August 23, 2014

“Find a Comfortable Seat…”

Finding a quiet place within is challenging in a cacophonous world, so why make it any harder than it needs to be? Why not support yourself?

This is one of those yoga teacher phrases I used to internally roll my eyes at when I was first practicing yoga. If you started practicing after prolonged joint damage, have low back pain, tight hips, sciatica, or sore knees, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

It seems like a lot of folks just fold one leg in front of the other and sit, doesn’t it? Yoga’s second most famous cross-legged seated position (aside from the controversial lotus pose) is sukhasana, which is often translated as “easy seat.” When I learned that during teacher training I gave a sarcastic laugh and mentioned that sitting cross-legged was just about the least comfortable way I could think to sit.

One ankle always fell asleep, I felt like I was rounding in my lower back, my knees were practically up to my chest, and eventually that feeling in the lower back transformed into a dull ache that lasted for hours.

Like many asanas, I assumed that finding ease in this posture was about patience. Just as a childhood full of swimming butterfly had given me a strong back and shoulders, it had also created solid muscles in my hips. And I was not the most intelligent athlete as a younger person. I focused my efforts on strength and endurance with little care about flexibility. So I built those solid, strong muscles, but never allowed them to be pliable. Asking them to simply release, relax, and lengthen right away wasn’t going to happen.

So how could I find a comfortable seat? Even though we almost always meditated after asana practice when the muscles were warmer, it still felt plain uncomfortable every time. It was frustrating because I tried so hard to shut out the fiery soreness that radiated almost like sciatica down my leg that I lost the plot entirely.

Did you ever try sitting on a block?

Wait, I can do that?

I don’t know why this was such a revelation to me. We encourage students to use props in order to help the body align properly in all sorts of asanas. For some reason, I always thought that doing so for meditation meant that I lacked discipline of a sort.

Finding a quiet place within is challenging in a cacophonous world, so why make it any harder than it needs to be? Why not support yourself? And by support yourself, I mean in the literal and figurative sense. Be kind to yourself and be okay with the idea that sitting cross-legged on the floor is not an easy, comfortable seat for you.

Then take one that is! Imagine how much more you could go inside if you weren’t thinking about your foot falling asleep or sore hips?  Imagine what deeper places you could explore if you took the time to eliminate a distraction that doesn’t need to be there?

It’s not a compromise, it’s accommodating your body with compassion.

The world lost one of yoga’s great lights this week. B.K.S Iyengar is the man credited with bringing yoga to the western world. The Iyengar yoga lineage is highly focused on proper alignment in order to facilitate a more profound, deep experience in yoga practice. Mr. Iyengar refined the use of props in yoga in order to make poses accessible to students. Props can open up practice to individuals with physical limitations, support practitioners to work in a safe range of motion, highlight a particular quality in a posture, and/or allow students to balance the effort and surrender in each pose.

Simply putting a block under me raised my hips enough that my knees could relax down and away from my body. With knees no  longer above my hips and pulling on my lower back, the roundness dissipated and the pain down the back of my leg disappeared. My outer hip flexors sometimes get sore since my knees don’t touch the ground, and in those instances I also like to support them on the outside of the knees with blocks or bolsters.

Oh, and then I met the amazing Marianne Meyers who showed me this ultra-deluxe version with two blocks and a blanket. It’s like the royal throne of sukhasana. Seriously, try it. (And then go take one of Marianne’s therapeutic yoga classes and learn all of the ways to really be supported. Taking therapeutic yoga is one of the best things a practitioner of any level can do to learn about healthy movement.)

Sukhasana with blocks side-by-side covered with a blanket.

Sukhasana with blocks side-by-side covered with a blanket.

You don’t need anything special. A thick phone book, the afghan on the chair, even the cushions from the couch can be a prop.

The next time someone tells you to find a comfortable seat, take them seriously. Let it be a balance of ease and effort so that you can be open to receive the benefits of your practice.

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Posted in: Asana, Notes
August 19, 2014

Turning Inward

Listen to your body; it will not lie to you. We can tell ourselves all sorts of messages in our minds, but the body will never lie to you. It can’t.

One of the branches on yoga’s 8-limbed path is called pratyahara, or “withdrawal of the senses.” It is turning inward and beginning to release attempts to exercise control over the external forces.

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The past week and a half has weighed heavy. The light of an actor I respected and admired went out, my sister-in-law’s father went to peace after his battle with cancer, and then a friend was taken from the world in an accident so sudden I don’t know that I’ve actually wrapped my head around it. I still expect that the next time I visit where we once worked together, I will see my friend with her red coffee cup and mischievous smirk, giving me a half-annoyed grin because I didn’t bring cookies for the visit.

