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Back to Basics: Real Yoga Doesn’t Hurt January 26, 2012

Filed under: Exercise,Health,Yoga — Holly Meyers @ 9:19 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

OK, I confess.  I’ve created a sensational title for a simple blog about our January class focus, “Back to Basics.”

“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” was the sensational headline for a recent New York Times article (link below) that tells a simple story.  That headline – and the article’s content – generated more media reactions, responses and official statements than any article on any topic I’ve seen in a long while.  Perhaps more than “Occupy.”

How exciting!

Lively debate!  Impassioned professions!  True confessions!  All due to a newspaper’s intelligent twisting of heads for their benefit.  All due to a newspaper headline writer’s clever choice of wording.  All due to that newspaper’s strategy to promote its science writer’s upcoming book release!

If you can get past the hype, or accept that the article is only discussing one aspect of yoga (Asana, or, poses), or focus on the words How and Can, or perhaps, erase the headline from your mind altogether – you might find a simple story conveying one yoga teacher’s honest and humble experience.  That’s the story I found.  Therefore, I should have quit while I was ahead.

But no.  In preparing to write this blog, my goal was to read 20 or so online articles (all found by Google-ing “Yoga Wreck Body”) and numerous Facebook comments related to the original New York Times piece.  The pieces span a wide range of discussion: what constitutes “real” yoga; whether yoga should be practiced as exercise; how the NYT article is scientifically incorrect; how the teacher featured in the article is morally wrong; what we can do to practice yoga safely.  And so on.  Truly moved by people’s passionate and intelligent remarks, I wanted to immerse myself in public opinion, and then form my own.

Instead, the more I read, the less interested I became in others’ opinions.

On the contrary, I found myself delightfully reflective and clear about my original, personal, untainted opinion of yoga.  I remembered: the media gains attention by twisting facts, embellishing mediocrity and inspiring controversy; any form of physical activity can lead to serious injury; and the definition of “real” yoga will be relative to each person who experiences it.

So I stopped reading.

Now…getting Back to Basics…

*  *  *

“Tadaasana, Pranayama, Sankalpa.”

There is a reason I repeat these three words each time we regroup at the top of the mat between Sun Salutations.  For me, these three elements – The Pose, The Breath and The Intention – are the basics of yoga.  Although mentioned as three unique parts of yoga’s eight-limbed system, in my practice they are inseparable.  When I align myself in Mountain Pose (Tadaasana), I firmly embody my intention (Sankalpa).  When I breathe deliberately (Pranayama), I exhale obstacles, and inhale my intention with resolve.

When I fuse these three elements together, I fortify my purpose for that session of practice – and that sense of purpose begins to trickle into my life.

*  *  *

The Pose (Asana)

When teaching the basics, I like to start with the body.  In my own practice, focusing on healthy alignment and mechanics have established a practice that will last – I pray – a lifetime.  In addition, I find that the body is the primary reason most students come to yoga classes these days.  Either their doctor recommended this ancient remedy for modern health conditions; or, they’ve decided they want something different from the usual workout.

January yoga classes are traditionally packed.  New Year’s Resolutions and special offers bring row upon row of newbies and long-lost practitioners to studios, gyms and workplace wellness programs.  And so I offer a month-long Back to Basics approach that builds throughout the weeks.  Tadaasana is the perfect starting point, because the alignment cues in Mountain are foundational for many yoga poses.  That same week we flow through and finely tune a basic Sun Salutation; then we break down the mechanics of backward bends.

By the end of week one, beginner students are melting into the comfort of a safe and traditional Asana practice; and more experienced students are rolling their eyes and exhaling loud sighs of frustration!  Thanks to past experience, I smile inwardly, speak encouragingly and trudge forward resolutely!

The 2nd week we focus on bends, folds and twists; the 3rd is inversions and counter-poses.  At this point, the blissful exclamations begin: “Oh my god, I’ve never felt so safe in that pose!” and “I never realized how much pressure I was putting on my neck/lower back/knees!” and “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.”  I include this not to pat myself on the back as a yoga teacher, but to spotlight the effectiveness of patiently committing to healthy alignment and mechanics – and, to give major credit to the teachers who taught me that patience and planted the seeds of a life-long practice.

