poses as lessons, not goals

Initially in my yoga practice, I was very strong driven by the desire to "achieve" poses. As though a pose was something I could conquer and move on to the next thing. After several years of practicing in this way, I came to realize that you never actually "own" a pose. You might be able to do it for years and then something changes in your body or your practice and it no longer belongs to you.

Also, I must say that I find commercialized yoga practice to overly emphasize achievement and posture. I don't think you can separate your bodily practice from your mind/breath/moral practices and have them make the same impact on your life. If yoga is truly going to work for us, we have to be willing to put in work in all the areas or "limbs" of practice.

In other words, there is no instant gratification here. We can work on postures without them being the end goal. There are many lessons to be learned along the way. Patience, detachment and kindness toward your body, to name a few.

SUPTA VIRASANA is one of those poses that requires a whole lot of practice and much cultivation of patience. This is not an instantly gratifying pose. But through our continued effort and the generous use of PROPS and BREATH, it might just be worth the wait.

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Yoga is the Antidote to Fixity

Over the course of a lifetime, through our various life experiences, we form some strong attachments and opinions. We dig a hole, set up camp, grow roots, and harden. Physically, psychically, opinionally.

Yoga is the antidote to fixity. Yoga practices of asana, pranayama, meditation and energetics bring PRANA (life force) into areas of holding, areas of stuckness. When we bring new fluid and awareness to long-held and tight spots, they open up. SPACE can occur and space lays the groundwork for healing.

My teacher Tias says, "The art of the entire yoga training is to be free of all kinds of fixation, not only mental and physical fixation, but to be free from cultural, linguistic, economic, racial or gender fixation."

So, as much as YOGA can free us up physically, the more SUBTLE implications are equally important. When we are loose and open, we can much more easily merge with the FLOW to let things play out as they will.

The pathways of the NADIS allow energy to flow freely through our bodies, hearts and minds. When we have blockages energetically, we are not functioning optimally. Yoga practice opens us up to SPACE and FREEDOM in all aspects of ourselves.

Staying True to You

Finding Your Own Truth

I desire to emulate the teachers who've had the most impact on me, and in turn offer my own experiences to my students in the yoga classroom. But occasionally I find myself in a yoga teacher struggle. Should I emphasize (perhaps even require?) strict + precise alignment in myself and my students at all times, or should I allow for them to explore sensing/feeling/joy of movement/freedom in their bodies? I know I have an obligation to keep people safe, which to my mind means aligning well. But is it restricting for the feeling body or the subtle body to tinker with alignment non-stop, while holding a pose? 

Everyone's body is a little bit different. Even if I have a similar body shape/type/medical history/athletic history/injury history as someone, their experience is always going to be a bit different from mine. And I can only teach from my own understanding and knowledge of how a pose feels in my body + mind + breath. I'm sure you all know that one teacher who just loves backbending or forward-folding and you always seem to be doing it in their classes? They have a felt experience which happens to be their favorite, and also which they are excited to share with you. But just because it feels a certain way to them, doesn't mean that you'll have the same experience. I think it's fascinating that a single class can land differently on all 15 people in the room. 

One way that I try to keep it fresh and applicable to everyone is to teach a different direction every week. In my new workbook, I outline the "planes of the body" or five ways that the body can move. They include side-bending, forward-folding, backbending, twisting + core engagement.  One benefit to working in a new plane each week is that it encourages me as well as my students to be comfortable with all the ways of moving. Full range of motion in the spine is a worthy ideal, achievable through working with all the ways of moving. There are seemingly endless possibilities of exploration within each plane. For example, forward-bending can focus on the feet, ankles, calves, hamstrings, hips, spine and neck. Within forward folds I can work with straight legs, bent knees, balancing, inversions, arm balances, seated forward folds, supine poses, and standing poses. See? Limitless possibilities. 

an excerpt from Sequencing + Stick Figures, The 5 Planes of the Body

an excerpt from Sequencing + Stick Figures, The 5 Planes of the Body

Teaching Alignment Yoga

From the beginning of my own yoga experience, the principles of alignment-based yoga have always resonated with me. To me, refining your pose to create optimal structure for the bones/muscles/connective tissue is a no-brainer. Why shouldn't we want to make our poses more integrated, more expansive?