What is most difficult about the latter loss is that many of my friends and acquaintances also loved her. To watch so many people you care for grieving a loss is hard.

The grief I felt kept catching me off-guard. Out in Crystal City on Saturday morning, I saw within a crowd of shoppers a dark-haired woman wearing an orange sweater and did a double-take. There was a mistake! It wasn’t you. Or waiting for a receipt for parking and finding myself suddenly thinking about everyone from her supervisor, her fiancé, her family, the people she had coffee with every day, even her dog.

To ignore sadness and push it away so that I could go through the motions of teaching felt disingenuous. I turned to practice for healing and thought of pratyahara.

Pratyahara is the moment in yoga when we let go of attention to physical technique and turn inward. The senses are calmed down, no longer seeking to break down the constant flood of information. What we hear, smell, taste, touch, and see fall away, and we enter a place of tranquility. This does not happen overnight, and it is often incomplete. Some days I am able to close my eyes and let go of all that my vision is taking in, but it is not so easy to simply notice sounds and let them pass by. The curious mind wonders, What is that? Where is it coming from? Oh, that reminds me! I need to…

No. I don’t need to do anything. Let go.

In practicing pratyahara, we often return to pranayama (breath control), the limb that comes just before pratyahara. If you’ve been in a yoga class, perhaps a teacher has said to you, “If thoughts become intrusive, just listen to your breathing.” The breath is a tool, even a guide, for accessing this internal space.

I realized that while highly inappropriate to my pass the grief I felt along to my students, this experience of pratyahara might help them access the places within their own selves that were in need of healing. I came across a passage from Rolf Gates’ Meditations from the Mat that pinpointed it eloquently:

“Letting go of our pain is not an overnight affair, but the process quickly gains momentum. It’s a little like water moving through a hole in a dam. First, there is just a trickle, then a small flow, then before you know it there is a torrent. The most miraculous part of this process is in the trickle stage. This is when you see the dramatic courage, the thrilling movement and change. It is the addict’s first few months of sobriety, the battered woman leaving home for good, the forty-something businessperson leaving a job and going to medical school. It’s picking up the pieces after a great loss. It’s trying again after bitter failure. This is the time when you find out who your friends are and what a friend really is. Later, once the flow has become established, the work changes. Now the challenge is in staying green and fresh, remaining established in a beginner’s mind. Pratyahara is right down there at ground zero, in the field where heroes are made. It is our first steps into the light. The remaining limbs on the eight-limb path are about maintenance and growth. Pratyahara is about beginnings.”

I am a firm believer that the universe sends us what we need, and it is no mistake that my book fell open to that page when I sought comfort. I put my trust in the honesty of that message and read it to a room of students meditating in a supported heart-opening posture. Throughout the rest of our practice together, I challenged them to close their eyes as we went through asanas.

Listen to your body; it will not lie to you. We can tell ourselves all sorts of messages in our minds, but the body will never lie to you. It can’t. Feel the life entering and the excess exiting with every cycle of breath. You don’t have to control anything.

Afterward, I was thanked by several students. I was astounded by their kind words; some had never had a yoga experience like that before that morning. It is a challenge—how do we retreat inward when right outside the door is a shopping mall buzzing with people?

We simply try. We make a new beginning.

today is your day

The necklace I wear daily with a “Today is your day! / New beginning” charm that my mom gave me earlier this year, and diamond circle from Joe that he gave me in 2005.

Pratyahara is starting to pick up the pieces and doing the work because we choose to thrive. When we stop needing to control everything—our joy, our suffering, even the moments that feel mundane—we make space for real healing, new growth, and the chance to experience a deeper connection to all living things.

And the part of it that seems almost like it should be magic is the most genuine truth of all. When we recognize that connection, the realization comes that no one is ever really gone.

Read about the brilliant, funny, and delightful Nadia here.

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Posted in: 8 Limbs of Yoga, Notes
August 15, 2014

Expanding the Sky

“We cannot reach the goal by mere words alone. Without practice, nothing can be achieved.”