We finish the month with yogi’s choice, where students request detailed instruction of the poses that frustrate, frighten or baffle them.  This is the fun part!  Just yesterday, I strapped myself up to demo Chaturanga mechanics and the class cracked up as I slithered like a clumsy lizard into the pose.  There’s nothing like the release of a good laugh at the end of four weeks of Asana intensity!

*  *  *

The Breath (Pranayama)

The 2nd aphorism in the most widely used yoga teacher training text – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – says, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah: Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”

By practicing Asana, warming up the structure, activating the nervous system and stimulating digestion, we essentially get the body out of the way.  When the body is at ease, the mind can be at peace.  Pranayama practice enhances that peace.

With few exceptions, I complement Asana with the traditional technique of three-part nostril breathing, or Deergha Swaasam.  The benefits of this Pranayama style seem infinite.  It gives the wandering mind something to focus on.  It lays a strong foundation for inner peace.  It increases our oxygenation and consequently strengthens the immune system.  It prevents energetic burn out and dehydration.  It massages our organs and stimulates digestion.  And on and on.

Although I’d been training to breathe through the nose since my 1st Kundalini yoga class in 1993, my 2008 “Yoga for Athletes” training and introduction to John Douillard’s brilliant book, “Body, Mind, and Sport” truly sealed the deal on nostril breathing for me.  This workshop and book reminded me how a peaceful baby breathes through the nose, its belly softly rising and falling with the filling and emptying of the lower lobes of the lungs.  Only when a baby reaches crisis – a congested sinus, a shocking sound, the need for food – does it open its mouth, take chest-height gasps of air, and cry for help.  When the crisis is over, the baby intuitively returns to soft nostril belly breathing.

As adults, however, we somehow depart from that natural state of peace!  As if in constant danger, we habitually take short breaths, in the upper chest, through the mouth.  Our exercise choices reinforce this crisis breathing.  No wonder we fall prey to stress, anxiety, distraction and energy depletion!  In addition to the benefits I’ve already mentioned, Douillard poignantly points out, “This shallow breathing soon becomes a way of life,” and results in serious health considerations, such as excess fat storage, digestive diseases, compromised lymphatic drainage and neck and shoulder tightness.

Ick.

In class we pause between Sun Salutations or other Asana practice.  I invite students to “allow the body to rest, but keep the breath deliberate.”  Returning to Deergha Swaasam regulates the heart rate, breath rate and overall energy.  Plus, if the heart is racing, what do you think the mind is doing?  Racing.

The ancients did not invent yoga as a cardio workout – in their society, they found a great need to calm the mind, and enjoyed the resulting benefits.  Even the Mahabharata – another ancient text that informs yoga practice – highlights a story of finding inner peace for the sake of effective battle.

What is the battlefield in your life?  Deliberate breathing practices can help maintain peace, calm and clarity during disturbances – whether they take the form of a pressing deadline, a workplace conflict, a family crisis, a traffic hassle or an internal struggle.

*  *  *

The Intention (Sankalpa)

Speaking of internal struggle…  I don’t want to tell my entire “What brought me to yoga” story right now; it would distract from the Back to Basics monthly focus.  I will briefly share:  Before I started practicing yoga in 1993, my life included much harm – being harmed and committing harm, in both subtle and more palpable ways.  Over nearly 20 years, this ancient practice has given me tools for healing, transformation and growth.  Yoga is not a physical practice for me.  Its Eight Limbs present a design for living.  They guide me to set ethical intentions, then practice physical and mental exercises that will liberate my body and mind, therefore allowing me to be more effective in and of service to the world.

At the beginning of each class, I invite students to notice what’s on their mind – without editing or judgment.  To honestly notice what’s there, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  We start where we are.  I then suggest focusing on one thought that’s strongly calling for their attention – something that’s been tapping them on the shoulder all day, or perhaps much longer.  This thought, when shaped into a positive reflection, affirmation or dedication, becomes their intention for class.

A Sankalpa is an intention, resolution and/or commitment that brings purpose to our time on the mat – and can affect our day, our world, our lives.

It is also a practical tool for facing challenges – both physical and mental – during the Asana practice itself.  When feeling challenged, I ask myself, “How can I align my reaction with my Sankalpa?  Which gives me more peace of mind and fortifies my efforts – facing or stepping back from the challenge?”  Because sometimes I need to dive into something daunting; other times I need to accept that it’s not the right time to push my limits.