To keep alignment in mind, I always encourage the use of props. Some people think that props are just a crutch and only for people who can’t work in the full expression of the pose. I call bullshit on that. For me, props encourage deeper integration, strength building, integrity in the spine, and safety in asanas.

Let’s consider a shoulderstand (sarvangasana) and its need for props. In the full expression of shoulderstand, one stands on their shoulder blades with shoulders deeply tucked under. The hips stack directly above the shoulders and the chin draws in toward the chest (jalandara bandha). For many people, this extremely beneficial posture is just not accessible without props. Common misalignments are too much pressure on the head/neck, splaying elbows, pikeing at the hips, and sagging in the upper torso/spine.

How can props help?

To keep weight out of the head/neck and the neck safely in flexion, I encourage at least 2 if not 3 blankets stacked under the shoulder blades. This allows for maintenance of the cervical curve and the weight to stay primarily in the support of the upper-body skeleton. It takes a boatload of strength to get the hips over the heart in the position, so using a block as a “launchpad” can help some people by creating a sense of lift. This way they are less likely to “fling” themselves into the pose, sending pressure into the neck. The shoulders have a difficult time staying tucked under, so belting the elbows encourages that a shoulder-width distance is maintained. With the shoulders safely held in place, it is also easier to keep the weight balanced and to open up through the frontal hips. Other options for safe support are to place a chair under the sacrum and also to put the feet on the wall rather than trying to extend fully. None of these props diminish the integrity of the pose, they simply improve one’s capacity to hold the pose longer and with greater emphasis on safe alignment. 

how can props help your alignment?

how can props help your alignment?

Accepting Your Truth

So, while I can understand the potential for joy in free movement and dancerly-style yoga, what feels most true to me is to stay the course. My teaching style is heavily based in prop-usage, clear and concise cueing of body alignment, and progression to a peak pose for a reason. It's what feels the truest to me. I know that it won't land on everyone, I may not be the right teacher for you. But if you're looking to keep things sharp, safe + aligned, I just might be your gal. 

Asana Tutorial: Backbending Goodness

I was working with this yesterday and found it extremely useful. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

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Two straps. One around each thigh, threaded toward the midline creating internal rotation. Bring length of straps between your legs and wrap around outer thighs with crisscross between inner thighs. Pull straps in front of you to create internal rotation in the thighs and pull the heads of the arm bones back.

Next wrap the length of the strap around your upper trapezius muscles threading from the front. The length of the straps will crisscross at the back. Pull down to create internally rotating thighs as you backbend. Pull through to front under armpits, threading under shoulder blades. Maintain crisscross at mid-back. Pull up as you go back. Super supportive!

You can also pull the straps forward and pin them under your hands in downward facing dog. I also put them under my elbows in sphinx pose. Both excellent support.

Finding Contentment in the Chaos

India can be an extremely frustrating place. It's hot. It's really chaotic. Indians swarm you to offer you rides in their rickshaw, necklaces, directional advice, etc. It's loud as can be—horns, music, traffic. It's dirty.

Last year, everything about being in India was novel for me. I drank it all in. I enjoyed every experience, even those that were loud, chaotic and dirty. I was just so happy to be here that I even found joy in the painful and frustrating times. This year, things feel different. I feel annoyed by Indians and chaos. I can't help it. I don't want to be annoyed. I want to live in the present and appreciate the fact that I'm in INDIA for crying out loud!! But something keeps rising up in me. And it doesn't feel like joy. It feels like suffering.

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It feels a lot like when I was a teenager. I don't know what you were like when you were teen-aged, but I was angry. All the time. Anything and everything could upset me. And did. And not only was I angry, I was anxious to be out of whatever situation I was currently in. I believe I could characterize it as a constant state of non-contentment. Unless something was a completely novel situation, I was instantly bored and looking to move on.

This approach to life has (luckily) abated with time. I think part of it is maturing and recognizing that not every situation has to be completely enriching and fabulous. And (I would like to think) that most of my new life approach is due to my work on the mat/cushion. I've slowed down. I've learned to appreciate small details and things that we generally perceive as "mundane." 

