When I want to stretch and strengthen my toes and feet simultaneously, I like to flow through variations of utkatasana that require strength and stabilization through the ankles, feet, and toes, but also require pliability in the toes and general lengthening throughout the foot muscles.
Feet. Boy do feet get ignored. I never realized this until I started going to therapeutic yoga and my teacher Marianne had us do toe exercises. We sat with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. The exercises started off simple, “Lift your big toe up and keep your little toes down,” and progressed often to strange places like, “Big toe down, little toe down, three middle toes up. Okay, big toe and little toe up, three middle toes down!”
Go ahead. I’ll wait while you try that. Oh, and breathe. Breathing is important.
Hard, isn’t it? Our toes, like our fingers, should be able to move independently of one another. But unlike our fingers, our toes are constantly wrapped up inside socks or shoes and rarely experience full sensation or range of motion. Marianne told us not be discouraged, because with consistent practice those neural pathways between the brain and toes could be re-awakened.
Yoga gets you back in touch with your feet and toes relatively quickly. Whether it’s hooking your big toe with the first two fingers and thumb in a balance, grabbing the soles of the feet for happy baby or cobbler’s pose, or shifting weight to/grounding through different parts of the foot, we tend to focus on feet a lot. That’s because every asana, pranayama, and meditation requires a solid base of support. In order to find the “easy comfortable seat” in practice, we must first be able to feel grounded.
When I want to stretch and strengthen my toes and feet simultaneously, I like to flow through variations of utkatasana (awkward pose / chair pose) that require strength and stabilization through the ankles, feet, and toes, but also require pliability in the toes and general lengthening of the foot muscles. Try the sequence below, flowing through it three times.
If you have trouble with the balance, do the sequence with a wall behind you. Not only will it assist balance, it will also help you find the perfect alignment for a nice, straight spine throughout. You can also try the sequence with feet flat on the floor to learn the breathing cues before adding the tip-toes.
Cues for the breath are below the video.
Inhale, and come high up on the toes and bring the arms up parallel to the floor.
As you exhale, slowly begin to sit down on the tops of the toes, keeping the spine long and upright. Press the heels forward, bringing more weight toward the first and second toe to keep the ankles or heels from splaying outward.
Engage the inner thigh muscles and pull the navel back toward the spine. Take a full inhale. On the exhale, slowly begin to hinge at the hips until the torso comes into line with the hips.
Keep sinking the hips low, pushing the heels forward, and drawing the lower abdominals in. Bring the arms alongside the body with palms facing down, or interlace hands behind the back and lift them up on an inhale for a shoulder stretch.
To release, inhale and slowly hinge back up from the hips, engaging the core through the heels, inner thighs, and abdominal muscles. Return the arms to the parallel position. Hold the upright pose through the exhale.
Inhale, and come high up on the toes with straight legs, and exhale to release to tadasana (mountain pose).
The keys to working through this sequence from the bottom up are:
Ground all of the toes. Really feel as if you are “plugging in” to the ground.
Press the heels forward firmly throughout and let the toes bend.
Engage the inner thighs (as if you were squeezing a ball or block between the legs) to keep the legs in line with the hips and feet.
Pull in the lower abdominals and draw the navel back toward the spine.
Lengthen through the spine. Traction from tailbone all the way through the crown of the head.
Broaden the back and retract the shoulder blades to keep an open chest and lots of space for your even breaths in and out of the nose.
Squeeze all five fingers together. It might seem silly, but this forces the arms to engage all the way through the finger tips and stabilizes their position.
Breathe evenly. The steadier the breath, the steadier the balance.
Steady your gaze. In the upright position, the gaze is ahead. As you fold, slowly shift the gaze to a point on the floor between your toes.
Above all, have fun! It’s just practice and play.
Try more utkatasana variations and standing poses with me at Hot Hatha Detox on Mondays at 10 am, or Hot Hatha Classic on Wednesdays at 6 am and Fridays at 4:15 pm at Mind Your Body Oasis.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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?
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.”
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.
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.
To have permission to simply be present with breath and an intention felt so peaceful. The deeper I dove into the practice and philosophy, the more there was to learn.
My first experience with yoga was a one-credit course I took during my freshman year of college. Like many first-year students, I really struggled with the challenge of balancing rigorous courses and living independently for the first time. I’d only heard of yoga in a peripheral sense, and imagined that the classes would be full of lithe, flexible bodies that could easily fold into beautiful shapes, and sit comfortably on the floor for seated meditation.