Having a Sankalpa during yoga class not only forms a habit of self-inquiry and motivation, it also guarantees that my practice is harm-free.  It might feel uncomfortable to face or reduce challenge.  Yet, discomfort is different from harm.  While discomfort can yield constructive learning, harm can result in destructive pain.  By having an intention for practice, we become aware of and harness the positive effects of these nuances.

*  *  *

So, indeed, real yoga doesn’t hurt.  There’s just so much more to it than being afraid of potential physical pain, seeking rehabilitation of physical conditions, or plainly, addressing any physical need.

My friend once said, if the goal of yoga was purely physical, the Yoga Sutras would be a very short text: “Touch your toes.”  Hehehe.

Let’s get real…as my favorite teachers like to point out, there must be a reason we’ve chosen yoga.  If we just wanted to “feel the burn,” we have a million other exercise plans to choose from.  I’ll take the plunge and say: we choose yoga because we want more than a workout – we want to change.  We know it is a transformational practice.  Again, even the ancients knew this – there were enough troubles in society that someone invented a practice to cultivate an “easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life.”*

To this end, I like to stick with the basics: keen awareness of body, breath and mind.  Setting our intention, aligning a pose and deepening the breath – and bringing all three elements together to fortify our purpose – we not only exercise the body, but we empower our lives.

May all beings discover their own “real” yoga.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

*  *  *

The original article that caused an avalanche of opinions:

New York Times, William Broad, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”

* Quote from Integral Yoga Founder, Swami Satchidananda

Photos: Top – Larkin P. Goff (by permission); Others – Holly Meyers (the author)

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The Happy Heart Project: Days 1-31 September 29, 2011

I’ve read that we replace 1% of our cells daily. Every 100 days we have a new body. What that new body consists of is the food we eat, air we breathe, water we drink, exercise we take and thoughts we think.  – A friend

Three-plus boxes of incense and 31 days ago, I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” as a simple way to set an intention.

Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28th, I lit my first stick of “Happy Heart” (an incense by Maroma) and made a commitment to move toward joy for that day, and that day only.  Because that’s really all I have – one day at a time.

When I started this “project,” I understood there would be no guarantees.  The dark funk of the past year (or so) would either stay or go.  And indeed – over the past month, that funk has left, returned, become darker, been replaced by light, strengthened, weakened, disappeared, appeared again…you get the picture.

Still, it’s the intention that makes the difference.  It’s the intention that gives the journey purpose, that keeps me honest with myself, that drives me toward solutions, that sparks change.

*  *  *

“Sankalpa” is a Sanskrit word loosely meaning “intention.”  Other definitions include: commitment, resolution, resolve, will, purpose, determination, motivation.  I have heard from yoga experts that the act of reinforcing a Sankalpa has the power to replace and erase destructive habits, unwanted thoughts and false beliefs, aka negative “Samskara” (patterns created by the “scars” of life).  Setting this positive, committed intention is like a deep practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana” – replacing negative thoughts with positive.

“Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I cling (loosely, hehehe) to this promise that my sometimes dark, anguished and seeking (aka human) mind can be calmed by yoga.  And not just the movement of my body on a mat, but all of yoga’s calming practices, from Pranayama (the movement of vital energy through oxygenation, aka, breathing) to setting a Sankalpa.

*  *  *

So how did the 1st month of “Happy Heart” burning go?

Well let’s see…in no particular order:

During a three-day yoga retreat, I had a soul-bearing conversation with a beautiful old tree, a powerfully silent meditation at Satchidananda’s tomb, and a thankful turn-of-the-corner from darkness to light.  Since returning from retreat, I have awakened between 5:30 and 7am each day to practice Pranayama, meditation and prayer.  I reunited and hung out with wonderful friends; listened to Car Talk and laughed my butt off; took a nourishing Asana class with a teacher I’d never experienced; saw the Washington Nationals’ win their final home game; saw “Our Idiot Brother” (silly comedy) and “The Interrupters” (intense documentary).  After consulting with trusted doctors, I paused my PTSD therapy in order to soften the intense triggers arising after the June mugging.  I finally started sleeping through the night and balancing out during the day with the help of herbal and nutrient-based supplements.  While walking near my home, I saw the guy who mugged me, followed him (again), called the police (again), and lost him (again).  I received very caring attention from DC MPD detectives.  I met with a DC MPD inspector who likes my idea of teaching Pranayama and meditation to traumatized cops.  In response to these recent tough times, and, the approach of my 9th anniversary of addiction recovery, I increased my recovery activities and started receiving regular guidance from a recovery program mentor.  The early-recovery gal that I was mentoring moved on to work with a different mentor.  I showed up for others; picked up my friend’s kids from the school bus stop; listened to friends who are hurting.  I had a panic attack, triggered by a false belief that someone was going to abandon me.  The all-female Kirtan group I’m in – The Shaktis – guided a roof-raising night of chanting at a yoga center.  I continued teaching my three yoga classes per week, with a focus on “Everyday Enlightenment” – observing how we carry our Eight Limb influences off the mat and into daily life.  I showed up for my part-time retail job; I reached the end of my rope with ongoing poor treatment by a co-worker; I quit that job.  Today I interviewed for a new job.

I healed, I worried, I laughed, I grieved.  I walked with confidence, I asked for help.  I felt pissed off; I felt forgiving; I felt human.

In other words, I experienced life.

Somewhere around Day #20, there was one morning that I felt so frustrated that I did not want to light the incense.  I did it anyway.

Because that’s what a Sankalpa is – a commitment, no matter what.  A firm resolution to stick with the positive action despite all challenges.  Or, even better – a firm resolution to meet all challenges with positive action.  Whether that positive action is to grieve authentically or celebrate joyously.

*  *  *

At this moment, under the new-new moon, I am preparing to attend Rosh Hashanah services.  The Jewish New Year launches a period of intense prayer, forgiveness (offered and requested), and atonement.  After 10 days, on Yom Kippur, we seal these efforts with a one-day fast.  I didn’t plan it this way – but after these 31 days of ups, downs, turned corners, endings, clarity and renewed intention…the rituals of the High Holy Days are the perfect way to start my 2nd month of “The Happy Heart Project.”

More will be revealed.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.

*  *  *

THE HAPPY HEART PROJECT.  Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28, 2011 I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” – an effort to document my daily journey away from an annoyingly encroaching emotional darkness and toward the hopeful light of happiness.  For 100 days from 8/28 through 12/5, I will wake up, burn a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Each day I’ll post a “Happy Heart Project” status (and accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then see what happens during the day.  Periodically, I’ll post an UrbanYogaDen.wordpress.com blog that covers my journey.  I’m excited that one yoga teacher friend unexpectedly exclaimed, “I’m with you!” and is sharing the journey!  Join us – choose one simple heartfelt ritual for your morning, intend to practice it daily, “Like” Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, and let us know how you’re doing from time to time!

 

Be A Yogi August 15, 2011

Graduation bliss - me, Sam & Linda at the Ashram.

When I graduated from my Yoga Teacher Training at the Integral Yoga Academy, I heard a lot of advice.

  • Make a list of all the potential places you could teach – not just studios, but other spaces.
  • Market your classes in this way or that way.
  • Remember that not all yoga instructors can make a living teaching.
  • And so on.

But the most important tidbit, to me, came from one of the teaching assistants.

“Be a yogi.”

I had just spent four weeks living at the Satchidananda Ashram; rising before dawn; practicing daily Asana, Pranayama and meditation; studying yoga philosophy; eating a pure vegetarian diet; and wrestling with my humanness amongst the sacredness of yoga.  Despite discomfort and challenge at times, I was grateful for every minute of it.

To be a yogi is ALL that I yearned for.

When I returned home, I didn’t even intend to teach right away.  I offered free classes in my little studio apartment (“The Urban Yoga Den”) to stay in practice.  And then an opportunity to start a yoga program at DC’s SAIL Public Charter School arose.  Once that assignment wrapped up with the end of the school year, I was ready to look for work teaching adults.  Just down the street from me, a new yoga studio called Past Tense was opening.  And in July 2010, I started teaching three weekly classes there.

On August 24th, I will end my stint at Past Tense to take an end-of-summer break from teaching (except for my three classes at Trinity University’s Fitness Center).  I am grateful to Past Tense for inviting me to pass on yoga to the Mt. Pleasant community over the last two years!  As you might have gathered from my last post, I have been sensing a need for change, pondering my integrity and prioritizing my well-being.  Leaving Past Tense will create a simplicity and spaciousness in my schedule, life and mind.  As my friend wished, “I pray that whatever occupies that space brings peace and joy.”  Me, too.