So much sweetness in the simplicity

So much sweetness in the simplicity

I think a lot of this appreciation has developed out of my asana practice. Coming to the mat daily and doing the same poses hundreds and then thousands of times can really put into perspective one's ability to find something new in a repeat situation. And no matter how many times I do trikonasana, I can still find some new sensation and some amount of joy to just "be in it." This is how I should approach every repeat situation. What about this can I find to appreciate? Even if my brain/body is telling me not to feel content?

So, this second trip to India has been one of lesson learning for me. It's fascinating to watch myself move through this incredible country for a second time. To see my reaction to India when it's no longer novel for me. It's amusing to be present with my anger, however silly it seems. It's great for me to have the insight to even realize that I'm experiencing non-contentment and then see what I can do about it.

There is nothing like taking yourself out of your comfort zone to put your work to the test. Looks like I better keep on getting back on the mat/cushion upon my return.

Asana Tutorial: Astavakrasana

Astavakrasana

Astavakrasana

Oh arm balances. How I love thee.

Arm balances require the combination of core engagement (including uddiyana and mula bandhas, arches of the feet and inner thighs), open hips and a bit of arm strength. It's very rare that I am unable to get into an arm balance because my arms aren't strong enough. This work comes from deep inside.

When I approach an arm balancing sequence, I plan accordingly. In an arm balance class, we would do abdominal strengthening and finding the core, mula bandha work, and a lot of hip opening. The additional work necessary for astavakrasana is twisting. Your torso ends up rotated almost 90 degrees in the final posture.

Here are some sequencing ideas for how to make your way to this lovely arm balance. 

1. Simple twist

Sit on a block (or two if your quads are tight) with your feet hugging in toward your hips. Check that all ten of your toes are pointing straight behind you.

Inhale to lengthen your spine and exhale to begin twisting. Use your opposite arm crossing the midline as leverage to help you twist deeply. Wait for the breath and only twist as your spine will allow. As you exhale, pull the low belly back toward the spine and notice if you have more twisting capability.

2. Vadrasana with Garudasana arms

Come back to center and re-lengthen out through the spine. Wrap your right elbow over your left and try to wrap your wrists and palms together. Isometrically press your palms and arms together to engage the arms and open the shoulders. Take 5-10 breaths on both sides.

3. Balasana with twist

Begin here in child's pose. Let the hips settle back toward the heels. Inhale to lengthen out through the spine and exhale to twist the torso to the right. Plant your left elbow to the mat and stack your palms. Use the connection of your elbow and shins on the mat to twist. Take 5-10 breaths and switch sides. Take several breaths in the center and note the difference between the two sides.

 4. Malasana

From child's pose, plant your hands under your shoulders and start to walk your hips back and your heels down. Try to keep the big toes touching. Your heels may not touch the ground which is fine. Hug your knees in toward your outer armpits and soften and ground through the hips. Press your palms together and extend your arms forward. Try to send the arms forward equally to the hips lowering. This will help your balance. Find the breath.

5. Plank variation

Walk your hands forward and place your elbows under your shoulders. Lengthen out through the legs and come on to your tip-toes. Curl your pubic bone toward your face and lower your hips. You should be one straight line from crown of the head to the heels. Fire up your thighs and draw the belly back toward the spine. Release any tension in the neck/shoulders. Breath?

You can release your knees to the mat if legs up is too difficult.

6. Tadasana with strap and block

If you don't have a strap available, a block will suffice. Bring the block up between the thighs as high as possible. Wrap your strap around the block and tighten. Ground through the feet and lift your arches. Draw muscle energy from the inner edge of the feet all the way up to the inner groin. Continue to draw up though the pelvic floor and low belly. Make the legs really strong and bring the head in line with the spine.

7. Standing Twist

Shift weight into your standing leg. Again, lift muscle energy up through the leg by lifting the arch of the foot and following the line upward. When you are balanced, lift your other leg to a 90 degree angle. Flex that foot and bring your opposite hand to the outer knee. Use the hand at the knee as leverage, lift out through the torso with an inhale and exhale to twist. The extended arm is the final step and is pretty useful for balance. Take several breaths and do the second side. Pause in tadasana in the center and breathe.