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a collection of 196 sutras, or aphorisms, that together constitute one of the foundational texts of yoga study. I was instantly fascinated by this sort of road map for yoga practice when I discovered it, and during my teacher training we were asked to memorize several of the passages from the first book. I was never very good at plain memorization, but if you sing something to me I’ll remember it for a lifetime. So each morning as part of my personal practice, I chant the first four:

1.1 Atha Yogānuśāsanam – Now, the study of yoga.
1.2 Yogaś citta vṛitti narodhaḥ – Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.
1.3 Tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe’vasthānam – Then the seer abides in his own nature.
1.4 Vṛitti sārūpyam itaratra – In states other than yoga, the seer conforms to the modifications of the mind.

This physical ritual allows me to begin each day with the awareness and intention of new effort toward yoga, or union with the True Self and the universal consciousness. Like any ritual or prayer, it can be easy to fall into the trap of letting the words fall out of the mouth without meaning. But I have discovered that even on the days where I feel the most distracted, this simple practice becomes a way of re-grounding myself and re-committing to the work: “Now I practice. When the mind is still and calm, I will have found a state of yoga (union) and will connect will my eternal, peaceful self. When the mind is not in a state of yoga, I identify with ideas and thought forms that are not my real self.”

Washington, DC - Early October, 2012

Washington, DC morning sky – October 2012

Whew, that’s a tall order. Consider how often the mind is running away with a thousand thoughts: I really need to fix that bookshelf. Is there money in the checking account for this? Did I turn off the oven? I need to take the dog to the vet. Traffic is so bad today. Ugh, that woman running looks so fit—I’m so out of shape. The car is making a funny noise. The house is a mess.

That bookshelf might be sagging, but it’s holding the books just fine. And if it wasn’t, would it really make so much of a difference if the books were simply stacked in a corner? Who is the bookshelf for? Is it for me to easily find my books or is it an ego-trip so that guests might admire my collection of reading materials? In traffic, I can either sit there gritting my teeth and feeling irritated, or let it go and accept that it’s where I’m at. What will be will be. And as for that lady I’m watching jog, I’m considering only her physical form and comparing it to my own. Making a judgment about her and myself based purely on the visual. Talk about putting yourself (or others) in a box, right?

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Berlin, Germany evening sky – July 2012

In Swami Satchidananda’s commentary on the sutras, he writes that, “We cannot reach the goal by mere words alone. Without practice, nothing can be achieved.” So after the initial introduction in sutra 1.1, the entire collection is devoted to instruction on practice for achieving the state described in sutra 1.2.

I really wrestled with sutra 1.2 when I began contemplating it. I kept thinking, “But if the mind is completely still, the person is dead. No brain activity, no life.”

sky2

Paradise Island, Bahamas afternoon sky – April 2012

After turning that over in my head for a while, I was graced by a teacher and friend who offered a way of looking at it that I’d not considered. If we think of the mind as a sky, the thoughts become clouds. Some are heavy, slow-moving, and overwhelming, while others seem so light and transparent that they disappear from view before we have a chance to even consider their shape.
In yoga practice, it is not that we strive to make the clouds disappear or go away, but that we work toward expanding the sky. The greater the sky, the smaller the clouds seem. The more we expand our horizon and view of our place within the universe, the less the mind-chatter and false identification seem significant. It is not that these things no longer exist, we are simply no longer attached to them or focused on them as we once were. And in the stillness of that detachment we find yoga.

Chincoteauge Island, VA afternoon sky - July 2013

Chincoteauge Island, VA afternoon sky – July 2013

That kind of detachment and soft focus remain a challenge for me, but I try to appreciate and cherish the moments of stillness. I try to identify with how I feel in those moments, so that I can return there more readily in the future. And sometimes it’s only a fraction of a sliver more space added to the sky, but each day it is a reaffirmation that I am a growing, thriving being.

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“Thoughts are like traces of birds in heaven.”

Posted in: Notes, Sutras
August 11, 2014

Ardha Chandrasana: An Open Heart

Feel the energy all the way through the fingertips and toes, and expand as if you were trying to radiate across as much space as possible. Open your heart to a feeling of bliss as this energy flows out from you.

I’m not shy about my love for Ardha Chandrasana, or, Half Moon Pose.  To my heart, it is the embodiment of grace and peaceful power. And there are variations to serve students of all levels that still allow each to receive the bliss of this expansive, radiant posture.