“The Urban Yoga Den” blog is all about living yoga off the mat and in my every day world.  So for now, rather than teaching a bunch of classes, I will be practicing more – on and off the mat.

One hope is to practice Karma Yoga by bringing morning Pranayama practice to the police officers that serve overnight in my neighborhood.  In October, I will travel to Philly for a Kirtan with Jai Uttal to awaken the Bhakti Yoga spirit; then I’ll bounce over to Easton Yoga for a two-day workshop with Max Strom.  In December, I will visit Sanctuary Yoga in Nashville for Seane Corn’s three-day “Detox Flow” workshop.  And in between, I will be here in DC, practicing with my beloved local teachers, until I find the next right fit for a teaching location.

But my biggest wish is to simply be able to walk down the street with an inner peace and joy that shapes my attitudes and actions.  That might mean embracing one or all of the many beautiful suggestions from my caring friends.   For example, practicing “Samtosha” (contentment with exactly what is – i.e. acceptance of and compassion for my own humanness), sending myself Metta (sending myself loving-kindness and well-wishing), and basically, not being so hard on myself.  It also might mean re-committing to the routines that without fail nourish my inner peace and joy.  It also might mean falling off the yoga wagon and getting on again – and off and on again.

Because I realize to be a yogi is to – simply and honestly – be me.

I hope to see and hear from you as I take the steps to re-embrace my core motivation to Be A Yogi.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

 

The Yoga of Being Mugged June 29, 2011

Last weekend I was mugged.

Taking yoga off the mat and into the world means forgiving my mugger. (Photo: Larkin Goff)

Sorry to alarm you.  Rest assured, I am fine – with the exception of some anxiety around the ‘hood, a maxed-out adrenal system from the stress, a sore shoulder from wrestling with the mugger, a cut and bruised finger (see photo of fingers) from my purse being yanked out of my hand, and very sore hamstrings from chasing down my mugger barefoot on pavement (see photo of broken sandals).  Help in many forms arrived quickly.  Although we did not catch my mugger, we recovered my purse and all of its contents, except the cash and some chocolate.  The situation made for a late night, yet I was able to wake up early the next morning, enjoy teaching meditation and yoga classes, and spend time with yoga friends.

Lots to be grateful for.

A few things strike me about the situation: my reaction of fighting back; my impulse to ask (and scream and yell) for help; and my ability to completely forgive my mugger and wish him well.  With a smile.  A giggle, even.

Here’s how it went down…

At about 11pm Saturday night, I returned to D.C. from a week in Tennessee.  Shortly after midnight, I left my apartment building to take a gift of local Nashville artisan chocolate (58% dark) to a friend.  I was carrying the gift bag and a small canvas purse in my hand.  Less than 1/2 block from my doorway, two chubby, sweet-faced black youths approached.  One lunged at me and grabbed my purse.  After a struggle, he ran off with it.

His friend kept strolling slowly along.

I kicked off my sandals and took off after the thief.  As I passed the friend, I punched him HARD in the arm and vented “F*** YOU.” 

I think I heard him respond, “I didn’t do anything, m’am.”

I kicked off (and broke) my sandals.

I chased the mugger for a few blocks, screaming for help the entire time.  People perked up, but not quite in time.  I lost him as he disappeared around a corner.  Thankfully, a neighbor saw which direction he’d headed.  I gave up my pursuit in exchange for calling the police.  They came quickly, neighbors offered support, everyone was great.  After much report-taking, one of the officers and I traced the mugger’s steps and recovered my belongings except the chocolate and about $60.  Overall, it could have been worse.

Fighting back felt great.  Wrestling, screaming, punching, running.  Paying attention to details served well.  Following, searching, finding.  Asking for help was a huge relief.  Not-alone, cared for.

Still, what to do with the mixed emotions and adrenaline at the end of the night’s events?

Yoga.

Yoga and related practices, I should add.  I was wired trying to fall asleep, so I accessed my Somatic Experiencing resources, laying flat on my back with my hands on my hips, breathing deeply and settling myself a bit.   After a little while, I was able to turn on my side, curl up, and drift off.