8. Anjaneyasana with Twist

From downward dog or table step your right leg forward. Tuck your back toes under and send your back foot another several inches behind you. Lower your left leg to the mat and untuck your toes. Bring your head in line with your spine and soften and ground in the hips. Lengthen out through the spine. Feel the breath as the belly moves into the thigh. 

When you are ready, move your left hand to your inner right foot and begin to twist to the right. I like to use my right hand to press my right knee in toward the midline at first and then extend the arm.

9. High Lunge with Twist

You can transition directly into this high lunge from your low lunge, or step back and rest in a neutral position. Make sure that your ankle is directly below your knee. Lift the arch of your front foot and draw muscle energy up through the inner leg. Make your back leg really strong and lengthen out through the spine. Place your hand to the floor or a block at your inner front foot and begin to twist toward your front knee. The knee will want to pop out to the side—keep drawing it in toward the midline.

10. Supta Gomukasana

Lie on your back and cross one knee over the other. Reach for your opposite feet. Curl the outer edge of the feet toward each other and make them very strong. Pull the feet toward your face. Notice if you create any tension in the neck and shoulders and try to release. Take several breaths here and do the second side.

11. Reclining Twist

Lie on your back, bend your knees and plant your feet. Lift your hips up a couple inches and move your entire pelvis 3 inches or so to the left. Extend your right leg on the mat, draw your left knee in to your chest and across the midline. You can work with a bent left knee or a straight left leg. Either way, place it on the block and soften your left shoulder down toward the mat. Feel your belly pressing into your thigh as you breath. Do both sides.

12. Hip opening into Astavakrasana

Sit with your legs long. Draw your right shin in toward your chest and place one hand to your knee and the other to your foot. Rock your shin back and forth, opening your hip. When you're ready, reach for the outer edge of your right foot and try to pull your knee toward the mat behind you. Keep the knee hugging into the midline. The next step is to hook the knee to the top of the shoulder.

Plant your hands firmly and start to lift your hips off the mat. Hook your left ankle over your right ankle. This should help you get some lift. Flex the feet a lot and squeeze the inner thighs toward your shoulder and arm. Keep pressing and engaging through the core as you start to tip forward.

And you're in!

End with savasana with the knee propped up on something (a blanket roll-up or bolster). Feel the breath and release.

Breaking from Daily Practice

Every time I go on vacation, I suddenly become someone who doesn't meditate. And every single time I feel annoyed with myself and lazy. And I feel less good in my brain and my emotional realm than normal. And I spend all day thinking, "I'll just do this one thing, and then I'll meditate."

So why in the hell can't I bring myself to do it? At home I am exceedingly disciplined, bordering on rigid, making time for meditation no matter what. Which brings the obvious point to mind--it's part of my routine and my day wouldn't be normal or complete without it. But if it makes me feel so sane and so joyful why not just do it?

Me, on vacation, meditating!
Yesterday I returned to my routine from a ten day hiatus, having traveled with my family and friends in Colorado. I did find sporadic opportunities to meditate while there, and some days were as good as any day on my cushion at home. But yesterday I got to sit on my cushion, with my mala, and read the Yoga Sutras and do my chanting, and do the whole routine, free from the eyes and ears of all.
Oh my. I spent the entire time with a giant smile on my face.

But I wouldn't have had quite the same experience, had I not taken a few days break. This break gave me the opportunity to reflect on how much I appreciate my practice and how good it feels as a part of my day. I think taking breaks from any constant thing that we do is a key to enjoyment of that thing. Now this observation may seem like a cop-out from someone who can't bring themselves to meditate while on vacation, however! the point for me is that I did come back to my cushion and will continue to do so regardless of missing days. And when I did come back, it felt like coming home.

Breaking from asana practice is also useful. It can be hard to recognize progress without stepping back to reflect and enjoy your effort. Every week I take at least one or two days to enjoy my morning without practice. Sometimes it's hard to step away, it can make me feel lazy or make my body feel stiff. But most of the time I am grateful to have a break and to enjoy the fruits of my labor with a morning to myself.

