An Interview with Ally Hamilton

1. Your new book is Yoga's Healing Power. What inspired you to write about yoga's ability to heal?

Culturally, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the external, and we've done the same thing with yoga. The poses are wonderful—they open and strengthen the body, and that is beautiful and important. However, the life-changing aspects of a regular yoga practice are not about the poses, they're about your process. What happens for you when you can't do a pose easily, and the person next to you can? What happens when you wobble or fall? Can you practice patience and compassion for yourself, or do you struggle with a loud inner critic? As a yoga teacher, though, I can't tell you how many times someone has said to me, "I can't do yoga because I can't touch my toes!" I wanted to write this book to offer the concepts, philosophy, and practices that have most helped me understand myself, lean into those places where I still had healing to do so that my pain wouldn't own me for the rest of my life, and create a life that feels wonderful to me. I don't believe there's one formula for happiness that works for everyone, but I do believe this practice can help anyone find her or his own way. Ultimately, we all want to be happy, and to feel our lives have meaning and purpose. Yoga is not about the external, it's an inward journey. If you create peace within yourself, if you feel at ease and comfortable in your own skin, then you can offer up the best of yourself to the world around you. I think the world needs each of us to do that right now.

2. How is yoga able to heal? Are we able to heal physical ailments as well as emotional or spiritual ones?

Whatever your issues are (and we all have them!), you don't "check them at the door" when you unroll your mat; they show up with you. So if you do struggle with a loud inner critic, for example, that voice will follow you onto your mat. If you fall out of a pose, or can't do it the way the person in front of you is doing it, that voice will be right there to berate you. It could be that you are so used to this that you don't even question it. Maybe when you move through your day and make a mistake, your inner voice says "Idiot! Why did you say that or do that?!" That's a tough way to live, but it might be habitual for you. Most habits happen outside our awareness. Yoga is a listening practice. You breathe consciously, and just by tuning into your breath, you become present; the inhales and exhales happen in the now. When you're present and listening, you may be surprised by what arises, and with awareness comes the power to choose. You don't have to listen to that nasty voice. You can start to feed a loving and compassionate voice. Having an inner voice that cheers you on instead of one that tears you down is life-changing. So that's one example. And yes, you may notice physical habits, as well. If you notice that every time the teacher cues you to notice your neck muscles you have to relax your neck, you now know you habitually carry tension in your neck, and probably also your shoulders and the hinge of your jaw. Once you know you do that, it becomes easier to check in throughout the day, and relax your shoulders while driving, or counting money at the checkout line, or making dinner.

Additionally, you may find that when you begin to release tension from an area of the body where you've been holding tension for years, some emotion is released as well. The body has been with us through everything. If you're upset, that upset is manifested somewhere physically. Maybe you have shallow chest-breathing, or you clench your jaw or fists, or you furrow your brow. The mind-body connection is always there. Sometimes we "sit on" or repress our rage or shame or grief, and then we go into a hip-opener toward the end of class and find ourselves crying. The potential for healing on your mat, and off of it, is enormous.

3. Why are the spiritual aspects of yoga just as important as the physical aspects?

If you're just looking for a way to take care of your physical health, I think you can focus solely on the physical practice. However, if you're looking for inner peace, you really have to incorporate the spiritual aspects as well. The practice as a whole teaches us to be present, aware, and able to face reality as it is, which is not always as we'd like it to be. It helps us to become accountable, to examine patterns in our choices or our thinking that might be showing up in order to teach us something we need to understand in order to heal. Yoga is a confrontational practice; again and again, it asks us to uncover and strengthen the best in ourselves so that we can share our gifts freely, and move through the world in a more peaceful and fulfilling way.

4. Do you need to be familiar with yoga to practice the Eight Limbs?

It's really one and the same. I think a lot of people here in the West start with the physical practice, and then begin to discover there are seven other limbs! That's how it happened for me, and countless people with whom I've worked over the years. The physical challenge appealed to me, and then I started to notice my practice seemed to be helping me in so many other ways. I began to feel more in touch with my intuition, to recognize those resounding "yeses," and heed the big, "NO's!" I noticed I was able to breathe through anxiety when it arose, as well as feelings of depression, grief, and loneliness, without feeling the need to run, deny, or numb out. Over time, I started to feel a sense of ease I'd never experienced before, the feeling of "coming home" to myself. All of those shifts made me want to understand the practice more deeply, and that's when my exploration of all eight limbs began in earnest.

5. What do you hope readers will take away from Yoga's Healing Power?

I hope readers will relate to the book in a practical way. I wanted to use examples from my own life—what it's like to be divorced with two small kids, and still in business with my ex-husband, the ways I had played out my childhood in my adult relationships until I began to understand what I was doing, the stress of trying to "do it all" and still find balance—so that readers would understand this practice applies, and is so relevant, to our modern, busy, smartphone-carrying lives. I want the book to be a guide, so that hopefully the aspects of the practice that have most helped me can help other people. I hope it will be like a reader's best friend, especially if that reader is looking to make big, and sometimes scary, shifts in his or her own life. Each chapter follows the same format. I offer a short explanation of the concept we'll be diving into, share a modern, real-life example from my own life or those closest to me, dive into the philosophy more deeply, and then end each chapter with a simple yoga practice, a short guided meditation, and journaling questions that relate to the topic we've just unpacked.

About Ally Hamilton

Ally Hamilton is a Santa Monica-based yoga teacher, writer, and life coach who connects daily with yogis all around the world via her online yoga classes. She's the co-creator of http://www.yogisanonymous.com, which has ...