Before falling asleep, though, I giggled at a vision of this young punk, at home with the video game, chili dog and Big Gulp he just bought with my cash…and digging into a big bar of frou-frou artisan chocolate!  He’d be ruined forever.  I could see it – the next day, his friends offer him some M&Ms and he’s like, “Ick, gross, no way.”

The morning after the mugging, I taught my weekly meditation and yoga classes.  For the guided meditation, we practiced an adaptation of Buddhist Metta.  “May all beings be well,” we inhaled.  “May all beings be free of suffering,” we exhaled.  I included my mugger and his friend in those wishes.  After meditation, a student noted, “It can be hard to wish well for those who’ve harmed me.”  I shared that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (and a great therapist) helped me understand that people who cause pain are most likely in pain themselves.  If I meditate on their well-being and direct compassion toward them, perhaps they will hurt less and therefore hurt others less frequently.

We continued with a set of Asana and Pranayama, focusing on alternate nostril breathing.  I read a story from Integral Yoga’s Swami Ashokananda, where his practice of this calming breath helped him navigate a potentially serious conflict with perfect peace and ease.  These stories motivate me to continue my yoga and other balancing practices no matter what.

It was a powerful “morning after.”

The cord of my purse cut and bruised my finger.

Since the mugging, as I walk my sore body cautiously and anxiously around my ‘hood, I keep my eyes open for my attackers.  If I see them, I am to contact the case detective.  And I hope I do.  Because I have another vision – as part of his punishment, my mugger must do 90 days of yoga classes with me.  I sincerely believe in yoga’s power to transform harmful little punks into helpful human beings.

I believe because it worked for me.

I can’t be sure why this kid stole from me.  But I can guess that he’s in some kind of emotional pain – as I was, for decades.  Through yoga and other tools of recovery, I have changed.  Today, someone asked me, “What keeps you happy?” and I answered, “The chance to help others by sharing the things that have helped me heal.”  Opportunities to practice Karma Yoga keep me happy.

So who knows – maybe this kid and I will share yoga and chocolate and there will be one less hurting/hurtful human being on the streets.  More will be revealed.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love and light.

 

March Focus: The Eight Limbs of Yoga – Intro & Yama April 4, 2011

As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t dare try teaching the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to my classes.  First, my knowledge of this ancient text is based on my four-week Teacher Training, during which we primarily studied the 1st two books; since then, my study has been on my own.  Second, there are some great Raja Yoga teachers out there whose experience included decades of studying, translating, interpreting and practicing the Sutras; they are the true teachers.

I do, however, like to design yoga classes where (I hope!) our actions on the mat find purpose through the wisdom of the Sutras.  In the beginning of March we embarked on an eight-month exploration of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, as introduced in Sutras 28 & 29 of Book Two of the Sutras.  Drawing from my 2010 blog about the Eight Limbs:

“Book Two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lays out yoga’s Eight Limbs.  Probably the most widely known and practiced are Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing exercises) and Dharana (concentration as a form of “meditation”).

“But there are five additional limbs – and I believe they are in order for a reason.

“The Eight Limbs represent a process of growth from heady self-examination to soulful universal connection. The first two limbs – Yama and Niyama – list the ethical premises of yoga.  After we’ve set our intentions for values and virtues, we move on to Asana, to address physical limitations such as aches and toxins.  Next, Pranayama continues detoxification, awakens our life force energy and balances our nervous system.  With the 5th limb, Pratyahara, the senses are softened to remove outer distractions.  During Dharana, we concentrate intently on one point of focus.  Deepening into the 7th limb, Dhyana, our concentration shifts into meditation, and there is no separation between the meditator that point of focus.  The 8th limb, Samadhi, is generally described as “enlightenment” – but to me, that harkens of apart-ness.  I like to think of Samadhi as one-ness.  It occurs the moment when our practice of yoga’s previous seven limbs brings such peace and confidence that we are selfless.

“For me, Samadhi would be a state of consistently being my best self and offering that self in service to the world.”  (From https://urbanyogaden.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/focus-mayjune-the-eight-limbs/).

*  *  *

The month of March has been an introduction to the Limbs with emphasis on the 1st limb, Yama (or abstinence).