This is part of a larger practice of letting go. Accepting what is as it comes and learning to live joyfully regardless. Surrendering to the flow of life when necessary, and coming back to your cushion with regularity and devotion.

Perseverance

This is an apt title for someone who hasn't written on their blog in a month.

Well, I am happy to report that despite my lack of perseverance in composition, I've been steadily humming along in my daily practice. And this week for the first time, I am experiencing a profoundly deeper serenity in my meditation practice than ever before.
This process of "enjoying" my meditation has taken two and a half years of diligent daily practice. In addition, I have read countless books and studied with multiple teachers to come to this minute achievement.
The point here is not to toot my own horn about progress but rather to illustrate the need for seriously dedicated perseverance to the yogic path. My teacher Theresa Murphy used to always say that achievement in yoga asana will not come quickly or easily. And 8 years later, I recognize that she's absolutely correct. Things get easier and more accessible, but there are still days when I have trouble balancing in Tree pose or I don't feel like coming to my mat to practice.
Progress in a meditation has been even more laborious in my experience. We are hardwired through our humanness and societal conditioning to attach ourselves to our ego and cling to our thoughts or emotional states. When we can begin to break down these barriers by practicing, we can actually begin to experience the peace of mind about which the ancient yogis were writing.
Through regular (and I mean daily) practice, we begin to develop tapas or the "fire" or "heat" that eggs our practice onward. The more you show up, the more you get out of it and in turn the more you want to continue to show up. See a whole post on tapas here: Tapas
Usually when we experience difficulty and pain in our lives, we tend toward a "woe is me" sort of attitude. This is naturally human of course, but certainly not productive. When we can change our perspective to reflect the need for daily practice, then we always have somewhere to turn when the going gets rough. When shit hits the fan, you make your way to your mat or your cushion as you would on any other day and spend some time presently, persevering on the path.

Tamping Down Reactivity

Through the practice of yoga in its many forms, we begin to acquire the skills to view each situation as an outside observer. We can begin to take a slight stance away from whatever is happening at any given time and observe it rationally without instantly reacting emotionally.  Rather than feeling that everything is happening to me, we can start to just recognize that things are happening, and assess them without too much involvement.
This type of ability doesn't occur immediately. And I do think much of this ability comes from a meditation practice, more than an asana practice. Though, yoga on the mat does teach us to slow down, watch our minds and explore our reactivity to poses and sequences.

This practice of settling our reactive state is about slowing down and it's also about our sense of self. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali outlines 5 kleshas or "aversions" which prevent us from true liberation.
Asmita is the sense of the self as separate from everything and everyone. It is the ego. Verse 2.6 is

drg-darśana-śaktyor-eka-ātmatā-iva-asmitā

In literal translation, it says asmita is the misidentification of the power of seeing with what is seen. And asmita itself literally means "I am this" or I am that." (The Yoga Sutras by Ravi Ravindra pg. 61-62)
Asmita is clinging to the identification of "us" and not "them." Through this attachment to our sense of self, we are able as a human race to do really terrible things to each other. And it means that tend to feel that things are "happening to us" rather than just happening. We identify with our bodies and our minds as ourselves and do anything to protect them from being damaged.

When we step back from situations, even just for a brief second of assessment or contemplation, we can see that almost everyone is acting out of their reactive state of asmita. So the next time someone is cutting in line at the post office or putting their yoga mat really close to yours, can you separate from your sense of self and from that standpoint determine the level of reactivity necessary? In all likelihood, through just a few seconds of thoughtful consideration, you will act more kindly and rationally; a simple step to making the world a better place.

Sangha

So, I am studying yogic philosophy with a local MPLS teacher--Ben Vincent. He's kind of amazingly smart and kind. Check his website out here: http://vincentyoga.com/

Our work together involves many approaches stemming from the studying and chanting of the Yoga Sutras in Sanskrit. I'm here to tell you that it's not easy work. And for that matter, neither is the mantra practice, meditation practice or dharma work that I'm doing in conjunction. Not only is it difficult on the mind and body, but it stirs up all the emotional crap that I've been subconsciously storing for....oh, the past 30 years. Ouch.