On a physical level, the benefits of this posture are numerous and rich: The muscles of the standing leg are strengthened as that leg acts as the main point of structural stability in the balance. The practitioner grounds through the whole foot, engages the quadriceps to allow the hamstrings to lengthen, and engages the muscles around the calf to stabilize the ankle. The muscles of the raised leg are also engaged. The foot flexes strongly so that all five toes point back evenly and the muscles of the calf lengthen. Again, the quadriceps muscle in the front of the thigh is engaged to allow the hamstring to lengthen and the leg to eventually become straight. The upper body is working and stretching also in this posture. The spine is long; if the spine collapses or curves when the bottom hand is brought to the ground, place a block underneath that hand to lift the torso and encourage length from the heel of the raised leg all the way through the crown of the head.

One way to approach this is from Parivrtta Parsvakonasana / Extended Side-Angle Pose. From Extended Side-Angle, reach the lower arm about 6-12 in. beyond the front foot and press the fingertips into the floor. Bring the overhead arm to the top hip. Begin to shift weight into, and ground through all four corners of the front foot (big toe, little toe, inner heel, outer heel). On an inhale, slowly begin to straighten the front leg while simultaneously raising the back leg and extending it until it is parallel (or slightly above parallel) to the floor. Engage the quadriceps of the standing leg to lift the kneecap and allow the hamstring to release and stretch, while continuing to engage the calf muscles and ground through the foot of the standing leg. The more firmly you press the foot of the standing leg into the floor, the more lift and stability you will feel.

Flex the foot of the raised leg as if you were standing on a wall behind you. By flexing the foot, the leg muscles awaken and make this posture feel more stable.

Half moon with hand on hip

 

Inhale and begin to rotate the top hip back, and open the chest toward the sky. If you feel steady, take the top arm away from the hip and raise it straight overhead. Your drishti, or eye-gaze can look either at the toes of the standing leg or up at the top hand. Do whatever brings the most ease and comfort to your neck.

If you have trouble with balancing in this posture or simply want to invite greater length into the spine, try bringing a block under the grounded hand. This will encourage lift and length in the spine while simultaneously offering more stability. A block is especially useful if you find rounding or curving happening in your back as you bring the hand down toward the floor.

Half moon with block

You might also practice this posture against a wall. Even if you have strong balance, I often encourage students to try Ardha Chandrasana against a wall to really understand what it feels like to stack the hips and shoulders evenly. The foot of the standing leg remains pointed directly toward the front of the mat while the rest of the body opens toward the long side of the mat. Think about pressing both shoulder blades, the back of the hips, and the raised leg into the wall firmly in order to open the chest and heart more toward the sky.

Half moon at the wall

Breathe deeply in this pose, reaching and lengthening through all of the limbs and the crown of the head. You can even make this into a little flow, lengthening the crown of the head and flexing to reach strongly through the back heel on the ihales, and stretching the arms apart in opposite directions on the exhales. Feel the energy all the way through the fingertips and toes, and expand as if you were trying to radiate across as much space as possible. Open your heart to a feeling of bliss as this energy flows out from you. Take 3-5 breaths and then slowly bend the front knee and bring the back leg down with control. Repeat the asana on the other side.

Once you feel comfortable and steady in Ardha Chandrasana, there are a few ways to challenge yourself if you wish.

For a deep stretch along the psoas and hip, on an inhale, bend the raised leg and reach back with the top arm to receive the foot. Exhale, relax the shoulder, and kick the foot into the hand. You should feel deep opening in the shoulder and a stretch through the hip flexors, psoas muscle, and quadriceps of the raised leg.

Full moon

If you’re interested in playing with your balance, try bringing the fingertips up off of the ground. I like to rest mine gently on my shin.

Half moon balance

Full moon balance

One wonderful way to explore your body’s center of gravity and challenge your balance is to create a vinyasa (breath linked with movement) between holding the foot in this posture, and Natarajasana / Dancer’s Pose.

Inhale and kick into the hand strongly, using the breath and the traction created between this kick and extension of the front arm to rise up, coming into Natarajasana. Take one full breath in the posture and reach wide. Kick the foot away from you as you reach the chest and fingertips up and forward. Inhale deeply, and then exhale and reach through the front fingertips as you lengthen the spine and fold back down, bringing the hand either all the way to the mat or back to the shin. Think of moving your body like a seesaw with the hips serving as the axis. And again, always feel free to try these variations with your standing leg against a wall so that you can explore with support. Build a solid foundation and the balance will come.

I hope you enjoy exploring movement freely in Ardha Chandrasana. Remember to listen to your breath always, as it will guide your asana practice. Allow it to be calm and even through the nose. If it gets ragged or choppy, or you find yourself holding your breath, try a variation of the posture with more support. Be open and listen to the messages of the body, so that you can experience your practice in the most complete way possible.

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Posted in: Asana