When considering how I might practice the ethical or philosophical virtues of yoga, I ask myself, “Who do I want to be as I walk down the street?  How do I want to treat myself and others?”  In response, I return without fail to the very 1st Yama – that essential virtue that sets the foundation for all other virtues: Ahimsa. Non-harming.

It’s a tough question to ask, “How might I be harming myself and others?”  Ugh.  Do I really want to look at that?  Well, no.  But, yes. And so, when our classes started our journey through the Eight Limbs, I set the deep intention to squarely face my own vulnerability and begin to abstain from whatever harming tendency (or tendencies) I might have.

More will be revealed.

OM Shanti.

*  *  *

Post Script

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Frankly.

Lately I’ve been using “we” instead of “I” when teaching and writing.  For example, “When we practice X, we experience Y.”  Hello?  Who am I to decide what anyone outside of myself is experiencing  in practice?  And so, to finish off this particular blog about living yoga in daily life, I want to apologize.  It is wrong of me to take the position of “we” when aiming to simply pass along what “I” have experienced.

I am hoping this awareness will end the pattern.  Feel free to call me out when necessary.  OM Shanti.

 

Focus Wrap Up: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali March 8, 2011

“If I wasn’t making some people uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be doing anything important.” – Justine Siegel, 1st woman to throw batting practice for Major League Baseball and founder of “Baseball for All”

I didn’t plan to write this today.  I have cleaning to do, laundry to fold, breakfast to cook.  But I feel compelled.  Plus, I’m behind on my blogging and have to wrap up our February focus!  Here goes…

A yoga class is definitely NOT the place I go when I need to control things.

But it used to be.  When I was feeling icky, I went to class to feel held, comforted, fixed.  When I was feeling great, I went to class to celebrate, connect, thrive.  I needed to feel that I was in control of my feelings, my well-being, my state.  Therefore, I had expectations on the teacher, the students, the staff, the atmosphere.  I had expectations on yoga.  And guess what.  Surprise, surprise – my needs were not always met. I sometimes spent an entire class in resentment, disappointment and/or frustration.  I sometimes wanted to leave class.  For some reason, I never did (as far as I remember).

Something held me there.  And I kept coming back.

Over the years of attending many, many classes, I have come to realize that on a very tangible level, there are too many uncontrollable factors in a yoga class for me to predict any kind of outcome.  There is the teacher’s style, the teacher’s voice, the teacher’s class format, the teacher’s class theme, the teacher’s background, the teacher’s teachers.  There is the teacher’s music choices, lighting choices, air temperature choices.  And so on.  And then there are the students – sometimes hundreds of them if during a workshop – with their varying energies, moods, needs, backgrounds, strengths, challenges.

A yoga class is a room full of humanness.

Also over the years, on a spiritual level, I started to realize that a yoga class is exactly where I need to go IF I am feeling like controlling things – it is the best venue to practice surrender, willingness and acceptance.  It is a great place to practice self-inquiry, compassion, patience.  It offers the beautiful opportunity to respond to, learn from, and be shaped by whatever happens, whatever comes up, whatever is.

A yoga class is a place to grow.

And that, my friends, is why I so lovingly embrace The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – particularly the five aphorisms that we explored during our February class focus.  If I did not infuse my personal yoga practice with the philosophical, ideological and ethical ideas of the Sutras, I would still be stuck in resentment, still pissed off at whomever rattled me, still personally offended by whatever someone said or did – and I’m talking on AND off the mat.

A yoga class is my chance to develop spiritually.

I honor you, noble students, for so fearlessly taking on Patanjali’s wisdom; for writing to and confiding in me with comments and questions, frustrations and celebrations, concerns and realizations; and for sharing your teachings with me.  You are beautifully human.  We are beautifully human.

Over the past month, we looked at five Sutras as tools for experiencing yoga on and off the mat.  We began with Sutra 1.2, “Yogas Cittas Vritti Nrodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I like to think of Sutra 1.2 as the 1st “promise” of many in this ancient text.  Here in book one, we learn that although yoga can open our hips and heal our asthma, its primary purpose is to cultivate a peaceful mind. During our classes we made decisions regarding Asana choices based on cultivating and sustaining this peace.  When faced with challenge, we weighed out the options and consequences of seizing that challenge or easing off.