So, as the work continues to, well, work, and my emotional health is feeling a bit low, I have finally figured out what I need. And that is of course a sangha. 
A sangha  is a community in which you practice. Ideally it would include people with whom you see eye to eye and who are doing similar work to you. In the current system of Western Yoga, this tends to take the form of a yoga studio. In Buddhism, it's your community of fellow meditation practitioners.

In Buddhist philosophy the sangha is one of "three jewels" or "three refuges" also including the teacher (Buddha) and the teachings (Dharma). In yoga these can be understood as the teacher (guru) and the teachings (shastra). Though I have a philosophy teacher, I've been lacking an asana teacher for some time now. Someone who I really connect with seems out of reach somehow, and in order to continue to grow as a teacher myself, I think it best to maintain a strong practice with someone.

Which brings me to my plan. I am going to attend a week's worth of classes at all the Minneapolis yoga studios that peak my interest. On my list are the Yoga Center of MPLS, One Yoga, The Om Collective, The Meditation Center, Devanadi Yoga and the St. Paul Yoga Center. And maybe, just maybe I will finally find the refuge that I've been craving. And maybe with the appropriate sangha connection, I will have a support system when the going gets rough on the meditation cushion.

Niyamas: Tapas

Tapas the third niyama translates as discipline or austerity, but can be better understood as "heat" or  something, the thing, that drives your practice.
The more regularly you practice, the more momentum or heat you are able to create to feed the continuation of your practice.
You practice, you begin to see results.
You practice regularly, your life begins to change.

The benefits of yoga asana practice are many--physically, mentally, emotionally--they are too numerous to list. The benefits of a meditation practice are also many--mental clarity, more level emotional state--again too numerous to create a simple list.
Despite the ability of these disciplines to heal the body, mind and spirit, there is a catch.
Isn't there always a catch?

It is this: in order to achieve the much desired benefits of practice, one must cultivate a regularity of practice. Through this regularity, we can begin to see our own weak spots, the areas of our lives on which we need to focus. If we only practice yoga asana once a week and meditate once a month, we are not exposed to the particulars of our own needs. How can we begin to listen to the focus of our thoughts--which may bring to light our personal samskaras or life patterns--if we don't sit down and do so each day?
Well, simply put, we cannot.

In this lifetime, if you wish to shed light on the true nature of your Self, if you wish to discover the fullness of life available to you (it's in there), come to the mat regularly and come to the meditation cushion even more often.

Nothing that's worth achieving comes easily. But the more consistently you practice, the more tapas you create, the more clarity you will have to see your Self as you really are.

Spring Cleaning: Ardha Matsyendrasana

With hand wrapped
It's time to clean out those pipes kids. What better all-natural way than twisting? When we twist we constrict the organs, depriving them briefly of their natural flow of blood and oxygen so that when we undo, new goodness floods into the kidneys, livers, intestines and spleen removing toxins and flushing out the muck.
Twisting is also great for spinal health, encouraging each vertebra to retain maximum mobility and strengthening the spine.
Hooked opposite elbow

To get into Ardha Matsyendrasana or "Lord of the Fishes" pose, begin with your left leg extended and your right leg crossed over the midline to the outer left knee.
Pin down the big toe ball mound of the right foot and fold the left foot toward your right hip (if you have the flexibility--if not, work with a strong flexed straight leg)

Make sure both sitting bones are evenly pressing into the mat. Draw the spine long, stacking one vertebra on top of the next with an inhale. As you exhale begin to turn the torso to the right. If you have open enough shoulders, you may consider hooking the left elbow to the outer right knee. Keep the head in line with the spine. Continue to press the left sitting bone down--it's going to want to pop up.

Don't get stuck here! The tendency in twisting is to go as far as you can and stop.
Continue to draw the spine long with inhales and twist open with exhales.
You may feel quite constricting in the low belly. This is normal and in fact, what you're going for here. Ardha Matsyendrasana is a closed twist, so it tends to feel more compressed.
Stay as long as it serves you, find a neutral position in between (dandasana works great) and then it's on to side number two.