do you hope students will get out of your coming offerings and workshops?
I hope students will have an awake and calm mind.
Do you have a favorite book or Yoga mat or product that you like, something you sincerely enjoy and wish to share with the teacher sangha?
My favorite book related to Yoga is The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary, by Edwin F. Bryant, published by North Point Press in 2009. The writing combines detailed and thorough explanation with an ease of understanding of the Yoga Sutras.
Ongoing classes at IYI: One-hour Level I on Wednesdays at 9:15