Next we explored the practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana,” described in Sutra 2.33 as the replacement of negative or obstructive thoughts with positive or opposite ideas.  Here we realized that we cannot replace reality with something opposite – we recognize that our practice (and life) might bring difficulty.  But by sustaining a positive mind through the challenge (i.e. dwelling on a pose’s benefits, concentrating on life-giving breath or focusing deeply on Sankalpa or intention), we can maintain our peace of mind and face troubles gracefully.

With this practical tool in hand, we backtracked to Sutra 1.33, which suggests that we cultivate certain attitudes toward certain types of people – or toward certain types of states within ourselves.  To summarize this complex aphorism (explored more deeply in the last most, “Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder), we are encouraged to befriend happy people (or states), have compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.  A tough order at times; but all for the sake of that ever-serene mind.

After all this hard work of self-witnessing and shaping the mind toward peace, we wrapped up the month with two of Patanjali’s most comforting statements (in my opinion).  Sutra 2.46, “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” (Asana is a steady, comfortable position.) and the promise of all promises, Sutra 2.16, “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” (Future pain will be prevented.)  If I practice yoga as prescribed by the Yoga Sutras, I learn that I have permission to express each pose with a balance of effort AND ease, steadiness AND comfort.  And one of the most relieving results of practicing in this way is the prevention of future pain – physical and otherwise.

Beyond the mat, how did this all pan out?  Did the Sutras inform your every day life? From some of your feedback, I know you sought to use the tools, but admitted they escaped you at the most important times.  I heard that they helped you respond compassionately to angry drivers.  I heard that coming to class gave you the tools to navigate tough interpersonal situations (I’m cleaning up the language, here!).  I heard appreciation for the Sutras’ promises and affects in general.

I know for me, as soon as I select a theme to teach, I start hitting all sorts of wonderful “trials” in daily life to test out my tools and learn some new lessons!  It’s been an intense – and intensely lesson-filled – few weeks.  In terms of the quote above from my new Karma Yogini heroine (who probably does not know what Karma Yoga is), Justine Siegel, if I weren’t feeling some kind of discomfort, probably nothing important is happening in my life.  And thanks to the Yoga Sutras and other spiritual practices and resources, discomfort yields growth.

Which to me, is important.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Focus Wrap Up: Back to Basics February 2, 2011

Over the weekend I taught the final classes in our January Back to Basics focus. To complement our fine-tuning of alignment, review of three-part breathing and return to proper resting, these last sessions invited students to deepen their commitment to setting an intention.

Personally, I can’t imagine getting on the mat without exploring some kind of purpose for my practice.  To set an intention, I like to let the thoughts naturally flow through my mind while arriving, and see which one most strongly asks for my attention – it might even be a thought that’s been tapping me on the shoulder for a few days.  Maybe weeks!  Or longer!  Then I shape that thought into a dedication, affirmation or reflection.

Using the three-part Deergha Swaasam breath, I deepen my reflection by imagining filling with intention on the inhale, and simple resting with it on the exhale.  Later in my set, during the internal focus and natural surrender of seated forward folds, I inhale to fill with intention, and exhale to surrender (dissolve and let go of) any obstacles (distractions, old stories, self-imposed limitations) that might stand in the way of realizing my intention.  And I reconnect with my intention before settling into Yoga Nidra – a process of deep relaxation, between a state of sleep and consciousness.

Although I’ve been shying away from the word “resolution” this new year, I will say that having a Sankalpa (a firm, prayerful, resolved intention) during my time on the mat makes a huge difference in my practice, my day and my life. Different traditions approach Sankalpa with unique perspectives – for example, setting a Sankalpa during Yoga Nidra so this process of yogic sleep helps us realize that intention; belief that Sankalpa can erase negative Samskara (imprints on or patterns in our lives); or using Pratipaksha Bhavana (replacement of negative thoughts with positive) to create a resolution.

There’s that word again!  Resolution.

I can’t escape it – if I am going to reflect deeply on intention, I must have resolve.  So I’ll try to ease up on my anti-resolution attitude!  Your encouragement is always helpful; I’m not the only teacher around here.

I hope you’ve found something useful during this Back to Basics month of reviewing and fine tuning Asana, Pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Sankalpa practice.  Looking forward to starting a 9-month look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Eight Limbs beginning in February!

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

P.S. Remember, the fine-tuning tips for Asana and Pranayama that I’ve taught over the past month can be found on the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.  Enjoy!