Stressed out and battling obesity, I was certain that my clumsy, unfocused, anxious self would stick out like a sore thumb. I’d felt that way about every athletic activity I’d ever done: I always needed that costume just a little bit bigger than the other girls in dance class, and had stood red-faced in front of a high school swimming coach who frowned at the size I ordered for the team suit: “I told you to size down for racing suits. These need to be like a second skin.”
“That is one size down,” I’d responded, simultaneously thinking, and it’s also already digging into my shoulders and squeezing my ribs like a vice.
But yoga, I was told, wasn’t about the poses. It was about meditation, and I frankly thought that a forced hour of calm in my week was probably a very good thing. So I signed up. The Svaroopa-style class focused on deep, supported postures to facilitate release in the spinal muscles. Props were used liberally, and while I was embarrassed that I needed twice as many bolsters as the other students to support my knees when we sat in cross-legged, when I was all set up and able to find my breath, it was something special. I didn’t understand much of the reasoning behind it, but I liked how I felt after class.
The following summer, I made the decision to have gastric bypass surgery, and experienced a significant weight loss. But the real challenges appeared several years later. Once faced with maintaining a healthy weight, I had difficulty finding ease or balance. In search of cheap exercise, I fell into running and found it sort of okay. It was something I could easily get out of the way before work, and there were always fun little races like the Color Run or Warrior Dash to offer a goal. But old disordered habits reared their heads. One month I’d be running miles, exercising to extremes, and counting every gram of sugar going into my mouth, and the next I’d be binge-eating (and consequently getting sick), skipping the morning runs, and deciding that I didn’t have the energy to care about weight. As a result I developed some nutritional deficiencies, and often found myself running through injuries in order to “make up” for what I considered to be poor dietary choices.
When running finally became more like a chore and often caused lingering joint pain, I wondered if there was really any form of fitness out there that suited me. Had the years of obesity wrecked my joints and connective tissue so much? Throughout life, everything I’d turned to for exercise had eventually left me feeling bored, or turned off by the competitive aspect. But I remembered how good my back and shoulders felt after those simple college yoga classes, and wondered if yoga might provide joint relief, some exercise, and relaxation. Still, the thought of attending a class was intimidating, so I bought a few yoga flow mp3 albums and practiced at home in my little office for a few months. It felt amazing, and slowly small changes started happening. I stood up straighter, and felt more able to cope with stress. But in truth, I knew something was still missing. At a point, my practice stagnated, so I swallowed my anxiety about not fitting in, and went to a real yoga class at a studio on Old Town Alexandria.
And that time it clicked. From the first “om,” I was hooked. Suddenly, I was scouring studio schedules for classes near my office on Capitol Hill. I told my boss I’d work late on Wednesdays in order to take a longer lunch break and attend a midday class near the office. There were so many styles and types of yoga to explore, but I fell in love with Vinyasa Flow, Bikram yoga, and Hot Hatha classes. A tiny voice in the back of my head remained skeptical, reminding me constantly that this “exercise” wouldn’t be different. Then one day during class I was struggling, attempting a posture I wasn’t yet ready for, and an instructor said, “It’s okay to be where you are today. Take your ego out of the equation and honor your own practice.”
To be given permission to not push everything so hard, to not always having to be better or accomplish more…that was different. To have permission to simply be present with breath and an intention felt so peaceful. The deeper I dove into the practice and philosophy, the more there was to learn. I felt able to let go of some of the compulsive habits that didn’t serve me. Yoga became a mindfulness practice that fed me spiritually, brought better focus, and allowed me to challenge my physical body in a compassionate way. To realize that there would always be more to learn and explore was a beautiful gift that brought a sense of calm. “You can always try a little bit more tomorrow,” one of my current teachers often says.
Yoga felt like home.
I decided to take my practice deeper, and completed a 200-hour interdisciplinary yoga teacher training at Mind the Mat in Alexandria, VA. The curriculum included a study of yoga history and philosophy, yogic lifestyle and ethics, anatomy and physiology, teaching and practice of asanas, meditations, pranayamas, chants, and mantras, yoga business, and a basic understanding of therapeutic yoga and prenatal yoga principles.
My practice and teachings are strongly rooted in a respect and love for the aspects of yoga practice on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. As a teacher, I strive to create yoga experiences that allow students to discover sattva, or balance both on the mat and in their daily lives. I teach workshops and classes in the Washington, DC metro area, and delight in sharing the mindfulness practices that have brought positive focus, peace, and a deeper connection with others into my own life.